View From the Couch: Bullet Train, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, No Escape, etc.
View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray, 4K and DVD.
View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray, 4K and DVD.
Brad Pitt in Bullet Train (Photo: Sony)
By Matt Brunson
(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.)
BULLET TRAIN (2022). After the dreadfulness of 2017’s Free Fire, I was ready to call a moratorium on any more Tarantino-styled crime flicks in which hipper-than-thou killers spout wisecracks while blasting away at each other. Bullet Train isn’t quite good enough to make me want to reconsider the ban, but, like the titular mode of transportation, it does pick up speed as it barrels along. Adapted from Kōtarō Isaka’s novel Maria Beetle, this finds Brad Pitt delivering a loose and lively performance as Ladybug, one of a number of assassins who find their fates intertwined during a fateful trip aboard a speedy Japanese train. All of the various participants are after a MacGuffin-esque briefcase (alas, this one doesn’t glow like the ones in Pulp Fiction and Kiss Me Deadly), and all are fearful (or at least wary) of a powerful mob boss known only as the “White Death” (played by an Oscar-nominated actor who only appears late in the game). While director David Leitch (whose 2017 spy yarn Atomic Blonde looks better and better with each passing year) stages the action effectively enough, he doesn’t take advantage of the setting as efficiently as, say, the 2013 sleeper Last Passenger or the 1972 Cushing-Lee collaboration Horror Express. And while the plotline is admirably knotty and leads to some satisfying denouements, it does grow tiresome watching characters with such code names as Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), and The Hornet (Zazie Beetz) engage in witticisms that often aren’t particularly witty. Two of Pitt’s The Lost City co-stars turn up in supporting roles (one unbilled), while another A-lister appears for about five seconds as the hitman Carver.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Leitch, screenwriter Zak Olkewicz, and producer Kelly McCormick; a making-of featurette; outtakes and bloopers; and a look at the stuntwork.
THE COUNTERFEIT TRAITOR (1962). I first caught The Counterfeit Traitor on television at a very young age — young enough that the movie convinced me I wanted to become a spy since these spies folded their handkerchiefs in a cool way to communicate with each other and heck that looked like fun and gosh I’d be good at doing something like that. I guess my impressionable young mind somehow disregarded the fact that one of the spies gets thrust in front of a firing squad and mercilessly mowed down, but never mind. Catching the film for the first time since that virginal viewing decades earlier, it still functions as an engrossing World War II thriller. Based on a true story, this stars William Holden as Eric Erickson, an oil executive who long ago switched his nationality from American to Swedish and settled down in Stockholm. Since Eric is a neutral businessman from a neutral company, this allows him to sell oil to the Nazis — it’s perfectly legal, but his U.S. roots make it easier for a British agent (Hugh Griffith) to nevertheless blackmail him into working as a spy for the Allied cause. The apolitical Eric reluctantly agrees, only to later be privy to Gestapo savagery from an uncomfortably close vantage point. Lilli Palmer co-stars as Marianne Möllendorf, a fellow spy who’s compromised by the Catholic values that otherwise sustain her — she and Holden make a very handsome couple once they romantically hook up — and look for Klaus Kinski as a Jewish concentration camp escapee. Shooting the picture in the cities where the actual events took place (Stockholm, Berlin, Copenhagen, and Hamburg) provides international flavor to this intelligent drama.
Blu-ray extras consist of film historian audio commentary and the theatrical trailer.
E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982). Upon its release, this instant classic from Steven Spielberg became the all-time top moneymaking film in the U.S., a position it held for 15 years. More importantly, it entered the national consciousness in a manner reserved for only a handful of films (King Kong, The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, The Godfather, etc.), and it remains a near-perfect study of friendship and fantasy as filtered through the eyes of a young boy desperately in need of a companion. Spielberg has made a handful of films I would rate higher than E.T., but in terms of emotional investment for the whole family, this one is peerless in his canon, evoking laughter, tears, and everything in between as we follow little E.T.’s odyssey to return home. There’s much to savor: the remarkable performance by Henry Thomas as the alien’s human soulmate Elliott (it’s no coincidence his name begins and ends with “ET”); the equally impressive turns by Robert McNaughton and 6-year-old Drew Barrymore as Elliott’s siblings; the majestic sweep of one of John Williams’ best scores; Dee Wallace’s achingly real performance as the kids’ vulnerable single mom (why Wallace never became a bigger star remains a mystery); and isolated sequences (the classroom frogs, the flying bikes, etc.) that will continue to delight moviegoers for generations to come. Nominated for nine Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Director), this won statues for Best Original Score, Best Visual Effects, Best Sound, and Best Sound Effects Editing.
The 40th Anniversary Blu-ray edition contains two new extras — a retrospective piece and a chat with Spielberg — and several previously available, including a making-of featurette; deleted scenes; and behind-the-scenes footage.
NO ESCAPE (1994). Set in 2022, No Escape was prescient in anticipating an America in which for-profit prisons continue to be an insidious evil benefiting from a capitalist system. That’s the thematic framework for this robust action flick from Gale Anne Hurd, the producer of The Terminator, Aliens, and Tremors, and Martin Campbell, the director of both the best Daniel Craig Bond film (Casino Royale) and the best Pierce Brosnan 007 outing (GoldenEye). The primary setting is a remote island where the most troublesome prisoners are sent to fend for themselves. The latest arrival is John Robbins (Ray Liotta), a former Marine who was found guilty of murdering his commanding officer (for an understandable reason, it turns out). A loner by nature, Robbins refuses to join The Outsiders, a band of fascists led by the vicious Marek (Stuart Wilson), and reluctantly hooks up with The Insiders, a group of progressives headed by an erudite man known as The Father (Lance Henriksen). Focused only on escaping from this jungle hellhole, Robbins attempts to keep his distance from everyone else, but he ends up philosophizing with The Father, butting heads with the Insiders’ second-in-command (Ernie Hudson), and looking out for a guileless kid (Kevin Dillon). Working from Richard Herley’s novel The Penal Colony, scripters Michael Gaylin and Joel Gross (the sole film credit for both) do a commendable job of turning the characters into more than one-dimensional action figures, with a forceful Liotta particularly benefiting. Wilson makes for a memorable villain except in those unfortunate instances when he resorts to hamming it up.
Blu-ray extras include new interviews with Campbell, Hurd, and Gross; a vintage making-of piece; an alternate opening with the film’s international title, Escape from Absolom; and an image gallery.
QUIET DAYS IN CLICHY (1970). Although it hopefully won’t become a weekly staple, this is the second column in a row to include a review of a seventies film in which two sexist boors in France spend most of their waking hours sleeping with — and then discarding — a bevy of women, including a virginal teenager. If Going Places is the superior film, that’s largely due to stellar performances and a few choice scenarios. This loose interpretation of the Henry Miller novel, on the other hand, is more of interest as a time capsule piece than for its rather unexceptional content and its drab protagonists. The story follows failed American writer Joey (Paul Valjean) and his French roommate Carl (Wayne Rodda) as they search for food and “cunt” all over Paris, but it’s the experimental presentation that provides this picture with any semblance of juice. Because of a few pornographic shots (to say nothing of its rampant hedonism), this was temporarily seized by the U.S. authorities upon its original release. Country Joe McDonald contributes the title song, which contains such lyrics as “Then there was Jean from the Herald Tribune, Bringing bottles of wine up to their room, They could squeeze her tits and rub her crack, But the thought of fucking drove her quite mad.”
Regardless of one’s opinion of the film, Blue Underground’s 4K UHD + Blu-ray edition is a keeper simply for its wealth of bonus features. There’s an interview with Barney Rosset, the legendary publisher who successfully waged court battles to bring a pair of banned books, Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, to the U.S. There’s also a second interview with Rosset, conducted by Screw publisher Al Goldstein for his notorious public access show Midnight Blue. Other unique extras include a book cover gallery and even court documents!
THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985). Dan O’Bannon, best known for co-scripting such sci-fi hits as Alien and Total Recall, made his directorial debut with this extremely gory and extremely goofy horror outing that has since achieved a measure of cult enshrinement. Playing up the humor in an effort to differentiate this from George Romero’s zombie flicks, O’Bannon and his fellow scribes (including John Russo, who also co-wrote Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead) have Frank (James Karen) and Freddy (Thom Matthews), two employees at the Uneeda medical supply warehouse in Louisville, Kentucky, accidentally release not only a zombie from a misplaced military canister but also the attendant gas that soon turns the corpses at nearby Resurrection Cemetery into the walking dead. Burt (Clu Gulager), the Uneeda boss, is summoned to contain the crisis, and he in turn seeks assistance from a neighboring mortician (Don Calfa). Meanwhile, Freddy’s girlfriend (Tina Randolph) and her punkish friends have picked the wrong night to party in the cemetery. The makeup effects are tremendous, and Calfa and especially Karen are hilarious as working stiffs (no pun intended) who end up fighting for their lives. It’s just too bad the ending is so abrupt and therefore not entirely satisfying.
Extras in the 4K UHD + Blu-ray edition include four audio commentaries with various cast and crew members; the workprint, with 20 minutes of additional footage; a making-of documentary; O’Bannon’s final interview (he passed away in 2009); an interview with Russo; pieces on the film’s effects and music; and a featurette on ’80s horror films.
A SHAUN THE SHEEP MOVIE: FARMAGEDDON (2019) / RUMBLE (2021). Here are two animated features designed for the whole family to enjoy, although only one can actually be enjoyed by the whole family.
An Academy Award nominee for Best Animated Feature, A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon is the latest chapter in the adventures of the character first introduced in the brilliant 1995 Wallace & Gromit short A Close Shave. This one’s basically an animated E.T., with a cute little alien requiring the assistance of Shaun, his flock of friends, and Bitzer the sheepdog to be reunited with her otherworldly parents. As with practically all of Aardman Animations’ stop-motion endeavors, this is persistently clever and utterly charming.
Conversely, there’s not much charm or cleverness to be found in Rumble, a by-the-numbers toon tale with monster wrestlers as its hook. Will Arnett provides the voice for Rayburn Jr., who’s groomed by the daughter (Geraldine Viswanathan) of a legendary coach to emulate his own legendary father, a wrestling superstar, by taking on the obnoxious reigning champion, Tentacular (Terry Crews). The animation ranges from inspired to unseemly, the themes are strictly kid-flick boilerplate, and the overall project will likely only appease children and the stray WWE fan.
Blu-ray extras on A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon include a making-of piece; a look at the character’s history; and the featurettes “How to Draw Shaun” and “How to Draw Lu-La.” Blu-ray extras on Rumble include a piece on the animation; a look at the various monster wrestlers; and deleted scenes.
A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon: ★★★
TROPIC THUNDER (2008). Here’s a movie that manages to keep the laughs hurtling forward for its entire running time, no small feat in an era in which many comedies lose steam by the final reel. Ben Stiller (who also co-wrote and directed) stars as Tugg Speedman, a macho action star whose one attempt at an awards-bait title, the resounding flop Simple Jack, has largely derailed his career. Jack Black plays Jeff Portnoy, a comedian known for vulgar blockbusters (up next: The Fatties, Fart 2). And Robert Downey Jr. essays the role of Kirk Lazarus, a five-time Academy Award-winning actor. All three, plus rap star Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) and screen newcomer Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), are in Vietnam shooting the war movie to end all war movies. After finding themselves lost in the jungle, they become the targets of heavily armed locals who don’t take kindly to what they mistakenly believe to be DEA agents searching for their heroin factory. Rude and crude, Tropic Thunder displays minimal mercy toward its targets, yet even its gross-out gags display a manic ingenuity far removed from the one-note crudeness found in, say, your typical Rob Schneider vehicle. All the performances are inspired (including Tom Cruise in a change-of-pace role as a tyrannical studio executive), yet top acting honors go to Downey, who between this picture (for which he earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination) and Iron Man had a helluva Summer 2008.
The new two-disc edition offers the theatrical cut in 4K and the director’s cut on Blu-ray. Extras include a pair of audio commentaries, one with Stiller, Black, and Downey; deleted and extended scenes; an alternate ending; Cruise’s make-up test; and a hilarious skit created for the MTV Movie Awards.
Review links for movies referenced in this column:
The Lost City
Re: Tropic Thunder
Not even a passing reference on the merits/indulgences of the director’s cut? You expect me to watch both on my own? Help me choose!
Ha, fair enough. It’s worth watching the DC once, but much feels like filler. I prefer the theatrical cut, since tighter in this case means funnier.