Digital Week – August 18


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This week’s roundup—which includes a new documentary about movie nudity and a middling 1988 Whoopi Goldberg vehicle—is highlighted by a pair of disparate films about the perils of U.S. foreign policy: first, on demand, is Coup 53, a trenchant dissection of how U.S. and British spy agencies installed the Shah of Iran; and, on Blu-ray, The Outpost, Rod Lurie’s potent recreation of heroic U.S. soldiers battling the Taliban in Afghanistan.

VOD/Virtual Cinema Releases of the Week

Coup 53 (Amirani Media)

Iranian filmmaker Taghi Amirani found lost newsreels pointing to evidence of how the CIA and its British counterpart conspired to overthrow the democratically elected Iranian government to install the hated Shah (consequently setting events in motion that continue to reverberate in the Middle East) and turned it into this thoroughly deep-diving documentary. Using vintage footage and interviews alongside a terrifically convincing Ralph Fiennes portraying one of the British spies who set the plot in motion, Amirani has fashioned a dismantling of government cover-ups that is something we all need right now, however unsatisifying are the revelations.

Skin—A History of Nudity in the Movies (Quiver)

Nudity onscreen is as old as cinema itself, one of the great historical nuggets of info in Danny Wolf’s two-plus hour journey of naked ladies (mostly) and men in films from the early 20th century to today, from silent-era provocateurs to the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield to Malcolm McDowell and Pam Grier, all of whom unashamedly put their bodies on display. There are many interviews with performers (including McDowell and Grier), critics, historians and filmmakers, all of whom put onscreen skin into context, alongside clips from such disparate bare examples from Blow Up and The Last Picture Show to Caligula and American Pie.

Blu-ray Releases of the Week

Clara’s Heart (Warner Archive)

This mawkish 1988 drama stars Whoopi Goldberg as a saintly Jamaican nanny with a terrible secret who tries healing a distraught and broken family after the death of an infant daughter. Michael Ontkean and Kathleen Quinlan are fine as the parents, a very young Neil Patrick Harris is almost too precocious as their son and Goldberg is memorably irreverent as Clara, but Robert Mulligan directs with a sledgehammer and Mark Medoff’s script is as blunt as it is sanctimonious, all adding up to an irritating experience. There is a quite good hi-def transfer.

Jacques Offenbach—Orphée aux Enfers/Orpheus in the Underworld (Unitel)
Adolph Adam—Le Postillon de Lonjumeau/The Coachman from Lonjumeau (Naxos)

Two of the most celebrated 19th century French comic operas, whose popularity has been waning over the decades, are given rejuvenating, visually dazzling new productions. Offenbach’s Orpheus—filmed at Austria’s venerable Salazburg Festival in 2019—looks and sounds splashily colorful, while Adam’s Coachman shows that it deserves another look and hearing by the delectable staging at Paris’ Opera Comique in April 2019. As always, the hi-def video and audio are first-rate.

The Outpost (Screen Media)

Rod Lurie’s Afghan war film—based on a book by CNN anchor Jake Tapper about a deadly firefight between U.S. troops and Taliban fighters—dramatizes how men who live their lives staring at death every day deal with what has perversely become their new normal. Lurie is able, with the help of an excellent cast that calmly and realistically differentiates among the men, to display the insanity of war alongside the heroism of the soldiers, and despite a deja-vu aspect to the camaraderie and the battle sequences, The Outpost becomes a tense thriller set during wartime. There’s a fantastic hi-def transfer; extras include a Lurie commentary, making-of featurette and other short featurettes.

The Wretched (IFC Midnight)

In this tidily efficient thriller by the Pierce Brothers writing-directing team, a troubled teen sent to his father’s home for the summer notices something strange that nobody else does (or believes him about): the adults next door seem possessed by a spirit that causes local kids to disappear. There’s absolutely nothing surprising about anything that happens, but it’s all done with skill and adroitness, which helps get past the movie’s obvious deficiencies. There’s a splendid hi-def transfer; extras are commentaries by the brothers and by the film’s composer Devin Burrows.

DVD Release of the Week

Viral—Anti-Semitism in Four Mutations (PBS)

Director Andrew Goldberg’s shocking if unsurprising study of the rise of anti-Semitism across the world shows how it has manifested itself in four different countries: Hungary, England, France and—of course—the United States. Visiting each country in turn, Goldberg paints a sobering portrait of how such racism, nationalism and just plain misinformation originates, survives, mutates and spreads: Islamists in France, Labour party in England, nationalists in Hungary and the far right in our own country are just the latest manifestation of what doesn’t seem to be disappearing soon.