(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.)
- Sean Penn in Colors (Photo: Shout! Factory & MGM)
COLORS (1988). Thanks to its spotlight on Los Angeles street gangs, director Dennis Hopper’s Colors was considered fairly fresh upon its initial release, but even then, the material involving the central cop characters had already been worn down into cliché. Danny McGavin (Sean Penn) is the brash young cop who (naturally) likes to do things his way; Bob Hodges (Robert Duvall) is the cautious veteran cop who (but of course) isn’t too far off from retirement. Penn and Duvall are two of our greatest actors, but here they’re posturing rather than performing, aware that they’re in an Important Film. Yet the focus too often remains away from the gangs, and Hopper’s shooting style — not quite faux-documentary but heading in that direction — only emphasizes the shallowness of the characters. It’s a shame, because there are some interesting people — and their attendant actors — on view here, including Rocket (Don Cheadle in one of his earliest films), High Top (Glenn Plummer) and Looney Tunes (Grand L. Bush). And while the soundtrack featuring Ice-T (performing the title hit), Los Lobos and Salt-N-Pepa is appropriate, the score by Herbie Hancock is frequently ill-matched to the scenarios.
The version of the film on Shout! Factory’s new Blu-ray contains extra footage from both the international cut and earlier home video releases; it adds about seven minutes to the original 120-minute running time. Extras include interviews with co-scripter Michael Schiffer and technical advisor (and former LAPD gang division member) Dennis Fanning.
- Viola Davis and Denzel Washington in Fences (Photo: Paramount)
FENCES (2016). Stage-to-screen adaptations often fail to expand in ways that take advantage of cinema's limitless potential, meaning viewers are often left with what's little more than a filmed play. For the most part, Fences, based on August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, falls into that camp, with director Denzel Washington (his third time at the controls, following the solid efforts Antwone Fisher and The Great Debaters) doing very little to fill the parameters of the large screen. Yet sometimes the material is simply too strong to be crippled by a lack of celluloid dazzle — that was the case with, for instance, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and that's certainly the case here. Reprising their roles from the 2010 Broadway revival, Washington and Viola Davis are nothing short of remarkable as Troy and Rose Maxson, living in 1950s Pittsburgh and dealing with issues involving family, infidelity and dashed dreams. Washington remains so faithful to Wilson (who passed away in 2005, at the age of 60) and his text that he even credits the screenplay solely to the playwright (a far cry from Kenneth Branagh, who absurdly earned an Oscar nomination for adapting Shakespeare's Hamlet verbatim). Between the power of the prose and the potency of the performances, Fences easily earns its screen cred. Davis won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance, and Washington should have won Best Actor for his equally superb work; the film also earned nominations for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Blu-ray extras include a pair of making-of featurettes and a pair of pieces on the contributions of Washington and Davis to the film.
- Maureen Stapleton, Sam Waterston and Kristin Griffith in Interiors (Photo: Twilight Time)
INTERIORS (1978). The influence of Ingmar Bergman has been spotted in many Woody Allen films and plays, but it can be seen in its most full-blown form in Interiors, the writer-director’s first drama after a string of successful comedies. Allen’s first film following 1977’s Oscar-winning Annie Hall, the picture marked a radical departure for the introspective artist, and while it wasn’t a commercial hit like Annie Hall or his subsequent film, 1979’s Manhattan, it was an important work in his continuing maturation as a filmmaker. And even if it oftimes plays like the Bergman imitation it most assuredly remains, it’s redeemed by some powerhouse sequences and some potent performances. The film examines the members of an affluent family and what happens when the father (E.G. Marshall) decides to leave his wife (Geraldine Page). Before Hannah and Her Sisters, there was Renata and her sisters, three women attempting to deal with the separation of their parents. Renata (Diane Keaton), a poet, has to also contend with an insecure husband (Richard Jordan) jealous of her success; Joey (Mary Beth Hurt) has a live-in boyfriend (Sam Waterston) but is rudderless when it comes to her career; and Flyn (Kristin Griffith) is an actress who realizes that no one takes her seriously. Throwing the clan into further turmoil is the arrival of Pearl (Maureen Stapleton in the film’s best performance), the woman their dad plans to marry. The members of the Academy couldn’t have been too angry at Allen for skipping the ceremony in which Annie Hall took home four major awards, since it rewarded Interiors with five Oscar nominations: Best Actress (Page), Supporting Actress (Stapleton), Director, Original Screenplay, and Art Direction-Set Decoration.
The only Blu-ray extra is the theatrical trailer.
- Richard Widmark and Victor Mature in Kiss of Death (Photo: Twilight Time)
KISS OF DEATH (1947). The most shocking scene in Kiss of Death is so famous that Twilight Time opted to use an image of it on the cover of their new Blu-ray edition. Tommy Udo, a hoodlum who hates “squealers” and “squirts,” giggles maniacally as he pushes a wheelchair-bound woman (Mildred Dunnock) down a flight of stairs. It’s a particularly brutal moment — even for ‘40s film noir — and it turned Richard Widmark (making his film debut, no less) into an overnight star and further earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. The film’s lead is perennially underrated Victor Mature, here delivering one of his finest performances as Nick Bianco, a small-time crook who refuses to rat on his fellow crooks, even though it means spending time in prison away from his wife and two young daughters. But after his wife commits suicide and the two moppets are sent to an orphanage, Bianco agrees to turn stoolie for a sympathetic assistant D.A. (Brian Donlevy). Lawyer-cum-author Eleazar Lipsky earned an Oscar nom for Best Original Story, although renowned wordsmiths Ben Hecht (Scarface) and Charles Lederer (The Thing from Another World) handled screenplay duties. Kiss of Death was remade in a radically altered form in 1995; that so-so version, starring David Caruso and Nicolas Cage, proved to be a costly flop.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman; separate audio commentary by film historians James Ursini and Alain Silver; the theatrical trailer; and an isolated track of David Buttolph’s score.
- Patrick Swayze in Red Dawn (Photo: Shout! Factory & MGM)
RED DAWN (1984). No amount of warm and fuzzy ‘80s nostalgia can save Red Dawn, writer-director John Milius’ head-smackingly stupid action romp about a bunch of Colorado teens squaring off against Commie invaders. The daft plot deals with the invasion of the U.S. by Soviet, Cuban and Nicaraguan forces; among their targets is a small Colorado town in the middle of nowhere. The notion that any foreign enemy would concern itself with making such a big deal over fly-over Red State real estate is only slightly less believable than the notion that a bunch of beer-guzzling yahoos would successfully ward off such invaders when in reality they would just get drunk and shoot off their own toes. Still, the film was a huge hit among conservative chickenhawks during the Reagan years and even today stands as the Citizen Kane of right-wing masturbatory fodder. The excellent score by Basil Poledouris (RoboCop) is about its only asset – well, that and the enormous camp value, which is sizable enough to wonder how anyone ever thought this movie was offensive or, conversely, inspiring. Among the most hilarious bits: Harry Dean Stanton (as the father of the Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen characters) howling, “Aveeeenge meeee!”; the Russkies importing a copy of Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky to show at the local theater; and the entirety of C. Thomas Howell’s performance. Incidentally, this was the first film to be released with the newly formed PG-13 rating.
Blu-ray extras include a new retrospective piece; a making-of featurette; and the theatrical trailer.
- William Holden, Robert Preston and Robert Webber in S.O.B. (Photo: Warner)
S.O.B. (1981). Writer-director Blake Edwards' outrageous S.O.B. may never be held in the same regard as Sunset Boulevard or The Player, but as a searing satire about the underbelly of the Hollywood lifestyle, it still ranks as one of the best. Julie Andrews (Edwards' wife from 1969 until his death in 2010) and William Holden head an all-star cast that gamely throws itself into the vicious story of Felix Farmer (Richard Mulligan), a producer who decides the only way to turn his mega-flop into a mega-hit is by juicing it up with softcore porn sequences — and having Sally Miles (Andrews), the wholesome leading lady, bare her breasts for the camera. Edwards, who had been working in the movie business for decades and knew it inside and out, delivers a hilarious picture that’s dripping with cynicism and venom, and he assembled a terrific ensemble that includes Holden (in his final film appearance, passing away later in ’81) as a sympathetic director, Robert Webber as a nervous press agent, and two then-hot TV stars, Dallas’ Larry Hagman and M*A*S*H’s Loretta Swit, as, respectively, a studio toadie and a gossip columnist. Best of all, though, is Robert Preston, whose performance as Dr. Irving Finegarten, a sardonic doctor who's never caught off-guard, remains one of my favorite comic turns in movie history (when asked if Sally is well enough to perform after receiving a shot, he replies, “Is Batman a transvestite? Who knows?”). Preston deservedly received Best Supporting Actor honors from the National Society of Film Critics, though the Academy failed to follow suit – the group did, however, nominate him (and Andrews) for their work in Edwards’ next picture, 1982’s Victor/Victoria (like S.O.B., available on Blu-ray from the Warner Archive Collection at www.wbshop.com).
The only Blu-ray extra is the theatrical trailer.
FROM SCREEN TO STREAM
(Recommended films currently available on streaming services)
- Y Tu Mama Tambien (Photo: IFC Films)
EVERYTHING MUST GO (2011). This adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story ("Why Don't You Dance?") is a gem — perhaps more of a diamond in the rough than a polished jewel, but still. Will Ferrell stars as Nick Halsey, a relapsed alcoholic who loses his job, his wife and his house all on the same day. Locked out of the home he shared with his spouse (who's temporarily living at an undisclosed location) and low on cash because she froze all their assets, Nick parks himself on the front lawn, guzzling beer while surrounded by all the possessions she chucked out along with him. Only two people in the neighborhood bother socializing with him: Samantha (an excellent Rebecca Hall), a pregnant woman whose husband is always away, and Kenny (Christopher Jordan Wallace), a portly boy fighting boredom since his mom's up the street working as a caretaker. Nick's AA sponsor, a cop (Michael Pena), informs him that he can't live on his lawn, but he can legally remain there for a couple of days if he holds a yard sale. So with the help of Kenny, Nick starts selling his cherished possessions, all the while attempting to come to grips with his present situation and future uncertainty. While it's true that a better actor might have knocked the rich role of Nick Halsey out of the park, Ferrell is nevertheless fine in the part, allowing us to largely forget the baggage that his clownish canon can't help but bring to the project. From little moments that sneak up and surprise you to climactic confrontations that don't always go down as expected, writer-director Dan Rush shapes the material into something memorable and meaningful. (Netflix Streaming)
WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS (2015). A Christopher Guest-styled mockumentary about vampires sounds only a little less obvious and opportunistic than a "found-footage" feature about vampires, yet Flight of the Conchords creator Jemaine Clement and fellow actor-writer-director Taika Waititi have managed to create a savvy satire that works beautifully. What We Do in the Shadows finds a documentary crew (whose members have been given crucifixes for their own protection) focusing their cameras on a quartet of vampires who live in a dingy New Zealand flat. There's the chipper, 379-year-old Viago (Waititi); the surly, 862-year-old Vladislav (Clement); the temperamental, 183-year-old Deacon (Jonathan Brugh); and the 8,000-year-old Petyr (Ben Fransham), who looks exactly like Nosferatu and basically keeps to himself in the basement. As flatmates, the vampires are no different than mere mortals, bickering over such matters as who's responsible for washing the dirty dishes that have piled up over the past five years. Out on the streets, though, their legacy comes to the forefront, as, for instance, they're unable to get into the coolest nightclubs unless someone formally invites them inside. Matters get shaken up when Petyr turns a brash young guy named Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) into a fellow creature of the night; while he's great to know on a social level (coolest nightclubs, here they come!), he's also a bit of a pain, and his insistence on bragging about his undead status eventually leads to tragedy. What We Do in the Shadows is exceptionally clever in the manner in which it delineates the difficulties of being centuries old and trying to exist in the 21st century. (Amazon Prime)
Y TU MAMÁ TAMBIÉN (2002). Yes, its central characters are two horny teenagers and a beautiful older woman who lights their fires, but to tag this Mexican import the art-house equivalent of a teen sex comedy would be misleading — Y Tu Mamá También (And Your Mother, Too) has more on its mind than the male orgasm. Ultimately, this bold picture from writer-director Alfonso Cuarón (later a Best Director Oscar winner for Gravity) and his brother, co-scripter Carlos Cuarón, begs comparison with Thelma & Louise more than American Pie, exploring the liberation (sexual and otherwise) of its leading characters as well as the mythos and pathos of the landscape they cross while making their life-altering journey. Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna, who both have gone on to successful careers (Babel and The Motorcycle Diaries among Bernal's credits, Milk and Elysium among Luna's), portray two of the most realistic teenagers ever seen in cinema, raging bulls of hormonal overdrive who, during one fateful summer, decide to embark on a road trip to the beach. They take off with an "older" (late-20s) woman (Maribel Verdú) at their side, a dental assistant from Spain who's trying to come to terms with her failed marriage and the dark secret that seems to inspire her increasingly bold actions. Sexually explicit in a manner rarely seen in American titles, yet also mindful of its country's sociopolitical breakdown, this is a mature drama that snares the viewer with seductive ease. This swiped the majority of the year's Best Foreign Language Film prizes from the critics' groups, but antiquated Academy rules meant it wasn't even in the running for that organization's award; it did, however, earn an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. (Hulu)