Ryan Gosling in First Man (Photo: Universal & DreamWorks)
(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.)
DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS (1988). A remake of 1964’s Bedtime Story (starring Marlon Brando and David Niven) and conceived as a vehicle for the post-“Dancing in the Street” duo of David Bowie and Mick Jagger, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a delightful comedy featuring a superlative turn from Michael Caine. He’s cast as Lawrence Jamieson, a British con artist who conducts his scams in the French seaside community of Beaulieu-sur-Mer. So successful that he lives in luxury in his own opulent villa, he soon sees that his operation might be placed in jeopardy by the arrival of Freddy Benson (top-billed Steve Martin), a boorish American with similarly sneaky designs on the wealthy women who visit the French Riviera. Realizing that the town ain’t big enough for the both of them, they place a wager: Whoever can wrangle $50,000 out of the naïve and newly arrived American millionaire Janet Colgate (Glenne Headly) gets to remain while the other has to set up shop elsewhere. Bright performances define this film as much as the big belly laughs, with Martin animated, Headly endearing, and Anton Rodgers and Ian McDiarmid (aka Emperor Palpatine in the Star Wars saga) amusing as Lawrence’s accomplices. Yet it’s Caine who towers above all with a nicely delineated turn as a conscientious con man whose sense of honor and chivalry applies even when he’s bilking people.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by director Frank Oz; a new interview with co-scripter Dale Launer; a making-of featurette; and trailers.
FIRST MAN (2018). It’s immediately clear that Ryan Gosling possesses the right stuff when it comes to bringing astronaut Neil Armstrong to life in First Man, but it’s not readily apparent that Damien Chazelle adopts the right approach in dramatizing the events surrounding the saga of the first man on the moon. Rather than present us with a larger-than-life hero — something America desperately could use right about now — Chazelle and Josh Singer (adapting James R. Hansen’s book) instead play up Armstrong’s human dimensions, showing how the devastating loss of his little girl to a brain tumor has informed his frequently distant detachment from his wife (Claire Foy) and their young sons. Even when he’s in his own home, Neil seems to be a million miles away, a designation that makes him an ideal astronaut but a problematic husband and father. Initially, the glumness of the characters ends up affecting the overall project: Reaching the moon remains one of this nation’s most remarkable achievements, but the movie largely keeps its emotions in check, tackling the tale in the most workmanlike manner possible and reluctant to allow the camera to stray far from Gosling’s sad, soulful eyes. But the chilly demeanor present throughout much of the picture eventually lifts like a fog, and the final stretch of the film — the actual Apollo 11 mission — is a marvel of tone and technique, with Chazelle taking away our collective breath through absolute immersion into the experience. Chazelle’s approach might keep emotions grounded longer than necessary, but First Man nevertheless takes flight when it matters most.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Chazelle, Singer, and editor Tom Cross; making-of featurettes; and deleted scenes.
HOWLING III (1987). Since Joe Dante’s 1981 The Howling remains one of the best werewolf films ever made (second only to 1941’s The Wolf Man, IMHO), it’s particularly disheartening to consider that Phillipe Mora’s 1985 Howling II: Your Sister Is a Werewolf is one of the worst — heck, maybe the worst — in all of lycanthrope cinema. So where does that leave Howling III, also directed by Mora? Somewhere down under, both literally and figuratively. Also known by its extended title of Howling III: The Marsupials, this one’s set in Australia and divides most of its time between Jerboa (Imogen Annesley), a young woman who leaves her rural werewolf colony and heads to Sydney, and Harry Beckmeyer (Barry Otto), an anthropologist who’s sympathetic to the plight of werewolves and even falls in love with a Russian ballerina (Dasha Blahova) who turns hairy at inopportune times. Mora (who also wrote the script, based on Gary Brandner’s novel) clearly means for most of this to be taken with the tongue crammed firmly into the cheek, but even given that leniency, this is a painfully slipshod production, with its eccentricity (werewolf nuns! pregnant lycanthropes with kangaroo-like pouches! Barry Humphries in full Dame Edna regalia!) the only thing saving it from complete ruin. Frank Thring, best known for portraying Pontius Pilate in Ben-Hur and Herod in King of Kings, steals the show in a small role as a Hitchcock-like film director; the rest of the performances range from adequate to awful.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by Mora; a new interview with Mora; vintage interviews from Mark Hartley’s Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!; and the theatrical trailer.
JOHNNY ENGLISH STRIKES AGAIN (2018). As fans of James Bond wait impatiently for the next installment, they can at least take (quantum of?) solace in the fact that there’s a new Johnny English film hitting the home entertainment market. Then again, Johnny English Strikes Again, the third entry in the spoof series, is so devoid of genuine wit that they might prefer turning off the telly and spending time mulling over who should play 007 post-Daniel Craig. Even fans of 2003’s Johnny English (raising my hand here) and 2011’s Johnny English Reborn (raising only a finger here) will be disappointed in this creaky comedy that finds Rowan Atkinson again essaying the role of the bumbling British agent who’s decidedly less Bond and infinitely more Clouseau. The plot this time involves English’s efforts to expose a Silicon Valley whiz kid (Jake Lacy) plotting to gain digital control over every nation. Olga Kurylenko, who played the female lead in the 007 entry Quantum of Solace, appears here as a Russian spy, while Emma Thompson is on hand as the British Prime Minister. Yet only Atkinson matters (although I did appreciate the cameos by the veteran actors playing retired MI7 agents). The British comedian (who, by the way, did once appear in a Bond flick himself, portraying Nigel Small-Fawcett in the non-series effort Never Say Never Again) once again throws himself in his role, but the material just isn’t there this time. There are a few bright bits scattered about, but most of the gags are on the moldy order of English getting stuck inside knight’s armor or smacking someone with a baguette. Such a reliance on antiquated gags of this nature patently marks this film as a Johnny-come-lately.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director David Kerr; a piece on Atkinson; and a look at the film’s characters.
THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942). No other butchered film comes close to being held in as high regard as Orson Welles’ ambitious adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s novel. A notorious flop at a point when war-weary audiences wanted lighter and/or more uplifting fare, this film had it rough even from its preview screenings, which went so poorly that RKO took control of the project, removed (and destroyed) approximately 45 minutes of footage, and added a less downbeat ending against its director’s wishes. There are many who feel that, even in this edited 88-minute version, Welles’ sophomore effort is the equal of his first film, the previous year’s GOAT candidate Citizen Kane. I can’t go that far, but it is an absorbing and artistic achievement, tracking the fortunes of various Indianapolis high rollers at the start of the 20th century. Among those analyzed are automobile inventor Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten), his daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter), his lost love Isabel Amberson Minafer (Dolores Costello), her bratty son George (Tim Holt), and her lonely sister-in-law Fanny (Agnes Moorehead). Welles’ usual tricks of the trade are in full service of a haunting and rueful examination of a changing way of life and the fortunes (and failures) of those with limited vision. Even with all the cuts and controversy, The Magnificent Ambersons earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, with three additional nods going to Moorehead (as Best Supporting Actress), the cinematography (Stanley Cortez), and the set design. Don’t miss that great shot of a newspaper that contains a column by theater critic Jed Leland, the character Cotten played in Citizen Kane. Forget the Marvel Cinematic Universe; how about that Orson Welles Cinematic Universe?
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum; Welles on a 1970 episode of The Dick Cavett Show; and audio interviews with Welles by Peter Bogdanovich.
MIKEY AND NICKY (1976). Coming off 1972’s critically adored The Heartbreak Kid (scripted by Neil Simon), director Elaine May immediately set about writing and directing Mikey and Nicky, an intimate drama that went drastically over budget and ended up not seeing the inside of a theater until 1976, three years after it was initially filmed. Despite several fine moments and a terrific performance by Peter Falk, this one ultimately comes up short, and one can’t shake the feeling that it might have fared better as an off-Broadway theater piece. John Cassavetes plays Nicky, a small-timer who learns that the local mob has put out a contract on him. He contacts his longtime friend Mikey (Falk) to help him evade the assassin (Ned Beatty) on his trail; what he eventually suspects but doesn’t know for certain is that Mikey might be the one who’s ratting him out to the mob. Cassavetes’ abrasive character (and performance) keeps him at arm’s length, to the detrimental point where it’s impossible to care about his fate. Conversely, Falk’s intuitive and emotional turn provides the picture with its necessary shades of gray. There’s also some interesting casting occurring in the supporting ranks, as renowned acting teachers Sanford Meisner and William Hickey share scenes as, respectively, crime kingpin Dave Resnick and his associate Sid Fine. Following the fallout from this picture, it would be another decade before May directed again — unfortunately for her, that subsequent project turned out to be the notorious (but actually underrated) Ishtar.
Blu-ray extras consist of new discussions about the film with distributor Julian Schlossberg and co-star Joyce Van Patten; interviews with critics Richard Brody and Carrie Rickey; an audio interview from 1976 with Falk; the theatrical trailer; and a TV spot.
THE PRIZE (1963). With a successful box office run following its end-of-year debut (on Christmas Day, no less), an Irving Wallace bestselling novel providing potent source material, a screenplay penned by the great Ernest Lehman (North By Northwest), and a superlative cast fronted by acting legends Paul Newman and Edward G. Robinson, how exactly did The Prize fall so far off the radar that it’s barely discussed today? For those into high-polish thrillers full of international intrigue and danger around every corner, this one’s not to be missed, and a tightening of its midsection would have made it even better. Newman stars as Andrew Craig, a disillusioned author who shows up in Stockholm to reluctantly collect his Nobel Prize for Literature; initially only interested in drinking copious amounts of free liquor and wooing the embassy woman (Elke Sommer) assigned to assist him, he soon turns his attention toward fellow winner Max Stratman (Robinson), a patriotic physicist who’s accompanied by his grown niece (Diane Baker) and who just might be an impostor. The manner in which the film introduces viewers to its principal players is ingenious, and while reliable director Mark Robson (Peyton Place) isn’t quite able to provide the mounting tension that Hitchcock would have contributed to this inviting material, The Prize still works as slick entertainment.
The only Blu-ray extra is the theatrical trailer.
10 TO MIDNIGHT (1983). “The way the law protects those maggots out there, you’d think they were an endangered species!” While this quip sounds like it could have come from any number of films in which a lawman feels frustrated by the system’s coddling of criminals (Dirty Harry, The Star Chamber, a thousand more), its source is this alternately nifty and nasty police procedural. Charles Bronson is the one spitting out those words — he plays Leo Kessler, a cop who, with his earnest new partner (Andrew Stevens) in tow, must figure out who’s slaughtering scores of L.A. women. He quickly finds out the killer’s identity — it’s Warren Stacy (Gene Davis), a creepy misogynist who would be the perfect poster boy for today’s heinous Men’s Rights Activist movement (or a perfect Trump Supreme Court nominee). But because Warren has always been careful not to leave any incriminating evidence, nailing him might require some bending of the law on Kessler’s part. Director J. Lee Thompson (The Guns of Navarone) spent his final years before retirement cranking out subpar programmers, and nine of his last 15 films were made in collaboration with Bronson. This one competes with The White Buffalo as the best of those joint efforts, with a script that addresses the absurdity of the insanity plea and how it’s never been anything more than a loophole for the benefit of shyster lawyers and their guilty clients. The violence against women is tough to stomach, but as in other vengeance vehicles, we tolerate it in anticipation of the climactic catharsis showing the villain getting what’s coming to him. In the case of this film, though, it’s a disappointing denouement, providing minimal release.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by author Paul Talbot (Bronson’s Loose); a new interview with Stevens; and a still gallery.