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FRASIER: COMPLETE SERIES (DVD)

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FrasiercoverGrade: A-
Entire family: Yes, but . . .
1993-2004, 5,895 min. (263 episodes), Color
Rated TV-PG (mostly for innuendo)
CBS/Paramount
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
Includes: 44 discs in two sturdy plastic cases w/cardboard slipcase
Bonus features: C+
Amazon link

Modern Family may be King of the American Sitcoms now, but in the ‘90s it was Frasier, a spin-off from the popular sitcom Cheers starring Kelsey Grammer as a pompous but endearing psychologist who reveled in his intellect and haute culture tastes, but also yearned to be “one of the guys.” Frasier won a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series for each of its first five seasons and continued to win Emmys in other categories for all of its 11 seasons—though it wasn’t a runaway hit with audiences. Its best showing came with Season 6, when Frasier finished as the #3 most watched TV show in America, behind Friends and ER.

In Boston’s Cheers bar, Grammer made arrogance endearing as he played a good-but-jilted doctor who hung out with a dim-witted Iowa bartender, a narcissistic ex-ballplayer, a know-it-all mailman, and an overweight, professional barfly. Sometimes you laughed with him, while at other times (most of the time, actually) the humor came at the doctor’s expense—a book smarts vs. street smarts face-off. In Seattle, fresh from a divorce from his domineering wife Lilith (Bebe Neuwirth), Frasier found a fresh start as a Dr. Phil-style radio psychologist and acquired a new hangout: Café Nervosa, where he and equally effete brother Niles (David Hyde Pierce) would indulge their cappuccino tastes and parade their knowledge in front of a generally apathetic public.

FrasierscreenThe show, with chapter tiles that played with puns, had two main sets. The first was KACL-Radio, where Frasier dispensed his psychiatric bromides and producer Roz Doyle (Peri Gilpin) was a perfect “give it a rest” foil to his pompous side. Obnoxious sportscaster Bob “Bulldog” Briscoe (Dan Butler) took him down a few more pegs with his cuts and practical jokes, and restaurant critic Gil Chesterton (Patrick Kerr) was the uncomfortable mirror that showed reflections of what Frasier might be like without such irreverent and frequent shots to keep him grounded. Much of the at-work time is spent with Frasier talking to unseen call-ins with a host of problems, and much of the fun for fans is watching the end-credits to see what famous celebrities posed as the callers from week to week.

At home, the brandy-oriented Frasier met his match with his blue-collar dad (John Mahoney), a Ballantine-loving ex-cop who walks with a limp and has a live-in therapist, a Brit named Daphne (Jane Leeves). With dad and son facing off and Daphne offering her humorous third-party, third-culture take on things, it made for more dry humor. And Niles visited so often that it felt as if the four of them lived—and bantered—there. His epic crush on Daphne and the brothers’  sibling rivalry and sharp contrast with their down-to-earth dad became series-long storylines.   More

THE BRADY BUNCH: COMPLETE SERIES (DVD)

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BradyBunchcoverGrade: B
Entire family: Yes
1969-74, 2,980 min. (117 episodes), Color
Not rated (would be G)
CBS/Paramount
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Includes: 20 discs in sturdy plastic case w/cardboard slipcase
Bonus features: C+
Amazon link

The Brady Bunch was one of the very last squeaky-clean family sitcoms in the old ’50s mold, airing as an anachronism of sorts during the Vietnam War years amid the chaos of Civil Rights, women’s rights, and anti-war protests. But in the Brady household, father Mike, a working architect, was still king of the castle with a den all his own, while his wife, Carol, was a stay-at-home mom who had the luxury of a servant. The children got into all sorts of minor conflicts and mischief, but none of the storylines tackled serious parental concerns of the day. Everything was sibling rivalry and innocent mix-ups.

There were conflicts over clubhouses, shared things and spaces, class elections, invented boyfriends, broken things that had to be replaced, and even talent shows. Drugs? Not here. Peer pressure to smoke? Only briefly. Teen pregnancy? Please! While other teens from the time were raiding their parents’ liquor cabinets, this group was content to raid the cookie jar. No one got into really serious trouble, and there was usually a lesson to be learned . . . from dad. When he wasn’t around, there was always mom or Alice, the housekeeper/cook (Ann B. Davis), to help them find their way.

First telecast on Sept 26, 1969, the show was a surprise hit, no doubt because it felt like comfort food to Americans who snuggled together during a turbulent era to watch and relive happier, more uncomplicated times. Divorce was becoming a widespread phenomenon for the first time, and the show about BradyBunchscreen1second-chance family life probably struck a chord with broken families. The range of the Brady children’s ages (7 through 14, when the show began) was broad enough for most youngsters to identify with. Airing on Friday nights, the show connected especially with children too young to have a social life, or, like the Bradys, too awkward and introverted. The Brady Bunch never finished in the Nielsen Top-30 and never won any Emmys, yet the show has become a cultural icon, lampooned in two feature films and held up as an example of one of the last wholesome family sitcoms to be telecast . . . before TV sitcom families would start spouting one-liners and zapping each other with zingers, before families (or rather, writers) got “hip.”   More

50 to 1 (DVD)

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50to1coverGrade: B
Entire family: No, but ….
2014, 111 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for some suggestive material and a bar brawl
Sony Pictures
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
Bonus features: C
Trailer/Amazon link

50 to 1 just about describes the odds of a low-budget, small-studio movie with mostly B-list talent and a writer-director of former box-office disappointments being able to compete with slicker big-studio horse racing titles.

But I’ll tell you right now, like Mine That Bird, the subject of this 2014 sport drama with comedic moments, 50 to 1 beats the odds. I liked it as much as Seabiscuit (2003) and Secretariat (2010).

Notice I said “liked it as much” rather than “as good as.” The budgets for Seabiscuit and Secretariat were respectively 8.7 and 3.5 times larger and the production values sometimes show it. The script for 50 to 1 also is more uneven, with character development that falls a little short. William Devane is the most recognizable name actor onboard, and while the acting won’t win any awards, the cast does a good job of making you believe their characters.

50to1screen1Everybody loves an underdog story, and 50 to 1 is a doozy. The horse, a smaller-than-usual gelding with a strange walk, has been running as slow as can be and gets no respect. Neither does the rag-tag group of New Mexico cowboys and their families who own him, train him, ride him, invest in him, and, most importantly, believe in him. They’re not wealthy dabblers who race horses as a hobby. They need one good horse to help them keep their stables in business, and with creditors knocking at the door they’re as much of an underdog as Mine That Bird. Even if you’re an urbanite, it’s tough not to appreciate this rough-around-the-edges group and the joy they take in the small things in life. They’re not phony posers, they’re real people, so when the snobs in racing circles treat them as if they were the Clampetts from The Beverly Hillbillies, it’s hard not to secretly (or not so secretly) pull for them to show those bluebloods a thing or two.   More

New on Blu-ray and DVD (April 14, 2015)

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It’s a light week for family-friendly releases.

LittleHouse5The familiest and friendliest is Little House on the Prairie: Season 5, which comes to Blu-ray this Tuesday. Even with eldest daughter Mary blind and a new family member added in the person of Albert, this series remains a terrific look at pioneer life and relationships. The 1974-83 TV series starred beloved actor Michael Landon as Pa, Karen Grassle as Ma, Melissa Sue Anderson as Mary, Melissa Gilbert as Laura, and Lindsay and Sidney Greenbush as Carrie—the Ingalls family, who head west to homestead. The first four seasons looked terrific on Blu-ray, so this one ought to (Amazon link).

AntarcticaStill plenty family-friendly is Antarctica: A Year on Ice, a 2013 documentary-adventure from director Anthony Powell, whose crew filmed what it was like to live in Antarctica for a full year—including winters isolated from the rest of the world, and months of darkness in the coldest place on Earth. The project was filmed over the course of 15 years, and you’ll see things you never thought you would. It’s available on both Blu-ray and DVD, but if you have a Blu-ray player go with HD. The cinematography is breathtaking (trailer/Amazon link).

BigEyesIf contemporary drama is more your thing, this week you can check out the indie bio-dramedy Big Eyes (2014), which earned Amy Adams a Golden Globe for her portrayal of painter Margaret Keane, who painted children with big eyes in the 1950s, but whose husband peddled her works and took credit for them. The legendary Tim Burton directed this PG-13 film, which also stars Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston, Krysten Ritter, and Jason Schwartzman. Look for it on both Blu-ray and DVD (trailer/Amazon link).

WILD KRATTS: SHARK-TASTIC! (DVD)

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WildKrattsSharktasticcoverGrade: B+
Entire family: No
2011, 60 min., Color
TV-Y (young viewers)
PBS Kids
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
Bonus features: None
Episode segment/Amazon link

When television first featured nature shows for a family audience, it was hosted by serious and sedate fellows like Marlin Perkins, a zoo director whose long-running Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom first aired in 1963. The photography was a combination of long and medium shots, with Perkins mostly relying on voiceovers. Think public television and you’ve got the right tone.

How times have changed . . . even on public TV.

Martin and Chris Kratt are two animal-loving brothers who put together a kids’ nature show for PBS back in 1994. Kratt’s Creatures was popular enough to warrant 50 episodes, and when the show was phased out, another, even more insanely popular Kratt brothers nature show replaced it: Zoboomafoo, which ran for 65 episodes from January 1999 to April 2001. What made the show click with the training pants set was a Lemur that “transformed” into a talking animal (translation: puppet) that engaged the kids on another level besides the appreciate nature message. And the filming style? It was Crocodile Hunter for the wee ones, with a HIGH ENERGY, ARMS WAVING, SHOUTING ENTHUSIASTICALLY style that featured the hosts interacting with the animals as they talked about them in language small children could understand. The brothers weren’t above jumping into a kiddie pool to frolic with the animal of the day, either, and their zaniness kept the kids coming back for more.

With Wild Kratts the brothers embarked on their third highly successful nature series, this time aimed at a pre-school through third grade audience. Eighty-four episodes have been produced since the show was first broadcast in January 2011. Instead of a puppet, this time Martin and Chris mix it up by returning to a format that was a staple with early kiddie show hosts: a live-action beginning and end, with animated cartoons in-between.

WildKrattsSharktasticscreen1First the brothers are shown live in nature or a lab and we see them engaging animals. Then there’s a segment that’s structured somewhat like the popular Magic School Bus plots. The brothers morph into animated characters and they’re off on adventures via Tortuga HQ, a sub-plane-vehicle piloted by Jimmy and computers, with communications handled by Koki. The leader of the Tortuga expeditions is Aviva, and while they’re all supposed to be in their 20s, as cartoon characters entering animal habitats to learn more about them they look a lot younger. Every outing they experience momentary danger or distress in the middle of their “schooling,” or have to do something to save the animals in one way or another. Sometimes there are villains to deal with, like Gourmand, who tries to capture a shark to make a soup. Naturally, you can’t fight villains or be scientists without gadgets and gizmos, and the ones the Kratts use most are Creature Power Suits that are powered by various Creature Power Discs that enable them to become animals that can interact with the herd, the school, the whatever.   More

New on Blu-ray and DVD (April 7, 2015)

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New Release Tuesday is dominated by TV dramas, all things Brady, a few pelicans, and a lot of Doris Day.

ManhattanManhattan: Season 1 tops the list this week of TV dramas available on home video, but like the others it’s really only for families with older teens. As I wrote in my review, Manhattan is as good as any TV drama that’s out there—a richly imagined behind-the-scenes look at life inside the top-secret Los Alamos facility (and community) that was responsible for the creation of the atomic bomb. It features a terrific cast, memorable characters, a complicated web of conflicts and tensions, along with a based-on-history pedigree that drives it all home. Look for it on Blu-ray or DVD.
BookofNegroesAlso TV-14 is The Book of Negroes, a miniseries about slavery with a twist: instead of being set in pre-Civil War America, this Canadian drama takes place in the time leading up to the American Revolution. The title comes from an actual 1783 book that listed black loyalists who escaped being returned to slavery after the Revolutionary War because the British evacuated 3000 of them to work as freemen in their colony of Nova Scotia. Unlike Roots, The Book of Negroes traces the journey of a single proud and determined Aminata Diallo, who is abducted from her African home at age 11. We follow her from her initial enslavement at a South Carolina plantation, through a transitional period as a slave for a Jewish couple, her refuse-to-be-a-slave time in New York City, then Nova Scotia, Africa, and finally London. An extremely well done series that features a dynamic performance by Aunjanue Ellis as Aminata, The Book of Negroes is only available on DVD.

GrantchesterMystery lovers might turn to Grantchester for entertainment. The Masterpiece series features James Norton as Sidney Chambers, a vicar of Grantchester (near Cambridge) who becomes involved in murder mysteries because people tend to confide in him. It too is a period drama, set in the ‘50s, available on both DVD and Blu-ray (trailer).

Brady BunchThen it’s oldies time, with America’s first and favorite blended family, The Brady Bunch, available once again in a Complete Series package on DVD. A previous release featured shag carpeting on the packaging, but fans were put off. Not only were there glue-down problems, but the box also took up way too much space. The new collection corrects that, so fans and families who crave retro-wholesomeness can once again turn to the Bradys: father Mike and his boys Greg, Peter, and Bobby; mother Carol and her three daughters Marcia, Jan, and Cindy; and maid-housekeeper Alice.

DorisDayIn the ‘50s, Doris Day was the icon of wholesomeness, and this week Doris Day: The Essential Collection is being rereleased on DVD. The six-film collection is priced at $22.86 at Amazon, which, breaks down to $3.81 per movie. That’s quite a deal, since what’s included here are four terrific comedies, a Hitchcock classic, and another lesser thriller. Day is featured with Rock Hudson in the lightweight romantic comedies Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back, Send Me No Flowers, and, with James Garner, The Thrill of It All. Things take a suspenseful turn in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, in which Day stars with James Stewart, and Midnight Lace, co-starring Rex Harrison. It’s a solid B+ collection (Pillow Talk trailer).

PelicanDreamsFinally, if your family likes quirky documentaries or quasi-nature films, there’s Pelican Dreams, a documentary that’s out on DVD this week. From Judy Irving, the same filmmaker who gave us The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, Pelican Dreams tells the expansive story of an injured California pelican who is taken into custody on the Golden Gate Bridge and transported to a rehab facility. Irving follows Gigi’s story, but also contemplates the challenges that pelicans face in today’s world. More outsider documentary than nature film, Pelican Dreams explores the ways in which humans and creatures can and must co-exist (trailer).

MANHATTAN: SEASON 1 (Blu-ray)

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ManhattancoverGrade: A-
Entire family: No
2014-15, 622 min. (13 episodes), Color
Not rated (would be TV-14 for sexual situations, brief nudity, language, some violence)
Lionsgate
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital HD
Bonus features: B+
Trailer/Amazon link

Fact: On August 6 and 9, 1945, the United States dropped a pair of atomic bombs—each with the force of 10 million tons of dynamite—on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing at least 130,000 civilians but also abruptly ending the war and its daily body count. It was a morally questionable decision then, when the U.S. was racing a team of German scientists to become the first nation to develop a nuclear weapon that would guarantee victory, and it remains so many years later.

Fact: Under the direction of Major General Leslie Groves and physicist J. Robert Oppenhemer, the Manhattan Project had components scattered across the U.S., but its main facility was located at Los Alamos National Laboratory in a remote part of New Mexico, where top minds were recruited to work on the design and construction of the bombs.

Fact: Because it was top secret, Los Alamos was never referred to by name, only as “Site Y” or “the Hill.” Recruits and their families went there with only a post office box to guide them and found a primitive, heavily restricted community of Quonset huts and wood frame buildings. The birth certificates of children born there list only P.O. Box 1663 as their place of birth.

Fiction: Manh(a)ttan, an original WGN period drama, has a Mad Men vibe to it, not only because it drops you so believably into a different era, but also because of its similar use of music and camera angles, its emphasis on old guard vs. new, and a cast of characters that all seem to face moral dilemmas. It also has a West Wing feel because of the high stakes, crisp dialogue, and scenic constructions that somehow manage to squeeze tension out of seemingly “normal” conversations. Director Thomas Schlamme is a veteran of The West Wing, and Manhattan is just as strong of a series.

ManhattanscreenWe don’t know if it’s fact or fiction that the Army created a competition at Los Alamos between a better funded “A” team of scientists under the direction of Dr. Reed Akley (David Harbour) and a “B” team run by the maverick Dr. Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey). But we don’t care, because the situation itself is rooted in history and it’s believable, given the urgency of the situation and the U.S. Government’s practice of making sure that no one knows more than what their compartmentalized section is working on. Loose lips sink ships. And atomic bomb projects.

Manhattan is a taut drama because so much is in play, often at the same time. The Americans are racing the Germans and an imaginary clock, the A team of scientists is competing with the B team and their alternate vision of what will make an A-bomb work, newcomers like wiz kid Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman) are competing with jealous colleagues, the scientists are sometimes at odds with the military establishment responsible for maintaining security and secrecy, the scientists find themselves facing new tension and resentments from the suddenly bored and “captive” women they brought with them to the base, those who feel the project should forge ahead at all costs are at odds with those who want to exercise some caution because of the contaminants they’re working with, and when it’s clear that a spy is among them more tension ensues when a government official (West Wing veteran Richard Schiff) conducts his own version of a McCarthy witch hunt.   More

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