Peter Weller in RoboCop (Photo: Arrow & MGM)

(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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Ellen Drew and Dick Powell in Christmas in July (Photo: Kino)

CHRISTMAS IN JULY (1940). After a decade spent solely as a screenwriter, Preston Sturges made his debut as director with 1940’s The Great McGinty, although, not surprisingly, he won the Oscar not for his direction but for his original screenplay. Nevertheless, he was off and running, and while his second picture as writer-director, Christmas in July, may not have achieved the classic status of such later efforts as Sullivan’s Travels and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, it’s a delightful effort worth watching on Christmas Day, Independence Day, and even Arbor Day. The Maxford House Coffee company is running a contest in which the person who comes up with the best new slogan will win $25,000. Young Jimmy (Dick Powell) is convinced his lousy tagline (“If you can’t sleep at night, it isn’t the coffee; it’s the bunk”) will emerge victorious; overhearing him, three co-workers play a joke by sending a fake telegram alerting Jimmy that he is indeed the winner. From here, the movie only gets funnier, as Jimmy racks up ample charges buying gifts for his girlfriend (Ellen Drew), his mother (Georgia Caine), and all of his neighbors. Meanwhile, Mr. Maxford (Raymond Walburn), the contest sponsor, grows exasperated by all the conflicting information bombarding him. Sturges was the equal of John Ford when it came to employing many of the same actors from picture to picture, and among the regulars here are William Demarest as the most ornery of the contest judges and Franklin Pangborn as the harried radio announcer.

Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historian Samm Deighan and trailers for Christmas in July and other Kino titles.

Movie: ★★★½

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Frank Langella in Dracula (Shout! Factory & Universal)

DRACULA (1979). This adaptation of the 1977 Broadway production (based on the same play as the 1931 Bela Lugosi classic) ranks as one of the worst of all straightforward versions of the venerable Bram Stoker tale. Frank Langella may have earned a Tony Award nomination for his turn on stage, but he’s blasé in this film interpretation, amplifying the character’s romantic dimensions but losing every ounce of his menacing aura. In fact, most of the portrayals are underwhelming, with Trevor Eve and Tony Haygarth particularly poor as, respectively, Jonathan Harker and Renfield — even the great Donald Pleasence fails to connect as Dr. Seward. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Laurence Olivier in the hammy portion of his lengthy career (this came right after 1978’s The Betsy and right before 1980’s The Jazz Singer), and, as Van Helsing, he does enough acting for 20 people. The dreariness of the project is occasionally punctured by some unintentionally humorous moments, including those final shots. John Williams’ handsome score proves to be one of the few bright spots, followed by the contributions of matte artist Albert Whitlock. For superior vampire flicks released in 1979, go with Werner Herzog’s moody Nosferatu the Vampyre, the disarming comedy Love at First Bite, or the TV adaptation of Salem’s Lot.

Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray edition contains both the original 1979 theatrical version and director John Badham’s preferred 1991 take (with desaturated color timing). Extras include audio commentary by Badham; separate audio commentary by film historian Constantine Nasr; a new introduction by Badham; a retrospective making-of featurette; and an interview with Badham.

Movie: ★½

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Richard Kiel in Eegah! (Photo: The Film Detective)

EEGAH! (1962). While some awful movies only became known following their ribbing on Mystery Science Theater 3000 (Manos: The Hands of Fate, Pod People and Mitchell, among others), several films that were featured on the show were famous — make that infamous — long before their Satellite of Love slots. This was largely due to exposure from “Movie Worsts” festivals, midnight screenings, and late-night TV showings — among these legendary turkeys were Robot Monster, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, The Creeping Terror, and … Eegah! Arch Hall Sr. wrote, directed and produced the picture under the pseudonym Nicholas Merriwether, co-starred under the name William Watters, and cast his son Arch Hall Jr. (who bravely did not employ a pseudonym) as the song-warbling hero Tom (“Cabbage Patch Elvis,” as he’s tagged on MST3K). When he’s not busy crooning, “Vickie, oh, Vickie, I’m so alone. If you could just talk to me, If I could just call you on the phone,” to his girlfriend (never mind that her name is Roxy), he’s out searching for a prehistoric caveman that miraculously is still alive and well and living in the California hills. Roxy (Marilyn Manning) is the first to see the brute, but it’s her father (Hall Sr.) who’s most intrigued by its existence. After Eegah (Richard Kiel) kidnaps both Roxy and her dad and takes them back to his cave, it’s up to hunky/chunky Tom to save the day. Eegah! is truly terrible, but the unintentional laughs make it impossible to hate. Kiel would later portray the menacing Jaws in the James Bond entries The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker.

The Film Detective has released Eegah! in a Blu-ray edition that’s limited to 1,500 copies. Extras consist of the MST3K version of the film and interviews with Hall Jr. and MST3K creator Joel Hodgson.

Movie: ★ (but ★★★★ for turkey aficionados)

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Charles Bronson and Alain Delon in Farewell, Friend (Photo: Kino & StudioCanal)

FAREWELL, FRIEND (1968) / SOMEONE BEHIND THE DOOR (1971). Kino Lorber, the best friend of Charles Bronson lovers everywhere, has released two more titles (both English-language French productions) starring the rugged movie star.

Farewell, Friend (aka Adieu l’ami and Honor Among Thieves) pairs Bronson with Alain Delon, as both men portray former legionnaires who are the working definition of “frenemies.” Freewheeling American Franz Propp (Bronson) and the more collected Dino Barran (Delon) fins themselves unwillingly reunited in Paris, as both are trapped inside a bank vault over a long holiday weekend. Farewell, Friend takes forever to get going, but once it gathers steam, it proves to be a fairly diverting crime flick with good repartee between its stars.

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Anthony Perkins and Charles Bronson in Someone Behind the Door (Photo: Kino & StudioCanal)

Someone Behind the Door finds Bronson intriguingly paired with Anthony Perkins, but the movie is ungainly and unappealing. Perkins plays Laurence Jeffries, a neurosurgeon who knows that his spouse Frances (Jill Ireland, Bronson’s real-life wife) is having an affair with a journalist (Henri Garcin). An amnesiac (Bronson) suddenly drops into Laurence’s lap, and the doctor decides that he will build an elaborate story around his patient’s forgotten past, one which will lead to murder. The promise of the early scenes quickly disappears, leaving behind a sour thriller.

Blu-ray extras on Farewell, Friend consist of audio commentary by film historians Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell and Nathaniel Thompson; a 2004 interview with director Jean Herman; and trailers for other Bronson and Delon films available on the Kino label. Blu-ray extras on Someone Behind the Door consist of audio commentary by director Nicolas Gessner; a radio spot; and trailers for other Kino titles involving Bronson, Perkins or Gessner.

Farewell, Friend: ★★½

Someone Behind the Door: ★½

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Mac and Me, as seen on Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Gauntlet (Photo: Shout! Factory)

MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: THE GAUNTLET (2019). Just as it took the original MST3K a season to perfect its formula, so too did this reboot require a bit of time to make some necessary adjustments. Admittedly, many of the host sequences are still tough to endure (Felicia Day as Kinga Forrester and Patton Oswalt as TV’s Son of TV’s Frank, aka Max, deserve better), but the in-movie riffs are funnier than those heard during this new crew’s first season. There are only six episodes this time (as opposed to the 14 offered last season), but one is an all-time-worst contender that absolutely needed to be taken down by Crow and Tom Servo at some point in the show’s history. That would be 1988’s Mac and Me, the abysmal E.T. rip-off that co-starred Ronald McDonald and Coca-Cola. Also worthy of radical and righteous riffing is 1979’s Killer Fish, with Lee Majors squaring off against lotsa piranhas. Rounding out the set is 1982’s Ator, The Fighting Eagle, 1989’s Lords of the Deep, the same year’s The Day Time Ended, and 2013’s Atlantic Rim. I’m still not sold on Jonah Ray as Jonah Heston — he often seems like the Zeppo Marx to past hosts Joel Hodgson and Mike Nelson — but as one of the chief co-scripters, he’s presumably responsible for many of the jokes that hit.

There are no extras on the Blu-ray collection.

Season: ★★★

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Prophecy (Photo: Shout! Factory)

PROPHECY (1979). Given that title, it would be logical to assume that Prophecy was a sequel to The Omen — even more so since they were both written by David Seltzer — but instead of a satanic child, its antagonist is a mutant bear. A horror movie with an environmental twist, this stars Robert Foxworth as an EPA-sanctioned doctor who, with pregnant wife (Talia Shire) in tow, travels to Maine to investigate a dispute between the Native American community (repped by Armand Assante) and a lumber company (repped by Richard Dysart). It’s soon revealed that the lumber company has been dumping mercury into the water, and the pollution has resulted in various deformed and crazed critters. None, however, is as frightening as the mutated bear with a nasty habit of tearing humans apart. Many consider Prophecy the nadir of director John Frankenheimer’s career, but despite its occasional dopiness, I’ll take it in a heartbeat over the likes of Reindeer Games (starring Ben Affleck) and that truly bizarre Brando version of The Island of Dr. Moreau. The effects are often solid (although just as often not), and Frankenheimer, while clearly miles removed from such career highs as The Manchurian Candidate and The Birdman of Alcatraz, keeps this moving at a respectable clip. Besides, those of us who first saw this in our youth (in my case, upon its original release at the age of 14) have never forgotten that sleeping bag sequence.

Blu-ray extras consist of new interviews with Shire, Foxworth, Seltzer, special effects artists Tom Burman and Allan Apone, and mime Tom McLoughlin (who was inside the mutated-bear costume, sharing duties with Kevin Peter Hall); a photo gallery; radio spots; and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ★★½

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Miguel Ferrer and Peter Weller in RoboCop (Photo: Arrow & MGM)

ROBOCOP (1987). Excessively violent yet also refreshingly satirical, Robocop endures as a modern classic of sci-fi cinema. Peter Weller stars as Alex Murphy, a cop in futuristic Detroit who almost meets a grisly end at the hands of a vicious street gang led by Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith). Using what little is left of Murphy, ambitious company man Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) one-ups his boss, devilish director Dick Jones (Ronny Cox), by creating an unstoppable police officer who’s part human but mostly machine. But while RoboCop was supposed to be purged of all memories of his life as Murphy, enough remains that he’s haunted by flashes of both his family and the creeps who shot him to pieces. Working from a sharp screenplay by Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner, director Paul Verhoeven offers an old-fashioned revenge flick with high-tech trappings, punctuating the action with comical commercials and news bulletins that if anything seem less absurd with each passing year. Yet what really makes the film soar is its stellar collection of villains: Any one of this pack — Boddicker, Morton and Jones — would provide enough nastiness for a single movie, but RoboCop graciously presents us with three memorably oily adversaries. An Oscar winner for Best Sound Effects Editing (and a nominee for Best Film Editing and Best Sound), this led to various theatrical and television spin-offs, including two dismal sequels.

The new limited edition Blu-ray from Arrow Video and MGM is remarkable, packed with bonus features and containing both the theatrical version and the director’s cut as well as an 80-page booklet, six postcards, and a mini-poster. Extras include audio commentary by Verhoeven, Neumeier and executive producer Jon Davison; deleted scenes; a 2012 Q&A with Verhoeven, Weller, and others; an entertaining piece on the movie’s villains; and more.

Movie: ★★★½

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Cate Blanchett and Emma Nelson in Where’d You Go, Bernadette (Photo: Fox)

WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE (2019). As long as everyone can keep track of Bernadette, Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a savvy and satisfying seriocomedy. It’s when its protagonist goes missing that the film heads south — both physically and metaphorically. A rare semi-stumble for writer-director Richard Linklater (Boyhood, the Before trilogy), this is an adaptation of Maria Semple’s novel about an agoraphobic architect who hasn’t worked in 20 years. Instead, Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett) has remained at home with her neuroses, doting on her teenage daughter Bee (a winsome turn by Emma Nelson in her film debut) while driving her loving husband Elgie (Billy Crudup) to distraction. Her days are also filled with sending rambling messages to her assistant in India and engaging in property battles with Audrey (Kristen Wiig), her neighbor in a swanky Seattle suburb. Clearly, Bernadette is a mess — and an ofttimes infuriating one, at that — but the movie is honest enough to portray none of its characters as either hero(ine) or villain. It’s only when Bernadette’s former mentor (Laurence Fishburne) states that an artist who no longer creates becomes a “menace to society” that the theme starts to come into focus — and the movie begins to veer out of control. The intriguing character dynamics that informed the first half disappear as thoroughly as Bernadette during the second part. Faced with mounting pressures as well as a psychiatrist (Judy Greer) who thinks maybe she should be committed, Bernadette hightails it to Antarctica. The movie devolves into a dreary drama, as Bernadette enjoys the sights down south while her family pieces together the mystery surrounding her MIA status. The Seattle sound has been replaced with Antarctic inertia, and an initially warm and inviting movie ultimately turns chilly.

Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette and a photo gallery.

Movie: ★★½

 

5 Comments »

  1. As someone in the fitness business I have to give a thumbs up to Bronson and his conditioning. In 1971 Bronson was 50 years old when he made Someone Behind the Door. He was an underrated actor who didn’t play the Hollywood Game. He appeared in many very good films he was not given credit for.

    • Agreed, Rob. Bronson was one of my favorites growing up. I think he was best allowed to show off his acting in supporting roles in films like THE GREAT ESCAPE and KID GALAHAD, but I enjoyed him as a star as well, in such works as BREAKHEART PASS, DEATH WISH and BREAKOUT.

      Cheers!

  2. Hi Matt! As you may already know, I’m a huge fan of Adieu l’ami aka Farewell, Friend… but I think it suffers from the dubbing (it took a drubbing, you might say). It’s, I think, Sébastien Japrisot’s first original screenplay (his next would be the even better Le passager de la pluie).

    And boy, agreed on how dismal those Robocop sequels were… early glimpses of the rot eating away at Frank Miller’s soul.

    • The interview with FAREWELL, FRIEND director Jean Herman was very interesting, especially how it contradicts the IMDb tidbit that Delon asked Bronson to co-star. According to Herman, Bronson was only cast after a few other Americans (including Richard Widmark) passed, and Delon was dubious, saying Bronson was only fit for supporting roles. It didn’t get any easier after the pair started working together (clashing egos); of course, it couldn’t have been too painful, since both worked together again on RED SUN three years later.

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