(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what's new on Blu-ray and DVD.)
Gene Hackman in The French Connection (Photo: Fox)
FILMMAKERS SIGNATURE SERIES (1971-1996). Last month, Fox's home entertainment division debuted the Filmmaker Signature Series, six individual Blu-ray releases which have all received the blessing of their respective directors. Each Blu-ray comes with a booklet containing photos and trivia.
The classic among these initial offerings is William Friedkin's The French Connection (1971), a cop flick with a rawness that was startling for its time — even if decades of imitators have managed to both soften and date that edge a bit. Gene Hackman is excellent in his career-defining role as Popeye Doyle, the rough'n'tumble New York City detective who, with partner Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider), hopes to bust open a drug-smugging operation with international ties. Nominated for eight Academy Awards, this won five: Best Picture, Actor, Director, Adapted Screenplay and Film Editing.
Although he had already won an Academy Award as co-producer of the 1975 Best Picture One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and had appeared in such hits as The China Syndrome and Romancing the Stone, Michael Douglas achieved true through-the-roof superstardom in 1987, thanks to back-to-back turns in the box office smash Fatal Attraction and Oliver Stone's Wall Street, for which he won the Best Actor Oscar. Stone's first film since his across-the-board success Platoon may have performed softer with critics and audiences than anticipated, but if nothing else, it's now considered a time capsule of Reagan-era avarice, with Douglas' corporate raider Gordon Gekko uttering the instantly classic catchphrase, "Greed, for lack of a better word, is good." And with American capitalism now uglier than ever, it remains relevant — even more so than its dud of a sequel, 2010's Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.
Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas in The War of the Roses (Photo: Fox)
Douglas had already worked with Danny DeVito and Kathleen Turner on Romancing the Stone and its sequel, The Jewel of the Nile, when the three regrouped for The War of the Roses (1989). In this delightfully dark comedy, DeVito (who also directed) plays a divorce lawyer who relates the cautionary tale of Oliver and Barbara Rose, a married couple whose relationship deteriorated to the point that public humiliation, destroyed property and dead pets all figured into the equation. DeVito and scripter Michael Leeson (working from Warren Adler's novel) hold little back, and the beastly performances by Douglas and Turner are works of beauty.
DeVito scored a commercial and critical hit with The War of the Roses, but success on either front eluded him with his next directorial effort. If you know next to nothing about notorious Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa before seeing the David Mamet-penned biopic Hoffa (1992), you'll be equally unenlightened after turning off the Blu-ray player 140 minutes later. In the title role, Jack Nicholson gives a nicely textured performance — far more interesting than his one-note (but of course Oscar-nominated) turn in the same year's A Few Good Men — but the film is a series of loose-fitting set-pieces, offering little momentum and even less insight. DeVito co-stars as Hoffa's best friend Bobby Ciaro (a composite of real-life figures); his humdrum performance is overshadowed by his occasionally inventive direction.
Jack Mulcahy, Edward Burns, Maxine Bahns and Mike McGlone in The Brothers McMullen (Photo: Fox)
A bona fide Sundance success story was in the cards for Edward Burns, who made The Brothers McMullen (1995) for roughly $200,000 while working a menial job on the TV show Entertainment Tonight. The film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize, was picked up by Fox Searchlight, and went on to gross an impressive $10 million in limited release. Making his debut as writer, director, producer and actor, Burns knocked one out of the park with this perceptive and ingratiating film about three Irish-American siblings (Burns, Mike McGlone and Jack Mulcahy) all perennially struggling with both their rocky relationships and with their Catholic upbringing.
Burns returned the very next year with She's the One (1996), another tale about Irish-American brothers (Burns and McGlone) and their knotty romances. An exceptionally in-sync cast (including Cameron Diaz and Jennifer Aniston in early film roles and especially John Mahoney as the boys' gruff father) and some clever snatches of dialogue make this pleasant enough, but the movie largely lacks the freshness, spontaneity and insights that make McMullen such a winner.
Each Blu-ray comes with optional audio commentary by its director. Other extras on various titles include making-of featurettes; deleted scenes; cast and crew interviews; and theatrical trailers.
The French Connection: ***
Wall Street: ***
The War of the Roses: ***
The Brothers McMullen: ***1/2
She's the One: **1/2
Harrison Ford and Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner (Photo: Warner Bros.)
BLADE RUNNER (1982). Rarely in the annals of film history has a movie received a complete critical and popular evaluation in as short a period of time as Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. When it originally appeared in the summer of 1982, it was dismissed by the majority of critics, who found it too murky, and by virtually all audiences, who were disappointed that star Harrison Ford wasn't playing another swashbuckler in the Indiana Jones/Han Solo mode. But a funny thing happened on the way to the '90s. Over the ensuing years, viewers discovered it on home video while film scribes took another look (and those of us who championed it since Day One plugged it at every opportunity), and today it's considered a landmark science fiction film on the order of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars. Based on Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, this finds Ford cast as Rick Deckard, a weary detective called upon to track down a gang of murderous "replicants" (led by enigmatic Rutger Hauer) in the cluttered, smoke-choked Los Angeles of the near-future. Jordan Cronenweth's cinematography, Vangelis' music score and Lawrence G. Paull's production design rank with the best of their decade, and the fact that the piece works as a film noir as much as a sci-fi outing makes me prefer Deckard's voice-over narration in the original over the sound of silence in Ridley's subsequent tinkering. This earned two Academy Award nominations, and while I could at the time accept E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial beating it for Best Visual Effects (today, the Blade Runner FX are clearly superior), there's no way in heaven or hell that the familiar sights in Gandhi deserved to beat the revolutionary landscape presented here for the Best Art Direction & Set Decoration Oscar.
This isn't the first time Blade Runner has been released on Blu-ray: It made its format debut in 2007 with both the 5-Disc Complete Collector's Edition and the Ultimate Collector's Edition and reappeared in 2011 as a single-disc Blu-ray containing just The Final Cut. What we have here is the 30th Anniversary Collector's Edition, billed as a 4-Disc Blu-ray + DVD Combo Pack. It contains pretty much everything from the 2007 editions: five versions of the movie (the 1982 original, the 1982 international version, the 1992 Director's Cut, the 2007 The Final Cut and the rare Workprint version); 2007's 3-1/2-hour documentary Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner; and over 10 hours of bonus material, including Ridley Scott introductions, audio commentaries, deleted scenes, screen tests and behind-the-scenes featurettes. New for this edition is a stills gallery containing over 1,000 archival images in high definition; a 72-page production art book; a collectible Spinner car replica (different from the one included in the 2007 Ultimate Collector's Edition); and a motion lenticular card.
Henry Thomas and friend in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (Photo: Universal)
E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982). Until the release of the Star Wars Special Edition in 1997 (itself trumped by Titanic several months later), this Steven Spielberg classic held the title of the all-time top moneymaking film for 15 years. More than just a motion picture, this entered the national consciousness in a manner reserved for only a handful of films (The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, The Godfather, etc.), and it remains a near-perfect study of friendship and fantasy as filtered through the eyes of a young boy desperately in need of a companion. Spielberg has made at least two or three films I would rate higher than E.T., but in terms of emotional investment, this one is peerless in his canon, invoking laughter, tears and everything in between as we follow little E.T.'s odyssey to return home. There's much to savor: the remarkable performance by Henry Thomas as the alien's human soulmate Elliott (it's no coincidence his name begins and ends with "ET"); the equally impressive turns by Robert McNaughton and 6-year-old Drew Barrymore as Elliott's siblings; the majestic sweeps of one of John Williams' best scores; Dee Wallace's achingly real performance as the kids' vulnerable single mom (why Wallace never became a bigger star remains a mystery); and isolated sequences (the classroom frogs, the flying bikes, etc.) that will continue to delight moviegoers for generations to come. Nominated for nine Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Director), this won statues for Best Original Score, Best Visual Effects, Best Sound and Best Sound Effects Editing.
Proving himself a wiser man than pal George Lucas, Spielberg decided to favor the fans by bringing the 1982 original to Blu-ray rather than the 2002 20th Anniversary Edition. For those who don't recall, that was the much-maligned post-9/11 version in which the government agents were now carrying walkie-talkies instead of guns and in which the word "hippie" was exchanged for the word "terrorist" (referring to McNaughton's Halloween costume). Extras include a new piece in which Spielberg reflects on the movie; a making-of featurette; deleted scenes; on-set production footage; and a discussion about Williams' score.
The Invisible War (Photo: New Video)
THE INVISIBLE WAR (2012). At one point during The Invisible War, a group of rape survivors in the military launches a lawsuit; the court throws it out, stating that rape is an "occupational hazard," no different from spraining an ankle or falling down the stairs while on the job. Outraged yet? The Invisible War presents 98 minutes of outrage, with documentary filmmaker Kirby Dick (This Film Is Not Yet Rated) delineating in painful detail how our country's military has failed so miserably in protecting the women and (in some cases) men who made the choice to serve this nation with courage, pride and dignity. Instead, the system is such that these once-idealistic souls end up emotionally and physically crushed, with fear, depression and occasional thoughts of suicide governing their lives. At every turn, Dick shows us how this macho institution repeatedly covers up the wrongdoing perpetrated by its criminal elements. It's the ultimate game of victim-blaming, with some of the women getting charged themselves for reporting what surely must have been consensual trysts (the charge is usually "adultery") while the rapists get off scot-free or with absurdly light sentences (guilty of "obscene language," for one). As for the men who have been raped, it's explained that their assailants aren't homosexuals, but rather heterosexuals who get off on power trips and dominating those around them who are weaker. Although armed with countless facts and percentages, Dick makes sure that the human faces take priority. He interviews numerous survivors over the course of the film, one of the most prominent being Kori Cioca — her story is simply heartbreaking. This powerful picture, which was screened at both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions (I suspect in Tampa, the gathered reacted to the film like frat boys watching The Hangover; after all, the GOP is the party of Todd Akin, Paul Ryan and the War on Women), should be viewed as a call to action. Indeed, the ball has already started rolling: Immediately after seeing the movie this past spring, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta issued a policy change declaring that immediate superior officers (who are frequently buddies with the rapists, or often are the assailants themselves) will no longer be in charge of overseeing rape charges. Let's hope that ball never slows down.
DVD extras include audio commentary by Dick and producer Amy Ziering; extended interviews; a deleted scene; and footage from a Sundance post-screening speak-out.
The hunks of Magic Mike (Photo: Warner Bros.)
MAGIC MIKE (2012). Less of a Saturday Night Fever and more of a Friday evening shrug, Magic Mike follows the template of that John Travolta disco tale by starting off as a bright movie full of dance moves and music before turning into something decidedly darker. Channing Tatum, working from a screenplay that was loosely based on his own days as an exotic dancer, stars as Mike, the hottest male stripper working at a joint owned by the silky-smooth Dallas (Matthew McConaughey). Mike dreams of one day opening his own custom-furniture shop, but for now, he's content doing the bump-and-grind, along the way pegging 19-year-old slacker Adam (Alex Pettyfer) as a natural for this line of work. Adam is nicknamed "The Kid," although thankfully nobody ever utters that age-old adage, "You're going out there a kid, but you're coming back a star!" Yet a star is precisely what Adam becomes, which leads to the expected second-half hardships focusing on his plunges into drug use and casual sex. Yet because Adam was a zero from the moment we met him, this descent into debauchery doesn't reflect any significant character change, and it's hard to get worked up over his fate. Far more interesting is Mike and his relationships with those around him (including Adam's sister, nicely played by Cody Horn). And even more interesting would have been a deeper analysis of the exotic-dancer business, such as why male strippers are generally viewed by the population at large as fun-loving party guys while female strippers are often tagged in more tragic (and puritanical) terms. But this box office hit has no time for such complexities: It's only here to take your money, offer some slick entertainment, and clear the living room before the next show.
Blu-ray extras include a behind-the-scenes piece; extended dance scenes; and the ability to watch all the dance sequences back to back in the Dance Play Mode.
John Cusack in The Raven (Photo: Fox)
THE RAVEN (2012). There have been so many good adaptations of works by Edgar Allan Poe — particularly the Roger Corman efforts starring Vincent Price — that few will work up much enthusiasm for this thriller in which the great author himself is put through the paces of an average serial-killer yarn. In 1849 Baltimore, in the final days of his life, Poe (John Cusack) is informed by detective Emmett Fields (Luke Evans) that someone is going around murdering people in bloody ways that can only be found in his stories (The Pit and the Pendulum, for example). Fields initially suspects that Poe might actually be the killer, but he soon tosses aside that theory and teams up with the temperamental writer in hopes of catching the lunatic on the loose. Faced with a threadbare script by Hannah Shakespeare and Ben Livingston, director James McTeigue (who fared much better with V for Vendetta) is forced to rely too heavily on the requisite gore and effects work that overwhelm rather than complement the piece. As Poe, Cusack is effective when he's allowed to tap into the character's raging wit and less convincing when he's wooing a high-society girlfriend (Alice Eve) who, naturally, gets abducted by the killer.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director James McTeigue and producers Aaron Ryder, Marc D. Evans and Trevor Macy; a making-of featurette; deleted and extended scenes; a look at the film's music; and a piece on Poe.
Steve Carell and Keira Knightley in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (Photo: Universal)
SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD (2012). The year's most underrated movie thus far, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is the sort of top-notch humanist picture that's always appreciated at a time when most other movies are striving to be the biggest and the loudest. This one is small in scope and focus, even as it touches upon enormous issues. The narrative states that an asteroid is heading to Earth, and as we join the story, we learn that all hope is lost and the planet will only be inhabitable for another few weeks. The beauty of the screenplay by writer-director Lorene Scafaria is how it views the different ways in which people might react to their impending doom. Every single avenue of action rings true. Some party 24/7; others continue to show up for work; some folks go on a destructive rampage; and so on. And then there's Dodge (Steve Carell), who pretty much just wants to be left alone — a desire that goes unfulfilled after he meets his neighbor Penny (Keira Knightley). Pairing a buttoned-down man with a quirky free spirit is a plot device that's been employed in hundreds — nay, thousands — of films, but Seeking a Friend takes care not to turn into a standard comedy about a mismatched odd couple. Dodge and Penny aren't presented as extremes, which makes it easier to believe that these two could emotionally and intellectually meet somewhere in the middle. Carell and Knightley are excellent in their respective roles, never overplaying the sentiment and making us believe that their characters can go about their lives even when they know said lives will soon be ending. Given the subject matter, a delicious irony peeks through, since films about the end of the world often tend to be bloated, boring spectacles wherein the characters get lost amidst all the effects (exhibit A: Armageddon). This seriocomedy isn't like that, instead positing that the world will probably end not with a bang and not even with a whimper, but rather with a whisper — one most likely shared between two people whose decency and compassion cannot be snuffed out.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Scafaria, her mother Gail Scafaria, producer Joy Gorman Wettels and co-stars Adam Brody and Patton Oswalt; a behind-the-scenes featurette; and outtakes.
Jamie Lee Curtis in Terror Train (Photo: Shout! Factory)
TERROR TRAIN (1980) / THE FUNHOUSE (1981). Shout! Factory continues its newly minted Scream Factory series with two early-80s slasher flicks, both of which prove to be, ahem, a cut above the norm.
There was certainly no lack of talent — past or future — on the set of Terror Train. Top-billed Ben Johnson had won an Oscar for his supporting role in The Last Picture Show while cinematographer John Alcott had won his for lensing Barry Lyndon. Makeup designer Michele Burke would later win two Oscars for her contributions to Quest for Fire and Bram Stoker's Dracula, while debuting director Roger Spottiswoode would go on to helm the crackling political thriller Under Fire and the award-winning TV movie about AIDS, And the Band Played On. And finally there was Jamie Lee Curtis, still riding high in the horror field following her 1978 breakthrough in Halloween. These participants help turn Terror Train into a fun ride for its first hour, as college students holding a masquerade party aboard a chartered train start getting bumped off in gruesome ways. Johnson is the conductor trying to prevent any more bloodshed, magician David Copperfield (billed with, naturally enough, "And David Copperfield As The Magician") is one of the primary suspects, and a young D.D. Winters, better known as pop singer Vanity, appears as one of the co-eds. The train setting is inspired, but the identity of the killer is woefully obvious, stripping the last act of much of its intrigue.
The Funhouse (Photo: Shout! Factory)
Like Terror Train, The Funhouse is a gruesome outing that works more often than not. Director Tobe Hooper was behind the classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and he brings some of that film's sense of dread to this piece about two young couples — virginal Amy (Elizabeth Berridge), tough Buzz (Cooper Huckabee), opportunistic Richie (Miles Chapin) and vivacious Liz (Largo Woodruff) — who dare themselves to spend the night inside a visiting carnival's spooky funhouse. Once inside, they run afoul of the barker (Kevin Conway) and his misshapen, murderous offspring (Wayne Doba). The mutant's face (hidden underneath a Frankenstein mask during the early going) is genuinely unnerving, yet another brilliant creation from seven-time Oscar-winning makeup artist Rick Baker. The chases through the imaginatively designed funhouse occasionally feel padded out, the exception being the masterfully staged climax between Amy and the monster.
Blu-ray extras on Terror Train include an interview with producer Daniel Grodnik, production executive Don Carmody, production designer Glenn Bydwell and composer John Mills-Cockell; a still gallery; and the theatrical trailer. Extras on The Funhouse include audio commentary by director Tobe Hooper; an interview with executive producer Mark L. Lester and composer John Beal; an audio interview with co-star William Finley; and the theatrical trailer.
Terror Train: **1/2
The Funhouse: **1/2