(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what's new on Blu-ray, DVD and Streaming. Ratings are on a four-star scale.)
ALICE (1990). Anchored by Alfonso Arau’s 1992 gem Like Water for Chocolate, the early 1990s saw a mini-boom of movies that fell under the umbrella of “magical realism.” Alice was one such effort, although it was hardly writer-director Woody Allen’s first (or last) picture in this vein. Yet this showcase piece for Mia Farrow hardly compares to such superior Allen efforts as the clever Midnight in Paris or the heartbreaking The Purple Rose of Cairo, to name but two fantasy-tinged tales that offer more satisfaction both emotionally and intellectually. Here, Allen uses whimsical devices (invisibility, the power of flight) to relate the saga of a housewife struggling through an unfulfilling existence. Married to an aloof man (William Hurt), Alice seeks change in her life – even if that change happens to be an affair with a fellow parent (Joe Mantegna). Visiting the cordial Dr. Yang (Keye Luke), an herbalist operating out of a small apartment in Chinatown, Alice is given some mysterious herbs that ultimately allow her to decide what path she needs to take to fulfill her self-expectations. Nobody can play the nebbish as well as Woody Allen, and that includes Mia Farrow — unfortunately, Allen often saddled her with simpering variations on the same type of character (a marked contrast to his former leading lady Diane Keaton, who was always allowed to blossom and break out), and Alice provides one of the biggest litmus tests for this kind of personification. As usual, Allen has assembled a first-rate cast, but aside from Luke (delightful as the good doctor), few make much of an impression in this undercooked comedy that nevertheless nabbed an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
Blu-ray extras consist of the theatrical trailer and an isolated music track.
AMERICAN MADE (2017). Whew, that was close. Just when it seemed as if we had completely lost Tom Cruise to the ranks of paycheck-cashing automatons no longer interested in applying themselves on screen (see: Anthony Hopkins, Nicolas Cage), along comes American Made to show there’s still some life left in the maverick actor. After the ego-boosting but audience-snoozing duo of The Mummy and Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, there were certainly no guarantees. A caffeinated Cruise storms his way through this fact-based yarn focusing on Barry Seal, a TWA pilot who’s recruited by the CIA (repped by Domhnall Gleeson’s cheerful agent) to partake in reconnaissance runs over Central American rebel camps. This leads to Barry also working with Panamanian General Manuel Noriega, the Medellin drug cartel in Colombia, and, finally, the dishonorable and hypocritical Reagan White House. Director Doug Liman (who previously teamed with Cruise on the excellent Edge of Tomorrow) and scripter Gary Spinelli clearly have plenty of affection — perhaps too much — for Barry Seal, who’s presented as a likable guy who never really hurt anybody. Considering he routinely flew cocaine into the U.S. makes that a highly dubious outlook, but regardless, Cruise plays him as such an eager-to-please opportunist that we enjoy watching him even if we never really care about his fate. At any rate, he’s definitely preferable to monsters like Pablo Escobar and Oliver North, and the picture does a nice job of illustrating that he’s really just a pawn in the games played by amoralists with only their own self-interests at heart. Ultimately, American Made examines where capitalism and corruption intersect, and, in that respect, the movie is aptly named.
Blu-ray extras include a multi-part behind-the-scenes piece.
THE BREAKFAST CLUB (1985). The late John Hughes' finest hour (he didn't have many, despite a prolific output), The Breakfast Club was the best of the so-called "Brat Pack" features as well as a seminal film for many who came of age in the 1980s. Bucking the expected norm of viewing teenagers as nothing more than sex-addled nitwits (e.g. Porky's), writer-director Hughes nicely nails the anxieties and insecurities of the high school set with this entertaining yarn about five disparate students — a jock (Emilio Estevez), a beauty (Molly Ringwald), a brain (Anthony Michael Hall), a rebel (Judd Nelson) and a basketcase (Ally Sheedy) — who are forced to spend a Saturday together in detention and end up discovering some common ground. The occasionally awkward dialogue sounds natural coming from the mouths of the kids, less so when uttered by the overbearing detention teacher (Paul Gleason). Still, the movie does a superlative job of mixing comedy with pathos, and the soundtrack (spearheaded by Simple Minds' chart-topping "Don't You (Forget About Me)") still rocks. Trivia hounds will be interested to learn that Nicolas Cage was sought for Nelson's role, and that John Cusack was actually cast in the part until Hughes decided (rightly, methinks) that the young actor wasn't tough enough to convey the character's hard edges.
Blu-ray extras on this Criterion edition include audio commentary (from 2008) by Hall and Nelson; new interviews with Ringwald and Sheedy; 50 minutes of deleted and extended scenes; excerpts from a 1985 seminar with Hughes; and a 1999 radio interview with Hughes. Unfortunately still missing (even after countless Blu-ray, DVD and VHS incarnations) is the music video for "Don't You (Forget About Me)."
HELL NIGHT (1981). From the producers of the Linda Blair extravaganza Roller Boogie comes Hell Night, which has acquired quite the cult following despite displaying unusual timidity across the board. While slasher-flick aficionados generally prefer their pictures with generous servings of both gore and T&A, Hell Night is relatively restrained on both fronts, making it a good bet for family viewing around Christmastime. OK, that might be a slight exaggeration – still, there’s so little imagination displayed on most fronts that this is probably best appreciated by those nostalgists who used to own it on VHS back in the ‘80s. Blair’s the star here as well – she plays Marti, a sorority pledge who, along with another sorority sis (Suki Goodwin) and a pair of frat bros (Vincent Van Patten and Peter Barton), is required to spend a night at spooky Garth Manor (not to be confused with Garth Brooks, Wayne and Garth, or MST3K’s Garth Vader). The legend goes that the estate is still inhabited by at least one murderous and misshapen madman – the legend turns out to be true, resulting in the usual beheadings and disembowelments. Van Patten’s character unexpectedly breaks away from the cookie-cutter mold, while Tom DeSimone, the former porn director best known for the talking-vagina flick Chatterbox, displays some deft staging (particularly during the climax). Otherwise, this mostly qualifies as the same-old same-old.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Blair, DeSimone, and producers Irwin Yablans and Bruce Cohn Curtis; new interviews with Blair, Van Patten, DeSimone, writer Randolph Feldman, and others; a piece on how the death scenes were, uh, executed; a photo gallery; and the theatrical trailer.
THE HOSPITAL (1971). Certainly, Oscar history is filled with many embarrassing moments, but there have also been numerous instances of integrity as well. After George C. Scott refused the Best Actor award given to him for 1970’s Patton (among his reported swipes at the group: “The ceremonies are a two-hour meat parade, a public display with contrived suspense for economic reasons”), no one would have expected offended voters to ever toss a nomination in his direction again. Yet the very next year, Scott earned another Best Actor nod, this time for the pitch-black comedy The Hospital. Academy members were right to swallow any resentment and honestly fill out their ballots, as Scott’s excellent performance was clearly one of the year’s finest. Filmed at Metropolitan Hospital Center (itself the focus of the previous year’s Emmy-winning documentary, Hospital), this is set at the fictional Manhattan Medical Center, a facility where bureaucracy and incompetence rule hand in hand. Dealing with both personal and professional pressures, chief of surgery Dr. Herbert Bock (Scott) is contemplating suicide – meanwhile, someone has taken to murdering staffers known for their ineptitude. Paddy Chayefsky’s script is bilious and brutal in its look at the medical community (five years later, the scribe would obliterate the television industry with equal acrimony in Network), and even Arthur Hiller’s typically artless direction does little to mute the satiric impact. Incidentally, Scott didn’t have to refuse another Oscar – he was beaten by Gene Hackman for The French Connection – but Chayefsky proved victorious in the Best Original Screenplay category.
Blu-ray extras consist of the theatrical trailer and an isolated music track.
KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE (2017). If Kingsman: The Secret Service turned out to be the biggest cinematic surprise of 2015, then Kingsman: The Golden Circle proved to be the biggest celluloid disappointment of 2017. Hitting stateside theaters in February of ’15, Kingsman: The Secret Service proved to be an utter delight — a brainy, brawny, spy-game endeavor packed with memorable characters and nifty plot pirouettes. A sequel was guaranteed, but while Kingsman: The Golden Circle is bigger, it most assuredly isn’t better. Kingsman agents Eggsy (Taron Egerton) and Merlin (Mark Strong) are back, this time using their smarts to attempt to foil the nefarious plans of Poppy (Julianne Moore, sorry to say), a drug kingpin who’s basically a cross between a ruthless CEO and June Cleaver. Poppy has managed to cripple the entire Kingsman operation, thereby forcing the dapper Brits to seek help from their American cousins. Serving up a U.S. counterpart to the veddy British Kingsman sounds like a great idea that can’t miss, but the Statesman agents (portrayed by Jeff Bridges, Channing Tatum, Halle Berry and Pedro Pascal) prove to be so underdeveloped and uninteresting that it becomes clear they were added not out of inspiration but out of a scheme to garner more merchandising tie-ins on this side of the Atlantic. As for the fates of select other characters – well, I want to avoid any giveaways, but let’s just say that this enterprise has the taint of Hicks and Newt about it. These bits are jarring, disruptive, ill-advised and more than a little distasteful. While Kingsman: The Secret Service managed to tame its mean-spiritedness with its empathy toward its characters, no such fail-safes are in place here, resulting in a motion picture that’s often as ugly as it is excessive.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette and a still gallery.
THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US (2017). An adaptation of the novel by bestselling author Charles Martin, The Mountain Between Us casts Idris Elba and Kate Winslet as surgeon Ben Bass and photojournalist Alex Martin, two of the many folks stranded at the Salt Lake City airport during a particularly nasty snow storm. Their flight has been cancelled, but neither can afford a delay: Dr. Bass has an important operation to perform, while Alex is getting married. Although strangers, they agree to charter a small plane together, a fateful decision once the small craft goes down in the Utah mountains. From there, The Mountain Between Us turns into an old-fashioned survival yarn, as Ben and Alex battle the elements and, occasionally, each other (he thinks they should wait with the plane until help arrives; she thinks they should make their own way down the mountain). As both an adventure yarn and a love story, the movie often stretches credulity, yet what sells it are the compelling performances by its two stars. They’re both excellent, and when the saga continues beyond where most other movies would have it end, they provide the glue that holds the increasingly diffuse project together. In short, their presence helps make Mountain more than just a molehill of a movie.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director Hany Abu-Assad; a trio of making-of featurettes focusing on the characters, the location shooting, and the stuntwork; and deleted scenes.
FROM SCREEN TO STREAM
(Recommended films currently available on streaming services)
WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS (2015). A Christopher Guest-styled mockumentary about vampires sounds only a little less obvious and opportunistic than a "found-footage" feature about vampires, yet Flight of the Conchords creator Jemaine Clement and fellow actor-writer-director Taika Waititi have managed to create a savvy satire that works beautifully. What We Do in the Shadows finds a documentary crew (whose members have been given crucifixes for their own protection) focusing their cameras on a quartet of vampires who live in a dingy New Zealand flat. There's the chipper, 379-year-old Viago (Waititi); the surly, 862-year-old Vladislav (Clement); the temperamental, 183-year-old Deacon (Jonathan Brugh); and the 8,000-year-old Petyr (Ben Fransham), who looks exactly like Nosferatu and basically keeps to himself in the basement. As flatmates, the vampires are no different than mere mortals, bickering over such matters as who's responsible for washing the dirty dishes that have piled up over the past five years. Out on the streets, though, their legacy comes to the forefront, as, for instance, they're unable to get into the coolest nightclubs unless someone formally invites them inside. Matters get shaken up when Petyr turns a brash young guy named Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) into a fellow creature of the night; while he's great to know on a social level (coolest nightclubs, here they come!), he's also a bit of a pain, and his insistence on bragging about his undead status eventually leads to tragedy. What We Do in the Shadows is exceptionally clever in the manner in which it delineates the difficulties of being centuries old and trying to exist in the 21st century. (Amazon Prime)