Amandla Stenberg in The Hate U Give (Photo: Fox)
(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray and DVD. Ratings are on a four-star scale.)
BOY ERASED (2018). The two best leading performances I saw over the course of 2018 came from youthful actors who were both denied richly deserved Academy Award nominations. In the Best Actress category, that would be 15-year-old Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade, and in the Best Actor category, it would be 21-year-old Lucas Hedges in Boy Erased. Already an Oscar nominee thanks to his supporting work in 2016’s Manchester by the Sea, Hedges is even better here, serving up a superlative turn in this true-life tale masterminded by writer-director-actor Joel Edgerton. Working from Garrard Conley’s memoir, Edgerton offers a look at the frightening inner workings of gay conversion therapy programs, with Hedges playing Conley (here called Jared Eamons). Coming out to his parents, a close-minded Baptist preacher (Russell Crowe) and his more accepting wife (Nicole Kidman), Jared agrees to undergo conversion sessions alongside other young gay men; their therapist is Victor Sykes (Edgerton), who, despite his smooth talk and initially easygoing demeanor, proves to be dangerously misguided. It’s understandable and appreciated that Jared and Sykes would be set up as protagonist and antagonist, but particularly interesting are the shadings given to Jared’s parents, played with the proper degrees of tangled emotions by Kidman and Crowe. Despite his excellent work here, Hedges wasn’t finished with 2018 — a month after Boy Erased opened in limited release, he gave another worthy performance as Julia Roberts’ drug-addicted son in Ben Is Back.
Blu-ray extras include deleted and extended scenes; a pair of featurettes on the central characters; and a piece on Edgerton.
COBRA (1986). Coming off a potent 1985 in which Sylvester Stallone starred in the second and third highest grossing films of the year (the $150 million hit Rambo: First Blood Part II and the $127 million earner Rocky IV, both topped only by Back to the Future‘s $210 million), it was expected that his next project would yield similarly gargantuan grosses. Instead, Cobra was pummeled at the box office by Top Gun, earning only a disappointing $49 million (as expected, its global take was more sizable). The irony is that, frightened by the immediate success of Top Gun (which opened first), Stallone demanded that Cobra be brutally edited down from approximately 120 minutes to 87 minutes to allow an extra show a day — the plan didn’t help with its financial gains but it sure helped in serving up a choppy and disjointed movie. In what basically amounts to a cut-rate Dirty Harry rip-off (complete with two Dirty Harry actors in Reni Santoni and Andrew Robinson), Stallone stars as Lieutenant Cobretti, a maverick cop out to stop an army of psychos set on establishing a new world order by killing a few random strangers here and there (their mission statement must have gone MIA during the editing process, since none of this really makes sense). Sly’s attempts at humor land with the force of an anvil, although there are enough unintentional guffaws to make up for it: The performances are as overripe as past-their-prime melons, and there’s also some glorious ‘80s cheese on tap in the scenes in which a model (Brigitte Nielsen, Stallone’s then-wife for 19 months) poses with some oversized robots during a kitschy photo shoot.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director George P. Cosmatos; interviews with co-stars Robinson, Art LaFleur, Brian Thompson, Marco Rodriguez and Lee Garlington; a vintage making-of featurette; and the theatrical trailer.
HALLOWEEN (2018). Well, I guess this is what happens when a valuable franchise is entrusted to the guys who foisted Your Highness upon an unsuspecting world. Despite brandishing the same title, this Halloween isn’t a remake or a reboot or a reimagining or a [insert preferred buzzword here] of John Carpenter’s 1978 classic but a direct sequel. Writer-director David Gordon Green and co-scripters Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley elected to ignore the umpteen assorted follow-ups that appeared in the 40-year interim and were drawing a direct line from the original to this latest picture. Unfortunately, this one is really no different from all the other inferior slasher sequels that have shuffled through theaters and home entertainment systems over the decades. It replaces gravitas with gore, employs too much limp humor, and — worst of all — repeats the exact same beats as most other films of this nature. Initially, the movie does appear to be offering something different, yet it’s ironically after the scene in which Michael Myers (James Jude Courtney) again dons his iconic mask (hardly a spoiler; did you think he was going to opt for Groucho Marx glasses this time around?) that Halloween loses its own identity. Storytelling sloppiness and mixed messages permeate this film, which not only introduces plot threads before abruptly abandoning them but also allows precious few characters to gain a foothold in a way comparable to the manner in which Carpenter allowed us to get to know Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her friends back in 1978. In fact, Laurie herself is perhaps the biggest casualty here, as she’s ultimately even more of a shadowy figure than Michael Myers — and only marginally more interesting.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; deleted scenes; and a piece on Curtis and her character.
THE HATE U GIVE (2018). From BlacKkKlansman to Blindspotting to Beale Street and beyond, the issue of systematic racism informed many a movie in 2018. Yet slipping through the cracks was the most affecting one of all, a powerful adaptation of Angie Thomas’ novel that placed high on my year-end 10 Best list (see the complete Best & Worst here). Amandla Stenberg delivers a deeply committed performance as Starr Carter, an African-American teenager whose sociopolitical consciousness is awakened after she sees her close friend Khalil (Algee Smith) fatally shot by a white cop. She’s reluctant to testify for a number of reasons, one being that she doesn’t want to suddenly be perceived differently at her affluent (and almost all-white) high school and another being that she’s wary of the local drug kingpin (Anthony Mackie) who employed Khalil. From the opening scene involving “The Talk” to the analysis of Tupac’s “T.H.U.G.L.I.F.E.,” this powerhouse picture is rich in content, context, and characterization, with only a few snatches of humor to alleviate the tension. All of the performances are exemplary, including Regina Hall as Starr’s supportive mother and K.J. Apa as her preppy white boyfriend; best of all, though, is Russell Hornsby as Starr’s father, an ex-con who’s moved on to a better life and will do anything to protect his family. The film’s screenplay was penned by Audrey Wells, best known as the writer-director of 2003’s lovely Under the Tuscan Sun; sadly, she passed away from cancer this past October, two weeks before this film’s release.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director George Tillman Jr., Stenberg, Hornsby, Thomas, and editor Craig Hayes; extended scenes; a discussion of the film’s themes; and two pieces on the Georgia location shooting.
IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967). That 1967 marked a turning point in motion picture history can be evidenced by merely glancing at the five films nominated that year for the Best Picture Oscar. On one hand, there was The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde, two electrifying motion pictures that signaled a bold new direction in American cinema; on the other, there was Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Doctor Dolittle, two dated efforts that tried to retain Old Hollywood charm in a changing world (Dinner at least has some modest charm; Dolittle, however, is utterly charmless). In hindsight, it’s not surprising that the winner turned out to be In the Heat of the Night, which expertly straddled the line by relating an old-fashioned murder-mystery in a jazzy and progressive style. Sidney Poitier stars in his most iconic role as Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia detective who reluctantly agrees to help redneck sheriff Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) solve a crime in the racist town of Sparta, Mississippi. Despite constant threats to his well-being, Tibbs rarely loses his cool, navigating his way through a complicated case while suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous good ole boys. For his part, Gillespie begins to respect the Northern big-city cop, though director Norman Jewison and scripter Stirling Silliphant never betray any of the characters’ ingrained prejudices by having unseemly traits vanish into thin air. Warren Oates (as a deputy) and Lee Grant (as the victim’s wife) are among those contributing indelible portrayals, while Quincy Jones provides a score that perfectly complements the flavorful atmosphere. Along with Best Picture, this won Oscars for Best Actor (Steiger), Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing and Sound.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary (from 2008) by Jewison, Steiger, Grant and cinematographer Haskell Wexler; new interviews with Jewison and Grant; and a 2006 interview with Poitier.
THE NUTCRACKER AND THE FOUR REALMS (2018). The bookend piece to Disney’s equally disappointing A Wrinkle in Time, here’s another adaptation of a beloved and timeless classic that loses its essence in translation. Perhaps because it’s such a stage-bound piece dependent on the connection between performer and patron, there has never been a satisfying screen Nutcracker (I still recall with a shudder the 1993 version featuring an ill-cast and ill-at-ease Macaulay Culkin), although this one at least features a robust visual design to maintain some modicum of interest. Playing fast and loose with both E.T.A. Hoffmann’s short story and the oft-performed ballet, this one finds young Clara (Mackenzie Foy), under the watchful eye of her godfather Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman), being magically whisked to an enchanting land where she encounters such characters as the brave Captain Hoffman (Jayden Fowora-Knight), the flighty Sugar Plum (Keira Knightley), and the mysterious Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren). The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is a busy production filled with all manner of incident and even a (predictable) plot twist, but the cacophonous and impersonal nature of the enterprise mutes any sense of wonder or discovery. By the time Mirren’s Mother Ginger starts cracking a whip like Indiana Jones and Clara high-kicks a menacing tin soldier, it’s hard to find any cheer — Christmas or otherwise — in this rendition.
Blu-ray extras consist of a making-of featurette; an interview with American Ballet Theatre’s Misty Copeland (who appears as the Ballerina Princess); and the music videos for “Fall on Me” (performed by Andrea Bocelli with Matteo Bocelli) and “The Nutcracker Suite” (performed by Lang Lang).
Short And Sweet:
JUDGMENT NIGHT (1993). Four friends who you never actually believe for a minute would be friends get lost on the wrong side of Chicago and witness a murder committed by a sadistic gang leader and his minions. They then spend the rest of the picture running for their lives through dark streets and dank sewers. It’s the type of scenario Walter Hill could pull off with ease — and he did … twice (The Warriors and Trespass) — but director Stephen Hopkins and scripters Lewis Colick and Jere Cunningham merely churn out a programmer that’s short on both logic and suspense. When he isn’t cracking jokes like a villain from the ‘60s Batman TV show, Denis Leary makes an effective heavy, and Jeremy Piven plays the most annoying of the buds with his usual unctuousness. But Emilio Estevez is miscast as the ersatz leader, Cuba Gooding Jr. grows increasingly hammy throughout, and Stephen Dorff is a non-factor.
There are no extras on the Blu-ray.
SCREAMERS (1996). Set in 2078, this adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s short story “Second Variety” unfolds on a distant planet where several human survivors combat metallic monsters seemingly descended from those flying spheres from the Phantasm flicks. But these mechanical terrors have learned how to evolve, meaning they’re now able to take human form. Anyone who’s seen John Carpenter’s far superior The Thing won’t find much of value here, and even those who haven’t will be underwhelmed by the plodding treatment of an interesting storyline as well as a final half-hour that goes seriously awry on many levels. Peter Weller is aces as the hero, though.
Blu-ray extras consist of interviews with director Christian Duguay, co-star Jennifer Rubin, co-writer Miguel Tejada-Flores and producer Tom Berry, and the theatrical trailer.
SUBURBIA (1983). Suburbia finds writer-director Penelope Spheeris throwing focus on a gang of teen runaways who live in an abandoned house on the outskirts of L.A. As we get to know these kids, we realize that their own societal inadequacies are no worse than those of the repellent adults who perpetually make their lives miserable. Also making the theatrical rounds under the monikers The Wild Side and Rebel Streets, Suburbia is for the most part wretchedly acted and broadly scripted, but it has a raw vibe that can’t be denied. The punk rock scene frequently takes center stage, and look for the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea (billed here as Mike B. The Flea) as one of the aimless teens (and you can also catch him in his most recent role, as a bullying homophobe, in Boy Erased, reviewed above).
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Spheeris; separate audio commentary by Spheeris, producer Bert Dragin and co-star Jennifer Clay; and a photo gallery.