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.
Fritz Weaver (with suitcase) in Holocaust (Photo: Paramount & CBS)
(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.)
ANNA (2019). There’s a scene in writer-director Luc Besson’s Anna in which the title character, a trained assassin for the KGB, is forced to wipe out an entire restaurant of heavily armed thugs. Watching this sequence, I felt an incredible wave of déjà vu, as if I had seen this sequence before. Not a similar sequence, mind you, but this exact sequence. Was it a glitch in the matrix? Actually, it’s more like a glitch in the imagination. Anna plays like a carbon copy of earlier, better action flicks featuring a female protagonist, some helmed by Besson himself. But if the filmmaker was trying to capture lightning twice by producing another movie on the order of his influential La Femme Nikita, the most he can muster are a few flinty sparks. Anna is the name of a hard-luck woman (Sasha Luss) who gets recruited by the KGB for their dirty assignments. She’s under the tutelage of Alex Tchenkov (Luke Evans), who falls for her, and Olga (Helen Mirren), who never lets up on her. Eventually, she catches the attention of the CIA, particularly an agent (Cillian Murphy) who thinks he might be able to turn her. Anna enjoys a complex flashback structure that frequently diverts the proceedings from the present to the past, but, for the most part, these once-upon-a-time interludes reveal little that wasn’t already obvious and instead get in the way of any narrative forward momentum. As Anna, supermodel Luss is a blank slate, an undesirable quality for a movie in which audiences are supposed to completely align behind the harried heroine. Evans and Murphy disappear in their flat assignments, but Mirren has some fun as Olga, barking orders while saddled with oversized glasses and an unflattering haircut. If The Incredibles’ Edna Mode was an animated caricature of Edith Head, then Anna’s Olga is a live-action caricature of Edna Mode.
Blu-ray extras consist of a making-of featurette; pieces on two action scenes; and a look at the film’s costumes.
THE CIRCUS (1928). A look at the 10 highest grossing movies of the silent era reveals that only two directors had more than one title on the list: D.W. Griffith with The Birth of a Nation (reviewed here) at number 1 and Way Down East at number 4, and Charlie Chaplin with The Gold Rush at number 5 and The Circus at number 7. The two Chaplin pictures found the massively successful comedian again playing his beloved character of The Little Tramp; in The Circus, a number of comic developments result in him being hired to perform under the big top. Even if it doesn’t quite match the immortal likes of Modern Times or City Lights, The Circus still registers as prime Chaplin, with a number of hilarious set-pieces to accompany a love story that’s not quite as potent as those found in his masterpieces. Among the great gags are a sequence set in a house of mirrors, a run-in with a lounging lion, and a climactic tightrope walk that’s impeded by several annoying monkeys. At the very first Academy Awards ceremony, Chaplin earned a special award for “versatility and genius in writing, acting, directing and producing The Circus”; he initially also earned a pair of competitive Oscar nominations for Best Actor and Best Comedy Direction (a category that was gone by the following year), but the Academy reportedly removed him from the ballot once it was determined he would be receiving the special honor.
Criterion’s Blu-ray edition of The Circus also contains the 1969 re-release version featuring an original score by Chaplin himself. Extras include audio commentary by Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance; a 1969 interview with Chaplin; a new interview with Chaplin’s son, Eugene Chaplin; the episode from the 2003 series Chaplin Today that focuses on The Circus; and outtakes.
FEAR NO EVIL (1981). The most impressive aspect of this low-budget horror flick is its soundtrack, and it’s surprising that the filmmakers had the dough to obtain usage of great tunes by the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, Talking Heads, and The B-52’s. In all other respects, this is pretty lousy, although writer-director Frank LaLoggia probably deserves points for ambition. Fear No Evil begins as a rip-off of The Omen before morphing into a Carrie rip-off before transforming into a Night of the Living Dead rip-off — it finally culminates with a Passion Play as well as what I imagine (given the light show) must be a tribute to the glory of disco balls. The plot basically deals with the efforts of three archangels — two taking the bodies of elderly folks (Elizabeth Hoffman and John Holland), one electing to appear as a high school girl (Kathleen Rowe McAllen) — to stop Lucifer in his various incarnations. For now, he’s appearing as Andrew (Stefan Arngrim), a quiet high school senior who’s constantly being harassed by Tony (Daniel Eden), a classmate whose bullying somehow eventually leads to a liplock between the two. There’s also a zombie epidemic, death by dodgeball (anticipating the death by basketball in Wes Craven’s Deadly Friend), the sight of Tony growing voluminous female breasts (don’t ask), and the final appearance of Lucifer looking like a backup dancer at a glam-rock concert. The older cast members fare better than the younger cast members, most of whom are terrible. TV fans might recognize Arngrim from his earlier days as a child actor, when he co-starred as young Barry Lockridge on the Irwin Allen-produced series Land of the Giants (1968-1970).
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by Arngrim; new interviews with Arngrim and special effects artist John Eggett; a still gallery; TV spots; and the theatrical trailer.
HOLOCAUST (1978). The TV miniseries took off in the second half of the 1970s, and the format yielded an embarrassment of riches during those early years: 1976’s Rich Man, Poor Man, 1977’s Roots, 1977’s Washington: Behind Closed Doors, etc. Among the best of all such television events is Holocaust, the hotly debated drama that emerged as an international success. Originally airing on NBC and running 7-1/2 hours, this excellent endeavor centers on the Weiss clan, a Jewish family whose members struggle to survive the atrocities of the Second World War. Dr. Josef Weiss (Fritz Weaver) and his wife Berta (Rosemary Harris) think only of their children — scrappy fighter Rudi (Joseph Bottoms), sensitive artist Karl (James Woods), and spirited teenager Anna (Blanche Baker) — but cannot protect them from the brutal Nazi regime; meanwhile, an ambitious German lawyer named Erik Dorf (a phenomenal Michael Moriarty) manages to work his way up through the ranks of the Third Reich. As Karl’s devoted German wife, up-and-coming Meryl Streep immediately commanded attention by appearing in this and The Deer Hunter in the same calendar year; other actors making strong impressions include David Warner as high-ranking SS officer Reinhard Heydrich and Sam Wanamaker as Josef’s courageous brother Moses. Nominated for 15 Emmy Awards, Holocaust won eight, including Best Limited Series and Best Actor and Best Actress statues for Moriarty and Streep.
There are no extras on the Blu-ray edition released by Paramount Pictures and CBS Home Entertainment.
JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 – PARABELLUM (2019). “The blood is the life!” bellows Renfield in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Were John Wick (Keanu Reeves) not a man of few words, he might be found spouting such a line in this latest entry in the series about a former hitman whose puppy love has led him to kill scores of evil assassins who don’t share his soulfulness or sensitivity. After all, here’s a franchise that is most alive when someone is getting brutally beaten, bludgeoned, or bullet-riddled. Chapter 3 picks up where Chapter 2 ended, with Wick now deemed “excommunicado” and trying to extricate himself from a seemingly impossible situation. The action set-pieces that rely on the combatants getting up close and personal are phenomenal; alas, for every scene in which Wick uses his hands, there’s one or more in which he uses guns — and, as with the previous pictures, it’s these scenes that strip the film of its vibrancy, with the momentum replaced by tedium. As before, there’s a numbness in witnessing Wick repeatedly flip around an opponent, punch him down, shoot him in the stomach, and then fire into the head two or three additional times — this occurs with even greater frequency than Gary Coleman quipping, “Whatchu talkin’ about, Willis?” over the course of eight seasons on Diff’rent Strokes. Fortunately, Chapter 3 is less dependent on fawning over the artillery at hand, one of the reasons it emerges as the best of the series thus far. The other reason is because of the new characters introduced to the fold, including ones played by Halle Berry and Mark Dacascos. Reeves might eventually burn the John Wick candle at both ends (at least one more film is heading our way), but for now, he remains committed to keeping customers satisfied with his stylized, guns n’ poses franchise.
Blu-ray extras include a handful of behind-the-scenes featurettes; a preview of the John Wick Hex game; and theatrical trailers.
SHAFT (2019). The 2000 Shaft was an update of the 1971 Shaft (reviewed here), with Samuel L. Jackson playing the nephew of the iconic private dick made famous by Richard Roundtree. The latest Shaft isn’t another reboot or remake but a follow-up to the 2000 Shaft, which makes one wonder why it wasn’t called Shaft 2, The Return of Shaft or even Fifty Shades of Shaft. Then again, perhaps the moniker is meant as a reminder that the first Shaft appeared in the early 1970s, when “political correctness” and “woke” had yet to be invented (or at least perfected). In other words, this is a retrograde Shaft, full of the sort of eyebrow-raising antics that only Clint Eastwood is allowed to pull off anymore. Jackson isn’t playing John Shaft as much as he’s playing Fred G. Sanford — he’s more Redd Foxx than Richard Roundtree, insulting everyone around him and not caring who gets offended. Jessie T. Usher co-stars as Shaft’s son JJ Shaft, who teams up with his pop to figure out who murdered his childhood friend and why. Along the way, they’re joined by the original Shaft (Roundtree), who’s now revealed in one throwaway line of dialogue to actually be the father of Jackson’s Shaft rather than his uncle. The story structure is sloppy and the “gay panic” gags are painfully unfunny, but what makes this Shaft tick is the all-in performance by Jackson. He’s not only dynamic on his own but also establishes an agreeable repartee with Usher. It’s also a kick to see Roundtree reprising his signature role, and he even gets to play a variation on the classic “never bring a knife to a gunfight” routine. Tolerance of Shaft’s coarseness will of course vary, but there’s always a chance you’ll have a reasonably good time in the moment but hate yourself in the morning.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; deleted scenes; and a gag reel.
VAMPIRES (1998). Before his career flamed out with 2001’s truly awful Ghosts of Mars, John Carpenter spent the 1990s helming only five films, three of which proved to be colossal bombs (for the record, they were Memoirs of an Invisible Man, Escape from L.A., and the woeful Village of the Damned remake). Vampires (aka John Carpenter’s Vampires) was one of the lucky(?) pair — the other being In the Mouth of Madness (like Memoirs of an Invisible Man, reviewed here) — that broke even by grossing exactly what it cost. In the annals of bloodsucker cinema, the picture isn’t anything special, but by the standards of late-career Carpenter, it’ll have to do. James Woods is typically intense as Jack Crow, the leader of a team of he-men commissioned by the Vatican to wipe out all pockets of vampires that exist around the U.S. (similar outfits operate elsewhere in the world). But Jack has never before encountered a creature like Jan Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith), a powerful vampire seeking an ancient relic that will allow him to move about freely in the daytime. The story (based on John Steakley’s novel) offers some intriguing ideas, but it’s hard to muster up much sympathy or emotion when the humans are as repellent as those they slay. Sheryl Lee, Twin Peaks‘ Laura Palmer, does remarkably well with her paper-thin role as a bite victim who holds the key to Valek’s potential downfall.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Carpenter; a vintage making-of piece; new interviews with Carpenter, Woods, Griffith, producer Sandy King Carpenter, cinematographer Gary B. Kibbe, and makeup effects artist Greg Nicotero; a still gallery; and the theatrical trailer.
YESTERDAY (2019). The best movie to hit theaters this past summer (see the complete summer wrap here), Yesterday is an absolutely inspiring and disarming picture that makes the most of its unique hook. Himesh Patel stars as Jack Malik, an aspiring singer-songwriter whose career is going nowhere in his English seaside town. With only his friend and manager Ellie (Lily James) believing in him, he decides it’s time to finally call it quits and back off from music. But after he gets hit by a bus during a strange blackout that affects the entire world, he reawakens to find some things have changed. Specifically, he learns that, somehow, The Beatles have never existed, meaning that no one has ever heard of John-Paul-George-Ringo or Abbey Road or “I Saw Her Standing There.” Sensing an opportunity, he recalls from memory as many Beatles songs as he can and passes them off as his own; not surprisingly, he soon becomes the biggest music star in the world. Yesterday is largely positioned as a love story between Jack and Ellie, which makes sense since, in the immortal words of Lennon-McCartney, all you need is love. Still, it’s the Beatles angle that of course provides the film with most of its juice. Sharply scripted by Richard Curtis and zestfully directed by Danny Boyle, Yesterday touches on relevant themes connected to the world of entertainment, including the need to be in the right place at the right time to get discovered (if a song falls from a singer’s lips and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?), the humbling nature of genuine works of art (Ed Sheeran, playing himself, laments that he’s Salieri to Jack’s Mozart), and the manner in which committee groupthink can destroy originality. There’s also a late-inning development that might strike some as tasteless, although I found it lovely.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Boyle and Curtis; an alternate opening and ending; deleted scenes; and a gag reel.
Short And Sweet:
CLUNY BROWN (1946). The final film helmed by Ernst Lubitsch before his death in 1947 (The Lady in Ermine, released in 1948, was begun by Lubitsch but finished by an uncredited Otto Preminger), Cluny Brown is a humorous romp in which the title character (Jennifer Jones), a working girl who’s hired as a maid at a posh English estate, befriends a Czech writer (Charles Boyer) who’s on the run from the Nazis. He’s smitten with her, but she inexplicably only has eyes for the town dullard (Richard Haydn), a conservative chemist who lives with his harrumphing mother (Una O’Connor). There’s amusing dialogue to spare in this look at the aloofness of the British upper class, painted as more interested in whether a person “sits a horse well” than in the war being instigated by those “German chaps.”
Blu-ray extras include a video essay by film scholar Kristin Thompson; a 2004 interview with film scholar Bernard Eisenschitz; and a 1950 radio adaptation starring Boyer and Dorothy McGuire.
THE HITCH-HIKER (1953). Although best known as an actress, Ida Lupino directed a handful of films in the early 1950s before continuing that trade on episodic television through the 1960s. Her most popular feature is this tense film noir offering in which two buddies (Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy) heading to Mexico for some R&R pick up a hitchhiker who turns out to be Emmett Myers (William Tallman), an escaped killer who’s been murdering unsuspecting motorists along numerous state highways. The ending could be stronger, but Lupino’s atmospheric direction and the powerhouse performances by the three leads (particularly the menacing Tallman) make this worth catching.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historian Imogen Sara Smith and trailers for other thrillers released on the Kino label. In addition to being offered as a standalone title, The Hitch-hiker is also available in the box set Ida Lupino: Filmmaker Collection. The other three movies in the set (Not Wanted, Never Fear, and The Bigamist) are also available individually.