View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray and DVD.
The Critic (Photo: Mill Creek)
(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.)
CENTER STAGE (1991). Maggie Cheung, soon to star in another meta movie about filmmaking (1996’s Irma Vep, recently reviewed here), first headlined Center Stage, director Stanley Kwan’s stylized look at the vibrant career and tragic life of Chinese film star Ruan Lingyu. One of her homeland’s most popular actresses during the early 1930s, Ruan starred in approximately 30 films (of which only eight or nine still survive today) before taking her own life. Relationship woes, malicious gossip, and a merciless press all contributed to her decision to take a fatal overdose of drugs at the age of 24. Kwan’s approach is unique, as there are the recreations of moments from Ruan’s off-screen life and from her movie appearances; modern sequences in which Kwan, Cheung and others discuss the iconic actress; and snippets of footage from some of Ruan’s starring vehicles, including 1935’s New Women, in which she eerily played another Chinese actress, Ai Xia, who had committed suicide in her twenties due to media scandal (Ai killed herself in 1934, Ruan in 1935). The film is always interesting if not always involving, since, at 154 minutes, it could have stood some trimming to keep up its forward momentum.
Blu-ray extras consist of an introduction by Kwan; interviews with Kwan and Hong Kong cinema expert Paul Fonoroff; and trailers.
THE CRITIC: THE COMPLETE SERIES (1994-1995). In the annals of television, has there ever been a series that focused on a worthier subject than this one? Well, OK, I might be a tad biased; seriously, though, fans of The Simpsons (whose producers were also behind this show) will enjoy this animated program that offers big laughs while taking shots at modern staples of pop culture. A flop when it first aired, it has always maintained a small but loyal following, and this DVD set rewards the faithful by including all 23 episodes from the show’s two seasons. Jon Lovitz provides the voice for short, pudgy critic Jay Sherman (whose catchphrase is “It stinks!”), and among the episodes is the poignant one which featured guest vocal appearances by Gene Siskel (RIP 1999) and Roger Ebert (RIP 2013). The parody trailers are particularly amusing (e.g. Smokey and the Spartacus, Dennis the Menace II Society), although my favorite bit would have to be this exchange between Jay and his boss Duke Phillips (voiced by Charles Napier). Duke: “Why do you have to be so critical?” Jay: “I’m a critic! It’s my job!” Duke: “No, your job is to rate movies on a scale from ‘good’ to ‘excellent.’” Jay: “What if I don’t like them?” Duke: “That’s what ‘good’ is for.”
There are no extras on the DVD.
THE GOOD SHEPHERD (2006) / THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU (2011). Two sturdy Matt Damon dramas have been released as a double feature Blu-ray on the Mill Creek label.
A fictionalized look at the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency, The Good Shepherd is methodical in its style and intelligent in its execution, which in some circles will translate as dull, slow-moving, and impenetrable. Yet patient viewers will find much to appreciate in this chilly yet absorbing drama, which takes the cherished ideal of patriotism and turns it on its head. Damon delivers a bold performance that seeks no audience empathy — he’s cast as Edward Wilson, whose role as one of the founders of the CIA finds him over the course of several decades having to contend with all manner of Cold War shenanigans, including the presence of a mole within his own agency. Directed with a fine attention to detail by Robert De Niro (who also appears in a key supporting role), The Good Shepherd repeatedly runs the risk of losing viewers with its flashback-laden structure drafted by scripter Eric Roth. But the strength of the film rests in its clear-eyed vision of Edward Wilson, whose fierce devotion to his country in turn strips him of his humanity and reduces him to a suspicious and paranoid cipher, an American too busy fighting unseen enemies to enjoy the freedoms and privileges that his nation provides for him. The star-packed cast also includes Angelina Jolie, William Hurt, Eddie Redmayne, and 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Keir Dullea.
One person’s religious beliefs is often another person’s existentialist theories, and The Adjustment Bureau offers plenty of theological fodder to go around. Because it tinkers with notions involving God and chance and destiny and all that other stuff that’s fun to discuss, it might turn off those types of folks who misunderstood Martin Scorsese’s brilliant and heartfelt Christian ode, The Last Temptation of Christ. Other viewers, however, might appreciate the movie’s ability to question omniscient authority with the proper mix of reverence and reflection. Based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, this stars Damon as aspiring U.S. senator David Norris, who meets rising dancer Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt); the pair are instantly attracted to one another, but David soon learns from the members of a shadowy cabal that they are never meant to be together. But David refuses to accept his fate, leading the mysterious enforcers to resort to strong-arm tactics to contain the situation. The film’s notion that true love conquers all would fall flat with the wrong leads, but Damon and Blunt possess a lovely, laid-back chemistry that allows us to believe in their union. Because their casting is so apt, this often feels like a romantic yarn first and a fantasy flick second, with some nifty chase sequences thrown in for good measure.
There are no extras.
The Good Shepherd: ★★★
The Adjustment Bureau: ★★★
IT HAPPENED TOMORROW (1944). With a premise that sounds perfect for The Twilight Zone (indeed, the 1963 episode “Printer’s Devil” shares some Venn diagram overlap), It Happened Tomorrow stars Dick Powell as Larry Stevens, a lowly journalist who becomes his newspaper’s top reporter thanks to the assistance of his elderly colleague Pop Benson (John Philliber). Larry believes that it would be swell if it were possible to learn about major events before they occurred; for reasons that are made clear late in the film, Pop has the ability to grant Larry his wish, which he does by providing him with the next day’s newspaper 24 hours ahead of time. Pop’s lesson is clearly “Be careful what you wish for,” but Larry misses the moral, as he’s too excited by the fact that he’s able to scoop everyone with his coverage of a major heist. Of course, Larry’s insider knowledge of the robbery leads the police to believe he was somehow involved, and subsequent before-the-fact headlines only serve to muddy his life even further. The movie never milks this unique premise for all it’s worth, but it’s nevertheless a clever and charming tale, with Linda Darnell (cast as a fortune teller) nicely paired with Powell as his character’s love interest. This nabbed Oscar nominations for Best Original Score and Best Sound.
The only Blu-ray extra is a trailer.
THE LOVEBIRDS (2020). No great shakes in terms of its overly familiar plot about an innocent couple getting involved in murder and other misdeeds (see: Date Night, Game Night, Keeping Up with the Joneses, etc.), The Lovebirds largely works because of the casting of Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae. They play Jibran and Leilani, a couple whose five-year relationship is sputtering to a close. Deciding to call it quits after one bickering session too many, they are instead distracted by a murder that leaves them looking like the culprits and forces them to attempt to clear their names. To do so, they must follow a trail of clues that takes them to a raucous bar, an apartment full of frat boys, and a secret meeting full of masked individuals who wouldn’t look out of place at the shindig highlighted in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. There are plenty of hearty laughs to be found during the first half, but they grow alternately more scarce and more forced as the convoluted plot gets the upper hand. Still, the two leads keep this pleasant and painless.
The DVD contains both the theatrical version and an unrated cut that adds approximately eight minutes to the running time. Extras include cast interviews; deleted scenes; a gag reel; and the ever-popular Line-O-Rama.
SAFE HOUSE (2012). Actors often like to brag about how they perform their own dangerous stunts, but how many A-listers can actually claim to have been waterboarded as part of the deal? Yet here was Denzel Washington and his co-workers on Safe House, who all revealed in interviews how he refused a stunt double for the scene in which his character, former CIA agent Tobin Frost, gets tortured via a technique that was all the millennial rage among U.S. government leaders. It’s an intense sequence, one of the few in a movie that otherwise hits all the familiar marks as it hurtles toward the end credits. Still, a little professionalism can go, if not a long way, at least enough distance to make the ride a smooth one, and Safe House is nothing if not slick and steady. Frost tests the patience of a novice agent (Ryan Reynolds) as both men evade the usual band of nondescript ruffians who are in the employment of a traitor in the CIA. Honestly, why do scripters even make an effort to hide the identity until the end, when it’s apparent from the get-go who will be revealed as the villain? Given the perpetual obviousness in these films, they might as well include a character named Professor Plum, usually found brandishing a lead pipe in the conservatory, and be done with it.
There are no Blu-ray extras.
TREMORS (1990). Fans of such ‘50s sci-fi classics as Them! and Tarantula! (the latter reviewed here) should get a charge out of Tremors, which captures the structure and speed of those films better than just about any other attempted update in this field (e.g. the lamentable Eight Legged Freaks). Its appeal begins with the casting of Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward as Val and Earl, two of the 14 residents of Perfection, Arizona. Tired of working in the area as handymen, the pair decide to reduce the town population to 12 by leaving for greener pastures; instead, they find themselves stuck alongside the rest of the citizenry when giant worms living in the surrounding desert begin to munch on everything that moves. A visiting grad student (Finn Carter) provides minimal scientific exposition, while local survivalists Burt and Heather Gummer (Michael Gross and country star Reba McEntire in her film debut) provide the heavy artillery. The ‘50s template is overlaid with a healthy dose of lighthearted humor, and the special effects manage to impress. This was followed by six direct-to-video sequels (the earliest in 1996 and the most recent just last year).
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director Ron Underwood and writers Brent Maddock and S.S. Wilson; a new retrospective featurette; deleted scenes; and image galleries.
WEIRD WISCONSIN: THE BILL REBANE COLLECTION (1965-1988). Born Ito Rebane in Riga, Latvia, Bill Rebane has long been known among seasoned cineasts as a director and/or producer of roughly a dozen independent features, several of which have been profitable due to their low budgets (or should that be no budgets?). Still around today at the age of 87, Rebane has called Wisconsin home for the vast majority of the past 50 years, even establishing a movie studio there that was in operation for approximately 20 years. Of the 10 motion pictures directed by Rebane, six of them can be found in a new box set from Arrow Video.
The notoriety of 1965’s Monster a Go-Go (★) extends beyond just the usual dismissals as one of the worst films ever made, as bad-movie buffs place it in the same, uh, exalted pantheon of immortal atrocities like Plan 9 from Outer Space, Robot Monster and Manos: The Hands of Fate. Even the lads at Mystery Science Theater 3000 deemed it (in their Amazing Colossal Episode Guide) “officially the worst movie we ever did.” Watching it on MST3K is a treat, but the film on its own is so monumentally awful that couch potatoes will be able to provide their own wisecracks throughout the viewing experience. The story goes that, in 1961, Rebane shot his own sci-fi yarn (titled Terror at Half Day) until the money ran out, leaving behind an abandoned project. Enter the legendary Herschell Gordon Lewis (Blood Feast, The Gore Gore Girls), who scrapped some scenes, filmed a few new ones, and released the incoherent result in 1965 as Monster a Go-Go. The plot (as it were) centers on an astronaut who returns to Earth as a radioactive monster (played by 7-foot-plus actor Henry Hite in blotchy makeup) that terrorizes the Chicago area. Trivia note: Rebane has long stated that there was a possibility Ronald Reagan could have ended up starring in the picture, a move that, had it happened (although I call b.s.), might have kept him out of the White House due to sheer embarrassment. If only!
Four of the other pictures in this collection are nowhere near as infamous as Monster a Go-Go, but they are nearly as awful. The 1974 drama Invasion from Inner Earth (★) is a deadly-dull affair about Canadian pilots waiting for the end of the world; 1983’s The Demons of Ludlow (★) is a silly yarn about a piano haunted by an evil spirit; 1984’s The Game (★), aka The Cold, is an incomprehensible mess in which several clods try to overcome their fears for one million dollars; and 1988’s Twister’s Revenge! (★), about three rednecks matching wits against a talking monster truck, is so atrocious that it makes similar chase flicks like Cannonball Run II and Smokey and the Bandit Part 3 look as polished as The French Connection by comparison.
And then there’s the strange case of 1978’s The Alpha Incident (★★). Somehow, this movie manages not to be execrable. Certainly, the performances are uniformly poor (despite the presence of a “name” actor in Ralph Meeker) and the dialogue occasionally stinks on ice. But the premise, in which five people at a desolate train station are forced to quarantine once they come in contact with an otherworldly organism, is solid, the particular nature of the threat is inspired (don’t fall asleep!), the effects are pretty cool, and, despite borrowing freely from other films (particularly 1976’s big-budget, all-star thriller The Cassandra Crossing), the movie carves out its own identity.
The star ratings for the movies have been relegated to the main body, as they’re almost irrelevant to anyone interested in this set in the first place (in other words, those eager to purchase this are doubtless Rebane connoisseurs and know exactly what to expect). More important is the quality of the box set and its extra contents; in that regard, this Limited Edition Blu-ray collection from Arrow is a beaut. Housed in an eye-catching outer box, it contains restored versions of the six films, the feature-length documentary Who Is Bill Rebane?, a 60-page booklet, and a reversible poster. Extras include interviews with Rebane about all six movies; three shorts directed and/or produced by Rebane (1962’s Twist Craze, 1964’s Dance Craze, and 1973’s Kidnap-Extortion: Robbery by Phone); outtakes from some of the included films; the trailer for 1975’s The Giant Spider Invasion (perhaps Rebane’s most recognizable title, but not included in this set); and a still gallery.