(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what's new on Blu-ray, DVD and Streaming. Ratings are on a four-star scale.)
BROKEN ARROW (1950). The maturation of the Western as a vehicle for in-depth character studies took a major step forward in 1950, with the releases of The Gunfighter, starring Gregory Peck, and two James Stewart titles, Winchester ’73 and Broken Arrow. The first Western directed by Delmer Daves — he would spend the majority of the decade immersed in the genre, helming such works as Cowboy, Jubal and the classic 3:10 to Yuma – Broken Arrow was significant as one of the first Hollywood films to display an enormous amount of sympathy for its Native American characters rather than merely employ them as bloodthirsty antagonists to be gunned down by heroic cowboys (indeed, the movie’s liberal politics earned it the Golden Globe for Best Film Promoting International Understanding). Scripted by the blacklisted Albert Maltz (adapting Elliott Arnold’s novel Blood Brother), the picture stars Stewart as Tom Jeffords, an army scout who’s so fed up with all the killing on both sides that he risks his life to meet with Apache leader Cochise (Jeff Chandler) to discuss peace. The two eventually become friends (as happened in real life), but their desire for peace is frequently challenged by both racist settlers and renegade Apaches. That’s Jay Silverheels, Tonto on TV’s The Lone Ranger, as the fierce Geronimo, and Will Geer, later the granddad on TV’s The Waltons, as the Apache-hating Ben Slade. Broken Arrow earned three Academy Award nominations, for Best Supporting Actor (Chandler), Best Screenplay, and Best Color Cinematography.
Blu-ray extras include vintage Fox Movietone News clips related to the film, and trailers for Broken Arrow and other Kino titles.
FROM HELL IT CAME (1957). “And to Hell it can go,” wrote Ed Naha in Horrors – From Screen to Scream. “As walking-tree movies go, this is at the top of the list,” opined Leonard Maltin in his annual Movie Guide. “Wooden acting,” noted John Stanley in Creature Features. “To Hell with it,” huffed Steven H. Scheuer in Movies on TV. Clearly, there’s something about From Hell It Came that brings out the joker in all of us. Then again, that’s probably the right approach when taking an ax to a film that’s almost entirely sunk by its monster, long established as one of the most ridiculous in film history. Unfolding on a South Seas island, the plot is uninspired but workable: Betrayed by his tribe’s witch doctor, the new chief, and even his own wife, a prince is executed by having a dagger driven through his heart. Before he dies, he swears vengeance on his tormentors, a plan made easier by all the radiation blowing in the wind thanks to nearby nuclear testing. The radiation is what allows him to return to life in the form of a walking tree, but not before American scientists stationed on the island notice him initially sticking like a stump out of the burial site and take samples of his green blood. It’s hard to get angry at a movie like From Hell It Came because it seeks only to entertain – and it does, albeit not in the ways that were intended. The Americans make some bad jokes, a man-hungry widow (American actress Linda Watkins, going overboard with a British accent) babbles incessantly, and the angry tree slooooowly walks across the terrain, somehow catching and killing people.
The only Blu-ray extra is the theatrical trailer.
LA LA LAND (2016). With the notable exception of Denis Villeneuve’s superb Arrival, this critical and commercial hit from writer-director Damien Chazelle was the best film of 2016. As effervescent as the finest bottle of champagne, La La Land is an intoxicating musical that should particularly please anyone whose heart skips a beat whenever Fred dances on the late show or Judy sings on TCM. Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress whose auditions invariably end in “Don’t call us, we’ll call you” declarations, while Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a talented pianist whose insistence on playing experimental jazz gets him frequently bounced by club owners who only want him to perform covers of soothing standards. Mia and Sebastian first encounter each other in heavy traffic, and it’s antagonism at first sight. Subsequent meetings, however, lead to an eventual thawing and then a starry romance. The songs are a uniformly strong lot, with Justin Hurwitz providing the music and the team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul supplying the lyrics (John Legend, who appears in a supporting role, also contributes one tune). Yet it’s the dynamic duo in front of the cameras that really sells this package, with Gosling and especially Stone marvelous as two kids poised to take on the world with that proverbial spring in their step and that archetypal song in their heart. La La Land earned a record-setting seven Golden Globes and a record-tying 14 Academy Award nominations. Yet despite its frontrunner status, it ended up losing the Oscar for Best Picture, though it did nab six other statues (including ones for Best Director and Best Actress).
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Chazelle and Hurwitz; 10 behind-the-scenes featurettes examining the genesis of the project, the set design, the shooting of the freeway scene, and more; and a marketing gallery.
THE MEPHISTO WALTZ (1971). Quinn Martin was so affiliated with the television industry – “A Quinn Martin Production” was the stamp on countless classic series, including The Fugitive, The Streets of San Francisco and Barnaby Jones – that it’s somewhat startling to see his name pop up as a producer in the credits for The Mephisto Waltz. In fact, this proved to be his first and last venture into the big-screen arena – a shame, considering the end result hints that more feature films might have benefited from his guidance. Largely dismissed upon its initial release (Roger Ebert and the New York Times were among its detractors), the film is enhanced by a suitably dense ambience that helps smother many of the script’s deficiencies. Alan Alda, a year before acquiring his own measure of small-screen immortality thanks to M*A*S*H, plays Myles Clarkson, a former pianist who quickly gave up and turned his attention to carving out a career as a music journalist. One of his subjects, the wealthy and brilliant pianist Duncan Ely (Curt Jurgens), and Duncan’s alluring daughter Roxanne (Barbara Perkins) both take a liking to Myles and begin inviting him and his beautiful wife Paula (Jacqueline Bisset) to all their social functions. Myles enjoys hanging out with his new friends, but Paula dislikes and distrusts them – her instincts prove correct, since it’s soon revealed that both are involved in Satanic rituals. Ben Maddow’s script is rough in spots, but director Paul Wendkos employs enough tricks of the trade to whip up a creepy atmosphere, and Jerry Goldsmith contributes a score that’s right in line with the macabre happenings.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historian Bill Cooke; separate audio commentary by actress Pamela Ferdin, who plays the Clarksons’ young daughter; and trailers for The Mephisto Waltz and other Kino titles.
36 HOURS (1964). Major Jeff Pike is among the select few who know the exact location for the planned invasion that just might help the Allies win World War II (for those who failed History, it was Normandy, France). Unfortunately, the Germans know that Pike knows, so they drug him, kidnap him, and work hard at convincing him that WWII is over – all in an effort to get him to reveal his classified intel. That’s the intriguing premise of 36 Hours, a crackerjack thriller adapted from a short story by the great Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, and more). James Garner plays Pike, who’s made to believe that the year is 1950, the war has long been over, and he’s an amnesiac recuperating in an American hospital located in occupied Germany. Major Walter Gerber (Rod Taylor), the German doctor in charge of the operation, has only 36 hours to get Pike comfortable enough to loosely discuss an invasion he now believes is in the past; aiding Gerber is Anna Hedler (Eva Marie Saint), a Holocaust survivor forced to pose as a nurse. 36 Hours is smart and suspenseful in equal measure, with Garner an affable hero and Werner Peters providing genuine menace as an opportunistic SS officer eager to begin torturing Pike if Gerber’s elaborate scheme doesn’t work. There’s also an amusing appearance by John Banner as a cheerful German soldier – Banner, of course, would go on to play the bumbling Sgt. Schultz on the hit sitcom Hogan’s Heroes. Yet the best part of 36 Hours might be the unexpected casting of Taylor in the unexpectedly complex role of the German psychiatrist who’s more interested in curing than killing.
The only Blu-ray extra is the theatrical trailer.
THE VAMPIRE BAT (1933). Melvyn Douglas was just coming off The Old Dark House, Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray had just finished co-starring in Doctor X (and would soon be back together again in Mystery of the Wax Museum), and Dwight Frye had recently appeared in the back-to-back smashes Dracula and Frankenstein. Therefore, Poverty Row studio Majestic Pictures had quite the all-horror-star lineup when it debuted The Vampire Bat, a moderately entertaining yarn about a small European village gripped by fear. The locals are slowly being murdered and their corpses drained of blood, and the more superstitious citizens believe that a vampire is behind the grisliness. Nonsense, states the local law officer (Douglas), believing there’s a more logical explanation. Not so fast, counters the resident doctor (Atwill), explaining that some matters are beyond our realm of understanding. For now, all signs point to the village idiot, poor Herman Gleib (Frye), as being the assailant – a conclusion that satisfies the panicked townspeople. Long available only as a public-domain title – ergo, lots of low-quality DVDs floating around – The Vampire Bat has been painstakingly restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive in conjunction with the Blu-ray and DVD label The Film Detective. The film looks about as good as it ever will, with the highlight being the recreation and restoration of a striking scene in which black-and-white villagers carry fiery red torches (for decades, this scene was only available in black-and-white).
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historian Sam Sherman and a discussion about Douglas by his son, Gregory Hesselberg.
FROM SCREEN TO STREAM
(Recommended films currently available on streaming services)
THE INFILTRATOR (2016). Moviegoers needed another film about the drug trade as much as they needed a hole in the head — or, more specifically, a cocaine-caused hole in the nose — but The Infiltrator does just enough right to make it a welcome addition to the canon. After delivering the best male performance of 2015 in the best movie of 2015, Trumbo star Bryan Cranston is again mesmerizing in a true-life tale, this one about a U.S. Customs agent attempting to bust open the drug trade in the mid-1980s. He's cast as Robert Mazur, who, with his more animated partner Emir (John Leguizamo) in tow, manages to successfully infiltrate the stateside operation of drug lord Pablo Escobar by pretending to be a money launderer named Bob Musella. The assignment ends up requiring the happily married man to pretend he has a fiancée — one provided to him by the agency in the form of rookie Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger) — as well as (shades of American Hustle) develop a close and sincere relationship with top Escobar aide Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt). The unusual structure of the film (it could almost be tagged Four Funerals and a Wedding) and the stellar turns by the ensemble players (Leguizamo really needs to be landing more assignments in high-profile movies) easily eviscerate any lingering feelings of been-there-done-that. (Amazon Prime)
TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT (2014). Perhaps the best work yet from those sibling purveyors of common folk, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, this harrowing drama derives most of its power from a knockout performance by Marion Cotillard (deservedly earning a Best Actress Oscar nomination). She plays Sandra, a working-class woman who learns that her job has been terminated following her absence due to illness and that her co-workers will all receive a bonus for their extra efforts. Following her last-minute plea to keep her job, she's then given a task: Over the weekend, she must convince a majority of her co-workers to give up their bonuses so the money can be used to retain her position. Backed by her husband (Fabrizio Rongione), she approaches each person individually, pleading her case and hoping for the best. Each encounter provides the film with a steadily building charge, as some people agree to forego the bonus, others refuse because they need the money to survive, and yet others refuse because they have no sympathy for their fellow sufferers. I won't reveal whether she wins over a majority or not, but that's almost beside the point. What remains with us most is the outrage that ordinary, hard-working people are placed in such an unfair situation in the first place. (Netflix Streaming)