The Freshman, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, latest MST3K set among new home entertainment titles | View from the Couch | Creative Loafing Charlotte
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The Freshman, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 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.)

Chris Pratt and Vince Vaughn in Delivery Man (Photo: Disney)
  • Chris Pratt and Vince Vaughn in Delivery Man (Photo: Disney)

DELIVERY MAN (2013). Flaccid as a comedy and even more limp as a heart-warmer, Delivery Man stars Vince Vaughn as David, an irresponsible guy who's a disappointment to both his father (Andrzej Blumenfeld) and his pregnant girlfriend (Cobie Smulders). Working as the delivery truck driver for the family meat business, he's shocked to learn that all those hundreds of anonymous sperm donations he gave back in the 1990s have resulted in 533 children — and 142 of them have filed a lawsuit against the clinic in an attempt to learn the identity of their father. Brett (Chris Pratt), David's lawyer and best friend, urges his client to lay low until he can file a countersuit, but finally sensing an opportunity to add meaning to his life, David instead assigns himself the role of guardian angel, injecting himself into the lives of these now-grown kids while keeping his identity hidden. This leads to countless vignettes of wavering mediocrity, including David helping one son (Jack Reynor) become an actor (the corniness of this sequence recalls the line from 1933's 42nd Street, "You're going out a youngster but you've got to come back a star!") and persuading one daughter (Charlotte-born Britt Robertson) to kick her heroin addiction (which she does in less time than it takes to brush one's teeth; wow, who knew it was so absurdly easy?). Delivery Man is a remake of 2011's Starbuck, with that film's writer-director, Ken Scott, assuming the same positions here; I haven't seen that picture, but surely it must contain more humor and heart than the synthetic slop presented here. Pratt scores the only laughs as the perpetually fatigued father of four, but stripped of the wise-guy patter and confident swagger that have been his strong suits in comedies as diverse as Swingers and The Internship, Vaughn proves to be a dull leading man, shooting blanks in a feeble attempt to arouse viewer sympathy.

Blu-ray extras include a behind-the-scenes featurette; a deleted scene; and bloopers.

Movie: *1/2

Harold Lloyd in The Freshman (Photo: Criterion Collection)
  • Harold Lloyd in The Freshman (Photo: Criterion Collection)

THE FRESHMAN (1925). Last summer, The Criterion Collection added silent-cinema legend Harold Lloyd to its roster through its release of his 1923 classic Safety Last! Now the tony outfit has seen fit to offer Lloyd's other enduring masterpiece, a treasure that still stands as one of the greatest comedies ever made. Lloyd plays Harold Lamb, a young kid who's thrilled to be heading off to college (the star was 32 when this was made, but never mind). Nicknaming himself Speedy, he seeks the approval and friendship of every single individual on campus, not realizing that all of them — with the exception of pretty Peggy (Jobyna Ralston) — are mocking him behind his back. Convinced that he can only become the most popular person at college by joining the football team, he's proud when he reaches his goal ... little realizing that he's actually been picked to serve as the team's water boy. But Harold gets his chance to shine in the climactic football game, a gridiron gut-buster that rivals and perhaps even surpasses the football sequence in the Marx Brothers' 1932 Horse Feathers (wherein the boys manage to introduce a chariot to the sport). As always, Lloyd has managed to create a character who's so cheerful and optimistic (love the dance he performs when meeting people!) that it's impossible not to fully throw one's loyalty and sympathy behind him. Combine his appeal with some hysterical gags, and the result is not only his best film but also the biggest box office hit of his career.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Harold Lloyd archivist Richard Correll, film historian Richard Bann and film critic Leonard Maltin; three Lloyd shorts, 1919's The Marathon, 1920's An Eastern Westerner and 1920's High and Dizzy; an on-camera introduction of The Freshman by Lloyd himself; footage from a 1963 tribute to Lloyd, featuring Jack Lemmon and Steve Allen; and Lloyd's 1953 appearance on the TV series What's My Line?

Movie: ****

Lon Chaney and Patsy Ruth Miller in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Photo: Flicker Alley)
  • Lon Chaney and Patsy Ruth Miller in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Photo: Flicker Alley)

THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1923). One of the greats of the silent era, Lon Chaney suffered for his art more than just about any other performer in film history. Armed with his own makeup kit, Chaney became so well-known for his radically different appearances that he earned the nickname "Man of a Thousand Faces" and further inspired the popular crack, "Don't step on it; it might be Lon Chaney!" But his creations came at a price, as his makeup applications and physical contortions led to such enduring problems as poor eyesight and aching body parts. One of his most remarkable transformations can be seen in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, an expensive production that proved to be a box office blockbuster and turned the actor into a superstar. Chaney delivers a formidable performance as Quasimodo, the misshapen Parisian bell-ringer who falls for the lovely gypsy Esmeralda (Patsy Ruth Miller). While arguably not the best screen adaptation of Victor Hugo's classic novel — the 1939 version starring Charles Laughton is pretty spectacular — it's nevertheless an awe-inspiring achievement, featuring magnificent sets (built on the Universal backlot), the proverbial cast of thousands (the crowd scenes are mesmerizing) and an opportunity to catch Chaney at his most commanding.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Chaney scholar Michael F. Blake; behind-the-scenes footage of Chaney (out of makeup) on the set; 1915's Alas and Alack, a 13-minute short in which Chaney plays both a hunchback and a fisherman (alas and alack, the film's last few minutes are missing); and a photo gallery.

Movie: ***1/2

Stanley Tucci and Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Photo: Lionsgate)
  • Stanley Tucci and Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Photo: Lionsgate)

THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE (2013). Is it November 2014 yet? Because that's when the third movie in the franchise based on Suzanne Collins' best-selling novels is due for release — a long wait for those of us ready to keep watching as The Hunger Games: Catching Fire came to its climactic close. Yes, it's that good. Bucking the laws of diminishing returns when it comes to sequels, it's even better than 2012's The Hunger Games, itself no slouch in the entertainment department. It picks up where the first film left off, with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) back at home in District 12 after winning the 74th annual Hunger Games. But in the Capitol, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) senses in Katniss the spark needed for a revolution, so, at the urging of the latest Games designer (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman), he decides that it's back to the killing fields for the pair. One of the aspects that makes Catching Fire stronger than its predecessor is that it possesses a more palpable sense of danger. For all the kid-on-kid brutality in the first film, it truly felt like a "game," as these teens and preteens ran around the forest picking up skills while picking each other off — you could almost envision a Parker Bros. board game (and, sure enough, there is an import titled The Hunger Games District 12: A Game of Strategy). But in this film, the tension is heightened on every front. As again portrayed by a chilling Sutherland, President Snow is a deadly adversary, far more threatening than anything the Hunger Games can conjure up (be it the wasps in the first film or a tidal wave in this one), and his malevolent presence hangs over all 12 districts like a poisonous fog. Director Gary Ross had some trouble providing enough pop to the initial film's action set-pieces, but new helmer Francis Lawrence (no relation to Jennifer) has no such trouble, another factor that makes this film feel weightier. As for the cast, everyone's back and accounted for, including Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci. Still, despite all this high-powered talent, it's Jennifer Lawrence who holds our attention throughout the film. Katniss Everdeen makes for a fantastic heroine, and her appeal is only accentuated by the intuitive and commanding work by Lawrence in the role.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director Francis Lawrence and producer Nina Jacobson; a feature-length making-of documentary; and deleted scenes.

Movie: ***1/2

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

MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: VOLUME XXIX (2014). The latest collection of Satellite of Love laughs may not rank among the best of the multiple sets to date, but the spectacular awfulness of most of the movies means the films succeed even when Joel, Mike and the 'bots fall short with their riffing.

Despite hailing from the weak first season, Untamed Youth (movie made in 1957; featured on MST3K in 1990) actually turns out to be a decent episode. Some of the praise goes to Joel and company as they get off some choice zingers, but most of the credit goes to the feature attraction, a risible effort that had achieved turkey status long before MST3K arrived on the scene. Mamie Van Doren (the poor man's Jayne Mansfield, who in turn was the poor man's Marilyn Monroe) and Lori Nelson star as sisters who find themselves unfairly being forced to work on a prison farm run by the corrupt Russ Tropp (John Russell). A fascinating exploitation flick, this features the immortal line, "Don't hit me in the mouth again; you'll break my dental plate!"

The third and last of three Hercules titles that Joel and the gang tackled in 1992 (the previous two were 1959's Hercules Unchained and 1964's Hercules Against the Moon Men), Hercules and the Captive Women (movie made in 1961; featured on MST3K in 1992) is an Italian-produced cheapie that finds the strongman (Reg Park) squaring off against the queen of Atlantis (Fay Spain). The episode gets off to a promising start as Joel allows Gypsy to enter the auditorium to watch the film (much to the dismay of Crow and Tom Servo), but that idea is abandoned far too early, leaving the team (and us) with a film that's too unremittingly dull to generate consistently amusing cracks.

The Thing That Couldn't Die (movie made in 1958; featured on MST3K in 1997), dubbed The Strom Thurmond Story by Crow, centers around a laughable film in which a long-buried decapitated head gains control over the clods who dig it (him?) up. As was often the case in the Pearl Forrester/Sci-Fi Channel era, the wraparound sequences are unwatchable — it's hard to ascertain who's the least funny among Pearl, Professor Bobo and Brain Guy — but the in-theater experience is first-rate, with Mike and his robot friends unearthing comedy gold with references to Of Mice and Men, The Children's Hour and TV's The Waltons.

The Pumaman (movie made in 1980; featured on MST3K in 1998) is a real treat, featuring a film so rancid it must be experienced at least once in a lifetime. The fine British actor Donald Pleasence here hams it up as a megalomaniac whose plot to rule the world is thwarted by Pumaman (Walter George Alton), a superhero who flies poorly and complains a lot. "High Plains Weenie!" shouts one of the 'bots at our hapless hero, just one of the countless quips pointing out the wimpiness of the protagonist. With its inane plotline and wretched visual effects, The Pumaman offers the SOL crew plenty of riff-worthy material.

DVD extras include a new introduction by Joel Hodgson; new interviews with Untamed Youth star Mamie Van Doren and The Pumaman star Walter George Alton (who is not a fan of MST3K's treatment of his film); and a piece on Steve Vance, the artist who creates those spectacular mini-posters included in each MST3K box set.

Collection: ***

Berenice Bejo and Ali Mosaffa in The Past (Photo: Sony Pictures Classics)
  • Berenice Bejo and Ali Mosaffa in The Past (Photo: Sony Pictures Classics)

THE PAST (2013). One of the 10 best movies of 2013, Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi's The Past not only failed to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign-Language Film, it didn't even make it to the shortlist round, the pool of nine titles from which the Academy chose the five nominees. It was a surprise omission given that the last film from Farhadi, 2011's A Separation, deservedly took home the Oscar, and this effort is admirably its equal. The film commences with Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) arriving from his Iranian homeland to Paris in order to meet with his estranged French wife Marie (The Artist's Berenice Bejo, winning the Cannes Film Festival's Best Actress prize for her work here) and finalize their divorce after several years of both of them relegating it to the back burner. Ahmad expects to stay at a hotel and is upset when Marie instead takes him to the house that she shares with the new man in her life, an Iranian named Samir (A Prophet's Tahar Rahim). To say that there's tension is to put it mildly, and adding to the drama is the presence of Marie's two kids from a previous relationship, the teenage Lucie (Pauline Burlet) and the wee Lea (Jeanne Jestin), and Samir's troubled son Fouad (Elyes Aguis), who's not keen that his mom is in a coma at the local hospital. As Ahmad hangs around, he seeks some sort of closure with Marie, comes to know the kids, and hears some disturbing news as to why exactly Samir's wife is presently in a comatose state. As he did with A Separation, Farhadi again proves himself a master when it comes to creating complex characters whose specific scenarios still manage to encompass universal truths. Dysfunctional families are a dime a dozen in the cinema of today, often painted in broad comedic terms or drowning in melodramatic excess. But the players in The Past feel unswervingly real and raw, whether it's Lucie responding better to the soothing Ahmad than she does to her own mother, Marie frequently finding her temper tested and enflamed, or poor Fouad lashing out because he doesn't know how else to respond to the confusing behavior of the adults around him. Blessed with intelligent dialogue, a uniformly excellent cast and a wallop of a closing shot, The Past isn't easily forgotten.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Farhadi; a making-of featurette; and a Q&A session with Farhadi.

Movie: ***1/2

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