The latest Digital Week roundup is highlighted by several new films, available on demand and/or streaming: Kevin Macdonald’s war on terror exposé, The Mauritanian; Lee Isaac Chung’s autobiographical drama, Minari; Andrei Konchalovsky’s biopic about Michelangelo, Sin; Shatara Michelle Ford’s angry polemic about racism and sexism, Test Pattern; and Lee Daniels’ biopic, The United States vs. Billie Holiday.
VOD/Virtual Cinema/Streaming Releases of the Week
The Mauritanian (SFX Entertainment)
Mohamedou Ould Salahi’s 2015 memoir about his time locked up in Guantanamo accused of recruiting the 9/11 hijackers despite never being charged is memorably if drily dramatized by writer/director Kevin MacDonald. Tahar Rahim’s powerhouse performance as Salahi, whose humanity never wavers despite being imprisoned and tortured for more than a decade, is complemented by Jodie Foster and Shailene Woodley as the lawyers working on his behalf and Benedict Cumberbatch as the officer who discovers his conscience in this at times devastating exposé of how America conducted the war on terror.
Writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s lovely reminiscence of his Korean family’s difficulties realizing their own American dream skirts—and at times unabashedly embraces—sentimentality while following a father, mother, their two young children and, later, grandmother arriving from Korea to help them out after they move from California to Arkansas to begin anew. Although he gets far too melodramatic with a series of pitfalls and disasters, especially near the end, Chung has his heart in the right place, and his film is beautifully acted by all, especially Steven Yeun as dad and Youn Yuh-jung as grandma.
Sin (Corinth Films)
Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky—who’s made his share of duds—has a late-career renaissance underway with 2020’s Dear Comrades and this 2019 biopic of the great artist Michelangelo, made on actual Italian locations in an almost neorealist manner that recalls the Pier Paolo Pasolini’s classic The Gospel According to Matthew and the historical dramas of Roberto Rossellini. Alberto Testone is a believably protean Michelangelo, which has the effect of making him more authentically human, even when his gargantuan artistic ego causes the death of a worker while a massive block of marble is being moved for one of his outsized sculptures.
Test Pattern (Kino Lorber)
After an evening out with her friend and a couple of men whom they meet at a bar, Renesha awakes in the morning in a strange bed, which is only the beginning of her nightmare in writer-director Shatara Michelle Ford’s provocative if dramatically diffuse exploration of how the inefficient bureaucracies of the health care system and, by extension, law enforcement are a double burden for black women. If Ford’s rage often blurs her focus, Brittany S. Hall’s electrifying portrayal of Renesha keeps the drama on track, for the most part. It’s too bad that, as Renesha’s boyfriend Mike, Will Brill gives a flat, mannered performance that mitigates the crucial sense of this interracial couple’s slowly shifting relationship despite what he sees as a sympathetic response to her assault.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday (Hulu)
Director Lee Daniels and screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks never find the proper tone for their biopic about the great blues singer Billie Holiday, whose controversial lynching song “Strange Fruit” propelled the government to repeatedly go after her for her drug use: so this 130-minute drama fluctuates wildly between intense character study and meandering montages that mute the power of Lady Day’s voice and her story. Still, all is forgiven when Andra Day’s Billie takes center stage: Day is as captivating as Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues and Audra McDonald in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill were, and is also unafraid to be so emotionally—and physically—naked onscreen, which makes her Billie a uniquely memorable creation.
Blu-ray Releases of the Week
My Dream Is Yours
On Moonlight Bay (Warner Archive)
Two of Doris Day’s earliest starring roles in lesser-known musicals are out on Warner Archive. On Moonlight Bay (1951), which finds her as a teenage tomboy in love with a college man (Gordon MacRae), soars when Day sings such tunes as “Cuddle Up a Little Closer” and the title song. My Dream Is Yours (1949), in which she plays an up-and-coming singer who must decide between an established—but declining—crooner (Lee Bowman) and the agent who steered her to stardom (Jack Carson), is memorable when Day performs the title song and “Someone Like You.” These Technicolor productions looks lovely on Blu; extras are period live-action shorts and cartoons.
Italian composer Franco Alfano (1875-1954), best-known for his realization of Puccini’s unfinished opera Turandot, was an accomplished opera composer in his own right: along with his adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac, his 1904 version of Leo Tolstoy’s novel Resurrection makes for a compelling experience, particularly in its bizarre but joyful ending. This 2020 Florence, Italy, production is kept aloft by Rosetta Cucchi’s spry direction, the excellent leads—soprano Anne Sophie Duprels as the heroine Katyusha and Matthew Vickers as her love Dmitri—and the sparkling musical direction of Francesco Lanzillotta, who leads the orchestra and chorus. The hi-def video and audio are quite good.
Show Boat (Warner Archive)
If George Sidney’s film of the classic Kern-Hammerstein musical lacks dramatic propulsion due to deracinating the pivotal subplot (this was 1951, after all), there’s still much to enjoy: the dancing duo Marge and Gower Champion hoofing it up, William Warfield’s rendition of “Ol’ Man River” and the delightful Kathryn Grayson as the young and impressionable Magnolia. The colors look terrific in Warner Archive’s hi-def transfer; extras comprise Sidney’s commentary, audio tracks of Ava Gardner’s own vocals on two songs (in the film, her singing voice was dubbed by Annette Warren), the 1952 radio theater version and the opening sequence from a 1946 stage production.
DVD Releases of the Week
Alexander Nanau’s insightful and engrossing documentary recounts the aftermath of the terrible fire that swept through a Bucharest nightclub in 2015, which killed dozens and severely injured dozens more. By showing how dogged journalists uncovered how crass and uncaring incompetence on the part of the local government and a pharmaceutical company were responsible, not for the disaster but for the fact that so many of the injured were dying despite supposedly superior medical treatment, Nanau has made a timely tribute to the need for a free and independent press.
Sun Flames (Marco Polo)
German composer Siegfried Wagner (1869-1930) was nowhere near his father Richard Wagner’s equal as a musical dramatist, as his Sonnenflamen (Sun Flames) shows—it has some gorgeous music but much static plotting, which end up canceling each other out, unfortunately. The most interesting thing about Siegfried’s opera is the production, staged last summer in his father’s famed Bayreuth, Germany, during the Covid lockdown: the barebones set is filled with energetic singers and musicians, who bring this tragic tale of a deserter during the Crusades to fleetingly vivid life.