(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.)
COWBOY (1958). Glenn Ford has always looked as naturally home on the range as John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, but Jack Lemmon is a different story: A thoroughly modern actor, he's far more at home by the gas oven range, like, say, the one used for pasta-making in Billy Wilder's The Apartment. Cowboy, based on Frank Harris' somewhat autobiographical My Reminiscences as a Cowboy, takes advantage of the dissimilarities between the two actors by casting Ford as a seasoned cowboy and Lemmon as a wanna-be cowboy. Lemmon's Frank Harris is working as a hotel clerk in Chicago when he meets Tom Reece (Ford), a cattle herder who's in between runs. Circumstances allow Harris to quit his job and become part of Reece's outfit, a development that leaves the veteran cowpoke wary of the young man's naivety and inexperience. For his part, Harris quickly discovers that life in the great outdoors isn't grandly romantic as he had believed, and his new brothers-in-arms, a motley crew with very few manners or morality between them, fail miserably to live up to his idealistic expectations. At 92 minutes, Cowboy is simply too short to fully explore its characters and their arcs — Harris goes from mild-mannered greenhorn to tough-as-nails cowhand in a matter of one scene, while the saga of a retired sheriff (Brian Donlevy) seeking to outrun his violent past ends abruptly — but, to quote Pat and Mike's Spencer Tracy (albeit in a completely different context), "What's there is 'cherce.'" There are compelling sequences involving a snake and, later, an ill-tempered bull, and the evolving relationship between Harris and Reece — indeed, between Harris and all the experienced hands on the cattle drive — never loosens its grip.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historians Julie Kirgo, Nick Redman and Paul Seydor; the theatrical trailer; and an isolated track of George Duning's score.
THE HAWAIIANS (1970). It's a welcome move on the part of the folks anchoring the Twilight Time label, who have elected not to leave fans of James A. Michener's Hawaii hanging but have instead decided to offer both related film adaptations in back-to-back months. The 1966 Hawaii (reviewed here), which focused on the part of the mammoth book set among 19th century missionaries, was a box office hit and earned seven Oscar nominations. Conversely, The Hawaiians, based on a later chunk of the novel, was a box office flop and had to settle for one solitary Oscar bid (Best Costume Design). But while the first film is generally considered superior to the second, I found them to be of comparable interest. Certainly, Hawaii, directed by future Oscar winner George Roy Hill (The Sting, Slaughterhouse-Five), is more polished than The Hawaiians, which was directed by TV veteran Tom Gries (the miniseries QB VII, episodes of Batman and Route 66). And while Hawaii isn't always smooth in its narrative structure, the choppy pacing of The Hawaiians leads one to believe that entire film reels must have been lost in a studio fire (the primary casualty is Geraldine Chaplin, whose scenes as a wife going insane play like an afterthought). But in tracking the concurrent (and intermeshing) stories of the American Whip Hoxworth (Charlton Heston) and the Chinese Nyuk Tsin (Tina Chen), two individuals forced to draw upon their inner strength to succeed in a rapidly developing country, the film finds worthy conflicts between family members, between the past and the present, and particularly between different races and cultures. The performances in Hawaii for the most part trump those in The Hawaiians with one major exception: Chen, who's splendid in a multifaceted role.
Blu-ray extras consist of the theatrical trailer and an isolated track of Henry Mancini's score.
IN THE HEART OF THE SEA (2015). Nathaniel Philbrick's 2000 book tells of the 1820 encounter that reportedly prompted Herman Melville to write that classic of American literature, the 1851 novel Moby-Dick. After heading out to sea from Nantucket, Massachusetts, the whaling ship the Essex was attacked and sunk by a rampaging sperm whale; crew members then found themselves adrift in lifeboats for several months, many perishing from hunger and dehydration. That story is dutifully and dully told in this tedious and lumbering film version. Because the movie's characters are exceedingly trite, Chris Hemsworth, as first mate Owen Chase, has little to do but glower Fletcher Christian-style at the inexperienced captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) before switching gears to suffer nobly in the lifeboat after the creature goes all Titanic-iceberg on the ship. And what about that whale? He merits little screen time, though he pops up every now and then to remind the survivors that he's stalking them through the high seas. This notion of an oceanic animal as avenging angel places this in the same class as 1977's risible Orca, in which a killer whale tracks down the slayer of his pregnant mate, and 1987's laughable Jaws: The Revenge, about which co-star Michael Caine famously (and honestly) stated, "I have never seen it, but by all accounts, it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific." Director Ron Howard's big-screen opuses, even the more static ones, almost always benefit from crisp visuals (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, etc.), but that's not the case here. The look of this film is distractingly dim and muddy — although even then not enough to hide the obviousness of the CGI, which looks artificial for great chunks of the grueling running time.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette featuring Howard; deleted scenes; and a piece on Hemsworth and Walker's characters.
THE PEANUTS MOVIE (2015). The world needed a CGI version of Charles Schulz's beloved Peanuts as much as it needed yet another unwatchable Alvin and the Chipmunks movie. The world received both, and while not even the savory promise of seeing Donald Trump fed coif-first to a shark could entice me to see The Road Chip, The Peanuts Movie turns out to be a pleasant surprise — and a great relief. The continuing adventures of Charlie Brown, Snoopy and the rest of the gang haven't been rendered in the soulless mode of computer graphic imagery that in the past has perverted such toon creations as Mickey Mouse and Spongebob Squarepants. Instead, working from a script by Cornelius Uliano and (here's the key) Schulz's son and grandson, Craig Schulz and Bryan Schulz respectively, director Steve Martino and his team of animators have created the basic character outlines via slick CGI but have lovingly kept the crude facial features as simple and as expressive as those in Schulz's comic strips. The crispness of these visuals is matched by the smartness of the script, which includes all the relevant touchstones (the baseball mound, the Red Baron, the adults' unintelligible gibberish, "It was a dark and stormy night") while adding some delightful shout-outs to the franchise's storied history. Bill Melendez, co-creator (with Lee Mendelson) of the Peanuts TV specials, provided the "voices" (laughs, wails, etc.) of Snoopy and Woodstock for 40 years, and although he passed away in 2008, he's the one heard in the movie, with his old recordings utilized in the service of this project. It's a beautiful gesture, in line with the general goodwill — and good grief — provided by this pleasant picture.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; six Snoopy shorts; and lessons on how to draw Snoopy, Woodstock and Charlie Brown. A limited edition set also contains a Snoopy stuffed doll.
ROOM (2015). The film begins in the room of the title: Five-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) and his mom Joy (Brie Larson) live there, and only there. They are never allowed to leave the confines of the room, and their only contact with the outside world is a man Joy calls Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), whose visits entail him bringing supplies to the pair and having sex with a repulsed Joy while Jack sleeps in the closet. It's soon made clear that Old Nick kidnapped Joy when she was a teenager, locking her up in his backyard shed and raping her on a regular basis. Jack was the result of one of those assaults, but Joy doesn't view him as belonging in any way to Old Nick. He's her son, and she doesn't want Old Nick even looking at the boy, much less talking to him. Joy has tried to escape from the room before, always unsuccessfully. But with Jack growing older and Old Nick growing more surly, she figures the time is ripe for her most concerted effort yet. The sordidness of the situation makes for an uneasy and unshakable atmosphere, yet not once does the film feel exploitative in any manner. For that, credit scripter Emma Donoghue (adapting her own novel), director Lenny Abrahamson, and the two formidable performances anchoring the film. Larson offers a remarkably complicated portrayal as a young woman who was cheated out of some of her best years and is constantly forced to overlay her anger and insecurities with a hardened determination to survive and to protect. As for Tremblay, he delivers an instinctive performance devoid of the studied mannerisms and pleas for audience acceptance that are invariably found in the work of most child actors. Nominated for four Academy Awards (including Best Picture), this earned Larson a well-deserved Best Actress statue.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Abrahamson and key crew members, and a making-of featurette.
WHEN EIGHT BELLS TOLL (1971). My late parents shared a favorite author in Alistair MacLean, the Scottish writer who penned a number of bestselling novels over the course of three decades. Of the 28 books he wrote (he also published a couple of nonfiction works and had his hand in various tales penned by others), an impressive 15 were turned into motion pictures. MacLean fell out of favor with filmmakers as the years passed: Whereas 1961's excellent The Guns of Navarone (starring Gregory Peck and reviewed here) earned rave reviews, huge box office and a Best Picture Oscar nomination, 1989's shoddy River of Death (starring Michael Dudikoff) was a Cannon Film production that barely played theaters. Clearly, it's time for a renewed interest in bringing his books to the screen; meanwhile, there are several mid-level entries that have been largely forgotten, including this so-so endeavor that tried to turn Anthony Hopkins, of all people, into an action star. The plan was to produce a series of spy flicks in an effort to beat Bond at his own game, but after this film underperformed, that idea was scrapped. Hopkins plays British secret agent Philip Calvert, who's tasked with discovering the whereabouts of hijacked ships and missing gold bullion, all disappearing at a rapid clip off the Scottish coast. Even with MacLean himself handling screenplay duties, the picture occasionally feels like warmed-over 007, and Hopkins strains to prove himself an agile and devil-may-care hero. But several of the action sequences are effectively staged by director Etienne Perier, and it's always a pleasure to see Robert Morley, here playing Calvert's easily agitated boss.
XANADU (1980). Here's another musical mishap that landed on Creative Loafing's list of The 10 Worst Rock Films Ever Made, taking the #3 slot just under Staying Alive and the champ, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. For roughly 50 years, the musical was one of Hollywood's most reliable genres, from Busby Berkeley and Astaire-Rogers in the 1930s through Saturday Night Fever and Grease in the 1970s. But it took only a handful of megabombs to kill off the genre, among them the aforementioned Sgt. Pepper, Can't Stop the Music, The Apple and this ghastly achievement that has nevertheless spawned a smash Broadway adaptation as well as legions of devoted groupies. The fans are welcome to this one: Managing to trumpet the worst excesses of both the fading '70s disco craze and the burgeoning '80s New Wave scene, this calamity stars Olivia Newton-John as Kira, a heavenly muse sent to inspire struggling artist Sonny Malone (Michael Beck) to realize his dream of becoming a success. It's strictly a hands-off assignment, meaning complications ensue when Kira falls in love with the guy. Pop star Newton-John received a unanimous drubbing for her one-note performance (thereby killing any chance of a sustained film career), but truthfully, co-star Beck is even worse. The tragedy is that this curdled kitsch marked the final big-screen outing for the legendary Gene Kelly: The man who delighted us with Singin' In the Rain and On the Town (among others) deserved better. Thankfully, director Robert Greenwald's career survived this, as he became one of the preeminent helmers of informative movies railing against the anti-American right-wing agenda (e.g. Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism, Unconstitutional: The War on Our Civil Liberties).
Blu-ray extras consist of a retrospective making-of piece from 2008 and the theatrical trailer.
Short And Sweet:
KUNG FU: TRAILERS OF FURY (2016). This compilation of 31 trailers covers 1972 through 1983, promises "over two hours of brutal boxers, Shaolin poles, fat dragons, iron claws and one-armed masters," and features such genre superstars as Bruce Li, Brice Le, Dragon Lee and, of course, the one and only Bruce Lee (seen fighting villain Chuck Norris in The Way of the Dragon). Many of these are the original Chinese trailers, and titles include Kung Fu vs. Yoga, Chinese Kung Fu Against Godfather, and One Armed Chivalry Fights Against One Armed Chivalry. Not as varied or enjoyable as the horror-film or mixed-genre trailer sets (like 42nd Street Forever, reviewed here), it's still an agreeable way to kill two hours.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by author Ric Meyers (Films of Fury: The Kung Fu Movie Book) and others; and the featurette A Brief History of Kung Fu Cinema.
LA BAMBOLA DI SATANA (1969). The best thing pertaining to the Blu-ray release of this long-lost giallo is the critical blurb on the back of the case, the one which states that the film features "a plot that's half-Agatha Christie and half-Scooby Doo." We should be so lucky. Instead, La Bambola di Satana (aka Satan's Doll) is a no-frills, no-thrills drag about a blonde (Erna Schurer) who inherits a castle and suddenly finds herself in constant danger. Where's MST3K when we really need it?
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historians David Del Valle and Derek Botelho, and an isolated music and effects track.