(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.)
Dennis Hopper in The American Friend (Photo: Criterion)
THE AMERICAN FRIEND (1977). It's rather easy — more so if one squints — to see the throughline in all the actors who have played James Bond over the decades. But the screen incarnations of Tom Ripley, the protagonist of five novels penned by Patricia Highsmith? With performers as different in their physical appearances and acting methods as Matt Damon, John Malkovich, Alain Delon and Dennis Hopper essaying the role, the man becomes perhaps even more elusive on screen than in print. Unlike the 007 entries, though, the Ripley flicks were made by different filmmakers from different countries, and even Highsmith was startled after seeing Hopper play the part in German director Wim Wenders' The American Friend. Highsmith disliked the movie upon first viewing but grew to respect it — fortunately, those of us who aren't as protective of the character can appreciate it right off the bat. Wenders' take is based on the third Ripley book, Ripley's Game, and in this one, the character comes off as less seductive and calculating and more cheerfully vulgar and possibly flat-out bonkers. Perpetually prowling the Hamburg art scene due to his involvement in a forgery scheme, he's also responsible for helping a French colleague (Gérard Blain) dupe an innocent man, a frame maker named Jonathan Zimmerman (German national treasure Bruno Ganz), into assisting in a pair of turf-war assassinations. Most Highsmith adaptations have been made into satisfying movies — the earliest example being Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train and the most recent being Carol — and this one's no exception, with a few potent set-pieces (including a pair involving trains) and supporting roles for legendary American directors Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without a Cause) and Samuel Fuller (Shock Corridor).
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Wenders and Hopper; deleted scenes; and interviews with Wenders and Ganz.
David Carradine in Bound for Glory (Photo: Twilight Time)
BOUND FOR GLORY (1976). Fairly worthless as biography but important as an evocation of a time and a place — and, heck, essential as a pleasurable motion picture experience — this loose adaptation of Woody Guthrie's autobiography casts David Carradine (fresh off his star-making stint on TV's Kung Fu) as the legendary folk singer responsible for such classics as "This Land Is Your Land," "Do Re Mi" and "Union Maid" (a song I particularly adored as a teen). Initially, the role was reportedly earmarked for bigger marquee draws such as Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro and Kris Kristofferson (among others), but it's hard to imagine even these accomplished thespians matching the sly insouciance or devil-may-care charm which Carradine makes indispensable to the part. His Guthrie is showcased in that Depression-era stretch when he vacates the Dust Bowl and heads to California in search of more promising opportunities. But things aren't any better out west, and as he spends time on the road (look for M. Emmet Walsh as one of those who offers him a lift), on the rails (Ji-Tu Cumbuka scores as a fellow hobo named Slim) and in the fields (director Hal Ashby brings back his The Last Detail player Randy Quaid for another supporting stint), he starts to find his sociopolitical groove and anti-fascist voice. Nominated for six Academy Awards (including Best Picture, pitted against the killer quartet of All the President's Men, Taxi Driver, Network and winner Rocky), it won for Best Cinematography (Haskell Wexler) and Best Adaptation Score (Leonard Rosenman). In a sense, it won a third Oscar, as it was the first film to debut the Steadicam that quickly became an industry standard — its creator, Garrett Brown, was honored with an Academy Award of Merit the following year for his revolutionary invention.
Blu-ray extras consist of the trailer and an isolated score track.
Tom Hanks in Bridge of Spies (Photo: DreamWorks)
BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015). "Christ, I miss the Cold War," grumbles M (Judi Dench) at one point during the 2006 James Bond entry Casino Royale. Cinematically speaking, so do I. There existed an urgency and immediacy in the Cold War pictures produced during that lengthy stretch when U.S.-Soviet relations were, to put it ever so mildly, engulfed in a big chill, from The Spy Who Came In from the Cold and The Ipcress File to the 007 films From Russia with Love and The Spy Who Loved Me. The Cold War is now history, and Bridge of Spies is here to serve as the celluloid equivalent of a history book. It's a measured, tasteful, respectful movie, the sort you rent for your grandparents when a scary Sicario or a messy Mad Max: Fury Road simply won't do. It's a classy, highbrow, important picture, the sort designed to nab Oscar nominations by the fistful (and, predictably, it did). It's also Steven Spielberg continuing his march toward the status of elder statesman of the American cinema, and it's a bit dispiriting seeing him quell his natural talents in order to put out workmanlike movies that could easily have been handled by any Tom, Dick or Ron Howard. Tom Hanks is typically solid as James Donovan, a real-life lawyer who was tapped to handle the exchange of captured Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Oscar-nominated Mark Rylance) for American pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), shot down while engaged in a reconnaissance mission over the Soviet Union. Bridge of Spies is a fine movie, but there's little fire in its belly. That's even more shocking considering the script was co-written (along with Matt Charman) by Joel and Ethan Coen, who have never met a genre they couldn't goose.
Blu-ray extras consist of a behind-the-scenes piece and three featurettes integrating historical footage (the Berlin Wall, Glienicke Bridge, U-2 spy plane) with the filmic reproductions.
Slappy in Goosebumps (Photo: Columbia)
GOOSEBUMPS (2015). In this frenzied family flick, Jack Black stars as R.L. Stine, the author of the incredibly popular series of spooky books for young readers. Much like the character of "Peter Falk" (played by Peter Falk) in Wings of Desire and the character of "John Malkovich" (played by Malkovich) in Being John Malkovich, this "R.L. Stine" is a fictionalized version of the writer, here presented (through Black's amusing portrayal) as a persnickety sort who reveals to a couple of neighborhood kids (Dylan Minnette and Ryan Lee) that the monsters he created in his bestsellers are actually alive and kept safely locked away in the original manuscripts of the books. Of course, said monsters escape from their printed-page prisons, meaning the streets of Madison, Delaware, are soon being invaded by a werewolf, a blob, an invisible boy, a giant praying mantis, and various other creatures of the night. It's a clever premise for a movie, but the creativity can't begin and end with the high-concept hook (as we learned the hard way from the woeful Pixels). Luckily, Goosebumps takes its offbeat idea further, and while it could stand to subtract a couple of annoying characters (Lee's whining Champ, Jillian Bell's man-hungry Aunt Lorraine) and add a few more late-inning twists, it's still above-average entertainment for the children and adequate enough for their parents.
Blu-ray extras include deleted scenes; an alternate opening and an alternate ending; a piece on Slappy the ventriloquist's dummy; and a blooper reel.
Julie Andrews and Jocelyne LaGarde in Hawaii (Photo: Twilight Time)
HAWAII (1966). The superb biopic Trumbo (for which Bryan Cranston should, but won't, win the Best Actor Oscar, but I digress) shows how the hiring of Dalton Trumbo to write the scripts for Spartacus and Exodus effectively ended the Hollywood blacklist, but it doesn't mention any of the subsequent pictures he wrote. Among that bunch rests the rueful Lonely Are the Brave (starring Spartacus star Kirk Douglas), the forceful Papillon and this adaptation of James A. Michener's bestselling novel. Perhaps "snippet" would be a better word than "adaptation," since this film focuses on only a brief section of Michener's gargantuan book. Set in a 19th-century stretch when missionaries journeyed to Hawaii to convert the local savages to Christianity, the film features a towering performance by Max von Sydow as Abner Hale, a rigid, fire-and-brimstone reverend who arrives on the islands with his new — and infinitely more compassionate — wife Jerusha (Julie Andrews) by his side. His close-mindedness ultimately proves to be more wicked than the carnal attraction Jerusha still feels for a former flame (Richard Harris) or the vast majority of the locals' hedonistic tendencies. Rising stars Gene Hackman and Carroll O'Connor head the supporting roster, although it's Jocelyne LaGarde who nabbed the most praise for her delightful turn as Malama Kanakoa. Hawaii was a sizable box office hit, yet while it did land seven Academy Award nominations, only one was in a major category: Best Supporting Actress for LaGarde, the only non-professional in the cast. Hawaii (released on Blu-ray in January by Twilight Time) was followed four years later by The Hawaiians (to be released this month by the same outfit).
The Blu-ray contains the 161-minute theatrical cut and (in standard definition) the 189-minute roadshow version. Extras consist of the theatrical trailer and an isolated track of Elmer Bernstein's score.
Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver in Inside Llewyn Davis (Photo: Criterion)
INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (2013). Meet Llewyn Davis, the protagonist of what turned out to be the best film of 2013. As sharply played by Oscar Isaac, he remains a compelling jerk from first frame to last, with only a few flashes of decency scattered throughout the film like snowflakes that don't stick. Llewyn's a folk singer in 1961 New York who's just waiting for that big break, the one that will allow him to finally stop having to sleep couch-to-couch. It's not easy, of course: While he manages an occasional gig here and there at Greenwich Village's Gaslight cafe, lack of funds forces him to record a novelty song (the delightful "Please Mr. Kennedy") with his friend Jim (Justin Timberlake). His determination even leads him to embark on an odyssey to Chicago to meet an influential club owner (F. Murray Abraham); to get there, he hitches a ride with a cane-wielding blowhard (an award-worthy John Goodman). Matters aren't much better on the personal front. In addition to his homeless status, he also has to contend with the unexpected pregnancy of Jim's wife Jean (a wonderfully tart Carey Mulligan), with whom he recently had an affair. Like many Joel and Ethan Coen concoctions, this is a take-it-or-leave-it effort — yet as with many works from great filmmakers, how much you invest in the movie may determine how much you derive from it. In the same manner as No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man, the dynamic duo is offering plenty of food for thought, and as with those fellow four-star films, this one beautifully stands up to viewing after viewing.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by authors Robert Christgau, David Hajdu and Sean Wilentz; a making-of piece; a conversation between the Coens and music producer T Bone Burnett; and a look at an Inside Llewyn Davis tribute concert featuring Joan Baez, Gillian Welch and others.
Sandra Bullock in Our Brand Is Crisis (Photo: Warner Bros.)
OUR BRAND IS CRISIS (2015). While Warner Bros. reaped the financial benefits of such hits as San Andreas and Creed during 2015, its slate was nonetheless packed with an alarmingly high number of out-and-out bombs. Along with (to name just a few) Jupiter Ascending, Pan and that Point Break remake requested by absolutely no one, there was this colossal dud, one of the low points of Sandra Bullock's recent career comeback. This is based on the 2005 documentary of the same name, and that picture related how James Carville and his team were hired to put candidate Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada over the top in the 2002 Bolivian presidential election. For some reason, this fictionalization changes names and even a gender, so we're basically left with Sandra Bullock playing James Carville. Her character, "Calamity" Jane Bodine, is a political strategist with a rocky résumé, but she's nevertheless up to the challenge of trumpeting a candidate (Joaquim de Almeida) who trails in the polls by 28 points — even if the frontrunner is being handled by her sworn enemy, a slick operator with a Cheshire cat grin and the moniker Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton). Perhaps mindful that he's working under David Gordon Green, the man who directed Your Highness and The Sitter, scripter Peter Straughan packs the proceedings with numerous moronic interludes, the sort more at home in a broad Will Ferrell comedy than an ostensibly hard-hitting political drama. Even worse than the frat house humor, though, is the naiveté that's often displayed in this type of picture, where seasoned vets are shocked — shocked, I tell you! — to learn that politicians are crooks and liars (see also Green Zone). Ultimately, the movie's brand isn't crisis as much as it's absurdity.
The only Blu-ray extra is a piece on Bullock and her character.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Photo: Disney)
SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1938). This Walt Disney classic remains an irresistible watch, though I realize I'm the only person in the world not to award it a perfect four stars. The animation is spectacular, the songs are catchy, the dwarfs are delightful, and the movie itself is revolutionary in that it was the first full-length animated feature ever released. But let's face it: Snow White has to be the most passive heroine in movie history — and a bit of a dullard, to boot. Beyond getting the dwarfs to wash their hands before supper, she does nothing in this film; instead, she's protagonist as perpetual victim, getting saved at every turn by the woodsman, the dwarfs and the prince without ever actively fending for herself. And you can't blame her simpering nature on the times, either: Snow White was made during a period in which formidable and headstrong actresses like Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn and Greta Garbo were at their most potent. But enough quibbling: Anyone who's at all interested in animation — or the stepping stones of film history — must have this in their collection.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has been released on Blu-ray before, but this edition is the first in a new line titled The Walt Disney Signature Collection. Among the new extras are an archival discussion with Walt about the movie; a piece on the picture's continuing influence; a never-before-seen storyboard sequence; seven little-known facts about the film; and a hip reimagining of the Snow White story told in 70 seconds.
Cate Blanchett in Truth (Photo: Sony Pictures Classics)
TRUTH (2015). Cate Blanchett recently earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination for Carol, but she was equally worthy for her work in this drama which was (rightly) overshadowed by fellow journalism flick Spotlight. She's superb as Mary Mapes, the award-winning news producer (she uncovered the Abu-Ghraib abuse scandal) whose career went down in flames as she pursued a story for 60 Minutes and CBS News regarding the preferential treatment George W. Bush (then up for reelection) had received decades earlier when he was in the National Guard. Some inexcusable lapses in judgment pertaining to sources left Mapes and her team, including Dan Rather (Robert Redford), open to criticism from largely anonymous bloggers — the same sort that now roam the Internet spewing misogyny and racism at every turn (the online comments Mapes is shown reading are disgusting ... and all too typical) — and with the timid mainstream media absolutely cowed during the Bush regime's eight-year reign, it's no surprise that heads went rolling and the real story got buried. The fundamentals of Truth's narrative are sound, but writer-director James Vanderbilt has an unfortunate tendency to force his actors to deliver portentous speeches rather than talk naturally. And while most of the performers are well-chosen (Dennis Quaid and Stacy Keach among them), Redford is hopelessly miscast as Rather. The actor is far too recognizable to blend into the role, which is what happens when a marquee name is selected instead of someone who might actually nail the role (maybe Dan Hedaya?).
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Vanderbilt and producers Brad Fischer and William Sherak; a making-of featurette; deleted scenes; a Q&A with Vanderbilt, Blanchett and co-star Elisabeth Moss; and discussions about the real-life events with Rather, Mapes, Blanchett and Redford.