The DVD Gift Guide II: Abbott & Costello, All Hail Chuck Berry, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, Little Prince, Anime, Turtle Odyssey, Omen, Robocop, BoJack Horseman, Chaperone, Scarface … More

Abbott & Costello: The Complete Universal Pictures Collection: Blu-ray

Arriving immediately after the heyday of the Marx Brothers,  Abbott & Costello competed for box-office dollars and television ratings with such popular double acts as Laurel and Hardy, Hope and Crosby, Martin & Lewis and Burns and Allen. Not having done the math, I suspect that Bud and Lou did every bit as well, if not better, than the other mid-century duos … on the big screen, at least. They joined forces in 1935, at the Eltinge Burlesque Theater, on New York City’s 42nd Street. At the time, Costello needed someone to replace his ailing “straight man” and recalled meeting Abbott when the 10-years-older performer and producer was working at Minsky’s Burlesque. They formally teamed up in 1936, performing in stock burlesque, vaudeville, minstrel and variety shows. Two years later, they received national exposure as regulars on Kate Smith’s radio program, which led to roles in a Broadway musical, “The Streets of Paris.” In 1940, Universal signed the team for their first feature film, One Night in the Tropics, which kicks off Shout! Factory’s 15-disc, 2,285-minute-long Abbott & Costello: The Complete Universal Pictures Collection.” The pristine Blu-ray compilation contains all 28 of the comedies they made for the studio between 1940-55. One Night in the Tropics is a remake of the 1919 silent film, “Love Insurance,” and benefits from the re-purposing of songs written by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields for the unproduced musical, “Riviera.” When studio heads concluded that the screwball musical needed a strong injection of unvarnished comedy to balance the romantic entanglements, they turned to the up-and-coming double act, which could benefit from the exposure outside the big-city stages. Bud and Lou’s contribution to One Night in the Tropics was limited to several time-tested bits, including an abridged version of “Who’s on First?,” which seemingly are randomly inserted into the love story. The 20 minutes removed to make room for the well-honed word gags weren’t noticed – or missed – by audiences, who primarily came to hear the songs. In it, best friends Allan Jones and Robert Cummings compete for the bejeweled hand of society dame Cynthia (Nancy Kelly), while Mickey (Peggy Moran), conspires to block her ex-boyfriend’s wedding. The story isn’t much, really. Between such less-than-memorable songs as “You and Your Kiss,” “Remind Me,” “Back in My Shell” and “Your Dream” and the bits, “Who’s on First?,” “Mustard,” “Jonah and the Whale,” “Buck a Day” and “Two Tens for a Five,” there was precious little time left for narrative … which turned out to be just as well. Although One Night in the Tropics was something of a disappointment, the comedy escaped unscathed. Universal quickly offered the team a two-picture deal, with the option to extend the contract, and 10 percent of the films’ profits. There was no mistaking the stars of their immediate follow-ups, Buck Privates and In the Navy, or any of the other half-dozen comedies they made in the next two years. The boys shared the spotlight in those military-themed films and Hold That Ghost (1941) with the equally hot Andrews Sisters, whose presence as heartthrobs and singers — “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” “(I’ll Be with You) In Apple Blossom Time,” “Bounce Me Brother with a Solid Four,” “Starlight, Starbright” – fully complemented the slapstick and sketches. (Future audiences would appreciate the roles played by crooner Dick Powell and fourth Stooge, Shemp Howard.) Although the frequently confused and abused Costello was the crowd-pleaser in the early movies, it’s just as much fun to watch Abbott set up the jokes, gags and schemes for his ever-likable partner. These films and other military-themed comedies, starring Hollywood’s brightest stars, went a long way toward helping friends and relatives on the home front cope with their loneliness, anxieties and fears. Even if In the Navy was released several months ahead of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, German advances in Europe made our entry into the war a foregone conclusion. It’s somewhat disconcerting, then, to watch the scenes – including a fantasy dream sequence involving war games at sea – that are set at the naval base at Pearl Harbor. Unlike Universal’s horror classics, which were intended to scare audiences, such A&C horror comedies as Hold That Ghost (1941), Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949) and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy allowed younger audiences to laugh away their fears. Today, the most disturbing moments in Hold That Ghost come inadvertently, during nightclub scenes in which Ted Lewis (“Is … EV’rybody …HAPPY?”) appears to be performing in blackface – it’s hard to tell – on his signature song, “Me and My Shadow.” All 28 films look and sound as good as new in Blu-ray. The set adds production notes, original trailers, several commentary tracks and a full disc of informative featurettes and eight shorts from their tenure at Castle Films.   

Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll: Blu-ray

Rock ‘n’ Roll High School: 40th Anniversary Edition Steelbook: Blu-ray

Years before rockumentaries became as common as joints at a music festival, Taylor Hackford’s Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll (1987) set out to do two things, simultaneously. First, the director of La Bamba (1987), Ray (2004) and Against All Odds (1984) wanted to paint a portrait of the Father of Rock ’n’ Roll as he prepared for his 60th birthday concert at the Fox Theater, in his hometown of St. Louis. Second, Hackford wanted to provide Berry with a backup band worthy of his standing in music history. For years, Berry toured by himself, hiring local musicians everywhere he went. (They included a pre-fame Bruce Springsteen.) In this way, the notorious tightwad was able to save money, entertain the paying customers for about 50 minutes and give a thrill to his “godchildren,” who weren’t given much, if any time to rehearse. He assumed that the local musicians already were familiar enough with the chords, lyrics and cues of his hit songs that they could perform them without embarrassing the headliner or themselves. If the backup musicians were lucky, the promoters wouldn’t stiff them. (Berry took his cut ahead of time.) By recruiting Keith Richards to be his musical director, Hackford could concentrate on capturing the life and times of the man who created an entirely new form of popular music, accessible to listeners – and dancers – from every walk of life. What both men found in Berry was an artist as mercurial, demanding and aware of his place in history as any high-and-mighty conductor of classical music or imperious ballet master. As exciting as the concert turns out to be, rehearsals with Berry and the all-star band made the Rolling Stones co-founder – who’d recorded a half-dozen of the master’s songs – wonder why agreed to such an ordeal. Richards much preferred rehearsing alongside hand-picked bandmembers Johnnie Johnson, who was there at the beginning, Chuck Leavell, Bobby Keys, Steve Jordan and Joey Spampinato — on stage and at Richards’ home and recording studio in Jamaica — and guest stars Linda Ronstadt, Julian Lennon, Robert Cray, Eric Clapton and Etta James. Hackford’s job was exponentially tougher. In addition to the usual hassles associated with dealing with rock stars, including chronic tardiness, no-shows and dilettantish behavior, the Oscar-winner (Ray) was sternly admonished for seemingly innocent questions he asked of friends and relatives; warned off pursuing subjects he didn’t want discussed; and forced to relinquish potentially embarrassing footage. Also off-limits were details on his three prison terms; life on the road; his longtime marriage to Themetta “Toddy” Suggs; and breakup with his Hall of Fame collaborator, Johnson, who was driving a bus when approached by Richards. The time Berry does allot for Hackford’s background material – a tour of St. Louis and his former theme park – is well-spent, however, as are far more candid interviews with contemporaries Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Don and Phil Everly; and producer Stephanie Bennett, who, while attempting to set up a prison concert, was attacked and nearly gang-raped by convicts possibly egged on by Berry. At other times, he’s perfectly charming. He joins the all-star band on 19 of his classic songs, and a couple of bluesy numbers that pre-date his glory years. The bonus package adds Hackford’s introduction to the 2006 DVD release; 54 minutes of concert rehearsals; the feature-length “The Reluctant Movie Star,” an eye-opening overview of the production process, with an emphasis on Berry’s peccadillos; the fascinating 90-minute “Witnesses to History,” which expands on interviews with Bo Diddley, Little Richard and Berry, in which the trio covers such diverse  topics as racism, Pat Boone covers, payola, their interactions with Elvis Presley and other stops along the way; a second section of  “Witnesses to History” adds lengthy segments with Jerry Lee, Bo, Don and Phil, Roy, bassist Willie Dixon, Sam Phillips and Ahmet Ertegun; “Chuckisms,” which collects personal moments with the star; “The Burnt Scrapbook,” a casual meeting between Berry and Robbie Robertson, with the men paging through Berry’s personal scrapbook, which triggers numerous stories and memories; and “Final Words,” a short postscript from the director.

Clearly, Berry’s true genius evidenced itself by identifying an untapped audience for an unnamed musical genre, which, in post-war America, was emerging from urban nightclubs, southern honkytonks and independent radio stations. He wasn’t  the first African American artist credited with inventing rock ’n’ roll. That that honor went to Jackie Brenston, Ike Turner and producer Sam Phillips, who cultivated a crossover audience in 1951 with “Rocket 88.” Berry was, however, the first to write songs targeted at black and white teenagers, who hung out after school at malt shops, garages and other places with jukeboxes and radios; were obsessed with hot rods, horsepower and drive-ins; and practiced their dance moves whenever the mood hit. Chuck’s distinctive blend of R&B, western swing, twelve-bar blues, boogie woogie, jive and storytelling propelled “Maybellene” –on the B-side of the bluesy “Wee Wee Hours” – to the top of the charts, with Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame,” Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally” and “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” and the eponymous “Bo Diddley” hot on its heels. Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel,” Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes,” and Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” and “Shake, Rattle and Roll” successfully merged rockabilly, twelve-bar blues and R&B. By the time “American Bandstand” went national, in 1957, deejay and concert promoter Alan Freed repurposed a slang term for sex, by calling the new music, “rock and roll.” Unlike “Bandstand,” where blacks were limited to performing on stage, and Baltimore’s “The Buddy Deane Show,” reserved one day a week for African American teens, Freed promoted shows that were open to mixed audiences and black and white artists on the same stage. (Lewis recalls a concert in which he and Berry performed.) For his efforts, Freed was accused of promoting the devil’s music and became a prime target for payola investigators. Clark went even further than Freed, but skirted the law with better lawyers, powerful backers and a slick-as-owl-shit personality. “Bandstand” held fast to its policy of segregating its dancefloor, until the show moved to Los Angeles.

Berry’s “School Days” not only supplied the title for Hackford’s  documentary, but it also can be heard, on the soundtrack for Shout!’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School: 40th Anniversary Edition.” At the time of its 1979 release, Allan Arkush’s musical comedy appeared destined for a brief run on the Midnight Movie circuit. New World Pictures lacked faith in the anarchic picture’s chances in general release, even knowing producer Roger Corman’s record with exploitation fare shot on budgets that some observers considered to be self-destructive. In return for his trademark frugality, Corman provided up-and-coming filmmakers an opportunity to hone their skills, work with one or two established stars and enhance their resumes. Rock ‘n’ Roll High School’s anti-establishment lineage can be traced as far back as Zero for Conduct (1933); the Little Tough Guys/Dead End Kids/Bowery Boys/East Side Kids franchise (1937-58); Blackboard Jungle (1955); If (1968); and highly successful musical romance, Grease (1978), which it vaguely resembled. Set in 1980, the bad craziness mostly takes place at Vince Lombardi High School – situated somewhere between New Jersey and SoCal, but definitely not the Midwest or South — which keeps losing principals to nervous breakdowns. They’re triggered by the students’ love of rock ‘n’ roll and their disregard for education. The leader of the pack, Riff Randell (P. J. Soles), looks like a cheerleader, but is distinguished by her love of the Queens punk ensemble, the Ramones … not a household name, even in the Outer Boroughs. That was another problem for New World, I believe.

All of her energy is directed toward getting a song she’s written, “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School,” into the hands of Dee Dee, Johnny, Joey or Tommy. After coordinating a series of flash mobs designed to promote her obsessive need to meet the Ramones, Riff is ordered by the new principal (Mary Woronov) to cease and desist such infectious behavior. The school’s far less militaristic music teacher – played by Paul Bartel, Woronov’s frequent partner in dark comedy – pretends to side with the principal, but, deep down, is pleased that the kids are using music as a substitute for smoking pot, snorting cocaine and having unprotected sex. Riff also is committed to hooking her square BFF Kate (Dey Young) up with the even squarer jock, Tom (Vincent Van Patten), who is crushing on the hyperactive blond. (Tom asks the guidance teacher, played by Clint Howard, for help in getting to first base with Riff.) Rock ‘n’ Roll High School extends the gag by messing with its characters’ names, roles, habits and other stereotypical expectations. Arkush wisely pads the 93-minute narrative with music representative of the period and hits from the Ramones’ songbook. I can’t believe how well the parodies hold up after 40 years extant. The credit for that belongs to Arkush and Joe Dante’s uncomplicated story and the devilishly funny screenplay by Richard Whitley, Russ Dvonch and Joseph McBride. Corman’s original inclination was for the film’s title to be “Disco High” and the musical stars to be chosen from a list that included Todd Rundgren, Cheap Trick and Tom Petty. The Ramones offered a wonderful sense of irony to the proceedings: a blond cheerleader in love with a group of unkempt, inarticulate and likely strung out punk rockers. Only the Sex Pistols, New York Dolls and Mother of Invention could have measured up to the conceit. Even knowing that Soles was 29 when Rock ‘n’ Roll High School was released – and looks it — can’t spoil the fun. The almost overwhelming bonus package is enhanced by a new 4K restoration from the original camera negative, four commentary tracks, interviews with Arkush and Corman, and several making-of featurettes and backgrounders.  

The Miracle of the Little Prince

It probably wouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s philosophical novella, “The Little Prince” – often miscategorized as strictly a children’s book – is one of the world’s most widely translated literary, non-religious works. In addition to the 140 million copies sold since 1943, the illustrated meditation on friendship, love, loneliness and enlightenment has been adapted for audio recordings, graphic novels, movies, animated series, the stage, ballet, opera and digital media. In Marjoleine Boonstra’s brilliantly conceived and strikingly photographed documentary, The Miracle of the Little Prince, we also learn how it’s being used by language researchers, teachers and translators is being used to inspire the preservation of endangered cultures and languages. The filmmaker visits with people who have translated the wee masterpiece from French into Tibetan, Tamazight (North Africa), Sámi (northern Finland and Scandinavia) and Nawat (El Salvador). All of these languages are under threat of extinction. They were asked to recall the first time they read “The Little Prince” and discuss the linguistic challenges they faced. For instance, how do you translate “water faucet,” if there’s no such term in your world, or describe a baobab tree to someone who’s never seen one? The personal stories are amplified by Boonstra and Stef van Wijk’s extraordinary cinematography – at once, soothing, reflective and dramatic – that demonstrates how themes in the book aren’t exclusive to the world occupied by the downed pilot and inter-galactic prince. From various angles, the sand dunes of the Sahara are almost indistinguishable from snow drifts in parts of Scandinavia where reindeer vastly outnumber humans. I can’t imagine a better gift for anyone who’s already fallen in love with Saint-Exupéry’s work and want more of it.

Anime on Blu-ray

Funan: Blu-ray

Princess Mononoke/Spirited Away: Collector’s Edition: Bluray/CD/Book

Perfect Blue: Amazon Version: Blu-ray

Millennium Actress: Blu-ray

A Silent Voice: Amazon Version: Blu-ray

As excited as I know we all are about the arrival of Disney+ to our channel menu, its declared targets are viewers seemingly in desperate need of “family-oriented entertainment.” When I try to envision middle-class American families gathered around their Smart TVs, searching for G- and PG-rated content that they haven’t already seen a hundred times, I can’t help but flash back to the sitcom families from the 1950-60s that personified the Disney ethos. Come to think of it, though, sitcom families didn’t spend much time sitting around the tube, subconsciously absorbing the subliminal imperative: buy, buy, buy; consume, consume, consume. They had better things to do. Search as I might, it’s difficult to find much in the way of cross-generational programming that might cause today’s families to gather in front of their brand-new 4K UHD fireplaces. I don’t say that to demean Disney+ or any other niche subscription-based streaming service, because I would definitely add it to my channel lineup if we had kids below the age of 10 or teens addicted to all things related to “Star Wars.” Otherwise, there are plenty of services ready and able to meet my viewing needs. Add enough apps and subscription services and could start your own studio.   

I only mention this because I’m still on my high horse on the subject of foreign-based animation, especially the movies that have even begun to stretch the boundaries of anime and manga, beyond Studio Ghibli and the Japanese mainland. From my point of view, 2019 was a watershed year for animated features that did just that. Denis Do’s brilliantly conceived and powerfully executed drama, Funan (2018), uses animation to temper, if not disguise the horrors of war, intolerance and class-based genocide. The Cambodian civil war was a byproduct of President Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s ill-fated incursion into Vietnam’s western neighbor, ostensibly to keep the North Vietnamese army from staging assaults on American troops from the other side of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. NVA, Viet Cong and Khmer Rouge forces were dug in too deeply, by then, to be dissuaded from reaching their goals in Saigon and Phnom Penh.

After they did, everything the Khmer Rouge’s autocratic government touched turned to death … at least when it came to its political opponents, intellectuals, professionals and, as weird as it sounds, anyone who wore glasses. The Khmer Rouge were so xenophobic, paranoid, repressive and committed to social engineering, that, four years after taking power, it was overthrown by their communist brethren to the east. If Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had this in mind, it wasn’t in “The Communist Manifesto.” Funan celebrates the determination of  Chou (Bérénice Bejo), and her husband, Khuon (Louis Garrel), to reunite after being forced into slavery and find their 3-year-old son, Sovanh, who’s been sent to an indoctrination camp. The abject brutality of the Khmer Rouge is depicted forcefully, but absent the graphic violence and carnage reserved for live-action films, including Roland Joffé’s The Killing Fields (1984). Although Do was born in France, his Cambodian mother’s ordeal was always foremost in his mind. He moved to a vastly changed Kampuchea, as it’s now known, to absorb the beauty of the countryside and learn about other evacuees’ experiences. Today’s imperfect reality serves as a counterweight to the inhumanity that drives Funan’s drama. The artistry of the animation is enhanced in Blu-ray. The disc adds a Q&A interview with Do, art gallery and storyboards. Parents should watch Funan with their older children, if for no other reason than to impress upon them that genocide knows no borders, isn’t immune to rhetoric and legislation, and didn’t end in Southeast Asia.

It took a long time for the work of revered Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli to make its way across the Pacific, theatrically and on VHS/DVD. (Blu-ray had yet to arrive on the scene.) That changed in 1997, when then-Disney subsidiary, Miramax, released Princess Mononoke here. Its box-office reception was marred by Miramax chairman Harvey Weinstein’s decision to edit the film for American viewers, none of whom he would recognize in crowded theaters. The company’s lackluster support for the already hugely successful picture – especially in Japan, where it topped previous box-office records – didn’t sit well with the maestro, who next was accorded the services of Pixar founder John Lasseter for the English translation of Miyazaki’s 2001 masterpiece, Spirited Away. Despite the fact that it was the first film to earn $200 million at the worldwide box office, even before opening in the United States, it wouldn’t find a substantial audience here until it won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, making it the first hand-drawn, non-English-language picture to take home the statuette. Things would improve from that point on, primarily for American anime enthusiasts, who also would benefit from the deluge of niche Blu-ray titles. Last December, Studio Ghibli’s partnership with GKids and Shout!Factory spawned a series of giftbox-sized re-releases that began with “My Neighbor Totoro 30th Anniversary Edition.” Collector’s Editions of Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke would soon follow. Although Miyazaki has never shied away from topical issues and messages, he’s addressed them in ways that don’t distract viewers from the artistry of the animation, which can be enjoyed by – dare I repeat the word – families. Included among the bonus material are feature-length storyboards; original marketing material; exclusive collectible booklets; behind-the-scenes pieces; and the original soundtrack CD, featuring Joe Hisaishi’s wonderful scores.

Also arriving in time for holiday gifting is Satoshi s Kon’s long-delayed Millennium Actress (2002), which arrived after Perfect Blue (1997) and his similarly revered Tokyo Godfathers (2003) and Paprika (2006). Before succumbing to pancreatic cancer in 2010, at 46, Kon was considered to be one of J-animation’s resident geniuses. His influences included visionary sci-fi novelists Philip K. Dick and Yasutaka Tsutsui,  Terry Gilliam and Akira Kurosawa. His fingerprints can be found on Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010) and Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010). Many anime buffs consider Millennium Actress, which was accorded an extremely limited run here in 2003, to be Kon’s greatest work … which is saying a lot. Loosely based on the lives of actresses Setsuko Hara and Hideko Takamine, it tells the story of two documentary filmmakers investigating the life of a retired acting legend. After the closure of a once-prominent movie studio, TV interviewer Genya Tachibana tracks down its most famous star, Chiyoko Fujiwara, who has been a recluse since she left acting three decades earlier. When Tachibana delivers a long-lost key to the actress, who bears no other similarities to Norma Desmond, it causes her to reflect on her career. As she’s telling the story, Tachibana and his long-suffering cameraman are drawn into her dreamlike narrative. It revolves around her lifelong search for the radical teenage boy she helped escape the police and right-wing mobs, decades earlies. Soon thereafter, she turned to acting, in large part, because it allowed her to continue her mission, while reinventing herself with every new role. Subsequent shifts in her quest are signaled by temblors that occur with some regularity throughout Japan and Millennium Actress. Apart from its use as a narrative device, the key gives the elderly actress one last hope of locating the specter that’s haunted her life. The restored disc adds interviews with producers Masao Maruyama and Taro Maki, and dub actors Laura Post and Abby Trott.

Among the other prominent anime titles released – and reviewed — on Blu-ray earlier in 2019 are Kon’s cult psycho-thriller Perfect Blue (1997), Naoko Yamada’s atypically complex A Silent Voice (2016) and Hiroyasu Ishida’s indescribably bizarre Penguin Highway (2018). All of them confound preconceived notions of anime as a single-demographic subgenre. In Perfect Blue, the fabulously successful J-pop star, Mima Kirigoe, is persuaded to make a mid-career correction by accepting an ill-defined role in a direct-to-video soap opera. As her grip on reality begins to loosen, Mima discovers that she’s being stalked by the creator of the unsanctioned “Mima’s Room” website, upon which her darkest secrets are revealed. When the show’s producers agree to expand her role, it requires participating in a traumatic rape scene that smears the border between fantasy and reality. Perfect Blue only gets darker from there. A Silent Voice is based on the manga of the same name written and illustrated by Yoshitoki Ōima. In it, Ishida bullies a deaf girl, Nishimiya, to the point where she transfers to another school. As a result, the no-longer-cool dude is ostracized, bullied, unfriended and stripped of his plans for the future. Ultimately, A Silent Voice is the story of Ishida’s path to redemption and, as such, perfect for the YA audience. Penguin Highway is adapted from a sci-fi novel by Tomihiko Morimi and a manga adaptation that began serialization in Monthly Comic Alive. Boiled down to its essence, it concerns Aoyama-kun, a 4th-grader who sets out to investigate the sudden appearance of penguins in his village, several thousand miles away from their native habitat. Somehow, it’s related to a local dental hygienist with superpowers and a large, water-filled sphere that’s taken up residence in nearby meadow. As nutty as that sounds, Penguin Highway is a lot of fun.

Turtle Odyssey: Blu-ray/4K UHD

The technology that rendered the shots of eerily lifelike animals in Disney’s 4K UHD re-imagining of The Lion King effectively altered my ability to judge the veracity of subsequent nature documentaries in the same format. While watching the 4K version of Turtle Odyssey, I became distracted by the possibility that some, if not all of the magnificent creatures on display were created by computer jockeys, hundreds of miles from the nearest beach. It may not have been Disney’s intention to alter the viewing experience for fans of nature documentaries, but that’s what had happened to me. Remember the ad campaign, “Is it real or is it Memorex”? How about, “Is it real or is it CG”? Once I was convinced that the underwater scenes were genuine, I could relax and enjoy Turtle Odyssey, which depicts the perilous journey made by all Australian sea turtles in their lifetimes. Here, we follow Bunji from egg into parenthood. Always endangered by predators and pollution, Bunji paddles thousands of miles away from home, only to return home years later, prepared to bury eggs of her own in the sun-baked sand. Thanks to GPS tags, the filmmakers were able to map her route and imagine  the hazards in her way. It’s nothing that fans of nature docs haven’t seen before, really. What makes it special is the amazingly pristine cinematography of underwater specialist Jon Shaw (Blue).

Robocop: Limited Edition Collector’s Set: Blu-ray

Every day, it seems, new information about mankind’s role in a future dominated by cyborgs and robots emerges in one media outlet or another. If it seems as if people not affiliated with research into such endeavors have begun to tune out from the discussion, it’s only because the excitement appears to have been generated by easily impressed media and companies whose primary interest it is to promote efficiencies created by eliminating jobs and lowering payrolls. The takeover by automatons has been predicted ever since the first staging of “R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots),” in 1921. As entertaining as it might be to imagine the recreational and practical uses of robots – watching them play baseball, serve cocktails before dinner, vacuum the floor – everyone knows that the money being poured into research has nothing to do with fun. Airborne drones may have proven their usefulness in times of war, but no one dares discuss what will happen when the machines’ kamikaze missions are directed at Americans, by nations hostile to democratic principles. Are robotic surgeons less likely to amputate the wrong breast, leg or cancerous testicle of a patient than their human counterparts? No one should be surprised that most of the excitement being generated concerns robots built to serve as sexual surrogates or boy-toys. Porn and self-gratification have always driven technological advances. When Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop was released, in 1987, discussions about the future of law enforcement began to include the possibility of including indestructible cops in their efforts to control well-armed gangs and lunatics with automatic weapons. Sci-fi buffs already were accustomed to watching mechanical beings kill each other, using templates cut in 80 years of generic action fare. Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner’s script left room for considerations of media influence, gentrification, corruption, authoritarianism, greed, privatization, capitalism, identity, anarchy and human nature. Discussion generated by the transference of moral and ethical values from humans to cyborgs isn’t what made RoboCop such a hit with men, boys and young adults, however. For most of the last 30 years, amoral characters played by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone have made robotic vigilantism look attractive to people who believe that police aren’t up to task of combatting heavily armed gangs, military-trained criminals and terrorists. Arrow Video is the latest distributor to provide fans with an updated version of RoboCop, this time with a 4K restoration from the original MGM camera negative, transferred in 2013 and approved by Verhoeven. It also offers new commentaries on the director’s-cut edition; updated marketing material; a limited edition collector’s booklet, featuring new writing by Omar Ahmed, Christopher Griffiths and Henry Blyth; fresh interviews and tributes; newly commissioned artwork, by Paul Shipper; a theatrical-cut version; and a compilation of alternate scenes from two edited-for-television editions.

The Omen Collection: Deluxe Edition: Blu-ray

The Blob: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray

Night of the Creeps: Blu-ray

Biblical scholars and theologians have studied the significance of the so-called Number of the Beast, 666, ever since it was calculated from mathematical clues provided in the Book of Revelation. It prophesized the arrival of the Antichrist, as revealed in the first and second epistles of John. As the theory goes, Satan’s spawn will appear on Earth to convince humans of his father’s prominence over Jesus Christ. With the Second Coming right around the corner, the Antichrist will call on minions born with the Number of the Beast to recognize and advance his mission. Scholars not only disagree about what the number truly means, but also its very existence in scripture. For most of the last 2,000 years, few people outside the theological community cared much about the number, one way or the other. That changed overnight, in 1976, when The Omen became a commercial success. From that point on, people have avoided any association with the number, 666, whether it meant changing an address (Nancy and Ronald Reagan); avoiding any potentially dangerous activity, including giving birth, on June 6  of any year ending in a 6; flight numbers; highways; uniforms and lanyards; and legislative bills. That tells you how much power a movie can wield on viewers, when everything clicks. When I saw The Omen, ahead of its theatrical release, I was less freaked out by the arrival of the Antichrist than the hyperviolent ways Damien was able to clear his path to a position of performance. The hangings, beheadings, Doberman pinchers, incinerations and accidents were unprecedented, even in advance of the splatter, slasher and stalker genre. David Seltzer’s original screenplay – the novelization arrived just before the film’s release – cut pretty close to bone. In it, the infant Damien (Harvey Spencer Stephens) is switched with the son of Ambassador Robert Thorn and his wife, Katherine (Gregory Peck, Lee Remick). Both took their first breath at 6 a.m. on the 6th of June, presumably in 1966. The Thorns’ legitimate son was taken from the maternity and murdered – off-screen, thank you very much — on the same day. The ambassador was talked into keeping the truth from his wife.  Director Richard Donner (Superman) made sure that the 5-year-old Damien looked human enough to fool his parents but had eyes that could freeze an elephant in its tracks. Because Satan envisioned the Antichrist’s rise as being a function of male dominance, the boy’s cruelty is directed at Katherine and any other woman who gets between him and his two fathers. “The Omen Collection” features all four original films – which follow Damien as he reaches for his pre-ordained goal — as well as the 2006 remake, The Omen, starring Liev Schreiber and Julia Stiles the Thorns. In a brilliant conceit, director John Moore turned to Mia Farrow, the actor who delivered Satan’s spawn in Rosemary’s Baby, 38 years earlier, to play the boy’s demonic nanny. The five-disc set benefits from a 4K remaster of the 1976 original and several new featurettes and commentaries. The value of the 2006 remake is on a par with Gus van Zandt’s unnecessary remake of Psycho. While this version of The Omen sticks closely to the original script and is enhanced by excellent acting, anyone who’s already seen the original isn’t likely to be surprised by anything that transpires in the remake. In Omen IV: The Awakening (1991), the devilish force returns in the form of a wicked little girl.

Along with The Tingler (1959), I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Paramount’s immortal creature feature, The Blob (1958), is one of the most fondly remember horror flicks of the period. Some would refer to these films as “iconic,” but it’s a term I try to avoid using. I prefer, “New monsters for a new generation of American teenagers.” Among other things, The Blob may have been the first and last time that a character played by Steve McQueen was overshadowed by a co-star or antagonist. Thirty years later, TriStar resurrected the story, turning it into a paranoid fantasy for a new generation of audiences. Fresh off collaborating on A Nightmare on Elm Street: Dream Warriors (1987) with co-writer/director Chuck Russell, future two-time Oscar-nominee Frank Darabont (The Green Mile, The Shawshank Redemption), accepted what, at first, appeared to be a suicide mission. Producers initially offered McQueen’s son, Chad, the role of co-protagonist Brian Flagg, but he had good reasons for turning down the exercise in “stunt casting.” That job was accepted by Kevin Dillon (a.k.a.,  Johnny Drama), whose brother, Matt, was well on his way to a stellar career. He plays the cocky teenage bad boy, Flagg, who zips through his scenes on a Triumph motorcycle. In fact, Dillon not only plays second fiddle to the gelatinous creature, but also Shawnee Smith, an up-and-coming scream queen, whose big break would come in Saw (2004). All of this reflected star power wasn’t enough to diffuse the box-office bomb, when The Blob hit theaters. Look for the late, great Del Close, who plays a drunken priest. Commentary is provided by Russell and horror authority Ryan Turek. There’s a Q&A with Russell and an isolated score.

For his directorial debut, Night of the Creeps (1986), Fred Dekker wasted no time – five days in all – writing a screenplay inspired by 20 years of B-movies and drive-in fare, including sci-fi, horror, zombie, slasher and alien-invasion flicks and movies about endangered sorority girls. It was a tall order, hobbled by a cheapskate budget, that only started paying dividends when it attained cult status. It’s easy to see why buffs still carry a torch for Night of the Creeps, which sometimes comes off as an 88-minute game of Trivial Pursuit. It opens in the same way as so many other sci-fi pictures, with some kind of alien spacecraft crashing to Earth somewhere over the horizon. A cannister, containing what’s left of a failed experiment, is jettisoned from the ship, just before its fiery crash landing. Naturally, it falls in the vicinity of Lovers’ Lane, where a frat boy stops necking with his date long enough to check out the cannister. from which a small slug-like thing jumps out and into his mouth. Meanwhile, the young woman is attacked by an ax-wielding escapee from a local mental institution. Twenty-seven years later, in a pledge week ritual, the frozen body of the aliens’ first victim is stolen from the university’s cryogenics lab and dropped on the steps of a rival fraternity. When the body thaws, the stiff’s head splits in two, releasing slugs that incubated in his brain. Before long, the campus of Corman University is experiencing a full-blown epidemic of slugs, with their victims turned into zombies. In the chaos that ensues, viewers are treated to appearances by such now-familiar character actors and soap stars as Tom Atkins, Dick Miller, Vic Polizos, Bruce Solomon, Alice Cadogan, David Paymer, Kevin Thompson. Joseph S. Griffo, Leslie Ryan, John J. York, Greg Nicotero and Chris Tashima, several of whom served double duty on the set. If the characters’ names sound familiar, it’s because they pay homage to such famous horror and sci-fi directors George A. Romero, John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, David Cronenberg, James Cameron, John Landis, Sam Raimi and Steve Miner. If there isn’t anything in Night of the Creeps that out-parodies Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs (1987), it isn’t for lack of trying and inspiration. The two-disc set contains nearly a dozen new featurettes, as well as the director’s and theatrical versions of the film; a making-of documentary; deleted scenes; and interviews and testimonials.

Scarface: The World Is Yours: Limited Edition: Blu-ray/4K UHD

As difficult as it is to imagine finding a copy of Brian De Palma

and Oliver Stone’s version of Scarface (1983) under anyone’s Christmas tree, I have to commend Universal Pictures Home Entertainment for coming up with a new reason not to be so surprised. The story of Tony Montana’s quest to conquer the world is anything but new. While the translation to 4K UHD doesn’t make Scarface any more or any less shocking for its overwhelming display of violence, sexism, greed and gluttony, repeated viewings reveal the humor invested in the screenplay by Stone and Al Pacino’s histrionics. Tony Montana’s distorted interpretation of the American Dream may punch holes in the civics lessons we learned in high school, but it goes a long way toward explaining how guys like Donald Trump, Jeffrey Epstein and Rudy Giuliani – OK, throw in the Kennedys and Clintons, too – have bent the rules to fit their pursuit of wealth and power. In that way, Scarface is as relevant today, as it was in the early days of the Reagan administration. UPHE’s “The World Is Yours: Limited Edition” is conspicuous not only for its distinctive packaging and collectible statuette, but also for the comprehensive approach to satisfying it fans’ appetite for, well, more. The natural lure here is the digital upgrade to 4K UHD, without ignoring those fans still converting to Blu-ray and digital delivery. The package also offers the newly restored 1932 edition of Scarface – the original theatrical and alternate censored versions — for the first time in Blu-ray. Also included are a 10-minute alternate ending, an introduction by the late Robert Osborne, a film historian who also served as TCM’s ambassador to the world, and a featurette on the “35th Anniversary Reunion.”

2019 World Series Champions: Washington Nationals: Blu-ray

2019 World Series: Washington Nationals: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray

Quick: who won this year’s edition of the World Series? If it took more than 10 seconds to answer that question, you might want to check out Shout!Factory’s annual gift to baseball fans, “2019 World Series Champions: Washington Nationals.” There’s the answer right there. The 2019 World Series was loaded with surprises, comebacks, superstars and a few new records. Home field advantage belonged to the 105-win Houston Astros, who were looking to take back a title they had won in 2017. The white-hot Washington Nationals were fighting for the first championship in franchise history. The Blu-ray collection is comprised of regular season highlights, clinching moments and World Series parade. “2019: World Series Collector’s Edition” includes all seven complete games of the World Series and a bonus disc, featuring the pennant-clinching NLCS Game 4 versus the St. Louis Cardinals in its entirety.


Netflix/Comedy: BoJack Horseman: Seasons One & Two: Blu-ray

PBS: Masterpiece: The Chaperone

PBS: Masterpiece: Poldark: The Complete Collection

PBS: Sesame Street’s 50th Anniversary Celebration!

Netflix: Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Gauntlet: Season 12: Blu-ray

Very few animated shows survive the kind mixed reviews that greeted the highly imaginative “BoJack Horseman”  —  an “American adult animated tragicomedy web television series” — upon its 2014 debut on Netflix. Towards the second half of the first season, its irreverent humor and bizarre characters began to grow on viewers and critics, alike. The reasons for the turnaround are made abundantly clear in Shout!Factory’s extremely binge-worthy collection, “BoJack Horseman: Seasons One & Two,” on Blu-ray. Simply put, it evolved from a hipper-than-thou concept into a comedy series that offered something beyond a few wiseass gags and cheap shots at easy targets. Tellingly, the show has been renewed for a sixth and final season of 16 episodes, split into two parts, the second of which premieres on January 31, 2020. I don’t expect to see the rest of the nearly 70 episodes on video any time soon, if only because they’re still a hot commodity on the advertising-supported Comedy Central. “BoJack Horseman” takes place mostly in Hollywood (a.k.a., “Hollywoo”), in an alternate universe where humans and anthropomorphic animals live side by side. The protagonist (Will Arnett) is the washed-up star of the 1990s sitcom “Horsin’ Around.” Tired of resting on his laurels, Bojack plans to launch his big return to celebrity relevance with a tell-all autobiography to be executed by his “third-wave feminist” ghostwriter Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie). BoJack also has to contend with the demands of his agent and on-again/off-again girlfriend, Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), the misguided antics of his freeloading roommate, Todd Chavez (Aaron Paul), and his friend and rival Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins), a yellow Labrador Retriever. You get the picture. The package includes 25 audio commentaries with cast and crew members, as well as series creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg and Tornante Company founder Michael Eisner; full animatics for the Season One and Two premieres; animatics for the show’s main title sequence; animation side-by-side comparison; a Grouplove music video; character art gallery; and background art gallery.

In what appears, at first glance, to be a spinoff of “Downton Abbey,” a blurb on the cover of “The Chaperone” announces that it’s from the creator of the venerable “Masterpiece” series, without adding Julian Fellowes’ name. Elizabeth McGovern, looking very much like Cora Crawley, stands alongside the blurb, and to right of her co-star, Haley Lu Richardson. In The Chaperone, McGovern plays Midwestern society matron Norma Carlisle, who’s volunteered to escort the future Jazz Age legend, Louise Brooks, to New York. They’re heading to the Apple together, but for different reasons: the teenage hell-raiser is going east to meet her destiny as an avant-garde dancer, while the tightly laced chaperone will use her free time to learn the names of the parents who gave her up, as an infant. Norma was entrusted to the care of loving parents, who also happened to be rich, but her curiosity has gotten the better of her. The brilliantly talented Louise will have an easier time meeting her goal than Norma, who’s put through hopes by the nuns in charge of the orphanage. As time passes, however, the protagonists’ trajectories change in curious ways. Fellowes based his teleplay on the 2012 novel of the same name by Laura Moriarty. Although some of the twists and surprises feel forced, there’s no doubt left that they all might have happened to Brooks in real life. Like every other “Masterpiece” series I’ve seen, the production values are impeccable, and the acting is superb.

When “Poldark” debuted on PBS affiliates here, the network was in the same position as HBO, when “The Sopranos” went dark. “Downton Abbey” may not have been the original tough act to follow, but such programming doesn’t grow on trees … even in England. They needn’t have worried. HBO chugs along with memorable shows – “Boardwalk Empire,” among them –coming and going as they please. “Poldark” served the same purpose at the BBC. It ended its five-season run last week, with a tear-jerker of epic proportions and only one of two strings left untied. Troubled lovers, played by Aidan Turner and Eleanor Tomlinson, led a wonderful cast of expertly drawn characters, dressed as if they were plucked from a time capsule. The show’s real hero, though, was the marvelously scenic Cornish Coast, which provided drama of its own creation. The hefty boxed set would make a perfect gift for PBS loyalists and stragglers still working their way through “Downton Abbey” reruns.

Sometime around Labor Day, I reached the peak of my interest in the various celebrations surrounding the golden anniversary of PBS’ “Sesame Street” and the lead up to Tom Hanks and Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.I have nothing against either entity, but, growing up, Fred Rogers and “Sesame Street” simply weren’t on my radar screen. And, more to the point, enough was enough. Despite my inattention, the modestly budgeted movie performed quite well on its opening weekend, with both critics and audiences. “Sesame Street’s 50th Anniversary Celebration!” and “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: Would You Be Mine Collection” provide lasting reminders of the shows’ place in television history, as do the many compilations available to generations of fans, extending back to the days of VHS and Beta. The former’s 50th-anniversary celebration provided the perfect opportunity for a music- and memory-filled special for the entire family. (There’s that word, again.) With the arrival of so many of the show’s celebrity friends, it would be a shame if the party was derailed by the disappearance of the iconic Sesame Street sign. It’s up to some resourceful Muppets to try to find out what has happened to the sign and try to get it back without disrupting the festivities. No such dilemma faces the residents of “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.” The latest four-disc compilation features 30 time-tested episodes, hand-selected by Fred Rogers Productions.

When “MST3K” first launched, the idea behind it appeared to be that no movie is so bad that it can’t be saved by witty asides from a Peanut Gallery of astronuts locked in Earth orbit. And, for the most part, the series succeeded. When the revamped series moved to Netflix, the biggest problem didn’t involve finding new co-hosts or upgrading the sets. Based on evidence provided by Shout!Factory’s new Blu-ray set, “Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Gauntlet: Season 12,” the movies available to the crew weren’t “so bad they’re good,” but so tortuous they’re irredeemable. Jonah Heston, Tom Servo, Crow T. Robot and Gypsy are always funny, but you can almost hear the bullets sweating. Felicia Day and Patton Oswald, as scientist Kinga Forrester and her assistant, Max, “TV’s Son of TV’s Frank,” added a needed air of freshness to the final season the movies couldn’t. “Mac and  Me” (1988) is an undisguised rip-off of ET: The Extraterrestrial (1982), with knock-off characters and more product-placements than any movie should be allowed to have. The film holds a zero-percent approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes and is widely regarded as one of the worst movies ever made. On the same disc, the “mockbuster” Atlantic Rim (2013) was released on July 9, 2013, to capitalize on Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013), which arrived in theaters three days later. The only distinction it holds is for being the first 21st Century movie in “MST3K” history. You can blame Roger Corman for Lords of the Deep (1978), a 78-minute exercise in indefensible filmmaking and the shameless piggybacking on the marketing for better waterborne titles: The Abyss (1989), Leviathan (1989), DeepStar Six (1989), The Evil Below (1989) and The Rift (1990). Multiple Oscar-winner Janusz Kaminski served as director of photography on the 2nd unit crew for about half of the four-week shooting schedule. According to a crew member, who was present during production, Kaminski’s footage was deemed too good to match up with the 1st unit’s footage. That didn’t stop Corman from editing it into the movie and re-cutting it for The Alien Within (1994)

The Day Time Ended (1980) stars old hands Dorothy Malone and Jim Davis, alongside Christopher Mitchum (Robert’s son) Marcy Lafferty (Captain Kirk’s ex-wive). In it, aliens visit the solar-powered home of a middle-class family in Arizona. The  house is sucked into a time warp and transported back to prehistoric times. Of course, it is, Steven Spielberg allegedly called Killer Fish (1979) “the best of the Jaws rip-offs.” I think he confused it with Piranha (1978), though. The cast for this turkey includes Lee Majors, Karen Black, Marisa Berenson, Margaux Hemingway, Gary Collins and James Franciscus. In it, the mastermind of a jewel theft decides to hide the gems at the bottom of a reservoir he’s secretly stocked with piranhas. It might have worked, too, if only the fish weren’t so damn hungry, Ator, the Fighting Eagle (1982) is an Italian adventure-fantasy directed by sleazemeister Joe D’Amato. It is another “mockbuster,” this time of Conan the Barbarian, which was released in the same year. When a Conan sequel was announced for release in 1984, D’Amato hastily shot the sequel, The Blade Master (1982), which also starred the hunky Miles O’Keefe, who would reprise the role once more, in Iron Warrior (1987).  Of the six titles, only Killer Fisg qualifies as “so bad it’s good.” You can thank Ms. Black for that.

Savage: Blu-ray

In his directorial debut, Savage (2018), Chinese writer/director/star Cui Siwei  demonstrates, once again, his willingness to go to ends of the Earth to create survivalist dramas that also feature lots of action, and dollops of humor and romance. Cui’s screenplay for The Island put a group of co-workers in harm’s way, when a team-building exercise is cut short by a cataclysmic storm and they’re stranded on an uncharted island. Regrettably, they turn to a sadistic military veteran for leadership, and he only makes things worse. Savage is set in a small snow-covered town at the foot of Mt. Baekdu – classified as an active, high altitude “stratovolcano”  — on the border of China and North Korea. It’s in this economically crippled logging town that two beleaguered cops, Wang Kanghao (Chang Chen) and Han Xiaosong (Li Guangjie)  – both vying for the affections of a local doctor (Ni Ni) – are confronted by a trio of criminals who just pulled off the theft of an armored truck’s shipment of gold bullion. One cop is killed and the other becomes obsessed with revenge. The mountains and snow provide spectacular settings for fast-paced action.

Semper Fi: Blu-ray

There are several mixed messages at the core of Semper Fi, a boys-will-be-boys actioner that’s disguised as a marines-will-be-marines vigilante drama. By borrowing the Marine Corps motto to lure gung-ho audiences, the distributors effectively subverted the military branch’s sacred pledge to serve commercial interests. So, you might ask, what else is new?  Essentially, the story’s roots can be traced as far back as Cain and Able. The key characters are Callahan (Jai Courtney), a by-the-book police officer, who makes ends meet as a Marine Corps reservist, and his reckless half-brother, Oyster (Nat Wolff). The brothers served in Iraq, in the heat of battle conditions, with their closest friends Jaeger (Finn Wittrock), Snowball (Arturo Castro) and Milk (Beau Knapp). Not long after Oyster accidentally kills an assailant in a bar fight and is arrested by Cal, the boyos are shipped back to Iraq, where one of them loses a leg to an IED. Back home, they learn that Oyster’s been sentenced unfairly to a 25-year term – manslaughter would have been the appropriate plea – and, for no good reason, is being terrorized by sadistic guards. His appeals are routinely denied, based on false testimony coerced from potential defense witnesses. Nada. The fly in the ointment here is Oyster’s unreasonable disdain for Cal, who raised him after their mother died. When Cal realizes that his brother is being railroaded by the same civilians he pledged to serve and protect, he concocts a plan to break Oyster out of prison, with the help of his fellow reservists. In a strategy that could only pass muster in Hollywood – or whatever passes for Hollywood in the indie universe – the men somehow discover exactly when this hardened criminal will be on a bus heading for who-knows-where, on a route that parallels our border with Canada and provides several ambush opportunities. Now, throw in one or two unlikely romantic entanglements (Leighton Meester) and you have Semper Fi. The actors go above and beyond their contractual duty to make it work, and sometimes they succeed. A making-of featurette is included.

Battle of Leningrad: Blu-ray

Also known as “Saving Leningrad,” Aleksey Kozlov’s Battle of Leningrad focuses not on the entire 872-day siege, but the first few days of the blockade that nearly brought the great city to its knees. Anyone expecting something more closely resembling a documentary should know ahead of time that the frequently compelling Russian-produced melodrama falls well short in that department. By adding a romantic throughline, father/son contretemps and a sadistic intelligence agent to the mix, Battle of Leningrad plays to the mass market, instead of historians and World War II buffs. If that’s a crime, it’s one committed by dozens of Hollywood filmmakers in the direct wake of the conflagration. As the movie opens, German soldiers have just begun to tighten the noose around the city’s neck. Only one or two routes are left for the citizenry and military personnel to enter or exit. One of them is by barge, across Lake Ladog, the 14th largest freshwater lake in the world. Military officials have decided to load as many people onto the barge as possible. In fact, the vessel is overload by half. Adding to its burden is the added weight of a piano and limousine belonging to secret police. The narrative is burdened, as well, by an on-again/off-again romance involving the son and daughter of high-ranking officers, who are thrown together at the last moment by cruel fate. Once the barge and its tug are on open water, they’re fair game for Luftwaffe pilots ordered to destroy anything that moves on the lake. Neither is Mother Nature willing to do any favors for the evacuees. At the same time, a platoon of Red Army cadets – led by a quintessentially heroic Soviet commander – is assigned to recover land captured by the deeply entrenched Wehrmacht. It’s at this point that Battle of Leningrad divides itself in two: the attack on the barge creates an opening for a Titanic scenario to emerge, while the fierce engagement between opposing forces comes close to matching the intensity of Saving Private Ryan’s opening half-hour. It saves Battle of Leningrad from sinking under the weight of its own melodrama. The movies ends 870 movie days later, with flash-aheads to the cruel aftermath of the siege and a much later march honoring the families of victims and survivors. Left unmentioned is Stalin’s reign of terror over the city in the late 1940s and his attempts to rewrite the history books in favor of decision makers in the Kremlin.  

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