the traveler's resource guide to festivals & films
a site
part of Insider Media llc.

Connect with us:

Film and the Arts

January '23 Digital Week I

4K/UHD Releases of the Week 
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen 
(Criterion Collection)
One of Terry Gilliam’s most extravagantly satisfying films, this 1989 fantasy adventure about the mythical teller of tall tales is the acme of the director’s prodigious visual imagination; indeed, there are set pieces here that have to be seen to be believed, like Robin Williams’ disembodied head as the king of the moon. John Neville is a perfectly bemused Baron, a young Sarah Polley was never more authentic than as his 8-year-old sidekick, and cameos from Eric idle, Sting, Valentina Cortese and Uma Thurman keep pace with the staggering sets, costumes, photography and Gilliam’s prodigious inventiveness. The UHD transfer is first-rate; extras include Gilliam and cowriter/actor Charles McKeon’s commentary; an hour-long documentary on the film’s making; deleted scenes with Gilliam commentary; storyboards; special effects footage narrated by Gilliam; a video essay on the history of Munchausen; an 1991 episode of The South Bank Show about Gilliam; and Flight, a 1974 animated short by Gilliam.
Black Adam 
(Warner Bros)
As Black Adam—a character introduced to comic books in 1945—Dwayne Johnson dives into a strangely discomfiting character who is trying to rehabilitate his own reputation from its distant supervillain past. Although there’s a nagging tonal inconsistency between seriousness, hero worship and goofy comedy, Johnson acquits himself well and he’s surrounded by pros like Pierce Brosnan and Sarah Shahi. The film’s eye-popping visuals look spectacular in UHD; extras comprise several making-of featurettes.
Prey for the Devil 
This lackluster horror flick takes its cues from The Exorcist and, more recently, The Conjuring series, but doesn’t add anything original of its own; in fact, director Daniel Stamm is content with  jump scares and other cheap thrills obscure the fact that there’s little going on here. It’s too bad, because exploring possession in relation to mental illness (which is hinted at) might have yielded something more intense, especially with a fine performance by Jacqueline Byers as a young nun with a haunted backstory. The 4K/UHD image looks sharp; extras are Byers’ and Stamm’s commentary, nearly an hour’s worth of on-set featurettes and interviews, a Zoom script run-through by the cast and a discussion between a real exorcist and psychologist.
In-Theater Releases of the Week
No Bears 
(Janus Films)
In his latest courageous provocation—provocative at least in the eyes of Iranian authorities, who imprisoned him after he finished the film—director Jafar Panahi has made a typically playful and intelligent dissection of just what the role of cinema is in Iran’s unyielding theocracy. Panahi plays a version of himself trying to make a movie remotely—he can’t leave Iran and is seen on a laptop directing his cast and crew in a different location—and he also finds himself in political hot water with local authorities after he loans his camera for a local couple’s pre-marriage ceremony and takes a couple of snapshots himself. Panahi has an uncanny ability to make everything seem inevitable and every line of dialogue sound natural and improvised, but the rigorousness of his technique is seen in the devastating—but typically low-key—ending, as the director questions his own ability to create something lasting, something that can affect people’s lives for the better. 
The Super 8 Years 
(Kino Lorber)
Looking back at the home movies shot between the years 1972 and 1981, writer Annie Ernaux (who won the Nobel Prize for literature last year) narrates this elegaic documentary she and her son, David Ernaux-Briot, made, succinctly exploring how their family life—for Ernaux, her then-husband Philippe and her sons—ended up butting heads with the artistic, political and social atmosphere she and Philippe were then part of. The film conjures up the messiness of memory, which the graininess of these often stunning 8mm film images visually underline.
Turn Every Page 
(Sony Pictures Classics)
Two of the most important literary figures of the past 50 years—author Robert Caro and editor Robert Gottlieb—are profiled in this first-rate documentary by Gottlieb’s daughter, Lizzie Gottlieb, who intelligently tells the story of their relationship through the books they’ve collaborated on (Caro’s groundbreaking Robert Moses biography and massive five-volume LBJ bio, which has seen only four so far). Director Gottlieb had to convince both men—especially the notoriously reticent Caro—to let her talk to them on camera, where they both come across as brilliantly intuitive subjects. Even though this runs less than two hours, much of more of both men—in the form of a multi-hour bingeable series—would make for further illuminating viewing.
Blu-ray Release of the Week 
Camilla Nylund Sings Masterpieces from the Great American Songbook 
Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund puts her own stamp on classic American songs from Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Kurt Weill and others in this beautifully intimate performance—that includes members of the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop—of these famous tunes in stylish arrangements. Although Nylund sounds wonderful throughout, her renditions of Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” and Weill’s “September Song” are perfection, along with the musicians’ backing. There’s first-rate hi-def video and audio.
DVD Release of the Week
The Staircase 
Based on the real-life trial at which Michael Peterson was convicted of murdering his wife Kathleen in 2001 (she was found in a bloody mess at the bottom of a staircase—he said she fell and he found her), this engrossing multipart miniseries is aided greatly by topnotch performances. Colin Firth finds subtle shadings in Michael’s façade, Toni Collette is a sympathetic Kathleen and Michael Stuhlberg is believably blustery as Michael’s lawyer. Although eight-plus hours is a bit much, a lot works splendidly, including the various stories about how Kathleen might have died. Extras include several “behind the episode” featurettes.

Off-Broadway Play Review—Sarah Ruhl’s “Becky Nurse of Salem”

Becky Nurse of Salem 
Written by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Rebecca Taichman
Closes December 31, 2022
Mitzi Newhouse Theater, 150 West 65th Street, New York, NY
Deirdre O'Connell (center) in Becky Nurse of Salem (photo: Kyle Froman)

With their opaque plots, absurdist situations and flowery language, Sarah Ruhl’s plays hint at significance but—with the glorious exception of her lone Broadway outing, the focused and superb In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play—rarely deliver. 
Her latest, Becky Nurse of Salem, begins tantalizingly by introducing its eponymous heroine, a descendant of an accused woman during the infamous 17th-century Salem witch trials. A tour guide at the local history museum, Becky is held in contempt by her boss Shelby for providing visitors with unauthorized, often crudely expressed versions of famous local events, like her observation that, despite what Arthur Miller wrote in his play The Crucible (which Ruhl uses as a crutch throughout), the accuser Abigail was only 11, not 17, when she was seduced (raped?) by John Proctor.
A mess at middle age, Becky is still mourning her daughter’s opioid overdose death and pops pain pills herself (as well as downing a lot of booze) while trying to care for teenage granddaughter Gail, whose new boyfriend took the hotel job that Becky was hoping to get; and, desperate for a new direction, she visits an actual witch who gives her potions to spice up her love life with a bartender named Bob, with whom she was involved way back in high school and whose own marriage is breaking up.
As written, Becky may not have true inner logic—another unfortunate Ruhl staple—but, like Marisa Tomei, Mary Louise Parker and Laura Benanti before her as offbeat Ruhl heroines, Deirdre O’Connell delivers an impressive display of sparkling comic energy and touching vulnerability, even putting across the clunky nightmares that Ruhl heavyhandedly uses to equates Becky’s travails with the deadly difficulties of her ancestor—replete with chants of “lock her up!” that not only end the first act but begin the second—that they nearly seem substantive and meaningful.
But Ruhl falters, as she often does, by confusing absurdism with absurdity. After setting up the strands of Becky’s problematic existence, Ruhl spins her wheels until simply tying up narrative loose ends with little dramatic or psychological coherence. Such leaden dramaturgy, which robs her heroine of real complexity, shows snippets of Becky’s various relationships and interactions without giving her an interesting character arc.
Rebecca Taichman’s diffuse staging doesn’t help the writing or characterizations cohere; Riccardo Hernandez’s fragmented set, Barbara Samuels’ astute lighting and Palmer Hefferan’s inventive sound design threaten to swallow up, rather than complement, Becky’s story. Good performers like Tina Benko, Thomas Jay Ryan, Candy Buckley and Bernard White get lost in the onstage flailing, and O’Connell is unable to provide a safe landing after an exceedingly bumpy ride.

Broadway Play Review—“Between Riverside and Crazy” with Stephen McKinley Henderson

Stephen McKinley Henderson, Victor Almanzar and Common in
Between Riverside and Crazy (photo: Joan Marcus)

Between Riverside and Crazy
Written by Stephen Adly Guirgis; directed by Austin Pendleton
Performances through February 12, 2023
Hayes Theatre, 240 West 44th Street, New York, NY
If there’s a reason to see the Broadway revival of Between Riverside and Crazy, the less-than-scintillating play by Stephen Adly Guirgus, it’s Stephen McKinley Henderson. This superlative actor, who has too often been relegated to secondary roles or as part of ensembles in August Wilson plays—where he’s stolen countless scenes—returns to his most substantial role yet as Pops, a widowed NYPD retiree living in an enormous rent-controlled Upper West Side apartment. Once again, Henderson dominates the proceedings with his gravelly voice, formidable frame and an affecting twinkle in his eye that invites the audience to share in the grand old larcenous time he’s having.
Pops—first seen at his kitchen table with Oswaldo, his son Junior’s convict friend, soon followed by Junior’s bimbo girlfriend Lulu, and finally ex-con Junior himself—is mad at the world, and himself, for how his life has gone. He was shot a few years ago by a rookie white officer, which forced him into retirement, and his ensuing squabble with the city is not going his way; in the mean time, his landlord is hoping to get him out of his incredibly cheap apartment and his former partner, Audrey, and her fiancée—and NYPD lieutenant—Dave are trying to talk him into finally settling with the city. Through all of this, he might as well be hosting a halfway house for Junior and his shady friends. 
As usual with Guirgis plays, this is a world not often seen onstage: the multiethnic diversity of his characters, most of whom are living on the margins of society, bursts into vivid life thanks to his unerring ear for their authentically slangy talk. However, although his grasp of the language of these marginal people is convincing, he often goes too far just for laughs: early on, for example, Pops has to ask who Ben Affleck is, while later, he nonchalantly tosses off a Justin Bieber reference. Would Pops really know about Bieber but not Ben?
Guirgis is also on shaky ground when putting his characters through their paces. When the supposedly sterile Pops is seduced by a Brazilian church lady hoping to get money out of him, he ends up having a miraculous orgasm; later, when he finally agrees to the city’s settlement, Pops wants Audrey and Dave to throw in something personal as their part of the bargain: her $30,000 engagement ring. 
And everyone gets a relatively happy ending—even Oswaldo, who earlier cold-cocked Pops when he wouldn't give him his credit card—underlining Guirgis’ desperate stratagems in getting from A to B, with the contradictory behavior on display less like the messily real complexity of life and more the improbable contrivances of the playwright.
Still, the play is never less than entertaining in Austin Pendleton's generous and well-paced production, which allows the terrific cast the ample breathing room that Guirgis’ breathless torrents of dialogue rarely do. The single newcomer, rapper Common, plays Junior with occasional hesitancy but plausible bemusement. 
Walt Spangler’s outstanding apartment set, which provides a comfortably lived-in backdrop to the fuzzy goings-on, also doubles as a frame through which to watch the acting genius of Stephen McKinley Henderson, whose characterization has deepened and darkened in the years since he last assayed it, bringing onstage the baggage of so many victims of police shootings.

December '22 Digital Week III

Blu-ray Releases of the Week 
The Banshees of Inisherin 
In Martin McDonough’s newest blackly comic fable, two longtime friends have a falling-out: Colm decides one day that he doesn’t want to be best buds with Pádraic ever again, and he goes to extremes to ensure that that happens. McDonough’s dialogue is always clever and colorful (lots of “fecks”), the performances of Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as the former friends are wise, authentic and full of feeling—and Kerry Condon, as Pádraic’s devoted spinster sister Siobhán is just as good—and the locales look breathtaking.
But it’s all at the service of a strained metaphor for how relationships—whether personal or geopolitical—can easily fray and it never rises above the allegorical, to its ultimate detriment. The film looks lovely in hi-def; extras include deleted scenes and an on-set featurette.
Death Game 
(Grindhouse Releasing)
Rescued from obscurity, Peter Traynor’s 1977 slow-burn thriller—originally made in 1974 but held back due to Traynor’s legal troubles—stars Colleen Camp and Sondra Locke as crazed young women who make husband Seymour Cassel pay for letting them into his house while his family’s are away: they tie him up and abuse him psychologically and physically.
This has been both touted as feminist and derided as exploitative, and it’s a little of both, although Traynor only occasionally crosses from gratuitous violence and sex to a meaningful study of aberrant behavior. The film’s new hi-def transfer has nice grain; extras include new Camp, Locke and Traynor interviews, audio commentaries and a similar-themed, equally obscure 1973 feature, Little Miss Innocence.
A Fish in the Bathtub 
(Cohen Film Collection)
Joan Micklin Silver’s 1998 screwball comedy surveys the ultimate dysfunctional Jewish family: Jerry Stiller can’t believe that longtime wife Anne Meara is leaving him—his insistence on keeping a fish in the bathtub is the last straw—beginning a domino effect of recriminations among the rest of the family.
Silver has assembled a top-flight cast—including Mark Ruffalo at the beginning of his career, Missy Yager, Jane Adams and Doris Roberts—but the humorous situations are middling and mild, with little observational insight. There’s a fine hi-def transfer; lone extra is a Q&A with Silver and scriptwriters John Silverstein and David Chudnovsky.  
On the Yard/A Walk on the Moon 
(Cohen Film Collection)
Joan Micklin Silver’s husband, Raphael Silver, was also a director, and this set collects two of his features, scruffy films distinguished by their authenticity. 1978’s On the Yard, set in a prison, follows the daily interactions of prisoners and those guarding them, while 1987’s A Walk on the Moon follows an idealistic American trying to save the world as a Peace Corps volunteer in Central America.
There are moments, but the low budgets have their limits; best are performances by John Heard (Yard) and Patrice Martinez (Moon). Both films have good hi-def transfers. 
Stravinsky’s Mavra/Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta 
(Bayerischen Staatsoper)
Two operas by Russian composers written three decades apart—Stravinsky’s Mavra in 1922 and Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta in 1892—are uneasily stitched together in Axel Ranisch’s fitfully satisfying 2019 Munich staging.
While visually interesting and musically lovely, the ultimate point of Ranisch’s conceit remains opaque. Beautifully singing the heroine roles are Anna El-Kashem in Mavra and Mirjam Mesak in Iolanta, while the scores are sumptuously performed by the orchestra, chorus and children’s chorus under conductor Alevtina Ioffe.

4K/UHD Releases of the Week  
Russell Mulcahy’s original 1986 fantasy—filled with violence and time-travel—has become a tremendous cult hit over the decades, so it’s a no-brainer this has gotten a UHD release.
As clunky and even risible as the movie often is—and, with Christopher Lambert in the lead, extremely wooden as well—there’s an undeniable sheen to the visuals that is matched by Queen’s soaring music as in the best MTV videos (which was Mulcahy’s first job). It all looks spectacular in 4K; the Best Buy-exclusive steelbook includes an accompanying Blu-ray disc, bonus interviews and featurettes (with new featurettes on the 4K disc) and postcards.
The Polar Express 
(Warner Bros) 
The first feature to entirely utilize motion-capture animation, Robert Zemeckis’ 2004 holiday movie is as much a slog as it is uplifting: the characters are often irritatingly fake-looking instead of capturing their true essence.
There are stunning images galore, but this is an unavoidably repetitive adaptation of a beloved—and short—children’s book. And giving Tom Hanks five roles is four more than he can handle without leaning on his usual tics. The 4K/UHD transfer looks dazzling; extras include making-of featurettes on the accompanying Blu-ray.
In-Theater Release of the Week
Going All the Way
Mark Pellingon’s 1997 adaptation of Dan Wakefield’s novel about GIs Gunner and Sonny returning to small-town middle America in the conservative ’50s has been recut by the director himself—the result is a marginally better but still fairly superficial movie about an era that’s been covered many times.
Still, there are enjoyable performances by Jill Clayburgh (R.I.P.!) and Lesley Ann Warren as Sonny’s and Gunner’s moms, respectively, and Rachel Weitz, Amy Locane and Rose McGowan are excellent as the women they bed down. Ben Affleck is unfortunately one-note as Gunner, but Jeremy Davies gives a sensitive, thoughtful portrayal of Sonny. 
DVD Releases of the Week 
And Just Like That ... 
The long-gestating sequel to Sex and the City came and went just like that without making much of an impression—except for killing off Carrie’s main squeeze, Mr. Big (and just in time too, for actor Chris Noth got cancelled after sexual abuse allegations).
The main problem is that, without Kim Cattrall’s Samantha, the dynamic balance among the main characters is severely out of whack: Carrie, Miranda and Charlotte are just not that interesting without her, and that came through in this series’ 10 watchable but forgettable episodes. Sarah Jessica Parker and Cynthia Nixon seem bored, but at least Kristen Davis has a little energy left.
The Invisible Witness 
(Distrib Films US) 
Director Stefano Mordini’s twisty, Hitchcockian thriller recounts the events leading to the murder of a big wig’s mistress from various points of view, including that of the lawyer trying to make sense of what happened to ensure he gets a fair trial—or is she up to something else?
For its first 90 minutes, the fast pace imaginatively suspends viewers’ disbelief as we get caught up in the various possibilities that led to the killing, then it’s all ruined in a final reveal that simply makes no sense. It’s too bad, because it’s done so thrillingly and enacted brilliantly by Riccardo Scamarcio as the suspect and Miriam Leone as his mistress. 
The Student and Mister Henri 
(Distrib Films US)
The late, great French actor Claude Brasseur—who died in 2018—is the main reason to watch this 2016 dramatic comedy about a crusty old widower who, after an independent young woman rents out a room in his apartment, begins to slowly build a relationship with her filled with friction but, later, mutual admiration.
Although director Ivan Calberac’s film does little original with this umpteenth iteration of some sort of odd couple that’s thrown together, both Brasseur and Swiss actress Noemie Schmidt do their best to keep this afloat.
CD Releases of the Week
Nico Muhly—The Street 
(King’s College, Cambridge)
In this work based on the Stations of the Cross, composer Nico Muhly pares the music to the bone, literally, as a solo harp intones the magisterial drama of Jesus’ final walk toward Mount Calvary before his crucifixion. Alice Goodman’s libretto for these 14 movements provides short meditations of hope, and the two discs do present two versions of the work itself.
First, following a Bach partita played by harpist Parker Ramsay, is strictly instrumental; the version on disc two, nearly twice as long in length, includes a narrator and plainchant chorus. Ramsay plays gloriously throughout, with Rosie Hilal as a sensitive narrator and the striking sounds of the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.
Hans Pfitzner—The Little Elf of Christ 
German Hans Pfitzner (1869-1949), a conservative composer best known for his dour, stately opera Palestrina, also composed this straightforward music drama about an elf who sacrifices himself to the Christ child to allow a sick child to survive Christmas Eve.
As holiday music spectacles go, this might not win many converts—at least on CD; perhaps a colorful staging seen on disc would help—but this 1979 recording has a classy cast (Helen Donath as the Elf, Janet Perry as the Christ) along with the accomplished Munich Radio Orchestra and conductor Kurt Eichhorn to put it over musically.  

Newsletter Sign Up

Upcoming Events

No Calendar Events Found or Calendar not set to Public.