Liam Neeson in Cold Pursuit (Photo: Lionsgate)

(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.)

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Apollo 11 (Photo: Universal & NEON)

APOLLO 11 (2019). The 50th anniversary of the United States placing a man on the moon has been commemorated with a documentary that itself should endure as a historical event. Working closely with NASA, director Todd Douglas Miller has put together a Readers Digest version of that fateful day, wrestling with unlimited hours of video footage and trimming it down into a 93-minute feature that details what it took to send astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins into space and then bring them back home again. Apollo 11 contains reams of 65mm and 70mm footage that heretofore had never been seen by the public, offering further glimpses at the astronauts as well as those on the ground who were rooting for their — and the nation’s — success. Perhaps what’s most stunning about this documentary is the clarity and crispness of all its footage, which has been digitally enhanced to pop off the screen (the filmmakers also had to work with an imposing 11,000 hours of audio recordings). At a time in American history when the nation seems more divided than ever and the white (house) supremacists continue to profit from fear and hatred, the film serves as a reminder of what can be achieved when the best and brightest pool their resources for the greater good. (Of course, one can’t help but shake one’s head when hearing Nixon in the film talking about world peace after he had already secretly commenced carpet bombing operations in Cambodia.) For an interesting double feature, watch this in tandem with last year’s First Man, a biopic about Neil Armstrong.

Blu-ray extras consist of a piece on the discovery and assembly of the 65mm footage, and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ***1/2

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Charles Laughton and Ray Milland in The Big Clock (Photo: Arrow & Universal)

THE BIG CLOCK (1948). Although often classified as film noir, The Big Clock only toys with some of the conventions of the genre, primarily coming across as a thriller with a sly comedic streak. Whatever its designation, it’s a crackerjack film which finds Charles Laughton at his diabolical best as Earl Janoth, the dictatorial head of a media conglomerate. One of his publications is Crimeways magazine, and one of his best employees is that periodical’s editor-in-chief, George Stroud (Ray Milland). When Janoth kills his mistress (Rita Johnson) in a jealous rage, he doesn’t know that she had been (platonically) hanging out with Stroud that very night; in an effort to cover his crime, Janoth assigns Stroud to find the killer for a breaking-news article, a tricky development since all the evidence seems to point not at Janoth but at Stroud. Zesty performances and superb art direction — the Janoth Publications building, complete with the titular object, is an architectural marvel — are just two of the pluses in this riveting film that builds to a satisfying conclusion. Maureen O’Sullivan, who co-stars as Milland’s wife, was married to the film’s director John Farrow (Mia Farrow was one of their offspring), while Elsa Lanchester (hilarious as an eccentric artist) was Laughton’s real-life spouse. The Big Clock was restructured and remade as the 1987 Kevin Costner hit No Way Out; improbably, that version matches (and arguably surpasses) the original.

Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin; an analysis of the movie by Film London chief executive Adrian Wootton; a piece on Laughton by actor-writer-director Simon Callow; the 1948 radio dramatization starring Milland; a still gallery; and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ***1/2

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Liam Neeson in Cold Pursuit (Photo: Lionsgate)

COLD PURSUIT (2019). Judging from just the trailer, Cold Pursuit appears to be a spoof of Liam Neeson action flicks, starring Neeson himself. After tackling bad guys on a train, on an airplane, and in cars, Neeson now fights them from atop a snowplow. What’s next, Neeson killing criminals while perched on a Segway? Thankfully, there’s more to Cold Pursuit than just the gruff action star grimly running over villains. With Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland remaking his own 2014 film In Order of Disappearance (starring Stellan Skarsgård and Game of Thrones’ Kristofer Hivju), Cold Pursuit is as much black comedy as red-stained thriller, with Neeson cast as a man out to avenge the death of his son. A snowplow driver as well as the newly decorated “Citizen of the Year” in his small Colorado town, Nels Coxman (Neeson) has just learned that his son has died of a heroin overdose. But knowing full well that his son didn’t do drugs, Nels soon finds out that his boy was murdered by the members of a local drug cartel. Starting at the bottom, Nels works — make that kills — his way up the chain of command, with his ultimate goal being mob kingpin Trevor “Viking” Calcote (Tom Bateman). What’s interesting about Cold Pursuit is the manner in which it spins off from the main Death Wish narrative, as time is spent on such subplots as the cartel’s war with another outfit, the investigation by an earnest police officer (Emmy Rossum), and the influence of a quirky young boy (Nicholas Holmes) on both hero and villain. The mix of gore and guffaws works more often than not (though the fade-out gag is too much), and there’s a sharp supporting turn by William Forsythe as Nels’ brother.

Extras on the 4K Ultra HD/Blu-ray pack consist of a behind-the-scenes featurette; deleted scenes; interviews with Neeson and Moland; and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ***

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Jack Lowden and Florence Pugh in Fighting with My Family (Photo: Universal & MGM)

FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY (2019). One need not be a wrestling fan to enjoy Fighting with My Family, a guaranteed crowd-pleaser sure to entertain even those who just always assumed that Hogan was the surname of The Incredible Hulk rather than a lord-of-the-rings superstar in his own right. Turning to both real life and a 2012 documentary for his source material, writer-director Stephen Merchant (co-creator of BBC’s The Office) examines the odyssey of Saraya Bevis (Lady Macbeth’s Florence Pugh), who hails from a family jam-packed with wrestlers. Under the proud tutelage of their parents Patrick (Nick Frost) and Julia (Lena Headey), Saraya, calling herself “Paige” in the ring, and her brother Zac (Jack Lowden), known as “Zac Zodiac,” devote their lives to landing a tryout with the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment). They succeed, but after carefully screening all the applicants, only Paige is chosen by the trainer-scout (Vince Vaughn) to continue the path to possible WWE stardom. Among those sent packing is Zac, who must return to their Norwich, Norfork home in England while Paige heads to Florida for further tryouts. Co-produced by Dwayne Johnson (who also appears as himself), Fighting with My Family is full of rowdy humor (much provided by a garrulous Frost) and introspective moments (most provided by a perfectly cast Pugh), but what elevates the movie’s game is its willingness to also follow Zac as he copes with crushing disappointment. If Paige’s journey infuses the piece with spirit, Zac’s ordeal provides it with poignancy, and the resultant tag team of emotions makes it easy to cheer for this family and this film.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Merchant; a making-of featurette; deleted scenes; and a gag reel.

Movie: ***

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Arno Frisch in Funny Games (Photo: Criterion)

FUNNY GAMES (1997). Slasher flicks and torture porn romps generally get reamed by the critics, but for those enterprising filmmakers seeking a way around that, consider adding a self-referential slant to your movie. It worked for Wes Craven’s Scream (aka “We’re acting just like we would act if we were in a horror film; how totally meta!”) and it worked for Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, which had the added protection of being in a foreign language to give it that art-house sheen. Haneke, who’s in the business of making provocative and entertaining films (The Piano Teacher, Caché, the Oscar-winning Amour), here settles for taking the most obvious route in what’s ostensibly supposed to be a denunciation of violence in the media. The film centers on an Austrian family — mom (Susanne Lothar), dad (Ulrich Mühe), young son (Stefan Clapczynski) and dog — and what happens after two men (Arno Frisch and Frank Giering) invade their home and begin terrorizing them, eventually informing them that they won’t be alive by the next morning. What follows is basically Hostel with subtitles, and, given the very nature of Haneke’s experiment, it’s not hard to figure out exactly how this will end. One character repeatedly breaks the fourth wall to wink at the audience and make pithy comments, but this tactic manages to be both heavy-handed and, in this context, risible. Following in the footsteps of George Sluizer, who had directed the excellent 1988 Dutch thriller The Vanishing and then also helmed the dopey 1993 Hollywood remake, Haneke remade Funny Games for the American market 11 years later; starring Naomi Watts and Tim Roth, it was a sizable bomb.

Blu-ray extras include new interviews with Haneke and Frisch; footage from the press conference at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival with Haneke, Mühe and Lothar; and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: *1/2

Film Title: Happy Death Day 2U
Jessica Rothe in Happy Death Day 2U (Photo: Universal)

HAPPY DEATH DAY 2U (2019). Released in 2017, Happy Death Day added a Groundhog Day wrinkle to the traditional slasher flick and took that notion about as far as it could go (see the review here). Happy Death Day 2U is only partly a repeat of the first film; the rest of the time, it feels more of a piece with Back to the Future Part II, Real Genius, Weird Science, My Science Project, and other teen-centric sci-fi flicks from the hallowed 1980s. But the results are more grasping than ingenious, never disguising the fact that this new slant muddles rather than enhances the appeal of the initial premise. Jessica Rothe returns as Tree, this time learning that her never-ending loop of a day — one in which she died over and over again, only breaking the cycle once she identified the killer — was the result of a science project conceived by Ryan (Phi Vu), the roommate of her boyfriend Carter (Israel Broussard). The gang attempts to get the science project under control; instead, the inadvertent result is that Tree has to again relive that same nightmarish day over and over again — only this time in an alternate universe, and with a different murderer wielding the knife. It plays out as desperately as it sounds, and it strips the original film of the raw power of its premise (Tree even states as much in this new movie). Worse, the murder-mystery angle is now completely obliterated in favor of the rote sci-fi shenanigans as well as a barren side drama involving Tree’s mother (Missy Yager). Whereas the original offered up a number of suspects, this entry basically has one — and, yeah, that’s who it turns out to be. On the plus side, Rothe is again terrific as Tree, and here’s hoping she starts landing more prominent movie roles.

Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; a deleted scene; and a gag reel.

Movie: **

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Princess Mononoke (Photo: Studio Ghibli, GKIDS & Shout! Factory)

PRINCESS MONONOKE (1997). Until Titanic sailed into sight a few months later, Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke was the biggest cinematic blockbuster in Japanese history, topping the formidable Spielberg one-two punch of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and Jurassic Park (Titanic itself was capsized by Miyazaki’s 2001 masterpiece Spirited Away, which even today remains the top-grossing film in that country). Drawing from Japanese folklore while adding plenty of archetypal characters, omniscient mysticism and fast-paced action, this animated feature is extraordinarily ambitious, and while the storyline doesn’t always hold up to scrutiny, the imagery is frequently breathtaking. According to the press material of the day, it reportedly took 144,000 hand-drawn cels and computer-generated images to relate this tale about an ancient battle between a band of humans seeking to tear down a forest and the godlike beasts that vow to protect the woodlands at any cost. Into this squabble comes Ashitaka (voiced in the U.S. dub by Billy Crudup), a young outsider who ends up dealing with both the Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver), a village leader, and Princess Mononoke (Claire Danes), a forest denizen raised since infancy by a regal wolf (Gillian Anderson). Slightly overlong at 133 minutes, this is a visual treat featuring some truly unique creatures — just check out those oddities that look like an unholy cross between Casper the Friendly Ghost and that chattering demon from the Hellraiser flicks.

Princess Mononoke has been re-released on Blu-ray by Studio Ghibli, GKIDS and Shout! Factory in a lavish edition that also contains the soundtrack CD and a 40-page booklet. Extras include feature-length storyboards; TV spots; and theatrical trailers.

Movie: ***1/2

 

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