(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what's new on Blu-ray and DVD. Ratings are on a four-star scale.)
David Bowie (background) and Patsy Kensit (front center) in Absolute Beginners (Photo: Twilight Time)
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 (even over the span of three decades, it has yet to even come close to obtaining The Rocky Horror Picture Show or This Is Spinal Tap street cred) 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. But 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. Music stars Ray Davies (of The Kinks) and Sade appear in small roles, and 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.
The only extra on the Blu-ray is an isolated track of the score.
Dog Soldiers (Photo: Shout! Factory)
DOG SOLDIERS (2002). Neil Marshall's The Descent ranks as one of the best horror films of modern times (it was also one of the 10 Best Films of 2006), but the British writer-director already had another grade-A monster movie under his belt before his breakthrough feature. Dog Soldiers suffered a sorry fate on this side of the Atlantic — it never received a general theatrical release, appearing only at a handful of film festivals before making its cable-TV and DVD debuts — but it has apparently proven to be a popular title on the home market, enough that Shout! Factory's Scream Factory branch has opted to offer it in a Collector's Edition Blu-ray (it had previously been released on Blu in a shoddy 2009 barebones edition from First Look Studios). Set in the Scottish Highlands, the story centers on six British soldiers engaged in a training mission — Sergeant Wells (Sean Pertwee) is in command, with Private Cooper (Kevin McKidd) serving as the most accomplished and dependable man in his unit. They happen upon an injured Captain Ryan (Liam Cunningham), the only survivor of a special forces outfit that's been wiped out by ... something. That something is soon revealed to be werewolves; the soldiers avoid being slaughtered thanks to a last-minute rescue by a zoologist (Emma Cleasby), but all involved soon find themselves barricaded in a farmhouse and fighting for their lives. In the best horror film tradition, Marshall foregoes employing CGI (only small dollops are utilized) in a desire to create the creatures via old-school means; while they may not match the beasts from 1981's The Howling (or 1941's The Wolf Man), they're a fearsome lot, with their origins providing the tale with a satisfying twist. As he did with The Descent, Marshall packs the picture with distinctive and sympathetic characters, allowing viewers to easily get absorbed in the hand-to-paw skirmishes. Mark Thomas' music score is also a plus.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Marshall; an hour-long making-of feature; a gallery of production photos; and Marshall's 1999 short film Combat.
Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King (Photo: Criterion)
THE FISHER KING (1991). Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) is an offensive talk-radio host whose career is on the ascendancy until a deranged listener misinterprets his comment that yuppies must be stopped and ends up killing scores of them in a chic Manhattan bar. Three years later, Jack is a shell of a person: unemployable, alcoholic, self-loathing, and sponging off his girlfriend Anne (Mercedes Ruehl), the tolerant owner of a small video store (remember those?). Late one night, Jack is rescued from a vicious attack by Parry (Robin Williams), a deranged homeless man who believes he's on a quest to locate the Holy Grail. Once Jack learns that Parry was a respectable teacher who lost his mind when his wife was — you guessed it — fatally shot in that chic Manhattan bar, Jack decides his guilt might be alleviated if he helps this nutty but sweet person in his oddball mission. There are two terrific performances at the center of The Fisher King, and neither belongs to Williams. As Anne, a woman who deeply loves Jack and just wishes he would return her adoration, Ruehl delivers a raw performance that deservedly earned her a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award. Bridges, meanwhile, delivers one of the best performances of his stellar career, taking his character through a wide range of high-wire emotions and never missing a beat. It's a remarkable turn by Bridges, so naturally the Best Actor Oscar nomination went instead to Williams for his showboat supporting stint. The late actor delivers a broad performance that often feels like a parody of his own comic persona, and he's not helped in the least by an overreaching script from Richard LaGravenese and poor directorial choices by Terry Gilliam, who should have left the Grail alone after his participation in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Some lovely scenes commingle with many frustrating ones, and it's up to Bridges and Ruehl to keep this from completely capsizing.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Gilliam; deleted scenes; new interviews with Gilliam, Bridges, Ruehl, LaGravenese and others; a 2006 interview with Williams; and a video essay showcasing Bridges' on-set photographs.
Lorna Thayer, Jack Nicholson and Karen Black in Five Easy Pieces (Photo: Criterion)
FIVE EASY PIECES (1970). In the late 1960s, Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider and Steve Blauner combined their first initials to create BBS Productions, an outfit devoted to producing artful films primarily for youthful audiences tired of Hollywood's conventional offerings. Between 1968 and 1972, they oversaw seven movies, all but one featuring Jack Nicholson in some capacity (as actor, director and/or screenwriter). Following BBS' first two features, The Monkees romp Head (co-written by Nicholson and Rafelson) and the box office smash Easy Rider (earning Nicholson the first of his countless Oscar nominations for his show-stealing supporting turn), Nicholson was placed front and center by writer-director Rafelson in Five Easy Pieces, one of the defining movies of the early 1970s. A new kind of picture even for its era, this absorbing character study dared to make its protagonist, Bobby Dupea (Nicholson), often unlikable. Yet in Bobby's inability to get a grasp on his own values and self worth, it also made him an easily relatable character for its turbulent time, a period mourning the death of '60s idealism and rocked by the war raging in Vietnam. Nicholson's performance as an oil-rigger who's soon revealed to be a pianist escaping from his upper-class roots still stands as one of his greatest (who can't help but love the classic "chicken salad sandwich" scene?), and the stellar cast also includes Karen Black (as Bobby's doting girlfriend), Sally Struthers (a year away from All in the Family immortality), Ralph Waite (two years away from The Waltons fame), future pop star Toni Basil, and future Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe author Fannie Flagg. This earned four major Oscar nominations, for Best Picture, Actor, Supporting Actress (Black) and Original Screenplay (Rafelson and Carole Eastman). Black's superb performance, the finest supporting turn of the year, nabbed her a Golden Globe as well as prizes from the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review; alas, the Academy idiotically gave its award as a sentimental sop to 70-year-old Helen Hayes, whose winning turn in Airport was accurately described by the New York Times' Vincent Canby as, "let's face it, just a teentsy-weentsy bit terrible."
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Rafelson and interior designer Toby Rafelson (Bob's then-wife); two featurettes on BBS Productions, one including interviews with Nicholson and Black; excerpts from a 1976 interview with Rafelson; and theatrical trailers.
Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart in Get Hard (Photo: Warner Bros.)
GET HARD (2015). Kevin Hart, who has impressed me repeatedly in subpar movies (including The Wedding Ringer, a 2015 comedy far worse than this one), is cast as Darnell Lewis, a loving family man and the hard-working owner of a car-wash business that services the employees of a multimillion dollar corporation. One such suit is James King (Will Ferrell), a one-percenter who isn't evil so much as self-absorbed. So when James gets falsely accused of monetary fraud and sentenced to a minimum of 10 years within the maximum-security walls of San Quentin, he realizes he needs someone to help him toughen up. James approaches Darnell and offers to pay him for the guidance — he doesn't really know Darnell, but since he's black, he surely must have served time, right? The script (credited to four writers) traffics in humor that will be tagged racist by some and commended for puncturing racism by others. There's certainly some controversial material on display (though nothing more envelope-pushing than what's found in Blazing Saddles, which today is deemed a comedy classic), but there are also a number of indisputable choice bits, such as when Darnell, fully engaged in his ex-con persona, tells his hard-luck story to James and it turns out to be the plot of Boyz N the Hood ("Wow, that almost sounds like a movie!" gasps James). Yet for every couple of gags that work, there's one that falls flat: A scene in which Darnell confronts a gang of racist bikers sounds like it can't miss, yet it proves to be a pale imitation of the terrific scene in 48 Hrs. in which Eddie Murphy's con similarly manhandles a bar full of rednecks (leading to Murphy uttering the Oscar-worthy line, "I've never seen so many backwards ass country fucks in my life"). The odds when it comes to the homophobic material are even worse: There's only so many times one can watch Ferrell loudly weep over the prospect of getting anally assaulted. Ferrell plays his patented role of the clueless guy sporting a misplaced sense of self-importance, meaning Hart spends half the time playing straight man to Ferrell's shtick. Yet Hart is such an intuitive and reflexive performer that even his reactions to James' shenanigans are funny.
The Blu-ray offers both the R-rated theatrical version as well as an unrated cut. Extras include various behind-the-scenes featurettes; deleted scenes; and a gag reel.
Sean Penn and Gary Oldman in State of Grace (Photo: Twilight Time)
STATE OF GRACE (1990). State of Grace probably was going to struggle at the box office no matter how the cards were dealt, but its fortunes certainly weren't helped by the fact that it opened within a week of GoodFellas, a seminal gangster flick that stole practically all of the genre's thunder that year (the Coens' excellent Miller's Crossing, which opened a couple of weeks after the Martin Scorsese masterwork, also got lost in the shuffle). It's a shame, because this crime meller, inspired by a real-life gang that operated in the Hell's Kitchen area of Manhattan, packs a punch thanks to its suitably pulpy plot as well as several powerhouse performances. Sean Penn headlines as Terry Noonan, who returns to his Hell's Kitchen stomping ground after approximately a decade away. He instantly reconnects with his best friend Jackie Flannery (Gary Oldman), tentatively attempts to jump-start a long-dormant relationship with Jackie's sister Kathleen (Robin Wright), and cautiously hopes to join the neighborhood mob gang ruled by Jackie's older brother Frankie (Ed Harris). It's hardly a spoiler to reveal that Terry is not quite what he seems — the tip-off is an early scene opposite the fine John Turturro — and his crisis of conscience is what provides the picture with its narrative intrigue. The rest of the time, it's (mob) business as usual, elevated by some deft plotting and sharp dialogue from scripter Dennis McIntyre (who passed away approximately seven months before the movie's premiere) and forceful turns by all the principals, particularly Oldman as a twitchy live wire who's fiercely loyal to friends and family. Only the finale, a slo-mo showdown awash in stylistic clichés, proves to be a letdown. The behind-the-scenes line-up is quite formidable: Claire Simpson, the Oscar-winning film editor of Platoon, Jordan Cronenweth, the brilliant cinematographer behind Blade Runner and the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, and the legendary composer Ennio Morricone (nuff said).
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by director Phil Joanou and film historian Nick Redman; the theatrical trailer; and an isolated track of Morricone's score.
Don Marshall, Ray Milland and "Rosey" Grier in The Thing with Two Heads (Photo: Olive Films)
THE THING WITH TWO HEADS (1972). In 1971, American International Pictures released The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant, starring Bruce Dern and Casey Kasem (yes, that Casey Kasem) in the story of a scientist who attaches the head of a killer onto the body of a mentally challenged rube. Concluding that not only are two heads better than one but that two films with the same premise are preferable to just one, AIP followed up the following year with The Thing with Two Heads, hiring Transplant co-scripter James Gordon White to also contribute to this picture. Ray Milland stars as Maxwell Kirshner, a wealthy scientist and unrepentant bigot whose poor health means that he won't live much longer. Having successfully placed the healthy head of a gorilla onto the body of a dying ape and then surgically removing the old noggin after the new one had gotten accustomed to the body (gorilla courtesy of future makeup superstar Rick Baker), he instructs his staff to find a suitable body on which he can have his own head similarly grafted. Unfortunately, the only volunteer for the operation is Jack Moss ("Rosey" Grier), a black Death Row inmate who agrees to the procedure since he figures he can use the extra time on Earth to prove his innocence. Needless to say, the racist Kirshner isn't exactly thrilled when he awakens and sees the skin color of his host. Or, as the ads blared, "They transplanted a WHITE BIGOT'S HEAD onto a SOUL BROTHER'S BODY! Man, they're really in deeeeep trouble!" Since the picture never takes itself seriously (I mean, how could it?), it often falls into the so-bad-it's-good-to-watch territory, with some intentionally amusing dialogue keeping it lively. But a lengthy chase involving our two-headed team and a squadron of police cars runs a full 25 minutes — nearly a third of the picture's 90-minute run time — and while this section probably played well at the drive-ins of the day, it's now nothing more than interminable yahoo fare and kills all momentum. Grier was better known for his glory days as one of the Los Angeles Rams' "Fearsome Foursome" — and as one of the men who tackled Sirhan Sirhan after he fatally shot Senator Robert Kennedy — than for his lamentable film career.
There are no extras on the Blu-ray.