View from the Couch: The Fly Collection, Ready or Not, Slaughterhouse-Five, etc.
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.
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.
Jeff Goldblum in The Fly (Photo: Shout! Factory)
(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.)
THE FLY COLLECTION (1958-1989). All five Fly flicks have been brought together by Shout! Factory, and there’s plenty of buzz (ouch) surrounding the box set that houses them.
One of the top-grossing science fiction hits of the 1950s, The Fly (1958) stars Al Hedison (later David Hedison) as Andre Delambre, a scientist who’s killed by his loving wife Helene (Patricia Owens) in the film’s first scene. Andre’s brother François (Vincent Price) and Inspector Charas (Herbert Marshall) are at odds to explain the incident until Helene finally spins (via flashback) the unbelievable tale of how Andre invented a device that allowed solid material to be broken down and transported across space. Testing the creation on himself, he failed to notice the fly that made the cross-room journey with him. Hedison and especially Owens lend great sympathy to their portrayals of the well-meaning scientist and his suffering wife, and it’s interesting to catch Price in a rare appearance as a normal guy in a horror flick. The climax (“Help me!”) has given many viewers chills while providing others with chuckles — I’m in the former camp; the primal terror of that situation never fails to move me, and the rest is efficient in its solemnity.
Given the robust box office returns for The Fly, 20th Century Fox immediately followed up with Return of the Fly (1959) — albeit with cost-cutting measures in place (whereas the first film was in color, this one’s in black-and-white). This entry finds Andre Delambre’s now-grown son Philippe (Brett Halsey) opting to continue his father’s experiments. He’s making headway until his duplicitous assistant (David Frankham), a murderous con man on the run from the police, gums up the works and leads to Philippe suffering the same mutation as his father. Price returns as François, desperately trying to help his nephew turn back to complete human form before it’s too late. The first two-thirds are superior to the final stretch, which finds the Philippe-fly exacting his revenge in standard “B”-movie fashion.
The Curse of the Fly (1965) is the third and final film in the original trilogy, and it’s pretty lousy. The storyline remains with the Delambres but doesn’t bother to follow the dictates of the first two pictures — for starters, Phillippe has been scripted out of the family, even though he was the boy in The Fly and the adult protagonist in Return of the Fly. This one finds other descendants (George Baker, Michael Graham and a barely awake Brian Donlevy) messing around with the teleportation equipment and turning various folks into misshapen monstrosities. At one point, a photograph of the human fly standing in the laboratory is shown, and I don’t know what’s funnier: that it’s a press kit photo from Return of the Fly (complete with the tiny number that appears in the bottom right corner of publicity stills) or that it means the creature paused long enough in his mayhem to graciously pose for a photograph.
For 50 years, David Cronenberg has ranked as a maverick filmmaker who marches to his own beat, so it’s with no small measure of irony that his best picture also turned out to be his most commercially successful. That would be The Fly (1986), as the 1958 classic is reconfigured by Cronenberg so that it fits more snugly with his favorite themes: the relationship between man and machine, the draw of sexual perversities, and the manner in which our own bodies can betray us without a moment’s notice. Yet for all its fetishistic attention to gross-out elements, what primarily distinguishes the film is its love story; I’ve seen this movie approximately a dozen times and the tragic romance never fails to choke me up. Jeff Goldblum is sensational as the doomed scientist who notes, “I’m an insect who dreamed he was a man and loved it. But now the dream is over and the insect is awake” — an aching, beautiful passage. He’s matched by a superb Geena Davis, cast as the journalist who’s tormented by what’s happening to the man she adores.
Chris Walas, who won the Best Makeup Oscar for The Fly (shared with Stephan Dupuis), assumes the role of director for The Fly II, (1989), one of those sequels nobody asked for. Eric Stoltz plays the son of the Goldblum and Davis characters; he resides at a research facility where the evil CEO (Lee Richardson) and his humorless scientists all wait to see if the lad will eventually transform into a misshapen monster like Dad. The horrible fate of a Golden Retriever is guaranteed to make dog lovers cringe, but beyond that, it’s hard to invest much emotion in this shrug-inducing follow-up.
Blu-ray extras on 1958’s The Fly include audio commentary by Hedison and film historian David Del Valle; a making-of featurette; the Biography episode on Vincent Price; and a Fox Movietone News snippet centering on the theatrical premiere of The Fly. Extras on Return of the Fly include audio commentary by Halsey and Del Valle; separate audio commentary by Frankham; and the theatrical trailer. The only extras on The Curse of the Fly are a still gallery and a TV spot. Extras on 1986’s The Fly include audio commentary by Cronenberg; separate audio commentary by author William Beard (The Artist as Monster: The Cinema of David Cronenberg); new interviews with Mel Brooks (whose company Brooksfilms released the picture) and producer Stuart Cornfeld; a feature-length making-of documentary; and deleted scenes. Extras on The Fly II include audio commentary by Walas and film historian Bob Burns; new interviews with co-scripters Mick Garris and Ken Wheat; and deleted scenes.
The Fly (1958): ★★★
Return of the Fly: ★★½
The Curse of the Fly: ★½
The Fly (1986): ★★★½
The Fly II: ★★
IT: CHAPTER TWO (2019). The 2017 adaptation of the first half of Stephen King’s doorstop novel was a fairly engrossing endeavor in which the segments that centered on the children and their intertwined relationships were far more effective than the sequences in which they squared off against the demonic clown Pennywise (go here for the review). It: Chapter Two opens with the reappearance of Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), ready to again feed his blood lust after nearly three decades away. The kids who fought him before are now grown-ups (James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, Jay Ryan, James Ransone, Isaiah Mustafa and Andy Bean), and all but one of them are on hand to again try to stop him. While It benefited from its leisurely 135-minute run time, It: Chapter Two is all but crippled by its bloated 170-minute length. None of those extraneous minutes are employed in the service of further character development or deep dives into the thematic material on hand. Instead, these heroes were far more interesting and fleshed out as children (despite the efforts of a fine cast, particularly Ransone and Hader), and the major issues — the power of friendship; the necessity of reconciling with our pasts; the need to stand up to our fears — remain at fortune-cookie level. As for the rampant CGI, when you’ve seen one toothy, slobbering demon, you’ve seen ‘em all — the fact that one has spider legs while another sports saggy breasts while yet another has a generous Gene-Simmons-in-KISS tongue ultimately doesn’t make any difference. Stephen Sondheim may have once written to send in the clowns, but after the unrelenting tedium of It: Chapter Two, the more logical urge is to send them packing.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director Andy Muschietti; a two-part behind-the-scenes feature looking at both movies; and a piece on Skarsgård’s tackling of his iconic role.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN… HOLLYWOOD (2019). As a playground for buffs and nostalgists, Quentin Tarantino’s latest can’t be beat. But when it comes to anything more substantial, the film is on shakier ground. At the center are former leading man Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his longtime friend and stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Rick once enjoyed headlining a popular Western show but has since fallen on lean times, forced to appear in other actors’ hit series. Jobs have similarly dried up for Cliff, who nevertheless remains content serving as Rick’s go-to guy. While Rick prepares to appear on yet another Western, Cliff encounters a hippie (Margaret Qualley) who’s part of a larger commune. It’s here where fact and fiction dovetail, as she and her fellow dropouts are followers of Charles Manson (Damon Herriman). And who should live right next door to Rick Dalton but actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). The majority of Tarantino’s movies are long, but few suffer from flab — that’s not always the case here, as some of the scenes involving Rick’s work on Western sets could easily have been trimmed. But if some of his storyline feels extraneous, the same can’t be said for those involving Cliff — all of the scenes with Pitt (who’s truly wonderful) are gold. Before the picture ends, Tarantino has one ace left up his sleeve, and it has divided opinion with the precision of the Red Sea parting. I only objected to it because it’s a trick he already used before — to brilliant effect — in one of his previous films. There, it was audacious and innovative; here, it feels lazy and uninspired (and perhaps a tad tasteless), as if he’s begun to run out of ideas and opted for an easy and proven way out. Still, even this miscalculation brings with it its own set of rewards, and it certainly doesn’t betray the spirit of what’s a savvy, sloppy, and sincere drive down the Hollywood boulevards of yore.
Blu-ray extras include a behind-the-scenes featurette; deleted scenes; and pieces on the cars, costumes, and production design.
READY OR NOT (2019). Another year, another handful of overhyped horror films that don’t live up to their potential. Ready or Not, though, sounded more promising — or at least different — than most. Grace (Samara Weaving), who grew up as a foster child, is set to marry Alex (Mark O’Brien), a member of the obscenely rich Le Domas family. The clan had built its empire by producing all sorts of games, so it’s amusing (if odd) that all newcomers to the family must spend their wedding night playing a game that’s chosen by a unique box. Most people draw something benign like chess or Old Maid, but Grace is one of the unlucky ones. She draws Hide and Seek, and, in this family’s version of that childhood favorite, the newbie must be hunted down and then killed in order to avert a curse. Thus, Grace must do everything in her power to stay alive until dawn, whether it means hiding in the dumbwaiter or out on the property grounds. Anchored by a strong performance by Weaving and displaying sporadic flashes of imagination, Ready or Not is engaging as far as it goes — which unfortunately isn’t far enough. The premise of an outsider being stalked by an eccentric family on the latter’s home turf inevitably commands comparisons to Get Out, but this film is unable to plumb its social issues (in this case, the lifestyles of the rich and deranged, the baggage of marriage, etc.) as thoroughly as Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning gem. And while Get Out offered sharp, subtle humor that barely broke the surface, Ready or Not is less confident in its nyuk-spinning and therefore offers only heavy-handed comedy.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Radio Silence (directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett and executive producer Chad Villella) and Weaver; a making-of featurette; and a gag reel.
SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE (1972). It’s a helluva lot easier to adapt, say, Stephen King than Kurt Vonnegut, yet director George Roy Hill and scripter Stephen Geller do such an exquisite job with Slaughterhouse-Five that even Vonnegut himself raved about this celluloid interpretation. Michael Sacks stars as Billy Pilgrim, a rather ordinary man who, as he describes it, becomes “unstuck in time.” He finds himself traveling between his past, his present, and his future, mainly moving from his stint as a naïve American soldier captured by the Germans to his comfortably dull suburban existence to his stay on the planet Tralfamadore, where he and Hollywood starlet Montana Wildhack (Valerie Perrine, already dynamic in her first credited screen role) are expected to mate under the studious eyes of their invisible alien captors. Hill, an underrated helmer who never had trouble with genre outliers (credits include such gems as The World According to Garp, The Great Waldo Pepper, and the gargantuan smash The Sting, for which he won a Best Director Oscar), and Geller do a fine job of keeping the shifting narratives clearly delineated, aided immeasurably by ace editor Dede Allen (Bonnie and Clyde, Reds). For a movie with a lukewarm message that doesn’t exactly reach inspirational levels — Life: It is what it is, and we should just try to focus on the good moments — Slaughterhouse-Five nevertheless finds hope among the humdrum and humanity among the horrors, although the sequence involving the cruel throwaway fate of Billy’s kindly WWII friend Edgar Derby (Eugene Roche) has haunted me since I first caught this film some 30-odd years ago.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by film historian Troy Howarth; a video essay by critic Kim Newman; and interviews with co-star Perry King, production assistant Robert Crawford Jr., and Rocky Lang, son of executive producer Jennings Lang.
THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE (1933). If anyone needs an example of the sort of movie that forced the prudish Hays Office heads to become moral watchdogs over the American film industry, The Story of Temple Drake will serve just fine. William Faulkner’s controversial novel Sanctuary was the source for this film version in which Temple Drake (Miriam Hopkins), a vivacious young woman living in a small Mississippi town, spurns the marriage proposal of her law-practicing boyfriend (William Gargan) and instead skips out with a hard-drinking pal (William Collier Jr.). A car accident leaves Temple stranded at a backwoods house, where she is raped by the ruthless gangster Trigger (Jack LaRue) and subsequently becomes his captive mistress. Considerably toned down from Faulkner’s book (in which a corncob is employed in the sexual assault and an innocent man is hanged at the end), The Story of Temple Drake nevertheless was sordid enough to attract audiences and alarm censors. What’s most unusual about the film is its modernity in terms of its sympathetic treatment of its title character, both as victim and as survivor. Hopkins is sensational in the central role, while LaRue oozes menace through every pore.
Blu-ray extras consist of an interview with author Mick LaSalle (Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood) about cinematic censorship issues; an interview with critic Imogen Sara Smith about the film and Hopkins’ performance; and a discussion of the movie’s visual style between cinematographer John Bailey (Ordinary People, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters) and Matt Severson, director of the Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Short And Sweet:
JAKE SPEED (1986). Wayne Crawford (writer, producer and star) and Andrew Lane (writer, producer and director) are the culprits responsible for Jake Speed, one of the worst of the many ‘80s action flicks. Crawford stars as Jake Speed, a hero who simultaneously exists as a pulp paperback character and a real-life adventurer. Assisted by his amiable sidekick (Dennis Christopher), Jake elects to help a woman (Karen Kopins) rescue her kidnapped sister (Rebecca Ashley) from the clutches of a white slaver (John Hurt). Wretched direction, scripting, and acting torpedo this from every angle; you know you’re in trouble when the leading man displays all the personality and charisma of a squished caterpillar. Hurt seems to be enjoying himself as the dapper villain — nice to know someone’s having fun.
Blu-ray extras consist of interviews with Lane and producer Graham Humphreys.
TUNES OF GLORY (1960). Alec Guinness and John Mills prove to be able adversaries in this drama (with sizable dollops of humor) set amidst the officers of a Scottish peacetime battalion. Major Jock Sinclair (Guinness), the outfit’s interim CO, is eventually replaced by Lieutenant Colonel Basil Barrow (Mills), setting up a clash between their distinctive styles. Sinclair is rude, crude and garrulous, while Barrow is orderly, officious and by-the-book — their relationship remains on simmer until Sinclair loses his temper with an underling and Barrow is forced to respond. Gordon Jackson offers sturdy support as the adjutant caught between these two personalities, while Susannah York makes her film debut as Sinclair’s headstrong daughter. Jack Kenneway adapted his own novel and earned an Academy Award nomination for his troubles.
Blu-ray extras consist of a 2003 interview with director Ronald Neame; a 1973 TV interview with Guinness; a 2002 audio interview with Mills; and the theatrical trailer.
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