View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray, 4K and DVD.
Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises (Photo: Kino)
(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 APARTMENT (1960). A year after collaborating on the immortal Some Like It Hot, writer-director-producer Billy Wilder, co-writer I.A.L. Diamond, and star Jack Lemmon re-teamed for The Apartment, another screen gem that attained classic status in about as much time as it takes to comb one’s hair. Yet such instant accolades were nothing more than a work of art receiving its proper due, and, even 62 years later, this brilliant comedy has lost none of its luster. Lemmon stars as C.C. Baxter, an office underling who finds himself on a career trajectory toward executive status — this is entirely due to his compliance in allowing his apartment to be used by company superiors looking for a secluded place to take their mistresses. A bachelor with no friends or lovers, Baxter takes a liking to elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) and is understandably upset when he discovers that she’s the latest conquest of company bigwig and married man Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray). A tender, tentative romance that’s also a scathing look at office politics, The Apartment primarily works because of the achingly heartfelt performances by Lemmon and MacLaine. Nominated for 10 Academy Awards (including Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actor for Jack Kruschen as a helpful doctor), it won five, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay.
Kino has just released The Apartment in a 4K + Blu-ray edition. Extras consist of a pair of film historian audio commentaries; a retrospective making-of featurette; a piece on Lemmon; and the theatrical trailer.
COME DRINK WITH ME (1966). A key entry in the development of Hong Kong’s wuxia (“martial arts heroes”) films, writer-director King Hu’s Come Drink With Me features a protagonist who, like Ali, can float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. Although international audiences know her best for her performance as Jade Fox in Ang Lee’s 2000 Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it was this picture that made Cheng Pei-pei a star in her own homeland. She’s cast as Golden Swallow, a formidable fighter who takes on the criminals who have kidnapped her brother; along the way, she receives some unlikely help from a perpetually inebriated beggar who calls himself Drunken Cat (Yueh Hua). Although the film’s original Mandarin title is Great Drunken Hero, it’s the character of Golden Swallow who proves to be more interesting, particularly with a fighting style perhaps best described as graceful (Cheng’s background was in dance, which informs her character’s actions). As expected, the fight sequences are top-notch, although the violence in the film can be startling (such as the fate of an eavesdropping little boy).
Blu-ray extras include film historian audio commentary; a 2003 interview with Cheng; a 2007 interview with Yueh; a 2016 Q&A session with Cheng; a 2003 piece on the history of the wuxia genre, featuring interviews with Cheng, John Woo, Sammo Hung, and others; the theatrical trailer; and the trailer for the 1968 sequel Golden Swallow.
DRIVE-IN RETRO CLASSICS: SCIENCE FICTION TRIPLE FEATURE (1950-1958). Those of us who as kids used to scour the TV Guide listings in search of late-night genre fare (whether good, bad or ugly, it didn’t usually matter) will be thrilled with the new Drive-In Retro Classics DVD line from Corinth Films. The inaugural release contains three science fiction films from the 1950s, and while their quality is questionable, they’re perfect fodder for those perched in front of the TV set at 2 in the morning.
Rocketship X-M (1950) is the classiest of the three films — competent direction by The Fly’s Kurt Neumann, a recognizable cast in Lloyd Bridges, Hugh O’Brian, and Noah Beery Jr., a script polish by the blacklisted (and thus uncredited) Dalton Trumbo — so it’s lamentable that it’s also the dullest. Too many arid stretches tarnish this otherwise sturdy tale of the members of the first flight to the moon and the events that ensue when they’re knocked off their trajectory and end up on Mars. This was a low-budget production that was quickly filmed so it could beat the high-profile (and eventually Oscar-winning) Destination Moon into theaters (which it did by approximately one month), and the rush is evident. Nevertheless, the film earns a healthy measure of respect for its unexpected ending.
The Brain from Planet Arous (1957) is anything but dull — daft would be a better description. Sci-fi stalwart John Agar plays Steve March, a scientist who discovers an evil floating brain hiding out in a cave. Named Gor, this otherworldly brain with eyeballs takes over Steve’s body with plans to conquer the world — first, though, he puts the moves on Steve’s girlfriend Sally (Joyce Meadows), as this alien invader clearly has a yen for Earth women. Not to fear, as another brain shows up, this one going by the name Vol. As Vol helpfully explains, he’s a good alien pursuing the bad alien Gor, and he decides to inhabit the body of Sally’s dog in order to vanquish his nemesis. Hilarious.
The Hideous Sun Demon (1958) stars Robert Clarke as your typical ‘50s protagonist, the one who gets blasted by radiation and turns into a marauding monster (see also The Amazing Colossal Man, The Cyclops, The Gamma People, Creature with the Atom Brain, and about 1,000 more). Here, Clarke’s Dr. Gil McKenna initially seems OK after his mishap, but an outside stroll soon reveals that he will turn into a scaly monster whenever he’s exposed to the sun. The unusual structure of the plotting and the makeup effects are satisfactory, but they’re compromised by poor acting, dialogue, and direction (by Clarke and Tom Boutross).
There are no extras on the DVD.
Rocketship X-M: ★★
The Brain from Planet Arous: ★★
The Hideous Sun Demon: ★★
EASTERN PROMISES (2007). In a sense, Eastern Promises is a bookend to the previous film made by director David Cronenberg and star Viggo Mortensen: 2005’s excellent A History of Violence, about an ordinary café owner who may or may not have been a vicious mobster in his earlier years. Both films run along parallel tracks, full of whispery menace, marked by probing studies of masculinity at its extreme boundaries, punctuated with bursts of sexual and violent excess, and coping with abrupt endings. A History of Violence‘s hurried third act still carried enough weight to offer satisfaction, but Eastern Promises falls a bit short in the final count, taking some turns that are far more conventional than just about anything Cronenberg has ever done in his long and eccentric career and not allowing viewers enough time to come to terms with these contrivances. As Nikolai Luzhin, a taciturn chauffeur who works for the Vory V Zakone outfit (the Russian mafia) in London, Mortensen delivers a measured and restrained performance, whether dealing with the drunken son (Vincent Cassel) of a powerful crime lord (Armin Mueller-Stahl, absolutely chilling as the soft-spoken yet vicious kingpin) or trying to protect a hospital midwife (Naomi Watts) whose recovery of a dead prostitute’s diary places her right in the middle of a particularly sordid scenario. Mortensen’s emoting earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.
Eastern Promises has been released in a 4K + Blu-ray edition. Extras consist of a making-of featurette; a new interview with screenwriter Steven Knight; behind-the-scenes pieces with Cronenberg, Mortensen, and Watts; and theatrical trailers.
THE LAST WALTZ (1978). There has been a considerable number of exemplary concert films over the years, and this one ranks just under the 1984 Talking Heads classic Stop Making Sense and just above the 2002 Funk Brothers gem Standing in the Shadows of Motown as my pick for the best of the best. With a little help from their friends, the members of The Band — Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and Robbie Robertson — gather at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom on Thanksgiving 1976 for their final concert. It’s a blowout event, with the outfit joined by such all-stars as Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell, Ringo Starr, Neils Young and Diamond, anti-vax imbeciles Van Morrison and Eric Clapton, and other notables. And in between the performances of roughly two dozen songs (including The Band with “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” Paul Butterfield on “Mystery Train,” and Dylan with “Forever Young”), director Martin Scorsese cuts to his interviews with the Band members. The camaraderie and respect among the musicians during the concert is so thick that it’s almost tangible — I especially love the moment when a noticeably appreciative Neil Young thanks Robertson for allowing him to take part in their celebration, to which an incredulous (and grinning) Robertson replies, “Shit, are you kidding?”
Criterion has just released The Last Waltz in a 4K + Blu-ray edition. Extras include audio commentary by Scorsese and Robertson; audio commentary by Helm, Hudson, Dr. John, Ronnie Hawkins, Mavis Staples, and crew members; a retrospective making-of featurette; a new interview with Scorsese; a 1978 interview with Scorsese and Robertson; and an outtake of a jam session.
6:45 (2021). Like Palm Springs and the Happy Death Day twofer, here’s another recent movie that leans on the time-loop theme yet manages to sprint in its own unique direction. Jules (Augie Duke) and Bobby (Michael Reed) are in love even though they’ve recently been engaging in some blowout fights. Bobby would seem to be the culprit behind these spats: There are suggestions that he cheated on Jules, that he has anger management issues, and that he has alcoholic tendencies. Hoping to spend some quality alone time with Jules — and to get down on his knee and pop the question — he takes her to the island resort of Bog Grove, a tourist spot that is curiously devoid of tourists. Their day begins at 6:45 and ends with a masked and hooded figure appearing out of nowhere and murdering both of them. Then the day repeats itself over and over and over again, with Bobby frantically trying to figure out a way to jump-start the timeline and avoid their gruesome fates. 6:45 is an accomplished terror tale that’s both exciting and unsettling — for that, thank the combined efforts of director Craig Singer and scripter Robert Dean Klein. Klein keeps the specifics vague and only slowly dishes out crucial info — because of this approach, the final reveal will doubtless catch most viewers off guard. And Singer provides the proper atmosphere of angst and edginess — the lengthy sequence in which the pair remain in their room as Bobby counts down the hours and then minutes to midnight is particularly potent. Reed and Duke are excellent in the lead roles, with Duke particularly adept at flashing the raw nerves that have been exposed due to a less than reliable boyfriend.
The only Blu-ray extras are theatrical trailers.
A STAR IS BORN (1937). Of the four major motion pictures titled A Star Is Born, this was the first, and unlike the subsequent versions in 1954 (exceptional), 1976 (insipid), and 2018 (excellent), it’s not a musical. Janet Gaynor stars as Esther Blodgett, a small-town girl who arrives in Hollywood with dreams of becoming a famous actress. She encounters nothing but bad luck, but that changes after she catches the eye of movie star Norman Maine (Fredric March), who talks his producer (Adolphe Menjou) into giving her a screen test. With her name changed to Vicki Lester, she becomes an overnight star, and she and Norman get married. But Norman has never been able to get his drinking under control, and as her career continues to climb, his plummets precipitously. Those who expect this version to be softer and more sentimental than its remakes might be surprised at its harshness, not only in demonstrating the deleterious effects of alcoholism but also in painting most Hollywood denizens as soulless snakes ready to pounce on anyone unfortunate enough to stumble. Nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director (William A. Wellman), Screenplay, and Assistant Director, this won for Best Original Story (Wellman and Robert Carson); an early Technicolor feature, it also earned an honorary award for its color cinematography.
Blu-ray extras include two radio adaptations, one in 1937 with Gaynor and Robert Montgomery, the other in 1942 with Judy Garland (who would later star in the 1954 screen version) and Walter Pidgeon; the 1938 cartoon A Star Is Hatched; and a trio of live-action shorts from 1937.
THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM (1962). Producer George Pal, almost as renowned for his Puppetoons as for such sci-fi classics as 1953’s The War of the Worlds and 1960’s The Time Machine, put his considerable clout behind this delightful film that’s both a biopic of Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm and a visualization of three of their lesser known fairy tales. Henry Levin directed the portions that focus on the Grimm siblings and how Wilhelm (Laurence Harvey) is always distracted by fantastical tales while Jacob (Peeping Tom’s Karl Boehm) carries the heavy burden of adult responsibility. Pal himself directed the fairy tale sequences: “The Dancing Princess” (starring Russ Tamblyn and Yvette Mimieux), “The Cobbler and the Elves” (featuring Harvey and The Puppetoons), and “The Singing Bone” (with Terry-Thomas and Buddy Hackett). A box office hit, this is occasionally clunky but mostly clever and charming. Nominated for four Academy Awards, it won for Best Color Costume Design.
The Blu-ray for The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm is one of the best I’ve seen yet from the Warner Archive Collection. This was one of only two fictional films shot in the ultra-wide Three-Strip Cinerama process (the other was the same year’s How the West Was Won), and WAC is offering viewers the opportunity to watch the film in either the Letterbox version (disc 1) or — my preference since it’s so unique — the Smilebox version (disc 2). The featured film is the 140-minute roadshow presentation with overture, intermission, entr’acte, and exit music. Extras include a piece on the film’s restoration; a look at Pal’s career; and radio interviews with Tamblyn and Mimieux. An 8-page booklet is also included.
Short And Sweet:
MORVERN CALLAR (2002). Samantha Morton, a two-time Academy Award nominee for In America and Sweet and Lowdown but perhaps best known for her excellent turn as the Pre-Cog Agatha in Minority Report, essays the title role in writer-director Lynne Ramsay’s study of a young dreamer whose life takes some unexpected twists after her boyfriend commits suicide. Ramsay (working from Alan Warner’s novel) and Morton trust the audience enough to resist softening up or even explaining their central character, resulting in a difficult yet ultimately rewarding piece.
Blu-ray extras include film historian audio commentary and a visual essay.
TO SLEEP SO AS TO DREAM (1986). Writer-director Kaizo Hayashi’s playful period romp finds two ‘50s-era detectives (Shirō Sano and Koji Otake) hired by the elderly Madame Cherryblossom (Fujiko Fukamizo), a former silent-film star, to find the criminals who kidnapped her daughter Bellflower (Moe Kamura). Mostly silent and shot in black-and-white, this is a fanciful homage to the cinema of Japan’s past, blending reality and illusion as characters are able to enter the film-within-the-film. It’s visually interesting, even if the style occasionally overwhelms the story.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Hayashi and Sano; an interview with Sano; and a piece on the film’s restoration.
Links for previously reviewed movies referenced in this column:
The Fly (1958)
Happy Death Day
Happy Death Day 2U
Some Like It Hot
Standing in the Shadows of Motown
A Star Is Born (2018)
Stop Making Sense
The War of the Worlds (1953)