(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.)
THE DESTRUCTORS (1974). I first saw this gritty crime flick back when I was a mere lad in the 1970s — its original title in Europe (where I was living at the time) was The Marseille Contract, so are we to assume its name was changed stateside to The Destructors to avoid confusion with The French Connection? At any rate, it's hard to ignore any picture with an above-the-title roster that consists of Michael Caine, Anthony Quinn and James Mason. Despite second billing, Quinn is the lead, portraying a US narcotics agent who, frustrated at his department's inability to nail a drug kingpin (Mason), hires a contract killer (Caine) to take care of business. The movie offers some surprises among its familiar trappings, and the vehicular stuntwork is top-notch — plus, you have to credit any movie in which a playful car chase between a man (Caine) and a woman (Alexandra Stewart) can be categorized as foreplay. Even though he doesn't appear until approximately the half-hour mark, Caine earns top honors as the smooth assassin.
The only Blu-ray extra is the theatrical trailer.
DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975). Based on a true story, Dog Day Afternoon is director Sidney Lumet's corrosive comedy-drama detailing how a simple bank robbery explodes into a three-ring media circus. Sonny (Al Pacino) and Sal (John Cazale) are two low-level hoods whose attempt to rip off a bank backfires when the police quickly arrive on the scene and pin them down. Sensing that these two sad sacks won't hurt them, the hostages bond with their captors; meanwhile, the cops, the FBI agents and the TV reporters all jockey for the best position to follow the action inside the bank. Pacino delivers what might be his best performance (certainly top two or three), and there's a fine role for Charles Durning as the streetside detective trying to stay on top of the situation. Frank Pierson earned a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay; the other nominations were for Best Picture, Actor (Pacino), Supporting Actor (Chris Sarandon), Director and Film Editing. Sarandon is fine in a showy role as Sonny's transsexual lover, but his nod clearly should have gone to Cazale, sensational as Sonny's woe-is-me partner.
Extras on the two-disc, 40th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray include audio commentary by Lumet (who passed away in 2011); a four-part making-of featurette; and a vintage piece on Lumet. The set also contains 2009's I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale, a documentary short about the brief career of a superb actor who tragically died of cancer at the age of 42. The picture features interviews with numerous admirers, including his close friend Pacino, Meryl Streep (his girlfriend at the time of his death), Philip Seymour Hoffman and Steve Buscemi. Also included are two short films, 1962's The American Way (starring Cazale) and 1969's The Box (on which Cazale served as cinematographer).
EMPEROR OF THE NORTH (1973). I suppose I'm spewing blasphemy here, but when it comes to directors who took a particular interest in alternately showcasing, analyzing and deconstructing macho behavior, I overall prefer the oeuvre of Robert Aldrich to that of Sam Peckinpah (although neither could compare to Howard Hawks, arguably the most underrated filmmaker in American cinema history). Emperor of the North doesn't match the high-octane likes of such Aldrich efforts as The Dirty Dozen, The Longest Yard or even the offbeat, early-career twofer of The Big Knife and Ten Seconds to Hell (both starring that leathery strap of manhood, Jack Palance), but it's a compelling piece of tough-guy strutting in a minimalist setting. Ernest Borgnine plays Shack, a sadistic railway conductor whose lack of empathy for his fellow man during the Great Depression means he would rather kill a hobo attempting to sneak a ride on his train than allow him free passage (indeed, the chilling opening finds him doing just that). Shack is legendary among the homeless community, but so is a drifter named A No. 1 (Lee Marvin), more so after he announces he will be the first person to steal a ride from Shack. Borgnine was one of those OK actors whose right role at the right time (Marty) led to a lucky Oscar win, and here he's in his default ham mode, all broad gestures, bulging eyes and sweaty brow (see Convoy, Escape from New York, Deadly Blessing, etc.) — his Shack is terrifying only because he wields a mean chain and an even meaner hammer. Marvin, on the other hand, is nothing short of excellent as A No. 1 — wry, self-deprecating, compassionate to a fault — and Keith Carradine gooses the proceedings as Cigaret, a newbie hobo who's all hot air and little action.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by film historian Dana Polan and an isolated track of Frank DeVol's score.
MOONRISE KINGDOM (2012). Until The Grand Budapest Hotel came along early last year and usurped both crowns, Moonrise Kingdom was not only Wes Anderson's most profitable film but also his best picture. Them's fighting words, for sure — proponents of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums are already rushing the stage — but whereas the idiosyncratic auteur's previous six features were easy to admire but difficult to love, Moonrise exudes a soothing warmth and a wide-eyed innocence that are hard to ignore. Co-written by Anderson and Francis Coppola's son Roman (the film's lone Oscar nomination was for its script), this 1960s-set story centers on Suzy and Sam (impressive newcomers Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman), two 12-year-olds who run away together while residing on a New England island. Prior to their great escape, Sam is a Boy Scout under the care of Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) while Suzy lives with her eccentric parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) and younger brothers. Once the pair go MIA, all of the adults, led by the police chief (Bruce Willis), spring into action, with even the film's voice-over narrator (Bob Balaban) dropping by to lend a hand! Anderson's visual compositions are often astounding — they move beyond representing mere whimsical mimicry to channeling the dollhouse panoramas and Boys' Life directives that have fueled many a childhood fantasy — and the film's humor offers sly, knowing winks and jolting sight gags alike. Among the all-stars, Norton made me repeatedly chuckle, and it's always a pleasure to see Willis when he's not operating in paycheck-whore mode.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Anderson, Coppola, Murray, Norton and co-star Jason Schwartzman; a behind-the-scenes featurette; cast and crew interviews; and audition footage.
PITCH PERFECT 2 (2015). The good — nay, make that great — news is that this box office smash is almost equal to its 2012 predecessor. As before, an ingratiating cast, some catchy musical arrangements and a raft of killer quips make for an irresistible combination. And like the previous entry, the picture doesn't exactly cater to any lowest common denominators: Let's just see an Adam Sandler movie include a hilarious gag involving Sonia Sotomayor. This smoothly continues the saga of the college a capella outfit the Barden Bellas, now three-time national champions but caught up in scandal following a wardrobe malfunction. The only way to salvage the group's tarnished reputation is for the ladies to win the world championship, something no American team has ever done before. Apropos its school setting, this feels like a jovial class reunion where everyone manages to make an appearance. Naturally, the mainstay likes of Beca (Anna Kendrick) and Chloe (Brittany Snow) are on hand, but the callbacks don't end there. Rebel Wilson, who as Fat Amy was the first picture's breakout star, is equally uproarious here — she's a fearless actress who's game for anything. But one of the beauties of the previous film was how an overweight character was allowed to be confident, sexy and not the butt of a series of derogatory jokes. That stance is unfortunately missing here, as Amy finds herself humiliated at nearly every turn — did we really need a scene in which she announces she's going to use the side of a tent as toilet paper? Her treatment is even more baffling considering how expertly this film pushes the notion of the benefits of female solidarity in an often cruel and unjust world. Pitch Perfect 2 is stellar entertainment, but in this regard, it strikes its one sour note.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; deleted scenes; extended musical performances; and a gag reel.
THE SATAN BUG (1965). How come nobody makes movies based on Alistair MacLean novels anymore? A popular British author who wrote crisp adventure and espionage tales (I discovered him at a young age due to both my parents devouring every one of his books), his works often translated well to film, with notable examples being 1961's The Guns of Navarone (the year's top box office smash and a Best Picture Oscar nominee), 1968's Where Eagles Dare and 1975's Breakheart Pass. Despite the presence of the great John Sturges as director (The Great Escape, The Magnificent Seven), The Satan Bug was a soft performer and has largely been forgotten over time, but it's a natural watch for audiences in the mood for intelligent fare. Based on the novel MacLean wrote under his occasional pseudonym of Ian Stuart, this begins with a daring heist from a U.S. facility focused on germ warfare research. Two men are killed and a deadly strain has been stolen from the lab, meaning it's up to a security specialist (George Maharis) and various government and military officials to stop the culprits before they unleash the lethal weapon of mass destruction on an unsuspecting Los Angeles. The talky script by two-time Oscar winner Edward Anhalt (Becket, Panic in the Streets) and James Clavell (The Great Escape co-scripter best known for mammoth bestsellers likes Shogun and Noble House) will turn off those seeking straight-up action, but the plot dynamics are sure to ensnare more discerning viewers. Amusingly, the two humorless heavies are played by a pair of actors now famous for their parts in TV comedies: Ed Asner (The Mary Tyler Moore Show's Lou Grant) and Frank Sutton (Gomer Pyle's Sgt. Carter).
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historian Glenn Erickson and the theatrical trailer.
THE SENTINEL (1977) / THE LEGACY (1978). Shout! Factory's Scream Factory arm has opted to release two late-70s horror flicks, both of which I maintain are better than their middling reputations. Both contain moments best described as risible, but they also are far more imaginative than what often passes for horror these days.
The Sentinel is the more densely scripted of the pair, with Cristina Raines cast as a model who moves into a New York brownstone and quickly learns that something's not quite right with her eccentric neighbors — or with the building itself. The mystery is built in a satisfactory manner and, for better or worse, the frenzied finale pulls out all the stops (the makeup is by the legendary Dick Smith). The sizable all-star cast includes Chris Sarandon, Burgess Meredith, Ava Gardner and John Carradine; most amusing is the presence of Christopher Walken, Beverly D'Angelo and a hilariously dubbed Jeff Goldblum, as all three appeared not only in this picture but also in the same year's Annie Hall.
The Legacy, meanwhile, stars real-life couple Katharine Ross and Sam Elliott (who would wed in 1984 and happily are still together) as Margaret and Pete, an American architect and her boyfriend who travel to England for business. They end up stranded at the remote countryside mansion of millionaire Jason Mountolive (John Standing), and before long they're joined by more guests, including a former Nazi (Charles Gray) and a rock 'n' roll star (The Who's Roger Daltrey). It soon becomes clear that all these people owe some sort of allegiance to Mountolive, and that debt might have something to do with the fact that they're all being killed under mysterious circumstances. Jimmy Sangster, one of the principals at Hammer Films during its glory years, co-wrote the screenplay, while director Richard Marquand was just five years away from helming Return of the Jedi.
Blu-ray extras on The Sentinel include audio commentary by director-writer-producer Michael Winner; separate audio commentary by writer-producer Jeffrey Konvitz (who co-adapted his own novel); separate audio commentary by Raines; an interview with assistant director Ralph S. Singleton (whose other credits in this capacity included Taxi Driver and Three Days of the Condor); and the theatrical trailer. Blu-ray extras on The Legacy include an interview with special effects artist Robin Grantham; a still gallery; and the theatrical trailer.
Both Movies: ***
10 TO MIDNIGHT (1983). "The way the law protects those maggots out there, you'd think they were an endangered species!" While this quip sounds like it could have come from any number of films in which a lawman feels frustrated by the system's coddling of criminals (Dirty Harry, The Star Chamber, a thousand more), its source is this alternately nifty and nasty police procedural. Charles Bronson is the one spitting out those words — he plays Leo Kessler, a cop who, with his earnest new partner (Andrew Stevens) in tow, must figure out who's slaughtering scores of young L.A. women. He quickly finds out the killer's identity — it's Warren Stacy (Gene Davis), a creepy misogynist who would be the perfect poster boy for today's heinous Men's Rights Activist movement — but because Warren has always been careful not to leave any incriminating evidence, nailing him might require some bending of the law on Kessler's part. The Oscar-nominated director of the WWII classic The Guns of Navarone, J. Lee Thompson spent his final years before retirement cranking out subpar programmers, and nine of his last 15 films were made in collaboration with Bronson. This one competes with The White Buffalo as the best of those joint efforts, with a script that dares to address the absurdity of the insanity plea and how it's never been anything more than a loophole for the benefit of shyster lawyers and their guilty clients. The violence against women is tough to stomach, but as in other vengeance vehicles, we tolerate it for the sake of the climactic catharsis showing the villain getting what's coming to him. In the case of this film, though, it's a disappointing denouement, providing little release.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by producer Pancho Kohner, casting director John Crowther and film historian David Del Valle; and an isolated track of Robert O. Ragland's score.