(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what's new on Blu-ray and DVD.)
AFTER EARTH (2013). Emma Roberts (Julia's niece), Tori Spelling (Aaron's daughter), Patrick Wayne (John's son) — yup, this nepotism thing can sometimes place dubious talents center stage, and with After Earth, Will Smith's son Jaden is the latest to wither under the spotlight. A massive summer bomb, this stillborn drama is set in a future in which Earth has been rendered uninhabitable by alien invaders (called Ursas) and survivors are now living in outer-space colonies. Cypher Raige (the senior Smith) is a legend because he has no fear and slaughters Ursas at, uh, will; his son Kitai (the junior Smith), on the other hand, is terrified of the alien monsters. When their spaceship crashes on Earth and Cypher's broken legs render him immobile, it's up to the lad to make his way across the treacherous terrain to locate the craft's tail end and the rescue beacon kept therein. For a science fiction feature, After Earth proves to be anemic in both concept and execution — an ample amount of important exposition is missing, and even what's promised on screen isn't delivered. When a character notes that Earth is now overrun by all manner of frightening creatures, we tingle at the potential for groovy monsters. So what do we get? A tarantula, an eagle, several tigers and a bunch of baboons. Those expecting the thrills of King Kong's Skull Island will be sorely let down -- heck, even those expecting the thrills of National Lampoon's Vacation's Walley World will feel cheated. Even more than a sci-fi spectacle, this film registers as a father-son tale — and a dreary one at that. Working from a story suggested by Will Smith, director M. Night Shyamalan and co-scripter Gary Whitta fail to establish any sort of believable rapport between the leads — amazing considering the actors are related in real life. Will Smith remains one of our most charismatic performers, and it's more of a waste than a stretch for him to play such a dull character who exhibits all the charm of a recycling bin. As for Jaden Smith, he's hardly a worthy replacement for Pop in the leading-man department, and parents Will and Jada Pinkett (who co-produced, along with Jada's brother Caleeb Pinkett) would have been better off buying him a new computer or PS3 instead of his very own motion picture.
DVD extras include a behind-the-scenes featurette; a look at the dynamics between the father-son casting of Will and Jaden Smith; a piece on the film's landscapes; and the announcement of the winners of the XPRIZE After Earth Challenge.
THE AMITYVILLE HORROR TRILOGY (1979-1983). There have actually been 11 — count 'em, eleven — films that have some sort of connection (however tangential) to this series, but we should be thankful this box set only includes the initial trio, as sitting through more than three of these terrible movies during a short span could prove to be fatal.
In 1977, Jay Anson wrote The Amityville Horror, which was advertised as being based on the true-life experiences of the Lutz family in a Long Island haunted house. Because there's a sucker born every nanosecond, the book was a gargantuan moneymaking machine — and so in turn was the film adaptation. The Amityville Horror (1979) proved to be the second highest grossing film of its year, right under the Best Picture Oscar winner Kramer vs. Kramer but topping the likes of Alien and Apocalypse Now — a fact more scary than anything which occurs in this ham-fisted flick. James Brolin and Margot Kidder star as George and Kathy Lutz, who are able to afford such a classy piece of property because its status as a murder site (the previous family had been slaughtered there by the oldest son) has kept away all other buyers. But it's not long before the Lutzes and their kids realize something's unusual about their new pad — among the weird developments are the young daughter's friendship with a ghost, George's newfound surliness toward everyone and everything, and the pack of flies that swarm all over Father Delaney (then again, given Rod Steiger's howling performance as the priest, it could just be that the flies like reeking ham). Murray Hamilton, who played the mayor who doesn't believe in the presence of a shark in Jaws, here plays a church bigwig who doesn't believe in the presence of demonic forces; meanwhile, the fine character actor Don Stroud, usually cast as villains in movies and cops on TV, looks ill-at-ease as Father Delaney's right-hand cleric, while another popular '70s character actor, Val Avery, appears as an extremely low-rent version of the detective portrayed by Lee J. Cobb in The Exorcist. Brolin's emoting is worth a few giggles, although Kidder acquits herself well enough; still, the only noteworthy component of the film is Lalo Schifrin's music score, which deservedly earned an Academy Award nomination.
Amityville II: The Possession (1982) also makes the claim to be based on a true story — in this case, that of the murdered family mentioned in The Amityville Horror. Based on yet another cash-grab book, Murder in Amityville by Dr. Hans Holzer, this prequel finds the abusive Anthony Montelli (Burt Young), his simpering wife Dolores (Rutanya Alda), their teenage kids Sonny (Jack Magner) and Patricia (Diane Franklin) and a couple of rugrats moving into the house. Sonny gets possessed by one of the household demons (through his Walkman, it appears!), and soon he's having sex with his own sister and thinking about murdering everyone in the house. An extremely sleazy first half eventually gives way to a second part that plays like a theater-company version of The Exorcist, as a priest (James Olson) tries to force the satanic emissary to vacate Sonny's body. This one's the pits; Alda received a Worst Supporting Actress nomination from the Golden Raspberry Awards, but really, practically everyone is operating at her ground-scraping level.
Perhaps in desperation more than inspiration, some studios briefly turned to the 3-D format in the early 1980s, releasing such dubious efforts as Friday the 13th Part III, Jaws 3-D and Amityville 3-D (1983). Unlike the first two Amityville titles, this one makes no claim to authenticity, but such honesty doesn't save it from being a terrible movie. Tony Roberts, taking an ill-advised break from Woody Allen films ("Twins, Max. Sixteen-year-olds. Can you imagine the mathematical possibilities?"), stars as John Baxter, a writer for an expose rag who decides to move into the Amityville house to work on his novel. He's not superstitious in the least, even after the house starts knocking off friends and family alike. Whereas Amityville II morphed into an awful imitation of The Exorcist, this morphs into a wretched rip-off of Poltergeist, as a group of paranormal investigators snoop around the house and eventually find a creature who looks like a distant cousin of Dogma's excremental demon. The most interesting aspect of Amityville 3-D (also available on the Blu-ray in 2-D) is its supporting cast of rising actresses: future Crimes of the Heart Oscar nominee Tess Harper, future Full House and 90210 star Lori Loughlin and a 21-year-old Meg Ryan.
Blu-ray extras on The Amityville Horror include audio commentary by Holzer; a piece featuring interviews with Brolin and Kidder; an interview with Schifrin; and theatrical trailers. Blu-ray extras on Amityville II: The Possession include audio commentary by Hans Holzer's daughter, Alexandra Holzer (author of Growing Up Haunted: A Ghostly Memoir); interviews with Franklin, Alda, co-star Andrew Prine, director Damiano Damiani and screenwriter Tommy Lee Wallace; and theatrical trailers. Blu-ray extras on Amityville 3-D include an interview with co-star Candy Clark and theatrical trailers.
The Amityville Horror: *1/2
Amityville II: The Possession: *
Amityville 3-D: *
THE CROODS (2013). Any movie that calls itself The Croods — even an animated one — would seem to be threatening to wear its snot on its sleeve. Yet that's not the case here, as this feature has enough "scary action" (as per the faint-of-heart MPAA) to warrant a PG rating on its original theatrical release yet not enough Hangover-style scatology to merit anything stronger. This is strictly a toon tale for the whole family, meaning that anyone on the lookout for a comeback by Fritz the Cat creator Ralph Bakshi (MIA since 1997) will have to keep waiting and hoping. No, The Croods is exactly the sort of animated fare we receive on a monthly basis from Hollywood. It's bright and bleeds color; it's anachronistic in spots, meaning that it will probably date rather quickly; it tries to locate new visuals to justify that additional 3-D expense (both in the theater and on Blu-ray); and it espouses all the usual messages of living life to the fullest and becoming your own person and blah blah blah. On the scale of such efforts, it's pretty good, with an engaging second half making up for a tedious opening stretch. The Croods are a family consisting of six prehistoric cave dwellers, with the overly cautious dad Grug (voiced by Nicolas Cage) constantly butting heads with his exuberant teenage daughter Eep (Emma Stone). A natural disaster forces the clan members out of the cave and into the outside world, where they find an ally in the practical Guy (Ryan Reynolds) and enemies in all sorts of menacing critters (most strikingly, a flock of bird-piranhas). Despite the selection of suitable voice actors for these roles, the characters are only borderline interesting; what makes the movie work is the attention to the details that surround them, particularly some oddball animal friends as well as a beautifully rendered landscape full of both wonder and danger. It's when it's bringing this world to life that The Croods is at its most refined.
Blu-ray extras include deleted scenes; a look at the film's colorful creatures; and the kid-friendly feature Be an Artist! (There's also a Coloring & Storybook Builder app available.)
PACIFIC RIM (2013). The studio pitch was probably nothing more than "robots vs. monsters," and that indeed held summer-film potential. But while this FX extravaganza did well overseas, its stateside appeal was largely limited to fanboys — and for good reason. At some point in the near future, gargantuan creatures ("Kaijus") will emerge from cracks in the ocean floor and begin leveling cities across the globe. As the mass destruction continues, all of the world's nations pool their resources to build equally massive robots ("Jaegers") to stop them. Each robot is inhabited by two humans whose minds are synchronized so that they can effectively control it. Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) and his brother Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff) make up one of the most effective teams, but after they disobey a direct order from their commanding officer, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), Yancy is killed by a Kaiju and Raleigh quits the biz. Years later, the Kaijus have again taken the upper hand in the endless war, and Stacker coaxes Raleigh back into the fold. But Raleigh will need a new partner, and he finds that the Force is strong in a rookie robot-jock named Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi). Like Tim Burton before he got swallowed by his own eccentricities, writer-director Guillermo del Toro makes movies that are informed by an off-kilter sensibility (Pan's Labyrinth, Cronos, etc.); Pacific Rim is the first film he's directed that feels like a for-hire assignment made only for the sake of collecting a paycheck. What's bizarre is that this clearly isn't the case, given his enormous affinity for this genre. Hunnam brings to mind Battleship's Taylor Kitsch, TRON: Legacy's Garrett Hedlund and other bland, pretty-boy leads; Elba, on the other hand, is a magnetic actor, but it's impossible to take him seriously, since he's been directed to SHOUT! practically all of his hoary dialogue. Two bickering scientists (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman) provide strained comic relief, and their interludes will delight anyone who misses the banter between Sam Witwicky and his odious parents in the Transformers series. The visual effects are superb, although too much of the action takes place at night; still, even through the dim lighting, it's clear that del Toro understands spacial relations far more than Michael Bay ever will, given that the battles are for the most part cleanly staged and easy to follow. In short, viewers who care only about the fights and can ignore great stretches of tedium will lap this up like a dog discovering spilled gravy on the linoleum floor. Everyone else, though, will find themselves caught up in a sea of apathy.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by del Toro; deleted scenes; a dozen featurettes that examine the making of the film as well as the mythology; a piece on the visual effects; and a blooper reel. The film is also available in 3-D Blu-ray.
PSYCHO II (1983) / PSYCHO III (1986). A person would have to be as crazy as Norman Bates to even think about helming a sequel to Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 masterpiece Psycho, but the shocking discovery when Psycho II was originally released in 1983 was that director Richard Franklin and screenwriter Tom Holland had managed to craft an intelligent follow-up that in no way soiled the memory of its classic predecessor. Viewed today, the film still works better than the vast majority of horror sequels, wielding as its main selling point the return of Anthony Perkins in the role of a lifetime. Perkins resurrects his twitchy mannerisms and stuttering speech as Norman Bates, who has just been released from an insane asylum after 22 years. Back in the day, Norman was of course known for dressing up as his deceased mother and murdering people — including poor Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) during her shower at his motel — but his psychiatrist (Robert Loggia) has convinced the courts that Norman is now completely normal. Not so, insists Marion's sister Lila (Vera Miles, also returning from the 1960 original), who's adamant that he will resume his killing spree. Norman heads back to the family home on the hill, only to discover that the motel has been turned into a den of sex and drugs by the sleazy manager (who else but Dennis Franz). He also lands a job at the local diner, where his positive friendship with a young waitress (Meg Tilly) is overshadowed by evidence that Mother might still be controlling him. The dead bodies start piling up, but that's about the only expected development in this enjoyable yarn that keeps the twists coming up until the very end. Perkins clearly relishes playing this iconic character again, while Tilly is quite good as the fragile woman whose relationship with Norman proves to be unusually complex. It's just too bad modern sensibilities insist on all color all the time — like its masterfully shot antecedent, this should have been filmed in black and white.
The success of Psycho II prompted Universal Studios to follow up with Psycho III, but this one turned out to be a non-event during the summer of 1986, when audiences were more interested in catching sequels to more recent hits like The Karate Kid and Alien than once again traveling down memory lane with Norman Bates. The problem with this outing, which marked Perkins' directorial debut, is that it largely plays like a run-of-the-mill slasher flick, with the Bates Motel again the site of a series of gory murders. This time, the potential victims include a suicidal nun (Diana Scarwid) who reminds Norman of Marion Crane, a horny redneck (Jeff Fahey) who becomes his assistant manager, and a nosy journalist (Roberta Maxwell) who elects to do some research on the Bates family. There are a few nice touches sprinkled throughout the film — the opening scene can't help but stir memories of Hitchcock's Vertigo, and I love the quick shot of In the Belly of the Beast (the book Tilly's character was reading in Psycho II) discarded in the dirt — but there's little imagination to be found in either Perkins' staging or Charles Edward Pogue's script, and the attempts at black humor are fairly lame. The Psycho cycle continued with the 1987 TV movie Bates Motel (starring Bud Cort as a friend of Norman Bates), the 1990 TV movie Psycho IV: The Beginning (which again starred Perkins but ignored all the plot developments found in II and III), Gus van Sant's atrocious 1998 remake of the 1960 original, and the current TV series Bates Motel.
Blu-ray extras on Psycho II include audio commentary by Holland; vintage interviews with Franklin, Perkins, Miles and others; theatrical trailers; TV spots; and a photo gallery. Blu-ray extras on Psycho III include audio commentary by Pogue; separate interviews with Fahey, actress Katt Shea (who plays one of the victims), actress Brinke Stevens (who served as Scarwid's body double) and makeup effects artist Michael Westmore; theatrical trailers; and a photo gallery.
Psycho II: ***
Psycho III: **