Bengt Ekerot and Max von Sydow in The Seventh Seal (Photo: Criterion)

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.)

Channing Tatum and Dwayne Johnson in G.I. Joe: Retaliation (Photo: Paramount)

G.I. JOE: RETALIATION (2013). As I wrote in my review of 2009’s G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, “This isn’t G.I. Joe so much as it’s C.G.I. Joe, a nonstop orgy of computer imagery and pretty much what we’d expect from the director of the execrable Van Helsing and two dopey Mummy movies.” Here’s the inevitable sequel, and the good news is that, with a new director and new writers aboard, it’s a definite improvement over its predecessor. Channing Tatum returns, although he basically has a glorified cameo. He again plays Duke, the elite military man who takes his team into Pakistan for what turns out to be an ambush that leaves practically all of the soldiers dead. Among the few survivors is second-in-command Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), and he’s determined to find out who’s behind the sabotage. That would be the nefarious outfit Cobra, which needs all the Joes out of the way so it can get started on that whole “world domination” gig. Among those helping save the day are fellow soldier Snake Eyes (Ray Park) and the retired general (Bruce Willis) who’s the reason they’re all called Joes in the first place. The establishing banter between BFFs Duke and Roadblock is agonizing, so the action can’t arrive fast enough. When it does, it offers a Jekyll & Hyde dichotomy, with good action sequences (most notably an exciting ninja showdown unfolding on mountainsides) repeatedly giving way to bad ones (pretty much any sequence that sacrifices clarity and spatial relations for the sake of fast edits and blinding explosions). The entire film operates in such a yin-yang manner, ricocheting between interesting characters and idiotic ones, between clever plot developments and ludicrous ones, between smart dialogue and — wait, scratch that; there is no smart dialogue, just marble-mouthed monologues and limp quips.

4K extras include making-of featurettes and deleted scenes.

Movie: ★★

Bill Nighy in Living (Photo: Sony Pictures Classics)

LIVING (2022). If one’s desire is to adapt and update an Akira Kurosawa movie, it’s probably easier if that person’s resume is short on, say, torture-porn flicks or slash fiction and long on tonier projects. That certainly applies to Kazuo Ishiguro, the Nobel Prize-winning author renowned for such novels as The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go (both made into movies within five years of publication). The word is that Ishiguro has long wanted to make his own version of Kurosawa’s 1952 drama Ikiru, and he hoped to cast Bill Nighy in the central role. He ended up scoring the double play — what’s more, his dream project ended up nabbing him an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay and Nighy one for Best Actor. Set in London in the early 1950s, this finds Nighy delivering a tightly controlled performance as Mr. Williams, a civil servant who tackles his work — indeed, his entire existence — with little passion. But once he learns that his cancer diagnosis means he won’t be around much longer, he tries to locate some meaning and purpose to his life, first in the company of a garrulous writer (Tom Burke, Orson Welles in David Fincher’s Mank) and then in the presence of a sweet-natured former employee (Aimee Lou Wood). Since Ikiru routinely lands on lists of the greatest movies ever made, Ishiguro and director Oliver Hermanus had their work cut out for them — thankfully, they don’t flub the assignment, even if they’re never able to make their adaptation anything more than a solid remake that rarely hits the emotional highs of its lengthier (by 42 minutes) predecessor. Story details remain almost identical, but while the universal themes are smoothly carried over, London only feels like a randomly chosen locale in Living while Tokyo itself felt like another character in Ikiru.

Blu-ray extras include a making-of piece and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ★★★

Natalie Wood and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (Photo: Warner)

REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955). Aside from early bits, James Dean only starred in three motion pictures, and after his death in 1955 at the age of 24, he received a Best Actor Academy Award nomination for East of Eden over the same year’s Rebel Without a Cause and another posthumous Best Actor nod for the following year’s Giant. In truth, the actor’s best work can be found in his non-nominated performance in Rebel, a superb study of teen angst that still retains its power despite the number of inferior rip-offs that followed in its wake. Dean’s performance is the stuff of classic drama, yet equally responsible for the movie’s success (not to mention the instant iconolatry accorded the actor) was director Nicholas Ray, whose empathy for his characters allowed the film to emerge not as an overwrought melodrama wallowing in its own discontent but as a penetrating character study that spoke to an entire generation. Dean’s Jim Stark feels alienated from his parents (Jim Backus and Ann Doran) and, as the new kid in town, finds himself bullied by the swaggering members of the in-crowd. But he ends up forming a “family” of sorts with two other lonely kids hungry for affection: pretty Judy (Natalie Wood) and eccentric Plato (Sal Mineo). Ray earned an Oscar nomination for his story (though not for his vital direction), as did Wood and Mineo for their supporting turns. Yet for all its accolades, the movie is also dogged by a sense of the tragic, as all three stars met gruesome deaths at early ages: Dean, killed in a car crash at 24, Mineo, fatally stabbed by a mugger at 37, and Wood, drowned under mysterious circumstances at 43.

Extras in the 4K UHD + Blu-ray + Digital Code edition include audio commentary by author Douglas L. Rathgeb (The Making of Rebel Without a Cause); a making-of piece; the 1974 TV special James Dean Remembered; deleted scenes; and screen tests.

Movie: ★★★★

Al Pacino in Serpico (Photo: Kino & Paramount)

SERPICO (1973). Al Pacino owned the cinema of the seventies as completely as Nicholson, Redford, Streisand, Hoffman, or any of the era’s other superstars, and he delivers one of his finest, most forceful performances in this true-life tale. Adapted from the bestselling book by Peter Maas (whose The Valachi Papers had been made into a successful movie the previous year), this stars Pacino as Frank Serpico, an NYPD cop whose determination to expose police corruption makes him a pariah among his colleagues. Director Sidney Lumet paces the picture so that the full weight of Serpico’s frustrations can be felt, as the honest lawman’s repeated efforts to do the right thing meet resistance from places where none was expected. Serpico feels like a deeply cynical and suspicious picture — in other words, perfect for the Watergate period that produced it — but this is tempered by its faith in the unflagging decency of its central crusader. Several rising actors pop up in uncredited parts, including The Fabelmans‘ recent Oscar nominee Judd Hirsch as a cop, Kenneth McMillan as a diner owner, and Amadeus Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham (currently in the news for naughty behavior) as a detective. Serpico earned a pair of Academy Award nominations for Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay (Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler). A short-lived TV series of the same name followed in 1976 — starring Master of the Game’s David Birney, it lasted all of 14 episodes — while Lumet himself returned to the territory eight years later with 1981’s Prince of the City, another true-life story about an NYC cop who testified against police corruption.

Extras in the 4K UHD + Blu-ray edition include film historian audio commentary; a photo gallery with commentary by Lumet; an interview with Lumet; and a piece in which Lumet and producer Martin Bregman cite their favorite moments from the film.

Movie: ★★★½

Max von Sydow in The Seventh Seal (Photo: Criterion)

THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957). Even with the phenomenal competition provided by (among many others) Akira Kurosawa with Ran, Federico Fellini with Amarcord, and especially Vittorio De Sica with The Bicycle Thief, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal has long earned my vote as the greatest foreign-language film ever made. This undisputed masterpiece stars Max von Sydow as Antonius Block, a philosophical knight just returning from the Crusades. As both the plague and religious fervor sweep the countryside, Block finds himself seeking answers regarding the very existence of God; all the while, he plays a game of chess against Death (Bengt Ekerot), with his own life as the ultimate prize. Beautifully filmed, its iconic images are many, perhaps none more striking than Death leading a procession of victims along a hillside. It also stands as one of the most influential movies ever made, inspiring burgeoning filmmakers and aspiring critics alike for generations. In fact, I daresay that, as a youth, perhaps no other film opened my eyes to the wonderful possibilities of cinema as much as The Seventh Seal. (Side note: I first caught this at a screening presented by the UNC-Charlotte Student Union in 1985, with only three or four other people in attendance. The very next night, I attended the Student Union-sponsored screening of the 1980 Marilyn Chambers XXX classic Insatiable. In quite the stark — and amusing — contrast to The Seventh Seal, that one was packed and ended up standing room only.)

Extras in the 4K UHD + Blu-ray edition include a 2003 introduction by Bergman; audio commentary by Bergman expert Peter Cowie; a 1989 Bergman tribute by Woody Allen (a huge fan of The Seventh Seal); a 1998 audio interview with von Sydow; and the 2006 feature-length documentary Bergman Island.

Movie: ★★★★

Mary Elizabeth Winstead in The Thing (Photo: Universal)

THE THING (2011). Based on the title, one would assume that this version of The Thing (filmed before in 1951 and 1982) was a remake, but that’s not the case. It’s actually a prequel to the 1982 movie, leading one to wonder why they didn’t more accurately name it The Thing: The Beginning, The Thing: The Early Days or even I Was a Teenage Thing. Whatever its moniker, this endeavor is, like many prequels, a movie that adds little to the conversation, filling in details that audiences frankly didn’t care to discover. The ’82 edition opened with the evil alien invader, in the guise of a dog, escaping from a pair of Norwegians stationed at an Antarctic research station and into the safety of a nearby American camp. This new version backtracks to show how the Norwegians first came across the frozen creature, and how, after it thawed, they soon discovered its frightful ability to perfectly absorb and replicate any life form, including themselves. Lead Mary Elizabeth Winstead (as an American paleontologist) is about the only one afforded a personality; that’s a far cry from Carpenter’s take, in which all of the characters were unique individuals. The visual effects and makeup designs by Rob Bottin (The Howling) in the ’82 version offended many critics with their gruesomeness, but the rest of us were astonished by the imagination that went into them, particularly since this was before the advent of CGI. To his credit, this new film’s director, Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., also employs some hands-on FX-building in addition to the expected CGI, but with little variation in the (sometimes laughable) designs — and since they’re in the service of a movie that only sporadically grabs us on a gut level — The Thing turns out to be much ado about nothing.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by van Heijningen and producer Eric Newman; a making-of piece; and deleted scenes.

Movie: ★★

Sting in Quadrophenia (Photo: Polytel)


QUADROPHENIA (1979). Based on The Who’s 1973 double album, Quadrophenia manages to be both quintessentially British and irrefutably universal. Set in 1964 London, it employs a fictional plot to carry a fact-based scenario: the persistent clash between two factions of music lovers, Mods (slick kids who favored bands like The Kinks and, yes, The Who) and Rockers (leather-clad youths who preferred the older, ’50s brand). Phil Daniels is excellent in the central role of Jimmy, a Mod who, like most everyone else in his circle, is primarily interested in the old battle cry of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. He takes a special fancy to the lovely Steph (Leslie Ash) and looks up to the iconic Ace Face (Sting), but it isn’t until everyone heads to Brighton — and gets caught up in the violent gang war that decimated the beach town — that Jimmy finally feels in control. Or so he thinks. While its setting, history, and dialect may be veddy, veddy British, Quadrophenia should resonate with everyone who has ever felt marginalized, misunderstood, and misguided as a teenager. Director Franc Roddam, who also wrote the astute screenplay with Dave Humphries and Martin Stellman, especially displays his skill in the superbly orchestrated Brighton riot scene, and the film is packed with slow-burn humor: I especially like Jimmy’s dad (Michael Elphick) telling his son, who’s watching The Who perform on TV, that the band’s lead singer sounds like “a drowned dog.” Ray Winstone, later a popular character actor (The Departed, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), appears as the beatific Rocker who suffers a vicious beatdown by the Mods, while Mike Leigh regular Timothy Spall pops up in a bit role as a projectionist.

Movie: ★★★½


Review links for movies referenced in this column (all links open in new window):
The Fabelmans
Master of the Game
Prince of the City
The Remains of the Day
The Thing From Another World
The Valachi Papers

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