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.
Galaxy Quest (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.)
THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN (2019). No longer content to dance with wolves, Kevin Costner now dances with dogs as he essays the leading role in The Art of Racing in the Rain. Costner contributes the voice of a Golden Retriever named Enzo, whose owner Denny (Milo Ventimiglia) is a race car driver waiting for his big break. Enzo provides the film’s voice-over narration — and astute commentary — as he witnesses Denny fall for and marry Eve (Amanda Seyfried) and watches as they welcome their daughter Zoe (Ryan Kiera Armstrong in later scenes) into the world. After this comes a frenzy of cancer scares, custody battles, and run-ins with a satanic zebra doll. Even dog lovers (raising my hand here) and specifically Golden Retriever owners (ditto) might balk at the clumsy nature of this adaptation of Garth Stein’s novel. Costner’s soothing drawl works well when Enzo is being philosophical but proves less than ideal when the pooch gets sentimental or discusses his encounters with that psychotic zebra (these scenes are the worst in the entire film). Eve registers as nothing more than a plot device — and not always the most sympathetic one, at that. Ultimately, the movie gets bogged down in tiresome squabbles between Denny and his in-laws (Martin Donovan and Kathy Baker), culminating in a courtroom sequence of astounding stupidity. And where’s Enzo in all this? He’s back on the couch, thinking excitedly about the day after he has passed on that he can come back as a human. That’s right: The movie’s shining message is that noble, courageous, and self-sacrificing dogs can only be improved by becoming sinful, shallow, stupid human beings. This brutal and depressing notion brings new meaning to the term “animal cruelty.”
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director Simon Curtis and making-of featurettes.
DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES (1962). From The Lost Weekend to Leaving Las Vegas, there’s been a decent amount of films about the effects of alcoholism — this is one of the best. Jack Lemmon stars as Joe Clay, a San Francisco public relations man who falls for his boss’s secretary, Kirsten Arnesen (Lee Remick). Joe is a social drinker while Kirsten never touches the stuff — that changes, however, once Joe convinces her to join him in his boozing. Eventually, Joe morphs from a social drinker into a full-blown alcoholic, and Kirsten soon follows suit. They both attempt to break the habit, but even Kirsten’s father (Charles Bickford) and Joe’s AA sponsor (Jack Klugman) can’t keep them away from the bottle for long. Director Blake Edwards and scripter JP Miller (adapting his own teleplay) steadfastly avoid any cheap sentimentality or easy moralizing, preferring to keep the project sober and raw. Lemmon has given a sizable number of terrific performances over his career, and this one qualifies as a Top 10 entry — the scene in which he destroys a greenhouse while searching for a hidden bottle of booze is painful to watch. As for Remick, she’s never been better, and, like Lemmon, she’s also at the center of some searing sequences (we watch her degenerate from a loving mother into someone who barely remembers that she has a daughter). Nominated for five Academy Awards (including nods for Lemmon and Remick), this earned the statue for Best Original Song (“Days of Wine and Roses”) for Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by Edwards; an interview with Lemmon (the sort where he’s seen on the phone answering questions and local outlets can thereafter plug in their own reporter on the other end of the line); and a pair of theatrical trailers.
FAST & FURIOUS PRESENTS: HOBBS & SHAW (2019). While an animated Calvin and Hobbes movie might seem like a better bet, a Hobbs and Shaw film at least would provide a fair amount of mounting excitement surrounding the exploits of its own animated leads. That’s certainly what’s offered with this spin-off of the popular vroom-vroom series that began back in 2001. Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) still maintains his testy relationship with Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), which is naturally the driving force behind this picture. Working for an evil organization that operates from the shadows and has the power to distort media information (Fox News?), the genetically enhanced Brixton Lore (Idris Elba) attempts to steal a virus that will be used to destroy everyone deemed inferior. MI6 operative Hattie Shaw (Vanessa Kirby) manages to abscond with the virus before Brixton can nab it, but he retaliates by painting her as a rogue agent. It’s decided that Hobbs and Shaw are the best people to find and arrest her, a decision complicated not only by the men’s hatred of each other but by the fact that Hattie happens to be Shaw’s sister. Since Hobbs & Shaw has so much Fast & Furious DNA in its system, it’s expected that there will be plenty of vehicular action, though these sequences alternate between being rote and being ridiculous (yes, even by the generous standards of this series). Still, it’s the prickly interplay between Hobbs and Shaw that defines Hobbs & Shaw, with Johnson and Statham clearly relishing every opportunity to flex their mouths as much as their muscles. Even when the movie unfortunately extends its stay by heading to Samoa, the banter between the two leads remains energetic and engaging.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director David Leitch; deleted scenes; and featurettes on the various characters.
GALAXY QUEST (1999). Years after the science fiction TV series Galaxy Quest has gone off the air, the show’s stars find themselves relegated to making appearances at sci-fi conventions. But matters take a bizarre turn when aliens known as Thermians, long convinced that the episodes are actually “historical documents,” kidnap the actors, believing them to be actual space heroes who can help them defeat their murderous extra-terrestrial adversaries. That’s the idea behind Galaxy Quest, and it’s a terrific one — it’s just too bad the movie never quite fulfills its promise or its premise. The Star Trek spoofing is spot-on, but writers David Howard and Robert Gordon are far too stingy with the good jokes, rendering the picture mildly amusing rather than relentlessly uproarious. Most of the cast members excel in their roles, particularly Sigourney Weaver as the show’s requisite buxom blonde, Sam Rockwell as the nervous actor worried because his character is expendable, and especially Alan Rickman as the distinguished British thespian disgusted that he’s been reduced to playing an alien science officer. Unfortunately, top-billed Tim Allen is miscast as the egotistical actor who plays the show’s heroic captain; too shallow a performer to fully mine the humor inherent in the character’s narcissism (first choices Alec Baldwin and Kevin Kline would have been far better), he again demonstrates that he’s the thespian equivalent of a black hole.
Paramount is celebrating the 20th anniversary of Galaxy Quest with a new Blu-ray Steelbook edition. Extras include an on-screen “Galactopedia” (info about the film); a making-of featurette; deleted scenes; a piece on the visual effects; and, amusingly, the audio option to watch the entire film in Thermian.
THE KITCHEN (2019). Don’t let the headliners fool you. Despite the presence of powerhouse comediennes Melissa McCarthy and Tiffany Haddish, The Kitchen is no laughing matter. Rather, it’s yet another crime drama that’s married to the mob, albeit with one key difference. Instead of a Tony Montana or a Tommy DeVito, this one’s all about the ladies. Initially, Kathy (McCarthy), Ruby (Haddish) and Claire (Elisabeth Moss) are presented as the damsels in distress and under duress. Set in the late 1970s in NYC’s Hell’s Kitchen district, the film reveals that these women are married to mid-level Irish mobsters of varying temperaments. A robbery gone wrong leads to all three men being sent to prison, thus leaving their spouses with no financial support but also a burning need to take matters into their own hands. Based on the Vertigo comic series, The Kitchen certainly isn’t lacking for conflicts. What it’s missing, though, is any semblance of a moral center to hold it together. In such films as 1931’s Little Caesar and 1990’s GoodFellas, the pleasure comes in watching these amoral yet intriguing characters enjoy the good-bad life before ultimately learning that crime doesn’t pay. In The Kitchen, writer-director Andrea Berloff clearly views her protagonists as heroines, in the process confusing murderous rage with feminist ideology. At first, there’s pleasure in watching these women who’ve been kept under heel their entire lives get the upper hand in a disgustingly patriarchal society. But, to quote everyone’s favorite uncle, with great power comes great responsibility, and we see none of that in The Kitchen. For a superior film with similar themes, check out Steve McQueen’s Widows, which landed on my 10 Best list for 2018.
Blu-ray extras consist of a pair of making-of featurettes and a deleted scene.
KUNDUN (1997). At first glance, one would assume that this look at the life of Tibet’s current Dalai Lama would serve as a worthy companion piece to Martin Scorsese’s 1988 masterpiece The Last Temptation of Christ. But Scorsese didn’t have a personal stake in this material as he did with Temptation (and, later, 2016’s Silence). At the time of the film’s release, screenwriter Melissa Mathison tellingly stated that “[Scorsese] wasn’t involved in the Tibetan cause. He didn’t know Tibetans. He wasn’t a student of the history of Buddhism. For him, it’s about imagery.” This is evident throughout the course of Kundun, which is mesmerizing as visual pageantry but anemic when it comes to allowing access to this man or his religion. The movie traces the early years of Tenzin Gyatso, from the age of 2 (when he was acknowledged as the 14th reincarnation of the Buddha of Compassion) to young adulthood. Scorsese and Mathison provide all the narrative trimmings, but they never pose any questions or seek any answers — thus, the insights are surface-deep and, unlike Jesus in Temptation, the Dalai Lama remains an impenetrable icon. Still, Scorsese has managed to make a movie that’s technically resplendent, and the art direction by Dante Ferretti and Francesca Lo Schiavo, the costumes by Ferretti, the fragile score by Philip Glass, and especially the shimmering cinematography by Roger Deakins all picked up richly deserved Oscar nominations.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by film historian Peter Tonguette; interviews with Scorsese, Mathison, and Glass; the 1993 documentary Compassion in Exile; the 1998 documentary In Search of Kundun with Martin Scorsese; and the theatrical trailer.
MATEWAN (1987). Writer-director John Sayles has spent his career genre-hopping with remarkable ease, whiplashing from mystery (Lone Star) to sports (Eight Men Out) to science fiction (The Brother from Another Planet) and beyond (the beyond including the three music videos he made for songs from Bruce Springsteen’s landmark album Born in the U.S.A.). With Matewan, Sayles turns his attention to a decidedly unsexy subject — labor disputes in 1920s West Virginia — and emerges with yet another winner. Based on a factual incident, the picture looks at the efforts of coal miners in the town of Matewan to form a union despite the violent opposition of the coal company and its insidious agents. Representing the miners is outside organizer Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper making an impressive film debut), a self-described “Red” whose pacifism might end up being his undoing. Matewan is a richly textured film, boosted by Haskell Wexler’s Oscar-nominated cinematography and boasting a remarkable cast of established stars, promising newcomers, and Sayles regulars. Every performance feels authentic, starting with Cooper as the dedicated union man and continuing with James Earl Jones as a laborer who accepts the “n” word but refuses to be called a scab, Mary McDonnell as the strong-willed widow who runs a boarding house, David Strathairn as the police chief who will protect his town and its people at all costs, and Kevin Tighe and Gordon Clapp as a pair of particularly despicable heavies employed by the coal company.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary (from 2013) by Sayles and Wexler; a pair of new making-of pieces; and an interview with composer Mason Daring.
OPHELIA (2019). In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the Danish prince’s lady love clearly loses her mind and ends up drowning, but in this offbeat offshoot, the waters are more murky. Hard-line traditionalists might clutch their thesis papers and faint, but those interested in radical approaches to art will be amused at how this picture colors in certain details — and, until the lamentable denouement, it does so without ever straying outside the margins. Daisy Ridley essays the role of Ophelia, who’s no longer a supporting character in someone else’s show but rather the headliner. Thus, it’s largely through her eyes that we watch as Hamlet (George MacKay) is rocked by the death of his father and suspects that Claudius (Clive Owen, sporting an unfortunate, Monty Python-esque wig), now married to his mother (a fiery Naomi Watts), was responsible. There’s great fun in watching the liberties taken by Ophelia and understanding that none of it runs contrary to what was set in stone in Shakespeare’s original. That’s why the final act ranks as such a disappointment. After carefully bridging the gap between the two narratives for almost the entirety, there was an inexplicable decision to suddenly toss the play out the window and make everything up. The climactic scuffle differs from the original text in ways that cannot be covered up, and these perplexing plot pirouettes only serve to weaken our admiration for what director Claire McCarthy and co. have accomplished up to this moment. What’s the point in someone adhering to meticulously set rules if they’re only going to cheat anyway? It’s a debilitating flaw but not a destructive one, as the majority of Ophelia is a bold and brainy undertaking. But this lazy, last-minute revision does run counter to the carefully structured storyline that preceded it, and there’s the rub.
Blu-ray extras consist of cast and crew interviews; deleted scenes; and the theatrical trailer.
THE RETURN OF MARTIN GUERRE (1982). Incredibly based on a true story, this French import centers on Martin Guerre, a 16th-century man who marries his sweetheart Bertrande (Nathalie Baye) before leaving his village to partake in a war. It’s seven years before he returns, but this Martin Guerre (Gérard Depardieu) somehow seems different, particularly in the way he now treats his wife — whereas before he was harsh and aloof, now he’s tender and romantic. Everyone initially accepts this stranger as their long-lost family member, neighbor, etc., but after getting into an altercation with his uncle (Maurice Barrier), the latter suspects that this man might be an imposter and gets the law involved. If it’s proven that this person is indeed not the real Martin Guerre, then the punishment will be death by hanging. Although the answer to the is-he-or-isn’t-he question is never really in doubt, this is nonetheless a fascinating film that benefits from an intelligent screenplay co-written by director Daniel Vigne and the estimable Jean-Claude Carrière, its meticulous recreation of another era (the film earned Anne-Marie Marchand an Academy Award nomination for Best Costume Design), and a superb central performance by Depardieu, who makes his character such a warm and inviting individual that most audience members will hope he’s the real deal and still support him even if he isn’t. An art-house hit stateside, The Return of Martin Guerre was remade by Hollywood in 1993 as the so-so Sommersby, starring Richard Gere and Jodie Foster.
Blu-ray extras consist of an interview with Baye; the original theatrical trailer; and the restoration trailer.
SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK (2019). In the spirit of those Amicus anthology productions of yore — portmanteau pictures like Tales from the Crypt, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, and From Beyond the Grave (reviewed last week here) — comes Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Based on the children’s book series by Alvin Schwartz (with no less than Guillermo del Toro having a hand in the screenplay), this cobbles together various spooky tales by having them appear in a haunted book found by a group of teenagers residing in a small Pennsylvania town in the late 1960s. The citizens of Mill Valley have long heard the legend of the crazed Sarah Bellows, who once lived in a nearby mansion with the rest of her family. On Halloween night, Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) and her friends opt to check out the now-deserted house, in the process coming across a book with stories written by Sarah. Stella removes the book from the premises, and soon new stories are appearing before her eyes, being written in blood by a seemingly invisible hand and all involving her friends (and one foe) meeting with grisly ends. The individual stories-within-the-story, while relatively shallow, are engaging enough, brought to life by innovative special effects and director André Øvredal’s flair for the dramatic. It’s just a shame the main storyline is so feeble. Stella and her friends set about investigating the mystery of Sarah Bellows — they take trips to the library and a hospital — but it plays like warmed-over Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys fodder. We’re here for the horror, and the movie might have functioned better had it shucked the middling mystery and centered solely on the creature features.
Blu-ray extras include a piece on bringing the books to the screen; a look at the various monsters; and behind-the-scenes footage.
SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS (1999). This adaptation of David Guterson’s novel is one big chill, a creeping terror that abandons any semblance of true emotion for the sake of cold-blooded craftmanship. Set in the Pacific Northwest in the years following World War II, this finds a Japanese-American (Rick Yune) on trial for the murder of his Caucasian neighbor (Eric Thal). It’s a tale of heart-poisoning prejudice, reflected not only by the uneasiness that exists between the ethnically mixed members of this community but also in the relationship between the wife (Youki Kudoh) of the accused and a local journalist (Ethan Hawke) who loved each other as youngsters but were forced by societal pressure to go their own ways. Director Scott Hicks is so intent on creating indelible images that draw attention to their own artistry that he and scripter Ron Bass forget to imbue the movie with any sense of life. Despite a stellar supporting cast (Max von Sydow, Sam Shepard and James Cromwell, among others) and Robert Richardson’s Oscar-nominated cinematography, Snow Falling on Cedars is so muted on every front — from the thudding flashbacks to the lethargic trial sequences to the dreary central performance by Hawke — that the only thing that moves with any purpose in this picture is the weather.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Hicks; new interviews with Hicks, Guterson, Richardson and composer James Newton Howard; deleted scenes; a piece on the restoration of the film; and the theatrical trailer.
THE SWAN PRINCESS (1994). Like Hook, Hocus Pocus, and a few other family-friendly flicks from the 1990s, The Swan Princess was so beloved by its target audience back in the day that nostalgia has convinced these now-grown-up fans that the movie is actually excellent. Certainly, this animated effort is better than the aforementioned pair, even if it ultimately falls short of being particularly distinguished. Based on the classic Swan Lake, the story finds the beautiful Princess Odette (voiced by Michelle Nicastro) placed under a spell by the evil Lord Rothbart (Jack Palance), much to the displeasure of Prince Derek (Howard McGillin). The curse causes Princess Odette to turn into a swan, but she hopes to break the spell with the help of not only Prince Derek but also her newfound animal friends: the frog Jean-Bob (John Cleese), the turtle Speed (Steven Wright), and the puffin Puffin (Steve Vinovich). Released theatrically by New Line Cinema, The Swan Princess looked especially puny when it arrived in the midst of the Disney toon renaissance, yet distance from those classics reveals that it possesses some minor charms. The songs aren’t memorable but they’re also not awful, and while the animation is flat, the story being told contains a few rousing sequences and a smattering of amusing bits (best of all is Rothbart doing a one-armed pushup, just as Palance had done on the Oscar stage when collecting his Best Supporting Actor award for 1991’s City Slickers). Although it was a box office disappointment, The Swan Princess has led to (so far) eight straight-to-video sequels, with the earliest appearing in 1997 and the most recent debuting approximately four months ago.
Blu-ray extras consist of a retrospective piece; a vintage making-of featurette; and five sing-alongs.