The Parallax View (Photo: Criterion)

(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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Kirsten Dunst and Orlando Bloom in Elizabethtown (Photo: Paramount)

ELIZABETHTOWN (2005). Many directors reveal little about themselves through their films, yet Cameron Crowe clearly isn’t that type. Crowe has consistently made movies that tap into some aspect of his personal life, with this autobiographical penchant reaching its pinnacle via his Oscar-winning screenplay for 2000’s Almost Famous. With Elizabethtown, he seeks to honor the memory of his father, who died of a heart attack in 1989. It’s a noble endeavor but a disappointing movie, as engaging individual scenes fail to disguise either the slackness or superficiality of the piece. Orlando Bloom, nothing special but getting the job done, stars as Drew Baylor, a failed shoe designer who temporarily shelves his own demons in order to attend the funeral of his dad back in the title Kentucky town. Along the way, he meets a chatty flight attendant (Kirsten Dunst) who stirs him out of his stupor — she’s the new constant in his life as he attempts to do right by his various relatives, including his grieving mother (Susan Sarandon). Crowe, a former Rolling Stone writer, is renowned for his films’ savvy music selections, yet here he overplays his hand: The final portion of Elizabethtown is one long road trip in which Drew explores the country while his car CD player blasts a multitude of diverse tunes, and the overriding feeling is that Crowe simply wanted to impress audiences with cuts from his personal music collection. Dunst is OK as Drew’s kooky, life-loving confidante, although I preferred Natalie Portman in the role in the previous year’s similar (and superior) Garden State.

Blu-ray extras in this Paramount Presents edition of the film include a new discussion with Crowe; a making-of featurette; deleted scenes; an alternate ending; and a photo gallery.

Movie: ★★

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Kathryn Newton in Freaky (Photo: Universal)

FREAKY (2020). It’s a shame that Blumhouse Productions opted to take a chainsaw to the original working title, because Freaky offers no clue as to the movie’s content. Is it a biopic of singer Rick James? A look at kinky alternative lifestyles? A belated sequel to the 1932 classic Freaks? No, nope, and ix nay. The movie’s initial title — Freaky Friday the 13th — offers a better hint, at the very least acknowledging that it fits snugly into the hybrid horror-comedy genre. Director Christopher Landon (co-scripting with Michael Kennedy) has chosen to introduce Freaky Friday to the gore-flick template. Both hit versions of that family favorite (1976 and 2003) found a teenage girl switching bodies with her mother through mystical means; Freaky keeps the teenager (Kathryn Newton as Millie) front and center, but the other half of the equation turns out to be a serial killer known as the Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn). The hook is the whole show since, unlike Landon’s Happy Death Day, there’s not enough subversion of either the expected horror tropes or the standard school routines. While it’s amusing to see Vaughn prancing around like a teenage girl, “ewww”-ing at the wall graffiti in the boys’ bathroom at school or getting giggly when flirting with a boy, it’s actually Newton who delivers the more effective performance. Or put another way, I rarely saw Newton’s high school girl in Vaughn — the actor has always been an overlooked physical comedian, but his interpretation here is broad and not specific to the actress’s character (Jack Black in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle was far more convincing in a similar role) — but I certainly saw Vaughn’s brooding killer in Newton. In a movie packed with freaks and geeks, she allows Millie’s uninvited inner demon to repeatedly command center stage.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Landon; behind-the-scenes featurettes; and deleted scenes.

Movie: ★★½

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Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal in Love Story (Photo: Paramount)

LOVE STORY (1970). The impact of Love Story cannot be overstated. Erich Segal’s novel (which was written after his screenplay but released before the film) became a gargantuan bestseller. The movie was popular enough to land on the list of the 10 top-grossing films of all time, rubbing shoulders with the likes of The Sound of Music and Gone with the Wind. If 1967’s The Graduate emphasized The Generation Gap, then Love Story transcended it. It also birthed one of the most famous lines in movie history: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Yet despite its touchstone status, it’s not a particularly good film. Its simple storyline — boy meets girl; boy loves girl; boy loses girl — has served many a great motion picture, but simple doesn’t have to mean simplistic. Yet Segal’s tale of Harvard student Oliver Barrett IV (Ryan O’Neal) and Radcliffe student Jenny Cavilleri (Ali MacGraw) trumpets banality at almost every turn. While O’Neal is passable, MacGraw is simply terrible, and her performance is arguably the worst to ever snag an Oscar nomination. Speaking of which, as is often the case, supposedly discerning Academy members got swept up in the box office hoopla and handed it seven nominations, including Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor (John Marley, fine as Jenny’s father), Director (Arthur Hiller), and Original Screenplay; its only victory, however, was for Francis Lai’s world-famous score. Interestingly, Segal based Oliver Barrett IV on two real-life Harvard students: Tommy Lee Jones (here making his film debut in a small role) and Al Gore, who were actual roommates at the prestigious university.

Blu-ray extras in this Paramount Presents edition of the film include audio commentary by Hiller; a discussion with critic Leonard Maltin; and an introduction by critic Ben Mankiewicz.

Movie: ★★

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Warren Beatty in The Parallax View (Photo: Criterion)

THE PARALLAX VIEW (1974). Forget The Exorcist, Alien, and even Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club BandThe Parallax View might well be the scariest movie of the 1970s. The middle film in director Alan J. Pakula’s “Paranoia Trilogy” (sandwiched between 1971’s Klute, reviewed here, and 1976’s All the President’s Men), this sensational suspenser was made during a period when conspiracy theories were more grounded in reality than those being floated today (i.e. closer to the plausible theories behind the JFK assassination than to the Pizzagate and stolen election nonsense only a moron would believe). As such, it’s a nerve-shattering piece, with danger lurking in the dark corners of every scene and an atmosphere of pessimism and nihilism saturating every nanosecond. Beginning with a political assassination that’s dismissed by a blinkered U.S. government panel as the work of a lone individual, the movie picks up three years later, as a frightened TV reporter (Paula Prentiss) informs her former boyfriend, newspaper reporter Joe Frady (Warren Beatty), that several witnesses to the assassination have mysteriously died and she fears that she’s next. After she does indeed turn up dead, Frady investigates the matter, with the trail eventually leading him to a shady outfit known as the Parallax Corporation. Gordon Willis, the extraordinary cinematographer (The Godfather, Manhattan) known for his masterful use of light and shadows, provides the picture with a visual design that maximizes the tension, although he’s not the only one working at the peak of his powers: George Jenkins’ imposing set design and Michael Small’s ominous score also succeed in accentuating the paranoiac power points in the script by David Giler and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (adapting Loren Singer’s novel).

Blu-ray extras include a pair of interviews with Pakula from 1974 and 1995; a piece on Willis; and a new interview with the film’s assistant director, Jon Boorstin.

Movie: ★★★★

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Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy in San Francisco (Photo: Warner Archive)

SAN FRANCISCO (1936) / A TALE OF TWO CITIES (1936). That proverbial cast of thousands could be found in two blockbusters that competed for the Best Picture Academy Award for 1936.

Set in the months just before the earthquake hit in April 1906, San Francisco stars Clark Gable as Blackie Norton, a lovable scoundrel who runs a Barbary Coast nightclub. His best friend is Tim Mullen (Spencer Tracy), a priest who loves his pal but hates his sinful behavior. Stepping into Blackie’s life is Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald), a singer who’s hired to perform at his club even though her talents are more suited for the local opera house. MacDonald is the weak link in this otherwise bustling film — although incredibly popular at the time, she lacks the genuine star power of her peers, and Gable has more chemistry with Tracy than he does with his leading lady. The final portion of the film, when the earthquake comes a-callin’, is truly astonishing, boasting excellent visual effects and expert rat-a-tat editing. Nominated for six Oscars, including Best Actor (Tracy, in what’s blatantly a supporting role) and the aforementioned Best Picture, it won for Best Sound.

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Elizabeth Allan and Ronald Colman in A Tale of Two Cities (Photo: Warner Archive)

A Tale of Two Cities is probably the best of the many screen adaptations of the Charles Dickens perennial, largely remaining faithful to the story that whiplashes between Paris and London during the time of the French Revolution. Ronald Colman plays Sydney Carton, the drunken and disillusioned lawyer who finds inspiration and possibly salvation in the kind-hearted Lucie Manette (Elizabeth Allan) … only to watch miserably as she marries the noble French aristocrat Charles Darnay (Donald Woods). The sequence depicting the storming of the Bastille matches San Francisco’s earthquake for sheer screen spectacle, although it’s the richly textured screenplay and the slate of stellar performances that drive this film (particularly noteworthy are Blanche Yurka as the snarling Madame Defarge, Edna May Oliver as the protective Miss Pross, and Claude Gillingwater as the trusty banker Jarvis Lorry). In addition to its Best Picture citation, A Tale of Two Cities nabbed an Oscar nomination for Best Film Editing. (Incidentally, both San Francisco and A Tale of Two Cities lost the Best Picture statue to The Great Ziegfeld, which remains one of the weakest films to ever take the top prize.)

Blu-ray extras on San Francisco include an alternate ending sequence and the 1996 TNT production Clark Gable: Tall, Dark & Handsome. Blu-ray extras on A Tale of Two Cities include the 1942 radio adaptation with Colman and the 1935 Oscar-nominated live-action short Audioscopiks, a lively look at 3-D.

San Francisco: ★★★

A Tale of Two Cities: ★★★½

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Charles Laughton in The Suspect (Photo: Kino)

THE SUSPECT (1945). This unsung treat is one of those films where — Heaven help us — our sympathies rest entirely with a murderer. Although prone to occasionally hamming it up, Charles Laughton nicely underplays in this picture, cast as a kindly Londoner who’s saddled with a loathsome wife. Cora Marshall (Rosalind Ivan) not only constantly berates her husband Philip but also causes their grown son John (Dean Harens) to vacate the house in disgust. The lonely Philip finds solace in his new friendship with the young Mary Gray (Ella Raines), but they remain platonic since Philip wants to do right by both women. But once Cora threatens to expose and humiliate both Philip and the innocent Mary, the henpecked hubby resorts to murder. Everyone believes it was an accident except for a dogged Scotland Yard inspector (Stanley Ridges) and an odious neighbor (Henry Daniell) who, when he’s not busy beating his gentle wife (Molly Lamont), hatches a scheme to blackmail Philip. The Production Code of the period dictated that no killer should go unpunished at picture’s end, meaning that the sympathetic Philip surely won’t get away with it — the suspense is in seeing how this fundamentally decent man will end up getting caught (in terms of audience empathy, it’s to Philip’s further advantage that the Scotland Yard detective chasing him is an officious tool). Apropos of nothing, I suppose, but it’s odd that the largely unknown actor Keith Hitchcock (cast in a tiny part) is uncredited in the actual movie but receives generous billing on the poster alongside the six main players! (Surely this must be a first, and last, in film history?)

Blu-ray extras consist of film historian audio commentary and trailers for other thrillers on the Kino Lorber label.

Movie: ★★★

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