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.
Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe in The Lighthouse (Photo: A24 & Lionsgate)
(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.)
COBRA WOMAN (1943). Despite a title that suggests a companion piece to such “humanimal” efforts like The Wolf Man, Cat People, and Captive Wild Woman, Cobra Woman turns out to be not a horror film but a tropical adventure tale. In other words, nobody turns into a cobra, but plenty of people on a South Pacific island sure do worship one. Maria Montez delivers two terrible performances for the price of one — she’s cast as both Naja, the evil ruler of a cowed kingdom, and Naja’s twin sister Tollea, who grew up elsewhere and only learns of her origins after she’s kidnapped and brought back to Cobra Island. Her abductors hope she can wrest power away from Naja and become a more benevolent leader, but her fiancé (Jon Hall) and his young friend (Sabu) turn up on the island with plans to rescue her. The involvement of director Robert Siodmak (The Killers) and scripter Richard Brooks (Elmer Gantry) might suggest an intelligent watch, but that assumption would be wrong. Cobra Woman is daft in many regards — it’s so loopy that it’s considered a camp classic in some circles — and the highlight is Naja’s feverish cobra dance, wherein she zestfully points out ample human sacrifices while hilariously sashaying around the set. But the action and intrigue are competently handled, the Technicolor is gorgeous, and you also get Lon Chaney Jr. shambling around as a sympathetic yes-man.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historian Phillipa Berry and trailers for Cobra Woman and other Kino titles.
DR. CYCLOPS (1940). In this fantasy outing from King Kong creators Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper, Albert Dekker delivers a chilling performance as Dr. Thorkel, a scientist conducting experiments in his remote South American laboratory. Due to his failing eyesight, he summons the prominent Dr. Bulfinch (Charles Halton) and his associates (Thomas Coley and Janice Logan) to aid him in his research; upon arriving from the U.S., Dr. Bulfinch is outraged when Dr. Thorkel asks him only one question and then immediately orders him and his team to return home. The defiant visitors insist on remaining until they get some answers. Not only do they receive a response — Dr. Thorkel has found a way to shrink living creatures — but they also become his latest test subjects. Now standing only a few inches tall, the various mini-mes must find a way to revert to normal height while simultaneously battling various critters that now appear super-sized. Tom Kilpatrick’s screenplay could benefit from offering a greater range of challenges for our shrunken heroes — a fight-or-flight encounter with a cat is about as good as it gets — but the special effects are impressive enough to have earned an Academy Award nomination. Still, the best effect is Dekker: Bald, brooding and bespectacled, he appears to be a living embodiment of the banality of evil.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historian Richard Harland Smith; the Trailers from Hell segment on the film; and trailers for Dr. Cyclops and other Kino titles.
HOLIDAY (1938). Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn co-starred in two films in 1938, and while Bringing Up Baby has emerged as the acknowledged classic, there’s plenty to love about Holiday as well. Grant stars as Johnny Case, an independent sort who’s surprised to learn that his fiancée Julia Seton (Doris Nolan) is a member of a fabulously wealthy New York family. Julia and her father (Henry Kolker) are straight-laced and conventional — not so Julia’s brother Ned (Lew Ayres), whose creativity has nevertheless been crushed long ago by his dad and who now resides in the bottle, nor her older sister Linda (Hepburn), whose unwillingness to conform has made her the black sheep of the family. As Johnny hangs around the Seton household, it becomes apparent that Linda might be a better match for him, especially after Julia balks at his radical plans for the future. Holiday provides the expected mix of comedy and romance — and succeeds at both — but there’s also a strain of melancholy that further deepens the emotional connections. Ayres and the great character actor Edward Everett Horton (cast as Johnny’s professor friend) steal the film from the well-matched leads. Holiday earned a solitary Oscar nomination for Best Art Direction — an apt honor, given not only the eye-popping dimensions of the stately Seton mansion but also the narrative and thematic importance of its playroom. Hepburn, Grant, director George Cukor, and co-scripter Donald Ogden Stewart would reunite for 1940’s superb The Philadelphia Story, another film adapted (like Holiday) from a Philip Barry play.
Blu-ray extras include the earlier 1930 version, starring an Oscar-nominated Ann Harding and featuring Horton in the same role he later essayed in the Cukor film; audio excerpts from an American Film Institute oral history with Cukor; and a costume gallery.
JOKER (2019). The theatrical trailer for Joker — tight, controlled, and intriguing — suggested the best movie Martin Scorsese never made. The actual film is a shallow and sophomoric effort that isn’t about a raging bull as much as it’s merely raging bullshit. Aping Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, this stars Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, who’s been beaten down by life from Day One. Desperately wanting to become a beloved comedian like his idol, talk-show host Murray Franklin (a badly miscast Robert De Niro), he toils as a clown-for-hire while waiting for his big break. But since nothing is ever easy for him, he becomes increasingly more unhinged. Writer-director Todd Phillips (clearly out of his league) and co-scripter Scott Silver huff and puff and try to blow all sociopolitical issues into the filmic conversation, but the movie is all surface and ultimately doesn’t even have the power of its convictions. Phillips clearly doesn’t want to alienate large segments of his audience — specifically, the white males who feel picked on by women, minorities, and well-to-dos, and who won’t be happy until they can bask in their self-entitlement (there’s a reason incels worship this movie) — so he eases the brakes on Fleck’s all-encompassing derangement. Phoenix delivers an overall strong performance, even if his actorly tics and Method mannerisms are often on full display. What’s missing from his portrayal is any glimmer of intelligence, and Fleck’s dim-witted demeanor is hardly the stuff of supervillain legend. Like Fight Club, Joker serves as a rallying cry for a certain subset of self-pitying men. But Fight Club has been misdiagnosed and misinterpreted by those who champion it the most. Joker, on the other hand, clearly lays out its cards and tells these easily triggered jokers exactly what they want to hear. It offers sympathy for the devil — the one that dances in the pale moonlight.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette and a still gallery.
THE LIGHTHOUSE (2019). If 2016’s The Witch showed that writer-director Robert Eggers was a filmmaker worth watching, then The Lighthouse — one of the 10 best films of 2019 (go here for the complete Best & Worst) — demonstrates that all eyes should remain transfixed on his career. A shining beacon of originality, the film defies easy description, as it’s a black-and-white mood piece in which two men frequently talk while sitting at the dinner table. That might make this sound like My Dinner with Andre, except that art-house hit inexplicably didn’t make room for a mermaid in its tale. There’s possibly a touch of dementia in Willem Dafoe’s character of Thomas Wake, who has spent years taking care of a lighthouse off the coast of 19th century New England. Certainly, there’s a bit of Robert Shaw in his portrayal, as his constant barking and carousing stirs memories of Jaws’ garrulous Quint. Here, his tirades are directed at the new kid on the rock, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson in a superb performance that should finally shut up all Twilight detractors). Theirs is a testy relationship, but that’s only a fraction of the story. Winslow sees mermaids and tentacles when hallucinating (or is he?), while Wake is definitely up to something when he strips off his clothes and barricades himself at the top of the lighthouse. There’s also a scene that recalls Robert Aldrich’s classic noir nastiness Kiss Me Deadly, as well as a one-eyed seagull that could easily have joined the ranks of Hitchcock’s birds. Elliptical yet engrossing, The Lighthouse suggests early David Lynch by way of Greek mythology and literary horror.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by Eggers; a behind-the-scenes featurette; and deleted scenes.
PASSPORT TO PIMLICO (1949) / THE TITFIELD THUNDERBOLT (1953). On the Blu-ray front, fans of Ealing Studios should find pleasure in the fact that the Kino label released three of the English outfit’s pictures last September (go here for reviews of the trio, all starring Alec Guinness) while Film Movement and StudioCanal jointly debuted two more late last month.
An Academy Award nominee for Best Story and Screenplay (courtesy of Ealing regular T.E.B. White), Passport to Pimlico examines the chaos that arises when it’s discovered that, according to recently unearthed documents, the Pimlico area of London actually falls under the jurisdiction of Burgundy, France. The locals are amused that they’re part of another country, but the situation turns terse when the British government attempts to bully them into returning to the U.K. fold. The comedy unwinds at a frenetic pace, supported by an able cast (including Margaret Rutherford as a historian excited about the discovery). If the tag team of Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford (cast as British bureaucrats) looks familiar, that’s because these actors were paired in a total of 12 pictures, all thanks to their scene-stealing antics as the fussy, cricket-loving passengers in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1938 classic The Lady Vanishes.
Clarke also penned The Titfield Thunderbolt, a diverting trifle about the members of a small village rallying to save their beloved stretch of a train line from extinction. To keep the engine running, the locals must man the machine themselves, but they perpetually run into interference and sabotage by heavies from the competing bus line. This was the first Ealing film shot in color — the cinematographer was Douglas Slocombe, who later lensed the initial three Indiana Jones flicks — but the comedy isn’t nearly as biting as in other Ealing efforts from the period.
Blu-ray extras on Passport to Pimlico include an interview with British Film Institute curator (and Ealing expert) Mark Duguid; a restoration comparison; and a stills gallery. Blu-ray extras on The Titfield Thunderbolt include a making-of featurette; a discussion of director Charles Crichton by Slocombe; and the theatrical trailer.
Passport to Pimlico: ★★★
The Titfield Thunderbolt: ★★½