Danny Kaye in The Court Jester (Photo: Paramount)

(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.)

Myrna Loy and William Powell in After the Thin Man (Photo: Warner Archive)

AFTER THE THIN MAN (1936). The first of five sequels to 1934’s The Thin Man (reviewed here), After the Thin Man finds the jet-setting Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) visiting Nora’s family, several of whose members can’t stand the wisecracking Nick. But when it appears that Nora’s cousin (Elissa Landi) has cold-bloodedly gunned down her no-good husband (Alan Marshal), it’s up to Nick to ferret out the real killer from among a wide range of suspects (including one played by a 28-year-old James Stewart in one of his earliest roles). The movie gets a lot of mileage out of comic bits that would prove to be recurring gags throughout the series, including Nick’s insatiable boozing and his reunions with crooks that he had once sent to jail (all of whom admire him too much to hold a grudge!). As with The Thin Man, scripters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett (again working from Dashiell Hammett material) earned another Oscar nomination for their writing efforts.

Blu-ray extras include the 1936 live-action short How to Be a Detective; the 1936 cartoon short The Early Bird and the Worm; and the 1940 radio adaptation of After the Thin Man with Powell and Loy reprising their roles.

Movie: ★★★½

Danny Kaye and Angela Lansbury in The Court Jester (Photo: Paramount)

THE COURT JESTER (1956). One of the nicest elements of the American Film Institute’s 2000 list of the 100 best stateside comedies ever made is the spread-the-wealth attitude. Naturally, comic geniuses like Charlie Chaplin and Mel Brooks have multiple pictures on the list, but it’s nice to see that many of the 20th century’s other popular comedians are at least represented by one title apiece; these include Harold Lloyd with The Freshman, Laurel and Hardy with Sons of the Desert, Bud and Lou with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, W.C. Fields with It’s a Gift, and Jerry Lewis with The Nutty Professor. Also among the one-timers is Danny Kaye, who’s represented by what’s easily his masterpiece. The Court Jester is truly terrific entertainment, a medieval romp in which a lowly clown is given the opportunity to perform heroic acts by impersonating the sinister Giacomo, The King of Jesters (John Carradine), and thereby infiltrating a court that’s full of diabolical intrigue. Mistaken identities make up much of the merriment, although nothing can top the fantastic wordplay involving the vessel with the pestle, the chalice from the palace, and the flagon with a dragon … only one of which holds the brew that is true.

The Court Jester makes its Blu-ray debut as part of the Paramount Presents series. Extras consist of  a discussion of the film by critic Leonard Maltin and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ★★★★

Zack Mulligan (second from left), Bing Liu and Keire Johnson in Minding the Gap (Photo: Criterion)

MINDING THE GAP (2018). It’s clear that 2018 was an exceptional year for documentaries, with a slate that included RBG, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Free Solo (Oscar’s pick for the year’s best doc), and Three Identical Strangers (my pick for the year’s best doc). Yet let’s take care not to forget Minding the Gap, whose shorthand description as a film about skateboarding hides its analysis of family dysfunction at its ugliest. An Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary Feature, this examines the lives of three friends living in Rockford, Illinois: Bing Liu (the film’s creator), who’s Chinese-American, Keire Johnson, who’s black, and Zack Mulligan, who’s white. Also emerging as a prominent figure is Nina Bowgren, Zack’s girlfriend and the mother of his child. Shooting footage over the course of roughly a dozen years but focusing mainly on their lives as adults, Bing manages to uncover the domestic abuse that affected all four of these young individuals, with husbands beating wives, boyfriends beating girlfriends, and fathers beating their own children and stepchildren. It’s a study of harsh socioeconomic conditions, with these people fighting against potential poverty, pervasive prejudice (the look on Keire’s face when someone tells a racist joke in front of him is shattering), and suffocating ignorance. Don’t miss this one.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Bing; audio commentary by Bing, Keire, and Zack; a new follow-up conversation between Bing and Nina; and outtakes.

Movie: ★★★½

Doris Day (left) in The Pajama Game (Photo: Warner Archive)

THE PAJAMA GAME (1957). The various Broadway productions of The Pajama Game have won a zillion Tony Awards, and this film version certainly has its rabid fans. Yet when it comes to movie musicals directed by Stanley Donen, I’d have to rank this one near or at the bottom, a good 20,000 leagues below the likes of Singin’ in the Rain and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. The big story here is that Donen and co-director George Abbott were able to import practically the entire cast from Broadway, electing to replace Janis Paige with Doris Day to give the film one movie star. In addition to its feeble plot involving factory workers seeking a raise (for a musical set inside a factory, give me the raucous Kinky Boots instead), a major problem with the picture is that all the performers who were apparently so wonderful on stage don’t tone down the theatricality one iota for the big screen, resulting in plenty of unchecked and overbearing shrieking (Carol Haney, the scene stealer on Broadway, merely gave me a headache). As for leading man John Raitt, this was his only starring role on film, and it’s easy to see why — he’s utterly bland, and whatever made him so memorable on the boards was clearly lost in translation. Even Day isn’t at her best, overcompensating for her thin role with an unexpected harshness. The songs are for the most part forgettable, leaving only some of the choreographed numbers by Bob Fosse as a partial saving grace.

Blu-ray extras consist of the deleted song “The Man Who Invented Love” and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ★★

John Cusack in 2012 (Photo: Sony)

2012 (2009). No effect is too preposterous, no sound too deafening, and no cliché too enormous to be left out of this end-of-the-world effort from director Roland Emmerich, who there but for the grace of God goes Michael Bay. 2012 brushes through the fuzzy science — basically, the sun is responsible for Earth’s impending doom, predicted by the Mayans way back when — in order to devote more time to its inane assortment of stock characters and shaky CGI effects (they alternate between impressive and obvious). John Cusack is the all-American protagonist, a generic underachiever who must rise from Everyman to Superman in order to save not only himself but his fractured family unit (ex-wife, distant son, chipper daughter). Even “master of disaster” Irwin Allen liked to shake up the status quo in such films as The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, but Emmerich has no imagination: His A-listers live, his supporting players die. Worse, he subscribes to a rigid ethical code usually reserved for slasher films and fundamentalist diatribes: Likable characters tempted by the flesh suffer mean-spirited ends, as does anyone who dares to stand in the way of traditional family values. Of course, such sermonizing takes a back seat to repetitive action sequences that look the same after the 50th time. Then again, practically everything about the picture is lazy and uninspired, making 2012 just one more blockbuster that’s strictly by the numbers.

Extras in the 4K / Blu-ray set include making-of featurettes and deleted scenes.

Movie: ★½

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