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View From The Couch

Away from Her, Taxi Driver, Up In Smoke, others



AWAY FROM HER (2007). Iris would appear to have been the first and last word on movies dealing with Alzheimer's disease, yet here comes Away From Her to provide it with troubled company. Like that somber drama, this incisive picture, which marks the assured directorial debut of 28-year-old actress Sarah Polley (The Sweet Hereafter), proves to be a difficult, unsettling watch, all the more so for those who have lost someone to that dreadful disease. Yet what both films also share is a commitment to portraying the ravages of that affliction with clear-eyed honesty, tracking not only the effects on its victims but also on the caretakers who continue to provide support even as their loved ones are fading away right before their eyes. Judi Dench was remarkable in Iris, yet it was Jim Broadbent who walked away with an Academy Award. Similarly, rave reviews have all but assured year-end accolades for Julie Christie's superlative performance, but it's really the Canadian veteran Gordon Pinsent who holds the film together. As his character watches his wife place a frying pan in the freezer or bond with a fellow patient (Michael Murphy) because she can't recall that she even has a husband, he draws us in with his stillness, his whispered frustrations, his seething impotence. His character's silence is deafening; you can hear his heart break a mile away.

DVD extras include audio commentary by Christie and deleted scenes with optional commentary by Polley.

Movie: ***1/2

Extras: **

GEORGIA RULES (2007). Given Jane Fonda's disastrous return to cinema in 2005's Monster-In-Law followed by this summer dud, it's clear that the career resuscitation isn't going exactly as planned. Fonda's Georgia, a family matriarch who runs her household the way a drill instructor lords over greenhorn recruits, is a one-note shrew, and one of this schizophrenic movie's greatest failings is that it never acknowledges that it's this woman's puritanical behavior which started the chain reaction partly leading to the miserable circumstances that plague her daughter Lilly (Felicity Huffman) and her granddaughter Rachel (Lindsay Lohan). Then again, it's not just Fonda's fault that Georgia is a poorly realized character; blame also must be directed at scripter Mark Andrus and director Garry Marshall. Marshall in particular has no clue how to orchestrate the movie's heavy themes involving alcoholism (Lilly), nymphomania (Rachel) and possible child abuse (Rachel claims she was repeatedly molested by her stepdad when she was 12); after all, he's the director who viewed mental retardation as little more than an amusing character quirk in The Other Sister. Here, he tries to lighten the movie's mood by having Rachel give a blowjob to a nice Mormon boy who's seriously trying to serve God (har har) and then painting the lad's girlfriend and her pals as the story's heavies. Worthy mother-daughter sagas reached their zenith with 1983's magnificent Terms of Endearment; Georgia Rule, by contrast, fails to elicit much in the way of any genuine emotion. If there's not a dry eye in the living room when Lilly and Rachel finally hug, it's only because viewers will have ejected the DVD and cleared out by that point.

DVD extras include seven deleted scenes, three alternate endings, a making-of short and a gag reel.

Movie: *1/2

Extras: **1/2

INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978). Those disappointed by the current flop The Invasion are encouraged to rent any of the previous screen adaptations of Jack Finney's sci-fi novel The Body Snatchers, all of which trump this latest incarnation. The 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers remains the best of the bunch, but this second take on the tale more than qualifies as a respectable remake. (The third attempt, 1994's Body Snatchers, is flawed but worthwhile.) This time, the setting is San Francisco, with Donald Sutherland as a city health inspector who, along with his friends (Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright), starts to notice that other associates and neighbors aren't quite as animated as they used to be. Cleverly, each film version has been tweaked to speak to its era, so whereas the '56 model dealt with Cold War issues, this one finds director Philip Kaufman and writer W.D. Richter tackling other subjects. On one hand, it's an indictment of how careless Americans are with their own lives, putting all sorts of poisons into their bodies and listening to any new philosophies that happen to emerge on the scene. On the other, it's a typical example of the post-Watergate paranoia thriller running rampant throughout the 70s, specifically warning against the dangers of the right-wing way of thinking: conformist, self-centered and unfeeling toward others (Sutherland even jokes that a pod person is exhibiting the characteristics of a typical Republican). Kevin McCarthy and Don Siegel, the star and director of the 1956 original, both have cameos as, respectively, the frantic man on the street and the taxi driver. And, yes, that's Robert Duvall in a blink-and-you'll-miss-him appearance as the priest on the swing!

DVD extras include audio commentary by Kaufman, four making-of featurettes and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ***

Extras: ***

NIGHT ON EARTH (1991). Or, Taxicab Confessions, Jim Jarmusch style. The provocative writer-director here comes up with a catchy gimmick, following five cab drivers in five different cities as they ferry passengers across darkly lit landscapes, all the while chatting with their fare and in some cases briefly connecting with them on a soulful level. As expected, the quality of the individual vignettes varies, though only one is an out-and-out drag. The best episode, set in New York, finds a German cabbie (Armin Mueller-Stahl) taking his passenger (Giancarlo Esposito) from Manhattan to Brooklyn -- a problem, since the driver neither speaks English nor knows how to drive. The worst chapter, set in Rome, finds the talkative taxi driver (exhausting Roberto Benigni) confessing his sins (which include past dalliances with a sheep) to the priest (Paolo Bonacelli) in the back seat, blissfully unaware that his passenger is dying. The other three segments, all worthwhile, take place in Los Angeles (Winona Ryder as the scrappy driver and Gina Rowlands as a stressed casting agent), Paris (Isaach De Bankole as the surly driver and Beatrice Dalle as his blind fare), and Helsinski (Matti Pellonpaa as the mournful driver who tops his passengers' tragic tale with one of his own). Along with Night on Earth, Criterion has also released a two-disc edition of Jarmusch's 1984 gem Stranger Than Paradise, a key component in the indie film movement that began gathering steam in the mid-80s.

DVD extras include audio commentary by cinematographer Frederick Elmes and location sound mixer Drew Kunin, a lengthy Q&A with Jarmusch in which he answers fans' questions, and a 1992 TV interview with Jarmusch.

Movie: ***

Extras: **1/2

TAXI DRIVER (1976). One of the most disturbing -- and controversial -- studies of loneliness ever placed on screen, Taxi Driver also offers perhaps the most harrowingly realistic portrayal of the darkside of New York City, depicting it as a concrete jungle populated almost exclusively by savage, snarling beasts. In one of his defining performances, Robert De Niro stars as Travis Bickle, a downtrodden cab driver fed up with the filth and grime all around him. A beautiful blonde (Cybill Shepherd) provides him with temporary hope, but he eventually realizes that his true salvation rests in protecting a 12-year-old prostitute (Jodie Foster) from her brutal pimp (Harvey Keitel). Director Martin Scorsese, writer Paul Schrader and cinematographer Michael Chapman make NYC look like the least appealing place on the planet, and the film gained additional notoriety in 1981 when John Hinckley Jr. attempted to assassinate then-President Ronald Reagan as a gesture of love toward Foster, with whom he had become obsessed after seeing her in this movie. The climactic bloodbath retains its potency today, while the meaning of the vague epilogue continues to stir debate. This earned four Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Actor, Supporting Actress (Foster) and a Best Original Score nod for the great Bernard Herrmann (Psycho, Citizen Kane), who passed away a day after completing the music for this film.

Extras in the two-disc DVD set include separate audio commentaries by Schrader and film professor Robert Kolker, a discussion with Scorsese, a making-of documentary, two features (one interactive) that examine the difference between New York in 1976 and New York today, a piece on the film's lasting influence, and the original screenplay.

Movie: ***1/2

Extras: ***1/2

UP IN SMOKE (1978). Ah, how the times do change. In 1936, Reefer Madness showed how just one puff from a single marijuana cigarette could lead to murder, suicide, insanity and (how shocking!) a desire to dance to fast music. In 1978, Up In Smoke showed how smoking a joint the size of a stapler could at worst lead to a severe case of the munchies. In short, Nancy Reagan wouldn't have found much use for this cult hit in her "Just Say No" campaign, as Cheech Marin and Thomas Chong (making their film debuts after successful stand-up and recording careers) prove to be irresistible antiestablishment figures in this consistently amusing dum-dum comedy. With a script that's often as aimless as its protagonists, Up In Smoke drifts from one comic set-piece to another, as stoners Pedro (Cheech) and Man (Chong) are constantly on the prowl for their next high. Their odyssey leads them to the home of Pedro's Vietnam-scarred cousin Strawberry (Tom Skerritt), to Mexico to pick up a van made entirely out of weed, and to a rock club to perform in a "Battle of the Bands"-style contest. Up In Smoke is sloppy, crude and decidedly non-PC, but just try not to laugh when a coked-out partygoer unwittingly snorts a few lines of Ajax ("Good shit!" she declares), or when a police dog is glimpsed dead on its back, stiff legs straight up in the air after having ODed from sniffing the marijuana-van, or when Pedro explains that his illegal-alien relatives purposely called Immigration so they could get a free ride across the border into Mexico to attend a wedding.

DVD extras include audio commentary by Cheech and director-producer Lou Adler, deleted scenes (including a pair with Harry Dean Stanton as a prison guard), a making-of piece, and vintage radio spots.

Movie: ***

Extras: ***

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