View from the Couch: Aladdin, Jezebel, Scars of Dracula, 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.
Aladdin (Photo: Disney)
(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.)
ALADDIN (1992). One of the early entries in the late-20th-century resurgence of the Disney animated feature (following 1989’s The Little Mermaid and 1991’s Beauty and the Beast), Aladdin represents one of Disney’s finest hours from a visual standpoint, with meticulously drawn characters and backdrops as well as a color palette that explodes off the screen. The leads — spunky street urchin Aladdin and liberated Princess Jasmine — are adequate, meaning it’s the supporting roster that makes the movie. The duplicitous parrot Iago, the mischievous monkey Abu and, of course, Robin Williams’ motormouth Genie provide the rich humor, while the sinister vizier Jafar oozes the right measure of villainy. Alan Menken’s original score nabbed an Oscar, as did “A Whole New World” (Menken and Tim Rice) for Best Original Song. Speaking of Oscars, long before studios mounted campaigns in an attempt to score nominations for Andy Serkis’ voice work in The Lord of the Rings and the Planet of the Apes films, Disney had tried likewise for Williams’ vocal gymnastics in this picture. A nomination failed to materialize, but this nevertheless remains one of the late comedian’s finest hours on film.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by co-directors John Musker and Ron Clements; a sing-along option; a new interview with Scott Weinger, who voiced Aladdin; alternate endings; a piece on the Broadway adaptation; and outtakes from Williams’ recording session as the Genie. Unfortunately, as has sadly become the norm with Disney Signature Collection editions, many of the other extras found on previous discs are available on digital only or have been dropped altogether.
ALADDIN (2019). Disney is turning all of its animated efforts into live-action films at such a fast and furious clip that I shudder to imagine what sorts of titles will be filling marquees in the near future. Should we brace ourselves for the desultory likes of Brother Bear and Chicken Little, or will the studio eventually realize that enough is enough? At least this live-action rendition of the animated classic avoids being the trainwreck that many had predicted, even if it never comes close to matching the exquisiteness of those recent live-action renditions of Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast. Clearly, only an established superstar — one immune to instant career suicide — could have been considered for Robin Williams’ part of the Genie, and kudos to Will Smith for bravely tackling the role. As the movie progresses, he settles into his own interpretation of the character, assisted by a script that allows him some unexpected deviations. But if the film works magic with the Genie, it fails miserably with Jafar. The animated Vizier was a truly menacing figure, but Marwan Kenzari transforms him from a towering villain into a pouty male model of the Zoolander variety. (Equally disappointing is the film’s tragic waste of Jafar’s right-hand parrot, Iago.) Director Guy Ritchie (in hired-Hollywood-hand mode) seems to largely stay out of the way of the technicians, allowing the craftspeople to fill the screen with as much color and movement as it can withstand. The lively songs are all still present and accounted for, and there are even a couple of new tunes (one which allows Naomi Scott, playing Jasmine, to show off her impressive pipes). It’s all very busy and all reasonably engaging, even if the characters prove to be less dimensional than their animated counterparts.
Blu-ray extras include a behind-the-scenes featurette; deleted scenes; bloopers; and a trio of music videos.
THE DEAD DON’T DIE (2019). It’s downright depressing watching Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die, which feels like some sort of cinematic end-of-the-world apocalypse. After all, if the auteur responsible for such gems as Stranger Than Paradise, Mystery Train and Only Lovers Left Alive has resorted to making movies this bad, then we’re all doomed. On paper, a zombie movie starring Bill Murray sounds like it can’t miss … and it didn’t, when it was called Zombieland. The Dead Don’t Die is a different type of horror comedy, one filtered through Jarmusch’s particular worldview. In this one, the residents of the small town of Centerville have suddenly found themselves overrun by the undead. The cause somehow seems to be polar fracking, which has led to the planet shifting off its natural rotation. Among those forced to fend off various zombie attacks are the local law officers (Murray, Adam Driver and Chloë Sevigny), a funeral home director (Tilda Swinton), and a horror-film geek (Caleb Landry Jones). The prominent theme that humans are already mindless zombies due to their materialistic impulses was already handled in a far more meaningful manner by George Romero in the 1978 classic Dawn of the Dead, the one in which the natural urge of the walking dead was to head straight for the mall. The wordplay employed by Jarmusch is particularly moldy — having a right-wing jerk (Steve Buscemi) wearing a red hat that reads, “KEEP AMERICA WHITE AGAIN” is just lazy and having Rosie Perez play a reporter named Posie Juarez is just stupid — while other aspects of the screenplay are just as grasping (such as Driver’s character mentioning that he read the film’s script). The Dead Don’t Die, sad to say, is strictly DOA.
Blu-ray extras include a behind-the-scenes featurette and a piece on Murray.
JEZEBEL (1938). The immortal 1950 masterpiece All About Eve is the movie that houses Bette Davis’ best performance, but certainly ranking in the top five would be her mesmerizing turn in this Civil War-era melodrama. Adapted from a flop play (John Huston was one of the film’s three scripters) and beating Gone with the Wind into theaters by one year, this finds Davis at her feistiest as Julie Marsden, a New Orleans belle with a fiercely independent streak. Engaged to the mild-mannered Preston Dillard (Henry Fonda) but still pursued by the roguish Buck Cantrell (George Brent), Julie shocks high society by wearing a red dress to an all-white ball (a sequence that deserves its classic status), and her faux pas has ramifications that she never sees coming. Rich in character and rich in design (the Orry-Kelly costumes worn by Davis are particularly noteworthy), Jezebel is expansive enough to also include a duel to the death and a yellow fever epidemic of staggering proportions. Davis and director William Wyler would work together again on two more excellent dramas: 1940’s The Letter (like Jezebel, a Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray title, set for release September 24) and 1941’s The Little Foxes. Nominated for five Academy Awards (including bids for Best Picture, Ernest Haller’s cinematography, and Max Steiner’s score), this earned Oscars for Best Actress (Davis) and Best Supporting Actress (Fay Bainter as Julie’s sympathetic aunt).
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historian Jeanine Basinger; a retrospective making-of piece; the 1938 live-action short “Melody Masters: Jimmy Dorsey and His Orchestra”; the 1938 cartoon “Daffy Duck in Hollywood”; a vintage promotional piece in which Davis plugs Jezebel; and the theatrical trailer.
KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS (1949) / THE LAVENDER HILL MOB (1951) / THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT (1951). Those who only know Alec Guinness for his iconic, Oscar-nominated turn as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars or for his Oscar-winning performance as Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai have only seen a sampling of what this extraordinary actor can bring to a role. For a more well-rounded lesson, check out this trio of films he made for Britain’s celebrated Ealing Studios.
The best of the bunch is Kind Hearts and Coronets, a diabolically clever comedy in which the wronged aristocrat Louis D’Ascoyne Mazzini (Dennis Price) decides to murder the eight relatives that stand ahead of him on the family tree; all eight (including Lady Agatha) are brilliantly played by Guinness. The Lavender Hill Mob, meanwhile, earned Guinness a Best Actor Oscar nomination and T.E.B. Clarke a Best Story and Screenplay Oscar win for this captivating tale of a mousy clerk (Guinness) who enlists the aid of his neighbor (Stanley Holloway) and two small-time crooks (Sidney James and Alfie Bass) to rob his own bank of gold bullion. Incidentally, that’s Audrey Hepburn playing Chiquita in one of her earliest roles. Finally, The Man in the White Suit, an Academy Award nominee for Best Screenplay, casts Guinness as Sidney Stratton, an oddball inventor whose creation of a suit that never wears out sends the fashion industry bigwigs into a panic.
Blu-ray extras on Kind Hearts and Coronets include audio commentary by film historian Kat Ellinger; an introduction by filmmaker John Landis; an interview with cinematographer Douglas Slocombe (who shot all three of these films and would later shoot the first three Indiana Jones movies); and the alternate American ending. Blu-ray extras on The Lavender Hill Mob include audio commentary by film historian Jeremy Arnold; an introduction by filmmaker Martin Scorsese; an audio interview with director Charles Crichton (who 37 years later would helm A Fish Called Wanda); and an interview with Clarke. Blu-ray extras on The Man in the White Suit include audio commentary by film historian Dr. Dean Brandum and an interview with filmmaker Stephen Frears (The Queen).
Kind Hearts and Coronets: ★★★½
The Lavender Hill Mob: ★★★½
The Man in the White Suit: ★★★
SCARS OF DRACULA (1970). Easily the most underrated of all the Dracula pictures produced by Hammer Films, Scars of Dracula was also the last period Drac flick for star Christopher Lee as the studio opted to then transport the character to the 20th century (see Dracula A.D. 1972, reviewed here, and The Satanic Rites of Dracula, reviewed here). To compete with the new wave of horror cinema (particularly the efforts coming out of the U.S.), Hammer started adding more gore and nudity to the proceedings, and while this one arrived during that period, its adult content nevertheless doesn’t feel quite as gratuitous as in later efforts from the studio, with the explicitness mostly woven into the fabric of the story. The manner in which Dracula is resurrected is particularly daft (bloody saliva dripped from the open mouth of a hovering bat!), but otherwise, this is a sturdy and suitably grim effort in which a young couple (Jenny Hanley and a miscast Dennis Waterman) search for his missing brother (Christopher Matthews); naturally, their quest leads them straight to Castle Dracula, where the voluptuous beauty catches the eye of both the Count and his scruffy manservant (Patrick Troughton, best known to TV fans as one of the earliest Doctor Whos and to movie fans as the priest who gets speared in The Omen). Lee’s role is larger in this than in many of the other Dracula sequels, which is a definite plus.
The Shout! Factory Blu-ray edition of Scars of Dracula offers the film in aspect ratios of 1.66:1 and 1.85:1. Extras consist of audio commentary by Lee, director Roy Ward Baker, and Hammer Films historian Maecus Hearns; separate audio commentary by film historians Constantine Nasr and Ted Newsom; a making-of retrospective; a still gallery; and theatrical trailers.
THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS 2 (2019). One of the gargantuan hits of 2016, The Secret Life of Pets squandered its enormous potential by turning out to be just one more animated effort about plucky heroes embarking on a meaningful odyssey. Forget The Incredible Journey — instead, this was The Middling Time-Filler, with enough clever gags strewn throughout to keep it moderately engaging but nothing more. The Secret Life of Pets 2 is more or less the same — actually, less, since the increasingly mellow direction of its characterizations means that it has even less bite (comic, not dog) than its predecessor. In this outing, canine companions Max (Patton Oswalt, replacing the original’s Louis C.K.) and Duke (Eric Stonestreet) accompany their humans on a trip to a farm, where they become acquainted with a no-nonsense sheepdog named Rooster (Harrison Ford, in a toon variation of Jack Palance’s leathery cowhand in City Slickers). Meanwhile, the rabbit Snowball (Kevin Hart) attempts to rescue a docile tiger from a cruel circus owner (Nick Kroll). The Max-Duke plotline is boilerplate while the Snowball section is frantic and unfunny. It’s actually the third storyline that unexpectedly provides the picture with any sense of mirth, as the Pomeranian Gidget (Jenny Slate) tries to retrieve Max’s favorite toy from an apartment owned by a cat lady (Meredith Salenger). This apartment is painted as a veritable house of horrors, with dozens of felines lurking in every shadow and under every chair. Vividly designed and anchored by a brilliant gag involving a laser pointer, this segment proves to be the cat’s meow in an otherwise neutered motion picture.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; deleted scenes; and two mini-movies.
THE WITCHES (1990). A box office flop that over time understandably became a cult favorite, The Witches brings together a trio of formidable artists: author Roald Dahl, director Nicolas Roeg, and Muppet master Jim Henson. It sounds like a can’t-miss combo — and for many, it is — but this adaptation of Dahl’s novel has always left me a tad cold. Roeg, the helmer who was not only behind two of the great films of the 1970s (Walkabout and Don’t Look Now) but also introduced David Bowie to the moviegoing crowd via The Man Who Fell to Earth, was an interesting choice to bring Dahl’s novel to the screen, and he receives invaluable assistance from a terrific Anjelica Huston as the Grand High Witch who plots to turn all of Britain’s children into mice. The only people who know of her plot is a young boy named Luke (Jasen Fisher) and his grandmother Helga (Mai Zetterling), an all-knowing woman well-versed in witch lore. The combo of Dahl and Roeg promises something deep and dark, but Roeg unexpectedly includes ample amounts of ill-fitting humor (particularly of the slapstick variety) that nullifies much of the mood. As for Dahl, he was so outraged at the changes (especially the added happy ending) made by scripter Allan Scott and the studio that he initially tried to have his name removed from the picture before Henson talked him out of it. The mouse critters created by the Henson team are fine, although it’s the makeup design for the witches that’s truly phenomenal. Look for Rowan Atkinson, in the brief downtime between Blackadder and Mr. Bean, as the fussy hotel manager. Sadly, both Henson and Dahl passed away in 1990, Henson shortly before the film’s release and Dahl shortly after.
The only Blu-ray extra is the theatrical trailer.
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