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PETE’S DRAGON (2016) (Blu-ray combo)

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petesdragon2016coverGrade: B/B+
Entire family: No (age 8 and older)
2016, 103 min., Color
Disney
Rated PG for action, peril and brief language
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

My family was never a fan of the 1977 animated/live-action Pete’s Dragon. They thought the dragon was too goofy, the songs were too cheesy, and the hillbilly sideplot featuring an abrasive Shelley Winters and her “sons” was downright annoying. In other words, if any Disney catalog title was ripe for a remake, it was this one.

Surprisingly, the 2016 Pete’s Dragon isn’t just a retelling of the same old story upgraded with a furry CGI dragon that looks as realistic as the deer and bear we see in the film. It’s a mash-up of the original film, E.T., Tarzan, The Jungle Book, How to Train Your DragonKing Kong, Escape to Witch Mountain, The Emerald Forest, and the song “Puff, the Magic Dragon.” And while the film is rated PG, it’s our opinion that this version isn’t recommended for children under age eight.

petesdragon2016screen1For starters, the opening sequence, which I’ve nicknamed “Bambi’s revenge,” could traumatize a whole new generation of Disney children. This time it’s not a hunter who kills a deer and orphans a fawn; it’s a deer that causes a car to flip, killing Pete’s parents and leaving the youngster an orphan alone in the woods at night, surrounded by ravenous wolves. But, ta-da, it’s a dragon to the rescue! Fast-forward six years and Pete (Oakes Fegley) is a wild child who gets his own Jane moment when a little girl named Natalie (Oona Laurence) surveys the forest with her father. Jack (Wes Bentley) owns a lumber mill and employs people like his brother, Gavin (Karl Urban), who pay no attention to his instructions to log responsibly. They’re cutting deeper into the forest than they were authorized and getting dangerously close to the cave/tree that Pete and Elliot call home.

Disney includes a few wink-wink moments, among them the detail that the car crash occurred in 1977 (the year the first Pete’s Dragon was made), and an escape scene later in the film depicting a formation that looks amazingly like Witch Mountain from that Disney film series—and it’s easy to make that association when petesdragon2016screen2Robert Redford takes on the Eddie Albert role of helping the children (and in this case the dragon, too) escape the exploiters and authorities who are hot on their trail. Bryce Dallas Howard stars as his daughter, a park ranger who, like the others, doesn’t exactly believe that her father had a magical encounter with the legendary Millhaven Dragon many years ago—a detail that will remind people of Disney’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People as well. As with other mash-up moments, you smile in recognition, but if you know all the allusions and recycled plot elements it also takes away from the newness of the narrative.

What Pete’s Dragon lacks in originality it makes up for in visual and special effects. Elliot looks amazing—real enough to pet—and as good as the flight sequences are, it’s the scenes where Elliot turns invisible or camouflaged that merit the most applause. Capture and revenge scenes are rendered flawlessly and contribute to the tension, making this an action-adventure rather than the comedy-musical we got back in 1977. But tonally there are sad and serious scenes and more than a few anxious moments of peril—too many, perhaps, for children under eight—despite an ending that’s the equivalent of a cinematic smiley face. It’s powerfully sad, for example, when Elliot is captured, and that tone of sadness and urgency prevails, rather than something lighter. That said, Pete’s Dragon is a vast improvement over the 1977 animated/live-action version, especially for a generation geared toward impressive CGI effects and high-stakes action that all but demands the kind of wonderful visual clarity we get on this Blu-ray presentation.  Right now Pete’s Dragon version 2016 is second-tier Disney, but I suspect it will be viewed as an underrated film as time goes by.

Language: “Hell” is about it; pretty squeaky clean, otherwise
Sex: n/a
Violence: An opening car crash, wolf attack, fire-breathing dragon attack against pursuing cars, and Elliot’s capture by armed men
Adult situations: Nothing characteristically adult, but moments of loss and peril are traumatic
Takeaway: Disney live-action remakes have come a long way since 101 Dalmatians

THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS (Blu-ray combo)

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secretlifeofpetscoverGrade: B/B+
Entire family: Yes
2016, 87 min., Color
Universal
Rated PG for action and some rude humor
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: Atmos Dolby TrueHD
Bonus features: B+/A-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

What is the highest grossing original animated film NOT produced by Pixar or Disney?

The Secret Life of Pets, which played theaters in 3D and grossed $872 million worldwide. The 2016 Illumination/Universal film offers offers a fun take on that age-old question pet owners ponder: What does the family cat, dog, or other pet do all day while the family is away at work or school? The opening sequences are so spot-on that every pet owner will smile in recognition, and the animation brings it all to life in fun fashion.

secretlifeofpetsscreen1But then someone at a storyboard session must have said, “Wait, we can’t just show a day of contained cuteness. We have to up the ante,” and that’s when a concept as original as Disney’s Inside Out quickly lapses into shrill familiarity. I don’t blame directors Yarrow Cheney and Chris Renaud for trying to add a dramatic plot element, because even the most easily charmed pet-lovers would start to wonder Is this it? if those opening sequences were to continue much longer. But I could have done without crazed former pets commandeering a bus or taxi (we don’t know how) and driving them (we still don’t know how) crazily across New York City, or an animal onslaught on the human world that’s about as over-the-top as it gets (more on that later).

Still, The Secret Life of Pets has a lot going for it, starting with the gorgeous animation and brightly colored backdrops of New York. It stars Louis C.K. as the voice of Max, a Jack Russell Terrier whose bond with his owner is threatened when she brings home Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a huge, clumsy canine version of Sesame Street’s hairy Muppet, Snuffleupagus. Just when you think that faux sibling rivalry or secretlifeofpetsscreen3displacement anxiety will be the main driving force behind a so-far gentle plot, a dog-walker takes the apartment pooches to the park and gets distracted. Trying to ditch each other, Duke and Max venture off on their own, encounter a huge gang of alley cats, and are caught by animal control. But when a bulldog in that same wagon is “busted out” by a gang of abandoned former pets living in the sewers (apparently it’s not just alligators down there), that’s when it gets more crazy and less inspired. That’s when younger viewers will cheer and laugh and older ones may wish they had toned it down a bit.

We’ve seen a subterranean sewer world already in Flushed Away, but animators have made great strides since then and the water sequences especially are impressive in this film. The sewer characters, not so much. It’s more than a little jarring to have a tough-talking rabbit named Snowball lead the Flushed Pets gang that lives underground, and even more of a head-snapper when you consider that a giant snake (which eats rodents and rabbits) be under his command. Kevin Hart is his old manic self as the voice of the bunny, but his shrill craziness is met pound-for-pound by Jenny Slate, who gives voice to Gidget, a fluffy white Pomeranian who has a crush on Max and is determined to save him. Those two characters and a rooftop pet hawk named Tiberius (Albert Brooks) are so familiar that it’s almost a relief to encounter Pops (Dana Carvey), an old basset hound whose gimpy hind legs are supported by wheels that help him to get around.

secretlifeofpetsscreen2Above ground there are enough characters here for everyone to have their favorites, whether it’s a fat cat named Chloe (Lake Bell), a dachshund that reminds you of a slinky (Hannibal Buress), a teeny-tiny parakeet named Sweetpea (Tara Strong), a perpetually lost guinea pig named Norman (Chris Renaud), a Chihuahua named Peanut (Brian T. Delaney), or Mel (Bobby Moynihan), the pug who’s so hyper that he keeps knocking things over.

Take away the over-the-top sequences and you’d probably have a tamer feature that wouldn’t engage the children as much; add them and the adults roll their eyes. But at least the adults can appreciate the superbly animated action sequences, along with those pet-owner touchstones. That makes it a satisfying movie for everyone and a good choice for family movie night, with plenty of replay potential.

If you have 3D capability, go for it, but know that there’s still plenty of pop and wow-factor in the standard 2D Blu-ray too, especially with a robust Atmos Dolby TrueHD rocking the house.

HOUDINI (1953) (Blu-ray)

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houdinicoverGrade: B+/A-
Entire family: No, ages 10+
1953, 106 min., Color
Olive Films
Not rated (would be PG for peril)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

Hollywood legend Tony Curtis gives one of his best performances in Houdini, a colorful biography set in the 1890s through the 1920s, and he does it playing opposite his then-wife Janet Leigh when they were still relative newlyweds. In this film, Harry and Bess’s meet-cute courtship is the stuff of romantic comedies, and there are plenty of laughs as she joins his act and they go from playing West Virginia vaudeville houses to performing in front of packed crowds at the best opera houses in Europe.

Harry Houdini was the most famous magician and escape artist in the world during his lifetime and through the 1950s, when this Technicolor period biopic was made. This film does a great job capturing the carnivalesque nature of vaudeville and the fame that Houdini found in Europe, where he made headlines by breaking out of a Scotland Yard jail. The film also captures houdiniscreen1Houdini’s obsession with giving the audience bigger and more death-defying stunts, including one in which he was hung upside down from the roof of a skyscraper as he wriggled free of a straitjacket and chains. The real Houdini lived to be 52 and died, ironically, not from any of his dangerous stunts—which included escaping from inside locked safes and chained boxes lowered into water—but from gut punches administered by a cocky college student who had heard Houdini had an iron stomach. The blows aggravated the escape artist’s appendicitis, and he died of a ruptured appendix and peritonitis.

Biopics reached their zenith in the 1950s, when the public romanticized their heroes and celebrities and were perfectly content to have filmmakers do the same. If you’re looking for a completely factual biography of Houdini, you’ll have to look elsewhere. But as the 1976 TV movie starring Paul Michael Glaser proves, facts are underrated if altering them makes for better entertainment. For my money, this 1953 biopic is not only one of the best ever made about Houdini, but one of the best to come out of the Technicolor era as well—at least for family entertainment. Even kids who tend to be bored with life stories will find this one engaging because it’s crisply paced and there are plenty of magic tricks and stunts to divert.

houdiniscreen2But there are moments of peril when you think Houdini is going to die, and this biopic does, in fact, romanticize his death by linking it to the magician’s belief in an afterlife and his obsession with trying to communicate with his dead mother.

[SPOILER Paragraph] It certainly adds more drama to the structure of the film to embellish the facts and have his death happen as a result of one of his tricks rather than a sucker punch, and it makes for more traditional three-act suspense to have one big trick—the Chinese water torture cell—be something that has never been successfully done before, than to have it be Houdini’s specialty. In real life he performed the trick of escaping from being suspended upside down in this torture chamber hundreds of times from 1912 until 1926, but where’s the suspense in that?

By today’s standards, Houdini would qualify as an “inspired by” comedy-drama rather than a factual biography. And as I mentally weigh a more accurate dramatization against this one, I can’t help but think that producer George Pal (The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm) and director George Marshall (How the West Was Won) made the right choice. Houdini is highly entertaining and a good choice for family movie night. It was one of my favorite biopics as a kid, and I was pleased to see that it still holds up well.

Language: n/a
Sex: Just kissing and the most wholesome implied wedding night imaginable
Violence: None, unless you count throwing tomatoes
Adult situations: Moments of peril involving near-death experiences as a result of escapes gone wrong
Takeaway: Curtis turned in some great performances in Some Like It Hot (1959 and The Defiant Ones (1958), but he also shined in three biopics: The Boston Strangler (1968), The Great Imposter (1961), and Houdini (1953)

FINDING DORY (Blu-ray combo)

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findingdorycoverGrade: A
Entire family: Yes
2016, 97 min., Color
Disney-Pixar
Rated PG for mild thematic elements
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Who says 13 is unlucky? Thirteen years after Pixar created Finding Nemo they struck underwater gold again with Finding Dory, a gorgeously animated sequel that flips the original premise and tosses in an endearing octopus for good measure.

In Finding Nemo it was the gimpy-flippered clownfish son of Marlin (Albert Brooks) who strayed into the open ocean and was captured by an Australian dentist-slash-aquarist, while a blue tang named Dory helped Marlin try to find and rescue Nemo (voiced in the original by Alexander Gould and in the sequel by Hayden Rolence).

Ellen DeGeneres was so hilarious and spontaneous as Dory, a fish with short-term memory loss, it’s no surprise Pixar decided to turn the spotlight on her. This time Dory’s the star, and she has just enough memory flashes to where she realizes she had parents and thinks she knows where those parents might be. Impulsively, she sets out to find them, and though it’s crazy for her and other reef fish like Marlin and Nemo to travel across the open ocean to California, what else can friends do but go with her to help and try to keep her from getting into too much trouble? The title is a pun, since Dory not only literally gets lost along the way, but has been lost, figuratively speaking, since she was separated from her parents. Will she find herself by finding her family? Every Disney-Pixar fan is betting on it!

findingdoryscreen1Along the way, Disney and Pixar do what they do way better than anyone else. They offer characters with such expressiveness that you fall in love with each and every one of them, and they create and animate an underwater world so lavish that your jaw drops with every new scene. Finding Dory is easily as good as Finding Nemo. If it doesn’t win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, I’ll be shocked. This sequel was such an instant hit with audiences that it became only the second Pixar film to top $1 billion worldwide (Toy Story 3 was the first), and critics loved it so much that they gave it a 94 percent “fresh” rating at Rottentomatoes.com.

If Disney-Pixar decided to spotlight the most endearing supporting character in the first sequel, then you can bet that if the future holds another sequel it
will star Hank, a seven-legged octopus that is an expert in camouflage and Houdini-like escapes. Grouchily voiced by Ed O’Neill (Modern Family), Hank is another reversal of the original premise in that he wants to go to an aquarium in Cleveland rather than be rereleased into the ocean after he’s findingdoryscreen2rehabilitated at California’s Marine Life Institute (a fictionalized version of the Monterrey Bay Aquarium and various rescue centers). Dory is a strong character, but Hank tends to steal every scene he’s in. That said, young fish enthusiasts will delight in seeing how the Disney-Pixar crew has rendered such sea creatures as kelp bass, chicken fish, ocean sunfish, porcupine fish, damselfish, cleaner shrimp, and groupers, and a particularly hilarious scene involves a fish-eye view of a hands-on touch tank. There’s a lot here to spark wonder and delight.

Every member of our family chimed that they’d give it an A, because, honestly, there isn’t a scene that needs work or a concept that wasn’t sufficiently milked for laughs or another emotion.

If your family has a 3D set-up you should go for the 3D version, but this Blu-ray also has plenty of visual pop. In either case, a bonus feature tells how octopus Hank was the most technically challenging character that Pixar has ever animated, and you can see it. As he climbs his body conforms to his surroundings, and it’s the most accomplished bit of animation I’ve seen. In terms of settings, the kelp “forest” is pretty impressive, though children will no doubt be as seduced by the colorful coral reefs as they were with the undersea sequences in The Little Mermaid. It may be a cliché or overstatement to say so, but in this case it seems appropriate: Finding Dory is an instant classic.

Language: n/a
Sex: n/a
Violence: Nothing, really, though there are plenty of instances of peril
Adult situations: Finding Nemo and now Finding Dory are probably this younger generation’s Bambi, with traumatizing moments involving separation from a parent
Takeaway: Disney-Pixar is still the champ

BOB HOPE: HOPE FOR THE HOLIDAYS (DVD)

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bobhopexmascoverGrade: B+/A-
Entire family: Yes
1993 & 1950, 110 min., Color & B&W
Time Life
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: B-/C+
Clip: “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Forever”
Amazon link

There’s an episode of Friends where an out-of-work Chandler takes an internship and, surrounded by twentysomethings, confesses that he feels old . . . though, he quips, he’s not exactly Bob Hope. “Who?” they say. “You know. Bob Hope. USO . . . ” to which one of them responds, “Uh, USA.” A year before Friends launched, an already old Bob Hope hosted a Christmas special that would turn out to be one of his very best. But if young people had no idea who Bob Hope was back in the nineties, they certainly won’t now.

They should, though. Hope, who lived to be 100, was one of America’s iconic entertainers—an ironic fact, considering he was born in England. Although he appeared in 70+ films, he’s most known for teaming up with crooner Bing Crosby and singer-dancer Dorothy Lamour in a series of “Road” pictures that cracked up audiences during the forties. And he’s known for entertaining America’s men and women in the Armed Forces, making 57 tours abroad for the USO (United Service Organizations) over a course of 50 years. He also did four decades of television specials, always beginning and ending with the theme song “Thanks for the Memory.”

Well, that’s what this Christmas special provides: memories. Those who will be able to appreciate it most will be those who actually grew up watching Hope on television. But the nostalgic tone, family emphasis, and structure of Bob Hope: Hope for the Holidays are such that the show would also work as a watch-together holiday special at the grandparents’ house. Hope made dozens of TV specials, and this one rises to the top because it gives people a nutshell, composite portrait of a Hollywood legend.

I’m a big Hope fan, so I made it a point to introduce my children to some of my favorite movies of his, all comedies: The Princess and the Pirate (Color, 1944), Monsieur Beaucaire (B&W, 1946), The Paleface (Color, 1948), Fancy Pants (Color, 1950), The Lemon Drop Kid (Color, 1951), Son of Paleface (Color, 1952), Casanova’s Big Night (Color, 1954), The Seven Little Foys (Color, 1955), and, of course, the road pictures, the first of which was The Road to Singapore (B&W, 1940), followed by Road to Zanzibar (B&W, 1941), Road to Morocco (B&W, 1942), Road to Utopia (B&W, 1945), Road to Rio (B&W, 1947), Road to Bali (Color, 1952), and The Road to Hong Kong (B&W, 1962). I started them off with the first film and then the only road picture in color, and after that they wanted to watch the others. I say all this because it does help to have a context and a “history” with Hope in order to appreciate this holiday DVD—though it’s not absolutely necessary.

bobhopexmasscreenThe structure is similar to The Nutcracker ballet. A 90-year-old Hope is trimming the tree and singing with his wife, Dolores, when the “guests” for their holiday party begin to arrive. It’s a neat way to introduce the cast and guest stars for this special, and as clips of previous Christmas specials are deftly inserted throughout the hour-long variety show, you realize why they were invited: most of them had appeared with Hope in earlier specials or on his USO tours. It was an honest-to-goodness reunion for them, and Hope’s advanced years underscore the fact that you never know, as people age, when a gathering like this might be the last. That won’t be lost on even the youngest viewers who watch this with extended family.

But it’s not a downer, that’s for sure. The overall feeling is one of holiday warmth. Once Loni Anderson (WKRP in Cincinnati), Barbara Eden (I Dream of Jeannie), country singers Wynonna and Naomi Judd, Joey Lawrence (Blossom, Disney voiceovers), former football player Ed Marinaro (Hill Street Blues), former football player Lynn Swann (The Last Boy Scout, The Waterboy) and Charena Swann enter the house, the rest of the evening is a very fluid blend of stories, comedy routines, songs, and clips from Hope’s 40 years of holiday specials.

It all works extremely well, but what stood out for me is how wonderfully the production is edited. It’s the best clip show I’ve seen, because it all seems so organic, so well integrated into the main structure of a holiday party, and nostalgia is the key. Thanks to the clips, viewers also get to enjoy such stars as Lucille Ball, Jack Benny, Bing Crosby, Macaulay Culkin, Phillis Diller, Redd Foxx, Emmanuel Lewis, Lee Marvin, Reba McEntire, Dolly Parton, Brooke Shields, Phil Silvers, Red Skelton, and John Wayne. Call it a Best of Bob Hope’s Christmas Specials show, because that’s ultimately what this 1993 special becomes. There are too many highlights to mention, it’s that good. It’s also old-fashioned, and the hosts are probably older than most grandparents of today’s families. But if children will give it a chance, they’ll find plenty of moments to entertain them.

This DVD is billed as a “compilation,” even though the only other show is an old black-and-white Christmas Eve installment of The Comedy Hour that, for the purposes of this review, I’m considering another bonus feature. The sketches here are not all that funny, but the show does have value as a cultural-historical document. The then-mayor of New York makes an appearance at the beginning, and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt reads an inspirational 1776 message to the nation from George Washington. Today’s viewers will be struck by the level of language and thought and engagement required of audiences back then. This is heady stuff, and in today’s world of dumbed-down voters with limited political knowledge it doesn’t play well at all—except to remind us that back in 1950 viewers were apparently more intelligent and more politically astute. Now it’s only of value as a time-capsule item, not for current entertainment. If you buy this DVD, buy it for the 1993 special, which is well worth the price.

THE WONDER YEARS: SEASON 6 (DVD)

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wonderyears6coverGrade: A-/B+
Entire family: No
1992-93, 638 min. (22 episodes), Color
Time Life
Not rated (would be PG or PG-13 for adult themes)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features: B+
Season 6 title sequence
Amazon link

Just as moviegoers watched Harry Potter grow up, so a generation of TV-viewers saw Kevin Arnold go from age 11 to 17 on the popular coming-of-age series The Wonder Years. Narrated in retrospect with an adult Kevin voiceover, like Stand by Me, it’s about as all-boy as it gets, despite plenty of female characters. So much so that my teenage daughter isn’t a fan. She doesn’t want to keep hearing what a teenage boy is thinking—especially when it comes to teenage girls.

Still, as Fred Savage (Kevin) writes in the liner notes to The Wonder Years: Season 6, families watched it together when it first aired, and now a new generation of parents are sharing it with their children. It remains the best period TV series on growing up in the turbulent sixties and early seventies, and young Bernie supporters will certainly identify with an episode this season in which Winnie catches McGovern fever and works day and night to try to help the Democratic presidential nominee get elected. Kevin volunteers too, but only because of his girlfriend, and because he’s jealous and suspicious of the local campaign boss. As for Kevin’s straight-laced, always-serious dad, Jack Arnold (Dan Lauria), he of course thinks Nixon’s the One. An episode about a friend of the family who returns from Vietnam with post-traumatic stress syndrome is also both topical and powerful.

For a TV sitcom, The Wonder Years had a penchant for telling it like it is, and episodes this final season are geared more toward a PG or even PG-13 audience. In one, Kevin leads his buddies to believe that he and longtime girlfriend Winnie Cooper (Danica McKellar) “did it,” while in another a still-committed Kevin is tempted to have a fling with another girl at a wedding . . . but instead drinks an entire bottle of champagne by himself and gets totally plastered. In yet another episode he sneaks out of the house, despite being grounded, and takes his father’s new car without permission. That’s right. Kevin, though basically a good kid, is far from a model citizen.

wonderyears6screenThis season, Kevin’s mom (Alley Mills) causes a few ripples herself by announcing she’s going back to work, and whatever glow she gets from finding fulfillment is enough to prompt Jack’s boss to hit on her. Yet, the most successful episodes are often the ones that get back to what the show did well its first few seasons: focusing on interfamilial relations, with Kevin and brother Wayne (Jason Hervey) growing up too quickly and wanting to become independent, and Mom and Dad trying their best to grab whatever family time might be left. In one such episode, the three “men” drive to an old haunt deep in the woods to camp and fish and try to recapture some of that old family magic, and in “Reunion” the family returns to the mom’s family home so she can attend her 25th high school reunion. Throughout the series, Kevin and Winnie have had an on-again/off-again relationship, and this season finds them doing a little of both.

Time Life has done it up right again, packaging these 22 season episodes on four single-sided discs that are housed on plastic “pages” in a standard-size keep case, with a 16-page color booklet made to look like a high school theme book offering detailed descriptions of each episode, plus original air dates and sidebars that spotlight such things as co-star Giovanni Ribisi, The Catcher in the Rye, questions from an SAT exam, and a feature on guest actor Ellen Albertini Dow. It’s the kind of booklet you find yourself thumbing through and enjoying every minute.

One of the highlights of this series has always been the period music, and it’s all here: tunes by The Association, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, The Beach Boys, Canned Heat, The Champs, Eddie Cochran, Joe Cocker, Nat King Cole, The Everly Brothers, Marvin Gaye, Lesley Gore, Grateful Dead, Ben E. King, The Miracles, The O’Jays, Helen Reddy Johnny Rivers, The Rolling Stones, Sam & Dave, Frank Sinatra, Stealers Wheel, Steely Dan, Hank Williams, Tammy Wynette, and more . . . .

Though the characters develop over six seasons, each season also stands alone. You don’t have to watch them in sequence, any more than you have to binge-watch Friends in order. The Wonder Years was good enough to win a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series its first season, and to hold the attention of a faithful audience for another five. Included here is the special one-hour broadcast of the season finale, plus a featurette on that final episode.

SUDDENLY (Blu-ray)

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suddenlycoverGrade: B
Entire family: No
1954, 75 min., Black-and-white
Film Detective
Not rated (would be PG for violence and adult situations)
Aspect ratio: 1.75:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

A year before Frank Sinatra would play the better-known hoodlum Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls and a year after he impressed audiences with his Oscar-winning performance as Angelo Maggio in From Here to Eternity, Old Blue Eyes was convincingly crazy-eyed as a war-hero-turned-criminal in the 1954 film Suddenly.

If you remove the hokum—the overly obvious and period-wholesome nonsense that frames the main narrative and reminds you a bit of The Andy Griffith ShowSuddenly is a taut thriller in the Key Largo mold, with hoods taking over a family residence (in this case a private one, rather than a hotel).

Fans of Dr. Strangelove will delight in seeing Sterling Hayden playing a small-town cop with the same earnest officiousness as he did crazed base commander Jack D. Ripper in the Kubrick black comedy, and viewers get a full dose of him in an opening sequence that couldn’t be more expositional. In that beginning, we’re told he’s in love with a woman (Nancy Gates as Ellen Benson) whose husband was killed fighting in WWII, and that he believes she’s overprotective of her young son “Pidge” (Kim Charney). Sheriff Tod Shaw also has plenty to be officious about. He gets word that the President of the United States will get off the train and take a motorcade somewhere, and the town has to be checked out and protected by Secret Service agents, with his cooperation.

suddenlyscreenCoincidence is commonplace in Hollywood films from this era, so audiences wouldn’t have blinked to learn that the former boss of Secret Service agent Dan Carney (Willis Bouchey) is “Pop” Benson (James Gleason), who is retired and lives in the house on a hill overlooking the train station—a place that he personally goes to check out and secure.

Though Suddenly isn’t as powerful a film as Key Largo (1948), it’s equally tense. And Sinatra is fully convincing as John Baron, who earlier showed up at the house with two thugs, pretending to be FBI agents needing to secure that house for the President’s visit. Instead, they plan to assassinate the President. The audience knows that early on, but writer Richard Sale does a good job of creating a believable situation with effective dialogue and a tension that, along with Lewis Allen’s capable direction, makes Suddenly worth watching.

Hi-Def fans need to be warned, though, that the film is in the public domain and this Film Detective release features an awful lot of noise—scintillating grain—that’s an obvious result of the digital transfer. Visually, it takes some getting used to. The trailer is from an out-of-print Blu-ray release, while the screen shot is from studio publicity. In both cases, the image is sharper than it is on this Film Detective transfer.

Language: n/a
Sex: n/a
Violence: People are shot and killed, but there’s minimal blood and it’s deemphasized because of the black-and-white film stock
Adult situations: The boy is in jeopardy and slapped around, which, for younger viewers, is the most relevant aspect of the siege, and of course the assassination theme eliminates really young viewers
Takeaway: As singers-turned-actors go, Sinatra really held his own

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