Kurt Russell in Breakdown (Photo: Paramount)

[For those planning to watch past James Bond films before catching No Time to Die in theaters starting October 8, be sure to check out the ranking of all the 007 films from worst to best here.]

(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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Jack Palance in Alone in the Dark (Photo: Shout! Factory)

ALONE IN THE DARK (1982). No, this isn’t Uwe Boll’s Alone in the Dark, the 2005 video-game adaptation often considered one of the worst films of all time. Still, this Alone in the Dark only looks like a godsend when placed alongside Boll’s same-named turkey — on its own terms, it’s nothing special. It pains me to state that since 1) I briefly knew writer-director Jack Sholder when we were co-judges and co-presenters at the 2006 Asheville Film Festival, and 2) the cast is headed by three veteran actors who were never less than interesting. Jack Palance and Martin Landau respectively play Frank Hawkes and “Preacher,” two of the inmates at an experimental mental institute, while Donald Pleasence portrays Dr. Leo Bain, the asylum head who often seems as loony as his patients. After explaining to new hire Dr. Potter (The A-Team’s Dwight Schultz) how he considers all the inmates “voyagers” rather than mentally disturbed individuals, Bain does take time out to disclose that the most dangerous residents — Frank, Preacher, the towering child molester “Fatty” (Erland Van Lidth), and a serial killer known as The Bleeder (Phillip Clark) — are confined to the third floor, secured only by electric doors. The viewer’s first thought is, wouldn’t a power outage knock out the electricity and set the crazies free? Soon after, a power outage knocks out the electricity and sets the crazies free — yes, that’s the level of sloppy scripting seen throughout. As it proceeds, the movie less resembles John Carpenter’s Halloween and more resembles his Assault on Precinct 13, as the lunatics lay siege to Dr. Potter’s house. Pleasence is amusing, Palance is menacing, Landau is hammy, and the twist involving one of the psychopaths is both predictable and illogical.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Sholder; a new interview with Sholder; and an interview with members of the punk band The Sic F*cks (who perform as themselves in the film).

Movie: ★★

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Mel Gibson and Goldie Hawn in Bird on a Wire (Photo: Kino)

BIRD ON A WIRE (1990). Bird on a Wire isn’t a motion picture as much as it’s a package deal. Hold a meeting between the studio heads and the agents, cast two incredibly photogenic and extremely popular superstars, sign a few contracts, grab any shoddy script laying around, and then call it a day and wait for the money to roll in. And it did, as this $20 million production grossed $70 million stateside and $138 million globally. But, boy, is this one bird-brained movie. Mel Gibson and Goldie Hawn are the A++++-list actors involved — he’s cast as Rick Jarmin, who’s been in the witness relocation program for the past 15 years for fingering drug-dealing government agent Eugene Sorenson (David Carradine). Sorenson is now freshly out of prison and reunited with his partner-in-crime Albert Diggs (Bill Duke). Working as a mechanic, Rick is recognized by his former girlfriend Marianne Graves (Hawn), a hotshot lawyer who believed her old flame to be dead all these years. A corrupt FBI agent (Stephen Tobolowsky) places the revenge-minded Sorenson and Diggs on Rick’s trail, and Marianne is dragged along as Rick tries to stay one step ahead of the killers. Gibson’s character is frequently obnoxious, but the actor’s charm helps somewhat — Hawn, on the other hand, isn’t so lucky, as her supposedly smart lawyer is reduced to a screaming ninny almost immediately. The only performer to make an impression is Joan Severance, cast as veterinarian Rachel Varney. Rachel, another of Rick’s girlfriends from the past, is brainy, brave, sexy, and strong, and Severance is so confident in the role that it’s a shame she isn’t the female lead. This is the sort of movie in which jokes are built around Rick noting that “Mr. Wiggly” hasn’t had any action in five years, so proceed accordingly.

Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by director John Badham, producer-second unit director Rob Cohen and film historian Daniel Kremer, and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ★½

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Kurt Russell and J.T. Walsh in Breakdown (Photo: Paramount)

BREAKDOWN (1997). In this turbo-charged thriller from writer-director Jonathan Mostow, Kurt Russell and Kathleen Quinlan are Jeff and Amy Taylor, whose car breaks down on a remote stretch of highway surrounded by desert. A friendly truck driver (J.T. Walsh) offers them a lift to a nearby roadside diner; Amy accepts the ride in order to phone for help while Jeff remains with their vehicle. Once Jeff gets his car moving again, he heads to the eatery, only to discover that no one there has seen Amy. Increasingly disturbed by the fact that his wife has seemingly disappeared into thin air, he seeks help from the local authorities before crossing paths again with the trucker, who now denies ever meeting the couple. As far as movies involving missing lovers and long stretches of highway go, this may not be as potent as the remarkable 1988 Dutch treat The Vanishing, but it’s vastly superior to that film’s utterly daft 1993 Hollywood remake starring Jeff Bridges, Kiefer Sutherland, and a rising Sandra Bullock. Where Breakdown goes wrong is in playing its hand too soon; the film is at its strongest before everything is explained, and Mostow (who co-scripted with Sam Montgomery) could have milked the mystery for at least a couple more sweaty scenes. Where the picture primarily succeeds is in tapping into the chilling fear of a close friend or family member suddenly disappearing without a trace, with Russell embodying that fright through an appropriately anxious and intense performance. Walsh is particularly noteworthy as the story’s principal villain — a fine character actor, he passed away the following year at the age of 54, the victim of a heart attack.

Blu-ray extras on the latest Paramount Presents offering include audio commentary by Mostow and Russell; discussions with Mostow and Quinlan; an alternate opening; and an isolated track of Basil Poledouris’ score.

Movie: ★★★

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Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange (Photo: Warner)

A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971). Initially banned in several countries, Stanley Kubrick’s most notorious motion picture still has the power to shock audiences today. As clinical and cynical as the world it portrays, this adaptation of the novel by Anthony Burgess (with Kubrick handling script duty) finds Malcolm McDowell delivering a formidable performance as Alex, a teenage brute who leads his gang of punks (or “droogs,” as they’re called in this future world) on a series of rapes, beatings, and other criminal activities. After being captured, Alex is programmed by the state into rejecting violence, which leads to the story’s contention that free will shouldn’t be harnessed under any circumstance. Of the 11 movies that define Kubrick’s career (few count his first two pictures), this and The Shining routinely alternate as my least favorite of his filmography (I find little fault with the other nine, all 3-1/2 and 4-star efforts). There’s something problematic about Kubrick stacking the decks by all but embracing Alex not as a villain but as an anti-hero: charming when everyone else is crude, smart when everyone else is doltish, and often photographed as reverentially as Renée Falconetti in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 The Passion of Joan of Arc while almost everyone else is subjected to gross distortions through fish-eyed lenses. Still, the movie is technically dazzling to behold, and the ample food for thought extends to its sociopolitical points involving the intersection between left-wing and right-wing ideologies and extremities. The controversy and the mixed reception from critics didn’t prevent the film from becoming one of the 10 top grossers of 1971 and the recipient of four Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Film Editing.

Extras in the 4K + Blu-ray + Digital edition include audio commentary by McDowell and film historian Nick Redman; a pair of retrospective making-of pieces; and an interview with McDowell.

Movie: ★★★

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Steve Martin in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (Photo: Kino)

DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID (1982). What should have been a godsend for anyone who worships film noir (raising my hand here) proves instead to be a crushing disappointment. This is the weakest collaboration between director Carl Reiner and star Steve Martin, who had better luck with their previous picture, 1979’s The Jerk (reviewed here), and their subsequent efforts, 1983’s The Man with Two Brains (reviewed here) and 1984’s All of Me. Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is basically a one-gimmick movie where the gimmick is pretty good but can’t sustain a 90-minute feature. The plot finds Martin cast as Rigby Reardon, a private eye whose latest client (Rachel Ward) hires him to investigate the suspicious death of her scientist father. The gag is that Reiner has taken footage from nearly 20 vintage film noirs and, working in tandem with cinematographer Michael Chapman, editor Bud Molin, and other key crew members, integrated them into the framework of this movie. Thus, Reardon finds himself sharing a train compartment with a suspicious character played by Cary Grant (footage taken from Suspicion), or entering prison to get information from a convict portrayed by James Cagney (footage from White Heat), or frequently talking on the phone with a colleague played by Humphrey Bogart (footage from The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, and In a Lonely Place). Other “co-stars” include Bette Davis, Ingrid Bergman, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, and Vincent Price. The integration is expertly handled, but Reiner et al have placed so much attention on the gimmick that the main framework fails with its mix of flat jokes and colorless characters. For a far superior film that employs a similar gimmick of interspersing old and new footage, check out Woody Allen’s 1983 Zelig.

Blu-ray extras consist of film historian audio commentary; radio and TV spots; the theatrical trailer; and trailers for other Kino titles.

Movie: ★★

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Vin Diesel in F9 (Photo: Universal)

F9 (2021). It’s proving to be particularly irksome that Universal Pictures didn’t snatch up my suggested title for the ninth entry in their deathless The Fast and the Furious franchise. The moniker F9 is especially dreary when compared to my, ahem, brilliant idea of So Nine, So Fine, So Furious, and with even just a commission of .0001% from the series profits to date, I could have spent the rest of my days in the lifestyle to which I have yet to become accustomed. Alas, ‘twas not meant to be, which means that instead of owning beachfront property, I’ll have to continue wasting time covering mediocre movies like F9. The idling nature of the franchise starts with Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) yammering for the zillionth time about the importance of “family” yet never having bothered to mention to anyone that — surprise! — he and his sister Mia (Jordana Brewster, long the series’ fifth wheel) have a brother. That would be Jakob (John Cena), who reenters his siblings’ lives by forming an uneasy alliance with their sworn enemy, the murderous Cypher (returning — and wasted — Charlize Theron). Comic-relief characters Roman and Tej are of course on hand, portrayed as always by Tyrese Gibson and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges. In a sign of the franchise’s fevered desire to keep topping itself by all moronic means necessary, Roman and Tej at one point climb into a “rocket car” and are sent on a mission into outer space. “Ludacris,” indeed. Word is that Universal plans to make two more F&F installments before calling it quits. But with this franchise relying more than ever on the same tired character beats, the same recycled car stunts, and ever more nonsensical plot developments, it’s clear that this is one series that’s already running on fumes.

The 4K + Blu-ray + Digital edition contains both the theatrical version and the director’s cut. Extras include audio commentary by writer-director Justin Lin; a making-of featurette; and a gag reel.

Movie: ★★

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Michael Sheen and Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon (Photo: Mill Creek)

FROST/NIXON (2008). If all high school history classes were as grandly entertaining as the historical works penned by Peter Morgan, no student would ever again be caught slumbering in his seat. Morgan, who also wrote 2006’s The Queen and is the creator and primary writer of Netflix’s The Crown, here adapts his own play, and together he and director Ron Howard open it up so that the end result feels much more vibrant than merely a constricted stage piece plunked down in front of a camera. Blessed by an exquisite cast, the two men keep the wheels turning, offering a propulsive look at the most widely loathed U.S. president until George W. Bush and then Donald Trump stumbled into sight. Set after the Watergate scandal and Richard Nixon’s subsequent resignation, the picture concerns itself with the attempts of Nixon (Frank Langella) to rise Phoenix-like from the ashes of political irrelevance by holding a series of one-on-one television interviews with British TV host David Frost (Michael Sheen). Backed by his right-hand man (Kevin Bacon) and his agent (Toby Jones as Swifty Lazar), Nixon believes that he can easily exert control over a show biz personality. He may be right: Even though he has a crack team (Matthew Macfadyen, Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell) working for him, Frost initially has trouble keeping up with his mentally agile interviewee. Several actors have played Tricky Dick on film (Anthony Hopkins among them), but Langella bests them all with a riveting portrayal that goes beyond mimicry. He depicts the former president as a haunted man struggling to salvage his legacy, a scrappy fighter who refuses to yield even a square inch to his challengers. This earned five Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Actor (Langella), Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Film Editing.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Howard; a making-of featurette; deleted scenes; and footage from the actual interview.

Movie: ★★★½

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DeWayne Warren and Keanu Reeves in Hardball (Photo: Paramount)

HARDBALL (2001). In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Hollywood studios saw fit to remove potentially offensive movies from their upcoming schedules and hold them for 2002 release. One such film was the forgettable Arnold Schwarzenegger actioner Collateral Damage (originally scheduled for an October 5 release), which featured a bombing on American soil that was carried out by foreign extremists. Another was the poor Tim Allen comedy Big Trouble (originally scheduled for September 21), with a climax that involved a bomb planted on an airplane. (Personal aside: The screening for Big Trouble was held the morning of 9/11, soon after the attendant critics had all heard about the tragedy; that remains the most miserable viewing experience of my lifetime, and obviously not just because of the POS film unfolding before us.) Other pictures stayed put, including the dopey thriller The Glass House (September 14), Mariah Casey’s musical megabomb Glitter (September 21), and the sports film Hardball (September 14). The release of Hardball (which opened #1 at the weekend box office) made the most sense, since, despite its harsh interludes (including the shocking death of a likable character), it’s a film full of hope, empathy, and understanding — all good qualities to exhibit even without the backdrop of a national catastrophe. At heart, though, it’s still an underdog sports flick of the sort we’ve seen countless times, with Keanu Reeves cast as a compulsive gambler who reluctantly finds himself coaching a baseball team made up of struggling inner-city kids. That’s 14-year-old Michael B. Jordan as Jamal, one of the team’s players.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director Brian Robbins (who was just named president and CEO of Paramount Pictures earlier this month) and writer John Gatins; a making-of featurette; deleted scenes; and the music video for “Hardball” by Lil’ Bow Wow, Lil’ Wayne, Lil’ Zane, and Sammie.

Movie: ★★½

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Pat Suzuki in Skullduggery (Photo: Kino)

SKULLDUGGERY (1970). “I am not an animal! I am a human being!” This line from David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (reviewed here) could also apply to Skullduggery, although the distance in quality between the two pictures is roughly on par with the distance between Earth and Saturn. This adaptation of the novel by Vercors (a pseudonym for Jean Bruller) is a dreadful movie that does very little right. Burt Reynolds, yet to explode as a superstar, and Roger C. Carmel, Star Trek’s Harry Mudd, play Temple and Kreps, fortune seekers who know that there’s gold (actually, phosphorous) in them thar Papua New Guinea hills and jungles. They join an archaeological expedition headed by Dr. Sybil Greame (Susan Clark) and financed by the shady Vancruysen (Paul Hubschmid) — they find their phosphorous, Dr. Greame finds some dusty skulls, and all of them find a lost tribe of hirsute creatures they dub Tropis. Initially a lighthearted romp, the film turns serious once Vancruysen decides to breed the Tropis as slaves and the question arises as to whether these gentle beings should be classified as humans or animals. Apparently, it doesn’t matter to Kreps, who falls for one he calls Topazia (Pat Suzuki) and proceeds to impregnate her. The baby is stillborn, which allows Temple to claim he murdered it so that a court trial can determine the classification (i.e. whether he killed an animal or another person). Yes, it’s as stupid as it sounds. There’s little consistency in characterizations throughout the picture: Temple and Dr. Greame go from antagonists to lovers to antagonists to lovers, etc., to a maddening degree, and Temple is initially for Tropi slave labor until he’s suddenly against it. A pre-Blacula William Marshall adds the only dignity to the preposterous shenanigans as a skilled attorney general.

Blu-ray extras consist of film historian audio commentary and theatrical trailers.

Movie: ★

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Donna Summer as seen in The Soul of The Midnight Special (Photo: Time Life)

THE SOUL OF THE MIDNIGHT SPECIAL (2021). From ABBA to AC/DC, from Bowie to The Beach Boys, and from Hall & Oates to Peaches & Herb, there was no shortage of musical guests for The Midnight Special, a late-night offering that ran on NBC from 1972 to 1981. Conceived by producer Burt Sugarman as a much more enjoyable alternative to the test patterns that graced after-hours TV screens, the show featured the industry’s top singers and bands (plus the likes of Richard Pryor and Steve Martin providing occasional comic relief) performing their hit tunes live in front of the studio audience. Previously, the Time Life label offered a 5-disc DVD set comprised of numbers from the era’s soul stars who appeared on the show, an assemblage of 73 performances from episodes that aired from 1973 through 1976. In this compilation, there are 132 performances spread over 10 discs, with the footage covering practically the entire span of the series. (Time Life also offers a deluxe edition that showcases 262 performances on 18 DVDs.) As expected, most of the participants choose to play their biggest hits — among the ample gems are Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say,” Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Shining Star,” Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” Wilson Picket’s “In the Midnight Hour,” Sly & the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” and Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love.”

Extras in the DVD set consist of 18 separate interviews with various stars, including Patti LaBelle, James Brown, Gladys Knight, Lou Rawls, and Sugarman himself. The collection also includes a bonus DVD that features a 1974 Marvin Gaye concert filmed exclusively for The Midnight Special. There’s also a 40-page collector’s booklet to sweeten the deal.

Collection: ★★★½

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