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.
Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant in Portrait of a Lady on Fire (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.)
THE CAMERAMAN (1928). The Cameraman was the beginning of the end for silent screen legend Buster Keaton, as it was the first picture he made for MGM and, thanks to studio oppression, the last on which he had (mostly) complete creative control. It’s good if not great Keaton, with the comedian cast as a photographer who hopes to get hired as a cameraman by (of course) MGM’s news department. Some of the set-pieces lose their potency due to overlength (the baseball diamond scene, the dressing room skit), but most of the gags are just as uproarious as ever, and the portion of the picture set in the middle of a Tong war is sustained ingenuity.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary (from 2004) by author Glenn Mitchell (A-Z of Silent Film Comedy); Keaton’s 1929 film Spite Marriage, about a laborer in love with an actress; the 2004 documentary So Funny It Hurt: Buster Keaton & MGM; the 1979 documentary The Motion Picture Camera; and an interview with author James L. Neibaur (The Fall of Buster Keaton).
CARAVANS (1978). This static adaptation of James A. Michener’s novel is certainly no Lawrence of Arabia, despite the Middle Eastern setting, the presence of Anthony Quinn as a desert leader, and the large number of camels in its cast. Set in the fictional country of Zadestan, this centers on an American Embassy wonk (Michael Sarrazin) assigned to track down an influential senator’s daughter (Jennifer O’Neill); after much searching, he finds her traveling with a group of nomads led by the charismatic Zulffiqar (Quinn). Quinn has played this sort of character many times, but he at least provides some pep to the proceedings. Conversely, Sarrazin and O’Neill are deadening leads — he because of his colorless character, she because of her wooden emoting — and such luminaries as Joseph Cotten and Christopher Lee don’t appear long enough to make much of an impression. This box office bomb earned a solitary Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historian Evgueni Mlodik and the theatrical trailer.
MURDER BY DECREE (1979). Jack the Ripper proved to be quite busy in 1979, matching wits against H.G. Wells in the delightful Time After Time and squaring off against Sherlock Holmes in this more somber undertaking. Holmes (here played by Christopher Plummer) and Dr. Watson (a delightful James Mason) are baffled by the mystery surrounding the murders of several prostitutes until they connect the dots that lead them into the arenas of doctors, politicians, and royals. Sporting the same conspiracy theories that would later be seen in the vastly underrated 2001 screen adaptation of From Hell, this is a handsomely mounted thriller that’s only let down by a deflated ending. Donald Sutherland as the real-life character of psychic Robert Lees is an interesting casting choice, buried under large L’Oreal curls, a bushy mustache, and eye-accentuating makeup.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by the film’s director, the late Bob Clark; separate audio commentary by film historians Howard S. Berger and Steve Mitchell; and the theatrical trailer.
PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE (2019). One of the 10 best films of 2019 (go here for the complete Best & Worst of 2019), this French import was also last year’s most affecting love story. An 18th century painter (Noémie Merlant) is commissioned to capture a bride-to-be (Adèle Haenel) on canvas; alas, the subject doesn’t want to be married or painted. But a friendship soon develops between the women, one that eventually transforms into a forbidden love affair. Feminist filmmaker Céline Sciamma has fashioned a tender work that’s about the head as much as the heart, and what’s particularly fascinating is how the movie itself takes on the glow of a painting whose subjects are full of mystery and introspection.
Blu-ray extras consist of new interviews with Sciamma, Haenel, and Merlant; a 2019 interview with cinematographer Claire Mathon that was conducted at the Cannes Film Festival; and an interview with Hélène Delmaire, the artist who created the paintings showcased in the film.
AN UNMARRIED WOMAN (1978). A key entry in the annals of feminist cinema, An Unmarried Woman finds writer-director Paul Mazursky crafting a sympathetic and wholly believable portrait of a happily married woman (Jill Clayburgh) who finds her world collapsing after her husband (Michael Murphy) leaves her for a younger woman. The only support Erica Benton receives is from other women — her teenage daughter (Lisa Lucas), her BFFs (the wonderful trio of Pat Quinn, Kelly Bishop and Linda Miller) and her psychiatrist (Penelope Russianoff) — since all the men turn her off with their unwelcome advances. That changes with the arrival of a scruffy artist (Alan Bates, in one of the most abrupt introductions in film history), yet even he won’t deter her from her journey toward enlightenment and self-fulfillment. This earned Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Original Screenplay.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary (from 2005) by Mazursky and Clayburgh; new interviews with Murphy, Lucas, and author Sam Wasson (Paul on Mazursky); and a 1980 audio recording of a Mazursky lecture.
FROM SCREEN TO STREAM
STANDOFF The weaponization of words is at the core of this 13-minute short based on the Sade song “War of the Hearts.” It’s an interesting inspiration, with such song lyrics as “I’m loaded, Don’t know where to point this thing, It’s a sin, How we hit where it hurts” folding neatly into the movie’s message. As a young woman named Renee (Weslie Lechner) goes about her day, she finds guns literally drawn on her by almost everyone she encounters, from a stranger (Alex Pierce Ling) unwilling to share a park bench to her annoyed boyfriend Jeff (AJ Clark) to her father Eric (Brett Lawrence), a man exasperated by the disrespect he feels he receives from her and her younger sister Regina (Sasha Swartzon). Although it’s been muted by the proliferation of open-carry arms in Trump’s AmeriKKKa, the sight of friends and family drawing weapons on each other still packs a queasy punch and serves the purpose of director Devan James Young and scripter Ilana Strauss quite nicely. Aside from an amusing exchange about Barbie dolls, though, the dialogue is less successful than the apt visual metaphors, with much of the yakking centered around the Harry Potter franchise — it ultimately sounds like someone just screen-captured an online chat from a fan website. (Standoff can currently be viewed on YouTube; go here.)