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.
Ralph Fiennes in The Grand Budapest Hotel (Photo: Criterion)
(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.)
ALASTAIR SIM’S SCHOOL FOR LAUGHTER (1947-1960). A beloved fixture in England, the Scottish actor Alastair Sim never enjoyed the sort of popularity in the U.S. that was granted to Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers, two other across-the-pond performers with similar skill sets (including the ability to tackle more than one character in the same film). Sim is best known for playing the definitive Scrooge in 1951’s A Christmas Carol, co-starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s relatively obscure 1950 effort Stage Fright, and portrayed a forebearer of sorts to Peter Falk’s Columbo in the excellent 1946 mystery Green for Danger. But the master thespian was widely appreciated for his comedies, and this collection from the Film Movement label brings together four such efforts.
Sure to be enjoyed by those who grew up reading the likes of The Hardy Boys, Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators, and (over yonder in Europe) The Famous Five, Hue and Cry (1947) finds Sim receiving top billing for his small role as the creator of a comic strip that’s being altered and coded by a gang of criminals as a means of communication. The real stars of the film are the young kids collectively billed as “The Blood & Thunder Boys,” particularly Harry Fowler as the lad who figures out the scheme and rallies his friends to nab the baddies after the adults predictably dismiss his findings.
Laughter in Paradise (1951) is an amiable if ultimately forgettable comedy in which a wealthy practical joker (Hugh Griffith) passes away and leaves his fortune to his four heirs … provided each performs a task that goes completely against his or her nature. Sim plays one of the quartet — a crime novelist whose directive is to get himself arrested and jailed for 28 days — and his storyline is the most engaging. Audrey Hepburn appears in a pair of scenes as a cigarette girl; this was one of five movies she made in her first year in cinema, a mere two years before exploding as an Oscar-winning star in Roman Holiday.
Based on a series of drawings by cartoonist Ronald Searle, The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954) centers on a girls’ school in which said moppets are all horrendous mischief-makers. Not that the adults surrounding them are much better: This number includes Clarence Fritton (Sim), a conniving gambler whose equally shifty sister Millicent (Sim in drag) runs the school. Sim is amusing as the eternally anxious headmistress, although the film largely runs out of steam once it reaches its chaotic climax. The Belles of St. Trinian’s was a sizable hit in England, leading to a string of sequels (Sim only returned for the first and was used only fleetingly).
With a series of self-help books as its unusual source, the delightful School for Scoundrels (1960) stars Ian Carmichael as Henry Palfrey, a wimp who’s treated with disdain and condescension by everyone around him. After he falls for the beautiful April (Janette Scott), and after he’s repeatedly humiliated in front of her by the wealthy boor Raymond Delauney (Terry-Thomas), Henry decides to become a self-confident winner by enrolling in a special school run by a peculiar professor (Sim). The sequences in which Henry interacts with a pair of car salesmen (Dennis Price and Peter Jones) are topped only by the uproarious stretch in which Henry finally exacts his revenge on an increasingly flustered Delauney. A loose American remake appeared in 2006, with Billy Bob Thornton in the Sim role.
Blu-ray extras include interviews with various film historians as well as one with Sim’s daughter, Merlith McKendrick. The set also contains a 24-page booklet.
Hue and Cry: ★★★
Laughter in Paradise: ★★½
The Belles of St. Trinian’s: ★★★
School for Scoundrels: ★★★½
THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014). From Ralph Fiennes’ dapper strut to Willem Dafoe’s pointy teeth, every detail feels just right in the best film of Wes Anderson’s career. Working with co-writer Hugo Guinness, Anderson has concocted a fanciful tale marinated in whimsy and tinged with ruefulness. The setting is the titular hotel during the early 1930s, when young Zero (Tony Revolori) is serving as a lobby boy under the tutelage of M. Gustave (Fiennes), the property’s ab-fab concierge. Gustave is superb at his job, which on the downside includes bedding the elderly — and wealthy — women who stay at the facility. One such individual is Madame D. (played by an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton in layers of wrinkled makeup), and when she passes away under mysterious circumstances, she wills an invaluable painting to Gustave. This displeases her son Dmitri (Adrien Brody) to such a degree that he frames Gustave as his mother’s murderer and orders the family henchman, the snarling Jopling (a frightening/comical Dafoe), to bump off anyone who interferes with his diabolical plot. Thus, it’s largely up to Zero, with the aid of his girlfriend Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), to save his mentor and the day. There’s nary a false move in this consistently clever and perpetually playful gem. Nominated for nine Academy Awards (including Best Picture), it won four: Best Original Score, Production Design, Costume Design, and Makeup and Hairstyling. Shamefully denied a nomination was Fiennes, whose performance was the best delivered by any actor in 2014.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Anderson, co-star Jeff Goldblum, and Roman Coppola (who has co-written a few Anderson films and worked as an assistant director on this one); a making-of featurette; and cast and crew interviews.
THE RHYTHM SECTION (2020). When it debuted this past January, The Rhythm Section managed to set a pair of box offices, the sort nobody wants on their resume or in the studio ledgers. Among movies debuting on over 3,000 screens, it broke the 14-year-old record (previously held by the family flick Hoot) for smallest opening weekend gross. And if that wasn’t enough, it’s also the new number one on the list of the biggest theater drops, shedding an astounding 97 percent of its screens between its second and third weeks. Those are the types of dubious achievements that should be reserved for the truly wretched likes of, say, Movie 43 or Zoolander No. 2, not a film whose worst offense is that it’s a muddled mediocrity. The dull title (the same as scripter Mark Burnell’s source novel) and dull poster (Blake Lively standing in a dark room, an image that conveys absolutely nothing) doubtless didn’t help its prospects, but those moviegoers who soldiered on got to see Lively deliver yet another committed performance. Here, she’s Stephanie Patrick, a college student who retreated into drugs and prostitution after her entire family was killed in an airplane crash. Three years later, a reporter (Raza Jaffrey) informs her that the crash wasn’t accidental but an act of terrorism. Stephanie decides to go after the evildoers, but not before her bumbling results in the murder of the earnest journalist. Undaunted, she tracks down his source, an ex-MI6 agent named Boyd (Jude Law). It’s here where the film grows ever more illogical and absurd, as Boyd turns into Mr. Miyagi and teaches Stephanie, a complete novice (and a drug-addled one at that), how to become an elite assassin in a few easy steps. At least Jennifer Garner’s grieving mom in 2018’s Peppermint trained for five years rather than five minutes before heading out for revenge.
Blu-ray extras include making-of featurettes and deleted scenes.
THE SOUND BARRIER (1952). Retitled Breaking the Sound Barrier for its initial U.S. release, The Sound Barrier is one of the more overlooked achievements from the director of The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia. Teaming with playwright Terence Rattigan, David Lean goes comparatively low-key with this look at one man’s obsession with conquering the speed of sound. Ralph Richardson is suitably stony as John Ridgefield, an aircraft manufacturer who has never been the best of fathers to his strong-willed daughter Susan (Ann Todd, Lean’s then-wife) or his weak-willed son Christopher (Denholm Elliott). His relationship with Susan grows even more tense after she marries a former fighter pilot (Nigel Patrick) and her dad hires him as the lead test pilot for a series of increasingly dangerous flights. As anyone who has seen (or read) The Right Stuff can attest, it was actually American pilot Chuck Yeager who was the first to break the sound barrier, but historical fudging aside, this somber picture nicely balances the domestic drama with the high-flying interludes. As Ridgefield’s single-minded determination to conquer the skies results in death, the film also touches upon the notion of “what price glory.” An Academy Award winner for — what else? — Best Sound, The Sound Barrier earned an additional nomination for Best Story and Screenplay.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historian Peter Tonguette; an archival interview with Lean; and trailers for other titles offered on the Kino label.
A THOUSAND CLOWNS (1965). Based on the Broadway show written by Herb Gardner, A Thousand Clowns trumpets its stage origins at every turn, with most of the action confined to one tiny apartment. What’s more, the film’s stance against conformity may have seemed fresh at the time but today comes across as timid and unsure. But never mind: With a cast this good and dialogue this witty, the film holds onto its modest charms. Jason Robards stars as Murray Burns, who’s fed up with society — he quit his job as writer for the children’s show Chuckles the Chipmunk a few months earlier — and prefers to spend all his time raising his 12-year-old nephew Nick (Barry Gordon). But a pair of social workers (Barbara Harris and William Daniels) insist that, in order to retain custody of Nick (who’s clearly wise beyond his years), Murray must again find steady employment. With an assist from his agent-brother Arnold (Martin Balsam), Murray looks around, even considering returning to his old job working for the obnoxious lout behind the Chuckles persona (Gene Saks, the three-time Tony Award-winning director here making his acting debut in a motion picture). Robards, Gordon, Daniels, and Saks all reprise their roles from the original stage production; as the conflicted social worker, Sandy Dennis won the show’s only Tony Award but is replaced here by Harris (making her film debut). An Academy Award winner for Best Supporting Actor (Balsam), this earned three additional nominations: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay (Gardner), and Best Music Adaptation or Treatment.
Blu-ray extras consist of an interview with Gordon; the theatrical trailer; and trailers for other titles available on the Kino label.