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Film and the Arts

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
roundabouttheatre.org

June '17 Digital Week IV

 
Blu-rays of the Week 
Joe Versus the Volcano
(Warner Archive)
In 1990, this must have seemed like a sure-fire hit: Oscar-winning screenwriter John Patrick Shanley (Moonstruck) makes his directing debut with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in a romantic comedy. But the result is a movie that wrong-foots it every step of the way.
There’s a thin line that separates charming from cloying and Shanley and his leads rarely find themselves on the right side of it, leading to many wincingly awful situations that are not nearly as romantic, dramatic or comedic as they think. Shanley would later become a major playwright (Four Dogs and a Bone, Doubt, Outside Mullingar), so this bit of treacle can be considered a mere bump in his road. There’s an outstanding hi-def transfer; extras are a brief featurette and music video.
 
Cinderella
(Opus Arte)
One of the most beguiling of all ballet scores is Sergei Prokofiev’s timeless take on the classic fairy tale, and with such a sturdy piece of music to work with, choreographer Christopher Wheeldon has created an absorbing and entertaining two hours of dance in his 2012 staging for the Dutch National Ballet.
The dancing and movement are sublime, the sets, costumes and visuals (by Julian Crouch and Basil Twist) are charming and Prokofiev’s unbeatable music leads the way. Hi-def video and audio are impeccably rendered; extras comprise Wheeldon’s commentary and interviews with Wheeldon and dancers.
 
The Golden Cockerel 
(Mariinsky)
This colorful production of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s fantastical final opera about an aging Tsar who receives the title bird to warn him of any dangers is a smashing musical and dramatic success, thanks to Anna Matison’s excellent direction, which features clever use of CGI.
Conductor Valery Gergiev leads the orchestra in a lush musical performance of one of the composer’s most attractive scores, while the singers—led by young Russian soprano Kira Loginova in the title role—provide first-rate vocals. The Blu-ray audio and video are in spectacular hi-def.
 
Heli
(Strand Releasing)
Writer-director Amat Escalante’s relentlessly downbeat drama throttles viewers with its depiction of the lawlessness running rampant in a Mexico overrun by drug wars, corrupt police and beaten-down ordinary people, including the young man who tries to help his 12-year-old sister, only to trigger horrible events that include abduction, torture, rape and murder.
It’s serious stuff, and exceedingly well-made, but there are diminishing returns to a film that displays grotesque acts of violence, inuring viewers from caring about what happens to its onscreen characters. The hi-def transfer is first-rate; lone extra is a half-hour on-set featurette.
 
DVDs of the Week 
All Governments Lie 
(First Run)
Fred Peabody’s incisive chronicle of our broken politics features the usual talking heads—Noam Chomsky, Carl Bernstein, Matt Taibbi—but it’s more than mere preaching to the choir: its subtitle, Truth, Deception, and the Spirit of I.F. Stone, alludes to the legacy of one of the great progressive journalists, whom we desperately need more of today.
Hearing journalists like Jeremy Scahill take on Stone’s mantle of fighting the good fight against a deceptive government—whether Bush, Obama or Trump—shows that there is hope that we the people can overcome what our leaders have become. Extras are extended interviews.
 
Unlocking the Cage
(First Run)
For their latest documentary, D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus tackle a subject not on currently on anyone’s radar, but which may soon generate huge controversies: are animals (especially primates) sentient, which makes them eligible for personhood, like corporations? The filmmakers follow attorney Steven Wise, who works with animal-rights groups to find cases (apes being held in captivity) to bring before the court and try to get favorable rulings.
It’s an eye-opening glimpse at what the future of legal rights for individuals (humans and non-humans) may hold, however problematic or nonsensical it might seem to some right now. The lone extra is a music video.

Film reviews—Bertrand Tavernier Retrospective and Documentary “My Journey Through French Cinema”

My Journey Through French Cinema
Directed by Bertrand Tavernier
Bertrand Tavernier: Film and Nothing But
Through June 29, 2017
 
Bertrand Tavernier in My Journey Through French Cinema 
In his New York Times review of Bertrand Tavernier’s Safe Conduct at the 2002 New York Film Festival, Elvis Mitchell actually penned the following line: “Bertrand Tavernier is not often thought of as a man of passion.”
 
Anybody who could write such an obvious howler has no business reviewing films, for it is so patently untrue. If anything, Tavernier is overzealous in his passion about the films he makes, the characters who populate them and the stories they find their way through. Seeing even one of his films in the Quad Cinema’s current retrospective, Film and Nothing But—or his new, endlessly fascinating My Journey Through French Cinema, also showing at the Quad this week—will put the lie to Mitchell’s foolish statement.
 
Tavernier’s passionate film knowledge is evident in every second of My Journey Through French Cinema, which runs a staggering 190 minutes but flies by more quickly than anything playing in the local cineplex. The director’s personal chronicle of what has most moved him onscreen since he became besotted with movies in his youth is done so beautifully, so charmingly, so admirably, that you wish it would go on for several more hours. 
 
As always with Tavernier, there are marvelous anecdotes, superb insights, treasured observations: when discussing composer Maurice Jaubert among the greats of ‘30s and ‘40s cinema, Tavernier’s enthusiasm comes through so forcefully that you feel his warmth, his embrace, his marvelously attuned personality to all things cinematic.
 
As the retrospective Film and Nothing But demonstrates, Tavernier is impossible to pigeonhole, which may be why he’s not held in the high esteem he should be. His debut was a splendid adaptation of a novel by Georges Simenon, 1973’s The Clockmaker, but he’s also made historical epics, science-fiction films, war dramas, period pieces, intimate character studies, etc. 
 
What these films all have in common is the Tavernier Touch, which offer fractured narratives that rarely provide the sort of closure most audiences expect, along with an affection for his flawed, ordinary, and all too human characters.
 
The great actor Philippe Noiret was Tavernier’s alter ego for several of the director’s best films, from The Clockmaker to 1989’s devastating World War I epic Life and Nothing But (June 26). Tavernier’s masterly The Judge and the Assassin (1976; showing June 29) stars Noiret as a judge who must decide an insane murderer’s fate, and the cat-and-mouse between the men (Michel Galabru is also magnificent as the killer) is brilliantly observed.
 
Other must-sees this week are 1980’s A Week’s Vacation (June 29), a beautifully realized look at a young woman’s mini-breakdown that showcases Natalie Baye’s subtle performance;Captain Conan (June 26), a stunning 1996 drama of French soldiers fighting in the Balkans after World War I; ‘Round Midnight (June 29), Tavernier’s 1986 valentine to be-bop jazz, starring the inimitable Dexter Gordon in an Oscar-nominated performance; L. 627 (June 27), a dark and moody 1992 study of French cops trying to clean up the streets of drugs; 1995’s Fresh Bait (June 27), Tavernier’s superior riff on the Natural Born Killers theme; and his most recent features, 2010’s The Princess of Montpensier (June 27), a tough-minded but ultimately heartbreaking historical romance, and 2013’s The French Minister (June 28), anunabashed and witty satire of French—and, by extension, international—politics.
 
More than four decades into a first-rate career, Bertrand Tavernier continues to make highly personal, extremely sophisticated films that defy easy categorization. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.
 
My Journey Through French Cinema
Directed by Bertrand Tavernier
Bertrand Tavernier: Film and Nothing But
Quad Cinema, 34 W 13th Street, New York, NY
quadcinema.com

June '17 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 

The Marseille Trilogy

(Criterion)
Marcel Pagnol, one of the greatest writers in early French cinema—along with his work for the stage and on the page—created a classic cinematic trilogy in the 1930s: Marius (1931), Fanny (1932) and Cesar (1936), the first directed by Alexander Korda, the second by Marc Allegret and the last by Pagnol himself, whose humanity, and love for both life and ordinary people is shot through all three films, which feature wonderfully vivid acting by Pierre Fresnay (Marius), Orane Demazis (Fanny) and Raimu (Cesar).
 
 
 
 
 
Criterion’s magnificent new transfers show off the pristine B&W compositions by three different cinematographers; extras include an ingratiating intro by Bertrand Tavernier; interview with grandson Nicolas Pagnol; segments of a 1973 documentary series Marcel Pagnol: Morceaux choisisMarseille, a 1935 documentary short produced by Pagnol; and archival interviews with Fresnay, Demazis and Robert Vattier.
 
American Epic
(PBS)
Digging deep into our country’s musical past, this three-hour documentary narrated by Robert Redford recounts how ordinary people with extraordinary talent had their music recorded and preserved for the first time. All three episodes are crammed with great songs and rarely-seen (and rarely-heard) archival footage.
 
 
 
 
 
The second disc, The American Epic Sessions, comprises 90 minutes of joyous musicmaking as contemporary artists record new tunes using the only surviving piece of working recording equipment from the 1920s; among them are Elton John, Los Lobos, Nas, Steve Martin & Edie Brickell, and Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard. The hi-def transfer is first-rate.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage 

(Arrow Academy)

Italian giallo master Dario Argento made his debut in 1970 with this tense murder mystery about an American writer in Rome who, after witnessing an attempted murder, is swept up by a serial killer on the loose. Tony Musante (from TV’s Toma) is perfectly cast as the American out of his element, and Argento suggests without being explicit, which he later frequently abandoned. Bonuses are gritty cinematography by Vittorio Storaro and a modernist score by Ennio Morricone.
 
 
 
 
 
Arrow’s hi-def transfer is sensationally good and grainy; extras include an audio commentary, new interviews with Argento and actor Gildo di Marco, archival interview with actress Eva Renzi and video essay on Argento’s films.
 
King Lear
(Opus Arte)
This 2016 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Shakespeare’s most shattering tragedy stars an overripe Antony Sher as the monarch who gives away his kingdom only to fall prey to insanity and mortality. Director Gregory Doran does nothing egregiously wrong, but never allows the Bard’s taut drama to cohere.
 
 
 
 
 
There are scattered gems among the cast, notably Antony Byrne’s Kent and Oliver Johnstone’s Edgar; Natalie Simpson is a pleasing Cordelia, but sisters Regan and Goneril are embodied without much distinction by Kelly Williams and Nia Gwynne. The staging is shown in sharp hi-def; extras are Doran’s commentary, Sher interview and costume featurette.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Moses und Aron 

New York City Ballet in Paris

(Bel Air Classiques)
Arnold Schoenberg’s atonal opera Moses und Aron is pretty static dramatically, which is why Romeo Castellucci’s 2015 Paris Opera staging spends much of its time concentrating on offbeat, even bizarre visuals, including the sight of an actual ox standing onstage for several minutes (without being sacrificed). Philippe Jordan conducts orchestra and chorus to a perfect 12-tone maelstrom; the leads are enacted vividly by Thomas Johannes-Mayer and John Graham-Hall.
 
 
 
 
 
A record of the company’s 2016 tour to the City of Lights, New York City Ballet in Paris dazzlingly shows off several classic Balanchine dances set to music by French masters Gounod, Ravel and Bizet, played boisterously by the Orchestre Promethee led by Daniel Capps. Hi-def video and audio are excellent.

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