Featured in this week’s roundup are a recent Oscar-winning drama, Sam Mendes’ 1917; two fascinating documentaries, Shooting the Mafia and Back to the Fatherland; and a hard-hitting meditation on ethnic cleansing, I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians.
Blu-rays of the Week
Although Sam Mendes’ WWI epic is impeccably made—Roger Deakins’ Oscar-winning photography blends seamlessly with extensive CGI work—it’s still one of the most gimmicky and dishonest movies I’ve ever seen. Mendes’ film may be a tribute to his grandfather, a Great War veteran, but 1917 plays out like a remote video game, as soldiers find themselves in increasingly contrived situations that become quite risible—I was surprised when, after the hero falls into water, a shark didn’t attack him. The film looks impressive in hi-def; extras comprise Mendes’ and Deakins’ commentaries, making-of featurettes and interviews.
Come to Daddy (Lionsgate)
This meretricious movie intends to be shocking with its sudden and protracted outbursts of violence, but director Ant Timpson merely piles ridiculous plot twists on his ludicrous characters’ backs, thereby creating an incoherent mess. Unfortunately, none of this is enlivened by the presence of Elijah Wood and Martin Donovan, who do their best with what’s essentially an impossible situation. There’s a fine hi-def transfer.
The Grudge (Sony)
Taking off from the original Japanese horror flick and the American remake, this gratuitous reboot is heavy on the gore but sorely lacking in any ideas or originality, which is surprising considering that director Nicolas Pesce’s debut The Eyes of My Mother showed flashes of brilliance. Here, however, Pesce settles for jump-scares and “yuck” moments, which does the movie and its game cast no favors. The hi-def transfer is excellent; extras include 30 minutes (!) of alternate and extended scenes as well as short featurettes.
Shooting the Mafia (Cohen Media)
The irrepressible Letizia Battaglia, 84 years young when director Kim Longinotto interviewed her for this enlightening documentary, is the center of a tale that is violent, sad, angry, regretful, but ultimately—unbelievably—hopeful. Photographer Battaglia’s lens caught all the inhumanity and horridness of a fraught period in Italian (and, more specifically, Sicilian) history, when the mob made mincemeat of the idea of justice with shocking killings of judges. This film could stand as a pendant to Marco Bellocchio’s electrifying The Traitor, which covers the same ground, but Longinotto has someone Bellocchio doesn’t: Battaglia, wisely world-weary but upbeat. There’s a superior hi-def transfer; lone extra is a Longinotto interview.
Die Walküre (Opus Arte)
The most popular of Richard Wagner’s four Ring operas, with four hours of music, is notoriously punishing on its performers, but in Keith Warner’s unaffecting 2018 production from London’s Royal Opera, the lead roles are assayed by a formidable cast: Emily Magee (Sieglinde), Stuart Skelton (Siegmund), Ain Anger (Hunding), John Lundgren (Wotan), Sarah Connolly (Fricka) and Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde). Antonio Pappano ably conducts the superb Royal Opera orchestra, with stand-out sequences like “The Ride of the Valkyries” and “Magic Fire Music” beautifully played if too abstractedly staged by Warner. Hi-def video and audio are top-notch.
DVDs of the Week
Back to the Fatherland (First Run Features)
Kat Rohrer and Gil Levanon’s intermittently illuminating documentary follows several Israelis with German ancestry who have decided to return to their European homeland despite its obvious anti-Semitic history. Rohrer and Levanon (she’s Austrian and is the granddaughter of a Nazi officer; he’s Israeli and the grandson of a Holocaust survivor) interview these young people and their grandparents, who are understandably perplexed over their decision, even though some of them agree to return to Europe for a visit, which triggers difficult but necessary recollections.
I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians (Big World Pictures)
Romanian director Radu Jude’s films relentlessly dissect his country’s checkered history, like this latest 140-minute meditation on the massacre of Jews in Odessa by Romanian troops during WWII. Barbarians often seems more like a master’s thesis than a film; the director’s stand-in, a young woman planning a re-creation of the massacre, has intense discussions about guilt, responsibility, ethnic cleansing and even Steven Spielberg with a scholarly skeptic. Luckily for Jude, actress Ioana Iacob’s perspicacious and winning presence allows this dense material about inhumanity and memory to come across with clarity and power.