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Film and the Arts

April '17 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 

Property Is No Longer a Theft

(Arrow Academy) 
Committed left-wing Italian director Elio Petri made provocative, disturbing and enlightening political dramas in the 1970s before his untimely death from cancer at age 53 in 1982. His 1973 film is an unsubtle but irresistible riposte against capitalist society, as a lowly bank clerk insinuates himself into the personal life of a greedy local butcher, even stealing his mistress. Petri’s assured direction keeps the over-ripe performances of Flavio Bucci (clerk), Ugo Tognazzi (butcher) and Daria Nicolodi (mistress) from spinning out of control. Arrow’s terrific new set comprises a first-rate hi-def transfer and new interviews with Bucci, producer Claudio Mancini and make-up artist Pierantonio Mecacci, all of whom discuss working with the great, underrated director.
 
The Bye Bye Man
(Universal) 
This hopelessly confused attempt at a psychological haunted-house flick has flat acting—including stalwarts Faye Dunaway and Carrie-Anne Moss—a hollow script and contempt for an audience that expects honest scares, not lamely risible “shocks.” Director Stacy Title once made an interesting little black comedy, The Last Supper, two decades ago, but her latest doesn’t approach that. The hi-def transfer is good; the unrated version is three minutes longer than the theatrical version.
 
Daughters of the Dust
(Cohen Film Collection) 
Julie Dash’s enveloping 1991 historical drama highlights an obscure chapter in American history: the Gullah community, comprising former slaves and their descendants, who are living on the Sea Islands off the South Carolina coast at the turn of the 20thcentury, decide whether to migrate to the mainland. Dash’s ability to vividly personalize history is on display throughout her memorable memory film; the enticing hi-def transfer and many extras—Dash’s commentary and interview, Q&A with Dash and actress Cheryl Bruce, and interview with Dash’s superb cinematographer Arthur Jafa—make this an essential package.
 
House—Two Stories 
Dead or Alive
(Arrow) 
The tongue-in-cheek horror movie House became a cult item in 1986, and was followed a year later by the far worse House II; the original at least had William Katt, John Wendt and a sorely underused Kay Lenz, while the latter was stuck with John Ratzenberger. Japanese cult director Takashi Miike made his ultra-violent Dead or Alive trilogy between 1999 and 2002; wildly ambitious and wildly uneven, these Yakuza movies are the ultimate triumphs of style over substance. Both sets show off Arrow’s excellent hi-def transfers, vintage and current interviews and making-ofs, commentaries, and hour-long appraisals of both House films.
 
Story of Sin

(Arrow Academy) 

Polish director Walerian Borowczyk—who died in 2006—has seen his cult reputation grow ever larger, thanks to the availability of even his most obscure films on DVD and now Blu-ray, like the only film he made in his home country, 1974’s Story of Sin. This less-graphic-than-usual, consistently intriguing adaptation of Stefan Żeromski’s novel concerns a young religious woman soiled by her loss of innocence (a whale of a lead performance by actress Grazyna Dlugolecka). As usual with Arrow Academy, great care has gone into the presentation of an obscure feature by a barely-remembered Polish director: stunning transfer, audio commentary, new and vintage interviews and appraisals, and several Borowczyk shorts.
 
World Without End
(Warner Archive) 
You’d think a forgotten 1956 sci-fi B movie wouldn’t be high on the list of hi-def re-issues by Warner Archive, but then again, this is a forgotten sci-fi B movie, the kind of thing that appeals to movie buffs who buy Blu-rays. A quartet of astronauts crash-lands on a distant planet, only to find they’ve returned to a post-nuclear Earth nearly 600 years in the future. Weak acting, cheesy script, cheap sets and effects and muddled philosophy are the draws here; the spectacular hi-def transfer will look terrific on movie buffs’ large TV screens.
 
DVDs of the Week 

A Girl in Every Port

(Warner Archive) 
Made after the Marx Brothers’ creative peak, this 1952 comedy wastes Groucho’s final leading role as a sailor (!) who—with his sidekick William Bendix—gets caught up in a convoluted mess involving twin horses and a blonde femme fatale (the juiceless Marie Wilson). Groucho gets to fire off several one-liners but few of them hit in this scattershot (to be kind) comedy. Watch Duck Soup, A Night at the Opera or even Horse Feathers instead.
 
Toni Erdmann
(Sony Pictures Classics) 
I may be the lone dissenter when it comes to Maden Ade’s overlong and slender portrait of a practical-jokester father who surprises his successful daughter in Bucharest—only to bug her mercilessly. The problem is that dad is a mere plot device instead of a believable character; indeed, once he shows up, Ade seems to be trolling her own movie. Despite impressive acting by Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller, this ends up as irritating as Ade’s previous Everything Else. That Sony is releasing this on DVD and BD-R is a sign Criterion will put out a packed Blu-ray edition soon. Extras are an Ade commentary and AFI Fest Q&A.
 
CD of the Week 
Beethoven—Complete String Quartets
(Decca) 
The best recent boxed set of Beethoven’s complete string quartets is by the Takacs Quartet, which digs into these 16 masterly musical statements (17, if one counts the inscrutable Grosse Fuge) and makes them its own, especially its scintillating readings of the six late quartets, those incredible, forward-thinking works from 1825 and 1826, which reached their apogee with the quicksilver Op. 135. This attractively-designed set includes seven CDs of the quartet’s illuminating performances, a DVD of them playing Beethoven (Op. 59, No. 1), Schubert (“Death and the Maiden”) and Haydn (“The Bird”), and a Blu-ray Audio disc of what’s on the CDs in high fidelity pure audio.

Broadway Review: New Musical “Amélie”

Amélie
Music by Daniel Messé, lyrics by Nathan Tysen & Daniel Messé; book by Craig Lucas
Directed by Pam Mackinnon; music staging & choreography by Sam Pinkleton
Opened April 3, 2017
Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 West 48th Street
ameliebroadway.com
 
Savvy Crawford and Phillipa Soo in Amélie (photo: Joan Marcus)
Despite its renown, I’ve never much cared for the forced whimsy of the 2001 French movie Amélie, which is enervating and tiring in equal measure; only the luminescent Audrey Tautou as the eponymous heroine saves it from its own cloyingness. Likewise, in the labored musical version of Amélie, Phillipa Soo is sweetly unassuming, with an affecting, natural (and unforced) singing voice, but the adaptation even one-ups the original at being annoyingly eccentric.
 
After her beloved Princess Diana is killed in a car crash in the heart of Paris, Amélie—a shy young woman with a messy upbringing (her mom was killed when a suicidal jumper fell on top of her and her doctor dad misdiagnosed her with a bad heart)—resolves to be a do-gooder, making things right for acquaintances and strangers who need her special dispensations.
 
When she sees Nino, a strange young man, she stalks him in her inimitable way, and he eventually succumbs to her offbeat charms. The movie, directed with grotesque visual flourishes by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, resorted to close-ups of Tautou’s winsome face whenever it got too eye-rollingly self-absorbed. The musical approximates the movie’s oddball style through David Zinn’s clever sets and Amanda Villalobos’ cartoonish puppets, alongside stridently overwrought acting by the supporting cast, many doubling as Amélie’s friends, co-workers and Parisian neighbors.
 
Director Pam Mackinnon seems at a loss as to how to navigate such tricky thickets of pseudo-surrealism, and Daniel Messé’s score—with mediocre lyrics by Messé and Nathan Tysen—doesn’t overcome Craig Lucas’s patchy book. Messé’s songs are typical of today’s Broadway, poppy and treacly by turns, with not a single memorable (or hummable) tune in sight.
 
Moments in Amélie are uncomfortable reminders of other recent musicals, as if there’s a Broadway blueprint that needs to be followed to the letter: when Amélie’s female café coworkers break into sassy song, it’s like we’ve suddenly dropped in on Waitress. And when “Sir Elton John” materializes to sing a duet with Amélie—the tenuous connection is that the real Elton sang “Candle in the Wind” at Di’s funeral—the show stops dead and never really recovers.
 
As the young Amélie, the aptly-named Savvy Crawford has a scarily impressive stage presence, which somewhat compensates for Adam Chanler-Berat’s dud of a Nino. Again, Phillipa Soo sings beautifully and appears appropriately gamine while effortlessly negotiating the Montmartre set’s stairs. But Amélie the musical is ultimately as shallow as its cinematic forebear.
 
Amélie
Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 West 48th Street
ameliebroadway.com

April '17 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 

Rogue One—A Star Wars Story

(Disney)
This latest episode shares the series’ tendency toward self-importance and overlength (135 minutes for such a thin tale of rebellion!), along with dollops of sophomoric humor in the form of a C3PO-like robot named K2SO. Like Episode 7’s heroine Rey, female rebel Gyn (nicely played by Felicity Jones), offspring of legendary Garen (the always welcome Mads Mikkelsen), has her own galactic adventures. Director Gareth Edwards doesn’t particularly distinguish himself, but doesn’t embarrass the franchise either, which is all that counts. The hi-def image is striking, unsurprisingly; the second disc of extras comprises several behind-the-scenes featurettes.
 
Ascent to Hell
(Gravitas Ventures)
This grisly ghost story takes place in a vacant NYC building that houses the disturbed specters of those killed in a fire a century earlier—shades of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire that claimed over 100 young women’s lives in 1911—which take it out on the business group looking to buy it.The movie grinds on predictably as it never finds a compelling or even non-ridiculous reason for the undead to take it out on their visitors.The movie does look good on Blu.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Being 17

(Strand)

This perceptive study of two antagonistic teens who discover there’s a real attraction between them was directed by the discerning but uneven André Téchiné and co-written by Céline Sciamma, whose originality in presenting young people sympathetically is seen in her own films Girlhood and Water Lilies. Kacey Mottet Klein and Corentin Filai are impressive and realistic as the boys, and Sandrine Kiberlain notable as Klein’s mom, dealing with her awkward but maturing son and his close friend. The film has a glorious hi-def transfer.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Brokenwood Mysteries—Complete 3rdSeason
(Acorn)
In the third season of this entertaining New Zealand-set detective series, sleuths Mike Shepard and Kristin Sims solve several crimes in their no-nonsense, deadpan manner, like the murder of a diabetic woman—running a scam “Lord of the Rings” tour with her husband—from a rare spider bite. The comedy is sometimes heavy-handed, but the knowing performances of Neill Rea (Mike) and Fern Sutherland (Kristin) help balance the levity and seriousness. The four 90-minute episodes look quite fine on Blu; extras are cast/writer interviews.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Ludwig

(Arrow Academy)

Luchino Visconti’s 1972 biopic about the mad king of Bavaria—who bankrolled composer Richard Wagner’s Bayreuth—has narrative problems, even in its four-hour original cut (for Italian television), but it’s an engrossing and intimate epic as offbeat as its subject and just as compulsively watchable, especially in Trevor Howard’s civilized Wagner. Arrow’s splendid hi-def presentation includes the entire film on two discs (and in its theatrical and TV versions) in sublime new transfers with an English-dubbed option, vintageLuchino Viscontidocumentary, archival portrait of actress Silvana Mangano, archival interview with screenwriter Suso Cecchi d’Amico, and new interviews with lead actor Helmut Burger and producer Dieter Geissler.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
DVDs of the Week
The Curious World of Hieronymus Bosch
(Seventh Art)
The great artist and favorite son of his namesake Dutch town was commemorated last year at the Noordbrabants Museum with an exhibition for the 500thanniversary of his birth, and David Bickerstaff’s documentary presents an exemplary overview of his work, legacy and genius, with illuminating comments by several experts (like idiosyncratic film director Peter Greenaway). It’s most interesting when we get to study Bosch’s bizarrely modern-looking paintings in close-up, which leaves one wondering why this wasn’t released on Blu-ray also. Lone extra is a short featurette about the Hermitage’s own Bosch-like painting.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
A French Village—Complete 6thSeason

(MHz)

It’s the fall of 1945, the war is finally over, but the difficult postwar wrangling between collaborators and former resistance fighters has begun: season 6 brilliantly dissects the ongoing personal and political wounds that continue to fester through inventive use of flashbacks for the various characters affected. As usual, first-rate writing and directing are complemented by superlative acting across the board, and these six episodes make one hope that the series’ final season arrives sooner rather than later.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Suspects—Complete 5thSeason

(Acorn)

This gritty British detective series opens its fifth season with a twist out of nowhere, as one of its main characters is killed off right at the beginning of the first episode, something that only the rare show can survive. But not only does it avoid the built-in trap of jumping the shark, the new characters are as intriguing and worth watching as the regulars: those newcomers are played by the eminently able Lenora Crichlow, Perry Fitzpatrick and James Murray.
 

Film review—Documentary “Robert Klein Still Can’t Stop His Leg”

Robert Klein Still Can’t Stop His Leg
Directed by Marshall Fine
 
Robert Klein and Fred Willard
 
Robert Klein was one of the first comedians I saw on HBO in the late ‘70s, when it was still called Home Box Office. And forty years on, he’s still one of the funniest men on the planet, as shown in Marshall Fine’s fond chronicle of Klein’s career and legacy, Robert Klein Still Can’t Stop His Leg.
 
The title refers to one of Klein’s signature bits, as well as pointing to his continued longevity in a field that eats its practitioners through attrition, drugs, irrelevance or simply old age. Klein seems to be one of the few comics who’s lived a comparatively normal existence—about the worst you could say is that his first marriage ended in divorce—and Fine, who structures the movie as a dozen chapters that take moment s from Klein’s life, doesn’t need to take any pains to show how normal he really is.
 
Klein grew up in the Bronx, and some of the film’s most amusing moments have him going back to the old neighborhood and tossing off his sardonic observations. His comedy has roots in his personal life—we meet his son, also a comedian, as well as his sister, with whom he reminisces about their parents—and the absurdity in the everyday, and many of his routines are classically comic riffs on such topics, but always with humanity peeking through the craziness.
 
But what’s most surprising (and heartening) about the movie—even amid seeing Klein’s hilarious stand-up and appearances on shows from Carson to Letterman and beyond—is discovering how many of the later generations of comics and performers name Klein as one of their biggest influences, if not the biggest: everyone from Billy Crystal, Bill Maher, Jerry Seinfeld and Jon Stewart to Jay Leno, Richard Lewis, Eric Bogosian and Ray Romano has a Klein tale to tell.
 
There’s even more touching reminiscences from the likes of actress Luci Arnaz—with whom Klein had a successful Broadway run in the musical comedy They’re Playing Our Song, for which he was nominated for a Best Actor Tony—and comic peers David Steinberg, Fred Willard and Don Rickles. But the focus rightly remains on Klein, whose five decades at the pinnacle of the comedy business are commendably summarized in Fine’s very fine portrait.
 
Robert Klein Still Can’t Stop His Leg
Premiered March 31, 2017 on Starz
starz.com
 

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