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Film and the Arts

February '19 Digital Week III

DVDs of the Week 



The 2018 Palme d’Or winner at Cannes, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest is another of his brilliant observational dramas about how fluid are the definitions of family—this one is in the form of several individuals helping one another get through poverty by resorting to petty crime, mainly stealing, to make ends meet.




As always, Kore-eda’s gaze is both sympathetic and unflinching: we watch as these people go through their daily grinds, and the sublime cast gets right to the heart of their complex characters and their often troubled journeys. It’s too bad that Magnolia has released this magnificent film only on DVD.


The Last Race 


Set at Riverhead Raceway, the last bastion of stock-car racing on Long Island, Michael Dweck’s breezily entertaining documentary shows the last gasp of what seems to be a lost cause, as the land the raceway sits on is worth millions to developers.




The raceway’s managers, Barbara and Jim Cromarty, are deciding if they will yield to what’s probably the inevitable shutdown, and the racers themselves are hoping to have one last spin around the track—literally and figuratively. Extras include additional interviews and scenes.






The Sunday Sessions 

(First Run)

Richard Yeagley’s wrenching documentary displays a tactful restraint that helps relay how abhorrent and destructive gay conversion therapy can be to everyone involved.




Following a young religious man, Nathan, as his therapist, Chris, tries to revert him back to heterosexuality, the film is often too painfully intimate to watch, especially when Nathan deals with reconciling his own nature with his own belief system. 


Blu-rays of the Week

Backbeat (Shout Select)

Iain Softley’s engaging 1994 biopic of Stu Sutcliffe—John Lennon’s best friend who never had real musical smarts and who got kicked out of the Beatles, died tragically of a brain hemorrhage at age 21—tells Stu’s story with humor and honesty. Stephen Dorff is a fine Stu, Sheryl Lee a revelation as Astrid Kirchherr—the German photographer who fell in love with Stu while the Beatles were in Hamburg—and Ian Hart a terrifically visceral John.




The film looks great in hi-def; extras are a conversation with Astrid Kirchherr, deleted scenes, Softley and Hart interviews, audio commentary with Softley, Hart and Dorff, featurette and casting sessions.






Frantz Fanon—Black Skin White Mask 

(Film Movement Classics)

This provocative 1995 hybrid of biopic and documentary about the celebrated anti-colonial philosopher and theorist (who was born in French Martinique and who died in 1961 at age 36) was made by British director Isaac Julien, whose formal structure—juxtaposing interviews with people close to Fanon with readings from his works, archival footage and reenactments of episodes in his life—is inspired and inspiring.




There’s a sparkling new Blu-ray transfer; the lone extra is Mark Nash’s fascinating 1992 short Between Two Worlds.


Happy Hour 


Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s 5-hour, 17-minute opus about a quartet of 30ish female friends living quotidian lives is, at the start, off-putting, then becomes—very slowly but quite fully—entrancing.




Hamaguchi gives his epic-length film, and its realistic, sympathetic characters, ample room to breathe, and if there are sequences (like one at an author’s reading) that could have been excised or, at the very least, trimmed, there’s also an appreciation for and understanding of life in all its ordinariness and extraordinariness. Then there’s the superlative acting by the four actresses, which easily matches Hamaguchi’s humanism. The film, spread over two discs, looks ravishing in hi-def—it’s too bad it wasn’t released originally on Blu-ray alongside the DVD release in 2017—and the extras comprise cast interviews.





Tarzan Goes to India 

Tarzan's Three Challenges 

(Warner Archive)

These two programmers have colorful remote location work to help prop up tried-and-true storylines that at least allowed the African resident to leave the continent. 




Tarzan Goes to India (1962) finds our hero coming to rescue of elephants endangered by a dam being built, while Tarzan’s Three Challenges (1963) pits him against the evil uncle of a young heir to an East Asian throne. Both films look colorfully impressive in hi-def.


La vérité 


French director Henri-Georges Clouzot made masterpieces like The Wages of Fear and Diabolique and other estimable films like Le Corbeau and Quai des Orfèvres, but this 1960 potboiler is not among them.




Brigitte Bardot plays a woman on trial for killing her lover in his West Bank flat: this took six writers to cobble together? Clouzot’s unflashy direction does little to illuminate the back-and-forth between the courtroom and flashbacks to the incidents in question. Bardot pouts with the best of them, as always; this by-the-numbers melodrama is mainly for Clouzot completists. The hi-def B&W transfer looks glorious; extras comprise an hour-long 2017 Clouzot documentary, excerpt from a 1982 Bardot interview and 1960 Clouzot interview.


CD of the Week 

James Ehnes—Kernis/Newton Howard Violin Concertos 


James Ehnes, a true virtuoso, tackles three recent works for his instrument in this engaging listen—and a disc that recently won a Grammy for Aaron Jay Kernis’ Violin Concerto, which is the most substantial piece here.




But that’s not to say that James Newton Howard’s own concerto—the work of a composer best known for his dozens of film scores—isn’t attractive-sounding or that Bramwell Tovey’s Stream of Limelight isn’t a winning piece of chamber music. Ehnes plays with refinement and robustness throughout, and he’s ably supported by the Seattle (Kernis) and Detroit (Newton Howard) symphonies and pianist Andrew Armstrong (Tovey).

Paper Mill Playhouse Presents Rick Elice’s "My Very Own British Invasion," Based on the Life of Herman Hermit’s Peter Noone


Paper Mill Playhouse (Milburn, NJ) is presenting the world premiere of My Very Own British Invasion, through March 3. Billed as “a musical fable of rock n’ love,” the book is by two-time Tony nominee Rick Elice (Jersey Boys, Peter and the Starcatcher), currently represented on Broadway with The Cher Show,  loosely based on the life of Herman Hermits’ vocalist/guitarist Peter Noone. Direction and choreography are by two-time Tony winner (choreography) Jerry Mitchell (Kinky Boots, 2005 La Cage aux Folles), recipient of eight nominations (including one for Hairspray). 

The musical, bursting with 30 classic tunes, “tells a fable of young love, set against the backdrop of the exploding 1960s music scene – when England launched the little dustup that became known as the British Invasion. The setting is mainly the Bag O’ Nails club on Kingly Street in Soho, accurately rendered by Tony winner (2018 She Loves Me; and a six-time nominee) David Rockwell’s set, the home-away-from-home for London and touring rock musicians. They included The Who, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Marianne Faithful, Mick Jagger, Twiggy, and Freddie Mercury.

Noone did wander into Bag O’Nails, a Cockney corruption of “bacchanal,” where he was befriended by Lennon, who became his idol “even before the Beatles became famous,” and Jagger. 

In the mid-60s, the Hermits and any group with “pudding basin haircuts and an adorable English accent” was in demand in the U.S. Tailgating on the fame of the Beatles, they may have lost the Revolutionary War, but their subsequent “invasion” was won on the concert circuit and TV variety shows, such as Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town, “not with soldiers and muskets” but screaming female fans drowning out the music.
Andrew Lazarow’s colorful full-stage projections take the audience to dozens of U.K. and U.S. locales; and, in the finale, a classy, poignant rendering of the lyrics of “In My Life.”  

Loosely based on the experiences of Noone, in the musical he’s in love with Pamela – a  stand-in for Marianne Faithful, who’s in an intense but masochist relationship with bad boy rocker Trip, a stand-in for Mick Jagger. Noone is willing to sacrifice international stardom to have girl he loves.

BritInvasTrio“It’s not exactly my story,” Noone points out. “My life was bit different … There was no love triangle between Mick, Marianne, and me. I was only 16 and not old enough for any of that. Mick did get her. I just wanted her.”

The partly fictional Noone is played by the U.K.’s Jonny Amies, at 22 and straight out of drama school, making his theatrical debut. He has the authentic drawl and accent to impersonate Noone. He also has acting chops. The opening night audience gave him quite a royal welcome.  

The 19-strong American cast, with assist from dialogue coach Kate Wilson, acquit themselves quite well in the accent department but aren’t always that easy to understand.
Stunning singer/dancer Erika Olson (Cynthia Weil, Beautiful, First National Tour) is Pamela. The unquenchable egotist Trip is played by lanky Connor Ryan (seen in the 2013 Cinderella), who won accolades recently as Johnny Blood in Off Broadway’s Desperate Measures. He marvelously channels Jagger’s strut and swagger.

The musical’s narrator, Everyman, and excellent soul belter is Geno, in the capable hands and great voice of Kyle Taylor Parker (recent Off Broadway revival Five Guys Named Moe and a 2015 Lola in Kinky Boots), whom Elice loosely based on American R&B singer Geno Washington of the Ram Jam Band, popular in the U.K. in the mid- and late 60s. [Washington met his wife Frenchie, sister of Noone’s wife Mirelle, at the Bag O’ Nails – making them brother-in-laws.]
With tunes recorded by the Animals, Beatles, Hermits, Rolling Stones, Dusty Springfield, Yardbirds, and Zombies, it’s a jukebox musical feast of the era. Some are written by names you’ll know: Dave Clark, Jagger and Keith Richards, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Lennon and McCartney, Frankie Lymon, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Steppenwolf, and Bobby Troup.
Herman’s Hermits not only made hit records – selling in excess of 60 million and racking up 14 Gold singles and seven Gold LPs, but were also starred in hit movies with teen appeal. Their hits in the show include “Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat,” “I’m Into Something Good,” “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter,” “There’s a Kind of Hush  (All Over the World),” and a 1910 Brit music hall chestnut the band had immense success with, “I’m Henry the Eighth, I Am.”  

In development since 2015 and with its eyes set on Broadway, My Very Own British Invasion, is an entertaining but often rambling balance of fact and fiction. As he showed with Jersey Boys, Elice knows something about song placement. With so many songs in just over two hours, however, there’s not a lot of character development. It’s not until Act Two, when the love triangle gets heated, that Elice gets deeper into the story and provides some dimension.
Trip attempts to turn Pamela against Noone by revealing some past sexual misconduct. Later, when Noone crosses the pond in an attempt to rescue a now drug-addled Pamela from her U.S. tour, he explains the gossip is actually about Noone’s character (Stanley), which he (actually) portrayed during the 1961 season of the long-running Brit soap, Coronation Street. 

Finally, Pamela realizes Trip just sees her as eye candy, “the kind that rots your teeth and drives you mad.” Still, one minute she’s in bed with him and the next swooning over Noone, who’s  ready to ditch his career and marry her -- give her a dream home with white picket fence, a porch, garden and a “world [that] smells clean and kind and holy.” She castigates Trip: “You just want to freeze me in a cake and thaw me out when you want to.” Though deeply in love with Peter, she can’t find the backbone to break away.

Ryan accomplishes his task of being despicable with aplomb, only redeeming Trip  (albeit briefly) in Act Two with a heartfelt rendition of “You’re My World” in an attempt to win her back. Sadly, just as you’re buying it as much as Pamela seems to be, the tender ballad segues ways into a heavily-amped, bravado-filled rendition at the club destroying an opportunity for the audience to feel what has been impossible for them to feel for him.

Mitchell recreates such 60s dance fads as the Freddie, Frug, Loco-motion, and Twist, but the show is absent of the energetic choreography Mitchell is known for until he finally pulls a couple of tricks out of his bag. One of the best sequences of Act One is set in the New Orleans French Quarter where Parker delivered a poignant “House of the Rising Sun” that brought extended thunderous applause.
At the end of the act, in “Born to Be Wild,” there are 15 cast members playing guitars while march-stepping across stage; then, in Act Two, a male ensemble of six guitar players dancing in the style of Brit guitar virtuoso Hank Marvin*; and, the lively “In My Life” finale, with the company featured on guitar and tambourine and doing some smart choreography.

*For an example of the marvelous Marvin in action, check out the YouTube video of Marvin accompanying Tim Rice in a telecast showcasing the first pop tune Rice wrote lyrics and music for, “That’s My Story.”

Another Act Two highlight is Olson’s sizzling madcap romp to “The Girl Can’t Help It,” the title tune from the 1956 Jayne Mansfield comedy.

There are impressive bits from company members, such as Emma Degerstedt as Suki, the Yank in the mini mini-shirt who tries in vain to tear Peter away from Pamela; Jen Perry, who plays three (or more) roles: Ringo Starr, Betty, and Peter’s mum; and ensemble member Trista Dollison (most recently in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), who’s not credited in the song line-up but, as Woman late in Act Two, delivers a radiant soul belt on a verse of the gospel-infused reprise of “What Can a Man Do.”

Costume design with influences from 60s Carnaby Street fashions is by Olivier and two-time Tony Award winner Gregg Barnes (2012 Follies revival, Drowsy Chaperone), recipient of eight nominations (currently, Pretty Woman). Lon Hoyt is music director and vocal arranger. 

Mark S. Hoebee is Paper Mill’s producing artistic director, with Michael Stotts as managing director. My Very Own British Invasion is produced in association with Hal Luftig, Craig Haffner and Rodney Rigby. Running through March 3.

Production photos by JERRY DALIA

February '19 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 

Bohemian Rhapsody 


Remi Malek’s remarkable transformation into Farrokh Bulsara, aka Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, is the no-brainer reason to see this entertaining if flawed and disappointingly tame biopic about the lead singer of one of the most flamboyant, loathed and loved rock bands of all time. There are some electric moments—the recreation of Live Aid, the hilarious scene with Mike Myers as a record exec who hates the title song—that are dragged down by by-the-numbers filmmaking by Bryan Singer (who was fired with a few weeks left to shoot).




So it’s incredible that Malek digs in so deeply despite the onscreen superficiality, and there are also impressive turns by Gwilym Lee as guitarist Brian May and Lucy Boynton as Mercury’s BFF Mary Austin. The film looks terrific in hi-def; extras comprise featurettes about Malek, the band and how the Live Aid performance was filmed, and the actor’s full LiveAid concert is also included.


All the Devil’s Men 


In this middling thriller by director-writer Matthew Hope, a former Navy Seal turned CIA mercenary leads a covert group that’s tracking down “bad hombres” in the darkest, dankest corners of London.




There’s a kernel of a decent action flick in here, but despite a serviceable cast—led by Milo Gibson (Mel’s son), William Fichtner (who’s gone way too early) and Dutch actress Sylvia Hoeks—there’s nothing onscreen that hasn’t been done (often far better) hundreds of times before. The Blu-ray transfer is sparkling; lone extra is an on-set featurette.






Berlin Alexanderplatz 


Reiner Werner Fassbinder’s greatest accomplishment was his 15-hour 1980 adaptation of Alfred Doblin’s classic novel about an ordinary man in 1920s Berlin. Fassbinder provides ample insight and sentiment alongside his usual cynicism and campiness during this gargantuan piece of cinema that’s never less than engrossing. Fassbinder’s actors, such as Hanna Schygulla, Barbara Sukowa and especially Gunter Lamprecht in the lead, give career-best performances.




The Blu-ray transfer is first-rate; Criterion’s voluminous extras comprise two documentaries (from 2006 and 2007) detailing the film’s production and restoration; an on-set featurette showing Fassbinder at work; the 1931 feature adaptation, with Doblin himself writing the script; and 2007 interview with author and Fassbinder expert Peter Jelavich.


The Giant Behemoth 

(Warner Archive)

One of a batch of monster movies spawned by the horror and fright over the dawning of the nuclear age, director Eugene Lourie’s bizarrely tranquil 1959 B&W entry concerns a massive irradiated sea creature up from the depths who terrorizes London. It’s a compact 80 minutes but still seems stretched beyond its slender narrative.




The stop-motion effects, needless to say, look laughably amateurish by today’s standards, although that may be what endears them to those at whom this release is targeted. The hi-def transfer is immaculate; there’s a commentary by special effects veterans Dennis Muren and Phil Tippett.






Peppermint Soda 

(Cohen Film Collection)

Diane Kurys’ sensitive and lyrical 1977 coming-of-age movie piggybacks on classic school-age dramas like Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct without betraying any obvious debts (at least until the final shot).




The central—and autobiographical—character is played with lovely restraint and naturalness by Éléonore Klarwein, a dazzling teenager who never became the female equivalent of Jean-Pierre Leaud, much to our cinematic detriment. The film looks fine in hi-def; extras are archival interviews with Kurys, Klarwein and composer Yves Simon.


DVD of the Week

The Owl’s Legacy 


French director Chris Marker’s typically ambitious and eclectic 1989 multi-part project comprises a baker’s dozen episodes, each about a half-hour in length, that each start as a riff on a Greek word like “democracy” or “symposium” and spiral out from there into typically wide-ranging and intelligent discussions about art, politics, history … in short, anything.




With special guest talkers including film directors Elia Kazan and Theo Angelopoulos, this release is another in Icarus’ valuable volumes of Marker works, and since this is one of his most arcane and unknown, it is even more necessary and collectible. 


CD of the Week 

Martinů—Complete Music for Violin and Orchestra 


Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů, one of the most underrated 20th century composers, compiled an estimable musical career that ran the stylistic gamut from solo piano and chamber music to orchestral and stage works.




This superb four-disc set collects earlier Hyperion releases of the prolific composer’s output for violin and orchestra, with Bohuslav Matoušek as the brilliant soloist in 11 works including two vividly scored violin concertos, and melodic and attractive concertos for flute and violin, two violins, and violin and piano. There’s no shortage of arresting music on these discs, given greater immediacy by the Czech Philharmonic under Christopher Hogwood.

February '19 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 

All the Colors of the Dark 


In this entertaining giallo (the irrepressibly Italian horror/mystery genre), Edwige Fenech gives another impressively scream-laden performance as an unstable young woman dealing with murder, mayhem and madness in gloom-filled London. Director Sergio Martino (Fenech’s then-husband) shows a boisterous eye for dazzlingly bloody set pieces, with some kinky sex scenes thrown in for good measure.




The 1972 film looks supremely good on Blu-ray; extras comprise They're Coming to Get You, the 88-minute alternate U.S. cut; interviews with Martino, screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi, actor George Hilton and Italian horror expert Antonio Tentori; audio commentary by Martino expert Kat Ellinger; and a CD of composer Bruno Nicolai’s score.


The Guilty 


This claustrophobic thriller is set in a police station, where an officer relegated to desk duty for a serious infraction finds himself immersed in a potentially dire situation while answering calls: is a father about to kill his wife after leaving their two young children home alone?




Director Gustav Möller skillfully ratchets up the tension throughout, aided by an impressively controlled performance by Jakob Cedergren—literally the only actor we see onscreen for the entire 90 minutes—and by Möller’s own clever script, which periodically drops in new information to upend what we think is going on. There’s a first-rate transfer.






John McEnroe—In the Realm of Perfection 


Using footage from the 1984 French Open—in which he lost the final in five hard-fought sets to Ivan Lendl—director Julien Faraut has made a bizarrely fascinating if ultimately self-indulgent documentary about tennis legend John McEnroe.




With valuable footage from multiple cameras shown repeatedly, sometimes in slo-mo or zoomed-in, as narrator Mathieu Amalric drones on, the film’s attempts to equate tennis and cinema fall flat, and McEnroe’s temper tantrums are shown as comic relief instead of as the embarrassment to the sport they truly were. The film looks terrific in hi-def; extras are a director interview and a 1948 short, Facts about Film.


Time Regained 


Adapting Proust’s colossal masterpiece In Search of Lost Time is a fool’s errand, and Raul Ruiz—the late Chilean filmmaker of time-shifting and surrealistic touches—comes a cropper with his 1999 version of Proust’s classic.




There’s much to admire—the performances are stellar, the editing, camera movements and production design visualize some of what Proust’s gargantuan sentences do on the page—but there’s a feeling of incompleteness, of a highlight reel for something that should be much longer, like a Netflix series instead of the two-plus hours this is. It all looks spectacular on Blu; lone extra is an interview with film critic Bernard Genin.


DVD of the Week 

12 Days 


Raymond Depardon’s documentaries blend incisive reportage and a personalized point of view that gives his subjects a humane immediacy. 12 Days is an eye-opening glimpse at the messy French mental-health care system, a bureaucracy that still—thanks to the herculean efforts of many —tries to treat the individuals caught up in it fairly.




Bonuses come in the form of two more Depardon feature docs: 2012’s France (Les Habitants) and 2016’s Journal de France, both of which display the director’s penchant for traveling on the road to discover how ordinary people live.


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