View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray, 4K and DVD.
Samuel Le Bihan and Mark Dacascos in Brotherhood of the Wolf (Photo: Shout! Factory & StudioCanal)
(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray, 4K and DVD. Ratings are on a four-star scale.)
THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1970). After working for several years as a scripter (including a co-writing gig on Sergio Leone’s 1968 masterpiece Once Upon a Time in the West), Dario Argento made his directorial debut with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage — and quickly established himself as one of the premier practitioners of the giallo (Italian thrillers with a slasher film bent). A stylish murder-mystery that proved to be highly influential on other filmmakers (select Brian De Palma efforts owe as much to Argento as to Hitchcock), this stars Tony Musante as Sam Dalmas, an American writer residing in Rome with his girlfriend (Suzy Kendall). Late one night, Sam witnesses a savage attack in an art gallery; while the would-be victim (Eva Renzi) survives the attempted murder, Sam becomes obsessed with tracking down the assailant, who is most likely also responsible for several slayings in the area. Argento’s scripting isn’t always fluid, but he nevertheless manages to create a mystery that’s genuinely compelling, as well as concoct such memorable supporting characters as a stuttering pimp (Gildo Di Marco) who ends each sentence with “so long” and an eccentric artist (Mario Adorf) whose preferred cuisine involves cats. The offbeat score is by the incomparable Ennio Morricone, while the dazzling cinematography comes courtesy of three-time Oscar winner Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now).
Another week, another superb Limited Edition release from Arrow Video. This one finds The Bird with the Crystal Plumage making its 4K debut, and, as usual, there are goodies galore. The movie is accompanied by an essay booklet, a fold-out poster, and six postcards. Disc extras include audio commentary by author Troy Howarth (So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films); an interview with Argento; and a visual essay on Argento’s movies.
BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF (2001). Movies that adopt an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach are often maddening messes, but this French import (original title: Le pacte des loups) is reminiscent of countless other films and yet still manages to retain its own swagger of originality. With a first half that plays like Sleepy Hollow, a second half that begs comparison to From Hell, and elements of Jaws, The Last of the Mohicans, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Hammer’s Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter scattered throughout, this delirious if occasionally distant experience covers most bases and makes at least a cursory stab at the few it misses. In 18th century France, naturist/philosopher Grégoire de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan) and his Iroquois companion Mani (Mark Dacascos) are sent by the royal court to investigate a series of slayings in the countryside. The creature responsible is reportedly a monstrous wolf, but as the pair investigate, they discover that several of the locals may know more about the affair than they’re admitting. This one’s got plenty: martial arts, political intrigue, tender romance (between Le Bihan and Émilie Dequenne), steamy sex scenes (between Le Bihan and Monica Bellucci), one genuinely tragic death, a typical oddball role for Vincent Cassel, and a snapping, snarling, bloodthirsty beast (courtesy of both CGI and Jim Henson’s Creature Shop).
There have been various cuts of Brotherhood of the Wolf over the years; this Shout! Factory offering is the Director’s Cut, running approximately 10 minutes longer than the original theatrical version. The movie can be viewed with either the original French-language track or an English dub. Blu-ray extras consist of not one but two lengthy making-of pieces; deleted scenes; a look at the true-life tale that inspired the film; and the theatrical trailer.
CLAY PIGEONS (1998). The theme of the innocent man wrongly accused of murder has long been a filmmaker fave (start with Alfred Hitchcock for the most obvious examples), but Clay Pigeons adds a nifty twist by making its protagonist the patsy for numerous crazies, not just one. Joaquin Phoenix, long before he became one of our most affected actors, delivers a properly perplexed performance as Clay, a small-town Montana resident who’s having an affair with Amanda (Georgina Cates), the wife of his best friend Earl (Gregory Sporleder). As revenge, Earl fatally shoots himself and makes it appear as if he was murdered by Clay; rather than risk falsely being arrested, Clay hides the body, only to go through the same situation when a jealous Amanda kills Clay’s girlfriend (Nikki Arlyn) and implicates him in that slaying. On top of all this, a traveling yahoo named Lester Long (Vince Vaughn) arrives on the scene sporting a smile and a 10-gallon hat. Clay believes that Lester might be a serial killer, but a tenacious FBI agent (Janeane Garofalo) keeps her sights and suspicions firmly on Clay. It’s no surprise to learn that this marked the film debuts of screenwriter Matt Healy (his sole credit to date) and director David Dobkin (later of Shanghai Knights and Wedding Crashers): It has enough clever ideas to signal that it comes from the minds of unsullied filmmakers, yet it also contains enough silly gaffes to tag it as the work of inexperienced first-timers (don’t get me started on the massive coincidence involving a videocassette copy of Alien). Garofalo is a welcome presence, but playing twitchy crazies isn’t Vaughn’s strong suit, a point made crystal clear with the subsequent release of the same year’s abysmal Psycho remake with Vaughn as Norman Bates.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Dobkin and the theatrical trailer.
THE DEAD ZONE (1983). David Cronenberg’s adaptation of the Stephen King novel (with a script by Jeffrey Boam) ranks among the finest of all treatments involving the prolific writer, perhaps second only to Brian De Palma’s 1976 Carrie (and certainly well above dude-bro fave The Shawshank Redemption). Christopher Walken stars as Johnny Smith, a teacher involved in a vehicular accident that places him in a coma for five years. Upon awakening, he discovers that he is now blessed/cursed with a psychic power that allows him to “see” past, present and future events. Distraught that his fiancée (Brooke Adams) married someone else in the interim, Johnny keeps busy by helping a sheriff (Tom Skerritt) track down a serial killer. But a greater danger arises once Johnny grasps what will happen if Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), a charismatic but corrupt and demented politician adored for his rabble-rousing speeches (no comment), becomes U.S. President. Like select other films from Cronenberg, The Dead Zone grows deeper as it marinates in the mind, moving far past its initial hook (a good one) to ultimately emerge as a moving account of a man trying to get back on track after having his life stolen from him. That the movie works so well in this regard is due almost entirely to Walken’s tremendous performance.
Blu-ray extras in the new edition from Shout! Factory include four separate audio commentaries, one with director of photography Mark Irwin and the others with various film historians; a new interview with Adams; four making-of pieces (originally created for the 2006 DVD) with Cronenberg among the interviewees; the Trailers from Hell segment with Mick Garris; and a behind-the-scenes still gallery.
FLIGHT TO MARS (1951). The proliferation of ‘50s flicks set in outer space began in 1950 with Destination Moon and Rocketship X-M and continued right through 1959, which saw the releases of such efforts as The Angry Red Planet and The Three Stooges yarn Have Rocket, Will Travel. Among the first out of the gate was 1951’s Flight to Mars, an ambitious effort from the Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures. Although low-budget in practically every regard, the movie was filmed in color (a rarity, and perhaps even a first, for Monogram) and features some impressive visuals courtesy of production designer Ted Haworth (who would later win an Oscar for 1957’s Sayonara, reviewed here). Yet the movie is ultimately compromised by said lack of finances, a weak script, and artless, one-take direction by Lesley Selander (I especially like the Ed Wood moment when a guy takes a step back and loudly bumps into a chair). The story involves the efforts of five Earthlings to land on Mars; they succeed and are immediately befriended by the locals, who look just like us and speak perfect English. But the Martian leader Ikron (Morris Ankrum) secretly plots to steal the spaceship and invade Earth, meaning it’s up to the miniskirted Martian scientist Alita (Marguerite Chapman) to help save the day.
The Film Detective has put together a nifty package for this Blu-ray release. The accompanying booklet contains a solid essay by Don Stradley on Mars movies over the decades, while the best disc extra is a featurette on the history of Monogram Pictures and how producer Walter Mirisch transformed that lowly outfit into the prestigious Allied Artists before leaving to set up his own production company, one responsible for such classics as The Great Escape and In the Heat of the Night. Other extras consist of film historian audio commentary and a piece on the earliest outer-space movies.
A QUIET PLACE PART II (2021). Although a superior sequel, A Quiet Place Part II isn’t actually superior to its 2018 predecessor, which had a sense of freshness and discovery about it (read the review here). Yet there’s still plenty to admire about this intelligent and engrossing follow-up, which moves the action outside the Abbott house and in the process uncovers new terrors confronting the surviving members of this loving family. Writer-director John Krasinski, whose character of Lee Abbott was killed in the first film, injects himself into this new picture, but it’s not an act of M. Night Shyamalan narcissism. Krasinski’s Lee appears in an exciting prologue that showcases the aliens’ arrival on Earth, and the movie then picks up where A Quiet Place ended. Mom Evelyn (Emily Blunt), with deaf daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds), excitable son Marcus (Noah Jupe), and newborn baby in tow, journeys out into the world, eventually running into former family friend Emmett (Cillian Murphy). Emmett is reluctant to help, but his inner decency takes over and he proves to be a powerful ally. Meanwhile, the blind creatures who respond to sound are still blanketing the landscape, and a new threat arises with the introduction of murderous scavengers. The three-sided conflict (good guys, bad guys, and monsters) never fully materializes as in George Romero’s masterful Dawn of the Dead, but Krasinski expertly cuts between the dangers facing the various characters, and his actors (particularly Simmonds and Murphy) do a bang-up job.
Extras in the 4K + Blu-ray + Digital edition include behind-the-scenes material presented by Krasinski; a look at the visual effects and sound design; and a piece on the character of Regan. The film is also available alongside the original in the Blu-ray offering A Quiet Place 2-Movie Collection, which contains an assortment of bonus features for both pictures.
SHENANDOAH (1965). It wasn’t just 1915’s The Birth of a Nation (which was directly responsible for revitalizing the Ku Klux Klan; read the review here) that sold racism to a receptive American public, nor was it just 1939’s Gone with the Wind that romanticized the practice of owning slaves. Alas, Hollywood has a lengthy and shameful history of making Civil War movies in which the Southerners are the noble heroes and the Northerners the one-dimensional villains. On paper, Shenandoah sounds like more of the same, with a Virginia farmer trying to remain neutral during the conflict but getting drawn in after a Union outfit mistakenly takes his youngest son prisoner. Yet James Lee Barrett’s script, brought to vibrant life by director Andrew V. McLaglen, is anything but simplistic and one-sided. James Stewart is terrific as Charlie Anderson, a widower with six sons (including ones played by Glenn Corbett and Patrick Wayne, John’s son), a daughter (Rosemary Forsyth), and a daughter-in-law (Katharine Ross). Vehemently opposed to slavery, Charlie refuses to allow his sons to take part in the war until the capture of his youngest boy (Phillip Alford, Jem in 1962’s To Kill a Mockingbird) forces him to get involved. Yet this doesn’t turn into a pre-Rambo with Jimmy Stewart slaughtering Union soldiers left and right. Instead, there’s real complexity at work, with mishaps, misunderstandings, and moral bankruptcy to be found on both sides (indeed, the most heinous characters are three Confederate deserters partaking in rape and murder). Ultimately, the movie is not anti-North or anti-South but anti-war. George Kennedy, usually cast as brutish thugs during this period, offers a thoughtful portrayal of a war-weary Union officer.
Blu-ray extras include film historian audio commentary; the Super 8mm version of Shenandoah, titled The Defiant Virginian and running approximately nine minutes; and theatrical trailers.
SPIRAL (2021). Also known as Spiral: From the Book of Saw, this is the ninth entry in the Saw series that began back in 2004. Played by Tobin Bell, John Kramer (aka The Jigsaw Killer) died at the end of Saw III and appeared in flashback sequences in the next five films, marking this as the first picture in which he does not physically appear. But his influence remains strong, and in the same manner that some of the other sequels focused on his disciples, this one centers around a copycat killer who is using Jigsaw’s modus operandi to carry out his own imaginative murders. Chris Rock, flexing his dramatic muscles (while still allowing for some humor around the edges), plays Detective Zeke Banks, the son of retired and respected police chief Marcus Banks (Samuel L. Jackson). Ostracized by the rest of the department because he once turned in a corrupt cop, Zeke is no sooner assigned rookie William Schenk (Max Minghella) as his new partner than he takes the lead role in investigating the latest string of Jigsaw-inspired slayings. It soon becomes evident that the murderer is only targeting cops, leading Zeke to wonder if the perpetrator might have any connections to the department. A general rule in modern horror films is that if you don’t actually see a presumed victim bloodily slaughtered in front of the camera, then chances are he’s actually the killer (as one example, check out 1981’s My Bloody Valentine, reviewed here). That’s the case with Spiral, with the obviousness diluting the overall impact. Yet an easily identifiable villain isn’t the only problem with the movie, as a surprisingly strong opening stretch spirals downward into sheer silliness by the end.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director Darren Lynn Bousman, co-screenwriter Josh Stolberg, and composer Charlie Clouser; a making-of feature; and theatrical trailers.
WORKING GIRLS (1986). My cinematic blind spots are few and far between, but how did I manage to spend the past 35 years thinking that Working Girls was a documentary? Then again, perhaps my confusion over this movie (which I had never seen until now) is understandable: Director Lizzie Borden employed unknown performers in all the roles, and clips from the film certainly made it look like a nonfiction work. Borden’s exercise in cinéma vérité is set in a Manhattan brothel run by the persnickety Lucy (Ellen McElduff). The central character is Molly (Louise Smith), a Yale graduate and photographer who toils as a sex worker to pick up some extra dough. Over the course of the film, we watch as Molly and her fellow employees engage in various conversations with each other, attempt to balance work and home life, and satisfy the eccentric needs of their clientele — this includes the guy who wants Molly to pretend to be a blind virgin whose eyesight will only return after she has sex with him. The sweet Gina (Marusia Zach) gets along with everyone, while my favorite character, the cocksure (no pun intended) college student Dawn (Amanda Goodwin), doesn’t take guff from anyone, be it Lucy or a customer who plays too rough. Working Girls foregoes the usual stereotypical treatments of prostitutes in movies — don’t look for a serial killer slashing up these women, or any hookers with the proverbial heart of gold — and instead shows how their profession can basically be a clock-punching office job with crummy benefits but a coffeemaker in the kitchen.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary (from 2007) by Borden, Goodwin, and director of photography Judy Irola; a new conversation with Borden; a new conversation with Smith, Goodwin, producer Andi Gladstone, and assistant director Vicky Funari; and a new conversation with four sex workers.
Short And Sweet:
ALIAS JESSE JAMES (1959). Bob Hope stars in this Western comedy as hapless insurance salesman Milford Farnsworth, who unwittingly sells a life insurance policy to Jesse James (Wendell Corey). This naturally leads to all sorts of complications, including the inconvenience of Milford falling in love with the notorious outlaw’s girlfriend (Rhonda Fleming). This latter-day Hope offering doesn’t include as many laughs as his earlier hits, although it’s far better than the dismal duds he would headline throughout the 1960s. It’s no surprise that frequent Hope co-star Bing Crosby would make his obligatory cameo, but the large number of Western stars appearing briefly as their most famous characters is impressive and provides the picture with its best gag.
Blu-ray extras consist of the theatrical trailer and trailers for 13 other films on the Kino label, 10 starring Hope and three starring Fleming.
INVADERS OF THE LOST GOLD (1982). A shapely woman skinny-dips in a Filipino lake, shrieks loudly, and is suddenly dead … and viewers have absolutely no idea what killed her. Two members of the expedition get into a fight on a rope bridge, and after one of them falls to his death, everyone shrugs their shoulders and no one thinks twice about this murder. And so it goes with this absolutely awful action flick (also known under the title Horror Safari) about a group of adventurers seeking buried treasure in the Philippine jungles. The cast includes such familiar faces as Stuart Whitman (a one-time Best Actor Oscar nominee for playing a child molester in 1961’s The Mark), Harold Sakata (Oddjob in Goldfinger), Laura Gemser (Emmanuelle in approximately a dozen skin flicks), and reliable Woody Strode (Spartacus), but all fall victim to the gross incompetence that defines this disaster.
Blu-ray extras consist of an interview with director Alan Birkinshaw (also responsible for Cannon’s dreadful Ten Little Indians remake, reviewed here) and outtakes from Machete Maidens Unleashed, a 2010 documentary about the exploitation flicks shot in the Philippines.
MIRROR (1975). Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror (often called The Mirror) is clearly the filmmaker’s most personal work, but it might also be his most impenetrable, most incomprehensible, and most impressive. Indeed, more than one viewing is probably required to even begin to absorb all the major components of this nonlinear film about a dying poet (played by different actors at different stages) who reflects on his own life. Mixing color with black-and-white and newsreel footage with fictional frames, Tarkovsky has crafted a mood piece that’s packed with indelible imagery.
Blu-ray extras consist of the 2019 documentary Andrei Tarkovsky: A Cinema Prayer, directed by his son Andrei A. Tarkovsky; the 2021 documentary The Dream in the Mirror; a 2007 documentary about Mirror cinematographer Georgy Rerberg; a new interview with composer Eduard Artemyev; and archival interviews with Tarkovsky and his Mirror co-scripter Alexander Misharin.