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View From The Couch


DARKNESS (2002). Perhaps inspired by the success of fellow countryman Alejandro Amenabar's The Others, Spain's Jaume Balaguero likewise wrote and directed a horror yarn filmed on European locations but cast with English-speaking actors. Kept on the dusty shelf by Miramax Pictures, the film was finally released this past Christmas as an alternative to holiday fare and Oscar bait, though its real function was quickly revealed to serve as a lump of coal to naughty filmgoers. The movie wasn't screened in advance for US critics, and catching up with it now reveals why - between viewing both this haunted house tale and the awful Amityville Horror remake within the same month, living in a car trunk is starting to look like a viable option to suffering through any more movies about home ownership. Anna Paquin stars as a teenager who moves into an eerie home in the Spanish countryside with her twitchy dad (Iain Glen), her imbecilic mother (Lena Olin) and a younger brother who receives the bulk of the supernatural abuse; the revelation of why the house is haunted arrives after a deadly opening hour in which nothing even remotely interesting occurs. This has been released on DVD in both the PG-13 American cut and the longer, unrated European version; I screened the latter (equivalent to an R) and can only deduce that the Yuletide US version had been shortened by 14 minutes in the spirit of seasonal charity. Balaguero's earlier horror yarn, The Nameless, was released on DVD simultaneously with Darkness, but I simply didn't have the strength to check it out. Extra features include a why-bother behind-the-scenes feature that lasts just a couple of minutes and the theatrical trailer.
Movie: 1/2


A KILLING IN A SMALL TOWN (1990) / TOO YOUNG TO DIE? (1990). MPI Home Video has seen fit to round up a half-dozen made-for-TV movies from years past and release them under the banner "The True Stories Collection" (each film is sold separately). Many of the titles are headlined by the small-screen likes of Cathy Lee Crosby and Meredith Baxter, but two merit special mention, one for showcasing an award-winning lead performance, the other for featuring a current Hollywood superstar in one of his earliest credits. A Killing In a Small Town (originally broadcast under the title Evidence of Love) earned Barbara Hershey both an Emmy Award and a Golden Globe for her complex central performance as Candy Morrison, a dowdy, churchgoing housewife who takes an axe to the spouse of a man with whom she briefly had an affair. It's up to her attorney (Brian Dennehy) to determine whether she cold-bloodedly murdered the woman or was acting in self-defense. Hershey's ambiguous turn elevates this a notch above the usual TV-movie-of-the-week fodder. The same can be said of Juliette Lewis' anguished work in Too Young To Die?, though the flick's most trivia-worthy note is that it features Brad Pitt a year before his supporting stint in Thelma & Louise put him on the map. Pitt plays a sleazy street hustler who leads a homeless 15-year-old (Lewis) into a life of prostitution, drugs and murder; he's fine, but this relentless downer draws its power from Lewis' heartbreaking turn as the sort of abandoned, impoverished and ill-educated child that this country's ruling class is only too happy to perpetually ignore. There are no extras on the DVDs.
Both movies: 1/2


NATIONAL TREASURE (2004). There's a certain crazy appeal to the central thrust of this commercial hit, which suggests that George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and other Founding Fathers did such an exemplary job of hiding a sizable bounty, the only way to find it is to unscramble the clues that have been hidden on the Declaration of Independence, the Liberty Bell and other mainstays of American History 101. Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford have been searching for a screenplay worthy of providing the backbone for an Indiana Jones 4, and in the proper hands, this might have been the one. Instead, the resumes of National Treasure's director (Jon Turteltaub) and five writers are littered with the likes of Bad Boys II, Snow Dogs and Disney's The Kid, so instead of another Raiders of the Lost Ark, we get to watch plunderers of a lost art. National Treasure strives for the breathless pace of a matinee cliffhanger, yet it's too clumsy, too flat-footed, to generate anything more substantial than glazed-over glances in the general direction of the screen. The movie has no sense of pace or style, and it finds Nicolas Cage again turning his back on his talents to sleepwalk through yet another undemanding part. The only national treasure connected with this film is the gargantuan paycheck the actor received for his somnambular contribution. DVD extras include deleted scenes, a piece on real-life treasure hunters, a few plugs for Verizon (can't forget those corporate sponsors), and clues that allow viewers to unearth even more hidden features.


SPACEBALLS (1987). On the tenth anniversary of the original Star Wars, Mel Brooks released his satiric take on the trilogy, and while it doesn't skewer the sci-fi genre as wickedly as Young Frankenstein tackled the horror film, it's probably the last Brooks theatrical release to consistently offer more laughs than groans. Bill Pullman plays Lone Starr, the Luke Skywalker/Han Solo composite who travels around the galaxy with his faithful half-canine, half-human companion Barf (John Candy) by his side. When the evil Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis) wages war against the peaceful planet Druidia, Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga) and the android Dot Matrix (voiced by Joan Rivers) join our heroes in attempting to vanquish the villains. Brooks himself appears in two roles - the evil President Skroob and the wizened Yogurt the magnificent ("Please, I'm just plain Yogurt") - though it's the minor character of Pizza the Hutt (voiced by Dom De Luise) who never fails to make me chuckle. A slapdash effort that throws in all manner of gags - some inspired (that opening shot), some predictable (when troops are ordered to comb the desert, you just know an actual mega-sized comb will be shown sifting through the sand), some completely off the wall (the Alien chestburster performing a song-and-dance number) - Spaceballs is innocent, old-fashioned fun, as well as a unique way to prep for George Lucas' upcoming Revenge of the Sith. Extras in this two-disc DVD set include audio commentary by Mel Brooks, a conversation between Brooks and co-scripter Thomas Meehan (in which it's revealed that the original title of the movie was Planet Moron), a half-hour making-of documentary, a tribute to John Candy, the movie presented at Ludicrous Speed, film flubs, an imaginative art gallery, and much more.

Extras: 1/2

- Matt Brunson

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