(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.)
BIG HERO 6 (2014). An adaptation of a lesser-known Marvel Comics title, this recent Oscar winner for Best Animated Feature (yes, it is better than The LEGO Movie and How to Train Your Dragon 2) is set in the East-meets-West landscape of San Fransokyo and centers on Hiro Hamada (voiced by Ryan Potter), an aimless 14-year-old genius who's given some much-needed guidance by his older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney). Tadashi is a student at the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology, where he has developed a lovable, marshmallow-shaped robot named Baymax (Scott Adsit). Baymax has been programmed to serve as an efficient health care provider (doubtless to the chagrin of Republican politicians), and he and Hiro end up forming a special bond. The first hour of Big Hero 6 is superb, complete with an array of interesting characters, an eye-popping visual design and, courtesy of the bulky Baymax, a sizable number of hearty laughs. As befits its comic-book origins, the second part turns more standard, as Hiro forms a superhero outfit with other science-nerd misfits. Be sure to stay through the closing credits: As is the norm with any superhero film worth its salt, this one includes a post-credits sequence (eagle-eye viewers will catch a tease midway through the film), and it's one guaranteed to delight discerning grown-ups — even if the wee ones don't quite understand the fuss being made by Mom and Dad.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; deleted scenes; Feast, the short which preceded Big Hero 6 in theaters (and, also like BH6, nabbed an Oscar, this one for Best Animated Short); and a chat with the artists who created the film.
BLACK SUNDAY (1960). In 2012, the Kino Classics label released the original Italian cut of Mario Bava's 1960 horror classic Black Sunday (aka The Mask of Satan) on Blu-ray. Now, the outfit has seen fit to offer "The U.S. Release Version," the cut of the film that first played this country back in the early 1960s. Deemed too strong for Yankee sensibilities, the Italian take was shorn of a few minutes of footage, given a completely new redubbing, and provided a different music score by Lex Baxter (replacing the one by Roberto Nicolosi). There's no question that the Italian edit is the superior work, but even in its altered format, this remains a beautifully composed picture whose moments of genuine shock rattled many a patron back in the day (indeed, the film was banned outright in England for several years). Barbara Steele, in the role that turned her into a horror film icon, plays Asa, a 17th century witch who swears vengeance as she's burned at the stake. Cut to two centuries later, and a revived Asa schemes to gain immortality by drinking the blood of her descendant (also Steele). Bava and his crew's employment of unique camera angles, heavily atmospheric sets and startling moments of violence combine to create a trendsetting picture that has influenced generations of filmmakers (including Martin Scorsese and Tim Burton). For those keeping track, the Blu-ray for the original version of Bava's 1963 Black Sabbath was released by Kino in 2013, and the label will release the American cut this summer.
The only Blu-ray extras are theatrical trailers.
BREAKING AWAY (1979). A textbook definition of a sleeper hit, Breaking Away seemingly came out of nowhere to dazzle critics and delight audiences. In one respect, it's just another underdog sports flick, this one about young Dave Stoller (Dennis Christopher), his love for cycling, and his chance to win The Big Game (or, in this case, The Big Race). In another regard, it's a coming-of-age story, and if that sounds as hoary as an underdog sports flick, it's important to point out that this one adheres closer to reality than most — for one thing, one of the principal kids has acne; how often does Hollywood cast pimply people in major roles? More to the point, Breaking Away centers on four teens in Bloomington, Indiana, and reveals all of them lamenting their have-not statuses (brought into sharper focus by the preppy college kids who look down on them), questioning their self-worth, and wondering how far their mutual friendship will carry them into the future. As the quartet, Christopher, Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern and Jackie Earle Haley deliver exquisite performances, and there are stellar supporting turns from Barbara Barrie as Dave's patient mom and especially Paul Dooley as his easily flustered dad. Nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (Peter Yates) and Best Supporting Actress (Barrie), this won for Best Original Screenplay (Steve Tesich). Trivial pursuit: Breaking Away was the basis for a 1980 TV series that lasted all of eight episodes. Haley and Barrie reprised their film roles while The Hardy Boys' Shaun Cassidy took over as Dave and the great character actor Vincent Gardenia replaced Dooley as Dave's pop.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by Christopher and film historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman; the theatrical trailer; a pair of TV spots; and an isolated score track.
HORRIBLE BOSSES 2 (2014). Until the storytelling got sloppy in its final third, 2011's Horrible Bosses yielded a number of laughs in its tale of hapless working grunts Nick (Jason Bateman), Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) and Dale (Charlie Day) and their efforts to exact revenge on their psychotic bosses. In this sequel, the lads elect to go into business for themselves, but their naivety puts them at the mercy of shark-like businessman Bert Hanson (Christophe Waltz) and his son Rex (Chris Pine). With their backs against that proverbial wall, the trio once again turn to ex-con Motherfucker Jones (Jamie Foxx) for advice and, after some deliberation, decide that a kidnapping might provide the solution to their problems. There are a few genuine laughs to be found, although viewers will probably have more luck locating gold doubloons in the Myrtle Beach sands. Otherwise, the humor is strictly of the sort that will leave 14-year-old boys gasping for air through their explosive bouts of diarrheic laughing but find everyone else rolling their eyes. There are gags involving rape, pedophilia, gay panic and racism; they're all meant to shock viewers into laughing in spite of themselves, but they're ultimately as daring — and as clueless — as a Republican politician name-dropping Ronald Reagan during a campaign speech. Pine provides the only potent comic bite to a toothless endeavor that's otherwise as amusing as a root canal.
The Blu-ray contains both the theatrical version and an extended cut that runs an extra eight minutes. Extras include a behind-the-scenes featurette; a collection of one-liners that didn't make the film; and not one but two shorts concerning the movie's Hitchcockian MacGuffin, the Shower Buddy.
THE INTERVIEW (2014). To release or not to release — that was the question posed to Columbia Pictures this past Christmas in the face of threatened violence if this film hit multiplexes. There's probably no need to rehash the whole sordid affair, as even those who generally wouldn't know James Franco from Jess Franco couldn't avoid the 24/7 media coverage regarding the vague threats and the studio's unfortunate compliance (score one for the terrorists, or, more likely, Internet trolls). But after the Columbia suits' (sort of) change of heart that led to limited theatrical exposure and wider home options (including Netflix Streaming), the picture finally hits Blu-ray and DVD. It goes without saying that the end result was hardly worth all the ink, yet as far as 2014 dum-dum comedies go, it's preferable to the utterly moronic likes of Dumb and Dumber To and the Horrible Bosses sequel reviewed directly above. Seth Rogen (who also co-directed with Evan Goldberg and co-scripted with Goldberg and Dan Sterling) plays Aaron Rapaport, who produces a fluffy TV tabloid show hosted by the charismatic Dave Skylark (Franco). Tired of not being taken seriously as a news journalist, Aaron is elated — and ready for that newfound respectability — when they land an interview with the show's number one fan, no less than North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un (Randall Park). The CIA, though, has others plans for this pair rather than just a straightforward interview: They want Aaron and Dave to assassinate the tyrant. It's a workable premise, and the film delivers some scattered laughs in those moments when it can tear itself away from typically puerile and repetitive gags. The meat of the movie comes in the relationship between Dave and Kim Jong-un, with Park delivering an amusing performance as this man-child suffering from daddy issues (not unlike George W. Bush in Oliver Stone's W.) and partial to Katy Perry songs.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Rogen and Goldberg; deleted scenes; the standard "Line-o-Rama" pieces; Park's audition tape; and a chat with Rogen and Goldberg.
THE MAJESTIC (2001). There was a stretch of about a decade — post-Ace Ventura films, of course — when Jim Carrey was hellbent on scoring an Oscar nomination but repeatedly came up empty before his career went into free fall (although he definitely did deserve a nod for Man on the Moon). One such bid for respectability was found in director Frank Darabont's The Majestic, a period effort set in the early 1950s. Carrey, in a nicely understated turn, plays Pete Appleton, a screenwriter whose career gets destroyed when he's suspected of being a Communist. After drinking and driving leads to the inevitable car accident, he awakens with his memory wiped clean — and with everyone in the small California town of Lawson believing he's one of their long-lost WWII vets finally returning home. The first part of the movie, which deals with Pete's involvement with the town's perpetually chipper residents, will strike some viewers as inspiring and others as manipulative; at any rate, it's clearly the better half, since the final act, which centers on Pete's stand against the House Un-American Activities Committee, is patently false and a queer whitewash of a tragic chapter in US history.
Blu-ray extras consist of deleted scenes; the complete sequence from the movie-within-the-movie Sand Pirates of the Sahara; and the theatrical trailer. The Majestic is available for purchase individually or as part of the Blu-ray box set The Frank Darabont Collection, which also includes two decent but highly overrated films, 1994's The Shawshank Redemption (absurdly voted by IMDb perusers as the greatest movie of all time, a selection only slightly less daft than, say, Jaws 2 or Home Alone) and 1999's The Green Mile.
NEW YEAR'S EVIL (1980) / THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1989). Shout! Factory's Scream Factory arm has seen fit to serve up two '80s-era horror flicks, one from each end of the decade. The common factor? Both were produced by Menahem Golan and released by the company he oversaw — Cannon (run with his cousin Yoram Globus) for New Year's Evil and 21st Century Film Corporation for The Phantom of the Opera.
New Year's Evil hit theaters the same year as the first Friday the 13th, and it's so unbelievably, unspeakably awful that it makes the Jason Voorhees slasher flick look as masterful as Psycho by comparison. Roz Kelly, best known for playing the most famous of Fonzie's girlfriends on TV's Happy Days, is brash and overbearing as Diane Sullivan, whose hosting of a nationally televised music show is repeatedly interrupted by phone calls from a mysterious man who promises to murder her after he's worked his way through a few other women. With its risible script, inept direction and amateurish performances (particularly by Kip Niven and Grant Cramer, respectively playing Diane's husband and son), this one's the absolute pits; even the extras cast as the partygoers are terrible.
The Phantom of the Opera, meanwhile, is the umpteenth screen version of Gaston Leroux's venerable tale; in this go-round, it's A Nightmare on Elm Street's Robert Englund who's cast as the disfigured madman, with Jill Schoelen co-starring as his beloved Christine. Englund brings none of the pathos that charged the iconic performances by Lon Chaney (1925 version) and Claude Rains (1943 version), and while the film initially appears as if it will intriguingly move the story up to modern times, that's merely a ruse, and the result is a dreary rendering of a story we know all too well. The most interesting element is catching sight of a young Molly Shannon (in her film debut) and a young (well, at 39, younger) Bill Nighy.
Blu-ray extras on New Year's Evil consist of audio commentary by director Emmett Alston; interviews with Niven, Cramer, co-star Taaffe O'Connell and director of photography Thomas Ackerman; and the theatrical trailer. Blu-ray extras on The Phantom of the Opera consist of audio commentary by Englund and director Dwight H. Little; a making-of featurette; and the theatrical trailer.
New Year's Evil: *
The Phantom of the Opera: *1/2
ST. VINCENT (2014). It's been attributed to everyone from Oscar Wilde and Edmund Kean to Groucho Marx and Edmund Gwenn, yet it actually feels like the adage "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard." has been around ever since the first Greek philosopher-comic slipped on a banana peel. 2014 gave rise to a number of terrific turns that were doubtless conceived through blood, sweat and cheers, with Ralph Fiennes' exquisite work in The Grand Budapest Hotel heading the pack. And then there's Bill Murray, who knocks it out of the park as a misanthropic curmudgeon in this modest box office hit. Murray's Vincent has little use for other people, with his only frequent visitor being Daka (Naomi Watts), a pregnant Russian stripper he employs as a "woman of the night." That changes, though, once the recently divorced Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) moves in next door. Initially, Vincent couldn't care less about Maggie or her young son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), but he changes his tune — slightly — once he realizes that Maggie will pay him to look after her boy each weekday after school. The old man and the young kid — it's a hoary contrivance that's fueled many a movie, from such hits as Up and Gran Torino to flops like this past year's And So It Goes. But while most of these past characters never felt particularly heartless even at their worst, that's certainly not the case here. Vincent is often odious, and when we finally think he's softening up, he turns around and becomes even more insufferable. It's a bravura turn — Murray's best performance since 2003's Lost in Translation — and it gives this picture an extra kick.
Blu-ray extras consist of deleted scenes and a Q&A session with Murray and others.
WHIPLASH (2014). The closest thing to a fanboy fave among the eight 2014 Oscar nominees for Best Picture, Whiplash looks at the tempestuous relationship between Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), an aspiring jazz drummer at a prestigious music conservatory, and Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a tyrannical teacher hell-bent on producing one musical genius on the order of Charlie Parker or Buddy Rich from the students entrusted to his care. Teller and Simmons play their parts as if possessed by demons, and Simmons is particularly mesmerizing as the professor who psychologically and even physically abuses his young charges. Their explosive confrontations feel so raw and real that it's a shame when writer-director Damien Chazelle allows the movie to take a sharp turn toward implausible melodrama during its final half-hour, after which it then continues to lose air like a tire with a slow leak. But up until this lamentable stretch, the scripting in Whiplash proves to be as tight as a drum; as for the two protagonists, they remain compelling from first note to last. Including its Best Picture bid, the movie nabbed a total of five Academy Award nominations, winning three: Best Supporting Actor (Simmons), Best Sound Mixing and, somewhat absurdly given the presence of Boyhood in the lineup, Best Film Editing.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Chazelle and Simmons; a deleted scene; the original short film of the same name; a discussion with Chazelle, Teller and Simmons; and a piece in which real-life drummers discuss their craft.