Joan Baez and Bob Dylan in Rolling Thunder Revue (Photo: Criterion)

(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.)

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Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan in Ammonite (Photo: Universal & NEON)

AMMONITE (2020). History tells us that two 19th century women, the dedicated paleontologist Mary Anning and the married geologist Charlotte Murchison, were close friends, so writer-director Frances Lee has elected to make a “what if” film and theorize that they were actually lovers. It’s a reasonable hook for a fictionalization, and Saoirse Ronan as Charlotte and especially Kate Winslet as Mary do just fine in teasing out their characters’ clandestine affair in a repressed time and a repressed society. But the storytelling is frequently muted — the film is often as chilly as the weather in Mary’s English seaside community — and the movie particularly pales next to the 10 Best of 2019 entry Portrait of a Lady on Fire, another LGBTQ period piece that had been released stateside a mere nine months earlier.

The only Blu-ray extra is a making-of featurette.

Movie: ★★½

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Boris Plotnikov in The Ascent (Photo: Criterion)

THE ASCENT (1977). Married Russian filmmakers Elem Klimov and Larisa Shepitko each made a World War II drama that had to contend with threatened Soviet censorship before being released to raves. Klimov’s contribution was 1985’s shocking Come and See (reviewed here) while Shepitko’s was this haunting piece about two Russian partisans (Boris Plotnikov and Vladimir Gostyukhin) having to contend not only with Nazis but also with the Germans’ traitorous Soviet enablers (speaking of enablers, there’s a chilling line that was paraphrased more than once over the past four years here in the US: “The chief is angry that the crowd isn’t bigger”). From Plotnikov’s beatific look to a shot of a tomblike cave, the Christian allegories aren’t exactly subtle, but they are effective in conveying the desire and perhaps even necessity for faith in trying times. Tragically, Shepitko died in a car accident in 1979, at the age of 41.

Blu-ray extras include an archival interview with Shepitko; the 1980 short Larisa, a tribute made by Klimov to his late wife; and two 2012 documentaries about Shepitko.

Movie: ★★★

COME PLAY
Gillian Jacobs and Azhy Robertson in Come Play (Photo: Universal & Amblin)

COME PLAY (2020). Larry, apparently The Babadook’s third cousin twice removed, gets his own motion picture with Come Play, a derivative horror yarn with an interesting premise but an ill-handled approach. Oliver (Azhy Robertson, the son in 2019’s best film) is an autistic lad who claims that he’s made an imaginary friend who only lives in mobile devices. His separated parents (Gillian Jacobs and John Gallagher Jr.) are initially skeptical but soon realize that this creature, who calls himself Larry, is trying to break into our world/dimension and snatch Oliver for himself. Writer-director Jacob Chase, expanding his own 2017 short Larry, seeks to use his film to make salient points about loneliness and misunderstanding, but the picture never plays fair about what Larry can and cannot do, and the third act turns problematic with the ultimate status of Oliver’s parents and with a finale that’s clearly a cheat.

There are no extras on the Blu-ray, although a digital code is included.

Movie: ★★

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 Mark Richman in Dark Intruder (Photo: Kino)

DARK INTRUDER (1965). Long before Black Mirror, there almost was The Black Cloak. A proposed television series from Alfred Hitchcock’s production company, this didn’t make it past the pilot. And since the pilot was deemed a tad too gruesome for TV, it was instead released as the theatrical feature Dark Intruder. It might have made for an interesting show — sort of a period-piece forerunner to Kolchak: The Night Stalker — with Leslie Nielsen as a San Franciscan bon vivant who, in true Scarlet Pimpernel fashion, is also an occult expert who helps the police with their cases. His task here is to discover the connection between his best friend (Mark Richman) and a series of murders where the only piece of evidence is an arcane statuette left beside each victim. The 60-minute run time most betrays its boob tube origins; otherwise, director Harvey Hart and scripter Barré Lyndon have crafted an efficient and intelligent (if occasionally obvious) chiller.

Blu-ray extras include an interview with Mike Westmore, nephew of makeup artist Bud Westmore, and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ★★★

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Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg in Rolling Thunder Revue (Photo: Criterion)

ROLLING THUNDER REVUE: A BOB DYLAN STORY BY MARTIN SCORSESE (2019). Releasing a pseudo-documentary during a period in which “fake news” and “alternative facts” dominated the news cycle might give some pause, but the manufactured moments are generally the least entertaining parts of this free-wheeling look at the 1975 concert tour that was spearheaded by Bob Dylan and included such fellow celebrities as Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Sam Shepard, and Allen Ginsberg. Dylan and director Martin Scorsese have fashioned a grab bag of new and vintage interviews (some real, some fake), musical performances, outtakes from Dylan’s 1978 bomb Renaldo and Clara, and behind-the-scenes shenanigans. While having Michael Murphy reprise his role from Tanner ’88 was a brilliant stroke, other fictional bits are more tiresome. Consistently entertaining, though, are the tête-à-têtes between Dylan and his various friends as well as musical numbers like “Hurricane” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”

Blu-ray extras include restored footage of never-before-seen numbers; an interview with Scorsese; and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ★★★

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Ethan Hawke in Tesla (Photo: Shout! Factory)

TESLA (2020). Unlike 2019’s The Current War (reviewed here), which took a straightforward approach to the rivalry between inventors Thomas Edison and Henry Westinghouse, writer-director Michael Almereyda’s examination of overlapping material employs a more idiosyncratic structure — for starters, check out the scene wherein Nikola Tesla (Ethan Hawke) sings the Tears for Fears hit “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” Almereyda’s eccentricities are occasionally amusing but really add nothing to — and occasionally get in the way of — this period outing that focuses on the feud between Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) and Tesla as opposed to the one between Edison and Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan). As with Nicholas Hoult in The Current War, Hawke’s inquisitive yet ultimately impenetrable interpretation keeps true understanding and empathy at bay — for a portrayal with a stronger charge, I’ll stick with David Bowie in The Prestige, thanks.

Blu-ray extras include a behind-the-scenes piece.

Movie: ★★

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Emily Blunt and Jon Hamm in Wild Mountain Thyme (Photo: Universal & Bleecker Street)

WILD MOUNTAIN THYME (2020). When someone named Dearbhla Molloy appears in a movie set in Ireland, no one’s going to worry about whether or not she’ll be able to nail an Irish accent (Molloy, a Tony Award-nominated actress, hails from Dublin). But when Christopher Walken appears in the same film and is supposed to be playing a character as authentically Irish as Molloy’s, it’s best to run for the heather-covered hills. Walken sports one of the worst accents ever committed to celluloid, just one of the many jarring problems with this bit o’ whimsy from writer-director John Patrick Shanley (adapting his own play). Shanley (an Oscar winner for penning Moonstruck) offers some lively dialogue, but he goes overboard with the perky quirkiness and flatlines with a stale assortment of characters. Jamie Dornan is dull in a poorly written part as Walken’s son while Emily Blunt is OK as the neighbor who inexplicably loves him; faring best is Jon Hamm as Walken’s pragmatic American nephew.

There are no extras on the DVD.

Movie: ★★

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