Leon Vitali in Filmworker (Photo: Kino)
(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 ALLNIGHTER (1987). Bob Dylan in Masked and Anonymous. Sting in Dune. Mick Jagger in Freejack. Prince in Graffiti Bridge. Madonna in practically anything. For every popular singer who proved they had what it took to make a smooth transition from the concert stage to the movie screen (e.g. David Bowie, Kris Kristofferson), there have been many more who demonstrated that talent in one field doesn’t always translate into talent in another. Add to that lengthy list Susanna Hoffs, the lead singer of The Bangles. That pop group released a number of rockin’ tunes, and Hoffs would have fared better remaining in the recording studio. But the writer-director of The Allnighter clearly felt that nobody else could play her film’s lead character and thus felt compelled to cast the singer in this crucial part. Did I mention that said writer-director is Susanna’s mother, Tamar Simon Hoffs? Suddenly, Francis Coppola’s rampant nepotism doesn’t look so bad. At any rate, The Allnighter is a torturous comedy in which Molly Morrison (a somnambular Hoffs), about to graduate from a seaside California college, laments the fact that she never had a great love affair during her four years on campus. So on the night before graduation, and supported by her roommates (Joan Cusack and Dedee Pfeiffer, Michelle’s little sister), she decides to lose her virginity to someone special. Should it be the insufferable surfer dude (John Terlesky) who’s always sniffing around or the older man (Michael Ontkean, three years before Twin Peaks) who’s the lead singer of her favorite band? Who cares? The Allnighter is so vapid on every level that it makes those 1960s beach party flicks look as deep as The Seventh Seal by comparison.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by the Hoffs mère et fille; the music video for Price-Sulton’s “No T.V. No Phone”; and the theatrical trailer.
BABY DOLL (1956). After generating controversy with their incendiary 1951 screen adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire, director Elia Kazan and playwright-screenwriter Tennessee Williams were back at it with Baby Doll. This time, they created a movie so contentious that it was banned in a few countries, pulled in several U.S. cities, and denounced by Cardinal Francis Spellman, the Archbishop of New York, who forbade his flock from seeing it “under pain of sin.” Combining and adapting a pair of his short plays (27 Wagons Full of Cotton and The Long Stay Cut Short, or The Unsatisfactory Supper), Williams reveals himself to be in a wickedly playful mood, spinning a broad farce about a virginal child bride in Mississippi and the older men who lust after her. Married at the age of 17, Baby Doll (Carroll Baker) laments the fact that she’s about to turn 20, since that means she’s finally expected to give up her virginity to her middle-aged husband Archie (Karl Malden). Perpetually tormenting her oafish spouse, she flames the tension even further by openly flirting with his vengeful business rival (Eli Wallach in his film debut). The dialogue, performances, and situations are pitched to such an outsized degree that more liberal viewers won’t be able to take any of this that seriously, although it’s easy to see how conservative types might balk, considering that even the movie’s poster (Baby Doll resting in a crib while sucking her thumb) left many of them flustered. Baby Doll earned four Oscar nominations: Best Actress (Baker), Best Supporting Actress (Mildred Dunnock as the fragile Aunt Rose Comfort), Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Cinematography (Boris Kaufman, who had won two years earlier for Kazan’s On the Waterfront).
Blu-ray extras consist of a 2006 retrospective piece featuring Malden, Baker and Wallach, and the theatrical trailer.
BREACH (2007). Here’s yet another dour cloak-and-dagger thriller set within the corridors of one of America’s omniscient law enforcement agencies. In this case, it’s the FBI, and the subject is the true-life saga of the apprehension of agent Robert Hanssen, who in 2001 was brought down for his role as a longtime spy for the Russians. Chris Cooper plays Hanssen, who’s presented as a deeply religious man with a disdain for homosexuals, strong-willed women (Hillary Clinton rates a diss), and many of his peers at the bureau. He’s assigned a clerk named Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe), not realizing that the young man is a budding agent who’s been ordered by his superior (Laura Linney) to spy on him and collect any potentially incriminating evidence. Often adhering closer to the facts than many Hollywood fictionalizations (director and co-writer Billy Ray even works in Hanssen’s fetish for secretly filming and writing about his sexual encounters with his unsuspecting wife), Breach is competent without being particularly distinguished, with Cooper working hard to provide any psychological subtext to the story behind the headlines. As the green Eric, Phillippe is adequate, though if there’s any variance between his performance here and in other movies of the period like Crash and Flags of Our Fathers, I must have blinked and missed it.
There are no extras on the new Blu-ray produced by Mill Creek Entertainment. (Those requiring bonus features will prefer to pick up Universal’s older Blu-ray edition, which includes deleted scenes, a Dateline episode, and audio commentary by Ray and the real Eric O’Neill.)
DO THE RIGHT THING (1989). An out-and-out masterpiece, Spike Lee’s best movie also remains the most penetrating film ever made about race relations in these United States. On the hottest day of the summer, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, Italian-American Sal (Danny Aiello, terrific) runs a pizza joint whose employees consist of his two sons Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson) and local kid Mookie (Lee). When he’s not enduring Pino’s racist slurs, Mookie’s out delivering the pies, taking his time as he visits his girlfriend Tina (Rosie Perez) and listens to the sage advice of ‘hood elders Mother Sister (Ruby Dee) and Da Mayor (Ossie Davis). But matters begin to heat up when local hotheads Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito) and Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) elect to boycott Sal’s Pizzeria as a matter of principle. It’s amazing that this was only then-32-year-old Lee’s third major motion picture, as the complex characterizations, dicey moral dilemmas, and superb dialogue (laced with plenty of hilarious ad-libbing by his capable actors) signaled a filmmaker working far beyond his years. Predictably, the Academy largely bypassed it, nominating it only for Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (Aiello). That year’s Best Picture Oscar, of course, went to Driving Miss Daisy, which was as tame about race relations as Do the Right Thing was provocative (see also the recent and lamentable repeat with the tame Green Book beating, among others, Lee’s BlacKkKlansman).
Extras in Universal’s excellent 4K + Blu-ray + Digital edition include a new introduction by Lee; audio commentary (from 2009) by Lee; audio commentary (from 1995) by Lee, cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, production designer Wynn Thomas, and co-star Joie Lee; a vintage making-of piece; deleted scenes; and press conference footage from the picture’s premiere at Cannes.
THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE (2002) / FILMWORKER (2017). The Kino Lorber label offers two documentaries that each examines a behind-the-scenes Hollywood player — one who loved soaking up attention, the other content to work in the shadows.
A documentary almost as colorful as its subject, The Kid Stays in the Picture, a restructuring of Robert Evans’ autobiography of the same name, employs a witty style as it relates the long and winding road that led him to start his career as a shallow actor in the 1950s before morphing into an industry force as a producer, playmaker, and studio head on the Paramount lot in the late 1960s and early 70s. Evans had his hand in such smashes as The Godfather, Rosemary’s Baby, Love Story, and Chinatown, but personal problems (cocaine addiction; possible ties to a Tinseltown murder; seven marriages, with the longest lasting only four years) derailed his locomotive success. An opening quote from Evans (who narrates the picture) wisely alerts us that all “facts” should be taken with a grain of salt, but there’s still enough irrefutable history here to give us the sensation of being allowed a backstage pass into one filmmaker’s often troubled, often triumphant mind.
Filmworker centers on Leon Vitali, a rising British actor who appeared in a handful of TV series before being cast in a key supporting role in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. But rather than continue his acting ascendancy, Vitali gave it all up to become Kubrick’s personal assistant — or, as he called himself, “filmworker.” He served as a jack-of-all-trades under the mercurial director, doing everything asked (or demanded) of him — this included finding the right kid to play the role of Danny Torrance in The Shining, delivering the bad news to the actor who had been prepping for eight months to play the drill instructor in Full Metal Jacket before the role circled back to R. Lee Ermey, and, following Kubrick’s death, trying to maintain the late director’s vision for Eyes Wide Shut as it hit home video. Despite some blind spots (other key Kubrick collaborators are conspicuously missing from the interviews, and Vitali’s familial details are often sketchy), Filmworker serves as a reminder that it’s imperative to thank — or at least remember — all the little people.
Blu-ray extras on The Kid Stays in the Picture include audio commentary by directors Brett Morgan and Nanette Burstein; interview snippets with Evans and with others talking about Evans; a gag reel featuring Dustin Hoffman (who had worked alongside Evans on the 1976 hit Marathon Man); and the theatrical trailer. Blu-ray extras on Filmworker consist of a Q&A with Vitali and director Tony Zierra, and the theatrical trailer.
The Kid Stays in the Picture: ★★★
Short And Sweet:
THE BELLES OF ST. TRINIAN’S (1954). Based on a series of drawings by cartoonist Ronald Searle, this comedy centers on a girls’ school in which said moppets are all horrendous mischief-makers. Not that the adults surrounding them are much better: This number includes Clarence Fritton (Alastair Sim), a conniving gambler whose equally shifty sister Millicent (Sim in drag) runs the school. Sim is amusing as the eternally anxious headmistress, although the film largely runs out of steam once it reaches its chaotic climax. The Belles of St. Trinian’s was a sizable hit in England, leading to a string of sequels (Sim returned for only the first and was used fleetingly).
Blu-ray extras include a piece on the actresses who played the students; an interview with film historian Geoff Brown; and an interview with Sim’s daughter, Merlith McKendrick.
MANDABI (1968). Although he only wrote and directed a total of nine feature films over a span of 38 years, Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembène eventually became known as not only the “Father of African Cinema” but also an iconoclast who espoused feminist ideals while tackling controversial subjects. Mandabi, his second full-length effort, centers on a struggling villager (Makuredia Gueye) whose attempts to cash a money order are thwarted at every turn. Although the film operates in a lighter vein, it still casts a wary eye at the remaining traces of colonialism, the rigidity of patriarchal modes of expression, and the casual cruelty of a burdensome bureaucracy.
Blu-ray extras include an introduction by film scholar Aboubakar Sanogo; Sembène’s 1970 short film Tauw; and interview outtakes from the 2015 documentary Sembène!