(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.)
Earth to Echo (Photo: Fox)
EARTH TO ECHO (2014). How do we know that the film industry's love for the found-footage format has reached its ridiculous nadir? Because here we have a children's movie employing this filmmaking fad for no discernible reason. What's next? A found-footage animated feature? A found-footage porn flick? A found-footage State of the Union address? Then again, it's entirely possible that the folks behind Earth to Echo opted for this mode of moviemaking solely to distract from the fact that the picture is nothing more than a shameless rip-off of 1982's E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, right down to utilizing similar poster art and comparable narrative beats to relate the story of a childlike alien who requires assistance from a bunch of suburban kids (Teo Halm, Brian "Astro" Bradley and Reese Hartwig, all appealing young actors) in order to get off our rock and journey back to his own planet. But E.T. isn't the only movie being siphoned here: The addition to the group of a blonde (Ella Wahlestedt) who's more mature than the guys smacks of Super 8, while the wayward alien unfortunately looks like the headache-inducing Bubo the mechanical owl from the original Clash of the Titans. "E.T. phone home," trumpeted the otherworldly star of the Spielberg classic. "E.T. text Earth" would work as a new rallying cry, since a film as often charm-free as Earth to Echo only serves to remind us of just how much we've missed the little guy.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; a look at the film's characters; and the theatrical trailer.
Dane DeHaan and Aubrey Plaza in Life After Beth (Photo: Lionsgate)
LIFE AFTER BETH (2014). There's one clever idea in Life After Beth, and it's the suggestion that zombies really dig smooth jazz. Otherwise, when it comes to the overstuffed annals of undead cinema from A (Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies) to Z (Zombies on Broadway), this anemic effort rests near the bottom of the heap. It begins with the death of Beth Slocum (Aubrey Plaza), felled by a poisonous snake bite while hiking through the woods. Her boyfriend Zach Orfman (Dane DeHaan) is understandably devastated by the loss, so imagine his surprise when he spots Beth lurking around the Slocum household. At first convinced that her death was a sick prank, he soon believes her parents (John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon) when they tell him that she somehow came back from the dead. The picture is badly paced and, for a comedy, pretty devoid of laughs, but its primary problem is that its title character never comes across as anything more than a plot device. The movie would have been more interesting had it followed Beth and how she coped with her unique situation, but she only turns up sporadically to act sweet and, later, turn psychotic. Instead, the focus is squarely on Zach and the poor boy's plight in dealing with a girlfriend who's not all there in too many ways to count. This askew viewpoint is even accentuated by the second-act introduction of Erica (Anna Kendrick), a nice girl who's only shoehorned into the plot so we can all rest assured that Zach will have a new relationship waiting once he lays his current one to rest (pun fully intended). If there's any subtext to be found in this, it's not particularly pleasant. Those interested in a worthwhile romantic comedy featuring zombies — zom-rom-com is the terminology, I believe — check out last year's Warm Bodies. It's far more satisfying than Life After Beth, which is strictly DOA.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by writer-director Jeff Baena, Plaza, DeHaan and co-star Matthew Gray Gubler; a making-of featurette; and deleted scenes.
Victor Mature in My Darling Clementine (Photo: Criterion Collection)
MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946). Serious actors are always itching to play Hamlet, but maybe they should consider the role of Doc Holliday instead. While the stars who are cast as marshal Wyatt Earp receive all the worshipful camera angles, those filling the part of the hard-drinking, hard-coughing gambler — and Earp's partner in taking down the Clanton clan at the OK Corral — often garner some of the best reviews of their careers. Kirk Douglas, Dennis Quaid and Val Kilmer have all excelled in the role (in, respectively, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Wyatt Earp and Tombstone), yet preceding them was Victor Mature, who did some of his finest work in director John Ford's Western classic. As Earp, Henry Fonda's no slouch, either, masterfully playing the legend as a man who's rigid with the law but playful on his own terms (check out the famous chair-balancing scene) and ingratiatingly awkward around the lady who catches his eye (Cathy Downs as Clementine). Then there's Walter Brennan: Usually seen as an affable, aw-shucks sidekick (Rio Bravo, Red River, etc.), he's downright chilling in this picture, portraying the paterfamilias of the murderous Clanton family. My Darling Clementine represents superb moviemaking on every level, with the in-sync portrayals by Fonda and Mature, an exquisite screenplay and beautiful black-and-white cinematography combining to make this the best Western Ford ever filmed without John Wayne on board.
The new Criterion Blu-ray edition contains both the 97-minute theatrical cut and a 103-minute prerelease version. Extras include audio commentary by Ford biographer Joseph McBride; a video essay by Ford scholar Tag Gallagher; a comparison of the two versions of the film; an interview with Western historian Andrew C. Isenberg about the real Wyatt Earp; and the 1916 silent Western Bandit's Wager, featuring John Ford in a co-starring role and directed by his brother, Francis Ford.
Pee-wee's Playhouse (Photo: Shout! Factory)
PEE-WEE'S PLAYHOUSE (1986-1990). When Pee-wee's Big Adventure was unleashed on the world in 1985, a film critic (USA Today's Mike Clark, if I recall) wrote that "A demented masterpiece is still a masterpiece." That same bit of wisdom can also be applied to the Saturday morning children's series that appeared the year after that breakthrough effort from Paul Reubens (aka Pee-wee Herman). Pee-wee's Playhouse is both bizarre and brilliant, a series that's ostensibly for kids but which appeals equally — if not more so — to grown-ups (my own introduction to the show was shortly after college, when an older — and childless — family member thankfully insisted I watch the episodes he had taped off TV). Each show finds our man-child host hanging out in his imaginatively decorated funhouse, a romper room that houses such oddities as a talking chair, a talking globe and Jambi the Genie (John Paragon). Pee-wee would receive visits from such friends as Cowboy Curtis (Laurence Fishburne), Captain Carl (Phil Hartman), the King of Cartoons (Gilbert Lewis in the first season, Blacula's William Marshall for the rest of the run) and little Opal (a tiny Natasha Lyonne!), and each episode would include a Secret Word. The behind-the-scenes talent assembled for the show is formidable: Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh, Danny Elfman and Todd Rungren on the musical side; Wayne White, winning Emmys for his spectacular set designs (White was later the subject of the acclaimed 2012 documentary Beauty Is Embarrassing); multiple Oscar winners Ve Neill (Beetlejuice, Mrs. Doubtfire and Ed Wood) and Yolanda Toussieng (Mrs. Doubtfire and Ed Wood) handling the makeup; and Peter Lord and David Sproxton of Aardman Animations (the Wallace & Gromit franchise) lending a hand with the animation (particularly creating the delightful Penny shorts seen on the show). And, yes, that's the great Cyndi Lauper (billed as Ellen Shaw) contributing the theme song.
This glorious box set from Shout! Factory houses not only all 45 episodes from the show's five-year run but also the 1988 Christmas special that included guest appearances from the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Cher, Magic Johnson, k.d. lang and the late Joan Rivers. Also included are over four hours of making-of material examining the sets, the casting, the music, the puppets and more, as well as interviews with many cast and crew members, including Fishburne, Elfman and White.
Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel in Sex Tape (Photo: Sony)
SEX TAPE (2014). The prospect of keeping longtime marriages afloat and energized is a popular screen topic as of late (Date Night, Hall Pass), and Sex Tape draws from the same well. After 10 years and two kids, finding the time or strength to engage in whoopie is about as difficult for Annie (Cameron Diaz) and Jay (Jason Segel) as finding that proverbial vibrator in a landfill (OK, needle in a haystack, but the other comparison seems more apt, yes?). But after shipping the children off to Grandma's, Jay and Annie find they have the house to themselves and get busy getting naked. Unfortunately, their attempts at lovemaking fall flat — at least until they hit upon the idea of filming what turns out to be a three-hour tryst. The next morning, Annie tasks Jay with erasing the footage; he of course forgets and instead leaves the compromising material on a handful of iPads he hands out to select family and friends. The night-long effort to retrieve all the devices makes up a good chunk of the film, with the highlight being a visit to the mansion of Annie's potential new boss Hank, a needy CEO played with pinpoint precision by Rob Lowe. This portion offers a number of laugh-out-loud moments, including ones involving Apple's Siri and Hank's assortment of Disney-inspired artwork. The film admittedly gets sillier — and, perhaps unavoidably, more repetitive — as it heads down the stretch, though there's an amusing late-inning cameo by a big star cast as a porn entrepreneur. Given the premise, the movie doesn't push the envelope as much as it could and perhaps should, but blame the MPAA and the studio system more than scripters Kate Angelo, Nicholas Stoller and Segel. "You can cut off a breast but you can't caress it," famously stated writer-director Philip Kaufman, whose 1990 feature Henry & June was the first film to receive the stigmatizing NC-17 rating despite containing absolutely no violence or gore. Twenty-four years later, his declaration still holds true, a condition that perhaps explains why so many films presumably made for grownups have trouble keeping it up for the duration.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; deleted and extended scenes; bloopers; and a chat with Dr. Jenn Berman (VH1's Couples Therapy).
Michael Fassbender in X-Men: Days of Future Past (Photo: Fox)
X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (2014). Far be it for me to drop any spoilers, so let's just say that the year's best superhero flick (sorry, Guardians) lets slip a couple of bombshells involving John F. Kennedy and his assassination, material that is conspicuously missing from our nation's textbooks. It also demonstrates conclusively that there were moments when Richard M. Nixon opted not to allow everything to be recorded on his infamous Oval Office tapes. Personally, I can't wait to see what future installments hold in store for our nation's leaders, though rumors abound that we'll see Bill Clinton unwisely hit on new White House intern Kitty Pride and learn that Ronald Reagan was the real power behind the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. For now, we can bask in the company of this latest X-adventure, which, like 2011's X-Men: First Class, manages to smartly incorporate historical events into its rollicking tale of mutant mayhem. The story begins in the near future, when powerful beings known as Sentinels have been tasked by those in charge to exterminate all mutants. Among the few still alive are Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), who has the ability to send a person (or, rather, their consciousness) back into the past; Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen), who decide that someone needs to travel back to 1973; and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), who volunteers for the job. Why 1973? Because that's when Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) murders Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), the scientist who creates the Sentinels and whose death-by-mutant galvanizes the nation's leaders into seeing his project come to fruition. To stop Mystique from carrying out her hit, Wolverine will need assistance from that era's Professor X and Magneto, a tall order since the professor (James McAvoy) has dulled his abilities with painkillers and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is being held in a maximum-security facility. As is the norm for superhero flicks, X-M:DoFP contains plenty of snacks for the diehard fans, but more universal themes are also addressed, specifically the perpetual series standby of the evils inherent in a world that believes in prejudice and segregation. And in addition to the presidential perspectives, the film also manages to incorporate the Vietnam War, Roberta Flack ... and Sanford and Son. It's that kind of movie: knowledgeable, emotional, and packed with incident and excitement.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; deleted scenes; and a gag reel.