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Ex Machina, Old Gringo, What We Do in the Shadows among new home entertainment titles 

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

(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.)

click to enlarge Hope Lange (right) in The Best of Everything (Photo: Twilight Time)
  • Hope Lange (right) in The Best of Everything (Photo: Twilight Time)

THE BEST OF EVERYTHING (1959). By sheer coincidence, the last few weeks have found my wife and me watching the 1987 Diane Keaton starrer Baby Boom (me for the second time, her for the first), the 1980 box office smash 9 to 5 (her for the second time, me for the umpteenth), and this 1959 adaptation of Rona Jaffe's bestselling novel (both for the first time). Forget Virginia Slims' decree that you've come a long way, baby — as my better half well knows, the problems facing women in the working world are remarkably (and unfortunately) resilient, whether it's the 1950s, the 1980s or the 2010s. Among the travails, of course, is the misogyny that often runs rampant throughout the business world, but just as monumental — and as suggested in this film's title — is the belief by many that a woman can't have everything but must instead choose between the office and the home, between cubicle work and housework, between career and family. Set at a Manhattan publishing firm, the picture centers on the triumphs and tragedies experienced by three women who work there as secretaries. Caroline Bender (Hope Lange) only plans to be there until she can get married to her long-distance beau (Brett Halsey, in a role far different from the one he essayed in the same year's The Return of the Fly), but circumstances find her rising in the company. April Morrison (Diane Baker) is the small-town ingénue, landing in the big city and immediately being assaulted by wolves in sheep's clothing (Brian Aherne's lecherous editor, Robert Evans' shallow playboy). And Gregg Adams (Suzy Parker) only works at the publishing house for the money, instead investing all her energy into the play auditions that she hopes will eventually lead to fame and fortune. Disillusionment, despair and even death constantly huddle to greet these women — but that's outside the office. Inside, they merely have to contend with sexual harassment, punishing overtime hours, and an iron lady of a boss in Amanda Farrow (Joan Crawford). The Best of Everything earned Oscar nominations for Best Original Song (the title tune, warbled by Johnny Mathis) and Best Color Costume Design, though the real achievement is the splendiferous Cinemascope lensing by William C. Mellor (who would win an Oscar for the same year's The Diary of Anne Frank, shooting in somber black-and-white as opposed to Everything's vivid colors).

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Jaffe and film historian Sylvia Stoddard; the theatrical trailer; and an isolated track of Alfred Newman's score.

Movie: ***

click to enlarge Ex Machina (Photo: Lionsgate & A24)
  • Ex Machina (Photo: Lionsgate & A24)

EX MACHINA (2015). They say that God is in the details, but he's conspicuously missing from the title of Ex Machina. Those two words are almost always employed in the term deus ex machina, yet the omission immediately signals that writer-director Alex Garland is armed and ready to play with any and all expectations. With its story about a genius who dares to play God, this harkens back to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, a novel that sports the often dropped subtitle The Modern Prometheus. That moniker could equally apply to a steady stream of scientists from the literary and cinematic worlds, and Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) is the latest of these arrogant inventors. Nathan has created the seemingly perfect robot, an A.I. he has named Ava (A Royal Affair's Alicia Vikander). But before Nathan deems his creation a success, Ava must be subjected to the Turing Test — yes, named after Alan Turing of The Imitation Game fame — which decrees that an interrogator must be unable to tell the difference in the responses given by an A.I. as opposed to those provided by a human. To assist in the test is Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleason), a computer programmer who joins Nathan at his remote mountain home and spends a week trying to figure out — and falling for? — Ava. Essentially a three-person chamber piece, the movie milks its desolate setting for maximum impact: Nathan's secluded house-cum-laboratory is cannily employed as its own self-contained petri dish, with existential quandaries being analyzed under Garland's morally tuned microscope. In its exploration of Ava and the extent to which she becomes worthy of human empathy even though she's technically a machine, the piece recalls not only Shelley but also Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (aka Blade Runner in film lingo) and H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau, particularly its repeated refrain of "Are we not men?" Incidentally, there's no heavy-handed deus ex machina device to conveniently end the film; instead, the players in this pas de trois are left to their own devices, all pirouetting toward a conclusion as unexpected as it is invigorating.

Blu-ray extras include the five-part featurette Through the Looking Glass: Creating Ex Machina; various behind-the-scenes vignettes; and a Q&A with select cast and crew.

Movie: ***1/2

click to enlarge Colin Firth and Kenneth Branagh in A Month in the Country (Photo: Twilight Time)
  • Colin Firth and Kenneth Branagh in A Month in the Country (Photo: Twilight Time)

A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY (1987). A Month in the Country is a movie of morsel-sized pleasures, yet there's a sizable joy to be had in catching two leading lights at the start of their long and impressive careers. Colin Firth and Kenneth Branagh were both 27 when the film began its aborted stateside release in February 1988 (Firth is exactly three months older than Branagh), and it's almost shocking to see both actors looking so puppy-doggish young. It marked Branagh's film debut, and it would only be a mere two-year wait before he broke through with his acclaimed celluloid version of Shakespeare's Henry V. Firth, meanwhile, was only enjoying his third screen credit, and while he would take longer to come to full fruition, his career has been no less distinguished than Branagh's. Firth essays the leading role in this one: He stars as Tom Birkin, an emotionally scarred World War I veteran hired to restore a long-hidden mural on a church wall in a Yorkshire community. Haunted by nightmarish memories and forced to endure a persistent stutter brought upon by his experiences, he finds a fellow WWI victim in James Moon (Branagh), who likewise has been hired to uncover something — in his case, an unmarked grave resting somewhere near the church. Despite his guarded nature, Birkin begins to spend time with the locals as well, and while he and the humorless Reverend Keach (Patrick Malahide) rarely see eye to eye, he does find an unexpected kinship with the holy man's young — and painfully neglected — wife Alice (Natasha Richardson). A Month in the Country may not seem like much as it initially unfolds, but beneath those still waters rest turbulent emotions, and the cumulative effect of having these characters slowly reveal themselves over the course of the picture results in a powerful and poignant denouement.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by film historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman; the theatrical trailer; and an isolated track of Howard Blake's score.

Movie: ***

click to enlarge Gregory Peck and Jane Fonda in Old Gringo (Photo: Mill Creek & Columbia)
  • Gregory Peck and Jane Fonda in Old Gringo (Photo: Mill Creek & Columbia)

OLD GRINGO (1989). This adaptation of Carlos Fuentes' novel was a colossal bust upon its initial release: Costing $27 million and positioned as an early-fall Oscar contender, it grossed a paltry $3 million and landed on several critics' 10 Worst lists. Truthfully, it isn't that bad, registering less as an out-and-out disaster and more as a missed opportunity. The story offers a fictionalized version of what happened to American author Ambrose Bierce (Gregory Peck) after he disappeared into Mexico in the 1910s at the height of the Mexican Revolution. According to this speculation, he spent his final days (he was 71 at this point) travelling with a band of Pancho Villa's revolutionaries and vying with one of Villa's officers, the fiery Tomas Aroyo (Jimmy Smits), for the affections of an American spinster, the meek Harriet Winslow (Jane Fonda). Argentinian writer-director Luis Puenzo, whose previous picture was 1985's universally acclaimed The Official Story (an Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film), has difficulty providing the movie with the epic grandeur such a story demands, although all the technical ingredients are certainly in place (the production design by Bruno Rubeo and Stuart Wurtzel is especially noteworthy). Smits and especially Peck invest their roles with steely passion, but Fonda delivers the worst performance of her otherwise illustrious career (it's the only time she ever received a Worst Actress Razzie nomination): Staring doe-eyed at her guys and hanging tightly onto their every utterance, she comes across more as a naïve schoolgirl hearing the word "penis" for the first time than as a sexually stifled woman finally coming into her own. Fonda magnifies every gesture to comical proportions — I think she sets the world record for the greatest number of fluttering blinks in a motion picture — and if there's such a thing as repressed overacting, this is a model of its kind.

There are no extras on the Blu-ray.

Movie: **1/2

click to enlarge Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smit-McPhee in Slow West (Photo: Lionsgate & A24)
  • Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smit-McPhee in Slow West (Photo: Lionsgate & A24)

SLOW WEST (2015). Not a traditional Western by any stretch of the imagination, Slow West operates in the same manner as such haunting and off-kilter horse operas as Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man and John Hillcoat's The Proposition. Like the Hillcoat flick, it comes from a land Down Under, with New Zealand providing part of the financing for a film that nabbed a major award (World Cinema: Dramatic) at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Kodi Smit-McPhee, the teen star of The Road and Let Me In, continues to diversify his portfolio by essaying the role of Jay Cavendish, a Scottish kid who journeys to the post-Civil War West to locate Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius), his one true love and, along with her father (Rory McCann), a fugitive from justice. "It's a miracle you've made it this far," the tenderfoot is told by Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), a scoundrel in the Han Solo mold (tough on the outside, soft on the inside). The two strike up a — well, friendship isn't exactly the right word, but Jay does come to realize that he stands a better chance of staying alive if he allows this cigar-chomping cowboy to look after him. Fassbender starred in debuting feature-film writer-director John Maclean's 2009 short piece Man on a Motorcycle, so their relationship probably explains why the actor agreed to take on a role that's comparatively easy and bare-bones after the heavy lifting of Shame and 12 Years a Slave. Yet his charismatic presence is certainly appreciated, as are the beautiful directorial touches that help lift this picture out of the realm of an ordinary oater. Maclean not only fills his film with memorable characters who come and go with the suddenness of a tumbleweed blowing across a dusty street — I especially enjoyed the appearance of a trio of Congolese musicians, as well as Jay's encounter with a Good Samaritan who proves to be anything but — he also finds impish humor in such sights as an axman felled by a tree and an arrow shot through a hand ("Good catch," cracks Silas). It all ends with a spectacularly staged shootout, one which finds Maclean daring to literalize the concept of rubbing salt into a wound.

Blu-ray extras consist of a making-of featurette and deleted scenes.

Movie: ***

click to enlarge Jemaine Clement, Taiki Waititi (both standing), Jonathan Brugh and Ben Fransham in What We Do in the Shadows (Photo: Paramount)
  • Jemaine Clement, Taiki Waititi (both standing), Jonathan Brugh and Ben Fransham in What We Do in the Shadows (Photo: Paramount)

WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS (2015). A Christopher Guest-styled mockumentary about vampires sounds only a little less obvious and opportunistic than a "found-footage" feature about vampires, yet Flight of the Conchords creator Jemaine Clement and fellow actor-writer-director Taika Waititi have managed to create a savvy satire that works beautifully. What We Do in the Shadows finds a documentary crew (whose members have been given crucifixes for their own protection) focusing their cameras on a quartet of vampires who live in a dingy New Zealand flat. There's the chipper, 379-year-old Viago (Waititi), who acts as our host; the surly, 862-year-old Vladislav (Clement), whose nickname during his dark period was Vlad the Poker; the temperamental, 183-year-old Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), quick with the cursing and complaining; and the 8,000-year-old Petyr (Ben Fransham), who looks exactly like Nosferatu and basically keeps to himself in the basement. As flatmates, the vampires are no different than mere mortals, bickering over such matters as who's responsible for washing the dirty dishes that have piled up over the past five years. Out on the streets, though, their legacy comes to the forefront, as they're unable to get into the coolest nightclubs unless someone formally invites them inside and hesitant to resist draining passing acquaintances of their blood. Matters get shaken up when Petyr turns a brash young guy named Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) into a fellow creature of the night; while he's great to know on a social level (coolest nightclubs, here they come!) and introduces them to his best friend Stu (Stu Rutherford), a human they actually like and come to regard as a close buddy, he's also a bit of a pain, and his insistence on bragging about his undead status eventually leads to tragedy. What We Do in the Shadows is exceptionally clever in the manner in which it delineates the difficulties of being centuries old and trying to exist in the 21st century — rather than just pay lip service to such modern conveniences as Skype and the Internet, it actually works them into the storyline. There's a sweetness in the vampires' relationship with Stu (everybody loves this guy!), the turf-war confrontations with a pack of werewolves provide a mix of humor and horror, and the introduction of Deacon's human "familiar" (Jackie van Beek) demonstrates that, even in the vampire world, there exists a patriarchal pattern.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Clement and Waititi; the original half-hour short film from a decade ago that inspired this feature-length version; deleted scenes; and a poster gallery.

Movie: ***1/2

click to enlarge Naomi Watts in While We’re Young (Photo: Lionsgate & A24)
  • Naomi Watts in While We’re Young (Photo: Lionsgate & A24)

WHILE WE'RE YOUNG (2015). There was a time when the movies convinced us that the gap in the so-called generation gap covered roughly the distance from the earth to the moon. Films such as 1955's Rebel Without a Cause and 1967's The Graduate painted both the kids and the parents in such dissimilar terms that one group might as well have been aliens from another galaxy, futilely trying to communicate with the other species and failing miserably. In writer-director Noah Baumbach's While We're Young, that gap has closed significantly, to the extent where the chasm is measured in yards rather than miles. Of course, in the real world, the measurement is often closer to centimeters, but that wouldn't necessarily provide Baumbach with the dramatic tension his scenario requires. Ergo, when middle-aged couple Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) first meet fresh-faced hipsters Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), they approach them with the same mix of awe and trepidation as Indiana Jones eyeing the golden idol in that Peruvian temple. Josh, a documentary filmmaker, and Cornelia, a former producer, have grown rigid, so the presence of Jamie and Darby in their lives feels like a godsend, a way to recapture their lost youth and feel vibrant again. Baumbach mines an ample amount of humor and truth out of the vagaries of getting older, and the auteur also comments on the notion of cross-generational pollination, such as the fact that the middle-aged pair have embraced cutting-edge technology with a vengeance (they're rarely seen without their iPods and iPhones) while the kids prefer to be retro (among other activities, listening to vinyl LPs and plucking away on typewriters). The film becomes more plot-heavy — and consequently less observational — during the second half, but even this portion remains engaging thanks to a sizable supporting role for Charles Grodin as Cornelia's dad, a venerable lion in the documentary world. A great film about modern generational relationships still needs to be made. But until such a movie comes along, the entertaining and occasionally insightful While We're Young does its part to help fill in the gap.

Blu-ray extras consist of various behind-the-scenes featurettes.

Movie: ***

click to enlarge Jennifer Lawrence in X-Men: Days of Future Past (Photo: Fox)
  • Jennifer Lawrence in X-Men: Days of Future Past (Photo: Fox)

X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (2014). Far be it for me to drop any spoilers, so let's just say that the best superhero flick of the past couple of years (sorry, Guardians) lets slip a few bombshells involving John F. Kennedy's assassination and Richard M. Nixon's infamous Oval Office recordings, material that is conspicuously missing from our nation's textbooks. Personally, I can't wait to see what future installments hold in store for our nation's leaders, though rumors abound that we'll see Bill Clinton unwisely hit on new White House intern Kitty Pride and learn that Ronald Reagan was the real power behind the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. For now, we can bask in the company of this stellar X-adventure, which, like 2011's X-Men: First Class, manages to smartly incorporate historical events into its rollicking tale of mutant mayhem. The story begins in the near future, when powerful beings known as Sentinels have been tasked by those in charge to exterminate all mutants. Among the few still alive are Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), who has the ability to send a person (or, rather, their consciousness) back into the past; Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen), who decide that someone must travel back to 1973 to prevent Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from committing a murder that inadvertently leads to the creation of the Sentinels; and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), who volunteers for the job. To stop Mystique from carrying out her hit, Wolverine will need assistance from that era's Professor X and Magneto, a tall order since the professor (James McAvoy) has dulled his abilities with painkillers and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is being held in a maximum-security facility. As is the norm for this series, universal themes are often addressed, specifically the perpetual standby of the evils inherent in a world that believes in prejudice and segregation. And in addition to the presidential perspectives, the film also manages to incorporate the Vietnam War, Roberta Flack ... and Sanford and Son. It's that kind of movie: knowledgeable, emotional, and packed with incident and excitement.

The new Blu-ray contains both the theatrical cut as well as an extended version (The Rogue Cut) that runs an additional 17 minutes. Extras include audio commentary by director Bryan Singer and composer and film editor John Ottman on The Rogue Cut; audio commentary by Singer and co-writer Simon Kinberg on the theatrical version; a behind-the-scenes featurette; and a photo gallery.

Movie: ***1/2

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