View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray, 4K and DVD.
Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity (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 CRAFT (1996). Until it goes completely astray in the headache-inducing second half, The Craft begins as a promising look at troubled teenage girls as filtered through supernatural sensibilities. Sarah (Robin Tunney) is the new kid in school, and, because she possesses seemingly otherworldly powers, she soon falls in with a trio known among the other students as “the bitches of Eastwick”: Nancy (Fairuza Balk), Bonnie (Neve Campbell), and Rochelle (Rachel True). Now with their coven at full capacity, the teen witches are able to utilize their powers to their fullest potential, but karma eventually catches up with them. The early going is interesting, amusing, and even clever, but such cinematic niceties give way to a disappointing second hour in which select characters suddenly stop making sense, Balk’s performance switches from wry and mysterious to embarrassingly over-the-top (she makes such noted hams as Charles Laughton and Rod Steiger appear as low-key as Casey Affleck and Keanu Reeves by comparison), and busy special effects completely take over the proceedings. In the years since its premiere, this picture has enjoyed a minor cult following, but for a far better bet for the witching hour, stick with any of a half-dozen Hammer flicks in the same vein — might I recommend The Devil Rides Out and The Witches? (Like The Craft, both are available on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory.)
4K extras include audio commentary by writer-director Andrew Fleming; deleted scenes; and a vintage making-of featurette.
DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944). Quite possibly the most perfect example of film noir to emerge from Hollywood during that genre’s reign, Double Indemnity was yet one more gem that Billy Wilder would helm during an extraordinary career that also made room for (among numerous others) Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, and the criminally overlooked Five Graves to Cairo. A bored housewife (Barbara Stanwyck) talks a flirtatious insurance salesman (Fred MacMurray) into helping her bump off her husband; all goes according to plan until the salesman’s shrewd boss (Edward G. Robinson) begins to smell a scam. Adapted from James M. Cain’s novel (with a script by Wilder and Raymond Chandler), this genuine classic is sexy, stylish, and suspenseful, with incredible dialogue that’s simply to die for. MacMurray and Stanwyck have never been better, while Robinson is marvelous as a self-congratulatory sort who never suspects that his favorite employee has turned the corner. An influence on countless thrillers to follow (Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat is a direct descendant), this earned seven Academy Award nominations, including bids for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Actress (the two male actors were gypped).
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by film historian Richard Schickel; a retrospective making-of featurette from 2006; and the three-hour 1992 documentary Billy, How Did You Do It?
A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964) / FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (1965). Sergio Leone’s 1966 Western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was already released on 4K by Kino last year, and now the outfit brings the first two entries in Leone’s “Man With No Name” trilogy to the format. (Although, as most fans know, the “Man With No Name” was purely an American promotional campaign, since Clint Eastwood’s character in each film does have a name, and a different one each time.)
A Fistful of Dollars (1964) is a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 Yojimbo, with Eastwood as the stranger who plays both sides in the squabble between two warring clans. It’s a solid effort that establishes some constants: Eastwood’s soft-spoken but hard-shooting hero (antihero?), a thundering score by Ennio Morricone (billed here as Dan Savio), and Leone’s filming style, perhaps best described as operatic. For a Few Dollars More (1965) is even better, with Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef as rival bounty hunters who team up to stop a psychotic outlaw (Gian Maria Volontè, who had played a different — but equally deadly — villain in A Fistful of Dollars). While Eastwood is of course the star of all three films, it’s startling to realize how little he actually does in this grandly entertaining middle entry. This is arguably Van Cleef’s picture, and he’s excellent as a gunslinger with an understated nature and a wry sense of humor (this is the film that includes the famous scene in which he lights a match off the scruff of Klaus Kinski’s neck).
All the special features for both films (sold separately) have been brought over from previous editions — a good thing, since there’s so much to check out. The most interesting extra on A Fistful of Dollars finds director Monte Hellman (Two-Lane Blacktop) discussing how he was hired to direct a prologue for the film’s initial network airing, one that would provide Eastwood’s character with a moral reason for all the subsequent killing! The actual scene is included — it’s available only because a fan rented a Betamax machine to tape the movie that night and kept the cassette all these years — and while there’s no Eastwood in sight (a body double was used), it does offer character actor (and Hellman regular) Harry Dean Stanton. For its part, an extra on For a Few Dollars More highlights the minor differences between the U.S. and foreign cuts of the film. Extras accompanying both films include film historian audio commentary; an interview with Eastwood; a remembrance of Leone; and ample photo galleries.
A Fistful of Dollars: ★★★
For a Few Dollars More: ★★★½
FLOWER DRUM SONG (1961). It’s not considered essential Rodgers & Hammerstein like Oklahoma! or The Sound of Music, but Flower Drum Song was enough of a hit on Broadway that it prompted Universal Pictures to bankroll a screen version. It was the first Hollywood film to feature a mostly Asian-American cast in a modern setting, but while debate as to whether the portrayals were earnest or offensive continues, keep in mind that 1961 was also the year that Breakfast at Tiffany’s featured arguably cinema’s all-time worst racial stereotype in Mickey Rooney’s casting as Holly Golightly’s bucktoothed Japanese neighbor Mr. Yunioshi — by comparison, practically anything employing actual Asian-Americans looks respectful. Miyoshi Umeki, the first Asian-American to win an Oscar for acting (Best Supporting Actress for 1957’s Sayonara), is cast as Mei Li, an illegal immigrant who arrives in San Francisco’s Chinatown for an arranged marriage. The usual romantic mix-ups and misunderstandings lead to complications that ensnare Mei Li, nightclub owner Sammy Fong (Barney Miller’s Jack Soo), his star performer Linda Low (top-billed Nancy Kwan), and nice guy Wang Ta (James Shigeta). The contrived plot is subdued by disarming performances and bright production values. This earned five Oscar nominations for various technical achievements but, like many movies that year, was bested in all categories by West Side Story.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Kwan; a retrospective making-of featurette; and a piece on the songs.
KINKY BOOTS (2005). Before Cyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein transformed it into a delightful Broadway musical, Kinky Boots was simply a modest British film darting between comedy, drama, and musical interludes. It’s the sort of pleasant trifle that the Brits used to do often and do fairly well, generating the same sort of warm and fuzzy vibes as 1995’s The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain, 1997’s The Full Monty, 1998’s Waking Ned Devine, 2003’s Calendar Girls, and other films focusing on eccentric characters in working-class towns. Joel Edgerton plays Charlie Price, whose father has just passed away and left him the Northampton shoe factory that has long been in the family. The business seems headed for bankruptcy until Charlie hits upon the idea of creating a line of shoes for drag queens. To aid him in his endeavor, he recruits one such performer: Lola (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who’s seemingly accepted by all of the factory workers except the sexist and close-minded Don (Nick Frost). There’s never any real doubt where all this is headed, but between Ejiofor’s top-notch performance, a sweet supporting turn by Sarah-Jane Potts as Charlie’s most loyal employee, and a welcome message of nondiscrimination (a particularly lovely sentiment in these trying times), Kinky Boots is anything but a drag.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director Julian Jarrold, Edgerton, Ejiofor, and Potts; deleted scenes; and a piece on the real factory that inspired the movie.
PASSENGERS (2016). It becomes clear before long that the futuristic sci-fi outing Passengers, aka Grab ‘Em By the Pussy: The Movie, could only have been written by a man. The picture stars Chris Pratt as Jim Preston, one of the 5,000 hibernating passengers aboard a spacecraft heading to a habitable planet 120 light years away. A glitch causes Jim to awaken 90 years too soon; realizing he will die alone long before the ship reaches its destination, he decides to wake up a hottie, Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), to keep him company. It’s an interesting if troubling premise, and scripter Jon Spaihts initially plays fair with the scenario’s moral implications. But the final stretch finds the film repeatedly copping out: Characters make ridiculous choices, the thorny issues are dismissed, and the story turns to absurd action-film conventions. The visual scheme is excellent — this earned an Academy Award nomination for its production design, as well as another for Thomas Newman’s original score — but even it gets trumped by the story’s icky implications.
Sony initially released Passengers in a 4K + 3-D + Blu-ray edition back in 2017; this new offering drops the 3-D disc and includes a digital code instead. Extras include a featurette on the visual effects; a look at the casting; a chat with Pratt; deleted scenes; and outtakes.
THE UNTOUCHABLES (1987). If Carrie and Dressed to Kill are the best Brian DePalma films that are instantly recognizable as Brian DePalma films, The Untouchables qualifies as the best movie that the director made as a gun-for-hire. DePalma has long admitted that he took this project solely in the hopes of scoring a commercial hit — it worked, with the film landing in the #6 slot on the list of 1987’s biggest moneymakers. Yet the finished piece remains more than just some multiplex seat filler: It’s one of the great gangster flicks, a gorgeously realized production that places archetypal heroes and villains in the service of a rip-roaring storyline. David Mamet’s lean script, bearing little relationship to the old TV series, finds federal agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner, kicking off a formidable run of box office hits) deciding that he will stop at nothing to bring down Chicago mob boss Al Capone (Robert De Niro) during the days of Prohibition. To accomplish his goal, he creates a squad comprised of incorruptible law officers (Sean Connery, Andy Garcia, and Charles Martin Smith). As the grizzled cop who takes Ness under his wing, Connery earned a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar, although he should have been joined in the winners’ circle by cinematography Stephen H. Burum and especially composer Ennio Morricone, whose sweeping score ranks among his greatest achievements.
4K extras consist of a quartet of retrospective making-of pieces; a vintage behind-the-scenes featurette; and the theatrical trailer.
Review links for movies referenced in this column:
Breakfast at Tiffany’s
The Devil Rides Out
Dressed to Kill
Five Graves to Cairo
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Some Like It Hot
The Witches (1966)