View From the Couch: The Lady From Shanghai, The Last American Virgin, 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.
Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth in The Lady From Shanghai (Photo: Kino)
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.)
DAWN OF THE DEAD (2004). In 2004, some foolhardy souls decided to offer a new take on 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, the second in George Romero’s original zombie trilogy (between 1968’s Night of the Living Dead and 1985’s Day of the Dead) and an acknowledged classic of the genre. It was a situation ripe for disaster, but hold on. This version proved to be that rare bird: a remake that, while not matching its predecessor in any way, nevertheless succeeds on its own terms. Director Zack Snyder and writer James Gunn knew that simply offering a retread of the original would be a fatal mistake, since it would be difficult to duplicate not only its sharp satiric slant (watching mindless creatures lumbering through the mall is perhaps the final word on both consumerism and conformity) but also its shifting viewpoints of the zombies (villainous against the leads, heroic against the bad bikers that appear late in the film). This Dawn pays only fleeting lip service to these ideas; instead, it wisely presses forward in its own direction, retaining the mall setting but offering different characters, different situations, and a different outcome. The result is a crisp horror flick, a fast-paced picture that’s exciting, icky, and often quite funny. Too bad the closing “gotcha” is so imbecilic.
The new 3-disc edition from Shout! Factory offers the film’s unrated cut in 4K UHD and on Blu-ray and the theatrical version on Blu-ray. Extras include audio commentary by Snyder and producer Eric Newman; deleted scenes; interviews with Gunn and co-stars Ty Burrell and Jake Weber; a piece on the special effects; and storyboard comparisons.
DEATH WISH (1974). Brian Garfield’s 1972 novel Death Wish was constructed by the author as a warning against vigilantism, so imagine his disgust when Hollywood grabbed hold of the property and transformed it into a pro-vigilante screed. Charles Bronson had already long been a superstar in Europe, but this box office hit from director Michael Winner elevated the 52-year-old actor’s stateside standing. Bronson plays Paul Kersey, a mild-mannered architect known to his friends and colleagues as a “bleeding-heart liberal.” But after three punks (one played by Jeff Goldblum in his film debut as “Freak #1”) murder his wife (Hope Lange) and leave his adult daughter (Kathleen Tolan) in a catatonic state following her sexual assault, Kersey slowly comes to realize that he can exorcise his desire for revenge by stalking the NYC streets and blowing away every criminal who crosses his path. The plot is simplistic in the extreme — despite the controversial themes, it’s about as complex as any random episode of My Mother the Car — yet it’s nevertheless effective agitprop, working on the viewer’s base instincts and emotions while avoiding any messy moral entanglements. The Grammy-nominated score by Herbie Hancock is an asset. This was followed by four limp sequels (1982-1994) starring Bronson and a mediocre 2018 remake with Bruce Willis.
Extras in the 4K UHD + Blu-ray edition consist of audio commentary by author Paul Talbot (Bronson’s Loose! The Making of the Death Wish Films); an interview with actor John Herzfeld (who appears in an uncredited bit part as one of the subway muggers); TV and radio spots; the theatrical trailer; and trailers for 10 other Bronson flicks on the Kino label, including one of the other five movies he made in collaboration with Winner (Chato’s Land).
DETECTIVE KNIGHT: REDEMPTION (2022). The middle picture in writer-director Edward Drake’s Detective Knight trilogy continues the story threads explored in Detective Knight: Rogue while also expanding the narrative in dramatic fashion. Unfortunately, the expansion isn’t as compelling as the established material, in part because of the new character at its center. In this one, the circumstances that occur at the end of the first flick lead to detective James Knight (Bruce Willis) and small-time crook Casey Rhodes (Beau Mirchoff) both finding themselves in prison. There, they run into Ricky Conlan (Paul Johansson), a religious counselor who, initially unbeknownst to them, is also the Christmas Bomber, a madman who blows up banks packed with customers. Conlan instigates a prison break in order to round up more followers, including a very reluctant Rhodes; Knight, who doesn’t take part in the escape, is offered a full pardon if he can bring down Conlan. Anyone who might have seen the 1998 Patrick Swayze actioner Black Dog might recall Meat Loaf as a Bible-thumping villain prone to yelling things like “Witness the resurrection, brothers and sisters!” Yes, Ricky Conlan is that sort of blustery cartoon character, and, yes, Johansson delivers that sort of broad, hambone performance. Thankfully, the returning characters provide the requisite hooks, particularly Rhodes’ oh-woe-is-me loser and Knight’s partner Fitzgerald (a loose and lively turn by Lochlyn Munro). The final chapter, Detective Knight: Independence, hits Blu-ray and DVD February 28.
Blu-ray extras consist of a pair of behind-the-scenes pieces featuring Drake.
THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1948). As was usually (always?) the case when Orson Welles was involved with a film, the off-screen stories proved to be as entertaining as the tale placed before the camera. There was Columbia head Harry Cohn’s offer to pay whoever could explain the plot of The Lady From Shanghai to him after he screened it for the first time. There was the trivial tidbit that the yacht seen throughout much of the picture belonged to Errol Flynn, who helped out on the production in both sober and soused states. There was Welles’ decision to cut off the trademark tresses of leading lady (and Welles’ then-wife) Rita Hayworth, thereby infuriating Cohn. And, as with The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil, the studio took the film out of Welles’ hands, cutting his 155-minute version down to a more manageable 88 minutes. Yet, as with those other classics, even studio interference couldn’t obscure Orson’s inspired vision, and what remains is a riveting film noir full of offbeat touches. Welles plays Michael O’Hara, a roustabout who unwisely gets mixed up with a disabled yet brilliant lawyer (Everett Sloane), his beautiful and younger wife (Hayworth), and his oily partner (Glenn Anders, who seemingly sweats as much in this one picture as an NFL running back does over the course of an entire season). Welles’ wicked sense of humor is apparent throughout, and the climactic “hall of mirrors” sequence is deservedly legendary and remains highly influential (see the Bruce Lee dazzler Enter the Dragon and its similar, and similarly thrilling, set-piece).
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by filmmaker and author (This Is Orson Welles) Peter Bogdanovich; a pair of film historian audio commentaries; and a 2000 conversation with Bogdanovich.
THE LAST AMERICAN VIRGIN (1982). The 1978 Israeli film Lemon Popsicle was such an international smash that it inspired writer-director Boaz Davidson and producers (and Cannon Group gurus) Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus to not only release a rash of sequels but also to remake the picture for American audiences. The Last American Virgin was the stateside result, and while it didn’t make many waves at the box office — it was bested that year by other teen sex comedies like Porky’s, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and even the awful Zapped! — it’s actually one of the better films to come from that ’80s-centric genre. Lawrence Monoson plays Gary, a sensitive teenager whose best buds are the handsome and experienced Rick (Steve Antin) and the bumbling, wisecracking David (Joe Rubbo). The three are constantly seeking to score with the ladies, although Gary’s randy exploits soon take a back seat to his genuine affection for Karen (Diane Franklin), the pretty new girl in school. For the majority of its running time, The Last American Virgin plays like a typical R-rated comedy of the period — plenty of nudity in the service of plenty of ribald situations — although it’s elevated by the efforts of its engaging young cast. But the film unexpectedly turns serious during its second half, and the finale is a soul crusher. One has to assume most of the film’s budget went toward music acquisitions, since the soundtrack is packed with such hits as Blondie’s “In the Flesh,” Devo’s “Whip It,” and The Cars’ “Shake It Up.” Oh, and the long-forgotten “Are You Ready for the Sex Girls,” by one-hit wonders Gleaming Spires.
Blu-ray extras include interviews with Davidson, Monoson, and Franklin; a photo gallery; and the theatrical trailer.
MAGNIFICENT WARRIORS (1987). Those who only know Michelle Yeoh as the Oscar-nominated star of Everything Everywhere All at Once, or as the heroine of the James Bond entry Tomorrow Never Dies, or for her supporting stints in any number of stateside hits (Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Crazy Rich Asians, TV’s Star Trek: Discovery, etc.), had best round out their education by checking out at least one of the many martial arts movies the Malaysian actress made for the Hong Kong film industry. A popular pick would be 1992’s Supercop (aka Police Story III: Supercop), which paired her with Jackie Chan, but also worthy of consideration would be this Energizer Bunny of a movie. Yeoh was already a top-billed star by her third film, and in this fifth effort, she’s cast as Fok Ming-Ming, a Chinese spy who teams up with a handsome secret agent (Derek Yee) and a bumbling con man (perennial comic relief Richard Ng) to take on invading Japanese forces during World War II. The box copy on 88 Films’ Blu-ray edition states that Magnificent Warriors (aka Dynamite Fighters) is “in the tradition of Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and, considering the release date (six years after Raiders and three years after Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), the WWII setting, and the fact that Ming-Ming sure knows how to handle a whip, it’s not a stretch to believe that the Spielberg classic had some influence on this one. But the picture easily stands on its own, buoyed by some invigorating action scenes (Yeoh often did her own stunts) and a comic streak in the broad nyuk nyuk vein.
Extras include audio commentary by Asian film expert Frank Djeng; archival interviews with Yeoh and stunt coordinator Tung Wai; and trailers. The set also offers a booklet and a poster.
ROAD HOUSE (1989). An enjoyable if disreputable camp outing, Road House is basically like 1988’s Cocktail with multiple fractures added for good measure. Another titter-worthy picture centered on a hunk who catches the eyes of all the ladies while working in a bar, this one casts Patrick Swayze as Dalton, a legendary bouncer who accepts a gig dealing with rowdy customers at a Missouri nightspot known as the Double Deuce. Because he possesses brains as well as brawn (you see, he holds a PhD in Philosophy to go along with all those broken bones), Dalton finds a suitable lover in the local doctor (Kelly Lynch) who treats his wounds. When he’s not busy raising Doc’s temperature, he’s helping the citizenry stand against the ruthless millionaire (a laughable Ben Gazzara) who controls the town. This is the sort of slam-bang fare that lists more stunt people than actors in the closing credits — it’s dopey beyond measure, but the action sequences are impressive, and, besides, its knuckleheaded approach is part of its (admittedly limited) appeal. Sam Elliott scores as Wade Garrett, Dalton’s close friend and yet another legendary bouncer, and in a picture packed with steroid-injected, tough-guy cracks (e.g. “I heard you had balls big enough to come in a dump truck, but you don’t look like much to me,” “Pain don’t hurt,” “I used to fuck guys like you in prison!”), Wade’s offhand mockery of the bar’s name still elicits the biggest laugh from me. I recall giving this 1½ stars when I initially screened it at the start of my career, meaning time has made me either more mellow or more moronic.
4K extras include audio commentary by director Rowdy Harrington; a making-of piece; and archival interviews with Swayze and Elliott.
VIOLENT NIGHT (2022). If I want a bad Santa, I’ll watch Bad Santa. That’s not to say there isn’t some measure of worthy seasonal jeer in Violent Night, an action flick that recasts Big Red as a cynical tough guy. David Harbour plays Saint Nick, who no longer looks forward to servicing children on Christmas Eve since, in his view, most contemporary kids are greedy brats. But Santa’s depression gets put aside once he decides to save the members of a wealthy family from the ruthless criminals who invade their stately mansion. Harbour is aptly cast as the gruff Kris Kringle, and John Leguizamo is his equal as the Scrooge-like leader of the killers. Santa’s skirmishes with these villains are imaginatively (and bloodily) staged, and the sequences based on Home Alone are better than anything actually found in those insufferable films. But the characters who make up the captured clan are a particularly dull and distasteful lot, and the film comes to a grinding halt whenever it spends too much time with them. Scripters Pat Casey and Josh Miller penned those Sonic the Hedgehog films while director Tommy Wirkola previously helmed Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters — this sugar-and-spice dichotomy probably explains why the movie clumsily attempts to inject some heavy-handed goodwill amidst the gore.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by Wirkola, Casey, Miller, and producer Guy Danella; a making-of featurette; deleted and extended sequences; a piece on the film’s action interludes; and a look at Harbour’s contributions to the lead role.
Short and Sweet:
INU-OH (2021). The Noh of the 14th century meets the rock of the 1970s in Inu-Oh, an unusual anime offering from writer-director Masaaki Yuasa. An ode to music, memory, and the necessity of artistic freedom, it centers on a blind musician and a deformed dancer who team up to create their own traveling band. The storyline isn’t always coherent, but the ofttimes freakish animation is distinctive, while the more modern snatches of music clearly owe a debt to such glam rock and rock opera practitioners as Queen and The Who.
Blu-ray extras include an interview with Yuasa; a Q&A session with Yuasa; a piece in which Yuasa demonstrates how he draws the title character; and a scene breakdown.
MEN AT WORK (1990). Men at Work marked Emilio Estevez’s second effort as writer-director-star, coming after the 1986 critical and commercial bomb Wisdom (in which he co-starred with then-fiancée Demi Moore). He and real-life brother Charlie Sheen play James and Carl, two rowdy garbage collectors who get inadvertently mixed up with corporate intrigue when they find the corpse of a politician on their route. Estevez tries hard — as usual, Sheen just shows up — but the laughs simply aren’t there, and even the talented Keith David finds himself defeated by his stock character of an unhinged Vietnam vet who accompanies the boys on their misadventures.
The only Blu-ray extra is the theatrical trailer.
VOODOO MACBETH (2021). The first theatrical release by the USC School of Cinematic Arts, this ambitious if occasionally awkward picture focuses on the Federal Theatre Project’s legendary 1936 production of Macbeth, which changed the setting from Scotland to the Caribbean, was performed by an all-black cast, and marked a major early achievement for its wunderkind writer-director, 20-year-old Orson Welles. Credited to eight writers and 10 directors, this occasionally veers to the amateurish side with its staging and acting, but it’s a handsome movie that entertains even as it (loosely) educates. For another film about the FTP, check out 1999’s Cradle Will Rock, with Bill Murray, Susan Sarandon, and an all-star cast.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by various cast and crew members, and footage from the actual 1936 production.
Review links for movies referenced in this column:
Cradle Will Rock
Crazy Rich Asians
Death Wish (2018)
Detective Knight Trilogy
Enter the Dragon
Everything Everywhere All at Once
Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Home Alone 2: Lost in New York
Indiana Jones Series
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Sonic the Hedgehog
Sonic the Hedgehog 2
Tomorrow Never Dies
Touch of Evil
I first got to know The Gleaming Spires’ music through their stint as Ron and Russell Mael’s backing band on two excellent Sparks albums (‘Whomp That Sucker’ and ‘Angst in my Pants’) and two mediocre ones (‘In Outer Space’ and ‘Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat’), and then for their soundtrack work on the Dark Bros’… The Devil in Miss Jones 3: A New Beginning. An interesting career trajectory, to be certain.