(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.)
Bradley Cooper in American Sniper (Photo: Warner Bros.)
AMERICAN SNIPER (2014). By far the weakest of the eight 2014 nominees for the Best Picture Academy Award, American Sniper relates the story of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), a U.S. Navy Seal shooter famous (infamous?) for recording more kills than anyone else in American military history (160 confirmed, another 95 probable). Despite director Clint Eastwood's own conservative leanings, the filmmaker can hardly be dismissed as a knee-jerk chickenhawk or rambling right-wing tool (well, aside from that Razzie-worthy bit opposite an empty chair at the RNC), and his films have over the decades served as an intriguing — and evolving — treatise on issues of gun violence and hero worship, beginning with the hardline stylings of Dirty Harry through the revisionist politics of Unforgiven through the startlingly progressive stance of Gran Torino. Unfortunately, American Sniper adds nothing new to this conversation — more so since it comes on the heels of more accomplished "over there" efforts like Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker — and while Eastwood and scripter Jason Hall take some care in muddying the morality at play, they still err on the side of sainthood in painting their portrait of Chris Kyle, a man whose more tasteless actions and comments have been scrubbed from this biopic. In one sense, that doesn't matter, as fictionalizations never claim to be carved-in-stone documentaries — nor should they be. It's just interesting that in an awards season in which the far superior Selma was gleefully dragged through the mud, any whispers about this film's inaccuracies were underreported by a cowed U.S. media afraid of the right-wing hit machine (as Lindy West reported in her Guardian piece titled "The real Chris Kyle was a hate-filled killer. Why are simplistic patriots treating him as a hero?," which naturally had to run in a non-U.S. paper, conservative goobers immediately suggested that anyone who said anything remotely bad about Chris Kyle or the film deserved to be waterboarded and beheaded). American Sniper features a solid turn by Cooper and a few sequences that pack a visceral kick, but a little more complexity would have allowed the picture to score a more direct hit. Nominated for six Oscars (including Best Actor), this won for Best Sound Editing.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette and the piece One Soldier's Story: The Journey of American Sniper.
Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robert De Niro in Flawless (Photo: Olive Films)
FLAWLESS (1999). Mining similar territory as 1997's As Good As It Gets, Flawless is instead an example of as bad as it might be. Robert De Niro, at that point in his career when he began seriously mugging for paychecks rather than acting for honors, stars as Walt Koontz, an ultraconservative cop who hates "faggots" with a passion. One of his neighbors in his New York apartment building is Rusty (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a flamboyant drag queen who reluctantly helps Walt after the older man suffers a debilitating stroke. Flawless lays the groundwork for a moving character study, but writer-director Joel Schumacher (The Lost Boys, Batman & Robin) merely serves up a monotonous exercise in pride and prejudice, as Walt and Rusty try to work out their differences while simultaneously attempting to come to terms with their own flawed bodies (Walt's stroke has left him largely paralyzed while Rusty can't wait to save enough money for a sex change operation). The tedium of these repetitive sequences is broken only by a nonsensical subplot involving stolen drug money. While true to the character and his partial paralysis, De Niro suffers in that we often can't understand huge chunks of his dialogue; meanwhile, Hoffman (who delivered far greater performances in his other 1999 films, The Talented Mr. Ripley and Magnolia) speaks in a swishy slur that ends up rendering much of his dialogue unintelligible as well. Eventually, the only thing that does come through loud and clear is Schumacher's inability to get us involved with this plump turkey.
The only extra on the Blu-ray is the theatrical trailer.
Paul Newman and Diane Cilento in Hombre (Photo: Twilight Time)
HOMBRE (1967). While a few revisionist Westerns had trickled out of Hollywood during the 1950s, it wasn't until the late '60s that this subgenre largely became an entity unto itself, with a key component being the manner in which Native Americans were now treated sympathetically rather than merely as bloodthirsty savages mowed down by heroic cowboys. Arthur Penn's 1970 Little Big Man and Kevin Costner's 1990 Dances with Wolves are the best films in this vein, but this adaptation of Elmore Leonard's 1961 novel deserves at least an honorable mention. Paul Newman plays John Russell, a white man who was raised by Apaches, eventually got "rescued" by his own kind, and then decided he preferred the Native American lifestyle and returned to the fold. Business brings him back to the so-called civilized world, and he's soon sharing a stagecoach with a disparate mix of people: the strong-willed Jessie (Diane Cilento), the wealthy bigots Mr. and Mrs. Favor (Fredric March and Barbara Rush), the unhappily married young couple Billy Lee (Peter Lazer) and Doris (Margaret Blye), the bullying Cicero Grimes (Richard Boone) and the Mexican driver Mendez (Martin Balsam). The disgust of the others toward Russell's tainted status soon becomes apparent -- only Jessie and Mendez treat him with respect -- but after the stagecoach is robbed and Mrs. Favor is kidnapped, everyone turns to him for protection and leadership. The first hour, which leisurely sets up the various character dynamics, is excellent; the second (post-robbery) part feels more conventional but still retains its edge, at least until a wholly unsatisfying (if thematically sound) conclusion. Boone could always convey menace with just one glance, and he's in his imposing element here; still, MVP honors go to Cilento, wonderful as a no-nonsense frontier woman who's as brave as she is conscientious.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historians Lee Pfeiffer and Paul Scrabo; the theatrical trailer; and an isolated track of David Rose's score.
Ray Corrigan in It! The Terror from Beyond Space (Photo: Olive Films)
IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE (1958). An alien creature, running loose on a spaceship heading toward Earth, begins picking off the crew members one by one. And all these years, here you were thinking that the sci-fi classic Alien was a complete original. Indeed, It! The Terror from Beyond Space has long been acknowledged as a primary inspiration for Ridley Scott's 1979 hit, and despite being hampered by a low budget and lackluster direction by Edward L. Cahn, it's an effective thriller in its own right. Col. Carruthers (Marshall Thompson) is the only survivor from the first manned expedition to Mars, and it's assumed by the crew members of the second voyage that he murdered his fellow astronauts in order to make the supplies last longer. Even as he's being transported back to Earth to face criminal charges, Carruthers insists that the others were killed by a Martian monster; most of his rescuers firmly believe in his guilt, but they soon realize their error when the creature sneaks aboard the craft while a door is open (shades of Aliens rather than Alien) and remains in hiding until it's ready to start eliminating its prey. "It" was played by Ray "Crash" Corrigan, and this proved to be the final screen credit for the prolific stuntman, "B" movie cowboy star, and Hollywood's go-to guy for playing gorillas (since he owned his own ape costumes). Sharp-eyed cineastes might peg the suit for Corrigan's antagonistic extraterrestrial as a creation of Paul Blaisdell, the '50s visual effects expert whose sizable imagination was often compromised by threadbare budgets (often on Roger Corman features like It Conquered the World and Day the World Ended). Even with its rubber roots, the alien in this picture is memorable, and Cahn's often leaden style can't completely neutralize the tense standoffs between humans and humanoid.
The only extra on the Blu-ray is the theatrical trailer.
Charles Laughton and Maureen O'Hara in Jamaica Inn (Photo: Cohen Film Collection)
JAMAICA INN (1939). In his excellent book The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, author Donald Spoto quotes The Master as stating, "Jamaica Inn was an absurd thing to undertake." Certainly, this adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's novel contains little of the style we're used to seeing in Hitchcock's celebrated thrillers, an interesting point since his other du Maurier efforts, 1940's Rebecca and 1963's The Birds, are acknowledged classics that showcase his skills to tremendous effect. Yet despite Hitchcock's own indifference toward the project, the film became a box office hit and today deserves a footnote as the last movie the director made in his native England before heading to the U.S. for a brilliant Hollywood career. Its chief point of interest is Charles Laughton, who delivers a highly amusing performance that nevertheless probably ran counter to Hitchcock's presumed desire to crank out a suspenseful thriller. Laughton (who also served as an uncredited producer) stars as Sir Humphrey Pengallan, the jovial justice of the peace for a Cornish community in the early 19th century. What few know is that the honorable Pengallan is also the shadowy figure backing a group of murderous cutthroats who deliberately cause shipwrecks on their shores in order to steal the cargo. Into this den of sin comes Mary (Maureen O'Hara), an Irish lass who arrives to stay with her thieving uncle (Leslie Banks) and kind aunt (Marie Ney) at the Jamaica Inn; her eavesdropping makes her a target of the hoodlums, more so after she saves a lowlife (Robert Newton) who's more than he initially appears. O'Hara, who earned an Honorary Academy Award for her body of work just this year (at the age of 94!), is fine in her first significant screen role, while celebrated playwright and actor Emlyn Williams displays roguish charm as Harry, the gang member sporting the high hat and the low morals. As for Laughton, he's a playful presence, and he would reteam with Hitchcock in a more serious vein for the 1947 courtroom drama The Paradine Case.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film scholar Jeremy Arnold; a video essay by aforementioned Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto; and the 2014 re-release trailer.
Willem Dafoe and Gene Hackman in Mississippi Burning (Photo: Twilight Time)
MISSISSIPPI BURNING (1988). Admittedly, the controversy surrounding last year's Selma paled in comparison to the hostile reception that greeted Alan Parker's Mississippi Burning upon its initial release. Perhaps second only to Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ as the 1988 release to appear the most frequently on newspaper op-ed pages, this firebrand of a film starts from historical tragedy and then spins off in its own direction, the most dubious sidestep being its treatment of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI as a pivotal and heroic ingredient of the Civil Rights Movement. Yet as cinema, this is an electrifying watch, and its fudging of the facts never gets in the way of its sturdy liberal politics — or the simple cathartic pleasure of watching Gene Hackman deal with racist "shit-kickers." Hackman delivers what might be his greatest performance — yes, even with The French Connection, The Conversation, Night Moves, Unforgiven and oh-so-many-more on his resume — and should have taken the Best Actor Oscar over his former roommate, Rain Man's Dustin Hoffman. He's sensational as Rupert Anderson, an FBI agent who's sent to a backward Mississippi town in 1964 to investigate the disappearance of three civil rights workers (though not identified by name in the movie, the three murdered men were James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner). While Anderson hails from Mississippi and is OK with bending the law to achieve results, his partner, Alan Ward (Willem Dafoe), is a Northerner and prefers to do everything by the book. Their methods are radically different, but they're united in their desire to nail everyone responsible, from the complicit cops (Brad Dourif, Gailard Sartain) to the local head of the Ku Klux Klan (Stephen Tobolowsky). Dafoe's performance comes into sharper relief when one realizes his other role in 1988 was as Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ, but this is Hackman's picture all the way — he's terrific, whether squaring off against the most brutal of the racists (Michael Rooker), annoying Ward with his folksy humor, or tenderly striking up a friendship with the unhappy wife (an excellent Frances McDormand) of the despicable deputy played by Dourif. Nominated for seven Academy Awards — in addition to Hackman, other nods included Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actress (McDormand) — this won its solitary Oscar for Best Cinematography (Peter Biziou).
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by Parker; the theatrical trailer; and an isolated track of Trevor Jones' score.
Craig T. Nelson and Rutger Hauer in The Osterman Weekend (Photo: Anchor Bay)
THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND (1983). By the time he was given a chance to direct this adaptation of the best-selling novel by Robert Ludlum (The Bourne Identity), the legendary Sam Peckinpah was a Hollywood has-been, a booze-and-drug-addled director whose last feature had been the awful hee-haw romp Convoy back in 1978 (click here for the recent review). To say that Peckinpah ended his career on a high note (he died in 1984, at the age of 59) would be an outrageous lie: The Osterman Weekend is a complete (albeit watchable) mess, a muddled thriller for which Peckinpah seemed far more interested in shooting risible action sequences and exposing the bare breasts of all his actresses than in relating a coherent story or getting the most out of his impressive cast (not surprisingly, he was finally fired from the project, with the producers cutting the film themselves). Following his breakthrough turn as Roy Batty in Blade Runner, Rutger Hauer headlines as John Tanner, a controversial TV news host who's informed by a troubled CIA agent (John Hurt) and his duplicitous boss (Burt Lancaster) that his three closest friends — TV producer Bernard Osterman (Craig T. Nelson), doctor Richard Tremayne (Dennis Hopper) and financier Joseph Cardone (Chris Sarandon) — are in fact Russian spies, and that it's his patriotic duty to expose them during a weekend get-together. Most of the actors are wasted, although Hurt and Nelson have their moments, and Hauer and Meg Foster (as Tanner's wife) both wield a mean crossbow.
Anchor Bay's two-disc DVD version from 2004 contained not only the 102-minute theatrical version but also Peckinpah's preferred two-hour edit. Oddly, that director's cut is missing from this Blu-ray release, meaning completists and the movie's fans will have to decide which edition — the Blu-ray or the DVD — is more suited for their home library. Extras on this Blu-ray release include audio commentary by Peckinpah scholars Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle; the feature-length documentary Alpha to Omega: Exposing The Osterman Weekend; and the theatrical trailer.