Author Archive

The DVD Wrapup: IP Man 4, Like a Boss, Heimat, Goldie, Cat and the Moon, Alastair Sim, 16 Candles

Ip Man 4: The Finale: Blu-ray

Two decades have passed since the idea for a Ip Man biopic was  flouted by Hong Kong producers Jeffrey Lau and Corey Yuen (Kung Fu Hustle), who saw an opening for a movie about Bruce Lee’s even more interesting teacher.  It would die aborning when the studio went belly up. Ten years later, director Winston Yip, writers Tai-lee Chan and Edmond Wong, producer Raymond Wong and actor Donnie Yen, would pick up the baton and release Ip Man, the first in a quartet of movies about the Wing Chun grandmaster. Almost simultaneous with that film’s success at the box office, Herman Yau began preparations for a concurrent franchise, with The Legend Is Born: Ip Man (2010), which was followed three years later by the inaccurately titled, Ip Man: The Final Fight. Also in 2013, Wong Kar-wai’s wildly celebrated The Grandmaster (2013) made a splash in arthouses around the world. That same year, a television series, “Ip Man” (2013), enjoyed a 50-episode run. Yuen Woo-Ping’s Master Z: Ip Man Legacy (2018) was a virtual spinoff of Yip’s Ip Man 3 (2015). All of them, exceptthe 2019 straight-to-video cash-in, Ip Man and Four Kings, which opened weeks ahead of Ip Man 4: The Finale, did well at the box office and impressed critics drawn to the action, over the mythologizing. Despite a couple of micro-appearances in compilation flicks released after Lee’s untimely death, in 1973, Ip’s true role in his training and that of several other important fighters went largely unsung for 25. The irony, of course, is that Lee’s characters only came to life when they were facing impossible odds in combat, while most of Ip’s 79 years were spent defending Wing Chun against more prominent martial-arts techniques and, using it to survive the turmoil within China and Hong Kong after the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, the Japanese invasion of China and 1948 revolution.

Ip Man focuses on his life during the 1930-40s, during the Second Sino-Japanese War, when local Foshan fighters not only were required to defend their techniques against rivals from the north, but also Japanese occupation forces. A cruel military leader advocates Karate over Wing Chun and demands Ip’s students compete against the best Japanese combatants. Ip Man 2 focuses on Ip and his students’ tumultuous beginnings in Hong Kong, after their escape from the mainland. If his school is to survive, Ip will be required to prove its worth in the highly competitive market. He’ll also be challenged by an arrogant and racist English boxing champion (Darren Shahlavi). In the second sequel, Ip is enlisted in a fight to save a local grammar school from an American developer and fierce boxer, played by Mike Tyson, who is backed by the island’s triads. Neither does Ip Man 3 neglect issues pertaining to his wife’s health and sons’ education. The undisciplined Lee appears in both sequels, but he has yet to be deemed worthy of learning Wing Chun. By 1964, that changed, however. Ip Man 4 opens with the death of his wife, back in Foshan, and the discovery of throat cancer due to excessive smoking.

After his rebellious son, Ip Ching (Ye He), fights back against a bully and is expelled from school in Hong Kong, Ip decides to travel to San Francisco to look for a new school for him to attend and a fresh living environment. By now, Bruce Lee (Chan Kwok-Kwan) is living in the Bay Area and has offended leaders of the local Chinese martial-arts community by opening a Wing Chun school that’s open to Americans and writing an English- language book on martial arts. They feel as if any knowledge of Chinese fighting skills could be used against then by racists and hired goons, fortified by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Ip is visiting a school when he observes a Chinese girl being attacked by a group of white jocks and cheerleaders, one of whom had just been taken down a beg by her rival. As he tends to do in such cases, Ip steps in to single-handedly even the odds against the bullies. He also intervenes when a Chinese-American Marine staff sergeant raises the hackles of his commanding officers, by suggesting that the military could do well by incorporating Lee’s Wing Chun into training exercise military barracks. U.S. Marine Corps staff sergeant Hartman Wu (Vanness Wu), a student of Lee, infuriates Colin Frater, a bigoted Marine Corps karate coach, by asking him to consider incorporating Wing Chun into the training curriculum. This puts a giant red target on Hartman’s back within the barracks, where Marines of color are blatantly discriminated against by white officers and their Goliath-like enforcer (Scott Adkins). Ultimately, the much smaller Ip will be called in to even the score, once again. Even at 105 minutes, Ip Man 4 is hampered by plot points that defy logic and only serve to get viewers from one fight to another, more difficult challenge. This is OK with me because action director and stunt choreographer Yuen Woo-ping — Kill Bill, The Matrix, Kung Fu Hustle —  is working at the top of his game here. The disc adds “The 10-Year Legend” and “The Making of Ip Man 4: The Finale.”

Like a Boss: Blu-ray

Just as directors sometimes get too much credit for turning a well-crafted screenplay into a work of art, they occasionally bear the brunt of blame for not being able to salvage a hare-brained script from its own worst instincts and tendencies. Like a Boss is a perfect example of the latter. Miguel Arteta has previously helmed such indie delights as Duck Butter (2018), Beatriz at Dinner (2017), Cedar Rapids (2011), Youth in Revolt (2009) The Good Girl (2002), Chuck & Buck (2000) and Star Maps (1997), as well as such television standouts as “Six Feet Under,” “Getting On,” “Enlightened,” “The Big C” and “Forever.” None of them was a fluke or totally dependent on the ingenuity of such writers as Mike White (thrice), Alia Shawkat, Phil Johnston,  Judd Apatow, Matt Hubbard, Alan Yang and Cary Joji Fukunaga. Like a Boss was written by a committee comprised of Adam Cole-Kelly and Sam Pitman (“Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television”) and veteran producer/writer Danielle Sanchez-Witzel (“My Name Is Earl”). Previously titled “Limited Partners,” the one-time Tiffany Haddish-vehicle eventually was re-populated with such established stars and familiar faces as Rose Byrne, Salma Hayek, Jennifer Coolidge, Billy Porter, Ari Graynor, Jacob Latimore, Karan Soni, Jimmy Yang, Ryan Hansen, Natasha Rothwell, Jessica St. Clair and surprise guest, Lisa Kudrow. Two friends with different goals and ideals start a niche business together. Byrne and Haddish play the owners of the Mia and Mel lifestyle boutique, which caters to everyday working women looking for an accessory, notion or cosmetic capable of transforming their lives from average to spectacular.

Their products catch the attention of unscrupulous investor, Claire Luna (Hayek), head of a major cosmetics empire, who intends to steal the brand and repackage best-sellers under her banner. Once the ladies discover Clair’s intentions, they only have enough money left to cover their debts and rue their lack of foresight. (Hayek’s great beauty is masked by a hideous orange wig, push-up bras and cuchi-cuchi fashions that are a size, or two, too small for her famously voluptuous 5-foot-2-inch frame.) Not surprisingly, Clair’s scheme drives the besties apart. Once Mia and Mel come to their senses and are rescued by a feminist angel, Shay (Kudrow), they are in a far better position to turn the tables and take their company back. In a nutshell, Shay’s lawyers read the merger agreement with a closer eye to details than Clair’s did. By the time the good news arrives, however, many viewers will have written off Like a Boss as a complete waste of time and talent. This many years past Colin Higgins’ 9 to 5 (1980) and Mike Nichols’ Working Girl (1998), it takes more than a few time-honored buddy-film tropes and LGBTQ characters in supporting roles to make an underwritten female-empowerment comedy funny. There’s plenty of blame to go around here, but it shouldn’t fall on Arteta’s shoulders, alone. The actors must have felt just as trapped by the script’s outdated themes and tired caricatures: a rich woman, with no fashion sense, as the villain; a salt-and-pepper pairing of down-trodden besties, as the victims; and beautiful blond of a certain age, as the angel. How novel is that? It’s also a shame to see Coolidge’s natural comic chops wasted in a yet another portrayal of the curvy bimbo who’s smarter than she’s made to look. The film’s R-rating is attributed to crude jokes and risqué double entendres that in a bromance would be written off as “locker-room humor” and awarded a PG-13.

Heimat Is a Space in Time

At a daunting running time of 218 minutes, Thomas Heise’s deeply personal Heimat Is a Space in Time would make for tough-sledding in theaters on both sides of the long-extinct Berlin Wall. In it, the German documentarian shares with viewers the stories of three generations of family members, who, for most of the 20th Century, were treated as if they were aliens in their own country. This is accomplished through a collage of letters and notes from three generations of relatives, accompanied by archival and family photographs, newspaper clips, government records and newsreel footage. Stitched together by Heise’s matter-of-fact narration, Heimat Is a Space in Time might remind viewers here of the historical docs and mini-series lovingly produced for PBS by Ken and Rick Burns and Geoffrey C. Ward, ever since “Huey Long” (1985), “The Civil War” (1990) and “Baseball” (1994). The intimately detailed correspondence reminded me, as well, of Clint Eastwood’s monumental Letters From Iwo Jima (2006) and Flag of Our Fathers (2006). Clearly, though, Heise relied on German audiences’ earlier willingness to embrace Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 15 1/2-hour mini-series, “Berlin Alexanderplatz” (1980), and Edgar Reitz’s equally long “Heimat” (1984) and its three sequels. As for the format, Heise  had already carved a small niche for himself, with the much shorter, Fatherland (2002). In it, the writer/director explored the residual traces of a World War II labor camp, outside Zerbst, where, as Jewish mischlings (half-breeds), his father and other relatives, were imprisoned by the Nazis. Immediately after the war, Wolfgang Heise was able to return to academia and become a leading philosopher of the utopian persuasion in Eastern Germany. Heise sets the tone early, reading an anti-war essay written in 1912 by his grandfather, Wilhelm, when he was a schoolboy. The director then reads correspondence from family members, who lived through the horrors of the First World War, Nazi Germany, life in the GDR and propaganda wars that ended with the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and forced adoption of a capitalist economy. Even fans of German-language films will require a bit of time to adjust to the juxtaposition of Heise’s words and imagery — some delivered in deceptively random patterns and poetics – but patience is rewarded with a new understanding of how the German Century evolved, devolved, matured as an economic superpower and resurrected itself as a stable democracy. If it’s threatened today by right-wing gangs, unchecked immigration, the stirrings of an untimely recession, a global pandemic and threats to NATO by a nutjob in the White House, well, at least, a precedent as already been set, more than once in the last 100 years


In some corners of the fashion industry, supermodel Slick Woods’ bald head, gap-toothed smile and tattoos might have worked as much to her detriment as they have for her success. It wasn’t that long ago, after all, that glossy magazines shied away from putting models of color on their covers and, for that matter, any woman not blessed with perfect unblemished skin, silky hair, immaculately manicured nails and legs up to, well, there. Today, expensive supermodels have been replaced by movie stars and rock musicians. At 5-foot-10, the star of Goldie (a.k.a., Simone Thompson) only meets one of those qualifications. As the story goes, the 23-year-old Minneapolis native moved to L.A. in her teens. Before she was discovered, “I was just doing me. I was chilling. I was just enjoying being young.” While standing at a bus stop, she was approached by British model Ash Stymest, who offered her a joint. He would introduce her to photographer Dave Mushegain, who helped put her in contact with agencies and bookers and companies that are attracted more to a model’s  attitude and fluidity than flawless features and movie-star looks. Soon, she began appearing in campaigns for Marc Jacobs, Rihanna, Kanye West, Miu Miu, Uqrban Outfitters and Jeremy Scott, as well as such magazines as American Vogue, Vogue Italia, Vogue Japan, Glamour, i-D, Jalouse, Net-a-porter, Dazed, V and Love, and guest starring on shows, like “Love Advent,” “Love & Hip Hop: Hollywood,” “Catfish: The TV Show” and “Wild ‘N Out.” Practically overnight, the bisexual model says, “she went from being homeless to spending $20,000 a week.” That’s because Woods arrived just in time to exploit “Social Media Modeling” and the  “Instagirl” phenomenon, where standards of beauty don’t conform to those traditionally enforced by the glossies. Neither did being pregnant with her and Canadian model Adonis Bosso’s son, Saphir, prevent her from appearing in Rihanna’s SavagexFenty show in September 2018. The heartbreaking news would came a year later, when Woods revealed to her fans that she was undergoing chemotherapy for Stage 3 melanoma.

I wasn’t aware of any of this biographical information before picking out Goldie from my stack of DVDs and Blu-rays to review. Frankly, I wasn’t in the mood for another movie about impoverished youths hoping to use their mad skills as free-style and hip-hop dancers to make the move to Broadway, Hollywood or somewhere in between. For all I knew, Sam de Jong’s follow-up to his offbeat drama, Prince (2015), was an extension of the Step Up (2006) franchise or a sequel to Fame (1980). Blessedly, that wasn’t the case. Credit for that belongs to Woods’ tour de force performance, as a teenager willing to go to the ends of the Earth – or the Bronx, whichever comes first – to convince the producers of a music video that she’s ready for prime time. She’s stolen enough money from her mother’s drug-dealer boyfriend to afford the fluffy gold jacket she’s discovered in a neighborhood thrift shop. She needs the gig to protect her young sisters, Supreme and Precious, from being taken from their home by child-welfare authorities. When her mom (Marsha Stephanie Blake) is arrested by police for one crime or another, the worst-case scenario comes true. None of her friends or relatives is willing to take the kids in for more than a night or two, so time’s running out on Goldie. I’m no expert on hip-hop dance, but I don’t see much chance that her audition will go as she’s hoped and dreamed. Nonetheless, Goldie’s brimming with the kind of self-confidence and singular sense of style that makes her consistently appealing. In addition to giving Woods the space to express herself naturally, De Jong has delivered a film that genuinely captures a sliver of life in a real New York, where people’s dreams aren’t always realized, but hope sometimes prevails … or not. Nothing is guaranteed.

The Cat and the Moon: Special Edition: Blu-ray


Two Times You

Unintended: Blu-ray

This month’s collection of DVD/Blu-rays contains several low-profile films that, if not for the current cultural malaise, would have gotten lost among the usual array of comic-book capers, straight-to-VOD actioners, failed comedies and cute-rate animation. The major studios have elected to stream their new features, rather than put them on a shelf until the virus blows over, while others have taken a wait-and-see attitude. The Mouse House appears to be dedicating all of its energy into Disney+ and its streaming partners, while the cancellation of festivals have thrown fall and winter distribution schedules into disarray. The burgeoning virtual-arthouse services have created a business model that could survive the drought or do permanent damage to the exhibition of indie, foreign and documentary titles. Heimat Is a Space in Time and Goldie are perfect examples of films that deserve to be seen now, before the floodgates re-open and while buffs have plenty of time on their hands to lavish on obscure titles.

Director/writer/star Alex Wolff began writing the script for The Cat and the Moon a coming-of-age drama that serves as his feature debut — at age 15. By that time, the son of actress Polly Draper and jazz pianist Michael Wolff, had already appeared in a half-dozen movies (The Babysitter) and TV shows (“In Treatment”); contributed to several soundtracks with his older sibling, Nat, as members of the Naked Brothers Band; and written/directed/produced the short film, “The Empty Room.” Even at 22, the show-biz kid and native New Yorker passes for a teenager in The Cat and the Moon. Like his character’s late, alcoholic father, Nick (Wolff) is a musical prodigy with a working knowledge of French, a healthy curiosity for all genres and a too-cool-for-school attitude that can’t help but lead him into trouble. While his mother seeks treatment in a Michigan rehab facility, Nick comes to New York to stay with Cal (Mike Epps), a jazz musician and friend of his late father’s. The boy makes instant friends with a boisterous clique of bored classmates, including the warm, outgoing horndog, Seamus (Skyler Gisondo), his aggrieved girlfriend, Eliza (Stefania LaVie Owen) and hyperactive, filter-free Russell (Tommy Nelson). They show the already tuned-in young man what the city has to offer in terms of drugs, parties and illegal distractions. It doesn’t take long before Nick steps on Cal’s last nerve in his disregard for house rules and simple courtesies. Inevitably, Nick comes face-to-face with the reality that not every teenager, however hip, is suited for the kinds of adventures that mold some New Yorkers into what they’re going to be: street-savvy survivors, unethical yuppies, jailbirds, addicts or garden-variety losers. Without going into too much detail, Cal recognizes the same tendencies in Nick that he witnessed in his father during his downfall. Cal’s patience gives them the time to find common ground in their mutual love for music. The interdisciplinary soundtrack features compositions by Wolff, his father, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter and Kevin Parker/Tame Impala. Anthony Savini’s evocative cinematography makes it easy to see how New York is a big enough city to accommodate the dreams, disappointments and growing pains of the characters in The Cat and the Moon, Goldie and dozens of other coming-of-age pictures.

Hollywood romances are full of meet-cute moments, in which would-be lovers are brought together by accident, coincidence, serendipity or the stars. Pre-arranged encounters are never part of the equation and sloppy hookups at frat parties or bars are anything but cute. It has been 10 years since the first screening of Valerio Mieli’s highly regarded debut romance, Ten Winters, at the Venice Film Festival. Not terribly unlike Ricordi? (a.k.a., “Remember?”) thematically, Ten Winters begins with the chance meeting, on a Venetian vaporetto, of 18-year-old students, Silvestro and Camilla. The film unfolds over 10 winters, as other lovers come and go, but the protagonists continue to be thrust back into each another’s arms … for better and worse. In  Ricordi?, the central meet-cute moment occurs at the beginning of the movie, at a garden party, when Lui and Lei’s eyes meet across a crowded lawn. Bearded, brooding and unfriendly, Lui (Luca Marinelli) doesn’t look as if he belongs at the same party with Lei (Linda Caridi), let alone in her arms. Lei’s a vision in white, relaxing on a festooned birdcage chair, without a hair out of place. Anyone who remembers the lyrics to “Some Enchanted Evening” already will know half of the story: “Some enchanted evening, you may see a stranger/You may see a stranger across a crowded room/And somehow you know, you know even then/That somehow you’ll see here again and again.” Mieli’s achievement here is dividing the picture into three parts, with the meet-cute moment separating the flashbacks and flash-forwards. It also introduces the overriding theme of time and emotional memory. Lei tries to convince Lui that only the present exists, while he believes it’s the present that doesn’t exist. Until that moment, he’s been consumed with unhappy memories of the red-headed girl (Camilla Diana) who got away and life in a dysfunctional household, dominated by alcohol abuse. Lei comes from a well-to-do, close-knit family that’s protected her from life outside the estate’s wall. The lovers will not only be tested by modern conventions of romance and relationships, but also the decision to lease the vacated home in which Lei grew up as his parents’ punching bag. Over the course of the film, he learns that love can exist in the present, while she begins to fall back on nostalgia.

Born in Mexico City, multihyphenate filmmaker Salomón Askenazi (Ocean Blues) has created, in Two Times You, a mystery that combines elements of fantasy, tragedy and drama that echo conceits advanced by Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo), Ingmar Bergman (Persona) and Brian de Palma (Sisters). Because Askenazi doesn’t beat viewers over the head with such film-school references, it’s entirely possible that he came up with them organically. I prefer to think that he wanted to inject some some fun in a story that deals with so much pain, self-recriminations and merged identities. Early in Two Times You, a pair of joined-at-the-hip cousins, Daniela (Melissa Barrera) and Tania (Anahí Dávila), get so caught up in the excitement of an alcohol-fueled wedding reception that they decide to play a joke on their respective husbands, Rodrigo and Benny (Mariano Palacios, Daniel Adissi). It involves swapping rings and driving home in separate cars. The bored young cousins are so intoxicatingly beautiful in their sexy gowns that many viewers will have already begun to anticipate a ménage à quatre playing out before their eyes. I know, I did. The couples race each other home, with their helpless spouses riding shotgun. Viewers shouldn’t be all that surprised by the horrifying crash that comes after the lead driver is blindsided by a van and both passengers are killed. Shit happens, right? Well, yes and no. Askenazi employs an achronological structure to get inside the heads of the survivors, who have diametrically opposed personalities, but share each other’s pain, shame, loss and guilt. Pretty soon, the woman becomes obsessed with the possibility that the tragic accident wasn’t so accidental. She begins to spy on her brother-in-law, play sexual tricks on him and tracks down the driver of the van … a magician, of all things. At 95 minutes, Askenazi can’t afford to waste much time with needless exposition and memory games, so he’s leaves a lot to his audience’s imagination. That’s a good thing.

It’s been 23 years since Anja Murmann’s first indie feature, 15 Months in May, made the rounds of film festivals and swiftly disappeared. (She was accorded a special-mention prize, as Best New Director, at San Sebastian) In between, the German-born filmmaker attended the Tisch School at NYU, produced a short film, “Mistress” (2014), and raised a family in the Apple. Her second feature, Unintended, focuses on a young New York professional, Lea (Elizabeth Lail), whose repressed memory of a tragic accident that occurred when she was 12 has turned her into a nervous wreck. On the verge of losing her job, Lea returns to her childhood home, on a picturesque lake in Upstate New York, to find some clues to unlock. We learn that the accident occurred on the same day that her parents were leaving for a new home in Houston and she took one last walk through the forest. Unhappy about the move, she was joined by a neighbor boy armed with handgun. She leaves for Houston wracked with a guilt and the kind of unanswered questions that don’t go away over time. The rest of the story, largely told in flashbacks, will keep most viewers guessing, as well. Being a small town, several people Lea knew growing up are still in residence but are little help to her. The solution to Unintended’s mystery plays out in a series of coincidences that add the viewers either will buy or dismiss. If nothing else, the scenery’s nice.

Alastair Sim’s School for Laughter: 4 Classic Comedies: Blu-ray

Although Anglophiles will recall Alastair Sim’s face from such classic entertainments as Waterloo Road (1945), Green for Danger (1946), Folly to Be Wise (1952) and An Inspector Calls (1954), as well as dozens of stage roles, American audiences will be more familiar with the Edinburgh native as Ebenezer Scrooge, in Brian Desmond-Hurst’s A Christmas Carol (1951); Commodore Gill, in Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright (1950); Bishop Lampton, in Peter Medak’s The Ruling Class (1972); and as Mr. Greig, in Richard Lester’s Royal Flash (1975). In Frank Launder/Val Valentine’s long forgotten 1951 comedy Lady Godiva Rides Again (a.k.a., “Bikini Baby”), Sim appears anonymously alongside such largely unheralded and uncredited bombshells as Pauline Stroud, Diana Dors, Kay Kendall, Joan Collins, Anne Heywood, Dana Wynter, Ruth Ellis, Googie Withers, Susanne Lévesy and Ruth Ellis, who, four years later, became the last woman executed in the U.K. (In 1985, she was played by Miranda Richardson, in Dance With a Stranger). Stanley Holloway (My Fair Lady) and Trevor Howard (Sons and Lovers) probably didn’t need the work, but they shared the shame with Sim. The fact is, however, that the British film industry was in no position to offer its actors Hollywood wages in consistently prestigious films. That’s what makes Film Movement’s ongoing series of repackaged and restored classics – and near misses – so essential … especially at a time when laughs are scarce.

Alastair Sim’s School for Laughter: 4 Classic Comedies,” is comprised of films in which Sim is given ample support from his fellow Brit actors and sharply written scripts. In the riotous The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954), Sim plays Millicent Fritton, the headmistress of the loosely run academy for girls, as well as her brother, Clarence. Millicent is desperately in need of funds to keep the school running – and her pocketbook full – and the students help her with both problems. The girls are clever enough to take advantage of a gift horse that falls into their laps. When the daughter of an Arab sheik reveals her father’s fondness for racehorses, which he stables nearby, a lightbulb goes off over the heads of her classmates. Launder, Valentine and Gilliat’s screenplay was inspired by Ronald Searle’s original drawings for a series of books based on his sister’s Cambridge school and others in the same elitist neighborhoods. The disc adds interviews with some of the now-elderly women who played students in the movie. The equally sharp and witty School for Scoundrels (1960) – not to be confused with the subpar Hollywood remake, released in 2006 – was based on the “Gamesmanship” series of self-improvement books by Stephen Potter. The comedy stars Ian Carmichael as Henry Palfrey, a nondescript sort of chap who’s a failure in sports and love, as well as an easy target for conmen and unscrupulous employees, alike. Totally frustrated, Henry enrolls at the “School of Lifemanship,” in Somerset, run by Dr. S. Potter (Sim). In a flashback, Palfrey recounts for the acerbic “educator” how he first met April Smith (Janette Scott), after he knocked parcels from her hands while rushing to catch a bus. Even so, he manages to arrange a dinner date with her. It’s at the reception desk that Palfrey is humiliated by the head waiter, who’s conveniently misplaced their reservation. Out of the blue, a prototypical “rotter,” played wonderfully by Terry-Thomas, not only is able to provide seats at his table for the pair, but also impress April with his wealth, public-school wit and upper-crusty manners. After graduating from Potter’s school, Palfrey knows exactly how he’ll trip up the gap-toothed bounder, while also raising his profile at his country club and the business he inherited from his starchy father. The Blu-ray adds more interviews and historical background.

Mario Zampi’s amusing ensemble comedy, Laughter in Paradise (1951), chronicles what happens when a rich old practical joker (Hugh Griffith leaves 50,000 pounds to each of his four surviving relatives. While generous, the will contains one last gag: each is given a month to pull off a designated task that’s completely out of character for them. As they set out to meet their objectives, however, they discover things that are real and genuine about themselves. Only the caddish Simon Russell (Guy Middleton), follows his own suit. The other three hopeful heirs include Deniston Russell (Sim), a retired army officer, who secretly makes a living writing “penny dreadfuls”; Agnes Russell (Fay Compton), a harridan elder who abuses her servants; and Herbert Russell (George Cole), a milquetoast bank teller. Despite being a bit more lightweight than the other selections, Laughter in Paradise was Britain’s top-grossing film of the year. In one of her earliest appearances on film, a 21-year-old Audrey Hepburn plays cigarette girl.

Sim has a similarly smallish, if far more essential role to play in Hue and Cry (1947), a precursor to Charles Crichton and T.E.B. Clarke’s Passport to Pimlico (1949) and The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), both recently released on Blu-ray. Teenager Joe Kirby (Harry Fowler) is so obsessed with a popular weekly comic book – the Trump, of all titles – that he begins to fantasize that clues written into the strips somehow lead to actual crimes. Joe and his pals confront the writer/artist (Sim), who pleads ignorance of the additions. The problem, of course, is that the comic book is only released once a week and, in the meantime, more robberies could be committed. When it does arrive, Joe follows the clues to a dingy warehouse in a still bombed-out section of London – no temporary sets were necessary – containing boxes full of stolen furs. The troops answering to the criminal mastermind are big and bad, but they’re vastly outnumbered by Joe’s army of street urchins, who  respond en masse when summoned. Considered to be first of the great Ealing comedies, Hue and Cry is a riot in more ways than one. Included in the two hours of bonus material are interviews with film historian Geoff Brown, critic Peter Bradshaw and Sim’s daughter, Melrith McKendrick.

Sixteen Candles: Special Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray

Everyone has his/her own favorite John Hughes movie. Rating them is as close to a useless exercise as there is in this list-crazy age. Add the answer, “They’re all good,” and the poll’s relevancy probably would go straight out the nearest window. That’s because, they really are that good. But, that’s OK. I suspect, however, that his debut comedy as writer/director, Sixteen Candles (1984), would be high atop everyone’s list. It not only introduced newly molded archetypes to the teen-movie subgenre, in addition to the standard array of geeks, jocks, cheerleaders, brainiacs and rebels without a cause, but they also had multidimensional personalities and good reasons to be in the films. The same thing generally applies to parents, teachers and other adult characters. Sixteen Candles mapped the hearts, souls and peculiarities of several characters, instead the one or two permitted in most mainstream specimens. At the same, Hughes’ team added music that didn’t appear to have been dictated by studio brass and dialogue that didn’t seem to be generated by writers whose teenage years were long behind them. Residing at the borders separating several generic stereotypes, Molly Ringwald’s Samantha Baker (Molly Ringwald) was something of an Everyteen, whose moods shifted like the wind, according to perceived slights, unexpected smiles, good grades, poor grades, bad-hair days, her monthly visitor and how she’s dressed at any given time. Despite Sam’s lack self-confidence, everyone in the audience knows her best days are yet to come. In some households, a girl’s 16th birthday is treated as if it’s the most memorable day in a girl’s life. Quinceaneras, too. In their preparations for their oldest daughter’s wedding to Rudy (The Bohunk), Sam’s parents and grandparents completely forgot to mark the landmark birthday. This gives her a bad case of the blues. It’s magnified by her crush object’s discovery of an embarrassing sex quiz she filled out in a magazine. Then there’s Anthony Michael Hall’s annoying Geek, who refuses to leave Sam alone. Here, a long melancholic day is followed by an eventful night spent drinking, puking, making out, unexpected hookups and role reversals. In one scenario, Geek successfully seduces the school’s beautiful ice maiden, who’s attached to Sam’s hunky crush object. In another, a scrawny Japanese foreign-exchange student (Gedde Watanabe) is smothered in the ample bosom of a young woman nicknamed, Lumberjack (Debbie Pollack). Just as Hughes treats the movie’s geek chorus – including John and Joan Cusack and Darren Harris – with kindness and empathy, he uses more than  one brush to paint the adults. Here, they might have been the most precisely cast of all the characters: Paul Dooley, Carlin Glynn, Billie Bird, Max Showalter and wee  Zelda Rubinstein. Sixteen Candles is the movie that changed everything in the 1980s, giving audiences something to live for every six months, or so. The new restoration by Arrow Films is from a 4K scan of the original negative. It adds the extended version, which is two minutes longer than the theatrical release; a newly remastered and extended cafeteria scene; and interviews with casting director Jackie Burch, Watanabe and Pollack, Kapelos, camera operator Gary Kibbe, filmmaker Adam Rifkim, composer Ira Newborn and “A Very Eighties Fairytale,” a video essay written and narrated by Soraya Roberts, looking at the film from a contemporary feminist perspective.

Jungle Queen: Special Edition: Blu-ray

Although it hardly seems likely today, there could come a time when homebound genre buffs will tire of binging on classic entertainments and turn to junk food, spiced with irony. It’s good to know that several niche distributors, including VCI Entertainment, have dedicated some of their resources, at least, to acquiring and cleaning up products that were gathering dust on shelves or garages in the San Fernando Valley. In fact, purveyors of ancient titles have been around since VHS toppled Beta as the format of choice for consumers. At the dawn of the video age, however, distributors didn’t bother to upgrade their  offerings. They simply sent them out, as is, without regard for scratches, visual artifacts, audio imperfections and bonus features. The immediate success of DVDs gave some companies the impetus, tools and ready-made customer base to mine the gold. It wasn’t until recently, however, that VCI/MVD Visual committed to Blu-ray, using 2K scans of original source material and 35mm nitrate fine-grain studio masters. Among the recent hi-def titles are Black Shampoo and Boss, from the blaxploitation era; The French Way, with Josephine Baker; three volumes of rarely seen film-noir pictures from Columbia; a couple giallo classics; and a quartet of significant titles from Mexico’s Golden Era. The company also picked up several cliffhangers from the Universal catalogue. Besides “Jungle Queen: Special Edition,” there’s been “The Vanishing Shadow,” “Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery,” “Lost City of the Jungle,” “Mysterious Mr. M” and a pair of Buck Jones Westerns.

Universal didn’t waste any time rewriting World War II history, by releasing its series of “Jungle Queen” cliffhangers, in January 1945. Set in 1939, during the runup to hostilities between British and German forces in Europe, representatives of both countries sought strategic alliances with native tribes and natural resources in the colonies. While it’s true that sub-Saharan Africa experienced some turmoil there, the serial’s “British Middle Africa” bears no relation to today’s Central African Republic, or anywhere else in the neighborhood, and the Tongghili federation doesn’t actually exist. (Most of the hostilities took place in French West Africa, where troops loyal to the Vichy regime and those fighting for the Free French, sometimes collided … hence Casablanca.) Here, the Nazi High Command inserts agents into the bush to stir up the local tribes against the Brits already living there. Posing as a scientist, Commander Elise Bork (Tala Birell) and her subordinate, Lang (Douglas Dumbrille), infiltrate Tambosa Experimental Farm. The Allies are represented by big-game hunter Bob Elliott (Edward Norris) and his Brooklynite mechanic sidekick, Chuck Kelly (Eddie Quillan), two unofficial American secret agents. Pamela Courtney (Lois Collier) not only is a British intelligence operative but also the niece of an archeologist who holds power in the federation. Thank goodness, the title character, Lothel (Ruth Roman) — the supernatural “mystery queen of the jungle” – pops in occasionally to watch over the Tongghillis, while supporting the English and American investigators at every turn. Like Tarzan, Lothel is revered for being a friend of the local wildlife and tribal traditions. Unlike Tarzan or Jane, Lothel can walk through walls of fire and disappear into the flames. Jungle Queen isn’t without certain mid-century racial clichés and stereotypes, but they’re kept to minimum and the African characters – including Clarence Muse, Ray Turner and Fred “Snowflake” Toones, among them – aren’t white actors in blackface.

Série Noire: Blu-ray

Alain Corneau and Georges Pérec’s adaptation of Jim Thompson’s 1954 novel, “A Hell of a Woman,” is probably the least seen of all French film interpretations of American noir literature. Although Série noire (1979) followed Thompson’s narrative outline pretty well, Patrick Dewaere’s manic portrayal of protagonist Franck Poupart wasn’t then and won’t now suit everyone’s tastes, including lovers of noir, Thompson and French films. On the other hand, some admirers believe that Corneau and Poupart (Going Places) hit the nail on its head. No stranger to unvarnished interpretations of his lead characters, Corneau chose Poupart expressly for his interest in playing complex roles in experimental, budget-starved and overtly quirky ways. He appeared especially drawn to playing sensitive, scruffy and miserable neurotics, misfits and losers. The same was said about his own personal characteristics. Poupart’s still mysterious death came shortly after the release of Paradis pour tous (1982), a dark comedy in which his character commits suicide. So did the 35-year-old actor. Here, he plays Franck, a door-to-door salesman and bill collector, who’s married to a wife he despises, Jeanne (Myriam Boyer). He’s tracking down a deadbeat customer when he meets Mona (Marie Trintignant), a beautiful 17-year-old who lives with her rich and hateful aunt (Jeanne Herviale). The aunt, who has pushed Mona into prostitution, mistakes Franck for a trick and orders her to disrobe, which she does. When his boss (Bernard Blier) has him arrested for embezzlement, Mona endears herself to him by paying back the debt. In return, she asks Franck to help her kill her aunt to get hold of her fortune. All of this plays out in a consistently overcast and ugly corner of Paris, where the only enjoyment he allows himself is some solo dancing in a muddy lot. Bonus features include “Serie Noire: The Darkness of the Soul,” lengthy interviews with Corneau and Trintignant, and new essay by film critic Nick Pinkerton.

Blood & Flesh: The Reel Life & Ghastly Death of Al Adamson: Blu-ray

Carnival Magic/Lost: Blu-ray

In most discussions of grindstone, drive-in and sexploitation classics – and I use that term advisedly – one name stands out by its absence. Following in the footsteps of his parents, Denver Dixon and Dolores Booth, Al Adamson began his career in the film industry in 1960, collaborating with his father (a.k.a., Victor Adamson) on the B- or Z-movie Western, Half Way to Hell. By the mid-1980s, he had helmed at least 33 feature films, produced 17, wrote 5 and acted in 10, sometimes simultaneously. While Adamson always enjoyed making Westerns, he took advantage of the prevailing legal winds by adding topless cowgirls, cheeseball action and over-the-hill stars (John Carradine, Lon Chaney Jr., Russ Tamblyn) and terrific locations to the mix. No matter how crummy his movies turned out to be, the southwestern settings always served as a diversion. Among them was the Spahn Ranch, in Chatsworth, even when the Manson Family was still in residence there. Not much else salvaged a resume that ran the gamut from Psycho a Go-Go (1965), Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971), The Female Bunch (1971), The Naughty Stewardesses (1974) and Blazing Stewardesses (1975), to the more salacious Lash of Lust (1972); blaxploitative Black Gunn (1972) and Mean Mother (1974), with singer Dobie Gray and Bond girl, Luciana Paluzzi; and his soft-core swan song, Nurse Sherri (1977). Among the cinematographers who benefitted from early gigs with Adamson were Gary Graver (The Other Side of the Wind), László Kovács (Five Easy Pieces) and Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters of the Third Kind). By 1980, creators of narrative hard-corn porn appeared to be remaking Al’s R-rated genre fare into stories that then were still labeled XXX. He retired into the real-estate and home-construction business in southeastern California,  before being reported missing in 1995. Five weeks later, after law enforcement officials discovered his remains buried beneath the concrete and tile-covered floor, where a hot tub once sat at his home in Indio, his live-in contractor, Fred Fulford, was arrested in Saint Petersburg, Florida. David Gregory’s excellent bio-doc, “Blood & Flesh: The Reel Life & Ghastly Death of Al Adamson,” covers the entirety of his life, film career and untimely death, with more than two-dozen interviews, lots of clips, conspiracy theories and info about the exploitation business. It also includes a copy of The Female Bunch, featuring fresh interviews with the female stars. It advances Severin’s comprehensive mega-set, “Al Adamson: The Masterpiece Collection,” which, in addition to Gregory’s doc, adds 32 Films on 14 discs, and much more memorabilia.  

But, now, something completely different … from Adamson and Severin Kids. Although it carries a G-rating, Carnival Magic (1983) may be a tad too sophisticated – not to mention, weird – for the kiddies. The film, which disappeared after its limp initial release, was considered lost until 2009, when a clean print was discovered in a warehouse. It gained cult status after being shown on “TCM Underground,” receiving more exposure when it was featured on “Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return” (2017). If the picture offers much innocuous material from actual carnival and circus attractions, the story adds a magician, who actually can read minds and levitate people and objects; a super-intelligent chimp, Alex, who hides his ability to talk; a wild-animal trainer, who has been demoted as the carnival’s top act by the monkey; and a plot to kidnap Alex and sell him to a medical laboratory for experimentation. If that weren’t sufficiently goofy, there are throughlines involving alcoholism, domestic violence, Alex’s lingerie fetish, the threat of vivisection and suicide. Adamson’s buxom wife and muse, Regina Carrol (a.k.a., “The Freak-Out Girl”), spends most of her screen time braless, in a leotard that barely contains her breasts and hips, even while riding an elephant through town. Handsome Don Stewart (“The Guiding Light”) and Joe Cirillo (Ghostbusters) added some show-biz credibility to the proceedings, as well. Depending on who ones asks, Carnival Magic is “possibly the worst kiddie movie ever made” (DVD Drive-In) or “the finest family film since E.T.” (talk-show host Joe Franklin). It has been scanned from the only surviving pre-print 35mm elements, with several added features.

Among them is the obscure family Western, Lost (a.k.a., “Buddy + Skipper”), which proved to be the last feature for Adamson and co-star Sandra Dee, who, by 1989, was struggling with anorexia, alcoholism and depression. In it, Jeff Morrison (Stewart), his new wife Penny (Dee) and step-daughter Buddy (Shelia Newhouse) move from the city to the badlands of southeastern Utah. It wasn’t how Buddy expected to spend her formative years. Things become unbearable when her stepfather decides that her pet burro needs to be euthanized. To vent her rage, Buddy grabs her dog, Skipper, and heads into the wilderness. Fortunately, she’s picked the one month in the year when the snowmelt brings free-flowing, potable water to the region and daytime temperatures aren’t in the 100s. Even so, Adamson used every cent of his meager budget to show off his protagonist’s survival skills in such a harsh environment. Graver’s cinematography not only showcases the region’s spectacular topography, but also the many challenges Buddy faces. Thanks in no small part to appearances by veteran character actors Ken Curtis (“Gunsmoke”), Jack Elam (“Bonanza”) and Gary Kent (Lash of Lust), I found plenty to enjoy in Lost. Special features add, “A Boom to Science,” a critical appreciation by genre archivists Zack Carlson and Lars Nilsen; outtakes; commentary with producer Elvin Feltner; and rushes for promos from unproduced Adamson kids film, “The Happy Hobo.”

Raiga: God of the Monsters

No less an expert on kaiju eiga  and tokusatsu than Ishiro Honda, director of Rodan (1956), Godzilla (1954) and The Mysterians (1957), described his antagonists thusly: “Monsters are tragic beings. They are born too tall, too strong, too heavy. They are not evil by choice. That is their tragedy. They do not attack people because they want to, but because of their size and strength, mankind has no other choice but to defend itself. After several stories such as this, people end up having a kind of affection for the monsters. They end up caring about them.” That’s certainly been the career trajectory of Godzilla, a monster that’s served as a cold-blooded red flag to warn humanity against nuclear proliferation, pollution, global warming and the uselessness of conventional weapon against unconventional enemies. Raiga: God of the Monsters (2009) is finally being released in the USA, mostly for completists and children who can’t tell the difference between toys and battleships. Otherwise, it’s Amateur Night in Dixie all the way. In it, global warming leads to excessive melting of the southern polar ice cap, disrupting Earth’s ecosystem. The receding ice brings long dormant ancient sea creatures back to life, monsters that set their sights on Japan. Among the kaiju is an enormous sea beast the locals refer to as the legendary Raiga. The monster attacks the city of Asakusa, bringing death and destruction as he tramples building and lays waste to the military. Along the way, we’re told, Raiga: God of the Monsters leaves room for absurdist humor, blatantly phony sets and military equipment, cheapo special effects and slyly placed propaganda. For my tastes, the only thing that raised a smile was watching the monster mark his territory in mid-rampage. The DVD adds an hourlong making-of featurette.


Hulu: Looking for Alaska

While it might be amusing to contrast the teenage characters in Sixteen Candles to those in Hulu’s eight-part mini-series, “Looking for Alaska,” the results would be too obvious to be meaningful. The same thing could be said about the differences between the borderline delinquents in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and the rich twits in Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan (1990), but why bother? As classless as pundits say America is, the roots of a privilege begin spreading before they can extract the silver spoons from their mouths. The joys and dilemmas experienced by kids in Hughes’ comedies have virtually no relation to those tackled by the boarding-school students in John Green’s highly personal novel. Although the school in the mini-series “Looking for Alaska” recruits kids from different backgrounds, they’re the ones most vulnerable to bullying, peer pressure, pranks, academic slipups and punishment for minor rules infractions. If a privileged troublemaker washes out of one school, there’s always another one down the road. The same doesn’t apply for underprivileged students. When a new girl, Alaska Young (Kristine Froseth), arrives at the boarding school, she’s forced to make a choice between hanging with the cool kids or joining the more tentative students, who are always in the process of acting out their frustrations out loud. Alaska adopts Miles Halter (Charlie Plummer) as her sidekick among the outcasts. Although they seem destined to have sex, it takes almost all eight episodes for the right moment to arrive. By this time, though, Alaska’s revealed herself as a truly messed up young woman, willing to put her friends’ futures in jeopardy when the mood hits. Ron Cephas Jones, Timothy Simons and Lucy Faust represent teachers and staff whose personal issues are never taken as seriously as those of the students. As someone whose high school days are a distant memory, I sometimes felt as the kids were speaking a foreign language and I wasn’t invited to their party. Finally, though, the actors’ passion and Green’s inciteful dialogue won me over. The DVD set adds more than 40 minutes of special features.

Dretzka on DVD, Dec 16, 2019

The DVD Wrapup: The Cotton Club, Joan the Maid, Bless Their Little Hearts and more

Read More

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.