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.
Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay in 1917 (Photo: Universal & DreamWorks)
(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.)
APRIL FOOL’S DAY (1986). April Fool’s Day is basically a Brat Pack slasher flick, and while familiar faces abound — Look, there’s Biff from Back to the Future! And the original Valley Girl! And the heroine from Friday the 13th Part II! — how intriguing would it have been to see the more famous likes of Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall and Judd Nelson participating in this spirited endeavor? At any rate, the film’s influences go further back than Halloween — it owes so much to Agatha Christie that one of the characters even makes a reference to her. Young heiress Muffy St. John (Deborah Foreman) invites eight of her well-to-do friends to spend a weekend at her family’s remote island estate, intent on playing a series of practical jokes on the gathered. Instead, in true Ten Little Indians fashion, the guests are murdered one by one. Despite its R rating, April Fool’s Day showcases far less gore and sex than the usual slasher outing, and writer Danilo Bach (one of the Oscar-nominated co-scripters of Beverly Hills Cop two years earlier) manages to add a bit more color to the usual assemblage of ‘80s teen-flick stereotypes: the strong-willed heroine (Amy Steel), the promiscuous girl (Deborah Goodrich), the wisecracker (Clayton Rohner), the nerd (Jay Baker), the jock (Ken Olandt), and so on. The plotting is more rocky, driven occasionally by absurd coincidences and hampered by undeveloped story strands. As for the climactic twist, it will be up to each viewer to determine whether it’s inspired or inane.
Blu-ray extras consist of interviews with Goodrich and Rohner, director Fred Walton, cinematographer Charles Minsky, and composer Charles Bernstein; TV spots; and the theatrical trailer.
CHARLIE’S ANGELS (2019). Perhaps a career as a box office prognosticator — or a studio executive — should have been in the cards. After all, I could have told Columbia Pictures that Charlie’s Angels would be a bomb and they should save their $48 million investment. Indeed, the film fared horribly stateside, grossing only $17 million. There are several reasons for that, none having to do with the quality of the movie itself (it’s actually not bad). To wit: 1) Kristen Stewart. Most men don’t seem to like her — or, rather, most doltish men, the ones who condescendingly are still chuckling over those Twilight films. Discerning moviegoers, of course, know that she has blossomed into a fine actress. As Sabina Wilson, the most impulsive and reckless of the heroines, she’s feisty, ferocious and funny. 2) The other two Angels. Those earlier pictures based on the TV series cast popular actresses in the leading roles — who wasn’t familiar with Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore and Lucy Liu? Conversely, few know Naomi Scott or Ella Balinska. As for their characters (respectively, naïve techie Elena Houghlin and former MI6 agent Jane Kano), they aren’t particularly interesting and pale in comparison to Stewart’s Sabina. 3) Elizabeth Banks. Banks, who serves as director, co-writer and co-star (she cast herself as Angel handler Bosley), is a proud feminist and infuses her works with strong pro-women ideals. Charlie’s Angels is no exception, as a strong sense of female solidarity can be felt throughout the film — perhaps too strong in one instance, since this makes it easy to stay one step ahead of the plot twists and sniff out the villain. But given the current climate in this country, where the actions of rape-happy misogynists have been normalized and even cheered since late 2016, these Angels didn’t stand a chance of scoring bank for Banks.
Blu-ray extras include a quartet of behind-the-scenes pieces; deleted scenes; and a gag reel.
FORCE 10 FROM NAVARONE (1978). Easily the best adaptation of an Alistair MacLean novel, 1961’s Oscar-winning The Guns of Navarone was such a gargantuan hit (a $250 million gross when adjusted for 2020) that the studio planned to make a sequel that would bring back stars Gregory Peck, David Niven and Anthony Quinn. Instead, it would be 17 years after the original before Force 10 from Navarone (also adapted from a MacLean book) would make it to theaters, at which point the original actors were too old and viewer interest had long dissipated anyway. Despite its chilly reception from both critics and audiences — and while it’s certainly no classic like its excellent predecessor — Force 10 from Navarone works as an undemanding action film bolstered by an aptly chosen cast. Quinn’s role is MIA, while the parts played by Peck and Niven have been taken over by Robert Shaw and Edward Fox. Set shortly after the first film, this finds British officers Mallory (Shaw) and Miller (Fox) called back into action to kill a Nazi double agent (Franco Nero) posing as a resistance fighter. To complete their assignment, they’re required to tag along with an American outfit whose leader (Harrison Ford) has been ordered to destroy an enemy bridge. Two co-stars of the previous year’s Bond entry The Spy Who Loved Me, Barbara Bach and Richard Kiel, appear as partisans who may or may not also be traitors, while Rocky’s Apollo Creed, Carl Weathers, turns up as a testy American soldier who’s handy with a knife. Fox steals the show as the perpetually cheerful Miller; as for Shaw, he died shortly before the film’s release.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historian Steve Mitchell and author Jay Rubin (Combat Films: American Realism); the theatrical trailer; and trailers for six other movies (five of them war flicks) on the Kino label.
LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (1945). Gene Tierney, so innocent in the previous year’s noir masterpiece Laura, does an about-face in director John M. Stahl’s lurid yet luxurious adaptation of Ben Ames Williams’ bestselling novel. She stars as Ellen Berent, whose Electra complex finds her marrying a man who bears a resemblance to her late father: author Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde), who’s so stunned by her beauty that he willingly accepts her proposal of marriage after just a brief courtship. But Ellen’s adoration of her new hubby manifests itself in frightening ways, as the bride refuses to share him with anyone — this includes Richard’s disabled younger brother Danny (Darryl Hickman) and her own half-sister Ruth (Jeanne Crain). Focusing on little more than the initial romance between Ellen and Richard, the first act lures viewers into a false sense of security, with the picture appearing no more complicated than a swoony Technicolor dream. But as Ellen’s frustration builds, so does the film’s tension, highlighted by two sequences that still retain their wallop (the classic one involves a lake; the other centers on a flight of stairs). Unfortunately, the (anti-)climactic courtroom sequence is clumsy, illogical and unconvincing, saved only by the appearance of Tierney’s Laura co-star Vincent Price as a fiery prosecuting attorney. Nominated for four Academy Awards (including Best Actress for Tierney), this won for Leon Shamroy’s shimmering cinematography. This was remade as the 1988 TV-movie Too Good to Be True, with Loni Anderson as Ellen, Dallas‘ Patrick Duffy as Richard, and Neil Patrick Harris as Danny.
Blu-ray extras consist of an interview with film critic Imogen Sara and the theatrical trailer.
1917 (2019). The latest from director Sam Mendes ranked second only to Marriage Story as the best picture of 2019 (go here for the complete Best & Worst) and second only to Saving Private Ryan as the best war movie of the past quarter-century. Working with cinematographer Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049) and an ace crew, Mendes creates a mesmerizing exercise in technical prowess, a World War I saga in which the camera takes us across the battlefields, through the trenches, underneath the surface, and straight into the heart of darkness that blackens every wartime encounter. Yet 1917 is more than just a visual and aural assault on the senses. The story, co-scripted by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns, takes the standard “men on a mission” template and infuses it with an idealistic zeal. Its heroes are Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), who are tasked with delivering a crucial message to a battalion stationed behind enemy lines. What follows is a trek across hostile terrain, as Schofield and Blake press forward even as the odds in their favor shrink infinitesimally. With the emphasis on conflict, war movies often have to dig deep to unearth any semblance of humanism amidst all the carnage and callousness. In 1917, that empathy is front and center, in ways that both surprise and shock. War may indeed be hell, but 1917 is a war movie whose soulfulness elevates it into something approaching grace. Nominated for 10 Academy Awards (including Best Picture), it won for Best Cinematography, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Visual Effects, and it should have won for Thomas Newman’s superb score.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Mendes; separate audio commentary by Deakins; a making-of featurette; and a piece on Newman’s score.
THE STALKING MOON (1968). Six years after collaborating on the classic To Kill a Mockingbird, star Gregory Peck, director Richard Mulligan and producer Alan J. Pakula reunited for this disappointing effort, the first of four Western flops Peck made within a seven-year stretch (the others: Mackenna’s Gold, Shoot Out, and Billy Two Hats). With a script by Alvin Sargent (adapting Theodore V. Olsen’s novel), this stars Peck as Sam Varner, an army scout on the verge of retiring to his New Mexican ranch. Before he departs, he encounters Sarah Carver (Eva Marie Saint), who had been held captive for 10 years by a savage Apache named Salvaje (Nathaniel Narcisco). Sam agrees to help out Sarah and the son (Noland Clay) she produced with Salvaje, but they’re stalked every step of the way by the brutal Native American warrior, who mercilessly kills everyone in his path as he tries to reclaim his offspring. The Stalking Moon is a film in which (with apologies to Aristotle) the sum of its parts is greater than the whole, as a few noteworthy sequences aren’t enough to rescue the overall movie. Mulligan is effective at staging talky scenes (including fine ones set at a railroad station and around a dinner table), but he isn’t able to muster much suspense for what’s essentially a thriller in cowboy’s clothing. The biggest flaw, however, rests with the character of Salvaje, who’s supposed to be this frightening force of nature; we hear of his gruesome and superhuman deeds throughout the picture, but when he finally emerges from the shadows, he doesn’t seem very bright or particularly menacing. Robert Forster contributes some necessary bounce as Nick Tana, a mixed-race scout who’s both Sam’s protégé and friend.
The only Blu-ray extra is the theatrical trailer.
UNIVERSAL HORROR COLLECTION VOLUME 4 (1937-1946). Shout! Factory has graciously released another quartet from the Universal archives, with a fifth volume heading our way in June.
Night Key (1937) is an interesting yarn about a kindly scientist (Boris Karloff) who creates a state-of-the-art security system and is subsequently cheated out of his invention by a heartless businessman (Samuel S. Hinds). The scientist exacts his revenge in an ideal and harmless manner but soon finds himself strong-armed by criminals who plan to use his creation for their own nefarious purposes. A zippy plot and Karloff’s immensely sympathetic portrayal make this one worth watching.
Night Monster (1942) is the most original picture in the set, with the offbeat occurrences taking place at the home of a bitter cripple (Ralph Morgan). Among his staff are a shifty butler (top-billed Bela Lugosi in a small role), a sleazy chauffeur (Leif Erickson), and a mystic (Nils Asther) who has mastered the art of mind over matter. Among the guests are three doctors (including one played by horror mainstay Lionel Atwill), a psychiatrist (Irene Hervey), and an affable writer (Don Porter). With approximately a dozen people on the grounds, the stage is set for a series of murders that’s followed by a wild denouement.
The Climax (1944) is a middling rip-off of The Phantom of the Opera, with Karloff cast as an opera house physician still obsessed with the soprano he adored and murdered a decade earlier. When the company’s latest singing sensation (Susanna Foster) stirs memories of his earlier love, he uses hypnosis to keep her under his thumb. The movie earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Color Art Direction-Interior Decoration, an amusing fact since the exact same set (and the same four artisans) won the Oscar in that category the previous year for its use in Universal’s The Phantom of the Opera.
Rondo Hatton was a high school football player and war veteran who later suffered from acromegaly, a degenerative disorder that enlarged and distorted his facial features. Ever so sensitive, Hollywood elected to use him as a monster in several horror yarns, including House of Horrors (1946). Hatton plays The Creeper, a murderer who’s rescued from drowning by an eccentric sculptor (Martin Kosleck) whose creations are constantly ridiculed by the city’s art critics. When he’s not out strangling voluptuous women, The Creeper decides to repay his debt by killing said reviewers. Alan Napier, who portrays pretentious critic F. Holmes Harmon, would later essay the role of Alfred the butler on TV’s Batman.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentaries on all four titles by film historians; still galleries for all four pictures; and the theatrical trailers for all except House of Horrors. The set also contains a 12-page booklet with photos and credits.
Night Key: ★★★
Night Monster: ★★★
The Climax: ★★½
House of Horrors: ★★½
THE WIZARD (1989). When The Wizard initially hit theaters during the Christmas season of 1989, critics quickly lambasted it as nothing more than a shameless promotional piece for both Nintendo and the Universal Studios tour (needless to say, Universal produced the picture). This is true, but let’s consider the competition when it comes to ‘80s movies reveling in product placement: Compared to the McDonald’s-pushing Mac and Me (reviewed here) and the Coke-hawking Leonard Part 6, The Wizard almost looks as exceptional as The Wizard of Oz by comparison. Stealing shamelessly from the previous year’s Rain Man, this finds Fred Savage playing Tom Cruise and Luke Edwards portraying Dustin Hoffman, with Jenny Lewis added as a pint-sized Valeria Golino — as such, it centers on the crafty Corey Woods (Savage) embarking on a road trip with his autistic brother Jimmy (Edwards), joined along the way by the confident Haley (Lewis). No one in the family — not Corey, not older brother Nick (Christian Slater), and not divorced parents Sam (Beau Bridges) and Christine (Wendy Phillips) — knows why Jimmy is hellbent on going to California, but Corey figures it’s a worthy destination since Jimmy is an ace at playing video games and a championship tournament is being held in Hollywood. The three kids slowly make their way to their final destination, pursued not only by other family members but also by Putnam (Will Seltzer), a scurvy bounty hunter who specializes in tracking down children. Savage and Lewis are quite good, but the road trip yields little excitement, and the humor is often heavy-handed (the interludes between Sam and Putnam are painful). Nostalgic gamers will dig it, though.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director Todd Holland; a retrospective making-of piece; and deleted scenes.
Short And Sweet:
BEAU BRUMMELL (1954). Stewart Granger stars as the famous fashion-plate fop, whose arrogance and inability to stop spending money he didn’t have led to his downfall. Beau Brummell’s friendship with the Prince of Wales (later King George IV) provides this picture with the majority of its best moments, and Peter Ustinov is excellent as the insecure royal. Less entertaining is Brummell’s romance with Lady Patricia Belham (a fictional construct), with Elizabeth Taylor given little to do but swoon in the direction of her dashing suitor. Rosemary Harris appears as the Prince’s illicit lover, and those who only know her as Aunt May in the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man films will be stunned to see her looking so young. Even at 113 minutes, this feels a tad overlong, with a completely fabricated ending to stir audience emotions that otherwise might not materialize.
The only Blu-ray extra is the theatrical trailer.
CANYON PASSAGE (1946). The great Jacques Tourneur (Cat People, Out of the Past) takes the director’s seat for this sturdy Western in which, for once, the story is more sprawling than the scenery. Dana Andrews is successful businessman Logan Stuart, who’s in love with the demure Caroline (Patricia Roc) while his best friend George (Brian Donlevy), a banker and hopeless gambler, is set to marry the more assertive Lucy (Susan Hayward). Local bully Honey Bragg (Ward Bond) keeps picking fights with Logan, while George starts raiding the vaults to pay for his bad habit. There’s also a murder, a house-raising (a communal event straight out of a John Ford Western), an Indian uprising, and the sight of Hoagy Carmichael (as storekeeper Hi Linnet) strolling through town while strumming a handful of songs. One of those tunes, “Ole Buttermilk Sky,” earned Carmichael and lyricist Jack Brooks an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historian Toby Roan; the theatrical trailer; and trailers for other Kino titles.