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.
Doug Bradley in Hellraiser (Photo: Arrow)
(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.)
ANNABELLE COMES HOME (2019). As far as unnecessary sequels go, both 2014’s Annabelle and 2017’s Annabelle: Creation made fairly convincing cases for their existence by explaining the origins of the spooky doll first referenced in 2013’s The Conjuring. After that, there really wasn’t much else to relate about the antique doll, so Annabelle Comes Home tacks on what amounts to a hastily scrawled postscript. As initially seen in The Conjuring, the doll is now in the possession of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga again playing characters based on a pair of real-life shysters who made a living peddling this nonsense), so this entry wonders what would happen if Annabelle busted loose and wreaked havoc on the Warren homestead. It’s all rather tedious, resulting in a series of jump-scares that lead to neither jumps nor scares. Part of the problem is the setting of the Warren residence, which proves to be woefully inadequate as a haunted house. Poltergeist made the haunted suburban home memorable by treating it as a roller coaster ride, but by going for straight ambience, Annabelle Comes Home has no backup when said atmospherics fail to materialize. Of course, any edifice can probably be made menacing with the right angles and proper lighting — for instance, the 2007 Spanish gem [REC] (reviewed here) managed to turn a Barcelona apartment building into Hell on Earth — but director Gary Dauberman and cinematographer Michael Burgess find more menace in the early-‘70s décor than they do in any of the horrific happenings. But say this for the film’s titular doll: In a celebrity death match, it’s a given that she would eviscerate that wimpy new incarnation of Chucky.
Blu-ray extras include behind-the-scenes featurettes and deleted scenes.
FFOLKES (1980). There’s no denying that Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were both excellent critics, but they could get remarkably sloppy with details. Take, for instance, their trashing of ffolkes on their Sneak Previews end-of-year episode “The Worst Films of 1980” (where the movie found itself nestled in between such true stinkers as The Blue Lagoon and Can’t Stop the Music, the latter reviewed here). They state on this vintage episode (which can be found online) that the movie is set during World War II and stars Roger Moore as a man fighting Nazi soldiers. Um, noooo… It’s actually set circa 1980 and stars Roger Moore as a man fighting a mix of American, British and Japanese terrorists. Clearly, they were wrong about the plot, and they were ultimately wrong about the movie’s entertainment value as well. Directed by reliable Andrew V. McLaglen (who previously had worked with Moore on an even better flick despised by Siskel and Ebert, 1978’s The Wild Geese), this finds the James Bond star playing against type as Rufus Excalibur ffolkes (yes, the f is lower case), an eccentric millionaire who dislikes women, loves cats, and runs an elite anti-terrorist organization. When a criminal mastermind (Anthony Perkins) and his men threaten to blow up an oil rig and kill over 600 workers unless their ransom demands are met, the British government turns to ffolkes to save the day. Moore is amusing in a change-of-pace role, with James Mason offering solid support as the admiral who helps ffolkes nail the bad guys. For those keeping track, this was based on Jack Davies’ novel Esther, Ruth and Jennifer (with Davies also writing the script), titled North Sea Hijack in the UK, retitled ffolkes in the US, and renamed Assault Force when it debuted on US television.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historians Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell and Nathaniel Thompson, and trailers for other films offered via the Kino Lorber label.
HELLRAISER (1987) / HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II (1988). Noted horror author Clive Barker made a startling directorial debut with Hellraiser, a grisly yarn he adapted from his novella The Hellbound Heart. The picture opens with libertine Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman) at home solving an intricate puzzle box, at which point he’s torn apart by numerous hooks. Fast-forward, and Frank’s brother Larry (Andrew Robinson) and his wife Julia (Clare Higgins) move into the house, with Larry’s daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) reluctantly agreeing to visit even though she detests her aloof stepmother. A bloody mishap results in Frank being brought back from beyond in half-formed shape, and he requires his former mistress Julia to supply him with bodies so he can become fully human again. Eventually, Kirsty finds herself squaring off not only against Frank and Julia but also the Cenobites, freakish beings who are summoned through the puzzle box and are only too happy to “tear your soul apart.” Arriving in a decade in which most movie monsters were monotonous (and similar) slashers like Jason and Michael Myers, the four Cenobites — Doug Bradley as Pinhead, Grace Kirby as the female Cenobite, Nicholas Vince as the toothy Cenobite, and Simon Bamford as the rotund Cenobite — were truly exciting, original, and unsettling characters, and their presence helps Hellraiser navigate some rough patches.
Hellraiser was followed by no less than nine sequels, although only the first three played theatrically while the rest went straight to video. The first of the follow-ups is Hellbound: Hellraiser II, in which Kirsty journeys to Hell to rescue her father, along the way receiving valuable assistance from a withdrawn teenager (Imogen Boorman) but running afoul of a resurrected Julia, a dastardly doctor (Kenneth Cranham), and, of course, the Cenobites. Barker returns only as the creator of the story (Tony Randel handles directing duties while Peter Atkins penned the script), and while the film preserves his unique visual style, it offers a storyline far more sloppy and far less interesting than the one which preceded it.
Blu-ray extras on both movies (sold separately) include making-of documentaries; interviews with Bradley and Chapman; vintage behind-the-scenes pieces; and image galleries. Extras on Hellraiser also include audio commentary by Barker and separate audio commentary by Barker and Laurence. Extras on Hellbound: Hellraiser II include audio commentary by Randel and Atkins; separate audio commentary by Randel, Atkins, and Laurence; and a deleted scene.
Hellbound: Hellraiser II: **
MAIDEN (2019). The documentary Maiden centers on Tracy Edwards, who’s described by more than one person as a “slip of a girl.” A wayward teen, she eventually discovers her passion for sailing and decides to enter the Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race. Only allowed to serve as a cook rather than a sailor, she then decides at the age of 26 to put together an all-female crew and take part in the 1989-1990 race. With support from King Hussein of Jordan, she acquires a boat (Maiden) but quickly realizes that sexism will continue to greet her at every turn. No one believes an all-female crew will be able to complete the 30,000-mile competition, let alone win any of the six legs, and one misogynistic journalist even calls them “a tin full of tarts.” Maiden, then, qualifies as an underdog sports film, but it’s far more unpredictable than most fictional features that bear that designation. As the saying goes, they win some, they lose some, and Edwards isn’t always portrayed as a plucky individual but a brooding woman who occasionally alienates a crew that nevertheless respects her and stands by her. It’s interesting to watch her maturation as a person — she goes from claiming that she hates the word “feminist” to wholeheartedly embracing it — and the movie deftly mixes vintage footage with new interviews with the various participants (including the doltish journalist).
Blu-ray extras consist of a Q&A session with Edwards and director Alex Holmes, and a discussion of the movie by Edwards, Holmes, and producer Victoria Gregory.
MIDSOMMAR (2019). Even the horrors of writer-director Ari Aster’s debut feature Hereditary probably couldn’t adequately prepare anyone for the terrors of Midsommar, a motion picture so bleak that it makes the auteur’s earlier film seem almost as cheerful and lighthearted as Mamma Mia! by comparison. Florence Pugh is excellent as Dani, who, following an unspeakable tragedy, elects to journey with her boyfriend (Jack Reynor) and his friends to a small Swedish village to witness a festival that occurs only once every 90 years. Upon arrival, everything seems pleasant enough, but matters take a dark turn once the ättestupa (Google at your own Spoiler risk) hits the fan, and from there, it’s pretty much doom and gloom for the unsuspecting visitors. Like its likely inspirations — Tom Tryon’s excellent 1973 novel Harvest House (turned into a 1978 TV miniseries starring Bette Davis) and Robin Hardy’s chilling 1973 film version of The Wicker Man — Midsommar is a thematically rich picture, with more taking place than initially meets the eye. Even if one chooses to ignore the deepest, darkest implications that seem frighteningly topical — all-white leaders and their deplorable followers engaging in evil acts against foreigners under the false guises of religion, security, and protection of an outmoded way of life? Nah, couldn’t happen here in the US of A! — there is still enough to gnaw on, from the evolution of Dani’s fragile state of mind to the various definitions of “family.” But whereas Hereditary stubbed its toe during a hurried and harried finale, Midsommar likewise takes a few missteps as it heads toward its denouement. Still, the film clearly succeeds in its utmost desire to disturb, and it’s a worthy feel-bad bummer for those in the mood.
Blu-ray extras consist of a making-of featurette and the promo piece “Bear in a Cage.”
3 SILENT CLASSICS BY JOSEF VON STERNBERG (1927-1928). While Josef von Sternberg is most famous for his numerous collaborations with lover, discovery and legend-in-her-own-right Marlene Dietrich (read the review of the Criterion box set Dietrich & von Sternberg here), the Austrian-born filmmaker has also been heralded for directing three of the most enduring films to emerge from the waning years of the silent film era.
Beckoned to Hollywood by a telegram that read, “Millions to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around,” former Chicago reporter Ben Hecht arrived on the scene and almost immediately won the Best Original Story Oscar — in the first year of the Academy Awards, no less — for the exciting gangster yarn Underworld (1927). Even after the honor, Hecht openly complained that von Sternberg had ruined his story, but regardless, the film was a huge hit and established the careers of both men. George Bancroft stars as Bull Weed, a burly, brawling hoodlum who takes a liking to a drunken ex-lawyer he nicknames “Rolls Royce” (Clive Brook). Because Bull is too busy pulling off heists and mixing it up with a rival mobster (Fred Kohler), he’s slow to notice the attraction developing between his moll, a slinky number named Feathers (Evelyn Brent), and the erudite Royce. If this Paramount production doesn’t quite match the brilliance of the classic Warner Bros. gangster films that would blanket the 1930s and ’40s, it’s still a technical gem that showcases von Sternberg’s prowess behind the camera.
Modern audiences would be forgiven for assuming that the first Best Actor Oscar ever handed out went to one of the enduring giants of the silent era — perhaps Chaplin or Keaton, maybe Barrymore or Chaney. Instead, it went to an acclaimed performer who would only be in Hollywood briefly, electing to return to the German cinema and eventually emerging as a full-fledged … Nazi. That would be Emil Jannings, who won the statue for his performances in both The Way of All Flesh and The Last Command (1928). Pushing politics aside, his performance in The Last Command is indeed terrific. And so is the movie, the most epic, the most emotional, and the most satisfying one in this set. Jannings stars as Sergius, a broken, beaten man working as a film extra in the brutal Hollywood system. A director (William Powell) casts him in his upcoming film as a Russian general, and, in flashbacks that take up the bulk of the picture, we see that he really was a Russian general: Grand Duke Sergius Alexander, cousin to the Czar and a top target when the revolution came a-callin’. Jannings is magnificent in all facets of the character, from a proud military man to a traumatized nobody.
George Bancroft eventually was relegated to supporting roles in the sound era, but von Sternberg used him well as a leading man in the late ’20s: the aforementioned Underworld, 1928’s The Dragnet (a lost film), 1929’s Thunderbolt (for which Bancroft earned his only Oscar nomination) and The Docks of New York (1928). Basically a stock melodrama elevated by gorgeous visuals and fine performances from the ladies, this finds Bancroft playing Bill Roberts, a ship furnace stoker who, while on shore leave, saves a young woman named Mae (Betty Compson) from killing herself. The recuperating Mae makes friends with the more worldly Lou (Olga Baclanova), but both women (as well as Bill) are bothered when Lou’s cruel husband (Mitchell Lewis) openly puts the moves on Mae. Compson and Baclanova — the latter most famous for getting carved into a chicken in Tod Browning’s notorious Freaks — provide an interesting contrast in their characterizations of two women trapped in seemingly dead-end lives, while von Sternberg and cinematographer Harold Rosson expertly capture the dire working-class environment.
Blu-ray extras consist of two visual essays detailing von Sternberg’s early life and films; a 1968 interview with von Sternberg; and two different score options for each movie.
The Last Command: ****
The Docks of New York: ***1/2
TOY STORY 4 (2019). They should have quit while they were ahead. The Toy Story trio that stretched from 1995 to 2010 revealed itself as one of the greatest trilogies in film history. All three entries are worthy of four stars, which for my money catapults it above even such fan favorites as The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Dark Knight trilogy. But because Pixar profits continue to hit the high heavens — and because parent company Disney is presently in the business of doing little else but capitalizing on past successes — we now have Toy Story 4, an enjoyable outing that nevertheless puts a small dent in the overall worthiness of the beloved franchise. In this one, cowboy Woody (voiced as always by Tom Hanks) and Forky (Tony Hale), a spork who insists he’s not a toy but “trash,” find themselves separated from Buzz (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack) and the rest of the gang. They end up first in an antique store (the movie’s best scenes), where they run afoul of a doll named Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) and her army of creepy ventriloquist dummies (lookalikes all named Vincent), and then at a carnival, where Woody finds himself reunited with his lost love Bo Peep (Annie Potts). Toy Story 4 is entertaining and eager to please, but what it’s lacking is the gravitas of the previous three pictures, all of which not only beautifully explored the dynamics between child and toy but also worked over our emotions like Muhammad Ali pummeling a lesser opponent (for instance, who could ever forget the incinerator scene from Toy Story 3?). There are moments in this chapter that pull on the heartstrings ever so faintly, but for the most part, the filmmakers are more focused on keeping the proceedings popping … and on keeping those cash registers ka-chinging.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director Josh Cooley and producer Mark Nielsen; deleted scenes; a piece on Bo Peep; and a look at the new characters in the film.
WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE (1987). Before becoming a cinematic superstar, Steve McQueen initially made his mark starring as bounty hunter Josh Randall on the Western series Wanted: Dead or Alive (1958-1961). Aside from the same title, it’s hard to believe this movie has anything to do with the TV show, but it’s there in an early toss-away line in which modern-day bounty hunter Nick Randall (Rutger Hauer) explains that he’s the great-grandson of Josh Randall. How Nick Randall picked up an unlikely Dutch accent is never explained, but never mind: As far as ‘80s action flicks go, Wanted: Dead or Alive has its moments, particularly a terrific one in the film’s closing minutes. An ex-CIA agent who now makes his living bringing in the scum of Los Angeles for hefty rewards, Nick hopes to soon have enough money to retire on his beloved boat. His best friend is an affable cop (William Russ), his new girlfriend is a flight attendant (Mel Harris), and his only ally in the CIA is an agent named Walker (Robert Guillaume). But unbeknownst to Nick, he has an arch-enemy in Malak Al Rahim (Gene Simmons of KISS), a Middle Eastern terrorist who arrives in LA and immediately blows up a movie theater showing Rambo: First Blood Part II (don’t miss the irresponsible parents seen bringing their very small children to watch Stallone shoot everything and everyone in sight). Malak Al Rahim plans to kill many more people in the LA area while also settling a personal vendetta against Nick. Gary Sherman, whose previous directorial at-bat was 1982’s Vice Squad (reviewed here), stages the action effectively, resulting in fairly entertaining junk.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by Sherman and executive producer Arthur M. Sarkissian; interviews with Sherman and Harris; and theatrical trailers.