Film » View from the Couch

The Crucible, The Founder, Split among new home entertainment titles

This week's reviews of what's new on Blu-ray, DVD and Streaming

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(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what's new on Blu-ray, DVD and Streaming. Ratings are on a four-star scale.)

David Hemmings and Verushka in Blow-Up (Photo: Criterion)
  • David Hemmings and Verushka in Blow-Up (Photo: Criterion)

BLOW-UP (1966). Winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Michelangelo Antonioni’s first English-language effort became one of the key art-house sensations of the second half of the ‘60s. Furthermore, it also was one of the pictures that led to the demise of the Production Code (and subsequent birth of the rating system), since MGM ignored the Code censors (who disapproved of the nudity) and released it without their stamp of approval. Set in swinging London, the movie stars David Hemmings as a photographer who spends most of his time barking orders at the models who parade in and out of his studio for fashion shoots. Spending one afternoon at a park, he takes numerous pictures of a pair of furtive lovers – the woman (Vanessa Redgrave) tries to get him to hand over the film, but he refuses. It’s only later at his studio that he studies the photographs and realizes that he may have uncovered a murder being committed right in front of his eyes. Intoxicating in its ambiguity, the film has been endlessly debated over the years, and the ending remains as powerful as ever. Blow-Up has also proven to be quite the influence on other films, with Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation and Brian De Palma’s Blow Out the two most obvious examples. Antonioni earned a pair of Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay (the latter shared with co-writers Tonino Guerra and Edward Bond).

Blu-ray extras include a making-of documentary; a conversation between Redgrave and photography curator Philippe Garner; and archival interviews with Antonioni, Hemmings and co-star Jane Birkin.

Movie: ***1/2

Randi Allen in Cathy’s Curse (Photo: Severin)
  • Randi Allen in Cathy’s Curse (Photo: Severin)

CATHY’S CURSE (1977). Tagged on the box copy as an “Exorcist/Omen/Carrie-inspired grindhouse” feature, the Canadian (or “Canuxploitation,” if you will) import Cathy’s Curse is a slack and often laughable horror yarn in which a father and his little girl are killed in a grisly automobile accident immediately after Pop learns that his wife has left him with their young son in tow. Cut to 30 years later, and the grown-up son (Alan Scarfe) returns to his childhood home alongside his own wife (Beverly Murray) and young daughter (Randi Allen as Cathy). But almost immediately after the family moves in, Cathy discovers a creepy doll in the attic and becomes possessed by the spirit of the girl killed in the fiery car crash. Among the ensuing hilarity: The drunken groundskeeper imagines he’s covered in spiders and snakes, the nanny is attacked by the levitating doll, Cathy curses like R. Lee Ermey’s drill instructor in Full Metal Jacket, and a psychic who looks like Mrs. Kintner from Jaws proves to be utterly worthless when it comes to confronting evil (where’s Poltergeist’s Tangina when you really need her?). Bad-seed completists might want to check this out, but there’s nothing in this film that hadn’t been done before — and done better.

The Severin Blu-ray contains both the 91-minute Director’s Cut and the 82-minute U.S. release cut. Extras include audio commentary on the U.S. cut by filmmaker Simon Barrett (writer-producer of You’re Next and 2016’s Blair Witch) and film critic Brian Collins; an interview with director Eddy Matalon; and an interview with the now-adult Randi Allen and her mother Joyce Allen, the film’s costume designer.

Movie: *1/2

Paul Scofield (center) in The Crucible (Photo: Kino)
  • Paul Scofield (center) in The Crucible (Photo: Kino)

THE CRUCIBLE (1996). Written in the midst of the McCarthy era as a thinly veiled attack on the Communist witch hunts that were disrupting the very fabric of the nation, Arthur Miller's play has long since broken the shackles of that period and has emerged as a timeless commentary on the evil that men (and women) do — especially under insincere veneers of righteousness and religion. Small wonder, then, that this superb adaptation, penned by Miller himself, remains as topical as ever (both in 1996 and 2017), with its trenchant themes — of hypocrisy, hatemongering and political coups d'etat — crawling all over each other like worms in a can. Set in the Salem of 1692, the film finds venal Abigail Williams (Winona Ryder) triggering a mass hysteria in which accusations of witchcraft are resulting in the execution of innocent people; among those targeted by the moral minority are farmer John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his wife Elizabeth (Joan Allen). The lead performances are all impeccable, with Day-Lewis' zesty rectitude contrasting smartly with Allen's quiet goodness, which in turn strikes the right balance with Ryder's unrepentant monstrousness. Yet top acting honors go to the magnificent Paul Scofield as Judge Danforth, the McCarthyesque agent of evil who presides over the trials. The Crucible earned two Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actress (Allen) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Miller), but it should have earned many more, including one for Best Picture – it’s truly one of the great forgotten films of its era.

Blu-ray extras comprise of audio commentary by Miller and director Nicholas Hytner; a making-of featurette; a conversation with Miller and Day-Lewis; and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ****

Michael Keaton in The Founder (Photo: Anchor Bay & The Weinstein Co.)
  • Michael Keaton in The Founder (Photo: Anchor Bay & The Weinstein Co.)

THE FOUNDER (2016). A film that was never allowed to find its audience, The Founder doesn't traffic in hagiographic nonsense as it looks at Ray Kroc (an excellent Michael Keaton), the man famous for making McDonald's as representative of America as the Statue of Liberty or the U.S. Constitution. Instead, it reveals him to be a thoroughly unpleasant individual, with initial viewer enthusiasm over his unflagging energy and eye for opportunities eventually swamped by utter disdain for his willingness to stab good people in the back. The first restaurant was created by siblings Dick and Mac McDonald (terrific turns by Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch), and they were the ones who came up with the streamlined service, the golden arches, the disposable packaging and (obviously) the name. Kroc's contribution? Franchising. He's the one who tirelessly worked to blanket the country with McDonald's eateries, but to do so, he had to repeatedly go against the brothers' wishes — eventually, he also strived to break his original contract with the brothers, receive all the profits himself, and manage it so the McDonalds could no longer use their own name on their original restaurant. Clearly, for those with any semblance of a soul, The Founder isn't the feel-good movie of this (or any) year, but it's clear-eyed and concise — to say nothing of important and informative. Had it gained any traction, it could have been the Wall Street for a new generation, with Michael Keaton's Ray Kroc replacing Michael Douglas' Gordon Gekko as the capitalist pig most adored by conservatives across the land. Perhaps it's no coincidence the movie received its national rollout on the same day that the ultimate capitalist pig took the Oval Office — a crock of a different nature.

Blu-ray extras include a series of behind-the-scenes featurettes focusing on the story, the characters, and the production design.

Movie: ***

Robert Duvall and Natasha Richardson in The Handmaid’s Tale (Photo: Shout! Factory & MGM)
  • Robert Duvall and Natasha Richardson in The Handmaid’s Tale (Photo: Shout! Factory & MGM)

THE HANDMAID’S TALE (1990). And speaking of 45 (see above)... George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four wasn’t the only cautionary tale thrust back into the spotlight following the election of the most odious and ill-equipped president in U.S. history. Another beneficiary has been Margaret Atwood’s award-winning 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale: The book returned to the literary charts earlier this year, and a Hulu miniseries premieres later this month. And then there’s the 1990 film version, which debuted this week on Blu-ray. Yet despite all the high-powered talent involved – specifically Volker Schlondorff (The Tin Drum) as director and Harold Pinter as scripter – the movie adaptation is a crushing disappointment, offering only fragmented glimpses of a frightening society and never going much beneath the surface of its sociopolitical trappings. In this future America (now called the Republic of Gilead), a society ruled completely by hypocritical men purportedly basing their actions on Biblical example, 99 percent of the women are sterile, meaning the few fertile ones must serve as “handmaids” and produce children for wealthy couples. Kate (Natasha Richardson), renamed Offred, is one such woman, initially living at a facility lorded over by a Kellyanne Conway-like gender-traitor (Victoria Tennant) before being assigned to the home of the powerful military leader The Commander (Robert Duvall) and his wife Serena Joy (Faye Dunaway). The Handmaid’s Tale is accomplished enough to still produce the desired reactions of anger and outrage, but the clipped script provides little understanding of the characters – this is especially true of The Commander’s chauffeur Nick (Aidan Quinn), who proves to be particularly underdeveloped. Elizabeth McGovern takes top acting honors as Kate’s rebellious friend Moira.

The only Blu-ray extra is the theatrical trailer.

Movie: **1/2

William Bendix, Mary Anderson and (cameo alert!) Alfred Hitchcock in Lifeboat (Photo: Kino)
  • William Bendix, Mary Anderson and (cameo alert!) Alfred Hitchcock in Lifeboat (Photo: Kino)

LIFEBOAT (1944). There are many reasons to watch Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat, but chief among them is the opportunity to catch a rare film appearance by Tallulah Bankhead. A legendary stage star whose movie career never took off, she was handed her meatiest screen role by Hitchcock and didn't let him down. She plays a self-centered writer who finds herself stranded on the title vessel after the ship on which she's traveling gets torpedoed by a German sub. Among the other passengers are three seamen of varying dispositions (macho John Hodiak, happy-go-lucky William Bendix and pensive Hume Cronyn), a millionaire industrialist (Henry Hull), a level-headed nurse (Mary Anderson), a soft-spoken steward (Canada Lee), a mother (Heather Angel) who has just lost her baby, and, most troublesome, the duplicitous captain (Walter Slezak) of the U-Boat that shelled their ship in the first place. Working from a story scripted by Jo Swerling but originally concocted by no less than John Steinbeck, Hitchcock ensures that the movie never feels constrictive even though it was all filmed on a single set (a feat he would repeat four years later with Rope). Incidentally, if you're wondering how the director managed to include his customary cameo when all the action takes place on the ocean, check out the "before" and "after" weight loss ad in a newspaper being read by one of the characters! Bankhead earned the Best Actress award from the New York Film Critics Circle, but the Academy bypassed her completely – the film did earn three other Oscar nominations, for Hitchcock's direction, Steinbeck's original story and Glen MacWilliams' cinematography.

Blu-ray extras include separate audio commentaries by film scholars Tim Lucas and Drew Casper; a making-of featurette; and an audio recording of an excerpt from the Hitchcock-Truffaut interview.

Movie: ***1/2

Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott in Ride the High Country (Photo: Warner)
  • Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott in Ride the High Country (Photo: Warner)

RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY (1962). How popular is Ride the High Country among its devotees? In his book Alternate Oscars, author Danny Peary states that this (non-nominated) film should have earned the Best Picture Oscar over To Kill a Mockingbird and eventual winner Lawrence of Arabia. That might be overstating the case, but certainly the film ranks among director Sam Peckinpah's finest efforts, with Western superstars Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea winding down their careers with this eloquent piece about two grizzled vets hired to protect a gold shipment through rough terrain. The upstanding Steve Judd (McCrea) doesn't know that his longtime friend Gil Westrum (Scott) plans to steal the gold, but the pair are eventually united against a common enemy when a family of "redneck peckerwoods" (as our heroes call them) menaces the young woman (Mariette Hartley) accompanying them on their journey. McCrea's character is as inspiring as any of the pillars of virtue played by Gary Cooper or John Wayne — when he states that his only wish is to "enter my House [i.e., Heaven] justified," it can bring a tear to the eye. Peckinpah would soon focus primarily on making violent and misanthropic pictures – never again would he make a film as humanistic as this one.

Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by Peckinpah scholars Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle; the 2006 documentary short A Justified Life: Sam Peckinpah and the High Country; and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ***1/2

James McAvoy in Split (Photo: Universal)
  • James McAvoy in Split (Photo: Universal)

SPLIT (2017). It’s the only explanation that makes sense: A large number of people have such an inexplicable urge to "forgive" M. Night Shymalan for his lame non-thrillers like After Earth and The Last Airbender that they're going overboard with their enthusiastic effusions now that he's returned to the genre. The modest 2015 hit The Visit was a tepid terror tale with many risible moments and an obvious twist, and now here’s Split with a grasping narrative that only grows progressively more daft. James McAvoy delivers a fine performance – make that performances – as a disturbed individual in possession of approximately two dozen personalities. At least one of these split identities has decided to kidnap three teenage girls (Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula) for a grisly purpose that will eventually be made clear. Ugly and idiotic, the film begins promisingly before eventually going completely off the rails, with Shyamalan oddly building toward a climax that ultimately finds a positive side benefit to incest, pedophilia, and physical abuse (then again, this vile development supports the strain of misogyny that runs throughout). There’s also a last-second cameo that will strike some as inspired and others as desperate – at any rate, a sequel is already in the works.

Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; deleted scenes; an alternate ending; and additional interviews with McAvoy and Shyamalan.

Movie: *1/2

Clarence Williams III in Tales from the Hood (Photo: Shout! Factory)
  • Clarence Williams III in Tales from the Hood (Photo: Shout! Factory)

TALES FROM THE HOOD (1995). Three street punks (Joe Torry, De’Aundre Bonds and Samuel Monroe Jr.) arrive at a local funeral home intending to score some drugs; instead, they’re subjected to a quartet of horror stories spun by the establishment’s creepy mortician (Clarence Williams III). That’s the framework for this anthology piece from director Rusty Cundieff and executive producer Spike Lee, which ingeniously employs the multi-saga format popularized by the likes of Dead of Night and Tales from the Crypt as a springboard for an examination of real problems facing African-American communities. Scripting with producer Darin Scott, Cundieff tackles racist authoritarian figures, domestic abuse and black-on-black crime through yarns involving a black activist (Tom Wright) returning from the grave to exact revenge on the cracker cops who put him there, a little boy (Brandon Hammond) frightened by the abusive monster lurking in his house, a Jesse Helms-like politician (Corbin Bersen) contending with dolls inhabited by the souls of former slaves, and a convict (Lamont Bentley) forced to undergo experimental treatments straight out of the A Clockwork Orange playbook. Cundieff appears in the second episode as a concerned teacher, while Rosalind Cash (who passed away a few months after the film’s release, felled by cancer) co-stars in the fourth story as Dr. Cushing (an homage to Peter, perhaps?). Towering above all the proceedings, though, is Williams, who approaches his role of the mysterious mortician with the right mix of gruesomeness and glee.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Cundieff; a retrospective making-of featurette; a vintage making-of piece; and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ***

Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in Woman of the Year (Photo: Criterion)
  • Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in Woman of the Year (Photo: Criterion)

WOMAN OF THE YEAR (1942). Over the course of exactly a quarter-century, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn were united both personally and professionally. Woman of the Year, directed by George Stevens, was the first of the nine pictures they made together over a 25-year span, and from their first shared scene in the movie — he enters an office while she’s adjusting her stockings — the chemistry is undeniable. She’s Tess Harding, a brilliant political columnist who knows a half-dozen languages and regularly hobnobs with world leaders; he’s Sam Craig, an easygoing sports writer who enjoys hanging out at the neighborhood bar. Both employees of the New York Chronicle, they gently bicker through their respective columns before finally meeting and instantly falling in love. They become husband and wife, but Sam soon discovers that she’s still more married to her job than to him. The sexual politics are occasionally suspect — the third-act scene in which Tess ineptly makes breakfast is funny but was added at a later date to cut her down to size – but the dialogue is priceless (surveying the enormous crowd at a baseball game, Tess asks, “Are all these people unemployed?”), and both stars are in peak form. Michael Kanin and Ring Lardner Jr. earned the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for their efforts, while Hepburn was nominated for Best Actress.

Blu-ray extras include the 1986 documentary The Spencer Tracy Legacy: A Tribute by Katharine Hepburn; the 1984 documentary George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey; a 1967 audio interview with Stevens; an interview with Stevens biographer Marilyn Ann Moss; and the theatrical trailer, in which it’s predicted that it will be one of the 10 Best Picture Oscar nominees for 1942 (oops).

Movie: ***1/2

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FROM SCREEN TO STREAM

(Recommended films currently available on streaming services)

Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo in Nightcrawler (Photo: Open Road Films)
  • Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo in Nightcrawler (Photo: Open Road Films)

NIGHTCRAWLER (2014). The sleeper box office hit Nightcrawler proved to be a veritable family affair: It was written and directed by Dan Gilroy, produced by his brother Tony, edited by his other brother John, and co-starred his wife, Rene Russo. Yet all that behind-the-scenes familial warmth belies the chilly — and chilling — story taking place on the screen. In a knockout performance, Jake Gyllenhaal plays Louis Bloom, an odd guy who stumbles onto a nocturnal world in which cameramen film car crashes, murders and other grisly occurrences and then sell the footage to TV stations to use on their sensationalistic newscasts. Fascinated by this sketchy profession, Bloom elects to give it a shot; he doesn't remain a newbie for long, as he possesses both the natural skill and pitiless constitution required to make it in this sordid business. He develops an exclusive relationship with an equally ruthless TV news executive (Russo) and hires a downtrodden man (Riz Ahmed) to serve as his assistant, all the while trading barbs with a veteran of the trade (Bill Paxton) and becoming ever more obsessed with his new calling. Nightcrawler hardly breaks new ground in its depiction of network news as a breeding ground for apathy and self-interest (see Network) or even in its study of a maverick newshound encountering violence against a sociopolitical backdrop (see Medium Cool); instead, it derives its strength in its utterly merciless portrayal of Louis Bloom, the type of guy who would not only sell his own mother but would chop her up into tiny pieces to facilitate the transaction. (Netflix Streaming)

ST. VINCENT (2014). It's been attributed to everyone from Oscar Wilde and Edmund Kean to Groucho Marx and Edmund Gwenn, yet it actually feels like the adage "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard." has been around ever since the first Greek philosopher-comic slipped on a banana peel. 2014 particularly gave rise to a number of terrific turns that were doubtless conceived through blood, sweat and cheers, with Ralph Fiennes' exquisite work in The Grand Budapest Hotel heading the pack. And then there's Bill Murray, who knocks it out of the park as a misanthropic curmudgeon in this modest sleeper hit. Murray's Vincent has little use for other people, with his only frequent visitor being Daka (Naomi Watts), a pregnant Russian stripper he employs as a "woman of the night." That changes, though, once the recently divorced Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) moves in next door. Initially, Vincent couldn't care less about Maggie or her young son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), but he changes his tune — slightly — once he realizes that Maggie will pay him to look after her boy each weekday after school. The old man and the young kid — it's a hoary contrivance that's fueled many a movie, from such hits as Up and Gran Torino to too many flops to count. But while most of these past characters never felt particularly heartless even at their worst, that's certainly not the case here. Vincent is often odious, and when we finally think he's softening up, he turns around and becomes even more insufferable. It's a bravura turn — Murray's best performance since 2003's Lost in Translation — and it gives this picture an extra kick. (Netflix Streaming)

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