View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray, 4K and DVD.
Poster art for Island of the Fishmen (Photo: Full Moon Features)
(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.)
BELFAST (2021). Kenneth Branagh is the latest writer-director to turn his real-life childhood into a reel-life remembrance, thus joining the likes of Alfonso Cuarón (Roma), Federico Fellini (Amarcord, reviewed here), and John Boorman (Hope and Glory). Branagh glances back at his time as a young lad witnessing The Troubles during the conflict’s early years — his approach is both sentimental and conventional, but it’s also the proper angle given the loving demeanor of the main characters. Buddy, the Branagh surrogate played by Jude Hill, lives in Belfast with his parents (Jamie Dornan and Caitríona Balfe), grandparents (Judi Dench and a show-stealing Ciarán Hinds), and older brother (Lewis McAskie). As the tensions escalate between their Catholic neighbors and the more intolerant among the Protestants, the adults must decide whether to remain in an increasingly violent Ireland or move to another country. Belfast is up for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (Hinds), Supporting Actress (Dench, a knee-jerk voter reaction that cheated Balfe out of her slot), and Original Screenplay.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Branagh; a making-of piece; deleted scenes; and an alternate ending.
ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN (1979). I first caught this Italian flick upon its initial European rollout while still a teen, and it wasn’t until much later that I learned that Roger Corman’s 1981 film Screamers was actually this picture with a third of its content removed and new footage clumsily inserted. I can’t vouch for Screamers (or yet another Corman edit, Something Waits in the Dark), but this original version, finally making its U.S. debut courtesy of the Full Moon Features label, is low-rent fun from director Sergio Martino, with Claudio Cassinelli as a doctor who’s shipwrecked on an island where a Moreau-like scientist (Joseph Cotten, a loooong way from Hitchcock and Welles) is creating a race of humanoid fishies. Richard Johnson co-stars as the isle’s tyrannical ruler, while top-billed Barbara Bach, a mere two years after the James Bond spectacular The Spy Who Loved Me, plays the mad scientist’s captive daughter. Voodoo practitioners, the lost city of Atlantis, and that ever-present volcano perpetually threatening to erupt all figure into a fast-paced script co-written by Once Upon a Time in the West co-scribe Sergio Donati.
There are no Blu-ray extras.
LIES & DECEIT: FIVE FILMS BY CLAUDE CHABROL (1985-1994). Like his fellow French New Wave buddies Truffaut, Godard, Rivette and Rohmer, Claude Chabrol was a Cahiers du Cinéma contributor who made the successful leap from film critic to filmmaker. His specialty was the psychological thriller, thus earning him ample comparisons to Hitchcock over the course of his 50 years in the director’s chair. This new box set includes a quintet of titles from the latter half of his career, when his output had slowed considerably but his name still carried currency in his homeland and on the art-house circuit.
Cop Au Vin (Poulet au vinaigre) (1985) is a cheeky mystery in which the sardonic Inspector Jean Lavardin (Jean Poiret) arrives in a small provincial town to investigate the suspicious death of one of the locals. He observes, first with bemused detachment and then with violent outbursts, the various shenanigans surrounding the efforts of a prominent doctor (Jean Topart) and his accomplices to drive a bitter invalid (Stéphane Audran) and her emotionally ensnared son Louis (Lucas Belvaux) from their crumbling home in order to snag the valuable land. But in addition to the mysterious death, the doctor’s wife has disappeared, leading her best friend (Caroline Cellier), the crafty detective, and Louis and his girlfriend (Pauline Lafont) to all conduct their own investigations. Interesting characters backed by good performances help this one succeed.
The character of the laid-back detective with a fondness for paprika on his eggs proved to be so popular in Cop Au Vin that he was granted his own film with Inspecteur Lavardin (1986). Not as polished as its predecessor, it still counts as a reasonably good time as Lavardin is called to a seaside town to investigate the murder of a prominent author (Jacques Dacqmine), an outwardly devout Catholic who nevertheless was mixed up with a disreputable nightclub. Could the killer be the club owner (Jean-Luc Bideau)? The victim’s wife (Bernadette Lafont), who coincidentally is also the inspector’s former love? The widow’s gay brother (Jean-Claude Brialy)? Or maybe her promiscuous daughter (Hermine Clair)? The character of Lavardin remains fresh — I like how he always calls the local cop (Pierre-Francois Dumeniaud) assisting him “Watson” — even when the mystery tends to meander. Poiret would return to the role of Lavardin for a short-lived 1988 TV series.
Madame Bovary (1991) finds Chabrol wandering outside of his contemporary comfort zone to tackle Gustave Flaubert’s classic novel, but the result is a massive disappointment. Isabelle Huppert is miscast in the central role, as her Emma Bovary, a restless wife who turns to marital affairs and material possessions for pleasure, is no longer the impassioned romantic of the novel but rather an inscrutable ice queen — wait one more year and the character could have been reincarnated as Sharon Stone’s Catherine Tramell in 1992’s Basic Instinct. Jean-François Balmer delivers a satisfying performance as her weak husband, but Christophe Malavoy and Lucas Belvaux (far better in Cop Au Vin) lack charisma as her supposedly dashing suitors. The film is appropriately luxuriant (Corinne Jorry earned an Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design) but, at 143 minutes, also a distancing slog.
The title character in Betty (1992) might seem as chilly as Huppert’s Madame Bovary, but her journey is much more involving. Based on Georges Simenon’s novel, this stars Marie Trintignant as Betty, an unhappy alcoholic who gets “adopted” by Laure (Stéphane Audran), an older woman who recognizes her own boozy tendencies in Betty and decides to come to her aid. But the self-centered Betty is nothing like the compassionate Laure, a difference that becomes clearer through the use of flashbacks that illustrate how Betty ended up in her present predicament. The film is fascinating in how it initially shows Betty as a potential victim of an intolerant upper class before abruptly taking the position that some people are not only incapable of being saved but might not deserve the opportunity for salvation in the first place.
Torment (L’Enfer) (1994) was Chabrol’s salvaging of an unfinished project by the great Henri-Georges Clouzot (The Wages of Fear), who had started making his version in 1964 before poor health put the kibosh on that. L’Enfer means “hell,” which is probably a better moniker than the U.S.-chosen Torment. Either works, though, since this is a nerve-agitating drama about a hotel owner, Paul Prier (François Cluzet), who begins to suspect that his gorgeous wife Nelly (Emanuelle Béart) is having an affair. She isn’t — on the contrary, she’s the most loving and faithful wife imaginable — but Paul’s paranoia grows to the point where he starts to imagine that she’s sleeping with every single male guest, no matter the age or physique. His mindset eventually leads to both emotional and physical violence. Rarely has the ugly specter of jealousy been presented in such a harsh manner, and this unsettling movie expertly makes its case until the final stretch, when the character of Paul becomes too cartoonish to be effective. The non-ending is also a letdown.
Blu-ray extras in the new box set offered by Arrow Video include film historian audio commentaries; select-scene commentaries by Chabrol; visual essays; and vintage interviews with Chabrol. The collection also contains an 80-page booklet.
Cop Au Vin: ★★★
Inspecteur Lavardin: ★★½
Madame Bovary: ★★
MANSION OF THE DOOMED (1976). One of those movies that enjoyed a brief dalliance with the British authorities during the height of the “video nasty” period, this grisly shocker (aka Massacre Mansion and The Terror of Dr. Chaney) houses a startling amount of talent for an OK exploitation effort. Richard Basehart and Oscar winner Gloria Grahame (The Bad and the Beautiful, reviewed here) respectively play Dr. Leonard Chaney, whose daughter Nancy (Trish Stewart) is blinded in an auto accident, and Katherine, the nurse who assists him as he blinds various people in an effort to put their functioning eyes in Nancy’s head. The first of the many victims — all of whom are subsequently imprisoned in a basement cell — is Nancy’s boyfriend (Lance Henriksen!). Michael Pataki, an actor (Zoltan … Hound of Dracula, reviewed here) who only directed two movies — this one and the 1977 softcore version of Cinderella — achieves mixed results with this variation on the 1960 French classic Eyes Without a Face, relying on the shadowy camerawork by Andrew Davis (later the director of The Fugitive) and the minimal yet effective makeup by Oscar winner Stan Winston (Aliens).
There are no Blu-ray extras.
UNDER FIRE (1983). Anyone who (like me) is a sucker for ‘80s political thrillers set in troubled foreign lands will find this a must-watch, in the same class as The Killing Fields, Missing, Salvador, and The Year of Living Dangerously. Nick Nolte stars as Russell Price, an American photojournalist who gets personally involved in the 1979 Nicaraguan revolution in which the Sandinistas attempt to oust brutal dictator Anastasio Somoza. Friends with lover-reporters Alex (Gene Hackman) and Claire (Joanna Cassidy), Russell finds himself drawn to Claire after the power couple break up, and the film smoothly develops their relationship without ever compromising the harshness of the real-world backdrop. Nolte, Cassidy and Hackman are terrific; ditto Ed Harris as a chipper mercenary and Jean-Louis Trintignant as a shady French operative. The music score by Jerry Goldsmith (Star Trek: The Motion Picture, L.A. Confidential) stands as one of his finest and deservedly earned him an Academy Award nomination.
The only Blu-ray extra is the theatrical trailer.