View from the Couch: The Addams Family, Gremlins, The Letter, etc.
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.
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.
Gremlins (Photo: Warner)
(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 ADDAMS FAMILY (1991) / ADDAMS FAMILY VALUES (1993). The Addams Family has been on Blu-ray since 2014, meaning the big news for fans is the debut of its sequel in this format. Both The Addams Family and Addams Family Values are available for purchase separately or in a 2-Movie Collection.
The endearingly odd family created by cartoonist Charles Addams for The New Yorker and further popularized by the 1960s TV sitcom first hit the big screen in The Addams Family, an intermittently amusing tale in which the household members, including Morticia (Anjelica Huston), Gomez (Raul Julia), Wednesday (Christina Ricci), and Pugsley (Jimmy Workman), are reunited with the long-gone Uncle Fester (Christopher Lloyd), not realizing that he might be an imposter. All of the key roles are perfectly cast, although it’s a shame that the great character of Lurch (Carel Struycken) isn’t given more to do.
Addams Family Values, meanwhile, is the rare sequel that improves upon its predecessor. In this outing, Morticia and Gomez welcome baby Pubert to the family, Uncle Fester becomes involved with a murderous gold digger (Joan Cusack), and Wednesday and Pugsley are shipped off to a summer camp full of pampered kids and run by two perpetually perky counselors (Peter MacNichol and Christine Baranski). The camp vignettes are the film’s best, thanks primarily to Ricci’s deadpan performance. Look for Nathan Lane and Tony Shalhoub in small roles. Just as The Addams Family earned a single Oscar nomination for its costume design, this one snagged a solitary nod for its art direction.
The only Blu-ray extras on The Addams Family are theatrical trailers. There are no extras for Addams Family Values.
The Addams Family: ★★½
Addams Family Values: ★★★
GREMLINS (1984). Prior to 1984, the PG-13 rating didn’t exist. It took two violent films from that summer — both involving Steven Spielberg — for folks to decide that a new rating needed to exist between the family-friendly PG and the more restrictive R. One of the controversial movies was the Spielberg-directed Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom; the other was the Spielberg-produced Gremlins. Ranking only under Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters and the aforementioned Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom at the 1984 box office (go here for a lengthy feature on this great movie year), Gremlins proved enormously popular despite — or because of — the surrounding controversy. The central critter is a post-Ewok furball named Gizmo, who enjoys his life with his new owner Billy (Zach Galligan) even though Billy is incapable of following the three golden rules: Never expose Gizmo to direct sunlight, never get him wet, and never feed him after midnight. The penalty for breaking a couple of these directives is the unexpected arrival of wicked creatures who have a taste for mayhem and murder. The visual effects are imaginative, the in-jokes are delivered fast and furious, former Roger Corman vet Dick Miller has a juicy supporting role as a drunken xenophobe, and Phoebe Cates (as Billy’s girlfriend) delivers a chilling speech about why she hates Christmas. I greatly enjoyed Gremlins upon its original ’84 release and on most subsequent revisits but have also become increasingly aware over the years how the jokey tone too often throws the entire film off.
For its 35th anniversary, Gremlins has been released in a 4K UltraHD edition. Extras (all from previous Blu-ray editions) include audio commentary by director Joe Dante, Galligan, Cates, Miller and Howie Mandel (who voices Gizmo); separate commentary by Dante, producer Michael Finnell and special effects artist Chris Walas; a behind-the-scenes featurette; and deleted scenes.
THE LETTER (1940). After successfully working together on 1938’s Oscar-winning Jezebel, director William Wyler and star Bette Davis reunited for this riveting adaptation of the play and short story by W. Somerset Maugham. The greatest actress that the cinema has ever had the honor to service is typically terrific as Leslie Crosbie, who, in the film’s stunning opening, is seen emptying a pistol into a man on the steps of her plantation home in British Malaya. Her husband (Herbert Marshall), away on business, is quickly summoned, along with the family attorney (James Stephenson) and the consulate representative (Bruce Lester), and she explains to them that she killed the man, an old acquaintance, in self-defense after he tried to rape her. Everyone believes her story until an incriminating piece of evidence unexpectedly comes into play. Top productions values — a staple at Warner Bros. at the time — allow the studio lot to convincingly pass for Malaya, with Wyler and cinematographer Tony Gaudio maximizing the imposing atmospherics. Although it went home empty-handed at the Oscars, The Letter did pick up a generous seven nominations, including bids for Best Picture, Actress, Supporting Actor (Stephenson), Director, and Black-and-White Cinematography. The Warner Archive Collection has now released two of the three Davis-Wyler collaborations on Blu-ray within weeks of each other (Jezebel is reviewed here); let’s hope the company offers their third and final teaming, 1941’s The Little Foxes, in the near-future.
Blu-ray extras consist of an alternate ending; two radio adaptations, both starring Davis and Marshall (and one also featuring Stephenson); and the theatrical trailer.
LOCAL HERO (1983). Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth’s films always exhibit a generous spirit and a love for humanity, and that’s perhaps never more evident than in this smartly scripted charmer. Animal House alumnus Peter Riegert stars as Mac, an oil company executive who’s sent from the Houston HQ to the small village of Ferness, Scotland, by dotty CEO Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster). The main reason is to buy the village so that the area can be turned into an oil refinery; the secondary purpose is so that Mac can keep an eye on the night sky and report back to Happer, an astrology enthusiast. Mac arrives in Scotland and is immediately paired with awkward company rep Danny Oldsen (Peter Capaldi); together, they head to Ferness, where the curious locals welcome them both with open arms. What follows is an absolutely disarming comedy that’s far more interested in human behavior and character eccentricities than anything else. Denis Lawson, best known as Wedge in the original Star Wars trilogy, co-stars as Gordon Urquhart, the town spokesman/innkeeper/lawyer, and a humorous running gag (one of many) finds Mac and Danny wondering about the sex life of Urquhart and his lovely wife Stella (Jennifer Black) as the latter pair are always sneaking off for a quickie (it’s always nice to see a movie couple so in love). Local Hero also marked the first composer credit for Dire Straits headman Mark Knopfler.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary (from 2018) by Forsyth; a new conversation with Forsyth; a vintage making-of piece; a 1985 documentary on cinematographer Chris Menges, who shot Local Hero and later won Oscars for The Killing Fields and The Mission; and a 1983 episode of The South Bank Show focusing on the film.
MEAN GIRLS (2004). Like Heathers and Clueless, this box office hit turns out to be that rare teen flick that refuses to be pigeonholed as a teen flick. Even more remarkably, it also turns out to be that rare Saturday Night Live-sanctioned comedy that’s actually funny. Upon its original release, SNL guru Lorne Michaels was prominently plugged as the film’s producer, yet clearly the guiding light behind this project is Tina Fey: She elected to bring Rosalind Wiseman’s best-selling Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and Other Realities of Adolescence to the screen, along the way turning a nonfiction book into a fictional screenplay spiced up with her own pithy, piercing observations. Lindsay Lohan (at the height of her popularity and before all the disastrous personal and career choices that followed) stars as Cady Heron, a naïve teen who makes her public school debut after a lifetime of being home-schooled in Africa; a cultural and social blank slate, she finds herself befriended by both the outcasts (Lizzy Caplan as Janis and Daniel Franzese as the “too gay to function” Damian) and the bitch-goddesses collectively known as The Plastics (the perfectly cast trio of Rachel McAdams, Amanda Seyfried and Lacey Chabert). Besides penning the knowing script, Fey also appears as Cady’s divorced math teacher; other SNL vets include Amy Poehler, outrageously over-the-top as a shallow mom, and, in a performance that unexpectedly stirred memories of Nipsey Russell, Tim Meadows as the school principal.
Mean Girls has been re-released in a pink-cased Blu-ray edition for its 15th anniversary. Extras (all from the original 2009 Blu-ray release) include audio commentary by director Mark Waters, Fey and Michaels; deleted scenes; and a blooper reel.
MY FAVORITE YEAR (1982). Back when Mel Brooks was a writer on Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, he was asked to escort guest star Errol Flynn around the set. Despite Flynn’s boozing ways, nothing dramatic happened, but this tidbit provided enough of a hook for My Favorite Year three decades down the road. Written by Norman Steinberg and Dennis Palumbo and produced by Brooks’ studio Brooksfilms, this casts Peter O’Toole as the Flynn surrogate, Mark Linn-Baker as the Brooks stand-in, and Joseph Bologna as the Caesar double. A rising staff writer on the variety show Comedy Cavalcade in 1954 NYC, Benjy Stone (Linn-Baker) is ordered by the program’s star King Kaiser (Bologna) to babysit former matinee idol Alan Swann (O’Toole) both on and off the set, making sure that he doesn’t get too inebriated to perform on the live broadcast. Having grown up idolizing Swann, Benjy is happy to be in close proximity to the actor but begins to fret over his unpredictable behavior, from wooing another man’s girlfriend at a posh restaurant to drunkenly rappelling down the side of a towering apartment building. The script’s soul-searching moments (such as Swann trying to reconnect with the daughter he abandoned) feel forced, but the comedy quotient is top-notch. O’Toole earned a Best Actor Academy Award nomination for his energetic and engaging turn, with Bologna offering solid support as the temperamental but ultimately decent show host. As for Linn-Baker, this was his first major role; four years later, he would be co-starring with Bronson Pinchot on the long-running sitcom Perfect Strangers.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by director Richard Benjamin and the theatrical trailer.
THE SET-UP (1949). There are no private eyes, no femme fatales, no complex flashback structure, and no murders. Nevertheless, The Set-Up is considered a quintessential film noir, given its cynical worldview, its dark and dank setting, and its evocative employment of low-key lighting. Robert Wise, who directed a number of small gems (The Body Snatcher, The Curse of the Cat People) before moving on to expensive Oscar winners (West Side Story, The Sound of Music), and scripter Art Cohn (working from a poem by Joseph Moncure March) have constructed a tight little drama that gets on and off in a mere 72 minutes. What’s more, the film was one of the first (if not the first) to unfold in real time, meaning that the events depicted on the screen also take place over the course of 72 minutes (check out the clock that appears throughout the picture). Robert Ryan delivers one of his finest performances as Stoker Thompson, a has-been boxer scheduled to fight the up-and-coming Tiger Nelson (Hal Fieberling). A local mobster (Alan Baxter) wants Stoker to throw the fight, so a deal is made through Stoker’s manager Tiny (George Tobias). The only problem is that Tiny is so sure that Stoker will lose the fight anyway, he doesn’t cut him in on the deal; for his part, the unaware Stoker feels that he just needs one lucky punch to take down this kid. Pessimistic to its core, The Set-Up is an intense drama that ends on a note that queasily mixes triumph with tragedy, ultimately allowing a ray of light to pierce the fatalistic darkness. Never before or since has a boxing film so thoroughly depicted the sport’s fans as a mob of petty and sadistic louts who want their pound of flesh and nothing less.
The only Blu-ray extra is audio commentary (from 2004) by Wise and Martin Scorsese (who of course made his own great boxing flick with 1980’s Raging Bull).
Short And Sweet:
CHILD’S PLAY (2019). The 1988 Child’s Play was a nifty horror flick, but this ill-advised remake is the pits. The general plot is the same, as a single mom (Aubrey Plaza) gives her son (Gabriel Bateman) a damaged doll (voiced by Mark Hamill) that ends up going on a homicidal tear. But Chucky isn’t evil because he harbors the soul of a mass murderer (as in the original); instead, he’s naughty because a disgruntled factory employee disabled all of his AI safety features. Scary! As for the look of Chucky? The poor design means he’s as creepy before he’s possessed as afterward, and the thought of children lining up to buy this hideous doll is only slightly more believable than the thought of 5-year-olds queueing up to purchase a Che Guevara T-shirt or a DVD of Antonioni’s The Passenger.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of piece and the theatrical trailer.
THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR (1942). Already having written a number of stellar motion pictures, the great Billy Wilder made his Hollywood directorial debut with this charming comedy in which the adult Susan Applegate (Ginger Rogers) poses as a 12-year-old girl since she can only afford the half-rate train fare to get back home. But the ruse works so well that she’s forced to remain in her disguise as she’s taken to a military academy by a well-meaning officer (Ray Milland) who figures her parents can pick her up there. Never mind that the 31-year-old Rogers never really looks 12 — she’s funny and frisky throughout.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin; an archival interview with Milland; and a 1943 radio adaptation starring Rogers and Milland.
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