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.
Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant in Notorious (Photo: Criterion)
(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.)
BENT (1997). It’s easy to see why playwright Martin Sherman’s 1979 Bent was such a groundbreaking theatrical achievement and almost as easy to understand why the 1997 film adaptation failed to gain the same traction. No version, however, suffered from a subpar cast: The original 1979 British production starred Ian McKellen, the 1980 Broadway version cast Richard Gere, a special 1989 showing featured McKellen and Ralph Fiennes, and this cinematic take offers McKellen, Clive Owen, and many more. A look at the plight of homosexuals as the Nazis solidified their power in the years preceding World War II, the story centers on Max (Owen), who’s forced to flee Berlin with his lover (Brian Webber) and eventually sent to a concentration camp. Since the Nazis treat gays even worse than they treat Jews, Max pretends to be Jewish in order to hide his homosexuality, but he ends up falling for a fellow prisoner (Lothaire Bluteau) who, unlike Max, refuses to conceal his true nature. The early scenes set in Berlin are exquisitely staged while the sequences in which Max is transported to the camp via train are harrowing. Unfortunately, it’s after Max reaches the camp that the film succumbs to its stagy inclinations, with a series of monologues and one-on-ones that are stultifying rather than edifying. McKellen (who played Max in the original stage production) appears in a small role as Max’s Uncle Freddie; others in the cast include Game of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Sherlock’s Rupert Graves, Paul Bettany, and Mick Jagger as a drag queen named Greta. Don’t blink or you’ll miss Jude Law as a stormtrooper and Rachel Weisz as a prostitute (I must have blinked because I failed to catch either one).
Blu-ray extras include cast and crew interviews; behind-the-scenes footage; and the music video for Jagger’s “Streets of Berlin.”
DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966). Hammer Films’ 1958 classic Horror of Dracula (recently reviewed here) was, along with 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein, the movie that turned Christopher Lee into an international superstar. But wary of typecasting, Lee would wait eight years before again wrapping himself in the Count’s cape. Dracula: Prince of Darkness is the first of the belated sequels starring Lee (the studio did release The Brides of Dracula in 1960, but the actor was MIA), and it’s an effective bit of Hammer horror, boasting the expected atmospherics, period trappings, literary conceits and, yes, buxom beauties. Lee’s bloodsucking fiend doesn’t even show up until the midway mark; first, we watch as four English travelers (Hammer favorite Barbara Shelley, plus Francis Matthews, Suzan Farmer and Charles Tingwell), opting to vacation in the Carpathian Mountains, ignore the warnings of a local priest, the earthy Father Sandor (Andrew Keir), and take shelter in an ominous castle whose only (living) occupant is a butler (Philip Latham) who remains devoted to his deceased master. The deliberate pacing might irk some, but it actually provides a nice buildup to the Count’s first appearance, a resurrection scene that features some nifty effects. Keir offers stature as the Van Helsing surrogate, Thorley Walters is suitably unhinged as a Renfield-like patient, and the climactic sequence steers clear of stakes and sunlight in order to provide a unique wrap-up.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Lee, Shelley, Matthews and Farmer; separate audio commentary by author Troy Howarth; a retrospective making-of piece; the World of Hammer episode “Dracula and the Undead”; and a still gallery.
8MM (1999). Here’s a murky thriller that raises some thought-provoking questions before finally losing its way. Nicolas Cage, solid in a role that he could have chosen to play to the rafters, stars as Tom Welles, a private eye who accepts a case that requires him to travel from his Pennsylvania home to Hollywood, hoping to prove to a client (Myra Carter) that snuff films are only an urban legend and that the one found among her late husband’s possessions is actually bogus. He ends up receiving unlikely assistance from Max California (Joaquin Phoenix, stealing the show), a brainy porn-shop employee who leads him to two men involved with the questionable footage: Eddie Poole (James Gandolfini), a bottom-rung porn producer, and Dino Velvet (Peter Stormare), a Eurotrash director Max describes as “the Jim Jarmusch of S&M.” Directed by Joel Schumacher (coming off the abysmal Batman & Robin) and written by Seven scribe Andrew Kevin Walker (who left this film after changes to his script), 8MM creates a suitably disturbing mood through Robert Elswit’s tenebrous camerawork, Gary Wissner’s grungy set design, and Mychael Danna’s foreboding score. But the climax is absurdly overheated, and the film’s sideways glances at mainstream erotica remain fuzzy to the point that the picture adopts the simplistic stance of a Focus on the Family sermon. 8MM is technically proficient and strongly acted, but when it comes to staking out any moral or intellectual claims, it clearly isn’t up to snuff.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Schumacher; a vintage making-of featurette; a new interview with Schumacher; and the theatrical trailer.
NOTORIOUS (1946). Second only to Psycho as my favorite Alfred Hitchcock movie, Notorious is notable for featuring what are arguably Ingrid Bergman’s best performance and Cary Grant’s finest dramatic work (and in both cases, that’s saying a helluva lot). Bergman is cast as Alicia Huberman, a “tainted” woman who aids an American government agent named Devlin (Grant) by infiltrating a Nazi spy ring and wooing its most vulnerable member, the mommy-dominated Alexander Sebastian (supporting actor extraordinaire Claude Rains). A brilliant motion picture that resonates on any number of levels, this gem not only expounds on the sadomasochistic sacrifices that individuals make in the name of love but also on the duplicitous nature that often occurs in matrimonial situations. It also features one of the most, ahem, notorious examples of the MacGuffin (courtesy of those uranium-filled wine bottles) as well as crafty editing that allowed Hitchcock to get away with filming an extraordinarily lengthy kiss between Grant and Bergman (a no-no with the Production Code prudes). This masterpiece deservedly earned Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actor (Rains) and Best Original Screenplay (Ben Hecht), but nothing for Hitchcock, his extraordinary leads, or cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary (from 1990) by film historian Rudy Behlmer; separate audio commentary (from 2001) by Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane; the 2009 documentary Once Upon a Time … Notorious; a new interview with Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto; and 1948 newsreel footage of Hitchcock and Bergman.
OBSESSION (1976). If Dressed to Kill is Brian De Palma’s take on Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, then Obsession is his variation on the Master’s Vertigo. Released two months before his other 1976 offering, the excellent Carrie, burned up the box office, De Palma, working with co-scripter Paul Schrader (whose most recent film as writer-director landed on my year-end 10 Best list; go here), crafted this atmospheric thriller in which land developer Michael Courtland (Cliff Robertson) witnesses the deaths of his wife Elizabeth (Genevieve Bujold) and daughter Amy (Wanda Blackman) after a botched kidnapping. Sixteen years later, he visits Florence, Italy, the city in which he first met Elizabeth; there, he encounters Sandra Portinari (also Bujold), a young woman who looks exactly like his dearly departed spouse. Anyone who’s seen Vertigo will be able to nail everything in this picture before it happens, and even those who have never been privy to Hitchcock’s classic will at least be able to peg the character played by John Lithgow (Michael’s business partner) from his first appearance. But the fun in Obsession comes not from its plot but from its sweeping passions: the soaring score by Bernard Herrmann, the swirling camerawork by Vilmos Zsigmond, and the tortured yearning embodied by Robertson. Obsession isn’t De Palma at his best, but it’s still worth a watch or three. The great Herrmann, whose credits include Citizen Kane, Psycho and, yes, Vertigo, produced two scores in 1975 before passing away on Christmas Eve; both of them — for Obsession and Taxi Driver (also released in 1976) — earned him posthumous Oscar nominations.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by author Douglas Keesey (Brian De Palma’s Split-Screen: A Life in Film); a new interview with producer George Litto; and a still gallery.
ONCE UPON A DEADPOOL (2018). Turning a successful R-rated feature into a PG or PG-13 movie to squeeze a few more bucks out of the box office isn’t exactly a new phenomenon (see Saturday Night Fever), but filming new scenes to add to the existing (and now heavily edited) project isn’t quite as common. Yet that’s the case with Once Upon a Deadpool, which reinvents the 3-star Deadpool 2 (reviewed here) as a more family-friendly endeavor and seals the deal by adding bookend scenes which feature Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) interacting with Fred Savage, who of course played the little boy in the bookend sequences in 1987’s The Princess Bride. As before, the main thrust finds Wade Wilson/Deadpool trying to protect a young mutant (Julian Dennison) from the imposing Cable (Josh Brolin). One dollar of every theatrical ticket sold went to the charity Fuck Cancer, so there’s that; otherwise, it’s hard to imagine anyone getting excited about a neutered Deadpool 2 — especially kids, most of whom doubtless caught the R version already on Blu-ray if not in slackly manned theaters. Even in this cut, though, the movie remains mostly a kick, adopting the same levels of arrogance, attitude and faux insouciance as exhibited in 2016’s Deadpool. If it doesn’t quite reach the plateau of its predecessor, that says less about the freshness of its irreverent approach and more about the comparative stagnation in the character’s development. There’s also a lot of yammering about the importance of family, but for the most part, it feels insincere; instead, this works best when it takes nothing seriously, and Deadpool himself is never more endearing than when he’s directing his wisecracks at other superheroes.
There are no extras on the Blu-ray.
THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES (1966). The Plague of the Zombies is a winner on two fronts: It’s not only one of the best zombie movies ever made, it’s also one of the finest pictures ever released by Hammer Films. In a mid-19th-century Cornish village, Sir James Forbes (Andre Morell) and his daughter Sylvia (Diane Clare) arrive from London intent on helping Forbes’ former pupil, Dr. Tompson (Brook Williams), figure out why the locals are dropping dead at a rapid rate. The mystery becomes personal once Dr. Tompson’s wife (and Sylvia’s former schoolmate) Alice (Jacqueline Pearce) takes ill; could the person behind these supernatural shenanigans be Squire Hamilton (John Carson), who recently returned from Haiti with a newfound interest in the occult? John Gilling provides the atmospheric direction while cinematographer Arthur Grant employs striking color tones that look positively glorious in the new Blu-ray edition from Shout! Factory. In fact, from a technical standpoint, this is one of Hammer’s sturdiest entries (special kudos to the set designers for recreating a Cornish village on a studio backlot), and the story is meaty enough to supply an endless stream of intrigue. There’s also some slight subtext regarding the British hierarchy for those who care to investigate more deeply.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by documentary filmmaker Constantine Nasr and film historian Steve Haberman; separate audio commentary by author Troy Howarth; a retrospective making-of piece (with the participation of Sherlock co-creator/writer/Mycroft Holmes actor Mark Gattis); the World of Hammer episode “Mummies, Werewolves & the Living Dead”; a restoration comparison; a still gallery; and the theatrical trailer.
TRUE STORIES (1986). In addition to its continued standing as one of the best of all New Wave bands, Talking Heads also deserves props for being at the center of the best concert film of all time: 1984’s extraordinary Stop Making Sense, directed by Jonathan Demme and shot by Blade Runner cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth. After the release of that film, Heads headman David Byrne set about working on True Stories, collaborating with playwright Beth Henley and actor Stephen Tobolowsky to fashion an offbeat picture largely inspired by tabloid tales. It’s a gimmick that only works in spurts, although the film has nevertheless developed a cult following over the years. Byrne himself serves as narrator/host, hanging around the fictional town of Virgil, Texas, and getting acquainted with many of the residents. Chief among them would be Louis Fyne (John Goodman), a gentle soul perennially looking for love; also on hand are a wealthy woman (Swoozie Kurtz) who never leaves her bed, a married power couple (Annie McEnroe and Spalding Gray) who haven’t spoken to each other in years, and a perpetual liar (Jo Harvey Allen) who claims (among other whoppers) that she once dated Burt Reynolds and that she wrote most of Elvis Presley’s hit songs. The best parts are, not surprisingly, the ample musical interludes (particularly the “Wild Wild Life” segment, so excellent it was largely lifted verbatim to serve as the music video for heavy MTV rotation); conversely, the character vignettes run hot and cold, with many registering as little more than quirky caricatures.
The Criterion edition of True Stories comes with a soundtrack CD containing 23 songs. Blu-ray extras include a retrospective making-of feature; deleted scenes; and the theatrical trailer.
WHEN HARRY MET SALLY… (1989). A gargantuan hit in a robust summer season that seemed to produce nothing but gargantuan hits (see: Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and oh-so-many-more), When Harry Met Sally… asks whether a man and a woman can ever truly be friends or will sex always get in the way. The film feints in one direction when searching for an answer, and even if you don’t agree with its leanings (and I don’t), the movie is witty enough to break down any and all resistance. Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan are the titular twofer, developing a friendship that stretches over the years and only threatens to become unraveled once they develop non-platonic feelings for each other. Crystal and Ryan both sparkle under Rob Reiner’s knowing direction, and Nora Ephron contributes an Oscar-nominated screenplay that’s crammed with scintillating one-liners and memorable vignettes, including the celebrated orgasm scene (although, ever gracious, Ephron long credited Ryan and Crystal for that inspired bit). There are also choice roles for Carrie Fisher and Bruno Kirby (both of whom died way too young, at 60 and 57 respectively) as Harry and Sally’s best friends. The standards-packed soundtrack is another asset, corralled by Marc Shaiman (with a major assist from Harry Connick Jr.).
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Reiner, Ephron and Crystal; separate audio commentary by Reiner; a new conversation with Reiner and Crystal; vintage making-of featurettes; deleted scenes (all strong enough that they could have remained in the finished product); the music video for Connick’s version of “It Had to Be You”; and the theatrical trailer.