Coleen Gray in Nightmare Alley (Photo: Criterion)

(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.)

Franco Nero in Django (Photo: Arrow)

DJANGO (1966). Aside from the Sergio Leone classics, writer-director Sergio Corbucci’s Django ranks as the most famous of all Spaghetti Westerns. In the role that made him a superstar in Europe, Franco Nero plays the eponymous anti-hero, a former Union Army officer trudging across the dusty landscape dragging a coffin behind him. Arriving in a near-desolate town populated only by a bartender-pimp (Ángel Álvarez) and a few prostitutes, Django ends up forming an uneasy alliance with a Mexican general (Jose Bodalo) and combating a former Confederate officer (Eduardo Fajardo) and his band of masked white supremacists. Initially banned in a few countries because of its extreme violence, Django was an enormous hit in other nations and proved to be highly influential with other filmmakers. Indeed, don’t be fooled into believing that Django had approximately two dozen sequels, as practically all (like A Few Dollars for Django, Django Kill… If You Live, Shoot! and Django the Bastard) were merely unrelated rip-offs and most only included a character named Django in the title! (The only official sequel was 1987’s quickly dismissed Django Strikes Again, while 2012’s Django Unchained was of course Quentin Tarantino’s salute to the original, with Nero even appearing in a cameo.)

Arrow Video has released Django in an excellent two-disc limited edition, with Django in 4K UHD and another Western starring Nero, 1966’s so-so Texas, Adios (misleadingly billed in some territories as a sequel to Django), on Blu-ray. Extras include film historian audio commentaries on both titles; two interviews with Nero; and a pair of featurettes on Spaghetti Westerns. The set also contains a 60-page booklet, a double-sided poster, and six double-sided postcards.

Movie: ★★★

Daniel Craig and Angelina Jolie in Lara Croft Tomb Raider (Photo: Paramount)

LARA CROFT TOMB RAIDER (2001) / LARA CROFT TOMB RAIDER: THE CRADLE OF LIFE (2003). Action movies simply were not meant to be as boring as the two pictures in the Tomb Raider series starring Angelina Jolie. (The 2018 reboot starring Alicia Vikander was flawed but certainly superior; see review here.) Where’s the quickening of the pulse, the racing of the heart, the holding of the breath? With Lara Croft Tomb Raider and Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, the most a viewer can expect is the numbing of the brain and the closing of the eyelids. The franchise’s main attribute is clearly Jolie: She just looks right for the role, with an athletic frame and a devil-may-care smirk that can convince viewers this super-heroine can tangle with the best of the screen adventurers. The first film centers on Lara’s attempts to beat the villains in locating an ancient artifact that can control time, while the second focuses on her attempts to beat the villains in locating Pandora’s Box. Clearly, these movies are meant to evoke the spirit of the Indiana Jones titles, but when the exposition is so arid, the stunts so standard, and the effects so ordinary, it’s hard to even work up to the excitement level of a vintage episode of The Bugaloos.

Angelina Jolie in Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (Photo: Paramount)

While Lara Croft Tomb Raider generally ambles along at the speed of a slug through spilled salt, it does contain a pair of inspired action set pieces as well as the bizarre spectacle of seeing Jon Voight, Jolie’s real-life father, play her on-screen pop during one of those brief times when the estranged father and daughter were on speaking terms. Somehow, there’s even less in the dreary Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life to admire. Gerard Butler is a bland leading man (admittedly, Daniel Craig in the first picture isn’t much better), and even the rock-tree monsters that appear late in the game look familiar — perhaps disgruntled extras from the set of Fraggle Rock.

At least the films look fine in the new 4K Ultra HD edition that contains both titles. The only extras are audio commentary on the first film by its director, Simon West, and audio commentary on the second film by its director, Jan de Bont.

Lara Croft Tomb Raider: ★★

Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life: ★½

Joan Blondell and Tyrone Power in Nightmare Alley (Photo: Criterion)

NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947). William Lindsay Gresham’s scandalous 1946 novel was brought to the screen the very next year, albeit with a faintly positive ending tacked on to appease the censors. Even with that addition, this remains one of the bleakest of all ‘40s flicks, with director Edmund Goulding and ace scripter Jules Furthman mixing horror, melodrama, and film noir with drunken abandon and pulling it off. Tyrone Power, cast against type (the matinee idol sought this role specifically to show his range), is excellent as Stan Carlisle, a schemer who works his way up from being the barker at a grubby traveling carnival — the type that employs a “geek” to bite the heads off live chickens — to headlining ritzy nightclubs as a world-class mentalist. Along the way, he becomes involved with three women — his mind-reader mentor (Joan Blondell), a sweet sideshow performer (Coleen Gray), and a guarded psychologist (Helen Walker) — and one of them turns out to be a femme fatale in the best noir tradition. The atmosphere is so pungent that one can almost inhale the sweat and sawdust, and the penultimate scene — the one before that Post-it Note of an addendum — is absolutely chilling. Guillermo del Toro is busy mounting a remake that’s due at year’s end; it will star Bradley Cooper, Toni Collette, and Carol co-leads Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.

IMG-7340
(Photo: Criterion)

Blu-ray extras in the Criterion edition include a 2007 interview with Gray; an audio excerpt from a 1971 interview with director Henry King in which he discusses Power (the two worked together on 10 movies, including Jesse James and The Sun Also Rises); and the theatrical trailer. The release also contains a booklet essay and six unique tarot cards tied to the film (above).

Movie: ★★★½

Marlon Brando in The Night of the Following Day (Photo: Kino)

THE NIGHT OF THE FOLLOWING DAY (1969). Although Lionel White’s novel The Snatchers caught Stanley Kubrick’s eye early in his filmmaking career, he ended up adapting White’s Clean Break instead, turning it into the 1956 classic The Killing. As for The Snatchers, it had to wait until 1969, when writer-director Hubert Cornfield brought it to the screen as The Night of the Following Day. It would have been interesting to see Kubrick take a crack at this material, because Cornfield’s version is a mess. Marlon Brando, looking vastly more fit than he had since the fifties, plays Bud, one of the members of a criminal outfit that kidnaps a teenage girl (Pamela Franklin) for ransom. The leader of the pack, the meek Wally (Jess Hanh), is out of his league for such a major scheme; his sister Vi (Rita Moreno), also Bud’s girlfriend, is an unreliable cokehead; and the final member, a pick-up named Leer (Richard Boone), is a pervy psychopath. The girl is snatched just outside of Paris and held captive at a beachfront house where Bud attempts to protect her while Leer tries to paw her. The highlight is a climactic showdown that’s stunningly filmed by cinematographer Willi Kurant; the low point is the twist ending, so moronic (and illogical) that it neutralizes everything that came before it in more ways than one. As for the rest of this troubled production (caused by Brando’s disrespect for his director), it’s a badly bungled caper yarn, with vaguely sketched characters and erratically edited scenes.

Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by Cornfield; separate audio commentary by film historian Tim Lucas; the Trailers from Hell segment with Joe Dante; the theatrical trailer; and trailers for three other Brando flicks from Kino.

Movie: ★★

A Boy Named Charlie Brown (Photo: Paramount)

SNOOPY COLLECTION (1969-1980). This Blu-ray compilation set contains all four Peanuts theatrical releases written by Charles M. Schulz, and, as such, It should have been called Peanuts Collection or Charlie Brown Collection. After all, Snoopy is the starring character in only one of the quartet; then again, he is the marquee attraction, so that was presumably the reasoning behind its moniker.

A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969) was a box office hit and, following on the heels of a series of popular TV specials starring the Peanuts gang (including A Charlie Brown Christmas and It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown), demonstrated that audiences would be willing to pay to watch these kids outside the comfort of their own living rooms. The central plot thread finds eternal loser Charlie Brown taking part in the National Spelling Bee, but this enjoyable outing contains many familiar elements, including Charlie Brown’s mishaps on the pitcher’s mound, Lucy’s psychiatric help booth, and Linus suffering from blanket withdrawal. Rod McKuen, Alan Shean, and Peanuts regulars Bill Melendez, Vince Guaraldi and John Scott Trotter earned an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song Score. (Sorry, Schroeder, but they were beaten by The Beatles for 1970’s Let it Be.)

Snoopy, Come Home (Photo: Paramount)

Snoopy, Come Home (1972) is a real gem, and it’s unfortunate that it was a box office flop (the result of a studio shutdown at the time, not because audiences weren’t interested). Providing Snoopy with an origin story of sorts, it finds the beagle receiving a letter from a little girl named Lila, who’s bedridden in a hospital and wants him to come visit her. Accompanied by his feathery friend Woodstock, he immediately sets out on his journey, leaving Charlie Brown and friends attempting to ascertain the identity of Lila. Snoopy, Come Home is not only emotionally satisfying but also contains a great “No Dogs Allowed” gag that carries through to the clever denouement (and that’s Thurl Ravenscroft, the voice of Tony the Tiger and warbler of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” amusingly singing the “No Dogs Allowed!” tune).

Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown (Photo: Paramount)

Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown (1977) is the first of the two Peanuts theatrical films that took the characters out of their neighborhood and had them spend the majority of the running time in another locale (in this respect, these two flicks remind me of those “very special” episodes of The Brady Bunch and Sanford & Son where the protagonists vacationed in Hawaii). Here, Charlie Brown et al head to a summer camp, where they end up competing in a raft race against a team of bullies. There are some nice moments, but the film too often places plot ahead of characters.

Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (And Don’t Come Back!!) (Photo: Paramount)

If the series took a dive with Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown, it reaches its low-water mark with the dismal Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (And Don’t Come Back!!) (1980). In this one, Charlie Brown, Linus, Peppermint Patty and Marcie go to France as exchange students, with Snoopy and Woodstock along for the ride. This might as well be an episode of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!, as these meddling kids get involved with a spooky mansion and a mystery whose origins can be traced back to World War I. Rather than “wah wah” sounds, the adults actually speak words (blasphemy!), and the perpetually annoying Peppermint Patty is an outright psychopath here.

Blu-ray extras consist of a making-of piece for Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown and theatrical trailers for Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown and Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown.

A Boy Named Charlie Brown: ★★★

Snoopy, Come Home: ★★★½

Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown: ★★½

Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (And Don’t Come Back!!): ★½

Benny Hill in Who Done It? (Photo: Kino & StudioCanal)

WHO DONE IT? (1956) / THE GREEN MAN (1956). Two British comedies from the mid-1950s have been separately released on Blu-ray on the Kino Studio Classics line — only one hails from the revered Ealing Studios, but it’s actually the other title that does the better job of displaying that established Ealing wit.

Who Done It? is the authentic Ealing offering, with a script by studio regular T.E.B. Clarke (who had won an Oscar for his original screenplay for The Lavender Hill Mob, reviewed here). Benny Hill, already making a name for himself on television, stars as Hugo Dill, a bumbler who has always wanted to be a private eye. He opens his own detective agency, but the immediate mishaps and mix-ups result in him getting involved with foreign spies. Those expecting the double entendres and other naughty bits that later became Hill’s trademark won’t find any of that here. This is a slapstick yarn suitable for all ages, with some nimble plotting if not many big laughs. The chase that ends the film goes on too long — a shame the Benny-approved “Yakety Sax” had yet to be written, as it could have goosed it along.

Alastair Sim in The Green Man (Photo: Kino & StudioCanal)

Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, the wordsmiths behind Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes and Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich, dusted off their own obscure play Meet a Body and reintroduced it as the cinematic romp The Green Man. Alastair Sim, whose facial expressions alone could lead to unrestrained laughter, plays a professional assassin who carries out hits on pompous Brits of high standing. His latest target is a member of Parliament (Raymond Huntley), but what should have been an easy kill becomes a chore thanks to the interference of an excitable vacuum-cleaner salesman (George Cole) who stumbles upon the assignment. Laughs are pretty much guaranteed just by naming one of the insufferable Brit twits Reginald Willoughby-Cruft (a tiresome radio announcer played by Colin Gordon), but the humor extends to the vivid characterizations and the zany plotting. Despite third billing, Terry-Thomas has a relatively small role as one of the innocent bystanders confounded by all the tomfoolery.

Blu-ray extras on both titles include film historian audio commentary and trailers for other comedies offered by Kino. Who Done It? also contains 1969’s The Waiters, a short film written by and starring Hill.

Who Done It?: ★★½

The Green Man: ★★★

Flowers of Shanghai (Photo: Criterion)

Short And Sweet:

FLOWERS OF SHANGHAI (1998). So confined in its setting that it easily could have been based on (or turned into) a play, this Taiwanese period piece from director Hou Hsiao-hsien looks at the lives of the women serving as courtesans in four Shanghai brothels (“flower houses”). Basically kept prisoner at these establishments, they frequently serve as long-term mistresses to wealthy men and hope that they will eventually be able to buy their freedom and escape this suffocating life. The surface splendor and serenity belie the ugly hypocrisy, jealousy and misogyny seething underneath, a dichotomy which gives the film its dramatic charge.

Blu-ray extras include a new making-of documentary; excerpts from a 2015 interview with Hou; and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ★★★

Bette Davis and Errol Flynn in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (Photo: Warner Archive)

THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX (1939). This historical yarn was filmed in early Technicolor, and while the images look fine in close-up, the colors tend to bleed in medium and long shots (obviously not a problem in 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, still the most gorgeous of all Technicolor opuses). Still, no amount of sloppy saturation can diminish the excellent performance by Bette Davis, whose Queen Elizabeth finds herself enamored with the dashing (and much younger) Earl of Essex (Errol Flynn) even as her devious advisers (including Vincent Price as Sir Walter Raleigh) attempt to turn her against him. This earned five Academy Award nominations for various technical achievements.

Blu-ray extras include a retrospective behind-the-scenes piece and the 1939 Porky Pig cartoon Old Glory.

Movie: ★★★

4 Comments »

  1. Only three stars for Django? That’s a four star, four and a half star for some, film for sure. It’s definitely not one to go into based on the hype that guys like Tarantino and Rodriguez give it, but is one to go into based on the comments given by fellas like Tom Betts. I wouldn’t say its an overrated film by any means, but the reputation it garnered upon its original release has become somewhat tame given what films have shown since the 90’s. Angelina Jolie’s first Lara Croft is the best, just a good old fashioned popcorn/leave your brain on the table type of flick.

    • Well, my rating scale only goes up to 4 stars, so no 4.5 for me! But I actually first saw DJANGO as a young lad — I expect around the same year Tarantino first saw it, if not earlier — and while I’ve always enjoyed it, I just can’t place it on the same plateau as some of Sergio Leone’s classics.

      Cheers!

  2. I’d have to politely contest the notion of Django being the most famous non-Leone spaghetti western. I’d also be inclined to dismiss the Tarantino-hype effect as a statistical bump. Here in Québec (we were far more receptive to European film than the ROC — rest of Canada), the subgenre’s all-time popularity ranking would have Once Upon a Time in the West at number one, and Il mio nome è Nessuno (Mon nom est Personne/My Name Is Nobody) at number two, and *then* the Leone/Eastwood ones.

    Though they never made much of a splash in the US, it would be foolish to underestimate the incredible worldwide popularity of the Terence Hill-Bud Spencer combo. Funny how a guy drafted in to replace Franco Nero because of their striking resemblance would turn out to possess ten times Nero’s charm.

    Plus, Django, unlike the others, doesn’t come with a Morricone score, and *that* makes quite a difference. Back in the day, everyone and his sister owned an LP of either or both Il était une fois dans l’Ouest and Mon nom est Personne. Post-1980s yard sales are truly revealing. It’s not that people necessarily wanted to get rid of their LPs — they just didn’t have working turntables any longer. 😉

    The Leone films aside, I find I just can’t digest any Spaghetti oaters without a healthy dose of absurd humour. Once you’ve sampled that ingredient, you can’t go back. Anyway, My Name Is Nobody is as moving as it is funny. Sadly, none of the other similar entries can match it, imho. Must be the uncredited Leone magic that does it.

    • ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is a flat-out masterpiece, one of my favorite Westerns, and the best Leone flick.

      MY NAME IS NOBODY was indeed popular, as were the TRINITY films. But I dunno, none had 24-30 “sequels” (rip-offs) like all the Django-titled flicks.

      As I was living in Portugal as a kid between 1974-1982 — and in a Lisboa / Lisbon suburb where the movie theaters were always showing older movies (how I first caught THE GUNS OF NAVARONE and THE GREAT ESCAPE, two other all-time faves) — there flowed a steady stream of Franco Nero AND Hill-Spencer flicks. As you say, incredibly popular outside the U.S. That’s where I first saw the TRINITY films, among others. And, yeah, I recall the Hill-Spencer films I saw more than I recall the Nero ones.

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