Digital Week – September 1

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This week’s roundup is highlighted by a marvelously tense French drama about a former tennis star trying to continue his career despite age and injury, “Final Set,” in theaters and streaming. Also in theaters and/or streaming this week are a quartet of superb European actors doing their best to elevate their latest movies: Billie Piper (“Rare Beasts”), Mads Mikkelsen (“Riders of Justice”), Juliette Binoche (“Who You Think I Am”) and Sidse Babett Knudsen (“Wildland”).

In-Theater/Streaming Releases of the Week

Final Set (Film Movement)

Final Set (Film Movement)Rarely has tennis—or any sport, for that matter—been so vividly dramatized in its psychological, emotional and physical turmoil as in Quentin Reynaud’s illuminating and compelling drama, which follows Thomas, a 37-year-old former teen prodigy trying to remain relevant on the court even as he is worn down by his body, mind and personal life. His wife Eve, a former player, wants him home to help raise their young son instead of playing in tournaments around the world, while his eternally disappointed mother, Judith, continuously and passive-aggressively berates his talent and choices. Reynaud relies a bit too heavily on the climactic French Open match, which is excitingly done but drawn out; yet his fantastic cast—Alex Lutz (Thomas), Ana Girardot (Eve) and Kristen Scott-Thomas (Judith) are all masterly—hits repeated aces throughout.

The Big Scary S Word (Greenwich Entertainment)

The Big Scary S Word (Greenwich Entertainment)Yes, the big scary is S word is “socialism,” which the right has bludgeoned the left with like a trowel for decades—but it wasn’t always so, and it doesn’t have to be in the future, according to director Yael Bridge’s perceptive account of the history of socialism in America—and American politics. In an engagingly informative way, Bridge lets many talking heads—like authors John Nichols and Naomi Klein to historians Cornel West and Eric Foner, among many others—explain how socialism has been beneficial to our country, and she also introduces the new socialists. Along with rock stars like Bernie and AOC, there’s a Virginia state rep and an Oklahoma mom and schoolteacher unafraid to take on the big scary “S” tag and use it to affect positive change.

The Deceivers (Cohen Film Collection)

The Deceivers (Cohen Film Collection)This soggy noodle of an adventure, directed in 1988 by Nicholas Meyer, takes an undeniably fascinating historical subject—a marauding band of local Thuggees, also called “deceivers,” killing and robbing in 1825 India—and makes it as urgent and exciting as watching water boil. Pierce Brosnan is the British officer who goes undercover to infiltrate the gang, but Meyer’s directing, Michael Hirst’s script and Brosnan’s performance drag down this two-hour drama, despite shooting on actual locations and being produced by the eminent Ismail Merchant.

The Outsider (Abramorama)

The Outsider (Abramorama)Steven Rosenbaum and Pamela Yoder’s strangely attenuated documentary about creating the Sept. 11 Museum at Ground Zero focuses on Michael Shulan, the eponymous outsider who was creative director, then left on the museum’s opening day. At first, the filmmakers concentrate on Shulan’s iffy background, although they cover others equally important in the genesis of the museum, so it’s odd that the film is titled “The Outsider.” He does give good sound bites, but so do people like the museum’s head, Alice Greenwald—so why single Shulan out? It’s too bad, because the film is a decent overview of cultural institution that has had controversy baked into its DNA.

Rare Beasts (Brainstorm Media)

Rare Beasts (Brainstorm Media)Billie Piper, a vital and buoyant performer, takes on too much in her triple-threat debut feature: the writer-director plays Mandy, who’s at the center of a personal but scattershot and superficial look at the ups and downs of the most indispensable relationships: with parents, children and significant others. Piper bleakly teases out the insanity lurking around our everyday lives, and there are sequences here that are dazzlingly, daringly original. Too often, though, however clever the dialogue, excellent the acting and eye-popping the visuals, “Rare Beasts” is that not-so-rare beast: a nice try that doesn’t quite succeed.

Riders of Justice (Magnolia)

Riders of Justice (Magnolia)Usually I have little use for half-crazed, blackly comic explosions of violence like Anders Thomas Jensen’s revenge drama; but if it owes too much by half to Sam Peckinpah’s violent orgies from the ‘60s and ‘70s, its unique point of view is supported by characters worth watching and worrying about. Mads Mikkelsen, indomitable as ever, plays an Afghan vet out to avenge his beloved wife’s death—which he believes might be murder—and allows himself to be taken in by a trio of brilliant outcasts with a plausible (maybe) theory; meanwhile, his teenage daughter, who was with her mom when she died, is navigating new terrain: her heretofore absent dad is also she has left. It’s all slightly ludicrous but done so persuasively, wittily and even touchingly that it somehow works.

Who You Think I Am (Cohen Media)

Who You Think I Am (Cohen Media)The always luminous Juliette Binoche stars in director-writer Safy Nebbou’s banal twist on the rom-com, which does little with its intriguing premise of ghosting (in the technical sense). Unfortunately, despite her usual elegance, Binoche is unable to enliven the character of Claire, a middle-aged professor who—after being unceremoniously dumped by her younger boyfriend—decides to makes a fake Facebook account to spy on him and, of course, ends up destroying his innocent roommate’s existence. An occasional scene works handily and suggests what the film might have been, but it returns too often to a torpid study of uninteresting people.

Wildland (Snowglobe)

Wildland (Snowglobe)In director Jeanette Nordahl’s messy but explosive study of dysfunctional family ties, the great Sidse Babett Knudsen plays the matriarch of a family of three sons who takes in her teenage niece after the girl’s troubled mother is killed in an accident. The niece tries to ingratiate herself with her older male cousins, and they tolerate her up to a point—then a death occurs and she must decide if she’ll talk or keep quiet. Knudsen is terrific, as always, and Sandra Guldberg Kampp is her equal as the niece: she must navigate treacherous emotional and physical terrain in a drama that dramatically demonstrates the devastation wrought in such situations.

4K/UHD Release of the Week

In the Heights (Warner Bros)

In the Heights (Warner Bros)Pre-“Hamilton,” Lin Manuel Miranda created and starred in this energetic musical that hit Broadway in 2008; Miranda was surrounded by such equally talented performers as Mandy Gonzalez and Karen Olivo, who gave gravitas to Miranda’s concept. Onscreen, director Jon M. Chu catches a lot of the atmosphere of this slice of upper Manhattan—Washington Heights, for those who don’t know—but expands other parts into something that approaches “Lawrence of Arabia”-sized spectaculars: “86,000,” a charming enough song onstage, becomes a cast of thousands. It almost swallows up the individuals at the heart of the story, but the charming and gifted Melissa Barrera is nearly Olivo’s equal, which is saying a lot. The movie is a nice enough approximation of Miranda’s musical but pales next to the original. The UHD image is first-rate; the accompanying Blu-ray disc includes several on-set featurettes.

Blu-ray Releases of the Week

Ashes and Diamonds (Criterion)

Ashes and Diamonds (Criterion)In the final, shattering film in his classic WWII trilogy that began his career—“A Generation” (1954) and “Kanal” (1956) preceded it—Polish master Andrzej Wajda explores the emotionally intense final days of the Polish Resistance against the Nazis. Wajda may have made better films in a storied career that lasted nearly six decades (he died in 2016 at age 90), but rarely did he create such a drama of gripping immediacy. Lead actor Zbigniew Cybulski’s charismatic presence was lost far too soon when he was run over by a train at age 39 in 1967. Criterion’s new hi-def transfer is full of crisp and vivid detail: here’s hoping “A Generation” and “Kanal”—and many more Wajda features—will follow. Extras are a 2004 commentary and new video segment by film scholar Annette Insdorf, along with archival Wajda interviews from the film’s release and from 2005.

The Gang/Three Men to Kill (Cohen Film Collection)

The Gang/Three Men to Kill (Cohen Film Collection)French director Jacques Deray (1929-2003) is enjoying a posthumous renaissance of sorts: following Criterion’s release of 1969’s “La Piscine,” a pair of crime dramas also with heartthrob Alain Delon are out. 1977’s “The Gang” follows a group of crooks in post-WWII France, based on a true story; 1980’s “Three Men to Kill” is a twisty “policier” about corporate malfeasance and and hired killers. These effective contraptions include a couple of jaw-dropping action sequences, like the breathless car chase in “Three Men” that culminates with an exploded car where Delon himself is too close to the action for comfort. Both films look good and grainy on Blu.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (C Major)

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (C Major)Choreographer John Neumeier’s COVID-era staging of the classic ballet based on Shakespeare uses some of Felix Mendelssohn’s immortal score but throws in atonal György Ligeti organ music and traditional barrel organ tunes that throw the fantastical elements of the forest-set scenes into sharp and vivid relief. Neumeier’s dancers are superb actors and even better movers, and the entire show is alternatively entrancing and terrifying which, in these times, might be the right approach. There’s first-rate hi-def video and audio; lone extra is a 30-minute Neumeier interview.

Prodigal Son—Complete 2nd Season (Warner Archive)

Prodigal Son—Complete 2nd Season (Warner Archive)The second season of this high-concept series ups the ante even more than it did originally, as the profiler working with the NYPD to track down murderers discovers that there’s a lot of ambiguity to his relationship with his father—a serial killer of a couple dozen victims who’s currently in jail—whom he relies on to crack cases involving equally fiendish criminal minds. If the drama is even more over-the-top, the performers gleefully dive into their roles: Tom Payne as our anti-hero criminologist, Bellamy Young as his glamorous mother and Michael Sheen as dangerous dad who’s crazy like a fox. There’s a first-rate hi-def transfer; extras are two making-of featurettes.

DVD Releases of the Week

NCIS: Los Angeles—Complete 12th Season
NCIS—Complete 18th Season
NCIS: New Orleans—Complete Final Season (CBS/Paramount)

NCIS: Los Angeles—Complete 12th SeasonAs one of the most successful franchises on network TV, the “NCIS” umbrella encompasses three series: the original, set in Washington D.C.; the first spinoff, set in Los Angeles; and the most recent, in New Orleans, which is also the first to sign off, after seven seasons. Each series shrewdly uses its city’s locations as the rigorous investigators solve their increasingly dramatic cases. All of the series’ casts—which are led by Mark Harmon and Maria Bello (D.C.), LL Cool J and Chris O’Donnell (Los Angeles), and Scott Bakula and CCH Pounder (New Orleans)—often must overcome the intermittently stale writing and clichéd directing to make these entertaining watches. All three sets contain the entire current seasons (number of episodes: 16 for D.C. and New Orleans and 18 for L.A.); extras include commentaries, featurettes and deleted/extended scenes.

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