(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.)
BAYWATCH (2017). A movie based on a show about brain-baked lifeguards isn’t going to stir memories of, say, A Man for All Seasons or The King’s Speech or even Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, but within its own parameters, this big-screen version of the imbecilic TV series that ruled ‘90s television knows the territory. The plot is flimsy but enough to get the movie from point A to point B (if not much beyond): Stalwart lifeguards defend their stretch of the beach against criminals hoping to seize it for their own nefarious purposes. The MVP is, of course, the impossibly appealing Dwayne Johnson, cast as head lifeguard Mitch. The film has fun playing off the actor’s image as everyone’s best – and best-built – buddy, and he’s equally ingratiating whether receiving or (more often) delivering the cutting zingers. Mitch’s favorite target is a narcissistic Olympian named Matt Brody, and Zac Efron surely deserves some sort of Good Sport award for allowing himself to be the movie’s version of Lou Costello. Unbelievably, it took three separate teams of two guys – six total writers! – to produce the script. There are quite a few amusing bits that float to the top — on the other hand, the juvenile antics that do drag down the picture clearly reveal the fingerprints of man-children who have previously toiled for the likes of Kevin James, Jimmy Fallon and The Smurfs. Bottom line: Baywatch ain’t great, but after such recent Blu-ray duds like that King Arthur clunker, you could do worse than a day at the beach.
The Blu-ray contains both the R-rated theatrical version and an unrated cut that runs an additional five minutes. Extras include deleted scenes; a piece on the characters; and a look at the stuntwork.
THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU (1977). The mid-1970s saw the debuts of 1976's The Food of the Gods and 1977's Empire of the Ants, two terrible H.G. Wells adaptations. Thank goodness, then, for The Island of Dr. Moreau, which hit theaters around the same time and gave Wells back some of his cinematic dignity. The film is fashioned less as an exercise in stark horror and moody ambience — the defining traits of the classic 1932 adaptation Island of Lost Souls, starring Charles Laughton as Dr. Moreau — and more as a straightforward adventure yarn with a sci-fi bent. While that unfussy approach is no doubt due to Don Taylor's limitations as a director (he mainly toiled on TV), it nevertheless works for this vivid picture that makes fine use of its lush Caribbean setting. Michael York makes for a dashing hero as Andrew Braddock, a shipwreck survivor who manages to reach land after several days adrift. He finds himself on an uncharted island whose few residents include the erudite Dr. Moreau (Burt Lancaster), his beautiful young ward Maria (Barbara Carrera), the perpetually inebriated mercenary Montgomery (Nigel Davenport) and strange beings who prowl through the surrounding jungle. Braddock eventually learns that these creatures are half-man, half-beast "humanimals" created by Moreau in his aptly named "House of Pain," and he determines that escaping from this island is his best course of action. The chaotic climax is needlessly protracted and comes dangerously close to camp, but the rest of the film is measured and engrossing. While this doesn't match its 1932 predecessor, it's light years ahead of the lamentable 1996 version starring an unhinged Marlon Brando.
DVD extras consist of audio commentary by author Jeff Belanger and horror host Dr. Dreck; a text essay by professor Gorman Beauchamp; and the theatrical trailer.
THE LION KING (1994). For the nine years following its release, this Disney feature had the distinction of being cinema's top-grossing animated film, even accumulating enough of a bounty to briefly place it in the all-time Top 10. Certainly, until the firm establishment of the Pixar era, it was one of the last of the bumper crop of old-fashioned Disney efforts before the studio temporarily went on autopilot with such works as Hercules and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. This frequently dark tale about a lion cub holds real emotional resonance, and it's backed by gorgeous animation, Han Zimmer's Oscar-winning score (the treacly Tim Rice-Elton John collaboration "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" won for Best Original Song, although fellow nominees "Circle of Life" and "Hakuna Matata" are infinitely better), and one of the studio's most endearing comic-relief characters in the rambunctious meerkat Timon, perfectly voiced by Nathan Lane.
Blu-ray extras on the Signature Collection edition include audio commentary by co-directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff and producer Don Hahn; archival footage of the actors recording their roles; a conversation between Lane and Matthew Broderick (Adult Simba); archival footage of the story pitches for five specific scenes; and art galleries. Unfortunately, most of the great bonus material (three hours’ worth) found on previous Blu-ray and DVD releases is not included on the disc; instead, these features are only available digitally.
THE LONG, HOT SUMMER (1958) / SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER (1959). Turner Classic Movies is known for its scheduling of movies united by a central theme, so why not Twilight Time? In October 2016, the Blu-ray label cannily released a trio of films all centering around trains (Runaway Train, Boxcar Bertha, and The Train). Now, the outfit is offering a trio of pictures whose monikers bring to mind the hot-weather months we’re presently enjoying. The 2015 drama The Emperor in August, about Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II, admittedly is less concerned with actual temperatures than the two Summertime titles, both of which make the torrid heat and seasonal setting integral parts of their narratives.
Martin Ritt directs a first-rate cast in The Long, Hot Summer, an adaptation of several stories by William Faulkner. Paul Newman stars as Ben Quick, a suspected arsonist who arrives in a small Mississippi town basically owned by the wealthy Will Varner (Orson Welles). Ben’s presence affects not only the senior Varner but also the other members of his family: his independent daughter Clara (Joanne Woodward), his weak-willed son Jody (Anthony Franciosa), and Jody’s sexpot wife Eula (Lee Remick). A string of unlikely, happily-ever-after resolutions mars the picture, but the performances are strong and the dialogue is crisp. The Long, Hot Summer marked the first time that Newman and Woodward would work together; 1958 also found the pair getting married and Woodward winning her Best Actress Oscar for the previous year’s The Three Faces of Eve. Incidentally, Newman would end up receiving his first Oscar nomination for his work in another steamy 1958 release, the adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Speaking of Williams, he saw his play Suddenly, Last Summer receive the theatrical treatment in a 1959 adaptation that became a sizzling controversy as well as a box office hit. Gore Vidal handled the scripting duties, punching across the story of a psychiatrist, Dr. Cukrowitz (Montgomery Clift), who must determine whether the lovely young Catherine Holly (Elizabeth Taylor) really needs a lobotomy, as her aunt Violet Venable (Katharine Hepburn) insists, or if she just needs to expunge locked memories of her disturbing European vacation with her cultured cousin, the late Sebastian Venable. Madness, homosexuality and cannibalism were just some of the ingredients that turned the picture into a cause celebre, with the end result alternating between stately serenity and outright hysteria. In the three-way battle of the acting titans, Taylor arguably ekes out a victory with the most naturalistic performance. Suddenly, Last Summer earned a trio of Oscar nominations, for Best Actress (both leading ladies) and Best Black-and-White Art Direction-Set Decoration.
Blu-ray extras on The Long, Hot Summer consist of the AMC Backstory episode on the film; Fox Movietone newsreel footage of Woodward attending the premiere; the theatrical trailer; and an isolated music track. Blu-ray extras on Suddenly, Last Summer consist of the theatrical trailer and an isolated music track.
Both Movies: ***
MEANTIME (1984) / SID & NANCY (1986). Few current actors are as fascinating as Gary Oldman in the sense that you don’t know from picture to picture if he’ll be giving a terrific performance or an unbearably hammy one. Two of his earliest credits aptly reveal that this dichotomy has always been present.
Oldman made his film debut in 1982’s long forgotten Remembrance (a British film which never received proper US distribution), but his next picture found him working alongside various artists who were also on the verge of breaking out. Produced for British television, Meantime was one of several TV projects written and directed by Mike Leigh before he moved on to acclaimed theatrical features like Life Is Sweet, Secrets & Lies, and Vera Drake. A look at life in the UK under the reign of the odious Margaret Thatcher, the film stars Phil Daniels and Tim Roth as two unemployed brothers — the former perpetually angry, the latter mentally slow — whose father (Jeffrey Robert) is similarly on the dole. Only the mother (Pam Ferris) has a job, placing a financial burden on the entire family that leads to a multitude of squabbles. While the talented Daniels continues to work to this day, he had already enjoyed his career role as the lead in 1979’s Quadrophenia. Others in the cast, though, were headed to bigger things: Roth; Alfred Molina, here cast as the brothers’ well-to-do uncle; and Oldman, appearing as a skinhead who hangs out with the siblings. Playing a skinhead doesn’t require much subtlety, but Oldman nevertheless manages to go well over the top.
Oldman’s next role was the one that really kicked off his career. Writer-director Alex Cox cast him as punk rocker Sid Vicious in Sid & Nancy, a searing look at the doomed relationship between the Sex Pistols icon and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb). While the film never really escapes the formula thrust upon most biopics dealing with careers derailed by addiction (in this case, drugs), Cox’s eye for capturing the grungy London and New York scenes in the late 1970s provides the picture with an added kick, and Oldman’s intensity is a perfect fit for Vicious. Look for Courtney Love, in an early evolutionary stage of her career, in a small role as Nancy’s friend Gretchen.
Blu-ray extras on Meantime consist of an interview with Leigh by musician Jarvis Cocker; an interview of co-star Marion Bailey by critic Amy Raphael; and a 2007 interview with Roth. Blu-ray extras on Sid & Nancy include audio commentary (from 2001) by Cox and co-star Andrew Schofield (excellent as Johnny Rotten); separate audio commentary (from 1994) by Oldman, Webb, co-writer Abbe Wool, and various music experts; a making-of short; a 2016 interview with Cox; the legendary and controversial 1976 Bill Grundy interview with the Sex Pistols on British television; a 1978 telephone interview with Vicious; and interviews with Vicious and Spungen lifted from the 1980 punk-rock documentary D.O.A.
Both Movies: ***
PRIZZI’S HONOR (1985). Jack Nicholson has delivered so many superb performances over the course of his career that, aside from his Oscar-winning turn in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, it’s impossible for reasonable minds to agree on what constitutes the best of the best. For my money, it’s his note-perfect comic turn as mob hitman Charley Partanna in Prizzi’s Honor, a sleeper hit during the summer of 1985 and an awards powerhouse at year’s end. Directed by John Huston and adapted by Richard Condon and Janet Roach from Condon’s own novel, the picture centers on Partanna, who works for the powerful Prizzi family, and his new wife Irene Walker (Kathleen Turner), who, to Charley’s dismay, turns out to be an assassin-for-hire. The members of the Prizzi family, including paterfamilias Don Corrado Prizzi (William Hickey), take this union in stride until it looks as if Charley’s pleasure might interfere with the family’s business. Since first catching the film during its original run, repeated viewings have always yielded the same reaction: sheer joy at the intricate plotting and delightful performances (Hickey is a riot as the cheerful yet decrepit godfather), yet pronounced disappointment in a problematic climax that leaves a bad taste. Nominated for eight Academy Awards (including Best Picture and acting bids for Nicholson and Hickey), Prizzi’s Honor won for Best Supporting Actress (Anjelica Huston, excellent as the wronged yet willful Maerose Prizzi).
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historians Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson, and a trailer gallery (including the one for the 1976 Nicholson-Marlon Brando debacle The Missouri Breaks).
Movie: ***Short And Sweet:
SON OF PALEFACE (1952). A sequel to 1948's The Paleface, Son of Paleface reunites that film's potent team of Bob Hope and Jane Russell. In this oater outing, the comic portrays the idiotic son of the man he played in the original, arriving out West to claim an inheritance but instead mixing it up with outlaw Russell and good guy Roy Rogers. Frank Tashlin, who co-wrote The Paleface (and won an Oscar for co-penning that film's hit song, "Buttons and Bows"), moved up to the director's chair for this one, thereby allowing him to test out the sort of cartoonish sight gags that would become even more prominent in such later films as The Girl Can’t Help It and no less than eight Jerry Lewis vehicles.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by filmmaker Greg Ford and Tashlin’s 1946 animated short The Lady Said No.
THE STRANGER (1946). Orson Welles serves as director on The Stranger, although in almost every regard, it's the least flamboyant picture in his oeuvre. That's not a debit, though, since this movie is propelled by its intriguing, Oscar-nominated story about a War Crimes Commission agent (Edward G. Robinson) in hot pursuit of a Nazi war criminal. The sleuth's investigation takes him to a small New England town — could the Nazi be hiding out as the burg's respected school teacher (Welles), who's about to marry a prominent judge's daughter (Loretta Young)? Among other attributes, The Stranger contains a typically reliable performance from Robinson and impressive cinematography courtesy of Russell Metty (Spartacus).
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film blogger Nora Fiore; a text essay by Dr. Jennifer Lynde Barker; and the theatrical trailer.
FROM SCREEN TO STREAM
(Recommended films currently available on streaming services)
BREAKING AWAY ((1979). A textbook definition of a sleeper hit, Breaking Away seemingly came out of nowhere to dazzle critics and delight audiences. In one respect, it's just another underdog sports flick, this one about young Dave Stoller (Dennis Christopher), his love for cycling, and his chance to win The Big Game (or, in this case, The Big Race). In another regard, it's a coming-of-age story, and if that sounds as hoary as an underdog sports flick, it's important to point out that this one adheres closer to reality than most — for one thing, one of the principal kids has acne; how often does Hollywood cast pimply people in major roles? More to the point, Breaking Away centers on four teens in Bloomington, Indiana, and reveals all of them lamenting their have-not statuses (brought into sharper focus by the preppy college kids who look down on them), questioning their self-worth, and wondering how far their mutual friendship will carry them into the future. As the quartet, Christopher, Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern and Jackie Earle Haley deliver exquisite performances, and there are stellar supporting turns from Barbara Barrie as Dave's patient mom and especially Paul Dooley as his easily flustered dad. Nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress (Barrie), this won for Best Original Screenplay (Steve Tesich). (HBO Now)