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.
Andy Griffith in A Face in the Crowd (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.)
THE BRAIN (1988). The power of television over the masses has powered many a movie, including the diverse likes of Network, Videodrome and A Face in the Crowd (the last-named reviewed right below). While it may not match the quality (to put it mildly) of the aforementioned trio, The Brain also takes a stab at this rich thematic material. Although it looks like the most boring TV show imaginable, Independent Thinking has become a hit series that’s about to go national. It’s fronted by Dr. Blakely (David Gale), but behind the scenes it’s actually controlled by an alien entity that’s basically a snarling round head attached to a spinal cord. The creature derives its strength from munching on humans and apparently gets its kicks by brainwashing anyone foolish enough to watch the show — however, it didn’t count on class clown Jim Majelewski (Tom Breznahan) to thwart its dastardly plans. The brain itself is the movie’s best element — against all logic, it’s simultaneously terrifying and laughable. The rest of the movie is pretty dismal, though, with limp acting by the youthful cast members, repetitive chase scenes, and a script that doesn’t really make a lot of sense. Horror aficionados should enjoy some of the more outlandish set-pieces (don’t miss the teddy bear that bleeds from the eyes), while Gale, best known as the pervy professor in the 1985 cult classic Re-Animator (reviewed here), finds himself, ahem, losing his head yet again.
Blu-ray extras include new audio commentaries by Breznahan, director Ed Hunt, and composer Paul Zaza; new interviews with co-stars Cyndy Preston and George Buza and assistant art director Michael Borthwick; and a still gallery.
A FACE IN THE CROWD (1957). It still ranks as one of the greatest debuts in film history. Already known among the masses for his classic monologue “What It Was, Was Football” and on Broadway for No Time for Sergeants, North Carolina native Andy Griffith exploded onto the screen in this superb drama. Directed by Elia Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg (both Oscar winners for On the Waterfront), this casts Griffith as “Lonesome” Rhodes, a ne’er-do-well country boy who’s discovered in an Arkansas jail cell by radio-show producer Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal). Charmed by his folksy demeanor, his homespun words of wisdom, and his prowess as a singer-guitarist, Marcia places him on her program; he becomes a national sensation, eventually landing his own hit TV series and finding himself being wooed by sleazy right-wing politicians seeking to tap into that populist groove. A shady character from the start, Rhodes isn’t corrupted by his newfound power as much as it serves to bring out his true self: petty, scornful and condescending. Not until Robert Redford’s Quiz Show had a movie so clearly illustrated the power of the idiot box — in this case, its ability to mold the minds of susceptible Americans who will swallow anything that passes before their eyes. (If nothing else, the film anticipated the rise of FOX News as well as that of a certain corrupt tycoon, a former TV celebrity who duped enough dimwits to make it to the White House.) Neal is excellent as one of the few people who can see through Rhodes; ditto Walter Matthau as a cynical writer and Lee Remick (also making her film debut) as Rhodes’ child bride. As for Griffith, he’s phenomenal in a role in complete opposition of the sweetheart he later played on TV’s The Andy Griffith Show.
Blu-ray extras include a retrospective 2005 piece; an interview with author Ron Briley (The Ambivalent Legacy of Elia Kazan); and an interview with Griffith biographer Evan Dalton Smith.
POLICE STORY (1985) / POLICE STORY 2 (1988). Although Jackie Chan has appeared in a total of six Police Story movies over the course of 28 years, this offering from the Criterion label houses only the first two titles in the series.
Carefully controlling his image and consequently emerging with an enormous box office hit, Chan served as star, director and co-writer on Police Story, which finds him introducing the character of Inspector Ka-kui Chan (aka Kevin Chan and even Jackie Chan, depending on the country and language). In this one, Chan takes on a powerful crime kingpin (Chor Yuen) while also contending with a hostile witness (Brigitte Lin), a frustrated girlfriend (Maggie Cheung), and increasingly impatient superiors (Lam Kwok-Hung and Bill Tung). The whole gang minus Lin returns for Police Story 2, in which the police find themselves at the mercy of a gang setting off bombs around Hong Kong. Chan shows off his formidable physical agility and winsome personality in both pictures, and if the comedy routines occasionally fall flat, there’s nothing second-rate about the fights, falls and other stunt-dependent routines that are the bread and butter of this series.
The Blu-ray double-feature edition offers both films in the original Cantonese or with an English dub. Extras include a 2017 podcast conversation between filmmaker Edgar Wright (Baby Driver) and Chan; archival interviews with Chan and stuntman Benny Lai; excerpts from the 1999 documentary Jackie Chan: My Stunts; a 1989 episode of Son of the Incredibly Strange Film Show featuring interviews with Chan and Cheung; a Chan stunt reel; and the theatrical trailer.
Police Story: ★★★
Police Story 2: ★★★
SERENITY (2019). Just how absolutely ludicrous is the big twist in the thriller Serenity? It’s so head-smackingly stupid that I had to check the credits to see if M. Night Shyamalan was listed anywhere. Instead, the culprit is Steven Knight, a gifted scripter responsible for such original efforts as Dirty Pretty Things (for which he earned an Academy Award nomination), Eastern Promises and Locke. It’s one thing to think outside the box; it’s another to deliberate beneath the barrel. Serving as both writer and director, Knight has come up with a movie whose originality is thoroughly obliterated by its idiocy. It starts out in familiar neo-noir fashion, as Matthew McConaughey plays a fishing boat captain who’s asked by his ex-wife (a bored Anne Hathaway) to murder her abusive husband (Jason Clarke) for 10 million dollars. As he contemplates whether to execute the dirty deed, he’s given advice by his conscientious best friend (Djimon Hounsou) and pursued by a strange businessman (Jeremy Strong) sporting a briefcase. Without engaging in spoilers, let’s just say Serenity doesn’t have as much in common with a neo-noir as it does with Neo, the protagonist in that popular and influential trilogy starring Keanu Reeves. The plot pirouettes effectively neutralize any emotions we might be feeling toward any of these characters, and it leads to a final half-hour that’s as daft as anything found in an Ed Wood turkey. Indeed, about the only thing missing is a shot of McConaughey bellowing “Pull the string!” while a herd of buffalo — or, in this case, a school of tuna — parade across the screen.
There are no extras on the Blu-ray.
TARANTULA! (1955). Ranking second only to Them! when it comes to the best of the countless “giant creature” features released during the 1950s, Tarantula! benefits from an intelligent screenplay as well as the presence of genre staple Jack Arnold (The Incredible Shrinking Man, Creature from the Black Lagoon) as director. Reliable Leo G. Carroll plays Professor Deemer, who’s stashed away in his remote Arizona laboratory working on a project meant to benefit mankind. Instead, in its experimental stage, it only results in acromegaly for hapless human subjects, although it is able to turn animals enormous. The size of the tarantula in Professor Deemer’s lab recalls Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer complaining of a spider “the size of a Buick” in Annie Hall, but once the arachnid accidentally gets released, it continues to grow at an alarming rate, and it’s soon towering over the desert landscape and munching on cows and townspeople alike. Eventually, it’s up to Clint Eastwood to try and save the day. No, really: This was Eastwood’s first year in movies, and he has an uncredited role as the jet squadron leader. (Arnold would also employ Eastwood in a bit part as a lab assistant in the same year’s Creature from the Black Lagoon sequel, Revenge of the Creature.) The romantic leads were always the least interesting aspect in ‘50s sci-fi flicks, and this one’s no exception, with John Agar and Mara Corday merely OK as the town doctor and Professor Deemer’s new assistant, respectively. But the visual effects (many involving a real spider on miniature sets) are excellent, and Arnold’s pacing is particularly effective.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historians Tom Weaver, Dr. Robert J. Kiss and David Schecter; a still gallery; and the theatrical trailer.