(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what's new on Blu-ray and DVD.)
DJANGO, THEN AND NOW: The original screen Django, Franco Nero (right), chats with the new screen Django, Jamie Foxx, in Django Unchained. (Photo: Anchor Bay)
DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012). Exciting. Funny. Gratuitous. Inflammatory. Insensitive. Stylish. Stupid. Sophisticated. Grab any adjective out of a hat and chances are it will apply to Django Unchained, writer-director Quentin Tarantino's messy mashup of the Western and the blaxploitation flick, with other conventions tossed into the mix like so much seasoning. Set shortly before the start of the Civil War, this stars Jamie Foxx as the title character, a slave who's rescued by a bounty hunter going by the name Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Schultz, a German who abhors slavery, needs Django's help in tracking down some ornery varmints; for his part, Django requires Schultz's aid in rescuing his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the sadistic plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Steeped in violence, the movie overcomes its excessive tendencies with a marvelous first half that follows Django and Schultz on the road. It's when the film reaches Candie's plantation that it drops off considerably, largely due to less dramatic tension as well as an unconvincing performance by Samuel L. Jackson as Candie's trusted house slave (while the other actors at least make some attempt at period verisimilitude, Jackson sounds as contempo as he did in Jackie Brown and Pulp Fiction). On balance, though, Django Unchained is fine entertainment, full of memorable performances (Waltz is excellent), great cameos by personalities forgotten by everyone except Tarantino (e.g. Lee Horsley, TV's Matt Houston back in the '80s; Franco Nero, the original Django in the 1966 movie), and crackerjack set-pieces (the sequence with Don Johnson's Big Daddy leading a charge of bumbling racists is pure comic gold). Nominated for five Academy Awards (including Best Picture), this box office smash won two: Best Supporting Actor for Waltz (his second for a Tarantino film, following Inglourious Basterds) and Best Original Screenplay for Tarantino.
Blu-ray extras include featurettes on the production design by the late J. Michael Riva and the costume designs by Sharen Davis; a piece on the stuntwork; and plugs for the movie's soundtrack and The Tarantino XX Blu-ray Collection.
Sean Penn in Gangster Squad (Photo: Warner Bros.)
GANGSTER SQUAD (2013). Is it professional laziness to dismiss Gangster Squad with the simple declaration that it's nothing more than a dim-witted cross between L.A. Confidential and The Untouchables? Perhaps, but such an action is still nowhere near as lazy as those exhibited by the makers of this lackluster crime meller, which poorly cribs from so many previous — and better — movies that the end result suggests Sarah Palin attempting to digest speaking points from Stephen Hawking. Set in 1949 Los Angeles, the picture, which claims to be "based on a true story" but turns out to be as authentic as The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas, finds William Parker (Nick Nolte), the city's controversial chief of police (who didn't actually obtain the post until a year after the movie's setting, but never mind), deciding that the best way to stop gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) from taking over the entire city is to organize an elite team to work outside the law in an attempt to bring him down. The crew hits every demographic for today's all-embracive audience: the workaholic team leader (Josh Brolin), the wisecracking heartthrob (Ryan Gosling), the experienced old-timer (Robert Patrick), the soft-spoken Latino (Michael Pena), the switchblade-wielding black cop (Anthony Mackie) and the morally torn egghead (Giovanni Ribisi) who absurdly asks how they're any better than the mobsters they're fighting (I'm not sure how bugging Cohen's living room remotely compares to Cohen having rivals physically torn in half by two cars, but maybe that's just me). Penn's Mickey Cohen is as cartoonish as Al Pacino's Big Boy Caprice in Dick Tracy, Gosling again dazzles his Crazy, Stupid, Love co-star Emma Stone (as Cohen's moll) with his flexing pecs, and the risible dialogue stings like an ear infection. "Here comes Santy Claus!" bellows Cohen before shooting up everything in sight — a reminder that some movies have no more worth than that proverbial lump of coal.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director Ruben Fleischer; deleted scenes; and featurettes on the cast, the characters, the costumes, the location shooting and more.
Naomi Watts and Tom Holland in The Impossible (Photo: Summit)
THE IMPOSSIBLE (2012). One of the deadliest natural disasters in history, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami obliterated several countries' coastlines and resulted in over 230,000 deaths. It touched people all over the globe, those who were moved enough to contribute financially (global donations reportedly totaled $14 billion) and those who were affected on a more personal level (Tom Schwerk, one of my best friends from high school, perished while vacationing in Thailand, although his wife and two small sons thankfully survived). There are countless tales to relate from this tragedy, and rather than focus on several in the schlocky manner of a '70s disaster flick, director Juan Antonio Bayona elected to center on the true-life story of María Belón and Enrique Alvarez, a Spanish couple on holiday with their three boys in Thailand when the tsunami hits. Many criticized the film on its initial release for largely ignoring the plight of the locals while focusing on a privileged European family, while others lambasted it for further Anglicizing the project by casting Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor instead of Spanish actors as the parents. Sidestepping these issues, it's clear that the problem with The Impossible is that the second half collapses after a powerhouse opening hour. The sequences involving the tsunami are incredible, and genuine tension is maintained as Maria and oldest son Lucas (an excellent Tom Holland), separated from the rest of their brood, desperately try to stay alive amidst all the carnage. In an Oscar-nominated performance, Watts is superb as Maria, and it's a shame her ailing character is largely confined to the sidelines during the less impressive second half, a stretch that culminates with a series of dramatic-license coincidences so laughable, they belong in a vintage screwball comedy instead. The Impossible has enough going for it to earn a mild recommendation, but it's unfortunate that it ends up self-destructing as rapidly as one of those Mission: Impossible messages.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director J.A. Bayona, writer Sergio G. Sánchez, producer Belén Atienza and the real-life María Belón; deleted scenes; and a piece on casting the movie.
Drew Barrymore in Irreconcilable Differences (Photo: Olive Films)
IRRECONCILABLE DIFFERENCES (1984). In this affecting seriocomedy, Ryan O'Neal and Shelley Long star as Albert and Lucy, a sweet couple who meet on the road, end up marrying, move to Los Angeles, and have a baby girl while attempting to jump-start their careers. All is well until Albert unexpectedly becomes an A-list director, at which point he gains an attitude, ignores his wife and begins an affair with his young leading lady, Blake Chandler (Sharon Stone). Physically and emotionally destroyed, Lucy eventually gets the upper hand when she becomes a bestselling author while Albert's career flounders. At no point, though, does either parent think about their growing daughter Casey (Drew Barrymore), who becomes so fed up that she hires a lawyer (Allen Garfield) to help her divorce her mom and dad. Writer-director Charles Shyer and writer Nancy Meyers fill their movie with fresh dialogue and Hollywood-insider tidbits, and the roles couldn't be more aptly cast. It was no secret that director Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show) left his wife Polly Platt for ingenue Cybill Shepherd in the early 1970s, and it's also never been a secret that Shyer and Meyers used that ugly incident as the basis for the Albert-Lucy-Blake plot thread. And although Barrymore was only 9 years old at the time of the film's release, Irreconcilable Differences would mark one of the last times the public would see the E.T. moppet as nothing but a small child: Between 1984 and 1988, the pre-teen would discover (and become addicted to) cigarettes, alcohol, pot and finally cocaine. She finally got clean in 1989 and, in a bit of life imitating art, would "divorce" her parents through court-decreed emancipation in early 1991, at the age of 15.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by writer-director Charles Shyer and film scholar and consultant Bruce A. Block; a video introduction by Shyer; a making-of featurette; and a photo gallery.
Matt Damon in Promised Land (Photo: Universal)
PROMISED LAND (2012). By all accounts, Matt Damon is a smart fellow and a sincere progressive, but it would be nice if he left his politics off the screen. It's not that I object to filmmakers dragging their beliefs onto the screen (and, to be honest, Damon and I share most of the same convictions), but if one is going to pursue that route, then for God's sake, at least make the movie more than a tired polemic. The actor's 2010 release Green Zone found him playing a U.S. Army officer whose search for WMDs in Iraq instead leads him to conclude that — say it ain't so, George! — the whole war was based on a lie perpetrated by the Bush administration. And now we get Promised Land, which finds him playing a natural-gas company spokesperson whose selling of the hydraulic fracturing (a.k.a. fracking) technique to small-town rubes instead leads him to conclude that — gasp! — corporations really aren't people, regardless of what the Supreme Court insists. Adapted by Damon and co-star John Krasinski from a story by Dave Eggers and directed by the wildly inconsistent Gus Van Sant, Promised Land employs endless screeds and silly plot maneuvers to push a scenario that would have benefitted from more depth. The controversial issue of hydraulic fracturing deserves serious treatment, and Damon and Krasinski (as a happy-go-lucky environmentalist) surround themselves with competent co-stars (Frances McDormand, Hal Holbrook, Titus Welliver), but the end result is simply a fracking mess.
Blu-ray extras consist of a making-of featurette and an extended scene.
Emilio Estevez and Harry Dean Stanton in Repo Man (Photo: Criterion)
REPO MAN (1984). A better Alex Cox film for Criterion Collection enshrinement than his dismal 1987 dud Walker (reviewed here), this debut feature from the radical filmmaker became an immediate cult hit but also the high point of a career that failed to distinguish itself much after the one-two punch of this and 1986's Sid & Nancy. Emilio Estevez plays Otto, a soft-around-the-edges punk who gets roped into the car repossession business by Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), a busted, bitter man who has nothing to hold onto except his honorable Repo Code. Bud and the other repo men (all amusingly named after beer brands) teach Otto the tricks of the trade; eventually, they're among those caught up in the search for a valuable Chevy Malibu which, unbeknownst to them, contains something deadly in the trunk. There's a reason the Criterion edition of the 1955 film noir Kiss Me Deadly includes a 4-minute tribute by Cox, considering he borrows that movie's visual of an otherworldly glow for his own uncompromising effort. Such a playful mood informs Repo Man, yet Cox also takes time to comment on the seamy side of Los Angeles, the crushing realities of living in an increasingly comformist society, and the problems inherent in a decade that so baldly worships Ronald Reagan, L. Ron Hubbard and television evangelists. The punk-rock soundtrack, fronted by Iggy Pop's "Repo Man Theme Song," has become a classic in its own right.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Cox, executive producer (and ex-Monkee) Michael Nesmith, casting director Victoria Thomas and select co-stars; deleted scenes; interviews with various cast and crew members, including Iggy Pop; a conversation between Stanton and producer Peter McCarthy; and the heavily edited TV version of the film.
Arnold Schwarzenegger and Richard Dawson in The Running Man (Photo: Olive Films)
THE RUNNING MAN (1987). Based on the novel by Richard Bachman at a time when many (including the filmmakers) didn't know that Bachman was a pseudonym for Stephen King, this Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle is a particular kitschy piece of 80s Arnie action, with a great premise and some potent underlying themes badly handled by scripter Steven E. de Souza and especially director Paul Michael Glaser. Set just a few years in our future (2017), this takes place in an oppressive United States where the most popular TV show is The Running Man, in which enemies of the state must flee for their lives without being killed by the show's colorful "Stalkers." Ben Richards (Schwarzenegger), falsely convicted of slaying women and children, is the ratings boost that show creator and host Damon Killian (Richard Dawson) has been seeking, but he gets more than he bargained for when Richards proves to be every bit as resourceful and deadly as the Stalkers. Glaser, best known as Starsky from TV's Starsky and Hutch, helmed a handful of mediocre theatrical releases before wisely returning to the small screen — this is the best of a bunch that also includes Shaquille O'Neal's Kazaam, but given its potential, it's also the most disappointing, as the drab visuals and poor pacing rob it of virtually all excitement. Still, give the movie credit for being prescient: Given the disgusting rise and success of reality TV, it's not difficult at all to imagine fans of garbage like Survivor or Jersey Shore easily turning into the audience for a deathsport show like The Running Man, where viewers win fabulous prizes while cheering the slaughter of other humans. Dawson, the affable host of the long-running series Family Feud, is excellent as Killian; look also for appearances by Fleetwood Mac's Mick Fleetwood and Frank's kid Dweezil Zappa as revolutionaries.
The only extra on the Blu-ray is audio commentary by Glaser.
Kaya Scodelario in Wuthering Heights (Photo: Oscilloscope)
WUTHERING HEIGHTS (2012). Director Andrea Arnold takes the revisionist route with her adaptation of Wuthering Heights, refashioning the Emily Bronte chestnut to serve as a treatise on race as well as class. Her Heathcliff is a young black man (played by Solomon Glave and later James Howson) forced to deal with the prejudices of those around him, even as he pursues a tempestuous relationship with the doomed Catherine (Shannon Beer, then Kaya Scodelario). Natalie Portman and Michael Fassbender were initially attached to this production that went through many hands, but once Arnold (best known for the art-house hit Fish Tank) became its guiding light, she jettisoned all professional actors (Portman and Fassbender were already long gone by then), made the pointed changes to the screenplay she co-wrote with Olivia Hetreed, and opted to go with newcomers. For the most part, the amateurs hold their own, although the first half of the picture — focusing on the younger versions of the lovers — is more potent and inventive than the second half, which becomes more rigid as it works overtime to follow the dictates of the source material. This won't replace the 1939 Laurence Olivier-Merle Oberon classic as the definitive screen take, but Arnold's atmospheric direction and the stunning camerawork by Robbie Ryan (who won several international awards for his lensing) help counteract a certain degree of lethargy in a respectable retelling that fails to scale any new heights.
DVD extras consist of a video essay with film critic David Fear and the theatrical trailer.