(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.)
AMERICAN SNIPER (2014). By far the weakest of the eight 2014 nominees for the Best Picture Oscar, this box office smash relates the story of Chris Kyle (a solid Bradley Cooper), a U.S. Navy SEAL shooter famous (infamous?) for recording more kills than anyone else in American military history (160 confirmed, another 95 probable). Despite director Clint Eastwood's own conservative leanings, he can hardly be dismissed as a knee-jerk chicken hawk or rambling right-wing tool (well, aside from that Razzie-worthy bit opposite an empty chair at the RNC), and his films have over the decades served as an intriguing — and evolving — treatise on issues of gun violence and hero worship, beginning with the hardline stylings of Dirty Harry through the revisionist politics of Unforgiven through the startlingly progressive stance of Gran Torino. Unfortunately, American Sniper adds nothing new to the conversation — more so since it comes on the heels of more accomplished "over there" efforts like Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty — and while Eastwood and scripter Jason Hall take some care in muddying the morality at play, they still err on the side of sainthood in painting their portrait of Chris Kyle, a man whose more tasteless actions and comments have been scrubbed from this biopic (as Lindy West noted, "The real Chris Kyle was a hate-filled killer. Why are simplistic patriots treating him as a hero?"). In one sense, that doesn't matter, as fictionalizations never claim to be carved-in-stone documentaries — nor should they be. It's just that a little more complexity would have allowed this intermittently potent film to score a more direct hit.
This new Blu-ray release of American Sniper, dubbed "The Chris Kyle Commemorative Edition," contains a trio of new extras, including a featurette on Kyle and a look at the Navy SEALs; it also imports the previous Blu-ray's features, including a making-of piece.
CITY HEAT (1984). For most of the 1970s and into the 80s, Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds were the country's biggest movie stars, appearing in countless hits and appearing on Quigley's list of the top 10 moneymaking stars more than any other performers during that stretch. Their connection actually began decades earlier, when both were fired by Universal on the same day, dismissed because Reynolds couldn't act and Eastwood's Adam's apple was too big (leading Burt to quip, "You're in trouble, Clint. I can take acting lessons, but you can't get a new Adam's apple."). A teaming of the two was a given, and had they made this picture circa 1977, it might have been a smash. But by 1984, Reynolds had already begun his swift slide into cinematic irrelevance (aided along by atrocities like Stroker Ace and Cannonball Run II), and while the film performed OK ($38 million, the same as other '84 entries like Breakin', Red Dawn and The Terminator), it was dismissed by critics and has largely been forgotten. Watching it again, the film is still a great disappointment but nevertheless offers a modicum of charm. At the time of its release, Reynolds was savaged by reviewers for his comedic shtick while Eastwood was praised for offering a sly parody of his Dirty Harry persona; in truth, both actors come off well, playing good guys (Clint's a cop, Burt's a private eye) who tangle with various gangsters during the Prohibition era. Blake Edwards was the original writer-director until he left after tangling with the two stars — he was replaced by Richard Benjamin, a good actor but a bland director — and his script was changed to the point that he had his screen credit changed to Sam O. Brown (S.O.B.). Bottom line: Good roles for the stars, nice production values, and an impressive supporting cast, but no thrills and only minor laughs.
The only Blu-ray extra is the theatrical trailer.
INDEPENDENCE DAY (1996). A gargantuan commercial smash back in its day (only five films that decade grossed more), Independence Day also feels like one of the most derivative movies ever made. Borrowing liberally from The War of the Worlds, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and seemingly every other sci-fi outing this side of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, the picture somehow manages to recycle these reference points and come up with something that works on its own terms. A monster of a movie, it overloads our senses with its Oscar-winning visual effects, a disarmingly mixed bag of heroes straight out of a 70s disaster flick, and a surefire premise that should automatically snare anyone who has ever gazed at the stars and pondered their secrets. After an extra-terrestrial invasion decimates the world's major cities, pockets of survivors elect to fight back; stateside, this includes the U.S. President (Bill Pullman) and the First Lady (Mary McDonnell), a cocky fighter pilot (Will Smith) and his girlfriend (Vivica A. Fox), a computer genius (Jeff Goldblum) and his badgering father (Judd Hirsch), and a drunken crop duster (Randy Quaid) who claims he was once kidnapped by aliens. Rousing entertainment, the film is often silly and packed with unlikely narrative coincidences — then again, I suppose that's why it's called science fiction.
The new 20th Anniversary Edition on Blu-ray contains the extended and theatrical cuts, both newly restored. Extras include audio commentary by writer-director Roland Emmerich and writer-producer Dean Devlin; separate audio commentary by special effects supervisors Volker Engel and Doug Smith; a new half-hour featurette, Independence Day: A Legacy Surging Forward; a making-of piece; a trivia track; and a gag reel.
JOY (2015). After seeing his past three films (American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter) all earn Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director, David O. Russell found his run come crashing to a halt with Joy, a movie whose structure almost invites hordes of people to hate it. And admittedly, this film about Joy Mangano, the struggling divorcee who invented the Miracle Mop and subsequently became a wealthy entrepreneur, gets off to a rocky start, with Russell pushing the story dynamics and the character eccentricities to an obnoxious degree. But once the film settles down, and once the supporting players make more room for lead Jennifer Lawrence to strut her stuff, Joy — both the movie and the character — makes significant strides in the march toward success. This marks the fourth picture co-starring Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, but here Cooper's role (as a helpful QVC executive) is little more than a glorified cameo; earning considerably more screen time are another Russell favorite, Robert De Niro (as Joy's impossible father), Virginia Madsen (as her high-maintenance mother) and Isabella Rossellini (as De Niro's demanding girlfriend). The sheer unlikability of most of those in Joy's orbit will test the patience of many viewers, but it also allows the character's victories to feel even more cathartic. Lawrence earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her performance, her fourth acting nod in just a six-year span.
Blu-ray extras consist of a making-of featurette; a discussion between Lawrence, Russell and New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd; and a photo gallery.
THAT'S SEXPLOITATION! (2013). Best known as the writer and director of such cult splatter flicks as Basket Case and Frankenhooker, Frank Henenlotter has also spent years unearthing vintage exploitation films for the Something Weird Video label. That level of exposure and research makes him the perfect host (as well as writer, director and editor) for this highly informative documentary that traces the history of sexploitation films all the way back to the 1920s. Extensively utilizing exploitation producer David F. Friedman (who passed away in 2011) to offer on-camera reflections, Henenlotter examines the phenomenon of nudies, stag films, burlesque shorts, sex-hygiene pictures and other sordid and sensationalized types of lusty cinema that existed well outside the Hollywood mainstream. Ample clips are shown (including some from such notorious works as Mom and Dad, Marihuana and The Immoral Mr. Teas), and fascinating facts fly fast and furious. For instance, many of the theaters playing these controversial films offered separate showtimes for men and women; nickelodeons showing nudie reels were often tucked away in the back of otherwise reputable, all-ages arcades; and (according to Friedman) nudist films were popular in Germany during the 1930s since Hitler wanted to show off the supposedly superior physiques of his beloved Aryans. The early clips are often amusing (apparently, smoking pot can lead to such ghastly dangers as passionate kissing), while many from the drug-addled 60s prove to be experimental and bizarre in both form and content.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by Henenlotter and Lisa Petrucci, artist and film archivist at Something Weird Video; over 3-1/2 hours of sexploitation shorts from the Something Weird Archives; and the film's trailer.
TOP GUN (1986). One of the biggest box office hits of the 1980s (only 11 movies grossed more), Top Gun also stands as one of that decade's most iconic motion pictures, with its image of Tom Cruise sitting in his plane's cockpit and giving a thumbs-up often employed as a shorthand graphic for the period (generally alongside shots of Ronald Reagan, E.T. and Boy George). It was a hit among boys who enjoyed the action (Navy recruitment substantially rose after its release) and girls who enjoyed its hunky leading man. It was championed by those who appreciated its jingoistic sentiments and lambasted by those who felt it glorified war. (It was also the subject of one of my film-course term papers, wherein I compared it to the first Best Picture Oscar winner, 1927's silent Wings. But I digress.) Slickly made by the team of producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer and director Tony Scott, it's a fairly entertaining watch that doesn't provide much beyond surface thrills, although many have had fun analyzing its (unintentional?) homoerotic content — as my wife (who had never seen it) asked halfway through our joint viewing, "So when do Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer fuck?" Speaking of Kilmer, he delivers the best performance as Iceman, in constant battle with Cruise's Maverick to determine who is indeed the best of the best among the young bucks at their flight school; others earning their thespian stripes include Anthony Edwards as Maverick's best buddy Goose and Meg Ryan as Goose's wife. An Oscar nominee for Best Film Editing, Best Sound and Best Sound Effects Editing, this won for Best Original Song ("Take My Breath Away").
Top Gun has been reissued on Blu-ray as a 30th anniversary steelbook. Extras (all from earlier editions) include audio commentary by Bruckheimer, Scott, co-screenwriter Jack Epps Jr. and various naval experts; a making-of feature; and four music videos.
WHAT? (1972). I've spent the entirety of my decades-long career steadfastly not reading other reviews of a movie until I've written my own, but after sitting through this stupid, clumsy, pretentious and sexist drivel from Roman Polanski — easily the worst picture of his career — I was too depressed to actually write anything. Instead, I browsed the Internet in genuine curiosity to get a sense of what others got out of this film, which plays like a poor copy of the sort of picture Fellini could do in his sleep. I'm going to break another ironclad rule — quoting other scribes — since, in tackling this comedy of a bubble-headed American beauty (Sydne Rome) who finds herself constantly being sexually molested while in an Italian villa, others have already stated perfectly what I felt. Major critics at the time of the film's release (it played under both What? and Diary of Forbidden Dreams) sensibly panned it — Roger Ebert awarded it a half-star and stated, "When it comes right down to it, there's a nasty streak of misogyny in Polanski," while The New York Times' Vincent Canby labeled it "a male chauvinist pig sort of comedy." In modern times, it has its fans, but it still retains a number of detractors: Daily Verdict's Clark Douglas, for instance, amusingly commented that "Seeing Polanski's name attached to this rubbish feels a bit like seeing Picasso's name at the bottom of a crude drawing on the wall of a public restroom." The Onion A.V. Club's Nathan Rabin, however, best nails it by writing, "Viewers begin to wonder if maybe, just maybe, this Polanski fellow has some issues when it comes to women ... It becomes difficult, if not impossible, to see Polanski solely as an artist, and not as a man [briefly] in jail for having drugged and sodomized a 13-year-old." There, I feel better, akin to having passed sizable kidney stones.
Blu-ray extras include an interview with Rome and the trailer.