(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what's new on Blu-ray and DVD.)
HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (1941) / GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT (1947). With the Academy Awards ceremony just around the corner, two more Best Picture Oscar winners have just hit Blu-ray.
How Green Was My Valley is perhaps best known among cineasts as the movie that beat Citizen Kane for the Best Picture Oscar, but that really shouldn't be held against the film (just against the petty and myopic Academy). Brushing aside Kane for a moment, Valley still didn't deserve to triumph over the likes of The Maltese Falcon, Sergeant York and The Little Foxes, but on its own terms, it's certainly no disgrace, as it sympathetically focuses on the members of a family living in a Welsh mining town. Mr. Morgan (Donald Crisp) is the patriarch, sharing a home with a devoted wife (Sara Allgood), a demure daughter (Maureen O'Hara) and several sons, the youngest of which is the sensitive Huw (played by 13-year-old Roddy McDowell, over a quarter-century before he began playing Planet of the Apes' Cornelius). The arrival of a liberal priest (Walter Pidgeon) sparks controversy in some quarters, but more damning is the fact that the mine owners have begun cutting wages and laying off workers, business decisions that irreparably damage this proud community. The film's politics remain topical, as many of the workers sensibly decide to unionize in order to stand strong against upper management ("Socialist nonsense!" amusingly barks Mr. Morgan, preferring not to make waves). The two-hour running time isn't long enough to adequately flesh out all the principal players (especially O'Hara and Anna Lee as her sister-in-law), but there are many memorable vignettes strewn throughout. Nominated for 10 Academy Awards, it won five, including Best Picture, Director and Supporting Actor (Crisp).
It may seem tame by today's standards, but Gentleman's Agreement was potent material back in 1947. When producer and Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck, who wasn't Jewish, elected to bring Laura Z. Hobson's bestselling novel about anti-Semitism to the screen, the other studio moguls, most of whom were Jewish, implored him to change his mind, preferring that the matter be left unaddressed. But Zanuck, who frequently turned his progressive passions into motion pictures, ignored the advice, and the resultant film proved to be a critical and commercial champ. Gregory Peck headlines as Philip Schuyler Green, a West Coast writer who, with his mother (Anne Revere) and his son (Dean Stockwell) in tow, moves to New York City to work at a major magazine. His first assignment is to write a lengthy piece on anti-Semitism, but he battles writer's block until he stumbles onto a unique angle for the story: He will pose as a Jew and experience firsthand any prejudices that might arise. His family and his best friend, the Jewish Dave (John Garfield), support his endeavors, but he meets resistance from his high-society fiancee Kathy (Dorothy McGuire), who insists she's not prejudiced but becomes squeamish whenever the subject comes up. The scenes involving Philip's confrontations with bigotry — both subtle and out in the open — are powerful, and Garfield and Celeste Holm as a forthright fashion editor are both excellent. But the romance between Philip and Kathy is scarcely believable, more so as the film progresses and she remains as unenlightened as ever. Nominated for eight Academy Awards (including Best Actor for Peck, Actress for McGuire and Supporting Actress for Revere), this won three: Best Picture, Director and Supporting Actress (Holm).
Blu-ray extras on How Green Was My Valley include audio commentary by Anna Lee Nathan and author Joseph McBride (Searching for John Ford); a retrospective making-of featurette; and the theatrical trailer. Blu-ray extras on Gentleman's Agreement include audio commentary by Holm, co-star June Havoc and film historian Richard Schickel; a retrospective making-of featurette; newsreel footage of the film's success at the Oscar ceremony; and the theatrical trailer.
How Green Was My Valley: ***
Gentleman's Agreement: ***
THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER (2012). One of the 10 best movies of 2012 (go here for a complete look at the Best & Worst Films of 2012), this adaptation of Stephen Chbosky's novel (scripted and directed by the author himself) is one of those buried treasures that meets with modest, break-even success in theaters but deserves a robust life on home video. Set in the early 1990s, it centers on a high school freshman named Charlie (Logan Lerman), who's haunted by fuzzy memories from his early childhood as well as the recent suicide of his best friend. Beginning at a new school, he quickly finds companionship from the quirky cutie Sam (Emma Watson, Harry Potter's Hermione Granger all grown up) and the social outcast Patrick (Ezra Miller), but situations don't always run smoothly either for him or his new friends. Chbosky's screenplay is a thing of beauty, full of coming-of-age ordeals that ring true and including dialogue that's insightful, self-important, idiotic and angst-ridden — in short, just the way real kids speak. It's a shame that the Academy elected to become especially insular this year in regard to the Best Supporting Actor category, which is comprised entirely of past Oscar winners — Miller, who was last seen as the creepy title character in Let's Talk About Kevin, delivers an exceptional performance that's more worthy than any of the actual nominated turns.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Chbosky; separate audio commentary by Chbosky, Lerman, Watson, Miller and other cast members; deleted scenes; and behind-the-scenes footage.
THE QUIET MAN (1952). John Ford has helmed so many certified classics — The Searchers, The Grapes of Wrath, Stagecoach, and on and on and on — that it's a daunting task singling out one movie as his best. I'll sidestep that challenge for the moment and simply state that out of all his works, none provide me with as much pure pleasure — and leave a perpetual grin on my mug — as the Irish-American director's ode to his family's ancestral country. John Wayne stars as Sean Thornton, an American who returns to his birthplace of Innisfree, Ireland, with his stateside years shrouded in mystery. He's accepted by all the locals except Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen), a local bigwig who's incensed that Thornton manages to acquire the land he himself had coveted for years. Thornton falls for the beautiful Mary Kate (Maureen O'Hara), a quick-tempered redhead; unfortunately for the Yank, she happens to be Danaher's sister, and local tradition dictates that a woman can't court without the approval of a male family member. High-spirited comedy and swift upendings of gender rules help propel this beautifully filmed (in vibrant Technicolor) gem that's paced to match the temperaments of its characters: In other words, it's boisterous, life-affirming, and marked with a deep-seated romantic spirit. Wayne's performance ranks among his top two or three, while Barry Fitzgerald steals scenes as impish Michaleen Flynn, rarely spotted without a drink in hand. Nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture (absurdly losing to The Greatest Show on Earth) and Supporting Actor for McLaglen, it earned statues for Best Director (the fourth of Ford's career, a record in this category that still stands) and Cinematography.
The only extra on the Blu-ray is a half-hour making-of feature hosted by Leonard Maltin.
THE SESSIONS (2012). The 1996 Oscar-winning documentary Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien is a compelling look at the acclaimed writer who, having contracted polio as a child, spent his life in a state of paralysis, largely confined to an iron lung until his death in 1999 at the age of 49. The Sessions narrows down the man's life to one thought seemingly more apt for an American Pie entry: Mark O'Brien wants nothing more than to lose his virginity. But writer-director Ben Lewin isn't going for a cheap thrill here: While researching and writing an article about sex among the disabled, Mark really did decide that he wanted to experience the act himself (while he couldn't move anything below his neck, he still had sensitivity in his body). The Sessions details that odyssey, with Mark (Winter's Bone's John Hawkes) finding a sex surrogate in Cheryl (Helen Hunt), who explains to her client on their initial meeting that there's a difference between a prostitute and what she does (mainly, that a prostitute wants your return business while a sex surrogate is only employed for a predetermined number of meetings). A wife and mother, Cheryl doesn't hide her job from her husband (Adam Arkin), as he understands it's all business. But once it becomes clear that Mark is falling for Cheryl — and perhaps she's also falling for him? — matters become complicated for all involved. Sex scenes aside, The Sessions felt puny on the big screen, with its emphasis on gentle laughs, expected narrative developments and a former sitcom star (Hunt) in one of the leading roles (it's not surprising to learn that Lewin was planning to make a TV sitcom featuring disabled characters before stumbling across O'Brien's story). It's more intimate as a Blu-ray or DVD watch; besides, it's worth catching for Hawkes' terrific performance, and there are also notable turns by Moon Bloodgood and Annika Marks as two of Mark's caregivers. And while I didn't quite believe William Macy as Mark's priest and friend, he's nevertheless amusing as his character is forced to listen to frank discussions involving sex surrogates, fornication outside of marriage, and other taboos guaranteed to rock the confessional booth.
Blu-ray extras include deleted scenes; an interview with Lewin; and pieces on how Hawkes and Hunt approached their roles.
SKYFALL (2012). A global smash, this latest entry in the 007 franchise finds James Bond (Daniel Craig) tangling with a crooning gent by the name of Silva (Javier Bardem), who vows to exact his revenge on MI6 head M (Judi Dench) for a betrayal he suffered in the past. Ace screenwriter John Logan (Hugo) joins series vets Neal Purvis and Robert Wade to conjure up a script that accomplishes many things, all of them well. It introduces new characters who end up surprising us with the directions they take, reconfigures familiar roles from the past (e.g. Q, the aged weapons specialist repeatedly played by the late Desmond Llewelyn, is now a young computer geek played by Ben Whishaw), provides in-jokes for series fans (a beloved car makes an appearance) and, most intriguingly, offers a bit of back story for Agent 007. Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes (American Beauty), aided by the Coen brothers' regular cinematographer Roger Deakins, provides all these proceedings with a grittier texture than often seen in this franchise, and while none of the set pieces here can match that incredible parkour opening in Casino Royale, most — a battle atop a moving train, a shadowy skirmish in a skyscraper, a roughhouse session involving an amusing appearance by a Komodo dragon — do not disappoint. If there's a criticism to be leveled against Skyfall, it's that Bardem doesn't receive nearly enough screen time. He's one of the franchise's more interesting villains — playful, talkative, flirtatious, philosophical, fey and, above all, always a menacing presence. The movie could have used more scenes of him; instead, he doesn't appear until well into the second act and is often forgotten for stretches thereafter. Thankfully, other performers are around to pick up the acting (if not villainous) void, including the great Albert Finney in a key role and, of course, Dench. Mainly, though, there's Craig, who has clearly established himself as the best Bond since Sean Connery first filled the role in 1962's Dr. No. Tough and taciturn, he has reenergized the franchise after the shaky Pierce Brosnan years, definitely demonstrating that the series has once again earned its license to thrill. (Check out our exhaustive coverage of the entire James Bond series here and here.)
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Mendes; separate audio commentary by producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson and production designer Dennis Gassner; 14 making-of featurettes covering the title sequence, the music, the characters of Q and M, and more; footage from the film's premiere; and the theatrical trailer.