Christopher Walken in The Deer Hunter (Photo: Shout! Factory & Universal)

(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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William Austin (left), Charlotte Henry and Cary Grant (yes, Cary Grant) in Alice in Wonderland (Photo: Kino)

ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1933). Of the 50+ screen versions of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the best one I’ve seen isn’t the 1951 Disney animated feature, and it certainly isn’t Tim Burton’s live-action version from 2010. Instead, the most remarkable adaptation is Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer’s 1988 Neco z Alenky (aka Alice stateside), a surreal odyssey that surrounds a real girl with a bevy of disturbing stop-motion animation creatures. One of the few adaptations that approaches Svankmajer’s picture in peculiarity (if not quality) is this all-star Hollywood effort co-scripted by famed production designer William Cameron Menzies and future All About Eve writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz. As in many major productions, an unknown was chosen for the lead role and surrounded by countless name actors (e.g. Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, Christopher Reeve in Superman, the kids in the Harry Potter series); in this case, it was Charlotte Henry who was picked to play Alice, with the Wonderland denizens portrayed by a who’s-who of 1930s Paramount performers. Of course, most of them are completely hidden by their grotesque costumes, which probably contributed to the movie’s poor box office. As the White Knight, Gary Cooper is asked to sport a bushy mustache that covers most of his face. For Humpty Dumpty, only W.C. Fields’ eyes can be seen. And as the Mock Turtle, Cary Grant is completely covered by his unseemly outfit. There’s a ragtag feel to this Alice in Wonderland, which works in keeping with the absurdity of the situations but fails in making the material stick in either the head or the heart. It’s ultimately a filmic freak show, fascinating in the moment but easy to disregard afterward.

Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historian Lee Gambin; the theatrical trailer; and trailers for other Kino titles.

Movie: ★★½

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Gene Hackman and Barbra Streisand in All Night Long (Photo: Kino)

ALL NIGHT LONG (1981). There have been better actors in the annals of cinema (though not many), but perhaps none have been as reliable as Gene Hackman. Forget the classics like The French Connection and Unforgiven: Even in his misfires (and they are legion), Hackman commands the screen with performances that almost always feel heartfelt, intuitive, and seasoned with just the right dash of sly mischievousness. He’s typically on point in All Night Long, one of those duds that only remains watchable because of his earnest emoting. Hackman stars as George Dupler, an executive who gets demoted after throwing a chair through his boss’ office window. In the blink of an eye, George loses his job at corporate HQ and is assigned to serve as the third-shift manager at a low-rent drugstore. But his midlife crisis isn’t just confined to work issues, as he discovers his idiotic son Freddie (Dennis Quaid) is having an affair with Cheryl (Barbra Streisand), the wife of a distant relative (Kevin Dobson). George meets Cheryl, and both soon find themselves attracted to each other. George ends up leaving his wife (Diane Ladd) and alienating his son, while Cheryl keeps their affair a secret from her temperamental husband. There are some truly clever lines in the script by W.D. Richter, but they’re cast adrift in a muddled and meandering film that’s sabotaged by embarrassing comic interludes (most set inside the drugstore and involving wacky, sitcom-ready characters) and a woefully miscast Streisand (who replaced Lisa Eichhorn a week into filming). Hackman captures the anxiety and frustration of a man who doesn’t know which way life wants him to turn, but all of his co-stars are left flailing in badly defined roles.

Blu-ray extras include an interview with Richter; radio spots; and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ★★

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Katie Holmes in Brahms: The Boy II (Photo: Universal)

BRAHMS: THE BOY II (2020). Lest anyone think Brahms: The Boy II is a continuing biopic of Johannes Brahms during his formative years, it should be quickly clarified that it’s actually a follow-up to the 2016 horror yarn The Boy. Yet if the makers of this franchise absolutely had to borrow the name of a famed composer for its central character, perhaps Beethoven would have been a better fit, given the tone-deaf nature of this stultifying sequel. The Boy circled around the Heelshires, an elderly British couple whose 8-year-old son Brahms had died tragically two decades earlier. They replace him with a porcelain doll, and it soon becomes apparent that there are supernatural forces at work that link the lad and the doll. Brahms: The Boy II takes place shortly after the events of the first film, with a troubled family — mom Liza (Katie Holmes), dad Sean (Owain Yeoman), and son Jude (Christopher Convery) — taking up residence in the abandoned Heelshire house. Jude soon finds the Brahms doll, and subsequent developments lead to Liza wondering if it’s actually alive. Watching this turkey, one gets the feeling that the picture was only made on a dare: Create a horror movie about a doll and make it even more dull and derivative than other recent doll-faced films (the Annabelle chain, the Child’s Play remake, etc.). A dark figure bolts across the screen — cue the loud single note of music! A dog senses the evil emanating from the doll — cue the tragic fate of our furry friend! (For those worried, “No animals were harmed in the making of this motion picture.” Alas, the same couldn’t be said about brain cells.) The utter lack of imagination is downright depressing, never more so than in the closing minute. If anyone thought this film would end any other way, well, I have a patch of land on the Heelshire estate I would love to sell you.

Blu-ray extras include deleted scenes and an alternate ending.

Movie: ★

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Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro in The Deer Hunter (Photo: Shout! Factory & Universal)

THE DEER HUNTER (1978). Highly controversial in its day, The Deer Hunter was released in what proved to be a landmark year for Hollywood’s willingness to finally make serious films that addressed the Vietnam War. Coming Home, The Boys in Company C and Go Tell the Spartans also centered on the conflict, yet it was this three-hour epic that deservedly garnered most of the ink. Exercising remarkable patience, writer-director Michael Cimino and the other three writers don’t allow the movie to even arrive in Southeast Asia until the second hour. First, we’re slowly introduced to the residents of a small Pennsylvania steel town, with three of them (Robert De Niro as Michael, Christopher Walken as Nicky, and John Savage as Steven) on the verge of heading off to war. The second chapter deals with their ordeal in Vietnam (including the notorious “Russian roulette” sequence, a dramatic device that enraged the film’s critics), while the final hour centers on their post-war attempts to cope with their physical and emotional handicaps. Powerfully acted by all involved (especially Walken and Meryl Streep as Nicky’s girlfriend) and infused with numerous gut-wrenching scenes, the film’s portrayal of a senseless war not only speaks to the time it depicts but also remains relevant as long as power-hungry leaders continue to play Russian roulette with the lives of young soldiers. This was the film that got the Meryl Streep Oscar ball rolling, as she earned the first of her record 21 (and counting?) nominations for her supporting turn. All told, this was up for nine Academy Awards (including a Best Actor bid for De Niro), winning five: Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (Walken), Film Editing, and Sound.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and film journalist Bob Fisher; new interviews with Savage, co-star Rutanya Alda, and producer Michael Deeley; deleted and extended scenes; and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ★★★★

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Natalie Wood in Inside Daisy Clover (Photo: Warner Archive Collection)

INSIDE DAISY CLOVER (1965). One of the weaker Hollywood films about Hollywood, this disappointment from the team behind To Kill a Mockingbird (director Robert Mulligan and producer Alan J. Pakula) stars 27-year-old Natalie Wood as 15-year-old Daisy Clover, who lives in a beachside trailer with her flaky mother Lucile (Ruth Gordon). After sending a song recording to studio head Raymond Swan (Christopher Plummer), Daisy is plucked from obscurity and groomed to become a major star. But in order to make the leap, she must allow the studio to reinvent her, and that includes cutting all ties to her mother. Daisy ends up finding comfort in the arms of dashing actor Wade Lewis (Robert Redford), but personal travails lead to a nervous breakdown and a suicide attempt. Inside Daisy Clover isn’t exactly a camp outing, but it’s also impossible to take seriously, given its lack of period verisimilitude (the story takes place in the 1930s, but we never believe it’s anything but the 1960s), the speedy trajectory of its rags-to-riches narrative, its shallow digs at the Dream Factory, and Wood’s overly animated performance. Plummer is suitably chilly as the studio mogul, while Gordon delivers a fine if familiar turn as the dotty mom (the role is basically a test run for her work as Ma in Every Which Way But Loose and its sequel). Best of all is Redford — in only his third feature-film appearance, he scores a direct hit as the Prince Charming who just might be too good to be true. Among the film’s three Academy Award nominations was a Best Supporting Actress bid for Gordon (the art direction and the costume design nabbed the other two).

Blu-ray extras consist of the 1964 Road Runner cartoon War and Pieces and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ★★

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The Invisible Man (Photo: Universal)

THE INVISIBLE MAN (2020). Writer-director Leigh Whannell has opted to keep H.G. Wells’ title and basic premise and … that’s it. The central character is not the titular dude but rather the woman in his life — that would be Cecilia Kass (an excellent Elisabeth Moss), who, as the film opens, escapes from her boyfriend Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a brilliant scientist and a serial abuser. News later arrives that Adrian has committed suicide, but Cecilia still senses his presence and becomes convinced that not only is he alive but he has discovered a way to make himself invisible. One might think that a man with such an astounding invention would immediately expose it to the world in exchange for obscene wealth and lasting fame; certainly, he wouldn’t just use it to play childish pranks on his ex. But these folks would be underestimating the mindset of the insecure American male. The Invisible Man is a potent look at the abuse foisted upon women by the nation’s predators, and how it feels like that threat is perpetually present even in moments of calm. It’s the perfect movie of the moment, a dangerous and frightening period when MRAs and MAGAs continue to blanket-troll the Internet with impunity and wealthy men of power are too often cheered (by men and, alas, women alike) whenever they exercise their self-given right to grab ‘em by the … uh, below the waistline. Yet while the message is there and the meaning is clear, Whannell keeps it on such a low simmer that the film functions first and foremost as a crackling horror yarn. Using minimal effects for maximum impact, he creates a fraught atmosphere by keeping viewers as unaware as Cecilia of Adrian’s location at any given moment. Apparently, the only thing scarier than what you can’t see in the dark is what you can’t see in the light.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Whannell; a behind-the-scenes piece; and deleted scenes.

Movie: ★★★

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Lionel Atwill in Mystery of the Wax Museum (Photo: Warner Archive Collection)

MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933). The 1953 classic House of Wax might be the more famous — and superior — motion picture, but there’s still much to enjoy in the film on which it was based. Horror veteran Lionel Atwill plays Ivan Igor, a benevolent sculptor whose London wax museum is burned to the ground by his backstabbing partner (Edwin Maxwell). Twelve years later, Ivan, crippled in the fire, has decided to reopen his museum, this time in New York. His wax figures look uncannily lifelike — perhaps too lifelike. Fay Wray, just two months away from becoming a household name thanks to King Kong, co-stars as a potential victim of a masked maniac on the loose. Like 1932’s Doctor X (also starring Atwill and Wray), Mystery of the Wax Museum is notable for a handful of reasons: the use of early two-strip Technicolor, the impressive Max Factor makeup, excellent set design by Anton Grot, and the involvement of director Michael Curtiz before he became Warner’s top go-to guy (Casablanca, Yankee Doodle Dandy). Working against the film was the decision to make the central character an annoying reporter (broadly played by Glenda Farrell) who’s as much of a hindrance as she is a help to the police; thankfully, this role was one of the ingredients axed before the Vincent Price version came along 20 years later. Speaking of which, Warner’s 2013 Blu-ray edition of House of Wax included this film as a bonus feature. Even though it’s now available as its own standalone Blu-ray, the Warner Archive Collection will nonetheless offer a new printing of the Mystery/House twofer come June 23.

As with the recent release of 1936’s Dodsworth (reviewed here), restoration funding was provided by The George Lucas Family Foundation. Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by film historian Alan K. Rode; a piece on Wray; and a restoration featurette.

Movie: ★★★

 

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