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.
Dennis Haysbert and Julianne Moore in Far from Heaven (Photo: Kino)
(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.)
THE DEADLY MANTIS (1957). Science fiction cinema was booming in the 1950s, with the “giant creature on the loose” subset proving especially popular. This template had already been so thoroughly established by earlier (and superior) efforts like 1954’s Them! (giant ants) and 1955’s Tarantula (take a guess) that by the time 1957 rolled around, there was an assembly-line dynamic affecting some of the product, with that year alone seeing the releases of The Black Scorpion, The Giant Claw, Beginning of the End and The Deadly Mantis. The Black Scorpion (reviewed here) is the best of the quartet while The Giant Claw is the worst; resting in between are the flicks respectively focusing on grasshoppers and a praying mantis. In the latter film, the mantis has been preserved over the ages in a block of ice up near the North Pole; now thawed, it elects to head south for warmer climates, naturally destroying everything in its path. Since the critter is constantly heading south, I’m not sure how it reaches the Washington Monument before it ends up at the Manhattan (actually Holland) Tunnel for the film’s climax (did its GPS go on the blink?), but never mind: In the annals of big-bug movies, this one falls somewhere in the middle, with fairly decent visual effects and some atmospheric sequences (particularly the attack on the bus in the middle of a thick fog) almost compensating for cardboard protagonists (played by Craig Stevens, Alix Talton and William Hopper) who prove to be even more lifeless than often found in this sort of formulaic matinee fodder.
Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray contains the 1997 episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 in which Mike et al let loose on this film by name-dropping Action Jackson, Ice Station Zebra, and more. Other extras consist of audio commentary by film historians Tom Weaver and David Schecter; a still gallery; and the theatrical trailer.
DETOUR (1945). Considering the popularity of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe), it’s surprising no one has thought to coin the term NCU. That would of course stand for the Noir Cinematic Universe, as those fatalistic films from the 1940s and ‘50s always seemed to be set in their own surreal and shadowy realm, far away from any place where a person could experience happiness, satisfaction, or even a ray of sunshine. Produced by a Poverty Row studio but shot by director Edgar G. Ulmer to look like a million bucks, Detour is one of the most dour, dank and despairing of all film noir offerings, with Tom Neal playing one of the genre’s most hapless saps and Ann Savage one of its most, uh, savage femme fatales. Hitchhiking from NYC to LA to be reunited with his girlfriend (Claudia Drake), nightclub pianist Al Roberts (Neal) gets picked up by Charles Haskell Jr. (Edmund MacDonald), a rambunctious blowhard who suddenly drops dead due to poor health. In a panic, Al disposes of the body and takes over the man’s identity, a decision that proves disastrous after he meets Vera (Savage), a blackmailing shrew who proceeds to make his life a living hell. Ulmer never falters in his distinctive shot selections, and Savage is utterly mesmerizing as the poisonous Vera. As for Neal, he was apparently as sour a person in real life as the character he plays here: He physically abused his first wife, placed actor Franchot Tone in the hospital after a jealous rage over their mutual girlfriend Barbara Payton, and fatally shot his third wife in the back of her head, subsequently serving a six-year prison stint for involuntary manslaughter.
Blu-ray extras consist of the 2004 documentary Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen; a new interview with film scholar and author Noah Isenberg (Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins); a look at the film’s restoration; and the re-release trailer.
FAR FROM HEAVEN (2002). Writer-director Todd Haynes’ modern masterpiece wasn’t merely the best film of 2002; it also ranked as one of the 10 best films of its decade. It’s a little frightening to realize exactly what Haynes has managed to pull off with this audacious endeavor. Channeling the spirit of filmmaker Douglas Sirk (Imitation of Life, All That Heaven Allows) in an almost fetishistic fashion, he has replicated the look, the feel, the technique and the simmering subtext of those color-soaked melodramas from the 1950s — and yet not once does his movie even remotely feel like a goofy gimmick, a high-minded stunt meant only to draw attention to its creator’s cleverness. Julianne Moore, in what remains the greatest performance of her remarkable career, stars as a content housewife in 1957 Connecticut whose life starts to unravel once she discovers that her husband (Dennis Quaid) is a closeted homosexual and that she’s feeling an attraction for her gentle black gardener (Dennis Haysbert). Foregoing any semblance of irony or camp or even dreamy nostalgia (traits that invariably affect many ’50s-set flicks), Haynes has instead come up with a straight-faced triumph that works as both a poignant love story and a piercing social commentary. Although it was absurdly ignored for Best Picture and Best Director, Far from Heaven did earn four Oscar nominations, for Best Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography (Edward Lachman), and Best Original Score (the final score by the legendary Elmer Bernstein, who passed away two years later).
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by Haynes; a making-of featurette; a Q&A with Haynes and Moore; a scene breakdown; and the theatrical trailer.
LOSIN’ IT (1983) / BORN IN EAST L.A. (1987). From Alfonso Cuaron winning the Best Director Oscar for Roma (meaning five of the last six statues in this category have gone to Mexican directors) to that imbecilic baboon in the White House continuing to rile up his fearful and dimwitted base by demanding a useless wall, the country to the south of us has already been much in the news in 2019. Here’s a sidebar to all that activity, as two Mexico-set features from the ‘80s are making their Blu-ray debuts.
Although it was the 1983 summer hit Risky Business that jump-started Tom Cruise’s ascendancy to superstardom, he had landed his first starring role a few months earlier in Losin’ It, one of the milder of the teen sex comedies that were so ubiquitous during the 1980s. One of those “paying his dues” titles helmed by a great director early in his career (in this case, L.A. Confidential’s Curtis Hanson), this finds virginal Woody (Cruise), cocky Spider (John Stockwell) and nerdy Dave (Jackie Earle Haley) all heading to Tijuana to lose their virginity. They’re forced to take Dave’s little brother Wendell (John P. Navin Jr.) with them, and along the way they pick up the older Kathy (Shelley Long), a woman looking for a quickie divorce. The dramatic interludes (including a romance between Woody and Kathy) aren’t very compelling and the raunchy shenanigans aren’t very inspired (the escapades in the previous year’s The Last American Virgin were sharper and funnier), although Haley provides some amusement as the energetic Dave.
A marginally better bet than Losin’ It is Born in East L.A., which actually isn’t much more polished (and scarcely more amusing) but benefits enormously from the presence of Cheech Marin in the starring role. Cheech (also serving as writer and director) is Rudy Robles, a Mexican-American who accidentally leaves his wallet at home and thus gets subsequently sent to Mexico when he’s caught by law officers (primarily repped by Jan-Michael Vincent, who passed away last month in Asheville, NC) during an immigration raid. While pondering the best way to break back into the United States, he lands a job in Tijuana performing odd jobs for an American ex-pat (Daniel Stern) and runs afoul of a religious freak (Tony Plana). This soft film lacks any sort of a satiric edge, and the anecdotal nature feels rambling rather than inspired (the subplot involving Rudy’s cousin Javier, played by Paul Rodriguez, is especially useless). But Marin’s charismatic turn as well as some fleeting but nevertheless honest assessments of the immigration situation (obviously as timely as ever) provide it with some lift.
The only Blu-ray extra on Losin’ It is the theatrical trailer. The Blu-ray for Born in East L.A. also contains the extended TV cut of the film. Extras include audio commentary by Marin; new interviews with Marin, Rodriguez and co-star Kamala Lopez; a photo gallery; and the theatrical trailer — sadly MIA is the music video for the Springsteen-inspired title song.
Losin’ It: ★★
Born in East L.A.: ★★½
MARY POPPINS RETURNS (2018). Taking over Julie Andrews’ role from the 1964 original, Emily Blunt is a delight as the magically endowed nanny, retaining Andrews’ frosty demeanor but adding a spark of sly mischievousness to her interpretation. Although set 25 years after the first film’s time frame, the Banks family can certainly use more assistance, as the now grown-up Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane (Emily Mortimer) are in danger of losing the family home to the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank (repped by Colin Firth’s wolfish president) and Michael’s three small children are being ignored by their well-meaning but weary and widowed father. Therefore, it’s up to Mary to entertain the moppets, receiving invaluable assistance from Jack the lamplighter (Lin-Manuel Miranda). Blunt is the linchpin, yet the entire cast is well-chosen, and it’s particularly delightful to see the co-star of the original film, 93-year-old Dick Van Dyke, turn up to briefly perform a soft-shoe number (other old-timers invited to the party are 93-year-old Angela Lansbury as the Balloon Lady and 77-year-old David Warner as Admiral Boom). In Mary Poppins Returns, plot doesn’t count as much as pomp, and the central figure occasionally feels superfluous even in her own film. But this is certainly of a piece with other recent Disney pilfers of the past, endeavors like the live-action Beauty and the Beast and the recent Star Wars flicks. The force of originality may not be particularly strong in any of these movies, but as long as they keep the customer satisfied with their irresistible something-old-something-new aesthetics, it’s hard not to chomp down on these spoonfuls of cinematic sugar.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director Rob Marshall and producer John DeLuca; a making-of featurette; deleted scenes; the deleted song “The Anthropomorphic Zoo”; and bloopers.
THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST (2018). Back in January 2018, The Miseducation of Cameron Post won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, beating the likes of Eighth Grade, Sorry to Bother You and Blindspotting. Yet its victory dash ended with its prominence at various film festivals, as its theatrical release in August saw it ultimately playing in less than 100 theaters and grossing less than one million dollars. Since the subsequent release of the similarly themed Boy Erased also failed to find an audience (a $6 million gross from less than 700 theaters), it could be that viewers aren’t ready and willing to watch movies about LGBTQ teenagers cruelly subjected to the inhumane methods of those sickos who run gay conversion therapy centers. That’s a shame insofar as both were movies worthy of viewing and discussing — Boy Erased is the better of the pair thanks to more complex relationships and an award-worthy performance by Lucas Hedges, but The Miseducation of Cameron Post is also worth seeing. Chloë Grace Moretz plays the Cameron of the title, a teen who’s sent to one of these centers and expected to (among other methods) “pray away the gay.” The center is run by the dictatorial Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle) and classes are taught by her brother Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr.), a former homosexual who Dr. Marsh touts as a success story. Like Boy Erased, The Miseducation of Cameron Post relies on flashbacks to illustrate what led its protagonist to this point, and it similarly also notes that the sin doesn’t reside in the natural instincts of these kids but rather in the corrupt hearts of the adults who surround them.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by writer-director Desiree Akhavan and writer-producer Cecilia Frugiuele; a behind-the-scenes photo gallery; and theatrical trailers.
FROM SCREEN TO STREAM
(Films currently available on streaming services)
THE THINGS WE’VE SEEN (2017). The background is far more compelling than the forefront in The Things We’ve Seen, an indie feature from writer-director Tre Manchester. A mysterious fire destroys a town’s mill, and its demise signals the extinction of the entire rural community surrounding it. Jobs are now gone, the local stores are being boarded up, and everyone is leaving the area to search for other ways to scratch together a living. The strength of The Things We’ve Seen is in its clear-eyed vision of just how precarious and fragile life can be in these United States of America, particularly for folks with limited means, limited education, and limited opportunities. Indeed, the best sequence finds Ivory Joy Boem (Shani Salyers Stiles) picking up a few supplies in a largely depleted and abandoned grocery store, the sort of desolate setting usually spotted in films centering on a post-nuclear or zombie apocalypse. Unfortunately, while Manchester perfectly nails the overall milieu, the specific story at the center of the film is arid and undercooked. The fire is believed to have been started by Ivory Joy’s husband Rayford (Randy Ryan) — as such, he’s forced to turn fugitive, pursued not only by the good ole boy sheriff (John D. Carver) but also by his own teenage sons (Jarrett Maier and Noah McCarty-Slaughter), both of whom are confused by the unfolding drama but want their father to come home. The performances run the gamut from amateurish to authentic, although the sleepy nature of the storytelling means that no one is able to make much of a lasting impression. ★★
(Amazon Prime, iTunes, Vudu)