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October '17 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week
Personal Shopper
(Criterion)
French director Olivier Assayas wrote this vapid 2016 ghost story with Kristen Stewart in mind, and it’s one of his biggest failures, on par with Irma Vep and Boarding Gate; as with those films, his natural empathy and artistry is conspicuously missing. Stewart’s title character is also a medium who tries contacting her recently deceased twin brother—also, naturally, a medium—while getting involved in what turns out to be a brutal murder.
Not helped by at all by Assayas’ bogus script, Stewart sleepwalks (or Vespa-rides) through it all, coming to life only when she’s stalked by a stranger on her phone, where she lets her fingers do the talking, so to speak. The film looks pristine on Blu; extras include an Assayas interview and 2016 Cannes press conference.
 
Blood Feast
(Arrow)
Herschel Gordon Lewis is considered the Godfather of Gore, and Blood Feast, a 1963 humdinger, is one of his earliest forays into cinematic bloodletting: the plot is inscrutable (a loony caterer kills and dismembers nubile young women for a party feast he’s preparing) and the murder sequences are fake-looking enough to be funny, even if during its original release it was the last word in nasty violence.
But for more ineptitude, there’s Lewis’s 1963 B&W mess, Scum of the Earth, as a bonus, along with Lewis intros, commentaries, featurettes, outtakes and a short film. The films have good hi-def presentations, at least.
 
Bushwick 
(RLJ Entertainment)
Brooklyn becomes the scene of murderous anarchy—not the fault of Mayor de Blasio—in this convincingly downbeat drama about an invasion by a “new” Confederate army backing a seceding Texas. Directors Cary Murnion and Jonathan Milott use lots of hand-held, excruciatingly long takes to put us on the ground with people just trying to stay alive without knowing exactly what the hell is going on.
Brittany Snow leaves behind her cute Pitch Perfect persona to play a naïve grad student who quickly transforms into a hardened combatant. It’s highly implausible but, scene by scene, fairly gripping right to the end. Lone extra is a making-of featurette.
 
Murdoch Mysteries—Once upon a Murdoch Christmas
(Acorn)
This genial holiday episode of the long-running Canadian drama series about a police inspector in early 20th century Toronto ties together sentiment, warmth and a good old-fashioned mystery as a thief steals expensive items from Eaton’s shoppers while the police department chorus practices for the upcoming holiday party.
Fans of the series will be thrilled by this good-natured entertainment; this isn’t the first time there’s been a Murdoch holiday episode, and it likely won’t be the last. The Blu-ray transfer is excellent; extras are brief featuretttes.
 
Red Christmas 
(Artsploitation Films)                    
Aussie writer-director Craig Anderson somehow convinced the iconic Dee Wallace (E.T., Cujo, The Howling) to take part in his relentlessly insane horror movie about a masked intruder who takes his mommy and daddy issues out on a family—including a heavily pregnant young woman—getting together for Christmas.
Fans of icky slasher flicks may love its lunacy (notably when the grotesque Big Reveal comes), while others can watch Wallace do her thing, especially in the utterly crazed finale. The film looks sparkling on Blu; extras include a Wallace interview, deleted scene, bloopers, and an Anderson interview and commentary.
 
DVDs of the Week
School of Babel
(Icarus)
Julie Bertuccelli’s enormously moving documentary follows a group of students—refugees from other countries, ranging from Northern Ireland to Serbia, and China to the Ivory Coast—through their first year in a French school, all learning the language and their new culture under the superhuman tutelage of their teacher, Ms. Cervoni.
These teens are a bright hope for the future, and in Cervoni, Bertuccelli paints an indelible portrait of a woman doing her best, against all odds, to prepare them for what’s ahead. Extras include a Bertuccelli interview and a featurette showing the students two years after being filmed.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Soul on a String 
(Film Movement)
Stunning widescreen vistas notwithstanding, Zhang Yang’s epic adventure—which follows an unrepentant killer drawn to a mythical destination after finding a tooth inside the mouth of a dead deer—meanders for 140 minutes through mysticism, cutesy dramatics (accompanying the quest are a young woman and too-adorable young boy) and slowing down the narrative to let desultory encounters play out.
Spectacular scenery and oversaturated photography keep viewers occupied throughout; it’s too bad this isn’t available in hi-def on Blu for the visuals alone. Lone extra is a short, The Rifle, The Jackal, The Wolf and The Boy by Lebanese director Oualid Mouaness.
 

October '17 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 

The Collection

(PBS)
The latest British import to air on PBS’s Masterpiece is this handsomely mounted but slow-moving eight-episode mini-series about the post-WWII Parisian fashion industry, showing Brits, Yanks and Frenchmen and women deal with professional and personal difficulties at the elite House of Sabine.
The large cast, led by the great Frances de la Tour, struggles to put its stamp on the clichéd and ultimately pallid goings-on. The hi-def transfer is first-rate; extras are three behind-the-scenes featurettes.
 
Hana-Bi
(Film Movement Classics)
Japanese writer-director-actor Takeshi Kitano (or Beat Takeshi, his screen name) makes ultra-violent gangster movies that trade on extreme (often risible) violence, and this 1997 drama—known in English as Fireworks—is no exception.
Beat plays a detective caught up in a nihilistic world of debt, the yakuza and robbery, all while his wife has leukemia and his partner is paralyzed by a horrible attack. Technically accomplished like all Kitano movies, Hana-Bi lacks originality but may be bloody enough for genre fans. The film looks excellent in hi-def; extras include a commentary and making-of featurette.
 
The Hidden

(Warner Archive)

An alien entity invades various human victims, turning them into bloodthirsty killers, as an L.A. detective and FBI agent stay on its trail in this insanely slimy 1987 comic thriller by director Jack Sholder and writer Bob Hunt.
There’s an admitted cleverness in the way the takeover of bodies is shown—a kind of reverse Alien bursting sequence—but it soon becomes repetitive, which undermines what’s trying to be a fast-paced, whiz-bang flick. The film looks fine on Blu; extras are Sholder’s commentary and effects footage.
 
The Sea Wolf
(Warner Archive)
In this exciting drama based on a Jack London novel, director Michael Curtiz puts us right on board the cramped boat helmed by a crazed captain, as a couple of stowaways—a writer and an escaped convict played by Alexander Knox and Ida Lupino—try and keep their heads above water, literally and figuratively, alongside the paralyzed crew.
Edward G. Robinson’s forceful Captain Larsen, a complicated bad guy, is a subtle portrait that keeps the movie afloat, and in the right direction. The 1941 B&W film—restored to its original 100-minute running time—looks brand-new on Blu-ray; lone extra is a 1950 radio adaptation.
 
The Who TommyLive at the Royal Albert Hall

(Eagle Rock)

This past spring, Roger Daltrey and Peter Townshend joined together for a good cause—the Teenage Cancer Trust—to perform The Who’s seminal 1969 rock opera at Royal Albert Hall: Daltrey is in exceptionally good vocal shape, hitting some tough high notes on several songs (though in others, like the encore “Who Are You,” he avoids them), and Townshend is still a gale force on guitar.
The band’s rousing performance is bolstered by an encore of greatest hits, and the hi-def video and audio are top-notch. Extras are a rehearsal featurette and concert video screen images from “The Acid Queen” and “Pinball Wizard.”
 
DVDs of the Week
Deconstructing the Beatles
(Abramorama)
For several years, Beatles expert Scott Freiman has been presenting his irresistible “Deconstructing the Beatles” lectures—delving deep into the Fab Four catalog to unveil the multi-layers of each track with precise and dead-on analysis—and these four discs include his lively discussions of four of the group’s greatest albums: Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the White Album. (There is one quibble: where’s Abbey Road?)
Extras are Q&As from each lecture, and—on all four discs—a discussion with former New York Times critic Janet Maslin and five short “Deconstructing” featurettes.
 
Lewis Black—Black to the Future

(MVD)

Lewis Black, our angriest comic, has got plenty to be furious about in this hilarious standup special taped in New York City last fall prior to the election: he rages against anything and everyone, starting with Ben Carson and the media, and moving onto Ted Cruz, Hillary and Trump.
A welcome bonus is a 50-minute Q&A, The Rant Is Due, hosted by his friend Kathleen Madigan, from 2014 in Napa Valley wherein fans pepper the comedian with questions that he answers with ranting truthfulness.
 
Marcella—Complete 1st Season
(Acorn)

As a London detective sergeant devastated by the collapse of her marriage and who returns to the force to track a serial killer who may be linked to her ex, Anna Friel gives a complex performance of noble ferocity.

Her formidable presence, which helps make even the least credible plot and character bits in this eight-episode series work thoroughly and satisfyingly, elevates the tattered but taut police procedural to a status it probably doesn’t deserve. 

October '17 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 
Othello
(Criterion)
Orson Welles’ deliriously cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare’s great tragedy was made intermittently over several years, and wasn’t finished until 1952—even then, it has (like several Welles’s films) been shown in varied edits; the new Criterion set includes two—the second from 1955—which have differences but are cinematically and historically worthy.
Both versions look sublime on Blu-ray; extras include Welles’s final finished film, 1979’s Making Othello; 1995’s Souvenirs d’Othello, about Suzanne Cloutier (who plays Desdemona); 1953 short Return to Glennascaul; and interviews with Welles biographer Simon Callow and scholars.
 
Children of the Corn
(Arrow)
Stephen King’s already forgettable short story was stretched to a dullish 85 minutes by director Fritz Kiersch for his woebegone 1984 adaptation, which stars Linda Hamilton and Peter Horton as a couple of benighted travelers stuck in a tiny village overrun by murderous children under a spell of sorts by “He Who Walks Behind the Rows.” At least the film has a superior hi-def transfer, and the extras include interviews (including a new one with Hamilton), commentaries, and Disciples of the Crow, a 1983 short also based on King’s original tale.
 
The Farthest—Voyager in Space 
(PBS)
The amazing journeys of the Voyager spacecraft—which together gave NASA its first fly-bys of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune—is recounted in intelligent and informative fashion in writer-director Emer Reynolds’ documentary, which comprises the still spectacular images both craft provided along with the often emotional reminiscences of those who were involved with the launches and flights through our solar system and beyond.
Needless to say, it all looks gorgeous on Blu-ray; lone extra is an 18-minute short, Second Genesis.
 
A Fish Called Wanda
(Arrow)
This nasty, only fitfully funny 1988 black comedy—written by John Cleese and directed by Ealing Studios veteran Charles Crichton—has not aged well: Kevin Kline’s Oscar-winning performance as a dim-witted American seems excessively shrill and the sight gags and comic situations are strained and obvious. Still, with Cleese and Michael Palin on board, there are some golden comic moments, albeit few and far between.
Happily, there’s a nice amount of grain on the new hi-def transfer; extras comprise Cleese’s commentary; 1988 behind-the-scenes documentary John Cleese’s Final Farewell Performance; 15th anniversary retrospective featurette Something Fishy; film locations featurette; Cleese’s introduction; and 26 deleted scenes with Cleese commentary.
 
The House 
(Warner Bros)
Will Farrell and Amy Poehler coast on whatever’s left of theirSNL legacy in this shrill, abrasive, and mostly unfunny comedy about parents who turn their home into a casino to raise money for their beloved daughter’s college tuition.
Even at 88 minutes, The House feels impossibly stretched out, especially when Jeremy Renner shows up as a tough-guy Mafioso who meets his match in our two stars. The hi-def transfer is fine; extras include two featurettes, deleted and extended scenes, and a gag reel, which shows that at least they had fun making the movie.
 
Pilgrimage
(RLJ Entertainment)
Director Brendan Muldowney’s historical drama about a dangerous journey from an Irish monastery to Rome to deliver an important religious relic has a formidable visual pedigree (costumes, sets, vistas are all astonishing) but is a bumpy ride nevertheless.
There’s enough visceral action to keep it watchable, but it could have been something more. The film does look splendid on Blu, and the extras are behind-the-scenes featurettes and interviews.
 
Superman: The Movie—Extended Cut & Special Edition 
(Warner Bros)
Richard Donner’s original 1978 Superman movie—a flawed but hugely entertaining superhero movie that’s much more palatable (and memorable) than the more recent Marvel flicks—was originally shown on network TV with an extra 40 minutes of unseen footage, and that 188-minute epic makes its Blu-ray debut in this release, along with Donner’s own 2-1/2 hour “special edition.”
Both versions have excellent hi-def transfers; extras include a Donner commentary, featurettes, restored and additional scenes, and screen tests—the best of which are alternate Lois Lanes: Stockard Channing, Debra Raffin, Susan Blakely and (my favorite) Anne Archer.
 

The Honeymooners Musical Has World Premiere at Paper Mill Playhouse

Photographs by Evan Zimmerman and Jerry Dalia/Paper Mill Playhouse

* * * ½

The world premiere production of Stephen Weiner, Peter Mills, and Dusty
 Kay and Bill Nuss’s musical comedy adaptation of the classic TV sit-com The Honeymooners offers a nostalgia-dipped trip down memory lane. It opened October 8 at the Paper Mill Playhouse, (22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ). 
The series aired in drab B&W from 1956-1957 for 39 original episodes and has been in re-runs since. It starred Jackie Gleason, Art Carney, Audrey Meadows, and Joyce Randolph (soon to be a spry 94, who was present for the opening and garnered lots of love from fans). The musical, set against a spectacular rendering of the New York skyline, however, is drowned in deep color hues and sparkling rhinestones. It’s a shame, with today’s tech advances that the show couldn’t open, ala The Wizard of Oz, in B&W and segue into color.

The setting is a few weeks before Christmas, 1950: a sparse walk-up in Brooklyn with small “dining room” table barely large enough for two with checkered tablecloth, a drapeless window, sink with separate hot and cold water faucets, and 
an icebox, with drip pan underneath. It’s the residence of redhead (who knew?) Alice Kramden and her husband Ralph, a driver for the Gotham Bus Company, who’s prone to daydreaming and dreaming up get-rich schemes. Today’s also Ralph’s long-sought promotion will make all his dreams come true.

HONEYLeadsCompositeStarring in these iconic roles are Tony winner Michael McGrath (Nice Work If You Can Get It) and seasoned Broadway star Leslie Kritzer. In the equally iconic roles of best friends and neighbors Ed and Trixie Norton are Michael Mastro and blonde bombshell belter Laura Bell Bundy, whose breakthrough role came in 1992 was as  the teenage horror child actress in the Off Broadway hit Ruthless; and who earned a Tony nomination for her Elle Woods portrayal in the stage adaptation of Legally Blonde,

 McGrath and Mastro bring such brilliance to their impersonations, you’ll believe Ralph and Ed jumped out – totally colorized – from your wall-mounted flat TV. And, yes, Ralph is still at his get off Chauncey Street schemes – abetted by faithful Ed. This time he and Norton concoct an awful jingle for a contest sponsored by an Italian cheese company and its ad agency – and, lo and behold, win – with a huge payout, their entry as execs in the cutthroat world of Mad Men, and lush living on Park Avenue.

Snippy realtor (Harris Milgrim) showing Alice and Ralph a penthouse states: “Our tenants are carefully screened and enjoy the highest level of affluence.” Ralph replies: “How about that, Alice? When you yell out the window to neighbors, you’ll have millionaires yelling back.”

Ralph never realized Alice is smarter and savvier than he is – but he does come to that conclusion finally in the book by TV veterans Dusty Kay and Bill Nuss – their credits include, respectively, Entourage and Roseanne; and Hawaii Five-0 and the NCIS franchise. They have been smart enough to include many golden moments from the beloved series – and would have been smarter to include more in the two-hour and 40 minute production. Certainly, some would be a welcome addition to Act One. 

Alice, who more often than not outsmarted her King of the Castle, always stood by her man because she knew all that bellicose “To the moon” barking was just him being a “blowhard and wind-bag” opening his “biiig mouth.” She/Kritzer also has an Act Two showstopping moment that generated the kind of thunderous applause Bette Midler gets even when she wiggles her pinky in Hello, Dolly! Her feminist anthem, way ahead of its time, “A Woman’s Work”’ literally brought the house down.

HoneyMMastroMMcGrathjpgFans of the TV show may be stunned to learn that Trixie is an alum of burlesque theater. What?

 A bit of research proved that this info was dropped in a lost episode not found/aired until the mid-80s because it was considered too risqué for the time. This background gives Bundy saucy moments in a skirt slit up to “here” or in skimpy costumes. She’s proven she can pretty well pull just about anything off, but all her pulling off here is a bit jarring – no fault of hers – she didn’t write the book, but it simply doesn’t seem like the Trixie we know and love. In her spicy number, “Keepin’ It Warm,” set in New York’s famed, but long-gone El Morocco, she comes over more like Adelaide giving back her mink in Guys and Dolls –,certainly a nice throwback to the period.

There’s a bit of drama in Act Two, when Kramden and Norton’s loyalty to each other is tested when they discover their quest for riches could cost their friendship. But most of the show is light and breezy. It’s a shame there aren’t more memorable musical numbers.

HoneyMMastroSewWkerscWeiner and Mills come through with a couple, like Norton’s tune with his sewer buddies, “Love Gone Down the Drain,” when it appears he and Trixie are heading for d-i-v-o-r-c-e over one – well, two misplaced kisses; and the quite inventive Act Two opener “To the Moon.” Whatever you do, get back from the bathroom quickly so you don’t miss this tune made up of famous zingers from the series: Ralph: “One of these days, Alice. One of these days, you’re gonna get yours! I don’t know when, Alice. I don’t know when, but I’ll give you a couple of what-fors and you’ll be taking a trip where you never come back … You’ll be going bang, zoom ! To the moon!” Alice replies: “Har-dee-har-har!”

When the actors stay very close to their fictional selves, the show soars. It also doesn’t hurt to have infamous scene stealer Lewis J. Stadlen, known for his Groucho impersonations, as the crusty head of the cheese company (no one does deadpan as well as him]; Lewis Cleale, as ad agency exec Bryce Bennett, who seems to be the adult version of How to Succeed …’s Bud Frump; or the impeccable pizzazz offered late in the show by Michael Walters after Trixie perform another winning jingle on TV.
Tony winner John Rando (Urinetown) keeps the show moving. Beowulf Boritt, another Tony recipient, has not only designed that fore-mentioned New York skyline but also an ingenius set of boxes that revolve, track, and open to reveal various sites. Costume designer Jess Goldstein gets kudos for his accurate reproduction of Kramden’s famed, loud golf outfit, which is being seen for the first time in vivid colors. Music directing the 10-piece orchestra, which sounds like 20, is Remy Kurs.

Of course, The Honeymooners is a musical and one expects dance in addition to song. Choreography, from tap to elegant ballroom, of which there is too much – and soon begins to feel like filler, is by Tony and Emmy winner Joshua Bergasse.

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