View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray, 4K, and DVD.
Alexander Skarsgård in The Northman (Photo: Universal & Focus)
By Matt Brunson
(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 CONTRACTOR (2022). A standard operating procedure is employed by The Contractor, a military-minded thriller with nary a novel idea in its stridently routine screenplay. Chris Pine headlines as James Harper, a Special Forces sergeant who’s involuntary discharged from the Army after the use of contraband drugs to treat his battle-earned injuries. Cruelly deprived of his pension, he’s encouraged by his best friend (Ben Foster) to take a high-paying job with an underground military outfit run by a no-nonsense veteran (Kiefer Sutherland). James is assigned to eliminate a scientist (Fares Fares) with ties to ISIS, only to learn that he’s been misled by the ostensible good guys who of course now want him terminated as well. Pine and Foster, who played brothers in 2016’s excellent Hell or High Water, now co-star as brothers-in-arms, but, like pretty much everything else in this drab undertaking, there’s nothing fresh or noteworthy about their characters or their performances. The only character of note is Virgil, the lonely caretaker of a remote safe house — Eddie Marsan makes us feel the weight of this man’s haunting memories and crushing isolation, and it’s a shame that the part is so small. Director Tarik Saleh effectively stages a couple of shootouts, but that’s not enough to save this otherwise inert actioner.
There are no extras in either the 4K Ultra HD or Blu-ray edition, although both come with a Digital Code.
THE GUILTY (1947) / HIGH TIDE (1947). As with Repeat Performance (reviewed last week), the Flicker Alley label has teamed with the Film Noir Foundation and the UCLA Film & Television Archive to revive and restore two more noirs from 1947 and lovingly bring them to Blu-ray and DVD. Whereas Repeat Performance was a standalone title, The Guilty and High Tide have been released in a double feature edition.
Cornell Woolrich, the prolific mystery writer adored by both Hollywood and François Truffaut (adaptations include Rear Window, The Window, Phantom Lady, and The Bride Wore Black), found his short story “Two Men in a Furnished Room” transformed into the decent “B” flick The Guilty. Bonita Granville, a former child actress best known for starring as Nancy Drew in the late-‘30s film series, plays twin sisters — one good and one bad, of course — who become involved with testy roommates Mike (Don Castle) and Johnny (Wally Cassell). When one of the siblings is murdered and all evidence points to Johnny, Mike takes it upon himself to find the real killer. The ending is sure to catch many viewers by surprise.
Even better is High Tide, which opens with a car crash that has pinned down both private eye Tim Slade (Castle) and newspaper editor Hugh Fresney (Lee Tracy). As the pair eye the rising waters that will eventually drown them, the movie enters flashback mode and shows how they got to this point. It’s a twisty tale that paints Fresney as a crusader unafraid of the mobsters who rule the city and Slade as the former reporter who’s roped into this mess by his ex-boss. There are two sets of potential love triangles with some Venn diagram overlapping, a shocking murder within the newspaper building, a role for character actor Regis Toomey, who played a detective in The Guilty and plays one here as well, and, as with The Guilty, a surprise villain. Tracy, often cast as newspapermen (as in the 1932 pre-Code chiller Doctor X), gives one of his best performances as the wily editor who never slows down.
Extras consist of film historian audio commentary on both titles; introductions to both movies by film historian and noir expert Eddie Muller; featurettes on Jack Wrather and John Reinhardt, respectively the producer and director of both films; and separate pieces on Woolrich and Tracy. A booklet is also included.
The Guilty: ★★★
High Tide: ★★★
THE HORSE SOLDIERS (1959). It sounds like a piece of trivia that can’t possibly be correct: Over the course of his career, one largely defined by his Westerns, John Ford only directed one feature focusing on the Civil War. (He also tackled the War Between the States in 1963’s How the West Was Won, but that was just one segment in a multipart movie.) It’s a shame, then, that The Horse Soldiers doesn’t rank more highly in his oater oeuvre: It’s beautifully photographed (by William Clothier) and contains some rousing set-pieces, but it’s hindered by thinly drawn characters and a scarcely believable romance. Based on an actual incident, this stars John Wayne as Colonel Marlowe, a Union officer tasked with leading a raid deep into Confederate territory. Strictly militaristic in thought and deed, he butts heads with Major Kendall (William Holden), the outfit’s doctor and a man disgusted with every aspect of war. Marlowe and Kendall are painted in broad strokes — unusual for a John Ford production — and the story grows convoluted when the group is forced to take along a Southern belle (Constance Towers) who has overheard their plans. Naturally, she and Marlowe begin as enemies and end as sweethearts. The Horse Soldiers is the third Civil War flick to hit Blu-ray within the past 12 months, but it’s not as exciting as Major Dundee or as complex as Shenandoah.
Blu-ray extras consist of film historian audio commentary; the theatrical trailer; and trailers for other titles on the Kino label.
LAST PASSENGER (2013). Here’s a pleasant surprise, an under-the-radar thriller that’s been largely undiscovered for nearly a decade now. In the tradition of Steven Spielberg’s Duel, it features an unseen force of evil at the controls of a vehicular instrument of destruction — in this case, it’s a train rather than a truck. A late-night train leaving London is carrying only six passengers when it becomes obvious that something isn’t right: The ticket-taker is missing and scheduled stops are being bypassed. Lewis (Dougray Scott), a widowed doctor traveling with his young son (Joshua Kaynama), sets out to investigate, alternately helped and hindered by the other passengers: a lovely event coordinator (Kara Tointon), an impertinent businessman (David Schofield), a testy London Underground worker (Iddo Goldberg), and a kindly grandmother (Lindsay Duncan). Writer-director Omid Nooshin immediately primes himself for success by creating interesting and well-rounded characters who hold our attention even before the thriller aspect makes its first appearance. Scott, forever known as The Man Who Would Be Wolverine (he was cast in the X-Men role before delays tied to his Mission: Impossible 2 involvement forced him to drop out), and Tointon make an appealing couple, and Nooshin doesn’t skimp on putting his protagonists through some hair-raising situations.
Blu-ray extras include featurettes on the set design, sound design, and visual effects, and behind-the-scenes footage.
THE NORTHMAN (2022). Writer-director Robert Eggers, at the helm of his third motion picture following 2016’s The Witch and the 2019 10 Best entry The Lighthouse, takes on Hamlet before it was Hamlet. Working primarily from a legend largely brought to light by 12th-century Danish author Saxo Grammaticus — a medieval saga that directly inspired Shakespeare to pen his magnum opus — Eggers and co-scripter Sjón have created a ferocious revenge tale that’s heavy on the blood and sweat but light on the tears. It tells the story of Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård, who also produced), an Icelandic warrior seeking vengeance against the uncle (Claes Bang) who murdered his father (a miscast Ethan Hawke) and took off with his mother (Nicole Kidman). To get close to his target, Amleth disguises himself as a slave, an action that puts him in the same company as a captured sorceress (Anya Taylor-Joy) who shares many of his goals. The Northman is a rousing Viking yarn where the supernatural easily commingles with reality, a world in which witches and seers carry as much weight as kings and queens. It’s an absolutely immersive experience, with Eggers and team offering an up-close-and-personal seat to a searing, soaring spectacle.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Eggers; a making-of featurette; deleted and extended scenes; and a look at Knattleikr, the violent game prominently featured in one exciting sequence.
THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1998). There have been many screen versions of the Gaston Leroux novel (including the Universal classics with Lon Chaney and Claude Rains and the Hammer not-so-classic with Herbert Lom), as well as many take-offs and knock-offs (among them the imaginative Phantom of the Paradise and the idiotic Phantom of the Mall: Eric’s Revenge). I daresay Dario Argento’s interpretation might be the worst of them all, and, yes, I’ve seen the version starring Freddy Krueger as the Phantom. Co-written by Argento and frequent Roman Polanski collaborator Gérard Brach (Tess, The Fearless Vampire Killers), this gonzo picture takes plenty of bold chances, but when not a single one works, what’s the point? Here, the opera-house dweller isn’t a physical grotesquerie but a handsome man (Julian Sands, boring beyond belief) who, not unlike the abandoned baby raised by penguins in Batman Returns, was an abandoned baby lovingly raised by rats. Possessing telepathic(!) abilities, he develops a rapport with opera singer Christine Daaé (Asia Argento, awful beyond compare), who falls in love with both the Phantom and with suitor Raoul (Andrea Di Stefano, stiff beyond imagining). The bloodletting should please the gore-galore crowd; others will want to steer clear of the wreckage.
Blu-ray extras consist of film historian audio commentary and separate interviews with Argento, producer Giuseppe Colombo, and set designer Antonello Geleng.
RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981). This dream project between Steven Spielberg and George Lucas is one of the all-time greats, a delightful thrill-a-minute flick in the grand swashbuckling and movie serial traditions. Harrison Ford is perfection-plus as Indiana Jones, so iconic a character that the AFI cited him as the second greatest movie hero of all time (just under Atticus Finch and just above James Bond) in its 2003 “100 Heroes & Villains” list. Every character is richly brought to life, particularly Karen Allen’s Marion Ravenwood, Paul Freeman’s Belloq (a frequently underrated villain), and, oh, yeah, that treacherous capuchin monkey. Nominated for eight Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Director for Spielberg), it nabbed four statues for its film editing, visual effects, sets, and sound, as well as a Special Achievement Award for sound effects editing.
Raiders of the Lost Ark made its 4K debut last summer as part of the Indiana Jones 4-Movie Collection. It’s now being offered as a standalone 4K feature in a new Steelbook edition that includes no extras but does contain a digital code and a mini-poster. The three sequels will likewise be released individually, with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom arriving July 12, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade out August 16, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull due September 20.
THE WHISTLE AT EATON FALLS (1951). While films about labor disputes between unions and management sound about as exciting as HOA board meetings, the truth is that there have been some solid dramas to emerge from this subgenre. Joining the likes of Martin Ritt’s Norma Rae and John Sayles’ Matewan is this all-but-forgotten film that was shot on location in New Hampshire. When the benevolent owner (Donald McKee) of a plastics company dies in an airplane crash, his widow (silent-cinema star Dorothy Gish in one of her few talkies) takes over and immediately promotes the likable Brad Adams (Lloyd Bridges) to supervisor, figuring he can serve as an effective bridge between the company, the union, and the factory workers positioned between the pair. But when Brad realizes that the only way to save the company from going under is to lay off half the employees, he quickly becomes persona non grata with his co-workers. With the writing credited to six individuals (including the gent who receives the unusual billing of “an original story suggested and developed from the research of”), this turns out to be a thoughtful picture with no easy answers (at least until the happy ending), and the supporting cast includes up-and-comers Ernest Borgnine, Murray Hamilton, Anne Francis, and Carleton Carpenter (who passed away this past January at the age of 95).
Blu-ray extras include film historian audio commentary; a look at the restoration process; and an isolated soundtrack of the score.
Review links for movies referenced in this column:
Best & Worst Films of 2019
The Fearless Vampire Killers Or: Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck
Hell or High Water
James Bond Series
Phantom of the Mall: Eric’s Revenge
The Phantom of the Opera (1962)