View From the Couch: Army of Darkness, Arsenic and Old Lace, etc.
View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray, 4K and DVD.
View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray, 4K and DVD.
Cary Grant, Raymond Massey and Peter Lorre in Arsenic and Old Lace (Photo: Criterion)
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.)
ARMY OF DARKNESS (1993). Only a primitive screwhead would find zero entertainment value in the third Evil Dead movie from director Sam Raimi, producer Robert Tapert, and star Bruce Campbell. Whereas 1987’s Evil Dead II was basically a tongue-in-bloody-cheek remake/continuation of 1981’s series-best The Evil Dead, this entry builds on the ending of Part Deux and takes off in its own loony direction. Our hero Ash (Campbell) finds himself back in the Dark Ages (The Medieval Dead was suggested as the title, which would have been brilliant); there, he battles all manner of monsters, including a skeleton army and his own supernatural doppelganger, Bad Ash. With its glorious effects — not to mention a robust Bernard Herrmann-esque score by Joseph LoDuca — this film is first and foremost a tribute to Ray Harryhausen, although Raimi also finds room for shout-outs to William Shakespeare, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and especially The Three Stooges.
Shout! Factory’s four-disc 4K UHD + Blu-ray edition is, in a word, groovy. The 4K disc contains the original theatrical cut (but, alas, not the director’s cut), while the three Blu-rays shelter the theatrical cut, the director’s cut, the international edit, and the television version. Ample extras include audio commentary on the director’s cut by Raimi, Campbell, and co-writer Ivan Raimi; an excellent 96-minute making-of documentary from 2015, featuring interviews with Campbell, co-star Ted Raimi, and many others (but no Sam Raimi); deleted scenes; archival making-of featurettes; and behind-the-scenes footage.
ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (1944). It’s not mere hyperbole to state that Frank Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace ranks as one of the funniest films ever made. Based on a Broadway smash starring Boris Karloff, this was filmed in 1942 but, since Warner Bros. had agreed not to release the movie until the play closed, it didn’t hit theaters until 1944. Cary Grant, in an outrageously broad performance that nevertheless works, stars as Mortimer Brewster, a drama critic who discovers — on the day of his marriage to the sweet Elaine (Priscilla Lane), no less — that his kindly aunts (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair) have been poisoning lonely old men and ordering his loony brother (John Alexander), a man who believes he’s Teddy Roosevelt, to bury the bodies in the basement. Mortimer tries to explain to his aunts that their charitable act is actually a no-no, but matters grow more complicated when his brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey), a murderer on the lam, turns up with the perpetually nervous plastic surgeon Dr. Herman Einstein (Peter Lorre, simply wonderful) by his side. There’s a running gag that, thanks to a botched operation by an inebriated Dr. Einstein, Jonathan looks like Boris Karloff, and the only way a perfect movie could have been even more perfect would be if Karloff had essayed the role — alas, the play’s producers didn’t allow him to leave the show to make the film.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by author Charles Dennis (There’s a Body in the Window Seat!: The History of Arsenic and Old Lace); a 1952 radio adaptation starring Karloff; and the theatrical trailer.
BLIND FURY (1989). The character of Zatôichi is a popular one in Japan, having appeared in more than two dozen movies between 1962 and 1989 and 100 television episodes from 1974 to 1979 — additionally, Takeshi Kitano brought him back for an exciting 2003 theatrical release that was part reboot, part tribute, and there was also a 2010 feature film that’s been all but forgotten. Zatôichi is a wandering swordsman, yet what makes him unique is that he’s a blind swordsman, with as much in common with Marvel’s Daredevil as with any of Kurosawa’s seven samurai. Blind Fury was the Hollywood attempt to turn the figure into an American icon; it didn’t take, but this one-off did provide Rutger Hauer with perhaps his most unusual heroic role until Hobo with a Shotgun 22 years later. Losing his sight while serving in Vietnam, Nick Parker (Hauer) is saved from certain death by the members of a nearby village; during his lengthy recovery period, he is taught how to compensate for his blindness by honing his other senses. Returning stateside years later, he searches for his friend and former comrade-in-arms Frank Deveraux (Terry O’Quinn), only to learn that Frank needs rescuing from a Las Vegas mob. The villains are cardboard and Nick spends too much time having to bond with Frank’s neglected son (Brandon Call); otherwise, this is a fairly enjoyable action film distinguished by Hauer’s charismatic turn.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by the film’s screenwriter, Charles Robert Carner, and the theatrical trailer.
ED SULLIVAN’S ROCK & ROLL CLASSICS (2022). It’s impossible to overstate the importance of The Ed Sullivan Show, not only to television but also to music. Every Sunday night for a whopping 23 years (1948-1971), the popular variety series took the pulse of the pop-culture landscape, with the ordinary, affable Ed promising a “really big shew” each and every week. Anyone who was somebody appeared on the program (and, often, anyone who was nobody as well), and that included the biggest music stars of each decade. Time Life has released a 10-disc DVD box set that contains 128 of the live performances seen on the show. While the collection disappointingly doesn’t include the performance of “Light My Fire” that got The Doors banned after their one-and-done, or the opening salvo of songs performed by The Beatles on February 9, 1964, there’s still much greatness on hand: Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Jackson 5, The Supremes, and more. And in case you were wondering, this does offer Herman’s Hermits’ “I’m Henry VIII, I Am” and Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler’s “The Ballad of the Green Beret” — a shame, though, that they couldn’t figure out a way to include one of Topo Gigio’s countless appearances.
Extras include 1995’s Ed Sullivan All-Star Comedy Special, featuring vintage bits by Richard Pryor, Carol Burnett, Rodney Dangerfield, and more; two episodes of the 1995 documentary series The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll; and celebrity interviews. A 36-page booklet is also included.
GOING PLACES (1974). The film’s original French title, Les Valseuses, is slang for a male reproductive organ — however, I can’t visualize the title The Testicles splashed across an American theater marquee, so Going Places it is. An enormous hit in France and a lightning rod of controversy when it debuted stateside, this focuses on Jean-Claude (Gérard Depardieu in his breakthrough role) and Pierrot (Patrick Dewaere), two youthful louts who spend their lives harassing women, committing petty crimes, and contributing absolutely nothing to society. They sexually share an emotionless blonde named Marie-Ange (Miou-Miou), but it’s only when they aid (and bed) a newly released jailbird (Jeanne Moreau) that they exhibit anything resembling altruism. The dialogue is sharp but the main characters are one click shy of irredeemable, and one’s acceptance of the film might depend on whether one believes writer-director Bertrand Blier condones or condemns the actions of his protagonists. I would think the latter, had an uncomfortable scene on a train — it involves a breastfeeding mother (Brigitte Fossey) — not ended with the woman responding positively to the sexual actions of two clods who had intimidated her just moments earlier. A 20-year-old Isabelle Huppert lands one of her first roles as a teenage virgin who’s willingly deflowered by the guys. Four years later, Blier, Depardieu, and Dewaere would reunite to make the Oscar-winning (but also controversial) Get Out Your Handkerchiefs (reviewed here). And in 2020, John Turturro wrote, directed, and starred in The Jesus Rolls, which managed to be both a remake of Going Places and a sequel to The Big Lebowski.
Blu-ray extras consist of film professor audio commentary and the theatrical trailer.
LOVE AND DEATH (1975). “If I could just see a miracle. Just one miracle. If I could see a burning bush, or the seas part, or my Uncle Sasha pick up a check.” “I go [i.e. will be executed] at 6 o’clock tomorrow. I was supposed to go at 5 o’clock, but I have a smart lawyer. Got leniency.” Those are two of the great quips found in Woody Allen’s Love and Death, but there’s no use crying over spilled spoilers, since the picture is packed front to back with many more cheery bon mots — to say nothing of rollicking slapstick sequences, spoofy film homages, and other modes of merriment guaranteed to keep viewers in perpetual guffaw. Using Russian literature as the base ingredient, Woody adds pinches of Ingmar Bergman, Sergei Eisenstein, and Bob Hope to this yarn about lowly Boris Grushenko (Allen), a coward who finds himself an unwilling participant in the Napoleonic Wars. When he’s not busy avoiding battlefield injury, he can be found wooing his distant cousin Sonja (Diane Keaton), who passes the time having affairs (when asked how many lovers she’s had, she replies, “In the midtown area?”) before she decides that she and Boris should assassinate Napoleon (James Tolkan). Love and Death might seem more haphazard than most of the auteur’s films, but the astoundingly high hit-to-miss ratio deems it a keeper. This would be the last of what’s commonly referred to as Allen’s “early, funny ones” (to quote Stardust Memories, reviewed here), as his next picture, 1977’s Annie Hall, would kick off a more mature and more introspective chapter in his career.
There are no Blu-ray extras.
MURDER AT THE VANITIES (1934). I’ve been interested in seeing this pre-Code murder-mystery ever since I caught Leonard Maltin’s description of it as “arguably the smuttiest Hollywood musical ever made.” That’s possible, considering the chorines’ breasts are often only covered by their hands and some of the lines are cleaner but still obvious variations on “Let’s fuck.” And then there’s the musical number surrounding “Sweet Marijuana,” a song which begins, “Soothe me with your caress, sweet marijuana, marijuana. Help me in my distress, sweet marijuana.” Backstage at Earl Carroll’s Vanities (an actual revue from the 1920s through the 1940s), someone is trying to kill leading lady Ann Ware (Kitty Carlisle). Show producer Jack Ellery (Jack Oakie) gets detective Bill Murdock (Victor McLaglen) to drop by — a good thing, since someone else does get murdered. Is the killer leading man Eric Lander (Carl Brisson)? Spiteful singer Rita Ross (Gertrude Michael)? Rita’s mousy maid (Dorothy Stickney)? The wardrobe lady (Jessie Ralph) with the big secret? Or is Ann herself the murderess? There are many oddball touches in this occasionally creaky but always entertaining romp — don’t miss the moment when the blood from a victim in the rafters drips onto the shoulder of one of the nearly nude chorines. Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra are on hand to offer “The Rape of the Rhapsody,” and Lucille Ball can reportedly be spotted among the aspiring starlets.
Blu-ray extras consist of film historian audio commentary and trailers for five other films on the Kino label.
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