View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray and DVD.
Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield in Judas and the Black Messiah (Photo: Warner)
(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.)
THE BLACK CAULDRON (1985). After years of middling animated fare that failed to match Walt Disney Pictures’ earlier classics — let’s face it, the likes of Robin Hood and The Aristocats can hardly compare to such masterpieces as Pinocchio and Lady and the Tramp — The Black Cauldron was primed as the picture that would restore the studio’s toon luster. Costing a hefty amount and taking years to create, the film had the distinction of being one of the first animated features to employ any computer effects as well as the first Disney animated flick to be rated PG. But when it was released during the summer of 1985 (when most audiences were heading Back to the Future), the film proved to be a flop, and the company didn’t even bother releasing it on video until 1998. Based on Lloyd Alexander’s book series The Chronicles of Prydain, the film displays that spunky Star Wars spirit, with sizable dollops of The Lord of the Rings ambience thrown in for good measure. The hero is young Taran, an assistant pig keeper who’s aided by (among others) a plucky princess and a spastic sidekick in his quest to prevent the evil Horned King (voiced by John Hurt) from possessing the title object for his own nefarious purposes. The Horned King makes for a memorable villain, but his presence is undermined by the dull-as-dirt protagonists; the rest of the film exhibits a similar tug-of-war between interesting graphics and uninteresting scenarios.
Blu-ray extras include a deleted scene and the 1952 Donald Duck cartoon Trick or Treat.
COOL AS ICE (1991). There have been endless discussions among film critics and historians as to what represents the best year in movie history, but has anyone attempted to identify the worst year? Having not researched the subject thoroughly, I can’t come up with the likeliest contenders, but a glance at 1991 suggests that it might be in the running. The worst film of that year is arguably Nothing But Trouble — that’s the would-be comedy starring Chevy Chase, Demi Moore, Dan Aykroyd with a penis-shaped nose, and John Candy in drag — with Hudson Hawk, Stone Cold, Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man, and Drop Dead Fred among the countless other contenders. And then there’s Cool as Ice, which occupies its own special corner in multiplex hell. Vanilla Ice (real name Robert Van Winkle), the talentless twit who should have been summarily executed for desecrating David Bowie and Queen, delivers one of the all-time worst performances in a film as Johnny, a dork who fancies himself a rapper. Hitting a small town with his crew in tow (all played by black actors in a feeble and failed attempt to give himself street cred), Johnny falls for straight-A student Kathy Winslow (Kristin Minter, terrible). Catching sight of her stuffy boyfriend (John Haynes Newton), he advises her to “Drop that zero and get with the hero.” Somewhere, Preston Sturges and Ernest Lehman are loudly rolling in their graves. Beware, as this is the sort of ten-ton turkey that actively murders brain cells.
Blu-ray extras consist of film historian audio commentary and the theatrical trailer.
THE FURIES (1950). One of the primary reasons to watch The Furies is to catch Walter Huston’s performance as T.C. Jeffords, a tyrannical, self-made millionaire who rules over everyone around him with little room for charity or sympathy. It’s a juicy turn and, sadly, Huston’s last, as he died four months before the picture was released. But the grand finale for Huston marked the beginning of the Western phase of director Anthony Mann’s career, as he would primarily spend the 1950s helming a number of oaters that remain popular today. The lead is Barbara Stanwyck, cast as T.C.’s headstrong daughter Vance. She spends the film bucking up against her father on almost every count: sparring with him over the ranch; romantically involved with the two men (Wendell Corey and Gilbert Roland) he most despises; and taking an instant dislike to the older woman (Judith Anderson) she fears will steal the property away from her. Hardly a formulaic Western, The Furies takes several unpredictable turns, some not as successful as others. But minor missteps and a weak-willed performance by Corey (Stanwyck and Huston both devour him alive) fail to break the film’s galloping stride, and cinematographer Victor Milner earned his ninth and final Oscar nomination (he had earlier won for Cecil B. DeMille’s 1934 take on Cleopatra) for his stark black-and-white camerawork.
Blu-ray extras include a 1967 TV interview with Mann; a 1931 interview with Huston; and a 2008 interview with Mann’s daughter, Nina Mann. Also included is a copy of Niven Busch’s source novel.
HISTORY IS MADE AT NIGHT (1937). There’s a mention of the Hindenburg as well as a climax that triggers memories of the Titanic. Yet History Is Made at Night isn’t a disaster film in any sense of the term. Deeply romantic, occasionally melodramatic, and sometimes silly, this effort from director Frank Borzage and a quartet of writers stars Jean Arthur as Irene Vail, unhappily married to cruel shipping magnate Bruce Vail (eternally intense Colin Clive, the Henry Frankenstein to Karloff’s monster in the Universal classics). She wants a divorce but her insanely jealous and possessive spouse will do anything to prevent it, including framing her for sexual indiscretion. His plot fails, but she nevertheless does fall for another man: Paul Dumond (Charles Boyer), who’s as sensitive as her husband is brutish. A murder is committed, a man is framed, and the lovers find themselves pulled apart before reuniting in time for their Jack and Rose crescendo. Bruce Vail is painted as such an unrepentant monster that his final scene isn’t believable for a nanosecond, and the film could use a little less of the comic relief provided by Leo Carrillo as Paul’s best friend. But the love affair between Irene and Paul is splendidly presented, and Arthur and Boyer are irresistible.
Blu-ray extras include a new conversation with author Hervé Dumont (Frank Borzage: The Life and Films of a Hollywood Romantic); audio excerpts of a 1958 interview with Borzage; and the 1940 radio adaptation starring Boyer.
JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH (2021). Racism, police brutality, misinformation, social inequality, oppression, and grassroots activism — given that lineup, Judas and the Black Messiah could easily have taken place in the present. Instead, it’s set at the tail end of the 1960s and culminates with the government-sanctioned assassination of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), the tireless activist and prominent Black Panther Party member whose popularity rattled FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen). Hoping to infiltrate the organization, the FBI tasks one of its agents (Jesse Plemons) to force small-time crook Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) to join the party, get close to Hampton, and report back on all his activities. If there’s a flaw in the film, it’s that there’s too much Judas and not enough Black Messiah. Stanfield is excellent in a tricky role, but it’s the scenes with Hampton that are particularly potent (thanks in no small part to Kaluuya’s fiery turn), and a more expansive understanding of this man would have strengthened the film. Nevertheless, this is a stirring and important work, with issues and attitudes that even today stubbornly refuse to exit the country. Nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor (Stanfield), this deservedly earned statues for Best Supporting Actor (Kaluuya) and Best Original Song (“Fight for You,” co-written and sung by H.E.R.).
Blu-ray extras consist of a pair of featurettes on Hampton and O’Neal.
THE LITTLE THINGS (2021). Like Judas and the Black Messiah, The Little Things was positioned as a prime Oscar contender once the Academy announced that it was allowing early 2021 films to be eligible for the 2020 contest. Yet aside from Jared Leto curiously picking up Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations (he’s good in the movie, but not that good), this police procedural was completely MIA during the awards sprint. That’s hardly surprising: Despite the participation of three Oscar winners, it offers little that’s fresh or exciting. For the umpteenth time in Hollywood history, here’s a movie that pairs a veteran cop (Denzel Washington) with a hot-shot up-and-comer (Rami Malek), in this case trying to determine whether a creepy pervert (Leto, naturally) is the serial killer slaughtering women throughout Los Angeles. As expected, Washington comes off best, but his character is the one who’s saddled with the tired plot device of a cop haunted by a past mistake (plus, he talks to ghosts, almost always a bad creative decision in dramas such as this). As for Malek, he’s crucially miscast in a role that required someone with more verve. The existential crisis unfolding during the final chapters is reminiscent of the climax of 1995’s Seven, only not as ably handled — without venturing into spoiler territory, let’s just say that not only is it statically staged, but what likely happens after the movie ends strips the concluding moments of its cathartic charge.
Blu-ray extras consist of a behind-the-scenes featurette and a piece on Washington’s cop flicks.
SWEET LIBERTY (1986). If you want a ruthless picture about moviemaking, go with Sunset Boulevard, S.O.B. or The Player. But if you want a toothless picture about moviemaking, then Sweet Liberty should hit the sweet spot. Alan Alda, in his first film as a triple threat since scoring big as the writer-director-star of 1981’s The Four Seasons, casts himself as Michael Burgess, a college history professor whose book about the American Revolution is being turned into a Hollywood movie. The production is set to film in his own hometown, and, upon being shown the script by the jovial screenwriter (Bob Hoskins), Michael is shocked that his historical tome has been transformed into a comedy filled with pratfalls and nudity. Having no luck convincing the director (Saul Rubinek) to change anything, he instead takes his case to the two stars, a leading man (Michael Caine) who spends most of his time wooing women and a leading lady (Michelle Pfeiffer) who likes to bury herself in her characters. The material involving the making of the movie offers some gentle laughs and features stellar performances by Caine, Pfeiffer and Hoskins, but it’s diluted by tedious subplots involving Michael’s personal problems — namely, his relationships with his mother (Lillian Gish, 92 at the time) and his girlfriend (Lise Hilboldt).
Blu-ray extras consist of film historian audio commentary and the theatrical trailer.