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Hard Times, Lifeforce, Stoker among new home entertainment titles 

This week's reviews of what's new on Blu-ray and DVD

(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what's new on Blu-ray and DVD.)

Halle Berry in The Call (Photo: Sony)
  • Halle Berry in The Call (Photo: Sony)

THE CALL (2013). There's something cheerfully stupid about thrillers like The Call, wherein a protagonist who's seemingly as brilliant as Sherlock Holmes eventually becomes as dim-witted as Forrest Gump. In this case, that would be Jordan Turner (Halle Berry), a 911 operator who blunders in an attempt to save a young girl (Evie Thompson) from a psychopath (Michael Eklund), thereby resulting in the child's abduction and murder. This incident still weighs heavily on Jordan six months later, when she takes another call from a teenage girl. Young Casey Welson (Abigail Breslin) has been kidnapped by the same lunatic, and Jordan stays in constant contact with her via cell phone as she tries to figure out how Casey can be saved. Missteps are kept to a minimum during the first hour of The Call, with the picture convincingly illustrating how a 911 call center might really function and honing in on Jordan's resourcefulness in thinking of ways that Casey might be able to alert others that she's trapped in a car trunk (the trick involving paint cans is a nice one). Eventually, though, the trio of scripters run out of ways to keep the narrative fresh and revert to tired genre conventions. The psychopath is provided some back story that comes off as forced, unconvincing and just a bit silly. The uniqueness of what's basically a two-piece set (the 911 center and the car) gets jettisoned for the sort of underground lair that's in the budget of all cinematic serial killers. And because she's the top-billed star, Berry can't just be a hero from a chair, so the movie finds a contrived way for her character to get in on the action — and then calls on her to make some dumb decisions. It's all part of a last act that's only slightly less frustrating than a constant busy signal.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Berry, Breslin and select filmmakers; a making-of featurette; an alternate ending; deleted and extended scenes; and Ecklund's audition tape.

Movie: **

Charles Bronson and Robert Tessier in Hard Times (Photo: Twilight Time)
  • Charles Bronson and Robert Tessier in Hard Times (Photo: Twilight Time)

HARD TIMES (1975). Like John Sturges, Ulu Grosbard and a few others who spring to mind, Walter Hill has never obtained the elevated status that rightfully belongs to him as a master filmmaker. His career as a director and writer admittedly went cold somewhere in the 1990s, but before then, he made a number of impressive movies that managed to center on macho men without ever pandering to jockish mind sets. Instead, his works (including The Warriors and The Long Riders) often explored existential anti-heroes trying to carve out their own niche in a brutal world. Hill had already penned a few screenplays before he landed his first job as director on Hard Times, a richly atmospheric drama set in Depression-era New Orleans. Scripting with Bryan Gindoff and Bruce Henstell, he patiently tracks a quiet man named Chaney (Charles Bronson), a hardscrabble drifter who wanders into the world of illegal street-fighting. Chaney selects a motormouth promoter appropriately nicknamed Speed (James Coburn) to manage him, and with Speed's opium-addicted friend Poe (Strother Martin) along as cut man, the three hope to clean up on the considerable force of Chaney's powerhouse punches. With its abundance of still moments and a refusal to make anything look glamorous or exciting (the fights are shot down and dirty, with no Rocky flourishes), the film stylistically plays it close to the vest, and its two stars — Bronson as the taciturn loner, Coburn as the grinning whirligig — are beautifully cast to their strengths. Also noteworthy is the superb score by Barry De Vorzon, a smoky theme that perfectly captures the milieu. That's Bronson's real-life wife, Jill Ireland, as the downtrodden woman who catches his eye, and Crispin Glover's dad, Bruce Glover, as the enforcer Doty.

Blu-ray extras consist of an isolated score track and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ***

Peter Firth (right) in Lifeforce (Photo: Shout! Factory)
  • Peter Firth (right) in Lifeforce (Photo: Shout! Factory)

LIFEFORCE (1985). Oh, that wacky team of Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. The 1980s schlockmeisters behind The Cannon Group were adept at turning out limp productions that generally made nice little profits, but every once in a while, their reach would exceed their grasp. They predicted the Chuck Norris-Lee Marvin action flick The Delta Force would be their first movie to make $100 million at the US box office; it topped out at $17 million. They paid Sylvester Stallone (admittedly, one of the period's hugest stars) $12 million to star in their $25 million arm-wrestling drama Over the Top; it earned a paltry $16 million. But Lifeforce might have been their biggest roll of the dice, as they sank $25 million into a picture they were sure would tap into the lucrative science fiction market and turn a handsome profit. Alas, this adaptation of Colin Wilson's novel The Space Vampires was edited down before its release by approximately 15 minutes, badly marketed by TriStar Pictures (which helped Cannon with distribution) and indifferently received by critics — all of this added up to an anemic $11 million take (it didn't help that the movie opened the same weekend as Ron Howard's enormously popular Cocoon). Yet the movie must have made up some ground on home video, considering that the mere mention of its title will trigger memories among many people of a gorgeous space vampire prone to walking around London completely nude and of a pre-Star Trek: The Next Generation Patrick Stewart getting possessed by said beauty. Kicking off like Alien (Dan O'Bannon co-wrote both), this deals with the discovery of three humanoids (and hundreds of batlike creatures) inside an edifice concealed by Halley's Comet. The humanoids are brought back to Earth, and the female one (Mathilda May) breaks free and commences a reign of terror, one which involves sucking all the energy out of hapless people and leaving them in a mummified zombie state. It's up to an American astronaut (Steve Railsback) and a handful of European brainiacs (Peter Firth, Frank Finlay, Michael Gothard) to stop her, but that becomes even more difficult as London is soon engulfed in flames and overrun by zombies. The visual effects by two-time Oscar winner John Dykstra (Star Wars, Spider-Man 2) are, as expected, excellent — in fact, there's no criticizing any technical aspect of this film. A similar compliment cannot be bestowed on the absurd story, but if ever a movie existed as a guilty pleasure, it's this one: Even with a few risible moments and an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink finale, it's tough to resist this movie's loopy charms.

The Blu-ray contains both the R-rated theatrical cut as well as the longer international version (clearly, the one to watch). Extras include audio commentary by Hooper; separate audio commentary by special makeup effects designer Nick Maley; new interviews with Railsback, May and director Tobe Hooper; a vintage making-of featurette; and a still gallery.

Movie: ***

Elizabeth Banks in Movie 43 (Photo: Fox)
  • Elizabeth Banks in Movie 43 (Photo: Fox)

MOVIE 43 (2013). One of the producers of Movie 43 stated that he hoped the film would become this generation's Kentucky Fried Movie, a declaration that felt like a swift kick to the raunchy area of my soul. Along with Mel Brooks' 1981 History of the World: Part I, John Landis' 1977 sketch-comedy film (penned by the guys who would later make Airplane!) earns my vote as the best of the vulgar comedies Hollywood has consistently produced ever since the restrictive Motion Picture Production Code came crashing down in 1968. A riotous spoof of commercials, TV shows and Hollywood movies, KFM was unapologetic as it laid waste to all sorts of societal norms. Movie 43, on the other hand, should be nothing but apologetic, as it strands an incredible cast in unwatchable shorts and then expects people to actually pay to rent or buy this train wreck. The jaw-dropping line-up includes (take a deep breath) Hugh Jackman, Naomi Watts, Kate Winslet, Richard Gere, Halle Berry, Emma Stone, Terrence Howard, Greg Kinnear and approximately two dozen more celebrities with varying degrees of name recognition. Add a dozen directors and nine writers to the mix, and the result is a malodorous stew of filmmakers trying to one-up each other in terms of who can produce the most shocking segment. One sequence finds a woman (Winslet) excited about her blind date with New York's most eligible bachelor (Jackman) until she sees that he has two testicles permanently hanging from his neck; another episode centers on a teenage girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) who's experiencing her first period while all the boys and men around her (including her father) react with panic and disgust; and yet another sketch focuses on a sweet couple (real-life spouses Anna Faris and Chris Pratt) and the discomfort he feels after she begs him to "poop" on her. That last bit is the most relevant one here, since Movie 43 is an excremental exercise that should be flushed as soon as possible. If approached by friends to watch this disaster, feel free to repeat what a wise George Clooney reportedly said when asked by its producers to take part: "No fucking way."

The Blu-ray includes both the R-rated theatrical version as well as an alternate cut. Extras consist of "Find Our Daughter," a deleted short starring Tony Shalhoub and Julianne Moore (say it ain't so, Julianne!) and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: *

Elizabeth Taylor and Warren Beatty in The Only Game in Town (Photo: Twilight Time)
  • Elizabeth Taylor and Warren Beatty in The Only Game in Town (Photo: Twilight Time)

THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN (1970). Like Ang Lee, George Stevens has the dubious distinction of winning both of his Best Director Academy Awards for movies that failed to also win Best Picture (honors that usually go hand-in-hand). Stevens' victories were for 1951's A Place in the Sun and 1956's Giant; both starred Elizabeth Taylor, so perhaps it's only fitting that Stevens' final film behind the camera also starred his lucky charm of a leading lady. But it seems luck was in short supply with this production, which was slammed by critics, ignored by audiences and ended up losing millions of dollars for 20th Century Fox. Stevens and Pulitzer Prize winner Frank D. Gilroy, adopting his own flop play, were unable to expand what was basically a two-person piece for the contours of the big screen, and even a more intimate viewing at home on the couch, where the low-key elements might be better appreciated, fails to add any improvements. Taylor plays Fran Walker, a Las Vegas showgirl who's impatiently waiting for her married lover (Charles Braswell) to leave his wife and marry her. It's been six months since she's last heard from him and, feeling particularly lonely, she hooks up with Joe Grady (Warren Beatty), a lounge pianist who has a wisecrack for every situation. Despite her wariness, Fran asks Joe to be her roommate, a situation that becomes extremely complicated once Fran's boyfriend shows up and even more so when Joe's gambling problem, usually held in check, returns in an ugly way. Taylor is game but badly miscast; her performance, in tandem with Stevens' atypically wheezy direction and Gilroy's tedious dialogue, render this arid and ineffectual. Beatty, on the other hand, is quite good, locating both the hope and the despair uneasily coexisting inside his weak-willed character.

Blu-ray extras consist of an isolated score track (Maurice Jarre composed the music) and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: **

Nicole Kidman and Mia Wasikowska in Stoker (Photo: Fox)
  • Nicole Kidman and Mia Wasikowska in Stoker (Photo: Fox)

STOKER (2013). The best movie I've seen so far in 2013? That would be Stoker, the first English-language film from heralded South Korean director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) and the first script written by actor Wentworth Miller (TV's Prison Break). Stoker isn't exactly a remake of Alfred Hitchcock's 1943 Shadow of a Doubt, an exemplary thriller in which a teenager (Teresa Wright) in complete adoration of her mild-mannered Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) is shocked to learn he's actually a serial killer. Yet considering this new film's plot also centers on the relationship between a teenage girl and her duplicitous Uncle Charlie, it's easy to imagine the spirit of Hitchcock was invoked before each day's shooting. The key difference between the familial ties that bind is that whereas the teen in Hitchcock's film grew up loving her uncle, India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) doesn't even know he exists until a car accident takes the life of her father (Dermot Mulroney). After the funeral, her distraught mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) introduces the moody girl to Charlie (Matthew Goode), a slim, soft-spoken sort with a disarming smile and piercing eyes that clearly make India uncomfortable. Charlie, who boasts of being a world traveler, decides to put his business on hold so he can spend some time with his sister-in-law and niece. He and Evelyn seem to be drawn to each other, but he also sets aside plenty of time for India, and his unblinking attention and sly innuendoes leave her not only questioning his motives but also confronting her own feelings, desires and moral boundaries. Stoker divided critics and moviegoers (the few who saw it, that is) left and right, and no wonder: Its languid pace, difficult characters and overall sense of dread are guaranteed to leave many cold, while others will embrace its measured approach, stylistic flourishes and refusal to compromise its more unsettling elements. Number me among the latter: As much a startling coming-of-age saga as a portrait of a psychologically damaged family, Stoker emits a Gothic chill that's almost tangible, and the performances by Wasikowska and Goode are mesmerizing. The final sequence should have been dropped, but everything else — even the smaller directorial choices (the captivating title credits, the inspired use of the Nancy Sinatra-Lee Hazlewood tune "Summer Wine" during one potent scene) — has left me stoked to see this yet again.

Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; deleted scenes; pieces on the film's characters, sets and music; and footage from the red carpet premiere.

Movie: ***1/2

Miles Teller, Justin Chon and Skylar Astin in 21 & Over (Photo: Fox)
  • Miles Teller, Justin Chon and Skylar Astin in 21 & Over (Photo: Fox)

21 & OVER (2013). It's hard to imagine anybody who's 21 and over truly getting much out of 21 & Over, but as far as these sorts of films go, this one isn't as aggressively stupid as some. It's written and directed by the same guys who penned The Hangover (Jon Lucas and Scott Moore), and I actually prefer it to that often insufferable comedy. (I know, I know: The Hangover is considered by many to be the 21st-century equivalent of Citizen Kane, The Godfather and Some Like It Hot all rolled into one. So sue me for defamation.) Of course, Lucas and Moore don't stray too far from their cinematic bread 'n' butter: This plot also involves copious amounts of drinking, resultant blackouts, characters in compromising positions, an important engagement that might get missed and, the biggest telltale of all, a naked Asian man who's as uninhibited as Ron Jeremy when it comes to jiggling his buttocks and wiggling his willy. Miles Teller and Skylar Astin play Miller and Casey, two college kids who spring a surprise visit on their friend Jeff Chang (Justin Chon) on the day of his 21st birthday. Their intent is to take him out for a night of boozing and carousing, a bad idea considering he has an important job interview at 8 the following morning. After he passes out, his address becomes a Holy Grail of higher education, with the guys engaging in a series of campus adventures as they try to get him home before his intimidating dad (François Chau) arrives to take him to his interview. Despite the similarities to The Hangover, 21 & Over actually jostles even more in the direction of the sturdy Harold & Kumar franchise, a comparison that's more pronounced given the comparable ages of the characters. Yet where the writers of the H&K films managed to employ ethnic stereotypes to puncture hypocrisy and prejudice, Lucas and Moore aren't nearly as sharp when attempting to do likewise. Yet the movie does get some things right, particularly in its casting and the relationships between various characters. As for the scene involving some smooching between two male characters, while some might see it as an extension of this genre's penchant for "gay panic" humor, I'm willing to give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt and view it as an affront to homophobic louts who hypocritically see nothing wrong with lesbianism but want to smash skulls when the mere suggestion of even the most innocent guy-on-guy action is brought up. Knowing that this scene will upset frat boys is enough to justify its existence, if you ask me.

Blu-ray extras include a pair of behind-the-scenes featurettes; a gag reel; and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: **

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