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.
Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments (Photo: Paramount)
(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.)
BOMBSHELL (2019). Directed by Jay Roach (whose underrated Trumbo earned my vote as the best film of 2015) and scripted by Oscar winner Charles Randolph (The Big Short), Bombshell takes a peek at the 2016 FOX News scandal, when odious CEO Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) was accused of sexual harassment by various women in his employment. The picture centers on two FOX journalists: Megyn Kelly (Oscar-nominated Charlize Theron), at the time also having to deal with vicious and misogynistic attacks by presidential candidate Donald Trump, and Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), one of the first to file a lawsuit against Ailes. It also throws one fictional composite, a producer named Kayla Pospisil (Oscar-nominated Margot Robbie), into the mix. Naturally, this is the sort of movie that conservatives will hate sight unseen, particularly those OK with sexual harassment, Donald Trump, and FOX News (all branches of the same rotted tree). Progressives will have a trickier path to navigate. It goes beyond the fact that the film doesn’t dive especially deep into gender politics, or that its fictional character is more well-rounded and interesting than those based on actual people (all three actresses are fine, but Robbie is particularly excellent). It’s absolutely essential that Ailes be taken down, but while we can cheer their achievements, we cannot cheer the actual Megyn Kelly or Gretchen Carlson. These were two women perfectly at ease with the fake news, fearmongering tactics, and hatred of “the other” perpetrated by this three-ring circus of a media center. In the grand scheme, they were villains more than victims, and it’s only through the narrow prism of this entertaining if flawed film that they can be championed for the right reasons.
Blu-ray extras consist of a seven-part making-of piece that covers such aspects as the film’s genesis, the casting, and the Oscar-winning makeup, and the theatrical trailer.
KANSAS CITY (1996). After making a comeback with 1992’s The Player and subsequently helming two more all-star extravaganzas with 1993’s Short Cuts and 1994’s Prêt-à-Porter, director Robert Altman decided to shift gears by creating a more intimate picture set in his hometown as it appeared back in 1934. Altman (co-scripting with Frank Barhydt) uses the city as a backdrop for a meandering story about a working girl (Jennifer Jason Leigh in one of her weaker performances) who kidnaps a politician’s wife (Miranda Richardson) in a harebrained scheme to rescue her thieving husband (Dermot Mulroney) from the clutches of a powerful gangster known as Seldom Seen (Harry Belafonte, exuding silky menace). Altman stated that Kansas City was constructed like a jazz session (a straight piece frequently interrupted by improvisational bits), and that proves to be both its greatest strength and its major weakness. On the plus side, the movie is crammed with excellent jazz tunes that lend themselves to the atmosphere of authenticity, and the best sequence centers on a saxophone battle between Lester Young (Joshua Redman) and Coleman Hawkins (Craig Handy), with a teenage Charlie Parker (Albert J. Burnes) watching from the balcony. But while Altman’s narrative decision works well for the more peripheral scenes, it’s too fleeting and scattered for the central action, as key revelations are clumsily handled and major characters are insufficiently fleshed out.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Altman; vintage behind-the-scenes featurettes; a filmed appreciation by film critic Geoff Andrew; and theatrical trailers.
MASKED AND ANONYMOUS (2003). Last week’s viewing of Masked and Anonymous marked the first time I have ever seen the film. But rest assured, had I caught this atrocity back in 2003 when it was initially released, it would have seriously challenged The Cat in the Hat and Bad Boys II for one of the top spots on my 10 Worst list. The story goes that director Larry Charles based the movie on scraps of notes that Bob Dylan had kept over the years. Yet Masked and Anonymous is so incoherent and uninteresting that it might as well have been based on the lint found in Dylan’s dryer — or perhaps that should read the lint found in Dylan’s belly button, since this disaster is nothing but pretentious navel-gazing. Written by Sergei Petrov and Rene Fontaine (actually pseudonyms for Dylan and Charles; har har) and set in an unidentified country run by a soulless dictator in the near-future (the U.S. in 2017-2020?), this finds a comatose Dylan starring as Jake Fate, an all-but-forgotten singer who’s tapped to perform a benefit concert. His promoter is the sleazy Uncle Sweetheart (John Goodman), the concert rep is the bitter Nina Veronica (Jessica Lange), the journalist hounding him is the cynical Tom Friend (Jeff Bridges), the girlfriend of Friend is the virtuous Pagan Lace (Penélope Cruz), and Fate’s best buddy is the vigilant Bobby Cupid (Luke Wilson). The all-star casting doesn’t end there, as there are cameos by approximately a dozen other name actors — among these unfortunates are Val Kilmer as a mumbling space case and Ed Harris as some sort of spirit figure who appears in blackface. Ten-year-old Tinashe Kachingwe sings an amazing rendition of “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” but that’s the only item of merit in this insufferable effort.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Charles; a making-of featurette; a new interview with Charles; and deleted scenes.
SALESMAN (1969). An important entry in the “cinéma vérité” style of nonfiction filmmaking, this effort from directors David and Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin will make viewers squirm in the manner that only the most penetrating documentaries can accomplish. Viewing the movie is akin to pulling back a rock and watching the wriggling of the bugs underneath — simultaneously filling one with fascination and disgust, the film tags along with four buttoned-up salesmen as they go door to door trying to sell gaudy Bibles (“as low as $49.95”) for an outfit whose main offices were in Chicago and here in Charlotte. Pushed by a company that places its faith more in quotas than in Christ, these sad sacks (who are nicknamed “The Badger,” “The Gipper,” “The Rabbit” and “The Bull”) are forced to perpetually pressure low-income families into buying their Good Books, sometimes meeting with success, more oftentimes not. Salesman is an absorbing saga in which the American Dream never even begins to come into focus for any of its subjects.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary (from 2001) featuring Albert Maysles and Zwerin; a 1968 TV interview with the Maysles; an appreciation of the film by actor Bill Hader; a parody of the film as seen in “Globesman,” a 2016 episode of the TV series Documentary Now! starring Hader, Fred Armisen and Bill Smitrovich; an audio excerpt from a 2000 episode of NPR’s Weekend Edition that featured one of the film’s salesmen, James Baker (aka “The Rabbit”); and the theatrical trailer.
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956). Moses may have railed against the worshipping of the Golden Calf, but Paramount executives couldn’t help worshipping this cash cow, which upon its initial release became the second highest grossing picture in film history (topped only by Gone With the Wind). Cecil B. DeMille’s cinematic swan song is staggering as spectacle and inspirational as a Biblical tale, but it has to labor mighty hard to overcome the lamentable dialogue and the surprisingly poor acting by virtually all of its leading players. Running three hours and 40 minutes (roughly the same length as the similar — and far superior — Ben-Hur), this relates the story of Moses (Charlton Heston) from his birth through such significant incidents as the burning bush and the acquisition of the tablets; to stretch the running time, there are also ample amounts of footage spent on his rival Rameses (Yul Brynner) as well as Nefretiri (Anne Baxter), the princess caught between them. Few could touch DeMille in his ability to orchestrate gargantuan crowd scenes, and sequences like the parting of the Red Sea still have the power to move audiences. But lines like “Oh, Moses, Moses, you stubborn, splendid, adorable fool!” have endeared this film to connoisseurs of camp cinema, and, with the exception of Sir Cedric Hardwicke (as Ramses’ father Sethi), the key performances are tough to digest: Heston is stiff, Brynner is hammy, and Edward G. Robinson and especially Baxter are woefully miscast. Nominated for seven Academy Awards (including Best Picture), it won for Best Visual Effects.
Paramount’s new Blu-ray edition is housed in a Digibook and also contains DeMille’s 1923 silent version of The Ten Commandments. Extras include audio commentary by author (and The Ten Commandments expert) Katherine Orrison on both films; newsreel footage of the 1956 premiere; and theatrical trailers.
WHISKY GALORE! (1949) / THE MAGGIE (1954). Two British comedies from the beloved Ealing Studios have been released on the Film Movement label as a double feature Blu-ray.
The often uproarious Whiskey Galore! (retitled Tight Little Island upon its initial U.S. release) centers on a Scottish island on which the whiskey supply has dried up, much to the horror of the boozy residents. So when a ship carrying 50,000 cases of the stuff crashes off their coast, they retrieve as many bottles as possible. Unfortunately, they’re opposed by a stiff British officer (Basil Radford) who wants to confiscate their haul. Adapting his own novel, scripter Compton Mackenzie packs the picture with ingratiating characters and smartly executed gags.
Ealing films (including Whisky Galore!) stand out because the wit has bite and consequently the stories have sting. Rarely, though, are they mean-spirited, which isn’t the case with The Maggie (retitled High and Dry upon its initial U.S. release). In this one, a wealthy American (Paul Douglas) in need of a boat to transport his personal property gets stuck with the irresponsible captain (Alex Mackenzie) and crew of a dilapidated cargo ship. Because the millionaire is painted as a fundamentally decent man, the ceaseless torments foisted upon him and his right-hand man (Hubert Gregg) ultimately register as cruel rather than clever, and late developments also fail to satisfy. Still, the performances are top-notch and there are some choice scenes scattered about (including a lovely one involving a young woman pondering her marital choices).
Blu-ray extras on Whisky Galore! consist of audio commentary by media scholar John Ellis; the 1991 documentary Distilling Whisky Galore!; a featurette on the event that inspired the film; and trailers for the recent Film Movement Blu-ray releases Passport to Pimlico and The Titfield Thunderbolt (both reviewed here). There are no extras accompanying The Maggie.
Whisky Galore!: ★★★½
The Maggie: ★★½