(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.)
Fred Astaire, Nanette Fabray and Jack Buchanan in The Band Wagon (Photo: Warner Bros.)
THE BAND WAGON (1953). The 1931 Broadway revue The Band Wagon was the basis for director Vincente Minnelli's opulent MGM musical, for which the legendary writing team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green (Singin' in the Rain, On the Town) built a plot around the stage show's Howard Dietz-Arthur Schwartz songs and in the process made a film that's amusingly self-reflexive. While not as perceptive — or hilarious — as 1952's Singin' in the Rain in its skewering of backstage shenanigans among artists, it offers plenty of choice observations as it centers on has-been movie star Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire), who hopes his flagging fortunes will be salvaged by appearing in a lightweight Broadway musical written by his friends Lily and Lester Marton (Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant). But problems materialize when the Martons select as their director Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan), a self-important blowhard who changes the Martons' frothy piece into a portentous reimagining of Faust. To further complicate matters, Cordova decides the leading lady should be ballet star Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse), whose classical training causes Tony to wonder whether their different styles will allow them to be compatible dancers. Buchanan easily steals the show as the pompous director, and key musical bits include the dreamy "Dancing in the Dark," the amusing "Triplets" and the classic "That's Entertainment," which was introduced in this film. This earned three Oscar nominations, including one for Comden and Green's screenplay.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Liza Minnelli (Vincente's daughter) and singer-musical archivist Michael Feinstein; a making-of featurette; the 1930 musical short Jack Buchanan with the Glee Quartet; and the theatrical trailer. The Band Wagon is available individually or as part of the Musicals Collection, a four-film set that also includes Singin' in the Rain, 1953's Kiss Me Kate in 2-D and 3-D versions, and 1953's Calamity Jane.
Johnny Depp in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Photo: Warner Bros.)
CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (2005). Forrest Gump's mama famously declared that "Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you're going to get." You never know what you're going to get with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, either, given that director Tim Burton tends to fluctuate between enfant terrible and rank sentimentalist. Coming off the forced whimsy of Big Fish, Burton was back on steadier ground, helming the second screen version of Roald Dahl's beloved novel. Johnny Depp headlines as Willy Wonka, the eccentric candymaker who allows five children to take a tour through his gargantuan factory. Young Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore) is a perfect angel, but the other four kids prove to be such brats that they all eventually get their comeuppance within the walls of Wonka's candy-coated fortress. In some respects, this surpasses the previous screen incarnation, 1971's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (it's funnier and better paced). But Burton's maudlin streak gets the best of him via a needless back story that explains Wonka's affinity for candy, and this plot strand leads to a soggy finale that's easily bested by the final act of the '71 model. Depp, whose Wonka seems to be a cross between Michael Jackson and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari's somnambulist Cesare, delivers an engaging surface performance, though I far prefer the more measured madness of Gene Wilder's interpretation.
The 10th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray comes with a 28-page photo booklet and a letter from Burton. Extras include audio commentary by Burton; an immersive in-movie experience; a featurette on the Oompa-Loompas; and a piece on Dahl.
Donald Sutherland in Don't Look Now (Photo: Criterion Collection)
DON'T LOOK NOW (1973). It's rare when a filmmaker helms one genuine masterpiece in his lifetime, let alone two (and consecutively!), yet that was the case when Nicolas Roeg followed 1971's Walkabout with another motion picture equally as brilliant. Based on a short story by Daphne du Maurier, the wordsmith whose works also fueled the Hitchcock classics Rebecca and The Birds, this stars Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland as Laura and John Baxter, a happily married couple who, reeling from the death of their daughter Christine, have temporarily settled in Venice so that John can assist in restoring an old church. Laura continues to drown in grief until she meets a pair of sisters (Hilary Mason and Clelia Matania), one of whom claims to be a psychic and informs her that Christine is happy in the afterlife but John is in danger. John believes it's all nonsense, even though he himself is blessed/cursed with a second sight he chooses to dismiss. But how to explain the strange visions he sees around him, including fleeting glimpses of a child wearing the same red raincoat donned by Christine when she died? The exquisite visual presentation — accentuated by Anthony Richmond's inspired lensing and Graeme Clifford's astute editing — allows this artistic endeavor to function as a mood piece, yet it's much more than that, thanks to its compelling plotline and heavy use of meaningful symbolism (with water, broken glass and the color red all receiving particularly vigorous workouts). A hit in its native England ever since its release, the picture is even more revered now: Separate polls by the British Film Institute and Time Out London have cited it as one of the 10 best British films ever made. No argument here.
Blu-ray extras include both new and older interviews with many who worked on the movie, including Roeg, Christie, Sutherland, Richmond, Clifford, co-scripter Allan Scott and composer Pino Donaggio; the new piece Nicolas Roeg: The Enigma of Film, in which Oscar-winning directors Steven Soderbergh (Traffic) and Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) discuss Roeg's style and influence; and a 2003 Q&A session with Roeg.
Eat Drink Man Woman (Photo: Olive Films)
EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN (1994). Before he became an internationally renowned filmmaker and two-time Academy Award winner for Best Director (Brokeback Mountain, Life of Pi), Ang Lee was carving out a nice career in his native Taiwan. Two of his pictures, 1993's The Wedding Banquet and 1994's Eat Drink Man Woman, earned consecutive Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominations, and both should have won against the underwhelming competition. That's especially true of Eat Drink Man Woman, a wise and touching piece that matches movies like Babette's Feast and Like Water for Chocolate in its depiction of food as a source of spiritual nourishment. Sihung Lung, so memorable as the father in The Wedding Banquet, here plays another parent, this one a culinary wizard who relates better to his dishes than to his three daughters: Jen (Kuei-Mei Yang), a schoolteacher still feeling the pain from a long-ago college relationship that ended badly; Kien (Chien-Lien Wu), a savvy businesswoman unable to find stability in her personal life; and Ning (Yu-Wen Wang), a perky fast-food employee who finds herself attracted to her best friend's boyfriend. The food on display will make mouths water, but don't assume this film is merely the cinematic equivalent of a high-end menu: The various relationships among the characters prove to be as intricate and delectable as the dishes, and the piece packs a potent emotional reach.
There are no extras on the Blu-ray.
Steve Carell in Foxcatcher (Photo: Sony Pictures Classics)
FOXCATCHER (2014). With a tip of the hat in the direction of Langston Hughes, let it be noted that Foxcatcher isn't so much a study of a dream deferred but of the American Dream deferred. At heart a film about the awkward dance between the haves and have-nots — and, more specifically, a brutal condemnation of the barely masked disdain the one-percenters have for the other 99 — this true-life tale finds Steve Carell cast waaay against type as John du Pont, scion of one of the most prominent families in the nation. A meek and strange character charged with a patriotic zeal, John elects to use his vast fortune to build a team of world-class wrestlers. To anchor the group, he picks 1984 Olympic gold medalist Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), an opportunity that seems like a godsend to the struggling athlete. But John's paranoid-schizophrenic nature soon gets the better of him, and he humiliates Mark by inviting his saintly older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), also an Olympic gold medalist, to take over as head of the team. From there, the tensions only mount, leading to a shocking crime that's unexpected but perhaps also unavoidable. As the rich nerd longing to be both an inspirational figure and just one of the guys (and perhaps be with the guys), Carell is scary-good, subjugating all traces of the familiar comic spark in evidence in his previous films. Ruffalo is effortlessly reassuring as the big brother who would be a benefit to any family, while Tatum reaches a new plateau as the troubled kid simply wanting life to give him a break. Like Carell, Tatum is required to suppress his natural charm — it's a knockout performance, fully in line with a movie that feels like a body slam to the mat. This earned five Oscar nominations, including bids for Carell and Ruffalo.
DVD extras consist of a behind-the-scenes piece and deleted scenes.
Woody Allen (left) in Love and Death (Photo: Twilight Time)
LOVE AND DEATH (1975). "If I could just see a miracle. Just one miracle. If I could see a burning bush, or the seas part, or my Uncle Sasha pick up a check." "I go [i.e. will be executed] at 6 o'clock tomorrow. I was supposed to go at 5 o'clock, but I have a smart lawyer. Got leniency." Those are two of the great quips to be found in Woody Allen's Love and Death, but there's no use crying over spilled spoilers, since the picture is packed front to back with many more cheery bon mots — to say nothing of rollicking slapstick sequences, spoofy film homages and other modes of merriment guaranteed to keep viewers in perpetual guffaw. Using Russian literature as the base ingredient, Woody adds pinches of Ingmar Bergman, Sergei Eisenstein and Bob Hope to this yarn about lowly Boris Grushenko (Allen), a coward who finds himself an unwilling participant in the Napoleonic Wars. When he's not busy avoiding battlefield injury, he can be found wooing his distant cousin Sonja (Diane Keaton), who passes the time having affairs (when asked how many lovers she's had, she replies, "In the midtown area?") before she decides that she and Boris should attempt to assassinate Napoleon (James Tolkan). With Allen referencing everything from Bergman's The Seventh Seal to Dostoevsky's The Gambler, Love and Death might seem more haphazard than most of the auteur's films, but the astoundingly high hit-to-miss ratio deems it a keeper. This would be the last of what's commonly referred to as Allen's "early, funny ones" (to quote Stardust Memories), as his next picture, 1977's Annie Hall, would kick off a new chapter in his career.
Blu-ray extras consist of the theatrical trailer and an isolated music track.
The St. Valentine's Day Massacre (Photo: Twilight Time)
THE ST. VALENTINE'S DAY MASSACRE (1967). The great Roger Corman has produced 400 films (and still counting!) over the course of 60 remarkable years, and he's sat in the director's chair for 50 of those flicks. The St. Valentine's Day Massacre represents one of those occasions when he wore both hats; more significantly, it also marked the first time he worked in such lofty capacities for a major studio (in true Corman fashion, he wasn't thrilled with the lack of control and went back to making movies his way). His rat-tat-tat helming is one of the strengths of this crime flick, which uses documentary-style narration but exploitation-style violence to relate the events leading up to the notorious 1929 gangland slaying. The production values are top-notch, while the script by Howard Browne (an expert in the field who also penned 1961's Portrait of a Mobster, with Vic Morrow as Dutch Schultz, and 1975's Capone, starring Ben Gazzara as the title figure) hews to real-life events to an impressive degree. As for the supporting roster, it's peppered with familiar faces, including those belonging to Bruce Dern (poignant as a struggling mechanic), Joe Turkel (The Shining's bartender or Blade Runner's CEO, take your pick) and fantasy-film stalwart John Agar (Tarantula, The Mole People); there are even uncredited bits by Corman stableboys (and The Little Shop of Horrors stars) Jack Nicholson, Dick Miller and Jonathan Haze. What damages the picture are the performances by the two top-billed stars. Jason Robards handles the heavy lifting as Al Capone while George Segal provides the muscle as a giggly rival gunman (and he even smashes a sandwich in Jane Hale's face, aping James Cagney planting that grapefruit in Mae Clarke's kisser in 1931's The Public Enemy), but their hammy turns, more suited to Warren Beatty's cartoonish Dick Tracy than this Godfather precursor, strip the characters of any much-needed menace.
Blu-ray extras include an interview with Corman; the theatrical trailer; and an isolated score track.
Watership Down (Photo: Criterion Collection)
WATERSHIP DOWN (1978). It's long been a matter of public record that the British ratings board received (and reportedly is still receiving) complaints for bestowing a kid-friendly rating on an animated feature that is most decidedly not for the kiddies (at least the very young 'uns). Based on Richard Adams' renowned novel, it centers on a group of rabbits who must find a new home after their warren is targeted for demolition by human builders. These bunnies, whose members include the heroic Hazel (voiced by John Hurt), the skittish Fiver (Richard Briers) and the burly Bigwig (Michael Graham-Cox), face peril every step of the way, whether it's from other rabbits (particularly the tyrannical Woundwart, played by Harry Andrews), other animals (a snarling dog, a sneaky cat) or various manmade instruments of pain (shotguns, snares). Like other enduring works of fiction such as George Orwell's Animal Farm and William Golding's Lord of the Flies, Adams' book is heavy on the allegory, and the film admirably retains much of this angle. But the pacing is flatly orchestrated by writer-director-producer Martin Rosen (in his directorial debut), and the animation style veers between poetic and prosaic. Despite an impressive roster of English actors handling vocal duties, the rabbits are absent of personality and therefore don't provide much in the way of a rooting interest. Zero Mostel provides the only comic relief as the bird Kehaar, although he tackles the role as if he were channeling the spirit of his The Producers co-star Kenneth Mars. The film's centerpiece song, the treacly "Bright Eyes" (sung by Art Garfunkel), was a smash hit across Europe but failed to crack the charts stateside.
Blu-ray extras include an interview with Rosen; picture-in-picture storyboards for the entire film; and an interview with filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, a huge fan of the movie.
Mickey Rourke and Carré Otis in Wild Orchid (Photo: Olive Films)
WILD ORCHID (1990). While it hardly set the box office on fire, writer-director Zalman King's Wild Orchid could be considered the Fifty Shades of Grey of its day: a would-be erotic romp that ultimately carries as much of a sexual charge as a Chicken McNugget. Mickey Rourke, in the lengthy flame-out phase of his career, stars as James Wheeler, a wealthy businessman living in the picaresque city of Rio de Janeiro. Through a mutual friend (Jacqueline Bisset), he makes the acquaintance of visiting lawyer Emily Reed (Carré Otis), and it's not long before Emily's under his spell and privy to his mind games and dominant behavior. As scripter, King also had a hand in 1986's equally risible Nine 1/2 Weeks (also starring Rourke), but that picture at least had the benefit of an excellent central performance by Kim Basinger. Otis, on the other hand, is particularly dreadful, displaying about as much acting talent as an avocado. As for Rourke, his sleepy-eyed performance leads one to believe that all Wheeler really wants out of life is a good night's sleep. The film achieved a small measure of media notoriety back in 1990, first when it had to be trimmed to garner an R rating rather than an X (the more explicit version has long been available on home video, but this new Olive Films Blu-ray release only contains the theatrical R-rated cut), and later when the rumors wouldn't cease regarding the contention that the on-screen sex between then-couple Rourke and Otis wasn't simulated and the couple really "did it." To which a nation collectively shrugged and muttered, "Who cares?"
There are no extras on the Blu-ray.