(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.)
- Richard Jenkins and Margo Martindale in The Hollars (Photo: Sony Pictures Classics)
THE HOLLARS (2016). This agonizing exercise in indie quirk suggests that director John Krasinski and writer James C. Strause watched Garden State and then simultaneously muttered, "Well, if Zach Braff can pull it off, then so can we!" Yet while Braff's 2004 sleeper hit certainly has its share of detractors, even they might be willing to concede that it's positively Heaven-sent when compared to this insufferable undertaking. The film doesn't recall Garden State as much as it brings to mind 2014's This Is Where I Leave You, another all-star idiocy about the members of a dysfunctional clan coming together in the face of a familial tragedy. In this case, it's the brain tumor that's suddenly discovered in matriarch Sally Hollar (Margo Martindale), a condition that's gone untreated for years because her husband Don (Richard Jenkins) thought the symptoms were related to obesity. There also to comfort Sally are her sons John (Krasinski), a struggling cartoonist who has yet to completely commit to his pregnant girlfriend Becca (Anna Kendrick), and Ron (Sharlto Copley), a slacker who continues to spy on his ex-wife (Ashley Dyke). Ron is supposed to be the non-PC comic relief, but he's arguably the most odious screen character of the year. Of course, like almost everyone else in the picture, he's heading toward a happy ending, one achieved after the players are run through a gauntlet of tears and laughter. But while Martindale has one terrific scene that will moisten those eyes (she's easily the MVP on this 3-13 team), the rest of the picture just writhes up there on the small screen, flailing against Krasinski's inert direction and Strause's abundance of comic scenes that fall flat. Faced with all the cinematic white noise that collectively makes up The Hollars, viewers are advised to run away screaming.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Krasinski and Martindale, and a making-of featurette.
- Helena Bonham Carter and Emma Thompson in Howards End (Photo: Cohen)
HOWARDS END (1992). The best of the countless Merchant Ivory productions, this rich adaptation of E.M. Forster's Edwardian-era novel remains one of cinema's defining statements on the rigid class structures that too often create irreparable riffs between a nation's citizenry. The story centers on sisters Margaret and Helen Schlegel (Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter) and their relationships with those who inhabit the classes directly above and below them. On the upper end of the scale, there's the Wilcox family, whose patriarch (Anthony Hopkins) ends up marrying Margaret after his ailing wife (Vanessa Redgrave) passes away; on the bottom rung, there's Leonard Bast (Samuel West), a struggling (and married) clerk whose cause is championed by Helen. The fiercely independent sisters offer a fascinating contrast in pre-modern feminism — Margaret's bend-but-don't-break diplomacy is a far cry from Helen's firebrand radicalism — and scripter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala takes care to preserve the staggering ironies that permeate the tale. Thompson delivers an astounding performance, but no less noteworthy are the turns by Hopkins (who somehow finds a shred of humanity in a despicable character) and Bonham Carter. Nominated for nine Academy Awards (including Best Picture), this won three: Best Actress for Thompson, Best Adapted Screenplay for Jhabvala, and Best Art Direction-Set Decoration.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by film critics Wade Major and Lael Lowenstein; behind-the-scenes featurettes; various interviews with director James Ivory; and theatrical trailers.
- Susan Hayward in I Want to Live! (Photo: Twilight Time)
I WANT TO LIVE! (1958) / THE BOSTON STRANGLER (1968). The Twilight Time label has released two films based around real-life individuals accused of murder. One is more clear-cut than the other, but both are of comparable quality.
I Want to Live! centers on Barbara Graham (Susan Hayward), a prostitute who was charged with the murder of an elderly woman and went to the gas chamber insisting she was innocent. The evidence against her was strong — and even Hayward herself later admitted that she thought Graham was guilty — but the movie pushes the theory that she was an innocent victim who was in fact nowhere near the scene of the crime. Regardless of the truth, the movie certainly works as a showcase for Hayward, who's superb in the part. After four losses in the Best Actress category, she finally won the Oscar for her work here; the film earned an additional five nominations, including one for Robert Wise as Best Director.
- Tony Curtis and Henry Fonda in The Boston Strangler (Photo: Twilight Time)
The Boston Strangler finds Tony Curtis cast against type as the title character, a family man suffering from a split personality that leads him to go around murdering women. Unlike Hayward, who's in I Want to Live! almost from first scene to last, Curtis doesn't show up until later in the film; the first — and, surprisingly, more interesting — section focuses on the efforts of the law (repped mainly by Henry Fonda's straight arrow) to find this madman who's terrorizing the city. The multiple-screen format employed by director Richard Fleischer is particularly interesting.
Blu-ray extras on I Want to Live! consist of an isolated track of Johnny Mandel's score (with audio commentary during one segment by Wise associate Mike Matessino), and the theatrical trailer. Blu-ray extras on The Boston Strangler include audio commentary by film historians David Del Valle and Steven Peros; the AMC Backstory episode about the movie; a discussion with director William Friedkin (The French Connection) about the film; and theatrical trailers.
Both Movies: ***
- Matt Damon and Julia Stiles in Jason Bourne (Photo: Universal)
JASON BOURNE (2016). This sequel finds Matt Damon returning to the role of the former CIA assassin with the faulty memory and a very particular set of skills, skills that he acquired ... well, Liam Neeson said it better. At any rate, as far as needless follow-ups go, this fourth entry in the series (fifth if one includes that offshoot starring Jeremy Renner) works for a surprisingly lengthy amount of time until it finally, perhaps irrevocably, runs out of steam. In this one, it's Nicky Parsons (returning Julia Stiles) who gets the ball rolling (again) for Bourne. A former CIA analyst now involved in anarchist activities, Nicky tracks down Jason to inform him about yet another mystery from his past. Their alliance worries the powers-that-be at the agency, particularly the CIA Director Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) and an opportunistic agent (Alicia Vikander). Paul Greengrass, who helmed the second and third films in the franchise, returns as director, and he still demonstrates an impressive command of staging cat-and-mouse dalliances on a global stage. His ability to effectively orchestrate mano-a-mano skirmishes, on the other mano — excuse me, hand — seems to have largely deserted him, as the up-close-and-personal fights are presented as whirlwind blurs of sound and fury. The entire final act, everything that transpires after a confrontation in a hotel room, is a waste of time, an unnecessary padding that dissipates much of the slow-burn suspense built up over the first stretch of the film. Damon still brings a steely determination and haunted aura to Jason Bourne, but the role is more indecipherable and unformed than ever. The franchise may be Bourne again, but the character feels as if he's trying to claw his way back into the womb.
Blu-ray extras include behind-the-scenes looks at three fight sequences and two car chases.
- Mel Gibson in The Road Warrior (Photo: Warner)
MAD MAX HIGH-OCTANE COLLECTION (1980-2015). Collectively or individually, there have been approximately 20 Blu-ray releases of the films in writer-director George Miller's post-apocalyptic franchise, but this edition might remain the definitive one for — at least a while.
Miller's original Mad Max, released in 1979 in his Australian homeland and in 1980 on these shores, was part of the Aussie New Wave that allowed global audiences in the 1970s and early '80s to see that our neighbors Down Under were making some pretty incredible films. Mad Max set the stage, but 1981's The Road Warrior (aka Mad Max 2) positively set it ablaze, popping up on numerous 10 Best lists and elevating the bar on both vehicular mayhem and daring stuntwork. The third entry, 1985's Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, found the road warrior going Hollywood — it was the first entry primarily backed by a major studio — and the result was a PG-13 rating (the others had been R), perfectly coiffed hair for star Mel Gibson, and, after a terrific opening 45 minutes, an unfortunate narrative shift that basically found Max hanging out with Peter Pan's Lost Boys. Arriving late to the scene, 2015's Mad Max: Fury Road, starring Tom Hardy as Max, Charlize Theron as Furiosa, and Hugh Keays-Byrne as Donald Trump, err, as Immortan Joe, turned out to be the best of the bunch, with 10 Oscar nominations (including Best Picture) and six wins among its many honors.
- Tom Hardy in Mad Max: Fury Road: Black & Chrome (Photo: Warner)
The big deal with this eight-disc Blu-ray collection is that it not only includes all four Mad Max movies but also Mad Max: Fury Road: Black & Chrome, which presents the fourth and most recent installment in crisp black-and-white. While this won't be replacing the color version as the definitive take, it is a beauty in its own right — considering most fans of the film will conceivably be watching it at least four or five more times in the immediate future, it's recommended that one of those viewings be for this b&w edition. As for extras, they include audio commentary on Mad Max and The Road Warrior; making-of featurettes on Mad Max, The Road Warrior and Mad Max: Fury Road; an introduction to The Road Warrior by critic Leonard Maltin; and deleted scenes for Mad Max: Fury Road.
Mad Max: ***1/2
The Road Warrior: ***1/2
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome: ***
Mad Max: Fury Road: ***1/2
- Gregory Peck in Moby Dick (Photo: Twilight Time)
MOBY DICK (1956). Director John Huston and screenwriter Ray Bradbury teamed up (and feuded aplenty) to wrestle Herman Melville's literary classic Moby-Dick to the screen, with results both fascinating and flawed. Gregory Peck headlines as the imposing Captain Ahab, determined to destroy the titular white whale no matter the toll on his own sanity; along for the voyage (and serving as narrator) is Ishmael (Richard Basehart), who watches the saga unfold with careful attention. Despite its relative box office success, the soaring production costs kept it from making much of a profit. And while its critical standing has been elevated over time, it met with a mixed reception in its day, with many harping that Peck was simply too young to play the role of Ahab. Peck is fine (though, yes, a wee bit too young) — truthfully, the only weak performance comes from Leo Genn as second-in-command Starbuck, with the best work courtesy of Austrian actor Friedrich Ledebur as the friendly cannibal Queequeg. For all the naysaying, Huston did manage to snag Best Director honors from both the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review. Incidentally, the great Orson Welles appears in a small role as Father Mapple; decades later, Peck would nab an Emmy nomination and a Golden Globe award for playing the part in a 1998 miniseries starring Patrick Stewart as Ahab. Amusingly, Moby Dick was re-released theatrically in the post-Jaws '70s with the tagline, "Before the Shark, There Was the Whale."
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historians Julie Kirgo, Paul Seydor and Nick Redman; a piece on the restoration of the film's unique color scheme; a collection of posters, lobby cards and production stills (including some from 1926's The Sea Beast and 1930's Moby Dick, two loose adaptations starring John Barrymore); the theatrical trailer; and an isolated track of Philip Sainton's score.
- Judy Geeson and Ian Bannen in Doomwatch (Photo: Kino)
Short And Sweet:
DOOMWATCH (1972). Despite that title and those fearsome creatures on the Blu-ray cover art (and original theatrical poster), this British production isn't really a horror movie. Retitled Island of the Ghouls for many stateside showings, it's based on the BBC series Doomwatch, a popular drama in which an organization of scientists investigates environmental problems around the globe. The series regulars are on hand, but the lead roles are given to two film actors: Ian Bannen, cast as a scientist who journeys to an island village where everyone is acting strangely, and Judy Geeson, playing the sole resident who agrees to help him. Suitably somber, the film is recommended for those seeking a thoughtful, low-key watch.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director Peter Sasdy; an introduction by Sasdy; and an interview with Geeson.
- Max von Sydow in Gran Bollito (Photo: Twilight Time)
GRAN BOLLITO (1977). Shelley Winters stars in this Italian melodrama that's based on the true story of Leonarda Cianciulli, who murdered a trio of women and made soap out of their boiled bodies. Director Mauro Bolognini highlights the story's tepidity rather than its tension, and the idea to have the murder victims played by men in drag (one being no less than Max von Sydow) ultimately comes off as silly rather than inspired. Look for A Taste of Honey's breakout star Rita Tushingham in a supporting role as the sickly sister of the local priest.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historians Derek Botelho and David Del Valle, and the theatrical trailer.
- Cyd Charisse and Gene Kelly in It’s Always Fair Weather (Photo: Warner)
IT'S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER (1955). This sorta follow-up to 1946's On the Town finds Gene Kelly, Dan Dailey and Michael Kidd playing three World War II pals who decide to hook up again 10 years down the road. A decade passes, but upon keeping their date, they all discover they no longer have anything in common. But circumstances keep them in the city for the entire day, meaning they'll have one final shot to establish some kind of bond. A musical that isn't always light on its feet (the midsection drags), the movie does take some humorous shots at TV advertising as well as offer Cyd Charisse one of her best roles as a brainy beauty who catches Kelly's eye.
Blu-ray extras include a retrospective making-of piece; musical number outtakes; two vintage cartoons (one starring Droopy); and the theatrical trailer.
- The Secret Life of Pets (Photo: Universal)
THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS (2016). One of the gargantuan hits of 2016 — in the U.S., only Finding Dory and Captain America: Civil War grossed more — The Secret Life of Pets squanders its enormous potential by turning out to be just one more animated effort about plucky heroes embarking on a journey/mission. The earliest scenes, which do focus on the secret lives of pets, are the best, with the main storyline — two dogs find themselves facing peril while stranded far from home — only maintaining interest in spurts. Certainly, there are clever gags to be found strewn throughout, but not nearly enough to deserve that box office bounty.
Blu-ray extras include interviews with key crew members; a piece on how to make an animated film; a sing-along to the sausage factory segment (no, it's not<P> like any of the scenes from Sausage Party); and three animated shorts.
- James Brown and Mick Jagger in The T.A.M.I. Show (Photo: Shout!)
T.A.M.I. SHOW (1964) / THE BIG T.N.T. SHOW (1966). A legendary production among music aficionados (many of whom once owned bootleg copies since it wasn't officially available on VHS), T.A.M.I. Show is a time-capsule treasure, featuring many of the era's biggest acts following one another in concert. The roster is remarkable: James Brown, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys (their numbers, often missing from prints, is restored for this Shout! Factory release), The Supremes, and more. The film was followed two years later by The Big T.N.T. Show, with a lineup that included Ray Charles, Joan Baez and The Ike & Tina Turner Revue.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director Steve Binder on T.A.M.I. Show, and interviews with Petula Clark and John Sebastian on The Big T.N.T. Show.
T.A.M.I. Show: ***1/2
The Big T.N.T. Show: ***