View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray, 4K and DVD.
Harvey Keitel and Holly Hunter in The Piano (Photo: Criterion)
(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 DOGS OF WAR (1980). Two years removed from his Oscar-winning supporting turn in 1978’s The Deer Hunter (reviewed here), Christopher Walken landed his first starring role in this accomplished adaptation of Frederick Forsyth’s bestselling novel. Walken plays Jamie Shannon, a mercenary hired by slimy British businessman Endean (Hugh Millais) to embark on a reconnaissance mission to the African nation of Zangaro. Endean would like to know if it would be possible to overthrow Zangaro’s corrupt government and install a different regime — one equally corrupt, of course, but more willing to share the nation’s valuable resources (platinum as opposed to oil) to outsiders. Upon returning from his assignment, Shannon is then hired to assemble his team and pull off the coup, but he has his own idea on how matters should pan out. Walken has rarely delivered such an earthy, physical performance, and his character gives (the glass-in-the-mouth scene is swift, brutal, and incredible) as well as he takes (Leonard Maltin noted that “Walken takes a screen beating nearly as impressively as Brando”). Colin Blakeley is excellent as a tenacious news reporter who befriends Shannon, and if Derek, one of the key mercenaries, looks familiar, that’s because he’s played by Paul Freeman, who would memorably combat Indiana Jones as the charming Belloq in the following year’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. And it’s difficult to ascertain which is more startling: the sight of an impossibly young Jim Broadbent (as part of Blakeley’s film crew) or an impossibly young Ed O’Neill (as part of Walken’s outfit).
This Blu-ray edition from Scorpion Releasing contains both the 104-minute theatrical cut and the preferred 118-minute international version. Extras consist of new interviews with Freeman, co-writer George Malko, and other cast and crew members, and trailers.
THE GREEN COCKATOO (1937) / DANCING WITH CRIME (1947). The Cohen Film Collection label is releasing a Blu-ray Double Feature containing two examples of what many call Brit Noir. (For Cohen’s previous Brit Noir Double Feature, 1946’s Wanted for Murder and 1955’s Cast a Dark Shadow, go here for the review.)
A movie directed by William Cameron Menzies (an Oscar-winning production designer who helmed a few flicks, including 1936’s Things to Come and 1953’s Invaders from Mars) and based on a story by Graham Greene sounds like it can’t miss, but The Green Cockatoo unfortunately comes up short. John Mills is all wrong as Jim Connor, a small-time entertainer whose brother Dave (Robert Newton) repeatedly gets mixed up with gangsters. After foolishly betraying the mobsters, Dave is murdered, with only Eileen (Rene Ray), a woman who’s literally just off the farm and hoping to make it in London, as a possible witness. After the police mistakenly believe Eileen to be the killer, she ends up seeking shelter from Jim, who, as coincidence would remind us, is Dave’s brother. As Alfred Hitchcock proved on multiple occasions, having an innocent person pursued by both the villains and the police makes for a great hook, but The Green Cockatoo makes it all about as believable as The Bowery Boys in a similar situation.
Markedly better is Dancing with Crime, even if the general outline isn’t that different from The Green Cockatoo. Taxi driver Ted Peters (Richard Attenborough) is the clean-cut hero this time around, only instead of a brother messing with and getting murdered by the mob, it’s his best friend Dave (Bill Owen). And the woman caught in the middle isn’t a naïve country girl but Dave’s fiancée Joy Goodall (Sheila Sim), who bravely goes undercover by working as a dancer at a nightclub owned by the head honcho (Barry Jones) responsible for Dave’s death. Strong individual scenes goose what’s otherwise a conventional thriller — the crime lord convincing Ted that he’s a police inspector; the fate of the mob flunky Sniffy (Cyril Chamberlain); etc. — and Barry K. Barnes is good as Paul Baker, the nightclub manager and right-hand man who oozes charm and menace in equal measure. Leads Attenborough and Sim were already married by this point and would remain so for a total of 69 years, until his death in 2014 (she would pass away in 2016).
The only Blu-ray extra is the theatrical trailer for Dancing with Crime.
The Green Cockatoo: ★★
Dancing with Crime: ★★★
THE PIANO (1993). One of the all-time greats — certainly one of the key films of its decade — writer-director Jane Campion’s The Piano is unlike any other movie I have ever seen. Set in the mid-19th century, the tale follows a mute woman named Ada (Holly Hunter) as she and her 9-year-old daughter Flora (Anna Paquin in her film debut) travel from Scotland to New Zealand for an arranged marriage. Things start off poorly as her intended, Stewart (Sam Neill), refuses to haul her one prize possession — her piano — from the beachfront to their home. The piano ends up in the hands of illiterate neighbor Baines (Harvey Keitel), a European settler who has integrated himself into the Maori culture, and he informs Ada that she can have her piano back on one major condition. All four actors are terrific, yet one can’t dismiss the “performance” of the piano itself: It serves as a metaphor for a host of ideas, chief among them an expression of the creative impulse that all too often gets pummeled by unfeeling types as well as an illustration of Ada’s true voice, the feminist one that refuses to be silenced by patriarchal empowerment. A one-of-a-kind viewing experience, this is further distinguished by Stuart Dryburgh’s evocative cinematography and Michael Nyman’s superb score. Winner of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, this was nominated for eight Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Director, inevitably losing both to Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List) and copped three major statues: Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress (Paquin), and Best Original Screenplay. Incidentally, Campion is currently back on the award circuit with her masterful drama The Power of the Dog.
Extras in Criterion’s 4K + Blu-ray edition include audio commentary by Campion and producer Jan Chapman; interviews with Campion, Hunter, Dryburgh and Nyman; Campion’s 2006 short film The Water Diary; and the theatrical trailer.
SLEEP (SCHLAF) (2021). The Brothers Grimm take a trip to the Overlook Hotel in Sleep, an atmospheric terror tale from German writer-director Michael Venus. A troubled flight attendant (Sandra Hüller) suffers from crippling dreams in which she sees a specific hotel; after stumbling across its location in the real world, she pays a visit and immediately suffers a breakdown that mentally and physically shuts her down. Concerned for her mother, Mona (Gro Swantje-Kohlhof) also ventures to the desolate hotel, where she meets the cryptic owners (August Schmölzer and Marion Kracht) and encounters her own series of disturbing imagery, such as the bloody suicides of three men tied to the hotel and a wild boar that regularly makes its presence known. As Mona investigates further, she discovers that it becomes increasingly difficult to find the dividing line between her waking and dream states. The influences on Venus (who co-scripted with Thomas Friedrich) alternate between obvious (David Lynch) and improbable (Silent Hill, reviewed here), but the unique look of the film is distinctively his own. It’s an ambitious undertaking — one I found a bit too ambitious, as issues involving repressed guilt, personal trauma, matriarchal bonds, patriarchal sins, fairy tales rooted in history, and the continual rebirth of Nazism all jockey for position and occasionally crowd each other out. Despite some jarring tonal shifts, Sleep is worth watching and, given its denseness, perhaps worth watching more than once.
Blu-ray extras include film critic audio commentary; an introduction by Venus and Swantje-Kohlhof; a behind-the-scenes piece; a conversation with Venus and Swantje-Kohlhof; deleted scenes; a closer look at the dream journal sketches seen throughout the film; and an image gallery.
SONG OF THE THIN MAN (1947). As all good things must come to an end, the delightful Thin Man series, which began in 1934 with a 4-star classic, saw its successful run terminated with the release of the sixth and weakest effort. This shaky swan song finds sleuthing spouses Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy, again playing the characters created by Dashiell Hammett) investigating the murder of an unscrupulous bandleader (Phillip Reed). Keenan Wynn co-stars as a jazz musician who attempts to teach the Charleses the hip lingo of the era, and seeing Nick and Nora trapped in the company of such lines as “You’ll dig him in the jam joints, the rooty-toots and bobby-soxers verboten” and “The dust don’t start rising till deuce of bells” recalls those embarrassing ‘60s/’70s Bob Hope duds in which the comedian failed in trying to seem mod and with the times. For once, the mystery isn’t particularly interesting, and this only rates as highly as it does because of the two stars, who are as delightful as ever. The screenplay (credited to five people) occasionally displays some wit, particularly in a sly and unexpected reference to The Razor’s Edge. Nick Jr. is now played by 11-year-old Dean Stockwell (later of Blue Velvet and Quantum Leap fame), while Gloria Grahame appears in one of her patented femme fatale roles.
Blu-ray extras consist of the 1947 live-action short A Really Important Person, starring Stockwell; the 1947 cartoon Slap Happy Lion; and the theatrical trailer. For the sake of convenience, below are links to the reviews of all six films in the series.
The Thin Man (1934): ★★★★
After the Thin Man (1936): ★★★½
Another Thin Man (1939): ★★★½
Shadow of the Thin Man (1941): ★★★½
The Thin Man Goes Home (1944): ★★★
Song of the Thin Man: ★★½
STAGE FRIGHT (1950). Lesser Hitchcock? Hardly. Although it doesn’t rank among his classics (and they are legion), Stage Fright is nevertheless a witty and worthwhile endeavor that deserves a more prominent reputation. On a basic level, it’s a twisty mystery about a drama student turning sleuth in order to clear a friend falsely accused of murder. On another plateau, it’s a commentary on the nature of play-acting and how it’s embedded in every real-world relationship, no matter how unlikely or outlandish —in this respect, it recalls not only “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players” from Shakespeare’s As You Like It but also “If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction” from the Bard’s Twelfth Night. Jane Wyman, a mere year after her divorce from Ronald Reagan, adopts an English accent to portray Eve Gill, an aspiring actress who’s informed by her friend Jonathan (Richard Todd) that he’s been framed for murder by his mistress, stage star Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich). Eve decides the only way she can help Jonathan is by conducting her own investigation, so she pretends to be a reporter to gather some preliminary info, a maid to gain employment in Charlotte’s house, and a naïve flibbertigibbet to get close to the detective (Michael Wilding) on the case. The theatricality of the piece is enhanced by opening and closing the movie with a curtain (one rising in the credits, one falling in the climax), and the device of the “unreliable narrator,” common today, was so rare in 1950 that its use here outraged many folks (in truth, it keeps viewers on high alert). Stage Fright contains ample humor to go along with the intrigue, and it’s no surprise that the picture is stolen by the incomparable Alastair Sim, cast as Eve’s sagacious and sarcastic father.
Blu-ray extras consist of a retrospective making-of featurette and the theatrical trailer.
THE TOOLBOX MURDERS (1978). Briefly banned in the U.K. during the “video nasties” era, The Toolbox Murders had no hindrance stateside yet didn’t exactly burn up the box office. Yet like many other gore fests from its era, it struck it rich on home video, and it’s since been reissued in different formats with the tagline, “The Original Exploitation Classic!” That’s not remotely true — it wasn’t the first exploitation flick, and it’s certainly no classic — but the new 4K offering from Blue Underground will certainly please the film’s fans. In a Los Angeles apartment complex, a masked figure is using tools (hammer, drill, nail gun) to murder various beauties. The superintendent (Cameron Mitchell) orders his nephew Kent (Wesley Eure) to clean up the bloody apartments, and he’s assisted by his friend Joey (Nicholas Beauvy). But when Joey’s teenage sister Laurie (Pamelyn Ferdin) is kidnapped by the mad slasher, Joey bypasses the inept cops and attempts to track her down himself. Unrelentingly sexist and sleazy, this escapes a one-star rating only because it’s more competently filmed than other low-budget slasher flicks of the period (cinematographer Gary Graver was frequently working with Orson Welles at the time) and because its cast is a model of eclecticism: Mitchell, a former big star, was often found overacting in trashy movies; Ferdin had played little Amy opposite Clint Eastwood in 1971’s The Beguiled (reviewed here); Eure was fresh from TV’s Land of the Lost; Aneta Corsaut, cast as Joey and Laurie’s mom, had been nationally known for portraying Andy Taylor’s girlfriend on The Andy Griffith Show; and Marianne Walter, appearing as the nude nail gun victim, changed her name to Kelly Nichols and subsequently starred in approximately 100 XXX films.
4K + Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Ferdin, Graver, and producer Tony DiDio; a visual essay; and interviews with Eure and Nichols.
WHEEL OF FORTUNE AND FANTASY (2021). Japanese writer-director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car is the international feature that has been dominating awards season chatter, making it easy to occasionally forget that the filmmaker has a second 2021 release making the rounds. That would be Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, an anthology film examining the connections we make and the ones we miss. Unforced and unassuming, the movie relates three separate tales, and they’re thankfully of such comparable quality that each episode will have its fair share of those who champion it above the others. “Magic (or Something Less Assuring),” my choice for the best of the three, finds a model (Hyunri) telling her friend Meiko (Kotone Furukawa) about her new boyfriend, only for Meiko to realize that the man under discussion is her own ex-boyfriend Kazuaki (Ayumu Nakajima). “Door Wide Open” centers on an award-winning college professor (Kiyohiko Shibukaha), the student (Shouma Kai) he once flunked, and a woman (Katsuki Kai) whose attempt to scandalize the professor on behalf of her failed friend takes some unexpected turns. And “Once Again” concerns itself with two women (Fusako Urabe and Aoba Kawai) who attend their high school reunion and try to tether their meeting to the distant past. What could be described as dramatic urgency is conspicuously missing from this movie, as Hamaguchi is content to let his characters leisurely chat until they (hopefully) experience an epiphany or an acceptance.
Blu-ray extras consist of an interview with Hamaguchi and the 2020 live-action short The Chicken.