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.
Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz in Disobedience (Photo: Universal)
(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 CAT O’ NINE TAILS (1971). Following the global success of his striking directorial debut, the 1970 giallo The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Italian auteur Dario Argento imported more American stars and offered more grisly thrills with The Cat o’ Nine Tails. Argento reportedly doesn’t care much for this picture, but that shouldn’t stop the rest of us from enjoying its twisty tale centered around a medical institution whose staffers harbor terrible secrets. One of the facility’s doctors ends up murdered, which leads a local newspaper reporter (James Franciscus) to team up with a blind man (Karl Malden) — a crossword-puzzle enthusiast, no less — to solve the mystery. As with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, style counts perhaps even more than substance, although the central mystery is compelling enough to prevent getting buried by Argento’s bravura technical flourishes. Two more similarities to the previous picture: a score by the great Ennio Morricone, and Argento’s tendency to populate his picture with minor characters almost as unique as those found around the edges of any given Fellini romp (in this case, check out Ugo Fangareggi as Gigi the Loser, a small-time crook who laments that “I can’t even knock over a chair without getting caught.”). Malden and Franciscus make a great sleuthing team, and a TV crime series starring their two characters would not have been unwelcome – of course, Malden was only a year away from co-starring opposite Michael Douglas in the long-running series The Streets of San Francisco while, amusingly, Franciscus was himself already starring as a blind man (an insurance investigator) on the short-lived 1971 drama Longstreet.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film critics Alan Jones and Kim Newman; new interviews with Argento and co-writer Dardano Sacchetti; and theatrical trailers.
THE CHILDREN OF HUANG SHI (2008). From The Big Parade and Gone with the Wind through Ben-Hur and Lawrence of Arabia right up to Reds and The English Patient, sweeping historical epics have provided cinema with many of its greatest moments. Alas, the ability to mount staggering epics that seize both the heart and the head has apparently become a lost art in the 21st century, as sprawling sagas like the middling drama The Promise, the garish snuff film The Passion of the Christ and the absolutely awful Alexander all fall short of stirring that old-time ardor. Directed by journeyman director Roger Spottiswoode (whose best film remains 1983’s Under Fire), The Children of Huang Shi is a so-so entry in this flailing genre, with good intentions not quite enough to overcome a rather listless telling. Relating the true story of George Hogg, the film finds Jonathan Rhys Meyers cast as the British journalist who protects 60 Chinese orphans from invading Japanese forces between 1938 and 1945. The plight of the orphaned boys is the most compelling aspect of the tale, but the picture prefers to spend an exorbitant amount of time on the rote (and fictional) relationship between Hogg and an American nurse (Radha Mitchell). Chow Yun-Fat is typically smooth as a Communist resistance leader who pops up at regular interludes to aid Hogg, but his character never feels authentic, instead registering as a scriptwriter’s colorful contribution to enliven the proceedings. The movie’s ambitions carry it over some rough terrain, but its limitations prevent it from ever truly ascending.
Blu-ray extras consist of a behind-the-scenes featurette; the theatrical trailer; and an isolated track of David Hirschfelder’s score.
CINDERELLA LIBERTY (1973). His name may not be as familiar as that of fellow wordsmith Stephen King, but the 80-year-old Darryl Ponicsan has enjoyed an uptick in movie-related news over the past three years. First, the 1973 adaptation of his 1970 novel The Last Detail made its Blu-ray debut in 2016, thanks to the Twilight Time label. Then his 2005 book Last Flag Flying hit theaters in a 2017 version starring Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne. And now, the folks at Twilight Time have circled back to bring the filmization of his novel Cinderella Liberty to Blu-ray. The printed and celluloid versions of Cinderella Liberty were both released in 1973, with Ponicsan himself handling screenplay duties for the latter — even more interestingly, the film adaptations of Cinderella Liberty and The Last Detail opened within a week of each other in December 1973, but rather than cannibalize each other, both movies enjoyed strong reviews, solid box office, and three Academy Award nominations apiece. The Last Detail remains better known due to Jack Nicholson’s iconic performance, yet Cinderella Liberty is the one that really gets under the skin. James Caan stars as John Baggs, a sailor who through a series of incidents finds himself stranded in Seattle. He falls into a relationship with a hooker named Maggie (Marsha Mason), finding matters becoming even more complicated as he increasingly grows fond of her young son (Kirk Calloway). Caan is superb, while Mason delivers arguably her finest performance – she earned one of the film’s three Oscar nominations, along with John Williams for Best Original Score and John Williams and Paul Williams for Best Original Song (“Nice to Be Around”).
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by director Mark Rydell; a vintage behind-the-scenes featurette; and the theatrical trailer.
DIETRICH & VON STERNBERG IN HOLLYWOOD (1930-1935). Actress Marlene Dietrich and director Josef von Sternberg made a total of seven movies together, six of them produced by Paramount Pictures. This Criterion box set contains all six of those films, and while it’s unfortunate that their first venture, 1930’s non-Paramount effort The Blue Angel, isn’t included here (it is, however, available on Blu-ray from Kino, which offers a two-disc edition featuring both the German and English-language cuts), this collection nevertheless offers a fascinating case study of the stateside collaborations, most made before the Motion Picture Production Code put the kibosh on sexuality and sensuality. Beyond von Sternberg’s eye for intricate sets, what’s perhaps most striking about this sextet is that no man comes close to matching up to the formidable Dietrich, whose characters devour males the way birds consume worms — even Gary Cooper and Cary Grant (both in the early stages of their careers) can’t keep up with her.
Morocco (1930) earned Dietrich what would be the only Best Actress Oscar nomination of her entire career, with the picture picking up additional nods for von Sternberg’s direction, Lee Garmes’ cinematography and Hans Dreier’s art direction. Dietrich stars as Amy Jolly, a cabaret singer who falls for a dashing Legionnaire (Gary Cooper) while being pursued by a rich older suitor (Adolphe Menjou). The scene in which Amy, dressed as a man, kisses another woman on the lips has become a classic, particularly among Dietrich devotees.
Dishonored (1931) finds Dietrich cast as an Austrian prostitute who is recruited by a Secret Service chief (the striking Gustav von Seyffertitz) to serve as a spy known only as Agent X-27. Dietrich’s fine performance and von Sternberg’s visuals (that masquerade ball!) overcome both a shaky second half and a badly miscast Victor McLaglen as a Russian operative who captures Agent X-27’s heart.
Shanghai Express (1932) earned von Sternberg the second and last of his Best Director Oscar nominations, with the movie popular enough to also score a Best Picture slot as well as the actual award for Best Cinematography. Morocco and Dishonored lenser Garmes also shot this one, and it includes some of the most iconic (and reproduced) images of Dietrich at her most magnetic and enigmatic. Reportedly the top-grossing film of its year, this finds the actress cast as a promiscuous woman who utters the immortal line, “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.” Lily finds herself aboard a train barreling through a China wracked by political upheavals, and her fellow passengers include a Chinese prostitute (Anna May Wong), an American gambler (Eugene Pallette) and a shady Eurasian (Warner Oland). Clive Brook is terrible as a British officer who was once Lily’s lover, but everything else about the film clicks.
Blonde Venus (1932) is the most sudsy picture in the collection, but where else will you see Dietrich singing “Hot Voodoo” while initially wearing a gorilla costume and then a white afro? She plays Helen, an entertainer-cum-housewife who makes sacrifices to save the life of her ailing husband (Herbert Marshall). After the lout shuns her for her conduct done in his service, including cavorting with a youthful millionaire (Cary Grant), she tries to prevent her beloved son (Dickie Moore) from being taken away from her.
How best to describe The Scarlet Empress (1934)? Delirious? Demented? Diabolical? This historical epic about Russia’s Catherine the Great is perhaps the best of the Dietrich-von Sternberg collaborations, so naturally it was a commercial disaster and sounded the death knell on the dynamic duo’s successful relationship with Paramount. The eye-popping sets are among the most incredible ever committed to celluloid, and there are notable turns by Dietrich as a wide-eyed virgin who soon learns to use sex to achieve power (Madeline Kahn’s turn as Empress Nympho in History of the World: Part I feels like a direct cinematic descendant), John Lodge as Catherine’s hunkiest conquest (his performance is a bit stiff, but physically, he connects with her better than any other co-star), and especially Sam Jaffe as the Grand Duke Peter, Catherine’s creepy and dim-witted husband. Don’t miss that astonishing torture montage, filled with pre-Code nudity and the sight of a prisoner being used as the clapper in a giant bell!
The final von Sternberg-Dietrich collaboration has its champions, but The Devil Is a Woman (1935) strikes me as the runt of the litter. Set in Spain, this finds Marlene cast as Concha Perez, a factory worker whose affairs with two men — one middle-aged (Lionel Atwill), one young (Cesar Romero), and both impulsive — nearly destroys both their lives. Dietrich enjoyed essaying this role, but the male characters are dull and the story only entertains in spurts.
Blu-ray extras include a 1971 television interview with Dietrich; an interview with Nicholas von Sternberg, the director’s son; a piece examining Dietrich’s standing as a feminist icon; the 1935 short The Fashion Side of Hollywood, featuring Dietrich and her frequent costumer, Travis Banton; a 1936 Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of Morocco, starring Dietrich and Clark Gable; and an audio recording of “If It Isn’t Pain,” a song removed from The Devil Is a Woman. The set also includes an 80-page booklet containing essays and photos.
Shanghai Express: ***1/2
Blonde Venus: ***
The Scarlet Empress: ***1/2
The Devil Is a Woman: **1/2
DISOBEDIENCE (2018). It’s been an invigorating 2018 thus far for Sebastián Lelio, as the Chilean director collected the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for A Fantastic Woman in March and then saw his first English-language picture, Disobedience, open in April to positive reviews. (And he’s not finished with the year just yet, as he’s putting the finishing touches on Gloria, with Julianne Moore starring in a remake of his own 2013 Chilean drama.) Adapted by Lelio and Rebecca Lenkiewicz from Naomi Alderman’s novel, Disobedience stars Rachel Weisz (who also produced) as Ronit, a successful New York photographer who returns to London to attend the funeral of her father (Anton Lesser), the prominent Rabbi Krushka. Ronit long ago left the Orthodox Jewish community of her youth after she was caught in a compromising position with her best friend Esti (Rachel McAdams); returning all these years later, she not only learns that Esti is still there but that she has married their mutual friend Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), Rabbi Krushka’s favorite student and the man being groomed to take his place. It’s only a matter of time before the attraction between Ronit and Esti gets reignited, with both women forced to confront their emotions and Dovid forced to grapple with his faith. It would have been expected — and perhaps easy — to make a movie in which two headstrong women take a stand against a patriarchal system, but Disobedience is more nuanced than that, setting up Ronit and Esti as opposites who nevertheless repeatedly meet in the middle and adding Dovid as the story’s wild card. Far from a predictable foil or a mouthpiece for close-minded religiosity, Dovid instead emerges as the picture’s most complex character, and Nivola is excellent at making the man sympathetic rather than sanctimonious.
There are no extras on the Blu-ray.
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JUDGE ROY BEAN (1972). The only performer to win a record three Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor, Walter Brennan earned the third of those honors for his role as real-life character Judge Roy Bean in the 1940 Gary Cooper vehicle The Westerner. The Westerner was more fiction than fact, yet it took no more liberties with the true tale than The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean 32 years later. Written by John Milius and directed by John Huston, this throws out many of the particulars of what was a rather extraordinary existence and employs extensive dramatic license to invent new myths with which to surround the self-appointed judge, jury and executioner. Paul Newman plays Roy Bean, an outlaw who declares himself “the law west of the Pecos” and sets up shop in a saloon he names after his favorite actress, the famous stage star Lillie Langtry (Ava Gardner in a late-inning cameo). Hiring a gang of desperadoes to serve as his enforcers, Bean settles down with Mexican bar girl Maria Elena (Victoria Principal, six years before Dallas), pals around with a lovable bear (Bruno the Bear, an animal superstar during that period thanks to the TV series Gentle Ben), remains wary of the psychotic killer Bad Bob (an unrecognizable Stacy Keach), and is subtly undermined by his own lawyer (Roddy McDowall). This ragged film never amounts to much, but it’s at least consistent in its eccentricities. That’s Huston himself as Grizzly Adams, and Michael Sarrazin amusingly receives special billing even though he fleetingly appears not in the flesh but only in a photograph! This earned a Best Original Song Oscar nomination for the tepid tune “Marmalade, Molasses and Honey.”
The only Blu-ray extra is the theatrical trailer.
READY PLAYER ONE (2018). I’ve never read Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One, but if the opinions of intelligent people are to be believed, it’s a painful experience, a name-dropping tome where practically all the ‘80s-friendly nostalgia is artificially manufactured rather than organically integrated into the framework. In short, it’s basically fan fiction — Fifty Shades of Grey for guys who have yet to discover their peckers. That Ready Player One the movie sounds superior to Ready Player One the book shouldn’t come as a complete surprise, given that Steven Spielberg is the one sitting in the director’s chair. The only escape for the masses in the future is the virtual-reality world of OASIS, where folks spend practically every waking hour indulging in their fantasies. Co-creator James Halliday (Mark Rylance) has recently passed away, but not before revealing that whoever solves the mystery buried inside OASIS will inherit ownership of his empire. Ready Player One is pleasing pablum, primarily buoyed by its engaging cast. At 140 minutes, it could stand some judicious trimming, with its length particularly felt during the protracted third act. Certainly, the first snippet that should have been excised is when someone comments that “A fanboy knows a hater when he sees one,” an awful, awful line designed solely to inspire high-fives among white geeks who feel persecuted by a world that dared allow the creation of a female Ghostbusters film. But while fanboys blindly worship the movie and haters didn’t even bother seeing it, the truth rests in between these extremes. On balance, Ready Player One is a fairly diverting slice of entertainment, offering enough surface thrills to justify its existence in a world already overloading on nostalgic feints.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; pieces on the visual and sound effects; and a discussion of the 1980s.