View from the Couch: Buck Rogers, Ghost Dog, The Killing Floor, etc.
View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray and DVD.
View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray and DVD.
(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.)
BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY (1979). Although the character of Buck Rogers had been around since 1928 — created by Philip Francis Nowlan, he first appeared in the magazine Amazing Stories and quickly became a comic-strip staple as well — it wasn’t because of any sense of nostalgia that TV bigwigs Glen A. Larson (Magnum, P.I.) and Leslie Stevens (The Outer Limits) elected to bring him back via a brand new series. Rather, it was the success of 1977’s Star Wars that inspired the pair to attempt to take advantage of the sci-fi boom (Larson had already tried once — and failed — with Battlestar Galactica). Before the launch of the series, though, Universal Pictures decided to release the pilot episode as a theatrical feature, albeit with some minor modifications to raise the G-rated property to a PG level. It was a gamble that paid off, as the $4 million production grossed a respectable $21 million. Audience members, on the other hand, basically paid top dollar for what never amounted to much more than a glorified TV episode. Gil Gerard makes for a dull lead as Buck, the 20th century astronaut who’s frozen in space for 500 years and awakens in the year 2491. Initially suspected by Colonel Wilma Deering (stiff Erin Gray) of being a spy for the alien race the Draconians, he soon proves his worth by helping fend off an attack by the invading forces commanded by Princess Ardala (Pamela Hensley) and her right-hand man Kane (Henry Silva). If nothing else, this silly adventure yarn has the distinction of containing the worst (i.e. most annoying) robot in movie or TV history: Twiki, voiced by the great Mel Blanc.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by film historians Steve Mitchell and Nathaniel Thompson, and a special theatrical preview. In addition to being available for individual purchase, the movie is also included in a box set containing both seasons of the TV series.
GHOST DOG: THE WAY OF THE SAMURAI (2000). Another Jim Jarmusch title, another opportunity to add some eccentric twists to a fairly ordinary story — in this case, the one about the seasoned professional who finds himself marked for extermination and decides to fight back. So named because of his ability to quietly make his way through the nocturnal shadows, Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) is a killer-for-hire who patterns his life around the principles espoused by Eastern philosophies. He performs a series of hits for Louie (John Tormey), a small-time gangster who saved his life years earlier, but when the latest one doesn’t go exactly as planned, Louie’s cohorts want Ghost Dog eliminated. Good luck with that. Whitaker was an interesting choice to play Ghost Dog, as the actor’s bulky body and soulful face would seem to run counter to his character’s standing as a physically graceful assassin. It’s a casting selection that works, and Whitaker is especially appealing in his scenes opposite Isaach De Bankolé as a French ice cream vendor named Raymond. Raymond doesn’t speak a word of English, and since Ghost Dog doesn’t speak French, their friendship relies on body language and vocal inflections rather than on actual dialogue. The sequences involving the mobsters are laced with dark and unexpected bursts of humor; I especially liked the scene in which the whole crew gets chewed out by a landlord who’s angry that they’re behind on the rent.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of piece; deleted scenes; a new Q&A with Jarmusch; a new conversation between Whitaker and De Bankolé; and a look at RZA’s score for the film.
THE IRISHMAN (2019). Having spent snatches of his career married to the mob, Martin Scorsese returns to familiar turf with The Irishman, a film that’s epic in scope (over 250 credited performers), epic in cost ($140 million budget), and epic in length (3½ hours). If the project isn’t quite the magnum opus one would expect or desire, it’s still a solid piece that provides parts to all the Scorsese regulars (Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel) and marks the historic first teaming of Scorsese with Al Pacino. Adapted by Steven Zaillian from Charles Brandt’s disputed book I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran and Closing the Case on Jimmy Hoffa, the film follows the controversial narrative that mob hitman Frank Sheeran (De Niro) was (by his own admission) the person who killed Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino) in 1975, the year the famed union leader went missing. The movie examines how Sheeran moved up the ranks under the mentoring of syndicate bigwig Russell Bufalino (Pesci) and later became close friends with Hoffa before ultimately betraying him. The Irishman often plays like a “Greatest Hits” compilation of moments from such Scorsese offerings as GoodFellas and Casino, following the expected rhythms and developments of these and similar gangster sagas. Its extreme length works against its overall potency, as its energy drains during a painfully protracted final half-hour. Still, the movie is a worthy entry in Scorsese’s cinematic ledger, with Pesci standing out in a terrific cast. The Irishman earned 10 Oscar nominations (including Best Picture) but went home empty-handed.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; a conversation between Scorsese, De Niro, Pacino and Pesci; excerpted interviews with Sheeran in 1999 and Hoffa in 1963; and the theatrical trailer.
THE KILLING FLOOR (1984). This based-on-fact drama, written by Ron Milner (adaptation), Elsa Rassbach (story) and Leslie Lee (screenplay), debuted on PBS in 1984 as part of the American Playhouse series. Yet it’s such an accomplished piece of work that it’s hardly surprising it was given a prestigious slot at the following year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Special Jury Prize (Dramatic) while also competing for the Grand Jury Prize (losing to the Coens’ debut effort, Blood Simple). Much of its success belongs to Bill Duke: Best known as an actor (credits include Mac in the original Predator and Agent Percy Odell on TV’s Black Lightning), he’s also directed a large number of projects over the decades, including A Rage in Harlem, Deep Cover, and plenty of episodic television gigs. His efforts here are particularly robust, as he creates a pungent atmosphere while keeping a dense and multitentacled story in line. The movie is set in Chicago during World War I, as the lack of workers means that large numbers of European immigrants and Southern blacks arrive in the city eager to make a living. Among this number is Frank Custer (Damien Leake), a Mississippi laborer who lands a job at a meatpacking factory and immediately gets embroiled in the conflicts between the wealthy owners and the struggling unions. This is powerful stuff, detailing the battles not only between the rich and the poor but also between the races and, in some instances, between members of the same races. Alfre Woodard co-stars as Frank’s wife, Moses Gunn appears as an antagonistic coworker, and Dennis Farina, John Randolph and Ted Levine pop up in small roles.
Blu-ray extras include an introduction by Duke; a Q&A session with Leake and Rassbach; and “pandemic era conversations” with Duke, Leake, and others.
LIBELED LADY (1936). It would be hard to imagine a contemporary movie receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Picture but absolutely nothing else (although 2014’s Selma came close with a mere two nods), but during the first decade of the Academy’s existence, no less than 14 films were up for Best Picture while snagging zero other nominations (and one of them, 1932’s Grand Hotel, went on to win). Among these one-and-dones was Libeled Lady, which packed four leading stars into one film. The libeled lady in question is Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy), a socialite who sues a newspaper for $5 million after the rag prints an erroneous tidbit of gossip accusing her of stealing another woman’s husband. Desperate to save the paper (and his job), editor Warren Haggerty (Spencer Tracy) concocts an elaborate scam that will require the services of his fiancée Gladys Benton (Jean Harlow), who’s tired of being left stranded at the altar, and ex-reporter Bill Chandler (William Powell), who doesn’t like his former boss but could use a paycheck. The usual quota of madcap complications occur in this sparkling romantic comedy that earns its keep simply for the moment when Connie, expecting Bill to describe her eyes in gushing terms, is instead startled when he remarks that they look like “angry marbles.” In another interesting Oscar twist, Powell’s other 1936 film, My Man Godfrey (reviewed here), earned nominations for Best Director, Best Screenplay, and in all four acting categories, yet failed to be nominated for Best Picture.
Blu-ray extras include the 1935 short Keystone Hotel; the 1936 short New Shoes, featuring the voice of Mae Questel (Betty Boop); the 1936 cartoon Little Cheeser; and the theatrical trailer.
THE LOST WEEKEND (1945). Despite the reputations of writer-director Billy Wilder and his writing partner Charles Brackett, Paramount feared it had a dud on its hands with this adaptation of Charles Jackson’s novel about one man’s battle with alcoholism. After all, audiences were unaccustomed to seeing such stark realism on the silver screen, and even star Ray Milland had been warned not to take the leading role as it might cripple his career. What’s more, there was additional controversy before the film was even released, with the booze industry complaining that it would hurt sales while moral groups believed that it would somehow lead to even more people drinking. All the hand-wringing was unwarranted, as the film was a critical and commercial hit as well as the big winner at that year’s Oscars. Milland is superb as Don Birnam, a struggling writer who promises his girlfriend (Jane Wyman) and his brother (Phillip Terry) that he will spend the weekend firmly perched on the wagon when in actuality he will spend it deep-sea diving inside the bottle. The advice of a concerned bartender (a fine turn by Howard Da Silva) falls on soused ears, and when the money runs out, Don resorts to begging, borrowing, and stealing. For nearly its entire running time, the film pulls no punches as it paints Don in the most pathetic manner possible; only the final scene, with its rushed and required happy ending, disappoints. Nominated for seven Academy Awards, The Lost Weekend nabbed four major ones: Best Picture, Actor, Director, and Screenplay.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by film historian Joseph McBride; the 1946 radio adaptation starring Milland and Wyman; and the theatrical trailer.
MAD MAX (1979). If you haven’t seen writer-director George Miller’s Mad Max in quite some time, then it’s very likely you’re not even remembering it right. The first in Miller’s original trilogy — it was followed by 1981’s The Road Warrior (aka Mad Max 2) and 1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome — the picture isn’t exactly a post-apocalyptic drama in which the hero seeks revenge for the death of his family. Certainly, those elements are at play, but what’s interesting is that this Australian import focuses not on roving bands of marauders in vast desert landscapes (that would be the sequels) but on pockets of population where diners still serve food, phones are still in operation, and an actual police force still exists. And the Death Wish turn doesn’t even arrive until the final half-hour — before that, the narrative follows cop Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) as he divides his time between doting on his wife (Joanne Samuel) and their infant son and combatting criminals alongside other equally overworked officers. Chief among the hooligans is Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne), the vicious leader of a biker gang whose members also include the manic Nightrider (Vince Gil) and the sniveling Johnny the Boy (Tim Burns). In his first significant screen credit, Miller displays remarkable confidence in all facets of production, resulting in a picture that’s marked by a startling visual design, packed with memorably offbeat characters (Steve Bisley is excellent as Goose, the one cop who might be even more humanistic than Max), and some incredible stunt work that was soon eclipsed by even more fantastic feats in The Road Warrior.
Extras on Kino’s 4K / Blu-ray edition include audio commentary by cinematographer David Eggby, art director Jon Dowding, and special effects artist Chris Murray; interviews with Miller and Gibson; and the featurette Mel Gibson: The Birth of a Superstar.
Short And Sweet:
MOONSTRUCK (1987). While it leans a bit too heavily on the whimsy, Moonstruck is nevertheless a winning romantic comedy in which the sensible Loretta (Cher) is set to marry the square Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello) until she unexpectedly falls for his passionate younger brother Ronny (Nicolas Cage). Vincent Gardenia and Olympia Dukakis are perfectly cast as Loretta’s squabbling parents, and while John Patrick Shanley’s script is peppered with unfortunate sitcom situations, it ultimately triumphs on the strength of its vibrant character dynamics and its crisp dialogue. Nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Director (Norman Jewison), and Supporting Actor (Gardenia), it won three: Best Actress (Cher), Supporting Actress (Dukakis), and Original Screenplay.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary (from 1998) by Jewison, Cher, and Shanley; a making-of featurette; and 1987 interviews with Jewison, Cher, Cage, Gardenia, and Dukakis.
THE PIRATE (1948). A Caribbean villager (Judy Garland) with a romantic vision of the notorious pirate Macoco is set to enter into an arranged marriage with the dull mayor (Walter Slezak). When a traveling circus hits town, she’s duped into believing that its ringmaster (Gene Kelly) is actually the fearsome Macoco. A troubled production, The Pirate was a rare box office flop for Garland. It’s certainly cumbersome in spots, but some zesty musical numbers (one featuring The Nicholas Brothers) and spirited performances help carry it over the finish line (although, if you read between the finish lines, the denouement actually contains an off-camera execution). The score is by Cole Porter, and if the song “Be a Clown” sounds familiar, that’s because many of its musical and lyrical beats were “borrowed” for the “Make ‘Em Laugh” number in 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain. This nabbed an Oscar nomination for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by film historian John Fricke; a making-of piece; the Oscar-nominated 1948 short You Can’t Win; and the 1947 Tom & Jerry cartoon Cat Fishin’.
“angry marbles”? Aw, now you’ve done it. Tonight’s main feature: ‘Shadow of the Thin Man”.
Ooh, that’s a good one! The whole THIN MAN series is a blast.
Here’s the whole LIBELED LADY exchange; it never fails to crack me up:
Bill Chandler (William Powell): Afraid I wasn’t concentrating. It was your eyes.
Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy): Beautiful, aren’t they?
Bill: They remind me…
Connie: Yes. Yes, I know. Sparkling diamonds, deep sapphires.
Bill: No. No, they remind me of … angry marbles.