(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what's new on Blu-ray and DVD.)
BRAVE (2012) / PIXAR SHORT FILMS COLLECTION: VOLUME 2 (2012). The summer hit Brave remains a perfectly pleasant outing, but for a Pixar release, it's frighteningly tame and conventional, with little of the complexity that has marked the majority of the studio's past efforts. If nothing else, Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) makes for a vibrant heroine: With marble-smooth skin, flaming red hair seemingly modeled after early-90s Nicole Kidman, and archery skills to rival those of Robin Hood, she's a spirited Scottish lass who, in the best animated tradition, longs for independence and adventure. Her rambunctious father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), admires her earthiness and athletic abilities, but her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), ix nays such activities, insisting that Merida behave like a proper lady in order to land a suitable husband. After Merida shows up her three suitors, the two women have it out, resulting in Merida storming out of the castle and right into a curse that will unite the pair in ways they couldn't have foreseen. There's emotional resonance in the way the bond between mother and daughter evolves over the course of the picture, but it just barely compensates for the nonstarter nature of the big twist that propels all the second-half action. Honestly, this development (spurred by a visit to a witch's cottage) is presented in so slight a manner that I figured it was just an anecdotal interlude, not the central crux of the movie. This wouldn't matter if the filmmakers truly broke ground with the character of Merida, but while she's a memorable heroine, she's no more complicated than, say, Rapunzel in Tangled or Tiana in The Princess and the Frog. The hype declaring that Merida is the first animated heroine to not want a husband not only misinterprets the basic tenets of modern feminism but isn't even accurate (Belle, for one, didn't actively seek a partner; she was initially more interested in acquiring knowledge). As with all Pixar efforts, this is visually outstanding, and there's plenty of rowdy humor to keep audiences entertained. But for a supposedly progressive film, Brave is marked by a notable amount of timidity.
In addition to Brave, the Disney-Pixar label is releasing Pixar Short Films Collection: Volume 2, another gathering of animated briefs created by the outfit (most having initially appeared before the studio's feature-length efforts during their theatrical runs). The 12 titles include three Best Animated Short Oscar nominees (the amusing Presto, the thoughtful Day & Night and the poignant La Luna) as well as several efforts featuring familiar faces (including the Toy Story gang in Hawaiian Vacation and Small Fry, Ratatouille's Remy in Your Friend the Rat, and Up's friendly dog in Dug's Special Mission). The dozen also contains two entries in the TV series Cars Toons: Mater's Tall Tales (Air Mater and Time Travel Mater) and the iTunes/Facebook/YouTube release George & A.J. (featuring the two male caretakers from Up). Taken together, this crop isn't as strong as the 13 shorts included on Volume 1, but the majority of the works are nevertheless recommended.
Blu-ray extras on Brave include audio commentary by various behind-the-scenes personnel, including co-director Mark Andrews; numerous making-of featurettes examining everything from designing Merida's horse Angus and the bears to exploring the relationship between Merida and Elinor; extended scenes; an alternate opening; a montage of deleted shots; and art galleries. Blu-ray extras on Pixar Short Films Collection: Volume 2 include audio commentaries by the directors and other filmmakers on the shorts, and the early student films made by Pixar bigwigs John Lasseter, Pete Docter and Andrew Stanton.
Pixar Short Films Collection: Volume 2: ***
HAROLD & KUMAR ULTIMATE COLLECTOR'S EDITION (2004-2011). As I wrote upon the initial DVD release of the first film starring the amiable potheads Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn), "This had all the makings of a sleeper hit, yet its box office tapped out at $18 million; though its miniscule production costs allowed it to turn a profit, I suspect it will fare even better on home video, where couch potatoes can more easily watch it under the influence of their favorite, uh, snack." That is indeed what happened, with the movie becoming enough of a DVD fave to pave the way for two more flicks. While all three have already been released on Blu-ray, this marks the first time they're being offered in one box set.
Harold and Maude Go to White Castle might have been a better bet, but Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004) is nevertheless a gross-out comedy with a difference — it tosses some sharp social satire into the usual mix of horny guys, amiable dopeheads, repulsive rubes and homosexual bit players. And instead of making its lead characters typical morons like Bill and Ted or the Dude, Where's My Car? pair, this one gives us two smart kids in Korean-American Harold (John Cho), a mild-mannered employee at an investment firm, and Indian-American Kumar (Kal Penn), a more rebellious type who isn't quite ready to become a medical grad student like his dad desires. The plot is lifted from the Cheech and Chong playbook, as Harold and Kumar spend a Friday night getting high and then deciding that their munchies can only be satisfied by the burgers and fries at White Castle. So they're off on an all-night road trip, one which finds them coming into contact with a Bible-thumping hillbilly named Freakshow, a pair of college girls prone to engaging in a bathroom variation on Battleship (the film's nastiest gag), and Doogie Howser star Neil Patrick Harris, playing himself as a drug-addled party animal on the hunt for hookers. The crass humor leans more heavily toward funny-stupid than stupid-stupid, and the movie's knowing digs at the casual racism witnessed by the pair provide it with a whiff of added subtext.
Since its release, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle has managed to look better with each passing year, a critical ascension that so far has eluded Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008). That's largely because the satire is less subversive and more overt, meaning that what you see is basically what you get. Penn and Cho are again an engaging team, and here, the plot requires their characters to get mistaken for terrorists, leading to an interrogation by a moronic Homeland Security honcho (Rob Corddry) who decides to send them to Guantanamo Bay to enjoy a steady diet of "cock-meat sandwiches." Before long, the boys escape and find themselves on a cross-country odyssey that involves inbred Southerners, a "bottomless" party, dim-witted Klansmen (or is that a redundancy?) and even George W. Bush himself. And yes, Neil Patrick Harris returns, again playing himself as a foul-mouthed womanizer. The bawdy gags aren't particularly fresh; more amusing is the dead-on parody of right-wing twits who question the patriotism of everyone who isn't exactly like them (i.e. white and pseudo-Christian) — these scenes aren't exactly subtle, but they do point out the line that can barely divide satire from reality (just ask Barack "He hates America!" Obama). Curiously, the movie's portrayal of Dubya is a sympathetic one. As played by James Adomian, the former president turns out to be a congenial, simple-minded pothead who isn't evil, just misunderstood. Coming from Hollywood, that's high praise indeed.
Closer in spirit — and abundance of laughs — to White Castle rather than Guantanamo Bay, A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas (2011) takes place several years after the second film, with Harold now married and living in the suburbs and Kumar still perpetually under the influence back in the former roommates' old apartment. But the unexpected arrival of a mysterious package containing — what else? — a giant joint ends up bringing the estranged buddies back together again, as they embark on a madcap series of adventures involving the perfect Christmas tree, a waffle-making robot, Russian mobsters, and the return of Neil Patrick Harris as "Neil Patrick Harris," the profane, doped-out entertainer who, it's revealed here, only pretends to be gay so he can nail hottie females ("Girlfriends!" he gingerly yells out whenever a target starts to get suspicious of his intentions). A film with far more hits than misses — the mobster storyline is underdeveloped, and a wild sequence that turns our heroes in Claymation characters goes on too long — this latest entry again benefits from the likable performances by Cho and Penn, and it gets an added boost from the unexpected casting of Danny Trejo as Harold's surly, Yuletide-loving father-in-law. Don't miss the scene in which Harold and his assistant (Bobby Lee) get assaulted by a group of egg-carrying activists, a sequence that should draw laughs from folks on both sides of the Occupy Wall Street divide.
The Blu-ray set contains only the unrated versions of White Castle and Guantanamo Bay but both the R-rated and unrated cuts of Christmas. Extras on White Castle include audio commentary by Cho, Penn and director Danny Leiner; separate audio commentary by writers Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg; deleted scenes; and an interview with Cho and Penn. Extras on Guantanamo Bay include audio commentary by Cho, Penn and directors Hurwitz and Schlossberg; a separate commentary with the directors, the real "Harold Lee," and "the guy who plays George W. Bush"; deleted scenes; and an interactive feature that allows viewers to select alternate scenes that change the course of the movie (some in significant ways). Extras on Christmas include deleted scenes; a look at the Claymation sequence; and musings from co-star Tom Lennon.
Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle: ***
Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay: **1/2
A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas: ***
HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS (1970) / NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS (1971). The television soap opera Dark Shadows debuted in the summer of 1967, but it wasn't until its second year that it became a ratings smash. That was entirely due to the addition of Barnabas Collins (played by Jonathan Frid), a vampire who's released from a chained coffin after 200 years and becomes a regular fixture among the mortals populating the Collinwood estate.
Just as the creators of the campy 60s TV show Batman elected to release a major motion picture during the height of their program's popularity, so too did Dark Shadows creator Dan Curtis elect to fashion a theatrical version while his series was still on the air. The resultant film, House of Dark Shadows, largely rehashes story elements already explored in the soap opera, as Barnabas is resurrected, turns groundskeeper Willie Loomis (John Karlen) into his Renfield, lusts after Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott), remains wary of the astute Professor T. Eliot Stokes (Thayer David), and hopes that Dr. Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall) delivers on her promise of curing him of his vampirism. The project adds a bit more blood than would be seen on TV, but otherwise, most boob-tube trappings remain intact, including inconsistent acting and an often tedious screenplay.
Dark Shadows was cancelled in the spring of 1971, but that didn't stop Curtis from going ahead and making a second feature film. Frid was no longer available, so Night of Dark Shadows revolves around another popular character, Quentin Collins (David Selby), and the dangers which transpire when he returns to Collinwood alongside his new bride Tracy (Kate Jackson, a year before she began back-to-back starring stints on the TV hits The Rookies and Charlie's Angels). Instead of vampires, this one focuses on ghosts, and the result couldn't be any more dull. This one's the pits — as far as big-screen Dark Shadows adaptations go, at least Tim Burton's much maligned update from this past summer had a pulse.
The only Blu-ray extra included with each film is the theatrical trailer.
House of Dark Shadows: **
Night of Dark Shadows: *
MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING (2002). One of the most extraordinary tales in indie film history is how this property began life as a one-woman play before eventually becoming the top-grossing independent film of all time (since surpassed). The stage show, created by actress-writer Nia Vardalos, was seen by Rita Wilson, who, along with her husband Tom Hanks and producer Gary Goetzman, elected to back a motion picture based on the material. Budgeted in the ball park of $5 million, the film started off small, but the word of mouth was so potent that the film played and played in the U.S. (for an entire year!) — and ended up earning an astounding $241 million. It was a happy ending for all concerned, though it would have been nice if a better movie had generated such audience adoration. A romantic comedy that gently tweaks stereotypes even as its characters wallow in them, this centers on the plight of Toula Portokalos (Vardalos), a 30-year-old single woman who's constantly being pressured by her family, most notably the Greek-and-proud-of-it patriarch (Michael Constantine), to get married to a nice Greek boy and start producing plenty of babies. Toula finally meets the man of her dreams, but much to the dismay of everyone around her, he most decidedly isn't Greek — not with the name Ian Miller (smoothly played by John Corbett). The usual culture clashes come to the forefront in this tale that occasionally overplays the eccentricities (Dad goes around spraying Windex on everything, believing there's nothing it can't cure) but on balance remains recognizable in its presentation of the strengths required — and struggles revealed — in the battle for family unity and cultural preservation. The blandness is probably what endeared the movie to millions — all complications tend to be as complex as a knotted shoelace and, tellingly, even the character of Toula's beau is made into a milky-white hunk to soothe American blue-hairs and their hubbies (Vardalos' real-life husband is named not Ian Miller but Ian Gomez; he can be spotted playing Corbett's colleague). Vardalos earned an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay (odd, since it's clearly an adaptation), but her appealing performance is better than her script.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Vardalos, Corbett and director Joel Zwick; deleted scenes; and a half-hour retrospective on the making of the film.
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