(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.)
BLACK MASS (2015). Practically unrecognizable with that bald pate and those blue-sky contact lenses, Johnny Depp projects ferocious intensity as real-life crime boss James "Whitey" Bulger, whose Trivial Pursuit claim to fame is that he spent over a decade as the #2 man on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted Fugitives list, right under some fellow named Osama bin Laden. Through this feature film, we're privy to the activities that lead to his wanted status, including murder and racketeering, and we watch as he builds an empire with the help of the FBI. Or, to be specific, with the help of one particular agent: John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who grew up with Bulger in South Boston and has allowed his childhood admiration to seep into his honorable career and poison it. Indeed, it's the presence of Edgerton's character which allows Black Mass to play as more than just an also-ran in the "mob movie" sweepstakes. In many ways, Connolly is just as immoral as Bulger, ratting out informants to stay in the gangster's good graces and even putting their relationship above those he enjoys with family and friends. Edgerton plays the part with the right mix of braggadocio and unctuousness, strutting with a skewered sense of self-purpose yet unable to completely conceal the sweat and grime triggered by his underhanded moves. He provides a nice counterpart to Depp's steely menace, and with both actors further supported by a stellar supporting roster (Benedict Cumberbatch, Corey Stoll, Peter Sarsgaard, Julianne Nicholson and more), Black Mass ably demonstrates that there's still some life left in a genre that, just when we think we're out, pulls us back in.
Blu-ray extras consist of a making-of featurette; a piece on Depp's transformation into Bulger; and a look at the real-life manhunt for Bulger.
GORP (1980) / UP THE CREEK (1984). It's not a stretch to state that National Lampoon's Animal House ranks as one of the most influential films of the past half-century. Whereas Star Wars led to a rash of science fiction epics and Halloween gave rise to a slew of slasher flick imitators, the 1978 hit inspired an onslaught of teen sex comedies, none coming anywhere close to matching the hilarity or characterizations of their raunchy predecessor.
Gorp emerges as one of the worst of all pretenders, although, to be fair, its inspiration was probably the 1979 Bill Murray comedy Meatballs as much as the John Belushi campus classic. Gorp is an abbreviation for "granola, oats, raisins, peanuts," although that's never actually explained in the movie (the poster does allow that it's "a bunch of fruits, nuts and flakes"). The primary characters are a group of insufferable camp counselors who spend their time leering at girls, masturbating incessantly, and annoying the camp's unscrupulous owner (David Huddleston). Witless and puerile on every conceivable level, this offered early roles to Dennis Quaid (terrible), Fran Drescher (passable) and Rosanna Arquette (negligible).
Up the Creek also isn't very good, but, unlike Gorp, it at least resembles an actual movie rather than a facsimile of a latrine. Animal House players Tim Matheson and Stephen Furst, Porky's star Dan Monahan, and Sandy Helberg are cast as four Lepetomane University underachievers chosen by the dean (John Hillerman, taking a break from Higgins duty on TV's Magnum, P.I.) to represent the school in an intercollegiate raft race. A psychotic ROTC officer (Blaine Novak) and a group of bullying fratboys are among those attempting to prevent the misfits from winning. There are more lulls than laughs, but the dog is cute. If leading lady Jennifer Runyon looks familiar, that's because she played the college cutie wooed by Bill Murray at the beginning of the same year's Ghostbusters.
Blu-ray extras on Gorp consist of audio commentary by writer-producer Jeffrey Konvitz, and trailers for Up the Creek, Delirious and The Couch Trip. Blu-ray extras on Up the Creek consist of interviews with Furst, Helberg and casting director Harriet Helberg; the music video for Cheap Trick's "Up the Creek"; and the theatrical trailer.
Up the Creek: **
STEVE JOBS (2015). Cannily structured like a three-act play (should we expect Jobs!: The Musical on Broadway by decade's end?), Steve Jobs looks in on the Apple cofounder (Oscar-nominated Michael Fassbender) right before the launches of three defining innovations: the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT Box (aka The Cube) in 1988 and the iMac in 1998. At each event, with the clock ticking down until the unveiling, Jobs discusses his professional and personal concerns with his friend, associate and conscience (Kate Winslet, also an Oscar nominee), bickers with his former girlfriend (Katherine Waterston), and alternately assuages, antagonizes and alienates various Apple figures (Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels and Michael Stuhlbarg). The film's insular settings prove to be scripter Aaron Sorkin's brightest idea but also the film's biggest drawback. Jobs (who died of cancer in 2011, at the age of 56) is presented here as a tireless workaholic, a shrewd businessman and, chiefly, a grandstanding showman perpetually poised with the next pitch. The script's emphasis on the three launches and how they ultimately all tie together is a logical approach, and, thanks to Sorkin's typically zesty dialogue, it's a treat examining and understanding the politics driving each character. But the movie also reveals Jobs to be a largely unpleasant man, a Machiavellian figure with few loyalties, and the context isn't expansive enough to paint a thorough picture. Ultimately, Steve Jobs feels like the middle episodes of a six-part HBO miniseries. With a 360-minute run time on the small screen, it would have been breathlessly hyped as a "Television Event"; at 122 minutes, it's still a noteworthy achievement, even if it only partly gets Jobs done.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by director Danny Boyle; separate audio commentary by Sorkin and editor Elliot Graham; and a making-of piece.
SUFFRAGETTE (2015). With Suffragette, screenwriter Abi Morgan has managed to pen a movie about Britain's working-class women that's a far sight better than the dud she scripted about Britain's upper-class harridan, Margaret Thatcher. Whereas The Iron Lady soft-pedaled its central character and wasted too many scenes on fabricated interludes, this picture is more successful in lacing the factual with the fictional as it presents the hardships faced by women who simply wanted to be treated equally. Certainly, it's a story that, although taking place in 1912, continues to resonate today. But Morgan and director Sarah Gavron refrain from making any heavy-handed parallels; instead, their tale unfolds naturally, using the fictional character of Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) to illustrate the political and social awakening of a victim of patriarchal laws and crushing double standards. Mulligan, ill-used in far too many movies since her formidable breakthrough in 2009's An Education, is excellent in the central role, while Helena Bonham Carter lends steely support as veteran activist Edith Ellyn (another fictional construct, albeit one based on a real person). As for Meryl Streep, she pops up to deliver a fiery speech as real-life movement leader Emmeline Pankhurst. Don't let Streep's generous star billing fool you: She's essentially been cast in a bit part, one that even the smitten Academy was hard-pressed to honor with an Oscar nomination — and a straight face — in this year's contest.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by Gavron and Morgan; a making-of featurette; a look at women's rights then and now; and a piece on the effects work.
THE 33 (2015). While it's been said that truth is stranger than fiction, it can also be more exciting. The Chilean mining accident that occurred in 2010, the one that found 33 men trapped underground for an unimaginable 69 days, was the sort of story that held the world captive, with its happy ending ultimately providing a global sigh of relief. The details of that event are captured in dutiful manner in The 33, a well-executed dramatization that never quite punches across the lightning in the bottle. Its strongest selling point is Antonio Banderas, who's excellent as the trapped team's designated leader, Mario Sepúlveda. The actor is as committed to his character as his character is committed to the safety of the other men, and while the four scripters (working from Hector Tobar's acclaimed book Deep Down Dark) unnecessarily muddy the character dynamics, presumably for the sake of additional drama (a late-inning skirmish between Mario and the rest makes absolutely no sense as presented in this context), Banderas never wavers in his understanding of this man. Mario is one of the few miners given any semblance of individuality — differentiating all 33 would be a monumental undertaking for any picture, but the CliffsNotes version presented here leaves a sense of incompleteness. And with so many cutaways to those on the surface, director Patricia Riggen never manages to establish the sort of claustrophobic dread that a picture like this demands. Still, as an exercise in the triumph of the human spirit, it largely gets the job done.
Blu-ray extras consist of a behind-the-scenes featurette on the filming of the mine collapse; a look at the real-life incident; and the theatrical trailer.
TRUMBO (2015). The finest movies are often the ones that educate as well as entertain, and with the magnificent Trumbo — the best picture of 2015 (see the complete Best & Worst lists here) — we have a film that succeeds on both fronts. And the most important movies are often the ones that, regardless of setting or time frame, manage to lend a voice to today's issues, and in that regard, the picture again passes with high marks. In a 21st century largely defined by the manner in which right-wing politicians in this nation have successfully used fear and bullying in their strategy to divide and conquer, this look at the Hollywood blacklist during the days of the Red Menace hysteria seems especially timely ... and pointedly frightening. Bryan Cranston clearly deserves the Best Actor Oscar (sorry, Leo) for his superb turn as Dalton Trumbo, the brilliant screenwriter and acknowledged Communist who's among those targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee and shunned by Hollywood. Trumbo isn't portrayed as a saint: His workaholic tendencies alienate him from his family, and, like most people who subscribe to any one ideology, he can be a hypocrite. But there's never any doubt he was needlessly persecuted, and while the real-life Trumbo eventually stated that there were no heroes or villains during the blacklist, that's not exactly true. Folks like Kirk Douglas and director Otto Preminger (winningly played by Dean O'Gorman and Christian Berkel), men who helped break the blacklist, could be counted among the heroes, while columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) and, to a lesser degree, John Wayne (David James Elliott) could be numbered among the villains. Astutely written by John McNamara and zestfully directed by Jay Roach, Trumbo is alternately poignant, amusing, infuriating and always thought-provoking. It's also a potent wake-up call for anyone not too lethargic to heed its alarm.
Blu-ray extras consist of two making-of featurettes.
THE VINCENT PRICE COLLECTION III (1961-1970). The great Vincent Price had well over 100 film credits to his name (plus guest stints in dozens of TV series), and it's nice to see the suits at Shout! Factory immortalizing many of these titles on Blu-ray. The focus, naturally enough, is largely the horror genre that became the actor's bread and butter, and five more efforts join the six movies presented in the first collection (reviewed here) and the seven captured in the second volume (reviewed here).
Master of the World (1961) finds renowned horror/sci-fi writer Richard Matheson (I Am Legend, The Night Stalker) mashing together two Jules Verne novels to produce an entertaining tale that often plays like a "B" version of Disney's Verne adaptation 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Price stars as the Nemo-like Robur, who commands a massive airship from which he orders the countries of the world to cease their warmongering ways or else face his wrath. He holds four prisoners aboard his vessel, one of them (Charles Bronson) a U.S. government agent determined to stop him from dropping any more bombs. Master of the World isn't a complete success, but it's perfect Saturday-afternoon couch fare, and it's nice to see an atypically cast Bronson as a hero willing to bend the rules of civility to bring down his target.
Roger Corman, who worked with Price on the successful series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations (most found in the previous two collections), tries his hand at William Shakespeare with Tower of London (1962), which even Corman himself admits is a mash-up of the Bard's Richard III, the Poe pics, and the 1939 Tower of London. The earlier Tower cast Basil Rathbone as Richard III and Price as the Duke of Clarence — here, it's Price who essays the leading role of the misshapen monarch, bloodily dispatching anyone (including — especially — family members) who stands in his way of becoming King of England. The story is hampered by too many repetitive scenes of Richard being confronted by the ghosts of those he killed, but Price is compelling as the mad ruler (even if some of his bellows sound like Walter Matthau doing Neil Simon) and the set design impresses despite the picture's relatively small budget.
The Guy de Maupassant short story "The Horla" provides the inspiration for Diary of a Madman (1963), which finds Price cast Simon Cordier, an important French magistrate haunted by an evil spirit able to take control of his mind and body. Cordier becomes infatuated with a beautiful model (Nancy Kovack), but while he believes her to be virtuous, the spirit ("horla") insists that she's nothing but a gold-digger only interested in his wealth and position. The nice chemistry between Price and Kovack runs at odds with the story dynamics, but overall, this is a nifty horror treat until it runs out of steam toward the end.
Upon its original release, the British thriller Cry of the Banshee (1970) was headed for an R rating stateside, at least until AIP took out the scissors and removed all nudity. Also deleted were the opening credits designed by none other than Terry Gilliam, who just the year before helped hatch Monty Python's Flying Circus. This Blu-ray includes both the original, uncut version of the film as well as the AIP edit — either way, this ranks as the weakest movie in the collection. Arriving two years after the excellent Witchfinder General (included in the first Price box set), this one also finds the actor playing a vile authority figure who delights in killing women he identifies as witches. A real sorceress (Elizabeth Bergner) prone to holding satanic gatherings (these laughable sequences look more like stoners mounting an amateur production of Hair) curses not only the evil magistrate but his entire clan, resulting in a werewolf gnashing through much of the cast. Lacking the style and the smarts of Witchfinder General, this unpleasant outing merely vacillates between silliness and sadism.
Lastly, An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe (1970) was created for television but proves to be a worthy selection for this set. Running just under an hour, this is nothing more than a solo Price donning four different outfits on four different sets (a squalid one-room apartment, a posh den, a banquet table and a dank dungeon) as he recites four Poe stories: "The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Sphynx," "The Cask of Amontillado" and "The Pit and the Pendulum." Some interesting if cut-rate visuals are occasionally employed during the final tale ("Pit"), but otherwise this is simply Price putting on a one-man show. It's a must for Poe and/or Price fans.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by co-star David Frankham on Master of the World; audio commentaries by film historian Steve Haberman on Diary of a Madman, Cry of the Banshee and An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe; a piece on Matheson on Master of the World; interviews with director Roger Corman and producer Gene Corman on Tower of London, director Gordon Hessler on Cry of the Banshee, and writer-director-producer Kenneth Johnson on An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe; two episodes from the anthology series Science Fiction Theatre, both starring Price ("Operation Flypaper" and "One Thousand Eyes," both 1956); and photo galleries for all films.
Master of the World: ***
Tower of London: **1/2
Diary of a Madman: **1/2
Cry of the Banshee: **
An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe: ***
Short and Sweet:
CURSE OF THE FACELESS MAN (1958). "Is that the Six Million Dollar Man's boss?" Seth Rogen's Cal asks Steve Carell's Andy regarding one of his action figures in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. The same question can be directed toward this uninspired variation on the mummy movie, which finds a young Richard Anderson (aka the Six Million Dollar Man's boss Oscar Goldman) essaying the lead role. He's Dr. Paul Mallon, part of an archaeological team that discovers a body preserved in lava at the ancient Pompeii site. The petrified man is identified as gladiator Quintillus Aurelius, and, as fate would have it, Mallon's girlfriend (Elaine Edwards) is the reincarnation of his beloved. So the faceless man comes alive, mayhem ensues, and audiences realize that, despite its monotony, the film is still easier to take than Paul W.S. Anderson's 2014 turkey Pompeii.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by horror film historian Chris Alexander and theatrical trailers for Invisible Invaders and The Monster That Challenged the World.
FREEHELD (2015). Still Alice, featuring Julianne Moore's Oscar-winning performance, was a minor box office hit, but it was a shame to see one of her follow-up projects barely afforded a theatrical release (never playing in more than 148 theaters, it grossed a paltry $570,000). Yet Freeheld is worth catching, as it relates the true tale of lesbian couple Laurel Hester (Moore) and Stacie Andree (Ellen Page) and their Herculean struggles after Laurel is diagnosed with terminal cancer and local government pigs refuse to assign her pension benefits to Stacie. Michael Shannon lends solid support as Laurel's partner on the force, while Steve Carell delivers an animated, take-it-or-leave-it performance as an advocate for LGBT rights.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Moore, Page and director Peter Sollett; a making-of featurette; and the 2007 Oscar-winning documentary short of the same name.
I CONFESS (1953). A rare misfire from Alfred Hitchcock, this adaptation of a forgotten early-20th-century play stars Montgomery Clift as Michael Logan, a Quebec priest who listens to a man's admittance of murder but can't tell anyone since the mea culpa was revealed in the confessional booth. Father Logan's resultant odd behavior, particularly around a woman (Anne Baxter) who knew the murder victim, forces a detective (Karl Malden) to target the priest as his primary suspect. Like Hitchcock's The Wrong Man (recently reviewed here), I Confess is likewise lacking the Master's usual humor and style, but unlike that 1956 effort, this one can't fall back on a gripping story, as too many narrative contrivances, a ludicrous villain (O.E. Hasse) and a dopey ending cobble what on paper sounds like a can't-miss premise.
Blu-ray extras consist of a making-of featurette; vintage newsreel footage from the Quebec premiere (attended by Hitchcock and Baxter); and the theatrical trailer.