(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what's new on Blu-ray and DVD.)
BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (2012). Belonging under the same umbrella of "magical realism" that informed works as diverse as Amelie, Like Water for Chocolate and The Tin Drum, writer-director Benh Zeitlin's feature-film debut centers on 6-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), a headstrong girl from the Louisiana bayou. With her mother long absent from the scene, she lives in a ramshackle home next to that of her father Wink (Dwight Henry), a man whose often harsh manner with his daughter isn't child abuse as much as an extreme — and, given the surroundings, usually necessary — form of tough love. The poor people who populate this community are rich in spirit, so after a brutal storm (obviously Katrina) decimates the area, the survivors elect to engage in a celebration replete with booze and seafood. But Wink, who has already been succumbing to a mysterious ailment, shows no signs of getting better, and Hushpuppy's angst over his condition is compounded by the fact that the melting polar ice caps have released an army of long-extinct aurochs (presented by this film as bad piggies, though presumably not the ones from Angry Birds) which is inexorably marching toward Hushpuppy's terrain. Winner of no less than four prizes at Cannes and two at Sundance, Beasts of the Southern Wild might be a bit too harsh for small children (it's rated PG-13 for "child imperilment, some disturbing images, language and brief sensuality"). That's a shame, since, like Whale Rider before it, the movie offers some valuable life lessons for kids, ones far more heady than the usual "Be yourself" mantra repeated ad nauseam in countless American animated features. This is a story of survival, of recognizing and respecting the rules of the natural world. It's also highly imaginative, doubtless able to charge young minds more than any assembly-line Hasbro adaptation. Wallis proves to be a natural before the camera, and the score by Zeitlin and Dan Romer is exceptional.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; deleted scenes; audition footage of Wallis and Henry; and pieces on the music and the aurochs.
FINDING NEMO (2003). For approximately a quarter-century, we've been witnessing a remarkable renaissance in the animation field, blessed with a number of toon flicks that have constantly tried to up the ante in regard to more complex storylines, richer character development and, of course, revolutionary graphics: Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Beauty and the Beast, Toy Story, Chicken Run and Spirited Away all managed to introduce viewers to something they hadn't quite experienced before. Pixar/Disney's Oscar-winning Finding Nemo comes close to such touchstone status only in one respect: Its animation is truly stunning, awash (pun intended) in a dazzling array of colors and creating the impression of a living, breathing sea. As for the storyline, it's a familiar one to anybody who's ever sat through earlier Disney films (both animated and live-action), employing elements previously seen in everything from Bambi (loss of a parent) to Pinocchio (accepting responsibility) to The Incredible Journey (braving impossible odds to be reunited with a loved one). Albert Brooks provides the voice for Marlin, a timid clown fish and single parent who sets out to rescue his son Nemo (Alexander Gould), who's been captured by a deep-sea diver and deposited in an aquarium that rests in a dentist's office in Sydney, Australia. For all its visual splendor and adult-oriented gags (nods to Psycho, Jaws and The Shining are included), Finding Nemo falls short of most Pixar films primarily because many of its characters lack depth. Unlike, say, Toy Story, where each player is beautifully delineated, too many here seem more like "types" than unique individuals. The aquarium dwellers work well together but never shine on their own — certainly, their non sequiturs aren't nearly as uproarious as those tossed off by Hamm, Mr. Potato Head, et al. What's more, Dory, a scatter-brained blue tang voiced by Ellen DeGeneres, and Crush, a mellow surfer-dude turtle voiced by director Andrew Stanton, have always been as likely to alienate viewers as envelop them (Dory with her scatterbrained routine and Crush with his Bill-and-Ted-speak). Still, it's downright curmudgeonly to remain focused on the negatives when the rest of the picture is saturated with invention and wit.
Blu-ray extras include both a picture-in-picture experience and a roundtable discussion with the principal filmmakers (including Stanton); a making-of piece; deleted scenes; an alternate opening; aquarium screensavers; and the delightful cartoon short, Knick Knack.
MEN IN BLACK 3 (2012). It's been 15 years since the release of the delightful Men in Black and a decade since the escape of its lamentable first sequel, and in the interim, audiences have been clamoring for another follow-up only slightly more than they've been jonesing for another Home Alone entry — that is to say, not much at all. It's not that the original MiB doesn't have its legion of fans — hell, I'm one of them — but when a studio waits this long to make another film in a popular franchise, it doesn't boast of creative revitalization as much as it smacks of cast and crew members looking for an easy paycheck via a product with name recognition. The surprise regarding Men in Black 3, then, is that great chunks of it display true wit and imagination. Ultimately, it still proves to be a bit long in the tooth, but a few vignettes manage to do the series proud. Once again, we find Agents J (Will Smith) and K (Tommy Lee Jones) patrolling extraterrestrial activity on Earth and making sure no malevolent aliens are threatening the planet. But K's old nemesis, Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement), has just escaped from a lunar maximum-security jail, where he's been imprisoned since K first captured him approximately 40 years ago. Now running free back on Earth, Boris utilizes a time-travel device to take him back to 1969, where he plans to kill K before the agent can apprehend him. Learning of this plot, J has no choice but to follow Boris back in time, where he ends up meeting the younger K (Josh Brolin). The time-travel material is often anemic and underdeveloped, with the film rarely taking advantage of its placement of the thoroughly modern J in the 1960s. One exception: The agents visit Andy Warhol (Bill Hader) at The Factory, and the artist's true identity, as well as his purpose, are not what viewers will be expecting. This great scene also introduces a unique new character in Griffin (sweetly played by A Serious Man's Michael Stuhlbarg), a strange being with the ability to simultaneously see different futures play out. Ably adopting Jones' mumbly demeanor, Brolin does a bang-up job portraying the younger Agent K. But since Jones is MIA for this entire midsection of the movie, he doesn't have time to reestablish his rapport with Smith, and their chemistry is off to a startling degree — so much, in fact, that it's almost as if they had applied the movie's iconic Neuralyzers on themselves and forgotten their previous co-starring ventures.
DVD extras include a making-of featurette; a gag reel; and the music video for Pitbull's "Back in Time."
MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: VOLUME XXV (2012). On the eve of MST3K's 25th anniversary (the show premiered in Minnesota in 1988), Shout! Factory has released the 25th box set honoring the Satellite of Love crew and the bad movies they — and we — love.
Robot Holocaust (movie made in 1987; featured on MST3K in 1990) comes from the first nationally televised season, arguably the worst since the show hadn't yet hit its stride and J. Elvis Weinstein (Dr. Erhardt and the original voice of Tom Servo) was still involved. Luckily, the featured film is so awful that it amuses even when our hosts don't. Apparently made with the amount of money one usually spends on a candy bar, this futuristic opus finds the heroic Neo (Keanu Reeves — ha, you wish!) and his idiotic robot pal attempting to vanquish The Dark One and his followers (including an 80s-tastic actress — blue eyeshadow, permed hair, the works — named Angelika Jager).
Operation Kid Brother (movie made in 1967; featured on MST3K in 1993) is only so named on the DVD box; on screen, we get the alternate title of Operation Double 007. Either moniker works, since this was an Italian-made attempt to cash in on the success of Sean Connery's James Bond films by casting his younger brother, Neil Connery, in a spy flick. Even though he's dubbed, it's obvious Neil possesses none of Sean's charisma or aura of danger, and the movie itself is a bland knockoff that's mostly of interest because the filmmakers somehow managed to recruit five actors from the official 007 franchise to take part: Bernard Lee (M), Lois Maxwell (Miss Moneypenny), Anthony Dawson (one of Dr. No's henchmen), Adolfo Celi (Thunderball's villain) and Daniela Bianchi (From Russia with Love's leading lady). A heads-up for 'Manos' The Hands of Fate fans: Torgo pays Dr. Forrester and TV's Frank a visit.
Kitten with a Whip (movie made in 1964; featured on MST3K in 1994) was produced by a major studio (Universal) and starred popular actors Ann-Margret and John Forsythe — that still doesn't change the fact that it squarely deserves its SOL airing. Ann-Margret stars as Jody, a juvenile delinquent who escapes from reform school and proceeds to make life miserable for rising political star David Stratton (Forsythe). Frequently risible, the movie proves to be fine fodder for Mike Nelson and the 'Bots as they bombard it with wisecracks involving properties both famous (Apocalypse Now) and forgotten (TV's Shields and Yarnell).
Season Eight was the last to air on Comedy Central, and the season's final episode was the last to include the irreplaceable Trace Beaulieu (Dr. Forrester and the voice of Crow). Thus, the Season Nine opener, showcasing Revenge of the Creature (movie made in 1955; featured on MST3K in 1997), is the first from the Sci-Fi Channel run, the first to make Mary Jo Pehl (as Dr. Forrester's mom, Pearl) the principal antagonist, and the first to employ Bill Corbett as the new voice of Crow — just some of the elements that render the Sci-Fi Channel period mostly inferior to the Comedy Central era. As for the film, it's one of a handful of featured flicks not really horrid enough to warrant the MST3K treatment. The first of two sequels to 1954's Creature from the Black Lagoon, it's mediocre rather than awful, although it does provide an opportunity to see Clint Eastwood in his film debut (as a lab assistant). There are some worthy quips in this episode, with a Boo Radley line and a Mandingo reference among the highlights.
DVD extras include introductions by series creator / original host Joel Hodgson and Nelson; interviews with Weinstein and Corbett; and a piece on Revenge of the Creature director Jack Arnold.
OKLAHOMA! (1999). In 1998, legendary stage director Trevor Nunn helmed a London production of the landmark American musical that was both a critical and commercial smash. Nunn hoped to bring the show to the US with the same performers, but equity rules required that American actors be cast. That was unfortunate for stateside audiences (though not necessarily for Nunn and his US revival, which racked up the Tony Award nominations), but the good news is that the UK West End version was captured on film — long available on DVD, it's now making its Blu-ray debut. Hollywood's lovely 1955 adaptation remains the Oklahoma! of choice, but get past the fact that this one is just a filmed stage play and it's easy to succumb to its charms. Foremost among them is the excellent performance by Hugh Jackman, soon to become an overnight movie star thanks to 2000's X-Men. Here, he's irresistible as Curly, the amiable cowboy who woos farm girl Laurey (Josefina Gabrielle) while remaining leery of menacing farm hand Jud Fry (Shuler Hensley). Meanwhile, Ado Annie (Vicki Simon), who just "cain't say no," finds herself having to choose between local lad Will Parker (Jimmy Johnston) and traveling peddler Ali Hakim (Peter Polycarpou). Running three hours, this naturally includes the classic tunes "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'," "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top" and "Oklahoma!" but also retains songs cut from the 1955 version ("It's a Scandal! It's an Outrage!" and "Lonely Room"). Incidentally, Atlanta-born actor Hensley was the lone American in the London cast, meaning he was allowed to also star in the Broadway version — he ended up winning Best Supporting Actor honors on both sides of the Atlantic (the Olivier Award from the UK, the Tony Award and the Drama Desk Award from the US).
The Blu-ray includes a making-of featurette.
THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY (1996). All of the passion, sensuality and urgency that made 1993's The Piano one of its decade's greatest films is largely missing from writer-director Jane Campion's follow-up effort. Instead, this adaptation of the Henry James novel is a frequently dry affair that's only partially redeemed by its magnificent production values and a stellar performance in the supporting ranks. Nicole Kidman stars as Isabel Archer, a free-spirited American who sets out on her own to explore late-19th-century Europe; instead, she's duped by the mysterious Madame Merle (Barbara Hershey) into throwing away her independence by marrying the self-serving layabout Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich). Kidman is too detached to be effective — even as other characters comment on how much Isabel has changed over the course of the story, the actress remains stubbornly one-note — but it's Malkovich's atypically dreary performance that really sinks the project. Many familiar faces grace the impressive cast list (among them Mary-Louise Parker, John Gielgud, Christian Bale and Viggo Mortensen), yet it's Hershey who dominates the picture, providing Madame Merle with the proper mix of Machiavellian resolve and melancholy resignation. She deservedly received an Academy Award nomination, as did Janet Patterson for her costume design.
Blu-ray extras consist of a making-of featurette and the theatrical trailer.
PURPLE NOON (1960). In the role that made him both a movie star and an international sex symbol, Alain Delon stars as Tom Ripley, a decadent American who travels to Italy and forges a close friendship with a spoiled playboy (Maurice Ronet). But once their relationship starts to sour, Ripley concocts an elaborate scheme to murder the man and assume his identity. This French adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's novel The Talented Mr. Ripley is as coolly detached as its protagonist, as writer-director René Clément keeps viewers waiting to see how (or even if) Delon's amoral smoothie finally trips himself up. The interplay between Delon, Ronet and Marie Laforêt (as Ronet's girlfriend) and the crisp camerawork by Henri Decaë help turn this erotic and intriguing film into a decadent treat. Highsmith's novel was later filmed as The Talented Mr. Ripley in 1999, with this Anthony Minghella-fronted version (starring Matt Damon, Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow) proving to be as potent as Clément's adaptation.
DVD extras include archival interviews with Delon and Highsmith; a new interview with Clément scholar Denitza Bantcheva; and the theatrical trailer.
THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES (2012). Did the entire financial crisis of 2008 occur simply so director Lauren Greenfield could end up with a documentary more fascinating than the one she was originally making? Of course not, although there will be points during this knockout film when viewers might be inclined to think that way. Initially, Greenfield's picture was going to center on the plan by billionaire David Siegel and his wife Jackie to build the largest house in North America — a 90,000-square-foot Florida palace modeled after the actual Palace of Versailles. Obscenely wealthy, the Siegels already live with a large brood of children and an army of nannies in a 26,000-square-foot mansion, but, well, that one doesn't include a bowling alley and baseball field, so it simply won't do. Siegel is almost a caricature of the 1 percent slug: He takes credit for getting Bush elected (although when asked about the re-election, he says he'd rather not comment, since what was done to ensure Bush's victory was "probably illegal"), and sure enough, his walls are lined with photos of him posing with Dubya, Schwarzenegger, Stallone and other heroes of the right-wing. He's made his fortune as a time-share magnate, correctly figuring that if Americans can't be rich, they at least would like the momentary illusion of being rich. His wife Jackie, meanwhile, is a real piece of work. Roughly 30 years younger than her workaholic husband, she rose from a modest background to become the fake-boobed, botox-enhanced monstrosity we see here. The Siegels are enjoying the American Wet Dream when the crisis hits, sending David's business assets spiraling downward. From there, the film shifts from simply being a fly-on-the-wall look at material decadence and moral decay into a study of a family trying to hold itself together during a trying period. David grows more irascible, Jackie can't stop spending money (she buys one of the kids a new bicycle, and we see a nanny place it inside a garage that already houses at least a dozen other shiny bikes), and the bratty children ... well, they remain bratty (household pets have a nasty habit of dying from lack of food and water). Despite flashes of recognizable human behavior — Jackie seems to genuinely care about her struggling childhood friend, and David is nothing if not thrifty during his downfall — viewers won't exactly watch The Queen of Versailles feeling enormous sympathy for its subjects. But they will feel as if they've just seen a powerhouse documentary. Greenfield won well-deserved directing awards at both Sundance and Winston-Salem's RiverRun International Film Festival for this movie. And yes, the David Siegel in this picture is the same David Siegel who, along with a few other right-wing CEOs, hinted that his employees might be let go if they voted for Obama instead of Romney. (To his credit, he hasn't laid anyone off ... yet.)
Blu-ray extras consist of deleted scenes and the theatrical trailer.