(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.)
BAD SANTA 2 (2016). The 2003 Yuletide hit Bad Santa remains one of those holiday movies, like It's a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story, that's impossible not to watch over and over (and over) again. Bad Santa 2 is basically like a copy that's been produced on a faulty Xerox machine: Some parts have been duplicated perfectly, while other bits are blurry or missing completely. So while the foul language, misanthropic attitude, and cynical performances still come into focus in this belated sequel, even squinting might not pick up much in the way of clever plotting, genuine wit, and a sneaky subversive streak running throughout. Yet the attention to cheerful vulgarity defines both movies, meaning that plenty of laughs can be found in this flagrantly foulmouthed follow-up. As before, the key ingredient is the give-and-take between Billy Bob Thornton and Tony Cox as those holiday hoodlums Willie and Marcus — both actors pick up where they left off, as their antagonistic characters this time become involved in a heist brought together by Willie's equally disreputable mom (Kathy Bates). Pudgy Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly) returns to again scamper after Willie, and he's as dim-witted as ever. Thurman is rather awkwardly shoehorned into the proceedings, sandwiched between the copious cussing and the copious copulation. Nevertheless, his presence is welcome, if only to see how he looks 13 years removed from the original film — and to see if he still puts his faith in Mary and Jesus and that talking walnut.
The Blu-ray contains both the R-rated theatrical cut and an unrated version that runs an additional three minutes. Extras include deleted scenes; an alternate opening and ending; an adult version of “Jingle Bells”; animated shorts; and a gag reel.
HACKSAW RIDGE (2016). The weakest of this year’s nine Best Picture Oscar nominees may not deserve its lofty spot, but it’s still a fairly effective movie in its own right. Like Howard Hawks’ classic (and superior) Sergeant York — a 1941 hit for which Gary Cooper won the first of his two Oscars — this one’s another true-life tale about a pacifist who must reconcile his own faith with his nation’s need for him to serve. Andrew Garfield, previously best known as the Amazing Spider-Hipster in Marc Webb’s underwhelming pair of superhero pics, came into his own in 2016 with a pair of fine performances in both this and Martin Scorsese’s Silence. In Hacksaw Ridge, he’s cast as Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who refuses to pick up a weapon yet still manages to save dozens of his fellow soldiers during the fierce Battle of Okinawa in the waning months of World War II. Mel Gibson’s direction can hardly be deemed inspired – his Best Director nomination should have gone elsewhere, but the Academy clearly wanted to forgive him for his racist and misogynistic ways – but because he’s less ham-fisted in his jingoistic zeal than Peter Berg, his workmanlike efficiency at least rarely gets in the way of a worthy storyline. The thoroughly modern Vince Vaughn is out-of-place as a barking sergeant, but generally colorless actors Sam Worthington and Luke Bracey fare well as, respectively, a questioning captain and a combative private.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; deleted scenes; and the theatrical trailer.
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016). While I saw better movies in 2016 (though only three; see the complete Best & Worst here), this Oscar nominee for Best Picture is the sort of understated, under-the-radar drama that really gets under the skin. Casey Affleck delivers a revelatory performance as Lee Chandler, a janitor/handyman who returns to his Massachusetts hometown following the death of his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler). Soon after arriving, he learns that Joe has placed his 16-year-old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) in his care — Lee balks at the news, since he wants to return to his lonely existence in Boston while Patrick wants to remain in Manchester-by-the-Sea. As Lee tries to figure out the proper course of action, he's forced to come into contact with his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams), with whom he shares a devastating history. A grouchy uncle and his flippant teenage charge — it sounds like the perfect set-up for an inane sitcom starring Charlie Sheen and some precocious flavor-of-the-month brat. Instead, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan has fashioned a film that cuts close to the bone, with gentle humor only occasionally serving as a buffer against the harsh realities of these characters' lives. Lee Chandler isn't some plastic movie saint — he's shown to be quite the jerk even before the events that irrevocably alter the course of his existence — and Affleck and Williams are both sensational as they explore their characters' shared pain. Hedges is also exemplary, and the scenes in which Patrick tests the boundaries with his uncle ("Can my girlfriend spend the night? Dad always let her.") feel particularly authentic. In fact, there's not much that feels false in this beautiful bummer that nevertheless locates moments of hope and humility in a storm-tossed ocean of despair.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by Lonergan; a making-of featurette; and deleted scenes.
MILDRED PIERCE (1945). For three consecutive years, a trio of novels penned by James M. Cain were transformed into major motion pictures. While 1945’s Mildred Pierce — a hybrid of a bleak film noir and a high-gloss melodrama — might not quite match the brilliance of either 1944’s Double Indemnity or 1946’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, it’s still old-school entertainment at its finest. In what was her comeback role after several lean years, Joan Crawford won a Best Actress Oscar for her sterling performance as the title character, a housewife-cum-businesswoman who repeatedly sacrifices herself for a bratty daughter who doesn’t even appreciate it. Ann Blyth is chilling as Veda Pierce – the original bad seed – with further notable contributions from Jack Carson as Mildred’s lecherous business partner, Eve Arden as her wisecracking best friend, and Zachary Scott as the ne’er-do-well playboy pursued by both mother and daughter. Mildred Pierce earned a total of six Oscar nominations, with Crawford’s victory joined by nods for Best Picture, Supporting Actress (both Blyth and Arden), Screenplay, and Black-and-White Cinematography — missing out were director Michael Curtiz (already a past winner for Casablanca) and art director Anton Grot. Cain’s novel was filmed again in 2011 as an HBO miniseries starring Kate Winslet, Evan Rachel Wood and Guy Pearce.
Blu-ray extras consist of an excellent conversation between film critics Molly Haskell and Robert Polito about the movie and the novel; a terrific 1969 interview with Cain; the 2002 documentary Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star; a 2002 Q&A session with Blyth; and an excerpt from a 1970 episode of The David Frost Show with Crawford.
NOCTURNAL ANIMALS (2016). Tom Ford, the fabulously successful fashion designer who made a name for himself at Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent before launching his own label, first tried his hand at filmmaking with 2009's A Single Man, which earned strong reviews as well as a Best Actor Oscar nomination for lead Colin Firth. Ford's sophomore effort, Nocturnal Animals, matches his first picture in terms of its visual vibrancy and solid performances, but it has opted to replace its beating heart with a leaden paperweight. In one of two central plotlines, Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), unhappily married to a womanizing lout (Armie Hammer), receives a manuscript in the mail from her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). The film's other narrative thread is the story that Susan reads, a harrowing tale about a family (Gyllenhaal, Isla Fisher and Ellie Bamber) terrorized by vicious rednecks while stranded in the middle of Nowhere, Texas. The story-within-a-story is cruel rather than clever, with Ford (working from Austin Wright's novel) more interested in tastefully (tastelessly?) laying out nude corpses than in providing anything more substantial than a threadbare version of Death Wish. What significantly elevates this portion is Michael Shannon (earning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination), who's typically off-kilter and intense as a detective who wants to see justice done by any means necessary. The other narrative largely wastes Adams' formidable talents but nevertheless maintains interest with its look at a woman reflecting on the disintegration of her previous marriage and coping with the roiling emotions regarding the people in her life. Unfortunately, this ends in calculated ambiguity that plays more like airless affectedness.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette and a piece on the film’s visual style.
FROM SCREEN TO STREAM
(Recommended films currently available on streaming services)
ADVENTURELAND (2009). In this welcome coming-of-age tale, Jesse Eisenberg plays James, whose best-laid plans to attend grad school are dismantled by a sudden lack of funds. He's forced to take a minimum-wage job working the game booths at the Pittsburgh amusement park Adventureland, and what makes the gig endurable is his burgeoning relationship with a fellow employee, the pretty if often moody Em (Kristen Stewart). Adventureland was written and directed by Superbad’s Greg Mottola, and he sometimes has trouble nailing the 1980s milieu in which the film is set: Some scenes are visually so nondescript that it's easy to forget the time frame and assume the movie takes place in the here and now. Other bits hammer the '80s connection home in marvelous fashion: The "Rock Me Amadeus" gag is especially inspired. Eisenberg is exemplary as the nerdy intellectual whose sensitivity and demeanor attract rather than repel women – here's that rare youth flick where it's actually believable that the brainy guy gets the girl – while Stewart ably tackles the script's most complicated role. The supporting parts are also well-cast, offering familiar character types yet investing them with enough personality to offset any sense of deja vu. (Netflix Streaming)
BEGINNERS (2011). Writer-director Mike Mills, currently Oscar-nominated for his original screenplay for 20th Century Women, really deserved (but didn’t receive) that honor for his previous picture. Beginners is a disarming, deeply felt and somewhat autobiographical piece in which an artist named Oliver (Ewan McGregor) recalls his recently deceased father Hal (Christopher Plummer), who announced he was gay at the age of 75 but passed away from cancer four years later. As Oliver reflects on his dad, he meets and falls for Anna (Melanie Laurent), a French actress who ultimately decides she wants something meaningful out of their relationship. In any other movie, the key supporting character of Arthur, a soulful Jack Russell terrier, would draw all the audience attention away from the two-legged protagonists (and kudos to Mills for somehow making the gimmicky device of subtitling the dog's thoughts work), but the performances by the three leads (especially Plummer, who snagged the Best Supporting Actor Oscar) are so superb that everyone is able to share in the glory. A subtle, sensitive picture about love, loss and loneliness, this is one to seek out. (Netflix Streaming)
THE MIST (2007). The Mist marks writer-director Frank Darabont's third adaptation of a Stephen King property, and because he's not shooting for Oscar gold this time around (the previous titles were the reasonably enjoyable but grotesquely overrated pair The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile), he's able to ease up on the pedal of self-importance and deliver a "B"-style genre flick — albeit one offering some evaluations of human nature in between all the bloodletting. Owing a nod in the direction of John Carpenter's The Fog, this concerns itself with a group of people who are gathered at the local supermarket when a mist envelops the entire area. It soon becomes clear that something evil resides in the fog, and the shoppers decide that they should remain indoors rather than venture out into the parking lot. It's here that Darabont's script reveals its cynical roots, as a religious zealot named Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden) converts many of the frightened survivors to her mode of thinking, a path that leads to a Jim Jones-like environment and at least one human sacrifice. Propelled by Harden's scary performance, Mrs. Carmody is a genuine threat, and she validates Darabont's contention that times of crisis are as likely to turn people against each other as they are to unite them against a common enemy. His pessimism also extends to other areas of the script, most notably a powerhouse ending. (Amazon Prime)