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Film and the Arts

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East, Struggles in Italyand Vladimir and Rosa—are often inscrutable, naïve and poseurish, but they are also valuable historical documents from ground level, so to speak.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 


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.

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


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.


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.

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