BATTLE: LOS ANGELES (2011). It takes a special type of hack to make Roland Emmerich look like Steven Spielberg, but Jonathan Liebesman appears to be the right man for the job. The less said about most Emmerich movies (like 2012 and Matthew Broderick Meets Godzilla), the better, but he did helm Independence Day, and for all that film's faults, it knew how to milk the hell out of its H.G. Wells-by-way-of-Hollywood premise and, silly as it sounds, make us proud to be human. Battle: Los Angeles is so feeble that we really don't care who wins the global skirmish: the E.T.s or the earthlings. At least if the aliens win, we won't have to sit through any more movies like this one. As the film begins, most of the major cities are being decimated, leaving LA as the last great hope for humankind's survival. "Retreat? Hell!" bark the Marines tasked with saving the planet, as a sign that they'll never back down. B:LA is such an ADD-afflicted action film that it's impossible to invest much emotion in its one-dimensional characters — "Where's Lenihan?" someone asks regarding a missing comrade, but they might as well have been asking, "Where's Waldo?" for all it ultimately matters. The design of the alien critters is the usual blend of crunchy on the outside and squishy on the inside, but that's OK, since the camerawork and editing are executed at such dizzying paces that we never get a good look at most of the CGI work anyway. "Retreat"? Hell, yeah! Where's the "Eject" button on the remote?
Blu-ray extras include the interactive Command Control feature, which allows picture-in-picture interviews, storyboard comparisons and more during the movie; seven making-of featurettes totaling an hour; and trailers.
THE DILEMMA (2011). Love him or hate him, director Ron Howard at least makes movies that can generally be described as classy projects (A Beautiful Mind, Frost/Nixon, etc.), so what on earth possessed him to get attached to this frat-boy comedy that would have been better suited to the low-brow filmographies of The Hangover's Todd Phillips or Grown Ups' Dennis Dugan? Vince Vaughn stars as Ronny, who idolizes the seemingly perfect marriage of Nick (Kevin James) and Geneva (Winona Ryder) and is trying to decide whether it's time to pop the question to his own girlfriend, Beth (Jennifer Connelly). But after Ronny spots Geneva making out with a young hunk (Channing Tatum), he has to decide whether to inform his best friend about his wife's infidelity or keep it to himself. The film presents the sorts of problems that would easily be remedied by any open-minded folks partial to Dan Savage's Savage Love column, but Ronny and Nick are presented as such unenlightened chowderheads that the surprisingly misogynistic screenplay actually plays along by attempting to ennoble their dubious actions (apparently, it's no big deal that Nick ignores his wife in favor of "happy endings" from a teenage Asian masseuse). There's a dull subplot involving the men's business venture (designing cars that are manly and not, as Ronny puts it, "gay"), but it serves only to lengthen this misguided effort past the breaking point. Here's an idea, Hollywood: Why not make a movie in which Connelly and Ryder are the leads and relegate the overexposed James and Vaughn to subservient roles?
Blu-ray extras include a 14-minute making-of featurette; 14 deleted scenes totalling 44 minutes; an alternate ending; a 5-minute gag reel; and a 12-minute piece on the film's location shooting in Chicago.
DRIVE ANGRY (2011). Nicolas Cage's hilarious cameo in Grindhouse must have whetted the actor's appetite for headlining throwbacks to the disreputable fare of yore, as evidenced by many of the movies he's accepted over the last few years. Drive Angry is the most obvious example of his commitment, given its penchant for fast cars, hot women and bloody violence. Cage plays Milton, who escapes Satan's lair to return to Earth for the sole purpose of saving his granddaughter from a murderous cult led by Jonah King (Billy Burke); along the way, he's assisted by a tough beauty named Piper (Amber Heard) and pursued by Lucifer's most accomplished tracker, known simply as "The Accountant" (William Fichtner). The opening half-hour, which relies heavily on the story's unusual characterizations as well as on some finely salted dialogue, promises more than the rest of the picture can deliver. Even by mindless drive-in standards, the action becomes rote long before the end, and Jonah King turns out to be a dull, one-note villain, a detriment in this sort of over-the-top fare. Even Cage is restrained more than usual, leaving Fichtner to provide any pop to the proceedings. He's amusing in that quirky Christopher Walken way, and a more appropriately bug-eyed turn from Cage would have resulted in a more memorable face-off.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by writer-director Patrick Lussier and co-writer Todd Farmer; the interactive Access: Drive Angry feature which allows picture-in-picture interviews, pop-up trivia, and a running scoreboard of the mayhem Milton inflicts on the villains; and two deleted scenes.
HAIR (1979). Coming more than a decade after the dawning of the age of Aquarius, this adaptation of the stage hit (which played on Broadway 1968-1972) failed to capture the attention of an American moviegoing public that presumably had moved on: It barely made back its budget and was considered a major disappointment for director Milos Forman after the spectacular success of his previous picture, 1975's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. But the movie (now debuting on Blu-ray) has always had its ardent supporters: The late Gene Siskel named it the best film of 1979 (TV partner Roger Ebert placed it #5 on his list) and, in more recent times, it landed in the #6 spot on Creative Loafing's list of the 20 greatest rock films ever made (see our March 21, 2007 issue). With the possible exception of A Hard Day's Night, it gets my vote as the all-time best rock film — a far more accomplished stage-to-screen translation than Jesus Christ Superstar, this superb film (which actually improves on the source material) is too vibrant to be dismissed as merely a "time capsule" piece. John Savage plays the naive Midwestern farmboy who, with only a couple of days to kill before he enlists in the army (and gets shipped off to Vietnam), hooks up with a motley crew of Central Park hippies. Treat Williams, in a standout performance that's by turns playful, sensual and even heart-wrenching, plays the leader of this "tribe," and that's Annie Golden, former lead singer of The Shirts, as the cute-as-a-button Jeannie. The Ragni-Rado-MacDermot score remains glorious, featuring such gems as "I'm Black / Ain't Got No," "Manchester, England," "The Flesh Failures / Let the Sun Shine In" (employed in the knockout finale) and the irresistible title tune.
The only Blu-ray extra is the theatrical trailer; disappointingly, they didn't carry over the Theatrical Poster Gallery from the 1999 DVD release.
HALL PASS (2011). It's hard to wax philosophic about a film in which a portly guy stoned out of his gourd elects to use a golf course sand trap like so much kitty litter, so let's just state that the latest from the Farrelly Brothers doesn't merely alternate between scenes that are dumb and dumber. It's actually a smart picture at times, both in its dissection of marital matters and in its ability to extract solid laughs from dubious situations. Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis play Rick and Fred, suburban hubbies who spend all their time ogling other women and imagining all the fun they could be having were they still single. After some debate, their wives (Jenna Fischer and Christina Applegate) elect to give them a "hall pass," the opportunity to take a week off from marriage and do whatever they desire. But getting back into the swingers' swing of things is harder than the men imagined. Perhaps in an effort to compete with the industry's younger raconteurs of raunch, the Farrellys go all-out with the gross-outs, leading to mixed results (two scenes featuring bowel movements is at least one — and probably two — too many). This, combined with a sloppy third act as well as the whopping screen time given to an annoying minor character (a crazed barista played by Derek Waters), admittedly dilutes much of the film's impact. Still, it's memorable enough to get a pass from me. (For film-related activities like "Make Yourself a 10" and "Create Your Own Hall Pass," check out hallpassmovie.warnerbros.com.)
The "Enlarged Edition" Blu-ray includes both the theatrical version and an extended cut (approximately six minutes longer). Extras include one deleted scene and a 2-minute gag reel.
THE HUSTLER (1961). It wasn't until 32 years after his film debut that Paul Newman finally won his Best Actor Oscar for 1986's The Color of Money, Martin Scorsese's rocking sequel to The Hustler. But it was a classic case of too-little-too-late (Newman didn't even bother to attend the ceremony), made all the more bittersweet by the fact that the actor clearly should have won for his initial portrayal of Fast Eddie Felson (instead, fifth-billed Maximilian Schell won for a supporting role in Judgment at Nuremberg). Already adept at playing likable heels, Newman ratchets up the swagger as the rising pool-hall regular who sets his sights on taking down the legendary Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). A rocky romance develops with an alcoholic (Piper Laurie), while a pool-hall bargain is struck with a shady backer (George C. Scott). Nominated for nine Academy Awards (including Best Picture and all four aforementioned actors), this classic deservedly won for Best Black-and-White Art Direction and Best Black-and-White Cinematography.
The Blu-ray, nestled in 24-page collectible book packaging, includes an abundance of bonus features, most from the 2007 Collector's Edition DVD. Among the extras are audio commentary by Newman, film editor Dede Allen, film critic Richard Schickel, film historian Jeff Young, and others; the half-hour special Paul Newman at Fox; the 12-minute piece Jackie Gleason: The Big Man; two retrospective making-of featurettes, each approximately 30 minutes; the Biography episode Paul Newman: Hollywood's Cool Hand; and a pair of shorts featuring trick shot champion Mike Massey analyzing and performing difficult shots.
THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING (1975). Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis co-starred in 16 movies, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau appeared together 10 times, and James Cagney and Pat O'Brien shared screen credit on nine occasions. Unless one counts their mutual participation in the all-star WWII epic A Bridge Too Far, Sean Connery and Michael Caine only made one movie together. That's a shame, because based on their excellent chemistry in The Man Who Would Be King, theirs was a potent pairing that deserved to headline at least a half-dozen features. Director John Huston had famously wanted to adapt Rudyard Kipling's story for decades — his original vision found Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart in the lead roles — but the adage "better late than never" certainly applies here, given the splendid results. Connery and Caine play Danny and Peachy, two former British officers who have moved on to careers as consummate con men in India. As they explain to Kipling himself (a nice turn by Christopher Plummer), they plan to travel to the distant land of Kafiristan and set themselves up as rulers. That they do, and the ruse works so well that the locals eventually come to believe that Danny is an actual god. The splendid turns by Caine and Connery are supported by immaculate production values and a script that's heavy on the humor, adventure and delightful English colloquialisms. Incidentally, that's Caine's real-life wife, Shakira Caine, as the beauteous villager who catches Danny's eye. This earned four Academy Award nominations (including one for the adapted screenplay by Huston and Gladys Hill) and might have nabbed more had it not been released in such a powerhouse year for film (Jaws, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Nashville, etc.).
Blu-ray extras consist of a vintage 12-minute making-of featurette and the theatrical trailer.
RUBBER (2011). One of the most talked-about movies on the festival circuit and a possible cult-film-in-the-making, this effort from writer-director Quentin Dupieux doesn't quite live up to its fantastic — and fantastically absurd — premise. It certainly gets off to a great start, as actor Stephen Spinella breaks down the wall between the film and the audience with a hilarious monologue about how things occur in movies for "no reason. " From there, we watch an audience armed with binoculars watching the film that is Rubber, which is the story of a killer tire named Robert. This menacing villain has telekinetic powers, which sounds cool until you realize that instead of running people over in the manner of a Corman project like Death Race 2000, Robert is merely going to blow their heads up from a safe distance. Over and over again. Rubber could have been developed in countless ways, but the path it chooses turns out to be rather redundant, and the audience-within-the-film angle, intriguing at the beginning, is milked to death throughout the course of the picture, with its employment serving as a wink-wink meta-theory on the nature of filmmaking as well as a commentary on the voyeuristic nature of audiences (a premise tackled more effectively in dozens of previous films, particularly Hitchcock's Rear Window). Rubber offers believable special effects and a fine score by Dupieux and Gaspard Auge, but it runs out of gas far too early in the journey.
Blu-ray extras include interviews with Dupieux and actors Spinella, Jack Plotnick and Roxane Mesquida; a 5-minute behind-the-scenes featurette; and trailers.
A THOUSAND CLOWNS (1965) / THE DESTRUCTORS (1974) / OLD DRACULA (1974). Fox Home Entertainment continues to offer consumers a wide selection of otherwise out-of-circulation titles through its MOD ("manufacturing on demand") program. Here are three pictures from its MGM Limited Edition Collection, including one Oscar winner.
Based on the Broadway hit, A Thousand Clowns trumpets its stage origins at every turn, with most of the action confined to one tiny apartment. What's more, the film's stance against conformity may have seemed fresh at the time but today comes across as somewhat timid and unsure. But never mind: With a cast this good and dialogue this witty, the film retains its modest charms. Jason Robards stars as Murray Burns, who's fed up with society (he quit his job as writer for the children's show Chuckles the Chipmunk) and prefers to spend all his time raising his 12-year-old nephew Nick (Barry Gordon), who's clearly wise beyond his years. But a pair of social workers (Barbara Harris and William Daniels) insist that in order to keep Nick with him, Murray must find a steady job. With an assist from his agent-brother (Martin Balsam), Murray looks around, even considering returning to his old job working for the goober behind the Chuckles persona (Gene Saks, better known as a Tony-winning director). Nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, this earned a Best Supporting Actor statue for Balsam.
I first saw The Destructors back when I was a mere lad in the 1970s, and I've waited patiently for over three decades for the opportunity to catch it again. Its original title in Europe (where I viewed it) was The Marseille Contract, so are we to assume its name was changed stateside to The Destructors to avoid confusion with The French Connection? At any rate, it's hard to ignore any picture with an above-the-title roster that consists of Michael Caine, Anthony Quinn and James Mason. Despite second billing, Quinn is the lead, portraying a US narcotics agent who, frustrated at his department's inability to nail a drug kingpin (Mason), hires a contract killer (Caine) to take care of business. The movie offers some surprises among its familiar trappings, and the vehicular stuntwork is top-notch — plus, you have to credit any movie in which a playful car chase between a man and a woman can be categorized as foreplay. Even though he doesn't appear until approximately the half-hour mark, Caine earns top honors as the smooth assassin.
In the hopes of piggybacking on the massive success of Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein, the creators of Vampira quickly renamed their movie Old Dracula and even promoted it with the tagline, "If You Liked Young Frankenstein, You'll Love Old Dracula." Let's just say it was a pathetic ploy that fooled no one. David Niven, looking extremely embarrassed under the circumstances, plays the title figure, who's searching for the right blood that will resurrect his comatose wife, Countess Vampira (who got food poisoning from eating a spoiled peasant). A bevy of Playboy bunnies show up at his Transylvania estate, and while the blood he ends up using revives his wife, it also turns her into a black woman (Teresa Graves) since there was one black Playmate in the mix. So with Vampira and his manservant Maltravers (Peter Bayliss) in tow, Dracula heads to London in an effort to track down the ladies and change his wife back to white. The film's racial content would be offensive were it not so ineptly presented (after seeing a Jim Brown flick, the formerly regal Countess suddenly starts speaking slang, referring to Dracula as a "jive turkey" and a "groovy old dude"), and old veteran Bayliss, as the faithful servant, outshines the amateurish supporting cast even if his routine is strictly old-school shtick.
There are no extras on the DVDs except for each film's theatrical trailer.
A Thousand Clowns: ***
The Destructors: ***
Old Dracula: *1/2
VERA CRUZ (1954) / THE LONG RIDERS (1980). Two sturdy Westerns, both box office hits in their day, make their Blu-ray debuts in sparse editions.
Vera Cruz is set in the days after the end of the Civil War, when many Americans drifted to Mexico hoping to make some money as mercenaries in the skirmish between Emperor Maximilian and the revolutionary forces. One such man is Benjamin Trane (Gary Cooper); another is Joe Erin (Burt Lancaster). Deciding to offer their services to Maximilian (since his side of course pays better), the pair make an unlikely odd couple, given the gentlemanly Trane's soft spot for horses and women and the boisterous Joe's penchant for double-crosses. Tasked with guarding a gold shipment, the cowboys agree to throw in with a duplicitous countess (Denise Darcel) and steal the treasure for themselves, but Trane's encounters with a peasant (Sarita Montiel) who supports the Juaristas makes him reconsider his options. There are no surprises in Cooper's typically solid performance — unlike John Wayne, he generally preferred his heroes to be as pure as snow — but Lancaster's wily work keeps audiences guessing as to whether he'll ultimately prove to be an anti-hero or an out-and-out villain. Look for Charles Bronson, Ernest Borgnine and Jack Elam as three of Joe's henchmen.
The Long Riders sounds like merely a gimmick: Cast real-life brothers as real-life outlaw siblings. But with director Walter Hill (back in his glory years) in charge, it turned out to be one of the last decent Westerns to hit the big screen until the early 1990s brought us Dances with Wolves and Unforgiven. The Keaches (Stacy, James), the Carradines (David, Keith, Robert), the Quaids (Dennis, Randy) and the Guests (Christopher, Nicholas) respectively portray the James, Younger, Miller and Ford brothers, and the picture episodically follows them as they rob banks, bicker amongst themselves, and attempt to forge some semblance of personal lives. In addition to playing Frank and Jesse James, Stacy and James Keach also co-wrote the script and served as executive producers, but they were generous enough not to make themselves rise above the ensemble: All of the characterizations are interesting and all of the performances memorable, although it's amusing to note that in this picture dominated by men, the best work comes from Pamela Reed as the fiery Belle Starr.
The only extra feature accompanying each film is the theatrical trailer.
Both Movies: ***