This week’s roundup features the Blu-ray debut of a true masterpiece of Soviet-era cinema: The Ascent from director Larisa Shepitko. Also new this week are four fascinating foreign films on demand: Dear Comrades from Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky; Noturrno from Italian documentary maker Gianfranco Rosi; Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time from Hungarian director Lili Horvát; and True Mothers from Japanese director Naomi Kawase.
Blu-ray Releases of the Week
The Ascent (Criterion)
The talented Russian director Larisa Shepitko died three years after making this masterly 1976 war film about Soviet soldiers fighting in World War II. Shepitko potently dramatizes a series of desultory skirmishes fought in the bitter cold, which becomes a jumping-off point for an explicitly Christian allegory replete with cross imagery. Crammed with unforgettable B&W images and suffused with Shepitko’s honesty and humanism, The Ascent points toward where her artistry would have headed if she had lived to make more accomplished films. Criterion’s hi-def transfer looks luminous; plentiful extras which contextualize Shepitko’s life and career comprise an introduction by Anton Klimov, son of Shepitko and director Elem Klimov; new interview with actress Lyudmila Polyakova; Shepitko’s 1967 feature, The Homeland of Electricity; Elem Klimov’s 1980 tribute short to his wife, Larisa; two 2012 documentaries about Shepitko; a 1999 TV program with an archival Shepitko interview; and an audio commentary.
After the Thin Man
Room for One More (Warner Archive)
William Powell and Myrna Loy are delightful as intrepid sleuths Nick and Nora Charles in After the Thin Man, W.S. Van Dyke’s 1936 sequel to the original Thin Man that’s equally entertaining; with a spiffy script based on a Dashiell Hammett story, the duo (and the delectable dog Asta) solves a murder mystery that has a quite surprising denouement. Norman Taurog’s 1952 Room for One More is a tug-at-the-heartstrings dramedy about a couple with three kids who adopt two more—a lonely young girl and a physically handicapped boy—starring Cary Grant, suave as ever, interacting breezily and believably with the children, as well as Grant’s then wife, Betsy Drake. Both B&W films have first-rate hi-def transfers; Thin Man extras are a classic short, classic cartoon and a radio show with Powell and Loy, while Room extras are two classic cartoons.
Doom Patrol—Complete 2nd Season (Warner Bros)
As the ragtag troupe of super heroes regroups following the events that ended the first season, they must deal with a new dilemma: the arrival of the Chief’s daughter, Dorothy, who has the unfortunate ability to bring her invisible friends to life, compromising their ongoing efforts to save the world from evil. The series’ protagonists are a combination of mushiness and black humor, and that toggling back and forth keeps this from becoming either too melodramatic or too self-parodic. The series’ nine episodes look stunning in hi-def; extras comprise two featurettes.
VOD/Virtual Cinema Releases of the Week
Dear Comrades (Neon)
Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky is still going strong at age 83, as his latest, a critical dissection of the Soviet Union, searingly shows. Based on a true incident—the killing of several strikers in the town of Novocherkassk by local officials in 1962—Dear Comrades chronicles the awakening of Lyudmila, a loyal party worker who witnesses the inhumane cruelty behind the façade of Communism and searches for her teenage daughter when she goes missing. As Lyudmila, Julia Vysotskaya burns a hole through the screen with her incendiary and emotionally resonant performance.
The unrelenting brutality of war dominates Gianfranco Rosi’s latest documentary, which explores with images of inhumanity that nonetheless have an unreal beauty how people who have been subjected to unspeakable atrocities attempt to pick up the shards of their ruined lives while living in Middle East war zones. Shooting on location in some of the most war-ravaged countries on earth—Lebanon, Syria, Kurdistan and Iraq—Rosi artfully shows that horrific loss can coexist with resilience in the face of impending annihilation, although the lack of context somewhat blunts, if not outright undercuts, its lasting power.
Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time (Greenwich Entertainment)
Director Lili Horvát’s sophomore feature follows Márta, a Hungarian expatriate returned from America who begins working in a Budapest hospital as a brain surgeon and successfully operates on a man whose young son shows his interest in her, but wants to rekindle her affair with another doctor, whom she was with in the States. Based on a stanza of a Sylvia Plath poem, Horvát’s film incisively makes psychological inroads into the brain expert’s heart even as it tries too hard to be enigmatic and abstract, like its final perfunctory image straining to be symbolic. Still, Natasa Stork’s performance as Márta is never less than wonderfully realized, which makes her often convoluted journey one worth taking.
True Mothers (Film Movement)
In Naomi Kawase’s intimate and moving drama, the opposite lives of two mothers—a teenager who gave up her baby for adoption and a middle-class wife who adopted him—are illustrated by the inevitable difficulties that crop up when the young mom wants to be part of her child’s life followed by the unexpected and bittersweet resolution. Kawase walks a tightrope of sentimentality and contrived plotting, but her characterizations are dead-on and honest, transforming this far above the soap opera it might have been. Kudos also to the immeasurably strong acting by the leads, Hiromi Nagasaku (the adopted mother) and Aju Makita (the real mother), who embody these women with am unaffected naturalness that’s astonishing to watch.
DVD Release of the Week
Night Shift (Distrib US)
France’s Anne Fontaine has proven herself a director of versatility and insight in such films as How I Killed My Father (2001), Coco Before Chanel (2009) and The Innocents (2016)—her latest, a police procedural (its actual French title is simply Police), studies events through the eyes of three cops, two men and one woman, juxtaposing their messy personal lives with their demanding and violent professional work, culminating in a complicated moral decision. Although it seems overly familiar, Fontaine directs tautly, greatly assisted by veteran Yves Angelo’s gritty cinematography and her three stars—Omar Sy, Grgeory Gadebois and Virginie Efira—who give realistic portrayals of these anything but heroic but anything but ordinary protagonists.