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Blu-rays of the Week
Women in Love
This 1969 adaptation of E.M. Forster’s controversial novel is actually one of Ken Russell’s milder efforts; unlike his later dramas like The Devils, The Music Lovers, Mahler, Tommy and Lisztomania, Women in Love benefits from Russell’s relative restraint, along with powerhouse acting from Glenda Jackson (who won a Best Actress Oscar), Oliver Reed and Alan Bates.
Criterion’s usual thorough release includes a top-notch hi-def transfer; commentaries by Russell and screenwriter Larry Kramer; on-set interviews with Kramer, Bates and actress Jennie Linden; 1976 Jackson interview; 2007 Russell interview; Bates’ 1972 short Second Best, based on a Lawrence story; and Russell’s own tongue-in-cheek autobiographical 1989 doc, A British Picture: Portrait of an Enfant Terrible.
Acts of Violence
This viciously nasty drama pits human traffickers who kidnap young women against a trio of brothers tracking one’s missing fiancée, alongside a couple of decent cops who butt heads with their own superiors’ corruption.
Often risibly violent and incoherent, this also features another sleepwalking Bruce Willis performance, which ends up making the other one-note performances look better in comparison. The hi-def transfer is excellent; extras comprise interviews, a making-of featurette and director Brett Donowho’s commentary.
The Black Scorpion
Primitive special effects have their charms, but one would have to look awfully hard to find positive things to say about this hackneyed 1957 sci-fi thriller in which giant-sized scorpions are awakened from their underground lairs to wreak merciless havoc.
The cheesy B&W images notwithstanding, there’s a lot of blame to go around among the bad writing, inept directing and wooden acting. Although this is for B-movie completists only, the film looks quite good on Blu-ray; extras include a couple of short featurettes on effects master Ray Harryhausen.
Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez acquits himself admirably in the title role of Jules Massenet’s lyrical opera based on the classic Goethe novel about a young, tragic hero and his fatal flaw: his beloved Charlotte is married to another man.
Tatjana Gurbaca’s well-paced 2017 Zurich, Switzerland staging features sensitive orchestral playing under Cornelius Meister and, in addition to Florez’s supple singing, a glorious Charlotte in the form of English mezzo Anna Stephany. Both hi-def video and audio are peerless.
DVD of the Week
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood—It’s a Beautiful Day Collection
Fred Rogers may have been the most beloved person to ever appear on television—although one might think his squeaky-clean image was cloying, it was never manufactured—and his PBS series (which debuted in 1968 and ran until August 2001) made kids of all ages feel safe and wanted for more than three decades.
This 4-DVD set, which compiles 30 episodes from the years 1979-2001, include a visit to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. and chats with Broadway showman Tommy Tune and children’s author Eric Carle. The set’s lone extra is the series’ very first episode in black and white.
Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber has stated, “Jesus Christ Superstar has always been at its best when it’s presented live and close to a rock concert.”
He got his wish Easter Sunday night with NBC’s colossal and moving production of his and Tim Rice’s rock opera. It was a defining project for TV, magnificently directed by five-time Tony nominee David Leveaux [the Nine revival, among the five].
Producers Marc Platt and Craig Zadan-Neil Meron Productions provided a huge canvas on which to mount the passion of Christ: a mammoth, block-long/wide Brooklyn armory amazingly converted into an arena with sets hung from floor-to-ceiling scaffolding, and seating for a wildly enthusiastic audience of hundreds.
It’s impossible to beat live theater, but this production came close. Every great story is helped by excellent casting. Ten-time Grammy, Oscar, Tony, and Golden Globe winner John Legend delivered a haunting portrayal of Jesus; Brandon Victor Dixon as apostle Judas stunned not only with his crackling vocals but also bigger-than-life stage presence; and Sara Bareilles, known to audiences of Waitress, the musical she composed and has starred in, surely became a household name last night with her mesmerizing portrayal of the smitten Mary Magdalene.
Lloyd Webber’s score ranged from power ballads to rousing, bombastic rock. Often the orchestrations and amplification affected the vocals in the huge production numbers. The composers’ classic ballads “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and “Could We Start Again Please” were well-served by Bareilles. Dixon has so many memorable moments it was hard to keep count, but “Heaven on Their Minds,” which opens the piece, and his sensational “Superstar” at the end, were showstoppers. Legend’s rendition of “Gethsemane/I Only Want to Say” was so harrowing and explosive that is surely will be long-remembered [in the arena, unseen on TV, the audience rose en masse in an extended standing ovation].
Ben Daniel’s portrayal of Pontius Pilate’s and his dilemma of what to do with Jesus as he tries to avoid crucifixion was bold and brilliant. Rock legend Alice Cooper, always playing to the audience, tamped down the camp of “King Herod’s Song” – a bit – but still managed a showstopper that received thunderous audience response.
An almost-unrecognizable Norm Lewis, displaying what must be the world’s deepest bass, was featured as the high priest Caiaphas; Jason Tam (If/Then, Lysistrata Jones) appeared as the apostle Peter; and Jin Ha (M. Butterfly revival) was the high priest Annas
Musicians, under the baton of Nigel Wright, were scattered on the stage floor and various levels of the scaffolding. The off-stage chorus provided several poignant moments.
Production designer Jason Ardizzone-West, lighting designer Al Gurdon, and telecast director Alex Rudzinksi deserve kudos for their excellent contributions. Rice, Webber, and Legend were among the executive producers.
There were hand-held cameras, often with the cameraman enveloped in the action, overhead cameras, and a camera mounted on a gigantic crane which showed the vastness of the set and also provided knockout close-ups. The crew deserves a round of applause for their fast work during four and five-minute commercial breaks – they certainly had a challenge sweeping up those buckets of glitter.
A costly production as this must be paid for, so there was no way around commercials. How grand it would have been to have one quite generous sponsor, but in the absence of that some special thought should have gone into the placement of commercials as has often been done with prestige TV programming. Platt and Lloyd Webber helped pay for the production with commercials for Wicked, The Phantom of the Opera, and School of Rock.
Let’s hope this production of Jesus Christ Superstar: Live in Concert doesn’t go away. Maybe NBC will make it an Easter perennial. There is a just-released cast album. Surely, there’ll be a DVD. The production is so staggering that it should be showcased in HD in theatres worldwide.
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
While the City Sleeps
This pair of films noir by German director Fritz Lang dates from 1956; these were the last pictures that the creator of classics M and Metropolis would make in Hollywood.
Reasonable Doubt uses capital punishment for a twisty melodrama starring Dana Andrews and Joan Fontaine, while City Sleeps (also with Andrews, alongside George Sanders and Vincent Price) darkly explores the case of the “lipstick killer,” who murders young women. Both films are watchable if unexciting; the appropriately moody widescreen B&W compositions are enhanced by flawless hi-def transfers.
Copland Conducts Copland
This 1976 L.A. concert teams 75-year-old composer Aaron Copland conducting his own works, played with verve by the Los Angeles Philharmonic: it’s a greatest hits collection of sorts, starting with Fanfare for the Common Man and including El Salon Mexico, The Tender Land suite and an excerpt from his ballet Rodeo.
But the highlight is a swinging version of Copland’s charming Clarinet Concerto, played by none other than 67-year-old Benny Goodman, who commissioned the work from Copland in 1947. Video and audio are adequate if unexceptional; no extras, although Copland briefly describes each piece before it’s played.
In the grand tradition of social activists like Cesar Chavez—whom she married—is Dolores Huerta, who remains mostly unknown despite her vast importance in the historic farm workers’ union movement she and Chavez led.
Peter Bratt’s expansive documentary portrait, built around an interview with the now 87-year-old—and still vigorous—Huerta, intimately explores her long career championing workers’ and women’s rights, with personal encomiums by Hillary Clinton, Gloria Steinem and many others. The film looks excellent in hi-def.
The Passion of Joan of Arc
One of the towering silent-era masterpieces, Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 drama recreates the trial and death of Joan of Arc with an intimacy and intensity that’s nothing short of riveting. Add to that Renee Falconetti’s miraculous performance as Joan; her mesmerizing face, held in relentless close-ups by Dreyer, show both the agony and the ecstasy of Joan’s martyrdom, culminating in her burning at the stake.
The hi-def transfer is exceptionally good; Criterion’s extras include an alternate version of the film, three separate musical scores, audio commentary, interviews, and a video essay.
Sacha Guitry—Four Films 1936-1938
A true bon vivant, French triple-threat Sacha Guitry made witty, talky films with his inimitably—and at times annoyingly—gregarious personality at their center, and this boxed set collects four features he churned out in a space of two years: The New Testament, My Father Was Right, Let’s Make a Dream and Let’s Go Up the Champs Elysses.
Bright and clever, these films go down easily, despite staginess and the occasional overbearing sequence. All four films look lovely in hi-def; extras include scholar Ginette Vincendeau’s intros and commentaries; video essays; sound tests; and a 60-page book.
Activist Sadhvi Siddhali Shree urgently tackles the sadly relevant topic of sex trafficking in her trenchant documentary, which travels the world for its eye-opening glimpse, landing not only in places we aren’t surprised by (i.e., Mexico, Iraq, the Philippines) but also various U.S. locations.
It’s unapologetically blunt in its depiction of sex trafficking’s horrors, and is tough to watch at times: but a necessary polemic. The film looks fine on Blu-ray.
Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In—Complete 3rd Season
This latest Laugh-In release brings together episodes from the 1969-70 season of the classic comedy-variety show hosted by Dick Rowan and Dan Martin, perfect ringmasters for a crazed stew of corny jokes, goofy skits, musical interludes and political satire, starring a motley crew of regulars (Ruth Buzzi, Goldie Hawn, Arte Johnson, Lily Tomlin, Jo Ann Worley) and guest stars (Johnny Carson, Ringo Starr, The Monkees, Diana Ross, Zsa Zsa Gabor).
Along with the 26 full episodes, bonus features comprise a Lily Tomlin interview and a tribute to the series’ creator George Shlatter.
Good for Otto
Written by David Rabe; directed by Scott Elliott
Performances through April 15, 2018
Ed Harris and Rileigh McDonald in Good for Otto (photo: Monique Carboni)
Now 78, playwright David Rabe can’t be accused of coasting on his considerable laurels: his plays Sticks and Bones and Streamers are seared into theatergoers’ consciousness as some of the most invigorating and thoughtful excursions into the damaged American psyche thanks to Vietnam. His latest, Good for Otto, is among his most ambitious. Nearly three hours long, it explores the troubled psyches of people at the Northwood Mental Health Center in the Berkshires: two psychologists and their patients, all weighed down by the horrors of ordinary life.
The therapists, Dr. Robert Michaels (played by Ed Harris with his customary combination of intensity and folksiness) and Evangeline (another intelligent Amy Madigan portrayal), are as flawed as their charges, especially Robert, a veteran doctor haunted by the specter of his dead mother, who committed suicide when Robert was nine. Evangeline’s own difficulties are brought up late in the play, when she appears at Robert’s doorstep drunk and ready to confess her shortcomings.
The troubled individuals these two deal with include Jane, whose grown son Jimmy inexplicably blew his brains out with a shotgun, the cause of her frequent headaches; Barnard, a retiree who can’t see the point in getting out of bed; Jerome, a hoarder unable to move out of his mother’s basement; Alex, who’s slowly taking the painful steps of coming out of the closet; Timothy, who can’t handle others in social situations; and Frannie, a teenager whose life is such a shambles that she’s cutting herself while being raised by Nora, a well-meaning but ineffectual foster mom.
Rabe generously gives these people ample chance to tell their stories—he even allows Jimmy to explain why he killed himself in a painful monologue—but this very generosity is also his long and unwieldy play’s undoing. Very simply, some people deserve to be heard, while others make less compelling cases for themselves. Rabe realizes that Jerome isn’t very interesting, so he’s quickly shunted aside to the piano. (Occasional song interludes by the cast—mainly accompanied by actor Kenny Mellman, who plays Jerome—punctuate these confessionals in a strained attempt to break up the repetitiveness.) Likewise, much stage time is given over to Barnard’s constant harping about how Evangeline is increasingly annoying him by ending their sessions with a curt “to be continued.” However charmingly F. Murray Abraham plays him, Barnard gets whiny quickly.
Frannie, on the other hand, deserves her considerable time onstage, thanks to how incisively and emotionally complex young Rileigh McDonald plays her, aided by Rhea Perlman’s sympathetically bemused Nora. And there’s intriguing drama whenever Robert’s ghostly mother appears, not least because of the ingratiating Charlotte Hope. But chunks of Good for Otto are deadly: Exhibit A is Timothy (a finely flustered Mark Linn-Baker), proud owner of a hamster named Otto, who needs a delicate operation. This meandering subplot seems to exist only to give the play its offbeat title.
Scott Elliott’s typically shrewd directing isn’t able to overcome how episodic Rabe has made Otto, diluting its dramatic impact. Although it focuses on the messiness of its characters’ lives (and includes unsubtle shots at our convoluted and weak health care system), Otto might be the tidiest play Rabe has yet written, and consequently one of his weakest.
The New Group, Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY
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