(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 ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI ACROSS THE 8TH DIMENSION (1984) / BILL & TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE (1989). Two titles previously released by Shout! Factory are now being reissued by the company as limited edition steelbooks.
A movie that dares call itself something both as imaginative and as cumbersome as The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension is clearly bucking for some measure of cult status, and this picture managed to acquire it almost immediately after it bombed at the box office. It’s easy to see the appeal, what with its loopy characters, its loopy plot, and its loopy dialogue — it’s just a shame there’s not more lurking underneath all that surface quirk. Peter Weller stars as a physicist/neurosurgeon/rocker/celebrity who combats the insane Dr. Lizardo (John Lithgow) and aliens known as the Red Lectroids (Christopher Lloyd, Vincent Schiavelli and Dan Hedaya all sporting heavy makeup) with the help of his team The Hong Kong Cavaliers (Lewis Smith, Pepe Serna and Clancy Brown) as well as a Black Lectroid (Carl Lumbley). Buckaroo Banzai offers some off-kilter pleasures, but its players are maddeningly shallow: Jeff Goldblum’s entire character is defined by his cowboy hat, while Ellen Barkin is given precious little to do as a suicidal woman repeatedly rescued by Buckaroo. Love the shout-out to Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast, though.
While the 1991 sequel Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey contains the series MVP — William Sadler, hilarious as the Grim Reaper — Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is overall the better film, as high school dudes Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves), with the help of the futuristic Rufus (George Carlin), employ a time-travel phone booth to enable them to kidnap historical figures (Lincoln, Freud, Genghis Khan and others) in an effort to avoid failing their history class. The upcoming decade would witness a high number of dum-dum characters in dum-dum movies (e.g. Wayne’s World, Dumb and Dumber, The Stupids), but few turned out to be as ingratiating as Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, thanks to the likable turns by Reeves and Winter. The script by Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon is more clever in the small details than in the broad strokes, and it’s fascinating to learn that one of Beethoven’s favorite albums was Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet.
Blu-ray extras on The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension include audio commentary by director W.D. Richter and writer Earl Mac Rauch; a lengthy retrospective documentary; and deleted scenes. Blu-ray extras on Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure include audio commentary by Winter and producer Scott Kroopf; separate audio commentary by Matheson and Solomon; and a lengthy retrospective documentary.
Both Movies: **1/2
BLACK PANTHER (2018). Like brown gravy on white rice, the sins of the father are served up by the ladleful in Black Panther, one of the best of the solo Marvel adventures to date. It’s a heady mix of William Shakespeare and Walt Disney, with a few James Bond gadgets added to sweeten the deal. The film finds T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) accepting his new responsibilities as king of the advanced nation of Wakanda, yet he’s barely had time to claim the mantle before he’s challenged by American intruder Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). The arcs of T’Challa and Killmonger are exceedingly knotty, with both men having to contend with the mistakes that their respective fathers committed in the distant path. Obviously, T’Challa is the hero and Killmonger the villain, yet writer-director Ryan Coogler and co-scripter Joe Robert Cole are careful not to turn the latter into a one-dimensional adversary. Without engaging in any spoilers, let’s just say that T’Challa can learn a lesson or two from Killmonger’s global perspective – and does. Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) adds warmth and depth as Nakia, the Wakandan spy who’s also T’Challa’s true love; Danai Gurira glowers beautifully as Okoye, a formidable warrior and personal bodyguard to the king; and Letitia Wright is a scene-stealing delight as Shuri, T’Challa’s little sister and Wakanda’s resident genius. It’s Shuri who comes up with the various inventions seen throughout the film, making her in effect the MCU’s version of Q in the 007 franchise. A Bond comparison can also be made with the heady sequence featuring a battle royale in a casino royale. Indeed, it’s bravura sequences like this one that guarantee Black Panther will leave most viewers shaken and stirred.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Coogler; a piece on the central character; deleted scenes; and a gag reel.
DIE HARD (1988). What’s left to say about Die Hard, a movie whose popularity only grows over the ensuing years? Still the prototype of the modern action yarn — its status was secured so rapidly that subsequent action romps were invariably described as “Die Hard on a train / plane / bus / zeppelin / tricycle / what-have-you” — this box office hit works for numerous reasons, not the least being Bruce Willis’s enormous appealing performance as John McClane, a New York cop trapped in an LA high-rise that’s been seized by ruthless criminal Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) and his team. In his breakthrough role, Rickman is terrific portraying one of the screen’s great villains, and he clearly deserved an Oscar nomination — obviously, that was never going to happen, though the film did nab four technical nods for Best Film Editing, Sound, Sound Effects Editing, and Visual Effects. Die Hard was of course followed by four sequels, beginning with 1990’s vastly entertaining Die Hard 2, continuing with the so-so pair of 1995’s Die Hard with a Vengeance and 2007’s Live Free or Die Hard, and ending with 2013’s utterly atrocious A Good Day to Die Hard.
Die Hard has been re-released by Fox in a 30th Anniversary Blu-ray edition, but anyone expecting any sort of upgrade will be sorely disappointed. While it sports different artwork and even a slipcover, this appears to be the exact same edition initially released on Blu-ray back in 2007, with no remastering and the same group of extra features. (Note, however, that a 4K edition has also been made available.) Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director John McTiernan and production designer Jackson DeGovia; scene-specific audio commentary by special effects supervisor Richard Edlund; interactive articles from Cinefex and American Cinematographer; an interactive still gallery; and trailers.
IT’S ALIVE TRILOGY (1974-1987). Writer-director Larry Cohen’s trio of films focusing on murderous babies has finally made it to Blu-ray, courtesy of a new box set from Shout! Factory.
As Cohen explains in one of the set’s extra features, the brain trust at Warner Bros. had no use for It’s Alive when the filmmaker completed its production in 1974, meaning it was barely released to stateside theaters. But it fared well on the international circuit, and Cohen then asked the new studio heads to take another look. It’s Alive was re-released in 1977 with a killer ad campaign, and this time the film proved to be a box office success. That’s not to say the movie is particularly good, though. In fact, it skews on the amateurish side, with an intriguing premise compromised by bland characters, awkward dialogue, and lurching scenes. John P. Ryan and Sharon Farrell play a married couple whose new baby is a monstrosity that chews through the umbilical cord and proceeds to slaughter almost everyone in the operating room. The infant then escapes from the hospital, and a detective (James Dixon, the only actor to appear in all three films) and his team scour the LA streets in an effort to prevent it from slaughtering more unsuspecting adults. The deformed baby was created by makeup superstar Rick Baker, with the great Bernard Herrmann (Psycho) contributing an acceptable score that nevertheless fails to match his usual musical heights.
Rampant pollution, an overdependence on drugs, and other societal ills are what led to the creation of the first film’s mutant infant, and that theme continues in 1978’s It Lives Again (aka It’s Alive 2). Ryan returns from the first flick, as his character now helps protect another couple (Frederic Forrest and Kathleen Lloyd) from having their baby instantly killed by the authorities. The baby is taken to a safe house where two other terrible tykes already reside, and soon the trio are slashing and gnashing at will. Cohen’s increasingly muddled messages, coupled with the usual attention to sloppy sequences, make this the weakest of the trilogy, if not by a discernible margin.
It Lives Again didn’t fare nearly as well as its predecessor, which led to 1987’s It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive only receiving a brief theatrical run before being shuffled off to video. Michael Moriarty, who had already provided Cohen with a wonderfully deranged performance in the filmmaker’s 1982 winner Q – The Winged Serpent (reviewed here), serves up another eccentric interpretation, this time as a parent to one of the mutated babies. Sympathetic to their plight, he’s relieved when the tots are sent to an isolated island to live in peace – and not so thrilled when scientists decide to check up on them five years down the road. The first half is more interesting than the second, although the entire enterprise never rises much above average.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentaries on all three films by Cohen; a retrospective piece on the trilogy, featuring interviews with Cohen, Moriarty and others; theatrical trailers; and still galleries.
All Three Movies: **
MOONRISE (1948). A busy filmmaker during the silent era, Frank Borzage would win the first Best Director Academy Award for 1927’s silent drama 7th Heaven and then snag a second statue for helming 1931’s Bad Girl. But despite this early success, Borzage’s career wasn’t destined for the long haul, with only a few mid-sized hits scattered among his later achievements and less assignments thrown his way over the ensuing decades. One of the most notable of his latter-day efforts is Moonrise, which benefits immeasurably from his ability to create moody and striking visuals. Dane Clark plays Danny Hawkins, who’s never allowed to forget that his dad was hanged as a murderer. The constant taunting and bullying aimed at Danny hardens him over time, and he accidentally kills a blueblood (Lloyd Bridges) who’s been harassing him since childhood. Many have praised Clark’s performance, although I found him to be merely adequate in the role (the property was considered for John Garfield, and he would have been exceptional). Others are more impressive, including Allyn Joslyn as a shuffling sheriff, Harry Morgan as a simpleminded mute, and especially Rex Ingram as Danny’s friend Mose, who lives in the backwater and addresses his canine companion as Mr. Dog because “there isn’t enough dignity in the world.” Moonrise earned a solitary Oscar nomination for Best Sound, but if any individual component should be recognized, it’s the exceptional cinematography by John L. Russell, who mainly toiled on television but deserved a more vibrant big-screen career based on his superb lensing of Orson Welles’ Macbeth, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and this picture.
The only Blu-ray extra is a conversation between author Herve Dumont (Frank Borzage: The Life and Films of a Hollywood Romantic) and film historian Peter Cowie.
FROM SCREEN TO STREAM
(Recommended films currently available on streaming services)
PHILADELPHIA (1993). While the AIDS crisis was tackled in rather rapid fashion by both television (An Early Frost) and indie cinema (Longtime Companion), it took a while before mainstream Hollywood was comfortable enough to deal with the situation. The resultant picture, Philadelphia, is hardly a movie milestone, but it’s actually quite limber for a film that has to carry such a heavy load on its shoulders. For that, credit director Jonathan Demme, who mercifully avoids button-pushing melodramatics, and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner, who more often than not sidesteps the sanctimonious, preaching-to-the-choir approach adapted by many other Movies with a Message. Tom Hanks plays Andrew Beckett, a fast-rising lawyer who’s fired from his company when it’s discovered that he’s a homosexual with AIDS. The heads of the firm (led by Jason Robards) claim he was dismissed because he misplaced an important document; knowing this to be a cover-up, Beckett responds by snagging attorney Joe Miller (Denzel Washington) to represent him in court. But Miller is far from comfortable with the situation, as he has to battle his own homophobic tendencies even as he fights for his client’s rights. Hanks won the Best Actor Academy Award for his touching performance, even if he’s playing a symbol more than a character (the role is rather sketchy); far more impressive is Washington, who excels as a man who starts out oozing contempt for “faggots” to finally understanding that even those who subscribe to alternate lifestyles deserve equal treatment. Bruce Springsteen’s haunting theme song, “Streets of Philadelphia,” deservedly won an Oscar. (Amazon Prime)