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Reviews

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.
 
Harper 
(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 

(Arrow)

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.
 

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

 

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.

 

The Low Road

Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, New York, NY

publictheater.org

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 Italyand 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 

(Disney)

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.
 
 
 
 
 
 
Sunstroke 

(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.

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

 

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.

 

Jerry Springer: The Opera

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

thenewgroup.org

 

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