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.
John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever (Photo: Paramount)
(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 FORTUNE COOKIE (1966). Over the course of 32 years, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau made 10 films together (11 if one includes JFK, in which they shared no scenes). The 1968 smash The Odd Couple might be the most popular — and I’ve always had a soft spot for 1981’s underrated Buddy Buddy — but line for line, their first joint effort might be the funniest. Yet because the movie springs from the curdled minds of director Billy Wilder and frequent collaborator I.A.L. Diamond, it offers plenty of cynicism to go along with the guffaws – to paraphrase a line from 1957’s Sweet Smell of Success, it’s a Cookie full of arsenic. Jack Lemmon plays Harry Hinkle, a CBS-TV cameraman who gets injured when Cleveland Brown player Luther “Boom Boom” Jackson (Ron Rich) accidentally plows into him on the sidelines. Harry recovers immediately from his injury and is ready to be discharged from the hospital – not so fast, counters Willie Gingrich (Walter Matthau), Harry’s brother-in-law as well as a shyster lawyer known as “Whiplash Willie.” Willie urges Harry to fake a more severe injury in order to make the insurance company pay a fortune – fundamentally an honest guy, Harry agrees to the scheme only because he thinks it will bring back his gold-digging ex-wife (Judi West). Matthau is so unrelentingly hilarious that it’s initially easy to overlook the drama, which comes in the touching relationship between Boom Boom and Harry. Matthau deservedly copped the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his dynamite performance, with the film receiving additional nominations for Best Original Screenplay, Best Black-and-White Cinematography, and Best Black-and-White Art Direction-Set Decoration.
Blu-ray extras consist of the theatrical trailer and an isolated track of Andre Previn’s score.
GOLD (2016). Just because a movie is Oscar bait doesn’t mean members of the Academy will always take the bait. Sometimes, they’re able to recognize an awards imposter right off the bat — fool’s gold clearly not worthy of Oscar gold. Gold is just such a film. Opening in limited release in L.A. at the tail end of 2016 to give it that air of importance (i.e. Let the rubes blanketing the rest of the country wait!), this one finds director Stephen Gaghan, writers Patrick Massett and John Zinman, and producer-star Matthew McConaughey unearthing a real-life scenario — a 90s-era scandal centering around a Canadian mining outfit — and turning it into yet another celluloid cautionary tale about capitalism and corruption. Worthy subject, dry delivery — at least The Founder, another recent Blu-ray title that failed to click as Oscar bait, made a similar saga juicy and easily digestible. To portray Kenny Wells, an eager-beaver prospector who teams up with a geologist (Édgar Ramírez, acting like he just woke up from a nap) to look for gold in them thar Indonesian hills and jungles, McConaughey contributes his usual live-wire intensity, even if he often lets his pot belly and semi-bald pate (both acquired for the role) do their fair share of the emoting. But the story as presented is airless and uninvolving, even with Gaghan working overtime with his stylistic choices. While trying to emulate the go-for-broke excesses of The Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle and The Big Short, the helmer frequently mistakes breathless effort for actual achievement. The maxim states that all that glitters is not gold, and that’s certainly true. In the case of Gold, it’s more like a shattered disco ball, promising dazzlement but delivering only a few fleeting glints of illumination.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Gaghan; a making-of featurette; and a deleted sequence.
THE OTHER HELL (1981) / DARK WATERS (1993). “Nunsploitation” flicks may not be as popular or as prolific as “Blaxploitation” pictures or “Sexploitation” movies, but the Severin label is doing its part by offering two unholy efforts in this vein.
Directed by Italian exploitation maestro Bruno Mattei (Rats: Night of Terror, Caligula’s Perversions), The Other Hell takes place in a convent where nuns are meeting grisly ends. A young priest (Carlo De Mejo) who fancies himself a Columbo of the cloth arrives on the scene to piece together the mystery — instead, he finds himself stonewalled by the Mother Superior (Franca Stoppi), who may or may not be in league with Satan. The movie features plenty of violence and gore, but let’s be honest: There’s very little here that can be deemed more offensive than Mel Gibson turning Jesus’s suffering into his own personal snuff film with the garish The Passion of the Christ. At any rate, this amateurish production’s greatest sin isn’t its excess but its insistence on triggering viewer boredom — it seems like half the movie is comprised of scenes of priests entering rooms and nuns climbing stairs.
Far better – albeit with its own share of flaws – is Dark Waters, written and directed by Italian filmmaker Mariano Baino, co-scripted by British writer Andy Bark, and filmed primarily in the Soviet Union. Louise Salter, whose only other feature-film credit is a bit part as a bloodsucker in 1994’s Interview with the Vampire, stars as Elizabeth, a young Englishwoman who journeys to a remote island to attend to financial matters and to visit her friend at the resident convent. Elizabeth has ties to the island – she was born there, although her father took her away at an early age — and she hopes to have some questions answered about her mother, who reportedly died during childbirth. A mysterious medallion, murderous nuns, and late-night rituals deep within the bowels of the earth are some of the spooky ingredients in this generally impressive undertaking, which suffers from sloppy scripting but finds its strength in Baino’s atmospheric staging.
Blu-ray extras on The Other Hell include audio commentary by scripter Claudio Fragasso; a new interview with Stoppi; and archival interviews with Mattei and De Mejo. Blu-ray extras on Dark Waters include audio commentary by Baino; a making-of piece featuring interviews with Baino, Salter, and others; deleted scenes; a blooper reel; and several short films by Baino.
The Other Hell: ★½
Dark Waters: ★★½
THE RED TURTLE (2016). The Red Turtle (aka La tortue rouge) stands as the first Studio Ghibli movie that isn’t primarily a Japanese production. Instead, the outfit behind such hits as My Neighbor Totoro and the Oscar-winning Spirited Away put its faith in Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit after studio founder Hayao Miyazaki caught de Wit’s animated short Father and Daughter. It was a move that paid off, as the picture was one of the five Academy Award nominees this year for Best Animated Feature Film (a statue deservedly won by Zootopia). What’s more, as the movie is backed not only by Japan’s Studio Ghibli but also by British, French and German financiers, it further promotes the theory that cinema continues to expand its borders even as other aspects of the world around us continue to throw up walls at every opportunity. Certainly, the film itself is all about tolerance and acceptance, as a man who finds himself deserted on a tropical island encounters a large turtle that becomes his constant companion. I won’t reveal exactly how the turtle becomes an integral part of his life, but it involves a transformation that in turn transforms the direction of the film. Related with no dialogue and illustrated in an uncluttered yet often luminous style, The Red Turtle is ultimately a mediation not only on what it means to be human but, more significantly, what it means to be as one with the natural order of the world.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by de Wit; a pair of behind-the-scenes featurettes; and a Q&A with de Wit.
RUMBLE FISH (1983). The story goes that Francis Ford Coppola received a letter from a school librarian requesting that he make a film version of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, the popular novel about street-smart kids scraping by in 1960s Tulsa, Oklahoma. Moved by the missive (which was signed by 110 students), Coppola not only made the picture but immediately followed it up with Rumble Fish, another Hinton adaptation. If The Outsiders was Hinton for the masses, then Rumble Fish was seemingly designed with the art-house crowd in mind. And while each film cost approximately $10 million, only The Outsiders was a hit, earning $25 million while Rumble Fish (opening seven months later) bombed with a paltry $2 million gross. Yet from a critical standpoint, both films are roughly on equal footing, with strong casts of up-and-comers and Coppola’s steady eye rescuing occasionally overwrought material. In the case of Rumble Fish, Stephen H. Burum’s stunning black-and-white cinematography is the chief asset of this occasionally arid tale centered around Rusty James (Matt Dillon), a troubled teen who idolizes his older brother, an iconic figure known as The Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke). Rusty is too dense to realize that the street-gang life only leads to a dead end, and The Motorcycle Boy doesn’t have it in his power to convince his sibling that there are better paths to follow. As is usually the case, this Coppola production is a family affair, with his sons Roman and Gian-Carlo serving as executive producers, his daughter Sofia (billed as simply Domino in the credits) appearing as the younger sister of Rusty’s girlfriend (Diane Lane), and his nephew Nicolas Cage co-starring as one of Rusty’s pals.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Coppola; deleted scenes; new interviews with Coppola, Hinton, Dillon and Lane; and a 1984 French television interview with Rourke.
SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977). Unfairly remembered in some quarters as a kitschy celebration of the disco era (no, that would be Thank God It’s Friday), this is actually a hard-hitting drama about a Brooklyn kid who (shades of The Graduate‘s Benjamin Braddock) has trouble planning for the future. For now, he’s content hanging around with his deadbeat friends, ignoring one woman (excellent Donna Pescow) for another (Karen Lynn Gorney), and, most importantly, dancing his heart out at the local disco. As Tony Manero, John Travolta is superb in a career-making performance that earned him a Best Actor Oscar nomination, while the smash album by The Bee Gees became the all-time top-selling soundtrack (at least until Whitney Houston’s The Bodyguard came along) and even today remains one of the best-selling albums of all time. Saturday Night Fever was followed six years later by the commercial hit but critical bomb Staying Alive.
The big news regarding this new 40th Anniversary Blu-ray edition is that it includes a Director’s Cut along with the original theatrical version. But don’t get too excited, as the new material in the Director’s Cut primarily consists of footage that was offered as deleted scenes in previous home-entertainment incarnations. Still, the video and the audio have both been upgraded, so this is nevertheless the version to own. Extras (all from the previous Blu-ray release) include audio commentary by director John Badham; a retrospective making-of piece; a trivia track; and a solitary deleted scene that did not make it into the Director’s Cut.
THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG (1964) / THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT (1967). How pronounced is Damien Chazelle’s love for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg? Not only did the Oscar-winning filmmaker cite that French release as an influence on his La La Land, but he had previously lifted two of its characters’ names for his jazz-infused 2009 effort Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. Chazelle is hardly alone in his appreciation of writer-director Jacques Demy’s musical, which upon its original release emerged as an international sensation. Winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes, the film is a musical from first note to last, with every word sung by its characters (Demy wrote the lyrics while Michel Legrand handled the music). At heart a simple love story between a young girl (Catherine Deneuve) who works at an umbrella shop and a young man (Nino Castelnuovo) who works as an auto mechanic, the film is effortlessly romantic but also hauntingly bittersweet, and the vibrant color schemes employed by Demy match anything later attempted by Pedro Almodovar. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg earned five Academy Award nominations, including bids for Best Foreign Language Film, Best Original Screenplay and in three different music categories. A follow-up of sorts appeared three years later in the form of The Young Girls of Rochefort, which bypassed the more intimate style of Cherbourg to pay homage to splashy Hollywood musicals. Deneuve again starred, and Gene Kelly was imported from L.A. to contribute movie-star magic in a supporting role. The choreography and Oscar-nominated score are both fine, but the movie doesn’t get under the skin like its potent predecessor.
Blu-ray extras on The Umbrellas of Cherbourg include a 2008 documentary on the film; a 1964 television interview with Demy and Legrand; a 1983 audio interview with Deneuve; and a restoration demonstration. Blu-ray extras on The Young Girls of Rochefort include a 1993 documentary on the film; a 1966 television interview with Demy and Legrand; and a 1966 episode from a Belgian TV series involving the making of the movie.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg: ★★★½
The Young Girls of Rochefort: ★★★
YOU’LL NEVER GET RICH (1941). The title is about the only thing forgettable about You’ll Never Get Rich, a terrific comedy-musical and one of the unfairly unsung films in the Fred Astaire catalog. Packed with laughs and boasting a superlative song score by Cole Porter, this finds Fred cast as Robert Curtis, a successful Broadway choreographer who gets caught in the middle of the latest womanizing scheme perpetrated by producer Martin Cortland (Robert Benchley), a married man futilely pursuing chorus girl Sheila Winthrop (Rita Hayworth). As it inevitably must, one thing leads to another, and Robert finds himself in the army — that’s hardly the end of the matter, though, as Martin and Sheila again enter his life as they both have reasons for visiting his base. Astaire’s best musicals (of which Top Hat is the pinnacle of perfection) were never stingy with the comic quota, and this one is no exception, with Astaire (as effortless with the wisecracks as with the dance moves) ably supported by the sputtering Benchley as the wandering cad, Cliff Nazarro as a soldier with a peculiar way of speaking, and Osa Massen as an opportunistic showgirl (a peek at the type of role later immortalized by Jean Hagen in Singin’ in the Rain). You’ll Never Get Rich earned a pair of Oscar nominations for Best Scoring of a Musical and Best Original Song (“Since I Kissed My Baby Goodbye”).
Blu-ray extras consist of the theatrical trailer and an isolated music track.
FROM SCREEN TO STREAM
(Recommended films currently available on streaming services)
LITTLE BIG MAN (1970). Director Arthur Penn’s excellent adaptation of Thomas Berger’s novel is one of the great films of the 1970s, anticipating Forrest Gump in the manner in which it centers on a decent man who meets several notable figures while taking a volatile journey through a thorny chapter in American history. Dustin Hoffman stars as Jack Crabbe, an elderly man who reflects on his experiences as a young boy raised by Indians, a naive youth educated by whites, an adult who returns to live with his Native American brothers, and, finally, a survivalist engaged in a deadly contest of wills with the demented George Custer (Richard Mulligan). The movie has a wicked sense of humor that’s mixed with the drama, although it’s still tough to watch the scenes in which Americans slaughter innocent non-whites (admittedly, one of the things this nation still does best). The then-33-year-old Hoffman delivers a towering performance in the lead role, aging from 17(!) to 121 years old (Dick Smith of The Exorcist fame designed his excellent makeup). As Crabbe’s adopted father, a saintly sage constantly muttering, “It’s a good day to die,” Chief Dan George earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination after nabbing awards from the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics. (Amazon Prime)