In the movies, as on Halloween, some undead creatures are more welcome than others. That’s especially the case when they’re resuscitated by the brilliant Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan, who knows a thing or two about supernatural phenomena. After introducing himself to international audiences with the seductive werewolf fable, “The Company of Wolves,” Jordan made his mark among the arthouse crowd with such gems as “Mona Lisa” and “The Crying Game.” In 1994, he was handed a small fortune to collaborate with Anne Rice on “Interview With the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles.” And it, too, did very well, thank you. The closest he’s come to such otherworldly stuff between then and the below-the-radar release of “Byzantium” – unless one counts Sinead O’Conner as the Virgin Mary in “The Butcher Boy” – was the charming Celtic fairytale, “Ondine,” in which a fisherman (Colin Farrell) nets a selkie. (Beings that live as seals in the sea but shed their skin to become human on land.) In the dark and moody “Byzantium,” Jordan puts a decidedly Irish spin on the various vampire legends, allowing his protagonists to break several of the rules commonly associated with them. Clara and the much younger Eleanor (Gemma Arterton, Saoirse Ronan) are on the run from Dublin, where the older woman worked as a stripper until she was recognized by vampire hunters carrying a 200-year-old grudge. While Clara isn’t particular in the men she drains of blood – using a razor-sharp thumbnail, instead of fangs – Eleanor only feeds on elderly people who see in her a gentle vehicle for euthanasia. While on the lam, they take up residence in a seaside residence hotel, the Byzantinium, run by a man still shaken by the death of his domineering mother. Before he knows what’s happening, Clara’s moved in with him and turned part of their living quarters into a brothel. Eleanor chooses to use her time more constructively, taking writing classes at a local college. It doesn’t take long before she meets a boy her age, Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), who becomes her confidante. Things go well between them, until Frank disregards her wishes by showing one of Eleanor’s highly personal stories to their teacher, who shares it with the school psychologist. Because the autobiographical story contains information they consider too far-fetched to have come from anyone except a profoundly damaged teenager, they confront Clara with their concerns. This turns out to be a very bad decision. Clara’s fuse is incredibly short and her protective mechanism extremely powerful. Meanwhile, too, the fearless vampire hunters have also caught up with their prey at the Byzantium. Jordan demonstrates his gift here by maintaining an aura of constant dread, while injecting enough humor and sensuality into the story to keep it from turning into just another genre bloodbath. A parallel story thread recalls Clara and Eleanor’s initiation into the kindred and some of the things that have happened to them in the last 200 years. Fans of classy horror movies should find plenty to enjoy here. The Blu-ray adds several EPK-style interviews and a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka
PBS: American Experience: War of the Worlds
If Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater cohorts had decided to dramatize “War of the Worlds” on April 1, 1938, instead of October 30th of the same year, I wonder if anyone would remember the event as a touchstone moment in 20th Century history. That the broadcast did occur on Halloween, a holiday given over to ghosts and goblins, not science fiction, at least partially explains why so many listeners were willing to believe something as preposterous as an alien invasion. The producers of the “American Experience” report, “War of the Worlds,” suggest that “panic” may be too strong a word to use when recalling the reaction of frightened listeners to the show. Once they were pulled off their ceilings and shown that the Martians spared their hamlets, most took it with the grain of salt intended by the show’s producers. The true outcry was generated by people unhappy over being conned by Welles’ authoritative oration and, perhaps, teased by friends who hadn’t been sucked into the deception. Also exiting the woodwork were the usual number of opportunists and scare-mongers who treated the broadcast as the work of Satan or Joseph Stalin. The show argues that newspaper publishers and politicians actually had the most to gain from milking the controversy for all it was worth. Publishers considered any assault on their revenues to be the work of the devil and, in 1938, radio was seen as the greatest threat to profits. Conservative politicians called for the government to begin censoring radio entertainment, just as it had convinced Hollywood of the necessity for creating the Production Code.
The “American Experience” team re-examines the creation of the show, as well the progression of the “hysteria,” from the first “bulletin” through the media circus that followed. The first thing to know about the broadcast, itself, is that the Mercury Theater’s frequent dramatizations weren’t chart-busters in the ratings department. In fact, the show’s producers timed the start of “War of the Worlds” to coincide with a break in the comedy routines on their leading competitors. They hoped listeners would use the musical interlude as an excuse to channel surf, which apparently was as popular then as it is now. The report also adds journalistic context to the discussion of why people reacted the way they did. In 1938, radio was the place to go to hear breaking news stories – the Hindenburg disaster, reports from Nazi Germany – and, since the beginning of the Depression, the public had been served a steady diet of bad news. One more disaster wouldn’t surprise anyone.
None of this is to say, a similar situation couldn’t happen today. How many innocent Sikhs, Arabs and people of color continue to be the target of prejudice, vigilantism and outride ignorance, even 12 years after the terrorist attacks on 9/11? The professional bigots employed by Fox News scare the crap out of gullible Americans every day of the week and the only people who hold their toes to the fire are Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert. If Rush Limbaugh were to announce the imminent arrival of heavily armed Martians, how many of his listeners would pull out their NRA-approved assault rifles and point them at the sky? The DVD includes a couple of making-of featurettes, as well as outtakes from the staged readings that were made to look like archival interviews. – Gary Dretzka
As Cool As I Am: Blu-ray
I don’t have a single clue as to how a teenager might react to Max Mayer’s coming-of-age drama, “As Cool As I Am,” which was adapted from Pete Fromm’s YA novel by screenwriter Virginia Korus Spragg (“An Unfinished Life”). I know that most of the adults who reviewed the movie didn’t like it very much, lumping it into the same category as TV critics put Lifetime movies, as if that were such a horrible fate. Like or them or not, Lifetime movies do address issues of specific interest to women and teenage girls and the cable network is doing a lot better than most newspapers these days. That said, however, I would agree that there’s nothing in “As Cool As I Am” – positive or negative — that wouldn’t fit better on the small screen. Since this is a column about movies intended to be watched on TVs or video monitors, there’s no point in assessing any of its larger-than-life aspects. Sixteen-year-old Lucy Diamond (Sarah Bolger) is a small-town girl just emerging from the comfortable tomboy stage in her development. She may not hang out with the “popular” kids at school, but she doesn’t lack for friends or self-confidence, either. Lucy’s parents were high-school sweethearts, who, when pregnancy reared its head, convinced themselves that they were ready for parenthood and marriage. Although it probably seemed like the right thing to do at the time, their life together couldn’t survive their own self-centered desires. Lainee (Claire Danes) wasn’t inclined to be a homebound wife and mother, while her husband, Chuck (James Marsden), had rage issues complicated by jealousy issues. Because her dad’s job frequently required him to spend long periods of time away from home, Lucy was free to believe that the marriage was sound. As she neared her mid-teens, however, Lucy began to notice how little her mother seemed to care that her husband was rarely home and how flirtatious she’d become. On his brief visits, Chuck seemed fixated on Lainee’s job and other outside activities, as well as Lucy’s emerging interest in boys. Not surprisingly, perhaps, when the girl does figure out the truth about her parents, she partially blames herself for their unhappiness. In doing so, she seeks the solace of her male friends, some of whom are only too willing to exploit her weakness. By allowing them to take advantage of her, Lucy inadvertently starts down the same path as her mother did, 16 years earlier. “As Cool As I Am” chronicles Lucy’s premature journey to early adulthood, without falling into any of the traps associated with such family dramas. The parents’ shortcomings aren’t sugar-coated and Lucy’s path toward self-discovery and self-reliance isn’t lined with tulips. The filmmakers do allow her one conceit, however, and, I think, it’s one that teens would embrace more than adults. In a parallel storyline, the Lucy’s love of cooking – she worships Mario Batali, via the Food Channel – serves as a survival mechanism, both for the girl and the movie. And, just when you think that the thread has run its course, Batali “reappears” for one more culinary miracle. That device didn’t bother as much as Danes’ almost impeccable appearance in a role that demands a bit more working-class grit and grunge. This is her first appearance in a feature film in five years and it’s possible that Mayer didn’t want to make her look too tarnished. Among the other cast members are Thomas Mann (“Beautiful Creatures”), Jeremy Sisto (“Waitress”), Jon Tenney (“The Closer”), Anika Noni Rose (“Dreamgirls”) and, in a cameo, Peter Fonda. The DVD adds some interviews. – Gary Dretzka
2013 Gift Guide No. 1
Before you ask, rhetorically or otherwise: yes, I am aware of the fact that the holiday gift-giving season doesn’t officially begin for another month, or so, depending on how one feels about risking death in Black Friday stampedes. Given the commercial urgency that precedes most holidays these day – and in the spirit of the post-Halloween, pre-Thanksgiving season — it’s never too early to get an early start on Christmas.
Guillermo del Toro: Cabinet of Curiosities (Harper Design)
The films of only a very few directors are greeted with as much widespread anticipation as those of Guillermo del Toro. Before tackling such crowd-pleasing superhero flicks as “Blade II” and “Hellboy,” the Guadalajara-born fantasist specialized in horror films for the arthouse crowd: “Cronos,” “Mimic,” “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Before the July release of the sci-fi action epic, “Pacific Rim,” it had been five years since Del Toro had written and directed a feature film, “Hellboy II: The Golden Army,” and another two years since his dark and scary fantasy, “Pan’s Labyrinth,” was greeted with universal acclaim. In the meantime, he’s co-written the first two installments of Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit” trilogy and putted around as executive producer, creative consultant or voice actor on several different projects. “Cabinet of Curiosities: My Notebooks, Collections, and Other Obsessions,” written by Del Toro and Marc Scott Zicree (“The Twilight Zone Chronicles”), should be an especially welcome gift for fans of the filmmaker’s early gems, in that it practically overflows with notes, drawings and photographs of the kinds of things that keep such an imaginative man awake at night. It also contains reproductions of his journal pages, which are filled with his handwriting, illustrations, notes in Spanish and English, as well as new annotations that add context and clarity on films from 1993’s “Chronos” to “Pacific Rim.” Contributing forwards, afterwords and other pieces are James Cameron, Tom Cruise, Neil Gaiman and John Landis.
Pulp Fiction: The Complete Story of Quentin Tarantino’s Masterpiece (Voyageur)
Not many movies have been referenced as often in the works of other filmmakers as Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 game-changer, “Pulp Fiction.” It’s practically inescapable in crime and gangster movies. Tarantino didn’t rewrite the book on crime fiction or ask anyone to forget the works of Alfred Hitchcock, Claude Chabrol or Akira Kurosawa as much as he synthesized the contributions of dozens of other, largely unsung genre masters from around the world, creating something that may not have made sense at any other period in film history. For the first time, movies once only available on scratchy 16mm prints – if at all – were flooding into boutique video stores in big cities and university towns, allowing buffs to sample movies they may only have read about in magazines. With the introduction of DVDs and Internet streaming, the world’s gotten even smaller. What’s sometimes forgotten about “Pulp Fiction,” besides the contribution of Roger Avery, is how much its success influenced the future of the independent-film movement, Miramax Films, the exhibition business and the careers of several of the movie’s stars. The word “Tarantino” became synonymous with movies — good and bad — that emphasized edgy, non-linear plotting and dialogue; turned profanity into poetry; and thumbed its nose at political correctness. And, best of all, audiences didn’t need a film-school degree or Video Archives membership to dig it. Likewise, Jason Bailey’s profusely illustrated and graphically playful scrapbook can be enjoyed in exactly the same spirit as the movie was conceived. “Pulp Fiction: The Complete Story of Quentin Tarantino’s Masterpiece” may not prove to be a valuable source when it comes to writing a master’s thesis or dissertation, but anyone who wants to join in the speculation as to what was in John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson’s briefcase would find it to be a good place to start. There’s plenty of behind-the-scenes and background material, as well as pull-out factoids, trivia answers and fan fodder. Bailey also looks into the movies, books and actors that have influenced Tarantino. It’s exactly the kind of book one leaves on a coffeetable or in the bathroom for casual perusal. – Gary Dretzka
The Dark Knight Trilogy: Ultimate Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Few iconic characters, and I don’t use the term loosely, have undergone such radical personality makeovers as Batman/Bruce Wayne and retained their ability to enchant audiences. Certainly, any similarity between Adam West’s delightfully cartoonish Batman and Christian Bale’s emotionally vulnerable Dark Knight is largely coincidental. When “Batman Begins” rolled into megaplexes around the world in 2005, it became exceedingly clear that co-writer/director Christopher Nolan’s interpretation of the character would be a light year or two away from those turned in by Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer and George Clooney, as well. It was greeted with wide critical acclaim and just enough box-office bounce ($374 million) to allow for the sequels, “The Dark Knight” (2005) and “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012), both of which returned $1 billion in worldwide revenues to Warner Bros. coffers. The oversized boxed-set “The Dark Knight Trilogy: Ultimate Collector’s Edition” should be of primary interest to lovers of superhero movies who don’t already own previously released Blu-ray editions of the Batman films. That’s because most tech-savvy fans probably would not relish dishing out another large sum of money for discs that have not been given a higher-def makeover. (Not that they don’t look great, already.) There are several fresh bonus features, but none that would whet diehard fans’ appetites. Newcomers, though, should welcome the many vintage features, as well as “The Fire Rises: The Creation and Impact of ‘The Dark Knight Trilogy,’” “Christopher Nolan and Richard Donner: A Conversation” and “The Complete IMAX Sequences,” for “Dark Knight” and “Dark Knight Rises.” Among the collectible items in the numbered limited-edition package are a letter from director Nolan, a 48-page softcover book with production stills, a six-disc hardcover Blu-ray case, five newly commissioned “Mondo Art Cards: Trilogy Villains,” premium Mattel Hot Wheels vehicles and a “Dark Knight Trilogy” UltraViolet digital copy.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: Extended Edition: Blu-ray 3D/2D
When all of the smoke from Middle Earth finally cleared, last April, Peter Jackson’s first installment of his “Hobbit” trilogy had crossed the coveted billion-dollar barrier in worldwide revenues … a respectable $303 million tallied in the U.S., alone. If the numbers at Rotten Tomatoes are to be believed, audience approval topped that of “top critics” – whatever that means – by a score of 82 percent to 46 percent. When the opinions of “all critics” were counted – presumably representing the voices of the legions of Roger Ebert wannabes on Internet blogs – the approval rating jumped to 65 percent. On March 19, a mere three months after its theatrical release, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” entered the DVD/Blu-ray marketplace. Savvy collectors knew not to invest their hard-earned dough in the initial release of a blockbuster title, especially when most of the bonus material had already been made available on Internet fan sites. With only six weeks to go before the theatrical release of “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” their patience has been rewarded. If you know anyone with a HD3D set and playback unit, the latest addition to the catalogue could be just the right ticket, gift-wise. Included in the nearly nine hours of supplementary material in the “extended cut” version are 13 minutes of extra film footage, extending several individual scenes; commentary with director/co-writer/producer Jackson and co-writer/co-producer Philippa Boyens; the previously shown “New Zealand: Home of Middle-Earth”; “The Appendices Part 7: A Long-Expected Journey,” a 14-part chronological history of the filming of “An Unexpected Journey,” covering pre-production in the various departments; “The Appendices Part 8: Return to Middle-Earth,” further detailing the film’s development, design and production; “The Company of Thorin,” which explores the characters and backgrounds of the five families of dwarves and the company of actors chosen to play Thorin’s team on the Quest of the Lonely Mountain; “Mr. Baggins: The 14th Member,” a profile of lead actor, Martin Freeman; the self-explanatory, “Durin’s Folk: Creating the Dwarves”; “The Peoples and Denizens of Middle-Earth,” with a tight focus on the realization of new characters and creatures encountered in the first film; “Realms of the Third Age: From Bag End to Goblin Town,” on the creation of the Middle-Earth locations from conceptual design to set and prop building to fully digital realities; and “The Songs of ‘The Hobbit,’” on the realization of Tolkien’s songs in “An Unexpected Journey.”
The Right Stuff: 30th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Adapted from Tom Wolfe’s exhaustively researched and thoroughly enjoyable best-seller, “The Right Stuff” – a 20th Century “Moby Dick,” half documentary, half dramedy – Philip Kaufman’s film ranks right up there with Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times,” David Lean’s “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” and Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13” as the most sensually pleasing, intellectually satisfying and flat-out entertaining movies ever made about man’s sometimes uneasy relationship with technology. It certainly is the most important film ever to include a homage to the art of fan dancing. At a time when the American space program is pretty much limited to robotic surface-rovers, giant orbiting telescopes and no-deposit, no-return satellites, “The Right Stuff,” reminds us of a time when we were able to afford exploration for its own sake and have money left over to conduct a unwinnable war against a nearly invisible opponent. Roughly divided in half, Kaufman focuses first on the daredevil pilots who went from risking their lives shooting down enemy fliers in World War II, to risking their lives in the skies above California’s high desert, testing the limits of supersonic jets. The second half is given over to the U.S. and USSR’s highly politicized and frequently absurd race to put monkeys and men into orbit. If test pilot Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) was the cowboy hero of Part One, it was photogenic and highly marketable astronauts of the Mercury space program – and their beleaguered wives — who dominate Part Two. Before doing things in space no one thought possible, only a decade earlier, the Mercury team members would be poked, prodded and probed by sadistic nurses and ex-Nazi engineers to within an inch of their sanity. The idea was to clear a path for the next generation of astronauts, who would fulfill President Kennedy’s lofty promise of putting Americans on the moon ahead of the Soviets, who had ex-Nazi engineers of their own.
Unlike their commie counterparts, our astronauts were required to play nice with the media, Madison Avenue and White House flunkies, all of whom wanted a piece of the action to exploit for votes, readers, ratings or profits. Kaufman depicts them with the same disdain most of us reserve for turkey vultures and the paparazzi camped outside the homes of the various Kardashians. Senator and, later, Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson is made to look like a buffoon, even if he was mostly carrying JFK’s water as overseer of the space program, and almost every other bureaucrat is there to offer comic relief or be a target of derision. Kaufman allowed the heroic pilots and astronauts to have individual personalities, senses of humor and moments of righteous indignation. Their wives, too, are accorded the respect due pre-feminist women stuck in proscribed roles that didn’t allow for contrary opinions or non-conformist behavior. Boys could be boys, but women could only be ladies. One of things one is left with after watching “The Right Stuff” is how little bullshit the astronauts ultimately were willing to swallow as they prepared for the riskiest adventure of their lifetimes. As he was in Tom Wolfe’s book of the same the same title, Chuck Yeager comes off as being something of a tragic hero. Too much of a cowboy to fit the mold created for the astronauts, he continued to break records and test fighter planes in relative anonymity in one of the few places in California where rattlesnakes outnumbered accountants and real-estate agents. The most poignant moments are reserved for the pilots who gave their lives testing jets and were forgotten by everyone except their families and the folks who gathered at Pancho Barnes’ Happy Bottom Riding Club, before it was destroyed in a fire along with photos of the martyrs. “The Right Stuff” is being released for the first time in Blu-ray, with 40-page DigiBook packaging, with Dolby TrueHD audio with advanced 96k “upsampling,” designed to deliver to consumers a full-range high-definition surround sound experience ensuring optimum performance from today’s advanced A/V receivers and Blu-ray Disc players. A second disc, containing mostly vintage bonus features, is presented in standard definition.
Bruce Lee Legacy Collection: BluRay
We reviewed “Bruce Lee Legacy Collection” in the summer, before it was put on hold by Shout!Factory for technical problems. The company wants its customers to know that the upgraded version contains the correct pairing of label art and media for discs 10 and 11, which had been swapped, and new Blu-rays for “The Big Boss,” “Fist of Fury” and “Way of the Dragon.” (“Games of Death” was OK, apparently.) After several negative reviews appeared on the Internet, Shout!Factory techies discovered its source for the hi-def masters were not the recently restored transfers used for the Blu-rays in Hong Kong and Japan, but, rather, the original masters done a few years ago in Canada. This appears to have solved the problem. The boxed set includes four of the films – “Enter the Dragon” was re-issued recently by Warner Home Video — that would make Bruce Lee an international phenomenon; two documentaries “Bruce Lee: The Legend” and “I Am Bruce Lee”; and a bonus disc with more than two hours of bonus content. – Gary Dretzka
McQueen: Wanted Dead or Alive: The Complete Series
Several years before Steve McQueen was unofficially anointed the coolest man in the world, based on performances in such movies as “The Great Escape,” “The Thomas Crown Affair,” “Papillon” and “Bullitt,” he was stuck playing bit parts in TV Westerns and anthology series. In September, 1958, his luck would change dramatically with the release of the kooky sci-fi thriller, “The Blob,” and the launch of CBS’ “Wanted: Dead or Alive.” In the latter, McQueen was able to demonstrate his ability to blend action and low-key humor in the service of a character whose career choice was looked upon as being disreputable. Up until the arrival of McQueen’s Josh Randall, bounty hunters were recognizable by their two-day growth of whiskers, sweat-stained hats, amoral points-of-view and lusty willingness to kill for pay. Randall was a decidedly different breed of mercenary. Undeniably handsome, reasonably clean-cut, self-effacing and possessed of a dust-dry wit, Randall never killed anyone without listening to the wanted man’s side of the argument first. If he liked what he heard, Randall might be inclined to forgo his reward or pass it along to his prisoner’s favorite charity. If the show’s dialogue wasn’t as sharp and witty as that given Richard Boone in “Have Gun — Will Travel,” and the assignments as interesting, Randall and Paladin were cut from the same cloth. (“HG — WT“ also benefitted from writers that included Gene Roddenberry and Irving Wallace.) Otherwise, both gunslingers supplemented their distinctive sidearm with a derringer. The Mill Creek package includes all 94 original episodes; the featurettes, “The Art of the Replica,” “The Mare’s Leg,” “Reckless,” “The Women of ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive’” and “Winchester: A Weapon of Legend”; select colorized episodes; a photo gallery of the original “Wanted: Dead or Alive” comic book; and the feature-length “The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery,” starring McQueen, Crahan Denton and David Clarke. Among the many noteworthy guest stars are Michael Landon, Warren Oates, James Coburn, Ralph Meeker, Steve Brodie, DeForest Kelly, Kenneth Tobey, Clu Gulager, Lee Van Cleef, Martin Landau, Lon Chaney Jr., Dylan Cannon, Brad Dexter, Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Donner.
The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts: Collector’s Edition
The roots of today’s “Comedy Central Roast” extend back more than 60 years, to the Friars Club of New York, which raised money by toasting and roasting its favored members on a dais loaded with a who’s who of the entertainment and sports industries. The events, which were private, were notoriously risqué. Even comedians who made their living working “clean” would go “blue” for the events. When the broadcast networks experimented with broadcasting the roast, some of the mystique was lost in the translation from R to PG. In 1973, as “The Dean Martin Show” was plagued with declining numbers, the producers decided to liven things up by re-creating the Friars’ experience on the show, with a guaranteed roster of A-list talent taking and shoveling the abuse. They proved to be so popular and easy to pull off – for Deano, anyway – that show’s base was moved to Las Vegas’ then-MGM Grand Hotel and repeated ad nausea. It ran on NBC for a total of 11 years. Comedy Central would pick up the baton two decades later, using the same format, but hiring entertainers who young adults would enjoy seeing … even if they frequently had nothing in common with the roasted star. The six-disc “Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts: Collector’s Edition” contains all 54 celebrity roasts, 15 hours of bonus material, a collector’s box, Dean Martin figurine, fresh interviews with Betty White, Jackie Mason, Ruth Buzzi, Tim Conway, Rich Little and Don Rickles, and featurettes, “Legends of the Roasts,” “The Art of the Roast” and “The King of Cool: Always in Fashion.” How funny the “zingers” still are depends primarily on the age of the viewer. Boomers and their parents will have fond memories of the stars, while their Gen X and Millennial offspring may be unable to recognize even half of the people sitting on the dais. One other thing the Martin roast has in common with those on Comedy Central is the uneven reading of jokes and insults, which almost certainly were written by someone else, and the occasional guest who’s there to plug a show on NBC. Among the many participants are Johnny Carson, Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason, Don Rickles, Flip Wilson, Ronald Reagan, John Wayne, Ginger Rogers, Foster Brooks, Jimmy Stewart, Milton Berle, Billy Graham, Rich Little, Howard Cosell, Jack Benny, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Nipsey Russell, General Omar Bradley, Phyllis Diller, Neil Armstrong, Redd Foxx, Henry Kissinger, Jonathan Winters, Sugar Ray Robinson, Mark Spitz, Dolores Hope, June Allyson, Greer Garson, Red Buttons, Barry Goldwater, Henry Fonda, Eddie Albert, George Burns, Tony Randall, Janet Leigh, Jesse White, Orson Welles, Mickey Rooney, LaWanda Page and Ruth Buzzi.
Mama’s Family: The Complete Collection
The Carol Burnett Show: Christmas with Carol
Because of disagreements over rights and internecine squabbling, it’s taken far too long for “Mama’s Family” to find a permanent home on DVD. For many years, only the first-season compilation was available to fans not only of the sitcom, but also the “Family” sketches from whence it sprang on “The Carol Burnett Show.” Viewers were quick to notice that the episodes included in the compilation had been butchered in the editing process, eliminating several minutes of introductions, songs and gags. Now, just as it had done previously with “The Carol Burnett Show,” “China Beach,” “The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts,” “Get Smart” and “The Six Million Dollar Man,” StarVista has collected, cleaned up and re-packaged six seasons’ worth of “Mama’s Family” episodes and sent them out for purchase on the timelife.com retail site. For those too young to remember the show, think first of Tyler Perry’s Madea and her wacky family, then imagine a version in which the lead characters are white and the star, Vicki Lawrence, was born a woman. Yup, it could easily be argued that Mr. Perry got the idea for his cranky, outspoken and physically imposing matriarch, Madea (a.k.a., Mabel Simmons), from the similarly ill-tempered, yet lovable Mama (a.k.a.Thelma Harper). All 130 episodes included here was cut from the original broadcast master and include the Seasons One and Two introductions from Harvey Korman, as the witty Alistair Quince. This collection also features more than 13 hours of bonus features, such as the “Mama’s Family” cast reunion; an interview with Vicki Lawrence and Carol Burnett; Vicki Lawrence interviewing Mama; a chat with Betty White, who played the eldest of Thelma’s three children; “Eunice,” the made-for-TV movie about Burnett’s character in the sketches; and a collector’s book, “Mama’s Family Album,” with a family tree, funny quotes and character bios.
And, speaking of which, Time Life’s “The Carol Burnett Show: Christmas with Carol” features classic holiday episodes, with all the key cast members on hand for the festivities. The special edition includes such treats as the show’s dysfunctional family exchanging gifts, Mr. Tudball and Mrs. Wiggins enjoying a champagne-laden moment, the Charlady performing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” Burnett finding herself in a Christmas fight with Sid Caesar; and guest stars Jonathan Winters, Alan Alda, Helen Reddy and Ken Berry.
Power Rangers: Seasons 8-12
League of the Super Evil: Megaset
It’s funny how some of the grandest packages come with the shortest titles. Could anything be more succinct than “Power Rangers: Season 8-12”? Shout!Factory in conjunction with Saban Brands is marking the 20th anniversary of one of the most successful entertainment franchises in history by releasing the gargantuan 26-disc set, comprised of 196 “Power Rangers” episodes from five seasons of “Power Rangers Lightspeed Rescue,” “Power Rangers Time Force,” “Power Rangers Wild Force,” “Power Rangers Ninja Storm” and “Power Rangers Dino Thunder.” As befits the occasion, there are no shortage of bonus features, either. They include “The Voice of a Ranger,” with voice director Scott Page-Pagter and members of the “Power Rangers” cast; “Ranger Tales,” in which cast members reflect on their seasons with the show; “Pure Titanium,” in which Rhett Fisher looks back on the first purely American-created Power Ranger; “A Web of Fans,” an in-depth look at the thriving world of Internet fandom, including fan web sites and Saban Brands’ own Power Force; and the original “Return Of The Ranger” featurette. Lest we forget, Saban’s “Power Rangers” franchise was launched in 1993 by Haim Saban, creator and producer of the original Mighty Morphin Power Rangers hit series. The live-action show became the most-watched children’s television program in the United States and is still being produced today. It follows the adventures of a group of ordinary young people who “morph” into superheroes and save the world from evil. It is seen in more than 150 markets around the world, translated into numerous languages and considered to be a mainstay in the most prominent international children’s programming blocks. In fact, the series takes much of its footage from the Japanese tokusatsu “Super Sentai.” The term, tokusatsu, refers to any TV or movie that combines live-action with special effects, in the service of science fiction, fantasy and horror hybrids. The material is then merged with fresh material from non-Japanese markets, allowing it to appeal to a broad cross-section of viewers. Needless to say, the process works.
“League of Super Evil” is an animated series from Canada that turns the usual superhero formula on its head by following the exploits of a group of would-be supervillains, who only show their faces when the superheroes are out of town. Led by self-proclaimed mastermind Voltar, L.O.S.E. includes muscle-bound nice-guy Red Menace, mad scientist Doktor Frogg and inter-dimensional hell-hound, Doomageddon. Not surprisingly, their bark is worse than their bite. Their terror is limited to pulling pranks, such as
gluing coins to the sidewalk to see who falls for the trick. Moreover, they have no skills, money or powers. They’re simply annoying. L.O.S.E.’s primary mission is to avoid getting in the way of actual supervillains and superheroes, or being nabbed by Metrotown’s police force. The “Megaset” contains all three seasons of the show, which ran here on Cartoon Network. The eight-disc package contains 1,140 minutes of material.
Mickey’s Christmas Carol: 30th Anniversary Special Edition: Blu-ray
Winnie the Pooh: A Very Merry Pooh Year: Blu-ray
Guess How Much I Love You: The Adventures of the Little Nutbrown Hare
Dora the Explorer: Dora’s Ice Skating Spectacular
Enchanted Tales: the Night Before Christmas/The Christmas Elves
The Secret World of Santa: A Present for Santa/Elves in Toyland
While “Mama’s Family” and “Christmas With Carol” easily qualify as multi-generational family entertainments, the titles in this section of our Gift Guide are pretty much for the kiddies. The primary exceptions would be the 30th anniversary edition of “Mickey’s Christmas Carol” and “A Very Pooh New Year,” both on Blu-ray and digital. It’s amazing that Charles Dickens’ venerable “A Christmas Carol” holds up as well as it does after 170 years and several million variations on the novella’s themes of redemption, forgiveness and charity. One of the most enduring adaptations comes from the Walt Disney animation factory, with its stock company of beloved characters. Joining Mickey, Donald and Goofy on the roster are Scrooge McDuck, Jiminy Cricket, Moley and Minnie. “Mickey’s Christmas Carol” isn’t nearly as scary as the 1951 version, with Alistair Sim as Scrooge, but younger viewers might find it a bit too tense for comfort at times. It also offers one new and four fully-restored holiday cartoons, “Yodelberg” (2013), “The Hockey Champ” (1939), “Pluto’s Christmas Tree” (1952), “The Art of Skiing” (1941) and “Corn Chips” (1951), as well as “Disney Intermission” sing-alongs: “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” “Deck the Halls” and “Jingle Bells.”
The feature-length “A Very Merry Pooh Year,” newly available on Blu-ray, is a hybrid of the 1991 Christmas TV special “Winnie the Pooh & Christmas Too” and 2002 “Happy Pooh Year.” The Hundred Acre Wood is where Pooh, Tigger, Eeyore, Roo and their pals traditionally spend the holidays, before, one supposes, heading out to Aspen or Maui with the rest of the Disney executive team. After celebrating Christmas and/or Chanukah and/or Kwanza and/or Festivus with the gang, it becomes incumbent on them make resolutions, most of which will be broken before breakfast. The package includes “Disney Intermission,” with sing-alongs and other activities. Both Blu-rays come with digital copies.
“Guess How Much I Love You: The Adventures of the Little Nutbrown Hare” and “Dora the Explorer: Dora’s Ice Skating Spectacular” share an interest in ice skating and other winter activities. Like “Winnie the Pooh,” “Guess How Much I Love You” was inspired by a series of best-selling children’s books, this time written by Sam McBratney and illustrated Anita Jeram. It follows the adventures of Little Nutbrown Hare and Big Nutbrown Hare, who share a friendship as well as a traditional father-son relationship. The title refers to a question Little NH asks Big NH, as they tackle increasingly larger issues in life. The episodes are compiled from an animated TV show, which aired on Canada’s CCI Entertainment and Playhouse Disney. Nickelodeon’s “Dora the Explorer” always finds new ways to celebrate the seasons. In “Dora’s Ice Skating Spectacular,” Dora and Boots are required to skate to the rescue of the Snow Princess, Snow Fairy and their other forest friends, after an Ice Witch steals everyone’s skates. The bonus episodes are “Catch That Shape Train” and “Dora and Perrito to the Rescue,” in which Boots is in need of help.
The holiday offerings from New Video Group’s “Enchanted Tales” series are “The Night Before Christmas” and “The Christmas Elves.” In the former, a boy and his cat must wait patiently for the joy of Christmas to reach them, as it appears that Santa has left them off his list. The latter is a based on the Brothers Grimm story “The Elves and the Shoemaker,” in which a poor shoemaker named Hans is down to his last piece of shoe leather. Other new entries in the series are “Snow White,” “Princess Castle,”
“A Tale of Egypt” and “Noah’s Ark.”
The New Video Group is also sending out two entries in its “Secret World of Santa” series, “A Present for Santa” and “Elves in Toyland.” The animated series chronicle what Santa and the elves do when he isn’t delivering toys to kids. Who knew, however, that they had enemies on the North Pole, as well as loyal boys and girls around the world? In both series, the evil Gruzzlebeard finds ways to put flies in Santa’s ointment.
The Guild: Complete Megaset
Now that the long-running Internet action-comedy series, “The Guild,” has called it a day, what better time for newbies to binge than with the release of the “Complete Megaset.” The episodes ran from between 3 and 12 minutes, anyway, so the entire six-season run wraps up in a breezy 506 minutes. Self-proclaimed World of Warcraft addict Felicia Day created “The Guild” as a reflection of her own attraction to the MMORPG (Massively Multi-Player Role Playing Game) genre. Her character, Codex, is a member of an on-line guild, Knights of Good. The craziness begins when her fellow guild members begin to show up on her doorstep and they’re required to interact in the “real world.” In Season Six, Codex even manages to get a job working at the headquarters of the “The Game,” which is less fun than one would suspect. Included in this set are of all the show’s kooky music videos, behind-the-scenes material for every season and full scripts. – Gary Dretzka