Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat poster art featuring Bruce Campbell and David Carradine (Photo: Lionsgate & Vestron Video)

(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.)

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Sophia Loren and Gregory Peck in Arabesque (Photo: Kino)

ARABESQUE (1966). As the previous year’s Best Actress Oscar winner for Two Women, it was Sophia Loren who announced the Best Actor nominees for the 1962 crop and subsequently handed Gregory Peck the statue for his work in To Kill a Mockingbird. As they left the stage, she asked, “Now when are we going to do a movie together?” They didn’t have to wait long, as director Stanley Donen brought them together a few years later for this adaptation of Gordon Cotler’s novel The Cypher. Donen had such success with 1963’s Charade, a lightweight spy flick starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, that he decided to make another picture in that vein. Peck plays David Pollock, an American hieroglyphics professor in London. He’s roped into a case of international intrigue when he’s forced by ruthless businessman Nejim Beshraavi (Alan Badel) to decipher a secret message. Understandably, Pollock prefers to spend his time flirting with Beshraavi’s beautiful mistress Yasmin (Loren, decked out in Christian Dior), but when matters become more heated and other interested parties appear on the scene, he must decide if she’s actually friend or foe. The plot is needlessly convoluted and the comedy occasionally veers toward unsightly silliness (the ‘60s-psychedlic scene in which Pollock sings and dances in the street after being shot full of truth serum is a cringer). But the stars enjoy tremendous chemistry, the London location shooting is lovely, the action sequences deliver the goods, and Henry Mancini’s Grammy-nominated score is flat-out terrific and arguably one of his best. Arabesque was Peck’s final box office hit for an entire decade, as he would star in seven consecutive flops (including The Stalking Moon, The Chairman, and Shoot Out, reviewed here, here, and here) before headlining the 1976 blockbuster The Omen (reviewed here).

Blu-ray extras include film historian audio commentary; an archival piece showing Mancini at work; and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ★★★

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Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation (Photo: Criterion)

BEASTS OF NO NATION (2015). Cary Joji Fukunaga, the Emmy Award-winning director of the excellent first season of HBO’s True Detective (and the helmer of the upcoming 007 film No Time to Die), serves as director, writer, producer, and cinematographer on this sobering adaptation of Uzodinma Iweala’s novel. Set in a West African nation, this looks at one of the many ways in which innocent children are caught in the web of war — in this case, it’s those unfortunate boys who are captured and trained to become child soldiers. Abraham Attah is Agu, a young lad happily living with his parents and siblings until the war reaches their village. The family is split up, some members are executed by the government troops, and Agu is forced to flee into the jungle. He’s eventually captured by the rebels, whose forceful leader, the Commandant (Idris Elba), determines that the boy should be trained to become a stone-cold killer. Initially, the Commandant appears to be a formidable military man in the manner of Patton, but as the story progresses, he’s revealed to be lecherous (he periodically rapes Agu and the other boy soldiers), spiteful, and self-absorbed. Beasts of No Nation pulls few punches, even if it never quite rises (artistically or emotionally) to the level of The Killing Fields or Hotel Rwanda. Elba’s excellent turn earned him SAG and Spirit Award victories and BAFTA and Golden Globe nominations; his no-show among the Oscar nominees largely spearheaded that year’s #OscarsSoWhite campaign (the second such protest in as many years).

Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by Fukunaga and first assistant director Jon Mallard; a new making-of featurette; a new conversation between Fukunaga and cultural commentator Franklin Leonard; a new interview with costume designer Jenny Eagan; and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ★★★

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Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh in Black Widow (Photo: Marvel)

BLACK WIDOW (2021). If there was a clear low point in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, it was the death of Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow. As superbly played by Scarlett Johansson, Natasha was the most complex and, in many ways, most mature of all MCU characters. Set in earlier times, Black Widow appears on the scene after its protagonist has already been killed off, giving the film an air of too little, too late; basically, it’s Marvel’s middle finger directed at all of the characters’ fans. Nevertheless, as its own entity, as a work removed from the politics of the studio and the overreach of the Avengers’ MCU entries, Black Widow is a satisfying movie, with director Cate Shortland and the trio of writers wisely allowing the superhero shenanigans to often take a back seat to the espionage components. In some ways, this feels like a good version of the 2018 Jennifer Lawrence vehicle Red Sparrow (reviewed here), as it’s far more intriguing and far less rapey. The storyline finds Natasha helping her estranged sister Yelena (Florence Pugh) take down a ruthless Russian (Ray Winstone), a mission that reunites the pair with the spies (Rachel Weisz and David Harbour) who once served as their ersatz parents. The movie contains the sort of outlandish — and, yes, exciting — action sequences found in all MCU product, but the focus isn’t fisticuffs as much as it’s family. The strained relationship between the pseudo-siblings provides the film with many of its best moments, due in no small part to the work by Johansson and Pugh. Ultimately, Black Widow provides for a decent sendoff, but given Marvel’s stellar reputation for mapping out every nanosecond of every MCU effort, there’s nevertheless the unshakable feeling that someone botched the timing on this one.

Blu-ray extras include an introduction by Shortland; deleted scenes; and a gag reel.

Movie: ★★★

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John Denver and George Burns in Oh, God! (Photo: Shout! Factory)

THE OH, GOD! COLLECTION (1977-1984). It’s no surprise that Mel Brooks was reportedly the first choice to play the role of God in Oh, God! (1977), considering that he and director Carl Reiner often worked together and were great friends in real life. That didn’t come to pass, but even as a gargantuan Brooks fan, I can’t imagine anyone playing the part of The Almighty better than George Burns. One of the 10 highest grossing films of its year, this finds singer-songwriter John Denver making his film debut as Jerry Landers, a sweet-natured supermarket manager who’s personally chosen by God to let everyone know that He is still around and still in business. Jerry’s wife (Teri Garr, basically playing the same disbelieving character she did in Close Encounters of the Third Kind later that year) thinks he might be going crazy, and she’s not the only one — also expressing doubt are a number of religious figures, including a slimy evangelist (Paul Sorvino) and a tight-lipped theologian (a few seconds of fourth-billed Donald Pleasence, obviously the victim of some massive pre-release cuts). The film’s success is due to its sincerity, eschewing the sort of tasteless and cynical jokes that such a project would naturally attract. It’s sweet without being cloying, and Burns’ Lord gets off some thoughtful passages as well as some amusing quips (“Cows were an afterthought. Just to give new mothers a little rest, you know.”). Working from Avery Corman’s novel, Larry Gelbart earned a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination for his efforts.

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Louanne and George Burns in Oh, God! Book II (Photo: Shout! Factory)

Oh, God! Book II (1980) is the laziest kind of sequel, with those involved with this production (tellingly, not Reiner, Gelbart or the original’s producer, Jerry Weintraub) choosing just to make a faded fax of the first film. It’s the same plot, except instead of a young man as God’s emissary and a climax set in a courtroom (where His authenticity is challenged), this settles on a little girl as God’s chosen one and a similar climax where He appears before a panel of psychiatrists. It’s all rather drab, although Louanne is likable as the little girl and God again gets off some notable zingers.

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George Burns and George Burns in Oh, God! You Devil (Photo: Shout! Factory)

Oh, God! You Devil (1984) takes a cute idea — Burns plays both God and Satan — and then surrounds it with a bad movie. Ted Wass, one of the unfortunate Peter Sellers replacements in The Pink Panther series (see review here), plays Bobby Shelton, a struggling singer-songwriter who unwittingly sells his soul to the devil in exchange for fame and fortune. Oddly, the film doesn’t give him his own career but turns him into another person, an already established rock star — it’s a narrative decision that not only makes little sense but also dilutes any forthcoming catharsis. At any rate, it’s up to God to save this sinner from his own mistakes. It’s fun to watch Burns vs. Burns in the trick-photography sequences, but that’s the only entertainment to be had in this dreary and dim-witted sequel.

Blu-ray extras include film critic audio commentary on all three titles; audio commentary on Oh, God! by Reiner, Gelbart, Garr, and Weintraub; and theatrical trailers. The best bonuses are an appearance by Burns as the devil on a 1956 episode of The Jack Benny Program, and portions of two 1977 episodes of The Johnny Carson Show, with Denver guest-hosting and chatting with guests Reiner, Burns, and Garr (Valerie Harper and Kenny Rogers can also be spotted).

Oh, God!: ★★★

Oh, God! Book II: ★★

Oh, God! You Devil: ★½

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Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption (Photo: Warner)

THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994). The most overrated movie of all time? Going by box office, that would be Avatar. Going by Oscar nominations, that would be Joker. And going by IMDb, that would be writer-director Frank Darabont’s adaptation of the Stephen King novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. Absurdly ranked as the best movie of all time by the site’s users, this dude-bro fave is neither the best King screen adaptation (there’s Carrie, for one) nor the best movie of its year (at least 20 were superior, including Pulp Fiction, Quiz Show, Hoop Dreams, and Little Women). Nevertheless, there’s much to enjoy in this period prison flick, starting with a fine performance by Tim Robbins and a superb one by Morgan Freeman. Robbins plays Andy Dufresne, a banker accused of murdering his wife and her lover (he maintains his innocence) and sent to Maine’s Shawshank State Prison. There, his beatific nature wins over practically everyone (the wag who once called this Forrest Gump Goes to Prison was not wrong), particularly a fellow inmate known as Red (Freeman). The first half is the stronger portion, as the second hour leans too heavily on convenient developments, increasingly one-dimensional villains, and a string of overly schematic final acts. The entire film is basically a fantasyland version of prison: For starters, aside from the handful of guys (“the Sisters”) who gang-rape Andy, the hundreds of other murderers, rapists, and thieves prove to be about as threatening as the Bowery Boys. Still, many individual scenes sparkle, and tech contributions (Roger Deakins’ camerawork, Thomas Newman’s music) are first-rate. This earned seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Actor (Freeman), Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, and Original Score.

Blu-ray extras in the 4K edition include audio commentary by Darabont; a retrospective piece; and storyboards.

Movie: ★★★

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Bruce Campbell and Deborah Foreman in Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat (Photo: Lionsgate & Vestron Video)

SUNDOWN: THE VAMPIRE IN RETREAT (1989). The 1980s proved to be the stomping ground of many an unusual and entertaining horror film, but you wouldn’t always know it from just scanning the marquees. While the multiplexes were clogged with Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street sequels, more interesting titles didn’t see the light of day until they appeared on VHS and managed to build up cult followings — these unique efforts include 1986’s Night of the Creeps, 1988’s Killer Klowns from Outer Space (reviewed here), and this vampire flick set (or at least filmed) in Utah. David Carradine stars as Count Mardulak, a vampire who had herded his fellow bloodsuckers to the dusty town of Purgatory in an effort to break their nasty necking habit. Because these vampires can walk around in daylight — albeit while always wearing sunglasses and the strongest sunblock available — Mardulak figures they can become even more human-like by only drinking synthetic blood produced at a local factory. When the facility breaks down, the human designer (Jim Metzler), with wife (Morgan Brittany) and daughters in tow, arrives to help out, unaware that his family will be caught in a war between Mardulak and a pair of vampires (John Ireland and Maxwell Caulfield) seeking to return to the violent old ways. Meanwhile, Robert Van Helsing (Bruce Campbell), the bumbling descendant of the famed vampire slayer, shows up with a plan to kill Mardulak, only to fall for a shapely young vampire (Deborah Foreman) instead. Writer-director Anthony Hickox and co-scripter John Burgess have crafted a lively and limber movie, foregoing any semblance of mean-spiritedness and instead relying on quirky characters and oddball humor.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Hickox and director of photography Levie Isaacks; interviews with Hickox, Carradine, and Campbell; and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ★★★

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James Spader and Keanu Reeves in The Watcher (Photo: Mill Creek)

THE WATCHER (2000) / THE SKELETON KEY (2005). Mill Creek Entertainment has released a double feature Blu-ray containing two thrillers from the aughts.

The Watcher stars James Spader as Jack Campbell, an FBI agent who’s haunted by the fact that he’s never been able to apprehend David Allen Griffin (Keanu Reeves), a psychopath who targets single women, studies their routines for weeks, and then strangles them with wire. Moving from Los Angeles to Chicago, Campbell figures he’ll never have to deal with his deranged nemesis again, but he’s wrong. Eager to keep their cat-and-mouse game going, Griffin follows Campbell to the Windy City and starts up again with the murders. Directed by Joe Charbanic (who has yet to helm another feature, making this a one-and-done), The Watcher is a poor thriller further tarnished by a miscast Reeves. Watching the actor portray a brilliant serial killer is akin to watching a month-old kitten try to navigate its way across a junkyard guarded by a half-dozen pit bulls — it ain’t a pretty sight. The visual effects in the climactic scene are spectacularly unconvincing, looking like the flames from a roaring fire were merely superimposed over the actor appearing in the scene.

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Kate Hudson in The Skeleton Key (Photo: Mill Creek)

The Skeleton Key finds Kate Hudson playing Caroline Ellis, a caretaker who’s hired to look after a stroke victim (John Hurt) residing in a creaky mansion in the middle of the Louisiana swamps. The patient’s wife (Gena Rowlands) views Caroline with suspicion, though she quickly earns the trust of the elderly couple’s lawyer (Peter Sarsgaard); at any rate, it’s not long before Caroline has to keep her guard up, as mysterious events suggest that a paranormal presence might be functioning within the house. The supernatural element extends beyond what’s taking place on the screen, as it appears that Rowlands, delivering a performance of high camp, has been possessed by What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?-era Bette Davis. While enjoyable, her overripe turn dilutes the story’s potency, while director Iain Softley has difficulty maintaining the proper degree of Gothic atmosphere that a spook story of this nature requires. Thankfully, the movie rights itself in time for a satisfying twist ending.

There are no extras.

The Watcher: ★½

The Skeleton Key: ★★½

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