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.
Fernando Ramos da Silva (second from left) in Pixote, included in Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 3 (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.)
FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO (1943). Like many vintage World War II yarns, this early and often overlooked effort from writer-director Billy Wilder pushes forth the notion that — as stated so memorably in Casablanca — the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, particularly during wartime. In this case, the person who learns that lesson the hard way is Mouche (a pre-All About Eve Anne Baxter), a French maid working in a destitute Egyptian hotel run by the kindly if perpetually nervous Farid (Akim Tamiroff). Mouche must put aside her hatred of the English (think Dunkirk) in order to help Farid hide the identity of Corporal John J. Bramble (Franchot Tone) from the occupying Germans after he stumbles into the establishment. Disguising himself as the hotel’s waiter (killed the previous night in a bombing), Bramble is startled to learn that one of the guests is none other than Field Marshal Erwin Rommell (Erich von Stroheim, appropriately larger than life), fresh from his victory at Tobruk. Working with his occasional collaborator, writer-producer Charles Brackett, Wilder serves up a savory dish that bastes the suspense with generous dollops of humor (Fortunio Bonanova is cartoonish yet entertaining as an Italian general who’s always breaking out in song). A favorite of Quentin Tarantino — in 2009 (while working on Inglourious Basterds), he cited it as one of the five best WWII flicks, alongside The Great Escape (reviewed here) and The Dirty Dozen — Five Graves to Cairo earned a trio of Oscar nominations for its film editing, art direction, and John Seitz’s striking cinematography.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historian Joseph McBride; the theatrical trailer; and trailers for other titles available on the Kino label.
GENESIS II (1973) / PLANET EARTH (1974). Following the 1960s and the original run of the original Star Trek series, Gene Roddenberry spent much of the ‘70s attempting to get various sci-fi series off the ground — with little success. While some of his prospective screenplays never made it in front of the cameras for even a nanosecond, others managed to at least eke out a pilot episode before studio politics (among other reasons) led to a swift cancellation. Genesis II was one such effort, with NASA scientist Dylan Hunt (Alex Cord) placing himself in suspended animation in 1979 and, due to a lab mishap, waking up not a couple of days later but rather a couple of centuries later. He now finds himself in 2133, long after a war has crippled the planet and left behind only two warring factions: PAX, comprised mainly of scientists, and the mutants known as Tyranians. It’s up to Hunt to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys, with Lyra-a (Mariette Hartley) insisting he join the Tyranians while Primus Kimbridge (Percy Rodrigues) and Isiah (Ted Cassidy, The Addams Family’s Lurch) implore him to join their cause. “Bland” is the word of the day when it comes to Genesis II, with colorless characters and a humdrum script.
Genesis II eventually proved to be a no-go, so Roddenberry returned with a second pilot episode. Planet Earth was a continuation of the story, albeit with different actors playing the first film’s characters (the one exception is Cassidy, returning as Isiah). In this one, a decidedly more macho Dylan Hunt (now played by John Saxon) and his companions encounter a matriarchal society in which men are held in captivity and sold as slaves by the females in charge. Planet Earth makes a clumsy attempt to inject ‘70s-era women’s lib into the conversation, but it’s nevertheless superior to Genesis II, with better visuals, better conflicts, and better pacing.
Genesis II and Planet Earth have been made available on a double-feature Blu-ray from the Warner Archive Collection. There are no extras.
Genesis II: ★★
Planet Earth: ★★½
GHOST SHIP (2002). The image on the theatrical poster for Ghost Ship was such a blatant steal of the eye-catching artwork on the one for Death Ship that, upon its original release, I presumed the 2002 film was a direct remake of that 1980 horror yarn. (To further cement the connection, the tagline on the Death Ship poster read, “Those who survive the ghost ship are better off dead!”) It turns out that the two films have no connection except that they’re both terror tales set on the high seas and they both feature fine casts in slumming mode. After an opening sequence that certainly commands attention, the Ghost story turns to a salvage team approached by a pilot (Desmond Harrington) with the proposition of potentially earning a hefty bounty by bringing in a dilapidated and drifting ocean liner. Upon arrival, the six-person crew — the captain (Gabriel Byrne), his right-hand woman (Julianna Margulies), and four underlings (Karl Urban, Ron Eldard, Alex Dimitriades, and E/R homophobe, QAnon supporter, and all-around nut job Isaiah Washington) — sees that the vessel is the Antonia Graza, a cruise ship that’s been missing for 40 years. It’s soon discovered that the boat is haunted, leading to Katie the friendly ghost (Emily Browning) offering reams of helpful backstory to Margulies’ Sigourney Weaver stand-in while the other crew members are meeting gory ends. A noticeable lack of suspense as well as a mounting sense of camp help sink this one. As for the “shock” ending, it’s the sort of feeble finale that has marred many a horror flick for approximately 40 years.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director Steve Beck; a piece on the visual effects; and the music video for Mudvayne’s “Not Falling.”
THE MILAGRO BEANFIELD WAR (1988). Robert Redford’s second film as director — it arrived eight years after his Oscar-winning Ordinary People — is a charming ensemble piece that sprinkles a dash of magical realism over the familiar tale of underdogs rebelling against a corrupt and capitalist system. In a small New Mexican town, the Chicano residents have to contend with the plan of fat-cat land developer Ladd Devine (Richard Bradford) to raze much of the surrounding territory and install his own shiny pet projects (condos, golf courses, and the like). When Joe Mondragon (Chick Vennera) accidentally diverts water from the project to his own beanfield, he hesitates only for a moment before deciding to continue with the irrigation. Some townspeople, like mechanic Ruby Archuleta (Sônia Braga), support him, while others, like the mayor (Freddie Fender), oppose him. Devine rallies the state government to back him and also sends an enforcer (Christopher Walken) to apply pressure. As for Sheriff Montoya (Rubén Blades), he runs interference between the warring factions. Then there’s potential help from beyond, as the elderly Amarante Cordova (Carlos Riquelme) engages in lengthy conversations with a spirit (Robert Carricart) who might be subtly influencing events. Working from the novel by John Nichols (who co-wrote the script with David S. Ward), Redford applies his liberal humanism to an inspiring yarn whose greatest flaw might be that it’s overstuffed with characters — John Heard as a burned-out ‘60s radical and Daniel Stern as an earnest student seem more like entry points for white audiences than anything else, while Melanie Griffith is wasted as Devine’s trophy wife. Dave Grusin’s sprightly music score earned an Academy Award.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Vennera and film historian Daniel Kremer, and the theatrical trailer.
PIXOTE (1981). An art-house eye-opener when it premiered stateside, this utterly depressing and utterly devastating drama from writer-director Héctor Babenco centers on the based-in-fact plight of Brazil’s street children, with Babenco recruiting many actual downtrodden kids to appear in the film. That includes star Fernando Ramos da Silva, cast as a runaway who, thanks to a brutal and uncaring system, becomes a drug dealer, a drug user, a pimp, and a murderer — all at the age of 10. Babenco’s condemnation is at its harshest when directed at the law: If anything, the juvenile detention center is worse than the streets, as little boys are raped by bigger boys, the guards savagely beat the kids, and homosexuals face unmotivated execution at every moment. Pixote is honest and unflinching (the suckling scene is a heartbreaker), but best to keep the razor blades locked up. As a tragic real-life addendum to the horrors shown in the movie, da Silva eventually ended up back on the streets, and, at the age of 19, he was fatally gunned down in a hail of bullets by policemen in what remains extremely dubious circumstances.
Pixote is available on Blu-ray as part of the Criterion box set Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 3. Like the previous collections (released in 2013 and 2017), this one houses six films representing what Scorsese and co. believe to be sterling examples of international filmmaking. Mexico’s Dos Monjes (1934) traces the rivalry between two monks; Indonesia’s After the Curfew (1954) centers on a former soldier and the corruption that interrupts his life as a civilian; Cuba’s Lucía (1968) examines three tumultuous periods in Cuban history, each involving a woman named Lucía; Mauritania’s Soleil Ô (1970) finds an African immigrant arriving in Paris for a better life, only to be greeted with prejudice and cruelty; and Iran’s Downpour (1972) focuses on a schoolteacher who falls for an engaged woman.
Blu-ray extras in the box set consist of introductions to all six films by Scorsese; excerpts from a 2016 interview with Babenco; the prologue for the U.S. release of Pixote, created by Babenco; and interviews with directors and film scholars for the other five films.