Al Pacino in Cruising (Photo: Arrow)

(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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Alexia Keogh in An Angel at My Table (Photo: Criterion)

AN ANGEL AT MY TABLE (1990). Before achieving her pinnacle of perfection with the 1993 masterpiece The Piano, Jane Campion had already been making waves both in her native New Zealand and abroad, first with her short films and then with her homegrown indie efforts. Her debut feature, 1989’s Sweetie, was followed by the even more acclaimed drama An Angel at My Table, which was originally conceived as a television miniseries before being introduced on the film festival circuit (where it won numerous awards). Directed by Campion and adapted by Laura Jones from New Zealand author Janet Frame’s trio of autobiographies (To the Is-Land, An Angel at My Table and The Envoy from Mirror City), the film traces the difficult life of Janet, following her travails as she grows from a little girl (played by Alexia Keogh) to a teenager (Karen Fergusson) to an adult woman (Kerry Fox). Perpetually awkward and ill-at-ease, Janet is misdiagnosed for many years as a schizophrenic, leading to lengthy stays in a mental asylum, countless electroshock sessions, and even the possibility of a lobotomy. But Janet survives any and all ordeals to emerge as one of her country’s most celebrated authors. An Angel at My Table, then, is effective as a biopic but even more noteworthy as a celebration of the creative process and its ability to hone, heal, and save.

Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary (from 2005) by Campion, Fox, and director of photography Stuart Dryburgh; a 2002 making-of featurette; deleted scenes; a 1983 audio interview with Frame; a stills gallery; and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ***

Jackson Dunn (Finalized)
Jackson A. Dunn in Brightburn (Photo: Sony)

BRIGHTBURN (2019). In concept, Brightburn sounds like a DC variation of Marvel’s What If? line, those alternate stories that asked questions like “What If the World Knew Daredevil Was Blind?” and “What If Loki Had Found the Hammer of Thor?” In execution, it plays like yet another underwhelming adaptation of The Omen. What if Superman had been evil instead of heroic? That’s the thrust as an alien infant crashlands on Earth and is adopted by this movie’s version of Ma and Pa Kent (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman). Initially, Brandon is a normal boy, but once he reaches the age of 12 (played at this point by Jackson A. Dunn), something much worse occurs to his body than mere puberty. He acquires superhuman strength, but rather than use his power for good, this superbad boy employs it to destroy anyone who upsets him. It’s an intriguing premise, and it’s astonishing how little the film does with it. Director David Yarovesky and scripters Brian Gunn and Mark Gunn are more interested in churning out a standard horror flick complete with pumped-up gore than in exploring this angle in any depth. The 2012 drama Chronicle wielded a similar scenario when a high school kid acquired superpowers and allowed his own petty human foibles to sour the gift — perhaps because Brandon is an e.t., the Gunns opted to make him just a surly individual with no remorse for anything. But it’s a limiting approach, transforming this into just another slasher flick in which a soulless individual bloodily dispatches all naysayers. If viewers really want to watch a tepid movie in which a superhero kills innocent people, they might as well subject themselves to the dismal Man of Steel one more time.

DVD extras include audio commentary by Yarovesky, director of photography Michael Dallatore, and costume designer Autumn Steed; a making-of featurette; and promos.

Movie: **

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Al Pacino and Richard Cox in Cruising (Photo: Arrow)

CRUISING (1980). There was no shortage of controversy dogging the cinema of 1980, thanks to such efforts as Dressed to Kill, Maniac, Windows and I Spit on Your Grave. Also wading into the fray was William Friedkin’s Cruising, which found its production repeatedly disrupted by gay activists who objected to its storyline. Al Pacino (clearly too old for the role) stars as Steve Burns, a young cop who’s assigned by his superior (Paul Sorvino) to find out who’s been killing homosexuals who frequent NYC’s underground S&M scene. To do so, Burns must leave behind his girlfriend (Karen Allen, a year before Raiders of the Lost Ark), move into an apartment under an alias, and pretend to be gay while prowling seedy nightlife venues. Filmed in actual gay bars and with the participation of those regulars who weren’t offended by the topic, Cruising certainly captures a specific milieu (think Village People with less songs and more masochism), but it’s an absolute bust as a murder-mystery, as a character study (the film is remarkably coy about exactly what Burns will and will not do on the job), and as an in-depth look at an alternative culture. The offensive nature only really rears its head at the end, when an ambiguous — and ludicrous — twist suggests that gays make both the best killers and the best victims. Joe Spinell, writer-star of the aforementioned Maniac, appears as a closeted cop while Powers Boothe, about to break out thanks to the TV movie Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones, appears briefly as a store clerk who explains to Burns the color-coded meanings of various hankies in the pocket.

Blu-ray extras consist of both new and archival audio commentaries by Friedkin; a pair of 2007 behind-the-scenes retrospective pieces, one focusing on the production and the other examining the controversy; and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: *1/2

Film Title: A Dog's Journey
Dennis Quaid in A Dog’s Journey (Photo: Universal & Amblin)

A DOG’S JOURNEY (2019). The 2017 movie A Dog’s Purpose suffered from the very nature of its premise, which is that its pup protagonist gets reincarnated several times as it keeps trying to get back to its original owner. Reincarnation is nice and all, but who the hell wants to watch a dog die repeatedly over the course of a film? It’s hard enough witnessing the dog pass away of old age at the end of a couple of its lives, but seeing one mutt get euthanized and another get shot point blank in the stomach isn’t this dog lover’s idea of a good time. Still, the movie isn’t without its charms, as the pooches are fun to watch and the story is fairly engaging until its heavily schematic third act. Not so with A Dog’s Journey. Picking up a few years after the original, this finds Bailey (again voiced by Josh Gad) growing old alongside original owner Ethan (Dennis Quaid) and Ethan’s wife Hannah (Marg Helgenberger). Also living with them is Hannah’s widowed daughter-in-law (Betty Gilpin), described as “the worst mother in the world,” and her little girl CJ (Abby Ryder Fortson). Ethan charges Bailey with always looking after his granddaughter, so after the elderly mutt gets put down (again), he’s reincarnated as various dogs all sharing the mission of keeping an eye on CJ (played in her older years by Kathryn Prescott). It would be easy to glibly describe A Dog’s Journey as a remake of A Dog’s Purpose rather than a sequel (watch adorable doggies routinely meet their demise!) except for the fact that the focus no longer is on the canines as much as it’s on the humans. Bailey is still the connective tissue, but more emphasis is placed on the travails of CJ and those in her life, rendering this a stale melodrama that doesn’t exhibit much bite, much bark, or, really, much of anything.

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

Movie: **

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Jimmy Cliff in The Harder They Come (Photo: Shout! Factory)

THE HARDER THEY COME (1972) / NO PLACE LIKE HOME (1973/2006). As the most famous of all Caribbean flicks, and as the movie that brought reggae to the world (including the U.S.), The Harder They Come needs little introduction. Jimmy Cliff is appealing as Ivan Martin, a naïve youngster whose dreams of becoming a famous singer are dashed by crushing poverty and rampant corruption. It’s only after Ivan becomes a successful criminal that his musical career likewise begins to ascend. Jamaican filmmaker Perry Henzell keeps his camera focused on the shantytowns of Kingston — there’s no postcard prettiness in this film — and the result is a rough, raw and realistic work that became a box office sensation in its homeland and a cult favorite stateside. The legendary soundtrack includes “You Can Get It If You Really Want,” “Rivers of Babylon,” and the title tune.

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Susan O’Meara and Carl Bradshaw in No Place Like Home (Photo: Shout! Factory)

Following the success of The Harder They Come, Henzell tried to make No Place Like Home, but financing ran out and he had to abandon the project. It was only in the mid-2000s that he and his friends were able to get their hands on the long-lost footage and bring the picture to life (Henzell passed away in 2006, but only after he finally saw a screening of his movie). No Place Like Home is a gentler work than The Harder They Come in its flow and many of its images (more of the country’s beauty shines through in this one), but it still casts a wary eye at the corruption and capitalism that often mar the nation. Susan O’Meara stars as an American filmmaker who travels to Jamaica to shoot a commercial and embarks on a relationship with a local named Carl (Carl Bradshaw). Two familiar faces appear in the supporting cast, and No Place Like Home would have marked both their film debuts had it been released when it was initially filmed: P.J. Soles (Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, Halloween) and Jamaican-born model-singer Grace Jones.

In terms of special features, this Collector’s Edition Blu-ray from Shout! Factory is a 4-star effort. Blu-ray extras on The Harder They Come include audio commentary by author David Katz (Jimmy Cliff: An Unauthorized Biography); a making-of featurette; vintage interviews with Cliff and Henzell; and the music video for “The Harder They Come.” Blu-ray extras on No Place Like Home include the 2015 documentary Perry Henzell: A Filmmaker’s Odyssey and the theatrical trailer. The set also contains a third disc featuring approximately five hours of additional material, including interviews with cast and crew members from The Harder They Come and No Place Like Home; an interview with Ridley Scott (who personally knew Henzell); tours of the Jamaican production and sound studios; and interviews from a recent Reggae Awards show in Kingston.

The Harder They Come: ***
No Place Like Home: ***

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Rebel Wilson and Anne Hathaway in The Hustle (Photo: Universal & MGM)

THE HUSTLE (2019). Itself a remake of 1964’s Bedtime Story, 1988’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a delightful comedy in which a suave British con artist (a terrific Michael Caine) finds his operation in a French seaside community threatened by the arrival of a boorish American swindler (Steve Martin). Realizing that the town ain’t big enough for both of them, they place a wager: Whoever can wrangle $50,000 out of a naïve American millionaire (Glenne Headly) gets to remain while the other has to set up shop elsewhere. The Hustle largely follows this template, with Anne Hathaway playing Caine, Rebel Wilson co-starring as Martin, and Alex Sharp appearing as Headly. Clearly, the gender reversal is meant to set this film apart, but director Chris Addison and scripter Jac Schaeffer take little advantage of the swap. Instead, the first half is basically a carbon copy of the ’88 model (with more vulgarity, of course) while the second part offers a few modest changes that reduce rather than enhance the comedic value. There’s also a feeble romance added to a tale that really has no use for one. Wilson is a gifted comedienne, but her plus-size means that lazy writers will always turn to fat jokes when they can’t think of anything witty — alas, that’s the case here. For her part, Hathaway is generally better at reacting to the comedy than being the comedy — think of The Devil Wears Prada or Get Smart or especially Rachel Getting Married — which means her turn here is particularly undernourished. When her character elects to impersonates a German doctor or a British princess or a Southern airhead, Hathaway should be loose and limber; instead, rigor mortis sets in, a condition also indicative of the stiff production surrounding her.

Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by Addison and a trio of making-of featurettes.

Movie: *1/2

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Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman in Magnificent Obsession (Photo: Criterion)

MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION (1954). Film reviewers may have often dismissed director Douglas Sirk’s opulent 1950s melodramas upon their original releases, but ever since the rediscovery of his works by latter-day critics — not to mention his championing by such filmmakers as Pedro Almodovar, Todd Haynes (whose exceptional 2002 effort Far from Heaven was a homage to Sirk) and Rainer Werner Fassbinder — his stock has only risen. Adapted from Lloyd C. Douglas’ novel, Magnificent Obsession is one of his defining works from that period, with Rock Hudson cast as Bob Merrick, a smug, self-centered playboy whose foolish abandon directly leads to the death of the town’s most respected doctor. Stricken with guilt, Merrick tries to make it up to the doctor’s widow, Helen (Jane Wyman), but she won’t have anything to do with him. In a cruel twist of fate, further actions on his part lead to her going blind; a mutual friend (Otto Kruger) hints that Merrick should seek spiritual guidance, resulting in the disgraced Merrick giving up his hedonistic ways and taking up medicine as his chosen profession. Wyman earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination as the quietly suffering widow who eventually forgives — and falls in love with — the man who destroyed her domestic bliss, yet it’s really Hudson (in a star-making performance) who dominates the film.

Criterion’s Blu-ray edition also contains the 1935 version starring Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor. Extras consist of audio commentary (from 2008) by film scholar Thomas Doherty; a 2009 interview with the film’s screenwriter, Robert Blees; 2008 interviews with filmmakers Allison Anders and Kathryn Bigelow; the 1991 documentary From UFA to Hollywood: Douglas Sirk Remembers; and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ***

Film Review - The Souvenir
Honor Swinton Byrne in The Souvenir (Photo: Lionsgate)

THE SOUVENIR (2019). The Souvenir is based on writer-director Joanna Hogg’s recollections of a period of her life in the 1980s, when she was attending film school while simultaneously embroiled in a toxic relationship. The movie’s focus is on the rocky romance when it should have been on the film school. From Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels to François Truffaut’s Day for Night, countless motion pictures have been made about experienced directors plying their trade, but few have been about novice moviemakers at the earliest, fumbling stages of their careers. Yet these interesting scenes are just the backdrop for the moribund central story of the Hogg surrogate, Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne, daughter of Tilda Swinton), and the mental and emotional abuse she suffers from being in a relationship with a self-centered boor (Tom Burke, exhibiting as much personality as a doorknob). Hogg’s memories mean very much to her, of course, but it isn’t being callous or dismissive to note that, because of the insular nature of her film, they may not mean much to others. Hogg relates her past in a manner that’s often fragmented, frequently frustrating, and stingy with the insights. Perhaps because she knows herself, she didn’t find it necessary to allow others to know her through Julie. But the truth is that her screen alter ego is a formless creation, a wallflower who isn’t allowed to express herself in any meaningful fashion (basically, everyone talks down to her throughout the movie). The Souvenir is a hermetically sealed piece, not unlike a snow globe. Except instead of soothing white flakes, it displays only timidity and tedium.

DVD extras consist of audio commentary by Hogg and a making-of featurette.

Movie: *1/2

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Charles Melton and Yara Shahidi in The Sun Is Also a Star (Photo: Warner & MGM)

THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR (2019). Based on the bestselling YA novel by Nicola Yoon, The Sun Is Also a Star finds two teenagers initially having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. Seventeen-year-old Natasha Kingsley (believably played by 19-year-old Yara Shahidi), who has called New York City her home since she was a little girl, is dismayed since her family is being deported back to Jamaica the very next day, a result of her dad recently getting busted by unholy ICE agents while working in a restaurant. Comparatively speaking, 17-year-old Daniel Bae (not so believably played by 28-year-old Charles Melton) doesn’t have it so bad, but he’s being pressured by his Korean-immigrant parents to become a doctor when all he wants to do is write poetry. Natasha and Daniel meet, and he claims that he can make her fall in love with him in an hour’s time. All this wooing, however, doesn’t distract Natasha from the fact that her family is being forcibly ejected from the USA in less than 24 hours. The Sun Is Also a Star isn’t a movie for cynics, but neither is it really a movie for romantics, most of whom would want some semblance of believability to be present. Rather, it’s a movie for fantasists, since Fate decides every single move made by the protagonists from first frame to last (and the coda somehow manages to even top the ridiculousness of the rest of the film). If there’s one positive to the picture, it would be the location shooting by cinematographer Autumn Durald. The film is very specific with its settings, as our lovebirds visit the Natural Museum of History, the Statue of Liberty, a Harlem hair-care store, and a Greenwich Village coffeehouse, to name just a few of the stops. Then again, this is hardly the first time NYC has been detailed so lovingly. My advice: Skip the movie, buy a travel guide.

The only DVD extra is a making-of featurette.

Movie: *1/2

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1 Comment »

  1. Excellently levelheaded and insightful roundup!

    One tiny historical caveat, however, and not even a film-related one at that… You wrote « … sounds like a DC variation of Marvel’s What If? line, those alternate stories that asked questions like “What If the World Knew Daredevil Was Blind?” and “What If Loki Had Found the Hammer of Thor?” » It’s the other way around, actually: Marvel’s What If was more its version of DC’s established brand of “imaginary stories”, most frequently found in the Superman and Batman titles throughout the Silver Age. Editor Mort Weisinger was especially fond of them.

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