(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what's new on Blu-ray and DVD. Ratings are on a four-star scale.)
LADY IN WHITE (1988). There's wasted potential to spare in Lady in White, a low-key ghost tale that does just enough right to make the overall disappointment more pronounced. Set in 1962, the film stars Lukas Haas (the wee witness in Witness) as Frankie Scarlatti, a young boy who, having been locked overnight in a school cloakroom by a pair of classmates, sees a ghostly girl reliving her murder right before his eyes. It turns out she's but one victim of a madman who's been slaughtering children for approximately a decade, and Frankie's own close encounter with the murderer sets him on the path toward uncovering the twin mysteries involving the killer's identity and the dead girl's lineage. Writer-director Frank LaLoggia's primary strength is in crafting a loving and believable family dynamic between Frankie, his older brother Geno (Jason Presson) and their widowed dad Al (Alex Rocco), and these scenes are among the movie's best — even if the comic relief from the grandparents Mama Assunta (Renata Vanni) and Papa Charlie (Angelo Bertolini) eventually reaches nails-on-the-chalkboard levels of buffoonery. But rarely has the identity of a killer been as glaringly obvious as it proves to be here, and that cuts the legs out from under the picture almost immediately. And while LaLoggia and cinematographer Russell Carpenter (an Oscar winner for Titanic) visually capture '60s small-town life in all its golden nostalgic hues, the clumsy inclusion of racial material leads to a tragedy that doesn't affect the principal plot in any way whatsoever and merely ends up feeling forced and distasteful.
The Shout! Factory Blu-ray contains the original theatrical cut, the Director's Cut (five minutes longer), and the Extended Director's Cut (13 minutes longer). Extras include audio commentary by LaLoggia; an introduction by LaLoggia; behind-the-scenes footage; deleted scenes; a photo gallery; and the theatrical trailer.
MIKE AND DAVE NEED WEDDING DATES (2016). Mike and Dave may be the ones with their names in the title, but it's the titanic trio of Tatiana, Alice and Jeanie who prove to be the marquee attractions. Loosely based on a true story, this one stars Zac Efron and Adam Devine as Dave and Mike Stangle, two brothers who take Alice (Anna Kendrick) and Tatiana (Aubrey Plaza) to the Hawaiian wedding of their sister Jeanie (Sugar Lyn Beard). What Dave and Mike don't realize is that the pair aren't the nice girls they thought but two aimless party animals. The film takes a while to settle into its groove, but it eventually gets busy upending traditional gender roles found in these types of films, with Alice and Tatiana turning out to be braver, smarter and more in control than their increasingly hapless dates. Efron and Devine are fine, but it's the actresses who allow this fairly standard-issue comedy to rise above its station. Plaza's character is not unlike the one she essayed earlier this year in the awful Dirty Grandpa, but because this is a meatier part, she's able to better flash her comedic chops. Kendrick is equally delightful, bringing back the spark she exhibited in the first Pitch Perfect and providing arguably the film's most knowing laugh (regarding a porn version of Ghostbusters) almost as an aside. And as Jeanie, Beard frequently stirs memories of Goldie Hawn back in her Laugh-In days. Certainly, let's not oversell this thing, as many of the gags are predictable and some of the developments (particularly those involving redemption) are soft-headed. But with female characters a bit more well-rounded than usual and a chance to watch three actresses excel at being comediennes, the picture nicely avoids being yet one more nail in the coffin of contemporary dude-bro romps.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director Jake Szymanski; deleted scenes; and a gag reel.
NASHVILLE (1975). Many will cite M*A*S*H or The Player or Gosford Park, but it's Nashville that's generally considered to be the pinnacle of Robert Altman's career, as well as one of the best films of the 1970s. Certainly, it proved to be one of the most influential, offering pointers for Altman's peers while showcasing elements that became common in many of his own works (overlapping dialogue, all-star cast, improvisational shooting style). In 160 minutes, Altman and scripter Joan Tewkesbury tag along behind 24 characters as they make their way through a crowded country-music landscape over a fateful few days. Some characters — country kingpin Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), British reporter Opal (Geraldine Chaplin), womanizing singer-songwriter Tom Frank (Keith Carradine), heartless groupie L.A. Joan (Shelley Duvall) — are odious while others — emotionally fragile superstar Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley), sensitive soldier Glenn Kelly (Scott Glenn), grieving husband Mr. Green (Keenan Wynn) — are sympathetic, but every last one manages to provide contrast and depth to Altman's view of an America in which the boundaries between politics and entertainment are all but nonexistent. Singling out MVPs is a daunting task, but I was most taken by the soulful turn from Blakley, a real-life singer-songwriter who parlayed her Nashville breakthrough into a film and TV career; others deserving special mention include Gibson, Lily Tomlin as a sensible housewife pursued by Tom, and Karen Black as Barbara Jean's ruthless rival. Nominated for five Academy Awards (including Best Picture, Director and Supporting Actress for both Blakley and Tomlin), this won Best Original Song for Carradine's "I'm Easy."
Blu-ray extras in the Criterion reissue include audio commentary (from 2000) by Altman; a making-of piece; three archival interviews with Altman; and a demo of Carradine performing a trio of songs.
PRINCE MOVIE COLLECTION (1984-1990). Prince Rogers Nelson passed away in his home state of Minnesota this past April, a tragic event that doubtless hastened the production of this Blu-ray box set that includes his three starring vehicles (but not including his 1987 concert film Sign 'o' the Times).
Purple Rain (1984) has long been available on Blu-ray (since 2007, to be exact) — no surprise, since it's the film that, in tandem with a smash soundtrack, transformed Prince from a music star into a music superstar and briefly gave him stature as a movie star as well. Prince plays The Kid, a talented musician whose success is tempered by reasons both professional — a rival showman named Morris (Morris Day) — and personal — a difficult home life which orbits around his abusive father (Clarence Williams III). Purple Rain was a box office hit and nabbed its fair share of critical hosannas (Siskel and Ebert both included it on their respective lists of the year's 10 best films), but the truth is that the drama is clunky, the acting (particularly by leading lady Apollonia Kotero) is awful more often than not (as one wag noted at the time, the performances barely reach Little Rascals level), and the casual sexism simmers throughout. But whenever Prince takes the stage to perform one of his sizzling songs, the picture irresistibly exudes sex, sweat and swagger in equal measure. He's remarkable as a music performer, and director Albert Magnoli makes sure to catch every gesture and gyration. Prince deservedly earned an Academy Award for Best Original Song Score; oddly, though, not one of the individual tunes ("When Doves Cry," "Let's Go Crazy," etc.) managed to snag a nod in the Best Original Song category.
For Under the Cherry Moon (1986), Prince took on directing as well as acting duties, and the result was a commercial bust, a critical disaster, and the winner of five Golden Raspberry Awards, including Worst Picture (tied with Howard the Duck) and Worst Actor and Worst Director prizes for Prince. As usual, Razzie voters were overreacting — let's not forget that 1986 was the year of the Madonna bomb Shanghai Surprise, Judd Nelson in Blue City, and George P. Cosmatos helming Cobra — as there are a few compensations in this leaden tale about a gigolo named Christopher Tracy working his magic in the French Riviera. Prince is actually looser and more relaxed than in Purple Rain; he enjoys a nice rapport with Purple Rain co-star Jerome Benton, here cast as his sidekick Tricky; Kristin Scott Thomas makes a winning film debut as socialite Mary Sharon; and the rich production design by the great Richard Sylbert (Dick Tracy) is captured in shimmering black and white by the great cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (Bram Stoker's Dracula). The final stretch is grueling, but the majority is average rather than awful.
Such leeway can't be accorded to Graffiti Bridge (1990), a dreadful quasi-sequel to Purple Rain that found Prince overextending himself as star, director and writer. As much of a vanity piece as his previous efforts, this one finds The Kid again locking horns with Morris (Morris Day) and his sycophant Jerome (Jerome Benton), this time over control of a nightclub known as the Glam Slam. The romantic interest this time is an angel (no, really) named Aura (bland Ingrid Chavez), who has been sent from Heaven to help The Kid get his groove back. Visually unappealing and inane at every turn, this one's the absolute pits, and its failure at the box office (it grossed even less than Under the Cherry Moon) ended Prince's brief rain — excuse me, reign — as a motion picture presence.
Blu-ray extras on Purple Rain include audio commentary by Magnoli, producer Robert Cavallo and cinematographer Donald E. Thorin; a behind-the-scenes featurette; eight music videos; and, my favorite inclusion, the MTV Premiere Party, with appearances by Eddie Murphy, Pee-wee Herman, Weird Al Yankovic, and others. The only extras on the other two movies (both making their Blu-ray debuts) are theatrical trailers.
Purple Rain: ***
Under the Cherry Moon: **
Graffiti Bridge: *
SWISS ARMY MAN (2016). Here's the thing: Contemporary cinema is so starved for fresh ideas and offbeat approaches that it becomes easy to gravitate toward anything that looks different; anything that looks as if it could be as uncompromising, as out-there, and as brilliant as David Lynch's Eraserhead or Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich. Swiss Army Man looked as if it could be such a picture. Its helmers are Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (collectively known as The Daniels), the jokers responsible for the insane music video for DJ Snake and Lil Jon's glorious party anthem "Turn Down for What." With its pulsating penises, bouncing boobs, and gonzo artfulness, the video was the perfect calling card to present to a film industry needing something new. Alas, Swiss Army Man isn't the cinematic savior we required. The fine performances by Paul Dano as a suicidal castaway and Daniel Radcliffe as the flatulent corpse who becomes his BFF aren't nearly enough compensation when matched against a screenplay that's isn't innovative as much as it's simply idiotic. Incessantly annoying with its mix of sophomoric humor and studied affectedness (in much the same way as Fight Club appealed to insecure and untethered Generation X/Millennial males, this film is guaranteed to become a hipster fave and a rallying point for years to come), it also manages to grow exceedingly tedious, a real feat considering its unique trappings. Or are they really that unique? By the end, it's apparent that this is basically a dude-bro movie about a stunted man-boy with both a penchant for scatological situations and a firm belief that harassing uninterested women is his God-given right as an American male. So how is this different from every third film hitting the home market these days?
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Kwan and Scheinert; a behind-the-scenes featurette; and deleted scenes.
VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1967) / BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1970). Both Valley of the Dolls and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls are considered towering achievements in camp — the difference, though, is that one offers intentional laughs while the other provides unintentional ones.
Jacqueline Susan's Valley of the Dolls was the bestselling novel of 1966, so it was almost a given that the screen version would end up being one of the top grossers of 1967. But no amount of riches can disguise the fact that this is one rotten movie, a suffocating melodrama about three young women and their (usually tragic) experiences with show business, with men, and with "dolls" (i.e. pills). Barbara Parkins and Sharon Tate are acceptable as, respectively, sensible Anne Welles and sensual Jennifer North, but the normally fine Patty Duke is atrocious as Neely O'Hara, the winsome girl whose rapid ascension to stardom turns her into a vicious, sputtering shrew. The newfound envelope-pushing in cinema, tested so brilliantly in 1967 by Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, is botched here — for starters, the word "fag" is employed so many times that one would think it was invented that very year — and even exemplary actresses like Susan Hayward and Lee Grant can't provide much of value in supporting roles.
Russ Meyer, known for his exploitation cheapies showcasing big-breasted women, was hired by 20th Century Fox to make a sequel to Valley of the Dolls; soon, though, it was decided that Beyond the Valley of the Dolls would have nothing to do with Susan's book or its film adaptation beyond the fact that it would also center on lovely ladies succumbing to fame and drugs. Employing film critic Roger Ebert to co-write the script, Meyer fashioned a kitschy flick that's been highly praised in some circles and summarily dismissed in others. Caught in the right frame of mind, it offers plenty of groovy sights, with heroines Kelly (Dolly Read), Casey (Cynthia Myers) and Pet (Marcia McBroom) and their manager Harris (David Gurian) hitting Hollywood and immediately becoming involved with the powerful and flaky Z-Man Barzell (John LaZar). The violent climax, which was not in the original script, is highly problematic in that the death of a central character reveals a puritanical (and perhaps hypocritical) stance when it comes to the moralizing being doled out by Ebert and Meyer — like the phallic gun that also figures in the finale, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
Both movies are being offered separately by Criterion. Blu-ray extras on Valley of the Dolls include audio commentary (from 2006) by Parkins and journalist Ted Casablanca; a pair of promotional films from 1967; a video essay by critic Kim Newman; and screen tests. Blu-ray extras on Beyond the Valley of the Dolls include audio commentary (from 2003) by Ebert; separate audio commentary (from 2006) by co-stars Read, Myers, LaZar, Harrison Page and Erica Gavin; various making-of featurettes; a 1992 Q&A session with Meyer, Ebert and various cast members; screen tests; and trailers for the Meyer flicks Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and Vixen.
Valley of the Dolls: *1/2
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls: **1/2