Queued Up – Holiday Gift Guide Part 1

Stellar Superheroes
The superhero revolution never ends, and amazingly the quality level has not diminished this year. Following up the fun and quirky original, Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 finds our heroes rescued from an angry, golden-skinned people (known as The Sovereign) by Ego (the living planet, personified by Kurt Russell). It turns out that Ego is Star Lord’s father and wants to bond with him after being absent from his life. But Gamora (Zoe Saldana) suspects that Ego is hiding something, and that secret could endanger them all. With the Sovereign still on their tail, the Guardians’ fate is in a precarious state. Writer-director James Gunn pulls out all the stops and threatens to weigh down this extravaganza with its quick-witted fusion of humor, action, and pathos. But he pulls it off. The best bonus features are a wild, ’70s-style music featuring the cast and David Hasselhoff, and a legitimately funny gag reel that shows the actors really had a great time making this movie, which is ripe with great ’70s and ’80s pop culture references.

With Spider-Man: Homecoming, Marvel and Sony brokered a deal to bring a livelier new version of the famed webslinger to the screen after the underwhelming Andrew Garfield incarnation. They also skip yet another re-telling of his origin to get right into his mentorship under Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.).  This is a fresher take on the character starring Tom Holland, and one that humorously plays up his naivety and inexperience in the face of crime-fighting before he faces down the more dangerous Vulture (Michael Keaton). It’s the kind of funny, smart aleck approach that Marvel often took with the character in the classic comics, especially given that he’s only 15 and still figuring out life (and girls). The bonus features included deleted scenes and numerous featurettes.

  Even though I covered Wonder Woman earlier this year, I’ll add it to this list. Gal Gadot is great in the lead role, and director Patty Jenkins effectively paralleled the humorous but earnest vibe that Richard Donner brought to his Superman movies. Now that a female-led superhero movie has made piles of cash, let’s hope more of them get green-lit.


All Hail The American Gods
If you haven’t the chance to check it out, do yourself a favor and pick up Season One of American Gods. Adapted from the Neil Gaiman novel of the same name, these eight episodes chronicle the adventures of Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), a newly paroled felon who returns home to a recently deceased wife (Emily Browning) and who becomes gainfully employed as a security guard for the enigmatic Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane). It turns out Shadow’s new boss is an elusive con man who is friends with an unusually tall leprechaun named Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) and is connected somehow to ancient gods. Or is he one himself? And what is his end game? This imaginative fantasy series spotlights many out-of-place individuals trying to find their way in the world. It is not only dramatically gripping and well-acted but raises important social and philosophical issues which are incredibly timely. It’s definitely for a mature audience in light of its erotic content.

Rebel, Rebel
The Star Wars franchise has certainly returned with a vengeance, with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story nestled between The Force Awakens and next month’s The Last Jedi. This is a great standalone prequel to the original movie, showing us what happened to the spies who stole the Death Star plans and made it possible for the Rebel Alliance to annihilate it. Featuring strong leads including Felicity Jones and Diego Luna, the film takes a darker tone than the original series and acknowledges the moralistic shades of grey that color insurgency in a way that the original trilogy did not. Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin also factor into the equation, and while the digital representation of the latter is a bit creepy, it fits with his cold, calculating persona. And yes, James Earl Jones still voices Vader.


Shout! Lets It All Out
Shout! Factory is turning into a movie lover’s dream with their numerous film and TV reissues, the horror-oriented Scream Factory line, the indie Shout Select brand, and now their move into producing their own feature films. This year they reissued a variety of interesting films from the ‘80s in particular. Despite the fact that the DVD boom lead to the resurrection of many classic and cult titles, many more are in danger of being lost, so Shout! Factory’s efforts are welcomed.

Shout! recently reissued one of my favorite films, Alan Rudolph’s The Moderns (1988) in which American artists navigate their way through the pretentious and often shallow artist world of Paris in 1926. At the heart of the story is a love triangle between a struggling painter (Carradine), a beguiling woman (Fiorentino), and her ruthless art collector husband (Lone), and through his character’s friendships and entanglements, Rudolph makes us question the true meaning and value of art. His cast is superb: Keith Carradine, Linda Fiorentino, John Lone, Wallace Shawn, and Genevieve Bujold among them. The Moderns is whimsical, endearing, and magical.

An odd and underappreciated ’80s film is John Landis’ Into The Night (1985), a black comedy in which a depressed insomniac (Jeff Goldblum) gets inadvertently caught up with a smuggler (Michelle Pfeiffer) on the run from armed Iranian agents who want their stolen jewels back. Along the way they are also pursued by all manner of crazed characters who could kill them, including an amusing but vicious hitman played by David Bowie. It’s a very Hollywood premise, but Goldblum and Pfeiffer have a charming chemistry that makes it work.

Another fun Jeff Goldblum movie is The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension (1984), a sci-fi comedy starring Robocop‘s Peter Weller. Buckaroo is a neurosurgeon, physicist, and rock star who, along with his super team The Hong Kong Cavaliers, must save the world from the threat of the Red Lectroids from the 8th Dimension. It’s hard to fully capture the experience surreal of this film in a few words; just check it out.

There are plenty of other cult movies that Shout! Factory has been putting out, including Penelope Spheeris’ Dudes, The Incredible Shrinking Woman with Lily Tomlin, and deluxe Scream Factory editions like Misery, American Gothic, Darkman II and III, and George Romero’s Land Of The Dead. As always, they maximize their bonus features for the devoted fans they cater to.


Those Pesky Pirates Return
I’ve got to admit that the newest Jack Sparrow epic, Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, is convoluted and disappointing. To its credit, the opening sequence, in which Jack (Johnny Depp) and his crew try to steal a safe and end up having to drag along an entire building, is wonderfully gonzo, and the cameo from Sir Paul McCartney as an incarcerated pirate awaiting his expected torture is good fun. But this tale of supernatural revenge lacks the spirit of the series’ best entries. Still, I include it here as there is likely a Sparrow/Depp fan or series completest in your life who may still want it, and a sixth installment is in the works. Go figure.


Whole ‘Lotta Hitchcock
If you’re a true devotee of the Master Of Suspense, Universal has the box set for you.  Alfred Hitchcock: The Ultimate Collection is a repackaging of a 15-film set that has been reissued in different configurations over the years, but beyond the 15 hours of bonus features this version also includes 10 episodes of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Alfred Hitchcock TV Hour series from the 1950s and 1960s on DVD, along with a 58-page book. Let’s not forget the films, which include Psycho, The Birds, Rear Window, Rope, Frenzy, Vertigo, and many more. Presuming you or a loved one doesn’t have this, it’s a fantastic bargain. The Blu-ray set sells for $86 on Amazon.