WKRP IN CINCINNATI: THE COMPLETE SERIES (1978-1982)
This zany sitcom about the misadventures of an easy listening station that turned rock ‘n’ roll overnight previously received only a first season release that included practically none of the original music due to rights issue, and this enraged fans. Luckily the head honchos at Shout! Factory have music industry connections, and this box set allegedly includes 75% of the original tunes. (Fans online have been making comparisons, and many are pleased.) That fact might mean little to younger viewers, but to adult fans who saw this as kids, it is of supreme importance. Watching nerdy newsman Les Nessman (Richard Sanders) get dressed up and pumped up for his date with hot receptionist Jennifer (Loni Anderson) while listening to Foreigner’s “Hot Blooded” rather than a generic rock tune is priceless. Naturally the music biz shenanigans portrayed here are tame compared to many in real life—although “hoodlum” rockers Scum Of The Earth livened things up four episodes in—but the main cast of characters (including Andy Travis, Dr. Johnny Fever, Venus Flytrap, and Bailey Quarters, among others) had a great chemistry and charisma that transcends time.
WELCOME BACK, KOTTER: THE COMPLETE SERIES (1975-1979)
Another beloved ’70s show sitcom that featured soon-to-be-superstar John Travolta as one of the unruly Sweathogs, Kotter focused on Brooklyn teacher Gabe Kotter (Gabe Kaplan) returning to the rundown alma mater of his youth and his attempts to reform and educate his struggling students. Obviously a rough ‘n tumble portrayal of juvenile delinquents was going to be a tough sell to the networks and the general public, so we got Blackboard Jungle by way of the Marx Brothers, and many of us loved the antics of Juan Luis Pedro Felipo de Huevos Epstein, Freddie “Boom Boom” Washington, Arnold Horschack, and Vinnie Barbarino. Kotter’s comedic rapport with his witty wife Julie (the late Marcia Strassman) was an added bonus. While the fourth season fell flat (creative and contract disputes lead to less Kotter and an odd Southern transplant to the Sweathogs), this is still an endearing series four decades later. But if you’re not stoked about it, well, up your nose with a rubber hose!
PEE-WEE’S PLAYHOUSE: THE COMPLETE SERIES (1986-1990)
One of the most beloved Saturday morning children’s show, Pee-wee’s Playhouse ran for five seasons and was the trippiest kids’ program this side of the psychedelically inspired programs from Sid and Marty Krofft in the ’60s. Each week Pee-wee (Paul Reubens) would hang out in his Playhouse located in Puppetland, and his motley crew of characters included animated objects (Chairyy, Magic Screen), puppets (Pterri, Clocky, Randy), and people (Cowboy Curtis, Miss Yvonne, The Cartoon King, Jambi the Genie), not to forget the kids of the Playhouse Gang. The numerous supporting players both live and animated allowed Pee-wee to embark on all sorts of madcap adventures in his kooky domicile. The beauty of this show was that both adults and kids could enjoy it, although you definitely had to be down with Pee-wee’s loud and wacky sense of humor. Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray release looks great and includes new interviews with the cast and crew. Pee-wee Herman will also be back with a new movie soon. After the fantastic reception that his Broadway version of the Playhouse received, why not?
UNIVERSAL CLASSIC MONSTERS: Complete 30-Film Collection (1931-1956)
Universal has reissued the black-and-white monster series collected here before, but given the low online prices for it ($90 rather than the $200 list), this repackaging is a good budget way to collect all of the vintage movies in the Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Mummy, The Creature From The Black Lagoon, and The Invisible Man series, along with the 1943 version of Phantom Of The Opera. Also, Creature is back in its widescreen format, not full frame like the last go around. Funnily enough, some of the movies make two or three appearances here as they are crossover entries in the Universal universe. Some fans are wondering if all of these movies will get the Blu-ray treatment like 10 classic titles did last year, but frankly, the quality of many of the sequels is spotty (some are strong), and it’s hard to say whether many of them will be very profitable for the studio in the HD format. You can decide if it’s a worthwhile investment depending on what format you want. Sidenote: The original Dracula has a superior companion, the Spanish-language version shot on the same sets at nighttime when the Lugosi production was not working. While Lugosi was a superior Dracula, the Spanish version is a better film; it’s darker, sexier, and even runs a half hour longer.
THE COMPLETE JACQUES TATI (1934-1978)
Whimsical French filmmaker Jacques Tati did not make many films, but the ones he did have become famous worldwide. Criterion thankfully has given us all of his work—including great extras like interviews, documentaries, visual essays, and two alternate versions of the black-and-white Jour Du Fete (including the original color footage!)—on Blu-ray. Utilizing a classic slapstick comedy approach enhanced by a combination of both visual and audio gags, Tati told tales that reflected his love for old fashioned European life over a world where emerging technology was making life more efficient but also more sterile and less fun. Regardless of one’s opinion on that subject, the French director/writer/actor created charming vignettes throughout his movies, four of which (Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, Mon Oncle, Playtime, Traffic) feature the affable, fun, and bumbling Mr. Hulot, a man in love with the fun to be found in life rather than the rigors of the rat race. Whether vacationing, attempting to assimilate into the working world, or having difficulties getting to a car show, Hulot always manages to quietly inject chaos into the events of the people around him, but sometimes that is just what they need to break them from their routine lives. Playtime (1967) is quite the cinematic achievement, having taken three years to film on a set that included the construction of the downtown of a fictitious city! (The huge cost involved pushed Tati into bankruptcy afterward.) The non-Hulot material in this set includes Jour Du Fete (in which Tati plays a blundering postman caught up in a small town festival), Parade (Tati in real-life performing with circus people), and three short films from the 1930s. Tati’s work is not filled with out and out laughs nor blunt humor. There is a subtlety and slower pacing to them that can require patience, but if you open yourself up to them, they offer many rewards. Mon Oncle won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1958.
JERSEY BOYS (2014)
Director-producer Clint Eastwood’s well-crafted big screen take on the hit Broadway musical about the life story of pop/rock sensations Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons received acclaim but did not score at the box office, most likely because it was released in August at a time when summer blockbusters are still being churned out in droves. If you missed it, you can now check out these Jersey boys in action, from their small-time hood aspirations to their musical rise to the top and their association with some local wise guys. The kind of drama and in-fighting that went on would make you think this group made much heavier music than they did. Three quarters of the onscreen quartet (including Tony Award winner John Lloyd Young as Valli) appeared in the musical, and their excellent singing was reportedly done live on set. Their story is compelling and proof once again that just because you’re in a successful band with someone does not make you bosom buddies.
Marvel Comics movies continue producing one superhero blockbuster after another, and it’s easy to see why. Even B-titles like Guardians Of The Galaxy get transformed into clever, crowd pleasing fare. 2014 was no exception, with Guardians, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Fox’s X-Men: Days Of Future Past, and Sony’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 racking up big bucks and critical acclaim. (The latter one is a bit dubious in terms of quality, but hey, the overall track record is good.) I have to admit that my superhero fatigue is starting to kick in, even though it’s amazing such solid movies have come out given how much lower expectations were in pre-CGI times. But for the Marvel acolyte in your life, one or more of these titles will certainly make a great stocking stuffer. Perhaps along with a mini Groot.