Blu-ray: ‘The Pink Panther Film Collection’ on Shout! Factory

All six Pink Panther features directed by Blake Edwards and starring Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau are featured in this six-disc Blu-ray collection, four of them making their respective Blu-ray debuts.

Shout! Factory

Clouseau was but a supporting character in The Pink Panther (1963), a comic heist film with David Niven as the legendary jewel thief “the Phantom” out to steal a priceless diamond (called “The Pink Panther”) belonging to Indian Princess Claudia Cardinale, but Sellers’ mock-French accent and oblivious intensity made him the most memorable character. The bumbling French detective Clouseau also has a wife in this one, played by Capucine. Set in a posh Swiss resort and accompanied by an easy-going light jazz score by Henri Mancini, Blake Edwards’ mix of elegance and slapstick was a hit and Sellers was back as Clouseau in A Shot in the Dark(1964), this time without a wife, which gives him time to romance lovely murder suspect Elke Sommers. While the original film gave the series its name and its hero, it was A Shot in the Darkthat defined the series by putting Clouseau in the lead and introducing two essential series characters: martial arts wielding manservant Kato (Burt Kwouk), who keeps his boss in shape by ambushing him every time her returns home, and tormented Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Herbert Lom), who barely survives the walking disaster that is Clouseau.

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Blu-ray: Walter Hill’s ‘Streets of Fire’

A self-described “A Rock and Roll Fable” from “another time, another place,” I think of Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire (1984) as a rock and roll western dropped into the urban badlands of a brick and neon noir. It opens on what appears to be the 1950s frozen in time, a working class neighborhood forgotten in the explosion of the post-war American big city dreams. It could be Chicago (where some of the film was shot) or New York or any city, really, a film noir in comic book color, and it’s where former soldier turned shaggy soldier of fortune Tom Cody (Michael Paré) returns to play reluctant hero.

Shout! Factory

The opening sequence is a model of narrative efficiency and stylistic exhilaration, setting the atmosphere and culture of this urban backwater where the elevated train rumbles the reminder of the way out of town and the neon-bedazzled old music palace is the only reminder of the glory days. It’s lit up to welcome superstar Ellen Aim (Diane Lane), the local girl made girl as a rock and roll star, and the crowds are revved up for the show. So is Raven (Willem Dafoe in lizard-faced villain mode), who leads his biker gang The Bombers (doppelgangers of Marlon Brando’s The Wild Ones right down to the cocky caps) into town and leaves with Ellen in tow: a western raid reworked in mid-century mode. It’s all set to the beat of Jim Steinman rock anthem belted out by Ellen Aim and the Attackers and supercharged by jagged wipes, driving cuts, and a restless camera that sweeps along with the swirl of constant movement. It is action cinema as pulp mythology and it is exhilarating.

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Blu-ray: Long Way North

Shout! Factory

Long Way North (Shout! Factory) is a gorgeous French-Danish animated feature about a 15-year-old girl from an aristocratic family in 1880s Saint Petersburg who flees her palatial home for the far north to search for the lost ship of her explorer grandfather Oloukine. He disappeared in his attempt to conquer the North Pole in the “unsinkable” ice breaker “The Davai” and is assumed by all to have sunk but Sacha, the aristocrat with the heart of an adventurer, finds clues in her grandfather’s papers that suggests he took an alternate route and she seeks out a ship to search for the ship. There’s a handsome reward for its recovery, which is what finally convinces a Captain to take on her search, but she’s driven by her adoration for her grandfather and her desire to rehabilitate his reputation.

First-time director Rémi Chayé was an assistant director and storyboard artist on the Oscar-nominated The Secret of Kells and the lovely French feature The Painting and he brings a strong, sure sense of design and layout to the film. This is traditional hand-drawn animation with an unconventional visual style, less drawn than painted with big, bold fields of color and details suggested in splashes of shadow or small, simple lines.

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Best Blu-ray & DVD releases of 2016

We’ve been hearing people pronounce the death of DVD and Blu-ray for years now. You’d never know it from the astonishing wealth of Blu-ray debuts, restored movies, and lovingly-produced special editions in 2016. The sales numbers are way down from a decade ago, of course, thanks in large part to the demise of the video store, which drove sales of new movies to fill the new release rental racks. The studios still handle their own new releases on disc but many of them have licensed out their back catalog to smaller labels—some new, some longtime players—who have continued to nurture the market for classics, cult films, collectibles, and other films from our recent and distant past. Criterion, Kino Lorber, Shout! Factory / Scream Factory, Twilight Time, Arrow, Olive, Blue Underground, Flicker Alley, Raro, MVD, Cinelicious, and others have continued to reach those of us who value quality and deliver releases that, if anything, continue to improve. We prefer to own rather than rely on compromised quality of streaming video and the vagaries of licensing and contracts when it comes to movies.

2016 has been as good a year as any I’ve covered in my years as a home video columnist and paring my list of top releases down to 10 was no easy task. In fact, I supplemented it with over two dozen bonus picks and honorable mentions. My approach is a mix of historical importance, aesthetic judgment, quality of presentation, and difficulty of effort. It is an unquantifiable formula influenced by my own subjective values but you’ll see some themes emerge. I favor films that have never been available in the U.S. before, significant restorations, discoveries, and rarities. But I also value a beautiful transfer, well-produced supplements, insightful interviews and essays, and intelligently-curated archival extras. You’ll see all these in the picks below.

Out1Box1 – Out 1 (Kino Lorber / Carlotta, Blu-ray+DVD) – This was my cinematic Holy Grail for years, Jacques Rivette’s legendary 12-hour-plus epic of rival theater companies, an obsessive panhandler, a mercenary street thief, an obscure conspiracy, the post-1968 culture of Paris, puzzles, mysteries, creative improvisation, and the theater of life. The history is too complicated to go into here (check out my review at Parallax View) but apart from periodic special screenings it was impossible to see until a digital restoration in 2015 followed by a limited American release in theaters, streaming access, and finally an amazing Blu-ray+DVD box set featuring both the complete version (Noli me tangere, 1971 / 1989) and the shorter Out 1: Spectre (1974), designed for a theatrical release after French TV balked at his original vision. It was shot on 16mm on the streets with a minimal crew and in a collaborative spirit, incorporating improvisations and accidents and morphing along the way. The disc release embraces the texture of its making and also includes the new documentary “The Mysteries of Paris: Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 Revisited” and an accompanying 120 page bilingual booklet. There were more lavish sets and more beautiful restorations on 2016 home video, but nothing as unique and committed as this cinematic event, which made its American home video debut over 40 years after its first showing. Full review here.

Blu-ray: ‘Freaks and Geeks: The Complete Series’

FreaksGeeksBDFreaks & Geeks: The Complete Series (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray) – Somewhere between Dawson’s Creek and Welcome to the Doll House is this sharp, funny, and surprisingly poignant high school dram-edy (for lack of a better word), which premiered in 1999 and lasted for a single season.

Junior Linda Cardellini (of the Scooby-Doo movies and Mad Men) grounds the series as the former class brain who, in the first episode, is in the midst of a startling identity crisis. Rejecting everything she once took for granted, including her place in the school hierarchy, she gravitates toward the “freaks,” a group of stoners, under-achievers, and minor key rebels, sort of led by rebel without a clue Daniel (James Franco, looking perpetually stoned). Meanwhile her Freshman brother (John Francis Daley) is a Steve Martin-quoting, Dungeons and Dragon-playing, skinny little “geek,” hanging with his friends, pining for a pretty cheerleader, and trying to avoid the mean-spirited pranks and hazing that he seems to be the perpetual butt of.

Set in 1980 Michigan and executed with a brilliant sense of fashion, music, and pop-culture zeitgeist, the hour long show is no sitcom (though it’s funnier than most) and the humor is often a sneaky way to explore the pain of teenage social nightmares, from the bullying, humiliating torments of bigger and older students to crushes, dating, and the social rites of passage that put kids on stage without giving them the script. It’s compassionate without losing itself in sentimentality and understanding of the crises that drive these kids to their often self-destructive behavior without letting them off the hook for their decisions. No show on TV better captured the subtleties or the dynamics of the high school caste system. The Pilot features a longer “director’s cut” with footage not seen on TV and the 18 episode series (of which only 15 were originally shown on NBC before it was yanked from the schedule for good) is returned to its intended order, ending on a satisfying and moving open-ended conclusion that leaves the characters stretching themselves to the future in moments of discovery and defiance. Watch for Ben Stiller in an uncredited cameo as a frustrated Secret Service agent in The Little Things.

The series has been released twice on DVD. The Blu-ray box set features two complete versions of the show—the original broadcast presentation in the full frame Academy ratio and a special widescreen TV version—plus all of the supplements from the previous DVD releases. That includes 29 commentary tracks. Really. No, I’m serious. There are 29 commentary tracks, featuring various combinations of cast and crew (“No, we do not think the show is so important that it demands almost 30 commentary tracks,” writes Executive Producer Judd Apatow in an accompanying Q&A, “but you have to understand, we miss each other. Recording commentary tracks was a great way to see each other….”) The participants include creator/co-executive producer Paul Feig (who based many of the scripts on his own high school experience), executive producer Judd Apatow, directors Jake Kasdan, Lesli Linka Glatter, Ken Kwapis, Bryan Gordon, and Miguel Arteta, writers Mike White, J. Elvis Weinstein, Jeff Judah, Gabe Sachs, Patty Lin, Rebecca Kirshner, Bob Nickman, and Jon Kasdan, actors Linda Cardellini, John Francis Daley, James Franco, Samm Levine, Jason Segel, Martin Starr, Seth Rogan, Busy Philipps, Betty Ann Baker, and Joe Flaherty, recurring and guest actors Dave (Gruber) Allen, Natasha Melnick, Stephen Lea Sheppard, Jerry Messing, Joanna Garcia, Sam McMurray, Sarah Hagan, Claudia Christian, Tom Wilson, and “high concept” tracks featuring the production team, the teachers (in character, talking about the students!), studio executives, even parents of the stars and fans. And no, that’s not all. There’s a Q&A at the Museum of TV and Radio in 2000, a 70-minute featurette with Feig, Apatow, director Jake Kasdan and half a dozen cast members (worth it just to see Seth Rogen giggle like a goof as he riffs on stage). There are deleted scenes from every episode (with optional commentary by Judd Apatow and actors Martin Starr and John Francis Daley), actor auditions (see Linda Cardellini and Busy Phillips swap roles), complete table reads of three episodes, outtakes, bloopers, alternate takes, and other raw footage and behind-the-scenes clips, plus a booklet with essays and an episode guide.

Freaks And Geeks: The Complete Series [Blu-ray]

More TV on disc at Cinephiled

Blu-ray: ‘Holy Grail’ at 40, Capra’s ‘You Can’t Take It With You,’ two by Jess Franco, Disney’s ‘Aladdin,’ and more

MontyPythonGrailMonty Python and the Holy Grail: 40th Anniversary Edition (Sony, Blu-ray) – After a career of inspired skit comedy, the unbalanced minds of Monty Python pounded the Knights of the Round Table into their own skewed square hole for their first “real” feature film (I’m not counting their skit comedy And Now For Something Completely Different) and Camelot has never been the same. King Arthur, Lancelot, Galahad and the rest of the dotty knights forsake the decadence of the Camelot (“It’s only a model”) to bang coconut shells across the misty English countryside and take on abusive Frenchmen with outrrraaageous accents (“Your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries!”), hot-to-trot nuns, a killer rabbit, the mysterious Knights Who Say “Nih!,” and other typical medieval threats. Probably the cheapest Arthurian adventure ever made (heck, they couldn’t even afford horses!), and easily the funniest. In fact, this absurdity is considered by many (including myself) to be one of the funniest movies ever made. The DVD restores an extra 24 seconds unseen in the original American release, but even with the remastering the grimy, drab visuals still look like a big budget TV show that’s been a bit underlit. But these are the dark ages, after all, and the models and the English countryside look suitably earthy, muddy, and medieval.

This is one of those perennials that gets a new edition every few years, each one adding something new to the accumulating menu of special features. New to this edition (the second Blu-ray release) is a new 30-minute Q&A with the five surviving members of the team recorded at the gala screening at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival. Carried over from the previous disc releases are two commentary tracks (one production-focused track by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones, and other with general complaints and back-biting by John Cleese, Eric Idle and Michael Palin), featurettes (“The Quest for the Holy Grail Locations” hosted by Michael Palin and Terry Jones, the 18-minute 1974 BBC report “On Location with The Pythons,” “How To Use Your Coconuts”), “Lost Animations” (a 12-minute collection of unused animated bits prepared for the film with an introduction by Terry Gilliam) nearly 20 minutes of outtakes and extended scenes with an introduction by Terry Jones, three sing-alongs, clips from the film in Japanese with English subtitles, and the all-interlocking “Monty Python and the Holy Grail In Lego.” Missing is the “Holy Book of Days” Second Screen Experience (an interactive function that required an iPad, a downloadable app and a connection to the same WiFi network as the Blu-ray player, an idea that never took off with viewers).

There’s also a deluxe edition in a substantial castle-shaped box with a toy catapult and collection of small plastic animal figures, for those of you who like the conversation piece packaging.

YouCan'tTakeBD

You Can’t Take It With You (Sony, Blu-ray), Frank Capra’s adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, won Best Picture and Best Director Academy Awards in 1938. The film has a delightful romantic couple in Jean Arthur and James Stewart and a wonderfully eccentric patriarch in Lionel Barrymore, but it replaces the unhinged anarchy of the play with sentimental Capra-corn. The production never recovers. Now the story turns on a battle of wills between embrace-the moment-everyman Barrymore and bitter king of capitalism Edward Arnold, who refuses to accept these addled free spirits as future in-laws. Capra turns out an amiable and appealing little comedy with some memorable character bits (Mischa Auer and Ann Miller in particular), but spends so much effort hammering home his own populist point that he misses the spirit of the material. I find Capra a poor match for the material but he did bring out the spirit in his case and he took home his third and final Oscar for best director for his efforts. And give him credit for knowing a winning formula. He reunited Stewart and Arthur in his next film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1940).

It comes in a Blu-ray booklet case with 28 pages of photos, notes, and an essay by TCM writer Jeremy Arnold. Features commentary by Frank Capra Jr. and author Catherine Kellison, the interview featurette “Frank Capra Jr. Remembers… You Can’t Take It With You,” and the trailer, plus a bonus Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film.

TriumphBDTriumph of the Will (Synapse, Blu-ray), Leni Riefenstahl’s record of the 1934 Nuremburg rally, is a stunning piece of cinema, a landmark of propaganda cinema, and a terrifying look at totalitarian demagoguery. The rhetoric about the thousand year Reich, the one and only party, and the purity of the race is less important than the mythic dimensions and sense of awe that Riefenstahl created not just in the filmmaking but on the design and staging of the event itself. It is possibly the first political spectacle choreographed specifically for the cameras, and it presents Hitler as both a God from the heavens and man of the people with a message: “this future belongs entirely to us!”

For years, the film was only available with the original English subtitles created by the government, which played down the politics by purposefully mistranslating many of the speeches. This translation, released on home video for the first time in 2000, features an accurate translation of the speeches and reveals the verbal imagery and strident nationalism of the real thing, and this Blu-ray debut is newly remastered in 2K from a duplicate 35mm fine grain master.

Synapse does an excellent job of subtitling, identifying locations, activities, and key figures as well as translating speeches and correcting some of the rhetoric that was watered down for American audiences in its original translation, and the commentary by historian Dr. Anthony R. Santoro makes him a play-by-play announcer, color man (giving background to the players), and interpreter all in one on the commentary track.

Also features a newly remastered edition of Riefenstahl’s Day of Freedom (1935), another of her propaganda pieces, this one a short shot at the 1935 rally.

JustineEugenie…The Story Of Her Journey Into Perversion: 3-Disc Limited Edition (Blue Underground, Blu-ray+DVD)
Marquis De Sade’s Justine: 3-Disc Limited Edition (Blue Underground, Blu-ray+DVD)

Jess Franco adapts the Marquis de Sade in a pair of notorious Euro sexploitation classics, both making their respective Blu-ray debut in three-disc combo packs with bonus DVD copy and CD soundtrack.

Marquis De Sade’s Justine (1969) is one of Franco’s first collaborations with Harry Alan Towers, the famous British producer of Euro pulp thrillers with decadent flourishes, and his entry into the international production. The kinky tale of a virtuous innocent (Romina Power, Tyrone Power’s 18 year old daughter) who is “cruelly treated, robbed, falsely accused, imprisoned, assaulted, beaten, and pursued” by all she encounters while her sister indulges in vice, sin, murder, and all sorts of wickedness with such glee that it sends her to the top of society is perfect Franco material, though the satire and irony is admittedly buried in sheer excess. What surprises isn’t the kink and cruelty, it’s the handsome style and gorgeous photography (two Gaudi designed buildings serve as key locations), and the unhinged performance of Jack Palance as a malicious monk exploring the carnal limits of pleasure through pain. Klaus Kinski plays the Marquis in a framing sequence, and we periodically cut back to him madly scribbling in a prison while visions writhe around him, and Mercedes McCambridge, Akim Tamiroff, and Howard Vernon are a few of the familiar faces in the cast. The film was cut by half an hour and released under the name Deadly Sanctuary in the U.S. by AIP.

EugenieBDThis features the complete (or as complete as possible) version in a beautiful transfer that preserves the color and the beautiful sets as well as the all the sex and sadism. It features the new interview featurette with Franco historian “Stephen Thrower on Justine” and the 20-minute interview featurette “The Perils and Pleasures of Justine,” originally recorded for the DVD release, with director Jess Franco (who describes how the Romina Power was forced upon him against his wishes, and how Jack Palance was “drunk all the time” and brilliant nonetheless) and screenwriter/producer Harry Alan Towers. In Franco’s own words, it was “the most expensive film I ever made… A fake big film. Of course, only we knew it was fake.”

Eugenie: The Story of Her Journey into Perversion(1969, also released as De Sade 70), based on De Sade’s “Philosophy in the Boudoir,” followed soon after. The story of an innocent girl (Marie Liljedahl of Inga fame) seduced into a dreamy/nightmarish world of eros and perversion by a decadent couple (Jack Taylor and Maria Rohm), it co-stars Christopher Lee as the sinister Dolmance, master of the island.

It features the new interview featurette with Franco historian “Stephen Thrower on Eugenie” and interview featurette “Perversion Stories” with director Jess Franco, producer Harry Alan Towers, and stars Marie Liljedahl and Christopher Lee.

Each release includes a collectable booklet with an essay by Stephen Thrower, a bonus DVD copy with the supplements, and a CD soundtrack of Bruno Nicola’s score for each film.

Also recently released:AladdinBD

Aladdin: Diamond Edition (Disney, Blu-ray+DVD) – It’s a whole new world for the 1992 Disney animated classic in the Blu-ray debut of the film, freshly remastered for its high-definition incarnation with bright, vivid color. Robin Williams provides the voice to the big blue genie, a fun-loving guy in curly slippers who offers three wishes to the plucky young poor boy and marketplace thief Aladdin, who dreams of romancing a princess. It’s one of the jewels in Disney’s crown of traditional hand-drawn animated features.

New to this edition are “The Genie Outtakes” (nine minutes of unused improvisations from Robin Williams set to storyboards), “Aladdin: Creating Broadway Magic” (about the Broadway adaptation, 19 minutes), “Genie 101” (explaining the pop culture references to 21st century kids), “Ron and Jon: You Ain’t Never Had a Friend Like Me” (with filmmakers John Musker and Ron Clements reminiscing about their early days at Disney), and “Unboxing Aladdin” (a guide to the Easter eggs hidden through the film). Carried over from the previous DVD release are the commentary tracks (one by directors Ron Clements and John Musker, the other by the animators), the 70-minute documentary “A Diamond in the Rough: The Making of Aladdin,” plus the rest of the short featurettes, deleted scenes and songs, music videos, and such. Also includes bonus DVD and Digital HD (via Disney Movies Anywhere) copies of the film.

BadBoys20thAnnBad Boys I & II: 20th Anniversary Collection (Sony, Blu-ray) – The original Bad Boys (1995) was the obnoxiously loud and destructive action hit that launched Michael Bay’s reign as the definitive expression of the Bruckheimer and Simpson aesthetic of big, expensive, flamboyantly excessive action cinema. Interestingly Martin Lawrence, who plays the married man and harried father trying to reign in the excesses of his ladies man partner Will Smith, gets first billing in this partnership. How things change in the intervening years. The box set features Bad Boys and the Blu-ray debut of the 2003 sequel Bad Boys II (also directed by Bay), each in its own case. Bad Boys carries over the extras from the 2010 release, with director commentary, a featurette, and music videos. Bad Boys IIincludes featurettes on the stunts and visual effects, on-set production diaries, “Sequence Breakdowns” of six key scenes, and deleted scenes, all in 480i SD. But fear not, the movies themselves are both remastered in 4K and are vivid and sharp.

ThunderThundercrack! (Synapse / CAV, Blu-ray, DVD), the 1975 underground cult film by Curt McDowell and co-writer / star George Kuchar, is a gothic romp that veers into horror, sex, and camp parody, with explicit scenes and graphic horror. It makes is American home video debut (at least it first official release) in DVD and Blu-ray editions, with an audio-only interview with Curt McDowell (on the second audio track) and newly translated subtitles in Parisian French, German, and Castilian Spanish. Exclusive to the Blu-ray edition is the 2009 documentary It Came From Kuchar, on the underground filmmaking brother George and Mike Kuchar, and a bonus DVD with rate short films, interviews, and audition footage and outtakes from Thundercrack!

LivingOblivionLiving In Oblivion: 20th Anniversary (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray) – Steve Buscemi is the angst-ridden auteur of a low budget art film falling apart at the seams (splices?) in Tom DiCillo’s very funny 1995 satire of indie filmmaking nightmares, which won him the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance. James Le Gros plays his egotistical, impulsively improvising star with blow-dried smarminess, Catherine Keener has a crisis in confidence as his female lead, and Dermot Mulroney swaggers in an eye-patch and leather vest as the artiste of a cinematographer. Features commentary by director Tom DiCillo, deleted scenes, a video interview with DiCillo and Buscemi, and trailers.

Stalingrad (Synapse, Blu-ray) presents the Blu-ray debut of the complete 2003 3-part documentary on the devastating World War II battle that lasted over 6 months and took 4 million casualties. The epic production features rare footage from both Russian and German archives, some of it shot by the soldiers themselves, and presents the battle from both perspectives. Nominated for the 2003 International Emmy Award for Best Documentary. Presented in the English language dubbed version with footage not seen in original broadcast. Features deleted interview segments, the featurette “Stalingrad Today,” and a video interview with professor and historian Dr. Guido Knopp.

BrainWouldntThe Brain That Wouldn’t Die (Scream Factory, Blu-ray), a bizarre tale of a scientist hunting for a shapely body for his fiancée’s floating head while it hisses and taunts a deformed assistant back at the lab, has become a cult classic of classic B-movie horror. It has been newly restored from original negative, with new commentary by film historians Steve Haberman and Tony Sasso, an alternate scene from the international cut, and the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode featuring The Brain That Wouldn’t Die.

White of the Eye (Scream Factory, Blu-ray+DVD), the cult thriller from Donald Cammell (co-director of Performance), makes its disc debut in a Blu-ray combo pack mastered from the original camera negative. Features commentary by Cammell biographer Sam Umland, deleted scenes with commentary, an interview with Steadicam operator Larry McConkey, and an alternate credit sequence.

WhiteEyeTroll / Troll 2 (Scream Factory, Blu-ray) is actually a triple feature. It includes the original 1986 low-budget horror film from director John Carl Buechler, the notorious in-name-only English-language Italian-produced sequel directed by Claudio Fragasso, and the 2009 documentary The Best Worst Movie, a loving tribute/remembrance/celebration of Troll 2, which explores the film and the cult that has grown up around what many have deemd the worst film ever made. The two Troll features include commentary.

TV on disc: ‘Better Call Saul,’ ‘Peaky Blinders,’ the end of ‘Hannibal,’ the beginning of ‘Game of Thrones,’ and more TV on disc

BetterCallSaulS1Better Call Saul: Season One (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD) – Bob Odenkirk is Jimmy McGill, a struggling lawyer trying to get both respect and clients in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in this prequel series to the award-winning Breaking Bad. He was Saul Goodman in that show, the shady lawyer who helped Walter White hide his drug money, but Saul was once Jimmy, a conman (he earned the nickname Slippery Jimmy) who cleaned up his act, got a law degree from a dubious school, and set out his own shingle in a utility closet in the back of a strip mall beauty shop.

Better Call Saul takes a different tone from Breaking Bad, playing it is a dark comedy and character piece that shows Jimmy’s struggles. He’s the younger brother of a once successful and respected lawyer (Michael McKean), who is now holed up with a phobia for electrical signals, trying to prove himself to his brother while chasing clients with more bravado than confidence and watching schemes backfire. The series also feature Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), the ex-cop who will become Saul’s reliable field man and fixer. Odenkirk is a mix of salesmanship and desperation as Jimmy, who isn’t taken seriously by clients or other lawyers, and he lets us see the person under the pose. For all his schemes, he wants to play it straight and prove himself. It’s the beginning of an odyssey that will eventually turn him into the morally untethered Saul Goodman. The series was nominated for seven Emmy Awards and Odenkirk’s performance earned Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations.

10 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with uncensored versions of three episodes, cast and crew commentary tracks on each episode, and the featurettes “Better Call Saul: Day One” and “Creating the First Season.”

Exclusive to the Blu-ray are bonus featurettes “In Conversation: Bob Odenkirk & Michael McKean,” “Good Cop, Bad Cop: Becoming Mike,” and “In the Studio,” the montage featurettes “Jimmy in the Courtroom” and “Jimmy Kaleidoscope, a table read for the pilot episode, deleted scenes, and a bonus commentary track in character by Craig and Betsy Kettleman.

PeakyBlindersPeaky Blinders: Season One (BBC, Blu-ray, DVD), set in North England industrial city of Birmingham in the years after World War I, ” is a British TV gangster drama starring Cillian Murphy as Thomas Shelby, who applies the lessons of warfare to turn a crime family into a major criminal enterprise, and Sam Neill as his nemesis, an Inspector from Belfast brought in to clean up the corrupt and ineffectual police and stop the IRA presence in Birmingham. The battle becomes personal when Grace (Annabelle Wallis), an undercover agent who takes a position a barmaid in Shelby gang saloon, refuses the Inspector’s romantic overtures and falls for Thomas. The series title comes from the name of Shelby’s gang, so called because they sew razor blades into the peaks of their caps.

Created and written by Steven Knight, the writer of Eastern Promises and writer/director of the acclaimed Locke, it’s a sharp, smart, gritty show and a vividly realized period piece set in a volatile culture where the IRA and the communist union organizers are both targeted as terrorists, the Italians and Gypsies fight to keep their piece of the underworld as Thomas schemes to expand the Shelby family business, and the cops are as thuggish as the crooks. The shadow of the war hangs over it: the friends and family lost, the women who ran things while the men fought and aren’t so quick to hand things back over, the victims of shell shock reliving the war with every loud noise, and the disillusioned working class men who fought for their country and came back to poverty and hard times. Though set close to hundred years ago, the soundtrack is filled with energetic modern rock songs from The White Stripes, Nick Cave, and others. The series went straight to Netflix in the U.S.

The first season of six episodes debuts on Blu-ray and DVD, with a featurette. It’s a very handsome show and the Blu-ray gives you a better opportunity to appreciate the terrific textures of the production.

HomeFiresMasterpiece: Home Fires (PBS, Blu-ray, DVD) is another period piece from British TV, this one set in a rural village 1940, just as Britain was sending off its young (and sometimes not so young) men to fight in World War II. Home Fires is about life on the homefront and it focuses on the women, from wives and mothers looking to fill their lonely days by contributing something to the war effort to community leaders taking charge of the transformation to a wartime society.

Samantha Bond takes the lead here as Frances, who challenges Joyce (Francesca Annis), the elitist, upper-class leader of the Women’s Institute, and transforms it from an exclusive social club to an open communal society devoted to supporting the war effort in every way they can, from sending letters the boys on the front to increasing food production to creating a communal air raid shelter. Inspired by the book “Jambusters” by Julie Summers, the show presents a large canvas of characters and issues, some of that follow a familiar formula (a young woman working in the war office has an affair with a married officer), some less predictable, and along with the expected portrait of chauvinism is the issue of class played out through the snooty aristocrat Joyce sabotaging the efforts of Frances at every turn.

There’s no surprise that the six-episode series, which takes in a year or so in their lives, emphasizes how the communal effort overcomes conflict to foster acceptance, understanding, and mutual respect. It’s more uplifting and affirming than challenging or surprising, and it is handsomely made with convincing period detail and a fine cast delivering top notch performances. It played in the US on the PBS showcase “Masterpiece” and a second series of the drama has been announced.

Six episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, no supplements.

CodeS1The six-part Australian mini-series The Code (Acorn, DVD) is a political thriller about a government conspiracy uncovered by web reporter Ned Banks (Dan Spielman) and investigated with the help of Ned’s younger brother Jesse (Ashley Zukerman), a genius, borderline autistic hacker on parole for cybercrimes. It opens on a car accident in the outback that leaves two Aboriginal students critically injured and a video recorded by one of the students that their teacher (Lucy Lawless in a small role) sends to Ned. His investigation leads to a biotech company and secret illegal activities and he and Jesse are attacked and intimidated into dropping the story.

It only makes them more determined to uncover the truth, which reveals connections to the government and a cover-up ordered by Minister David Wenham. The series, created by Shelley Birse (who also wrote episodes of the hit Aussie series “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries”), combines a drama of corporate corruption and government complicity in covering up illegal behavior that it secretly sanctioned with a journalistic investigation in the internet age, and the web-based communications and cyber-hacking is incorporated into the storytelling by bringing the text into the images. It’s nothing new but it is effective and helps make the digital elements part of the physical drama. The series goes back and forth between the city, the halls of Australian government, and the dusty, empty outback, which makes it something different for American audiences, but it’s also well written and effectively directed, and the six-hour format brings it to a satisfying conclusion.

Six episodes on two discs on DVD, no supplements.

HannibalS3Hannibal: Season Three (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD), the final season (at least as of this writing) of the unlikely NBC take on the Thomas Harris novels, moves from series developer and show-runner Bryan Fuller’s original stories inspired by the books and characters to incorporate story elements from the novel Hannibal and adapt Red Dragon directly over the course of the final six episodes (making it the third screen version of the novel). Mads Mikkelson is Hannibal Lecter and Hugh Dancy is Will Graham, two men locked in a perverse kind of battle of wills as Lecter treats Graham as a test subject in a perverse psychological experiment, as if tempting him to give into the dark side. The season opens with Lecter in Europe with his psychiatrist (Gillian Anderson) posing as his wife, somewhere between prisoner and reluctant conspirator in his continued murder-as-fine-art spectacles, clues that draw Graham and his boss Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) to follow. This is a unique kind of show, a work of visual beauty in service to stories of gruesome violence and mad murderers, more European art movie than American crime procedural. Fans cursed NBC for cancelling the series, an international production shot in and around Toronto, but it’s amazing than an American network supported a show this strange and surreal and aesthetically unique as long as it did.

13 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with commentary on ten episodes by Bryan Fuller and various members of cast and crew and the two-hour documentary “Getting the Old Scent Again: reimagining Red Dragon” leading the substantial menu of supplements. There are also two short featurettes, all of the “Post Mortem with Scott Thompson” webisodes, deleted scenes, a gag reel, and an Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the entire season (SD for the DVD release).

InsideAmyS3Inside Amy Schumer: Season 3 (Paramount) is the season where Amy Schumer’s acclaimed Comedy Central series leapt from cable hit to cultural phenomenon thanks to acclaimed skits that went viral on YouTube. This is the season that satirized sexual double standards with guest stars Tina Fey, Patricia Arquette, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus celebrating that latter’s “last f***able day” and parodied sexualized music videos with the song “Milk Milk Lemonade.” The episode “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer” parodied the famous movie, this time with an all-male jury (including Jeff Goldblum, John Hawkes, Vincent Kartheiser, and Paul Giamatti) passing judgment on Schumer’s sex appeal and physical appearance. In another skit, she’s the perfect undercover cop because she is so plain that no one every notices her. In much of the show, Schumer presents herself as a hard-drinking, sexually reckless woman, but her humor cuts both ways as she takes on body shaming, pay inequities, birth control, sexual assault, and other issues through often provocative skits.

10 episodes on two discs on DVD, with uncensored versions of the episodes, a bonus unaired sketch, a collection of unaired interviews, and outtakes.

Gift IdeasGameThronesS1Steel

Game of Thrones: The Complete First Season Steelbook (HBO, Blu-ray)
Game of Thrones: The Complete Second Season Steelbook (HBO, Blu-ray)

HBO’s sprawling, muscular adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s fantasy epic is arguably the pay cabler’s biggest success since The Sopranos became the water-cooler show of its day. It’s also been one of the best-selling TV shows on disc. So it’s not surprising to see a Blu-ray upgrade of the first two seasons.

Sean Bean is the ostensible hero of Season One as Eddard Stark, ruler of the northern kingdom and the Hand of the King (Mark Addy), a once fearsome warrior married to a ruthlessly ambitious queen (Lena Headey) who plots to put her clan on the throne and eliminate Stark. But that’s just the broadest strokes of a very complicated story with where family dynasties plot their way to power through marriages, war, and political gamesmanship, and an exiled princess (Emilia Clarke) unites the barbarian hordes of a land across the water to take back her family legacy. And it doesn’t begin to trace the equally compelling story of Tyrion Lannister, the debauched “black sheep” of the ruling family played by Peter Dinklage (who won an Emmy for his performance). Like a medieval answer to I, Claudius, he’s a dwarf with a sharp mind and a fierce understanding of the ways of power that he hides under his court jester antics. It’s a form of protection as well as escape; he’s not perceived as a threat.

GameThronesS2SteelSeason Two uses the foundation of that season to build an increasingly complex narrative with characters that become more interesting with every challenge. And the biggest challenge: a free-for-all civil war after the sniveling little prince Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) is elevated to the throne by his cold-blooded mother (Lena Headey) and the scheming Lannister family, and their struggle to keep him in power as the boy turns every tantrum into a brutal display of his rule and multiple claimants to the throne make their play for the crown as the balance of power shifts with every alliance and betrayal.

The fantasy elements are still merely grace notes in a fictional historical epic that otherwise plays like a fanciful take on Europe of the Dark Ages, and the scale of the production – in particular battle of King’s Landing, which takes up the entire penultimate episode of the season – suggests feature film values. The series is shot in Ireland, Morocco, Malta, Croatia, and Iceland, with striking, dynamic landscapes defining each fictional land represented in the show. But it wouldn’t mean much without the strong writing, vivid characters, and superb cast. Show creators/producers David Benioff and D.B Weiss know how to keep the show focused on story and character. Storytelling matters, and this is a fiercely-told story.

Each season is ten episodes on five discs. The video master appears to be the same but new to disc is a theater-quality Dolby Amos soundtrack for high-end systems. The supplements are the same: seven commentary tracks on the first season, twelve on the second (there’s some doubling up), featuring a mix of participants including developers / show runners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (on the series premiere) and most of the stars and major creative collaborators at point or another, numerous production and interview featurettes, interactive guide modes with offer background material and “In-Episode Guides,” a viewing mode with pop-up factoids and guides running through the episodes. These are well-produced extras and worth the visit for fans of the show.

 

The steelbook case is small and sturdy—it’ll fit neatly on the shelf with your other volumes—and the discs are stacked on short spindles inside: three discs on one side, two on the other. I’m not fond of spindles and it can scratch the disc it any grit gets caught between them, which can be an issue in a family household, but if you’re a careful collector it should be fine.

And each features a sigil magnet with the crest of the Starks (First Season) and the Lannisters (Second Season).

GreatAmericanThe Great American Dream Machine (S’more, DVD), produced for PBS in the early 1970s with an unconventional format that mixed comedy skits with documentary segments, animated interludes, and satirical shorts, was an early victim of political pressure on public television. It seems that Congress didn’t like public funds spent on political or social satire. But for two years, this unusual, almost forgotten mix of variety show and offbeat TV newsmagazine presented clever comedy bits by Albert Brooks (his “Famous School for Comedians” anticipates the shorts he made for Saturday Night Live), Chevy Chase (one of the musical faces that opens the show), Charles Grodin, and Marshall Efron between profiles of fringe figures (from Evel Knievel to roller derby athlete Ann Calvello to custom car innovator Big Daddy Roth) and byways of American culture (visits to both “Honeymoon Hotel” and “McDonalds University”).

Dick Cavett recites Carl Sandburg and Mark Twain, Andy Rooney offer his wry kvetching opinions years before it became a staple of 60 Minutes, and Studs Turkel discusses the issues of the day with Chicago citizens. There are short documentaries and musical performances and animated interludes and interviews with folks on the street, adults and children alike, but no host and no studio audience. Compared to modern shows this takes its time—even the animated opening credits are unusually long—but it is a TV landmark and a fascinating time capsule of American culture in the early 1970s and its offbeat approach is still interesting. The programs presented on this four-disc box set appear to be taken from “best of” revival episodes and there are no broadcast dates or episode numbers on the cases or in the booklet, but the collection presents thirteen hours of original segments, most remastered from videotape.

On four discs on DVD, each in a separate case with a menu of segments (it does not, however, separate the episodes from one another) filled with typographical errors and an accompanying booklet with an essay by David Bianculli, all in a paperboard slipsleeve.

The Whole Story

McHale’s Navy: The Complete Series (Shout! Factory, DVD), a service sitcom about a misfit PT boat crew in the South Pacific during World War II, is notable mostly for its ensemble. Oscar-winner Ernest Borgnine is the fun-loving, big-hearted McHale, a former tramp steamer skipper commissioned as a Lt. Commander with his own ship and crew because of his knowledge of the islands and seaways, Tim Conway is his lovable but incompetent executive officer, and the great Joe Flynn the eternally exasperated Captain who hates the way McHale flaunts rules and discipline despite his superb record fighting the Japanese. Carl Ballantine is the top grifter in the crew and Gavin MacLeod co-stars. In the fourth season the entire cast is relocated to a small Italian village to patrol the waters of the Mediterranean with the liberation of Italy.

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Most of the episodes are variations on the same theme: McHale’s crew hatches some scheme or gets caught up in some activity that breaks navy rules and then they have to cover it up before the Captain can catch them in the act. There’s nothing original here but the ensemble timing is superb. The series was moderately popular and a syndication staple through the 1970s, giving it some nostalgia appeal, and it launched Conway’s career.

In addition to the complete four seasons, this box set features the two big screen movies featuring the original cast, both directed by series producer Edward Montagne and released when the show was still on the air. McHale’s Navy (1964), which doesn’t bother even bother coming up with a variation on the series name, is like a feature-length episode revolving around a horse racing scheme. Borgnine is absent from McHale’s Navy Joins the Air Force (1965), which slips Conway in the lead when Parker gets mistaken for a pilot and assigned to duties in the Air Force.

JusticeLeagueUnJustice League Unlimited: The Complete Series (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) – The signature superhero series of the Cartoon Network was developed by Bruce Timm (Batman: The Animated Series) in the early 2000s for the Cartoon Network as a more mature take on the all-star superhero team that counts Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman as charter members. This is no happy-go-lucky group of seventies-era “Super Friends” saving the world with a smile and a chummy sense of togetherness. Choppy relationships, clashing personalities (the grim Green Lantern, lighthearted jester The Flash, grim, haunted Martian Manhunter and, of course, Batman, who explains himself with the line: “I’m not really a people person”), and lots of suspicion make these teammates an often contentious and always interesting group.

It was simply called Justice League for the for two seasons of the series who but it became Justice League Unlimited in 2004, adding new charter members (among them Green Arrow, Supergirl, and Black Canary) and shifting from multi-episode stories to more self-contained episodes, though a long-running battle with Lex Luthor, the super-villain who turns the government against the supergroup and creates a powerful nemesis, Cadmus, to take down the heroes, runs through the first half of this collection.

39 episodes on three discs, with commentary on episodes “This Little Piggy” and “The Return” with producer Bruce Timm and others and three featurettes: “”And Justice For All,” on the revamping of the show with its new characters and a new direction; “Cadmus Exposed,” with Timm, Mark Hamill and others discussing the entire Cadmus storyline; and “Justice League Chronicles, with series writers, producers, and directors discussing their favorite moments among final-season episodes.

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Outlander: Season One – The Ultimate Collection (Sony, Blu-ray) collects the episodes previously available in two separate releases. Adapted from the bestselling historical romances by Diane Gabron, it’s the first Starz original series to be both a bonifide critical and popular hit. It’s intelligent and interesting, full of historical and cultural detail, and builds on a situation that calls upon magic yet remains grounded in a very real world where the threat of violence and death are ever present. And it’s all told from the perspective of a smart, observant, modern (circa 1945) British woman magically transported back to 18th century Scotland who is doing all she can to stay alive long enough to escape back into her world. 16 episodes plus supplements.

Fear the Walking Dead: The Complete First Season (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD), the prequel series to AMC’s hit zombie apocalypse drama, begins at ground zero, or at least time zero, with the first outbreaks of the undead virus in Los Angeles. It launched with a six-episode season that centers on an extended family around Kim Dickens and Cliff Curtis and ends with the city collapsing into chaos. With two featurettes.

Marco Polo: The Complete First Season (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD) of the Netflix original series features 10 episodes plus featurettes, deleted scenes, rehearsal footage, and galleries of art and stills.

LegendsMystery Science Theater 3000: Vol. XXXIV (Shout! Factory, DVD) presents four more episodes never before released on disc: The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1957) and The Undead (1957) directed by Roger Corman, Bert I. Gordon’s War of the Colossal Beast (1958), and The She-Creature (1956), all produced by American International Pictures. The four-disc set includes new introductions by Frank Conniff, the original documentary It Was a Colossal Teenage Movie Machine: The American International Pictures Story (2015), and four mini-posters.

From the 20th Century Fox Cinema Archives comes the debut seasons of three recent shows: the ABC comedy Cristela: The Complete Season 1 with Cristela Alonzo (22 episodes); Legends: The Complete Season 1, the TNT deep cover thriller with Sean Bean, Ali Larter, and Morris Chestnut (10 episodes); and Kingdom: The Complete Season 1, the DirecTV boxing drama with Frank Grillo and Matt Lauria (10 episodes).

And the entire run of a couple of shows that didn’t make it past a first season: the behind-the-scenes showbiz comedy The Comedians: The Complete Series with Billy Crystal and Josh Gad (13 episodes) and the sitcom Weird Loners: The Complete Series with a mere six episodes. These are all DVD-R releases.

Calendar of upcoming releases on Blu-ray, DVD, Digital, and VOD

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Videophiled: ‘Miami Blues’

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Shout! Factory

Miami Blues (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray) should have been the first film in funky crime movie franchise. It’s based on the first of four novels by modern hardboiled crime author Charles Willeford featuring Miami police detective Hoke Moseley; adapted and directed by George Armitage, who learned his trade making pictures for Roger Corman; and produced by Jonathan Demme, who brought in much of his regular production team, including cinematographer Tak Fujimoto and editor Craig McKay. Fred Ward is spot-on casting for Hoke, not so much a maverick as a slovenly oddball who isn’t all that concerned with procedure, but his character is played down in favor of the equally offbeat psychopath of a crook, a freshly-sprung career criminal who prefers to go by the name Junior. He’s played by Alec Baldwin in his first starring role, fresh off Demme’s Married to the Mob, and while I’m sorry that Ward’s role was eclipsed, it’s clear who had the star power in this film. Ward wears the role of Hoke like a rumpled suit pulled out from under a pile of weeks-old laundry. Baldwin, young and buff and with a spark of trouble in his eyes, inhabits Junior as a guy ready to follow his worst impulses at the first sideways glance, never jittery but constantly restless and overcharged.

The story is simple but never dull: Junior announces his arrival in Miami by (inadvertently) killing someone within minutes of landing, breaking the fingers of an airport Krishna and sending him into fatal shock. It sets Hoke on his trail; when Junior steals Hoke’s badge and gun and false teeth, it gets personal. Jennifer Jason Leigh co-stars as a guileless young hooker who Junior impulsively marries, fooling himself into setting up house in suburbia with the sweetly naïve and sincere lost girl. Armitage gets Willeford’s cracked black humor and slightly off-kilter universe and Demme is an appropriate midwife for the project, which mixes the energy and personality and color of Demme’s eighties film with Armitage’s ruthless, unsentimental sensibility. It should have been a hit and launched a franchise. Instead it launched Alec Baldwin.

The disc includes a featurette with new interviews with Alec Baldwin and Jennifer Jason Leigh reflecting on the film. It leans a little too much on film clips but it’s still interesting to hear these actors discuss the film and their early career.

Check out an interview with George Armitage at Film Comment here.

More recent Blu-ray debuts here

Videophiled: an American ‘Breathless’

Breathless
Shout! Factory

Breathless (1983) (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray) – I’m still not sure if it was an inspired or a terribly misguided idea to remake Jean-Luc Godard’s debut feature, a French nouvelle vague classic of outlaw cinema in every sense of the word. Godard made his splash by defying conventions and announcing a fresh, energetic, new approach to telling stories on screen and a criminal anti-hero who revered American gangster icons and seduces an American girl. The story was less important than the style and attitude.

More than twenty years later, director Jim McBride and co-writer L.M. Kit Carson relocated the story from Paris to Los Angeles and swapped the nationalities of the characters: the two-bit thief is now a callow American (Richard Gere) who loves Jerry Lee Lewis and “The Silver Surfer” comic book and the girl (Valérie Kaprisky) a French exchange student at USC. He kills a cop (accidentally?) and tries to lure her into running off with him to Mexico, after he collects his share of a robbery, as the police close in on him. McBride and Carson try to find their own approach to the fugitive lovers on the run picture, updating it with oversaturated colors, a high-energy soundtrack of classic rock and contemporary punk rock songs, and lots of steamy sex and nudity. It never captures the zeitgeist of its era the way Godard’s original did and it’s in no way revolutionary or essential, but seeing it again now, more than 30 years after it was made and more than 50 years after Godard’s original, it is surprisingly entertaining and interesting on its own terms, a romantic reflection of its cinematic era of neon and music video aesthetics and hot, steamy erotic scenes. Gere is quite good as the narcissistic, emotionally immature, not-too-bright hood but Kaprisky struggles to make an impression beyond her beauty (and her willingness to get naked in scene after scene). Released over a decade ago on DVD, it’s been remastered for its Blu-ray debut.

More recent Blu-ray debuts here

Blu-ray: ‘Southern Comfort’

A motley crew of Louisiana National Guardsman wade out into the swamps for weekend maneuvers. It’s 1973, as the war in Vietnam is grinding away the soul of America and the heart of the military, and this platoon of weekend warriors–a volatile collection of rednecks, hotheads, jokers, and guys who probably signed up to steer clear of the draft–are like fresh recruits going into battle for the first time. They’ve got the fatigues and the cocky attitude but dubious discipline and training and their machine guns are loaded with blanks as they head into the bayou. To the Cajun swamp folk, the trappers and hunters living on the fringes of society, these men are invaders who trample their camps and steal their boats. And when one of the soldiers lets loose a burst from his weapon, laughing like the class bully after humiliating the new kid, these shadowy swamp dwellers defend themselves, becoming a guerilla strike force waging a war of terror on the utterly unprepared toy soldiers. They don’t know that it’s just blanks in those guns but it likely wouldn’t matter if they did. They’ve been attacked and they will respond. These city dwellers are out their element and after their commanding officer (Peter Coyote) is gone, the first casualty in the war of attrition, they are out of their depth, flailing around with a panic that dumps their radio, compass, map, and pretty much everything else that was supposed to keep them alive.

Southern Comfort will never be mistaken for a Nation Guard recruitment tool. Call it an anti-platoon movie. Hill gives the squad the outward accoutrements of a real fighting force, down to the uniforms and weapons, but this is a military unit in name only.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Videophiled TVD: ‘The Marx Brothers TV Collection’

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Shout Factory has been the greatest home video archivist of classic TV treasures in recent years and The Marx Brothers TV Collection (Shout Factory, DVD) is quite the treasure chest, as long as you understand exactly what this set offers. This is a potpourri of unusual projects and unexpected appearances by Groucho, Chico, and Harpo Marx on TV from the early 1950s to the early 1970s, from full-length programs to variety show skits to TV commercials, with the aging comedy stars both solo and teamed up (though all three are never together apart from one delicious surprise). And while none of these projects rival their best work on the big screen, there are genuine treats to be had. “The Incredible Jewel Robbery,” for instance, a 1959 episode of the half-hour anthology show General Electric Theater with Chico and Harpo as a heist team in what is essentially a silent movie comedy short for TV with music and sound effects but no dialogue. Harpo guest stars on the premiere episode of “The Red Skelton Hour,” playing a whimsical guardian angel and performing a comic pantomime duet. And Groucho takes his only dramatic TV role in another General Electric Theater episode, “The Hold Out” from 1962, with guest stars Brooke Hayward and Dennis Hopper.

While Groucho tried out different characters and comic personae in his many TV appearances and Chico toned down his screen personality to varying degrees and even broke character to some extent (on the BBC talk show Showtime in 1959 and the specialty show Championship Bridge with Charles Goren in 1960, plus a delicious turn on I’ve Got a Secret), Harpo was always Harpo. He never spoke. He does, however, lost the wig and hat and tooting horn, for “A Silent Panic,” a 1960 episode of The DuPont Show with June Allyson starring Harpo as a mechanical man in a department story window. Among the many other goodies, let me highlight the outtake reel from the final season of You Bet Your Life and the 22-minute collection of family home movies from all three brothers, narrated by Harpo’s son Bill Marx (who is also the executive producer of the set).

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Harpo Marx in 'The Great Jewel Robbery'
It comes with a 40-page booklet with an essay, photos, and an annotated program guide. And if you order directly from Shout Factory, you can get a limited special edition with an additional bonus disc and a poster.

More TV on disc and digital at Cinephiled

How Indie DVD Label Shout! Factory Has Survived the Digital Age

If physical media is dying, as the business pundits have been telling us for years, then someone forget to send the memo to Shout! Factory.

Born ten years ago out of the DNA of the original Rhino Records crew, Shout! Factory is the pop culture geek squad of home video and it has carved out a niche in the home video industry—actually, a few niches, from horror and science fiction to cult movies to classic TV.

Last year, the company released over 300 titles on Blu-ray and DVD, including a handful of remastered John Carpenter special editions and an impressive box set of Bruce Lee films (everything but “Enter the Dragon”) on Blu-ray and DVD. Coming up in 2014 is a deluxe set of 16 Werner Herzog films on Blu-ray (slated for the end of July) and a complete “Halloween” box set, from Carpenter’s original to Rob Zombie’s revivals, produced in partnership with Anchor Bay (scheduled for release in the fall – just before Halloween, of course).

Shout! is just as committed to releasing television shows on disc, from the complete run of “Hill Street Blues” to collections showcasing Steve Martin TV specials, Mel Brooks on the small screen, and the incomparable and innovative TV work of Ernie Kovacs.

John Carpenter's 'Prince of Darkness'

While the major studios have slowed the pace of disc releases to a trickle, at least where classics and catalog titles are concerned, to focus on digital distribution, independent labels are filling the void. Olive Films released a slate of classics from the Paramount catalog on Blu-ray, from John Wayne’s pre-“Stagecoach” B-westerns to Betty Boop cartoons to cult noirs like “Cry Danger” and “Sleep My Love.” Twilight Time has been delivering limited-run Blu-ray releases of films from the Sony and Fox collections for a few years now. Kino, known for foreign imports and silent movie classics, has just created a Kino Lorber Studio Classics line for films licensed from the MGM Home Video catalog, with films like Billy Wilder’s “Witness for the Prosecution” and Blake Edwards’ “The Party” making their Blu-ray debuts this summer.

And of course there is Criterion Collection, the gold standard for classics on Blu-ray and DVD. Founded in 1984, Criterion sets the bar for home video presentation with its commitment to high-quality digital masters (often created with the participation of the filmmakers and directors of photography) and supplements, starting back in the days of laserdiscs, when it introduced the audio commentary track on the 1985 release of “King Kong.”

Clearly there is still a market for Blu-ray and DVD in the age of streaming and digital downloads. “There definitely is an audience for it,” said Cliff MacMillan, a disc producer who pursues acquisitions for the Shout! Factory classics and Scream Factory lines. “Just like there is an audience for the Criterion Collection. Just the first week’s pre-orders on the ‘Halloween’ set are amazing.”

Continue reading at Indiewire