Editor’s Notes: Stake Land II, London Town, The Great Race, The Goodbye Girl, Flo: The Complete Series, Wizards and Warriors: The Complete Series, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and Judy Collins: A Love Letter to Stephen Sondheim are out on their respective formats Tuesday February 14th.
Stake Land II
Stake Land II (Dark Sky Films) is set several years after the events in Stake Land, in which mankind must struggle to survive in the wake of a vampire apocalypse. After trying to start a fresh life in the Canadian safe haven of New Eden, Martin (Connor Paolo) has raised a small family in the midst of a devastated world still full of vampires and cannibals prowling around the urban wasteland. He’s given up vampire hunting, but he still thinks about his mentor/father figure Mister (Nick Damici), who abandoned him at the end of the first Stake Land movie. When a vampire cult desecrates the outlying areas where Martin lives with wife Peggy and daughter Belle, Martin finds himself at the mercy of the vampire horde.
Though Stake Land II has more than its share of gore, it suffers what plagues many sequels: it simply doesn’t live up to the original. The first film created its own grisly universe, inspired by rich cinematic lore, but this time around, much of the action is routine and outcomes telegraphed long before they occur. Directors Dan Berk and Robert Olsen do a better job with the film’s second half, which involves a quest through dangerous territory. They aspire to an epic feel, which doesn’t quite come off, but the performances are effective, the effects pretty decent for a low-budget movie, and the pace brisk.
Bonus extras on the Blu-ray release include a making-of featurette and trailer.
London Town (IFC Films) is a coming-of-age drama set against the 1970’s punk underground movement. When 15-year-old Shay (Daniel Huttlestone, Les Miserables) hears the music of the Clash for the first time, it’s a revelation, opening up a new world of social consciousness and anti-establishment defiance beyond anything he’s known in his dull London suburb. Shay is estranged from his mother (Natascha McElhone), a rock musician who left for London years back. After his father (Dougray Scott) is injured in a work accident, Shay takes over driving his cab and one night picks up Joe Strummer (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Match Point), the lead singer of the Clash. Drawn into the heart of the city’s emerging punk scene, Shay forges two relationships that will change his life — falling in love with rebellious Vivian (Nell Williams), and finding an unexpected connection with the Clash’s charismatic frontman.
Director Derrick Borte uses several of the Clash’s best songs of the period, giving the soundtrack authenticity and capturing the sound that captivated the imagination of many young people at a time when England was entering a shift into conservatism that would be felt strongly under Margaret Thatcher. Despite the anti-establishment music and young Shay’s rebellious bent, the film is light on conflict. The dad is hard working and the mom, despite her abandonment, is apologetic and seemingly decent at heart. Borte presents several musical montages which often take on a poetic look. Coming-of-age stories are common in movies, so it’s the setting and the circumstances that make such a film stand out. The use of punk music serves as a driving force as Shay discovers sex and takes on adult responsibilities. Strummer becomes a sort of mentor to Shay, counseling him on how to see things from his parents perspective. The tone of the film balances nostalgia for the era with social realism, and is an evocative portrait of a time when music was a defense against an increasingly reactionary culture.
Bonus features on the DVD release include an interview with actor Jonathan Rhys Meters, and a trailer.
The Great Race
The Great Race (Warner Archive) features a 22,000-mile road race from New York City to the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The year is 1908, and participants in the race include mortal enemies “The Great Leslie” (Tony Curtis) and the villainous Professor Fate (Jack Lemmon). In the tradition of movie heroes and villains, Curtis is always dressed in white, Lemmon in black. Another participant in the race is Maggie Dubois (Natalie Wood), who has convinced a newspaper to sponsor her so she can cover the event for the paper. Professor Fate’s car — the Hannibal 8 — is equipped with a cannon, smoke screens and assorted other gadgets that he employs to eliminate most other competitors. Everything boils down to a two-car race, with elaborate sight gags along the way.
The movie is reminiscent of Around the World in 80 Days, made nine years earlier. Both films feature a race that traverses many countries with adventures happening at every step of the way. While “… 80 Days” played it mostly seriously, director Blake Edwards pulls out all the stops to make The Great Race a rollicking hoot every mile of the journey. Not every gag lands, but most do, among them a huge pie fight, inspired by the 1927 Laurel & Hardy short Battle of the Century. Unfortunately, Lemmon plays his role like a live-action cartoon, with an over-the-top exaggerated performance that wears thin quickly. At 157 minutes, the movie is far too long, allowing for stretches when nothing significant is happening and the momentum of the race is slowed.
There are no bonus features on the unrated widescreen Blu-ray release.
The Goodbye Girl
The Goodbye Girl (Warner Archive) is a romantic comedy by Neil Simon, originally released in 1977. Dancer Paula McFadden (Marsha Mason) and her ten-year-old daughter Lucy (Quinn Cummings) live in a Manhattan apartment with her married boyfriend. But one day, he deserts her to go to Italy for an acting job. Before he left, however — and without Paula’s knowledge — her boyfriend subleased the apartment to Elliot Garfield (Richard Dreyfuss), a neurotic aspiring actor from Chicago, who shows up in the middle of the night expecting to move in. Though this initial meeting doesn’t go well, Elliot allows Paula and Lucy to stay.
Neil Simon was at his peak when he wrote the screenplay for The Goodbye Girl having written many hits on Broadway, including Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, Brighton Beach Memoirs, and Laughter on the 23rd Floor. His masterful comic touch is evident throughout The Goodbye Girl. Eventually, over time, with a number of hiccups along the way, Paula and Elliot realize they love each other, but it’s the journey to that realization that provides lots of humor and oddball situations.
One of the strangest scenes involves an avant grade production of Richard III Elliot is rehearsing. The director insists that Richard should be played as a flaming gay man, offering a significant share of the movie’s laughs. Early scenes of three people trying to make the best of living together also provide chuckles, as Elliot has a few eccentricities that take getting used to. But Simon also has the ability to write believable, quiet moments between Paula and Elliot, with gentler humor and budding affection brewing. Dreyfuss, fresh off Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, won the Best Oscar for his performance in this film.
There are no bonus features on the Blu-ray release.
Flo: The Complete Series
Flo: The Complete Series (Warner Archive) aired originally from March, 1980 through July, 1981. After four seasons as the feisty waitress at Mel’s Diner on Alice, Flo “Kiss My Grits” Castleberry (Polly Holliday) got her own place to run. Passing through her Texas hometown while on the way to take a hostess job in Houston, she impulsively bought a run-down old farmhouse she remembered from her youth, and set out to make it a successful business. Not used to being the boss, Flo had difficulty running the place, renamed Flo’s Yellow Rose. Earl, the bartender, hated working for a woman, Farley was the obnoxious mortgage holder, Les was the house piano player, and Randy was a mechanic who worked at a garage next door. Another character was Mama Velma, Flo’s mother.
This spin-off finished in Neilsen’s Top Ten for its first, short (6 episodes) season, but when it faced tougher competition in its second-season time slot, the ratings plummeted and the show was canceled. In an attempt to create a comedy ensemble, the producers incorporated a colorful group of supporting characters, but none really hit comedy pay dirt. Ms. Holliday carries most of the shows through her sunny personality and amusing dialogue. If you think of how perfect the casts of The Mary Tyler Moore Show or M*A*S*H were, you can see how opportunities were missed with Flo. Polly Holliday was nominated for an Emmy Award for her work on “Flo.”
All 29 unrated, full-screen episodes of the short-lived series are included. There are no bonus features on the 4-disc DVD set.
Wizards and Warriors: The Complete Series
Wizards and Warriors: The Complete Series (Warner Archive), a fantasy series that combines adventure and humor, is set in the time of King Arthur’s Court, when gallant knights battled the forces of evil with magic, sorcery, and sheer derring-do. The prize was the legendary kingdom of Camarand, ruled by King Baaldorf and Queen Lattinia. Their daughter, Princess Ariel, was betrothed to Prince Erik Greystone (Jeff Conway, Taxi) who, along with his strongman sidekick Marko (Walter Olkewicz), is the primary defender of the realm. Evil Prince Dirk Blackpool (Duncan Regehr) and malevolent magic-user Vector (Clive Revill) seek to conquer Camarand through the black arts.
The light touch applied to the episodes prevents Wizards and Warriors from becoming yet another spectacle that takes itself too seriously. Conway uses his comic timing and delivery to get in some witty quips amid the action, grounding the program and making it a lot of fun. It delivers with its cool visuals — ghosts, demons, fiery swords, magical amulets — and imaginary production design, as well as with well-placed humor.
Wizards and Warriors aired from February 28 through May 14, 1983. All 8 episodes of the short-lived series are contained on the 2-disc unrated, full-screen DVD set. There are no bonus features.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Sony Home Entertainment) deals with the disillusionment faced by soldiers who have returned home from war. Nineteen-year-old Billy (Joe Alwyn) and his Bravo squadron team dealt with terrible horrors in Iraq, dodging gunfire while attempting to save their leader Shroom (Vin Diesel). Now on a victory furlough, they tour football stadiums, doing halftime shows. During these shows, director Ang Lee (The Life of Pi) flashes back to disturbingly realistic battlefield scenes in Iraq.
The film’s strength is how it portrays Billy’s alienation from civilian life, haunted by vivid memories of battle, unable to appreciate the applause of stadium crowds when he’s trotted out as a hero, and conflicted by the belief that he isn’t worthy of such a public spotlight. What doesn’t work is the tone of the movie, which switches from raw battle sequences to a satire of prevalent attitudes of the early 2000s. When director Lee presents a scene intended to provoke laughs, the viewer is confused. Is this what he’s supposed to do? Had the film been a straightforward war picture, like Hacksaw Ridge, or a satire, like Dr.Strangelove, the viewer might be more at ease knowing where the film is heading.
Newcomer Alwyn is effective as the young, conflicted soldier experiencing post traumatic stress disorder, yet trying his best to go through what is expected of him, though even common experiences become surreal obstacles as the differences between war and home are blurred. All the events take place in a single day, which strains credibility, and a half-hearted romantic story between Billy and a cheerleader (Makenzie Leigh) is unnecessary. The supporting cast includes Kristen Stewart, Chris Tucker, Garrett Hedlund, and Steve Martin.
The 4K Ultra HD edition includes the Blu-ray 3D and standard Blu-ray versions, plus a digital HD copy. The 4K version is presented at 60 frames per second, four times the resolution of full HD. Bonus extras include Ang Lee discussing the film’s frame rate technology, deleted scenes, and four behind-the-scenes featurettes.
Judy Collins: A Love Letter to Stephen Sondheim
Judy Collins: A Love Letter to Stephen Sondheim (MVD Visual), a concert filmed in Denver, Colorado and originally aired on PBS, features 17 songs, most from the works of Sondheim. Though many artists recorded “Send in the Clowns,” it was Collins who had the hit recording, and she performs it here. Other songs include that anthem of show business durability and longevity, “I’m Still Here,” a rousing number from “Follies” that builds dramatically as the singer catalogues an arduous career that has had memorable ups and more than its share of downs.
Sondheim’s major Broadway shows and one TV musical are represented in Ms. Collins’ program. She performs two haunting songs from the made-for-TV musical Evening Primrose — “I Remember Sky” and “Take Me to the World.” Other songs include the seldom-performed “Gun Song” (Assassins), “Being Alive” (Company), “Finishing the Hat” (Sunday in the Park With George), “No One Is Alone” (Into the Woods), “The Road You Didn’t Take” (“Follies”) and the title song from Anyone Can Whistle.
The non-Sondheim songs on the DVD are “Chelsea Morning” and the John Denver medley “Leaving on a Jet Plane”/“Country Roads.” Though performed beautifully, these numbers simply don’t display the ingenuity of lyrics that the Sondheim songs possess. Instead, why not include “Not a Day Goes By” (Merrily We Roll Along), “Not While I’m Around” (Sweeney Todd), and “Somewhere” (West Side Story)?
Collins’ first album was released in 1961 at the height of the folk music revival. Early in her career, she sang traditional folk songs or songs written by others, especially the protest songwriters Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, and Bob Dylan. Her recording of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Side Now” in 1967 brought her international recognition. “Send in the Clowns” was on Billboard’s Pop Singles chart in 1975 and again in 1977, spending 27 non-consecutive weeks on the chart and earning Collins a Grammy nomination.
Bonus material on the DVD release includes an interview with Judy Collins and rehearsal footage.