This week’s roundup is led by the Blu-ray release of “Lost Illusions,” an absorbing costume drama by the illustrious French director Xavier Giannoli, whose has made several first-rate films that have not made a dent on American audiences. Let’s hope this one finally does.
Blu-ray Releases of the Week
Lost Illusions (Music Box Films)
French director Xavier Giannoli—whose masterly 2003 debut, Eager Bodies, remains criminally unseen in the U.S.—turns his considerable talents to this sumptuous adaptation of a Balzac novel about a provincial young man, Lucien, in 1820s France whose affair with an older, married noblewoman, Louise, changes his life in ways he couldn’t dream of. Lucien eventually becomes one of Paris’ most popular (and feared) newspaper writers—and Giannoli perceptively shows the seductive parallels between yesterday’s yellow journalism and today’s “fake news.” A superior cast led by Benjamin Voisin, Cecile de France, Jeanne Balibar and Gerard Depardieu, stunning photography by Christophe Beaucarne, and expert editing, costumes and sets, are harnessed by Giannoli on a large social, political and personal canvas that fills every one of his film’s 150 minutes with intelligent and grandly entertaining storytelling. The film’s luminous images look stunning on Blu-ray; too bad the only extras are brief interviews with Voisin, de France, and other cast members along with a superfluous short featurette showing off the cinematography.
Czech director Vera Chytilova—who went on to make several good, and a few great, films in a distinguished career before her death in 2014 at age 85—is best known for her 1966 debut feature, an unfortunately dated piece of empty surrealism and experimentalism, flashing its admittedly inventive colors, costumes, photography and editing at the service of a heavyhanded satire of materialism and feminist stereotypes. That she got the poseurishness out of her system is the best takeaway from this clever but shallow film. There’s a stunning-looking hi-def transfer; extras comprise two early Chytilova shorts; an audio commentary; interview with programmer Irena Kovarova; featurette about Chytilova’s collaboration with her “Daisies” cinematographer and screenwriter; and a 2002 documentary about Chytilova.
Earth Girls Are Easy (Vestron)
Julien Temple’s fizzy 1988 musical is a colorful piece of lunacy about aliens coming to California and falling in with the manicurist (Geena Davis) whose pool they land in. Davis is as adorable as she’s ever been, Julie Brown provides the movie’s funniest lines and best music segments as her coworker and friend, and the aliens are amusingly portrayed by Jeff Goldblum, Jim Carrey and Damon Wayans. The movie is mainly forgotten after it ends, but it has share of bright, loopy moments. There’s a terrific hi-def transfer; extras include new and archival interviews with Temple, Brown, Rocket and crew members, along with a commentary and deleted scenes.
Starstruck (Opus Arte)
Gene Kelly created the ballet “Pas de Dieux” for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1960, and now it’s been beautifully resurrected by the Scottish Ballet, which premiered its own version last fall in Edinburgh and newly choreographed by Christopher Hampson, which has been filmed for posterity. This story of Greek gods has been set to the music of Gershwin’s Concerto in F and Chopin’s “Les Sylphides,” and the dancing is as physical and athletic as it is in such Kelly films as “Singin’ in the Rain.” The spectacular dancers are led by Sophie Martin and Christopher Harrison. There’s first-rate hi-def video and audio; lone extra is a making-of featurette.
Three Thousand Years of Longing (Warner Bros)
From a short story by A.S. Byatt about an intellectually rigorous but emotionally distant scholar whose encounter with a Djinn gets her three wishes in exchange for his freedom, director George Miller’s adaptation is, as usual, visually splendid and imaginatively conceived, but it remains as remote as its protagonist initially is. Although the movie extols the virtues of storytelling through the Djinn’s many extravagant tales, it ends up dramatically inert, despite the best efforts of Idris Elba and Tilda Swinton in the leads. Of course, it all looks fantastic on Blu; no extras.
Streaming/In-Theater Releases of the Week
Black Notebooks—Ronit (Panorama Films)
Ronit Elkabetz, a remarkable Israeli actress and filmmaker who made several provocative works with her brother Shlomi, died of cancer in 2016 at age 51—a shocking and sad loss for the world of cinema. Luckily, we can still savor her many multilayered performances, and we can also be grateful that Shlomi created this emotionally shattering love letter to his sister that shows them working on their last film together, “Gett,” along with promoting it around the world while knowing that her sickness was in the process of slowing her down.
The Estate (Capstone)
It’s the most familiar of comic setups—family members battle among themselves to get on the good side of their dying wealthy old aunt—and if writer-director Dean Craig doesn’t go anywhere new with his clichéd, stereotyped characters, his cast is attuned enough to make it entertaining and even occasionally hilarious. Kathleen Turner is a hoot as the bedbound rich aunt, Toni Colette and Anna Faris are first-rate as the scheming sisters, David Duchovny amusingly slimy as a desperate cousin, with Rosemarie DeWitt and Ron Livingston rounding out the droll ensemble—it’s recycled black comedy, no doubt, but it has moments of inspired hilarity.
Paul Taylor—Creative Domain (First Run)
One of the true giants of modern dance, Paul Taylor (who died in 2018) was a choreographer nonpareil, and Kate Geis’ 2014 documentary was the last time anyone would record how Taylor created his singular works from the ground up. It’s a fascinating look at how art is brought to life, showing how Taylor painstakingly built a single dance through not only movement but also his observational genius, something that’s been dynamically filmed by Geis and renowned dance cinematographer Tom Hurwit.
Peaceful (Distrib Films US)
French actress Emmanuelle Bercot has also written and directed interesting films that closely study fraught relationships, including her latest, in which she chronicles the last months of Benjamin, an acting teacher with terminal cancer and how he deals with his illness, his students, his doctor and his domineering mother. Although she goes full-blown sentimental—especially in an egregious subplot about a son Benjamin didn’t know he had—Bercot’s instincts are always unerring when it comes to casting: Benoît Magimel is phenomenal as Benjamin, and Catherine Deneuve (mom), Gabriel Sara (a real-life doctor playing Benjamin’s doctor) and Cecile de France (his loyal nurse) are as real and vital as he is.
See How They Run (Searchlight)
In this harmlessly lighthearted whodunit that riffs on the popularity of recent Agatha Christie adaptations, Sam Rockwell and Saiorise Ronan play mismatched investigators of a murder onstage at Christie’s long-running mystery play, The Mousetrap, with no shortage of suspects. Director Tom George and writer Mark Chappell are not as clever as they think they are, so the movie just ambles along to its preordained denouement, but it’s helped along by Rockwell, Ronan and a capable supporting cast including Ruth Wilson, Adrien Brody and David Oyelowo.