(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what's new on Blu-ray and DVD.)
COUNTESS DRACULA (1971) / NOSFERATU: THE VAMPYRE (1979). Synapse Films and Shout! Factory's Scream Factory, two outfits beloved by horror aficionados, have again come through for the fans with their current releases of two Dracula titles from the 1970s.
In truth, the only connection between Countess Dracula and Bram Stoker's creation is found in the title and, late in the film, the murmuring of peasants. The movie is actually a fictionalized look at the real–life figure of Elizabeth Báthory, a 16th century countess known for torturing and murdering hundreds of girls over a span of 25 years. The legend that she bathed in the blood of these women in the belief that it would help maintain her youth has never been proven, but this picture runs with that theory. Here, the renamed Countess Elisabeth Nodosheen (Ingrid Pitt) first discovers that her wrinkles disappear after she's accidentally splashed by the blood of a servant who's cut herself; inspired, the elderly noblewoman then begins killing unfortunates in order to preserve her newfound youth. To avoid suspicion, she poses as her own daughter Ilona (Lesley-Anne Down), who's been away for years, and commences a relationship with a young lieutenant (Sandor Elès). Her lover, the cruel Captain Dobi (Nigel Green), knows her secret and grows jealous of the attention she bestows on the smitten officer; for his part, the castle historian (Maurice Denham) is left out of the loop but begins to put the pieces together. This latter-day entry in the Hammer horror cycle boasts fine acting and a suitably grungy atmosphere, but the script gets unforgivably sloppy during the final half-hour, with some nonsensical plotting and an abrupt ending.
F.W. Murnau's 1922 Nosferatu remains the greatest vampire film ever made (read the review of its Blu-ray release here), so remaking the picture would make about as much sense as remaking, well, Psycho. Yet director Werner Herzog proved to be up to the challenge, and while Nosferatu: The Vampyre doesn't match the perfection of its predecessor, it's a worthy addition to the bloodsucking genre. Murnau's silent classic was an unauthorized adaptation of Stoker's Dracula and thus all character names were changed; with that no longer a legal problem, Herzog was able to use the proper names. Hence, we have hapless Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) being ordered by his perpetually giggling employer Renfield (Roland Topor) to go to Transylvania to conclude a real estate deal with Count Dracula (Klaus Kinski), a journey that Jonathan's wife Lucy (Isabelle Adjani) implores him not to take. Yet off he goes, and upon arrival, he meets an ash-white being with talons for fingernails and a particular frightful set of teeth. Beautifully staged if occasionally a tad too leisurely paced, Herzog's film is mostly faithful to the 1922 original except in one major way: Whereas the vampire played by Max Schreck was evil incarnate, Klaus' bloodsucker is a tragic figure, seeking love and companionship and cursing his lonely, eternal life.
Blu-ray extras on Synapse Films' Countess Dracula include audio commentary by Pitt, director Peter Sasdy, screenwriter Jeremy Paul and author Jonathan Sothcott; a featurette on Pitt's career; an archival audio interview with Pitt; a still gallery; and the theatrical trailer. Blu-ray extras on Scream Factory's Nosferatu: The Vampyre include audio commentary by Herzog; a making-of featurette; and theatrical trailers. And since Herzog's remake was filmed simultaneously in both German and English, the Blu-ray contains both versions.
Countess Dracula: **1/2
Nosferatu: The Vampyre: ***
HER (2013). It's sometime in the near future, and Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a lonely man. A once-glorious marriage has disintegrated to the point that his wife (Rooney Mara) keeps pushing him to sign the divorce papers, phone sex (a voice bit by Kristen Wiig as "SexyKitten") is unsatisfying, and his neighbor Amy (Amy Adams) is purely a platonic friend. So when a new computer operating system programmed to meet all user needs hits the market, he quickly purchases one. Soon, he's bonding with his OS, who has given herself the name of Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), and they rapidly become best friends, work colleagues and even lovers. That, in a nutshell, is the plot of writer-director Spike Jonze's Her. It's clearly a film of the moment, where it seems like most everyone in this country has an HD TV, an iPod, an iPhone, an Xbox, a PlayStation, and on and on and on. Jonze astutely taps into this national zeitgeist where people are wondering what will come next in our technological evolution, and he makes the logical leap for them, imagining a world in which folks will find some way to get close and personal with their computers (no, fool, online porn doesn't count). Her might not be a complete original — Lars and the Real Girl, Electric Dreams and even Simone spring to mind — but it does make its futureworld setting uniquely its own. Still, it contains enough niggling details to have prevented me from jumping on the Best of 2013 bandwagon (and a second viewing didn't elevate it). As played by Phoenix (in full mumble mode), Theodore never feels like a man who was once capable of being madly, passionately in love (as he was with his soon-to-be-ex), and the fact that he has few friends suggests he was never well-adjusted in the first place. And for a film that's ostensibly about the need to make meaningful connections, it's a rather chilly endeavor, with the only warmth provided by, yes, the computer voice (Johansson delivers the best performance, despite being only heard and not seen). On the upside, Her pushes some interesting notions and sports some lovely dialogue, and there are some stellar shots that further illuminate the versatility of cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Let the Right One In). Nominated for five Academy Awards (including Best Picture), this won for Best Original Screenplay.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; a piece in which various folks discuss romance in modern times; and a scene montage.
THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU (2004). Earlier titles from writer-director Wes Anderson were often little more than computer programs downloaded in "Quirk" Express, heady rushes of whimsy that never felt entirely sincere in their efforts to humanize the strained shenanigans. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is basically more of the same, yet for all its apparent insincerity, it keeps us watching. And it does so not because we especially care about the fates of the characters — the unexpected death of a principal cast member left me shrugging rather than sobbing — but because we sense the story will invariably play out in trippy, unconventional ways that will surprise and maybe even delight us. Bill Murray stars as Steve Zissou, a Jacques Cousteau-style oceanographer who sets off to track down the Jaguar Shark that devoured his partner. The interaction between the characters — usually the strength of a movie that's packed to the gills with colorful personalities played by well-known actors (the cast also includes Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Anjelica Huston and Jeff Goldblum) — suffers from Anderson's aloof style. What I greatly did enjoy, though, were the peripherals: the sour expressions on the face of Steve's overly protective German engineer (a funny Willem Dafoe); the cut-away shot that allows us access to Steve's entire ship, an inspired visual that brings to mind a Richard Scarry children's book or a Barbie doll mansion; the psychedelic sea creatures encountered by Team Zissou (stop-motion animation courtesy of The Nightmare Before Christmas director Henry Selick); a radio in the background that's playing the Joan Baez-Ennio Morricone composition "Here's To You" (has any radio station, anywhere, played this song at any point over the course of the last two decades?); and Zissou's disdain for the outfit's pet dolphins. It may be impossible to love The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, but it's remarkably easy to drown oneself in its sea of eccentricity.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach; a making-of piece; deleted scenes; interviews with the cast and crew; an interview with composer Mark Mothersbaugh; and singer-actor Seu Jorge performing David Bowie songs in Portuguese.
NOTES ON A SCANDAL (2006). Judi Dench is so good at what she does that she often become something of a bore. Aside from her roles as an Alzheimer's victim in 2001's Iris and as a mother searching for her son in last year's Philomena — the few times her characters weren't in control of everything happening on the screen — she's always cast as the no-nonsense matriarch with more brains and gumption than anyone else in the room. After an utterly unexceptional performance in 2005's Mrs. Henderson Presents, the following year's Notes On a Scandal didn't exactly find her breaking away from this mold, but because she's given so many more nuances to explore, she's able to excel in a bravura performance. Here, she's playing a character so pitiless that she refers to a boy with Down's Syndrome as "a court jester." The lad is the son of Sheba Hart (solid Cate Blanchett, not surrendering an inch of the screen to her costar), a newly arrived instructor at the same British school where the humorless Barbara Covett (Dench) also teaches. Initially irked by the presence of this luminous newcomer, Barbara eventually becomes her confidante, imagining in her mind that their affection for each other might even run deeper than mere friendship. After Sheba foolishly commences an affair with a 15-year-old student (Andrew Simpson), Barbara feels betrayed, but also realizes that she now has a perfect instrument of blackmail at her disposal. Notes On a Scandal is basically a lurid melodrama — one that could benefit from some late-inning twists, I might add — but Dench and Blanchett, slinging around juicy dialogue by scripter Patrick Marber (from Zoe Heller's book), turn this into something more. Think of it as Masterpiece Theatre filtered through Days of Our Lives. This nabbed four Oscar nominations: Best Actress (Dench), Supporting Actress (Blanchett), Adapted Screenplay and Original Score (Philip Glass).
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director Richard Eyre; two behind-the-scenes featurettes; interviews with Blanchett and co-star Bill Nighy; and the theatrical trailer.
POMPEII (2014). Pompeii? Oy vey. Just as James Cameron used a historical disaster as the backdrop to a romance between two kids from opposite sides of the tracks, so too does director Paul W.S. Anderson (Resident Evil, The Three Musketeers). But that's where the comparison ends, because whereas Cameron managed to make Titanic as majestic as the ship it honored, Anderson's film comparatively feels like a toy boat bobbing upside down in the bathtub. Set in 79 A.D., Pompeii centers on Milo (Game of Thrones' Kit Harington), a slave whose skill in the gladiator arena means that he can provide good entertainment for the masses. He's shipped off to Pompeii, where he befriends a fellow gladiator named Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and catches the eye of the upper-crust Cassia (Emily Browning). But a Roman leader named Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland, truly awful) lusts after Cassia and does his damnedest to kill Milo. Every once in a while, the actors sway back and forth and some stuff crashes to the floor to remind viewers that there's a volcano bubbling in the background, ready to blow its lid. And after a few of these false-alarm earthquakes, Mount Vesuvius finally does just that, erupting as powerfully as porn star James Deen in one of his 1,121 films. Tedious in the extreme, Pompeii is basically an amateurish amalgamation of such sword'n'sandal works as Spartacus, Game of Thrones and Gladiator, although it definitely sets its compass to Titanic. And while imitation can indeed be the sincerest form of flattery, that's not the case when the results are as ham-fisted as those here. When it's not busy tracking the fortunes of our mopey lovers or chucking Milo into the arena for gladiator-on-gladiator action (these skirmishes are the highlights of the film), the script (credited to three writers) wastes its time on a business deal between Corvus and Cassia's father (Jared Harris), the sort of arid drivel that immediately landed The Phantom Menace in hot water when its heroes opened the movie discussing trade routes and taxes. Still, the presence of Cassia's pop allows him the opportunity to exclaim "Juno's tit!" the way we utter "Good God!" or "Holy smokes!" Now, I'm not sure "Juno's tit!" is the best way to evoke period authenticity, but "By the hymen of Olivia Newton-John!" was already taken by Will Ferrell.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Anderson; deleted scenes; and behind-the-scenes featurettes examining the cast, stunts, effects, costumes and production design.
RIDE ALONG (2014). The tagline for this box office hit is both clever and pushes the plot: "Propose to this cop's sister? Rookie mistake." (Give its creator a bonus ... or, better yet, a share of the profits.) Kevin Hart plays Ben Barber, a high school security guard who, despite spending most of his free time playing video games, is somehow in a serious relationship with the beautiful Angela (Tika Sumpter). James (Ice Cube), Angela's brother and a veteran with the Atlanta Police Department, doesn't feel Ben is worthy of his sister's affections, so when Ben, after getting accepted to the police academy, confidently asks for James' blessing regarding Angela, the senior cop makes a proposal: Survive a day with me on the streets and you have my permission to marry my sister. And so off they go in James' squad car. This is where the hilarity is supposed to kick into high gear, but as we watch Ben timidly tangle with burly bikers blocking a handicapped parking space, tackle a crazy guy (comedian Gary Owen) throwing produce in a marketplace, and lose a verbal match to a lippy kid (rapper Benjamin "Lil P-Nut" Flores) on a playground, it becomes clear that the flimsy script (credited to four writers) will offer the actors little in the way of choice quips or promising scenarios, forcing them instead to animate their characters through sheer star power alone. So even though Kevin Hart is basically playing Chris Tucker in Rush Hour and Ice Cube is basically playing Nick Nolte in 48 Hrs., some of their own patented patter breaks free every now and then. Ben's ineptitude at a shooting range allows James to smugly lord over him, and Cube's slow-burn swagger works well in this context. As for Hart, his rapid-fire hucksterism is put to good use during a lengthy sequence in which Ben is forced to pose as a criminal kingpin. Ride Along is instantly forgettable, but at least Cube and Hart provide it with a few choice moments. Everyone else involved with the production, from the director (Tim Story) to the supporting players (John Leguizamo, Bruce McGill, Laurence Fishburne, etc.), is simply along for the ride.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Story; behind-the-scenes featurettes; deleted scenes; an alternate ending; a gag reel; and a look at the Atlanta shooting location.
TWO RODE TOGETHER (1961) / MR. HOBBS TAKES A VACATION (1962). James Stewart was inarguably one of the screen greats of the 20th century, making more than his share of movie masterpieces over the course of six decades. Such recognizable classics as Vertigo and It's a Wonderful Life are of course already on Blu-ray (although Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and The Philadelphia Story are still MIA), and now the Twilight Time label has seen fit to introduce a pair of his lesser-known 60s-era titles to the format.
Two Rode Together is a film that's certainly ripe for rediscovery — or, more accurately, being discovered in the first place, since it proved to be a commercial and critical failure upon its original release. Stewart delivers an excellent, edgy performance as Guthrie McCabe, an unscrupulous small-town marshal who agrees (for a fee) to help his buddy, earnest army officer Jim Gary (Richard Widmark), retrieve some long-held settlers from their Cherokee captors. Since they were snatched when they were children, these innocents have long been integrated into Comanche society and might not even want to return to their families; nevertheless, the two men set out on their mission, with McCabe's cynicism constantly at odds with Gary's sincerity. The knockabout humor found in many of director John Ford's pictures is especially grating here — on the whole, his peer Howard Hawks usually did a better job of smoothly dropping comic notes into the action. Yet Two Rode Together nevertheless works due to its tough-minded approach to the Western template — in this sordid saga, the settlers, soldiers and Native Americans all display their nasty sides — and to the give-and-take dynamics between Stewart and Widmark.
Stewart plays a kinder — if still agitated and ornery — character in Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation, in which the title character, one Roger Hobbs (played by Jimmy, natch), reluctantly takes his entire brood to the beach for a family getaway. Staying in a dilapidated seaside house, Roger and his wife Peggy (Maureen O'Hara) cope with all manner of domestic dramas involving their kids and in-laws. A slow starter that initially creaks as badly as that beach house, Mr. Hobbs eventually hits its stride with a series of irresistible set-pieces: the efforts of awkward daughter Katey (Lauri Peters, who also became the short-lived Mrs. Jon Voight in 1962) to land a partner at a dance; Roger's boat trip with his son Danny (Michael Burns), a voyage almost as ill-fated as Gilligan's; and a visit by a stuffy businessman (a hilarious John McGiver) and his ditsy wife (Marie Wilson). Singing star Fabian appears in a supporting role as Katey's new boyfriend, and it's a sign of the times to see him begin the picture as a clean-shaven kid and end it as a goateed beatnik.
Blu-ray extras on Two Rode Together consist of the theatrical trailer and an isolated track of George Duning's score. Blu-ray extras on Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation consist of a Fox Movietone News short mentioning the film; the theatrical trailer; and an isolated track of Henry Mancini's score.
Both Movies: ***