View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray, 4K and DVD.
Lo Lieh in King Boxer, included in Shawscope: Volume One (Photo: Arrow Video & Celestial Pictures)
(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.)
CLIFFORD THE BIG RED DOG (2021). Aside from the obligatory (and absolutely unnecessary) bits of scatological humor, Clifford the Big Red Dog feels like one of those live-action Disney features that were so prevalent during the 1970s — in fact, one could easily picture Jodie Foster as the prepubescent heroine, Dean Jones as her bumbling uncle, and Tim Conway or Don Knotts as the supremely self-satisfied villain. The second theatrical excursion for the oversized animal created by author-cartoonist Norman Bridwell in 1963 (the first was the 2004 toon feature Clifford’s Really Big Movie), this one’s a live-action effort surrounding an animated protagonist — in that respect, it’s like last year’s Tom & Jerry (reviewed here), only better. While her mom (Sienna Guillory) is away on business, Emily Elizabeth (Charlotte native Darby Camp) talks her attendant Uncle Casey (Jack Whitehall) into visiting a carnival where one of the attractions is a menagerie of animals overseen by Mr. Bridwell (John Cleese). Emily Elizabeth is smitten with a red puppy that ends up in her care; naming him Clifford, she and Casey are startled when he begins to grow far beyond the size of a normal dog. His social media appearances catch the eye of Tieran (Tony Hale), a CEO who plots to kidnap him for testing at his biotech company Lyfegro. Although it largely lacks the sort of appreciated asides designed for parents and babysitting adults — the type found in many kid flicks from A (Aladdin) to Z (Zootopia) — Clifford the Big Red Dog is fairly enjoyable and easy to take, with a zippy pace, appealing performers in Camp and Whitehall, and a lovable CGI critter in Clifford.
Blu-ray extras include a behind-the-scenes featurette; a piece on Bridwell and his crimson canine creation; and deleted scenes.
GHOSTBUSTERS: AFTERLIFE (2021). All those man-babies who wailed, “This movie ruined my childhood!” when the (gasp!) all-female version of Ghostbusters (reviewed here) hit theaters in 2016 should have saved their howls of anguish for this feeble endeavor. Then again, lockstep fanboys are one of the two groups (the other being indiscriminate children) most likely to respond positively to this film’s undemanding offerings. The first half plays less like a Ghostbusters entry and more like a sop to those Spielbergian fantasy flicks from the 1980s, as a single mother (Carrie Coon as Callie) with a restless teenage son (Finn Wolfhard as Trevor) and a precocious daughter (Mckenna Grace as Phoebe) move to a dilapidated farmhouse inherited from Callie’s estranged father. Said pop turns out to be OG Ghostbuster Egon Spengler, and the fam soon finds itself similarly involved in supernatural shenanigans concerning the hellish entity Gozer. So far, so OK, but the second half grows increasingly tedious as writer-director Jason Reitman (whose dad directed the 1984 original and its 1989 sequel) and co-scripter Gil Kenan attempt to emulate the spirit of the ’84 edition but largely fail due to a lack of imagination and a surplus of timidity. Ultimately, the eccentricity and innovation of the classic original is replaced with a toothless and warmed-over family drama geared toward young audiences — because of this approach, even the belated appearances by several beloved stars carry little weight. As for the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, an unlikely star of the original, it’s now been reconfigured as (ka-ching!) a bunch of Gru Minions.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; pieces on the film’s gadgetry and visual effects; and a deleted scene.
LAST NIGHT IN SOHO (2021). The William Faulkner quote “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” rests at the heart of Last Night in Soho, a trippy tale in which a woman’s dreams serve as a portal back to another era. Thomasin McKenzie plays Ellie Turner, an aspiring fashion designer who moves from Cornwall to London to attend university. Not thrilled with dorm life, she rents a West End room from the no-nonsense Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg, who died shortly after filming was complete). A fan of 1960s music, Ellie has a dream in which she journeys back to that period and observes as a confident young woman named Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy) tries to make it as a singer. Inspired by Sandie’s impending success, Ellie adopts her look and style, but she soon discovers that Sandie’s plans have actually gone astray and she has been forced into prostitution by her pimp-boyfriend (Matt Smith). Worse for Sandie, it appears that he murders her; worse for Ellie, the dreams aren’t exactly dreams and she finds specters from the past entering her own waking world. Written (with Kristy Wilson-Cairns) and directed by Shaun of the Dead’s Edgar Wright, Last Night in Soho attempts to illustrate how these two different women from different times are dealing with many of the same issues (the potential dangers of an urban jungle, the presence of sexual predators, emotional instability contributing to career woes), but a few more details on the Ellie side of the equation were required to complete that connection. Nevertheless, the murder-mystery angle is fascinating (some clues are dropped ever so subtly), the performances are excellent, and the visuals are immaculate.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Wright and Wilson-Cairns; a series of making-of pieces; and deleted scenes.
SHAWSCOPE: VOLUME ONE (1972-1979). This outstanding box set from Arrow Video debuted at the end of 2020 (December 28, to be exact), but it’s only being covered here now because it houses 12 — count’ em, 12 — feature films whose viewings had to be interspersed over the weeks with other VftC offerings. It’s a must-own for fans of kung fu cinema, specifically those high-kicking and high-energy motion pictures produced by Shaw Brothers Studios. Although their company made various types of movies, studio heads Runme and Run Run Shaw tapped a rich vein of box office gold by releasing hundreds of martial arts features, with several of the finest and/or most famous included in this collection. Here are some of the highlights:
King Boxer (1972) absolutely had to be included in this set since it’s the film that began the whole kung fu craze in the United States. If the title’s unfamiliar, that’s because stateside it was released in 1973 as Five Fingers of Death, a box office hit that would doubtless be even more famous had U.S. distributor Warner Bros. (working with Shaw Brothers Studios competitor Golden Harvest) not elected to release its own genre flick, the thrilling Bruce Lee smash Enter the Dragon (reviewed here), later that year. The plot centers on a young martial arts student (Lo Lieh) overcoming incredible difficulties on his way to taking part in a major tournament.
The Mighty Peking Man (1977), aka Goliathon, is the odd film out in this set, since it’s not a kung fu flick but rather a King Kong rip-off. As such, it’s one of the better ones, with an explorer (Danny Lee) discovering an oversized creature and his human companion (Evelyne Kraft) living in the jungle; he then takes them to Hong Kong, with predictably tragic results. (For more on The Mighty Peking Man, go to King Kong: Ranking the Giant Ape Films here.)
A cult favorite, Five Deadly Venoms (1978), aka Shaolin Deadly Poisons, sports an irresistible premise. A student (Chiang Sheng) is instructed by his dying master (Dick Wei) to track down his five former pupils — Scorpion, Lizard, Toad, Snake, and Centipede — and ascertain which one(s) might be using their skills for nefarious purposes. Each employs a different fighting style, which means the young student will need assistance from the good pupils to help vanquish the evil ones.
Following the popularity of Five Deadly Venoms, the actors became collectively known as the Venom Mob and subsequently worked together on several occasions. One such picture is included here: Crippled Avengers (1978), aka Mortal Combat and The Return of the 5 Deadly Venoms, an offbeat endeavor in which four men — one blind, one a deaf mute, one legless, and one a gibbering idiot — seek revenge on the men who cruelly gave them their handicaps.
Heroes of the East (1978), aka Challenge of the Ninja and Shaolin Challenges Ninja, is a real treat, a kung fu romp as interested in humor as in action. With a strain of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew running throughout, it focuses on the marriage between a Chinese man (Gordon Liu) and a Japanese woman (Yuka Mizuno). Both are martial arts experts, with each insisting that their country’s style of fighting is the superior one. This leads to a separation and, eventually, a challenge in which the Chinese expert must battle a string of Japanese warriors each trained in a different discipline (karate, ninjutsu, judo, etc.).
As for the rest, The Boxer from Shantung (1972), aka The Killer from Shantung, is the longest film (134 minutes) in the set, with the title character (Chen Kuan Tai) getting involved with criminal elements. Five Shaolin Masters (1974), aka The 5 Masters of Death, centers on a quintet of heroes who set out to reveal the identity of the traitor responsible for the destruction of the Shaolin Temple. The prequel Shaolin Temple (1976), aka Death Chamber, similarly examines the conflict between the Shaolin Temple disciples and warriors from the Qing dynasty. A lesser entry in this set, Challenge of the Masters (1976) focuses on a young lad (Chia-Hui Liu) who requires extensive training before he can defend himself. Executioners from Shaolin (1977), aka The Executioners of Death, finds an evil priest (Lo Lieh) squaring off against a man (Wang Yu) trained in both the Tiger and Crane styles of fighting. Arguably the most obscure film in the set, Chinatown Kid (1977) follows a scrappy fighter (Fu Sheng) as he scuffles with mobsters in both Hong Kong and San Francisco. Finally, Dirty Ho (1979) is absolutely not what you’re imagining; instead, it’s an action comedy in which a prince (Chia-Hui Liu) hires a thief named Dirty Ho (Wong Yue) to serve as his bodyguard.
Blu-ray extras on select titles include audio commentary; cast and crew interviews; alternate opening credits; and theatrical trailers. The package also contains two soundtrack CDs and a booklet filled with essays and trivia.
WAYNE’S WORLD (1992). Prior to 1992, director Penelope Spheeris was best known for the 1981 documentary The Decline of Western Civilization. It would be inaccurate to state that Wayne’s World marked another decline in said civilization, but its presence did the world no favors (although it did Paramount plenty of favors at the box office). There was an odd tendency in the early-to-mid-1990s to produce ample movies and television shows that celebrated stupidity and condemned intelligence — this output included Dumb and Dumber, The Stupids, Beavis and Butt-Head, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, Fox News (which launched in 1996), anything starring Pauly Shore, and one of the few good works in this vein, the Best Picture Oscar winner Forrest Gump (reviewed here). Wayne’s World also belongs to this grouping, thanks to the doofus nature of Saturday Night Live party dudes Wayne (Mike Myers) and Garth (Dana Carvey). In this soufflé-light outing, the pair must contend with the efforts of a duplicitous TV producer (Rob Lowe) to commercialize their no-budget cable access show. There are a few worthy laughs scattered throughout the film (the “Stairway to Heaven” and Grey Poupon bits are keepers), but getting to each one requires wading through too much puerile mugging by the leads and sticking with a meandering screenplay that eventually runs aground. Wayne’s World 2 followed the very next year; it was basically more of the same.
Extras in the 30th Anniversary “Party On!” Blu-ray steelbook edition consist of audio commentary by Spheeris, and cast & crew interviews.