Alessandro Nivola in The Art of Self-Defense (Photo: Universal & Bleecker Street)

(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.)

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Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg in The Art of Self-Defense (Photo: Universal & Bleecker Street)

THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE (2019). If the first rule of Fight Club is that you do not talk about Fight Club, then the first rule of The Art of Self-Defense is that you should talk about The Art of Self-Defense to anyone who will listen. Less pretentious and more penetrating than David Fincher’s decent but grossly overrated 1999 effort, it’s the superior picture when it comes to its critique of toxic masculinity — and it’s less likely to be misunderstood by a specific strain of clueless males, to boot. Writer-director Riley Stearns (a filmmaker to watch) hands Jesse Eisenberg one of his best roles as Casey, a meek accountant who finds himself brutally beaten one night by a roving gang of motorcyclists. Tired of always being afraid, he signs up for karate classes at the studio of a charismatic instructor who calls himself Sensei (Alessandro Nivola). Sensei slowly teaches Casey how to embrace his innate courage, but his newfound confidence comes at a terrible price. Stearns has concocted a pitch-black piece in which the humor only serves as a dry rub over the disturbing developments — not everything works (particularly some second-half twists), but the razor-sharp delivery of its pertinent and timely themes makes it impossible to forget. Imogen Poots delivers a fine performance as the only female at the dojo — her character’s presence brings the inherent misogyny and skewed hierarchy into sharper focus — while Nivola is superb as the instructor whose considerable charm belies his insidious actions.

Blu-ray extras consist of cast and crew interviews, and the amusing faux commercial “An Important Message from Sensei.”

Movie: ***1/2

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The Lion King (Photo: Disney)

THE LION KING (2019). Here’s the tricky part about covering this new take on The Lion King. If you’ve seen the animated 1994 original, it’s impossible not to compare and contrast, and this version falls short in practically every way. Thus, those who have never seen the ’94 edition will doubtless be much more charitable in their assessment, although even they might be put off by the soullessness of the entire enterprise. All of the enduring characters have returned, including the majestic Mufasa, his restless son Simba, and Mufasa’s conniving brother Scar. The photorealism of the project is perfect, but that’s part of the problem. It doesn’t allow for as much physical expression as cartoons, so everyone here is delivering their lines behind a barrier of inertia. Simba’s face basically remains the same whether he’s chasing butterflies or getting trampled by wildebeest — he’s the Jean-Claude Van Damme of CGI animals. Meanwhile, the meerkat Timon remains a great character, but I haven’t seen eyes this lifeless and devoid of expression since Tom Hanks tried to get everyone to climb aboard his Polar Express. Speaking of Timon, Nathan Lane’s voice work in the original was one of that picture’s highlights — ditto James Earl Jones as Mufasa, Ernie Sabella as the warthog Pumbaa, and especially Jeremy Irons as Scar. Jones has been brought back to active duty to reprise his turn as Mufasa — if only they had brought everyone back. There are plenty of fine actors involved with this picture, but most don’t make much of an impression, including Donald Glover as Simba, Beyoncé as Nala, and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar. Only Seth Rogen as Pumbaa and, to a lesser extent, Billy Eichner as Timon come close to making the roles their own, even if they’re stripped of some of their characters’ best material.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director Jon Favreau; an introduction by Favreau; and a behind-the-scenes featurette.

Movie: **

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Buster Keaton in Our Hospitality (Photo: Kino)

OUR HOSPITALITY (1923). While Cohen Media has recently been releasing Buster Keaton classics on Blu-ray at a fast and furious pace, it’s the Kino label that is gracing us with this restored edition of one of the silent comedian’s most popular pictures. After helming a number of shorts, Keaton made his feature directorial debut with 1923’s Three Ages and followed it a mere two months later with this ofttimes visually staggering effort. Set circa 1830, this finds Buster playing Willie McKay, a young man who returns to the family homestead a full 20 years after he was sent away as a mere toddler. Willie is blissfully unaware that his family and the neighboring Canfields have always been sworn enemies, with members of each clan killing their rivals at every opportunity. Willie falls for local beauty Virginia Canfield (Natalie Talmadge, Keaton’s wife at the time), initially ignorant that her father (Joe Roberts) and her two brothers (Ralph Bushman and Craig Ward) mean to shoot him dead. The lengthy stretch in which Willie connives to remain inside the Canfield home as their guest, knowing he’ll be killed if he steps outside, is a running succession of clever gags — ditto the set-pieces involving a unique train. Still, the film’s showstopper is the dynamic climax in which Willie and Virginia find themselves at the mercy of a waterfall.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by film historians Farran Smith Nehme and Imogen Sara Smith; the 1947 short film Un duel a mort (A Duel to the Death), starring Keaton; and the 1925 short film The Iron Mule, featuring an uncredited Keaton as well as the train seen prominently in Our Hospitality.

Movie: ***1/2

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Paul Michael Glaser and Susan Hogan in Phobia (Photo: Kino)

PHOBIA (1980). Past the point when most men would be happily settled in retirement, John Huston continued making movies right up until his death in 1987 at the age of 81. But while his final decade produced such gems as Wise Blood, Under the Volcano and Prizzi’s Honor, it also harbored the two worst pictures he oversaw throughout his 46 years in the director’s chair. One would be 1982’s heavily hyped Annie, the tone-deaf musical adaptation starring Albert Finney and Carol Burnett; the other would be this all-but-forgotten thriller filmed in Canada. A sleepwalking Paul Michael Glaser (Starsky on TV’s Starsky & Hutch) stars as Dr. Peter Ross, a psychiatrist whose has devised a radical — and controversial — way to rid patients of their phobias. But when his five test subjects start turning up dead, a dense detective (John Colicos) tries to ascertain whether someone is actually targeting Dr. Ross instead. It’s astonishing that this is presented as a mystery since the killer’s identity is 75% obvious after the first murder and 99.9% apparent after the second death, but the movie’s problems go deeper than that. The doctor’s experimental treatment makes little sense — he tries to cure one patient of her fear of being raped; umm, isn’t that an understandable and even sensible fear to have? — and the motive behind the killer’s actions is risible. There’s so little sense of style in this film that Huston’s involvement must have solely consisted of yelling “Action!” and “Cut!” from inside his trailer. At least five writers had a hand in creating this turkey, including Ronald Shusett (Alien), Peter Bellwood (Highlander) and former Hammer Films mainstay Jimmy Sangster (Horror of Dracula).

Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historian Jason Pichonsky; interviews with co-stars Susan Hogan and Lisa Langlois; and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: *

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Dave Bautista and Kumail Nanjiani in Stuber (Photo: Fox)

STUBER (2019). Just because the 1980s ended long ago doesn’t mean we’re not still entitled to receive quality “buddy” flicks. While that decade saw these types of films — generally action-comedies where at least one of the twofer was a cop — breed like rabbits, recent times have tended to put the brakes on such endeavors, resulting in a steady trickle rather than a downpour. Some have been decent, like The Nice Guys and Central Intelligence; others have been mediocre, like Stuber. With apologies to Foghat, this latest effort is a slow ride; perhaps Stupor would have been a better title. Kumail Nanjiani plays Stu, a mousy Uber driver who lives in constant fear that his customer rating will slip below 4.0 (on a 5.0 scale). His latest pickup is Vic Manning (Dave Bautista), a detective on the trail of the drug kingpin (The Raid star Iko Uwais, criminally wasted) who killed his partner (Karen Gillan, checking out after the opening scene). The reason a cop would need to be chauffeured by an Uber driver? Because Vic has just been subjected to corrective eye surgery and is basically Mr. Magoo for at least a few more hours. Vic and Stu bicker constantly, only breaking on occasion to gun down a few sneering perps. Nanjiani occasionally gets off a funny aside, but for the most part, the comedy proves to be as anemic as the action. Marvel completists might want to check out the Guardians of the Galaxy reunion between Drax the Destroyer (Bautista) and Nebula (Gillan) in the opening moments, and those who’ve long wondered whatever happened to Mira Sorvino after the 1990s will breathe a sigh of relief when she turns up here as Vic’s boss at the precinct. Otherwise, there’s not much tread on yet another assembly-line mediocrity.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Nanjiani and director Michael Dowse; deleted scenes; and a gag reel.

Movie: **

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Muhammad Ali (left) and George Foreman in When We Were Kings (Photo: Criterion)

WHEN WE WERE KINGS (1996). A deserving winner of the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, When We Were Kings is one of those movies that was literally years in the making. In 1974, filmmaker Leon Gast headed to Zaire to shoot a documentary about Zaire 74, a music festival that was to precede “The Rumble in the Jungle,” the celebrated boxing match between heavyweight giants Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Twenty-two years later, after scores of financial setbacks that kept the film stock from ever seeing the light of day, the picture was finally completed and released. But the emphasis was no longer on the concert; instead, Gast realized early on that the real story was the legacy of Muhammad Ali. Working with the hundreds of hours of footage he shot in Zaire — and supplementing it with insightful, after-the-fact interviews with (among others) Norman Mailer, George Plimpton and Spike Lee — Gast managed to capture a legend in what was perhaps his finest hour. At the time, it was a given that Foreman was going to slaughter Ali in the ring; the beauty of this movie is that it shows in amazing detail the process through which Ali stepped up to the challenge and succeeded against all expectations. Yet what really makes When We Were Kings sing is its attention to black pride. At the center of this theme is Ali himself, who not only comes across as the original rapper (“You think the world was surprised when Nixon resigned? Just wait till I kick George Foreman’s behind!”) but also as a visionary advocate and leader.

Blu-ray extras consist of a 1997 interview with Gast; new interviews with producers Taylor Hackford and David Sonenberg; the 2009 documentary Soul Power, about the Zaire 74 music festival; and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ***1/2

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Zoltan … Hound of Dracula (Photo: Kino & StudioCanal)

ZOLTAN … HOUND OF DRACULA (1977). Originally making the rounds under the title Dracula’s Dog, Zoltan … Hound of Dracula turns out to be a real bow-wow. Soviet soldiers in Romania accidentally uncover the tomb of Igor(?) Dracula, from which emerges not only the late Count’s Renfield-like lackey Veidt Smit (Reggie Nalder) but also Veidt’s faithful canine companion Zoltan, who was turned into a vam-pup on the same night that Igor(?) Dracula transformed Veidt into his minion. Needing a master to serve, Veidt and Zoltan travel to Los Angeles to seek out Michael Drake (Michael Pataki), whose real name is actually … Michael Dracula! As the last living descendant of Count Igor(?) Dracula, it’s logical that he should serve as their new master, so Veidt orders Zoltan to begin turning the Drake family’s beautiful German Shepherds (Mom, Dad, and puppies) into vampiric doggies. José Ferrer, who in another lifetime had won an Oscar for 1950’s Cyrano de Bergerac, co-stars as the Romanian inspector who tries to save Michael Drake from being bitten by the bloodthirsty bowser. The visual and makeup effects are by four-time Oscar winner Stan Winston (Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Jurassic Park), but his contribution here mainly consists of making the dogs’ eyes glow in the dark. Pataki is laughably miscast as both Michael Drake and, briefly, Igor(?) Dracula; as for Nalder, Zoltan … Hound of Dracula did not end his dalliance with vampires. In 1978, Nalder portrayed Dr. Van Helsing opposite porn stars John Holmes and Annette Haven in the X-rated Dracula Sucks, while in 1979 he essayed the iconic role of the hideous bloodsucker Kurt Barlow in the TV-movie adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot.

Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historians Lee Gambin and John Harrison; a radio spot; and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: *1/2

 

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