Savion Glover (center) in Bamboozled (Photo: Criterion)

(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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Damon Wayans in Bamboozled (Photo: Criterion)

BAMBOOZLED (2000). Spike Lee has never been one of our most subtle filmmakers, but with Bamboozled, he chooses a particularly large sledgehammer to employ on his targets. Damon Wayans (in a nicely modulated performance that drew heavy criticism but works for me) stars as Pierre Delacroix, a TV network staffer frustrated that his ideas for a respectable black series are turned down by his boss (Michael Rapaport), the sort of white guy who idiotically tries to act black. In hopes of getting fired, Pierre finally decides to suggest the most blatantly racist show he can imagine: Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show, with two street performers (Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson) cast as Mantan and Sleep ‘n Eat (suggested by real-life performers Mantan Moreland and Willie Best aka Sleep ‘n Eat), lazy doofuses who live in an Alabama watermelon patch alongside other characters like Rastus, Aunt Jemima, and The Alabama Porch Monkeys (the latter unexpectedly played by the members of The Roots). Much to Pierre’s shock, the show becomes a phenomenal hit with blacks and whites alike. Seemingly inspired by Network, The Producers, and Lee’s own boiling fury, Bamboozled is both outrageous and outraged, with some bitter laughs strewn throughout. But the subplot involving a radical group known as the Maus Maus (Mos Def plays the leader, Big Blak Afrika) is clumsy and forced, and it blends into a final act that’s ugly and unconvincing. As with BlacKkKlansman, a highlight is Lee stepping away from the fiction and using existing footage to reveal the brutal realities of this country. With BlacKkKlansman, it was footage of Trump, the KKK, and other venal racists; with Bamboozled, it’s clips from movies and TV shows that casually used demeaning stereotypes.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary (from 2001) by Lee; a making-of piece; a new interview with Lee; and deleted scenes.

Movie: ★★½

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Marjoe Gortner, Robert Reed, Andy Griffith and William Shatner in Pray for the Wildcats (Photo: Kino)

PRAY FOR THE WILDCATS (1974). Originally airing on The ABC Movie of the Week (the same popular series that also housed the likes of Trilogy of Terror, Brian’s Song and Steven Spielberg’s Duel), Pray for the Wildcats boasts a stellar cast largely comprised of TV mainstays. Andy Griffith essays a rare villainous role as Sam Farragut, a vulgar millionaire who promises to give an ad agency his business if three of its employees join him on a motorcycle ride down to Mexico. Pensive Warren Summerfield (William Shatner), easygoing Paul McIlvain (Robert Reed) and sycophantic Terry Maxon (Marjoe Gortner) all agree, some more reluctantly than others. But each is experiencing his own personal crisis, with Terry having just learned that his girlfriend Krissie (Janet Margolin) is pregnant and Paul dealing with a rocky marriage to Nancy (Angie Dickinson). Most troubled of all is Warren, who, unknown to the others, has just lost his job and is planning to kill himself during the trip so his wife (Lorraine Gary) can collect the insurance money. All of their problems are pushed to the background after Farragut’s jealous rage leads to the deaths of a young hippie couple. Watching Andy of Mayberry lust after a barely legal blonde is a chilling sight, and Griffith is excellent as a one-percenter with absolutely no morals. Shatner is fine as well, playing the film’s most complex and rounded figure, and Reed’s character evolution holds some unexpected surprises. Too often, Pray for the Wildcats shifts into idle with numerous scenes of motorbikes cruising along dusty backroads, but overall, it’s an engaging drama.

Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by author Amanda Reyes (Are You in the House Alone?: A TV Movie Compendium 1964-1999) and film historian Bill Ackerman, and trailers for four other movies on the Kino label.

Movie: ★★★

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Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates and Paul Walter Hauser in Richard Jewell (Photo: Warner)

RICHARD JEWELL (2019). Clint Eastwood’s latest is supposed to be about the championing of an innocent man who was unjustly maligned, and that’s a noble pursuit. But when the film repeatedly sets said objective aside to take equally irresponsible potshots at other targets, it tends to diminish the points attempting to be made. Paul Walter Hauser plays Jewell, the Atlanta security guard who saved countless lives by discovering explosives at a 1996 Summer Olympics event. Jewell is hailed as a hero, much to the delight of his mother (Oscar-nominated Kathy Bates). Before long, though, the FBI receives a tip that makes him the agency’s prime suspect, and that information is relayed to the public by zealous reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde). A frenzied news media swallows the security guard whole, forcing him to obtain a lawyer (Sam Rockwell). Rather than squint in the direction of the national mood — it was the sensationalism-seeking time of O.J. Simpson and Tonya Harding — and place the story within its proper context, Eastwood and scripter Billy Ray lazily set their sights on the usual boogeymen: the government (Jon Hamm as a fictional agent) and the media. The real-life Scruggs enjoyed a reputation as a superb reporter; in this hit job, she’s a fire-breathing witch with no morals or scruples (most offensively, the film has her sleeping with a source to obtain info). As for the actual bomber? That would be Eric Rudolph, barely mentioned since he’s a right-wing nut who murdered a police officer and blew up abortion clinics and a lesbian club, and Clint wouldn’t want these messy details to get in the way of his systematic “alternative facts”/”fake news” takedown of societal safety nets. Certainly, the hounding of Richard Jewell was irresponsible. But Richard Jewell shoulders its own share of recklessness and fecklessness.

Blu-ray extras consist of a making-of featurette and a piece on the real Richard Jewell.

Movie: ★★

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John Thaw and Dennis Waterman in Sweeney! (Photo: Kino & StudioCanal)

SWEENEY! (1977) / SWEENEY 2 (1978). Spending a sizable chunk of my childhood in Portugal allowed me to catch as many imported television series from nearby Great Britain as from the distant United States. One of the most popular was The Sweeney, a hard-edged police drama that ran for four seasons (January 1975 through December 1978). In fact, so popular was the program that its makers decided to release a theatrical spin-off between the third and fourth seasons. Once it proved to be a box office hit, a sequel soon followed.

As in the show, the main characters in Sweeney! are the tough Detective Inspector Jack Regan (John Thaw) and the calmer Detective Sergeant George Carter (Dennis Waterman). In this film, the pair’s unofficial investigation of a prostitute’s death leads them to a high-ranking government official (Ian Bannen) who’s being controlled by an oily press secretary (Barry Foster). Free from the shackles of television, Sweeney! showcased enough blood ‘n’ guts (and splashes of nudity) to earn the picture an X rating in England. As in many movies given such liberty (see also Logan), there’s a sense of overkill to the mayhem, although the story itself is sturdy enough. Where the movie errs is in the character of Regan, who always had a hidden soft side on the series but is presented here as an unsympathetic lout. His — and scripter Ranald Graham’s — treatment of a social secretary (i.e. an assistant expected to sleep with her boss’s clients) played by Diane Keen is particularly distasteful. Points can also be taken off for the absolutely awful ending.

Sweeney 2 is an improvement on its predecessor, with this Regan behaving more like the one seen on the telly. Other ingredients remain in place from both the show and the first film, including the gritty ambience, the inner-office politics, the blatant class division between the working-class cops and the wealthy bad guys they pursue, and, last but certainly not least, reams of that delicious British street slang. This outing finds Regan and Carter (amusing and coincidental how the series preceded Carter and Reagan becoming back-to-back U.S. presidents, but I digress) investigating a series of bank robberies and finding that the trail leads them to Malta.

Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary on both movies by film historian Simon Abrams; the theatrical trailer for Sweeney!; and trailers for seven other movies on the Kino label.

Sweeney!: ★★½

Sweeney 2: ★★★

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Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems (Photo: A24 & Lionsgate)

UNCUT GEMS (2019). The problem isn’t that Adam Sandler can’t act; the problem is that he doesn’t care to act. But pair him with a talented director (Paul Thomas Anderson, Noah Baumbach) and evidence of his abilities shines through. Filmmaking siblings Benny and Josh Safdie, who were among the first to reveal to the world that Robert Pattinson really could act (2017’s Good Time), here similarly cast a spotlight on Sandler. He stars as Howard Ratner, a small-time New York jeweler who tests the patience of practically everyone who meets him. His wife (Idina Menzel) no longer loves him and wants a divorce, while his mistress (Julia Fox in an impressive acting debut) loves him but hates his jealous streak. His biggest fault, though, might be the gambling addiction that finds him owing a sizable sum. But Howard reasons that his acquisition of an uncut opal straight from an Ethiopian mine will save him, since he plans to sell it at auction for over a million dollars. Since the bulk of Uncut Gems involves people constantly screaming at each other, jittery film fans might want to seek entertainment elsewhere — honestly, the characters’ hostility, accentuated by the up-close-and-personal camerawork by Darius Khondji and the rapid-fire editing by Benny Safdie and Bronstein, works on the nerves as effectively as the shock sequences from any superior horror film. And no one is louder than Sandler’s Howard Ratner, who’s irritating and generally unlikable but, in a few (very few) key scenes, also strangely appealing in the manner of a scrappy underdog taking on the merciless world surrounding him. Granted, some might watch Uncut Gems and see the actor merely playing yet another loud-mouth boor, and they would be correct. But in this case, there’s conviction — not to mention an actual character — behind the shouting and the scheming, and that makes all the difference.

The only Blu-ray extra is a making-of piece.

Movie: ★★★

 

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