(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what's new on Blu-ray and DVD.)
ALL CHEERLEADERS DIE (2014). Screened this past March at the Charlotte edition of the Mad Monster Party, this is actually a remake of a 2001 film of the same name. Writer-directors Lucky McKee and Chris Sivertson are responsible for both versions, electing to update their straight-to-video original with this new version that had been making the film festival and convention rounds before now popping up on Blu-ray and DVD. I haven't seen the 2001 cut, but based on the evidence here, the movie could stand being filmed a third time. What sounds like a can't-miss premise — Mean Girls as filtered through horror-flick sensibilities — proves to be a disappointment, with a sloppy narrative drive and heavy-handed attempts at humor. Caitlin Stasey stars as Maddy, an alt-grrl who joins the cheerleader squad for mysterious reasons. When an altercation with a star football player (Tom Williamson) and his sycophants ends with the deaths of Maddy and three other girls, it's up to Maddy's wiccan-dabbling friend Leena (Sianoa Smit-McPhee) to bring them all back from the other side to take their revenge — and attend senior year. Those who do manage to get emotionally invested in the picture may not appreciate the fact that the ending promises a sequel that may or may not ever materialize.
The only Blu-ray extra is a behind-the-scenes featurette.
ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS (1955). This typically lush melodrama from director Douglas Sirk casts Jane Wyman as Cary Scott, a well-to-do widower who embarks on a romance with her gardener Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson). But because of their age gap (he's 15 years her junior) and different social standings, he's rejected by most of Cary's friends and both of her grown children (Gloria Talbott and William Reynolds), and she must decide whether to pursue her own happiness or conform to societal expectations. What might be dismissed by many as merely a weepie about the relationship between a young stud and one of cinema's original MILFs is actually a penetrating dissection of the hypocrisies and idiocies inherent in American life, such as the notion that a television set is a more-than-adequate substitution for human companionship. Sirk's tactics are sly and subversive — the way Hudson's character is introduced in an out-of-focus background brings to mind Steven Spielberg's identical MO in calling up Matt Damon's title soldier in Saving Private Ryan — and Russell Metty's Technicolor lensing is peerless (check out when Talbott's character flops onto her bed crying; the light selections in that scene are extraordinary). This was remade by Rainer Werner Fassbinder in 1974 as Ali — Fear Eats the Soul and channeled by Todd Haynes in his magnificent 2002 effort Far from Heaven.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by film scholars John Mercer and Tamar Jeffers-McDonald; the acclaimed (and offbeat) 1992 documentary Rock Hudson's Home Movies; a 1982 French television interview with Sirk; excerpts from the 1979 BBC documentary Behind the Mirror: A Profile of Douglas Sirk; and the theatrical trailer.
DOM HEMINGWAY (2014). On paper, the character of Dom Hemingway doesn't sound like anything special, just one more smalltime criminal who's back on the streets after years of incarceration. But as created by Richard Shepherd, the writer-director who gave Pierce Brosnan his best role (as a forlorn hit man) in The Matador, and brought to magnificent life by Jude Law, this safecracker is a real firecracker, with a temper so volatile that he has no trouble drunkenly insulting a ruthless kingpin to his face. That would be Ivan Fontaine (A Better Life Oscar nominee Demian Bichir), a Russian mobster who knows he owes his employee Dom a huge debt for remaining silent during his dozen years in prison. As Dom explains to his pal Dickie (Richard E. Grant), that's a significant chunk of a life to lose, more so since his lengthy jail stay meant he wasn't around when his wife died of cancer or to watch his daughter grow into a young woman (Games of Thrones' Emilia Clarke). Now that he's out, he feels that he deserves everything good that life has to offer. Life, of course, has other ideas. Right from his character's opening monologue, when Dom asks, "Is my cock exquisite?" and proceeds to describe how his member should win a Nobel Peace Prize and deserves its own painting in the Louvre, Law burns with an intensity he's rarely displayed before. His volcanic emulsions find a leavening checkmate in Grant's measured timidity and a suitable sparring partner in the equally eruptive crime boss Lestor, played with amusing prickliness by Jumayn Hunter. Dom's his own worst enemy, though, but despite his status as a crook, a bully and even a buffoon, it's affecting to watch him try to connect to a daughter who wants nothing to do with him — a testament to both Law's performance and Shepherd's scripting.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Shepard; a trio of making-of featurettes; and interviews with Law and Shepard.
SCANNERS (1981). After serving up a few underground cult flicks, writer-director David Cronenberg achieved enough clout after the mainstream success of this sci-fi favorite that he was then entrusted to helm such higher-budgeted efforts as The Dead Zone and The Fly. Scanners clearly resides on the border of these two chapters in the auteur's career, boasting better production values than his earlier efforts but still channeling in the sort of mind-blowing narratives with which he initially made his mark. "Scanners" are people born with telepathic abilities, and one such mutant, the murderous Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside), has instigated a widespread plan that he expects will allow him to take over the world. But with the support of a preeminent Scanner expert, the eccentric Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan), a novice Scanner named Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) seeks to stop him. A film that improves with each subsequent viewing, Scanners is patchy but also potent, charged by a score from future Oscar winner Howard Shore (The Lord of the Rings trilogy) and boasting eye-popping (no pun intended) visual effects. Top-billed Jennifer O'Neill is ill-utilized and Lack is bland, but McGoohan adds some color while Ironside is memorably menacing. While this edition of Scanners is being released on Blu-ray and DVD by the Criterion Collection, its in-name-only sequels, 1990's Scanners II: The New Order and 1991's Scanners III: The Takeover, hit the market last fall courtesy of Shout! Factory; you can read the reviews for this twofer here.
Blu-ray extras include Cronenberg's first feature, 1969's Stereo; interviews with Lack and Ironside; a featurette on the film's special effects (in which it's revealed exactly how the exploding head sequence was successfully pulled off); and excerpts from an interview with Cronenberg from a 1981 episode of The Bob McLean Show.
SOUTHERN COMFORT (1981). Walter Hill's career as a director began with a remarkable string of rugged and robust motion pictures, and included among these half-dozen or so odes to strained male camaraderie and slow-burn macho inclinations (titles like The Warriors, The Long Riders and 48 Hrs.) is this box office underachiever that's often dismissed as an inferior version of Deliverance. True, it's no match for the emotional and psychological heights scaled by John Boorman's 1972 classic, but on its own terms, it's a rousing popcorn flick, marred by often silly dialogue but otherwise bolstered by a sturdy cast and Hill's deft direction. Keith Carradine and Powers Boothe are the headliners, two of a group of nine National Guardsmen who head to the Louisiana swamplands for some basic training. They end up angering the locals — a group of backwoods Cajuns — and soon find themselves fighting for their lives. Fred Ward and Peter Coyote are among those playing Guardsmen, Brion James (Leon in Blade Runner) impresses as a Cajun trapper, and that's former porn actor, failed Libertarian candidate and Predator co-star Sonny Landham as the mustachioed Cajun killer.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; a photo gallery; and the theatrical trailer.
WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1957). Arguably the greatest of all the Agatha Christie adaptations that have been brought to the screen (1945's And Then There Were None is its closest competitor for the honor), this sensational drama (with copious amounts of humor) may no longer have the ability to fool most audiences with its shocking plot twist, but the film is so absorbing and so splendidly acted that this potential debit ultimately doesn't matter in the least. Working from a script that he penned with Harry Kurnitz, the great director Billy Wilder keeps the courtroom intrigue popping in this murder-mystery in which amateur inventor and professional heel Leonard Vale (Tyrone Power) is accused of murdering an older woman with whom he was keeping company. The crafty barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton) believes he's innocent and takes the case, but his defense gets more complicated when Vale's only alibi, his wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich), proves to be a most unusual witness. Opening up Christie's stage hit for the screen, Wilder delivers a riveting thriller that's blessed with superb dialogue ("Touching, isn't it, the way he depends on his wife." "Like a drowning man clutching at a razor blade.") and packed with showcase performances. Power (who would die of a heart attack the following year, at the age of 44) and Dietrich are both excellent, but top honors go to the formidable husband-and-wife team of Laughton and Elsa Lanchester, the latter cast as Sir Wilfrid's fussy nurse Miss Plimsoll. This earned six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Director, Actor (Laughton) and Supporting Actress (Lanchester).
Blu-ray extras consist of an interview with Wilder and the theatrical trailer.
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