(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.)
CHAPPIE (2015). I'm not going to go as far as a colleague who suggested Chappie should have been called Crappie, but coming on the heels of the equally disappointing Elysium, it looks like writer-director Neill Blomkamp might be a one-trick pony ... and that one trick was District 9. Like that critical and commercial hit from 2009, Chappie is set in the South Africa of the future, this one envisioned as a lawless zone where the crime rate was out of control until enterprising young developer Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), working for a company headed by the no-nonsense Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver), created an army of cyborg policemen. Calling them RoboCops — wait, wrong movie — Deon then believes he can do even better by creating an AI that's every bit as sentient as human beings. He comes up with Johnny Five — sorry, no, that's Short Circuit — he comes up with Chappie (District 9 star Sharlto Copley), a childlike robot who falls under the influence of a violent hoodlum named Ninja (played by rap-rave artist Ninja of the group Die Antwoord) and his softhearted girlfriend Yolandi (played by rap-rave artist Yo-landi Vi$$er of the group Die Antwoord). While Deon is off trying to keep Chappie from embarking on a life of crime, a rival inventor, an ex-military bully named Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), seeks approval from Michelle for his robo-creation, a monolith that looks suspiciously like RoboCop's ED-209. Copley provides some touching moments as the E.T.-like robot whose natural curiosity is no match for the harsh realities of the world, but sloppy scripting, particularly when it comes to character motivation (Deon's actions rarely make sense) and character development (Ninja improbably transforms from Tony Montana in Scarface to Father O'Malley in Going My Way), damages the picture at every juncture. And then there's the climactic resolution, which is nothing short of head-smackingly stupid. It's the worst element in the entire picture — unless, of course, you count that hideous mullet perched on top of poor Hugh Jackman's noggin.
Blu-ray extras include a handful of making-of featurettes focusing on the casting, characters, visual effects, location shooting and more; an alternate ending; and an extended scene.
REPTILICUS (1961) / TENTACLES (1976). The good folks at Shout! Factory/Scream Factory have released another Blu-ray double feature of movies that may not advance the motion picture form in any worthwhile capacity but can certainly keep friends entertained as they stage their own MST3K-worthy sessions at home.
Speaking of the Satellite of Love crew, how did they not get their hands on Reptilicus at any point during the show's lengthy run? Awkward dubbing of foreign actors, special effects that look like they cost a buck fifty, laughably earnest dialogue, wince-inducing comic relief from a dim-witted character — if ever a movie was made that deserved to be showcased on the cult series, it's this one. Regularly billed as "Denmark's first horror movie," this finds the usual behemoth destroying a major city (in this case, Copenhagen) while scientists fretfully wring their hands and army officers bring out the big guns. The effects used to create Reptilicus (a puppet, basically) are no worse than those seen in many of the era's films (it still beats the oversized bird in The Giant Claw, for starters), but the effects employed when the creature does something like munch on humans or shoot acidic green slime from its mouth manage to travel beyond atrocious. Amusingly, a literary outfit of the period called Monarch Books would write novelizations of various monster movies and then add several softcore passages; among the chosen films were Konga, Gorgo and ... Reptilicus. So if you want to read how the humans got it on when they weren't busy battling Reptilicus (sample passage, courtesy of Micro-Brewed Reviews: "Expertly she guided him, her body accommodating itself to the savage lance of his manhood"), you might be able to find an old paperback copy online for roughly $20 or $30.
Alas, no raunchy softcore paperback emerged in the wake of Tentacles, a disappointment only to those predisposed to seeing a post-The Poseidon Adventure Shelley Winters and a post-Chinatown John Huston get hot and heavy in an incestuous clinch. In this chintzy Italian production, a Jaws rip-off from prolific producer Ovidio G. Assonitis (The Exorcist rip-off Beyond the Door, The Omen rip-off The Visitor), Huston stars as Ned Turner, a reporter investigating the disappearance of several seaside residents. It turns out the culprit is a giant octopus, which means it's time to call in a marine expert (Bo Hopkins) whose two best friends are a pair of killer whales named Winter and Summer. Winters, easily the worst performer ever to win more than one Academy Award (unless you're that one in a billion who thinks Daniel Day-Lewis or Spencer Tracy is worse?), co-stars as Huston's irksome sister, while Henry Fonda phones in his performance — literally, as almost all his scenes involve him talking on the telephone — as a business magnate bothered that it's his company responsible for disturbing this critter's peaceful slumber. Considering one of the heroic whales is named Summer, and I have a 6-month-old puppy named Summer, you would think I'd be inclined to cut this film some slack. But nope, it's pretty rancid, although, like Reptilicus, it's the perfect party picture to screen in the background as your guests get suitably soused.
Blu-ray extras on both titles include photo galleries and theatrical trailers.
Both Movies: *1/2
RUN ALL NIGHT (2015). Back in 2002, Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson starred in K-19: The Widowmaker, and I can't help but imagine the following conversation took place on the set. NEESON: "I loved making Schindler's List and Michael Collins and after the upcoming Kinsey hope to continue to star in films that offer me complex roles!" FORD: "Take my advice. Forget about making quality flicks and go instead for the biggest paychecks." NEESON: "You're kidding." FORD: "Hell, no. Did you know I was offered a key role in Traffic? But I wouldn't have been paid my usual kazillion dollars, so I passed on it and Michael Douglas took the part. And I'm turning down this new movie called Syriana — let George Clooney have it; he might even believe it will win him an Oscar! Instead, I'm gonna collect a huge paycheck to make some piece of crap called Hollywood Homicide with a young actor named Josh Hairnet or something." NEESON: "So Steven Spielberg and I have been talking for years about making a movie about Abraham Lincoln. You're saying I should tell him I changed my mind and see who'll pay me top dollar to star in dime-a-dozen action flicks instead?" FORD: "Definitely! Some might be good, but that's incidental. Say you make one about a guy whose daughter is taken from him. A plot like that holds promise, and if it's successful, then you can get paid even more to star in its crummy sequels. Or you might make one that's not especially good, something with a generic title like Run All Night or Sleep All Day or Binge-Watch All Week. To beef up the marquee, you can probably find some great actor to appear under you. He can play the villain; maybe somebody reliable like Gene Hackman — unless he's retired by then — or that wacky Christopher Walken or Ed Harris. Yeah, get Ed Harris! And make sure the plot is pretty standard; nothing too complicated. Maybe it can be about a former assassin who has to protect a family member from the bad guys — maybe a son, and have them cast some flavorless TV actor so they can pay him less and pay you more." NEESON: "I don't know, that sounds kinda bland." FORD: "Who cares? Who cares if it's tired material, or has cardboard characters or narrative coincidences or plotholes the size of the Grand Canyon? You can let the critics bitch while you laugh all the way to the bank. Now excuse me, I have to call my agent and figure out my asking salary for K-19: The Widowmaker 2 after this one becomes a Star Wars-size hit."
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette and deleted scenes.
SPIRITED AWAY (2001). If there's a film genre that qualifies as an open invitation for moviemakers to let it all artistically hang out, it would be the animated field, where writers and directors don't have to worry about special effects proving too costly or stars turning too temperamental. In the animated kingdom, the imagination is truly king, and it's depressing to note just how small-minded many of its products have turned out over the years. A wonderful exception is Spirited Away, a deserving winner of the Best Animated Feature Oscar and, for a good while, Japan's all-time top moneymaker. Creative beyond all reason or expectation, this effort from the revered Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki is a phenomenal achievement, a gorgeous-looking piece of cinema that stirs memories of everything from Alice In Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz to Where the Wild Things Are and Yellow Submarine. Featuring visions more suited to a hallucinatory dream than a TV screen, this masterpiece, about a young girl who's forced to work in a bathhouse that caters to spirits, takes particular delight in confounding our expectations every step of the way. And perhaps only the Cantina in Star Wars can match this film's bathhouse as a sight for soaring eyes unable to believe the sheer number of unusual creatures sauntering through the place. Yet while Spirited Away would be worthwhile simply as an ocular treat, the story's also solid, concerning itself with timeless issues like honor, sacrifice, responsibility and respect.
Along with Spirited Away (but sold separately), Disney is also releasing the Blu-ray for The Cat Returns, one of a batch of lesser known Studio Ghibli features that debuted on home video in this country following the success of Miyazaki's movies (made in 2002, the picture didn't reach our shores until 2005). The filmmaker only serves as an executive producer on this pleasant if unexceptional effort about a young girl (voiced by Anne Hathaway) who magically finds herself trapped in a fantasy land inhabited by anthropomorphic felines.
Blu-ray extras on both titles include a making-of featurette; original Japanese storyboards; and Japanese trailers and TV spots. Spirited Away also includes an introduction by Pixar head (and Miyasaki fan) John Lasseter.
Spirited Away: ****
The Cat Returns: **1/2
THE SUNSHINE BOYS (1975). Woody Allen may have eventually won the long-distance race, but there was a lengthy period when Neil Simon was attached to as many movies as his fellow New Yorker: Between 1966 and 1986, there was only one year in which Simon's name was not found within the credits of at least one cinematic release. With apologies to fans of The Odd Couple and The Goodbye Girl, this is my favorite of those countless screen Simons, an often uproarious gem about a crusty comic named Willy Clark (Walter Matthau) who reluctantly agrees to appear opposite his former vaudeville partner Al Lewis (George Burns) on a TV special honoring the history of comedy. But because of the pair's immense dislike of each other — not to mention each man's curmudgeonly attitude toward the world at large — Willy's nephew-agent (Richard Benjamin) has his hands full trying to keep the two senior citizens in line. Burns earned the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his fine work (Benjamin had won that category at the Golden Globes for an equally impressive turn), yet it's Matthau who makes the whole picture work. His is one of the great comedic performances, and Simon feeds him one killer quip after another. In addition to Burns' win, this also earned Oscar nominations for Matthau's lead performance, Simon's adapted screenplay, and the art direction-set decoration. Future Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham (Amadeus) scores one of his earliest film appearances as a mechanic, and look for future TV stars Howard Hesseman (WKRP in Cincinnati) and Ron Rifkin (Alias) in small parts. And speaking of Woody Allen, he would eventually play the Burns role in a 1997 made-for-TV production, with Peter Falk essaying the Matthau role and Sarah Jessica Parker cast as a female version of Benjamin's character.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Benjamin; the makeup test for Jack Benny, who was originally cast in the Burns part but had to leave the production because of poor health (he passed away before the movie opened); and 1975's The Lion Roars Again, an MGM promo reel plugging upcoming studios pictures such as Logan's Run and The Wind and the Lion.
WILD TALES (2014). An anthology film that calls itself Wild Tales can only truly deliver on its moniker by offering stories comparable to the insane likes of, say, Luis Buñuel's 1929 Un Chien Andalou (with that infamous eyeball-slicing scene), John Waters' 1970 Multiple Maniacs (featuring a character called The Puke Eater as well as the sight of a 15-foot-long lobster raping Divine) and David Lynch's 1977 Eraserhead (wild from first frame to last). Made for modern-day moviegoers who don't want their films too messy, Wild Tales is more often like mild tales, yet that's not necessarily a knock. A gargantuan hit in its Argentinian homeland as well as a recent Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, this still sports enough of a wicked edge to break away from other rowdy satires that are more cookie cutter than cutting edge. Written and directed by Damián Szifrón, the picture — for better or worse — opens with its best skit: "Pasternak," in which everyone aboard an airplane all improbably seem to personally know the title character. Because Szifrón plays it close to the vest for much of its length, this sequence works beautifully, and its final freeze frame is nothing short of brilliant. The subsequent five stories — yarns centering on a waitress out for revenge ("The Rats"), a yuppie and a yahoo engaged in road rage ("Road to Hell"), a demolition expert (Ricardo Darín, star of Argentina's Oscar-winning The Secret in Their Eyes) experiencing a particularly vexing string of unfortunate incidents ("Little Bomb"), the cover-up of a hit-and-run ("The Proposal"), and a wedding in which admissions of infidelity fly fast and furious ("Til Death Do Us Part") — all prove to be entertaining, even if they're only able to offer outrageousness in carefully measured doses ("Road to Hell" arguably comes closest to go-for-broke consistency). Still, there's just enough of a maverick spirit on tap to satisfy the type of discerning film fan who even now is gripped with terror at the thought of another Paul Blart: Mall Cop sequel.
Blu-ray extras include a behind-the-scenes featurette and a Q&A session with Szifrón.