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.
I Wanna Hold Your Hand (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.)
BUMBLEBEE (2018). After beating the world into catatonic submission with one acceptable Transformers flick in 2007 and four atrocious sequels in the decade that followed, Michael Bay relinquished the director’s chair for Bumblebee. To declare that the switch provides the series with a breath of fresh air is an understatement, but to declare that the picture is in any way a remarkable achievement is absurd. Director Travis Knight and scripter Christina Hodson clearly did their homework, not only in walking back Bay’s fascistic tendencies but also in adding the sorts of ‘80s sops that automatically cater to a viewer’s nostalgic impulses. Alas, it’s not enough to recommend this to anyone but diehard fans still trying to erase memories of Skids and Mudflap. After an opening in which chief Autobot Optimus Snore — excuse me, Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) — sends Bumblebee (Dylan O’Brien) to Earth following a disastrous battle against the Decepticons, the focus shifts to Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld, excellent), a teenager who comes across Bumblebee in his VW Beetle guise. Anytime a new film is set in the ‘80s, out come the filmmaker quotes about how they worked hard to duplicate the magic of Steven Spielberg and his Amblin efforts. But it’s usually a lost cause, since capturing the look and feel of the films from that era is particularly tricky. Despite a valiant effort, Bumblebee remains firmly rooted in 2018, from its visual palate to its dialogue (there’s a little brother, but nary a mention of a “duck’s dork”). The action scenes aren’t particularly distinguished, although they do display some sense of coherency that was often missing from Bay’s mashups. In fact, there’s little in this picture that doesn’t represent a step or 12 up from the sorry sequels that followed the 2007 Transformers. But in this case, “new and improved” isn’t the same thing as “new and worth catching.”
Blu-ray extras include five making-of pieces; deleted scenes; and outtakes. The set also includes an exclusive comic book.
CLEOPATRA JONES (1973). The blaxploitation flick was already off and running thanks to the successful likes of 1971’s Shaft, 1972’s Super Fly and 1972’s Blacula, but 1973 saw the genre also making room for the ladies. While Pam Grier was bringing ‘em in with Coffy, the statuesque Tamara Dobson was blazing her own trail with Cleopatra Jones, which was revelatory not only as a black film but also as a feminist feature. Foregoing the expected T&A and (with one major exception) crude characterizations perpetually found in exploitation entertainment of all stripes, Cleopatra Jones is ultimately as interested in positive community reinforcement and gender equality as it is in its copious action set-pieces. Dobson’s monotonous delivery actually makes her perfect in the role of the government agent who never allows anything to crack her unflappable demeanor. Nearly matching James Bond when it comes to her coolness, her clothing, and her car, she sets her sights on bringing down an LA drug lord known only as “Mommy” (Shelley Winters). I have long maintained that Winters is the worst performer to have ever won more than one Oscar for acting (she snagged two), and this film adds further fuel to the fire — her hammy turn and vulgar character (naturally, being a villain means she also has to be a lesbian) prove to be the picture’s weak spot. Otherwise, Cleopatra Jones is awash in exciting sequences and colorful personalities, among them Antonio Fargas as a criminal named Doodlebug and Albert Popwell and Caro Kenyatta as Cleopatra allies Matthew and Melvin Johnson. Cleopatra Jones has been released on Blu-ray via Warner’s Archive Collection — now let’s hope they’ll eventually get around to offering this film’s sequel, 1975’s Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold.
The only Blu-ray extra is the theatrical trailer.
THE GREAT BUSTER: A CELEBRATION (2018). Peter Bogdanovich, the award-winning director (The Last Picture Show) who later became better known as the confidante of Orson Welles and a leading proponent of keeping Hollywood’s cherished past alive in all its vitality (books on Hitchcock, Hawks and Ford, a hosting stint on TCM, etc.), here turns his attention to Buster Keaton, who has long been recognized as not only one of the silent era’s comic geniuses (alongside Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd) but also as one of cinema’s pioneering filmmakers. The structure Bogdanovich employs with this absorbing documentary is an interesting one, tackling Keaton’s life in chronological order with the exception of a six-year span in the 1920s. That would be the years when Keaton cemented his legendary status with the 10 silent features that represented his finest period as an artist. Thus, Bogdanovich begins with Keaton as a child star on the vaudeville circuit, follows his ascendancy in comedy shorts opposite Fatty Arbuckle, tracks his continuing success as he emerges as a star in his own right, documents his run of bad luck on both the personal and professional fronts (the latter resulting in the plummet of his career, with the blame resting with MGM rather than Keaton himself), and notes his late-career appearances in various inventive TV commercials as well as assorted motion pictures like Sunset Boulevard, Limelight (opposite Chaplin) and Beach Blanket Bingo. Only at the end of The Great Buster does Bogdanovich return to the pinnacle of Keaton’s career, examining such enduring classics as 1923’s Our Hospitality, 1924’s Sherlock Jr., and 1927’s The General. The talking heads sprinkled throughout belong to such luminaries as Mel Brooks, Dick Van Dyke and Quentin Tarantino.
Blu-ray extras consist of a conversation with Bogdanovich and the theatrical trailer.
I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND (1978). Under the watchful eye of mentor Steven Spielberg, director Robert Zemeckis made his feature debut with this positively infectious comedy in which four teenage girls (Nancy Allen, Susan Kendall Newman, Theresa Saldana and Wendy Jo Sperber) attempt to meet The Beatles during that historic night in 1964 when they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. Scripting with frequent partner Bob Gale, Zemeckis never condescends to those gripped by Beatlemania, preferring instead to play up each participant’s inventiveness, exuberance, and wide-eyed innocence (well, OK, the latter maybe not when Allen’s character starts licking that guitar while it gently sleeps). With the principal players eventually becoming separated from one another, the movie becomes more episodic in nature, allowing Zemeckis and Gale to demonstrate their complete mastery in juggling multiple scenarios — the next year, the pair scripted Spielberg’s woefully underrated 1941 and followed that with 1980’s Used Cars, both further examples of their ability to ably tackle this sort of freewheeling entertainment. Eddie Deezen is particularly a riot as Richard “Ringo” Klaus, a self-proclaimed Beatles expert, while the late, great Dick Miller, cast as a security guard, figures in a hilarious bit involving a lamp. I Wanna Hold Your Hand sadly proved to be a financial flop, but Zemeckis was off and running and on his way to making ‘80s smashes like Romancing the Stone, Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. (His most recent film, Welcome to Marwen, is reviewed below.)
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary (from 2004) by Zemeckis and Gale; a new conversation with Zemeckis, Gale and Spielberg; a new interview with Allen and co-star Marc McClure; two early short films by Zemeckis, 1972’s The Lift and 1973’s A Field of Honor; radio spots; and the theatrical trailer.
THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES (1974). The poster tagline for this monsters ’n’ martial arts mixer probably also served as the high-concept pitch during studio meetings, since it pretty much nails the narrative: “HAMMER HORROR! DRAGON THRILLS! The First Kung Fu Horror Spectacular!” And while the picture itself is hardly “spectacular,” it proved to be an entertaining — if not particularly distinguished — way in which to put the final nail in Hammer Films’ long-running Dracula franchise. Christopher Lee, who had grown disgusted with the direction that the series took in the 1970s, bailed after the previous flick (1973’s The Satanic Rites of Dracula, reviewed here), so he’s replaced by John Forbes-Robertson, whose performance echoes not so much Lee as Dracula but rather Joel Grey as Cabaret’s flamboyant Master of Ceremonies. Luckily, Peter Cushing is once again on hand as tireless Professor Van Helsing, teaming up with a septet of kung-fu-fighting brothers (and one sister) to take down Dracula and his minions. The early sequence in which scores of the undead rise from their graves in slow motion ranks among the best ever showcased in a Hammer production — nothing that follows matches this segment, although some interesting makeup designs and a particularly downbeat direction (even for this studio) keep this intermittently enjoyable.
Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray edition contains not only the original 89-minute cut of the film but also the edited 75-minute version that originally played in the US under the title The 7 Brothers Meet Dracula. Extras include audio commentary by author/film historian Bruce Hallenbeck (The Hammer Vampire); an interview with Hong Kong film expert Rick Baker; and the theatrical trailer.
MORTAL ENGINES (2018). The title might be borrowed from Shakespeare, but the aesthetic is pure Miyazaki. Based on the first in a series of Young Adult novels by Philip Reeve, Mortal Engines is yet another film set in a post-apocalyptic future wherein food and water are scarce, the strong prey on the weak, and Mennen Speed Sticks and other hygienic niceties have long ceased to exist. The largest cities have been placed on wheels and roam the wastelands, devouring smaller towns (i.e. integrating the citizenry into their own but stealing all of their resources). London is the largest of such burgs, and the bitter Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) and the naïve Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan) determine to bring down its murderous architect (Hugo Weaving). The plot is both daft and derivative (there’s even a Vader-friendly “No, I am your father” moment), and the commonplace YA elements end up overtaking the welcome WTF moments by the end. But because this comes from Peter Jackson (here in producing and scripting modes) and many other folks involved with The Lord of the Rings, the world-building is spectacular and makes this worth the price of a rental. Steampunk is the driving style here, and this might be the first live-action movie to successfully mimic the design of Hayao Miyazaki’s animated epics (particularly Howl’s Moving Castle and Castle in the Sky). Like its setting, Mortal Engines ultimately becomes too cluttered for its own good, and the final showdown feels endless. To quote from another Shakespearean work, “If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.” But since it’s a movie being played upon a screen, I merely take its more nonsensical moments in stride.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by director Christian Rivers and five behind-the-scenes featurettes.
THE MULE (2018). After starring in the 2008 box office hit Gran Torino (which he also directed), Clint Eastwood announced that he was retiring from acting — a decree that went out the window once he agreed to headline 2012’s Trouble with the Curve (directed by his longtime co-producer Robert Lorenz). He’s back again before (and behind) the camera with The Mule, although here he’s playing a character far more interesting than the Curve role that somehow stirred him out of his self-imposed retirement. Based on a true story that was covered in a New York Times article, this finds the icon cast as Earl Stone, an octogenarian who’s (as in most Eastwood projects) estranged from his family and struggling to survive during hard economic times. With few options before him, he ends up serving as a “mule” for a Mexican drug cartel, driving hundreds of mile carrying contraband without once getting pulled over thanks to his age and race. Initially wary of this no-nonsense gringo, his handlers are soon won over by Earl, and he eventually lands a meeting with the cartel kingpin (Andy Garcia) himself. But not all of the drug dealers are amused by his antics — what’s more, he also learns that a persistent DEA agent (Bradley Cooper) is quickly closing in. Eastwood, who began last year by directing the worst film of 2018 (see the complete Best & Worst here), ended it with this solid effort that better represents his talents and his strengths, fashioning The Mule as yet another portrait of a forgotten man keeping his identity and his wits in a world that continues to change around him. It’s typical red-meat fare for the red-state crowd — it’s impressive but not entirely surprising that this grossed $103 million stateside — but it’s punched across with Eastwood’s usual attention to incident and emotion.
Blu-ray extras consist of a making-of featurette and the music video for Toby Keith’s “Don’t Let the Old Man In.”
NANCY DREW AND THE HIDDEN STAIRCASE (2019). It’s hard to understand exactly what was the thinking behind Warner Bros.’s latest attempt to launch a film series centered on the teenage sleuth who first appeared in print in 1930. Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase only debuted in theaters on March 15, and yet here it has already made its home-video debut in less than a month’s time. Its theater count and its box office haul are both so undocumented (at least outside the hallowed halls of WB) that even such reliable sites as Box Office Mojo and IMDb have no information to impart. And its release was so underhyped and underserved that barely any critics were even able to catch this for review. That’s too bad, because this picture does just enough right to suggest that a franchise would not have been unwelcome. Sophia Lillis, the breakout star of the 2017 Stephen King smash It (reviewed here), stars as an updated version of Nancy, moving to a small town with her widower dad (Sam Trammell) and soon becoming involved in a mystery with supernatural overtones. It seems that the house occupied by elderly Flora (Alice star Linda Lavin) is suddenly haunted, and it’s up to Nancy and her friends to crack the case. The creaky plot has been enhanced with a few modern touches (a hardline anti-bullying stance, a reliance on computers and cell phones, etc.) to make this more palatable to today’s teens, and the pacing and production values are more in line with a Disney Channel offering than a theatrical release. But Lillis is an absolute delight as the new Nancy — a far cry from the insufferable pill portrayed by Emma Roberts in 2007’s awful Nancy Drew — and it’s a shame she most likely won’t be allowed to return to the role.
Blu-ray extras consist of a pair of behind-the-scenes pieces and a gag reel.
ON THE BASIS OF SEX (2018). In movies as in life, timing is everything, and it might have been better for On the Basis of Sex had it been released a couple of years ago or a couple of years from now. As it stands, this dramatization of an early chapter in the life of Supreme Court dynamo Ruth Bader Ginsburg comes on the heels of last summer’s RBG, a comprehensive work that not only nabbed an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature but also proved potent enough at the box office to rank as one of the all-time top 25 nonfiction features. Yet judged on its own merits, On the Basis of Sex is entertaining and even important, trekking the progress of Ginsburg (played by Felicity Jones) as she fights discrimination first at Harvard Law School, where she’s one of the few women in attendance, and then in the real world, where she eventually becomes involved in a case with the potential for landmark reformations. Jones doesn’t look much like Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the hunky Armie Hammer looks even less like the roly-poly Martin Ginsburg, her eternally supportive husband. But that scarcely matters, since both performers (particularly Jones) bring the proper mix of earnestness and eagerness to their roles. The film itself may be conventional but it’s also captivating, and it culminates with a courtroom showdown that offers instant satisfaction yet also doesn’t erase subsequent history. After all, you’ve come a long way, baby, but, alas, the arduous journey is really only just beginning.
Blu-ray extras consist of a making-of featurette; a piece on Ginsburg; and a look at the relationship between Ruth and Martin.
RIDER ON THE RAIN (1970) / COLD SWEAT (1970). The Kino Lorber label has done well by Charles Bronson fans, as the outfit has seen fit to release several of his starring vehicles on Blu-ray over the past few years. Here are two more to add to the collection.
Like Clint Eastwood, Bronson was a major box office draw in Europe before he became one in the U.S., thanks largely to his willingness to head to foreign lands to star (and often be dubbed) in international productions. Along with Sergio Leone’s 1968 masterpiece Once Upon a Time in the West, Rider on the Rain was largely the film that put him over the top — a French production helmed by René Clément (Purple Noon), it begins with a quote from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and continues to include related cues throughout (such as “curiouser and curiouser” and a Cheshire Cat). Certainly, Mellie (Marlène Jobert) finds herself plunging down a fantastical hole of mystery and intrigue, as this small-town woman kills her rapist, disposes of the body, and then finds herself repeatedly confronted by an American (Bronson) with fuzzy motives. A Golden Globe winner for Best Foreign-Language Film, Rider on the Rain benefits from Clement’s stark approach as well as fine turns from Bronson and especially Jobert.
Cold Sweat was another international effort — in this case, a French-Italian co-production — but it isn’t nearly as much fun as Rider on the Rain. Despite a Richard Matheson novel as its source and a three-time 007 director at its helm (Terence Young of Dr. No, From Russia with Love and Thunderball), it’s a threadbare affair, with only Bronson’s lively performance keeping it afloat. He plays Joe Martin, an ex-pat and sea-skipper-for-hire whose past catches up with him in the form of four fellow prison escapees he knew in a different decade and a different life. The leader of the convicts (distinguished British actor James Mason, hilariously playing a disreputable Southerner with a prominent drawwwwllll), threatens harm to Joe’s wife (Liv Ullmann) and daughter (Yannick de Lulle) unless he takes part in their latest caper. Suffering from poor pacing, this is the sort of film where you keep waiting for the story to kick into high gear before eventually realizing that it’s going to maintain its humdrum baseline throughout.
The Blu-ray edition of Rider on the Rain contains both the 114-minute U.S. version and the 118-minute French cut. Extras consist of audio commentary by film historians Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell and Nathaniel Thompson; the film’s American and French theatrical trailers; a radio spot; and trailers for other Bronson flicks on the Kino label. Blu-ray extras on Cold Sweat consist of audio commentary by Berger, Mitchell and Thompson; the theatrical trailer; a promo spot; and trailers for other Bronson flicks from Kino.
Rider on the Rain: ★★★
Cold Sweat: ★★
THE STREET FIGHTER COLLECTION (1974). Bruce Lee’s untimely death in 1973 hardly meant the death of the kung fu craze that had already taken hold in popular culture and specifically in cinema. Many sought to carry on Lee’s tradition; one of the most successful was Japan’s Sonny Chiba, who became an international star thanks to the three Street Fighter titles released in 1974.
Renowned for being the first movie to receive an X rating in the U.S. solely for violence, The Street Fighter introduces Chiba’s iconic character of Terry Tsurugi, who isn’t exactly a hero and maybe isn’t even an anti-hero. After all, one of his first acts in the film is to sell a woman who owes him money to a sex-slave ring; then again, he later saves another woman by ripping the testicles right off her would-be rapist (one of the moments that secured that X), so he does have that going for him. The plot involves the efforts of a shadowy cabal to kidnap a prominent heiress (Doris Nakajima); when Terry learns that it’s the Yakuza pulling the strings, he refuses to take part, thus placing a price on his own head. Speaking of head, don’t miss the scene where Terry karate-chops a villain’s noggin and the camera cuts to an X-ray shot of the man’s skull shattering — it’s just one of the many wild and woolly moments in this above-average action romp. (On a trivia side note, the titles for the American edit were designed by Jack Sholder, who would later direct The Hidden and A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge. Sholder and I were among the judges at the 2006 Asheville Film Festival and were paired up as award presenters. Last I heard, he’s still a professor at Eastern Carolina University, where he’s been teaching since leaving show business.)
Return of the Street Fighter is a decent follow-up to The Street Fighter, even if it doesn’t quite match the brutal impact of its predecessor. Several characters are brought back from the first film, which serves to deepen the plot as Terry finds himself squaring off against an old enemy while standing alongside a trusted friend and mentor. The Street Fighter’s Last Revenge is the weakest of the three, with Terry out for blood after he gets double-crossed by his latest clients. This one skewers more to the espionage side of the equation, as there’s even a mask peel-off sequence clearly inspired by the Mission: Impossible TV series.
Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray set contains the uncut versions of the first two films as well as both the U.S. and Japanese versions of the third. Extras consist of new interviews with Chiba and Sholder; a still gallery; and theatrical trailer.
The Street Fighter: ★★½
Return of the Street Fighter: ★★½
The Street Fighter’s Last Revenge: ★★
WELCOME TO MARWEN (2018). Based on a true story previously related in the 2010 documentary Marwencol, Welcome to Marwen casts Steve Carell as Mark Hogancamp, who was savagely beaten in a hate crime for wearing women’s shoes and thereafter stripped of most of his memory. As therapy, he creates a model-size, WWII-era village and populates it with dolls inspired by actual people he has encountered. His alter ego is the heroic Hogie, the women who aid him in real life are all reimagined as sexy freedom fighters, and the bullies are naturally transfigured into Nazis. But Mark often has trouble separating the real world from his fantasy one, particularly when a kindly neighbor named Nicol (Leslie Mann) arrives on the scene. The CGI employed to bring the action figures to life is astounding, but that’s about the only thing this film has in its favor. This should be a movie about the transformative and therapeutic powers of art, but writer-director Robert Zemeckis (scripting with Caroline Thompson) instead tries to force the square peg of an unpleasant experience into the round hole of a feel-good endeavor. There’s also a lot of yammering about the goodness and “essence” of women, but it merely comes across as lip service since the females (played by, among others, Janelle Monáe and Gwendoline Christie) only are there to circle Mark’s orbit and end up feeling even more plastic than their diminutive counterparts. An intriguing idea that’s ultimately compromised by an unfocused viewpoint and clumsy interludes (the character of Nicol’s cruel ex-boyfriend feels like an afterthought and could easily have been excised), Welcome to Marwen brings new meaning to the term “artificial intelligence.” It lunges at profundity but settles for manufactured mawkishness.
Blu-ray extras include behind-the-scenes featurettes on the film’s visual design; deleted scenes; and a piece on Zemeckis.
Short And Sweet:
THE ASPERN PAPERS (2019). Numerous literary works by Henry James have been turned into stellar motion pictures (with The Heiress, The Innocents and The Wings of the Dove arguably at the top), but this ain’t one of them. Based on the author’s celebrated novella, this finds a badly miscast Jonathan Rhys Meyers (wrestling with an American accent and losing) playing an editor who’s hoping to convince an elderly woman (Vanessa Redgrave) into parting with the personal letters written to her long ago by her poet lover. Joely Richardson, Redgrave’s real-life daughter, is fine as the older woman’s lonelyhearts niece, but the rest of this arid and uninvolving drama exhibits even less of a pulse than a cemetery corpse.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette and a discussion between director Julien Landais, producer Gabriela Bacher, and executive producer James Ivory.
THE GLASS BOTTOM BOAT (1966). Yet another Doris Day box office hit in a decade full of ‘em, this comedy finds the actress cast as Jennifer Nelson, who catches the eye of one of the resident geniuses (Rod Taylor) at a NASA research facility. She’s assigned to be his biographer, but a series of mixed signals results in everyone believing she’s a spy out to steal government secrets for the Russkies. Even with madcap director Frank Tashlin at the helm, this takes an awfully long time to hit its comic stride, although the film finally delivers the goods during the second half. Such reliable jokesters as Dom DeLuise, Paul Lynde and Dick Martin score in supporting stints, and I love that Man from U.N.C.L.E. gag!
Blu-ray extras consist of a trio of vintage featurettes plugging the film; the 1965 Oscar-winning animated short, The Dot and the Line; and the theatrical trailer.
PERFECT BLUE (1997). It’s hard to believe this anime offering, the debut feature from the late writer-director Satoshi Kon (Paprika), was made 22 years ago, since its ideas about the influence and omnipresence of social media remain relevant today. The film centers on young Mima Kirigoe as she leaves a popular pop band to try her luck as an actress — it’s hardly a smooth transition, and it’s made even more difficult since she’s being targeted by a stalker. Perfect Blue is a brutal and haunting meditation on identity, femininity, and fame, and it’s no surprise that Darren Aronofsky is a major fan (traces of the film can be found in both Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan).
The new Blu-ray edition contains a newly remastered version of the unrated cut of the film as well as the original standard-definition presentation (both are available with either Japanese or English audio). Extras include lectures by Kon; cast and crew interviews; and theatrical trailers.
SECOND ACT (2018). Smarting from being passed over for a promotion simply because she lacks a college degree, the ambitious and smartly dressed Maya Vargas (Jennifer Lopez) laments that street smarts aren’t valued as highly as book smarts. Luckily, she’s quickly able to get smart once her best friend’s (Leah Remini) college-age son builds her a fake portfolio and she’s hired for an upper-level job at a leading Manhattan firm. For a movie that imagines itself as a smart seriocomedy, Second Act can be awfully dumb, not only in the way it clones the laziest aspects of past rom-coms (a sassy best friend! adorably dysfunctional assistants! an impromptu dance number set to a classic tune!) but also in the manner it introduces a whopping plot coincidence halfway through and expects no one watching to snort in derision.
Blu-ray extras consist of four behind-the-scenes pieces (each running less than a minute) and the theatrical trailer.