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The Birth of a Nation, Death Wish, Jack the Giant Killer among new home entertainment titles 

This week's reviews of what's new on Blu-ray, DVD and Streaming

(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.)

Gregory Peck in The Big Country (Photo: Kino & MGM)
  • Gregory Peck in The Big Country (Photo: Kino & MGM)

THE BIG COUNTRY (1958). Director William Wyler and leading man Gregory Peck, who had worked beautifully together on Roman Holiday, didn't share such a rapturous relationship during the making of this excellent Western, although their squabbles thankfully aren't reflected by what ended up on the screen (for the record, the two men made up a couple of years later). A sprawling epic that was also co-produced by Peck and Wyler, this stars the former as a retired sea captain who settles out West, only to find his manhood questioned by everyone from his ranch foreman (Charlton Heston) to a contemptible cowpoke (Chuck Connors) to even his own fiancée (Carroll Baker). In the midst of all these challenges, he finds himself drawn to a headstrong neighbor (Jean Simmons) and caught in the middle of a feud between two rival landowners (Burl Ives and Charles Bickford). Heston is particularly memorable, although it was Ives who copped the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. (Wyler would direct Heston to an Oscar win the very next year with Ben-Hur.) Jerome Morris' Oscar-nominated score is one of the all-time greats, standing in the company of Elmer Bernstein's The Magnificent Seven theme and Ennio Morricone's Spaghetti Western contributions as the genre's best.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by film historian Sir Christopher Frayling; a vintage behind-the-scenes featurette; the 1986 American Masters episode “Directed by William Wyler,” featuring interviews with Peck, Heston, and other stars; separate interviews with Peck’s children (Cecilia Peck, Carey Peck and Tony Peck), Heston’s son (Fraser C. Heston) and Wyler’s daughter (Catherine Wyler); and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ***1/2

The Birth of a Nation (Photo: Twilight Time)
  • The Birth of a Nation (Photo: Twilight Time)

THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915). Less about the birth of the nation and more about the birth of the movie blockbuster, D.W. Griffith’s three-hour-plus Civil War opus was rumored to have inspired segregationist President Woodrow Wilson to opine, “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” While the first part of that statement might be accurate, the second most assuredly is not. As a work of art, The Birth of a Nation is unforgettable; as a social document, it is unforgivable. Yet until 1938's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and then 1939’s Gone with the Wind, it was the biggest moneymaking movie since the birth of the medium, and its popularity led directly to the revitalization of the Ku Klux Klan, a devastating reawakening still in full effect today (just check out those deplorables supporting the White House’s resident white supremacist). Certainly, Griffith was perhaps unsurpassed as a filmmaker in the silent era, as he introduced and/or tweaked a number of technical innovations with his mammoth production based on fellow racist Thomas Dixon Jr.’s novel The Clansman. But while the first half of the picture — the material occurring before Lincoln’s assassination — is mostly harmless as it follows the fates and fortunes of two families (a Northern clan from Pennsylvania and a Southern brood from South Carolina), the second part is indefensible, as black men (mainly played by white actors in blackface) spend all their time attempting to rape white women and hanging out in congressional halls picking their toenails and flinging gnawed chicken bones. Naturally, it’s up to the heroic members of the KKK to put a stop to this. The Birth of a Nation is required viewing, not only for its superb command of cinema but also as a cautionary tale about the power of media to distort and disgrace.

Twilight Time has produced an excellent two-disc Blu-ray edition that offers the film in its 2015 restoration. Extras include a piece on the movie’s genesis and development; a look at the controversies; an interview with Griffith on Cecil B. DeMille’s Lux Radio Theater; outtakes and original camera tests; the 1915 Civil War drama The Coward; and three silent shorts involving the Civil War.

Quality of Movie: ****

Content of Movie: *

Bruce Willis in Death Wish (Photo: MGM)
  • Bruce Willis in Death Wish (Photo: MGM)

DEATH WISH (2018). First, the good news: Despite all the worries that this remake of the 1974 Charles Bronson hit (itself an adaptation of Brian Garfield’s novel) would be nothing more than an alt-right wet dream in which Bruce Willis guns down scores of blacks and Muslims while shouting, “Trump 2020!,” the film is actually restrained in such matters and isn’t much more reactionary than any other action film of recent vintage. Now, the bad news: The movie still isn’t very good, as it largely strips away the angle that made the Bronson flick so memorable. Very much a film of its time and setting (New York City), the original Death Wish cast Bronson as Paul Kersey, a mild-mannered architect who turns vigilante after his wife is murdered by punks (including Jeff Goldblum!) and his daughter is placed in a coma. But that picture was more about Kersey’s open war on all criminals – startlingly, the thugs who destroyed his family are never apprehended. The new version finds Willis playing a mild-mannered Chicago surgeon who similarly sees his wife (Elisabeth Shue) and daughter (Camila Morone) suffer and opts to take the law into his own hands. But this Paul Kersey has the means to track down his family’s assailants — he quickly stops going after random criminals and focuses solely on those who personally wronged him, and this unfortunate narrative turn renders the picture no different than any other run-of-the-mill revenge flick. Willis delivers another somnabular turn — he’s no match for the often underrated Bronson — although Vincent D’Onofrio has a few choice moments as Paul’s concerned brother.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director Eli Roth and producer Roger Birnbaum; a piece on Roth’s direction; and deleted scenes.

Movie: **

Jack the Giant Killer (Photo: Kino & MGM)
  • Jack the Giant Killer (Photo: Kino & MGM)

JACK THE GIANT KILLER (1962). After eyeing the enormous grosses mustered by 1958’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, producer Edward Small elected to hire that film’s director (Nathan Juran) and leading actors (Kerwin Mathews and Torin Thatcher) to replicate the magic with 1962’s Jack the Giant Killer. Although no classic like the Sinbad flick — and missing that picture’s true star, visual effects wizard Ray Harryhausen — this is nevertheless rousing entertainment, as the heroic farmer Jack (Mathews) matches wits against the evil sorcerer Pendragon (Thatcher) as the latter hopes to usurp the English throne by holding the king's daughter (Judi Meredith) hostage. Along the way, Jack receives valuable assistance from a garrulous viking (Barry Kelley) and the requisite genie in the bottle – in this case, a sprightly leprechaun (Don Beddoe) who will grant Jack three wishes in exchange for his freedom. Even with Harryhausen a no-show, the film features a wide variety of fantastical creatures brought to life by a committed band of artists (including an uncredited Jim Danforth in one of his earliest assignments); among the attractions are a diminutive music-box dancer who transforms into a giant, a two-headed beast, and (unfortunately) a sea monster only slightly less goofy than Sid and Marty Krofft’s Sigmund.

Jack the Giant Killer was later re-released by Small as a children’s musical(!), with a handful of banal songs added after the fact and some clumsy edits meant to disguise the intrusive additions. The new Blu-ray from Kino contains both the preferred 94-minute original cut and the wince-inducing 91-minute musical take. Extras consist of audio commentary by film historian Tim Lucas on the original cut and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ***

Alan Bates and Genevieve Bujold in King of Hearts (Photo: Cohen)
  • Alan Bates and Genevieve Bujold in King of Hearts (Photo: Cohen)

KING OF HEARTS (1966). French director Philippe de Broca’s Le roi de coeur opened in Europe and the United States with little success; it was only a few years later when it was re-released in the U.S. and started heavily hitting the college circuit that it became a bona fide cult film (according to various sources, it played in one Cambridge, Massachusetts, movie theater for five consecutive years beginning in 1971). Its appeal is easy to understand, even if its themes and characters err on the superficial side. Set in a French village during World War I, the picture stars Alan Bates as Charles Plumpick, a Scottish soldier sent by his commanding officer, Colonel MacBibenbrook (Adolfo Celi, almost unrecognizable from his turn as Bond villain Largo in 1965’s Thunderball), to disarm a time bomb left by the departing German army. The bomb scare has resulted in everyone vacating the village — everyone, that is, except for the inmates of the insane asylum, a cheerful bunch who now have the town to themselves. Plumpick finds himself enjoying his time spent in their presence, and he even falls in love with one of the inmates, a virginal prostitute named Coquelicot (Genevieve Bujold, never more ethereal). De Broca employs a heavy trowel to slather the statements introduced in Daniel Boulanger’s script — most centered around the insanity of war and the comparative normalcy of those who prefer not to get involved in the activities of this crazy world — and he’s no less light-fingered when it comes to applying the whimsy. But Bates holds the show together with a disarming performance, and it’s impossible not to respond at least partially to the film’s generosity of spirit.

Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film critic Wade Major; interviews with Bujold and cinematographer Pierre Lhomme; and the American and French re-release trailers.

Movie: ***

Alicia Vikander in Tomb Raider (Photo: Warner & MGM)
  • Alicia Vikander in Tomb Raider (Photo: Warner & MGM)

TOMB RAIDER (2018). Angelina Jolie proved to be a dynamic Lara Croft in her two cinematic at-bats, but 2001’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and 2003’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider — The Cradle of Life were so daft and derivative that they did the actress no favors. Now comes the inevitable reboot, and while Tomb Raider might be every bit as derivative as its antecedents, it’s certainly not as daft. Yet, as before, its greatest strength rests with its leading lady. Like Jolie, Alicia Vikander is also a Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner electing to exercise her physical side. But her Lara Croft is a far cry from Jolie’s more confident and muscular heroine. Vikander’s take on the role is less Wonder Woman and more Everywoman, and it’s an interesting reversal of expectations that provides the picture with additional resonance. The plot finds Lara heading off to unknown territories to locate her father (Dominic West), who’s been MIA for seven years. She acquires a friend in a drunken sea captain (solid Daniel Wu), lands an enemy in a vicious slave driver (snoozy Walton Goggins), and becomes involved in the effort to open the final resting place of an ancient queen who had the power to destroy people simply by touching them. It’s all rather pedestrian, but director Roar Uthaug does manage to stage a couple of exciting action set-pieces that rise above the expected clutter (one involving a storm, the other a waterfall). Still, it’s Vikander who’s primarily responsible for the picture’s limited success, as she transforms Lara Croft into a person who becomes extraordinary despite her relative ordinariness. If a sequel to Tomb Raider gets greenlit, let’s hope the focus is on crafting a better storyline. Because Lara Croft herself needs no upgrade.

Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; a look at Vikander’s training for the film; and a piece on the character Lara Croft.

Movie: **1/2

Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd in Trading Places (Photo: Paramount)
  • Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd in Trading Places (Photo: Paramount)

TRADING PLACES (1983) / COMING TO AMERICA (1988). Beginning with his dynamic film debut in 1982’s 48 HRS., Eddie Murphy headlined nothing but hits for a full decade, marking him as one of the most reliable box office draws of the 1980s and into the 1990s. Paramount has seen fit to reissue two of the actor’s biggest successes from this robust period in new anniversary editions.

A variation on Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, Trading Places teams Murphy with fellow Saturday Night Live player Dan Aykroyd for a sharp comedy in which a bet made by sleazy millionaires Randolph and Mortimer Duke (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche) results in snobbish executive Louis Winthorpe III (Aykroyd) being left homeless and penniless while street-smart hustler Billy Ray Valentine (Murphy) is given Winthorpe’s house, job and finances. The two stars (especially Murphy) are terrific, but the supporting cast provides additional flavor, from Bellamy and Ameche as the insidious Duke brothers to Denholm Elliott and Jamie Lee Curtis as, respectively, the butler and the hooker who assist our heroes.

Arsenio Hall and Eddie Murphy in Coming to America (Photo: Paramount)
  • Arsenio Hall and Eddie Murphy in Coming to America (Photo: Paramount)

Trading Places director John Landis reteamed with Murphy five years later for Coming to America, a sweet-natured comedy with an R-rated edge. Murphy delivers one of his most likable performances as Prince Akeem, who, with his reluctant aide (Arsenio Hall) at his side, travels from his African homeland of Zamunda to New York in the hopes of falling in love (naturally, he elects to look for his future queen in Queens). James Earl Jones and Madge Sinclair play Akeem’s parents, King Jaffe Joffer and Queen Aoleon; six years later, the pair would reunite to portray another royal couple, Mufasa and Sarabi, in the animated smash The Lion King. Added bonus: The clever cameos that loop back to Trading Places.

Blu-ray extras on Trading Places include a making-of featurette; a deleted scene; and trivia pop-ups. Blu-ray extras on Coming to America include a making-of featurette; pieces on the contributions by makeup artist Rick Baker and costume designer Deborah Nadoolman, both of whom earned Oscar nominations for their work on the film; and a chat with Murphy and Hall.

Both Movies: ***

Guy Madison and Jean Simmons in Hilda Crane (Photo: Twilight Time)
  • Guy Madison and Jean Simmons in Hilda Crane (Photo: Twilight Time)

Short And Sweet:

HILDA CRANE (1956). “We believed that women could lead their lives with the same freedom that men do.” That snatch of dialogue, spoken by the title character, provides the backbone to what is otherwise an ordinary soaper about a woman caught between two men. Jean Simmons plays the twice-divorced Hilda, who has left New York to return to her sleepy hometown; there, her attention is divided between dependable builder Russell Burns (Guy Madison) and rascally professor Jacques De Lisle (Jean-Pierre Aumont). Hilda’s independent streak in the conservative ‘50s marks her as an interesting screen heroine, even if the film itself often defaults to expected conformity.

Blu-ray extras consist of the 2001 A&E Biography episode “Jean Simmons: Picture Perfect”; the theatrical trailer; and an isolated track of David Raksin’s score.

Movie: **1/2

J. Michael Finley in I Can Only Imagine (Photo: Lionsgate)
  • J. Michael Finley in I Can Only Imagine (Photo: Lionsgate)

I CAN ONLY IMAGINE (2018). The story behind the best-selling Christian single of all time receives a polished presentation in this inspirational drama that, unlike most faith-based endeavors, looks like a real movie rather than something even Ed Wood would have rejected. The film focuses on MercyMe lead singer Bart Millard (J. Michael Finley) and the events that inspired him to eventually write “I Can Only Imagine.” Chief among these influences is the relationship he shared with his father (Dennis Quaid), an abusive brute who late in life accepted Jesus into his life and changed his monstrous ways. The film doesn’t even try to escape the musical biopic clichés, yet what gives it a lift is the excellent central performance by Finley and a sturdy supporting turn by Quaid.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by sibling directors Andrew and Jon Erwin; deleted scenes; a featurette on the band MercyMe; and a discussion with Millard.

Movie: **1/2

Lucinda Dickey in Ninja III: The Domination (Photo: Shout! Factory & MGM)
  • Lucinda Dickey in Ninja III: The Domination (Photo: Shout! Factory & MGM)

NINJA III: THE DOMINATION (1984). This Cannon Films fodder follows 1981’s Enter the Ninja and 1983’s Revenge of the Ninja, and all three star martial arts champ Sho Kosugi. Yet all three are unrelated (Kosugi plays different characters), so proceed to the Blu-ray player without fear of getting lost in plot. The lengthy opening act of Ninja III is amazing, as an evil ninja (David Chung) kills a golfer, a few bodyguards, and seemingly a full one-third of the L.A. police department. Fatally injured, he transfers his spirit into bubbly telephone linewoman / aerobics instructor Christie (Lucinda Dickey), but the rest of the film isn’t as engaging, as the possessed Christie hangs out with her dorky boyfriend (Jordan Bennett) and seeks exorcism aid from a noble ninja (Kosugi).

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director Sam Firstenberg and stunt coordinator Steve Lambert; new interviews with Dickey and Bennett; and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: **

Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy in Thoroughbreds (Photo: Universal)
  • Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy in Thoroughbreds (Photo: Universal)

THOROUGHBREDS (2018). Anton Yelchin (Star Trek, Green Room) tragically died in a freak accident in June 2016, resulting in the 27-year-old actor’s last five films being released posthumously. This was the final one to debut, and he’s typically excellent in a supporting role as a small-time drug dealer who’s coerced into helping two teenage girls, calm and collected Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) and psychologically unstable Amanda (Olivia Cooke), murder Lily’s odious stepfather (Paul Sparks). Taylor-Joy and Cooke are top-notch, and this film from first-time writer-director Cory Finley is moderately involving even if it never quite reaches the heady heights of the similar Heavenly Creatures.

Blu-ray extras include deleted scenes and a behind-the-scenes featurette.

Movie: **1/2

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