Digital Week – August 25


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This week’s roundup features new films on demand—the must-see documentary about the U.S. hostage crisis, Desert One, and the decent new biopic of the Croatian inventor, Tesla—and on Blu-ray (A Trip to Greece), along with classics from Criterion (Jean Renoir’s Toni) and Warner Archive (Without Love and Pat and Mike, both starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy).

VOD/Virtual Cinema Releases of the Week

Desert One (Greenwich Entertainment)

In Barbara Kopple’s incisive, often gripping documentary about the disastrous U.S. rescue mission that, in 1980, failed to enter Iran and free the American hostages held at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, the personal stories of those involved are given equal time and weight. Through interviews with President Carter and Vice President Mondale, hostages and family members and mission commanders and those who took part in the attempted rescue, we see and hear what happened in close to real time, and Kopple’s brilliant use of astonishing archival footage from the crash site highlights this sobering chronicle of recent American history.

Tesla (IFC Films)

Michael Almereyda’s biopic of Nikola Tesla, the unsung hero of electricity—his alternating current was superior to Thomas Edison’s direct current but Tesla never got proper recognition (or corresponding wealth) for his genius—has moments of insight, particularly in Ethan Hawke’s serious but not unhumorous portrayal. But the director’s scattershot approach, which includes particularly grating anachronisms like Google, makes this an unsatisfying biography, despite nice supporting turns from Jim Gaffigan as George Westinghouse, Rebecca Dayan as Sarah Bernhardt and Eve Hewson as J.P. Morgan’s daughter.

Blu-ray Releases of the Week

Endeavour—Complete 7th Season (PBS Masterpiece)

A new decade (the 1970s) dawns in the series’ latest season as detective inspectors Moore and Thursday reunite to solve a new batch of crimes, even if there is still an underlying antagonism between them. With locales as divergent as Oxford and the canals (and opera house) of Venice, season seven is as diverting as ever, and the intertwined complexities of our heroes (via the top-notch performances by Shaun Evans and Roger Allam) makes one await the next set of Endeavour adventures. The hi-def transfer is excellent; extras are interviews and on-set featurettes

Enter the Forbidden City (Cinema Libre)

Director Mei Hu’s sumptuous historical epic traces the beginnings of the Peking Opera to the 18th century Qing dynasty, as one of the empire’s most celebrated performers—banned from performing in the capital due to bad behavior—fights his way back to the pinnacle of the stage by performing in front of the emperor. While melodramatic in the extreme, the film colorfully recreates a part of Chinese musical history not often seen or heard, and with exquisite photography, sets and costumes, Mei Hu has fashioned a stirring spectacle. Needless to say, the film looks splendid on Blu.

Pat and Mike
Without Love (Warner Archive)

These Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy vehicles are as different as night and day. 1945’s Without Love strains as it gets the classic acting duo together for a contrived tragicomedy that wastes Hepburn while showing how effortless Tracy is even in less than ideal circumstances. 1952’s superior Pat and Mike teams them as a great athlete (Hepburn) who takes on a veteran promoter (Tracy) to manage her career, and the result—if always predictable—is humorously diverting, thanks to the couple’s onscreen rapport and Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin’s clever script. Both B&W films have exceptional hi-def transfers; Love extras are a vintage cartoon and short.

Toni (Criterion)

French master Jean Renoir made this authentically stripped-down 1934 tragedy in the south of France, the actual location of a true-life tale of murder told with mainly amateur actors; the resulting choppy but riveting drama gets more tense as it approaches its inevitable conclusion. Criterion’s usual fine edition has a superlative new hi-def transfer of this historically important B&W film, a Renoir intro, episode of the French TV series Directors of Our Time about Renoir (directed by Jacques Rivette), audio commentary and new video essay.

The Trip to Greece (IFC Films)

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon return for their fourth—and supposedly final—go-round touring Europe, annoying each other and eating superb meals along the way, and if this entry is more of the same—amazing scenery, delectable dinners, good-natured banter and dueling impressions—the stars have such undeniable 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; if the eventual plot divergence of comedy (Brydon) and tragedy (Coogan) is hackneyed, it doesn’t ruin an otherwise pleasurable journey. The spectacular Greek scenery—and food—looks even more delicious in hi-def.

DVD Release of the Week

Blue Bloods—Complete 10th Season (CBS/Paramount)

The latest season of this long-running police drama probes the family of NYC police commissioner Frank Reagan (Tom Selleck), whose sons are NYPD detectives, daughter an assistant DA and father a retired commissioner. Through this season’s 19 episodes (production of the final three episodes was halted due to the pandemic), the stoicism of Selleck—a comforting presence for many viewers during his storied TV career—and the always Bridget Moynihan (daughter) and Len Cariou (father) carries this derivative but well-performed procedural. Extras include deleted scenes, featurettes and a 200th episode celebration.

DVD/CD Boxed Set of the Week

Michael Gielen Edition, Vol. 9—Beethoven (SWR)

German conductor Michael Gielen—who died last year at age 91—is commemorated by this massive boxed set that brings together four decades’ worth of his various Beethoven recordings, mainly the nine symphonies (some heard more than once) but also the majestic C Major Mass and other orchestral works. The highlight is a DVD of his 1987 performance of Beethoven’s epic Eroica Symphony, played in a fleet manner (only 45 minutes!). But the nine CDs have their share of gems as well, such as a lovely reading of the Pastoral Symphony and the most recent recording in this set, an emotional 2007 performance of the Mass.