By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com
The DVD Wrapup: Finding Dory, Jungle Book, Shirley Clarke 4, Better Call Saul, Christmas Stuff and more
Finding Dory: Blu-ray
The Jungle Book: Blu-ray 3D/2D
As someone whose first screensaver turned my computer into a digital aquarium, parsing the differences between Finding Dory, Finding Nemo or SpongeBob SquarePants, isn’t something I care to spend time doing. If there’s a fish in the movie, I’m likely to enjoy it. The only critical knocks I’ve seen against Finding Dory were prompted by a perceived diminishment, however slight, in Pixar’s trademark gags and a story that bears too much resemblance to the original. Even so, the aggregate score on Metacritic.com stands at a lofty 77 and, last month, the worldwide box-office tally passed the billion-dollar barrier. One of the rotating screen savers provided by Windows 10 is an underwater scene, with a regal blue tang in the foreground, promoting Saving Dory. In life, as it is in cartoons, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Despite the 13-year gap that separates the two pictures, in movie time it’s only been a year since Nemo’s journey to the Sydney dentist’s office and Dory’s and Marlin’s frantic quest to find him. Dory (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres) is still struggling with her short-term memory loss. Nemo (Hayden Rolence) is happily growing up beside his father, Marlin (Albert Brooks), attending school and enjoying life Down Under. Dory is plagued by flashbacks of being separated from her parents, in the distant waters off California’s Morro Bay. Accompanied by Nemo and Marlin, she sets out on an adventure to find her family. Demonstrating, once again, that nothing good comes easy, the trio is separated when they reach the California coast, where the disembodied voice of Sigourney Weaver attracts them to the Marine Life Institute.
It’s there that Dory is netted by researchers after getting tangled in a plastic beer-can holder. In quarantine, Dory finds a new companion in Hank (Ed O’Neill), a seven-tentacle octopus – a heptapus, if you will — who joins her in exchange for a tag directing the bearer to an aquarium in Cleveland. It’s here, as well, that Dory finds other distant reminders of her past life, as well as other aquatic specimens destined for relocation to the city once referred to as the Mistake by the Lake. A Hollywood ending – two, actually – ensures that viewers will come away from Saving Dory happy and anxious for another sequel. It arrives on Blu-ray/DVD/Digital HD in a couple of different combo packs, one featuring a 3D version and the other a Blu-ray 2D, only. It contains supplements on the primary disc and a second bonus disc. In addition to the commentary, with director Andrew Stanton, co-director Angus MacLane and producer Lindsey Collins, and more than 50 minutes of deleted scenes, the best of the relatively short making-of features is “The Octopus That Nearly Broke Pixar,” a closer look at the challenges and process of creating “the most complicated character” Pixar has ever made … a why Hank had to be a heptapus. “Living Aquariums” is a collection of four themed digitally animated “fish tanks,” designed for ambient enjoyment, including “Sea Grass,” “Open Ocean,” “Stingrays” and “Swim to the Surface.”
It hasn’t taken long for Disney to offer 3D-compatible viewers an opportunity to take full advantage of their advanced hardware, by sending out a “Collector’s Edition” of The Jungle Book in both Blu-ray formats, DVD and Digital HD. (A UHD edition probably isn’t all that far behind, either.) The live-action adaptation of Disney’s 1967 animated classic – via Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 collection of stories — takes full advantage of its leafy settings and craggy waterhole for 3D opportunities that are plentiful and convincing. Fans of the original are likely to have a more difficult time adjusting to the revisions in the movie’s musical soundtrack than with anything to do with the visual elements. The story remains extremely compelling. Adding to the package’s value, as well, are several new features not included in the previous release. Besides the carryover content, there’s “The Bare Necessities: From the Jungle to the Bayou,” in which top New Orleans musicians, along with Bill Murray, record “The Bare Necessities”; “The Return of a Legend,” in which composer Richard Sherman, alongside director John Favreau, pens and performs new lyrics for “I Wan’na Be Like You”; “The Jungle Effect,” a brief juxtaposition of on-set footage and the digitally enhanced finished product; “The Jungle Book Around the World,” with scenes from the film presented in several different languages; and “Developing Kaa,” an animatic constructed to help develop the scene in which Mowgli meets Kaa.
The Magic Box: The Films of Shirley Clarke. 1927-1986: Project Shirley Volume 4: Blu-ray
There’s a place reserved in heaven for those who care so passionately about cinema that they would devote their entire careers to the preservation of movies almost no one would miss if they disappeared or were forever relegated to a shelf in a long-forgotten vault. Moreover, if it weren’t for companies willing to compile and distribute those lovingly restored films, they might languish in someone else’s vault, available only to scholars and cineastes who know where to look for them. It’s one thing to put together a feature-length collection of “lost” silent comedies or melodramas, starring the great stars of yesteryear, but where’s the profit in breathing new life into footage too obscure to register on the radar screens of academics and buffs, alike. “The Magic Box” represents the culmination of Milestone Film’s exhaustive “Project Shirley,” an eight-year-long effort to explore the films and life of an extraordinary woman, Shirley Clarke. Not all the contributions to the fourth and final volume, “The Magic Box: The Films of Shirley Clarke, 1927-1986,” are as well-known or historically significant as previous entries in the series, The Connection, Portrait of Jason and Ornette: Made in America, which dealt with outsider artists and underground culture. Most fall into the categories of home movies, experimental and performance films. The other is a documentary profile as close to mainstream as Clarke tended to get. Produced for Boston’s PBS affiliate, WGBH, “Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel With the World,” harkens to a time when a poet laureate could fill an auditorium for a reading and be welcomed at the White House simply because they’d accomplished something wonderful. A poet might be asked to read at the inauguration of American president or serve as a cultural ambassador-at-large. In 1955, Frost even appeared on “Meet the Press.”
Today, of course, Noble laureate Bob Dylan can’t even rouse himself to travel to Stockholm to accept his prize and, perhaps, deliver a speech that would shake young people out of their lethargy and deplore the bloodlust of religious fanatics and war mongers. (To this end, Dylan need only perform “Masters of War.”) Clarke finished her Academy Award-winning profile of Frost, a four-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, just prior to his death at age 88. She followed him to speaking engagements at Amherst and Sarah Lawrence and record scenes of his life in rural Vermont and personal reminiscences about his career. He is also seen receiving an award from President Kennedy and touring an aircraft carrier. Before committing her life to film, Clarke pursued a career in dance. It can be seen in the performance (“Bullfight”), experimental (“Savage/Love”) and workplace (“Skyscraper”) films and outtakes collected here. Producers Dennis Doros and Amy Heller deserve a lot of credit – they’ve already been honored for previous restorations – for sticking with the Shirley Clarke Project for eight challenging years. Working with Clarke’s daughter Wendy, as well as restoration teams at Wisconsin Center for Theater and Film Research, Museum of Modern Art Film Department, National Archives, the Anthology Film Archives, the UCLA Film and Television Archive, the Academy Film Archive, and Metropolis Post, they’ve given us a PhD-worthy study of a largely unsung artist.
The Killing of America: Blu-ray
As appalled as most Americans are by the deluge of crimes committed by mentally unstable men and boys with access to assault rifles, handguns and explosives, such outbursts of rage and intolerance have plagued the country for almost as long as we’ve existed as a sovereign entity. The difference between what’s happening today and the footage shown in Seldon Renan and Leonard Schrader’s provocative 1982 documentary, The Killing of America, is the willingness of the perpetrators to murder groups of children, as well as people with whom they carry political grudges. The video evidence of mass psychosis proved to be so startling that, after its initial screening, was pulled from distribution, exhibition on television and sale in the U.S. It was condemned as exploitive and obscene by critics in the mainstream press, even though none of the footage was faked or altered. In essence, the material was culled from video taken at crime scenes, but left on the cutting-room floor of editing bins for being too shocking or revealing. Uncensored autopsies also provided evidence of the ravages of unchecked violence. Cops are shown killing people for reasons that couldn’t be justified by guidelines or reason, but typically left unchallenged. We’re introduced to serial killers and assassins – through original reporting and police interrogations — some of whom are perfectly willing to discuss their motivations.
Schrader and his wife, Chieko, created The Killing of America as a wakeup call for a society that had grown numb to repeated atrocities or felt impotent when it came to reversing the trend. John Hinckley Jr.’s failed assassination attempt on President Reagan prompted calls for stronger gun-control laws, even at the highest levels of government. Two decades later, NRA lobbying efforts would succeed in reversing all the gains made in the wake of two assassination attempts on President Ford’s life, the murder of John Lennon and Hinkley’s insane love letters to Jody Foster. The film’s message, deemed too controversial in 1982, remains even more relevant today, with a President-elect backed by the NRA and Washington’s pro-death lobbyists. Included in The Killing of America package is the longer, even more shocking Japanese version of the film. It was modified to include views of an America that could be considered majestic, beautiful and peaceful – from above, anyway – before rubbing viewers’ noses in the muck. It ends with the Central Park memorial for John Lennon, where the participants pledged to strive for peace, love and understanding, as a white dove flew over their heads, supposedly representing Lennon’s spirit. If at times, The Killing of America comes off as a “snuff film,” it can be attributed to a time in the exploitation genre when it would have had to compete with pseudo-documentaries in the Italian cinema’s “mondo” subgenre. Severin Films presents the still-disturbing doc fully restored, uncut and loaded with exclusive bonus features, including audio commentary with Renan, interviews with Renan, editor Lee Percy, historian Nick Pinkerton and a documentary on “mondo” movies.
Cardboard Boxer: Blu-ray
If an actress is looking for a shortcut to an Oscar nomination, she’s encouraged to consider one of three classic parts: nuns, prostitutes or deaf women … or, ideally, a hearing-impaired nun who moonlights in a brothel. Male actors have been allowed a greater range of characters from which to choose, although priests frequently have gotten a leg up in the nomination game. Sadly, depictions of pedophile clergy are what’s being noticed most today by voters. One role that gives actors of both genders an opportunity to stretch is that of the homeless person, struggling to stay alive on the mean streets of our great cities. For many years, Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp set the standard for characters who couldn’t hold a job and lived hand to mouth. Red Skelton, Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason created characters in the same mold. In fact, homelessness wasn’t recognized as a problem that should concern Americans until the 1980s, when lawmakers closed mental-health facilities to save money in their budgets. Nick Nolte deserved Oscar consideration for his portrayal of a suicidal vagrant in Paul Mazursky’s uproarious Down and Out in Beverly Hills, itself an American remake of Jean Renoir’s 1932 comedy, Boudu Saved from Drowning. Mare Winningham, played a homeless single mother in God Bless the Child; Will Smith, a homeless dad, in The Pursuit of Happyness; Samuel L. Jackson, a mentally ill resident of Central Park, in The Caveman’s Valentine; Jamie Foxx, as a homeless street musician in The Soloist; and Richard Gere, playing against type in Time Out of Mind.
In Cardboard Boxer, Thomas Haden Church plays Willie, a fairly generic homeless man who sleeps in a cardboard box in Los Angeles’s notoriously dangerous Skid Row district. We’re made aware of his hidden talent when a couple of suburban teenagers offer him money to fight another homeless man for cash. Here, freshman writer/director Knate Gwaltney is referencing the “bum fight” craze, during which homeless men were similarly pitted for the amusement of Internet voyeurs and bored yuppies. I suspect that lawsuits have put a damper on the practice, but it fits Gwaltney’s vision here pretty well. Although we don’t know where Willie learned out to fight, we do know that he’s an otherwise gentle soul who finds a reason to live after he discovers the discarded diary of a troubled young girl in a dumpster full of smoke-damaged furniture. In a strange twist, he needs help reading the parts of the diary written in cursive script. He befriends a wheelchair-bound veteran, Pinky (Boyd Holbrook), who offers to read the passages to him, in exchange for some help getting to a pawn shop to pawn his Purple Heart. Also central to the story is a cab driver, Pope (Terrence Howard), who keeps watch over the men on the street and demands an end to the fights. There are times when Cardboard Boxer seems ready to collapse under the weight of its various subplots, but Church’s credibility is never in question and Gwaltney uses Downtown L.A. to its best advantage.
Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Lone Wolf and Cub: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
One of the most enduring mysteries of life involves the meaning of dreams. In addition to analyzing them, researchers have also spent countless hours attempting to pin down whether we dream in color or black-and-white. The answer to that riveting question appears to depend, in large part, on whether those surveyed grew up watching color or black-and-white television. It may sound logical, but doesn’t come close to explaining the Technicolor brilliance of the images in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams. At the ripe old age of 80, the Japanese master probably had absorbed several decades’ worth of B&W imagery before color film became commonplace. Before embarking on a career in film, however, Kurosawa had trained as an artist. He would storyboard his films as full-scale paintings, many of them of such stunning beauty and precision they could hang in a museum … and, since his death in 1988, have been displayed in galleries. Such was the case with Dreams, a collection of eight stories inspired by various aspects of his rich and full life. Some are more compelling than others, but each is wonderful in its own way. The colors add a vibrancy that is tangible. This is especially true in “Crows,” in which Kurosawa’s “I” (here, Martin Scorsese) not only converses with Vincent van Gogh in the fields of Arles, but takes a surrealistic stroll inside the mind of the Impressionist painter. Colors are used metaphorically in the cautionary environmental parables, “The Peach Orchard” and “Mount Fuji in Red.”
In “Sunshine Through the Rain,” a boy’s forbidden witnessing of a wedding procession of masked “foxes” is greatly enhanced by the tonal gradations of greens, browns and yellows in the enchanted forest. The segment does open up when the boy stands in a meadow, where actual foxes frolic, under a giant multicolored rainbow, seeking redemption for his effrontery. By contrast, the muted colors of “The Tunnel” echo the solemnity of a company of dead soldiers being reviewed by their very much alive commander, who’s required to explain why they must to return to the darkness of the afterlife. Likewise, in “Blizzard,” a whiteout forces mountaineers to contemplate the likelihood of death, until they’re rescued by a snow spirit, and, in “The Weeping Demon,” the dystopian imagery couldn’t be made any more dour. Where Dreams opened with a wedding procession that threatened the boy’s life, the closing segment, “Village of the Watermills,” includes a raucous funeral procession that celebrates it. The symmetry of these events, along with the Noh influences, help us contemplate Kurosawa’s lifelong vision, as well as his conceits. As enjoyable as it is to watch after 25 years, it’s worth recalling that critics failed to agree on its importance within his canon. As often happens, however, the distance provided by time offers pundits, peers and fans the luxury of perspective. Reverential interviews with two generations of international filmmakers certify Kurosawa’s influence on world cinema, as do the recollections of his closest aides. There’s also a lengthy making-of featurette, in which “The Tunnel” is examined with an eye to detail and the maestro’s ticks and recipes for success.
Although Kurosawa’s oeuvre includes masterpieces in several different genres and themes, American audiences know his samurai films best. That’s changed a bit since the advent of the DVD revolution, but not much. A second new offering from Criterion, Lone Wolf and Cub, demonstrates just how elastic the genre could be and still provide enjoyable and influential viewing. It was based on a manga series created by writer Kazuo Koike and artist Goseki Kojima, which, since 1970, has been adapted into six films starring Tomisaburo Wakayama, four plays and a television series starring Kinnosuke Yorozuya. Lone Wolf and Cub chronicles the story of the Shogun’s chief enforcer and executioner, Ogami Ittō, whose arsenal includes a dōtanuki battle sword and variety of less-conventional weapons that can be assembled and utilized in a matter of seconds. Disgraced by false accusations made by the Yagyū clan and consequent murders of his wife and servants, Ittō is forced onto the hell-bound path of the ronin assassin. The only other survivor of the massacre is his newborn son, Daigorō. After giving the child the “choice” of accompanying his father on his vengeful missions or accepting ritual death, Daigorō is put into a tricked-out wooden cart and wheeled around the country like any other baby. As he grows, Daigorō absorbs his father’s methodology and warrior’s code.
If this sounds preposterous, even by manga standards, compare the popularity of Lone Wolf and Cub – championed in the U.S. by Frank Miller, Max Allan Collins and Justin Lin — to the enduring acceptance of Kan Shimozawa’s Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman and its spinoffs. Criterion’s boxed set contains the original six films, as well as Shogun Assassin, the English-dubbed reconstruction of the first two films, LW&C: Sword of Vengeance and LW&C: Baby Cart at the River Styx. The original six films are sourced from brand new 2K digital restorations and spread over two discs. Shogun Assassin is presented as a bonus feature. The supplemental features on the three discs in the collection include original trailers; “Shogun Assassin’ (1980); the French documentary film “L’ame d’un Pere, L’ame d’un Sabre” (2005); new video interviews with manga novelist and screenwriter Kazuo Koike and biographer Kazuma Nozawa; and an illustrated booklet featuring an essay and film synopses by Japanese pop culture writer Patrick Macias. It should be noted that the violence is extremely graphic, if not particularly realistic, and incidents of rape and partial nudity are not uncommon. As the series unfolds, Itto becomes more and more invincible and the buggy begins to resemble a miniature war wagon. That said, the stories and conceit do grow on you.
Private Vices, Public Virtues: Blu-ray
It’s entirely possible that I was out sick – or merely snoozing – the day our European-history teacher synopsized the Mayerling Incident, a series of events that led to the deaths of the 30-year-old heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and his 17-year-old mistress, at the Imperial hunting lodge in the Vienna Woods. The deaths, which occurred in 1889, remain a mystery to this day. Three guesses have been bandied about for most of the last 125 years by royal gossips, police, historians, authors and screenwriters: Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria, and his lover Baroness Mary Vetsera were the victims of a double murder, equal partners in a double suicide or the perpetrators of a murder/suicide, with one dying long after the other was killed. Hapsburg Dynasty functionaries were so anxious to destroy evidence and put their own spin on the deaths that nothing conclusive could be determined, even after several exhumations and forensic examination. Last year, Vetsera’s letters of farewell to her mother and other family members, previously believed lost or destroyed, were found in a safe-deposit box in an Austrian bank, where they had been deposited in 1926. The historical upshot: if Rudolf had been elevated to the crown, as expected, Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip may not have bothered shooting his cousin, Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, sparking World War I.
Miklós Jancsó’s highly controversial fantasy/drama Private Vices, Public Virtues was inspired by the Mayerling Incident, but only to the extent that its protagonists bear the names of Crown Prince Rudolf and Mary Vetsera. If anything, the 1976 film served as a metaphor to a time in central Europe, only a few years earlier, when the heady aroma of freedom caused young people to thumb their noses at their elders and repressive Communist Party leaders. Sexual libertines and feminists promoted their own agendas, if only for a brief period of time. By setting the debauchery and tragedy in the late-1800s, Jancsó probably thought he could deflect the controversy sure to rise from the extensive nudity and non-traditional sexual couplings. Sadly, it didn’t. After its Cannes debut, Private Vices, Public Virtues would be treated like a pariah, even within arthouse circles. Forty years later, it can be viewed as a bacchanalian fantasy or Habsburgian Woodstock – for once, the male nudity equals that of the female characters — that recalls the work of Fellini, Pasolini, Tinto Brass and Walerian Borowczyk. The revelries are well-staged and the production values top-notch. This first Blu-Ray edition, from Mondo Macabro, is uncut and restored from the original negative. It comes with extensive interviews with cast member Pamela Villoresi, film historian Michael Brooke and writer Giovanna Gagliardo.
TV to DVD
Better Call Saul: Season Two: Blu-ray
While it’s probably true that proponents of quality television wouldn’t have to had to watch the entirety of “Breaking Bad” to enjoy its spinoff prequel, “Better Call Saul,” there would be no way to appreciate Season Two without first absorbing Season One. That might sound obvious, but the same basic rule hasn’t applied to other prime-time dramas, which could be joined mid-run, mid-season or even mid-show. The show’s protagonist, ethically challenged Albuquerque attorney Jimmy McGill, a.k.a. Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), didn’t make his first appearance in “Breaking Bad” until midway through the second season. “Better Call Saul” begins in 2002, seven years before Walt and Jesse hired the “best criminal lawyer in town” to defend Badger, who had been apprehended by the DEA. In the first season of “Better Call Saul,” we watched Jimmy establish his reputation – largely via ads on late-night television and handouts – as a lawyer willing to do almost anything to get a client exonerated. Jimmy isn’t invincible, but he tries hard. We also met his far more legitimate, if completely paranoid brother, Chuck McGill, who’s a partner in a major New Mexico law firm, and future love interest, attorney Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn).
Jimmy enters the big leagues when he outfinesses his brother’s firm over who should represent residents of the Sandpiper Retirement Home and a corrupt county treasurer who embezzled $1.6 million. All of which leads to Season Two, during which Jimmy and Kim are forced to deal with the ramifications of success and respectability. Former Philadelphia cop Mike Ehrmantraut (veteran bad ass Jonathan Banks), now a parking-lot attendant, is also given a juicy storyline that will extent into “Breaking Bad.” The reclusive Chuck is lured from his man cave by his partners to oppose some of his brother’s more devious moves, but it comes at a price. As sleazy as he might be at times, Jimmy has a good heart and works hard for his clients. Bonus extras include cast and crew commentaries on all 10 episodes, a gag reel and a table-read for the “Switch” episode. Special Blu-ray features add “Jimmy and Kim: A Complicated Relationship,” “The Takedown,” “In Conversation: Jonathan Banks & Mark Margolis,” “Constructing Davis & Main,” “Landing FIFI” and the bonus scene, “HSC: Beaches ‘n’ Peaches,” as well as commercials “Davis & Main Mesothelioma,” “Who Stole My Nest Egg?!,” “Davis & Main Sandpiper” and “Your the Greatest!”
Christmas in November
Bob Hope: Hope for the Holidays
It’s A Wonderful Life: Platinum Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Lifetime: The Spirit of Christmas
UPtv: A Dogwalker’s Christmas Tale
There once was a time, not so long ago, when Christmas wasn’t Christmas until the first of many airings of It’s a Wonderful Life and the annual Bob Hope holiday special, whether it was from a war zone or a festive soundstage at NBC’s Burbank studios. In my opinion, the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol, starring Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge, still trumps all the other versions, with the possible exception of the 1962 made-for-TV “Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol,” but that’s just a personal choice. Another generation of viewers might point to “Rudolph, the Red-Nose Reindeer,” “Frosty the Snowman” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas” as shows they return to year after year. Time Life/WEA’s “Bob Hope: Hope for the Holidays” is one of several DVDs extant that focus on the beloved comedian’s holiday specials and star-studded USO tours. From what I can recall, “Hope for the Holidays” represents the penultimate such show, 1993’s “Bob Hope’s Bag Full of Christmas Memories,” made when he was 90 … the approximate age of some of the Phyllis Diller jokes. It originally was included in the boxed set, “Bob Hope: The Ultimate Collection.” The setting, we’re told, is Bob and Dolores Hope’s Toluca Lake home, but I wouldn’t bet a lot of money on that. As usual, they invited friends from the world of entertainment and sports to celebrate and reminisce about vintage seasonal sketches, which date back to the December 24, 1950, with “The Colgate Comedy Hour,” whose guests included opera star Lily Pons, Eleanor Roosevelt, Bob Cummings, New York Mayor Vincent Impellitteri, the Boys’ Choir from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and Charles Sandford and his Orchestra. The guest list for the 1993 show included Naomi and Wynonna Judd, Loni Anderson, Barbara Eden, Joey Lawrence, Ed Marinaro, Lynn Swann, Loretta Swit and a couple dozen cameos, via archive footage. A compilation of Bob’s monologues from his many holiday tours for the USO is also included.
The story behind Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is almost as fascinating as the one told in the movie. It had an uneasy gestation period and took its own good-natured time reaching classic status or turning a profit. Adapted from Philip Van Doren Stern’s 1939 story, “The Greatest Gift,” it opened to mixed reviews and lousy box-office, but five Academy Award nominations. Its lone winner was a Technical Achievement Award, which honored RKO Radio Studio’s Special Effects Department for the development of a new method of simulating falling snow on motion picture sets. The next year, the FBI issued a memorandum pointing out the possibly communist-inspired themes in the movie. It wasn’t until It’s a Wonderful Life fell into the public domain, in the mid-1970s, that it became a true staple of the holiday season. Although royalties were still paid to certain rights holders, the movie was shown repeatedly on network affiliates and independently owned stations. Today, NBC is licensed to show the film on U.S. network television, limiting its exposure to two airings during the holidays. Colorization also became an issue in 1986, when the first of three versions was released by Hal Roach Studios. Capra changed his mind on the technology when his investment in Colorization Inc. was returned and he lost artistic control over the process. A third colorized version was produced by Legend Films and released on DVD in 2007 with the approval of Capra’s estate. In addition to both the B&W and colorized versions, the Platinum Edition features two bonus materials, “The Making of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’” and “A Personal Remembrance,” a special tribute to Frank Capra, narrated by his son Frank Capra Jr.
The proliferation of distribution points for original programming has resulted in a surplus of holiday-themed movies that can be repackaged as made-for-DVD movies or repeated endlessly on cable channels, such as Lifetime, UPtv, Disney and Hallmark. For the most part, they’re as provocative as the average Christmas card and as nutritious as white bread. While most are targeted at so-called family audiences, others add romantic hooks that wouldn’t offend a Sunday School teacher. That’s OK … there’s no shortage of R-rated holiday-themed movies in the marketplace for less-sentimental viewers. Lifetime’s “The Spirit of Christmas” fits most of the qualifications required of a made-for-cable movie, but, even so, I was surprised by how diverting I it is. Kate (Jen Lilley) is an ambitious New England attorney, assigned by a real-estate company to appraise the value of Hollygrove Inn, a grand Victorian home that has been in the Forsythe family for generations. It doesn’t take her long to figure out that the place is haunted by Daniel (Thomas Beaudoin), a dandy who was murdered 90 years earlier, on Christmas. Daniel can be a playful fellow, but he’s cursed with the need for mourning his lost love, Lily (Kati Salowsky). Kate volunteers to use modern detection techniques to solve the crime. Even if you can guess the rest, director David Jackson and writer Tracy Andreen minimize the clichés by maximizing the charm.
Letia Clouston and Jake Helgren’s “A Dogwalker’s Christmas Tale” doesn’t offer much that’s particularly new, but dog lovers might want to take a chance on it. What it boils down to is a tale of redemption involving a spoiled college student, Luce Lockhart (Lexi Giovagnoli), who is forced to take a job over the holidays after maxing out her credit cards. While walking the dog of a rich developer, she learns that the local canine campus will soon be turned into a spa. This doesn’t bother Luce, until the folks at the dog park explain what the space means to them personally. She joins forces with an overamped veterinary student desperate to quash the development, but it must be accomplished by Christmas.
Now that gay and lesbian couples have won the right to get married and start families, it won’t be long before the LGBT genre begins to overflow with the overly sentimental holiday movies that resemble the stories that are made for mainstream cable networks. With only a few small variations, same-sex spouses and parents will be confronted with the same challenges and dilemmas as men and women in traditional marriages and they’ll deal with them in much the same way. Writer/director Rob Williams already has one seasonal title under his belt, Make the Yuletide Gay (2009). Shared Rooms is a feel-good rom-com, set between Christmas and New Year’s Day, a period typically reserved for familial angst and the anxiety that derives from unrealized expectations. Married couple Laslo and Cal (Christopher Grant Pearson, Alec Manley Wilson) take in a gay teen relative (Ryan Weldon), who shows up on their doorstep after being kicked out of his home. Sid and Gray (Justin Xavier, Alexander Neil Miller) have a casual online hookup that unexpectedly deepens and Julian and Dylan (Daniel Lipshutz, Robert Werner) confront their secret mutual attraction when a boarder is taken in and they’re forced to share a bed for a week. The intertwining stories come together at a New Year’s Eve party, not unlike Garry Marshall’s New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. Among the issues discussed in an upbeat manner are gay parenting, disembodied hookups, rehab, dealing with exes and gay youth being rejected by their families.