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.
Jackie Chan and Miya Muqi in Vanguard (Photo: Lionsgate)
(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.)
BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA (1974). A typical burst of nihilism from Sam Peckinpah, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is surprisingly the only film on which the maverick writer-director had total creative control, with no studio interference whatsoever. As such, it’s distinguished by some truly original moments but also marred by a ramshackle narrative that leans a bit too heavily on regurgitated themes and stylistic flourishes. Character actor Warren Oates essays a rare leading-man part as Bennie, an ex-pat American living in boozy withdrawal in Mexico. A local bigwig (Emilio Fernandez) offers a million dollars to the person who brings back evidence that Alfredo Garcia, the man who impregnated his daughter, is dead; thanks to Bennie’s lover, a prostitute named Elita (Isela Vega), Bennie knows that Alfredo has been killed in a car accident, but just because he’s already a corpse doesn’t make the job any easier. Out of the expected maelstrom of machismo and misogyny emerges a surprisingly affecting romance between Bennie and Elita, although much of the violence feels rather rote. Gig Young and Robert Webber are aptly menacing as a pair of gay assassins (appearing on the scene three years after Diamonds Are Forever‘s Mr. Kidd and Mr. Wint), while Kris Kristofferson, star of Peckinpah’s 1973 Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, pops up as a biker who terrorizes Bennie and Elita.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by co-scripter Gordon T. Dawson; audio commentary by a quartet of film historians; an image gallery; and the theatrical trailer.
CAUGHT IN THE DRAFT (1941) / NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH (1941) / MY FAVORITE BLONDE (1942). The Kino label certainly hasn’t been shy about bringing Bob Hope to Blu-ray — by my count, these three starring vehicles (sold separately) bring the total number of Kino Bobs to 16. What’s more, the titles released to date have largely been quality productions made during his heyday, not embarrassing, late-career disasters like The Private Navy of Sgt. O’Farrell and How to Commit Marriage.
The tireless Hope headlined a whopping 21 pictures throughout the 1940s, with these three pictures among his earliest from that prolific decade. First up is Caught in the Draft, in which pampered movie star Don Bolton (Hope) hopes to avoid the draft but accidentally volunteers for service. From Abbott & Costello and Martin & Lewis to Bill Murray and (shudder) Pauly Shore, it seems a rite of passage for popular comedians from all eras to tackle a military comedy; this one’s pretty funny, with Hope ably supported in his bumbling endeavors by Eddie Bracken (as his personal assistant) and Lynne Overman (as his agent).
After co-starring in the smash hits The Cat and the Canary and The Ghost Breakers (both reviewed here), Hope and Paulette Goddard were brought back again for Nothing But the Truth, a lesser known Hope outing that’s nevertheless one of his most uproarious efforts. Bob plays a stockbroker who bets his associates that he can tell the truth for 24 straight hours; naturally, they do their best to make him lose the wager by asking him embarrassing questions and placing him in impossible situations. A great hook for a comedy is beautifully handled by the cast and crew — compared to this, Jim Carrey’s similar Liar Liar almost seems as downbeat as Requiem for a Dream.
My Favorite Blonde finds Hope cast as Larry Haines, a stage comedian whose partner is a penguin named Percy. His life changes drastically once Karen Bentley (Madeleine Carroll) bursts into his dressing room — she requests his assistance but can’t let him know that she’s a British secret agent on the run from Nazi spies. More plotty than most Hope vehicles but filled with amusing scenarios, My Favorite Blonde turned out to be such a big hit for the star that he later made two more “Favorite” flicks: 1947’s wonderful My Favorite Brunette (reviewed here) and 1951’s My Favorite Spy.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentaries by film historians and theatrical trailers for all three movies.
Caught in the Draft: ★★★
Nothing But the Truth: ★★★½
My Favorite Blonde: ★★★
LADY SINGS THE BLUES (1971). The recent Blu-ray release of this Billie Holiday biopic by Paramount’s home entertainment arm was doubtless timed to coincide with the Hulu debut of The United States vs. Billie Holiday. Whereas the new movie focuses on only a specific period in the life of the dynamic singer, this earlier effort attempts to provide an overview of her life. Of course, much of it is bosh — how can you have a Billie Holiday biopic with no mention of Artie Shaw, Teddy Wilson, Lester Young, and two of her three husbands? — but it’s partly held together by the inspired casting of Diana Ross. Making her film debut, Ross plays Holiday from the age of 13, when she still went by her real name of Eleanora Fagan, to the age of 44, when she died of cirrhosis in a hospital bed while under FBI arrest. The movie initially focuses on her teenage years, when she was forced to work as a prostitute at a New York brothel, before charting her rise as a singing sensation, a career trajectory frequently interrupted by her drug addiction. Billy Dee Williams co-stars as a romanticized version of her reportedly vicious third husband, a mob flunky named Louis McKay (McKay receives a credit on the picture as “Technical Advisor,” so that explains that), while Richard Pryor is appealing in the fictional role of “Piano Man,” who supports her at every turn. In addition to launching a bestselling soundtrack album, Lady Sings the Blues also earned five Academy Award nominations, including a Best Actress bid for Ross.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by executive producer Berry Gordy, director Sidney J. Furie, and artist manager Shelly Berger; a making-of featurette; and deleted scenes.
MAN PUSH CART (2005) / CHOP SHOP (2007). The Italian neorealism of the 1940s is reconfigured by Iranian-American writer-director (and Winston-Salem native) Ramin Bahrani for his first two feature films. A key plot point from Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 masterpiece The Bicycle Thieves actually makes its way into Man Push Cart, in which a Pakistani immigrant (Ahmad Razvi) mourns the death of his wife, misses his young son (who’s in the custody of in-laws), and spends every morning setting up his food cart on a Manhattan corner. Chop Shop, meanwhile, focuses on a 12-year-old Latino orphan (Alejandro Polanco) who lives and works in a Queens auto repair shop. Saving the money he earns, he hopes to purchase a food van that he can operate alongside his teenage sister (Isamar Gonzales). Both films are similar in that they center on the invisible among us — in this case, struggling protagonists hoping to avoid leading lives of quiet desperation — and they amplify the everyday ordinariness with street-level NYC atmosphere so gritty, you can almost feel it between your teeth and under the tongue.
Blu-ray extras on Man Push Cart include audio commentary (from 2005) by Bahrani, Razvi, director of photography Michael Simmonds and assistant director Nicholas Elliott; a new discussion of the film by Bahrani, Razvi and Elliott; and Bahrani’s 1988 short film Backgammon. Blu-ray extras on Chop Shop include audio commentary (from 2006) by Bahrani, Polanco and Simmonds; a new discussion of the film by Bahrani, Polanco, Razvi (who appears in a supporting role) and Elliott; and rehearsal footage.
Man Push Cart: ★★★
Chop Shop: ★★★
VANGUARD (2020). In most respects, Vanguard feels like a throwback to the type of overstuffed action flick that made its presence particularly known from the mid-1970s through the mid-1990s. These films usually involved an elite group of fighters taking down an internationally renowned villain. Characters who were depicted as ride-or-die blood brothers gave off the vibe of being played by actors who only just met 10 minutes before the cameras started rolling. And these pictures relied so heavily on stuntwork that viewers knew better than to expect such niceties as plotting or pacing. Jackie Chan, working under director Stanley Tong for the sixth time (past collaborations include Supercop and Rumble in the Bronx), is the name actor in Vanguard, playing the head of a Chinese security company whose operatives are trying to protect a businessman (Jackson Lou) and his activist daughter (Ruohan Xu) from both a terrorist outfit known as the Brothers of Vengeance and a mercenary pack named the Arctic Wolves. The Chinese government is notorious for its tight grip on the distribution of both local and foreign films (banned titles over the decades have included Back to the Future, Babe: Pig in the City, and Mad Max: Fury Road), so it’s no surprise that the good guys are all squeaky-clean saints fighting for truth, justice, and the Chinese way. They’re also rather dull; ditto the bad guys straight out of Casting 101. Still, even with far too much CGI clogging the film’s pores (that lion is laughable), the movie maintains a refreshingly kinetic pace from start to finish.
The Blu-ray offers the film with its original mix of Mandarin and English dialogue as well as in an English-only version. The sole extra is a making-of featurette.
Short And Sweet:
ON-GAKU: OUR SOUND (2020). If the word gets out, then this anime film is likely destined for cult status. By using the rotoscoping technique, writer-director Kenji Iwaisawa has created an animated film that looks different than what usually emerges from Japan. He also provides the film with a off-kilter comic sensibility that will delight many. And its tale of three high school misfits who decide to form a band just because will touch anyone who has ever tentatively picked up a drumstick or plucked a guitar string. All of which is to say it’s a shame this movie left me cold. I found the animation to be distancing, the lead characters were little more than lobotomized Beavis and Butt-head clones, and the maddeningly repetitive gag of people taking looooooong pauses between sentences hardly struck me as a wellspring of hilarity.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of piece; a behind-the-scenes featurette; and four short films by Iwaisawa.
SMOOTH TALK (1985). Joyce Carol Oates’ short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” serves as the source for this haunting drama by director Joyce Chopra and scripter Tom Cole. In her first starring role, Laura Dern is cast as Connie, a 15-year-old girl coping with her burgeoning sexuality. While home alone, she’s visited by a stranger (Treat Williams) who calls himself Arnold Friend and attempts to get her to take a ride with him in his automobile. While the softening of Oates’ print ending elevates the realistic coming-of-age aspect of the tale, it thankfully doesn’t tamp down the aura of evil that permeates the third act.
Blu-ray extras include new conversations between Chopra, Oates, Dern, Williams and Mary Kay Place (who plays Connie’s mother); a new interview with Chopra; three short films by Chopra; and an audio reading of the 1966 Life magazine article “The Pied Piper of Tucson,” which inspired Oates to write her short story.