Police Squad! (Photo: Paramount & CBS)

(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 Current War
Benedict Cumberbatch in The Current War (Photo: Universal)

THE CURRENT WAR (2019). Once upon a time, there was a 2017 movie called The Current War. But the evil machinations of a lecherous studio head named Harvey Weinstein and a rushed release resulted in a movie that earned weak reviews and a quick boot from theaters. Cut to 2019, and following some trimming here and reshooting there, the film returned with the title The Current War: Director’s Cut. So does this saga end happily ever after? That, I suppose, depends on one’s enjoyment of this newer edition. I haven’t seen the 2017 version so comparisons can’t be made, but what’s presented here is an interesting and important story told in a lackadaisical fashion. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and scripter Michael Mitnick have opted to relate the so-called “war of the currents,” when Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Henry Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) were competing with each other to see who would eventually be allowed to power the entire nation with newfangled electricity. Edison is assisted by his personal secretary Samuel Insull (Tom Holland, thus reuniting Spider-Man with Dr. Strange post-Avengers), while Westinghouse eventually forms an alliance with immigrant inventor Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult). This is fascinating material, but it’s also, perhaps unavoidably, too much material for one movie to adequately tackle. Despite strong performances, the characters often feel like Reader’s Digest-condensed versions of the actual figures, and the necessary streamlining and alteration of history leaves the entire enterprise bereft of much dramatic urgency. Select scenes in The Current War provide a charge, but there simply isn’t enough juice to power the entirety of the project.

Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by Gomez-Rejon, and deleted scenes.

Movie: ★★½

Dolittle
Robert Downey Jr. in Dolittle (Photo: Universal)

DOLITTLE (2020). The third film adaptation based on the children’s books by Hugh Lofting is the worst yet — and that’s saying something given the general wretchedness of the 1967 version starring Rex Harrison (the 1998 take starring Eddie Murphy was merely tepid). As the eccentric Dolittle, Robert Downey Jr. begins the film donning a fright beard and spraying spittle as he talks to the animals via a series of grunts, growls and grimaces — not even Rowan Atkinson as Mr. Bean ever mugged this much. Directed and co-written by Stephen Gaghan, who won an Oscar for scripting Traffic and earned another nomination for penning Syriana (because those are certainly two credits that suggested he could helm a big-budget kiddie flick), Dolittle was originally set to be released in April 2019 before poor test screenings resulted in a handful of rewrites and reshoots. The finished product before us doesn’t suggest that this version is any worse than the previous incarnation; rather, it suggests that, instead of wasting more money on a film that already cost them an astounding $175 million, the suits at Universal merely threw up their hands and opted to cut their losses by releasing whatever footage was available and assembled. It’s almost impossible to believe that Dolittle can be enjoyed by anyone whose age is measured by double rather than single digits. Despite the gargantuan price tag, this is a visually ugly movie, always busy in filling the screen with a swirl of colors and effects but never managing to engage the senses in any positive manner. First Cats (reviewed last week here), and now this? Perhaps there ought to be a temporary ban on CGI-slathered movies featuring talking animals — unlike children, they apparently should be neither seen nor heard.

Blu-ray extras consist of a handful of making-of featurettes, most focusing on the actors and their characters.

Movie: ★

3just
Jamie Foxx and Michael B. Jordan in Just Mercy (Photo: Warner)

JUST MERCY (2019). With the world as his oyster, Harvard graduate Bryan Stevenson chose to shuck the easy career path and instead devote himself to prying open the racial inequality that existed in Alabama. That, in a nutshell, is the impetus for the based-on-fact story at the center of Just Mercy. Written (with Andrew Lanham) and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, Just Mercy centers on the case of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a black man who in 1987 was arrested and prematurely placed on Death Row for the murder of a white teenage girl. The evidence supporting McMillian’s claims of innocence was overwhelming, but because McMillian had previously been having an affair with a white woman, because the local law had no other suspects, and because, well, this was Alabama, Sheriff Tom Tate (Michael Harding) and his fellow racists not only buried important evidence but also coerced a handful of people (mainly criminals already serving time) to provide false testimony that further implicated McMillian. It isn’t until Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) arrives on the scene that there’s even a glimmer of hope that McMillian will be exonerated and thus avoid the electric chair. Still, it’s an uphill battle, with the hill about as daunting as Everest. An earnest and important movie, Just Mercy is consistently involving, with the particulars of the case and the falsehoods used as a battering ram against McMillian’s innocence both triggering ample waves of viewer outrage. I won’t reveal McMillian’s ultimate courtroom fate (though it’s not hard to guess, given that inspirational title), but I will allow that it’s not a happily-ever-after tale in one respect. The real-life Sheriff Tate was never punished for his abhorrent behavior but was instead re-elected seven more times after the incident by the good people of Alabama.

Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette and deleted scenes.

Movie: ★★★

Florence Pugh (Finalized)
Florence Pugh in Little Women (Photo: Sony)

LITTLE WOMEN (2019). Writer-director Greta Gerwig mounts this triumphant retelling of the Louisa May Alcott novel that’s been brought to the screens (both big and small) on approximately a dozen occasions, the first arriving 103 years ago. There was one 1930s adaptation with Katharine Hepburn and a 1940s take with Elizabeth Taylor, but the best version — even with the arrival of this edition — remains Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 interpretation, with Winona Ryder absolutely perfect as Jo March. Here, it’s Gerwig’s Lady Bird star, Saoirse Ronan, who tackles the role of Jo, the headstrong sister who values her independence above all else and hopes to make her mark as an accomplished author. She’s in sharp contrast to her more traditional siblings (Emma Watson as Meg, Eliza Scanlen as Beth, and a scene-stealing Florence Pugh as Amy), all of whom nevertheless carve out their own individuality. Resplendent in most regards, Little Women is a movie in which each vignette rings with vitality and purpose. The theme of sacrifice looms large over the proceedings, whether it’s the March sisters sharing their food with the less fortunate, Jo writing for profit, or Beth uniting the family in the most tragic way possible. As a writer, as a director, and as an actress, Gerwig has always displayed a modern sensibility, yet her efforts on this picture benefit from such a viewpoint, as her approach provides structural support to the feminist tendencies Alcott exhibited in her works. Little Women mixes the classic with the contemporary, a strategy that pays respect to the ageless original. Nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Actress (Ronan), Supporting Actress (Pugh), Adapted Screenplay and Original Score, this won for Best Costume Design.

Blu-ray extras include a making-of short and a piece on Gerwig.

Movie: ★★★½

5PoliceSquad
Leslie Nielsen in Police Squad! (Photo: Paramount & CBS)

POLICE SQUAD!: THE COMPLETE SERIES (1982). The creative team behind the uproarious duo of Kentucky Fried Movie and Airplane! — Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams and David Zucker (aka ZAZ) — brought their brand of outrageous comedy to television with the series Police Squad!, but audiences were apparently confused by its off-kilter sensibility and lack of a laugh track. Thus, after a mere six episodes, the show was cancelled, but ZAZ nevertheless had the last laugh, since the short-lived series was later spun off into the 1988 theatrical hit The Naked Gun and its two sequels. As for Police Squad!, it looks better all the time, with Leslie Nielsen an absolute deadpan riot as Detective Frank Drebin. Less buffoonish than in the subsequent film series, Drebin is still an oblivious clod, although he still manages to crack cases with the aid of Captain Ed Hocken (Alan North), pervy lab scientist Ted Elson (Ed Williams), and Johnny the Snitch (William Duell), who seemingly knows everything about everything (besides Drebin, other clients include Dick Clark and Tommy Lasorda, playing themselves). The laughs begin immediately, with the title Police Squad! followed by In Color (a dig at older shows and itself subsequently co-opted by the MST3K gang in many of their riffs) and each episode’s “special guest star” (William Shatner and Lorne Greene among them) getting murdered even as he or she is being introduced. The wordplay is ingenious (“Who are you and how did you get in here?” “I’m the locksmith and I’m the locksmith.”), the non sequiturs are inspired, and the visual gags are not to be missed.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by ZAZ on select episodes; an archival interview with Nielsen (who passed away in 2010); a gag reel; and internal memos in which ABC executives detailed which risqué scenes and lines had to be changed.

Series: ★★★½

6went
Leslie Banks and Basil Sydney in Went the Day Well? (Photo: Film Movement and Studio Canal)

THEIR FINEST HOUR: 5 BRITISH WWII CLASSICS (1942-1958). While American film aficionados are thoroughly familiar with such Hollywood-produced World War II classics like Sands of Iwo Jima and The Great Escape, it’s possible that some of the like-minded pictures being produced exclusively over in England might have slipped under the radar. This set seeks to remedy that oversight by shining a spotlight on five films that were immensely popular in the UK. Incidentally, three of the movies star John Mills, described in one of the extra features as the quintessential Englishman.

For my money, the best movie in the collection is the first. Went the Day Well? (1942) is an incredibly exciting and extremely suspenseful piece in which a group of German paratroopers disguise themselves as British soldiers and manage to take over a rural village. Based on a Graham Greene story and superbly directed by Cavalcanti (who would later helm the unforgettable ventriloquist storyline in the anthology film Dead of Night), Went the Day Well? is shocking in its bursts of violence, with a sense of dread that adds to the unexpected developments. Framed in flashback, the picture opens with a villager explaining that the Allies won the war and Hitler was dead — yet the movie was made while WWII was still raging! The plot would later be resurrected in Jack Higgins’ bestselling novel The Eagle Has Landed and the underrated film version starring Michael Caine and Donald Sutherland.

7colditz
Bryan Forbes (left) in The Colditz Story (Photo: Film Movement and Studio Canal)

As a young boy living in Portugal for several years, I greatly enjoyed the imported BBC series Colditz (1972-1974), starring David McCallum and Robert Wagner as two of the many POWs being held in the German castle that served as a maximum-security prison during the war. Unfortunately, the series flopped when it reached the US, meaning it’s unlikely I’ll ever see it again in my lifetime (well, not unless I spring for a region-free player). I suppose I’ll have to make do with The Colditz Story (1955), starring John Mills as one of a number of captured Allies who spend their hours plotting their great escape. Speaking of which, a number of situations here would also turn up in 1963’s The Great Escape; that, of course, is the far superior picture, but this one offers enough to easily maintain viewer interest.

8dam
Richard Todd in The Dam Busters (Photo: Film Movement and Studio Canal)

The Dam Busters (1955) was a gargantuan hit in its homeland and over here garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Special Effects. The first half of this true-life tale mainly centers on the efforts of British engineer Barnes Wallis (Michael Redgrave) to develop a “bouncing bomb” that could take out some strategic German dams, while the second hour primarily follows Wing Commander Guy Gibson (Richard Todd) and his squadron as they attempt to carry out the dangerous mission. While several of the films in this collection clock in at over two hours, this is the only one in which the length is felt, what with its detached approach as well as repetitive sequences that hammer home the narrative and philosophical points. Trivial pursuit: The climactic assault on the dams reportedly served as an inspiration to George Lucas in plotting out his own Death Star attacks.

9dunkirk
John Mills (front) in Dunkirk (Photo: Film Movement and Studio Canal)

Although it’s Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk that’s instantly recognizable to the vast majority of moviegoers, this Dunkirk (1958) manages to hold its own quite nicely against its more muscular counterpart. Perhaps surprisingly, this older Dunkirk is less sentimental and more cynical than the recent blockbuster, as it likewise details the massive operation that resulted in British civilians coming to the rescue of stranded soldiers. Both films, though, are equally episodic in nature, with two of the story strands in the ’58 version respectively involving the efforts of a small band of soldiers (led by John Mills’ overwhelmed corporal) to make it to Dunkirk and the attempts of a weak-willed civilian (Richard Attenborough) to overcome both his fear and his complacency.

10ice
Harry Andrews, Sylvia Syms and John Mills in Ice Cold in Alex (Photo: Film Movement and Studio Canal)

Brutally cut down by almost a full hour(!) by its American distributor and renamed Desert Attack, Ice Cold in Alex (1958) is a bruising beauty when admired at its original length. Fleeing from Libya to Alexandria, Egypt, after the fall of Tobruk, a drunken captain (John Mills), a dependable sergeant major (Harry Andrews), and two nurses (Sylvia Sims and Diane Clare) pick up an Afrikaner (Anthony Quayle) who subsequently helps them out of jam after jam. The suspicion soon arises, though, that he might actually be a German spy. With fascinating characters, formidable performances, and breathtaking dramatics, Ice Cold in Alex is a near-perfect picture until it badly stumbles in the home stretch: An unlikely and unnecessary romance comes out of nowhere, and Sims’ previously strong-willed nurse suddenly turns into a simpering ninny. It’s a dreadful miscalculation (particularly since Sims’ character enjoys greater chemistry with one of the other males), but the film rights itself in time for an extremely satisfying ending.

Blu-ray extras include documentaries on the real-life events depicted in some of the films; vintage historical footage; cast interviews; footage from John Mills’ home movies; and restoration comparisons.

Went the Day Well?: ★★★★

The Colditz Story: ★★★

The Dam Busters: ★★½

Dunkirk: ★★★½

Ice Cold in Alex: ★★★½

Kristen Stewart stars in Twentieth Century Fox’s “Underwater”.
Kristen Stewart in Underwater (Photo: Fox)

UNDERWATER (2020). If someone grabbed one of Ridley Scott’s aliens and propelled it to the ocean depths, the result would be the soggy Underwater. Kristen Stewart is the best thing about this subpar subaquatic suspenser, as her character and a handful of other hapless humans (played by, among others, Vincent Cassel and T.J. Miller) discover slimy critters surround their laboratory. As they attempt to escape, they’re gutted by these tentacled terrors at every turn — alas, the movie is so dark, it’s possible the filmmakers were using Muppet puppets most of the time and only spending dough on CGI monsters for the brightly lit bits. Eventually, there’s a suggestion that the company that employs these workers — I didn’t catch its name, but it might as well be The Weyland Corporation — perhaps already knew about this subaqueous species but kept it mum. This derivative movie not only borrows heavily from the Alien template — right down to Stewart battling in her underwear a la Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley — it also brings to mind the handful of late-‘80s creature features that similarly involved underwater oddities: The Abyss, Leviathan, DeepStar Six, The Rift, and the MST3K-approved Lords of the Deep. When someone is potentially stealing from a movie that was riffed at the robotic hands of Crow and Tom Servo, then it’s safe to say that Hollywood really is in trouble. So is there anything original in Underwater? Yes. In one scene, a wrapped Moon Pie is shown floating in the water, and it eventually becomes a topic of conversation between two of the characters. I can’t remember the last time I saw a Moon Pie in a movie, and it was such a starting sight that I half-expected a similar cameo from a Cheerwine or RC Cola bottle.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director William Eubank; an alternate ending; and a deleted scene.

Movie: ★½

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FROM SCREEN TO STREAM

Nemesis_SJoeDowning7
Nemesis (Photo: Ciao Pictures)

NEMESIS (2020). Currently making the rounds on the film festival circuit is Nemesis, a 17-minute short that will later expand to other platforms (see the trailer here). Written and directed by Tim Earnheart, this low-budget endeavor doesn’t look like the proverbial million dollars — it looks like far more, thanks to a dazzling visual style that carries a fairly predictable storyline. Best friends since college, Astrid (Esha More) and Evelyn (Joy Park) have just successfully merged start-up companies, an integration that to Evelyn feels more like a takeover by her supposed best friend. While discussing the matter at a bar, Evelyn lets drop that she belongs to a hunting club, which naturally sparks Astrid’s interest. Astrid soon gains admittance to this elite organization, but while this hunt doesn’t involve Hilary Swank and the great outdoors, it does involve cramped quarters and a hulking behemoth with the face of one of Clive Barker’s Hellraisers and the body of a RoboCop antagonist. Nemesis is the sort of accomplished short that can double as a calling card for the major studios, with Earnheart and his able team creating a piece sporting excellent visual effects, a startling production design, and an apt aural assault.

 

2 Comments »

  1. Er, did I read you right, Matt? No region-free player in your arsenal? Is there some profoundly ethical reason you’re masochistically depriving yourself so? It’s not as though these machines are particularly expensive or hard to procure, with a little research…

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