(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what's new on Blu-ray and DVD.)
THE DRIVER (1978). The Twilight Time label was gracious enough to release Walter Hill's first film as writer-director, 1975's Hard Times (reviewed here), on Blu-ray earlier this summer, and now it's already brought out his sophomore effort long before the leaves are set to start dropping. Nicolas Winding Refn's critical darling from 2011, the Ryan Gosling vehicle Drive, was hardly the first film to function as an existential study of a laconic loner who's second to none when it comes to climbing behind the wheel — The Driver had already been there, done that back in 1978. If Drive benefits from more peaks (while suffering from more valleys), The Driver has the inside lane on maintaining the proper speed from flag to finish. Ryan O'Neal plays the title character, who's the criminal underworld's top choice when it comes to procuring a getaway driver for risky bank robberies. He's feverishly pursued by The Detective (Bruce Dern), an eccentric lawman who's not above bending the rules, and assisted by The Player (Isabelle Adjani, ethereally beautiful), a young woman who gets more involved than she initially anticipated. (And yes, every character is tagged with an identity rather than a name: Teeth, The Kid, The Connection, etc.) The vehicular chases are shot for maximum effect, although it's amusing to note that in a film packed with auto-action, the most exciting sequence is set on a train. Dern, merely one of the best actors of the 1970s, is in his element here as an arrogant cop with a Cheshire-cat grin.
Blu-ray extras include an alternate opening; the isolated score track by Michael Small; and the theatrical trailer.
THE GREAT SANTINI (1980). The Great Santini is one of those films that many folks back in the day initially caught on cable television or as the in-flight movie — watching it repeatedly on HBO was certainly my introduction to it. But what was unusual about its release pattern was that the picture played these ancillary markets (usually under the title The Ace) without first having a theatrical run — it was only after New York critics like Vincent Canby and Rex Reed (for once using his powers for good instead of evil) caught up with it and awarded it rave reviews that it earned its proper place in the nation's movie houses. If it isn't quite as perfect as I remember it, it still comes damn close, with writer-director Lewis John Carlino sensitively adapting Pat Conroy's semi-autobiographical novel about growing up in the 1960s with a hard-nosed military man for a father. Robert Duvall, whose performance here runs neck-and-neck with his Lonesome Dove turn as his career best, stars as Lt. Col. Bull Meechum, whose peacetime assignment — training young recruits — leads to a move to Beaufort, SC, with his family in tow. Bull's wife Lillian (Blythe Danner) largely supports her husband's decisions, while his four children simply follow his commands. But familial strife takes hold once oldest child Ben (Michael O'Keefe) approaches the age of 18 — a thoughtful, tender-hearted boy, he's the one most at odds with his dictatorial dad. This is one of those special films that moves effortlessly between tension, tears and laughs; among the many outstanding bits are the one-on-one basketball game between Bull and Ben, the raucous "canned soup" gag, and the friendship between Ben and the sweet-natured Toomer (Stan Shaw), a stuttering black man who loves his dogs even more than he hates the redneck (David Keith) who's constantly provoking him. Duvall and O'Keefe both earned Oscar nominations for their exceptional performances.
The Great Santini has long been available on DVD, but only in a wretched pan-and-scan version. Thankfully, a widescreen version has now been released through the Warner Archive Collection label. There are no extras except for the theatrical trailer.
THE MUPPET MOVIE (1979). With The Muppet Show a smash success on television, Jim Henson and his fellow puppeteers rolled the dice on producing a feature-length motion picture that would require fans of the series to get off the couch and drop some dough at the local movie house. It was a gamble that paid off, resulting in a box office hit, a string of (increasingly inferior) sequels, and a delightful 2011 reboot. In this one (billed on the box as "The ORIGINAL Classic"), Kermit leaves his beloved swamp and heads to Hollywood seeking stardom; along the way, he picks up many familiar passengers and tries to stay one step ahead of a food-chain owner (Charles Durning) who specializes in frog legs. Over a dozen stars appear in cameos, some more memorable (Steve Martin, Mel Brooks) than others (James Coburn, Elliott Gould), but as expected, Fozzie the Bear and the old geezers Statler and Waldorf receive the lion's share of the choice lines. Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher earned a pair of Oscar nominations for Best Original Song Score and Best Original Song (the gorgeous ditty "The Rainbow Connection").
Blu-ray extras include a profile of Kermit; a Frog-E-Oke Sing-Along; and the theatrical trailers. Best of all, though, is the test footage shot before the making of the movie, much of it already available on DVD and on the Internet; the exchanges between Kermit and Fozzie are gaspingly funny.
SECONDS (1966). A colossal flop upon its original 1966 release, this absorbing oddity from director John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate) has deservedly picked up a sizable cult following over the ensuing decades. A heady experience, this finds middle-aged bank executive Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) electing to chuck away his entire boring existence by accepting a mysterious organization's offer to be "reborn" — that is, to allow his old "self" to be killed in an accident and to undergo plastic surgery so that he may be given a new face, a new identity and a new life. Hamilton emerges from surgery as handsome Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson), but he quickly discovers that it's not easy to mentally suppress 50 years of one's life. Working from a script by The Great Santini writer-director Lewis John Carlino (adapting David Ely's novel), Frankenheimer fashioned a trippy motion picture that was clearly ahead of its time, even if just by a few years (the 1970s would be crammed with post-Watergate paranoia pictures such as The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor). Hudson is excellent in what ranks as one of his best performances, and it's not a stretch to consider that playing the role of a man forced to keep his true identity a secret must have cut close to the bone. The experimental and frequently disorienting cinematography by the great James Wong Howe deservedly earned an Oscar nomination.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Frankenheimer; a 1971 interview with Frankenheimer; new interviews with Seconds co-star Salome Jens, Evans Frankenheimer, the director's widow, and Alec Baldwin, who co-starred in the director's last film, the 2002 HBO movie Path to War; and a visual essay by film scholars R. Barton Palmer and Murray Pomerance.
SWAMP THING (1982). Director Wes Craven has spent so much of his career making sadistic movies (The Last House on the Left, Scream, etc.) that this campy adaptation of the DC Comics series has always been the odd title out in his horror filmography. It's all the better for it, since it's one of the few movies from this overrated auteur that I can personally stand. Penning the script himself, Craven serves up a tasty origin tale set in the Florida Everglades, as the brilliant Dr. Alec Holland (Ray Wise) has concocted a plant-based formula that could benefit the entire world. He shares his findings with the newly arrived government liaison Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau), but it's not long before the evil Dr. Arcane (Louis Jourdan, a long way from Gigi) and his thugs arrive, killing everyone in sight. Cable manages to escape, whereupon she stumbles across a local boy (Reggie Batts) who offers her assistance (as well as a barrage of sarcastic cracks); Holland, meanwhile, is believed to be dead but instead has undergone a painful transformation into a half-man, half-plant creature (played by stuntman Dick Durock). The film starts out strong but grows sillier as it progresses, but the Swamp Thing makeup is fine (the Arcane Monster makeup, not so much), and Barbeau and Batts make an engaging team. If Wise looks familiar, that's because he went on to play Leland Palmer, Laura's distraught dad, on TV's Twin Peaks. This was followed by the 1989 sequel The Return of Swamp Thing, with Jourdan and Durock reprising their roles and Heather Locklear replacing Barbeau as the damsel in distress.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Craven; separate audio commentary by makeup effects artist William Munns; interviews with Barbeau, supporting actor Reggie Batts and Swamp Thing creator Len Wein; and the theatrical trailer.
THE SWORD IN THE STONE (1963) / ROBIN HOOD (1973) / OLIVER AND COMPANY (1988). Three timeless stories — the origins of King Arthur, the adventures of Robin Hood and the experiences of Oliver Twist — have all been successfully brought to the screen on a few occasions, although never by Disney. For while the Walt factory theoretically could have produced fine features out of these choice selections, the sad fact is that all three were attempted during the studio's moribund period, that subpar stretch between 1961's 101 Dalmatians and 1989's The Little Mermaid. Consequently, these films will satisfy the little ones but, unlike the Disney classics, they offer little of value to older viewers.
The Sword in the Stone relates the saga of young Arthur (nicknamed Wart), who's toiling as a lowly servant when he meets the wizard Merlin. On the way to yanking that sword out of that stone, Arthur has some pretty tepid adventures (he's turned into a fish and a squirrel, hardly riveting developments) and, aside from the owl Archimedes, none of the characters make any impression whatsoever. Even worse is Robin Hood, a dull and disjointed retelling that spends more time on the buffoonish antics of Prince John and Sir Hiss than on the outlaw archer. Those who bashed Kevin Costner's Yankee accent in Robin Hood: Price of Thieves should get an earful of the Southerners cast in this version (including George Lindsey, The Andy Griffith Show's Goober Pyle, and Pat Buttram, Green Acres' Mr. Haney). Finally, Oliver and Company moves the Charles Dickens chestnut to New York City, retaining Fagin and Sykes as humans but making Oliver a cat and Dodger a dog. This is arguably the best of the trio, with better voice actors (among them Billy Joel and Bette Midler) and less of a tendency to wander, but it still suffers from a rote storyline and flat animation. Luckily, The Little Mermaid was just around the corner ...
Blu-ray extras on The Sword in the Stone include an alternate opening; the animated shorts A Knight for a Day and Brave Little Toaster; and a piece on the musical team The Sherman Brothers. Blu-ray extras on Robin Hood include an alternate ending; a never-before-seen deleted storyline; the Mickey Mouse short Ye Olden Days; and an art gallery. Blu-ray extras on Oliver and Company include a making-of featurette; the Oscar-winning animated short Lend a Paw; and the animated short Puss Cafe.
The Sword in the Stone: **
Robin Hood: *1/2
Oliver and Company: **
TO THE WONDER (2013). The latest from Terrence Malick indisputably comes off as a minor work on the heels of The Tree of Life, but it still holds enough of interest for the initiated. Ben Affleck, who has more dialogue in any one scene from Argo than he does in this entire picture, plays Neil, an Oklahoman who falls for Marina (Olga Kurylenko) while visiting France. Marina has a young daughter, and both move to Oklahoma to live with Neil. But boredom and tensions soon get in the way of perfect harmony — as mother and daughter pack up and head back to Europe, Neil rekindles a romance with a former sweetheart (Rachel McAdams). But the story doesn't end there, as circumstances dictate that Marina again comes to live stateside. Malick's mood poem feels like a lesser work from the esteemed director, a lovely dream that got placed on the screen before it fully came into focus. Yet despite the usual charge of Malick producing a boring movie, To the Wonder is anything but — an endless chase scene or CGI-stamped battle sequence (see: Oblivion, Man of Steel, 1,000 others) is far more dull than any of the sights on view here. With the magnificent Emmanuel Lubezki (The Tree of Life, Sleepy Hollow) behind the camera, even the most seemingly mundane imagery — a woman twirling, a child walking through a grocery store — takes on a luminous aura. Malick's central focus on a couple struggling to stay together provides sufficient backbone, and the auteur also includes his usual salient musings on the irresistible pull of the natural world and its occasional surrender to the whims of humankind. But he errs in introducing a subplot centering on the Oklahoma town's priest (Javier Bardem), a man who's struggling with his own faith. Try as he might, Malick can't quite tether this to the rest of the picture, and while Bardem is convincing in the part, the overall feeling is that, of all the supporting stories that Malick filmed and then discarded (Rachel Weisz and Jessica Chastain were among the high-caliber thespians relegated to the cutting-room floor), the saga of the doubting man of God just happened to be the one left standing after all the slicing and dicing was complete.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; cast interviews; and the theatrical trailer.
A BOY AND HIS DOG (1975). L.Q. Jones, who played supporting roles in countless Westerns (including a few for Sam Peckinpah), opted to sit in the director's seat for this adaptation of Harlan Ellison's award-winning novella, and when Ellison experienced writer's block while penning the screenplay, Jones took over scripting duties as well. A commercial flop that has since enjoyed cult status, the film takes place in an apocalyptic future and centers on Vic (Don Johnson), a none-too-bright guy who spends his time raping women, foraging for food, and hanging out with a telepathic dog named Blood (voiced by Tim McIntire). The savage wasteland is believably captured, but a so-so movie completely goes off the rails once the action moves to an underground society.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Jones, director of photography John Arthur Morrill and film critic Charles Champlin; a terrific hour-long conversation between Ellison and Jones (in which it's determined by both parties that while Ellison is clearly an equal-opportunity "misanthrope," Jones is obviously a "misogynist"); and the theatrical trailer.
G.I. JOE: RETALIATION (2013). This is the inevitable sequel to 2009's G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, and the good news is that it's a definite improvement over its poor predecessor. Channing Tatum returns as Duke, the elite military man who takes his team into Pakistan for what turns out to be an ambush that leaves practically all of the soldiers dead. Among the only survivors is second-in-command Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), and he's determined to find out who's behind the sabotage. The establishing banter between best buds Duke and Roadblock is agonizing, so the action can't arrive fast enough. When it does, it suggests that director Jon M. Chu and his writers are working from a Jekyll & Hyde dichotomy, with the good action sequences repeatedly giving way to the bad ones. The entire movie operates in such a yin-yang manner, ricocheting between interesting characters and idiotic ones, between clever plot developments and ludicrous ones, between smart dialogue and — wait, scratch that; there is no smart dialogue, just marble-mouthed monologues and limp quips.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Chu; deleted scenes; and various behind-the-scenes featurettes.
THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES (2013). The Place Beyond the Pines finds Ryan Gosling reteaming with Blue Valentine director Derek Cianfrance, and the film's narrative is so uniquely structured that it's difficult to describe without drowning in spoilers. Suffice it to say that the plot centers around the separate yet interconnected lives of two men: Luke (Gosling), an ace motorcyclist who turns to robbing banks to support his son, and Avery (Bradley Cooper), a greenhorn cop whose heroic deeds are at odds with the fear and hesitancy he feels inside. The movie is constructed like a three-act saga, with only the third part failing to satisfy.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Cianfrance; a making-of featurette; and deleted scenes.