View from the Couch: Hotel Mumbai, Shazam!, Space: 1999, etc.
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.
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.
Martin Landau in Space: 1999 (Photo: Shout! Factory & ITV Studios)
(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 BEST OF ENEMIES (2019). Those of us outraged that Willem Dafoe’s phenomenal turn as a kindly motel manager in The Florida Project — the performance that won a whopping 31 critics’ awards, including a sweep of the four big ones — lost the Oscar to Sam Rockwell’s OK emoting as a goofy racist deputy in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, can at least feel vindicated by their high-profile theatrical roles since then. While Dafoe pulled off an impressive about-face by portraying painter Vincent van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate, an underwater denizen in Aquaman, and a crusty lighthouse keeper in the upcoming The Lighthouse, Rockwell went from playing a Southern-fried redneck in Three Billboards to playing a Southern-fried redneck in Vice (as George W. Bush, of course) to playing a Southern-fried redneck in The Best of Enemies. Of these three, I actually prefer the most recent turn, as the actor keeps the showboating to a minimum and delivers a nuanced turn as C.P. Ellis, the longtime leader of the local KKK chapter in Durham, NC. Constantly clashing with civil rights activist Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson), he finds himself reluctantly serving with her as co-chair of a committee looking into school desegregation in 1971. She’s for it and he’s against it, but as they spend time together, C.P. begins to question what he had always believed to be absolute truths regarding race relations. At a horrific point in U.S. history when a venal and racist president continues his hateful assault on anyone he absurdly deems inferior, The Best of Enemies is accomplished enough to allow its humanist message to shine through without any interference.
Blu-ray extras consist of a couple of behind-the-scenes featurettes; a vintage documentary short (produced for NC television) on the actual events; and the theatrical trailer.
EUROPA EUROPA (1991). Perhaps never before (or since) in film history has circumcision played such a pivotal role in a movie’s plotline. Yet that’s the almost absurdist thread running throughout Europa Europa, a powerful, based-on-fact drama about Salomon Perel (Marco Hofschneider), a Jewish lad who stays alive during World War II by posing as a German. Although initially trained to be a Stalinist by the Russians who snatch him up after he’s separated from his family, Salomon eventually finds himself on the German side of the trenches, where his good lucks and guileless innocence have everyone convinced that he must be of sturdy Aryan stock. This leads him to be recruited to serve as a member of the Hitler Youth, where the anti-Semitic rhetoric really flourishes. All throughout his travails, he fears that his circumcised penis will give him away, whether while taking a shower or during his trysts with a young German lass (Julie Delpy). Adapted by director Agnieszka Holland from Perel’s autobiography, Europa Europa finds a rich vein of black comedy coursing through its otherwise shocking and sorrowful story. The movie was an odds-on favorite to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, but Germany, embarrassed by its content, shamefully refused to submit it for consideration. However, it did nab Holland a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary (from 2008) by Holland; a new interview with Perel (who’s now 94 years old); new interviews with Holland and Hofschneider; and a video essay on the movie by film scholar Annette Insdorf.
FM (1978). If 1977’s Between the Lines (recently released on Blu-ray and reviewed here) showed how difficult it was to be a ‘70s maverick trying to put out a newspaper in the face of corporate greed and indifference, then FM shows how difficult it was to be a ‘70s maverick trying to run a radio station in the face of corporate greed and indifference. Jeff Dugan (Michael Brandon) is the program director of Q-SKY in Los Angeles, and he enjoys an easy rapport with all his employees, including DJs Eric Swan (Martin Mull), Mother (Eileen Brennan), and the Prince of Darkness (Cleavon Little). But when upper management wants Jeff to use the station’s popularity to sell more ad time — specifically for inane army-recruitment jingles — he balks. The “us against the establishment” plotline is hoary and silly, and the movie fares better when it focuses on specific character incidents rather than any greater themes. Mull earned raves for his first film appearance, but I found his DJ character rather colorless — certainly, no match for Howard Hesseman’s Dr. Johnny Fever on WKRP in Cincinnati (which debuted on CBS five months after FM hit theaters). The highlight is indisputably the concert sequence featuring Linda Ronstadt singing “Tumbling Dice,” “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me,” and “Love Me Tender”; Jimmy Buffett also performs at one point, and Tom Petty shows up at Q-SKY for an interview. Although the movie wasn’t a hit, its soundtrack did exceptionally well: Featuring tunes by (among others) Steely Dan, the Eagles, and Boston (as well as the aforementioned Ronstadt et al), it cracked the Billboard chart and even won a Grammy Award.
Blu-ray extras include new interviews with Brandon and scripter Ezra Sacks (who drew from his own experiences in radio); a discussion of FM radio by critic Glenn Kenny; and photo galleries.
HOLD BACK THE DAWN (1941). The primary setting of Hold Back the Dawn is a Mexican border town populated by European émigrés hoping to gain entrance into the United States. One of those seeking a new life is Romanian gigolo Georges Iscovescu (Charles Boyer), who’s not pleased when he hears that the average wait for approval is eight years. Luckily for him, he bumps into Anita Dixon (Paulette Goddard), an old friend and former colleague who informs him that she married an American for easy access into the country and then promptly divorced him. Encouraged by this idea, Georges sets his sights on Emmy Brown (Olivia de Havilland), a reserved schoolteacher in town for a field trip with her class. Emmy falls completely for this enigmatic gentleman and all seems to be going according to plan until Georges unexpectedly develops some feelings of his own. Working from a script by the esteemed team of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett (Sunset Boulevard, for starters), director Mitchell Leisen has fashioned a top-drawer melodrama that’s only hampered by a rocky start and a rushed finale. Hold Back the Dawn earned a total of six Academy Award nominations, including bids for Best Picture, Best Actress (de Havilland), and Best Screenplay. De Havilland was beaten in her category by her sister Joan Fontaine (for Hitchcock’s Suspicion), leading to more tension in their lifelong sibling rivalry. That’s Leisen himself in the bookend scenes as the director shooting a movie (I Wanted Wings) with Veronica Lake, Brian Donlevy and Richard Webb. (Amusingly, while Hold Back the Dawn went 0-for-6 at the Oscars, I Wanted Wings won on its sole nomination for Best Special Effects.)
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin; a video essay by film critic Geoff Andrew; a 1971 audio interview with de Havilland; and a photo gallery.
HOTEL MUMBAI (2019). Like 2006’s fact-based United 93 or 2015’s fictional No Escape, Hotel Mumbai is the sort of intense drama that, even in its moments of triumph, ultimately offers little relief from the harrowing events unfolding throughout the course of its running time. The movie draws from the 2008 terrorist attacks that rocked Mumbai, India, leading to the deaths of over 150 innocent people. One of the sites targeted by the Islamic fanatics was the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, and this film alternates between focusing on the abhorrent terrorists and on the hotel staffers and guests. The bravest and most resourceful of the Taj employees is Arjun (Dev Patel), a Muslim husband and father who, like most of his co-workers, repeatedly risks his own life in an attempt to save the guests. Among those visitors are a happily married couple (Armie Hammer and Nazanin Boniadi) with baby and nanny (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) in tow, and a profane Russian CEO (Oscar Isaacs) with a military background. Writer-director Anthony Maras (scripting with John Collee) has made a gripping thriller that offers little insight from any political perspectives but instead serves as a reminder that heroism can flourish in even the most extreme of situations. Isaacs is a welcome presence even if his character feels the most like a Hollywoodized construct; more grounded in the proceedings is Taj head chef Hemant Oberoi, not only because he’s based on an actual person but because Anupam Kher provides the part with the necessary gravitas.
The only Blu-ray extras are four making-of featurettes which combined total less than 10 minutes.
THE LOVELESS (1981). The Loveless is a movie of many firsts. It marked the first credited appearance — indeed, the first starring role — for Willem Dafoe. It marked the directorial debut of Kathryn Bigelow, who would eventually become the first female helmer to win an Academy Award (The Hurt Locker). It marked the first producing credit for A. Kitman Ho, who would later help oversee such worthy projects as Platoon, JFK, and Hotel Rwanda. And it marked the first production design credit for Lilly Kilvert, who would later be Oscar-nominated for her efforts on Legends of the Fall and The Last Samurai. Given all this burgeoning talent, it’s a shame that The Loveless isn’t much better. Instead, it’s a trite biker flick in the vein of The Wild One, although it’s so blasé that a better moniker might have been The Mild One. Completed in 1981 but not released outside of film festivals until 1984, it finds Dafoe cast as Vance, who stops at a roadside diner along with his biker buddies. A sleazy businessman (J. Don Ferguson) objects to their presence, and matters only take a turn for the worse once his free-spirited daughter (Marin Kanter) becomes involved with Vance. An acceptable turn by Dafoe and nice photography by Doyle Smith are the only assets to this inert drama that further suffers from an erratic script (by Bigelow and her co-director, Monty Montgomery) and amateurish acting.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Montgomery; a retrospective making-of piece, featuring interviews with Dafoe, Kanter, and other cast members; new interviews with Ho, Kilvert, and Smith; and photo galleries.
MUMFORD (1999). To co-opt the name of another 1999 release, “Analyze this!” would seem to be writer-director Lawrence Kasdan’s war cry with this low-key comedy that contends the only quality a person needs to become a good psychologist is the ability to listen to other people’s problems. It’s a worthy concept, yet it only gets half-realized in this likable yet lackadaisical piece. Bland Loren Dean (Billy Bathgate) here uses his blank expressions to his advantage, playing an initially inscrutable psychologist named Dr. Mumford who moves to the small town of Mumford and immediately finds success treating a wide variety of patients. But Dr. Mumford’s own shocking secret threatens to eventually overshadow all that he’s accomplished as well as derail his burgeoning romance with a woman (Hope Davis) suffering from Chronic Fatigue Disorder. One of the latter entries that helped cripple Kasdan’s once-brilliant career, Mumford lacks the character development of The Big Chill, the emotional base of The Accidental Tourist, and even the powerful ensemble acting of Grand Canyon (despite a cast that includes Alfre Woodard, Ted Danson, a 17-year-old Elisabeth Moss, and Zooey Deschanel in her film debut). On the plus side, Kasdan’s strength with dialogue remains undiminished, while Jason Lee delivers a winsome performance as lonely billionaire Skip Skipperton, a computer whiz who forges a unique relationship with the good doctor.
Blu-ray extras consist of a making-of featurette; an interview with Kasdan; and the theatrical trailer.
SHAZAM! (2019). In the immortal words — make that word — of Gomer Pyle, USMC: Shazam! The second Captain Marvel movie to be released this spring (yup, this character was originally known by that name from his creation in 1939 until his rebranding in 1972), DC’s valiant effort doesn’t soar as high as its Marvel counterpart (reviewed here), though there’s still a hefty amount to enjoy in this thematically loose-limbed undertaking. Djimon Hounsou sets the story in motion as an elderly wizard who needs to bestow his formidable powers onto someone worthy of them. He chooses Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a foster boy who shares a home with disabled Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer). Whenever Billy utters the word “Shazam,” he turns into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi) whose awesome powers include… Well, Billy and Freddy aren’t sure, so cue the amusing sequences in which the pair attempt to determine exactly what Shazam can do. Meanwhile, the evil Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) believes he should have been the one to be gifted these amazing abilities. Shazam! is good for some laughs, but in an increasingly crowded landscape in which superheroes are allowed to be philosophical, guilt-ridden, godlike, and even meta (what up, Deadpool?), there’s something comparatively puny about this film. Its drama (particularly the familial material) feels warmed-over, its conflicts are boilerplate, and the majority isn’t quite bright enough or inventive enough to overcome a third act free-for-all that involves numerous superbeings and demonic entities slugging it out in a repetitive CGI loop that neither illuminates nor entertains. Shazam! is endearing enough to earn an ever-so-modest recommendation, but it’s hardly the final word in superhero splendor writ large.
Blu-ray extras include a piece on the history of the character; deleted scenes; a gag reel; and a motion comic.
SPACE: 1999: THE COMPLETE SERIES (1975-1977). A childhood favorite back in the 1970s — it was one of the few English-language programs shown on Portuguese television during my years living in that country — Space: 1999 was an ambitious if deeply flawed series that was clearly inspired by the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Trek. Created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson of Thunderbirds fame, this British production centered on the inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha and their adventures after an explosion blasts the moon out of Earth’s orbit and sends it hurtling into outer space. Nabbing a pair of Americans to help with U.S. sales (alas, no networks bit, placing the show in syndication instead), the series was headed by then-married (and former Mission: Impossible co-stars) Martin Landau and Barbara Bain as, respectively, Moonbase Alpha commander John Koenig and chief medical officer Helena Russell. The first season featured better stories and a great opening credits sequence backed by Barry Gray’s excellent score, but it had to contend with several dull secondary characters, primarily head scientist Victor Bergman (Barry Morse).
Morse and several other regulars were MIA for the second season (though thankfully not fan favorite Nick Tate as head pilot Alan Carter), and there was an exciting new character in Maya (Catherine Schell), an alien (and the base’s new science officer) who could transform into any living creature at will. But thanks to the interference of new producer Fred Freiberger (an American who didn’t grasp British sensibilities), the storylines were often sillier, and that opening (with Gray’s music) was replaced with a tackier one that featured Derek Wadsworth’s comparatively drab score. Still, the special effects and set design remained consistently excellent, with FX wiz Brian Johnson later winning Oscars for Alien and The Empire Strikes Back (indeed, George Lucas has noted that Johnson’s work on Space: 1999 partially influenced the look of Star Wars). As for guest stars, they included the likes of Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Ian McShane, Joan Collins, and a pre-Darth Vader David Prowse.
Shout! Factory has released Space: 1999 in a spectacular box set packed with extras, including audio commentaries on select episodes (two by Garry Anderson); new interviews with Bain and Tate; vintage behind-the-scenes featurettes and interviews; a piece on the visual effects; and much more.
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