This week’s roundup is stacked, with reviews of everything from Christopher Nolan’s latest, Tenet, in 4K and Blu-rays of classics from Criterion (Robert Bresson’s Mouchette) and Warner Archive (Jack Lemmon in Mister Roberts) to new virtual releases like John Patrick Shanley’s Wild Mountain Thyme with Emily Blunt and Christopher Walken.
4K Release of the Week
Tenet (Warner Bros)
Christopher Nolan’s latest bloated super-spectacular attempts to one-up his earlier convoluted films with a constantly time-shifting (and aspect-ratio changing) plot that’s mainly an excuse for alternately exciting (opening concert hall invasion, backwards-car chase) and pointless (final battle) set pieces. Nolan fans will spend hours explaining away his densely plotted but scientifically suspect script but Tenet is yet another example of Nolan taking 2-1/2 hours to tell a story that The Twilight Zone would have covered satisfyingly in 30 minutes. John David Washington makes a dull hero, further robbing the movie of credibility; Kenneth Branagh’s colorful if stereotypical Russian villain is fun, while Elizabeth Debiecki gives an exceptionally nuanced performance that has no place in something so singleminded. The UHD transfer looks luminous; lone extra (on a separate Blu-ray disc) is a 75-minute making-of.
VOD/Virtual Cinema Releases of the Week
Louis van Beethoven (Film Movement)
In Niki Stein’s lavish biopic, Beethoven’s life is cleverly reconstructed as it covers three distinct periods: the young prodigy, the teenage wunderkind and the deaf genius near death. While it covers too much ground—there are appearances by Mozart and Haydn, who both give the budding composer-pianist their seal of approval—Stein’s film is intelligent and witty, with musical cues from among works both challenging (late quartets) and popular (the symphonies). Colin Pütz, Anselm Bresgott and Tobias Moretti are exemplary in the title roles from youngest to oldest, while Cornelius Obonya gives a heartbreaking portrayal of Beethoven’s father, whose existence devolved into drink and tragedy. Arthur W. Ahrweiler’s moody cinematography perfectly mirrors the protagonist’s wide-ranging artistry and unpleasant personality.
To the Ends of the Earth (Kimstim)
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s latest follows a Japanese newscaster covering a story in Uzbekistan who finds herself in emotional difficulties after evading local cops and hearing that her boyfriend back in Tokyo might be injured in an horrific fire. Kurosawa records his protagonist’s everyday dealings with wry understatement, but at two hours, his film is definitely overstuffed with shots of her wandering the streets. Atsuko Maeda has an ingratiating presence in the lead, and is quite touching at the end when her character sings (Maeda is a famous pop singer in Japan) the last of weirdly placed but effective song interludes.
Wild Mountain Thyme (Bleecker Street)
John Patrick Shanley’s beguiling play Outside Mullingar premiered on Broadway in 2014 with Brian F. O’Byrne and an unforgettable Debra Messing as lifelong next-door neighbors in the Irish countryside who bealtedly find love. But everything delectable in his original play is missing from Shanley’s own adaptation, a strained attempt to re-light a fire that burned so brightly onstage. Emily Blunt and Jamie Dornan are OK in the leads, Christopher Walken is eye-rollingly bad as Dorman’s father, Dearbhla Molloy (the lone Broadway cast holdover) is terrific as Blunt’s mom, and Jon Hamm—in a thankless role smartly omitted from the play—does what he can as an American cousin with designs on Blunt. Of course, Ireland’s locales are lovely and there are enough rom-com pleasures to make it watchable, but Outside Mullingar deserved much more.
Blu-ray Releases of the Week
Aviva (Strand Releasing/Outsider Pictures)
Director Boaz Yakim juggles with ideas of gender identity by dramatizing the relationship between two dancers, male and female—and their respective feminine and masculine sides—and casting two couples to visualize the interactions. It’s too bad that it turns out so heavyhanded—especially in the many repetitive and explicit sex scenes featuring the performing quartet in various permutations—and that the dancers are inadequate actors: what could have been an insightful study of gender fluidity and sexual complexity becomes banal. Star Bobbi Jene Smith’s often thrilling choreography makes its mark in several dancing sequences, like the final one in Central Park. The Blu-ray transfer looks beautiful; extras are 15 minutes of dance rehearsals with Smith’s discussion.
Mister Roberts (Warner Archive)
Jack Lemmon won the 1955 Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his semi-comic relief role in this mildly entertaining drama based on the hit play by Thomas Heggen—who wrote the original novel—and Joshua Logan about sailors on the USS Reluctant in Pacific waters during WWII, including the title character, their immediate supervisor, and the reigning boss who cannot handle the morale of his men. John Ford and Mervyn Leroy co-directed (with uncredited work also done by Logan), and if the movie lacks any comic or dramatic sizzle, it is worth watching for its cast: Henry Fonda as Mister Roberts gives his usual sturdy but decidedly unfunny performance; James Cagney as the big boss gives a jolly and committed portrayal; Lemmon almost seems out of place with his usual over-the-top shenanigans. Taking together, however, these bizzarely inapposite actors make this more diverting than it should be. The film looks lovely on Blu; lone extra is a Lemmon commentary.
Following one of his most singular films, his 1966 allegory of faith and sacrifice that centered on a donkey, Au hazard Balthazar, French master Robert Bresson returned the following year with another bleak journey, this time following a young girl through her harsh existence. Exquisitely shot in black and white by that extraordinary choreographer Ghislain Cloquet—whose photography shimmers in Criterion’s new hi-def transfer—Mouchette has a quietly devastating finale that is among Bresson’s most indelible images. Extras are an audio commentary; Au hasard Bresson, a 1967 documentary with Bresson on the Mouchette set; segment of a 1967 episode of French TV series Cinéma, with on-set interviews of Bresson and actors Nadine Nortier and Jean-Claude Guilbert; and the original trailer, edited by—of all people—Jean-Luc Godard.
Tex Avery Screwball Classics Volume 2 (Warner Archive)
Animated genius Tex Avery was responsible for a lion’s share of the classic output during the golden age of animation—in the ‘40s and the ‘50s—and this second volume brings together another 21 of his most wanted treasures, some starring his classic canine character, Droopy, and several others featuring his most memorable anthropomorphic animals and goofy contraptions. Some of it is dated and in questionable taste; nearly all of it is entertaining and funny. The restored hi-def color images pop off the screen; the lone extra is a substantial documentary of Avery at work, Tex Avery: King of Cartoons.
2020 World Series Champions—Los Angeles Dodgers (Shout! Factory)
For a sports year unlike any other, the Dodgers won the championship in a shortened regular season made up of 60 games followed by four playoff rounds, but not before COVID outbreaks threatened to derail the whole thing. But the Dodgers prevailed, finally, over the Tampa Rays in six games, and this disc revisits the ups and downs of a strange season that most are hoping is an anomaly, all narrated by legendary Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully. The hi-def images and audio are top-notch; extras are season highlights, clinching moments and “How They Got There” featurette.
DVD Releases of the Week
My Dog Stupid (Distrib Films US)
French director-writer-actor Yves Attal has yet to make a truly satisfying comedy of manners in a career as a third-rate Woody Allen yearning to be second-rate, but this is an only intermittently irritating dramedy about a blocked middle-aged writer who lets a huge, dumb canine into his life, only to watch its arrival parallels the disintegration of his marriage and the straining of his relationships with his adult son and daughter. Attal still goes for cheap laughs or fake profundity, but his other actors—led by his always dependable real-life wife, Charlotte Gainsbourg—are fine and the oversized pooch (actually named “Stupide” in the film) is irresistible, which helps smooth over the rougher edges of Attal’s inconsistent filmmaking.
British playwright David Hare, one of our most skillful and insightfully political playwrights, tries his hand at parsing a conservative cabinet member—Hare is a leftist—in this intelligent if melodramatic four-part miniseries that rides on Hugh Laurie’s potent portrait of a man who, despite his act as honest and straight-talking, is not what he seems. Although Hare allows contrivances that wouldn’t pass muster in a Screenwriting 101 course, he’s on firmer ground when he’s assailing the machinations of the prime minister (a terrific Helen McCrory) and her minions at 10 Downing Street, while Michael Keillor’s direction smartly guides Hare’s story to its satisfying conclusion.
Route One, USA (Icarus Films)
Robert Kramer’s legendary road movie that travels along the Eastern Seaboard, following U.S. Route 1 from Maine to Key West, was made in 1989 but remains particularly relevant today, as Kramer chronicles Americans of all walks of life, political persuasions and economic classes, along with visiting landmarks from Walden Pond to the D.C. Vietnam Memorial. An American expatriate based in Paris (he died in France at age 60 in 1999) who returned to the U.S. for this film, Kramer adroitly handles the camera while his friend, actor Michael Keillor, does the questioning and observing. Route One, USA’s four-hour exploration of the deep and dark crevasses of American life is crammed with incident, detail and insight but is far from exhaustive, mirroring Kramer’s wanting to “understand” the country he left.
The Trip—Four-Course Meal (IFC Films)
Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon went on four go-rounds touring Europe, annoying each other and eating superb meals along the way, and this set collects all of them: 2010’s The Trip (at home in England), 2014’s The Trip to Italy, 2017’s The Trip to Spain and this year’s The Trip to Greece. Although it’s as formulaic as hell—amazing scenery, delectable dinners, good-natured banter and dueling impressions—the stars have such undeniable chemistry that it all works. Michael Winterbottom directs all four series with his usual light hand; it’s too bad that the full version of these peregrinations—each trip began as six-part series for British television—isn’t included. But even as standalone, shortened films, these are extremely pleasurable journeys.