(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.)
COLD TURKEY (1971). Norman Lear may have been responsible for the creation of countless classic TV shows, but when it came to motion pictures, his name only graced a handful as screenwriter and only one as director. That one would be Cold Turkey, which was not only helmed by Lear but also found him co-scripting the picture with William Price Fox Jr. (adapting Margaret and Neil Rau’s novel I’m Giving Them Up for Good). Released in theaters after six episodes of Lear’s All in the Family had already aired to great acclaim (and great controversy), the film did well at the box office, emerging as one of the 20 top-grossing films of its year — doubtless a surprise to United Artists, since the studio had kept the movie on the shelf since its completion in 1969. Bone-deep in its cynicism of, well, pretty much everything, this centers around a publicity stunt concocted by Merwin Wren (Bob Newhart), a p.r. man for a major tobacco firm. The gimmick is that the Valiant Tobacco Company will award $25 million dollars to any town whose entire citizenry can give up smoking for 30 days — the stunt will garner the outfit enormous publicity with no downside, since there’s no way an entire town would be able to kick its nicotine habit. But the Reverend Clayton Brooks (Dick Van Dyke) believes the 4,006 members of his downtrodden town of Eagle Rock, Iowa, can pass the challenge, so he sets about rallying the reluctant townsfolk. The script for Cold Turkey is fairly ragged — characters and conflicts appear and disappear at will, and the frantic ending is unsatisfying — but the movie deserves credit for its willingness to wallow in the murky depths of black comedy. Several supporting actors would later appear in Lear sitcoms, including Jean Stapleton, Vincent Gardenia and Paul Benedict.
There are no extras on the Blu-ray.
GRINGO (2018). A-list actors cutting loose is the primary draw of Gringo, an irreverent comedy in which Charlize Theron mocks the deaf, Joel Edgerton informs a Mexican that “Yo quiero Taco Bell,” and David Oyelowo is shown gettin’ jiggy wit it. Oyelowo, Selma’s MLK, here plays Harold Soyinka, who, when he’s not busy playing Will Smith tunes in his car, is being played the patsy by practically everyone around him. Too nice for this world, the sweet and trusting Harold works for bosses (Edgerton and Theron) ready to sell him out, loves a wife (Thandie Newton) who’s been cheating behind his back, and runs afoul of a powerful drug lord known as (with apologies to Marvel) The Black Panther (Carlos Corona). The only decent person he encounters during his disaster-plagued business trip to Mexico is a fellow American named Sunny (Amanda Seyfried) – he might be able to trust a cheery mercenary (Sharlto Copley) who unexpectedly arrives on the scene, but he’s not entirely certain. A hot mess of a movie, Gringo initially maintains interest with its various twists and turns. But as the movie progresses, the storyline splinters rather than gels, and the climax is the usual standard-procedure car chase followed by the usual standard-issue shootout. Still, the picture benefits enormously from its engaging roster of actors, including Oyelowo in an immensely likable turn. Best of all is Theron, who has lately been testing her action credentials with the likes of Atomic Blonde and Mad Max: Fury Road. This time, she prefers to flex her comedic muscles, resulting in a ferociously funny performance that takes no prisoners.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; a piece on the location shooting; and a look at the film’s stunts.
THE HURRICANE HEIST (2018). The dopiest weather-related yarn this side of Geostorm, The Hurricane Heist has emerged as one of the most notable bombs of the year thus far, costing $35 million and only grossing $6 million (the international haul wasn’t any better). Clearly, the suits at upstart outfit Entertainment Studios were counting on director Rob Cohen to duplicate the dynamics that made 2001’s The Fast and the Furious a smash hit that jump-started an entire franchise – what they didn’t anticipate was a final product that would be crippled by its daft script and its bland cast. British actor Toby Kebbell and Australian actor Ryan Kwanten pour on the Southern accents as Will and Breeze Rutledge, two good ole boys still haunted by the fact that a mean twister killed their daddy. Will has become a meteorologist to cope with his fears while Breeze is content being a mechanic in a coastal town, one that happens to contain a military facility where U.S. currency is constantly being shredded. Those millions of dollars are what bring a team of crooks to the area, as they hope to prevent those bucks from being turned into confetti — the only ones standing in their way turn out to be Will, Breeze and Casey Corbyn (Maggie Grace), a Treasury agent working through her own trauma. The actors are competent enough, but they fail to muster enough charisma to provide any flavor to their cookie-cutter characters. As for the action sequences, they frequently provide moments of unintentional mirth — I especially liked the burst of hurricane that knew only to carry off the bad guys to their doom while leaving the heroes only temporarily windswept.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Cohen; a conversation with Cohen; and deleted scenes.
MISHIMA: A LIFE IN FOUR CHAPTERS (1985). An intriguing figure whose filmography includes the scripts for three of Martin Scorsese’s best films (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ) as well as writing-directing engagements with Affliction and the current First Reformed, Paul Schrader found himself tackling one of his most unique projects with Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. Produced under the auspices of Francis Coppola and George Lucas, this takes a fictionalized look at the life of Yukio Mishima (Ken Ogata), a man who has long been considered one of Japan’s premier writers and who committed ritual suicide in 1970 following his attempt at a small-scale military coup. Crafting the script with his brother Leonard Schrader, Paul Schrader employs an episodic template to include not only modern and flashback scenes of Mishima but also dramatizations of three of his novels (The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kyoko’s House, and Runaway Horses, which respectively deal with themes of inferiority, sadomasochism, and fanaticism). The storylines are often overwhelmed by the sheer magnificence of the visual approach, with cinematographer John Bailey employing different color schemes for each segment of the film and Eiko Ishioka (a future Oscar winner for creating the costumes in Bram Stoker’s Dracula) contributing eye-popping set designs. The score by Philip Glass serves as an additional cherry on top.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary (from 2006) by Schrader and producer Alan Poul; a choice of two alternate English narrations, including the original one by Roy Scheider; the 1985 documentary The Strange Case of Yukio Mishima; and a 1966 interview excerpt featuring Mishima discussing writing.
ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW (1959). Here’s a nifty slice of noir that not only was filmed in black-and-white but also focuses on black and white. Working from a script by Nelson Gidding and then-blacklisted Abraham Polonsky, the remarkably versatile Robert Wise (The Sound of Music, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and The Curse of the Cat People, the latter out on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory on June 26) has directed a taut drama in which a black man and a bigot are forced to work side by side in an attempt to pull off a daring robbery. The leader is the kindly Dave Burke (Ed Begley), a former (and disgraced) police officer who comes up with a scheme to rob a bank not through the front door in broad daylight but via the back entrance during the night. He tags two down-and-outers to help him pull it off: Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte), a black musician with a mountain of gambling debts, and Earle Slater (Robert Ryan), an ex-con who has nothing but contempt for most people, especially minorities. Odds Against Tomorrow is as much of a character study as a heist flick, further embellished by its attention to social themes. The climax turns conventional with a shootout, but even this is required in order to set up that piercing zinger of a closing line. The three male leads are exceptional, and there’s added marquee value from Oscar winners Shelley Winters as Slater’s devoted girlfriend and Gloria Grahame as his flirtatious neighbor. An uncredited Cicely Tyson appears as a bartender, and look for Wayne Rogers (TV’s M*A*S*H) and Zohra Lampert (Let’s Scare Jessica to Death) in their film debuts as youthful bar patrons who annoy Slater. The excellent score was composed by The Modern Jazz Quartet head honcho John Lewis.
There are no extras on the Blu-ray.
PETER PAN (1953). As I wrote last year in this column when covering another Disney classic, “Is it absolutely monstrous not to consider the beloved Bambi one of the very best of Disney's 50-plus animated features?” Look, here’s the deal when covering Disney’s stable of toon classics: They’re impervious to any sort of criticism, since each individual’s initial experience with — and nostalgia for — a particular title from his or her youth will often define which animated feature remains the favorite. Certainly, for many folks, that would be Peter Pan, featuring characters created on the stage (and then page) by J.M. Barrie but arguably most familiar from their characterizations as filtered through Uncle Walt. On the plus side, the animation is gorgeous, Never Land is imaginatively designed, and the pouty Tinkerbell and the foppish Captain Hook remain marvelous characters. On the flip side, Peter Pan isn’t the most engaging of protagonists, and a little of the Lost Boys goes a long way. Peter Pan was followed by a sequel (in 2002!) called Return to Never Land, while Tinkerbell has headlined her own series of straight-to-DVD titles (six total, produced between 2008 and 2014).
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary hosted by Roy Disney and featuring various crew members; a making-of featurette; a new conversation between Kathryn Beaumont (the voice of Wendy) and Paul Collins (the voice of John); two deleted scenes; three deleted songs; a piece on Tinker Bell; an examination of Walt Disney’s love of flying; and music videos for the initially deleted song “Never Land” (performed by Paige O’Hara) and “The Second Star to the Right” (T-Squad).
SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS (1954). The sexual politics will raise eyebrows higher than ever, but this raucous box office hit nevertheless remains one of the most beloved of all ‘50s musicals. Set in 1850 Oregon, this casts Howard Keel as Adam Pontipee, a backwoodsman who determines he needs a wife to help maintain the household while he and his six brothers work the land. He settles on Milly (Jane Powell), who’s excited about being hitched until she learns about his sextet of siblings and then discovers that all seven men are uncouth animals. A headstrong woman, Milly sets about disciplining Adam’s brothers, all of whom eventually decide that they would also enjoy being married. The great Stanley Donen (Singin’ in the Rain, On the Town) handles directing duties, but the true star is choreographer Michael Kidd. His staging of the manly musical match that precedes the barn-raising sequence has resulted in this astonishing number rightly being regarded as one of the greatest set-pieces in American musicals. Nominated for five Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Screenplay), this won for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture. Nearly three decades later, the film was adapted for television as a prime-time series that lasted one season (1982-83); its cast included future MacGyver star Richard Dean Anderson as the oldest brother and 12-year-old River Phoenix as the youngest one.
In addition to the CinemaScope version, the two-disc Blu-ray edition from the Warner Archive Collection also contains an alternate widescreen version (demanded by the studio in case any theaters couldn’t yet accommodate CinemaScope productions). Extras include audio commentary (from 2004) by Donen; a lengthy making-of documentary; and vintage footage from the film’s Radio City Music Hall premiere.
A WRINKLE IN TIME (2018). A literary classic becomes a cinematic clunker with this ambitious but ultimately disappointing adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s lovely 1962 novel. This screen version finds Meg Murry (Storm Reid) being handed an opportunity to locate her scientist father (Chris Pine) thanks to the involvement of three celestial beings. Introduced to Meg and her friend Calvin (Levi Miller) by her younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) and Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) inform the children that Dr. Murry is now being held prisoner by an evil interstellar entity known simply as “It,” and with the members of The Losers’ Club off in their own movie, it’s up to these comparable outcasts to save the day – and the universe. Ava DuVernay seems paralyzed with reverence for the source material, as her direction is atypically muted and her set-pieces alarmingly flat. For a film that traffics in imagination and phantasmagorical sights, A Wrinkle in Time is surprisingly cumbersome in its visual splendor, with much of the film caught in a chokehold that’s mercilessly being applied by impersonal and deadening visual effects. Worse, most of the actors are urged to deliver their dialogue in monotonous rather than melodious waves, none more so than poor Reid (only Witherspoon seems to be having any fun in her role). A Wrinkle in Time is recommended for children, who will enjoy its colorful palette and benefit from its messages involving individuality, self-worth, anti-bullying, and other notable pursuits. But for the adults who watch it with them, their only interest in Time will be in determining how much of it remains before the closing credits begin their crawl.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by DuVernay and other crew members; a making-of featurette; and deleted scenes.
FROM SCREEN TO STREAM
(Recommended films currently available on streaming services)
L.A. CONFIDENTIAL (1997). Writer-director Curtis Hanson's adaptation of the James Ellroy novel wasn't merely one of the two or three greatest movies of the 1990s; it stands as a masterpiece for the ages, and one which wholly deserves all the Chinatown comparisons that greeted it upon its original release. Richly textured, densely plotted, and packed with marvelous characterizations, this is a multilayered movie that, among other functions, serves up meaty plot strands involving a mass homicide, a swank prostitution ring, casual racism, political maneuverings, the sins of the father being foisted onto unwilling offspring, and, just to ensure that the entire picture isn't hard-boiled, a tender love story between a cop and a call girl. Set in the early 1950s, the film largely centers on three colorful figures who all work for the LAPD: good-natured Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), a celebrity cop who operates in tandem with a sleazy tabloid editor (Danny DeVito) to maintain his high profile; ambitious Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), a rookie who somehow balances his genuine integrity with his opportunistic ambitions; and brooding Bud White (Russell Crowe), a quick-tempered cop whose soft side is brought out by his romance with a high-priced hooker (Kim Basinger). All of the performances are superb, with Spacey taking top honors. The film deservedly steamrolled through awards season, winning Best Picture citations from over 20 critics' groups. Unfortunately, that streak ended when Oscar and Golden Globe voters predictably handed their Best Picture awards to the box office behemoth Titanic. Nominated for nine Academy Awards, L.A. Confidential did manage to win two, for Best Supporting Actress (Basinger) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Hanson and Brian Helgeland). (Netflix Streaming)