(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what's new on Blu-ray and DVD.)
THE ARISTOCATS (1970) / THE RESCUERS (1977) / THE RESCUERS DOWN UNDER (1990) / POCAHONTAS (1995). Before the disastrous Aughts, was there a worse decade for Disney animated features than the 1970s? Even the relatively bare '60s had the marvelous 101 Dalmatians to elevate its average, and the 1980s was largely saved by the last-minute appearance of 1989's The Little Mermaid, which of course launched a new golden age of Disney classics.
The '70s began with The Aristocats, a limp Lady and the Tramp reworking that finds Eva Gabor voicing the pampered Duchess and Phil Harris speaking for the street-savvy O'Malley. Duchess and her kittens will inherit the fortune of their wealthy owner after she passes away, a development that leads the woman's butler to get rid of the felines so that he will inherit as the secondary beneficiary. O'Malley and his band of jazz-playing alley cats come to their rescue, as do assorted other animals. But except for a pair of country hounds named Napoleon and Lafayette, these critters are alternately irritating (a mouse, two geese) or downright dull (a horse). The "Ev'rybody Wants to Be a Cat" sequence is a showstopper, and the butler's run-ins with the dawgs are amusing, but this is otherwise forgettable stuff.
I'll go ahead and acknowledge that I'm probably in the minority when it comes to The Rescuers. A sizable box office success all over the world — it reportedly made more than the same year's Star Wars in some countries — it's since been a popular seller on VHS and DVD and will likely fare well on Blu-ray as well. Yet the movie moves like molasses, as the heroic mice Bernard (voiced by Bob Newhart) and Bianca (Eva Gabor again) square off against the fearsome Madame Medusa (Geraldine Page) in order to rescue the orphan girl Penny from her clutches. There's some colorful action set in the aptly named Devil's Bayou, and I dug the character of Evinrude the dragonfly. But the songs aren't up to par (nevertheless, "Someone's Waiting for You" earned a Best Original Song Oscar nomination), Madame Medusa comes off as a cut-rate Cruella De Vil (no surprise, since the 101 Dalmatians villainess was at one point discussed for this picture), and Newhart's Bernard ranks as one of Disney's dullest toon protagonists.
The Rescuers was the first Disney toon flick to inspire a sequel, and the good news is that The Rescuers Down Under is better than its predecessor. Here, Bernard and Bianca travel to Australia to rescue a boy who's being held captive by a poacher intent on nailing an eagle that the lad has befriended. The film's Aussie setting (unusual for an animated film) adds some interest, as do the spirited vocal characterizations by George C. Scott as the ruthless poacher and John Candy as a friendly albatross. Although it was released in the year between The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, it's never been considered part of the Disney renaissance, and its limp box office helped convince the studio to release all future sequels straight to the home market.
Alongside all these underachievers, Disney has thankfully chosen to release one winner to Blu-ray. Pocahontas tells the story of the real-life Native American heroine (voiced by Irene Bedard, with Judy Kuhn handling the songs) and her (fictionalized) romance with British sea captain John Smith (Mel Gibson). If nothing else, the movie features my all-time favorite Disney tune: the gorgeous, Oscar-winning "Colors of the Wind," at once timeless (in its hopeful theme of harmony among all creatures as well as with nature itself) and timely (the line "You think the only people who are people are the people who think and look like you" should be the catchphrase for every Republican National Convention). Yet the movie has other virtues as well: an Oscar-winning score by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz, ofttimes staggering animation, and appreciated (but not obtrusive) comic relief from a mischievous raccoon named Meeko.
The Aristocats is sold individually, while The Rescuers and The Rescuers Down Under are paired in one set. Pocahontas unfortunately shares its edition with the 1998 straight-to-video sequel Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World. Blu-ray extras on The Aristocats include the deleted song "She Never Felt Alone"; a piece on songwriters Robert and Richard Sherman; a music video for "Oui Oui Marie"; and the Minnie Mouse cartoon Bath Day. Blu-ray extras on the Rescuers twofer include the deleted song "Peoplitis"; a Rescuers Down Under making-of featurette; the live-action short Water Birds; and the animated short The Three Blind Mouseketeers. Blu-ray extras on Pocahontas include the deleted song "If I Never Knew You"; deleted scenes; a featurette on the music; and the animated short Little Hiawatha.
The Aristocats: **
The Rescuers: **
The Rescuers Down Under: **1/2
BATTLESHIP (2012). This massively budgeted, heavily hyped and supremely awful summer flop could easily be mistaken for a Transformers sequel except that it's missing Shia LaBeouf's distinct hairdo. Peter Berg, who used to be a mediocre actor before morphing into a mediocre director, apparently wants to be the new Michael Bay (oh, for a time when filmmakers looked up to Hitchcock and Hawks instead!), and I guess give him credit for succeeding. With awful dialogue, dull characterizations and snooze-inducing visual effects — yeah, I'm not so proud that I can't admit to uncharacteristically dozing off for a few minutes during one of the endless battle sequences — Battleship is the sort of mindless mayhem that's defended by fans as "perfect popcorn entertainment." Sure, if you like your popcorn burnt and sticking to the bag. But to tag this a worthy blockbuster is the equivalent of spitting in the faces of Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, James Cameron or any other filmmaker who used to expertly do this sort of thing on a regular basis. A virtual remake of last year's piss-poor Battle: Los Angeles, this adds aliens to the board game template, with our military might going up against dastardly e.t.'s bent on destroying the world — or, more importantly, the American way of life. Battleship was a massive bomb at the U.S. box office (it did just fine internationally), but it might fare better at home, since it's jingoistic nonsense that shamelessly panders to every demographic — teen boys will ogle at the special effects (and at former Charlottean Brooklyn Decker), young women will dig hunks Taylor Kitsch and Alexander Skarsgard (playing unlikely brothers), R&B fans will be excited at the prospect of Rihanna making her film debut (the verdict: meh), and older viewers who should know better will feel all warm and faux-patriotic when the film drags out geriatric naval officers to help fight the invaders. As far as I know, this is only the second movie that's been based on a board game, with Clue having paved the way back in 1985. Let's hope they wait another 27 years before bringing a third one to the screen — it'll take that long to mentally prepare myself for a celluloid take on Hungry Hungry Hippos or Parcheesi.
Blu-ray extras include video commentary by Berg; an alternate ending previsualization; a featurette on the visual effects; looks at shooting at sea and on the USS Missouri; a tour of the USS Missouri; and a short piece on the cast.
BERNIE (2012). Bernie finds Jack Black playing the same type of character essayed by Zach Galifianakis in The Campaign: a friendly, respectable and slightly effeminate Southerner who's greatly admired by those around him. The difference, though, is that The Campaign is a fictional piece while Bernie is based on a true story. Working from a Texas Monthly article by Skip Hollandsworth, director Richard Linklater re-teams with his The School of Rock star for this quirky piece about Bernie Tiede, a mortician residing in the town of Carthage, Texas. Bernie's method of treating everyone with courtesy and respect extends to Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), a loathsome widow with no friends but lots of material wealth. Bernie strikes up a friendship (or something more?) with the elderly woman and they soon become inseparable, which is fine until Bernie starts to feel more like Marjorie's possession than her BFF. But does he emotionally break down enough to kill her in a second of spontaneous and regrettable rage, or was he planning to murder her all along so that he may enjoy her riches? The sympathetic townspeople opt for the former; the local district attorney (Matthew McConaughey) votes for the latter. Writing the screenplay with Hollandsworth, Linklater uses dollops of black humor to provide an edge to this morally ambiguous piece that asks viewers to weigh not only whether one awful deed can overshadow a lifetime of charitable service but also whether there was any appropriate punishment that would suit this particular crime. (This is assuming the real-life Bernie is as likable as his celluloid counterpart; as filmed, Linklater is clearly on his side.) MacLaine and McConaughey are only required to strike the same note repeatedly (grouchy and grandstanding, respectively), but Black is excellent in the central role. Incidentally, the real Bernie Tiede pops up during the closing credits.
Blu-ray extras include a behind-the-scenes featurette; deleted scenes; a piece on the true-life story that inspired the film; and a look at the Carthage residents through interviews and audition pieces.
THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT (2012). It would be both obnoxious and inaccurate to quip that The Five-Year Engagement feels as if it runs as long as the titular length, but there's no denying that this is one movie that would have benefitted from some judicious trimming in the editing room. At 125 minutes, the latest comedy from the director (Nicholas Stoller), star (Jason Segel) and producer (who else but Judd Apatow) of the superior Forgetting Sarah Marshall doesn't sound especially long — it's the exact same running time as the Apatow-produced Bridesmaids, which was the perfect length. Yet by unleashing most of its best gags during the first act, and by sprinkling its dramatic moments around like a sous chef adding just a soupcon of parsley to an order of grilled trout, that leaves plenty of time for the film to develop a noticeable sag around the middle. Speaking of sous chefs, that's the role essayed by Segel: He plays Tom Solomon, a highly respected member of San Francisco's culinary scene. His girlfriend is Violet Barnes (Emily Blunt), and it's only after he pops the question that Violet is beckoned to the University of Michigan for a postdoctoral position. Deciding to put his own career on hold while she builds hers, Tom agrees with Violet that they should postpone the wedding for two years and move to Ann Arbor. Tom, who can only find work at a deli, hates living there, and when it looks like the two years might stretch into something longer, he loses it in rather imaginative fashion. The late film critic Pauline Kael famously said of the popular Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers pairing, "He gave her class and she gave him sex." In this film, Blunt provides both the class and the sex, but Segel nevertheless brings enough easygoing charisma and sly wit to the table to make them a believable screen couple. While this is evident in the scenes in which they make doe eyes at each other, it's crucially also identifiable in the sequences in which their characters are at odds with each other. There's a terrific bit in which the two argue in bed, replete with the sort of acidic asides, frustrated exchanges and oddly understandable oxymorons ("I want to be alone ... with you here!" — a great line) that spring from real life. Scenes like this make the lowbrow moments even more unworthy of inclusion here, whether it's the sight of Violet getting walloped by an opening car door or the increasingly tedious banter between Violet's colleagues at the university. If they had kept all the drama and halved the humor, The Five-Year Engagement would have truly distinguished itself. As it stands, it's engaging but hardly revelatory.
The Blu-ray includes both the PG-13 theatrical version and an unrated cut. Extras include audio commentary by Stoller, Segel, Blunt, co-stars Chris Pratt and Alison Brie, and producer Rodney Rothman; a making-of featurette; deleted scenes; extended and alternate scenes; and a gag reel.
LA GRANDE ILLUSION (1937). In the latest edition of the decennial Sight & Sound poll, this Jean Renoir classic placed 73rd on the list of the all-time greatest films, even securing top-10 standing on the individual lists submitted by Woody Allen, Mike Newell and a few other participants. Such reverential treatment is nothing new, of course: Back in 1952, both Orson Welles (you know, that Citizen Kane guy) and David Lean (you know, that Lawrence of Arabia helmer) cited the movie as one of their 10 all-time favorite films. Still, not everyone was a fan: Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's rat-faced Minister of Propaganda, declared it "Cinematic Public Enemy No. 1" and ordered all available prints destroyed. Further WWII shenanigans resulted in the belief that the original negative was lost, requiring Renoir to use inferior stock for a 1958 release. What no one knew at the time was that the original was safely stored in a Russian vault, and it wasn't until it made its trip back to its native France (where it sat unnoticed for years) that it was finally re-released at its initial length (113 minutes as opposed to the widely distributed 94-minute cut) in 1999. As part of its StudioCanal Collection, Lionsgate has now released it on Blu-ray in a pristine edition sure to delight cinephiles across the country. Set during World War I, the film focuses on three French soldiers — the working-class Lieutenant Marechal (Jean Gabin), the Jewish, middle-class Lieutenant Rosenthal (Dalio) and the aristocratic Captain de Boeldieu (Dita Parlo) — who get captured and spend time in a pair of German prison camps. The second of these prisons is overseen by Captain von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim, commanding in both senses of the word), who feels a special kinship with his upper-class equal, de Boeldieu. So beautifully realized and deeply felt that its title can mean different things to different people (for starters, the grand illusion can be that war solves anything, that the well-bred aristocracy will survive such a brutal conflict, or that the lines that divide classes, races and countries can ever be erased), the movie pushes Renoir's humanist views without having to resort to any manufactured sentiment or cheap theatrics. In short, it's as honest as it is humbling. La Grande Illusion became the first foreign-language film to be nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award. In modern times, it has the distinction of being the very first title released by the prestigious Criterion Collection on DVD (in 1999). Yet it's this beautifully restored Blu-ray edition that will doubtless remain the definitive home edition.
Blu-ray extras include a piece in which Renoir expert Olivier Curchod discusses the film's history and controversy; a discussion about the movie with film professor and critic Ginette Vincendeau; a featurette on the remarkable tale behind the discovery of the original negative; a look at the restoration; and the theatrical trailers from 1937 and 1958.
THE LORD OF THE RINGS MOTION PICTURE TRILOGY: EXTENDED EDITIONS (2001-2003). Last summer saw the Blu-ray debut of the extended editions of the Lord of the Rings trilogy in one massive box set, so now we get the inevitable release of the movies individually. Of course, given the lengths of the films and the ample amount of extra features accompanying each title, that still translates into a five-disc edition per feature.
Between a mountain of critical raves, a $314 million box office haul, and 13 Oscar nominations (resulting in four wins), the colossal success of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) initially caught even ardent admirers of J.R.R. Tolkien's literary trilogy off guard. After having filmed all three parts of the trilogy in one fell swoop (an enormous risk on the part of New Line Cinemas), director Peter Jackson got things off to a roaring start with a fantasy flick that pleased both fans and novices alike. Even those who haven't read the books are doubtless familiar with the saga's basic thrust — noble Middle-earth denizens must destroy a powerful ring before it falls into the hands of an evil warlord — but to their credit, Jackson and his co-scripters kick things off with a helpful prologue that nicely sets up the story. From there, Jackson juggles a daunting array of conflicts and characters (Ian McKellen as the wizard Gandalf is the cast standout), and it's to his credit that the saga leaves viewers panting for more.
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) doesn't quite match the majesty of its predecessor, though that's hardly meant as a knock against a rousing, far-reaching spectacle of unlimited ambition. But whereas Fellowship did a nice job of balancing quieter moments with the bombast, this action-packed installment often treats its expository scenes as asides (too many good actors — McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Miranda Otto — are given the short shrift in this outing); what's more, the movie doesn't deepen or expand the tale's themes as masterfully as The Empire Strikes Back added to Star Wars' mystique. But as a stirring story of unsullied heroism, it's a winner, and as an action epic, it features some of the best battle sequences of recent vintage. And while the campaign to win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for Andy Serkis (voicing the CGI-created Gollum) proved to be a fizzle, he turns out to be the best special effect in a movie crammed with them. This was the Oscar weakling of the bunch, earning two awards out of six nominations, although no one at New Line was complaining about its sizable $341 million gross.
Pulling off a successful three-peat, Jackson wraps up Tolkien's fantasy saga with The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), a dazzling chapter that outgrossed its predecessors ($377 million domestically and over one billion internationally) and led to Oscar overkill when the myopic Academy handed it 11-out-of-11 awards (four or five would have been more reasonable), including Best Picture. With the heftiest running time of all three extended editions, this installment is long but not necessarily overlong — even the battle sequences have been executed with more focus and clarity than those in Two Towers. The super-sized length also allows several members of the large cast to strut their stuff, and several new creatures, from an army of ghostly marauders to a gigantic spider in the best Harryhausen tradition, are staggering to behold. Ultimately, though, this final act belongs to the ring-bearer and his equally diminutive companions. The odyssey of the Hobbit Frodo (Elijah Wood), his faithful companion Sam (Sean Astin) and the treacherous Gollum contains the true heart of the film, evoking all sorts of emotions as we watch each player constantly forced to make painful decisions and struggle with their own tortured psyches. This is a movie of expensive visual effects and expansive battle scenes, but when it comes to truly making its mark, we have to thank all the little people.
The sound and picture quality on the DVDs were so spectacular that (is this blasphemy?) I enjoyed the series even more at home than in the theater — on the big screen, this ambitious undertaking occasionally felt distant, but on disc it exuded more warmth, coming off as the best mini-series never made. On Blu-ray, the sights are even more astounding, and the sound is equally fantastic (better check the living room wall for fissures after cranking this baby). In addition to the extended cuts of all three pictures (running around four hours apiece), each five-disc set also includes hours of bonus material (roughly seven hours on Fellowship, nine on Towers and 10 on King). Notable among the inclusions are the much-ballyhooed, behind-the-scenes documentaries created by Costa Botes, who was given complete set access by Jackson. Other extras include four separate audio commentaries on each film (over 30 participants, including Jackson and most of the principal cast members); 44 featurettes covering practically every aspect of production except for catering (and that might be buried in there somewhere); interactive maps of Middle-earth; and photo galleries containing over 4,000 images.
The Fellowship of the Ring: ***1/2
The Two Towers: ***
The Return of the King: ***1/2