Song Kang Ho in Parasite (Photo: Universal & NEON)

(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.)

Cecilia Roth and Marisa Paredes (background) in All About My Mother (Photo: Criterion)

ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER (1999). George Cukor (The Philadelphia Story, the Judy Garland version of A Star Is Born) had a reputation as a “woman’s director,” a designation that in the modern era could easily apply to Pedro Almodóvar. In such films as Volver, Kika, and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Almodóvar has managed to create scores of meaty roles for accomplished actresses like Penélope Cruz, Victoria Abril and Carmen Maura. Yet the writer-director arguably reached his humanistic peak with All About My Mother, a deeply satisfying comedy-drama that works elements from All About Eve and A Streetcar Named Desire into its profuse plotline. Cecilia Roth (in a knockout performance) stars as Manuela, a single mom who is devastated when her teenage son (Eloy Azorin) is struck and killed by a car while trying to get the autograph of local stage star Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes). Although Manuela hasn’t seen the boy’s father in nearly two decades — he split shortly after becoming a lascivious transsexual junkie — she leaves Madrid and returns to Barcelona to find him; there, she ends up serving as a den mother of sorts to various women, including a pregnant nun (Cruz), a wise-cracking transsexual (Antonia San Juan), the aforementioned Huma, and Huma’s drug-addled lover (Candela Peña). An Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film, this finds Almodóvar neatly sidestepping easy sentimentality and crafting a bracingly tender-tough picture that resonates with the inner beauty of its colorful characters.

Blu-ray extras consist of a 2012 making-of documentary; a 2019 post-screening Q&A with Almodóvar, actor-producer (and Pedro’s brother) Agustin Almodóvar, and Paredes; and a 1999 TV program featuring Roth, Paredes, Cruz, San Juan, and Almodóvar and his mother Francisca Caballero.

Movie: ★★★½

Brad Dourif in Body Parts (Photo: Shout! Factory)

BODY PARTS (1991). Whenever the writing team of Frenchmen Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (who published under the combined name Boileau-Narcejac) got mixed up with the movies, the results were often something special. Their novel She Who Was No More became Henri-Georges Clouzet’s 1955 classic Diabolique. Their book The Living and the Dead was transformed into Alfred Hitchcock’s immortal 1958 offering Vertigo. And as screenwriters, they paired with author Jean Redon to bring his novel Eyes without a Face to the screen in Georges Franju’s impressive 1960 movie of the same name. Still, not all of their achievements resulted in cinematic gold. Take Body Parts, a horror yarn that was adapted from their 1965 novel Choice Cuts. Continuing the cinematic tradition involving human limbs running amok (Mad Love with Peter Lorre, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors with Michael Gough, The Hand with Michael Caine, etc.), this one stars Jeff Fahey as Bill Chrushank, a criminal psychologist who loses his right arm in an automobile accident. A doctor (Lindsay Duncan) known for cutting-edge surgery replaces the appendage with one from an unknown donor; all seems well until the arm begins acting violently of its own accord. Chrushank learns that the arm belonged to that of a serial killer, and that two other men (Brad Dourif and Peter Murnik) received other parts (the left arm and both legs, respectively) from the same body. Despite noticeably lacking in tension, Body Parts at least maintains interest for the first two-thirds, after which it lapses into absurdity with weak plotting that results in a risible climax.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director and co-writer Eric Red; new interviews with Red, supporting player Paul Ben-Victor (cast as an incarcerated murderer), and editor Anthony Redman; deleted gore footage; and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ★★

Zohra Lampert in Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (Photo: Shout! Factory)

LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (1971). Largely dismissed upon its original release, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death has become a cult fave over the years, although the reason why continues to elude me. The early 1960s through the mid-1970s gave birth to a number of horror films that, despite — or, more likely, because of — their low budgets, ordinary rural settings, and understated approaches, managed to create and sustain an unnerving aura of mounting dread and existential angst. Many have lumped Jessica into this category — I’ve periodically checked it out over the decades, and not once has it ever come close to matching the under-the-skin potency of such gems as Carnival of Souls, Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The only thing accurate about the eye-catching title is that there’s a character named Jessica; played by Zohra Lampert, she’s a fragile woman who has just been released from a mental hospital and hopes to start anew in a remote house on the outskirts of a tiny Northeastern town. Arriving with her husband (Barton Heyman) and their friend (Kevin O’Connor), they find a squatter in the form of Emily (Mariclare Costello) — charmed by her, they decide to allow her to live with them. Almost immediately, though, Jessica starts seeing strange things, and the others can’t help but wonder if she’s suffering a relapse. The script by director John Hancock and Lee Kalcheim is too sloppy to maintain momentum — for starters, ghosts are suddenly replaced by vampires as the featured creatures, and the ending is a non-event — and the absolute lack of atmosphere renders it mind-boggling that numerous critics have cited this as one of the scariest movies ever made.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Hancock and producer Bill Badalato; a new interview with composer Orville Stoeber; a look at the film’s locations then and now; and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ★★

Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Edward Norton in Motherless Brooklyn (Photo: Warner)

MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN (2019). Initially, it seems like a stunt, a gimmick, a bald bid for an Oscar nomination. In electing to bring Jonathan Lethem’s novel Motherless Brooklyn to the screen, writer-director-producer-star Edward Norton handed himself a character who suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome. But dash all memories of the showboat emoting of Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman or Sean Penn in I Am Sam. There’s depth in Lethem’s character and intuitiveness in Norton’s interpretation, and, consequently, there’s value in Motherless Brooklyn as both an interesting character study and a satisfying mystery. Set in 1950s New York, the film centers on Lionel Essrog (Norton), who works for a detective agency run by his mentor Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). When Minna’s latest case leaves him dead, almost everyone is willing to move on, no questions asked. But not Lionel, who’s determined to avenge the only true friend he ever had. Lionel’s neurological disorder causes him to twitch violently and blurt out strings of words (seemingly non sequiturs to others but ones which make perfect sense to him), and this in turn causes many people to underestimate and dismiss him. Yet this gives him an edge, since his social awkwardness belies a mental agility that allows him to remember everything. Motherless Brooklyn is one of those films that engages in some heavy lifting with its labyrinthine plotline (think Chinatown or L.A. Confidential), yet the real pleasure isn’t so much its convoluted story (which occasionally buckles under its own weight) as it is in watching Lionel interact with all manner of characters (played by, among others, Willem Dafoe, Alec Baldwin, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Michael Kenneth Williams). Forget it, Jake. It isn’t Chinatown. But on its own terms, Motherless Brooklyn carves out its own small corner in rich neo-noir territory.

Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by Norton; a making-of featurette; and deleted scenes.

Movie: ★★★½

Park So Dam and Choi Woo Shik in Parasite (Photo: Universal & NEON)

PARASITE (2019). Foreign-language films are too often marginalized by American audiences, industry insiders and even reviewers, so it says something that writer-director Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite, winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes (the first Korean film ever to snag this honor), has emerged as an unlikely and across-the-board hit on U.S. soil. Its $31 million (and growing) gross places it among the top 10 moneymaking foreign flicks (a list still headed by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and its staggering $128 million haul). The Screen Actors Guild handed it the award for Best Ensemble Cast, the first time that prize has gone to a movie not in the English language. It appeared on over 500 critics’ 10 Best lists (including mine), far more than any other film from 2019. And now it has become the first picture from South Korea to earn any sort of Academy Award recognition by landing an impressive six nominations, including ones for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best International Feature Film. (Update: It won these four!) As with his previous features such as Snowpiercer and The Host, Bong (scripting with Han Jin Won) has created an intense drama laced throughout with scathing commentary. Here, it’s the class system that’s dissected, with the focus on the members of the Kim and Park families. Struggling to stay afloat, the Kims — father (Bong regular Song Kang Ho), mother (Chang Hyae Jim), son (Choi Woo Shik) and daughter (Park So Dam) — catch a break when one of them starts working for the wealthy Park family (Mom and Dad played by Lee Sun Kyun and Cho Yeo Jeong). Before long, the Kims are engineering a scheme in which they all become employees of the Parks. To reveal more would be an indefensible crime, but suffice it to say that this absorbing picture grows ever more twisty as it makes its way toward its powerhouse final act.

Blu-ray extras consist of a Q&A with Bong and theatrical trailers.

Movie: ★★★½

Lotte Lenya and Burt Reynolds in Semi-Tough (Photo: Kino & MGM)

SEMI-TOUGH (1977). Dan Jenkins’ novel about football gets morphed into a satire about self-help seminars, and the result is agreeable if not especially imaginative. Billy Clyde Puckett (Burt Reynolds) and Shake Tiller (Kris Kristofferson) are Super Bowl-bound players while Barbara Jane Bookman (Jill Clayburgh) is the daughter of the team’s owner (Robert Preston). All three have been best friends since forever and even share living quarters, a situation that becomes awkward when Shake and Barbara Jane unexpectedly fall in love and plan to get married. This turn of events forces Billy Clyde to realize that he’s long been in love with Barbara Jane, and with the wedding scheduled immediately after the Super Bowl, he realizes he doesn’t have much time to figure out how to win the big game and win the girl. Director Michael Ritchie and scripter Walter Bernstein decided to add a secondary story to this framework, mocking the era’s popular (and controversial) EST fad by showing how Shake finds his life transformed by taking the self-enlightenment courses offered by slick guru Friedrich Bismark (played by perennial game show host Bert Convy). The football angle becomes negligible — Billy Clyde and Shake might as well be hockey or ping pong players — and the seminar sequences take up too much screen time, given the easy target. A commercial hit and a showcase for that decidedly non-PC brand of humor that often defined ’70s comedies, Semi-Tough boasts an impressive supporting cast (even Lotte Lenya, one of Bond’s adversaries in From Russia with Love, turns up!) and finds Reynolds delivering one of those effortless and effective performances that allowed him to reign as one of the decade’s top box office draws.

Blu-ray extras consist of an image gallery and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ★★½

Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator: Dark Fate (Photo: Paramount)

TERMINATOR: DARK FATE (2019). According to franchise creator James Cameron (who here serves as producer and co-scripter), this is the third “official” movie in the series, following 1984’s The Terminator and 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day. As for the rest? They supposedly took place in some alternate universe or on an alternate timeline or some such nonsense. This film’s biggest mistake occurs right at the start, when it’s revealed that one of the many Terminators sent from the future manages to catch up with Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) and teenage John Connor (a CGI version of Edward Furlong). This Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) murders John but inexplicably leaves Sarah alive. Killing off this major character is a slap in the face to everyone who invested in any of the previous films — one of the defining themes of the series has always been keeping John Connor alive, and it’s a bummer seeing him callously tossed aside here. At any rate, another AI system (Legion) manages to take over the world and exterminate most of the humans. It also sends a mercurial killer bot (dull Gabriel Luna) back to our present to murder a young woman (Natalia Reyes) whose existence spells possible doom for the Legion of the future. Meanwhile, the humans send back one of their own (Mackenzie Davis) to protect her. There’s also a good Terminator (Arnie) and a hardened Sarah tossed into the mix. There are narrow escapes, supporting characters lending a helping hand, and a sacrifice or two. In short, the only thing missing is Guns N’ Roses’ “You Could Be Mine” on the soundtrack. In this instance, familiarity doesn’t breed contempt as much as it fosters complacency. Still, it’s great to see Hamilton back in action as Sarah Connor, and even the appearance of the big fella elicits a grin.

Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; deleted and extended scenes; and a look at two of the major set-pieces.

Movie: ★★

Very Bad Things (Photo: Shout! Factory & Universal)

VERY BAD THINGS (1998). A very bad movie, Very Bad Things is a dreary black comedy about the situations surrounding the marriage of Kyle (Jon Favreau) and Laura (Cameron Diaz in that shrewish mode that rarely did her career any favors; see also Annie). Kyle and his four loathsome buddies — the psychotic Robert (Christian Slater), the smarmy Michael (Jeremy Piven), the whiny Adam (Daniel Stern) and the vacuous Charles (Leland Orser) — head to Las Vegas for Kyle’s bachelor party; after one of their number accidentally kills a stripper (porn star Kobe Tai in a rare mainstream appearance) in their hotel room, the whole gang does its best to cover up the tragedy, with appropriately nasty results. In Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas, there’s a scene in which Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito makes wisecracks while burying a dismembered body; it’s simultaneously horrifying and funny, the latter not only because the victim deserved no sympathy but also because the comparative briefness of the sequence doesn’t allow us time to reflect on the depravity of the moment. Very Bad Things includes a similar (albeit inferior) burial scene, but more than that, it feels like the entire movie is basically that single GoodFellas moment stretched over a 100-minute running time, only with the humor failing miserably. Actor Peter Berg displays no discernible talent in his debut as writer-director (since then, other helming credits have included the awful Battleship and a string of lackluster movies with Mark Wahlberg), while the talented actors spend most of the time screaming at each other at decibel levels that would put Kansas City Chiefs fans at Arrowhead Stadium to shame.

Blu-ray extras include new interviews with Piven and Stern; the theatrical trailer; and a still gallery.

Movie: ★½

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s