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.
John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch (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 AFTERMATH (2019). The Aftermath is set right after World War II, as cleanup efforts are underway in Germany by the conquering heroes. While most of the British and American occupiers view all Germans with contempt, forever suspicious that each and every one admired Adolf Hitler, one exception is the kind-hearted Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke), an officer tasked with helping restore the bombed-out city of Hamburg. Lewis’ wife Rachael (Keira Knightley) doesn’t share his sympathies, which makes matters prickly when the pair move into a luxurious home owned by widower Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård) and populated by Stefan, his daughter Freda (Flora Thiemann), and various household servants. The Luberts are expected to vacate the premises when the Morgans move in, but Lewis’ bleeding heart decrees otherwise, figuring there’s enough square footage for everyone. The proximity allows Rachael to overcome her prejudices and develop an attraction to Stefan while her workaholic husband is away rebuilding the city. Had The Aftermath been around as a property in the late 1940s, it doubtless would have starred Deborah Kerr and Claude Rains as the Morgans and Laurence Olivier as Stefan. The performers cast here do their filmic forebears proud, and the picture succeeds as long as it focuses on their love triangle. But a storyline involving the teenage Freda’s dalliances with a youthful Nazi supporter (Jannik Schümann) is severely underplotted and leads to a climax at odds with the more measured pace of the rest of the picture. It’s pumped up melodrama that competes with the more nuanced drama, and — with apologies to Casablanca — it crowds out the three adults and their struggles with that towering hill of beans.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director James Kent; deleted scenes; and a photo gallery.
CINDERELLA (1950). One of the most beloved of all animated features in the Disney stable, Cinderella was also the box office smash that saved Walt’s studio during the precarious post-war period and allowed him to branch out in other directions (including, of course, television and theme parks). The timeless tale about a beautiful girl who’s treated horribly by her wicked stepmother and bratty stepsisters before being rescued by a fairy godmother (as well as by her own innate goodness) comes tricked out with all the usual Disney trimmings: dazzling animation, a handful of songs, a clearly delineated struggle between good and evil, and an assortment of colorful characters (here, they include the gabby mice Gus and Jacques and a wonderfully venal cat appropriately named Lucifer). Cinderella nabbed a trio of Oscar nominations, for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture, Best Original Song (“Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo”) and Best Sound. Also worth catching is Disney’s 2015 live-action update, directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring Lily James.
This Blu-ray Anniversary Edition of Cinderella offers the option of watching the film in an enhanced mode, with added storyboards, archival photos, and more. Extras include a making-of featurette; a trivia piece; an alternate opening sequence; a silent Cinderella animated short from 1922, created by Walt Disney’s Laugh-O-Gram Studios and directed by Walt himself; an excerpt from a 1956 episode of The Mickey Mouse Club featuring Helene Stanley (the live-action model for the character of Cinderella); a piece on the Princess Fairytale Hall in the Magic Kingdom Fantasyland at Walt Disney World; and theatrical trailers.
DUMBO (2019). The animated 1941 classic Dumbo runs just over an hour while this live-action clunker runs just under two hours. In other words, in the time it takes to watch the misbegotten new version once, a viewer could have watched the enchanting original twice (hardly a chore) or watched it once and then had time left over to take a nap. While the ‘41 Dumbo opted to anthropomorphize its animal stars, this interpretation decides to silence them by either shunting them to the background (Mrs. Jumbo), dismissing them with a fleeting cameo (Timothy Q. Mouse) or deleting them altogether (Mr. Stork and the crows). In their place, director Tim Burton and scripter Ehren Kruger decided they should instead focus on the human characters, because Lord knows that’s what people really want to see when they catch a movie ostensibly about a flying elephant. Thus, Dumbo quickly becomes a supporting character in his own story, as the focus shifts to those involved with the animal (including a returning World War I vet played by Colin Farrell). Technical values are top-notch, but such visual splendor is all for naught when wrapped around a film as emotionally uninvolving as this one. The CGI Dumbo is adorable enough in design (even if the surrounding effects aren’t as convincing), but there’s no genuine pathos to this rendition since the critter is mainly used as a prop simply so the dull human protagonists can all feel a little better about themselves. Special mention should be given to Michael Keaton, cast as ruthless zillionaire V.A. Vandevere; frankly, I didn’t think it was possible for him to give a performance as awful as the one he brandishes here. Then again, perhaps he figured it was the only way to stand apart from the numbing homogenization of the rest of this white elephant.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of piece; deleted scenes; bloopers; and the music video for Arcade Fire’s cover of “Baby Mine.”
HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH (2001). Billed as a “post-punk neo-glam rock musical,” this adaptation of the 1998 Off-Broadway hit has enough surface kitsch to dazzle the senses, but it’s also an unexpectedly poignant tale of one individual’s journey toward becoming a complete person. Writer-director John Cameron Mitchell plays the role of Hedwig, a rock star wanna-be resentful not only of the botched sex-change operation that left her with the titular “angry inch,” but also of her former boyfriend (Michael Pitt), who stole her songs and rode them all the way to fame and fortune. Powered by Stephen Trask’s superb, soaring rock anthems inspired by the Ziggy Stardust era (standout songs include “The Origin of Love,” “Wig in a Box,” and the gorgeous “Wicked Little Town,”), Hedwig and the Angry Inch serves as a reminder of the ability of the movie musical to convey emotions when mere words won’t do. Yet this isn’t simply a vamp’n’tramp show; instead, Mitchell’s performance as Hedwig remains one of the best of modern times — the character is by turns sexy, scary, outrageous, obnoxious, pitiable and vulnerable — and it anchors a movie that landed on my list of the 10 best films of the 2000s. A penetrating parable about self-worth and self-realization — as well as an offbeat example of the old show biz axiom that any person can go out a nobody and come back a star — the joyous and raucous Hedwig is anything but a drag.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary (from 2001) by Mitchell and cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco; a documentary tracing the development of the project through its various incarnations; a new conversation with cast and crew members; a conversation with Trask; deleted scenes; and the theatrical trailer.
THE ILLUSIONIST (2006). Set in Austria, The Illusionist stars Edward Norton as Eisenheim, an enigmatic stage magician so skilled at his profession that the locals suspect he might actually possess otherworldly powers. One of the few skeptics is Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), a cruel ruler who sets out to prove that Eisenheim is a fake. He enlists the aid of the corrupt Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), yet matters become more tangled when it’s revealed that Leopold’s fiancée Sophie (Jessica Biel) was once Eisenheim’s childhood sweetheart. For a good while, The Illusionist is topflight entertainment, with its lush period setting, its assemblage of captivating magic tricks, and a delightful relationship between Eisenheim and Uhl, two men sharing a wary respect for each other (both Norton and Giamatti are excellent). But then the film (based on Steven Millhauser’s short story “Eisenheim the Illusionist”) makes the fatal mistake of morphing into a mystery, the type that’s agonizingly easy to figure out even before its gears can really be placed in motion. Viewers who can’t anticipate the big twist should dig out those old Encyclopedia Brown paperbacks and begin rebuilding their sleuthing skills from there. Similar in many ways to Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, The Illusionist drew comparisons to that superior film when the latter debuted in theaters approximately a month later. Bill Pope earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography for his efforts here.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by writer-director Neil Burger; a making-of featurette; an interview with Biel; and the theatrical trailer.
MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: VOLUME ELEVEN (2019). Shout! Factory’s MST3K-on-DVD cycle creeps closer to its conclusion, with only one more OOP Rhino volume to revive before looping back to Shout!’s original offering (Volume Thirteen) back in 2008.
Ring of Terror (movie made in 1961; featured on MST3K in 1990) centers on a medical student whose college buddies punk him with the help of a cadaver. The deadly dull nature of the featured movie renders this the weakest of the four episodes in this set, although laughs can of course still be found.
Indestructible Man (movie made in 1956; featured on MST3K in 1992) stars Lon Chaney Jr. as Butcher Benton, a killer who’s revived by electricity after his execution. The picture itself is an average (as opposed to awful) fantasy programmer, although Joel et al treat it with the same mirthful disdain as an Ed Wood feature (“No one will be seated during the frightening letter-folding scene!”).
Tormented (movie made in 1960; featured on MST3K in 1992) finds Richard Carlson as a mopey guy who’s distracted from his upcoming nuptials by the ghost of his former girlfriend, whom he allowed to fall to her death from a lighthouse. The host segment in which Joel, Crow and Tom Servo name the singers they would love to see plummet off a lighthouse (can’t argue with their selections of Lionel Ritchie and Kenny Rogers) is a riot.
Lastly, Horrors of Spider Island (movie made in 1960; featured on MST3K in 1999) is a dubbed German import about a man who’s bitten by a goofy spider and transformed into some indescribable monster after he and several dancers are stranded on a desolate isle. With shout-outs to (among others) The Blue Lagoon, From Here to Eternity, the Beach Party movies, and even Captain Ron, this one is rich with the pop culture references.
Blu-ray extras include retrospective making-of pieces on Indestructible Man and the Bela Lugosi serial The Phantom Creeps (a chapter of which is included on one of the episodes); a reunion between Tormented director Bert I. Gordon and co-stars Susan Gordon and Joe Turkel; and theatrical trailers.
NONE BUT THE BRAVE (1965). Predating Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima by approximately 40 years, None But the Brave was particularly unusual in its day for its willingness to not only cast a sympathetic eye at the Japanese who fought against Allied troops in World War II but also for the manner in which it spends ample time with these characters (even allowing them to speak in Japanese for the sake of authenticity rather than in broken English for the sake of American audiences). The picture is set on a Pacific island occupied by both Japanese soldiers and U.S. Marines, as both factions find themselves stranded there. Initially combative, the two sides — the American soldiers led by Capt. Dennis Bourke (Clint Walker), the Japanese troops commandeered by Lt. Koruki (Tatsuya Mihashi) — negotiate an uneasy truce. This marked Frank Sinatra’s only stint as director, and he does a respectable job behind the camera (he also receives top billing for portraying the Yankee outfit’s boozy medic). Less sturdy is a screenplay (by John Twist and Katsuya Susaki) with an admirable anti-war message but a roster of threadbare supporting characters, particularly on the American side. Mihashi is excellent as the Japanese officer whose soulfulness conflicts with his sense of duty; conversely, singer Tommy Sands, at the time married to Nancy Sinatra (they divorced later that year), is absolutely terrible as a barking lieutenant, with his performance almost single-handedly crippling the movie.
The only extra on the new Blu-ray from the Warner Archive Collection is the theatrical trailer.
RESURRECTING THE CHAMP (2007). The black hole that goes by the name of Josh Hartnett managed to swallow up many movies back in the 2000s, but Resurrecting the Champ was not one of them. For that, we have to thank the force of nature that goes by the name of Samuel L. Jackson. To be fair, Hartnett isn’t awful in the role of a sportswriter who stumbles onto a career-making — and then career-breaking — story: His earnestness works well for this character, and when a single tear journeys down his cheek late in the movie, it’s possible that it’s a genuine teardrop and not a dab of H2O shot on there by a spritzer-wielding makeup assistant. But roiling emotions are clearly out of his range, and he’s shown up as a lightweight in his frequent scenes with Jackson. The latter delivers a strong performance as a homeless man who calls himself the Champ. Raspy-voiced and not all there mentally, he reveals himself to Hartnett’s Erik Kernan as Battling Bob Satterfield, a former boxing great. Erik, stuck covering stories on high school athletics, realizes this could be his ticket to the big time, so he devotes all his energy to turning Champ’s life story into a must-read article. But suspicions eventually surface regarding Champ’s history, and Erik soon realizes that he might have made a huge mistake in choosing his subject matter. The picture’s various themes are handled with care, though there’s nothing particularly revelatory on view here (2003’s Shattered Glass is a far superior film about media misconduct). But towering over the entire picture is Jackson, who takes a showy role and invests it with so much humanity that it’s impossible not to feel deeply for the character every step of the way. It’s a knockout performance.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by writer-director Rod Lurie; a behind-the-scenes piece; and the theatrical trailer.
SWING TIME (1936). The top-billed stars of 1933’s Flying Down to Rio were Dolores Del Rio and Gene Raymond, but it didn’t take a genius to see that the real draws were two supporting players named Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Certainly, the suits at RKO saw the writing on the wall — or, more accurately, the dancing on the screen — and by the end of the 30s, the incomparable team of Astaire & Rogers had been paired in nine movies for the studio, reuniting only once after that for MGM in 1949. It’s downright scandalous that it’s taken this long for an Astaire-Rogers musical to reach Blu-ray, and my only regret is that the first title to debut in this format isn’t the 1935 masterpiece Top Hat, which not only ranks as the best of the duo’s pictures but also tops my own list of the best movie musicals of all time (placing right above 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain and 1979’s Hair). Otherwise, this one’s a stellar choice, with Fred a gambler who’s set to get married to his hometown girl (Betty Furness) until he meets dance instructor Ginger in the big city. The plot occasionally dawdles, but the movie’s worth is immeasurably enhanced by the sterling Jerome Kern-Dorothy Fields score, as well as some of the most intricate dance routines found in any of the Fred’n’Ginger pairings. The timeless tunes include “Pick Yourself Up,” “A Fine Romance,” and “The Way You Look Tonight,” the latter earning the Academy Award for Best Song.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary (from 1986) by author John Mueller (Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films); archival interviews with Astaire, Rogers and choreographer Hermes Pan; a new interview with George Stevens Jr., son of Swing Time director George Stevens; and an excellent interview with film scholar Mia Mask, who discusses the troubling racial aspects of the dance number “Bojangles of Harlem.”
THE UNCANNY (1977). Even fans of horror anthology flicks (raising my hand here) might find themselves disappointed with the lackluster trio of tales assembled here. The framework finds author Wilbur Grey (Peter Cushing) attempting to convince his publisher (Ray Milland) that cats are inherently evil and always plotting against humankind. To prove his point, he relates three stories that he claims will demonstrate that he’s correct in his assessment. The first finds an elderly cat lady (Joan Greenwood) having to contend with the greedy machinations of her nephew (Simon Williams) and her maid (Susan Penhaligon). The second focuses on a young girl (Katrina Holden) who has just lost her parents and clings to her cat for comfort; her in-laws adopt her, but the stern mom (Alexandra Stewart) and bratty cousin (Chloe Franks) decide that the animal must go. And the third and final segment finds actor Valentine De’ath (Donald Pleasence) murdering his wife and replacing her at home and at work with his mistress (Samantha Eggar), a move that doesn’t meet the approval of the dead woman’s devoted cat. The premise of both Wilbur and the movie is nonsensical, since all three tales are about cats seeking revenge on awful people — in other words, the felines are the heroes, not the villains. It’s always fun watching Cushing, Milland and Pleasence in practically anything, but their presence isn’t enough to elevate this humdrum horror outing. Be sure, though, to catch the quick shot of Valentine De’ath’s press photo — it’s actually Pleasence as Blofeld, holding his beloved cat in a scene from the 1967 James Bond film You Only Live Twice!
Blu-ray extras consist of an interview with Penhaligon and the theatrical trailer.
US (2019). As Jordan Peele’s Us commences back in 1986, Adelaide is a little girl (played by Madison Curry) who enters an oceanside funhouse of mirrors and spots her flesh-and-blood doppelgänger. Cut to the present and Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is a happy wife and mother, but an ill-advised trip back to that same beach unleashes a horror that affects her whole family. To reveal more risks ruining the ultimate direction Us takes, but suffice to say that Peele maintains an unnerving ambience for at least the first hour. After that, the film allows too much of a jokey demeanor to siphon away some of the tension. Fortunately, the picture recovers and Peele again pours on the suspense, although it’s at this point where the plot specifics start to come into focus and Peele is revealed to have attempted to juggle too many eggs. To be sure, there’s enough thematic material here to power an entire semester of college dissertations, but Peele is never able to integrate the sociopolitical horrors with the cinematic horrors as brilliantly as he did in Get Out — consequently, the more fantastical aspects of Us require a lot of hard swallowing and ultimately generate more questions than answers. As for the big twist, it’s likely to floor many a viewer, but, honestly, it struck me as rather obvious — then again, maybe that’s because I’ve sat through so many ham-fisted M. Night Shyamalan movies and found this twist to be almost on that grasping “gotcha” level (even if Peele does add more subtext to his reveal than Shyamalan ever did). Nyong’o, however, is phenomenal, and even when Peele occasionally allows his reach to exceed his grasp, she maintains a tight grip on the proceedings.
Blu-ray extras include various making-of pieces; deleted scenes; and breakdowns of three specific sequences.