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Reviews

January '18 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 

Geostorm

(Warner Bros)
Dean Devlin’s disaster extravaganza has nefarious bad guys creating a series of targeted—and massive—global storms that destroy whole cities and even specific places like the hockey arena where the current president accepts his renomination at the Democratic National Convention. It’s as silly as it sounds, with lots of CGI-heavy climate events that look threatening but aren’t very dramatic; how often can we watch poor innocent saps being incinerated or swallowed up by nasty weather?
 
 
The best thing about this clichéd apocalypse flick is the presence of two Aussies (Gerard Butler and the always criminally underused Abbie Cornish) and an Englishman (Jim Sturgess) as America’s heroes. It all looks eye-catching on Blu; extras are three making-of featurettes.
 
Gangster Land
(Cinedigm)
A by-the-numbers gangster flick featuring Al Capone that really doesn’t do much with him as either an historical character or a prime antagonist, director Timothy Woodward Jr.’s derivative drama depicts crooked cops and gangsters populating Prohibition-era Chicago in blunt black and white.
 
 
The cast—which comprises some decent and recognizable performers such as Jason Patric and Jamie-Lynn Sigler—definitely “looks” the period, but there’s little here that’s recommendable. The hi-def transfer is excellent.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Red Trees 

(Cohen Media)

In this deeply personal documentary, director Marina Willer chronicles her own family’s status as refugees during World War II, especially through the memories of her father, who lived through a time of horror as his family was among the very few who were able to escape from Prague in then-Czechoslovakia during the Nazi occupation.
 
 
At a scant 80 minutes, Willer’s film is tightly focused if visually impressionistic, and she allows her father his own voice—which is heard through the mellifluous tones British actor Tim Piggott-Smith (who died last April). The film looks fine on Blu; lone extra is a brief Willer interview.
 
DVDs of the Week   
In Her Name
(Icarus Films)                 
Daniel Auteuil gives his usual intense portrayal as Andre Bamberski, a divorced father who spends 30 years trying to get justice for his teenage daughter’s death at the hands of his ex’s German husband (who’s also a doctor). This true tale is handled with sympathy by director Vincent Garenq, who manages to encompass three decades of missteps, frustrations and explosive courtroom dramatics in 90 minutes.
 
 
Alongside Auteuil’s Andre are the equally compelling Sebastian Koch (doctor), Marie-Josee Croze (ex-wife) and Emma Besson (unfortunate daughter).
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

In Search of Fellini 

(Ambi Films/Samuel Goldwyn)
In this unabashedly sentimental story co-written by Nancy Cartwright (Bart Simpson’s voice), a sheltered young Ohio woman decides to travel to Italy to meet the great Italian director, whose work she inadvertently discovers by walking into a screening of La Strada. Despite cringingly melodramatic moments from the script and director Taron Lexton, this remains highly watchable thanks to an utterly winning performance by Ksenia Solo, who makes us believe in and even root for the ultimate fish out of water.

 

 

There’s also welcome support from Maria Bello as the terminally ill mom and Mary Lynn Rajskub as the mom’s impossibly loyal friend. Extras are director/writer commentary and making-of featurette. 

Off-Broadway Reviews—Under the Radar's “How to Be a Rock Critic” and “The Gates”

Under the Radar Festival
January 4-15, 2018
 
The Public Theater’s recent Under the Radar Festival—an annual two-week theater immersion at various venues—included two wildly different one-man shows: How to Be a Rock Critic, about the long-lamented Lester Bangs, and The GatesNew Yorker writer Adam Gopnik’s monologue about life in New York City.
 
Erik Jensen in How to Be a Rock Critic (photo: Craig Schwartz)
Lester Bangs was the first (only?) rock reviewer whose writing seemed genuinely honest, unlike such snobby poseurs as Dave Marsh and Robert Christgau. Bangs’ reviews in Rolling Stone, Creem and Circus magazines were often stream-of-consciousness and full of nasty put-downs, but they were articulate and came from the heart, whether he crapped on corporate rock (Styx, Boston, etc.) or extolled real rock (The Clash, Lou Reed, etc.). My own favorite Bangs review, fromCircus, was of Kiss guitarist Ace Frehley’s great 1978 solo album: after raving about the songs and their punk-rock edge, he ended the review in inimitable fashion: “Of course the lyrics suck. Who cares?”
 
In the cheekily titled How to Be a Rock Critic, Erik Jensen holds forth for 85 often riotously funny minutes, as we see Bangs in his own element in his messy East Village apartment in 1982—perfectly rendered by set designer Richard Hoover, complete with LPs and magazines lying all over the place in heaps. As he holds forth on his musical likes and dislikes, blasting his favorite tunes, Bangs is also chugging cough syrup, among other things, and we realize that we’re witnessing the last blissful moments of a self-destructive man (Bangs died in his apartment in April 1982).
 
Jensen makes an amusingly slovenly Bangs, and the snippets of music we hear throughout—Black Sabbath, Otis Redding, the Troggs, Lou Reed, and most memorably, Van Morrison—provide some sense of how Bangs defined rock’n’roll authenticity. Jessica Blank (who co-wrote the play with Jensen, based on Bangs’ own writings) directs savvily, bringing Jensen’s performance into sharper relief.
 
Adam Gopnik in The Gates (photo: Jason Falchook)
The Gates is Adam Gopnik’s illuminating, heartfelt performance piece about family; specifically, about how a Montreal couple moved to the Big Apple in 1980 and made a home for themselves and their two children. If that seems dull, don’t worry; a fine essayist, Gopnik is a delightful spinner of tales about quotidian characters and events that glisten with wit and insight.
 
The Gates refers to several passages in Central Park, which Gopnik sees as both literal and symbolic for those coming to New York for the first time. His stories—which describe the absurdity in the everyday, like his losing the pants to the first suit he owned in the city or the laugh-out-loud bit about his misunderstanding what LOL means—are told in a chatty, easygoing manner, and Catherine Burns directs with no unnecessary flourishes. It’s just Gopnik at a microphone for 100 minutes, throwing open his gates for us to listen.
 
Under the Radar Festival
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, New York, NY
publictheater.org
 

January '18 Digital Week II

 
Blu-rays of the Week 
Blade Runner 2049
(Warner Brothers)
Blade Runner is not a movie that was begging for a sequel, and Denis Villeneuve’s follow-up obliges by being an often pointless piece of work, simultaneously too plot-driven and portentously symbolic to work on its own or as a continuation of Ridley Scott’s iconic—if flawed—1982 original. 
 
 
Superbly photographed by Roger Deakins and with eye-popping sets and special effects, Villeneuve’s film nonetheless fails on basic levels, from glacial pacing—Scott was right that a half-hour should have been cut—to monotonous acting by Ryan Gosling, Robin Wright and Harrison Ford and a truly execrable score by Hans Zimmer. Unsurprisingly, the film looks ravishing on Blu-ray; extras include several featurettes and three “prologue” shorts.
 
I, Daniel Blake
(The Criterion Collection)        
Ken Loach has never shied from wearing his heart on his sleeve; even his most didactic filmmaking is filled with justified anger, like this brutal story of a middle-aged man put through an emotional and physical ringer by the horribly inefficient British welfare bureaucracy. 
 
 
It threatens to but never becomes melodrama thanks to its unflinching honesty and humanity. Loach’s unsentimental direction and Paul Laverty’s curt script are bluntly effective, and Dave Johns’ acting is devastatingly truthful in its depiction of how to retain dignity while caught in grinding government machinery. The grit onscreen is especially memorable on Blu-ray; extras are Loach and Laverty’s commentary; deleted scenes; and two documentaries: the making-of How to Make a Ken Loach Film,and Versus: The Life and Films of Ken Loach, a career-spanning feature by Louise Osmond.
 
DVDs of the Week 
CERN
(Icarus Films)
Director Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s latest fascinating documentary is set in Switzerland, where the mammoth Large Hadron Collider resides at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) in a sterile-looking but astonishingly vital environment. 
 
 
Geyrhalter talks with several of the particle physicists who work on the Collider, men and women who maintain the efficiency of the machine and routinely discover new things, and we come away awestruck by their ability to use the latest in technological know-how to help mankind learn more and move forward.
 
Conduct! Every Move Counts
(Film Movement)
Götz Schauder’s fly-on-the-wall documentary about the Georg Solti competition—the world’s most prestigious for up-and-coming orchestra conductors, held every two years in Frankfurt, Germany—takes us behind the scenes to watch the competitors deal with judges, musicians, opponents and their own nerves in hopes they’ll make it through the preliminary rounds. 
 
 
Of the five contenders Schauder follows, Mexican-American Alondra de la Parra comes across as the most competent and self-assured; that she’s taking over Australia’s Queensland Symphony Orchestra means her not getting to the finals hasn’t derailed a successful career.
 
Harmonium 
(Film Movement)                          
What begins as an intriguingly off-center family drama slowly morphs into an unsettling psychological study and finally becomes a nastily sadomasochistic tragedy in which director Koji Fukada sadistically puts his characters through the ringer for no apparent reason other than he can. 
 
 
It’s exceedingly well-acted and there are forceful and insightful moments, but the horrific turn both plot and characters make simply leaves a bad aftertaste, however artfully done it all is. Extras are an interview with actor Kanji Furutachi and Fukada’s short Birds.
 
The Teacher
(Film Movement)
In Jan Hrebejk’s droll comedy set during the 1980s in Communist Czechoslovakia, a party leader is the new teacher at the local school, coercing her students’ parents into various favors so she won’t give their kids failing grades. 
 
 
What could have been a heavy-handed conceit works handily and hilariously thanks to Hrebejk and writer Petr Jarchovsky’s clever conception of intercutting in-class back-and-forth between kids and teacher with a meeting between parents and school officials and the families’ own fraught home lives. Zuzana Maurery makes a gleefully grotesque villain in the title role. The lone extra is Christophe M. Saber’s short Sacrilege.

January '18 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 

It

(Warner Bros)
This smash-hit adaptation of Stephen King’s novel about a clown terrorizing youngsters is ridiculously bloated, and we’ve also been threatened with a Part II. The problem is that seeing Pennywise, the villain, in the flesh causes uncontrollable giggles; he’s supposed to be scary?
 
 
 
Maybe on the page, King’s sledgehammer dramatics work more effectively, but onscreen, director Andy Muschietti’s numbingly crude 135-minute mess becomes—thanks to the talented teen cast—occasional mindlessly murderous fun. The film looks great on Blu; extras comprise featurettes, interviews and deleted scenes.
 
Acceptable Risk
(Acorn)
This slow-burning but involving Irish TV series explores the convoluted goings-on after the murder of an American in Montreal who worked in Dublin for a Swiss pharmaceutical company (got that?): his shocked wife must deal with his death only a few years after her first husband—who also worked for the company, as did she—also died under mysterious circumstances.
 
 
 
Solid acting and unpeeling layers of intrigue make up for lapses in logic, like a low-down criminal who manages to avoid the police to threaten the widow and her sister before getting his comeuppance. The hi-def transfer is excellent; extras include over an hour of on-set featurettes and interviews.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The Apartment 

(Arrow Academy)

Some consider this Billy Wilder’s greatest film, but I prefer Some Like It Hot to this amusing but jaundiced comedy about a low-level functionary who lets company execs use his bachelor pad for their flings, and who discovers that his married boss’s latest mistress is the cute elevator operator he likes.
 
 
 
Despite a flimsy conceit and cardboard characters, this works handily (if obviously), thanks to Wilder’s and I.A.L. Diamond’s funny lines and Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine’s perfection in the leads. On Blu, the B&W photography looks more stunning than ever; extras include commentaries, video essays, featurettes, interviews and an impressive 150-page hardcover book.
 
Hell Night
(Scream Factory)
Upon its release, this tepid 1981 horror entry was a failure, and with good reason: there’s enough mediocre filmmaking, amateur acting and unoriginal storytelling to ice it from the get-go. It’s not until the showdown between the heroine (a blandly uninteresting Linda Blair) and the murderer—which climaxes with a clever impalement—that genre lovers finally get what they came for.
 
 
 
There’s a solid hi-def transfer; extras comprise new interviews with the likes of stars Blair and Vincent Van Patten, and director Tom DeSimone’s commentary.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Leatherface 

(Lionsgate)        

We didn’t need a backstory to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but here it is anyway, wallowing in unpleasant nastiness for 90 minutes, carving up villains and victims alike in lugubrious fashion. As a sheriff out for revenge for his teenage daughter’s unspeakable killing, Stephen Dorff shows he’s in a class by himself when it comes to overacting: he even overplays as his innards are ripped out in front of his very eyes.
 
 
 
Directors Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo show little sense of style, rhythm or pacing, but the blood and guts are all in order, however. The hi-def transfer is good; extras include alternate opening and ending, deleted scenes, making-of and interviews.
 
The Mountain Between Us
(Fox)
If it wasn’t for the combined star power of Kate Winslet and Idris Elba, this stretching-credulity tale of strangers who survive a mountain plane crash would be more eye-rolling than it is. In director Hany Abu-Assad’s hands—abetted by screenwriters Chris Weitz and J. Mills Goodloe—no cliché is clichéd enough to ignore: Winslet falls through the ice, Elba slides down a snowdrift to the mountain’s edge, the dead pilot’s dog miraculously survives a mountain lion attack; and they eventually find themselves in each other’s arms, especially in a heavy-handed happy ending.
 
 
 
Both stars do what they can, which in the long run is not enough. The film has a fine hi-def transfer; extras are featurettes, deleted scenes and director’s commentary.
                                
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Pulp 

(Arrow)

Mike Hodges’ offbeat 1972 comic mystery yarn has a properly laconic Michael Caine as a trashy novelist caught up in a murder plot on a Mediterranean isle after being hired to ghostwrite a famous actor’s autobiography. Hodges, who knows how to throw curve balls, has the perfect performer in Caine, who rolls with the punches (literally) throughout this enjoyable shaggy-dog story.
 
 
 
The hi-def transfer is good and grainy; extras are interviews with Hodges, assistant director John Glen, cinematographer Ousama Rawi, and producer Michael Klinger’s son Tony.
 
Time to Die
(Film Movement Classics)
This morally ambiguous 1966 Arturo Ripstein drama, from a tight script by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, moves simultaneously at a snail’s and snappy pace as it heads toward a showdown between a man just released from prison for killing another in a duel, and the victim’s now-adult sons who want revenge.
 
 
 
The engrossing B&W film looks stunning in this restored hi-def transfer; extras include Ripstein’s and actor Enrique Rocha’s commentary and an introduction by director Alex Cox.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
DVDs of the Week 

Shadowman

(Film Movement)
Like Basquiat and Keith Haring, artist Richard Hambleton helped found the street-art movement in 1980s New York, and Oren Jacoby’s entertaining documentary chronicles Shadowman’s incredible rise and even more precipitous fall, mainly fueled by a runaway drug addiction.
 
 
 
Jacoby also shows how Hambleton launched a comeback that made his past work even more lucrative, historically and financially; through interviews with the artist and others he worked with or loved, Shadowman is a fine primer of the complex contemporary art world. Extras include 30 minutes of additional scenes.
 
The White King
(Film Movement)
Based on Gyorgy Dragoman’s novel, directors Alex Helfrecht and Jorg Tittel’s dystopian drama is set in a totalitarian state where a young boy and his mother are desperate to find out whether his father—who has disappeared from sight—is still alive: no one, including his grandfather (a retired general) and the current reigning military leader, is helpful.
 
 
 
This tidy 90-minute film has several persuasive performances, including Jonathan Pryce as the grandfather and Greta Scacchi as the military leader, while young Lorenzo Allchurch’s boy is appealing and complicated and Agyness Dehn is a warmly sympathetic mother

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