View From the Couch: Being There, Firestarter, The Skull, etc.
View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray, DVD and Streaming.
View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray, DVD and Streaming.
Peter Sellers in Being There (Photo: Criterion)
(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.)
BEING THERE (1979). Peter Sellers is nothing short of brilliant in director Hal Ashby’s alternately lovely and lacerating satire. Adapting his own novel, Jerzy Kosinski has penned a delightful comedy about Chance (Sellers), a simple-minded gardener who, after an entire lifetime spent on the grounds of a Washington, D.C., home, suddenly finds himself out on the streets. A “chance” encounter, however, leads to him being invited into the majestic D.C. residence (filming took place at Asheville’s Biltmore Estate) of politically connected millionaire Ben Rand (Melvyn Douglas) and his wife Eve (Shirley MacLaine). Both take an instant liking to Chance the gardener (whose name they take to be Chauncey Gardiner), and, like everyone else, they interpret his elementary observations as profound musings on the state of the nation. Soon, Chance has been reinvented as an international man of mystery who speaks eight languages and whose CIA and FBI files have reportedly been destroyed — much to the dismay of the U.S. president (Jack Warden), who would like some background info on the man whose advice he’s suddenly following. Amusingly (and sadly), what seemed outrageous at the time — a man this stupid ascending this far in the national political arena — became factual with the elections of both George W. Bush and Donald Trump. Sellers earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his disarming performance, while Douglas copped the Best Supporting Actor prize as the elderly politico; Richard Dysart also scores highly as the family doctor, the only person who suspects the truth about Chance.
Blu-ray extras include a retrospective making-of piece; deleted scenes; a 1980 excerpt of Sellers on Today; excerpts of Ashby at a 1980 film seminar; Kosinki’s appearance on a 1979 episode of The Dick Cavett Show; and the theatrical trailer.
CINEMA PARADISO (1988). An Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film, this Italian import is a movie of extraordinary passion, capturing the synergy which exists between the starry-eyed moviegoer and the medium he or she comes to worship. Like Federico Fellini’s Amarcord, writer-director Giuseppe Tornatore’s picture looks at the events that help shape a child as he comes of age in his small hometown. Salvatore Cascio plays little Toto, whose best friend is Alfredo (Phillipe Noiret), the projectionist at the town’s only movie house. In most regards, Alfredo’s life is over: Poor and uneducated, he clings to his job as the only pleasure in what one feels was largely an unfulfilling existence. Toto, however, is young and full of promise, but he’ll eventually need to take that step to break away. Alfredo pushes Toto to do just that, and it’s the bond between this pair — as well as their love for the movies that grace the theater — that provides the picture with its emotional wallop. In 2002, the 124-minute original version was re-released in a 174-minute Director’s Cut, and both edits are included on Arrow Academy’s exemplary new Blu-ray release. As was the case with Apocalypse Now and Apocalypse Now Redux, less is more: The additional near-hour of material changes the entire feel of the movie, making it less a heartfelt ode to cinema itself and more a familiar meditation on the vagaries of love (the extra footage largely centers on Toto as an adult, pining away for his childhood sweetheart). In its longer version, Cinema Paradiso still an excellent film, just not a transcendent one.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Tornatore and film scholar Millicent Marcus; a making-of featurette; and a profile of Tornatore.
Theatrical Version: ★★★★
Director’s Cut: ★★★½
COLLATERAL BEAUTY (2016). Boasting a premise that could only conceivably work with better scripting and the sort of honest sentimentality a director like Frank Capra could have pulled off, this wince-worthy drama — one of last year’s worst films — centers on Howard Inlet (Will Smith), a company head whose daughter died two years earlier at the age of six. His gloom is threatening the future of the company, so his three best friends (Edward Norton, Kate Winslet and Michael Peña), who also happen to be his three best co-workers, try to find a way to shake him out of his stupor (as one complains, it’s been two whole years, so why is he still grieving?!). The trio comes up with an icky plan: Knowing that Howard has been blaming the concepts of Love, Time and Death for his misery, why not hire three actors (Keira Knightley, Jacob Latimore and Helen Mirren) to play those abstractions as physical manifestations? And why not film those thespians interacting with Howard, digitally remove them from the footage, and then have Howard declared mentally incompetent since it will look like he’s merely a crazy guy talking to himself? Wow. That is supposed to be the tactic that will make audiences line up behind Howard’s friends? Even Wall Street‘s Gordon Gecko would find such a grotesque maneuver beneath him, but in the script by Allan Loeb, nothing anybody does is ever considered out of line. Worse, all three friends have problems that coincidentally can be aided by the three actors, but the resolutions to these plot threads are insipid and uninspired. Mirren has a few amusing moments as an actress so conceited that she thinks she should play all three abstractions, but everyone else is hamstrung by the odious, idiotic or irrational characters they’re playing.
The only Blu-ray extra is a making-of featurette.
DRIVE-IN MASSACRE (1976). One of the many slasher flicks that came and went before Halloween and Friday the 13th dragged the sub-genre into the spotlight, this offers a few gory kills in between countless scenes of two hefty cops (co-scripter John F. Goff and Steve Vincent) trying to ascertain (via mucho mumbling) who’s hanging out at the local drive-in theater garroting unsuspecting customers with a sword. Is it Newton Naushaus (Robert E. Pearson), the drive-in’s thoroughly unpleasant manager? Or Germy (Douglas Gudbye), the venue’s dimwitted custodian? Or Orville Ingleson (Norman Sheridan), the voyeuristic customer who’s more interested in spying on other patrons making out than watching what’s on the screen? Or somebody else? Drive-in Massacre remains stridently amateurish for the entirety of its 74 minutes, with stiff acting and nonexistent direction dominating the proceedings. Yet the film also manages to be more entertaining than expected, thanks to the Mutt-and-Jeff relationship between the two cops, the misanthropic ravings of the manager (he’s the sort of guy prone to dismiss those around him as “degenerates” and “puke”), a whodunit angle that maintains interest, and a surprisingly effective performance by Gudbye as the eager-to-please Germy. But heed Goff’s warning in one of the extra features that no one knew how to end the film, since the finale is both a complete cop-out and a betrayal of the murder-mystery established over the course of the picture.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by director Stu Segall; separate interviews with Segall, Goff and Sheridan; and the theatrical trailer (which misspells “Massacre” as “Masacre”).
FIRESTARTER (1984). Movies based on Stephen King properties arrived at a furious clip during the 1980s, and while some were class acts (David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining), others were merely exercises in campy excess (Children of the Corn, the King-directed Maximum Overdrive). Firestarter falls somewhere in the middle, with an impressive cast and an engaging premise struggling against thin plotting and some ludicrous characterizations. King’s gripping novel gets streamlined into a connect-the-dots scenario in this film version, which stars Drew Barrymore as Charlie, a little girl with pyrokinetic powers. Charlie and her father Andy (David Keith), who’s likewise cursed with special abilities, are on the run from shady government agents employed by The Shop, a research facility engaged in scientific experiments that focus on paranormal activities. The bureau head (Martin Sheen) wants to study Charlie’s powers and possibly use them as a weapon; to achieve his goal, he sends his best agent, John Rainbird (George C. Scott), to bring her back alive. Scott’s casting hints at the dichotomy at play in this schizophrenic project, with the great actor forced to play a looney-tunes role for which he’s hopelessly ill-suited. Like the movie itself, he’s eminently watchable but also scarcely believable. Oscar winners Art Carney and Louise Fletcher appear as a farm couple who come to the aid of Andy and Charlie, while Heather Locklear, who at the time of filming was co-starring in two hit TV series (Dynasty and T.J. Hooker), turns up in the role of Charlie’s mom.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director Mark L. Lester; a retrospective making-of featurette; and the theatrical trailer.
LIVE BY NIGHT (2016). This warmed-over plate of gangland goulash marks Ben Affleck’s first project in the director’s chair since his 2012 Best Picture Oscar winner Argo, and he also tackles the roles of writer, producer, and star. Technically, the picture can’t be faulted: Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, it’s a gorgeous production, meticulously put together by a team of seasoned Hollywood vets. This assemblage includes cinematographer Robert Richardson, who frames the saga in expansive and immaculate ways that seek to enhance the mythmaking (Richardson won a trio of Oscars for similar approaches on Hugo, The Aviator, and JFK). Only in this case, the text can’t keep pace with the illustrations. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the story, which centers on Joe Coughlin (Affleck), a Boston mobster who’s sent to Tampa to oversee operations and finds himself tangling with rival gangsters as well as the local Ku Klux Klan. But there’s also little that’s fresh, with Affleck dutifully following a dog-eared playbook that’s been in rotation since the days when James Cagney would periodically gun down Humphrey Bogart. Select vignettes add some flavor — a sit-down with a Klan flunky leads to an extremely satisfying denouement — but nothing can overcome the implausibility of its leading character, a guy who seems entirely too sweet to be involved in such a nasty business. Affleck brings his usual stoicism (the less charitable would say rigidity) to the role, but that only adds to the dilemma. It’s hard to accept this brooding anti-hero as one of the GoodFellas when there’s an unshakable feeling that he’s apt to whip out his Batman threads at any given moment.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Affleck; deleted scenes; and a piece on Lehane.
RETURN OF KUNG FU TRAILERS OF FURY (2017). Last year, Severin Films and Cube Cinema released Kung Fu Trailers of Fury, a Blu-ray compilation of 31 trailers for martial arts movies released between 1972 and 1983. Now we get the “sequel,” which offers 35 more trailers of movies released between 1973 and 1984. Billed as “another invincible collection of treachery, brutality, swordplay, wirework, darting daggers, flying fists and the most insane fighting styles ever unleashed on celluloid,” this collection is just as engaging as its predecessor, although ultimate enjoyment will depend on one’s fondness for chop-socky flicks in general. Watching all 134 minutes in one sitting, it’s not unexpected for some of the titles and plots to blend together — I’ll be damned if I can remember the differences between The Invincible Super Guy, The Super Kung-Fu Fighter, The Guy with Secret Kung Fu, and The Instant Kung Fu Man — but some sneak peeks stand out: Kung Fu Master Named Drunk Cat, with its over-the-top humor; The Story of Chinese Gods, billed as the country’s first animated feature; Bloody Mission, a promising murder-mystery; The Bomb-Shell, a cops’n’kung fu epic; and Silent Romance, which promises entertainment in the style of manga and claims to be “More James Bond Than James Bond.”
The only Blu-ray extra is audio commentary by author Ric Meyers (Films of Fury: The Kung Fu Movie Book), martial arts instructor Greg Schiller, and martial arts scholars Frank Djeng of the New York Asian Film Festival and Rick Stelow of Drunken Master Video.
THE SKULL (1965). Amicus Productions, the upstart company which often challenged Hammer Films for a slice of the horror box office pie, snagged the services of Hammer’s two superstars for this sporadically entertaining terror tale. Peter Cushing’s the lead in this one, playing a collector who acquires the skull of the notorious Marquis de Sade and soon finds it controlling his actions; Christopher Lee’s role is a supporting one (his billing reads “Guest Star”), playing a fellow collector and the previous owner of the cursed cranium. Freddie Francis directs with his customary flair, and there’s a good supporting turn by Patrick Wymark as a deceitful cad who also comes into contact with the skull. But after a bright first half, the film limps toward an unsatisfying conclusion. Milton Subotsky, one of the founders (along with Max Rosenberg) of Amicus, wrote the film’s screenplay, which was based on the short story by Robert Bloch (Psycho); for his part, Bloch subsequently contributed the scripts for five Amicus features within a seven-year span, including those for the anthology flicks The House That Dripped Blood and Asylum.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by film historian Tim Lucas; separate (and informative) interviews with film historians Kim Newman and Jonathan Rigby; Joe Dante discussing the trailer on “Trailers from Hell”; and the theatrical trailers for other horror flicks offered by the Kino label, including Lee co-starring with Boris Karloff in The Crimson Cult, Cushing co-starring with Vincent Price in Madhouse, and both co-starring alongside Price in House of the Long Shadows.
THE VALLEY OF GWANGI (1969) / WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH (1970). Couch potatoes in the mood for a dino double feature can settle in with two accommodating fantasy flicks (sold separately) recently released via the Warner Archive Collection. Both are of comparable quality, with the excellent visual effects overwhelming the so-so storylines.
The Valley of Gwangi takes an intriguing high-concept idea — cowboys vs. dinosaurs! — and only partially fulfills its promise. James Franciscus heads the cast as a showman and aspiring entrepreneur who journeys into a taboo valley in Mexico and comes across all manner of prehistoric creatures. He and his fellow travelers decide that the allosaurus known as Gwangi would be a terrific addition to a Wild West show, leading to situations familiar to anyone who’s ever seen King Kong or Mighty Joe Young. The legendary Ray Harryhausen handled the effects, and they’re typically exciting and innovative.
When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, meanwhile, was Hammer’s attempt to produce another prehistoric picture that matched the roaring success of its 1966 hit One Million Years B.C. The story again involves a voluptuous woman (Victoria Vetri) from one tribe and a hunky male (Robin Hawdon) from another clan falling for each other, but the picture doesn’t sustain its length as well as its predecessor. The production design is exceptional, though, and Jim Danforth deservedly earned an Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects. Incidentally, Vetri was primarily known at the time as Playboy’s 1968 Playmate of the Year; currently, she’s serving jail time for the attempted murder of her husband.
Blu-ray extras on The Valley of Gwangi consist of a retrospective making-of piece featuring Harryhausen, and the theatrical trailer. The Blu-ray of When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth contains the international theatrical version that includes a few moments of nudity not seen in the original American cut. The only extra is the trailer.
The Valley of Gwangi: ★★½
When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth: ★★½
Short And Sweet:
ASSASSIN’S CREED (2016). The search for a worthy video-game adaptation continues to rank up there with the search for the Holy Grail — good luck finding either — and Assassin’s Creed ensures that the hunt will go on for at least a little while longer. One of 2016’s worst films, it was also the ugliest movie of its year — and keep in mind that I saw Robert De Niro’s prosthetic penis in Dirty Grandpa. It also represents a spectacular waste of talent, with Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, and Brendan Gleeson among the formidable actors braying for their blood money. The plot deals with a surly guy (Fassbender) being hooked up to a machine that allows him to experience the trials and tribulations of his ancestor (also Fassbender), a Spaniard involved in a search for the apple from the Garden of Eden. This paves the way for boring action scenes, boring characterizations, and boring exchanges that make even the notes from an HOA meeting sound riveting.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette and deleted scenes.
DEMON SEED (1977). Despite co-directing (with the great Nicolas Roeg) the 1970 cult sensation Performance, Scottish painter-cum-filmmaker Donald Cammell’s name would be absent from marquees until 1977, when he helmed this adaptation of Dean R. Koontz’s novel. An uncredited Robert Vaughn provides the menacing voice of Proteus, a super-computer who grows tired of the requests made by his creator (Fritz Weaver) and soon makes the moves on the scientist’s wife (Julie Christie). Even Cammell’s chilly direction can’t neutralize the more outlandish aspects of the plot, although Christie, Weaver, and Phantom of the Paradise’s Gerrit Graham (as a suspicious techie) try to provide some lift. In 1997, Koontz opted to revise and rewrite his original novel; as for Cammell, he would only direct a couple more pictures before killing himself with a shotgun in 1996.
The only Blu-ray extra is the theatrical trailer.
SING (2016). There was clearly no shortage of animated hits during 2016, with four such efforts landing in the year-end box office Top 10 and a combined seven toon tales in the Top 20. Nabbing the final spot in the Top 10 — with $269 million, it was just under #9 Suicide Squad and just above #11 Moana — Sing also proved to be a gargantuan hit during the holiday season, with only Rogue One: A Star Wars Story grossing more during the final month of the year. It’s easy to see the all-encompassing appeal, as this tells the story of Buster Moon (voiced by Matthew McConaughey), a koala who stages a musical competition in a last-ditch effort to save his beloved theater. It’s no La La Land, but with a voice cast that includes Reese Witherspoon and Scarlett Johansson and a cheery disposition that’s downright infectious, it gets the job done.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; three mini-movies; and music videos for “Faith” and “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing.”
FROM SCREEN TO STREAM
(Recommended films currently available on streaming services)
BOXCAR BERTHA (1972). Martin Scorsese’s coming-out party was 1973’s Mean Streets, but before that, he made his directorial debut with 1968’s deeply personal Who’s That Knocking at My Door and followed up with this obligatory Roger Corman training-ground effort. Displaying little of the bravura filmmaking style long associated with the Oscar-winning helmer, Boxcar Bertha still makes for sound cinema, with Barbara Hershey a refreshing presence as a young woman hopping the rails in Depression-era America. She spends some time with a Northern card shark (Barry Primus) even though her heart belongs to a union organizer (David Carradine). ★★★
GRIZZLY MAN (2005). His relationship with the late Klaus Kinski and his own heart-of-darkness filming of 1982’s Fitzcarraldo long ago proved that Werner Herzog is no stranger to obsessive — even dangerous — behavior. In Timothy Treadwell, he found a fascinating subject, a high-strung individual who spent years living in close proximity to the bears he dearly loved — until the day he and his girlfriend were torn apart and eaten by one of the intimidating beasts. Herzog’s fascinating documentary works on many levels, and it reminds us that the boundary between man and nature must always be respected. ★★★½
ROMY AND MICHELE’S HIGH SCHOOL REUNION (1997). This charmer stars Mira Sorvino and Lisa Kudrow as two carefree California girls who begin to reevaluate their lives on the eve of their 10-year high school reunion. Hoping to impress their former classmates, the pair decide to attend the reunion posing as successful businesswomen. Things go wrong from the start, but with a little help from sympathetic classmates, Cyndi Lauper, and their own eye-popping wardrobe, they just might end up as the belles of the ball anyway. Robin Schiff’s screenplay is filled with memorable zingers, Sorvino and Kudrow are an irresistible team, and Janeane Garofalo (as the class’s moody outsider) shows up to steal scenes with aplomb. ★★★
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