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Film and the Arts

May '20 Digital Week IV

VOD/Virtual Cinema Releases of the Week 

The Trip to Greece 

(IFC Films)

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.



(Greenwich Entertainment)

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 

(Warner Archive)

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 

(Warner Brothers)

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 

Olympic Dreams 

(IFC Films)

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. 

(Icarus Films)

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 

(SWR Music)

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.

May '20 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 

Birds of Prey 

(Warner Bros)

Unsurprisingly, Margot Robbie is a blast to watch as Harley Quinn, the hyperactive anti-heroine who destroys troublemakers with the help of her fellow “birds of prey” sisters in this often frenzied and at times even desperate DC Comics actioner by director Cathy Yan and writer Christina Hodson.



Despite the forced cutesiness, Robbie’s star turn glows, and there’s amusing support by Rosie Perez, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Ella Jay Basco; too bad Ewan MacGregor has negligible villainous presence. There’s an eye-popping hi-def transfer; extras include featurettes and a gag reel.


Gretel & Hansel 

(Warner Bros)

Director Osgood Perkins’ version of the Grimms’ fairy tale is unsubtly subtitled “A Grim Fairy Tale,” and though it looks stylish (with evocative photography, sets and costumes), its 87 minutes are diminished by a willfully draggy pace and even, at times, repetitiveness garnering diminishing dramatic returns.



Although Sophia Lillis is a most persuasive Gretel, Sam Leakey is a mostly wooden Hansel and Alice Krige hams it up mightily as the witch. The film looks exceptional in hi-def; lone extra is a storyboard featurette.


LA Phil 100 

(C Major)

Last fall, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s centennial concert brought together three of its best-known music directors—Zubin Mehta, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the current head of the orchestra, Gustavo Dudamel—for a satisfying 90-minute exploration of music from Wagner, Ravel and Stravinsky to the great Polish modernist Witold Lutosławski’s Symphony No. 4 and a new work by Daniel Bjarnason, From Space I Saw Earth, conducted by all three maestros.



Hi-def audio and video are first-rate; lone extra is The Tradition of the New, a 52-minute documentary about the orchestra’s history.


Sweet Bird of Youth 

(Warner Archive)

Although Tennessee Williams’ play about a gigolo who returns to his hometown after failing in Hollywood has been bowdlerized by self-imposed film censorship in 1962, writer-director Richard Brooks’ adaptation still makes a strong impression thanks to its impeccable cast.



Paul Newman, Geraldine Page, Shirley Knight, Rip Torn and Ed Begley (who won an Oscar) have these characters in their very bones, and they nearly overcome the loss of Williams’ potent dramaturgy about hysterectomy and castration, unfortunately replaced by abortion and a broken nose. Milton Krasner’s sharp color photography looks especially vivid on Blu-ray; extras include a vintage featurette and Page and Torn’s screen test.


Tea with the Dames 

(Sundance Selects)

This beguiling documentary about the grand dames of British acting—Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright and Maggie Smith—records them as they engagingly, hilariously and even touchingly discuss their long careers and friendships as well as mortality.



Director Roger Michell smartly allows the dames feel free enough to let fly with a curse word here or an extra slug of champagne there; inserting vintage clips of the quartet as actresses in prime form—from ’50s Shakespeare to 21st century films—is an added nice touch. One quibble is brevity: 83 minutes are not nearly long enough to do these women justice. So it’s too bad that there are no deleted scenes as a Blu-ray bonus; the film does look very good in hi-def.




When a couple visits a real-estate development, they are unable to leave and are soon forced to raise a young boy by what seem unseen alien forces—and things only get worse from there. Director Lorcan Finnegan and writer Garret Shanley’s visually striking but thematically muddled sci-fi/horror flick piles on unpleasantness and obviousness (the opening shows cuckoos taking over other birds’ nests to survive) and ends up as an inferior Twilight Zone episode stretched to 95 minutes.



The movie hammers home its one-note metaphor with a relentlessness that’s ultimately enervating, wastes Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots as the couple and has a botched ending that makes scant sense even in its nefariously unreal world. The film looks splendid in hi-def.


VOD/Virtual Cinema Releases of the Week 

Capital in the Twenty-First Century 

(Kino Lorber)

Based on the best-selling book by French economic theorist Thomas Piketty—who also has a prominent onscreen role—Justin Pemberton’s engaging documentary presents Piketty’s theories on capitalism’s role in our current lopsided economic, social and political climate in a thoughtful way for mainstream audiences.



Supporting Piketty’s viewpoint are commentators who delve into the history of capitalism from Adam Smith to today—showing that the economic inequality that has only worsened in the past century is not entirely irreversible, but that time may be running out. (


The Infiltrators 


This fascinating hybrid of documentary and fictional reenactment tells a harrowing story—how prisoners in immigrant detention centers are assisted by those who get themselves detained to better facilitate their release—as a contrived balancing act that’s necessitated by the fact that what happened behind the centers’ walls was not filmable.



Despite their film not being as pointed as it should be, directors Cristina Ibarra and Alex Rivera provide a vivid snapshot of an America that’s at a crossroads—but one in which desperate and daring activists like those detailed in their film will do what it takes to make things right. 





DVD of the Week 

Zombi Child 

(Film Movement)

Bertrand Bonello’s different kind of zombie movie tackles history and agency by being set in 1962 Haiti and present-day Paris, where the descendant of a zombie attends a girls’ boarding school.



Too bad that, by avoiding flesh-eating gore, Bonello ends up with a moderately interesting film of unusual locations whose lack of hysteria leads to stretches of deathly dullness: talk about Rhianna (also a product of the Caribbean) and white teenage girls taking a page from the colonized to rid themselves of evil spirits are not dramatic subjects in Bonello’s hands. Extras comprise Bonello’s commentary and Philip Montgomery’s short film, Child of the Sky.


CDs of the Week

Magnus Lindberg—Accused/Two Episodes 


2015’s sensationally gripping Accused (subtitled “Three Interrogations for Soprano and Orchestra”), Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg’s first work for the London Symphony Orchestra as composer in residence, takes as its theme the loss of freedom of speech through a trio of episodes (French Revolution, Communist East Germany, Obama’s America) that give powerful voice to women questioned under duress.



Soprano Anu Komsi rivets throughout this challenging dramatic showcase that runs nearly 40 minutes. Lindberg’s Two Episodes, inspired by Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, is an attractive ensemble piece that highlights the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra under conductor Hannu Lintu, both of which also provide strong support in Accused.


Gabriel Prokofiev—Concerto for Turntables No. 1/Cello Concerto 

(Signum Classics)

A mash-up of the dance club and concert hall, Gabriel Prokofiev’s 2006 Concerto for Turntables No. 1 balances, with humorous bombast, the scratchy sounds of the DJ’s turntable (the soloist is British-born Mr. Switch, aka Anthony Culverwell) with a hypnotically dissonant orchestral part.



Prokofiev’s Cello Concerto is less forward-looking, hearkening back to such modernist masterpieces as his grandfather Sergei’s masterly Symphony-Concerto, among others. Boris Andrianov is the estimable cello soloist; the Ural Philharmonic under the direction of conductor Alexey Bogorad provides vivid accompaniment in both works.

May '20 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 

Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales 


Between 1963 and 1972, French director Eric Rohmer made several films exploring how a man interested in one woman is tempted by another: these Six Moral Tales are filled with endless talk, sometimes intelligent and insightful, other times pregnant and ponderous, with arid stretches only Rohmer aficionados will appreciate.



The most memorable are 1969’s My Night at Maud’s with the fabulous Francoise Fabian as Maud and 1972’s Love in the Afternoon with its enticing depiction of the sexual aroma in our daily lives. Criterion’s excellent boxed set collects these films in very good new hi-def transfers; extras include four Rohmer short films, archival interviews and a book of Rohmer’s own stories.


The Jesus Rolls 

(Screen Media)

John Turturro’s 2017 remake of Bertrand Blier’s 1974 romp Going Places (with a then unknown Gerard Depardieu and Isabelle Huppert) is one of the more unnecessary recent movies, and this disappointment comes after his amusing 2013 Fading Gigolo with Woody Allen.



This vanity project—Turturro stars, directed and wrote—allows the actor to ham it up as Jesus Quintana from The Big Lebowski, but even with a top cast—Audrey Tautou, Bobby Cannavale, Susan Sarandon, Gloria Reuben, Christopher Walken—such a heavy-handed, unfunny misfire makes the occasionally clever original look like a classic in comparison. There’s a superior hi-def transfer; lone extra is a Turturro and Cannavale commentary.


Rachel and the Stranger 

(Warner Archive)

In this straightforward 1948 western, a widowed father (William Holden) raises his young son alone who hires an indentured servant (Loretta Young) to be teacher, mother and wife—until a family friend (Robert Mitchum) comes along and disrupts their arrangement.



The stars make a formidable trio as the servant-owner relationships slowly blossoms into something more intimate, while director Norman Foster leaves no clichéd stone unturned, including a rote Indian attack for a not particularly dramatic ending. There’s a sparkling hi-def transfer of this good-looking B&W film.


Reflections in a Golden Eye 

(Warner Archive)

Carson McCullers’ novel about the tortured relationships of a flirty wife, her closeted army husband and a brazen young enlistee became a compellingly bizarre 1967 character study directed by John Huston and a daring film for its time with male nudity and repressed sexual transgressions.



The cast—Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando, Robert Forster (in his debut), Brian Keith, Julie Harris—is racily overripe and Huston’s direction combines pretentiousness with stylishness. This two-disc set contains Huston’s original golden-hued vision and the studio-imposed normal-colored version; both look stupendous on Blu. Lone extra is 20 minutes of on-set silent footage.


VODs of the Week 


(Film Rise)

Actor Brian Dennehy—who died last month at age 81—gets a nice send-off in this sensitively performed drama about an elderly vet who forms an unlikely friendship with a shy 8-year-old boy staying next door with his mother as she cleans out the home of her recently deceased sister.


Director Andrew Ahn and writers Hannah Bos and Paul Thurteen map out these grieving characters with wise understatement, and Dennehy’s towering presence is easily matched by youngster Lucas Jaye opposite him. 


Hope Gap 

(Screen Media)

William Nicholson directs his own adaptation of his first-rate chamber play The Retreat from Moscow, which I saw on Broadway in 2003 with the magisterial John Lithgow and Eileen Atkins as a long-married couple about to break up and Ben Chaplin as their son caught in the middle.




In this well-made if too restrained version, Bill Nighy and Annette Bening are persuasive as the couple and Josh O’Connell is decent as their son—but the raw emotions that propelled the play onstage are mostly missing. Instead, we get the scenic Sussex coastline—one of its cliff sides provides the movie’s title—as a lovely postcard backdrop to the marital battles.

May '20 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 

Seire Noire 

(Film Movement Classics)

In Alain Corneau’s provocative 1979 study of lowlifes and delinquents based on Jim Thompson’s novel A Hell of a Woman, Patrick Dewaere—who killed himself six years later at age 35—projects sheer desperation better than anyone this side of Klaus Kinski.



Next to Dewaere’s memorably sketchy turn as a small-town salesman are finely etched performances by Myriam Boyer as his mousy wife and 16-year-old Marie Trintignant (also lost early when she was beaten to death by her boyfriend at age 40) in an astonishing debut as a troubled teen who gets involved with him. Seire Noire remains the second-best Thompson adaptation, runner-up to Bertrand Tavernier’s searing 1982 Coup de Torchon. The film’s grit is well-served on the grainy Blu; extras include 2002 interviews with Trintignant and Corneau and a recent retrospective making-of documentary.


Arrow—Complete Final Season 

(Warner Bros)

Eight seasons of Arrow are wrapped up in satisfying fashion as Oliver Queen (aka the Green Arrow) turns from protecting his beloved hometown Star City to being the last bulwark of safety for the entire multiverse—with several surprising (and even touching) outcomes as the 10 episodes move back and forth thousands of years in the past and into the future.



The uniformly appealing cast is led by Stephen Amell’s Oliver and Emily Bett Rickards, Melanie Merkosky, Katherine McNamara and Katie Cassidy as several of the women revolving around him. The hi-def transfer looks excellent.


Fist of Fear, Touch of Death 

(Film Detective)

Matthew Mallinson’s 1980 martial-arts drama is haphazardly cobbled together from undistinguished vignettes shot in Manhattan, footage from karate bouts at Felt Forum and glimpses of the beloved Bruce Lee in early celluloid appearances (he died several years earlier).



But, despite the presence of Blaxploitation vets Fred Williamson and Ron van Clief—and the always interesting Adolph Caesar as our ringmaster of sorts—this never becomes anything other than a curio for desperate Lee fans. There’s a nice, grainy Blu-ray transfer; the lone extra is a retrospective featurette including interviews with Mallinson, Williamson and producer Terry Levene.


World on Fire—Complete 1st Season 

(PBS Masterpiece)

This absorbing seven-episode historical miniseries thrusts viewers headlong into the beginning of the Second World War on a large canvas that includes Germany, Poland, France, England and Belgium.



The story strands follow ordinary people—we don’t see politicians or generals—and although it’s at times marred by clichés, the tenor of lives threatened with total war is generally well-realized, and the weighty cast (Helen Hunt, Lesley Manville, Sean Bean, and an astonishing young Polish actress, Zofia Wichłacz, for starters) easily does the necessary heavylifting. There’s a superb hi-def transfer.


DVDs of the Week 


(Distrib Films)

The title means “Remember?” in Italian, and director Valerio Mieli examines how memory (and, as Milan Kundera has it in his great novel, forgetting) informs a young couple at the center of his messy but intriguing romantic drama.



The performances of the delightful Linda Caridi and brooding Luca Marinelli are the heart of a film that dives into the complexities of how each partner sees the relationship, no matter how contradictory or maddening it may be to the other one.


The Sharks 

(Breaking Glass Pictures)

Uruguyan director Lucia Garibaldi’s slight but engaging character study concerns teenager Rosina’s infatuation with a slightly older boy who works for her father.



Newcomer Romina Bentancur never hits a false note in her portrayal of a smart and headstrong girl dealing with friends and family—and some of best moments occur as Garibaldi observes Rosina’s sister, who has own teen-related difficulties.


CD of the Week 

Reine de coeur—Hanna-Elisabeth Müller 


The shimmering German soprano Hanna-Elisabeth Müller has fashioned a lovely recital out of the great practitioners of German lieder and French melodies—Schumann, Poulenc and Zemlinsky—in a program of love, life and the depths of the soul.



Müller’s clear soprano rings out with authority and aching honesty, and she is sensitively accompanied by the excellent pianist Juliane Ruf. The Poulenc songs, particularly—two sets of his most beguiling works—are the highlights of a superlative recording.

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