(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.)
F/X (1986). While this sleeper hit will doubtless continue to play best for those of us who knew it back when, it should still effectively engage all but the most cynical of today's seen-it-all film fans. Australian actor Bryan Brown, who had a nice little run in the 1980s (Breaker Morant, Gorillas in the Mist, TV's The Thorn Birds, etc.), adeptly tackles the role of Rollie Tyler, one of the best special effects artists working in film. Rollie is approached by a pair of Justice Department suits (Cliff De Young and Mason Adams) to help them stage a fake assassination of a mobster-turned-witness (Jerry Orbach); he reluctantly agrees, only to learn post-assignment that someone has set him up as a fall guy. As he feverishly works to evade both the police and the killers, a hard-boiled cop (Brian Dennehy) conducts his own unorthodox investigation into the matter. A few glaring plotholes dissipate in the wake of the clever twists concocted by Robert T. Megginson and Gregory Fleeman, whose screenplay also allows Rollie to rely on his effects training to extricate himself from some deadly situations. The turns by Brown, Dennehy, Orbach and Joe Grifasi as Dennehy's sad-sack partner are especially pleasing, and look fast for Angela Bassett in her film debut as a reporter. As for Martha Gehman as Rollie's assistant, she warranted a special mention ("terrible") in my review for my college newspaper, and time has not improved her contribution — even so, I was surprised to see that the film's IMDb message board includes six pages of a thread ("Worst performance ever by an actress") focusing solely on her wooden turn! F/X was followed by a so-so sequel in 1991 (F/X2, again with Brown and Dennehy) and a 1996 TV series (with different actors) that lasted two seasons. Trivial pursuit: One of the producers was Dodi Fayed, the Egyptian millionaire killed alongside Princess Diana in that tragic 1997 car crash.
Blu-ray extras consist of a vintage behind-the-scenes featurette; an interview with director Robert Mandel; and the theatrical trailers for both F/X and F/X2.
THE GOLDEN YEAR COLLECTION (1939). The championing of 1939 as the single greatest year in motion picture history began in earnest in 1989, with countless articles celebrating the 50th anniversary of a 12-month stretch that had given birth to an unusually high number of bona fide classics. While there have been other years suggested as the all-time best, the crowning of 1939 has largely stuck, thanks to the presence of such immortal motion pictures as The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Wuthering Heights, Of Mice and Men, The Women, Only Angels Have Wings and the five films included in this box set.
"Who wants to watch some dame go blind and die?" bellowed studio head Jack Warner when Bette Davis asked him to produce Dark Victory as her next vehicle. Fortunately, Bette got her way, meaning that Warner Bros. in turn got a box office hit and film fans got one of the finest weepies ever made by Hollywood. Davis is nothing short of magnificent as Judith Traherne, a wealthy socialite suffering from a brain tumor that might take her life. George Brent is merely adequate as the doctor who becomes Judith's true love, but Geraldine Fitzgerald is solid as her best friend, and there are amusing turns by Humphrey Bogart as an Irish stablehand (his accent comes and goes at will) and Ronald Reagan as Judith's drinking buddy. Dark Victory earned three Academy Award nominations, for Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Original Score (three-time Oscar winner Max Steiner, earning two of his 24 nods in '39 for Dark Victory and Gone with the Wind).
Dodge City spirited Errol Flynn away from his swashbuckling milieu (in the likes of 1935's Captain Blood and 1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood) and into a Wild West setting, and the match proved so natural that the Australian actor found himself cast in several more sagebrush sagas over the ensuing years. But none could quite match this one, which if nothing else will always be remembered as the movie that served as the primary inspiration for Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles. Flynn's cast as Wade Hatton, who, with trusty Rusty (Alan Hale, the matinee idol's frequent screen sidekick) in tow, sets out to clean up the title town by ridding it of all criminal elements. Olivia de Havilland, another frequent Flynn co-star, is in this one as well, though even her beauty gets upstaged by a massive barroom brawl that continues to maintain its reputation as Hollywood's finest.
Gone with the Wind remains the most successful movie of all time (if adjusted for inflation, its box office would blow away the grosses for Avatar, The Avengers and other Top 10 leaders), and, purely from a cinematic standpoint, this adaptation of Margaret Mitchell's bestseller about a Southern family's struggles during the Civil War is a genuine treasure, a four-hour epic distinguished by breathtaking achievements in pure moviemaking. From a social standpoint, however, its past remains ingrained in controversy: Along with D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, it's the film most responsible for whitewashing the evils of racism and in effect making a romanticized vision of the Old South palatable to the nation at large. Still, there are infinite highs, beginning with Vivien Leigh's extraordinary performance as Scarlett O'Hara, one of the most fully developed characters ever depicted in American cinema. The film earned eight Academy Awards (plus two special Oscars), including Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actress for Hattie McDaniel (as Mammy).
During the silent era, Lon Chaney gave what would likely remain the screen's definitive portrayals of Quasimodo in 1923's The Hunchback of Notre Dame and the Phantom in 1925's The Phantom of the Opera. But while Chaney's performance as the disfigured madman haunting the Paris Opera House has certainly never been equalled, I daresay his turn as Quasimodo was matched by that of Charles Laughton in the 1939 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Laughton is excellent as the misshapen bellringer, cowering in the presence of that patron saint of today's Men's Rights Activists, the misogynistic hypocrite Frollo (Sir Cedric Hardwicke), and gazing at the beautiful gypsy woman Esmeralda (Maureen O'Hara) from his perch atop the Notre Dame cathedral. Thomas Mitchell, noted for appearing in three of the year's Best Picture Oscar nominees (Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Stagecoach, winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the latter), pops up here as Clopin, the king of the thieves.
"Garbo Laughs!" blared the tagline for director Ernst Lubitsch's fizzy romantic comedy Ninotchka. The prospect of seeing the usually oh-so-serious Greta Garbo nyukking it up proved irresistible to the moviegoing public of 1939, thereby turning the film into (like all the titles in this set) one of the year's more robust moneymakers. Garbo plays a humorless Russian official who arrives in Paris on business, only to be defrosted by a charming playboy (Melvyn Douglas); Felix Bressart, Alexander Granach and the wonderful character actor Sig Rumann co-star as her three comrades, who clearly prefer the comforts of capitalism to the Russian interpretation of Communism. Despite receiving fourth billing, Bela Lugosi is on camera for less than three minutes, turning up in one scene toward the end as a grouchy Russian bureaucrat. Ninotchka earned four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actress.
Blu-ray extras on Dark Victory include audio commentary by film historian James Ursini and film critic Paul Clinton; a featurette on Dark Victory and other 1939 releases; and a 1940 radio broadcast starring Davis and Spencer Tracy. Extras on Dodge City include an introduction by Leonard Maltin and a retrospective featurette. The only extra on Gone with the Wind (since it's already been released in deluxe Blu-ray editions more than once) is audio commentary by film historian Rudy Behlmer. Extras on The Hunchback of Notre Dame include an interview with O'Hara. A vintage short, a vintage cartoon and the theatrical trailer can be found accompanying all titles except Gone with the Wind.
Dark Victory: ***1/2
Dodge City: ***1/2
Gone with the Wind: ****
The Hunchback of Notre Dame: ***1/2
KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE (2015). The fourth crack at comic-based material for writer-director Matthew Vaughn and co-scripter Jane Goldman (following the excellent X-Men: First Class, the enchanting Stardust and the underwhelming Kick-Ass), this word-of-mouth hit is first and foremost a salute to British secret agent James Bond, the suave, martini-sipping spy created by novelist Ian Fleming and immortalized by Sean Connery, Daniel Craig and a few other dapper gents. Like Bond, these Kingsmen could easily be members of Her Majesty's Secret Service, protecting king and country (to say nothing of the rest of the planet) from the usual misguided machinations of megalomaniacs. In this case, it's Kingsman Harry Hart (Colin Firth) who's tasked with discovering the dastardly scheme of an environmentalist millionaire named Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson). When a sudden opening within the organization forces Kingsman head Arthur (Michael Caine) to search for suitable recruits, Harry nominates Eggsy Unwin (Taron Egerton), the son of a fallen Kingsman recruit and a street kid more familiar with fisticuffs than cufflinks. The picture cannily works on two fronts, not only operating as a bona fide throwback flick (not only to Bond but also The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Get Smart and Caine's Harry Palmer trilogy) but also subverting the genre in imaginative ways. As expected, the vets all excel in their assignments, particularly Jackson (nailing it after a similar, but poorly executed, villainous role in The Spirit) and Mark Strong as the behind-the-scenes Kingsman known as Merlin. Equally enticing are newcomers Egerton and, as fellow recruit Roxy, Sophie Clarkson — the pair enjoy a nice rapport as two rookies who are constantly watching out for each other. Clearly, Kingsman: The Secret Service likes to leave viewers both shaken and stirred, and it accomplishes that by always keeping yet one more surprise up its well-tailored sleeve.
Blu-ray extras include a six-part making-of featurette and photo galleries focusing on the sets and props.
THE LAST UNICORN (1982). Would the act of giving The Last Unicorn an average rating be tantamount to kicking a puppy? This animated feature from the Rankin-Bass team (with further backing from Japan, Germany and England) was hardly a blockbuster upon its original release (at least not stateside), but over time it has developed a sizable following and is adored by millions — heck, even my own daughter (on the verge of turning 24) has watched it countless times over the years and still ranks it among her all-time favorites. Peter S. Beagle adapted his own novel about the title critter (voiced by Mia Farrow), who sets out to discover if there are any other unicorns existing outside her neck of the woods. She eventually teams up with a bumbling wizard named Schmendrick (Alan Arkin as the least likely mythical character ever), finds herself frequently fleeing from the menacing (and vodka-free) Red Bull, and, after she's turned into a human, falling for the dashing son (Jeff Bridges) of a menacing king (Christopher Lee). A few scattered scenes exhibit some innovation, but for the most part, the animation is limp and practically all of the actors deliver alarmingly flat line readings. And the less said about the music score by America, the better.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Beagle, publisher Connor Cochran, associate producer Michael Chase Walker and others; a making-of featurette; highlights from the current worldwide tour featuring a screening of the film and an appearance by Beagle (the tour is coming to North Carolina in October; go to www.lastunicorntour.com for updates); animated storyboards; and the theatrical trailer.
SEVENTH SON (2015). This box office flop is based on a YA novel — The Spook's Apprentice in its U.K. homeland, The Last Apprentice: Revenge of the Witch on this side of the Atlantic — but given its derivative nature, it might as well be based on 10,000 previous fantasy flicks. Seeking a new assistant in his battle against a practitioner of the dark arts known as Mother Malkin (a slumming Julianne Moore), Master John Gregory (Jeff Bridges), an elderly knight now renowned for his witch- and spirit-hunting abilities, seeks out a young farmhand named Tom Ward (bland Ben Barnes), who's the Chosen One since he's the seventh son of a seventh son. The film's visual palette isn't bad, but when everything taking place within the screen parameters is so dull and uninspired, it's hard to get too excited by a crisp look. Mother Malkin has the ability to turn into a dragon at will, but — to paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen's retort to Dan Quayle — I screened Smaug; I knew Smaug. Mother, you're no Smaug (or Jack Kennedy, for that matter). Similarly, the ethereal spirits look like unused apparitions from Bridges' debacle R.I.P.D., while the enterprise as a whole has a whiff of Eragon ineptitude to it. Doubtless realizing he's wallowing in nonsense, Bridges gives his otherwise dull character a unique accent (speech impediment?), delivering all of his lines as a mix of his True Grit character, a belligerent walrus, and a 45 rpm record played at 33-1/3 rpm. Beyond Bridges' ham-on-wry performance, I was also amused by Tusk, a lumbering man-beast who helps out our heroes from time to time. There's a scene in which Tusk is shown not to wash his hands after relieving himself, and it was at that moment I realized this ugly ogre with a bad haircut and poor hygiene was the spitting image of N.C.'s very own Sen. Thom "Let them eat crap!" Tillis.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; deleted scenes; and an alternate ending.