First Cow (Photo: Lionsgate & A24)

(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.)

Orion Lee and John Magaro in First Cow (Photo: Lionsgate & A24)

FIRST COW (2020). Kelly Reichardt’s eighth film as director (and seventh as screenwriter) is her best one yet. Working in collaboration with author Jon Raymond to adapt his novel The Half-Life, she offers a tender and touching look at a friendship that unfolds against the backdrop of a harsh American landscape. In its immersion into a particular time and place, it’s reminiscent of Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (like this one, set in the developing Northwest), and it draws another parallel with its understated notion that the frontier was not particularly kind to dreamers, inventors or Good Samaritans. The protagonists are Cookie (John Magaro), a gentle cook often bullied by the louts he serves, and King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant on the run from Russian hunters. They meet when Cookie offers King-Lu food and shelter, and King-Lu later returns the favor when he allows Cookie residence in his humble cabin. Hoping to raise enough money to move to San Francisco and open their own business, the pair decide to make and sell savory biscuits, using as the key ingredient milk they steal from the only cow in the region. That cow belongs to the wealthy Englishman Chief Factor (Toby Jones), and the two friends know that he would kill them were he ever to learn about their nocturnal thievery. For a film offering the sort of narrative that can probably only end one way (the opening sequence, set in the present, cements this), First Cow nevertheless exudes a strangely optimistic pull, as its humanity rises above all other aspects of its compelling tale.

The only Blu-ray extra is a behind-the-scenes featurette.

Movie: ★★★½

Christopher Walken in The Dead Zone (Photo: Paramount)

STEPHEN KING 5-MOVIE COLLECTION (1983-2019). It’s not surprising that Paramount has elected to offer a box set containing several Stephen King titles. What is surprising is that the assortment includes a superior King flick that, as the sole picture making its Blu-ray debut, should have been given its own standalone release.

That would be The Dead Zone (1983), which, unlike the other four movies included here, has never before been available in this format. It deserves its own showcase release, as it’s not only the best film in this collection but also ranks among the finest of all adaptations involving the prolific writer. Christopher Walken stars as Johnny Smith, a teacher involved in a vehicular accident that places him in a coma for five years. Upon awakening, he discovers that he is now blessed/cursed with a psychic power that allows him to “see” past, present and future events. Distraught that his fiancée (Brooke Adams) married someone else in the interim, Johnny keeps busy by helping a sheriff (Tom Skerritt) track down a serial killer. But a greater danger arises once Johnny grasps what will happen if Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), a charismatic but corrupt and demented politician adored for his rabble-rousing speeches (no comment), becomes U.S. President. Like select other films from director David Cronenberg, The Dead Zone grows deeper as it marinates in the mind, moving far past its initial hook (admittedly, a good one) to ultimately emerge as a moving account of a man trying to get back on track after having his life stolen from him. That the movie works so well in this regard is due almost entirely to Walken’s tremendous performance.

Silver Bullet (Photo: Paramount)

For Silver Bullet (1985), King adapted his own novella Cycle of the Werewolf, but the end result is nothing to howl about. A werewolf is running loose in a small town, and the only ones seemingly able to stop it are a wheelchair-bound young boy (Corey Haim), his older sister (Megan Follows), and their boozy Uncle Red (Gary Busey). Daniel Attias, directing his first and last feature film (he would then enjoy a successful career on television, helming multiple episodes of such hits as Alias, The Wire and Homeland), tries his best to milk suspense out of the premise, but the problem is King’s often daft screenplay. Not only is the identity of the werewolf immediately obvious, but his motives are muddled and never really make sense. A talented cast does its best to survive the often clunky dialogue, with Haim and Follows both highly appealing and Busey enlivening the proceedings as the animated uncle whose drinking problem never interferes with his bond with his paraplegic nephew. As was common in the 1970s and ‘80s, the two most despicable characters emerge unscathed, with nary a werewolf scratch on them; while this denies viewers some much-needed catharsis, it does make the victim list slightly more unpredictable.

Dale Midkiff in Pet Sematary (Photo: Paramount)

Showcasing a script penned by King himself (it was the second time he adapted one of his own works, following the aforementioned Silver Bullet), Pet Sematary (1989) casts Dale Midkiff and Denise Crosby as Louis and Rachel Creed, two of the most irresponsible parents ever to make their way onto a movie screen. Their young daughter Ellie (Blaze Berdahl) and especially their toddler Gage (Mike Hughes) would be just as well off living on their own, a point made clear once tragedy strikes the family and the adjacent pet cemetery, a former Indian burial ground with supernatural powers, provides Dad with a way to make everything OK again (or so he thinks). The premise is fascinating, but Mary Lambert’s leaden direction (suspense is nowhere to be found), weak performances from the leads, and King’s frequently campy interludes (is Brad Greenquist’s walking corpse supposed to be this ridiculous?) pretty much sink this one. Fred Gwynne, however, is excellent as Jud, the folksy neighbor whose well-meaning actions eventually lead to doom and gloom. Even as a huge Ramones fan, I gotta admit that the title song doesn’t represent the band at its best.

Gary Sinise in The Stand (Photo: Paramount)

There’s nothing like a choice critical blurb to perfectly capture a particular viewing experience, and one that has stuck with me over the decades was a tasty morsel employed in a review of the six-hour television miniseries The Stand (1994). Writing for Entertainment Weekly, Ken Tucker noted, “It’s a TV movie schlocky enough to have Rob Lowe as one of its heroes, yet witty enough to cast him as a mute.” That’s pretty much The Stand in a nutshell. With King himself wrestling his mammoth novel and paring (and toning) it down just enough to satisfy the suits at ABC, this admirable if occasionally hokey epic centers on a disease that wipes out 99% of the planet’s inhabitants, presumably because too many morons refused to wears masks to prevent its spread. Most of the survivors are split between two camps: Good, as represented by Abagail Freemantle (Ruby Dee), and Evil, as overseen by Randall Flagg (Jamey Sheridan). Gary Sinise, Molly Ringwald, Miguel Ferrer and Lowe are among those essaying major roles, but the talent is deep enough to include Ed Harris and Kathy Bates in uncredited parts and quirky enough to also find room for Sam Raimi, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and even King himself. A new miniseries adaptation debuts this December on CBS All Access; it will star James Marsden, Amber Heard, Alexander Skarsgård, and Whoopi Goldberg.

Jason Clarke and John Lithgow in Pet Sematary (Photo: Paramount)

The 2019 edition of Pet Sematary seeks to correct the crude deficiencies of the 1989 version with slicker production values, better emoting, and a twist not found in either the novel or previous film. As before, the Creeds — dad (Jason Clarke), mom (Amy Seimetz), and kids — move to a small Maine town, where their new abode rests on the edge of a busy highway. The family meets neighbor Jud Crandall (John Lithgow, effective in a turn that’s less folksy and more gravelly than the one provided by Gwynne), who informs them of a strange pet cemetery that rests deep in the woods of their property. The first stretch of this P.S. is more reputable than that of the junkier ’89 model, but it isn’t much fun, hurriedly paying somber lip service to the conventions of the story rather than engaging viewers in its darker implications. But then the massive deviation from the original text occurs, and it promises to spin the tale off into a different and possibly more thought-provoking direction. But while the initial scenes following this “gotcha!” pirouette manage to resonate, the juicier aspects soon fade into the background as the picture devolves into a tiresome slasher flick. It all culminates with a brand new ending so useless and anticlimactic that it almost qualifies as a shaggy dog story — a mangy mutt that should be buried as quickly as humanly possible.

Blu-ray extras include an interview with Lambert on the ’89 Pet Sematary; audio commentary by King and director Mick Garris on The Stand; and deleted scenes on the ’19 Pet Sematary. There are no extras on The Dead Zone or Silver Bullet.

The Dead Zone: ★★★½

Silver Bullet: ★★

Pet Sematary (1989): ★★

The Stand: ★★★

Pet Sematary (2019): ★★

The Wind Rises (Photo: GKIDS, Studio Ghibli & Shout! Factory)

THE WIND RISES (2013). When Hayao Miyazaki’s World War II-era film The Wind Rises opened in Japan, the writer-director was blasted by many of his fellow countrymen as being “anti-Japanese” and “a traitor.” Conversely, a stateside critic later accused the movie of whitewashing Japan’s shameful history and called it “morally repugnant” and “disgraceful.” Sometimes, a fellow can’t win no matter what. Yet this Academy Award nominee for Best Animated Feature isn’t a film about war but rather a valentine to the creative spirit. Part of the controversy stems from the fact that its central character is Jiro Horikoshi (voiced in the U.S. dub by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the airplane designer whose creations were employed during WWII (including those which attacked Pearl Harbor). Yet while the politics of war often hover around the picture’s edges, its primary thrust is looking at how this young man pursued his dream of aeronautical inventions, inspired in no small part by the love of his sweetheart Nahoko (Emily Blunt) as well as his imaginary conversations with the famous Italian aircraft designer Giovanni Caproni (Stanley Tucci). As with all Miyazaki movies, the animation is frequently breathtaking and the filmmaker’s empathy for his characters is never in question.

Blu-ray extras include behind-the-scenes footage; feature-length storyboards; and a press conference with Miyazaki.

Movie: ★★★

Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn in I Am a Dancer (Photo: Film Movement & StudioCanal)

Short And Sweet:

I AM A DANCER (1972). This disappointing documentary sets its sights on Rudolph Nureyev, the ballet superstar who defected from the Soviet Union in 1961 and enjoyed a great career in the West before dying of AIDS in 1993 at the age of 54. There is little insight into Nureyev, as he’s barely interviewed over the course of the film; instead, most of the footage shows him in various rehearsals or performing snippets from a handful of his celebrated productions. Few art forms suffer as harshly as ballet when transferred to the screen; that problem is exacerbated here by the spasmodic and scattershot approach favored by director Pierre Jourdan.

Blu-ray extras consist of discussions with dancers Terese Capucilli (Martha Graham Dance Company) and Skylar Brandt (American Ballet Theatre), and theatrical trailers for other Film Movement titles.

Movie: ★★

Weathering with You (Photo: GKIDS & Shout! Factory)

WEATHERING WITH YOU (2019). Writer-director Makoto Shinkai’s first anime effort since his 2016 gem Your Name. pales in comparison to its predecessor. This one is just as mystical but not as affecting, as a runaway named Hodaka falls for Hina, a so-called “sunshine girl” who has the ability to control the weather. There are some interesting elements at play (such as the notion of a rainfall so merciless that it threatens to submerge Tokyo), but the story is overstuffed and the principal supporting players — a scruffy publisher and his vivacious niece — prove to be far more interesting than the leads.

Blu-ray extras include an interview with Shinkai; an interesting look at Shinkai’s filmography; and theatrical trailers.

Movie: ★★½


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