Tom Cruise in Top Gun: Maverick (Photo: Paramount)

By Matt Brunson

(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray, 4K and DVD. Ratings are on a four-star scale.)

Margot Kidder and James Brolin in The Amityville Horror (Photo: VinSyn)

THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (1979). In 1977, Jay Anson wrote The Amityville Horror, which was advertised as being based on the true-life experiences of the Lutz family in a Long Island haunted house. Because there’s a sucker born every nanosecond, the book was a gargantuan moneymaking machine — and so in turn was the film adaptation. The Amityville Horror proved to be the second highest grossing film of its year, right under the Best Picture Oscar winner Kramer vs. Kramer but topping the likes of Alien and Apocalypse Now — a fact more scary than anything which occurs in this ham-fisted flick. James Brolin and Margot Kidder star as George and Kathy Lutz, who are able to afford such a classy piece of property because its status as a murder site (the previous family had been slaughtered there by the oldest son) has kept away all other buyers. But it’s not long before the Lutzes and their kids realize something’s unusual about their new pad — among the weird developments are the young daughter’s friendship with a ghost, George’s newfound surliness toward everyone and everything, and the countless flies that swarm all over Father Delaney (then again, given Rod Steiger’s howling performance as the priest, it could be that the flies just like reeking ham). Murray Hamilton, who played the mayor who doesn’t believe in the presence of a shark in Jaws, here plays a church bigwig who doesn’t believe in the presence of demonic forces, while Val Avery appears as an extremely low-rent version of the detective portrayed by Lee J. Cobb in The Exorcist. Brolin’s emoting is worth a few giggles, although Kidder acquits herself well enough; still, the film’s only noteworthy component is Lalo Schifrin’s music score, which deservedly earned an Academy Award nomination.

4K extras include an archival making-of featurette and interviews with Brolin and Schifrin.

Movie: ★½

Sean Penn, Christopher Penn and Christopher Walken in At Close Range (Photo: MVD & MGM)

AT CLOSE RANGE (1986). At Close Range is one of those movies we’re sad (but not surprised) to learn was based on a true story. It’s such an unrelenting exercise in grimness and tragedy that not even a post-viewing marathon of 1930s screwball comedies can completely tame viewer unease. Sean Penn plays Brad Whitewood Jr., a lower-class teenager living in a depressing Pennsylvania town with his brother (real-life sibling Christopher Penn), mother (Millie Perkins), and grandmother (actually the Penn boys’ real-life mother, Eileen Ryan). Swaggering into Brad Jr.’s life is Brad Sr. (Christopher Walken), the father he never got to know. Dad’s reputation is a dirty one, but Brad Jr. doesn’t mind; he wants to spend time with his pop, and he’s open to becoming a part of his team, a gang of thieves operating around the area. But Brad Sr. is more — much more — than just a thief, and the depths of his depravity threaten to destroy not only his son’s life but also those of Brad Jr.’s friends, especially his sweetheart Terry (Mary Stuart Masterson). Director James Foley and screenwriter Nicholas Kazan expertly recreate that part of America that feels like it should exist under a rock with the clammy mud and scurrying insects, and their efforts are supported by an intense performance from Walken — even his character’s hair looks like it’s made from live wires. Madonna’s lovely ballad “Live to Tell,” co-written by the pop superstar and Patrick Leonard, serves as the film’s theme song, with Leonard’s haunting score taking its cues from the tune.

Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by Foley; the theatrical trailer; and an isolated track of Leonard’s score. A mini-poster is also included.

Movie: ★★★

Nick Stahl, Katie Holmes and James Marsden in Disturbing Behavior (Photo: MVD & MGM)

DISTURBING BEHAVIOR (1998). Iva Levin’s finger-on-the-pulse novel The Stepford Wives was brought to the big screen on two occasions — as a chilling cautionary tale starring Katharine Ross and Paula Prentiss in 1975 and as a swishy camp outing starring Nicole Kidman and Bette Midler in 2004 — and it also led to three useless TV movies titled Revenge of the Stepford Wives (1980), The Stepford Children (1987), and The Stepford Husbands (1996). To simplify matters, Disturbing Behavior should have just been called The Stepford Students, since its very existence owes a huge debt to the Levin property. James Marsden plays Steve Clark, the new kid in the town of Cradle Bay, Washington. Steve is immediately befriended by fellow student Gavin Strick (Nick Stahl), an oddball outsider who promptly informs him that there’s something not quite right with the elite kids who attend the school. They’re all a little too robotic, and whenever an unruly teenager gets too obnoxious, he or she is transformed overnight into a model student and joins this clique of perfectionists. Steve is more interested in pursuing riot grrrl Rachel Wagner (Katie Holmes) than in listening to Gavin’s crackpot theories, but after Gavin appears at school looking like a TARs member, Steve decides to investigate. Disturbing Behavior was directed by David Nutter, a regular director-producer on The X-Files, and written by Venom and Jumanji scripter Scott Rosenberg, but their original vision of an intelligent thriller aimed at adults was trashed by a studio that wanted a shallow horror film geared toward teenagers. Hacked to pieces by MGM and shaped by test-screening nitwits, this 84-minute flick is too choppy and too superficial to emerge as anything but a moody mediocrity.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Nutter; deleted scenes; and an alternate ending. A mini-poster is also included.

Movie: ★★

“Bobbi” and Nancy Allen in Dressed to Kill (Photo: Kino & MGM)

DRESSED TO KILL (1980). Brian De Palma’s career has been idling for quite some time now — his last four films, 2006’s The Black Dahlia, 2007’s Redacted, 2012’s Passion, and 2019’s Domino, were savaged by critics and ignored by audiences (Redacted even made my own year-end 10 Worst list) — so we should thank various home entertainment arms for releasing his earlier, better works on 4K and/or remastered Blu-ray. On the heels of the recent bows of Criterion’s Blow Out and Paramount’s The Untouchables and Mission: Impossible — and with Shout! Factory’s Carrie out next month — comes Kino’s edition of what might be his most controversial movie. Dressed to Kill remains a prime example of how De Palma is able to marry his awesome technical prowess to the material, using his dazzling feats of cinematic derring-do to propel his stories rather than bury their weaknesses. This one uses Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho as a starting point before veering off in its own deliciously twisted direction, centering on a sexually frustrated housewife (Angie Dickinson), her patient therapist (Michael Caine), an imperiled prostitute (a wonderful Nancy Allen), and a razor-wielding psychopath known as Bobbi. This compelling thriller was the first movie that, as a teen, made me aware of the art of filmmaking and, by extension, the necessity of film criticism, and it still floors me after all these decades. Pino Donaggio’s music score, alternately dreamy and frenzied, is simply wonderful; ditto Gerald Greenberg’s editing and Ralf Bode’s camerawork. The silent cat-and-mouse game set inside a museum is a remarkable sequence, as is the intense elevator encounter.

Extras include a making-of featurette; new interviews with Allen and Keith Gordon (who plays Dickinson’s teenage son); archival interviews with Dickinson, Allen, and Gordon; and an amusing comparison between the unrated, R-rated, and TV versions.

Movie: ★★★★

Summer Ghost (Photo: Shout! Factory & GKIDS)

SUMMER GHOST (2021). Some movies really don’t need to be feature-length; their stories can be efficiently and effectively told in 30 minutes, or maybe 45, or perhaps 60. (Now, getting moviegoers to pay full ticket prices for such a short multiplex stay is another matter…) The anime offering Summer Ghost only runs 40 minutes, and I daresay this heads in the opposite direction and should have been longer. As it stands, it’s an impressive achievement from debuting writer-director loundraw (co-scripting with Hirotaka Adachi), but there’s a nagging sense that there’s so much more to the story — actually, make that stories — at hand. Summer Ghost centers on three teenagers hoping to spot the title apparition, a teenage girl who reportedly committed suicide. The key to Ayane materializing is to light fireworks in her presence — Tomoya, Aoi, and Ryo do just that, and she does appear, but there’s more to the legend. The only way for a person to truly see her is to be close to death, whether physically, mentally or emotionally. For Ryo, it means a fatal illness that will kill him in approximately nine months; for Aoi, it means suicidal thoughts due to the incessant bullying she suffers at school; and for Tomoya, it means an aimless existence in which the fascinating specter of death is the one constant. As for Ayane, it turns out she wasn’t a suicide but rather the victim of a gruesome tragedy. The truncated running time means a few questions remain behind (particularly with Ayane), but this is nevertheless a sensitive and sobering drama in the carpe diem vein.

Blu-ray extras consist of a feature-length making-of documentary; the film in animatic form (i.e. a rough work-in-progress); and an interview with loundraw.

Movie: ★★★

Tom Cruise in Top Gun: Maverick (Photo: Paramount)

TOP GUN: MAVERICK (2022). Never has the nostalgic pull been stronger than with Top Gun: Maverick, which manages to mimic the 1986 original while also besting it in most regards. It contains just as many formulaic narrative sops and expected character beats as that Reagan-era blockbuster, and it might even surpass it in terms of its propaganda and jingoism (similar to how Disney allowed China to dictate the geopolitical content of Dr. Strange, Paramount here gave the U.S. Navy carte blanche to insert its own politics and recruitment tools). But the streamlining of the simple storyline (credited to five writers, including The Usual Suspects’ Christopher McQuarrie, The Batman’s Peter Craig, and the Transformers sequels’ Ehren Kruger) provides a breeziness that befits and benefits the picture, and the aerial sequences are out-of-this-world amazing. Tom Cruise returns to his role as naval aviator Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, who’s ordered to train the “best of the best” Top Gun graduates so that they may take part in a dangerous mission. One of his young charges is Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), who holds Maverick responsible for the death of his father, Nick “Goose” Bradshaw (played by Anthony Edwards in the original). The Maverick-Rooster plotline is the hoariest in the movie; more involving are Maverick’s rekindled romance with former flame Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly), the interplay between the trainees (Glen Powell is good as the cocky “Hangman”), and the ruminations on the aging Maverick’s place in a bold new world. Val Kilmer appears in one scene reprising his role as Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (now an admiral), and it’s the most emotionally involving interlude in the entire enterprise.

Extras in the 4K UHD + Blu-ray + Digital Code edition include behind-the-scenes featurettes; a discussion with Cruise; and the music video for Lady Gaga’s “Hold My Hand.”

Movie: ★★★

Gabriel Byrne and Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects (Photo: Kino & MGM)

THE USUAL SUSPECTS (1995). It may not have entered the pop culture zeitgeist as prominently as “Who shot J.R.?” and “Who killed Laura Palmer?,” but any film fan worth their weight in ticket stubs is familiar with the question “Who is Keyser Söze?” Indeed, he’s the mystery man at the center of The Usual Suspects, an intricately plotted thriller that back in the day kept most viewers guessing until the very end. Over a quarter of a century later, and with one Internet to rule them all, it’s hard for most folks to avoid cinematic spoilers of yore (whether it’s the sled in Citizen Kane, the father figure in The Empire Strikes Back or the penis in The Crying Game), but even knowing the answer shouldn’t spoil the film’s myriad other pleasures. Relying heavily on flashbacks, this finds a quintet of criminals — brainy cop-turned-crook Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), timorous Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey), swaggering Michael McManus (Stephen Baldwin), wisecracking Fred Fenster (Benicio del Toro), and obdurate Todd Hockney (Kevin Pollak) — forced to carry out a heist for a powerful crime lord named Keyser Söze. Upon the film’s original release, director Bryan Singer described it as a cross between Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity and Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon — with its roster of amoral lowlifes and its conflicting versions of key events, that’s a pretty good summation. The Usual Suspects went two-for-two at the Oscars, winning Best Original Screenplay for Christopher McQuarrie and Best Supporting Actor for Spacey.

Extras in the 4K UHD + Blu-ray edition include audio commentary by Singer and McQuarrie; vintage making-of featurettes; deleted scenes; and a gag reel.

Movie: ★★★½

Woody Allen in Zelig (Photo: Sandpiper)

ZELIG (1983). It’s not often that a cinematographer is at the center of controversy, but that was the case with the legendary Gordon Willis. Despite shooting many of the greatest — and greatest looking — films of the 1970s, classics like The Godfather (I and II), The Parallax View, All the President’s Men, and Manhattan, Willis was repeatedly denied an Oscar nomination by the myopic voters in the Academy. He was finally recognized with a nomination for Zelig, and this was followed by a second nod for 1990’s The Godfather: Part III and an honorary award for his body of work, the latter given only four years before his death in 2014. His nomination for Zelig wasn’t the usual Academy make-up pat on the back for an inferior effort; on the contrary, his work on this picture is astounding, as he and writer-director-star Woody Allen work in tandem to create a brilliant faux-documentary about Leonard Zelig, a meek fellow whose ability to take on the physical traits of those around him earned him the nickname “the chameleon man” during the 1920s and 1930s. Put him next to a portly fellow, he turns fat; place him alongside an African-American, he becomes black; plop him in a room with a psychiatrist, he begins talking like a doctor. Needless to say, he becomes a national phenomenon, big enough that numerous songs are written about him (composer Dick Hyman is responsible for creating the marvelous tunes with such titles as “Leonard the Lizard,” “Doin’ the Chameleon,” and “You May Be Six People, But I Love You”). Mia Farrow co-stars as the only doctor who cares about Leonard as a person, celebrities like Susan Sontag and Saul Bellow appear as themselves to analyze him, and, thanks to beautifully integrated footage, there are even Forrest Gump-style cameos by Adolf Hitler, Al Capone, Calvin Coolidge, and more.

There are no Blu-ray extras.

Movie: ★★★½


Review links for movies referenced in this column:
The Batman
The Black Dahlia
Blow Out
De Palma
Double Indemnity
The Godfather
Jumanji: The Next Level
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
Mission: Impossible
The Parallax View
Top Gun
The Untouchables

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