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Reviews

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.

 

Scalpel 

(Arrow)

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 

(PBS)

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.

 
 

Vienna Philharmonic Brings the Romantic Era to Carnegie Hall

Photo by Chris Lee

A terrific season of orchestral music at Carnegie Hall continued memorably with three fine, nearly sold-out concerts on consecutive dates—beginning on the evening of Friday, February 23rd—of music almost entirely drawn from the Romantic era, given by the extraordinary artists of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under the expert direction of the immoderately acclaimed Gustavo Dudamel.
 
The excellent first program, devoted entirely to works by Johannes Brahms, opened splendidly with a sterling account of his uncharacteristically jubilant, delightful Academic Festival Overture.The ensuing, lovely, equally popular Variations on a Theme by Haydn afforded comparable pleasure in a beautifully realized performance. The event concluded with an estimable version of the Symphony No. 1, especially impressive in the vigorous finale. Enthusiastic ovations elicited two wonderful encores, appropriately with Viennese affiliations (as those in the other two concerts were to have): Leonard Bernstein’s Waltz from his Divertimento for Orchestra—one of the most charming of his classical pieces—and Winterlust by Josef Strauss.
 
The following evening’s program was also strong. It began with an assured reading of the only completed movement from Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 10, the powerful Adagio—Dudamel’s approach was faithful to the composer’s intentions and achieved the requisite intensity. Similarly rewarding was the accomplished rendition of the closing work, the marvelous Symphonie fantastique of Hector Berlioz, with the conductor handling the transition from delicate refinement to wild abandon with aplomb, again surpassing himself in the exuberant finale. A passionate reception was met with another gratifying encore: the Delirien Walzer of Strauss.
 
The satisfying final concert, presented on the following afternoon, was preceded by an informative talk by Jan Swafford, a composer and author who has written a biography of the maverick Charles Ives, whose idiosyncratic Second Symphony—which, in 1953, the Vienna Philharmonic was the first to record—began the program, heard in a confident interpretation acutely attuned to the kaleidoscopic variety of musical ideas to be found there. The proceedings ended triumphantly with the playing of the beloved Symphony No. 4 by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, in which the intense emotionalism of the work was successfully conveyed. Ardent applause was generously reciprocated with a superb encore by the same creator: the magnificent Waltz from Swan Lake. I await with anticipation the next appearance of these musicians.

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

Kings

Written by Sarah Burgess; directed by Thomas Kail

Performances through April 1, 2018

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.

 

Kings

Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, New York, NY

publictheater.org

 
 

February '18 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 

An Actor’s Revenge 

(Criterion)

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 

(A24/Lionsgate)

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.

 

 

 

 Wonder 

(Lionsgate)

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.

 
 

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