Poster art for The Final Countdown (Photo: Blue Underground)

(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.)

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Jennifer Jason Leigh and Judge Reinhold in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Photo: Criterion)

FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH (1982). Fast Times at Ridgemont High, directed by Clueless‘s Amy Heckerling from a script by Almost Famous‘s Cameron Crowe, has always struck me as a tad overrated, and occasional revisits over the decades have done little to change my mind. The filmmakers’ attempts to capture the “real” high school experience run hot and cold, while the comedy quotient just doesn’t cut it — in fact, it’s odd that this is always considered a comedy when it’s the dramatic material that resonates more strongly. As for the ballyhooed scenes between Sean Penn’s stoner Jeff Spicoli and Ray Walston’s stern teacher Mr. Hand, they seem like blueprints for a comedy sketch more than fully realized set pieces. Jennifer Jason Leigh is terrific as the naive freshman who takes an interest in sex without fully weighing the consequences, while Judge Reinhold is appealing as her older brother, a likable guy who meets with a string of bad luck. Stargazers can catch early appearances by Forest Whitaker, Eric Stoltz, Anthony Edwards and Nicolas Cage (still billing himself as Nicolas Coppola), and that’s Lana Clarkson, the actress murdered by Phil Spector in 2003, as Mrs. Vargas.

The Blu-ray edition from Criterion contains the original theatrical version as well as the television version with deleted and alternate scenes. Extras consist of audio commentary (from 1999) by Heckerling and Crowe; a making-of featurette; a new conversation with Heckerling and Crowe; and a 1982 audio discussion with Heckerling.

Movie: ★★½

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Martin Sheen, James Farentino and Kirk Douglas in The Final Countdown (Photo: Blue Underground)

THE FINAL COUNTDOWN (1980). Despite Don Taylor’s limitations as a director (practically his entire career was spent in television), he nevertheless managed to helm a handful of engaging fantasy flicks: Escape from the Planet of the Apes, The Island of Dr. Moreau (reviewed here), and the underrated Damien: Omen II (reviewed here). The Final Countdown likewise falls into this camp: Stronger direction might have resulted in a more robust and exciting presentation, but a great “what if?” premise and an impressive cast easily compensate. In 1980, the U.S.S. Nimitz encounters a freak storm that sends it back in time to December 6, 1941, the day before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. With its superior firepower, the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier could single-handedly change the course of World War II, but should it get involved? That’s the philosophical question debated by the ship’s captain (Kirk Douglas), his best pilot (James Farentino), a visiting Defense Department analyst (Martin Sheen), and, from the actual era, a Senator (Charles Durning) and his assistant (Katharine Ross). It’s not hard to guess how this ultimately plays out, but there are some nice twists along the way.

Blue Underground has released a superb 4K + Blu-ray limited edition that also contains a CD of John Scott’s score. Blu-ray extras include audio commentary (from 2008) by director of photography Victor J. Kemper; an interview with associate producer (and Troma co-founder) Lloyd Kaufman; and theatrical trailers. (The Final Countdown 4K will be released May 25.)

Movie: ★★★

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Jessica Lange in King Kong (Photo: Shout! Factory)

KING KONG (1976). “Everybody loves the monkey!” producer Dino de Laurentiis would chirp, explaining why he decided to remake a classic that had long been hailed as one of cinema’s finest achievements. But his King Kong turned out to be a ham-fisted version of the venerable yarn, replacing the excitement and gravitas of the 1933 original with a jokey attitude that borders on camp. The only area in which it improves upon its predecessor is in delineating the relationship between the ape and the woman he loves, and even this was subsequently handled better in Peter Jackson’s 2005 update. Jeff Bridges, appearing almost as hirsute as Kong, gamely tries to lift the proceedings as a paleontologist, with Charles Grodin doing his part as a greedy oil company executive. But in the central role of Dwan, newcomer Jessica Lange fights a losing battle against a script that transforms her into a New Age ninny (when first encountering Kong, she inquires about his zodiac sign). King Kong absurdly earned an Oscar for its visual effects (sharing that year’s honor with the far more accomplished Logan’s Run) — they’re generally shoddy, especially in the close-up shots when Kong unconvincingly leers at Dwan as if he were auditioning for a Benny Hill skit.

The Collector’s Edition Blu-ray from Shout! Factory contains both the 134-minute theatrical cut and the 182-minute television cut. Extras include still galleries, TV spots, and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ★★

MOVIE 'LAND'
Demián Bichir and Robin Wright in Land (Photo: Universal)

LAND (2021). Robin Wright makes her feature directorial debut with this muted motion picture that never manages to gain any traction. Wright stars as Edee Holzer, who’s understandably numb following the deaths of her husband and little boy. She ends up moving to a desolate cabin in the Wyoming wilderness, throwing away her cell phone, getting rid of her car, and opting to have absolutely zero contact with anybody. But it quickly becomes apparent that this city slicker is ill-equipped to survive in such harsh surroundings, and she’s on the verge of death when she’s discovered by Miguel Borras (Demián Bichir), a passing hunter who nurses her back to health. They forge a strong friendship, but it turns out that Miguel has his own cross to bear. Written by Jesse Chatham and Erin Dignam, the barren Land pales next to Wild, Into the Wild, and other movies in which people rediscover themselves through nature. It also botches the tragic dimensions of the story — for starters, it turns the reason for the deaths of Edee’s loved ones into a mystery that isn’t revealed until the end, ignoring the fact that it really doesn’t matter how they died since we know from the start that it was awful and unexpected and since the movie’s focus is exclusively on Edee’s grief anyway. Bichir delivers a strong performance as the kind soul who, when asked by Edee why he’s helping her, simply responds, “You were in my path.”

Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette and a piece on Wright making her directorial debut.

Movie: ★★

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Jean-Pierre Léaud and Chantal Goya in Masculin feminin (Photo: Criterion)

MASCULIN FÉMININ (1966) / IRMA VEP (1996). Two French flicks newly arrived on Blu-ray via Criterion are separated by 30 years, fronted by different directors, and filmed in dissimilar styles. The common ingredient is actor Jean-Pierre Léaud, the lead in one and a supporting (if significant) player in the other.

Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin féminin is best known for birthing the phrase “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola,” but similar wit is found in abundance throughout this French New Wave staple. Léaud stars as Paul, a cynical idealist (or an idealistic cynic, take your pick) who becomes romantically involved with an aspiring singer (Chantal Goya). Random bursts of surreal situations can be found in the midst of ample discussions about life, love, politics, and that “vietnik” Bob Dylan.

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Jean-Pierre Léaud and Maggie Cheung in Irma Vep (Photo: Criterion)

Léaud has a smaller role in Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep, which examines the turmoil that takes place behind the scenes of a movie shoot. Director René Vidal (Léaud) is set to remake the 1915-1916 silent-cinema serial Les vampires, and he casts Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung (playing herself) to portray the iconic character Irma Vep. What follows is a string of ego clashes, production delays, a secret crush, and even a nervous breakdown. This one’s a must for fans of films about films.

Blu-ray extras on Masculin féminin include a 1966 interview and a 2004 interview with Goya; a 2004 critical discussion of the film; and footage of Godard directing the “film within the film” sequence. Blu-ray extras on Irma Vep include a behind-the-scenes featurette; a new interview with Assayas; a 2013 documentary on Musidora, the actress who originated the role of Irma Vep; and the sixth episode of Les vampires.

Masculin féminin: ★★★

Irma Vep: ★★★

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Song Kang-ho and Kim Sang-kyung in Memories of Murder (Photo: Criterion)

MEMORIES OF MURDER (2003). The 2000 South Korean release Barking Dogs Never Bite may have been Bong Joon-ho’s debut as a writer-director, but it was his second feature that firmly placed the future helmer of Snowpiercer and the Oscar-winning Parasite on the map. In the mid-1980s, a serial killer has begun terrorizing a small community, raping and murdering women and leaving no clues behind. The local detectives on the case, Park (Bong regular Song Kang-ho) and Cho (Kim Roi-ha), prefer to beat their suspects until a forced confession comes forth; operating in a more professional manner is Seo (Kim Sang-kyung), a young detective who hails from the “big city” (Seoul) and has come to this rural region to help solve the case. Bong has taken a true-life tale and injected it with copious amounts of squirmy black humor without ever lessening or cheapening the horrific elements of this mesmerizing film. Addendum: Like David Fincher’s 2007 Zodiac, Memories of Murder is about a real-life case which hadn’t been solved before the film’s release, necessitating some ambiguity in the storytelling (particularly at the end). Unlike the case in Zodiac, the one here was eventually cracked — when the killer was finally identified in 2019, he was already serving a life sentence for raping and murdering his 18-year-old sister-in-law in 1994.

Blu-ray extras in this two-disc edition from Criterion include two audio commentaries (from 2003) by Bong and select cast and crew members; a 2004 making-of documentary; deleted scenes; a new interview with Bong about the real-life serial killer who inspired the film; and Bong’s 1994 short film Incoherence.

Movie: ★★★½

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Gregory Peck and Claude Jarman Jr. in The Yearling (Photo: Warner Archive)

THE YEARLING (1946). Based on Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Yearling is a family film for those families who don’t mind collectively shedding a tear or two. It’s often described as a movie about a boy and his deer, but the critter doesn’t even show up until the one-hour mark; initially, the story focuses on the members of the Baxter family — the tender Penny (Gregory Peck), his hardened wife Orry (Jane Wyman), and their sensitive son Jody (Claude Jarman Jr.) — and the hardships they encounter while running a farm in post-Civil War Florida. The lonely Jody longs for a pet and his parents reluctantly allow him to raise an orphaned fawn, realizing almost too late that the animal is eating the crops they need to survive. Peck, starring in two of the year’s Top 10 moneymakers (this and Duel in the Sun, the latter reviewed here), and Wyman, still married to Ronald Reagan at the time, are both excellent, with the gorgeous Technicolor lensing proving to be another asset. Nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Peck), and Best Actress (Wyman), this earned statues for Best Color Cinematography and Best Color Art Direction-Interior Decoration; additionally, Jarman won an honorary Juvenile Oscar (one of only 12 given to child actors over a 26-year period until it was discontinued) for his performance.

Blu-ray extras consist of a radio adaptation starring Peck; the Oscar-winning 1946 Tom and Jerry cartoon The Cat Concerto; and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ★★★½

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Liam Neeson in The Marksman (Photo: Universal)

Short And Sweet:

THE MARKSMAN (2021). Just as reliably as the swallows migrate annually to Capistrano, audiences can expect Liam Neeson to regularly show up in a movie that finds him beating the living hell out of various villains. Unfortunately, The Marksman is one of his weaker films in this vein, with the actor going through the motions as he takes on the members of a Mexican drug cartel. The evildoers are seeking to terminate a young boy (Joe Perez), and it’s up to Neeson’s ex-Marine to protect the kid. It’s as rote as it sounds, although, in terms of rampaging xenophobia, it’s at least not as blatant — and thus preferable — to 2019’s Rambo: Last Blood (reviewed here).

The only Blu-ray extra is a making-of featurette.

Movie: ★★

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Cary Grant, Sylvia Sidney and Fredric March in Merrily We Go to Hell (Photo: Criterion)

MERRILY WE GO TO HELL (1932). The second film from director Dorothy Arzner to be released on the Criterion label (the first was 1940’s Dance, Girl, Dance, reviewed here), Merrily We Go to Hell is clearly a product of the pre-Code era, as much here (including that title) would not have made it past Will Hays. Sylvia Sidney plays Joan Prentice, an heiress who marries perpetually inebriated reporter Jerry Corbett (Fredric March). Finally realizing that he won’t give up his booze or his womanizing ways, she suggests that they have an open marriage. Ninth-billed Cary Grant appears in one scene as Joan’s suitor.

Blu-ray extras consist of the 1983 documentary Dorothy Arzner: Longing for Women and a new video essay.

Movie: ★★★

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Robert Young and Susan Hayward in They Won’t Believe Me (Photo: Warner Archive)

THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME (1947). Two people end up dead in this film noir outing, but did Larry Ballentine murder them, or is it all a big misunderstanding? Robert Young excels in a change-of-pace role as Larry, married to the wealthy Greta Ballentine (Rita Johnson) but unable to leave her — or, rather, leave her money — even after he falls for other women. First is the sweet Janice (Jane Greer), followed by the gold-digging Verna (Susan Hayward) — both intrigue Larry for different reasons, but he seems doomed to remain with Greta until a freak incident blows the door wide open for him. Producer Joan Harrison co-wrote five of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, which explains her attraction to a twisty tale that in its best moments recalls The Master’s output.

There are no Blu-ray extras.

Movie: ★★★

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