(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what's new on Blu-ray and DVD.)
ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING (1987). After scripting such 80s mainstays as Gremlins and The Goonies, Chris Columbus made his directorial debut with this easy-to-take effort that primarily benefits from a charming performance by Elisabeth Shue. She plays Chris Parker, a high school senior who agrees to babysit perky, Thor-worshipping Sara (Maia Brewton). But an emergency requires her to venture from the safety of the Chicago burbs straight into the wicked heart of downtown, and she's forced to take Sara, Sara's brother Brad (Keith Coogan) and Brad's friend Daryl (future Rent star Anthony Rapp) along with her. Thus begins an all-night odyssey that involves vicious mobsters, a sympathetic car thief (Calvin Levels), a twitchy tow-truck operator (John Ford Noonan) and a hulking mechanic who bears a resemblance to a certain God of Thunder (Vincent D'Onofrio, used to far better effect in his other summer of '87 release, Full Metal Jacket). There's one irresistible sequence set inside a nightclub (that's blues great Albert Collins who tells the kids that "nobody leaves this place without singin' the blues"); otherwise, this is painless but also merely perfunctory. Shue was 23 when she filmed this, but she at least looked younger than her age and could almost pass as a high-schooler. Consider some of the other actresses who either auditioned or were considered for the role of Chris Parker: Michelle Pfeiffer (29), Melanie Griffith (ditto), Sharon Stone (ditto) and, most absurdly, Kathleen Turner (33). Heck, why not Anne Bancroft or Jessica Tandy while they were at it?
There are no extras on the Blu-ray except for trailers.
GOOD WILL HUNTING (1997). One of the few films (As Good As It Gets was another) that actually managed to make money during the period when Titanic was capsizing the vast majority of the multiplex competition, this effort from director Gus Van Sant (Milk) and fledgling scripters Matt Damon and Ben Affleck centers on Will Hunting (Damon), a 20-year-old janitor at MIT who's actually a closet genius with the ability to solve complex math problems that stump even award-winning professors. But Will is also a deeply disturbed man: Battered as a child by his foster dad, he has trouble connecting with anyone except his best friend (Affleck). Three people, however, try to set him straight: a brilliant math instructor (Stellan Skarsgard), a strong-willed Harvard student (Minnie Driver) and, perhaps most importantly, a psychiatrist (Robin Williams) working through his own demons. Most movies about troubled individuals are insulting in the way in which they suddenly wrap things up with insipid developments that cause tumultuous, positive transformations in the protagonist; this film avoids that pitfall, taking its time to believably develop Will's mental blocks and then just as smoothly working them out through some caustic dialogue and credible confrontations. Nominated for nine Academy Awards (including Best Picture and acting bids for Damon and Driver), this won two, for Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (Williams).
Good Will Hunting made its Blu-ray debut last November, but it's being brought around again to celebrate its 15th anniversary. Extras new to this edition are a four-part retrospective documentary and a discussion with Damon. Holdover features include audio commentary by Van Sant, Damon and Affleck; 11 deleted scenes; a behind-the-scenes featurette; and the music video for Elliott Smith's Oscar-nominated song "Miss Misery."
GROSSE POINTE BLANK (1997) / HIGH FIDELITY (2000). Behold the strange career of John Cusack. Here's an actor who's generally well-regarded by most viewers, and yet over the course of his lengthy career, he's only appeared in two movies that have grossed over $100 million — and both of them were ensemble-driven action flicks (Con Air and 2012). Still, his resume includes strong strings of teen faves (Say Anything, The Sure Thing) and indie faves (Being John Malkovich, Bullets Over Broadway), and he even managed to co-write the scripts for two films that continue to build in cult status.
The first is Grosse Pointe Blank, and before it gets dismissed as yet another Quentin Tarantino rip-off (as were most of the post-Pulp Fiction films of the late 90s, and rightly so), let's remember that its director, George Armitage, shot his own Tarantino-esque film before QT ever became a Hollywood player. 1990's Miami Blues was a quirky crime thriller packed with eccentric characters and rat-tat-tat dialogue, and this follow-up operates in much the same manner. Cusack stars as Martin Blank, a seasoned hit man who returns to his hometown of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, for three reasons: to carry out an assassination, to attend his 10-year high school reunion, and to make amends to the woman (Minnie Driver) he left stranded on prom night. With its darkly comic sensibilities and morally flawed protagonists, this won't be to everyone's taste, but those who can get on its wavelength will appreciate the savory witticisms and dryly acute observations. John's sister Joan appears as his brash assistant.
High Fidelity is even better (and certainly more beloved). Here, Cusack plays Rob Gordon, the owner of a music store that specializes in selling vinyl. Rob's staff consists of two social morons — Jack Black's obnoxious Barry and Todd Louiso's mumbling Dick — yet while they both can be taxing, they're nothing compared to Rob's real problem; namely, that his long-time girlfriend Laura (Iben Hjejle) has just left him for an annoying, New Age neighbor (Tim Robbins). Spurred by this rejection, Rob makes a mental list of his "Top 5" most painful breakups and starts analyzing where those relationships went wrong. Under the direction of Stephen Frears (The Queen) and blessed with a multi-faceted screenplay (adapted from Nick Hornby's 1995 novel), the film is insightful in exploring the manner in which people's perceptions of each other are colored not by actual shifts in personality but in circumstances that are often beyond anyone's control. The movie is also honest in presenting us with a protagonist who isn't the usual decent guy plagued by a couple of minor character flaws — let's face it, Rob's a total prick much of the time, with behavior that occasionally borders on the monstrous. Joan Cusack shows up here as well, and there's even a cameo by Bruce Springsteen. But it's Black who started scoring more film work based on his turn; he's hilarious as a record-store slob who's so contemptuous of the customers that he would just as soon chase them off as listen to their opinions and requests.
The only extra on the Grosse Pointe Blank Blu-ray is the theatrical trailer. Blu-ray extras on High Fidelity include deleted scenes; interviews with Cusack and Frears; and the theatrical trailer.
Grosse Pointe Blank: ***
High Fidelity: ***1/2
THE HUNGER GAMES (2012). The smash adaptation of Suzanne Collins' smash bestseller — only The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises have grossed more this year — The Hunger Games largely delivers on both its provocative premise and its exciting execution. Set in a future world where the ruling one percent long ago squashed a rebellion by the 99 percent, the law dictates that, as perpetual punishment, those once-radical districts — 12 total — must annually send both a boy and a girl, randomly chosen from a pool of 12-to-18-year-olds, to participate in the Hunger Games, a televised ritual in which all 24 contestants are set loose in the outdoors and must kill each other until only one remains. The representatives for District 12, the most impoverished of the outer regions, turn out to be the headstrong Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and the meek Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). The lengthy first act is compelling, anchored by the strong central performance of Lawrence and reveling in the introduction of such memorable characters as Caesar Flickman (Stanley Tucci), the unctuous TV host and broadcaster, President Snow (Donald Sutherland), the calculating ruler who hates the working class with the passion of a Republican politician, and, providing some grizzled heart and off-the-cuff humor, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), whose status as the only District 12 representative to ever win a tournament allows him to serve as the boozy mentor to Katniss and Peeta. Director Gary Ross, who co-wrote the script with Billy Ray and Collins herself, has a minimalist style that enhanced dialogue-dependent and character-driven efforts like Seabiscuit and Pleasantville, and it's precisely why the first half works so well — and why the second half needed a stronger presence behind the camera. As the kids scatter into the woods and the picture ratchets up the action, Ross can't quite keep up. That's not to say the outdoor scenes ever lack for drama, but a filmmaker with a better feel for kinetic energy — say, Steven Spielberg or even Gore Verbinski — could have turned the winner-takes-all competition into a breathless roller coaster ride. As it stands, the film peters out toward the end, due in large part to a rather anemic duel-to-the-death and in small part to some shoddy visual effects.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of documentary; separate conversations with Collins, Ross and Sutherland; a piece looking at Ross' process in bringing the book to the screen; and theatrical trailers.
THE LORAX (2012). The animated feature film The Lorax is officially called Dr. Seuss' The Lorax, but given the extent to which it perverts Theodor Geisel's classic children's book, Universal Pictures might as well have named it J.K. Rowling's The Lorax or F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Lorax or even Jane Austen's The Lorax. The central thrust remains the same: A young boy (voiced in the film by Zac Efron) learns that a strange character named the Once-ler (Ed Helms) was responsible for the extinction of trees, despite the protestations of the Lorax (Danny DeVito), a small, walrus-mustached creature who speaks on behalf of nature. Even pushing aside the niggling fact that the studio partnered with numerous corporations to plug the film — some offering products that especially go against the book's environmentally friendly message (a Mazda SUV?) — what appears on screen is a garish, unappealing mess, with Dr. Seuss' gentle push for nature over industry turned into an obnoxious screed populated with dull new characters and strapped with a satchel of forgettable songs. Because this comes from the same people who created the superior Despicable Me, there's a perpetual struggle between cute little bears and cute little fishies to emerge as the equivalent of that previous picture's cute little Minions — nobody wins. On the plus side, this movie at least managed to infuriate right-wing dimwits like Fox's Lou Dobbs, who accused the filmmakers of trying to "indoctrinate our children" with liberal messages — stuff like nurturing the planet, respecting your neighbors, consuming responsibly, and other similarly sick and twisted ideas.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by co-directors Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda; three new animated shorts featuring Lorax characters; a making-of piece; one deleted scene; and three interactive games.
THE PREACHER'S WIFE (1996). This flavorless remake of the 1947 Cary Grant comedy The Bishop's Wife manages the near-impossible task of being even more fluffy and forgettable than its predecessor. For that, blame director Penny Marshall, who, as was too often the case, once again demonstrated that she has no interest in injecting her films with any semblance of style, innovation or even basic craftsmanship. Denzel Washington stars as Dudley, the do-good angel who comes down to Earth to help a struggling minister (Courtney B. Vance) and his wife (Whitney Houston) during a time of crisis. With its paper-thin conflicts and lack of narrative punch, the movie gets its main source of power from Vance's conviction as the doubting preacher. But while the sheer force of Washington's charisma keeps his otherwise monotonous character watchable, the same can't be said for the late Houston, woefully flat in a malnourished role (in her defense, she admitted years later that she was coked out during the entire shoot). She does get to belt out approximately a dozen tunes over the course of the picture, including her hit remake of The Four Tops' "I Believe in You and Me." Lionel Richie, God's gift to musical mediocrity, appears in a small role as a nightclub owner. Thankfully, his character doesn't sing a single note — easily Marshall's smartest decision as director.
Blu-ray extras consist of a production featurette and the theatrical trailer.
THE RAID: REDEMPTION (2012). The need for speed is a necessity in successful action flicks, but even doozies like Die Hard and The Fugitive took time out to smell the exposition. This Indonesian import can't be concerned with such niceties: After a prologue that lasts about as long as it takes to brush without flossing — we meet a cop named Rama (Iko Uwais) at home, loving on his pregnant wife before leaving for work — we're immediately thrust into the thick of it. A ruthless crime lord resides on the top floor of a slum building, and a special unit of law enforcement officers is ordered to take him down. Yeah, that's basically the whole show; it's not Shakespeare — heck, it's not even Stephenie Meyer — but who needs complexity when the end result is as entertaining as what's presented here? The Raid: Redemption works best as pure, unadulterated, uncut action — it's like cocaine for adrenaline addicts. While the film can't help but stir memories of countless other actioners, particularly those set within carefully controlled structures (Die Hard, Assault on Precinct 13, Attack the Block), its moves are all its own, thanks primarily to the contributions of star, stuntman and martial arts expert Uwais. The hand-to-hand combats are breathtaking to behold, and Welsh-born writer-director Gareth Evans also knows how to obtain maximum returns from the ample scenes which focus on gunplay rather than fist fights. The characters are painted in such broad — or, in a couple of instances, clumsy — strokes that only two really stand out. One, of course, is Rama, thanks to Uwais' natural charisma. The other is a villainous henchman appropriately nicknamed Mad Dog. Played by Yayan Ruhian, he's a short, wiry man who lives to fight — and kill — with his feet and fists. At one point, he has an opportunity to shoot one of the heroes but chooses instead to lay down his weapon and fight up close and personal, trading kicks and blows until one of them is dead. In most movies, this sort of improbable situation can lead to viewer guffaws, but not here. Witnessing the damage Mad Dog can inflict on the human body, a bullet suddenly seems like a pleasant way to go.
DVD extras include audio commentary by Evans; a discussion with Evans and score composers Mike Shinoda (of Linkin Park) and Joseph Trapanese; behind-the-scenes video blogs; and the claymation spoof Claycat's The Raid.
A SEPARATION (2011). This Iranian import, an Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film, is a rarity: a clarion cry that cuts through the xenophobic clutter and the dense fog of war to show that not everyone "over there" is a boogeyman waiting to jump out of the closet. If that sounds terribly simplistic, just consider where we live — a nation that once used to enjoy daily Terror Alerts to go along with morning coffee and toast, and one where an alarming number of yahoos consider the present POTUS to be a covert Muslim operative. Granted, Tea Party evildoers won't be caught within a zip code of this movie, but even open-minded viewers curious to check it out might be surprised how many scenes and situations strike close to home. At the film's center are husband and wife Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), who live in Tehran with their school-age daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director's daughter) and Nader's Alzheimer's-afflicted father. Simin wants to move to another country, while Nader wants to remain put — obviously an irreconcilable difference. When a judge turns down Simin's request for a divorce, the pair decide to live apart; even though Nader still has Termeh to help him with his dad, he hires a pregnant woman named Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to serve as the elderly man's caretaker. It's the worst decision he could have made, as misunderstandings and outright lies soon lead to violence and a charge of murder. The success of writer-director Asghar Farhadi's film on the global stage makes perfect sense: An expertly written and directed piece about familial strife, it shares plenty of DNA with similarly domestic efforts like Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage and Robert Benton's Kramer vs. Kramer. Yet the palpable tension between the spouses is only part of the equation, as the picture also looks at resentment between classes, the impact of religion on the various characters, the limitations of a rigid judicial system, and the sexual dynamics in a society that, for all its modest gains in the name of equality, still remains a fundamentally patriarchal one. Clearly, A Separation is a movie that's specific in its setting and universal in its issues, in many ways as all-American as it is all-Iranian.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Farhadi; a Q&A session with Farhadi; and the theatrical trailer.
STALLONE 3-FILM SET: FIRST BLOOD (1982) / LOCK UP (1989) / COP LAND (1997). Perhaps in an effort to nab some dollars from Stallone fans who want more from their man after catching The Expendables 2 in theaters, Lionsgate has elected to bundle three previously released Blu-ray titles and sell it as one scattershot collection. It's clearly a rush job — the cover image of a bearded Stallone is not from any of the included films (my guess is it's from Get Carter) — but diehards might nevertheless find this a worthy investment.
Then again, diehards probably already own the Rambo box set, so why include the first film in the franchise, First Blood, in this collection? No matter: In the Stallone canon, it's one of his better efforts, as Vietnam vet John Rambo finds himself forced to battle the unusually hostile citizens of a town run by an intolerant sheriff (Brian Dennehy). (Spoiler ahead.) This was based on David Morrell's novel (which I read as a teen), and there, Rambo dies at the end. If only the movie had wrapped up the same way, we would have been spared three idiotic sequels! Incidentally, that ending was filmed but rejected by preview audiences as too downbeat; it's included here as one of the deleted scenes. (Spoiler behind.) The character of John Rambo is so identified with Stallone that it's amusing to note how many actors were considered for the role, including Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro.
The summer of 1989 was the summer of Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lethal Weapon 2 and several other sizable hits, so who in their right mind wanted to waste time and money on a generic Stallone prison flick? Very few people, which is why Lock Up emerged as a late-summer dud. Sly plays Frank Leone, a model prisoner with six months to go at a cushy minimum-security prison. (His crime? Defending an elderly friend against a bunch of street punks.) But in the dead of night, he's whisked away to a hellhole run by the sadistic Warden Drumgoole (Donald Sutherland, atypically terrible), who's determined to break Leone and possibly even kill him. The plotting is pure paint-by-numbers, and the characters are basically what you'd expect: Beyond the noble prisoner and the fascistic warden, there's also the jittery snitch, the brash young upstart, the sympathetic black inmate, the brawny psychopath — everything except a meek guy who plays with mice (although there is a meek guy who feeds the birds). The football game sequence is surpassed in idiocy only by the music video segment, though everything on tap is pretty doltish.
The best film in the bunch is Cop Land, which surrounds Stallone with a powerhouse cast. He stars as Freddy Heflin, the sheriff of a small New Jersey town largely populated by New York City cops and their families. Freddy has always wanted to be a member of the NYPD, but the loss of hearing in one ear has always prevented this from becoming a reality. When an internal affairs investigator (Robert De Niro) informs Freddy that his town is teeming with police corruption, he's forced to decide whether to metaphorically turn that deaf ear or help take down men he has long admired. Cop Land isn't so much a police drama as a Western with a modern-day spin (it owes thanks to, among others, High Noon, Rio Bravo and 3:10 to Yuma), and writer-director James Mangold only loses control of his material during the disappointingly rote climax. The large cast includes Harvey Keitel, Michael Rapaport, Annabella Sciorra and Janeane Garofalo (and look for Edie Falco, Method Man and Blondie's Deborah Harry in tiny roles), but top acting honors go to Ray Liotta as Gary Figgis, a cokehead cop who just might be Freddy's only friend.
Blu-ray extras on First Blood include audio commentary by Stallone; separate audio commentary by Morell; a making-of piece; deleted scenes; and a trivia track. Blu-ray extras on Lock Up include a making-of featurette; a piece on Stallone; and cast interviews. Blu-ray extras on Cop Land include audio commentary by Mangold, Stallone, co-star Robert Patrick and producer Cathy Konrad; a making-of piece; and two deleted scenes.
First Blood: **1/2
Lock Up: *1/2
Cop Land: ***