View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray, 4K and DVD.
Omar Epps and Sanaa Lathan in Love & Basketball (Photo: Criterion)
[For those planning to watch past James Bond films before catching No Time to Die, now in theaters, 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.)
THE DAMNED (1969). The rise of Nazism is hovering around the edges of this Luchino Visconti epic until it forcefully takes center stage. In 1933, Joachim von Essenbeck (Albrecht Schoenhals) is the head of a steelworks factory, the patriarch of his family, and a critic of Adolf Hitler. Family members and acquaintances are jockeying to head the business even before Joaquim is murdered, and matters grow more sordid following his death. Herbert Thallman (Umberto Orsini), an anti-Nazi, is framed for the murder. Friedrich Bruckmann (Dirk Bogarde) is the actual killer, coerced by his lover Sophie (Ingrid Thulin) and the SS officer Aschenbach (Helmut Griem). Joachim’s bullying nephew Konstantin (Reinhard Kolldehoff) temporarily gains control. And hanging around is Joaquim’s twisted grandson Martin (Helmut Berger), who spends his time molesting little girls and eventually rapes his own mother. It’s clear Visconti is pitching this as a melodrama, but while this works in terms of the multitentacled plotting and lush interiors, it leaves something to be desired when it comes to the acting. The controlled villainy of Griem’s Aschenbach is more effective than the soap opera dalliances of Friedrich and Sophie, and while the character of Martin represents pure evil, Berger’s performance occasionally smacks of Dick Shawn’s L.S.D. from the previous year’s The Producers (reviewed here). Despite some illogical developments (the transformation of Konstantin’s sensitive son, played by Renaud Verley, makes little sense), this is intriguing enough to have earned Visconti and his co-scripters a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination.
Blu-ray extras include a 1970 interview with Visconti; archival interviews with Berger, Thulin, and co-star Charlotte Rampling; a 1969 behind-the-scenes piece; and the theatrical trailer.
FREE GUY (2021). Sporting a high-concept hook that works, Free Guy starts out stirring vague recollections of The Truman Show before jetting off in its own direction. Ryan Reynolds plays Guy, an affable bank teller who comes to learn that he’s merely an insignificant, non-player character in a violent video game called Free City. Refusing to settle for his lowly lot in life (or in code, as the case may be), Guy breaks free from his preordained programming and recasts himself as the hero, sharing adventures with the courageous Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer) along the way. But Molotov Girl is actually the avatar of Millie Rusk (also Comer), who with her friend Keys (Joe Keery) is trying to prove that their complex coding was stolen by arrogant developer Antwan Hovachelik (Taika Waititi). As is too often the case these days with big-budget Hollywood comedies, the purple prose employed to accentuate the humor is irksome overkill rather than anecdotal amusement, and the big-name cameos amount to little (an uncredited C-Tate works up a sweat providing minimal laughs). But there’s real imagination at work when it comes to the specifics of Free City, and it’s interesting to see how the real-world plot integrates with the in-game storyline. If nothing else, Free Guy contains what might remain the best movie quip of the year, when a mom (Tina Fey) laments to her gamer son that “you’re 22 and live at home. There is no God.”
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; deleted and extended scenes; and a gag reel.
THE LAST SUNSET (1961). Even with Robert Aldrich as director and Dalton Trumbo as screenwriter, The Last Sunset registers as a disappointment. The helmer of Kiss Me Deadly found it a difficult shoot (not least because of conflicts with star Kirk Douglas, whose company produced the film) while the writer of Roman Holiday was distracted by having to concurrently put the finishing touches on his script for the Christmas 1960 release Exodus (which, along with Douglas’ 1960 Spartacus, broke the Hollywood blacklist against Trumbo). The result is a sloppy, impersonal Western sporting one truly bizarre plot twist involving incest. Douglas is cast as Brendan O’Malley, a killer on the run from Sheriff Dana Stribling (Rock Hudson). O’Malley ends up at the Mexican ranch of his former sweetheart Belle (Dorothy Malone), who’s now wife to the older John Breckenridge (Joseph Cotten) and mother to the teenage Melissa (Carol Lynley). O’Malley is hired to help them with a cattle drive; Stribling catches up with the outlaw and, since he can’t arrest him until they’re back on U.S. soil, also decides to help get the herd across the border. The Last Sunset begins well but grows increasingly disjointed, with neither the aforementioned twist nor the climactic showdown making much sense when it comes to the actions of various characters. Neville Brand and Jack Elam, two of the era’s great screen heavies (catch them together in the excellent film noir Kansas City Confidential), are thoroughly wasted as two suspicious characters who join the cattle drive.
Blu-ray extras consist of film critic audio commentary; the theatrical trailer; and trailers for six other Westerns on the Kino label.
LOVE & BASKETBALL (2000). A good basketball movie and a great love story, Love & Basketball was written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, marking her feature debut in both capacities. The closest this picture gets to a gimmick is in dividing its sections into quarters via screen text; otherwise, this is no-frills filmmaking that covers a lot of territory in its 125 minutes. Monica Wright and Quincy McCall meet as neighbors when they’re both very young; as they grow up (and are eventually played by Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps), they discover their feisty friendship turning into genuine affection. But their love for each other runs second to their lifelong love for the game of basketball, as both head to USC with the expectation that they will eventually become professional ball players. It’s here where the movie becomes not so much a battle of the sexes as a battle against this country’s sexual inequality, as Quincy automatically finds opportunities here while Monica must travel to Europe if she wants to play b-ball in this pre-WNBA era. All throughout, Quincy must contend with a womanizing father (Dennis Haysbert) while Monica has to come to terms with her old-fashioned mother (Alfre Woodard). As sexy as it is smart, Love & Basketball is anchored by Lathan’s sensational turn.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary (from 2000) by Prince-Bythewood and Lathan; audio commentary (from 2000) by Prince-Bythewood, composer Terence Blanchard, and editor Terilyn A. Shropshire; a new making-of piece featuring Prince-Bythewood, Lathan, Epps, Woodward, and others; deleted scenes; and Prince-Bythewood’s early short films Stitches (1991) and Progress (1997).
MONA LISA (1986). Bob Hoskins delivers the performance of his career in Mona Lisa, a riveting drama that takes place in a particularly unsavory underworld. Hoskins stars as George, a small-timer who’s just been released from prison for nonviolent crimes committed while working for London mobster Denny Mortwell (Michael Caine, uncharacteristically evil). Denny assigns George to serve as chauffeur to a high-class prostitute named Simone (Cathy Tyson) — it’s meet-ugly rather than meet-cute, but their relationship turns unexpectedly complicated once they discover common ground in their lowly positions and outsider statuses. The more the fundamentally decent George is exposed to the world of sexual deviants and killer pimps, the more he becomes unnerved, but he nevertheless agrees to help Simone find her missing friend, a teenage streetwalker. The dialogue by Neil Jordan (who also directed) and David Leland is flavorful and fantastic, while Robbie Coltrane provides some welcome relief as George’s gentle giant friend (no, his name isn’t Lennie). Hoskins earned the Cannes Best Actor prize, the Golden Globe, the BAFTA, and the majority of the critics’ awards and doubtless would have won the Oscar had the Academy not idiotically ignored Paul Newman over the decades (the overdue superstar beat Hoskins for returning to The Hustler role of Fast Eddie Felson in The Color of Money). For his part, Caine won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his far more sensitive turn in the same year’s Hannah and Her Sisters.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary (from 1997) by Jordan and Hoskins; a new conversation with Jordan and Tyson; and an interview with Jordan and Hoskins at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival.
PARANORMAN (2012) / KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS (2016). In collaboration with Shout! Factory, the stop-motion animation studio Laika recently re-released 2009’s Coraline and 2014’s The Boxtrolls (both reviewed here) on Blu-ray and has followed suit with two more winners.
ParaNorman is for the kids as much as it’s for the adults, just not the littlest of kids. Instead, this PG-rated attraction is open season on any child who’s still afraid of the dark, so it’s best to keep this away from them and steer them back to Mickey Mouse Clubhouse for the umpteenth time. Everyone else, though, can expect a good time from this imaginatively designed and sharply scripted tale about young Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee), a sensitive boy who, like Haley Joel Osment’s Cole, sees dead people. This ability makes him the freak of his town (aptly named Blithe Hollow, a nod to both Noël Coward and Washington Irving), and only the equally lonely Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), the butt of endless fat jokes, wants to be his friend. But when Norman’s estranged uncle (John Goodman) warns him that Blithe Hollow will soon be destroyed by a centuries-old witch’s curse, it’s up to Norman and Neil — reluctantly accompanied by the school bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Norman’s shallow sister (Anna Kendrick), and Neil’s lunkhead brother (Casey Affleck) — to uncover the witch’s secret, fend off shuffling zombies, and prevent the panicky townspeople from obliterating their own community.
Like Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls before it, Kubo and the Two Strings also nabbed an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature, and then did them all one better by also becoming only the second animated film (after The Nightmare Before Christmas) to compete in the Best Visual Effects category. Certainly, it’s a visually striking picture, drawing much of its style from various Japanese modes of artistic expression, both ancient (origami) and modern (Miyazaki). Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) is a young boy who embarks on a journey to find the armor of the father he never knew. Accompanying him on his odyssey are an anthropomorphic monkey (Charlize Theron), a beetle warrior (Matthew McConaughey) with amnesia, and an origami samurai; standing in their way are insidious entities known as The Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) and The Sisters (Rooney Mara). This is the only Laika production where the length is felt, but even an occasional lull doesn’t dent the picture’s startling design and mystical aura.
Blu-ray extras on ParaNorman and Kubo and the Two Strings are similar in nature, as each includes audio commentary (by writer-director Chris Butler and co-director Sam Fell on ParaNorman, and director-producer Travis Knight on Kubo and the Two Strings); behind-the-scenes featurettes; a piece on the puppets; feature-length storyboards; and photo galleries.
Kubo and the Two Strings: ★★★
TEX AVERY SCREWBALL CLASSICS: VOLUME 3 (1942-1955). During his stint at MGM — the longest he stayed at any one studio — animation legend Tex Avery was responsible for a total of 65 animated shorts. The Warner Archive Collection released 19 of these beloved efforts in the first volume, 21 in the second, and now 20 in the third. (That leaves five no-shows; two of them, 1947’s Uncle Tom’s Cabaña and 1948’s Half-Pint Pygmy, are reportedly the most non-PC of all 65, which may explain their holding pattern. At any rate, each set comes with the disclaimer that it “is intended for the adult collector and may not be suitable for children.”) This collection includes five cartoons starring fan favorite (well, at least this fan) Droopy, three with Spike, and one with Screwy Squirrel. The set also contains two Oscar nominees for Best Animated Short: 1942’s Blitz Wolf and 1953’s Little Johnny Jet (the latter also included on the recent Warner Archive Blu-ray release of the 1953 James Stewart Western The Naked Spur, reviewed here). There are too many gems to single out, although I greatly enjoyed 1947’s ingenious King-Size Canary, the 1946 Droopy yarn Northwest Hounded Police, and the aforementioned Blitz Wolf, which pits The Three Pigs against a wolf resembling (as per the intro) “that (*!!★∼%) jerk Hitler.”
The sole Blu-ray extra is the 1941 Merrie Melodies entry The Crackpot Quail, one of the last cartoons Avery made at Warner before leaving for MGM. It features the original audio soundtrack, long unheard since it features the “offensive” raspberry sound rather than the whistle heard in all subsequent reissues.
VERA CRUZ (1954). This sturdy Western is set in the days after the end of the Civil War, when many Americans drifted to Mexico hoping to make some money as mercenaries in the skirmish between Emperor Maximilian and the revolutionary forces. One such man is Benjamin Trane (Gary Cooper); another is Joe Erin (Burt Lancaster). Deciding to offer their services to Maximilian (since his side of course pays better), the pair make an unlikely odd couple, given the gentlemanly Ben’s soft spot for women and horses and the boisterous Joe’s penchant for double-crosses. Tasked with guarding a gold shipment, the cowboys agree to throw in with a duplicitous countess (Denise Darcel) and steal the treasure for themselves, but Ben’s encounters with a peasant (Sarita Montiel) who supports the Juaristas makes him reconsider his options. There are no surprises in Cooper’s typically solid performance — unlike, say, John Wayne, Gregory Peck or Richard Widmark, he generally preferred his cowboys to be as pure as snow — but Lancaster’s wily work keeps audiences guessing as to whether he’ll ultimately prove to be an anti-hero or an out-and-out villain. Look for Charles Bronson, Ernest Borgnine, and Jack Elam as three of Joe’s henchmen.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by filmmaker Alex Cox (Straight to Hell); the Trailers from Hell segment with John Landis; the theatrical trailer; and trailers for other titles on the Kino label.