Film » View from the Couch

Aladdin, The Brood, Spartacus among new home entertainment titles

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

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(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.)

Aladdin (Photo: Disney)
  • Aladdin (Photo: Disney)

ALADDIN (1992). One of the early entries in the late-20th-century resurgence of the Disney animated feature (following 1989's The Little Mermaid and 1991's Beauty and the Beast), Aladdin finally makes its long-awaited Blu-ray debut in a digital transfer that's every bit as eye-popping as what played theaters over 20 years ago. Visually, this box office smash represents one of Disney's finest hours, with meticulously drawn characters and backdrops as well as a color palette that explodes off the screen. The humor quotient is high — for that, thank the duplicitous parrot Iago, the mischievous monkey Abu and, of course, Robin Williams' motormouth Genie — while the sinister vizier Jafar oozes the right measure of villainy. These rich supporting players help overcome the reality that the leads — spunky street urchin Aladdin and liberated Princess Jasmine — are a bit stiff, and that the song score by Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice is a mixed bag (two Oscar wins notwithstanding). Long before New Line mounted a futile campaign in an attempt to score an Oscar nomination for Andy Serkis' voice work as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Disney had tried likewise with Williams' vocal gymnastics in this picture. A nomination failed to materialize, but this nevertheless remains one of Williams' finest hours on film.

Blu-ray extras include a making-of documentary; four deleted songs and two deleted scenes; a discussion with co-directors John Musker and Ron Clements; a piece on the Broadway adaptation of Aladdin; outtakes from Williams' recording session as the Genie; and, for those so inclined, music videos of Aladdin tunes by the likes of Clay Aiken and Jessica Simpson.

Movie: ***1/2

The Brood (Photo: Criterion)
  • The Brood (Photo: Criterion)

THE BROOD (1979). The funniest review of David Cronenberg's The Brood is probably the shortest one, wherein Leonard Maltin (in his annual guide) assigns the movie a BOMB rating and writes, "[Samantha] Eggar eats her own afterbirth while midget clones beat grandparents and lovely young schoolteachers to death with mallets. It's a big, wide, wonderful world we live in!" Maltin was joined in his disdain by Roger Ebert, who awarded the picture one star, but they were countered by, among others, Steven H. Scheuer, who stated that it was close to being a "modern-day horror classic," and Danny Peary, who opined that it was "Cronenberg's best film, his one good film." All of which goes to show that few filmmakers have managed to remain as controversial throughout their careers as Cronenberg. I've seen The Brood a handful of times since first catching it theatrically as a teen, and while I certainly understand its status as a cult flick, its appeal continues to elude me. Like many of the director's early works, this one finds him obsessed with the manner in which the human body can break down and betray us in disgusting and even fatal fashion — here, the catalyst is Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed), whose work at his Psychoplasmic Institute centers around allowing his patients to manifest their inner rage in a physical manner. In the case of Nola Carveth (Eggar), this means producing a brood of murderous children who kill those who have upset her. As is often the case with Cronenberg, the intriguing subtext (in this case, the damage caused by divorce and the dubious benefits of psychology) is neutered by an amateurish and even risible storyline as well as inconsistent characters who make little sense.

Blu-ray extras include a making-of piece; an interview with Cronenberg; his 1970 film Crimes of the Future; and an irresistible 20-minute segment from a 1980 episode of The Merv Griffin Show, with Reed as one of the guests alongside Orson Welles and Charo.

Movie: **

Christine (Photo: Columbia)
  • Christine (Photo: Columbia)

CHRISTINE (1983). Among Stephen King's earliest bestsellers, it took Carrie two years to go from page to screen, four years for Salem's Lot to become a TV movie, three years for The Shining to hit theaters, and four years apiece before The Dead Zone and Firestarter received celluloid treatments. But Christine? The book was published on April 29, 1983, while the film version premiered on December 9, 1983. It isn't that Christine went through production (including pre- and post-) in a mere seven months — rather, it was that King was so nuclear-hot during this period, no one bothered to wait for the hardback to appear on shelves before busying themselves with a movie version. Behind the wheel of this adaptation are director John Carpenter and scripter Bill Phillips, offering up a seriocomedy about high school life as much as a horror movie about a killer car. Keith Gordon stars as Arnie Cunningham, a social outcast whose only friend is popular jock and all-around nice guy Dennis Guilder (John Stockwell). A chance sighting of a 1958 Plymouth Fury that's for sale changes Arnie's life: Obsessed with this car that was named Christine by its previous owner, he purchases the vehicle and instantly undergoes a transformation, shucking his nerd status for a new identity as a self-centered and casually cruel bad boy. As for Arnie's tormenters, they soon become victims of the demonic Christine's road rage. Relatively artless when compared to several other King adaptations around the time (Brian De Palma's Carrie, Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone) or even with Carpenter's previous picture (1982's career-best The Thing), the film still delivers the goods as entertainment, thanks to committed performances from the cast and some nifty effects work.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Carpenter and Gordon; behind-the-scenes featurettes; and a half-hour of deleted scenes.

Movie: ***

Lee Marvin (far left), James Stewart and John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Photo: Warner & Paramount)
  • Lee Marvin (far left), James Stewart and John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Photo: Warner & Paramount)

THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962) / ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ (1979) / WITNESS (1985) / KISS THE GIRLS (1997) / ALONG CAME A SPIDER (2001) / TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE (2004). First, the good news: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment has graciously brought six popular films produced by Paramount Pictures to Blu-ray. Now for the bad: Without exception, the outfit failed to transport any of the extra features found on Paramount's DVDs of the same titles. Peter Bogdanovich's audio commentary on The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance? Not here. The five-part making-of documentary on Witness? Nope. Those outtakes on Team America: World Police? Forget it. At least the price is right: Each picture retails at $14.98, with many sites offering them for under $10 a pop.

Merely one of the greatest Westerns ever made, John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a genuine masterpiece, notable for (among other attributes) the immortal line, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." James Stewart plays a civilized tenderfoot trying to hold his own in the Wild West, John Wayne co-stars as the macho gunslinger who helps from time to time, and Lee Marvin provides gritty villainy as the sadistic Liberty Valance.

During its 29 years in operation (1934-1963), the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary in San Francisco Bay only allowed one successful escape, and that 1962 breakout is brought to dramatic life in Escape from Alcatraz. Working with director Don Siegel for the fifth and final time, Clint Eastwood plays convict Frank Morris, who teams up with a handful of other men (including one played by Fred Ward in his first significant role) as they plot how to pull off their great escape.

Harrison Ford in Witness (Photo: Warner & Paramount)
  • Harrison Ford in Witness (Photo: Warner & Paramount)

Peter Weir's exceptionally fine Witness finds Harrison Ford earning his first (and, so far, only) Best Actor Oscar nomination as John Book, a Philadelphia detective who retreats into the Amish community to protect a widow (Kelly McGillis) and her young son (Lukas Haas) from corrupt cops. Maurice Jarre's score is a standout, and the scene in which Ford and McGillis dance to "(What a) Wonderful World" is a classic moment of movie romance. Nominated for eight Academy Awards (including Best Picture), the movie earned statues for Best Original Screenplay and Best Film Editing.

Years before Tyler Perry played Alex Cross in 2012's 10 Worst entry Alex Cross, Morgan Freeman did a far better job of essaying the role of the intuitive detective (from James Patterson's bestselling novels) in the modest box office hits Kiss the Girls and Along Came a Spider. Kiss the Girls finds Cross searching for a mysterious figure who has snatched a number of young women (including his niece); he gets a break when one of the victims (Ashley Judd) escapes with vital information that will help him in his investigation. Along Came a Spider pits Cross against a psychopath (Michael Wincott) who hopes to emulate the Lindberg-Hauptmann "crime of the century" by kidnapping a senator's daughter. Predictability damages Girls while plotholes cripple Spider, but Girls offers more entertainment value thanks to an appropriately menacing atmosphere and a strong role for Judd.

South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone attempt to offend everyone with Team America: World Police, cast entirely with marionettes as super-macho warriors willing to destroy the world in order to stop a terrorist threat. Juvenile? Sure. Funny? Certainly — though not nearly as often as one might reasonably expect from these guys. The comic highlights are punched across at regular intervals, but once the novelty wears off, the movie has trouble sustaining its length — or its level of outrageousness.

As noted above, there are no extras on the Blu-rays.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: ****

Escape from Alcatraz: ***

Witness: ***1/2

Kiss the Girls: **1/2

Along Came a Spider: **

Team America: World Police: **1/2

RJ Cyler, Nick Offerman and Thomas Mann in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Photo: Fox)
  • RJ Cyler, Nick Offerman and Thomas Mann in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Photo: Fox)

ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL (2015). "Me" is Greg (Thomas Mann), a high school student who prefers to march to his own beat and not become too close to anyone. Earl is, well, Earl (RJ Cyler), tagged a "co-worker" by Greg but really his only true friend. And the dying girl is Rachel (Olivia Cooke), who's been diagnosed with leukemia and spends much of her remaining time with Greg, who has struck up a hesitant friendship with her. That's the general thrust of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, the sort of well-acted, well-written but self-consciously hip seriocomedy that can't help but win prizes at international film festivals. This one, in fact, struck gold twice at Sundance, winning both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award as the festival's best feature film. It's easy to see its appeal, with moviegoers able to identify with its teen protagonists and critics charmed by the fact that Greg and Earl make home movies that are riffs on classic pieces of cinema (e.g. Senior Citizen Cane, Anatomy of a Burger — but shame on them for ruining Nicolas Roeg's brilliant Don't Look Now with a spoiler spoof title). The picture often overcomes its twee approach with good-natured humor, and all three young actors deliver bright performances. Clearly, the fault isn't in the stars but in a storyline that focuses on Greg at the expense of two equally interesting characters who often feel more like moons circling Greg's planet than fully defined people in their own right. This charming film could use more of Earl and the dying girl; instead, it's all about Me, Me, Me.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon; making-of featurettes; deleted scenes; a chat between Gomez-Rejon and Martin Scorsese; and a look at the parody titles.

Movie: **1/2

Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera (Photo: Kino)
  • Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera (Photo: Kino)

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925). One of the landmarks of silent cinema, this adaptation of Gaston Leroux's novel was also the film that firmly cemented Lon Chaney's standing as a superstar as well as set the stage for Universal Pictures to continue producing definitive horror classics throughout the 1930s and 1940s. If it wasn't quite the match of the fright fests that were being made over in Europe during this decade (Nosferatu, Haxan), it was certainly one of the most epic American undertakings this side of D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille, with the Paris Opera and surrounding streets beautifully recreated on the studio lot and populated with that literal cast of thousands. There have been over a dozen screen versions of the story, but not one of the subsequent actors to essay the role of the Phantom — among them Robert Englund and Gerard Butler — came close to matching Chaney's brilliant portrayal. (Best among the runners-up was Claude Rains in the 1943 interpretation, largely playing up the tragic rather than horrific dimensions of the character.) Chaney, who also created his own makeup, is mesmerizing as Erik, the disfigured underground dweller who won't let anything stand in the way of his love for a singer named Christine (Mary Philbin). The picture suffers whenever Chaney's not around, but his string of remarkable sequences — including his unmasking at the organ and his entrance at the costume ball — make up for any shortcomings.

Kino Classics' new Blu-ray contains three versions of the film: the 1925 edition (114 minutes) and two speeds of the 1929 reissue (92 minutes and 78 minutes). There are also excerpts from the 1930 reissue with sound. Extras include audio commentary on one of the 1929 versions by film historian (and NC State grad) Jon C. Mirsalis; the complete film script; and two short travelogues (Paris from a Motor and A Trip on the Seine) showing life in Paris in 1925.

Movie: ***1/2

Carla Gugino and Dwayne Johnson in San Andreas (Photo: Warner)
  • Carla Gugino and Dwayne Johnson in San Andreas (Photo: Warner)

SAN ANDREAS (2015). San Andreas features an earthquake that measures 9.8 on the Richter scale, but on the cinematic scale, the film itself only rates a 5 or 6. That's actually not too bad a number, considering the dismal quality of most of the similar shake 'n' bake duds that pass our way, whether fantasy-based (Battle Los Angeles), history-based (Pompeii) or imbecility-based (2012). San Andreas, which basically pits The Rock against tons of rocks, casts Dwayne Johnson as Ray, an LA-based search-and-rescue helicopter pilot, while Paul Giamatti (lending necessary gravitas) plays Lawrence Hayes, a seismologist whose research reveals that a gargantuan earthquake is set to hit California. Sure enough, disaster wallops the West Coast, and it's up to Ray to save his wife (Carla Gugino) and daughter (Alexandra Daddario). The 1974 all-star effort Earthquake is notorious for the casting of 52-year-old Ava Gardner as 59-year-old Lorne Greene's daughter, so rest assured there's nothing that daft in this picture. The actors play their likable characters with conviction, making it easy to sympathize with their plight, and the special effects are consistently excellent. But after about an hour, the picture hits a brick wall, settling into a measured routine that grows tedious. How many times does a character smile and relax, believing he or she is out of danger, only to be faced with another crisis within milliseconds? (It's this film's equivalent of the horror film trope wherein a cat suddenly leaps into the frame, scaring the protagonist but boring the viewer.) And as the mayhem grows more monumental and the rescues more outlandish, the film loses much of its initial personality and settles into standard-issue CGI chaos. Still, there's enough wholesale destruction that FX junkies might return for more.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director Brad Peyton; behind-the-scenes featurettes; deleted scenes; and a stunt reel.

Movie: **1/2

Kirk Douglas in Spartacus (Photo: Universal)
  • Kirk Douglas in Spartacus (Photo: Universal)

SPARTACUS (1960). An epic that engages the intellect as well as the eyes and the emotions, this classic stars Kirk Douglas as the title figure, a slave who ends up leading his fellow captives against their Roman oppressors shortly before the time of Christ. There's much to admire on the screen yet even more to admire behind the scenes: Douglas, also the film's executive producer, hired screenwriter Dalton Trumbo to adapt Howard Fast's novel, a brave move given that Trumbo was one of the victims of the heinous Hollywood blacklist. But with this bold gesture, Douglas effectively helped end the blacklist, and Trumbo forged a script that bore more than a passing resemblance to the oppressive events occurring in America. Spartacus also marked the only time director Stanley Kubrick did not enjoy complete control on a project, leading to him distancing himself from the picture over the ensuing years. Yet what's on view is rousing material, with not only the action scenes delivering the goods but also the numerous sequences focusing on Roman politicizing as well as the love story between Spartacus and the strong-willed servant Varinia (Jean Simmons). With his heavy Bronx accent, Tony Curtis is more earnest than accurate as Antoninus, "duh singah of sawngs," but the other cast members are excellent, particularly Charles Laughton as the shrewd Roman council member Gracchus, Laurence Olivier (exuding white-collar wickedness) as Roman leader Crassus and scene-stealing Peter Ustinov as the droll slave trader Batiatus. Nominated for six Academy Awards, this won four: Best Supporting Actor (Ustinov), Cinematography, Art Direction-Set Decoration and Costume Design.

Extras on the newly restored Blu-ray edition include a new interview with Douglas; archival interviews with Simmons and Ustinov; a piece on the restoration; five vintage newsreels; and five image galleries.

Movie: ***1/2

George Clooney, Britt Robertson and Raffey Cassidy in Tomorrowland (Photo: Disney)
  • George Clooney, Britt Robertson and Raffey Cassidy in Tomorrowland (Photo: Disney)

TOMORROWLAND (2015). This colossal flop is full of up-with-people messages and liberal ideals and progressive viewpoints — all good stuff, especially when being turned into policies by politicians. But on the screen, such stances need to be organically woven into the fabric of the piece; otherwise, you end up with a heavy-handed, preachy screed. You end up with Tomorrowland. The title refers to a magical place hidden from view from most of the world, a futuristic realm that can only be accessed by those who have been given a special pin by a young girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy). Young Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) receives such a pin at the 1964 World's Fair, as does Casey Newton (Charlotte native Britt Robertson) in the present day. Both have been chosen because of their hopes for a brighter future, but over the decades, Frank (now played by George Clooney) has become disillusioned, and it's up to Casey and Athena to bring him around and in the process save the world from ... Well, I won't spoil it, but let's just say this is the sort of movie in which a discussion of global warming plays a supporting role and the senselessness of Hollywood movies and video games receives its obligatory culture-war spanking. Tomorrowland is belligerently in-your-face with its intentions, dissolving into a final third that becomes unbearably didactic — this soap box stance would be easier to take if it were in the service of an engaging film, but even on a basic storytelling level, it too often fails, particularly in its surface examination of Tomorrowland itself. Indeed, for a movie ostensibly about imagination and wonder, the entire project has an empty, mechanical feel about it.

Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; deleted scenes; a chat with writer-director Brad Bird; a piece on Michael Giacchino's score; and an animated short about the origins of Tomorrowland.

Movie: **

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