View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray and DVD.
John Wayne in Hondo and True Grit (Photos: Paramount)
(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.)
EXPLORERS (1985). Against the likes of Back to the Future, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, and Cocoon, Explorers felt positively puny when it was released during the summer of 1985, and it remains an also-ran decades after the fact. One does feel sorry for gifted director Joe Dante (The Howling, Gremlins), who was ordered by the studio to wrap it up and get it into theaters ASAP, leaving ample footage on the cutting room floor. Yet given the overall direction of the picture, how much better could it have been, even with more time to shoot and assemble? The first stretch concerns itself with the efforts of three teenagers to build a spaceship that will take them up, up and away. Wolfgang (River Phoenix) is the pint-sized scientist, Ben (Ethan Hawke) is his inquisitive friend, and Darren (Jason Presson) is the loner who joins them in their quest. The kids are great — Hawke and Phoenix, both 15, were making their film debuts, and Presson deserved a bigger career based on this and the previous year’s The Stone Boy — but their exploits aren’t particularly riveting, and Dante regular Dick Miller is wasted in a role that registers as an afterthought (doubtless a victim of the studio rush). The final third, when the boys meet up with some Borscht Belt aliens, is a chore to endure.
The Shout Select edition from Shout! Factory contains both the theatrical version and the home video cut. Blu-ray extras consist of a new retrospective piece featuring interviews with Dante, Hawke, screenwriter Eric Luke, and others; deleted scenes; new interviews with cinematographer John Hora and editor Tina Hirsch; and the theatrical trailer.
JOHN WAYNE 14-MOVIE COLLECTION (1953-1976). Considering the man headlined approximately 150 motion pictures, it’s impossible for any studio to release a definitive John Wayne box set. Yet this DVD collection from Paramount gives it a good try, housing 14 popular films from the second half of his lengthy career.
The best film in the collection is easily 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Merely one of the greatest Westerns ever made, this John Ford masterpiece is notable for (among other attributes) the immortal line, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” James Stewart plays a civilized tenderfoot trying to hold his own in the Wild West, Wayne co-stars as the macho gunslinger who helps from time to time, and Lee Marvin provides gritty villainy as the sadistic Liberty Valance.
Among the other titles worthy of effusive praise: 1969’s True Grit, for which Wayne won a Best Actor Academy Award for his rambunctious turn as crotchety U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn; Howard Hawks’ 1962 Hatari!, a thrilling adventure tale about a group of wild-game catchers; 1953’s Hondo, a twisty Western co-starring an Oscar-nominated Geraldine Page in her film debut; 1954’s The High and the Mighty, a multi-Oscar nominee in its day but underrated today, with Wayne as the pilot of an imperiled airplane; and 1976’s elegiac The Shootist, with Wayne playing a dying cowboy in what would be his final film. I’ve also always had a soft spot for the 1965 Western The Sons of Katie Elder, with Wayne, Dean Martin, Earl Holliman, and Michael Anderson Jr. cast as four dissimilar brothers caught up in a deadly land dispute.
The worst picture in the set is 1971’s Big Jake, in which the title character (Wayne) sets out after the criminals who kidnapped his grandson. The humor is more forced than in other Wayne outings, yet what truly sinks the picture is its extreme violence. This is the bloodiest movie The Duke ever made — the opening massacre, which includes a small boy getting gunned down, a young woman hacked to death with a machete, and the outlaws taking extra satisfaction in repeatedly shooting an elderly black cook in the back, is almost unwatchable, and it flies in the face of Wayne’s hypocritical statements at the time abhorring the new levels of sex and violence in American cinema. Also bringing up the rear is 1963’s Donovan’s Reef, a raucous and ridiculous comedy that sadly marked the last collaboration between Wayne and Ford.
There are no extras in the set.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962): ★★★★
True Grit (1969): ★★★½
Hatari! (1962): ★★★½
Hondo (1953): ★★★½
The Shootist (1976): ★★★½
The High and the Mighty (1954): ★★★½
The Sons of Katie Elder (1965): ★★★
El Dorado (1966): ★★★
Rio Lobo (1970): ★★★
Island in the Sky (1953): ★★★
In Harm’s Way (1965): ★★½
McLintock! (1963): ★★½
Donovan’s Reef (1963): ★★
Big Jake (1971): ★★
MACGRUBER (2010). Based on the Saturday Night Live skit that was itself a spoof of the hit action series MacGyver, this largely laugh-free affair finds Will Forte sleepily reprising his role as America’s top special operative, here asked to save the country from the machinations of his archenemy, Dieter Von Cunth (Val Kilmer). “I’m going to pound Cunth!” MacGruber declares, just one of the countless times that scripters Forte, Jorma Taccone (who also directed), and John Solomon attempt to wring humor out of this oh-so-naughty name. The first half is especially dreadful, with the filmmakers connecting with so few guffaws that viewers will eventually be struck by the realization that Requiem for a Dream and Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire combined contained more belly laughs. The finale, in which MacGruber and his team — longtime friend Vicki St. Elmo (Kristen Wiig) and hotshot military officer Dixon Piper (Ryan Phillippe) — infiltrate Cunth’s headquarters, picks up the pace somewhat, but not enough to really matter. There are a few scattered chuckles (the solitary subtitle is priceless), but too much dead air and inconsistencies in the main character reduce this to just another piece of junk for the SNL scrap heap, plopped on top of It’s Pat, Coneheads, A Night at the Roxbury, and so on and so forth.
Unlike Universal’s previous Blu-ray edition from 2010, which contained both the theatrical version and an unrated cut of the film, this Mill Creek Entertainment release only includes the theatrical version. Also unlike the previous edition, there are no extras to be found.
MY FAIR LADY (1964). It’s no secret that the Academy went gaga over bloated, Broadway-based musicals in the 1950s and ’60s, handing Best Picture awards and nominations to various lumbering behemoths that more often than not haven’t aged well. This three-hour adaptation of the Lerner and Loewe smash — based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion — is often held up as the least deserving of this bunch, but for my money, I’ll take it over fellow Best Picture winners Oliver! and Gigi any day of the week. True, its ass should have been kicked at the Oscars that year by Dr. Strangelove and A Hard Day’s Night (a forward-looking movie musical, and the antithesis of the old-school Lady); George Cukor’s direction couldn’t possibly have been more static (this truly looks like a filmed play); and the storyline’s misogynistic strains are never resolved and in fact are enhanced by the letdown of an ending. Yet there’s still plenty to enjoy. The soundtrack contains several of L&L’s most enduring tunes (including “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?,” “Get Me to the Church On Time” and the timeless “I Could Have Danced All Night”), and the production still looks lovely (or “loverly”?), especially in resplendent Technicolor in this 4K Ultra HD edition. And although Audrey Hepburn’s shrieking as the dirt-poor flower girl who becomes a polished society lady occasionally wears on the nerves, Rex Harrison is just fine as stuffy wordsmith Henry Higgins, while Stanley Holloway steals the film as Eliza’s incorrigible father. Nominated for 12 Academy Awards (including Best Supporting bids for Holloway and Gladys Cooper), the film earned eight, including Best Actor, Best Director, and the aforementioned Best Picture.
Extras include a making-of featurette; footage from the Academy Awards ceremony; Harrison’s Golden Globe acceptance speech; a radio interview with Harrison; and production tests.
SCARS OF WAR: VIETNAM 4-MOVIE COLLECTION (1970-1989). Mill Creek Entertainment is offering a quartet of films dealing with the Vietnam War; it’s a 50-50 proposition, as two of the titles are worthwhile and the other two instantly forgettable.
The only film in this set that was made while the war was still raging, Summertree (1971) is a dreary melodrama about an aspiring musician (Michael Douglas) who foolishly drops out of college and is thus drafted. His girlfriend (Brenda Vaccaro) and friends (including one played by Rob Reiner) try to help him figure out how to get out of serving while his parents (Jack Warden and Barbara Bel Geddes) fret over him. Needless subplots dilute the overall impact, and the ending has all the subtlety of an anvil landing on an egg shell.
Birdy (1984) tells the story of two friends in Philadelphia, Al (Nicolas Cage) and Birdy (Matthew Modine), and their experiences before, during, and after their involvement in the war. Birdy has no interest in anything but birds, and he believes he will one day be able to fly. It sounds borderline precious and pretentious, but it’s anything but, thanks to Alan Parker’s delicate direction, the sensitive screenplay by Sandy Kroopf and Jack Behr (based on William Wharton’s novel), and the spectacular performances by Cage and Modine. The Peter Gabriel score is an added bonus.
Given the anti-Asian sentiment exploding throughout a Trumpian AmeriKKKa, Alamo Bay (1985) couldn’t possibly be more timely. It also couldn’t be more flat-footed, taking a true-life tale and squashing it with simplistic scenarios and colorless characters. Set in a Texas bay town in the late 1970s, it centers on the clash between the local rednecks and the immigrants who have arrived from Vietnam looking for a better life. Predictably, it ends in a shootout. An ornery Ed Harris and a saintly Amy Madigan star in this thudding disappointment from director Louis Malle.
Based on a true story (with a script by David Rabe), Casualties of War (1989) is the only movie in this collection that primarily takes place in Vietnam rather than stateside. The horrific events are tackled with unusual restraint by Brian De Palma, with an intense Sean Penn playing the leader of a band of U.S. soldiers who provide themselves with some “portable R&R” by kidnapping and repeatedly raping a young Vietnamese woman (Thuy Thu Le, sensational in her only film appearance). Only one private (Michael J. Fox) is willing to aid the victim and stand up to his brutish comrades-in-arms. This is a grim and sobering work, with De Palma keeping his technical stylistics to a minimum.
There are no extras in this Blu-ray set.
Alamo Bay: ★★
Casualties of War: ★★★
SUPER 8 (2011). Writer-director J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 is set in 1979, a year that’s nestled between the release dates of Steven Spielberg’s first two blockbusters, 1975’s Jaws and 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and his subsequent two blockbusters, 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark and 1982’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. (Spielberg’s underrated 1941, which was released in 1979, was a flop.) The selection of this year makes sense, since the picture itself is surrounded on all sides by the influence — nay, the very spirit — of Spielberg (who’s involved as a producer). But while imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, it’s not always the best way to make a movie. Super 8 is an entertaining popcorn flick, but one does get the sense of Abrams sweating up a storm in an effort to produce the sort of guileless matinee magic that Spielberg conveyed effortlessly. Joel Courtney stars as Joe Lamb, who agrees to help his best friend (Riley Griffiths) shoot a zombie movie for an amateur filmmaking competition in their home state of Ohio. Along with their gangly pals (Ryan Lee, Gabriel Basso and Zach Mills) as well as a reluctant classmate (Elle Fanning, a revelation here), the crew proceeds to begin shooting at a rural railroad stop in the middle of the night, only to have said shoot interrupted when a train carrying a mysterious cargo derails. The military soon comes a-callin’, followed shortly by a series of mysterious disappearances around town. E.T.‘s suburban setting, Close Encounters‘ sense of government secrecy, Jaws‘ initially unseen menace, Raiders’ climactic cliffhanger-style thrills — all of these elements are dutifully channeled by Abrams, who takes the classic Spielberg model and outfits it with a new engine.
Extras in the 4K Ultra HD + Digital edition include audio commentary by Abrams; eight making-of featurettes; and deleted scenes.
12 MONKEYS (1995). Beginning its story in 2035, 12 Monkeys tells of a virus that long ago wiped out 99 percent of the world’s population. There’s no way to change the past, but with the help of a rickety time machine, there may be a chance to save the future by locating the virus in its original pure form and fashioning an antidote. The scientists therefore select a “volunteer,” a convict named James Cole (Bruce Willis), to travel back to 1996 (the year the virus took hold), pinpoint its genesis, and bring a sample back to the future. A loose adaptation of the 1962 short film La Jetée, 12 Monkeys finds director Terry Gilliam and scripters David Peoples and Janet Peoples concocting a heady, harrowing and heartbreaking sci-fi thriller that rarely stops tossing red herrings into the gaping mouths of viewers trying to piece it all together. As with all time-travel movies, leeway must be given when analyzing its consistency, and even the picture’s most ardent fans will disagree when it comes to the specifics of its ending. Brad Pitt delivers a showboat performance as a nutcase whose mouth and hands move at the speed of light — naturally, he received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor — while Madeleine Stowe is more restrained (and more effective) as a psychiatrist who believes there might be some truth in Cole’s seemingly delusional ramblings. Yet it’s Willis who truly powers this picture with an anguished and emotional turn that just might remain the best of his lengthy career.
Arrow Video and Universal have just released 12 Monkeys in a handsome Limited Edition Steelbook. Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Gilliam and producer Charles Roven; an excellent feature-length making-of documentary; a 1996 interview with Gilliam; and the theatrical trailer.
Short And Sweet:
HELLFIGHTERS (1968). If 14 John Wayne movies aren’t enough to satisfy one’s craving for The Duke (see the collection reviewed above), here’s one more to pop into the player. Wayne (at 61, clearly too old for his role) plays a firefighter who travels around the globe putting out blazes at oil wells. He has an assistant (Jim Hutton) and a daughter (Katharine Ross), and matters become personal when his assistant marries his daughter. Meanwhile, he tries to reunite with his former wife (Vera Miles), who left him because she couldn’t stand the pressures of his job. The suds from all these soap-opera shenanigans theoretically should have been enough to douse all the fires seen throughout this draggy picture.
There are no Blu-ray extras.
MINARI (2020). Qualifying as a companion piece to the Best Picture Oscar winner Nomadland, Minari likewise examines the lives of rural folks living on the fringes. Sprinkled with autobiographical ruminations by writer-director Lee Isaac Chung, this is as much about the immigrant experience as the American Dream, as a Korean family tries to remain afloat in 1980s Arkansas. Minari is unfussy and unassuming as it gently reminds that a house divided against itself cannot stand — a notion championed by Jesus Christ, Abraham Lincoln, and the Yi clan’s sprightly grandmother (Yuh-jung Youn). Nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor (Steven Yeun is superb), this won for Best Supporting Actress (Youn).
DVD extras consist of audio commentary by Chung and Youn; a making-of piece; and deleted scenes.
TRANCES (1981). Originally released by Criterion in 2013 as part of the box set Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 1, this documentary focuses on the socially conscious avant-garde band Nass El Ghiwane. The film is mainly comprised of concert performances by the Moroccan outfit, with some interview snippets also included. Fans of the group will want to up the star rating, but even they might agree that the non-musical portions (such as those chats with band members) do little to convey exactly why Nass El Ghiwane has attained legendary status in select circles.
Blu-ray extras consist of a 2013 introduction by Scorsese and a 2013 interview program featuring Scorsese, band member Omar Sayed, director Ahmed El Maanouni, and producer Izza Génini.