The Mole People (Photo: Shout! Factory)

(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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Dirk Bogarde in Death in Venice (Photo: Criterion)

DEATH IN VENICE (1971). Luchino Visconti’s adaptation of Thomas Mann’s novella centers on a lonely homosexual composer who arrives in Venice and becomes infatuated with a young boy in his early teens. Mann’s literary work has been celebrated for its ruminations on the crossroads between art, intellect and beauty, while Visconti’s cinematic endeavor has divided viewers between those who feel it captures the novella’s philosophical musings and those who dismiss it as merely a movie about a dirty old man. While the latter take is rather simplistic, there’s potential evidence in its favor, particularly the mincing performance by Dirk Bogarde as the leering Gustav von Aschenbach and the come-hither turn by Bjorn Andresen as the young object of desire, Tadzio. But where Death in Venice inarguably succeeds is in its evocation of a specific time and place: a European paradise where beauty is being spoiled by a beastly plague that has hit town. (Detractors can feel free to envision Tadzio as the unspoiled Venice and von Aschenbach as the enveloping plague, though that might be quite the stretch.) The flashback scenes involving von Aschenbach’s insufferable colleague are compromised by Mark Burns’ overripe performance in the part, but minor characters in the Venice interludes add color and flavor, from a shady gondolier to an enthusiastic barber. Death in Venice occasionally suffers from Visconti’s artistic overindulgence (how many times must we watch von Aschenbach admire the scenery?), but the film’s strengths are also paradoxically tied up in its helmer’s unwavering eye for detail.

Blu-ray extras include a vintage behind-the-scenes piece; a 2008 documentary about Visconti; a 1971 interview with Visconti; a 2006 interview with costume designer Piero Tosi (who earned the film’s sole Academy Award nomination); and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ***

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Reese Witherspoon and Selma Blair (far right) in Legally Blonde (Photo: Shout! Factory & MGM)

LEGALLY BLONDE COLLECTION (2001-2003). Yes, there was a 2003 TV pilot that went absolutely nowhere. And, yes, there was a third film (Legally Blondes) that went straight to video. Neither are included in the Legally Blonde Collection, which instead only houses the two theatrical releases starring Reese Witherspoon.

A cut (and style) above other comedies of this ilk, Legally Blonde (2001) mainly succeeds because of Witherspoon’s winning performance as well as a surprisingly sharp screenplay. Witherspoon stars as Elle Woods, a shallow sorority girl whose Harvard-bound boyfriend (Matthew Davis) dumps her for not being “serious” enough. Determined to win him back, Elle also enrolls at Harvard (“I even hired a Coppola to direct my admissions video!”), and while she initially appears to be out of her league, she eventually draws upon her dormant intelligence to make her mark at the university. Feeding from a script (by Karen McCullah and Kirsten Smith, adapting Amanda Brown’s novel) that manages to make some salient points about getting beyond surface appearances to determine one’s worth, Witherspoon is aces here, and she’s backed by a strong cast that also includes Selma Blair, Victor Garber, Oz Perkins and Jennifer Coolidge.

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Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde (Photo: Shout! Factory & MGM)

Lazily copying the first film’s template to a staggering degree, Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde (2003) finds Elle, now a full-fledged lawyer, hoofing it to Washington, DC, to introduce a bill that would prevent animals from being used as cosmetic test subjects. There, she’s taken under the wing of prominent Congresswoman Victoria Rudd (Sally Field), befriended by a hotel doorman (Bob Newhart) who might be the most politically savvy man in town, and forced to lock horns with Rudd’s cynical chief of staff (the great Regina King, wasted here but, in better news, recently winning an Oscar for If Beale Street Could Talk). Part of the appeal of the original film was in watching Elle Woods grow from a shallow sorority girl into a self-aware woman genuinely surprised at the breadth of her own potential; here, the character has grown stagnant, and the herky-jerky script relies on recycled gags and pompous speeches to cover up this lamentable fact. There are a few bright spots along the way, but not enough to prevent this from being declared legally bland.

Blu-ray extras on both titles include audio commentaries; making-of featurettes; deleted scenes; music videos (Hoku’s “Perfect Day” on Legally Blonde, Leann Rimes’ “We Can” on Legally Blonde 2); and theatrical trailers.

Legally Blonde: ***
Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde: **

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The Little Mermaid (Photo: Disney)

THE LITTLE MERMAID (1989). The Golden Age of Disney feature-film animation ended a few years before Uncle Walt’s death in 1966, and it wasn’t until 1989 that a new (if short-lived) renaissance took place. After approximately a quarter-century of modestly amusing but imminently forgettable toon flicks, The Little Mermaid single-handedly jump-started the genre, leading to several more gems (including Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King) before the glut of increasingly mediocre titles as well as the shift to computer imagery all but killed off the traditional hand-drawn form. This new Blu-ray 30th Anniversary Edition allows us to again indulge in old-school pleasures, aided by enhanced picture and sound that make the film pop off the TV screen. Everything is just right in this cheerful adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen tale: Ariel makes for a lovely heroine as the perpetually inquisitive mermaid who longs to be human; Ursula the sea witch provides boisterous villainy; and Sebastian, the cautious crab with the Jamaican accent, ranks with Disney’s all-time great scene-stealers. In addition to reviving the animated art form, The Little Mermaid also brought melody back to the movies, thanks to the terrific song score by Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman. Fittingly, Menken earned the Best Original Score Oscar, while both men were honored with Best Original Song for the infectious “Under the Sea.”

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Menken and co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker; an introduction to the character of Harold the Merman, who was deleted from the final cut of the movie; and vintage footage of a lecture by Ashman. Alas, Disney is continuing its unfortunate practice with these Signature Editions of removing many of the savory extra features from earlier Blu-ray editions and transferring them to digital availability only.

Movie: ****

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Burt Lancaster (right) in The Midnight Man (Photo: Kino)

THE MIDNIGHT MAN (1974). For his second stint as director, his first as screenwriter, and his first as a billed producer, Burt Lancaster elected to bring David Anthony’s mystery novel The Midnight Lady and the Mourning Man to the screen, sharing scripting and directing duties with frequent collaborator Guy Kibbee. The film was both a critical and commercial failure — a shame, since it’s also intelligent and involving. Set at the fictional Jordan College in Ohio (filming actually took place at Clemson University; look for the Clemson sticker on one student’s dormitory pinboard), this stars Lancaster as Jim Slade, an ex-cop and ex-con who arrives on campus to serve as the new after-hours security guard. Investigating the theft of some cassettes that were lifted from the office of one of the professors (Robert Quarry), he ends up meeting Natalie (Catherine Bach, five years before striking it rich as Daisy Duke on TV’s The Dukes of Hazzard), a troubled student who subsequently ends up murdered. Disturbed by the particulars of the case, Slade decides to turn detective, a decision supported by his friend and colleague Quartz (Cameron Mitchell, nicely underplaying for once) but frowned upon by his parole officer (Susan Clark) and the local sheriff (Harris Yulin). Dismissed by some critics as too confusing, it’s anything but — it’s elaborate but not impenetrable, and all the pieces eventually snap into place to provide a satisfying denouement.

Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by films historians Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson; the theatrical trailer; and trailers for other Kino titles (most starring Lancaster).

Movie: ***

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The Mole People (Photo: Shout! Factory)

THE MOLE PEOPLE (1956). During the 1930s and 1940s, Universal Studios owned the horror genre with its classic spate of titles including Frankenstein, Dracula and The Wolf Man. When that well ran dry, the resourceful studio adapted to the times (the 1950s) by creating a slew of creature features that added a sci-fi slant to the fantastic proceedings. The Mole People is nowhere as distinguished as the likes of such studio stablemates as The Incredible Shrinking Man and Tarantula, but it still qualifies as undemanding entertainment. John Agar (once Shirley Temple’s husband for a few years) and Hugh Beaumont (soon to become famous as Leave It to Beaver patriarch Ward Beaver) play members of an archaeological expedition that stumbles across two races living below the earth’s surface: the brutish creatures of the title and the intelligent yet cruel albinos who treat them as slaves. The monster makeup is inventive, but the plot grows exponentially sillier — I particularly love how one of the members of the albino civilization, a blonde and blue-eyed beauty (Cynthia Patrick), is considered a freak by the others but conveniently serves as the perfect (read: obligatory) love interest for Agar’s character.

Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray edition of The Mole People also contains the 1997 episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 in which Mike Nelson and the Bots tackle this film by riffing with the likes of Happy Days, Perfect Strangers and Star Search. Other extras consist of audio commentary by film historians Tom Weaver and David Schecter; a still gallery; and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: **1/2

RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET
Ralph Breaks the Internet (Photo: Disney)

RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET (2018). A sequel to 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph, this recent Oscar nominee for Best Animated Feature first and foremost expands upon the relationship between Ralph (again voiced by John C. Reilly) and Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman). Now best friends, Ralph and Vanellope are put to the test when an attempted good deed on Ralph’s part results in disaster and the subsequent need to visit a magical land known as the Internet. There, they encounter viral videos, eager-to-accommodate search engines, and, of course, mean-spirited user comments. There’s no shortage of imagination on tap in Ralph Breaks the Internet, and while the film doesn’t quite reach the bar set by its predecessor, it’s propulsive enough to build up enough goodwill long before it reaches its rocky third act. Since this is a Disney picture, expect cameos from all manner of characters stationed under the Mouse House. There’s even a bit in which Princess Vanellope meets the other Disney princesses for a lengthy chat — it’s easily the best sequence in the entire film. While the bond between Ralph and Vanellope represents the heart of the picture, it’s eventually played out in a manner that feels too familiar even by the dictates of the standard Disney life lessons; it also leads to a protracted, Kong-size climax that fails to match the innovation seen throughout the rest of the picture. After all, when Al Gore’s name is the subject of clever word play, a visual grotesquerie is inspired by Total Recall, and a gross-out gag is successfully lifted from the Monty Python playbook, it’s clear that here’s a children’s movie that has its game on.

Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; deleted scenes; Easter Eggs; and music videos for Imagine Dragons’ “Zero” and Julia Michaels’ “In This Place.”

Movie: ***

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Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly in The Sisters Brothers (Photo: Fox)

THE SISTERS BROTHERS (2018). One thing that’s become apparent about the increasingly irrelevant Golden Raspberry Awards is that the fanboys who make up its membership often can’t distinguish between truly bad actors and good actors appearing in bad movies. Case in point: John C. Reilly, who recently earned the group’s Worst Supporting Actor dishonor for his turn in last year’s Holmes & Watson. The critically reviled comedy may not be a good movie, but giving the highly talented Reilly this prize seems especially dopey — and it seems even more bizarre when considering he also spent the year delivering stellar performances in Stan & Ollie and The Sisters Brothers (and also lent his vocals to Ralph Breaks the Internet, reviewed above). He’s especially wonderful as comic legend Oliver Hardy in Stan & Ollie (reviewed here), but his work in The Sisters Brothers is also worthy of praise, as he delivers the best performance in a movie that also features the noteworthy likes of Joaquin Phoenix and Jake Gyllenhaal. Reilly and Phoenix star as Eli and Charlie Sisters, hired gunslingers whose employer, The Commodore (Rutger Hauer, with no lines and only scant seconds of screen time), sends them after Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a chemist who has discovered a unique way to find gold. The Commodore had already sent a scout named John Morris (Gyllenhaal) to locate Warm, but once Morris elects to team up with the meek visionary, it’s up to the Sisters Brothers to go after both men. The relationships between the siblings and between Warm and Morris are thoroughly engaging, but it’s when the parties meet up later in the picture that the character dynamics become even more intriguing and the scenario becomes even more fraught with tension.

Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; a Q&A panel; and a photo gallery.

Movie: ***

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Olinka Berova in The Vengeance of She (Photo: Shout! Factory)

THE VENGEANCE OF SHE (1968) / MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS (2018). Thanks to the phenomenal box office success of Bohemian Rhapsody (to say nothing of its field-leading four Academy Awards), Queen has been all the rage these past few months. (Read the review of Bohemian Rhapsody here.) But those who would like to check out a different kind of Queen might be interested in one of these two dissimilar titles, both hitting Blu-ray this week.

In 1965, Hammer Films found itself with an international hit on its hands when it brought H. Rider Haggard’s classic novel She to the screen. Starring Ursula Andress, John Richardson and the Hammer tag team of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, She proved to be so successful that the studio quickly decided to make a sequel. Unfortunately for Hammer, Andress passed on The Vengeance of She, and the studio opted to cast unknown Olinka Berova in the role of Carol, a woman suspected by the immortal King Killikrates (Richardson) of being the reincarnation of Queen Ayesha (Andress’ role in the original). Berova is so expressionless that she makes Andress look like Meryl Streep, but she’s hardly the only flaw in this lackluster fantasy flick.

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Saoirse Ronan in Mary Queen of Scots (Photo: Universal)

Although Mary Queen of Scots didn’t emerge as the year-end awards contender that its pedigree would suggest (although it did manage a pair of Oscar nominations for its costumes and makeup), it joins fellow box office flop The Sister Brothers (above) as a 2018 release worth a rental in 2019. Saoirse Ronan is typically excellent as the title character, the young ruler engaged in power struggles not only with Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) but also with practically every man who orbited her court. No punches are pulled in this bruising period piece, from the ofttimes shocking violence to the ugly gender politics that dog Mary at every turn.

Blu-ray extras on The Vengeance of She include interviews with assistant director Terence Clegg and visual effects artist Joy Cuff; the World of Hammer episode “Lands Before Time”; and the theatrical trailer. Blu-ray extras on Mary Queen of Scots consist of audio commentary by director Josie Rourke and composer Max Richter, and a trio of behind-the-scenes pieces.

The Vengeance of She: **
Mary Queen of Scots: ***

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Crispin Glover in Willard (Photo: Shout! Factory)

WILLARD (2003). For all its ickiness, Willard is that most exotic of movie creatures: a remake that bests the original. The 1971 version, itself based on Stephen Gilbert’s novel Ratman’s Notebooks, may have been a box office hit, but it’s also an inert motion picture, taking itself far too seriously as it relates the supposedly poignant tale of a lonely young man (Bruce Davison) whose only friends are the rats that live in his basement. This stylish remake, written and directed by Glen Morgan (a major force on TV’s The X-Files), tosses out all pretensions and tackles the material as a pitch-black comedy, which, in retrospect, was clearly the only way to go. As before, Willard Stiles (a perfectly cast Crispin Glover in a part turned down by both Joaquin Phoenix and Macaulay Culkin) is a mild-mannered introvert whose relationship with his rodents offers him a brief respite from the unpleasantries that otherwise inundate his existence, from the machinations of a hateful boss (R. Lee Ermey) to the demands of an overbearing mother (Jackie Burroughs). Nobody can accuse Willard of pandering to audience demands — the picture looks grungy, Morgan takes his time with the pacing, and the fate of a cute kitty cat will have PETA puking — but darned if this thing doesn’t deliver the goods for folks not averse to an unsettling satire that offers as many nyuks as yuks.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Morgan and cinematographer Robert McLachlan; separate audio commentary by Morgan, Glover, the late Ermey (one of those sadly left out of the most recent “In Memoriam” Oscar segment), and producer James Wong; a making-of documentary; deleted scenes; an interesting piece titled “Rat People: Friends Or Foes?”; Glover’s surreal music video for “Ben” (complete with buxom women rubbing rats all over their bodies); and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ***

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