John Travolta in Urban Cowboy (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.)

Betty Gilpin in The Hunt (Photo: Universal)

THE HUNT (2020). In this era of alternative facts and right-wing fake news, it’s hardly surprising that the early word on The Hunt couldn’t have been more incorrect. Originally set for a September 2019 opening, the film got pulled following a rash of mass shootings. But the rumor had already gotten out about the basic premise — rich liberals hunt working-class conservatives for sport — and the right went absolutely bonkers. The film was even called “racist”(?) by the White-Supremacist-in-Chief, who also added (oh, the irony!) that “it’s actually very dangerous for our country.” Yet those who bother to step out of the echo chambers can clearly see that this latest variation on Richard Connell’s short story “The Most Dangerous Game” is a satire skewering folks on both sides of the political divide. If anything, the characters who call Trump “the ratfucker-in-chief” and his followers “deplorables” are actually blasted more harshly than their opponents. With only one exception (an anti-immigrant hate-radio host), the conservatives are never defined by their politics and seem like decent people. The liberals, on the other hand, are all painted as extremist nitwits, grotesque caricatures that only exist in the monologues of Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh. At any rate, the worth of The Hunt as satire is rather limited. But as an action-adventure yarn, it’s exciting stuff — that’s mainly because characters are repeatedly set up to be heroes, only to have the plot suddenly change course. (Imagine if The Hunger Games had opened with Katniss Everdeen being instantly offed, and you’ll have an idea of this picture’s modus operandi.) The other selling point is the terrific performance by Betty Gilpin, whose turn as a droll survivalist is what provides The Hunt with a sporting chance of appealing to diverse audiences.

Blu-ray extras consist of a trio of making-of featurettes, including one that looks at the film’s copious kills.

Movie: ★★½

Nigel Green in Let’s Kill Uncle (Photo: Kino)

LET’S KILL UNCLE (1966). Master showman William Castle is the wise guy behind Let’s Kill Uncle, and while the picture isn’t as famous as such Castle hits as House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler (the latter reviewed here), it should nevertheless offer reasonable satisfaction to his legion of fans. Castle dispenses with the gimmicks but not the gleefulness, as Let’s Kill Uncle tells its macabre story with tongue firmly in cheek. After an automobile accident takes the life of his father (Castle himself plays the corpse!), 12-year-old Barnaby Harrison (Pat Cardi) is sent to live on a remote island with his uncle Kevin (a robust Nigel Green), a former British commando and author of the bestselling autobiography Killing the Enemy. Also living on the island is Justine (Linda Lawson), a widow (or maybe a divorcée, or maybe just a woman abandoned by her lover; the film can’t be bothered to clarify this plot point) who’s joined by her niece Chrissie (Mary Badham, To Kill a Mockingbird’s Scout). Barnaby and Chrissie initially can’t stand each other, but once Uncle Kevin informs Barnaby that he’s planning to murder him in order to inherit the five million dollars his father left him, the kids decide to join forces, with Chrissie figuring that Barnaby must kill Uncle Kevin before Uncle Kevin kills him. What follows is ridiculous but also riotous, as the various murder attempts include death by tarantula, death by hypnosis, death by airplane, and, best of all, death by a shark that just happens to live in a murky swimming pool on the island. Despite maintaining the film’s quirky tone, the rushed ending simply doesn’t work.

Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historians Kat Ellinger and Mike McPadden; an interview with Cardi; and theatrical trailers.

Movie: ★★½

Kay Kendall and Rex Harrison in The Reluctant Debutante (Photo: Warner Archive)

THE RELUCTANT DEBUTANTE (1958). Director Vincente Minnelli had quite the busy 1958, with not one, not two, but three motion pictures released within a seven-month span. Gigi won a gazillion Oscars (including one for Minnelli) and Some Came Running (which I actually prefer to Gigi; so sue me) was a “Rat Pack” (Frank, Dean and Shirley) picture par excellence. Sandwiched between the two hits was The Reluctant Debutante, which is often overlooked even by fans of the filmmaker. A comedy with bursts of inspired lunacy, this finds American teenager Jane Broadbent (Sandra Dee) traveling to the U.K. to live with her veddy British father Jimmy (Rex Harrison) and equally English stepmother Sheila (Kay Kendall). Shelia is insistent that Jane be introduced to the upper crust of society and eventually given her own coming-out party; for their parts, Jimmy is wary of the whole ordeal while Jane thinks it’s all rather silly. Sheila repeatedly tries to match Jane with a dullard (Peter Myers) who can only talk about the best driving routes (an amusing running gag), but Jane is instead taken by an American drummer (John Saxon) with a dubious reputation. Harrison and Kendall both deliver sparkling performances, while Angela Lansbury appears in one of her busybody roles as Sheila’s second cousin twice removed (“and twice isn’t far enough,” quips Jimmy). Harrison and Kendall had married the year before the film’s release, but it was a short-lived union: Unbeknownst to her (but known to him), Kendall was suffering from leukemia and died in 1959, at the age of 32. The Reluctant Debutante was loosely (very loosely) remade as 2003’s What a Girl Wants, starring Amanda Bynes and Colin Firth.

The only Blu-ray extra is the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ★★★

Jon Seda and Jennifer Lopez in Selena (Photo: Warner Archive)

SELENA (1997). It’s hard to get too cynical about the approach taken by Selena, a film about the Mexican-American singer who was tragically murdered just as her crossover appeal was about to blast off into the stratosphere. As dutifully directed and scripted by Gregory Nava, it follows the safest conventions of the standard musical biopic. It contains so many inspirational — and redundant — speeches that it often feels more like a self-help seminar than a movie. And its central character, Selena Quintanilla-Perez, is presented less as a flawed human being and more as an immaculate saint (a POV that makes sense once it’s known that her father Abraham Quintanilla served as one of the executive producers and had complete say in the making of the film). But there are compensations, mostly in the casting. Jennifer Lopez, delivering what remains one of her few fresh performances, plays Selena, who’s steered by her determined father (Edward James Olmos) toward an illustrious musical career. Along the way, she bonds with her fans in Texas and Mexico, marries the band’s guitarist (Jon Seda), and makes the mistake of trusting the person who would eventually shoot her in the back. The intensity of Olmos’ work as Abraham is an asset — there’s a great scene where he passionately explains to his kids how Mexican-Americans have to work twice as hard as either Mexicans or Americans — and it’s a nice contrast to Seda’s nicely understated turn as Chris Perez, whose reputation as a rebel belies his sensitive nature.

The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray release of Selena contains both the theatrical version and an extended cut that runs an additional six minutes. Extras consist of a retrospective making-of piece; discussions of Selena by friends and family; outtakes; and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ★★½

Jane Fonda and Rod Taylor in Sunday in New York (Photo: Warner Archive)

SUNDAY IN NEW YORK (1963). Sex kitten, political activist, serious actress, fitness guru — it can’t be said that Jane Fonda didn’t leave her mark all over the map. But while her protests against the Vietnam War, her Oscar-winning turns in Klute and Coming Home, and her phenomenal success with her aerobic-exercise videos have come to define her legacy, her period as a Hollywood ingénue is often overlooked. Even before 1968’s Barbarella briefly turned her into an international sex symbol (she would nab more respect, as well as her first Academy Award nomination, the very next year with They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?), Fonda was traveling the starlet path — that’s exemplified by Sunday in New York, a film that’s utterly charming in its presentation if hopelessly dated in its sexual politics. An adaptation of a minor Broadway hit that included Robert Redford in its cast, this finds Fonda playing Eileen Tyler, who comes to the Big Apple to stay with her brother Adam (Cliff Robertson) after her fiancé (Robert Culp) unsuccessfully pressures her to have sex before marriage. While in town, she meets Mike (Rod Taylor in the Redford role), who tries to help her sort through her feelings while simultaneously falling for her. What follows is the usual high-spirited mix of mistaken identities, mixed signals and wry one-liners, all expertly conveyed through the pleasing work by Fonda, Taylor and Robertson.

The only Blu-ray extra is the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ★★★

TM & Copyright © 2002 by Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
John Travolta in Urban Cowboy (Photo: Paramount)

URBAN COWBOY (1980). A movie that was based on an Esquire magazine article, Urban Cowboy is often described as the direct descendant of 1977’s Saturday Night Fever. That’s partly true — both flicks star John Travolta, and both feature music that was passé in a matter of years — but it’s equally accurate to state that it’s also a stepping stone between that disco smash and 1983’s Flashdance. All three center on working-class stiffs who only come alive once they abandon their dreary day jobs for temporary fantasy worlds teeming with music, movement, and mating. In the case of Urban Cowboy, that would be Bud Davis (Travolta), who leaves his Podunk Texas town to experience life on the outskirts of the sprawling metropolis of Houston. His work at an oil refinery brings no satisfaction; instead, he’s seen only coming (and, nyuk nyuk, staying) alive when he enters the gargantuan Gilley’s, a popular honky-tonk complete with live country bands, a mechanical bull, and enough testosterone to fill a stadium. Bud falls for a local gal named Sissy (Debra Winger) and they quickly get hitched, only to experience marital turbulence once Bud feels threatened by a cocky ex-con (Scott Glenn) who has his eye on his wife. Travolta is fine, but Winger and Glenn are the ones who truly add fire to the film. Even those not enamored of country music (ahem…) can appreciate the importance of its chart-topping soundtrack, which contains such hits as Anne Murray’s “Could I Have This Dance” and the Charlie Daniels Band’s “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”

Blu-ray extras consist of an interview with Gilley’s owner (and country music star) Mickey Gilley; deleted scenes; outtakes; and rehearsal footage.

Movie: ★★★

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