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Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Wrapup and Gift Guide I: Fellini, Ernie Kovacs, Green Acres, Carol Burnett, Person-to-Person and more

Now that Halloween’s in the rear-view mirror, we can focus on giftable movies and boxed sets of interest to buffs, collectors and geeks. In the weeks leading up to the holidays, we’ll offer a few suggestions on DVDs, Blu-rays and books that bear special consideration.

The Voice of the Moon: Special Edition: Blu-ray
It’s difficult to imagine discovering a movie by Federico Fellini that lovers of foreign films haven’t seen at least once. In the case of Arrow Academy’s “The Voice of the Moon: Special Edition” Blu-ray, “discovery” might not be the right term. The Maestro’s final feature has been sitting around in plain sight for more than a quarter-century, just waiting for some distributor to give it a whirl. Better late than never. Based on a novel and screenplay by Ermanno Cavazzoni, “La voce della luna” debuted in Italy in January 1991, but failed to find distribution in the English-speaking world after its screening, out of competition, at that year’s Cannes festival. Two years later, Fellini would be dead and his last few releases all but forgotten. If critics were justifiably underwhelmed by The Voice of the Moon then, there are plenty of good reasons to check it out today. It would be a shame to miss this quintessentially Fellini-esque entertainment, which has been reintroduced in Arrow’s lovely 2K restoration from original film elements. It stars Roberto Benigni, who, a few months later would play a manic Roman cabbie in Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth, and, in 1997, go on to win a Best Actor Oscar for Life Is Beautiful. He plays Ivo Salvini, a free spirit, who, after being released from an asylum, continues to be guided by voices coming from the wells he regularly inspects. He’s even more obsessed with the moon, which becomes an inescapable force in his life. He sees it in the puddles of waters that collect in the streets after a rain and in the face of his would-be lover, Aldini (Nadia Ottaviani).

Ivo and his motley crew of misfits are lunatics, in the classic definition of the word. On full-moon nights, their eccentricities become even more pronounced than usual. The narrative, such as it is, follows Ivo’s pursuit of Aldini through a fantastical landscape that combines poetry, dreams and ordinary madness. If Benigni is the star of the show, Fellini demands that he share the spotlight with Paolo Villagio, who plays Gonnella, a paranoid old man prone to conspiracy theories. It probably isn’t a coincidence that he resembles Fellini here. The Voice of the Moon may not stand up to comparison with his classic titles, but it contains several genuinely magical tableaux his admirers should find absolutely fascinating. The Blu-ray package includes “Towards the Moon With Fellini,” a rarely seen hour-long documentary on the film’s production, featuring interviews with Fellini, Benigni and Villagio; a “Felliniana Archive Gallery,” with images from the collection of Don Young; a reversible sleeve, with original and newly commissioned artwork by Peter Strain; and an illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing on the film by Pasquale Iannone.

Ernie Kovacs: Take a Good Look: The Definitive Collection
Several generations of television viewers have grown up without an appreciation of Ernie Kovacs’ contributions to the medium and how they still influence improvisational comedians and late-night talk-show hosts, today, 55 years after his untimely death in an automobile accident, at 42. This isn’t to say, however, that we haven’t enjoyed watching ideas advanced by Kovacs in his TV shows and commercials. They’ve influenced Dave Garroway, Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, Jim Henson, “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In,” “Saturday Night Live,” “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” “Captain Kangaroo,” “Sesame Street,” “The Electric Company” and “SCTV.” Most have acknowledged the debt they owe the Trenton-born entertainer. Others may not realize who and what inspired their routines. Shout!Factory has already done a terrific job compiling Kovacs’ work for television – not all of which aired during his lifetime – and introducing the uninitiated to recurring characters like besotted poet Percy Dovetonsils, Teutonic DJ Wolfgang von Sauerbraten and the ill-tempered Miklos Molnar, as well as his wife, frequent guest star and collaborator Edie Adams. For the first time, “Ernie Kovacs: Take a Good Look: The Definitive Collection,” offers all 49 existing episodes of his truly offbeat ABC game show, which ran from October 22, 1959, to February 9, 1961. If it aired today, it would still be considered innovative. The show combined the basic elements of “What’s My Line” with the improvisational challenges of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” Kovacs gives his celebrity panel hints about a secret guest’s identity, frequently in the form of surreal sight gags, blackouts and sketches. The clues don’t always make sense to anyone, except Kovacs, who also created the show’s commercials for Dutch Masters cigars. Appearing regularly throughout the run were Edie Adams, Cesar Romero, Hans Conried and Ben Alexander, with infrequent guest panelists Carl Reiner, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Jane Wyatt, Mort Sahl, Jack Carson, Tony Randall, Janet Leigh and Jim Backus. Frankly, though, “Take a Good Look” represents only a small fraction of Kovac’s genius.

Green Acres: The Complete Series
Also from the archivists at Shout!Factory comes “Green Acres: The Complete Series,” which, for the first time, compiles all 170 episodes of the “Petticoat Junction” spinoff and country cousin to CBS’ monster hit, “The Beverly Hillbillies.” All would be purged in 1971, along with such heartland mainstays as “Hee-Haw,” “Mayberry R.F.D.,” “Lassie” and “The Jim Nabors Hour” — as part of the network’s strategy to attract younger, more affluent audiences. There’s no question that the gambit succeeded in upgrading CBS’ demographic appeal to advertisers, even if it would open itself to attacks by conservative politicians for abandoning “family friendly” fare. Ironically, in fall 1972, CBS half-heartedly scheduled a rural drama it expected to fail. The success of “The Waltons” would launch a trend for family dramedies: “Little House on the Prairie,” “Apple’s Way,” “Family” and “Eight is Enough.” “Green Acres,” which ran for six seasons, turned “The Beverly Hillbillies” concept inside-out by transplanting sophisticated city-slickers Oliver Wendell and Lisa Douglas (Eddie Albert, Eva Gabor) into the fertile soil of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.” Among the running gags are Oliver’s inability to demonstrate the patience he would need to survive his agrarian idyll and his glamorous wife’s ability to adjust to country ways. And, while the producers made no attempt to reinvent the network sitcom, they had plenty of fun tweaking genre tropes. The show also featured some cross-over appearances by characters in “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Petticoat Junction.” The box adds the pilot episode, with commentary by pop-culture historian Russell Dyball; interviews with Albert from “The Dick Cavett Show” (audio only) and “The Danny Kaye Show”; and select material from the radio show, “Granby’s Green Acres,” which inspired the TV series.

Richard Simmons: Sweatin’ to the Oldies: The Complete Collection: 30th Anniversary Edition
In the nearly 40 years that exercise gadfly Richard Simmons has been in the public eye, he’s been admired as an advocate for healthy living and ridiculed as the clown prince of pop culture. As a frequent guest on talk shows, the 69-year-old New Orleans native has shed countless tears over the abuse suffered by severely overweight Americans and pranced around stages as if to acknowledge his calling as the media’s favorite twink. He played a version of himself on “General Hospital,” when it was the hottest soap on TV, and occupied the center seat on “Hollywood Squares.” Two years after Simmons disappeared from public view, in 2014, the entertainment media went into feeding frenzy, speculating on what he was doing instead of appearing on TV and minding to his newly closed health club. Some feared he was being held hostage by his housekeepers, while others guessed that he was undergoing gender reassignment. (Last month, his suit against the National Enquirer, Radar Online and American Media Inc., for libel and false claims, was dismissed and he was ordered to pay legal fees for the defendants.) It is against this background that Time Warner and Amazon.com has been licensed to release “Sweatin’ to the Oldies: 30th Anniversary Edition,” which followed Jane Fonda’s celebrity-workout tapes to the top of the VHS charts. The energetic six-disc set includes the complete collection of Simmons’ platinum-selling “Sweatin’ to the Oldies” workout programs that paired lively classics from the 1950-60s with low-impact routines and the host’s banter, encouragement and trademark tank tops. The package also contains “Love Yourself and Win: Six Steps to Self-Esteem & Permanent Weight Loss” and 100 minutes of bonus material, featuring an exclusive interview with Simmons; testimonials and success stories from his students; and a 20-page album of personally selected personal photos and memories.

Planes, Trains & Automobiles: 30th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Although the holiday celebration that John Candy and Steve Martin are desperately attempting to make throughout Planes, Trains & Automobiles is Thanksgiving – now known as Black Friday Eve — their ordeal could apply to any weather-impacted event, from weddings or baptisms, to Christmas or Passover. It’s one movie that fits all holidays. To summarize: advertising executive Neal Page (Martin) and curtain-ring salesman Del Griffith (Candy) are forced by circumstances join forces to find another way to get to their Chicago homes, after learning that all flights from New York have been grounded. The title only gives away half of the madness in the mission. One look at the cover art tells you everything else all you’ll need to know about how difficult their collaboration will be. Compared to Neal and Del, Felix Ungar and Oscar Madison are identical twins. The conceit wasn’t all that new, even then – think Laurel and Hardy, Mutt & Jeff, Abbott and Costello — and it’s been repeated several times since 1987. Hughes’ inspiration, fully realized by Martin and Candy, derived from a flight he hoped to take from Chicago to New York, but would be diverted backwards to Kansas. “TP&A” would mark Hughes first departure from directing teen-oriented comedies. The antiquated “R” rating accorded the film by the MPAA owes to a minute-long tirade, during which Neal drops 18 F-bombs on an attendant at a car-rental kiosk … nothing else. In fact, Candy’s character was originally conceived as a vampire, until Hughes wisely decided to drop the horror and build “PT&A” on a foundation of reconstructed odd-couple, road-trip and buddy gags. The writer/director was coming off Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, while Martin and Candy were at the top of their game. Paramount’s “Those Aren’t Pillows! Edition” adds an in-depth retrospective on Hughes’ career, featuring interviews with those who worked with him; “Getting There Is Half the Fun: The Story of Planes, Trains & Automobiles”; the featurettes, “John Hughes for Adults” and “A Tribute to John Candy”; and a deleted scene. This is an obvious gift for anyone who hasn’t yet seen the movie.

Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas: Deluxe Edition: Blu-ray, 4K UHD
Dr. Seuss’ beloved holiday classic is no stranger to DVD and Blu-ray, but aficionados will be happy to learn that its latest Blu-ray iteration has been built around the 2015 “Grinchmas” edition, which provided a necessary visual correction to the lambasted 2009 version. Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas: Deluxe Edition loses only a couple bonus features from the 2009 combo pack, but nothing substantial. It arrives in a plush green cover jacket and optional 4K UHD iteration. (Higher-def technology could be a hot item under the tree this year.) It also features High Dynamic Range (HDR) for brighter, deeper, more lifelike color; commentary with director Ron Howard; deleted scenes and outtakes; the Faith Hill music video, “Where Are You Christmas?”; and a half-dozen vintage featurettes.

The Carol Burnett Show: Carol’s Lost Christmas
This special presentation from Time Life/WEA — “The Carol Burnett Show: Carol’s Lost Christmas” — contains three uncut episodes from the first four seasons of “The Carol Burnett Show,” which ran from 1967 to 1978. In the first show, look for a dancing Santa, Christmas carols, yuletide poetry and a visit to a boozing Kris Kringle at the North Pole. The set also brings together classic sketches, “The Old Folks,“ “Carol and Sis,” “V.I.P” and “The Charwoman”; the classic “Mrs. Peter Piper” courtroom sketch, written by Neil Simon; an “Early Early Show” movie parody; old lovebirds Bert and Molly (Harvey and Carol) exchange a few choice words while they slowly rock themselves into the New Year; Carol and Vicki join the Bob Mitchell Singing Boys for a touching performance of “Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown?”; pitchmen Garry Moore and Durward Kirby reach out and touch the pocketbooks of parents with an array of ridiculous toys for kids; Jonathan Winters plays St. Nick, as he decides who’s been naughty or nice; Carol and her regular cast of Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence and Lyle Waggoner are supplemented, as well, by Barbara Eden and Steve Lawrence.

A Puppy for Christmas
Just because a movie contains the word “Christmas” in its title there’s no reason to think they’re all created equal. For every White Christmas, Christmas Vacation or The Nightmare Before Christmas, there are a dozen or more holiday pictures that appear to have been shaped by the same cookie cutter and sweetened with the same generous quantities of saccharine. Like new releases A Puppy for Christmas, Christmas With the Andersons and Married by Christmas, they debut on obscure cable channels and are promoted as family-family entertainment. No matter how naughty or nice the characters may be, they’ll be required to overcome a crisis before embracing the true meaning of the holiday, with or without any mention of the Baby Jesus. In the former, a young woman’s life and career are upended after she gifts herself with a puppy. Turns out, her boyfriend is allergic to doggy dander and Noelle (Cindy Busby) adopted Buster knowing the risk it carried to their relationship. She decides to accept a co-worker’s offer to spend the holidays on his family’s farm, where Buster can be as mischievous as he wants to be and, of course, a romance develops between Noelle and her unrefined friend, Liam (Greyston Holt). Naturally, too, when her old boyfriend comes to the farm, begging for forgiveness, she’s required to make another decision that carries some risk with it.  If that doesn’t sound much like a holiday movie, it’s worth noting that Liam’s family grows Christmas trees on their farm. Co-director Justin G. Dyck has also helmed Christmas Wedding Planner, 48 Christmas Wishes, A Very Country Christmas, Operation Christmas List and My Dad Is Scrooge.

In Christmas With the Andersons, Mike and Caroline Anderson (George Stults, Christy Carlson Romano) suffer the kind of economic setback that threatens their reputation for throwing their neighborhood’s grandest holiday parties and lavishing their 10-year-old twins, Brendan and Julia, with great gifts. It isn’t until wacky Aunt Katieam (Julie Brown) pays a visit that Mike comes up with way to salvage Christmas and establish a new set of priorities for family celebrations. Co-writer/director/producer Michael Feifer is also responsible for such holiday-themed movies as Merry Kissmas, A Star for Christmas, The Dog Who Saved the Holidays, A Christmas Wedding TailMy Dog’s Christmas Miracle, The Dog Who Saved Christmas and A Christmas Proposal, as well as profiles of notorious serial killers like Ed Gein, Richard Speck, Ted Bundy, the B.T.K. killer, Albert De Salvo and Henry Lee Jackson.

Like Christmas trees, most seasonal romances are evergreens. Letia Clouston’s made-for-UpTV Married by Christmas (a.k.a., The Engagement Clause”) is no exception. Due to an antiquated clause in her grandmother’s will, an ambitious young executive, Carrie Tate (Jes Macallan), faces the prospect of losing her gourmet food-distribution business to her restaurateur sister, Katie (April Bowlby), if she doesn’t beat her to the altar on Christmas Eve. The problem, of course, is that Katie has a fiancé and Carrie doesn’t. Finding a potential husband without conflicting interests proves to be a problem. Clouston has previously given us A Dogwalker’s Christmas Tale. And, you thought Santa’s elves were busy.

Other new releases:

Person to Person
Quirky doesn’t begin to describe Dustin Guy Defa’s Person to Person, an old-fashioned indie seriocomedy about a dozen, or so, characters we wouldn’t notice if we passed them on the street during a stroll through any one of New York’s boroughs. While the same probably could apply to the people in ensemble pieces by Robert Altman or Alan Rudolph, we’re given more than one reason to care about their characters over the next two hours of screen time. Here, not so much. Defa’s characters are interesting only to the extent that they manage to break the wall of anonymity that blocks strangers from noticing each other in everyday meanderings. To this end, Defa’s decision to mix a few known faces with those of amateurs and underemployed pros also maintains our curiosity. Bene Coopersmith, a record-shop owner in Red Hook, reprises his role of the vinyl collector in Defa’s 2014 short film of the same title. We can’t help but be disappointed when sets out to buy a rare Charlie Parker album, only to discover that he’s become the victim of a scam. If it weren’t for the atypically colorful shirt he’s begun to regret wearing, Bene would be as devoid of personality as the sleeves used to protect records from dust and scratches. He wins us over during a humorously conceived bicycle chase through the streets of Brooklyn. More familiar are Michael Cera (“Arrested Development”), Abbi Jacobson (“Broad City”), Philip Baker Hall (“The Loop”) and Michaela Watkins (“Casual”), whose storyline involves an unlikely investigation into a suspicious death that hinges on the placement of the hands of a broken watch. George Sample III plays Bene’s best friend, who’s stuck in a deep depression after misjudging the power of the Internet to exact revenge on his girlfriend. Waifish Tavi Gevinson (“Style Rookie”) plays a high school student, who, after skipping classes with her best friend (Olivia Luccardi), is left more conflicted about her emerging sexuality than before the day started.

Kidnap: Blu-ray
In the 2013 kidnapping thriller, The Call, Hallie Berry played a 911 operator who takes it in her hands to rescue a teen, stuck, for most of the film, in the trunk of her abductor’s automobile, armed only with a cellphone. It made some money, thanks mostly to Berry’s tightly controlled performance and charisma. Not long afterwards, Berry was hired to play a divorced mother whose cute-as-a-button son is kidnaped by someone whose motives are unclear … but not for long. Berry’s Karla Dyson is the quintessential mother who will go to the end of the Earth to rescue her son, before she’ll entrust the task to the local police. In this case, however, we understand how contacting the cops might be a problem. While chasing the kidnaper through the park, Karla drops her cellphone. Having made a visual identification of the woman who grabbed Frankie (Sage Correa), she hops in her minivan and chases the beat-up Mustang across southern Louisiana for most of the next 95 minutes. That isn’t an exaggeration. The pursuit is alternately exciting and ridiculous, as it would be given the location and number of vehicles that get in her way. The ridiculous part comes in watching innocent people get mowed down as if they were well-worn bowling pins. But, that’s OK, because in director Luis Prieto and writer Knate Lee’s story, the end justifies the means. The real stars, after all, are the stuntmen and stuntwomen who risked their lives for a movie whose release would postponed for nearly two years – five times, in all — and given a lukewarm sendoff when it finally did make the theatrical circuit. (According to producer Joey Tufaro, the production crashed 85 vehicles, including seven versions of the minivan driven by Berry in the film.) Chase fans won’t be disappointed. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette.

Age of Kill
In this far-fetched, if well-choreographed tick-tock thriller from England, a former black-ops sniper, Sam Blake (Martin Kemp), is blackmailed by a masked terrorist into killing six unrelated people in six hours… but there is more to the victims than meets the eye. The terrorist is holding Blake’s daughter (Dani Dyer) as collateral, while he’s also playing another assassin, Lexi (April Pearson), against his enemies. The police are represented by D.I. Hannah Siddiq (Anouska Mond), who makes DCI Jane Tennison look like something the cat dragged into the local nick. Her youthful good looks cause government intelligence agents assigned to the case not to take her seriously. This is only their first big mistake. As if Neil Jones and writer Simon Cluett’s story weren’t sufficiently topical, there’s also a subplot involving a closeted right-wing politician organizing violent protests against immigrants. It’s a bit of a mess, but watchable, nonetheless.

L7: Pretend We’re Dead: Blu-ray
If Andy Warhol were still among the living, he might be tempted to update the observation he made in 1968, “In the future, everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes,” to “In the future, everybody will be overexposed for fifteen minutes.” God knows what he might have to say about Facebook, selfies, Twitter and the Kardashians. Warhol deferred credit for popularizing the term “superstar,” crediting a “friend of mine from New Jersey (who) called herself Ingrid Superstar. … The more parties we went to, the more they wrote her name in the papers, Ingrid Superstar, and ‘superstar’ was starting its media run.” By now, the term “superstar” has become so commonplace that’s completely lost its relevance, even as a marketing tool. What’s 15 minutes of fame, when an Internet page is eternal? Every week, it seems, someone sends me a documentary that chronicles the rise and inevitable fall of a rock band that allowed itself to be filmed in and out of concert, ad nauseum, possibly to remind the members’ grandchildren of their 15 minutes in the spotlight. These rockumentaries also describe microtrends with pop genres – death metal, industrial rock, hard-core — or a city’s contribution to rock’s DNA. While almost all the filmmakers take their subjects way too seriously, some strike a balance between adulation and reality. Sarah Price’s L7: Pretend We’re Dead is such a film.

Culled from more than 100 hours of vintage home movies taken by the band, never-before-seen performance footage and candid interviews with band members and peers in the punk/grunge movements. In its 16 years of existence, L7 couldn’t avoid being pigeonholed as a “girl group” or standard bearer for the “riot grrrl” movement. Price (Summer Camp!) makes it clear from the get-go that L7’s bona fides were every bit as legitimate as any band in Los Angeles’ punk scene of the 1980s or Seattle’s 1990s’ grunge firmament. Donita Sparks, Suzi Gardner, Jennifer Finch and Dee Plakas walked the walk politically, forming Rock for Choice, an advocacy group supported by Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana and Rage Against the Machine, while also thrilling the same audiences. Alas, no matter how popular the band was in concert, the rock establishment made it difficult for it to be heard on radio and at festivals, where promoters sometimes treated L7 like a novelty act. L7: Pretend We’re Dead follows the band to the point, in 2001, where it couldn’t justify staying together as a commercial entity, finally disappearing for another 15 years. (It reunited in 2015, playing festivals in the U.S. and Europe.) The home-movie material in the film reminded me a bit of the esprit de corps and slapsticky humor that distinguished the Beatles’ movies and Bob Rafelson’s take on the Monkees’ craze, Head. Also included in the package are outtakes and Krist Novoselic’s 1997 documentary, “L7 The Beauty Process.”

Halo: The Complete Video Collection: Blu-ray
One of the most venerable of all video games, “Halo” has thrived for more than 15 years, even surviving the demise of Sega’s Dreamcast console. It’s spawned four direct sequels and a bunch of spin-off games, as well as novels, toys, live-action shows and animated series and films. “Halo: The Complete Video Collection” includes Blu-ray editions of the previously released “Halo Legends,” “Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn,” “Halo Nightfall” and “Halo: The Fall of Reach,” and the bonus features they carried. It adds two discs with video-based extras and four all-new commentary tracks for the four programs included in the set. The voices are provided by Frank O’Connor, Kevin Grace, Bonnie Ross, Kiki Wolfkill, Corrinne Robinson and Jeremy Patenaude.

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Dretzka

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“I never accepted the term contrarian. I think that’s offensive, frankly. And my response to that is: if I’m a contrarian, what are other reviewers? What I strive to do is be a good critic, not somebody who simply accepts the product put in front of me. I guess it scares people to think that they don’t have any originality; that they don’t have the capacity to think for themselves.

“There’s a line a lot of reviewers use that I don’t like at all. They say ‘accept the film on its own terms.’ What that really means is, ‘accept the film as it is advertised.’ That’s got nothing to do with criticism. Nothing to do with having a response as a film watcher. A thinking person has to analyze what’s on screen, not simply rubber-stamp it or kowtow to marketing.”m

“To me, everything does have a political component and I think it’s an interesting way to look at art. It’s one way that makes film reviewing, I think, a politically relevant form of journalism. We do live in a political world, and we bring our political sense to the movies with us – unless you’re the kind of person who goes to the movies and shuts off the outside world. I’m not that kind of person.”
~ Armond White to Luke Buckmaster

“One of comedy’s defining pathologies, alongside literal pathologies like narcissism and self-loathing, is its swaggering certainty that it is part of the political vanguard, while upholding one of the most rigidly patriarchal hierarchies of any art form.”
~ Lindy West