Game Change, Frankenweenie, The Jazz Singer among new home entertainment titles

This week's reviews of what's new on Blu-ray and DVD

| January 10, 2013

(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what's new on Blu-ray and DVD.)

Frankenweenie (Photo: Disney)
  • Frankenweenie (Photo: Disney)

FRANKENWEENIE (2012). A remake of his own live-action short from 1984, Frankenweenie finds Tim Burton employing the stop-motion animation style that he previously used in Corpse Bride. The story remains the same: In a staid American suburb, young Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan) is devastated when his best friend in the world, his faithful dog Sparky, is struck and killed by an automobile. Nothing can lift him out of his gloom until his science teacher shows the class how electricity can temporarily reanimate a dead frog. Working from this template, Victor successfully manages to revive Sparky, a joyous reunion marred by the fear and stupidity of Victor's neighbors. The first Frankenweenie ran just the right length at 30 minutes, so the challenge was in expanding the story to approximately 90 minutes without making the new material feel like extraneous filler. Working from Burton's original idea, scripter John August largely succeeds. The character of the science teacher, a bit player in the original, is given stature and presence: Looking like Vincent Price (Burton's horror-film hero) and speaking in a thick European accent provided by Martin Landau, he's the story's most entertaining figure, especially when he tells his students' small-minded, science-fearing parents, "You are all very ignorant. Is that the right word, 'ignorant'?" August also has Victor fretting not just about his neighbors but also having to worry about interference from several of his classmates, all hoping to steal his idea so that they may use it to win the school's science competition. While most studios and animators are gung-ho about CGI, it's nice to have holdouts like Nick Park (the Wallace & Gromit canon) and Burton offering something different. The stop-motion animation looks especially crisp in Frankenweenie's black-and-white world, and it adds an extra degree of spookiness to the more eccentric supporting characters. But there's nothing spooky about Sparky, the amiable canine who, even after being brought back from the grave, seeks only to play with — and love on — his owner. Dead or alive, he's the beating heart at the center of this alternately amusing, alternately poignant but perpetually inventive work.

Blu-ray extras include the original 1984 Frankenweenie; the new animated short Captain Sparky vs. The Flying Saucers; a making-of featurette; and the music video for Plain White T's "Pet Sematary."

Movie: ***

Julianne Moore and Woody Harrelson in Game Change (Photo: HBO Films)
  • Julianne Moore and Woody Harrelson in Game Change (Photo: HBO Films)

GAME CHANGE (2012). Since there's no way Sarah Palin will ever see the inside of the White House unless she's invited as a guest or signs up for one of those guided tours, it's easier to breathe while watching Game Change, HBO Films' adaptation of just a portion of the best-selling book by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. The movie focuses on that frightening period when it was a possibility that the Alaskan governor would become vice-president of the United States, having been picked for the post by presidential candidate John McCain and his team. Brandishing humor and intelligence, the story starts with senior strategist Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson) deciding that with Barack Obama heading the Democratic ticket, picking the usual "old white guy" as a running mate for McCain (Ed Harris) just wasn't going to work. After a lot of brainstorming on the possibilities but not enough research on the chosen one, they go with Palin (Julianne Moore), whose exuberant personality, right-wing ideals and good looks help energize the Republican base. It's only after they've made their selection that the McCain gang grasps that it has chosen an inexperienced, self-important airhead for the position, a realization that only grows more pronounced with each ensuing gaffe. Although naturally decried as a hit job by conservative windbags, the movie is actually quite sympathetic to all party members except for Palin, and even she is allowed moments of grace and dignity. Schmidt is positioned as a razor-sharp guy who regrets his monumental mistake, while McCain is pictured as an upstanding hero who sincerely wants to serve the American people; also benefiting from a charitable view is McCain senior adviser Nicolle Wallace (Sarah Paulson), whose attempts to prepare Palin for her debate against Joe Biden meet with hostile resistance. Harris makes a jovial McCain (is the senator really as funny as depicted here?), Moore takes care not to overplay her hand at interpreting Palin, and Harrelson is excellent as the exasperated Schmidt. Nominated for 12 Emmy Awards (including bids for Harrelson, Harris and Paulson), it earned five: Outstanding Miniseries or Movie, Actress (Moore), Directing (Jay Roach), Writing (Danny Strong) and Casting.

Blu-ray extras include a behind-the-scenes featurette; a piece in which various political experts discuss what it takes to run for high office; a featurette; and a promo for HBO's line of acclaimed films.

Movie: ***

Jennifer Lawrence in House at the End of the Street (Photo: Relativity Media)
  • Jennifer Lawrence in House at the End of the Street (Photo: Relativity Media)

HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET (2012). Watching a talented A-list star like Jennifer Lawrence stumble her way through a grade-Z production like House at the End of the Street can only lead to embarrassment for the performer and misery for the viewer. Lawrence plays Elissa, who with her divorced mom Sarah (Elisabeth Shue) moves from Chicago to a rinky-dink Pennsylvania town. They get a great deal on a spacious house, but that's because it's located across the way from a home where, four year earlier, spooky Carrie Ann (Eva Link) murdered her parents. She presumably drowned, but local (sub)urban legend insists that she's actually living in the nearby woods. As for the house itself, its sole occupant is Carrie Ann's reclusive brother Ryan (Max Thieriot), who's bullied by the other kids but makes a real connection with Elissa. The local sheriff (Gil Bellows) assures a worried Sarah that Ryan is a good kid and that Elissa is safe with him. Yet for all his soulful stares and sensitive bleating, Ryan is keeping something hidden in the basement. Just as Renee Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey both had to deal with the long-shelved The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation later materializing on the landscape to capitalize on both actors' newfound fame, now it's Lawrence's turn to grin and bear it as this turkey, made before her success with The Hunger Games and X-Men: First Class and her Oscar nomination for Winter's Bone, arrived on the theatrical scene with all the class of a long-lost cousin hoping for a handout from a relative who just won the lottery. The strategy clearly worked, as the film earned back its small budget on its opening weekend alone. That financial update deserves an eye roll, though, as the movie isn't even worth a Redbox rental. Scripters David Loucka and Jonathan Mostow and director Mark Tonderai elect to emphasize every plot point and telegraph every plot twist with the delicacy of a train blaring its horn as it approaches a crossing — and yet that isn't even their greatest sin. It's difficult to go into particulars without having to erect a wall of spoiler alerts, but suffice it to say that the film's ultimate rebuttal of samaritans, rebels and outsiders — and by extension, its embrace of bullies, sycophants and shrill suburbanites only interested in property values — makes House at the End of the Street seem even more low-rent.

The Blu-ray includes the theatrical cut as well as an unrated version. Extras include a behind-the-scenes piece.

Movie: *1/2

Eugenie Besserer and Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer (Photo: Warner Bros.)
  • Eugenie Besserer and Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer (Photo: Warner Bros.)

THE JAZZ SINGER (1927). In the annals of film history, perhaps no line proved to be more prophetic than Al Jolson exclaiming "You ain't heard nothing yet!" in The Jazz Singer. A landmark motion picture that revolutionized the industry, this introduced the concept of sound through its handful of musical numbers, even if the rest of the movie relied on the standard title cards of silent cinema (it wasn't until the following year's Lights of New York that a film featured sound from beginning to end). Unfortunately, while the Vitaphone sound system was groundbreaking, the rest of the picture doesn't live up to its technical achievement, as its hoary storyline focuses on a young Jewish man (Jolson) who decides he would rather sing on Broadway than extend his family's five-generational run of producing cantors, a decision that breaks the heart of his father (Warner Oland). Jolson, a popular entertainer who nevertheless was about two decades too old for his role, belts out a half-dozen tunes, including such hits as "Toot Toot Tootsie, Goodbye" and "Blue Skies." Winner of a special Oscar during the Academy's first year in existence (for being "the pioneer outstanding talking picture"), this was remade in 1952 (starring Make Room for Daddy star Danny Thomas) and 1980 (with Neil Diamond in a Razzie Award-winning performance as Worst Actor).

Warner Bros. first released The Jazz Singer on DVD in 2007 (for its 80th anniversary), and in addition to the Blu-ray containing the movie, this set also includes two DVDs containing the superb extras from its previous incarnation. Among the bonuses are audio commentary by film historian Ron Hutchinson and band leader Vince Giordano; the 90-minute documentary The Dawn of Sound: How Movies Learned to Talk; surviving excerpts from the lost 1929 musical Gold Diggers of Broadway; five short films about the early sound era; A Plantation Act, a short starring Jolson; and two dozen Vitaphone comedy and musical shorts totaling 3-1/2 hours. The set also includes an 88-page book.

Movie: **1/2

Bruce Willis in Looper (Photo: Sony)
  • Bruce Willis in Looper (Photo: Sony)

LOOPER (2012). The pretzel-twisted thriller Looper may not take us back to the future as satisfyingly as director Robert Zemeckis' Marty McFly trilogy or James Cameron's Terminator franchise, but writer-director Rian Johnson does enough right to all but guarantee that he now has a future cult film on the books. Johnson, who made an attention-grabbing debut with 2005's Brick and followed that with 2008's pleasant The Brothers Bloom, continues to function as Christopher Nolan's Mini-Me, coming up with wildly imaginative movies that (unlike Nolan's) don't quite muster enough power to truly break through. In Looper, Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Joe, who in the year 2044 serves as one of a select group of "loopers," paid assassins who eliminate whoever is sent back via time travel from the year 2074 by the ruling mob of that future world. Joe is content and growing ever richer with his blood-splattered career choice, but the day arrives when he finds himself expected to wipe out the 30-years-older version of himself. Old Joe (Bruce Willis) has other plans than just taking a blast to the chest, though, and he manages to escape from his younger self. For his part, Joe winds up at a farm house owned by the strong-willed Sara (Emily Blunt), who's living there with her little boy (Pierce Gagnon). As Joe bides his time until his middle-aged self again shows up on the scene, he comes to care for the woman and child more than he expected. With the aid of prosthetics, Gordon-Levitt is quite good as he mimics Willis in order to maintain character consistency, and Blunt's performance is more sizable (and more important) than her split-second cameo in the trailer would suggest. The time-travel aspects of Johnson's script don't always flow smoothly, requiring viewers to engage in an even greater suspension of disbelief than normal. Given the premium rush being delivered on screen, though, I don't think that will be a problem.

DVD extras include audio commentary by John, Gordon-Levitt and Blunt; a making-of featurette; five deleted scenes; and a piece on the film's score.

Movie: ***

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