(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.)
FIFTY SHADES OF GREY (2015). The screen adaptation of E.L. James' global smash is a vanilla film that likely won't even satisfy its target audience, all of whose members will be baffled at the emphasis on risible dialogue over the sex scenes they found so riveting in the print edition. Compared to this chilly endeavor, even How to Train Your Dragon 2 looks like a steamy porn flick by comparison. For those unaware of its premise, this finds the powerful businessman Mr. Grey (Jamie Dornan) catching the eye and libido of a college student named Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson). She wants a romantic relationship, but this horny Homey don't play that. Instead, he's all about the BDSM, urging her to sign a contract that states she will become the "submissive" to his "dominant" and must obey his every whim, particularly when it comes to sexual matters. And thus the template is set for the excruciatingly repetitive dialogue that dominates the proceedings. "Be my sex slave." "Why can't we go on dates?" "I don't operate that way." "Well, OK." "Be my sex slave." "Why can't we go on dates?" Blather, wince, repeat. The takeaway from this distressingly banal, unimaginative and downright boring film is that these two clearly should not be together, that Mr. Grey is a moron for settling on this naïve virgin, and that Anastasia is equally idiotic for trying to fundamentally change a person who's set in his ways. Compounding the problem even more is the simple fact that Johnson and Dornan have absolutely no chemistry. James' two sequels (Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed) are also being made into movies, but personally, I expect most viewers would rather see the filmmakers take this franchise in a different direction. How about Fifty Shades of The Grey, with the two vapid protagonists forced to contend with Liam Neeson and a pack of ravenous wolves? Or Fifty Shades of Grey's Anatomy, with McDreamy demonstrating the kinky side benefits of a stethoscope and a thermometer? Surely any other plotline trumps the one being used for what will doubtless go down as history's first trilogy of snuff films, a franchise certain to kill not only careers but also strangle the basic desire of moviemakers and moviegoers to entertain and be entertained.
The Blu-ray contains both the theatrical version and an unrated cut with an alternate ending. Extras include making-of featurettes; an interview with E.L. James; the music video for The Weekend's "Earned It"; and a teaser for the upcoming Fifty Shades Darker.
MAD MAX (1980). If you haven't seen writer-director George Miller's Mad Max in quite some time, then it's very likely you're not even remembering it right. The first in Miller's original trilogy — it was followed by 1981's The Road Warrior (aka Mad Max 2) and 1985's Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome — and rebooted with the release of this week's Mad Max: Fury Road, the picture isn't exactly a post-apocalyptic drama in which the hero seeks revenge for the death of his family. Certainly, those elements are at play, but what's interesting is that this futuristic Australian import — which really only caught on stateside after the subsequent success of The Road Warrior — focuses not on roving bands of marauders in vast desert landscapes (that's the sequels) but in pockets of population where diners still serve food, phones are still in operation, and an actual police force still exists. And the Death Wish turn doesn't even arrive until the final half-hour — before that, the narrative primarily follows good cop Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson in the role that turned him into a global star) as he divides his time between doting on his wife Jessie (Joanne Samuel) and their infant son Sprog (an Australian word that actually means "child"; hey, it still beats Moxie Crimefighter and Pilot Inspektor as a baby name) and combatting criminals alongside other equally overworked officers. Chief among these hooligans is Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne), the vicious leader of a biker gang whose members also include the manic Nightrider (Vince Gil) and the sniveling Johnny the Boy (Tim Burns). In his first significant screen credit, Miller displays remarkable confidence in all facets of production, resulting in a picture that's marked by a startling visual landscape, packed with memorably offbeat characters on both sides of the law (Steve Bisley is excellent as Goose, the one cop who might be even more humanistic than Max) and some incredible stuntwork that was soon eclipsed by even more fantastic work in The Road Warrior.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director of photography David Eggby, art director Jon Dowding and special effects artist Chris Murray; interviews with Gibson, Samuel and Eggby; the featurette Mel Gibson: The Birth of a Superstar; and theatrical trailers. The disc also contains both the original Australian soundtrack and the dismal American dub that was created because distributors back in 1980 worried that U.S. audiences wouldn't be able to decipher the Aussie accents.
MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW (1937). As brutal in its own way as any gangster or slasher flick, Make Way for Tomorrow is a powerful drama that absolutely refuses to pull its punches or take any prisoners. Adapted from both a novel and a play but bombing with audiences (though not critics) as a film, this is still relevant today, with its piercing look at the manner in which this country handles its elderly population. Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi star as Barkley and Lucy Cooper, an aged couple who lose their house because they can't keep up the payments and then discover that their five grown children are all unable or unwilling to allow them to move permanently into their own respective homes. As a temporary solution, Barkley resides with his detestable daughter Cora (Elisabeth Risdon) while Lucy is shuttled off to board with (by default) the most sympathetic offspring, George (Thomas Mitchell), and his wife Anita (Fay Bainter). Barkley can at least enjoy the occasional company of a friendly shopkeeper (Maurice Moscovitch), but Lucy is all alone and quickly gets on the nerves of her host family. The first hour of the picture is raw, realistic and uncompromising, but before the shattering ending (bring a hankie to the couch), there's a wonderful half-hour interlude that's remarkably romantic, with the elderly couple expressing their love and devotion for each other while basking in the kindness of strangers. Moore will prove to be a revelation to anyone who only knows him from his turn as Fred Astaire's whiny sidekick in Swing Time, while Bondi (perhaps most recognizable as James Stewart's mom in It's a Wonderful Life) delivers a tremendous performance as the silently suffering matriarch. Leo McCarey deservedly won the Best Director Oscar for the same year's screwball classic The Awful Truth, although he went on record to declare that Make Way for Tomorrow is his favorite of all his own films.
Blu-ray extras consist of a 20-minute discussion with director and film historian Peter Bogdanovich about the movie and McCarey's career, and a 20-minute piece in which critic Gary Giddins talks about the picture's sociopolitical context.
MORTDECAI (2015). The Lionsgate studio has excelled as of late with the lucrative franchise business, thanks to the multi-movie projects The Hunger Games, The Expendables and Divergent. But the studio's plans for turning author Kyril Bonfiglioli's series of Charlie Mortdecai novels into a new tentpole were doubtless tossed immediately following the theatrical release of Mortdecai, a film that met with a disastrous commercial and critical drubbing. The laugh-free trailer had suggested that this could possibly be the worst film of 2015 right out the gate (it opened Jan. 23), but finally catching up with it on Blu-ray — it wasn't screened for critics in most cities, including Charlotte — it strikes me more as a misguided mess than a truly abysmal effort (besides, it still ranks ahead of Fifty Shades of Grey, The Wedding Ringer and a couple others on the 2015 cinematic Richter scale). A prolific writer-director well-versed in film, David Koepp perhaps meant for his adaptation to function as a throwback to the veddy British comedies of yore, whether those Ealing features starring Alec Guinness or the later bawdy romps starring the likes of Terry-Thomas or Kenneth Williams. Meanwhile, star Johnny Depp's character, the unscrupulous art dealer Mortdecai, owes a bit to Peter Sellers' marvelous Inspector Clouseau, another world-class bungler not nearly as intelligent or dashing as he imagines himself. The services of Mortdecai are reluctantly tapped by Inspector Martland (Ewan McGregor), who needs the dealer's help in locating a missing Goya whose theft also involved the murder of the conservator working on the painting. Injecting herself into the case is Mortdecai's wife Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow), a shrewd woman desired by both her husband (who's not allowed to touch her until he shaves off his ridiculous mustache) and Martland (who's had a crush on her since their college days). The overriding feeling generated while watching this handsome if inert picture is that of everyone trying too hard, with the actors (especially Depp) flailing about in a futile effort to convince viewers that the physical gags and verbal jousts are forged from comic gold. But it's actually the contrary, with almost every joke landing with the thud of a dropped bowling ball. As Jock, Mortdecai's exceedingly loyal bodyguard and manservant, Paul Bettany easily steals the show.
Blu-ray extras include a behind-the-scenes featurette and a piece on the film's music.
THE PREMATURE BURIAL (1962) / X: THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES (1963). Ray Milland won a Best Actor Oscar for 1945's The Lost Weekend and subsequently appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's delightful 1954 thriller Dial M for Murder, but some of his most colorful work could be seen even later, as he split most of his time during the 1960s and '70s between essaying supporting roles in various TV projects (the miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man, guest appearances in such series as Columbo, The Love Boat and the criminally short-lived Ellery Queen) and headlining low-budget fantasy flicks like Panic in Year Zero! and The Thing with Two Heads. Two of his efforts in the latter vein have just been released on Blu-ray by the Kino Lorber outfit.
The Premature Burial is the last of the eight Edgar Allan Poe adaptations produced and directed by the resourceful Roger Corman to arrive on Blu-ray. It's also the only one of the eight not to star Vincent Price, and his presence is sorely missed in a movie that could have used his considerable talents (as Corman explains in the interview included on the disc, Price's contract prevented him from joining the filmmaker on this feature). In Price's place is Milland, whose character of Guy Carrell possesses a heightened and paralyzing fear of being buried alive. He takes precautions to ensure he never suffers such a fate — a coffin that falls apart when movement is detected from within, a mausoleum with various escape routes — and his obsessive behavior worries those around him, including his loving fiancée (Hazel Court), his stern sister (Heather Angel) and his attentive doctor (Richard Ney, later a renowned Wall Street critic and, along with Ralph Nader, one of only two people NBC would never allow to appear on Johnny Carson's show). Milland is acceptable as Guy, though he lacks the touch of madness that Price would have brought to the part. The picture is hurt by this central casting as well as too much narrative recycling required for this to reach feature length, but a nice plot twist allows the movie to end in somewhat satisfactory style.
Corman and Milland reteamed to greater effect the following year for X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (or simply X, as it's called on screen). This nifty slice of sci-fi basically plays like Corman's low-rent version of the 1957 classic The Incredible Shrinking Man, where a physical change causes a man to first contend with everyday objects from a unique vantage point, then join a carnival as he becomes more freakish, and finally come face to face with his existential quandary and place in the universe. Milland stars as Dr. Xavier, a scientist who creates a liquid that, when applied, allows him to see beyond normal human capabilities. At first, he can peer through walls, clothes and even flesh (thus allowing him to save the life of a little girl who was misdiagnosed by another doctor), but as he continues to apply the eye drops, his power reaches frightening proportions. The trippy visual effects serve the story well, and the picture easily shifts from humorous to horrific at various intervals. Legendary comedian Don Rickles appears in a supporting role as a carnival barker hoping to capitalize on Xavier's abilities, and look for Corman regular Dick Miller as the heckler in the audience.
Blu-ray extras on The Premature Burial include an interview with Corman; a discussion with director Joe Dante (The Howling, Gremlins) about the film; and the theatrical trailer. Blu-ray extras on X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes include audio commentary by Corman; separate audio commentary by film historian Tim Lucas; a discussion with Dante about the film; the movie's rarely seen prologue; and the theatrical trailer.
The Premature Burial: **1/2
X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes: ***
STILL ALICE (2014). An absolutely devastating disease, Alzheimer's has been at the center of three films for which the top-billed star handily nabbed an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. Judi Dench (Iris) and Julie Christie (Away from Her) lost their bids, but Julianne Moore just this year took the Oscar for Still Alice. Moore's was a worthy victory, and not just for the side benefit of garnering more attention for a disease that's traditionally kicked to the sidelines when it comes to discussions and donations. It also wouldn't be for finally rewarding Moore, one of the great American actresses and a person who has delivered award-caliber work before (by my count, she should already have a pair of Oscars for Boogie Nights and Far from Heaven). No, Moore deserved the gold statue for the simple reason that she delivered the best performance by an actress in a leading role throughout the duration of 2014 (only Wild's Reese Witherspoon and Two Days, One Night's Marion Cotillard came close). Working from the novel by Lisa Genova, writer-directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland have made a film that not only addresses the issues confronting the Alzheimer's victim — in this case, a notable linguistics professor suffering from early onset of the disease — but also those of the loved ones surrounding and supporting her. As Alice's husband and one of their grown children, Alec Baldwin and Kristen Stewart particularly make palpable the fears and frustrations felt by overwhelmed individuals unexpectedly cast in the roles of caretakers. Still, for all the worthwhile contributions on both sides of the camera, it's the towering performance by Moore that makes the movie. It was no less heartbreaking watching the women played by Dench and Christie slowly losing control of their minds, but by making Alice a person whose entire career has been devoted to the study of language, of words, of dialogue, there's an added level of tragedy being brought into play. Here's an individual who lives for letters, and she can no longer enjoy the pleasures it provides or the career it sustains. Alice's beautiful mind has betrayed her, and Moore makes us feel that mental collapse even as her character plummets further down a rabbit hole ravaged by disease and despair.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; three deleted scenes; a discussion of Alzheimer's and the creation of Moore's character; and an interview with composer Ilan Eshkeri.