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Three Fifties Movies New to DVD

My Gun is QuickTwentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment recently put a batch of B movies on DVD (priced under $20 each) through its video on demand, tapping into MGM’s library. Among the new releases are several interesting pictures worth seeing at least once for diehard film fans. The unexceptional My Gun is Quick (1957) starts off well enough but peters out and is notable chiefly for being based on the pulp fiction murder mystery novel by Mickey Spillane. Robert Bray as private detective Mike Hammer is physically right for the role; the muscular actor is strong, masculine and commanding, flirting with everyone from his full-figured secretary Velda to Whitney Blake’s wealthy, blonde dame and sending a young prostitute packing for home in the Midwest. Packed with gangsters, strippers, and gunshots, this clunky potboiler is drained of Spillane’s pulsating narrative, though a few lines pop off the screen. A lengthy Los Angeles freeway chase offers a rare glimpse of southern California in the 1950s.

Sex is the subtext of The Careless Years (1957), directed by Arthur Hiller (Love Story), featuring a young Dean Stockwell (NBC’s Quantam Leap) and Natalie Trundy (of the 1970s Planet of the Apes films) in an earnest episode of teen-age love. The short movie is stiff, dated, and totally predictable and it is also curiously involving as the Santa Monica High School teens act out their passion in a logical sequence that leads them to conflict with their parents, played by such actors as Barbara Billingsley (Leave it to Beaver) and, briefly, character actress and Folgers’ coffee lady Virginia Christine, who played a subtle racist in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Judgment at Nuremberg.

Another actress from Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Beah Richards, is featured in the best of these, Take a Giant Leap (1959), a frank racial and sexually-themed drama about a black boy (Johnny Nash, who went on to record “I Can See Clearly Now”) in an integrated neighborhood. With Ruby Dee as the object of his boyhood crush, and Estelle Hemsley memorably as the witty and wise old woman who’s his grandmother, the perils and pressures of being black in the Fifties come across in this 100-minute drama, which is based on a play. The only child of a bank teller and his wife gets tired of being the only black and he dares to speak up with a degree of self-respect exactly as his parents taught him, much to their chagrin. With raging hormones and a mind of his own, the youth goes on a binge in the wrong part of town, encountering a hooker with anything but a heart of gold, among others. From there, Take a Giant Leap drifts into standard coming of age fare, though with good performances and common sense, it’s worth a look.

New on DVD: I Am Number Four

I Am Number Four DVDNew to DVD and Blu-Ray this week is the science fiction thriller I Am Number Four, from Disney, DreamWorks, and director D.J. Caruso (Disturbia, Eagle Eye). It’s another economical movie from Caruso, who excels in taking young characters seriously enough for crossover appeal and this hard-to-peg picture, combining action, suspense, sci-fi and drama, is no exception. With deleted scenes restricted to the Blu-Ray disc, and the DVD featuring a bonus bit and bloopers, this release is recommended for most as a popcorn download, Netflix or Red Box pick (or click the image to buy the DVD) safe for watching with the whole family, except for toddlers. Read my review from earlier this year here and (hopefully) enjoy the show.

31 Days of Oscar

We’re well into 31 Days of Oscar by Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and it’s simply fabulous, one of the few things (besides The King’s Speech) in movies to be excited about amid impending doom for America, rising jihadism and nuclear Iran. I caught an interesting film based on a Carson McCullers novel the other night, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, with Alan Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine) as a deaf man, Stacy Keach as a drunkard, Cicely Tyson (The Marva Collins Story) as an angry young woman and Sondra Locke in her motion picture debut as a girl who falls in love with Mozart’s music and dreams of a better life. It’s a little character film, not as depressing a portrait of being different in the South as the Tennessee Williams material, and it leads to a shocking yet logical conclusion.

TCM’s 31 Days calendar, which runs through March 3, is filled with such interesting, rarely seen pictures. Among those scheduled (please confirm by checking current TV listings) and recommended (all times Eastern):

Glory (1989), Civil War epic starring Matthew Broderick, Morgan Freeman, and Denzel Washington (midnight on Feb. 8 (am Feb. 9)

Romance on the High Seas (1948) with Doris Day early in her career, a silly, mistaken identity madcapper on a cruise ship in the role that made her a movie star (12:45 pm on Feb 10)

Executive Suite (1954) starring William Holden, June Allyson and Barbara Stanwyck in a rare drama depicting capitalism and business admirably, not to be missed if you love good stories, business and great performances (4 pm on Feb. 11)

Hit the trifecta on Valentine’s Day (Feb. 14) with three classics: Neil Simon’s underrated The Goodbye Girl (1977) at 6 pm, an aching intellectual romance with a wrenching climax, Casablanca (1942) at 10 pm, and the delightful gay romp Victor/Victoria (1982) at 2:15 am.

On Feb 24, at 4:30 pm, TCM airs David Lean’s stunning Doctor Zhivago, an underrated classic based on (and, in my estimate, better than) the Boris Pasternak novel, about life in Russia after the Communists take over. With Julie Christie and Omar Sharif as lovers across time and history in this three-hour epic that dramatizes how the red state seizes and ruins the livelihood of the young doctor and everyone else, with Rod Steiger’s slobbering, lecherous pragmatist rising to the top of the Soviet state, molesting the young Lara (Christie) amid the hopelessness and despair of a government controlled life, with Dr. Zhivago’s communist half-brother Yevgraf (Alec Guinness) coming to the rescue, to the extent possible in a dictatorship, is a bold, rewarding cinematic experience that benefits from a knowledge of communism, dictatorship and history. See We the Living for a superior dramatization of totalitarianism. But see Doctor Zhivago (1965) for a searing, heartbreaking sneak peek at what lies ahead for America. A sketch more than a full landscape, and not without flaws, but in its own way an unforgettable indictment on tyranny. My favorite scene: a lone man, a prisoner of the Soviet state played by Klaus Kinski, is chained to a boxcar packed with people who stare blankly at him. He yammers away trying to stay sane in a world gone mad, finally spitting at the masses: “I am the only free man on this train!”

The 1950 version of Edmond Rostand’s ingenious Cyrano de Bergerac airs on March 1 at 3:30 pm, followed by the amazing theatrical interplay All About Eve (1950) with Bette Davis, Anne Baxter and Marilyn Monroe at 10 pm, and Bob Fosse’s remarkable contrast of hedonism and the rise of the Nazis in Cabaret (1972) at 12:30 am.

The last day, March 3, too, features movies worth watching: the unfortunately pro-communist The Way We Were (1973) at 10 am, Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959) at 12:30 pm, Fred Astaire coasting across the dance floor in Shall We Dance (1937) at 6 pm and the luminous Grand Hotel (1932) at 8 pm.

The 2011 edition of the month-long event will feature more than 340 Academy Award®-nominated and winning movies, scheduled in trivia-inspired marathons. In addition, each night will feature a Best Picture Oscar winner at 10 p.m. (ET). The Oscars for 2010 will be presented on Sunday, Feb. 27, 2011, at the Kodak Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center and televised live on Disney-owned ABC. Turner Classic Movies, part of Turner Broadcasting System, Inc., a Time Warner company, presents movies uncut and commercial-free.

Cher Films on DVD

mussolini21Timed for the release of Burlesque, Fox and MGM have released six films with singer and actress Cher as a package on DVD ($49.98). This example of so-called double-dipping is ideal for the diehard Cher fan, and I know you’re out there, who may appreciate having these films housed in one product. Though it’s missing some of Cher’s best work in pictures, such as her career best performance in Peter Bogdanovich’s Mask (1985), her role as an attorney in Suspect, and other work, the two-box collection, with three discs per case, features her fine work in Tea With Mussolini (pictured), Mermaids, Silkwood, and Moonstruck. there are also a couple of Cher’s early movies, Good Times (1967) her only picture with her then-husband, Sonny Bono, who made her a recording star, and Chastity (1969), which Sonny wrote for Cher as the title character (later the name of their only child, a daughter who is now transgendered). Moonstruck is widely known and beloved, though I prefer Cher’s lesser known pictures: the family movie Mermaids, which holds up well, the delightful gem Tea With Mussolini featuring Cher with Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, and Joan Plowright in fascist Florence, Italy and her supporting role as Dolly Pelliker the frumpy lesbian in Silkwood.

TV: Glee

Glee: The Complete First SeasonHalf-naked cheerleaders, electric guitars from nowhere, terrible jokes about the deaf, Nazis and O.J. Simpson, a stereotypically butch female athletic coach as a villain and themes about confidence, regret, and betrayal…the first season of Fox’s hit musical television show, Glee, is available on DVD and the show is a mashup of styles, songs, and classic stories. After hearing endlessly about this show, which I did not watch in first run, I can attest that Glee is irresistible. While there is plenty to improve upon, the one-hour dramatic musical comedy is humorous, thought-provoking, and poignant. The series is enormously entertaining.

Cashing in on its high school and musical predecessors, ABC’s Room 222, the movie and NBC series Fame, and Disney’s cable movie franchise, High School Musical, and many others in film and television, Glee is centrally the story of a white male authority figure named Will. Gussied up as an egalitarian band of misfits who join the Midwestern William McKinley High School’s glee club, complete with tokens of every politically correct type, it’s relatively wholesome, which is the key to its overwhelming success. Spanish teacher Will instructs the students, each of whom yearn to be treated as an individual. His shrill, shallow, low-down wife calls them “dancing delinquents” and their asinine relationship is the only thing that is pure fantasy in this otherwise reality-based show. With multiple soap opera storylines about true love, teen pregnancy, and budding sexuality, Glee casts a wide net and always roots itself in American middle class pop music.

It works wonderfully. With arena rock staple Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” at its heart and soul, an idealistic counterpoint to the vacant nihilism of HBO’s Sopranos, with its horrible take on the same triumphant song, the glee club travels from formation to the final episode’s competition with reverence for the ideal. The songs, performances, and dance routines are overproduced, overly structured, and they lack pathos at key intervals, but each episode expresses a positive view of life and, sometimes, something unusual to think about, such as envy of those of ability, racism against whites, and what it feels like for a girl, or to be gay, pregnant, or mentally or physically handicapped. Each student shines at his or her best, in clothes, lines, and melodies that capture the possibility, not just the pain, of youth. And not just the young. Will’s love interest with another member of the faculty is the most interesting part of the show and his ongoing power struggle with the masculine cheerleading coach, Sue Sylvester, is the funniest. Whether riffing on the empowerment of music by Madonna, a heart-wrenching fantasy sequence to “The Safety Dance” (originally performed by Men Without Hats), or working in enjoyable appearances by Olivia Newton-John as herself, the musical approach is clean, honest and respectful.

Yet the playful Glee is unabashedly daring in its own way. In an age of cynicism, with sneering television personalities testifying before Congress, it takes courage and imagination to showcase tunes such as “Maybe This Time” from Cabaret, “Heartbreak Beat” by the Psychedelic Furs, or “The Lady is a Tramp” to express the idea that the good is possible here on earth and one ought to pursue one’s goals if based on reality and do it with passion, drive, and integrity. Wiping off the cultural slime (or slush) that engulfs us, Glee is gleeful about all of that. Whether in Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors”, AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” or Wicked‘s “Defying Gravity”, each performance is a step toward competition; an expression and a progression in revolving narratives of distinctively original characters. Every aspect of the production, including the cast, is excellent.

The premiere season DVD is a good product, if nothing sensational. As usual, extras without much substance appear on the box for marketing purposes, and much of the material is more fan-oriented than informative or entertaining. Bits include a video jukebox to play performance scenes, video diaries, tidbits, and features on fashion, choreography, and the final episode’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” (Queen) performance. Nothing lasts longer than 15 minutes and most are not worth watching twice, though some bonus bits are fun. On one feature, co-creator Ryan Murphy says he hopes the audience at least feels Glee‘s love for each song. After watching the first season, I do.