Mia Goth and Anya Taylor-Joy in Emma. (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.)

Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise in Days of Thunder (Photo: Paramount)

DAYS OF THUNDER (1990). Since Days of Thunder was largely filmed at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, the movie was treated by many locals like the Second Coming. The city’s daily newspaper forced a poor reporter to write a non-story begging star Tom Cruise for an interview (no dice); a local TV critic lavished the picture with praise, awarding it an 8 out of 10; and the local premiere featured the presence of a Tom Cruise look-alike who, truth be told, looked more like Paulie from the Rocky pictures. The hoopla was particularly amusing since this pale reworking of Top Gun ended up smacking the Queen City right in her kisser, as one of the opening scenes imposes the word “Charlotte” over a dilapidated barn owned by a good ole boy who enjoys drinking moonshine out of a Mason jar. (It took 1994’s Nell to finally show the rest of the world that, by gum, Charlotte does have running water, electricity, and even tall buildings in this here city!) As far as films featuring footage of the Charlotte Motor Speedway are concerned, this is slightly worse than 1968’s Speedway (with Elvis Presley as a racer and Nancy Sinatra as an IRS auditor) but infinitely better than 1983’s Stroker Ace, one of those cinematic abominations that helped kill off Burt Reynolds’ career. Co-penning the tissue-thin script with — now here’s a shock — Oscar-winning Chinatown scribe Robert Towne, Cruise brings his swagger to the role of Cole Trickle, a hotshot who comes out of nowhere and immediately makes his mark on NASCAR. The similarities to Top Gun aren’t even as annoying as the film’s standing as a vanity piece for Cruise, who makes sure that he looks even prettier than co-star (and eventual wife) Nicole Kidman. Robert Duvall fares best as Cole’s crafty crew chief.

Blu-ray extras consist of an interview with producer Jerry Bruckheimer and an isolated track of Hans Zimmer’s score.

Movie: ★½

E M M A .
Anya Taylor-Joy in Emma. (Photo: Universal)

EMMA. (2020). No, that period after the film’s title isn’t a typo. According to director Autumn de Wilde, the photographer-to-the-stars here making her feature film debut, that punctuation mark is meant to signal that this adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel is, like most other screen versions (Clueless being the major exception), a period piece. (Get it?) Regardless of whether the reason for that dot strikes one as imaginative or inane, it’s hard not to be won over by the rest of the picture. It’s been 24 years since writer-director Douglas McGrath gave us an Emma that showcased Gwyneth Paltrow in a star-making role and surrounded her with a powerhouse supporting cast (Toni Collette, Alan Cumming and Ewan McGregor, among others), and while this latest take may not quite match that one’s vibrancy (particularly during a lumbering opening act), it certainly equals it in its emotional reach. Anya Taylor-Joy, who had her own breakout debut with 2015’s The Witch, plays Emma Woodhouse, the 19th-century busybody who (erroneously) considers herself an impeccable matchmaker. Her intrusive indiscretions are many, as she weaves an enormous romantic web that entangles the sweet Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), the intuitive George Knightley (Johnny Flynn), the dashing Frank Churchill (Callum Turner), and a half-dozen other friends and neighbors. Taylor-Joy’s interpretation of the title character is less warm and less inviting than past portrayals, meaning viewers are kept at arm’s length longer than usual. But once the busy plot takes over and other performers are allowed to bloom (Flynn is particularly good), the picture settles into its agreeable groove.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by de Wilde, screenwriter Eleanor Catton, and director of photography Christopher Blauvelt; deleted scenes; and a gag reel.

Movie: ★★★

Marie-Christine Barrault and Jean-Louis Trintignant in My Night at Maud’s (Photo: Criterion)

ERIC ROHMER’S SIX MORAL TALES (1963-1972). In Arthur Penn’s 1975 Night Moves, Gene Hackman’s character famously declares, “I saw a Rohmer film once. It was kind of like watching paint dry.” Certainly, the movies of French writer-director Eric Rohmer have divided critics and art-house audiences alike, yet for those with a predilection toward the power of conversation, his works can be almost as exciting as any MCU outing. Criterion had earlier assembled the films that comprise Rohmer’s series Six Moral Tales and offered them in a DVD box set; now, they’re finally available on Blu-ray.

Rohmer began making films in 1950, yet his stateside breakthrough came with My Night at Maud’s (1969), the fourth film in the Six Moral Tales series and an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Original Screenplay. A devout Catholic (Jean-Louis Trintignant) falls for a young blonde (Marie-Christine Barrault) he spots in church, but before he can develop a relationship with her, he ends up spending an evening at the home of a divorced woman (Françoise Fabian) who challenges him mentally and emotionally. Few directors are as adept as Rohmer at capturing the messy morality of life, which lends a special kick to the philosophical debates enjoyed by his characters, lengthy chats that (as in real life) paradoxically camouflage as well as illuminate each person’s motives and desires. My Night at Maud’s probably isn’t the best place for a Rohmer novice to start, but seasoned viewers will appreciate its heady pleasures.

Laurence de Monaghan in Claire’s Knee (Photo: Criterion)

More accessible is Claire’s Knee (1970), though dialogue remains the auteur’s instrument of choice — the closest thing to an action scene is when Claire (Laurence de Monaghan) hurts her finger while playing volleyball. This delightful excursion centers on Jérôme (Jean-Claude Brialy), sometimes charming, sometimes infuriating, and always playing elaborate games with members of the opposite sex. Egged on by his fellow intellectual (Aurora Cornu), an author who’s had her own share of relationships, Jérôme flirts with teenage half-sisters Laura (a wonderful Béatrice Romand) and Claire even as he promises to remain faithful to his absent fiancée, a woman he’s marrying with his head rather than his heart. Love, sex, fetishism, and objectification all receive verbal workouts in this witty and wise enterprise.

Haydée Politoff in La Collectionneuse (Photo: Criterion)

As for the remaining films in the series, The Bakery Girl of Monceau (1963) is a likable 23-minute short in which a student (film director Barbet Schroeder, who also produced all six pictures) hangs out with a shop girl while waiting to again bump into the sophisticated woman he often spots on the street; Suzanne’s Career (1963) is a middling 55-minute piece in which a womanizer and his shy friend become interested in the same person; the acclaimed La Collectionneuse (1967) is often hard to take given the insufferable qualities of the various men lusting after a free spirit (Haydée Politoff); and Love In the Afternoon (1972), aka Chloe in the Afternoon, is an intoxicating endeavor in which a happily married man (Bernard Verley) is startled to find an old acquaintance, the independent Chloe (Zouzou), back in his life.

Zouzou and Bernard Verley in Love in the Afternoon (Photo: Criterion)

Blu-ray extras include a 2006 conversation between Rohmer and Schroeder; four short films by Rohmer; archival interviews with Rohmer and several of his actors; and trailers. The set also contains a paperback edition of Six Moral Tales which Rohmer wrote before making the films, and a booklet filled with essays.

The Bakery Girl of Monceau: ★★★

Suzanne’s Career: ★★½

La Collectionneuse: ★★½

My Night at Maud’s: ★★★

Claire’s Knee: ★★★½

Love in the Afternoon: ★★★½

Michael Peña in Fantasy Island (Photo: Sony)

FANTASY ISLAND (2020). Fantasy Island, a dramatic television series that ran for seven seasons (1977-1984) on ABC, has been reconfigured by the Blumhouse team as a horror flick. In other words, this ain’t your parents’ (or possibly even your own) Fantasy Island. It’s a smart approach with which to tackle the show, and the tweaking reaches its pinnacle with a closing bit that truly delivers. And, for a short while, the film maintains interest with a set-up that nicely taps into the original premise. Mr. Roarke (a miscast Michael Peña) has invited five contest winners to his island resort to fulfill their biggest fantasies. Needless to say — and as Mr. Rourke repeatedly states — fantasies have a way of not going where you want or expect, and that’s certainly the case here, as the various scenarios become nightmarish. Yet it’s exactly when the wishes turn dark that the movie turns daft. There are plotholes aplenty to be found in the various segments, and while it’s clever how the trio of scripters (including director Jeff Wadlow) ultimately link everything together, it’s not exactly satisfying since the movie cheats to get there. The final stretch, when the true villain is revealed and the once-primary villain is suddenly demoted to the part of a well-meaning if misguided dope, is so messy, ludicrous and ill-conceived that it makes the earlier missteps pale in comparison. Still, the willingness to mess around with an established TV series should be commended, and hopefully we’ll see more efforts in this vein. Three’s Company as an existential Western? Murder, She Wrote as a raunchy comedy? The mind boggles at the possibilities.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Wadlow and select cast members, and deleted scenes.

Movie: ★★

Alice Krige in Gretel & Hansel (Photo: Warner & Orion)

GRETEL & HANSEL (2020). If looks could thrill — well, they can, meaning that students of spectacular art direction should take a peek at this horror yarn based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Hansel and Gretel. All others, though, might want to pass on a movie whose atmosphere quickly shifts from mesmerizing to moribund. Osgood Perkins, Anthony’s son and the director of the overhyped and underwhelming effort The Blackcoat’s Daughter, again nails the look but not the essence of a satisfying terror tale, as he and scripter Rob Hayes go for profundity but end up with piffle. After the teenage Gretel (Sophia Lillis, briefly The It Girl after appearing in the It flicks) and her younger brother Hansel (Samuel J. Leakey) are tossed out of their home and left to fend for themselves, they eventually find themselves guests at a house buried deep in the forest. Their host is Holda (Alice Krige), an elderly woman who offers them food and beds in exchange for helping with various chores. Gretel grows increasingly suspicious of the old woman’s motives, even more so after she’s told by Holda that they’re both witches. Or at least that’s what the script says — as visualized in the film, Gretel’s powers appear to come from the Force to such a degree that one can’t help but wonder if she’s related to the Skywalkers. The film’s creators clearly hoped to add a feminist slant to their revisionist piece, but it gets lost in a miasma of moroseness and a hodgepodge of half-baked ideas.

The only extra on the Blu-ray is an animated storybook rendition of the film.

Movie: ★★

Kirk Douglas in Lonely Are the Brave (Photo: Kino)

LONELY ARE THE BRAVE (1962). The late Kirk Douglas appeared in his fair share of memorable movies, so it’s worth noting that the actor long professed that Lonely Are the Brave contains one of his own favorite performances. Working from Edward Abbey’s novel Brave Cowboy, formerly blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (who, as shown in 2015’s superb Trumbo, was saved from the fascistic witch hunt by Douglas for Spartacus and Otto Preminger for Exodus) has created a haunting study of what happens when a man from a simpler era finds himself adrift in modern times. Douglas plays Jack Burns, a cowboy who might be living in the middle of the 20th century but acts as if he’s a member of the Old West of the 19th century. Journeying over the land atop his feisty horse and choosing to ignore man-made laws that seem absurd to him (indeed, one particular tirade seems to have served as the inspiration for Five Man Electrical Band’s 1970 hit “Signs”), Burns ends up finding himself on the run from the law, which tries to bring him down through the use of helicopters, radios and other technological advances. Astute viewers might be able to suss out the ironic ending ahead of schedule, but that doesn’t make it any less moving. Douglas’ personable performance anchors the film, though he’s backed by an exemplary cast: Gena Rowlands as his close friend, Walter Matthau as a sympathetic sheriff, George Kennedy as a nasty deputy, and Carroll O’Connor (nine years before All in the Family) as an overworked trucker.

Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historians Howard S. Berger and Steve Mitchell; a discussion of the film by Douglas, Rowlands, Kirk’s son Michael Douglas, and fan Steven Spielberg; a look at Jerry Goldsmith’s score; the theatrical trailer; and trailers for other titles on the Kino label.

Movie: ★★★

The Pink Phink, included in The Pink Panther Cartoon Collection (Photo: Kino Lorber Animation)

THE PINK PANTHER CARTOON COLLECTION (1964-1970). Created for the animated credit sequences in the series of comedies starring Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau, The Pink Panther emerged as a star in his own right, going on to headline theatrical shorts, TV shows, and, yes, those long-running commercials as an insulation company mascot. Having spent the last couple of years releasing all 124 original Pink Panther cartoons in six individual sets, the Kino Lorber label has now packaged all six volumes into one single — and sizable — collection. While the first 92 cartoon shorts had been released theatrically and the final 32 were made for television, there was a constant in Henry Mancini’s instantly recognizable theme music. It had originally appeared in the first Clouseau flick, 1963’s The Pink Panther (earning a Grammy Award and an Oscar nomination), and it was subsequently used in almost all of the feature films as well as the cartoons. It strikes the right note of whimsy for these entertaining shorts in which the title critter repeatedly gets into mischief. The first cartoon, 1964’s The Pink Phink, marks the initial clash between the Panther and his long-suffering nemesis (he’s called The Little Man, but I always thought he looked a bit like an animated Peter Sellers/Clouseau); this was the only Pink Panther cartoon to win an Oscar as Best Animated Short, while 1966’s The Pink Blueprint was the only other entry to nab a nomination. The Pink Panther series may not have matched the artistry or eccentricity of the Looney Tunes franchise or the earliest Disney cartoons, but just try not to be entertained by the antics of this silent cel superstar.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentaries on many episodes and a handful of retrospective making-of featurettes.

Collection: ★★★

James Marsden in Sonic the Hedgehog (Photo: Paramount)

SONIC THE HEDGEHOG (2020). While some might have preferred a starring vehicle for Deadpool’s Negasonic Teenage Warhead and others may have opted for a mainstream film starring Ron “The Hedgehog” Jeremy, the reality is that viewers have instead been handed Sonic the Hedgehog, a shrug-inducing feature based on the Sega video game. In this live-action/CGI hybrid, the Sega-Sonic Teenage Bedhead — a blue-furred extra-terrestrial hedgehog with the ability to run at an incredible speed — is presented with a slight backstory before he’s propelled to Earth via a ring left over from the set of the Tolkien trilogy. After roughly a decade on our planet, he ends up bonding with small-town sheriff Tom Wachowski (James Marsden) while steering clear of the crazed genius Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey). The headline story coming out of Sonic the Hedgehog was the return of Carrey, who, after a 15-year reign as a top box office star, had been largely MIA over the past decade. Seeing Carrey back in action made me realize that I didn’t really miss him: His brand of slapstick shtick, always an acquired taste anyway, feels particularly moldy at this point in time. Sonic the Hedgehog is one big sugar rush, devoid of any real thrills as it zips from one frantic set-piece to the next. To the film’s credit, Sonic (voiced by Ben Schwartz) is actually an engaging character, but all of his speed-racer exploits are instantly forgettable, and the sideline grown-up drama (Marsden’s lawman must decide whether to move to another city to further spread his wings or remain put) might bore adult and offspring alike.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Schwartz and director Jeff Fowler; deleted scenes; and bloopers. The release also contains a limited edition comic book.

Movie: ★★

Ben Affleck (right) in The Way Back (Photo: Warner)

THE WAY BACK (2020). The Way Back is two-thirds alkie drama, one-third sports flick. It’s designed to make viewers cheer while rooting for an underdog team and jeer when witnessing the cruelties that life has dumped upon its tortured protagonist. Ben Affleck, in a role that he confessed offered him catharsis given his real-life woes, plays Jack Cunningham, a former high school basketball star whose alcoholism has dominated his life for quite some time. Long separated from his wife (Janina Gavankar), Jack works construction by day and works the bottle by night, but he’s offered a shot at breaking out of his stupor when he’s asked to coach the basketball team at his alma mater. His eventual success allows Jack to feel some semblance of accomplishment and largely take control of his drinking, but his dormant alcoholism requires only one more hard-luck happenstance to break free once again. Affleck delivers an excellent performance as the perpetually boozy Jack — whereas Jack Lemmon in Days of Wine and Roses and Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas were more outsized in playing drunks, Affleck keeps his emotions largely in check, with his character so tightly wound that he seems like he might physically implode. The sports stuff is far less compelling, as director Gavin O’Connor and scripter Brad Ingelsby make sure that every plotline concerning the players is given a happy ending. There’s virtually no element of surprise in either the on- or off-court activities, and the wrap-up to at least one of these vignettes is groan-worthy. Life is messy, but you wouldn’t know it from watching this sobering yet occasionally shallow picture.

Blu-ray extras include a pair of featurettes in which Affleck and O’Connor discuss sports in general and this film in particular.

Movie: ★★½


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