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New on Blu-ray and DVD (June 2, 2015)

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Opinions will vary, but from where I’m sitting there are three new releases worth talking about this week. To watch the best one, your family has to be willing to give an old-time Western a chance.

RioBravoThe legendary John Wayne teams up with the equally legendary director Howard Hawks in Rio Bravo, a 1959 Western starring Wayne as a sheriff who enlists the help of a drunk (Dean Martin), a hot-tempered youth (Ricky Nelson), and a crippled old man (Walter Brennan) to hold off attempts to break a murderer out of jail. Angie Dickinson and Ward Bond also star in this American classic, which has as many interesting characters and exchanges of dialogue as fist or gunfights. Along with Red River, it’s one of the best movies Hawks and Wayne made together, and Rio Bravo comes to Blu-ray for the first time this week.

FallingSkies4If Westerns aren’t your thing and you’ve been caught up in the human struggle to survive invading aliens in the hit TV series Falling Skies, Season 4 comes to Blu-ray and DVD this week, and it’s a good one. Noah Wyle (of E.R. fame) heads a likable cast that includes Moon Bloodgood, Will Patton, Connor Jessup, Maxim Knight, and Drew Roy in a scenario that resembles underground resistance fighters in Nazi-held Europe—the difference being that these invaders aren’t jackboots. They’re aliens who have kidnapped and enslaved human children and who use robotic creatures to help seek out survivors to eradicate. It’s rated TV-14 mostly for sci-fi violence, but there’s also occasional drinking and swearing. Still, it’s a pretty addictive show. Can you jump in with Season 4 if you haven’t seen the other three seasons? Probably not. You’ll wonder who each faction is, who the Espheni are, and what other characters are getting into a snit over.

SpongeBobMovieYou needn’t have seen the SpongeBob SquarePants TV series to “get” The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water. In fact, it might help, because, like the Scooby-Doo! and Casper movies, this 3D CGI offering has totally different animation from the original TV show. But fans may want to see what the characters look like in this new animated style, and in a slow release week it’s worth mentioning. But be warned: it’s not as good as the first full-length feature. Though the voice actors for SpongeBob and his goofy pals are the same as in the TV series and The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie (2004), the writing isn’t as sharp, and the plot seems more clichéd and non-specific to the quirky world of Bikini Bottom. But hey, it’s a slow week, and maybe your family will want more than cowboys and aliens. Look for it on Blu-ray/3D Blu-ray combo or DVD.

THE WONDER YEARS: SEASON 3 (DVD)

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WonderYears3coverGrade: A-
Entire family: No. Age 10 and older.
1990-91, 520 min. (23 episodes), Color
Rated TV-PG for mild swearing, rude humor, and coming-of-age situations
Time Life/StarVista Entertainment
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: English Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features: B+
Amazon link

There are plenty of coming-of-age stories, but the classics for me are still Stand by Me and A Christmas Story in film, and The Wonder Years on TV. In each, you get the full impact of adolescence, but with a terrific sense of the time period, along with plots that bring everything into sharp focus. The Wonder Years is funny, it’s fresh, it’s thought provoking, it insightfully and colorfully captures the attitudes of the era, and it plays well 20 years later.

Like Leave It to Beaver, the series’ episodes were seen from the point of view of an adolescent, and you knew you were in for an interesting ride when this half-hour comedy-drama shunned a laugh track and introduced the kind of voiceover narrator that we got in A Christmas Story—an adult version of the main character, who was 12 years old when the series began. And you knew that The Wonder Years would meet the ‘60s head-on when the pilot called for the girl-next-door’s older brother to be killed in Vietnam, and for our hero to comfort her in a scene that would culminate in a first kiss for each of them—both as characters, and as actors.

In short, The Wonder Years gets it right. Kids Kevin’s age were too young to worry about a draft number, yet too old to ignore the events that were shaping history and the lives of Americans—things like the Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy assassinations, the moon landing, Woodstock, the Apollo 13 crisis, and events that were an outgrowth of Civil Rights, women’s liberation, and increasingly strident anti-war protests. The result is a series that combines the innocence of childhood—of who likes whom, and passing notes—with a world that’s pushing them to grow up more quickly.

Fred Savage was perfectly cast as Kevin Arnold, who at 13 became the youngest actor ever nominated for a Primetime Outstanding Lead Actor for a Comedy Series Emmy. His doe eyes reflected innocence, while his impish smile was a sign that he might say or do something impulsive or mischievous at any moment. The girl next door, Winnie Cooper, was also well cast, with Danica McKellar perfect as someone who would be both a best friend and love interest over the course of the show’s six seasons. And for comic relief and guy-to-guy matters there was bespectacled Paul (Josh Saviano), a brainy pal who was also Kevin’s best friend. The tone was wink-wink one minute and woe-is-me another as this group navigated the halls of junior high, then high school and all of the problems that seem so major to this age group: crushes, dates, tormentors, cliques, and run-ins with teachers and coaches.

On the home front, older brother Wayne (Jason Hervey) was obviously fond of his brother but lived to torment him, while much older sister Karen (Olivia d’Abo) was so caught up in the ‘60s that she was a flower child from the very first episode. The parents were especially well cast, with Dan Lauria returning from work each day grumpy and feeling chewed up and spat out, and Alley Mills deferring to him while also trying to act as mediator when he got on the kids.

Mr. Arnold swears almost as much as the dad from A Christmas Story, but without the mumbling. For him, “hell” and “damn” are normal everyday words. Many dads were like that, especially when the country seemed to be coming apart at the seams. But while historical events provided a backdrop, like the terrific music from the period that we hear in every episode, this show was still about growing up, and growing up in the ‘60s and early ‘70s was more complicated. The Wonder Years managed to capture the perfect storm of events that were always in a family’s consciousness even as the father tried to put food on the table, siblings fought and sought to find their place in the world, and the mother tried to hold them all together.

WonderYears3screenIf your family is into binge-watching, The Wonder Years is a perfect candidate, and you don’t have to begin with Season 1. This season Kevin meets an older girl during summer vacation, butts heads with an unreasonable teacher, tries to help Winnie get over her stage fright when they’re all in a play together, takes a break from best-pal Paul, gets his first pimple, learns a lesson about cheating, sabotages himself on a test, joins a band, gets a dog, struggles in glee club, builds a treehouse with his dad, and has to deal with an awkward moment when he and Winnie are invited to a make-out party. And brainy Paul develops a crush on Mrs. Arnold. Meanwhile, the Apollo 13 astronauts are in trouble and Kevin worries that his family is also in trouble, with a sister trying to enroll in a “liberal” college and his father complaining about the old house so much that Kevin is afraid they might move away from his friends and school.

The Season 3 DVD includes interviews with the actors who play Karen, Wayne, Winnie, and Becky Slater, along with a roundtable featuring the main three actors and a featurette, “At Home with the Arnolds.”

New on Blu-ray and DVD (May 26, 2015)

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SonsofLibertyTopping the list of this week’s releases is the HISTORY Channel drama Sons of Liberty, which is available on both Blu-ray and DVD. The highly-rated series, based on true stories, follows the destinies of a group of different men who come together to fight for freedom in the American Revolution. Not rated, it would merit a TV-14 rating because of several no-nudity sex scenes, heavy realistic violence, and drinking and smoking. That’s no surprise, because in reality the Minutemen were having a few at Buckman’s Tavern prior to that shot that was heard round the world. It stars Ben Barnes as Sam Adams, Henry Thomas as John Adams, Jason O’Mara as George Washington, Dean Norris as Ben Franklin, Michael Raymond-James as Paul Revere, Ryan Eggold as Joseph Warren, and Marton Csokas as Gen. Thomas Gage.

YellowbeardHistory gets a little more distorted—make that a LOT more—in Yellowbeard, a takeoff on pirate movies starring Monty Python’s Graham Chapman as the title character and featuring a high-powered cast of comic actors, among them Cheech & Chong, Peter Boyle, Madeline Kahn, John Cleese, Kenneth Mars, and Marty Feldman. It’s eccentric and erratic and you walk away from it thinking that it probably could have been funnier, but Monty Python fans ought to get a kick out of it. In this one, Capt. Yellowbeard is allowed to escape from prison in the hopes that he’ll lead authorities to his treasure. But he’s in for a shock. His wife never mentioned that he has a 20-year-old son who’s (of all things) an intellectual, which complicates a Great Race to get to the treasure before his old crewmates or the British navy. Yellowbeard comes to Blu-ray for the first time this week and is rated PG, though you’d have to say that the censors were being overly generous. There’s some brief frontal nudity and comic references to rape, plus comic gore and violence—at least enough to merit a PG-13 rating nowadays.

WonderYears3For safer, more wholesome family fare that doesn’t list so far to starboard, there’s The Wonder Years: Season 3, starring Fred Savage as the narrator Kevin Arnold, who talks about growing up during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s in a family with an uncommunicative father, a doting mother, a hippie sister, and an older brother who takes delight in picking on him. Add a brainy best friend and a first (and second, and third) love, and it all adds up to one of television’s best coming-of-age family comedy-dramas. This season Kevin meets an older girl during summer vacation, butts heads with an unreasonable teacher, tries to help Winnie get over her stage fright when they’re all in a play together, takes a break from best-pal Paul, gets his first pimple, learns a lesson about cheating, joins a band, gets a dog, struggles in glee club, builds a treehouse with his dad, and has to deal with an awkward moment when he and Winnie are invited to a make-out party. Meanwhile, the Apollo 13 astronauts are in trouble and the series cranks out its trademark classic music from the times. The Wonder Years: Season 3 is only available on DVD.

Kotter3Another third season sitcom comes to DVD this week: Welcome Back, Kotter, with comedian Gabe Kaplan playing a teacher of group of low-achieving hard cases nicknamed the “Sweathogs.” Kotter was once a Sweathog himself, and feels the need to help students like the cocky womanizer Vinnie Barbarino (John Travolta), the goofy and goofy laughing Arnold Horshack (Ron Palillo), the supercool Freddie “Boom Boom” Washington (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs), and the master of excuses Juan Epstein (Robert Hegyes). Marcia Strassman played Kotter’s wife, Julie, while John Sylvester White was Sweathog nemesis Principal Woodman. The season opener is a flashback clip show from the first two seasons, so it’s pretty easy to get up to speed. This season the Kotters become parents, the Sweathogs enter the lottery, the group tries to deprogram Horshack after a cult gets their hooks in him, Mr. Woodman writes a novel that’s based on the Sweathogs, and Barbarino’s new love threatens to come between him and the gang.

RockfordFilesCompleteThe ‘70s and ‘80s were a golden age for TV private detective series, and a good one comes to DVD this week: The Rockford Files: Complete Series, starring James Garner as an ex-con turned P.I. who’s about as easygoing as it gets. Noah Beery Jr. plays his father, Rocky, while Joe Santos is Rockford’s friend and contact at the local California police department and two-time Emmy winner Stuart Margolin is a fellow ex-con who was also a friend. Rockford preferred to use his wits and avoid a fight whenever possible, and with Magnum, P.I. it was one of the most popular TV detective shows of the era. But your family has to like lighthearted P.I. series and older TV shows. All 122 episodes are included from the series’ 1974-1980 run. The Stephen Cannell production won a Primetime Emmy in 1978 for Outstanding Drama Series, while Garner won for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series the previous year.

WELCOME TO SWEDEN: SEASON 1 (DVD)

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WelcometoSwedencoverGrade: B/B+
Entire family: No
2014, 220 min. (10 episodes), Color
Not Rated (would be PG)
Entertainment One
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: Swedish and English Dolby Digital 5.1 (English subtitles)
Bonus features: N/A
Amazon link

Welcome to Sweden is a Swedish situation comedy in English and Swedish (with English subtitles) that aired simultaneously on The Comedy Network in Canada and on NBC in the United States last year. Executive produced by comedian Amy Poehler (Saturday Night Live, Parks and Recreation), it stars her brother, Greg, as a New York accountant to celebrities who makes a ton of money but realizes that what he really wants is to be Swedish . . . to move to Sweden to live with his serious new Swedish girlfriend.

In a TV series that’s built around culture (and personality) clashes, because of his honesty poor Bruce (Poehler) gets into almost as much inadvertent trouble as Larry David does in Curb Your Enthusiasm—except that unlike David, he’s actually a nice, thoughtful guy. Bruce was raised in a small midwestern town, though he isn’t nearly as conservative or religious as his parents. His philosophy is the kind of laid-back “things will work out” (i.e., fix themselves) attitude more common to California than New York. So when he meets Emma (Josephine Bornebusch) and they hit it off, he decides to quit his lucrative job and follow her to Sweden, where she returns to be with family and to work in a bank.

For a sitcom, Welcome to Sweden has a real low-key indie vibe to it, but once Greg gets off the plane in Stockholm and moves in with Emma and her family, it also starts to feel like a milder, more sophisticated, tongue-in-cheek version of Meet the Parents. Viveka (Lena Olin) is the vivacious mom who feels herself getting older and wants to live a second-chance life through her daughter, but the fact that she married a much older man (Claes Mansson as Birger) who’s now less vital is an annoying reminder of how much she herself has aged. A former sea captain, Birger is as tall as Bruce is short, quiet and reserved as Bruce is prone to babble nervously. And those contrasts too add fuel to the comic fire. So does Emma’s slacker brother Gustaf (Christopher Wagelin) and a host of minor characters with single quirks or identifiers.   More

New on Blu-ray and DVD (May 19, 2015)

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Most of the new releases this week are R-rated, so it looks like a good week for outdoor play and indoor games.

The few exceptions:

Glee6The final season, Glee: Season 6, comes out on Tuesday, but many fans abandoned the series after cast changes and a split plot that went back and forth between Ohio and New York City. The musical comedy-drama about a high school glee club dropped 55 points in the Nielsen ratings the following year. At its second-season peak, Glee drew close to 12 million viewers; Season 6 attracted just 2.5 million. Still, if you haven’t seen all the previous episodes, Season 6 won’t seem so “been there done that,” because it’s still entertaining and the music remains the biggest attraction. Of course “Gleeks” will still want to round out their collections with this one, which is only available on DVD.

WelcometoSwedon1For tongue-in-cheek sophisticated comedy there’s Welcome to Sweden: Season 1, starring Amy Poehler’s brother Greg as a love-struck American accountant-to-celebrities who drops everything to move to Sweden to live with his Swedish girlfriend (Josephine Bornebusch). It’s all about culture clash, and the humor often pokes fun of both Swedish and American stereotypes. Aside from a few male backsides seen running off to a seaside frolic, it’s suitable for families with high school age children. Tonally it’s low-key, kind of like an indie film version of a sitcom, but the characters and basic situations are interesting enough—even if you get the sense that the series could have been funnier. Not rated, it would be TV-14 for adult situations, and it’s only available on DVD.

CPOSharkeyIf your family likes old sitcoms, CPO Sharkey comes to home video for the first time this week featuring comedian Don Rickles as a Chief Petty Officer at a Naval training facility. The premise makes for a perfect showcase for Rickles’ politically incorrect insult humor, but for that very reason this one is for teens and older. The 1976 TV series also starred Harrison Page as Sharkey’s African-American best friend and Peter Isacksen as his towering aide. And it’s still pretty funny. Look for it on DVD only.

MayaBeeMovieAfter that it’s two releases aimed at preschoolers. Maya the Bee Movie is an Australian-German animated adventure that seems geared especially toward little girls. Rated G, it’s about a warm-hearted bee who proves that hornets and bees CAN get along. It’s available on 3D/Blu-ray combo and DVD.

MinniesPetSalonThe second release is the better-known Mickey Mouse Clubhouse: Minnie’s Pet Salon, which features the title episode and four other pet-related episodes from the popular Disney Jr. show for preschoolers: “Daisy’s Pet Project,” “Pluto’s Puppy-Sitting Adventure,” “Donald’s Ducks,” and “Pluto Lends a Paw” (Amazon link).

AmericanSniperThey’re not exactly American Sniper, which tops this weeks R-rated Blu-ray and DVD releases, but you can always pick up Clint Eastwood’s celebrated-but-controversial film to watch after the kids are in bed (Amazon link).

CPO SHARKEY: SEASON 1 (DVD)

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CPOSharkeycoverGrade: B/B-
Entire family: No
1976-77, 374 min. (15 episodes), Color
Not rated (would be PG-13 for rude/racial humor)
Time Life
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Bonus features: B+
Amazon link

Stand-up comedian Don Rickles made a career out of insult humor and politically incorrect jokes aimed at all races. So what better sitcom for him to star in than one that has him playing a Chief Petty Officer at a U.S. Naval training facility in San Diego, where he gets to go off on recruits—especially when those recruits include a Polish American, a Jewish American, an Italian American, and a Puerto Rican?

Call it Sgt. Bilko revisited, because Rickles is surprisingly good at playing a tough, acerbic CPO with a warm heart. The show lasted only two seasons, but it’s not because the sitcom isn’t funny or because the cast isn’t likeable. My guess is that it was another case of bad timing. The public already had one sitcom with politically incorrect humor, and did America really want or need another Archie Bunker?

That’s not fair, though, because Bunker was racist without knowing or admitting it. He tolerated black neighbors but wasn’t really friends with them. Sharkey is best buddies with fellow CPO Dave Robinson (Harrison Page), an African American with whom he feels comfortable enough to make racial jokes. Notice I said “racial,” not “racist.” There’s a difference, and in today’s hyper-politically correct world that difference isn’t acknowledged—hence the warning on the back of this DVD: “Some of the jokes and ethnic references heard in these episodes would most likely not be allowed on network TV today and reflect the tenor of the times.” Because of that racial humor, CPO Sharkey will only be for families with children old enough to realize that such jokes can’t be made today, no matter how fond you are of a person.   More

New on Blu-ray and DVD (May 12, 2015)

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WildWildWestThe best bets for family viewing this week may well be new complete-series releases of old TV shows, starting with the wildly popular Western/spy/sci-fi/adventure series The Wild Wild West, which aired from 1965-69. Robert Conrad starred as suave U.S. Secret Service agent James T. West, who, with master-of-disguise sidekick Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin), worked for President Ulysses S. Grant from the comfort of a private train that they used as their moveable base. The two had as many gizmos and gadgets as James Bond, that other popular secret agent who debuted in the ‘60s, but their exploits seemed totally original, transplanted to the American West. As with the Bond films, the villains varied, but the most popular was a little person named Dr. Miguelito Loveless (Michael Dunn). It was great tongue-in-cheek fun, and the series still holds up, though later episodes went a little too far into the Twilight Zone. CBS TV/Paramount is releasing it in a space-saver complete series DVD set this week (Amazon link).

BattlestarGalacticaBattlestar Galactica debuted on TV more than a decade after the original Star Trek and just one year after George Lucas’ Star Wars came to the big screen. I still don’t know why it only lasted one season, because it had the campy qualities of Star Trek and the kind of special effects that made Star Wars so popular. And heck, it even starred beloved Lorne Greene, the patriarch of the popular TV Western Bonanza. But it turns out that those wonderful production values were the series’ downfall. It was just too expensive to produce, given that the show wasn’t in the Nielsen Top 30 and it seemed that the show appealed mostly to children. It’s still plenty entertaining, though you’ll have to decide whether the price tag for this Blu-ray release—Battlestar Galactica: The Definitive Collection (featuring the original full screen presentation with nothing cropped AND the widescreen version that was previously released)—is too high. The series also starred Dirk Benedict as Starbuck, Richard Hatch as Apollo, Maren Jensen as Athena, and Laurette Spang as Cassiopeia, and it’s pretty easy to get interested in these campy mythic characters (Amazon link).

XrayEyesThere’s more campy fun in X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, a 1963 B-movie from the legendary Roger Corman starring Ray Milland as a doctor who gives himself x-ray vision . . . but, in true sci-fi horror fashion, with less than desirable results. There’s period drinking and smoking, but otherwise this horror-thriller is pretty tame by contemporary standards, though still entertaining. It comes to Blu-ray for the first time this week (Amazon link).

PrematureBurialMilland also appears in the one Corman Edgar Allan Poe adaptation that didn’t star Vincent Price: The Premature Burial, which, again, is dark and moody and chilling mostly to young people who fear death. Buried alive? I saw this in the theaters when it first came out and despite a slow first act it made an impression. It too comes to Blu-ray for the first time this week (Amazon link).

CobblerThis week Adam Sandler turns up in the dramedy-fantasy The Cobbler, a PG-13 rated film about a shoe repairman who discovers a magic heirloom that allows him to literally walk a mile in another man’s shoes—to experience their lives through their eyes. It didn’t get very good reviews, but then again most Sandler movies are panned. But for families who like Sandler, it might be worth a try (Amazon link).

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