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.
Frédéric Andréi and Thuy An Luu in Diva (Photo: Kino & StudioCanal)
(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.)
CRY FREEDOM (1987). Director Richard Attenborough’s fact-based film initially divides its time between Stephen Biko (Denzel Washington), the South African activist constantly battling against white supremacy, and Donald Woods (Kevin Kline), the liberal newspaper editor who’s won over by Biko’s compassion and conviction. But once Biko is murdered halfway through the movie, the remainder becomes yet another “white savior” film (not to mention a second-rate version of The Killing Fields), as Woods and his family attempt to escape from South Africa in order to tell Biko’s story. For a superior picture about the horrors of apartheid, see 1989’s A Dry White Season (reviewed here). Cry Freedom earned a trio of Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actor (Washington), Best Original Score, and Best Original Song (“Cry Freedom”).
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historian Eddy Von Mueller and the theatrical trailer.
DIVA (1981). An art-house flick that should appeal even to people who don’t like art-house flicks, writer-director Jean-Jacques Beineix’s debut feature was quite the sensation when it hit the US in early 1982. Perhaps the first film to spearhead the French movement known as cinéma du look, this has both style and substance to spare. When a young postal courier (Frédéric Andréi) illegally records a performance by his favorite opera star (Wilhelmenia Fernandez), he finds himself being pursued by both Taiwanese bootleggers who want to profit from the cassette themselves and Parisian criminals who learn that he unknowingly has a tape in his possession that exposes their prostitution ring. Memorable characters (Thuy An Luu’s Alba is a delight) and stunning set-pieces only add to the merriment.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Beineix; interviews with Andréi, cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, and other cast and crew members; and the theatrical trailer.
THE HIGH NOTE (2020). The colossal coincidence that appears late in The High Note is the sort that ranks waaaay high on my list of cinematic pet peeves, yet that’s not the only problem with this disappointing picture set against the backdrop of the LA music scene. Dakota Johnson plays Maggie, the personal assistant to aging superstar Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross). Maggie aspires to be a record producer, but it’s hard to climb up that ladder when her employer often treats her dismissively. But once Maggie meets a promising young musician (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), she pretends to be a real producer in hopes of elevating both their lives. Although it’s written by a former personal assistant (Flora Greeson), The High Note makes few concessions to real life, relying instead on the sort of facile plotting that has empowered too many stale romcoms.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; deleted scenes; and the music video for the original song “Like I Do.”
MICHAEL (1996). In this soggy box office hit, John Travolta plays the archangel Michael, depicted as a slovenly but savvy sort who’s been tasked with playing matchmaker to a pair of tabloid journalists (William Hurt and Andie MacDowell). Written and directed by Nora Ephron, Michael is cinema as artificial sweetener, a calculating endeavor that never feels genuine in its outlook or emotional outreach. It’s also startlingly slack, with no real momentum and no attempt to explain the heavenly laws that govern Michael’s actions and abilities. MacDowell seems dazed and Hurt seems confused; for his part, Travolta is fine, but enough already with the Saturday Night Fever callback sequences. The highlight — at least for us All in the Family fans — is the appearance of Jean Stapleton (17 years after last playing Edith Bunker) as the elderly woman who initially discovers Michael.
The only Blu-ray extra is the theatrical trailer.
THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962). One of Hammer’s more disappointing attempts to revive and reinterpret the classic Universal monsters, this handsome yet dramatically inert yarn cries out for a commanding Christopher Lee performance as the disfigured madman who haunts the Paris — well, London in this version — opera house. Instead, we get Herbert Lom, who plays up the tragic dimensions of the character while completely eliminating his horrific tendencies. The sets are impressive, but that mask leaves much to be desired.
Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray edition offers the film in three versions: the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the 1.66:1 aspect ratio, and a U.S. television cut. Extras include two separate audio commentaries by various film historians; a making-of featurette; a piece on Hammer writer-producer Anthony Hinds; and a still gallery.
SHANGHAI TRIAD (1995). With such titles as Ju Dou and To Live, Chinese director Zhang Yimou emerged as one of the leading lights of international cinema during the early 1990s, and his 1991 masterpiece Raise the Red Lantern still earns my vote as the best foreign-language film of that entire decade. Set in 1930s Shanghai, this one follows 14-year-old Shuisheng (Xiaoxiao Wang) after he’s hired by a powerful crime lord (Baotian Lee) to serve his temperamental mistress (Gong Li). A typically formidable performance by Gong Li and the shimmering, Oscar-nominated cinematography by Yue Lü are the film’s greatest assets and paper over what’s essentially a conventional American mob movie with subtitles.
Blu-ray extras consist of a video essay and the theatrical trailer.
TASTE OF CHERRY (1997). Driving through Tehran’s surrounding terrain, Mr. Badii (Homayoun Ershadi) is looking for someone who will throw dirt over his body after he commits suicide. He ends up with three possible candidates: a Kurdish soldier, an Afghan theologian, and a Turkish taxidermist. Winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes and a staple on many critics’ 10 Best lists (and in some instances not just 10 Best of the year but 10 Best of all time), this effort from Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami found a famous naysayer in Roger Ebert, who notoriously gave the film one star and placed it on his “Most Hated” list (where it rubbed shoulders with the likes of Baby Geniuses and Catwoman). I found it neither masterpiece nor misfire; rather, it’s a thoughtful and thought-provoking drama that’s severely damaged by its affected ending.
Blu-ray extras include a 1997 interview with Kiarostami; a new interview with film scholar Hamid Naficy; and Project, a related 1997 short film made by Kiarostami’s son, Bahman Kiarostami.
TENDER MERCIES (1983). An unfussy and unassuming gem, Tender Mercies finds Robert Duvall delivering one of his finest performances as Mac Sledge, a former country star who allowed alcohol to ruin his career and his marriage to a fellow c&w singer (Betty Buckley). Working hard to become a better man, he ends up finding companionship with a young widow (Tess Harper) and becomes a father figure of sorts to her son (Allan Hubbard). Meanwhile, his own daughter (Ellen Barkin) hopes to reconnect with her father, even over the protestations of her mom. This won Academy Awards for Duvall as Best Actor and Horton Foote for Best Original Screenplay, with the film picking up three more nominations for Best Picture, Best Director (Bruce Beresford), and Best Original Song (“Over You”).
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film critic Simon Abrams; a making-of featurette; and the theatrical trailer.
THE WILD GOOSE LAKE (2019). While duking it out with fellow crooks, a minor-league gang leader and motorcycle thief (Hu Ge) accidentally ends up killing a police officer; thus, he soon finds himself on the run from both the cops and the robbers. Like France’s Diva (reviewed above), here’s another foreign import (this one from China) that wallows in its own bravura style. But while director Diao Yinan’s visual compositions are impressive, his pacing is off, rendering what could have been a thrilling and tightly contained picture into an ofttimes languorous endeavor that fritters away all suspense by the end.
Blu-ray extras include a behind-the-scenes featurette; interviews with Hu Ge and co-star Gwei Lun Mei; and Renkei Tan’s 2019 short film, The Goddess.