(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what's new on Blu-ray and DVD.)
Matt Damon in Elysium (Photo: Columbia)
ELYSIUM (2013). South African writer-director Neill Blomkamp's District 9, about the wretched treatment of extra-terrestrials who had the misfortune of landing on our planet, was a metaphor for apartheid in his home country, and the film proved to be another shining example of science fiction serving as a sturdy framework for a social message. With Elysium, Blomkamp again tries to mind-meld sci-fi and societal change, but the results aren't nearly as satisfying. A futureworld version of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the film takes place in 2154, when the 1% is living comfortably on a man-made space station (Elysium) while everyone else is struggling to survive on a burned-out planet Earth. One of the regular joes is Max (Matt Damon), a blue-collar laborer whose on-the-job exposure to radiation means he'll be dead in five days. Up on Elysium, everyone has a machine that cures all illnesses and injuries, but no one from the surface is allowed to set foot up there. Willing to do anything to reach this celestial paradise, Max enters into a partnership with a tech-savvy hustler named Spider (a good performance by Wagner Moura); standing against him, though, are Elysium's smug defense secretary (Jodie Foster) and her psychotic henchman (District 9 star Sharlto Copley). Nobody can accuse Blomkamp of failing to cram his tale with topical material, most of it pertaining to the class struggles dominating U.S. news these days: the heartless treatment of undocumented immigrants, the urban plight of minorities (whereas Blade Runner posited that Asians were the ones that were abandoned by Caucasians settling on other worlds, here it's mostly Latinos who are left behind), rampant police brutality, and the hypocrisy of those in power (like the vile Republicans in Congress, the Elysium rulers refuse to provide for the poor but of course have free healthcare readily available for themselves). It's potent material, or at least it would be if the film didn't take so many shortcuts in terms of its characterizations. Foster and Copley might be playing different types of villains — she's cool and calculating, he's impulsive and destructive — but the end result is the same in that, given the arch performances, it's impossible to take either one seriously. As for the good guys, some predictably get to go the route of the (take your pick) sacrificial lamb/martyr/Christ figure, and the rest aren't provided with much personality or depth. Given the glut of movies that take place decades or centuries from now, maybe Hollywood will give it a rest and refrain from heading back to the future any time soon — at least until, oh, 2014 or thereabouts.
Blu-ray extras include a three-part making-of piece; an extended scene; a featurette on the visual effects; and an interactive exploration of the art and design of Elysium.
Michelle Pfeiffer in The Family (Photo: Fox & Relativity Media)
THE FAMILY (2013). Michelle Pfeiffer finds herself once again married to the mob in The Family, and that's decidedly a good thing. This accomplished actress made significant contributions to two gangster flicks back in the 1980s — Brian De Palma's hard-hitting drama Scarface (1983) and Jonathan Demme's lighthearted comedy Married to the Mob (1988) — and this latest effort feels like a mash-up of the pair, combining the unrelenting brutality of the former with the quirky nature of the latter. The Manzonis are an Italian-American family whose patriarch, Giovanni (Robert De Niro), was once a powerful Mafia figure until he elected to turn snitch. Now it's up to FBI agent Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones, looking bored in his few scenes) to keep the Manzonis secure in the witness protection program, a real problem since all of the family members — Giovanni, wife Maggie (Pfeiffer), daughter Belle (Dianna Agron) and son Warren (John D'Leo) — are always blowing their covers by hurting people who annoy them. The outfit's latest location is Normandy, France, where the Manzonis try to start fresh as the Blakes. Fat chance: Within a day or two, all four are violently dealing with pesky locals. Sure, seeing De Niro wield a bat is nothing new — he did it benignly as a baseball player in Bang the Drum Slowly and viciously as Al Capone in The Untouchables — but the important takeaway here is that this is one of those rare recent occasions where the actor does more than merely mug for the camera. Pfeiffer's even better, as Maggie works through her perpetual anger and frustration in an effort to hold the family together. Most amusing, though, are Agron and especially D'Leo, with their characters emerging as the most original creations. And let's not forget the contributions of a talented actor named Emeron, who plays the fifth member of this family: the trusty German Shepherd named Malavita (Italian for "organized crime"). Writer-director Luc Besson has shown a penchant for extreme violence in many of his films (The Professional, La Femme Nikita), and this one's no exception. But with more humor involved than usual, he has a hard time maintaining a consistent flow, and much of the brutality comes across as cruel rather than crucial. His screenplay (based on Tonino Benacquista's novel Malavita) is frequently as messy as these gangland rub outs, with some good ideas abandoned too soon and at least two subplots that are clumsily executed and wrapped up. With Martin Scorsese serving as an executive producer, viewers might reasonably have hoped for a more polished mob hit.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of piece; the featurette The Many Meanings of FU*%!; and the theatrical trailer.
Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger (Photo: Disney)
THE LONE RANGER (2013). Ever since he first became both an audience draw and an Oscar nominee 10 years ago with his wonderfully deranged turn in 2003's Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Johnny Depp has largely been content either playing Pirates' Jack Sparrow (four films to date, with another on its way) or portraying shallow Sparrow knockoffs. Depp used to be an interesting actor, but now he's content troweling on the makeup and making silly faces. In other words, he's become a buffoon. The Lone Ranger is the latest case in point, but it has greater problems than simply Depp's mugging. In short, it's the Wild Wild West of 2013. Like that 1999 dud starring Will Smith, it's an ill-conceived Western that's bloated, frenzied, idiotic and exhausting — the sort of heavily hyped, big-budget extravaganza that promises to deliver a fun cinematic experience but instead leaves the audience feeling as if it's been collectively beaten with a baseball bat. It's no wonder this emerged as one of the biggest commercial bombs of 2013. Since the title character doesn't wear any makeup and therefore holds no interest, Depp is instead cast as Tonto, the Native American who convinces idealistic lawyer John Reid (Armie Hammer) that he could better fight crime by donning a mask that would lend him an air of mystery. Theirs is a relationship marked with conflict from the start, as Reid considers Tonto a lunatic and Tonto dismisses Reid as a clumsy fool. But they're united in their quest to bring down Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), an outlaw who's not above carving out and eating the heart of a man he's just killed. The Lone Ranger clocks in at a punishing 150 minutes, and it's the sort of film where a chainsaw would have been immensely useful in the editing room. For starters, the movie could lose the insufferable framing device that features Depp getting to wear even more makeup, as he plays Tonto as an elderly man relating the bulk of the movie as a flashback. The railroad subplot, Reid's feelings toward his sister-in-law (Ruth Wilson), the antics of Reid's horse Silver, the overstuffed climax — there isn't a single section of this movie that couldn't be trimmed for the greater good. Director Gore Verbinski, whose last Western with Depp was the delightful, Oscar-winning animated feature Rango, and his writers are obviously schooled in film lore, and the movie contains homages to Western classics like Once Upon a Time in the West, Little Big Man and the John Ford canon. But these bits are like the seeds that end up on the bottom of bird cages, momentarily visible before getting covered in crap.
Blu-ray extras include a deleted scene; a look at the railroad set and its employment in the climactic sequences; a tour of the shooting locations, with Hammer as host; and bloopers.
Julianne Hough in Paradise (Photo: Image Entertainment)
PARADISE (2013). Where's Jason Reitman when you need him? He seems to possess the magic touch when it comes to directing scripts penned by Diablo Cody, as witnessed by both Juno (for which Cody won an Oscar) and Young Adult. But under the auspices of Karyn Kusama, Jennifer's Body proved to be an unholy mess, and now, placing herself in the director's chair for the first time, Cody fails on two fronts with Paradise. Bland Julianne Hough stars as Lamb Mannerheim, a devout Christian who has recently survived a plane crash. With burns all over most of her body, the home-schooled and extremely sheltered Lamb stands at the podium of her Montana church and declares to the stunned congregation that she no longer believes in God, drawing audible gasps when she follows that tidbit by stating that "in the next election, I might even vote Democrat!" Leaving her flabbergasted parents (Holly Hunter and Nick Offerman) behind, she takes off for Las Vegas, where she hopes to partake in all manner of sin. But once she arrives in the big, bad city, she goes from being a potential Lamb for the slaughter to a Lamb that's constantly shepherded (Cody's script ain't exactly subtle), as she becomes friends with William (Russell Brand) and Loray (Octavia Spencer), industry-service workers who apparently have nothing better to do than tend to this lost Lamb at every turn. All of Cody's previous pictures have exhibited bite, but Paradise is a toothless endeavor, as soft in its head as it is in its heart. She clearly has affection for her characters, but they're hardly believable: Lamb is a Red State caricature while William and Loray act more like strangers who just met rather than the "family" they're supposed to represent to each other. Cody rarely puts this trio through any interesting paces, and there's ultimately more danger prevalent on Sesame Street than in the Las Vegas presented here. Her engaging way with words has also failed her, with two scenes — Loray explaining how she's not a Magical Negro like the type seen in The Green Mile and Ghost; the bathroom chat between Lamb and a weary prostitute (Kathleen Rose Perkins) — proving particularly embarrassing. It's clear that Lamb is headed for a major revelation that will inform the direction of her life, but everything during the film's home stretch is handled so timidly and haphazardly that the catharsis comes and goes with all the weight of a dandelion. Paradise may be a movie paved with good intentions, but between its meandering nature, surface exploration of religion and roster of forgettable characters, it's more like motion-picture perdition.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Cody; behind-the-scenes footage; and the theatrical trailer.
Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman in Prisoners (Photo: Warner Bros.)
PRISONERS (2013). The first English-language film by Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Incendies) feels like an AMBER Alert writ large, using the queasy notion of missing children as a starting point for its exploration of several issues that aren't black and white but instead rot away inside a malodorous area of gray. It's Thanksgiving in a small Pennsylvania town, and the Dovers and the Birches have gathered at the Birch residence for a sumptuous meal. But after the clans' youngest daughters wander off down the street to the Dover house to fetch a toy whistle, they never return, sending the adults into a panic. The only possible clue to the two girls' whereabouts is a van previously seen parked down the street, a vehicle that's later discovered in a parking lot. Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is quick to apprehend the driver, a young man by the name of Alex Jones (Paul Dano). But Keller (Hugh Jackman), the dad of one of the missing kids, is convinced that Alex is the one who snatched the girls, but Loki isn't so sure: There's no evidence in the van of foul play, and, as Paul's aunt (Melissa Leo) confirms, Alex has the mind of a 10-year-old boy and seems unlikely to have pulled off such a caper. But there's no convincing Keller, so he takes the law into his own hands. The script by Aaron Guzikowski is wonderfully dense, with very little feeling extraneous. An elderly priest (Len Cariou) battling his own demons, a young man (David Dastmalchian) even more odd than Alex, a dog dangling from a raised leash, small containers with something ominous inside (a great scene), that little red whistle — the film is like a lean cut of meat, with all the fat trimmed off and the rest providing the necessary protein to keep functioning. To be sure, Guzikowski does make a few missteps — in particular, the end game of one character is never adequately explained — but none are make-or-break moments, the type of dunderheaded leaps of logic that have crippled lesser mysteries. And long after the viewing, the film's themes continue to haunt and resonate. How far is too far when it comes to the safety of our children? How much slack do we cut those who are less fortunate than the rest of us? What defines a hero most? (After the film, the knight in shining — or maybe tarnished — armor still probably isn't who you think.) And — that old classic — does the end justify the means? To its credit, Prisoners refuses to be held captive by any rigid rules of conformist conduct, choosing instead to present moviegoers with a rusty moral compass and asking them to navigate their own choppy waters.
Blu-ray extras consist of a pair of behind-the-scenes pieces featuring cast interviews.
Alexis Bledel and Saoirse Ronan in Violet & Daisy (Photo: Cinedigm)
VIOLET & DAISY (2013). Geoffrey Fletcher, who won a Best Adapted Screenplay for Precious a few years ago, here makes his directorial debut with an original script he penned himself. Alexis Bledel and Saoirse Ronan play the title twofer, about the unlikeliest pair of killers yet seen on the screen. Violet (Bledel) is in her 20s while Daisy (Ronan) is just celebrating her 18th birthday — together, they rank among the nation's top 10 paid assassins, although their off-the-job behavior largely consists of playing patty cake and holding out for new dresses from their favorite label. Their latest assignment requires them to kill a sad sack named Michael (James Gandolfini), but because he welcomes extermination, they find themselves hesitating, unsure how to approach a man who wants to die. Fletcher's idea of having two female assassins as his leads turns the Tarantino template on its head, and in that respect, it's a better watch than many of the countless rip-offs that have materialized in the roughly two decades since Pulp Fiction. But while Bledel and Ronan are both fine — the former gets to exhibit all the attitude as the vet of the team while the latter gets to display more emotion as the naïve recruit — Fletcher doesn't allow us to get inside their minds to the extent required. We learn more about Michael than the ladies, which aids the late Gandolfini as he delivers the movie's most soulful performance. Danny Trejo also stars, but despite his generous billing, he appears ever so fleetingly as the girls' handler. Violet & Daisy has been kicking around film festivals since 2011 — I myself first saw it at the 2012 Savannah Film Festival — before barely opening theatrically this past June (total box office: $17,000) on its way to its permanent home on Blu-ray and DVD.
Blu-ray extras consist of a poster gallery and the theatrical trailer.