Hobbits and humans and orcs, oh my! (Photo: Warner)

(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.)

Charles Bronson in Breakheart Pass (Photo: Kino & MGM)

BREAKHEART PASS (1975). For four consecutive years (1973-1976), Charles Bronson landed on Quigley’s annual poll of the Top 10 Moneymaking Stars (chosen by movie theater owners and based on which stars they felt drove people into auditoriums). His peak position was #4 in 1975, the year he headlined Breakout, Hard Times and this exciting adaptation of the bestselling novel by Alistair MacLean (The Guns of Navarone, reviewed here last week). MacLean himself wrote the script, which showcases the author’s usual predisposition toward meaty plots that take off in various directions. Set mostly aboard a train barreling across the Old West, this casts Bronson as John Deakin, a wanted criminal who’s not exactly what he seems. Arrested by a U.S. Marshal (Ben Johnson), they’re both aboard a train whose other passengers include a silky governor (Richard Crenna), his good-hearted girlfriend (Jill Ireland, Bronson’s real-life wife), an army colonel (Ed Lauter), a burly cook (former boxing champ Archie Moore), a railway rep (Charles Durning) and a minister (Bill McKinney). In true Ten Little Indians fashion, passengers and crew members start getting bumped off — would the deaths have anything to do with the train’s mysterious cargo, or with the intended destination of an army outpost currently under quarantine? Breakheart Pass is crackerjack entertainment, effectively combining action and intrigue while also offering Lauter (a great ’70s character actor) one of his best roles. This was also the final screen credit for the legendary stuntman, stunt coordinator and second unit director Yakima Canutt, whose magnificent resume also included the likes of Stagecoach, Gone with the Wind and Ben-Hur.

Blu-ray extras consist of film historian audio commentary; the theatrical trailer; and trailers of other Bronson titles available on the Kino label.

Movie: ★★★½

Charles Bronson in Chato’s Land (Photo: Kino & MGM)

CHATO’S LAND (1972). Clint Eastwood is known for playing taciturn characters, but his Man with No Name and his Inspector Harry Callahan seem as wordy as Rex Harrison’s Henry Higgins when compared to some of the parts tackled by fellow tough guy Charles Bronson. Bronson’s titular figure in Chato’s Land is one such role — had the actor been paid by the word, he would have earned even less than the extras. Yet it’s his actions, not his vocabulary, that spark this brutal Western whose revenge angle almost makes the one in The Revenant seem as inconsequential as a typical one-upmanship tiff between Archie Andrews and Reggie Mantle. Bronson’s Pardon Chato is a half-Apache who doesn’t suffer fools — or racist sheriffs — gladly, as witnessed in the opening scene when he kills a heinous lawman in self-defense. But the white townspeople aren’t about to see his side, and so he heads for the hills, even as a posse is being formed to go after him. Leading the mob is the refined Quincey Whitmore (an interesting performance by Jack Palance), a former Confederate officer who believes in civility and taking care of matters in a proper manner. This is the exact opposite of some of the lowlifes under his command, particularly the vicious and ignorant Hooker brothers (Simon Oakland, Ralph Waite and Richard Jordan). Initially, Chato merely toys with the hunters and gives them plenty of opportunities to turn around with their lives still intact — that all changes, though, once rape and murder enter the picture. The ways in which Chato settles the score are imaginative (rattlesnake!), but even more intriguing is the dynamic between the various vigilantes and how they need to fear each other more than they do Chato.

Blu-ray extras consist of film historian audio commentary; an interview with screenwriter Gerald Wilson; the theatrical trailer; and trailers for other Bronson films on Kino.

Movie: ★★★

Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt in Jungle Cruise (Photo: Disney)

JUNGLE CRUISE (2021). Between Pirates of the Caribbean, The Haunted Mansion, and The Country Bears (to name but three), Disney seems determined to turn every last one of its theme park attractions into major motion pictures. Jungle Cruise is the latest project in this vein, and it turns out exactly as you would expect: appealing actors, expensive CGI, a prefabricated story that hits all the expected beats, and an opening for more movies and possibly more merchandise. As far as these things go, this one isn’t half-bad, and that’s almost entirely due to the presence of Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt. Blunt stars as Dr. Lily Houghton, an early-20th-century scientist who, with dandified brother (Jack Whitehall) in tow, heads to the Amazon to search for The Tree of Life. Upon arrival, she hires shady skipper Frank Wolff (Johnson) to serve as her guide, not realizing he has a hidden agenda. Her quest also gets interrupted by not only an eccentric German prince (an amusing Jesse Plemmons) but also by Spanish conquistadors who have been resurrected after four centuries. The plot twist involving Frank initially weakens the dynamic between him and Lily, and the protracted climax is more exhausting than exciting. But Johnson is suited to playing such a garrulous and agreeable fellow, while Blunt again reveals that she has both the impeccable timing and the loose-limbed physicality of an ace comedienne.

The Blu-ray edition offers the opportunity to watch the film in Expedition Mode (aka pop-up trivia and Easter eggs). Extras include a making-of featurette; deleted scenes; a piece on the on-set friendship between Johnson and Blunt; and outtakes.

Movie: ★★½

Anthony Quinn and Giulietta Masina in La Strada (Photo: Criterion)

LA STRADA (1954). After several years of presenting the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar as a special award (early winners included Vittoria De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon), the Academy finally made it a regular category, complete with five nominees. So it’s only fitting that one of the artists who would eventually be recognized as a giant on the international film scene was the first recipient under this greater acceptance of world cinema. Federico Fellini’s winning picture was La Strada, a moving tale about a circus strongman named Zampano (Anthony Quinn) and the simple-minded woman (Giulietta Masina, Fellini’s wife of 50 years) who serves as his assistant, traveling companion, and lover of convenience. Zampano generally treats her poorly, which is in contrast to the high-wire artist (Richard Basehart) who’s cordial toward her even as he cruelly taunts the strongman at every turn. Less weighty than many of Fellini’s subsequent pictures, La Strada is a fairly straightforward movie whose poignancy is accentuated by Masina’s delicate performance, Nino Rota’s exquisite score, and the subtleties in the Oscar-nominated original screenplay. The very next year, Fellini would again take the foreign flick category, this time with Nights of Cabiria.

In addition to the original Italian soundtrack, the new Blu-ray release from Criterion also offers an alternate English-dubbed soundtrack, with Quinn and Basehart providing the voices for their characters. Extras consist of audio commentary (from 2003) by author Peter Bondanella (The Cinema of Federico Fellini); an introduction (also from 2003) by Martin Scorsese; and two hour-long documentaries, 2000’s Federico Fellini’s Autobiography and 2004’s Giulietta Masina: The Power of a Smile.

Movie: ★★★½

Christopher Lee as Saruman in The Lord of the Rings (Photo: Warner)

MIDDLE-EARTH ULTIMATE COLLECTOR’S EDITION (2001-2014). Separately or collectively, Peter Jackson’s six films based on the scribblings of J.R.R. Tolkien have been released on Blu-ray and/or 4K on over 40 occasions. All have been spectacular editions, but for many fans, this umpteenth time might be the real charm, as it’s the first time all six movies have been gathered in one set in 4K presentations (they’ve been previously available together on Blu-ray).

The films themselves need no introduction, nor do the cast members famed for their iconic portrayals (among them Ian McKellen as Gandalf, Elijah Wood as Frodo, Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn, Christopher Lee as Saruman, and, of course, Andy Serkis as Gollum). The initial The Lord of the Rings trilogy was particularly potent, with The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The Two Towers (2002) and The Return of the King (2003) combining to gross almost three billion dollars at the global box office. The trio received a total of 30 Academy Award nominations, with Fellowship winning four out of 13, Towers nabbing two out of six, and King scoring an absurd 11 out of 11, including Best Picture (as with Titanic, also the winner of 11 statues, Academy members had suddenly turned into fanboys and fangirls). The Hobbit trilogy — An Unexpected Journey (2012), The Desolation of Smaug (2013), and The Battle of the Five Armies (2014) — also fared nicely, maybe not with the Academy (0-for-7) but certainly with audiences (like LOTR, its worldwide gross was just shy of three billion bucks).

Andy Serkis as Gollum and Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit (Photo: Warner)

The Middle-Earth Ultimate Collector’s Edition from Warner Bros. Home Entertainment contains within its display packaging a total of 31 discs, a 64-page booklet of production notes and photos, and seven art cards. Both the theatrical and extended versions of each film are offered here in stunning 4K, newly remastered Blu-ray, and via digital code. Please note, however, that this edition is more for fans who are primarily interested in the movies and can live without an avalanche of bonus features. In other words, all those zillion hours of extra material found in previous Blu-ray editions are MIA here, with the bonus material comparatively scant. Extras include audio commentaries; Jackson’s original Cannes Film Festival presentation reel; and footage from the recent Alamo Drafthouse 20th anniversary reunion, featuring Jackson, McKellen, Wood, Mortensen, Serkis, Orlando Bloom, Sean Astin, Cate Blanchett, Liv Tyler, Billy Boyd, and Dominic Monaghan.

The Lord of the Rings:

The Fellowship of the Ring: ★★★½

The Two Towers: ★★★

The Return of the King: ★★★½

The Hobbit:

An Unexpected Journey: ★★★

The Desolation of Smaug: ★★★

The Battle of the Five Armies: ★★★

C. Thomas Howell and Ralph Macchio in The Outsiders (Photo: Warner)

THE OUTSIDERS: THE COMPLETE NOVEL (1983). The story goes that Francis Ford Coppola received a letter from a school librarian requesting that he make a film version of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, the popular novel about street-smart kids scraping by in 1960s Tulsa, Oklahoma. Moved by the missive (which was signed by 110 students), Coppola not only made the picture (working from a script by Kathleen Knutsen Rowell) but followed it up that same year with Rumble Fish, another Hinton adaptation. Shortened by the studio upon its original release, The Outsiders was later subject to the usual Coppola tinkering (see also Apocalypse Now and The Cotton Club, among others), with the filmmaker revisiting the picture in 2005, adding enough material to expand the running time from 92 minutes to 115 minutes, and dubbing this cut The Outsiders: The Complete Novel. What particularly sells this pensive if occasionally overwrought melodrama is the amazing collection of then-rising stars: Matt Dillon (the only actor already somewhat established, thanks to credits like Over the Edge and Tex), C. Thomas Howell, Ralph Macchio, Diane Lane, Rob Lowe, Patrick Swayze, Emilio Estevez, and Tom Cruise. On the technical side, the stylish cinematography by Stephen H. Burum (The Untouchables) is a particular asset.

The 4K Ultra HD + Digital Code version contains both the original theatrical cut of the film as well as The Complete Novel. Extras include audio commentary (from 2005) by Coppola; audio commentary (from 2005) by all eight principal actors except Cruise and Estevez; a new introduction by Coppola; a retrospective making-of piece; deleted scenes; and a discussion with Burum.

Movie: ★★★

James Cagney in Ragtime (Photo: Paramount)

RAGTIME (1981). E.L. Doctorow’s novel was the basis for director Milos Forman’s richly textured film set in New York at the start of the 20th century. The movie follows various storylines, the most prominent being the efforts of a proud and ambitious black man, Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Howard Rollins), to find justice in a racist country after his car gets vandalized by several firemen. Also racking up ample screen time is the saga of flighty chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit (Elizabeth McGovern) as well as the tense relationships between the members of an upper-class family (James Olsen as Father, Mary Steenburgen as Mother, and Brad Dourif as Younger Brother). Although often episodic in nature, the picture manages to successfully link its various looks at a growing nation too giddy to address its mounting sins and scandals. After a 20-year hiatus following 1961’s One, Two, Three (reviewed here), James Cagney returned to the big screen one final time to portray Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo. Lots of rising actors appear in small parts, including Jeff Daniels, Samuel L. Jackson, and Fran Drescher. Ragtime nabbed a generous eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Supporting Actor (Rollins), Best Supporting Actress (McGovern), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Michael Weller).

Billed as “Blu-ray releases for collectors and fans,” the Paramount Presents series won’t disappoint the faithful with its latest offering. The two-disc set for Ragtime not only contains the theatrical cut of the film but also the newly discovered workprint, an early (and often unpolished) version that runs three hours (the theatrical stands at 155 minutes). Extras consist of audio commentary by Forman and executive producer Michael Hausman; a retrospective making-of piece; a conversation with Weller; and deleted scenes.

Movie: ★★★½

Shirley MacLaine, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin in Some Came Running (Photo: Warner Archive)

SOME CAME RUNNING (1958). Five years after resurrecting his career via his Oscar-winning supporting performance in From Here to Eternity, Frank Sinatra happily agreed to appear in another motion picture based on a novel by James Jones. Sinatra’s the lead in this one, and, like most other aspects of the film, he’s nothing short of excellent. A searing indictment of small-town hypocrisy, this centers on the developments that occur when army veteran Dave Hirsch (Sinatra) reluctantly returns to his Indiana hometown after 16 years away. His older brother Frank (Arthur Kennedy), the one responsible for his departure, isn’t thrilled by the visit but tries to make the best of it. A blocked writer, Dave falls for a prim and proper schoolteacher (Martha Hyer) who has more feelings for his work than for him — that’s a far cry from Ginnie (Shirley MacLaine), a party girl of low standing and minimal education who’s infatuated with Dave. When he’s not involved in romantic entanglements, Dave spends his time with Bama Dillert (Dean Martin), a gambler who shares his friend’s penchant for women, booze and cards. Director Vincente Minnelli is celebrated for overseeing such splashy musicals as An American in Paris and Gigi, but he was equally skilled at the helm of sober and penetrating dramas like The Bad and the Beautiful (reviewed here), Home from the Hill (reviewed here), and this marvelous effort. MacLaine’s performance will break your heart, but everyone is operating at the top of their game. This box office hit, one of the top 10 grossers of its year, earned a total of five Academy Award nominations, including bids for Best Actress (MacLaine), Best Supporting Actor (Kennedy), and Best Supporting Actress (Hyer).

Blu-ray extras consist of a retrospective making-of featurette and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ★★★★

Cameron Diaz and Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky (Photo: Paramount)

VANILLA SKY (2001). Before making a stateside splash with 2001’s The Others, writer-director Alejandro Amenábar crafted a handful of films in Spain, including the 1997 sleight of hand shocker Open Your Eyes (Abre los ojos). An intriguing drama about a self-centered hunk who suffers from strange visions after getting disfigured in a car accident, the movie provided a whiplash viewing experience akin to sitting down to watch The Big Chill and then having the film switch to Saving Private Ryan halfway through. Vanilla Sky is Cameron Crowe’s controversial remake, and what’s most shocking about this film is how faithful it remains to the original. This isn’t a typically dumbed-down rehash and, as such, it dissatisfied the rank and file of multiplex moviegoers but earned the appreciation of adventurous film fans. Tom Cruise, a narcissist who nevertheless won’t back away from perilous parts, shrewdly mixes both facets of his career as the pretty boy whose perfect life turns into a living hell after his face gets mangled, while Cameron Diaz, as his fatal attraction, slinks through the proceedings like a feral feline (Penélope Cruz, also in the original, reprises her role as the protagonist’s dream girl). Although not the match of its predecessor, Vanilla Sky is unsettling and perplexing, and it plays like the visualization of a caffeine buzz. Paul McCartney’s title tune earned a Best Original Song Oscar nomination, yet while Diaz nabbed approximately a dozen citations for her supporting performance (including Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild bids), she was snubbed by the Academy.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Crowe and music composer (and Crowe’s then-wife) Nancy Wilson; a new discussion with Crowe; an alternate ending; deleted scenes; an interview with McCartney; and a gag reel.

Movie: ★★★

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in Candyman (Photo: Universal & MGM)

Short And Sweet:

CANDYMAN (2021). Better as an idea than a movie, the 1992 Candyman chose a unique setting (Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing project) to tap into its meaty subtext regarding the horrors of the ghetto potentially being rationalized by mythmaking. The film unfortunately degenerated into standard slasher fare, a fate neatly avoided by this belated follow-up of the same name. But Candyman 2.0 wields its own set of shortcomings — specifically, a script that’s too cluttered to adequately punch across its plethora of weighty themes involving racism, gentrification, police brutality, black-on-black crime, and the power of our shared stories. There’s enough of merit to earn this a mild recommendation, but it’s ironic that, for a movie marinating in major issues, the most imagination is exhibited in the kill scenes.

Extras in the 4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray + Digital Code release include an interview with director Nia DaCosta; deleted scenes; an alternate ending; and a roundtable discussion about black Americans and their relationship with horror films.

Movie: ★★½

Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet (Photo: Warner Archive)

NATIONAL VELVET (1944). This immensely popular film is the movie most responsible for putting Elizabeth Taylor on the map. Third-billed under Mickey Rooney (a gargantuan star at the time) and veteran character actor Donald Crisp, she essays the leading role of Velvet Brown, a 12-year-old girl who wins a magnificent horse in a raffle and then decides to enter him in the Grand National. Rooney co-stars as Mi Taylor, a wanderer who helps Velvet train the animal, while Crisp and Anne Revere portray her loving parents. National Velvet is a good bet for a family night in front of the TV, examining issues of responsibility and resourcefulness before climaxing with an exciting race. Nominated for five Academy Awards (including Best Director for Clarence Brown), it won two: Best Supporting Actress (Revere) and Best Film Editing.

The only Blu-ray extra is the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ★★★

Edward G. Robinson in Night Has a Thousand Eyes (Photo: Kino)

NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES (1948). A typically strong Edward G. Robinson performance anchors this noirish drama adapted from a Cornell Woolrich novel. Robinson plays John Triton, a phony nightclub psychic who unexpectedly acquires the gift/curse of actually being able to know the future. Rocked by seeing the deaths of people close to him, he opts to live in exile, only returning to the land of the living in time to (hopefully) prevent the murder of his former best friend’s grown daughter (Gail Russell). John Lund is stiff as the romantic lead, but Preston Sturges regular William Demarest spruces up later scenes as a doubting detective. Here’s a thriller that should keep viewers alert and engaged; only the ending feels rushed and thus not entirely satisfying.

Blu-ray extras consist of film historian audio commentary; the theatrical trailer; and trailers for other films on the Kino label.

Movie: ★★★

Nicolas Cage in Prisoners of the Ghostland (Photo: RLJE Films)

PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND (2021). The movie is aptly titled, since most viewers will feel as if they’re being held hostage by this dreary, punishing slog. The sort of self-conscious endeavor that actively wants to be tagged The Next Great Cult Film, this post-apocalyptic putridity from director Sion Sono showcases Nicolas Cage in the sort of nonsense that repeatedly found his dignity gone in 60 seconds. He plays Hero, a captured bank robber whose body is wired with explosives as he’s sent into the wastelands to rescue the favorite sex slave (Sofia Boutella) of the corrupt Governor (Bill Moseley) of Samurai Town. Yes, it’s a combination of Escape from New York, Mad Max: Fury Road, and any given samurai picture, only minus any traces of entertainment value. The majority of the characters are nails-on-the-chalkboard annoying — the exception is a silent bodyguard (Tak Sakaguchi) whose arc ultimately makes little sense — and the action is dull and derivative.

Blu-ray extras consist of a making-of featurette and photo galleries.

Movie: ★

 

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