Ashby Semple and Diane Lane in A Little Romance (Photo: Warner Archive)

(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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Mark Ruffalo in Dark Waters (Photo: Focus & Universal)

DARK WATERS (2019). “In 2014, Mark Ruffalo suffered at the hands of DuPont. Now, it’s HIS turn.” No, no, Dark Waters isn’t actually a sequel to Foxcatcher, even though the above would have made a captivating poster tagline for this film. But it is amusing to note that it’s the second time Ruffalo has dallied with DuPont in a fact-based tale. In 2014’s Foxcatcher, Ruffalo’s character of Dave Schultz, a former Olympic gold medalist, fell victim to John du Pont (Steve Carell), a member of the filthy-rich family that birthed the DuPont chemical company back at the start of the 19th century. In Dark Waters, it’s now Ruffalo’s character who puts the screws on the oilier-than-thou conglomerate, an outfit that’s as evil as the day is long. Robert Bilott (Ruffalo) is a lawyer who works for a firm known for defending major corporations, including DuPont. But after a visit from Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), a farmer who knows Bilott’s grandmother back in his West Virginia hometown, Bilott locates his long-dormant compassion. Soon, he finds himself representing Tennant and all the other little people who are being poisoned by DuPont’s environmental irresponsibility. Naturally, it’s an uphill battle from the start, as DuPont does everything it can to disrupt his sleuthing. There isn’t much in this David and Goliath story that we haven’t seen in numerous earlier films, from Norma Rae to Erin Brockovich. But working from a New York Times Magazine article by Nathaniel Rich, scripters Matthew Michael Carnahan and Mario Correa make sure to keep the righteous indignation bubbling on the surface and the infuriating corporate malfeasance itching under the skin. The result is yet another movie (and, when done right, we can never have too many) that will leave the viewer angry but alert.

Blu-ray extras consist of a making-of featurette and pieces on Bilott and other real-life people involved in the incident.

Movie: ★★★

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Laurence Olivier, Thelonious Bernard and Diane Lane in A Little Romance (Photo: Warner Archive)

A LITTLE ROMANCE (1979). An absolutely delightful teen romance from the director of The Sting, George Roy Hill’s A Little Romance primarily benefits from the disarming debut performances of its two youthful leads. Diane Lane of course went on to enjoy a lengthy (and still ongoing) career, appearing in such works as The Outsiders, Under the Tuscan Sun, and TV’s Lonesome Dove and earning a Best Actress Oscar nomination for Unfaithful. Thelonious Bernard, on the other hand, appeared in only one more film before switching professions and becoming a dentist. Yet he’s a complete natural in front of the camera, essaying the role of Daniel Michon. A personable French boy with a high I.Q. and an adoration of cinema, Daniel meets the equally intelligent Lauren King (Lane) while on the set of a movie starring Broderick Crawford (playing himself in a great cameo). An American girl living in Paris with her actress mom (Sally Kellerman) and diplomat dad (Arthur Hill), Lauren is immediately attracted to Daniel (and vice versa), and they begin spending ample time together. The first half of the film, which focuses solely on their romance, is perfect; the second half, which involves the pair journeying to Venice in the company of a garrulous elderly man (Laurence Olivier, firmly ensconced in the hammy portion of his career), relies too much on plot contrivances but nevertheless maintains an effortless charm. Georges Delerue’s score earned an Academy Award, with an additional nomination bestowed upon Allan Burns’ screenplay (adapted from Patrick Cauvin’s novel E=mc2 mon amour).

The only Blu-ray extra is the theatrical trailer (which is odd, since Warner’s earlier DVD edition included a few bonus features, including an interview with Lane).

Movie: ★★★½

Aaron Eckhart stars as 'Lt. Commander Jimmy Doolittle' in MIDWAY.
Aaron Eckhart in Midway (Photo: Lionsgate)

MIDWAY (2019). The battle of Midway was one of the great American victories during World War II, cited as a key skirmish in altering the course of the war in the Pacific. Why, then, has Hollywood been unable to give this historic event the film it deserves? Even the rumble between the Jets and the Sharks in West Side Story carries more dramatic urgency than what’s seen in the two major Midway movies to date. If there’s one thing the 2019 Midway has over the 1976 Midway, it’s that it serves as a more accurate historical record. The ’76 edition featured an all-star cast (Heston! Fonda! Mifune! Mitchum! Even Selleck!) and Sensurround, but it suffered from too much stock footage and too much time spent on dreary subplots involving fictional characters. This new edition keeps its focus on the actual participants, but at what price? All of the famous figures — Nimitz (Woody Harrelson), Doolittle (Aaron Eckhart), Halsey (Dennis Quaid), and more — are on hand, but scripter Wes Tooke turns them into token matinee characters, exhibiting few traits save for those closely attributed to the actors playing them (Harrelson’s slyness, Eckhart’s confidence, Quaid’s growl). As for the co-leads, Patrick Wilson is just fine as intelligence officer Edwin Layton, but Ed Skein’s broad turn as heroic pilot Dick Best is more irritating than inspiring. Director Roland Emmerich’s 1996 Independence Day won an Oscar for its special effects, but, since then, the visuals in his films seem to be getting worse, not better. Midway is packed with all manner of bombs bursting in air, land and sea, but most of these action sequences fail not only because Emmerich treats them as a jumble of sound and fury and square-jawed machismo but also because the effects are only intermittently convincing. Most CGI sequences look so arcade-ready in their unconvincing slickness that it’s a wonder viewers don’t have to insert quarters into the Blu-ray player every half-hour to keep the film going.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Emmerich; a making-of featurette; and a piece on two survivors of the conflict.

Movie: ★★

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Jodie Turner-Smith and Danial Kaluuya in Queen & Slim (Photo: Universal)

QUEEN & SLIM (2019). When Aliens was released in 1986, many pundits took one look at Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley and tagged her “a female Rambo.” It was not only an insulting designation but also an incorrect one, as the characters had very little in common other than an ability to handle large weaponry. A similar misinterpretation dogs Queen & Slim, a drama which lazy thinkers have dubbed “a black Bonnie and Clyde.” Ridiculous. Bonnie and Clyde were hardcore criminals — the opposite of the protagonists of this somber drama. If anything, Queen & Slim has more in common with Thelma & Louise, another film about two decent people being forced to go on the run due to an unchecked societal ill. In Thelma & Louise, it was an attempted rape; here, it’s unbridled racism. While wrapping up their disastrous first date, Ernest “Slim” Hinds (Daniel Kaluuya) and Angela “Queen” Johnson (Jodie Turner-Smith) are pulled over by a cop (Sturgill Simpson) for a busted taillight. The policeman turns violent, and Ernest is forced to fatally shoot him in self-defense. And just like that, the pair are wanted fugitives, trying to remain under the radar while seeking help from those who would offer it. Just as Thelma & Louise was firmly rooted in Americana, so too is Queen & Slim, offering peeks at various facets of society as the two fugitives travel across different state lines. Some of the subplots and supporting characterizations feel underdeveloped, and the movie never quite burns with the clear-eyed intensity of 2018’s excellent The Hate U Give. But as a conversation starter among discerning types, as a palate cleanser from the injustices of the real world, and simply as a worthwhile motion picture, Queen & Slim takes a familiar road and invests it with newfound fury.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director Melina Matsoukas and co-scripter Lena Waithe, and a pair of behind-the-scenes pieces.

Movie: ★★★

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“Symphony in Slang,” included in Tex Avery Screwball Classics: Volume 1 (Photo: Warner Archive)

TEX AVERY SCREWBALL CLASSICS: VOLUME 1 (1943-1951). During his stint at MGM — the longest he stayed at any one studio — animation legend Tex Avery was responsible for a total of 65 animated shorts. The Warner Archive Collection has now released 19 of these beloved efforts in a Blu-ray set that, as anyone familiar with these vintage cartoons will know (and as spelled out on the back cover), “is intended for the adult collector and may not be suitable for children.” The most famous toon in the collection is 1943’s “Red Hot Riding Hood,” a risqué updating of the classic fairy tale — only here, the Wolf is a playboy who lusts after the nightclub singer Red. “Red Hot Riding Hood” was not only an influence on other cartoons but also motion pictures (e.g. Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Mask). Among the funniest shorts are 1943’s “Who Killed Who?,” a mirthful murder-mystery that opens with a live-action sequence and closes with a great twist, and 1951’s “Symphony in Slang,” an ingenious piece in which a newcomer to Heaven confuses Saint Peter and Noah Webster with hip slang that Webster interprets literally (“I couldn’t cut the mustard,” “She looked mighty pretty with her hair done up in a bun,” and dozens more). And those seeking familiar faces will enjoy various cartoons featuring the lovable Droopy, the eternal antagonist Spike, and the utterly demented Screwy Squirrel. Following their initial theatrical releases, some of these cartoons were edited (particularly for their endless television showings) to remove ethnically offensive material; note that all the toons housed in this collection are offered in their original and uncut forms.

There are no extras in this Blu-ray set.

Collection: ★★★½

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Pelé in Victory (Photo: Warner Archive)

VICTORY (1981). Of the three motion pictures John Huston directed in the years between the offbeat beauties Wise Blood (1979) and Under the Volcano (1984), 1980’s Phobia (reviewed here) and 1982’s Annie arguably rank as the two worst movies of his entire career. As for the third film in that low-ebb arc, 1981’s Victory, there are many who would declare it to be just as awful as the other two flicks. They’re perhaps right, although I’ve always found the film intermittently entertaining if also exceedingly imbecilic. Certainly, soccer fans will find it a highly engaging watch, as it showcases over a dozen superstars in supporting roles. Loosely based on a real-life incident that took place during World War II, this finds a German officer (Max von Sydow) deciding it would be good for morale if the country’s elite soccer team played an exhibition match against a motley group of POWs of various nationalities. The captain (Michael Caine) of the prisoners’ team takes the game seriously, while his superiors see it as a way to execute a great escape. Speaking of which, The Great Escape this ain’t, but it’s exciting to see so many soccer legends gathered in one place: Brazil’s Pelé, England’s Bobby Moore, Argentina’s Osvaldo Ardiles, and more. But the story grows more convoluted as it proceeds, and while the climactic game is thrilling, the drama surrounding it (particularly the decision the Allied team must make at halftime) is ludicrous. Top-billed Sylvester Stallone is miscast as the sole American in the camp, an obnoxious boor who becomes the team’s goalkeeper.

The only Blu-ray extra is the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ★★

 

2 Comments »

  1. Thanks for the spotlight on A Little Romance, Matt. While I’ve greatly enjoyed the usual George Roy Hill touchstones* (special mention to The Great Waldo Pepper, which doesn’t receive all the attention it surely deserves), I only knew of A Little Romance for it boasting a Georges Delerue score. Even that early on, Diane Lane looked like a fiercely intelligent, determined lady. And young Thelonious looks a bit wacky in stills, but one peek at the trailer immediately reveals his immense charm. He’s probably a great dentist, too.

    One for the shopping list!

    Re: Tex Avery Screwball Classics — funny, I would expect Noah Webster to have wound up Down Below rather than Up Above… speaking as a francophone.

    *despite (or perhaps owing to) its legendary status in Québec, I’ve never even seen Slap Shot. Based on the character of the people who adored it, I instinctively wrote it off as vulgar, pandering trash.

  2. Ah, a fellow fan of THE GREAT WALDO PEPPER! I greatly enjoy most films involving Hill and/or Redford during the 1970s, but this one was unique.

    And I haven’t seen SLAP SHOT in decades. I remember liking it, but I was probably around 15 or 16. I always mean to check it out again since it’s often on lists of the best sports films, but then I just go and watch BULL DURHAM for the umpteenth time instead.

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