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Written and directed by Simon Stone, after Euripides
Performances through March 8, 2020
Rose Byrne in Medea (photo: Richard Termine)
Rose Byrne’s exquisitely calibrated performance dominates Simon Stone’s otherwise tepid update of Medea. Her strengths as an actress both onscreen and onstage are maximized, literally: Stone has much of the action play out (however redundantly) in front of a video camera, and the footage captured on the large screen above the stage allows the audience to watch Byrne simultaneously play to the camera and the back row of the BAM Harvey Theater with the same honesty and intensity.
Byrne plays Anna, mother of two young boys, who’s been released from a stay in a mental hospital following her attempt to poison her husband Lucas when she discovered he’s cheating on her. Not only is he cheating, he’s made the object of his desire—Clara, the much younger (half Lucas’ age) age) daughter of his and Anna’s research lab boss, Christopher—his betrothed while Anna was out of the picture. Needless to say—especially if one is familiar with the Euripides original—Anna does not take this news well, as she continuously reminds him of what they had (a life together, a family, a scientifically rewarding collaboration) and could have again. But her behavior becomes more erratic, until…
Stone has cleverly configured his Medea on a bright stage, courtesy designer Bob Cousins, whose walls and floor are dazzlingly, even blindingly white, heightened even more by Sarah Johnston’s intentionally excessive lighting. This allows for the effective—if too blatantly symbolic—introduction of black ash and red blood for the setup to the dreadful (in the original sense) finale. Would that Stone gleaned any insight from his staging; instead, even covered in ash and gore, the final filicide/suicide/immolation remains remote, unemotional.
As Lucas, Bobby Cannavale—Byrne’s real-life partner and father of her two children—has surprisingly little to do but passively react (with a couple of angry exceptions) to his estranged wife’s behavior. Dylan Baker, always a welcome presence, is a very fine Christopher. Two pairs of boys alternate as the sons Edgar and Gus: Gabriel Amoroso and Emeka Guindo were the believably annoying kids (they man the video camera onstage) at my performance.
Madeline Weinstein’s engaging Clara makes for an obvious contrast to Byrne’s ferocious Anna, and any performer who can stand in place with buckets of blood dripping from her hair deserves an award of some kind. But even at 75 minutes, this bloodless Medea seems stretched beyond its slender means, even with Byrne’s star turn.
BAM Harvey Theatre, 30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn, NY
Blu-rays of the Week
In Anthony Mann’s 1960 adaptation of Edna Ferber’s sprawling novel about the opening of the Oklahoma Territory to settlers, the racism of the original 1931 movie version—which actually won the Best Picture Oscar!—has been mostly scuttled, which is all to the good.
But Mann (and his replacement, Charles Walters, who finished filming after Mann left the set) still has trouble harnessing the story’s scope and characters, and rote performances by the likes of Glenn Ford, Maria Schell and even the usually reliable Anne Baxter don’t help. The cinemascope photography’s colors pop on Blu-ray.
Yet another direct to disc Nicolas Cage vehicle, this rain-soaked would-be Body Heat contains his usual over-the-top, demented performance as a husband ostensibly jealous by his wife’s interest in the new handyman.
But despite its hackneyed premise and unsurprising plot twists, the movie gets mileage from the superlative performance as the wife by KaDee Strickland, making her an actual character of feeling and rage and sexuality rather than just the caricature she is in the script. There’s a superior hi-def transfer.
The Great War
Unlike 1917—the gimmicky World War I drama that was nominated for several Oscars—Steven Luke’s gritty, on-the-ground film follows U.S. soldiers fighting through the 1918 armistice, tasked with fending off the German army despite the war’s end.
This well-crafted drama is a little on the nose depicting one soldier’s shell shocked condition, but it straightforwardly shows the rigors, horrors and comradery of battle without excessive melodrama. There’s an excellent hi-def transfer.
J.S. Bach—The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I
Hungarian pianist Andras Schiff performs Bach’s towering piano work, The Well-Tempered Klavier, Book I, at the BBC Proms in 2017: Schiff’s stamina is astonishing, as he plays the entire 105-minute work (one of Bach’s most inspired) from memory in front of an enraptured audience.
Torino, Italy, is the setting for the first performance in over 200 years of Agnese, a long-forgotten opera by Ferdinando Paer, of whose music little is heard—it’s perfectly pleasant, with decent music and beguiling arias, but ultimately forgettable, despite persuasive staging, singing and orchestral playing. Hi-def video and audio are first-rate.
Swamp Thing—Complete Series
Warner Bros. provided me with a free copy of this disc for review.
The old trope of a swamp monster in a nearby bog has been the start of centuries’ worth of horror stories, and this modern-day series—only one of its ten episodes made it on the air—is the latest to try and resuscitate a moribund genre.
It’s entertaining if icky at times, but it finds a home between parody and terror; a fine cast does its best, with Crystal Reed especially good as an initially skeptical investigator who discovers more than she—and the locals—bargained for in small-town Louisiana. The series looks splendid in hi-def.
Two on a Guillotine
This 1964 misfire tries to be scary but ends up merely risible, as the daughter of a famous magician must spend a week in her just-deceased dad’s haunted house to receive the bulk of his estate following his death. But is he really dead?
Connie Stevens screams a lot as the daughter, while Dean Jones is her cardboard lover and Caesar Romero hammy as the dad. William Conrad (later of TV’s Cannon) directs competently but with no inkling of suspense, and Max Steiner’s penultimate score regurgitates several of his earlier themes. The B&W images look enticing on Blu-ray, at least.
DVD of the Week
I Got You Babe—The Best of Sonny & Cher
Believe it or not, Sonny Bono and his wife Cher—who made it big with their 1965 duet “I Got You Babe”—hosted The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour on CBS in the early ‘70s: like other shows at the time, it featured them singing, telling jokes—mainly Cher insulting Sonny—and acting in mostly groan-inducing skits with guest stars. In this five-disc set, ten complete episodes from 1971-74 are included, with guests ranging from Jimmy Durante and Tony Curtis to Dinah Shore and the Supremes. Extras comprise interviews with Cher, Frankie Avalon, and producers Allan Blye and Chris Bearde; the 1970 pilot episode; and a 1970 Sonny and Cher interview.
CD of the Week
Louise Alder—Lines Written During a Sleepless Night
British soprano Louise Alder has subtitled her outstanding new recital disc The Russian Connection, and so it is—six groups of songs by Russian and European composers, all linked by their having set music to poetry in Russian.
To sensitive accompaniment by pianist Joseph Middleton, Alder runs the gamut of emotions (and languages): Norwegian Edvard Grieg’s brooding German texts and Finn Jean Sibelius’ romantic Swedish settings; Russians Tchaikovsky (French), Medtner (German) and Rachmaninoff, the last in his native tongue; and, finally and most impressively, Alder’s compatriot Benjamin Britten, whose setting of Pushkin’s The Poet’s Echo (in Russian) is a masterpiece in miniature.
In his thoroughly unnecessary sequel to The Shining, writer-director Mike Flanagan slavishly imitates Kubrick’s classic and tries to balance that with adapting King’s own sequel (but includes the original novel’s ending for reasons best left unsaid). By trying to have it both ways, Flanagan ends up with little of either, an unsatisfying blend of King’s juvenile sensibility and Kubrick’s more ironic one. Ewan McGregor as the adult Danny Torrance is mainly somnambulant, Kyliegh Curran is engaging as the teenager whose shining causes Danny to confront his own demons, and Rebecca Ferguson makes a compelling villainess, although her part—a vampire who sucks the life essence out of those who shine—is nonsensical.
Many shots, images, music cues, even edits nod to Kubrick’s original film, but with none of the impending dread, creepiness or resonance. In addition to the 152-minute theatrical cut, there’s a bloated three-hour director’s cut. Both versions look stunning in hi-def; extras include three making-of featurettes which feature King and Flanagan interviews.
FLCL—Progressive and Alternative
The popular anime show returns following its long-ago first season—first seen on the Adult Swim network in 2003—with the Blu-ray debuts of two new series: Progressive and Alternative, both of which premiered on Adult Swim in 2018. Both series are presented in the original Japanese along with an English dubbed version; the original version is my preference, but your mileage may vary.
The dozen episodes of both series are presented in striking colors in hi-def; extras include making-of featurettes as well as interviews with the creators, voice actors and the Pillows, the band that composed and plays the musical score.
In his ham-fisted film, Korean director Bong Joon-ho has set up the most blatant allegory since Noah’s flood—which also makes an appearance—and tries having it both ways by playing it for laughs and completely straight. Neither approach works because tone and logic are askew: we are meant to believe that members of a rich family (which a quartet of poor family members homes in on, eventually takes jobs in their household and soon runs the place) are so benighted as to allow such machinations to happen right under their noses.
Then when a disgruntled former employee returns—why would anyone allow her back in the house?—another nonsensical plot plays out. It’s at least acted forcefully and Bong is an impressive enough technician to make this seem more than the sum of its shaky parts. On Blu, the film looks impressive; lone extra is a director Q&A.
Despite Natalie Wood’s usual plucky presence, this is a strained, mostly unfunny 1966 would-be caper comedy about a kleptomaniac who robs her own husband’s bank because she feels neglected by him. Director Arthur Hiller aims the most heavyhanded comedic lobs at the audience, and even Wood starts to become annoying; the best the film has to offer is a time-capsule glimpse at mid-‘60s Manhattan, including a sequence set in the Museum of Modern Art sculpture garden.
A top supporting cast—Peter Falk, Jonathan Winters, Ian Bannen, Dick Shawn and Lou Jacobi—has astonishingly little to do. The film looks superb in hi-def; lone extra is a featurette about legendary costume designer Edith Head.
French visual artist-sculptor Prune Nourry recounts her difficult battle with breast cancer at age 31 in this lacerating self-portrait with equal parts wit, humor and a defiantly unsentimental quality. There are moments where you want to look away because they’re so intensely personal, but Nourry’s positive attitude—and insightfully showing how her art informs her life—keeps one watching.
There’s even a delightful cameo by the late, lamented Agnes Varda in a lovely moment between female artists (or, as Nourry calls Varda in the closing credits, her “sweet potato”). There’s a high-quality hi-def transfer; lone extra is a post-screening Q&A with Nourry.
In his overlong but engrossing melodrama, writer-director Trey Edward Shults follows a middle-class black family in Florida that’s torn apart by tragedy but attempts to become whole again. Shults has a real empathetic feel without getting too maudlin, but his Terrance Malick-ish imagery and sound end up pale imitations of the master; Shults also lingers too long at moments that deserve a subtler touch.
Still, with an emotionally honest cast—Renee Elise Goldsberry, Sterling K. Brown, Taylor Russell, Lucas Hedges, Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Alexa Demie—even lesser sequences (like the overwrought ending) find the truth and complexity of real life. There’s a fine hi-def transfer; extras comprise Shults and Harrison Jr.’s commentary, deleted scenes, a making-of featurette and cast Q&A.
CD of the Week
Soprano Ruby Hughes has created an intelligent program for this recital disc—her first with orchestra—juxtaposing two towering song cycles of early 20th century romanticism (Mahler) and modernism (Berg) with a more recent work, Welsh composer Rhian Samuel’s Clytemnestra, from 1994.
Hughes’ richly enveloping voice caresses the beauty of Mahler’s Rückert Lieder and the restlessness of Berg’s Altenberg Lieder, and in the jagged edges of Samuel’s dramatic work, she lets go with the ferocity and abandon of Aeschylus’ great tragic character, avenging her own daughter’s death. Hughes is expertly accompanied by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, which is led by the supple conducting of Jac van Steen.
Envisioning 2001: Stanley Kubrick’s Space Odyssey
Through July 19, 2020
Museum of Moving Image, 36-01 35th Avenue, Astoria, NY
Now firmly on any reputable Greatest Films of All Time list, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of the visionary director’s most inscrutable, puzzling and, paradoxically, satisfying films. The director’s peregrination from contacting author Arthur C. Clarke to collaborate on what was first titled Journey Beyond the Stars to premiering a nearly three-hour trip through time and space was one of many he took to bring his challenging, often polarizing ideas to fruition onscreen.
Envisioning 2001: Stanley Kubrick’s Space Odyssey, at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, until July 19, is a remarkably wide-ranging exhibition that takes visitors through Kubrick’s constant re-envisioning of what would become the greatest science-fiction film ever made and among the most complex narratives from a major studio to ever grace the screen.
Moonwatcher costume and space suits
The exhibit is filled with ephemera anyone with even a remote interest in 2001 would want to see—Kubrick’s voluminous correspondence; his detailed notes, many written (or typed) on index cards; models of several of the film’s space ships; examples of the costumes and set designs; audio interview with Dan Richter, who played the ape-man Moonwatcher in the Dawn of Man sequence; Moonwatcher’s head, the helmet of one of the astronauts, and even the cap of the Pan Am stewardess; and Kubrick’s lone Oscar statuette—he unbelievably never won for Best Director—for Best Special Effects.
Kubrick’s singular brilliance dominates the exhibition, not least in his carefully-worded—some might say pedantic—letters filled with questions and anaylsis and trivia that he sent to space experts from NASA and others. Kubrick’s use of music, one of his greatest filmmaking innovations, arguably reached its apogee in 2001, whose uniqueness is seen and heard in a section of the exhibit where the famous opening sequence is shown with both Alex North’s original music—an effective but obvious Hollywood score—and Kubrick’s “temp” choice that became permanent, Richard Strauss’ rousing intro to Also sprach Zarathustra.
Kubrick’s genius also shines through in the film series accompanying Envisioning 2001, which comprises features that informed Kubrick’s approach as 2001 took shape, several of which will be screened during the exhibition: Polish director Jindřich Polák’s visionary 1963 sci-fi mystery Ikarie XB-1 and Ingmar Bergman’s classic psychological portraits Wild Strawberries and The Virgin Spring, among them. And, to top it off, 2001 itself will be screened monthly in a 70-millimeter print, providing more opportunities to take another exhilarating journey beyond the stars with Stanley Kubrick.
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