(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.)
THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE (1970). Following the highly controversial, highly influential, and extremely violent 1969 hit The Wild Bunch, director Sam Peckinpah opted for a change of pace with The Ballad of Cable Hogue, a wryly humorous, leisurely paced, and often overlooked Western marked by two strong central performances. Jason Robards is in top form as the title character, who, after being left to die in the desert by two shady acquaintances (Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones), instead stumbles across a hidden water hole and decides to build a rest stop around it. Stella Stevens, who just seven years earlier had proven to be a suitable partner for Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor, again strikes comic gold, this time as an opportunistic hooker who unexpectedly falls for Cable. Peckinpah locates a rich vein of comedy in this slender material, which makes the ending (thematically appropriate as it may be) more jolting than perhaps intended. The filmmaker rivaled John Ford when it came to loyalty to his actors: In addition to Robards, Martin and Jones, other faces familiar from other Peckinpah efforts include Slim Pickens, R.G. Armstrong and, as a reverend who befriends Hogue, David Warner (Warner would play a pivotal role in Peckinpah’s subsequent film, which will be reviewed in this column next week).
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historians and Peckinpah authorities Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Wheddle; an interview with Stevens; and the theatrical trailer.
CAR WASH (1976) / THE GUMBALL RALLY (1976). With Cars 3 currently delighting the kiddies in the nation’s multiplexes, it’s only right that grown-ups can similarly enjoy their own auto-antics. To that end, two 1976 features focusing on vehicular hijinks have just been released on Blu-ray, courtesy of Shout! Factory (Car Wash) and the Warner Archive Collection (The Gumball Rally).
A raucous comedy that birthed a smash soundtrack, Car Wash centers on a day in the lives of the employees and customers at the titular Los Angeles facility. Episodic in nature, the film offers a string of loosely connected vignettes: Amiable T.J. (Franklin Ajaye) likes to imagine he’s a superhero known as The Fly; Abdullah (Bill Duke) is a Muslim activist who gets angry whenever anyone calls him by his former name, Duane; Daddy Rich (Richard Pryor), a Steven Furtick-like preacher who only worships the almighty dollar, stops by for a visit; a cab driver (George Carlin) searches for the prostitute (Lauren Jones) who bolted without paying; and so on. Amidst all the humor, there’s a serious (and superb) performance from Ivan Dixon as responsible employee Lonnie – Dixon, of course, is best known for playing Kinch on TV’s Hogan’s Heroes and retired here in Charlotte, where he passed away in 2008. Car Wash’s soundtrack, featuring music by the band Rose Royce, spawned three hit singles (including the chart-topping title track) and earned producer Norman Whitfield the Grammy for Best Original Score Album.
The Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, a real-life car race in which participants competed to see who could drive from New York to California in the fastest amount of time, was the inspiration for a handful of Hollywood films and even a short-lived TV series. The most financially successful was the dimwitted 1981 Burt Reynolds vehicle The Cannonball Run, but the better bet is The Gumball Rally, which lacks sizable star power but compensates with better characterizations and more amusing scenarios. Top-billed Michael Sarrazin plays the creator (and defending champion) of the race, while a young Gary Busey plays a country yokel who participates in the event. But it’s Raul Julia who handily steals the film – he’s a riot as Franco, an Italian speedster who loves women even more than he loves cars.
Blu-ray extras on Car Wash consist of audio commentary by director Michael Schultz; new interviews with co-star Otis Day (nee DeWayne Jessie) and producer Gary Stromberg; radio spots; and the theatrical trailer. Unfortunately, the special features do not include the deleted scenes featuring Danny DeVito (whose part was cut from the theatrical version entirely), even though they were later shown in network TV airings. The only Blu-ray extra on The Gumball Rally is the theatrical trailer.
Both Movies: ***
JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 (2017). In today's seen-it-all world, it's becoming increasingly difficult to find action films that actually deliver on the action. Most of it is so stylized, so choreographed, so CGIed, that the chances of audience adrenaline being satisfactorily pumped have fallen significantly. So maybe it was a resigned attitude that led to 2014's John Wick being hailed in some quarters as a modern action classic. (Presumably, most of these cheerleaders haven’t seen The Raid twofer, since they make John Wick look like outtakes from Driving Miss Daisy by comparison.) Yet here we are with John Wick: Chapter 2, which is more of the same, only Super-Sized. Running 122 minutes (its predecessor ran a more manageable 96 minutes), it features more action, more gunplay, more gore and more tedium. Reeves is again suitably taciturn as the former assassin who, just when he thought he was out, gets pulled back in, and the criminal world created for the first picture — a landscape in which there exists neutral-zone hotels in which no blood may be spilled — retains its unique appeal. But the action is as repetitive as a record attempting to get past a scratched portion, as Wick spins around a flunky, punches him a couple of times, then shoots him in the head — by my count, this happens approximately 854 times over the course of the film. Still, gun fetishists will adore this film, as more time is spent lovingly mulling over the characteristics of individual weapons than on anything else. NRA groupies are best advised to keep the K-Y by the couch.
Blu-ray and 4K Ultra HD extras include audio commentary by Reeves and director Chad Stahelski; deleted scenes; various behind-the-scenes pieces examining the fight choreography, the weapons, and more; a kill count; and the theatrical trailer.
THE LAWNMOWER MAN (1992). Like a gaggle of mad scientists running amok, the suits at New Line Cinema opted to take the title of a Stephen King short story, “The Lawnmower Man,” and graft it onto a completely unrelated script (one originally titled Cyber God). The resultant film was a modest success, but King wasn’t impressed, successfully suing to have his name removed from the finished product. While he should have spent his free time suing to have his name removed from 1995’s The Mangler instead – that one is truly abysmal – his point was made, and he certainly didn’t lose out by excising this one from his filmography. One of the first films to employ Virtual Reality technology in its plot, this finds Pierce Brosnan cast as Dr. Angelo, a scientist who enlists a simple-minded gardener named Jobe (Jeff Fahey) to serve as a test subject for his experiments involving computer simulations and intelligence-enhancing drugs. The tests eventually turn Jobe into a genius, but interference by Angelo’s unscrupulous superiors eventually send the handyman over the edge into madness. The special effects – dated but still trippy – overwhelm the feeble storyline, which culminates in a Carrie-like finale in which Jobe gets revenge on his tormentors. It’s harder than ever to take Fahey’s performance seriously since it’s as broad as Ben Stiller’s Tugg Speedman character playing Simple Jack in Tropic Thunder.
The Blu-ray contains both the R-rated theatrical version and an unrated Director’s Cut that’s approximately a half-hour longer. Extras include audio commentary by writer-director Brett Leonard and writer-producer Gimel Everett; a retrospective making-of featurette; deleted scenes; vintage cast interviews; looks at conceptual art and design sketches; and the theatrical trailer.
LIFE (2017). As a title, Life is a pretty lousy choice, since it relates absolutely nothing about the movie at hand. Given the actual narrative of the film, a better generic choice might have been Space Station. Or Mars. Or Astronauts. Or Alien. Actually, scratch that last one — it’s already been taken. Then again, what is Life if not an Alien copy? That’s perfectly legitimate, of course, what with imitation being the sincerest blah blah blah. And while there have already been countless other films influenced by Alien, there’s also the fact that Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic was itself inspired by 1958’s It! The Terror from Beyond Space. Where Life strikes out is in the fact that it adds absolutely nothing new to this template: It’s strictly for folks who somehow have never seen Alien — or any science fiction thriller, for that matter. Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds and Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation’s Rebecca Ferguson are among those portraying the six members of a space expedition who come into contact with a mysterious microbe from Mars. Initially a cute counterpart to Baby Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy, the extra-terrestrial grows at a frightening rate, and it’s soon large enough to slaughter at will. From the offing of a character earlier than expected to the alien wreaking havoc from within the human body (thankfully, the filmmakers resist the urge to outright lift the chestburster scene), everything about Life feels like reheated leftovers. Director Daniel Espinosa manages to stage a couple of scenes for modest suspense, but any forward narrative thrust eventually goes straight out the space station window solely for the sake of an obvious twist ending that should surprise absolutely no one over the age of 10 — and by 10, I mean 10 months old, not 10 years old.
Blu-ray extras include a trio of making-of featurettes and deleted scenes.
THE PAUL NASCHY COLLECTION (1973-1981). For decades, Lon Chaney Jr. held the distinction of being the only actor to portray all four of the legendary screen monsters: Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, the Mummy and, of course, the wolf man. That changed with the ascension of Paul Naschy (real name: Jacinto Molina Alvarez), who became Spain’s leading horror star from 1968 until his death in 2009. As an actor and often as a writer and director as well, Naschy made approximately 75 pictures in this genre, and Shout! Factory has just released a box set collecting five of these efforts. While it would have been desirable to see the actor tackling all the famous monsters in this compilation (only the wolf man is represented), the set does offer an overview of the varying quality of his many credits.
Horror Rises from the Tomb (1973) finds Naschy cast as the 15th-century warlock Alaric de Marnac and his descendant, Hugo de Marnac. Journeying to the ancestral estate where Alaric’s remains are buried, Hugo and his friends inadvertently bring the sorcerer back to life – needless to say, much bloodletting ensues. An ambitious screenplay largely makes up for deficiencies elsewhere.
Vengeance of the Zombies (1973) is the worst film in the set, a lethargic effort in which Naschy performs triple duty as the soft-spoken Indian guru Krisna, his murderous brother Kantaka, and, for good measure, Satan himself.
Conversely, Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll (1974) is the best picture in the collection, a loopy terror tale that in its strongest moments recalls the cinema of Dario Argento. Also known as House of Psychotic Women and House of Doom, this one finds Naschy playing a drifter who ends up working at a home inhabited by three sisters – people start dying, red herrings pop up everywhere, and one apparent solution to the mystery soon gives way to an even crazier one.
Human Beasts (1980) begins promisingly, with Naschy cast as a hired assassin who betrays his Yakuza (Japanese Mafia) handlers and goes into hiding. He ends up at the secluded home of a family harboring a gruesome secret that becomes obvious long before the heavy-handed climax.
Naschy’s signature role was Waldemar Daninsky, the tortured count who becomes a werewolf whenever (to borrow from the Chaney classic) the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright. The actor played Daninsky a total of 12 times; the ninth occasion was in Night of the Werewolf (1981), one of the comparatively few Naschy films to receive any sort of theatrical release in the U.S. Also known under the moniker The Craving, this moderately entertaining yarn finds Daninsky nobly squaring off against a revived witch (Julia Saly) when he’s in human form and slaughtering everyone in sight when he’s in lycanthropic mode.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentaries by Naschy experts on three of the titles; deleted scenes for Night of the Werewolf; and theatrical trailers and still galleries for all five films. The collection also contains a 24-page booklet with photos and an essay by Naschy scholar Mirek Lipinski.
Horror Rises from the Tomb: **1/2
Vengeance of the Zombies: *1/2
Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll: ***
Human Beasts: **
Night of the Werewolf: **1/2
FROM SCREEN TO STREAM
(Recommended films currently available on streaming services)
PETE'S DRAGON (2016). Superior to two other 2016 films about kids and oversized creatures (The BFG and A Monster Calls), this family feature hearkens back to not one but two previous eras of cinematic wonder. The first, more obvious one is the late 1960s through the 70s, when the Walt Disney studio produced a series of winsome live-action pictures (Gus, Candleshoe, The Love Bug) even as its celebrated animation division hit upon hard times. The second is the mid-1990s, when studios (mainly Warner Bros.) weren't afraid to release comparatively quiet and contemplative films for younger viewers (The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, Black Beauty). Pete's Dragon feels like a throwback to both eras, and the fact that there was a version of this story produced in 1977 makes the connection even more tangible. This remake of that clumsy live-action/animated hybrid is clearly an improvement, fashioning a sweet story about a young orphan boy (Oakes Fegley) who spends years in the woods with a big, friendly, giant dragon as his only companion. Once civilization comes calling, Pete finds friendship in the form of a forest ranger (Bryce Dallas Howard) while his fire-breathing companion finds danger in the form of a lumberjack (Karl Urban) who, in true King Kong fashion, plans to capture and profit from the creature. The gentle nature and leisurely pace might cause a few Coked out kids to fidget, but most should react positively to the picture's sense of adventure and discovery while parents will be pleased to have found a family film that, for once, does the much abused genre proud. (Netflix Streaming)