DVD 3/16/10: The Princess and the Frog, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Astro Boy, Paris, Wonderful World, The Fourth Kind, MST3K XVII, new History Channel DVDs

The Princess and the Frog (G, 2009, Disney)
A whole lot of noise was made about “The Princess and the Frog” when it first entered the public consciousness, and little of it had anything to do with the actual movie itself. The film’s premise — an impoverished black girl, Tiana, sharing princess dreams with her rich white best friend, who practically gets the nod automatically when a prince comes calling — was ripped for its covert racism, while snipers all but assumed Disney would take the film’s 1920s New Orleans setting and tear it to shreds in as exploitative a fashion as possible. But in the end, the only thing the noise did was signify why it’s better to know than assume. Per Disney tradition, “Frog” doesn’t hide from the social implications of its situation or setting. But guess what? Far, far more than a story about status or sociology, “Frog” is a funny, lovable, respectful and very clever twist on a story — a princess kissing a frog and turning him into a prince — that’s as classic and baggage-free as anything in Disney’s vault. Tiana’s story is authentically inspiring, but it’s also completely silly, and “Frog” is that pricelessly rare film that can touch real nerves while mixing in trumpet-tooting alligators and never miss a beat. “Frog’s” voice cast (Anika Noni Rose, Michael-Leon Wooley, Keith David and Bruno Campos, among others) is infectiously stellar, and if Disney exploits the setting at all, it’s merely to the tune of perhaps the best soundtrack the studio has ever produced.
Extras: Filmmakers commentary, deleted scenes, Princess Portraits game, six behind-the-scenes features, music video, art galleries.

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (NR, 2009, IFC Films)
John Krasinski may be in the director’s chair, and it may have a funny name and a picture of a guy with a paper bag on his head as the cover art, but that doesn’t mean “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” is a comedy. It isn’t. But “Men” not being a comedy doesn’t mean it isn’t funny, because every now and then, it really is. More than anything, though, “Men” is a conversation about relationships and human behavior — a continuous, winding conversation that slips between the interview room and the subjects’ (and interviewer’s) daily experiences with only requisite respect for convention. Trains of thought sometimes continue uninterrupted while everything else in the film completely switches tracks, and one character might adopt another’s mood regardless of whether the two share any other connection at all. The bluntness of the whole thing sends “Men” careening into deep patches of harsh darkness as well as sharp comedy, and while it’s kind of disorienting and occasionally just a little heavy on pretense, just about every word is delivered with care. That combination of skill and initiative — to say nothing of the versatile talent (Krasinski, Julianne Nicholson, Ben Shenkman, Timothy Hutton, Michael Cerveris, Will Arnett, Joey Slotnick and numerous others) tasked with making it work — makes “Men” considerably more thrilling than an 80-minute dialogue would seem to have any right to be.
Extras: Krasinski interview, behind-the-scenes feature.

Astro Boy (PG, 2009, Summit Entertainment)
It was a mere matter of time before “Astro Boy,” which has reinvented itself numerous times across numerous media, got a chance to play on the computer-animated playground. Problem is, if you’re one of those folks who have been waiting for this to happen, you likely aren’t the person for whom this film ultimately was made. “Boy” follows the title character’s well-documented origins reasonably faithfully, and some of the series’ most iconic characters — namely, Dr. Tenma and Professor Ochanomizu, known here as Dr. Elefun — are accounted for as well. The film also looks terrific, staying faithful to the characters’ preexisting designs but making them pop anew with a 3D animation style that isn’t as sterile as other similar productions. But “Boy” lacks the luxury of time the original and rebooted series had, and as consequence, it can’t tell its characters’ stories with nearly the same elaborate care. So it leans instead on action sequences and so-so secondary characters who give the film a storyline that’s sufficient but, for ardent fans, arguably a little soulless compared to all that preceded it. This isn’t the same as calling “Boy” a bad film, because for a new audience of younger viewers, it’s anything but. But longtime fans who wish to enjoy this for what it is, rather than what might have been, should manage expectations in advance.
Extras: Deleted scenes, four behind-the-scenes features, image gallery.

Paris (NR, 2008, IFC Films)
“Paris” earns its name by most definitely taking place in Paris, and if we’re to make assumptions that it has designs of being the namesake film of one of the world’s most-filmed cities, then it at least justifies those designs by showing the city in a refreshing number of different lights. But “Paris” isn’t really about Paris or even what it means to its enormous ensemble cast, all of whose minds are entirely too preoccupied with problems and developments — a young man (Romain Duris) with a failing heart, a fortysomething (Juliette Binoche) who has completely lost her romantic way, a professor (Fabrice Luchini) embarrassingly smitten with a student (Mélanie Laurent) while he fumbles to connect with his overtly emotional brother (François Cluzet), a woman (Julie Ferrier) playing den mother to a group of manchildish co-workers — that could foster from just about anywhere. And that’s just fine, because it’s better to marginalize the setting than the characters living within. “Paris” occasionally makes the same mistakes most ensemble movies do by allowing the occasional character to disappear for half the movie before cutting his or her story short, but for the most part, it does all the little things right to give its cast far more life than their compartmentalized existences would suggest. And while Paris itself isn’t doesn’t really star so much as provide the story a sense of place, it looks no less alive in its secondary role. In French with English subtitles.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes feature, table reading/discussion.

Wonderful World (R, 2009, Magnolia)
Sad sack proofreader Ben Singer (Matthew Broderick) is so depressingly negative that even his young daughter (Jodelle Ferland), to say nothing of his ex-wife (Ally Walker) and co-workers, is plotting ways to avoid spending time with him. Unfortunately for “Wonderful World,” and in spite of the things it occasionally does rather well, the rest of us might be best off following their lead. “World” has its flashes of good performances and sharp dialogue, and a storyline involving Ben’s best friend (Michael Kenneth Williams as Ibu) and Ibu’s sister (Sanaa Lathan) provides a few unique backdrops for what otherwise is just another story of a washed-up grump trying to rediscover his soul. But that’s the kicker: Even with a few unique ingredients, “World” still is just another story about a guy we’ve all almost certainly seen too many times already. “World” doesn’t take any real chances in terms of dark humor or innovative observations about soul-searching, and those occasional flashes of excellence just aren’t bright enough to overcome how ordinary and overly familiar it feels the vast majority of the time.
Extras: Four behind-the-scenes features.

The Fourth Kind (PG-13, 2009, Universal)
Say, you like horror movies? How about movies about alien abductions, or films that, like “Cloverfield” and “Paranormal Activity,” try to blur the line between fiction and faux-fact? In its own mind, “The Fourth Kind” is all three of these things, and presented on paper in terms of fulfillable potential, it’s a pretty interesting idea. Unfortunately, none of that means any
thing when the finished product is as relentlessly boring in practice as this one is. “Kind” is a film about people recounting alien abductions rather than the actual abductions themselves, and in order to reconcile being a film about people talking about horrifying experiences rather than the experiences themselves, it uses the trick of showing “real” footage of “real” abductees while a cast of actors simultaneously mock-dramatizes the sessions. Presenting the mock footage as real is the only hook “Kind” has, and either you realize the footage is very obviously fake or will feel like a fool when the end credits or someone you know explain later that it’s all made up. With that dishonest illusion stripped away, what remains — a non-story about non-events, as presented by a cast of actors delivering lines with a whispery quiver that would make even Aaron Neville go a little crazy after 90 minutes — has no merit whatsoever. Milla Jovovich, Will Patton and Enzo Cilenti star.
Extra: Deleted scenes.

Worth a Mention
— “Mystery Science Theater 3000 XVII” (NR, Shout Factory): Shout Factory’s outstanding compilation of “MST3K” episodes is giving the Super Bowl a run for its money in terms of best product with a Roman numeral attached to it. “XVII” brings “The Crawling Eye,” “The Beatniks,” “The Final Sacrifice” and “Blood Waters of Dr. Z” to the DVD library. In addition to the excellent mock miniature movie posters that come packed inside, extras include a new introduction to “Eye” from “MST3K’s” own Joel Hodgson, Dragon*Con 2009 footage, a new interview with “Sacrifice” star Bruce Mitchell, a “Waters” photo gallery and original theatrical trailers and promotional material.
— History Channel DVDs: Easter is inbound, and per what seems like tradition at this point, so are a handful of History Channel DVDs that touch on religion in some fashion or another. The feature-length “Holy Grail in America” (NR, 2009) wonders aloud if the Holy Grail has been in the United States this whole time, while the two-disc, seven-hour “Christianity: The First Two Thousand Years” (NR, 2001) is pretty self-explanatory in its intentions. For something a bit more fantastical, there’s the three-disc, 10-part, eight-hour “Clash of the Gods” (NR, 2009), which explores history’s most famous mythological figures one episode at a time.