Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born (Photo: Warner Bros.)

(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.)

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Ian Hart and Stephen Dorff in Backbeat (Photo: Shout! Factory)

BACKBEAT (1994). It’s 1960, and a young band stands poised to rewrite music history. This, then, is a look at the early days of The Beatles, when its members numbered John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Pete Best, and Lennon’s best friend Stuart Sutcliffe. A talented painter but something of a washout as a musician, Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff) finds his attention captured by German photographer Astrid Kirchherr (Sheryl Lee, Twin Peaks’ Laura Palmer) even as most of his bandmates take their first tentative steps toward stardom. Directed in a laid-back fashion by Iain Softley, Backbeat focuses primarily on the friendship between Sutcliffe and Lennon (a great turn by Ian Hart), and it’s a credit to the film that, with just a few broad strokes, it makes clear that Lennon’s creative soulmate was McCartney (Gary Bakewell) rather than his art-school pal. Backbeat isn’t a complete success, since the leading character of Sutcliffe often proves to be the least interesting. Yet despite some meandering moments, this remains a unique experience, since viewers know every step of the way what fate has in store for these eventual pop icons. If the actor playing record producer Bert Kaempfert looks familiar, that’s because it’s Wolf Kahler, best known for portraying one of the nasty Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Hart, Dorff and Softley; a vintage making-of featurette; deleted scenes; an interview with Hart and Softley; and an interview with Kirchherr.

Movie: ***

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Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant in Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Photo: Fox)

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? (2018). Melissa McCarthy delivers one of last year’s most fearless performances in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, an adaptation of Lee Israel’s same-named memoir. McCarthy stars as Israel, whose successful career as an author has hit the skids. She then chances upon the idea to fabricate personal letters written by past playwrights and actors, in turn selling these forgeries as authentic items. Once her lies start catching up with her, Lee turns to her homosexual drinking buddy Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) to assist in her criminal enterprise. Nicole Holofcener, who as writer-director has crafted her own string of solid seriocomedies (among them Friends with Money and Enough Said), and Tony Award-winning playwright Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q.) have fashioned a script that places front and center two often disreputable characters, yet they’re mindful enough to also include moments that showcase these lives of quiet desperation. McCarthy and Grant bring the hard edges necessary to make these folks as infuriating as they are interesting; by contrast, there’s a sweet and delicate turn by Dolly Wells as a bookstore proprietor who’s falling for Lee even as she’s being duped by her. Can You Ever Forgive Me? has earned a trio of Oscar nominations: Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Despite its pedigree, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is not being released on Blu-ray, only on DVD. Extras include audio commentary by McCarthy and director Marielle Heller; making-of featurettes; and a Lee Israel letter gallery.

Movie: ***

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Don Joseph in Color Me Blood Red (Photo: Arrow)

COLOR ME BLOOD RED (1965). As I wrote back in November when covering Arrow Video’s Blu-ray release of 1970’s The Wizard of Gore (full review here), “With such notorious drive-in hits as Blood Feast and Two Thousand Maniacs! to his name, it’s no wonder writer-director-producer-cinematographer Herschell Gordon Lewis long ago earned the nickname ‘The Godfather of Gore.’ But while his fondness for excessive bloodletting marked him as a trailblazer during the early 1960s, it turned out that other filmmakers — often ones far more talented — would eventually catch up with him by the late ‘60s and into the 1970s. Consequently, The Wizard of Gore inspires shrugs more than shudders, relying heavily on Lewis’ ‘shocking’ gore but coming off as utterly inept.” That designation pretty much applies to any HGL picture viewed by someone who’s not an aficionado of the filmmaker’s work, an acquired taste if ever there was one (although even I’ll concede that there’s real imagination at work in Two Thousand Maniacs!). Certainly, there’s some entertainment value in watching the abysmal acting, listening to the wretched dialogue, and pondering the artless direction in his flicks, but they wear out their welcome far more rapidly than in turkeys by, say, Ed Wood. In this one, a crazed artist (Don Joseph) employs real blood to create his masterpieces, but Roger Corman and Dick Miller (RIP) handled a similar premise with the same budget ($50,000) and far better results in 1959’s A Bucket of Blood.

Arrow’s Blu-ray edition of Color Me Blood Red also contains Lewis’ 1967 feature Something Weird. Blu-ray extras include audio commentaries on both films by Lewis and producer David F. Friedman; Lewis’ 1966 short film A Hot Night at the Go Go Lounge!; and trailers for Color Me Blood Red, Something Weird, and Lewis’s 1966 children’s musical(!), Jimmy, the Boy Wonder.

Movie: *

OVERLORD
Wyatt Russell in Overlord (Photo: Paramount)

OVERLORD (2018). Like Upgrade (reviewed here), Overlord is another 2018 genre picture that deserved to fare far better at the box office. Yet what’s interesting about this endeavor is that, unlike Upgrade (which lives and dies by its horror/sci-fi premise), this one could largely be stripped of its horror overtones and still work perfectly well as a more traditional World War II action flick. The plot concerns American paratroopers sent to destroy a Nazi radio tower just hours before the D-Day invasion is set to commence. Fatalities are heavy, with only a few soldiers left to complete the mission — these include the sensitive Boyce (Jovan Adepo), the wisecracking Tibbet (John Magaro), and the determined team leader, Corporal Ford (Wyatt Russell). The band teams up with a courageous Frenchwoman (Mathilde Ollivier) and runs afoul of a sneering Nazi officer (Pilou Asbæk), little realizing that the greatest horrors still lie ahead of them. Think Josef Mengele crossed with Victor Frankenstein, and you’ll get an idea of the type of twist that Overlord takes in its second half, culminating in the sort of climactic skirmishes that require ample CGI work. It’s engaging enough, but the WWII narrative and the central characters are so strong that viewers are already fully immersed before reaching this point. Russell, often cast as amiable goofballs (22 Jump Street, Everybody Wants Some!!), is particularly impressive as the determined soldier who won’t let anything interfere with the mission.

The only Blu-ray extra is a six-part featurette that examines various aspects of the production.

Movie: ***

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Drew Barrymore in Poison Ivy (Photo: Shout! Factory)

THE POISON IVY COLLECTION (1992-2008). Those who find themselves missing Cinemax’s late-night offerings something fierce might want to consider picking up this box set, since it contains the type of tepid, softcore eroticism that resulted in the derogatory moniker “Skinemax” being frequently applied to the pay-cable giant throughout the 1990s.

Of the four franchise titles, only the first was released theatrically. That hardly makes a difference, since Poison Ivy (1992) is no better than its home-based descendants, despite its faint art-house sheen (here in Charlotte, it even played at the Manor!). Drew Barrymore stars as Ivy, a damaged teenager who befriends the socially awkward Sylvie (Sara Gilbert) and immediately begins manipulating not only this lonely girl but also her distracted dad (Tom Skerritt) and terminally ill mother (Cheryl Ladd). What initially appears to be an incisive study of teen alienation soon collapses into a risible thriller in which people must repeatedly do stupid things for the plot to lurch forward (a common failing in all four Poison Ivy flicks). Barrymore isn’t threatening enough to be believable as the demented Ivy — it’s like watching a little girl try on her mom’s more risqué outfits in front of the mirror — although Gilbert is aptly cast in the other key role.

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Xander Berkeley and Alyssa Milano in Poison Ivy 2: Lily (Photo: Shout! Factory)

The worst film in the collection, the straight-to-video Poison Ivy 2: Lily (1996) stars Alyssa Milano as Lily, a virginal art student who moves to California and discovers that — gasp! — they have sex out there (apparently, they don’t back home in Michigan). After stumbling across the diary of someone named Ivy (not the same Ivy from the first film), Lily reinvents herself as a bad girl, although she only has one boyfriend (Johnathon Schaech) and rebuffs the advances of her womanizing teacher (Xander Berkeley in basically the same role he essayed in Candyman, reviewed here), so how bad can she really be? The climax is laughable even by the standards of overheated potboilers.

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Jaime Pressly in Poison Ivy: The New Seduction (Photo: Shout! Factory)

Like Poison Ivy 2, Poison Ivy: The New Seduction (1997) also went straight to video. In this one, Ivy refers to a character who appears only in the first few minutes; the rest of the film deals with the efforts of her sister Violet (Jaime Pressly) to ruin the lives of her childhood best friend Joy (Megan Edwards) and Joy’s mopey father (Michael Des Barres). Susan Tyrrell, an Oscar nominee for her supporting role in 1972’s Fat City, offers the most inventive acting as the family’s suspicious maid; everything else about this soapy drama is rote and predictable.

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Miriam McDonald in Poison Ivy: The Secret Society (Photo: Shout! Factory)

Originally premiering on Lifetime, Poison Ivy: The Secret Society (2008) gets off to a promising start, with Ivy referring not to an individual but to a secret college sorority whose membership is primarily comprised of mean girls. When sweet farmgirl Daisy (Miriam McDonald) newly arrives on campus, a rivalry is instigated with the cruel Azalea (Shawna Waldron), but the feud is played out in yawn-inducing ways. Greg Evigan, star of the hit TV series B.J. and the Bear, here plays a professor who receives a different type of … oh, never mind.

Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary on Poison Ivy by director Katt Shea, and theatrical trailers.

Poison Ivy: *1/2
Poison Ivy 2: Lily: *
Poison Ivy: The New Seduction: *1/2
Poison Ivy: The Secret Society: *1/2

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Matt Willis and Bela Lugosi in The Return of the Vampire (Photo: Shout! Factory)

THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE (1943). In World War I London, a centuries-old vampire (Bela Lugosi) is taken down by Lady Jane Ainsley (Frieda Inescort) and Professor Walter Saunders (Gilbert Emery) with a trusty stake through the heart. Twenty years later, in World War II London, a bombing raid results in the vampire’s resurrection; with Professor Saunders having died of old age in the interim, it’s up to Lady Jane to single-handedly stop the bloodsucker before he sups upon Saunders’ now-grown granddaughter Nikki (Nina Foch). The vampire’s name is Armand Tesla, but make no mistake that Columbia would have named him Dracula had Universal not held the rights to that moniker for its series of classic monster movies. Lugosi’s fine tackling a variation of his signature role — even if he was already starting to look frail at this point in his career — and the wartime setting adds some interesting elements. The character of Andreas Obry, however, proves to be both a blessing and a curse. Providing Tesla with a werewolf assistant is desirable in theory, but the decision to allow him to talk cripples the creature’s menacing aura, and Matt Willis’ performance never fully conveys the role’s tragic dimensions.

Fans of vintage movie magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland can fondly recall ads for popular flicks chopped down to 8-15 minutes and sold to home viewers in 8mm presentations. Astonishingly, the folks at Shout! Factory have tracked down and included such a version of The Return of the Vampire as a bonus feature on this Blu-ray edition. The remaining extras consist of three separate audio commentaries by various film historians; a still gallery; and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: **1/2

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Taron Egerton and Jamie Foxx in Robin Hood (Photo: Lionsgate)

ROBIN HOOD (2018). In Robin Hood, you can’t see the forest for the cheese. That’s right: The mighty Sherwood Forest, home of many previous Robin Hood screen incarnations, doesn’t make an appearance until the waning moments of the film. Before then, this hokey and hyperactive undertaking starts off during the Crusades, where the drafted Robin of Loxley (Kingsman kid Taron Egerton) squares off against an enemy whose gadgetry shoots out arrows as if they were bullets being spit from a machine gun (this scene owes more to The Hurt Locker and American Sniper than to Errol Flynn or Disney’s swashbuckling fox). After that, it’s back home to engage in court politics with the utterly venal Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Mendelsohn, basically reprising his sneer-worthy role from Ready Player One) by day while spending his nights dressing up as “The Hood” (hand to heart, that’s what everyone calls him) and stealing from the rich to give to, well, his own 401(k), I reckon — the film isn’t always clear when it comes to the redistribution of wealth. A medieval makeover meant for millennial moviegoers, Robin Hood suggests that Nottingham came outfitted with its own Urban Outfitters and everyone spoke like bratty teenagers (“I’m Robin.” “I’m busy.”). Jamie Foxx has his moments as Little John, but Eve Hewson is a charmless Marian and Jamie Dornan a deadweight Will Scarlet. And then there’s Amadeus Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham, who delivers his lines as the corrupt Cardinal as if he were channeling Bela Lugosi. I half-expected him to suddenly yell, “Pull the string!” — which, if nothing else, would have been a cue to lower the curtain on this buffoonish boondoggle.

Blu-ray extras consist of a lengthy making-of feature; deleted scenes; and outtakes.

Movie: *1/2

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Bradley Cooper and Sam Elliott in A Star Is Born (Photo: Warner)

A STAR IS BORN (2018). Apparently, every generation needs a version of A Star Is Born to call its own, and this latest one ably demonstrates that good stories never die, they just patiently rest as filmmakers figure out how to bring back their sparkle. In this case, it’s writer-director-producer-actor Bradley Cooper who deserves most of the credit. Yet his greatest achievement turns out to be his generous support of Lady Gaga, a revelation in her first significant movie role. Jackson Maine (Cooper) is an established music star whose career trajectory might be on the descent, particularly when his alcoholic tendencies are added to the equation. He ends up taking an amateur singer-songwriter named Ally (Lady Gaga) under his wing, leading to a relationship that flourishes on both the professional and personal levels. But there’s always the booze hovering around the edges, a complication that concerns not only Ally but also Jackson’s brother and manager Bobby (Sam Elliott). Any worries that Lady Gaga might have turned out to be another Madonna (great pop star, wretched actress) are dispelled almost immediately, with the superstar delivering a performance that’s instinctively warm and natural. The only major misstep in this richly textured movie occurs toward the end, when the ostensible villain of the piece takes center stage in a heavy-handed sequence that feels at odds with the overall flow. In all other respects, A Star Is Born is stellar entertainment, taking an old tale and miraculously making it sing anew. Nominated for eight Academy Awards (including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Actress), the movie most deserves to win in the Best Supporting Actor category for Elliott’s formidable, career-capping turn.

Blu-ray extras consist of a making-of featurette; three musical performances not seen in the theatrical cut; and four music videos.

Movie: ***1/2

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Brigitte Bardot in La Vérité (Photo: Criterion)

Short And Sweet:

LA VÉRITÉ (1960). Writer-director Henri-Georges Clouzot, best known for the exceptional back-to-back thrillers The Wages of Fear and Diabolique, had a sizable box office hit in his French homeland — and garnered a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination here in the U.S. — with this detailed study of a young woman on trial for murder. Brigitte Bardot is excellent as Dominique Marceau, a country girl who escapes to Paris, where she enjoys a free-spirited lifestyle while also falling for self-centered conductor Gilbert Tellier (Sami Frey). Dominique ends up fatally shooting Gilbert, and the court must decide what sentence should be imposed upon her. La Vérité (The Truth) moves beyond its law-and-order trappings to examine obvious generational differences as well as a woman trying to survive in a patriarchal society.

Blu-ray extras consist of a 2017 documentary about Clouzot; a 1960 interview with Clouzot; and a 1982 interview with Bardot.

Movie: ***

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Nina Foch, George Macready and Charles McNaughton in My Name Is Julia Ross (Photo: Arrow)

MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS (1945). An unfortunately brief running time (a mere 65 minutes) is the biggest flaw in this nifty thriller that could have benefited from a more generous length. A young woman (Nina Foch, also in The Return of the Vampire, above) takes a job as secretary to a wealthy matriarch (Dame May Whitty), only to find herself prisoner at a secluded estate and being pressured into believing she’s actually the wife of the woman’s son (George Macready), a twitchy sort who enjoys playing with knives. Despite its brevity (particularly during that rushed denouement), this one provides the requisite thrills. Four years later, Joseph H. Lewis would be directing the film noir classic Gun Crazy (reviewed here).

Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film noir expert Alan K. Rode; a piece on Lewis and his work on this movie; and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ***

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