Thursday, June 6, 2024

June '24 Digital Week I

In-Theater/Streaming Releases of the Week 
Robot Dreams 
In this tearjerking animated fantasy, a lonely dog builds a robot so he has a friend, but after he leaves it on the beach one summer, both of them find ultimately satisfying ways of going on with their lives. Director Pablo Berger has made a clever, even witty and touching fable about companionship and loneliness, set in a cool-looking ’80s NYC entirely populated by animals and the occasional robot. Kids will enjoy it, of course, but their parents might get even more out of it, especially since the animation is so refreshingly elegant in its simplicity.

This Russian 50 Shades of Grey has a plot as implausible as the worst adult film: Elya, a beautiful, independent, headstrong (fill in the blank) college student, is an environmental activist and influencer shocked that a local forest is being cleared for more development. But when she meets the developer, she finds him gorgeous and charming; he bets her that after a week of romance, she will see the error of her ways. Does she succumb? Well, I’m not going to ruin the fun! (Yes, she does.) 50 Shades is actually referenced in the dialogue, and Anastasiya Reznik and Alexander Petrov certainly make a sexy pair, but getting through this will depend on your tolerance for the eye-rolling attempts at eroticism from director Dmitriy Suvorov.

Protocol 7 
It’s not enough that Andrew Wakefield, disgraced anti-vaxxer, has branched into badly slanted, unwatchable advocacy documentaries (2016’s Vaxxed: From Coverup to Conspiracy), but now he’s decided to write and direct a feature. This conspiracy thriller might even be worse than his doc, as a shady Big Pharma company pushes through an MMR vaccine that does irreparable harm to vaxxed infants. The political and moral positions are awful enough, but Wakefield compounds the problem by being an astonishingly inept director and writer: the film’s best performances come from actors who play a dumbfounded nurse and doctor in a scene where they are berated by a new dad upset they gave his newborn scheduled vaccines. Then there are the end credits, during which “facts” are shown onscreen, all sourced to a book cowritten by—of course—RFK Jr.

Rowdy Girl 
Jason Goldman’s straightforward documentary introduces Renee King-Sonnen, a Texas cattle rancher who’s now a vegan and wants to transform her husband Tommy’s huge, profitable ranch into a sanctuary (it’s named Rowdy Girl) that protects the animals at all costs. Goldman presents Renee and Tommy’s story matter-of-factly, without any needless editorializing, which makes it even more powerful when we listen to her speak about why she changed from killing cattle and eating meat to where she is today, along with touching moments of her bonding with the animals.

Summer Camp 
(Roadside Attractions)
This latest by-the-numbers senior comedy stars Diane Keaton (who else?), along with Viola Davis and Kathy Bates, as longtime friends who met decades earlier at summer camp who decide to relive those experiences by attending a—you guessed it—summer camp reunion. It all plays out exactly as you’d expect, through laughter and tears, misunderstandings and making up, along with a couple of older guys thrown into the mix (Dennis Haysbert and Eugene Levy, who both look properly embarrassed) for our gals. Keaton, of course, is as irrepressible as ever, Woodard and Bates do decently enough, but it’s as instantly forgettable as a day at camp.

4K/UHD Release of the Week
Cemetery Man 
You might not see a more bizarre and, yes, insane movie than this 1995 zombie entry from Italian director Michele Soavi: Rupert Everett (who looks amusingly bemused throughout) plays cemetery keeper Francesco, who must fend off all manner of reanimated corpses, including the gorgeous wife (Anna Falchi) of a recently buried elderly man—she died having sex with Francesco on hubby’s grave. The fun part is that Soavi gleefully leans into the craziness, and the blood, gore, sex and ridiculous performances and dialogue all add up to something breathtaking in its combined lunacy and chutzpah. The film’s explicit but tongue-in-cheek visuals look clearer than ever on UHD; the 4K disc has a commentary by Soavi and screenwriter Gianni Romli and the Blu-ray disc includes the film, new interviews with Soavi, Everett and Falchi as well as a vintage making-of.

Kung Fu Panda 4 
In the fourth chapter of this smashingly successful animated franchise, our panda hero Po (the always manically-voiced Jack Black) goes on a journey with a wily fox, Zhen (Awkwafina), that finds them facing villains from previous installments. It’s all silly fun that’s powered by the chemistry between Black and Awkwafina and the weirdly entertaining voice cast that runs the gamut from Dustin Hoffman, Bryan Cranston and Ian MacShane to Ronny Chieng, James Hong and Viola Davis. The UHD transfer comprises eye-popping colors; extras include a new short, Dueling Dumplings, as well as deleted scenes, Meet the Cast, featurettes and a filmmaker’s commentary.

Blu-ray Releases of the Week
Fanny—The Other Mendelssohn 
(Mercury Studios)
Director Sheila Hayman takes a close look at Fanny Mendelssohn, an accomplished composer in her own right who was eclipsed both by an era that didn’t take women composers seriously and her brother Felix, also greatly accomplished and celebrated for his symphonies and chamber music. Hayman shows that Fanny was as equally masterly as Felix, but the demands of her marriage (despite husband Wilhelm being totally supportive) and 19th century misogyny held her back. There’s a subplot of sorts in which scholar Angela Mace resurrects Fanny’s “Easter” piano sonata, originally attributed to Felix but now considered one of her summit achievements, more than 150 years after her untimely death of a stroke at age 41. (Felix died six months later, also of a stroke.) There’s first-rate video and audio.

Io Capitano 
(Cohen Media Group)
In Italian director Matteo Garrone’s intense—if manipulative—drama, Senegalese teens Seydou (Seydou Sarr) and Moussa (Moustapha Fall) take what little funds they have to try to get to Europe, little realizing the horrors that await them. They are captured, separated and tortured in Libya, abandoned but reunited in North Africa, and finally arrive via the Mediterranean in southern Italy—but only when 16-year-old novice Seydou must pilot the boat filled with dozens of migrants. Garrone captures the humanity of these people desperate for a new start alongside the inhumanity of many others. Manipulation and contrivance notwithstanding, Io Capitano is superior filmmaking, with a staggeringly moving final shot of Seydou, the face of non-actor Sarr going through so many conflicting emotions that he should have won every award there is. The Blu-ray image looks fantastically sharp; extras include Q&As with Garrone, Fall and Sarr as well as Mamadou Kouassi, whose story inspired the film.

CD Release of the Week
Gabriel Fauré—Song Cycles 
(Harmonia Mundi)
A master of intimately scaled works, French composer Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) was at his absolute best writing mélodies, or song settings, which he returned to throughout his long and varied composing career. This new disc of several of his masterly song cycles is sung by baritone Stéphane Degout with modest but supreme elegance, perfect for these jewels of vocal music. There’s the towering cycle La Bonne Chanson, set to Paul Verlaine poems and a highlight of the composer’s middle period, and the trio of late cycles—Le Jardin clos, Mirages and the magnificent closer, L'Horizon chimérique—are also expressively performed. Pianist Alain Planès is not only a sublime accompanist throughout but also shows off his own Fauré chops in a passionate reading of the great F-sharp major Ballade. 

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