(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.)
THE ‘BURBS (1989). The title of course refers to the suburbs – specifically, the neighborhood in which Ray Peterson (Tom Hanks) lives with his wife (Carrie Fisher) and young son (Cory Danziger). It’s a typically sleepy street – at least until the Klopeks move into one of the houses, thereby leading Ray and his buddies, the military-minded Rumsfield (Bruce Dern) and the perpetually whiny Art (Rick Ducommun), to determine why these new neighbors only emerge under the darkness of night and exactly what they’re burying in their backyard. A critical disappointment and modest box office performer upon its original release, The ‘Burbs has since seen its stock rise as a cult favorite – a curious designation that instead should be bestowed on another Joe Dante production, 1993’s Matinee (like The ‘Burbs, a recent Blu-ray release from Shout! Factory; see review here). The needle hasn’t moved on this picture’s pros and cons since its debut back in ‘89: It benefits from Dante’s inventive direction and several bright bits found in Dana Olsen’s screenplay, but it’s hampered by an insufferable character in Ducommun’s Art (he’s not funny, just tiresome) as well as an unfortunate (if predictable) denouement that totally upends the sturdy theme and edgy moralizing that would have made this unique (although, admittedly, the chosen ending seems more apropos of today’s wall-building, immigrant-unfriendly America under the Cretin-in-Chief). As the Klopeks, Henry Gibson, Brother Theodore and Courtney Gains are endlessly entertaining – too bad their roles aren’t larger.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Olsen; a making-of featurette; Dante’s workprint edition of the film; an alternate ending; an interview with Dante; still galleries; and the theatrical trailer.
DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK (1952). A brisk 76-minute running time is all that’s required for this nifty thriller to take the stage, impress the audience, and exit with style. In one of her best — and most atypical — roles, Marilyn Monroe dazzles as Nell Forbes, the niece of the elevator operator (Elisha Cook Jr.) at a swanky New York hotel. Nell’s Uncle Eddie has arranged for her to babysit Bunny (Donna Corcoran), the young daughter of an affluent couple (Jim Backus and Lurene Tuttle) staying at the hotel – since Nell is recovering from a personal tragedy that left her mentally shaky, Eddie figures this assignment might help her on the road to complete rehabilitation. Instead, it threatens to send her back to a dangerous frame of mind, particularly after she encounters Jed Towers (Richard Widmark), a pilot who’s at the hotel trying to work matters out with his girlfriend (Anne Bancroft). Working from Charlotte Armstrong’s novel Mischief, director Roy Ward Baker and scripter Daniel Taradash have devised a sturdy psychological drama that benefits from the compact setting (the action never leaves the hotel) and some suspenseful interludes along the way (should Bunny really be leaning out that open window with Nell right behind her?). This marked Bancroft’s film debut after a busy year of television work; as for the writer and director, Taradash would win an Oscar the following year for adapting From Here to Eternity while Baker would later helm a number of horror flicks for both Hammer (Scars of Dracula) and Amicus (The Vault of Horror).
Blu-ray extras consist of the A&E Biography episodes Marilyn Monroe: The Mortal Goddess (1994) and Richard Widmark: Strength of Characters (2000); the theatrical trailer; and an isolated track of Lionel Newman’s score.
DOWNSIZING (2017). This sizable flop from the team of writer-director Alexander Payne and writer Jim Taylor (the Oscar-winning scribes behind Sideways) initially feels like a gimmick more than a movie. The downsizing in the title is meant to be taken literally — as overpopulation threatens to irreparably damage the planet, a brilliant scientist (Rolf Lassgaard) invents a way to shrink people. This discovery spurs thousands of citizens to allow themselves to be miniaturized, all in an effort to preserve Earth’s natural resources, reduce rampant pollution, and other environmentally friendly innovations. Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) is among those electing to check out this alternate lifestyle, yet as the movie progresses, its unique angle seems to recede into the background, with much of the focus on Paul’s daily woes. These include unhappiness at home, dissatisfaction on the job — in short, the sorts of travails that affect everyone, not just people reduced to the size of an iPhone. Downsizing continues in an almost lackadaisical fashion, but then something remarkable and transformative happens: Hong Chau shows up. The Thai actress plays Ngoc Lan Tran, a Vietnamese activist who was shrunk against her will and now serves as a maid for rich people. Chau’s performance is superb — second only to Willem Dafoe’s turn in The Florida Project as 2017’s best — and she roots the movie in emotions that heretofore had largely been missing. Eventually, Downsizing heads off in yet another direction, but it scarcely matters. Chau’s towering turn, which earned nods from Golden Globe and SAG voters but was absurdly ignored by #OscarsSoNonAsian, makes the journey worthwhile.
Blu-ray extras include a half-dozen making-of featurettes focusing on Payne, the cast, the film’s visual design, and more.
FERDINAND (2017). When it came to the Oscar category of Best Animated Feature, it used to be that (following the protocol of most other Academy branches) only animators nominated animated productions — that would explain the perfect mix in recent years of deserving hometown efforts (e.g. Zootopia, Moana, Inside Out) and foreign and/or indie titles (The Red Turtle, Anomalisa, Shaun the Sheep Movie). But an unfortunate and inexplicable rule change this past year now allows everyone to weigh in — as Collider’s Matt Goldberg presciently wrote back in April 2017, “This is going to strike a major blow to the category’s diversity... With voting now open to the entire body, the studios have far more power because their films have wider distribution” — and this explains the nominations for The Boss Baby and ... Ferdinand. Certainly, Ferdinand isn’t an embarrassing inclusion like The Boss Baby, but neither does it represent the finest toon tales of the year (as but two examples, either Japan’s In This Corner of the World or Canada’s Window Horses: The Poetic Persian Epiphany of Rosie Ming would have been better picks). This adaptation of the children’s book by Munro Leaf, previously turned into a 1937 Oscar-winning short film by Disney, retains the lovely tale of a flower-sniffing, pacifist bull but frequently buries it under the hyperactive excesses required to stretch this to feature length. As voiced by Jon Cena, Ferdinand remains a strong center for the story, but the vast array of annoying sidekicks proves to be a debit — this is particularly true of a ditzy goat (Kate McKinnon) clearly based on Finding Nemo’s Dory. Still, there are some clever bits strewn throughout (including a “bull in a china shop” bit), and the climax delivers the goods.
Blu-ray extras include pieces on various characters; art galleries; and the music video for Nick Jonas’s “Home.”
JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017). After the three-and-out represented by Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Suicide Squad, the arrival of the “10 Best” entry Wonder Woman was nothing short of a miracle. But if Justice League makes anything clear, it’s that Wonder Woman was an illusion, a cinematic sleight of hand, and the celluloid equivalent of a stopped clock being right twice a day. Justice League defaults to the problems that have plagued the DCEU films pre-WW, and while it offers a few more pleasures than its detractors would ever admit, it still qualifies as yet another disappointment from The House That Clark Built. A constant problem in all the DCEU titles (even Wonder Woman) has been the lack of a truly great villain, and that continues here. Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds) is the latest baddie du jour, a towering CGI entity plotting to conquer Earth with the aid of demonic insects. Naturally, such a threat can’t be handled by just one hero, so Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) assemble a crime-fighting outfit whose members also include The Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher). And, yes, Superman (Henry Cavill) returns from the dead. As with Suicide Squad, the high volume of colorfully costumed characters provides variety but not depth. Much of the film feels heavy and unwieldy, from the FX set-pieces to the cluttered storyline to the overall aesthetic design. Gadot, Miller, and some of the character interactions in the early going provide enormous lift, but as it stands, Justice League ultimately registers as an also-ran in the ongoing superhero sweepstakes.
Blu-ray extras include a look at the history of the Justice League in various media; a piece on the three marquee superheroes; a piece on the other three; and a pair of bonus scenes.
THE LION IN WINTER (1968). Plenty of swords and knives make appearances in The Lion in Winter, but none can possibly cut as deep as the caustic dialogue penned by scripter James Goldman (adapting his own play) and captured by director Anthony Harvey. Peter O’Toole, who had previously portrayed King Henry II in 1964’s Becket, again tackles the role, this time as an older ruler who spars with his alienated wife, Eleanor of Aquitane (Katharine Hepburn), over which of their three sons should become king after he dies. Henry favors the youngest, the bratty and seemingly simple-minded John (Nigel Terry), while Eleanor throws her weight behind the oldest, the fierce yet aloof Richard the Lionheart (Anthony Hopkins in only his second film); neither cares for the middle son, the perpetually scheming Geoffrey (John Castle). Also adding to the drama are Henry’s mistress Anais (Jane Merrow) and her brother, France’s King Philip II (Timothy Dalton in his film debut). The gloves are off between all the characters in this rousing period romp showcasing formidable turns by Hepburn and O’Toole (the latter all of 35 during filming but convincingly playing 50). Nominated for seven Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Actor for O’Toole), this won for Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Score (John Barry). Trivia aside: While the Directors Guild Award has been a remarkably accurate barometer of who would go on to win the Best Director Oscar — only seven times in 70 years have they differed — this marked the first occasion that the DGA winner did not also snag the Oscar, with Harvey winning the DGA for The Lion in Winter but Carol Reed snagging the Oscar for Oliver!
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by Harvey; an interview with sound recordist Simon Kaye; and the theatrical trailer.
THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (1928). The great French filmmaker Jean Cocteau once stated that the great Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc “seems like an historical document from an era in which the cinema didn’t exist.” Cocteau would know – his surreal 1946 version of Beauty and the Beast similarly appears to exist outside of time and space – and this opinion is further enhanced by the fact that leading lady Renée Falconetti is only known for this role (a stage actress, her only other screen credit was a minor role in an obscure movie made 11 years earlier). In effect, Falconetti is Joan of Arc, and her performance has long been championed as one of the greatest ever committed to celluloid. It’s certainly one of the most intense, with Dreyer’s decision to shoot the majority of the movie in extreme close-up not allowing any escape for Falconetti or the actors playing her tormentors. Basing his script on actual trial transcripts, Dreyer centers on the final hours of the martyred saint’s life, as she’s questioned, tortured and, finally, executed. The film makes for an intimately unsettling watch, as Dreyer’s style of shooting (harsh angles to go along with all those up-close-and-personal visages) traps the viewer as much as the players. The Passion of Joan of Arc has routinely been found on lists of the all-time great movies (Sight & Sound’s most recent poll in 2012 placed it at #9), yet not everyone has always been a fan – amusingly, a Variety critic in 1929 dismissed it as “a deadly tiresome picture” with “no value of any account.”
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary (from 1999) by film scholar Casper Tybjerg; a 1995 interview with Hélène Falconetti, Renée Falconetti’s daughter; and a look at the different versions of the film (once thought lost) that have appeared over the years.
PITCH PERFECT 3 (2017). The original Pitch Perfect was one of the most pleasant filmic surprises of 2012, and 2015’s Pitch Perfect 2 offered its own stealth surprise by being nearly as enjoyable as its predecessor. There’s a noticeable drop-off when it comes to Pitch Perfect 3, although not enough to make it a completely disposable sequel. Still, the strain is showing in this third entry, with too many of the characters placed in developmental holding patterns and too much of the storyline given over to daft contrivances. This installment finds most of the Bellas now out of college and unsatisfied with their various career paths. The ladies come together possibly for the last time to perform in a global USO tour, competing against three other bands (one an all-female group with the imaginative name Evermoist) for the opportunity to open for DJ Khaled (appearing as himself). Off the stage, Beca (Anna Kendrick) finds herself pursued both romantically and professionally by a music executive (Guy Burnet), Chloe (Brittany Snow) falls for a hunky soldier (Matt Lanter), Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) reunites with her unscrupulous father (John Lithgow), and Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) stands around waiting for scripters Kay Cannon and Mike White to find something significant for her to do. The story strands are exceedingly weak, but the musical numbers still pack a punch (it’s always a pleasure hearing Kendrick sing), and Wilson continues to steal scenes with relish.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director Trish Sie; separate audio commentary by producers Paul Brooks and Max Handelman; new and extended musical performances; a deleted scene; a gag reel; featurettes on various characters; and the music video for “Freedom! ’90 x Cups.”
THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017). Beauty and the Beast meets The Creature from the Black Lagoon in The Shape of Water, an unusual love story that emerges as writer-director Guillermo del Toro’s best English-language movie to date. Del Toro, whose Spanish-language efforts (particularly Pan’s Labyrinth) remain more deeply satisfying than his Hollywood output, has crafted (along with co-scripter Vanessa Taylor) a sensual and often surreal drama in which a mute cleaning woman named Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) finds romance in an unexpected place. Working alongside her best friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) at a research facility in 1960s Baltimore, Elisa is naturally curious when government operative Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) arrives on the property with a water-filled tank in tow. Elisa soon discovers that Strickland has brought an amphibious humanoid to the facility, a highly intelligent creature he fished out of the Amazon. While Strickland abhors his nautical discovery and wants it destroyed, Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), a scientist with a clouded past, wants to study it. For her part, Elisa just wants to become friends with a being whose silence and outsider status peg him as a kindred spirit. If The Shape of Water never quite breaks out of the confines of what’s basically (to quote B&B) a tale as old as time – and if it rarely ascends to the heights of the superb Universal horror classics that inspired it – it’s still an artfully executed diversion further strengthened by an excellent central performance by Hawkins and stellar supporting turns by Stuhlbarg and Shannon. Nominated for an overly generous 13 Academy Awards, this won four: Best Picture, Director, Original Score, and Production Design.
Blu-ray extras include a behind-the-scenes featurette; a Q&A session with del Toro; and theatrical trailers.
STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017). The story strands come fast and furious in this bold entry in the Star Wars saga. New Jedi on the block Rey (Daisy Ridley) has finally made contact with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill); General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher, RIP) is doing her best to keep the Resistance from being crushed by the First Order; the bravery exhibited by Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is weighed against his recklessness; Finn (John Boyega) finds a new friend in maintenance worker Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran); and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) continues to fret and fume and throw tantrums with the best of them. Actually, the character arc given to Kylo Ren is an excellent one, marking him as one of this entry’s most intriguing players. Yet the greatest appeal is in watching Hamill and Fisher again explore and expand upon their iconic roles. Fisher delivers a commanding performance in both senses of the word, and as for Hamill, this might represent his finest work in the decades-spanning franchise. At 152 minutes, The Last Jedi is the longest of the nine Star Wars films to date — it’s also the only one where the length is felt. All the scenes involving younglings should have been deep-sixed, while several vignettes could have benefited from a judicious trim here or there. Still, this is a minor quibble when placed against the magnitude of the movie. Between writer-director Rian Johnson’s acute attention to character growth, the excellent effects that serve rather than dominate, and the poignant moments that tie back to past entries, emotions are sure to hit hyperdrive in anticipation of the concluding chapter that’s landing on December 20, 2019.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Johnson; a lengthy making-of documentary; deleted scenes; and breakdowns of three major sequences.
FROM SCREEN TO STREAM
(Recommended films currently available on streaming services)
DAKOTA SKYE (2008). In this era of unorthodox superheroes on screens both large and small, Dakota Skye manages to fly high. Eileen April Boylan plays the title character, a 17-year-old student whose secret power is that she always knows when someone's telling a lie. The fact that everyone lies — including her boyfriend Kevin (J.B. Ghuman Jr.) — has made her cynical and somewhat aloof, so imagine her shock when Kevin's childhood buddy Jonah (Ian Nelson) pops up on the scene and appears to be always telling the truth. But is he really that squeaky-clean, or is he Dakota's arch-nemesis, a villain who has found a way to conceal his deceit from her? Blessed with fresh-faced performances, Dakota Skye layers a pleasing fantasy element onto a thoughtful study of teen alienation and angst. (Amazon Prime)