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.
Fred Gwynne in Pet Sematary (Photo: Paramount)
(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.)
AQUAMAN (2018). While DC is often criticized (sometimes unfairly) for its why-so-serious approach to its cinematic world-building, that charge is unlikely to be leveled against this recent installment in the DCEU. That’s because Aquaman is most similar to Thor: Ragnarok (reviewed here) in its rowdiness and rabble-rousing, with Jason Momoa’s royal rebel Arthur Curry/Aquaman coming off as a distant cousin to Chris Hemsworth’s social superhero. To be sure, Momoa is the best thing about this picture, adopting an infectious party-animal vibe that complements his what-me-worry demeanor. But the humorous sequences ultimately run hot and cold, while the more dramatic interludes get crushed by the weight of their stodginess. “You expect me to call you king?” asks a vanquished foe of Orm. “You can call me … Ocean Master!” And so it goes with the deadening dialogue, the sort that hits the ears with all the unwelcome force of an anvil shot from a cannon. Yet this aural assault goes hand in hand with the optic attack, since the CGI is often shaky and sometimes downright risible. Aquaman is also the sort of overstuffed extravaganza that’s so intent on hitting all the requisite superhero beats that it never develops a heartbeat of its own. Aside from Momoa’s gregariousness and Temuera Morrison’s tenderness as Arthur’s human father, there’s little personality to be found in this picture, with Patrick Wilson (as the aforementioned villain Orm) and Amber Heard (as the valiant Mera) particularly vanquished by the one-dimensional aspects of their roles. The picture eventually and inevitably ends with the sort of endless battle that should exhaust all but the most fanboyish of spectators.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; a piece on director James Wan; interviews with cast members (including Momoa) as they discuss their characters; and a sneak peek at Shazam!
THE BODY SNATCHER (1945). In his grandly entertaining book Alternate Oscars, author Danny Peary states that Boris Karloff deserved the 1945 Best Actor Academy Award for The Body Snatcher (the actual award went to Ray Milland for his fine turn as an alcoholic in the Best Picture winner The Lost Weekend). Snobs will doubtless snicker (a horror star winning an Oscar?), but Peary isn’t far off the mark. Karloff delivers a masterful performance — perhaps the best of his career — in this adaptation of the short story by Robert Louis Stevenson (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), with Robert Wise (later of West Side Story and The Sound of Music fame) providing the direction and esteemed producer Val Lewton supplying the script (under his pseudonym Carlos Keith). The horror icon stars as Mr. Gray, a coachman who digs up and steals corpses on the side for a venal doctor (Henry Daniell). Karloff’s nothing short of commanding in an unexpectedly complex role, and he shares a couple of scenes with his frequent ’30s co-star Bela Lugosi, here relegated to a bit part as Daniell’s sneaky servant. This was the first of three movies Karloff made with the esteemed Lewton; the subsequent titles — both highly recommended — were 1945’s Isle of the Dead and 1946’s Bedlam.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by Wise and film historian Steve Haberman; a retrospective piece on the movie; Shadows In the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy, an hour-long documentary offering insight into the life and career of the auteur-producer who correctly believed that the most frightening horrors are the ones we cannot see; a still gallery; and the theatrical trailer.
LOVERS AND OTHER STRANGERS (1970). One of the best movies ever made that centers around a wedding, Lovers and Other Strangers finds a terrific ensemble cast knocking it out of the park with the invaluable assistance of a richly textured (and very funny) script by Joseph Bologna, Renée Taylor, and David Zelag Goodman. Adapted from the Broadway show penned by longtime married couple Bologna and Taylor, the film follows Susan Henderson (Bonnie Bedelia) and Mike Vecchio (Michael Brandon) as they prepare for their upcoming nuptials while various friends and family members deal with their own issues. For starters, Susan’s father (Gig Young), perpetually trying to appear hip (“No gap!” he chirps to members of the younger generation), has to finally choose between his wife (Cloris Leachman) and his mistress (Anne Jackson), while Mike’s parents (Bea Arthur and Richard Castellano) are upset that their other son (Joseph Hindy) and his wife (Diane Keaton in her film debut) are planning to divorce. Arthur and Young are both outstanding, but even they’re overshadowed by Castellano, absolutely marvelous as the burly pop who opens every inquiry with “So what’s the story?” An Academy Award nominee for Best Supporting Actor (Castellano) and Best Adapted Screenplay, Lovers and Other Strangers won the Best Original Song Oscar for the lovely tune “For All We Know” — performed for the film’s soundtrack by Larry Meredith, it then became a smash hit for The Carpenters when they released their version in 1971.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historian Lee Gambin and trailers for other titles on the Kino Lorber label.
PET SEMATARY (1989). As a teenager in the early 1980s, I devoured Stephen King’s first dozen or so books (yes, including Danse Macabre) before other interests led me to bail on tackling his next offering, Pet Sematary. Even now, decades later, I never got around to reading it, but while the plot specifics are reportedly almost identical, I have to imagine it doesn’t possess the same degree of daftness that permeates director Mary Lambert’s screen version. Showcasing a script penned by King himself (it was the second time he adapted one of his own works, following 1985’s limp Silver Bullet), this casts Dale Midkiff and Denise Crosby as Louis and Rachel Creed, two of the most irresponsible parents ever to make their way onto a movie screen. Their young daughter Ellie (Blaze Berdahl) and especially their toddler Gage (Mike Hughes) would be just as well off living on their own, a point made clear once tragedy strikes the family and the adjacent pet cemetery, a former Indian burial ground with supernatural powers, provides Dad with a way to make everything OK again (or so he thinks). The premise is fascinating, but Lambert’s leaden direction (suspense is nowhere to be found), weak performances from the leads, and King’s frequently campy interludes (is Brad Greenquist’s walking corpse supposed to be this ridiculous?) pretty much sink this one. Fred Gwynne, however, is excellent as Jud, the folksy neighbor whose well-meaning actions eventually lead to doom and gloom. Even as a huge Ramones fan, I gotta admit that the title song doesn’t represent the band at its best.
4K Ultra HD / Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Lambert; a trio of making-of featurettes; a piece in which cast and crew members of the upcoming Pet Sematary adaptation discuss this earlier screen adaptation; and three image galleries.
THE TARNISHED ANGELS (1957). A year after helming Written on the Wind, director Douglas Sirk rounded up three of that film’s stars — Rock Hudson, Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone (who had won an Oscar for her Wind performance) — to help him bring William Faulkner’s bleak novel Pylon to the screen. Sirk, known for his rich use of colors (mimicked perfectly in Todd Haynes’ Sirk homage piece Far from Heaven, reviewed last week here), opted to employ black-and-white for The Tarnished Angels — it was a sound and strategic choice, further amplifying the overcast quality that permeates these characters’ lives. Hudson, who (by my reckoning) has yet to receive his full due as an exemplary actor, is note-perfect as Burke Devlin, a boozy Depression-era newspaperman who decides that his next story should be about Roger Shumann (Stack), a former World War I pilot who now performs aerial stunts for adoring crowds. Roger’s barnstorming show also incorporates his wife LaVerne (Malone), who dazzles the masses with her parachute act; watching from the ground are the couple’s young son Jack (Chris Olsen) and the outfit’s mechanic Jiggs (Jack Carson). Roger treats his wife in aloof fashion while Jiggs loves her from a safe distance; joining her fan club are a lecherous businessman (Robert Middleton) and the sympathetic Burke. Chiseled cynicism and casual cruelty appear to be the orders of the day when it comes to the maneuverings and machinations of these shaded characters, yet there are also glimmers of hope and humility that further shape and strengthen the material.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historian Imogen Sara Smith; the theatrical trailer; and trailers for other Kino titles.
WANDA (1970). Born in Marion, NC, and raised in Asheville, the young Barbara Loden hightailed it to New York, where she became a regular on The Ernie Kovacs Show and eventually won a Tony Award for her performance in the 1964 production of Arthur Miller’s After the Fall. That play was directed by two-time Oscar-winning director (and HUAAC stoolie) Elia Kazan, whom Loden married three years later. Appearing frequently on Broadway but only sporadically in film and on television, Loden found herself in a position to write, direct and star in her own movie — a triple-threat rarity for a woman at that time. Forsaking any semblance of artificiality or sentimentality, Loden came up with Wanda, a scrappy drama (doubtless with semi-autobiographical overtones) about a divorcée trapped in a dead-end existence in a Pennsylvania coal-mining town. Let go from her factory job, she starts trading one-night stands for an alcoholic drink or two, only to then become the partner of a temperamental bank robber (Michael Higgins). Wanda is a fascinating screen character in all her contradictions, and Loden delivers a beautiful performance in the role. Reportedly, Kazan wasn’t very supportive of his wife turning auteur; they in fact were headed for divorce when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and tragically died in 1980, at the age of 48.
Blu-ray extras consist of a 1980 retrospective making-of documentary; a segment from a 1971 episode of The Dick Cavett Show featuring Loden; an audio recording of a 1971 lecture by Loden delivered to students at the American Film Institute; the 1975 educational short The Frontier Experience, directed by and starring Loden; and the theatrical trailer.
THE WITCHES (1966). Not to be confused with 1967’s The Witches (an Italian anthology film featuring Clint Eastwood) or 1990’s The Witches (Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation of the Roald Dahl novel), this 1966 namesake hails from Hammer Films during its prolific heyday. Originally playing stateside under the title The Devil’s Own, this marked the final feature-film appearance by Joan Fontaine, who (fascinating trivia alert!) was the only performer to ever win an Oscar for an Alfred Hitchcock picture (1941’s Suspicion, to be exact). Fontaine stars as Gwen Mayfield, a schoolteacher who suffered a nervous breakdown after being harassed by witch doctors while serving in an African village. Now fully recuperated, she accepts an assignment to teach at the local school in a quiet little village back in England. She’s warmly welcomed by two of the burg’s more educated residents, newspaper columnist Stephanie Bax (Kay Walsh) and her reverend brother Alan Bax (Alec McCowen), but she soon notices that most of the other villagers are engaged in odd behaviors and practices. As she starts investigating, she comes to believe that a witches’ coven might actually be operating in the area. The juxtaposition of satanic rituals practiced against the backdrop of a picturesque English countryside gives this film its unique edge (not unlike that of the same year’s The Plague of the Zombies, another Hammer effort and recently reviewed here), and the story unfolds as a good mystery should. It’s just unfortunate that the climax is diminished by the hammy acting of most involved (particularly the background players).
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by documentary filmmaker Ted Newsom (Flesh and Blood: The Hammer Heritage of Horror); “Hammer Glamour,” a featurette on women who appeared in the studio’s movies; a still gallery; and theatrical trailers.
Short And Sweet:
BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS (1986). The first installment in playwright Neil Simon’s “Eugene Trilogy” finds Jonathan Silverman portraying the Simon surrogate of a teenage boy obsessed with sex and baseball while growing up in Brooklyn during the Great Depression. Simon adapted his own play while Gene Saks handled directing duties (Saks had won a Tony for helming the Broadway version), but the usual savory Simon mix of humor and pathos never really goes beneath the surface. The performances are acceptable, although the usually fine Blythe Danner is badly miscast as Eugene’s constantly complaining mother. Matthew Broderick, who had won a Tony for originating the part of Eugene on the stage, returned to the role for the 1988 movie version of the second installment, Biloxi Blues, while Corey Parker essayed the role in the third chapter, 1992’s made-for-TV offering Broadway Bound.
The only Blu-ray extra is the theatrical trailer.
THE VAULT (2017). While the recent Overlord succeeded in grafting a supernatural thriller onto a strong WWII framework (see review here), The Vault fails in layering its own eerie plotline onto a heist-flick plot. The early going centering on just the bank robbery is passable, as three siblings (Francesca Eastwood, Taryn Manning and Scott Haze) and their team attempt to rob a bank and are disheartened when they discover there’s not much cash in the safe. But it’s after an assistant manager (James Franco) informs them that millions of dollars are kept in a downstairs vault that the film plays its supernatural hand, as the basement is patrolled by all manner of malevolent creatures. From this point forward, not much makes sense in this haphazardly plotted dud, with little rhyme or reason to the monsters’ MO as well as the sort of nonsensical last-second “shock” that hasn’t caught any viewer off-guard in at least 25 years.
The only Blu-ray extra is the theatrical trailer.
WARNING SIGN (1985). When a plague-filled vial at a government facility accidentally gets broken, the employees find themselves turning into violent psychopaths. The only one not affected is the security officer (Kathleen Quinlan) on duty; ignoring the lockdown ordered by a gruff bureaucrat (Yaphet Kotto), her sheriff husband (Sam Waterston) tries to rescue her. Jeffrey DeMunn delivers a good performance as a discredited biologist who seeks to devise a cure, and it’s interesting to see G.W. Bailey, generally cast in buffoonish parts during this period (e.g. those awful Police Academy films), tackling a straight role as an afflicted scientist. Otherwise, this is a sedate endeavor that attempts to mix the thoughtfulness of The Andromeda Strain with the thrills of a zombie flick and largely fails on both counts.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director and co-writer Hal Barwood; new interviews with Barwood and producer Jim Bloom; a photo gallery; and the theatrical trailer.