(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.)
THE BIG SLEEP (1946). Here's one of the greatest of all motion pictures from one of the greatest of all directors. In Howard Hawks' film noir staple, author Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe comes to electrifying life in the hands of Humphrey Bogart, whose gumshoe keeps busy flirting with the ladies when he isn't whipping off snappy comebacks (my fave: "I don't like your manners." "I don't like them myself. They're pretty bad... I grieve over them on long winter evenings."). The action kicks off when Marlowe is hired by the elderly and wealthy General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) to investigate a blackmail scheme; what the sleuth uncovers instead is a labyrinthine plot that involves murder and threatens to ensnare the millionaire's two daughters, the sultry Vivian Rutledge (Bogie's real-life squeeze Lauren Bacall) and the volatile Carmen (Martha Vickers). For all the story's narrative intricacies, many of the best moments come when Marlowe is revealing his human side, including his jokey rapport with a book-store owner (Bogart and Dorothy Malone are sizzling together) and his touching respect for a mousy guy (who else but Elisha Cook Jr.?) whose final gesture is a noble one. One of the film's screenwriters was no less than William Faulkner; the others were Jules Furthman, responsible for other vintage classics like Mutiny on the Bounty, Nightmare Alley and Rio Bravo, and Leigh Brackett, whose final screen credit would come decades later in the form of The Empire Strikes Back.
The Blu-ray also contains the alternate 1945 pre-release version of The Big Sleep, initially shown only once before the studio pulled it, deleted some scenes, and shot new ones to emphasize the relationship between Bogie and Bacall. Extras consist of an introduction by film preservationist Robert Gitt; Gitt's comparison of the 1945 and 1946 cuts of the film; and the theatrical trailer.
CHILDREN SHOULDN'T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS (1972). The clever title is the best thing about this early-'70s outing that, like other horror flicks from the period (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Let's Scare Jessica to Death, etc.), finds its low budget working to its advantage in providing a grungy aesthetic benefitting its subject matter. A theatrical troupe arrives on an island off the coast of Florida, where Alan (Alan Ormsby, who also co-wrote the film and created its makeup effects), the group's preening and tyrannical director, wastes no time in pulling pranks on his unsuspecting actors and, for added kicks, holds a séance in an attempt to bring to life one of the corpses (Seth Sklarey as Orville) dug up from the local cemetery. The ritual works only too well, as the humans soon have to deal with a slew of ravenous zombies. The performances are on the amateurish side, and the dialogue whiplashes between amusing quips and (mostly) leaden chitchat. But the final act, a full-fledged rip-off of Night of the Living Dead, is effectively staged and showcases Ormsby's impressively monstrous makeup designs. Director and co-writer Bob Clark (here billed for the only time under his given name, Benjamin Clark) would later helm the family classic A Christmas Story, the box office smash Porky's and the Sylvester Stallone-Dolly Parton disaster Rhinestone, among other pictures; he and his 22-year-old son Ariel would tragically be killed by a drunk driver in 2007.
The Blu-ray also contains the alternate U.K. version of the film. Extras include audio commentary on the original by Ormsby and co-stars Jane Daly and Anya Cronin; audio commentary on the U.K. edition by Ormsby; a tribute to Clark; two music videos ("Dead Girls Don't Say No" and "Cemetery Mary") by The Deadthings; and a photo gallery.
THE GOOD DINOSAUR (2015). After a remarkable run, Pixar has finally released its first out-and-out mediocrity. Forget such modern gems as Inside Out and the Toy Story trilogy — The Good Dinosaur makes even indifferently received efforts like Cars 2 and Monsters University look great by comparison. Pixar flicks have always been for adults as much as for children, yet this one marks the first time grown-ups have been left out of the mix, with the film designed to play only to the small fry. That's all well and good, and while most kids will invariably watch anything as long as it involves bright colors and loud noises, it will be hard for anyone else to warm to a movie so bereft of humor or excitement. The film begins with a "what if?" scenario: What if the comet that wiped out the dinosaurs missed the planet? The only reason for this supposition is so a human protagonist — a feral boy — can eventually be added to the story, since this opening act doesn't impact the film in any other way. Mostly, the plot centers on a young dino named Arlo and how his life is irrevocably altered by a tragedy lifted straight out of The Lion King. And like another lion, the one taking the road to Oz, Arlo needs to finds his courage, and he only does so after getting lost and teaming up with the aforementioned boy, a lupine lad named Spot. The story is suffocating in its simplicity, and while the backgrounds are gorgeously rendered, the characters are a visually drab lot. Thankfully, the film never indulges in the sort of scatological humor seen in other studios' toon efforts — still, that's a consolation that only goes so far, given that innovation and imagination prove to be as extinct as pterodactyls in the modern world.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director Peter Sohn and other crew members; a making-of featurette; deleted scenes; and the animated short Sanjay's Super Team.
THE GRADUATE (1967). Where to begin? And how to capsulize? A landmark motion picture, director Mike Nichols' blistering comedy emerged in tandem with the same year's Bonnie and Clyde as the film which blew open the lid on what audiences could expect to see on movie screens from that point forward. Experimental in its approach, candid about sex, and vicious in its attacks on American conformity and consumerism ("Plastics"), the film, adapted by Buck Henry and Calder Willingham from Charles Webb's book, also became a rallying cry for the period's youth, widening the generation gap and emerging as one of the biggest box office smashes of its decade. In a star-making performance, Dustin Hoffman plays Benjamin Braddock, a young man whose confusion about the direction his life will take only becomes muddier once he stumbles into an affair with a married older woman (an excellent Anne Bancroft). Then when he falls in love with her daughter (a so-so Katharine Ross), things get really complicated. Nichols' decision to use a pop score resulted in a beautiful melding of movie and music (and sent the Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack soaring up the charts), while Robert Surtees' brilliant camerawork yields one awe-inspiring shot after another. Nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and bids for Bancroft, Hoffman, Ross, Surtees and the Henry-Willingham team, this copped its sole win for Nichols' direction.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Nichols (who passed away in 2014) and filmmaker Steven Soderbergh; separate audio commentary by film scholar Howard Suber; new interviews with Hoffman, Henry and producer Lawrence Turman; a 1966 interview of Nichols by Barbara Walters; and 2007's Students of The Graduate, a documentary short about the film's influence.
JESUS OF NAZARETH (1977). The best film ever made that revolves around Jesus Christ remains Martin Scorsese's remarkable 1988 achievement The Last Temptation of Christ, but for those opting for something more traditional, director Franco Zeffirelli's ambitious undertaking is clearly the best bet. Released theatrically overseas (in some countries as a two-part movie) but presented as a television miniseries for its stateside showing, this handsome production showcases British actor Robert Powell portraying one of the best Christs the screen has seen, effectively mixing a divine countenance with recognizably human emotions. The saga begins even before the birth of Jesus — with the union of Mary (Olivia Hussey) and Joseph (Yorgo Voyagis) — and continues through the Crucifixion and Resurrection, charting many of the Biblical high points in between. Armed with a 6-1/2-hour running time, Zeffirelli and his co-scripters (including Anthony Burgess of A Clockwork Orange notoriety) allow each segment of Christ's life to be properly developed, and the director shows tremendous reverence without ever adopting a sanctimonious tone. The cast is packed with all-stars (among them Laurence Olivier, James Earl Jones and Anthony Quinn), with the most notable turns provided by Ian McShane as Judas, Anne Bancroft as Mary Magdalene, Michael York as John the Baptist, Rod Steiger as Pontius Pilate, and especially James Farentino (the only cast member to earn an Emmy nomination) as Simon Peter. But as the Roman Centurion overseeing Christ's crucifixion, Ernest Borgnine is as miscast as was John Wayne when he essayed the role in 1965's The Greatest Story Ever Told.
Blu-ray extras consist of interviews with York and author Jean-Pierre Isbouts (Jesus: An Illustrated Life, From Moses to Muhammad).
KEY LARGO (1948). James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson emerged as superstars approximately a full decade before Humphrey Bogart, meaning that while Jimmy and Eddie were marquee leads throughout the 1930s, Bogie was relegated to supporting status, almost always as the heavy. Four such efforts even found Bogart playing second banana to Robinson (he toiled under Cagney on three pictures), but the dynamics were changed once Bogart became a major star in the early 1940s thanks to such classics as The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. The two actors were on equal footing in Key Largo, joined in the above-the-title billing by Bogart's real-life wife and frequent co-star Lauren Bacall. This loose adaptation of Maxwell Anderson's play, written and directed by John Huston (with Richard Brooks serving as co-scripter), casts Bogart as Frank McCloud, a WWII veteran who arrives in Key Largo, Florida, to pay his respects to James and Nora Temple (Lionel Barrymore and Bacall), the father and widow of one of his friends killed in action. But Frank soon learns that the hotel run by the Temples is being commandeered by gangster Johnny Rocco (Robinson) and his underlings. This is surprisingly staid for a Huston film, with the central plot (a hoodlum holding hostages) executed more memorably in two other Bogart titles, 1936's The Petrified Forest and 1955's The Desperate Hours (both with Bogie as the villain instead of the hero). Still, the top-notch cast punches this across, and the swirling storm raging outside the hotel provides an interesting backdrop. Claire Trevor earned the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her performance as Rocco's boozy moll; Huston, meanwhile, won Best Director and Best Screenplay Oscars for his other 1948 release, the all-time masterpiece The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
The only Blu-ray extra is the theatrical trailer.
THE KID (1921). After writing, directing and starring in approximately 50 silent shorts over the span of seven years, Charlie Chaplin took a shot at making a feature-length picture with The Kid, a resounding success that kicked off his rapid ascension as one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century. The movie opens with the words "a picture with a smile — and perhaps, a tear," a mission statement that would serve the artist well over the ensuing decades. The Kid is less uproarious than later Chaplin efforts, serving more as a testing ground as it offers a charming yet tough-minded tale in which the Tramp locates an orphaned baby amidst the tenement rubble and, after much deliberation, elects to raise the child as his own. The Child grows older (and is played by 6-year-old Jackie Coogan, who instantly became a star), at which point he becomes the object of attention for a meddling doctor, a heartless orphanage head, and even his own mother (Edna Purviance), who had abandoned the boy in his infancy and now doesn't realize he's her own flesh and blood. The best sequences involve the Tramp making his pad more child-friendly (I love what he does with the chair), but the whole film retains its timeless charm — I first showed this to my daughter when she was 12, and her tearful reaction to the heartrending scenes was a testament to Chaplin's enduring ability to reach out across the years and touch someone.
The cut of The Kid included on Criterion's new Blu-ray edition is Chaplin's own 1972 re-release version, shorn of several minutes (all involving Purviance's character); that trimmed footage is included in the supplements as deleted scenes. Other extras include audio commentary by Chaplin historian Charles Maland; a video essay on Coogan; and 1922's Nice and Friendly, an amusing short created by Chaplin as a wedding gift to Lord and Lady Mountbatten.
LOVE THE COOPERS (2015). The latest in a long line of Yuletide bombs, Love the Coopers isn't a movie to watch as much as survive — while it may not quite match the sheer awfulness of such seasonal disasters as Jingle All the Way, Deck the Halls and the utterly repulsive Christmas with the Kranks, I still wouldn't want to live on the difference. The members of the Cooper clan all plan to meet for dinner at the home of Charlotte (Diane Keaton) and Sam (John Goodman) — alas, everyone is unaware that the pair are on the verge of getting a divorce because they were supposed to go on an African vacation 30 years ago and Charlotte has kept putting it off, angering Sam to no end. This trite storyline is arguably the film's worst — a real problem, since it's also the one that consumes the most time. And while these scenes do include the presence of the family pet, a gorgeous St. Bernard, he's only around to provide comical reaction shots (the surest sign of lazy filmmaking). Meanwhile, on other pages of the script, Charlotte's dad (Alan Arkin) has developed a close relationship with a troubled waitress (Amanda Seyfried), Charlotte's sister (Marisa Tomei) is bitter that she's single and lonely (yes, the lovely Tomei is playing someone who can't get dates; no, this is not set in an alternate universe), another family member (Ed Helms) has to contend with a young daughter who likes to say, "You're such a dick!" to everyone, and Charlotte's liberal daughter (Olivia Wilde) encounters a conservative soldier (Jake Lacy) at the airport. Other movies like City Lights and It's a Wonderful Life are shamelessly name-dropped, and I personally wouldn't have minded an additional film reference, with the Coopers' lovable St. Bernard going all Cujo and ripping asunder all these intolerable twits.
DVD extras include a making-of featurette; a piece on the St. Bernard; and a music video by Alison Kraus and Robert Plant.
SECRET IN THEIR EYES (2015). The Argentinian drama The Secret In Their Eyes earns my vote as the best non-English import of at least the past 10 years, deservedly taking the 2010 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. An American remake sounded like a suicide mission, the sort of wrong-headed thinking that allowed the superb and uncompromising Dutch thriller The Vanishing to be remade as a dim-witted Yankee property, complete with a tacked-on happy ending. Shockingly — and happily — that's not the case with the stateside interpretation Secret In Their Eyes (oddly dropping the The), which never matches the intensity of its predecessor but still manages to work quite nicely on its own. Billy Ray, whose past credits include writing and directing Shattered Glass and penning Captain Phillips and the first Hunger Games film, has smartly found a way to localize and contemporize the material, changing the original's backdrop of Argentina's Dirty War to our nation's 9/11 tragedy. There are a couple of other major changes — neither crippling — but the thrust remains the same: Constantly shifting between two time periods (2001 and today), it follows an intrepid investigator (Chiwetel Ejiofor) as he spends years trying to locate the man who raped and killed a young woman, assisted in his efforts by his colleagues (Nicole Kidman and Julia Roberts) but meeting heavy resistance and even interference from top-level government officials. Unlike the original, Ray's update doesn't have the pervading atmosphere of paranoia or persistent stench of evil hanging over every scene, but it does have Ejiofor, whose remarkable performance is a thing of beauty.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Ray and producer Mark Johnson, and a discussion with Roberts.
THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW (1988). Better (certainly classier) than most films directed by the late Wes Craven, this zombie flick ("inspired" by the factual book by Wade Davis) still registers as an also-ran in the horror sweepstakes. The normally fine Bill Pullman is none-too-convincing as Dennis Alan, a Harvard anthropologist who's tasked by an American pharmaceutical company to travel to Haiti and learn the mystery behind a powder believed to cause zombification (the pharmaceutical conglomerate claims that it wants the formula for humanitarian reasons; ha!). Dennis' efforts are hindered not only by the machinations of a local voodoo practitioner who's also head of the secret police (Zakes Mokae) but by the general unrest caused by the cruel rule of the tyrannical Haitian President (and Reagan-endorsed mass murderer) Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier. Relating this tale against the backdrop of political unrest is the picture's most inspired touch, yet this provocative angle gets buried under the usual silliness found in Craven cinema, including obvious dream sequences and effects overkill (the climax, featuring an ethereal Paul Winfield and a jaguar spirit, is particularly risible). If the score often sounds like an inferior version of the superb one employed in 1984's The Terminator, that's because Brad Fiedel composed both. For a similar yet superior film released around the same time, check out John Schlesinger's 1987 sleeper The Believers.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Pullman; a making-of featurette; a photo gallery; and the theatrical trailer.
SPOTLIGHT (2015). If Spotlight isn't quite the match of the peerless All the President's Men, we have to remind ourselves, what is? Writer-director Tom McCarthy and co-scripter Josh Singer keep their eyes on the target every step of the way, foregoing any narrative distractions and remaining firmly focused on the team of Boston Globe reporters who broke the story of the sexual abuse being committed on children by members of the clergy. (Correction: Kristen Lombardi of the alternative weekly Boston Phoenix actually broke the story, and the Globe subsequently ran with it.) The abuse has been going on for years, but it takes an outsider — the paper's new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) — to assign the crack Spotlight team, the journalists committed to pursuing long-term stories, to uncover enough evidence to drag the scandal out from the shadows. And so they go to work, with Spotlight editor Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton) riding herd over reporters Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James). A movie that ends up being about the awful abuse of power as much as about that last-gasp period before journalism shifted from being a conduit of reliable information into a circus act of celebrity reporters riding unicycles of distortion and deceit, Spotlight is especially admirable in its restraint, not only in its approach to unsettling material but also in the relatively muted acting by all concerned. In a cast of equals, Keaton probably stands a centimeter taller than the rest, although there's much to be said for Ruffalo's searing intensity. Spotlight has earned six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, supporting bids for Ruffalo and McAdams, and writing and directing nods for McCarthy.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette and a look at the state of journalism.