View from the Couch: Birds of Prey, The Great Escape, Sweet Bird of Youth, etc.
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.
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.
Steve McQueen in The Great Escape (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.)
BIRDS OF PREY (AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN) (2020). In the DC Extended Universe, Birds of Prey doesn’t hold a candle to 2017’s Wonder Woman, still the only movie from this flubbed franchise that’s worth a damn. But when compared to other DC projects like Man of Steel, Suicide Squad, and the incel fave Joker, it’s practically a godsend. It’s also too much of a good thing — scratch that; too much of an OK thing. Margot Robbie reprises her Suicide Squad role as Harley Quinn, seen here combating the ruthless Black Mask (Ewan McGregor) alongside the sonic-powered songstress Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), the mysterious, crossbow-wielding Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and the relentless cop Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez). Birds of Prey isn’t influenced by any DC flick as much as it swipes its blueprints from Deadpool (R rating, copious amounts of bloodletting, and snarky attitude). But for all its nihilism and cynicism, Deadpool never felt particularly mean-spirited; this one, on the other hand, can’t say the same. The brutalization of women throughout Birds of Prey is meant to elevate the anticipated catharsis once these misogynistic men receive their deserved comeuppances, but no amount of justice or just desserts can alleviate some of the discomfort triggered by select earlier scenes. The film is also self-satisfied to an absurd degree, given the number of gags that fall flat. Still, its galloping pace helps camouflage many of its flaws, and its bubblegum-colored visuals are appropriate and imaginative.
Blu-ray extras include the Birds Eye View Mode (behind-the-scenes content that shares the screen with the movie); pieces on the costume and set designs; and a gag reel.
THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1961). Taking its cue from the Universal Classic Monsters (incidentally, the first shared universe in film history, long before Marvel and DC), Hammer Films produced nine Dracula pictures, seven Frankenstein flicks, and four mummy movies. Yet despite being a mainstay in the Universal series, the wolf man only headlined one Hammer outing — a shame, since the solo venture proved to be worthy of further lycanthropic sagas. Grim even by early Hammer standards, this adaptation of Guy Endore’s 1933 novel The Werewolf of Paris transfers the action to Spain, where the cruel and aptly named Marques Siniestro (Anthony Dawson) imprisons and then forgets about a beggar (Richard Wordsworth) who had come to his door seeking food. Well over a decade later, the deaf-mute girl (Yvonne Romain) who oversees the castle dungeons rejects Siniestro’s advances and is also thrown into the cell, where she is raped by the now-crazed beggar. After escaping, she gives birth to a boy who is adopted by a kindly professor (Clifford Evans). Named Leon, the lad soon shows signs of being a werewolf, a condition largely kept in check until he becomes a man (Oliver Reed in his first starring role). As much a study of the class struggle as it is a horror yarn (the wealthy are elitist and arrogant, the middle and lower classes are sincere and sympathetic), The Curse of the Werewolf is a fatalistic fright flick, buoyed by Terence Fisher’s muted direction and the excellent makeup design by Hammer vet Roy Ashton.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Romain and special makeup effects artist Mike Hill (The Shape of Water); a making-of featurette; a piece on Ashton; a look at the battle with the censors; and the theatrical trailer.
THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963). Forget the film school staples for a moment: If you cross off the usual suspects (Citizen Kane, Casablanca, The Seventh Seal, The Bicycle Thief, etc.) from my list of the greatest movies ever made, this World War II adventure yarn would be what’s left standing near or at the very top. Certainly, it’d be a tight race between this, 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, Star Wars, and Raiders of the Lost Ark for the crown of the most enjoyable matinee-style popcorn picture that Hollywood has ever produced — the masterpieces that movie buffs can watch anytime, anywhere, and instantly feel uplifted by the experience. Based on a true story, this centers on an attempt by captured Allied soldiers to escape from Germany’s premiere POW camp; among the all-stars cast as prisoners taking part in the breakout are Steve McQueen (iconic as Hilts “The Cooler King”), James Garner (irresistible as Hendley “The Scrounger”), James Coburn (amusing as Sedgwick “The Manufacturer”), Charles Bronson (terrific as Danny “The Tunnel King”) and Donald Pleasence (touching as Blythe “The Forger”). McQueen’s thrilling motorcycle ride has long been the stuff of cinematic legend, but the movie is packed with countless memorable episodes of this caliber. John Sturges directs with verve, with Elmer Bernstein contributing a sensational score that clearly should have taken that year’s Oscar (shamefully, the movie’s sole nomination was for Best Film Editing). The Great Escape runs nearly three hours, yet it’s the fastest three hours ever spent in front of a Blu-ray player.
Blu-ray extras in this Criterion edition include audio commentary (from 1991) by Sturges and Bernstein; separate audio commentary (from 2003) by Garner, Coburn, and Pleasence; the 2001 documentary “The Great Escape”: Heroes Under Ground, about the real-life escape; and the theatrical trailer.
THE PHOTOGRAPH (2020). The Photograph is one of those films that follows two storylines over two different periods. The prominent one is set in the present, as journalist Michael Block (LaKeith Stanfield) leaves New York to cover a story in Louisiana. While interviewing fisherman Isaac Jefferson (Rob Morgan), Michael notices the striking photos on display in his home and learns that they were taken by Christina Eames, a prominent photographer who has since passed away. This leads to the secondary tale about how the young Christina (Chanté Adams) had to choose between staying in her stifling hometown and marrying Isaac (played as a younger man by Y’lan Noel) or heading to NYC to try her luck as a professional picture taker. The modern-day story continues with Michael returning to New York and looking up Christina’s daughter, museum curator Mae Morton (Issa Rae). Instant sparks are struck, and the two tentatively test the waters of a relationship. The Photograph hails from an original screenplay penned by director Stella Meghie, but it might as well have been based on a Nicholas Sparks novel — while not as sudsy as many Sparks screen adaptations, it proves to be just as drowsy. A leisurely pace in a love story can allow the romance to simmer before sliding into sizzling sensuality, but the lethargic pace here only emphasizes the utter predictability of both tales being told. The lack of dramatic urgency is palpable, and the one attempt at providing any sort of twist is so obvious that it will lead to shrugs rather than shock. The performances can’t be faulted, but the rest of The Photograph proves to be woefully underdeveloped.
Blu-ray extras consist of a making-of featurette; a discussion of African-American representation in film; and a piece on the photographs used in the movie.
REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE (1967). It makes sense that this adaptation of Carson McCullers’ novel was released in 1967, the year that cinema really began to push — make that shred — the envelope with such films as The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde. Even so, Reflections in a Golden Eye is such a unique motion picture experience that it’s no wonder it flopped with moviegoers and most critics (Roger Ebert, on the other hand, awarded it four stars and lambasted the audience “who found it necessary to shriek loudly and giggle hideously through three-quarters of it”). Directed by John Huston, a filmmaker never known for balking at challenges, this bizarre picture stars Marlon Brando as Major Weldon Penderton, an officer stationed at a Southern army post. A tightly wound and repressed man, Weldon is married to Leonora (Elizabeth Taylor), the oil to his vinegar. Leonora barely tries to conceal her adulterous relationship with another officer, Lieutenant Colonel Morris Langdon (Brian Keith), from either her husband or Langdon’s fragile wife Alison (Julie Harris). Playing further key roles in the dramatics are Leonora’s beloved horse Firebird, Alison’s Filipino houseboy Anacleto (Zorro David, one and done after his only film appearance), and Private Williams (Robert Forster in his film debut), an oddball who lusts after Leonora and is himself desired by Weldon. Decent Brando performances were hard to come by in the 1960s, yet this is one of his better turns during the decade — he fits right in with the film’s mix of kinkiness and cuckoldry.
Huston originally released Reflections in a Golden Eye with the entire film bathed in, naturally enough, a golden hue. After playing theatrically for only a week, Warner yanked the gold-plated picture and replaced it with the normal color version. This two-disc Blu-ray edition from the Warner Archive Collection contains both versions of the film. Extras consist of behind-the-scenes footage (with no sound) and the theatrical trailer.
SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH (1962). As such films as Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire and Richard Brooks’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof had already demonstrated, Tennessee Williams’ controversial plays were often transplanted to the screen in neutered versions that still managed to enrage the moral watchdogs of the day. The same routine applied to Sweet Bird of Youth, which found Brooks returning to Tennessee country. Once again, Hollywood proved to be more constrictive than Broadway — a shocking castration gets replaced by a savage beating — but the Southern discomfort of its characters keeps this torrid melodrama humming. Paul Newman, in one of his patented “cad” roles of the period (see: Hud, The Young Philadelphians, many more), plays Chance Wayne, a pretty boy who returns to his Florida hometown with fading actress Alexandra Del Lago (Geraldine Page) by his side. He’s hoping to reunite with his former sweetheart Heavenly Finley (Shirley Knight), all the while using Alexandra in a scheme to secure him the Hollywood stardom that has so far eluded him. But “Boss” Finley (Ed Begley), the corrupt politician who owns the town, will do everything in his power to keep Chance away from his daughter, and he’s assisted in his endeavors by his sadistic son Tom Jr. (Rip Torn). Newman, Page, Torn and Madeleine Sherwood (playing “Boss” Finley’s discarded mistress) all reprise their roles from the original Broadway production. Begley nabbed the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his brutal and blustery turn, with Page and Knight earning nominations as, respectively, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress.
Blu-ray extras consist of a 2006 retrospective piece; screen test footage of Page and Torn (who were married from 1963 until her death in 1987) performing a scene together; and the theatrical trailer.
Short And Sweet:
BLOOD ON THE MOON (1948). Just as director Robert Wise’s 1949 boxing picture The Set-Up has been tagged a film noir, so has his Western yarn Blood on the Moon. I would agree with that first designation (find the review here) and disagree with the second. Aside from some shadowy scenes and Robert Mitchum in the leading role, there aren’t many noir elements found in this story of a cowboy (Mitchum) who’s hired by his friend (Robert Preston) to serve as “muscle” against a cattle rancher (Tom Tully), only to quickly realize that he’s fighting on the wrong side. A good opening act and a great knockdown fight between the former friends are pluses; an unconvincing Barbara Bel Geddes (later of Dallas fame as Ellie Ewing) and a routine shoot-‘em-up climax are among the demerits.
The only Blu-ray extra is the theatrical trailer.
D-DAY: NORMANDY 1944 (2014). Initially released in IMAX theaters on the 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion that helped alter the course of World War II, this 43-minute documentary serves as a decent primer for those interested in history and perhaps even those interested in the various ways in which history can repeat itself (it’s hard to hear about the fascistic Hitler’s Atlantic Wall and not think about the fascistic Trump’s equally useless wall). The hand-drawn segments and the dramatic recreations are often hokey, but the graphics detailing Europe’s changing fortunes and Tom Brokaw’s info-packed narration make it a worthwhile effort.
Extras on the 4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray edition from Shout! Factory include an interview with Brokaw; an interview with director Pascal Vuong; behind-the-scenes featurettes; and footage of Normandy in more recent times.
ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW (2005). The debut feature of performance artist Miranda July (serving as writer, director, and star) is the sort of movie specifically designed to win awards at hipper-than-thou film festivals (and it did). Yet strip away the maddening preciousness and suffocating quirkiness that coat the entire film and you’ll find a few sturdy vignettes and decent performances. July herself is nails-on-the-chalkboard irksome as a video artist, but John Hawkes is just right as the troubled shoe salesman who catches her eye, while Miles Thompson and Brandon Ratcliff deliver natural performances as his two young sons (one around 7, the other a teenager) who, like all the kids in this movie, receive early lessons in sexual mores.
Blu-ray extras include a discussion with July; deleted scenes; and July’s short films The Amateurist (1998) and Nest of Tens (2000).
I guess it’s safe to presume that Yvonne Romain doesn’t perform her audio commentary in character. And “maddening preciousness and suffocating quirkiness” is nicely put. You’re a patient man, clearly willing to suffer for your art.