(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what's new on Blu-ray, DVD and Streaming. Ratings are on a four-star scale.)
- Diane Keaton in Baby Boom (Photo: Twilight Time)
BABY BOOM (1987). Whether together or individually, Nancy Meyers and Charles Shyer have never really been known for making movies that could be described as gritty or hard-hitting. They’ve also never been known for focusing on the unwashed masses – in their films, someone who makes under $120,000 annually would doubtless be described as “poverty-stricken” and “barely scraping by.” Yet when it comes to producing fizzy entertainment with an upper-class ‘30s screwball twist, they’ve proven to be largely reliable, thanks to such gems as Something’s Gotta Give (written and directed by Meyers), Irreconcilable Differences (directed by Shyer, written by both), and the 1998 remake of The Parent Trap (directed by Meyers, written by both). Baby Boom, for which Shyer served as director while both co-wrote the script, is another worthy effort – while not the most financially successful of the rash of baby flicks to emerge from Hollywood during the late ‘80s (that would be Three Men and a Baby), it was arguably the best. Diane Keaton is typically excellent as J.C. Wiatt, an all-work-and-no-play businesswoman with a boyfriend (Harold Ramis) who matches her in workaholic tendencies and a boss (Sam Wanamaker) who promises that she’ll soon be made a partner in the firm. But when a distant relative dies and wills her adorable baby to J.C., the so-called “tiger lady” finds her career going into a tailspin as she attempts to deal with her newfound duties as a mom. Baby Boom is both smart and sentimental, and it finds Keaton at the top of her game. A TV series followed in 1988 – starring Kate Jackson (in Keaton’s part) and Wanamaker (reprising his film role), it lasted all of 13 episodes.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman; the theatrical trailer; and an isolated track of Bill Conti’s score.
- Eddie Redmayne in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Photo: Warner)
FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM (2016). It’s tempting to warily eye Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and see nothing more than a blatant cash-grab, an impersonal product designed to separate fans of all things Harry Potter from their hard-earned cash (or, in the case of some teens, easily acquired allowance). And initially, this film from David Yates (who directed the final four Potter pictures) and J.K. Rowling (in her screenwriting debut, marking the first time she's adapted one of her own works) does seem to be coasting on its related mythology, feeling like warmed-over Hogwarts. Eventually, though, the saga of British wizard Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and his trip to America hits its stride, and the end result proves to be a welcome addition to the fantasy field. Rather than just functioning as exposition for the umpteen sequels to follow, this one is self-contained enough to satisfy on its own terms, following Newt as he bumbles his way through the Big Apple with a suitcase full of mysterious critters. Along the way, he raises the curiosity of a well-meaning witch (Katherine Waterston), grabs the attention of a high-ranking wizard (Colin Farrell), and inadvertently involves an innocent bystander (Dan Fogler) in his shenanigans. Redmayne is affable and endearingly awkward as Newt; so, too, is Fogler, and the inclusion of a No-Maj (the American term for the UK's Muggle) in a central role is largely what sets this apart from the more hermetically sealed Potter tales. There are references to that other Rowling enterprise (Dumbledore is name-dropped), but with a fresh cast of characters, a significant change in locale, and various plotlines all working toward the same destination, this picture thankfully turns out to be its own beast.
Blu-ray extras include a behind-the-scenes featurette; deleted scenes; and multi-part pieces on the characters and creatures.
- Robert Morse in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (Photo: Twilight Time)
HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING (1967). Running for four years and 1,417 performances, the 1961 Broadway smash How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying won seven Tony Awards (including Best Musical) and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Similar honors were noticeably MIA when it came to the film version, which failed to earn even a single Academy Award or Golden Globe nomination – adding financial insult to artistic injury, it was far from a box office hit, earning even less than the same year’s more roundly panned musicals Camelot and Doctor Dolittle. That’s a shame, since this is a clever and vibrant musical that satirizes the rat race in often uproarious fashion. The casting is the key here, starting with Robert Morse reprising his Tony Award-winning turn as J. Pierpont (oddly changed from Pierrepont on stage) Finch, a window washer who picks up the titular book and decides to follow its advice to the letter. That decision immediately lands him in the mailroom of the World Wide Wicket Company, but it’s no time at all before he’s hopscotching his way up the corporate ladder. Along the way, he befriends secretary Rosemary Pilkington (Michele Lee), schmoozes company president Jasper Biggley (Rudy Vallee, also imported from the Broadway show), and constantly one-ups Biggley’s incompetent nephew Bud Frump (Anthony Teague). Frank Loesser’s songs and Bob Fosse’s choreography, while both fine, take a back seat to the potent comedy quotient. While this remains the only screen adaptation (unless one includes a forgotten TV production from the ‘70s), the stage show has been brought back to Broadway on a pair of occasions, most recently in 2011 (with Daniel Radcliffe as Finch).
Blu-ray extras consist of separate interviews with Morse and Lee; the theatrical trailer; and an isolated track of the musical score.
- Peter Weller in RoboCop 2 (Photo: Shout! Factory & MGM)
ROBOCOP 2 (1990) / ROBOCOP 3 (1993). Sequels to excellent originals often disappoint, but pronounced feelings of downright depression set in when contrasting 1987’s RoboCop with the pair of sorry pictures that followed it.
The team responsible for the first RoboCop, director Paul Verhoeven and scripters Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, weren’t involved with RoboCop 2, replaced by director Irvin Kershner and writers Frank Miller and Walon Green. Kershner had previously helmed The Empire Strikes Back, Miller was still riding high from his comic miniseries The Dark Knight Returns, and Green was the co-writer of the Western classic The Wild Bunch – all this talent counted for naught when the end result proved to be so unremittingly trashy and ugly. Peter Weller returns as RoboCop/Murphy, but all humanity has been stripped from his characterization, leaving him as little more than just an action figure. The character of The Old Man (Dan O’Herlihy), presented as a grandfatherly sort in the original RoboCop, drips pure evil here as the head of the conglomerate OCP, and neither he nor any of the other villains (including a psychopath played by Tom Noonan) even begin to compare to the fantastic rogues’ gallery from the first flick. Lacking its predecessor’s sharp-edged satire, RoboCop 2 is a humorless and dour experience.
- Nancy Allen and Robert John Burke in RoboCop 3 (Photo: Shout! Factory & MGM)
While the first two RoboFlicks were rated R, RoboCop 3 earned a PG-13 designation, a tactic that nevertheless failed to prevent it from bombing with audiences of all ages. Made in 1991 but held from release due to Orion Pictures’ bankruptcy woes, the film finds Robert John Burke replacing Weller as the steel enforcer, here siding with the struggling masses against OCP and its army of fascistic enforcers. While RC2 was a bloodbath, this one is just bloodless, with Miller and director Fred Dekker contributing a starved storyline. And while the sight of a flying RoboCop isn’t as offensive as the sight of a flying R2-D2, it still registers as an awful idea.
Blu-ray extras on RoboCop 2 include audio commentary by computer graphic supervisor Paul M. Sammon; a retrospective making-of featurette; a piece on the visual effects; archival behind-the-scenes material; and a still gallery. Blu-ray extras on RoboCop 3 include audio commentary by Dekker; a retrospective making-of featurette; a piece on the visual effects; an interview with Felton Perry, who plays the sycophantic corporate man Johnson in all three films; and a still gallery.
Both Movies: *1/2
- Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield in Silence (Photo: Paramount)
SILENCE (2016). Martin Scorsese’s disturbing and deeply committed Silence isn't a motion picture for those who superficially wear their Christianity like a shiny button, falling for the long con of money-grubbing charlatans like Steven Furtick and believing their devotion to the Lord ends with slapping an ichthys sticker on a car bumper. Instead, the film is an uncomfortable and unsettling watch, better at generating questions than supplying answers — which, come to think of it, is perhaps the proper outcome for a film of this nature. Set in the 17th century, Silence follows two Portuguese priests, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) as they head to Japan to search for their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson). The word is that Ferreira has apostatized, a rumor that Rodrigues and Garupe refuse to believe. Seeking to discover what really has happened to Ferreira, the two holy men risk their lives in a country in which Jesuit priests and their followers are facing torture and execution. Adapting Shûsako Endô's 1966 novel, Scorsese and scripter Jay Cocks (the former film critic who also co-wrote the director's Gangs of New York and The Age of Innocence) have crafted a film packed to the breaking point with thorny issues. Of course, there's the basic debate over the whole matter of proselytizing in foreign territories, but the picture also looks more specifically at whether innocent laypeople are actually dying to appease God or to appease the priests. Scorsese and Cocks prefer to keep the queries percolating, only succumbing to obviousness — and, thanks to an ill-advised Heavenly voice-over, unfairness — during the final stretch of this 160-minute undertaking.
The only Blu-ray extra is a behind-the-scenes piece.
- Phil Silvers, Art Carney and Augustus von Schumacher (that's the dog) in Won Ton Ton, The Dog Who Saved Hollywood (Photo: Olive & Paramount)
WON TON TON, THE DOG WHO SAVED HOLLYWOOD (1976). Here we have Won Ton Ton, The Dog Who Saved Hollywood, a spoof that was inspired by the stunning success of Rin Tin Tin when the German Shepherd first appeared in motion pictures during the silent era. Rated PG, Won Ton Ton is a family film, but because it was made during the 1970s, it’s a family film that includes plot strands involving sexual harassment, attempted rape, stag films and prostitution — to say nothing of the various scenes in which dogs are involved in some pretty stressful and gruesome situations. (While the film was rated PG here, it received a more restrictive “16” designation in Finland, the same rating later given in that country to the likes of Alien, Saving Private Ryan and Django Unchained!) Then again, such a mismatch of content seems perfectly in line for a film as loopy as this one. On one hand, its humor is on the anemic side, failing to conjure many laughs as it relates the rise and fall of Won Ton Ton and his human handlers, aspiring actress Estie Del Ruth (Madeline Kahn) and aspiring writer-director Grayson Potchuck (Bruce Dern). On the other hand, the assemblage of former silver-screen stars in cameo appearances is absolutely staggering, with over 65 aged celebrities popping up usually for only one second or one scene. There’s Joan Blondell as a landlady who tells a naked little girl named Norma Jean (decked out on the grass in true Marilyn fashion) to put on some clothes, former Tarzan Johnny Weissmuller as a crew member, Edger Bergen as a showman who savagely beats Won Ton Ton, Stepin Fetchit (real name, sadly not acknowledged in the film, Lincoln Perry) as a dancing butler, Milton Berle as a blind man, and on and on and on. Dern and especially Kahn do fine in a losing battle, but the only reason to see this is to play spot-the-star.
There are no extras included on the Blu-ray.
- Oliver Reed and Geraldine Chaplin in Z.P.G. (Photo: Kino)
Z.P.G. (1972). A fascinating premise is compromised by lackluster treatment in Z.P.G., one of the many ‘70s sci-fi flicks that examined a miserable future for our world. Like the superior Soylent Green, this one looks at a period when overpopulation has sapped the planet of most of its resources. Instigating a policy of Zero Population Growth, the ruling class has ordered that no children be born over the next 30 years, and any couple that breaks the decree will be executed along with their newborn. Most couples decide to make do with government-sanctioned animatronic dolls that bleat out such phrases as, “I love you, Mummy!” (these dolls are the film’s cleverest — and creepiest — concept), but Carol McNeil (Geraldine Chaplin) and her husband Russ (Oliver Reed, whose sleepy performance suggests his character needs a nap more than a child) decide to take a chance on conceiving and raising a baby of their own. Already a near-impossible task, it becomes even more dangerous once their friends Edna and George Borden (Diane Cilento and Don Gordon) learn about their illegal offspring and blackmail them into sharing parenting responsibilities. The sterility of the setting is unfortunately reflected in the aseptic direction by Michael Campus, and niggling details in the script by Frank De Felitta (soon to become a bestselling author thanks to Audrey Rose) and Max Erlich (ditto, due to The Reincarnation of Peter Proud) continue right through the highly illogical ending.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historian Steve Ryfle, and a quartet of trailers for other titles available from Kino.
FROM SCREEN TO STREAM
(Recommended films currently available on streaming services)
- Bill Murray in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (Photo: Buena Vista)
THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU (2004). Earlier titles from writer-director Wes Anderson were often little more than computer programs downloaded in "Quirk" Express, heady rushes of whimsy that never felt entirely sincere in their efforts to humanize the strained shenanigans. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is basically more of the same, yet for all its apparent insincerity, it keeps us watching. And it does so not because we especially care about the fates of the characters — the unexpected death of a principal cast member left me shrugging rather than sobbing — but because we sense the story will invariably play out in trippy, unconventional ways that will surprise and maybe even delight us. Bill Murray stars as Steve Zissou, a Jacques Cousteau-style oceanographer who sets off to track down the Jaguar Shark that devoured his partner. The interaction between the characters (played by, among others, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Anjelica Huston and Jeff Goldblum) suffers from Anderson's aloof style. What is enjoyable, though, are the peripherals: the sour expressions on the face of Steve's overly protective German engineer (a funny Willem Dafoe); the cut-away shot that allows us access to Steve's entire ship, an inspired visual that brings to mind a Richard Scarry children's book or a Barbie doll mansion; the psychedelic sea creatures encountered by Team Zissou (stop-motion animation courtesy of The Nightmare Before Christmas director Henry Selick); a radio in the background that's playing the Joan Baez-Ennio Morricone composition "Here's To You" (has any radio station, anywhere, played this song at any point over the course of the last few decades?); and Zissou's disdain for the outfit's pet dolphins. It may be impossible to love The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, but it's remarkably easy to drown oneself in its sea of eccentricity. (Netflix Streaming)
MILK (2008). The China Syndrome, Wall Street and even Casablanca are examples of movies that happened to be in the right place at the right time – that is to say, life imitated art (or vice versa) as each picture's release neatly dovetailed with real-life incidents that in one way or another mirrored what was happening on-screen. Milk follows suit: Although it takes place in the 1970s and was released nearly a decade ago, it couldn't possibly be more relevant; for that, we have to blame hideous and bigoted measures that are continually being proposed by grotesque Republican politicians. Back in the '70s, Harvey Milk (played by Sean Penn) fought against similar hysteria: Tired of homosexuals such as himself being treated as second-class citizens, he found himself drawn to political office as a way in which to fight for equality. Eventually elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, he continued to grow in stature and influence, a career ascendancy which did not sit well with Dan White (Josh Brolin), the board's most conservative member – and, as it turned out, its most trigger-happy. The Oscar-winning 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk offered a flawless look at the career of this passionate progressive, so it's a testament to the richness of Gus Van Sant's direction and Dustin Lance Black's screenplay that this fictionalized version feels authentic in its every movement. As Milk, Penn delivers the performance of his career, and he's backed by a superlative cast containing only one weak link: Diego Luna as Milk's insecure lover, Jack Lira (James Franco fares much better as Harvey's previous lover, Scott Smith). But this is a small misstep in an otherwise excellent production full of passion and purpose. Nominated for eight Academy Awards (including Best Picture), this won for Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay.(Netflix Streaming)