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November '17 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 


(Film Movement)

The great Polish director Andrzej Wajda's last film—completed before his death last year at age 90—is not up to hi many masterpieces, but it is an impassioned and probing study of Polish modernist painter Władysław Strzemiński. Bogusław Linda gives a bravura performance, and if Wajda dips into melodrama at times, his film is still a worthy epitaph.

It looks superb on Blu-ray, there’s a film professor Stuart Liebman commentary, and there’s Wajda on Wajda, an in-depth interview before the master’s death in which he discusses his best and most important films, from his 1955 debut A Generation to his remarkably fertile final decade. Most impressive is that many clips from his classics are in HD, boding well for future releases.


Atomic Blonde


Charlize Theron is in rare form as a secret agent who kicks ass and takes names without a cape or anything resembling superhero paraphernalia in this loud, overlong but enjoyable action flick set in Cold War Berlin.

The story makes absolutely no sense, but Theron is having so much fun as the sleek, sexy and extraordinarily lethal assassin that it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to have a few sequels. The film looks splendid on Blu-ray; extras include director David Leitch commentary, deleted and extended scenes, and several featurettes.


J.D.’s Revenge 


This weirdly wacky 1973 thriller—part of the ‘70s Blaxploitation movement—concerns a young man who, after being hypnotized, is invaded by the spirit of a killer who murdered his girlfriend decades earlier.

The energy of the cast overcomes the absolute insanity (not to mention inanity) of the script, making this the very definition of “guilty pleasure” for those so inclined. There’s a decent hi-def transfer; extras include The Killing Floor, a retrospective featurette on the film with interviews; and an audio interview with actor David McKnight.


Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait

(Cohen Media)

Director Pappi Corsicato presents one of the contemporary art world’s biggest names, in all his personal and professional glory, by interviewing wives, daughters, friends, colleagues and admirers (among them Al Pacino and Willem Dafoe), along with the man himself.

Corsicato makes canny use of Schnabel’s own archive of home movies and photos, along with footage of his most recent works. But by saving Schnabel’s greatest achievement—his 2007 film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, for which he received a Best Director Oscar nomination—for last, Corsicato shows his subject’s artistic seriousness matches his self-promotion. The hi-def transfer is excellent.



Sissi Collection

(Film Movement Classics)

In the 1950s, a youthful and glamorous Romy Schneider played Austrian Princess Elisabeth (“Sissi”) in a series of colorful if dramatically cardboard films that got by on their leading lady’s star quality: Sissi (1955), Sissi: The Young Empress (1956), and Sissi: The Fateful Years of an Empress (1957), as well as 1954’s Victoria in Dover, in which Schneider played Queen Victoria as a young princess.

Along with these four films in both their original 1.33:1 ratio and widescreen versions on four Blu-ray discs, the set also contains a DVD with the English-dubbed Forever My Love, a condensed version of the Sissi films, and two featurettes.


Summer of ’42 


(Warner Archive)

1971’s Summer of ’42 was one of the most beloved movies of its time, not least because of Michel Legrand’s sentimental piano theme, which matches this teary but affecting look at the end of innocence, with winsomely beautiful Jennifer O’Neill the perfect fantasy woman for the horny but confused teen played by Gary Grimes.

Co-winner of the Palme d’Or at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival, Jerry Schatzberg’s Scarecrow is a bumpy road movie that chronicles the lasting friendship between two drifters—on the plus side, this scattershot character study has powerhouse performances by Gene Hackman and Al Pacino. Both films have solid hi-def transfers; Scarecrow’s lone extra is a making-of featurette.



(Arrow Academy)

Ivan I. Tverdovsky’s bizarre drama is an allegory, a fable, a cautionary tale: but of what? A middle-aged zoo functionary sprouts a fleshy tail which only accentuates her distance from everybody—from relentlessly mocking co-workers to an overbearing, religious mother—except, improbably, the handsome young radiologist who took X-rays of her new growth.

Natalya Pavlenkova’s emotionally naked portrayal of the heroine is the main reason to see Tverdovsky’s film, which stumbles as it attempts to be simultaneously realistic and fantastical. It looks great on Blu; extras are interviews with actor Dmitry Groshev and Tverdovsky enthusiast Peter Hames.


DVDs of the Week


Mira Sorvino—where has she been?—shines as the wife of a New Orleans politician with a nubile teenage daughter who has a short affair with a sexy sculptor, only to be at the mercy of his crazed wrath when she breaks it off.

This latest variation of Fatal Attraction reverses genders and tosses in the daughter falling for the heartsick maniac for good measure; but Sorvino acts the hell out of it, even during the last reels’ risible reversals and reveals while the entire movie goes off the rails. The lone extra is an audio commentary.


The Settlers 

(Film Movement)

Writer-director Shimon Dotan’s potent examination of Jewish settlements doesn’t pretend to be the most scrupulously evenhanded documentary, but it does provide necessary historical and political context for this seemingly untenable but at the same time unfixable situation.

Interviews with Israelis who’ve chosen to live there—including some who are virulently anti-Palestinian—are balanced by glimpses of Palestinians whose own existence has been upset by the encroaching settlements. 

November '17 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 
Poldark—Complete 3rdSeason
(PBS Masterpiece)
The hit series’ third season finds eponymous hero Ross grasping defeat from the jaws of victory again and again, refusing to do anything that would help him—and others—and stop his hated adversary George in his tracks.
The men’s adversarial relationship—which also brings in their wives Demelza and Elizabeth—is the engine that drives the series; there’s also whip-smart acting by Aidan Turner (Ross), Eleanor Tomlinson (Demelza), Heida Reed (Elizabeth) and Jack Farthing (George). The hi-def transfer is gorgeous; extras are short featurettes and interviews.
Gun Shy
This surprisingly sprightly comedy relates the troubles of a retired but pompous rock star (the amusing Antonio Banderas) whose gorgeous supermodel wife (the typecast Olga Kurylenko) is kidnaped while they are vacationing in Chile.
Although director Simon Grey pushes things too far with jokey killings and needless crassness, there’s enough genuine humor in the writing and performances to make this an agreeably nutty 90 minutes. There’s a fine hi-def transfer; extras are a making-of featurette and music montage.
Hans Zimmer—Live in Prague 
(Eagle Vision)
Hans Zimmer is the pre-eminent film-score composer among buffs and nerds thanks to his association with overrated director Christopher Nolan on Interstellar, The Dark Night and Inception.
This concert before an adoring audience in Prague presents Zimmer and his flashy, talented ensemble—including scantily clad string players and even Johnny Mars on guitar—in an entertaining overview of the man’s career, which even includes subtle work on underrated gems as The Thin Red Line. Hi-def video and audio are excellent.
Land of the Dead
Dawn of the Dead
(Scream Factory)
Zombie legend George A. Romero recently died at 77, so these collector’s editions are in their way posthumous tributes. Romero’s own Land of the Dead (2005), while not up to earlier series entries, contains the usual dry humor amid gory entrails. 
Dawn of the Dead is Zach Snyder’s unfortunate 2004 remake, not Romero’s original, even though there are eerie scenes and a clever if downbeat end-credit sequence. Both releases—which have first-rate hi-def transfers—include the R-rated theatrical and unrated director’s cuts, commentaries, featurettes, interviews and deleted scenes.
DVDs of the Week
Gray Matters
(First Run)
Irish architect and designer Eileen Gray lived to be 98 (she died in 1976) and was a towering figure of modernism all but erased from art history thanks to men like Le Corbusier who took a lot of credit for her original designs.
Marco Orisni’s documentary returns Gray to her proper place in the echelon of the greats of 20th century architecture and design, and the many talking heads buttress that argument, returning Gray to her rightful place in the firmament.
The Journey
In this engrossing reenactment of a seminal event in the history of the Northern Ireland troubles, two splendid actors—Colm Meaney and an unrecognizable Timothy Spall—play, respectively, ex-IRA leader Martin McGuinness and conservative British pol Ian Paisley, who shared a car for a 2006 meeting about the age-old conflict in the Scottish countryside.
Meaney and Spall, onscreen together for nearly the entire movie, are delightfully ornery as they creep to the edge of caricature but never overstep; their outsized portrayals make Nick Hamm’s earnest but light-footed speculative drama work handily.

Off-Broadway Review—Richard Nelson's "Illyria"


Written and directed by Richard Nelson

Performances through December 10, 2017


The cast of Illyria (photo: Joan Marcus)

Playwright Richard Nelson—who was written elegantly about the most inelegant era in our country’s recent history with his cycles The Apple Family Plays and The Gabriels—has now turned to a previous era in Illyria, a dramatization of the bumpy beginnings of Joseph Papp’s free Shakespeare Festival.


In his signature quiet and conversational way, Nelson provides three glimpses of Papp and colleagues dealing with the fallout, in 1958, when they began undergoing internal strife and butted heads with Robert Moses and the New York City Parks Department over keeping summer Shakespeare free for all theatergoers. 


There are three scenes: Papp’s director Stuart Vaughan auditioning a young actress and Papp’s own wife Peggy, the latter returning to acting after their child’s birth, in the Festival’s office; defector Vaughan arriving at a tension-filled dinner at the apartment of actress Colleen Dewhurst and actor George C. Scott; and a post-park performance discussion among Papp and colleagues.


As usual, there’s much to admire in Nelson’s artful writing in which a group of like-minded people is sensitively presented. But despite the backstage intrigue, there’s a decided lack of urgency and drama in Nelson's relaxed tone: it’s telling that the most compelling characters are George C. Scott and Robert Moses, neither of whom appears in the play.


Nelson directs assuredly, but his generally fine cast is upended by John Magaro’s pallid and unfocused Papp. Also disappointing is that Rosie Benson, a resourceful and winning actress, has little to do as Colleen Dewhurst: she deserves a meatier part, and if Nelson returns to these characters in a future play, one can only hope that she will get one.



The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, New York, NY

Off-Broadway Review—"The Last Match"

The Last Match

Written by Anna Ziegler; directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch

Performances through December 24, 2017

Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, New York, NY


A scene from The Last Match (photo: Joan Marcus)

A tennis match as a grand metaphor for life isn’t the most original idea, but playwright Anna Ziegler puts some topspin on it in The Last Match, which takes place during a U.S. Open semi-final between Tim Porter, the world’s greatest player who’s contemplating retirement but making one last run, and Sergei Sergeyev, a young hotheaded Russian talked about as a future champion.


As they play a hard-fought, five-set thriller, the men get on each other’s nerves, admit to their own nerves, and flashback to their off-court lives, which mainly consist of Palmer’s all-American wife Mallory, a tennis pro who gave up her career to marry and give him children (the latter of which was harder than they expected), and Sergei’s feisty fiancée Galina, whose brimming self-confidence helps balance Sergei’s rattling man-child antics.


As a tennis fan, I found it interesting that Ziegler’s players are at least partly based on real pros: Tim seems modeled after Roger Federer, the effortless, beloved G.O.A.T., while Sergei seems a cousin of a younger and more distracted Novak Djokovic. The men’s better halves are stock characters, but Ziegler’s zippy way with dialogue allows all four to play an entertaining doubles match at the same time that the men’s singles battle is going on.


With Tim Mackabee’s clever set showing off the U.S. Open court and the couples’ off-court battlefields, Gaye Taylor Upchurch directs with persuasive finesse, easily juggling the men’s shotmaking with their verbal shots and flashbacks. Of course, her exemplary cast is The Last Match’s ace in the hole. Wilson Bethel’s Tim and Alex Mickiewicz’s Sergei trade witty barbs while they impressively duke it out on the court, while Zoe Winters’ Mallory and Natalia Payne’s Galina are perfect foils who also provide a needed perspective to the players’ battle royale.


The Last Match has its faults: Ziegler, who otherwise has the court lingo down, lets her players serve at wrong times during the match, a huge unforced error on her part. But there’s humor and drama in abundance, which makes her play a down-the-line winner.


The Last Match

Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, New York, NY

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