View from the Couch is a weekly column that looks at what's new on Blu-ray and DVD.)
BLACK SWAN (2010). Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan — my pick for the best film of 2010 — is a messy masterpiece. Like Apocalypse Now, Eraserhead and Aronofsky's own Requiem for a Dream, it's one of those movies that will force viewers to either reject it outright or allow it to burrow into the brain and remain there for days, weeks, months on end. It's a character study writ large, a juicy melodrama operating at a fever pitch. At its center is Natalie Portman in an astonishing performance as Nina Sayers, a ballerina whose director (Vincent Cassel) casts her in the lead role of his production of Swan Lake. But in true All About Eve fashion, just as she replaced an aging star (a knockout bit by Winona Ryder), she fears being usurped by a sexy newcomer (Mila Kunis). Meanwhile, the home situation is equally strained, given the fanatical devotion of her mother (an excellent Barbara Hershey). Is Nina strong enough to withstand myriad challenges, or is she on the verge of cracking up? The answers are there, but the film is complex enough to leave wiggle room for any theories. Examining the process of suffering for one's art in a strikingly unique manner, this psychosexual thriller is by turns frightening, sensual, humorous and tragic. It's a galvanizing picture that's simultaneously elegant and coarse — like its protagonist, it manages to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. Nominated for five Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Director), this earned Portman a richly deserved Best Actress Oscar.
Blu-ray extras include a 48-minute behind-the-scenes featurette; two shorts (each four minutes) on the film's costume and set designs; numerous interviews with Aronofsky and Portman (jointly and separately); and short interviews with Hershey, Cassel and Ryder.
LITTLE FOCKERS (2010). Let me get this straight. Dustin Hoffman deemed the script for Little Fockers so awful that he refused to participate until new scenes were written for him. And here he is now, having agreed to a revised screenplay that has him uttering lines like "You can pick your nose, but only flick the dry ones, not the wet ones." Needless to say, that's a long way from the likes of "Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me ... Aren't you?" and "I'm walking here! I'm walking here!" Then again, Little Fockers is pretty much the basement for most of the accomplished actors squirming up there on the TV monitor. Even those charitable folks (like me) who didn't think Meet the Parents' first sequel, Meet the Fockers, was a sign of End Times will feel the comic desperation in this outing. There's admittedly a chuckle here and there, but they quickly get buried by painful sequences like the one in which Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) sticks a needle into father-in-law Jack Byrnes' (Robert De Niro) erect penis, or Greg's young son projectile-vomits onto his dad. As in How Do You Know, Owen Wilson proves to be an unlikely saving grace, but enough is enough. This franchise has run its course and made its millions, but now it's time for it to fock off.
Blu-ray extras include a 15-minute making-of featurette; an alternate opening and ending; 10 deleted scenes; joint interviews with Stiller and De Niro, and with Stiller and Wilson; and a 7-minute gag reel.
PITCH BLACK (2000) / THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK (2004). One of the best of the sci-fi spectacles cut from the Alien cloth, Pitch Black features memorable turns by Vin Diesel and Radha Mitchell as two of the humans stranded on a planet inhabited by vicious creatures who attack only in total darkness. Writer-director David Twohy manages to craft an exciting horror yarn filled with entertaining characters (led by Diesel's stoic anti-hero, Riddick), tense situations and nifty effects, and the volume is pumped up even further with his deft sound mixing. Diesel's character from this sleeper hit was brought back for The Chronicles of Riddick, which proved to be a resounding critical and commercial failure. Forgoing the fast-paced thrills of Pitch Black, Twohy spins a fantasy yarn in the dour Dune/Stargate mold, as his marble-mouthed protagonist finds himself waging a personal war against a race of conquerors known as Necromongers. Deadly dull at the outset — here's one Diesel-fueled vehicle that's neither fast nor furious — the picture improves as it progresses, though not enough to warrant two hours of invested time. Diesel's Riddick is part of the problem: An intriguing character when kept in the shadows for much of Pitch Black, he's become infinitely less interesting as an out-and-out action hero, losing all sense of mystery and reduced to cracking one-liners along with cracking heads.
Blu-ray extras on Pitch Black include the U-Control feature (allowing interactive features to pop up during the movie); a 2-1/2-minute intro by Twohy; a 5-minute making-of piece; a 4-minute look at the character of Riddick; and a too-brief visual encyclopedia. Blu-ray extras on The Chronicles of Riddick include the U-Control feature; audio commentary by Twohy and actors Karl Urban and Alexa Davalos; a one-minute intro by Twohy; an 18-minute making-of featurette; eight minutes of deleted scenes; a 6-minute look at the visual effects; and an 8-minute virtual guide to the movie's universe.
Pitch Black: ***
The Chronicles of Riddick: *1/2
TAXI DRIVER (1976). One of the most disturbing — and controversial — studies of loneliness ever placed on screen, Taxi Driver also offers perhaps the most harrowingly realistic portrayal of the darkside of New York City, depicting it as a concrete jungle populated almost exclusively by savage, snarling beasts. In one of his defining performances, Robert De Niro stars as Travis Bickle, a downtrodden cab driver fed up with the filth and grime all around him. A beautiful blonde (Cybill Shepherd) provides him with temporary hope, but he eventually realizes that his true salvation rests in protecting a 12-year-old prostitute (Jodie Foster) from her brutal pimp (Harvey Keitel). Director Martin Scorsese, writer Paul Schrader and cinematographer Michael Chapman make NYC look like the least appealing place on the planet, and the film gained additional notoriety in 1981 when John Hinckley Jr. attempted to assassinate then-President Ronald Reagan as a gesture of love toward Foster, with whom he had become obsessed after seeing her in this movie. The climactic bloodbath retains its potency today, while the meaning of the vague epilogue continues to stir debate. This earned four Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Actor, Supporting Actress (Foster) and a Best Original Score nod for the great Bernard Herrmann (Psycho, Citizen Kane), who passed away a day after completing the music for this film.
Blu-ray extras include the original 1986 audio commentary by Scorsese and Schrader; separate audio commentary by Schrader; separate audio commentary by film professor Robert Kolker; a 71-minute making-of feature; a 17-minute discussion with Scorsese; God's Lonely Man, a 22-minute piece centering on the film's themes; a 19-minute featurette about the picture's influence (featuring comments by Roger Corman and Oliver Stone, among others); a comparison of the film's New York locations in 1976 and 2006; and an interactive script-to-screen function.
TRON (1982) / TRON: LEGACY (2010). If the hype surrounding the theatrical release of TRON: Legacy was to be believed, 1982's TRON was the Gone With the Wind of its day, a Citizen Kane for the modern age, a blockbusting, award-winning blah blah blah. No. TRON was a lightly entertaining movie (and box office underachiever) whose claim to fame was its groundbreaking, computer-generated effects. So not surprisingly, the focus for the makers of TRON: Legacy was to create visuals that take us to the next level. But did they have to do so at the expense of virtually every other department? Certainly, the effects are sometimes astounding, and, for a while, the film offers no small measure of fun. As he searches for Kevin Flynn (TRON star Jeff Bridges), the father who disappeared two decades earlier, Sam Flynn (wooden Garrett Hedlund) finds himself whisked into a digital landscape fraught with danger. The setup is sound and the early action sequences are stirring, but then the film settles into a sameness that allows viewers to focus too intently on the feeble plotting, the tired dialogue and the awful use of the character of TRON himself (returning Bruce Boxleitner). By the time this overlong feature arrives at its anticlimactic denouement, most viewers will be wanting their quarters back.
To mark the home release of TRON: Legacy, Disney has also seen fit to debut the original TRON on Blu-ray; as expected, both films look and sound terrific. Extras on TRON include audio commentary by director Steven Lisberger, producer Donald Kushner, and visual effects supervisors Harrison Ellenshaw and Richard Taylor; an 88-minute making-of feature; three deleted scenes; two deleted musical underscores by the film's composer, Wendy Carlos; numerous featurettes on the digital imagery and design employed for the picture; and a 10-minute piece on the film's prophetic nature in regards to its computer technology and jargon. Extras on TRON: Legacy include The Next Day: Flynn Lives Revealed, a film that looks at what occurs after TRON: Legacy ends; a 10-minute piece on the film's unique look; a 12-minute featurette on the cast; the music video for Daft Punk's "Derezzed"; and a sneak peek of the upcoming Disney XD animated series TRON: Uprising (featuring the voices of Elijah Wood, Mandy Moore and Paul Reubens).
TRON: Legacy: **
THE WAGONS ROLL AT NIGHT (1941) / DAYS OF GLORY (1944) / SUNDAY IN NEW YORK (1963). Here's the latest three-picture sampling from the made-to-order Warner Archive label (www.warnerarchive.com). In this go-round, all three titles happen to feature a performer who's on the verge of becoming a superstar.
Unlike fellow Warner Bros. stablemates James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson, who both became marquee stars in 1931 after just a few pictures (The Public Enemy and Little Caesar, respectively, shot them to fame), Humphrey Bogart had to toil in supporting roles for approximately a decade before striking it rich. There were several notable turns along the way — High Sierra and The Petrified Forest in particular — but it wasn't until 1941's The Maltese Falcon that he emerged a legend. The Wagons Roll at Night was his last picture before his breakthrough, and it's a somewhat soggy circus yarn that was billed as a remake of 1937's superior Kid Galahad but borrows only bits and pieces from that boxing tale (which, incidentally, featured Bogie in a supporting role as the heavy). Here, Bogart's a big-top promoter who talks a good-natured country boy (Eddie Albert, long before Green Acres) into becoming his show's lion tamer. There's not much to this one beyond a raft of familiar faces and the patented Warner professionalism, though often that's enough.
The opening credits of Days of Glory take care to slowly acknowledge each individual in its "brilliant cast of new personalities," but while a couple would enjoy minor careers — and the majority would eventually be forgotten altogether — only one would move on to an illustrious career. Receiving top billing along with renowned Russian ballerina Tamara Toumanova, Gregory Peck makes his film debut as Vladimir, the leader of a band of Russian guerillas bravely protecting their homeland against the Nazis. Vladimir is all business until a dancer (Toumanova) joins their ranks, and the pair embark on a passionate affair even as the enemy threat around them grows stronger. The great director Jacques Tourneur (Cat People) seems more restrained than usual, perhaps in deference to the gung-ho script by writer-producer Casey Robinson (who would soon marry Toumanova). With the Cold War and the Hollywood blacklist just around the corner, movies in which Russians were the heroes would soon become obsolete, but at any rate, this one remains above the political fray to focus exclusively on battlefield heroics. The stiff Toumanova would only appear in five more movies over the next 26 years, but Peck immediately followed Days of Glory with The Keys of the Kingdom, which earned him the first of his five Best Actor Oscar nominations and kicked off a distinguished career.
Sex kitten, political activist, serious actress, fitness guru — it can't be said that Jane Fonda didn't leave her mark all over the map. But while her protests against the Vietnam War, her Oscar-winning turns in Klute and Coming Home, and her phenomenal success with her aerobic-exercise videos have come to define her legacy, her period as a Hollywood ingénue is often overlooked. Even before Barbarella briefly turned her into an international sex symbol (she would nab her first Oscar nom the very next year with They Shoot Horses, Don't They?), Fonda was traveling the starlet path, as exemplified by the utterly charming Sunday in New York. Hopelessly dated in its sexual politics, this adaptation of a minor Broadway hit finds Fonda cast as Eileen Tyler, who comes to the Big Apple to stay with her brother Adam (Cliff Robertson) after her fiancé (Robert Culp) unsuccessfully pressures her to have sex before marriage. While in town, she meets Mike (Rod Taylor), who tries to help her sort through her feelings while simultaneously falling for her. What follows is the usual high-spirited mix of mistaken identities, mixed signals and wry one-liners, all expertly conveyed through the pleasing work by Fonda, Taylor and Robertson.
There are no extras on the DVDs except for theatrical trailers on Wagons and Sunday.
The Wagons Roll at Night: **1/2
Days of Glory: **1/2
Sunday in New York: ***