(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what's new on Blu-ray and DVD.)
ARACHNOPHOBIA (1990). With the blessing of Steven Spielberg - he served as executive producer, allowed his longtime producer Frank Marshall to make his directorial debut, and released it through his Amblin Entertainment company - Arachnophobia was expected to be one of the major box office behemoths during the summer of 1990. While the picture was a respectable performer ($53 million), it didn't take off quite as expected. The reasons were varied - among them, brutal competition from the likes of Ghost, Die Hard 2 and Presumed Innocent, as well as the limited appeal of spiders as screen villains - but I like to think it was primarily because of the studio's major push to introduce a ridiculous new word ("Thrill-omedy!") to the cinematic language. Moving beyond this daft failure, what's on screen is fairly engaging, with Jeff Daniels as a small-town doctor who's forced to lead the charge against deadly eight-legged freaks that hail from the wilds of Venezuela. John Goodman turns up as an exterminator with a tendency to over-enunciate his words - he's mildly amusing, though the script never allows the character to truly shine. Those with an aversion to creepy-crawlies will be suitably creeped out by the film, although even they would have to agree that the climactic skirmish in the cellar is more silly than frightening.
Blu-ray extras include two behind-the-scenes featurettes; a look at the Venezuelan location shooting; and the theatrical trailer.
CINDERELLA (1950). One of the best animated features in the Disney stable, this was also the box office smash that saved Walt's studio during the precarious post-war period and allowed him to branch out in other directions (including, of course, television and theme parks). The timeless tale about a beautiful girl who's treated horribly by her wicked stepmother and bratty stepsisters before being rescued by a fairy godmother (as well as by her own innate goodness) comes tricked out with all the usual Disney trimmings: dazzling animation, a handful of songs, a clearly delineated struggle between good and evil, and an assortment of colorful characters (here, they include the gabby mice Gus and Jacques and a wonderfully venal cat appropriately named Lucifer). This earned three Oscar nominations: Best Scoring of a Musical Picture, Best Original Song ("Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo") and Best Sound.
Blu-ray extras (many of them curiously not plugged on the box) include a making-of featurette; an alternate opening sequence; deleted scenes; original demo recordings of seven unused songs; a Cinderella cartoon from 1922; an excerpt from a 1956 episode of The Mickey Mouse Club featuring Helene Stanley (the live-action model for the character of Cinderella); a piece on the new Princess Fantasyland at Walt Disney World; and the animated short Tangled Ever After.
A CAT IN PARIS (2011). An Academy Award nominee this year for Best Animated Feature Film, this French import is a welcome (read: hand-drawn as opposed to CGI) movie that packs a lot of punch in its hour-long running time. Perhaps a more accurate title would have been A Cat, a Cat Burglar, a Little Girl, Her Detective Mom and a Gangster in Paris, as the slinky feline often feels like a peripheral character in his own saga (then again, he is the one who brings all the other characters together). The animal's name is Dino, and while he's the loving pet of little Zoe during the day, he takes off at night to embark on a series of robberies with an easygoing thief named Nico. Nico's nocturnal activities draw the attention of Jeanne, Zoe's mom and a dedicated detective, but Jeanne is actually more interested in nailing crime lord Victor Costa, the man responsible for her husband's murder. Despite a protracted finale set atop the Notre Dame cathedral, the movie is breezy entertainment, boasted by some imaginatively designed sequences and a sly sense of humor (surely the henchman Monsieur Hulot is so named in honor of the great French comedian?).
The Blu-ray offers the choice of the original French audio version with English subtitles (always the way to go) or the dubbed American cut (name actors include Marcia Gay Harden, Anjelica Huston and Matthew Modine). Extras include a behind-the-scenes featurette; the hilarious short film Extinction of the Saber-Toothed Housecat; and the U.S. theatrical trailer.
MOONRISE KINGDOM (2012). While Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris was the breakout art-house hit of the summer of 2011, grossing an unexpected $56 million stateside, this year's hot-weather season found room for two lucrative indie efforts: John Madden's The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel ($46 million), which is pleasant fluff, and Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom ($45 million), which is nothing less than the writer-director's best film to date. Them's fighting words, for sure - proponents of Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums and Fantastic Mr. Fox are already rushing the stage - but whereas the idiosyncratic auteur's previous six features were easy to admire but difficult to love, this latest effort, equal measures sweet and bittersweet, exudes a soothing warmth and a wide-eyed innocence that are hard to ignore. Co-written by Francis Coppola's son Roman, it brings to mind the title of one of Dad's own movies, One from the Heart. Certainly, there's ample generosity of spirit throughout this 1960s-set story of Suzy and Sam (newcomers Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman), two 12-year-olds who run away together while residing on a New England island. Prior to their great escape, Sam is a Boy Scout under the care of Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) while Suzy lives with her eccentric parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) and younger brothers. Once the pair go MIA, all of the adults, led by the police chief (Bruce Willis), spring into action, with even the film's voice-over narrator (Bob Balaban) dropping by to lend a hand! Anderson's visual compositions are often astounding - they move beyond representing mere whimsical mimicry to channeling the dollhouse panoramas and Boys' Life directives that have fueled many a childhood fantasy - and the film's humor offers sly, knowing winks and jolting sight gags alike. Among the all-stars, Norton made me repeatedly chuckle, and it's always a pleasure to see Willis when he's not operating in paycheck-whore mode. Yet Hayward and Gilman are the film's real trump cards, so natural and guileless that they make it all seem like child's play.
Blu-ray extras include a behind-the-scenes featurette and a set tour with Murray.
ROCK OF AGES (2012). Based on the popular Broadway show, this summer flop isn't good enough to recommend and isn't bad enough to qualify as a worthwhile guilty pleasure. Instead, it's a sanitized pop show that makes rock & roll seem about as raw, reckless and dangerous as a class of kindergartners singing "Itsy Bitsy Spider." If real rock were as toothless as what's presented here, Tipper Gore would never have bothered to launch her Holy Crusade back circa the time of the film's 1987 setting. Al's wife can be spotted in Rock of Ages, in spirit if not actual presence. There's a Tipper surrogate in the form of Patricia Whitmore (Catherine Zeta-Jones), the conservative wife of the Los Angeles mayor (Bryan Cranston) who's determined to use their combined political clout to clean up the city. She starts with the Bourbon Room, a struggling nightclub that will close if its owner (Alec Baldwin) can't come up with a lot of cash fast; he pins all his hopes on an appearance by Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), a perpetually wasted rock star who pals around with a monkey named Hey Man and treats everyone like dirt. All this activity on screen, and none of it even represents the central plot line. No, that would be reserved for the incredibly banal story about Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough), a small-town girl who arrives in LA seeking fame and fortune. She instead finds Drew (Diego Boneta), a nice guy who's working at the Bourbon Room but hopes to break out some day to taste his own slice of the fame & fortune pie. It's all so very trite, mawkish and dull, and neither Hough nor Boneta can muster up anything resembling screen presence. Some of the veterans (Zeta-Jones, Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand) don't fare much better, meaning Hall of Fame honors clearly go to Cruise for his radical performance. Boozy and bilious, he's the only one who admirably wallows in the mire, and it's no coincidence that he embodies the film's best numbers. They pump up the volume as desired; the rest of the time, the movie suggests that, in this instance anyway, rock & roll is noise pollution.
The Blu-ray contains both the theatrical PG-13 version as well as an R-rated edition that runs 13 minutes longer. Extras include a behind-the-scenes featurette; two pieces in which members of Def Leppard, Twisted Sister, Night Ranger and other '80s bands discuss the era and its songs; and the music video for "Any Way You Want It," featuring Hough, Mary J. Blige and Constantine Maroulis.
SOUND OF MY VOICE (2012). More often than not, it's a compliment to state that a particular film could stand to be longer, since it generally means that either the characters or the storylines are so compelling that we don't want our visit to their celluloid world to end. In the case of Sound of My Voice, though, this statement is meant as criticism rather than praise. While a lumbering turkey like Battleship has the audacity to run 130 minutes, this indie effort, directed by Zal Batmanglij and co-written by Batmanglij and star Brit Marling, doesn't even hit the 90-minute mark (it stops at 85), and an extra 20 or so ticks would appear to be necessary to bring some sort of satisfactory closure to the tale. Occasionally similar enough to last year's Martha Marcy May Marlene that we half-wonder when John Hawkes will wander into the frame, this concerns itself with the efforts of two would-be documentarians, Peter (Christopher Denham) and his girlfriend Lorna (Nicole Vicius), to infiltrate a California cult and expose its leader, the sickly and soft-spoken Maggie (Marling), as a fraud. Maggie claims to have come back to our time from the mid-21st century, and she's gathering followers to prepare for the future. Peter and Lorna are initially skeptical, but as they listen to Maggie's soothing speeches and participate in her soul-building exercises, they start to wonder if there's more to this presumed loony than meets the eye. Ambiguity in cinema can be a wonderful thing - frankly, not enough stateside filmmakers engage in it - but Sound of My Voice traffics in nothing but vagueness, akin to a Q&A session in which there are only Q's. On the plus side, there's a matter-of-factness to the performances that fuels the movie's sense of discomfort, further heightened by the appropriately drab lensing by cinematographer Rachel Morrison. But the more the film balks at meeting audience members halfway, the more frustrating it becomes, like the all-powerful Wizard of Oz after he's revealed to be a charlatan. Sound of My Voice promises to take us down a yellow brick road toward enlightenment, but it leads us off a cliff instead.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; discussions with Marling and Batmanglij; and a piece on the character of Maggie.
STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951) / DIAL M FOR MURDER (1954). There are the capital-C Classic Alfred Hitchcock movies like Psycho and Vertigo, and then there are the lower-case-c classic Alfred Hitchcock movies like this pair from the Master's thematically rich run during the 1950s.
Strangers on a Train, with a script co-written by Raymond Chandler, continues to work its way up into the major leagues - indeed, a handful of critics already number it among Hitchcock's four or five best works. It's certainly one of the director's most diabolical films, a startling piece in which a tennis player (Farley Granger) meets a peculiar gentleman (Robert Walker) during a fateful train ride and dismisses the stranger's suggestion that they "exchange" murders. It's only after the athlete's loathsome wife turns up dead that he realizes the plan was no joke - and that he's expected to live up to his end of the bargain by murdering the other man's domineering father. Walker's creepy performance ranks among the best found in any Hitchcock film, and several of the set pieces - Walker's immobile presence among an animated tennis crowd; a murder reflected in the victim's eyeglasses; the dizzying merry-go-round finale - represent the filmmaker in top form.
Dial M for Murder, by contrast, is often dismissed as lesser Hitchcock, yet its intricate plot and sterling performances thrill me every time I watch it. Based on a popular stage play - yet so absorbing that its (for the most part) one-room setting never becomes a handicap - this finds a retired tennis pro (Ray Milland) scheming to murder his wife (Grace Kelly), who's been having an affair with a mystery writer (Robert Cummings). Milland's performance is so subtle that it rarely receives the praise it deserves, while Kelly was having a banner year, also co-starring in Hitchcock's Rear Window and delivering an Oscar-winning turn in The Country Girl. Yet it's veteran actor John Williams, as the cagey detective on the case, who pops up at the midway mark and proceeds to swipe the rest of the picture.
In addition to the original theatrical version, the Blu-ray for Strangers on a Train also contains the preview version of the film (running two minutes longer); other extras include audio commentary by director/historian Peter Bogdanovich and several Hitchcock colleagues and family members; a making-of featurette; and footage from Hitchcock's home movies. Since Dial M for Murder was originally shown in 3-D back upon its original release, the Blu-ray contains both that version as well as the standard 2-D take; extras include a making-of featurette and the theatrical trailer.
Strangers on a Train: ***1/2
Dial M for Murder: ***1/2