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January '23 Digital Week III

In-Theater/Streaming Releases of the Week 
Saint Omer
French documentarian Alice Diop’s powerful debut feature dramatizes a stunning story based on the real-life trial of a Senegalese woman who killed her infant daughter, and its complex layers of morality, culture, politics, sexism and racism make this one of the most provocative and disturbing films in recent memory. Diop drops us into the courtroom alongside her protagonist—a stand-in, of sorts, for herself—who must take in the young defendant’s reasoning for an inexplicably horrific occurrence in this claustrophobic location, further accentuated by the nearly still camera.
Diop’s film is nearly all talk, but that talk is always compelling and challenging, much more so than something like Sarah Polley’s mediocre Women Talking, which of course did receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. (Saint Omer was stupidly shut out of any nominations.)
All Eyes Off Me 
(Film Movement)
Young adults’ sexual and social exploits are explored in Hadas Ben Aroya’s physically and emotionally naked drama, which follows Avisheg who, after having energetic bouts of intercourse with her new boyfriend Max (who has unknowingly impregnated another woman, Danny), has an unexpected flirtation with a middle-aged man.
Ben Aroya knowingly shows how intimacy intersects with mundanity, although occasionally that banality creeps into the movie itself. Still, the director has cast several daring performers, particularly Elisheva Weil, who is particularly astonishing as the always intriguing Avisheg.
Chess Story 
(Film Movement)
Based on the final novella of the great Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, Philipp Stölzl’s intelligent adaptation follows Josef Bartok, a Hungarian Jewish accountant who nearly escapes with his wife to North America in 1938 but is taken away right before boarding the ship and is constantly tortured by his Nazi captors to get him to share information about wealthy Jews’ bank accounts that he denies having.
Stölzl’s visually striking embodiment of mental stress, a book of great chess matches, is found by Bartok, who memorizes and relives those moves to try and outlast his fascist torturers. This indomitable tribute to the human spirit in the most perilous of times is highlighted by Oliver Masucci’s splendid performance in the lead role.
Only in Theaters 
(Wishing Well Entertainment)
Raphael Sbarge’s timely documentary explores the Laemmle family, longtime proprietors of the one of the most adventurous movie-theater chains in California, part of the cinematic education of generations of filmmakers, scholars and movie fans. What starts as an engaging chronicle of the family’s longtime business—focusing on Greg Laemmle, current head of the theaters—soon becomes something else entirely when COVID-19 enters the picture and shuts everything down.
The urgency of a family-owned business in an entertainment industry seeing the massive popularity of streaming and further changes in audience’s moviegoing habits makes the film a cautionary tale about the survival of the fittest. Cameos by filmmakers Allison Anders, Cameron Crowe, Ava DuVernay, Nicole Holofcener, James Ivory and Bruce Joel Rubin provide further gravitas to the Laemmle theaters’ place in cinema history.
Blu-ray Release of the Week 
Voodoo Macbeth 
(Lightyear Entertainment)
The fascinating true story of how actress Rose McClendon (Inger Tudor) shepherded a Black-cast version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth to the Depression-era New York stage through producer John Houseman and 20-year-old wunderkind director Orson Welles (Jewell Wilson Bridges, in his film debut), who gets the idea for a “Voodoo Macbeth” set on a Caribbean island—it could either be a masterstroke or a laughing stock.
A conglomerate of 10 directors, 8 writers and 3 producers as part of the USC Originals project shepherds this dramatization effectively if unsurprisingly: it’s a credible reenactment with fine performances but not as earthshattering as what Welles and company created onstage (sadly, McClendon never played her dream role of Lady Macbeth, dying of pneumonia soon after the production opened). The Blu-ray image looks excellent; extras comprise footage from the original 1936 play as well as a commentary by Bridges, Tudor, one of the directors and writers along with two producers.

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