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September '18 Digital Week II


Blu-rays of the Week 


(Warner Bros)

With Ed Helms in the lead, this mainly inane comedy about grown men acting like children (based on a true story) tries to equal the vapidity of Helms's biggest hit, The Hangover; indeed, there are several moments that reach that movie’s embarrassingly crude lows.




But however often it scrapes the bottom of the comedic barrel, it has just enough energy from a game cast that throws itself into the lunacy with aplomb, especially Jeremy Renner’s proto-Bourne character; the exaggerated use of slo-mo gets the most laughs. The film looks pristine on Blu; extras comprise a featurette, deleted scenes and gag reel.


Found Footage 3D 


Do we need yet another found-footage horror flick? Well, maybe: this one is as unnecessarily crude, dully-acted and predictable as the others—with the added bonus of it being in gimmicky 3D, if anyone still wants to watch with those stupid glasses on—but at least it injects some self-referential humor into the proceedings. It doesn’t always work, but it remains halfway entertaining even while it clumsily falls apart, which is something, I guess. The hi-def transfer is excellent; extras include deleted scenes, etc.







One of the most imbecile horror movies I’ve ever seen, writer-director Ari Aster’s risible drama is as ridiculously silly as they come, with the kitchen sink thrown in for good measure. Not only does he steal brazenly from The Shining’s visuals and music (the opening shot, among others, is a direct Kubrick rip-off, and the score by Colin Stetson is nothing but an empty lift from Penderecki and Ligeti), but he has none of Kubrick’s artistry or originality.




Poor Toni Collette’s performance is pitched so high that she makes Nicholson’s Shining work look positively understated. And the bizarrely insane ending must be seen to be disbelieved, coming after two hours of complete nonsense. The hi-def transfer is first-rate; extras are deleted scenes and a featurette.


The Last Hunt 

(Warner Archive)

Shot on the actual locations in South Dakota—scenic Custer State Park and foreboding Badlands National Monument (now National Park)—Richard Brooks’ familiar but efficient 1956 western follows hunters shooting down magnificent bison during the area’s annual bison cull (which is actually shown in the film).




Stewart Granger is fine as the hunter whose last hunt this is, but the drama of the puny humans is secondary to the majesty of the locales and the animals themselves in living color. The hi-def transfer is transfixing.




Supernatural—Complete 13th 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.)

It’s rare that a non-Law and Order or Shonda Rhimes drama lasts on network television as long as this lighthearted fantasy that spells out its wide-ranging dimensions in its very title, but after 13 years—and with its 14th season upcoming this fall—Supernatural still churns out not very original but watchable tales of two brothers battling various antagonistic creatures.




You would have thought that Sam and Dean had already gone up against every supernatural being around, but this latest season will set you straight. There’s a fine hi-def transfer; extras are deleted scenes, commentaries, featurettes and a gag reel.


DVDs of the Week

The Escape 


Gemma Arterton gives a touching and subtle performance as a harried wife who decides to leave her husband and son behind and head to Paris, where she meets (natch) the ultimate alluring foreigner, allowing her to contemplate emotional and sexual freedom.




Director-writer Dominic Savage telegraphs everything without arriving at any insight into his heroine’s behavior, except that she’s sick of it all. But Arterton provides the needed subtext through a simple brief look or the mere raising of an eyebrow whenever her director can’t do so.




Laugh-In—Complete Final Season 


The sixth and final season of one of the goofiest but politically astute variety shows to grace the small screen came in 1972-3 when Nixon’s White House fortunes were taking a turn for the worse, and this set captures all 24 episodes led by ringmasters Dan Rowan and Dick Martin.




Among the guests for this last ride include Steve Allen, Jack Benny, Carol Burnett, Johnny Carson, Howard Cosell, Sammy Davis Jr., Angie Dickinson, Phyllis Diller, Jack Klugman, Rich Little, Don Rickles and Sally Struthers—but there’s no Tricky Dick saying “sock it to me,” and the regular cast itself received a makeover into obscurity: I’ll bet you don’t know who Patti Deutsch, Jud Strunk, Willie Tyler & Lester or Sarah Kennedy are.


That Summer 

(Sundance Selects)

Here’s a more celebrated found-footage movie than the 3D one above, put together by director Göran Hugo Olsson from film shot in 1972 at the Beale’s East Hampton compound by famed photographer Peter Beard and others (including one of the Maysles brothers, who returned to make Grey Gardens a few years later).




Mother and daughter Big Edie and Little Edie Beale became celebrities despite—or perhaps because of—their living in a garbage- and cat-strewn home, and there’s a profound sense of sadness that underlies what we watch, especially since we know what happened to both women. Beard and Lee Radziwill (Jackie Kennedy’s sister and Big Edie’s niece) narrate.





CD of the Week 

Anne Akiko Meyers—Mirror in Mirror 


For her latest and arguably most personal album yet, violin virtuoso Anne Akiko Meyers plays music inspired or commissioned by her, including John Corigliano’s lovely Lullaby for Natalie (for the violinist’s first child) and two works by Jakob Ciupinski, which hauntingly combine electronic and acoustic instrumentation. (Elsewhere, Ciupinski’s electronics slightly detract from Meyers’ impassioned performance of Ravel’s Tzigane.)




Front and center throughout is Meyers’ violin, capable of a seemingly unlimited palette of direct emotion and masterly technique that takes even the most minimalist of these pieces (like Philip Glass’s Metamorphosis II or Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Speigel, whose English translation gives the album its evocative title) into the musical stratosphere.


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

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