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June '24 Digital Week III

In-Theater Releases of the Week 
(Roadside Attractions)
Katharine Parr, the last of Henry VIII’s six wives—and the only one to survive (he died a year before she)—is the focus of Karim Aïnouz’s intelligent but conventional biopic that dramatizes the fine line between staying in the king’s good graces and being accused of treason.
Despite richly impressive performances by Alicia Vikander (Katharine), Jude Law (Henry), Junia Rees (Princess Elizabeth, Henry’s young daughter, who becomes an immortal queen a decade later) and Erin Doherty (Anne Askew, a Protestant whose heresy lands too close to Katharine for comfort), Aïnouz’s film is based on a script, by Henrietta and Jessica Ashworth, that admirably centers on the women of Tudor England—but doesn’t give much insight to its endlessly fascinating subject.
(Well Go USA)
As a father desperate to treat his young daughter’s rare form of cancer, C. Thomas Howell gives a formidable portrayal that’s the heart of writer-director-star Jake Allyn’s well-intentioned if cliched character study. Allyn himself plays Howell’s rootless son—his driving while drunk caused an accident that badly injured his sister, although her hospital stay led doctors to discover her cancer—who’s a rodeo vet hoping to earn enough while riding to pay for her treatment.
Annabeth Gish, on hand as Howell’s ex-wife, Allyn’s mom and the local sheriff investigating a theft and shooting that just might involve both of them. It’s all very soap-operaish, but the excellent acting and Allyn’s flavorful directing are major assists.
Kudos to director-writer Josh Margolin for casting irrepressible 93-year-old actress June Squibb as a grandma fooled by a phone scam that bilks her out of 10 grand, but that’s not the end of it; in fact, it’s just the beginning. This lighthearted little comic drama is too cutesy with several cringy moments, but Squibb, Richard Roundtree (whose last performance this is) as her partner in crime and Malcolm McDowell in a funny cameo as the target of Thelma’s ire make it worthwhile.
Too bad Parker Posey, Clark Gregg and Fred Hechinger, as Thelma’s daughter, son-in-law and grandson, have little to do except run around looking for her. Margolin ties it all together at the end with his dedication to the real Thelma, his grandmother, still going strong at 103.
(Film Nation/Bleecker Street)
Stephen Fry and Lena Dunham might seem an odd pairing to play a Polish father and his American journalist daughter traveling to Poland to revisit his childhood—and, on the basis of writer-director Julia von Heinz’ strangely inert character study, they are.
Both Fry (with a decent Polish accent as Edek) and Dunham (more interestingly vulnerable than she usually is as Ruth) are game, putting authenticity and amusement into their characters’ relationship, but von Heinz only occasionally makes this trip into a traumatic past urgent or illuminating. 
Streaming Release of the Week 
Love’s Whirlpool 
Daisuke Miura’s diffuse 2014 drama—based on his own play—follows an octet (four men, four women) who meet at a private Tokyo club for a night of casual, anonymous sex, where they end up discovering things about themselves as well as the others they just met and hooked up with.
While the men and women eventually pair off and go at it, Miura shoots the sex scenes as sniggeringly silly couplings, while his dialogue is mostly portentous and self-important. Despite this, there are fine performances, especially by Mugi Kadowaki as a meek college student with an insatiable sex drive and Muck Akazawa as a tough-talking sex-club regular, that help make this two-hour film less of a slog.
Blu-ray Releases of the Week
Blind War 
(Well Go USA)
In this resolutely insane Chine martial arts drama, after SWAT team leader Dong Gu loses his sight in a botched courthouse mission, he returns from the force, then has to track down the bad guys who kidnaped his violin-playing daughter.
Director Suiqiang Huo leans into the absurdity of his premise, which makes it propulsively watchable; Andy On gives an impeccably physical performance as the ex-cop turned vigilante while Yang Zing expertly chews the scenery as the villain who might just help him out on his quest for revenge. The film looks very good on Blu; lone extra is an on-set featurette.
Sydney Sweeney, fresh off her surprise hit rom-com Anyone But You, plays Sister Cecilia, a devout novice who, after arriving at a convent in Italy, finds herself miraculously pregnant—and soon discovers that there are devious goings-on intruding on the nuns’ bodily autonomy…and worse.
Michael Mohan directs without much imagination or wit, but he finds his métier in the gothic twists and turns—filled with a lot of bloody gore—of the finale, and Sweeney is always watchable, even in church-horror mode. There’s an excellent hi-def transfer; lone extra is Mohan’s commentary.
DVD Release of the Week
Welcome Back, Kotter 
(Warner Bros)
The classic sitcom returns in this complete set comprising a dozen discs and all 95 episodes over four seasons (1975-79), detailing the escapades of the Sweathogs (played by John Travolta, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Robert Hegyes and Ron Palillo) at Buchanan High School in Brooklyn; their teacher, Mr. Kotter (Gabe Kaplan), has returned to his former school to try and teach these teens.
The series, both funny and sentimental, hinges on the sharp performances by Kaplan, Marcia Strassman (Kotter’s wife) and the boys, making it a worthwhile comic nostalgia trip.
CD Release of the Week 
Lukas Foss—Orchestral Works
Berlin-born, U.S.-based Lukas Foss (1922-2009) was a mentor of Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra (BPO) music director JoAnn Falletta, who repays him in kind with this all-Foss disc that includes three wonderful works from early in his eclectic career (Ode, Three American Pieces and Symphony No. 1), and one later masterpiece (Renaissance Concerto).
I heard Falletta and the BPO perform this same program at Carnegie Hall in 2022, and these splendid readings match the intensity onstage that night. Special mention to the brilliant soloists: flutist Amy Porter in the evocative Renaissance Concerto and BPO concertmaster Nikki Chooi in the Coplandesque Three American Pieces. Of course, Falletta feels this music in her very bones, and the result is the best possible case for Foss as a major American composer.

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