MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

DVD Gift Guide II: Bergman@100, 2001 4K, Rambo 4K, Dances With Wolves, Robin Williams, Ernie Kovacs, Detectorists, Frosty, Elf … More

Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema: The Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
I don’t know how Big Kahuna translates into Swedish – in Star Wars’ Galactic Empire, it’s Grand Moff – but, as far as holiday gift-giving goes, it’s “Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema: The Criterion Collection.” I will only mention it in passing here, because the boxed set only landed on my doorstep on Tuesday, with a discernible “thud,” and it will require a month’s worth of binging to get a grip on it. In the interest of taking advantage of Black Friday savings, I’d be remiss not to give movie lovers a heads-up here. I’ll simply pass along Criterion’s description and return later with my own thoughts: “In honor of Ingmar Bergman’s 100th birthday, the Criterion Collection is proud to present the most comprehensive collection of his films ever released on home video. … Arranged as a curated film festival, with ‘opening’ and ‘closing’ nights bookending double features and ‘centerpiece’ programs, this selection spans six decades and thirty-nine films — including such celebrated classics as The Seventh Seal, Persona and Fanny and Alexander, alongside previously unavailable works, like Dreams, The Rite and Brink of Life.” And, before you ask, copyright issues, presumably, caused a small handful of titles — It Rains on Our Love, Music in Darkness, Prison, This Can’t Happen Here, Face to Face, The Blessed Ones and In the Presence of Clowns – to be MIA. I can’t wait to dig into the bonus features, including a 248-page retrospective book, but that will have to wait until I’ve fully digested Thanksgiving dinner.

2001: A Space Odyssey: Blu-ray/4K UHD HDR
Kids aren’t alone in wanting to play with their presents on Christmas morning. If I received a box containing a spanking new 4K UHD player/receiver and already had a fully compatible television or video monitor – and cables, don’t forget the High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) cables – I’d probably want to take it out for a spin. The only way to do that is to link the platform and monitor, using the HDMI cables and designated inputs, usually sold separately, and insert a 4K UHD disc. Most 4K movies come with a separate Blu-ray copy of the movie, as well as a digital link. And, while all Blu-rays and DVDs can be played through a 4K UHD platform, 4K UHD discs won’t work on dedicated Blu-ray/DVD playback units. Some companies add high-dynamic-range capability, as well. In a nutshell, HDR improves the contrast between the darker and brighter parts of a scene. Theoretically, anyway, the more you pay for a TV, the better the viewing experience will be. After three years in the marketplace, however, the price-tags on top- and mid-shelf equipment have become extremely affordable, which is more than can be said for 3D HDTV, with or without 4K UHD recognition.

The first movie I would suggest buying to complete the package would be 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is newly available on 4K UHD, with HDR. It’s worth remembering, perhaps, that Stanley Kubrick’s visionary masterpiece arrived in theaters around the world a full year before the Apollo 11 mission landed on the lunar surface on July 20, 1969. Although it’s hailed today as one of the greatest visual experiences in cinematic history, it failed to impress all mainstream critics upon its release, and audiences generally took their word for it. It wasn’t until a couple weeks later, when buzz reached more spaced-out audiences, that 2001: A Space Odyssey really began selling popcorn. In an interview, it’s recalled how MGM execs were so concerned about ticket sales that they considered pulling the film from theaters. It wasn’t until small groups of hippies began to show up, taking seats as close to the screen as possible, that light bulbs began going off over the heads of theater owners. Some of the repeat patrons would arrive moments before the “Star Gate” sequence, so as not to lose their high. (It became a rite of passage for stoners.) Co-writer/author Arthur C. Clarke once reportedly said about confusion over certain aspects of the film, “If you understand ‘2001’ completely, we failed. We wanted to raise far more questions than we answered.” And, they did. So, why invest in a 4K edition? Anyone who’s only experienced “2001” on cassette or early DVD can’t say that they’ve truly watched it as Kubrick might have intended, if he had lived long enough to supervise the remaster. (It was shot in Cinerama, Todd AO and Super Panavision 70.) Now, it’s almost possible to read the small-print instructions on the zero-gravity toilet. Newcomers may also enjoy seeing how many of the brand-name companies referenced in the lunar-commuter sequence are still around: Pan Am, Bell System, no; Howard Johnson’s and Parker pens, not really; Hilton Hotels and GM, yes. The colors are sharper. The dialogue is crisper. The depth is deeper. The original bonus features have been “ported over,” as well. RIP: Douglas Rain, who voiced the HAL 9000 computer, died last week, at 90.

Stallone: First Blood: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Rambo: First Blood: Part II: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Rambo III: Blu-ray/4K UHD
If your tastes run more toward blood-and-guts action, the folks at Lionsgate have repackaged the first three entries in the saga of Vietnam veteran John Rambo and sent them out in 4K UHD. Initially, in Stallone: First Blood, the former Green Beret was driven to use his combat and survival training to avoid by being pushed around and tortured by a group of redneck sheriffs, who get their kicks out of tormenting hitchhikers and vagrants. In David Morrell’s 1972 novel, Rambo suffers from an extreme case of PTSD, which triggers flashbacks to the time he spent during the war, as an NVA prisoner. After returning to the U.S. and being treated shabbily by “anti-war hippies” and other civilians who’d lost their enthusiasm for the war, Rambo attempts to avoid confrontations by turning his back on civilization. (In my experience, there weren’t many real hippies who would confront anyone in uniform, let alone one as muscular as Sylvester Stallone, and the number of protesters who got close enough to a soldier to spit at them was greatly exaggerated the right-wing media.) By the time “First Blood” made the transition from page to screen, a lot of Rambo’s backstory was compacted and pushed to the end of the movie in a dramatically rendered monologue by the unbeaten, but clearly damaged protagonist. It made sense to lead with the explosive action that followed his escape from the police station in which he’s been beaten, hosed down and almost given a haircut. Embarrassed, the prototypically drawn sheriff (Brian Dennehy) vows to re-capture his prisoner, by any means necessary. In turn, Rambo employs all his skills and experience to avoid the police posse, a helicopter-borne sniper, National Guard troops and an unsuspecting deer hunter, who stumbles into the chase. At a crisp 93-minutes, director Ted Kotcheff didn’t have a lot of time for exposition and contemplation. Instead, Rambo achieved icon status, by looking tres, tres cool, in his wife-beater shirt, bandana and cradling an M-60 machine gun in his arms. Posters carrying this image have been found in the homes of terrorists, freedom fighters, insurgents and vigilantes around the globe, no matter the cause. While it’s easy to consider the sheriff and his deputies to be cut from Hollywood cardboard, at the time of the movie’s release, there were still plenty of reported cases of police harassment of hitchhikers and long-haired Vietnam vets who just wanted to be left alone. I don’t know if the producers foresaw the creation of a franchise series, but it’s true that they shot two endings. In the first one, all the primary characters die. The second option deviates from the book, by leaving the door open for a sequel. It didn’t take long for Rambo to become one of the most recognizable movie characters in the world, as a well a model for action characters played by Bruce Willis, Mel Gibson and Vin Diesel.

The other sequels – discounting the 2008 reboot and a fourth addition, in 2019 – have also been released in 4K UHD.  In Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), Colonel Samuel Troutman (Richard Crenna) gets Rambo released from prison, so he can go back to Vietnam to find, photograph and take it upon himself to bring back POW’s still held there. In Rambo III (1988), Our Hero mounts a one-man mission to rescue Trautman from the clutches of Soviet forces in Afghanistan. That’s how old the series is. The packages include archived bonus material, including commentaries, interviews, deleted scenes, making-of and background featurettes. The only new featurette is a three-part retrospective, “Rambo Takes the ’80s,” which is spread across the three titles. Look for them on the included Blu-ray editions.

Dances With Wolves: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
It would have been nice to report that Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves was being made available in 4K UHD, but, alas, it’s not. For reasons that are probably too complicated to summarize here, Shout!Factory is releasing the epic Western in a limited-edition “Steelbook Collector’s Edition,” which contains Blu-ray editions of the 181-minute theatrical edition (1990) – apparently for the first time – and nearly four-hour-long extended edition, which was released theatrically after the success of the shorter version. (Some critics have never forgiven “Dances” for defeating Goodfellas, as Best Picture, and Costner for outpolling Scorsese in the director’s race.) Costner has said that he considers both versions to be director’s cuts and, when asked, he prefers the theatrical one. (Another extended version, minus some violence and possibly objectionable scenes, has been shown on network television.) Unlike extended versions of most other films, the additional material here doesn’t merely consist of snippets of footage swept off the cutting-room floor and stored in a desk drawer, somewhere. Much of it truly does amplify the story, which isn’t to say that its inclusion in the theatrical version would have improved it. It’s fun to watch, however, and doesn’t change the ending or character profiles. (Compare them at www.movie-censorship.com/report.php?ID=1186797.)

Both Blu-ray iterations look great on my set, especially the outdoor scenes shot in South Dakota’s Badlands, Black Hills and Fort Pierre. I didn’t know there was that much unspoiled open range left in the United States. For the record, Costner stars as Civil War hero Lieutenant John Dunbar, who befriends a tribe of Lakota Sioux while stationed at a desolate outpost on the frontier. It takes a while for Dunbar to go native, but, when he does, the transformation is handled with attention to cultural detail and respect for the Lakota language, which comprises 25 percent of the dialogue. The romance that blossoms between Dunbar and Stands With a Fist (Mary McDonnell) – a white girl taken captive as a girl by an Indian war party – doesn’t feel forced or fake. In a movie that pays close attention to native clothing and hair styles, however, it’s strange how gnarly and windblown McDonnell’s always is. A separate disc contains the bonus material.

Robin Williams: Comic Genius Deluxe Set
No holiday season would be complete without at least one gotta-have-it collection of comedy or music from Time Life. Its recently released Robin Williams: Comic Genius easily qualifies a boxed set that will keep viewers and listeners entertained until New Year’s Day, if one chooses to binge their week off school or work watching TV. Williams, who died four years ago, at 63, was the kind of nonpareil talent who rarely, if ever disappointed his fans, whether he was appearing as a guest on a late-night talk show, in an HBO standup special, in comedy clubs or USO tours. The adjectives generally attached to any description of Williams’ public face were “indefatigable,” “manic” and “unpredictable.” It seemed as if his brain was operating at speeds that caused his words and thoughts to emerge without a filter, brakes or even a moment’s hesitation. The 22-DVD set features more than 100 performances, including, together for the first time, all five HBO specials, “Off the Wall (1978), “An Evening With Robin Williams” (1983), “An Evening at the MET” (1986), “Live on Broadway” (2002) and “Weapons of Self Destruction” (2009); Robin’s full MGM Grand Garden performance, from 2007, and the Montreal stop on his final tour, in 2012; an on-stage conversation between Williams and comedian David Steinberg.

Unforgettable appearances on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “The Graham Norton Show” and “Saturday Night Live” appear, along with new interviews with close friends and family, including Billy Crystal, Steve Martin, Jay Leno, Eric Idle, David Steinberg, Lewis Black and Zak Williams; 11 episodes of “Mork & Mindy,” including the two-part pilot; James Lipton’s Emmy-nominated interview with Robin on “Inside the Actors Studio,” plus deleted scenes; a comprehensive collection of his USO shows; hours of bonus features, including behind-the-scenes footage, local highlights from tour stops and promos; featurettes “The Early Years,” “San Francisco: Where It All Started,” “Comic Genius” and “TV’s Best Guest”; the 2018 HBO documentary, “Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, from Marina Zenovich and Alex Gibney: and “Robin Williams: Uncensored,” a 24-page, full-color memory book featuring rare, archival photos from award-winning photographer Arthur Grace, reminiscences from friends and colleagues and Robin’s personal tour notes.

Ernie Kovacs: The Centennial Edition
There’s been no late-night host or sketch-comedy troupe – including Johnny Carson, “SNL” and “Monty Python” — that doesn’t owe a serious debt of gratitude to Ernie Kovacs. Along with Steve Allen, the Trenton-born author/actor/comedian/ composer/producer/artist not only proved to network executives that Americans from all walks of life would put off going to sleep to be entertained, but he also cut the template for gags still making people laugh today. In anticipation of what would have been his 100th birthday, on January 23, 1919, Shout!Factory has released “Ernie Kovacs: The Centennial Edition.” The new collection combines previously released volumes of charmingly silly comedy by Ernie Kovacs and his co-conspirators. It includes more than 22 hours of offbeat entertainment that couldn’t break any molds, because they didn’t exist in 1950s. The set features episodes from his local and national morning shows; episodes from his NBC prime-time show; “Kovacs on Music”; five ABC specials; the color version of his legendary silent show, “Eugene”; his award-winning commercials for Dutch Masters cigars; short films and tributes; 18 bonus sketches, featuring many of his beloved characters; three episodes of his game show, “Take a Good Look”; “A Pony for Chris”; his rare TV pilot for “Medicine Man,” co-starring Buster Keaton; “The Lively Arts,” featuring the only existing filmed solo interview; and the 2011 American Cinematheque panel discussion. Also available to deep-pocketed fans is the “Ernie Kovacs Limited Edition Set of Ten Lithographs” (framed). These “Illustrated Profuselies” were improvisational sketches that allowed Kovacs to still be himself without worrying about the next day’s scripts for radio or television. The full set goes for $1,000.

TV-on-DVD
The Sound of Music: Live: Blu-ray
Not having watched NBC’s live broadcast of “The Sound of Music,” which attracted an estimated 18 million viewers to the Peacock, in 2013, it’s impossible for me to compare it to the ITV version that aired almost exactly two years later in England and is now available on Blu-ray. It’s release is billed as a commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Broadway debut of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic musical. The math isn’t precise, if you consider that the 2015 broadcast marked a difference of 57 years … but who’s counting. In the NBC version, country-music diva Carrie Underwood and sexy vampire Stephen Moyer (“True Blood”) might not have been the ideal choices to play Maria Rainer and Captain von Trapp, but they were better-known commodities than Tony Award-winning co-stars Laura Benanti, Christian Borle and Audra McDonald. The stars of Coky Giedroyc’s “The Sound of Music: Live” will be familiar, if at all, to fans of imported British television shows: Kara Tointon (“Mr. Selfridge”), Julian Ovenden (“Downton Abbey”), Katherine Kelly (“Mr. Selfridge), Alexander Armstrong (“Danger Mouse”) and Maria Friedman (“EastEnders”). They’re all very good, as are the supporting nuns, children and Nazis. As the comprehensive featurette points out, the show enjoyed a budget of £2 million, while employing more than 400 cast and crew members, and filling 177 individual costumes. It was recorded at Three Mills Studios, on sets built over three different sound stages. Because the cast had to rush between the different sets between scenes, a heavy rain storm might spoiled everything. Beyond that, it’s the same show that’s charmed audiences for 60 years. The Blu-ray also includes a commentary track with Tointon and Ovenden.

Acorn: Detectorists: Complete Collection: Box Set
Acorn: Murdoch Mysteries: Christmas Cases Collection
Acorn: No Offence: Series 2
Acorn Media is no stranger to this column. Along with the newly launched Britbox, Acorn TV is a subscription streaming service that has been making Anglophiles of the American persuasion happy, under various banners, since 2011. Acorn DVD has been around for quite a bit longer. They offer television programming from the United Kingdom, as well as Ireland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, on DVD compilations and via such streaming devices as Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV and Roku. Subscriptions make highly affordable and easy-to-connect gifts. Several of the binge-worthy shows, including “Murdoch Mysteries,” will already be familiar to PBS, Ovation and Netflix customers, while others may come as a delightful surprise. BBC Four’s disarming comedy series, “The Detectorists,” easily qualifies as a gift from the TV gods. In it, urban-archeologist Andy (Mackenzie Crook) and forklift-driver Lance (Toby Jones) while away their free time scouring a large Essex field for buried treasures – some dubious, at best – whose metallic properties can be sensed on metal detectors. As solitary pastimes go, it’s almost laughably tranquil, especially considering that the two friends usually return home with antique pop-tops from beer and soda-pop cans, and the odd button. As members of the Danebury Metal Detecting Club, all discoveries are catalogued and occasionally put on display. In the series’ three-season run, the lads continue to search for what they believe to be a buried Saxon warship and “horde” of gold coins. Instead, they’re forced to negotiate with the loony farmer, who owns the field and possibly buried his murdered wife there; combat rival detectorists, “Simon” and “Garfunkel”; keep their wives and girlfriends from throwing their metal detectors into a dumpster; prevent an energy company from tearing up the field and turning it into a solar farm. There’s also a mischievous magpie that’s always a step ahead of them.  Much of the humor, which would barely register on an American sitcom’s Richter scale, derives from Andy and Lance’s fondness for pop-culture trivia and the “University Challenge” quiz program. The BAFTA-winning series was created by Cook, who fans of the original British version of “The Office” will recognize as the sycophantic paper salesman, Gareth Keenan. Jones has played Alfred Hitchcock, in “The Girl”; Truman Capote, in “Infamous”; and Swifty Lazar, in Frost/Nixon. Rachael Stirling and Diana Rigg, as Andy’s wife and mother-in-law, respectively, are mother and daughter in real life. The set adds interviews and a making-of featurette.

The Ontario-set “Murdoch Mysteries: Christmas Cases Collection” arrives in a ready-for-gifting package that contains three feature-length holiday specials, “A Merry Murdoch Christmas,” “Once Upon a Murdoch Christmas” and “Home for the Holidays.” The series takes place in Toronto, starting in 1895, and follows Detective William Murdoch (Yannick Bisson) of the Toronto Constabulary, who solves many of his cases using methods of detection that were unusual at the time. Although it frequently feels atypically prim and old-fashioned, by today’s standards, anyway, “Murdoch Mysteries,” involves crimes that are anything but tame. In “A Merry Murdoch Christmas,” for example, participants in a charity gala are stunned to find the host dead from a broken neck, and Inspector Brackenreid (Thomas Craig) suspects the culprit is the legendary Christmas monster, Krampus. In “Once Upon a Murdoch Christmas,” Murdoch investigates a daring robbery, in which the culprit seems to possess the same superhuman abilities as the protagonist in a graphic novel created by Constable Crabtree (Jonny Harris). In “Home for the Holidays,” Murdoch and Dr. Julia Ogden (Helene Joy) travel to British Columbia to visit Murdoch’s brother (Dylan Neal), but, instead of a family holiday, they end up investigating a murder at a First Nations archaeological site.

No Offence” is an extremely gritty Channel 4 procedural drama, created by Paul Abbott (“Shameless”), that follows a predominantly female team of detectives from the Friday Street police station, a division of the fictional Manchester Metropolitan Police. In “Series 2,” the precariously overweight DI Vivienne Deering (Joanna Scanlan) – it doesn’t prevent her from being a tenacious and no-nonsense investigator — returns to work from bereavement leave after her husband’s death. In a carryover from Season 1, Viv’s still reeling from revelations about the creep of which only her impulsive subordinate, DC Dinah Kowalska (Elaine Cassidy), is aware. On her first week back, a bomb blast at a funeral plunges Deering and her team headfirst into a gang war inflamed by a crime-family matriarch (Rakie Ayola), who’s as cocky as she is dangerous. The investigation involves several unsavory characters, who take the team – including a tentative DS Joy Freers (Alexandra Roach), fearless PC Tegan Thompson (Saira Choudhry) and officious DCI Christine Lickberg (Sarah Solemani) — into some of Manchester’s darkest corners. Blessedly, “No Offense” isn’t short on dark humor and precarious romance.

PBS: Masterpiece: Victoria: Seasons 1 & 2 DVD Set: Blu-ray
PBS: Masterpiece: Little Women: Blu-ray
We’re Going on a Bear Hunt
The folks at PBS would like me to remind you that all sorts of DVD/Blu-ray combo packages are available for popular mini-series that aired early in 2018 and 2017. With Season Three of “Victoria” just around the corner, at least on Britain’s ITV channel, it’s time for “Masterpiece” loyalists to begin getting excited … again. DVD/Blu-ray compilations of the first two seasons, at the UK length, have been available for some time. Now, they can be purchased on the PBS website in combos that include the hard-cover companion book,
“Victoria: The Heart and Mind of a Young Queen,” which was written by “Victoria” historical consultant, Helen Rappaport, and includes a foreword by novelist/scriptwriter Daisy Goodwin. It details the history behind the show. “Victoria & Albert: A Royal Love Affair” completes the picture … unless you’re looking for some Queen Victoria two-stone stud earrings or Queen Victoria collet earrings. From Focus Films, Stephen Frears’ wonderfully entertaining Victoria & Abdul (2017) stars Judi Dench and Ali Fazal in the title roles.

To the basic “Little Women” Blu-ray, gifters can add the companion novel from Penguin Classics. Other permutations include “Little Women”/“American Masters: Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women”; Harriet Reisen’s soft-cover biography, “Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women”; the BBC’s “Little Women” (1970) on DVD; another companion DVD, “Orchard House: Home of Little Women”; and, of course, “Little Women” book totes, “Little Women” infinity book scarves and “Little Women” sticky flags. “The Durrells in Corfu” Blu-ray can be combined with the source book, Gerald Durrell’s “My Family and Other Animals.”

Also available at shop.pbs.org/ is “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt,” a clever DVD, based on the best-selling children’s book by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury. It follows siblings Stan, Katie, Rosie and Max, the baby, and Rufus the dog, who decide one day to go on an adventure through whirling snowstorms, oozing mud and dark forests in search of bears. Naturally, when Rosie and Rufus become separated from the rest of the family, it looks like bear hunting might not be quite as fun, after all.

Nickelodeon: Hey Arnold!: The Ultimate Collection
Nickelodeon: Rocko’s Modern Life: The Complete Series
Fans of the original Nickelodeon series, most of whom will be approaching or past their mid-20s, by now, will want to know that the differences between Shout!Factory’s “Hey Arnold! The Complete Series” (2014) and Paramount’s “Hey Arnold! The Ultimate Collection” (2018) amount to the inclusion of the show’s two spinoff features — Hey Arnold! The Movie (2002) and Hey Arnold! The Jungle Movie (2017) – and several bonus elements. If my old-school math hasn’t failed me, they amount to 286 more minutes of fun. Blu-ray would have been too much to expect, I suppose. The boxed set contains all 99 “stories” from the show’s five-season run – 100, if one counts the episode that was divided into two separate halves – and “Hey Arnold! The Pilot”; the original Claymation short, “Arnold Escapes From Church”; “Drawing Arnold”; “The Jungle Movie: Table Read”; and “Unboxing the Original Jungle Movie Development Art.” It doesn’t mention the poster art included in the Amazon-delivered “Complete Series,” four years ago.

I don’t know why Nickelodeon didn’t bestow “Ultimate Collection” status on “Rocko’s Modern Life: The Complete Series.” After all, in the four-plus years that separate the boxed sets, the eight-disc collection has added nearly two hours more material and a new cover. According to the marketing blurb, “For the first time ever, every single episode of one of Nickelodeon’s best animated series is all in one place.” I wouldn’t know. The special features include, the original pilot of “Trash-O-Madness” and four “Behind the Characters” sketches with Joe Murray, co-creator of the series with Mr. Lawrence, of “SpongeBob SquarePants” fame.

Original Christmas Specials Collection: Deluxe Edition: Blu-ray
Blaze and the Monster Machines: Blaze Saves Christmas
What makes one holiday movie a classic and others merely … at best, fondly recalled additions to the genre. Timing, of course, and a mysterious ability to hold up under repeat viewings. The presence of time-honored actors, too. Memorable music, of course, and the ability to enchant kids and adults, alike. The saturation bombing of Christmas-themed cartoons and movies didn’t really begin until the virtual elimination of elaborately staged variety shows on television. Sitcoms and popular dramas, like “The Waltons” and “ER,” picked up the slack, but, too often, the special episodes would be repeated for years to come. In the mid-1960s, Rankin/Bass Productions introduced its highly stylized stop-action animation process, with characters recognizable by their doll-like appearance, spheroid body parts and weirdly static backgrounds. Traditionally drawn snowflakes would be projected over the choppy movements of the characters and animals. No one doubted that the animation was outsourced to Japanese companies, but they succeeded, anyway. Like A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), which featured a recognizable story and more fluid animation – as well as that jazzy Vince Guaraldi score – the R/B films that comprise Universal’s “The Original Christmas Specials Collection,” caught on with networks and in syndication. The deluxe Blu-ray edition includes Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town (1970) and The Little Drummer Boy (1968), which feature “Animagic” stop-motion animation, and Frosty the Snowman (1969) and Cricket on the Hearth (1967). The addition of such voice actors as Fred Astaire, Jimmy Durante, Mickey Rooney, Danny Thomas, Burl Ives and other long-dead stars has had a soothing effect on viewers through last 50 years.

Ironically, television executives didn’t have much hope for A Charlie Brown Christmas. They probably felt the same about R/B’s early work. Unlike the Peanuts creations, the stories that informed the R/B titles were traditional or in the public domain and, therefore, far more economical for networks and independents. The R/B Blu-ray adds a host of bonus features, including commentaries and restoration info. One valid caveat, however, comes in an email to Amazon by historian/biographer Rick Goldschmidt, who offers several pointed complaints about his behind-the-scenes experiences with the production company and decisions affecting the final content. Nonetheless, the animation looks fine in hi-def and kids won’t notice the shortcuts taken. Buffs and collectors use different criteria to judge historic content.

In the world of holiday animation for kids, it would be difficult to find much real progress in the 50 years between the Rankin/Bass quintet, “Charlie Brown” and Blaze and Nickelodeon’s “Monster Machines: Blaze Saves Christmas,” which is a compilation of winter-related episodes. “Monster Machine Christmas” is the only one strictly dedicated to the holiday. In it, Crusher sends Santa’s magic bag of presents flying and must team up with Blaze and AJ to deliver all the presents by Christmas morning; in “Breaking the Ice,” Robot Blaze climbs, grinds and ziplines his way to save a little bunny trapped on top of a melting glacier; “Catch That Cake!” repeats the scenario in “Monster Machine Christmas,” except with Darington’s birthday cake; and in “Ninja Blaze,” martial-arts master Blackbelt is training Blaze and AJ to become powerful ninjas when Crusher and Pickle accidentally launch themselves onto an icy mountain, and require rescuing.

Elf: Buddy’s Sing & Cheer Along Edition: Blu-ray
The many lists of Best Christmas Movies I’ve perused agree on two things, at least: It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) is numero uno and Christ is absent at his own birthday party. Otherwise, every spot between 2 and 50 is up for grabs. Comedy, romance and drama have been staples for most of the last 100 years. Sci-fi and Westerns, not so much. I was surprised by the number of hard-core horror flicks that have found a consensus: Black Christmas (1974), Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010), Christmas Evil (1980), Krampus (2015) and Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984), among them. In my opinion, the biggest ringers were Tangerine (2015), Carol (2015), Tokyo Godfathers (2003) and The Whole Hog: Making Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather (2006). The aforementioned A Charlie Brown Christmas and Frosty the Snowman did fine, as well. The movie in question here, Jon Favreau’s Elf (2003), held firm in the upper-middle of the lists, alongside Bad Santa (2003, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989) and The Santa Claus (1994). Merely being popular doth not a classic make, however.

Elf made more than $173 million domestically and another $47 million overseas. Judging simply from the reissues, repackagings and combos it’s been accorded, Elf probably went on to sell a lot of DVDs and Blu-rays. The latest permutation, I think, is Elf: Buddy’s Sing & Cheer Along Edition, which, on a separate disc, adds lyrics, popups, factoids and gag alerts to the on-screen images. The gimmicks are right out of a music video on MTV in the late-1980s, when the network was trying anything to gain teenage eyes. As these things go, it’s not bad, especially considering that the age of the average viewer is approaching puberty, from the opposite direction. In it, a baby on Santa’s delivery route accidentally crawls into his nearly empty bag of toys and is taken to the North Pole. Buddy (Will Ferrell) is raised by a family of elves, until they break the news to him that he is really a human. With the blessing of Papa Elf (Bob Newhart) and Santa (Ed Asner), the holly-jolly young man heads for New York to find his real family and spread the true meaning of Christmas … whatever that meant, in 2003. James Caan plays his publishing executive father, who is completely dismayed by Buddy’s Pollyannish behavior. He falls for Jovie (Zooey Deschanel), who works at Gimbels as a department-store-Santa’s assistant, for which she dresses as an elf. You can guess the rest. After all these years, I wonder why no one at Warners has taken advantage of Deschanel’s increased visibility in the ensuing 16 years, thanks in large part to her starring role in Fox’s “New Girl,” and added her name to the front of the jacket, alongside that of James Caan. I’m sure it’s due to some arcane contractual arrangement, but she earns it.

Pat Boone & Family: Christmas & Thanksgiving
If moviemakers have decided not to acknowledge the baby Jesus in their Christmas stories, there are a few dependable places on the cable dial to find the newborn king. One sure place to stop is anywhere 1950s pop creation Pat Boone is spreading his family-friendly message. “Pat Boone & Family: Christmas & Thanksgiving” was taped at a time when daughter, Debby, was a hotter commodity on the Contemporary Christian charts and concert circuit than he’d been in years. In addition to a successful singing career, Boone dipped his toes in the waters of Hollywood filmdom. He also became the youngest performer to host his own television variety show (“Pat Boone’s Chevy Showroom,”1957-60) and, in 1978, brought his four singing daughters Debby, Cherry, Lindy and Laurie, along with wife, Shirley, to ABC-TV for a series of seasonal specials. “Pat Boone & Family Christmas Special” presents a celebration of favorite holiday songs (“White Christmas,” “Silver Bells,” “The Christmas Waltz,” “Joy to the World,” “O Come All Ye Faithful”), with the Hudson Brothers and an array of ABC-TV stars: Norman Fell and Audra Lindley (“Three’s Company”), Tom Bosley (“Happy Days”) and Gavin McLeod (“The Love Boat”), as well as appearances by Dinah Shore and Rosemary Clooney. “Pat Boone & Family Thanksgiving Special,” opens with a visit from Bob Hope and the return of the Hudson , who join the Boone Girls for a disco showcase. Really. There aren’t many Thanksgiving songs, so the Boones settled for “Can’t Smile Without You,” “You Needed Me,” “Bless This House” and “Love in a Home.” Bonus features include a Pat Boone interview, “The Boone Family: Christmas in Bethlehem,” Christmas carols from Boone’s Chevy showroom, “Jingle Bells” and “Boone Family Lullaby.”

The Ladybug
It’s practically been a lifetime since young viewers were introduced to the world below their feet in A Bug’s Life (1998), Antz (1998) and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989). Straight-to-DVD animation has advanced a great deal in the meantime, especially in foreign studios affiliated with distributors around the globe. The winning tickets limit the dialogue and hire a few recognizable B-listers to translate it into the local language. If the backgrounds are bright and colorful and the characters are cute and expressive, it’s possible to keep kids interested for 90 minutes. Shi Ding’s The Ladybug has been awarded the Dove Seal of Approval for all ages, In this delightful family adventure, YouTube star Lisa Schwartz plays a plucky ladybug named Ruby. Longing for the beauty and freedom of Golden Canyon, she escapes her laboratory cage and joins forces with Master Dan, a crafty dragonfly. With help from a hungry frog king, an artistic earwig, and a stinky dung beetle, they make their way to this magical land. The featurette, “Giving the Characters a Voice,” finds Schwartz, Jon Heder, Haylie Duf and Norm MacDonald” at the studio.

Detective Dee Trilogy: Three Movie Collection
A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed the third installment in Tsui Hark’s Detective Trilogy, Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings. It is the second prequel in a series that began with Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010) and flashed backwards to Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon (2013). What I forgot to mention is that all three titles are newly available in the aptly titled, “Detective Dee Trilogy: Three Movie Collection,” exclusively at Walmart.

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Quote Unquotesee all »

“Why put it in a box? This is the number one problem I have—by the way it’s a fair question, I’m not saying that—with this kind of festival situation is that there’s always this temptation to classify the movie immediately and if you look at it—and I’ve tried to warn my fellow jurors of this—directors and movie critics are the worst people to judge movies! Directors are always thinking, “I could do that.” Critics are always saying, “This part of the movie is like the 1947 version and this part…” And it’s like, “Fuck! Just watch the movie and try and absorb it and not compare it to some other fucking movie and put it in a box!” So I think the answer’s both and maybe neither, I don’t know. That’s for you to see and criticize me for or not.”
~ James Gray

“I have long defined filmmaking and directing in particular as just a sort of long-term act of letting go,” she said. “It’s honestly just gratifying that people are sort of reapproaching or reassessing the film. I like to just remind everyone that the movie is still the same — it’s the same movie, it’s the movie we always made, and it was the movie we always wanted to make. And maybe it just came several years too early.”
~ Karyn Kusama