(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.)
- Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Photo: Criterion)
DR. STRANGELOVE, OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964). From the culture of violence depicted in A Clockwork Orange to the sexual politics examined in Lolita and Eyes Wide Shut to the arrogance and irresponsibility of wartime chicken hawks in Paths of Glory, many of Stanley Kubrick's films have never lost their topicality. The same applies to this brilliant black comedy: Even the ending of the Cold War couldn't dilute this uncompromising satire's immediacy, not so long as men continue to think with their missiles instead of their minds. Peter Sellers delivers three formidable performances for the price of one, playing the harried US President who's confronted by a nuclear holocaust, a British officer who almost always manages to keep that upper lip stiff, and the Nazi madman of the title. George C. Scott also scores as a military man whose idea of an acceptable civilian casualty rate is "no more than 10 or 20 million killed, tops ... depending on the breaks." That's a great line, although my favorite — in fact, perhaps my all-time favorite line from any movie — is when Sellers' U.S. Prez barks, "Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room!" This earned four major Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Director, Actor (Sellers), and Adapted Screenplay (Kubrick, Peter George and Terry Southern).
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; interviews with Kubrick scholars Mick Broderick and Rodney Hill; excerpts from a 1966 audio interview with Kubrick; 1963 interviews with Sellers and Scott; pieces on Kubrick and Sellers; and trailers. Bonus points for Criterion's extraordinary packaging of the item, including a tiny "Holy Bible & Russian Phrases" and a magazine PSA asking, "Have you ever seen a COMMIE drink a glass of water?"
- Alan Rickman in Eye in the Sky (Photo: Universal & Bleecker Street)
EYE IN THE SKY (2016). A military movie for modern times, Eye in the Sky is a riveting drama that asks whether the certain death of one innocent person is worth more or less than the hypothetical deaths of dozens, maybe hundreds, of innocent people. To their enormous credit, director Gavin Hood and writer Guy Hibbert offer no easy answers and take no easy outs, electing instead to keep viewers as conflicted and uncomfortable as the characters on the screen. From her command center in England, Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren, in a role originally written for a male actor) realizes that she might have the opportunity to take out Al-Shabaab terrorists shacked up in a house in Nairobi, Kenya. With the support of a fellow officer (the late Alan Rickman), she orders a drone strike to be carried out by the stateside Air Force pilot (Aaron Paul) assigned to the detail, but he balks when it appears as if a little girl will become collateral damage in the bombing. Thus begins a back-and-forth between various military and government officials as they argue over the best course of action. Barkhad Abdi, the Somali chauffeur who earned an Oscar nomination for his debut performance in Captain Phillips, is excellent as a Kenyan agent monitoring terrorist activities up close (perhaps too close), and it's touching to see Rickman in his final big-screen appearance (his turn in the subsequent Alice Through the Looking Glass was only a vocal one — and a tiny part, to boot).
Blu-ray extras consist of a pair of featurettes in which Hood, Mirren and producer Colin Firth discuss the morality of drone warfare as examined in the film.
- If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium (Photo: Olive Films & MGM)
IF IT'S TUESDAY, THIS MUST BE BELGIUM (1969). An unwieldy moniker (inspired by a magazine cartoon) masks what's actually a pretty funny movie fronted by an engaging ensemble and featuring a string of rather pointless cameos. Deadwood star Ian McShane plays Charlie Cartwright, a British tour guide whose job entails whisking American tourists through nine countries over the course of 18 days. Among the assemblage are Samantha Perkins (Suzanne Pleshette), a beauty relentlessly wooed by Charlie; Harve Blakely (Norman Fell), whose wife Irma (Reva Rose) gets separated from the group during the whirlwind tour and keeps ending up in the wrong countries; Fred Ferguson (Murray Hamilton), who doesn't meet a culture he can't criticize; and Harry Dix (Aubrey Morris), who fills his empty suitcase with items stolen throughout the trip (including a telephone and a lifebuoy!). The cluelessness of Americans abroad and the inconvenience of roadrunner-paced vacations are both satirized in a gentle manner by director Mel Stuart (an award-winning documentarian nevertheless best known as the helmer of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) and scripter David Shaw. Roughly a dozen actors make cameo appearances, but most (like Joan Collins and John Cassavetes) are on and off the screen so rapidly that it scarcely matters. This was followed years later by the 1987 TV movie If It's Tuesday, It Still Must Be Belgium, made by different hands and starring Courteney Cox, Peter Graves and Claude Akins. Charlotte residents will be amused by the exchange in which a college kid (Luke Halpin) states, "I guess virginity is still a big hang-up in the smaller towns," to which his teenage girlfriend (Hilarie Thompson), who hails from the Queen City, indignantly replies, "Charlotte, North Carolina, is not one of the smaller towns."
The only Blu-ray extra is the theatrical trailer.
- Kitty Winn and Al Pacino in The Panic in Needle Park (Photo: Twilight Time)
THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK (1971) / INSERTS (1975). The Twilight Time label courts controversy this month, with two of its releases faced with rating challenges back in their respective years.
The Panic in Needle Park is basically The Lost Weekend and Days of Wine and Roses updated for a new generation, with heroin replacing alcohol as the drug of choice. Even before his breakthrough role in the following year's The Godfather, Al Pacino already proved he was destined for '70s greatness with his galvanizing performance here. In a role briefly considered for The Doors frontman Jim Morrison, Pacino is excellent as Bobby, a small-time hustler and big-time junkie who falls for sweet, naïve Helen (Kitty Winn) and ends up getting her hooked on heroin as well. The drug sequences are so intense that the film was banned for several years in Great Britain and almost got slapped with an X here in the US (it instead received an R and, after a few trims, got down to the PG version presented here). Bleak and downbeat, this remains a more effective anti-drug PSA than any of Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" finger-wagging.
- Richard Dreyfuss in Inserts (Photo: Twilight Time)
So intimate (in more ways than one) that it could easily be turned into a play, the one-set, five-actor movie Inserts was slapped with an X rating right out of the gate, a designation that has since been converted into an NC-17. Released shortly before Jaws made Richard Dreyfuss a household name, the young actor here stars as the so-called Boy Wonder, a once-great silent-film director now reduced to making porno flicks in his own crumbling mansion. His bickering stars are Harlene (a phenomenal Veronica Cartwright) and Rex (Stephen Davies), and the precarious balance that exists between the three is shattered when the film's backer (Bob Hoskins) and his girlfriend (Jessica Harper) crash the scene. Writer-director John Byrum's storyline is alternately fascinating and flaccid (sorry), but the dialogue hums along nicely. Amusingly, Hoskins' character loves the idea of freeways and plans to invest in them — years later, his Eddie Valiant in 1988's Who Framed Roger Rabbit would dismiss freeways as "a lamebrain idea [that] could only be cooked up by a Toon."
Composer Ned Rorem was hired to write a score for The Panic in Needle Park that ended up not being used; that music can be found as an isolated track on Twilight Time's Blu-ray. Other extras include vintage interviews with director Jerry Schatzberg and co-scripter Joan Didion, and the theatrical trailer. Extras on Inserts consist of the theatrical trailer and an isolated music track.
The Panic in Needle Park: ***
- Rollercoaster (Photo: Shout! Factory)
ROLLERCOASTER (1977). One of the most noteworthy of all theatrical fads was Sensurround, created and commissioned by Universal to accompany its motion pictures in the mid-1970s. Basically an aural assault that could be felt as well as heard, it was impressive enough to earn its makers a special Academy Award in 1974. But the added expense to theaters combined with the structural damage it sometimes caused led to its rapid demise, and, ultimately, only four films were released employing the format. I caught all four during my youth, and while the additional rumbling wasn't very noticeable in 1976's Midway or the 1978 international theatrical cut of TV's Battlestar: Galactica, it absolutely rocked the auditorium via 1974's Earthquake. It also worked wonderfully in 1977's Rollercoaster, and Shout! Factory, in a nice nostalgic gesture, has included "The Original Sensurround Track" on its new Blu-ray for the film. Alas, my sound system isn't immaculate enough to notice if it really works in a home-theater format, but as for the movie itself, it's still an enjoyable thriller in which a safety inspector (George Segal) finds himself matching wits with a blackmailer (Timothy Bottoms) who's been blowing up prominent rollercoasters. Co-written by Richard Levinson and William Link, the team behind TV's Columbo, the film co-stars such luminaries as Richard Widmark and Henry Fonda, although more fun can be found in spotting the up-and-comers tucked away in the margins, including 13-year-old Helen Hunt as Segal's daughter, Body Double's Craig Wasson as a park visitor, and an unbilled Steve Guttenberg as a messenger boy. The low point is the appearance of the band Sparks, belting out a pair of awful songs during a park concert.
Blu-ray extras include an interview with co-writer and associate producer Tommy Cook; a still gallery; and the theatrical trailer.
- Lena Olin and Gary Oldman in Romeo Is Bleeding (Photo: Twilight Time)
ROMEO IS BLEEDING (1993). "You're not too smart, are you?" purrs Kathleen Turner's femme fatale to William Hurt's hapless sap in 1981's Body Heat. "I like that in a man." Similarly, Lena Olin's lethal lady must adore that quality in Gary Oldman's dim-witted (and corrupt) cop in this neo-noir wanna-be that huffs and puffs but rarely measures up. Oldman's Jack Grimaldi has a lovely wife (perpetually undervalued Annabella Sciorra), a loving mistress (Juliette Lewis), and a loathsome habit of slipping valuable intel to mob boss Don Falcone (a smooth Roy Scheider) in exchange for envelopes of $65,000. As if Jack's life wasn't already complicated enough, it gets taken to the next level once he starts dallying — both professionally and personally — with Mona Demarkov (Lena Olin), a hit woman whose killer legs turn out to be nearly as scary as her killer instincts. The same two things that caught my attention when I first saw the film upon its original release are the same two things that barged to the forefront with this new viewing. The first is that Olin delivers a bravura performance that overwhelms everything else in the picture, much like a tsunami laying way to a seaside shack. The second is that it's still difficult to discern whether it's the character of Jack or if it's the picture's screenwriter, Hilary Henkin, who suffers from poor math skills, as evidenced by Jack's line, "We'll look for each other every six months. May 1, December 1, May 1, December 1" (intervals of seven and five months, not six months). Clearly, somebody deserves an F in arithmetic, but the formidable Olin deserves an A all the way.
Blu-ray extras consist of the theatrical trailer and an isolated track of Mark Isham's score.
- Willie Nelson in Stagecoach (Photo: Olive Films & MGM)
STAGECOACH (1986). Remaking a genuine classic is always a risky — even foolhardy – gamble, more so when one is as revered as John Ford's 1939 Stagecoach, the influential Western that made John Wayne a star. That's why the 1966 version, with Bing Crosby, Ann-Margret and Alex Cord in the Wayne role (clearly, superstar lightning did not strike twice), was largely greeted with a shrug and has been largely forgotten over time. Since it was made for television, the 1986 remake didn't have such lofty goals attached to it — a good thing, since it's stridently average in every way. Its claim to fame is that it stars a quartet of country music stars in the leading roles, with Willie Nelson (also serving as an executive producer and contributing the title song) receiving top billing as Doc Holliday, embarking on a perilous journey through Apache country alongside The Ringo Kid (Kris Kristofferson), Marshal Curly Wilcox (Johnny Cash) and a gambler named Hatfield (Waylon Jennings). The supporting roster includes a few family members — Johnny's wife June Carter Cash, his son John Carter Cash, and Jennings' then-wife Jesse Colter — and plenty of TV stars, including The Dukes of Hazzard's John Schneider, The Name of the Game's Tony Franciosa, and Mary Crosby (aka she who shot JR on Dallas). The stars don't act so much as react to each other's presence: The four were good friends (and already recording together as The Highwaymen) and they're clearly enjoying lobbing soft banter back and forth. In fact, everyone on screen seems to be having such a good time, it's a shame that viewers of this clunky effort weren't afforded the same degree of entertainment.
There are no extras on the Blu-ray.
- Tina Fey and Martin Freeman in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (Photo: Paramount)
WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT (2016). The occasional Steve Carell aside, comedians aren't often given the opportunity to flex their dramatic muscles, so it's nice to see the hilarious Tina Fey playing it straight in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. Based on Kim Barker's memoir The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the film finds Fey cast as Baker (changed from Barker for some daft reason), a TV news journalist who leaves the comfort of her stateside desk and embarks on a new career path as a war correspondent covering Middle Eastern conflicts. Fey is excellent as Baker, peppering her performance with humorous asides but otherwise playing up the character's questionable adrenaline-junkie tendencies, and the impressive supporting cast includes Margot Robbie, a lovably roguish Martin Freeman, and Alfred Molina (at one point channeling Anthony Quinn in Zorba the Greek). If the film never delves too deeply into the sociopolitical aspects of its setting (especially when compared to the great slate of comparable titles from the 1980s, like Under Fire, The Killing Fields and Salvador), it's still gripping enough to make it a sound vehicle for Fey as she tackles an impressive amount of heavy lifting. So when does Amy Poehler get her shot?
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; deleted and extended scenes; an interview with Barker; a look at the military's involvement in the production of the film; and a piece on the Afghan wedding sequence.