Tuesday, March 20, 2018

March '18 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 
The Handmaid’s Tale—Complete 1st Season 
Based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel, this limited series made streaming service Hulu into a major player by sweeping this year’s Emmys, but this proficiently made, well-acted and sophisticated-looking adaptation makes dully literal what in Atwood’s book is only imaginative (Volker Schlondorff’s stillborn 1990 film had the same failure.) As an allegory of Trump’s America, it’s too on-the-nose, and the self-seriousness palls after awhile—and who okayed using Tom Petty’s “American Girl” at the end? Still, there are fine performances, with Yvonne Strahovski standing out in a cast including Elisabeth Moss, Joseph Fiennes, Ann Dowd, Simira Wiley and Alexis Bledel. The hi-def transfer looks great; extras are two mini-featurettes.

Daughter of the Nile 
(Cohen Film Collection)
Hou Hsiao-hsien’s moody 1987 study of a young woman and her brother on the fringes of Taipei’s contemporary underworld has moments of nuanced observation to go along with Hou’s idiosyncratic but gripping worldview. But it was in the two historical masterworks that followed—1989’s A City of Sadness and 1993’s The Puppetmaster—that Hou would become a director of international stature. There’s an exquisite-looking hi-def transfer; extras are an interview with Asian cinema expert Tony Ryans and an audio commentary.

(Arrow Academy)
In Robert Altman’s hallucinatory 1972 drama, a disturbed children’s author (an excellent Susannah York) has hallucinations centering around her husband and a mysterious—but familiar—woman. If Vilmos Zsigmond’s supple cinematography coaxes fresh beauties out of the Irish landscape, this is too close to Ingmar Bergman’s own explorations of fragile female mental states, but without Bergman’s psychological subtlety and insight. It does look splendid on Blu; extras include an Altman commentary, archival Altman and Zsigmond interviews, new interview with actress Cathryn Harrison, and appreciation by musician Stephen Thrower.

Live from the 2016 BBC Proms 
The highlight of this 2016 Royal Albert Hall concert in London—with Russian vet Valery Gergiev conducting the Munich Philharmonic—is the scintillating performance of Sergey Rachmaninov’s fiendishly difficult Piano Concerto No. 3 by Uzbekistan soloist Behzod Abduraimov, who turns this crowd-pleaser into an emphatic personal statement. And alongside pleasant works by familiar names—Ravel, Strauss, Berlioz—is an eye-opener, the Third Symphony by Russian composer Galina Ustvolskaya, subtitled “Jesus Messiah, Save Us!” and filled with profound spirituality. Hi-def video and audio are splendid.

Pitch Perfect 3 
Going to the well too often is the downfall of this fitfully funny but ragged second remake of the charming Pitch Perfect, which was happily free of any baggage: PP2 was OK but this one less so, with an exceedingly dopey plot that gets the gals back together—and even finds room for a hammy John Lithgow to play Rebel Wilson’s father. The song interludes are numbingly repetitive, the performances (except for Brittany Snow and the Annas Kendrick and Camp) are smug, and 90 minutes crawls by. It all looks good on Blu; extras include extended scenes, deleted scenes, featurettes, interviews, commentary and gag reel—which is more amusing than the entire film.

Renee Fleming in Concert
The Sleeping Beauty
(Opus Arte)
The two-disc Renee Fleming in Concert pairs her 2011 appearance with conductor Christian Thielemann and the Vienna Philharmonic with a 2012 concert with Thielemann and Dresden State Orchestra: she eloquently sings Richard Strauss in the first and Hugo Wolf and Strauss in the second; Strauss’s Alpine Symphony rounds out Vienna and Anton Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony wraps Dresden, both in a stellar fashion. Tchaikovsky’s classic The Sleeping Beauty, enchantingly performed by London’s Royal Ballet in 2017, has enticing music and fabulous footwork in spades. Both releases have superior hi-def video and audio; Beauty has bonus interviews.

DVDs of the Week 
Frank Serpico 
Immortalized by Al Pacino in Sidney Lumet’s 1973 film Serpico, detective Frank Serpico blew the whistle on police corruption in late ‘60s/early ‘70s New York City, but paying a price for his integrity and honesty. Antonino D’Ambrosio’s informative if superficial portrait shows Serpico then (idealistic young reformer who became a pariah to some and hero to others) and now (still an anti-police brutality activist, he lives on a farm in New York’s Columbia County). Serpico cuts a charismatic figure, but is utterly different than Pacino was in the eponymous film; still, this “Where Are They Now” type documentary makes a fascinating companion piece to Lumet’s classic. Extras comprise an alternate opening, deleted scenes and a making-of featurette.

The Good Fight—Complete 1st Season 
This spin-off of the hit show The Good Wife smartly concentrates on attorney Diane Lockhart, who must rebuild her professional career and personal life after a shocking revelation forces her out of the original series’ law firm. With the redoubtable Christine Baranski leading the charge, this old-fashioned, entertaining drama—the first on CBS’s streaming platform, All Access—also provides a high-quality showcase for a group of stellar actors, including Cush Jumbo, Delroy Lindo, Sarah Steele and Rose Leslie. Extras are deleted/extended scenes and a gag reel.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

March '18 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 
The Drowning Pool 
(Warner Archive)
For his return as private detective Lew Harper (see Harper below), Paul Newman is once again his usual laconic self as Harper investigates a threat made against one of his former flings (who happens to be played by Newman’s ow wife Joanne Woodward). Director Stuart Rosenberg’s 1975 sequel is better than the original, even if it has its share of missteps—especially in the long and implausible sequence that gives the movie its title. But the cast is in fine form, from Newman and Woodward to Murray Hamilton, Richard Jaeckel and underrated ‘70s actresses Gail Strickland and Linda Haynes. There’s a solid hi-def transfer; lone extra is a vintage on-set featurette.

(Warner Archive)
In his first go-round as Lew Harper—based on Ross Macdonald’s novel—Paul Newman makes an engaging PI in a case involving the disappearance of an eccentric multi-millionaire. This overlong, occasionally entertaining 1966 feature was directed by Jack Smight and written by William Goldman, who can’t decide whether this is a spoof or a straight drama. Several able actresses—Lauren Bacall, Julie Harris, Janet Leigh, Pamela Tiffin and Shelley Winters—are left adrift. The film looks excellent on Blu-ray; lone extra is a Goldman commentary.

Basket Case 
Frank Henenlotter—who went on to make Frankenhooker—made his directing debut in 1982 with this bizarre cult item about a young man whose homicidal ex-conjoined twin is kept in a wicker basket, which—naturally enough—can’t keep murders at bay for long. Shot for little money in scuzzy Manhattan neighborhoods, the movie is ridiculously cheap-looking and borderline inept, but the audacity of the premise and how victims are offed—including the grandly gory finale—makes this a worthwhile entry into early 80s gore. The film looks as good as can be expected in hi-def; plentiful extras include Henenlotter’s commentary, interviews, featurettes and outtakes.

Le nozze di Figaro/The Marriage of Figaro
(BelAir Classiques)
One of Mozart’s classic operas is given an intelligent 2004 staging in Paris by director Jean-Louis Martinoty, who understands that Mozart’s characters are anything but cardboard, and that his singers must also be more than capable of plumbing their psychological depths. That they do—led by Austrian mezzo Angelika Kirchschlager’s funny but touching Cherubino—makes this one of the best recent Figaros on the market; the orchestra and chorus, led by conductor Rene Jacobs, are also equal to the task. Hi-def audio and video are first-rate.

DVDs of the Week 
The Assistant 
(Icarus/Distrib Films)
The still-dazzling Nathalie Baye (age 67 when she made this) makes an especially alluring monster in this pulse-pounding 2015 Hitchcockian thriller by directors Christophe Ali and Nicolas Bonilauri about a still-grieving mother who becomes an indispensable assistant to a hotshot young exec who caused her beloved son’s death. While there’s nothing here that no one hasn’t seen before, Ali and Bonilauri keep this twisty melodrama percolating nicely as Baye weaves her diabolical web.

The Chastity Belt 
(Warner Archive)
This labored 1967 comedy—originally released in the U.S. as On the Way to the Crusades, I Met a Girl Who—follows a knight (a bemused Tony Curtis) and his new bride (an even more bemused Monica Vitti) whose wedding night is interrupted when he’s called to fight the Crusades—and supposed hijinks ensue. Director Pasquale Festa Campanile lost his comic touch on this one: even a game supporting cast that includes Hugh Griffith is well-nigh invisible. Worst of all is that the two stars have zero chemistry: comic, dramatic and romantic.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Off-Broadway Review—Bruce Norris’s “The Low Road”

The Low Road
Written by Bruce Norris; directed by Michael Greif
Performances through April 1, 2018
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, New York, NY

Kevin Chamberlain, Harriet Harris and Chris Perfetti in The Low Road (photo: Joan Marcus)
Bruce Norris takes the title of his play The Low Road—a “wink wink nudge nudge” peregrination through the beginnings of American capitalism—literally, so much so that he liberally sprinkles coarseness throughout, thereby weakening the potency of his jaundiced picaresque journey. 

Our hero Jim Trewitt (get it? “True Wit”?), a bastard infant taken in by the proprietress of a Massachusetts tavern/brothel in 1758, grows up with a remarkable facility for mathematics and finance. In 1776, as the adult Jim (a rather charmless and one-note Chris Perfetti) encounters slaves and freedmen, British loyalists and Hessian mercenaries, nouveau riche and salt-of-the-earth colonialists, his episodic story resembles—or steals from—classic literature like Tom Jones, Barry Lyndon and Candide

Problems abound. Why use the father of capitalism Adam Smith—in a delightfully witty turn by Daniel Davis—as our simple narrator without giving him anything substantial to do? Why is the dialogue so peppered with profanity, however much it tickles supposedly sophisticated New York audiences? Why do Norris and his able director Michael Greif empty their bag of tricks in the first act, the intentional anachronisms, juvenile humor and constant stage busyness all taking their exhausting toll?

Then there’s the curveball that opens the second act: a tedious reenactment of a stuffy academic conference about capitalism in the 21st century, in which a snide moderator and her smug panelists (including a descendent of Trewitt himself) trade various truisms before it’s all broken up by anarchic protestors. Returning to the late 18th century, Norris and Greif completely lose control of the play, which limps home with few pertinent observations about and fewer insights into the uncontrollable forces of capitalism. 

The mostly fine cast features enjoyable turns by Davis as Smith and Kevin Chamberlain and Crystal A. Dickinson in various roles. But then there’s Harriet Harris, whose hammily overdone acting underscores the flabbiness of the 2-1/2 hour The Low Road that could have been excised by an invisible hand like Adam Smith’s.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2018

Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2018
March 8-18, 2018
Walter Reade Theater, 165 West 65th Street, New York, NY

Whether by design or coincidence, the 23rd annual edition of Rendez-Vous with French Cinema showcases a plethora of talented females both in front of and behind the camera, ranging from iconic performers (Nathalie Baye, Emmanuelle Devos) and shining newcomers (Iris Bry, Noée Abita) to veteran and novice directors (Tonie Marshall, Léa Mysius).

Nathalie Baye and Laura Smet in The Guardians
The best entry in the series, though, is Xavier Beauvois’ The Guardians (opens May 4), a restrained, unabashedly old-fashioned drama as assured and expressively subtle as Beauvois’ earlier Of Gods and Men, that profound exploration of faith and mortality. Set on a farm in the French countryside during World War I, The Guardians focuses on the women—mother Hortense, daughter Solange and new farmhand Francine—who run the place while the men are fighting the Germans.

That slim plot summary does a disservice to the artistry and emotional resonance in nearly every frame of this beautifully directed tale of family, survival and emotional bonds created and broken. There are impeccable, moving performances by Nathalie Baye (Hortense), her real-life daughter Laura Smet (Solange) and extraordinary newcomer Iris Bry (Francine); Caroline Champetier’s sensitive camera glistens with painterly images reminiscent of Millet and Cezanne; and Michel Legrand’s gorgeous melancholy melodies are sparingly—and effectively—used in this ultimately shattering drama that cements Beauvois as one of France’s supreme filmmakers.

Another master director, Laurent Cantet—whose The Class, Time Out and Human Resources are among the best French imports of the past 20 years—returns with The Workshop (opens March 23), another incisive and pertinent study of class and generational differences. Marine Hands gives a finely shaded portrayal as Olivia, a novelist from Paris who holds summer writing workshops for a diverse group of teenagers at a coastal town. Ethnic and class divisions become more pronounced among the group, and Olivia finds herself drawn to Antoine, an outsider whose talent is hidden by his extremist views. Cantet’s understated direction works wonders with the talented young performers, especially in their charged arguments during the workshop classes.

Mélanie Thierry in A Memoir of War
Although an accomplished performer in several films, Mélanie Thierry wouldn’t have been my first choice to play Marguerite Duras, the tough-nosed writer who, while in the French Resistance, tried to discover what happened to her husband after he’s deported to a concentration camp in Emmanuel Finkiel’s sober A Memoir of War (opens in August). But Thierry’s endlessly expressive face carries the film through its well-wrought if familiar dramatics.

The ultimate provocateur, Bruno Dumont, is back with Jeannette, The Childhood of Joan of Arc (opens April 13)—believe it or not, it’s a head-banging musical about the beloved saint’s early life, before she take up arms against the English and becomes a martyr. After the bizarre left turns of Li’l Quinquin (successful) and Slack Bay (disastrous), Dumont jumps off a different cliff with this rigorously shot but musically and dramatically inert picture that does little with its game amateur cast.

Noée Abita in Ava
Tonie Marshall’s slick and topical crowd-pleaser Number One gets most of its traction from Emmanuelle Devos, who is excellent as an executive who’s hit the glass ceiling but gets the chance of a lifetime—to become CEO of the national water company. And eighteen-year-old Noée Abita makes her stunning debut in the title role of Ava, director Léa Mysius’ bracing exploration of a confused teenager’s summer after she discovers she’s going blind. Mysius occasionally loses focus with subplots about Ava’s mom, but Abita tugs at the heartstrings, however self-destructively she acts.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

March '18 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 
Faces Places 
(Cohen Media Group)
This typically headstrong and humane documentary shows once again that the now 89-year-old French director Agnes Varda continues to make beautiful, humble but insightful films that display real people as themselves, with no condescension or artifice. For this journey, Varda has been joined by 33-year-old photographer and provocateur JR, who shares her indomitable spirit; the result is a joyful, lovely valentine to humanity in all of its manifestations. The 90-minute movie is very funny, thoughtful, touching, and makes viewers yearn for more cinematic travels from these kindred souls. The hi-def transfer is as transfixing as the film is; extras include a 45-minute interview with Varda and JR and three extended scenes.

Godard + Gorin—Five Films 1968-1971 
(Arrow Academy)
After making his seminal 1967 classic, Weekend, French director Jean-Luc Godard went down the rabbit hole of polemical politics, joining with leftist critic Jean-Pierre Gorin for a series of strident and increasingly insular snapshots of radical French socialism after the 1968 student riots through 1971. The five films collected here—A Film Like Any Other, British Sounds, Wind from the East, Struggles in Italy and Vladimir and Rosa—are often inscrutable, naïve and poseurish, but they are also valuable historical documents from ground level, so to speak. Most intriguing is seeing the Maoist radicals in British Sounds making up new lyrics to then-current Beatles songs like “Hello Goodbye” and “Honey Pie” to more closely reflect their fight against the establishment. Arrow’s restoration makes these 16mm films look splendid; extras are A Conversation with JLG, a two-hour 2010 Godard interview; Godard’s hilarious 1971 Schick aftershave commercial; and critic Michael Witt’s 90-minute explication of this period in Godard’s career.

Lady and the Tramp 
One of Disney’s true—if perennially underrated—classics, this 1955 animated masterpiece gets a new lease on hi-def life through Disney’s Signature Collection: although what was on the 2012 Blu-ray release is present and accounted for, including featurettes, deleted scenes, music video, storyboards and interviews, there are a few add-ons. Mainly, these comprise two new ways to watch the film aside from the original theatrical version (in ultra-widescreen 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the first animated feature shot and shown that way): a sing-long version and one that allows the viewer to access Walt Disney story meetings.

Pique Dame (Queen of Spades)
La Forza del Destino (The Force of Destiny) 
(C Major)
In Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s opera Queen of Spades, based on a story by Alexandr Pushkin, gambling and card-playing takes center stage, and the sumptuous music conjures up portraits of ordinary and extraordinary madness: Stefan Herheim’s 2017 Amsterdam staging accentuates its dramatic intimacy, with superb orchestral playing and strong performances by Misha Dibyk and Svetlana Aksenova. La Forza del Destino, Giuseppe Verdi’s operatic epic, receives a crackling 2008 Vienna production that stars Nina Stemme and Salvatore Licitra at their vocal peak. Both discs include superlative hi-def video and audio.

Tom Jones 
(Criterion Collection)
Tony Richardson’s rollicking adaptation of Henry Fielding’s classic novel about a bastard battling 18th century English society may have won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1963, but don’t hold that against it. It’s a splendid, visually and aurally witty ride (John Addison’s harpsichord-laden score also won an Oscar), with a veritable British who’s who in supporting roles—Hugh Griffith, Susannah York, and its three Oscar-nominated Supporting Actresses, Diane Cilento, Edith Evans and Joyce Redman—all held together by Albert Finney’s charismatic and charming portrayal of the devilishly rakish Tom. Criterion’s typically first-rate release includes stunning new hi-def transfers of Richardson’s original cut and a pointless (and seven minutes shorter) director’s cut, archival interviews with Finney and Addison, and new interviews with Vanessa Redgrave (Richardson’s widow) and Robert Lambert, who edited the director’s cut.

DVDs of the Week
The Coming War on China 
(Icarus Films)
In John Pilger’s timely and sadly relevant documentary focuses on the complicated relationship between the United States and China, from the first U.S. hydrogen bomb test at Bikini atoll to the recent ramping up of U.S. missile bases within striking distance of the Chinese mainland. Through incisive interviews and archival footage, Pilger’s analysis might not be completely on-target—he tends to poo-poo China’s own political and moral shortcomings in order to keep shining a light on what the U.S. has wrought through its double-dealing—but it’s provocative enough to make one worried about what the future might bring, now that we have an incurious, easily swayed president in the White House.

(Icarus/Distrib Films)
Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov has made several distinct and memorable films in the past 40 years—highlighted by 1980’s Oblomov and 1994’s Burnt by the Sun—and his latest, if not up to their level, is an engrossing if old-fashioned costume drama combining romance and war’s stark reality. A pro-Soviet lieutenant in a Bolshevik prison camp in 1920 reminiscences about a beautiful stranger he met 13 years earlier; obvious parallels between pre-Soviet bliss and Communist-era brutality notwithstanding, Mikhalkov knows how to tell an absorbing story with his perfectly-matched leads Martins Kalita and Victoria Solovyova. Two caveats: a pro-Tsar stance seems strongly pro-Putin in the current climate, and the film—which has a three-hour running time elsewhere—runs only 160 minutes in this release.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Off-Broadway Review—“Jerry Springer: The Opera”

Jerry Springer: The Opera
Music & lyrics by Richard Thomas; book & additional lyrics by Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas
Directed by John Rando; choreographed by Chris Bailey
Performances through April 1, 2018
The New Group, Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Will Swenson and Terrence Mann in Jerry Springer: The Opera (photo: Monique Carboni)
There might not be an easier pop-culture target than The Jerry Springer Show, that televised train wreck that ruled the syndicated airwaves in the ‘90s with a bedraggled parade of clueless clods, trailer-trashy inbreds and other low-rent guests which its audience—both in the studio and at home—laughed at knowingly and groaningly. That there was often a battle royale between guests (broken up by Jerry’s goons) only added to its guilty-pleasure quotient.

So to make a parody called Jerry Springer: The Opera is the height of obviousness—and pointlessness. To marry lowbrow with (supposed) highbrow, composer-lyricist Richard Thomas and lyricist Stewart Lee went all in: lines like “What the fuck, what the fuck, what the fucking fuck?” are intoned by an angelic-sounding chorus, literally mating the sacred and the profane. And having Jerry get shot during one of his shows, descend into a hellish purgatory where he’s met by Satan and told to do a show for Satan’s benefit to avoid an eternity of hellfire, is an idea as unoriginal as it is awful.

Right from the beginning, non-stop cursing is set to heavenly music (the songs are listenable but blandly opera-lite) and the show devolves into self-satisfied nastiness, with an already riled-up audience egged on by Jerry’s crazed warm-up man, as the host himself shepherds the sordid enterprise. A little of this goes a very long way: the first act comprises Springer Show guests with hidden secrets like a husband who wears diapers and admits to his wife that taking a shit turns him on, or a plain wife who secretly wants to be a pole dancer. Actual episodes of The Jerry Springer Show didn’t put on airs about such people, instead taking them at face value. Here, condescension is present from the start, and a repetitive first act ends rather desperately with a Ku Klux Klan dance number done better (and funnier) by Mel Brooks’ Nazis in The Producers.

The second act, in which Satan demands an apology for being tossed out of paradise, leading to appearances by Jesus, Mary and even God Almighty, might be blasphemous to some, but it’s sophomoric and juvenile to most, never approaching the sinful satire it aims for, instead lazily relying on its one-note, single-joke conceit to stretch itself past the two-hour mark. In 2003 when this premiered—or 2008, when it was performed at Carnegie Hall—Jerry Springer: The Opera might have seemed daring or prescient. But now—in a world dominated by a benighted and dangerous simpleton in the White House—the show has been outstripped by reality.

John Rando’s smart staging features Derek McLane’s typically superior set, which cleverly bleeds into the theater itself for some semi-audience participation. Effortlessly playing multiple roles is a dazzling cast of 18, whose voices soar into the stratosphere. While Terrence Mann’s Jerry (a largely non-singing role, with a forgettable ballad thrown in) makes Springer more than just a caricatured ringmaster, Will Swenson, as Jerry’s Warm-Up Man and Satan, is having so much wild-eyed fun—he looks unsettlingly like Charles Manson, maniacal stare and all—that it’s easy to go along for the ride, bumpy as it ultimately is.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

February '18 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week 
Antony and Cleopatra 
(Opus Arte)
One of Shakespeare’s most complex and least-produced plays is also one of his greatest, and Iqbal Khan’s staging at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon catches a good portion of its denseness, at least. Although Antony Byrne’s lackadaisical Antony disappoints, Josette Simon makes a lively and sympathetic Cleopatra, with a chilling death-by-asp scene; also noteworthy is Laura Mvula’s haunting music. Hi-def video and audio are first-rate; extras are Khan’s commentary and interviews with Khan, Simon, Byrne and Mvula.

Gate II 
(Scream Factory)
In this 1990 sequel to the trashily effective horror flick, a rambunctious minion—possessed by one of the teens from the first film, who put it in a cage to serve as his “pet”—gets loose and terrorizes the locals, including an hilariously silly attack in which it infects a pair of idiots in a car. This inferior follow-up does have its moments, but those are few and far between compared to the original; there’s also a solid hi-def transfer, while the extras include new interviews with the director, writer, and visual effects and makeup creators.

Leatherface—The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III 
(Warner Archive)
Tobe Hooper’s original 1974 Texas Chainsaw, made on a shoestring, proved that ultra-low budgets aren’t an impediment to effective horror as long as a talented filmmaker is at the helm. But director Jeff Burr’s belated and unnecessary 1990 sequel gets it mostly wrong, dragging out hoary old tropes like its characters acting as stupidly as only people in trashy horror movies can. The film looks decent enough on Blu-ray; extras are an alternate ending, making-of, deleted scenes with commentary and an audio commentary.

In this weirdly intriguing 1976 B-movie, a loony surgeon remakes a shattered woman’s face into that of his missing daughter’s, hoping she’ll help him inherit millions—a plan that works until his daughter suddenly returns. Director John Grissmer takes a risible story and keeps it percolating, helped immeasurably by a remarkable pair of performances from Judith Chapman as the daughter and the woman with her face. There are two excellent hi-def transfers to choose from—Arrow’s and cinematographer Edward Lachman’s—new interviews with Grissmer, Chapman and Lachman, Grissmer’s intro, and a commentary.

Tell Them We Are Rising—The Story of Black Colleges and Universities 
In this telling 85-minute documentary that recounts a century and a half of black institutions of higher learning in the U.S. (which began appearing prior to the Civil War), director-writer-producer Stanley Nelson—just as he did with his incisive Freedom Riders—finds many voices, then and now, for a bracing and important history lesson. We hear from students, professors and experts while we watch precious archival footage, all of which provides the necessary context to appreciate this concisely and clearly told primer. The film has a fine hi-def transfer.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Off-Broadway Review—Sarah Burgess’s “Kings”

Written by Sarah Burgess; directed by Thomas Kail
Performances through April 1, 2018
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, New York, NY

Aya Cash and Zach Grenier in Kings (photo: Joan Marcus)
In Sarah Burgess’s amusing if paper-thin Kings, Lauren and Kate are lobbyists and friends who have worked for long-time Senator—and likely presidential candidate—John McDowell, a veteran Texas Republican. But gumming up the works is Representative Sydney Millsap, an up-and-coming Texan sparkplug who, since she’s black, may well be the party’s—and the country’s—future, if she can focus her energy in the right direction and not ruffle so many feathers.

Sydney instead decides to use the political capital she gained by voting for a carried interest bill opposed by the financial lobby to challenge elder statesman John for his Senate seat, throwing his path to the White House into doubt. After some initial reluctance, Kate decides to join Sydney’s campaign, causing a rift with Lauren, while also causing Kate to question her own political choices and beliefs. 

Burgess entertainingly shows how the interactions of lobbyists and those they work with in Congress are inextricably intertwined, and lip service is paid to Kate’s decision to follow her heart instead of her head and work for Sydney’s campaign, but there aren’t many well-reasoned arguments here. In their stead is a lot of lively dialogue, which also helps to offset labored jokes about, for instance, the restaurant chain Chili’s and its ultra-large margaritas.

The appealing performers—Gillian Jacobs (Kate), Aya Cash (Lauren), Eisa Davis (Sydney) and Zach Grenier (John)—bat Burgess’s lines around like expert tennis players, with Grenier providing an hilarious caricature of an entrenched politician oozing smugness from his very pores. But even Thomas Kail’s savvy direction and Anna Louizos’ equally smart set design can’t disguise the fact that Kings is a sitcom masquerading as something more substantial.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

February '18 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 
An Actor’s Revenge 
In Kon Ichikawa’s strangely affecting 1963 drama, a renowned kabuki performer tracks down the three men responsible for the death of his parents when he was young. Although parts of this oft-dazzling film are dated, Ichikawa’s singular artistry and the splendid acting by Kazuo Hasegawa in an extremely demanding role make this a singular experience, further enriched by Setsuo Kobayashi’s atmospheric color cinematography. The new hi-def transfer is superb, and extras include an hour-long 1999 Ichikawa interview and a video essay by critic Tony Rayns.

The Florida Project 
Willem Dafoe gives his most sympathetic performance since Platoon as the manager of a rundown Orlando motel where wild young kids run all over the place, especially Moonee, left alone by a single mom desperate to make a few bucks and survive however she can. Director Sean Baker’s interesting look at a segment of the population rarely seen onscreen has tremendous young actors (especially Brooklynn Prince as Moonee), but at nearly two hours the film becomes repetitive and collapses long before the admittedly emotional final sequences. The hi-def transfer is fine; extras comprise a making-of featurette, cast-crew interviews and outtakes.

This shamelessly manipulative tearjerker based on R.J. Palacio’s novel about a young boy with a facial deformity (and a close-knit family) attending public school for the first time hits the mark thanks to credible acting by Jacob Tremblay as the boy, Izabela Vidovic as his older sister and Danielle Rose Russell as her best friend. Director Stephen Chbosky tends toward the obvious—close-ups of the family’s cute dog portend something awful—but gets the sentimental job done. There’s a flawless hi-def transfer; extras include making-of featurette, commentary, music video, and an hour’s worth of interviews and on-set footage.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Off-Broadway Review—Eve Ensler’s “In the Body of the World”

In the Body of the World
Written and performed by Eve Ensler
Directed by Diane Paulus
Performances through March 25, 2018
Manhattan Theater Club, 131 West 55th Street, New York, NY

Eve Ensler in In the Body of the World (photo: Joan Marcus)
Eve Ensler’s talent for witty and thought-provoking solo shows (notably The Vagina Monologues and The Good Body) continues with her latest, In the Body of the World, which may even be her most intimate and personal work yet.

After describing the steadfast determination of women (horribly scarred physically and psychologically) whom she met while visiting the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ensler then admits that something came along to knock her down: cancer. She initially reacted as many do when something bad happens: she blamed herself, even going so far as to ask whether, instead of having a baby, she ended up growing a tumor instead?

Despite the bleak prognosis, Ensler keeps her sense of humor as she describes what she went through—chemo, pain, hope, despair, even a visit from her alternatingly enervating and helpful sister—as she kept tabs on the African women creating a City of Joy for those who’ve been abused. Her humor is laced with heartbreak: she movingly reenacts her final moments with her dying mother, a woman with whom she wasn’t close but who responded to Eve’s overtures at the end.

There’s a lot to digest in In the Body of the World, some of it uncomfortably stark, but Ensler has always bravely blended the personal and the universal (and the political and cultural and…). Diane Paulus directs sympathetically on Myung Hee Cho’s wonderfully evocative set—which morphs into an astonishing garden that Ensler invites the audience onstage to explore after the play ends—visualizing the beauty in our world, explored by Ensler as potently as anything she’s done.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Off-Broadway Review—Greg Pierce’s “Cardinal”

Written by Greg Pierce; directed by Kate Whoriskey
Performances through February 25, 2018
Second Stage Theater, 305 West 43rd Street, New York, NY

Anna Chlumsky and Adam Pally in Cardinal (photo: Joan Marcus)
In Greg Pierce’s affably modest comedy Cardinal, Anna Chlumsky puts her years of batting snide comments back and forth on Veep to good use as Lydia Lensky, who returns to her upstate New York hometown with an idea she’s sure will make the sleepy hamlet the toast of travel agencies everywhere: literally paint the (down)town red—a color that gives the play its title—and sit back as hordes come to visit and help resuscitate not only the moribund business district but also anyone left in a burg that’s been shedding population for decades.

Lydia is a talker, buzzing through everyone with her incessant machine-gun delivery. The only plausible reason Pierce provides for why the red paint idea becomes popular is because it’s a new thing, but he also reveals that the town’s mayor Jeff has a crush on Lydia because she reminds him of her sister, who dumped him way back in high school. Although Lydia initially uses that to her advantage, things conspire against her in a way she hadn’t expected.

Some local business people—embodied by no-nonsense Nancy and her autistic son Nat, who run a local bakery/gift shop—are not happy everything has turned red, while Manhattan developer Li-Wei starts tours that bring in visitors while guides like his son Jason tell tales about the town made out of whole cloth. And there’s Jeff himself who, after sleeping with Lydia for awhile, realizes that her fast talk and charitable bedroom manner obscure what he really feels is right for the area, which is not a downtown painted red.
None of this is presented with any sense of urgency; in fact, its breeziness makes it resemble a direct-to-Netflix rom-com at times. And the play turns downright desperate toward the end, as a gun appears out of nowhere and ends up in Nat’s hands before being inadvertently fired by Jason. But Cardinal does mirror the tenor of our times, when there’s a con man in the Oval Office who has answers for everything but is unable to do anything, and where coats of paint only temporarily cover up crumbling infrastructure and a systematic inability to modernize left-behind towns.

Under Kate Whoriskey’s understated direction, Chlumsky’s Lydia is an appealing whirlwind, and Alan Pally’s Jeff makes an amusingly befuddled straight man. Too bad the rest of the cast—Becky Ann Baker (Nancy), Alex Hurt (Nat), Stephen Park (Li-Wei) and Eugene Young (Jason)—gets little chance to humanize the cardboard characters. Like its heroine, Cardinal handles a bright idea inelegantly.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

February '18 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 
Orchestra Rehearsal
(Arrow Academy)
Made for Italian television in 1978, Federico Fellini’s faux-documentary satirizes Italian politics with a contagious zest, even if it’s occasionally too on the nose as it shows an orchestra rehearsal that degenerates into in-fighting among musicians, the conductor’s dictatorial behavior, lunatic union demands and climaxing with a wrecking ball. Obvious and didactic at times, it’s magically Fellinian at others, with the great Nina Rota’s beguiling final score (he died soon after composing it). At 72 minutes, the film ends before it wears out its welcome, unlike some of the other later Fellini works. It all looks spectacular in a restored hi-def transfer; extras are a Richard Dyer interview about Rota’s and Fellini’s relationship and Fellini biographer John Baxter’s video essay.

The Aftermath
In this relentlessly second-rate post-apocalyptic adventure, cowriter-director Steve Barkett plays an astronaut who crash-lands on earth only to discover there’s been a nuclear war and Los Angeles has been destroyed—all that’s left are ragtag bands of mutant survivors. Acting, writing, directing and plotting are amateurish, but B movie fans might find enough of interest to make it  a true guilty pleasure. The film looks decent on Blu; extras include Barkett’s commentary and short film Night Caller, along with interviews.

The Deuce—Complete 1st Season 
Everything about this deep dive into the sordid world of prostitution and pornography in early ‘70s New York City is impeccably mounted, from the sets and costumes to the lingo and seedy Times Square atmosphere. But the converging stories are written and handled without much adroitness, and the acting is surprisingly uneven. Maggie Gyllenhaal does what she can with the whore (and later porn director) with the heart of gold and James Franco makes a hash of the twins he plays; even the appealing and gifted Margarita Levieva—who’s definitely an actress to watch—is defeated by the underwritten role of a smart college student mixed up with shady characters. The series’ eight episodes look splendid in hi-def; extras include commentaries and interviews.

DVD of the Week
Finding Your Roots—Complete 4th Season
For the latest 10-episode season of discovering celebrities’ lineages, Dr. Henry Louis Gates takes 28 guests—running the gamut from Bryant Gumbel and Lupita Nyong’o to Christopher Walken and Ana Navarro—on a highly emotional journey into their families’ pasts, which chronicles our nation’s long and checkered immigration history. There are even some lighter moments in this fascinating glimpse at American identity: the look on Amy Schumer’s face (and her response) when she finds out that she and Gates are distant cousins is priceless. 

Friday, February 9, 2018

Musical Review—“Hey, Look Me Over!” at Encores

Hey, Look Me Over!
Conceived by Jack Viertel; directed by Marc Bruni
Performances February 7-11, 2018
New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, New York, NY

Vanessa Williams (center) in Hey, Look Me Over! (photo: Joan Marcus)
City Center’s Encores has as its mission to resurrect obscure or unjustly forgotten musicals for a week’s worth of semi-staged performances. And for the first show of its 25th anniversary season, we got something called Hey, Look Me Over!, a look at shows that even Encores has passed over for whatever reason—it’s 2-1/2 hours of excerpts from nine musicals that opened on Broadway between 1957 and 1974, but have been (mostly) unheard of since their short runs.

The show’s conceit is that Bob Martin—of Drowsy Chaperone fame—comes onstage as our MC of sorts, introducing the performances and giving us some context, along with some hoary (and a couple of amusing) theater and political jokes. But despite the creakiness of the concept, there is the music and the performances, which is why we are all in the theater in the first place.

To be sure, a lot of what is excerpted for Hey, Look Me Over! is not top-drawer—it’s easy to hear why Cy Coleman’s Wildcat (which includes the evening’s title tune) or Charles Strouse’s All-American have remained obscure—but even when the material isn’t top-notch, the performers are. Take Vanessa Williams, who dazzles in two numbers from Jamaica, a show with music by Harold Arden that was a vehicle for Lena Horne. Or Bebe Neuwirth, who snarls spectacularly as the jaded cruise hostess Mimi in Noel Coward’s witty Sail Away, which was written for Elaine Stritch (whom I saw in a 1999 Carnegie Hall concert version).

Clifton Duncan kills it in “Never Will I Marry” from Frank Loesser’s Greenwillow, Judy Kuhn and Marc Kudisch sing an appealing “Shalom” from Jerry Herman’s Milk and Honey, and Alexandra Socha takes center stage for a thrilling “Look What Happened to Mabel” from Herman’s Mack and Mabel, a flawed but lively musical I saw at Canada’s Shaw Festival in 2007 and which definitely deserves a second life somewhere on a New York stage.

Although the finale—“Give My Regards to Broadway” from George M., with sensational tap-dancing and a surprise guest—is  anti-climactic, Hey, Look Me Over! remains a delightful evening of sheer entertainment, skillfully directed by Marc Bruni, choreographed by Denis Jones and conducted by Rob Berman, whose Encores Orchestra is, as always, the evening’s true highlight.

Hey, Look Me Over!
New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, New York, NY