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.
Candice Bergen in Soldier Blue (Photo: Kino & StudioCanal)
(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.)
BACKLASH (1956). A lesser albeit still watchable Western from director John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral), Backlash primarily benefits from a typically acidic performance from Richard Widmark. He’s cast as Jim Slater, who suspects his father was one of the men killed by marauding Apaches after the group was betrayed by someone in its own ranks. Joining Slater in his quest for revenge is Karyl Orton (Donna Reed), whose husband was also part of the outfit. Widmark is in his element as a sarcastic outsider who doesn’t trust anyone, but Slater’s prickly relationship with Karyl is unconvincing, and, even at 84 minutes, the film feels overlong as it huffs its way to a humdrum denouement. Widmark and Sturges would reunite two years later for another Western, The Law and Jake Wade (reviewed here).
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historian Samm Deighan; the theatrical trailer; and trailers for other films on the Kino label.
CLARA’S HEART (1988). A year before winning over television audiences as Doogie Howser, M.D., Neil Patrick Harris made his film debut in this rocky melodrama from To Kill a Mockingbird director Robert Mulligan. Harris plays David Hart, whose parents Leona and Bill (Kathleen Quinlan and Michael Ontkean) are devastated by the crib death of his baby sister. Even later, they selfishly continue to ignore their son as their crumbling marriage has them seeking other partners to placate them. Luckily, in the midst of all this misery, Leona has seen fit to bring a housekeeper named Clara (Whoopi Goldberg) over from her Jamaican homeland and charge her with looking after David. The darker and far-flung aspects of the story (namely, Clara’s scandalous secret) are icky and unnecessary — indeed, there’s much in the film that doesn’t quite work. But the relationship between Clara and David is beautifully delineated, with both actors fully invested in their roles.
The only Blu-ray extra is the theatrical trailer.
HOW TO BUILD A GIRL (2020). Like The High Note (reviewed last week here), How to Build a Girl is another movie that’s supposedly rooted in reality yet feels contrived for much of its running time. This adaptation of Caitlin Moran’s novel stars Beanie Feldstein as Johanna Morrigan, a stifled British teenager who unexpectedly becomes a rock critic. Employing the nom de plume Dolly Wilde, she reinvents herself as a narcissistic twit who writes cruel reviews, gets wild and crazy at parties, and treats her supportive family like dirt. Several individual sequences really sparkle, and there are exemplary turns by Paddy Considine as her perpetually patient father and Alfie Allen as a cordial musician who catches her fancy. But the life lessons are awfully overfamiliar and the quirkiness (such as Johanna’s chats with animated photos of Elizabeth Taylor, Karl Marx, Jo March, and more) is exceedingly twee.
Blu-ray extras include making-of featurettes and cast interviews.
THE LOST HONOR OF KATHARINA BLUM (1975). Trumpian cries of “fake news” are nonsensical, dangerous, and self-serving; this adaptation of Heinrich Böll’s novel is fictionalized, but it offers a peek at what “fake news” can really look like. Naive Katharina Blum (Angela Winkler) sleeps with a stranger (Jürgen Prochnow) who’s then accused of being a terrorist; assuming that she’s part of his network, the police mercilessly hound her. Yet her worst enemy isn’t the law but rather an unscrupulous reporter (Dieter Laser) working for a sensationalist newspaper (based on Germany’s right-wing rag Bild, basically the equivalent of our own sleazy Fox News); he makes up alternative facts as it suits his narrative and is even directly responsible for her elderly mother’s death. With its themes of media manipulation, police brutality, and personal responsibility, this powerful picture retains its sickening relevance.
Blu-ray extras include a 2002 interview with co-directors Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta; excerpts from a 1977 documentary on Böll; and the theatrical trailer.
SOLDIER BLUE (1970). One of three 1970 releases to portray Natives Americans in a sympathetic light — the others were Little Big Man (which earns my vote as the year’s best picture) and A Man Called Horse — Soldier Blue has been tagged as important by some and exploitative by others. Honestly, it’s a bit of both. The majority of the film follows a white woman (Candice Bergen, terrible) who briefly lived with the Cheyenne and a greenhorn soldier (Peter Strauss, passable) as they make their way through hostile territory. The final stretch depicts in graphic detail the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, the worst slaughter of Native American women and children in history. The parallels with the 1968 Mỹ Lai Massacre, in which U.S. soldiers similarly raped and murdered hundreds of South Vietnamese civilians, are obvious and provide the film with greater urgency. Still, it’s hard to imagine this will be any viewer’s idea of a good time. The lovely title tune comes courtesy of Buffy Sainte-Marie (hear it here).
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historians Howard S. Berger and Steve Mitchell, and the theatrical trailer.
WAKE ISLAND (1942). The United States had only been officially involved with World War II for four months before production began on Wake Island, thus marking it as one of the first (if not the first) Hollywood movies to try to build morale and boost support for our fighting men overseas. Centering on the Battle of Wake Island that began immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the film follows various (fictionalized) U.S. Marines as they attempt to defend the island from invading Japanese forces. Noble speeches about service and sacrifice naturally make their way into what’s essentially a propaganda piece, but the movie is exciting and inspiring. This earned four major Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Best Director (John Farrow), Best Original Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor (William Bendix as a mischief-making grunt).
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historian Steve Mitchell and author Steven Jay Rubin (Combat Films: American Realism); the theatrical trailer; and trailers for other Kino titles.