Zhang Ziyi and Daniel Brühl in The Cloverfield Paradox (Photo: Paramount)
(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.)
CHARLY (1968). In earlier decades, it wasn’t unusual for highly successful teleplays to eventually be turned into motion pictures — consider, for example, the likes of Marty and Requiem for a Heavyweight. Charly looms large as another example: Based on Daniel Keyes’ novel Flowers for Algernon (long a staple of high school reading lists everywhere), the story was first shown on TV on the anthology series The United States Steel Hour, titled “The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon” and starring Cliff Robertson. Robertson personally shepherded the project to the big screen, where it underwent a name change to Charly and emerged as a financial success. Robertson stars as the title character, a mentally challenged janitor who undergoes a scientific experiment that soon turns him into a genius. The film is often touching (especially when it appears that Charly might revert back to a simple-minded state), but several sequences are risible (Charly as a surly biker?), the romance between Charly and his doctor (Claire Bloom) is scarcely believable, and the use of split-screen — all the rage among filmmakers at the time — quickly grows wearying. After pouring his own money into self-promotion ads, Robertson won the Best Actor Oscar for his showy performance — it’s a fine if occasionally pandering turn, although it partially sticks in the craw since it denied the great Peter O’Toole what was arguably his best shot at winning an Academy Award (for The Lion in Winter).
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historians Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson, and theatrical trailers for various Kino Lorber titles.
THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX (2018). The marketing was better than the movie in the case of The Cloverfield Paradox, a square peg of a picture that was ludicrously crammed into the round hole of the Cloverfield franchise. After Paramount balked on releasing the film in theaters, it was sold to Netflix, which, in a surprise move, debuted the picture immediately following last year’s Super Bowl. It was a sound campaign on the part of the streaming giant — it’s just a shame the movie doesn’t live up to the hype. The attempts to link this initially non-Cloverfield project to the 2008 original (particularly in the irksome final scenes) are even more clumsy than when it was attempted with 2016’s 10 Cloverfield Lane. As for the rest, it’s a derivative sci-fi flick with a superlative cast and a few strong individual scenes that ultimately don’t hang together. Aboard the Cloverfield space station, a team of astronauts seeks to use a particle accelerator to help save Earth from a catastrophic energy crisis; instead, they inadvertently end up tapping into an alternate universe. Perhaps this would have worked better in a shorter format, maybe as an episode of the intriguing Black Mirror series; instead, its length allows for too much narrative frivolity (like that disembodied arm) that weakens the overall story. The cast is excellent, though — no surprise since it contains the likes of Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Daniel Brühl, David Oyelowo, Zhang Ziyi and Elizabeth Debicki.
Blu-ray extras consist of a making-of featurette and a piece on the cast members.
4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS (2007) / THE GUILTY (2018). One’s a movie about abortion; the other is a twisty thriller. Yet what they share in common is the fact that both were highly acclaimed dramas that were denied Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominations despite being their country’s official submissions in that category.
Certainly, the Romanian import 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days was the bigger snub when it was bypassed for the 2007 Oscars, especially considering it landed on many critics’ 10 Best lists and snagged the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Written and directed by Cristian Mungiu, it’s a methodical look at the efforts of Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) to help her college roommate Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) secure an illegal abortion in 1987 Romania. The film’s omission by the Academy was so controversial that it was largely responsible for a change in the way nominations in that category are now processed.
Conversely, there was no controversy this year when the Danish entry The Guilty failed to land a nomination (though it did make the initial shortlist), but that’s simply because there were many equally strong contenders in play (like Roma and Shoplifters, which were nominated, and Burning, which was not). At any rate, fans of taut thrillers should warm up to The Guilty, basically a one-set piece in which a disgraced police officer (Jakob Cedergren) forced to man the phones as an emergency dispatcher does everything in his power to keep track of the kidnapped woman on the other end of the line.
Blu-ray extras on 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days include alternate and deleted scenes; a new interview with Mungiu; an interview with film critic Jay Weissberg on the New Romanian Cinema; footage from the film’s press conference at Cannes; and a look at the movie’s reception in Romania. There are no extras on the Blu-ray for The Guilty.
Both Movies: ***
HUNTER KILLER (2018). If Hunter Killer were real life, it would merit four stars. The U.S. President is a smart, compassionate and progressive woman who spends her time governing effectively rather than sending out factually challenged tweets like some raving lunatic. And instead of allowing itself to be owned by Russia, the United States remains wary of its former Cold War adversary and still keeps a cool distance. Clearly, this film is set in some alternate universe, not unlike those seen in vintage Justice League comic books and modern Star Trek movies. Unfortunately, Hunter Killer isn’t a striking example of cinéma vérité but rather a complete piece of fiction. As such, it’s a rampaging mediocrity, even if it does represent a slight uptick in quality for a movie starring Gerard Butler. Butler plays Joe Glass, a submarine captain who’s tasked with captaining the USS Arkansas because the Russian president (Alexander Diachnko) has been taken hostage by his warmongering defense minister (Michael Gor). While a trigger-happy American admiral (Gary Oldman) incessantly barks like a yippy Pomeranian, four Navy SEALs are ordered to retrieve the Russkie Prez while Glass is assigned to pick everyone up with the efficiency of a 5-star Uber driver. Most submarine flicks manage to evoke a genuine sense of claustrophobia among viewers peering down all those narrow corridors in a confined space — think back to, for example, Run Silent, Run Deep or Das Boot — but Hunter Killer is surprisingly light on the tension. And then there’s a bellowing Oldman, who clearly made Darkest Hour to nab an Oscar and just as clearly made Hunter Killer to nab a sizable paycheck. The third-act action perks proceedings up a tad, even if it all remains stridently silly.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by director Donovan Marsh and a two-part behind-the-scenes piece.
KOTCH (1971). Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau were not only real-life BFFs but also a frequent screen team, appearing together in such comedies as The Odd Couple, The Fortune Cookie (for which Matthau earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar) and the underrated Buddy Buddy. So when Lemmon decided to try his hand at directing (it would be his only stint behind the camera), it’s no surprise that he reached out to his MVP to tackle the leading role. Matthau delivers a winning performance as Joseph P. Kotcher, a sprightly septuagenarian who lives with his son (Charles Aidman), daughter-in-law (Felicia Farr, Lemmon’s real-life wife) and baby grandson. Kotch always means well, but his constant yakking and eccentric actions occasionally irk his family members. They receive a much-needed break, though, once Kotch turns his attention toward assisting a pregnant teenager (Deborah Winters). The 50-year-old Matthau is playing a 72-year-old, and while that may make this sound like a trial run for the 54-year-old Matthau playing the 73-year-old Willy Clark a few years later in the excellent The Sunshine Boys, the two characters couldn’t be more different. Unlike the crotchety and occasionally bitter Willy, Kotch is perpetually cheerful and optimistic, and Matthau’s warm characterization propels this sweet and earnest movie. Kotch earned four Oscar nominations, including a Best Actor bid for Matthau.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historians Lee Gambin and Emma Westwood; a promotional trailer for the film featuring Lemmon and Matthau; and trailers for other Matthau vehicles (including the sensational The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and the lamentable The Couch Trip).
A PRIVATE WAR (2018). International intrigue was the order of the day for Rosamund Pike last year, as she spent 2018 appearing in the politically charged dramas Beirut, 7 Days in Entebbe and A Private War. Her meatiest role in the trio can be found in the last-named, a dramatization that examines the dangerous calling of real-life journalist Marie Colvin. Employing a Vanity Fair article (“Marie Colvin’s Private War,” by Marie Brenner) as its source, the film follows Colvin, an American working for the U.K.’s The Sunday Times, as she covers deadly and destructive skirmishes in such global hot spots as Sri Lanka (where she lost an eye and thereafter chose to wear an eyepatch) and Syria (where she lost her life in 2012). Pike is excellent as Colvin, presented here as a fearless humanist who ventures into areas where no sane human would dare trespass. Tom Hollander and 50 Shades of Grey’s Jamie Dornan are effective as, respectively, Sean Ryan, Colvin’s Times editor, and Paul Conroy, a brave photojournalist who becomes her friend and ally (both are real-life figures), while Stanley Tucci adds a splash of romance as Tony Shaw, her playful millionaire boyfriend (a fictional creation). The project’s sense of realism is enhanced by the participation of director Matthew Heineman, a documentarian (the Oscar-nominated Cartel Land) making his feature-film debut.
Blu-ray extras consist of a Q&A session with Heineman, Pike and Dornan; a piece on Pike and her characterization of Colvin; and a look at the making of Annie Lennox’s theme song, “Requiem for A Private War.”
SARAH T. — PORTRAIT OF A TEENAGE ALCOHOLIC (1975). Between earning an Oscar nomination for her iconic turn in 1973’s The Exorcist and a slew of Razzie nominations for her participation in a string of ‘80s-era cheapies like Chained Heat and Night Patrol, Linda Blair carved out a niche playing troubled teens in a string of made-for-TV movies of the week. She’s particularly memorable in Sarah T. — Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic, a hard-hitting network offering that holds up well today. Sensitively directed by Richard Donner and written by the husband-and-wife team of Richard and Esther Shapiro (who are still married after 58 years), this centers on Sarah Travis (Blair), a 15-year-old girl upset that her mom (Verna Bloom) and dad (Larry Hagman) have divorced and her mom has already married another man (William Daniels). To cope with both her depression and her loneliness, she guzzles booze at every opportunity — even sneaking sips at her locker at school. A potential boyfriend (Mark Hamill, two years away from Star Wars) and a doctor (Michael Lerner) attempt to help, but their initial lack of success means that poor Sarah is soon resorting to shoplifting from liquor stores and performing tricks for sips. This intelligent film pulls very few punches, spreading the blame equally among Sarah, her peers and their pressure, and adults who think nothing of perpetually parading around with drinks in hand. After a decade-and-a-half mostly spent in television, Donner would move on to directing the back-to-back theatrical smashes The Omen (released the year after Sarah T.) and Superman.
Blu-ray extras consist of a new interview with Blair; a new interview with Donner and producer David Levinson; and a still gallery.
WIDOWS (2018). Despite being steeped in violence, Widows — one of the 10 Best Films of 2018 (see the complete list here) — opens with a steamy kiss. Veronica and Harry Rawlings (Viola Davis and Liam Neeson) appear to be the type of married couple who never exited the honeymoon phase, and their time seen together is playful and passionate. Unfortunately, Harry is a career crook, and it’s not long before he and his cohorts in crime are killed during a heist that goes terribly wrong. Widows sets up these competing scenarios — back and forth and back and forth between the romance and the robbery — right at the beginning of the film, and then proceeds not so much to build on them but to dissect them, peering deep into their bowels and consequently spinning the story off in unexpected ways. 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen has teamed with Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn to adapt a six-part 1983 miniseries that was a big hit in the UK. Whittling the miniseries’ 290 minutes down to the movie’s 130 minutes couldn’t have been easy, but what remains is compact enough not to wear out its welcome yet expansive enough to give all of the major characters plenty of breathing room. The title refers to the wives of the four dead men, with three of them (Davis, Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki) forced by outside aggressors to pick up where their husbands left off — by successfully planning and executing their own heist. What’s remarkable about Widows is that its scope isn’t just limited to this trio and their caper — rather, the picture benefits from its wealth of plots and wealth of characters, with nary a false move impeding its headlong plunge into a dynamic denouement.
Blu-ray extras include a trio of making-of featurettes and a still gallery.