(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.)
HARPER (1966) / THE DROWNING POOL (1975). Paul Newman didn’t make the types of movies that generally lent themselves to sequels, although there were a couple of exceptions. (Thankfully, the dismal The Sting II wasn’t one of them, as he and Redford steered clear.) His famous twofer, of course, was 1961’s The Hustler and 1986’s The Color of Money, finally winning the Best Actor Oscar for reprising his role as Fast Eddie Felson in the second picture. And then there’s the pair of movies (both now available through the Warner Archive Collection) in which he played a private investigator first created by crime novelist Ross MacDonald.
MacDonald's The Moving Target served as the basis for the wildly enjoyable Harper, which benefits from Newman's engaging presence and William Goldman's sharp script. Newman stars as Lew Harper (Lew Archer in MacDonald’s novels), a wise-cracking private eye whose latest assignment — locate the missing husband of a cold-hearted millionairess (Lauren Bacall) — takes him all over LA in a determined effort to crack the case. Among the players he encounters are an over-the-hill actress (Shelley Winters), a cheerful gigolo (Robert Wagner), and the missing man's sexpot daughter (Pamela Tiffin). Director Jack Smight keeps his foot on the petal, and Newman is a delight in one of his most memorable parts.
Harper was a box office hit, and Newman found himself returning to the role nine years later. In The Drowning Pool, the irreverent gumshoe heads to Louisiana to help a former fling (real-life wife Joanne Woodward) discover who's blackmailing her; as usual, there's more here than meets the eye, and Harper soon learns that no one can be trusted. The Drowning Pool lacks the freshness of its 1966 predecessor, though Newman can still trade quips with the best of them. A 17-year-old Melanie Griffith appears as Woodward's daughter; that same year also found her cast in two key films of the 1970s, Arthur Penn’s Night Moves and Michael Ritchie’s Smile.
Blu-ray extras on Harper consist of audio commentary by Goldman and the theatrical trailer. Blu-ray extras on The Drowning Pool consist of a vintage behind-the-scenes featurette and the theatrical trailer.
The Drowning Pool: ***
LADY BIRD (2017). Coming-of-age movies can often feel as ubiquitous as superhero films, yet Lady Bird, one of the 10 best films of 2017, turns out to be one of those special efforts that manages to leapfrog over the competition with a single bound. Set in Sacramento in 2002, the film orbits around Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), a high school student who prefers to go by the nickname “Lady Bird.” Like any normal teenager, Christine wants to be accepted by the popular kids and hopes to find love in the arms of a desirable classmate. These are Herculean challenges for almost any adolescent, but they’re even more difficult for someone as individualistic and uncompromising as Christine. Also adding to her woes is the testy relationship she shares with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), whose tough-love approach is often misinterpreted by Christine as outright disdain and disgust. There isn’t much in Lady Bird that doesn’t feel recognizable from past films of this nature, but it’s writer-director Greta Gerwig’s ability to make her protagonist’s struggles feel raw and real that allows this affecting film to soar. Ronan is superb in the central role, while Metcalf and Tracy Letts excel as her parents. Look for Lucas Hedges, an Oscar nominee last year for Manchester by the Sea, as Christine’s first boyfriend and Timothée Chalamet, an Oscar nominee this year for Call Me by Your Name, as her second boyfriend. Lady Bird earned five Academy Award nominations: Best Picture as well as acting slots for Ronan and Metcalf and writing and directing bids for Gerwig.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by Gerwig and cinematographer Sam Levy, and a making-of featurette.
THE STRANGERS (2008). One of my cinematic pet peeves (and they are legion) is when a fellow scribe describes a motion picture as pointless. Despite the scarcity of story, or lack of depth among the characters, or general ineptitude on every level, the filmmakers had some sort of vision — some raison d'être — for making their movie, and that alone means it has some sort of point. Yet the mere existence of The Strangers has long tested my theory and perpetually risks turning me into a hypocrite. Is there a point to this anemic thriller in which a young couple (Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman) are terrorized in a secluded vacation home by three masked invaders? Maybe the point is to show how none of us are really safe from the evils of the outside world, even when we're in our own homes. That's a moldy premise that barely needs repeating: Even the months leading up to this film's original 2008 theatrical release boasted of two other movies wielding identical plotlines (the French import Them and the Funny Games remake). Or perhaps writer-director Bryan Bertino's only purpose is to scare the living hell out of viewers, a noble pursuit in this century of mostly fright-free terror tales. But The Strangers isn't scary, just tedious, and the final image shows that Bertino didn't even have the guts to follow the story to its logical ending. His cop-out may not make the movie even more pointless, but it certainly makes it more insulting. Incidentally, a long-delayed sequel, The Strangers: Prey at Night, opens this Friday.
Shout! Factory’s 10th anniversary Blu-ray edition contains both the R-rated theatrical cut as well as an unrated version. Extras consist of new interviews with Bertino, co-stars Kip Weeks and Laura Margolis, and editor Kevin Greutert; a vintage making-of featurette; deleted scenes; and the theatrical trailer.
THOR: RAGNAROK (2017). Marvel movies have always plopped heaping servings of humor on top of the expected action and mythmaking, but Thor: Ragnarok dials up the laugh track to heretofore untested decibel levels. This is Asgard by way of The Comedy Store, an irreverent approach inspired not so much by previous Avengers-related entries but by Deadpool and Guardians of the Galaxy. The result is a rollicking adventure yarn sure to delight the faithful, and the picture emerges as arguably the most satisfying of the Thor trilogy. At the same time, the perpetual need to go for joke means that there’s not much of a dramatic center to the project. Picking up story strands from previous entries, this finds Thor (Chris Hemsworth) still contending with the mischievous antics of his half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Both, however, are confronted with a new threat in the form of the sister they never knew they had: Hela (Cate Blanchett in a disappointingly one-note role), a fearsome goddess who’s laying waste to Asgard. Enter the incredible Hulk (played by Mark Ruffalo and CGI) to shake up matters even more. Tessa Thompson scores as the fearless Valkyrie, while Jeff Goldblum is a hoot as the easily excitable Grandmaster. Hemsworth has already displayed his comic chops in past pictures — he was especially hilarious as the dim-witted Kevin in the engaging Ghostbusters remake — so he has no problem turning the God of Thunder into an occasional god of blunder. Between the actor’s puppy-dog demeanor and his character’s farcical bewilderment, Hemsworth and Thor are, naturally enough, the primary reasons that Ragnarok rocks.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director Taika Waititi; deleted scenes; a look at the character of Thor; a featurette on Hela and Valkyrie; and a gag reel.
TOM JONES (1963). Decades of art-house imitators and Benny Hill reruns may have removed some of the luster, but there’s still plenty to admire and enjoy in this bawdy British effort that took the U.S. box office by storm back in its day. Imaginatively directed by Tony Richardson — an about-face from helming such kitchen sink dramas as Look Back in Anger and A Taste of Honey — this adaptation of Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel stars Albert Finney as the title character, a cheerful “bastard” (of the out-of-wedlock variety) whose predilection for wine and women repeatedly lands him in trouble. Susannah York co-stars as Sophie Western, the educated woman who captures his heart, Hugh Griffith and Edith Evans portray her disapproving father and equally disapproving aunt, and David Warner makes his film debut as Tom’s pompous rival Blifil. The classic scene in which Tom and the lusty Mrs. Waters (Joyce Redman) devour their shared meal in what can only be described as a sexual frenzy is not to be missed. Tom Jones earned 10 Academy Award nominations, with half of those bids going to various cast members: Finney for Best Actor, Griffith for Best Supporting Actor, and Evans, Redman and Diane Cilento (as Tom’s earthy lover, Molly Seagrim) all for Best Supporting Actress. The film ended up winning four: Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay (John Osborne), and Original Score (John Addison).
The Criterion Blu-ray edition of Tom Jones contains both the 128-minute theatrical version as well as the 121-minute director’s cut that was released in 1989. Extras include an interview with film scholar Duncan Petrie on the film’s impact on British cinema; an interview with cinematographer Walter Lassally; an excerpt of Finney from a 1982 episode of The Dick Cavett Show; and an audio interview with Addison.
WONDER WHEEL (2017). Since 1969, Woody Allen has pretty much written and directed at least one movie every year, missing only four years during that entire five-decade stretch (A Rainy Day in New York, starring Jude Law, Selena Gomez and Timothée Chalamet, will be released later in 2018). Such a dedicated shooting schedule was a godsend for film fans back in those decades when Allen was clicking on all cylinders; in current times, though, it reveals a filmmaker who’s all too often running on empty. Blue Jasmine was one of the only two worthy Woody flicks of the past decade (the other, of course, was Midnight in Paris), and its rather unflattering look at a shrill and insecure woman was negated by Cate Blanchett’s Oscar-winning turn in the central role as well as interesting supporting characters vividly brought to life by Sally Hawkins, Andrew Dice Clay and others. Wonder Wheel feels like a distant cousin to Blue Jasmine, only here there are no compensating factors. Unfolding like a labored stage play that barely made it past rehearsal, this finds Kate Winslet cast as Ginny, who’s unhappily married to the clod who operates one of the carousels at Coney Island during the 1950s. That would be Humpty (Jim Belushi), who’s distracted by the fact that his grown daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) has reentered his life. Ginny isn’t pleased by the sudden appearance of her stepdaughter, since both women have an eye for handsome young lifeguard and budding playwright Mickey (a woefully miscast Justin Timberlake). Even without getting into the unfortunate plot point of an intellectual forced to choose between a mother and her not-biological daughter, Wonder Wheel is a thinly plotted misfire that gets on the nerves rather than under the skin.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette.
Movie: *1/2Short And Sweet:
THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS (2017). Last year found Christopher Plummer delivering an Oscar-nominated performance as the Scrooge-like J. Paul Getty in All the Money in the World and providing the voice of the Scrooge-like King Herod in the animated effort The Star. Not to be outdone — even by himself — Plummer also tackled the actual role of Scrooge in The Man Who Invented Christmas, a fanciful look at how Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) created the Yuletide classic A Christmas Carol and in the process defined many of our enduring ideas surrounding the holiday and its traditions. Working from Les Standiford’s book, scripter Susan Coyne has crafted a warm PG-rated feature that won’t be mistaken for hardcore biography but which can be enjoyed next Christmas (or, for those not beholden to the calendar, right now) by families with older kids who won’t grow restless with its adult preoccupations and leisurely pace.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette.
NEVER TAKE CANDY FROM A STRANGER (1960). The good news is that more Hammer Film productions have been released on Blu-ray; the bad news is that they’re being entrusted to the bargain-bin outfit Mill Creek Entertainment. Of this new lot, the best is this startling drama about a Canadian couple (Patrick Allen and Gwen Watford) who move to a small British town, whereupon an elderly eccentric (Felix Aylmer) lures their 9-year-old daughter (Janina Faye) to his home and gives her treats in exchange for watching her dance naked. The parents are outraged and press charges, only to learn that the old man was once responsible for building the town out of nothing and thus is considered above the law. An unsettling opening gives way to tense courtroom confrontations that are then followed by a seat-gripping final half-hour.
There are no Blu-ray extras.
FROM SCREEN TO STREAM
(Recommended films currently available on streaming services)
THE WARRIORS (1979). Director Walter Hill was once known for directing unpretentious, red-meat fare, and The Warriors remains a fine representation of his output. Delegates from countless New York City street gangs gather in The Bronx to listen to a speech delivered by the magnetic leader of the most powerful outfit, but all hell breaks loose after he's shot and the members of the Warriors are falsely fingered for the murder. Determined to make it back to their Coney Island turf, they cautiously tread their way through an urban jungle in which every other gang is out for their blood. Highly controversial in its day — the poster stated that gang members "outnumber the cops five to one. They could run New York City," and a few screenings were disrupted by skirmishes between real gangs — this remains a rousing piece of pulp entertainment. (Amazon Prime)