(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what's new on Blu-ray and DVD.)
THE DUELLISTS (1977). Director Ridley Scott's filmography is remarkably varied — Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, Gladiator and more — and it all began with The Duellists, which made an impression at the Cannes Film Festival (where it won Best First Film) but was virtually ignored by audiences. Still, after years spent making commercials for British television, it provided the filmmaker with enough of a foothold that he was able to snag the directing job on 1979's Alien, an assignment that turned his career supernova. Based on Joseph Conrad's 1908 short story "The Duel: A Military Story" (aka "The Point of Honor"), which was itself based on a real-life scenario, the film stars Keith Carradine as D'Hubert, an officer in Napoleon's army who's tasked with delivering bad news to a fellow officer, a hothead named Feraud (Harvey Keitel). Ignoring the sound advice of not shooting the messenger, Feraud instead focuses all his anger and hatred on D'Hubert, and what results is a series of duels between the men that transpires over the course of approximately three decades. The all-American Carradine and Keitel are rather incongruous in this decidedly European production, but they acquit themselves well enough — Carradine by projecting his character's innate decency, Keitel by channeling his role's myopic fervor. The always-welcome Albert Finney pops up in a grand total of one scene as the French politician Fouche, while composer Howard Blake contributes a vibrant score that sets the right tone for the picture's visual dazzle.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Scott; separate audio commentary by Blake; a half-hour discussion with Scott (conducted by director Kevin Reynolds); and a new interview with Carradine.
FLIGHT (2012). Some actors, like Harrison Ford, excel at playing straightforward heroes. Others, such as Brad Pitt, soar when tackling protagonists with dark shadings. And then there's Denzel Washington, who's equally adept at portraying both. In Flight, Washington's character of "Whip" Whitaker is seen in the early going snorting a line of coke and drinking booze as if it were Gatorade. Hey, to each his own ... except for the minor fact that Whitaker is a commercial pilot, and on this particular morning he's set to commandeer a plane from Orlando to Atlanta. But Whitaker is nothing if not functional while under the influence, and when disaster strikes (in a brilliantly staged sequence), he's able to save most (but not all) of the 100-plus people on board. Yet while the media initially pegs him as a hero a la Capt. Sully Sullenberger, there's the troubling behind-the-scenes matter of a revealing toxicology report. Written by John Gatins (up for an Academy Award for his original script), Flight depends almost entirely on Washington's Oscar-nominated performance, since the movie emerges as less a drama about an airplane crash and more a character study about a man who won't admit his problems to anyone, including himself. The subplot involving Whitaker's relationship with a fellow substance abuser (Kelly Reilly) starts out well but never comes to a boil, and the scenes opposite his ex-wife (Garcelle Beauvais) and teenage son (Justin Martin) are too brief to make the necessary impact. But when Gatins stays focused on Whitaker's legal quandary, the film remains compelling, with nice turns by Don Cheadle and Bruce Greenwood as two of the only people in the pilot's corner. And then there's John Goodman as Harling Mays, a boisterous sort (he travels with his own personal theme song: The Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil") who's not only Whitaker's best friend but also his provider and enabler. The moral ramifications of such a character is completely brushed aside in order to allow Goodman to provide the requisite comic relief (which he does). Still, while Gatins pulls a punch with this particular characterization, he comes out swinging for the rest of the picture. So does Washington, once again performing at a dizzying altitude.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; a look at the crash sequence; and a Q&A session with some of the principals.
HERE COMES THE BOOM (2012). There's a pleasant surprise involving the comedy Here Comes the Boom. No, it's not particularly good — that would rank as a miracle more than a surprise — but it does showcase Kevin James in his most appealing turn since 2005's Hitch. James has been a washout as a big-screen comedian — a plight that affects many performers who tether their careers to Adam Sandler's — but he exudes a natural sincerity that others in his field cannot, and Here Comes the Boom plays off that as much as it plays off his limited comic range. James stars as Scott Voss, a biology teacher who's crushed when he learns that school budget cuts will result in the axing of the music department and the termination of its inspirational head, Marty Streb (Henry Winkler). It will take $48,000 to save the extracurricular activity, but none of the teachers are willing to help out except for Voss and the school nurse, Bella Flores (Salma Hayek). Voss finally comes up with a plan: He'll raise the dough by becoming a mixed martial arts fighter, since even the bout losers come away with cash in their pockets. You can see where this is headed: Under the tutelage of his muscle-bound friend Niko (a likable turn by real-life MMA champ Bas Rutten), Voss becomes good enough to ascend to a nationally televised match. There's also some predictably tired gags involving foreigners attempting to become U.S. citizens, the usual heavily relayed message about chasing dreams, and the typical patriarchal-Hollywood fantasy that allows someone who looks like Kevin James to bag someone who looks like Salma Hayek. But although the movie is produced by Sandler's company and directed by Sandler flunkie Frank Coraci, it's refreshingly devoid of the crudity and stupidity that usually run rampant in these films. As a result, the movie's position on school cutbacks, despite being only surface-deep, seems heartfelt rather than cynical, and James is able to make audiences root for Voss and his mission. Here Comes the Boom never comes close to breaking the grip of mediocrity, but for his part, James at least is able to get off the mat.
DVD extras include deleted scenes; a piece on the cast; and a gag reel.
THE SEVEN-PER-CENT SOLUTION (1976). Before writing and/or directing three popular Star Trek movies (II, IV and VI, for those keeping score), Nicholas Meyer nabbed an Oscar nomination for adapting his own novel that could be readily summed up with one line: Sherlock Holmes meets Sigmund Freud. Not the unflappable detective portrayed by Basil Rathbone or Robert Downey Jr., this Sherlock (Nicol Williamson) is introduced in the throes of his cocaine addiction, ignoring the advice of Dr. Watson (an imaginatively cast Robert Duvall) to receive treatment and instead stalking a seemingly innocent professor named Moriarty (Laurence Olivier), a man he's convinced is a devious criminal mastermind. Watson and Sherlock's brother Mycroft (Charles Gray) finally manage to trick Sherlock into traveling to Vienna to subject himself to the care of Dr. Freud (Alan Arkin), who seeks not only to cure the great detective but also discover the secret buried in his past. First, though, Holmes and Drs. Watson and Freud must solve a kidnapping that involves glamorous actress Lola Deveraux (Vanessa Redgrave). The focus on Holmes' drug habit dominates the first hour, with the mystery only coming into play during the second half — the latter portion is certainly livelier, capped by an exciting skirmish on top of a moving train. John Addison contributes a fine score, while costume designer Alan Barrett was logically Oscar-nominated for his period attire. Three years later, Meyers wrote and directed Time After Time, which, like The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, offers a tidy summation: H.G. Wells meets Jack the Ripper.
The only Blu-ray extra is an interview with Meyer.
SLEEPER (1973) / HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (1986) / TO ROME WITH LOVE (2012). Here's an opportunity to catch Woody Allen, past and present. Or, if we want to get imaginative, Woody Allen, past, present and future.
It's perhaps hard for many to fathom now, but there once was a period when Allen's movies were reliable entities at the box office and generally turned a nice return on investment. That would be during the 1970s — indeed, an up-to-date list of the auteur's top 10 moneymakers reveals that an impressive five titles remain from that decade, even when not adjusted for inflation. One of that quintet is Sleeper, an often uproarious comedy with Woody Allen cast as Miles Monroe, a Greenwich Village resident who goes into the hospital for a minor procedure in 1973 and reawakens 200 years later. It's not a brave new world as much as an oppressive one, and Miles and a wealthy, wanna-be poet of the time, Luna Schlosser (Diane Keaton), both end up joining the resistance in order to overthrow the Orwellian government. The most physical of Allen's comedies, this finds the actor paying tribute to favorites like Bob Hope and the Marx Brothers, with many of the gags especially reminiscent of such silent-film stars as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin (and in his robot guise, he even looks like silent-cinema genius Harold Lloyd). This isn't to say the verbal cracks get short shrift: Targets include Howard Cosell, Richard Nixon ("They counted the silverware every time he left the White House"), Beverly Hills and, of course, sex (the Orgasmatron might be the greatest invention since the wheel). If nothing else, Sleeper will always contain the greatest slipping-on-a-banana-peel gag that will ever be committed to celluloid.
Until Midnight in Paris came along two years ago, Allen's biggest commercial hit was Hannah and Her Sisters, a masterpiece that's equaled only by Annie Hall as his greatest achievement. So beloved in its day that the jurists for the Pulitzer Prize pushed for its script even though it was written for a film instead of a play (unfortunately, the Pulitzer committee said no way), it's a witty and warmhearted piece that explores the lives of various members of a New York family. Hannah (Mia Farrow) is the oldest sister, married to Elliot (Michael Caine) and responsible in everything she does; Holly (Dianne Wiest) is the middle sibling, a reckless mess who constantly needs support; and Lee (Barbara Hershey) is the youngest, a demure beauty living with her bitter Svengali (Max von Sydow). Circling around their orbit is Mickey (Allen), Hannah's ex and a man who's convinced he's going to die soon. Everything is simply perfect in this motion picture: the performances (especially by Wiest, who swept the critics' awards for her smashing turn), the incisive screenplay (packed with typically hilarious quips, including a keeper involving the Ice Capades), the chance to catch rising stars in small roles (John Turturro, Julie Kavner, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Lewis Black, Richard Jenkins), the best employment of the expected oldie on the soundtrack (in this case, Harry James' "I've Heard That Song Before"), the inspired use of e.e. cummings ("nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands"), and the most romantic ending of all Allen films. Nominated for seven Academy Awards (including Best Picture), Hannah and Her Sisters won three: Best Supporting Actor (Caine), Best Supporting Actress (Wiest) and Best Original Screenplay (Allen).
Woody's 2011 hit Midnight in Paris earned him his first Oscar for Best Original Screenplay since Hannah and Her Sisters and set a new box office record for the auteur, so expectations were high for his follow-up effort. Alas, To Rome with Love tumbled back into the zone of mediocrity that has defined most of his movies since the late 1990s. Unlike his other episodically structured films in which characters and situations overlap, the stories here are independent of each other. All are also clumsily realized and find Allen drained of inspiration, although a few laughs can be found scattered along the way. Woody himself stars in one of the episodes, as a retired opera director who discovers a local mortician (real-life opera star Fabio Armiliato) with a golden voice. This plotline offers a bit more than the other three running throughout the picture: A young American student (Jesse Eisenberg) falls for the free-spirited friend (Ellen Page) of his own sweetheart (Greta Gerwig), against the advice of an omniscient architect (Alec Baldwin); an Italian clerk (Roberto Benigni) finds himself magically turned into a celebrity, complete with willing women in every bed and pouncing paparazzi around every corner; and a young groom (Alessandro Tiberi) accidentally gets mixed up with a prostitute (Penelope Cruz) while his wife (Alessandra Mastronardi) stumbles around lost in the big city.
There are no extras on the Blu-rays for Sleeper and Hannah and Her Sisters. DVD extras on To Rome with Love include a making-of featurette and the theatrical trailer.
Hannah and Her Sisters: ****
To Rome with Love: **
TWO-LANE BLACKTOP (1971). It was supposed to be the next Easy Rider, and Esquire declared it "the movie of the year" before it had even been released. Instead, Two-Lane Blacktop divided critics and was skipped by audiences, resulting in a hasty retreat from the moviegoing consciousness. Now, it's regarded as a minor classic by some, a quintessential American road movie by most, and a cult flick by all. Working from a screenplay by Rudy Wurlitzer and Will Corry, director Monte Hellman cast acting novices in three of the four central roles, a move that insured the only true thespian in the group would easily dominate the picture. That would be Warren Oates, delivering an excellent performance as G.T.O. (we never learn any of the characters' real names), a lonely soul who drives his 1970 Pontiac GTO aimlessly across the nation's highways. G.T.O.'s adversaries/allies on the road are The Driver and The Mechanic (played by two musicians, James Taylor and The Beach Boys' Dennis Wilson), whose one-dimensional lives revolve around the '55 Chevy which they enter in drag races from coast to coast. A hitchhiker known only as The Girl (17-year-old Laurie Bird, who would commit suicide eight years later) sleeps with both The Driver and The Mechanic, and G.T.O. enters into a cross-country race against them, but the two boys barely seem functional when their focus isn't on their prized automobile. An existential take on alienation, as well as a study of the American road as a way of life, Hellman's distancing but distinctive picture is a meditative piece that saves its best trick (the famous "burning film") for last.
Extras in the Blu-ray edition include audio commentary by Hellman and filmmaker Allison Anders; separate audio commentary by Wurlitzer and author David Meyer; interviews with Hellman, Taylor, Kris Kristofferson (who contributed "Me and Bobby McGee" to the soundtrack) and others; screen tests for Taylor and Bird; and a photographic look at the restoration of one of the '55 Chevys used in the film.