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Reviews

January '21 Digital Week II

VOD/Virtual Cinema Releases of the Week 
Blizzard of Souls 
(Film Movement) 
Unlike 1917, last year’s Oscar-bait stunt set during the First World War, this Latvian drama drops us right into the center of the horrific maelstrom through the eyes of a 16-year-old volunteer who fights the Germans after his mother is murdered in cold blood by them.
 
 
Despite relying too heavily on coincidence and heightened melodramatics (our baby-faced hero seems to be in the middle of every bloody battle), director Dzintars Dreibergs shrewdly keeps the drama personal, which makes a burgeoning romance with a young nurse the protagonist meets while recuperating from a wound less sentimental than it might have been. This unsparing vision of war’s horrors (a distant cousin to Elem Klimov’s 1985 masterpiece Come and See) is anchored by a superlative performance by Oto Brantevics as the boy who becomes a man as his homeland gains its independence.
 
 
 
 
 
MLK/FBI 
(IFC Films)
That J. Edgar Hoover kept tabs on Martin Luther King Jr. is old news, but how the FBI went about their surveillance and targeted harassment is the eye-opening takeaway from this absorbing documentary by director Sam Pollard.
 
 
Pollard uses recently declassified files as well as interviews with experts to paint a shocking but unsurprising portrait of how the Bureau treated King, even using nefarious methods like making tapes of his trysts with other women for his wife Coretta to hear. Pollard’s film is a valuable record of how underhanded those in power can be, and it takes on an added relevance in the waning days of trump and (one hopes) trumpism.
 
 
 
 
 
Blu-rays of the Week 
Three Films by Luis Buñuel 
(Criterion Collection)
The great Spanish director Luis Buñuel (who died in 1983 at age 83) began his career in the silent era with the anarchic short Le chien andalou and ended it with a trio of surrealist nightmares collected in this Criterion boxed set—1972’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, 1974’s The Phantom of Liberty and 1977’s That Obscure Object of Desire—that are fitful, vastly uneven, and only intermittently successful. Phantom is the best of the three; its playfulness fits the serious social and political ramifications better than do the overrated Charm and clunky Object.
 
 
Criterion’s boxed set comprises top-notch hi-def transfers of all three films and many extras, including several documentaries about the director’s life and career; archival interviews with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, performers Stéphane Audran, Muni, Michel Piccoli and Fernando Rey, and other collaborators; Lady Doubles, a 2017 documentary with Carole Bouquet and Ángela Molina, who share the role of Conchita in Object; and excerpts from Jacques de Baroncelli’s 1929 silent film La femme et le pantin, an adaptation of the 1898 novel on which Object is also based.
 
 
 
 
 
Jonathan Scott's Power Trip 
(MPI)
The ways that utility companies put a stranglehold on local municipalities and throw their weight around to not allow solar energy to gain a foothold is explored in this enraging documentary by Jonathan Scott, star of the HGTV network series Property Brothers.
 
 
Scott shows how fossil-fuel monopolies protect their bottom lines (with the help of government) by helping phase out solar credits and giving utility customers no choice in the matter. Since nothing is being done on a federal level, Scott notes the incremental victories that are occurring locally which provide real energy choice for the public’s benefit. Hi-def video looks great.
 
 
 
 
 
DVD Release of the Week 
The Twilight Zone—Complete 2nd Season 
(CBS/Paramount)
Jordan Peele’s reboot of the classic TV series has a second season that’s as up-and-down as the first: for every decent episode (“Meet in the Middle” with Jimmi Simpson and Gillian Jacobs), there are others that either go nowhere (“You Might Also Like,” a hamfisted rewrite of the all-time classic episode “To Serve Man,” wastes a fine performance by Gretchen Mol) or wear out their welcome quickly (“Try, Try” with Topher Grace and the winning Kylie Bunbury).
 
 
This new iteration certainly doesn’t hold a candle to Rod Serling’s original, which ran for five seasons and produced dozens of episodes that are superior to anything Peele and company have come up with in these 10 attempts. Extras are deleted scenes and a gag reel.

January '21 Digital Week I

VOD/Virtual Cinema Releases of the Week 
The Dissident 
(Briarcliff Entertainment)
Bryan Fogel’s powerful documentary chronicles the events leading to the horrific murder and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 by persons under the direction of the Saudi crown prince himself.
 
 
For anyone who’s followed the story over the past couple of years, very little of what is presented here is new, but the accumulation of evidence and details that form an airtight case against the crown prince as well as sorrow over such an awful act committed to silence a vocal critic of the state makes this shocking and unforgettable.
 
 
 
 
 
 
In Corpore 
(Nexus)
Sarah Portelli and Ivan Malekin’s four-part omnibus feature about the vagaries of intimacy has a healthy freedom from hypocrisy by unflinchingly dramatizing the physical intimacies of the four couples involved, but by concentrating on what happens in bed leads to a fuzziness of characterization.
 
 
It mainly comes off as earnest but amateurish—especially in the third segment, set in Berlin—but there are two finely etched portrayals: from Clara Francesca Pagone as a woman who sleeps with an old boyfriend in Melbourne at the beginning and confesses to her husband in Manhattan at the end, and—even more memorably—Naomi Said, heartbreakingly real as an unhappy wife in the second and best segment, set on Malta.
 
 
 
 
 
My Rembrandt 
(Strand Releasing)
In the world of high-priced art, Rembrandt is an Old Master name that brings dollar signs to the eyes of collectors, museum officials and art dealers, and Oeke Hoogendijk’s engaging and insightful documentary follows the travails of several valuable Rembrandt paintings in the hands of private collectors. There’s a portrait of an old woman over the fireplace of a Scottish duke’s estate; another picture up for auction that may or may not be authentic; and a pair of full-length portraits that the Louvre and the Rijksmuseum are contemplating bidding on together.
 
 
Hoogendijk introduces an array of colorful and even assiduously oddish characters, including Stanley S. Kaplan, an American billionaire and owner of several Rembrandts who recalls the moment when—after purchasing his first Rembrandt painting—he kisses its subject on the mouth. No explanations are required for art lovers.
 
 
 
 
 
The Passionate Thief 
(Rialto)
Mario Monicelli’s raucous but ultimately touching 1960 comedy stars Anna Magnani and Totò, two of the greatest stars of Italian cinema, along with a dubbed Ben Gazzara as an unlikely trio tramping through Rome on New Year’s Eve.
 
 
Monicelli’s typically light touch treads a fine line between humor and heartbreak, even finding a moment for a brief parody of Fellini’s Trevi Fountain sequence in La Dolce Vita, and climaxing with a perfectly pitched and amusing sequence in a church. This is a remarkable rediscovery that deserves to be seen and savored.
 
 
 
 
 
4K Release of the Week 
Love and Monsters 
(Paramount)
This cleverly constructed mash-up of dystopian horror and rom-com stars a likeable Dylan O’Brien as Joel, a nerd still pining for the girlfriend he last saw seven years ago—right before the “monsterpocalypse” destroyed civilization.
 
 
Much of Michael Matthews’ movie comprises our hero’s adventures through a dangerous landscape, with only an adorable dog as a companion, and if too much of the movie’s running time is taken up by his encounters with various—and, after awhile, repetitive and tired—monstrous creatures, there’s a sweetness and vulnerability that keeps it all watchable, as does Jessica Henwick, who makes a magical Aimee, Joel’s long-lost girlfriend. The eye-popping 4K transfer also accentuates the fakeness of the creatures; there’s a second disc that includes a Blu-ray transfer of the film and short featurettes.
 
 
 
 
 
Blu-ray Release of the Week
Lohengrin 
(BelAir Classiques)
Richard Wagner’s heroic opera is a transitional work between the grand operas of his past and philosophical dramas of the future, but it’s filled with wondrous music and gorgeous dramatic tableaux, the latter of which are only partially achieved in Árpád Schilling’s scattered 2018 Stuttgart staging.
 
 
Happily, the musical side more than compensates, with Michael König’s stentorian Lohengrin, Simone Schneider’s compassionate Elsa and Martin Gantner’s forceful Friedrich von Telramund. Cornelius Meister superbly conducts the Stuttgart State Orchestra and Chorus; hi-def video and audio are excellent.

Music Review—Rush's "Permanent Waves" Turns 40

Rush—Permanent Waves 40th Anniversary 
(UMe/Mercury/Anthem)
 


 
2020 started out horribly for Rush fans with the untimely death of lyricist and drummer extraordinaire Neil Peart in January. That news put a damper on the 40th anniversary of the Canadian prog-rock trio’s commercial 1980 breakthrough, Permanent Waves, which received a deluxe edition in May comprising the original album and 11 live tracks from the accompanying worldwide tour on two CDs and two LPs as well as bric-a-brac for fans, all housed in an LP-sized boxed set. 
 
When it was released in 1980, Permanent Waves showed that the band could move into shorter, more accessible song forms without sacrificing the epic structures and instrumental chops that characterized records like 2112 and A Farewell to Kings
 
From the opening track “The Spirit of Radio”—which became one of the most popular Rush anthems—to the closing multi-part suite “Natural Science,” Permanent Waves splits the difference between musical complexity (“Jacob’s Ladder”) and lyrical simplicity (“Entre Nous,” “Different Strings”), with the straight-ahead rocker “Free Will” thrown in for good measure. 
 
Drummer Neil Peart’s lyrics could be too self-consciously literary with a touch of the pompous—“For the words of the prophets were written on the stadium walls/concert halls” remains too clever for its own good—and bassist Geddy Lee’s vocals, while not as screechy as on earlier albums (especially on Rush’s previous opus, 1978’s Hemispheres, where Lee struggled to sing songs composed in a higher key than he could handle), are still on the “acquired taste” side. 
 
But there’s no denying the instrumental chops of Peart, Lee and underrated guitarist Alex Lifeson whenever the trio locks in on particularly illuminating breaks throughout, particularly on the epics “Jacob’s Ladder” and “Natural Science.” And there’s always a tinge of regret at the end of “Different Strings,” an uncharacteristically subdued Rush track, as Lifeson’s biting guitar solo begins and the song immediately fades out instead of continuing for another minute or so.
 
This welcome commemorative set comprises the superb-sounding remastered album and 11 electric live tracks from the group’s 1980 tour on two CDs and two LPs: the concert cuts include most of the then-new record along with earlier gems like “Cygnus X-1”—both Books I and II, which the trio rarely played live—and “Xanadu.” 
 
The set also features items that will excite hard-core Rush fans, from a 40-page hardcover book filled with rare photos and new artwork by longtime Rush album cover designer Hugh Syme to Peart’s lyric sheets for “The Spirit of Radio,” “Entre Nous” and “Natural Science” as well as a replica of the band’s 1980 tour program. 
 
That last inclusion is notable since each Rush tour program always contained a thoughtful and enlightening Peart essay on the making of the group’s newest album. So including the program is, in essence, the ultimate RIP to a superb writer and rock artist.

December '20 Digital Week IV

In-Theater Release of the Week 
Promising Young Woman 
(Focus Features)
With a promising premise—a young woman, Cassie, feigns being drunk and vulnerable in order to get back at “nice guys” who try and take advantage while she’s in a supposed inebriated state—writer-director Emerald Fennell sets up an unsettling mixture of jet-black comedy and demented rom-com, at least until it disintegrates when Cassie’s motives become clear and she homes in on her real target.
 
 
As Cassie, Carey Mulligan gives another of her unforgettable, psychologically rich portrayals, still compelling even when Fennell transforms Cassie into a clichéd vengeaful monster. Mulligan’s ferocious performance is given top-flight support from Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown as her flummoxed parents, Laverne Cox as her best friend/coffee shop coworker, and Adam Brody as a former fellow med student with whom she lets her guard down. 
 
 
 
 
 
VOD/Virtual Cinema Releases of the Week
Another Round 
(Samuel Goldwyn Company) 
Mads Mikkelsen—who made Thomas Vinterberg’s 2012 study of a man accused of pedophilia, The Hunt, watchable even when the director’s script went seriously awry—again dominates Vinterberg’s latest blackly comic drama about a quartet of middle-aged teachers deciding to test a psychiatrist’s theory that drinking to slight excess can make someone more creative and relaxed.
 
 
It’s certainly as provocative as all of Vinterberg’s work but, as usual, he goes both too far and not far enough, wallowing in self-pity and melodramatic flourishes. But Mikkelsen grounds this contrived descent into unsurprising consequences, with even his early dance training coming to the rescue for a virtuosically physical finale. 
 
 
 
 
 
Through the Night 
(Longshot Factory) 
Loira Limbal’s often wrenching documentary explores, through a 24-hour daycare center in New Rochelle, NY, the difficulties of single moms—especially minorities—juggling having a graveyard shift and needing a place for their children to stay overnight.
 
 
Focusing on Deloris “Nunu” Hogan, who with her husband takes care of several children in their home, and two mothers who are trying against the odds—and ingrained systematic racism and sexism—to successfully raise their kids while working odd hours, Limbal refrains from making an explicitly political statement. But that this intimate, generous film exists at all is miraculous. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Blu-ray Releases of the Week
Amores Perros 
(Criterion Collection)
Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2000 feature remains an auspicious debut, introducing what would become his filmmaking signature with its multistory structure and jumbled chronology to tell a trio of fast-paced, often exciting but schematic narratives centered on how their protagonists treat dogs (the title translates to Love’s a Bitch). Iñárritu’s taut direction and accomplished performances obscure the fact that this has no business going on for 2-1/2 hours.
 
 
Criterion again comes up aces with this release: the film looks splendidly grainy in hi-def; extras comprise a new interview with Iñárritu and filmmaker Paweł Pawlikowski; new conversation between Iñárritu and actors Adriana Barraza, Vanessa Bauche and Gael García Bernal; Perros, amores, accidentes, a new making-of documentary with behind-the-scenes footage; rehearsal footage with Iñárritu’s reflections; new interview with composer Gustavo Santaolalla; video essay by film scholar Paul Julian Smith; and music videos for soundtrack songs by Control Machete, Café Tacvba and Julieta Venegas.
 
 
 
 
 
The Harvey Girls 
(Warner Archive)
Wizard of Oz alumni Judy Garland and Ray Bolger reunite in George Sidney’s 1946 technicolor musical set in the 1890s Wild West about “Harvey girls,” waitresses for a chain of restaurants: Garland gets off the train from Ohio and, unimpressed with the local she’s supposed to marry, signs up as one of the girls; she soon falls for the manager (John Hodiak) of the local saloon that becomes a dangerous rival.
 
 
Bolger’s tap dances are the highlights alongside the famous “Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” number, but Garland and Hodiak have their moments and Cyd Charisse also dances wonderfully. It’s as sentimentally pleasant as can be, and Warner Archive’s hi-def color transfer looks spectacular. Extras are Sidney’s commentary, three deleted musical sequences, and audio-only scoring stage sessions.
 
 
 
 
 
It Happened on 5th Avenue 
(Warner Archive)
Roy Del Ruth’s 1947 fable about a bunch of squatters in a vacant Fifth Avenue mansion and the ultra-rich owner who surreptitiously hides out among them is overlong and one-note, despite a fine cast and generous dollops of unrepentant corniness.
 
 
Gale Storm and Don DeFore make an interesting romantic pairing, while Victor Moore is almost too boisterous as the lovable hobo. The B&W film has received a fine-looking hi-def transfer; lone extra is a radio adaptation recorded the same year that the film was released.
 
 
 
 
 
The Shop Around the Corner 
(Warner Archive)
Maybe because I’m a fan of She Loves Me, the 1963 Broadway musical based on Nikolaus Laszlo’s Parfumerie, but Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 Hollywood version of Laszlo’s play about two employees of a Budapest shop who are, unbeknownst to each other, pen pals and (of course) would-be lovers is enjoyable but inessential.
 
 
If the acting is a bit too broad from the supporting cast, James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as a charming couple make the 99 minutes relatively painless. Warner Archive’s hi-def transfer gives a remarkable sheen to the B&W film; extras are the featurette The Miracle of Sound and two radio broadcasts (from 1940 and 1941) of the story.
 
 
 
 
 
 
The Wolf of Snow Hollow 
(Warner Bros)
Writer-director-star Jim Cummings’ routine werewolf movie can never decide whether it wants to be a horror film or a black comedy in the style of An American Werewolf in London and ends up stranded in a sort of no-man’s land, where there are neither enough thrills nor laughs to be entertaining.
 
 
Cummings himself is too nondescript to be winning as a sympathetic hero of sorts, and the rest of the cast doesn’t get much to do in what is basically an unimaginative and unnecessary picture. There’s a first-rate hi-def transfer; extras are on-set featurettes and interviews.
 
 
 
 
 
DVD Release of the Week 
Avenue 5—Complete 1st Season 
(Warner Archive)
Armando Iannucci, the creator of such movie classics as In the Loop and The Death of Stalin and TV classics as The Thick of It (Veep had its moments but was not in the same league as any of the foregoing), returns with a satirical sci-fi series that has his deadpan comic sense in spades but is far too hit-and-miss, seeming more aimless than on-target.
 
 
The impeccable cast is led by Hugh Laurie, Veep alum Zach Woods and the gifted and winning Lenora Crichlow, all of whom ring laughs out of even lesser Iannucci lines, but this is one space trip that goes on longer than it should. Extras include a featurette and two commercials (!).
 
 
 
 
 
CD Release of the Week
August Enna—Kleopatra 
(Dacapo)
Danish composer August Enna (1859–1939), almost forgotten now, had a successful career in his home country in the late 19th/early 20th century, particularly with strikingly dramatic works like his 1894 opera about Egyptian queen Cleopatra, which received its first performances in 2019 after an absence from Denmark’s stages of 120 years.
 
 
On this often gripping recording from the enterprising Dacapo label, soprano Elsebeth Dreisig is mesmerizing as the tragic heroine, and Enna’s luxuriantly romantic score is given dynamic reading by the Danish National Opera Chorus and the Odense Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Joachim Gustafsson.

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