View From the Couch: Dragons Forever, Lars von Trier Trilogy, She Said, 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.
Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan in She Said (Photo: Universal)
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.)
CLOVERFIELD (2008). It’s tempting to describe this terror tale as “Godzilla meets The Blair Witch Project,” as it relies exclusively on the camcorder wielded by one of its characters to capture the rampage of a frightening behemoth as it destroys Manhattan with single-minded determination. Over the years, other films that employed this “found footage” angle often seemed silly — what sane person wouldn’t drop the camera in the face of real danger? — yet in our modern-day, techno-crazed world, the need to capture everything on film (as if to validate its authenticity, not to mention provide the shooter with a fleeting 15 minutes of fame) is such a built-in instinct for many people that the actions of the protagonists in this movie rarely come into question. Director Matt Reeves and writer Drew Goddard also effectively tap into that decade’s post-9/11 anxieties: It’s impossible to witness collapsing skyscrapers and the resultant deadly debris hurtling down New York City streets and not be reminded of that fateful day. Like many fantasy flicks, this one also contains a defining “money shot” (a la the exploding White House in Independence Day); in this case, it’s the decapitated head of the Statue of Liberty, forlornly resting on a city street. Heads roll in Cloverfield, and none more startlingly than this one.
Extras in the 15th Anniversary 4K UHD + Blu-ray + Digital Code steelbook edition include audio commentary by Reeves; a making-of featurette; a piece on the visual effects; deleted scenes; and alternate endings.
DRAGONS FOREVER (1988). After pooling their talents for a series of successful movies made in their native Hong Kong, cinematic superstars and martial arts masters Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao ended their on-screen relationship with this crackerjack action yarn. Chan plays Jackie Lung, an unprincipled lawyer who taps his knavish best friends Wong (Hung) and Tung (Biao) to provide some behind-the-scenes assistance on his latest case, one which finds him fronting for the bad guys against feisty fishery owner Miss Yip (Deannie Yip). But once Jackie catches a glimpse of Miss Yip’s gorgeous cousin (Pauline Yeung), he slowly (very slowly) begins building a conscience. As expected, the fight sequences are outstanding (particularly during the lengthy climax), but what’s perhaps unexpected is the strength of the humor — there are many laugh-out-loud bits (love that light switch!), with a couple of mean-spirited moments thankfully overwhelmed by the picture’s general sense of good cheer.
The 88 Films label has released Dragons Forever in an excellent 4K UHD + Blu-ray set that contains all three versions of the film: the 94-minute Hong Kong cut, the 98-minute Japanese cut (with the title Cyclone Z), and the 94-minute international cut. Extras include audio commentary by Hong Kong cinema experts; approximately a dozen separate interviews with those who worked on the movie, those who have worked with Chan, and those who are simply fans of the film; outtakes; and trailers. Also included are an 88-page booklet, a double-sided poster, and lobby card reproductions.
LARS VON TRIER’S EUROPE TRILOGY (1984-1991). The history of the Cannes Film Festival is chockful of controversy and confrontation, so it’s not surprising that the first time I ever heard of Danish writer-director Lars von Trier, a man whose entire career has been marked by controversy and confrontation, was when he was competing at the fest with 1991’s Europa. The movie won an impressive three awards at the event (Jury Prize, Technical Grand Prize, and Best Artistic Contribution), but because it was bypassed for the Palme d’Or — the jury unanimously selected the Coens’ richly deserving Barton Fink — von Trier insulted the jurists, threw one of the awards in the trash, and reportedly even flipped off the selection committee from the stage. (This didn’t dissuade the festival from nominating seven more of his movies for the top prize, even awarding it to him for 2000’s lugubrious Dancer in the Dark.) Over the decades, von Trier has never mellowed — he was even banned from a later Cannes fest for joking that he was a Nazi who understood and sympathized with Hitler — but his output has grown more erratic, with such earlier gems as Breaking the Waves and Dogville being replaced with later duds like Antichrist and Nymphomaniac Vol. I & II. This new Criterion box set takes us back to one of his more potent periods, featuring the three pictures that kicked off his career. Collectively known as the Europe Trilogy, each movie offers experimental techniques, hallucinatory imagery, a convoluted storyline, and an oppressive atmosphere of fatalism to showcase a bleak continent that always seems on the verge of collapsing.
This approach is immediately evident with the first film, The Element of Crime (1984). Doubtless inspired by the 1965 French New Wave classic Alphaville (with perhaps bits of Blade Runner, 1984, and the Fritz Lang catalog also thrown in), von Trier has made an English-language neo-noir that appears to be set in a fascistic, futuristic land. Character actor Michael Elphick (The Elephant Man, Gorky Park) scores a rare lead role as Fisher, a detective who turns to his increasingly unhinged mentor (Esmond Knight) to track down a serial killer who preys on young girls. The story is slow-moving yet sturdy — at any rate, it’s secondary to the visuals, which are constantly fascinating.
Von Trier continues his technical tinkering on Epidemic (1987), but the results are mixed at best. Von Trier and co-scripter Niels Vørsel play Lars and Niels, busy collaborating on a screenplay about a plague even as a real plague descends upon the world. It’s a workable hook, but the story itself isn’t too involving and the experimental visuals don’t pack the same kick as those in The Element of Crime. This marked the first collaboration between von Trier and actor Udo Kier, who would subsequently appear in several of the filmmaker’s projects.
Everything comes together beautifully in Europa (1991), which upon its original release was renamed Zentropa in the U.S. (I imagine it was to prevent moviegoers from confusing it with Agnieszka Holland’s Europa Europa, which had enjoyed stateside success the previous year.) With Max von Sydow serving as narrator — and hypnotist, it seems (“You will now listen to my voice… On the count of 10, you will be in Europa”) — we’re taken to a post-WWII Germany, where an idealistic American (Jean-Marc Barr) has arrived with a self-assigned mission to help the country’s people any way he can. He lands a job as a sleeping-car conductor on one of the trains in the Zentropa line; this allows him to romance the owner’s daughter (Barbara Sukowa), but it also makes him a useful puppet for a pro-Nazi group known as “Werewolves.” Kier appears as the owner’s homosexual son, while Eddie Constantine (cementing the director’s fondness for Alphaville, also referenced above) turns up as an American officer involved with the Allied-approved rebuilding of Germany. In terms of von Trier’s technical prowess, this is arguably the most impressive of all his movies, and, unlike the other two Europe films, it boasts a storyline that remains compelling from first frame to last.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentaries by von Trier and others; making-of pieces; the 1997 documentary Tranceformer: A Portrait of Lars von Trier; a 2005 interview with von Trier in which he discusses the trilogy; and two of his student films: the 8-minute Nocturne (1980) and the hour-long Images of Liberation (1982).
The Element of Crime: ★★★
SHE SAID (2022). One of the best films of 2022, She Said has been seriously underrepresented this awards season, mainly picking up citations for Carey Mulligan’s performance and Rebecca Lekiewicz’s adapted screenplay and that’s it. As I joked in a Facebook post, “Maybe most critics and Hollywood insiders are subconsciously circling the wagons to protect Harvey Weinstein since he did give them so many great movies over the decades,” although the popular opinion is that Women Talking is stealing much of its thunder (because, you know, it’s impossible to support two female-centric movies when there are so many superhero and sci-fi sequels to champion). Yet those who venture forth will be greeted with a riveting docudrama concerning one of the key events that gave birth to the #MeToo movement. Sourced from both the New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage by Jodi Kantor, Megan Twohey, and Rebecca Corbett as well as the book She Said by Kantor and Twohey, this details the investigation that resulted in over 80 women accusing Miramax head Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment and/or sexual assault (including rape), in turn leading to his arrest and eventual prison sentence of 23 years. Directed by Maria Schrader, She Said isn’t a flashy flick about hotshot journalists; rather, it takes the nose-to-the-grindstone approach of 1976’s All the President’s Men by sticking with Twohey (Mulligan) and Kantor (Zoe Kazan) as they do the necessary legwork. This approach will displease the fidgety, but the picture’s meticulousness actually enhances its potency.
Blu-ray extras consist of a behind-the-scenes piece featuring Twohey and Kantor, and the theatrical trailer.
WILD BILL (1995). Writer-director Walter Hill’s Wild Bill is a middling example of that class of Western inhabited by the likes of Unforgiven, The Shootist, and The Gunfighter: a look at a renowned cowboy in his twilight years, at a point when the romanticism and idealism of the Wild West (or at least of the Western film) have long been replaced by a bitterness and weariness forged by many years of senseless killings. Wild Bill Hickok (Jeff Bridges) is one such man, and the film initially moves through a number of incidents from his life, most dealing with his violent encounters with assorted riffraff. The movie settles down when it reaches the town of Deadwood, South Dakota, in 1876 — the last year of Bill’s life. It’s here that Bill is reunited with his closest friends — Calamity Jane (Ellen Barkin), California Joe (a delightful James Gammon), and the dapper Englishman Charley Prince (John Hurt) — but it’s also where he encounters Jack McCall (David Arquette), a jittery kid who believes that Bill wronged his late mother (Diane Lane, seen in flashbacks). As long as it’s hip-hopping all over the landscape, Wild Bill maintains interest by demonstrating how these isolated incidents all contributed to Bill’s mental makeup as a man who often allowed his rampaging celebrity to overtake his somewhat precarious humanity. But the film largely calcifies during its second half, and the final chunk (set inside a barroom) is particularly disappointing. Bridges delivers an intense performance, but an animated Barkin seems to have wandered over from the set of a sitcom.
There are no Blu-ray extras.
Short and Sweet:
FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER (1984). This fourth installment in the deathless (but nevertheless full of deaths) series is the first of the sequels that tries to do something, anything, different, and it features a better-than-usual cast whose members include Corey Feldman, Crispin Glover, The Last American Virgin’s Lawrence Monoson, and Massacre at Central High’s Kimberly Beck. The teens are slightly more developed than usual, Feldman is introduced as the key character of Tommy, and the final act mostly delivers the goods. Otherwise, it’s the sadistic same-old same-old.
This movie (like the others in the series) has been released on Blu-ray multiple times, but this one is for those clamoring for a steelbook edition. Extras include audio commentary by director Joseph Zito; making-of featurettes; and the so-called “lost ending.”
GHOST WARRIOR (1984). Also known under the title Swordkill, Ghost Warrior hails from prolific producer Charles Band, a filmmaker who generally makes Roger Corman look like David O. Selznick by comparison. It’s the story of a noble samurai (Hiroshi Fujioka) who’s frozen in ice in Feudal Japan and thawed out by scientists in modern-day Los Angeles. The “fish out of water” angle is handled adequately enough, and Fujioka inspires sympathy as the befuddled hero. But Janet Julian’s emoting as his L.A. friend is torturous to behold, and the third act is stridently lackluster.
Blu-ray extras consist of film historian audio commentary; an interview with special makeup effects artist Robert Short; and theatrical trailers.
Review links for movies referenced in this column:
The Elephant Man
Massacre at Central High
Thanks for the Dragons Forever recommendation, Matt — that was great fun!