This week’s roundup features Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s absorbing wartime drama, “Wife of a Spy,” in theaters; also in theaters (and/or streaming) this week are the amusing team of Michael Caine and Aubrey Plaza in “Best Sellers” and three fine documentaries, “The Capote Tapes,” “In Balanchine’s Classroom” and a chronicle of a small-town Iowa newspaper, “Storm Lake.”
In-Theater/Streaming Releases of the Week
Wife of a Spy (Kino Lorber)
In Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s period drama set in 1940, a Japanese businessman sympathetic to American and British interests finds himself in a conundrum: does he expose the atrocities he witnessed in China, which would also implicate his wife, a famous actress? This restrained, intelligent exploration of conscience and morality in an era of belligerence and nationalism masquerading as patriotism might be too low-key, but its pertinence and exceptional filmmaking—Kurosawa’s command of the camera, editing, set design and superb cast—make it a must-see.
Best Sellers (Screen Media)
Michael Caine as an irascible old git—check. Aubrey Plaza as an adorably clever young woman—check. That’s it, really: director Nina Roessler and writer Anthony Greico’s dramatic comedy about a forgotten author and desperate book publisher who try resuscitating their careers depends almost entirely on the actors’ chemistry, and it works—to a point. There’s a reluctance to go beyond the obvious “Caine does something obnoxious and Aubrey hilariously reacts to it,” and if the movie turns unbearably sentimental as it goes where it was heading all along, the two stars do their level best to keep it watchable, even enjoyable at times.
The Capote Tapes (Greenwich Entertainment)
The second Truman Capote documentary to surface this year—“Truman and Tennessee—An Intimate Conversation,” studied the relationship between two great American writers—provides another glimpse at this tantalizing personality, author, and bon vivant mainly through his own words. Director Ebs Burnough effectively brings together Capote’s own voice alongside archival and new interviews with friends, enemies and colleagues like Lauren Bacall, Norman Mailer and Dick Cavett, and the result is a richly idiosyncratic portrait of a richly idiosyncratic man.
In Balanchine’s Classroom (Zeitgeist Films)
Connie Hochman’s loving look at dancers who learned their art under the tutelage of the greatest ballet master of the 20th century, George Balanchine (1904-83), gives viewers myriad opportunities to watch the master at work: vintage footage of him rehearsing the men and women who went on to glorious careers themselves as prima ballerinas, principal dancers and teachers, along with valuable glimpses at some of Balanchine’s many onstage achievements with the New York City Ballet, which he cofounded. Hochman smartly prods her subjects to speak with a mixture of awe, emotion, and even nostalgia about the biggest influence in their professional lives.
Storm Lake (PBS)
One of the last small-town newspapers in America, rural Iowa’s Storm Lake Times has been publishing for decades but—as Beth Levison and Jerry Risius’ perceptive documentary shows—the family-owned/operated local source for 3000 loyal readers is in a fight for survival: regional papers are swallowing up small ones, the internet lets anyone read news from anywhere at anytime, and the pandemic made it even more difficult to stay afloat. Publisher-editor Art Cullen and his family have kept the paper running for years and seemed to weather the shutdown last year with help from GoFundMe, but their prognosis is still iffy. Levison and Risius illuminatingly show how, in a tight-knit community, even conservatives read the local paper despite Art’s left-leaning editorials because they want to see what’s happening with their neighbors and friends. Maybe, just maybe, this bodes well for our future?
DVD Releases of the Week
Rarely has a “Masterpiece Mystery” series been as stupefying as this second-rate knockoff of Martin McDonough and the Coen brothers (neither of whom I’m a particular fan of): when two annoying brothers try to cover up their accidental drunken hit-and-run killing of an old man, everything spirals out of their control. Too bad director Robert McKillop and creator-writer Neil Forsyth aren’t in control either: instead of a tidy 90-minute movie, they have conjured this nearly four-hour morass with none of the characters or their relationships ven remotely plausible. It’s well-acted, to be sure, which just brings the ludicrousness at the core into greater focus. Extras comprise three making-of featurettes.
Magnum P.I.—Complete 3rd Season
Seal Team—Complete 4th Season (CBS/Paramount)
This reboot of the ’80s Tom Selleck hit “Magnum P.I.” reconfigures its action for the new millennium, although the third season’s 16 episodes demonstrate that the seams are showing, however charismatic star Jay Hernandez is and how updated the little twists and turns are. Similarly, the fourth season of the action-packed “Seal Team”—in which Delta Force roots out terrorists in the Middle East, Tunisia, Ecuador, the Mediterranean and other far-flung places—merely nods to its heroes’ family lives in order to destroy more things (and bad guys), despite the granite-jawed David Boreanz as the team leader. Both sets include several making-of featurettes.