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March '18 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt 

While the City Sleeps 

(Warner Archive)

This pair of films noir by German director Fritz Lang dates from 1956; these were the last pictures that the creator of classics and Metropolis would make in Hollywood. 




Reasonable Doubt uses capital punishment for a twisty melodrama starring Dana Andrews and Joan Fontaine, while City Sleeps (also with Andrews, alongside George Sanders and Vincent Price) darkly explores the case of the “lipstick killer,” who murders young women. Both films are watchable if unexciting; the appropriately moody widescreen B&W compositions are enhanced by flawless hi-def transfers.


Copland Conducts Copland 


This 1976 L.A. concert teams 75-year-old composer Aaron Copland conducting his own works, played with verve by the Los Angeles Philharmonic: it’s a greatest hits collection of sorts, starting with Fanfare for the Common Man and including El Salon Mexico, The Tender Land suite and an excerpt from his ballet Rodeo.




But the highlight is a swinging version of Copland’s charming Clarinet Concerto, played by none other than 67-year-old Benny Goodman, who commissioned the work from Copland in 1947. Video and audio are adequate if unexceptional; no extras, although Copland briefly describes each piece before it’s played.












In the grand tradition of social activists like Cesar Chavez—whom she married—is Dolores Huerta, who remains mostly unknown despite her vast importance in the historic farm workers’ union movement she and Chavez led.




Peter Bratt’s expansive documentary portrait, built around an interview with the now 87-year-old—and still vigorous—Huerta, intimately explores her long career championing workers’ and women’s rights, with personal encomiums by Hillary Clinton, Gloria Steinem and many others. The film looks excellent in hi-def.


The Passion of Joan of Arc 


One of the towering silent-era masterpieces, Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 drama recreates the trial and death of Joan of Arc with an intimacy and intensity that’s nothing short of riveting. Add to that Renee Falconetti’s miraculous performance as Joan; her mesmerizing face, held in relentless close-ups by Dreyer, show both the agony and the ecstasy of Joan’s martyrdom, culminating in her burning at the stake.




The hi-def transfer is exceptionally good; Criterion’s extras include an alternate version of the film, three separate musical scores, audio commentary, interviews, and a video essay.


Sacha Guitry—Four Films 1936-1938 

(Arrow Academy)

A true bon vivant, French triple-threat Sacha Guitry made witty, talky films with his inimitably—and at times annoyingly—gregarious personality at their center, and this boxed set collects four features he churned out in a space of two years: The New Testament, My Father Was Right, Let’s Make a Dream and Let’s Go Up the Champs Elysses.




Bright and clever, these films go down easily, despite staginess and the occasional overbearing sequence. All four films look lovely in hi-def; extras include scholar Ginette Vincendeau’s intros and commentaries; video essays; sound tests; and a 60-page book.


Stopping Traffic 

(Gravitas Ventures)

Activist Sadhvi Siddhali Shree urgently tackles the sadly relevant topic of sex trafficking in her trenchant documentary, which travels the world for its eye-opening glimpse, landing not only in places we aren’t surprised by (i.e., Mexico, Iraq, the Philippines) but also various U.S. locations.




It’s unapologetically blunt in its depiction of sex trafficking’s horrors, and is tough to watch at times: but a necessary polemic. The film looks fine on Blu-ray.


DVD of the Week

Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In—Complete 3rd Season 


This latest Laugh-In release brings together episodes from the 1969-70 season of the classic comedy-variety show hosted by Dick Rowan and Dan Martin, perfect ringmasters for a crazed stew of corny jokes, goofy skits, musical interludes and political satire, starring a motley crew of regulars (Ruth Buzzi, Goldie Hawn, Arte Johnson, Lily Tomlin, Jo Ann Worley) and guest stars (Johnny Carson, Ringo Starr, The Monkees, Diana Ross, Zsa Zsa Gabor).




Along with the 26 full episodes, bonus features comprise a Lily Tomlin interview and a tribute to the series’ creator George Shlatter.

Off-Broadway Review—David Rabe’s “Good for Otto”

Good for Otto

Written by David Rabe; directed by Scott Elliott

Performances through April 15, 2018


Ed Harris and Rileigh McDonald in Good for Otto (photo: Monique Carboni)

Now 78, playwright David Rabe can’t be accused of coasting on his considerable laurels: his plays Sticks and Bones and Streamers are seared into theatergoers’ consciousness as some of the most invigorating and thoughtful excursions into the damaged American psyche thanks to Vietnam. His latest, Good for Otto, is among his most ambitious. Nearly three hours long, it explores the troubled psyches of people at the Northwood Mental Health Center in the Berkshires: two psychologists and their patients, all weighed down by the horrors of ordinary life.


The therapists, Dr. Robert Michaels (played by Ed Harris with his customary combination of intensity and folksiness) and Evangeline (another intelligent Amy Madigan portrayal), are as flawed as their charges, especially Robert, a veteran doctor haunted by the specter of his dead mother, who committed suicide when Robert was nine. Evangeline’s own difficulties are brought up late in the play, when she appears at Robert’s doorstep drunk and ready to confess her shortcomings.


The troubled individuals these two deal with include Jane, whose grown son Jimmy inexplicably blew his brains out with a shotgun, the cause of her frequent headaches; Barnard, a retiree who can’t see the point in getting out of bed; Jerome, a hoarder unable to move out of his mother’s basement; Alex, who’s slowly taking the painful steps of coming out of the closet; Timothy, who can’t handle others in social situations; and Frannie, a teenager whose life is such a shambles that she’s cutting herself while being raised by Nora, a well-meaning but ineffectual foster mom.


Rabe generously gives these people ample chance to tell their stories—he even allows Jimmy to explain why he killed himself in a painful monologue—but this very generosity is also his long and unwieldy play’s undoing. Very simply, some people deserve to be heard, while others make less compelling cases for themselves. Rabe realizes that Jerome isn’t very interesting, so he’s quickly shunted aside to the piano. (Occasional song interludes by the cast—mainly accompanied by actor Kenny Mellman, who plays Jerome—punctuate these confessionals in a strained attempt to break up the repetitiveness.) Likewise, much stage time is given over to Barnard’s constant harping about how Evangeline is increasingly annoying him by ending their sessions with a curt “to be continued.” However charmingly F. Murray Abraham plays him, Barnard gets whiny quickly.


Frannie, on the other hand, deserves her considerable time onstage, thanks to how incisively and emotionally complex young Rileigh McDonald plays her, aided by Rhea Perlman’s sympathetically bemused Nora. And there’s intriguing drama whenever Robert’s ghostly mother appears, not least because of the ingratiating Charlotte Hope. But chunks of Good for Otto are deadly: Exhibit A is Timothy (a finely flustered Mark Linn-Baker), proud owner of a hamster named Otto, who needs a delicate operation. This meandering subplot seems to exist only to give the play its offbeat title.


Scott Elliott’s typically shrewd directing isn’t able to overcome how episodic Rabe has made Otto, diluting its dramatic impact. Although it focuses on the messiness of its characters’ lives (and includes unsubtle shots at our convoluted and weak health care system), Otto might be the tidiest play Rabe has yet written, and consequently one of his weakest.


Good for Otto

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

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 Wifesmartly 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.

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.

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