(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what's new on Blu-ray and DVD. Ratings are on a four-star scale.)
ANT-MAN AND THE WASP (2018). With Ant-Man and the Wasp, the Marvel-Disney moneymaking machine doesn’t quite pull off the cinematic hat trick of 2018, instead coming up a few stitches short. Not only does the 20th entry to date in the Marvel Cinematic Universe fail to match the heights of its 2018 stablemates, Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War, it also fails to provide as much pure entertainment as its direct antecedent, 2015’s lovable and laid-back Ant-Man. Realizing that Ant-Man served as a brief respite from the more serious MCU offerings, returning director Peyton Reed and his five writers have decided to double down on the ingredients they felt worked the last time around (e.g. humorously awkward exchanges between characters, oversized ants as comic relief, Michael Peña). Initially amusing, this tendency toward overkill eventually becomes wearying. And with its convoluted screenplay as well as FX sequences of numbing repetition, it would be easy to completely write off Ant-Man and the Wasp. Yet what largely redeems it are the central characters and the performers who fill out those roles. Paul Rudd is as effortlessly charismatic as before — he transforms Scott Lang/Ant-Man into one of the most sympathetic characters in the entire MCU — and while Evangeline Lilly was already a dynamic presence in Ant-Man as Hope Van Dyne, she’s allowed to further spread her wings (in more ways than one) as she dons her own costume as the high-flying Wasp. She’s as much the heart of this series as Rudd. As for the Stan Lee cameo? It’s one of the best yet — nuff said.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Reed; deleted scenes; a gag reel; Stan Lee outtakes; and a piece on the visual effects and production design.
BAD RONALD (1974). The ‘70s was a fertile breeding ground for ominous made-for-television movies that continue to stumble around in the minds of those who came of age during that decade. While not as famous as Trilogy of Terror (below), Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark or Steven Spielberg’s Duel, Bad Ronald is one such endeavor, with Scott Jacoby delivering a memorable performance in the title role. Jacoby, also excellent (and far more sympathetic) opposite 13-year-old Jodie Foster in 1976’s The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (see review here), is Ronald Wilby, a lonely teenage boy whose best friend is his mother. That would be Elaine Wilby (Kim Hunter), and after Ronald confesses that he accidentally killed a younger girl who was bullying him, it’s Elaine who comes up with an idea that will prevent her son from having to go to prison. She has Ronald fashion a secret room in their home, one that will be undetected by the outside world — it’s a plan that actually works until Mrs. Wilby dies unexpectedly, at which point the Wood family moves into the now seemingly vacant house. Ronald continues to live undetected behind the kitchen pantry, but his isolation contributes to his increasingly fractured sanity, and it soon becomes clear that the Woods — particularly youngest daughter Babs (Cindy Fisher) — might not be safe in their own home. The TV-movie template generally demanded a short running time, which means that Bad Ronald could stand being longer than its 74 minutes. But even with some shortcuts in character development, this is a solid chiller that, appropriately enough, originally debuted on ABC the week before Halloween.
There are no extras on the Blu-ray.
CITY SLICKERS (1991). A box office smash back in 1991 — it was the fifth highest grossing film in the US, just under the exceptional The Silence of the Lambs and just above the execrable Hook — City Slickers stars Billy Crystal as Mitch Robbins, a 39-year-old radio ad salesman coming face-to-face with his midlife crisis. His best friends Phil (Daniel Stern) and Ed (Bruno Kirby) are coping with their own problems, so the three decide to take a vacation to clear their heads. Their destination: a Southwestern cowboy ranch, where they and a number of other greenhorns will embark on an authentic cattle drive over miles of rugged terrain. That’s the working premise of the movie, yet veteran screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (Parenthood, A League of Their Own) ultimately make the story less about the cattle drive and more about rediscovering the pleasures that life has to offer. That’s hardly a groundbreaking angle, and the film is occasionally a bit too twee for its own good. At the same time, many of the character exchanges are priceless (including a discussion on how to properly program a VCR), and the performances are uniformly fine. Kirby is especially engaging as Ed, whose prickly demeanor adds some edge to the otherwise sweet-natured shenanigans. Jack Palance adds further flavor in the surprisingly small role of Curly, the grizzled trail boss who’s described by Mitch as “a saddlebag with eyes.” Palance won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his leathery turn — a ridiculous victory in itself, it’s better seen as a reward for his lengthy Hollywood career.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Crystal, Stern and director Ron Underwood; a retrospective making-of featurette; deleted scenes; and a piece on Norman the calf.
INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956). What's interesting about the four cinematic adaptations of Jack Finney's novel The Body Snatchers is that each was specifically tailored to its time. The fine 1978 version Invasion of the Body Snatchers tapped into post-Watergate paranoia, also finding room to comment on rampant New Age philosophies and fads. The so-so 1994 Body Snatchers focused on teen alienation while also examining the splintering of the nuclear family. And 2007’s lamentable The Invasion superficially touched upon both war and drugs. As for this first screen adaptation, it depends on who’s being asked – some believe it’s anti-Communism (foreign beings with no regard for human life attempt to brainwash our nation to their rigid way of thinking) while others insist it’s anti-McCarthyism (soulless conservatives seek to convert everyone to their narrow way of thinking and destroy those who oppose them). With or without its subtext, this remains not only the best of the adaptations but also one of the best horror/sci-fi films ever made, with its low-budget production values contributing to its unsettling ambience. Thanks to the expert direction by Don Siegel and a strong central performance by Kevin McCarthy, the tension builds steadily, and what begins as a mystery quickly turns into a full-blooded nightmare that’s only slightly undercut by the studio-imposed ending.
Blu-ray extras in this “Olive Signature” edition include audio commentary by film historian Richard Harlan Smith; separate audio commentary by McCarthy and co-star Dana Wynter, accompanied by director Joe Dante (who employed McCarthy in many of his own films, including The Howling and Innerspace); a trio of featurettes in which various filmmakers discuss the film’s production and legacy; and a 1985 interview with McCarthy.
THE [REC] COLLECTION (2007-2014). Forget Saw, Paranormal Activity and other Hollywood horror series of 21st century vintage: Spain had its own fright-fest franchise to champion, one which proved to be so popular that it ended up being copied by — you guessed it — Hollywood.
A sterling effort in the eventually overplayed “found footage” genre, [REC] (2007) finds Angela Vidal (Manuela Velasco), star reporter of the documentary TV series While You’re Sleeping, opting to tag along with a group of firefighters as they report to a disturbance at a Barcelona apartment building deep into the night. Once inside the edifice, though, no one is permitted to leave, as some sort of plague has turned inhabitants into insane killers and officials have placed the area under strict quarantine. Writer-directors Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza ratchet up the tension in this initial installment, with Velasco providing a gutsy turn in the central role. Intense and involving, [REC] was influential enough to lead to an instant American remake, 2008’s Quarantine (itself followed by 2011’s Quarantine 2: Terminal).
Unfortunately, none of the follow-ups come close to matching the excellence of the original. [REC] 2 (2009), set immediately after the events of the first film, provides reams of origin and exposition, but this explosion of information removes much of the raw terror from the premise. [REC] 3: Genesis (2012) is the odd film out, leaving the building to follow the plague to a nearby wedding. It’s inconsequential and only moderately entertaining. [REC] 4: Apocalypse (2014) somewhat gets the series back on track, thanks largely to the wise decision to bring Velasco’s Angela back as the primary character. The action has moved to an ocean liner that’s doubling as a research facility, and the franchise wraps up in a fairly satisfying manner.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentaries on the first two films by Balaguero and Plaza; deleted scenes from the first three movies; and making-of featurettes, theatrical trailers, and photo galleries for all four flicks.
[REC] 2: **
[REC] 3: Genesis: **
[REC] 4: Apocalypse: **1/2
SHAMPOO (1975). Although the character of George Roundy was based on various real-life hairdressers, it’s clearly a somewhat autobiographical role for Warren Beatty, who not only essays the role in Shampoo but also co-wrote (with Robert Towne) and produced the picture. Like Beatty, George is a successful Beverly Hills fixture who befriends and beds as many women as possible. His current flings include his girlfriend Jill (Goldie Hawn); Felicia (Lee Grant), the dissatisfied wife of politically connected businessman Lester Karpf (Jack Warden); Lester’s mistress (and George’s former girlfriend) Jackie (Julie Christie); and even Lester and Felicia’s college-age daughter! (That would be Carrie Fisher in her film debut; her next movie would be Star Wars two years later.) Shampoo was one of the biggest commercial smashes of 1975 — only Jaws and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest grossed more — and it’s easy to see why. Set on the eve of the 1968 presidential election that witnessed Richard Nixon’s ascension, it’s a savage satire that sets its sights on hypocrisy, superficiality, and sexual mores. Beatty is excellent as the self-centered stud whose advancing age belies his callow attitudes, although it’s Warden who steals the show as the easily duped Lester, so certain that George is gay that he repeatedly leaves him alone with the ladies. Picking up Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actor (Warden), Best Original Screenplay, and Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, it won for Best Supporting Actress (Grant).
Blu-ray extras consist of a conversation about the movie between film critics Mark Harris and Frank Rich, and an excerpt from Beatty’s appearance on a 1998 episode of The South Bank Show.
THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS (2018). According to Box Office Mojo, only 28 documentaries have ever managed to gross over $10 million stateside. Clearly, it’s rare for a single year to witness even one breakout hit in the nonfiction genre, which makes it astounding that 2018 has seen three such titles placing in that top 28. Joining Won’t You Be My Neighbor? ($22 million) and RBG ($14 million) in the winner’s circle was Three Identical Strangers ($12 million), which starts out as a feel-good human interest story before morphing into something decidedly darker and disturbing. The film focuses on Eddy Galland, David Kellman and Bobby Shafran, Jewish-American triplets who were born in 1961 to a mother who decided she couldn’t keep them. The babies were quickly separated and sent to be raised by three different families in New York, and it wasn’t until a string of remarkable coincidences that the siblings learned of each other’s existence at the age of 19. Newspaper articles and television appearances followed (as did a scene opposite Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan), and the brothers became close. Then matters took a strange and horrific turn — as one of the trio notes in the modern-day interview segments, “This is like Nazi shit.” Indeed, the specter of the Holocaust looms large over the ensuing events, with ghastly experiments and dismissive attitudes on display to boil the blood. The difference? Here, it's Jews committing the atrocities against other Jews. Three Identical Strangers is a compelling documentary that examines a myriad of subjects, not least being a contemporary analysis of “the banality of evil.”
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by director Tim Wardle and editor Michael Harte; a Q&A session with Kellman, Shafran and Wardle; a photo gallery; and the theatrical trailer.
Short And Sweet:
LEAVE NO TRACE (2018). Writer-director Debra Granik, whose 2010 feature Winter’s Bone earned four major Oscar nominations (including Best Picture) and landed on numerous 10 Best lists (including mine), returns with another film that examines the hardscrabble lives of overlooked folks struggling in harsh surroundings. If Leave No Trace isn’t quite as formidable as Granik’s previous feature, it’s still a potent drama marked by a superlative turn from teenage actress Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie. She’s cast as Tom, who lives illegally — and discretely — on public land with her father Will (Ben Foster), a war veteran suffering from PTSD. Their eventual discovery by the authorities leads to various encounters that find them interacting with others and living with a roof over their heads — two conditions desired by Tom but shunned by the damaged Will. Working from Peter Rock’s novel My Abandonment, Granik has fashioned a film that extends its sympathies toward all of its characters.
Blu-ray extras consist of a making-of short; five behind-the-scenes vignettes; deleted scenes; and a photo gallery.
TRILOGY OF TERROR (1975). Like Bad Ronald, here’s another terror-tinged TV movie that debuted on ABC — this one’s an anthology film showcasing three yarns written by Richard Matheson and starring Karen Black. Those who saw this back in the day probably can’t recall what happens in the first two vignettes, but mention the Zuni fetish doll and watch the sweat break out! "Julie" finds Black playing a repressed college professor who finds herself being sexually blackmailed by one of her students (Robert Burton); a twist ending adds some pop to this installment. "Millicent and Therese" casts Black as dissimilar twin sisters, but the surprise ending here can be sniffed out right from the opening minutes. And "Amelia," which Matheson based on his own story "Prey," stars Black as an apartment dweller who discovers that the Zuni fetish doll she bought for her boyfriend has come alive and is out for her blood. This earns its stripes solely for the last story, powered by Black's excellent performance, director Dan Curtis' imaginative staging, and that genuinely freaky doll.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Black and co-scripter William F. Nolan, and interviews with Black and Matheson.