This week’s roundup features new documentaries about Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, actress Olympia Dukakis, Vietnam war journalists and early childhood education, along with a new horror film, Relic, with Emily Mortimer.
VOD/Virtual Cinema Releases of the Week
Relic (IFC Midnight)
In Natalie Erika James’ clever but ultimately enervating thriller, three generations of women—grandmother Edna, mother Kay and daughter Sam—deal with Edna’s possible slide into senility in a house that becomes seemingly more sinister with each passing day. James’ interesting if unsuccessful melding of character study and outright horror has an ending that’s patently ludicrous. Luckily, the unimpeachable performances of Robyn Nevin (Edna), Emily Mortimer (Emily) and Bella Heathcote (Sam) help sell it all, however crazed it becomes.
Ai Weiwei—Yours Truly (First Run Features)
Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei’s formidable exhibition @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz, at the infamous prison in 2014, honors the legacy of the artist’s father and other prisoners of conscience around the world by giving visitors the chance to send postcards to those languishing in prison (his father received one while in exile years earlier). Directed by Gina Leibrecht and Cheryl Haines—the latter organize the exhibit on Ai’s behalf—this documentary illuminates how an artist is also a freedom fighter through his art and how strangers with a pen and a postcard can help fill the lives of those who are incarcerated working for freedom of expression (and their families) with hope.
Greek-American actress Olympia Dukakis—known for her hilarious but tender Oscar-winning performance as Cher’s mother in 1987’s Moonstruck—is the focus of Harry Mavromichalis’s vibrant portrait highlighting her heritage as much as her estimable career onscreen and onstage. It’s onstage that she really shined, and we see glimpses of both her vintage performances and more recent work, including playing Prospero in The Tempest in the Berkshires area of western Massachusetts. Most poignantly, her 56-year marriage to actor Louis Zorich (who sadly died in 2018) is given ample screen time.
Blu-rays of the Week
Blood and Money (Screen Media)
Tom Berenger’s granite visage is perfect for his role as a retired vet who, while hunting, accidentally becomes involved with murderous criminals after hiding the proceeds from their daring robbery in this mostly pedestrian and predictable drama. Director-cowriter John Barr develops little in the way of characterization—which is too bad because Berenger and Kristen Hager as a young waitress at the local dive have real chemistry—instead, he’s content to use northern Maine’s forbidding Allagash wilderness as a typical snowbound setting. The film looks fine on Blu.
Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s ravishing romantic opera—composed when he was 17—has an overripe plot about a vengeful woman who realizes that she loves the man who caused her sister’s death. But Korngold’s often radiant score balances this melodrama with his heroine’s conflicting emotions with an artistry that’s uncanny. This 2019 Turin, Italy, production, forcefully directed by Pier Luigi Pizzi, features an earthshaking portrayal by soprano Annemarie Kremer in the virtuosic title role; there’s exquisite music-making by conductor Pinchas Steinberg and the orchestra and chorus of the Teatro Regio Torino. Blu-ray image and hi-def sound are both first-rate.
P.O. Box Tinto Brass
The Claire Sinclair Show (Cult Epics)
The 87-year-old Italian director Tinto Brass makes playfully erotic films full of pulchritude that fall short of hardcore, and 1995’s P.O. Box Tinto Brass is a prime example: the director reads through Penthouse Forum-style letters from females about their sexual escapades, which are visualized in all their naked glory. The Claire Sinclair Show finds the 2011 Playboy Playmate of the Year hosting two episodes: one about her life and the other featuring veteran photographer Bunny Yeager’s final TV appearance. Both releases have excellent hi-def transfers; Tinto extras include a 2003 interview and a second disc comprising a documentary, Istinttobrass, with a 2013 interview of its director Massimiliano Zanin; Claire extras include an extended version of the Bunny episode, original Super 8 films, Claire’s introductions and behind-the-scenes.
Verdi—Il Trovatore (Unitel)
One of Giuseppe Verdi’s most memorable operas has one of his most ridiculous plots, but his brilliantly dramatic score and moving portrayals by Russian superstar soprano Anna Netrebko and Italian baritone Luca Salsi highlight late director Franco Zefferelli’s typically opulent production (filmed last year at the waterside outdoor theater in Verona, Italy). In addition, there are Verdi’s luminous arias and famous “Anvil” chorus, which is superbly performed by the orchestra and chorus under conductor Pier Giorgio Morandi. There are superior hi-def audio and video.
DVDs of the Week
Dateline: Saigon (First Run Features)
The reminiscences of the Vietnam War’s most renowned journalists—Neil Sheehan, David Halberstram, Malcolm Browne, Peter Arnett and Horst Faas—make up Tom Herman’s cogent documentary about how those on the ground saw a different war than what U.S. presidents and generals were selling. Rather than present a rosy picture of a conflict of honorable intentions but disastrous results, these men admirably dealt with adversity from all sides while reporting from the dangerous battlegrounds of East Asia. Narrated by Sam Waterston, this riveting but sobering account doffs its hat to these honorable men, some of whom would win a Pulitzer (Halberstram) and write the definitive account of the war, A Bright Shining Lie (Sheehan).
No Small Matter (Abramorama)
Early childhood education is yet another important resource that our country has squandered, and this succinct 74-minute documentary shows ways to stop wasting such a rich ore and start using it to our greater advantage. Narrated by Alfre Woodard, co-directors Danny Alpert, Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel’s film eschews any hectoring or obviously pointing fingers to make the case for giving our youngest children the education they deserve and need from the start. Extras are short featurettes.