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.
Spike Lee and Danny Aiello in Do the Right Thing (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.)
ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL (2019). This adaptation of the manga series Gunnm (aka Battle Angel Alita) takes place in a post-apocalyptic future in which Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) discovers the remains of a female cyborg in a junk heap. Ido brings her back to life and names her Alita (Rosa Salazar), but he soon discovers that she’s not some docile teenager but rather a fierce, ages-old warrior with uncanny fighting abilities. Where the movie excels is in the design of its metallic characters: There’s something both unsettling and absorbing in seeing human faces grafted onto otherwise all-hardware bodies, and it’s the only instance in which the film feels like it’s breaking any new ground. Otherwise, there isn’t much that warrants attention or excitement. Alita is an interesting creation, but Salazar is limited in her ability to breathe life into this CGI construction. Ido is also potentially fascinating — a scientist who doubles as a bounty hunter — but Waltz plays the part as too much Geppetto and not enough Dr. Frankenstein. Narratively, Alita: Battle Angel is so focused on the sequels that (may or may not) lie ahead that it cobbles together too many story strands and then rushes through them anyway — this results in some lapses in logic as well as a serious deficit in defining key characters. There’s also an insipid romance between Alita and a street kid (bland Keean Johnson) that skims over what should have been one of the film’s defining themes had it been directed at adults instead of children: Alita’s sexual identity. Here’s a 300-year-old half-human, half-cyborg who’s modeled after a man’s dead daughter, who’s given breasts on her metallic child-like body, and who’s engaged in a relationship with a teenage boy. I daresay Freud, Kinsey and Dr. Ruth would all have had their hands full trying to sort this one out.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; a piece on the visual effects; a look at the film’s sport of Motorball; and motion comics.
DO THE RIGHT THING (1989). An out-and-out masterpiece, Spike Lee’s best movie also remains the most penetrating film ever made about race relations in these United States. On the hottest day of the summer, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, Italian-American Sal (Danny Aiello) runs a pizza joint whose employees consist of his two sons Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson) and local kid Mookie (Lee). When he’s not enduring Pino’s racist slurs, Mookie’s out delivering the pies, taking his time as he visits his girlfriend Tina (Rosie Perez) and listens to the sage advice of ‘hood elders Mother Sister (Ruby Dee) and Da Mayor (Ossie Davis). But matters begin to heat up when local hotheads Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito) and Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) elect to boycott Sal’s Pizzeria as a matter of principle. It’s amazing that this was only then-32-year-old Lee’s third major motion picture, as the complex characterizations, dicey moral dilemmas and superb dialogue (laced with plenty of hilarious ad-libbing by his capable actors) signaled a filmmaker working far beyond his years. Predictably, the Academy bypassed it for most major awards, nominating it only in the categories of Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (Aiello). That year’s Best Picture Oscar, of course, went to Driving Miss Daisy, which was as tame about race relations as Do the Right Thing was provocative (see also the recent and lamentable repeat with the tame Green Book beating, among others, Lee’s BlacKkKlansman).
Blu-ray extras in the new Criterion edition include audio commentary (from 1995) by Lee, cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, production designer Wynn Thomas, and co-star Joie Lee; a vintage making-of piece; deleted and extended scenes; press conference footage from the picture’s premiere at Cannes; and the music video for Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.”
HELLBOY (2019). Functioning more as a reboot than as the originally planned sequel to 2004’s Hellboy and 2008’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army (axed once it became clear neither Guillermo del Toro nor Ron Perlman would be involved), this Hellboy represents less a hot night on the town and more a cold shower meant to douse excitable feelings that this flop has no intention of alleviating or even addressing. The picture opens even before — way before — the titular demon first climbs out of the bowels of Hell during World War II. It commences back in the time of King Arthur and Merlin, as the pair manage to defeat Nimue the Blood Queen (Milla Jovovich), hack her up into enough separate pieces to fit into an Evil Dead sequel, and bury the various body parts in separate locations so she can’t ever return. Nevertheless, she turns up in our present day to continue her reign of terror, and it’s up to B.P.R.D. (Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense) operative Hellboy (David Harbour) to stop her. Whereas del Toro’s Hellboy flicks were rated PG-13, this one is rated R — while that in itself is no problemo, the finished product doesn’t resemble an R-rated film made by adults as much as an R-rated film made by teenagers who thought it would be cool to pepper their project with as much profanity and as many gory interludes as possible. It’s unfortunate to see director Neil Marshall (The Descent) attached to this boondoggle, which admittedly does contain a few notable sequences (the entire interlude with the evil Baba Yaga is a high point). Harbour is fine as Hellboy, but Jovovich comes across less like a formidable force of evil and more like Joan Crawford after discovering that her dressing room is too small.
Blu-ray extras include a three-part making-of documentary and deleted scenes.
KLUTE (1971). There was no shortage of superb performances by lead actresses in the 1970s — Diane Keaton in Annie Hall and Sally Field in Norma Rae are two that immediately come to mind — but Jane Fonda’s turn in Klute was not only great but also groundbreaking. Director Alan J. Pakula’s psychological thriller might be named after the square detective played by Donald Sutherland, but it’s clear that the focus of the film is Bree Daniels, the imperiled prostitute played by Fonda. Call girls in cinema generally had been portrayed as flighty cuties with sizable hearts of gold, but Fonda shattered all stereotypes by portraying Bree as an intelligent and independent woman with extraordinarily complicated attitudes and emotions. Because of her past involvement with a small-town businessman who has gone missing, Bree becomes the focus of an independent investigation conducted by the missing person’s close friend, private eye John Klute. But as Klute questions those around her, including her former pimp (Roy Scheider, perfectly purring with menace), he soon discovers that Bree’s life is in danger. The mystery angle often feels half-hearted, but any story deficiencies are overcome by the shadowy cinematography by Gordon Willis and the nervy, neurotic turn by Fonda. It goes without saying that Fonda won the Best Actress Academy Award for her performance here, with the movie earning an additional nomination for Best Original Screenplay (penned by siblings Andy Lewis and David E. Lewis). Meanwhile, Scheider nabbed a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his work in an even bigger 1971 film, the Best Picture winner The French Connection.
Blu-ray extras include a new interview with Fonda; archival interviews with Fonda and Pakula; and the 1971 behind-the-scenes short Klute in New York: A Background for Suspense.
MISSING LINK (2019). The latest likable effort from Laika, Missing Link may not match the stop-motion animation studio’s previous endeavors like Coraline and ParaNorman, but it nevertheless displays enough charm and whimsy to satisfy the small fry. Placating the adults in their midst might be another matter. Hugh Jackman lends his soothing pipes to the character of Sir Lionel Frost, an English explorer who travels the world hoping to prove the existence of famous mythological creatures. His latest adventure places him in contact with the fabled Sasquatch (Zach Galifianakis) — a talkative type, the affable beast names himself Susan and reveals that he wants Sir Lionel to lead him to his long-lost relatives, the Yetis residing in the Himalayas. Sir Lionel agrees to the task, and they’re soon joined by his former girlfriend, the wealthy Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana). But the hissable Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry) doesn’t want Sir Lionel’s discovery to become public, so he hires an assassin named Willard Stenk (Timothy Olyphant) to kill everyone involved. The Laika brand of animation always provides a welcome reprieve from the visually stale style of toons offered by everyone not named Aardman, Pixar or Disney, and the gentle humor is likewise appreciated as a respite from the cruder gags that too often have become the norm. It’s just a shame that the characters aren’t more invigorating — Mr. Link/Susan is actually a rather one-note figure, and Adelina adds nothing substantial to the proceedings, created solely for the purpose of providing Sir Lionel with an obligatory love interest. And although there are some enterprising bits when it comes to the staging of these stop-motion creations, the actual jokes putter as often as they pop.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by writer-director Chris Butler; various pieces on the animation; and a look at Laika.
NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR (1984). George Orwell’s 1948 literary masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four (aka 1984) found itself honored with two major productions in the actual year of 1984. The first was a stage play performed by students at the International School of Kenya in Nairobi, with the central role of Winston Smith played by (ha) yours truly. The other version is this cinematic adaptation from writer-director Michael Radford (Il Postino), whose visuals capture the oppressive atmosphere of the novel even if his script can’t quite convey the sheer horror (and chilling wordplay) whipped up by Orwell. The great cinematographer Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men, Blade Runner 2049) nabbed one of his earliest credits for this picture, providing a suitably desaturated look to this classic tale in which Winston (John Hurt) and Julia (Suzanna Hamilton), two workers toiling in a totalitarian state, engage in an illegal love affair before running afoul of Inner Party bigwig O’Brien (Richard Burton). Unlike the animated 1954 film of Orwell’s Animal Farm, which absurdly tacked on a happy ending, this adaptation pulls very few punches. The final decade-plus of Burton’s career found him earning awful notices for flop after flop (the only exceptions being 1977’s Equus, for which he earned his seventh and final Oscar nomination, and the 1978 international hit The Wild Geese), so it was gratifying to see him exit the scene with a fine performance in a fine film — he passed away four months after its release, felled by a brain hemorrhage at the age of 58.
Blu-ray extras consist of two different scores created for the film (one by Eurythmics, the other by Dominic Muldowney); new interviews with Radford and Deakins; an interview with author David Ryan (George Orwell on Screen); behind-the-scenes footage; and the theatrical trailer.
UNIVERSAL HORROR COLLECTION VOLUME 2 (1933-1943). Universal Horror Collection Volume 1, released just last month (and reviewed here), featured four classic thrillers starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. This second collection of vintage Universal titles turns its focus on films starring Lionel Atwill and George Zucco, and while they’ve never achieved the fame or stature of Boris and Bela, they powered many a horror yarn in their day. Atwill and especially Zucco may have lacked the magnetism of the two genre superstars, but they nevertheless anchored countless efforts in this vein.
Murders in the Zoo (1933) is a rousing pre-Code offering in which a hunter (Atwill) who collects animals for a zoo ends up using said creatures to murder those around him, particularly the men who unwisely pay too much attention to his unhappy wife (Kathleen Burke). Randolph Scott co-stars as a scientist working on the zoo lot, although, like everyone else, he gets overshadowed by Atwill and his menagerie of deadly beasts.
Before becoming known for such film noir efforts as Gun Crazy (reviewed here), Joseph H. Lewis landed among his credits The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1942), in which a deranged scientist (Atwill) on the run from the law ends up stranded on an island alongside a few other passengers; there, he convinces the natives of his godlike powers while continuing his experiments. This one’s not bad, although the incessant comic relief from co-star Una Merkel is a distraction.
The Strange Case of Doctor Rx (1942) is absolutely bonkers, but in the best way. A mysterious figure is killing off the criminals who are being set free by an unscrupulous lawyer (Samuel S. Hinds), and it’s up to a private detective (Patric Knowles) to uncover his identity. The leading suspect appears to be Dr. Fish (Atwill), but the private eye has trouble focusing on the case since he’s being dogged at every turn by his equally intrepid girlfriend (Anne Gwynne) and a pair of cops (Edmund McDonald and The Three Stooges’ Shemp Howard). Mantan Moreland is saddled with the racist role of the detective’s butler, but his talent nevertheless shines through. The movie never makes much sense (a gorilla unexpectedly turns up toward the end in a weird plot twist), but it remains entertaining throughout.
Zucco is represented in the set by The Mad Ghoul (1943), but this programmer turns out to be the weakest of the four flicks. It certainly features the best horror cast of the quartet — The Wolf Man’s Evelyn Ankers, King Kong’s Robert Armstrong, The Mummy’s Tomb’s Turhan Bey — but thrills are kept at a low simmer as a college professor (Zucco), lusting after the girlfriend (Ankers) of his most promising student (David Bruce), controls his pupil by turning him into a zombie-like creature.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historians on Murders in the Zoo and The Mad Ghoul; a piece on the life and career of Atwill; and still galleries for all four features.
Murders in the Zoo: ***
The Mad Doctor of Market Street: **1/2
The Strange Case of Doctor Rx: ***
The Mad Ghoul: **
WEIRD SCIENCE (1985). The odd film out in the John Hughes oeuvre, Weird Science foregoes the sensitive and quasi-realistic angle explored in such titles as The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink and goes straight for the geeky gags and gross-outs. Hughes’ script is extremely ragged and not especially good — honestly, it often feels as it was written by a teenage boy, not an adult male — but there are some bright moments and bright performances scattered throughout, to say nothing of that irresistible ‘80s vibe (quick, who remembers David Lee Roth with his “Dave TV”?). Anthony Michael Hall and Ilan Mitchell-Smith play Gary and Wyatt, two friendless high school nerds who decide to use Wyatt’s computer to make their own fantasy babe. Faster than Colin Clive’s Dr. Frankenstein can bellow, “It’s alive!,” the lads have created Lisa (Kelly LeBrock), whose body is built for pleasure but who instead uses her brains to help the boys mature. The premise is pure softcore porn, but Hughes backs away from this angle (Lisa never sleeps with anybody) and focuses instead on rollicking bits involving Wyatt’s obnoxious older brother Chet (Bill Paxton), a pair of bullying classmates (Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Rusler), and futuristic bikers straight out of Mad Max (literally in one case, as actor Vernon Wells previously portrayed the mohawked Wez in Mad Max 2, aka The Road Warrior). The finely honed comic turns by Hall and Mitchell-Smith help considerably, with a game LeBrock also doing her best in a nonsensical role.
Arrow’s new Blu-ray edition contains the 94-minute theatrical version, the 97-minute extended cut, and the 94-minute TV version. Extras include a making-of featurette; new interviews with editor Chris Lebenzon and makeup creator Craig Reardon; and image galleries. Sadly MIA is the music video for Oingo Boingo’s catchy title song.