Digital Week – December 7

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Digital Week - December 7

My latest Digital Week roundup is highlighted by several new releases both in theaters and streaming, from the sublime (Japanese director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s “Drive My Car,” which was just named best film by the New York Film Critics’ Circle) to the ridiculous (Nathalie Biancheri’s botched allegory “Wolf”).

In-Theater/Streaming Releases of the Week

Drive My Car (Janus Films)

Drive My Car (Janus Films)Japanese director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s latest film, richly novelistic in structure and texture, follows a theater actor and director planning a new staging of “Uncle Vanya” while dealing with the sudden death of his wife and the unexpected closeness between him and his young female driver while he’s in Hiroshima working on the play. It’s too bad that Hamaguchi leans so hard on Chekhov, especially at the end, because letting “Vanya” do the heavy lifting takes away from the film’s own insights into and pertinent observations about these damaged but not destroyed characters. The parallels to Chekhov’s melancholy masterpiece are already there without pushing so hard to underline them.

Citizen Ashe (Magnolia)

Citizen Ashe (Magnolia)Arthur Ashe, who became the first star black tennis player after winning the inaugural U.S. Open at Forest Hills in 1968, was the complete opposite of the brash, in-your-face Muhammad Ali with a cerebral, calm temperament. Ashe’s career on and off the court and his too-short life as an important spokesman for civil rights (he died in 1993 of AIDS, from a tainted blood transfusion) is recounted intelligently by directors Rex Miller and Sam Pollard, who also use copious vintage tennis footage, Ashe’s own interviews over the years and new commentary by his widow, Jeanne, and other sports, media and political personalities.

France (Kino Lorber)

France (Kino Lorber)For his latest provocation, French director Bruno Dumont pivots once again: after a couple of films about Joan of Arc as a young girl (including a musical) and two deadpan TV miniseries about aliens and unexplained killings, Dumont sets his sights on the media and celebrity in the form of a famous TV personality named (unsubtly, of course) France, who seemingly has everything—talent, popularity, beauty, a husband and son—but whose career and private life start spiraling after a minor car accident. As France, Lea Seydoux has a radiant star presence; as France deals with adversity for the first time, Dumont smartly keeps Seydoux onscreen for pretty much all 133 minutes, helpfully obscuring some of the deficiencies in his writing and directing.

Wolf (Focus Features)

Wolf (Focus Features)Despite her best efforts, writer-director Nathalie Biancheri has made an utter mess of an intriguing premise about inmates of a clinic whose emotional fragility makes them believe they are animals in human bodies. The film bounces back and forth between stark simplicity and florid expressionism, and such jarring tonal shifts do Biancheri’s vision no favors. There are fascinating physical performances by George MacKay as the eponymous protagonist and Lily-Rose Depp who, as Wildcat, is attracted to him. But the sequences of treatment by the institution’s head (an obvious Paddy Considine) are often risible, and Biancheri’s film never rises above a nice try, despite Michal Dymek’s luminous photography.

Blu-ray Releases of the Week

Malignant (Warner Bros)

Malignant (Warner Bros)James Wan’s latest bonkers thriller conjures the most outlandish twist to explain the murders that the heroine—a young woman who’s a surviving twin and is terrorized by her imaginary childhood friend—believes she is imagining but that are actually happening. For all its teeth-rattling (if predictable) jump-scares, Wan has made a rather wan—sorry!—horror flick whose inexplicable and, ultimately, laughable denouement might actually be the best advertisement for giving it a go. The film looks very good in hi-def; lone extra is a making-of featurette.

Party Girl (Warner Archive)

Party Girl (Warner Archive)In Nicholas Ray’s entertaining if generic gangster romance, Cyd Charisse plays a nightclub dancer (her two torrid dance scenes, the best parts of the film, were not helmed by Ray) who falls for a lawyer (Robert Taylor) trying to get away from the Chicago underworld. The frenzied activity in clubs, saloons and private rooms is for the most part indifferently handled by Ray, leaving it up to Charisse and Taylor to make it all watchable, as their plan to escape runs into a brick wall in the form of mob boss Rico, played by Lee J. Cobb as an unhinged Al Capone-esque hood. The hi-def Technicolor transfer is a knockout.