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DVD LOUNGE: Retro Edition

Happy Monday!

Today we hit the way-back machine reviewing several titles all older than Justin Beiber and Selena Gomez combined.

Check them out after the jump.

Black Zoo
Warner Archive / Released September 13, 2011

The Pitch
The most savage animal in a garden of beasts, animal-worship cultist and private zoo owner Michael Conrad (Michael Gough) has trained his lions well, siccing the big cats on any fool who dares get in his way. First it was a snoopy secretary, then a scheming realtor (Jerome Cowan). But only when his unhappy wife (Jeanne Cooper) runs off with his beloved chimps does Conrad unleash his inner beast, and the fur really flies. Shot by Academy Award®-winning* cinematographer Floyd Crosby on a soundstage stocked by famed animal behaviorist and Marine World creator Ralph Helfer, Black Zoo is the third and final collaboration of Gough (who later played Alfred the butler in four Batman movies) and producer Herman Cohen (Horrors of the Black Museum and Konga), a furocious last trip to the maul.

The Review
Hiring standards obviously weren’t followed as zookeeper Gough also leads a cult of animal worshipers.  Fortunately, it’s a small zoo (and apparently local hang out) which contains two lions, two cheetahs, a tiger, a black panther and a gorilla.

Unfortunately for those who cross him, the animals kill at his command.

In other words, if an angry zookeeper shows up at your house with a lion to talk, don’t answer the door.  Black Zoo is ridiculous, campy and tremendously entertaining, in no small part to the Shatner-esque over the top performance by Gough. Black Zoo is far from good, but should not be missed.  Recommended.

The Phantom of Hollywood
Warner Archive / Released September 20, 2011

The Pitch

Worldwide Films was the biggest of the big, the grandest of the grand. But the era of dream factories has gone, replaced by the era of quick-bucks real estate. It’s time to sell the studio, parcel by parcel. Not so fast, a mysterious someone says – someone who has secretly lived amid the sets and soundstages for decades, someone who will kill to preserve his backlot home. The Phantom of Hollywood lures movie fans with its luminous cast and a remember-when nostalgia that includes clips from famous classic films contrasted with glimpses of the same sets years later (filming took place at MGM while the backlot was being dismantled). Enter the realm of the phantom’s mad, murder-filled memory lane. Lights, camera…mystery!

The Review
Produced during the heyday of television movie thrillers, The Phantom of Hollywood unites an ensemble of former marquee names including Jackie Coogan, John Ireland, Broderick Crawford, Peter Lawford, Regis Toomey, Kent Taylor, Jack Cassidy and Skye Aubrey in an update of the classic Phantom of the Opera tale filmed at the remains of the MGM backlot before it’s scheduled demolishing.  

It’s watchable cheese, but not much more as every Phantom attack was a cue for the commercial (remember this was a TV movie).  It is, however, a fascinating time capsule, as we get a heartbreaking look at a classic Hollywood backlot and it’s destruction.  The plot we’ve seen dozens of times before, and this interpretation is a bit hammy, and ultimately the film has little tension.  It is however, a must see for cinegeeks as the film unveils a bit of movie history from the last days of the Golden Age of Hollywood.  Recommended.

Sweet Hostage

Warner Archive / Released September 20, 2011

The Pitch

Stranded when her truck breaks down, 17-year-old Doris Mae (Linda Blair) accepts a ride from Leonard Hatch (Martin Sheen), unaware he’s an escaped mental patient. Held against her will, Doris Mae is taken to Leonard’s ramshackle hideout, a cabin nestled deep within the woods. Frightened at first, she soon finds her captor to be a kind and caring soul. So with time running out and the police closing in, Doris Mae must make a decision: return to her safe existence or run off with a misunderstood man. A 1976 Golden Globe® nominee as Best Television Movie, Sweet Hostage is an unforgettable tale of passion and fate, adapted from Nathaniel Benchley’s acclaimed novel Welcome to Xanadu. It’s also an invigorating showcase for the blazing talents of Blair (fresh off The Exorcist) and Sheen (soon after Badlands).

The Review
If people think Charlie Sheen is creepy, they definitely haven’t seen much work by his old man.  Sweet Hostage, along with Badlands and The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, pretty much establish the elder Sheen’s creep trilogy.

In the television movie Sweet Hostage, Sheen plays a character in a similar situation as that of son Charlie’s in movie The Chase.  He kidnaps a girl and while holding her hostage, they fall in love with one another.  Typical of many other tv movies of the time, it’s a but overly melodramatic and hints at rather than explores the deviant behavior depicted.  Both Sheen and Blair deliver over the top, performances in this ridiculous watchable, dated curiosity that celebrates Stockholm Syndrome with poetic monologues and foot stomping ridiculousness.  Recommended only for those that can appreciate nonsensical narratives.

Like me.

Ben-Hur: 50th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition
Warner Bros. / Released September 27, 2011

The Pitch
Experience the visual splendor, thundering action and towering drama of this record-setting winner of 11 Academy Awards®* including Best Picture. Charlton Heston brings a muscular physical and moral presence to his Best Actor Oscar®-winning role of Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish nobleman in Palestine whose heroic odyssey includes enslavement by the Romans, vengeance against his tormentors during a furious arena chariot race and fateful encounters with Jesus Christ. Best Director Oscar® winner William Wyler masterfully grips the reins of an enduring and spellbinding spectacular.

The Review
There’s a reason why fifty years after it’s release Ben-Hur is still considered to be a classic.  Running three and a half hours, the film won eleven Oscars, was the most expensive feature film at the time and featured 100,000 costumes, 8,000 extras, 300 sets and was a gamble that saved MGM from bankruptcy.  It was also a Road Show epic that drove people away from television and into cinemas, providing an experience that could not be duplicated at home.

More than anything else, this release is a must have for any cinegeek, providing truly an ultimate experience.  The frame by frame restoration has resulted in a gorgeous picture and the five disc DVD set is packed with extras including a commentary track with film historian T. Gene Hatcher & Charlton Heston, a music-only track, Charlton Heston & Ben-Hur: A Personal Journey feature length documentary, the 1925 silent version of Ben-Hur, documentaries Ben-Hur: The Epic That Changed Cinema, Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic, and Ben-Hur: A Journey Through Pictures, an audiovisual recreation using stills, screen tests, storyboards and more, Oscar telecast highlights, newsreels and trailers.  Also included are a book and Charlton Heston: The Ben-Hur Diaries, a reproduction of Heston’s personal diary from January 1958 to April 1960.

Overall, the presentation is stunning and the extras are illuminating and exhaustive to say the very least.   A must have for any cinegeek.  Highest recommendation.

The Honeymooners Lost Episodes The Complete Series 1951-1957
MPI Home Video / Released October 4, 2011

The Pitch
One of television’s most influential and beloved programs, The Honeymooners first appeared in 1951 as a series of sketches on the DuMont network’s “Cavalcade of Stars” starring Jackie Gleason. The following year Gleason moved to CBS, where “The Jackie Gleason Show” featured numerous Honeymooners sketches and full length shows from 1952 to 1957. These shows aired live and were never rebroadcast.

For decades, these early Honeymooners telecasts were lost until Jackie Gleason began releasing them from his private film vault. Now, in celebration of the 60th anniversary of the very first Honeymooners, MPI Home Video and Jackie Gleason Enterprises present the most complete collection possible of these rare gems, many of which have not been seen anywhere in 50 years or available previously on DVD.

The Review
In high school, I discovered The Honeymooners, watching and rewatching the “Classic 39” over and over again.

Thanks to this set, I have spent an awful lot of time recently with the Kramdens and the Nortons and have once again fallen in love with the genius that is The Honeymooners.  This 15 disc set includes a whopping 107 “lost episodes” which are comprised of kinoscopes that had originally appeared on Cavalcade of Stars and The Jackie Gleason Show and were part of Gleason’s private collection.  With twenty one episodes yet to have been discovered, it’s likely that this will remain the definitive set for some time.  With thirty sketches appearing on DVD for the first time, eight “musical” episodes, color rehearsal footage, commercials, interviews, three unfilmed scripts, a 42 page book and more, The Honeymooners Lost Episodes The Complete Series 1951-1957 is a testament to the timelessness of the show and the genius of Gleason and Carney.

It truly is a fascinating time capsule to watch various ideas be reused and refined as Gleason continued to fine tune his vision.  This is a must have and really an important release in regards to the history of television.  Highest recommendation.

Dragon’s Lair: The Complete Series
Warner Archive / Released September 20, 2011

The Pitch
The legendary videogame Dragon’s Lair was a blockbuster (and quarter guzzling) sensation when it first debuted, spawning sequels, imitators, and a beloved Saturday morning cartoon series. Developed by the powerhouse animation crew put together by Joe Ruby and Ken Spears, the Dragon’s Lair cartoon made many contributions to the Dragon’s Lair saga, from naming the Dragon “Singe” to rounding out the cast with such memorable supporting players as Bertram the horse (voiced by animation legend Peter Cullen) and Timothy the squire (voiced by Michael Mish). Mimicking the action of a videogame, Dragon’s Lair pauses the action and asks the audience which action Dirk should take next in his never-ending quest to protect the kingdom of King Ethelred and his beloved Princess Daphne. But enough talk! Dirk the Daring faces doom throughout this 13 episode, 2-disc set and he needs YOU to help him decide what to do next!

The Review
Dragon’s Lair was a videogame which seemed farther ahead of it’s time than it actually was, using beautiful animation from Don Bluth to execute a “Choose Your Own Adventure” type game.  Ultimately, the game turned out to be pretty mediocre, but it’s reputation was elevated by the fantastic animation.

Take away the fantastic animation and you’re left with Dragon’s Lair: The Complete Series.   Attempting to emulate the game, each commercial break provided multiple options for Dirk to face.  Unfortunately, the lackluster animation didn’t distract from the repetitive, dull scripts.  I remember seeing the series once or twice when it aired and thought that it was amazing and looked just like the game.  Twenty five years later I realized that I used to be a complete idiot.

Dragon’s Lair might appeal to fans of the game or genre or those nostalgiac for the series.  For them it might be a must have.  For anyone else it’s not much more than a curiosity or footnote in pop culture history.

Call Me Bwana
MGM MOD / Released June 27, 2011

The Pitch
Laugh along with this breezy comedy as Bob Hope heads for the African Jungle where he finds himself on an outrageous safari with elephants, hippos, and…spies? Co-stars Anita Ekberg and Edie Adams.

The Review
Most people today don’t realize that at one point Bob Hope was a comedic talent to be reckoned with. 

Call Me Bwana isn’t necessarily representative of that talent, but it’s a harmless and mildly entertaining romp featuring many of the Hope trademarks including his cowardly persona quipping his way through an exotic locale with a buxom woman that he swoons over.  The writing is pretty standard, as the script is a cliché filled situation comedy chock full of mildly unpolitically correct stereotypes.

Personally, I found Call Me Bwana to be a pleasant watch and an average Bob Hope picture tends to be more entertaining then most recent comedies.  It might not be for everyone, but if you like older comedies or Hope pictures in general it’s a solid recommendation.

The Killer Is Loose
MGM MOD / Released June 29, 2011

The Pitch
A bank robber’s (Wendell Corey) wife is shot during his arrest by a cop (Joseph Cotten). He escapes to kill the cop’s wife (Rhonda Fleming) as retribution. Despite the cop’s protest, the police decide to use Fleming as a lure. Stars Joseph Cotton; Rhonda Fleming; Wendell Corey. Directed by Budd Boetticher.

The Review
An entertaining taut cat and mouse thriller with psychopath Foggy Poole (Corey) seeking revenge on the wife of the cop who accidentally killed his wife (Cotten). Corey is riveting as Poole elevates the film with his phenomenal performance. Eagle eyed viewers might recognize Alan Hale Jr. (Gilligan’s Island‘s The Skipper) as a detective. Somewhat dated (the film is over fifty years old), The Killer Is Loose is worth seeing for the work of Western director Boetticher tackling another genre and the truly fantastic work by Wendell Corey as the bank robber who becomes unhinged after his wife’s death. A must see for noir fans, but a solid recommendation overall.

Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer: The Complete Series
A & E Home Entertainment / Released September 20, 2011

The Pitch
New York City. 1958. In these concrete canyons, everybody’s got an angle: The beauty with the sob story who killed her old man. The harmless geezer who’s in bed with the mob. The kidnapped broad who’s really a fraud. When a case gets too twisted for the cops, only one man can straighten it out: two-fisted gumshoe Mike Hammer.

The Review
Years before he donned a Seersucker suit to play Carl Kolchak, Darren McGavin played Spillane’s tough guy private dick, Mike Hammer. Containing two seasons totaling 78 episodes (!), the series is helped tremendously by McGavin, who portrays the character with a heap of charm and a warm heart (and like George Reeves’ Superman, Tom Selleck’s Magnum and James Garner’s Rockford, always seems to have a twinkle and wink in his eye).

Like most television of it’s era, the plots are entirely self contained and fairly standard, with Hammer getting hired, uncovering a different crime altogether and setting things right. This isn’t necessarily the gritty interpretation of the character seen in other films (such as Kiss Me Deadly), but a more palpable version for the time. The series is filled with recognizable guest stars including Keye Luke, Angie Dickinson, Marion Ross, Dick Van Patten, Jack Weston, Denver Pyle, Grace Lee Whitney, Robert Vaughn, Neil Hamilton, Barbara Bain, DeForest Kelley, Len Lesser, Ted Knight, Mike Connors,and Lorne Greene.

Unfortunately, the series lacks the visceral punch of Spillane’s writing (thanks Standards & Practices) and as a result or Hammer’s more undesirable qualities and as a result, you get a fairly generic procedural with a likable lead solving mysteries in a half hour episode. That being said, you could do far worse than Darren McGavin as Mike Hammer. Recommended.

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