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.
(Photo: Warner Bros.)
(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.)
ARABIAN ADVENTURE (1979). Film fans who don’t want to fight the crowds (or pay exorbitant prices for popcorn) to catch the current live-action version of Aladdin would do just as well to stay home and watch Arabian Adventure on Blu-ray. Aladdin may boast a larger budget (make that far larger), but the entertainment value is of comparable quality; plus, this one offers Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing (sorry, Will Smith). It wouldn’t be accurate, though, to tag this as one of the countless Cushing-Lee collaborations, since they have no scenes together and only Lee has a substantial role (he receives top billing while Cushing shares “Special Guest Appearance” status with Mickey Rooney and Capucine). But a plucky orphan boy, a mischievous monkey, a beautiful princess, a genie in a lamp (plus one in a jewel), a flying carpet — yup, all present and accounted for. Lee plays the Caliph Alquazar, who seeks a mystical rose that, in his hands, would give him infinite power and that, in his enemies’ hands, could defeat him. Armed with good intentions, a young prince (Oliver Tobias) and a street urchin (Puneet Sira) set out to retrieve the rose, but they must contend with a murderous genie (needless to say, a far cry from Smith or Robin Williams), fire-breathing dragons, and Alquazar’s duplicitous minions (including a pre-Cheers/pre-Pixar John Ratzenberger, improbably cast as Achmed). Cushing turns up as a political prisoner, while Rooney channels the Wizard of Oz for his extended scene. Fantasy veteran Kevin Connor (The Land That Time Forgot, At the Earth’s Core) keeps the film moving, and some of the effects are actually pretty good. It’s no great shakes, but it’s a decent option to watch alongside the kids.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by Connor and theatrical trailers.
BITTER MOON (1992). A trashy film that’s simply too audacious — and too entertaining — to be dismissed out of hand, this effort from Roman Polanski (adapting Pascal Bruckner’s novel alongside co-scripters Gerard Brach and John Brownjohn) finds Hugh Grant and Kristin Scott Thomas cast as Nigel and Fiona, a British couple hopping on a cruise ship to India in an attempt to straighten out their marriage. Once aboard, Nigel finds himself being constantly cornered by Oscar (Peter Coyote), an American writer who insists on telling his captive audience all about his relationship with his French wife Mimi (Emmanuelle Seigner, Polanski’s real-life spouse since 1989). Oscar leaves no sexual or psychological stone unturned, explaining how they went from a romantic couple deeply in love to a daring duo heavily involved in kinky sex acts to, finally, a damaged pair bonded by their seething hatred of one another. Released internationally starting in the fall of 1992 but not reaching the US until the spring of 1994 (thus allowing Four Weddings and a Funeral co-stars Grant and Scott Thomas to have two co-starring features in theaters simultaneously), this examination of the perils of obsessive love operates best as a sly, sick joke, with Coyote particularly reveling in his role as the manipulative sadist. Like Woody Allen, Polanski includes snatches of dialogue designed to absolve him — here, a line about Mimi’s mature demeanor masking her childlike innocence is clearly meant to excuse his real-life rape of a 13-year-old girl — but these are thankfully kept to a bare minimum. More detrimental to the picture is the unsatisfying ending, which unfairly upends the tit-for-tat balance between Oscar and Mimi that had been carefully preserved for much of the movie.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historian Troy Howarth; an interview with Coyote; and theatrical trailers.
BLACK MOON RISING (1986). The MacGuffin in Black Moon Rising is a cassette that the government needs to put away the heads of a shady corporation. The government rep (Bubba Smith) tasks a freelance operative, a former thief named Sam Quint (Tommy Lee Jones), with stealing the item on its behalf. That he does, but for safekeeping, he places it in a revolutionary new car dubbed the Black Moon by its creator (Richard Jaeckel). Quint plans to retrieve the tape when no one’s looking, but before he can do so, the sleek vehicle is stolen by Nina (Linda Hamilton), who works for a car ring run by the ruthless Ed Ryland (Robert Vaughn). Therefore, it’s up to Quint to break into Stolen Automobiles HQ and steal back the Black Moon; for her part, Nina is getting tired of working for a sleazebag like Ryland and decides to make out with Quint when she can sneak away from the office. This busy story arrives courtesy of no less than John Carpenter, and had he directed the project himself when he first penned the script in the early ‘80s, it doubtless would have starred Kurt Russell and Adrienne Barbeau. It also might have been a bit more exciting — certainly, the film looks good, but it’s never as zippy as its plot requires. Ignore the idiotic plotholes, though, and there’s some enjoyment in watching the committed performance by Jones (he takes a screen beating as well as anybody) and marveling at some vehicular stunts that would not be unwelcome in a Fast and the Furious entry.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by film historian Lee Gambin; a vintage making-of featurette; interviews with director Harley Cokliss, producer Douglas Curtis, and composer Lalo Schifrin; alternate scenes from the Hong Kong theatrical version; and the theatrical trailer.
BOOM! (1968). If 1966’s magnificent Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is the best of the 11 pictures Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton made together, then Boom! just might be the worst. Based on a Tennessee Williams play (The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore) that bombed on stage, the playwright also penned the script for this film version that likewise tanked. As with other movies involving Liz and Dick, this was reportedly a troubled shoot — rumor has it that there was as much alcohol on the set as there was water in the ocean surrounding the story’s locale — and the end result is a pretentious and self-indulgent mess. Nevertheless, the film has found its footing as a camp classic, with John Waters emerging as its biggest champion (“It’s so awful, it’s perfect,” he once noted in an interview). The central characters are clearly meant to be an elderly woman and a youthful lad, so there’s already a mismatch with the casting of the 36-year-old Taylor and the 43-year-old Burton. Taylor plays Sissy Goforth, a fabulously wealthy widow who lives on a remote island with various servants. Her only regular guest is a fey gentleman known as The Witch of Capri (Noël Coward) — at least until the unexpected arrival of Chris Flanders (Burton), a mysterious figure whose habit of being in the presence of older women right before they die has earned him the nickname “The Angel of Death.” Since Sissy knows she’s dying, she’s both intrigued and repelled by this newcomer. Unless one can locate its camp frequency, this one’s an absolute slog — not even the lovely location shooting (the Mediterranean island of Sardinia) and an occasionally amusing line can elevate this in any discernible way.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by Waters; a piece examining the film’s status over the years; photo galleries; and the theatrical trailer.
THE BUSTER KEATON COLLECTION: VOLUME 1 (1926-1928). A month after releasing Peter Bogdanovich’s compelling documentary about Buster Keaton (2018’s The Great Buster: A Celebration, reviewed here), Cohen Media Group has seen fit to offer the first volume in its series dedicated to the films of the comedy legend. Upon their respective releases, 1926’s The General and 1928’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. were box office disappointments and didn’t exactly wow all the critics, either. Today, both are acknowledged as comic masterpieces, and with good reason.
The General is particularly a work of art, a beautifully realized action-comedy in which Buster plays Johnnie Gray, an engineer determined to repossess the train that was stolen by Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. Like the train itself, The General rarely ever slows down, barreling from one hair-raising (and frequently hilarious) set-piece to the next.
Steamboat Bill, Jr., in which Keaton plays a milquetoast who helps his gruff dad (Ernest Torrence) ward off a rival steamboat operator, may not match The General in most respects, but it surpasses it in the number of belly laughs generated. In addition to the climactic cyclone that results in some incredible stuntwork on Keaton’s part, this is the one that features the house falling on his character, with only that tiny open window there to prevent the actor from getting crushed to death.
Blu-ray extras consist of appreciations of Keaton and The General by various celebrities, and trailers for both movies. Incidentally, The Buster Keaton Collection: Volume 2 is scheduled for a July 9 release; it will contain Sherlock Jr. and The Navigator.
The General: ****
Steamboat Bill, Jr.: ****
GLORIA BELL (2019). Having made waves with his Chilean features (culminating in a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar win for A Fantastic Woman), writer-director Sebastián Lelio has since helmed two English-language efforts, both centering on women (fantastic or otherwise). First was Disobedience, starring Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams (and reviewed here), and now there’s Gloria Bell, a remake of Lelio’s own 2013 film Gloria. Like Claire Denis’ Let the Sunshine In (reviewed in this column last week), this is another drama about a woman who gets involved with men who, frankly, are beneath her. Unlike that Juliette Binoche vehicle, though, Gloria Bell does a better job of allowing us access to its protagonist, thus resulting in a better understanding of the character and more sympathy for her misfortunes. Superbly played by Julianne Moore, Gloria is a divorcée who loves to spend her nights dancing at a local club. There, she meets Arnold (John Turturro), and they seem to hit it off. But while Gloria is independent of her ex-husband (Brad Garrett) and has two grown children (Michael Cera and Caren Pistorius) who can take care of themselves, Arnold still spends an inordinate amount of time dealing with crises involving his ex-wife and their two sluggish daughters. The on-again-off-again relationship between Gloria and Arnold remains a focal point of the picture, but there are plenty of other incidents hovering around the edges (her daughter’s long-distance romance, her neighbor’s suicidal behavior, a co-worker’s fear of getting fired, etc.). These are the sorts of details that many will feel are pointless diversions when they’re actually sounding boards with which to better grasp Gloria’s innate humanity.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by Lelio and a making-of featurette.
MIGHTY MORPHIN POWER RANGERS: THE MOVIE (1995). Pardon the momentary lapse of professionalism exhibited 20-odd years ago, but I still recall how I was so bored while originally screening this back in ’95 (at the long-defunct SouthPark Mall movie theater in Charlotte, NC) that I left the auditorium at one point, chatted with the concession employee for about 10 minutes, and then resigned myself to heading back inside to finish the grueling cinematic experience (and as I calculated, missing those few minutes mattered not a whit when it came to following the film). This time, I nobly stayed on the couch for the entire duration of revisiting this movie for the first time in 24 years. Has the film improved with age? Absolutely not, although fans of the popular TV series (1993-1996) that inspired its creation will doubtless have a good time — from a nostalgic standpoint, if nothing else. In this outing, the six plucky teenagers who serve as Earth’s superpowered heroes — Tommy (Jason David Frank), Kimberly (Amy Joe Johnson), Aisha (Karan Ashley), Billy (David Yost), Rocky (Steve Cardenas) and Adam (Johnny Yong Bosch) — are forced to combat the evil Ivan Ooze (Paul Freeman), recently freed from a 6,000-year slumber by MMPR antagonists Lord Zedd (Mark Ginther) and Rita Repulsa (Julia Cortez). Freeman, unrecognizable from his career turn as Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark, has a grand old time seemingly patterning his performance after W.C. Fields, and the cheesy effects are enjoyable in a ‘70s-Saturday-morning-cartoon kind of way. Otherwise, caveat emptor. For a far better motion picture based on this franchise, check out 2017’s surprisingly watchable Power Rangers.
Blu-ray extras consist of a retrospective making-of piece; a vintage featurette; and the theatrical trailer.
THE NEW SCOOBY-DOO MOVIES: THE (ALMOST) COMPLETE COLLECTION (1972-1973). Debuting as a Saturday morning cartoon in 1969, Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! was not only an instant success but also paved the way for no less than a dozen subsequent TV series featuring the cowardly Great Dane and those “meddling kids” who accompanied him on all manner of monstrous mysteries. The New Scooby-Doo Movies, the second incarnation of the franchise, is arguably the most beloved since it not only ran a full hour (the other Scooby shows were all 30 minutes) but because it featured a special guest star in each episode. Warner Bros. has lovingly brought together 23 of the 24 episodes from its two-season run, with only one no-show (presumably due to rights issues): “Wednesday Is Missing,” featuring The Addams Family (and a 9-year-old Jodie Foster as the voice of Puggsley!). Otherwise, it’s all systems go, as this enormously entertaining collection finds Scooby, Shaggy, Fred, Daphne and Velma investigating haunted houses, haunted amusement parks, haunted farms, and other spooky sites alongside animated renditions of real celebrities and fictional icons. The various guests include Dick Van Dyke, Don Knotts, Tim Conway (RIP), Sonny & Cher, The Three Stooges, and Batman and Robin — still, I’ve always had a soft spot for The Harlem Globetrotters, who appeared in three episodes (the most of any guest stars).
Blu-ray extras include a piece on Daphne and Velma and another on The Harlem Globetrotters. In addition to debuting this 23-episode set on Blu-ray and DVD, Warner is also offering the DVD release The Best of The New Scooby-Doo Movies: The Lost Episodes. These eight episodes weren’t really “lost”; they just had never been released on home video before. At any rate, these episodes are also among the 23 offered on the more comprehensive set.
NIXON (1995). Oliver Stone’s look at the most hated of all U.S. presidents (at least until Bush Jr. and especially Trump came along) turns out to be a surprisingly sympathetic and mellow affair. Unfortunately, Stone’s newfound timidity in both style and content — this appeared after a 10-year stretch that included the high-powered likes of Platoon, JFK and Natural Born Killers — also marked it as the beginning of the end of a remarkable run (future excursions would be more along the lines of the awful Alexander, the grotesque Savages, and the useless W.). Despite a lengthy running time, Stone haphazardly rushes through the high points of Richard Nixon’s life and still fails to offer much insight into this complicated individual. Eventually, the film settles into simply rehashing the Watergate scandal, but anyone with more than just passing knowledge of this chapter in American history will be dissatisfied with what plays like a Cliff Notes version of the ordeal. Still, many individual scenes crackle and pop, and while Anthony Hopkins is earnest if never entirely convincing as Nixon, there are indelible contributions from Joan Allen as Pat Nixon, James Woods as H.R. Haldeman, and Madeline Kahn as Martha Mitchell. Nixon scored four Oscar nominations: Best Actor (Hopkins), Supporting Actress (Allen), Original Screenplay (Stone, Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson), and Original Score (John Williams).
The new three-disc Blu-ray edition from Kino contains both the 191-minute theatrical version and the 212-minute director’s cut. Extras include two audio commentaries by Stone, both on the director’s cut; audio commentary by film historian Jim Hemphill on the theatrical version; a vintage making-of featurette; deleted scenes; and Stone’s interview with Charlie Rose.
WHEN A STRANGER CALLS BACK (1993). One of the first films hoping to ride on the coattails of 1978’s Halloween after that John Carpenter smash made “suburban slasher” a hip new subgenre, 1979’s When a Stranger Calls proved to be a commercial success. Carol Kane stars as Jill Johnson, a babysitter who finds that the children in her care have been killed by a phone-happy madman (“The call is coming from inside the house!”). Several years later, said psycho escapes from the mental asylum and continues his reign of terror, again targeting Jill and forcing John Clifford (Charles Durning), the detective on the original case (now a private investigator), to permanently take down this creep. Given its success ($21 million gross vs. $1.5 million budget), a sequel seemed inevitable, but writer-director Fred Walton only returned to the premise 14 years later, at which time a cable debut seemed more logical than a theatrical bow. Premiering on Showtime, When a Stranger Calls Back initially focuses on student Julia Jenz (Jill Schoelen) as she deals with one, possibly two, lunatics on the doorstep of the house at which she’s babysitting. The children upstairs are snatched from their beds and never found, and it isn’t until five years later that a damaged Julia suspects that she’s again being harassed. Luckily for her, Jill (again played by Kane) is a counselor at her college, and she contacts John (again played by Durning) to help out. As with its predecessor, the opening set-piece is the best part of the movie, as the rest gets bogged down with its increasingly silly plot turns.
The Blu-ray contains the film in both 1.33:1 full frame (as it initially aired on television) and 1.78:1 widescreen (to offer a more theatrical experience). Extras consist of new interviews with Kane, Schoelen and Walton, and Walton’s 1977 short film The Sitter, which served as the inspiration for When a Stranger Calls.