View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray, 4K and DVD.
Milena Smit and Penélope Cruz in Parallel Mothers (Photo: Sony Pictures Classics)
(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.)
EDGAR G. ULMER SCI-FI COLLECTION (1951-1960). Director Edgar G. Ulmer spent the vast majority of his career making low-budget, Poverty Row pictures, and it’s been unclear whether that was because he was blacklisted by the major studios after a scandalous affair or because he appreciated the artistic freedom he was given on the smaller projects. Either way, his talent was evident throughout his career: 1934’s The Black Cat (one of his few major movies for a prominent studio, Universal) is arguably the best of the Karloff-Lugosi collaborations, 1945’s Detour is a film noir classic, and such efforts as 1944’s Bluebeard, 1948’s Ruthless, and 1955’s The Naked Dawn are all cineaste favorites. As for the fantasy flicks offered in this triple-feature Blu-ray from Kino, their quality is more open to debate, and they might be admired as much by science fiction fans as Ulmer devotees.
Of the three, The Man From Planet X (1951) is the one that best illustrates the filmmaker’s visual style — forget the “Lubitsch touch”; what we have here is the “Ulmer touch.” Filmed in less than a week for less than $50,000, Ulmer took standing sets from Joan of Arc (the Ingrid Bergman version), blanketed them in fog, and — voila! — a California backlot was transformed into the Scottish moors, which is where the titular alien has landed. Studying his activities are an elderly scientist (Raymond Bond), his daughter (Margaret Field, Sally’s mom), his duplicitous assistant (William Schallert), and a newspaperman (The Hideous Sun Demon’s Robert Clarke). The dialogue is occasionally dry and the climax is disappointing (here come the soldiers to blow everything up!), but what’s interesting about the picture is the ambiguity surrounding the e.t.’s intentions — is he friend or foe or frenemy? The alien is eerie in design, and Ulmer’s staging of its first appearance is superbly handled.
Unlike The Man From Planet X, which overcame its low budget, Beyond the Time Barrier (1960) is often hobbled by its lack of funds. Yet Ulmer still manages to offer a compelling shot here and there, and the story by Arthur C. Pierce contains several intriguing ideas. Filmed in Texas (since the financiers were Lone Star residents), this casts Clarke as a test pilot who takes off in flight in 1960 and ends up in the year 2024. There, he discovers an underground society of relatively normal humans who are fighting off attacks from marauding bands of mutants. There’s a sloppiness that permeates all aspects of the production, including Ulmer’s direction of his actors — Darlene Tompkins portrays a deaf-mute yet repeatedly reacts to things occurring outside her line of vision, while other performers speak so haltingly that one wonders if they’re having trouble remembering their lines. Yet the character dynamics are compelling and the set design isn’t bad (there are hints of German expressionism throughout).
The minimal makeup work on Beyond the Time Barrier is courtesy of Jack Pierce, the legendary artist who followed his Universal stint creating cinema’s classic monsters by working on such cheapies as Giant From The Unknown and The Brain From Planet Arous. He’s also involved with The Amazing Transparent Man (1960), the other half of Ulmer’s work for the Texas backers. This one is particularly poor, as a madman (James Griffith) seeking to take over the world from his unassuming house forces a kindly scientist (Ivan Triesault) to build an invisibility machine. The megalomaniac selects a hardened criminal (Douglas Kennedy) to do his bidding while invisible and is surprised when the crook decides to use his newfound status to rob banks instead. There’s a reason this was savaged on Mystery Science Theater 3000, although the film did have a clever William Castle-styled promo: “WARNING! Joey Faust, escaped convict, THE AMAZING TRANSPARENT MAN, has vowed to ‘appear’ invisibly IN PERSON at every performance of this picture!”
Blu-ray extras consist of film historian audio commentary on all three titles, and the theatrical trailers.
The Man From Planet X: ★★½
Beyond the Time Barrier: ★★½
The Amazing Transparent Man: ★½
FANDANGO (1985) / AMERICAN FLYERS (1985). He appeared in a tiny role as a frat boy in Ron Howard’s 1982 Night Shift and found his scenes deleted in Lawrence Kasdan’s 1983 The Big Chill. He gained notice in Kasdan’s 1985 Silverado and achieved stardom with Brian De Palma’s 1987 The Untouchables. Yet during this stretch of high-profile pictures, Kevin Costner also headlined two modest films that are now being released (separately) on Blu-ray through the Warner Archive Collection line.
Long before the word became branded as a media monolith and a hub for movie tickets, “fandango” referred to both a Spanish dance and a foolish act. Since both dictionary definitions are highlighted at the beginning of Fandango, it’s a given that each will eventually make its way into the plot. The film is expanded from writer-director Kevin Reynolds’ 1980 student film Proof, which centered on a guy who’s convinced by his friends to try skydiving. Steven Spielberg saw the short and (through his Amblin company) had Reynolds build a storyline around this one incident. Thus, Fandango focuses on five early-’70s college friends embarking on a road trip before they all go their separate ways. Costner is the rascally party animal, Judd Nelson is the straight-laced bore, Sam Robards (son of Jason Robards and Lauren Bacall) is the Vietnam War draftee, Chuck Bush is the gentle giant, and Brian Cesak is the guy who amusingly stays passed out almost the entire film due to excessive boozing. Fandango was barely released theatrically — after all the early enthusiasm, Spielberg was disappointed in the final result and had his name removed from the credits — but it has built a loyal audience thanks to VHS and DVD. Not surprisingly, the highlight is the skydiving sequence — Marvin J. McIntyre, retained from Proof, is hilarious as the goofball instructor — while other segments (particularly toward the end) are more hit-and-miss.
Steve Tesich won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for 1979’s Breaking Away, a sleeper hit in which the lead character was obsessed with bicycle racing. Tesich returns to the sport with American Flyers, which adds a medical melodrama to an underdog template. Costner stars as Marcus Sommers, a doctor whose father died of a brain aneurysm. Knowing that the disease runs in the family, Marcus is worried that it will also strike his estranged younger brother David (David Marshall Grant) — instead, he learns that he’s the unlucky recipient. As a final act of bonding, he talks David into joining him for a grueling bike race in Colorado, one with the imposing name “Hell of the West.” Rae Dawn Chong and Alexandra Paul co-star as the women in the siblings’ lives, while up-and-comers Robert Townsend and Jennifer Grey appear in small roles. Efficiently directed by John Badham (WarGames, Bird on a Wire), American Flyers wears its clichés well, with strong performances compensating for the predictability of both the bike plotline and the brain storyline.
The only extra on each Blu-ray is the theatrical trailer.
American Flyers: ★★½
NEW YEAR’S EVIL (1980). Here’s a slasher film done Cannon Films-style, which means it’s even worse than most. Produced by Cannon schlockmeisters Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, New Year’s Evil hit theaters the same year as the first Friday the 13th, and it’s so unbelievably, unspeakably awful that it makes the Jason Voorhees flick (or should that be the Mrs. Voorhees flick?) look as masterful as Psycho by comparison. Roz Kelly, best known for playing Pinky Tuscadero, the most famous of Fonzie’s girlfriends on TV’s Happy Days, is brash and overbearing as Diane “Blaze” Sullivan, the host of a music show being nationally televised on New Year’s Eve. As the evening progresses, she’s repeatedly interrupted by phone calls from a mysterious man who promises to murder her after he’s worked his way through a few other females — his gimmick is that he will kill one woman each hour that a U.S. time zone hits midnight, saving Blaze in her L.A. time zone for last. With its risible script, inept direction, and amateurish performances (particularly by Kip Niven and Grant Cramer, respectively playing Diane’s husband and son), this one’s the absolute pits; even the extras cast as the partygoers are terrible. Incidentally, there’s a title song that has gained a fervent following — it’s catchy cheese, although with such lyrics as “Tell me will it be sweet New Year’s Eve, Or do I fear a New Year’s Evil,” it’s unlikely to replace “Auld Lang Syne” as the NYE standard.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by director Emmett Alston; a retrospective making-of piece featuring interviews with Niven, Cramer, co-star Taaffe O’Connell, and director of photography Thomas Ackerman; and the theatrical trailer.
PARALLEL MOTHERS (2021). Building on a professional partnership that began a quarter-century ago, writer-director Pedro Almodóvar and actress Penélope Cruz team up for the seventh time for Parallel Mothers, a shattering drama whose potency is occasionally diluted by an intrusive secondary storyline. Cruz is typically excellent as Janis, a photographer who becomes involved with a married archaeologist named Arturo (Israel Elejalde). Janis gets pregnant and decides she wants to keep the baby; while at the hospital, she becomes friends with Ana (Milena Smit), a pregnant teenager, and they both have their babies at the same time. From here, the film goes down a dark path, with a fairly predictable twist followed by a more surprising — and more shocking — development. This might be Almodóvar working in melodramatic mode, but the film succeeds because of the manner in which all the various characters play off each other, from Janis and Arturo to Janis and Ana to Ana and her career-distracted mother (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón). Unfortunately, there’s an entire subplot that frequently takes over the film, including during the precious final minutes. Focusing on the efforts of Janis, Arturo, and others to exhume the bodies of Spanish Civil War victims from a mass grave, this sizable portion of the movie distracts from the central storyline and even derails it on occasion. It’s weighty stuff, and Almodóvar should have saved it for its own movie. Parallel Mothers earned a pair of Academy Award nominations for Best Actress (Cruz) and Best Original Score (Alberto Iglesias).
The only Blu-ray extras are the theatrical trailer and previews.
TENTACLES (1977). A Jaws rip-off from prolific producer Ovidio G. Assonitis (The Exorcist rip-off Beyond the Door, The Omen rip-off The Visitor), this chintzy Italian production stars John Huston as Ned Turner, a reporter investigating the disappearance of several seaside residents. It turns out the culprit is a giant octopus, which means it’s time to call in a marine expert (Bo Hopkins) whose two best friends are a pair of killer whales named Winter and Summer. Shelley Winters, arguably the worst performer (or at least the most one-note) ever to win more than one Academy Award for acting (a pair of supporting statues for The Diary of Anne Frank and A Patch of Blue), co-stars as Huston’s irksome sister, while Henry Fonda phones in his performance — literally, as almost all his scenes involve him talking on the telephone — as a business magnate bothered that it’s his company responsible for disturbing this critter’s peaceful slumber. This will be a disappointment mostly to those predisposed to seeing a post-The Poseidon Adventure Winters and a post-Chinatown Huston get hot and heavy in an incestuous clinch. Considering one of the heroic whales is named Summer and my family unit includes a Golden Retriever named Summer, you would think I’d be inclined to cut this film some slack. But, nope, it’s pretty rancid, although I suppose it’s the perfect party picture to screen in the background as your guests get suitably soused.
Blu-ray extras consist of the theatrical trailer and a radio spot.
WALKER (1987). Roger Ebert gave it zero stars (TV partner Gene Siskel was equally scathing). Leonard Maltin slapped it with a BOMB rating. And USA Today‘s Mike Clark included it on his year-end “10 Worst” list, pairing it with director Alex Cox’s other 1987 offering, Straight to Hell. And these reviews were just the tip of the iceberg — no wonder I was hell-bent back in the day to catch a movie that immediately gained such notoriety as it was barely being released to theaters (it ultimately grossed a ground-scraping $257,000 against a $5.8 million budget). Alas, my hope of finding perverse pleasure where others only found pain (as with The Bonfire of the Vanities, for instance) failed to come to fruition, as this movie truly was torturous. A fresh viewing decades later reveals that the picture has improved only a smidgen — its points about American imperialism are as noteworthy today, but its satiric take on the subject remains as obvious and ham-fisted as it did back when it premiered. Although it centers on William Walker (Ed Harris), the 19th-century adventurer who overthrew the Nicaraguan government and set himself up as the country’s president, Cox and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer (Two-Lane Blacktop) meant for their work to serve as an indictment of the Reagan administration’s illegal dealings with that country’s terrorists throughout the 1980s. But for all its admirable intentions, Walker is a chore to endure, and even the deliberate anachronisms — Coke bottles, TIME magazine, and more — reek of desperation rather than inspiration. Only the excellent score by The Clash’s Joe Strummer escapes the monotony that settles over the rest of this strident picture.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Cox and Wurlitzer; a making-of documentary; behind-the-scenes photos; and an amusing bit in which Cox pores over some of the original reviews.
Links for previously reviewed movies and shows referenced in this column:
Bird on a Wire
The Black Cat (1934)
The Brain From Planet Eros
Friday the 13th
Giant From the Unknown
Mystery Science Theater 3000
The Hideous Sun Demon
A Patch of Blue