Robert De Niro in Raging Bull (Photo: Criterion)

By Matt Brunson

(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray, 4K and DVD. Ratings are on a four-star scale.)

Aaron Eckhart, Scarlett Johansson, and Josh Hartnett in The Black Dahlia (Photo: Mill Creek)

THE BLACK DAHLIA (2006). Until it derails heading into its final turn, The Black Dahlia represented Brian De Palma’s most assured moviemaking in at least a decade — a shame that his first post-Dahlia effort, 2007’s Redacted, stands as arguably the worst film of his career and continued his slide into irrelevance. Based on the novel by James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential), this gritty neo-noir presents a fictionalized take on the real-life slaying of Hollywood starlet Elizabeth Short (touchingly played by Mia Kirshner), with Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart as the cops on the case, Scarlett Johansson as the good-hearted woman they both love, and a misused Hilary Swank set up as the potential femme fatale. Working from Josh Friedman’s initially sharp screenplay and backed by tremendous production values, De Palma spins a compelling murder-mystery that mostly clicks until the last act. At that point, the picture madly dashes through its messy resolutions, pausing only long enough to succumb to some ill-placed camp — who knew that Killing Eve’s Fiona Shaw, cast as a suspect’s flighty wife, had such an awful performance inside her? Yet even if the movie had kept its head from start to finish, it still wouldn’t have survived the critical miscasting of Hartnett, whose complete inability to project anything more than glazed befuddlement leaves the film with a cavernous hole right where its noir heart should beat. This earned a Best Cinematography Academy Award nomination for Oscar-winning veteran Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Deer Hunter, The Long Goodbye).

There are no Blu-ray extras.

Movie: ★★½

Danny Elfman in Forbidden Zone (Photo: MVD)

FORBIDDEN ZONE (1980). In reviewing writer-director Richard Elfman’s Aliens, Clowns & Geeks a couple of weeks ago in this space, I discussed the cult film that initially put him on the map: “Elfman’s 1980 Forbidden Zone is one of those movies that simply must be seen once in a lifetime. In some ways, it’s reminiscent of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, David Lynchian works, old-school musicals, and any naughty John Waters film. In most ways, it’s a complete original, and it’s no wonder it became a midnight-movie staple — where else can one see Fantasy Island’s Hervé Villechaize as the king of another dimension, an Oscar nominee (Fat City’s Susan Tyrrell) as his wife, and Batman / Spider-Man composer, Oingo Boingo lead, and Richard’s brother Danny Elfman as Satan?” The MVD label, which released Aliens, Clowns & Geeks on Blu-ray, wisely opted to also offer a new Director’s Cut of his ’80 oddity, but the most significant change happened years ago. Whereas Elfman’s original release was in black-and-white, the film was eventually colorized in 2008. As someone who has always detested the colorization of movies and always cursed Ted Turner whenever he splashed drab colors all over some b&w classic (as Orson Welles reportedly uttered, “Keep Ted Turner and his goddamn Crayolas away from my movie [Citizen Kane]”), I must nevertheless confess that this m.o. perfectly suits Forbidden Zone, and even the off-color moments suit the bizarro setting. Incidentally, this marked Danny Elfman’s first screen credit as composer; he wouldn’t receive his second until five years later, when he got the call from Tim Burton for 1985’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Richard Elfman and writer-actor Matthew Bright (who plays the spastic Squeezit); a new introduction by Elfman; a making-of piece; and deleted scenes.

Movie: ★★★
Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford in The Frisco Kid (Photo: Warner Archive)

THE FRISCO KID (1979). With one exception (1979’s Hanover Street), Harrison Ford only appeared in supporting roles in the handful of movies he made after 1977’s Star Wars turned him into a known commodity but before 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark transformed him into a superstar. Of course, looking at latter-day advertisements for these films, one would think he landed nothing but lead roles during this period. He received second billing under Robert Shaw in 1978’s Force 10 from Navarone, but a post-Raiders commercial promoting the TV airing blared, “Harrison Ford in Force 10 from Navarone.” With The Frisco Kid, it’s Gene Wilder who was the name draw, the title character, the chief protagonist, and the towering figure on the original poster, but subsequent ads and artwork (including DVD covers) ran Ford huge while Wilder was relegated to a couple of inches in the corner. At least the cover on the new Blu-ray from the Warner Archive Collection makes Wilder a tad more prominent than Ford. In this Western comedy set in 1850, Wilder plays Avram Belinski, a rabbi who leaves Poland for an assignment in San Francisco. After running afoul of con men, he has the good fortune to meet Tommy Lillard (Ford), a congenial bank robber who helps the rabbi out of some tough jams. Val Bisoglio (who passed away last year), that most Italian of character actors, is incongruously cast as an understanding Native American chieftain, while William Smith (who passed away last week), generally cast as snarling baddies, plays a snarling baddie. There’s not much dramatic (or comedic) urgency to be found in The Frisco Kid, but it’s a fairly pleasant time killer. At any rate, it’s far better than another Western comedy that also opened in July 1979: The Villain, a terrible comic oater with Kirk Douglas, Ann-Margret, and a relative newcomer named Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The only Blu-ray extra is the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ★★½

Annabelle Wallis in Malignant (Photo: Warner)

MALIGNANT (2021). Playing like James Wan’s salute to David Cronenberg’s “body horror” collection from the 20th century, this casts Annabelle Wallis as Madison Lake, an abused wife who has endured several miscarriages. Madison experiences a series of visions in which various people — specifically, her husband (Jake Abels) and a trio of scientists — are killed by what appears to be the Winter Soldier in silhouette. Madison becomes the prime suspect even though she suggests to the police that the murderer might be her childhood imaginary friend. The freaky twist deep into the story will elicit delighted gasps from some viewers and involuntary giggles from other audience members — indeed, much of the movie operates on this tightrope of reactionary uncertainty, although it ultimately doesn’t matter if the humor is intentional or not since it falls flat either way. Wallis delivers a shaky performance in the lead role; Maddie Hasson as her cute-as-a-button sister and George Young as a sensitive and dreamy detective seem to have stepped out of a chaste beach party movie; and Michole Briana White as a caustic cop appears to be channeling her inner Wanda Sykes. Malignant is always hopping and never boring, but it isn’t as radical as Wan apparently believes.

The only 4K extra is a behind-the-scenes featurette.

Movie: ★★½

Pompo the Cinephile (Photo: GKIDS & Shout! Factory)

POMPO THE CINEPHILE (2021). Like Cinema Paradiso, Matinee, and too many others to name, here’s a movie about moviemaking made for movie lovers. Adapted by writer-director Takayuki Hirao from a manga series, this centers on Gene Fini, the easily flustered assistant to child prodigy and movie producer Joelle Davidovich Pomponett, aka Pompo. Pompo’s “B” flicks are successful because she has a keen understanding of what audiences want, knows how to precisely package a motion picture, and sports a sharp eye for spotting new talent. When she writes a screenplay that’s more mature and introspective than the action films she typically churns out, she chooses the inexperienced Gene to direct and the inexperienced Natalie Woodward to star. (Given the similarity to the name of the West Side Story / Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice star, I’d be curious to know why and how Natalie Woodward was chosen for the character; does she eventually die from an accidental drowning in the manga?) To ensure there’s a veteran on the set, Pompo talks “best actor in the world” Martin Braddock out of retirement, and the whole gang sets out to turn her script for Meister into a motion picture. While some of the ideas espoused by Pompo are nonsensical — only unsettled people can make great movies; only films that run 90 minutes can be good — and the final stretch expands the story in awkward fashion (the search for financial backing isn’t exactly a grabber as a narrative device), the first hour of this, yes, 90-minute film is a delight, with frequently staggering visuals and such rich characters as Pompo, Martin Braddock, and a vivacious actress known as Mystia.

The Blu-ray offers both Japanese and English audio. Extras include audio commentary by Hirao and select crew members; feature-length storyboards; and a character design gallery.

Movie: ★★★

Robert De Niro in Raging Bull (Photo: Criterion)

RAGING BULL (1980). Was Raging Bull really the best movie of its decade? According to Roger Ebert, Gene Siskel, USA Today‘s Mike Clark, and an American Film magazine poll of 54 influential US critics, the answer is yes. But whether it’s ranked No. 1 or No. 2 or even No. 200, it’s clear that Martin Scorsese’s pugilist pic is a towering achievement, a mesmerizing film that refuses to be pigeonholed as merely a “boxing movie.” Decidedly unsentimental in every respect, it offers a searing character study of Jake La Motta, the middleweight boxing champion who was as much of a brute outside the ring as he was inside it. Robert De Niro plays La Motta throughout his adult life, with the actor going from a fighting physique to portray the boxer in his heyday to gaining 60 pounds to play him after his glory days were long over. It’s a startling transformation, but the true power of De Niro’s performance rests in his ability to worm his way into this lug’s twisted psyche and air out his personal demons for all to see. Scorsese’s meticulous direction (you’d never know he had no interest in boxing when first tackling this project), the screenplay by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin (adapted from La Motta’s autobiography), Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing, and Michael Chapman’s black-and-white cinematography all deserve kudos; ditto for the superlative turns by novice actors Cathy Moriarty (as Jake’s long-suffering wife) and Joe Pesci (as his supportive brother). Nominated for eight Academy Awards (including Best Picture and nods for Scorsese, Pesci, Moriarty, and Chapman), this won for Best Actor and Best Film Editing.

Blu-ray extras include three audio commentaries, with participants including Scorsese, Schrader, Martin, and La Motta; a making-of documentary; a piece on the working relationship between Scorsese and De Niro; and a 1990 interview with La Motta.

Movie: ★★★★

James Caan in Thief (Photo: MGM/UA)


THIEF (1981). James Caan passed away July 6 at the age of 82, leaving behind an interesting body of work. The vast majority of his best known pictures were made in the 1970s — The Godfather (for which he earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination), Brian’s Song (for which he earned a Best Actor Emmy nomination), Rollerball, Cinderella Liberty, even the notorious flop Harry and Walter Go to New York — but he appeared in some latter-day hits as well (Misery, Elf, Honeymoon in Vegas). One of his most celebrated roles — at least among cineastes — can be found in the heist flick Thief. Caan plays Frank, a no-nonsense type who’s hoping to make enough from one last job in order to quit the business and settle down with his new sweetheart (Tuesday Weld). To accomplish this goal, he unwisely enters into a partnership with a bigwig named Leo (Robert Prosky), a shrewd character who’s reluctant to let go of his best burglar. Director Michael Mann made his feature debut with this film, and it laid the groundwork for the sleek stylistics later seen in his influential TV series Miami Vice. Caan delivers what might be the best performance of his career, while Prosky, James Belushi (as Frank’s right-hand man), and Dennis Farina (as one of Leo’s thugs) are among those making their big-screen debuts (you can also spot William L. Petersen, star of Mann’s 1986 Manhunter, very briefly as a stick-wielding bartender). Donald Thorin’s cinematography and the score by Tangerine Dream also add to the film’s slick atmospherics.

Movie: ★★★


Review links for movies referenced in this column:
Aliens, Clowns & Geeks
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice
Brian’s Song
Cinderella Liberty
Cinema Paradiso
The Deer Hunter
Force 10 from Navarone
The Godfather
Harry and Walter Go to New York
The Long Goodbye
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Rollerball (1975)
Star Wars

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