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.
Richard Edson, Eszter Balint and John Lurie in Stranger Than Paradise (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.)
FARINELLI (1994). Mix the plot of Milos Forman’s Amadeus with that of Robert Altman’s Vincent & Theo — and add a splash of David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers for the kinkiness factor — and you’ll have a fair approximation of the events transpiring in this Belgian import that’s loosely based on a true story. It tells the tale of the 18th century Italian singer Carlo Broschi, aka Farinelli (played by Stefano Dionisi), whose castration at a young age enabled him to sport a voice so angelic and so piercing that it caused many women in the audience to get sexually overheated. The thrust of this screen version is the opera star’s often strained relationship with his brother Riccardo (Enrico Lo Verso), a mediocre composer who shared in all his brother’s glories (including his one-night stands). While visually vibrant and generally well-acted (particularly by Jeroen Krabbé as the famed composer Handel), Farinelli is strangely not very compelling, straining to make connections between its central figure and the androgynous rock stars of the late 20th century. What’s more, its verisimilitude is periodically disturbed by the all-too-obvious lip-synching taking place, as Farinelli’s singing voice was created by electronically meshing the voices of a tenor and a soprano. An Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, Farinelli somehow won the Golden Globe in that category over the incredible quartet of Eat Drink Man Woman, Three Colors: Red, Queen Margot and To Live.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette and cast and crew interviews.
NIGHT ON EARTH (1991). Or, Taxicab Confessions, Jim Jarmusch style. The provocative writer-director here comes up with a catchy gimmick, following five cab drivers in five different cities as they ferry passengers across darkly lit landscapes, all the while chatting with their fare and in some cases briefly connecting with them on a soulful level. As expected, the quality of the individual vignettes varies, though only one is an out-and-out drag. The best episode, set in New York, finds a German cabbie (Armin Mueller-Stahl) taking his passenger (Giancarlo Esposito) from Manhattan to Brooklyn — a problem, since the driver neither speaks English nor knows how to drive. The worst chapter, set in Rome, finds the talkative taxi driver (exhausting Roberto Benigni) confessing his sins (which include past dalliances with a sheep) to the priest (Paolo Bonacelli) in the back seat, blissfully unaware that his passenger is dying. The other three segments, all worthwhile, take place in Los Angeles (Winona Ryder as the scrappy driver and Gina Rowlands as a stressed casting agent), Paris (Isaach De Bankole as the surly driver and Beatrice Dalle as his blind fare), and Helsinski (Matti Pellonpaa as the mournful driver who tops his passenger’s tragic tale with one of his own).
Blu-ray extras consist of select-scene audio commentary (from 2007) by director of photography Frederick Elmes and location sound mixer Drew Kunin; a 2007 Q&A session with Jarmusch; and a 1992 Belgian TV interview with Jarmusch.
SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN (1970). A movie that offered the titanic teaming of horror superstars Vincent Price, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing should have been a classic; instead, we’re saddled with this sloppy and mean-spirited endeavor. What’s more, Cushing is on-screen for less than five minutes while Lee appears only fleetingly throughout, leaving Price (who himself is MIA for huge chunks) to carry the load. Price plays a scientist who may or may not have any involvement with a madman bent on murdering London lovelies (said lunatic is played by Michael Gothard, who would later portray Bond villain Locque in 1981’s For Your Eyes Only). Meanwhile, in another part of the world (and plot), a fascist (Marshall Jones) with a Spock-like death grip is making his way up through the ranks of a neo-Nazi (or Communist? It really doesn’t matter) military organization. Cushing appears ever-so-briefly as a high-ranking officer, while Lee plays a dapper British government suit. The movie deserves points for chutzpah but not for much else. As for the three stars, they would all share billing only one more time, for 1983’s enjoyable if slight House of the Long Shadows.
The new Blu-ray edition from Kino Lorber contains both the US and UK versions of the film (as the running time is virtually the same, the difference is negligible). Extras include audio commentary by film historian Tim Lucas; radio spots; the theatrical trailer (which misidentifies Marshall Jones as Peter Cushing!); and trailers for other Kino titles featuring Price (including the aforementioned House of the Long Shadows).
THE STRANGE DOOR (1951). Nineteen years after working together on James Whale’s classic chiller The Old Dark House (reviewed here), Boris Karloff and Charles Laughton were reunited for this adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson story “The Sire de Maletroit’s Door.” Laughton plays Stevenson’s titular villain, a twisted aristocrat who has his despicable reasons for wanting his niece Blanche (Sally Forrest) to marry a disreputable, drunken rogue (Richard Stapley). What the sadistic sire can’t predict, though, is that the cad will clean up his act once he falls for the pretty maiden, thus disrupting his best-laid plans. Karloff’s role is disappointingly small, though his character is an important one: He’s cast in a good-guy role as Voltan, the only one of Sire de Maletroit’s servants who isn’t a slobbering sycophant but rather a noble figure whose loyalty rests with Blanche and her deceased (or is he?) father, the true lord of the manor. Minor thrills can be found in what’s more of a melodrama than a horror yarn (despite Karloff’s presence), and the finale will doubtless stir memories of the trash-compactor sequence from Star Wars. Karloff’s painfully protracted death scene is almost as amusing as Laughton’s ability to overact even when merely called upon to raise an eyebrow.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historians Tom Weaver, David Schecter and Dr. Robert J. Kiss, and trailers for other Kino Lorber titles starring either Laughton or Karloff or directed by The Strange Door helmer Joseph Pevney.
STRANGER THAN PARADISE (1984). In addition to the obvious Orwell connection, 1984 deserves mention for being a particularly spectacular year for film — so strong, in fact, that on its 30th anniversary, I felt compelled to devote a whole article to its output of awesome cinema (that piece can be found here, while the sidebar Best & Worst of 1984 is here). Among the year’s attributes was that it was a breeding ground for maverick filmmakers operating outside the studio system, with these folks finding (or, in some cases, honing) their voices and in turn helping to spearhead a notable indie film movement that carried straight through into the 1990s. One of the most important indie achievements of ’84 was Stranger Than Paradise, which found writer-director Jim Jarmusch striking pay dirt with just his second feature film. Aside from brief appearances by Aunt Lotte (Cecillia Stark), this is a three-person piece that takes place in three acts. Its opening third is set in New York City, as Hungarian émigré Willie (John Lurie), whose best friend is the cheerful if not especially bright Eddie (Richard Edson), reluctantly takes in his teenage cousin Eva (Eszter Balint), newly arrived from the old country. The second part switches the action to Cleveland, as Willie and Eddie have gone to visit Eva, now living with Aunt Lotte, while the third act finds the trio stuck in a dreary motel in Florida. Jarmusch has fashioned an endearing gem that is starkly shot in black-and-white and offers low-key laughs every step of the way.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary (from 1996) by Jarmusch and Edson; Jarmusch’s debut feature, 1980’s Permanent Vacation; the 1984 German TV program Kino ’84: Jim Jarmusch; and trailers.
Short And Sweet:
DIAMONDS OF THE NIGHT (1964). One of the key entries in the Czech New Wave that blanketed much of the 1960s, this manages to combine the striking realism of a documentary with the surrealistic touches of an experimental piece. Running just over an hour, it follows two Jewish teenage boys (Ladislav Jánsky and Antonin Jumbera) who manage to escape from a train that was transporting them to a concentration camp. As they try to stay alive, they’re consumed with past memories, present dreams, and future uncertainties. Sporting only slightly more dialogue than one would find in a mime routine, this debut effort from writer-director Jan Němec (adapting Arnost Lustig’s Darkness Has No Shadow) is a haunting experience, particularly in its ambiguous ending.
Blu-ray extras include a 2009 interview with Němec; Němec’s 1960 student thesis film, A Loaf of Bread; and the 1993 documentary short Arnost Lustig Through the Eyes of Jan Němec.
THE LAND UNKNOWN (1957). Basically stealing the premise from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel The Land That Time Forgot, this lesser entry in Universal’s robust run of 50s sci-fi flicks finds the members of a Naval expedition heading to the freezing temperatures of Antarctica, only to discover a hotbed of activity buried deep within. Journeying into a mysterious cloud, they emerge on the other side and find themselves stranded in a perfectly preserved prehistoric land teeming with rampaging dinosaurs and carnivorous plants. Or at least “teeming” would be the right word had the studio devoted a bigger budget to the picture — as it stands, a guy in a dino-suit is hardly compensation for the duller aspects of the film, starting with somnabular Jock Mahoney as the stalwart hero.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by film historians Tom Weaver and David Schecter; an animated image gallery; and the theatrical trailer.
TITO AND THE BIRDS (2018). A young boy named Tito misses his father, a scientist who was sent away by Tito’s mom when his latest bird-related experiment nearly killed their own son. But when the world is blindsided by an epidemic that results in fear turning people into misshapen lumps, the lad realizes that the antidote might be found in his dad’s unorthodox discoveries. It’s impossible to dislike the message of this animated effort from Brazil even if it’s easy to dislike the often ungainly and heavy-handed way in which it’s imparted. As for the animation, it’s a nice break from the slick look of most Hollywood toon tales, even if it’s never quite invigorating or inventive enough to completely immerse us in this rugged landscape.
Blu-ray extras consist of an interview with writer-director Gustavo Seinberg and producer Daniel Greco, and the theatrical trailer.