This week’s roundup features several new films in theaters and streaming, from the self-explanatory documentary “The Beatles and India” and the thrilling German epic “Fabian—Going to the Dogs” to the latest singleminded Liam Neeson revenge flick, “Black Light.”
In-Theater/Streaming Releases of the Week
The Beatles and India (Britbox)
1968 was pivotal for the Beatles, coming off the previous year’s artistic high of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and crashing lows of manager Brian Epstein’s death and the “Magical Mystery Tour” TV debacle. Their journey to India to follow the Maharishi and his teachings introduced much of the West to Eastern spiritual enlightenment and consolidated the reach of Indian and world music and artists, as this straightforward, informative documentary chronicles. Many of those musicians discuss their admiration of the Beatles, which allows directors Ajoy Bose and Pete Compton an original way of exploring the Fab Four’s continued musical relevance and widespread cultural influence over the past half-century.
Blacklight (Briarcliff Entertainment)
Even by the low standards of Liam Neeson revenge vehicles, Mark Williams’ cheapo action thriller shows how a secret FBI agent (Neeson, of course), whose boss is a bad guy, soon fights for his life against the bureau itself. It’s all less plausible and more risible than usual and, although supposedly taking place in D.C., the movie screams “shot far away from D.C.” (it was filmed in Australia, of all places). Neeson’s sleepwalking routine has grown awfully tiresome, but if it worked for Clint Eastwood for more than a half-century, I’m not surprised that Neeson will see how long he can get away with it. Maybe not much longer.
Fabian—Going to the Dogs (Kino Lorber)
In Dominik Graf’s expansive, engrossing saga—set in Weimar Germany between the two world wars and based on Erich Kästner’s classic of German literature—a young man falls in love with a struggling actress whose career takes off while he flounders in a decadent society preceding the horrors of Nazism. In a brisk three hours, Graf plausibly recreates a society on the edge of disaster and develops fully rounded, quotidian characters. There are sensationally good performances by alumni of the last great three-hour German epic, 2018’s “Never Look Away”: Tom Schilling and Saskia Rosendahl are brilliantly three-dimensional and sympathetic. Graf shrewdly uses the nearly square full framing of 1.33:1 to nod to films of the era in which his own film is set as well as recording the malign hardships awaiting many in this claustrophobic environment.
The Pact (Juno Films)
In Bille August’s intelligent biopic, famed Danish writer Karen Blixen, back in Denmark after living in Africa—from which her memorable memoir, “Out of Africa,” was written—finds a willing victim in writer Thorkild Bjørnvig, who becomes her protégé without realizing that the manipulative Blixen will try and control every aspect of his life, despite the fact that he’s married and has a young son. August’s simple but compelling biography doesn’t make moral judgments about a genius dominating a neophyte, which makes it all the more unsettling. August smartly centers this intimate drama on two excellent performances: Birthe Neumann as Blixen and Simon Bennebjerg as Thorkild.
The Unmaking of a College (Zeitgeist)
Progressive Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts—which boasts alumni like documentary master Ken Burns—nearly shuttered a few years ago when a new president quickly changed its mandate to simply “stop hemorrhaging money,” without notifying the students, staff, faculty or even well-heeled alumni who could have assisted. Director Amy Goldstein insightfully documents the very fraught months among the student body—many of whom engage in a president’s office sit-in for several weeks—staff and administration, succinctly showing grassroots activism at its most basic.
A Week in Paradise (Screen Media)
Whether one can sit through this silly romcom about an actress, reeling from discovering her actor husband has a new and pregnant girlfriend, who visits her cousin on a beautiful Caribbean island and promptly falls for a charismatic (and conveniently single) chef depends on your tolerance for unalloyed cutesiness amid gorgeous locales. At least director Philippe Martinez cast in the lead role Malin Akerman, who’s an underutilized but charming actress; Connie Nielsen also scores as the flirty cousin. Too bad the men—Akerman’s real-life hubby Jackie Donnelly as Akerman’s cheating hubby and Philip Winchester as her chef love interest—aren’t up to the task of making us care enough about her choice.
Blu-ray Releases of the Week
Dido and Aeneas
L’Enigma di Lea (Naxos)
British composer Henry Purcell’s opera “Dido and Aeneas,” composed in 1689—six years before Purcell died at age 36—is only an hour long, but its very compactness elevates its dramatic power, as in Deborah Warner’s 2008 Paris staging. Purcell’s music is wonderfully rendered by Les Arts Florissants under conductor William Christie, while soprano Malena Ernman (mother of Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg) gives a rendition of Dido’s Lament, which climaxes the opera, that’s among the most haunting I’ve heard. Spanish composer Benet Casablancas’ 2018 opera “L’enigma di Lea”—seen in its 2019 Barcelona production—gives ample proof of its own unsettling musical power. Allison Cook gives a fearless performance as Lea, a difficult role histrionically and musically. Both operas look and sound terrific in hi-def; “Lea” has interviews with Casablancas, librettist Rafael Argullol, conductor Josep Pons and director Carme Portaceli.