(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what's new on Blu-ray and DVD.)
Belinda Balaski in The Howling (Photo: Shout! Factory)
THE HOWLING (1981). The best of the three werewolf pictures released in the same year — the others were An American Werewolf In London and Wolfen — The Howling is one of those rare horror flicks that manages to integrate some humor into the proceedings without detracting from the terror elements. For that, we can thank director Joe Dante and scripters John Sayles and Terence H. Winkless, who tweak the genre while still maintaining an obvious reverence; E.T. mom Dee Wallace, who delivers an excellent performance as a TV news reporter who unwittingly ends up at a resort populated by a werewolf colony; and makeup artist Rob Bottin, responsible for the astonishing transformation scenes. Made for $1 million (admittedly, the low budget resulted in some shortcuts; check out the laughable conclusion to the campfire scene), this adaptation of Gary Brandner's novel — a decent read when I was a teenager — grossed $18 million and led to seven schlock sequels, none of which had anything to do with this class act. A top-notch werewolf flick on its own, this offers added appeal to film buffs, who will catch the brief appearances by horror-movie mainstays (including John Carradine, Dick Miller and Famous Monsters of Filmland editor Forrest J Ackerman) and the fact that most of the characters are named after directors of previous wolfman pictures. Rick Baker's a bigger name than Bottin, so it's no surprise that the very first competitive Oscar for Best Makeup went to Baker for An American Werewolf in London; it's a shame, though, that Bottin didn't at least snag a nomination (for the record, the only other nominee that inaugural year was the across-the-board bomb Heartbeeps, with Andy Kaufman, Bernadette Peters and others badly made up to look like robots). That's Dennis Dugan as Wallace's friend Chris; a busy actor throughout the '70s and '80s, he's now known (and in many circles detested) for directing the majority of Adam Sandler's atrocities (Jack and Jill, Grown Ups, Big Daddy, etc.).
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Dante, Wallace and co-stars Christopher Stone and Robert Picardo; separate audio commentary by Brandner; a lengthy making-of feature; deleted scenes; interviews with Winkless, executive producer Steven A. Lane, stop-motion animator Dave Allen and editor Mark Goldblatt; and a photo gallery.
Nicholas Hoult in Jack the Giant Slayer (Photo: Warner Bros.)
JACK THE GIANT SLAYER (2013). On the surface, the box office underachiever Jack the Giant Slayer would appear to be made from the same cloth as the box office behemoth Oz the Great and Powerful — that is to say, it's an expensive CGI spectacle directed by a highly regarded helmer of superhero flicks (in this case, X-Men's Bryan Singer). It's based, of course, on the classic fairy tale in which a peasant boy gets hold of some magic beans that eventually bear an enormous beanstalk that travels upward into the clouds; after climbing to the top, he encounters a fearsome giant and must use his wits to survive. Jack the Giant Slayer takes that template and expands on it in a way that works. This isn't a disastrous rewriting (like Mirror Mirror) but rather an interpretation that strives to always remain consistent. Its central role still belongs to young Jack (Nicholas Hoult, recently seen in Warm Bodies), but he's surrounded by various characters brought to life by fine actors: Ewan McGregor as the brave soldier Elmont, Stanley Tucci as the duplicitous Roderick, Ian McShane as the noble king, and more. The 3-D is excellent although not essential (so you can save some bucks by skipping the 3-D Blu-ray Combo Pack and nabbing the regular Blu-ray/DVD/UltraViolet Combo Pack), and while much of the CGI looks like the same-old same-old (especially the large-scale battle sequences), the giants are an imaginatively designed bunch and the beanstalk itself is a monumental marvel. So while Jack the Giant Slayer might appear in some ways to be similar to Oz the Great and Powerful, this one's actually the better bet. Oz promises to take audiences somewhere over the rainbow but fails to deliver; Jack, on the other hand, only promises to put our heads in the clouds, and that it does.
Blu-ray extras include an interactive Become a Giant Slayer option that allows access to behind-the-scenes featurettes; deleted scenes; and a gag reel.
Billy Connolly in Quartet (Photo: Anchor Bay & The Weinstein Company)
QUARTET (2012). Of all the reviews I penned over the course of the past two or so years, only my complete annihilation of Tim & Eric's Billion Dollar Movie and my current bashing of Man of Steel received more negative feedback than my mixed, 2-1/2 star review for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Angered readers assumed that my soft stance on Hotel meant I was clearly an unrepentant gerontophobe, with one lady amusingly stating that my "bigoted" review meant that I "actually write for Creating Loathing" (nyuk nyuk). I'm still expecting handwritten mea culpas from every last one of them, given my appreciation for Quartet — in this effort, the mean of the principal actors' ages is a hearty 74 years old. Of course, let's take care not to oversell this piece, which was an art-house hit among older audiences but seems unlikely to further break out on Blu-ray with those who don't know Downton Abbey from Howards End. With his directorial debut, Dustin Hoffman has turned to a stage piece by Oscar-winning scribe Ronald Harwood (The Pianist), with the playwright himself tweaking this for the screen. The result is a low-key charmer set in a British retirement home for musicians, where three of the four members of a beloved quartet now reside. Reginald Paget (Tom Courtenay) is the most collected of the group; Cecily Robson (Pauline Collins) is the flightiest; and Wilfred Bond (Billy Connolly, the spring chicken of the primary performers at 70) is the randiest. When the final member of the quartet, Jean Horton (Maggie Smith), shows up to live at the residence, the other three have mixed emotions, since it was her actions that split up the group as well as sabotaged her own marriage to Reginald. But despite any prior misgivings, the three decide to talk Jean into joining them for a historic re-teaming at the home's fundraising concert. As expected, Connolly ends up with the bulk of the choice quips as his Wilfred Bond lusts after the ladies — it takes a skilled comedian to avoid turning the character into an off-putting lecher, and he pulls it off (his crack about "wood" is priceless). Collins' Cecily, meanwhile, earns our sympathy as the one most affected by the downside of advancing age (specifically, what it does to the mind), while Smith and Courtenay make a handsome pair as their characters try to discover if there's anything left to salvage from their past love. As the cherry on top, Michael Gambon — Dumbledore himself — turns up as the easily agitated director of the home's musical program. Like everyone else involved with Quartet, the actor seems to be having a good time — a sentiment shared by viewers tuned into this melodic chamber piece.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Hoffman and behind-the-scenes featurettes.
(Photo: Shout! Factory)
RICHARD PRYOR — NO PRYOR RESTRAINT: LIFE IN CONCERT (2013). Last November, Shout! Factory released the superb box set The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection of Unhinged Comedy, so it seems only fitting that the best quote included in the company's new collection centering on a legendary comic comes courtesy of Mr. Brooks: "If you asked me to name the funniest comedian of all time — was it Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harpo Marx? — I'd immediately say Richard Pryor. He just had a very sweet way of turning something, anything into hilarity. And being so utterly honest, he would just get right through to you. I loved him -- he was amazing." That's a bold statement, and when one factors in Pryor's films — his works in a medium that more often than not had no idea how to use him — there's plenty of room for argument. But strictly within the realm of stand-up comedy, I'm gonna have to side with Mel: There's never been anyone quite like Richard Pryor. A man whose life was packed with all manner of pain from a very early age — much of it from others, some of it self-inflicted — Pryor had the uncanny ability to channel all that hurt into his comedy routines, resulting in a series of live albums that remain as fresh, controversial and flat-out hilarious as when they were released. No Pryor Restraint is a collection of seven CDs and two DVDs, collectively spanning approximately a quarter-century of lacerating comedy. It contains many of the best routines from those various albums, including the three classics that impressively won him consecutive Grammy Awards for Best Comedy Album: 1975's That Nigger's Crazy, 1976's ...Is It Something I Said? and 1977's Bicentennial Nigger. (He later won two more consecutive Grammys for 1982's Rev. Du Rite and 1983's Live on the Sunset Strip.) Choice bits include tales about his grandmother as well as his routine as the fictional character Mudbone; our neck of the woods even rates a mention in one bit, as he tells an interviewer that he got arrested for a stage show in "the Carolinas" because a couple of white folks found his material offensive. This compilation also includes his three filmed concerts, all of which proved to be box office hits: 1979's Richard Pryor: Live in Concert, 1982's Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip and 1983's Richard Pryor... Here and Now. There are some brilliant bits here, including his discussion of his trip to Africa and his opening up about his attempted suicide by pouring rum over his body and setting himself on fire. Aside from the repetition of some material, my major complaint about the collection stems from my own greed: On the heels of the Mel Brooks set, which included talk show appearances, pilots of TV shows, a documentary and even a music video, it would have been incredible had this new offering included similar goodies. Personally, I would have enjoyed seeing all four episodes of the controversial and quickly canceled TV variety program The Richard Pryor Show (1977), Lily Tomlin's 1973 TV special Lily (for which Pryor shared in an Emmy Award for Best Writing), his hosting stints on Saturday Night Live and Soul Train, and his guest-starring gigs on The Wild Wild West and — I kid you not — The Partridge Family. But maybe that's for another box set.
The collection also includes a 60-page book containing articles, photos, a filmography and a discography.
Harold Lloyd in Safety Last! (Photo: Criterion Collection)
SAFETY LAST! (1923). It has simultaneously always saddened, annoyed and fascinated me that while Harold Lloyd was as big a star during the silent era as fellow comedians Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, he has long since faded in the stretch, with the other two retaining their immortal status while he's largely only known to cineasts. The theories for this are varied — his stranglehold on his own film properties prevented more people from seeing them over the ensuing decades, his more commonplace appearance compared to the other two, etc. — but there's no question that he's every bit on their level of genius. New Line Home Video honored his memory in 2005 with the magnificent box set The Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection, a three-volume compilation of features, shorts, documentaries, home movies and more. Now, it's Criterion's turn to take a crack at the Lloyd legacy by offering one of his best pictures on Blu-ray (of course, it's also available in a DVD edition). I'm partial to 1925's The Freshman (maybe that's the next Lloyd on the Criterion docket?), but this is as good a place to start as any, considering it features not only the most iconic image from Lloyd's filmography but also one of the defining shots from the entire silent era: Lloyd suspended high above the ground, hanging onto that clock for dear life. That moment comes late in the film; first, we come to know Harold (aka "The Boy") as he moves to the big city with dreams of becoming a success so that he can summon his girl (Mildred Davis) to join him. Of course, the reality is far different from the fantasy, as Harold works as a lowly salesperson in a department store, spending his days dodging his supercilious supervisor (Westcott Clarke) and dealing with overbearing customers. Needing a quick cash fix, Harold promises to provide the store with reams of publicity by scaling the side of the building to its very top. He actually plans for his pal (Bill Strother), a climbing expert, to perform the dangerous stunt, but after things go invariably wrong, it's up to poor Harold to make the ascent himself. Long before Safety Last! reaches its exciting climax (and dangerous as well, since Lloyd performed most of his own stunts), it has made its mark as a screen classic, thanks to an abundance of hilarious gags as well as a typically winning performance from its star.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by film critic Leonard Maltin and Harold Lloyd archivist Richard Correll; an introduction by Lloyd's granddaughter, Suzanne Lloyd; the feature-length documentary Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius; and the Lloyd shorts Take a Chance (1918), Young Mr. Jazz (1919) and His Royal Slyness (1920).