(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what's new on Blu-ray and DVD.)
Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven (Photo: Twilight Time)
LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (1945). Gene Tierney, so innocent in the previous year's noir masterpiece Laura, does an about-face in director John M. Stahl's lurid yet luxurious adaptation of Ben Ames Williams' bestselling novel. She stars as Ellen Berent, whose Electra complex finds her marrying a man who bears a resemblance to her late father: author Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde), who's so stunned by her beauty that he willingly accepts her proposal of marriage after just a brief courtship. But Ellen's adoration of her new hubby manifests itself in frightening ways, as the bride refuses to share him with anyone — this includes Richard's disabled younger brother Danny (Darryl Hickman) and her own half sister Ruth (Jeanne Crain). Focusing on little more than the initial romance between Ellen and Richard, the first act lures viewers into a false sense of security, with the picture appearing no more complicated than a swoony Technicolor dream. But as Tierney's frustration builds, so does the film's tension, highlighted by two sequences that still retain their wallop (the classic one involves a lake; the other centers on a flight of stairs). Unfortunately, the climactic courtroom sequence is clumsy, illogical and unconvincing, saved only from complete ruin by the appearance of Tierney's Laura co-star Vincent Price as a fiery prosecuting attorney. This is the third time I've seen Leave Her to Heaven — and the first in well over a decade — and interestingly, while Ellen's behavior remains monstrous, this is the first time I've noticed that her character manages to evoke some degree of sympathy (let's face it, both Richard and Danny are rather selfish individuals). Nominated for four Academy Awards (including Best Actress for Tierney), this won for Leon Shamroy's shimmering cinematography. This was remade as the 1988 TV-movie Too Good to Be True, with Loni Anderson as Ellen (no comment), Dallas' Patrick Duffy as Richard and Neil Patrick Harris as Danny.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Hickman and film critic Richard Schickel; Movietone News footage of the film's premiere and Bob Hope cracking wise at the Oscars; an isolated track of Alfred Newman's score; and the theatrical trailer.
My Neighbor Totoro (Photo: Disney)
MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO (1988) / HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE (2004). Few filmmakers today bother to push the envelope; even fewer attempt to shred it altogether. Japan's Hayao Miyazaki is one rare maverick. A venerated figure in the field of animation, Miyazaki makes movies the way other people hallucinate during fever dreams. No sight is too outlandish, no concept too radical, no idea too extreme. In the world of this elder statesman of animation, everything is fair game. American toon features, even the best of them, are invariably bound by tradition and convention, but this master's movies remain free from the shackles of conformity. His films are a sight for soaring eyes, ocular treats for moviegoers on the prowl for new experiences and new sensations.
For the novice, My Neighbor Totoro is a good place to start. For one thing, it's the movie that introduced American audiences to Miyazaki when it first played in limited release in 1993 (the late Roger Ebert, who adored this film, deserves most of the credit for making audiences aware of the picture stateside). For another, it remains one of the filmmaker's best efforts, up there with Castle in the Sky and (my fave) the Oscar-winning Spirited Away. The protagonists are Satsuki and Mei, sisters who move into a dilapidated country home with their father while their sick mother recuperates in a hospital. The girls note the presence of magical dust bunnies in the home — benign creatures that will seek shelter elsewhere once they hear the sound of laughter in the house — but they're nothing compared to the oversized forest spirit (the titular Totoro) who becomes the children's silent friend and ally. As with all Miyazaki efforts, there is an enormous appreciation for nature woven throughout the tale, and some of the moments in this film are simply enchanting: the wind swirling around Satsuki as she collects firewood; the evacuation of hundreds of dust bunnies after Mei sticks her finger in their hideout; the silent wait at the bus stop, complete with pouring rain and comical behavior by Totoro; and more. And check out that crazy Cat Bus!
Howl's Moving Castle (Photo: Disney)
An Academy Award nominee for Best Animated Feature, Howl's Moving Castle — like practically all Miyazaki efforts — features a young female at the center of its convoluted plot. Here, it's Sophie, an 18-year-old girl who toils in her family's hat shop without enjoying any semblance of an outside life. That changes on the day she bumps into the dashing young wizard Howl, who lives inside a mobile castle. But her brief encounter with him carries a high price: Hostile toward anyone who comes into contact with her nemesis, the Witch of the Waste puts a curse on Sophie that instantly transforms her into a 90-year-old woman. Understandably upset by this sudden turn of events, the elderly Sophie hopes that Howl, his young apprentice Markl and a wisecracking fire demon named Calcifer can help her break the spell. There's a subplot involving a war raging among combative kingdoms, but it's all rather vague and not terribly interesting, feeling like an afterthought on Miyazaki's part. Still, glitches in storytelling can't overshadow the wondrous sights that Miyazaki doles out for our approval.
Both Blu-rays include both the original Japanese language and the English dubbing, complete with known stars (Tim Daly and the Fanning sisters, Dakota and Elle, for Totoro, Christian Bale, Lauren Bacall and Josh Hutcherson for Howl). Stick with the Japanese soundtracks. The 1993 English-language Totoro dubbing was just fine, but it was booted for this needless do-over; meanwhile, few things are as painful as listening to Billy Crystal do his annoying shtick as the fire demon in Howl (talk about breaking the mood). The Totoro Blu-ray also includes various behind-the-scenes featurettes; storyboards; and the original Japanese trailer; the Howl Blu-ray also contains footage of Miyazaki's visit to Pixar Animation Studios; storyboards; and original Japanese TV spots and trailers.
My Neighbor Totoro: ***1/2
Howl's Moving Castle: ***
Robin Williams and Connie Nielsen in One Hour Photo (Photo: Fox)
ONE HOUR PHOTO (2002). For approximately a quarter-century, my year-end 10 Worst lists have found themselves cluttered with Robin Williams comedies (Patch Adams, Flubber, etc.), but when he drops the shtick long enough to be serious, something positive generally happens — he might be known foremost as a comic actor, but there's a reason his Oscar win came for his relatively subdued performance in Good Will Hunting. The darkest side of the former Mork from Ork got quite the workout in 2002: He began the year by playing a psychotic children's show host in Danny DeVito's Death to Smoochy, followed that by essaying the role of a chilly murder suspect in Christopher Nolan's Insomnia, and capped it off by delivering what might be his career-best performance in writer-director Mark Romanek's absorbing thriller. Williams stars as Sy Parrish, who's devoted to his job as a photo developer at a big-box store. Sy treats all his customers with care, but he saves the most affection for Nina Yorkin (Connie Nielsen), who's been dropping off photos over many years. A lonely man harboring some emotional damage, Sy takes great interest in what he perceives as a perfect family unit — Nina, husband Will (Michael Vartan), son Jake (Dylan Smith) — but even as he tries to work his way into their everyday lives, he starts to notice the hypocrisies that rest underneath what's projected on those 4-by-6 snapshots. Romanek establishes a wonderfully creepy mood from the outset, but what's most interesting about the film is how it constantly alters our opinion of Sy, triggering sympathy and disgust in equal measure. Look for Clark Gregg (S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Coulson in the Marvel flicks) as a detective, North Carolina native Nick Searcy (TV's Justified) as a repairman, and Jim Rash (an Oscar winner for co-writing The Descendants) as the amateur porn guy.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Romanek and Williams; a behind-the-scenes featurette; Romanek and Williams on The Charlie Rose Show; and a cool poster-concept gallery.
Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas in Philadelphia (Photo: Twilight Time)
PHILADELPHIA (1993). While the AIDS crisis was tackled in rather rapid fashion by both television (An Early Frost) and indie cinema (Longtime Companion), it took a while before mainstream Hollywood was comfortable enough to deal with the situation. The resultant picture, Philadelphia, is hardly a movie milestone, but it's actually quite limber for a film that has to carry such a heavy load on its shoulders. For that, credit director Jonathan Demme, who mercifully avoids button-pushing melodramatics, and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner, who more often than not sidesteps the sanctimonious, preaching-to-the-choir approach adapted by many other Movies with a Message. Tom Hanks plays Andrew Beckett, a fast-rising lawyer who's fired from his company when it's discovered that he's a homosexual with AIDS. The heads of the firm (led by Jason Robards) claim he was dismissed because he misplaced an important document; knowing this to be a cover-up, Beckett responds by snagging attorney Joe Miller (Denzel Washington) to represent him in court. But Miller is far from comfortable with the situation, as he has to battle with his own homophobic tendencies even as he fights for his client's rights. Hanks won the Best Actor Academy Award for his touching performance, even if he's playing a symbol more than a character (the role is rather sketchy); far more impressive is Washington, who excels as a man who starts out oozing contempt for "faggots" to finally understanding that even those who subscribe to alternate lifestyles deserve equal treatment. The sizable cast includes Joanne Woodward (in her final feature-film appearance to date) as Andrew's mother, Antonio Banderas as his lover, and Demme pals/regulars Roger Corman, Charles Napier and Kenneth Utt in various roles. Bruce Springsteen's haunting theme song, "Streets of Philadelphia," deservedly won an Oscar.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Demme and Nyswaner; a vintage making-of-featurette; deleted scenes; and the theatrical trailer.