Kevin Smith and Jason Mewes in Mallrats (Photo: Arrow Video & 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.)
ANTEBELLUM (2020). In this MAGA-infested era of rampant racism, Antebellum couldn’t be more timely, as it seeks to link this country’s shameful past with what might be an even more disgraceful present. Unfortunately, the end result is unwieldy enough to highlight its narrative deficiencies and ugly enough to wonder if there’s actually any target audience for such an undertaking in the first place. The sizable first chunk of Antebellum centers on Eden (Janelle Monáe), enduring a torturous existence as a slave on a Louisiana plantation that’s teeming with Confederate soldiers. The movie suddenly switches gears when it turns to the modern day, as noted author Veronica Henley (also Monáe) abruptly wakes up from her disturbing nightmare. So far, so OK, and viewers will be left wondering if the story will involve itself in dream states, in supernatural shenanigans, or in something else. But then the movie adds a Shyamalan-inspired twist, one so perverted that it’s hard not to feel instant revulsion and wonder if it will be possible to make it through the rest of the film without throwing up. It’s possible — mainly because we sense we’ll eventually be seeing racist crackers suffer greatly — but it ain’t easy. The midsection of the film takes an odd turn as it largely focuses on the antics of Veronica’s perpetually horny friend Dawn (Precious star Gabourey Sidibe) — this is a comedic character (not unlike Tiffany Haddish’s role in Girls Trip) who simply doesn’t belong here. After her shtick, it’s back to Eden and that plantation, culminating in a series of scenes that manage to be simultaneously daft and disturbing.
Extras on the 4K UltraHD/Blu-ray edition include a making-of featurette; deleted scenes; and theatrical trailers.
GRACE OF MY HEART (1996). Indie writer-director Allison Anders is behind this entertaining jaunt through a dozen years in one woman’s musical odyssey. In 1958 NYC, Edna Buxton (Illeana Douglas) hopes to become a singer-songwriter but is told by everyone that female singers are out and the current fad is male vocalists. She’s hired by producer and Brill Building denizen Joel Millner (a wonderful John Turturro) to write songs for other artists under the name Denise Waverly; it’s a relationship that leads to a string of successes and lands her a close friend in fellow writer Cheryl Steed (Patsy Kensit). Unfortunately, it also results in a series of failed romances with a reactionary songwriter (Eric Stoltz), a married music critic (Bruce Davison), and an innovative but increasingly paranoid musician (Matt Dillon). The film’s greatest asset is its killer soundtrack (which, incidentally, I had to immediately rush out and buy upon the film’s original release); it isn’t comprised of the usual standards but instead is packed with new tunes written by (among others) Los Lobos, Joni Mitchell, Lesley Gore, and the team of Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello. Music aficionados will also have fun guessing which real-life figures are represented by the various fictional characters (Carole King, Brian Wilson and Phil Spector merit some of the shout-outs). After a delightful first half, though, the film slips with the shift to late-‘60s California and the introduction of the Matt Dillon character, losing sight of Denise’s journey to wallow in A Star Is Born territory.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Anders; a making-of featurette; and deleted scenes.
THE LAST STARFIGHTER (1984). On paper — at least on one the size of a Post-it Note — The Last Starfighter sounds like the same-old same-old: A naïve young male is given the opportunity to save the universe with the help of various alien friends. So the surprise regarding this film is how it deviates from the expected paths in interesting ways. The premise itself offers a clever hook, as teenager Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) seeks to escape the doldrums of his trailer-park life by constantly playing Starfighter, the only arcade game on the property. But once Alex achieves the high score, he soon learns this isn’t a mere game but a recruiting tool for an otherworldly outfit seeking the best player to join the fight against an intergalactic enemy. Alex is whisked away by the fast-talking alien Centauri (Robert Preston) and soon finds himself under the tutelage of a reptilian e.t. known as Grig (Dan O’Herlihy). And in order not to arouse suspicion of his disappearance, he’s replaced on Earth by a lookalike android. The absence of urgency is the movie’s primary weakness — the lackadaisical pace results in little actual suspense — while its primary strength is the casting of seasoned vets O’Herlihy and Preston (in what would be his last feature appearance). Guest initially seems like a typical bland lead, but his performance comes into sharper focus when contrasted with his dissimilar (and amusing) turn as the Alex clone. This also represents one of the earliest uses of CGI — it’s old-school and unpolished, but that only adds to the fun.
Blu-ray extras include separate audio commentaries by Guest and director Nick Castle; a making-of piece; and new interviews with co-star Catherine Mary Stewart and screenwriter Jonathan Betuel.
MALLRATS (1995). The sophomore jinx hit writer-director Kevin Smith hard when his acclaimed debut feature, 1994’s Clerks, was followed by this critical and commercial dud. Yet while Mallrats does play better now than when it was originally released, it still rests below a handful of more accomplished titles in Smith’s View Askewniverse. As always, stoners Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith) are on hand, although the leading players are TS Quint (Jeremy London) and Brodie (Jason Lee), best buddies who have been dumped by their respective girlfriends Brandi (Claire Forlani) and Rene (Shannen Doherty). The pair decide to pass the day at the mall, where they not only run into their ex-sweeties but also Brandi’s overbearing dad (Michael Rooker), a sexist bully (Ben Affleck), TS’s no-nonsense former flame (Joey Lauren Adams), and the legendary Stan Lee (nuff said). Smith has a feel for both incident and dialogue, and the episodic nature of the movie works to his advantage. There are also bright performances from all the cast members, particularly Lee and Adams (both going on to star opposite Affleck in Smith’s career-best Chasing Amy). But Smith’s incessant juvenile inclinations (the “stink palm,” the three-nippled fortune teller, etc.) — to say nothing of his clumsy staging — work overtime against the film’s total success.
Arrow Video’s impressive Blu-ray edition contains not only the theatrical and extended versions but also the TV cut. Extras include audio commentary by Smith, Lee, Affleck, Mewes, and producer Scott Mosier; new interviews with Smith and Mewes; deleted scenes; and behind-the-scenes footage.
TENNESSEE JOHNSON (1942). Of the six Presidential Expert Polls taken by the Siena College Research Institute since 1982, Andrew Johnson has held the bottom spot in the last three polls, indicating that the vast majority of the nation’s presidential scholars (157 in the most recent poll) rate him as the worst U.S. president of all time. (On the other end, Franklin D. Roosevelt was cited as the best in five out of six polls, and, for those wondering, Donald Trump made his debut on the most recent list as the third all-time worst, just above Johnson and James Buchanan.) Clearly, the suits at MGM didn’t share this negative view of Johnson, since Tennessee Johnson is largely a hagiographic biopic about one of the only three presidents to face impeachment (the others being, of course, Bill Clinton and Trump). Although Johnson has been pegged as an incompetent and racist narcissist (hmm, sounds familiar), this interpretation is naturally missing from this movie. But it actually isn’t the whitewashing that makes Tennessee Johnson ineffectual — after all, such a scrubbed approach was common in countless screen biographies of the era. Rather, it’s the attempt to pack so much material into one 103-minute movie, relying on clumsy transitions and pat sentimentality to brush through the man’s life from the age of 18 to shortly before his death at the age of 66. The 33-year-old Van Heflin plays Johnson at all ages; generally a fine actor (and coming off a Best Supporting Actor Oscar win for 1941’s Johnny Eager), he’s largely ineffectual here, able to do little to enliven numerous flaccid scenes.
Blu-ray extras consist of the 1943 radio broadcast of the film starring Ruth Hussey (who plays Johnson’s wife in the film version) and Gary Cooper; the 1942 Tom & Jerry cartoon Baby Puss; the 1942 live-action short Heavenly Music; and the trailer.
Short And Sweet:
GIRLFRIENDS (1978). A suitable companion piece to the same year’s An Unmarried Woman (reviewed here), this independent feature, funded along the way by the American Film Institute and the National Endowment for the Arts, is a candid look at the circumstances that develop when Susan (Melanie Mayron), a Jewish photographer struggling to make it in NYC, learns that her best friend and roommate Anne (Anita Skinner) is moving out to get married. Fretting over her professional and personal lives, Susan becomes involved with both a man her own age (Christopher Guest) and an older rabbi (Eli Wallach) even as she tries to progress from shooting bar mitzvahs to mounting her own gallery show. Nothing feels forced (particularly Mayron’s performance) in this naturalistic picture from writer Vicki Polon and director Claudia Weill.
Blu-ray extras include new interviews with Weill, Polon, Mayron, and Guest, and the 1972 short film Joyce at 34 (co-written by Weill and director Joyce Chopra).
WARNING FROM SPACE (1956). It seems every article or review of this Japanese science fiction yarn (including this one) showcases a photo of the one-eyed starfish creatures that appear in the film. It’s an understandable inclusion — designed by avant-garde artist Taro Okamoto, they’re as striking as they are silly — but it’s also a misleading one, as these aliens barely appear in the movie outside of one central sequence and a few scattered glimpses. Instead, the creatures are mostly shown in their human form, making it easier for them to warn Japan’s eminent scientists that a wayward planet is likely to crash into Earth. Talk talk talk among dry, nondescript characters is the dominant action in this disappointing outing that tackles common sci-fi themes in a drowsy manner.
Warning from Space had been slightly altered (and dubbed) for its initial American run, but this Blu-ray offers the original Japanese version for the first time stateside (the U.S. cut is also included). Extras consist of audio commentary by author Stuart Galbraith IV (Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo!); image galleries; and trailers.