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.
Al Lewis and Fred Gwynne in Munster, Go Home! (Photo: Shout! Factory)
(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.)
ARMY OF SHADOWS (1969). For all the stateside acclaim accorded to such Jean-Pierre Melville titles as Le Samourai and Le Cercle Rouge, it’s astounding that it took 37 years for his somber World War II drama to reach our shores — for whatever reason, this 1969 French release wasn’t shown in the United States until 2006. The idea of “better late than never” certainly applied here, as Melville’s picture is a powerful tale of the French Resistance’s early struggles as it sought to survive its initial confrontations with a Nazi regime that had by this point already taken over France. Lino Ventura tops a rock-solid cast as Philippe Gerbier, the head of an underground outfit which spends much of the film’s running time dealing with collaborators, moving from safe house to safe house, and figuring out how to deal with loyal fighters who have the misfortune of falling into enemy hands and therefore have become threats to the group’s existence. Bleak and uncompromising, Army of Shadows is a far cry from both the New Wave titles and the dialogue-heavy romances that were so popular at the time in France; instead, it’s as fatalistic as the grimmest film noir.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary (from 2007) by film historian Ginette Vincendeau; 2007 interviews with director of photography Pierre Lhomme and editor Francoise Bonnot; on-set footage; excerpts from archival interviews with Melville, cast members, author Joseph Kessel (who wrote the novel), and real-life Resistance fighters; a 2005 French program about Melville and the movie; and a 1944 documentary short on the Resistance.
CATS (2019). The worst film of 2019 left me imagining myself as the cop in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, having his ear sliced off by Michael Madsen. Or the poor woman in Fulci’s Zombie, whose eyeball gets punctured by a particularly pointy piece of splintered wood. Or Dante preparing to tackle the nine circles of Hell but first weighing the gravity of the words at the entrance: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” Disclaimer: I was never a fan of the stage smash, but I certainly didn’t hate it — the show was at worst a shallow but harmless piffle. But this version takes the theatrical experience and sours it, with bad decisions crippling the piece at every turn. Rather than stuffing the actors inside actual costumes, the film transforms them into cats via digital means, but it’s immensely off-putting and in some instances even a bit creepy. The CGI is slathered over this picture like copious ketchup pouring too fast over fries, in effect drowning everything that feels remotely natural or authentic. Seeing Judi Dench and Ian McKellen look like they recently escaped from Dr. Moreau’s island results in discomfort, not joy. The choreography is by multiple Tony Award winner Andy Blankenbuehler (Hamilton), but while some of the dancing comes through unscathed, many of the movements do not. The effects should enhance the leaping about so that the actors slink and glide like felines, but the result is instead a herky-jerky motion, bringing to mind yet another cat — the one spotted by Neo as “a glitch in the matrix.” For all its visual grotesqueness, the worst thing about Cats is that it’s often excruciatingly boring. Director Tom Hooper gets completely overwhelmed by the artificiality of this endeavor, and, unless one is a devotee of the show, each subsequent song isn’t another gift to be unwrapped but another chore to be endured.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Hooper and various making-of featurettes.
DODSWORTH (1936). Or Marriage Story: 1930s Edition. Like Noah Baumbach’s superb dissection of a marriage in trouble, this adaptation of the Broadway hit (itself based on Sinclair Lewis’ novel) centers on a couple whose relationship might be coming to a close. Walter Huston delivers a formidable performance as Sam Dodsworth, an auto company magnate whose early retirement allows him and his wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton) to embark on a European vacation. But Sam, a simple man, and Fran, who views herself as a sophisticate, find themselves at odds during their trip, with Sam yearning to return home and Fran hoping to recapture her youth. Dodsworth begins with the characters on equal footing, with both spouses sympathetic in their desires. But as the picture progresses, Fran grows more opportunistic and begins flirting with a string of suave foreign men (David Niven, Paul Lukas and Gregory Gaye). Dodsworth is a remarkably mature movie, full of keen insights, savory dialogue (“Love has got to stop someplace short of suicide”), and intuitive performances. Sidney Howard adapted his own play, with William Wyler offering unobtrusive direction. This earned seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Actor (Huston), Supporting Actress (Maria Ouspenskaya, memorable in her one scene as a hardheaded baroness), Director (the first of Wyler’s still-record 12 nominations), and Screenplay; it won for Best Art Direction.
Dodsworth has recently undergone a restoration courtesy of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences Film Archive, The Film Foundation, and The Samuel Goldwyn Jr. Family Trust, with funding provided by The George Lucas Family Foundation (see, detractors? George can still be a force for good!). The only Blu-ray extra is a 1937 radio adaptation starring Huston and his wife Nan Sunderland.
MUNSTER, GO HOME! (1966). In earlier decades, it wasn’t uncommon for a feature-film adaptation of a popular TV series to debut either while the show was still on the air (e.g. Batman, Dragnet, The Muppet Show) or immediately after it ended its run (e.g. The Flintstones, Our Miss Brooks). Munster, Go Home! falls into the latter category, opening nationally three months after the CBS series The Munsters had concluded its two-season run. The significant difference is that, unlike the black-and-white show, the movie was filmed in color, thus allowing viewers to see green — specifically, the color tone of most of the principals. Otherwise, this pretty much plays like an extended episode of the series, even with unintentional pauses where the studio audience laughter usually filled the air. Fred Gwynne is typically amusing as Herman Munster, here learning that he has inherited a vast English estate from a deceased relative. He heads to the UK residence alongside the rest of the family — series regulars Yvonne De Carlo as Lily, Al Lewis as Grandpa and Butch Patrick as Eddie, along with newcomer Debbie Watson (sadly replacing Pat Priest) as Marilyn — unaware that their unscrupulous kin across the pond, Lady Effigie Munster (Hermione Gingold) and her nitwit son Freddie (Terry-Thomas), are planning to get rid of them. Munster, Go Home! is innocuous fun, with some good interplay between Gwynne and Lewis (including a shout-out to their previous series, Car 54, Where Are You?) and an eccentric turn by an almost unrecognizable John Carradine as Cruikshank the butler.
Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray edition of Munster, Go Home! also contains the 1981 TV-movie The Munsters’ Revenge. Extras consist of audio commentary by Patrick and musician/filmmaker Rob Zombie; vintage cast radio interviews; radio spots; image galleries for both films; and the theatrical trailer.
TERROR TRAIN (1980). There was certainly no lack of talent — past or future — on the set of Terror Train. Top-billed Ben Johnson had won an Oscar for his supporting role in The Last Picture Show while cinematographer John Alcott had won his for lensing Barry Lyndon. Makeup designer Michele Burke would later win two Oscars for her contributions to Quest for Fire and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, while debuting director Roger Spottiswoode would go on to helm the crackling political thriller Under Fire and the award-winning TV movie about AIDS, And the Band Played On. And finally there was Jamie Lee Curtis, still riding high in the horror field following her 1978 breakthrough in John Carpenter’s Halloween (1980 also saw her starring in Prom Night and reuniting with Carpenter for The Fog). These participants help turn Terror Train into a fun ride for its first hour, as college students holding a masquerade party aboard a chartered train start getting bumped off in gruesome ways by an assailant who always dons the mask of the last victim. Johnson is the conductor trying to prevent any more bloodshed, magician David Copperfield (billed with, naturally enough, “And David Copperfield As The Magician”) is one of the primary suspects, and a young D.D. Winters, better known as pop singer Vanity, appears as one of the co-eds. The train setting is inspired, but the identity of the killer is painfully obvious, stripping the last act of much of its intrigue.
Blu-ray extras consist of new interviews with Spottiswoode and writer Judith Rascoe, and the theatrical trailer.
Short And Sweet:
THE CRANES ARE FLYING (1957). Winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes, this Russian drama also earned leading lady Tatiana Samoilova a special mention at the festival. And no wonder, as she delivers a powerful performance as Veronika, a young woman forced to endure humiliation and hardship after her lover Boris (Aleksey Batalov) is killed fighting in World War II. Raped by Boris’ worthless cousin (Aleksandr Shvorin), she feels pressured to marry him, thus disgracing herself in the eyes of those around her. The Cranes Are Flying was a significant Soviet film in that it featured recognizable humans rather than propagandist props, thus allowing it to get a foothold in world cinema and emerging as an international hit.
Blu-ray extras include a new interview with film scholar Ian Christie; a 1961 audio interview with director Mikhail Kalatozov; and the 2009 documentary Hurricane Kalatozov.
THE GRUDGE (2019). Following Japan’s Ju-On: The Grudge series and the American remakes, The Grudge: Version 184.108.40.206 isn’t exactly a reboot, nor is it quite a sequel. The curse remains the same: When someone dies in the grip of a powerful rage, that fury manifests itself into an evil entity that will snuff out the life of anyone it encounters. It’s sad to see such a fine cast (John Cho, Demián Bechir, The Hunt’s Betty Gilpin, and more) wasted in such a dreadful horror film that views its characters only as victims rather than actual people. This is basically a point-and-shoot picture, with little sense of style or imagination. Ju-On: The Grudge remains a prime example of J-Horror, which of course stands for Japanese Horror. This Grudge represents a different sort of J-Horror — namely, Junky Horror.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; extended scenes; and an alternate ending.