'Ernie Kovacs,' 'Barney Miller,' great documentaries and massive megasets
"The Ernie Kovacs Collection" (Shout! Factory) - Ernie Kovacs was the first genius of TV comedy. Not comedy on TV, mind you, but comedy unique to TV. In an era before computer animation, digital editing or even videotape, he created gags that played out like cartoons, defied audience expectations with images created with primitive blue-screen and split-screen effects, editing surprises and audience interaction. Shout! Factory's six-disc collection presents Kovacs material from the span of his professional TV career and the range and creativity of the work in this collection shows that his work ranks beside "Monty Python's Flying Circus" as landmarks of innovative and creative television comedy. My pick for the TV on DVD release of the year. More on Videodrone here.
"Barney Miller: The Complete Series" (Shout! Factory) collects all eight seasons of the iconic seventies sitcom, which is still considered the most realistic portrayal of cops on television by real-life law officers. Writes LAPD Detective Sergeant turned bestselling author Joseph Wambaugh: "The always human characters in that squad room reflect the attitudes and opinions recognizable by anyone who ever carried a badge and used humor as a powerful defensive weapon." 168 episodes plus commentary tracks, cast interviews, the original pilot and all 13 episodes of the spin-off "Fish" in a hefty 25-disc box set. Videodrone's review is here.
"The Civil War: 150th Anniversary Edition" (Paramount) – Ken Burns's epic 1990 documentary miniseries is arguably the most influential piece of historical non-fiction ever produced for television. The rich tapestry of historical photos and original illustrations and documents, excerpts from speeches and journals entries, and period music brings a humanity to the history while framing it in a solemnity and a grandeur appropriate to the nation-shaping importance of the event. This new edition features a bonus disc with more interviews and other supplements. Videodrone's review is here.
"Planet Earth: Six Disc Special Edition" (BBC) upgrades one of the greatest natural history documentary shows ever made. The 11-part, almost 10-hour 2006 production, shot with state-of-the-art high-definition cameras and lenses, was the most expensive documentary series in BBC history at the time. It is still an astounding achievement and this edition, on DVD and Blu-ray, features the original British version narrated by British documentary legend Sir David Attenborough, commentary and bonus natural history documentaries. A deluxe release packages them all in a small globe, but the cases inside the hinged lid are pretty flimsy. Videodrone's review is here.
Shot over the course of three years by a crew of BBC filmmakers, "Human Planet" (BBC) follows "Earth" and "Life" quite nicely as the final piece of the unofficial trilogy of world-class natural history documentary series made for British TV, with a focus on human life and its evolution within the different environments of the earth. Videodrone's review is here.
"Wonders of the Universe" (BBC) is the latest in a run of superb BBC natural history documentaries, this one focusing on the basic forces and laws of the universe and how they shaped the cosmos and the Earth. Each episode tackles one of the four basic forces of the universe -- the nature of time, the laws of matter chemistry, the force of gravity and the properties of light -- with a sense of wonder and scientific curiosity driven by Brian Cox, the series presenter. Videodrone's review is here.
Plus these box sets featured in previous Gift Guide Spotlights:
"Law & Order: The Complete Series" (Universal), the heftiest set of the year (104 DVDs packed into a 12" by 7 1/2" by 5 ½" box, weighing in at just under ten pounds) and the first time all twenty seasons and 456 (!!!) episodes have been available.
"Smallville: The Complete Series" (Warner), a collection of all 218 episodes plus new, exclusive supplements, on 62 discs.
"Friday Night Lights: The Complete Series" (Universal): 76 episodes on 19 discs, plus all the commentary tracks, featurettes, deleted scenes and other supplements.
Plus 1922 'Sherlock Holmes,' the original 'Fright Night' and more
"Meet Me in St. Louis" (Warner), Vincent Minelli’s first Technicolor film, is the ultimate in Hollywood Americana and a masterful musical that turned Judy Garland into a true leading lady. Reviewed on Videodrone here. I interviewed Todd Haynes in conjunction with the Blu-ray debut of his 1999 glam bomb blast "Velvet Goldmine" (Miramax). Review and interview here.
"The Expendables: Extended Director's Cut" (Lionsgate) adds ten minutes to Sylvester Stallone's testosterone-fueled mercenary adventure and offers it in a Blu-ray only edition. The disc features an introduction to the film by Sylvester Stallone (from the set of the sequel), the 90-minute "Inferno: The Making of The Expendables" from the earlier Blu-ray release and two additional featurettes among the supplements.
Before he directed "Captain America," Joe Johnson directed the retro-superhero adventure "The Rocketeer: 20th Anniversary Edition" (Disney), starring Bill Campbell as the test pilot with an experimental rocket pack. Based on an indie comic book by Dave Stevens that delivered the same adventure nostalgia for comics that "Raiders of the Lost Ark" did for the movies, the film celebrates the same love of art deco flair, steampunk rocketry and pre-war heroism. Campbell has just the right mix of gee-whiz innocence and two-fisted gumption and Jennifer Connelly nicely evokes the Betty Page influence of the comic's sexy girl-next-door heroine. Also stars Alan Arkin as the smart-aleck mechanic, Timothy Dalton as an Errol Flynn-like movie star and Terry O'Quinn as Howard Hughes. No supplements.
Peter Jackson had built a reputation as a cult director with a flair for gore, black comedy, and excess when he showed the world another side of him with "Heavenly Creatures: The Uncut Version" (Miramax), his chilling film about a real life matricide by two teenage girls. Young Kate Winslet (in her feature debut) and Melanie Lynskey both give astounding performances in his sensitive, strong portrait of two emotionally overwhelmed girls and his flair for the fantastic pushes through the film as he loses us in their fantasy worlds that literally sprout out of reality (one of the best uses of digital effects to that time). Features the 109-minute cut of the film and no supplements.
The 1922 silent film of "Sherlock Holmes" (Kino) was not the first screen incarnation of the most well-known fictional character in English literature, and it's certainly not the definitive. While John Barrymore has the profile and the intent, intelligent focus we recognize, this is a Holmes mystery without the deerstalker cap, the Meerschaum pipe (Barrymore's Holmes prefers cigars) or the faithful Watson (in this version a college buddy) at his side, while the mystery itself is overly convoluted and confused. Gustav von Seyffertitz's Moriarty, meanwhile, resembles Barrymore's Mr. Hyde of 1920 and acts like a flamboyant criminal mastermind of the crime serials of the day. While that may frustrate fans of the canon, it does help the film move beyond the wordy explanations central to a Holmes story to a more visual, action-oriented kind of filmmaking more suited to the strengths of silent filmmaking. It's more curiosity than canon. There's an electronic organ score and no supplements.
"City of God" (Miramax), the true story of a psychopathic drug lord who rose from the sweltering slums of Rio, plays like "Scarface" in the barrio, directed by Fernando Meirelles with jittery street-smart style and you-are-there intensity. Dancing through two decades with clever flourishes and inventive technique, Meirelles sears the brutal poverty and abrupt violence into the screen with sun-cooked red hot color, the better to camouflage the gangster clichés at its core and the poverty-chic of the fashionable stylings, upbeat soundtrack, and hip visual editing effects that tends to glamorize the brutality. Nonetheless it's utterly engrossing and endlessly clever, a portrait of an impoverished culture where crime is the easiest path to success. In Portuguese with English subtitles, featuring the documentary "News From A Personal War."
And as the remake bows on home video this week, the original 1985 "Fright Night" (Twilight Time) debuts Blu-ray. William Ragsdale is the 17-year-old horror movie buff who suspects his handsome new lady-killer neighbor (Chris Sarandon) is a vampire and Roddy McDowall is the late night horror movie host he coaxes into helping investigate. As with all Twilight Time releases, this is limited to a run of 3000 and features an isolated score track.
Also in a limited run edition is "Rapture" (Twilight Time), a 1965 drama from director John Guillerman starring Melvyn Douglas, Patricia Gozzi and Dean Stockwell.
Plus 'Stars and Stripes Forever,' 'Moses and Aaron' and more
Buster Keaton directs and stars in the 1925 "Seven Chances" (Kino) as a bachelor and struggling young lawyer who is informed that he must marry by 7pm of his 27th birthday, which just so happens to be that very day. Turned down by his longtime sweetheart, he frantically searches for someone—anyone—to wed. While "Seven Chances" doesn’t have the sustained inspiration of his best films (such as "The General" and "Steamboat Bill, Jr."), Keaton fills the picture with inventive moments and clever ideas, notably a sustained series of desperate proposals (the “seven chances” of the title) that leads to an outrageous finale: a brilliant cascade of comic invention that begins with a church full of hopeful brides all expecting to marry into his fortune and builds to a surreal chase of epic proportions. The hapless Keaton flees the angry mob of women in white lace and veils and ends up dodging rolling stones and massive boulders while trying to outrun an avalanche, never once losing his trademark deadpan expression. The biggest weakness is an embarrassing blackface performance that, while quite common at the time, is quite tasteless to modern eyes.
Newly mastered from 35mm materials preserved by the Library of Congress, and featuring a new restoration of the film's original, two-color Technicolor prologue restored by film historian Eric Grayson and a new score by composer Robert Israel. The DVD and Blu-ray editions both feature commentary by film historians Ken Gordon and Bruce Lawton, a visual essay on the film's locations by author John Bengtson, an analysis of the restored Technicolor sequence by film historian Eric Grayson, and two companion shorts: one from 1904 that inspired the play, and a Three Stooges short from 1947 that recycles the premise.
Clifton Webb is "The March King" John Philip Sousa in "Stars and Stripes Forever" (Fox), the glossy 1952 biopic directed co-starring Debra Paget, Robert Wagner, Ruth Hussey and Sousa's legendary brass band anthems. It debuts on both DVD and Blu-ray in a single combo pack featuring both versions, but only the Blu-ray includes the two featurettes on Sousa and the galleries of stills and art.
For an alternative that definitely earns the title "alternative" there is "Moses and Aaron" (New Yorker), a screen adaptation of the Arnold Schoenberg opera by the resolutely political filmmakers Danielle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub. The disc, in a paperboard digipak in a slipsleeve, also features "Introduction to Arnold Schoenberg's 'Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene'," a short film by the directors from 1973, and an accompanying booklet with the libretto in German and English. The films are in German with English subtitles.
"MOMA: 50 Masterworks From the Collection" (Screen Dreams) brings a different meaning to the term "art house release." The DVD and Blu-ray release reproduces 50 works from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art by world famous artists --including Vincent Van Gogh, Henri Matisse, Salvador Dalí, Paul Cézanne, Claude Monet, Edward Hopper, Georges Seurat, Marc Chagall, Jackson Pollack, Jasper Johns, and Henri Rousseau -- in high resolution, and turns your widescreen TV into a picture frame of rotating art. The program lasts 50 minutes and features you choice of ten soundtrack backgrounds.
Newly remastered for DVD and Blu-ray is "Intruder: Director's Cut" (Synapse), a gore-heavy horror set during the night shift of a supermarket where a deranged killer stalks, slices and slashes employees. It's directed by Sam Raimi buddy Scott Spiegel (who co-wrote "Evil Dead II") and co-stars Renee Estevez and Sam Raimi, with "special appearances" by Bruce Campbell and producer Lawrence Bender. The Blu-ray+DVD Combo Pack features a new digital restoration of the uncensored director's cut, commentary by director Spiegel and producer Bender, a new making-of featurette, outtakes, audition footage and other supplements.
"Don't Open Till Christmas" is a 1981 Santa horror, but this time he's not the killer, he's the target: this killer hunts men in Santa suits. Edmund Purdom directs and stars in the film and the DVD features a making-of documentary and a portrait of producer Rick Randall.
"The Love We Make" (Eagle Vision), co-directed by Albert Maysles, profiles Paul McCartney's journey to put together a benefit concert in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
The ultimate in Hollywood Americana and the film that turned ingénue Judy Garland into a leading lady
"Meet Me in St. Louis" (Warner), Vincent Minelli’s first Technicolor film, is the ultimate in Hollywood Americana and a masterful musical that turned Judy Garland into a true leading lady.
A celebration of old fashioned values in song, dance, and family melodrama in turn-of-the-century St. Louis, the glowingly nostalgic tale follows a year in the life of a family as they reluctantly prepare to move to New York for Father’s (Leon Ames) new job, just as the excitement for the coming St. Louis World's Fair sets the entire family to singing the title song. It’s a film for all seasons and holidays, including one of the most bittersweet Christmas scenes of all time: little Margaret O’Brien commits symbolic parricide on an innocent snowman family after Judy Garland sings “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” (see clip below, after the jump)
O’Brien brings a feisty spunk to the family as the youngest sister and Lucille Bremer provides the maturity as the oldest, but the film belongs to Garland as the teenage daughter on the verge of womanhood, chastely romanced by the boy next door (Tom Drake). The scene where they extinguish the home’s gas lamps together and the hush of shadow covers them is one of the most beautiful and tender moments of understated intimacy in film history. Other song highlights include “The Boy Next Door,” “You and I,” and “The Trolley Song.” Mary Astor, Marjorie Main, and June Lockhart co-star.
The film was previously available on a DVD two-disc special edition and the Blu-ray only carries most of the supplements. There's commentary by Garland biographer John Fricke with Margaret O'Brien, screenwriter Irving Brecher, songwriter Hugh Martin and daughter of producer Arthur Freed, Barbara Freed-Saltzman and an introduction by Liza Minnelli (daughter of director Vincent Minnelli and star Judy Garland), plus a music-only audio track (without vocals).
The director talks about the Blu-ray debut of 'Velvet Goldmine' and other films
Todd Haynes' 1999 film "Velvet Goldmine" (Miramax) reimagines the Glam rock era and the iconic influence of David Bowie through the kaleidoscopic lens of "Citizen Kane" and the fictionalized persona of rock legend and bi-sexual pop icon Brian Slade (played by Jonathan Rhys-Myers). A young, fresh-faced Christian Bale plays the reporter digging into the mystery of Slade's rise and fall and Ewan MacGregor almost steals the film as the punk pioneer Curt Wild (equal parts Iggy Pop and Kurt Cobain), the genuine article to Slade’s calculated, coifed image of glitter stardom.
It's a blast, with bouncy music, flamboyant costumes, a fab sense of period, and a complex narrative interweaving of flashbacks, shifting perspectives, public personas and private personalities with Slade as the film's slippery Charles Foster Kane. But it's also a study in reinvention and the fluid definition of identity and sexuality embraced by the subculture around the music, the first youth movement to openly accept and embrace ideas of bisexuality and homosexuality.
Haynes revisited the film in November when he recorded a brand new commentary track with producer Christine Vachon for the film's Blu-ray debut and talked with Videodrone about the revisiting the film, its reverberations with his other fictionalized biography "I'm Not There" and, as always, what he's been watching.
What are you watching?
Todd Haynes: I'll tell you one really cool thing I watched. I recently met Stephen Sondheim, who is an *intense* movie buff, and he asked me what my favorite Douglas Sirk movie is. And he said, "I have mine," and I said, "Well, I want to hear yours." And he said, "Mine is 'Scandal in Paris' from the late forties," which is one of his very first English-speaking films that Douglas Sirk directed in the United States. You can get it on Amazon. I had read about the movie and I had seen a lot of more obscure Sirk films over the years but it was fantastic. It knocked my socks off. And you can see a connection between the great director Max Ophuls and Sirk like you never have before in this film. That was a complete surprise.
Otherwise I have been watching some of the screeners of new movies that have been coming out bit by bit. I just watched "Young Adult" last night, which I thought was pretty interesting.
Are you a voting member of the Academy?
Haynes: I am.
What are some of the films this year that you have most liked?
Haynes: I had the treat of watching "Hugo," Scorsese's new 3D movie, on Thanksgiving Day at the Ziegfeld Theater. And it was just such a complete and total treat, just visually in its aesthetic, just such a tribute to early cinema and the origins of what obviously started to make Scorsese's mind tick with this love poem to the Méliès story. That was a really fun one. But I'm still waiting to see some serious films that are still emerging. It seems like it's backloaded this year from Christmas so there are still a lot of stuff I haven't seen that I've been hearing about.
Plus the complete 'Sledge Hammer!'
"Switched At Birth: Volume 1" (ABC) is the latest ABC Family Channel teenage melodrama with a twist, this one pretty much explained in the title. I have a fondness for these family-friendly soaps and this is one of the better ones. Videodrone's review is here.
"Spin City: The Complete Sixth Season" (Shout! Factory) is the final season of the sitcom developed for Michael J. Fox by Gary David Goldberg, the man who made Fox a star in "Family Ties," and taken over by Charlie Sheen when Fox bowed out as his Parkinson's Disease progressed. So if the prospect of "Two and a Half Men" without Sheen is too much to bear, you can always watch him play watchdog to Barry Bostwick's doofus mayor and lock horns with Heather Locklear in this comedy sitcom flashback. 26 episodes on four discs, with Fox back as a guest star for the first three episodes.
"Family Guy: Volume 9" (Fox) features 14 episodes from seasons 8 and 9 of Seth MacFarlane’s animated sitcom about a suburban working class family tackling the crises of the modern age (work, raising teenage kids, drinking beer and watching TV), in three discs in a standard case with a hinged tray. Features commentary by Seth MacFarlane and collaborators on select episodes, uncensored audio tracks, deleted scenes and featurettes among the supplements.
"Sledge Hammer!: The Complete Series" (Image) - Inspector Sledge Hammer (David Rasche) is the most dangerous man in San Francisco, a trigger-happy cop who fires warning shots at jaywalkers, keeps a rocket-launcher in his trunk and talks to his .44 Magnum like a lover in this cop spoof. It’s a Mad Magazine version of "Dirty Harry," with a star that, in the words of Mayor John Vernon (reprising his role from the original "Dirty Harry"?), “makes Rambo look like Pee Wee Herman.” The cult series only lasted two seasons. This five-disc set collects all 41 episodes of the show on five discs but none of the supplements from the earlier (and long out of print) Anchor Bay releases.
The hour-long, made-for-PBS documentary "Steve Jobs: One Last Thing" (PBS) was rushed into production after the death of Apple founder and technological innovator in October 2011.
"The Life and Times of Tim: The Complete Second Season" (HBO) offers 10 episodes of the scruffy animated series made for HBO, plus a making-of featurette. The new season begins on HBO on December 19. "Gunsmoke: The Fifth Season, Volume 2" (Paramount) features 19 half-hour episodes of western justice from James Arness' Marshall Matt Dillon and friends (including Dennis Weaver as Chester) on three discs. No supplements.
The director's first feature makes its world television debut
On Wednesday, December 14, Stanley Kubrick's rare (and all but disowned) first feature, "Fear and Desire," makes its world television premiere on Turner Classic Movies.
The 1953 film, shot on a tiny budget, pretty much disappeared after its release until a surviving print (Kubrick is rumored to have bought up as many copies as he could find to suppress it) was screened at the 1993 Telluride Film Festival. It has since played intermittent special screenings around the country but Kubrick discouraged showings and it has still not received any organized revival or home video release.
Which has made it some kind of holy grail for Kubrick fans and movie lovers, a grail now within reach of anyone with a TCM subscription. And even though the film was a box office failure and Kubrick, ever the control freak, spent the rest of his life trying to suppress the film, it received some supportive reviews on its initial release. "If "Fear and Desire" is uneven and sometimes reveals an experimental rather than a polished exterior, its over-all effect is entirely worthy of the sincere effort put into it," reads an unsigned 1953 review in The New York Times.
The 72 minute feature plays on Wednesday, December 14 at 8:00 pm EST. Set your DVR or call a friend with TCM.
Plus 'Detective Dee,' 'Daddy Long Legs,' 'Tanner Hall' and more
Part prequel, part reboot and part reimagined origin story, "The Rise of the Planet of the Apes" (Fox) " is not simply a revival of a beloved seventies series. It's a terrific character piece, a gripping prison break thriller with a wicked high-concept twist and the smartest action movie of 2011. Videodrone's review is here. "Kung Fu Panda 2" (Dreamworks) reunites Po and the Furious Five to defeat a terrible new villain: a scheming peacock voiced by Gary Oldman. More on the film, plus a clip of Oldman from the Blu-ray release, on Videodrone here.
"Fright Night" (Dreamworks) is a remake of the colorful 1985 film, by now something of a minor cult favorite, with Anton Yelchin as the kid who suspects his darkly charming neighbor (Colin Farrell) is a vampire. "I was pretty pleasantly surprised by this version," writes MSN critic Glenn Kenny. "It's exhilaratingly fast, nastily witty, and replete with both suspense set pieces that take the time they need to get under your skin and unashamed-to-be-completely-blatant shocks and 3-D effects." Craig Gillespie directs the film, which co-stars Imogen Poots, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Toni Collette and David Tennant as a Las Vegas magician turned vampire slayer.
The DVD features a gag reel, a featurette and a music video. The Blu-ray +DVD Combo adds five deleted scenes and two featurettes and bonus DVD copy. The 3-Disc Blu-ray 3D edition also includes the Blu-ray 2D and DVD editions. Also available via digital download and OnDemand.
"Tanner Hall" (Anchor Bay) was poorly reviewed upon its original release ("From hairstyles and clothes to autumnal-hued cinematography and a raft of clichéd incidents involving pills, suicide, sneaking out, and blackmail, everything feels dainty to the point of stale," wrote Village Voice film critic Nick Schager) but it may get a boost as its then-unknown leading lady Rooney Mara is about to go big as the American "Girl With the Dragon Tattoo." The DVD and Blu-ray both feature commentary by director/writer/producer team Francesca Gregorini asnd Tatiana Von Furstenberg.
Josh and Benny Safdie direct the indie drama "Daddy Longlegs" (Kimstim/Zeitgeist), about an absent father who gets his boys for only two weeks a year and tries to make-up for lost time. "The Safdies filmed with handheld cameras, an obvious affection for New York and its denizens, and a script that includes so much structured improvisation that it's hard to imagine any of the dialogue was actually written down," writes NPR film critic Bob Mondello. "Not surprisingly, the result is a character study with an almost documentary feel to it." The DVD includes a making-of documentary, rehearsal film and eight deleted scenes, plus two booklets with stills, artwork, essays and notes.
Tsui Hark directs the "Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame" (Indomnia), a dazzling (if at times silly) action spectacular of martial arts magic and CGI mayhem starring Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau as the titular Dee, a political prisoner freed by the Empress (Carina Lau) to uncover a plot against her life. "The movie is not just spectacle; it's got a tender, ultimately tragic love story and enough deadly political scheming to fill a Gaddafi playbook," writes Time Magazine film critic Richard Corliss. "Indeed, in its narrative cunning, luscious production design and martial-arts balletics, Detective Dee is up there with the first great kung-fu art film, King Hu's 1969 "A Touch of Zen." We'd call it "Crouching Tiger, Freakin' Masterpiece."" The DVD and Blu-ray editions both include four production featurettes among the supplements. See below, after the jump, for the film's trailer.
"Circumstance" (Lionsgate) is a coming-of-age drama set in Iran, where two vivacious teenage girls must keep their growing attraction a secret. "A rhapsodic erotic romance that takes place in a cultural prison, and it pulses with a defiance that would be mischievous if it weren't so rip-roaringly angry," writes Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr. The DVD includes filmmaker commentary and a featurette.
Back to China, "The Piano Factory" (Film Movement), from director Zheng Meng, follows the efforts of a single father to build a piano for his daughter with the help of his misfit friends and a derelict factory. Chinese beauty Shu Qi ("The Transporter") stars in a pair of romantic dramas: "A Beautiful Life" (China Lion), directed by Andrew Lau, and "If You Are the One: Love and Marriage" (China Lion), directed by Feng Xiaogang and starring Ge You. "Champions" (Lionsgate) is an old-school martial arts drama from Hong Kong. All three in Mandarin with English subtitles.
"Black nationalism lives and breathes in this remarkably fresh documentary assembled by Göran Hugo Olsson," writes Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman of "The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975" (Sundance Selects/IFC). We get a very different perspective on the Black Power movement in America from this project, which draws from footage and news coverage shot by Swedish television of the time. The DVD features bonus interviews and featurettes.
"Bobby Fischer Against the World" (Docurama) frames the life of the controversial chess legend with the famous 1972 world championship match against Boris Spassky.
New York Times film critic A.O. Scott observes that the film "does not traffic in easy explanations or medical diagnoses, but it leaves the strong impression of a continuity between the oddness Fischer displayed in early interviews and the mania so jarringly evident toward the end." Includes a couple of featurettes.
"Monica & David" (Docurama) profiles two adults with Down Syndrome who strive to a have an independent life together.