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January '20 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 


(Warner Bros)

When does homage end and pilferage begin? That’s the question after seeing Todd Phillips’ colossally unimaginative and ultimately trivial Batman villain backstory tale, which is equal parts Taxi Driver rip-off and King of Comedy rip-off (pointedly, Martin Scorsese has said he hasn’t seen Joker yet). Joaquin Phoenix chews the scenery relentlessly as the eponymous anti-hero whose murderous pathology is lamely explained away as a reaction against bullying; Phoenix, in fact, makes Nicholson’s turn in The Shining look positively subtle.




And Robert DeNiro’s phoned-in appearance only makes Phillips look worse in Scorsese’s shadow. The movie’s most interesting aspect is the haunting violin score by Hildur Guðnadóttir, which belongs in another, worthier movie. Gotham City looks convincingly desaturated on Blu; extras are four making-of featurettes.




This by-the-numbers actioner casts Natalie Burn as an operative in a criminal syndicate who must do what the deadly kidnapper of her young son says or she’ll never see the boy again.




Dolph Lundgren plays the seeming bad guy—who isn’t entirely whom he seems, of course—but unfortunately directors Michael Merino (who also wrote the script) and Daniel Zirilli don’t bother to do anything novel with what amounts to an intriguingly twisty plot, instead contenting themselves with a bunch of routine chases, fights and shootouts. The film looks attractive on Blu.









Rupert Goold’s standard-issue biopic looks at Judy Garland in decline as she takes on several London “comeback” concerts that end up showing just how far gone she is in her physical and emotional downfall, interspersed with the usual flashbacks to earlier in her career as a young but bullied sensation.




Renée Zellweger gives it her all as Judy, and her singing and onstage demeanor are impressively focused, but for the rest she cannot overcome her lack of looking or sounding like the real Garland—that squeaky Zellweger voice too often intrudes. The Blu-ray looks quite good; lone extra is a making-of featurette.


The Kill Team 


Dan Krauss, who made the documentary The Kill Team about a group of American soldiers taking matters into their own hands in Afghanistan, returns to direct a feature based his own doc: the tension and claustrophobia of war’s close quarters are shown with consummate skill.




As the bloodthirsty squad leader, Alexander Skarsgård is scarily unnerving, while Nat Wolff makes a fine ordinary Joe caught up in nastiness he wishes he weren’t part of. There’s an excellent hi-def transfer; extras are Krauss’ commentary, deleted scenes, and a making-of. 







Lucas Debargue—To Music 


French pianist Lucas Debargue, then 27 years old, makes a memorable subject in Martin Mirabel’s informative and entertaining 2017 documentary portrait that displays his artistry, restlessness and—unsurprisingly for a great performer—moments of self-doubt.




In addition to revealing interviews, there are glimpses of Debargue playing concertos and solo music, even working on a trio he composed for his own ensemble. Debargue is not the only fascinating artist onscreen: his Russian teacher, Rena Shereshevskaya, is also a character (in both senses) in her own right. The hi-def video and audio are exemplary; extras include excerpts of Debargue performing Beethoven and Scriabin.


Passport to Pimlico

The Titfield Thunderbolt 

(Film Movement Classics)

Film Movement Classics’ first releases from London’s classic Ealing Studios—1949’s Passport to Pimlico, about a London neighborhood that decides it’s part of France, and 1953’s Titfield Thunderbolt, about a small town that decides to resurrect a defunct rail line—might not be up to the level of Ealing’s best comedies, like The Lavender Hill Mob and The Man in the White Suit, but they are quite diverting and cleverly done in their own right.




Both films have been restored brilliantly, bringing out the details of Lionel Banes’ B&W Passport photography and the exquisiteness of Douglas Slocombe’s color Titfield cinematography. Extras include interviews, location featurettes and other ephemera. 


DVDs of the Week 

Twin Flower 

(Film Movement)

Young Italian director-writer Laura Luchetti’s drama about the unlikely relationship between a mute teenage girl and a headstrong African migrant sympathizes with its protagonists without ever approaching maudlin.




The difficulties and occasionally deadly dealings in this shadowy underworld are strongly detailed by Luchetti, and the subtle performances of non-actors Anastasiya Bogach and Kallil Kone give the film its bite and lasting flavor. Lone extra is a wryly comic short, Cerdita, by Spanish director Carlota Pereda.


Wrinkles the Clown 


It seems like a story made up for the faux-documentary set: a clown, parading himself as a child’s nightmare, has made it to mythic status in southwest Florida—where else?—as parents with unruly kids threaten to hire him to scare them, while curious kids, teens and adults of all ages contact him for a cheap thrill.




But Michael Beach Nichols’ documentary about this phenomenon is all too real (even if the unseen person parading around as Wrinkles’ alter ego is just an actor hired by the real “Wrinkles”) but at a scant 75 minutes, the intriguing psychological and sociological threads it brings up are rarely delved into at any length. Extras are deleted scenes.

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