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.
Robert Culp, Dyan Cannon, Natalie Wood and Elliott Gould in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (Photo: Twilight Time)
(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.)
ANGIE (1994). Geena Davis delivers a sensational performance in this vibrant seriocomedy that unfortunately (if predictably) turned out to be a sizable box office bomb. Adapted from Avra Wing’s novel Angie, I Says, this finds Davis cast as the title character, whose unexpected pregnancy forces her to take stock of her life and make several hard decisions. Among her travails: She must decide whether to marry the baby’s working-class father (James Gandolfini) or pursue a relationship with a charming Irish lawyer (Stephen Rea); she must choose between accepting her annoying stepmom (Jenny O’Hara) or continuing to romanticize the mother who abandoned her and her father (Philip Bosco) decades earlier; and she must determine what sort of relationship she wants with her child. This is the sort of picture in which the characters are invariably painted in broad strokes and the jokes invariably operate at TV-sitcom level – credit director Martha Coolidge and scripter Todd Graff for refusing to take the bait the vast majority of the time (the closest they come is with a gag involving Marvin Hamlisch show tunes). That’s Margaret Cho, in one of her earliest screen appearances, as the nurse at the hospital’s admissions desk.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Coolidge; terrific vintage material in which Coolidge discusses behind-the-scenes matters such as how sequences from the script’s initial draft were re-edited for the final cut, and how a neat “visual effect” in a scene involving a mirror was pulled off; and the original theatrical trailer (which includes a pulled playground sequence that’s also presented on the Blu-ray as a deleted scene).
BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE (1969). With its look at free love, honest introspection, and the ever-expanding New Age movement, it’s appropriate that Paul Mazursky’s directorial debut emerged as one of the final hits of the swinging sixties. After attending a touchy-feely weekend at a fashionable California retreat, documentary filmmaker Bob Sanders (Robert Culp) and his wife Carol (Natalie Wood) return to LA and share their discoveries with their decidedly more conservative friends Ted (Elliott Gould) and Alice Henderson (Dyan Cannon). As Bob and Carol grow more radical (even approving of each other’s affairs), Ted and Alice only grow more confused. The two scenes that conclude the film – one set in a bed, the other on a sidewalk – continue to draw divided reactions, but the rest is fresh, fierce and funny. Wood and Culp are solid in the leading roles, though it’s easy to see why most of the attention has perpetually remained on Gould and Cannon (big-screen newcomers at the time). They enjoy most of the film’s best exchanges and interludes, including one lengthy sequence in which Ted and Alice argue deep into the night and another choice bit where Alice discusses her anxieties with her psychiatrist (Donald F. Muhich). Not surprisingly, both performers earned Oscar nominations for their supporting stints, as did Mazursky and Larry Tucker for their original screenplay and Charles Lang for his cinematography.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman; separate audio commentary by Mazursky, Culp, Gould and Cannon; an interview with Mazursky; the theatrical trailer; and an isolated track of Quincy Jones’s score.
DRAGONWYCK (1946). Joseph L. Mankiewicz had already established himself as a screenwriter and producer when he was assigned to make his directorial debut with his adaptation of Dragonwyck. The book had been written in 1944 by Anya Seton, and the project seems inspired – to diminishing returns – by Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 literary classic Rebecca (with a touch of Rachel Field’s 1938 novel All This, and Heaven Too thrown in for good measure). The film version, both written and directed by Mankiewicz, is a shaky drive through familiar Gothic territory, with Gene Tierney as Miranda Wells, a naïve farm girl whose life changes dramatically after she’s invited to stay at the mysterious estate owned by the brooding Nicholas Van Ryn (Vincent Price, in a role originally earmarked for Gregory Peck). Tierney and Price (who had co-starred two years earlier in the film noir masterpiece Laura) are both fine — and look for a young Jessica Tandy as Tierney’s maid — but the film never quite delivers on its intriguing premise or initial promise. Mankiewicz, of course, would eventually go on to make Oscar history by winning back-to-back Academy Awards for both writing and directing 1949’s A Letter to Three Wives and my all-time favorite film, 1950’s Best Picture winner All About Eve.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historian Steve Haberman and documentary filmmaker Constantine Nasr; Nasr’s 2008 short, A House of Secrets: Exploring Dragonwyck; the A&E Biography episodes “Vincent Price: The Versatile Villain” (1997) and “Gene Tierney: A Shattered Portrait” (1999); two vintage radio adaptations of Dragonwyck; the theatrical trailer; and an isolated track of Alfred Newman’s score.
HUSBANDS AND WIVES (1992). She: “Do you ever hide things from me?” He: “Me? Wh-what kind of things?” “I don’t know. Feelings, you know. Longings. Complaints.” And thus the messy marriage of real and reel life comes to full fruition in Husbands and Wives, Woody Allen’s 13th and final film with Mia Farrow and the subject of much analysis when it was released approximately a month after the Soon-Yi scandal broke. Away from the real-world ickiness and judged on its own merits, this is one of Allen’s most absorbing efforts, with some well-timed laughs breaking up what proves to be a particular bitter pill of a picture. The conflicts commence at the very beginning, with Jack (Sydney Pollack) and Sally (Judy Davis) announcing to their best friends Gabe (Allen) and Judy (Farrow) that they’re separating under amicable terms. The friendliness doesn’t last long, though, as Jack and Sally resent each other’s independence and affairs. For their part, Gabe and Judy allow the news to affect their own seemingly stable marriage, with Gabe (a college professor) becoming attracted to one of his students (Juliette Lewis) and Judy exhibiting romantic tendencies toward a coworker (Liam Neeson). The need for security versus the need for freedom receives a major workout in this mature and meditative piece, and Allen makes sure that every faction has its say. The laughs are plentiful (“The only time Rifkin and his wife experienced a simultaneous orgasm was when they were granted their divorce”), but they’re more often than not delivered through gritted teeth. The entire cast excels, with Davis and Pollack emerging as the standouts. This earned a pair of Oscar nominations for Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress (Davis).
Blu-ray extras consist of the theatrical trailer and an isolated track of the music score.
SUBURBICON (2017). When it came to the cinema of 2017, only the Tom Cruise debacle The Mummy proved to be worse than this unwatchable prestige project directed by George Clooney and scripted by Clooney and Grant Heslov from a decades-old script by the Coen brothers. Topical yet tone-deaf, Suburbicon initially appears as if it will focus on the tensions that emerge when a black family moves into a white middle-class neighborhood in 1959. With an unrepentant white supremacist soiling the White House and his dimwitted supporters spewing their hatred at various rallies and marches (oh, and on the Internet), a movie examining unbridled racism certainly couldn’t be timelier. But no, this is merely a side dish to the real plotline, which centers on the plight facing mild-mannered neighbor Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), his wife Rose (Julianne Moore), their son Nicky (appealing Noah Jupe), and Rose’s twin sister Margaret (also Moore). A home invasion by two seedy criminals (Glenn Fleshler and Alex Hassell) results in one death – this is turn leads to a cover-up, a visit from an insurance investigator (Oscar Isaac), and several more slayings. The majority of the movie is pitched as a dark comedy, but since Clooney doesn’t share the Coens’ natural aptitude for satire, these scenes prove to be awfully heavy-handed and stridently overbearing. Meanwhile, the portions of the film focusing on the African-American family feel like an afterthought, and Clooney’s point that the nice black family is being persecuted while no one pays any attention to the white scumbags next door couldn’t be more clumsy or obvious.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Clooney and Heslov; a making-of featurette; and a piece on the score by Alexandre Desplat (currently Oscar-nominated for The Shape of Water).
THE WAY WEST (1967). A.B. Guthrie’s novel The Way West may have won the Pulitzer Prize for 1949, but similar accolades of the cinematic variety failed to materialize when the adaptation hit movie theaters in 1967. The sort of Western that’s typically described as “sprawling,” the picture packs a lot of incident into its 122-minute running time, but only select bits deliver much of a punch. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the production is that the filmmakers opted to “introduce” not one but two new talents in the opening credits. Katherine Justice failed to establish a big-screen career but has remained busy over the decades on TV, appearing in guest-starring spots in everything from Gunsmoke to Falcon Crest. As for Sally Field, she made her film debut in The Way West and the rest is history. Field flits in and out of the storyline as a sexually inquisitive teenager, but the leads are three Hollywood legends all familiar with the dictates of Western cinema. Top-billed Kirk Douglas is William J. Tadlock, a former U.S. Senator who won’t let anything – even basic human kindness – stop him from leading a wagon train to uncharted terrain in Oregon. Robert Mitchum is Dick Summers, the savvy guide who has enormous respect for the land and its Native American inhabitants. And Richard Widmark is Lije Evans, a headstrong settler who repeatedly bristles at Tadlock’s dictatorial style. All three actors hold our attention, as do Field and Lola Albright as Lije’s sensible wife. But the story’s episodic nature, often a boon in a film featuring so many characters, ebbs and flows depending on which vignette comes up to bat.
The only Blu-ray extras are trailers for The Way West and other vintage Westerns.
Short And Sweet:
ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS (1958). After working alongside Jacques Cousteau on the Oscar-winning documentary The Silent World, French filmmaking legend Louis Malle made his feature directorial debut with this stylish thriller that’s most famous for its excellent score created by Miles Davis (reportedly during an improvisatory session over the course of a single night). Lovers Florence (Jeanne Moreau) and Julien (Maurice Ronet) agree that he should murder her odious husband, but their plans go awry after he gets stuck on an elevator and his car gets stolen by a pair of teenage nitwits (Georges Poujouly and Yori Bertin). The plotting is thin and the ironies are thick, but the visual vibrancy cannot be understated.
Blu-ray extras include a 2005 interview with Moreau; footage of Malle and Miles Davis at the soundtrack recording session; and Malle’s 1954 short, Crazeologie.
THE WILBY CONSPIRACY (1975). Sidney Poitier and Michael Caine prove to be a potent pair in The Wilby Conspiracy, a crackling action film that also takes time out to frown upon South Africa’s policy of apartheid. The actors are respectively cast as South African political activist Shack Twala and British engineer Jim Keogh, who find themselves pursued across the country by racist and corrupt government officials (primarily repped by Nicol Williamson as a purring security agent). The caustic quips delivered by both stars provide the film with a welcome strain of dry wit, while Rutger Hauer and Star Trek: The Motion Picture’s Persis Khambatta make their English-language debuts (although they share no scenes here, the pair would later co-star as terrorists in the 1981 Stallone vehicle Nighthawks).
The only Blu-ray extra is the theatrical trailer.
FROM SCREEN TO STREAM
(Recommended films currently available on streaming services)
ALLIED (2016). Once the bread and butter of the movie industry, the World War II film has become a rarity in today’s Hollywood, tragically going the way of the dodo and the Western. Allied attempts to bring back some of that old-school glamor and intrigue, placing a moving love story at the center of a wartime espionage caper. The result is itself a rarity: an elegant and understated movie for adults, one that’s as unfussy as it is engaging. Naturally, it was a box office underachiever, costing $85 million but grossing only $40 million stateside. Brad Pitt, no stranger to tangling with Nazis (starring in Inglourious Basterds and Fury, speaking out against Donald Trump), here plays Max Vatan, a Canadian intelligence officer whose latest mission pairs him with French Resistance fighter Marianne Beauséjour (Marion Cotillard). Their assignment involves posing as man and wife while plotting the assassination of an important German dignitary; perhaps inevitably, they end up falling in love and getting married, a union that turns problematic once Marianne is suspected by the British high command of being an enemy agent. Far too many movies relying on a big reveal play their hands too soon, but that’s not the case with Allied: Thanks to Steven Knight’s smart screenplay and Robert Zemeckis’ understated direction, the picture keeps the is-she-or-isn’t-she? guessing game percolating until the end. Also crucial to the story’s effectiveness are the performances by Pitt and Cotillard, making the mutual attraction and admiration between their characters palpable. ★★★