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.
Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Glenn Strange, Lon Chaney Jr. and Bela Lugosi in a publicity shot for Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Photo: Shout! Factory & Universal)
(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.)
ABBOTT AND COSTELLO: THE COMPLETE UNIVERSAL PICTURES COLLECTION (1940-1955). From Laurel and Hardy to Martin and Lewis to Cheech and Chong, comedy duos have long been a popular commodity on the silver screen. Among the most beloved of all are Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, who scored a sizable number of hits during the 1940s and early ‘50s. The team landed on Quigley’s influential and long-running list of the top 10 biggest box office stars for a total of eight years, nabbing the #1 spot as the nation’s top draw in 1942. Over the course of 17 years, the boys made a total of 36 movies together, 28 of them for Universal. Those 28 are now available on Blu-ray in a spectacular box set.
Just as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers had debuted in supporting roles in 1933’s Flying Down to Rio and instantly moved up to lead status with their second picture, so too did Bud and Lou debut in secondary roles in 1940’s One Night in the Tropics, translating their scene-stealing antics into starring roles for their next picture, 1941’s Buck Privates. It was a gargantuan smash, and it created an insatiable hunger among audiences for more A&C antics to the point that the pair were making up to four films each year. Buck Privates is top-flight entertainment, even if it suffers from the same problem that plagued several of the team’s pictures: too many dawdling musical numbers that keep the star duo off the screen.
The most popular and most acclaimed of all Abbott & Costello flicks is, of course, 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which is certainly their best picture. Of the other “meet the monster” movies, 1951’s Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man is the choice pick, although both 1953’s Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and 1955’s Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy have their moments. Speaking of Dr. Jekyll, he was played by horror superstar Boris Karloff, who also co-starred in 1949’s Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (an oddly titled film, since neither Karloff nor his character was the killer!). A&C tackle sci-fi in 1953’s Abbott and Costello Go to Mars and get involved in supernatural shenanigans in 1941’s Hold That Ghost and 1946’s The Time of Their Lives, the latter one of their most atypical (and one of their finest) efforts. As for the team’s classic routines, they’re spread out across numerous films, with the immortal “Who’s on First?” appearing in 1945’s The Naughty Nineties. A personal favorite, the uproarious “Bagel Street” (aka “The Susquehanna Hat Company”) routine can be found in 1944’s In Society.
Universal previously released this set on DVD back in 2008; this Shout! Factory Blu-ray edition carries over all bonus features (including six audio commentaries, production notes, and trailers) and adds several more, including another 10 audio commentaries.
BLINDED BY THE LIGHT (2019). Inspired by a true story, Blinded by the Light demonstrates how music has the ability to infuse, illuminate and invigorate a life. Adapted from Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock ‘N Roll, the film (scripted by director Gurinder Chadha, Paul Mayeda Berges and Manzoor himself) is set in 1980s England, when Margaret Thatcher was happily destroying the country from within. Living in Luton is Javed Khan (the Manzoor surrogate, played by Viveik Karla), a Pakistani lad who’s trying to fit in even as his strict father (Kuvinder Ghir) insists he reject all Western influences and hold onto tradition. With unemployment soaring and racist punks spraying offensive graffiti on neighborhood walls, Javed feels trapped and longs for escape. He receives it from fellow student Roops (Aaron Phagura), who hands him two audiocassettes featuring “The Boss.” Javed listens to Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run and Born in the U.S.A. and is instantly transfixed and transformed. Feeling that the music is speaking not only to him personally but to everyone who is like him, he becomes a Springsteen fanatic, a development that informs all his decisions. Like Yesterday (reviewed here), Blinded by the Light serves as another ode to classic rock and all that it represents, from its ability to unlock the imagination to its function as a balm in troubled times. To label this as merely a “feel-good” film would be inaccurate, since there’s plenty of darkness — on the edge of town and elsewhere. The specter of bigotry haunts many scenes, and the generation-gap battles between Javed and his dad are presented with appropriate harshness. Ultimately, though, the good vibrations do win out, thanks to Karla’s bright performance, Manzoor’s real-life triumph, and, of course, a killer soundtrack that rules like a boss.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette and deleted scenes.
THE DAYTRIPPERS (1996). In writer-director Greg Mottola’s debut feature, the sweet and sensitive Eliza (Hope Davis), happily married to New York book publisher Louis D’Amico (Stanley Tucci), is dazed and confused when she stumbles across a love letter that was apparently written to her husband by someone named Sandy. She visits her parents for advice, and while her dad Jim (Pat McNamara) remains typically tight-lipped, her mom Rita (Anne Meara) is typically overbearing and suggests that everyone — including Eliza’s sister Jo (Parker Posey) and her pretentious boyfriend Carl (Liev Schreiber) — climb into the family car and head to the city with the purpose of confronting Louis about his perceived affair. Even with Rita’s constant prattle testing viewer patience, it’s the scenes in which the strained family dynamics are played out that drive The Daytrippers. Conversely, the sequences in which the gang interacts with obnoxious New Yorkers (a pair of squabbling sisters, an oily man who’s hiding out like a fugitive because he refuses to pay alimony or child support) often feel like filler. The climactic twist is not only obvious but also registers as a stunt, and the ending is far too abrupt. On the plus side, Mottola displays an instinctive grasp at capturing the way family members respond to each other in moments of stress, and the performances are uniformly excellent, with Campbell Scott especially memorable as a self-assured author who challenges Carl’s snobbish philosophies.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by Mottola, producer Steven Soderbergh and editor Anne McCabe; new interviews with Mottola, Davis, Posey, Schreiber and Scott; and Mottola’s 1985 short film, The Hatbox.
DORA AND THE LOST CITY OF GOLD (2019). When a movie appears that’s been adapted from a TV series, a familiarity with the source material is often required for maximum enjoyment. That’s not the case with this bright family feature that has the ability to please even adults with limited knowledge of the Nickelodeon show. Dora the Explorer, the animated series about a little Hispanic girl and her educational adventures, becomes a live-action offshoot, with the plucky heroine now a teenager and played by Isabela Moner. Having grown up in the South American jungles alongside her explorer parents (Michael Peña and Eva Longoria), she’s suddenly sent to California to attend high school and, as she puts it, study the “indigenous people” found in this learning environment. But the sudden disappearance of her folks as they search for an ancient Incan city leads to her and her classmates taking off on a quest to find them, with a bumbling professor (a tiresome Eugenio Derbez) and Dora’s pet monkey Boots also along for the bumpy ride. What makes the film so appealing is the characterization of its heroine as a perpetually chipper, never-say-die sort, with Moner irresistible in the part. Watching Dora navigate the high school halls is amusing, and it’s initially disappointing when she’s snatched from this setting and sent back to the jungle. But any fears that the picture will turn into a pint-size Laura Croft rip-off are quickly alleviated thanks to the inventive situations cooked up by the scripters. As usual in modern family fare, there are a few too many scatological gags, and the climax won’t fool anyone who’s ever seen Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Otherwise, Dora and the Lost City of Gold is polished enough to offer amusement beyond its target audience.
Blu-ray extras include behind-the-scenes featurettes; deleted scenes; and bloopers.
THE FAN (1981). Based on Bob Randall’s novel about a celebrity who’s menaced by an unhinged admirer, The Fan began life as a serious psychological drama, promising enough to attract the likes of Lauren Bacall, James Garner and Maureen Stapleton. But once the producers saw the grosses for such 1980 hits as Dressed to Kill and Friday the 13th, it underwent some additional shooting and morphed into a gory thriller — one that left Bacall so outraged that she had nothing nice to say about her own star vehicle. The additional bloodletting seemed even more like a bad idea since the film had the rotten luck to be released just months after a real-life celebrity, John Lennon, was murdered by Mark David Chapman in front of The Dakota. (Incidentally, The Dakota at the time was home not only to Lennon but also … Bacall.) Regardless of its reel-to-real overlap, The Fan is a lousy movie on its own terms, a draggy yarn marked by instances of pure camp. Many of these risible moments come courtesy of the scenes in which stage star Sally Ross (Bacall) is preparing for a new musical — the glimpses we see of the kitschy show designate it as the unholy lovechild between 1980’s Xanadu and 1983’s Staying Alive. Sally seems more bothered by the fact that she can’t remember her dance moves than she is by the realization that her number one fan (newcomer Michael Biehn, three years before The Terminator) is maiming and murdering those around her in an effort to get close to her. Garner is wasted as Sally’s ex-husband, although Stapleton is sharp as her devoted assistant (Stapleton would win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her other 1981 feature, Warren Beatty’s magnificent Reds). The Fan is hokey trash, but it admittedly has its own fans.
Blu-ray extras include new interviews with Biehn, director Edward Bianchi and editor Alan Heim, and the theatrical trailer.
ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL (1979). A true cult classic, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School finds P.J. Soles (a year after getting murdered by Michael Myers and three years after getting killed by Carrie) delivering an absolutely disarming performance as Riff Randell, a rock fan whose grudge match against her school’s dictatorial principal (Mary Woronov) receives a boost with the arrival of The Ramones. Thanks to a superb soundtrack, a quip-packed screenplay (my favorite: “Do your parents know you’re Ramones?”) and Soles’ boundless energy, it’s near-impossible to resist this film’s goofy charms. Paul Bartel is amusing as a music teacher who sympathizes with the students, while Clint Howard has some choice moments as Eaglebauer, a shady kid who serves as the institute’s capitalistic wheeler-dealer. As for that giant mouse that’s clearly enjoying the Ramones concert, it was created and performed by makeup genius Rob Bottin (The Howling, The Thing). The less charitable might want to knock a half-star off the rating, but even curmudgeons should be won over when the band performs such gems as “I Just Wanna Have Something to Do,” “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker,” “Teenage Lobotomy,” and the title track.
For its 40th anniversary, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School has been reissued on Blu-ray by Shout! Factory in a limited edition Steelbook. Extras include four separate audio commentaries, including one featuring executive producer Roger Corman and co-star Dey Young and another showcasing Soles and Howard; a new feature-length retrospective housing interviews with writer-director Allan Arkush, co-scripter Joe Dante, and Soles; an earlier (2005) and shorter retrospective; critic Leonard Maltin’s interview with Corman; and audio outtakes from the Ramones concert sequence at the Roxy.
Short And Sweet:
CHUCK BERRY: HAIL! HAIL! ROCK ‘N’ ROLL (1987). Linda Ronstadt and Eric Clapton are among the performers. Bruce Springsteen and Little Richard are among the talking heads. Keith Richards is basically the ringleader. And at the center is Chuck Berry, celebrating his 60th birthday with a blow-the-roof-off concert. Directed by Taylor Hackford (Ray), this isn’t a warts-and-all documentary about an often temperamental individual, although some of the warts are exposed. Instead, it’s a commemoration of a musical giant, and while it does offer peeks at his personality and examines the early roots of rock, it’s the star-studded performances that should most satisfy music mavens.
Blu-ray extras include an introduction (from 2006) by Hackford; a making-of featurette; two lengthy pieces featuring reminiscences by countless music legends including Bo Diddley, Roy Orbison, The Everly Brothers, and more; and an hour of rehearsal footage.
MILLENNIUM ACTRESS (2001). With only four films as a writer-director under his belt, Satoshi Kon established himself as a leading light in the world of anime before succumbing to pancreatic cancer in 2010, at the age of 46. The 1997 effort Perfect Blue (reviewed here) was an influence on Darren Aronofsky, and 2001’s Millennium Actress, 2003’s Tokyo Godfathers and 2006’s Paprika likewise have their disciples. With Millennium Actress, cinema folds back onto itself in this imaginative yarn in which a former movie star, now spending her twilight years in seclusion, reflects on the past at the bidding of a documentary filmmaker. As she relates her story, the filmmaker and his assistant find themselves integrated into the action and witnessing history for themselves. A haunting love story, this also includes homages to Japan’s rich cinematic legacy (particularly the works of Kurosawa).
Blu-ray extras consist of interviews with voice actresses and behind-the-scenes personnel.
SEVEN DAYS TO NOON (1950). This British production finds sibling filmmakers John and Roy Boulting predating the Coen Brothers by between them serving as director, producer, co-scripter and editor. Fearing for the future of humankind, an overworked Professor Willingdon (Barry Jones) steals a nuclear warhead from his place of employment and threatens to detonate it in the heart of London unless the government agrees to stop building bombs. Willingdon realizes that killing innocent people is monstrous, but he also believes it’s the only way to make the world understand the evils of nuclear proliferation. Naturally, Scotland Yard undertakes a massive manhunt, first through a crowded London, then through a London coping with evacuation, and finally through an eerily abandoned London. This somber thriller earned an Academy Award for Best Motion Picture Story.
Blu-ray extras consist of an image gallery and theatrical trailers.
TEL AVIV ON FIRE (2019). A true international production — funds came from Israel, France, Belgium and Luxembourg — this satire from writer-director Sameh Zoabi (co-scripting with Dan Kleinman) centers on Salem (Kais Nashef), a hapless Palestinian who holds down a minor job on the popular television soap opera Tel Aviv on Fire. After telling an Israeli checkpoint officer named Asi (Yaniv Bitton) that he’s actually the show’s writer, the soldier begins giving him tips on how to improve the program; once Salem does become the head writer, he finds himself juggling the suggestions and demands of both the hotheaded Asi and the show’s equally headstrong producers. The ending could be stronger, but Tel Aviv on Fire does a nice job of integrating laughs into a prickly real-world situation.
The only Blu-ray extra is a Q&A session with Zoabi.