(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.)
A MONSTER CALLS (2016). Superior to The BFG but inferior to Pete’s Dragon, A Monster Calls was the most recent 2016 release to detail the relationship between a young child and a fantastical creature. Unfortunately, it skews as much toward the calculated artifice of the Spielberg dud as the emotional honesty of the Disney remake, spinning a tale about a lonely British lad named Conor (Lewis MacDougall) whose mother (Felicity Jones) is dying of cancer. Coping with bullies at school and a crotchety grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) at home, Conor eventually receives a nocturnal visit from the talking tree that lives up on the hill. No, it’s not Treebeard from the Tolkien franchise but rather an ancient yew that sounds just like Liam Neeson when he delivers that great “particular set of skills” speech from Taken. The tree informs Conor that he will tell him three stories in exchange for Conor speaking his “truth” — a “truth” that becomes painfully obvious long before the fade-out. Individual scenes crackle with flavor, but nearly as many segments turn out heavy-handed, with director J.A. Bayona — yet to top his debut feature, the Spanish horror yarn The Orphanage — more interested in carefully arranged sets and thundering effects than in anything more empathetic. It’s hard to become completely invested in a movie about holding onto life when its creators are so focused on art-directing it to death.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Bayona (in Spanish); separate audio commentary by scripter Patrick Ness (who adapted his own novel); a making-of featurette; and deleted scenes.
MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: VOLUME XXXVIII (2017). Were it not for his presence in one of the bonus features, Joel Hodgson would be completely MIA from this latest collection of MST3K lunacy, given that all four episodes hail from the Mike Nelson era.
Invasion USA (movie made in 1952; featured on MST3K in 1994) finds the Satellite of Love crew coming out with guns blazing, as the preceding short, 1950’s A Date with Your Family, opens with the gang making Woody Allen, Sylvia Plath and Fatal Attraction cracks all within the span of a few seconds. They’re equally on point with the feature itself, jingoistic nonsense that basically served as the Red Dawn of its era. The most interesting aspect of the film is that it boasts two Lois Lane actresses, Phyllis Coates and Noel Neill, among its supporting players — a fact detailed in depth during one of the host segments.
Colossus and the Headhunters (movie made in 1963; featured on MST3K in 1994) suffers the same problem as the other times the guys elect to tackle an Italian sword’n’sandals yarn: The movie itself is so unremittingly dull that they have to work overtime to render it watchable. Still, credit must be given for the ability to cover the pop-culture spectrum with riffs ranging from The Love Boat to The Piano.
High School Big Shot (movie made in 1959; featured on MST3K in 1994) arguably ranks among the most downbeat of all films featured on MST3K, with tragedy waylaying basically everyone in this story of a brainy high school outcast with a worthless father and a duplicitous girlfriend. This episode begins with the 1954 short Out of This World, a bizarre piece about the moral dilemmas facing bread delivery drivers, before hitting the main attraction at a full trot. Among the ingredients in this solid episode are Planet of the Apes’ Dr. Zaius, MST3K fave Mitchell, and ... a Ma Kettle blow-up doll.
While the aforementioned three episodes were all from the sixth season, Track of the Moon Beast (movie made in 1976; featured on MST3K in 1999) was a latecomer, arriving in the 10th and final (until later this month, anyway) season. The box copy states that Rick Baker handled the makeup effects for this low-budget turkey, but he’s just part of the crew; the lead artist is Joe Blasco, whose name has popped up in other films targeted by MST3K (The Touch of Satan and Parts: The Clonus Horror). At any rate, Mike et al do what they can in the way of riffs to make this particularly poor picture endurable.
DVD extras include a piece in which Joel discusses Mike; an interview with Track of the Moon Beast co-star Leigh Drake; and, for those so inclined, the original version of High School Big Shot, presented without MST3K riffing.
OFFICE CHRISTMAS PARTY (2016). Kate McKinnon won an Emmy Award last year for her role-playing on Saturday Night Live and was the breakout star of the enjoyable Ghostbusters remake, but her subsequent roles are proving that filmmakers aren't quite sure how to employ a talent as dynamic and idiosyncratic as hers. She's certainly up to any challenges thrown her way, but her characters in both Masterminds and Office Christmas Party don't really allow her to strut her stuff — instead, both films lazily opt to partly define her character by her flatulence. That McKinnon still manages to draw all eyes to her is a testament to her skills — that's particularly true in Office Christmas Party, since she's cast as a humorless human resources manager who learns to loosen up before the end credits roll. She's not the main foil, though: That would be Jennifer Aniston's character, a CEO who tells her brother (T.J. Miller), the head of one of the company's branches, that she may have to shut down his office as a cost-cutting measure. In an effort to save jobs, he and his chief employees (among them Jason Bateman and Olivia Munn) throw an extravagant party in the hopes of luring a potential client (Courtney B. Vance). Office Christmas Party isn't good; it isn't bad. It's just ... there. The actors are appealing, the gags occasionally inspire a smile — but not a single gut-busting laugh, which even the critically lambasted Bad Santa 2 managed to produce every once in a while — and when you wake up the next morning, you won't recall a single thing about it. In that respect, it's like a real office Christmas party, but blessedly without the attendant hangover.
The Blu-ray contains both the R-rated theatrical version as well as an unrated cut that runs an additional 5 minutes. Extras consist of audio commentary by co-directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck; a making-of featurette; deleted and extended scenes; and outtakes.
PEYTON PLACE (1957). Grace Metalious’ 1956 novel Peyton Place was such a gargantuan success (it was estimated that one out of every 37 American adults had read the book), it was a given that a film version would soon follow. No expense was spared in bringing the saucy source material to the screen, and the result was a sizable — and deserving — hit. All of the action unfolds in the title town, one of those small burgs where hypocrisy and repression can be found behind every carefully manufactured façade. Lana Turner stars as Constance MacKenzie, a single mom overprotective of her teenage daughter Allison (Diane Varsi). Allison’s best friend is Selena Cross (Hope Lange), who’s constantly forced to deal with the drunken advances of her alcoholic stepfather Lucas (Arthur Kennedy). Other prominent characters include Michael Rossi (Lee Philips), the new principal at the high school; the honest and forthright Dr. Swain (Lloyd Nolan); Norman Page (Russ Tamblyn), an awkward teenager likely to predate another Norman (Bates) if he doesn’t break away from his domineering mother; and Betty Anderson (Terry Moore), an outgoing student quickly earning the wrong kind of reputation among the townsfolk. Slick and satisfying, Peyton Place managed to snag nine Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and bids for five of its performers (Turner in lead, Lange, Varsi, Kennedy and Tamblyn all in supporting). It won none, tying it with 1941’s The Little Foxes for the futility record until 1977’s The Turning Point took over by going 0-for-11. Metalious’ novel also served as the basis for a TV series (1964-1969) that became the first successful prime-time soap opera and made stars out of Mia Farrow and Ryan O’Neal.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Tamblyn and Moore; separate audio commentary by film historian Willard Carroll; and a 2001 episode of AMC’s Backstory on Peyton Place.
ROGUE ONE (2016). Rogue One comes equipped with the subtitle A Star Wars Story, but let it be known that this isn't your father's Star Wars, your mother's Star Wars, or even your own Star Wars. It's a different strain of space opera insofar as it lacks the light touch and breezy action of the previous seven pictures in the franchise (I refuse to count that awful Clone Wars cartoon flick). That's not necessarily a bad thing. While Rogue One never comes close to matching the heights of the series at its most dazzling (basically, Episodes IV and V, with honorable mention to Episode VII), it's still a worthy addition to the canon, neatly circling back on the story to right before A New Hope opens. It follows Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) as she's tasked to snatch the plans for the planet-destroyer — the Death Star, of course — that the evil Empire is building. Jyn has a personal stake in the matter — her father (Mads Mikkelsen) had a hand in its creation — and she bands with a steely Rebellion operative (Diego Luna), a blind Force follower with Zatoichi-like skills (Donnie Yen) and other assorted heroes to fulfill a mission that's imperative to the survival of the resistance. The employment of CGI to bring back younger versions of characters remains extremely creepy and unconvincing (see also Jeff Bridges in Tron: Legacy and Robert Downey Jr. in Captain America: Civil War), and there's probably one seat-shaking battle too many. In most other respects, from the addition of engaging new characters to the answering of lingering questions from 39 years ago, Rogue One will keep the faithful satisfied until the next adventure hits the multiplex.
Blu-ray extras include a number of making-of pieces that examine the project’s genesis, the various characters, and the unsettling CGI resurrection of the deceased.
Short And Sweet:
OUR MAN IN HAVANA (1959). Director Carol Reed and writer Grahame Greene collaborated on three motion pictures, and while this one isn’t a masterpiece like 1948’s The Fallen Idol or 1949’s The Third Man, it’s not without an abundance of charms. Foremost among them is Alec Guinness — he’s aptly cast as Jim Wormold, a vacuum cleaner salesman living in pre-revolution/pre-Castro Cuba. The British government (repped by Noel Coward) recruits him to freelance as their agent; the hapless man provides them nothing of value until he starts fabricating tales that, as it turns out, might have some basis in reality. Ernie Kovacs scores highly as a Cuban official who has his eye on Wormold’s spoiled daughter (Jo Morrow).
Blu-ray extras consist of the theatrical trailer as well as an isolated music and effects track.
PASSENGERS (2016). Clearly, Passengers, aka Grab 'Em By the Pussy: The Movie, could only have been written by a man. This stars Chris Pratt as one of the 5,000 hibernating passengers aboard a spacecraft heading to a habitable planet 120 light years away. A glitch causes him to awaken 90 years too soon; realizing he will die alone, he decides to wake up a hottie (Jennifer Lawrence) to keep him company. It's an interesting if troubling premise, and scripter Jon Spaihts initially plays fair with the scenario’s moral implications. But the final stretch finds the film repeatedly copping out — not only by having the characters make ridiculous choices down the line but also by turning to absurd action-film conventions. The visual design is excellent, but even it gets trumped by the story's icky implications.
Blu-ray extras include deleted scenes.
WHY HIM? (2016). (2016). Bryan Cranston stars as a father who adores his college-age daughter (Zoey Deutch) and is distressed to learn that her boyfriend Laird (James Franco) is a vulgarian with more money than sense. The dad and the dude clash frequently, but there's no bite to any of this because it's clear that, beneath the abundant tattoos and an affinity for profanity, Laird is basically an honest, eager-to-please guy. With no tension in the plot, what's left is a series of gags involving a tea-bagging buffalo, Pitch Perfect's Adam Devine flashing his bukkake photos, and a living room flooded with animal urine. Why Him? Why me?
Blu-ray extras include deleted scenes and a gag reel.
FROM SCREEN TO STREAM
(Recommended films currently available on streaming services)
THE CONVERSATION (1974). A pet project for writer-director-producer Francis Ford Coppola — both he and star Gene Hackman would later cite this as a personal favorite — The Conversation had the fortune of being released shortly after the Watergate break-in made the subject of wiretapping all the rage. This didn't exactly translate into potent box office, but it did mark the film as very much a piece of its time, snuggling up nicely to other paranoia thrillers like the same year's The Parallax View and 1975's Three Days of the Condor. It also provides a nice stepping stone between Antonioni's Blow-Up and De Palma's Blow Out, with Gene Hackman as Harry Caul, a surveillance expert hired by a prominent businessman known only as "the director" (an unbilled Robert Duvall) to tape a clandestine meeting between two young people in love (Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest). Harry carries out the assignment with the aid of his annoying assistant (John Cazale), but as he analyzes the recordings, he fails to follow his own advice of not getting personally involved and begins to worry that something awful is being planned for the lovebirds. Hackman is terrific as an alienated man unable to establish any meaningful connections in either his personal or professional lives, and look for Harrison Ford in a key supporting role as the director's sleazy assistant. Winner of the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, this also earned three Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay and, naturally, Best Sound. The film was shut out, but Coppola didn't exactly go home from the ceremony empty-handed: He personally nabbed three Oscars for his other 1974 release, The Godfather: Part II. (Hulu)
IN THE LOOP (2009). Written by, directed by, and co-starring various chaps involved with the BBC series The Thick of It, In the Loop is a vicious satire with ice in its veins and poison in its fangs. It starts when bumbling British official Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) suggests in an interview that the likelihood of a U.S.-backed war in the Middle East is a possibility. All of a sudden, the Brit hits the fan, as Foster’s innocent comment reverberates through the corridors of power not only in the U.K. but here in the States as well. Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), the Prime Minister’s right-hand man, uses his tongue as if it were a machine gun and mows down everyone around him — not just hapless Foster — as he tries to figure out how best to handle the situation. It's decided that Foster and his suck-up assistant Toby (Chris Addison) will travel to D.C., where they must match wits — or, rather, half-wits — with both ineffectual liberal politicians with an anti-war stance and soulless conservative politicos who can’t wait for the killing to begin. The beauty of In the Loop is that while everything is played at a slightly surreal speed, there's nothing in the film that feels bogus — certainly not the manner in which politicians will fudge the facts for their own gain, or the way that aides will jockey (and turn) against each other to advance their own careers. All of the performers are fearless in their respective assignments (there's not a single major character who's wholly sympathetic), although I especially enjoyed Capaldi and the manner in which he turns insults into an art form; among his more benign hurls, he calls Toby "Ron Weasley" and addresses James Gandolfini's U.S. military man as "General Flintstone." Further down the cast list, an unrecognizable Steve Coogan pops up as an English working stiff; his reaction to a query about cell phones is priceless, and succinctly nails the point that politicians are hopelessly out of touch with the people they supposedly represent. (Netflix Streaming)