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.
Nicolas Cage and Nicolas Cage in Adaptation. (Photo: Shout! Factory)
(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.)
ADAPTATION. (2002). Following 1999’s ingenious Being John Malkovich, director Spike Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman attempted to again capture lightning in a bottle with their subsequent at-bat. While falling short of Malkovich‘s brilliance, this loopy comedy certainly scores points for originality and audacity, particularly with Kaufman’s decision to insert himself into the film as the main character. The movie’s Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicolas Cage) suffers from writer’s block as he attempts to adapt Susan Orlean’s nonfiction book The Orchid Thief for the screen; complicating his task are his encounters with his twin brother Donald (Cage again), Orlean (Meryl Streep), and the book’s subject, an eccentric flower thief (Chris Cooper). A dense picture operating on more than one level — for starters, it explores the downside of the creative process in sweaty detail — Adaptation. benefits from its warped comic sensibilities and one (make that two) of Cage’s final great performances before his career free-fall. Unfortunately, the film runs out of steam in the home stretch, with a cluttered climax that doesn’t completely satisfy. Cooper won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, with the picture earning additional nominations for Best Actor, Supporting Actress (Streep), and Adapted Screenplay (amusingly, the script is credited on screen not only to Charlie Kaufman but also his fictional, in-movie-only brother Donald).
Blu-ray extras consist of a behind-the-scenes featurette; a still gallery; and the theatrical trailer.
CLAUDINE (1974). Diahann Carroll received a Best Actress Oscar nomination for Claudine, a movie that works as both a gentle romantic comedy and a hard-hitting social critique. Carroll is the title character, a Harlem resident living in a cramped apartment with her six children. Wooed by a garrulous garbage collector named Roop (James Earl Jones), they soon become a couple. But her kids are suspicious of Roop, with the oldest (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) convinced he’ll leave her like all the other men in her life. And because she’s on welfare, Claudine has to keep not only her job as a maid a secret from the social worker (Elisa Loti) but also her relationship with Roop, since the value of any gifts he might bestow upon her would be deducted from her benefits. Carroll, the first African-American woman to star in a TV series (Julia) and the first to win a lead Tony Award (No Strings), appreciated the opportunity to play this character since it was a departure from the sophisticated, upper-class parts she usually landed. She’s perfect in the picture, but so is Jones, whose character’s good cheer barely disguises his contempt with an unjust, Catch-22 system designed to punish the poor. The soundtrack album, with songs written by Curtis Mayfield and sung by Gladys Knight & the Pips, reached #1 on the Billboard R&B chart and yielded a Top 5 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 with “On and On.”
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary (from 2003) by Carroll, Jones, Hilton-Jacobs, and others; excerpts from a 1974 seminar featuring Carroll; and a discussion of director John Berry.
REVERSAL OF FORTUNE (1990). In similar fashion to Sunset Boulevard, which found Joe Gillis narrating the events of the film after he was dead, Reversal of Fortune has socialite Sunny von Bülow narrating the story after she falls into a coma from which she never emerges. It’s a particularly daring approach since, unlike Sunset Boulevard, this one is based on a true story. In 1980, Sunny (Glenn Close) lapses into said coma at her Newport, Rhode Island, mansion, leading family members to suspect that her husband Claus von Bülow (Jeremy Irons) had tried to kill her by injecting her with insulin. After being convicted of murder, Claus hires Alan Dershowitz (Ron Silver) to defend him on appeal, a case the law professor only reluctantly agrees to take. (For those who can’t quite place the name, Dershowitz is the sleazy and opportunistic lawyer who also served on or alongside the defense teams of O.J. Simpson, Jeffrey Epstein, Jim Bakker, Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump, and many other deplorables.) Thanks to the imaginative inclinations of director Barbet Schroeder and screenwriter Nicholas Kazan (adapting Dershowitz’s book), Reversal of Fortune is enormously entertaining, guided by its savage and witty dialogue and anchored by an excellent performance from Irons. For his crafty turn as the chilly aristocrat, he earned the Best Actor Oscar, with Schroeder and Kazan grabbing nominations for their contributions.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by Schroeder and Kazan and the theatrical trailer.
SAVE YOURSELVES! (2020). Over the decades, there’s been no shortage of movies in which our planet is placed in a precarious position, with end-of-the-world status a possibility thanks to either invading aliens or humankind’s own hubris. Much like 2013’s all-but-unseen It’s a Disaster, Save Yourselves! hails from the indie branch of this mini-genre, with plenty of dark comedy to accompany the mounting paranoia felt by the principal players. Here, that would be stressed Brooklynites Su (Sunita Mani) and Jack (John Paul Reynolds), who take up an offer by their friend Raph (Ben Sinclair) to retreat to his isolated cabin and rediscover themselves. Since that means no cell phones, no radio, no nothing, the pair miss the news that the planet is under attack by furry critters. Even after one makes its way into their cabin (Jack thinks it’s a pouffe), it takes a while before they realize they’re in danger. The “body horror” drama Swallow (reviewed here) isn’t the only recent release that takes on added resonance during these trying times of COVID, but independent of that, Save Yourselves! mainly commands attention due to its interesting take on the manner in which self-absorbed millennials might respond to an apocalypse now. Be warned, though, that the ambiguous ending is the sort that rejects ambivalent responses.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by writer-directors Alex Huston Fischer and Eleanor Wilson; deleted and extended scenes; and a blooper reel.
SERGEANT YORK (1941). The top-grossing picture of 1941, this genuine American classic tells the story of Alvin C. York (beautifully played by Gary Cooper), the Tennessee pacifist who reluctantly fought in World War I and emerged a decorated hero, having at one point led the charge to capture 132 German soldiers in a single battle. This rousing saga is richly detailed in both exposition and characterization: York doesn’t even get drafted into the war until the end of the first hour, with the early portion detailing life in the Tennessee hills and York’s transformation from an ill-tempered alcoholic into a deeply religious man. Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Supporting Actor (Walter Brennan as York’s pastor), Supporting Actress (Margaret Wycherly as his mother), and Original Screenplay (John Huston and Casablanca co-scripter Howard Koch were two of the four writers), Sergeant York won for Best Actor and Best Film Editing. Howard Hawks, merely one of the greatest of all directors, earned his only Oscar nomination for helming this movie, as he was ignored for his countless other gems like His Girl Friday, The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, and many more. (At least the Academy had the sense to finally give him a career achievement award in 1975.)
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by film historian Jeanine Basinger; a 2006 making-of featurette; the 1941 Porky Pig cartoon Porky’s Preview; and the 1941 live-action short Lions for Sale.
THE SOUL OF THE MIDNIGHT SPECIAL (2020). From ABBA to AC/DC, from Bowie to The Beach Boys, and from Hall & Oates to Peaches & Herb, there was no shortage of musical guests for The Midnight Special, a late-night offering that ran on NBC from 1972 to 1981. Concocted by producer Burt Sugarman as a much more enjoyable alternative to the test patterns that graced after-hours TV screens, the show featured the industry’s top singers and bands (plus the likes of Richard Pryor and Steve Martin providing occasional comic relief) performing their hit tunes live in front of the studio audience. The Time Life label is now offering many of these performances bundled together in DVD sets. As the title aptly signals, this 5-disc volume is comprised of numbers from the era’s soul stars, an assemblage of 73 songs from episodes that aired from 1973 through 1976. While many artists are represented by one song (e.g. Chuck Berry performing “Johnny B. Goode,” LaBelle serving up “Lady Marmalade”), others receive more exposure. There are no less than five songs performed by Gladys Knight (one a duet with B.B. King; “The Thrill Is Gone,” natch) and another five courtesy of The Spinners. There’s also Ray Charles teaming with Aretha Franklin for “Takes Two to Tango” and going solo on “Georgia on My Mind” and “What’d I Say.” Barry White, Curtis Mayfield (“Superfly”!), James Brown, Sly & the Family Stone … the hits just keep coming in this mouthwatering musical marathon.
Extras in the DVD set consist of interviews with various stars.