View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray and DVD. Ratings are on a four-star scale.
Fred Rogers in Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Photo: Universal & Focus)
(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray and DVD. Ratings are on a four-star scale.)
DEEP RED (1975). Arrow Video goes 3-for-3 with Dario Argento in 2018, as the label follows up its recent Blu-ray releases of the Italian filmmaker’s ‘70s gems The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and The Cat o’ Nine Tails with a film that bests even that potent pair. David Hemmings, the star of the influential art-house hit Blow-Up, here plays another character who must learn to trust his own eyes as well as his own memory. In the Antonioni flick, he’s a photographer who studies a picture and realizes he may have uncovered a murder that was committed right in front of him; in the Argento yarn, he’s a pianist who studies a series of paintings and realizes he may have uncovered a murderer who was standing right in front of him. That killer is responsible for bloodily dispatching a psychic, and Argento’s audacity rests in the fact that he allows the audience to similarly catch a fleeting glimpse of the murderer alongside Hemmings’ harried hero (just hit the Scene Selection and/or Replay button after the film’s over if you don’t believe me). But Deep Red isn’t a mere slasher film (though the deaths are both plentiful and gory) — instead, this exemplary giallo is clever enough to use its utterly compelling mystery to examine issues of gender identity and fluidity, and Argento’s typical technical prowess is in full bloom here.
Over the years, Deep Red has made the rounds in versions of varying length, including a 105-minute US cut edited by Argento himself. Rest assured that the impressive new Blu-ray release from Arrow includes the lengthiest version (127 minutes), viewable with either the Italian or English soundtrack. Extras include audio commentary by Argento expert Thomas Rostock; interviews with Argento, co-star Daria Nicolodi, and Claudio Simonetti of the rock group (and film’s scorer) Goblin; and a visual essay on the film.
GLORIA (1980). The copy on the new Blu-ray edition of Gloria states that it was John Cassavetes’ “most mainstream” movie, and as anyone familiar with the writer-director’s oeuvre can attest, that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement. Cassavetes was always at his best when he was making raw and uncompromising indies that, against all odds, nevertheless found favor in many circles (e.g. Faces, Shadows), and he was invariably always less interesting when he tried to guess what general audiences wanted to see (e.g. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and this one). Indeed, it’s no surprise that he hadn’t planned on directing Gloria — he wrote it simply to sell the screenplay to Columbia in exchange for some dough — but once the studio opted to cast his wife Gena Rowlands in the title role, he reluctantly agreed to oversee it himself. As played by Rowlands, the character of Gloria Swenson is the picture’s best ingredient, a gangster’s moll patterned after those seen in countless ‘40s flicks. Gloria ends up teaming up with a little boy (John Adames) after his family is wiped out by mobsters, but the movie turns repetitive in its beats and the boy himself isn’t very interesting. Rowlands earned a Best Actress Academy Award nomination, and it’s easy to see why — she’s alternately tough and tender, and always terrific. Meanwhile, Adames earned a Worst Supporting Actor Razzie Award (tying with Laurence Olivier for The Jazz Singer), and it’s not as easy to see why — he’s not especially good, but he’s no worse than many other child actors in similar roles. Incidentally, this was remade in 1999, with Sidney Lumet (Dog Day Afternoon) at the helm and Sharon Stone in the central role; it proved to be both a critical and commercial disaster.
Blu-ray extras consist of theatrical trailers and an isolated track of Bill Conti’s excellent score.
OCEAN’S 8 (2018). Ocean’s 8 isn’t so much a reboot of the middling franchise as a continuation with different players. The central character is now Debbie (Sandra Bullock), the sister of George Clooney’s Danny Ocean from the previous pictures. Just wrapping up a jail sentence and eager to pull off a massive score, Debbie’s idea is to steal a necklace valued at $150 million – easier schemed than done since said bauble is being kept in an underground vault. But Debbie sets into motion a plot that will result in the necklace being worn to the Met Gala by pampered movie star Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway), at which point she plans to pilfer the jewelry. To assist her in her robbery, she assembles a team whose members include her BFF and former partner in crime (Cate Blanchett), a computer hacker (Rihanna), a fence (Sarah Paulson), a forger (Mindy Kaling), a street hustler (Awkwafina), and the fashion designer (Helena Bonham Carter) who will be dressing Daphne for the Met charity event. To paraphrase Julie Andrews (and maybe Emily Blunt?) as Mary Poppins, Debbie’s plan is practically perfect in every way — which helps explain why the movie is anything but. Heist flicks rely on things going wrong to ratchet up that tension and provide a series of savory twists and turns, but director Gary Ross (co-scripting with Olivia Milch) ends up devising a caper scheme that runs too smoothly. As such, there’s only one significant plot twist and zero complications, leading to a narrative woefully lacking in any manner of intrigue or suspense. Fortunately, many of the players provide some oomph to the proceedings, particularly Carter, Awkwafina, and James Corden as a persistent insurance investigator.
Blu-ray extras consist of two behind-the-scenes featurettes; deleted scenes; and a piece on shooting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
THE SEVENTH SIGN (1988). Not to be confused with Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece The Seventh Seal (as if!), The Seventh Sign is an ofttimes admirable yet mostly silly supernatural thriller that scarily suggests that Demi Moore is the only thing standing between us and the Biblical Apocalypse. Drawing its inspiration from both Christian doctrine and Jewish mythology, the film stars Moore as the pregnant Abby Quinn, who becomes convinced that a mysterious boarder named David Bannon (Jürgen Prochnow) has arrived on the scene with the intention of harming her unborn baby. It seems that wherever David goes, an inexplicable catastrophe occurs (freezing weather in the Middle East, a dead sea in Haiti), and Abby is frightened that he plans to involve her in some warped religious sacrifice. Her lawyer husband (Michael Biehn) thinks she’s being paranoid, although he’s admittedly distracted by his latest case, which finds him defending a mentally challenged young man (John Taylor, who has Down’s Syndrome in real life) who’s been tagged “The Word of God Killer” after hacking up his incestuous parents. Only Father Lucci (Peter Friedman), an emissary sent by the Vatican, and Avi (Manny Jacobs), a Jewish teenager studying to become a Rabbi, appear to believe her. After such accomplished religion-horror hybrids as The Exorcist, The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby, The Seventh Sign can’t help but come across as a low-rent variation, with plodding exposition and a noticeable lack of visual pizzazz.
Blu-ray extras consist of interviews with director Carl Schultz, scripters Clifford and Ellen Green (billed under the pseudonyms George Kaplan and W.W. Wicket), and Biehn, Friedman and Taylor, and TV spots.
THE TREE OF LIFE (2011). Terrence Malick’s cinematic meditation, which took the Palme d’Or at Cannes and nabbed three Oscar nominations (including Best Picture), is a movie that’s apparently easy to hate and almost impossible to defend. Detractors have been quick to label it pretentious, which seems unfair to me — pretentious denotes insincerity, and Malick is nothing if not genuine in his attempts to use the medium as a means with which to explore subjects that are important to him. Here, he’s made arguably his most elliptical film, a mood piece of a movie that grapples with such capital-letter issues as Life, Death, God and Nature. It’s a work that’s both universal (literally, as in the creation of the universe) and personal (the birth of a child), and its neatest trick is that it feels like a Malick autobiography even as it directly speaks to receptive viewers on a one-to-one basis. It’s cinema as a give-and-take relationship: The movie can only provide as much as the viewer is willing to put into it. Its primary plot centers on a family residing in Waco, Texas, in the 1950s. Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) is the stern patriarch, a man who loves his family but nevertheless takes out all of life’s frustrations on them. Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) is the beatific mother, full of love, grace and charity. Jack (Hunter McCracken), the oldest of their three sons, is inevitably torn — and molded — by the conflicting behavior of his parents, and his childhood is carried with him into adulthood, where a grown Jack (Sean Penn) grapples with his memories. For those who can get on its wavelength, The Tree of Life will feel like a godsend; others will be bored by a slowly paced tale that runs 139 minutes.
The new Criterion Blu-ray edition offers an extended version of the film that totals 189 minutes. Extras include a behind-the-scenes featurette; an interview with Chastain; and a pair of visual essays.
THE VIRGIN SOLDIERS (1969). Set in Singapore during the midst of the Malayan Emergency at the dawn of the 1950s, this adaptation of Leslie Thomas’ novel centers on a group of young British recruits who have no experience in either love or war. At the forefront of the tale is naïve Private Brigg (Hywel Bennett), who divides his time between the virginal Phillipa Raskin (Lynn Redgrave), the daughter of one of the officers (Nigel Patrick), and the decidedly non-virginal prostitute Juicy Lucy (Tsai Chin). For her part, Phillipa also spends time with the more experienced Sergeant Driscoll (Nigel Davenport), although eventually the conflict forces all of them to alternately fight and flee. Most of Brigg’s National Service mates are painted in only broad strokes, but the story nevertheless proves affecting in its look at boys in wartime. And while the movie is dominated by knockabout humor, director John Dexter manages to muster some tension during the latter passages in which the Brits must contend with agitated locals. The film’s score is by Peter Greenwell, although it’s Ray Davies of The Kinks (billed here as Raymond Douglas Davies) who created the outstanding “Virgin Soldiers March.” Incidentally, that’s an uncredited David Bowie making his film debut in one barroom scene — if you blinked for even half a millisecond, you missed him. The Virgin Soldiers was followed eight years later by 1977’s Stand Up, Virgin Soldiers, featuring many of the same characters but played by different actors (save for Sergeant Driscoll, again essayed by Davenport).
Blu-ray extras consist of the theatrical trailer and an isolated music track.
WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? (2018). A complicated movie about a complicated individual, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? starts out in standard documentary form, relating the early years of how Fred Rogers, who appeared headed for the ministry, instead became a star for children primarily through his long-running television series Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. But a life as unusual as this one can’t be confined within the normal dictates of the biopic, and the picture soon transforms into an experience that triggers all manner of emotions in viewers, from curiosity to concern, from wariness to warmth, from admiration to acceptance. This is a movie that poses many questions, chief among them being whether Mr. Rogers was in real life the person he projected on television: caring, sincere, and — let’s just say it — slightly weird. By all the evidence presented here, the answer would be yes, but the strength of this film from Morgan Neville (helmer of the Oscar-winning 20 Feet from Stardom) is that it never allows the myth to eclipse the man. Certainly, Fred Rogers had his flaws — one vignette shows how he had to (gently) dress down a gay cast member rather than risk losing sponsorship — yet what mainly shines through is his dignity and his humanity. Whether it was addressing the Challenger disaster, alluding to the assassination of Robert Kennedy, or subtly knocking the inherent racism in keeping public swimming pools segregated, Mr. Rogers could always be counted on to stand up for the little guy — and especially the little kids.
There are no extras on the DVD.