(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.)
Christian Bale in The Big Short (Photo: Paramount)
THE BIG SHORT (2015). Intelligent, entertaining and even informative, The Big Short plays like a funkier and funnier (oh, and superior) version of The Wolf of Wall Street — a surprise, since its helmer isn't an award-season giant like Martin Scorsese but rather frequent Will Ferrell collaborator Adam McKay of Anchorman, Step Brothers and Funny or Die infamy. Like Jay Roach, who directed three Austin Powers comedies and two Fockers flicks before upping his game with the gripping HBO political pieces Recount and Game Change and the superb theatrical release Trumbo, McKay graduates to the big leagues, expertly guiding this sterling adaptation of Michael Lewis' nonfiction book The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine. It's a look at the financial crisis that occurred earlier this century, the one involving the housing bubble, the market collapse, and the banks that were too big to fail. As a subject, it stands to be both dry and complicated, and Wall Street trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who repeatedly breaks the fourth wall to serve as the piece's narrator, is aware of this. Thus, with his guidance, the script's great swatches of humor, and superlative performances by the entire cast (including Steve Carell and Christian Bale as two of the outsiders who saw the crisis coming and sought to profit from the banking industry's greed and stupidity), the film lays out the case in layman's terms. It's an invigorating watch, at least until it enters the home stretch — at that point, the real-world tragedies pop up to unsettle us and infuriate us while the villainous CEOs laugh all the way to their own banks. Nominated for five Academy Awards (including Best Picture), this won for Best Adapted Screenplay (Adam Randolph and McKay).
Blu-ray extras include a behind-the-scenes featurette; a piece on McKay; and a look at the actors and their characters.
Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen in Brooklyn (Photo: Fox)
BROOKLYN (2015). Adapting the novel by Colm Toibin, scripter Nick Hornby again demonstrates that he's a master at tackling works centered around female characters, following 2009's An Education and 2014's Wild (like this film, both placed on my 10 Best lists in their respective years) with this lovely coming-of-age tale. Atonement's Saoirse Ronan delivers a beautifully modulated performance as Eilis, a young lass who leaves her Irish homeland with the hope of making it in America. With the help of a kindly priest (Jim Broadbent), she lands a job at a department store, but homesickness and loneliness seek to crush her spirit at every turn. She meets a nice Brooklyn kid named Tony (an excellent Emory Cohen), but just as things seem to be turning around for her, an unexpected tragedy occurs, consequently forcing her to choose between the past and the present as she plans for the future. Brooklyn is a tale of introspection and retrospection, of having to make difficult decisions when the road maps laid out by the emotions and the intellect prove to be impossible to read clearly. The picture is gracious toward all of its characters, and it provides a rose-hewed vision of a world in which the only borders are those that exist on books. This earned three major Oscar nominations, for Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay. Incidentally, co-star Domhnall Gleeson (cast as one of Eilis' suitors) had quite the 2015, appearing in two Best Picture nominees (this and The Revenant) and two acclaimed fantasy flicks (Ex Machina and Star Wars: The Force Awakens).
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director John Crowley; making-of featurettes; and deleted scenes.
Laurence Harvey in The Manchurian Candidate (Photo: Criterion)
THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962). John Frankenheimer's Cold War gem may hail from 1962, but it's frightening how it appears as if the movie has been ripped from the headlines of today: right-wing zealots who would corrupt the process in order to win the Oval Office; a prominent Republican who's popular with half the populace even though he's a talentless hack who often acts like a bratty child ("Run along; the grown-ups need to talk," he's told at one point); a political party that uses fear tactics to keep a nation on edge. Based on Richard Condon's novel (with a script by George Axelrod), the film stars Frank Sinatra as a Korean War vet who, plagued by nightmares, begins to suspect that something's not quite right with a former member (Laurence Harvey) of his platoon, a decorated hero who's constantly having to contend with the political aspirations of his ruthless mother (Angela Lansbury) and her Senator husband (James Gregory). The movie rightly suggests (before the notion was popular) that the political spectrum isn't a straight line on which fascism and Communism exist on opposite ends but rather a circle on which these two ideologies occupy the same space — it's heady stuff in a nail-biting chiller that still has the power to make viewers perspire profusely. Lansbury earned an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of the monstrous mom, yet she's matched by Harvey in a superb characterization as her aloof son, a tortured man whose humanity ironically only emerges once he's turned into a political pawn. The 2004 remake (starring Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep) isn't bad, but it's no match for this gripping classic.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary (from 1997) by the late Frankenheimer; a 1987 conversation between Sinatra, Frankenheimer and Axelrod; a new interview with Lansbury; and a piece in which historian Susan Carruthers discusses the Cold War.
Tina Fey and Amy Poehler in Sisters (Photo: Universal)
SISTERS (2015). Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are fine actresses as well as superb comediennes, yet they never quite pull off the sister act in Sisters. As with everything they do together, they are such the BFFs — and respond to each other accordingly — it's impossible to accept them as related by blood. That's mentioned only as an aside and certainly not as a knock on them — indeed, they do far more for this so-so film than this so-so film does for them. Discovering that their childhood home is being sold by their parents (Dianne Wiest and James Brolin), sensible Maura (Poehler) and reckless Kate (Fey) elect to send it off with a raucous house party, one that ends up with its fair share of sex, drugs and rock & roll. The late-inning moralizing is as clumsy as that from any Will Ferrell or Vince Vaughn outing, and the hilarious bits are tempered by many that barely merit a wan smile. But the ladies are in good form, and post-Trainwreck Jon Cena is again on hand to unexpectedly flex his comedic side, this time as a drug dealer named Pazuzu (an amusing shout-out to fans of The Exorcist). Still, for a better Fey-Poehler flick, check out 2008's often uproarious Baby Mama.
The Blu-ray contains both the R-rated theatrical version as well as an unrated cut that runs an additional five minutes. Extras include audio commentary by Fey, Poehler, director Jason Moore and writer Paula Pell; a making-of featurette; deleted and extended scenes; outtakes featuring Fey and Cena; a look at the visual effects employed in a climactic sequence; and a gag reel.
Daniel Radcliffe and James McAvoy in Victor Frankenstein (Photo: Fox)
VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN (2015). A gargantuan bomb this past holiday season, Victor Frankenstein cites Paul McGuigan (Lucky Number Slevin) as its director, but it's entirely possible he was only covering for Guy Ritchie. That's because in its approach and execution, it plays like an exact copy of Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes films, taking a popular piece of brainy literature and turning it into an action spectacle crammed with dashing heroes, a villain who dreams of global (or at least U.K.) domination, and the most elaborate sort of visual effects overkill that money can buy. James McAvoy plays the title character, but he's not really the star. That would be Daniel Radcliffe, cast as a nameless circus hunchback whose medical knowledge so impresses the good doctor that he makes him his lab assistant, removes his hump by siphoning all of the liquid from inside it, and gives him the name of Igor. There are nods to the 1931 Boris Karloff classic Frankenstein as well as a shout-out of sorts to Mel Brooks' 1974 masterpiece Young Frankenstein (although, sadly, no one exclaims, "What knockers!"). There's an extended cameo by Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' scar-faced chimp Koba. And, lest we forget, there's also a monster, a lumbering behemoth who figures in a risible climax that owes more to Michael Bay than Mary Shelley. McAvoy and Radcliffe deliver fine performances, but they're let down by Max Landis' script. Instead of portraying men who dare to play God, they come across as boys who would be rather be playing God of War. Too bad it hadn't been created yet.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; deleted scenes; and the theatrical trailer.