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VOD/Virtual Cinema Releases of the Week
The Trip to Greece
Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon return for their fourth go-round touring Europe and eating superb meals along the way, and if this entry is pretty much more of the same—amazing scenery, delectable dinners, and good-natured banter and dueling impressions—the stars have such great chemistry that the formula still works.
Michael Winterbottom directs with his usual light hand, and even obvious running gags like Greece the country vs. Grease the movie find laughs; and if the eventual plot divergence of comedy (Brydon) and tragedy (Coogan) is hackneyed, it doesn’t ruin an otherwise pleasurable journey.
Yaron Zilberman’s provocative drama recounts the movements of Yigal Amir, assassin of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, from his thinking up the plot until carrying it out. Dazzlingly mixing in archival footage, Zilberman painstakingly and thoughtfully details how Amir, incensed by Rabin’s and Arafat’s Oslo peace talks, found passages in the Torah and interpretations by conservative rabbis to give him permission to act.
Yehuda Nahari Halevi, onscreen in nearly every shot, makes a persuasively confused killer; fine support comes from the actresses playing the women in his life: Daniella Kertesz (familiar from World War Z) and Sivan Mast.
Joan of Arc
French director Bruno Dumont has, aside from his best films (Le Vie de Jesus, Humanite, Hadewijch), made duds like his 2017 Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc, a misconceived heavy-metal musical biopic. Now Dumont has made a sequel, once again starring the intense but miscast (and now 10-year-old) Lise Leplat Prudhomme in the title role.
Shot in the medieval cathedral in Amiens, France, Joan of Arc records her merciless questioning by unsympathetic church investigators with dull literalness. Even the usually excellent Francois Luchini as a church elder grilling the young girl can’t make a dramatic dent.
Nomad—In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin
(Music Box Films)
Werner Herzog’s new documentary is a tribute to his friend, the adventurer and writer Bruce Chatwin, who died in 1989 of AIDS. Following Chatwin’s writings and visiting several of the far-flung places he reported on and lived in, Herzog talks with Chatwin’s widow and several friends and writers to paint a vivid if occasionally hazy portrait of a true original who also played a part in the creation of Herzog’s own film Cobra Verde, which was based on a Chatwin novel.
Herzog puts himself front and center, unsurprisingly, but his career has been entwined with Chatwin’s so it’s forgivable.
A Towering Task—The Story of the Peace Corps
(First Run Features)
One of America’s most important exports of the past 60 years, the Peace Corps was created by JFK and, despite missteps and other political shenanigans, is still going relatively strong even during the pandemic that is the tRump administration.
Alana DeJoseph’s engrossing documentary, narrated by Annette Bening, recounts its origins, history and ideals, as everyone (including volunteers who became leaders in and out of government) illustrate the notion that American exceptionalism can still work in the fulfillment of a just cause.
Blu-rays of the Week
The Man Standing Next
This fast-paced, exciting political thriller dramatizes the events leading to the 1979 assassination of South Korea’s president amidst the U.S. congressional scandal known as Koreagate. Director Woo Min-ho’s confident, stylish drama compellingly juggles several storylines which coalesce in a bloody conspiratorial climax.
The performances are excellent top to bottom, and the film’s quasi-documentary look gives it the weight of history, the context of which most Americans will surely be unaware of. The film looks sensationally good in hi-def.
The Mystery of the Wax Museum
Michael Curtiz’s 1933 pre-code horror flick stars King Kong’s Fay Wray as the friend of an intrepid reporter who enters the crosshairs of a deranged wax museum owner who thinks she looks like the Marie Antoinette replica lost in a fire a dozen years earlier.
This fairly ridiculous little item at least doesn’t waste time getting from A to B (it’s 80 minutes long), even if the stilted acting and cheap sets don’t help matters. Warner Archive’s first-rate restoration gives the two-color Technicolor visuals a satisfying onscreen pop; extras are two commentaries and a featurette about Wray with an interview with her daughter.
The Way Back
Ben Affleck gives a strong and vulnerable performance as a high school basketball star whose life has hit a dead-end (nights getting drunk at a local dive) so he agrees to return to his alma mater to coach a raw group of players.
Although director Patrick O’Connor unearths every cliché of the cinematic sports-redemption story (from Hoosiers to Rudy to Miracle), hitting all the usual bases until his hero is literally lying face-first in the street blotto, there’s an earnestness to the narrative and to Affleck’s presence that makes this overly formulaic drama watchable. The film looks good on Blu; extras comprise two making-of featurettes.
DVDs of the Week
It’s too bad director Jeremy Teicher was allowed to film in the Olympic Village at PyeongChang, South Korea, during the 2018 Winter Olympics, since all he came up with was this familiar semi-romance between a cross-country skier and a volunteer dentist.
Alexi Pappas and Nick Kroll (who were given co-script credit for their seemingly improvised dialogue) provide a few tenderly awkward moments as their characters dance around a possible relationship, but it all adds up to much ado about nothing. A documentary about the actual athletes living in the village would have been more interesting than this.
The Venerable W.
Veteran French director Barbet Schroeder’s truly disturbing documentary introduces one of the greatest threats to peace and security in the southeast Asian country of Myanmar: Ashin Wirathu, a Buddhist monk whose racially-charged sermons have contributed to the anti-Muslim violence that has overtaken the region in the past decade.
It’s shocking but not surprising when he confidently says that the U.S. can only have its own peace and security under Donald tRump. Schroeder records this man’s quiet ravings with bemusement, simultaneously providing facts as a necessary historical corrective to show how dangerous such deluded hatred can become.
CD of the Week
Sergei Prokofiev—Symphonies 3 & 6
Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) composed seven symphonies that ran the gamut from the early, playful “Classical” symphony to the weighty Fifth, his symphonic masterpiece.
The two works on this disc—played solidly if with only intermittent passion by the Deutsche Radio Symphonie under conductor Pietari Inkinen—are among the composer’s most intense: the Third Symphony recycles musical themes and episodes from his complex opera The Fiery Angel (which failed at its premiere) to astonishing effect; and the staggering Sixth Symphony, an affecting study of the Russian psyche following the Second World War.
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