View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray, 4K and DVD.
Steve McQueen and Hannes Messemer in The Great Escape (Photo: Kino & MGM)
(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.)
DUNE (2021). With Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 reigning as two of the best science fiction films of recent vintage, director Denis Villeneuve attempts to go 3-for-3 with his ambitious adaptation of Frank Herbert’s spice-world saga — or at least the first chunk of the hefty novel, as evidenced by the movie’s alternate title of Dune: Part One. Unlike Villeneuve’s previous pair, both of which are truly immersive experiences (particularly Arrival, the best picture of 2016 as shown here), this latest achievement produces a distancing effect that encourages respect rather than revelry. Its stateliness is both an asset and a detriment, as the picture looks absolutely stunning but occasionally feels too antiseptic for its own good. If nothing else, it stands head and shoulders over David Lynch’s 1984 dud (reviewed here), with a stronger cast, headier visual effects, and a more coherent storyline. Timothée Chalamet handles the pivotal role of Paul Atreides, believed to be “the chosen one” by the various factions jockeying for control of the spice-producing planet Arrakis. Paul’s parents are the noble Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) and the devoted Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson, arguably first among equals with a full-fledged performance), while his mentors include warriors Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin) and Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa). On the other side of the conflict reside the evil Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) and his crew, while more ambiguous in their intentions are Arrakis inhabitants Stilgar (Javier Bardem) and Chani (Zendaya). Oh, yes, there are also sandworms on hand to devour the scenery. Even if Dune is occasionally chilly to the touch, there’s enough here of merit to warrant the upcoming Part Two.
Extras in the 4K edition consist of making-of featurettes (including “Designing the Sandworm” and “Wardrobe from Another World”); a look at the various players; and pieces on three specific scenes.
GAMBIT (1966). An agreeable caper comedy that can’t quite maintain its momentum throughout its 109-minute running time, Gambit was amusingly advertised with the tagline, “Go Ahead Tell the End (It’s Too Hilarious to Keep Secret) But Please Don’t Tell the Beginning!” That beginning (spoiler?) finds British cat burglar Harry Dean (Michael Caine) explaining to his cohort in crime Emile (John Abbott) how he plans to use a Eurasian dancer named Nicole (Shirley MacLaine) to help him steal a valuable relic from the richest man in the world, the Middle Eastern magnate Shahbandar (Herbert Lom). It’s a scheme that, as we see, plays flawlessly in Harry’s mind, even though the reality proves to be much more taxing. Nicole is brassy rather than docile, Shahbandar isn’t a meek sheik but rather a shrewd and suspicious businessman, and even Harry himself isn’t as smart or suave as he would like to believe. There’s that unwritten Hollywood rule decreeing that whenever two attractive stars are cast in a movie, their characters must fall in love whether it makes sense or not. Here it doesn’t, meaning that MacLaine and Caine are far more effective when bickering than when romancing. Gambit earned a trio of Academy Award nominations for its sets, costumes, and sound. A remake appeared in 2012 — written by the Coen Brothers and starring Colin Firth, Cameron Diaz, and Alan Rickman, it (unlike the original) was a critical and commercial flop. As for MacLaine and Caine, they reunited for two more films far inferior to this one: the following year’s Woman Times Seven (reviewed here) and the misbegotten 2005 update of Bewitched.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by director Ronald Neame; film historian audio commentary; the theatrical trailer; and trailers for other titles on the Kino label.
THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963). Forget the film school staples for a moment: If you cross off the usual suspects (Citizen Kane, Casablanca, The Seventh Seal, Bicycle Thieves, etc.) from my list of the greatest movies ever made, this World War II adventure yarn would be what’s left standing near or at the very top. Certainly, it’d be a tight race between this, 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, Star Wars, and Raiders of the Lost Ark for the crown of the most enjoyable matinee-style popcorn picture that Hollywood has ever produced — the masterpieces that movie buffs can watch anytime, anywhere, and instantly feel uplifted by the experience. Based on a true story, this centers on an attempt by captured Allied soldiers to escape from Germany’s most secure POW camp; among the all-stars cast as prisoners taking part in the breakout are Steve McQueen (iconic as Hilts “The Cooler King”), James Garner (irresistible as Hendley “The Scrounger”), James Coburn (amusing as Sedgwick “The Manufacturer”), Charles Bronson (terrific as Danny “The Tunnel King”), and Donald Pleasence (touching as Blythe “The Forger”). McQueen’s thrilling motorcycle ride has long been the stuff of cinematic legend, but the movie is packed with countless memorable episodes of this caliber. John Sturges directs with verve, with Elmer Bernstein contributing a sensational score that clearly should have taken that year’s Oscar (shamefully, the movie’s sole nomination was for Best Film Editing). The Great Escape runs nearly three hours, yet it’s the fastest three hours ever spent in front of a movie screen or television set.
4K extras include audio commentary (from 2004) by Garner, Coburn, Pleasence, and other cast and crew members; film historian audio commentary; a retrospective making-of featurette; a piece on the real-life escape; and the theatrical trailer.
JUICE (1992). Landing in the year between the more muscular pair of 1991’s Boyz n the Hood and 1993’s Menace II Society (the latter reviewed here), Juice feels relatively puny by comparison. Ernest Dickerson, the ace cinematographer on Spike Lee’s earliest films (including Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X), made his directorial debut with this drama that focuses on the everyday activities of four black teens growing up in Harlem. Q (Omar Epps) is the talented one (he hopes to become a professional DJ), Raheem (Khalil Kain) is the charismatic one, Steel (Jermaine Hopkins) is the follower, and Bishop (Tupac Shakur) is, as the rest soon find out, the loose cannon. Far down on the totem pole (among other indignities, they’re bullied by the members of a neighborhood gang), the friends feel they’ve finally acquired some “juice” (aka power) once they manage to obtain a gun. The four plot to knock over a convenience store, but since Bishop is the one brandishing the weapon, what would have been a simple robbery turns into a case of cold-blooded murder. The first half of the film covers familiar ground, but Dickerson (who also co-wrote the screenplay) gives it enough of a fresh spin that it remains involving. But following the robbery, the picture morphs from a candid look at urban life into a preposterous pulp thriller, as Bishop suddenly turns psychotic and starts blowing away friend and foe alike. Dickerson loses his grip on the material, leaving his capable actors at the mercy of increasingly embarrassing dialogue and developments.
Extras on the 4K 30th Anniversary edition include audio commentary (from 2017) by Dickerson; a retrospective making-of featurette; a piece on the successful soundtrack (which hit #17 on the Billboard chart); and a vintage interview with the four male leads.
RICH AND STRANGE (1931). While Alfred Hitchcock called his 1932 effort Number Seventeen “a terrible picture” (see the details, and the review, here), all accounts report that he had no such disdain for the film that immediately preceded it. Originally released stateside as East of Shanghai, Rich and Strange is indeed a thematically rich and occasionally strange movie, as well as one of Hitchcock’s best non-thrillers. Fred Hill (Henry Kendall) is bored with his lot in life and yearns for adventure, so when he’s informed that an uncle is leaving him a sizable inheritance, he and his wife Emily (Joan Barry) leave the drabness of their London flat and embark on a lavish cruise around the world. Although the experience offers the couple an opportunity to rekindle their romance, they instead drift into the arms of others: Emily establishes a comfortable rapport with a British gentleman (Percy Marmont) while Fred lusts after a princess (Betty Amann) who’s not quite what she seems. Although creaky at times, this is a sparkling comedy imbued with some thoughtful observations on love and marriage. While Rich and Strange was certainly too minor to have served as inspiration for other filmmakers’ movies, it is interesting in that its general plot outline brings to mind the rich texture of William Wyler’s 1936 Dodsworth (reviewed here), itself adapted from the Sinclair Lewis novel that was released two years before this picture, while the marvelous opening sequence has a whiff of Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot about it. Shakespeare scholars will appreciate the film’s title (taken from The Tempest), but cat lovers will certainly not appreciate the comedic fate of the feline slinking through the proceedings.
Blu-ray extras include film historian audio commentary; an audio excerpt from the Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews; and trailers for various Hitchcock flicks offered by Kino.
THE 7TH DAWN (1964). Seven years after The Bridge on the River Kwai, William Holden again played a combative American coping with hot weather and even hotter tensions in Southeast Asia. He stars as Ferris, a former guerilla fighter who spends the years following World War II growing his wealth as a Malayan plantation owner. His fellow fighter Dhana (Capucine), now a schoolteacher, has become his mistress, but the third part of their triangle, Ng (Tetsurô Tamba), left them for an education in Moscow. Ng has now returned to Malaya, and Ferris finds it difficult to maintain their friendship since his buddy is now a Communist terrorist responsible for the deaths of numerous British civilians and soldiers residing in the country. Susannah York co-stars as a woman with the unfortunate name of Candace Trumpey; her primary purpose is to try to bed the older Ferris at every opportunity and, later, steer further into his good graces by offering herself as a hostage to Ng in an effort to save an imprisoned Dhana. The sociopolitical angle carries the movie along for a good stretch, but once the characters are forced to slog through the jungle in the dull third act, viewers are forced to slog through the remainder of the picture.
Blu-ray extras consist of the theatrical trailer and trailers for other movies on the Kino label.
SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL (1959). Opinions will naturally differ on the politics behind this drama set during the Irish War of Independence, but there will be no arguments over the quality of James Cagney’s performance. One of the greatest actors ever, he’s typically superb here as Sean Lenihan, a kind and cheerful professor who also turns out to be a fanatical leader in the IRA. One of his school pupils is the Irish-American Kerry O’Shea (Don Murray), who repeatedly turns down offers to join the cause for Irish freedom since he saw enough bloodshed while serving in World War I. But as Kerry witnesses more atrocities being committed by the brutal British occupiers known as the Black and Tans — and after he himself is tortured by a particularly sadistic officer (Christopher Rhodes) — he realizes he can no longer remain on the fence. Murray essays the film’s largest role — it’s also the blandest role, as Kerry O’Shea will make the switch from doubter to devotee in predictable fashion. The richness is instead found in other characters: Cagney’s Sean Lenihan is a Jekyll-and-Hyde figure who snuffs out lives as a revolutionary as often as he saves them as a surgeon; Chris Noonan (Cyril Cusack) is a soft-spoken poet whose gentleness belies his position as an IRA leader; and Kitty Brady (an excellent Glynis Johns) is a barmaid who fully commits herself to the cause (and to the men who appreciate the bedroom favors she gives them) but who never gains Lenihan’s trust. It’s odd to see Michael Redgrave, that most British of British actors, playing an Irishman (an IRA bigwig most likely meant to be Michael Collins), but it’s not surprising to see a young Richard Harris playing the most volatile of IRA flunkies.
Blu-ray extras consist of an interview with Murray; the theatrical trailer; and trailers for other films on the Kino label.
SPENCER (2021). Anyone who’s seen director Pablo Larraín’s 2016 drama Jackie will have a general idea of what to expect from his latest at-bat. Hardly a standard biopic, Jackie (reviewed here) moved at its own peculiar pace as it zeroed in on the grief crippling Jacqueline Kennedy (Oscar-nominated Natalie Portman) as she mourned her assassinated husband. Spencer, showcasing a terrific performance by Kristen Stewart, similarly gets up close and personal with its subject, both in Larraín’s shooting style and in scripter Steven Knight’s attempts to analyze and understand the mindset of Diana, Princess of Wales, during a particularly difficult period in her life among the royals. It’s Christmastime 1991, and Diana is duty-bound to spend the holidays in the company of the royal family. She loves her sons William and Henry (Jack Nielen and Freddie Spry), enjoys hanging out with the Royal Dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins), and has an amicable relationship with the head chef (Sean Harris). But she has little use for the rest of the lot, including her unfaithful and bullying husband Charles (Jack Farthing) and the household’s senior attendant (Timothy Spall). Although Larraín occasionally indulges his star too much — how many shots do we need of Diana dancing her blues away? — this “fable from a true tragedy” (as it’s described at the start) succeeds as a turbulent character study of an emotionally compromised woman who’s as much a prisoner as she is a princess.
Blu-ray extras consist of a making-of featurette and the theatrical trailer.
THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970). Sheridan Le Fanu’s classic 1872 novella Carmilla has served as the basis for numerous vampire flicks, although it’s probably safe to state that this blood-and-boob-filled adaptation from Hammer Films boasts the largest fan base. The first entry in the so-called Karnstein Trilogy — Lust for a Vampire and Twins of Evil both followed in 1971 — this turned Ingrid Pitt into an overnight genre star by casting her in the central role of a vampire with decidedly lesbian tendencies. With her penchant for buxomly beauties, she first overcomes Laura von Spielsdorf (Pippa Steele), the daughter of a respected Austrian general (Peter Cushing), before setting her sights on Laura’s even more enticing friend Emma (Madeline Smith). There’s also an attraction between Carmilla and Emma’s governess (Kate O’Mara); meanwhile, the men she bloodily dispatches stir no feelings but are simply foolish enough to get in her way. The Vampire Lovers was one of the pictures that marked Hammer’s turn away from producing literate horror yarns in which the heaving bosoms were kept clothed and toward releasing more promiscuous fare in an effort to remain visible in the wake of new types of horror films like Night of the Living Dead and Rosemary’s Baby. The influx of nudity and extra gore didn’t help — the studio was basically done by the mid-1970s — but even Hammer’s lesser efforts in this, uh, vein are generally watchable. The Vampire Lovers resides above that lukewarm designation, but some clumsy plotting works against its total success.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Pitt, director Roy Ward Baker, and scripter Tudor Gates; a discussion of the film and its source material; an interview with Smith; audio of Pitt reading excerpts from Carmella; and the theatrical trailer.
THE WOODY ALLEN COLLECTION (1994-2003). Because no stateside outfit will touch Woody Allen at this point in time, the unknown Quiver Films ended up with eight titles to release in one Blu-ray box set. So the good news is that 1994’s Bullets Over Broadway, one of Woody’s best and an Academy Award winner for Dianne Wiest’s hysterical supporting performance, is finally on Blu-ray. The bad news is that you can only purchase it alongside such extremely lame endeavors as 1998’s Celebrity (Kenneth Branagh, Leonardo DiCaprio), 2001’s The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (Helen Hunt, Dan Aykroyd), and 2002’s Hollywood Ending (Téa Leoni, Debra Messing). As for the rest, 1995’s middling Mighty Aphrodite contains Mira Sorvino’s Oscar-winning supporting turn, 1996’s Everyone Says I Love You is an enchanting all-star musical featuring Edward Norton, Natalie Portman and Julia Roberts, 2000’s Small Time Crooks is minor Allen with some very funny passages, and 2003’s Anything Else, starring Jason Biggs and Christina Ricci, is better than its reputation.
There are no extras.