View From the Couch: Casablanca, Escape From Alcatraz, 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.
Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and the filming of Casablanca (Photo: Warner)
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.)
AUDREY ROSE (1977). Thanks to the success of 1973’s The Exorcist, demonic possession proved to be a major fad in ’70s cinema. Similarly, filmmakers also saw an opportunity to cash in with flicks involving reincarnation, resulting in the likes of 1975’s The Reincarnation of Peter Proud, 1978’s The Manitou, and this adaptation of Frank De Felitta’s novel. (And the trend didn’t end with the decade, as evidenced by the 1980 releases of Oh! Heavenly Dog, in which Chevy Chase comes back as Benji the mutt, and The Shining, in which Jack Nicholson comes back as, well, a crazier Jack Nicholson.) De Felitta himself wrote the screenplay, which finds British professor Elliot Hoover (Anthony Hopkins) informing Manhattan couple Janice and Bill Templeton (Marsha Mason and John Beck) that their young daughter Ivy (Susan Swift) is the reincarnation of his daughter Audrey Rose, who perished in a fiery car accident alongside her mother just moments before Ivy was born. Robert Wise, perhaps third only to Howard Hawks and Michael Curtiz as a consummate jack-of-all-trades director (credits include The Sound of Music, The Body Snatcher, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture), establishes a suitably eerie mood during the first half, bolstered by intense performances from Hopkins and Mason. But De Felitta’s story turns absurd in the second hour, starting with a trial in which the notion of reincarnation is placed on the stand — next to this, even Santa’s courtroom appearance in Miracle on 34th Street looks as grounded in reality as the Nuremberg trials — and culminating in an ending that’s illogical, unsatisfying, and open to an ungodly number of viewer questions.
Blu-ray extras include interviews with Mason and De Felitta; a video essay on reincarnation in cinema; and an image gallery.
CASABLANCA (1942). Rick and Ilsa. Laszlo and the letters of transit. Captain Renault and his charming corruptibility. “As Time Goes By.” “Here’s looking at you, kid.” You know the routine. So round up the usual accolades for Casablanca, which is always cited as one of the greatest Hollywood films ever made. It needs no plot synopsis, no cast breakdown, no further championing. True film enthusiasts know all about it; those who don’t care a whit for it (because it’s old, because it’s in black-and-white, blah blah blah) are merely film pretenders. This box office hit was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Bogart as Best Actor and the incomparable Claude Rains as Best Supporting Actor — both should have won. (As for Ingrid Bergman, her Best Actress nomination that year was for For Whom the Bell Tolls.) Casablanca did end up winning three major Oscars: Best Picture (considered a surprise victory at the time), Best Director (Michael Curtiz), and Best Screenplay (Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch, adapting the unpublished play Everybody Comes to Rick’s). And, no, there is absolutely no truth to the longstanding rumor that the film almost starred Ronald Reagan — as if!
Casablanca has been released on DVD at least a dozen times and on Blu-ray at least a half-dozen times, but this 80th anniversary edition marks its debut on 4K UHD. Various extras (all previously released) in the 4K + Blu-ray + Digital Code offering include audio commentary by film critic Roger Ebert; an introduction by Lauren Bacall; the ever-popular “Warner Night at the Movies” package (trailer, newsreel, short, and cartoons); the first episode of the short-lived 1955 TV series Casablanca; “Bacall on Bogart,” a 1988 episode of Great Performances; a piece on Curtiz; deleted scenes; and outtakes.
ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ (1979). During its 29 years in operation (1934-1963), there was only one potentially successful escape from Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary in San Francisco Bay. In 1962, prisoners Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin devised an elaborate scheme that allowed them to break out of the facility and leave the island on a makeshift raft. Law enforcement officials believed they drowned, but there was evidence over the ensuing days and then the ensuing decades that they had made it out alive. This great escape is brought to dramatic life in Escape from Alcatraz, which marked the fifth and final time star Clint Eastwood and director Don Siegel would work together (earlier credits included two of Clint’s best, Dirty Harry and The Beguiled). Eastwood stars as Frank Morris, newly arrived at Alcatraz and immediately wary of the sadistic warden (Patrick McGoohan). He makes friends with a handful of prisoners, including a wrongly incarcerated black man named English (Paul Benjamin) and a sensitive older man known as Doc (Roberts Blossom), and makes an enemy in a hulking rapist called Wolf (Bruce M. Fischer). Constantly thinking of escape, he only acts on it after the arrival of the Anglins (Jack Thibeau and Fred Ward in his first significant role), siblings known for their proficient breakout abilities. For an Eastwood vehicle, there’s very little action per se, but thanks to its sharply etched characters and absorbing plot points, few will mind. Look quickly and you can spot Danny Glover and Carl Lumbley among the inmates, each with a line or two of dialogue — both were making their film debuts.
Blu-ray extras include film historian audio commentary; interviews with screenwriter Richard Tuggle and actor Larry Hankin; and trailers for 10 other Eastwood flicks on the Kino label.
FANCY PANTS (1950). Although it isn’t as widely known today as, say, a Tolkien or Marvel offering, Ruggles of Red Gap was a novel by Harry Leon Wilson that landed on the bestsellers list approximately 100 years ago. Four film adaptations followed over the next few decades — the most forgotten are the two silent versions, while the most celebrated is the 1935 hit which starred Charles Laughton and which nabbed a Best Picture Oscar nomination. And then there’s Fancy Pants, a decent-sized box office performer and the only version not to go with the original title. Bob Hope, billed in the opening credits as “Mr. Robert Hope (Formerly Bob),” stars as Humphrey, a British butler who’s hired by a nouveau riche American family, the Flouds, to accompany them back to the U.S. to work as their manservant in their Wild West mansion. Of course, Humphrey isn’t really a butler; he’s not even a Humphrey. He’s Arthur Tyler, a struggling American actor only pretending to be a butler. Yet while the Flouds, including sassy daughter Agatha (Lucille Ball), believe him to be the genuine article, further miscommunication results in the rest of the town thinking he’s an English aristocrat. Hope and Ball would end up making four movies together (this was the second); it’s a dynamic pairing that theoretically should always lead to comedic nirvana, but they don’t always click in this one, let down by a script that could have used a few more top-tier gags. The best bit is easily Humphrey’s “Three against a thousand” tall tale of derring-do — Bob’s in excellent form, and the punchline is a real corker. John Alexander, best known for playing the nut who thinks he’s the real Teddy Roosevelt in 1944’s Arsenic and Old Lace, appears in a sizable supporting role as, yup, the real Teddy Roosevelt.
The only Blu-ray extra is the theatrical trailer.
THE GOOD BOSS (2021). Once Pedro Almodóvar’s 2021 Parallel Mothers emerged as a critical darling, an audience favorite, and the recipient of two Academy Award nominations for Penélope Cruz’s lead performance and Alberto Iglesias’ original score, it was easy to wonder how it missed on an Oscar nomination for Best International Feature Film. That’s because it was not the movie Spain submitted for consideration, even though Academy adoration for Almodóvar would have almost made it a lock for a nod. Instead, the country submitted The Good Boss, starring Cruz’s husband Javier Bardem, and no nomination was forthcoming. Yet while it struck out with our Academy, it performed phenomenally with the Goyas (Spain’s Oscars), landing a record-breaking 20(!) nominations (it won six, including Best Picture and Best Actor). I’m not sure it’s that award-worthy, but it definitely deserves a watch, especially by fans of dark comedies. Bardem is superb (so what else is new?) as Julio Blanco, the owner of a company that manufactures industrial scales. With the members of a committee honoring excellence in business coming to town, Blanco is determined to snag their award by making sure everything surrounding the workplace is perfect. Of course, that’s hard to achieve when a fired employee is camped out front with picket signs, one worker is having an affair with another’s wife, and Blanco himself sleeps with an intern who turns out to be the grown daughter of family friends. A few supporting characterizations fall flat, and the ending has trouble reconciling the various plotlines. But Bardem and writer-director Fernando León de Aranoa hold it all together with their marvelously constructed lead character, and several of the black-comedy bits are solid gold.
Blu-ray extras consist of interviews with Bardem and León de Aranoa, and the theatrical trailer.
THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1993). Tim Burton has always exhibited an inclination to frolic with the freaks, so to speak. Like David Lynch, he finds beauty in what others deem unsightly; as a result, his movies have generally centered on societal misfits trudging through a Dali-esque landscape, often in search of acceptance from those who have rejected them. The Nightmare Before Christmas is no exception. It tells of one Jack Skellington, the spindly Pumpkin King who helps mastermind the mischief behind Halloween. But Jack begins to tire of his lot in life, and one day he discovers another annual occasion for festivities: Christmas. Tremendously moved by the goodness of the Yuletide season and wanting to be a part of it, he orders his minions to kidnap “Sandy Claws” and dons the old red-and-white himself. But instead of visions of sugar plums, he serves up shrunken heads, skeletal reindeer, and other macabre items that quickly take the ho-ho-ho out of the holiday. On a visual level, the movie qualifies as poetry in stop-motion, as Burton (credited as creator and co-producer) and director Henry Selick take this infrequently used facet of animated artistry to giddy heights. Danny Elfman presents a melodious song score fashioned after a Broadway musical; he also provides the singing voice for Jack (Chris Sarandon handles dialogue duty). This earned an Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects; it’s one of only two animated films thus honored (the other being 2016’s fellow stop-motion effort Kubo and the Two Strings) unless one also counts 2019’s CGI-choked The Lion King, which Disney and I do not.
The Nightmare Before Christmas is available as a Disney Movie Club exclusive and comes with a glow-in-the-dark case. (Nonmembers still have the movie available to them through Disney’s previous 14 Blu-ray editions.)
RADIO DAYS (1987). The 1970s are often championed as Woody Allen’s best decade, but clearly there’s as much of a case to be made for the 1980s, which found the workaholic filmmaker offering two back-to-back masterpieces — 1985’s The Purple Rose of Cairo and 1986’s Hannah and Her Sisters — as well as other gems on the order of Zelig and Crimes and Misdemeanors. Here’s another one for the hit list — a lovely daydream of a film, it’s Allen’s affectionate look at the medium that often shaped his world view back in his formative years. Allen serves as narrator but is never seen; instead, his proxy is Joe (a wee Seth Green!), a young boy living in Rockaway, NY, with a family whose members include Joe’s gently combative parents (Julie Kavner and Michael Tucker) and his Aunt Bea (Dianne Wiest), who’s perennially searching for the right man. The movie smoothly slides from relating their tales to eavesdropping on the celebrities who appear on many of their favorite shows, radio stars like Sally White (Mia Farrow), a gossip maven who worked her way up from being a shrill cigarette girl, and an actor (Wallace Shawn) whose mousy stature belies the fact that he provides the voice for the dashing, heroic Masked Avenger. Allen shrewdly uses historic events to depict the passing of time: Aunt Bea’s date is interrupted by Orson Welles’ notorious 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast; Joe’s first visit to Radio City Music Hall is punctuated by the majestic scene being shown as he enters (James Stewart smooching Katharine Hepburn in 1940’s The Philadelphia Story); and Sally’s shot at the big time is delayed because of the abrupt announcement that the Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor. Radio Days earned two Oscar nominations, for Best Original Screenplay and Best Art Direction-Set Decoration.
There are on extras on the Blu-ray.
Review links for movies referenced in this column:
Arsenic and Old Lace
The Beguiled (1971)
The Body Snatcher
Kubo and the Two Strings
The Lion King (2019)
Miracle on 34th Street
The Philadelphia Story
Star Trek: The Motion Picture
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