(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what's new on Blu-ray and DVD.)
ARGO (2012). The best picture of an admittedly weak year (go here for the complete look at the Best & Worst Films of 2012), director-star Ben Affleck's Argo is an amazingly proficient film in which great swatches of humor never get in the way of the suspenseful saga at its center. Loosely based on a true story, it relates the smaller drama that was playing off stage next to the main attraction of the Iran hostage crisis of 1979, when militants invaded the U.S. embassy in Tehran and captured 52 Americans. While this situation was dominating international news, little was known about the plight of six Americans who managed to slip out of the embassy undetected; as presented in this film, the six find sanctuary in the home of the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). Knowing that the group will eventually be found and most likely executed, the U.S. government weighs a number of lousy options — for starters, giving the sextet bicycles and asking them to pedal their way out of the country — before reluctantly settling on the one proposed by CIA specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck): Head to Iran under the pretense of making a movie, and then bring the stranded Americans back under the guise of various crew members. Mendez heads up the operation himself, but in order to be convincing, he first travels to Hollywood to get expert counseling from two boisterous individuals (John Goodman and Alan Arkin) who can help him create his fake film: Argo, a derivative science fiction flick set in an exotic locale. Unlike such pandering nonsense as Taken 2, Argo, with a script by Chris Terrio (based on a Wired article by Joshuah Bearman), doesn't traffic in mindless jingoism. Affleck and Terrio also treat the portions involving the stranded embassy workers with the solemnity they deserve, largely leaving the humor for the Hollywood sequences featuring established cutups Arkin and Goodman. Indeed, the only levity to be found in the Tehran-set sequences involves the dopey 'staches found on the American men — then again, that's just Affleck engaged in period verisimilitude.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Affleck and Terrio; a picture-in-picture option featuring the real-life participants; interviews with Mendez, former president Jimmy Carter and the six stranded Americans; and a featurette about the authentic period look of the film.
BEST IN SHOW (2000). The 1997 release Waiting for Guffman didn't exactly burn up the box office, but it did prove to be the start of something wonderful: a series of "mockumentaries" directed by Christopher Guest, co-written by Guest and Eugene Levy, and co-starring the pair along with their own DIY comedy troupe. A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration were among the follow-ups, but the best of the bunch remains this hilarious satire about those people who seemingly exist only to enter their canine companions in prestigious dog shows. These include socially awkward Gerry Fleck (Levy) and his outgoing wife Cookie (Catherine O'Hara), who bumps into former flings at every turn; Harlan Pepper (Guest), a daffy good ole boy from Pine Nut, NC; and Meg and Hamilton Swan (Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock), a neurotic couple who initially bonded over J. Crew catalogues. The first 45 minutes are amusing enough — Larry Miller figures in a great vignette as one of Cookie's past boyfriends — but the movie ascends to another level with the second-half introduction of Fred Willard as commentator Buck Laughlin. Paired with a pleasant British chap (Jim Piddock) who's an expert on dog shows, Buck is a jockish ignoramus whose off-color comments throughout the pageant ("I went to one of those obedience places once. It was all going well till they spilled hot candle wax on my private parts.") provide the picture with many of its finest moments of pure comic gold.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Guest and Levy; deleted scenes; and the theatrical trailer.
LAURA (1944). A genuine classic — not only of film noir but of film, period — director Otto Preminger's adaptation of Vera Caspary's novel lathers the murder-mystery with a heavy dollop of kinkiness, beginning with the fact that its hero may well be a necrophiliac-in-spirit. Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) is sent to investigate when a beautiful woman named Laura (Gene Tierney) appears to have been brutally murdered, the victim of a shotgun blast to the face. As McPherson rounds up the unusual suspects — Laura's cynical mentor (superb Clifton Webb), her leechlike fiancé (Vincent Price, also excellent) and her duplicitous aunt (Judith Anderson) — he discovers that he's slowly falling in love with a corpse. Matching Hitchcock's Vertigo as a study of unhealthy obsession and the male desire to harness the feminine mystique — and throwing in a measure of class warfare, to boot — Laura owes a sizable debt to both cinematographer Joseph LaShelle, whose black-and-white lensing earned an Oscar, and composer David Raksin, whose gorgeous score still reigns as one of cinema's finest. Raksin's music suits the occasion: Like the film itself, it's lush, haunting, and an invitation to wallow in the decadence. In addition to LaShelle's win, Laura earned four additional nods, including Best Director for Preminger and Best Supporting Actor for Webb.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Raksin and film historian Jeanine Basinger; separate audio commentary by film historian Rudy Behlmer; a deleted scene; the Biography episodes Gene Tierney: A Shattered Portrait and Vincent Price: The Versatile Villain; and the theatrical trailer.
THE TERMINATOR (1984). Still a toss-up between The Terminator and Aliens as to which James Cameron picture ranks as his best (don't anybody even breathe the word Avatar), this propulsively exciting yarn about a murderous cyborg has long staked its claim as a classic — science fiction or otherwise — for the ages. (For starters, the Library of Congress added it to its National Film Registry in 2008.) In retrospect, it's hard to believe it only grossed $38 million during its original run and received reviews that, while largely favorable, were hardly raves (give Time credit, then, for being one of the few major publications to include it on its year-end "10 Best" list). But the film found its sizable audience on video and, for better or worse, went on to spark Arnold Schwarzenegger's superstar status (although I would argue that the real star of this first picture is Linda Hamilton, terrific as Sarah Connor). And yes, the rumor is true: Cameron considered O.J. Simpson for the role of the Terminator but ultimately felt audiences wouldn't accept him since he was "too nice." By my count, The Terminator has already been released on Blu-ray on at least five separate occasions — either individually or as part of a collection (including last year's Terminator Anthology box set) — but while fans might be weary of paying for yet another version that offers nothing new in the way of extras, it should be noted that this edition benefits from a remastered picture.
Blu-ray extras include a retrospective piece; seven deleted scenes; and a look at the visual effects and music.
WHITE ZOMBIE (1932). The history of the zombie flick is a spotty one: Whereas we've always had vampires and werewolves and lumbering monsters striking terror on movie screens, zombies were only seen in fits and starts before George Romero's seminal 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead began the craze that has especially taken hold during the past decade. The 1943 chiller I Walked with a Zombie and the 1966 British effort The Plague of the Zombies are the best of the pre-Romero era — indeed, they remain highlights of the entire genre — but of special historical significance is White Zombie, which holds the distinction of being cinema's first zombie film. Made on a dime by the filmmaking team of siblings Edward Halperin (producer) and Victor Halperin (director), this stars Bela Lugosi as the curiously named Murder Legendre, who, through a special potion and his own mastery of mind control, turns people into mindless slaves for his Haitian sugar mill. A local bigwig named Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer) becomes obsessed with the lovely Madeline (Madge Bellamy), who's set to marry Neil Parker (John Harron); rather than lose her, Beaumont turns to Legendre, who's only too happy to help transform her into a walking corpse who will obey every command. The supporting cast is awful — at least marquee draw Lugosi is entertaining in his hammy inclinations — and the low budget dictates a few moments worthy of MST3K ribbing (my favorite is when Beaumont's butler, who's supposed to be unconscious, can be spotted holding his nose as he's tossed to his death into a body of water). But the production values aren't compromised at any point: The atmosphere of dread is pungent, the use of sound is inspired (the creaking heard in the sugar mill is the aural equivalent of Chinese water torture, and the shrieks of a vulture are unnerving), and the makeup by the great Jack Pierce (who also created the looks of all the classic Universal monsters) and Carl Axcelle is minimal but effective.
The Kino Blu-ray offers the film in both a digitally restored edition and in an unenhanced version. Extras include audio commentary by film historian Frank Thompson; a fascinating 1932 interview with Lugosi; and the movie's 1951 re-release trailer.