Brad Pitt in Ad Astra (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.)

Brad PittAd Astra 20th Century Fox
Brad Pitt in Ad Astra (Photo: Fox)

AD ASTRA (2019). If Apocalypse Now airlifted Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and released it smack in the middle of the Vietnam War, then Ad Astra takes hold of the material and blasts it into outer space. A cautious and contemplative movie that also dropkicks Tarkovsky and Kubrick into the conversation, Ad Astra (Latin for “to the stars”) is a dazzling slice of science fiction, a film that moves to its own rhythms while showcasing starry vistas that are sure to elicit gasps with their you-are-there expansiveness and clarity (the effects are simply astounding). Created by writer-director James Gray and co-scripter Ethan Gross, this finds Brad Pitt cast as Major Roy McBride, who followed in the footsteps of his famous father by becoming an astronaut. But Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) has been missing for well over a decade, seemingly lost to the cosmos. Yet at the same time that a series of mysterious power surges have been pummeling Earth, the militarized United States Space Command is led to believe that not only might Clifford be alive after all these years but that he could have something to do with these surges that threaten to irreparably damage our planet. Space Command wants Roy to venture into space and locate his father, and if Clifford McBride has indeed gone insane, there are those ready to terminate with extreme prejudice. In lesser hands, the father-son thread might have seemed insipid in the midst of such visionary sights and reflective musings. But thanks to Gray’s patience and Pitt’s intuitive and heartfelt turn, it’s a worthy hook for Ad Astra. If Clifford McBride is the movie’s Monolith — mysterious, impenetrable, and lording over the cosmos — then Roy McBride is its Star Child — inquisitive, open-eyed, and ripe for rebirth.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director James Gray; a making-of featurette; and deleted scenes.

Movie: ★★★½

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Harvey Keitel, Richard Pryor and Yaphet Kotto in Blue Collar (Photo: Kino)

BLUE COLLAR (1978). Paul Schrader, screenwriter extraordinaire (Taxi Driver, First Reformed, and on and on and on), made his directorial debut with this hard-hitting drama about three Detroit auto workers who can’t ever catch a break. Trapped between an unfeeling corporation and an uncaring union, Zeke (Richard Pryor), Jerry (Harvey Keitel) and Smokey (Yaphet Kotto) are barely making ends meet. When the opportunity presents itself to steal from the union, they take it, little realizing that their decision will complicate their lives even further. Co-written by Schrader with his brother Leonard, Blue Collar is a deeply pessimistic movie that remains frightfully relevant today. Yet what really sticks to the ribs isn’t even the sociopolitical aspects of the piece but rather its study of friendship. The bonds between the three men are inspiring and even touching, which makes the disturbing freeze-frame finale even tougher to stomach. The tragedy of Pryor’s career is that Hollywood rarely knew how to use his phenomenal talents (The Toy? Really?), but here he lands one of his best roles and responds with an excellent dramatic turn (albeit one laced with generous servings of biting comedy). Keitel is also noteworthy, although I was most affected by Kotto’s finely etched performance as the smartest of the trio.

Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by Schrader and journalist Maitland McDonagh and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ★★★½

DOWNTON ABBEY
Maggie Smith and Michelle Dockery in Downton Abbey (Photo: Universal)

DOWNTON ABBEY (2019). Say this about the 21st-century spate of TV-to-film adaptations, whether they be good (Sex and the City), bad (Entourage), or ugly (Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie): They’re very user-friendly, allowing newbies to join the party without having to prepare much beforehand. Regardless of the source, a motion picture needs to stand on its own, and like these previous boob-tube transfers, Downton Abbey succeeds in this capacity. Spoiler: I never watched series that ran from 2010 to 2015, although I of course knew of its premise and even some of its characters. Subsequent spoiler: It didn’t matter, as the movie immediately establishes its players before proceeding with the business at hand. In this case, that business would be an imminent visit from the British royals — specifically, King George V (Simon Jones), Queen Mary (Geraldine James), and Princess Mary (Kate Phillips). The occupants of Downton Abbey, among them Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), Lady Mary Talbot (Michelle Dockery) and Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith), anticipate their regal guests with the requisite stiff upper lips, while the staff, including returning head butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) and head maid Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt), begin making preparations. Naturally, subplots abound. After a typically hyperactive movie year, Downton Abbey will prove to be just the soothing nightcap sought by many viewers eager for something that’s all talk and no action. (In the world of this movie, an action scene is when someone hits a hot-water pipe with a shovel.) It’s a gentle picture about genteel people, as witty and warm as one might hope.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director Michael Engler; cast interviews; a series recap; and deleted scenes.

Movie: ★★★

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Renée Zellweger in Judy (Photo: Lionsgate)

JUDY (2019). Judy, the screen adaptation of Peter Quilter’s play (End of the Rainbow) about Judy Garland, places Renée Zellweger at an incredible disadvantage. It’s always more impressive — and generally preferable — when actors do their own singing in movies, and Zellweger can certainly sing. But Judy Garland is one of the great singers of all time — no one, absolutely no one, had a voice like hers — and hearing Zellweger offer her renditions of “Over the Rainbow” and “The Trolley Song” provides no more emotional resonance than hearing a cover band tackle The Beatles or Bob Dylan. And yet Zellweger is still the best thing about Judy, a shaky biopic that looks at the mercurial entertainer near the end of her rough’n’tumble life. Zellweger doesn’t completely disappear into the part as thoroughly as, say, Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles or Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison, but she still captures the tragic dimensions of a woman whose larger-than-life persona threatened to swallow whole not only herself but those around her. Judy centers on the period at the end of 1968 when the actress — bitter, broke, and boozing — arrives in London for several concerts at the popular venue The Talk of the Town. By linking flashback sequences of Garland’s youth to her London gig, Judy vividly demonstrates how this poor child never stood a chance at the beginning and how this informed the difficulties encountered throughout her entire life. But the tragic dimensions never reverberate beyond what we already knew about this remarkable, tortured talent, as the movie settles into the same boilerplate cadences employed by too many screen biopics. The title of Judy might hint at a comprehensive biopic, but the end result — entertaining yet erratic — yields only Munchkin-sized dividends.

Blu-ray extras consist of a making-of featurette; an image gallery; and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ★★½

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Paul Muni in Scarface (Photo: Universal)

SCARFACE (1932). A Molotov cocktail of a movie, Scarface was one of the most controversial films of its era. Loosely based on the mob activities of Al Capone and other Chicago hoodlums, this film so agitated the Hays Office censorship board that they insisted producer Howard Hughes and director Howard Hawks make numerous changes; when those edits failed to satisfy the censors, the two Howards opted to go back to their original cut and release the film without official approval (it was a box office smash). Paul Muni gives a dynamic, animalistic performance as Tony Camonte, a natural born killer who rises from mob flunky to crime kingpin. Unlike most of the gangsters played by Cagney, Bogart and Robinson, Muni’s Camonte isn’t particularly smart, brave or self-aware; instead, he’s a simple-minded ape who succeeds by pure force and is eventually exposed as a coward when the chips are down. The film’s violence drew the bulk of the protests, though it’s difficult to believe anyone could have missed Tony’s incestuous feelings toward his teenage sister (Ann Dvorak). George Raft, who counted numerous gangsters among his real-life pals, is effective as Tony’s coin-flipping henchman, while Boris Karloff, a year after attaining stardom in Frankenstein, pops up as a rival crime lord.

Scarface, which was originally included as a DVD extra in the Blu-ray package for Brian De Palma’s 1983 remake, has finally received its own Blu-ray edition. Extras consist of an alternate ending and an introduction by the late Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne.

Movie: ★★★½

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Lon Chaney Jr. and Anne Nagel in Man Made Monster (Photo: Shout! Factory & Universal)

UNIVERSAL HORROR COLLECTION VOLUME 3 (1939-1941). The third such box set to be released by Shout! Factory in the past seven months — Volume 1 is reviewed here and Volume 2 is covered here — this one least justifies the monstrous connotations of the header, despite the presence of Boris Karloff in one movie and the actual word “Horror” in the title of another.

The flawed but worthwhile Tower of London (1939) won’t be confused with Shakespeare, but it’s a fairly diverting historical epic focusing on Richard III (Basil Rathbone) and how he murders his way to the top with the help of the executioner Mord (Karloff). Another horror icon, Vincent Price, appears in one of his earliest roles as the whimpering Duke of Clarence.

The only true horror yarn in the set, Man Made Monster (1941) stars Lon Chaney Jr. as an electrically endowed man who falls under the spell of a demented scientist (Lionel Atwill). Chaney brings pathos to his role, supported by fine makeup and visual effects. This was Chaney’s first horror film for Universal; his next, 1941’s superb The Wolf Man, would make him a star.

The Black Cat (1941) is not to be confused with the 1934 Boris Karloff-Bela Lugosi film (included in Volume 1) nor the Edgar Allan Poe story (although Poe does get a shout-out in the credits). Instead, it’s a mystery in which a wealthy matriarch (Cecilia Loftus) is murdered by one of the relatives who have gathered at her estate. Basil Rathbone and a young Alan Ladd play two of the in-laws, Lugosi is the nosy groundskeeper, and Hugh Herbert and Broderick Crawford offer heavy-handed comic relief.

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Horror Island (Photo: Shout! Factory & Universal)

The humor flows more naturally in Horror Island (1941), the most enjoyable film in the set. Despite the title, this is another mystery, this one involving a group of treasure hunters who gather at a creaky castle on a remote island, where they have to contend with a killer known only as “The Phantom.” This one benefits from bright performances (particularly Lewis Howard as the blasé playboy Thurman Coldwater), a breezy pace, and a surprising denouement.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentaries on all four titles by various film historians; still galleries for all four pictures; and the theatrical trailers for The Black Cat and Horror Island.

Tower of London: ★★½

Man-Made Monster: ★★½

The Black Cat: ★★½

Horror Island: ★★★

 

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