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.
Mahershala Ali in Green Book (Photo: Universal)
(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.)
THE CRAFT (1996). Until it goes completely astray in the headache-inducing second half, The Craft begins as a promising look at troubled teenage girls as filtered through supernatural sensibilities. Sarah (Robin Tunney) is the new kid in school, and because she possesses seemingly otherworldly powers, she soon falls in with a trio known among the other students as “the bitches of Eastwick”: Nancy (Fairuza Balk), Bonnie (Neve Campbell), and Rochelle (Rachel True). Now with their coven at full capacity, the teen witches are able to utilize their powers to their fullest potential, but karma eventually catches up with them. The early going is interesting, amusing and even clever, but such cinematic niceties give way to a disappointing second hour in which select characters suddenly stop making sense, Balk’s performance switches from wry and mysterious to embarrassingly over-the-top (she makes such noted hams as Charles Laughton and Rod Steiger appear as low-key as Casey Affleck and Keanu Reeves by comparison), and busy special effects completely take over the proceedings. In the years since its premiere, this picture has enjoyed a minor cult following, but for a better bet for the witching hour, hold out for Hammer’s 1966 chiller The Witches; like The Craft, it’s being released on Blu-ray this month by Shout! Factory.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by writer-director Andrew Fleming; deleted scenes; a vintage making-of featurette; new interviews with Fleming, co-writer Peter Filardi, producer Douglas Wick, and makeup effects supervisor Tony Gardner; and the theatrical trailer.
FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD (2018). The most ingratiating ingredient in 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them wasn’t its effects or its plot or even its fantastic beasts. Instead, it was the foursome that resided at the center of the tale: gawky wizard Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), magically endowed sisters Tina and Queenie Goldstein (Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol), and No-Maj (non-magical) baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). Director David Yates and creator-scripter J.K. Rowling kept the focus on this quartet, providing audiences with heroes worth following. Yates and Rowling have returned for this film, but they’ve largely left their Fantastic four behind. The characters are here in body more than spirit, as Scamander largely operates as a connective tissue between the various plots while Tina and Jacob stand around gawking at the proceedings. As for Queenie, she undergoes a transformation that’s as illogical as it is ill-conceived, feinting in a direction that makes no sense given what we learned about this character in the previous picture. Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) is the star attraction, a dark wizard with all the megalomaniacal ambitions of a Bond villain, and it’s up to Scamander and Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) to stop him. Depp is OK as Grindelwald — he lacks the towering menace that Ralph Fiennes brought to the role of Harry Potter nemesis Voldemort — but Law is a delight as Dumbledore, making it easy to see this noble, shrewd and compassionate young man morph into the elderly statesman we all know and love. Yet movie magic is woefully missing, with a cluttered story and too many CGI moments that look absolutely unconvincing in all their polished petrification.
Blu-ray extras include deleted scenes; an interview with Rowling; a piece on Dumbledore; and breakdowns of select scenes. An extended cut of the film is also included through the digital code.
GREEN BOOK (2018). Like Gladiator, Braveheart and oh-so-many-others, here’s a perfectly acceptable — meaning good but nowhere near great — film whose wholly undeserving Best Picture Oscar victory has left many cinéastes with a bad taste in their mouths. It’s the human dimension that drives this (loosely) based-on-fact movie with as much purpose and dedication as Tony Vallelonga drives Don Shirley through the Deep South. A racist New York bouncer, Tony (Viggo Mortensen) is hired to serve as chauffeur to Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a Jamaican classical pianist who bravely embarks on a tour that takes him through the more dangerous and openly prejudiced areas of the country in the early 1960s. As they spend ample time in each other’s company, Tony learns to accept his employer’s differences, thus allowing him to grow as a human being. Yes, it’s yet another movie in which the whole raison d’etre of a black character is merely to allow a white man to feel better about himself — note how the film (co-written by Tony’s son, Nick Vallelonga) completely adopts the POV of its Caucasian protagonist, with Shirley’s background only called upon when a monologue is required from Ali. Yet within that predictable context, Green Book easily commingles soft laughs and hard-hitting drama. The picture’s greatest strength rests in the dynamic performances by Mortensen and especially Ali, both of whom add enough interesting shadings to turn what could have been a simplistic black-and-white tale into something incorporating no less than fifty shades of grey. In addition to Best Picture, Green Book also won Oscars for Best Supporting Actor (Ali) and, rather ridiculously given the competition (especially The Favourite), Best Original Screenplay.
Blu-ray extras consist of three behind-the-scenes featurettes.
THE KID BROTHER (1927). During cinema’s silent era, Harold Lloyd was as popular as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, though the passage of time, coupled with his estate’s tight — too tight — rein on his films until about a decade ago, has allowed him to slip to also-ran status among more casual movie fans. This designation is nothing less than a tragedy, as Lloyd is in nearly all respects the equal of the other two comedy kings. The Kid Brother is the fourth Lloyd flick to be released on the Criterion label — it follows 1923’s Safety Last! (his most famous film), 1925’s The Freshman (his biggest box office hit, and my favorite of his output), and 1928’s Speedy (his last silent picture) — and it still ranks as one of his crowning achievements. In the town of Hickoryville, Sheriff Jim Hickory (Walter James) and his sons Leo (Leo Willis) and Olin (Olin Francis) are local legends — not so Jim’s other boy, the meek and mild-mannered Harold (Lloyd, natch). But when a traveling medicine show arrives in this quiet burg, Harold finds himself falling for its owner, sweet Mary (Jobyna Ralston), while running afoul of two shady employees, fast-talking Flash (Eddie Boland) and brutish Sandoni (Constantine Romanoff). The sky-high number of gags would suggest a generous hit-and-miss ratio, but forget it: The Kid Brother offers nothing but hit after hit after hit, with memorable set-pieces including Harold’s tree climb, his dash around the Hickory property while being pursued by his two angry brothers, and a climactic skirmish with Sandoni aboard a stationary ship.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary (from 2005) by Harold Lloyd archivist Richard Correll, film historian Annette D’Agostino, and Lloyd’s granddaughter Suzanne Lloyd; a 1962 Dutch television interview with Lloyd; a 2005 piece on Lloyd’s estate, Greenacres; and two early Lloyd shorts, 1917’s Over the Fence and 1918’s That’s Him.
MAN’S BEST FRIEND (1993). Man’s Best Friend is a dog, in both senses of the word. Ally Sheedy stars as Lori Tanner, a TV reporter perpetually assigned fluff pieces. Wanting to make her mark with an important story, she decides to expose the cruelty toward animals that’s taking place in the laboratory of Dr. Jarret (Lance Henriksen), a genetic-engineering genius who has convinced himself that he’s torturing critters for the betterment of humankind. His prize experiment is Max 3000, a Tibetan mastiff (a gigantic dog not unlike a Saint Bernard) whose DNA has been enhanced with that of a panther (so it can climb trees to feast on cats), a chameleon (so it can disguise itself as garage clutter) and other Discovery Channel denizens. A seemingly ordinary dog who turns into a killing machine when he’s off his meds, Max is swiped from Jarret’s facility and adopted by Lori, who’s not prepared for the carnage she inadvertently lets loose on suburbia. This “B” flick is competently filmed but offers too little in the way of suspense and too much in the way of comic misfires (one scene finds Max raping the Collie next door; another shows him spraying a man’s face with acidic urine). Henriksen’s usual intensity is appreciated, as is the solid score by Joel Goldsmith; otherwise, there’s not much else to distinguish yet another cinematic bow-wow. Lassie, come home!
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by writer-director John Lafia and the theatrical trailer.
SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME (1987). After immersing himself in fantastical realms with Alien, Blade Runner and Legend, director Ridley Scott chose New York City as his next sandbox, and it says plenty about his strong visual style that he makes a Manhattan apartment look almost as eye-popping as the landscapes showcased in his prior pictures. That would be the residence of Claire Gregory (Mimi Rogers), a socialite who has the misfortune of witnessing her close friend (Mark Moses) get fatally gutted by his volatile business partner (Andreas Katsulas, later the one-armed man in The Fugitive). Requiring around-the-clock protection, Claire finds herself under the watchful eye of Mike Keegan (Tom Berenger), a detective who lives in Queens with his adoring wife Ellie (Lorraine Bracco) and adoring son Tommy (Harley Cross). Mike mumbles while Claire enunciates; Mike is meat and potatoes while Claire is champagne and caviar — naturally, these opposites attract and end up embarking on an affair, a guilt-riddled move on Mike’s part since he loves his wife. Mike and Ellie are such a dynamic couple that it throws off the scenes focusing on the supposedly torrid romance between Mike and Claire. The movie can only fully work if all sides of the love triangle are equally strong, but the Mike-Claire coupling falls short, with Scott and writer Howard Franklin failing to make enough of a case beyond physical desire. Still, Someone to Watch Over Me is reasonably engaging as a thriller, and Berenger and Bracco are both excellent. Savvy viewers will be able to hear a snatch of Vangelis’ superb score for Blade Runner playing in the background of one scene.
Blu-ray extras consist of new interviews with Franklin and director of photography Steven Poster.
Short And Sweet:
THE CLOVEHITCH KILLER (2018). Charlie Plummer, the rising young talent who starred in All the Money in the World and Lean on Pete (the latter making my 10 Best list for 2018; see the complete Best & Worst here), delivers another beautifully modulated performance in this gripping drama about a teenager who suspects that his father (an excellent Dylan McDermott), a devout Christian and local scoutmaster, might have been the serial killer who slayed 10 women a decade earlier. The ending is too abrupt, but the rest is methodically paced, and Madisen Beaty makes a good impression as a classmate who’s an expert in Clovehitch lore.
Blu-ray extras consist of a behind-the-scenes featurette and the theatrical trailer.
THE MAGIC FLUTE (1975). Mozart’s enduring opera, about a prince who sets out to rescue a princess with the aid of his comical sidekick, is provided an interesting filmic treatment courtesy of Ingmar Bergman. It’s stagebound, yes, but it doesn’t try to hide its theatricality — there’s even a midpoint intermission wherein we see the actors backstage either playing chess, reading comics, or smoking in areas clearly marked “Smoking Absolutely Prohibited.” Bergman doesn’t neglect the advantages of cinema, though, and the movie’s fluidity, the Oscar-nominated costume designs, and the appealing performers all make this one of the better opera-on-film adaptations.
Blu-ray extras consist of a 1975 making-of documentary produced for Swedish television; a 1974 interview with Bergman; and a new interview with film scholar Peter Cowie.
PHANTOM LADY (1944). The first half of this striking film noir is phenomenal, as an engineer (Alan Curtis) is accused of murdering his wife and nobody can produce the mystery woman (Fay Helm) who was with him on the night the crime took place. But it’s not too difficult to figure out the killer even before he’s revealed at the film’s halfway point, and his prominence during the second half undermines the intrigue since he’s the least interesting character in the entire tale. Still, Robert Siodmak directs this for maximum shadowy impact, and there are strong turns from Ella Raines as the engineer’s gutsy assistant, Thomas Gomez as a laid-back detective, and Elisha Cook Jr. as a musician who works himself up into an orgasmic frenzy while banging his drums.
Blu-ray extras consist of a so-so documentary on film noir; a 1944 radio dramatization starring Raines and Curtis; and a photo gallery.
FROM SCREEN TO STREAM
(Films currently available on streaming services)
AMERICA ADRIFT (2016). There’s a moment in America Adrift when Sam Fernandez (Davi Santos), the straight-laced brother of hopeless drug addict Cameron Fernandez (Angel Curiel), is accused of being an enabler. That’s partly true, but the true enabler is the siblings’ mother Cecilia (Dexter’s Lauren Luna Velez), whose devotion to her drug-addled son is so overriding that she risks the relationships she enjoys with Sam, her other son Alex (Esteban Benito), and even her husband William (Tony Plana), whose debilitating stroke was the direct result of an argument with Cameron. Set on the stretch of Long Island known as “Heroin Highway,” America Adrift looks at knotty familial relationships through a fragmented prism provided by writer-director Christopher James Lopez as he moves the tale between past and present — potentially gimmicky, it actually works quite well for this presentation. Like last year’s Ben Is Back, another movie about a loving mom (Julia Roberts) and her addict son (Lucas Hedges), America Adrift makes the third-act mistake of turning its back on the more intimate encounters to dump the story among drug lords and other undesirables — it’s a lamentable lurch that renders the final scenes impotent rather than emotional. But like Ben Is Back, the majority of the film is so powerful and thought-provoking that its missteps can be minimized. ★★★
(Amazon Prime, iTunes, Vudu)