“Unraveling Athena: The Champions of Women’s Tennis” (2019, Shout! Studios) For some viewers, director Francis Amat‘s documentary may be an introduction to many of its subjects, despite the fact that they are among the world’s best women’s tennis players. That alone justifies the film, and Amat does well by letting the champions’ own words drive the narrative. He’s lucky enough to include some of the best: Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Evonne Goolagong, and Monica Seles (current champs Venus and Serena Williams are featured in archival interviews), and their stories about relentless schedule, constant sacrifice and boundless drive will resonate with tennis fans and novices alike. One wishes that Amat hadn’t felt the need to juice the inspirational content with syrupy quotes and score (which he composed), but the interviews make them easy to overlook. Available now on a variety of digital platforms.
“How to Build a Girl” (2019, IFC Films) Beanie Feldstein, who last year stole Olivia Wilde’s excellent “Booksmart,” also makes off with this fitfully amusing comedy, based the autobiographical novel by Caitlin Moran. The core premise, about the rise and fall of Feldstein’s glum English council estate teen rises after she assumes the identity of a snarky rock critic, is cute but can’t rise to meet Feldstein’s boundless nervous energy. But there’s a wealth of talent on hand (Emma Thompson, Paddy Considine, and Chris O’Dowd), and any film that taps Michael Sheen, Sharon Horgan, Alexei Sayle, and Lucy Punch to cameo as Feldstein’s heroes (Freud, Jo March, Karl Marx, and Sylvia Path, respectively) is worth a few minutes of your attention. IFC’s Blu-ray includes making-of featurettes and cast and crew interviews.
“Lucky Grandma” (2020, Kino Lorber) Amusing spoof of Chinese crime thrillers with the prolific Tsai Chin as a flinty octogenarian who, upon finding herself the unwitting recipient of a fortune in mob money, wards off a pair of thugs who come calling for the loot with nuclear-strength orneriness and a long-suffering bodyguard (Corey Ha). Director Sasie Sealy tricks out “Grandma” in fun faux gangster film trappings – brassy score by Andrew Orkin, photography by Eduardo Enrique Mayen that burnishes every speck of grime and burst of gunfire – but Chin remains its most memorable element: with her perma-scowl and omnipresent cigarette, she’s the refreshing antithesis of every sassy granny and “bad” grandpa that came before her. Kino’s Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette.
“Pat and Mike” (1952, Warner Film Archives) Katharine Hepburn is a college coach and gifted athlete whose winning efforts are continually undone whenever her schmuck of a fiancé (William Ching) is around; enter sports agent Spencer Tracy, whose initial, entirely crooked promotional plans give way when he opens his eyes to her talent, only to have his seedy past catch up with them. Breezy comedy with impeccable credentials – the stars in their seventh film appearance together and still generating sparks, director George Cukor and writers Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon, who netted an Oscar nod for their script – a swell supporting cast that includes Aldo Ray as Tracy’s dim but likable boxer client and briefly, Charles Bronson and Chuck Connors as thugs (and Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer!) and real-life champs Gussie Moran, Babe Didrikson Zaharias and Alice Marble opposite Hepburn (who’s no slouch in the golf and tennis departments). The gender issues here have their blunt edges (the finale rings hollow), but the effortless interplay between Tracy and Hepburn leaves no doubt as how the scales are balanced in their relationship. WAC’s Blu-ray includes a trailer and teaser.
Thank you to Warner Film Archives for providing a free Blu-ray for this review.
“Diva” (1981, Kino Lorber) A bootleg recording may bring together a reclusive opera star (Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez) and her most obsessive fan (Frederic Andrei), but also puts him in the crosshairs of a pair of thugs (including Dominique Pinion) on the trail of another tape recording that will link a high-ranking police official with a criminal operation. Hyper-stylish directorial debut of Jean-Jacques Beineix (“Betty Blue”) had its share of detractors upon release due to its emphasis on icy style over substance (earning it a slot in the “cinema du look” movement); today, its high-gloss visuals and oddball humor have earned it a cult following, and its best moments – a pursuit through the Paris metro, a morning walk through the city draped in neon blues – retain their appeal, even if some elements (the relationship between eccentric Richard Bohringer and his teenaged companion Thuy An Luu is uncomfortable) haven’t aged well. Kino’s Special Edition Blu-ray is loaded with extras, including scene-specific commentary by Beineix (as well as a second commentary by critic Simon Abrams) and interviews with much of the cast and crew, including composer Vladimir Cosma and cinematographer Philippe Rousselot.
“Dede” (2017, Corinth Films) David (Nukri Khatchvani) and Gegi (George Babluani) return home from the Georgian Civil War to their remote mountain home, where David expects to make good on an arranged marriage to his fiancée (Natia Vibliani), but discovers that Gegi, who saved his life during the conflict, is also involved with her. Directorial debut of Georgian writer/director Mariam Khatchvani is a sobering look at stifling patriarchal traditions and the struggle by women to break free of them; it’s a decidedly unhappy picture all around, with Vibliani afforded few opportunities to exert any sort of impact on her own life, but as a look at a largely unknown region and its traditions – and a starkly beautiful location – “Dede” holds interest. Corinth Films’ DVD is widescreen.