This week’s roundup features a new film by one of our greatest documentarians, Frederick Wiseman (City Hall), along with a trio of touching dramas, new (Alone with Her Dreams and Coming Home Again) and old (Waterloo Bridge on Warner Archive).
VOD/Virtual Cinema Releases of the Week
Alone with Her Dreams (Corinth Films)
Novice director Paolo Licata’s poignant drama is carried by a strong performance from young Marta Castiglia as Lucia, a preteen living in Sicily with her strict grandmother after her parents migrate to France to make needed money. Even when it gets occasionally melodramatic—as when we see the big reveal about Lucia’s grandma’s big secret—Licata allows his characters to retain their humanity amid distressing and difficult circumstances. Also making a strong impression is Federica Sarno as the adult Lucia.
City Hall (Zipporah Films)
The latest documentary by Frederick Wiseman chronicles with his usual fastidiousness and expansiveness the daily workings of Boston’s city government, from the mayor, Martin Walsh, and the city council to those working in different departments who regular duties include everything from processing parking passes and marrying people in civil ceremonies to dealing with housing issues and planning a parade for the champion Red Sox. Boston native Wiseman, as always, makes his points insightfully and uninsistently; now age 90, he’s as sharp as ever, and we await whatever institution he will next observe with his singular mastery.
Coming Home Again (Outsider Pictures)
In Wayne Wang’s intimate character study, a chef returns home to visit his mortally ill mother (from cancer) to make one of her signature meals, as flashbacks show skeletons tumbling out of the family’s closet. Centered around food—Wang hired Michelin-star San Francisco chef Corey Lee to ensure the actors actually could prepare realistic-looking and delicious meals—the movie also boasts a pair of moving portrayals by Justin Chon (son) and Jackie Chung (mother), which give the film, which ultimately feels slight at 85 minutes, an emotional heft.
Us Kids (Alamo Drafthouse)
Kim A. Snyder’s documentary gets up close and personal to the high schoolers from Parkland, Florida, who, following the heinous mass shooting that left 17 of their classmates dead on Valentine’s Day 2018, became incredibly effective activists speaking to audiences around the country about sensible gun control. Although they have become so ubiquitous that some of what’s here seems repetitive, their emotionally trenchant accounts of what they’ve been through and how it might make others see their point of view on one of our most divisive issues are always worth hearing and being inspired by.
4K Releases of the Week
V for Vendetta (Warner Bros)
When this dystopian nightmare was released in 2006, the parallels to the George W. Bush administration were unmistakable, but the trump presidency nightmare has given James McTeigue’s gloomy comic-book adaptation added relevance in its depiction of an authoritarian government and its citizens who are either believers or resisters. Natalie Portman (Joan of Arc shaved head and all) gives a performance of uncommon grace as the masked antihero’s lone ally and the selection of British acting royalty—John Hurt, Stephen Rea, Stephen Fry, Tim Pigott-Smith, Roger Allam, Rupert Graves, Ben Miles and Sinead Cusack—provides some needed dramatic gravitas. The film’s dynamic visuals pop off the screen in 4K; the original Blu-ray extras comprise featurettes, interviews and Portman’s audition reel and SNL rapping short.
Blu-ray Releases of the Week
Blackbird (Screen Media)
Danish writer Christian Torpe Americanized his script for 2014’s Silent Heart, and the result is a nice-looking, decently-acted melodrama about a family dealing with grandma deciding to end it all before her ALS becomes overwhelming; secrets and recriminations rear their heads as everyone wrestles with her traumatic decision over the Thanksgiving holiday. Roger Michell directs elegantly if schematically and the writing’s insightful moments are marred by contrivance and last-minute revelations. The cast of eight—led by Susan Sarandon’s tough-minded matriarch, Sam Niell’s quiet patriarch and Mia Wasikowska’s brittle black-sheep daughter—sustains interest despite the too familiar tale. The film looks quite good on Blu.
Mr. Topaze (Film Movement Classics)
In this nearly forgotten 1961 adaptation of Marcel Pagnol’s classic novel, Peter Sellers debuted as director and stars as the eponymous small-town teacher whose naive honesty leads a shady businessman to make him his financial advisor; but Topaze soon turns the tables. Sellers plays it a tad too seriously; his low-key acting and innocuous directing make this little more than pleasantly forgettable, distinguished by a stellar supporting cast (Herbert Lom, Leo McKern, Nadia Gray, Billie Whitelaw and Michael Gough, for starters). John Wilcox’s color photography looks nice enough in the new hi-def transfer; extras include an interview with McKern’s daughter, Abigail; Paganol video essay; and a 1951 short, Let’s Go Crazy, starring Sellars.
The Opposite Sex (Warner Archive)
From Clare Booth Luce’s play The Women comes David Miller’s 1956 musical version, in which the men in the various women’s lives—wisely kept out of Luce’s original play—are seen and heard from, mainly to the musical’s detriment. As mid ‘50s MGM musicals go, this one’s pretty forgettable, with no truly memorable songs and not even a good spot for the great Ann Miller to show off her dance moves. Instead, this is mainly of interest to see a young Joan Collins as the sultry homewrecker from the chorus line. The film’s widescreen colors look enticing on Blu.
Waterloo Bridge (Warner Archive)
The term “tearjerker” may well have been invented for this touching soap opera about two people who meet cute in London during the Blitz and fall in love; soon he is shipped out to fight and she, desperate to make ends meet, becomes a prostitute: when he unexpectedly returns (after he was considered dead), she must decide if she should confess what she did while he was away. Vivien Leigh looks so ravishing as the heroine that it’s easy to overlook her devastating performance, Robert Taylor is equally good as her beau, and Mervyn LeRoy directs for maximum emotional impact. There’s a splendid-looking hi-def transfer; lone extra is a 1951 radio adaptation with Norma Shearer.
DVD Releases of the Week
Catherine the Great (HBO/Warner Bros)
Despite bringing in the matriarch’s matriarch, Helen Mirren, to portray another royal leader—she’s already played both British monarchs, Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II, onstage and onscreen—this glitzy limited series about Catherine, the empress of Russia, who dragged her country kicking and screaming into the center of European civilization in the 18th century, ends up being neither insightful enough nor guilty-pleasure enough to ultimately be satisfying. Even so, the glamorous production values and Mirren’s pleasurable acting, especially in her scenes with Jason Clarke as her younger lover General Potemkin, make this four-hour series less a slog than it could have been.
Head of the Class—Complete 2nd Season (Warner Bros)
WKRP in Cincinnati’s Johnny Fever, Howard Hesseman, returns as everyone’s favorite substitute teacher who actually wants to teach his charges instead of simply watch over them in the second season (circa 1987-88) of this silly but amusing sitcom. Hesseman is always a hoot, and his classroom full of teens is a group of hard-working young performers, even though only Robin Givens is in any way memorable. Still, for anyone who wants to revisit this far from classic but diverting TV comedy, these 28 episodes will do very nicely.