View from the Couch: Hollywoodland, Universal Horror, 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.
(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.)
BREEZY (1973). From such quality productions as Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita and Woody Allen’s Manhattan through such cruddy efforts as Autumn in New York and Circle of Two (the latter starring Richard Burton as a 60-year-old who romances a 16-year-old played by Tatum O’Neal), cinema has never shied away from depicting May-December romances of the legal and illegal variety. Breezy, Clint Eastwood’s third film as director and the first in which he did not also star, stays on the safe side of the law, if just barely: The conservative businessman is 50, the hippie chick is 19. But perhaps because it was written by a woman (Jo Helms, who had co-scripted Eastwood’s directorial debut Play Misty for Me two years prior), what’s remarkable about the film is that the love story never feels offensive, exploitative, or icky; instead, it’s intelligent, believable, and sympathetic. William Holden, a great actor and an even greater movie star, is perfect as Frank Harmon, a divorced man who (and here’s the twist) is not the one seeking love or sex, especially from a younger woman. Kay Lenz, a fine actress who deserved a bigger career (though she did win a pair of Emmys for her TV work), ably plays Breezy as a free spirit who sees the positive side of practically every situation. It’s Frank who’s bothered by their age difference, and he’s the one who’ll ultimately decide if they should stay together. Breezy was a box office bomb — no surprise, since it wasn’t the typical Eastwood fare — but it was one of the early indications of the actor’s prowess behind the camera.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historians Howard S. Berger and C. Courtney Joyner, and theatrical trailers.
THE COMFORT OF STRANGERS (1990). There’s a truly great movie out there that is bathed in artistry, takes place in Venice, centers on a lost (in various senses of the word) couple, and finds someone getting their throat cut for their troubles. Unfortunately for The Comfort of Strangers, that movie would be Nicholas Roeg’s 1973 masterpiece Don’t Look Now (read the 4-star review here). As for this dud, even its pedigreed personnel — Paul Schrader directing, Harold Pinter scripting, Christopher Walken acting — can’t turn it into anything interesting or entertaining. Adapted from an Ian McEwen novel, this follows bickering British couple Colin (Rupert Everett) and Mary (Natasha Richardson) as they wander the late-night streets of the Italian city and eventually encounter a stranger named Robert (Walken). Robert relates to them a story from his childhood (Walken’s eccentric monologue recalls the one he delivered in Pulp Fiction, only not engrossing and not amusing); from there, he continues to worm his way into their lives, eventually introducing them to his meek wife Caroline (Helen Mirren). What’s meant to be bizarre is merely risible, what’s meant to be enigmatic is merely obtuse, and what’s meant to be sensual is merely sluggish.
Blu-ray extras consist of new interviews with Schrader, Walken, cinematographer Dante Spinotti, and editor Bill Pankow; a 2001 interview with Richardson (who tragically died in a skiing accident in 2009); and an interview with McEwan for a 1981 episode of The South Bank Show.
HOLLYWOODLAND (2006). Before Christopher Reeve and Brandon Routh and (zzz) Henry Cavill, there was George Reeves. Kirk Alyn may have originated the role of Superman on screen in a pair of 1940s serials, but it was Reeves who was most identified with the part, thanks to the hit TV series that ran throughout much of the 1950s. But in 1959, Reeves apparently committed suicide, though speculation has always run rampant that the hulking actor was actually the victim of foul play. Hollywoodland is a fictionalized take on this theory, centering on a small-time detective (Adrien Brody) as he sets off to uncover the truth. Was Reeves (Ben Affleck) murdered by his opportunistic girlfriend (Robin Tunney), a gold digger who ran out of patience once she realized his career would never amount to more? By his older lover (Diane Lane), who feared she might be losing him for good? By his lover’s husband (Bob Hoskins), a powerful studio executive known for tying up loose ends? Or, in the final analysis, did Reeves really pull the trigger himself? Hell if anyone knows for sure, and that includes the makers of this film, who trot out every conceivable scenario without ever committing to one. Still, that’s hardly a flaw, as the open-endedness allows this handsome picture to tantalizingly jump back and forth between its colorful characters. The performances are uniformly fine (particularly Affleck’s), and the movie basks in its nostalgia-twinged visions of vintage LA.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director Allen Coulter; deleted scenes; three making-of pieces; and the theatrical trailer.
TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE: THE MOVIE (1990). A lesser entry in the annals of cinematic horror anthologies, this was a spin-off of the popular TV series (1983-1988) created by George Romero. The moderately amusing wraparound segments center on a woman (Blondie’s Deborah Harry) who holds a boy (Matthew Lawrence) prisoner with plans to cook and eat him. To distract her, he reads her stories from a book called Tales from the Darkside. “Lot No. 249,” adapted from an Arthur Conan Doyle short story, finds Christian Slater and Julianne Moore (in her film debut) as two preppy college kids who have to contend with a mummy resurrected by a twitchy colleague (Steve Buscemi). Quirky characters help this otherwise formulaic tale along. “Cat from Hell,” adapted by Romero from a Stephen King short story, deals with a ruthless tycoon (William Hickey) hiring a hit man (David Johansen) to kill a cat that’s been terrorizing his household. For a far better take on this exact storyline, see The Shadow of the Cat in the latest Universal Horror Collection (reviewed below). And “Lover’s Vow” focuses on a down-on-his-luck artist (James Remar) whose encounter with a murderous gargoyle is soon followed by a romance with the sweet Carola (Rae Dawn Chong). Remar is excellent, but anyone who can’t immediately figure out the twist ending probably hasn’t seen very many horror movies or read enough EC comic books.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director John Harrison and Romero; separate audio commentary by co-producer David R. Kappes; a feature-length making-of retrospective; a stills gallery; and the theatrical trailer.
UNIVERSAL HORROR COLLECTION VOLUME 6 (1952-1961). If there’s something to be said about this latest compilation of vintage horror, it’s that it’s an improvement over Volume 5 (reviewed here).
The Black Castle (1952) finds Boris Karloff wasted in the small role of Dr. Meissen, the resident healer who serves the castle’s cruel Count (Stephen McNally) but whose loyalty really rests with the Count’s long-suffering wife (Rita Corday) and the visiting nobleman (Richard Greene) who catches her eye. Lon Chaney Jr. appears as a murderous henchman, and he’s even more wasted than Karloff. But the story is sturdy and the sets impressive (there’s even a dungeon pit populated with crocodiles!).
The 1942 classic Cat People was highly influential and led to a number of copycat efforts; it’s not a stretch to assume that Cult of the Cobra (1955) was one of them. After six GIs disrupt a secret ceremony being held in an Asian temple, one of the participants, a woman (Faith Domergue) with the ability to turn into a snake, follows them to the U.S. intent on killing them all. A stronger actress than Domergue was needed for the central role — she’s no match for Cat People’s Simone Simon — but other aspects of the film work well enough.
If The Thing That Couldn’t Die (1958) looks familiar, that’s probably because it was ridiculed in a 1997 episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (in which Crow renames it The Strom Thurmond Story). Away from the heckling, it’s an average rather than awful chiller in which a long-buried decapitated head gains control over the clods who dig it (him?) up. To be sure, there are still some titter-worthy moments, but there are also some interesting character dynamics on view.
The Shadow of the Cat (1961) was produced by Hammer Films but released in the U.S. by Universal, so theoretically it could land in a box set honoring either studio. Its presence in this compilation is appreciated, though, since it proves to be the best of the quartet. The cat is Tabitha, who witnesses her kindly owner (Catherine Lacey) being murdered by her greedy husband Walter (André Morell) and two servants (Freda Jackson and Andrew Crawford). The presence of the feline unnerves the trio, so they attempt to kill the animal; when their initial efforts fail, Walter invites three more unscrupulous relatives to aid in the assassination attempt! Only the victim’s niece (Barbara Shelley) and a local journalist (Conrad Phillips) take the side of the cat, who’s doing just fine on its own in making sure the nasty humans are meeting grisly ends. This one’s highly imaginative and highly satisfying.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary on each movie by various film historians; a piece on Universal Horror during the 1940s; an interview with Shelley; and theatrical trailers.
The Black Castle: ★★½
Cult of the Cobra: ★★½
The Thing That Couldn’t Die: ★★
The Shadow of the Cat: ★★★
WITHOUT LOVE (1945) / PAT AND MIKE (1952). Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn made nine films together, two of which have just been released on Blu-ray through the Warner Archive Collection.
Perhaps the most obscure of their joint efforts, Without Love is a winning effort in which a scientist (Tracy) and a widow (Hepburn) both believe they can’t fall in love — he because of a disastrous past relationship, she because her marriage had been absolutely perfect. They decide to get hitched, figuring that a lack of love means more time for wartime work — naturally, they figured wrong. Keenan Wynn is hilarious as their drunken pal, while Lucille Ball scores as their sharp-witted friend. Look also for Gloria Grahame in a tiny part as a flower girl.
Pat and Mike is the one that contains the classic line utilized in countless Tracy & Hepburn tribute pieces: “Not much meat on her, but what’s there is cherce.” That’s disreputable sports promoter Mike Conovan (Tracy) describing Pat Pemberton (Hepburn), an extraordinary yet unsung golfer and tennis player who only gets nervous when her obnoxious boyfriend (William Ching) shows up to watch her compete. An excellent athlete in real life, Hepburn does all of her own playing and even participates in a humorous slapstick sequence with a crooked investor (Charles Bronson in only his second credited performance). Longtime married couple Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin earned Oscar nominations for their original screenplay.
Blu-ray extras on Without Love consist of the 1945 short Purity Squad; the 1945 cartoon Swing Shift Cinderella; and the theatrical trailer. Blu-ray extras on Pat and Mike consist of two trailers.
Without Love: ★★★
Pat and Mike: ★★★
Hey, such a rich crop! I would have double-liked this post if it were possible.
I *do* believe you’ve sold me on ‘Hollywoodland’. I was compelled to posit that this was an especially fine entry; you’ve been treading the hot coals of inspiration this week, Matt!
Thanks, man; I appreciate it!
It’s amusing to note that Ben Affleck has donned both the Batman and Superman costumes — what’s next, the skimpy J’onn J’onzz / Manhunter from Mars duds?