ABSENCE OF MALICE (1981). If 1970s cinema was uncharacteristically kind toward the media — toppling Nixon from his perch would understandably generate such warm'n'fuzzy feelings — the 80s offerings frequently proved to be less charitable toward members of the Fourth Estate. Therefore, projects like The Parallax View and All the President's Men gave way to movies like The Right Stuff, which portrayed reporters as shameless hucksters, and Absence of Malice, which indicted journalism's untouchable attitude. Written by former reporter Kurt Luedtke, this intelligent and emotionally charged drama charts the tensions and tragedies that arise when Miami Standard reporter Megan Carter (Sally Field) is fed misleading information by an unscrupulous government employee (Bob Balaban) hoping to crack a case involving a missing union leader. The Standard prints Carter's story, which erroneously states that Michael Gallagher (Paul Newman), an honest liquor salesman who just happens to have family members in the Mob, is under investigation by the Justice Department. The scandal all but destroys Gallagher's business as well as upsets his already unstable best friend (Melinda Dillon), but although it initially appears as if all involved parties are protected — journalists and bureaucrats alike — Gallagher devises a way to take everyone down while clearing his name. Crisply directed by the frequently underrated Sydney Pollack, this features sterling star turns by Newman and Field, although it's Wilford Brimley, turning up during the final act as a high-ranking official who doles out proper justice, who owns this film. A decent-sized box office hit, this earned three major Oscar nominations, for Best Actor (Newman), Supporting Actress (Dillon) and Original Screenplay.
Blu-ray extras consist of a half-hour behind-the-scenes piece and one deleted sequence.
LITTLE BIG MAN (1970). Director Arthur Penn's excellent adaptation of Thomas Berger's novel is one of the great films of the early 1970s, anticipating Forrest Gump in the manner in which it centers on a decent man who meets several notable figures while taking a volatile journey through a thorny chapter in American history. Dustin Hoffman stars as Jack Crabbe, an elderly man who reflects on his experiences as a young boy raised by Indians, a naive youth educated by whites, an adult who returns to live with his Native American brothers, and, finally, a survivalist engaged in a deadly contest of wills with the demented George Custer (Richard Mulligan). The movie has a wicked sense of humor that's mixed with the drama, although it's still tough to watch the scenes in which Americans slaughter innocent non-whites (admittedly, one of the things this nation still does best). The then-33-year-old Hoffman delivers a towering performance in the lead role, aging from 17(!) to 121 years old (Dick Smith of The Exorcist fame designed his excellent makeup). As Crabbe's adopted father, a saintly sage constantly muttering, "It's a good day to die," Chief Dan George earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination after nabbing awards from the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.
The only extra on the Blu-ray is the theatrical trailer.
MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: THE ATOMIC BRAIN (1993) / MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: THE TOUCH OF SATAN (1998). Released prior to Halloween were these two MST3K "treats" from the Shout! Factory team; the "trick" was on Joel Hodgson diehards, since both episodes feature Mike Nelson.
The 1964 monstrosity The Atomic Brain was, in fact, initially called Monstrosity before it underwent a name change at some point during the ensuing years. The latter title at least narrows down (albeit not by much) the movie's focus, since it deals with an elderly woman who, with the help of a pathetic, lecherous scientist, plots to have her brain placed inside the body of a nubile young woman. She invites three foreign ladies to her mansion under the guise of a job opportunity, but once the brain of a cat gets placed into one of them, the other two surmise that there's something fishy going on. The movie's awful, of course, although I did repeatedy chuckle at Michigan actress Judy Bamber's attempts to sound British — she's about as convincing as Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (or, as the 'Bots note, Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins). As for the episode, it's perfectly serviceable, rarely reaching any highs but producing constant laughs throughout.
The Satellite of Love crew's takedown of the 1971 yarn The Touch of Satan is a better bet, although, aside from Crow's naughty crack involving "peanuts," the most (unintentionally) uproarious gag might be on the box cover art, where the film's poster reveals that a critic for the LA Free Press stated that "The Touch of Satan makes Rosemary's Baby look like a Sunday school picnic!" (Clearly, quote whores are not a modern phenomenom.) But this episode comes charging out of the gate, with the title alone prompting Mike to quip, "The Touch of Satan softens your hands while you do the dishes." The plot revolves around a wandering doofus who lands on a walnut ranch and falls for a young woman who turns out to be a witch. Ample TV shows (The Dukes of Hazzard, The Andy Griffith Show, etc.) are dragged kicking and screaming into the wisecracks lobbed by Mike and company, while the most obscure reference might belong to the seen-by-only-a-handful-of-us 1987 film Amazing Grace and Chuck (which managed to team Gregory Peck and NBA superstar Alex English). Plus, there's a sustained running gag in which the gang take exception to the interminable ... pauses ... during ... the ... actors' ... exchanges.
There are no extras on the DVDs.
MST3K: The Atomic Brain: ***
MST3K: The Touch of Satan: ***1/2
SNOW FLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN (2011). Wayne Wang is perhaps best known for directing the lovely screen adaptation of The Joy Luck Club, but there's no joy to be found anywhere in the stately, stodgy Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Based on the novel by Lisa See, this attempts to draw parallels between twin tales set in 19th-century China and contemporary China. In the period portion, Snow Flower (Gianna Jun) and Lily (Li Bingbing) are chosen by their families to be "laotong" — basically, soulmates — and they struggle to hold onto this friendship during tough times. The modern-day material finds two Shanghai BFFs, Sophia (also Jun) and Nina (also Li), similarly doing their best to retain their special kinship despite all manner of outside complications. Wang directs with a painterly eye, but the end result is basically a still life, full of beauty but inert nonetheless. The awkward performances by the two Asian actresses are unfortunate — just one reason the English should have been seen (via subtitles), not heard — although Hugh Jackman drops by to liven things up as an Aussie who owns a Shanghai nightclub. Jackman even performs a splashy musical number (in Chinese!), reminding us that, after this year's Franco-Hathaway debacle — and depending on how Eddie Murphy fares as host next year — the Academy might want to pluck his number out of the Rolodex and offer him a return engagement.
Blu-ray extras consist of a half-hour making-of featurette and the theatrical trailer.
WATER FOR ELEPHANTS (2011). This adaptation of Sara Gruen's mammoth bestseller manages to be tasteful, mature, and even on occasion insightful. But that can only take a movie so far when there's no one around to constantly fan those flames of literary respect into something inherently, pulsatingly cinematic. Robert Pattinson, best known for Twilight, and Reese Witherspoon, not especially known for Twilight (but in a Trivial Pursuit aside, she did star alongside Paul Newman and Susan Sarandon in a 1998 movie with that name), respectively play Jacob and Marlena. He's an orphaned vet-school dropout who winds up landing a gig looking after the animals (including a soulful pachyderm named Rosie) at a ramshackle circus; she's the big top's main attraction, as well as the wife of the quick-tempered owner, August (Christoph Waltz). August is already sadistic enough, but when he notices an attraction growing between his wife and this newcomer, his rage becomes even more pronounced, resulting in a jealous fit that threatens to destroy not only the lovebirds but the circus itself. Waltz's ringleader is almost as heinous as his Nazi in Inglourious Basterds (for which he won an Oscar), but the actor's excellent performance keeps his character from deteriorating into a buffoonish villain. He far outclasses the two stars, whose lack of chemistry undermines the love story that rests at the film's center. Visually, the picture is exquisite — the art direction by Terrence Malick regular Jack Fisk and camerawork by Brokeback Mountain cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto immerse us so thoroughly in the circus world that we almost smell the sawdust (though thankfully not the elephant dung) — but emotionally, it proves to be as airy and insubstantial as cotton candy.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Francis Lawrence and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese; two behind-the-scenes featurettes totaling 28 minutes; a 10-minute piece on Tai, the elephant who plays Rosie; a 3-minute piece on Witherspoon; a 4-minute piece on Pattinson; a 9-minute short on adapting the book to screen; and a 23-minute look at the film's visual effects.