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Ishtar, Mud, latest MST3K set 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.)

Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty in Ishtar (Photo: Columbia)
  • Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty in Ishtar (Photo: Columbia)

ISHTAR (1987). Writer-director Elaine May's Ishtar is one of those films that has always made me embarrassed to be a film critic — not because of having to endure the movie itself, but because of the behavior of many of my fellow scribes. Like any decade, the 1980s saw the release of so many truly atrocious films (Xanadu, Stroker Ace, Bolero, Shanghai Surprise, etc.) that it's absurd "Ishtar" became shorthand for the worst of the worst and continues to be blasted by folks who haven't even seen it. (Side note: The Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson had, like many others bashing the film, never even seen it when he drew a panel showing that this was the only movie available in Hell's video store; he later caught the film, greatly enjoyed it, and subsequently apologized for the cartoon.) It was apparent then, and it's become even more apparent with the passing of time, that the movie was reviewed for its exorbitant budget more than anything actually on screen. The picture cost a then-hefty $40 million (which these days probably wouldn't even cover the catering costs on a Michael Bay production), and this price tag, coupled with a paltry $14 million gross, left film reviewers and industry insiders sputtering at the waste of so much money. Clearly, the film isn't a total success — and, yes, it doesn't look like it should have cost $40 million — but those who actually bother to see it will discover some very funny material within. Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman star as Lyle Rogers and Chuck Clarke, a pair of abysmal singer-songwriters (their deliberately awful songs were penned by May and Paul Williams) who figure that the only difference between them and Simon & Garfunkel is their lack of an agent. So they hire Marty Freed (Jack Weston), who books them at a Moroccan nightclub; that benign assignment leads to them being mistaken for CIA agents, and they're soon on the run from all manner of assassins. It's a nice touch having Hoffman play the suave lady-killer and Beatty the bumbling introvert, and there's a choice supporting turn from Charles Grodin as a duplicitous CIA suit. Patterning itself after the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby Road movies, the film experiences more than its share of lulls, and Isabelle Adjani is largely wasted as a sympathetic freedom fighter. But the film contains many bright set pieces (the blind camel, the arms trading scene, etc.), and May's script is actually very pointed — and accurate — in examining the shady way that the U.S. conducts its affairs abroad.

There are no extras on the Blu-ray aside from trailers of newer films.

Movie: **1/2

Matthew McConaughey in Mud (Photo: Lionsgate)
  • Matthew McConaughey in Mud (Photo: Lionsgate)

MUD (2013). Writer-director Jeff Nichols, a graduate of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, made his debut with the well-received Shotgun Stories and then followed that with the intriguing Take Shelter, starring Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain. With Mud, he demonstrates once again that he's that rare breed of filmmaker who prefers to bury himself in the dirt of rural America rather than carve his initials into the concrete of sprawling urbanity. Set in Nichols' home state of Arkansas, the picture follows teenage boys Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) as they make an unusual discovery in some woodland located on a small island off the Mississippi River: a boat stuck up in a tree. No sooner have the lads claimed it as their own than they discover it's already being used for shelter by an unkempt man who identifies himself as Mud (Matthew McConaughey). Insisting he can't leave the area because he's scheduled a rendezvous there with his one true love (Reese Witherspoon), Mud implores Ellis and Neckbone to help him by bringing him some food. The boys comply, but with each subsequent visit — trips Ellis keeps from his parents (Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson) and Neckbone from his uncle (Shannon) — they become more involved with Mud's plight and soon learn that everything is not what it seems. With keen instinct, Nichols offers a look at the hardscrabble lives of folks eking out an existence in difficult circumstances — a definite step up from the protagonists' lot in Winter's Bone and Beasts of the Southern Wild, but a trying experience nonetheless. Sheridan and Lofland are perfectly cast as the inquisitive Ellis and the no-nonsense Neckbone, and there's a sharp supporting turn by Sam Shepard as a neighbor who knows Mud better than anyone. If Nichols' script isn't quite as memorable as the one he crafted for the edgy Take Shelter — McConaughey's title character could use more fleshing out, and the ending is a bit limp — his choices as director are first-rate throughout, not only in tapping both the inherent humor and suspense in the tale but also for keeping a leash on his leading actor's tendency to solely rely on his aw-shucks mannerisms. The character of Mud can be as messy as his name, but McConaughey cleanly punches him across.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Nichols; a look at the cast and characters; and a piece on the snakes that make an appearance in the film.

Movie: ***

(Photo: Shout! Factory)
  • (Photo: Shout! Factory)

MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: VOLUME XXVII (2013). This marks the 15th MST3K box set released by Shout! Factory (the previous 12 were issued by Rhino), and truth be told, it's arguably the weakest one yet. That's not to say there still aren't more riffs than you can shake a rocketship at, but none of these episodes are top-tier, and the majority of the targeted turkeys are too dull to challenge the Satellite of Love crew to come up with their best material.

The Slime People (movie made in 1963; featured on MST3K in 1990) represents both the worst episode and the worst movie in the set. One of the programs from the stillborn first season, this showcases a truly wretched film that nearly takes the term "low budget" to a new low. Los Angeles has been taken over by a group of subterranean dwellers who use fog as their cover, and it's up to five brave souls (at least three sporting squirrel-level IQs) to stop them. This is often unbearably dull, though a Chico and the Man reference caught me off-guard, and I was amused by the Siskel & Ebert bit.

Only the presence of The Slime People prevents Rocket Attack U.S.A. (movie made in 1961; featured on MST3K in 1990) from being the worst movie in the collection. It's nearly as atrocious, although at least the episode surrounding it is a vast improvement. The film is a ludicrous propaganda piece, a Cold War effort in which the Americans brace themselves for a nuclear attack by the Russkies. The episode highlight is the host segment in which Joel tells the robots not about the Joe McCarthy era but the Charlie McCarthy era, a frightful period in which every puppet star from Howdy Doody to Gumby was accused of being a Communist.

The set's third bomb is Village of the Giants (movie made in 1965; featured on MST3K in 1994), one of the eight films directed by Bert I. Gordon that were showcased on the program (a series record). This one is embarrassing in its efforts to tap into the period's youth culture, as a formula concocted by a kid nicknamed Genius (little Ronny Howard, still light years removed from Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind) causes a town's rebellious teenagers (including Beau Bridges) to grow to enormous size. The silliness extends to giant dancing ducks, but the real fun is to be had in watching the host segments in which Dr. Forrester decides to fire TV's Frank and replace him with — yes — the one and only Torgo.

Compared to the aforementioned trio of turkeys, The Deadly Mantis (movie made in 1957; featured on MST3K in 1997) seems as accomplished as Jurassic Park by comparison. One of the countless "giant creature" titles to emerge from the 1950s, it's middling rather than truly bad, as the title insect breaks free from an Arctic confinement and proceeds to lay waste to Washington DC and New York. Mike Nelson and co. mainly lob softballs, though there are some undeniable gems among the guffaws.

DVD extras include a piece on Trace Beaulieu (Dr. Forrester and the voice of Crow); interviews with The Slime People star Judith (Morton) Fraser and Village of the Giants star Joy Harmon; and a featurette on The Deadly Mantis producer-writer William Alland.

Collection: **1/2

Tom Cruise in Oblivion (Photo: Universal)
  • Tom Cruise in Oblivion (Photo: Universal)

OBLIVION (2013). Yet another in a steady stream of apocalyptic, end-of-the-world sagas, Oblivion is a vast wasteland, with only fleeting visions of imagination and coherency as far as the eye can see. Presumably, writer-director Joseph Kosinski, adapting the graphic novel he co-wrote with Arvid Nelson, didn't set out to mix'n'match elements from seemingly every science fiction film ever made with the possible exceptions of Monster a Go-Go and Son of Flubber. And presumably, Kosinski and the other scripters didn't mean for the final draft to be so clunky and convoluted. Yet even if all involved are presumed innocent, they're still guilty of producing a major letdown. Set in 2077, the scenario involves an invading alien force that the citizens of Earth were able to repel, but at the expense of the livability of the planet. The survivors are now living on the Saturn moon of Titan (our own moon has been destroyed), and Jack (Tom Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) have been tasked with gathering the earth's few remaining resources before abandoning the planet themselves. Yet the naturally inquisitive Jack's convictions are pureed into doubt and disbelief after he rescues an astronaut (Olga Kurylenko) whose vessel crash-lands on the planet. Oblivion looks like an expensive movie right from its first frame, but in much the same way as Duncan Jones' excellent 2009 effort Moon, its minimalist mood stirs memories of those low-key sci-fi works from the early 1970s, pre-Star Wars whispers like Silent Running and Slaughterhouse-Five. Cruise's Jack Harper is an appealing human version of WALL-E with a dash of Mad Max Rockatansky simmering beneath the surface, and the movie seems poised to employ battlefield Earth in exciting ways. Instead, the story gets more ham-fisted as it unwinds, becoming needlessly cluttered and finally petering out with a series of daft sequences, each more ludicrous than the one which preceded it. Morgan Freeman pops up from time to time, wearing sunglasses even though his character seems to be spend most of his time in caves. Maybe he's a huge fan of one-hit wonder Timbuk3's 1986 ditty "The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades"?

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Cruise and Kosinski; deleted scenes; various making-of featurettes covering the effects, the music, the stunts and more; and the isolated music score by M83.

Movie: **

Kristen Stewart in On the Road (Photo: IFC Films)
  • Kristen Stewart in On the Road (Photo: IFC Films)

ON THE ROAD (2012). There was enough of a hint of all that jazz to director Walter Salles' 2004 effort The Motorcycle Diaries, a look at the early years of Che Guevara, to signal that he might have been the proper person to bring Jack Kerouac's landmark novel to the big screen. Instead, this look at the Beat generation ends up missing too many of its own beats to ever succeed. Enlisting his Motorcycle writer Jose Rivera as his accomplice, Salles approaches Kerouac's raw, restless and spontaneous work in such a staid and conservative manner that the movie might as well have been a lesser Merchant-Ivory production from the team's declining period in the late 90s. Sam Riley and Garrett Hedlund deliver underwhelming performances in the two roles that simply must engage audiences from the get-go. Riley is aspiring writer Sal Paradise (the character based on Kerouac himself), who longs for the freedom of the open road; Hedlund is irresponsible hedonist Dean Moriarty (aka Neal Cassady), who joins him on many of his cross-country adventures. Salles and Rivera chart the men's encounters in acceptable vignette fashion, but there's very little sense of the thrill of discovery in what's presented on screen, with the filmmakers dutifully checking off each CliffsNotes highlight before moving forward. I wonder what a director like David Cronenberg might have brought to the party; his whacked-out 1991 version of William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch wasn't a complete success, but it exhibited a go-for-broke strategy that's sadly missing in On the Road. Speaking of Burroughs, he appears here in the form of junkie-poet Old Bull Lee, played with the proper measure of eccentricity by Viggo Mortensen. And while it's open season on Kristen Stewart these days, with the put-upon actress having to contend with hatred generally reserved for al-Qaeda operatives, she's just fine in her too-few scenes as Dean's first wife, the teenage Marylou; ditto for Kirsten Dunst as Dean's second wife, Camille, Amy Adams as Old Bull Lee's spouse, and Steve Buscemi as one of the bisexual Dean's johns. These supporting players all add color and dimension to an otherwise sterile piece, not unlike interesting footnotes found peppering the pages of a dull college textbook.

Blu-ray extras include deleted scenes and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: *1/2

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