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Film and the Arts

June '18 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 

Tomb Raider

(Warner Bros)

Bringing back Lara Croft in this era of rebooting everything is a no-brainer, as is Alicia Vikander replacing Angelina Jolie, since Vikander’s athleticism is less freakishly superhero-ish—she owns the role for however many sequels the producers want to make. 

The movie itself is divertingly forgettable, with stunts and special effects galore, but the nonsensical adventure is the last thing anyone will remember with Vikander so busy reviving a blockbuster franchise. The hi-def transfer is excellent; extras include four making-of featurettes.


Benvenuto Cellini 

Il Vologeso 


Hector Berlioz’s 1838 grand opera Benvenuto Cellini—a largely fictionalized overview of events in the life of the great 16th century Italian sculptor—gets an energetic 2015 Dutch National Opera staging by former Monty Python member (and creator of Brazil and The Fisher King) Terry Gilliam, who squeezes out a lot more humor than drama; his cast keeps up with the frenetic pace, led by John Osborn’s Cellini. 

A virtually unknown opera by Niccolò Jommelli, Il Vologeso, was unearthed centuries after its 1766 premiere, but it’s such a run-of-the-mill baroque work that it’s unsurprising it’s been eclipsed by so many better operas. Still, the Stuttgart production is first-rate, as are the performers and musicians. Both operas have terrific hi-def video and audio; too bad there are no extras, since a Gilliam Cellini interview (or commentary) would have been a hoot.











The Hurricane Heist 


Helped by a clever plot twist—crooks use an impending hurricane to cover their tracks when they rob a U.S. mint—this basically risible crime drama remains watchable mostly because it’s a blast to discover what ludicrous pieces of nature’s wrath happen to move the crazy plot forward.

Director Rob Cohen keeps his tongue in cheek, especially during the nutso finale in which dangerous winds claim victims that include 18-wheelers. A game cast featuring Maggie Grace (an actress who deserves better movies) is another plus. The film looks fine on Blu; extras are Cohen’s commentary, deleted scenes and featurettes.


King of Hearts 

(Cohen Film Collection)

Philippe de Broca’s 1966 tragicomedy has attained cult status over the years with its optimistic allegorical theme—“in an insane world, the insane are sane”—and a story of inmates of an asylum in a deserted French town at WWI’s end crowning a Scottish soldier, sent to disarm bombs retreating Germans left, as their leader. 

Alan Bates is charming, Genevieve Bujold is stunning, and a bevy of French performers—Daniel Boulanger, Pierre Brasseur, Jean-Claude Brialy and Michel Serrault, for starters—gives this slight satire the energy it needs to get to the finish line. The new hi-def transfer looks superb; extras are new interviews with Bujold and cinematographer Pierre Lhomme along with a commentary.











The Strangers—Prey at Night 


The original The Strangers, from 2008, wasn’t necessarily begging for a sequel, and this belated attempt tries but fails miserably to equal or even come near its occasional chills, with a non-existent plot, characters doing the dumbest things imaginable, and a finale that doesn’t even raise a sigh let alone a scream. 

It all looks good enough in hi-def; extras include an alternate ending and an alternate (unrated) cut of the film, music video and featurettes.

June '18 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 

Au hasard Balthazar


Among French director Robert Bresson’s most singular films, this 1966 allegory of faith and sacrifice follows a donkey through owners benevolent and malevolent, alongside a young woman’s journey through difficult relationships not unlike the innocent animal’s.





Shot in immaculate black and white by brilliant cameraman Ghislain Cloquet—whose photography looks stunning in Criterion’s new hi-def transfer—Balthazar ends with one of the quietest, most moving moments in the history of cinema. Extras are Un metteur en ordre: Robert Bresson, a 1966 French television program about the film, and a 2004 interview with Bresson expert Donald Richie.


Frank and Eva: Living Apart Together 

(Cult Epics)

Director Pim de la Parra’s 1973 drama, a messy, occasionally interesting look at a couple on the rocks—he’s sleeping with everyone while she wants to settle down—has a few fleeting moments of blood and eroticism, sometimes entwined with each other. But there’s the rest of the film—mainly indifferently acted and scripted—that drops it into the mediocre category.





Although Sylvia Kristel of Emmanuelle is prominent on the cover, she barely registers in a marginal role (and feature debut). There’s a decent hi-def transfer; extras are director’s commentary and featurette.










Gun Crazy 

(Warner Archive) 

A forerunner of Bonnie and Clyde, this 1950 shoot-‘em-up is as blunt and crude as they come, but director Joseph H. Lewis gets some mileage out of its ludicrously straightforward “they both love guns, fall in love and go on a crime spree” plot line.

In the leads, John Ball is fine as Bart, but Peggy Cummins—who didn’t have much of a career—is a knockout in every way as Laurie, the proto-Bonnie. The B&W film looks good on Blu; extras are an audio commentary and the informative 2006 feature-length documentary Film-Noir: Bringing Darkness to Light.


Little Women 

(PBS Masterpiece)

In this elegant-looking, engagingly performed adaptation of the Louisa May Alcott classic, several veteran performers—Emily Watson as the girls’ mother Marmee, Angela Lansbury as Aunt March and Michael Gambon as neighbor Mr. Lawrence—acquit themselves admirably.





But besting them all is Maya Hawke as a wonderfully level-headed Jo, a role so over-familiar that it’s difficult to make something new out of it (although Sutton Foster was a delightful Jo in the 2005 Broadway musical). The hi-def transfer is excellent; extras comprise three on-set featurettes. 










Seven Brides for Seven Brothers 

(Warner Archive) 

Stanley Donen’s 1954’s CinemaScope spectacular, an original musical based on a book by Stephen Vincent Benét, is splendid old-fashioned entertainment, with inventive choreography by Michael Kidd and memorable songs by Johnny Mercer and Gene de Paul. It’s an enjoyable lark, spun together beautifully by Donen.

The colors on the Blu-ray are eye-popping but there’s some softness in the image; extras are Donen’s commentary, cast and crew documentary, vintage featurettes and, on a second disc, the film presented in a different widescreen ratio.

"La Bayadère" Stuns With Superb Cast

Photo by Gene Schiavone

A strong season at American Ballet Theater continued magnificently on the evening of Tuesday, May 30th, the delightful first of a week’s performances of the still underrated La Bayadère, with choreography by the renowned Natalia Makarova (after that of the great Marius Petipa) in a production conceived and directed by her, with a tuneful, Romantic score by the unsung Ludwig Minkus, who along with Cesare Pugni and Riccardo Drigo was one of the remarkable resident composers of the Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg. The memorable scenery was designed by Pierluigi Samaritani with attractive costumes by Theoni V. Aldredge and effective lighting by Toshiro Ogawa.
Once again, the event’s splendor was equally attributable to the extraordinary cast on display, headed brilliantly by the lovely Hee Seo in the title role of the beautiful temple dancer, Nikiya—she shone too in the previous weeks as the lead in Giselle as well as in a smaller part in Wayne McGregor’s arresting new ballet, AFTERITE. Her partner, as the warrior Solor, was the astonishing (and handsome) Kimin Kim, a principal dancer with the glorious Mariinsky Ballet who is appearing here as a guest artist—he stole the show with his two thrilling solos in the first and second acts and given the enthusiasm he aroused in the audience, he seems likely to quickly become one of the most celebrated dancers of the current moment. Also outstanding was another of the finest ballerinas in the company, the exquisite Gillian Murphy, as Gamzatti, the Radjah’s daughter.
The secondary cast was also wonderful, featuring: the engaging Arron Scott as Magdaveya, the head fakir; Stephanie Williams and Courtney Shealy, both terrific as the D’Jampe Dancers; the fabulous Skylar Brandt, April Giangeruso and Katherine Williams, the leads in the unforgettable Dance of the Shades in the second act; and the dynamic Joseph Gorak, sensational as the Bronze Idol in the final act. Alexandre Hammoudi as the Radjah Dugumanta and Roman Zhurbin as the High Brahmin appeared in less dancerly roles. I only wish I could name all the exhilarating dancers in thecorps de ballet who in no small measure were indispensable contributors to the evening’s success. I eagerly look forward to the coming weeks.

Off-Broadway Review—Lily Thorne's “Peace for Mary Frances”

Peace for Mary Frances

Written by Lily Thorne; directed by Lila Neugebauer

Performances through June 17, 2018

Heather Burns, Lois Smith, and J. Smith-Cameron in Peace for Mary Frances (photo: Monique Carboni)

Lily Thorne’s Peace for Mary Frances is obviously a labor of love. Unfortunately, it’s also a labored play that attempts to do too much with too many characters, ending up far less than the sum of its parts.


As 90-year-old matriarch Mary Frances continues physically deteriorating, her daughters Fanny and Alice, son Eddie and granddaughters (Alice’s daughters) Helen and Rosie must come to terms with her mortality while dealing with seemingly everyone’s still-festering animosity. Add to this a loaded family history: Mary Frances’s grandmother was able to get out of Turkey (while pregnant with Mary Frances’s father) while the Armenian genocide was happening a century ago. That’s a lot of baggage for one script. 


Although Thorne is sympathetic to her characters, she writes too many melodramatic, even sitcomish confrontations for them: notably, the endlessly bickering Fanny and Alice often nearly coming to blows over the vastly different paths their lives have taken, which their mother’s dying has only exacerbated. 


Then there’s their lazy brother Eddie, who comes off as an afterthought compared to his sisters, popping in and out at random, which seems more an authorial intrusion than a believable character arc; indeed, when Eddie happens to be the only one in the house with Mary Frances at play’s end, there’s something artificial about it. That neither Fanny nor Alice is present might be a realistically anticlimactic real-life event, but it still feels like a dramatic cop-out.


The family’s conflicts are contrived and often risible. Helen and Rosie’s appearances don’t add anything, and making Helen an actress in a successful TV show who’d recognized by a hospice employee is good for a stray laugh but not much else. Also, their constant traveling between Manhattan and Mary Frances’s suburban Connecticut home with Rosie’s infant always in tow (no babysitter or significant other available?) smacks of arbitrariness. 


Amid such messiness, director Lila Neugebauer has difficulty getting the play to cohere dramatically, comically and emotionally: even Dane Laffrey’s two-tier set, with the living room and kitchen to the left and Mary Frances’s bedroom to the right, is an awkward fit on the cramped stage, which further drains the scenes of their immediacy and intimacy.


Paul Lazar can’t get a handle on the sketchily drawn Eddie; likewise Natalie Gold, who goes through the motions as Rosie. The always winning Heather Burns has heartfelt moments as Helen, Johanna Day fiercely channels Fanny’s simmering anger at herself and others, and the gifted J. Smith Cameron unsurprisingly makes Alice the emotional heart of the play. 


As Mary Frances, Lois Smith is by turns cantankerous, irascible and amusing: but, as with Thorne’s play, she’s never as devastating as she should be. Sadly, the final moments of Peace for Mary Frances—which should be quite shattering—pass by with barely a whimper.

Peace for Mary Frances

The New Group, Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

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