(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what's new on Blu-ray and DVD.)
Tim Robbins in The Hudsucker Proxy (Photo: Warner Bros.)
THE HUDSUCKER PROXY (1994). It's easy to understand why this was a massive commercial flop upon its original release — unwieldy title, a fairly limited release, and the status of creators Joel and Ethan Coen as relative unknowns — but it's impossible to ascertain why it was a critical dud. Even when I first caught it back in '94, I felt it was an absolute delight, and it provokes the same reaction today. The Coens have always been dogged by clueless critics claiming that their movies are cold and display little sympathy toward their characters, and that same charge was levied with even more vigor against this picture. Nonsense. The siblings are clearly rooting for the saga's protagonist: Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins), a rube who heads to New York City in 1958 in hopes of making it in the business world. Initially, he's only able to snag a job in the mailroom of the conglomerate Hudsucker Industries, but with the suicide of founder Waring Hudsucker (Charles Durning), an opportunity presents itself. The board of directors — led by the ruthless Sidney J. Mussburger (Paul Newman) — decides the only way for them to keep controlling interest is to instate a complete moron as president; Mussberger picks Norville, but his best laid plans to keep stocks down get upended when the naive small-town boy introduces an invention that takes the country by storm. In their early pictures, the Coens delighted in paying homage to popular film genres, and The Hudsucker Proxy, co-written with The Evil Dead's Sam Raimi, particularly owes thanks to the populist fables that Frank Capra and Preston Sturges produced in the 30s and 40s. The staggering production design by Dennis Gassner clearly deserved the 1994 Oscar (it wasn't even nominated, with the prize going to The Madness of King George), while Carter Burwell's score and Roger Deakins' cinematography are also worthy of note. As a brash, fast-talking reporter who eventually falls for Norville, Jennifer Jason Leigh delivers an excellent performance that's patterned after such screwball stars as Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday and Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby; look also for Bruce Campbell as Leigh's cocky colleague Smitty and Anna Nicole Smith as Norville's arm-candy for a night.
The only extra on the Blu-ray is the theatrical trailer.
Heather Langenkamp in A Nightmare on Elm Street (Photo: Warner Bros. & New Line)
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET COLLECTION (1984-1994). A movie monster for a more modern age, Freddy Krueger needs about as much introduction as Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees, two other slasher-style villains who have spent the last few decades bloodily carving up high school and college-age kids as well as those who foolishly get in their way. Warner Bros.'s home entertainment has now collected (almost) all of Freddy's frolics in one place, as a new five-disc Blu-ray set contains the first seven pictures in the franchise (missing are 2003's Freddy vs. Jason and the 2010 remake of the first film).
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) first introduces the iconic character played by Robert Englund: A child murderer who himself was killed by angry parents, Freddy Krueger has returned in the nightmares of the teenage offspring of those who torched him. Freddy can only kill people in their dreams while they sleep; consequently, they die in real life as well, a revelation that slowly dawns on high school student — and Elm Street resident — Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) as her friends start meeting gruesome ends. Writer-director Wes Craven has admittedly come up with an ingenious premise, but as befits his standing as one of Hollywood's least talented filmmakers, it's wasted on a movie that's only moderately successful. Still, this movie terrified a lot of people back in the day, and it does present Freddy as a somewhat menacing figure rather than the wisecracking buffoon seen in the sequels. Johnny Depp makes his film debut as Nancy's none-too-bright boyfriend.
To his credit, Craven wanted nothing to do with A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (1985), which basically chucked out the rules established in the first film and seemingly made things up as it went along. Whereas Freddy was previously a dream demon who could attack people in their sleep, here he's able to not only manipulate a teenage boy (Mark Patton) into committing his murders for him, he's eventually also able to pop right out in broad daylight and start hacking up kids at a pool party. The homoerotic touches (particularly involving a high school coach who dresses in S&M gear) seem to belong in another movie, and they're only slightly less risible than the appearance of a killer parakeet.
Robert Englund in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (Photo: Warner Bros. & New Line)
Easily the best film in the series, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987) clicks on virtually all cylinders. Craven, Chuck Russell (who also directed) and Frank Darabont (TV's The Walking Dead) are among those contributing to a screenplay that finds Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), the only surviving teen from the first picture, now working at a mental facility housing several teens who have trouble sleeping. The staff can't figure out how to help them, but Nancy knows that Freddy is the one trying to kill them. Imaginatively directed by Russell (who would later score a massive hit with the Jim Carrey comedy The Mask), this features the best plotting, the most distinguished cast (Craig Wasson, Larry Fishburne and Patricia Arquette, among others), some fiendishly clever set-pieces (including one where The Dream Master basically turns into The Puppet Master) and a stirring finale.
Dream Warriors grossed a then-series-high of $44 million, a record that was quickly cracked when A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988) earned $49 million the following year (to date, they're both still the most profitable aside from 2003's Freddy vs. Jason, which nabbed $82 million). Manning one of his first features, Finnish director Renny Harlin (who would later helm the nailbiters Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger) can only do so much with a frequently silly story that finds Freddy brought back from the dead by, uh, fiery dog piss. This time, Freddy attempts to polish off the last few Elm Street teenagers so he can move onto "fresh meat," but he meets a formidable opponent in the withdrawn Alice (Lisa Wilcox).
Robert Englund and Erika Anderson in A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (Photo: Warner Bros. & New Line)
At this point, it's clear that the suits at producing studio New Line Cinema were merely going through the motions, attempting to keep a dying franchise on life support. Case in point: Whereas the earlier films at least had the kids believably trying to stay awake by downing gallons of coffee, A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989) finds a character dozing off for a couple of seconds at the dinner table as a cue for Freddy to get his game on (because, yes, falling asleep while chewing food and chatting with a half-dozen guests is so believable). Having defeated Freddy in the previous film, Alice (Lisa Wilcox) now finds that the literal man of her dreams is trying to strike at people through her unborn baby. The Freddy Muppet Baby is laughable, but give this some credit: It might be the only movie in history to contain references to both Dutch artist M.C. Escher and Norwegian pop group a-ha. Bonus points for also including the imaginatively named song "Bring Your Daughter to the Slaughter" on its soundtrack.
Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991) proves to be the low point of the series, an abysmal horror flick that suffers from Freddy's endless (and awful) puns, worthless cameos by Johnny Depp, Alice Cooper, Roseanne Barr and Tom Arnold, and a hideously misguided (read: slapstick) approach by Rachel Talalay, making her directing debut after working in various other capacities on the previous installments. In this one, we find out that Freddy has (gasp!) a child who's now grown up and being dragged back into his life — is this A Nightmare on Elm Street or Days of Our Lives? In theaters, the final 20 minutes were presented in 3-D, meaning that audience members had to don spectacles at the same moment as an on-screen character (who's laughably told it's the only way to see Freddy). So home viewers who might wonder why characters suddenly start waving pointy objects at the screen now know the reason.
Robert Englund and Tracy Middendorf in Wes Craven's New Nightmare (Photo: Warner Bros. & New Line)
Returning full-time to the series he created back in 1984, Craven wrote and directed Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994), which took the unusual step of merging the real world with the reel world. Actress Heather Langenkamp, from the first and third films, plays a fictionalized version of herself, gradually coming to realize that the evil represented by Freddy Krueger on film has begun to manifest itself in our world — and it has its sights set on her little boy Dylan (Miko Hughes). Craven, actor John Saxon and New Line CEO Robert Shaye are among those playing themselves, with Robert Englund performing double duty as himself and Freddy. It's a cool idea as far as it goes, which is to say, it doesn't go far at all, as an initially intriguing premise gets tossed aside for a distressingly formulaic third act. And true to form for Craven, notice how the most graphic violence is directed toward the lone teenage girl (Tracy Middendorf) in the film. Nevertheless, this captured the fancy of many critics, which gave Craven free rein to create the self-referential crock Scream.
While most of the movies may not amount to much, the extras included in the Blu-ray set are excellent. Features on various discs include audio commentaries by Craven, Englund, Langenkamp and others; over 30 behind-the-scenes featurettes; an interactive trivia track; two episodes from the Freddy's Nightmares TV series starring Englund; music videos for Dokken's "Dream Warriors," Fat Boys' "Are You Ready for Freddy?" (which finds Krueger rapping with the hefty lads) and Whodini's "Anyway I Gotta Swing It"; and a great hidden Easter Egg: vintage footage of Freddy Krueger on MTV, introducing videos by the likes of Los Lobos and ZZ Top.
A Nightmare on Elm Street: **1/2
A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge: *1/2
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors: ***
A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master: **
A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child: **
Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare: *
Wes Craven's New Nightmare: *1/2
Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts in Rust and Bone (Photo: Sony)
RUST AND BONE (2012). Like a carnival barker or presidential candidate, the French release Rust and Bone promises far more than it delivers. Marion Cotillard, one of the best actresses on today's international scene, stars as Stephanie, a whale trainer who loses her legs in a gruesome on-the-job accident. Drained of all life and wallowing in self-pity, she only perks up after entering into a friends-with-benefits relationship with Alain (Matthias Schoenaerts), a single dad drifting from job to job. It sounds like the template for a maudlin melodrama, but right from the start, it's clear that Jacques Audiard, the writer-director of the Oscar-nominated prison yarn A Prophet, will approach this story in a similarly hard-hitting style. Unfortunately, Audiard abandons the most interesting character, Stephanie, for long stretches of the movie, choosing instead to focus on the far less compelling Alain. This decision not only forces us to hang around with a boorish protagonist, it also doesn't allow Stephanie enough screen time to register as much more than a woman who measures her own worth by how much she's able to sexually arouse a man who, frankly, doesn't deserve her. Rust and Bone is supposed to be a tale about two individuals who save each other, but in the final analysis, it appears that the audience isn't the only one who gets a raw deal.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Audiard and co-scripter Thomas Bidegain; a making-of featurette; and deleted scenes.
Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (Photo: Disney)
WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT (1988). Director Robert Zemeckis' superb family film of course isn't underrated to the degree of, say, The Hudsucker Proxy: Its title character is instantly recognizable, it earned $154 million during its theatrical run, and it currently holds a high 98% approval among Rotten Tomatoes critics. Yet for a movie this brilliant, accolades still seem to fall short: It's the sort of picture that reasonably should have grossed much more (among 1980s titles, even the tepid Three Men and a Baby fared better), its awards during the 1988 season shouldn't have been just relegated to the technical field, and it's not even included in the IMDb Top 250 (meaning site visitors consider it inferior to such placeholders as Life Is Beautiful, Braveheart and Big Fish? Oy...). Sporting an eye-popping blend of live-action and animation, this stars a just-right Bob Hoskins as Eddie Valiant, a boozy private eye in post-WWII Hollywood who's hired to find out whether Jessica Rabbit (voiced by an unbilled Kathleen Turner), a va-va-voomish femme fatale ("I'm not bad; I'm just drawn that way") and wife of Roger Rabbit (voiced by Charles Fleischer), has been stepping out with Toontown mogul Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye). After Acme is murdered, Roger becomes the prime suspect, and it falls upon a reluctant Valiant to clear the rascally rabbit before the imposing Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd) catches up with him. Working from Gary K. Wolf's novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, scripters Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman fashion a work that's hardly kid stuff, given the nature of some steamy double entendres as well as a factually based plot thread that brings to mind (of all films) Chinatown. As expected, there are cartoon character cameos galore, including Mickey Mouse, Ducks Donald and Daffy, Goofy ("What a genius!" exclaims Roger), Droopy and even a black-and-white Betty Boop. Nominated for six Academy Awards, this won three (Best Film Editing, Visual Effects and Sound Effects Editing) as well as a Special Achievement Award to Richard Williams for his animation direction.
Blu-ray extras include the Roger Rabbit shorts Tummy Trouble, Roller Coaster Rabbit and Trail Mix-Up; audio commentary by Zemeckis, Price, Seaman and others; two making-of featurettes; and a deleted scene.