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.
Elizabeth Berkeley in Showgirls, as seen in the documentary You Don’t Nomi (Photo: Showgirls, United Artists; Nomi, RLJE Films)
(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.)
HAIR (1979). Arriving more than a decade after the dawning of the age of Aquarius, this adaptation of the stage hit (which played on Broadway 1968-1972) failed to capture the attention of an American moviegoing public that had moved on: It barely made back its budget and was considered a major disappointment for director Milos Forman after the spectacular success of his previous picture, 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Still, the movie has had its ardent supporters, including Gene Siskel (who named it the best film of 1979) and Roger Ebert (who placed it #5 on his year-end list). As for me, it gets my vote as the all-time best rock film and second only to 1935’s Top Hat as the all-time best musical. A far more accomplished stage-to-screen translation than Jesus Christ Superstar, this superb picture (which actually improves on its source material) is too vibrant to be dismissed as merely a “time capsule” piece. John Savage plays the naive Midwestern farm boy who, with only a couple of days to kill before he enlists in the army and gets shipped off to Vietnam, hooks up with a motley crew of Central Park hippies. Treat Williams, in a standout performance that’s by turns playful, sensual and even heart-wrenching, plays the leader of this “tribe,” and that’s Annie Golden, former lead singer of The Shirts, as the cute-as-a-button Jeannie. The Ragni-Rado-MacDermot score remains glorious, featuring such gems as “I’m Black / Ain’t Got No,” “Manchester, England,” “Walking in Space,” “The Flesh Failures / Let the Sun Shine In” (employed in the knockout finale, which still gives me chills whenever I reflect on it), and the irresistible title tune.
Blu-ray extras on the Olive Films Signature Edition include audio commentary by Williams and assistant director Michael Hausman; remembrance pieces with various cast and crew members, including choreographer Twyla Tharp; and an essay by film critic Sheila O’Malley in both digital and booklet form.
THE LADY EVE (1941). Preston Sturges’ remarkable run as a writer-director kicked off with the one-two punch of the 1940 releases The Great McGinty and Christmas in July (respectively reviewed here and here) and then ascended another level with this often riotous screwball classic. Moving from ocean liner to ocean liner, father-and-daughter con artists Colonel Harrington (Charles Coburn) and Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) have set their latest sights on Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), who’s heir to an ale empire but prefers to spend his time studying snakes. The Harringtons set Charles up for the financial kill, but all plans go awry once Jean unexpectedly falls in love with their prey. This sets up the funniest sequence in the film: a rigged card game during which Jean tries to shield Charles while her dad tries to dupe him. Even with the late addition of those character actors extraordinaire Eugene Pallette (as Charles’ blustery father) and Eric Blore (as a cultured con artist), the film’s second half (after the players leave the ship) isn’t quite as polished as the first, although Fonda and especially Stanwyck excel throughout. This earned a sole Oscar nomination for Best Original Story (credited to Monckton Hoffe, who wrote the story that Sturges adapted), with Stanwyck and Coburn earning nods for other films that year (Ball of Fire and The Devil and Miss Jones, respectively).
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary (from 2001) by film scholar Marian Keane; a 2001 introduction by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich; a new conversation between Tom Sturges (Preston’s son and biographer) and various filmmakers and film critics; and a piece on Edith Head’s costumes.
MARRIAGE STORY (2019). Easily the best film of 2019 (go here for the complete Best & Worst), Marriage Story opens with voice-overs from its two central characters. Charlie Barber (Adam Driver) is describing his wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) in the most loving manner possible, and she responds in kind. But then comes the kicker. These declarations are from letters penned at the request of their marriage counselor — documents meant as a last gasp before the two plunge inexorably into divorce. Both parties agree to proceed on amicable terms, with no lawyers involved. But after Nicole changes her mind and procures the services of hot-shot L.A. attorney Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern), Adam has no choice but to also nab his own representation. He finds himself offered two choices in the take-no-prisoners Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta), who charges $950 an hour (“[My assistant] costs $400 an hour. If you have any stupid questions, call him.”), and the slightly cheaper and more affable Bert Spitz (Alan Alda), whose tendency to continuously share anecdotes leads Charlie to quip, “Am I paying for this joke?” Marriage Story is a magnificent movie, the best of its kind since Ingmar Bergman shot his Scenes from a Marriage (reviewed here) back in 1974. Writer-director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, While We’re Young) has topped himself with a film that’s alternately humorous, hopeful and heartbreaking, and in the process he has drawn career-best performances out of both his stars. The movie earned six Academy Award nominations, including bids for Best Picture as well as Johansson and Driver (who both deserved the Oscars over the overrated turns by Renée Zellweger and especially Joaquin Phoenix), winning only Best Supporting Actress for Dern.
Blu-ray extras include a feature-length making-of piece; an interview with Baumbach; interviews with the principal cast members; and theatrical trailers.
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (1940). The first big-screen adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic novel is an unmitigated success, with a terrific cast ably handling the author’s assemblage of engaging characters. With a script co-written by Brave New World author Aldous Huxley, this version casts Greer Garson as Elizabeth Bennet, one of five daughters whose busybody mother (Mary Boland) is unceasingly attempting to find them wealthy husbands to raise the family’s social standing. The ridiculous Mr. Collins (Melville Cooper) seeks to marry Elizabeth, but she’s more interested in the charming George Wickham (Edward Ashley) — brooding around the perimeter is Mr. Darcy (Laurence Olivier), whose snobbery offends Elizabeth until she begins to notice a different side to his character. Garson and Olivier make for a handsome couple, and the most effective splashes of humor are provided by Edmund Gwenn (Miracle on 34th Street’s Kris Kringle) as the wry Mr. Bennet and Edna May Oliver as the harrumphing Lady Catherine de Bourgh (conversely, Boland’s wailing as Mrs. Bennet gets to be too much). For a straight-up Hollywood production, Pride and Prejudice often carries a veddy British feel — select American cast members notwithstanding. The detailed sets earned this an Academy Award for Best Black-and-White Art Direction; for his part, Olivier was nominated the same year for his performance as another reserved gentleman who ultimately reveals his true emotions, portraying Maxim de Winter in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (reviewed here).
Blu-ray extras consist of 1940’s Eyes of the Navy (an Oscar nominee for Best Short Subject); the 1940 cartoon The Fishing Bear; and the theatrical trailer.
SCOOB! (2020). Putting classic hand-drawn cartoons through the CGI wringer is always a risky proposition, but there are instances when the result can not only be visually effective but also dramatically satisfying through the manner it connects to the franchise’s storied past. The 2015 hit The Peanuts Movie is an example of this; the new Scoob! is not. Both cluttered and charmless, Scoob! isn’t as interested in relating a Scooby-Doo mystery in the old-school tradition as it is in building a shared Hanna-Barbera cinematic universe so that superheroes can take center stage (because apparently no shared universe is worth a damn unless it involves superheroes). After a sticky prologue in which we needlessly see how Shaggy and Scooby met while a lonely young boy and a mischievous puppy, we zoom forward to adulthood, as Shaggy (voiced by Will Forte) and a particularly chatty Scooby (Frank Welker) tool around in the Mystery Machine with friends and fellow sleuths Fred (Zac Efron), Daphne (Amanda Seyfried) and Velma (Gina Rodriguez). After Simon Cowell causes the group to splinter (don’t ask), Scooby and Shaggy encounter adorable robots (clear rip-offs of Despicable Me’s Minions) controlled by Dick Dastardly (Jason Isaacs). Soon, Scooby and those meddling kids find themselves fighting alongside Blue Falcon (Mark Wahlberg), Dynomutt (Ken Jeong), and Dee Dee Skyes (Kiersey Clemmons), with another Hanna-Barbera property, Captain Caveman (Tracy Morgan), dropping by for a few scenes. Utilizing the sort of parlance that will likely render this dated before decade’s end, Scoob! is fodder for the ADD crowd, with big action scenes and trite character conflicts ruling — and ruining — the day.
Blu-ray extras include deleted scenes; an alternate opening; bloopers; and the featurette “How to Draw Scooby-Doo.”
THE WORLD IN HIS ARMS (1952). Although it’s all but forgotten today, The World in His Arms was one of the films produced by Universal to commemorate the studio’s 40th anniversary. It turned out to be a wise investment, as this seafaring yarn and the James Stewart Western Bend of the River shared the honors as the studio’s top earners that year. Adapted from Rex Beach’s novel, this easygoing and entertaining picture stars Gregory Peck as Jonathan Clark, a sea captain and seal poacher who’s known by the nickname “The Boston Man” in 1850 San Francisco. When he’s not on the job, Clark divides his time between wooing Melina Selanova (Ann Blyth), a Russian countess hoping to avoid an arranged marriage to a venal prince (Carl Esmond), and tangling with his primary frenemy, a Portuguese scoundrel who calls himself, logically enough, “Portugee” (Anthony Quinn). Blyth is fine, but Peck admittedly enjoys better on-screen chemistry with Quinn; the actors would team up twice again the following decade in The Guns of Navarone and Behold a Pale Horse (the latter reviewed here). Bill Radovich is a hoot as Clark’s faithful Eskimo crewman Ogeechuk, who always bellows, “We go!” before splitting the scene. Nineteen-fifty-two proved to be good to Peck from a commercial standpoint: Not only did The World in His Arms crack the list of the top 20 moneymakers (coming in at #15), but his other major production, an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro, landed in the #3 spot for the year (only The Greatest Show on Earth and This is Cinerama grossed more in ‘52).
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film critic Nick Pinkerton; the theatrical trailer; and trailers for nine other titles on the Kino label (seven of them starring Peck).
YOU DON’T NOMI (2020). Regarded as one of the worst pictures of its decade, 1995’s Showgirls has seen its stock rise over the ensuing quarter-century. It’s certainly become a cult classic (it has played as a midnight movie alongside the likes of The Rocky Horror Picture Show), but an outright classic? That’s one of the points debated in You Don’t Nomi, an amusing documentary that examines the Paul Verhoeven flick from all angles. Employing vintage footage as well as new voice-over interviews with various enthusiasts (mostly authors and academics), the film allows everyone to have a say regarding the merits (or lack thereof) of this heavily hyped but career-crippling disaster. (For the record, I think the movie is pretty bad, but I prefer it over the other 1995 release written by Showgirls scripter Joe Eszterhas, the truly dismal Jade.) Some points are universally conceded, such as that star Elizabeth Berkeley was treated abysmally by the press and the public after the film’s release (Verhoeven admits that he directed her to deliver such a harsh and over-the-top performance), and that co-star Gina Gershon is actually quite good in the film (absolutely; see Paging Oscar: The Worst Razzie Nominations of All Time here). Other topics are argued, like Verhoeven being considered a chauvinist by some and a champion of strong female characters by others. There are also some noteworthy theories, such as the one that considers Showgirls to be part of a camp trilogy that also includes 1967’s Valley of the Dolls and 1981’s Mommie Dearest. And it’s interesting when Showgirls is placed in context with Verhoeven’s other films (who knew vomiting was such a recurring theme in his works?). Whether one believes Showgirls is a masterpiece or (as stated in the doc) a “masterpiece of shit,” there’s enough of interest here to keep film fans engaged.
There are no extras on the Blu-ray.
Short And Sweet:
ARABIAN NIGHTS (1942). Aladdin and Sinbad both appear as supporting characters in this Technicolor-saturated matinee fodder, and, yes, that’s really Shemp Howard of Three Stooges fame as the aforementioned sailor (John Ford regular Frank Qualen plays the gangly Aladdin). A mishmash of various like-minded fables, this finds an outcast ruler (Jon Hall) attempting to reclaim his throne with the help of a dancing girl (Maria Montez) and an acrobat (Sabu). A gargantuan hit in its day, Arabian Nights inspired Universal to reunite Hall, Montez and Sabu in several more films. Oddly, all three met with tragedy in later years: Hall committed suicide at 64, Montez drowned at 39, and Sabu suffered a fatal heart attack, also at the age of 39. Arabian Nights earned a quartet of Oscar nominations for its cinematography, sound, music score, and art direction.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historian Phillipa Berry; the theatrical trailer; and trailers for other Kino titles.
GIRL CRAZY (1943). The fourth and final musical to team Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland with director Busby Berkeley — well, sort of; he was fired during production and replaced by Norman Taurog — this finds Mickey playing Danny Churchill Jr., a collegiate playboy whose bad publicity on the East Coast convinces his father (Henry O’Neill) to ship him off to a rural, all-male university somewhere out west. To Danny’s delight, it turns out that the dean (Guy Kibbee) has a granddaughter, Ginger Gray (Judy), who likes to hang out at the college. As with Strike Up the Band (also recently released by the Warner Archive Collection and reviewed last week), here’s another Rooney-Garland confection where not much of interest happens when everyone isn’t singing or dancing. The Gershwin score is tops, though, with the “I Got Rhythm” finale a highlight.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by film historian John Fricke; a 2007 introduction to the film by Rooney; the 1943 comedy short Hollywood Daredevils; and the theatrical trailer.
L’INNOCENTE (1976). The final film from Italian writer-director Luchino Visconti (whose 1971 offering Death in Venice is reviewed here) casts Giancarlo Giannini as Tullio Hermil, a 19th century patrician who dallies with his mistress (a dubbed Jennifer O’Neill) while ignoring his wife (an excellent Laura Antonelli). But when his spouse elects to embark on her own affair, Tullio, like any good chauvinist, cries foul and begins to act in an increasingly desperate — and dangerous — manner. This is good, not great, Visconti — many have hailed it a masterpiece, but it’s comparatively minor next to 1963’s powerhouse The Leopard, another Visconti dissection of aristocratic angst.
Blu-ray extras consist of a video essay by film lecturer and author Ivo Blom (Reframing Luchino Visconti: Film and Art) and trailers for various titles offered on the Film Movement label.