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September '18 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 

American Animals 


Brutal and brusque, Bart Layton’s crime drama has enough topsy-turviness to keep one watching, even if it ultimately doesn’t achieve the greatness it could have. Still, seeing the real perpetrators of a botched robbery (of a priceless John James Audubon Birds of America volume, of all things) have their say adds a layer of urgency and immediacy to the story of a bunch of goofs bungling their way to seven years in prison.




An offbeat soundtrack of songs like the Doors’ “Peace Frog,” Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” and Ace Frehley’s “New York Groove” also helps. There’s a sparkling hi-def transfer; extras include deleted scenes, featurettes and a director/cast commentary.




I know not to expect much in the way of subtlety from such a bluntly titled movie, but I had hopes for writer-director Michael Pearce’s irascible black drama about a young woman infatuated with a bad boy who might be a killer.




But so many risible plot twists throughout its 105 minutes that after awhile it becomes a cloying, unholy mess of clichés, ridiculously literal visual metaphors and some of the corniest dialogue you will never hope to hear again. Jessie Buckley is a real find, but I hope to see her in something that allows her to do more than act in primary colors. There’s a superior hi-def transfer; lone extra is a making-of featurette.


The Flash—Complete 4th Season 

(Warner Bros)

(Warner Bros. Home Entertainment provided me with a free copy of the Blu-ray I reviewed in this Blog Post. The opinions I share are my own.)

In the latest season of the further adventures of the world’s fastest superhero, Barry Allen (aka the Flash) relies on his family and closest associates to assist in his on-going battles against the usual evildoers and other assorted bad guys.




These 26 fast-paced episodes look terrific in hi-def; extras include a gag reel, deleted scenes, several featurettes and four crossover episodes with other DC super hero series: Arrow, Supergirl and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow.


Godard Mon Amour 

(Cohen Media Group)

Michel Hazanavicius’ amusingly slight ode to Jean-Luc Godard’s feistiness, circa 1968, around the time he decided to go in the direction of a series of increasingly didactic and politically left-wing films, has a fine performance by Louis Garrel as Godard and a far more incisive one by Stacy Martin as his then-girlfriend, young actress Anne Wiazemsky (on whose memoir this is based). 




Godard Mon Amour—which at least deserves the subtler humor of its original title, Le Redoubtable—is fun for Godard aficionados, less so for the uninitiated. There’s an excellent Blu-ray transfer; lone extra is a conversation with Hazanavicius and Martin.


Home from the Hill 

(Warner Archive)

Robert Mitchum dominates this 1960 adaptation of William Humphrey’s novel about an unrepentant womanizer, his harried wife and two grown sons, one hers and the one another woman’s from an earlier relationship of his.




Vincente Minnelli directs in broad strokes, which makes the plot’s soap–operaish aspects more obvious and even risible, but the 150-minute running time lets us get a handle on these characters, and if Eleanor Parker (wife), Richard Hamilton and George Peppard (sons) and a delightful Luana Patten (both sons’ girl) don’t have much chance to make a mark, Mitchum’s credible cragginess remains front and center. Warner Archive’s hi-def transfer looks pristine.


Memories of Underdevelopment 


Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s classic of Cuban cinema was released in 1968, but didn’t make its mark here until its release five years later with its story of a Cuban intellectual sifting through an idle life of casual sex and empty political gestures after the rest of his family flees to Miami in the wake of Castro’s revolution.




Brilliantly directed by Alea—who uses documentary techniques to great effect—this is among Criterion’s top recent resurrections, from its top-notch hi-def transfer to the extras, comprising interviews and a 2008 documentary about Alea’s career, Titon: From Havana to “Guantanamera.” 


Never So Few 

(Warner Archive)

Shot on location in Burma (now Myanmar) and Thailand, this tough-minded but diffuse World War II drama stars Frank Sinatra as a commanding troop leader dealing with bloody guerrilla warfare that his superiors don’t understand.




Director John Sturges does well with the action sequences and tense moments between battles where the men wonder what’s yet to come, but a romantic subplot involving Sinatra and Gina Lollobrigida (in one of her few English-language starring roles) detracts from, rather than adds to, the overall portrait. The Cinemascope film looks splendid on Blu.


Tucker—The Man and His Dream 


In Francis Coppola’s stillborn 1988 biopic about Preston Tucker, an auto innovator who went up against Detroit’s Big Three with the Tucker Torpedo in the late ‘40s, Jeff Bridges must swim upstream against a tide of clichés, visual gimmickry and everything else Coppola tries to sustain interest in a story that really shouldn’t rely on it.




In a life or death struggle over who dominates the movie, unfortunately Coppola wins. The film looks quite good on Blu; extras include a Coppola commentary and intro, deleted scenes and vintage making-of.


Woman Walks Ahead 


Susannah White’s absorbing historical drama follows Catherine Weldon, a widowed painter from New York who in 1892 traveled across the country to paint the great Sitting Bull. Even if its historical veracity is questionable, the film is filled with gorgeous western vistas and an estimable cast led by Jessica Chastain’s forcefully bull-headed heroine and Michael Greyeyes’s humane, gentle Sitting Bull.




There’s also fine support from Sam Rockwell, Bill Camp and Ciaran Hinds as the men who help—or hinder—Weldon in her seemingly quixotic quest. On Blu-ray, the film looks great; extras are deleted scenes, making-of featurette and White’s commentary.

August '18 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 


(Warner Archive)

This big, lumbering mess was a complete flop in 1984, but it’s hard to blame then-unknown Helen Slater, charming in the lead but unable to do what Christopher Reeve did in the 1978 Superman. 




Faye Dunaway’s notoriously campy villainess is fun but wearying; even at director Jeannot Szwarc’s original 125-minute length (cut to 105 minutes for American release), this is only on par with the lazy Superman III. The film looks sharp on Blu-ray; extras include a DVD of the even clunkier 138-minute “international cut,” vintage making-of featurette and Szwarc’s commentary.


Ash vs. Evil Dead—Complete 3rd Season


The final season of this horror comedy series finds Ash once again doing battle with the evil dead, although this time it’s personal: he discovers he has a teenage daughter, whose own life has been fatally marked by such blood-letting.




As always, the tongue-in-cheek gore is either too much of a bad thing or not enough of a good thing, but the performances of Bruce Campbell and sparkplug newcomer Arielle Carver-O’Neill are a bonus. There’s a stellar hi-def transfer; extras are director commentaries on all episodes.










Earth’s Natural Wonders—Season 2: Life at the Extremes 


In this second season of documentary explorations of astonishing landscapes, these four engrossing one-hour episodes glimpse at how populations are able to survive in some of the most arduous conditions on the entire planet.




From high in the mountains to deep into the rain forest, intrepid camera crews document how these people make the best of the inclement regions in which they’ve settled. The hi-def imagery is quite astounding to watch; extras are brief making-of featurettes at the end of each episode.


(Warner Bros. Home Entertainment provided me with a free copy of the Blu-ray I reviewed in this Blog Post. The opinions I share are my own.)

Gotham—Complete 4th Season

(Warner Bros)

The Batman backstory continues as millionaire Bruce Wayne makes his slow march toward vigilantism while the police commissioner and mayor find it more difficult to control villains coming out of the woodwork, from the Riddler to the Penguin (played with unctuous glee by Robin Lord Taylor).




Despite familiar storylines and characters, the series’ 22 episodes provide fine entertainment for all Caped Crusader fanatics. The Blu-ray transfer is terrific; extras include The Best of DC TV’s Comic-Con Panels San Diego 2017, Solomon Grundy: Born on a MondayThe Sirens Take Gotham and deleted scenes.










Hot August Night III—Neil Diamond 


Forty years after his sold-out 1972 concert led to the classic live album Hot August Night, Neil Diamond returned to the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles for another epic performance, this time interspersing songs he played that seminal evening with handfuls of later hits.




Unfortunately, many of the newer songs are unmitigated pap (“You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” “Forever in Blue Jeans,” “America”), but his older catalog is so sturdy that the good outweighs the not so good: “Cherry Cherry,” “Holly Holy,” “I Am, I Said,” Play Me” and “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show.” Diamond is in remarkably good voice and his band sounds great throughout. Hi-def video and audio are first-rate; lone extra is a 15-minute backstage featurette. The complete concert is also on two audio CDs.


Sila and the Gatekeepers of the Arctic


This pinpoint study of what climate change is doing to the Arctic was directed by Corina Gamma, who introduces people in an Inuit village at the world’s northernmost point to see how they live and cope with drastic changes to their very way of life.




This illuminating documentary is, in its quiet way, as devastating as anything else you may see on this always sadly relevant subject. There’s a splendid hi-def transfer; extras are bonus interviews.










The Walking Dead—Complete 8th Season 


For the latest season of one of television’s biggest shows, the plots of both The Walking Dead and its popular spinoff, Fear the Walking Dead, merge to present characters from both shows dealing with one another’s destinies.




Acted, written and shot with utmost professionalism, the series—despite its tendency toward repetition—continues to please its many fans. The hi-def transfer sparkles; extras comprise several audio commentaries and featurettes.


Village of the Damned

(Warner Archive)

Made in 1960 at the height of Cold War hysteria, this creepily subtle horror film feels at times like an extended episode of Rod Serling’s original Twilight Zone, definitely a compliment. After a mysterious episode blacks out the denizens of an entire town, several of the women become pregnant: their children quickly mature to become a race of, well, superkids, who threaten in their own quietly malevolent way to take over.




Director Wolf Rilla displays an air of eerie menace throughout, and the B&W photography helps create a sense of foreboding—until the literally explosive ending. There’s an excellent hi-def transfer; lone extra is an audio commentary.


Broadway Musical Review—"Gettin' the Band Back Together"

Gettin’ the Band Back Together

Book by Ken Davenport and the Grundleshotz; music & lyrics by Mark Allen

Directed by John Rando


Kelli Barrett and Mitchell Jarvis in Gettin' the Band Back Together (photo: Joan Marcus)

Vanity projects don’t come more desperate than Gettin’ the Band Back Together, with a book co-written by Ken Davenport, one of its producers, who brags to the audience before the show begins that it was created through improv. Unsurprisingly, that mish-mash of witless, unfunny, uninteresting anecdotes and characters was stitched together into a dreary, overlong musical with pseudo-rock songs that try to (but never) approximate the hitmakers they emulate, Bon Jovi.


Bon Jovi is quite a low bar, but songwriter Mark Allen never gets over it. The story is about Mitch, a failed Wall Streeter who returns to his hometown of Sayreville, NJ (where Jon Bon Jovi came from) to find that it’s apparently stuck in a time warp, with his high school friends still living there and his high school nemesis Tygen still winning local band competitions. When Mitch finds out that Tygen owns much of Sayreville, including his mother Sharon’s house (which she has foreclosed on), he takes Tygen’s challenge to join the contest and is soon back in the garage with his buds in the band Juggernaut, playing the rock’n’roll music they love so much.


This could have been a breezy, 80-minute off-off Broadway show, but instead, at 2-1/2 hours, Band treats its non-story like the preparations for D-Day. Very little of this is amusing, much is risible, and nothing’s memorable. Worst is how the women are treated: Mitch’s mom Sharon is a MILF who has an affair with Bart, the clownish high school teacher who plays bass in Juggernaut, to Mitch’s understandable disgust. It’s played for laughs, but more obnoxious is how Dani, Mitch’s long-ago girlfriend, is treated: a single mom with a teenage daughter, she’s—get this—dating self-centered Tygen, which makes no sense but, since it gets Mitch’s goat, into the show it goes. 


The songs blend together blandly—and playing tunes by the likes of The Who, the Beatles, and Grand Funk Railroad pre-show and at intermission, and having Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry figure in the plot (he screwed Mitch’s mom many decades ago), does the show no favors—even if the slickness of John Rando’s direction, and Derek McLane’s and Ken Billington’s clever sets and lighting, ensure that it all looks like a professional production.


The energetic cast works hard, especially in two stupefyingly weird numbers that open Act II and that provide “what the hell was that?” entertainment: a rap-metal “Hava Nagila” at a Jewish wedding and a song “Second Chances,” wherein the world’s most self-pitying lounge singer bemoans his romantic misfires at the local diner.


The only ones escaping this mess unscathed are the ageless Marilu Henner as Sharon and the matchless Kelli Barrett as Dani. Barrett is a Rock of Ages alumna—she made the original off-Broadway incarnation palatable—but has since gone from flop to flop like the Doctor Zhivago musical and now this. She deserves much better. 


Gettin’ the Band Back Together

Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street, NY, NY

August '18 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 

Breaking In 


Gabrielle Union makes a kick-ass heroine in this derivative but fun thriller as a mother who takes revenge on the murderous thugs who invade her dead father’s home looking for a stash of cash and take her two children hostage.




A scant 88 minutes—the unrated cut is barely a minute longer—James McTeigue’s drama is nearly all twisty action, and Union throws herself into the role with intensity, whether climbing the roof or turning the tables on the thugs. The hi-def transfer is stellar; extras include an alternate opening, deleted/extended scenes, featurettes and director’s commentary.


Warner Bros. Home Entertainment provided me with a free copy of the Blu-ray I reviewed in this Blog Post. The opinions I share are my own.

Arrow—Complete 6th Season 

(Warner Bros)

Oliver Queen, aka Arrow, now adds the even more difficult job of father to his already packed resume of mayor and superhero, which gives the series’ latest season its forward momentum. Also helping is that a group of past villains now threatens him and Star City, so he recruits several compatriots for a battle royale that highlights these 26 action-packed episodes.





The hi-def transfer is immaculate; extras are four featurettes and four cross-over DCD comics episodes from other series.













How to Talk to Girls at Parties 


Director-cowriter John Cameron Mitchell pointlessly expands Neil Gaiman’s 2006 short story about a cult of extraterrestrial hotties in late ‘70s England, and hits us over the head with punk and hormonal teen angst that rarely becomes interesting or insightful.




Elle Fanning is completely lost trying to make sense of her ridiculous character, and the rest of the cast doesn’t stand a chance in this bloated adaptation of a concise 18-page story. On Blu-ray, the movie looks fine; lone extra is a short making-of.


Life of the Party 

(Warner Bros)

Here’s another lazy Melissa McCarthy vehicle: she joins her daughter at Decatur U. after her husband drops her for the local realtor.





Once in her dorm room, this mousy middle-aged housefrau becomes big woman on campus, seducing a bartender half her age (her ex’s new wife’s son, naturally) and living a fantasy life only possible when the star and her director husband Ben Falcone write a script accentuating easy laughs. It looks decent on Blu; extras include a gag reel, deleted scenes and featurettes.











Strike Back—Complete 5th Season 


Section 20 has recruited a fresh team of commandos to continue the undeclared but seemingly endless war on terror in the ten episodes that make up the series’ fifth season, punctuated by derring-do and triumphant breakthroughs.





Although the repetitiveness of their actions and ops slows down its momentum, there’s still much there to entertain. It all looks great on Blu; extras comprise making-of featurettes.


The Yellow Birds 


This earnest-to-a-fault Iraq war drama attempts to distinguish itself from other similarly-themed films about our soldiers in a remote area of the world where they are neither wanted nor respected, but its story of two platoon buddies and how one must keep his promise to the other’s mother just feels derivative and stale.






Director Alexandre Moors gets good performances by Ty Sheridan and Alden Ehrenreich as the grunts and Jennifer Aniston as the grieving mom, but there’s nothing here that hasn’t already been done more affectingly. There’s a very good hi-def transfer; lone extra is a making-of featurette.


DVD of the Week 

Spiral—Complete 6th Season 


This first-rate French crime series returns for one of its most engrossing, if grisly, seasons yet: the Parisian police unit led by Capt. Laure Berthaud (recently back from maternity leave, she must balance her lack of motherly instinct with her sickly premature daughter) conducts a murder investigation involving corrupt cops, while Judge Roban and Josephine Karlsson deal with demons of their own as their professional lives demand even more.





Skillfully written and directed, Spiral is riveting thanks to an explosive cast led by Caroline Proust as Laure, Philippe Duclos as Roban and a pair of extraordinarily diverse performers who also made A French Village a must-watch: Thierry Godard as Gilou (Laure’s partner turned lover) and Audrey Fleurot as Josephine.


CD of the Week

Reizenstein/Goldschmidt—Cello Concertos 


Two decades ago, a series of recordings released under the “Entartete Musik” rubric covered composers whose music was suppressed by the Nazis; the great thing about that invaluable series was its paving the way for other labels to release music by these forgotten but worthy names. This disc pairs cello concertos by Franz Reizenstein and Berthold Goldschmidt, the latter well-represented by “Entartete music” (including a recording of this concerto by Yo-Yo Ma).




These performances by soloist Raphael Wallfisch and the Konzerthausorchester Berlin under conductor Nicholas Milton’s baton are filled with energy and finesse, providing glimpses of voices that were only temporarily quieted (Reizenstein died in 1968, Goldschmidt in 1996).

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