(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.)
ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL (2006). Jerome Platz (Max Minghella), a freshman at the Strathmore art school, has two ambitions in life: to become the greatest artist in the world and to get laid. That one objective never seems to take precedence over the other makes sense. After all, what college student can truly contemplate the Big Picture when immediate approval and gratification might be within grasp? Art School Confidential, from the Ghost World team of director Terry Zwigoff and writer Daniel Clowes, starts out as a great movie that eventually devolves into a pretty good one, as a stinging expose of campus life gives way to the more rigid narrative demands of a police procedural. This cynical picture follows Jerome as he discovers that it’s almost impossible to become a master practitioner of his craft when his teachers turn out to be hypocrites (John Malkovich is aces as one of these pretentious profs) and his fellow students produce amateurish works that are instantly hailed as cutting-edge. Burdened with so much disillusionment, it’s no wonder that Jerome devotes little thought to the fact that a serial killer is trolling the campus grounds. Adapted from Clowes’ comic story, Art School Confidential works best when it expertly taps into the uncertainties of an adolescent existence suddenly liberated from the confines of home and family, or when it deconstructs the notion of what truly constitutes being a success or, conversely, a failure in one’s chosen field. It’s at its weakest when it clumsily tries to tie together its points by employing a sensationalistic device that detracts from its astute observations.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; deleted scenes; a blooper reel; and the theatrical trailer.
BLACK WIDOW (1954). Not to be confused with the Black Widow released by the Twilight Time label back in 2015 — that one was a 1987 thriller starring Debra Winger — this Black Widow, also being offered via Twilight Time, hails from an earlier decade and ultimately exhibits a bit more bite. It’s basically a mash-up of film noir decadence, All About Eve intrigue, and CinemaScope splendor, as small-town girl Nancy Ordway (Peggy Ann Garner) arrives in New York with the intention of becoming an important writer. She befriends affable Broadway producer Peter Denver (Van Heflin), who enters into a platonic friendship with the youngster and frequently entertains her while his wife, actress Iris Denver (Gene Tierney), is away on assignments. When Nancy turns up dead in Peter’s apartment, he naturally becomes the prime suspect, although the detective (George Raft) on the case also keeps his eye on the Denvers’ neighbors, catty actress Carlotta Marin (top-billed Ginger Rogers) and her dutiful husband Brian (Reginald Gardiner). Black Widow has suffered from a mangy reputation over the decades, but it’s actually a kicky murder-mystery, with a choice role for former child star Garner, reliable turns from Heflin and Gardiner, and an amusingly over-the-top stint by Rogers. On the down side, Tierney is wasted in a rather threadbare role, while Raft is as crushingly dull here as in pretty much every picture he’s ever made – film fans can continue to thank their lucky stars that he turned down the leading roles in both High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon, the two classics that helped transform Humphrey Bogart into a star.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historian Alan K. Rode; separate featurettes on Rogers and Tierney; the theatrical trailer; and an isolated track of Leigh Harline’s score.
DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972). Back in 2015, Warner’s home entertainment arm released Hammer Horror Classics, Volume One, a box set that included four fantasy flicks (one Frankenstein, one Mummy, two Draculas) produced by the legendary British studio Hammer Films. Those of us who have been eagerly awaiting a Volume Two have to assume that sales for Volume One were leaner than expected, as Warner’s Archive Collection branch has now released a single Hammer flick that certainly could have been housed in a second box set along with three other titles. Still, any Hammer on Blu-ray is better than no Hammer, although it’s odd that the company’s first – and best – Dracula film, 1958’s Horror of Dracula, is still a no-show. Instead, WAC has elected to serve up Dracula A.D. 1972, the seventh of the nine features in Hammer’s Dracula series. In this outing, the action unfolds in (then-)modern times, with Dracula (Christopher Lee) resurrected by a disciple named Johnny Alucard (Christopher Neame) and forced to contend with Professor Lorrimer Van Helsing (Peter Cushing), the descendant of his greatest nemesis. The prospect of Dracula set loose in the 1970s yielded at least one good movie (1979’s Love at First Bite, starring George Hamilton) and one terrible one (1974’s Old Dracula, with David Niven), but the disappointment involving Dracula A.D. 1972 is that the title character never ventures outside his hiding ground, missing a rich opportunity for some interesting juxtapositions. Nevertheless, the film is fairly entertaining, and it’s always a treat to see Lee and Cushing together. Incidentally, the Warner Archive Collection has another Hammer Drac flick arriving this month: 1973’s The Satanic Rites of Dracula, the eighth series entry.
The only Blu-ray extra is the theatrical trailer.
DRAGNET (1987). The classic radio and television drama series starring Jack Webb as the by-the-book detective Joe Friday receives the comedic treatment in this ‘80s endeavor starring Dan Aykroyd and Tom Hanks. A deadpan Aykroyd is perfectly cast as another Joe Friday, this one the nephew of Webb’s character. With the wise-ass Pep Streebek (Hanks) as his new partner, Friday finds himself going after the members of an LA-based cult known as P.A.G.A.N. (People Against Goodness and Normalcy). After the virginal Connie Swail (Alexandra Paul) nearly gets sacrificed during one of the group’s rituals, the normally reserved — and now-smitten – Friday becomes more reckless in his methods, a development that worries his precinct captain, Bill Gannon (Harry Morgan, reprising his role from the ‘60s TV run). Dragnet is an engaging piece of escapism, and it’s always nice to revisit Hanks back when he was loose, limber, and eager-to-please. Christopher Plummer (as a purring reverend) and Dabney Coleman (as a boorish pornographer) add some quirky touches to their villainous roles, particularly Plummer with his laugh and Coleman with his lisp.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by pop culture historian Russell Dyball; a promotional piece; a new interview with Paul; and a photo gallery. Sadly AWOL is the music video for the end-title song “City of Crime,” with Aykroyd and Hanks attempting rap with such lyrics as “In case you don’t agree With my methodology, I like to do things my way. Don’t get memory loss About who’s the boss. Don’t forget my name is Friday!”
INCREDIBLES 2 (2018). The vigorous embrace of mediocrity above all else grips a 21st century America that has become too lazy to think for itself, and writer-director Brad Bird smartly worked this national tragedy into an animated superhero tale that was, well, pretty incredible. The Incredibles focused on the Parrs, a family of superheroes expected to conform to the societal status quo (i.e. blend with the bland) rather than champion its own uniqueness. The domestic conflicts triggered by the clan’s suburban ennui gave way to an acceptance of each person’s individuality and, consequently, an ability to pool their resources as both crime fighters and family members. In this outing, arriving 14 years after the Oscar-winning original, superheroes are still outlawed and not allowed to engage in feats of derring-do. It’s only when the villainous Screenslaver arrives on the scene that dad Bob Parr/Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson), mom Helen/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell), son Dash (Huck Milner), and baby Jack-Jack can again become full-fledged heroes. Full of energy and imagination, Incredibles 2 is a guaranteed good time, but while it frequently feints in the direction of something more meaningful, it usually backs away and merely lathers on more thrills. That’s not exactly a debit, but anyone expecting the complexity of its predecessor might be left wanting. As before, the most satisfying element is the Parr family itself. The plot thread involving Jack-Jack and his seemingly infinite number of powers devours too much screen time, but the attention accorded to the other four family members is once again lovely. Forget that Marvel gang: On screen, Bob, Helen, Violet and Dash are the true Fantastic Four.
Blu-ray extras include making-of featurettes; deleted scenes; and the animated shorts Bao and Auntie Edna.
OUT OF TIME (2003). Denzel Washington is the marquee attraction and then-up-and-comers Eva Mendes and Sanaa Lathan are his dependable co-stars, but it’s the performance by the largely unknown (well, outside of Star Trek: Enterprise fans) John Billingsley that remains the freshest ingredient in this otherwise negligible piece of pulp fiction. The film itself is a sloppily assembled variation on the sweat-inducing Kevin Costner hit No Way Out, with Washington cast as Matt Lee Whitlock, a small-town Florida police chief who comes to realize that all the evidence in a double homicide paints him as the murderer. Mendes plays Whitlock’s soon-to-be-ex-wife, who of course also happens to be the detective heading up the investigation, while Lathan co-stars as his mistress, a former high school sweetheart now married to an abusive hothead (dull Dean Cain). It’s always a treat to watch Washington ply his trade, but after a while, the predictability of the mystery coupled with the credibility-stretching circumstances regarding Whitlock’s situation render it dopey rather than deft. The highlight is Billingsley’s noteworthy turn as Whitlock’s wisecracking sidekick Chae, a slovenly medical examiner whose faith in his boss never falters.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director Carl Franklin; a making-of featurette; screen tests for Lathan and Cain; outtakes; and the theatrical trailer.
THE SPY WHO DUMPED ME (2018). Modeling its title after that of the classic Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me but modelling its structure after the Melissa McCarthy hit Spy, The Spy Who Dumped Me is a middling action comedy that’s aided immeasurably by the formidable presence of Kate McKinnon. The Saturday Night Live star is often better than the movies in which she appears, and this one’s no exception. She plays Morgan, the live-wire best friend of the more reserved Audrey (Mila Kunis). Audrey has just been dumped via text message by her boyfriend Drew (Justin Theroux), but just as she’s trying to move forward with her life, she learns that Drew is actually a CIA agent in possession of some valuable intel. But Drew has gone missing, a development that in turn finds Audrey and Morgan hightailing it to Europe with various other players (none of whom can be trusted) in hot pursuit. Kunis is, as always, highly appealing, and there are some bright gags to be found among the expected spy games (love the scene involving the stick shift). Yet it’s McKinnon who repeatedly commands center stage, whether she’s annoying a lithe Russian assassin (Ivanna Sakhno) with her nonstop chatter or relating how Edward Snowden once had the hots for her. Look for some TV mainstays in supporting roles: Kate & Allie’s Jane Curtin and Mad About You’s Paul Reiser as Audrey’s parents and The X-Files’ Gillian Anderson as a CIA head.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; deleted scenes; a piece with stunt coordinator Gary Powell on the film’s action sequences; and outtakes.
12 MONKEYS (1995). Beginning its story in 2035, 12 Monkeys tells of a virus that long ago wiped out 99 percent of the world’s population. There’s no way to change the past, but with the help of a rickety time machine, there may be a chance to save the future, by locating the virus in its original pure form and fashioning an antidote. The scientists therefore select a “volunteer,” a convict named James Cole (Bruce Willis), to travel back to 1996 (the year the virus took hold), pinpoint its genesis, and bring a sample back to the future. A loose adaptation of the 1962 short film La Jetee, 12 Monkeys finds director Terry Gilliam and scripters David Peoples and Janet Peoples concocting a heady, harrowing and heartbreaking sci-fi thriller that rarely stops tossing red herrings into the gaping mouths of viewers trying to piece it all together. As with all time-travel movies, leeway must be given when analyzing its consistency, and even the picture’s most ardent fans will disagree when it comes to the specifics of its ending. Brad Pitt delivers a showboat performance as a nutcase whose mouth and hands move at the speed of light – naturally, he received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor – while Madeleine Stowe is more restrained (and more effective) as a psychiatrist who believes there might be some truth in Cole’s seemingly delusional ramblings. Yet it’s Willis who truly powers this picture with an anguished and emotional turn that just might remain the best of his lengthy career.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Gilliam and producer Charles Roven; an excellent making-of documentary that runs nearly 90 minutes; and an interview with Gilliam.
VALLEY GIRL (1983) / MANDY (2018). Quirky character actor. Acclaimed Oscar winner. Buff action star. Eccentric indie fixture. Since landing his first starring role 35 years ago, Nicolas Cage has witnessed his career go through some pretty dynamic changes (not all of them positive), and although he’s no longer residing near the top of the A-list, he continues to work at a frenzied pace, appearing in seven movies in 2018 alone. Interestingly, two works that together represent the notion of “That was then, this is now” have simultaneously been released on Blu-ray.
With only a small role in 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High to his credit (and billed in that picture as Nicolas Coppola), Cage managed to nab his first leading role in only his second feature. Valley Girl finds him playing Randy, a Hollywood punk who catches the eye of Julie Richman (Deborah Foreman), a high school student from the San Fernando Valley. The two care for each other, but Julie finds herself being swayed by her disapproving friends and expected to reunite with the obnoxious but preppie-approved Tommy (Michael Bowen). Character contrivances and a weak finale deflate the second half, but overall, Valley Girl is a winning effort buoyed by Martha Coolidge’s sympathetic direction and a soundtrack that, in Val parlance, remains totally bitching.
Cage is comparatively laid back in Valley Girl, particularly when one views the excessive (over)acting that defines many of his later pictures. He’s often over-the-top in Mandy as well, yet that perfectly suits the mood of this offbeat endeavor that’s basically for folks who might find Death Wish (any version) too quaint for their tastes. The story is rather basic, with lumberjack Red Miller (Cage) seeking revenge after the domestic bliss he enjoys with his artistic girlfriend Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) is forever shattered by cult leader Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache) and his followers. What sets Mandy apart is the gonzo approach taken by director and co-scripter Panos Cosmatos, who’s no more afraid of lengthy silent passages than he is of bathing the picture (particularly the gory interludes) in striking color schemes. Mandy marks one of the final scores completed by the superb composer Johann Johannsson (Sicario, Arrival) before his accidental death last February.
Blu-ray extras on Valley Girl include audio commentary by Coolidge; a new conversation with Coolidge and co-stars Elizabeth Daily and Heidi Holicker; 2003 interviews with Cage, Daily, and other cast and crew members; and music videos. Blu-ray extras on Mandy consist of a behind-the-scenes featurette, and deleted and extended scenes.
Valley Girl: **1/2