(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.)
CHE! (1969). Upon its original release, Che! became one of the most reviled pictures of its era, with even the late, great Roger Ebert (often a soft touch) damning it with a one-star review. And while memories of the movie may have faded over time, the performance of Jack Palance as Fidel Castro continues to live in infamy. The New York Times' Vincent Canby noted that "Palance does little more than breathe deeply, between speeches, and light cigars," while Leonard Maltin amusingly quipped, "You haven't lived until you see Palance play Fidel Castro." And in the Medved brothers' book The Golden Turkey Awards, Palance was one of the five nominees in the category The Worst Casting of All Time (he lost out to John Wayne as Genghis Khan in 1955's The Conqueror). Admittedly, Palance is far from ideal as Castro, but it hardly ranks as one of the all-time worst performances — heck, it's not even the worst Jack Palance performance. At any rate, he's more enjoyable to watch than Omar Sharif, who plays Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara in a somnambular state that captures little of the passion and none of the magnetism of this controversial cultural icon. Certainly, the movie itself does little to support him: At a brief 96 minutes, it can hardly present a well-rounded portrait of the man and the times, yet what does make it on screen is both timid and tepid, a soggy saga so noncommittal that the Cuban Revolution ultimately seems no more monumental a historical event than the Iowa State Fair. Perhaps the most interesting element of Che! is its supporting roster, with various revolutionaries played by future Oscar nominees Robert Loggia (Jagged Edge) and Adolph Caesar (A Soldier's Story), the fine character actor Woody Strode (Spartacus, Sergeant Rutledge) and cult figure (and recent Charlotte Mad Monster Party guest) Sid Haig (Spider Baby, House of 1000 Corpses). The subject of Che Guevara was revisited by Walter Salles in 2004's noteworthy The Motorcycle Diaries (starring Gael García Bernal as a young Che) and by Steven Soderbergh in 2008's middling Che (with a commanding performance by Benicio Del Toro).
Blu-ray extras include a vintage behind-the-scenes featurette; the theatrical trailer; and an isolated track of Lalo Schifrin's score.
EDGE OF TOMORROW (2014). The summer's best multiplex offering proved to be a softer box office performer than expected, though strong word of mouth eventually allowed it to crawl over the $100 million mark. Still, its chances at faring better at home might have already been sabotaged by Warner Bros., which absurdly has opted to downplay the film's title on the Blu-ray and DVD box and instead make it appear as if the tagline — Live. Die. Repeat. — is the picture's actual moniker (it's even noted on the spine, alongside the real title; see incriminating photo below). Endlessly entertaining and ceaselessly innovative, this futuristic saga, an adaptation of a Japanese novel with the groovy name All You Need Is Kill, finds Tom Cruise once again working his movie-star mojo in the role of Major William Cage, the military's leading p.r. flack and a wiz at selling the ongoing war against invading alien forces nicknamed "Mimics." But when a no-nonsense general (Brendan Gleeson) orders him to accompany the first wave of troops set to fight the e.t.s along the French coast, he refuses, forcing the general to have him arrested as a deserter and shipping him to the front as an ordinary soldier. Once on the battlefield, Cage proves to be utterly worthless — he's a far cry from Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), a kick-ass combatant who has become the face of humanity's stand against its evil attackers. Cage is so incompetent, in fact, that he's quickly killed ... only to then find himself waking up back at the barracks on the day before the beachfront battle commences. To reveal more would be to spoil the picture's numerous surprises; suffice it to say that Cage dies repeatedly, but rather than forge a rapport with Groundhog Day's Punxsutawney Phil, he becomes acquainted with Rita, the one person who understands why he seems stuck in an endless loop. Complexity and ingenuity clearly aren't in short supply, but what's unexpected is the high level of humor coursing through the film, much of it in a darkly comic vein. As for the effects work, it's nothing short of superb, with the Mimics proving to be expertly designed — and genuinely frightening — creatures. If Edge of Tomorrow unfortunately turns a bit conventional as it enters its final stretch, that's a small price to pay for what's overall a socko motion picture that demands to be seen today.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; pieces on the weaponry, the military garb and the aliens; and deleted scenes.
THE FAULT IN OUR STARS (2014). Movies about sickly young people tend to strand discerning film fans far from the intended effect, since dry eyes or involuntary chuckles are more likely to greet the melodramatic claptrap foisted upon the screen. But The Fault in Our Stars, based on John Green's acclaimed 2012 best seller, is different: It treats its characters as recognizably human individuals rather than symbolic pawn pieces, and it hooks us with its mix of strong dialogue, restrained direction and powerhouse performances. Shailene Woodley (spectacular) stars as Hazel Grace Lancaster, a 16-year-old whose cancer has left her unable to properly breath without her portable oxygen tank in tow. A smart and strong-willed teen, the last thing she wants to do is spend potentially limited time attending support group meetings, but at the insistence of her mother (Laura Dern), she finally acquiesces. And a good thing, too, since it's at one of these meetings that she encounters Augustus "Gus" Waters (Ansel Elgort), a self-assured boy who lost a leg to cancer and now sports a prosthetic one. Gus and Hazel both benefit from loving and supportive parents, yet what they really require is one another, someone who can understand firsthand the fears and difficulties that they each face daily. Naturally, cancer will again rear its hideous head at some point over the course of the film, but the script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (the pair who wrote (500) Days of Summer and The Spectacular Now) is too intelligent to telegraph its moves or allow the drama to fall into predetermined place. One of the highlights of the picture is when Hazel and Gus travel to Amsterdam to meet Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe), the author of Hazel's favorite book, and their meeting isn't quite what one might expect. Instead, the emotions that are unleashed are raw, startling and even terrifying, and they provide an unease not even attempted in other films of this nature (certainly not junk like Sweet November or Autumn in New York). There's one line of voice-over, taken from Green's novel, that struck me as particularly memorable: "I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once." If this line strikes you as so much treacle, skip the film with my blessing. But if it speaks to you, then better keep those tissues handy.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director Josh Boone and Green; making-of featurettes; and deleted scenes.
LA BAMBA (1987). One month after releasing 1979's The Buddy Holly Story on Blu-ray, the Twilight Time label has seen fit to offer another film that looks at one of the three rock legends tragically killed in the same airplane crash in 1959. (To date, no one has made a movie about the third star on that flight: J.P. Richardson, aka The Big Bopper.) Lou Diamond Phillips would soon reveal himself to be a rather limited screen star, but in his first significant film appearance, he's just right as the teenage Ritchie Valens (real name Richard Valenzuela), who in less than a year became a star and produced such hits as "La Bamba," "Donna" and "Come On, Let's Go" before perishing in that crash at the age of 17. Made with the blessing of the Valenzuela family, the movie paints a respectful portrait of the clean-cut kid while providing much of the dramatic conflict through the character of his hot-headed brother Bob (top-billed Esai Morales), who simultaneously respects and resents his younger sibling. Rosana De Soto delivers a strong turn as the family matriarch, Connie Valenzuela (the real Connie would pass away shortly after the movie's debut in 1987), while the chart-topping soundtrack features Los Lobos performing all of Ritchie's songs (and the group's David Hidalgo provided Phillips' singing voice).
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by writer-director Luis Valdez, Phillips and Morales, and executive producer Stuart Benjamin; separate audio commentary by producers Taylor Hackford and Daniel Valdez; the theatrical trailer; and an isolated track of the soundtrack.
MILLION DOLLAR ARM (2014). With such titles as The Rookie (the baseball flick with Dennis Quaid), Miracle (the hockey flick with Kurt Russell), Invincible (the football flick with Mark Wahlberg) and Secretariat (the horse-racing flick with Diane Lane) under its heavyweight belt, it's clear that Disney loves to homogenize the hell out of true-life sports tales. The latest case in point is Million Dollar Arm, which lives and dies by the formula. The film takes a look at Rinku Singh (played by Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mittal), the first two Indians signed to major league baseball contracts. Of course, Hollywood learned nothing from the astronomical success of Slumdog Millionaire, so rather than focus on their inspiring stories, they're shunted aside so that the spotlight can remain primarily on JB Bernstein (Jon Hamm), the American agent whose contact with these kids — and with a preppy medical student (Lake Bell) — helps make him a better man. Million Dollar Arm, you had me at Jerry Maguire. The cultural assimilation of Singh and Patel in the U.S. of course can't compare to the woes suffered by Bernstein during his brief stay in their country, so we get the usual chatter regarding India's rampant corruption (since they're not as honest as us Americans), blanket poverty (from this film, you wouldn't know that anybody in India enjoyed such luxuries as indoor plumbing) and the ceaseless bouts of diarrhea endured by any foreigners daring to eat the local cuisine (since Papa John's pizza, product-placed in the film, is so much more nutritional — and tastier! — than chicken tikka masala). The actors, especially Sharma and Mittal, are appealing, and the script by Thomas McCarthy (who usually pens sharper films like The Station Agent and Win Win) sets up the usual dramatic roadblocks that will topple as predictably as bowling pins. Million Dollar Arm is a perfectly pleasant diversion, but it's hard to imagine anyone wanting to spend top dollar to buy it. For a far better film with a faintly similar storyline, check out the current theatrical release The Good Lie.
Blu-ray extras include an alternate ending; deleted scenes; a featurette about the efforts of Sharma and Mittal to learn how to play baseball; an interview with the film's Oscar-winning composer, A.R. Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire); and outtakes.
A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST (2014). Seth MacFarlane, he of Family Guy fame, provided a million ways to laugh in the multiplex (and on the couch) with the hilarious 2012 blockbuster Ted. This summer flop, on the other hand, barely has enough worthy gags to fill out even one movie. In addition to serving as director, producer, co-scripter and co-lyricist, MacFarlane also handed himself the leading role, a disastrous decision that all but guaranteed the film had little chance of succeeding. Ted worked largely because MacFarlane stayed off-screen and only provided the voice of the talking teddy bear, leaving the heavy acting to Mark Wahlberg. By casting himself as the star in this film, he reveals his limitations in spectacular style: A lightweight presence, he provides only standup schtick when a real characterization is required. As Albert, a sheep farmer who hates everything about the West, he's nothing but a vapid quip generator, and his miscasting is only accentuated by the presence of such notable talents as Charlize Theron (natural and relaxed as a sympathetic sharpshooter) and Liam Neeson (a rare turn as a scowling villain). As expected, the movie is crammed with crudity — no problem; so was Ted. But that picture smartly allowed the raunchy material to emanate from its furry protagonist's predilections: Recall, for instance, Ted's initial wooing of his cute co-worker at the supermarket. With Million Ways, MacFarlane is content to act like a monkey flinging its own poop at everyone in close proximity, and most of the material, unshackled from anything of import, is either stretched beyond the breaking point (the explosive diarrhea suffered by Neil Patrick Harris' supercilious dandy) or witless in the first place (a sheep urinating on Albert's face). This isn't to say the film is completely devoid of working-order humor. Casting Gilbert Gottfried in the small role of Abraham Lincoln is pure demented genius — why didn't Steven Spielberg think of it? — and a pair of surprise cameos by actors revisiting old roles really do delight. But genuine laughs are few and far between; the only way this movie could work is in an edited version running 15 minutes, tops.
Instead, the Blu-ray contains both the R-rated theatrical version and an unrated cut that runs 19 minutes longer. Extras include audio commentary by MacFarlane, Theron and co-writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild; a behind-the-scenes featurette; an alternate ending; deleted scenes; and a gag reel.
OBVIOUS CHILD (2014). In writer-director Gillian Robespierre's debut feature, based on her own short film from five years ago, Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) is a standup comedian, and what instantly struck me was the awfulness of her routine. Her material, which wallows in crudity the way a pig wallows in mud, is of the frat-boy variety, displaying little of the biting wit or social relevance that made household names out of profane comics ranging from Richard Pryor to Margaret Cho. And because our first glimpses of Donna are as an obnoxious performer, we fear that we won't shake our negative vibes over the course of the picture. No worries there. As a character, Donna Stern proves to be a mirror reflection of the movie surrounding her: intelligent, spirited, honest and more than a little awkward. As the movie gets underway, we see Donna losing her boyfriend and her job in rapid succession. She needs something to lift her out of the doldrums, and she finds it in Max (Jake Lacy), a squeaky-clean guy who digs her quirky humor. But before you can say "formulaic rom-com," Donna discovers that she's pregnant. Of course, Judd Apatow's Knocked Up already looked at pregnancy within the structure of a comedy, but this film is an entirely different beast. Though it's rife with humor, the pregnancy itself is handled with refreshing candor, and Robespierre never blinks as she examines her lead character and understands that here's someone who's simply not ready for motherhood. Obvious Child is bold in the way in which it confronts one of the most controversial issues of our time and proceeds to treat it in a matter-of-fact manner, and while this approach will infuriate many, it's also reflecting the realities of the world in which we live. Slate, familiar from Saturday Night Live and Parks and Recreation, is excellent as the banzai-haired woman-child who wields humor the way David Ortiz wields a baseball bat. As the blond, bland Max, Lacy proves to be a choice counterpoint to the more extroverted Donna, while David Cross, as a grasping acquaintance of Donna's, knocks his brief interlude out of the park. In fact, everyone scores with this unfussy and unassuming piece — and no one more than Robespierre, a bright new presence in a directorial landscape that can obviously use a bit more girl power.
DVD extras include audio commentary by Robespierre, Slate and co-writer Elisabeth Holm; a making-of featurette; extended scenes; and the 2009 Obvious Child short film.
SALVADOR (1986). "I'm a fucking weasel," admits journalist Richard Boyle (James Woods) to his girlfriend María (Elpedia Carrillo) in writer-director Oliver Stone's Salvador, and the man speaks the truth. He's a lying, boozing, cheating, whoring lowlife, and yet over the course of two hours, it's revealed that he's still a better man than Ronald Reagan, the CIA suits, the military warmongers and others (even an easily blinkered Jimmy Carter) who feverishly worked to keep brutal right-wing dictatorships in power during the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. Because for all of his faults, Boyle genuinely cares about the plight of the common person in El Salvador, a country gripped in the throes of a civil war that lasted 12 years and claimed tens of thousands of innocent victims. At first, the freelance Boyle, traveling with his buddy Dr. Rock (Jim Belushi), heads to the country mainly for hedonistic purposes, but he soon realizes the extent of the brutalities being committed against the citizenry by the government's death squads. Frequently tagging along with daredevil photojournalist John Cassady (an intense John Savage, reteaming with Woods seven years after The Onion Field), he fearlessly places his own life in danger, all the while hoping to protect María from any harm. In crafting the script with the real-life Boyle, Stone offers real names in some instances and serves up fictional ones in others — either way, the snatched-from-history moments are clearly punched across, including the assassination of pacifist Archbishop Oscar Romero and, in a brutal sequence that's almost unwatchable, the rape and murder of four American women, three of them nuns. As Boyle, Woods delivers what's arguably the best performance of his career, and the fact that he improvised some scenes (including the one in which he amusingly offers his first church confession in over three decades) only adds to the impressiveness of his achievement. Stone's other 1986 release, the Vietnam War drama Platoon, earned eight Oscar nominations and won four (including Best Picture and Best Director), but Salvador wasn't completely ignored; it earned a pair of nods for Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay (pitting Stone against himself for his Platoon script; both lost to Woody Allen's brilliant Hannah and Her Sisters).
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Stone; an excellent making-of featurette; deleted scenes; the theatrical trailer; and an isolated track of Georges Delerue's score.