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.
Pyotr Fyodorov in Sputnik (Photo: Shout! Factory & IFC)
(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.)
THE DOGS OF WAR (1980). Two years removed from his Oscar-winning supporting turn in 1978’s The Deer Hunter (reviewed here), Christopher Walken landed his first starring role in this accomplished adaptation of Frederick Forsyth’s bestselling novel. Walken plays Jamie Shannon, a mercenary hired by slimy British businessman Endean (Hugh Millais) to embark on a reconnaissance mission to the African nation of Zangaro. Endean would like to know if it would be possible to overthrow Zangaro’s corrupt government and install a different regime — one equally corrupt, of course, but more willing to share the nation’s valuable resources (platinum as opposed to oil) to outsiders. Upon returning from his assignment, Shannon is then hired to assemble his team and pull off the coup, but he has his own idea on how matters should pan out. Walken has rarely delivered such an earthy, physical performance, and his character gives (the glass-in-the-mouth scene is swift, brutal and incredible) as well as he takes (Leonard Maltin noted that “Walken takes a screen beating nearly as impressively as Brando”). Colin Blakeley is excellent as a tenacious news reporter who befriends Shannon, and if Derek, one of the key mercenaries, looks familiar, that’s because he’s played by Paul Freeman, who would memorably combat Indiana Jones as the charming Belloq in the following year’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. And it’s difficult to ascertain which is more startling: the sight of an impossibly young Jim Broadbent (as part of Blakeley’s film crew) or an impossibly young Ed O’Neill (as part of Walken’s outfit).
Blu-ray extras consist of cast and crew interviews.
JOHN HUGHES 5-MOVIE COLLECTION (1986-1988). As an ‘80s kid — a teenager for the decade’s first six years, a newly birthed 20something during the final four — I should probably follow the lead of my Gen X peers and consider John Hughes one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, someone worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Hitchcock, Welles, and Kurosawa. True, I loved The Breakfast Club when it debuted in 1985 and still consider it his finest achievement. Yet even back in the day, my reactions to his other films were usually mixed, and revisiting many of his works over the ensuing decades hasn’t really moved the needle much on any of the individual titles.
Hughes only directed eight movies during his lifetime (he died of a heart attack in 2009, at the age of 59), but considering how many films that he only scripted are considered “John Hughes productions,” it’s understandable when someone mistakenly believes he helmed at least twice as many. This five-flick set from Paramount offers three titles for which he served as writer-director and two on which he toiled only as writer.
Written by Hughes and directed by Howard Deutch, Pretty in Pink (1986) stars Molly Ringwald as Andie Walsh, a teenager who lives on the wrong side of the tracks (literally, as we see a train choo-chooing next to her neighborhood). Her best female friend is the sprightly Inoa (Annie Potts), her boss at a local record store; her best male friend is the obnoxious Duckie (Jon Cryer), who’s hopelessly in love with her. But Andie is interested in Blane (Andrew McCarthy), a “richie” who, unlike his similarly wealthy friends such as Steff (James Spader), treats the lower-class kids with respect. Andie and Blane start dating, but will their socioeconomic differences doom their romance? Hughes’ utterly formulaic screenplay is largely saved by the bright ‘80s aesthetics as well as most of the cast: Ringwald is sympathetic, McCarthy is charming, Spader is unctuous, Potts is lovable, and Harry Dean Stanton (as Andie’s unemployed dad) is touching. The litmus test is Cryer as Duckie — you either find his antics amusing and adorable or maddening and moronic. (I fall into the latter camp, though I did chuckle at his “candy machine” quip in the girls’ bathroom.) Among the up-and-comers in small roles are Kristy Swanson (as the dream girl who shows up in that ridiculous finale), Gina Gershon, Margaret Colin, and Andrew Dice Clay.
Over the years, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) has arguably sprinted to the top of the list as the most championed of Hughes flicks. Beloved by conservatives for its unapologetic embrace of the Reagan-ruled “Me-First Decade” (no surprise to learn that Hughes was a Republican) and presumably adored by liberals for its flouting of societal rules, it seemingly hits the sweet spot for everyone. Matthew Broderick plays Ferris, who feigns illness in order to skip school and hang around Chicago with his girlfriend Sloane (Mia Sara) and his best buddy Cameron (Alan Ruck). The only two people who see through his ruse are his sister Jeanie (Jennifer Grey), who resents how he gets away with everything, and Vice Principal Rooney (Jeffrey Jones), who’s incensed that he has already missed nine days due to various manufactured sicknesses. Bueller’s smugness and superiority would be insufferable in the hands of another actor, but Broderick makes him charming and thus bearable. But Sara’s Sloane is a colorless character, while Ruck’s Cameron is a poorly written mass of tics whose ultimate transformation isn’t believable for one nanosecond. Some individual scenes shine, a few Ferris monologues connect, and I enjoyed the turns by Grey, Jones (a great foil), and even Charlie Sheen in his brief appearance. But the picture is ultimately too surface-skimming and scattershot to have such delusions of greatness thrust upon it.
Like Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful (1987) was written by Hughes and directed by Deutch — which makes sense, since it pretty much plays like a gender-swapped remake of that earlier film. It’s also pretty lousy, the weakest of Hughes’ high school romps (even the generally lambasted Weird Science, reviewed here, supplies more energy and more imagination). Eric Stoltz stars as Molly Ringwald, a kid from the wrong side of the tracks (and, sure enough, just as in Pretty in Pink, a train is actually shown just in case the slower-witted viewers miss the connection). Lea Thompson is cast as Andrew McCarthy, the popular kid who catches our hero’s eye, while Mary Stuart Masterson co-stars as Jon Cryer, the outcast who wants to move from best friend status to lover status. At least the sex of the wealthy prick remains consistent: Craig Sheffer portrays James Spader, who scoffs at the idea that the rich and the poor should ever commingle. (As if!) Some Kind of Wonderful never gets taken off autopilot: It’s a charmless, laughless affair punctuated by some of Hughes’ blandest characters and tritest dialogue. Elias Koteas provides the film’s only chuckle when (Spoiler!) he displays his drawing of a skeleton and notes that “This is what my girlfriend would look like without skin.” Incidentally, this was the movie that severed the Hughes-Ringwald relationship, as he was furious when she declined to star in the film and cut her off completely.
It’s probably nostalgia that keeps The Breakfast Club enshrined as my favorite Hughes outing, but it’s likely that Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) really represents the apex of his achievements. Switching his attention from teenagers to adults paid off handsomely in his instance, as its expert blend of (mostly) comedy and (some) drama results in the most emotionally engaging of all his feature films. For Steve Martin, this is just another exemplary turn in a career full of them; for John Candy, it was the finest role he ever received and the best performance he ever gave. All that buttoned-up businessman Neal Page (Martin) wants to do is fly from New York City to Chicago in time to spend Thanksgiving with his family. But even before he leaves The Big Apple, he inadvertently encounters cheerful salesman Del Griffith (Candy) and, from that point forward, simply cannot get away from his fellow traveler. After a snowstorm results in their plane landing in Wichita rather than Chicago, the two men use various means to try to get home — the perpetually chipper Del manages to adapt to every situation, but the humorless Neal grows increasingly agitated not only by the situations but also by the garrulous individual by his side. Planes, Trains and Automobiles features no small measure of cleverly conceived sequences and uproarious lines (the Larry Bird crack is a favorite), but it’s the poignant story surrounding lonely Del that ultimately elevates the entire project.
Filmed before Planes, Trains and Automobiles but released afterward, She’s Having a Baby (1988) continued Hughes’ desire to break away from teen fare and make his mark with adult-oriented material. The results are more hit-and-miss, with the lovely turns by Kevin Bacon and Elizabeth McGovern having to contend with comedic material that proves to be too awkward and overblown in the context of a sweet and simple story. Bacon and McGovern are Jake and Kristy, newlyweds whose period of bliss is soon interrupted by the realities of the real world. Jake finds little satisfaction in his job and longs to become an author, while Kristy is often annoyed by his aimlessness and immaturity. Further complicating matters, Kristy’s dad (William Windom) can’t stand his son-in-law while Kristy likes Jake’s best friend Davis (Alec Baldwin in only his second feature film) but doesn’t always appreciate his influence on her husband. Matters take a dramatic turn, though, once the couple agree to have a baby. The daft fantasy sequences are a waste of time and get in the way of an otherwise pleasant movie. Sit through the end credits sequence to play Spot the Star, as more than three dozen celebrities from A (Dan Aykroyd) to Z (Warren Zevon) pop up to suggest baby names; others taking part include Bill Murray, Magic Johnson, Roy Orbison, and Olivia Newton-John.
Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Planes, Trains and Automobiles have already been available on Blu-ray, but Some Kind of Wonderful and She’s Having a Baby are both making their format debuts. Among the many extras are the original ending on Pretty in Pink; a making-of featurette on Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; audio commentary by Deutch and Thompson on Some Kind of Wonderful; a tribute to Candy (who died in 1994 at the young age of 43) on Planes, Trains and Automobiles; and a conversation between Hughes and Bacon on She’s Having a Baby.
Pretty in Pink: ★★½
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: ★★½
Some Kind of Wonderful: ★½
Planes, Trains and Automobiles: ★★★½
She’s Having a Baby: ★★½
SHOW BOAT (1951). If it isn’t quite the match of the 1936 screen adaptation of the Broadway hit (that version is reviewed here), this Show Boat at least serves as a showcase for some eye-popping Technicolor dreams. Cap’n Andy Hawks (Joe E. Brown) again takes the wheel of the Mississippi riverboat designed to entertain the masses with its steady stream of song, dance, and drama. Actress Julie LaVerne (Ava Gardner) is the marquee attraction until word gets out that she’s of mixed blood; since this is the South, she’s forced to leave the boat and gets replaced in the show by her best friend (and Cap’n Andy’s daughter) Magnolia (Kathryn Grayson). Also new to the production is gambler Gaylord Ravenal (Howard Keel), who marries Magnolia but doesn’t immediately provide her with the expected happily-ever-after scenario. Gardner turns Julie into a truly tragic figure, and if Paul Robeson’s rendition of “Ol’ Man River” was the highlight of the 1936 version, the same holds true for William Warfield’s robust belting of the immortal tune in this lavish interpretation. A box office smash — it was second at the 1951 box office, sandwiched between the historical epics Quo Vadis and David and Bathsheba — it earned a pair of Oscar nominations for Best Color Cinematography and Best Scoring of a Musical.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director George Sidney (who passed away in 2002); a mini-production of Show Boat as created for the 1946 Jerome Kern biopic Till the Clouds Roll By and featuring Grayson, Tony Martin, and Lena Horne; and audio-only versions of “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and “Bill” by Gardner (whose singing was unfortunately dubbed in the actual film).
SPUTNIK (2020). Another Alien-inspired space odyssey? In the immortal words directed at “Shoeless Joe” Jackson: Say it ain’t so! And yet this Russian production is one of the best films of its type to hit movie theaters — excuse me, home-entertainment centers — in many a moon. Director Egor Abramenko (making a self-assured debut) and scripters Oleg Malovichko and Andrey Zolotarev have fashioned a science fiction/horror hybrid that clicks on all cylinders, with compelling characters guiding viewers through an intelligent creature feature that somehow feels remarkably fresh despite its recycling of familiar components. Set during the Cold War year of 1983, the story finds Soviet cosmonaut Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov) returning from a mission sporting a peculiar case of amnesia. Colonel Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk), the military man in charge of monitoring Konstantin, recruits the controversial young doctor Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina) to assess his patient. Tatyana soon discovers that, apparently unbeknownst to the cosmonaut, there’s an extraterrestrial being living inside him, and she’s tasked with finding a way to separate the outer-space monster from its human host without killing either. Adding some interesting twists to the body-horror template, Sputnik benefits from its deliberate pacing as well as from Abramenko’s ability to employ the film’s setting (a desolate research facility) to great advantage. High marks as well for Oleg Karpachev’s intense, Jóhann Jóhannsson-esque score. Akinshina is excellent in the central role, and it wasn’t until my post-viewing research that I discovered (to my shock) that she was the same actress who, at the age of 15, had played the title character in 2002’s Lilya 4-Ever, that utterly depressing drama about child sex trafficking.
The only Blu-ray extra is the theatrical trailer.