View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray, 4K and DVD.
Gerard Butler in Copshop (Photo: Universal)
(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 CARD COUNTER (2021). An excellent Oscar Isaac performance is the chief selling point of this ultimately disappointing drama from writer-director Paul Schrader, whose First Reformed ended up on numerous 10 Best of 2018 lists (including mine). Isaac portrays William Tell, a former soldier and Abu Ghraib torturer who went to jail for his crimes while those in charge (represented here by Willem Dafoe’s retired consultant, although Donald Rumsfeld also rates a close-up) suffered no consequences. William now spends his time on the casino circuit as a card shark, good enough to doubtless be earning the big bucks in poker tournaments but preferring to win just enough to keep him comfortable but off the radar. He ends up befriending a financial broker (Tiffany Haddish) as well as a disturbed young man (Tye Sheridan) whose father killed himself after his own post-Abu Ghraib incarceration. As in many Schrader projects, the protagonist is a man who’s tortured by his own fervent mind, engaged in acts of self-punishment (mental and/or physical), and required to eventually exorcise his demons through violence. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that Schrader is going through the motions by creating another character in this vein, but it’s fair to state that William Tell isn’t as compelling as most of those who suffered before him — this is especially apparent during the climax, a reckoning which doesn’t carry the dramatic charge of those experienced by such past Schrader men as Reverend Toller in First Reformed or Travis Bickle in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Thankfully, the poker sequences don’t feature such clichés as the underdog challenger or The Big Game, but the filmmaker gets too carried away with the minutiae of the rules, with only some of the explanatory scenes offering insight while others remain murky.
The only Blu-ray extra is a making-of featurette.
COPSHOP (2021). In 1975’s Love and Death, Woody Allen’s character states, “If I could only see one miracle, just one miracle. Like a burning bush, or the seas part, or my Uncle Sasha pick up a check.” If that film were remade today, the line could be amended to add, “Or Gerard Butler regularly appear in watchable movies.” The actor who routinely turns up in barrel-bottom aberrations like The Ugly Truth, Movie 43 and London Has Fallen has defied the odds by headlining a genuinely good film, one that puts his skills to sound use. Butler plays Bob Viddick, a professional assassin on the trail of Teddy Murretto (Frank Grillo), a con man turned FBI informant. Teddy slugs police officer Valerie Young (Charlotte native and UNCC graduate Alexis Louder) in order to land in jail, assuming he’ll be safe behind bars. He assumed wrong, as Viddick arranges it so that he also ends up in the same small-town Nevada prison. As Valerie and her colleagues attempt to ascertain the identities and motives of these two men, another hitman, the psychotic Anthony Lamb (a bonkers turn by Toby Huss), shows up and begins killing everyone. Copshop plays like John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, except that the villains are already inside the police station rather than attacking from without. Dismissing the usual narrative cheat that requires people (especially cops) to make incredibly stupid decisions so that the plot can move forward, this is an exciting and clever picture that offers tailor-made roles for Butler and Grillo and features a breakout performance by Louder. If only the film had ended at the police station, as the coda is forced, annoying, and unnecessary.
There are no Blu-ray extras.
HAROLD AND MAUDE (1971). With far too many movies being incorrectly labeled as “cult films” these days — I expect we’ll reach a point where even blockbusters like Avengers: End Game and Jurassic World will absurdly be given that designation — here’s an example of the genuine article. Greeted with negative reviews from many major critics (Roger Ebert, Vincent Canby, Dave Kehr, Pauline Kael) and ignored by audiences, this lively oddity from writer Colin Higgins and director Hal Ashby jump-started its cult reputation once it quickly became embraced by college-age moviegoers. Detailing the love affair between 20-year-old Harold (Bud Cort) and 79-year-old Maude (Ruth Gordon), this is a darkly comic tale with an embedded strain of seriousness running throughout. Harold is a morose young man who lives with his self-centered mother (a perfect turn by Vivian Pickles), hangs out at cemeteries and funerals, and engages in fake suicide attempts (these sequences are highlights). He meets the elderly Maude, who’s cheerful and vivacious, and they become friends before eventually settling into the role of lovers. The comic bits are inspired — the reactions of Harold’s blind dates, Harold and Maude pulling off an elaborate ruse against his war-loving uncle (Charles Tyner), the reaction of the priest (Eric Christmas) to what he clearly views as an unholy union, etc. — but the film’s life-affirming stance is anchored by Maude’s status as a Nazi concentration camp survivor who’s been missing her late husband for more years than she can count.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by filmmakers Cameron Crowe (writer-director of Almost Famous) and Larry Karaszewski (co-writer of Ed Wood); a discussion with Yusuf / Cat Stevens (who contributed the movie’s excellent soundtrack); and theatrical trailers.
IVANHOE (1952). Occasionally playing like an inferior version of 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood but faring quite well on its own terms thankyouverymuch, this lavish MGM adaptation of Sir Walter Scott’s novel stars Robert Taylor (who had headlined the studio’s 1951 smash Quo Vadis) as Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe, a Saxon knight who seeks to place the kidnapped King Richard the Lionhearted (Norman Wooland) back on the throne that’s presently being usurped by Richard’s brother Prince John (Guy Rolfe, whose performance is one long sneer). Ivanhoe seeks help with the ransom from both the father (Finlay Currie) who has disowned him and the elderly Jew (Felix Aylmer) whose life he has saved. He’s pitted against Norman knight De Bois-Guilbert (George Sanders), aided by his comical squire Wamba (Emlyn Williams) and the noble Robin Hood (Harold Warrender), and adored by two dissimilar women: Lady Rowena (Joan Fontaine), his father’s beloved ward, and Rebecca (Elizabeth Taylor), the Jewish merchant’s ostracized daughter. Filmed in ravishing Technicolor (alas, the widescreen wonder Cinemascope would not arrive on the scene until the following year’s The Robe), Ivanhoe benefits not from the presence of its three stars — Robert Taylor is too stolid and humorless, Elizabeth Taylor hated her bland role, and Fontaine appears ill-at-ease — but from a number of rousing confrontations, including a storming of a castle, a jousting tournament in which Ivanhoe takes on five Norman knights, and an up-close-and-personal duel between Ivanhoe (armed with an axe) and De Bois-Guilbert (wielding a mace and chain). This box office hit earned three Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Color Cinematography, and Best Original Score.
Blu-ray extras consist of the 1952 Oscar-winning Tom & Jerry cartoon The Two Mouseketeers and the theatrical trailer.
THE LONG GOODBYE (1973). Since 1989, the National Film Registry has chosen 25 American movies each year to induct into its ranks, as a means of preserving the nation’s rich cinematic heritage. The latest annual batch was added earlier this week, and, lo, there nestled among the likes of Strangers on a Train, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and the seminal concert films Richard Pryor: Live in Concert and Stop Making Sense rests this Robert Altman treat. Calling The Long Goodbye a neo-noir isn’t quite accurate, since the film has little use for most of the conventions of the smoke-choked genre. Its chief difference — and a brilliant angle — is that Raymond Chandler’s private eye Philip Marlowe isn’t a tough, quick-witted and verbose gumshoe like Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep or Robert Montgomery in Lady in the Lake but rather a shuffling, mumbling slob played by Elliott Gould. This Marlowe lives alone with his cat and has no true friends except for Terry Lenox (Jim Bouton), who as the film opens has Marlowe drive him to Mexico. It appears that Lenox (who soon commits suicide) murdered his wife, but Marlowe refuses to believe that he’s guilty. Altman is known for his eclectic casts, but this one might top the list: Bouton (a Major League Baseball pitcher), Nina van Pallandt (a baroness, a calypso singer, and Clifford Irving’s girlfriend at the time of his fake Howard Hughes biography), Mark Rydell (later the Oscar-nominated director of On Golden Pond), Sterling Hayden (the ever-mercurial actor used by Kubrick in The Killing and Dr. Strangelove), and an uncredited Arnold Schwarzenegger in only his second screen appearance. The film is cynical, of course, but also oddly moralistic via its handling of the noble if disheveled protagonist.
Blu-ray extras include film critic audio commentary; interviews with Altman and Gould; a piece on film noir; and theatrical trailers.
STREET FIGHTER (1994). While Street Fighter is considered in some circles to be the worst of all video game adaptations, I can immediately rattle off at least a half-dozen that are far more ghastly to behold. That’s not to say there’s much that’s worthwhile in this endless cacophony of gunfire, explosions, grunts, yelps, maniacal laughter, and Jean-Claude Van Damme’s tortured syntax. Despite Van Damme’s star billing and his movie-star fee that gobbled up 25% of the film’s total budget, this is actually an ensemble piece in which various heroes attempt to stop the evil General M. Bison (Raul Julia) as he plots to take over the world. At the forefront is Allied Nations Colonel Guile (Van Damme), and those joining him include his right-hand woman (a chirpy yet terrible turn by Australian pop star Kylie Minogue), a revenge-minded journalist (Ming-Na Wen), and two con men (Damian Chapa and Byron Mann). Like many a good father, Julia appeared in this film to appease his children, but it’s depressing to note that this was the final theatrical film for the 54-year-old actor — he died of a stroke two months before its release, after coping with stomach cancer for several years. His work here is almost unbearably hammy, although it does provide sharp relief from the one-note emoting by “The Muscles from Brussels.”
Mill Creek Entertainment has released a steelbook Blu-ray edition of the film that contains a collectible Bison Dollar. Extras include audio commentary by writer-director Steven E. de Souza; a making-of featurette; new interviews with de Souza, Wen, Chapa, and producer Edward R. Pressman; deleted scenes; and video game sequences.
VENOM: LET THERE BE CARNAGE (2021). If nothing else, Venom: Let There Be Carnage is a sliver (maybe half a sliver) superior to its woeful 2018 predecessor (reviewed here), although that’s not exactly a hearty endorsement. Tom Hardy returns as sad-sack reporter Eddie Brock, still bummed that his fiancée (Michelle Williams) dumped him and still irritated that he’s now sharing his body with the alien symbiote known as Venom. While Eddie and Venom bicker like an old married couple, captured serial killer Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson) is being prepared for execution. Eddie and Venom break up (i.e. Venom leaves his host’s body to inhabit others), but not before some symbiotic fluid ends up inside Cletus and results in the emergence of Carnage. Andy Serkis, in his third theatrical stint as a director (following the romantic drama Breathe and the adventure yarn Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle), has described the film as being in the Odd Couple tradition, but it’s the equivalent of watching Oscar Madison hit Felix Unger over the head with a frying pan for 90 minutes: It’s loud, repetitive, and not very funny. Even Harrelson, who has spent the majority of the past decade knocking it out of the park with one inventive performance after another, yields minimal returns here. Honestly, this should have been titled Venom: Let There Be End Credits, since the stinger is far more surprising and entertaining than anything that appears in the main body of the film.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; deleted scenes; a piece on the pairing of Eddie and Venom; a look at Carnage’s journey from the comic book to the big screen; and outtakes and bloopers.
THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013). The weakest of the five collaborations between Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio is this adaptation (by Terence Winter) of Jordan Belfort’s memoirs about his success during the 1990s as a crooked stockbroker whose wealth was matched only by his hubris. Like several other 2013 releases (including American Hustle and DiCaprio’s The Great Gatsby), the film is a look at American success and excess, a tale of unchecked consumerism and capitalism. But it feels like it’s late to the party, as there’s little here that expands on corporate raider Gordon Gekko’s mantra (in Oliver Stone’s 1987 Wall Street) that “Greed … is good.” Creatively, it’s a step back for Scorsese: Replace the violence in his gangster flicks with the copious nudity here, and it doesn’t feel like the needle’s moved much. Its defenders claim it’s a critique of Belfort’s lifestyle, but it’s clearly a celebration, with the victims suspiciously MIA and the real Belfort even appearing at the end to receive benediction from Scorsese and DiCaprio. Yet because it’s a work from a master moviemaker, it looks great, and it features a few powerhouse scenes. Mostly, though, it’s showcases some terrific acting, notably DiCaprio, Jonah Hill as Belfort’s best friend and worst nightmare, and Matthew McConaughey in his brief appearance as Belfort’s mentor, who insists that booze, drugs and frequent masturbation are the chief requisites for a successful career on Wall Street. This nabbed five Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture.
4K extras consist of a pair of making-of featurettes and a round table chat with Scorsese, DiCaprio and Hill.