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Film and the Arts

Broadway Review—Clive Owen in “M. Butterfly”

M. Butterfly

Written by David Henry Hwang; directed by Julie Taymor

Opened on October 26, 20017

 

Clive Owen and Jin Ha in M. Butterfly (photo: Matthew Murphy)

 

In the nearly three decades since David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly premiered on Broadway—winning Tonys for Best Play, Best Director (John Dexter) and Best Featured Actor (B.D. Wong)—unearthed facts have buttressed Hwang’s hard-to-believe true story about a Frenchman who had an affair with a Chinese spy for several years, apparently without knowing his beloved was a man.

 

Having incorporated some of this material makes play a different animal: while as fascinating as ever, the added elements let us see this story through our present lens; what in 1988 would have seemed implausible to audiences—gender fluidity—is now firmly in our wheelhouse, making M. Butterfly more in the present by dramatizing how sexual and social taboos are broken down.

 

Sitting in prison, French diplomat Rene Gallimard tells his tale about his love affair with Song Liling—a Peking Opera performer—a relationship that tentatively grows more intimate and physical, which we discover during an unnecessarily descriptive courtroom scene in which Song describes how he transformed himself to make Rene believe he had the requisite female parts to engage in sexual intercourse.

 

In Hwang’s new version, Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly is less central; instead, a Chinese opera The Butterfly Lovers is given two lengthy excerpts, which director Julie Taymor—with help from her arranger-composer-partner Elliot Goldenthal—stages with a flourish, the lone moments of visual ravishment in an otherwise restrained production. Large, colorful screens slide on and off the stage almost continuously in a play with dozens of short scenes in varied locales; Taymor’s consummate design team—scenic (Paul Steinberg), lighting (Donald Holder), costume (Constance Hoffman) and sound (Will Pickens)—creates a vivid world of deception and, even more damagingly for Rene, self-deception.

 

Clive Owen gives an intense and ironical performance as Rene, balancing the ludicrousness of his fate with an almost reaction to each new, puzzling situation. Although he’s less exasperated than the role’s originator John Lithgow was, Owen effortlessly finds the humanity needed to ground this character in a reality that points the way to his abyss.

 

As Song, Jin Ha is persuasively gender fluid, although our first glimpse of him as a man plays havoc with subsequent scenes in which he’s Song as a woman. Despite some contrivances and overexplicit explanations, M. Butterfly flourishes in its new metamorphosis.

 

M. Butterfly

Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street, New York, NY

mbutterflybroadway.com

Off-Broadway Review—Brian Friel’s “The Home Place”

The Home Place

Written by Brian Friel; directed by Charlotte Moore

Performances through November 19, 2017

 

John Windsor-Cunningham and Rachel Pickup in Brian Friel's The Home Place (photo: Carol Rosegg)

It’s a measure of how dire things are on Broadway for non-musicals that, a dozen years after it was written—and two years after its author died—the great Irish playwright Brian Friel’s lovely valedictory, The Home Place, is getting its New York premiere, not on the Great White Way (where Friel was represented by such classics as Dancing at Lughnasa, Translations and Faith Healer), but at the Irish Rep.

 

That’s not to say that the cozy Irish Rep is not a good place for The Home Place; on the contrary, this small-scale drama with a fairly large cast sits comfortably on the theater’s small stage, and in director Charlotte Moore’s sympathetic hands, the comic and tragic sparks created during this bracing snapshot of late 19th century Ireland—where the increasingly outspoken Nationalist movement against the English presents itself in several desultory but significant encounters—are gracefully embodied in this captivating production.

 

In the rural village of Ballybeg in County Donegal, middle-aged Englishman Christopher Gore lives with his adult son David at The Lodge, an old homestead, along with the much younger Margaret, a neighbor turned close friend who has overseen upkeep of the place in the years following the death of Christopher’s wife. Although both men are in love with Margaret, she has fallen for David, and doesn’t want him to indelicately let everyone know, including his father.

 

Meanwhile, Christopher’s cousin, Dr. Richard Gore from the family’s “home place” of Kent, is taking cranial measurements of various locals to prove the supposed Darwinian theory that the Irish are an inferior race. As usual in Friel’s lilting, poetic plays, the political and the personal dovetail beautifully, even with the added weight of racism and nationalism that has scarred both countries.

 

Moore directs with supreme understatement: the actors are led by Rachel Pickup, a winning and touching Margaret, and John Windsor-Cunningham, a forthright and commanding Christopher. Only Ed Malone makes a less than vivid impression with his awkward, immature David—but even that can’t harm this artful, bittersweet final work from one of our premier playwrights.

 

The Home Place

Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street, New York, NY

irishrep.org

October '17 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
Personal Shopper
(Criterion)
French director Olivier Assayas wrote this vapid 2016 ghost story with Kristen Stewart in mind, and it’s one of his biggest failures, on par with Irma Vep and Boarding Gate; as with those films, his natural empathy and artistry is conspicuously missing. Stewart’s title character is also a medium who tries contacting her recently deceased twin brother—also, naturally, a medium—while getting involved in what turns out to be a brutal murder.
Not helped by at all by Assayas’ bogus script, Stewart sleepwalks (or Vespa-rides) through it all, coming to life only when she’s stalked by a stranger on her phone, where she lets her fingers do the talking, so to speak. The film looks pristine on Blu; extras include an Assayas interview and 2016 Cannes press conference.
 
Blood Feast
(Arrow)
Herschel Gordon Lewis is considered the Godfather of Gore, and Blood Feast, a 1963 humdinger, is one of his earliest forays into cinematic bloodletting: the plot is inscrutable (a loony caterer kills and dismembers nubile young women for a party feast he’s preparing) and the murder sequences are fake-looking enough to be funny, even if during its original release it was the last word in nasty violence.
But for more ineptitude, there’s Lewis’s 1963 B&W mess, Scum of the Earth, as a bonus, along with Lewis intros, commentaries, featurettes, outtakes and a short film. The films have good hi-def presentations, at least.
 
Bushwick 
(RLJ Entertainment)
Brooklyn becomes the scene of murderous anarchy—not the fault of Mayor de Blasio—in this convincingly downbeat drama about an invasion by a “new” Confederate army backing a seceding Texas. Directors Cary Murnion and Jonathan Milott use lots of hand-held, excruciatingly long takes to put us on the ground with people just trying to stay alive without knowing exactly what the hell is going on.
Brittany Snow leaves behind her cute Pitch Perfect persona to play a naïve grad student who quickly transforms into a hardened combatant. It’s highly implausible but, scene by scene, fairly gripping right to the end. Lone extra is a making-of featurette.
 
Murdoch Mysteries—Once upon a Murdoch Christmas
(Acorn)
This genial holiday episode of the long-running Canadian drama series about a police inspector in early 20th century Toronto ties together sentiment, warmth and a good old-fashioned mystery as a thief steals expensive items from Eaton’s shoppers while the police department chorus practices for the upcoming holiday party.
Fans of the series will be thrilled by this good-natured entertainment; this isn’t the first time there’s been a Murdoch holiday episode, and it likely won’t be the last. The Blu-ray transfer is excellent; extras are brief featuretttes.
 
Red Christmas 
(Artsploitation Films)                    
Aussie writer-director Craig Anderson somehow convinced the iconic Dee Wallace (E.T., Cujo, The Howling) to take part in his relentlessly insane horror movie about a masked intruder who takes his mommy and daddy issues out on a family—including a heavily pregnant young woman—getting together for Christmas.
Fans of icky slasher flicks may love its lunacy (notably when the grotesque Big Reveal comes), while others can watch Wallace do her thing, especially in the utterly crazed finale. The film looks sparkling on Blu; extras include a Wallace interview, deleted scene, bloopers, and an Anderson interview and commentary.
 
DVDs of the Week
School of Babel
(Icarus)
Julie Bertuccelli’s enormously moving documentary follows a group of students—refugees from other countries, ranging from Northern Ireland to Serbia, and China to the Ivory Coast—through their first year in a French school, all learning the language and their new culture under the superhuman tutelage of their teacher, Ms. Cervoni.
These teens are a bright hope for the future, and in Cervoni, Bertuccelli paints an indelible portrait of a woman doing her best, against all odds, to prepare them for what’s ahead. Extras include a Bertuccelli interview and a featurette showing the students two years after being filmed.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Soul on a String 
(Film Movement)
Stunning widescreen vistas notwithstanding, Zhang Yang’s epic adventure—which follows an unrepentant killer drawn to a mythical destination after finding a tooth inside the mouth of a dead deer—meanders for 140 minutes through mysticism, cutesy dramatics (accompanying the quest are a young woman and too-adorable young boy) and slowing down the narrative to let desultory encounters play out.
Spectacular scenery and oversaturated photography keep viewers occupied throughout; it’s too bad this isn’t available in hi-def on Blu for the visuals alone. Lone extra is a short, The Rifle, The Jackal, The Wolf and The Boy by Lebanese director Oualid Mouaness.
 

October '17 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 

The Collection

(PBS)
The latest British import to air on PBS’s Masterpiece is this handsomely mounted but slow-moving eight-episode mini-series about the post-WWII Parisian fashion industry, showing Brits, Yanks and Frenchmen and women deal with professional and personal difficulties at the elite House of Sabine.
The large cast, led by the great Frances de la Tour, struggles to put its stamp on the clichéd and ultimately pallid goings-on. The hi-def transfer is first-rate; extras are three behind-the-scenes featurettes.
 
Hana-Bi
(Film Movement Classics)
Japanese writer-director-actor Takeshi Kitano (or Beat Takeshi, his screen name) makes ultra-violent gangster movies that trade on extreme (often risible) violence, and this 1997 drama—known in English as Fireworks—is no exception.
Beat plays a detective caught up in a nihilistic world of debt, the yakuza and robbery, all while his wife has leukemia and his partner is paralyzed by a horrible attack. Technically accomplished like all Kitano movies, Hana-Bi lacks originality but may be bloody enough for genre fans. The film looks excellent in hi-def; extras include a commentary and making-of featurette.
 
The Hidden

(Warner Archive)

An alien entity invades various human victims, turning them into bloodthirsty killers, as an L.A. detective and FBI agent stay on its trail in this insanely slimy 1987 comic thriller by director Jack Sholder and writer Bob Hunt.
There’s an admitted cleverness in the way the takeover of bodies is shown—a kind of reverse Alien bursting sequence—but it soon becomes repetitive, which undermines what’s trying to be a fast-paced, whiz-bang flick. The film looks fine on Blu; extras are Sholder’s commentary and effects footage.
 
The Sea Wolf
(Warner Archive)
In this exciting drama based on a Jack London novel, director Michael Curtiz puts us right on board the cramped boat helmed by a crazed captain, as a couple of stowaways—a writer and an escaped convict played by Alexander Knox and Ida Lupino—try and keep their heads above water, literally and figuratively, alongside the paralyzed crew.
Edward G. Robinson’s forceful Captain Larsen, a complicated bad guy, is a subtle portrait that keeps the movie afloat, and in the right direction. The 1941 B&W film—restored to its original 100-minute running time—looks brand-new on Blu-ray; lone extra is a 1950 radio adaptation.
 
The Who TommyLive at the Royal Albert Hall

(Eagle Rock)

This past spring, Roger Daltrey and Peter Townshend joined together for a good cause—the Teenage Cancer Trust—to perform The Who’s seminal 1969 rock opera at Royal Albert Hall: Daltrey is in exceptionally good vocal shape, hitting some tough high notes on several songs (though in others, like the encore “Who Are You,” he avoids them), and Townshend is still a gale force on guitar.
The band’s rousing performance is bolstered by an encore of greatest hits, and the hi-def video and audio are top-notch. Extras are a rehearsal featurette and concert video screen images from “The Acid Queen” and “Pinball Wizard.”
 
DVDs of the Week
Deconstructing the Beatles
(Abramorama)
For several years, Beatles expert Scott Freiman has been presenting his irresistible “Deconstructing the Beatles” lectures—delving deep into the Fab Four catalog to unveil the multi-layers of each track with precise and dead-on analysis—and these four discs include his lively discussions of four of the group’s greatest albums: Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the White Album. (There is one quibble: where’s Abbey Road?)
Extras are Q&As from each lecture, and—on all four discs—a discussion with former New York Times critic Janet Maslin and five short “Deconstructing” featurettes.
 
Lewis Black—Black to the Future

(MVD)

Lewis Black, our angriest comic, has got plenty to be furious about in this hilarious standup special taped in New York City last fall prior to the election: he rages against anything and everyone, starting with Ben Carson and the media, and moving onto Ted Cruz, Hillary and Trump.
A welcome bonus is a 50-minute Q&A, The Rant Is Due, hosted by his friend Kathleen Madigan, from 2014 in Napa Valley wherein fans pepper the comedian with questions that he answers with ranting truthfulness.
 
Marcella—Complete 1st Season
(Acorn)

As a London detective sergeant devastated by the collapse of her marriage and who returns to the force to track a serial killer who may be linked to her ex, Anna Friel gives a complex performance of noble ferocity.

Her formidable presence, which helps make even the least credible plot and character bits in this eight-episode series work thoroughly and satisfyingly, elevates the tattered but taut police procedural to a status it probably doesn’t deserve. 

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