View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray, 4K and DVD.
Peter Billingsley in A Christmas Story (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.)
BLUE HAWAII (1961). While the majority of Elvis Presley’s good movies came at the beginning of his career (e.g. Jailhouse Rock, King Creole) and the majority of the bad ones came at the end (Speedway, Change of Habit, etc.), the middle stretch was the period populated by agreeable formula flicks that differed very little in style, structure, or stereotype. This batch included It Happened at the World’s Fair, Roustabout, and this colorful confection that ended up becoming one of his biggest box office hits (and the soundtrack, which includes “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” was a gargantuan smash). It’s Elvis at his most easygoing, playing a discharged serviceman who returns to his Hawaiian home and is immediately at odds with his overbearing mother (Angela Lansbury). The plot is serviceable, the conflicts are comical, and leading lady Joan Blackman (also his co-star in Kid Galahad) is as lovely as the Hawaiian scenery.
Extras in the 4K UHD + Blu-ray + Digital edition consist of film historian audio commentary; a photo gallery (billed here as a “Photo Scrapbook”); and the theatrical trailer.
A CHRISTMAS STORY (1983) / NATIONAL LAMPOON’S CHRISTMAS VACATION (1989) / ELF (2003) / THE POLAR EXPRESS (2004). Christmas is around the corner, which means it’s time for home entertainment outfits to re-release holiday favorites on Blu-ray for the umpteenth time. Warner, however, has opted to one-up most of the competition by offering four of its catalog titles on 4K Ultra HD.
For those curmudgeons who have yet to check it out, A Christmas Story is an uproarious adaptation of Jean Shepherd’s book In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. Peter Billingsley, in a delightful, wide-eyed performance that never grows stale, holds center stage as 9-year-old Ralphie, who wants nothing so much as a Red Ryder BB gun come Christmas day — but who’s told by practically every adult he encounters that “You’ll shoot your eye out!” Rich anecdotes involving his friends and family members fill out the remainder of this charming audience favorite that has become as much of an annual perennial as It’s a Wonderful Life. Darren McGavin steals the show as Ralphie’s father, whose early Christmas gift comes in the form of a leg — make that leggy — lamp (“Frageeleh! It must be Italian!”).
It didn’t seem like much of a big deal at the time — in most respects, it still doesn’t — but the passing of years has revealed National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation to be the best in the series that began in 1983 and led to three sequels and one remake. Chevy Chase again stars as Clark Griswold, the hapless family man who finds his home invaded by numerous relatives in the days leading up to Christmas. Eagerly awaiting his annual bonus (needed to cover the pool he’s having installed), he tries his best not to let his bickering relatives or his incessant pratfalls take away from the spirit of the season. There are enough modest laughs scattered throughout, and Randy Quaid is a hoot as country bumpkin Cousin Eddie, but it’s the undercurrent of seasonal tension that provides this with some heft — the scene in which Clark finally breaks down is surprisingly strong, to say nothing of universally recognizable.
While it could stand being a little more naughty and a little less nice, Elf isn’t a pre-fabricated piece of synthetic Christmas cheer like such junk as Deck the Halls, Jingle All the Way or the worst-of-the-worst Christmas With the Kranks. While remaining mindful of the season-friendly PG rating, director Jon Favreau and scripter David Berenbaum manage to add a few splashes of Tabasco sauce to the expected puddles of syrup, thereby elevating this fable about a human (Will Ferrell) who, after being raised as an elf at the North Pole, heads to New York in search of his real father (James Caan). Overcoming a sluggish beginning, both the picture and Ferrell’s broad turn become easier to take once this gets rolling, with some inventive touches (love those Etch-A-Sketch renditions!) and a game supporting cast (Zooey Deschanel, Peter Dinklage, Ed Asner as Santa Claus) helping matters along.
Expanded from Chris Van Allsburg’s popular children’s novel, The Polar Express employs then-cutting-edge motion-capture technology to place its characters within throwing distance of real life. Unfortunately, the result is downright creepy, with most of the “humans” coming off as little more than slick automatons. Tom Hanks provides the voices for six characters, the most prominent being the conductor of a train that whisks doubting children straight to the North Pole to meet the Big Red One himself. Action set-pieces aren’t usually what come to mind when we try to invoke Yuletide imagery, yet the only parts of this movie that come alive involve the train hurtling across treacherous icy terrain or zipping over mountains like the world’s greatest roller coaster. The rest of the film — a “Harry Potter meets Scrooge” hodgepodge enacted on a plateau of plasticity — is distressingly flat.
Each film is sold separately as a 4K UHD + Blu-ray + Digital Code. Extras include a piece on the Daisy Red Ryder on A Christmas Story; audio commentary by various cast and crew members (but no Chevy) on National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation; deleted and alternate scenes on Elf; and a featurette on motion capture on The Polar Express.
A Christmas Story: ★★★½
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation: ★★★
The Polar Express: ★★
EL VAMPIRO NEGRO (THE BLACK VAMPIRE) (1953). While the title makes this sound like a precursor to Blacula, there are actually no bloodsuckers to be found in this fascinating Argentinian import, at least not of the Dracula variety. Instead, this is a remake of Fritz Lang’s M, only with much of the focus placed elsewhere. As with that 1931 classic, the story centers on a murderous pedophile (Nathán Pinzón in the role that had earlier made Peter Lorre a star) and the efforts of both the police and the criminal underground to stop him. The difference here is that writer-director Román Viñoly Barreto has elected to build the story around Amalia (Olga Zubarry), a struggling nightclub performer and strong-willed single mother whose own little girl might be in danger. This effectively adds a feminist slant to the proceedings, one further enhanced by Amalia’s dealings with a lawman (Roberto Escalada) attempting to stonewall his own libidinous frustrations.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by film archivist Fernando Martín Peña; an introduction by film historian Eddie Muller; and a piece comparing the three screen versions of M (the third being the same-named 1951 American remake starring David Wayne).
JERRY & MARGE GO LARGE (2022). Inspired by a true story, Jerry & Marge Go Large won’t exactly leave viewers feeling like a million bucks — or two billion bucks, going by that recent Powerball drawing — but this charming picture offers enough rewards to make it worthwhile. Bryan Cranston plays Jerry Selbee, a Michigan retiree who’s always been exceptional with numbers. When he discovers a loophole in the WinFall lottery, he and his wife Marge (Annette Bening) are able to capitalize and thus help out their friends and family members. There are no obstacles to their success until a smarmy Harvard student (Uly Schlesinger) likewise figures out the flaw and tries to freeze them out of the game. Movies that qualify as human interest stories only work when, well, the humans are interesting, and that proves to be case here. While there’s nothing intrinsically fascinating about these ordinary people, scripter Brad Copeland provides them with enough personality that the actors can take it from there. Former The Daily Show correspondent Larry Wilmore amusingly deadpans as the couple’s droll accountant.
There are no Blu-ray extras.
MONSIEUR HIRE (1989). The voyeuristic nature of cinema occasionally loops back on itself, as seen in such high-profile pictures as Rear Window, The Conversation, and Body Double as well as under-the-radar indies like the recent Amerikatsi. Here’s another one to add to the stack, with French writer-director Patrice Laconte turning a 1933 novel by the prolific Georges Simenon (Betty, the Maigret series) into a chilly and understated film that’s as much mood piece as mystery. Michel Blanc is excellent as the title character, a mousy misanthrope who becomes the prime suspect when a young woman’s corpse is discovered near his apartment complex. Hire may or may not be a murderer, but he’s definitely a Peeping Tom, constantly spying on the beauty (Sandrine Bonnaire) in the window opposite him. The unorthodox relationship that develops between the pair forms the crux of this whispery, worthwhile drama.
Blu-ray extras consist of film critic audio commentary; an interview with Leconte and Bonnaire; and trailers. Also new from the Cohen label is a Patrice Laconte Blu-ray double feature, pairing two more films about obsessive love: 2001’s Félix and Lola, about a bumper-car operator (Philippe Torreton) smitten with a woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) with a mysterious past, and 2002’s Love Street, in which a handyman (Patrick Timsit) at a brothel falls for one of the establishment’s prostitutes (Laetitia Casta). Each movie offers film critic audio commentary and trailers.
THREE THOUSAND YEARS OF LONGING (2022). A wondrous film until the magic runs out in the last act, this adaptation of A.S. Byatt’s short story “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye” stars Tilda Swinton as Alithea Binnie, an academic who purchases a curiously shaped bottle at an antique shop in Istanbul. She discovers that it houses a genie (Idris Elba) who proceeds to grant her three wishes — she balks at his offer due to a combination of caution and mistrust, and this requires him to relate a series of stories from his past. A box office bomb that deserved a better fate, this finds writer-director George Miller (the Mad Max series) celebrating the art of storytelling with the help of some robust visual effects and an anchored performance by Elba. It’s only after the Djinn finishes spinning his yarns and Alithea makes her first wish that the movie loses its footing — what transpires might make sense from a narrative point of view, but it flounders without really engaging. It also doesn’t help that Elba and Swinton’s characters connect on an intellectual level but not always on an emotional one, further blunting any late-inning impact.
There are no Blu-ray extras.
Review links for movies referenced in this column:
Christmas With the Kranks
Deck the Halls
It Happened at the World’s Fair
It’s a Wonderful Life
Jingle All the Way
Kid Galahad (1962)
Mad Max Series