View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray, 4K and DVD.
David Bowie in Moonage Daydream (Photo: NEON)
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.)
DETECTIVE STORY (1951). Based on Sidney Kingsley’s Broadway hit, Detective Story is a film that would suffer from a bad case of staginess were it not for William Wyler’s fluid direction. Although practically all the action takes place at an NYC police precinct, we’re never bothered by a lack of mobility because there doesn’t seem to be any. Between Wyler’s expert mise-en-scènes, Kingsley’s crackling story (adapted for the screen by Philip Yordan and Robert Wyler), and the superlative performances, this film never slows down even for a minute. Kirk Douglas stars as Jim McLeod, the cynical detective who believes everyone’s guilty even if proven innocent; his only soft spot is for his wife Mary (Eleanor Parker), yet even that gets tainted by his pursuit of a doctor (George Macready) suspected of performing illegal abortions on the side. Except for Joseph Wiseman’s hammy turn as a small-time crook, the entire cast excels, including Lee Grant as a neurotic shoplifter. This earned Oscar nominations for Best Director, Best Actress (Parker), Best Supporting Actress (Grant), and Best Screenplay; it’s a shame Douglas wasn’t invited to the party.
Blu-ray extras consist of film historian audio commentary; the theatrical trailer; and trailers for nine other titles on the Kino label.
DON’T WORRY DARLING (2022). A few weeks ago in this column, I stated that the 1998 teenybopper thriller Disturbing Behavior should have been called The Stepford Students, given its debt to Ira Levin’s bestselling novel and the successful 1975 film adaptation. In the same vein, I should suggest that Don’t Worry Darling should have been called The Stepford Suburbs, except for the pesky fact that The Stepford Wives itself was basically The Stepford Suburbs. So where does that leave this release? On the growing list of subpar sophomore efforts, as actress Olivia Wilde follows her winning directorial debut, 2019’s Booksmart (which made my 10 Best list that year), with a movie that’s scriptstupid. Florence Pugh stars as a housewife who begins to suspect there’s something not quite right with the idyllic, 1950s-styled community in which she lives with her husband (an overwhelmed, underwhelming Harry Styles). In these MAGA-infested times, movies that address toxic masculinity are a growing necessity (see Wind River and The Art of Self-Defense for primo examples), but they have to do more than just halfheartedly swipe ideas from films like The Stepford Wives, The Truman Show, The Matrix, or any given M. Night Shyamalan bungle and run them through predictable paces.
Blu-ray extras consist of a making-of piece and a deleted scene.
A KNIFE IN THE HEAD (1978). If Bruno Ganz looks familiar to many Americans, that’s likely because of his performance as Adolf Hitler in the 2004 German release Downfall — or, rather, the meme featuring footage from Downfall, in which Ganz’s Hitler rants while the subtitles humorously have him expressing anger at the actions of Palin or Trump or other like-minded individuals. But Ganz, who passed away in 2019 at 77, was one of the greats of European cinema, repeatedly knocking it out of the park in such films as The American Friend, Nosferatu the Vampyre (as Jonathan Harker), and, of course, Wim Wender’s wondrous Wings of Desire. He’s typically excellent in A Knife in the Head, in which he plays a scientist who gets shot in the head by a police officer while attempting to pick up his estranged wife (Angela Winkler) at a youth center housing young radicals. The police try to cover up their blunder by painting him as a terrorist while the revolutionaries make him the poster child for their protests against police brutality and corruption — all he initially wants, though, is to be able to again master simple words and actions and also remember what happened that night. The film’s low-key approach only enhances the chill factor.
Blu-ray extras consist of an interview with director Reinhard Hauff; an interview with producer Eberhard Junkersdorf; and trailers.
MOONAGE DAYDREAM (2022). Most documentaries focusing on famous artists proceed in linear fashion, moving through the individual’s life from A to Z. This nonfiction piece on David Bowie doesn’t even mess around with the alphabet — instead, it feels as if it’s being told via inscrutable hieroglyphics or complex mathematical formulations. This is perhaps unlike any biopic I’ve ever seen, as director Brett Morgen (the Robert Evans doc The Kid Stays in the Picture), with the blessing of the Bowie estate, has made a movie that functions as stream-of-consciousness cinema, using Bowie’s own voice (mainly from interviews) and countless snatches of film, video, concert footage, and other media methods to attempt to get inside the superstar’s head and heart. Very little is identified; even less is time-stamped. There are no talking heads. Footage from Bowie’s Broadway stint in The Elephant Man is featured; a few seconds appear from Labyrinth; Bowie discusses his artwork and his travels; Iman finally shows up; and music of course takes center stage. It’s more of a Vulcan mind meld than a motion picture, and I can only honestly recommend it to Bowie devotees and fans of avant-garde cinema. All others should proceed with caution.
The only Blu-ray extra is the theatrical trailer. (What, no Bowie and Jagger “Dancing in the Street”?)
SHADOWS AND FOG (1992). One of Woody Allen’s most expensive undertakings also proved to be one of his biggest box office flops. The setting is an unnamed European city in which a killer’s on the loose, hiding in the shadows and stepping out of the swirling fog to strangle his victims. A meek clerk named Kleinman (Allen) is awakened from a deep sleep by a mob whose leaders demand that he help them carry out their plan to catch the madman. But nobody bothers to give him any specifics, leaving him to wander around the nocturnal streets until he bumps into a circus sword-swallower (Mia Farrow) running away from her womanizing boyfriend, the troupe’s clown (John Malkovich). Santo Loquasto’s sets and Carlo Di Palma’s black-and-white compositions are astounding, and film and literature buffs will have fun spotting references ranging from German Expressionist cinema to Franz Kafka. The central storyline is also entertaining, with Kleinman’s plight allowing for some amusing moments of self-deprecation (“A deranged person is supposed to have the strength of 10 men. I have the strength of one small boy … with polio.”). On the flip side, the circus-related material is thin, the philosophic pontificating is atypically glib, and the all-star cast (including Jodie Foster and Madonna) is given little to do.
There are no Blu-ray extras.
SONY PICTURES CLASSICS 30TH ANNIVERSARY COLLECTION (1992-2017). Over the past couple of years, Sony has released three volumes in its Columbia Classics Collection 4K line, featuring such acknowledged masterpieces as Lawrence of Arabia and The Last Picture Show and beloved box office hits like Stripes and A League of Their Own (and, uh, the godawful Annie from 1982, but I digress). Now it has seen fit to shine the light on its art-house offerings with this beauty of a box set, one of the premier home entertainment releases of the year. SPC has released so many excellent movies over its 30-year existence that it must have been tough to dismiss over a hundred films and only keep 11. Nevertheless, these 11 titles represent a good cross section of the sort of fare championed by the tony studio arm.
Orlando (1992). Although she initially earned notice with her performances in several Derek Jarman films, it was Sally Potter’s Orlando that truly began Tilda Swinton’s steady march toward stardom. She plays the title character, a young nobleman instructed by Queen Elizabeth I (gay performer, writer, and raconteur Quentin Crisp in a brilliant stroke of casting) to remain young. And so he does — for several centuries, in fact — transforming along the way from a he into a she. This light and lively adaptation of the Virginia Woolf novel nabbed a pair of Oscar nominations for its sets and costumes.
The Celluloid Closet (1995). From an 1894 short in which two men dance together through more contemporary works like Longtime Companion and Philadelphia, the history of LGBTQ portrayals in cinema is explored in this excellent documentary. As narrator Lily Tomlin explains, “Hollywood, that great maker of myths, taught straight people what to think about gay people, and gay people what to think about themselves.” Working from this angle, it shows how the movie industry has generally portrayed homosexuals as victims (e.g. The Children’s Hour, Cruising) or victimizers (e.g. Freebie and the Bean, Cruising) but rarely as sympathetic leads.
The City of Lost Children (1995). Armed with an unpredictable screenplay and a dazzling visual scheme, this French production is best described as a hybrid of Terry Gilliam and the Coens, with dashes of Jules Verne, Charles Dickens, and Rube Goldberg added to the mix. Ron Perlman plays a circus strongman who attempts to rescue his little brother from the clutches of a scientist who steals children’s dreams; along the way, he crosses paths with a plucky orphan, malevolent twins known as The Octopus, and a rather persistent trained flea. Although it loses steam as it darts toward its chaotic climax, this is nevertheless a one-of-a-kind achievement.
Run Lola Run (1998). “Running time” takes on more than one meaning when it comes to this compact (80 minutes) German thriller for which star Franka Potente probably wishes she could have been paid by the kilometer. Potente plays Lola, who has 20 minutes to come up with 100,000 Deutschmarks and prevent the execution of her boyfriend (Moritz Bleibtreu). So off she goes, dashing down stairs, over sidewalks, across streets, and through crowds. This scenario plays out three times — each one starting with a minor difference that affects the rest of the tale — and the result is a pure adrenaline rush of stylized cinema.
SLC Punk! (1998). Although it has its ardent supporters, SLC Punk! strikes me as the weak link in the collection, and its slot would have been better served by Howards End (the very first SPC release), the often overlooked An Education, Argentina’s Oscar-winning The Secret in Their Eyes, Denmark’s criminally unseen Land of Mine, or any of dozens of other gems. Acquired taste Matthew Lillard plays a blue-haired punk living in conservative Salt Lake City and hanging out with his buddy “Heroin” Bob (Michael Goorjian). A few scenes amuse, but the movie’s series of vignettes are mostly placed in the hands of one-note characters who quickly wear out their welcome.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Set in ancient China and centering on three marvelously delineated warriors (wonderfully played by Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh, and Zhang Ziyi), director Ang Lee’s martial arts masterwork kicks into high-flying gear when a remarkable sword known as the Green Destiny gets stolen. Bolstered by its operatic sweep, this Taiwanese import is at once pulpy and profound, a movie that never forgets to have fun even as it’s tackling such straight-faced issues as honor, devotion, and compassion. Nominated for 10 Academy Awards (including Best Picture), it won four, including Best Foreign Language Film.
The Devil’s Backbone (2001). Mexican writer-director (and The Shape of Water Oscar winner) Guillermo del Toro headed to Spain to helm The Devil’s Backbone (El espinazo del diablo), a Mexican-Spanish co-production (filmed in Madrid) about an orphanage that’s haunted by the spirit of a murdered boy. Fine performances (particularly from the child actors), innovative effects, and the pointed backdrop of the Spanish Civil War all work in tandem to lift this above the realm of functioning as merely another obvious ghost story.
Volver (2006). Penélope Cruz earned her first Oscar nomination for her work as a headstrong woman who has her hands full managing the other females who inhabit her orbit. This includes a teenage daughter who just killed the stepfather who was trying to rape her, a plain-Jane sister who tries to keep up with her whirlwind activities, a family friend trying to solve a mystery involving missing parents, and a mother who keeps popping up to offer advice even though she’s been dead for years. Writer-director Pedro Almodovar is in a playful mood here, yet there’s no mistaking the seriousness with which he takes the movie’s theme of empowerment through sisterhood.
Synecdoche, New York (2008). This takes the notion of life as merely one sprawling play and literalizes it, as a theater director (Philip Seymour Hoffman) reeling from an unfulfilled existence mounts a navel-gazing play that will consume him for the rest of his time on Earth. He hires actors to play himself as well as acquaintances, and he’s constantly updating the material as his real life shifts in different directions. Writer-director Charlie Kaufman’s musings on memory, identity, and aging stir up a gathering storm of empathy, and we reflect not on the cleverness of his script but, rather unexpectedly, on its emotional impact.
Still Alice (2014). One of the greatest performers of her generation, Julianne Moore deserved Oscars for Far from Heaven and Boogie Nights — alas, she had to wait years before snagging a statue for her sensational turn as a linguistics professor suffering from Alzheimer’s. By making Alice a person whose entire career has been devoted to the study of language, of words, of dialogue, there’s an added level of tragedy being brought into play. Here’s an individual who lives for letters, and she can no longer enjoy the pleasures it provides or the career it sustains. Her beautiful mind has betrayed her, and Moore makes us feel that mental collapse.
Call Me by Your Name (2017). A teenage boy (Timothée Chalamet) living in Italy with his loving parents spends a lazy summer hanging out with his girlfriend (Esther Garrel) and falling for his dad’s new assistant (Armie Hammer), a handsome young man who reciprocates his feelings. This exemplary coming-of-age tale set in the not-too-distant past (1983) draws much of its strength from its wonderfully orchestrated marriage of sight, sound, and sensation. An Academy Award nominee for Best Picture, Best Actor (Chalamet), and Best Original Song, this won for Best Adapted Screenplay (James Ivory).
There are ample extras in this mammoth set, including audio commentaries for nine of the 11 movies (all save Synecdoche, New York and Still Alice); making-of featurettes on six films (and assorted behind-the-scenes bits on most of the rest); deleted scenes for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Devil’s Backbone, and Still Alice; outtakes from The Celluloid Closet; the music video for “Believe” from Run Lola Run; a comic book gallery on SLC Punk!; and much more.
The Celluloid Closet: ★★★½
The City of Lost Children: ★★★½
Run Lola Run: ★★★
SLC Punk!: ★★
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: ★★★½
The Devil’s Backbone: ★★★
Synecdoche, New York: ★★★
Still Alice: ★★★
Call Me by Your Name: ★★★½
Review links for movies referenced in this column:
The Art of Self-Defense
Best & Worst of 2019
Far from Heaven
The Kid Stays in the Picture
Land of Mine
The Last Picture Show
Lawrence of Arabia
The Shape of Water