(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray, DVD and Streaming. Ratings are on a four-star scale.)
GEOSTORM (2017). The importance of the international box office comes into sharp focus in the case of Geostorm, a $120 million production that grossed a pitiful $33 million stateside but was saved from substantially emptying Warner Bros.’s coffers by earning a robust $180 million across the rest of the globe. Clearly, something was gained rather than lost in translation, since, on these shores anyway, this plays like a particularly uninspired entry in the disaster-film genre. Dean Devlin, best known as the co-writer of Independence Day and Stargate, makes his directorial debut (and shares scripting duties with Paul Guyot) with this dopey yarn in which the weather on Earth has turned so destructive that a brilliant scientist, Jake Lawson (Gerard Butler), creates a massive satellite system that saves this planet by basically controlling all the elements in-house. Cut to three years later, and the very system that aided Earth now threatens to obliterate it by randomly creating tsunamis in Middle Eastern deserts, turning Rio de Janeiro waves into mountainous icicles, and other environmental uh-ohs. Since Jake Lawson is brilliant beyond compare, it’s unlikely that he erred, so could the malfunctions be caused by … sabotage? Give Devlin credit for trying to mate a government paranoia thriller with a disaster flick, but take away points for making a movie as alternately dull and daft as this one.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; a discussion with Devlin regarding the film’s origins; and a piece on the visual effects.
HAPPY DEATH DAY (2017). Groundhog Day gets run through the grinder in Happy Death Day, a horror yarn that derives a fair amount of mileage out of its canny premise. Set on a college campus, this tongue-in-bloody-cheek terror tale centers on Tree (Jessica Rothe), a sorority girl who winds up getting murdered on her birthday. But death isn’t the end for Tree — like Bill Murray’s wisecracking weatherman, she wakes up again on the same day, and it isn’t long before she realizes that she will keep dying (and keep repeating the same 24-hour cycle) until she identifies her killer. After the excellent Edge of Tomorrow, any movie sporting a remotely similar premise is bound to look anemic, and Happy Death Day certainly doesn’t hold up to too much post-viewing scrutiny. But as it unfolds, it’s certainly entertaining enough, bolstered by at least one clever fake-out, a strong central performance by Rothe, and the striking employment of a cherubic mask that — if the movie had been a larger hit — might have ended up being sported by numerous wise guys come All Hallows’ Eve.
Blu-ray extras consist of a making-of featurette; a trio of deleted scenes (I won’t reveal the individual scene names here, since one header pretty much gives away the identity of the killer!); an alternate ending that’s inferior to the chosen one; a look at the various suspects; and a compilation piece showcasing Tree’s multiple deaths throughout the film.
THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER (2017). A creepy combo of The Twilight Zone and Sophie’s Choice, the latest from writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, Dogtooth) stars Lobster lead Colin Farrell as Steven Murphy, a surgeon who has befriended a teenage boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan). The exact nature of their relationship isn’t clear, but Steven seems to be spending almost as much time with the lad as he does with his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy), and son Bob (Sunny Suljic). Steven eventually elects to introduce Martin to his family, and it’s here when matters take a particularly dark turn. To reveal more would be to deny viewers the opportunity to get blindsided by the directions the film ultimately takes, but suffice to say The Killing of a Sacred Deer is decidedly not for moviegoers who prefer their options on the “feel-good” end of the spectrum. This is a deeply disturbing film, with its eeriness accentuated by the delivery of the dialogue (everyone speaks in carefully enunciated, drawn-out sentences, as if the characters were all trapped in an etiquette class), the sterility of many of Lanthimos’ shot selections, and the moral monstrousness of many of the main characters. Farrell and Kidman are both excellent, as is the young Keoghan (viewers might recognize him from Dunkirk, in which he played the doomed George). A final twist could have elevated this to giddy heights — as it stands, the film flatlines at the very end. Nevertheless, The Killing of a Sacred Deer was one of the more unique pictures to hit theaters in 2017, and it should serve as the perfect antidote for those weary of formula films.
The only Blu-ray extra is a behind-the-scenes interview piece.
MACON COUNTY LINE (1974). Conceived by the actor who played Jethro on TV’s The Beverly Hillbillies, Macon County Line wasn’t meant to snag year-end awards or dazzle the big-name critics (indeed, the New York Times’ Vincent Canby amusingly dismissed it as the type of “rural melodrama” that’s “pitched at a mentality that finds road-sign reading an intellectual labor”). Instead, writer-producer Max Baer Jr. aimed this squarely at drive-in and exploitation crowds, and the result was a smash hit that largely influenced other like-minded movies set among Southern rubes. Baer also tackles the role of Reed Morgan, a Georgia lawman who’s wary of the pair of Northerners who end up passing through his town. Brothers Chris and Wayne Dixon (played by real-life siblings Alan and Jesse Vint) are just blowing off steam before they head off for military duty, but a tragedy that personally affects Morgan results in the deputy setting out after them for revenge. Originally pitched as being based on a true story (the filmmakers have long since admitted that was just a marketing ploy), Macon County Line begins as a lighthearted lark before growing comparatively darker – much of it is crude yet effective, and the grim finale is expertly staged. Richard Compton, who co-wrote and directed the film, returned the following year with Return to Macon County, starring then-unknown actors Nick Nolte and Don Johnson.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by Compton; the featurette Macon County Line: 25 Years Down the Road (originally included on the Anchor Bay DVD released in 2000); an interview with editor Tina Hirsch; and the theatrical trailer.
THE SNOWMAN (2017). Based on the international bestselling novel by Jo Nesbø, The Snowman stars Michael Fassbender as Harry Hole, a detective who’s pitched as Norway’s greatest sleuth but, until the final act, seems only slightly more competent than Inspector Clouseau as he tries to find out who’s killing various local women. As a mystery, The Snowman proves to be an utter failure. The identity of the assailant becomes obvious halfway through the film, but even being armed with this knowledge doesn’t help much in understanding his motivations or mindset. Worse, the picture is so choppy and underdeveloped that it’s near-impossible to place all the events from the killing spree (which occur over the course of a decade) in chronological order and have them make sense. Even with director Tomas Alfredson’s claim that 15% of the story wasn’t filmed due to an abbreviated shooting schedule, there were obviously other cuts to the story – this is supported by the movie’s trailer, which contained so much different material from the finished product that it might as well have been the trailer for Coco or Boo 2! A Madea Halloween. On the plus side, cinematographer Dion Beebe does an exceptional job of capturing the frozen desolateness of this wintry landscape, and his shot selections are impressive enough to (almost) distract from the silliness at hand. As for Fassbender, he does what he can within the rigid confines of the standard movie detective. But while Nesbø wrote a number of novels featuring Harry Hole, the actor probably shouldn’t count on reprising the role in future films. Given the disappointment of The Snowman, this looks to be a Hole-in-one, with no further escapades likely to materialize on screen.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; a look at the characters; and a piece on the Norwegian location shooting.
WHISPER OF THE HEART (1995) / THE CAT RETURNS (2002). With all of the major Hayao Miyazaki titles having been recently re-released on Blu-ray through the pooled efforts of Studio Ghibli, GKIDS and Shout! Factory, the attention now turns toward some of the lesser known efforts from the hallowed Ghibli halls. Whisper of the Heart, featuring a script penned by Miyazaki, is a satisfying effort in which a young schoolgirl whose desire to become a writer is nurtured by her affection for a budding violin maker and her fascination with a cat figurine known as The Baron. The character of The Baron serves as a connective tissue with the otherwise unrelated The Cat Returns, a pleasant if unexceptional effort about a young girl who magically finds herself trapped in a fantasy land inhabited by anthropomorphic felines.
Each film offers the option of watching it in the original Japanese or the dubbed English (Whisper of the Heart includes Brittany Snow and Cary Elwes in its statewide voice cast, while The Cat Returns offers Elwes, Anne Hathaway and Peter Boyle). Blu-ray extras on Whisper of the Heart include feature-length storyboards; background art from the tale-within-the-tale The Baron’s Story; and theatrical trailers. Blu-ray extras on The Cat Returns include a making-of featurette; feature-length storyboards; and theatrical trailers.
In addition to these two titles, the Shout!/GKIDS/Ghibli tag team has also just released 1999’s My Neighbors the Yamadas; as with the other films, this one arrives with both Japanese and English soundtracks available (James Belushi and Molly Shannon head the U.S. cast). Next on the horizon: 1994’s Pom Poko and 2006’s Tales from Earthsea, both out February 6.
Whisper of the Heart: ***
The Cat Returns: **1/2
FROM SCREEN TO STREAM
(Recommended films currently available on streaming services)
F/X (1986). While this sleeper hit will doubtless continue to play best for those of us who knew it back when, it should still effectively engage all but the most cynical of today’s seen-it-all film fans. Australian actor Bryan Brown, who had a nice little run in the 1980s (Breaker Morant, Gorillas in the Mist, TV’s The Thorn Birds, etc.), adeptly tackles the role of Rollie Tyler, one of the best special effects artists working in film. Rollie is approached by a pair of Justice Department suits (Cliff De Young and Mason Adams) to help them stage a fake assassination of a mobster-turned-witness (Jerry Orbach); he reluctantly agrees, only to learn post-assignment that someone has set him up as a fall guy. As he feverishly works to evade both the police and the killers, a hard-boiled cop (Brian Dennehy) conducts his own unorthodox investigation into the matter. A few glaring plotholes dissipate in the wake of the clever twists concocted by Robert T. Megginson and Gregory Fleeman, whose screenplay also allows Rollie to rely on his effects training to extricate himself from some deadly situations. The turns by Brown, Dennehy, Orbach and Joe Grifasi as Dennehy’s sad-sack partner are especially pleasing, and look fast for Angela Bassett in her film debut as a reporter. F/X was followed by a so-so sequel in 1991 (F/X2, again with Brown and Dennehy) and a 1996 TV series (with different actors) that lasted two seasons. Trivial pursuit: One of the producers was Dodi Fayed, the Egyptian millionaire killed alongside Princess Diana in that tragic 1997 car crash. (Amazon Prime)