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.
Gregory Peck in The Chairman (Photo: Twilight Time)
(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.)
AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019). As the culmination of the initial Marvel Cinematic Universe odyssey, Avengers: Endgame is a staggering achievement, as impressively linked in its world-building and its myth-making as the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings films. Is it the best superhero movie ever made? In the immortal words of Balki Bartokomous, “Don’t be ridiculous.” It’s the longest superhero movie. It’s possibly the most expensive superhero movie. It’s certainly the most superhero movie. Yet while there are at least a dozen super-sagas superior to this one, it nevertheless ranks among the upper echelons of this particularly robust genre. As we saw in Avengers: Infinity War, Thanos (Josh Brolin) wiped out 50 percent of the universe’s population, with the original Avengers Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) feeling the weight of their failure. But here comes Captain Marvel (Brie Larsen) to save the day — and the universe! Right? Well, not exactly. To say that Avengers: Endgame is a movie of many surprises is putting it mildly. Certainly, there are some expected character beats, some predictable visual cues, some anticipated speechifying. (And let’s not forget the various plotholes, ones prominent enough to make me consider dropping the rating a half-star.) But what matters most — and what elevates the entire picture — are the emotional beats. Those looking for the usual repetitive fight sequences that often clog the pores of superhero flicks will be disappointed, since there’s truly only one gargantuan battle royale. Wisely, the focus is instead on the human (and alien) element, with many of the series stars (particularly Johansson) turning in some of their best work.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by directors Anthony and Joe Russo; a tribute to Stan Lee; deleted scenes; and a gag reel.
BEHOLD A PALE HORSE (1964) / THE CHAIRMAN (1969). Of the 34 motion pictures Gregory Peck made between 1944’s Days of Glory (his film debut) and 1962’s To Kill a Mockingbird (the movie for which he finally won his Best Actor Oscar, after four previous nominations), 19 of them were among their respective years’ top 20 moneymakers, an enviable percentage that spoke well for his longevity in that cutthroat business. Unfortunately, his career declined after Mockingbird, with only a few minor hits (1963’s Captain Newman, M.D., 1966’s Arabesque, 1978’s The Boys from Brazil) and one major smash (1976’s The Omen) strewn throughout his final 15 starring features (after these ended in 1980, he was only found in cameos, supporting roles, and TV projects). Among these commercial and (usually) critical failures were such efforts as the heavily edited Mackenna’s Gold, the Oscar-winning (for its visual effects) Marooned, and two titles recently released through the Twilight Time label.
Reuniting The Guns of Navarone co-stars Peck and Anthony Quinn (as well as Lawrence of Arabia co-stars Quinn and Omar Sharif), Behold a Pale Horse is adapted from Killing a Mouse on Sunday, a 1961 novel penned by filmmaker Emeric Pressburger (yes, he of Powell-Pressburger / The Archers fame). Set two decades after the end of the Spanish Civil War that left the fascistic Franco regime in charge, the picture details the cat-and-mouse struggle between Captain Viñolas (Quinn), a celebrated officer in Franco’s army, and Manuel Artiguez (Peck, appropriately more gruff and guttural than usual), an exiled freedom fighter who considers returning to his homeland to assassinate his old nemesis. Caught in the middle of their skirmish is an earnest priest named Francisco (Sharif), while serving as Manuel’s conscience is the little boy Paco (Marietto Angeletti). With its thick-as-molasses European politics, it’s easy to see why American audiences largely chose to ignore the film, but director Fred Zinnemann and scripter J.P. Miller have nevertheless constructed an interesting drama that’s particularly buoyed by the scenes pitting the beliefs of the bitter freedom fighter against those held by the sensitive priest.
Less successful — though not without its own points of interest — is The Chairman, which includes the sight of Gregory Peck playing ping-pong with Mao Tse-tung. Specifically, it’s Conrad Yama portraying the titular Chinese leader and Peck cast as John Hathaway, a Nobel Prize-winning professor sent by a mix of U.S., British and Soviet government leaders to Communist China to steal the formula for an agricultural breakthrough. A device has been planted inside Hathaway’s head that allows him to maintain communication with his American military contact (Arthur Hill); what he doesn’t know is that the gadget can also serve as an explosive device, with the possibility of being set off if he gets captured by the Commies … or if he finds himself in close proximity to the Chairman, say, while engaging in a game of ping-pong. Retitled The Most Dangerous Man in the World in England and several other European nations, The Chairman is somewhat dry compared to the other three pictures Peck made with director J. Lee Thompson (The Guns of Navarone, Cape Fear and Mackenna’s Gold). Yet the backdrop of Communist China proves alluring, and the central role is a good fit for Peck. The supporting cast includes Burt Kwouk (the Cato to Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau) and Zienia Merton (a regular on TV’s Space: 1999, recently released on Blu-ray and reviewed here).
The only Blu-ray extra on Behold a Pale Horse is the theatrical trailer. Blu-ray extras on The Chairman consist of audio commentary by film historians Eddy Friedfeld and Lee Pfeiffer; two alternate scenes for the film’s international cut (meaning nudity); a 17-minute version of the movie; the theatrical trailer; and an isolated track of Jerry Goldsmith’s excellent score.
Behold a Pale Horse: ★★★
The Chairman: ★★½
THE CURSE OF LA LLORONA (2019). Tony Amendola first essayed the role of Father Perez in 2014’s Annabelle, and his brief appearance here marks The Curse of La Llorona as another entry in The Conjuring Universe. I daresay that a character from a different Warner Bros. property — say, Clint Eastwood’s grizzled drug smuggler from The Mule or Ken Jeong’s obnoxious dad from Crazy Rich Asians or even Pikachu from Pokémon Detective Pikachu — would have made for a more interesting crossover, since, as it stands, there’s nothing distinguishable about this dreary by-the-numbers horror flick. In this one, the menacing entity is La Llorona (an actual legend with a lengthy history in various Latin American countries), “The Weeping Woman” with a penchant for drowning children. She settles on the two kids (Roman Christou and Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) of a Los Angeles social worker (Linda Cardellini) as her next victims, with only a former priest (Raymond Cruz) able to offer any assistance. There’s a reason La Llorona has endured as a folktale for well over a century, but the haunting qualities of the myth have been flattened out in this drab undertaking, which reduces the spectral figure to a rote movie monster and places her at the center of a story noticeably lacking in originality, imagination or even old-fashioned scares.
Blu-ray extras consist of a making-of featurette; deleted scenes; a look at the real-life myth; a piece on creating The Weeping Woman for the movie; and storyboards.
MERRILL’S MARAUDERS (1962). Based on the real-life exploits of the outfit (the 5307th Composite Unit) that operated in the Pacific War theater during World War II, Merrill’s Marauders follows the soldiers as they attempt to complete various missions during their Burmese campaign. Brigadier General Frank Merrill (Jeff Chandler) is concerned for his men but must take his marching orders from General Stilwell (John Hoyt), meaning that the exhausted, irritable and often ill grunts are pushed beyond normal limits. As an example of the age-old adage “War is hell,” the film is somewhat unique for its time, as writer-director Samuel Fuller (co-scripting with Milton Sperling) eschews any manner of jingoism to detail the hazardous effects of war on those on the frontlines — not just the physical dangers but also the emotional and mental tolls. But in this instance, such an approach also strips the characters of much personality, with most of the soldiers indistinguishable from one another (the cast was largely stocked with TV actors under contract, and none are able to break out in any discernible manner). Shockingly, Chandler died a year before the film’s release, the victim of medical malpractice resulting from back surgery; he was 42 years old. As for Fuller, he made Merrill’s Marauders only because he was promised a chance to film his dream project based on his own wartime experiences; instead, the plug was pulled, and Fuller had to wait nearly two more decades for the opportunity to finally make The Big Red One.
The only Blu-ray extra is the theatrical trailer.
POKÉMON DETECTIVE PIKACHU (2019). Pokémon Detective Pikachu became instantly renowned for being the first of 41 video-game adaptations to earn a Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, although even that came with the caveat that the site’s Top Critics, i.e. mostly old-school print reviewers rather than largely online fanboy critics, still have it rated Rotten. Certainly, it’s better than anything else in that groan-inducing pack, even if it never comes across as much more than a middling knockoff of 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Ryan Reynolds channels some of his Deadpool deadpanning into his vocal characterization as Pikachu, a private eye and one of the “pocket monsters” living in harmony with humans in the sprawling metropolis of Ryme City. Suffering from amnesia, Pikachu teams up with the son (Justice Smith) of his missing partner to discover who’s manufacturing a synthetic drug that’s turning the Pokémon violent. Like Roger Rabbit, this is set in a landscape where humans and non-humans co-exist, yet it does very little with this angle — even last year’s notorious bomb The Happytime Murders did a better job at examining the relationships between the people and the puppets who lived, played and worked together. Yet where this picture excels is in its visual realization, with state-of-the-art effects completely immersing viewers into this colorful world. The CGI mastery extends to the characters, with Pikachu proving to be an engaging protagonist. (My favorite character, though, is Psyduck, described as a crank who suffers from crippling headaches and often stands around in a dazed state; I can relate.) Even the mystery isn’t too shabby, with the right amount of clues and character reveals to keep it fairly interesting.
Blu-ray extras include a feature-length trivia track; a making-of featurette; an alternate opening; and an interview with Reynolds.
POMS (2019). The premise of Poms sounds rather twee — a group of elderly women elects to form its own cheerleading squad — and history has taught us that all films like this predictably end with the underdogs snagging the top prize at some national championship competition. None of this is completely inaccurate when it comes to Poms, but neither is it the whole story. For starters, Martha isn’t the usual chipper character essayed by the great Diane Keaton; instead, she’s a grumpy septuagenarian who, faced with cancer, decides to head to a retirement community in order to die in peace. She gets reluctantly dragged back into the land of the living by her new neighbor Sheryl (Jackie Weaver), a cheerful and randy sort who’s into “poker and poking” (but presumably not Pokémon). Since living in this community means Martha has to either join a club or create her own, she decides to start a cheerleading squad for senior ladies. She’s joined by Sheryl and six other residents (including one played by an all-too-infrequently used Pam Grier), but they soon discover that ageism might prevent them from engaging in even this seemingly simple pleasure. Many of the conflicts are artificially manufactured and the comedy is often anemic (save for Weaver’s quips), but what rescues Poms from complete disarray and dysfunction is its poignant examination of eight women who are ready to fade away in anonymity and old age, only to realize that they still retain some measure of import and urgency as human beings. It may sound trite, but Keaton and her co-stars manage to invest their roles with a genuine vitality that backs the movie’s dubious premise. Despite that emotional edge, much of Poms is so stridently routine that there’s no guarantee you’ll laugh or cry. But like the picture’s leading ladies, you might cheer, even if just a little.
There are no extras on the Blu-ray.
THE REFLECTING SKIN (1990). Not willing to be tied down to one medium, British provocateur Philip Ridley has served as a painter, a poet, a novelist, a playwright, a photographer, a songwriter, and a filmmaker. In that last capacity, he’s arguably best known for The Reflecting Skin, a dazzling yet disturbing oddity set in the wheat-field plains of 1950s Idaho. Although the focus is a young boy, this isn’t a story of childhood innocence — childhood insidiousness might be closer to the truth. Eight-year-old Seth (Jeremy Cooper) is the sort of brat who finds it cool to pump up the stomachs of live frogs and then burst them with a slingshot so that blood and body parts are sprayed everywhere. Seth’s mom (Sheila Moore) is casually cruel while his dad (Duncan Fraser) might be a pedophile; luckily for the lad, his beloved older brother Cameron (Viggo Mortensen) is returning from the war. But there are complications: Seth’s best friends are turning up dead, a car full of delinquents cruises the only paved road around, and Dolphin Blue (Lindsay Duncan), the British woman residing in the nearby mansion, just might be a vampire. Seth’s relationship with his English neighbor drives a significant part of the proceedings, as he becomes increasingly alarmed after Cameron takes an interest in her. Ridley maintains an unsettling mood from first frame to last, although equally responsible for the success of the picture is two-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Dick Pope (Mr. Turner, The Illusionist), whose arty compositions are often staggering to behold. Haunting and hypnotic, The Reflecting Skin gets under the skin and is content to remain there.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by Ridley and a making-of featurette.
TEN NORTH FREDERICK (1958). The story goes that Spencer Tracy was originally slated to star in this adaptation of John O’Hara’s award-winning novel but opted at the last minute to headline 1958’s The Last Hurrah instead. The Last Hurrah (released last fall on Blu-ray by Twilight Time and reviewed here) is a movie whose plotline is steeped in politics, and that initially seems to be the direction that Ten North Frederick will likewise take. Joe Chapin (Gary Cooper), a distinguished lawyer and a pillar of his community, is convinced by his shrewd and shrewish wife Edith (Geraldine Fitzgerald) that he should run for public office, with visions of the White House dancing like sugar plums in her head. A couple of local politicos (Tom Tully and Philip Ober) agree, but it’s here where the movie swerves off its expected path, first turning into a familial drama before morphing into a moving love story. The superb performances might begin with Cooper (sympathetic) and Fitzgerald (chilling), but they end with the younger cast members, all of whom carve out indelible characterizations: Diane Varsi (fresh off her Oscar-nominated film debut in 1957’s Peyton Place) as the Chapins’ daughter Ann, Ray Stricklyn as their son Joby, and former super-model Suzy Parker as Kate Drummond, Ann’s roommate and the woman who provides Joe with a new lease on life. Look also for a fine turn by Stuart Whitman (still with us today at 91) as Charley Bongiorno, a jazz trumpeter who becomes involved with Ann, much to the displeasure of her family.
The only Blu-ray extra is an isolated track of Leigh Harline’s score.
TOLKIEN (2019). Folks who find themselves increasingly bored of the Rings might want to skip this starchy biopic about the creator of The Lord of the Rings. Then again, even those who retain an affinity for all things Middle-Earth might elect to take a hard pass on a film that possesses little of the magic and imagination that informed J.R.R. Tolkien’s most famous works. Often playing like outtakes from Dead Poets Society, Tolkien primarily focuses on the formative school years of the English author (portrayed by Nicholas Hoult), whose camaraderie with three other lads informs his views on friendship and loyalty. These idyllic scenes are interspersed with ones in which Tolkien serves in World War I, learning firsthand that all is decidedly not quiet on the Western Front. There are also glimpses at his relationship with Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), who would eventually become his wife. Clearly, a visionary person like J.R.R. Tolkien deserves a visionary treatment of his life, but Tolkien is as literal-minded as biopics come. Director Dome Karukoski’s few attempts at drawing from fantasy rather than reality (such as soldiers armed with flamethrowers morphing into fire-breathing dragons) look so cheap that you wish Peter Jackson would have shown mercy and donated footage from his epic undertaking. But the real problem with Tolkien is that it pays short shrift to the creative process, instead taking pains to show how everything that ended up on the page sprang less from the writer’s imagination and more from real-life events (e.g. his friends’ comments about a “fellowship” and a “magic ring”). These bits aren’t meant to illuminate Tolkien’s life as much as they’re meant to placate LOTR junkies. In short, they give new meaning to the term “fan fiction.”
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Karukoski; deleted scenes; and a photo gallery.
UGLYDOLLS (2019). UglyDolls is based on a line of plush toys created back in 2001, and it was a logical option for an industry that has already produced movies based on plastic dolls, board games, video games, and even bubble gum cards. Furthermore, it hits all the beats expected of a film meant to entertain very small children and absolutely no one else. There are the colorfully rendered characters, the blandly pleasing pop songs, and the usual message of loving yourself while also loving everyone else. The only thing missing seems to be a reason to watch this when there are roughly 1,000 other kid flicks out there with similar themes and more compelling narratives, characters and visual designs. With a story concocted by Robert Rodriguez (more in Spy Kids than Machete mode, obviously), this centers on Moxy (voiced by Kelly Clarkson), a misshapen doll who lives in Uglyville but dreams of being the proud property of a little girl. She and a few other misfits make it to the Institute of Perfection, which is where they learn that only beautiful toys make it into the real world — and even then only after rigorous training. They decide to take a shot anyway, but they’re undermined at every turn by the charismatic but duplicitous leader (Nick Jonas) of the Institute. UglyDolls looks awfully cheap, to the degree that one wonders why its makers didn’t hire that Game of Thrones cinematographer to plunge the entire picture into indecipherable darkness. Some inventive touches manage to work their way into the proceedings (I like how buttons are the form of currency in Uglyville), but for the most part, this is merely a shameless cash-grab. It’s not the dolls that are ugly (they’re actually kinda cute), but rather the crippling laziness that’s most unattractive.
Blu-ray extras include a sing-along version of the film; a making-of featurette; and theatrical trailers.
VICE SQUAD (1982). Notorious for portraying the Los Angeles nightlife in all its despairing seediness, Vice Squad is even more renowned for featuring an unforgettable villain for the ages. That would be Ramrod, played with acidic intensity by Wings Hauser (incidentally, Hauser also sings the movie’s godawful theme song, “Neon Slime,” but the less said about that, the better). A pimp by trade, Ramrod (usually sporting a voluminous cowboy hat) begins the film by beating a prostitute named Ginger (Nina Blackwood, one of the original MTV VJs) to death with a Joan Crawford-approved wire hanger. This naturally upsets Ginger’s friend (Season Hubley), a single mom who works the streets under the name Princess, so she reluctantly teams up with detective Tom Walsh (Gary Swanson) to help apprehend Ramrod. But the ineptness of Walsh’s colleagues means that Ramrod has no trouble escaping from custody, and he makes it his mission to find and eliminate Princess. Hubley’s good and Hauser’s great, but Swanson provides a colorless character, further saddled with some of the clumsiest dialogue whipped up by scripters Sandy Howard, Kenneth Peters and Robert Vincent O’Neil. Critics back in the day lambasted the film for its unrelenting sleaze, although, given the milieu, that proved to be the proper shade to apply to the project. That sleaze factor aside, though, there’s little to distinguish this from a standard episode of, say, Kojak or T.J. Hooker (which actually employed this exact plot for the “Sweet 16 or Dead” episode).
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director Gary A. Sherman and producer Brian Frankish; new interviews with Sherman, Frankish, Swanson, and co-stars Pepe Serna, Michael Ensign and Beverly Todd; a look at the shooting locations today; photo galleries; and the theatrical trailer.