(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what's new on Blu-ray and DVD.)
FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (1940). After he had made a number of classics in his native Britain, Hollywood finally got around to importing Alfred Hitchcock to contribute to its own film heritage. He came charging out of the gate with two 1940 gems that still delight today: first Rebecca and then Foreign Correspondent. The latter casts dependable Joel McCrea as reporter John Jones, who's sent to Europe to report on the rumors that a war might be brewing. His assignment takes him to both London and Amsterdam, and it also introduces him to a pair of fellow journalists, the wry ffolliott (George Sanders, and yes, his character name is spelled with a lowercase "f") and the jocular Stebbins (Robert Benchley). It also places him in the company of Carol Fisher (Laraine Day), the daughter of the head (Herbert Marshall) of a peace organization, but any wooing eventually gets put on the back burner once an important dignitary (Albert Bassermann) is assassinated and Jones stumbles across a major conspiracy. Foreign Correspondent contains no small measure of stunning set-pieces — the killer's dash through a sea of umbrellas, a mysterious windmill that turns against the wind, a spectacular airplane crash into the ocean — and while Bassermann earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for a somewhat hammy turn, the best performance actually comes from Sanders, atypically cast as a fearless and resourceful hero rather than the cads and scoundrels he generally played. This earned six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture; it was beaten in that category by, yup, Hitchcock's Rebecca.
Blu-ray extras include an interview with Hitchcock from a 1972 episode of The Dick Cavett Show; a look at the film's Oscar-nominated visual effects; the featurette Hollywood Propaganda and World War II; and a 1946 radio adaptation with Joseph Cotten (star of Hitchcock's 1943 Shadow of a Doubt).
THE JUNGLE BOOK (1967). Here's yet another animated feature from Disney's mostly barren stretch between its two golden ages, a film that plays better in nostalgia-tinged memories than in the here-and-now. Based on the Rudyard Kipling works, this centers on jungle-raised lad Mowgli (voiced by Bruce Reitherman), who's protected by Bagheera the panther (Sebastian Cabot), befriended by Baloo the bear (Phil Harris), tricked by Kaa the snake (Sterling Holloway) and marked for death by Shere Khan the tiger (George Sanders). The animation is rudimentary, the characters annoying (especially Louis Prima's King Louie the ape) and the music mostly forgettable. On the plus side, the Oscar-nominated tune "The Bare Necessities" is charming and Sanders (see also Foreign Correspondent, above) is suitably menacing as Shere Khan. The film is obviously catnip for kids, but adults might want to wait for the exemplary live-action version from 1994 to hit Blu-ray.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of piece; an alternate ending; a deleted scene; introductions by Walt's daughter, Diane Disney Miller (who passed away this past November), and composer Richard M. Sherman (Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang); a conversation with Miller, Sherman and Floyd Norman, one of the film's animators; a look at Disney's Animal Kingdom; the fact-filled Disneypedia: Junglemania!; the music video for the Jonas Brothers' take on "I Wan'na Be Like You (The Monkey Song)"; and a Bear-E-Oke Sing A Long.
ROCKY: HEAVYWEIGHT COLLECTION (1976-2006). Five years ago, MGM and Fox released Rocky: The Undisputed Collection, which collected all six films in Sylvester Stallone's boxing franchise. This is basically the same set except for a couple of differences: The first film has been remastered, and one new bonus feature has been added.
Rocky (1976) is the real deal, offering a raw, gritty feel that none of the slicker sequels even attempted to replicate (with the possible exception of the final film). Stallone wrote for himself a terrific character, a lovable lug who's plucked from obscurity and given a shot at the championship. All the familiar faces are here: Talia Shire as Rocky's mousy girlfriend Adrian; Burt Young as her slovenly brother Paulie; Burgess Meredith as the crusty trainer Mickey; Carl Weathers as the swaggering heavyweight champion Apollo Creed; and Tony Burton as "Apollo's Trainer" (as he's billed in the first two flicks) Duke (as he's billed in the remaining four). Backed by a buoyant Bill Conti score (including his chart-topping single, "Gonna Fly Now"), this is rousing entertainment. Nominated for 10 Academy Awards (including acting bids for Stallone, Shire, Young and Meredith and a scripting nod for Stallone), this won three: Best Picture, Director (John G. Avildsen) and Film Editing.
Although Rocky II (1979) builds itself around a rematch between Rocky and Apollo, the movie is anything but a lazy sequel. Instead, it shows the effects (both good and bad) that greet Rocky after the first film's championship bout made him famous, among them a pathetic attempt to star in a TV commercial and his acceptance of meager jobs in order to put food on the table. But Apollo's taunting finally leads him back into the ring for a fight that's as exciting as their original skirmish.
Rocky III (1982) marks the point where the series starts to get silly, but the end result is so enjoyable that it's hard to carp too much. After growing soft from facing too many lesser opponents, Rocky ends up losing the championship to a street brawler named Clubber Lang (Mr. T in his film debut). To reclaim the title, he accepts help from his former nemesis, Apollo Creed. Mr. T is often more comical than menacing, but he has screen presence to burn; you also get Hulk Hogan in his film debut as an excitable wrestler named Thunderlips as well as Survivor's Oscar-nominated, number one hit "Eye of the Tiger."
As a motion picture, Rocky IV (1985) is a veritable cheese factory, but as a relic of the Reagan '80s, it's absolutely priceless. This finds Rocky entering the Cold War and doing his part for the U.S. of A. by taking on the seemingly invincible Russian boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). Weathers is particularly good — even poignant — in this outing as Apollo grows restless in retirement, and the boxing matches are, as always, pulse-pounding highlights. But there's simply too many ludicrous elements to ignore: Paulie's robot; Brigitte Nielsen, even less expressive than the robot; about a thousand music-video-styled montages; Lundgren's delivery of Drago's deadly dialogue ("I must break you," "I defeat all man," etc.); and a jaw-dropping finale in which all the Russians — even the members of the Politburo! — cheer Rocky as he delivers a "Kumbaya" speech.
The first four Rocky flicks, all released three years apart, were commercial hits; not so Rocky V (1990), which arrived five years after the previous installment. John G. Avildsen, who helmed the first Rocky (Stallone directed II-IV), returns to the saga, but he's knocked out by a soggy tale in which (in an absurd development) the Balboas go bankrupt and are forced to move back to their crummy Philadelphia neighborhood. Rocky ends up training an eager rookie named Tommy Gunn (real-life boxer Tommy Morrison, who passed away last September from AIDS; he was 44), all the while ignoring his own son (Sly's real-life son Sage Stallone, who passed away two years ago from coronary heart disease; he was 36). This is the first picture in the series that feels inert, and poor performances from series newcomers Sage, Morrison and Richard Gant (as a Don King-like promoter) — not to mention gratuitous flashback scenes with Burgess Meredith's Mickey — help sink the project.
Even the crustiest of reviewers might feel a protective twinge when faced with the spectacle that is Rocky Balboa (2006). That a sixth Rocky movie arrived 16 years after Rocky V is perhaps the ultimate in both money-grubbing and star groveling, yet because Stallone so obviously loves this great character he created, it's hard to get worked up in a fury of righteous indignation. My only regret is that Rocky Balboa isn't a better film. It has some nice touches, particularly in the way it draws upon memories of previous installments, and Stallone is never more human as an actor than when he's essaying this role. But the movie spends too much time in idle and not enough in overdrive, and what should be the central storyline — Rocky comes out of retirement to fight an undefeated champion (Antonio Tarver) half his age — only takes shape once the picture's nearly over. Still, it's at least a corrective to the fiasco that was V, and it sends the character off on an appropriately triumphant note.
The aforementioned new Blu-ray extra is the featurette 8mm Home Movies of Rocky, narrated by Avildsen. Recycled extras include video commentary by Stallone; a making-of documentary; interviews with boxing trainer Lou Duva and the late sports writer Bert Sugar; tributes to the late Meredith and the late James Crabe, the director of photography on Rocky (as well as Avildsen's The Karate Kid and The Karate Kid: Part II); and Stallone's appearance on a 1976 episode of Dinah!
Rocky II: ***
Rocky III: ***
Rocky IV: **
Rocky V: *1/2
Rocky Balboa: **1/2
Short and Sweet:
BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR (2013). Pop in the Blu-ray for the lesbianism, stay for the humanism. The NC-17 rating for its lengthy lovemaking scenes; the three-hour running time; the post-release feud between director Abdellatif Kechiche and stars Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos. Whatever one thinks of these extremities and/or unpleasantries, the film — one of 2013's 10 best — is a fierce and honest drama about a French teenager (Exarchopoulos, just fantastic) discovering, exploring and understanding her own sexuality.
Blu-ray extras consist of the trailer and a TV spot.
ESCAPE PLAN (2013). While Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger both appeared in The Expendables and its sequel, this was billed as the first time these '80s icons star opposite each other in lead roles. Truthfully, Arnold is again relegated to second banana status, as Stallone handles the solo main role of a prison-security specialist who finds himself trapped in an escape-proof facility headed by a sadistic warden (Jim Caviezel). Schwarzenegger adds some amusing touches to his portrayal of a fellow prisoner, but this is otherwise a routine programmer that's short on thrills but long on tedium.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director Mikael Håfström and co-writer Miles Chapman; a making-of featurette; and deleted scenes.
INTOLERABLE CRUELTY (2003). Like The Hudsucker Proxy, here's another criminally underrated Coen brothers flick, one that holds up beautifully on repeat viewings. George Clooney exhibits the right degree of screwball aptitude as Miles Massey, a hotshot divorce lawyer who may have finally met his match in the gold-digging Marylin Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The stars aren't the whole show, not when they're backed by the usual assortment of Coen-kooks (you just know that a character named "Wheezy Joe" will be good for some laughs) as well as a screenplay that ably captures the long-established rhythms of the screwball comedy.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of piece and outtakes.
NEBRASKA (2013). Convinced that he won a million dollars in a sweepstakes contest, cantankerous coot Woody Grant (an excellent Bruce Dern) heads with his son David (Will Forte) from their Billings, Montana home to Lincoln, Nebraska to pick up the loot. It's the film's universal truths — among them the constant splintering and rebuilding of familial relations, the open road as an open-ended metaphor, and the need for continued purpose and relevancy as one grows older — that makes this six-time Oscar nominee (including a Best Picture nod) less a movie involving a specific state and more a film evoking a specific state of mind.
The only extra on the Blu-ray is a making-of featurette.
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