(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.)
DESERT HEARTS (1985). Back in the 1980s, movies that centered on lesbians were even more alien to the cinematic landscape than movies that centered on actual aliens. As nothing has really changed in the ensuing decades (at least as far as theatrical releases are concerned), Desert Hearts continues to stand tall as one of the first American productions to present its sapphic protagonists in a positive and sympathetic light. Based on Jane Rule’s 1964 novel Desert of the Heart, the film stars Helen Shaver as Vivian Bell, a Columbia University professor who travels to Reno in 1959 to obtain a divorce. While staying at a ranch for women awaiting divorces (the same type of residency seen in the 1939 classic The Women), Vivian meets Cay Rivvers (Patricia Charbonneau), a local artist working at the nearby casino. Cay doesn’t hide her lesbianism, a stance that doesn’t bother her best friend Silver (Andra Akers) but deeply disturbs Frances Parker (Audra Lindley), the ranch owner who views Cay as a daughter. The tightly wound Vivian initially ignores Cay’s flirtatious nature but eventually — and unexpectedly — finds herself attracted to this intriguing younger woman. Directed by Donna Deitch and adapted by Natalie Cooper, Desert Hearts is occasionally choppy when it comes to character development, but it’s blessed with interesting people brought to life by a dynamic cast. Shaver and Charbonneau shine in the central roles, although the real surprise is Lindley. Best known as the perpetually horny Mrs. Roper on TV’s Three’s Company, she’s excellent as a well-meaning woman soiled by her own bigotry.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary (from 2007) by Deitch; new interviews with Deitch, Shaver and Charbonneau; and excerpts from the 1994 documentary Fiction and Other Truths: A Film About Jane Rule.
GOOD TIME (2017). It took a few years, but once the silly fanboy snickering subsided, Kristen Stewart was able to move on from the Twilight series and reclaim her title as an accomplished actress. Likewise, Robert Pattinson appears to be on the right path with his selection of interesting roles in various indie flicks. His latest effort in this vein is Good Time, a striking drama directed by sibling filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie. Connie Nikas (Pattinson) is a small-time hustler and crook whose younger brother Nick (Benny Safdie) is mentally impaired, and while Connie loves his bro, he doesn’t always do what’s best for him. Case in point: Connie elects to rob a bank and decides that his slow-witted sibling would make an excellent accomplice. Instead, Nick ends up getting arrested following the heist, and Connie must figure out a way to spring him from jail. What follows is one of those all-night-long odysseys that’s taxing for the characters but weirdly fascinating for the viewer (think Martin Scorsese’s After Hours or even Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle). Connie Nikas isn’t likable in the least, but there is a sliver of redemption in his single-minded devotion to his brother. Yet what makes Connie such a compelling character is that he’s completely delusional about his own abilities and intelligence. Here’s a man who thinks he’s smart, but situation after situation proves that he’s anything but. This is amusing enough, but then the second half introduces a new character in the form of Ray (Buddy Duress), another petty criminal. If anything, Ray is even thicker than Connie, and their scenes together are among the movie’s best. It’s like Dumb and Dumber — only better and better.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by the Saldies and other cast and crew members; a behind-the-scenes piece; and a music video.
HANGOVER SQUARE (1945). Laird Cregar, a 300-pound character actor who fancied himself a suave leading man, embarked on a crash diet to achieve his goal; his rapid weight loss resulted in a heart attack at the age of 31, and he died a couple of months before the release of what would be his final picture. Cregar, so memorable as a dapper Satan in Heaven Can Wait and as Jack the Ripper in The Lodger, delivers another mesmerizing performance in Hangover Square, a loose adaptation of Patrick Hamilton’s novel. He plays George Harvey Bone, a mild-mannered composer poised on the cusp of greatness in turn-of-the-century London. Unfortunately, an unexpected burst of loud noise can turn George into not only an amnesiac but also a psychotic killer who has no recollection of the crimes he commits — his mental well-being is further compromised after he falls for a saloon singer (Linda Darnell) who preys upon his gullibility. George Sanders, Cregar’s co-star in The Lodger, again plays a similar role, cast as a Scotland Yard sleuth who deduces the killer’s identity before anyone else. Raging fires figure at the center of two of the movie’s most memorable set-pieces: a bonfire celebrating Guy Fawkes Day and the climactic blaze of glory.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historian Steve Haberman and co-star Faye Marlowe; separate audio commentary by film historian Richard Schickel; a featurette detailing the life and tragic death of Cregar; a radio show adaptation of the film starring Darnell, Marlowe and (in Cregar’s part) Vincent Price; and a trailer gallery.
THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD (2017). One’s tolerance of The Hitman’s Bodyguard largely depends on one’s acceptance of the “buddy action-comedy” rising from the grave like one of the zombies in a George Romero (RIP) horror flick. Indeed, the script for this rather generic endeavor feels like it’s been sitting on a desk since the late 1980s, gathering dust as stars like Schwarzenegger, Nolte, Glover and even Piscopo hemmed and hawed over whether to sign on the dotted line. Samuel L. Jackson plays the hitman, set to appear before the International Court of Justice to testify against an Eastern European war criminal (Gary Oldman). Ryan Reynolds plays the bodyguard, an outsider who’s brought in to protect the hitman after it becomes clear that there’s a leak inside the corridors of power. The hitman and the bodyguard are sworn enemies, but by being forced to work together, they find moments of bonding amidst the hours of bickering. If it sounds entirely predictable and pedestrian — well, no argument there. Yet what saves the picture is the chemistry between its principal players. Reynolds and Jackson work exceedingly well together, and Jackson and Salma Hayek (as the hitman’s no-nonsense wife) also work well together. Yet what’s even more pleasing is that Jackson works well alone. It’s been a while since he’s surprised us as an actor, but here he’s loose, relaxed and very, very funny. The Hitman’s Bodyguard features at least one tiresome car chase too many, and the final half-hour feels as if it’s going to stretch into next week. But even these debits can’t completely diminish the bullseye turns by the winsome protagonists.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director Patrick Hughes; behind-the-scenes featurettes; deleted scenes; and outtakes.
MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: VOLUME XXXIX (2017). As the box copy states, this will “almost certainly, probably definitely, maybe unquestionably” be the final box set of cherished MST3K episodes. That’s because licensing rights seem forever out of reach for the 11 episodes that have never been released through Shout! Factory (and Rhino before them), resulting in the three final titles offered here.
Girls Town (movie made in 1959; featured on MST3K in 1994) is the best episode in the set, with Mike Nelson and his robot friends rarely pausing for air as they tackle this cheapie in which a rebellious young woman (Mamie Van Doren) spends time at a reform school run by kindly nuns. The eclectic cast also includes singing star Paul Anka, Mel Torme (described by the Satellite of Love gang as looking like “a young Jabba the Hutt”) and the wayward sons of comedy geniuses Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd.
The Amazing Transparent Man (movie made in 1960; featured on MST3K in 1995) also provides plenty of bang for the nyuk, relating the story of a surly thief who’s turned invisible by a ruthless scientist in order to rob banks undetected. This episode also contains 1955’s The Days of Our Years, a “safety first” short that’s even more laughable than the main feature.
The episode surrounding the European spy yarn Diabolik (movie made in 1968; featured on MST3K in 1999), directed by Mario Bava and better known under the moniker Danger: Diabolik, may not be among the series’ best, but it is historic for being the final episode of the series (or at least until this year’s so-so reboot). The movie doesn’t matter as much as seeing the ultimate fate of Mike, Crow, Tom Servo and Gypsy.
But wait! There’s more! In a magnanimous gesture, Shout! Factory has included a fourth disc called Satellite Dishes. This includes the host segments from all 11 unavailable episodes. So while we may never again enjoy seeing the likes of, say, I Was a Teenage Werewolf and Quest of the Delta Knights, we can at least take partial comfort in the wraparound segments.
DVD extras include a piece on the show’s demise, and behind-the-scenes footage of the filming of the final episode.
THE SECRET WORLD OF ARRIETTY (2017). (2010). The most amusing fact about The Secret World of Arrietty is that, before it hit U.S. shores, there had already been an English dub for the U.K. release of this Studio Ghibli title, one featuring the vocal talents of Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird), Tom Holland (Spider-Man: Homecoming) and Mark Strong (Kingsman: The Secret Service). Yet presumably afraid that Yank audiences wouldn’t be able to decipher the King’s English, U.S. distributor Disney recorded another dub, this one including the all-American likes of Amy Poehler, Bridgit Mendler and Carol Burnett. It was a daft decision — still, regardless of who’s lending their pipes, it's a good bet this film would still work even in Pig Latin, given the usual warmth and attention to detail invested in all Ghibli efforts. An adaptation of Mary Norton's classic novel The Borrowers, this revolves around the title character and her parents, inches-tall people who live in their own makeshift home underneath a real house. Warned to avoid human contact at all costs, Arrietty nevertheless strikes up a tentative friendship with a sickly boy, a bond that inadvertently draws the attention of a cruel housekeeper. Leisurely paced and lovingly crafted (I love how the miniature family uses canceled stamps as wall paintings), The Secret World of Arrietty is an oasis of calm in the normally hyperactive world of toon entertainment.
After releasing eight Studio Ghibli titles in October through its partnership with GKIDS (see reviews here), Shout! Factory is adding another pair of Blu-ray/DVD combo packs to its anime catalog. In addition to The Secret World of Arrietty, the outfit is also offering writer-director Hayao Miyazaki’s 1992 effort Porco Rosso, a rambunctious comedy about the misadventures of an aerial hero (voiced by Michael Keaton) under a curse that has transformed his facial features into those of a pig.
Blu-ray extras on The Secret World of Arrietty include interviews with director Hiromasa Yonebayashi and co-scripter Miyazaki; storyboards; and theatrical trailers. Blu-ray extras on Porco Rosso include an interview with producer Toshio Suzuki; storyboards; and theatrical trailers.
The Secret World of Arrietty: ***
Porco Rosso: **1/2
VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS (2017). Based on the influential French comic series Valerian and Laureline, the latest eye-candy achievement from director Luc Besson opens with a clever and amusing prelude that spans the centuries (backed, of course, by David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”) before shifting to a lengthy segment in which the visual effects dominate everything else. But rather than the CGI distancing viewers (as if too often the case), they prove to be completely immersive and instead inspire sympathy for the alien creatures placed front and center. Unfortunately, the movie then switches over to the human protagonists, and much of the magic is quickly dispelled. Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), two 28th-century government agents doing their part to make the universe a safe place to live, are introduced as they flirt with one another, and the witless banter recalls Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler far more than it stirs memories of Stanley Kubrick and Ridley Scott. The storyline involving a rogue commander (Clive Owen) isn’t particularly inspired but it is perfectly serviceable, and late-inning appearances by Rihanna and Ethan Hawke are properly entertaining. But it’s ultimately all for naught when balanced against the dead weight at the center of the film. That would be DeHaan and Delevingne, neither of whom are especially convincing in their trite roles. Stronger performers might have been able to provide the characters with interesting shadings and distinct personalities, but Delevingne and especially DeHaan are woefully miscast, and the final impression is of two children playing dress-up against a galactic backdrop that ultimately swallows them whole.
Blu-ray extras include a behind-the-scenes piece; a photo gallery; and theatrical trailers.
FROM SCREEN TO STREAM
(Recommended films currently available on streaming services)
THE THIN BLUE LINE (1988). It's not mere hyperbole to state that The Thin Blue Line is one of the most important movies ever made — it's a magnificent example of the worth of cinema, as it was directly responsible for freeing a man from prison. That would be Randall Adams, who had been charged by a corrupt judicial system in (what a shock!) Texas for murdering a police officer in 1976. Years later, filmmaker Errol Morris stumbled across the story, and it was apparent to him that the cop killer wasn't Adams but a habitual criminal named David Harris. Through a mix of interviews with the primary participants and artful recreations of key incidents (all backed by a terrific Philip Glass score), Morris was able to make a mess of the prosecution's case, to the point that, after this film became a cause célèbre, Adams was eventually released from prison after wrongfully serving 12 years. (You would think Adams would have been forever worshipful of Morris, but he instead sued the director to gain sole possession of the rights to his story.) Incidentally, Harris was put to death in 2004 for another murder while Adams passed away in relative obscurity in 2010. (Netflix Streaming)