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THE EAGLE HUNTRESS (Blu-ray)

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eaglehuntresscoverGrade: A-/B+
Entire family: Yes, if reading age
2016, 87 min., Color
Sony Pictures Classics
Rated G
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: Kazakh DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B
Trailer
Amazon link

Like most 13-year-old girls, Aisholpan likes to paint her nails and hang out with friends. Though she enjoys school and wants to be one of the best students, like a typical teenager she also has a dream that’s more far-reaching.

But Aisholpan Nurgaiv is far from typical. She was born into a family of Kazakh nomads, who break down their tents and relocate based on the time of year, as 30 percent of the population does. She and her family live in the most isolated part of one of the most remote countries in the world—Mongolia—where the terrain is rugged and school is so far away that the children must stay in dormitories during the week, only returning home on the weekends. That leaves plenty of time for hanging out with friends . . . and dreaming.

eaglehuntressscreen1If your children aren’t averse to watching documentaries with subtitles, I can’t think of a better one for family movie night than The Eagle Huntress, a G-rated inspirational film that has a lot going for it: exotic setting, gorgeous cinematography, a likable teenage protagonist, a special father-daughter bond, and a natural dramatic arc that’s the result of Aisholpan’s very specific dream. She wants to become a golden eagle hunter like her father and grandfather, and his father and grandfather, and their fathers and grandfathers. It’s an all-male party she’s trying to crash, but what makes this film heartwarming is that she has the support and encouragement of her family. Elders in the golden eagle hunting community appear on camera to express their displeasure, but that’s not enough to stop Aisholpan or her father, Rys, who takes pride in training her, or her grandfather, who gives her a blessing.

So what is an eagle hunter? There’s both a practical and a traditional/ceremonial side to it. Eagle hunters train a 15-pound golden eagle to hunt foxes during the winter months so the family can use the furs for clothing. To hunt foxes in this manner requires long horseback rides and climbs into the remote mountain areas. It requires great stamina and the ability to withstand icy conditions and temperatures of -40 degrees F. Even getting an eaglet to train is dangerous business, as we see when Aisholpan is captured on camera obtaining hers. But Eagle hunting is also a proud tradition and a celebration of a way of life, and every year eagle hunters gather to compete for the championship. So really, this film has a familiar training-for-the-big-event structure that we see in sports films, only the competition involves eagles. Call it a Mongolian rodeo.

Director Otto Bell and his skeleton crew (and equally skeletal budget) do a wonderful job of capturing life as it’s lived in the remote Altai Mountains and also telling Aisholpan’s story. It may be a documentary, but it’s a dramatic documentary, and it doesn’t end when the competition ends. It ends when Aisholpan meets all the challenges of an eagle hunter head-on—and that includes riding off with her father to try to get her first fox. And since the filmmakers use a Red Epic HD camera, drone, and small POV camera to capture her journey, the production values are as rich as the landscape and subject matter.

eaglehuntressscreen2I said this was an inspirational film, and it is. The temptation would be to call it a film about women’s empowerment, but I agree with Aisholpan and her father. It’s not about men and women. It’s about a person doing what he or she was meant to do, about rising to the challenge, about finding the strength to accomplish what some say is impossible. Yes, it’s about Aisholpan’s dream, but it’s also about good parenting—of being supportive and patient and instructive in ways that uplift and encourage.

The Eagle Huntress is a feel-good movie, whether you’re observing children in a remote school in Mongolia or watching some amazing footage of young Aisholpan as she uses her hand like a cobra to hypnotize a young eaglet before she wraps it in a blanket to take from its nest. If your family likes Animal Planet shows, this film will probably be of interest just because of the main focus on the bond that handlers form with their eagles, who spend a good percent of their lives in the same house as the family. That in itself is pretty amazing to see.

Now, convincing jaded teens to watch a documentary like this might be as much of a challenge as Aisholpan faced, because American children gravitate toward fiction. But it’s really an unobtrusive documentary. Though Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) narrates, the voiceover isn’t constant. Director Bell trusts his subjects to tell the story, with narration used to fill in gaps. My sense is that the best age group for this documentary will be those whose dreams are still being shaped—children in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades—in part because children always like to watch stories of those who are older than they are.

VICTORIA: SEASON 1 (DVD)

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victoriacoverGrade: A-/B+
Entire family: No, small children will be bored
2016, 415 min. (8 episodes), Color
PBS
Rated TV-PG for some adult situations
Aspect ratio: Widescreen
Featured audio: 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround
Bonus features: C+
Trailer
Amazon link

Recently we’ve seen a lot of TV series telling the stories of royals and nobility—so many that it’s hard to keep them all straight, especially if you’re wondering what’s suitable for viewing if you have children old enough to appreciate the intricacies of a historical drama. I’m reminded of the Three Bears porridge: The Royals (E!), Reign (The CW), and Versailles (BBC2/Ovation) can run a little hot; The Crown (Netflix) can be a bit too cold; but Victoria (Masterpiece/PBS) seems just right. There are no graphic sex scenes here, no language to grapple with, no violence to speak of, and no serious breaks in morality . . . just nicely handled adult situations and complications.

If you have teens, they’ll be most drawn to Reign (with its hip young cast) and this series starring the effervescent Jenna Coleman as young Queen Victoria, with the first season covering her ascension to the throne as an eighteen year old and continuing through her battles with family and members of the privy council. The first season focuses mostly on her growing dependence upon (and eventual distancing from) close advisors Lord Melbourne (Rufus Sewell) and Baroness Lehzen (Daniela Holtz), and her courtship and first year of marriage to Prince Albert (Tom Hughes)—a cousin from the German royal side of the family.

victoriascreen3In the past, Masterpiece could tend toward the staid or austere, but since the phenomenal popular success of Downton Abbey they’ve grasped the value of the old maxim “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Fans of Downton Abbey will recognize here a similar structure and a number of familiar elements. As in Downton Abbey, viewers get a two-tiered look at life in England: the royals and nobles who live, work, and play in and around Buckingham and Windsor Palaces, and the servants who tend to them and have their own interactions. It’s hard, for example, not to think of Downton Abbey’s Mr. Bates and Anna while watching a maid with a tawdry past (Nell Hudson) pursued by a pastry chef (Ferdinand Kingsley). While the below-deck cast of characters isn’t as compelling as the royals, there’s enough here to provide a nice contrast and introduce side plots that keep the series from dragging.

Some of young Victoria’s problems are peculiar to royalty. Parliament must approve her marriage, she must deal with a power grab, she must find a way to be “an ordinary woman” so her relationship to Prince Albert can work while she also rules as the most powerful and wealthy woman in the world, and she must name a regent in the event that she dies in childbirth. But there is also much here that young viewers can identify with. Overbearing and would-be controlling mother? Check. Disapproving elders? Check. Put off by a young man and yet oddly attracted to him? Check. Feeling awkward around a member of the opposite sex? Check. Trying to live up to expectations while also figuring out how to be yourself? Check.

victoriascreen2Fans of A Knight’s Tale will enjoy seeing Sewell, too often cast as a sinister fellow, playing a warmly sympathetic character. And those who enjoyed the 2009 film The Young Victoria will find it fascinating to see how two different production companies approached the portrayal of Prince Albert, an interesting combination of intellectual-nerd and brooding bad boy. But the big draw is Coleman (Doctor Who), who, as young Queen Victoria, is just as fresh and bubbly and strong and vulnerable and candid and dignified as can be. This is her series, and she is a talented and charismatic enough actress to carry it.

One note: if you’re used to HD, this title is available on Blu-ray and I’d advise you to get that version rather than the DVD, which isn’t as sharp as some standard-res offerings I’ve seen. Some of the CGI work to recreate Old London seems a little two-dimensional, but the soundstage built inside a hangar to replicate the interior of Buckingham Palace is so detailed and the cinematography so beautiful that you’ll want to better appreciate them in HD.

Language: Just a few mild swears here and there
Sex: No nudity, no sex scenes, but Victoria and Albert do kiss and there is implied coupling as she is expected to produce an heir
Violence: A gunshot is fired point blank at someone, a woman is briefly threatened, and a man is taken to a brothel
Adult situations: The whole series is pretty adult in its situations, with one woman a former prostitute, stealing for survival a theme, and the whole idea of cousins marrying something you might have to discuss with your older kids
Takeaway: Downton Abbey is alive and well, reincarnated as a new series about Great Britain’s second-longest reigning queen, and a woman who publicly championed morality

INFERNO (Blu-ray)

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infernocoverGrade: B-
Entire family: No
2016, 122 min., Color
Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures
Rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence, disturbing images, some language, thematic elements, and some sexuality
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Harvard professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is confused for the bulk of this action-thriller, and as a result, so are viewers. As he was in The Da Vinci Code (2006) and Angels & Demons (2009), Langdon is on the run—chased by people who want to get what he has, or kill him, or both. And once again he is accompanied/assisted by a beautiful woman (Sienna Brooks).

In other words, there’s a formula at work here, so those who liked the first two films based on novels by Dan Brown and directed by Ron Howard ought to enjoy this one as well. You know who you are, and you know the drill. Along the way you’ll learn more about Langford’s area of specialization—Dante and medieval symbols—and your confusions will eventually be resolved by explanations presented almost as rapid-fire as the action . . . so pay attention!

infernoscreen1In Inferno, Langdon awakens in a hospital in Florence, Italy. He is having major hallucinations of disturbing medieval images—graphic images that are mostly responsible for the PG-13 rating—and he has amnesia. He has no idea how he got from Boston to Florence. But there isn’t much time for reflection. The plot kick-starts when an Italian motorcycle policewoman comes to the hospital, shoots an orderly, and tries to kill Langdon. The nurse, Felicity (Brooks), helps him escape, and from that moment the chases are on. Langdon is pursued by three separate groups of people (who ARE they, and who’s telling the truth?), and on-the-run he’s racing to piece clues together to try to remember how he became involved in all of this, and how big it is.

What’s at stake is the future of humanity, so this high-stakes action-thriller is as intense and non-stop as it gets. There are very few moments when something frenetic isn’t happening. Even in “down time” we get those flashbacks or hallucinations and medieval terrors that torment us almost as much as they haunt Langdon. In other words, Inferno is a tense film that’s unrelenting in its images and action, making it every bit the PG-13 movie. If you know the rating system you know that filmmakers are allowed one F-bomb in a film of this kind, and Howard takes full advantage. That F-bomb is SHOUTED. Then again, when you find out a bio-engineered plague is about to be unleashed on the world—a plague that will reduce the world’s population by one half—such an outburst is probably justified.

Is it as good as the first two films? No. The Da Vinci Code is still the best of the bunch (a B+, in my gradebook), with Angels & Demons (B) coming in second and this one (B-) third. Because of the formula there are still infernoscreen2pleasures to be had, and director Howard does a good job of integrating the medieval images and keeping viewers off-balance. Those who aren’t enamored with the series complain that too much confusion is followed by too much exposition to explain that confusion, and that’s certainly the way that the Brown books work. Some will be just fine with this method of exposition, while others will be annoyed to sit in confusion and then suddenly have a monologue clarify a few things. But that’s the style of the series.

I’m not giving away anything by saying that the villain is a billionaire (Ben Foster) who wants to “save” the world by killing half the people, as that’s revealed pretty early in the film. But I do wonder if the World Health Organization is as heavily armed and tactical as they appear in this action-thriller. If so, they’re some pretty bad asses, as is Hanks-as-Langdon.

Language: One shouted F-bomb, plus a handful of lesser swearwords
Sex: Nothing except a couple briefly kissing, fully clothed
Violence: Lots of gunfire, graphic stabbing, attempted drowning, etc., with wounds shown and violence one main reason for the PG-13 rating
Adult situations: The medieval images are pretty intense, and the entire film is an adult situation: people running for their lives as they race to save lives
Takeaway: Amnesia plots always seem like low-hanging fruit, but this Dan Brown story unfolds in interesting-enough fashion

ANTARCTICA: ICE AND SKY (DVD)

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antarcticaiceandskycoverGrade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes, but….
2015, 89 min., Color/B&W
Music Box Films
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: French/English Dolby Digital 5.1 w/subtitles
Bonus features: B-
Trailer
Amazon link

Claude Lorius is a glaciologist. Over a 60-year career he has participated in more than 20 polar expeditions—not only to study glaciers and glacial movement, but also to drill deep down into their near-timeless cores to analyze the ice from different time periods. What they reveal is fascinating, and one of the film’s memorable moments comes when we’re taken into an archive of core-drill ice samples all stacked in rows on shelves according to samples dated by their air bubbles—some of them going back 800,000 years. Lorius began his study of glaciers in 1956 as a 23-year-old man, but as early as 1965 his research was telling him something disturbing. Long before the polar caps began to melt, Lorius was predicting that they would because of the appearance of so-called greenhouse gasses in the ice samples he was taking, and the way those gasses altered the composition of the ice.

There’s no denying that the work Lorius does is fascinating science, unless you’re a U.S. politician who denounces anything that gets in the way antarcticaiceandskyscreen2of the economy. But it’s not very compelling as drama. Antarctica: Ice and Sky, a film by Luc Jacquet that closed the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, is a treatise on global warming that’s frankly dull in spots. The dialogue is overwritten and often stilted, and there aren’t enough shots of Antarctica in HD—with far too much of the film relying on grainier archival footage from earlier expeditions. What Lorius and others do may be fascinating as scientific research, but so much of that research is repetitive and the progress so glacial itself that there isn’t anything close to a dramatic structure to be found here.

I found myself liking the “making of” feature almost as much as the film itself. That one man would dedicate his life to the study of glaciers under such extreme conditions all but boggles the mind—almost as much as the idea director Jacquet had to tell the story of Lorius’s research and dedication by taking him back to the place he loves. That’s right: taking a frail, 83-year-old man to the Antarctic again, where the temperatures are the coldest on earth. The lowest temperature recorded at Vostok Station, the base camp where a good deal of the film was shot, was -128.6 degrees Fahrenheit. The altitude alone—12,800 feet—is enough to tax younger men, let alone an octogenarian.

Seeing Lorius in the present-day talking about his work is inspirational. There is much to admire in the man, and what the vintage footage does and antarcticaiceandskyscreen1does well is to show details of life as scientists live it in extreme isolation while working under extreme conditions. It’s a rare glimpse into everyday life that this film provides, and that’s a big plus. Another plus is that the film has a social conscience. It pays proper tribute to a man who has dedicated himself to studying glaciers and sharing his results with a world that too often denies science when it gets in the way of business. This film is recommended for families with children who are interested in becoming scientists, and for those lawmakers who seem to think that they know more than someone who’s spent 60 years doing meticulous and documented scientific research.

But Antarctica: Ice and Sky is not recommended for those who enjoy travel and place documentaries—though there are some amazing shots of night sky. Nor is it for those who enjoy nature films and hope to see plenty of the pole’s famed penguins. Though Jacquet also directed March of the Penguins, and though penguins do make a few appearances, Antarctica: Ice and Sky is mostly about the pursuit of science under the most horrible conditions imaginable. It’s a film about a man and his work and others who share his passion and his commitment to research. As such, it’s worth watching, but the man himself is more compelling than this film. If you are concerned about climate change (one reason why, one supposes, current female researchers protested Trump the day after his inauguration), Antarctica: Ice and Sky does a good job of explaining and illustrating how scientists are able to draw their conclusions. And if you aren’t? Then you might as well rent Frozen. In the future, animation might be the only way you’ll see a landscape like this.

PINOCCHIO (1940) (Signature Collection Blu-ray)

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pinocchiocoverGrade: B+/A-
Entire family: Yes
1940, 88 min., Color
Disney
Rated G
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Pinocchio is both a classic and underrated Disney film, if that’s possible. The follow-up to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs took animation down new paths, but was a box office disappointment and somehow never had the same appeal for successive generations as the princess and animal movies. Maybe it was because Walt Disney pushed his animators to create something a little darker in his second full-length animated feature. Or maybe this cautionary tale about what happens if a boy misbehaves was just a little too obvious. “A lie keeps growing and growing until it’s as plain as the nose on your face,” the Blue Fairy says, and of course everyone’s familiar with the wooden nose that gets longer with every fib.

pinocchioscreenBased on the 1883 children’s novel by Italian writer Carlo Collodi, Pinocchio is nothing more than an extended fable about behaving well or else turning into a jackass (literally). In this story, old world woodcarver Geppetto sees a wishing star and wishes for his carved marionette to become a real boy. Enter the Blue Fairy, who waves her wand and brings Pinocchio to life, but tells him he will remain wooden until he proves himself brave, truthful, and unselfish. “Now remember,” she tells him, “be a good boy. And always let your conscience be your guide.”

Disney’s 1940 version is as episodic as the original book, with the first 24 minutes devoted to introducing Geppetto, his cat Figaro, goldfish Cleo, and a vagabond cricket named Jiminy who is given the job of being Pinocchio’s conscience. Jiminy is a great little singer. Voiced by a popular ukulele strummer named Cliff Edwards, the little cricket gets to warble the song that will become the Disney theme: “When You Wish Upon a Star.” Jiminy isn’t much of a conscience, but if he had done a better job there would be no story to tell.

The naive little woodenhead ditches Jiminy and meets a fast-talking fox named Honest John and his cat-companion Gideon, who get him to join Stromboli’s puppet show. Virtually sold into servitude, Pinocchio is locked up and yet still doesn’t learn his lesson. Sold again by Honest John, he later goes with other boys to Pleasure Island, where delinquents can do any undisciplined thing they want—including vandalizing, drinking beer, gambling, smoking cigars, and playing pinocchioscreen2billiards, all of which Pinocchio does with a ne’er-do-well named Lampwick. The Pleasure Island sequence was originally much tamer, with junk food being the only real vice. Disney pushed his animators to up the ante, and while that sequence is perhaps the most memorable, the consequence of hellraising is still a pretty obvious lesson in morality. It’s almost a relief when the moralizing is put on pause after Pinocchio learns his father had set out to find him but was swallowed by a whale named Monstro, and we get the film’s big action sequence.

Remember, though, that because full-length feature animation was still new, Disney was pulling out all the stops to try to top what he had done in Snow White. Geppetto’s workshop is a wonderland of moving clocks, and a long sequence showcases what animators were able to do. Same with the underwater scenes, where all sorts of colorful corals and anemones are impressively rendered. Some of the animation—like the hot coals from the hearth—still seems rudimentary, but for the most part Pinocchio is Golden Age Disney at it’s best. It’s still a good choice for family movie night, but a word to the wise: don’t feel compelled to talk about the Pleasure Island sequence with your children so they don’t get the “wrong idea” about bad behavior. The moralizing will be painfully clear to them.

Pinocchio was first released on two-disc Blu-ray in 2009, but that release is long out of print. This new Walt Disney Signature Collection includes a Digital HD copy of the film—the first time that’s available to the public—as well as a very well done new feature on the Pleasure Island sequence in which we hear Disney’s own voice talking about the storyboard.

Language: n/a
Sex: n/a
Violence: The whale sequence can be briefly frightening for very young children, especially given a moment when we think one of the characters has died
Adult situations: Just the peril of the whale sequence and the Pleasure Island debauchery
Takeaways: We remember one song from this movie, but the others—“Little Wooden Head,” “Give a Little Whistle,” “Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee,” and “I’ve Got No Strings”—are also quite good, and some of the animation is really ahead of its time

QUEEN OF KATWE (Blu-ray)

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queenofkatwecoverGrade: A-/B+
Entire family: Yes (with a one-scene caveat)
2016, 124 min., Color
Disney
Rated PG for thematic elements, an accident scene, and some suggestive material
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features:  B
Includes:  Blu-ray, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Queen of Katwe is a co-production of Walt Disney Pictures and ESPN Films, and it does have the road-to-success structure of a typical sports biopic. The difference is that the “sport” here is chess—that two-player brainy board game enjoyed worldwide. If that sounds nerdy or dull, it’s not. This is no Bobby Fischer story of a temperamental prodigy living a life of privilege. Queen of Katwe is based on the true story of Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), an Ugandan girl who grew up in a slum known as Katwe. And it’s not just her story. There are many places to find inspiration in this wonderful little PG-rated film, which seems perfect for family viewing on so many levels.

queenofkatwescreen1Shot in Kampala, Uganda in the actual slums of Katwe, the film provides a detailed picture of life as it’s lived in a Third World country . . . and in a section that’s impoverished even by Third World standards. Just to glimpse daily life there gives an eye-opening perspective to children raised in a western city, suburb, or small town. Though what you see isn’t overbearingly oppressive, it’s impossible to watch this film and not feel your mind and your own world expanding. There is poverty in Katwe, and yet there is still dignity and an attitude of joyfulness, especially in the children, that cannot be squashed. You feel it throughout the film, and as a result you come away from it appreciating your own life all the more—no matter what struggles you might have . . . or think you have.

You also develop an admiration for Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), a young single mother who was determined not to go the easy way of women in such situations and trade sexual favors for cash in order to survive—a point made as subtly as possible. And you admire missionary outreach social worker queenofkatwescreen2Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), who coaches youth soccer and a group of dedicated young chess players he calls the Pioneers. He inspires them with his own story of learning to play well enough to beat the “city boys” and find enough pride in that moment to turn his life around. They can do it too, he tells them. They can use chess to find their way to a better life. He and his wife make sacrifices in order to take in some of the children, to help them, to convince reluctant parents like Nakku to let her two children join his little group of Pioneers and travel to matches. Queen of Katwe is a film about making good choices, and the characters we grow close to are wonderful role models.

Though it’s Phiona’s story, Queen of Katwe is also very much an ensemble film. The children in the film are all very good, and the camaraderie that the Pioneers have is contagious. It’s not just Phiona that you find yourself rooting for—it’s all of those chess-loving youngsters, and all the residents of Katwe and Uganda who, like the Jamaicans cheering their unlikely bobsledding Olympic heroes in Disney’s Cool Runnings, find inspiration and take pride in their accomplishments.

Queen of Katwe isn’t your typical feel-good Disney movie or biopic, but that’s another strength. With winning performances by the two stars and young Nalwanga, it’s the kind of film that sticks with you.

Language: Nothing to speak of
Sex: A sister is seen glamming up and going on a motorcycle with a man, and it’s implied that she is having relations with the man; it’s all very tastefully presented
Violence: One accident scene that could traumatize very young children
Adult situations: Talk of what the mother could be doing to pay the rent
Takeaway: Director Mira Nair has given us a wonderful triumph story that really resonates and inspires

THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON: JOHNNY AND FRIENDS FEATURING JERRY SEINFELD (DVD)

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tonightshowseinfeldcoverGrade: B+/A-
Entire family: No (young children will be bored)
1985-88, 157 min. (3 shows), Color
Time Life
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

Okay, families, it’s cultural literacy time.

If you’re a fan of horror-thrillers, to appreciate that famous line “Here’s Johnny” from Stephen King’s The Shining, you really ought to have seen The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson at least ONCE, and witness sidekick Ed McMahon doing his introductory thing.

Since Seinfeld tops the TV Guide’s list of all-time greatest comedies and is still in syndication, you also ought to watch some of Jerry Seinfeld’s early Tonight Show stand-up routines to see a very young Jerry honing his craft and see how his humor, from the very beginning, focused on keen observations of the small things in everyday life.

This pure genius release from Time Life features three FULL episodes of The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. Fans of SNL and sketch comedy will find this worth buying just to see Carson’s classic impersonation of Sylvester Stallone in a one-man skit, “Mr. Rambo’s Neighborhood.” Inspired by Eddie Murphy’s 1983 SNL ghetto version of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, this 1985 sketch features Carson doing a spot-on Sly with special effects so much fun that the talk-show host thanked all of the people involved. It’s at least as funny as Murphy’s Mr. Robinson, and possibly funnier, given how great Carson’s impersonation is. And it’s way funnier than John Byner’s SNL version of “Mr. Rambo’s Neighborhood.”

Meanwhile, tennis fans will delight in seeing 18-year-old Andre Agassi appear as a guest on one of these three shows—with a clip showing the mullet-haired Agassi, then a teen heartthrob, in three exchanges from a semi-final match he lost to Mats Wilander. It wasn’t much of a prediction, but Carson said on the air that in a few years Agassi would dominate the sport, and of course he did. There are some other great guest appearances on this DVD collection as well, including the only female drag racer back in 1986, Shirley Muldowney, whose interview with Carson is enlightening, even if Carson’s golf-cart drag racing challenge doesn’t meet expectations.

In TV, there’s probably no bigger name than Oprah, and she appears on one of these three shows to promote her appearance in Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple (clip shown). This was before Oprah’s talk show went totally national, as she announced that the show would be available in the L.A. market “soon.” It’s fascinating to see this icon before she became huge . . . just as it’s fascinating to see Arnold Schwarzenegger appear to plug his fish-out-of-water cop comedy Red Heat before he successfully ran for governor of California.

Of the guests, the always-annoying Shelley Winters is the only bomb, useful only for Carson to poke fun of. She comes on directly after that funny Rambo sketch, which makes it all the more painful to watch . . . so much so that the all-male King’s Singers novelty a cappella act seems refreshing.

tonightshowseinfeldscreenAs for Carson himself, these three shows offer proof enough as to why he was a late-night institution for three decades, ranked #12 on “TV Guide’s 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time.” His monologues are a course in comedy for aspiring comedians, with his gestures, his timing, and his handling of jokes that fall flat (or jokes he muffs) ultimately tweaked and twisted until they become running gags or produce more laughs than if the joke had been successful. Much of the Reagan-era humor is topical, but there’s enough here to make each monologue funny enough to watch even now. One thing worth mentioning, though, is the show’s trademark interlude tiles, with a “We’ll be right back” static message displayed on-screen while you listen to a few bars (in some cases, quite a few) from the studio band led by Doc Severinsen. Later late-night shows would put the camera on the band.

Bottom line: If you’re wanting to see a few FULL episodes of The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson to boost your cultural literacy, this is the disc to get, as these shows have appeal for a broader range of ages than others might. An added bonus is that you can choose to watch the shows with or without original commercials. Families will want to watch the commercials too, because it’s always fun to see old products and familiar ones advertised 25 years ago. There isn’t a scene selection menu for each show, but the scenes are easily accessed using the skip button on your remote. Two clicks on the first show, for example, and you’re right there in “Mr. Rambo’s Neighborhood.”

Young children will be bored, but children old enough to watch reruns of adult shows on TV might find this DVD compilation as fascinating as their parents will. These three episodes would be rated PG because of the Rambo sketch and some innuendo that will fly right over young one’s heads.