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.
Olivia Colman and Rachel Weisz in The Favourite (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.)
BEN IS BACK (2018). It ain’t nepotism when it’s the right choice. That’s certainly the case with Ben Is Back, which finds writer-director Peter Hedges handpicking his own son to star in the title role. That would be Lucas Hedges, a rising talent who appeared in three Best Picture Oscar nominees in a two-year span (Manchester by the Sea in 2016 and Lady Bird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri in 2017). A nominee himself for his supporting stint in Manchester by the Sea, he deserved a Best Actor nod for this past year — albeit for his strong turn in Boy Erased (alas, he was overlooked). Nevertheless, he’s also excellent in Ben Is Back, in which he portrays a recovering drug addict who takes it upon himself to leave the rehab center and return home for Christmas. His presence makes his stepfather (Courtney B. Vance) and his sister (Kathryn Newton) uneasy; his mom (Julia Roberts) is also unsure of the situation, but she does the most to support Ben and provide him with the “tough love” he requires. Ben Is Back is stronger during the earlier passages when it focuses solely on the family, and it threatens to steer off course when it changes tactics to follow Ben’s nocturnal activities as he reluctantly becomes involved with the druggies and dealers who formed his former social circle. But the excellent work by Hedges (and, yes, Roberts) keeps this sobering picture from wandering too far into the haze.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by Peter Hedges; a photo gallery; and theatrical trailers.
BURNING (2018). According to the credits, this South Korean mind-bender from director Lee Chang-dong is based on Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s short story “Barn Burning.” Yet that’s only half the story, as it were. There are definite traces of that other short story called “Barn Burning” — the one penned by American author William Faulkner — found throughout Burning, and it’s no coincidence that the movie’s central character, a lower class kid and aspiring writer named Lee Jong-su (Ah-in Yoo), cites Faulkner as his favorite author. Jong-su is name-dropping the writer to Ben (The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun, nabbing Best Supporting Actor citations from both the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the National Society of Film Critics for this performance), the rich kid he feels has come between him and the sweet Shin Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jun). And thus begin the mysteries swirling throughout Burning, a moody and ambiguous drama that examines class separation and gender politics in the context of a puzzle that remains tantalizingly unsolved even after all 148 minutes of the generous running time have been used. Certainly, there will be those who view that shocking finale as a no-brainer — a fairly pat ending that ultimately offers a warped sense of justice — but there are enough clues strewn throughout the film (and even in that final exchange) that hint at something perhaps even deeper, darker, and more disturbing. It’s impossible to discuss Burning in much depth without basking in undesirable spoilers, but suffice to say that a disappearance, an elusive cat, and flame-infused greenhouses all have a say in the narrative. Repeat viewings are recommended — nay, required — to sift through the film’s secrets.
Blu-ray extras consist of a piece on the characters and trailers.
CREED II (2018). The best aspects of 2015’s Creed remain the selling points here — namely, the performances by Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone. Jordan again excels as Adonis Creed, son of legendary boxer Apollo Creed, and while Stallone isn’t given quite as much to do here, he’s still wonderful in the role. Garrulous of mind and generous of heart, Rocky Balboa remains a rich and complex character, and even his demotion from series focus to supporting player has done nothing to quell his all-embracing humanity. Given the fact that the Rocky / Creed franchise has always feasted on the past, the hook this time isn’t exactly unexpected. Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the Russian boxer who killed Apollo Creed in the ring before being vanquished by Rocky (see 1985’s Rocky IV), now has a son, Viktor (Florian “Big Nasty” Munteanu), who’s carrying on his father’s personal vendetta. It’s arranged for Adonis and Viktor to square off, with more than just a championship on the line — for both men, it’s a chance to right perceived wrongs while serving up a side dish of revenge. It’s irresistible material — or at least it would be if the film ever bothered to offer any narrative surprises or unexpected character beats. Instead, it’s once again played at a safe (if moderately entertaining) level, as director Steven Caple Jr. (replacing Creed writer-director Ryan Coogler) and the quartet of writers (including Stallone) are fearful of damaging this enduring tentpole. When the most emotional instance in the entire picture occurs as Bill Conti’s magnificent signature score from the first Rocky finally finds its way onto the soundtrack, it’s clear we’re responding in a Pavlovian manner to the music rather than the moment.
Blu-ray extras consist of deleted scenes; an overview of the Rocky / Creed series; and a trio of pieces on the various characters.
THE FAVOURITE (2018). The best film of 2018 (see the complete Best & Worst here), The Favourite is basically All About Eve with corsets, with Rachel Weisz starring as Bette Davis’ Margo Channing, Emma Stone cast as Anne Baxter’s Eve Harrington, and Olivia Colman appearing as the Sarah Siddons Award. This historical romp unfolds in the court of Queen Anne (Colman), a sickly ruler who would rather spend time with her pet rabbits than deal with pesky politics or the fog of war that envelops England’s ongoing battle with France. For such matters of state, Anne relies on Sarah Churchill (Weisz), who’s not only the ruler’s confidante but also her lover. But there’s a palace uprising of sorts with the arrival of Abigail Hill (Stone), a maid who employs Machiavellian maneuverings to regain her standing as a lady of high society. Those expecting a staid and stuffy period drama will be taken aback by the outrageous nature that The Favourite displays not only in word but in deed. With all manner of shady characters flitting around in the background (Nicholas Hoult is a hoot as a supercilious landowner), the picture isn’t lacking for intrigue, and the exceptional script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara is filled with dialogue that cuts like daggers (ridiculous that it lost the Best Original Screenplay Oscar to Green Book). Colman is aptly pathetic as the grasping queen, Stone uses her kewpie-doll mannerisms to chilling advantage, and Weisz is typically superb as she embraces all sides of her richly textured character. Nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (Yorgos Lanthimos), and bids for co-leads Weisz and Stone in the Best Supporting Actress category, this won Best Actress for Colman.
Blu-ray extras consist of a making-of featurette; deleted scenes; and the theatrical trailer.
INSTANT FAMILY (2018). There’s instant gratification to be found with Instant Family, an earnest film whose generosity of spirit enables it to smooth over the rough patches. Director Sean Anders, generally the helmer of cinematic rotgut (That’s My Boy, Horrible Bosses 2), decided to base this film on his own experiences, and it’s this personal touch that doubtless allows it to break free from the shackles of mediocrity. Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne star as Pete and Ellie Wagner, a workaholic couple who decide that they should adopt a foster kid not only as a humanitarian gesture but also since it would make them feel good about themselves. They settle on a surly teenager named Lizzy (Isabel Moner), only to learn that she comes with two younger siblings, the overly sensitive Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and the hyperactive Lita (Julianna Gamiz). Suddenly saddled with three children and ill-equipped to handle the youngsters’ moods and demands, Pete and Ellie are soon wondering if they made a mistake in agreeing to serve as foster parents. Instant Family contains its share of awkward interludes and dubious decisions — the nitwit grandmother played by Julie Hagerty seems to have emerged fully formed from a discarded script for a subpar TV sitcom — but the emotional content is on point and, as a result, the overall enterprise works as a satisfying seriocomedy.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Anders and co-scripter John Morris; various behind-the-scenes featurettes; deleted scenes; a piece on the real-life inspiration for the film; a look at some of the foster families that appear briefly in the movie; a gag reel; and the music video for Moner’s “I’ll Stay.”
KALIFORNIA (1993). Tasked with writing a book on serial killers, Brian Kessler (David Duchovny) and his photographer girlfriend Carrie (Michelle Forbes) set off on a cross-country road trip to visit the locations where various murders took place. In need of traveling companions to help with expenses, they wind up taking along good ole boy Early Grayce (Brad Pitt) and his girlfriend Adele (Juliette Lewis), little realizing that Early is himself a serial killer. What makes Kalifornia intriguing is the manner in which these characters all relate to one another (e.g. Brian’s envy of Early’s rugged machismo, Adele’s adoration of Carrie’s style), as well as the way it explores how a person’s sense of worth and identity is largely affected by surrounding circumstances. Where the film suffers is in its obliviousness toward its own obviousness, primarily in its employment of the mundane, spell-it-out narration provided throughout by Brian (most musings are along the simplistic lines of “Murderers are different from you and me”). Duchovny and especially Forbes are memorable as the well-to-dos whose cushioned existence evaporates upon meeting Early, while Lewis is sensational (and heartbreaking) as a simple soul yearning for any semblance of friendship. And while Pitt’s yee-haw performance might have seemed a tad over the top back in the day, just check out contemporary footage from any Tea Party or Trump rally and you’ll see dozens of rednecks like Early Grayce blotting the landscape.
Blu-ray extras consist of a vintage making-of featurette; a new interview with director Dominic Sena; vintage interviews with Pitt and Lewis; the theatrical trailer; and TV spots.
STARSKY & HUTCH (2004). By my count, Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson have appeared in 12 movies together, with the best being 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums (for which Wilson shared a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination with director Wes Anderson) and the worst being 2016’s Zoolander No. 2 (my pick for the most abysmal film of its year; see 2016’s complete Best & Worst here). Somewhere in between is this hit-and-miss adaptation of the popular TV series from the latter half of the 1970s, with Stiller essaying Paul Michael Glaser’s role as Starsky and Wilson tackling David Soul’s part of Hutch. The story pits bungling, by-the-book detective Starsky and rascally, bad-boy cop Hutch against a drug tycoon (Vince Vaughn) who has managed to develop a new strain of cocaine that’s undetectable to both cops and canine units alike. The duo’s short-tempered captain (Fred Williamson) doesn’t approve of their methods and threatens to yank them off the case, while Hutch’s faithful informant Huggy Bear (Snoop Dogg) hesitantly agrees to help their investigation. Wilson is smooth and ingratiating while Stiller tries too hard for laughs; still, it’s the interplay between the two leads — as well as a film-swiping turn by Snoop Dogg — that largely makes Starsky & Hutch more tolerable than many movies based on past TV shows (for starters, it’s better than 2002’s I Spy, also co-starring Wilson). The supporting cast includes Juliette Lewis (also in Kalifornia, above), Patton Oswalt, Terry Crews, and an uncredited Will Ferrell as prison inmate Big Earl.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director and co-scripter Todd Phillips; deleted scenes; and a gag reel.
TO SLEEP WITH ANGER (1990). In advance of last year’s Oscar ceremony, filmmaker Charles Burnett received an Honorary Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his contributions to cinema. Around the same time, Burnett’s To Sleep with Anger had the immense honor of being added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. Thus, it’s only fitting that the picture is now making its Blu-ray debut on the Criterion label. Sandwiched in between the releases of his studio sequels Lethal Weapon 2 and Predator 2, To Sleep with Anger finds Danny Glover taking the indie route, serving as star and executive producer on this low-key offering set in South Central Los Angeles. Glover stars as Harry, who unexpectedly arrives at the home of Gideon (Paul Butler) and Suzie (Mary Alice), Southern transplants he hasn’t seen in 30 years. They initially welcome him with open arms, but as time passes, it becomes clear that his presence might be responsible for the aggravation and stress being felt by the various family members, including the couple’s grown sons (Carl Lumbly and Richard Brooks) and their respective wives (Vonetta McGee and Sheryl Lee Ralph). Is Harry just a devil-may-care individual, or might he actually be a devil? At its heart, To Sleep with Anger is a movie about struggles — between good and evil, between complacency and accomplishment, between older and younger generations, between religion and mysticism, and between the past and the present. To convey these various tussles, Burnett employs a lyrical shooting style that aptly fits the material.
Blu-ray extras include new interviews with Burnett, Glover, Ralph, and associate producer Linda Koulisis; a video tribute produced by the Academy in honor of Burnett’s special award; and a conversation between Burnett and filmmaker Robert Townsend.
WILD ROVERS (1971). Writer-director Blake Edwards meant for his offbeat Western to run 137 minutes, but the suits at MGM figured they knew best and removed a full half-hour of the film for its original theatrical run. At some point over the ensuing decades, someone helpfully restored the movie to its original length (which includes an overture and exit music), and that’s the one featured on the new Blu-ray edition from the Warner Archive Collection. William Holden, just two years removed from growling, “If they move, kill ‘em!” as Pike Bishop in 1969’s The Wild Bunch, here plays a kinder, gentler strain of cowboy — he’s Ross Bodine, a veteran cowhand working for wealthy rancher Walt Buckman (Karl Malden). Ross realizes that he’s lived a long, hard life with nothing to show for it, so when his young friend and colleague Frank Post (Ryan O’Neal) suggests that they rob a bank together, he figures that’s not a bad idea. Of course, their crime results in the pair being chased not only by the law but by Buckman’s two sons, the hotheaded John (Tom Skerritt) and the more sensible Paul (Joe Don Baker). Holden’s lived-in performance is a thing of beauty, and he’s allowed to deliver a final monologue that allows appreciative audiences to bask in this great actor’s authority and intuition. As for O’Neal, he’s fine if not entirely convincing in the other central role, making one wish that Bruce Dern or Jeff Bridges had been available.
Blu-ray extras consist of a vintage making-of featurette and the theatrical trailer.
YEAR OF THE DRAGON (1985). Defenders of Year of the Dragon claim that it’s a blow against racism and sexism, while detractors insist that it gleefully embraces racism and sexism. One’s own opinion will perhaps depend on whether the viewing experience ends with admiration for its astounding technical prowess or annoyance at its unyielding narrative ugliness. Behind the camera for the first time since 1980’s Heaven’s Gate crippled a major movie studio (United Artists) and nearly ended his own career, Oscar-winning director Michael Cimino (The Deer Hunter) helmed and co-wrote (with Oliver Stone) this jittery adaptation of Robert Daley’s novel about a cop who takes on Chinatown corruption. Mickey Rourke stars as Stanley White, a bigoted NYC police captain and damaged Vietnam vet who embarks on a personal crusade to bring down the Chinese triad responsible for a spider web of extortion, drug-running and assassinations weaving its way through the Manhattan neighborhood. His primary target is Joey Tai (John Lone), a young mob associate who’s been making power plays from within. When White isn’t on the case, he divides his time between his put-upon wife Connie (Caroline Kava, whose character is treated miserably throughout) and his Asian-American mistress, TV reporter Tracy Tzu (Ariane, simply awful). It’s easy to see why this divided critics and viewers back in 1985 (Best Film nods from several global groups versus five Razzie nominations, including Worst Picture), and, if anything, it’s perhaps even more controversial today, with its messy politics and dull romances pitted against a shooting style that’s best described as “caffeinated.” Forget it, Jake; it ain’t Chinatown.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by Cimino and the theatrical trailer.