Film » View from the Couch

Empire of the Ants, Hot Tub Time Machine 2, The Rose among new home entertainment titles

This week's reviews of what's new on Blu-ray and DVD

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(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.)

Dustin Hoffman and Dennis Franz in American Buffalo (Photo: Twilight Time)
  • Dustin Hoffman and Dennis Franz in American Buffalo (Photo: Twilight Time)

AMERICAN BUFFALO (1996). It's not mere hyperbole to state that David Mamet's American Buffalo was a key play of the American theater during the late 20th century, startling audiences with its blunt rat-tat-tat dialogue following its 1975 premiere and earning Al Pacino some of the best reviews of his career (on stage or screen) when he starred in a 1983 revival. The play has been endlessly studied (even in one of my theater college classes lo those many moons ago) and repeatedly performed over the years (including a 2008 Broadway production starring Cedric the Entertainer, John Leguizamo and The Sixth Sense's Haley Joel Osment that closed almost immediately after opening). Yet like many acclaimed stage shows, this one failed to catch on when it was turned into a motion picture, playing only in limited release and earning a scant $600,000 at the box office. Dustin Hoffman here essays the plum Pacino part as Teach, a down-and-outer passing time in a junk store that makes the one owned by Fred Sanford and son look as polished as Tiffany & Co. by comparison. The shop is owned by Don (Dennis Franz), who's serving as mentor to Bobby (Sean Nelson), a soft-spoken kid and former addict. Don and Bobby are tentatively plotting to rob a recent customer of his presumably valuable coin collection, but once Teach gets wind of the scheme, he thrusts himself into the operation, muscling out Bobby and keeping Don perpetually on edge. Hoffman has often played life's losers — Straight Time, Hero and, of course, Midnight Cowboy — and he effectively adds another one to his trophy room. But his performance, while commendable, doesn't quite fit with the surroundings, since he plays Teach as such a despicable lout without an iota of charm or humility that it's hard to believe Don puts up with him for so long. Franz is excellent in the other key part — it's a shame his starring role over 12 seasons of NYPD Blue kept him away from the big screen save for two movies (this and 1998's misguided Wings of Desire remake City of Angels) — while Nelson is fine in his limited screen time. Mamet's strafing dialogue still hits its marks, but director Michael Corrente never manages to turn this into anything more than a static filmed play, an even more noticeable flaw since this appeared four short years after James Foley's electric screen adaptation of Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross.

Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman; the theatrical trailer; and an isolated track of Thomas Newman's score.

Movie: **1/2

Empire of the Ants (Photo: Shout! Factory)
  • Empire of the Ants (Photo: Shout! Factory)

EMPIRE OF THE ANTS (1977)/ JAWS OF SATAN (1981) and THE FOOD OF THE GODS (1976)/ FROGS (1972). Shout! Factory's Scream Factory division is offering a pair of double feature Blu-rays, four terror tales in which nature lashes out at humankind. I'm just thinking — excuse me, typing — out loud here, but wouldn't it have made more sense to sell the two H.G. Wells/Bert I. Gordon flicks, Empire of the Ants and The Food of the Gods, as one set and the two movies featuring slimy critters, Jaws of Satan and Frogs, as the other double feature?

Empire of the Ants, written, directed and produced by Gordon, stars a pre-Dynasty Joan Collins as a shady realtor who has some swampland in Florida she's trying to sell to a particularly dim-witted group of investors. What she and the others don't know — but discover soon enough — is that a leaky barrel of radioactive waste has turned small ants into gi-ants (ouch; sorry), and the hapless humans must flee the area before they're — what exactly? — bitten? Eaten? Crushed? The risible effects make it difficult to ascertain exactly what the ants are doing to their victims, but as long as their actions result in the demise of these dolts, it doesn't much matter. Yup, you'll be rooting for the ants.

Jaws of Satan (Photo: Shout! Factory)
  • Jaws of Satan (Photo: Shout! Factory)

Even worse than Empire of the Ants is Jaws of Satan, which is actually called King Cobra not only in the film's opening credits but also on the accompanying trailer. While King Cobra is more direct, Jaws of Satan is more honest, since this often plays like a mentally challenged version of the Steven Spielberg smash. Instead of a shark, there's a snake that's terrorizing a small community, and instead of a POV tracking shot of the shark cutting through water, we get POV shots of a snake charging through cemetery weeds. There's still a mayor, of course, and like his Amity Island counterpart, he refuses to release vital information to the public lest it interfere with tourist dollars. There's one notable twist, though: Whereas the shark was just a shark, a mindless feeding machine, this snake turns out to be no less than Lucifer himself, visiting town for the sole purpose of annoying the local priest (Fritz Weaver). Just tag the two films on this Blu-ray dumb and dumber.

The Food of the Gods (Photo: Shout! Factory)
  • The Food of the Gods (Photo: Shout! Factory)

The Food of the Gods, another effort from Gordon, is so wretched that it's a wonder Wells hasn't returned from the grave seeking revenge. Yes, this is one of the greats — and by greats, I mean so unspeakably awful that it needs to be witnessed at least once in a lifetime. On a remote island, a white substance bubbling out of the ground is eaten by various animals and insects, and soon the area is overrun with giant rats, wasps, chickens and worms. If there are 10 consecutive seconds of quality in this film, I must have rubbed my eyes and missed them. Except for a few scenes featuring mechanized heads and actors in costumes, the giant rats are actually normal-sized rodents seen swarming around toy cars and dollhouses; the wasps are black smudges apparently drawn directly onto the film stock; and the chickens (and one mad rooster) look about as real as Burt Reynolds' late-career toupees. Depressingly, Ida Lupino, a 1940s star and one of the first major female directors, wraps up her career by playing a Bible-thumping rube who screams, "God! Oh, God! Aaaaaahhhh!" while watching bloodthirsty worms snack on her hand.

Frogs (Photo: Shout! Factory)
  • Frogs (Photo: Shout! Factory)

Compared to the aforementioned trio, Frogs comes across like a certified movie masterpiece. Ray Milland stars as a family patriarch who hates nature and so of course lives on an island estate completed surrounded by wildlife. The members of the animal community negatively react to the pollution caused by this millionaire and his clan, so under the leadership of the frogs, they set about killing every human in sight. An imaginative premise, a solid cast (Sam Elliot, Joan Van Ark, Adam Roarke) and a few surprisingly fresh characterizations lift this out of the mire.

Blu-ray extras on Empire of the Ants include audio commentary by Gordon; a photo gallery; and the theatrical trailer. The only extra on Jaws of Satan is the theatrical trailer. Blu-ray extras on The Food of the Gods include audio commentary by Gordon; an interview with co-star Belinda Balaski; and the theatrical trailer. Extras on Frogs include an interview with Van Ark; a photo gallery; and the theatrical trailer.

Empire of the Ants: *1/2

Jaws of Satan: *1/2

The Food of the Gods: *

Frogs: **1/2

Craig Robinson in Hot Tub Time Machine 2 (Photo: Paramount & MGM)
  • Craig Robinson in Hot Tub Time Machine 2 (Photo: Paramount & MGM)

HOT TUB TIME MACHINE 2 (2015). The 1980s are nowhere to be found in Hot Tub Time Machine 2, a bummer for those who still want their MTV. Instead, this sequel to the ever-so-modest hit from 2010 sprints in the other direction, heading into a future where the number one TV program in America is a moronic game show wherein the participants must engage in activities decided by audience members, whether it's juggling knives, eating waffles or being anally violated. Hey, it still sounds better than American Idol. It's not only the decade of Red Dawn and Reaganomics that's absent from this new picture; also MIA is the first film's top-billed star, John Cusack. With Cusack and his character Adam Yates out of the way, the focus falls even more on the other three principals. Lou (Rob Corddry) and Nick (Craig Robinson) have taken advantage of the knowledge acquired during their time-travel exploits to make themselves filthy rich, but Lou's son Jacob (Clark Duke) hasn't found his direction and remains unfulfilled. At a lavish party, Lou, who's hated by almost everyone, gets his pecker shot off, leading Nick and Jacob to drag him into the hot tub so they can go back in time and prevent the incident from occurring. Instead, they end up 10 years in the future, but because Lou is OK when he should be dead, they surmise that the would-be killer must have come from this future world (like the Terminator). So before they figure out how to return to their own time, the three men team up with Adam's grown son Adam Jr. (Adam Scott) and attempt to answer the question, "Who shot Lou's dick?" The query doesn't have the same kick as "Who shot J.R.?" but writer Josh Heald at least makes an effort to keep the identity of the assailant a mystery until the end. In other respects, though, this is a thoroughly lazy sequel, and while there are a handful of undeniably funny bits, too much of the material traffics in the same sort of lame gross-out gags and gay-panic jokes that define the modern American comedy. The first Hot Tub flick also was guilty of this brand of humor, but there it was frequently subverted in amusing ways; here, the jokes not only just sit there on the screen like dead slugs, they stretch themselves out for an eternity, mercilessly run into the ground by Heald and director Steve Pink.

The Blu-ray contains both the R-rated theatrical version as well as an unrated cut that's approximately six minutes longer. Extras include audio commentary by Pink and Heald; a making-of featurette; deleted and extended scenes; and bloopers.

Movie: **

Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin in Limelight (Photo: Criterion Collection)
  • Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin in Limelight (Photo: Criterion Collection)

LIMELIGHT (1952). I think even those who consider Charlie Chaplin's Limelight a brilliant motion picture would admit that it's not the ideal movie to use as an introduction to Chaplin's works. Best to show a film newbie City Lights or Modern Times or even one of his shorts — anything that would showcase why he was considered by many the funniest man in the world. Limelight, the last film Chaplin would make in the United States — barred from re-entering the country due to his perceived Communist ties, he elected to wash his hands of the poisonous political climate and settle in Switzerland — isn't especially funny, with the auteur's famed mix of comedy and sentimentality (no filmmaker has ever topped Chaplin in this respect) nowhere to be found. Instead, this somewhat autobiographical piece goes heavy on the melodrama and employs humor in short bursts, and even then primarily when Chaplin's character is performing on stage. Charlie plays Calvero, a former comic giant who has fallen on hard times; no one cares about his brand of comedy anymore, which makes landing gigs extremely difficult. Calvero finds a new purpose, though, when he saves his young neighbor, an aspiring ballerina named Terry (Claire Bloom), from an attempted suicide. In a variation on A Star Is Born, her career begins to blossom while his continues to flatline; nevertheless, an opportunity eventually presents itself for the once beloved star to go out with a bang. The pontificating by Calvero is frequently heavy-handed, but the sincerity of this poignant picture is never in question. Best of all is the historic teaming of Chaplin and fellow silent cinema star Buster Keaton; their sequences together — saved for the climax, appropriately enough — will unleash a flood of memories in any seasoned film fan. In one of those instances of Academy Award absurdity, this won Chaplin, Ray Rasch and Larry Russell the Oscar for Best Original Score ... not in the 1952 race, which would have been logical, but in the 1972 race. Under Academy rules (since modified), the fact that Limelight didn't play in a Los Angeles theater until 1972 made it eligible for the Oscars two decades after it was initially released!

Blu-ray extras include the 2002 retrospective Chaplin Today: Limelight; a video essay by Chaplin biographer David Robinson; interviews with Bloom and co-star Norman Lloyd; an outtake; and two Chaplin short films, 1915's A Night in the Show and 1919's unfinished The Professor.

Movie: ***

Robert Shaw and Paul Scofield in A Man for All Seasons (Photo: Twilight Time)
  • Robert Shaw and Paul Scofield in A Man for All Seasons (Photo: Twilight Time)

A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS (1966). The notion that politics and religion make the worst bedfellows has never gone out of fashion — this nation's current pack of right-wing hyenas in Congress can attest to that — and this compelling drama offers a peek at this oil-and-vinegar mix from a historical perspective. Paul Scofield transfers his triumphant stage role to the screen in this look at Sir Thomas More, the incorruptible Catholic statesman whose convictions eventually cost him his life. Named Chancellor of England upon the passing of Cardinal Wolsey (Orson Welles), More is expected to toss aside his beliefs (like everyone else around him) and not only bless the decision of Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) to divorce his wife Catherine and marry Anne Boleyn (a cameo appearance by Vanessa Redgrave) but also support the king's decree naming himself the head of the Church of England. More assures his loyal wife (Wendy Hiller) and daughter (Susannah York) that by remaining silent on these matters, he is protecting himself from outrageous accusations of treason; little does he realize the lengths that such venal court insiders as Thomas Cromwell (Leo McKern) and Richard Rich (John Hurt, all of 26) will undertake in order to bury him. Robert Bolt, adapting his own play, previously penned Lawrence of Arabia, so he's clearly a man who thrives on mixing the personal with the epic, peering into an individual's psyche even as the world is being shaped in significant ways around him. The fascinating hook in this film is that everyone respects Sir Thomas More, and everyone knows he's right, but that's not going to prevent his inherent decency from getting pulverized by self-serving sycophants as well as a ruler who frequently thinks with his, um, scepter. Nominated for eight Academy Awards (including supporting bids for Shaw and Hiller), this won six, including Best Picture, Actor, Director and Adapted Screenplay.

Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historians Julie Kirgo, Lem Dobbs and Nick Redman; a piece on Thomas More; the post-Oscars theatrical trailer; and an isolated track of Georges Delerue's score.

Movie: ***1/2

Bette Midler in The Rose (Photo: Criterion Collection)
  • Bette Midler in The Rose (Photo: Criterion Collection)

THE ROSE (1979). Although The Rose began life as a biopic of Janis Joplin — it was initially to be called Pearl — the principal parties decided they would rather make a movie loosely based on Joplin's life rather than a straightforward interpretation. It was a sound decision, since it allowed star Bette Midler to incorporate bits of her own career into the mix and removed any pressure to perform the songs in mimicry of Joplin. Freed of any restrictions, Midler delivers a sensational performance as Mary Rose Foster, a rock 'n' roll star who's burned out from ceaseless touring. She needs a year off but her hardnosed manager Rudge (Alan Bates) won't allow her a break; instead, she seeks temporary solace in the arms of a cowboy-cum-chauffeur named Huston Dyer (Frederic Forrest, enjoying a banner year thanks to this film and Apocalypse Now), an easygoing guy whose earthy values make it hard for him to adjust to Rose's more hedonistic lifestyle. Director Mark Rydell took a chance in casting Midler, a screen novice who first developed a following performing in gay bathhouses in the early 1970s (as Rydell reveals in one of the disc's interviews, the studio wanted a big name like Jane Fonda). But his instinct proved correct, with the film becoming a modest hit and Midler emerging as an overnight star. Her turn as the self-destructive yet sympathetic Rose is a tour de force, and there are nice contributions from Forrest and, in one powerhouse scene, Harry Dean Stanton as a country star who talks down to Rose. The concert sequences are a special treat, with Midler belting out (among others) "When a Man Loves a Woman" and "Fire Down Below" and Oscar-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) assisted by a number of other A-list DPs (including legends like Conrad L. Hall and Haskell Wexler) in capturing the explosive Bette from all angles. The Rose earned four Academy Award nominations, including bids for Midler as Best Actress and Forrest as Best Supporting Actor. While Midler lost the Oscar to an even more formidable performance — Sally Field in Norma Rae — her rendition of the film's title track did bless her with a smash single and a Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Rydell; separate interviews with Midler, Rydell and Zsigmond; and archival interviews with Midler and Rydell, including a portion shot on the set during filming.

Movie: ***

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