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Film and the Arts

July '17 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 

The Barber of Seville

(Opus Arte)
In the 2016 Glyndebourne Festival production of Rossini’s great comic opera, beguiling American soprano Danielle De Niese unsurprisingly steals the show as Rosina, the feisty love interest of Count Almaviva, who enlists the help of the barber Figaro to woo and win her.
Enrique Mazzola nimbly conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra, which keeps the comedy and romance brisk. Hi-def audio and video are top-notch; extras are Mazzola and De Niese’s commentary and making-of featurette.
(Deutsche Grammophon)
In this 2016 Dresden staging of Richard Wagner’s opera, Russian soprano Anna Netrebko—whose early career comprised lighter-voiced roles by Mozart, Puccini and Prokofiev—shows herself as a Wagnerian singer par excellence: every scene she’s in, her Elsa rivets attention from an already formidable cast.
Angela Brandt’s production shrewdly mixes traditional and contemporary (as in the climactic appearance of the swan), and the music is performed with vigor and strength by the orchestra and chorus under Christian Thielemann’s baton. Hi-def audio and video are exemplary.

(Deutsche Grammophon)

(Challenge Classics)
Richard Wagner’s final opera—a long, slow, quasi-religious processional composed for his own theater at Bayreuth in Germany—is presented today by opera houses around the world. Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s 2016 Bayreuth production flouts the composer’s own stage directions, dragging in pointless directorial “improvements” that obscure an accomplished cast including Klaus Florian Vogt’s Parsifal and Elena Pankratova’s temptress Kundry.
Pierre Audi’s 2012 Netherlands Opera staging features similar questionable visuals, but again the cast—led by Petra Lang’s powerhouse presence as Kundry—overcomes those obstacles with reverent singing. Forceful orchestral playing comes from conductors Hartmut Haenchen (Bayreuth) and Iván Fischer (Netherlands); there’s impressive hi-def video and audio on both discs.
Stormy Monday
(Arrow Academy)
Mike Figgis’ 1988 feature debut is a fairly standard and unexciting neo-noir thriller drenched in the director’s own jazz score. Unfortunately, his solid cast can do little amid the worn-down Newcastle locations, the setting for 90 minutes of small-time hood shenanigans.
Sean Bean, Tommy Lee Jones and Sting snarl aggressively, while poor Melanie Griffith is simply out of her element. Roger Deakins’ photography looks particularly noteworthy in hi-def; extras are a Figgis commentary and video appreciation by critic Neil Young.
The Story of China with Michael Wood


Historian Michael Wood—veteran of such classic British TV series as Art of the Western World and In Search of Shakespeare—embarks on a journey through the epic and convoluted history of China, packing much fascinating information and insight into six hours’ worth of the country’s sights, sounds, people and culture. Wood’s expertise, intelligence and compassion are on vivid display throughout this don’t-miss series, which could use more contextualizing in the extras: despite the magnificent hi-def images, there are only a handful of very short featurettes.
DVDs of the Week
The Country Doctor
In writer/director Thomas Lilti’s intimate character study, Francois Cluzet plays the veteran doctor who knows everyone in his little corner of the French countryside, but who initially overreacts when a newcomer arrives from the city, ostensibly to help him out with his workload.
Cluzet and Marianne Denicourt (as adversary, rival and ally) connect emotionally, providing an authentically “real” relationship that never turns treacly—even when it easily could have. Lilti’s movie brims with small but not unimportant moments that display its characters in all their humanity.
Pretty Little Liars—Complete 7th Season

(Warner Bros)
The final season of the popular series about the quintet of “liars”—Aria, Emily, Hanna, Spencer and Mona—comprises a breakneck progression of 20 episodes culminating with one of the most bizarre TV twists since “Who Shot J.R.”: a twin of one of the gals appears as the infamous D.A., improbably controlling what’s going on.

Yet despite such silliness, the wrap-up is dramatically satisfying. Bonus features comprise several featurettes, wrap party “episode” and deleted scenes.

Film review—“The Midwife” with Catherine Deneuve and Catherine Frot

The Midwife
Written and directed by Martin Provost
Catherine Deneuve and Catherine Frot in The Midwife (Music Box Films)
There can be no more quintessentially French film than Martin Provost’s The Midwife (the double meaning of the French title, Sage femme, is lost in English), and not simply because it stars Catherine Deneuve. It’s also because of its plot: a 49-year-old midwife receives a phone call one day from her father’s long-gone mistress, now in her 70s and looking for closure after receiving a fatal brain cancer diagnosis.
When she agrees to meet Béatrice Sobolevski, Claire’s own life is in flux: the clinic where she’s worked for decades helping to deliver newborns is about to be replaced by the latest high-tech one, where her hard-earned experience and expertise is beside the point; her son Simon, currently in college working his way toward a medical degree, brings home his pregnant girlfriend; and her neighbor Paul, as hard a worker on his vegetable garden as she is on hers, wants a closer relationship than she’s been willing to allow herself with any man.
Into Claire’s messy life storms the still glamorous and self-absorbed Béatrice, who becomes amusingly dependent on Claire after being told that Claire’s father killed himself decades ago after Béatrice left him. As written and directed by Martin Provost, The Midwife skirts melodrama and soap opera in its depiction of this odd couple, especially when the funny but repetitive back-and-forth between these completely antithetical women is overwhelmed at times by several scarily authentic birthing sequences.
Despite that, the film is quite affecting thanks to its two leads. Deneuve, of course, is even more elegant than the fake Hungarian princess she plays, but she is also believably heart-tugging as a grievously sick woman trying to keep up appearances even though the high life she used to lead is long gone. 
And Frot—whose pathetically hilarious opera singer with no talent in last year’s Marguerite was far more memorable than Meryl Streep’s Oscar-nominated turn in Florence Foster Jenkins—gives a remarkably sympathetic portrait of a middle-aged woman at a crossroads in her life who must also confront the ghost of her family’s sorrowful past in the form of Béatrice.
Provost’s droll touches—notably the moment when Béatrice discovers that Claire’s son Simon bears an uncanny resemblance to Claire’s father (and Béatrice’s lover)—complement the delectable performances of both Catherines, who make The Midwife far more substantial than it would otherwise be.
The Midwife
Opened July 21, 2017

July '17 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 

Kong: Skull Island

(Warner Bros)
As mindless entertainments go, the latest Kong has its moments, especially when the humans are relegated to the background and fascinating-looking creatures dominate the screen: prehistoric monsters, a yuge insect, and of course our giant ape.
Up against superior CGI, the cast has little chance to do anything, especially poor Brie Larson, who gives an embarrassing performance for an Oscar winner. At least John C. Reilly and Samuel L. Jackson’s lapses into crude comedy help—a bit. But Vera Lynn singing “We’ll Meet Again” at the end is unjustified arrogance from journeyman director Jordan Vogt-Roberts. On Blu-ray, the movie looks astonishingly good; extras include featurettes, interviews, deleted scenes and a director’s commentary.
The Devil’s Domain
(Cleopatra Entertainment)
This social-media revenge pic is built on a brazenly insane fantasy: an anorexic high school student makes a pact with the devil to eliminate those at school responsible for bullying her.
Director Jared Cohn stages a few brutal death scenes that are horrible fun, but does little else, including making Linda Bella less amateurish as a she-devil. Madi Vodane’s persuasive teen heroine makes this watchable, at least. The film looks fine on Blu; extras are a making-of and red-carpet interviews.
Midsomer Murders—Series 19, Part 1 


In the four 90-minute mysteries making up the latest set of this popular series, chief inspector John Barnaby is joined by new partner Jamie Winter for a series of investigations into several killings throughout the local towns of Midsomer, which are strangely prone to murder.
The episodes—and the crimes featured in them—include an exotic snake, an army tank, and vengeful cricket fan, and it’s always satisfying to watch Barnaby (nicely underplayed by accomplished vet Neil Dudge) and his latest sidekick solve these increasingly offbeat crimes. The Blu-ray transfer looks great; extras are featurettes and interviews.
Terror in a Texas Town
(Arrow Academy)
In Gordon L. Lewis’s tightly wound hybrid of film noir and western, George Hansen (Sterling Hayden)—who arrives at a small town terrorized by a rich hotel owner and his murderous hired gun—is on a mission of revenge for the killing of his father, but all he has is a whale harpoon for a weapon.
Even if Hayden’s Scandinavian accent slides all over the place, this does quite nicely as a taut, High Noon-esque drama. The hi-def black and white transfer shimmers with grain; extras are an intro and analysis by western expert Peter Stanfield.
DVDs of the Week 

The Artist’s Garden—American Impressionism

(Seventh Art)
Phil Grabsky’s documentary recounts the fascinating story of American painters of the late 19th and early 20thcenturies inspired by their more famous contemporaries on the other side of the Atlantic. Among the notable artists shown are Mary Cassett, Hilde Chassam and William Merritt Chase, whose works are as enduring as the French painters who inspired them.
As with other Exhibition On Screen entries, the dry 90-minute program (narrated by Gillian Anderson) features gorgeous examples of many artworks, so it’s too bad this wasn’t released on Blu-ray.
The Penguin Counters
(First Run)

Ron Naveen has been counting penguins for decades. If that seems funny, it’s not: he and his colleagues’ numbers are important indicators of how climate change affects various species in Antarctica, and this informative documentary lays out the continued importance of their ongoing scientific studies.

Directors Peter Getzels and Harriet Gordon also provide beautiful images of the Antarctic habitat, which might convince even the most hardened climate-change denier about what we’re in danger of losing. Extras include additional scenes.

Take Broadway Home! – Tony-Winning & Nominated Musicals


How many of these shows have you seen?  There are tickets available for most. However, if seeing is not in the picture, hearing certainly is. The featured original cast albums of the season’s new shows allow you to enjoy the experience of shows you’ve seen or whet your appetite for those you hope to see.

Last year, there was the landmark and Pulitzer-winning Hamilton. People were saying, “How could the 2016-2017 season top that?” There may not be another Hamilton, but there’s plenty of excitement and diversity in a season of distinguished musicals.
The Broadway League, the national trade association for Broadway, has released end-of-2016 – 2017 season statistics. It was the highest grossing one ever. Attendance reached 13,270,343 with a gross just short of $1.5-billion. This tally is only legit box office prices, which include premium sales.

“The variety of Broadway musicals and plays continues to attract enthusiastic audiences,” says Charlotte St. Martin, League president. “It’s been a season filled with creativity, innovation, exciting debuts, and thrilling comebacks. There’s nothing like live theater and no better way to see it than on Broadway.”
Of course, you want to see the blockbuster hits, but until you can grab tickets these bargain-priced original cast albums are a perfect way to at least enjoy aspects of the in-person experience.

Anastasia by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (Broadway Records; 25 tracks):
 Christy Altomare (a Sophie in Mamma Mia) is amnesiac orphan Anya, hoping to find family, who’s spotted by bungling conmen Derek Klena and the always- delightful John Bolton (A Christmas Story; Dames at Sea) wish to take advantage of her likeness to Russia’s Grand Duchess Anastasia, thought to be the only survivor of the execution of Czar Nicholas and family. She’s so authentic that even the skeptics, including the Dowager Empress, radiant Tony-nominated Mary Beth Piel (Tony nominee, King and I). Book by Tony-winning playwright Terrence McNally, loosely based on Don Bluth’s 1997 animated film [and includes Oscar nominated "Journey to the Past” and five other film tunes].
Highlights: Original songs “In My Dreams,” “My Petersburg,” “Everything to Win,” “Journey to the Past.”

Bandstand by Richard Oberacker and Rob Taylor (Broadway/Yellow Sound Records; 18 tracks):
Returning WWII vet, a singer/songwriter, Corey Cott in a tour-de-force portrayal, forms a band with fellow vets to seek the golden prize: Hollywood fame. But haunted by memories of his downed pal, he meets his young widow, Tony nominee Laura Osnes (Bonnie and Clyde), who reluctantly joins the band. There’s instant attraction until a shattering dark secret is revealed. Great onstage band, and hot, pulsating Big Band-orchestrations by Tony-nominated Bill Elliott and Greg Anthony Rassen. Tony winner Beth Leavel (Drowsy Chaperone) co-stars. Tony-winning choreography by director Andy Blnkenbuehler.
Highlights: “Just Like It Was Before,” “Love Will Come and Find Me Again,”  “Everything Happens,” “This Is Life,” “Welcome Home.”

A Bronx Tale by Alan Menken and Glen Slater (Ghostlight Records; 19 tracks): 
Move over Manhattan Heights, we’re now on the stoops of rough and tumble 60s Bronx, where crime does pay, in this adaptation of Chazz Palminteri’s 2007 streetwise one-man play (also a 1993 film) about the influences on a boy. It’s Dad vs. Crime Boss, Richard H. Blake and DD nominee Nick Cordero (Waitress, Bullets over Broadway scene-stealer) with traces of Newsies, Wise Guys, and Jersey Boys doo wop.
Highlights: “Belmont Avenue,” “These Streets,” “I Like It,” “Out of Your Head.”

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman (Masterworks Broadway; 19 tracks):
Chocolate-covered whimsy, readapted [for no reason] from the hit West End production, based on Roald Dahl’s novel and featuring songs by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley from the 2005 film. Christian Borle, with John Rubenstein, and Emily Padgett (Side Show revival). Considering Wittman and Shaiman are Tony-winning composers of Hairspray, it’s sad that nothing’s here/hear to really thrill you; but it’s a family show and, even without spectacular sets and energy, it’s packin’ ‘em in. 

Highlights: “What Could Possibly Go Wrong,” “If Your Father Were Here,” “The View from Here.”

TakeBwayHome2Come from Away by David Hein and Irene Sankoff (Musical Company; 25 tracks): 
The sleeper musical of the season turned into a Tony-nominated Best Musical and one with huge audience appeal. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, 38 planes enroute to the U.S. with 6,579 passengers were forced to land at Gander, Newfoundland’s former military base for a week due to air space closure. In a variety of motifs [folk reels to lush ballads], we meet unprepared locals who must rise to the occasion. And they do it well. Winning cast of townspeople and passengers includes Tony Jenn Colella, as American Airlines’ first female pilot, Chad Kimball (Memphis), Joel Hatch, Rodney Hicks, and Q Smith.
Highlights: “Welcome to the Rock,” “Lead Us Out of the Night,” “Me and the Sky,” “Stop the World.”

Hello, Dolly by Jerry Herman (Masterworks Broadway; 16 tracks; 42-page booklet with lyrics):
Tony-winning Best Musical, Revival of Herman’s terrific Tony-winning musical pastiche of Olde New York. Tony-nominated Jerry Zak’s production starring the divine Bette Midler gives razzle dazzle and color new definition. In one showstopping moment after another – whether singing, doing fancy footwork, or eating, Midler proves to be the penultimate entertainer. Warren Carlyle, building on Gower Champion’s choreography, adds zest. Midler is accompanied to Yonkers and the 14th Street Parade and Harmonia Gardens by Tony nominees David Hyde Pierce, and Gavin Creel and Kate Baldwin and a due adding more humor: Taylor Trensch and Beanie Feldstein. At only 53 minutes it doesn’t give the scope of being there. Cuts have been made. But why? [the disc holds 80 minutes]. “The Waiter’s Gallop,” at 2:51, and the Finale at 1:43 are far shorter than the live experience. However, you won’t feel shortchanged on the Overture, “Dancing” at 6:53; or the title song, 6:41. There’s no way to catch Midler’s superlative clowning.
Highlights: “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” “Ribbons Down My Back,” “Before the Parade Passes By,” “A Penny in My Pocket” (cut from the original production), title tune, “It Only Takes a Moment.”

Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 by Dave Malloy (Reprise; two discs; 27 tracks):
Tony- nominated, Best Musical. The complicated story, adapted from a 70-page section of War and Peace, has been turned into a mesmerizing spectacle 
starring Tony nominated Denée Benton and Lucas Steele as ravenous lovers, 
and Josh Groban [who’s no longer in the show] are at the forefront of intrigue 
in a romantic triangle (Pierre is merely an onlooker). You’ll miss Tony-nominated Rachel Chavin’s innovative staging that transformd the Imperial Theatre into a slice of Russia but you’ll get a glimmer of Brittain Ashford’s stunning portrayal of Sonya. Also headlining are Gelsey Bell and Nicholas Belton.

Highlights: “No One Else,” “Dust and Ashes,” “Sonya & Natasha,” “Sonya Alone.”



War Paint by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie (Ghostlight; 21 tracks):
Tony-nominated, Best Musical, from the creators of Grey Gardens. Pioneering cosmetic entrepreneurs Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein (Tony winners and 2017 Tony nominees (Patti LuPone, Christine Ebersole) engage in fierce rivalry for dominance from 30s to 60s as they change the face of American women. Act One plods along, but segues into a much more
exciting Act Two and a dynamic finish. Of course, the stars are absolute stand-outs.
Highlights: “If I’d Been a Man,” “Face to Face,”  “Pink,” “Forever Beautiful,” “Beauty in the World.”

Wait! There’s more: one that played Broadway, one from Off Broadway, and one from London’s West End:
Falsettos by William Finn and James Lapine (Ghostlight; two discs, 36 tracks; with 60-page color booklet with lyrics):
This Tony-nominated Revival has completed its limited run but was captured in HD for theatrical release. The production marks the first full recording of this 1992 musical revolving around a neurotic gay man, his wife, lover, son, their psychiatrist, and lesbian friends explores changing relationships in the make-up of modern families. What a cast: Tony-nominated Christian Borle (Tony-winner, Something Rotten), Stephanie J. Block, Andrew Rannells (Tony- nominated, Book of Mormon), and Brandon Uranowitz (Tony-nominee, An American in Paris).  
Highlights: “Love is Blind,” “This Had Better Come to a Stop,” “Making a Home,” “What More Can I Say,” “Unlikely Lovers.” 

Dreamgirls by Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger (Sony Music; 28 tracks, two discs:
 U.K. debut recording of the iconic 1982 Tony-nominated musical of R&B female trio vying for the big time during the 60s and learning the hard lessons of show business and romance. Olivier-winning Amber Riley (Glee) is The Dreams Effie White.

Keep in mind newer shows such School of Rock and the return of Cats and Miss Saigon [both on the road to closing]. There are hot shows from previous seasons – Aladdin, Beautiful, Book of Mormon, Kinky Boots, On Your Feet [closing in August], and Waitress are still going strong, but have available seats. Then, there are the long-running champs: Chicago, Lion King, Phantom of the Opera, and Wicked. Of course, Hamilton is still hot, hot, and hot.  
All of the current shows have websites with schedules, photos and videos, and links to purchase tickets. And Broadway’s box office treasurers love to have you belly up to their windows. The TDF booths always have surprises posted, and the lines moves quite fast.
The Broadway League is not only the co-presenter of the Tony Awards with the American Theatre Wing.


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