Film » View from the Couch

Power Rangers, Straw Dogs, T2 Trainspotting among new home entertainment titles

This week's reviews of what's new on Blu-ray, DVD and Streaming

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(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.)

Ray Shell and Vladek Sheybal in The Apple (Photo: Kino)
  • Ray Shell and Vladek Sheybal in The Apple (Photo: Kino)

THE APPLE (1980). A string of big-budget bombs in the 1960s and early 70s all but crippled the movie musical, and while John Travolta briefly brought it back to life with the formidable smashes Saturday Night Fever and Grease, the 1980 triumvirate of Xanadu, Can’t Stop the Music and The Apple pretty much killed off its longstanding worth as a sturdy, moneymaking genre. The infamy of Can’t Stop the Music and especially Xanadu has lived on, but it’s truly perplexing that The Apple isn’t nearly as well-known as those vehicles for, respectively, The Village People and Olivia Newton-John. The Apple is of course awful as a movie but fabulous as a camp classic – like Ed Wood’s output, it’s the sort of film that triggers amusement rather than anger at its ineptitude. Scripted and directed by Menahem Golan (better known as the head of Cannon Films alongside his cousin Yoram Globus), the film is set in a futuristic 1994, when two wholesome Canadian kids, Bibi (Catherine Mary Stewart) and Alphie (George Gilmour), find themselves losing a musical competition to Pandi (Grace Kennedy) and Dandi (Alan Love), superstar singers under contract to the satanic Mr. Boogalow (Vladek Sheybal). The fascistic Boogalow ends up not only signing Bibi but also flexing his political might – the only ones opposed to his nefarious plans are Alphie and a band of hippies. The rock of 1994 sounds suspiciously like the disco of 1980, but never mind – The Apple simply must be seen at least once in a lifetime.

Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by Stewart; an interview with Stewart; and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: * (but **** for camp aficionados)

Michael Peña and Dax Shepard in CHiPS (Photo: Warner)
  • Michael Peña and Dax Shepard in CHiPS (Photo: Warner)

CHIPS (2017). The primetime series CHiPS ran for six seasons (1977-1983) on NBC, but this lamentable big-screen spinoff barely made it past six weeks in theaters. An aggressively stupid comedy that couldn’t even make back its production costs in stateside grosses, it’s yet more proof that not every movie based on a hit television series deserves to meet with 21 Jump Street-level success. Casting Dax Shepard in a leading role was itself a daft decision, but allowing him to also write and direct the picture suggests that insanity runs rampant on the Warner Bros. lot. In the roles played on the show by Larry Wilcox and Eric Estrada, this one finds Shepard and Michael Peña cast as Jon Baker and Frank “Ponch” Poncherello, two California Highway Patrol officers. Jon is the rookie, skilled at riding motorbikes but inept in every other department; Ponch, meanwhile, is actually an FBI agent working undercover to weed out a group of corrupt cops led by the bullying Ray Kurtz (Vincent D’Onofrio). Shepard and Peña have chemistry with each other but establish no rapport with viewers, and D’Onofrio’s talents are once again wasted. The crudity flows as easily as the violence in this low-IQ outing, with a special emphasis on gay panic humor and an even greater emphasis on sexist humor (this is the sort of film that suggests that if a woman isn’t a 10, she might as well kill herself). Only some impressive stunt work saves this from a bomb rating.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Shepard; deleted scenes; and a piece on the stunts.

Movie: *1/2

Ivor Novello in The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (Photo: Criterion)
  • Ivor Novello in The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (Photo: Criterion)

THE LODGER: A STORY OF THE LONDON FOG (1927). Alfred Hitchcock had already directed a couple of films before helming The Lodger, but this is the movie that was commonly called (even by the Master himself) "the first Alfred Hitchcock picture." Among other reasons, it's the director's first thriller (his previous flicks, The Pleasure Garden and The Mountain Eagle, were both melodramas); it incorporates one of his favorite themes, that of a potentially innocent man being hounded for a crime he may not have committed; it features some nifty techniques that would come to full flower in subsequent works; and, as the cherry on top, it features the first of his legendary cameo appearances. This silent feature centers on a serial killer known as The Avenger (though clearly based on Jack the Ripper) who prowls the London streets murdering nubile blondes. The detective (Malcolm Keen) on the case notices that the slayings commenced around the same time that a stranger (Ivor Novello) began renting a room at the residence of his girlfriend (June Tripp). Could this new tenant be the killer?

Criterion’s new Blu-ray edition of The Lodger also contains Downhill (aka When Boys Leave Home), another 1927 silent picture directed by Hitchcock. Extras include an interview with film scholar William Rothman on Hitchcock’s visual style; excerpts from audio interviews with Hitchcock by filmmakers François Truffaut and Peter Bogdanovich; and a 1940 radio adaptation of The Lodger helmed by Hitchcock.

Movie: ***

RJ Cyler, Dacre Montgomery, Becky G., Ludi Lin and Naomi Scott in Power Rangers (Photo: Lionsgate)
  • RJ Cyler, Dacre Montgomery, Becky G., Ludi Lin and Naomi Scott in Power Rangers (Photo: Lionsgate)

POWER RANGERS (2017). I never watched even one episode of the popular 1990s TV series Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, and the only thing I recall about 1995’s Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie was my valiant effort to ward off slumber by leaving the auditorium to chat with an employee for a good 15 or so minutes circa the halfway mark. Clearly, here’s a franchise that’s hardly my cup of tea or coffee or what-have-you, yet this new reboot, while not quite recommendable, turns out to be surprisingly watchable. Rather than a bloated companion piece to Michael Bay’s awful Transformers movies, this toy tie-in utilizes its 120-minute running time well – in fact, those colorful Ranger costumes don’t even appear until the movie is three-quarters over. Scripter John Gatins (Oscar-nominated for Flight) is remarkably patient with the exposition, which allows the five teens chosen to save the planet from the evil Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks) to emerge as distinct individuals. Dacre Montgomery (Jason/Red Ranger), Naomi Scott (Kimberly/Pink Ranger), RJ Cyler (Billy/Blue Ranger), Becky G. (Trini/Yellow Ranger) and Ludi Lin (Zack/Black Ranger) are appealing protagonists, and cheers to the decision to make one of them autistic and another one LGBTQ. Banks and Bryan Cranston (as Zordon) appear more ill-at-ease than their youthful co-stars, and the final half-hour morphs into the expected CGI overkill. But for a movie that lives and dies by the brand marketing and the product placement, this one isn’t half bad.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director Dean Israelite and Gatins; a nine-part making-of featurette; and deleted scenes.

Movie: **1/2

Michael Redgrave and Audie Murphy in The Quiet American (Photo: Twilight Time)
  • Michael Redgrave and Audie Murphy in The Quiet American (Photo: Twilight Time)

THE QUIET AMERICAN (1958). Director Phillip Noyce’s 2002 adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel features a performance by Michael Caine that can only be described as a thing of beauty. (Caine deserved to win the Oscar but had to settle for the nomination, bested by The Pianist’s Adrien Brody.) There’s nothing quite as remarkable in writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1958 version, although that’s not meant to disparage Michael Redgrave: The actor is typically excellent in the role later shared by Caine, and he’s indeed the best thing about a thematically compromised piece. The fault with this adaptation comes down to the times. Greene’s novel is a blistering indictment of American interference in foreign affairs, but since that wouldn’t wash in the 1950s, the film version does an awkward 180 and emerges as an unconvincing piece of simplistic jingoism. Redgrave commands the screen as a British journalist living in Saigon and involved with a young Vietnamese beauty (Giorgia Moll), but Audie Murphy delivers a stiff performance as the title character, the earnest Yank who (according to this interpretation) is no longer the problem but rather the solution. It’s no wonder Grahame was offended by this picture, although those not bothered by the bastardization should enjoy Mankiewicz’s ability to capture and sustain an aura of political and social unrest.

Blu-ray extras consist of the theatrical trailer and an isolated track of Mario Nascimbene’s score.

Movie: **1/2

Dustin Hoffman in Straw Dogs (Photo: Criterion)
  • Dustin Hoffman in Straw Dogs (Photo: Criterion)

STRAW DOGS (1971). Released during a period in American cinema when controversial movies often seemed like the rule rather than the exception, Sam Peckinpah's drama ranked among the most notorious of this wild bunch. Creating a disturbing mood further fueled by the picture's underlying themes, this stars Dustin Hoffman as David Sumner, a meek mathematician who, with his beautiful British wife Amy (Susan George) in tow, relocates to a small English village, whereupon the local yahoos belittle him at every turn and eventually rape his younger spouse. Amy's reaction to one of the assaults, as well as the seeming assertion that Hoffman can only become a "man" once he turns from peacenik to warrior, has led to the film's infamy — Pauline Kael called it "a fascist work of art," while Roger Ebert wrote that it was "totally committed to the pornography of violence." For his part, Peckinpah insisted that his intentions were misinterpreted, and the film is ambiguous enough (its greatest strength) to allow him the benefit of the doubt. At any rate, it features excellent pacing that draws audiences into its eye-for-an-eye agenda, and it's all backed by Jerry Fielding's appropriate, Oscar-nominated score.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by author Stephen Prince (Savage Cinema: Sam Peckinpah and the Rise of Ultraviolent Movies); the 2003 making-of piece Mantrap: Straw Dogs – The Final Cut; the 1993 documentary Sam Peckinpah: Man of Iron; and behind-the-scenes footage.

Movie: ***

Ice Cube and Ice-T in Trespass (Photo: Shout! Factory)
  • Ice Cube and Ice-T in Trespass (Photo: Shout! Factory)

TRESPASS (1992). In his best action films, director Walter Hill employs an economic, fast-paced style that obscures whatever faults might be found in the script. He works that magic again with Trespass, an exciting yarn in which two Arkansas firefighters, sensitive Vince (Bill Paxton) and surly Don (William Sadler), travel to St. Louis to search for a hidden cache of gold that a dying man has informed them remains hidden in a dilapidated building located in an abandoned area of town. To their dismay, they conduct their search on the same day that local crime lord King James (Ice-T) and his gang have chosen that spot to carry out a hit – consequently, they become witnesses and find themselves cornered in the tenement. Receiving reluctant aid from a homeless man (Art Evans), Vince and Don try to find a way out even as King James contends with dissension among the ranks, particularly from the hot-headed Savon (Ice Cube). Working from a decades-old screenplay (originally titled The Looters) from the Back to the Future team of Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, Hill shoots this for maximum impact, although the first two–thirds eventually give way to a comparatively weak third act and an unsatisfying final scene. Still, the characters all prove to be engaging, and Hill regular Ry Cooder contributes an edgy, nerve-jangling score.

Blu-ray extras include a vintage behind-the-scenes featurette; deleted scenes; new interviews with Sadler, Gale, and producer Neil Canton; and Ice-T and Ice Cube’s music video for the title tune.

Movie: ***

Jonny Lee Miller, Ewan McGregor and Ewen Bremner in T2 Trainspotting (Photo: TriStar)
  • Jonny Lee Miller, Ewan McGregor and Ewen Bremner in T2 Trainspotting (Photo: TriStar)

T2 TRAINSPOTTING (2017). A spring release that was tossed away by its distributor during an aborted theatrical run, this sequel to 1996’s Trainspotting nevertheless has emerged as one of the best films of the first half of 2017. With director Danny Boyle and writer John Hodge returning to continue the story they began in the excellent original, this new picture (like its predecessor, loosely adapted from Irvine Welsh’s works) is similarly distinguished by some memorable set-pieces, superb dialogue, and smashing performances. It’s 20 years later, and Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) returns to Edinburgh to reconnect with his old friends. Simon “Sick Boy” Williamson (Jonny Lee Miller) is still furious at Renton for betraying the gang (seeing Trainspotting is a prerequisite to viewing this one) but nevertheless wants to employ his services for a business opportunity he’s exploring alongside his sharp Bulgarian girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova). Daniel “Spud” Murphy (Ewen Bremner) is happy to see Renton but is still struggling with his drug addiction. As for the volatile Francis “Franco” Begbie (Robert Carlyle), he escapes from prison just as Renton returns to town and wants nothing but bloody revenge. A bigger part for returning co-star Kelly Macdonald as Diane would have been nice (she does figure in a couple of the deleted scenes), but this is otherwise a worthy sequel packed with wonderful moments, including the hysterical “1690” sequence and Renton’s modified “Choose life” speech.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Boyle and Hodge; deleted scenes; and a conversation with Boyle and the four leads.

Movie: ***1/2

Ben Cross in The Unholy (Photo: Lionsgate & Vestron)
  • Ben Cross in The Unholy (Photo: Lionsgate & Vestron)

THE UNHOLY (1988). The Vestron Video Collector’s Series, a specialty Blu-ray line offered by Lionsgate, honors the sort of genre films released by the iconic videocassette giant in the 1980s. The tenth and latest entry in the series (which kicked off last September with 1986’s Chopping Mall and 1987’s Blood Diner) is The Unholy, a somber horror yarn set in New Orleans. Chariots of Fire’s Ben Cross stars as Father Michael, a priest who takes over a parish at which his two predecessors were both brutally murdered. A local detective (Ned Beatty) has no clue when it comes to the killings, while Father Michael suspects that a local nightclub owner (William Russ) who specializes in Satanic performances might somehow be involved. But the church elders (Hal Holbrook and Trevor Howard) know better: An actual demonic entity is responsible for the evil that envelops the church, and, as the “Chosen One,” Father Michael might be the only person capable of defeating it. Written by Fernando Fonseca and Oscar winner Philip Yordan (Broken Lance, reviewed here), The Unholy is serious-minded if not terribly exciting, treating its subject matter with the same measure of reverence exhibited in The Exorcist — at least until the climax, when the ridiculous special effects take over and completely cripple the film. It’s hard for a movie to maintain any measure of tension when most of its demons look like Ghoulies rejects.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director Camilo Vila; an interview with Cross; audio interviews with Fonseca and composer Roger Bellon; and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: **

Richard Widmark (center) in Hell and High Water (Photo: Twilight Time)
  • Richard Widmark (center) in Hell and High Water (Photo: Twilight Time)

Short And Sweet:

HELL AND HIGH WATER (1954). In the annals of cinematic submarine sagas, this one rests toward the middle of the pack. Richard Widmark stars as a sub commander who’s hired by a clandestine group of scientists and businessmen to aid them in their fight against Communist forces. Specifically, his mission is to navigate the North Pacific waters above Japan in an effort to locate a hidden nuclear facility which the Chinese intend to use to start World War III. The stock characters provide little flavor, although Samuel Fuller’s deft direction and the Oscar-nominated special effects are compensating factors.

Blu-ray extras consist of the A&E Biography episode Richard Widmark: Strength of Characters; theatrical trailers; and an isolated track of Alfred Newman’s score.

Movie: **1/2

Cathy O’Donnell and Farley Granger in They Live By Night (Photo: Criterion)
  • Cathy O’Donnell and Farley Granger in They Live By Night (Photo: Criterion)

THEY LIVE BY NIGHT (1948). It’s interesting that the great Nicholas Ray’s directorial debut is hitting Blu-ray in the same month that Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver is hitting theaters, as both focus on a young getaway driver who’s too naïve and sweet-natured for the criminal world in which he’s operating. In They Live By Night, that would be Bowie (Farley Granger), who’s nothing like the two hardened crooks (Howard Da Silva and Jay C. Flippen) who need him to help commit robberies. Bowie gamely goes along, but once he meets the sensible and sheltered Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell), his only interest is settling down with her. They Live By Night is more romantic than the typical film noir, but it’s also just as fatalistic and hard-hitting.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Granger and film historian Eddie Muller; a 2007 piece about the film; and excerpts from a 1956 interview with producer John Houseman.

Movie: ***1/2

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FROM SCREEN TO STREAM

(Recommended films currently available on streaming services)

The Orphanage (Photo: Picturehouse)
  • The Orphanage (Photo: Picturehouse)

THE ORPHANAGE (2007). Juan Antonio Bayona's directorial debut arrived with the "Pan's Labyrinth Seal of Approval" — that is to say, it received the blessing of Pan writer-director Guillermo del Toro by way of a "produced by" credit — and it's clear it deserved the lofty honor. Frequently, the screenplay by another newbie, Sergio G. Sánchez, seems like it's merely a compendium of stellar moments from other horror hits: In addition to Pan, there are elements that strongly recall The Devil's Backbone (also by del Toro), The Others, The Innocents, The Omen and — I hesitate to add — Friday the 13th. Eventually, though, the homages coalesce to create a deeply absorbing and heavily atmospheric yarn that offers several noteworthy plot spins. In a commanding performance, Belen Rueda stars as Laura, who returns to the now-abandoned orphanage where she was raised as a child. With her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and adopted son Simon (Roger Princep) in tow, she moves into the building with the hopes of reopening it in order to serve ill and handicapped children. But the bumps in the night begin almost immediately, with Simon insisting that anything abnormal is being caused by his new imaginary friends. As Laura digs deeper, she learns that the unusual circumstances tie back to incidents that occurred around the time she herself was a young girl residing at the institution. Bayona expertly builds upon the unsettling sense of menace that's established right from the start. (Hulu)

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