View From the Couch: Samurai Wolf, Wings of Desire, 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.
Bruno Ganz in Wings of Desire (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.)
ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS (1986). “Absolute Beginners” ranks as one of David Bowie’s greatest songs and, given his incredible discography, that’s saying a lot. It’s a gorgeous tune steeped in tangible longing and unapologetic romanticism (“As long as we’re together, The rest can go to hell, I absolutely love you”), and it’s just a shame the movie of the same name doesn’t come close to matching its glory. Instead, this critical underachiever, commercial flop, and ersatz cult flick remains a frustrating watch, with a brilliant production design and some showcase musical numbers cut off at the knees by a defective screenplay and a pair of bland protagonists. Patsy Kensit (who, it should be noted, has been excellent in other features such as Twenty-One and Angels and Insects) and Eddie O’Connell fail to provide much pep or pop as Suzette and Colin, two cute kids enjoying their carefree lives in a stylized 1958 London. Both are eventually seduced by capitalist suits: The fame-loving Suzette falls in with the stuffy fashion designer Henley (James Fox) while the Suzette-loving Colin counters by hooking up with slick salesman Vendice Partners (Bowie). The sets by John Beard are staggering to behold — where else can you catch Bowie dancing on a giant typewriter? — and there are a few knockout musical numbers, particularly Slim Gaillard’s “Selling Out.” But emotions and incidents are pushed at an annoying fever pitch by director Julien Temple, with the whole ordeal finally collapsing under the weight of the climactic race riots. See if you can spot a mustachioed Robbie Coltrane in a bit part. The bottom line? Time would be better spend watching the eight minutes of Bowie’s “Absolute Beginners” music video than the 107 minutes of Temple’s Absolute Beginners film.
There are no Blu-ray extras.
KNOCK AT THE CABIN (2023). I haven’t read Paul Tremblay’s novel The Cabin at the End of the World, but I know about its shocking accidental death, its ultimate middle-finger stance, and its general air of ambiguity. I can’t say if I would have enjoyed reading it, but I expect I would at least have respected its convictions and appreciated its daring. Knock at the Cabin, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s film version, doesn’t deserve similar respect — it’s nicely paced and features a standout performance by Dave Bautista, but by completely dismantling and radically reworking the third act, Shyamalan has ended up with a film that leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Seven-year-old Wen (Kristen Cui) and her two daddies, sensitive Eric (Jonathan Groff) and fiery Andrew (Ben Aldridge), are vacationing at a remote cabin when they’re approached by four strangers (Bautista, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Abby Quinn, and Rupert Grint) who take them hostage and deliver a chilling message: One of the three must sacrifice themselves or everyone else in the world will die. Naturally, Eric and Andrew assume this is merely a home invasion perpetrated by homophobic, pseudo-Christian zealots, but the quartet insists that the Apocalypse is indeed coming. Shyamalan is known for his twist endings, so the irony is that Knock at the Cabin ends exactly as we predict, knowing full well that the filmmaker wouldn’t have the nerve to follow the written word. But the obviousness also results in a muddled message, an LGBTQ jab that will enthusiastically be championed by MAGA morons. It’s doubtless(?) unintentional, but it’s also ugly and unrepentant, and it poisons the well for any meaningful discourse on the picture’s heady themes.
Blu-ray extras include a behind-the-scenes featurette; deleted scenes; and an extended version of Shyamalan’s cameo (oh, joy).
MAX FLEISCHER’S SUPERMAN (1941-1943). On the heels of the recent 4K collection of the Christopher Reeve Superman flicks comes a Blu-ray set featuring an earlier, animated Man of Steel. The 17 Superman cartoons created by animation pioneer Max Fleischer are notable not only for representing the first time that the iconic superhero was brought to the big screen but also for influencing future movies, TV shows, cartoons, and even the comic book itself. For instance, Superman was originally only able to leap (“in a single bound,” natch) in the comics — since this looked pretty silly in motion on the screen, Fleischer received permission to allow him to fly, and this superpower was subsequently employed on the printed page as well. The plots of these shorts (all running 8-10 minutes) are rather simplistic, but it’s the visual design that really delivers. Made in the early 1940s and costing more than the average cartoon, these frequently utilized film noir trappings and Art Deco stylings to create an eye-popping aesthetic that still impresses today. The first cartoon, simply titled “Superman” (although “The Mad Scientist” has become an alternate title), debuted in September 1941 and was one of the 10 nominees for the Best Animated Short Academy Award (Supes, Bugs Bunny, Donald Duck, and Tom and Jerry all lost that Oscar to Mickey’s pup Pluto). Later ‘toons found Superman battling robots, mummies, a dinosaur, a Kong-like ape, and, since these were produced during World War II, Axis powers (two episodes versus Japan, two versus Germany … and a Hitler cameo tossed in the mix).
Blu-ray extras consist of a pair of retrospective featurettes looking at the genesis, animation, and influence of the shorts, and a piece on superhuman characters throughout history.
SAMURAI WOLF (1966) / SAMURAI WOLF 2: HELL CUT (1967) / VIOLENT STREETS (1974). Hideo Gosha might have been a successful director in his native Japan for close to three decades, but few of his films have gained any traction in this country. Only his debut feature, 1964’s Three Outlaw Samurai, is even available stateside on Blu-ray (via Criterion). Or at least that was the case until now, as Film Movement has just released three of his pictures — two Samurai, one Yakuza — in this format.
Samurai Wolf and Samurai Wolf 2: Hell Cut both unfold so rapidly that it’s easy to believe each runs about 75 minutes, yet both are packed with so much incident and so many characters that it’s hard to believe each runs about 75 minutes. Samurai Wolf casts Isao Natsuyagi as Kiba, a happy-go-lucky ronin who ends up helping a blind woman (Junko Miyazono) defend her business, a strategically located waystation, against the scoundrels who would steal it from her. Natsuyagi returns as Kiba for the sequel, this time repeatedly crossing paths with a murderer (Kô Nishimura) who reminds him of his own father. The first film is a particular treat — Part 2 gets a bit too cluttered with its various subplots — but both feature stunning action, startling violence, bravura camerawork, and a magnetic leading performance from Natsuyagi.
Violent Streets is an ambitious mob movie in which a former yakuza (Noboru Andô, an actual gangster turned actor), now the owner of a popular nightclub, gets involved when members of his former outfit, in an effort to get the two major crime rings to square off against each other, stage a kidnapping that invariably goes wrong. In tackling so many themes common to the gangster genre — including loyalty to friends vs. loyalty to the “family,” and the shift of gangsterdom in an increasingly civilized world from vicious lawlessness to corporate malfeasance — the picture occasionally feels overstuffed yet remains consistently engaging.
Samurai Wolf and Samurai Wolf 2: Hell Cut are offered together in a double feature Blu-ray; extras consist of audio commentary by Chris Poggiali (co-author of These Fists Break Bricks: How Kung Fu Movies Swept America and Changed the World) and a featurette on Gosha by his daughter, Tomoe Gosha. Blu-ray extras on Violent Streets consist of a video essay by author Patrick Macias (TokyoScope: The Japanese Cult Film Companion) and a piece on Gosha by his daughter, Tomoe Gosha.
Samurai Wolf: ★★★½
Samurai Wolf 2: Hell Cut: ★★★
Violent Streets: ★★★
THE SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE COLLECTION (1982-1990). Back in 2010, Shout! Factory released The Slumber Party Massacre trilogy as a DVD box set, and all three have been subsequently released by the label on Blu-ray. Presumably, rights to the third installment were lost somewhere along the way, since the outfit has now debuted only the first two titles on 4K. However, being a completist, here are reviews of all three titles, so if ya gotta own ‘em all, you will have to mix and match with earlier editions in other formats.
Inspired by the massive success of 1978’s Halloween and 1980’s Friday the 13th, slasher flicks were ubiquitous during the 1980s. Many were indistinguishable from one another, but something set apart the pictures in The Slumber Party Massacre franchise: All three films were written, directed, and produced by women. Potentially adding a feminist slant to what’s considered a male-dominated genre sounds like an intriguing idea (as when Joan Crawford turned the Western on its head in Nicholas Ray’s 1954 Johnny Guitar), but the sad truth is that this woeful trilogy blows its assignment in a major way.
That perhaps wasn’t the game plan when feminist icon Rita Mae Brown handed in the first draft for what would eventually become The Slumber Party Massacre (1982). Brown’s script was reportedly a spoof of the slasher film, but what finally reached the screen under the auspices of director-producer Amy Jones was merely the same slice ’n’ dice nonsense, this one centering around an escaped psychopath (Michael Villella) who slaughters folks (mainly women) with his phallic drill. The fact that the ladies fare better than the guys can hardly be deemed a step forward: Even in the traditional slasher flicks, the sole survivor is a woman (and almost always a virginal one, at that). What’s most startling about this film (as well as its sequels) is the frequent lack of female solidarity: More often than not, when the situation turns especially hairy, it’s every woman for herself.
There’s not much that’s noteworthy about the first picture, but it begs comparison to Psycho when placed alongside Slumber Party Massacre II (1987). An excruciating film written, directed, and co-produced by Deborah Brock, this finds the heroine (Wings’ Crystal Bernard) being haunted in her dreams by a wisecracking rock star (Atanas Ilitch plays this poor man’s Freddy Krueger) sporting a drill-tipped electric guitar. Even by slasher-film standards, this one’s incompetence makes it unbearable.
Slumber Party Massacre III (1990) ranks below Part I but above Part II, but since my rating system doesn’t include ¼-stars, this will have to remain in the basement alongside the other sorry sequel. Director Sally Mattison and writer-producer Catherine Cyran try to create a mystery out of the identity of the killer, but it’s not too hard to figure out, and the rest of the movie offers absolutely nothing in the way of wit or imagination.
Extras include audio commentaries; making-of featurettes; and image galleries.
The Slumber Party Massacre: ★½
Slumber Party Massacre II: ★
Slumber Party Massacre III: ★
STORM WARNING (1951). It’s Ronald Reagan versus the Ku Klux Klan! In other words, here’s a movie that the future U.S. President made while he was still known in Hollywood for his liberal and compassionate views, not when he later transformed into the racist right-wing icon who was once caught on tape ranting (regarding a United Nations session), “To see those, those monkeys from those African countries — damn them, they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes!” Indeed, Reagan had railed against the KKK just a few years prior to the making of this movie, which might explain why he’s less wooden than usual. He has a supporting role as District Attorney Burt Rainey — the star is Ginger Rogers as Marsha Mitchell, a big-city model who stops in a rural town to visit her kid sister Lucy (Doris Day). She witnesses members of the local KKK murder a visiting reporter in cold blood and then is further shocked when she learns that one of the killers is Lucy’s new husband Hank (Steve Cochran). D.A. Rainey tries to get her on the stand, but she’s reluctant to break up her pregnant sister’s marriage. Warner Bros. usually didn’t pull many punches with its social dramas (I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, Black Legion, Confessions of a Nazi Spy, etc.), but Storm Warning might be its most toothless in this vein, saved from irrelevancy by its good cast and a shocking finale. But perhaps in a studio effort to avoid the film being banned in the South, the KKK in this film shows no ill will (nor even utters any bad words) against blacks, Jews, or foreigners — instead, hatred is geared toward “outsiders” (meaning “Northerners”), and the major crime committed by the group’s top officers is income tax evasion!
Blu-ray extras consist of the 1951 live-action short One Who Came Back (an Oscar nominee for Best Documentary Short); the 1951 Bugs Bunny cartoon Bunny Hugged; and the theatrical trailer.
WINGS OF DESIRE (1987). This astonishing work from writer-director Wim Wenders is one of those rare motion pictures that manages to bring a true poetic sensibility to the medium of film. Inspired by the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, Wenders (sharing script credit with Peter Handke) creates a haunting mood piece whose rich atmosphere is channeled through every aspect of the production, from its direct and understated tagline (“There are angels on the streets of Berlin”) to the stunning camerawork (mostly in black-and-white) by Henri Alekan. Bruno Ganz stars as Damiel, an angel who hovers over the city of Berlin, observing the world below him. He and fellow angel Cassiel (Otto Sander) are able to listen to the thoughts of anyone and everyone, and their presence is sensed only by small children … and by Peter Falk. How brilliant is Wings of Desire? Understand that Falk is playing himself — that is to say, he’s playing actor Peter Falk, who happened to be an angel himself until he elected to become human decades earlier. (Not until Being John Malkovich came along 12 years later would a film so playfully and successfully mix an actor’s real-life persona with a reel-life role.) Damiel eventually gets the urge to likewise shed his celestial standing and become a mere mortal once he falls for a trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin). Wenders copped Best Director at Cannes for this deeply philosophical — and deeply humanist — picture, and, once it was released stateside in 1988, it became an art-house hit. For its part, Hollywood took this unique, one-of-a-kind gem and remade it as 1998’s City of Angels, from the director of Casper and starring Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan — surely some studio executive’s idea of a sick joke. Wenders himself followed Wings of Desire with 1993’s far less successful Faraway, So Close!
Extras in the 4K UHD + Blu-ray edition include audio commentary by Wenders and Falk; a retrospective piece; and deleted scenes.
Short and Sweet:
AFTERSUN (2022). Fashioned as a memory piece, this remarkable debut feature from writer-director Charlotte Wells — it was #4 on my 10 Best of 2022 list — focuses on an 11-year-old Scottish girl (Frankie Corio) and the relationship she shares with her youthful, troubled father (Paul Mescal, deservedly earning a Best Actor Oscar nomination) as they spend time together at a Turkish vacation spot. For a movie that initially seemed slight upon first glance, this haunted me like no other title from last year, refusing to stray too far from my thoughts — or my emotions — since my initial viewing. And you won’t find a rawer moment in 2022 cinema than those few seconds of a deep, despairing cry.
The only Blu-ray extra is audio commentary by Wells.
ONE WAY PASSAGE (1932). Pre-Code pictures have a reputation for featuring all manner of risqué content (e.g. Safe in Hell, The Story of Temple Drake), but here’s one that remains steadfastly sweet and sentimental. Dan (William Powell) is a gentlemanly murderer scheduled for execution; Joan (Kay Francis) is a terminally ill sophisticate with only a short time to live. Not aware of each other’s date with death, they meet aboard a ship headed from Hong Kong to San Francisco and instantly fall in love. Their brief romance is the focus of this charming film that earned scripter Robert Lord the Oscar for Best Original Story.
Blu-ray extras consist of the 1933 live-action short Buzzin’ Around, starring the scandal-destroyed Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (his tragedy is touched upon in last year’s Babylon); the 1932 cartoon A Great Big Bunch of You; two radio adaptations; and the theatrical trailer.
FROM SCREEN TO STREAM
THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE (1997). A supernatural thriller that basically plays like The Firm with the stakes raised reaaally high, The Devil’s Advocate finds Keanu Reeves as Kevin Lomax, a vainglorious Florida attorney who has never lost a case. So when he’s given an obscenely lucrative offer to move to New York to work for the powerful John Milton (Al Pacino), he and his loving wife Mary Ann (Charlize Theron) don’t hesitate for a minute. But once the lifestyle of the rich and famous loses its allure, Mary Ann is walloped by loneliness (thanks to a workaholic husband), jealousy (thanks to her workaholic husband’s wandering eye), and frightening visions (thanks to her workaholic husband’s new acquaintances morphing into snarling demons). For his part, Kevin is oblivious to the method to his wife’s madness; he’s so keen on advancing his career that he begins compromising his ethics more frequently. Is he, in effect, selling his soul to his employer, who might literally be the devil in disguise? OK, subtle it ain’t (John Milton?), but damn if this outrageously entertaining film doesn’t maintain interest with its devious twists and turns. The most controversial ones are saved for the end: A climactic plot twist that will strike many as a cop-out is followed by an equally slippery coda that restores the movie’s impish appeal. Blessed with a part that caters to his hammy inclinations, Pacino actually plays it close to the vest until the third act, while Reeves is unexpectedly forceful in one of his best performances. Yet the picture’s most superlative turn comes from Theron, who’s a revelation in the first role to really show off her talents.
Review links for movies referenced in this column (all links open in new window):
Best Films of 2022
Confessions of a Nazi Spy
Friday the 13th Franchise
Safe in Hell
The Story of Temple Drake
Superman (Christopher Reeve) Series
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