Cynthia Erivo and Aria Brooks in Harriet (Photo: Universal)

(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray and DVD. Ratings are on a four-star scale.)

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Elizabeth Lail in Countdown (Photo: Universal & STX)

COUNTDOWN (2019). Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 masterpiece The Seventh Seal contains the justifiably famous scene in which a stoic knight (Max von Sydow) sits down with Death himself to play a game of chess. I suppose if any enterprising American filmmaker elects to remake the film, that sequence will be replaced with one in which a stoned frat boy whips out his smartphone and challenges Death to a round of Angry Birds or Words with Friends. For now, viewers salivating over such a scene will have to make do with this ludicrous horror flick that was promoted with the tagline, “Death? There’s an App for That.” It’s understandable if anyone mistakenly believes the movie is about some of those dubious and possibly fatal appetizers served at chain restaurants, but this is actually about the other type of app. The movie begins with a group of friends downloading Countdown, an app that tells the user the exact moment he or she will die. Everyone obviously believes it’s just a gag, but soon people whose time is supposedly up in a matter of hours or days find themselves killed in grisly ways. A nurse (Elizabeth Lail) is among those who download the app and she’s quickly marked for death; rather than go gently into that fearful night, she elects to fight back, eventually seeking advice from a nerdy priest (P.J. Byrne) who believes the app was created by a demon with too much time on his hands. I’m trying to wrap my mind around how a demon went about creating this app — did he sit down in a library’s computer center and patiently enter hours of coding? — but never mind. As a horror film, Countdown is feeble in almost every regard, with writer-director Justin Dec not even attempting to establish genuine suspense but instead relying on a ceaseless stream of jump-scare moments that all fall flat. (Countdown landed on my 10 Worst list for last year; to see the complete Best & Worst of 2019, go here.)

There are no extras on the Blu-ray.

Movie: ★

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Akim Tamiroff and Brian Donlevy in The Great McGinty (Photo: Kino)

THE GREAT MCGINTY (1940). After a decade of penning scripts for other directors, Preston Sturges kicked off his own glorious (if short-lived) career as a writer-director with The Great McGinty, which earned him an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Although it doesn’t compare to such later gems as The Lady Eve, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek or his best picture, Sullivan’s Travels, it still offers plenty of Sturges’ snappy banter. Brian Donlevy is Dan McGinty, one of several bums who are paid by a politician’s flunkies to illegally vote for him under the names of deceased citizens. The fact that McGinty votes 37 times at 37 different precincts under 37 different names catches the attention of a corrupt political kingmaker known only as The Boss (Akim Tamiroff). Under the guidance of The Boss, McGinty rises from debt collector to Alderman to Mayor to Governor, only to put his entire career at risk when he takes the advice of his wife (Muriel Angelus) and becomes an honest politician. Sturges regular William Demarest is amusing as one of the men on The Boss’s payroll (classic line: “If it weren’t for graft, you’d get a very low type of people in politics.”), although it’s Tamiroff who steals the show as the easily agitated boss with the habit of mangling the English language (Tamiroff’s performance in this film inspired the character of Boris Badenov on TV’s The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show).

Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historian Samm Deighan; the theatrical trailer; and trailers for other Kino titles.

Movie: ★★★

HARRIET
Cynthia Erivo and Vondie Curtis-Hall in Harriet (Photo: Universal)

HARRIET (2019). Although it’s not quite the powerhouse picture many had expected (in other words, it’s no 12 Years a Slave), this dramatization of the life and achievements of Harriet Tubman is nevertheless an absorbing film bolstered by Cynthia Erivo’s excellent performance in the title role. Directed by Kasi Lemmons and written by Lemmons and Gregory Allen Howard, the film begins when Harriet is still a slave working on a Maryland plantation and known by the name Araminta “Minty” Ross. Threatened to be sold to another farm, Minty decides to flee to the North; although the chances of her surviving such a journey are thin, she miraculously makes it on her own to Philadelphia, where she’s assisted by abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) and boarding-room owner Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe). Taking the name Harriet Tubman, she eventually decides to become part of the Underground Railroad that aided her, repeatedly risking her life to return time and again to the South and ultimately ferrying approximately 70 slaves to freedom. More sincere in its religious convictions than many of those so-called “faith films,” Harriet uses this spiritual component to elevate what occasionally comes across as a standard (if important) biopic of one of American history’s most amazing icons. Harriet recently earned two Academy Award nominations, both for Erivo: Best Actress and Best Original Song (the powerful “Stand Up,” co-written with Joshuah Brian Campbell).

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Lemmons; a pair of making-of featurettes; and deleted scenes.

Movie: ★★★

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Simone Signoret and Lawrence Harvey in Room at the Top (Photo: Kino)

ROOM AT THE TOP (1959). Along with the same year’s screen adaptation of Look Back in Anger, Room at the Top was the first of the “kitchen sink” dramas / “angry young men” stories that all but defined British cinema for the next decade. It’s also one of the best, with an excellent Lawrence Harvey cast as Joe Lampton, a working-class man who arrives in a small town for a menial job and decides to hopscotch to the top by marrying the trusting daughter (Heather Sears) of his class-conscious employer (Donald Wolfit). As if his scheme wasn’t difficult enough, he complicates it by unexpectedly falling in love with Alice Aisgill (Simone Signoret), an older woman who’s unhappily married to a dapper adulterer (Allan Cuthbertson). Complicated characters, a searing indictment of upper-crust snobbery, and a startling sexual frankness for its time (an X rating in the UK, banned in several cities in the US) all contribute to this movie’s potency. Nominated for six Academy Awards (including Best Picture, Best Actor for Harvey, Best Director for Jack Clayton, and Best Supporting Actress for Hermione Baddeley in a tiny part), this earned two for Best Actress (Signoret) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Neil Paterson, working from John Braine’s novel). Room at the Top was followed by a sequel (1965’s Life at the Top, also starring Harvey), a short-lived TV series (1970’s Man at the Top, with Kenneth Haigh replacing Harvey), and then a theatrical spin-off of the show (1973’s Man at the Top, also with Haigh).

Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historian Kat Ellinger; the theatrical trailer; and trailers for other Kino titles.

Movie: ★★★½

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Gwyneth Paltrow and John Hannah in Sliding Doors (Photo: Shout! Factory)

SLIDING DOORS (1998). A former actor primarily known for his various roles on British TV shows, Peter Howitt made a winning debut as both the writer and director of Sliding Doors, a seriocomedy with a clever hook. After getting fired from a London P.R. firm, Helen Quilley (Gwyneth Paltrow) races to catch the Tube so she can get home to her boyfriend Gerry (John Lynch). The film then juggles between two alternate storylines, one centering on what happens if Helen catches the train and the other on what occurs if she misses it. In the story in which she makes it, she arrives at home only to find Gerry in the sack with his former American girlfriend Lydia (Jeanne Tripplehorn, basically playing a one-note Cruella DeVille minus the puppy-coat). This leads to her moving out and making major changes in her life, the primary one being a newly formed friendship with an affable chap named James (John Hannah). In the story in which she doesn’t catch the train, she only arrives home after Lydia has left, thereby continuing her loving relationship with Gerry. What makes Sliding Doors work is that both plotlines are equally interesting, with a few narrative developments from each tale cleverly overlapping. Howitt admittedly lays the whimsy and the good cheer on a bit too strongly, but the leads are so engaging (especially Hannah) and the mystery of how this will all end is so tantalizing that it’s easy to cut this some slack. Good soundtrack, too, with various tunes (including Aimee Mann’s gorgeous “Amateur”) perfectly placed throughout the film.

Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by Howitt; a feature-length retrospective making-of piece; a look at the location shooting; and the film’s trailers.

Movie: ★★★

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Burt Lancaster in Ulzana’s Raid (Photo: Kino)

ULZANA’S RAID (1972). While it’s incorrect that Hollywood never treated Native Americans positively from the silent era through much of the 1960s (for starters, check out 1950’s Broken Arrow), it is true that it wasn’t until the 1970s (beginning with Little Big Man and Soldier Blue, both 1970) that there was a concerted effort to portray them in a more sympathetic light. That’s why Ulzana’s Raid is so startling, as it presents all but one of its Apache characters as vicious brutes who take their time torturing white men and raping white women before murdering all of them. Yet lest one reject this as a jingoistic right-wing screed, it should be noted that director Robert Aldrich and scripter Alan Sharp don’t exactly spare the Caucasians, either. The film is particularly pointed in its measured look at how the myopia of people hailing from different cultures can only lead to fear and loathing, death and destruction. Burt Lancaster headlines as McIntosh, an army scout who’s assigned to accompany the naïve Lieutenant DeBuin (Bruce Davison) and his men as they set out to stop Apache warrior Ulzana (Joaquín Martinez) and his band from continuing their massacre across the Arizona landscape. McIntosh understands the Apache mindset (he even has a Native American wife) and harbors no blanket detestation. That’s a different stance from other white men — that includes DeBuin, a devout Christian whose horror at their savage actions hardens his hatred. And then there’s Ke-Ni-Tay (Jorge Luke), an Apache scout who works alongside McIntosh — he proves to be the film’s most fascinating character. Ulzana’s Raid is violent but never gratuitously so, and it avoids the sadism (and, at the other extreme, the sentimentality) that defines most efforts in this vein.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by film critic Nick Pinkerton; a new interview with Davison; and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ★★★

 

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