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View from the Couch

Bugsy, Forbidden Planet, Lady in the Water, Talladega Nights, others

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BUGSY (1991). Warren Beatty delivers one of his best performances in this slick saga about notorious gangster Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel. James Toback's script often views Bugsy as an overgrown kid, dogged by one fatal flaw (his temper) but also blessed with some endearing social traits and a lively imagination, the latter leading to his creation of Las Vegas. Toback and director Barry Levinson err in placing so much emphasis on a commonplace romance between Bugsy and actress Virginia Hill (Annette Bening, defeated by a shrill, one-note part), but the story's mob elements are surprisingly fresh, and Harvey Keitel and Ben Kingsley are excellent as Bugsy's more level-headed cohorts. Nominated for 10 Academy Awards (including Best Picture), this earned two for its costume and set designs. DVD extras include a 90-minute making-of documentary and a pair of deleted scenes.

Movie: ***

Extras: **1/2

FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956). One of the undisputed classics of sci-fi cinema, Forbidden Planet is a far-flung adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest, with a smattering of Freud tossed in for good measure. Leslie Nielsen, decades before the Naked Gun films made it impossible to accept him in a serious role, plays the captain of an American rocketship which lands on the planet Altair-4; there, the space travelers meet Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis), the only survivors of a scientific expedition sent to the planet years earlier. Aided by his creation, the docile Robby the Robot, Morbius is content to remain on Altair-4, but all hell breaks loose once an invisible "Id monster" starts murdering the crew members. The set design, electronic score and Oscar-nominated visual effects are all first-rate; indeed, this remarkably mature drama was a major influence on the science fiction field for year to come, most notably through TV's Star Trek series. DVD extras in this two-disc set include two subsequent vehicles featuring Robby the Robot -- the 1957 feature film The Invisible Boy and a 1958 episode of the TV series The Thin Man -- a trio of documentaries, and deleted scenes.

Movie: ***1/2

Extras: ***1/2

LADY IN THE WATER (2006). With each subsequent picture, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Signs) has exposed himself as a filmmaker of limited means; if this pattern of diminishing returns continues, he may soon be reduced to trying to revive the long dormant Police Academy series. For now, though, we're stuck with this dud about an apartment complex superintendent (Paul Giamatti) who tries to protect a Narf (sea nymph) from a Scrunt (wolf) until she can make contact with the Great Eatlon (eagle), all the while keeping one eye peeled for the Tartutic (killer monkeys). This was originally conceived by the auteur as a bedtime story for his daughters, and in that context, it probably worked fine. But as a motion picture aimed at adult audiences, it's a mess, at once ridiculous and risible. Requiring characters to behave in illogical ways and making up the rules of the game as it goes along, this eventually reaches such high levels of absurdity that by the end you can't help but wonder if it was all a put-on, Shyamalan's "screw you" to the critics, studio suits and audience members who abandoned him with The Village. DVD extras include deleted scenes, a six-part documentary, and auditions.

Movie: *1/2

Extras: **1/2

MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947). One of the Holy Trinity of Yuletide films (the others being, of course, It's a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story), this is one of those timeless classics that never wears out its welcome, not matter how many holiday seasons one has spent watching it. Edmund Gwenn deservedly earned the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of a kindly gentleman who calls himself Kris Kringle and who lands a job as the Macy's department store Santa Claus. Kringle's biggest challenge, not surprisingly, is proving that he's the real Santa, first to the disbelieving daughter (Natalie Wood) of the Macy's executive (Maureen O'Hara) who hired him, then to an entire courtroom during a sensational trial. In addition to Gwenn's performance, this also earned Oscars for Best Original Story and Best Screenplay; instantly popular, it also managed to snag a Best Picture nomination. For some reason, the two-disc DVD includes not only the black-and-white original but also the grotesque colorized version released in the mid-80s, in which all the characters appear jaundiced; other extras include audio commentary by O'Hara, the AMC Backstory episode on the film, and vintage promotional material.

Movie: ****

Extras: **1/2

A SCANNER DARKLY (2006). Once again employing the rotoscoping process that he used in 2001's Waking Life (basically, filming in live-action and then tracing over the images), writer-director Richard Linklater this time unleashes the technique on Philip K. Dick's 1977 novel -- a match made in hallucinatory heaven. Seven years from now, 20 percent of the population will be comprised of junkies, and the US government is trying to break the nation of its habit. It sends an agent (Keanu Reeves) into the field to track down the suppliers of a deadly drug called Substance D; posing as a slacker, he forges relationships with several dopers (Winona Ryder, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson and Rory Cochrane), but as his own use of Substance D continues to fry his brain, he finds it increasingly difficult to ascertain what's real and what's imagined. Even with its animated overlay, this is far more restrained than other notable "drug flicks" (Requiem for a Dream, Naked Lunch), though the uniqueness of its visual style insures there's always something eye-catching on view. DVD extras include audio commentary by Linklater, Reeves and Philip K. Dick's daughter Isa Dick Hackett, a making-of piece, and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ***

Extras: **1/2

TALLADEGA NIGHTS: THE BALLAD OF RICKY BOBBY (2006). Like Spam, energy drinks and the music of Yanni, Will Ferrell is one of those acquired tastes that satisfy devotees while perplexing everyone else. Yet even folks who weren't entertained by Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy should dig this summer box office smash -- it's consistently pleasurable and offers a surprisingly steady stream of laugh-out-loud moments. Like Ron Burgundy, Ricky Bobby is also an egotistical, none-too-bright boor. "I piss excellence," he declares, and his standing as NASCAR's best driver certainly signals that he's excellent at something. But his strained relationship with his deadbeat dad (Gary Cole, delivering the film's shrewdest comic performance) and the arrival of a formidable opponent, a French homosexual race car driver (hilarious Sacha Baron Cohen, currently headlining Borat), leads to his fall from grace and his subsequent (and humbled) climb back to the top. The Highlander quips alone are worth the rental price. This is available in both the original theatrical version and an "Unrated and Uncut" edition. DVD extras include audio commentary by director Adam McKay "and friends," deleted scenes, interviews with the actors in character, and more footage of Ricky's sons, Walker and Texas Ranger.

Movie: ***

Extras: ***

THE WICKER MAN (2006). Writer-director Neil LaBute's remake of the 1973 cult classic -- in which a detective investigating a disappearance on a remote island unearths a decadent and primitive society -- is a disastrous miscalculation, shucking the original's religious angle completely and instead fashioning the tale as a battle between upstanding male dominance and wicked feminist doctrine. LaBute has repeatedly faced charges of misogyny but never before has he appeared quite this terrified of emasculation -- it's as if John Bobbitt had gotten hold of a movie camera and made a film in which all the female characters were based on his interpretation of Lorena Bobbitt. Nicolas Cage plays the befuddled protagonist here, no longer a God-(and sex-)fearing cop but rather a generic Hollywoodized detective (no spiritual side, haunted by a past tragedy, forever popping pills, etc.). The double-sided disc contains both the theatrical cut and an unrated version with an alternate ending; other extras include audio commentary by LaBute and various cast and crew members, and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: *1/2

Extras: *1/2

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