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.
Hugo Weaving in V for Vendetta (Photo: Warner)
(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 IPCRESS FILE (1965) / THE WHISTLE BLOWER (1987). Two cynical British flicks which find Michael Caine involved in spying and subterfuge have just been released on the Kino Lorber label.
James Bond popularized the spy flick in the 1960s, but The Ipcress File is one film that goes slightly against the grain. Harry Palmer, played by Michael Caine in a star-making performance, isn’t a macho stud who scores with all the ladies while besting all the baddies but rather an ordinary, bespectacled bloke with a certain clumsy style that hardly makes him pin-up material. A sizable hit that led to a handful of sequels, this adaptation of Len Deighton’s bestselling novel views the spy game as more of a 9-to-5 grind, with Palmer ordered to investigate the disappearances of several prominent scientists in between attending all the briefings and filling out all the field reports. Sidney J. Furie directed far more bad movies (Iron Eagle, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace) than good ones (The Boys in Company C), and this film occasionally suffers from his approach, a conspicuous shooting style that doesn’t always jibe with the grittiness of the material. But Caine and co-stars Nigel Green and Guy Doleman (cast as Palmer’s grouchy bosses) are excellent, and the intrigue maintains interest.
As overlooked as The Ipcress File is honored, The Whistle Blower is another disapproving glance at the corruption snaking its way through U.K. halls of power. Caine stars as Frank Jones, a conservative military veteran whose son Bob (Nigel Havers) works as a Russian linguist for British intelligence. Frank doesn’t care for his son’s idealistic beliefs, but he begins to see past his blind patriotism after Bob is murdered and much of the evidence points to his superiors as the men responsible. The ending feels a bit pat, but that doesn’t disguise the dourness oozing throughout the rest of the film. Gordon Jackson, cast as Palmer’s cheery colleague in The Ipcress File, here plays a less reputable operative; others in the veddy British cast include John Gielgud, James Fox, and Barry Foster (the serial killer in Hitchcock’s Frenzy).
Blu-ray extras on The Ipcress File include audio commentary by Furie and editor Peter Hunt; interviews with Caine and production designer Ken Adam; and an image gallery. Blu-ray extras on The Whistle Blower consist of the theatrical trailer and trailers for other Michael Caine movies on the Kino label.
The Ipcress File: ★★★
The Whistle Blower: ★★★
MAN OF THE YEAR (2006) Although it’s nowhere near as awful as the Trump presidency, Man of the Year nevertheless represents a losing ticket. Merging the premises of Warren Beatty’s caustic Bulworth, Kevin Kline’s engaging Dave, and Chris Rock’s flaccid Head of State, writer-director Barry Levinson imagines what would happen if an outspoken and compassionate comedian became president of the United States. Robin Williams stars as Tom Dobbs, a Jon Stewart-like TV talk show host who, after joking that he should run for office, finds himself on the ballot. It’s a decent premise for a piercing satire, but Levinson’s timid approach only offers stale jokes that were already passé around the time Roman emperors began chucking Christian standup comics to the lions. As for Robin Williams, he isn’t playing a fictional character running for president as much as he’s playing Robin Williams playing a fictional character running for president — in other words, it’s the usual patented schtick. Eventually, the attempts at humor dry up completely to make room for a dismal plotline in which a techie (Laura Linney) at a company that produces Diebold-style voting machines realizes that a computer glitch led to Dobbs’ ascendancy to the Oval Office. As she tries to reveal the truth, the company goons (led by a what-is-he-doing-here? Jeff Goldblum) decide to shut her up permanently. Impeach this one already.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette.
THE MORTAL STORM (1940). This powerful drama is set in 1933 Germany but might as well take place in 2016 America. Martin Breitner (James Stewart) and Fritz Marberg (Robert Young) are friends with all the members of the Roth family, including Professor Roth (Frank Morgan), his daughter Freya (Margaret Sullavan), and his stepsons Otto (Robert Stack) and Erich (William T. Orr). But once Adolf Hitler is declared the German Chancellor, a split occurs, with Martin, Freya and Professor Roth wary of the nation’s new leader and Fritz, Otto and Erich becoming unquestioning members of the Nazi Party. The latter trio believe every lie uttered by their fascistic leader; Professor Roth is ridiculed and persecuted for his belief in science; those deemed inferior and not of pure blood are savagely beaten; Martin’s pacifist leanings and rejection of an authoritarian government lead to him being called a traitor against his country — stop me if any of this sounds familiar. Setting aside the frightening topicality, The Mortal Storm is notable for being one of the few anti-Nazi pictures produced before the US entered World War II; it was also the fourth and final film to team Sullavan and Stewart.
Blu-ray extras consist of the Oscar-nominated 1939 cartoon Peace on Earth; the 1940 live-action short Meet the Fleet, starring King Kong’s Robert Armstrong, future Superman George Reeves, and The Mortal Storm supporting player William T. Orr; and the theatrical trailer.
THE SWIMMER (1968). A woefully forgotten gem from the 1960s, this adaptation of a John Cheever short story casts Burt Lancaster as Ned Merrill, who as the picture commences is seen stopping by the house of some acquaintances and requesting a lap in their pool. He quickly realizes that this Connecticut suburb is strewn with pools that lead all the way to his house, so he makes the decision to “swim” all the way home. By all initial evidence, the cocky and cheerful Ned is a successful businessman, a loving husband and father, and perhaps even a pillar of his community. But with each successive dip in a pool — and with each encounter with the various neighbors, many of whom are decidedly not friendly — the truth about Ned Merrill emerges, and the movie ends on a scene of devastating power. Working from a script by his wife Eleanor Perry, director Frank Perry has crafted a penetrating piece of introspection that was clearly ahead of its time. This haunting picture could easily be subtitled (in a nod to Buñuel) The Discreet Harm of the Bourgeoisie, taking a harsh look at the cruelty and conformity of the upper middle class while also remaining tantalizingly vague about some of the details surrounding the crash-and-burn of Ned’s American Dream.
Blu-ray extras include a five-part, 2-1/2-hour making-of documentary; the original New Yorker short story read by Cheever; photo galleries (including one with shots of deleted footage); TV spots; and the theatrical trailer.
V FOR VENDETTA (2006). When it was initially released in 2006, this adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel retained its creator’s anti-Thatcher slant but added topical references to the Bush Jr. regime. Hitting 4K in 2020, in the midst of a global pandemic (not unlike the one in the film) and after the US has been crippled over the past four years by a fascistic lunatic, this weighty film not only becomes even more pronounced in its warnings but often seems downright prophetic. Set in an Orwellian England in (gulp) 2020, this finds a masked vigilante named V (Hugo Weaving) recruiting young Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman) to help him in his battle against a ruling class headed by a tyrant (John Hurt) whose defining traits are his lies, his temperament, and his bullying nature. V for Vendetta is that rare blockbuster that’s interested in words more than action — that’s not to say the picture doesn’t contain its share of explosive set pieces and dashing derring-do, but its import rests in the muddy waters it navigates and the difficult questions it ponders. Because his face is hidden behind an immobile Guy Fawkes mask, Weaving relies on his voice and movements to bring life to the role of V — he succeeds even when the script fails to sufficiently flesh out the part. Yet the true star of the film is Portman, who’s nothing short of phenomenal in a taxing role.
Extras in the 4K / Blu-ray / Digital combo set include a new conversation with director James McTeigue and co-scripter Lana Wachowski; footage from Portman’s audition; a pair of making-of featurettes; and a Saturday Night Live bit featuring Portman.