The first roundup of 2023 is a mixed bag of new and old, featuring a trio of 4K/UHD releases ranging from Terry Gilliam’s classic fantasy, “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” to Dwayne Johnson in “Black Adam” and the latest exorcism horror flick, “Prey for the Devil.”
4K/UHD Releases of the Week
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (Criterion Collection)
One of Terry Gilliam’s most extravagantly satisfying films, this 1989 fantasy adventure about the mythical teller of tall tales is the acme of the director’s prodigious visual imagination; indeed, there are set pieces here that have to be seen to be believed, like Robin Williams’ disembodied head as the king of the moon. John Neville is a perfectly bemused Baron, a young Sarah Polley was never more authentic than as his 8-year-old sidekick, and cameos from Eric idle, Sting, Valentina Cortese and Uma Thurman keep pace with the staggering sets, costumes, photography and Gilliam’s prodigious inventiveness. The UHD transfer is first-rate; extras include Gilliam and cowriter/actor Charles McKeon’s commentary; an hour-long documentary on the film’s making; deleted scenes with Gilliam commentary; storyboards; special effects footage narrated by Gilliam; a video essay on the history of Munchausen; an 1991 episode of The South Bank Show about Gilliam; and Flight, a 1974 animated short by Gilliam.
Black Adam (Warner Bros)
As Black Adam—a character introduced to comic books in 1945—Dwayne Johnson dives into a strangely discomfiting character who is trying to rehabilitate his own reputation from its distant supervillain past. Although there’s a nagging tonal inconsistency between seriousness, hero worship and goofy comedy, Johnson acquits himself well and he’s surrounded by pros like Pierce Brosnan and Sarah Shahi. The film’s eye-popping visuals look spectacular in UHD; extras comprise several making-of featurettes.
Prey for the Devil (Lionsgate)
This lackluster horror flick takes its cues from The Exorcist and, more recently, The Conjuring series, but doesn’t add anything original of its own; in fact, director Daniel Stamm is content with jump scares and other cheap thrills obscure the fact that there’s little going on here. It’s too bad, because exploring possession in relation to mental illness (which is hinted at) might have yielded something more intense, especially with a fine performance by Jacqueline Byers as a young nun with a haunted backstory. The 4K/UHD image looks sharp; extras are Byers’ and Stamm’s commentary, nearly an hour’s worth of on-set featurettes and interviews, a Zoom script run-through by the cast and a discussion between a real exorcist and psychologist.
In-Theater Releases of the Week
No Bears (Janus Films)
In his latest courageous provocation—provocative at least in the eyes of Iranian authorities, who imprisoned him after he finished the film—director Jafar Panahi has made a typically playful and intelligent dissection of just what the role of cinema is in Iran’s unyielding theocracy. Panahi plays a version of himself trying to make a movie remotely—he can’t leave Iran and is seen on a laptop directing his cast and crew in a different location—and he also finds himself in political hot water with local authorities after he loans his camera for a local couple’s pre-marriage ceremony and takes a couple of snapshots himself. Panahi has an uncanny ability to make everything seem inevitable and every line of dialogue sound natural and improvised, but the rigorousness of his technique is seen in the devastating—but typically low-key—ending, as the director questions his own ability to create something lasting, something that can affect people’s lives for the better.
The Super 8 Years (Kino Lorber)
Looking back at the home movies shot between the years 1972 and 1981, writer Annie Ernaux (who won the Nobel Prize for literature last year) narrates this elegaic documentary she and her son, David Ernaux-Briot, made, succinctly exploring how their family life—for Ernaux, her then-husband Philippe and her sons—ended up butting heads with the artistic, political and social atmosphere she and Philippe were then part of. The film conjures up the messiness of memory, which the graininess of these often stunning 8mm film images visually underline.
Turn Every Page (Sony Pictures Classics)
Two of the most important literary figures of the past 50 years—author Robert Caro and editor Robert Gottlieb—are profiled in this first-rate documentary by Gottlieb’s daughter, Lizzie Gottlieb, who intelligently tells the story of their relationship through the books they’ve collaborated on (Caro’s groundbreaking Robert Moses biography and massive five-volume LBJ bio, which has seen only four so far). Director Gottlieb had to convince both men—especially the notoriously reticent Caro—to let her talk to them on camera, where they both come across as brilliantly intuitive subjects. Even though this runs less than two hours, much of more of both men—in the form of a multi-hour bingeable series—would make for further illuminating viewing.
Blu-ray Release of the Week
Camilla Nylund Sings Masterpieces from the Great American Songbook (Naxos)
Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund puts her own stamp on classic American songs from Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Kurt Weill and others in this beautifully intimate performance—that includes members of the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop—of these famous tunes in stylish arrangements. Although Nylund sounds wonderful throughout, her renditions of Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” and Weill’s “September Song” are perfection, along with the musicians’ backing. There’s first-rate hi-def video and audio.
DVD Release of the Week
The Staircase (HBO)
Based on the real-life trial at which Michael Peterson was convicted of murdering his wife Kathleen in 2001 (she was found in a bloody mess at the bottom of a staircase—he said she fell and he found her), this engrossing multipart miniseries is aided greatly by topnotch performances. Colin Firth finds subtle shadings in Michael’s façade, Toni Collette is a sympathetic Kathleen and Michael Stuhlberg is believably blustery as Michael’s lawyer. Although eight-plus hours is a bit much, a lot works splendidly, including the various stories about how Kathleen might have died. Extras include several “behind the episode” featurettes.