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Film and the Arts

December '20 Digital Week I

Blu-ray Releases of the Week 
The Irishman 
(Criterion Collection)
Martin Scorsese mines familiar territory in his latest crime drama, a leisurely study of organized crime through the eyes of Frank Sheeran, who became a confidant to Mafia bigwigs and—or so he says in his autobiography, I Heard You Paint Houses (which is also the onscreen title of the film)—was responsible for the disappearance of Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa.
 
 
With unsurprisingly rich and varied performances by Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino, The Irishman is never dull even if it runs for nearly three and a half hours; the iffiest element is the special effects that de-age the leading men so they can play scenes taking places decades earlier: it doesn’t look bad, exactly, but it doesn’t look seamlessly believable either. Criterion’s edition includes a fine hi-def transfer and an extra disc of bonus features, including interviews with Scorsese, Pesci, Pacino and DeNiro; a featurette about the de-aging effects and a making-of documentary; and archival interview excerpts with the real Sheeran and Hoffa.
 
 
 
 
 
Frühlingsstürme
La Dori 
(Naxos)
Two musical rarities—one from the 20th century and one from the 17th—are given exemplary productions that might help securing future revivals. Frühlingsstürme (Spring Storms), by Czech composer Jaromir Weinberger, premiered in 1933 but was soon banned by the Nazis; this sprightly operetta may go on far too long but provides delectable roles for its performers, embodied at Berlin’s Komische Opera by the excellent singer-actors Alma Sade, Stefan Kurt, Vera-Lotte Boecker and Tansel Akzeybek.
 
 
Italian composer Pietro Antonio Cesti premiered La Dori in Venice in 1663, and this staging from last year in Innsbruck, Austria, provides its dramatic and musical due. Both discs have first-rate video and audio.
 
 
 
 
 
Sleepless Beauty 
(Epic Pictures)
Pavel Khvaleev’s slickly made but gimmicky horror flick might be the last word in torture porn: a kidnaped young woman is forced to stay alive by participating in gruesome killings at the same time as she is subjected to her captors’ demented demands like locking her in a box with several rats.
 
 
Though gleefully sadistic, after the first few bloodlettings and hide-your-eyes moments, the movie becomes routine and even monotonous, notwithstanding the sheer will power of Polina Davydova’s impressively physical performance. There’s an excellent hi-def transfer; extras comprise deleted and alternate scenes and an on-set featurette.
 
 
 
 
 
 
Still Life 
(Big World Pictures)
Chinese director Jia Zhang Ke reached the heights of cinematic brilliance in his best films, 2000’s Platform and 2004’s The World, but this 2006 exploration of the denizens of an old city, Fengjie,  that’s being flooded to make way for the massive Three Gorges Dam also has its moments of vibrancy, incisiveness and insight.
 
 
Following two people who are each searching for an absent spouse, Jia records their quotidian lives and relationships with great compassion. There’s a decent but not superb hi-def transfer; there are also no extras: too bad Jia’s related 2006 documentary, Dong, wasn’t included.
 
 
 
 
 
4K Release of the Week 
The Lord of the Rings—The Motion Picture Trilogy 
(Warner Bros)
Peter Jackson’s towering trilogy of epic adventures based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic Lord of the Rings novels—The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King—finally makes it to ultra-HD in all its visual splendor, especially the loving Middle Earth recreation of Jackson and his army of collaborators.
 
 
The clarity of the images is breathtaking throughout, and both the original theatrical versions and Jackson’s extended cuts—which add an additional 50-60 minutes to each of the three films—are included, although there are no extras. (A larger boxed set including the special features will be released in 2021.)
 
 
 
 
 
 
VOD/Virtual Cinema Releases of the Week
Intervista 
(Janus Films)
Federico Fellini’s 1987 auto-hommage is as entertaining and playful as anything this irrepressibly self-indulgent filmmaker ever made. For his ostensible tribute to the glorious Cinecitta, the studio where he made so many of his classics, the great Italian director—unsurprisingly—drags in everything but the kitchen sink (elephants, attack dogs, even Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastrioanni, who watch, teary-eyed, their memorable scenes from La Dolce Vita) to elevate this wonderful memory piece.
 
 
Crammed with the usual indelible Felliniesque faces, Intervista is hilarious but also poignant, as its lovely, bittersweet freeze-frame at the end demonstrates.
 
 
 
 
 
The Walrus and the Whistleblower 
(Gravitas Ventures)
Marineland, a popular Canadian tourist attraction near Niagara Falls (I visited several times while growing up in Buffalo), is called out by Phil Demers, who was a trainer there and who quit after blowing the whistle on the animal abuse he witnessed.
 
 
Nathalie Bibeau’s compelling documentary follows Demers as he tries to get a bill passed in Canada’s House of Commons to end the practice of keeping marine mammals in pools while, at the same time, Marineland is suing him for allegedly plotting to kidnap a beloved walrus from the facility. Demers’ love of and forceful advocacy for these splendid creatures is heartwarming, and that there’s a happy ending of sorts is a bonus.
 
 
 
 
 
 
CD Release of the Week
Wellesz—Die Opferung des Gefangenen/The Sacrifice of the Prisoner 
(Capriccio)
Austrian Egon Wellesz (1885-1974) composed this hybrid stage work in 1926: subtitled a “cult drama for dancers, soloists and chorus,” Die Opferung is a curious but often powerful mix of set arias, recitatives and choral sections that are interspersed with alternately beguiling and harsh-sounding dance interludes.
 
 
Despite nearly going off the rails, it holds together dramatically in this superlative 1995 performance led by conductor Fredrich Cerha; the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Symphony Orchestra, Vienna Concert Choir and five vocal soloists are unimpeachable. The only drawback of this audio-only recording is that the dancers, so important to the overall structure, are missing; here’s hoping that there will be a new staging at some point that be filmed.

November '20 Digital Week III

VOD/Virtual Cinema Releases of the Week 
Born to Be 
(Kino Lorber)
Tania Cypriano’s engrossing documentary introduces Dr. Jess Ting of Mount Sinai’s Transgender Medicine and Surgery, which takes the needs of patients seriously and provide options for those undergoing the final affirmation of their gender.
 
 
Ting and his overworked Manhattan staff explain procedures to patients, mollify them when questions are raised and—in the specific case of one patient, who tries to kill herself after completing the procedures and was seemingly content—wonder if they can do enough to alleviate all of their difficulties. Cypriano shows Ting as the living embodiment of doing good for others, even at the cost of his own physical and emotional well-being, which he mitigates by playing the double bass, his beloved musical instrument.
 
 
 
 
 
Divine Love 
(Outsider Pictures)
Set in Brazil in 2027—now a theocratic state in which couples are expected to stay together and where women’s fertility is publicly tracked—writer-director Gabriel Mascaro’s audacious allegory centers on a middle-aged woman who is part of the Party of Supreme Love, where sexual hypocrisy runs rampant and throws a wrench into her own childless marriage.
 
 
Anchored by a fearless performance by Dira Paes—who’s unafraid to bare herself both emotionally and physically—Divine Love makes trenchant observations about how the current right-wing Brazilian government could lead to this enervating outcome, marred only by a too-literal ending of biblical proportions.
 
 
 
 
 
Girl 
(Screen Media)
Bella Thorne always seems like she could be a formidable actress if not for the vehicles she keeps finding or putting herself in (she’s producing now): just this year, there are Infamous, a stillborn update of Natural Born Killers, and Girl, a forgettable slice of small-town nastiness directed without much distinction by Chad Faust.
 
 
Thorne gives as good as she gets to a now bloated and almost unrecognizable Mickey Rourke (as the local sheriff, of all things) and Faust himself, who gives himself a juicy role that he does little with. But it’s mostly for naught.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Soros 
(Abramorama)
The wingnut right’s ultimate boogeyman, Hungarian financier George Soros is the exact opposite of what they’ve accused him of being: he’s Jewish and was a teenager during World War II, so he wasn’t a Nazi; and he donates much of his billions to democratic causes, but he doesn’t underwrite every socialist or anti-fascist protest worldwide.
 
 
Jesse Dylan’s breezy portrait might be a bit too superficial—it only has 85 minutes, after all, to take the measure of a 90-year-old man—but it homes in on Soros’ movingly humane life story as it destroys the fact-free conspiracy theories that are as unhinged as your basic trump supporter. 
 
 
 
 
 
Truth Is the Only Client 
(Gravitas Ventures) 
Did Oswald kill Kennedy alone? The Warren Commission twisted itself into a pretzel to say yes, and even though there have been hundreds of books written and dozens of movies made (most infamously Oliver Stone’s JFK) that assert otherwise, evidence of a real conspiracy has been tantalizingly scant.
 
 
In Todd Kwait and Rob Stegman’s stolid but straightforward overview, several of the commission’s members and assistants—including Supreme Court justice Stephen Breyer—discuss the inner workings of the commission, like collecting and analyzing the evidence, although the “single bullet” theory still seems a one-off, like the Supreme Court’s Bush v. Gore decision. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Blu-ray Releases of the Week
The Killing Floor 
(Film Movement Classics)
The largely forgotten early 20th-century labor movement is the focus of Bill Duke’s powerful 1986 made-for-PBS drama that brilliantly marries reportage, historical accuracy and marvelous acting to become one of its era’s hidden gems.
 
 
Damien Leake as a southerner who travels north to Chicago to find work and Alfre Woodard as his loyal wife are pitch-perfect, while the supporting cast—including Moses Gunn, Dennis Farina and John Mahoney—add to the dramatic intensity and authenticity. The film looks excellent in hi-def; extras include interviews with Duke, Leake and writer/producer Elsa Rassbach. 
 
 
 
 
 
The Other Side of Madness 
(Film Detective) 
The 1969 Manson murders have been exhaustively covered in several TV and theatrical films over the decades but director Frank Howard’s 1970 curio—which was shot in the aftermath of the killings—is a strangely compelling fantasia that actually has some cleverness to its exploitativeness.
 
 
Manson’s own routine pop songs as a soundtrack is more a novelty than anything else, but this demented drama is an unsettling time capsule of sorts. There’s a very good new hi-def transfer; extras are two interviews with producer Wade Williams and a CD of Manson’s songs.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Summerland 
(IFC Films)
In playwright Jessica Swale’s writing/directing debut, a reclusive author reluctantly takes in a young boy during the London blitz, triggering memories of her earlier relationship with an equally free-spirited woman. Swale’s contrived melodrama hinges so much on implausible relationships and plot twists that one wonders about the value of her plays.
 
 
But director Swale elicits beautifully nuanced work from Gemma Arterton (author) and Lucas Bond (boy), along with sensitive support by Tom Courtenay, Penelope Wilton and—in the pivotal role—Gugu Mbatha-Raw. The lovely landscapes and seascapes take on an added luster in hi-def; extras are a behind-the-scenes featurette and interviews with Swale, Arterton, Mbatha-Raw, several other actors and crew members.
 
 
 
 
 
Tennessee Johnson 
(Warner Archive)
Van Heflin plays Andrew Johnson, the Southern senator turned VP turned president after Lincoln’s assassination, in this sympathetic 1942 biopic that gets some details right while also pushing the fiction that Johnson was a worthy successor to Lincoln and would have healed the rift between North and South if he hadn’t been impeached.
 
 
William Dieterle’s drama smartly makes the impeachment trial the focus of the movie’s second half, but when Johnson defends himself with an impassioned speech and escapes being convicted in the Senate by one vote, we get a feel-good ending that’s anything but factual. It’s a flawed but weirdly fascinating alternate history, its crisp B&W compositions looking terrific in a new hi-def transfer. Extras comprise a 1943 radio broadcast of the story with Gary Cooper and vintage cartoon Baby Puss and short Heavenly Music.
 
 
 
 
 
DVD Releases of the Week
Blindspot—Complete 5th Season 
(Warner Bros)
In the final explosive season of this twisty secret-intel TV drama, heroine Jane Doe—the unknown tattooed woman whose discovery at an NYC bus locker was the catalyst for the entire series—and her cohorts are in the most danger they’ve ever been…will they survive?
 
 
These 11 episodes of a COVID-shortened season include many hair-raising moments, but the excellent cast, led by Jaimie Alexander (heroine) and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (evil genius), is what saves this ultimately contrived setup. 
 
 
 
 
 
Conviction 
(Icarus Films) 
With the always excellent Marina Fois at its center as a juror convinced of a father’s innocence in his wife’s disappearance who cajoles a reluctant lawyer to take up the case in a retrial, Antoine Raimbault’s courtroom drama is an often exciting and tense experience.
 
 
While Raimbault sometimes allows contrivance—a convenient car accident, for instance—to propel the plot, Fois’ intensity (whether advocating for the defendant or dealing with her young son and boyfriend who feel ignored by her) intelligently grounds the film.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
A Girl Missing 
(Film Movement)
In Japanese director Koji Fukada’s slowly evolving drama, Mariko Tsutsui gives a performance of admirable restraint as a woman tangentially connected to a young man who abducts a young woman (herself related to our protagonist’s employer).
 
 
Fukada makes several pungent observations about media hysteria but allows his film to spiral to a messy and inelegant conclusion; much of the time, the drama is diverting and, at times, spellbinding. Extras are a 40-minute making-of featurette and a short, Love Comes Later, by Indian director Sonejuhi Sinha.
 
 
 
 
 
CD Releases of the Week 
MON AMI, Mon amour 
(Pentatone)
I’m always partial to any recital disc that programs exclusively French composers, and this release from Israeli-born cellist Matt Haimovitz and Japanese-born pianist Mari Kodama certainly fills the bill.
 
 
Two major cello works—the opener, Francis Poulenc's exquisite sonata; and Claude Debussy's own, equally enchanting sonata—are played with graceful intimacy, while shorter pieces by Fauré (two of them!), Milhaud, Ravel and the sisters Lili and Nadia Boulanger are given equally committed readings by these perfectly paired artists.  
 
 
 
 
 
 
Florent Schmitt—La Tragédie de Salomé
(Naxos)
French composer Florent Schmitt (1870-1958) was a pupil of the great Gabriel Fauré, and it shows in his elegantly-crafted music, which JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic return to for their latest superb disc comprising Schmitt’s varied orchestral works, from his best-known composition, La Tragédie de Salomé (highlighting the excellent Women’s Choir of Buffalo), to the ravishing ballet score, Oriane et le Prince d’Amour. 
 
 
Rounding out this valuable recording are the radiant Musique sur l’eau (with the fine mezzo Susan Platts) and the premiere recording of a violin-led Légende, with the BPO’s concertmaster Nikki Chooi essaying the lovely solo part. 

November '20 Digital Week II

In Theaters/VOD and Virtual Cinema Releases of the Week 
Let Him Go 
(Focus Features)
In this pseudo-western written and directed by Thomas Bezucha (from a novel by Larry Watson), Kevin Costner and Diane Lane play grandparents whose sorrow over their son’s death becomes worse when their daughter-in-law remarries a loser and takes their grandson away—and then comes vengeance.
 
 
Despite nicely modulated performances by both stars (especially Lane, who steals the film, as usual), this drama is too blunt, too singleminded, too ridiculously over the top to be effective, and that’s epitomized by Leslie Manville’s embarrassing scenery-chewing as the loser’s demented mother who lords it over the grief-stricken grandparents. 
 
 
 
 
 
Chick Fight 
(Quiver Distribution)
Although Paul Leyden’s comedy about a female fight club is as crude and obvious as expected, it gives the always delightful Malin Akerman a chance to finally carry a movie: it’s great to report that Akerman’s comic chops, timing and physical adroitness are utilized to their fullest.
 
 
Supporting Akerman with equally committed physical performances are Dolce Sloan, Bella Thorne and, in an especially clever bit of casting, Alec Baldwin as the drunk who once trained Sugar Ray (the group, not the boxer)—which may be the best joke in Joseph Downey’s script—and preps Akerman for her big moment in the ring. 
 
 
 
 
 
Where She Lies 
(Gravitas Ventures)
Zach Marion’s documentary tells the amazingly sad story of Peggy Phillips, who was told by her mother on her deathbed that Peggy’s newborn that was supposedly stillborn actually was alive. Marion tracks Peggy’s case and the woman she thinks is her grown daughter—but will DNA testing validate the story she wants to hear?
 
 
This heartbreaking true tale is almost too agonizingly personal as we watch Peggy go through so many emotional peaks and valleys as she hopes to discover the truth about a huge part of her life taken from her nearly 60 years earlier.
 
 
 
 
 
 
Blu-ray Releases of the Week
A Rainy Day in New York 
(MPI-Signature)
Woody Allen has been making a film a year for decades now, but when #MeToo went after him because of decades-ago claims of sexual abuse, Amazon dropped it and it went unreleased until a recent theatrical release. 
 
 
While it’s no classic, it’s an amusing and consistently engaging romantic comedy with winning performances by Timothee Chalamet, Elle Fanning and even Selena Gomez; and although Rebecca Hall is fine in her single scene, it was disappointingly hypocritical of her to say that she gave her fee from the film to charity because of the abuse claim, even though she clearly had no problem working with Woody in her breakthrough, 2008’s Vicki Cristina Barcelona, when she must have already known the same info. In any case, Vittorio Storaro’s listening cinematography—which catches the golden hues of an alternately sunlit and rain-drenched Manhattan—looks especially inviting on Blu-ray.
 
 
 
 
 
 
Bill and Ted Face the Music 
(Warner Bros)
At this late date, is anyone still laughing at Bill and Ted’s juvenile time-traveling antics? The newest entry—20 years too late—finds the aging duo meeting up with their future and past selves along with the likes of Mozart, Hendrix and Louis Armstrong to help them write a great song.
 
 
Why writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon and director Dean Parisot thought this was the plotline on which to build the latest episode of the franchise is unknowable, but Keanu Reeves and Alex Winters look properly embarrassed, and comic gold like Kristen Schaal and especially poor Erinn Hayes are unconscionably wasted. The film looks fine in hi-def; extras comprise a Comic Con Q&A panel and several featurettes.
 
 
 
 
 
 
Death Laid an Egg 
(Cult Epics)
Italian giallo master, director Giulio Questi, made this violent but interestingly offbeat 1968 serial-killer flick with a truly international cast: French leading man Jean-Louis Trintignant as the owner of a boneless-chicken farm (!) who may be murdering prostitutes (!!), Italian siren Gina Lollabrigida as his complicit wife and Swedish sexpot Ewa Aulin as his alluring mistress.
 
 
Questi finds the sweet spot between sheer yuckiness and blackly comic irony, particularly in the intentionally ludicrous finale, and his movie-star trio does its job impeccably. There are superior hi-def transfers of both Questi’s 105-minute cut and the 91-minute international cut (each in Italian with an alternate English dub); extras include a Questi interview, an audio commentary, and a 2002 Questi short, Doctor Schizo and Mister Phrenic.
 
 
 
 
 
Josie and the Pussycats—The Complete Series 
(Warner Archive)
To someone who watched these cartoons as I did as a kid in the early ’70s, Josie and the Pussycats seemed ubiquitous on morning TV. So it’s eye-opening to realize, via this complete series two-disc set, that there were only 16 episodes of this goofily amusing animated series about an all-female group and its entourage’s bizarre adventures with assorted bad guys.
 
 
Of course, it’s all nostalgia (DJ Casey Kasem, of American Top 40 fame, voiced one of the characters!), so your mileage may vary: but on Blu-ray, the show looks like the innocuous fun it’s always been. The lone extra is a featurette about the show’s creator, Dan DeCarlo.
 
 
 
 
 
 
The Mortal Storm 
(Warner Archive)
As war clouds hover over Germany in 1933, a bourgeois family is torn apart when the Nazi takeover forces the patriarch out of his esteemed professorship while his stepsons join up with the jackboots and his daughter is in love with an outsider than a Nazi functionary in Frank Borzage’s still potent exploration of fascism. Made in 1940 and filled with typical Hollywood bombast and melodrama, Borzage’s film still paints a scary and credible portrait of how politics can destroy an entire family from without—and within.
 
 
Frank Morgan is superb as the father, and Margaret Sullavan and Jimmy Stewart are equally good as the daughter and her beau, who face literal bullets when they attempt to leave. The black-and-white film looks fine on Blu; extremely relevant extras are a touching cartoon, Peace on Earth, and a paean to the U.S. Navy, Meet the Fleet.
 
 
 
 
 
CD Release of the Week 
Benjamin Britten—A Ceremony of Carols 
(Harmonia Mundi)
Benjamin Britten’s holiday vocal music is highlighted by the song cycles A Boy Was Born and A Ceremony of Carols, the latter of which is the centerpiece of this excellent recording of holiday music by the Choir of Clare College in Cambridge, England with the superb conductor Graham Ross on the podium.
 
 
Surrounding Britten’s lovely, evocative settings of several medieval poems for choir and harp (Tanya Houghton does the honors as harpist) are a selection of carols and sacred music by Britten and British composers John Ireland, Gustav Holst and Frank Bridge, including Britten’s own arrangement of “The Holly and the Ivory” and a song we’ll all be happy to hear as we bid goodbye to 2020, “A New Year Carol.”

November '20 Digital Week I

VOD/Virtual Cinema Releases of the Week 
Alone with Her Dreams 
(Corinth Films)
Novice director Paolo Licata’s poignant drama is carried by a strong performance from young Marta Castiglia as Lucia, a preteen living in Sicily with her strict grandmother after her parents migrate to France to make needed money.
 
 
Even when it gets occasionally melodramatic—as when we see the big reveal about Lucia’s grandma’s big secret—Licata allows his characters to retain their humanity amid distressing and difficult circumstances. Also making a strong impression is Federica Sarno as the adult Lucia.
 
 
 
 
 
 
City Hall 
(Zipporah Films)
The latest documentary by Frederick Wiseman chronicles with his usual fastidiousness and expansiveness the daily workings of Boston’s city government, from the mayor, Martin Walsh, and the city council to those working in different departments who regular duties include everything from processing parking passes and marrying people in civil ceremonies to dealing with housing issues and planning a parade for the champion Red Sox.
 
 
Boston native Wiseman, as always, makes his points insightfully and uninsistently; now age 90, he’s as sharp as ever, and we await whatever institution he will next observe with his singular mastery.
 
 
 
 
 
 
Coming Home Again 
(Outsider Pictures)
In Wayne Wang’s intimate character study, a writer returns home to visit his mortally ill mother (from cancer) to make one of her signature meals, as flashbacks show skeletons tumbling out of the family’s closet.
 
 
Centered around food—Wang hired Michelin-star San Francisco chef Corey Lee to ensure the actors actually could prepare realistic-looking and delicious meals—the movie also boasts a pair of moving portrayals by Justin Chon (son) and Jackie Chung (mother), which give the film, which ultimately feels slight at 85 minutes, an emotional heft.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Us Kids 
(Alamo Drafthouse)
Kim A. Snyder’s documentary gets up close and personal to the high schoolers from Parkland, Florida, who, following the heinous mass shooting that left 17 of their classmates dead on Valentine’s Day 2018, became incredibly effective activists speaking to audiences around the country about sensible gun control.
 
 
Although they have become so ubiquitous that some of what’s here seems repetitive, their emotionally trenchant accounts of what they’ve been through and how it might make others see their point of view on one of our most divisive issues are always worth hearing and being inspired by.
 
 
 
 
 
4K Releases of the Week 
V for Vendetta 
(Warner Bros)
When this dystopian nightmare was released in 2006, the parallels to the George W. Bush administration were unmistakable, but the trump presidency nightmare has given James McTeigue’s gloomy comic-book adaptation added relevance in its depiction of an authoritarian government and its citizens who are either believers or resisters.
 
 
Natalie Portman (Joan of Arc shaved head and all) gives a performance of uncommon grace as the masked antihero’s lone ally and the selection of British acting royalty—John Hurt, Stephen Rea, Stephen Fry, Tim Pigott-Smith, Roger Allam, Rupert Graves, Ben Miles and Sinead Cusack—provides some needed dramatic gravitas. The film’s dynamic visuals pop off the screen in 4K; the original Blu-ray extras comprise featurettes, interviews and Portman’s audition reel and SNL rapping short. 
 
 
 
 
 
Blu-ray Releases of the Week
Blackbird 
(Screen Media)
Danish writer Christian Torpe Americanized his script for 2014’s Silent Heart, and the result is a nice-looking, decently-acted melodrama about a family dealing with grandma deciding to end it all before her ALS becomes overwhelming; secrets and recriminations rear their heads as everyone wrestles with her traumatic decision over the Thanksgiving holiday.
 
 
Roger Michell directs elegantly if schematically and the writing’s insightful moments are marred by contrivance and last-minute revelations. The cast of eight—led by Susan Sarandon’s tough-minded matriarch, Sam Niell’s quiet patriarch and Mia Wasikowska’s brittle black-sheep daughter—sustains interest despite the too familiar tale. The film looks quite good on Blu.
 
 
 
 
 
Mr. Topaze 
(Film Movement Classics)
In this nearly forgotten 1961 adaptation of Marcel Pagnol’s novel, Peter Sellers debuted as director and stars as the eponymous small-town teacher whose naive honesty leads a shady businessman to make him his financial advisor; but Topaze soon turns the tables.
 
 
Sellers plays it a tad too seriously; his low-key acting and innocuous directing make this little more than pleasantly forgettable, distinguished by a stellar supporting cast (Herbert Lom, Leo McKern, Nadia Gray, Billie Whitelaw and Michael Gough, for starters). John Wilcox’s color photography looks nice enough in the new hi-def transfer; extras include an interview with McKern’s daughter, Abigail; Paganol video essay; and a 1951 short, Let’s Go Crazy, starring Sellars.
 
 
 
 
 
The Opposite Sex 
(Warner Archive)
From Clare Booth Luce’s play The Women comes David Miller’s 1956 musical version, in which the men in the various women’s lives—wisely kept out of Luce’s original play—are seen and heard from, mainly to the musical’s detriment.
 
 
As mid ‘50s MGM musicals go, this one’s pretty forgettable, with no truly memorable songs and not even a good spot for the great Ann Miller to show off her dance moves. Instead, this is mainly of interest to see a young Joan Collins as the sultry homewrecker from the chorus line. The film’s widescreen colors look enticing on Blu.
 
 
 
 
 
 
Waterloo Bridge 
(Warner Archive)
The term “tearjerker” may well have been invented for this touching soap opera about two people who meet cute in London during the Blitz and fall in love; soon he is shipped out to fight and she, desperate to make ends meet, becomes a prostitute: when he unexpectedly returns (after he was considered dead), she must decide if she should confess what she did while he was away.
 
 
Vivien Leigh looks so ravishing as the heroine that it’s easy to overlook her devastating performance, Robert Taylor is equally good as her beau, and Mervyn LeRoy directs for maximum emotional impact. There’s a splendid-looking hi-def transfer; lone extra is a 1951 radio adaptation with Norma Shearer.
 
 
 
 
 
 
DVD Releases of the Week 
Catherine the Great 
(HBO/Warner Bros)
Despite bringing in the matriarch’s matriarch, Helen Mirren, to portray another royal leader—she’s already played both British monarchs, Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II, onstage and onscreen—this glitzy limited series about Catherine, the empress of Russia, who dragged her country kicking and screaming into the center of European civilization in the 18th century, ends up being neither insightful enough nor guilty-pleasure enough to ultimately be satisfying.
 
 
Even so, the glamorous production values and Mirren’s pleasurable acting, especially in her scenes with Jason Clarke as her younger lover General Potemkin, make this four-hour series less a slog than it could have been.
 
 
 
 
 
Head of the Class—Complete 2nd Season 
(Warner Bros)
WKRP in Cincinnati’s Johnny Fever, Howard Hesseman, returns as everyone’s favorite substitute teacher who actually wants to teach his charges instead of simply watch over them in the second season (circa 1987-88) of this silly but amusing sitcom.
 
 
Hesseman is always a hoot, and his classroom full of teens is a group of hard-working young performers, even though only Robin Givens is in any way memorable. Still, for anyone who wants to revisit this far from classic but diverting TV comedy, these 28 episodes will do very nicely.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
CD Releases of the Week
Anna Clyne—Mythologies 
(Avie)
Anna Clyne, one of our most inventive and original composers, writes music that’s accessible but adventurous, forcefully dramatic yet delicate. The five works on this disc show off her versatility and facility with varying styles.
 
 
The opening Masquerade and closing <<rewind>> provide orchestral fireworks, while The Midnight Hour has a welcome Prokofiev-like drollness. The two major works are The Seamstress, a fiery violin concerto (the terrific soloist is Jennifer Koh) marred only by unnecessary electronics and mumbling; and Night Ferry, a brilliantly orchestrated journey through darkness. The BBC Symphony Orchestra plays incisively under a quartet of superb conductors.
 
 
 
 
 
Schubert/Krenek 
(Cleveland Orchestra)
Programming Franz Schubert’s last symphony, the Ninth (also known as the “Great”), composed in 1825-6, alongside Ernst Krenek’s 12-tone Static and Ecstatic, composed in 1971-2, is a stroke of genius by Cleveland Orchestra music director Franz Welser-Möst.
 
 
The 10 movements of Krenek’s 19-minute orchestral work provide bracing juxtapositions among themselves, and Static and Ecstatic as a whole contrasts effectively with the Schubert symphony’s broad, sweeping melodies that are spun out over nearly an hour. Welser-Möst and his musicians keep the tension of the Krenek work tightly coiled and play the Schubert expansively: the urgency of the moment (this recording was made in early March, right before the COVID-19 lockdown began) is palpable.

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