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Film and the Arts

January '19 Digital Week V

Blu-rays of the Week 

American Renegades 


In this efficient if undistinguished action flick, a group of American soldiers in Bosnia agrees to bring up from the surface of a nearby lake a cache of gold hidden by the Nazis—but have to fend off local criminal elements (and the men’s own superior officer) before they can succeed.





Director Steven Quale’s by-the-books narrative has a few tense underwater moments near the end, and J.K. Simmons gives his typically blustering performance as the commander. There’s an excellent hi-def transfer; extras comprise several on-set featurettes.


Humans 3.0 


The third season of this daring (if at times desperate) sci-fi series begins a year after “day zero”—when a cataclysmic event killed hundreds of thousands of people and gave consciousness to many “synths,” which has caused consternation across the globe.




The lines that have been drawn between both camps in a tense and difficult-to-navigate world is interestingly if insufficiently explored, and a game cast does its best to keep this diverting and watchable. The eight episodes look great in hi-def; extras include cast and crew interviews.






Judgment Night 

(Warner Archive)

Four clueless buds who get lost in a shady section of Chicago while driving to a boxing match in a Winnebago—don’t ask—witness a killing and find themselves chased within an inch of their lives by a tough hombre and his minions in Stephen Hopkins’ fast-paced but imbecile 1993 thriller.




The movie functions mainly as a look at the beginnings of a few careers—namely, Denis Leary, Cuba Gooding Jr., Jeremy Piven and Stephen Dorff—as well as the continuation of Emilio Estevez’s, with a few fun scenes amid the dross. There’s a quite good hi-def transfer.


The Prize 

(Warner Archive)

In this sluggish 1963 mystery, Paul Newman plays a Nobel-winning author who feels something isn’t right about another honoree, and finds himself in trouble while investigating—including nearly being killed. This is Hitchcockian in theory, but in practice director Mark Robson’s 135-minute drama has little urgency to it.




And all that despite a top pedigree: Newman, Edward G. Robinson, Elke Sommer and Diane Baker are in fine form, Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest) wrote the script, and the Stockholm locations are undeniably photogenic. But it ends up being little more than a passable time-waster. The hi-def transfer is first-rate.






Speed Kills 


A puffy John Travolta at least looks like he’s having fun playing a gangster who loves fast boats and fast women in this based-on-a-true-story drama that has a couple of entertaining water sequences to go with inexplicable things like a goofy cameo by a miscast Matthew Modine as George Bush the elder.




In a movie like this, the women who play Travolta’s love interests have virtually nothing to do, but they do try: so my hat’s off to Jennifer Esposito and Katheryn Winnick. The film looks good in high-def.

Off-Broadway Review—Calvin Trillin’s “About Alice”

About Alice

Written by Calvin Trillin; directed by Leonard Foglia

Performances through February 3, 2019


Carrie Paff and Jeffrey Bean in About Alice (photo: Henry Grossman)

Anyone familiar with essayist Calvin Trillin’s writings was aware of his wife Alice, the brainy, beautiful blonde shiksa who deigned to marry a Jew from Kansas City: his stories and books are filled with references to and anecdotes about her. But after she died (on Sept. 11, 2001 of all dates), Trillin penned a book, About Alice, transforming her from a literary character to flesh-and-blood person that made everything he’d written about seem fuller and richer.


Now there’s the play About Alice, a two-hander devised by Trillin from his book and his lifetime of memories with his beloved wife, and it’s as amusing, engaging, emotional and, ultimately, poignant as his book is. Narrated by Trillin—embodied in the droll performance of Jeffrey Bean—and punctuated by Alice herself bursting in periodically—an affecting and effervescent Carrie Paff—this short one-acter is a labor of love for the playwright and the audience.


Trillin’s deadpan humor—as anyone who saw his many hilarious appearances on Johnny Carson can attest—is always in evidence, even when his drama takes a darker turn down the road of Alice’s lung cancer (though she never smoked), which ended up playing a major part in the weakened heart that killed her a quarter-century later. 


Bean and Paff play off each other with easy familiarity and tenderness in Leonard Foglia’s simple and effective staging. Of course, at 75 minutes it might only skim the surface of such a lengthy and loving relationship, but About Alice retains the warmth and wit that distinguishes Trillin’s best work.


About Alice

Theatre for a New Audience, Polonsky Shakespeare Center, Brooklyn, NY

January '19 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week 

First Man 


In his first film since winning the Oscar for directing the wildly overpraised musical La La Land, Damien Chazelle proves his versatility, even though his straightforward biopic of astronaut Neil Armstrong—the first man to step on the surface of the moon—received mixed reviews upon its release. I’m not sure why: Chazelle handles the sweeping historical and dramatic canvas impressively, keeps the CGI from overpowering the human story, and even finds suspense and tenseness in the various space flights.




If Ryan Gosling seems too emotionless, he still evokes Armstrong’s steely resolve; even better is Claire Foy in the thankless role as Neil’s wife, turning her into the film’s most fascinating character. The film looks superb on Blu; extras include a Chazelle commentary, deleted scenes and featurettes. 


4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days 


Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s intense 2007 drama tells a simple story about an illegal abortion. The spellbinding acting—especially by Anamaria Marinca as a woman stuck between her friend and boyfriend (her minutely detailed expressions at a long meal with his family are priceless)—is partly derailed by Mungiu stacking the deck and letting his characters act too implausibly.




Would the abortionist—shown as a professional in every way—not notice a knife missing from his case and leave his identity papers at a hotel desk? Would our heroine leave her friend during a crucial time to visit her boyfriend even after telling him she’s busy and can’t come? Such weakly-rendered details nag mostly because Mungiu gets so much else right in this strong, tense film. Criterion’s hi-def transfer is immaculate; extras include a Mungiu interview, deleted scenes, Cannes Film Festival press conference and featurette on Romanian audiences’ reactions.







(Cohen Media)

The horrible reality of contemporary bigotry is revealed in Laura Fairrie’s powerful documentary, which dives head-first into today’s burgeoning anti-Semitic movement in Europe.




We illuminatingly hear from Jews who have taken their own sort of refuge by deciding to return to Israel, along with others who are staying in place: after all, Europe is their original homeland, even if there remain many Holocaust deniers and other racists in their midst, often making their benighted opinions known in a very public manner. The hi-def transfer looks excellent; lone extra is an interview with Fairrie.


DVDs of the Week

The Lost Village 

(First Run)

The gentrification of many NYC neighborhoods has continued apace for decades, and Roger Paradiso’s documentary shows how New York University has done its part to help bring about the ruination of Greenwich Village. The problem is that his righteous bitterness and anger too often distract him from getting more in-depth about what’s going on.




Just saying “NYU bad” and repeating that rents and tuition are so high that some students have turned to the sex industry to get by (now that would make a fascinating documentary) isn’t enough. Too much interesting info is simply mentioned but left unexplored. There’s sleight of hand too: the McDonald’s on West 3rd and on Broadway are seen as recent interlopers, when both franchises have been there for decades.






Tea with the Dames 


This beguiling documentary about four grand dames of British acting—Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright and Maggie Smith—lets us watch as they engagingly, hilariously and touchingly discuss their careers, friendships and even mortality.




Director Roger Michell smartly allows the ladies to go back and forth, feeling free enough to let fly with a curse word here, an extra slug of champagne there; inserting vintage clips of the quartet in their prime—from 50s Shakespeare to 21st century films—is an extra added nice touch. One quibble is the film’s brevity: 83 minutes is not nearly long enough to do these women justice; at the very least there must be hours of deleted sequences, so let’s see those!

January '19 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 



Forty years after the original slaughter by Michael Myers, original survivor Laurie Strode—now a grandmother—always felt he would return to finish her off: now that he’s (improbably) escaped from prison, will her own paranoid behavior (learning how to shoot and booby-trapping her home) help her, her daughter and her granddaughter survive another attack?




This belated sequel disappoints mainly because David Gordon Green directs only a few sequences interestingly; the rest are familiar cookie-cutter slasher movie moments. Jamie Lee Curtis is in fine form, but the killings are uninventive (lone exception: a quick knifing in front of a living room window) and even original director John Carpenter’s score is a trite throwback to the dull sounds of yesteryear. There’s a solid hi-def transfer; extras include deleted and extended scenes and several featurettes.


Madeline’s Madeline 


A stunning performance by newcomer Helena Howard brilliantly anchors Josephine Decker’s alternately marvelous and frustrating character study about a teenager in a theater troupe whose personal and acting lives intertwine.




Nearly as good as Howard are Miranda July as her single mom and the always underrated Molly Parker as the troupe’s director, and Decker insightfully shows how these women navigate emotional bumpy terrain, but her visual tricks remain off-putting and opaque rather than illuminating and urgent. The hi-def transfer looks great; extras comprise a Decker interview, deleted scenes, rehearsal footage and the film’s dazzling trailer.


DVDs of the Week 

Eating Animals 

(Sundance Selects)

The U.S. (and the world) has turned to factory farming in order to sate the enormous appetites of our growing population since the 1970s, and Christopher Quinn’s documentary—based on Jonathan Safer Foer’s book—is an urgent expose into the underhanded ways that such methods are gaining traction with the tacit approval of the government.




Narrated by Natalie Portman, the film also shows the small but real pushback by farmers who have decided not to ruin the environment and our very lives by trying humane and ethical practices. Extras are two deleted scenes and a short Foer interview.


Far from the Tree 

(Sundance Selects)

Based on a book by Andrew Solomon, whose being “different” from his family led to his parents being unable to deal with his homosexuality, Rachel Dretzin’s touching documentary explores with extreme tact how several “different” people interact with their loved ones and others.




There’s a 41-year-old man with down syndrome; an autistic teenage boy who does not speak; a dwarf couple hoping to have a child; and a young man who murdered a young boy. The interviews with these people and family members are done so artfully and intimately that the emotions can’t help but spill out, making this essential for anyone with an ounce of empathy. Extras are deleted scenes.

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