View from the Couch: Major Dundee, Pickup on South Street, etc.
View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray and DVD.
View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray and DVD.
Charlton Heston in Major Dundee (Photo: Arrow)
(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.)
JUST A GIGOLO (1978). “Everybody who was involved in that film — when they meet each other now, they look away. Yes, it was one of those.” That’s a quote from David Bowie that’s included in the booklet that accompanies Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray release of Just a Gigolo. This screen oddity isn’t an out-and-out disaster, but it is a major disappointment considering all the talent involved. The fact that this was Bowie’s first film following his eye-catching debut in 1976’s The Man Who Fell to Earth is overshadowed by the news that this was screen legend Marlene Dietrich’s first film in 17 years and the final film of her lengthy, 55-year career. Bowie stars as Paul Ambrosius von Przygodski, a Prussian who returns to Berlin following a brief stint in World War I. Aimless and unfocused, he’s reunited with his commanding officer (David Hemmings, who also directed) from the war, although he’s slow to notice the man’s extreme right-wing views. Ultimately, Paul becomes one of the many gigolos in a smoothly run operation overseen by Baroness von Semering (Dietrich). Kim Novak and Sydne Rome portray women attracted to Paul, while Curd Jürgens (Stromberg in the 007 classic The Spy Who Loved Me) appears as an eccentric prince. Just a Gigolo is meant to play as a dark comedy with surreal touches, but lackluster writing and directing leave it operating only at a level of awkward embarrassment.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by assistant to the director Rory MacLean; a making-of piece with MacLean and scripter Joshua Sinclair (who co-wrote with Ennio De Concini); and the theatrical trailer. Also included is the aforementioned 32-page booklet with two informative and entertaining pieces.
MAJOR DUNDEE (1965). Sam Peckinpah’s third feature film was the first that would largely dictate the course of the rest of his career: a series of ambitious works that would often be undone by studio interference, his own crippling addictions, and no small measure of hubris. Trimmed by Peckinpah before its debut and further chopped down by Columbia after its underwhelming premiere, Major Dundee has had a rocky history, although recent decades have seen the film’s stature rising in leaps and bounds. Set during the Civil War, it stars Charlton Heston as Amos Dundee, a Union officer who assembles a team of Confederate prisoners as well as his own soldiers to hunt down the fierce Apache warrior Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate). Among those on the expedition are the greenhorn Lieutenant Graham (Jim Hutton), the savvy scout Samuel Potts (James Coburn), a proud black soldier named Aesop (Brock Peters), and Captain Tyreen (Richard Harris), a Confederate prisoner and Dundee’s former friend. The various conflicts between characters, cultures, and races drive the picture, and while there’s one late stretch (in the extended edition) that brings the film to a dead stop — it involves a wounded Dundee recuperating in a small room while being nursed by a beautiful Mexican (Begoña Palacios, who would become Peckinpah’s wife during the shoot) — it thankfully recuperates in time for a rousing finale.
Arrow Video has released Major Dundee as an action-packed two-disc limited edition Blu-ray also housing a 60-page booklet and a fold-out poster. The set contains both the 122-minute theatrical version and the 136-minute extended cut. Extras include film historian audio commentaries; a feature-length making-of documentary; deleted and extended scenes; and outtakes.
MIAMI VICE (2006) / THE KINGDOM (2007). Two movies starring Jamie Foxx have been released as a double feature Blu-ray on the Mill Creek Entertainment label.
Since his days as a guiding light on the trendsetting TV series Miami Vice (1984-1989), Michael Mann has revealed himself as a sober, serious filmmaker (Heat, The Insider), so it’s no surprise that his big-screen version bears little resemblance to its television counterpart. There’s very little in the way of fashion sense or MTV visuals, surface elements that made the show stand apart from the pack. Mann has instead elected to turn this Vice into something altogether leaner and meaner — if not necessarily tighter. The movie runs 132 minutes, and audiences expecting a zippy action flick will find this bo-o-o-ring indeed. Yet those who can tune into its wavelength will frequently find themselves fascinated by its beautifully composed shots, its startling bursts of violence, and its baffling narrative segues. As Crockett and Tubbs, Colin Farrell and Foxx bring the requisite attitude but little else.
For better or (mostly) worse, director Peter Berg has always been an American apologist at heart, which may explain why, after a fascinating title sequence illustrating the United States’ complicated ties to Saudi Arabia, The Kingdom quickly devolves into a standard us-against-them revenge flick. The film opens with a shocking sequence in which a base for American families in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, is destroyed by terrorists, thereby prompting a group of elite FBI agents to undergo a secret mission to find the culprits. The four agents (Foxx, Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman) are devoid of much in the way of personality, since their only purpose in this story is to kill Middle Easterners. Lots of them. The message of this 110-minute movie is revealed in its very last line, meaning it arrives about 100 minutes too late. Because of this lack of clear intent, the picture has no choice except to work as a visual and aural assault on our senses. In that respect, it somewhat succeeds.
There are no Blu-ray extras.
Miami Vice: ★★½
The Kingdom: ★★½
PARIAH (2011). In a deeply affecting performance, Adepero Oduye stars as Alike, a Brooklyn teen living with her parents (Kim Wayans and Charles Parnell) and little sister (Sahra Mellesse). Mom Audrey has an intense dislike for Alike’s best friend Laura (Pernell Walker), believing her to be a bad influence on her daughter. Of course, it doesn’t work that way: While Laura is indeed a lesbian, Alike’s homosexuality is uniquely her own, and she struggles to come out of her shell in order to find a meaningful relationship while also making sure not to anger or upset her parental units with the truth. Writer-director Dee Rees expanded on the short film she made as an NYU student in 2007, and it’s a feature-film debut that exudes confidence and intelligence in equal measure. In scenes in which Alike has to skirt issues with her well-meaning but misguided parents, or when she temporarily ditches Laura in order to hang out with a popular pretty girl (Aasha Davis), Rees makes sure we feel the tension and frustration inherent in every syllable and every pause — and, crucially, in every character (Parnell is particularly on target in conveying the torn emotions at the center of his father figure). Pariah has a raw, naturalistic feel to it, the sort that makes it seem like we’re watching something real and completely unscripted. That’s obviously not the case, but it really doesn’t matter: This is a movie that will doubtless speak to those who have endured similar hardships in their youth, and Rees’ message seems to be that, as Dan Savage often would say, it gets better.
Blu-ray extras consist of a discussion with Rees; a reunion with Rees and five cast members; a making-of piece; and an interview with author Kara Keeling (Queer Times, Black Futures).
PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET (1953). More a product of film noir grit than Cold War hysteria, this tough nugget from maverick director Samuel Fuller casts Richard Widmark as Skip McCoy, a professional pickpocket who lifts the wallet of a woman named Candy (Jean Peters, four years before becoming Mrs. Howard Hughes) on a packed NYC subway car. Tucked inside the wallet is a piece of government microfilm coveted by Communist spies, given to the unsuspecting Candy by her traitorous ex-boyfriend (Richard Kiley) to deliver to a third party. Hardly the model American patriot found in most pictures at the time, Skip is only too happy to sell the film to the Commies for the right price (a plot point that outraged FBI director J. Edgar Hoover). Rich in character and atmosphere, this bruising, brutal movie was a major-studio release but still manages to emanate waves of B-movie street cred at every juncture. Thelma Ritter delivers one of her best performances as Moe Williams, a weary underworld informant who nevertheless earns the sympathy and respect of those around her. Nothing short of phenomenal, she nabbed the fourth of her six Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actress (regrettably, she never won on any of her six tries).
Blu-ray extras consist of a 1989 interview with Fuller; a 1982 French TV program in which Fuller discusses this film; an interview with author Imogen Sara Smith (In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City); a 1954 radio adaptation starring Ritter; and trailers for various Fuller flicks. As always, this Criterion release comes with an accompanying booklet, and among the essays collected here is one by Martin Scorsese.
PUNK THE CAPITAL: BUILDING A SOUND MOVEMENT (2021). This insightful documentary examines the Washington, D.C. punk movement from 1976 through 1984, and what might surprise many casual viewers is the all-inclusive nature of the scene. These weren’t angry white punks like Britain’s Sex Pistols — instead, one of the most popular groups, Bad Brains, was an all-black band, and many punk performers of the era subscribed to the PMA (positive mental attitude) notion that had already been around for decades. One of the interviewees laments how the scene was later overrun by violent right-wing skinheads and white supremacists, but in these early years, the vibe was a positive one. Influenced by such punk bands as the Ramones, the D.C. musicians wanted to play faster, sing faster, and move faster, to the point that someone notes how these bands ended up “mak[ing] the Ramones look like they’re asleep.” Utilizing a sizable number of talking heads (including Henry Rollins in his pre-Black Flag / Rollins Band days with S.O.A.) and hauling out plenty of vintage clips (mostly of various bands performing), Punk the Capital shines the light on such bands as The Slickee Boys and Minor Threat and gives props to the music venue Nightclub 9:30 and the record label Dischord. Punk the Capital is not a comprehensive documentary by any means, but it will satisfy those looking for a primer and whet the appetites of anyone willing to dig deeper.
Blu-ray extras consist of four additional bits (totaling 50 minutes) centering on Void, Scream and The Hangmen, The Slickee Boys, and the WGTB benefit concert.
THE SIGNIFYIN’ WORKS OF MARLON RIGGS (1986-1995). My first exposure to Marlon Riggs was when his acclaimed 1989 documentary Tongues Untied was scheduled to appear on the PBS series P.O.V. in July 1991. But because this was the era in which such hateful, homophobic creatures as Pat Robertson, Donald Wildmon and Jesse Helms reigned supreme, the heads of many PBS outlets cowardly refused to air it; even just among the top 50 markets, it was banned in 17 of them. For the record, that included all three PBS stations (WTVI, WUNG and WNSC) serving the Charlotte area. To its credit, WTVI provided me with a videocassette screener of the movie so I could review it for my former home, the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. Revisiting it now, I have the same reaction as I had then. It’s often repetitive and doesn’t always reach as far as we might expect, but it’s also highly imaginative in its structure — it forsakes the usual talking heads in favor of a narrative mix of monologues, poems and songs. Tongues Untied examines the notion that, while growing up black in a white man’s world is difficult enough, growing up black and gay can be pure hell. Riggs gets his points across with the help of other artists as well as select clips (as when Eddie Murphy in a concert film states that “Faggots aren’t allowed to look at my ass while I’m on stage”).
Riggs ended up making seven films tackling topics of race and sex; ranging in length from nine minutes to 87 minutes, they’re all included in this Criterion box set. The first film in the collection is 1986’s Ethic Notions, a look at anti-black stereotypes throughout much of American history. A worthy middle entry is 1992’s Color Adjustment, a sobering look at how blacks have been portrayed on television over the decades. And the final film in the collection is 1995’s Black Is… Black Ain’t, completed by his friends and released after he had passed away from AIDS in 1994 at the age of 37.
Blu-ray extras include excerpts from a 1992 interview with Riggs; introductions by Riggs to Tongues Untied and Color Adjustment; Riggs’ 1981 graduate thesis film Long Train Running: The Story of the Oakland Blues; and the 1996 documentary I Shall Not Be Removed: The Life of Marlon Riggs.
STRIKE COMMANDO (1986) / STRIKE COMMANDO 2 (1988). Bad-movie buffs won’t want to miss this pair of Italian action flicks from director Bruno Mattei, the auteur behind such exploitation, sexploitation, nunsploitation and Nazisploitation efforts as Robowar, SS Girls, and The Other Hell (reviewed here).
Strike Commando is a rip-off of 1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part II, with Sergeant Mike Ransom (Reb Brown) determined to wipe out every Viet Cong guerilla, Russian soldier, and double-crossing American who ticks him off. Mike Ransom is played by Reb Brown, best known as the star of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 fave Space Mutiny (go here for MST3K episode rankings) and for portraying Captain America in a pair of 1979 TV movies. His incessant shouting while blasting away makes Rambo’s Sylvester Stallone seem as mute as that banjo-playing kid in Deliverance by comparison. It’s the sort of emoting that will warm the hearts of turkey aficionados everywhere.
Mike Ransom returns in Strike Commando 2; unfortunately, Reb Brown does not. He’s replaced in the role by drowsy Brent Huff, but never mind: What’s really amusing here is the presence of Richard Harris (also in Major Dundee, above). Before his career resurgence (The Field, Unforgiven, the first Dumbledore in the Harry Potter saga), Harris spent the 1980s appearing in awful films like the Bo Derek travesty Tarzan the Ape Man and an unsightly Mack the Knife overseen by, of all people, former Cannon gurus Golan & Globus. This one, believe it or not, is a rip-off of Raiders of the Lost Ark, complete with a female bar owner (Mary Stavin) drinking a burly fellow under the table before villains destroy her remote establishment.
Each movie (sold separately) contains both the theatrical version and an extended cut. Blu-ray extras on Strike Commando consist of an interview with screenwriter Claudio Fragasso; an interview with co-writer Rossella Drudi; an in-production promo; and the theatrical trailer. Blu-ray extras on Strike Commando 2 consist of an interview with Fragasso; an interview with Huff; and the theatrical trailer.
Strike Commando: ★½
Strike Commando 2: ★½
WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (1971). A box office bust that eventually developed a cult reputation before finally emerging as a popular favorite on home video, this adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel finds eccentric candy magnate Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder) taking five kids — Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum), Veruca Salt (Julie Dawn Cole), Violet Beauregarde (Denise Nickerson), Mike Teevee (Paris Themmen) and Augustus Gloop (Michael Bollner) — and their adult guardians on a tour through his confectionary-producing plant, exposing them to both sweet sensations and sour experiences. The pacing is often off (particularly in the early going), but where it reigns supreme is in its casting of the pivotal character of Willy Wonka — Johnny Depp was serviceable in the role in Tim Burton’s 2005 remake, but he’s no match for Wilder, who more believably hits all the required notes (anger, tenderness, and especially madness). This earned an Oscar nomination for Best Scoring Adaptation & Original Song Score; tunes include “Oompa Loompa” and “The Candy Man.”
Warner Bros. has reissued the film on its 50th anniversary by giving it the 4K treatment (an eye-opener, particularly during the scenes set inside the colorful candy factory). The only extra on the UHD is audio commentary by the five (now adult) Wonka kids; extras on the accompanying Blu-ray (all previously available) consist of the aforementioned commentary; a making-of piece; an interview with director Mel Stuart; two vintage featurettes; four sing-along songs; and the theatrical trailer.
Skip McCoy is my (anti)hero, and sits in the moral sweet spot between Kiss of Death’s Tommy Udo and Panic in the Streets’ Clinton Reed. All great Widmark performances, of course… but favourites do emerge. I envy Skip his classy digs and his beer cooler. Man, what a beautiful system.