Friday, December 13, 2019

Blu-ray debut for the under-appreciated George Roy Hill/Stephen Geller adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE

Back in the 60s and 70s, when TrustMovies endured his late-coming-of-age period, Kurt Vonnegut was one -- maybe the --most favored novelist of those of us in or near the boomer generation. I think his work holds up pretty well, and so does the movie version of one of his most popular and enduring novels, SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE, directed by George Roy Hill (shown below, an Oscar-winner for The Sting and a nominee for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), with a good screenplay that follows the book well yet not too slavishly from Stephen Geller.

What might seem missing from the movie -- this being but an adaptation rather than the original -- is the peculiar, particular Vonnegut tone. For instance, the refrain that echos through the novel, So it goes, is nowhere to be found in the film. Not literally, and yet Hill and Geller find their own right tone that carries through their movie so that So it goes -- which you can interpret as icy irony, a kind of capitulation, or perhaps an acceptance of things as they are rather than how you might like them to be -- is there in the film without ever having to be spoken aloud. Via the manner in which this movie builds and coalesces, this now famous phrase seems absolutely part and parcel.

Slaughterhouse-Five is a combination time-travel sci-fi/philosophical treatise novel, and it works equally well as both. One of the things that Hill and Geller get right and handle extremely well is the constant zipping back and forth from past to present. This is so quietly and subtly managed that audiences back in 1969 may have been unprepared for something this skillful. Even today, some 47 years later, it seems fresh.

The movie also brought to filmgoers' attention a new actor named Michael Sacks (above), who then and now seems a perfect fit for Vonnegut's based-upon-himself-as-a-young-man hero. Sacks never had a long nor hugely memorable career in films but his performance here in the role of Billy Pilgrim was about as good as could be.

The supporting cast includes the late Ron Liebman (above, center), nastily impressive as usual, and a luscious and sparkling Valerie Perrine (below), along with a host of fine character actors, all doing some of their best work.

Although I saw the film when it first came out, watching it again became a new experience. Yet as much as I was enjoying it, Slaughterhouse-Five seemed as though it lacked a certain depth and raison d'être as it moved along. Then, around three-quarters of the way through -- the point at which Billy's explanation of the philosophy of the time tripping Trafalmador coincides with the burning of the corpses found after the WWII fire-bombing of Dresden, for this viewer at least, the movie took on the profundity that the novel sometimes reached.

And from that point until the spectacular, moving, charming and funny finale, Slaughterhouse-Five did indeed seem wonderfully profound, finally serving up a philosophy by which one might profitably live. (That's fine character actor Eugene Roche, above, right, as Billy's mentor, protector and best friend during his time as an American POW in Germany.)

From Arrow Video (distributed here in the USA via MVD Visual/MVD Entertainment Group) and running a mere 104 minutes, the movie hit the street last week in a pretty good Blu-ray transfer -- for purchase (and, I hope, rental).

As usual with Arrow product, the Bonus Features are well worth watching. The best here is a lovely, smart, and very entertaining interview about/appreciation of the film with author/critic Kim Newman, as well as a interesting present-day interview about the filming and how he came to this film by Perry King (who plays Sacks' son in the film; in real life, the two actors were the same age, but the make-up department did a fine job in aging Mr. Sacks in surprisingly believable fashion, considering what was possible back in the 1970s).

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