(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what's new on Blu-ray and DVD.)
Harold Russell, Dana Andrews and Fredric March in The Best Years of Our Lives (Photo: Warner Bros.)
THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946). This enduring classic remains perhaps the best film ever made about the hardships endured by soldiers returning home from war. With a script by four-time Pulitzer Prize winner Robert E. Sherwood (adapting MacKinlay Kantor's novel) and direction by the great William Wyler, this centers on three World War II veterans all simultaneously returning to their hometown of Boone City. Sergeant Al Stephenson (Fredric March) is happy to see his wife Milly (Myrna Loy) and kids Peggy and Rob (Teresa Wright and Michael Hall) again after all these years, but he has trouble readjusting to civilian life. Captain and bombardier Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), referenced more than once as a "glamour flyboy," has no luck finding work but at least can spend quality time with the woman (Virginia Mayo) he married before shipping out — until he learns that they have little in common. And sailor Homer Parrish (nonprofessional actor Harold Russell), who has hooks where both hands used to be, worries that he will no longer be loved by the childhood sweetheart (Cathy O'Donnell) he planned to marry. (While the fictional Homer lost his hands in combat, Russell actually lost his as he held faulty explosives while serving as an army instructor near Fort Bragg, N.C.) A gargantuan box office hit (at the time of its release, it reportedly outgrossed every previous picture except for Gone with the Wind), the film belies its three-hour running time, thanks to one outstanding vignette after another — highlights include the men's drunken revelry at the bar owned by Homer's Uncle Butch (Hoagy Carmichael), Peggy's declaration to her parents that she's in love with Fred and plans to break up his unhappy marriage (Wright is as luminous as always), Fred's visit to the plane graveyard, and Homer's meltdown in the tool shed. The cinematography by Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane) is outstanding and should have nabbed the Oscar; instead, it failed to even be nominated. And speaking of the Oscars, this won seven of the eight categories in which it was nominated, including Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor (March) and Supporting Actor (Russell); in addition, Russell also won a second award, a special Oscar "for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance in The Best Years of Our Lives." The movie also has the distinction of being part of the first group of 25 films to be entered into the Library of Congress' annually selected National Film Registry, initiated in 1989 alongside the likes of Casablanca, Star Wars and The Wizard of Oz.
Blu-ray extras include an introduction by Mayo; interviews with Wright and Mayo; and the theatrical trailer.
Ian McKellen in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Photo: Warner Bros.)
THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY (2012). In returning to the same J.R.R. Tolkien well, Peter Jackson and his collaborators have made a film that's often entertaining but can never quite shake the stigma of being a footnote to The Lord of the Rings trilogy that earned billions of dollars and won handfuls of Oscars. Opting to divide Tolkien's The Hobbit — a slim work compared to the gargantuan LOTR — into three films reeks of a cash grab even more than splitting the final Harry Potter and Twilight books into cinematic two-parters, but considering the piece gathers steam after a lethargic opening, it seems likely that the subsequent entries will maintain the stride and emerge more balanced than this outing. In this prequel to the Rings trilogy, Ian McKellen again portrays the wise wizard Gandalf, electing to help a gang of dwarves take back their home from the fearsome dragon Smaug. Gandalf's intuition tells him that the dwarves will only succeed in their task if the hobbit Bilbo (Martin Freeman) accompanies them on their journey. A homebody averse to adventure, Bilbo reluctantly agrees to join the band of merry men, and soon they're off coping with orcs, trolls, rock creatures and CGI wolves borrowed from the Twilight hard drive. Because he's swelling this tale out to three movies that will each doubtless clock in around the three-hour mark, Jackson treads a lot of water, never more obviously than in the prolonged early stretch when the dwarves first meet Bilbo by invading his home like American Pie teenagers searching for a house party. Once the group bids adieu to safety and comfort, though, the movie picks up with an endless stream of action set-pieces. While there's theoretically a sameness about the setups (band sees impending danger, band runs, band is forced to fight, band is saved at last moment, repeat cycle), Jackson expertly stages each one in a way that cumulatively reaches its crescendo with a climactic battle against some particularly nasty orcs.
This new Extended Edition offers a longer cut than the theatrical version, although, unlike the original trilogy's addition of roughly an hour to each film for their Extended Editions, this one only tacks on an extra 13 minutes. The bonus features, on the other hand, will leave no one wanting, as they last approximately nine hours. These appendices cover all aspects of the making of the film, with a great portion focusing on, naturally enough, the visual effects. Other extras include audio commentary by Jackson and co-scripter Philippa Boyens and a featurette on the New Zealand shooting locations.
Kevin Costner and Wayne Knight (background) in JFK (Photo: Warner Bros.)
JFK (1991). Upon its initial release, Oliver Stone's best film probably graced more newspaper op-ed columns than any other picture in recent memory. Afraid of shaking the status quo, media moguls, newspaper publishers and even former MPAA president and world-class dipshit Jack Valenti frantically took exception to the movie, with The New York Times leading the charge (our government wouldn't lie to us, its writers naively chirped), zealots comparing Stone to Leni Riefenstahl and one cowardly magazine editor refusing to print his critic's rave review (the critic admirably resigned in protest). But now as then, it's best to ignore the windbags, who methinks doth protest too much anyway. JFK is an often extraordinary movie, not only in its technical prowess but also in the way Stone is able to combine historical facts with his own flights of fancy to create a motion picture that, beyond striking more than a few nerves, convincingly portrays a country at war with itself, shaken to its core and desperately trying to regain its balance after a tragedy that would forever alter the American landscape. As the cherry on top, the movie's success would lead to the public release of many documents related to the Kennedy assassination (with the rest set to be made public in 2017). In the role famously turned down by both Mel Gibson and Harrison Ford, Kevin Costner heads the all-star cast as determined district attorney Jim Garrison, with standout supporting contributions coming from Kevin Bacon, Joe Pesci, Donald Sutherland and, as Lee Harvey Oswald, Gary Oldman. Nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Director and Supporting Actor (Tommy Lee Jones), this won for Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing.
(Photo: Warner Bros.)
Warner Bros. has released JFK on Blu-ray before, but not like this. JFK: 50 Year Commemorative Ultimate Collector's Edition, marking the 50th anniversary of the tragedy, is as much a piece of world history as film history, with many of the enclosed items having nothing to do with the film and everything to do with John F. Kennedy. Among these collectibles are a book filled with Kennedy quotes; a reproduction of his inaugural address; a reproduction of a campaign poster; and personal photos and correspondence from the Kennedy Presidential Library. The set also includes a 44-page book with film photos and six cards featuring characters from the movie. As for the discs, there are Blu-rays for the Director's Cut of JFK (extras include audio commentary by Stone and deleted scenes) and for "Chapter 6 (JFK: To the Brink)" from Stone's recent documentary series Untold History of the United States (for those interested in the whole series, Warner has recently released it on Blu-ray as well). This masterful collection also contains DVDs of one feature film and two documentaries: 1963's PT 109, charting the heroic efforts of Kennedy (played by Cliff Robertson) during World War II; the classic 1965 documentary John F. Kennedy: Years of Lightning, Day of Drums, narrated by Gregory Peck; and the new nonfiction piece JFK Remembered: 50 Years Later.
Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence (Photo: Criterion)
JOHN CASSAVETES: FIVE FILMS (1959-1977). John Cassavetes has often been pegged as the father of independent cinema, yet clearly he remains removed from today's breed of indie filmmakers, whose products generally lean on corporate sponsorship far more than Cassavetes' output ever did. Taking the money he earned from co-starring in Hollywood films like The Dirty Dozen, Rosemary's Baby and The Fury, this edgy innovator would then turn around and self-finance his own pet projects. Hailed as "life-changing" by fans and "self-indulgent" by detractors, Cassavetes' movies inject themselves under the skin and either produce a pleasurable buzz or a maddening rash — depending on one's point of view.
This gorgeous Criterion boxed set, first released on DVD in 2004 and now making its Blu-ray debut, contains five of the movies that Cassavetes made on his own dime, aided by his own devoted troupe of actors.
Lelia Goldoni (right) in Shadows (Photo: Criterion)
Shadows (1959), his startling debut piece, began as an acting workshop exercise and morphed into a movie that, when broken down, isn't even about its central plot thread (an interracial romance) as much as it's about capturing the jazzy milieu of late-50s New York. Shadows is followed in the set by Faces (1968) and A Woman Under the Influence (1974), his most popular movies among critics, art-house audiences and Academy members (Faces earned nods for Cassavetes' original screenplay and supporting players Seymour Cassel and Lynn Carlin, while Woman copped nominations for his direction and wife Gena Rowlands' lead performance). Both center on emotionally errant marriages: Faces touches upon the affairs of spouses John Marley and Carlin with, respectively, Rowlands and Cassel, while Woman magnifies in squirmy detail the efforts of a couple (Rowlands and Peter Falk) to cope with her — or should that be their? — mental meltdown.
Ben Gazzara in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (Photo: Criterion)
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), starring Ben Gazzara as a smalltime nightclub owner, was Cassavetes' attempt to make a film with more commercial elements, but the melding of a conventional narrative with his own abstract musings doesn't completely work. The 135-minute movie was recut by Cassavetes to 108 minutes and re-released in 1978, but this take is only shorter, not better (both versions are included in this set). Still, many fans consider the original version to be the filmmaker's most underrated and overlooked work, so judge for yourself. Finally, the retrospective-in-a-box concludes with Opening Night (1977), an occasionally infuriating but ultimately affecting drama about a stage actress (Rowlands) coping with both the demands of her role and the death of a teenage fan.
Extras include 2000's three-hour-plus documentary A Constant Forge: The Life and Art of John Cassavetes; audio commentary on A Woman Under the Influence by composer and sound recordist Bo Harwood and camera operator Mike Ferris; vintage audio interviews with Cassavetes on A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Opening Night; silent footage from the drama workshop that birthed Shadows; an alternate opening sequence for Faces; a 2004 conversation between Rowlands and Falk about A Woman Under the Influence; an interview with Gazzara and director of photography Al Ruban about The Killing of a Chinese Bookie; and a 2004 conversation between Rowlands and Gazzara about Opening Night. The collection also contains a booklet packed with superb essays and tributes (including one by Martin Scorsese).
A Woman Under the Influence: ***
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie: **1/2
Opening Night: ***
Henry Cavill in Man of Steel (Photo: Warner Bros,)
MAN OF STEEL (2013). A summer event picture that was driven almost entirely by hype, Man of Steel is one massive superbore, with a solemnity so crushing that it makes those earnest Biblical epics from the 1950s and '60s seem like a Marx Brothers romp by comparison. Certainly, some will (wrongly) argue that this post-9/11 era has no room for such lighthearted superflicks like 1978's Superman, which still ranks as the greatest superhero movie ever made. But even such yarns like The Avengers and the Iron Man trio, with all their nods toward world destruction and terrorists (or supervillains) seeking to curtail our freedoms, exhibit a sense of joy in the filmmaking, while the sagas that do wallow in the nihilism, like Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, have enough gravitas and dramatic heft to warrant such treatment. Man of Steel, for its part, offers nothing but torturous exposition, heavy-handed symbolism, criminally ill-used actors and a numbing finale that would be right at home in a Transformers sequel. The movie isn't lacking in action, but it's endless and uninspired, with director Zack Snyder (300, Sucker Punch) maxing out the studio's credit cards by shooting as much CGI bombast as the hardware could handle before sparking and catching on fire. The scenes that rely on dialogue are no better, with the good guys prone to speechifying and the bad guys reduced to spouting haughty cliches. Of all the actors, poor Kevin Costner has it the worst of anybody: Playing Pa Kent as a possibly psychotic man whose self-righteousness would put Gandhi to shame, he's never allowed to utter anything remotely natural, instead delivering every line as if he was reading from a stack of fortune cookies. It's a pity, because he's the most perfectly cast performer in the entire production, with Russell Crowe (as Jor-El) placing a distant second (like Costner, he has to struggle with a sizable number of unwieldy lines). Amy Adams, a great actress, is curiously ineffectual as Lois Lane, and while I used to think it was impossible for Michael Shannon to deliver a weak performance, he's drastically miscast as General Zod, reducing this towering figure of evil into the equivalent of a slobbery bulldog irritated by mange. Much might be forgiven had the role of Superman/Clark Kent been cast with the right actor, but Henry Cavill is a complete dullard, bereft of any trace of wit or charisma. He's more supermodel than Superman, which I suppose makes him just right for this shallow, leaden endeavor.
Blu-ray extras include an immersive experience in which one can watch the movie while listening to cast and crew interviews and checking out behind-the-scenes footage; a featurette on the film's characters; and two pieces focusing on Krypton.
Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace in Passion (Photo: eOne Films)
PASSION (2013). Brian De Palma has enough great movies in his filmography (Carrie, Dressed to Kill, The Untouchables, etc.) that he can always count on remaining one of my all-time favorite directors. But, man, it sure would be nice if he made at least one wholly successful film in the 21st century. After such late-career duds as Mission to Mars and Redacted (the latter making my 10 Worst list for 2007), he returns with another nonstarter, this one in the thriller genre that he owned during his glory years. A remake of a 2010 French film (Love Crimes) starring Kristin Scott Thomas and Ludivine Sagnier, this (mis)casts Rachel McAdams as Christine Standford, a ruthless businesswoman who's not above stealing the ideas of her creative underling Isabelle (Noomi Rapace) and passing them off as her own. After Isabelle reciprocates in kind, and once Christine learns that Isabelle is sleeping with her boyfriend (dull Paul Anderson, who's like a British Matthew Modine), the gloves come off — and literally go back on for a bloody murder. It would be impossible to peg this tepid affair as a De Palma until exactly the one-hour mark, when we finally get a split-screen to remind us that he once was perhaps cinema's most dazzlingly stylistic filmmaker. After that, De Palma as director is more engaged, but unfortunately he's working with De Palma as scripter, and the result is a movie that becomes more daft as it progresses. On the plus side, the location shooting in Germany is given a nice luster by Pedro Almodovar's regular cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine, and I always welcome a chance to hear a score by Pino Donaggio. But for a movie called Passion, this one's pretty bloodless.
Blu-ray extras consist of interviews with De Palma, McAdams, Rapace and co-star Karoline Herfurth; and the theatrical trailer.
Joanne Woodward in The Three Faces of Eve (Photo: Fox)
THE THREE FACES OF EVE (1957). In only her third silver-screen appearance, Joanne Woodward found gold — Oscar gold — via her Academy Award-winning performance in this psychological drama that casts her as Eve White, a mousy housewife whose peculiar behavior leads a psychiatrist, Dr. Luther (Lee J. Cobb), to discover that she suffers from multiple personality disorder. But just as Dr. Luther becomes acquainted with her other persona, a sexy party girl named Eve Black, he discovers that a third personality has emerged: Jane, an intelligent woman who provides a stark contrast to both the emotionally fragile Eve White and the lascivious Eve Black. Anchored by Woodward's excellent performance(s), this is loosely based on the true story of Chris Costner Sizemore, a South Carolina woman who suffered from 20 different personalities. For another fine film about a woman suffering from multiple personalities, check out the 1976 made-for-TV movie Sybil, starring Sally Field in an outstanding, Emmy Award-winning performance as the title character and co-starring, interestingly enough, Woodward as her psychiatrist.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by film historian Aubrey Solomon; Fox Movietone News footage showing Woodward and others winning their Oscars that year; and the theatrical trailer.