View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray, 4K and DVD.
Donald Sutherland in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Photo: Kino & MGM)
(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray, 4K and DVD. Ratings are on a four-star scale.)
THE ADDAMS FAMILY (1991). 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 this intermittently amusing tale in which the clan 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. An Academy Award nomination for Best Costume Design, this box office hit was followed by the 1993 Addams Family Values, a rare sequel that improves upon its predecessor. The theme song, “Addams Groove,” came courtesy of MC Hammer — it turned out to be another Billboard Top 10 hit for the artist, but it also won the Razzie Award for Worst Original Song for pelting viewers with such lyrics as, “Now I don’t mind being a friend, And showin’ a little bit of flava, But Wednesday, Pugsley, Gomez, Fester, Man, them some strange neighbors!”
The Addams Family has been released on 4K UHD, accompanied by a digital copy. This edition contains both the original theatrical cut as well as an expanded, never-before-seen version called More Mamushka! (As the title suggests, this contains an extra few minutes of the showcase dance number.) Extras consist of an introduction to the More Mamushka! version by director Barry Sonnenfeld; a new interview with Sonnenfeld; and an archival making-of featurette.
CHRISTMAS WITH THE KRANKS (2004). It’s astonishing to me that this has never before been released on Blu-ray, given its popularity among Red State denizens (even hypocritical evangelists were reported to be urging their flocks to see it). Forget Kirk Cameron, Dropo the Martian, and the slasher Santa: Christmas with the Kranks is easily the worst Yuletide film ever made. Based on John Grisham’s book Skipping Christmas, this celluloid atrocity casts Jamie Lee Curtis and Tim Allen as a suburban couple who elect to bypass Christmas altogether and use the money to treat themselves to a Caribbean vacation over the holidays. It’s a decision that draws instant revulsion from their friends and neighbors, as everyone unites to make the couple’s lives miserable in an attempt to force them to renounce their decision and again embrace the commercialism of the period. Simply on a comedic level, the movie fails to deliver a single, solitary laugh. Dig a little deeper, though, and there lies a repugnant yarn whose idea of morality wouldn’t be out of place at the Nuremberg rallies. The Kranks aren’t allowed to think or act for themselves lest they upset their upper-middle-class burg’s status quo, and the intrusive, overbearing, and conformist neighbors are ultimately depicted as heroes for converting the pair to their narrow-minded way of thinking. With fascism in Hollywood movies like this, who needs Trump and The Proud Boys? (For the 15 crummiest stocking stinkers, check out Ho-Ho-No: The Worst Christmas Movies of All Time here.)
The only Blu-ray extras are theatrical trailers.
THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977). It’s no secret that I’ve never been a Wes Craven fan like other critics and many moviegoers — for my money, he was a misogynistic (or perhaps misanthropic) hack who got lucky by having a couple of ideas wholeheartedly embraced by audiences. Yet if there’s one picture of his that I would place above all others, it would be The Hills Have Eyes. Released five years after his utterly repellent, quasi-snuff film The Last House on the Left and two years after his porno film about incest, The Fireworks Woman (where he credited himself as Abe Snake), Craven’s next effort owes a massive debt to the 1974 classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, yet it’s competent enough to stand on its own. Like Tobe Hooper’s film, this one finds well-to-do city slickers journeying too deep into the American backdrop and encountering a family of cannibalistic grotesqueries. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has the added bonus of various weighty themes bubbling just beneath the surface; despite Craven’s belief that his film follows suit, its messaging is so muddied, misguided, and misunderstanding that it’s impossible to accept the movie as anything more than a brutal horror yarn. On that front, it succeeds; besides, it’s tough to dislike any film in which a German shepherd is one of the heroes. Michael Berryman, cast as the misshapen mutant Pluto, soon became a familiar figure in fantasy features (he was also the high school principal in the music video for Motley Crüe’s “Smokin’ in the Boy’s Room”), while Dee Wallace, playing one of the ill-fated travelers, would later land starring roles in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, The Howling, and Cujo.
Arrow’s 4K limited edition contains a booklet, a poster, and postcards. Extras include audio commentary by Craven and producer Peter Locke; audio commentary by Berryman and other cast members; a making-of piece; and an alternate ending.
INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978). To date, there have been four screen versions of Jack Finney’s sci-fi novel The Body Snatchers. The 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers (reviewed here) remains the best, but this second take is similarly excellent and continues to grow in stature over the years. (The third attempt, 1994’s Body Snatchers, is interesting yet flawed, while the fourth, 2007’s The Invasion, is a complete waste of time.) In this one, the setting is San Francisco, with Donald Sutherland as a city health inspector who, along with his friends (Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright), starts to notice that other people aren’t quite as animated as before. Cleverly, each version was tweaked to speak to its era, so whereas the ’56 model dealt with Cold War issues, this one finds director Philip Kaufman and writer W.D. Richter tackling other subjects. On one hand, it’s an indictment of how careless Americans are with their own lives, putting all sorts of poisons into their bodies and listening to any new philosophies that happen to emerge on the scene. On the other, it’s an example of the post-Watergate paranoia thriller littering the 70s, warning against the dangers of the right-wing way of thinking: conformist, self-centered, and unfeeling toward others (Sutherland’s character even jokes that a pod person is exhibiting the characteristics of a typical Republican). Leonard Nimoy is put to good use as a psychiatrist, while Kevin McCarthy and Don Siegel, the star and director of the 1956 original, appear in cameos. And, yes, that’s Robert Duvall in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him appearance as the priest on the swing!
The film has just been released on the Kino label in an excellent 4K UHD + Blu-ray set. Extras include audio commentary by Kaufman; a making-of featurette; interviews with Adams and Richter; and pieces on the cinematography, sound effects, and special effects.
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946). Forget the Christmas connection: This all-timer can be watched any time of the year. It has the power to move viewers to tears, and it does so not by blatant button-pushing but by honestly showing how an individual’s life is truly something to celebrate. James Stewart delivers his greatest performance as decent George Bailey, and he receives wonderful support from Donna Reed as his loving wife Mary, Lionel Barrymore as the Scrooge-like Potter, and, of course, Henry Travers as Clarence, the angel determined to earn his wings by helping George through his dark night of the soul. The movie grabs your emotional lapels from the get-go, and by the time it reaches the moment when George whispers, “I want to live. Please, God, let me live,” it’s best to have those hankies ready. Yet what’s interesting about the picture is that, for all its uplift, there’s real darkness found around the edges: Unlike Scrooge, Potter never gets bitten by the Christmas bug, nor is he ever punished for his multitude of sins; the bar owner’s assistant (Sheldon Leonard) turns out to be a truly odious man in the alternate world Clarence shows George; and even George himself displays an ugly side, as the pressures force him to practically get (with apologies to Pulp Fiction) medieval on poor Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell). This American classic earned five Academy Award nominations, including bids for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor.
Paramount has reissued It’s a Wonderful Life yet again, this time in a 75th Anniversary Blu-ray + Digital set that contains exclusive recipe cards from The Official Bailey Family Cookbook. Blu-ray extras consist of a retrospective making-of piece; a look at the film’s restoration; and footage from the movie’s wrap party. A second disc contains the colorized version; that’s best used as a drink coaster.
MAD MAX ANTHOLOGY (1979-2015). Warner Bros. is playing Santa by releasing all four of writer-director George Miller’s post-apocalyptic pictures in a 4K UHD edition shortly before Christmas. To quote from the belated fourth film in the franchise, “Oh, what a day! What a lovely day!”
Miller’s original Mad Max, released in 1979 in his Australian homeland and in 1980 on these shores, was part of the Aussie New Wave that allowed global audiences in the 1970s and early ’80s to see that our neighbors Down Under were making some pretty incredible films. (For a lengthier review of the original Mad Max, go here.) Mad Max set the stage, but 1981’s The Road Warrior (aka Mad Max 2) positively set it ablaze, popping up on numerous 10 Best lists and elevating the bar on both vehicular mayhem and daring stuntwork. The third entry, 1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, found the road warrior going Hollywood — it was the first entry primarily backed by a major studio — and the result was a PG-13 rating (the others are R), perfectly coiffed hair for star Mel Gibson, and, after a terrific opening 45 minutes, an unfortunate narrative shift that basically had Max hanging out with Peter Pan‘s Lost Boys. Arriving late to the scene, 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, starring Tom Hardy as Max and Charlize Theron as Furiosa, turned out to be the best of the bunch, and it grabbed 10 Oscar nominations (including Best Picture and Best Director) and six wins among its many honors.
Only those hoping for ample extras will experience any disappointment with this set. This does not carry over all the bonus features found in previous releases (nor does it include the Black & Chrome version of Mad Max: Fury Road). Oddly, all the extras are for The Road Warrior: audio commentary by Miller and cinematographer Dean Semler; a making-of piece; and an introduction by film critic Leonard Maltin.
Mad Max: ★★★½
The Road Warrior: ★★★½
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome: ★★★
Mad Max: Fury Road: ★★★½
MENACE II SOCIETY (1993). The rat-tat-tat releases in 1991 of New Jack City, Straight Out of Brooklyn, and especially Boyz n the Hood (which made the late John Singleton, then 24, both the youngest person and first black person to be Oscar-nominated for Best Director) marked the beginning of the explosion of black cinema that helped define the decade. The first few years alone witnessed the debuts of approximately two dozen films in this vein, of which Menace II Society might have been the most noticed and the most acclaimed (although my favorite is Spike Lee’s Clockers, reviewed here). From its shocking opening sequence to its fatalistic finale, Menace II Society is a raw and (mostly) realistic drama that examines the violence-filled streets of Watts (indeed, there’s some brief footage from the 1965 Watts riots to set the tone). The protagonist is Caine (Tyrin Turner), the sort of person whose upbringing and surroundings never gave him much of a chance in life. His dad (a one-scene appearance by Samuel L. Jackson) was a drug dealer, his mom (Khandi Alexander) was a heroin addict, and his lifelong best friend is the volatile O-Dog (Larenz Tate), who will kill a person for even the slightest provocation. Caine does have a few steadying influences in his life — these include his potential girlfriend (Jada Pinkett Smith in her film debut), a concerned teacher (Charles S. Dutton), and even his imprisoned mentor (Glenn Plummer) — but they’re no match for the influence of his buddies, to say nothing of his own uncertainties. Written and directed by the Hughes Brothers (Albert and Allen) and co-scripted by Tyger Williams, Menace II Society pulls very few punches.
Blu-ray extras on this directors’ cut of the film include two audio commentaries (both from 1993) by the Hughes Brothers; a 2009 making-of featurette; a 1993 interview with the Hughes; deleted scenes; and the music video for 2Pac’s “Brenda’s Got a Baby.”
PHANTOM OF THE MALL: ERIC’S REVENGE (1989). For an offbeat adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s novel The Phantom of the Opera, I recommend Brian De Palma’s 1974 Phantom of the Paradise. For an unusual film set inside that great American institution, the mall, you can’t do better than George Romero’s 1978 Dawn of the Dead. Clearly, the aforementioned titles box out Phantom of the Mall: Eric’s Revenge, which won’t be the viewing choice of anyone save maybe lovers of ’80 cheese. Derek Rydall headlines as the teenager who haunts the shopping center after being horribly disfigured in a fire set by ruthless developers coveting his family’s land; Kimber Sissons is his Christine Daaé, palling around with former Playmate of the Month Kari Whitman; Jonathan Goldman, the Dos Equis pitchman and meme superstar (“I don’t always… But when I do…”), co-stars as the mall’s sleazy owner; Rob Estes, known to everyone who watched late-night ‘90s TV as the hunk opposite Mitzi Kapture in Silk Stalkings, naturally plays the hero; soap opera (daytime and prime time) star Morgan Fairchild improbably portrays the corrupt mayor; and Pauly Shore — God save us, Pauly Shore — offers lame humor as a geeky high school kid. In other words, Hollywood knew about Pauly Shore and still went ahead and made Encino Man and Jury Duty (the bastards!). This is amateur night all the way; on the plus side, nobody attempts an Andrew Lloyd Webber tune.
Arrow’s limited edition Blu-ray contains the usual goodies of a booklet, a poster, and postcards. The two discs hold three cuts of the movie: theatrical, TV, and a combo of theatrical and TV. Extras include audio commentary by director Richard Friedman; a making-of piece; and alternate and deleted scenes from the TV cut.
PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES (1987). It’s probably nostalgia that keeps 1985’s The Breakfast Club enshrined as my favorite John Hughes film, but it’s likely that Planes, Trains and Automobiles really represents the apex of his achievements. Switching his attention from teenagers to adults paid off handsomely in this instance, as an expert blend of (mostly) comedy and (some) drama results in the most emotionally engaging of all his feature films. For Steve Martin, this is just another exemplary turn in a career full of them; for John Candy, it was the finest role he ever received and the best performance he ever gave. All that buttoned-up businessman Neal Page (Martin) wants to do is fly from New York City to Chicago in time to spend Thanksgiving with his family. But even before he leaves The Big Apple, he inadvertently encounters cheerful salesman Del Griffith (Candy) and, from that point forward, simply cannot get away from his fellow traveler. After a snowstorm results in their plane landing in Wichita rather than Chicago, the two men use various means to try to get home — the perpetually chipper Del manages to adapt to every situation, but the humorless Neal grows increasingly agitated not only by his bad luck but also by the garrulous individual at his side. Planes, Trains and Automobiles features plenty of cleverly conceived sequences and uproarious lines (the Larry Bird crack is a favorite), but it’s the poignant story surrounding lonely Del that ultimately elevates the entire project.
This has been reissued in a Blu-ray + DVD + Digital steelbook edition. Extras include a making-of featurette; a deleted scene; a two-part piece on Hughes; and a tribute to Candy.
THE THIN MAN GOES HOME (1944). The first four films in The Thin Man series, all examples of terrific entertainment, were directed by W.S. Van Dyke, but any chance of him continuing with the franchise ended when the 53-year-old helmer committed suicide in 1943 rather than continue to grapple with the cancer and heart disease that had invaded his body. Directed by Richard Thorpe with a script by Robert Riskin and Dwight Taylor (working with the characters created by Dashiell Hammett), The Thin Man Goes Home represents a drop from its predecessors — 1934’s The Thin Man (reviewed here), 1936’s After the Thin Man (here), 1939’s Another Thin Man (here), and 1941’s Shadow of the Thin Man (here) — although there’s still enough of merit to earn a recommendation. In this entry, Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) return to his childhood hometown to pay his elderly folks (Lucile Watson and Harry Davenport) a visit. Since everyone assumes he’s in town working on a case, Nick’s arrival triggers panic among the burg’s less scrupulous characters. Nick’s father, a prominent doctor, has always looked down on his son’s profession and lifestyle, so when a murder occurs right before Nick’s eyes, the sleuth hopes to solve the case and impress his dad in the process. As always, Powell and Loy make beautiful movie music together — Nick and Nora remain one of cinema’s smartest, wittiest, and most romantic couples — and the picture itself is an agreeable lark, if not a particularly distinguished one.
Blu-ray extras consist of the 1944 live-action short Why Daddy? (the penultimate time the tireless Robert Benchley would essay his popular role of average guy Joe Doakes); the 1944 cartoon Screwball Squirrel; and the theatrical trailer.