(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what's new on Blu-ray and DVD.)
AMERICAN REUNION (2012). Where all the sequels to 1999's American Pie - 2001's American Pie 2, 2003's American Wedding and now American Reunion - go wrong is that none manage the balancing act between sweetness and seediness as well as the original film, instead tipping the scale toward the bawdy end to an unnecessary degree. And yet there's still enough comic invention, to say nothing of that likable cast, to make them easier to take than the subsequent chapters in many other franchises. In American Reunion, everyone - and I mean everyone - returns from the first installment (yes, even "the Shermanator"). They're all older but not necessarily wiser, dealing with the rigors and rigidity of 30something life. The gang elects to have an unofficial 13th anniversary reunion, which brings everyone back to their hometown of East Great Falls, Michigan. While the other characters spend their time reminiscing and rebuilding relationships, Jim (Jason Biggs), as always, has it the hardest - and not just because he again gets his penis caught in a compromising position while masturbating. In addition to trying to rekindle the romance in his marriage to Michelle (Alyson Hannigan), he must fend off the advances of an 18-year-old beauty (Ali Cobrin) he baby-sat back in the day as well as lend support to his dad (Eugene Levy), who's been lonely since the passing of his wife. Levy's always a treat, and here he gets to leave the house long enough to party with Stifler (Seann William Scott) and mix it up with Stifler's mom (Jennifer Coolidge). He's the only cast member given any sort of expanded character arc by writer-directors Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg (imported from the Harold & Kumar series), as everyone else pretty much does what's expected of them - and some of them don't even get that much (Tara Reid appears so fleetingly that one wonders if they had to drag her off a Malibu beach and force her to take part). Still, the actors settle comfortably back into their old roles, and Scott seems to take particular relish in reprising his part of the vile, vapid Stifler.
The Blu-ray includes both the R-rated theatrical version and an unrated cut that runs a mere minute longer. Extras include audio commentary by Hurwitz and Schlossberg; a behind-the-scenes featurette; deleted and extended scenes; a gag reel; short bits on Biggs and Levy; and an interactive American Pie franchise yearbook.
BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY (1989). After wisely playing back-up to Oscar-winning portrayals by Paul Newman in The Color of Money and Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, and seeking to be viewed as a serious leading man rather than just a box office hunk making dribble like Top Gun and Cocktail, Tom Cruise was fortunate enough to get acquainted with writer-director Oliver Stone, who handpicked the young star to portray real-life Vietnam War veteran Ron Kovic in this potent drama. The second of Stone's Vietnam trilogy - after 1986's Oscar-winning Platoon and before 1993's tepidly received Heaven & Earth - this traces the life of Kovic as he goes from being an idealistic young man eager to fight in Vietnam to a renowned anti-war activist who spoke at the 1976 Democratic National Convention. In between, he fights valiantly in Vietnam, only to become paralyzed in the lower half of his body. Returning stateside, he's haunted by the horrors he witnessed in combat, appalled by the apathy displayed by most Americans, and outraged at the government's treatment of veterans. Wallowing in drunken self-pity, he eventually pulls himself together and finds a renewed purpose in life. Cruise delivers a deeply committed performance (so committed, in fact, that Kovic presented him with his own Bronze Star when filming wrapped). The large supporting cast includes Platoon co-stars Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger, real-life activist Abbie Hoffman (who had already committed suicide by the time the film was released), singer Edie Brickell (seen performing Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall"), and no less than three Baldwin brothers (everyone but Alec). Not counting his iconic scores for such blockbusters as Star Wars and Jaws, this might feature John Williams' best music score to date. Nominated for eight Academy Awards (including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay for Stone and Kovic), this earned Oscars for Best Director and Best Film Editing.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Stone; an archival making-of piece (presented by NBC News); and a look at Universal Pictures' 1980s output.
FRIENDS WITH KIDS (2012). The womanizing Jason (Adam Scott) and the unlucky-in-love Julie (Jennifer Westfeldt) watch as their two sets of happily married best friends (Kristen Wiig, John Hamm, Maya Rudolph, Chris O'Dowd - it's a veritable Bridesmaids reunion!) become miserable and surly toward one another after they start having kids. Not wanting to fall into that trap, Jason and Julie, who hold no attraction for each other, decide to have a child together while maintaining separate lives in every other regard. So goes the plotline for Friends with Kids, a scintillating seriocomedy written and directed by leading lady Westfeldt (best known for the 2001 indie hit Kissing Jessica Stein). The first 100 minutes are a viewer's dream: wise, witty, emotional, and elevated by a powerhouse supporting cast (Edward Burns turns up as a potential beau for Julie, and even Megan Fox, as Jason's latest girlfriend, isn't bad). Unfortunately, Westfeldt finally succumbs to the peer pressure of those regularly churning out subpar rom-coms, thus spitting out an ending that's as clumsy as it is predictable. Reviewing it theatrically, I wrote, "A repeat viewing might temper my anger toward those final five minutes, but for now, what could have sailed through 2012 as one of its best films will have to settle for prominent placement in the also-ran column." No dice: A repeat viewing only further cemented its positioning as a delightful film marred by a poor ending.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Westfeldt, Hamm and director of photography William Rexer; a making-of featurette; deleted scenes; and two sets of bloopers (one centering on the friends, the one focusing on the kids).
SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (1952). It's tough to fight the longstanding consensus that this is the greatest movie musical of all time (although, to be honest, I would place it second, just a hair below the Astaire-Rogers masterpiece Top Hat), but what's often lost in the praise is that this also qualifies as a great comedy - and a pretty good love story, to boot. The plot is a strong one, as it looks at the troubles the film capital faced with the introduction of sound in the late 1920s (for all its charms, last year's The Artist was far less inventive in tackling this same subject). But the musical sequences are, of course, what take center stage: among them, Gene Kelly's exhilarating splash dance during the title number, Kelly, Donald O'Connor and Debbie Reynolds bidding "Good Morning," and, best of all, O'Connor pulling out all the stops for "Make 'Em Laugh" - perhaps the greatest example of physical prowess ever applied in the service of a musical. Oscar-nominated Jean Hagen is a riot as a screechy-voiced actress without a modicum of talent; tell me Woody Allen didn't study her before writing the Jennifer Tilly role in Bullets Over Broadway.
Physical extras in the Ultimate Collector's Edition Blu-ray + DVD set consist of a full-size umbrella, an umbrella charm, a 48-page hardcover commemorative book, and three theatrical door panel display reproductions. Disc extras include audio commentary by Donen, Reynolds, O'Connor, co-star Cyd Charisse, screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and others; the new documentary Singin' in the Rain: Raining on a New Generation; a making-of piece; the 1996 PBS documentary Musicals Great Musicals: The Arthur Freed Unit at MGM, about the producer-songwriter behind Singin' in the Rain, An American in Paris, Meet Me in St. Louis and countless other musical classics; an outtake of the musical number "You Are My Lucky Star"; and an irresistible collection of clips from earlier movies that featured the songs included in this film (for instance, "Singin' in the Rain," first heard in The Hollywood Revue of 1929, actually appeared in at least 15 movies before getting a movie named after it!). In addition to this $84.99 deluxe set, Warner Bros. is also offering a single-disc Blu-ray for $19.98.
THE THREE STOOGES (2012). As a longtime groupie of the comic trio of Moe Howard, Larry Fine and Curly Howard (the last-named eventually replaced in succession by Shemp Howard, Joe Besser and Joe DeRita), I'm the proud owner of all 190 shorts The Three Stooges made between 1934 and 1959. Tellingly, I own few of the feature films in which they starred, not only because most of these efforts (the majority produced during the 1960s) found the team past their prime but also because with these guys, the less plot the better - we want our nyuks fast and furious. The necessity for brevity is just one of the lessons lost on sibling filmmakers Bobby and Peter Farrelly, who felt the world needed a 92-minute Three Stooges movie starring Three Stooges impersonators. Despite their game efforts, Chris Diamantopoulos, Sean Hayes and Will Sasso are never able to make us forget that we're not watching Moe, Larry and Curly - they're the cinematic equivalent of cover bands, competently going through the motions in a superficial manner but unable to compete with the real thing. They're tossed into a standard-issue plot concerning the clods' mission to raise a sizable sum of money in order to prevent an orphanage from going under. Smart scripting would have played up the premise of these old-fashioned Stooges set loose in a modern world, but precious few gags even glance in that direction. Instead, the film's jabs at contemporary relevancy take it where we least want it - but most expect it - to go: in the realm of potty humor. There's an endless sequence in which the three use hospital-ward babies as guns, holding up their naked bodies and shooting each other with streams of pee. Still, it's hard to say which is more excruciating, this sequence or the ones that give ample screen time to the open-mouth breathers from Jersey Shore. The same evening after sitting through this misfire, in order to wash away the bad taste left by this film, I popped a classic Stooge short into the DVD player - 1940's A Plumbing We Will Go, to be specific. Now that's eye-poking, ear-twisting, nose-tweaking, head-banging entertainment.
Blu-ray extras include a behind-the-scenes piece; deleted and extended scenes; a featurette on the sound effects; and a look at the casting as well as the original screen test.
TWINS OF EVIL (1971). Warner Bros. holds the rights to most of the classic horror films produced by Britain's Hammer Films, and while stateside audiences impatiently wait for the studio to release the likes of Horror of Dracula and The Curse of Frankenstein on Blu-ray, it's nice to see Synapse Films doing its part by offering the Hammer titles within its grasp. The outfit released the 1972 cult curiosity Vampire Circus on Blu-ray in December 2010, and it follows up with another worthy item involving toothy bloodsuckers. Hammer superstar Peter Cushing plays Gustav Weil, a 19th-century puritan who enjoys burning women at the stake, since their beauty and single status obviously mean that they must be witches. The thorn in his side is Count Karnstein (Damien Thomas), a decadent playboy whose pact with the devil eventually leads him to become a vampire. Enter Gustav's twin nieces, virginal Maria and lusty Frieda - guess which one finds herself attracted to the Count? The final entry in the loose "Karnstein Trilogy" (following The Vampire Lovers and Lust for a Vampire), this boasts the novelty of casting real-life twins - and Playboy centerfold models - Mary and Madeleine Collinson as the dissimilar sisters. But the film offers more than just a gimmick, thanks to the shifting dynamics between the characters, the emphasis on evil at both ends of the spectrum (Cushing's man of God is just as wicked as Thomas' satanist), and a shot of witchcraft into the usual vampiric proceedings.
Blu-ray extras include the excellent 84-minute documentary The Flesh and the Fury: X-Posing Twins of Evil; one justifiably deleted scene; a featurette on the props seen in various Hammer Films productions; and a photo gallery that offers more nudity than what's actually seen in the film.
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