Soul (Photo: Disney-Pixar)

(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.)

Meryl Streep and Albert Brooks in Defending Your Life (Photo: Criterion)

DEFENDING YOUR LIFE (1991). Arguably writer-director Albert Brooks’ best movie (and fans of Lost in America, reviewed here, will certainly argue), Defending Your Life is one of those rare films that always leaves me with a stupid grin on my face for its entire running time — or at least when I’m not laughing out loud at the sizable number of guffaw-worthy bits. Billed as “The First True Story of What Happens After You Die,” this casts Brooks as Daniel Miller, an ad executive whose car collides with a bus head-on while he’s singing along to Streisand and futzing around with his new CDs. He finds himself not in Heaven or Hell (the latter, as someone explains, doesn’t exist) but in Judgment City, where it’s determined whether the freshly deceased will be allowed to nobly ascend or be sent back to Earth in another form to continue to overcome their fears. Defending Daniel in court is the jovial Bob Diamond (Rip Torn, just priceless) while making the case that he should not move forward is a prosecutor known as “The Dragon Lady” (Lee Grant). Daniel’s incessant insecurities are only interrupted by his romance with a fellow celestial traveler named Julia (Meryl Streep), who’s as bold and accomplished as Daniel is meek and ineffectual. There are so many terrific sequences that it’s hard to single one out, although the Past Lives Pavilion deserves extra credit for containing an uproarious cameo appearance. Brooks’ expressions are just as amusing as his one-liners, and it’s wonderful to see Streep take a break from heavy thespian lifting and deliver a loose and lovable performance.

Blu-ray extras consist of a new discussion with Brooks; excerpts from 1991 interviews with Brooks, Torn and Grant; an interview with theologian Donna Bowman about Brooks’ vision of the afterlife; and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ★★★½

Earwig and the Witch (Photo: GKIDS & Shout! Factory)

EARWIG AND THE WITCH (2020). Earwig and the Witch has been promoted as Studio Ghibli’s first entirely 3D-CG animated feature film, but it’s unlikely that fans of the beloved Japanese outfit will be thrilled with this announcement. Studio Ghibli’s reputation was built on hand-drawn films, and, in those instances when computers were used, it was in a manner that enhanced rather than overwhelmed the old-school artwork. With its visual style, Earwig and the Witch is a far cry from such efforts as Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, and other modern gems created by Studio Ghibli guru Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki receives a “planning” credit on this new picture, but the chief driving force is his son Gorō Miyazaki. It would perhaps be silly to expect the son to follow in the footsteps of his elders, but Earwig and the Witch is simply an unsightly film, with animation that’s largely ugly and off-putting — by comparison, the recent Japanese import Lupin III: The First (reviewed here) likewise employs CGI, but that film’s visual palette is bold and bright. Perhaps equally as detrimental as the animation is the screenplay, an adaptation of Diana Wynne Jones’ novel about an orphan named Earwig. The screen version finds the headstrong girl being adopted — and imprisoned — by a witch named Bella Yaga and a warlock known as The Mandrake. The 82-minute movie seems to be missing a final reel, as everything is only loosely wrapped up and the film ends far too abruptly.

The Blu-ray + DVD edition from GKIDS and Shout! Factory contains both Japanese and English audio (the cast for the latter includes Richard E. Grant, Dan Stevens, and Kacey Musgraves). Extras consist of a making-of featurette; feature-length storyboards; interviews with the Japanese voice cast; and trailers.

Movie: ★★

James Caan in Rollerball (Photo: Scorpion)

ROLLERBALL (1975). In the wake of Watergate and Vietnam, it was probably no surprise to find that the science fiction films of the 1970s — at least those before the Star Wars revolution in 1977 — almost all took place in futures in which murder is state-sanctioned, individual rights have been stripped, and paranoia reigns supreme. Like Soylent Green, Logan’s Run, and the Planet of the Apes sequels (to name but a bare minimum), Rollerball falls into this category, centering on a United States which is being ruled solely by corporations (the film is set in 2018, which seems remarkably prescient). Wars are no more, but to keep the populace titillated, the game of Rollerball (basically a cross between roller derby and hockey) has been created to satisfy bloodlust as well as hammer home the point that individual achievement is insignificant in this brave new world. But a problem arises when Jonathan E. (James Caan), the sport’s greatest player, has emerged as a celebrity in his own right; in an effort to quell the ideas that his solo efforts might inspire, the powers-that-be (represented primarily by a suitably pontifical John Houseman) decide that he must immediately retire from the game … or else. Director Norman Jewison has far more luck with his staging of the Rollerball matches (they’re at once exciting and horrifying) than scripter William Harrison has in condemning this futureworld with anything more than boilerplate lip service. Caan, however, is ideal as the star athlete who’s feverishly trying to figure out the politics behind his dismissal, and the film is far preferable to the wretched 2002 remake starring Chris Klein and LL Cool J.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Jewison; separate audio commentary by Harrison (who adapted his own short story, “Roller Ball Murder”); vintage behind-the-scenes featurettes; and an interview with Caan.

Movie: ★★½

Soul (Photo: Disney-Pixar)

SOUL (2020). Soul is perhaps more significant as a milestone marker than as a motion picture. Because of the pandemic, it’s the first Pixar feature not to enjoy a theatrical release in the U.S. Additionally, it’s the first Pixar movie to debut on Disney+. Finally, it’s the first Pixar movie to showcase an African-American as its main character. That would be Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a middle school music teacher who has long dreamed of earning his keep as a jazz musician. On the day that Joe finally lands his big break — he’s to play in the band of the renowned Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) that evening — he’s killed falling down a manhole. Refusing to be dead right when his life is finally taking off, he avoids entering the “Great Beyond” and remains at the “Great Before” until he can figure out how to get back to Earth. He soon realizes that a pesky soul known only as 22 (Tina Fey) can help him achieve that goal, although his return doesn’t go exactly as planned. In several respects, Soul veers too closely to Inside Out, merely one of the greatest of all Pixar titles (go here for the definitive ranking of Pixar films). But even if the story hits too many familiar beats to completely succeed, the animation is absolutely stunning — this is particularly true in the creation of the various instructors (and that fussy accountant!) who populate the “Great Before.”

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director Pete Docter, co-director and co-writer Kemp Powers (an Academy Award nominee this year for his adaptation of his play One Night in Miami…), and producer Dana Murray; a discussion of the character of Joe; deleted scenes; and a piece on the Oscar-nominated music and the Oscar-nominated sound design of the film.

Movie: ★★★

Dwayne Johnson in Southland Tales (Photo: Arrow)

SOUTHLAND TALES (2006). It’s hardly a bold move to declare one’s love for Donnie Darko, the 2001 underachiever that over time became both a critical darling and a cult favorite. But championing writer-director Richard Kelly’s other two feature films to date? That’s definitely going against the grain. For the record, I quite like 2009’s The Box, Kelly’s adaptation of a Richard Matheson short story and a movie so loathed by the masses that it’s one of only 21 to receive an “F” grade from CinemaScore. But my admiration doesn’t extend to Southland Tales, which debuted disastrously at the Cannes Film Festival, was subsequently trimmed for general release, and then debuted disastrously among the few who had the opportunity to see it. A critical reevaluation like the one that greeted Donnie Darko seems unlikely, since the film remains as unwieldy and unwelcoming as ever. Kelly took his post-9/11 rage and channeled it into this dystopian yarn in which left-wing anarchists launch a plot to undermine the right-wing fascists in charge. With the Patriot Act now firmly the law of the land, the revolutionaries hope to overthrow the ruling class with the unwitting aid of a movie star (Dwayne Johnson) with amnesia and a police officer (Seann William Scott) with amnesia and possibly also a twin brother. Also involved in the proceedings are former porn star Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), Iraq War veteran Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake), and the enigmatic Baron von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn). It’s all one big headache, a cluttered and cacophonous screed with big ideas but shriveled results.

Arrow Video’s two-disc Blu-ray Limited Edition contains the 145-minute theatrical cut and the 158-minute Cannes version. Extras include audio commentary by Kelly on the theatrical cut; an archival making-of piece; and a new retrospective making-of featurette.

Movie: ★½

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