(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.)
BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018). Loosely based on a 70s-era true story, the latest Spike Lee Joint centers on Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first African-American officer with the police department in Colorado Springs. Answering a newspaper ad placed by the local Ku Klux Klan chapter, Ron begins a dialogue by passing himself off as a white man who hates blacks, Jews and everyone else destroying America. Ron’s duplicity is successful enough that he lands a meeting with the local Klan yahoos, but since he’s the wrong skin color, he sends colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to serve as his visual counterpart for in-person meetings while he continues to handle phone duties. His infiltration is so successful that he ends up engaging in a series of telephone chats with no less than KKK head David Duke (Topher Grace). The humor in BlacKkKlansman is occasionally overdone, yet it never dilutes the suspense generated by the overarching fear that the lives of Ron and Flip are in peril every moment of every day. Some will complain that the Klan members and their enablers are painted in broad strokes, but I say nonsense, as only Trump supporters will object to what they will see as caricatures but everyone else will see as stone-cold reality. Speaking of Trump, his dark soul clogs every pore of this powerful picture. This is especially true in the moments when Lee draws upon actual footage from the Charlottesville rally in which Trump’s neo-Nazi groupies were directly responsible for the death of a young woman. Admittedly, Lee’s rush to tie the past to the present leaves the film with too many loose threads dangling at the end. On the other hand, when the present is so putrid and precarious that hope and change need to take effect ASAP, who can blame the maverick filmmaker for his empathy and outrage?
Blu-ray extras consist of a making-of featurette and an extended theatrical trailer.
CRAZY RICH ASIANS (2018). Based on Kevin Kwan’s bestselling novel, this box office smash — the sort of effervescent rom-com that’s been in seriously short supply as of late — stars Constance Wu as Rachel Chu, an NYU economics professor who journeys to Singapore to attend a wedding alongside her boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding). Nick hails from Singapore, meaning that Rachel will finally get to meet his family. What Nick never bothered to tell her, though, is that his family is filthy rich. That’s enough of a shock for Rachel, but more disturbing is the fact that Nick’s mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), is a strict traditionalist who makes no secret of the fact that she believes Rachel will never be good enough for her son. Thus, Crazy Rich Asians sets up its clashes on two levels, with the conflict between East and West fueling much of the drama and the differences between the rich and, well, everyone else providing much of the humor. Forget the 1%: The Young family represents the .01%, with their wealth making Christian Grey from the Fifty Shades saga look as destitute as the backwoods characters in Deliverance by comparison. This is finance porn raised to an absurd level, which actually plays into the film’s general view that life’s a party and everyone should be invited. Wu is enormously appealing in the central role, while Awkwafina, who stole plenty a scene in Ocean’s 8, does likewise in her role as Rachel’s zany friend Peik Lin Goh. Even Ken Jeong, normally a screen irritant, has some amusing moments as Peik Lin’s rich yet unrefined dad. Indeed, it’s the wide range of engaging characters that primarily provides Crazy Rich Asians with both its zaniness and its worthiness.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director Jon M. Chu and Kwan; deleted scenes; and a gag reel.
THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973). Initially released in the U.S. under the title of Count Dracula and His Vampire Bride, The Satanic Rites of Dracula finds the mighty Hammer Films studio here operating on fumes. An immediate follow-up to 1972’s Dracula A.D. 1972, this finds Christopher Lee again portraying Dracula and Peter Cushing again cast as Lorrimer Van Helsing, the descendant of the professor who first tangled with the bloodthirsty Count in 1958’s Horror of Dracula. Michael Coles also returns from Dracula A.D. 1972 as Inspector Murray, once again investigating the occult in modern-day London, while Stephanie Beacham, who had played niece Jessica Van Helsing, gets replaced by a pre-Absolutely Fabulous Joanna Lumley. The plot skews closer to that of a spy thriller than a vampire flick, as Dracula has reinvented himself as a Howard Hughes-type recluse who employs both his millions and his minions to create a strain of plague that will destroy the entire world. With James Bond apparently busy on other assignments — to say nothing of Inspector Clouseau — it’s up to Professor Van Helsing to halt the dastardly scheme. The plotting is often downright silly (it used to be that holy water was required to kill a vampire, but now ordinary city water will do the trick?), and the climax, with Dracula having to contend with a pesky thorn bush, is borderline risible. This marked the final time that Lee would portray Dracula for Hammer, although Cushing would return to play a Van Helsing one final time in 1974’s The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (aka The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula), with John Forbes-Robertson cast as the Count.
The only Blu-ray extra is the theatrical trailer.
SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959). Billy Wilder’s immortal screen gem was voted the best comedy of all time by the American Film Institute in 2000, and you won’t find many movie fans who don’t agree that it’s at least near the top of the heap. Caught in the wrong place at the wrong time — specifically, front-row seats for the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre — musicians Jerry (Jack Lemmon) and Joe (Tony Curtis) evade the mobsters hot on their trail by disguising themselves as Daphne and Josephine, two members of an all-female jazz band. Leaving Chicago and ending up in Florida, both guys have their hands full trying to keep up the ruse; additionally, Joe decides to occasionally disguise himself as a millionaire in order to romance band singer Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe) while Jerry elects to marry a real millionaire (Joe E. Brown) who actually believes he’s a woman. There isn’t much to say about this masterpiece that hasn’t long ago entered into cinema folklore, whether it’s the off-screen troubles with Monroe, the endless barrage of classic quotes (the film’s final line is legendary, though I have a soft spot for Jerry’s description of a sashaying Sugar: “Look at that! Look how she moves! That’s just like Jell-O on springs!”), or the risqué double entendres that somehow slipped by the censors (presumably, they were too busy laughing to care). An Oscar winner for Best Costume Design, this earned five other nominations, including bids for Wilder (as both director and co-scripter with I.A.L. Diamond) and a hysterical Lemmon; inexplicably missing were the nods for Monroe (in the finest performance of her career) and Best Picture.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary (from 1989) by film scholar Howard Suber; a trio of behind-the-scenes pieces; a 1955 radio interview with Monroe; and a 1988 TV interview with Lemmon.
TARZAN’S GREATEST ADVENTURE (1959). With the arguable exception of 1984’s classy Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure ranks as the best Edgar Rice Burroughs offshoot that did not star Johnny Weissmuller as the definitive King of the Jungle. Here, it’s Gordon Scott who dons the loincloth, playing a Tarzan who not only has no Jane by his side but also sports a command of the English language that goes far beyond “Me Tarzan.” Reportedly the first Tarzan tale filmed in Africa (Kenya, to be exact) rather than on a Hollywood studio backlot, this sumptuous production finds the jungle swinger squaring off against the four men (and one woman) who have been murdering innocent villagers in their search for a diamond mine. Tarzan’s mission of revenge becomes even more difficult once he’s obligated to protect a naïve city woman (Sara Shane) whose plane has crash-landed on his terrain. It’s a testament to the fine scripting by John Guillerman (who also directed), Bernie Giler and Les Crutchfield that Shane’s character is initially insufferable but believably matures throughout the course of the film. Yet she’s not the star attraction here — come to think of it, neither is Tarzan. Instead, it’s the villains who make this movie, including the ruthless leader played by Anthony Quayle (right before he appeared in The Guns of Navarone and Lawrence of Arabia) and the reckless ruffian essayed by Sean Connery (right before he became Bond). What’s fascinating is that the criminals are their own worst enemies, a psychological wrinkle that gooses the scenes in which Tarzan doesn’t even appear. Guillermin would later direct one more Tarzan film — 1962’s Tarzan Goes to India, starring Jock Mahoney as the King of the Jungle — before moving on to big-budget extravaganzas like The Towering Inferno and the 1976 version of King Kong.
The only Blu-ray extra is the theatrical trailer.
URBAN LEGEND (1998) / URBAN LEGENDS: FINAL CUT (2000). After a brief lull, the teen-centric horror film was resuscitated in 1996 by Wes Craven’s Scream, leading to a rash of other slasher flicks hoping to make a similar slaying at the box office. As someone who never understood the praise showered upon the tiresome and self-satisfied Scream franchise, take it with a grain (or 12) of salt when I state that, finally catching up with the Urban Legend twofer thanks to their recent Blu-ray release by Shout! Factory (the direct-to-DVD third film, 2005’s Urban Legends: Bloody Mary, is a no-show), I actually found more to admire and enjoy in this pair.
Of course, that’s not to oversell the works, particularly Urban Legend. Set on a college campus, it focuses on a series of brutal slayings that appear to be based off familiar urban legends (e.g. the killer hiding in the backseat of the car). Student Natalie Simon (Alicia Witt) attempts to ascertain which of her friends or teachers might be the murderer (Jared Leto, Joshua Jackson and Robert Englund are among the suspects), while campus security guard Reese Wilson (Loretta Devine), a devotee of Pam Grier and Foxy Brown, conducts her own investigation. An attractive cast makes this palatable, but the jokey demeanor following the ultimate reveal destroys any and all momentum.
Urban Legends: Final Cut received even worse reviews than its predecessor, but it actually strikes me as the superior film. It’s more of the same — a brave and resourceful student (Jennifer Morrison) fears a campus killer might be one of her colleagues or professors (Eva Mendes, Hart Bochner and Gimme a Break’s Joey Lawrence are among this batch of suspects) — but the setting of a prestigious film school allows for the employment of all manner of in-jokes and homages. Devine returns from the previous picture, again playing suspicious security guard Reese Wilson.
Blu-ray extras on Urban Legend include audio commentary by director Jamie Blanks, writer Silvio Horta and co-star Michael Rosenbaum; an extensive, eight-part documentary retrospective that taps pretty much everyone except Leto; an archival making-of featurette; a deleted scene; and a gag reel. Blu-ray extras on Urban Legends: Final Cut include audio commentary by director John Ottman; both a new and a vintage making-of featurette; deleted scenes; and a gag reel.
Urban Legend: **
Urban Legends: Final Cut: **1/2
Short And Sweet:
ALPHA (2018). The familiar “boy and his dog” tale receives a bit of a welcome twist with Alpha, a slick if shallow drama set during the last Ice Age. When the timid young son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) of the village chief (Johannes Haukur) falls off a cliff during a hunting expedition, he’s understandably left for dead. But he actually survived the plunge, and he attempts to cross miles of dangerous terrain to be reunited with his clan. Along the way, he injures and then befriends a wolf he names Alpha (played by a wolfdog named Chuck), and the pair gradually bond as they battle the elements and other animals. The story unfolds as expected and the CGI is occasionally obvious, but the film looks great and Chuck is a natural in front of the camera.
The Blu-ray contains both the theatrical version as well as a director’s cut that runs approximately a minute shorter. Extras include a making-of featurette (including a discussion on the creation of the language employed in the film); deleted scenes; an alternate opening and an alternate ending; and a piece on Chuck.
BLINDSPOTTING (2018). Daveed Diggs, best known for his Tony Award-winning turns as Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in the cultural phenomenon Hamilton, has teamed with his longtime friend Rafael Casal to co-write, co-produce and co-star in Blindspotting, a nervy, edgy piece about a convicted felon (Diggs) who’s worried that his last few days on probation will be derailed by the insensitive actions of his best friend (Casal), a hothead who’s perennially getting him into trouble. Very much a movie of its time (like two other excellent 2018 releases, The Hate U Give and Widows, it also involves the shooting of an unarmed black man by a white cop), Blindspotting is slathered with humorous interludes that nevertheless don’t detract from the overriding tension generated by its protagonist’s precarious lot in life. Don’t miss this sleeper pick.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Diggs and Casal; separate audio commentary by director Carlos Lopez Estrada; a making-of featurette; and deleted scenes.