(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.)
DAWN OF THE DEAD (2004) / LAND OF THE DEAD (2005). Shout! Factory has released Collector’s Editions of two zombie flicks — one inspired by George Romero, the other coming from the late, legendary filmmaker himself.
In 2004, some foolhardy souls decided to offer a new take on 1978's Dawn of the Dead, the second in Romero's original zombie trilogy and an acknowledged classic of the genre. It was a situation ripe for disaster, but hold on. This version proved to be that rare bird: a remake that, while not matching its predecessor, nevertheless succeeds on its own terms. Director Zack Snyder and writer James Gunn knew that simply offering a lumbering retread of the original would be a fatal mistake, since it would be difficult to duplicate its sharp satiric slant (watching mindless creatures lumbering through the mall is perhaps the final word on both consumerism and conformity) and its shifting viewpoints of the zombies (villainous against the leads, heroic against the bad bikers that appear late in the film). This Dawn pays only fleeting lip service to these ideas; instead, it wisely presses forward in its own direction, retaining the mall setting but offering different characters, different situations and a different outcome. The result is a crisp horror flick, a fast-paced picture that's exciting, icky and often quite funny.
Romero has always been as much a social commentator as a horror filmmaker, which is why his zombie flicks have always remained as popular with critics as with cultists. Two decades after his last foray into the genre, Romero revived his undead series with this fourth chapter; it's good, gory fun, even if its satiric jabs at societal mores are more heavy-handed than in the past. This entry centers on a conscientious mercenary (Simon Baker) who has to contend with a ruthless CEO (Dennis Hopper) who caters to the wealthy while ignoring the unwashed masses, a hired gun (John Leguizamo) with his own agenda, and hordes of zombies who are starting to take baby steps up the evolutionary ladder. Romero's wit remains intact — one scene lends new meaning to the term "finger food," while another features a headless zombie who still has some bite left in him — but the film's nods to 21st-century America (Hopper's raging capitalist even states, "We do not negotiate with terrorists!") seem more obvious this time around.
The Blu-ray editions of Dawn of the Dead and Land of the Dead (sold separately) both contain the theatrical version as well as an unrated cut. Extras on Dawn of the Dead include audio commentary by Snyder and producer Eric Newman; deleted scenes; interviews with Gunn and co-stars Ty Burrell and Jake Weber; and storyboard comparisons. Extras on Land of the Dead include audio commentary by Romero; a making-of featurette; deleted scenes; and interviews with Leguizamo and co-stars Robert Joy and Pedro Miguel Arce.
Both Movies: ***
THE MADNESS OF KING GEORGE (1994). Those who sit down to watch The Madness of King George expecting to see a quaint and old-fashioned Masterpiece Theatre-style production may be surprised at the picture’s raucous and rollicking nature. In fact, it’s sometimes so loopy that one half-expects Mel Brooks to wander into the frame, muttering, “It’s good to be the king.” Nigel Hawthorne is King George III, the spirited British monarch who lost the American colonies, lost his control over Parliament, and seemingly lost his marbles all during roughly the same stretch of his 60-year reign. Yet even as Queen Charlotte (Helen Mirren), her lady-in-waiting (Amanda Donohoe) and a radical doctor (Ian Holm) attempt to help him regain control of his faculties, his wayward son, the Prince of Wales (Rupert Everett), plots to oust him and have himself declared regent. Acclaimed Broadway director Nicholas Hytner made his motion picture debut with this picture, working from a lively script by Alan Bennett (adapting his own stage play). Hawthorne delivers a suitably blustery performance, Mirren hits all the right notes in what’s ultimately an underwritten part, and Julian Wadham offers interesting shadings to his interpretation of Prime Minister William Pitt. An Oscar nominee for Best Actor (Hawthorne), Best Supporting Actress (Mirren) and Best Adapted Screenplay, this won for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Carolyn Scott and Ken Adam, the latter mentioned in last week’s column for his previous Oscar-winning work on Barry Lyndon).
There are no extras on the Blu-ray.
THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932). James Whale famously directed two horror classics — 1931’s Frankenstein and 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein — featuring genre superstar Boris Karloff. Between those gems, though, the pair got together to make this grandly entertaining yarn in which various travelers are forced to spend the night in a dilapidated old mansion harboring some very eccentric residents. Too much time is spent on the comparatively dull guests played by Melvyn Douglas and Lilian Bond, but the other characterizations are on the money. Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart (65 years before portraying Old Rose in Titanic) and hammy Charles Laughton appear as the other stranded guests, while Karloff portrays the household’s mute butler (a relatively small part, despite top billing). Best of all are the colorful inhabitants of the establishment: Ernest Thesiger and Eva Moore as the creepy siblings who run the household, Brember Wills as their brother, a pyromaniac who’s kept locked up in the attic, and 61-year-old actress Elspeth Dudgeon as 102-year-old patriarch Sir Roderick Femm. The sets by ace art director Charles D. Hall (Dracula, Modern Times) are flawless, and Whale himself contributes some bravura technical tricks that add to the merriment.
For a film that suffered some deterioration while locked away in the Universal Studios vault (indeed, the movie was even considered “lost” throughout much of the 1960s, as no one could locate a print), The Old Dark House now turns up via the Cohen Media Group label looking quite lovely, thanks to a new 4K restoration. Blu-ray extras (some courtesy of the previous DVD and laserdisc editions from the late 1990s) include audio commentary by Stuart; separate audio commentary by Whale biographer James Curtis; a discussion with Sara Karloff, Boris’ daughter; and a trailer.
PLAY DIRTY (1969). Often unfairly dismissed as a British rip-off of 1967’s The Dirty Dozen, Play Dirty is instead its own nasty little beast. While not a classic on the order of Robert Aldrich’s action smash, it amusingly does make its predecessor look as cheery and upbeat as Dirty Dancing (to keep the soap-challenged monikers going) by comparison. Michael Caine, at the tail end of his first decade as a movie star thanks to a variety of vehicles ranging from A (Alfie) to Z (Zulu), is suitably prickly as Captain Douglas, a British Petroleum employee shanghaied into leading a ragtag band of saboteurs on a mission across the North African terrain during World War II. Their objective is to destroy one of Field Marshal Rommel’s precious fuel supplies — it’s a suicide assignment, of course, but since this outfit is largely comprised of murderers, thieves, and other undesirables, their devotion to not doing anything by the book might prove to be their salvation. Nigel Davenport is cool and commanding as Captain Leech, a ruthless bloke who repeatedly has to bail out the naïve Douglas, while Harry Andrews appears as (shades of Kubrick’s Paths of Glory) the sort of glory-seeking officer who thinks nothing of sacrificing soldiers as long as it benefits him personally. Play Dirty is cynical from its opening moments to its final seconds — an apt attitude for a movie that finds nothing commendable about the theater of war.
Blu-ray extras consist of the theatrical trailer and an isolated track of Michel Legrand’s score (the composer also contributes a few songs to the soundtrack).
WILD BILL (1995). Writer-director Walter Hill’s Wild Bill is a middling example of that class of Western inhabited by the likes of Unforgiven, The Shootist and The Gunfighter: a look at a renowned cowboy in his twilight years, at a point when the romanticism and idealism of the Wild West (or at least of the Western film) have long been replaced by a bitterness and weariness forged by many years of senseless killings. Wild Bill Hickok (Jeff Bridges) is one such man, and the movie initially takes viewers through a number of incidents throughout his life, most dealing with his violent encounters with assorted riffraff. The film settles down when it reaches the town of Deadwood, South Dakota, in 1876 — the last year of Bill’s life. It’s here that Bill is reunited with his closest friends — Calamity Jane (Ellen Barkin), California Joe (a delightful James Gammon), and the dapper Englishman Charley Prince (John Hurt) — but it’s also where he encounters Jack McCall (David Arquette), a jittery kid who feels that Bill wronged his late mother (Diane Lane, seen in flashbacks) and plans to take his revenge. As long as it’s hip-hopping all over the landscape, Wild Bill maintains interest by demonstrating how these isolated incidents all contributed to Bill’s mental makeup as a man who often allowed his rampaging celebrity to overtake his somewhat precarious humanity. But the film largely calcifies during its second half, and the final chunk (set inside a barroom) is particularly disappointing. Bridges delivers an intense performance, but an animated Barkin seems to have wandered over from the set of a sitcom; most of the other name actors (particularly Hurt) are wasted in shallow roles.
Blu-ray extras consist of the theatrical trailer and an isolated track of Van Dyke Parks’ score.
ERNIE KOVACS: TAKE A GOOD LOOK – THE DEFINITIVE COLLECTION (1959-1961). Even after watching a sizable number of episodes of Take a Good Look, it remains a Herculean task trying to explain the concept — and weird allure — of this vintage game show. Comic legend and TV pioneer Ernie Kovacs serves as host, tasking a celebrity panel to figure out the identity of the mystery guest (usually someone only fleetingly in the news for a singular accomplishment). Yet the clues he offers — in the form of nonsensical skits — are so vague and far-fetched that it’s a wonder any of the secret guests are ever identified, and the members of the rotating roster of panelists — Edie Adams (Ernie’s wife), Cesar Romero, Jim Backus and Zsa Zsa Gabor, among others — show remarkable restraint in not strangling their mischievous host.
All surviving episodes — 49 out of 53 — are included in this DVD box set from Shout! Factory. There are no extras, although an essay by TV historian David Model is included.
PERSONAL SHOPPER (2017). For her role in writer-director Olivier Assayas’ 2015 gem Clouds of Sils Maria, Kristen Stewart became the first American actress to ever win the Cesar Award (France’s Oscar equivalent). Stewart is equally excellent in Assayas’ Personal Shopper, even if the movie itself isn’t as satisfying as the pair’s previous joint effort. Like David Lowery’s A Ghost Story, here’s another supernatural saga that deviates from the norm, this one focusing on a young woman who remains in Paris while trying to connect with her recently deceased twin brother. Stewart’s subdued turn nicely dovetails with the story’s ethereal elements, but the inclusion of an obvious murder-mystery — to say nothing of the co-starring role for a cell phone (it’s hard to make text messages cinematically gripping) — works against the film’s eerie appeal.
Blu-ray extras consist of an interview with Assayas; footage from the film’s Cannes Film Festival conference; and the theatrical trailer.
THE PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER (1962). Even after horror became the go-to genre at Hammer Films, the British studio continued to mess around with other types of cinematic fare. One option was the swashbuckler, and the outfit enjoyed a fair measure of success with this engaging adventure yarn. Hammer superstar Christopher Lee plays the eyepatch-wearing French scoundrel LaRoche, whose band of rum-soaked reprobates descends upon a Protestant community already reeling from the corruption of the town leaders. The 7th Voyage of Sinbad’s Kerwin Mathews stars as the dashing hero, while Oliver Reed, as one of the pirates, takes center stage in a rousing sequence involving swords and blindfolds.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by writer Jimmy Sangster, art director Don Mingaye and film historian Marcus Hearn; the theatrical trailer; and an isolated track of Gary Hughes’ score.
FROM SCREEN TO STREAM
(Recommended films currently available on streaming services)
WHILE WE'RE YOUNG (2015). There was a time when movies like Rebel Without a Cause and The Graduate convinced viewers that the gap in the so-called generation gap covered roughly the distance from the earth to the moon. In writer-director Noah Baumbach's While We're Young, that gap has closed significantly, to the extent where the chasm is measured in yards rather than miles. Of course, in the real world, the measurement is often closer to centimeters, but that wouldn't necessarily provide Baumbach with the dramatic tension his scenario requires. Ergo, when middle-aged couple Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) first meet fresh-faced hipsters Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), they approach them with the same mix of awe and trepidation as Indiana Jones eyeing the golden idol in that Peruvian temple. Josh, a documentary filmmaker, and Cornelia, a former producer, have grown rigid, so the presence of Jamie and Darby in their lives feels like a godsend, a way to recapture their lost youth and feel vibrant again. Baumbach mines an ample amount of humor and truth out of the vagaries of getting older, and the auteur also comments on the notion of cross-generational pollination, such as the fact that the middle-aged pair have embraced cutting-edge technology with a vengeance (they're rarely seen without their iPods and iPhones) while the kids prefer to be retro (among other activities, listening to vinyl LPs and plucking away on typewriters). The film becomes more plot-heavy — and consequently less observational — during the second half, but even this portion remains engaging thanks to a sizable supporting role for Charles Grodin as Cornelia's dad, a venerable lion in the documentary world. (Netflix Streaming)