Digital Week – October 28

Unsurprisingly—considering a certain election is only days away—this week’s roundup is filled with politics, from new documentaries chronicling right-wing propagandists (American Dharma and White Noise) to classic films on Warner Archive looking back at the First World War (Sergeant York) and the rise of FDR (Sunrise at Campobello).

VOD/Virtual Cinema Releases of the Week

American Dharma (Topic/First Look)

Errol Morris has made a cottage industry of sitting down with the likes of Robert McNamara, Donald Rumsfeld and now trump’s evil genius, Steve Barron, loathsome by any standard but, at least as grilled by Morris for his latest documentary portrait, endlessly fascinating. Morris shrewdly enters Bannon’s worldview through old film clips, since the subject himself peppers his talk about his time as trump’s leading advisor (at least until his downfall) and spokesman for a nationalist platform that’s permeating far too many countries. But looking at bits of Stalag 17, The Searchers and Chimes at Midnight only goes so far and, for all his sharp questioning and skepticism, one has the uneasy feeling that Morris should have been even tougher on one of the planet’s truly despicable people.

Seat 20D (First Run Features)

When her son Alex died onboard Pan Am flight 103—destroyed by a bomb over Lockerbie, Scotland—sculptor Suse Lowenstein wanted to honor her son’s memory, and that of the others who were killed, in a tangible and permanent way. So she created Dark Elegy, life-size sculptures of herself and other grieving mothers, shown naked and in the positions they were in upon hearing the awful news. Jill Campbell’s moving documentary explores how Lowenstein transformed tragedy into art, and how she is looking for a permanent place for her surprisingly controversial work, which currently resides on her property in Montauk, Long Island.

White Noise (The Atlantic)

It’s difficult watching Daniel Lombroso’s documentary about the biggest names—i.e., worst progenitors of racism—in the alt-right movement, whose anti-immigrant, anti-globalist, anti-intelligence stances mark the trio as opportunists at best and bigots at worst. If they were characters in a novel, Richard Spencer, Mike Cernovich and Lauren Southern would seem laughable—but in the real world they are taken seriously, as evidenced by their distressing popularity among their benighted followers. So, Lombroso shows, we have to take them seriously—if only as a cautionary tale—however ludicrous, contradictory and hypocritical they are.

Blu-ray Releases of the Week

Fortunio (Naxos)
L’ange de Nisida (Dynamic)

These rarely heard operas—French composer Andre Messager’s Fortunio, from 1907; and Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti’s L’ange de Nisida, from 1840—are not very memorable either dramatically or comedically, yet there are many moments where the music soars. And both operas receive wonderful 2019 stagings: Denis Podalydes directs Fortunio in Paris and Francesco Micheli directs L’ange in Bergamno, Italy. Both works look and sound vividly immediate in hi-def.

Sergeant York (Warner Archive)

Howard Hawks’ 1941 paean to an American hero who singlehandedly forced a German battalion to surrender during WWI is wartime propaganda of the highest order, unapologetically demonstrating that even an ordinary American can outdo others. This is rousing, old-fashioned entertainment—though a tad overlong at 134 minutes—with a lead performance of high star wattage by Gary Cooper and an equally memorable turn by Joan Leslie, in her first starring role at age 16, as York’s love Gracie. The film looks splendid on Blu; extras include historian Jeanine Basinger’s commentary, 40-minute documentary from 2003, Sergeant York: Of God and Country, narrated by Liam Neeson; and a vintage short and cartoon.

Sunrise at Camponello (Warner Archive)

Based on Dore Schary’s play about how FDR’s polio diagnosis nearly derailed his nascent political career in the 1920s, saved only by his own will, his wife Eleanor and his political aide Louis Howe, Vincent J. Donehue’s adaptation is often stagebound but is never less than engrossing. Ralph Bellamy (FDR), Greer Garson (Eleanor) and Hume Cronyn (Howe) give intelligent performances, further bolstering this glimpse at how such a serious ailment was successfully hidden from the press and the entire country for decades. The color location photography by Russell Harlan looks sumptuous in hi-def.

Vikings—Season 6, Part 1 (Warner Bros)

In the latest season of Vikings, Bjorn takes over as leader of an exhausted populace after a battle royale with his brother Ivar, who takes the Silk Road to an eventual arrival in Russia, where the czar is even more ruthless in his dealings with his own people. The battle has been joined in these 10 exciting episodes, with formidably physical acting and first-rate production values. Visually, the series continues to look strikingly good; extras include audio commentary, featurette and deleted scenes.

DVD Releases of the Week

The Audition (Strand Releasing)

Nina Hoss—who has given magnificent performances in films by Austrian director Christian Petzold—gives one of her subtlest, most unsettling portrayals as violin teacher Anna Bronsky, who pays a little too much attention to her newest student at the expense of her husband and teenage son, also a violin student. Director Ina Weisse (who cowrote the script with Daphne Charizani) shows a real understanding of the stress of music conservatories and her psychologically rich portrait of an artist under pressure is quite mesmerizing thanks to Hoss’ usual brilliance.

Cobra—Complete 1st Season (PBS)

This absorbing six-part drama series chronicles the scary aftermath of a geomagnetic solar storm that knocks out power all over Europe and simultaneously shows the inner workings of the British prime minister and his cabinet as they try and get a handle on what’s becoming perilously close to anarchy throughout the country. A solid cast, led by Robert Carlyle as the PM, Victoria Hamilton as his chief of staff, and David Haig as the antagonistic home secretary, is undermined only by the often bathetic personal problems of the leaders as they also work on problems of global import. Extras comprise several short featurettes with cast and crew interviews.

Flesh and Blood (PBS)

A fantastic cast breathes vivid life into this familiar tale of family dynamics, mistrust, jealousy and hypocrisy, predicated on a crime cannily not revealed until the final minutes of the final episode. Francesca Annis and Stephen Rea are the widowers who find love—or do they? Imelda Staunton is the neighbor who explains to the investigators just what happened—or does she? And Claudie Blakley, Russell Tovey and Lydia Leonard are Annis’ bewildered children who don’t understand why she’s taken with this new man—is it really love or something else? Creator-writer Sarah Williams’ four-part series is slickly entertaining—and it leaves room for a sequel.

The Soul of the Midnight Special (Time/Life)

Midnight Special was one of many late-night shows in the ‘70s that was wall-to-wall music, and this five-disc set collects thrilling live performances from the best soul artists, including one-off collaborations like Gladys Knight and B.B. King teaming for a torrid “The Thrill Is Gone” and Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin pairing up for an equally impassioned “Takes Two to Tango.” Other highlights are the terrific Bill Withers doing his signature songs, “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Lean on Me”; Billy Preston performing his number-one hit, “Will It Go Round in Circles”; James Brown groovin’ his way through incendiary performances of “Sex Machine,” “Get Up Offa That Thing” and “Cold Sweat/Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”; and smashes from the Ohio Players (“Love Rollercoaster”) and the Miracles (“Love Machine”). Extras are several new and archival interviews with the O’Jays, Gladys Knight, Patti Labelle, George Benson, James Brown and Maurice White, among others.

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