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Film and the Arts

Off-Broadway Review—Terrence McNally’s “Fire and Air”

Fire and Air

Written by Terrence McNally

Directed and designed by John Doyle

Performances through February 25, 2018

 

Marsha Mason, John Glover, Douglas Hodge and Marin Mazzie in Fire and Air (photo: Joan Marcus)

One of Terrence McNally’s most popular plays, Master Class, had opera’s great diva Maria Callas at its center. Now McNally turns to ballet for Fire and Air, about fabled Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev, who formed the groundbreaking troupe Ballets Russes in the early 20th century, and his volatile personal and professional relationships, including those with his favorite dancers: Vaslav Nijinsky, his first muse and erstwhile lover, and Léonide Massine, who took over after Nijinsky’s spot after he ran off and got married.

 

McNally’s play mainly chronicles Diaghilev’s time in Paris, when he took the dance world by storm with his stagings of Debussy’s The Afternoon of a Faun and Stravinsky’s historic The Rite of Spring—which caused a riot at its 1913 premiere. There are also glimpses of Diaghilev’s life away from stage rehearsals, as he alternately relies on and pushes away his oldest friend/cousin/first lover Dima, childhood nanny Dunya—who, improbably, is still taking care of him—and a Russian countess, Misia, whose husband finances Diaghilev’s art.

 

McNally, who has done his research, combines factual detail with imaginative flights of fancy. But Fire and Air (a nicely evocative title, from Diaghilev’s self-description) ends up an unsatisfying jumble of biography and fictional re-imaging; John Doyle’s typically stripped-down production (consisting of a few chairs and two large mirrors) cleverly visualizes these scenes of an artist’s life from, as it were, different angles.

 

As the dancers, James Cusati-Moyer (Nijinsky) and Jay Armstrong Johnson (Massine) are lithe and athletic, their toned bodies speaking more eloquently than their acting. The cast’s veterans are Marsha Mason (an amusingly doddering Dunya), Marin Mazzie (a crisply elegant Misia) and John Glover (a believably Russian Dima).

 

As Diaghilev, British actor Douglas Hodge gives a broad but good-humored portrayal that at times reminded me, unaccountably, of both Nathan Lane and Dom DeLuise. But Hodge does make Diaghilev relatable as more than a self-pitying genius, which gives Fire and Air its intermittent vigor. 

 

Fire and Air

Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street, New York, NY

classicstage.org

February '18 Digital Week

Blu-rays of the Week 

The Gruesome Twosome

(Arrow)

Schlockmeister Herschell Gordon Lewis’ murderous 1967 drama plays like a bloody mess of a black comedy, as its atrociously bad acting and inept storytelling let it approach Ed Wood levels of ineptitude. 

 

 

Still, the amusingly fake “gore” sequences are worth a look; as a bonus, another Z-level guilty pleasure from Lewis in 1967, A Taste of Blood, is included, as are Lewis’ intros to and commentaries for both films, along with interviews. The movies, unsurprisingly, have not been restored, but look as good as can be expected.

 

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno

(Arrow Academy)                                

One of France’s greatest directors, Henri-Georges Clouzot never finished his pet project, 1964’s Inferno, which chronicled an extremely jealous husband who believes his young and beautiful wife is committing adultery. 

 

 

 

In 2009, Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea took what was shot, screen tests of performers Romy Schneider and Serge Reggiani, interviews with crew members like then-assistant Costa-Gavras and current actors Bérénice Bejo and Jacques Gamblin (to speak the main characters’ dialogue in added scenes) for this illuminating glimpse at what went wrong and what could have been. There’s an excellent hi-def transfer; extras are Bromberg’s introduction and interview, and featurettes about the unmade film.

                                                                                                                             

Viva L’Italia 

(Arrow Academy)

In 1961, Roberto Rossellini made this historical drama to commemorate the centenary of Giuseppe Garibaldi’s unification of Italy: like Rossellini’s historical masterpieces that followed—The Taking of Power of Louis XVI, Socrates, Blaise Pascal—it consists of talky polemics, but adds low-key re-creations of the battles Garibaldi fought in Sicily and on the Italian mainland. 

 

 

 

The restoration and hi-def transfer are immaculate; extras comprise a severely cut English-dubbed version (for American release), an interview with Rossellini’s assistant Ruggero Deodato, and a video essay by Rossellini expert Tag Gallagher.

 

DVDs of the Week

Inoperable

(Cinedigm)

This clumsily-executed dramatization of a clever idea (which might have made a decent Twilight Zone episode) pits a young woman trapped in a hospital during a hurricane, where she finds herself in recurring nightmare scenarios, like Groundhog Day gone fatally wrong. 

 

 

 

Buoyed by the ingratiating dual presence of Danielle Harris in the lead and Katie Keene as another female stuck in this possible time warp, the movie gets a bit of mileage out of its premise before falling apart long before its 85 minutes are up. The lone extra is a cast and crew commentary.

  

It Takes from Within 

(First Run)

In director Lee Eubanks’ laborious, increasingly oppressive drama—which borrows liberally from David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick (among others)—an unnamed couple planning to attend a burial find themselves confronting increasingly malevolent forces from within and without. 

 

 

 

Although the black and white photography is starkly beautiful, the actors are ill at ease with the cryptic and pretentious dialogue, which triggers intermittent snickers throughout. The lone extra is Eubanks’ commentary.

January '18 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week 

Victoria—Complete 2nd Season

(PBS Masterpiece)

In the second season of this absorbing series about Queen Victoria’s first years of her imposing 63-year reign, the English monarch has her growing family to worry about as well as her dealing with constant domestic and international crises.

Led by the delightfully natural Jenna Coleman as the queen—she particularly shines in a wonderful sequence when Victoria and husband Prince Albert (a solid Tom Hughes) get lost in the Scottish countryside and spend a night in an elderly couple’s modest home—the series has grown into an interesting historical drama. The series’ 10 episodes look spectacular on Blu; extras include a Christmas episode and featurettes.

 

The Flight of Dragons

(Warner Archive)

Although this 1982 animated feature from TV producers Rankin/Bass (best known for seasonal classics Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Little Drummer Boy and Santa Claus Is Coming to Town) is based on a book by Peter Dickinson, its dragons, warlocks, wizards and Dark Ages setting make it seem like a Lord of the Rings rip-off. (Rankin/Bass did an animated Hobbit.)

It’s an entertaining adventure with James Earl Jones, Victor Buono, Harry Morgan and James Gregory lending their dramatic voices—but hearing John Ritter as a benevolent dragon (!) is strange. The restored feature looks gorgeous; for comparison, check out the washed-out standard-def TV version, included as an extra.

 

The Hanging Tree 

(Warner Archive)

A proficient director of westerns, Delmer Daves helmed this 1959 drama with a typically laconic Gary Cooper as a doctor with a secret in his past who sets up a practice in a small mining town.

With an array of colorful supporting characters played by Maria Schell, Karl Malden, Ben Piazza and George C. Scott (in a fine film debut as a fiery preacher), and picturesque Washington State locations, this downbeat melodrama is worth a look. Shot in technicolor, the film looks splendid in hi-def.

 

The Witches

(Arrow Academy)

This 1966 omnibus film stars Silvana Mangano, then-wife of producer Dino de Laurentiis, who brought together five Italian directors for an extremely hit-or-miss showcase for his talented and beautiful spouse. Mangano is terrific throughout, but is at her voluptuous best in both the first and final sections, directed by Luchino Visconti and Vittorio de Sica respectively.

The latter is also intriguing because Clint Eastwood plays her husband, dubbed into Italian of course. One of the extras—the other is a commentary by critic Tim Lucas—includes an English-dubbed version with Eastwood speaking in his own voice.

January '18 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 

Geostorm

(Warner Bros)
Dean Devlin’s disaster extravaganza has nefarious bad guys creating a series of targeted—and massive—global storms that destroy whole cities and even specific places like the hockey arena where the current president accepts his renomination at the Democratic National Convention. It’s as silly as it sounds, with lots of CGI-heavy climate events that look threatening but aren’t very dramatic; how often can we watch poor innocent saps being incinerated or swallowed up by nasty weather?
 
 
The best thing about this clichéd apocalypse flick is the presence of two Aussies (Gerard Butler and the always criminally underused Abbie Cornish) and an Englishman (Jim Sturgess) as America’s heroes. It all looks eye-catching on Blu; extras are three making-of featurettes.
 
Gangster Land
(Cinedigm)
A by-the-numbers gangster flick featuring Al Capone that really doesn’t do much with him as either an historical character or a prime antagonist, director Timothy Woodward Jr.’s derivative drama depicts crooked cops and gangsters populating Prohibition-era Chicago in blunt black and white.
 
 
The cast—which comprises some decent and recognizable performers such as Jason Patric and Jamie-Lynn Sigler—definitely “looks” the period, but there’s little here that’s recommendable. The hi-def transfer is excellent.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Red Trees 

(Cohen Media)

In this deeply personal documentary, director Marina Willer chronicles her own family’s status as refugees during World War II, especially through the memories of her father, who lived through a time of horror as his family was among the very few who were able to escape from Prague in then-Czechoslovakia during the Nazi occupation.
 
 
At a scant 80 minutes, Willer’s film is tightly focused if visually impressionistic, and she allows her father his own voice—which is heard through the mellifluous tones British actor Tim Piggott-Smith (who died last April). The film looks fine on Blu; lone extra is a brief Willer interview.
 
DVDs of the Week   
In Her Name
(Icarus Films)                 
Daniel Auteuil gives his usual intense portrayal as Andre Bamberski, a divorced father who spends 30 years trying to get justice for his teenage daughter’s death at the hands of his ex’s German husband (who’s also a doctor). This true tale is handled with sympathy by director Vincent Garenq, who manages to encompass three decades of missteps, frustrations and explosive courtroom dramatics in 90 minutes.
 
 
Alongside Auteuil’s Andre are the equally compelling Sebastian Koch (doctor), Marie-Josee Croze (ex-wife) and Emma Besson (unfortunate daughter).
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

In Search of Fellini 

(Ambi Films/Samuel Goldwyn)
In this unabashedly sentimental story co-written by Nancy Cartwright (Bart Simpson’s voice), a sheltered young Ohio woman decides to travel to Italy to meet the great Italian director, whose work she inadvertently discovers by walking into a screening of La Strada. Despite cringingly melodramatic moments from the script and director Taron Lexton, this remains highly watchable thanks to an utterly winning performance by Ksenia Solo, who makes us believe in and even root for the ultimate fish out of water.

 

 

There’s also welcome support from Maria Bello as the terminally ill mom and Mary Lynn Rajskub as the mom’s impossibly loyal friend. Extras are director/writer commentary and making-of featurette. 

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