This week’s releases include Ron Howard’s new documentary Rebuilding Paradise, whose title says it all; Summerland, the bumpy debut of writer-director Jessica Swale; the first season of the HBO series, His Dark Materials; and a true obscurity: a 1933 pre-code melodrama, The Sin of Nora Moran, with a sensational performance by Zita Johann.
VOD/Virtual Cinema Releases of the Week
Rebuilding Paradise (National Geographic)
The devastating 2018 fire that destroyed the town of Paradise in northern California and the formidable aftermath for so many who lost, literally, everything—hundreds of homes were destroyed and 85 people died—are recounted in Ron Howard’s sometimes difficult to watch but ultimately hopeful documentary. Among those we see are a policeman whose marriage doesn’t survive; a former mayor who’s one of the first to have a new house built; and the high school superintendent whose own personal misfortune overshadows her achievement of having a graduation ceremony for the students. It’s a familiar but still compelling story of a preventable tragedy—with the local power company playing the villain—and the resilience of ordinary people.
Summerland (IFC Films)
In playwright Jessica Swale’s writing/directing debut, a reclusive writer living near the English coastline reluctantly takes in a young boy during the London blitz, which triggers her memories of an earlier relationship with an equally free-spirited woman. This awfully contrived melodrama has some of the least plausible relationships and plot twists in any movie in ages, which makes one wonder about the value of Swale’s plays. But as a director Swale elicits beautifully nuanced performances from Gemma Arterton as the writer and Lucas Bond as the boy, and sensitive support from Tom Courtenay, Penelope Wilton and—in the film’s pivotal role—Gugu Mbatha-Raw.
Blu-rays of the Week
His Dark Materials—Complete 1st Season (Warner Bros/HBO)
In this series based on the acclaimed fantasy novels by Philip Pullman—about two youngsters who come of age amid parallel universes and a talking animal known as a daemon that’s the embodiment of a person’s soul—there are enough diverting moments, including many of the fantasy sequences, to make up for the more turgid earthbound sections and make this adaptation more entertaining than enervating. Eight episodes might have been too much for the flimsy materials, both dark and not so dark; there are persuasive portrayals by Dafne Keen as our heroine Lyra and James McAvoy as her uncle Asriel. The whole thing looks terrific on Blu; extras include several making-of featurettes and cast interviews.
The Sin of Nora Moran (Film Detective)
This obscure 1933 drama is as bleak as they come, a sordid but endlessly watchable story of how a vibrant young woman arrives on death row for murder. It’s potently enacted by Zita Johann, and if director Phil Goldstone’s melodrama has its share of hokiness and some wooden performances, it compensates by focusing on how and why Nora ends up where she is; its interesting flashback structure juggles her tragic chronology. The film looks fine on Blu; the lone extra is a featurette about Johann.
DVD Releases of the Week
City Dreamers (First Run Features)
Joseph Hillel’s insightful documentary features four women architects—Phyllis Lambert, Blanche Lemco van Ginkel, Cornelia Hahn Oberlander and Denise Scott Brown—who have spent their unheralded but innovative careers demonstrating how cities are and can be transformed. Although each of them has worked with several “superstars” (Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, for starters), each has transcended those associations, and Hillel’s beautifully-shot film is a necessary corrective to the myth that all the great architects are men.
Hawaii Five-O—The Complete Final Season (Paramount/CBS)
This reboot of the classic series starring Jack Lord as McGarrett and James MacArthur as his partner Danno—and which showed the then new state as a crime-infested paradise—reaches its end after ten seasons (the original lasted a dozen, from 1968 to 1980), with a younger, spirited cast led Alex O’Laughlin and Scott Caan chasing and rounding up villains. These 22 episodes sprint all over the islands as the good guys earn their pay. Extras include a gag reel, deleted/extended scenes, O’Laughlin interview and a goodbye video from the cast.
Home from Home—Chronicle of a Vision (Corinth Films)
In German director Edgar Reitz’s prequel of sorts (made in 2013) to his colossally mammoth Heimat (1984)—which was a 15-hour, sweeping epic about ordinary Germans caught up in the machinations of history that was reportedly one of Stanley Kubrick’s favorite films—the same exacting sense of minutiae, of the quotidian, of regular people living their lives, is again presented with artful precision. Filmed in rich black and white, the film demands to be seen in the best visual presentation possible, so it’s unfortunate there’s not a Blu-ray release to catch every nuance.