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Reviews

October '19 Digital Week V

4K/UHDs of the Week 

The Wizard of Oz 

(Warner Bros)

One of the all-time classics returns, in its 80th anniversary year, in ultra-high-def: so Dorothy and Toto’s fantastical trip to meet the Tin Man, Cowardly Lion, Scarecrow, Wicked Witch, Munchkins and all the rest, look better than ever, especially when the movie famously switches from B&W Kansas to garishly colored Oz.

 

 

 

The bright hues of the land of Oz look spectacular in 4K, and the clarity and grain are even a substantial improvement on the excellent Blu-ray. The many extras include a commentary, The Making of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Wizard of Oz Storybook (with Angela Lansbury), featurettes, audio-only/singalong tracks and a 1950 radio broadcast.

 

Red Heat 

(Lionsgate)

This 1988 “odd couple” buddy-cop movie pairs Jim Belushi and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Chicago and Russian detectives tracking down a Soviet drug kingpin who also is responsible for the murder of Belushi’s partner. It’s hard to believe Walter Hill directed this; even the chases and gun-fighting sequences have an offhand feel, not reminiscent at all of the hard-hitting Hill of Southern Comfort, 48 Hours and even Johnny Handsome. 

 

 

 

This was the first Hollywood movie to be shot in Red Square; that verisimilitude doesn’t help, and neither do supporting actors like Laurence Fishburne, Ed O’Ross, Peter Boyle and Gina Gershon. The 4K transfer looks impressive; extras are several featurettes.

 

Blu-rays of the Week 

A Cinderella Story—Christmas Wish 

(Warner Bros)

This sweet-natured holiday story might lean too heavily on treacle in its depiction of a modern-day young woman with musical aspirations who falls in love with a rich “prince” while her stepmom and stepsisters try and sabotage her life.

 

 

 

But the charming leads, Laura Marano and Gregg Sulkin, mitigate the overbearing silliness, and the result is a perfectly harmless, even fresh Christmas movie. It looks fine on Blu; extras are featurettes about the film’s “look” and music.

 

The Fearless Vampire Killers…or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck 

(Warner Archive)

In Roman Polanski’s misbegotten 1966 horror movie-cum-spoof, the director himself plays one of two hunters looking for vampires in 19th century Transylvania—which they find, of course.

 

 

 

Despite Polanski’s usual precise directing, a varied visual palette and tongue-in-cheek acting from Jack MacGowan, Sharon Tate (Polanski’s future wife) and even Polanski, the movie recycles flimsy scary/comic ideas for 107 minutes to diminishing returns. The film looks sumptuous on Blu; extras are an alternate opening, 10-minute archival featurette and on-set making-of.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Return of Martin Guerre 

(Cohen Film Collection)

Daniel Vigne’s 1982 arthouse smash is an old-fashioned and intelligent entertainment based on a true 16th century case of stolen identity, ending with a lengthy, superbly calculated trial sequence.

 

 

 

In the leads, Gerard Depardieu and the astonishing Nathalie Baye have never been better, and Vigne—whose lone international success this was—realistically dramatizes a functioning French society in the 1500s, with its patriarchal and religious structure and a crude sense of justice. Cohen’s new hi-def transfer looks strikingly good; lone extra is a new Baye interview.

 

The Swan Princess—25th Anniversary 

(Sony)

This 1994 animated film was never as huge as the many Disney films that came out around that time—Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King—but its sappy romance has its adherents, and the bright animation and a handful of tolerable tunes retain our interest throughout.

 

 

 

The voice cast—John Cleese, Sandy Duncan, Jack Palance, Steven Wright and Michelle Nicastro (who sadly died in 2010 at age 50)—is also superior, keeping the laughs and romance on target. The film looks lovely on Blu; extras include updated and archival making-of featurettes. 

 

 

 

 

 

Tone-Deaf  

(Lionsgate)

This tone-deaf blackly comic thriller pits its protagonist—a young woman (Amanda Crew) who loses her job and her boyfriend and decides to spend time away from the big city—against a widower (Robert Patrick) from whom she rents a room. Soon, she finds herself in a life-or-death situation when she discovers what he is up to.

 

 

 

Writer-director Richard Bates Jr.’s heavyhanded approach is, well, tone-deaf: the result, even with the charming and gifted Crew in the lead, is a forgettable attempt to graft humor and horror. The film looks good on Blu; lone extra is a making-of featurette.

 

DVD of the Week

Them That Follow 

(Lionsgate)

This intermittently unsettling but often inert thriller is set in a Pentecostal congregation that uses snake wrangling (!) to prove one’s innocence or guilt, as writers-directors Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage’s interesting if unoriginal plot idea—the pastor’s daughter, pregnant and unmarried, centers a love triangle leading to an ugly outcome—is too slender to carry an entire feature.

 

 

 

At least there’s a plethora of convincing performances, especially by Alice Englert as the young woman, Walton Goggins as her pastor father and Olivia Colman as the perfectly named church elder Sister Slaughter. Extras are cast interviews.

CDs of the Week 

Schumann—Symphonies 2 and 4 

Bruckner—Symphony No. 6 

(LSO)

These discs demonstrate the versatility of the London Symphony Orchestra’s world-class musicians in two styles of Romantic music led by two extraordinary conductors. John Eliot Gardiner leads them through two of Robert Schumann’s glorious symphonies (the second and, in its original version, the fourth) and the enticing overture to his opera Genoveva. This music runs in Gardiner’s bones, and the orchestra follows suit, tautly stretching these marvels of the symphonic form to the breaking point.

 

 

 

Conversely, Simon Rattle teams with the ensemble for a dazzling reading of Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 6. I’m no Bruckner fan, but everything I associate with his symphonies—gargantuan structures, glacial slowness, repetition—doesn’t apply here thanks to Rattle’s sprightly pace and the almost light touch of the musicians in response. 

Broadway Theater Review—Jeremy O. Harris’ “Slave Play”

Slave Play

Written by Jeremy O. Harris; directed by Robert O'Hara

Performances through January 19, 2020

 

 

Jeremy O. Harris' Slave Play (photo: Matthew Murphy)

 

 

Although Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play is raw, angry and, at times, illuminating, it’s most discomfiting that Harris has couched it in familiar tropes that—far from implicating the audience in its dramatic deliberations—undercut his own arguments.

 

 

The play begins on a plantation, as “massa” Jim and slave Kaneisha engage in a verbal dance followed by intercourse. Meanwhile, the slave-owner’s sex-starved wife Alana demands one of the house slaves, Philip, to enter her bedroom to play some Beethoven on his violin; she soon sets upon him with a large black dildo. In a third location, Gary, a black male slave, and Dustin, a white male indentured servant, flirt before engaging in some sexual play.

 

 

It turns out these three couples are role-playing in a study led by Teá and Patricia, a lesbian couple, to discover how and why passion can leave interracial relationships. The middle act of Slave Play consists of discussions among all four couples about race and racism, sexuality and gender. This is followed by an epilogue between Kaneisha and Jim, who have violent sex as the characters they played at the beginning. We are left to wonder if the dynamics of their relationship have shifted.

 

 

Too much of Slave Play is pitched at absurd, almost hysterical levels; so much so that, when Harris makes pertinent points, they are too often buried under his caricatures. The opening segments especially play out like an SNL (or Mad TV) skit, and the ensuing psychoanalytic conversations are right out of an average sitcom. Only the end is truly disturbing, but after two-plus hours of alternately engrossing and enervating material, that final scene feels gratuitously tacked-on.

 

 

Director Robert O’Hara’s gimmicky production gets its focus from Clint Ramos’ distinctive set, in which mirrors at the back stage wall force audience members to become participants and not mere spectators. Images of a plantation are projected onto the balcony, which, when seen in the mirrors, provide an arresting visual reminder of the sordid history the play covers.

 

 

In a play this physically and mentally taxing—even in the saggy middle section with the counselors—the acting is impressively energetic. But the anchor of this excellent octet is Joaquina Kalukango, whose Kaneisha runs the gamut from sexually free slave to tough but scarred modern woman. Kaulkango even does her best to sell the fuzzy and preachy final sequence, giving Slave Play a sliver of humanity amid the platitudes. 

 

 

 

 

Slave Play

Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street, New York, NY

slaveplaybroadway.com

The Philadelphia Orchestra Performs New & Classic Works at Carnegie Hall

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, photo by Chris Lee
 
A promising new season at Carnegie Hall reached an early high-point—on the evening of Tuesday, October 15th—with an magnificent concert featuring the superb musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra under the stellar direction of Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
 
The program began wonderfully with the New York premiere of the orchestration of Umoja, Anthem for Unity by the contemporary composer Valerie Coleman. Much of the melodious piece—which is characterized by fine orchestral writing—has a quintessentially American sound, as is typified by Antonin Dvorák’s New World Symphony or the mid-period works of Aaron Copland, for example. The author ascended the stage for generous applause.
 
Soloist Hélène Grimaud then joined the musicians for a marvelous account of Béla Bartók’s extraordinary Piano Concerto No. 3, one of his more accessible works. The opening Allegretto was enchantingly lyrical, while the ensuing Adagio religioso movement was more introspective, at least in its outer sections. The propulsive finale proved thrilling and the pianist also received an enthusiastic ovation.
 
The second half of the evening was devoted to a masterful reading of Richard Strauss’s expansive, mystical An Alpine Symphony—the conductor succeeded in eliciting the maximum of grandeur from this challenging masterwork. The artists again earned a standing ovation; their next appearance is eagerly awaited.
 

Athens Philharmonic Enchants in Carnegie Hall Debut

Photo by Fadi Kheir Photography
 
An excellent concert could be heard at New York’s Carnegie Hall—on the evening of Thursday, October 10th—with the appearance of the fine musicians of the newly founded Athens Philharmonic under the admirable direction of Yiannis Hadjiloizou.
 
The program opened with a delightful work by the conductor’s father, Michael Hadjiloizou, a leading Greek Cypriot composer: the U.S. premiere of the Ballet from his opera, 9th of July 1821–The Song of Kyprianoswhich has a libretto after the poetry of Vasilis Michaelides, a major Greek poet from Cyprus of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The influence of Greek folk music is palpable throughout the piece.
 
Also enchanting was the U.S. premiere of the conductor’s Cyprus Dance No. 1, Servikos, which draws on the Greek folk tradition of Cyprus, and which the program note describes as “the most popular work of symphonic repertoire on the isle.”
 
The bulk of the concert, however, was devoted to an accomplished reading of Gustav Mahler’s magnificent Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection.” The opening movement was somber but punctuated with lyrical passages as well as several highly dramatic ones. Sprightlier was the ensuing slow movement while more eccentric was the remarkable Scherzo, an instrumental adaptation of a poem from the 19th-century anthology, Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Another poem from that collection is the basis for the setting that comprises the gorgeous fourth movement, “Urlicht,” beautifully sung by Greek-American mezzo-soprano, Daveda Karanas. For the transcendent finale, the musicians were joined by the impressive singers of the NY Choral Society—directed by David Hayes—and the exquisite soprano, Larisa Martinez. The artists received an enthusiastic ovation—let’s hope that they return to the New York concert stages before long.
 

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