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Film and the Arts

July '17 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 


For his final masterpiece, French director Robert Bresson adapted a Tolstoy short story about forgery and transformed it into an austere, straightforward, ultimately soul-crushing dissection of how a single act can spiral into an orgy of death and destruction.
Made in 1983, it has a timelessly haunting quality that only Bresson could have created; running a precise 80 minutes, it demands repeat viewings, even if it is one of the most downbeat films ever made. Criterion’s hi-def transfer looks immaculate; extras are a 1983 Cannes press conference with Bresson and his cast and James Quandt’s interesting but sometimes silly A to Z video essay on the master.
Feed the Light
Inspired by stories by H.P. Lovecraft, Swedish director Henrik Moller made this extremely unpleasant and disturbing tale about a determined young mother tracking down her abducted young daughter by her former husband to an eerie institution that really test her mettle.
Actress Lina Sunden’s gusty performance in the lead gives Moller’s B&W feature debut a shot in the arm that helps gloss over the film’s dramatic deficiencies. There’s nice use of color for the final shot. The hi-def transfer is first-rate; extras include an on-set featurette and Moller interview.

Doberman Cop

Japanese horror master Kiyoshi Kurosawa made his best-known film Pulse in 2001: it’s a creepy drama that was prescient in its focus on how the internet and social media divide and conquer society, a harrowing premise for an ingenious thriller.
Director Kinji Fukasaku’s 1977 Doberman Cop mixes yakuza, American cop movies and martial arts into a strangely entertaining brew with terrific action sequences that appear whenever the plot turns ho-hum. Both films have superior hi-def transfers; extras include interviews, video appreciation and making-of documentary of Pulse.
Running on Empty
(Warner Archive)
A fascinating subject—ex-radicals, on the lam from the feds, try and build a family and new lives—is compromised by Naomi Foner's superficial script (which somehow earned a 1988 Oscar nomination and won a Golden Globe), substituting sentimentality and contrivance for three-dimensionality and taut drama.
Sidney Lumet's direction is solid, and his cast, especially River Phoenix as the restless teenage son, Martha Plimpton as his restless girlfriend and Christine Lahti as his restless mother, does what it can, but the messy script (and a miscast Judd Hirsch as the restless father) moots any chance at an intelligent and insightful character study. The hi-def transfer is clean if not overly sharp.
The Tunnel: Sabotage—Complete 2nd Season 


In their second go-round, British DCI Karl (Stephen Dillane) and French investigator Elise (Clemence Poesy) find themselves tracking down a particularly insidious terrorist group that begins with a Eurotunnel kidnaping and a shocking crash of an airliner by jamming its onboard computer.
What starts provocatively and thrillingly turns, about halfway through, anticlimactic: after the main villains are taken care of, the drama becomes diffuse and wanly limps to the end. But Dillane and Poesy are a still-formidable team, and Elise’s new relationship—which may or may not impact a future season of the show—is an intriguing wrench thrown into the works. There’s an excellent hi-def transfer; extras include a making-of and interviews.
DVDs of the Week
My Mother & Other Strangers
Set in a northern Irish village during World War II, this absorbing Masterpiece mini-series follows the interactions of the locals—the men, their wives and children—with the Americans in their midst from a nearby army air base.
Although the plotlines approach soap opera, the drama is always watchable thanks to the sterling cast, which is led by a luminous Hattie Morahan as the mother of three and faithful wife who takes a shine to the U.S. commander. Extras comprise on-set interviews.
(Sony Pictures Classics)
Joseph Cedar’s low-key comedy about a minor Manhattan operator who hits the big time after an unknown Israeli operative he connects with becomes prime minister is really just a remake of Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose, with Richard Gere subbing for Allen’s small-time talent agent who loses his biggest client.
This one-joke movie is stretched painfully thin, and Cedar’s ostentatious visuals are a desperate attempt to bring variety into an essentially static and repetitive story. Still, Gere is very good in an atypical role. Extras are a post-screening Q&A with Cedar and Gere and red-carpet interviews.

Weekend in the Berkshires—“Children of a Lesser God,” John Mellencamp, Natalie Merchant

Children of a Lesser God
Written by Mark Medoff; directed by Kenny Leon
Performances through July 22, 2017
John Mellencamp
July 1, 2017
Natalie Merchant
July 2, 2017
There’s so much to choose from while in the Berkshires—music, museums, theater, ballet, historic sites, shopping, restaurants—that it’s impossible to do more than a few things on a weekend trip. This time around it was Children of a Lesser God in Stockbridge, and John Mellencamp and Natalie Merchant concerts at Tanglewood.
Joshua Jackson and Lauren Ridloff in Children of a Lesser God (photo: Matthew Murphy)
Most people remember Children of a Lesser God from the 1986 movie version, which won an Oscar for Marlee Matlin in her sensational debut as a feisty deaf woman who falls in love with the hearing teacher wanting her to read lips and speak, while she stubbornly remains in her sign-language world. Despite its creaky dramaturgy, Mark Medoff’s earnest drama nevertheless works strongly in Kenny Leon’s thoughtful staging on the Berkshire Theatre Group’s stage.
Medoff tackles the themes of miscommunication and the physicality of love between people from (literally) two different worlds: James Leeds and Sarah Norman are shown sympathetically but realistically, rough edges and all. As embodied by Joshua Jackson (whose James is full of vigor and charm) and newcomer Lauren Ridloff (who has an appealing stage presence and dramatic heft as Sarah), our protagonists are a worthy adversarial couple.
Director Leon navigates this relationship sensitively, even if he is occasionally tripped up by Medoff’s central conceit: James repeating whatever Sarah and the other deaf characters sign becomes wearying after two-plus hours. (I don’t remember it being that annoying in the movie.) Still, with two excellent actors at the center—a revelatory Jackson in a demanding role, and a sensational find in Ridloff—Children of a Lesser God is emotionally satisfying theater.
                                   *                                     *                                      *
The Tanglewood experience is one of the summer’s finest. Sitting on the lawn for a concert under the stars can’t be beat—especially when you can bring anything onto the grounds for a picnic, which people do: tents and tables, lawn chairs and coolers, hors d’oeuvres and main dishes, wine and beer, fruits and desserts. Add to all of that the most casual vibe of any outdoor amphitheater.
Tanglewood concerts by John Mellencamp and Natalie Merchant were prime examples of still-relevant music of artists unworried that their most popular days are behind them. (But don’t tell that to the thousands who showed up both nights.)
John Mellencamp at Tanglewood (photo: Hilary Scott)
John Mellencamp—who has remarkably morphed from an arrogant young cock-rocker named Johnny Cougar into one of our most perceptive and sympathetic chroniclers of ordinary American lives—played a lean, dynamic 90-minute set that included several of his biggest hits along with more politically charged recent material, like the stand-out trio of songs from his latest album, Sad Clowns & Hillbillies, which he recorded with Carlene Carter, who opened the show.
The lovely harmonizies of Carter and Emmylou Harris—whose fine 45-minute set followed Carter’s—joined Mellencamp for the stately “My Soul’s Got Wings,” and Mellencamp sang a powerfully raspy “Easy Target,” the most trenchant of his current political songs. He even broke out a rousing “Pop Singer,” his 1989 hit about how much he hates being a hit-making jukebox. So it was no surprise that, when it came to “Jack and Diane,” Mellencamp basically told the audience he hates singing it but knows everyone wants to hear it—so he did a solo acoustic version, letting the enthusiastic crowd take over for the “Oh yeah, life goes on” chorus.
But he’s not averse to all of his hits—he and his crack band (including his MVP violinist Miriam Sturm) cranked out hard-hitting renditions of “Pink Houses,” “The Authority Song,” “Paper in Fire” and, for his lone encore, “Cherry Bomb,” which immaculately closed the show.
Natalie Merchant at Tanglewood (photo: Hilary Scott)
Natalie Merchant’s enduring solo career began nearly a quarter-century ago, after she left 10,000 Maniacs, and her latest tour—subtitled “3 Decades of Song”—features many songs of more recent vintage, wildly appreciated by the Tanglewood.
Of course, she did play tunes from her multi-million-selling solo debut, 1995’s Tigerlily: “Carnival,” “Wonder,” “River” and an unbearably emotional rendition of “Beloved Wife,” which was nearly ruined by some in the audience who felt the need to shout out during the song’s many quiet moments. But Merchant and her band—which featured a superb string section that provided lush but not overbearing accompaniment to these singular story-songs—showed their musical mettle right from the starkly beautiful opener “Lulu” from her eponymous 2014 album.
As for political commentary, Merchant waited until her second set—sans intermission, the show spanned 25 songs and a generous 2 hours and 45 minutes—when she introduced the biting “Saint Judas” with the quip that it’s “for all the racists and bigots in Washington D.C.”
For someone who writes and sings many minor-key, downbeat songs, Merchant has always been a buoyant performer: yes, her delightfully daffy dancing, spinning, hand gestures and arm-flailing are still very much in evidence. (By the encores, she had literally kicked off her shoes to run barefoot from one side of the stage to the other.) And she pointedly saved her most joyous songs for the end: a jubilant “These Are Days” gave way to the ecstatic singalong “Kind and Generous,” the perfect summation of another perfect Tanglewood evening.
Children of a Lesser God
Berkshire Theatre Group, Stockbridge, Massachusetts
John Mellencamp
Natalie Merchant
Tanglewood, Lenox, Massachusetts

The Chilling & Beautiful Onegin

Hee Seo & David Hallberg in Onegin. Photo: Gene Schiavone

A superb season at American Ballet Theater continued for me on the evening of Saturday, June 24th, with the revival of the underappreciated Eugene Onegin choreographed by the now undervalued John Cranko and set to music by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, arranged by Kurt-Heinz Stolze. (Interestingly, the music is not drawn from the composer's extraordinary homonymous opera, adapted from the immortal poem by Alexander Pushkin, but from various other works.) Cranko is significant for his wonderful and equally unsung staging of Sergei Prokofiev's Cinderella which had been a fabulous vehicle for the brilliant David Hallberg as the Prince; regrettably, the company's production seems to have been retired although it has gratifyingly been replaced with the even greater version choreographed by the sublime Frederick Ashton. Onegin is also notable for sets and costumes designed by Santo Loquasto.

The cast that I saw was outstanding, led by the incomparable and iconic Hallberg in the title role, revealing his actorly powers as well as his celebrated abilities as a dancer. Principal Hee Seo—who shone this season in Giselle—touchingly excelled as Tatiana.

The secondary cast beautifully complemented the leads, above all with the stellar Jeffrey Cirio as Lensky, elegantly partnered by Skylar Brandt as Olga. The dashing Thomas Forster was effective in the small role of Prince Gremin while thecorps de balletsustained its very fine work throughout this season in the delightfully choreographed ensemble dances.

Broadway Review—Scott McPherson’s “Marvin’s Room”

Marvin’s Room
Written by Scott McPherson; directed by Anne Kauffman
Performances through August 27, 2017
Lili Taylor and Janeane Garofalo in Marvin's Room (photo: Joan Marcus)
The curiously inert production of Marvin’s Room—the lone play by Scott McPherson, who died of AIDS in 1992, shortly after productions in Chicago and Off-Broadway—seems to be a result of the schizophrenic nature of the play itself, which, despite its sympathetic portrayal of an extended dysfunctional family dealing with mortality, never quite finds the right paths to take in its quasi-absurdism.
Middle-aged spinster Bessie has been the caregiver for her sickly father Marvin (with frail aunt Ruth in tow) in their Florida home for years, essentially giving up her own personal life to care for him. When she is stricken with leukemia, she calls her estranged sister Lee, who lives in Ohio with her troubled teenage son Hank and his younger brother Charlie, hoping one of them will be a match for an urgently needed bone marrow transplant. The Ohio trio arrives and sets up shop at Bessie’s house, where the family bit by bit attempts the difficult process of healing and forgiveness, despite death staring each of them in the face.
As staged by Anne Kauffman, Marvin’s Room rarely takes flight despite surefire tear-jerking subject matter—the opening scene of Bessie and her doctor trying to draw blood is played as farce, the doctor’s obvious ineptitude undercutting McPherson’s dark humor about the serious situation. As the play continues, jarring tonal shifts dominate, and Kauffman is unable to stabilize the uneasy balance of tragedy and laughs.
Laura Jellinek’s expansive set for these intimate goings-on—the geography of Bessie’s home is egregiously spread-out, making the family members even more remote from one another than McPherson has drawn them—further distances the audience from the emotions at the play’s core. But Kauffman does do well by her actors.
Jack DiFalco plays Hank’s detachment with a refreshing bluntness, while Luca Padovan is fine as bookworm Charlie. If Celia Weston overdoes Aunt Ruth’s neediness and aw-shucks demeanor she is nonetheless amusing and effective, and Janeane Garofalo nicely underplays Lee, preventing the relationship between sisters from becoming overly sentimental. Then there’s Lili Taylor, whose immensely affecting Bessie is the beating heart of an otherwise bumpy ride of a play and production.
Marvin’s Room
American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

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