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March '21 Digital Week III

VOD/Virtual Cinema/Streaming/In Theater Releases of the Week 
The Courier 
(Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions)
This true story of Greville Wynne, a businessman recruited by the CIA and MI6 for duty as a go-between for a Russian spy slipping secrets to the Americans and British, doesn’t break new ground, but it is absorbing and even—when the stakes are high and lives are at stake—becomes tense and involving.
Benedict Cumberbatch, best playing ordinary men caught up in events beyond his ken, is excellent as Wynne; matching him are Merab Ninidze as Oleg Penkovsky, his Russian counterpart, and Jessie Buckley as Sheila, his dutiful but beleaguered wife. Dominick Cooke directs unobtrusively but without the artistry needed to elevate this above “decent thriller.”
The Father 
(Sony Pictures Classics) 
Florian Zeller’s intimate play—which won Frank Langella a best actor Tony Award in 2016—has been extensively and, for the most part, successfully rejiggered for the screen, anchored by Anthony Hopkins’ heartbreaking performance as a man in the throes of senility who is unwilling—but unable—to concede that he has little control over his aging mind.
Zeller smartly because straightforwardly visualizes his protagonist’s shifting mental state, sometimes thinking his daughter is present, and at other times, surprised that she’s there. As the women in his life (daughter? caretaker? both? neither?), two Olivias—Colman and Williams—are superb foils for Hopkins, who hasn’t been this affecting since The Elephant Man 40 years ago.
(Saban Films/Paramount)
This black comedy’s setup—a happily married, still lustful couple of 14 years annoys their friends enough to lead the pair to suspect them after a visit to the couple’s house by a strange man leads to a dead body—is rich with humor and sharp observation, but when the stranger’s identity is (sort of) revealed and the friends are all trapped in a rented house, the second half stumbles badly and limps to a risible, even nonsensical finish.
Joel McHale and Kerry Bishe are terrific as the couple and, in a fine supporting cast, Natalie Zea stands out as McHale’s ex, but writer/director BenDavid Grabinski cops out and ends up trading uneasy but genuine laughs for eye rolls.
Quo Vadis, Aida? 
(Neon/Super Ltd)
When the Bosnian War was at its height in 1995, the village of Srebrenica became ground zero for the Serbian Army, which massacred hundreds of male villagers, both men and boys. Director Jasmila Žbanić’s shattering drama recreates that awful moment in history through the eyes of Aida, a local woman acting as translator who desperately but futilely tries to get her husband and sons to safety out of town.
Jasna Đuričić’s richly expressive performance is the moral center of Žbanić’s film, which matter-of-factly and depressingly shows how evil is perpetrated with unwitting complicity from those nominally in charge (the toothless UN peacekeepers).
4K Release of the Week 
(Warner Bros)
This 2014 reboot of the classic Japanese film series about a prehistoric monster regenerated by nuclear radiation, has been directed by Gareth Edwards with a lack of crudeness that is most appreciated, at least occasionally; at other times, one yearns for scenes that are more slam-bang and action-packed.
Still, the special effects—except in the big creature-battle finale, which unfortunately is too darkly lit—don’t overwhelm the human characters, and the cast, led by Bryan Cranston, David Strathairn, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Juliette Binoche (who’s gone far too early), doesn’t embarrass itself. The movie looks vividly tactile on UHD—there’s also a Blu-ray disc of the film—and the extras include several on-set and behind-the-scenes featurettes. 
Blu-ray Releases of the Week
The Cellist 
(Opus Arte)
What sounds like a preposterous idea for a ballet—dramatizing the tragically short life of the British cellist Jacqueline du Pré, who died in 1987 at age 42 of multiple sclerosis—becomes quite affecting in the hands of the Royal Ballet choreographer Cathy Marston, who ingeniously pairs Lauren Cuthbertson as Jackie with Marcelino Sambé, who personifies her cello, and their dances together (and apart) are incredibly moving; the one-act ballet is scored to music by Elgar, Faure and Schubert associated with du Pré’s performances and recordings.
Another one-acter is the beguiling Dances at a Gathering, a set of Jerome Robbins’ wonderful dances to Chopin solo piano music (played by Robert Clark). As always, the hi-def video and audio are excellent.
The Undoing 
(Warner Bros)
Based on Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel You Should Have Known, this six-episode miniseries about a murder that threatens to tear apart a wealthy Upper East Side family trods familiar ground—even its unsurprising denouement—with supreme assurance, thanks to Susanne Bier’s detailed direction and David E. Kelly’s fastidious script.
Of course, none of these characters is in the least sympathetic: as the suspicious wife and suspect husband, Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant are accommodating in that department, while Donald Sutherland gleefully chews the scenery as Kidman’s arrogant father. The series looks quite impressive on Blu; extras are several short featurettes and interviews.
CD Releases of the Week
Bluebeard’s Castle 
In one of the greatest of all operas—I won’t even use the qualifier “20th century”—Hungarian master Béla Bartók distills the dramatic, romantic and tragic essence of Charles Perrault’s terrifying fairy tale into a hair-raising and chilling hour. Bartók’s masterly music score is filled to the brim with thrilling moments: for example, even though I know it’s coming, the radiant organ chords when wife Judith opens Bluebeard’s fifth door always amaze.
The Helsinki Philharmonic, led by conductor Susanna Malkki, certainly delivers on this new recording, with bass Mika Kares (Bluebeard) and mezzo Szilvia Voros (Judith) giving perfectly pitched vocal performances.
Orson Rehearsed—An Operafilm 
American composer Daron Aric Hagen already wrote an opera about an American arts master—Shining Brow, about architect Frank Lloyd Wright—and now tackles another genius: Orson Welles. Orson Rehearsed is an often convoluted but dramatically compelling one-acter set at the moment of Welles’ death at age 70 in 1985, as three Orsons hash out the many highs and lows—both real and imagined—in the great director’s life and career.
The problem with Orson Rehearsed stems from its subtitle, An Operafilm—surely this strange, disjointed work would benefit greatly from visuals that fill in the cracks in the clever soundworld Hagen has conjured.
Zappa—Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Deluxe 
(Zappa Records)
Alex Winter’s excellent documentary Zappa is crammed with bits of the wide-ranging music Zappa composed and performed during his astonishing and eclectic 30-year career, much of which is heard on this three-CD set: everything from mid ‘60s pop tunes “Everytime I See You” and “Memories of El Monte” through minor hits “Dancing Fool” (1978) and “Valley Girl” (1982) to the challenging late work, Overture.
Also included is music that inspired Zappa, from Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite to Edgard Varèse’s Ionisation. And rounding out the set is the film score by John Frizzel with Nick Cimity and David Stal, which is evocative and atmospheric in its way, but not as memorably original as Zappa’s own work.

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