(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what's new on Blu-ray and DVD. Ratings are on a four-star scale.)
BILL & TED'S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE (1989) / BILL & TED'S BOGUS JOURNEY (1991). The fifth release in Shout! Factory's Shout Select series (which, according to the company, "shines a light on films that deserve a spot on your shelf," is actually a twofer, with both Bill & Ted flicks offered in a three-disc Blu-ray set under the title Bill & Ted's Most Excellent Collection.
While the second picture contains the series MVP (more on that in a moment), Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure is overall the better film, as high school dudes Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves), with the help of the futuristic Rufus (George Carlin), employ a time-travel phone booth to enable them to kidnap historical figures (Lincoln, Freud, Genghis Khan and others) in an effort to avoid failing their history class. The upcoming decade would witness a high number of dum-dum characters in dum-dum movies (e.g. Wayne's World, Dumb and Dumber, The Stupids), but few turned out to be as ingratiating as Bill and Ted, thanks to the likable turns by Reeves and Winter. The script by Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon is more clever in the small details than in the broad strokes, and it's fascinating to learn that one of Beethoven's favorite albums is Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet.
Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey followed two years later, and it earned nearly as much at the box office as its predecessor. This time, the boys attempt to save the world from the diabolical De Nomolos (Joss Ackland), who orders his evil Bill and Ted robots to kill the doofuses and take their place. William Sadler steals the film with his hilarious turn as The Grim Reaper — instead of playing chess as in Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal, this Death is forced to play Battleship and Clue for the boys' souls — and the film also offers an eye-popping interpretation of Hell. But aside from a few chuckles, the remainder is overstuffed and overindulgent.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentaries for both films by Winter and producer Scott Kroopf; separate audio commentaries for both films by Matheson and Solomon; lengthy retrospective making-of pieces for each movie, featuring interviews with Reeves, Winter and other cast and crew members; a discussion with Matheson and Solomon; and a piece translating all the bodacious slang heard in the two pictures. The collection also contains a Wild Stallyns (the name of the boys' band) guitar pick and a pair of bumper stickers.
Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure: **1/2
Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey: **
CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE (2016). On paper, Central Intelligence looks like the same-old same-old: A formulaic buddy action-comedy in which at least one of the pair is a law enforcement officer and both are forced to bond as they confront murderous villains with itchy, NRA-approved fingers (see Hot Pursuit, Bulletproof, and about 48,000 more). In this one, Dwayne Johnson plays a garrulous CIA agent operating under the name Bob Stone. As shown in flashbacks, Bob was a portly teenager and mercilessly bullied in high school, with only the popular Calvin Joyner bothering to stick up for him. As an adult, Calvin (Kevin Hart) is now the one thoroughly unhappy with his lot in life, but once Bob hits town for the 20-year class reunion, everything changes as Calvin finds himself inadvertently drawn into a massive CIA operation involving encrypted bank accounts, turncoat agents and a mysterious criminal mastermind known as the Black Badger. As I say, formula. The spyjinks play like second-tier Mission: Impossible (though Amy Ryan is perfect as an ice-cold CIA boss), and director Rawson Marshall Thurber is no better than adequate in his staging of the action sequences. But as a comedy — and as a two-seater vehicle for a pair of highly charismatic actors — Central Intelligence is hard to resist. Even though he's theoretically playing the piece's straight man, Hart is given plenty of opportunities to show off his wired brand of comedy, especially when reacting to Bob's very particular set of skills. He also enjoys an easy rapport with Johnson, who's absolutely riotous as a perpetually cheerful guy fond of both unicorns and the movie Sixteen Candles.
The Blu-ray contains both the theatrical version and an unrated cut that runs approximately 10 minutes longer. Extras include audio commentary by Thurber and editor Mike Sale; alternate scenes; and a gag reel.
HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE (2016). A grouchy old man and a roly-poly boy; the devastating loss of a significant other; a faithful canine companion (two, actually); the sighting of a rare kind of bird. Sure, it might sound like Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a live-action remake of the Pixar gem Up, but it's actually its own beast, a memorable tale alternating between heaviness and heart. Sam Neill plays the grizzled elder, stuck in the New Zealand wilds with a young boy (Julian Dennison) and being pursued by authority figures who mistakenly believe that he not only kidnapped the child but is also sexually abusing him. That couldn't be further from the truth: On the contrary, the kid doesn't especially want to return to civilization and fancies himself a hardcore gangster successfully eluding the police (in truth, he's no more gangster than any of the Little Rascals). Adapted (from Barry Crump's book Wild Pork and Watercress) and directed by What We Do in the Shadows creator Taika Waititi (who interjects himself into the proceedings by playing a minister in one strained scene), Hunt for the Wilderpeople is excellent when it focuses solely on the relationship between — and the misadventures of — its two central figures. It's less captivating when the attention turns to several doltish characters, most critically an abrasive social worker (Rachel House) but also a selfie-loving slacker (Troy Kingi) and a conspiracy theorist named Psycho Sam (Rhys Darby). Still, these supporting players are only the side dishes, and the main course is more than savory enough to cover up their overcooked flavorlessness.
DVD extras consist of audio commentary by Waititi, Neill and Denison; a behind-the-scenes piece; and a blooper reel.
RAISING CAIN (1992). Following the critical and commercial drubbing he received for 1990's The Bonfire of the Vanities, it's no wonder Brian De Palma retreated back into the world of thrillers for his next screen credit — it's just a shame the resultant picture proved to be one of his weakest. Apparently, though, the version released by Universal back in '92 wasn't exactly the one De Palma wanted — over two decades later, a fan named Peet Gelderblom, working from De Palma's original script, rearranged the order of sequences and called his edit Raising Cain Recut. De Palma himself loved the new version and lobbied to have it included on Shout! Factory's new Blu-ray release (where it's tagged, perhaps disingenuously, as "The Director's Cut"). I gave the theatrical version 1-1/2 stars back in the day, and while this new edit does allow the film to build more steadily and flow more easily, it still ranks as a mediocre thriller. In fact, the new version makes the picture seem even more like an off-center carbon copy of De Palma's superb 1980 hit Dressed to Kill, coming off as hokey and jokey rather than clever and suspenseful. John Lithgow overacts outrageously in a number of roles, including a weak-willed psychiatrist, his demented twin brother, and their domineering father, a sadist whose scientific experiments require the kidnapping of several small children (and the murders of any attendant adults). A couple of scenes evoke De Palma in his prime (check out that tracking shot through a police station's corridors), but the majority is shamelessly derivative and played for too many cheap laughs.
In addition to housing both versions of the film, the two-disc Blu-ray edition includes several extras, including a piece on the new edit; a video essay by Gelderblom; an interview with Lithgow; and the theatrical trailer.
SALEM'S LOT (1979) / CAT'S EYE (1985) / STEPHEN KING'S IT (1990). With Halloween just around the corner, it's no surprise to see three Stephen King efforts turning up on Blu-ray.
Salem's Lot finds an early (and excellent) King novel receiving the TV-movie treatment, with director Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) hired to ensure the mood was sustained even during the original broadcast breaks for cereal and soft drink commercials. This version is the original 183-minute cut (completists would doubtless have also appreciated the inclusion of the 112-minute version that was released in theaters internationally), and it's an impressive undertaking, with author Ben Mears (David Soul) returning to his childhood home of Salem's Lot at the exact same time the distinguished Mr. Straker (James Mason) and his mysterious partner Mr. Barlow are opening an antique shop in the quiet town. Small-screen restrictions require the bloodletting be kept to a minimum (though the death-by-antler scene is still pretty eye-catching), but Hooper and scripter Paul Monash nevertheless manage to construct a first-rate chiller out of King's fertile source material. Reggie Nalder is an effective vampire in the grand Nosferatu tradition, while future Best in Show scene-stealer Fred Willard (at the time co-hosting the hit TV series Real People) appears as a luckless realtor; noir buffs should also take note of the presence of Marie Windsor and Elisha Cook Jr., who 23 years earlier had played an ill-fated couple in Stanley Kubrick's The Killing.
With an opening sequence that features both a blood-covered St. Bernard and a car sporting a "Christine" bumper sticker, it's immediately clear that Cat's Eye is going to lean heavily on self-referential shout-outs as it pertains to the oeuvre of Stephen King. That's hardly a surprise considering the screenplay was penned by King himself, but rather than serving as distractions, these bits (plus subsequent nods to The Dead Zone and Pet Sematary) fit the overall mix of horror and humor. A trio of tales all connected by a cat on a mission, this begins with a sadistic yet admittedly clever vignette about a businessman (James Woods) whose desire to break his smoking habit leads him to a company (Quitters, Inc.) with highly unorthodox methods. The second story, equally engaging, finds a wealthy gambler (Kenneth McMillan) forcing his wife's lover (Robert Hays) to take a wager involving a very narrow high-rise ledge. The concluding segment is the most dependent on visual effects, as the heroic feline tries to protect a little girl (Drew Barrymore) from an evil troll that wants to steal her breath. Incidentally, this was produced by Dino De Laurentiis' studio, meaning a sizable chunk of it was filmed in Wilmington, NC.
Like Salem's Lot, Stephen King's It was produced for television — in this case, a 187-minute miniseries. Unlike Salem's Lot, though, it fails to maintain its length, running out of steam in the home stretch. It's set in a small Maine town where seven children come together to fight an evil entity which most often takes the form of the murderous clown Pennywise (Tim Curry); they seemingly defeat him, promising to take a stand if he ever terrorizes the town again. Cut to approximately three decades later, when the killings commence anew and the septet (Richard Thomas, John Ritter, Tim Reid, Annette O'Toole, Harry Anderson, Dennis Christopher and Richard Masur) individually mull over whether to once again square off against Pennywise. Curry is typically dazzling as the ever-so-creepy clown, and the program does a fine job of establishing the characters during both their childhood and adult years. But the entire project deflates just as it should be building to a crescendo, and the final battle proves to be a crushing disappointment.
Blu-ray extras on Salem's Lot consist of audio commentary by Hooper and the international theatrical trailer. Blu-ray extras on Cat's Eye consist of audio commentary by director Lewis Teague and the theatrical trailer. The only Blu-ray extra on Stephen King's It is audio commentary by Christopher, Reid, Ritter, Thomas and director Tommy Lee Wallace.
Salem's Lot: ***1/2
Cat's Eye: ***
Stephen King's It: **1/2
TENEBRAE (1982). Originally playing stateside in an edited version titled Unsane, writer-director Dario Argento's Tenebrae (often Tenebre) was released two years after Brian De Palma's Dressed to Kill and two years before De Palma's Body Double, making one suspect these filmmakers were busy borrowing from each other's works with frequent regularity. Like De Palma, Argento employs the camera as a prowling, restless voyeur, and that tendency is at its most pronounced in this thriller in which American author Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa), stopping in Rome as part of a promotional tour for his latest horror novel, learns that his stories are serving as a guide for a serial killer who seems to be moving in the same circles. The De Palma comparisons don't end with the technical mastery behind the lens: Like his American counterpart, Argento not only has an eye for beautiful women (and a habit of keeping one alive to serve as, at best, the heroine and, at worst, a witness to the mayhem) but further delights in tripping up audiences with startling plot twists and bursts of extreme violence. John Saxon co-stars as Neal's agent, while Guiliano Gemma and Carola Stagnaro are effective as a pair of sympathetic detectives.
The Blu-ray from Synapse Films offers the option of either an Italian or English-language track. Extras include audio commentary by film critic, author and Argento scholar Maitland McDonagh (Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento); the documentary Yellow Fever: The Rise and Fall of the Giallo; an alternate opening credits sequence; the original end credits sequence for Unsane; and theatrical trailers.
WARCRAFT (2016). Gamers familiar with the Blizzard Entertainment franchise will doubtless weep sweet-and-salty tears of joy that the first 20 minutes of this stateside bust/global smash is speaking directly to their console-controlled hearts, but most viewers will find it a chore sitting through expository sequences as graceless, clumsy and impenetrable as those on view here. Yet after this trying and torturous opening, the story starts coming into view, and Warcraft soon emerges as — well, it's still a feeble flick, but it improves enough to probably avoid the year-end 10 Worst placement that initially appeared to be its birthright. With its mix of humans, orcs, dwarfs and even a Golem/Gollum, one would be forgiven for mistaking this movie for The Lord of the Rings: The Bootleg Edition. The plot involves the skirmish between humans, whose ranks include scruffy soldier Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel), young wizard Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer) and veteran sorcerer Medivh (a badly miscast Ben Foster), and the hulking orcs, who seem like they might be decent chaps were they not imbecilic enough to serve under the transparently evil Gul'dan (Daniel Wu). There's also the half-orc Garona (Paula Patton), who inexplicably falls for the lackluster Lothar, as well as some imposing wolves apparently borrowed from Princess Mononoke. Duncan Jones fares better as director than co-writer, since the battle sequences are far more accomplished than any of the scenes in which characters stand around spouting inanities. Even when at the mercy of shaky CGI, the skirmishes are competently choreographed and suggest that Jones might have been able to make the leap from low-key sci-fi (the excellent Moon) to big-budget extravaganzas had the material been stronger.
Blu-ray extras include various making-of featurettes; deleted scenes; the motion comic Warcraft: Bonds of Brotherhood; and a gag reel.
Short and Sweet:
CABO BLANCO (1980). Remaking a unique classic like Casablanca would be an act of sheer folly, so here we have a movie that kinda-sorta-maybe-vaguely can be called a remake of that beloved Best Picture Oscar winner. There's an American bar owner (Charles Bronson) living in a foreign country (in this case, Peru); there's a cheerfully corrupt police chief (Fernando Rey); there's a nasty Nazi (Jason Robards); and there's a soft-spoken woman (Dominique Sanda) who arrives on the scene and immediately commands everyone's attention. The letters of transit are here replaced with sunken treasure, but there's nothing to replace the original's charm, intrigue, or tangible chemistry between its players. Even without comparisons, this one's a snoozer.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by author Paul Talbot (Bronson's Loose); a making-of featurette; an interview with producer Lance Hool; and theatrical trailers for the Bronson vehicles Cabo Blanco, Mr. Majestyk, Breakheart Pass and The White Buffalo.
HIGHLANDER (1986). Critically dismissed upon its initial release and failing to recoup its production costs, Highlander found renewed life on the home-video market, resulting in a series of limp sequels, a popular TV series, and guaranteed cult status. Christopher Lambert plays Connor MacLeod, a 16th century Scottish warrior who learns he's immortal and can only be killed by having his head lopped off. He survives through the centuries, receiving early tutoring from a garrulous Immortal (Sean Connery) and repeatedly butting heads with the most vicious of all Immortals (Clancy Brown). It's easy to see why many love this picture (great premise, fine action scenes, a score by Queen, Connery) but just as easy to see why many despise it (cheesy production values, stone-faced Lambert, ludicrous supporting characters, thudding dialogue).
Extras on the 30th Anniversary DVD edition include audio commentary by director Russell Mulcahy; a making-of featurette; deleted scenes; and separate interviews with Lambert and Mulcahy.
JOHNNY GUITAR (1954). Even Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man and Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles look like traditional Westerns when placed alongside this one-of-a-kind effort from one-of-a-kind director Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without a Cause, In a Lonely Place). Joan Crawford headlines as Vienna, a tough saloon owner who's loved by two men, Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) and the Dancin' Kid (Scott Brady), and detested by the sexually repressed Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge). Feminism, Freud and firearms all figure in this exemplary yarn that also takes aim at the blacklisting that was tearing apart the film industry.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by film critic Geoff Andrew; an introduction by Martin Scorsese; a critical appreciation of Ray; a discussion of the film's feminist content; and film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum's essay Johnny Guitar: The First Existential Western.