(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.)
CHI-RAQ (2015). "No peace, no pussy." "No pussy, no power." Those are the defining lines of the hour.
Based on Aristophanes' ancient Lysistrata, It instead examines today's social strata.
Specifically, the poor in Chicago, Illinois, In a crime zone with no hope and even less joy.
The entire movie is spoken in rhyme, A risky gamble, but it works all the time.
Teyonah Parris is superb in the primary role, As a brainy, sexy woman with a definite goal.
Hoping to stop the men from killing each other, She devises a plan to save every brother.
No more sex from any female in the hood, If that doesn't stop the deaths, nothing ever could.
The angry gang members all shout, "Fuck that noise," But they think of laying down their murderous toys.
It's a powder keg of a film from first frame to last, Anchored by Spike Lee's fury and a powerhouse cast.
As a priest, John Cusack has a tremendous scene, Railing against killings both senseless and mean.
Angela Bassett projects dignity as a local sage, While Nick Cannon impresses with his bottled-up rage.
There's Samuel L. Jackson, a favorite of Lee's, Blaring "Wake Up!" among his omniscient pleas.
Chi-raq was one of the best films of the year. Top 20, maybe Top 10, certainly near.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; deleted scenes; and a music video for Kevon Carter's "We Gotta Do Better."
FROM THE TERRACE (1960). A sizable hit for Paul Newman back in its day, this adaptation of John O'Hara's sprawling novel gave the actor the opportunity to again work opposite real-life wife Joanne Woodward, and it provided Golden Age great Myrna Loy with one of her last significant film roles. Newman plays Alfred Eaton, newly returned from World War II and ready to go into business with his best friend Lex Porter (George Grizzard). This doesn't sit well with Alfred's coldly dispassionate father (Leon Ames), who wants to groom Alfred to take over his steel company; for her part, Alfred's perpetually soused mother (Loy) only wants her son happy. Contentment does indeed seem to take hold once Alfred meets, woos and weds Mary St. John (Woodward), who comes from a wealthy family and expects her husband to be just as successful. But Alfred's commitment to his work leads to Mary stepping out with a former flame (Patrick O'Neal), and marital matters become even more complicated once Alfred falls for a sweet-natured woman (Ina Balin) from a Pennsylvania mining town. Satisfying in many regards, this handsome soaper is nevertheless undermined by a script (by Ernest Lehman, no less) that doesn't flow as much as stumble forward, resulting in shallow characterizations and a choppy timeline (Loy's character disappears entirely after the opening act without so much as a by-your-leave).
Blu-ray extras include Fox Movietone newsreel footage; the theatrical trailer; and an isolated track of Elmer Bernstein's score.
THE HAPPY ENDING (1969). Richard Brooks made his directorial debut in 1950 with the OK Cary Grant drama Crisis and wrapped up in 1985 with the disastrous Ryan O'Neal gambling flick Fever Pitch. These bookends might not suggest a robust career in between, but that's exactly what Brooks carved out for himself, thanks to such excellent efforts as Blackboard Jungle, Elmer Gantry and In Cold Blood. The Happy Ending has receded into the background, but it warrants another look — if nothing else, it's interesting to watch in tandem with From the Terrace (both newly released by Twilight Time), as each deals with a marriage buckling under the pressures of work, alcohol and infidelity. Here, it's Mary Wilson (Jean Simmons, Brooks' then-wife) who's hitting the bottle hard, restless in her role as housewife and aware that her husband (John Forsythe) has dallied behind her back. Her confidante (Nanette Fabray) supports her, her mother (the great Teresa Wright, clearly not old enough to be playing Simmons' mom) lectures her, and her neighbor (Tina Louise, shortly after her Ginger got off Gilligan's island) gossips about her. Fed up, Mary takes off, hooking up with a former friend (Shirley Jones) and reflecting on her life. Simmons is excellent — she earned an Oscar nomination, as did the song "What Are You Doing for the Rest of Your Life?" — while Bobby Darin amuses as an Italian slickster, seemingly basing his performance on Erik Rhodes' work in the Astaire-Rogers classics Top Hat and The Gay Divorcee.
Blu-ray extras consist of the theatrical trailer and an isolated track of Michel Legrand's score.
THE ICE PIRATES (1984). There are seemingly more gags than visual effects shots in The Ice Pirates, a campy sci-fi yarn that imported three popular actors from television to fill out the leading roles. Robert Urich (Dan Tanna on Vega$) stars as Jason, the leader of a ragtag galactic outfit making life difficult for the nefarious ruling class in a future where water is a rare commodity. Michael D. Roberts (Rooster on Baretta) plays Roscoe, his best friend and second-in-command. And Mary Crosby (she who shot J.R. on Dallas) is Karina, a princess who hooks up with Jason and his assemblage of lovable rogues. The jokey script is occasionally amusing but generally awful, but it's difficult to hate a movie as puppy-dog harmless and eager to please as this one. The real fun comes in noting the supporting cast: future Prizzi's Honor Oscar winner Anjelica Huston as the skilled Maida, future Hellboy Ron Perlman as Zeno, former NFL star John Matuszak as Killjoy, horror film veteran John Carradine as the Supreme Commander and, most startlingly, Bruce Vilanch, the Emmy-winning co-scripter of a dozen Oscar telecasts, as the Herod-like despot Wendon. For a far superior mix of science fiction and satire, just watch Mel Brooks' Spaceballs again.
The only Blu-ray extra is the theatrical trailer.
JACK'S BACK (1988). The titular Jack refers to Jack the Ripper, and exactly 100 years after he brutally murdered a string of prostitutes in 1888 London, a copycat killer is doing likewise in 1988 Los Angeles. After an impressive run of playing well-groomed heels in supporting roles (Pretty in Pink, Less Than Zero, etc.), James Spader lands top billing as the ostensible hero — make that heroes, since he's playing two parts. John Wesford is a friendly medical student admired by almost everyone while his twin brother Rick is more introverted, a shoe-store manager with a checkered past and apparently no friends. Both prove to be suspects at various points in the investigation, but the list of who might be the Ripper redux doesn't stop with these two. Rowdy Herrington made his writing and directing debuts with this picture (he would go on to helm the yahoo fave Road House and the Bruce Willis dud Striking Distance), and while his direction displays some style, his plotting is too haphazard to completely overcome any deficiencies (for one thing, Spader's John is far more interesting than his Rick yet clocks a lot less screen time). Incidentally, the main title song, Paul Saax's "Red Harvest," is one of the worst original compositions I've heard in a film in a long time.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by Herrington; a retrospective making-of piece, featuring interviews with Herrington, co-star Cynthia Gibb and others; and the theatrical trailer.
KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (1952). When it comes to staples of film noir, the hard-boiled Kansas City Confidential is the real deal. The only thing missing is a femme fatale — the romantic interest is instead a squeaky-clean college student (Coleen Gray) studying to become a lawyer — but in all other respects, it's a down and dirty picture with all the requisite blood, sweat and double-crosses. John Payne headlines as an ex-con who's set up by a crooked ex-cop (Preston Foster) to take the rap for a bank heist in the title city. The corrupt lawman and his three henchmen — a fantastic rogues' gallery comprised of Jack Elam, Lee Van Cleef and Neville Brand — hightail it to Mexico, but their perceived patsy isn't about to let them get away with it. Payne makes for a suitably off-kilter hero while Foster is solid in an unexpectedly complex role. Still, the biggest thrill is watching Elam as the most nervous of the hoods — if actors were paid by the amount of perspiration they displayed, he could have retired right after shooting this flick.
One of those unfortunate films that fell into the public domain along the way (resulting in scores of inferior DVD copies), Kansas City Confidential finally was given a polished DVD presentation by Fox Home Entertainment in 2007 and a Blu-ray release by Film Chest in 2011. Here, it's The Film Detective label offering a digitally restored re-release. There are no extras on the Blu-ray.
THE LAST DETAIL (1973). Here's a world record that might have made the suits at Guinness HQ blush: At the time of its release, The Last Detail included the word "fuck" in its dialogue 65 times, reportedly more than any other movie up to that point (the record has, of course, been shattered on countless occasions, with the current holder among widely seen feature films being The Wolf of Wall Street with a whopping 569 instances). Then again, given the wholly believable characterizations scripter Robert Towne (adapting Darryl Ponicsan's novel) accords his leading players, anything less than salty language from the mouths of sailors would have been unacceptable. Jack Nicholson (in one of his defining performances during a decade packed with 'em) and Otis Young play Buddusky and Mulhall, two career sailors tasked with escorting the hopelessly naïve Meadows (Randy Quaid) to a naval prison to serve time for attempted robbery. The punishment (eight years) doesn't fit the crime (a habitual kleptomaniac, he was caught pilfering $40 from a donation box), so the older squids decide to show him a good time before delivery. That's Michael Moriarty as an officious military secretary and Carol Kane and Nancy Allen as a pair of prostitutes — and if you don't blink during her few seconds, that's clearly Gilda Radner among those attending a Buddhist chanting session. This earned a trio of Oscar nominations: Best Actor (Nicholson), Best Supporting Actor (Quaid, who at the time prophetically stated that "I know this might be the best part I will ever have") and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Blu-ray extras consist of the theatrical trailer and an isolated track of Johnny Mandel's score.
OF MICE AND MEN (1992). Considering novels usually get mangled as they make their way to the movie screen, it's worth noting that John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, merely one of the all-time great literary achievements, has been successfully transferred to film on not one but two occasions. The 1939 interpretation starring Lon Chaney Jr. as the feeble-minded Lennie and Burgess Meredith as the sensible George remains the definitive version, but the 1992 take adapted by two-time Oscar winner Horton Foote (To Kill a Mockingbird, Tender Mercies) and directed by Gary Sinise is a gem in its own right. Tackling the material in an appropriately economical manner, the pair allow several powerful themes to resonate: an evocation of an era where the American Dream still inspired people by remaining within reach; a poignant look at the various modes of alienation and segregation forced upon women (represented by Twin Peaks' Sherilyn Fenn), blacks (Joe Morton) and the elderly (Ray Walston); and, centrally, a fable about two men (Sinise as George and John Malkovich as Lennie) whose friendship set them apart from the rest of the pack. The film is largely faithful to Steinbeck's book, meaning it retains the ability to deliver that final knockout punch.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Sinise; a making-of featurette; a conversation with Sinise and Foote; deleted scenes; and Fenn's screen test.
THE WRONG MAN (1956). Alfred Hitchcock's The Wrong Man features a recurrent theme found in several of the director's pictures — an ordinary man wrongly accused of a crime he didn't commit and forced to prove his innocence — and yet it stands in marked contrast to such efforts as North By Northwest, The 39 Steps and Saboteur. Based on a true story, this finds The Master foregoing his usual visual flourishes and jet-black humor to present a crime drama shot entirely in a dour docudrama style. Henry Fonda plays the hapless Manny Balestrero, a musician misidentified by several people as the man who's been robbing various New York locales over the course of several months. The cops are incompetent and the eyewitnesses are unreliable, an unfortunate combination that leads to the respectable Manny fearing for his freedom and his fragile wife (Vera Miles) fearing for her sanity. Devoid of any Hitchcockian touches, the movie disappoints only in that it could have been made by any filmmaker experimenting in the faux-documentary style during this period (Jules Dassin comes to mind) — otherwise, it's gripping material, with Bernard Herrmann contributing a suitably nerve-jangling score. The screenplay was co-written by Pulitzer Prize winner Maxwell Anderson; look for Werner Klemperer (Hogan's Heroes' Colonel Klink) in an uncredited role as a psychiatrist.
Blu-ray extras consist of the making-of featurette Guilt Trip: Hitchcock and The Wrong Man, and the theatrical trailer.