Under the Radar’s 2020 Holiday Gift Guide Part 7: Blu-rays and DVDs (Part One)
For Your Viewing Pleasure Featuring Classic Movies, Recent Hits, Full TV Seasons, and More
Dec 23, 2020
If you were smart and careful, you spent much of 2020 indoors thanks to the deadly pandemic. With many movie theaters closed much of 2020, with bars and restaurants often unavailable, with live music an impossibility; we all turned to home entertainment and that often meant our screens. Netflix and other streaming services can only offer so many choices and few people subscribe to every service, so 2020 was a good year to catch up on some DVDs and Blu-rays.
For the seventh installment of our 2020 Holiday Gift Guide we present a multitude of DVDs and Blu-rays worth giving or picking up yourself to help get you through the long, cold, socially distant winter. Most of the big movies set to come out after March were pushed to 2021, so this guide is light on 2020 films, but there are many classic movies to consider (some that never got their due when they were originally released), as well as some worthy 2019 films and TV shows. This part one of our Blu-ray/DVD guide, it was too massive to fit in one post.
Also check out the other parts of our 2020 Holiday Gift Guide: Part 1 on video games, Part 2 on drinking, Part 3 on table top and board games, Part 4 on collectibles, Part 5 on toys, and part 6 on books and graphic novels.
Read on to watch on.
The Essential Fellini (The Criterion Collection)
Having released their very first laserdisc—Citizen Kane—36 years ago this month, The Criterion Collection has been curating a massive library of the world’s finest films for longer than some of its biggest devotees have been alive. With well over one thousand spine numbers in its modern era of DVD and Blu-ray releases, it can be hard for someone to know where to start with their own collection. With such a rich variety of arthouse and foreign films—not to mention many, many Hollywood classics—where does one begin? That’s changed, though, in recent years, as Criterion has issued a handful of gorgeous, heavyweight boxed sets that take a near-comprehensive look at a single, influential filmmaker or genre of movies. Beginning with their in-depth survey of the cinematic works of Swedish icon Ingmar Bergman and continuing with last year’s monumental collection of Godzilla films, this year’s instant Criterion Collection in a single box collects the landmark works of inimitable Italian auteur Federico Fellini.
No one blended reality with the fantastical like Fellini was able to, although so many have tried since. The fantasy elements are present but understated in his early work, bordered on the surreal in his middle period, and generally grew even more abstract (weirder) as his career went on. Compiled for his 100th birthday, The Essential Fellini doesn’t collect all of the director’s works, but it certainly includes all of his best-known features and much more. Eleven of the included films feature all-new restorations; six of them full-length audio commentaries; and hours upon hours of documentaries and other extra materials. It’s enough to keep any arthouse cinema fan busy well until springtime.
With The Essential Fellini, Criterion has assembled 14 of the director’s films, including a handful that have never been released on Blu-ray, and others whose prior Criterion editions have been out of print for more than a decade. From where we’re standing, this set includes a whopping six bona fide masterpieces (8 ½, La Strada, La Dolce Vita, Nights of Cabiria, Amarcord, and I Vitelloni), five must-see next-tier features, and only three that are geared more toward Fellini completionists. (We’ll supply the caveat that even subpar Fellini is still Fellini, and therefore worth viewing.) With a suggested retail price that brings each film in the set to approximately $17—less than half the price of most Criterion Blu-rays—that’s already a stellar bargain, and once you consider the set can be had for well less than that on sale, it would be crazy not to recommend it if you have any genuine interest in the director and his work. Plus, it’s housed in an absolutely lovely box that resembles a vinyl boxed set, and would become a focal point in any home video collection. By Austin Trunick (Buy it here.)
Northern Exposure: The Complete Series (Shout! Factory)
When hotshot NYC doctor Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow) takes a residency in Alaska, he doesn’t find the undemanding assignment he expected. Rather than Anchorage, he’s put to work in the small, remote town of Cicely—population less than one thousand—and is quickly made familiar with its quirky residents.
Premiering just a few short months after ABC’s Twin Peaks on rival network CBS, Northern Exposure might have looked at first glance like a knock-off of that show, minus the murder and backwards-talking dwarf stuff. Both take place in a magical-feeling town full of hardcore eccentrics, and both are fish-out-of-water tales. Northern Exposure is its own beast, though, far more feel-good and warmhearted than the Lynch-Frost series—and, it certainly lasted a lot longer, airing six seasons and winning many Emmy awards.
Shout! Factory’s Northern Exposure: The Complete Series DVD box set includes the show’s full run, plus countless deleted and extended scenes for fans who wished they could stay in Cicely just a little bit longer. By Austin Trunick (Buy it here.)
The Alfred Hitchcock Classics Collection: 4K UHD (Universal)
With few of us having had the chance to experience movies in theaters over the last 10 months, we’ve been leaning harder than ever on our home theater set-ups. As TVs, media players, and sound systems get exponentially more impressive, powerful, and affordable with each passing year, we occasionally find ourselves having to replace old copies of classics that haven’t kept pace with the improving technology. If you know a cinephile who’s serious about their home theater, there’s a good chance they’re probably ready to upgrade those old copies of the Alfred Hitchcock classics.
The appropriately-named Alfred Hitchcock Classics Collection gathers four of Hitch’s most famous thrillers—Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds—into one collection in 4K Ultra HD. (Psycho even includes two versions: the familiar version that was cut for TV and prior home video releases, and an extended, uncut version.) The three Technicolor films look stunning in full resolution, and Bernard Herrmann’s scores get a nice boost in the included DTS mixes. You’ll also find hours of documentaries and commentaries, many ported over from old releases so that you can replace the dusty, old versions with this concise, compact package. By Austin Trunick (Buy it here.)
Sergio Leone Westerns (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
All five Spaghetti Westerns from the director who perfected them? Sign us up. Kino Lorber Studio Classics has collected their robust, restored editions of A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly—the Man with No Name trilogy, starring Clint Eastwood—alongside his other Western masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in the West, and the entertaining A Fistful of Dynamite, inside a single, shelf-saving box set. If you don’t already own any of these definitive editions—these are movies made for high definition, widescreen viewing—it’s a great way to get them all in one, fell swoop. Kino Lorber has truly rendered all other Blu-ray and DVD versions of these films dispensable, based not only on audio-visual quality—they’ve somehow made “Ecstasy of the Gold” sound even cooler—but the overabundance of extra features. This is a great gift for any movie and/or Western fan. It’s also a great gift for an impossible-to-buy-for father-in-law, because what father-in-law doesn’t love Clint Eastwood movies? By Austin Trunick (Buy it here.)
Mad Max: 4K UHD (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
For many years, the Mad Max movies were simply a trilogy of badass action movies from early in Mel Gibson’s career, imitated often throughout the ’80s but never truly matched. When Mad Max: Fury Road came along in 2015, they entered the echelons of our greatest, cinematic sci-fi sagas. It’s long past high time the original three films received robust, cleaned-up editions. Kino Lorber’s 4K UHD release of the original Mad Max not only looks (and sounds) incredible, especially during the movie’s many car stunts, but the two discs overflow with extra features, from archival docs to an all-new interview with George Miller. If you’ve got an advanced home theater setup, this disc is a no-brainer. By Austin Trunick (Buy it here.)
The Rocky Horror Picture Show: 45th Anniversary Edition Steelbook (Fox/Disney)
Who’s ready to do the “Time Warp” again? And again, and again…? The quintessential midnight movie turned 45 years old this year, and while were unable to celebrate that in full costume, in crowded theaters, with rice, newspaper, and squirt guns in hand, the cult musical has received a new, 45th anniversary steelbook edition to celebrate the occasion. While the HD picture is certainly a big upgrade over any DVD release you might still be holding onto, the real star is the Blu-ray’s 7.1 (!) audio mix—which will help immerse anyone in your home theater into the experience, as you throw a belated anniversary party for the film in 2021. By Austin Trunick (Buy it here.)
Leave Her to Heaven (The Criterion Collection)
Standing at an unusual junction between melodrama and noir, Leave Her to Heaven (1945) stars Gene Tierney as a young woman obsessed with her new husband—so much so that she’s not willing to let anyone, not even their own family, dare pull his attention away from her. The lovely, almost cheerfully bright Technicolor surroundings stand at odds with its heroine’s murderous jealously, making this a film that feels rather unique for its era. Criterion’s Blu-ray does the Technicolor image justice, and a half hour-long featurette by critic and historian Imogen Sara Smith gives the viewer plenty of historical context for the feature. By Austin Trunick (Buy it here.)
Holiday Affair (Warner Archive)
Known better for his tough guy and film noir roles, Robert Mitchum here plays a softer sort of gentleman in the underseen Hollywood classic, Holiday Affair (1949). Having just lost his job as a retail clerk, Mitchum can’t help but sink his last dollars into buying an unfortunate young boy he doesn’t know a toy, fully aware that the child’s Christmas will be otherwise glum. Doing so, he unknowingly attracts the attention of the boy’s mother (Janet Leigh), widowed by the war just a few years earlier. Another heartwarming classic, Warner Archive’s Blu-ray version includes an original trailer and a LUX Radio Theater broadcast version from 1950. By Austin Trunick (Buy it here.)
The Shop around the Corner (Warner Archive)
Remade during the dot com boom as You’ve Got Mail, the classic original starred perhaps the one actor more loveable an American treasure than Tom Hanks: Jimmy Stewart. Director Ernst Lubitsch’s golden age rom-com is set around the holidays in a Hungarian gift shop, where Stewart works with frequent co-star Margaret Sullavan—a colleague he can’t stand, but is unwittingly falling in love with through an anonymous exchange of mushy notes. Hijinks ensue. A staple on all-time romantic movie lists, The Shop around the Corner (1940) looks excellent in its new Blu-ray transfer, and includes two vintage, radio broadcast versions. By Austin Trunick (Buy it here.)
It’s a Wonderful Life 4K UHD Steelbook Edition (Paramount)
Now, here’s the grand poobah classic of James Stewart holiday movies. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) has become an annual tradition within so many families’ Christmas seasons. Sure, it might be pretty dark—with half of it taking place as a man considers throwing himself over a bridge to collect insurance money—but strangely, it’s hard to find a movie more heartwarming. The film has received a 4K UHD upgrade and a steelbook case—grab it now and save yourself a Charlie Brown Christmas-level panic in the future. We’re getting into the age where every movie will soon be exclusive to some premium streaming service or another, so you shouldn’t take classics like this one airing on television every year for granted. By Austin Trunick (Buy it here.)
It Happened on 5th Avenue (Warner Archive)
The third in Warner Archive’s recent reissues of old school holiday gems is It Happened on 5th Avenue, a zany comedy about a wise and wily old hobo who takes residence in a boarded-up Manhattan mansion while its wealthy owners winter in warmer climes—and what happens when they return home early one Christmas season. This being a comedy from 1947, what ensues is naturally pretty screwy, as the second-richest man in the world decides to disguise himself as a homeless person so that he can get to know the down-on-their-luck people who borrowed his mansion to get off the cold streets of the city. An Oscar-nominated, yuletide classic, this Blu-ray includes a vintage radio play version of the film. By Austin Trunick (Buy it here.)
The Quest (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
Released in an era that was the apex for children’s science fiction films, 1986’s The Quest belongs in a pantheon with The Goonies, Invaders from Mars, and The Last Starfighter. Although it wasn’t nearly as well-known here as it was in its native Australia—where it was released as “Frog Dreaming”—this Blu-ray should hopefully help expand the movie’s cult status stateside. Presented with a full 4K restoration, this adventure stars E.T.’s Henry Thomas as a young boy who starts his own investigation into a local, Aboriginal myth. The special edition is packed with bonus features, including a commentary from the director, editor, costume designer, and Electric Boogaloo director Mark Hartley; looks back with Henry Thomas and his co-stars, American and Australian trailers, and a trip to revisit the shooting locations down under. If you haven’t seen this since you were a kid—or, now have a kid of your own to share it with—The Quest is a must-grab on Blu-ray. By Austin Trunick (Buy it here.)
Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
Considered the world’s best-selling mystery novel, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None has been adapted for film at least 10 times—but only one of those was by the legendary ’80s b-movie factory, Cannon, and only that one stars Frank Stallone. The cast of this Harry Alan Towers-produced version also includes Donald Pleasance, Herbert Lom, and Brenda Vaccaro—and, honestly, isn’t as bad as you might imagine. If you’re a Cannon devotee, this brand new 2K master is certainly worth a grab this holiday season. By Austin Trunick (Buy it here.)
The Circus (The Criterion Collection)
This delightful1928 silent film written and directed by Charlie Chaplin also features him as the accident-prone but endearing little tramp who, while pursued by the police, bumbles, stumbles and tumbles into a travelling circus where he not only becomes the star but also falls for beautiful fellow circus performer, portrayed by a charming Merna Kennedy. Comedy high points include his temporary entrapment in a lion’s cage and his frantic endeavor to impress his beloved while lurching along a highwire with several frisky monkeys clinging to his head and body.
Among the Blu-ray’s numerous off-cuts and special features is a particularly poignant interview with Chaplin’s son Eugene who recounts how Charlie, orphaned in childhood, learned his acting craft from street performers and his time as a real circus performer. It also includes fond images of an older Charlie and his wife Oona, daughter of famous playwright Eugene O’Neill. Even though she was only 18 when she married Charlie, then 54, their marriage was a long and happy one, producing several children who presumably greatly enjoyed seeing their father portray the little tramp. By Mary Moore Mason (Buy it here.)
Mission: Impossible The Original TV Series (CBS DVD/Paramount)
You would think that the original 1960s/1970s Mission: Impossible TV series might seem quaint by comparison to the modern Tom Cruise movies—and certainly no one is doing halo jumps from airplanes over Paris or hanging onto the side of a plane while it takes off or having a fight on top of a high speed train as it zooms through the Channel Tunnel—but the old episodes are filled with plenty of exciting tension. And what a cast, including over its seven-season run, future Oscar winner Martin Landau, Peter Graves, Leonard Nimoy, Sam Elliott, Lesley Ann Warren, Greg Morris, Peter Lupus, and Barbara Bain (who three years in a row won the Emmy for Actress in a Leading Role in a Dramatic Series for her part as Cinnamon Carter, a top actress and model turned secret agent). Plus the show also won the Best Drama Series Emmy its first two seasons. Come for the masks, self destructing spy messages, high stakes double crosses, and Lalo Schifrin’s iconic music, stay for the array of cool guest stars, including Eartha Kitt, Martin Sheen, Lloyd Bridges, George Takei, Ricardo Montalbán, Edward Asner, Lee Meriwether, Joan Collins, Kevin McCarthy, Tyne Daly, Dean Stockwell, and William Shatner.
Mission: Impossible The Original TV Series collects all 171 episodes of all seven seasons across 46 discs in a stylishly packaged Blu-ray box set. That equals 143 hours and 45 minutes of globetrotting action to keep you busy until the seventh movie in the Tom Cruise series hits theaters on November 19, 2021 (followed by the eighth movie only a year later, on November 4, 2022). This gift guide entry will self-destruct in five-seconds… By Mark Redfern (Buy it here.)
The Secret of My Success (Kino Lorber)
Still riding high on the twin 1985 hits Back to the Future and Teen Wolf, 1987’s The Secret of My Success gave Michael J. Fox a chance at a less fantastical big screen starring role, one more akin to Alex P. Keaton, the yuppie Republican he played on TV’s Family Ties. In the Herbert Ross-directed film Fox plays Brantley Foster, a fresh college graduate from Kansas who sets his sights on making it big in business in New York City. When he gets to the Big Apple, however, he immediately loses the job he had lined up, due to a hostile takeover. He convinces his estranged uncle, Howard Prescott (Richard Jordan), the CEO of the Pemrose Corporation, to give him a job in the mailroom. Foster hatches a scheme to take over an empty office and moonlight as a fake executive, Carlton Whitfield, eventually shaking up the company with his ideas. Along the way he accidentally sleeps with his aunt by marriage Vera (Margaret Whitton) and falls in love with evasive executive Christy Wills (Helen Slater, three years after playing Supergirl).
The Secret of My Success is very much a product of the ’80s, complete with a prominent use of Yello’s “Oh Yeah,” a year after the song was also used in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and the film has a bit of a “greed is good” message the same year that Oliver Stone’s Wall Street came out. In our current era, when we’re more aware of wealth inequality and how much more the one-percent has over the 99-percent, perhaps The Secret of My Success hasn’t aged all that well. And yet… Michael J. Fox is as charming as ever and the film has its share of amusing moments as he tries to lead a double life as a mailroom employee and a young executive. If you grew up in the ’80s and were a Michael J. Fox fan, chances are you loved the film and so it works as a nostalgic re-watch. Special features are light on this Blu-ray release, but include a new interview with Slater recorded remotely during the pandemic and audio commentary by entertainment journalist and author Bryan Reesman. By Mark Redferm (Buy it here.)
The Hard Way (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
The Hard Way was a modest success upon its 1991 release, making $65.6 million worldwide against a $24 million budget, but it’s not a film that’s talked about much these days. Michael J. Fox plays Nick Lang, a spoiled Hollywood star of fluffy action movies who’s dying to land the lead in a new gritty cop drama, even though his agent Angie (Penny Marshall) says that Mel Gibson is in line for the role. To help him get the part Lang is able to finagle an extended ride-along with tough New York City homicide detective Lt. John Moss (James Woods), with Lang pretending to be his new partner Ray Casanov. Only Moss and his boss, Captain Brix (Delroy Lindo), are in on the secret. But Moss isn’t happy babysitting a Hollywood star when he is instead obsessed with tracking down a serial killer called The Party Crasher (Stephen Lang). The film also stars Luis Guzmán and LL Cool J as fellow police detectives Benny and Billy, as well as Annabella Sciorra as Moss’ love interest Susan and a young Christina Ricci as her daughter Bonnie.
Fox and Woods have great comedic chemistry. Say what you will about Woods’ current right-wing politics, in the ’80s and ’90s he was a helluva actor who was twice nominated for an Oscar, and adds a believability to his role as a gruff cop (Moss is not a million miles removed from his Det.-Sgt. Lloyd Hopkins character in 1988’s Cop). Fox, meanwhile, was game to send up his movie star persona. Following 1991’s The Hard Way and Doc Hollywood, Fox’s career as a leading man took a downturn with a slew of forgettable starring roles until 1996’s The Frighteners, but then after that he scaled back from starring in movies altogether because of Parkinson’s disease (which was diagnosed in 1991 and not disclosed publically until 1998).
Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray release looks much more vibrant than the old DVD release of The Hard Way. It’s short on special features, beyond an audio commentary featuring director John Badham, producer/second unit director Rob Cohen, and film historian/filmmaker Daniel Kremer. By Mark Redfern (Buy it here.)
Mo’ Better Blues (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
1990’s Mo’ Better Blues is perhaps not the best remembered of Spike Lee’s films, coming out only a year after 1989’s Academy Award-nominated all-time classic Do the Right Thing and just before 1991’s Jungle Fever and 1992’s Malcolm X, which were both more acclaimed. But there’s much to enjoy here. The film stars Denzel Washington as trumpeter Bleek Gilliam, a rising star in the New York jazz scene, and Lee himself as the ironically named Giant, Gilliam’s childhood best friend and manager. Gilliam faces multiple challenges, including deciding between the two women he’s dating (played by Joie Lee and Cynda Williams) and keeping his bandmates (played by Wesley Snipes, Giancarlo Esposito, and Bill Nunn) happy, while also convincing the brothers who own the club he’s contracted to perform in (played by real life brothers John and Nicholas Turturro) to pay him and his band more money. Meanwhile, Giant’s gambling problem threatens their friendship and Gilliam’s career when some heavies (including Samuel L. Jackson) come to violently collect on his debts. The film is almost as well known for its soundtrack, which was composed and performed by real-life jazz musicians the Branford Marsalis Quartet and Terence Blanchard, but there’s also a lot of verve and musicality to the way Lee filmed and edited Mo’ Better Blues. Special features on this new Blu-ray release are slight, but include audio commentary by film critic Kameron Austin Collins. Some casual Spike Lee fans may not have checked out Mo’ Better Blues and this would make a great gift for them. By Mark Redfern (Buy it here.)
Doctor Sleep (Warner Bros.)
It’s confounding that Doctor Sleep didn’t fair better at the box office upon its release last year, making only $31.5 million in the U.S. despite being generally well received by critics. The film, written and directed by Mike Flanagan, successfully achieved the difficult balance of following up Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror masterpiece The Shining (even though author Stephen King didn’t love Krubick’s big screen adaptation of his novel) and also adapting King’s sequel to The Shining (also titled Doctor Sleep). It is a delicate dance, but Doctor Sleep was endorsed by King and features plenty of callbacks to Kubrick’s film. The film stars Ewan McGregor as Danny Torrance, an adult version of the young boy with psychic powers from The Shining. Danny is still haunted by the events at the Overlook Hotel and the death of his father, who was driven mad and tried to murder his family with an axe. Since then he’s become an alcoholic with no fixed life, but an encounter with a new child with strong psychic powers, Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), put him at odds with a group of evil psychic vampires of sorts who caravan across America tracking down psychic kids and brutally murdering them to drain their psychic energy (or steam) to extend their own lives by decades and sometimes centuries.
Doctor Sleep is sufficiently creepy and disturbing and features an appropriately haunted performance from McGregor. Rebecca Ferguson, as Rose the Hat, the leader of the evil True Knot cult, is equally as good. The film is also visually stunning, especially in its spot-on recreation of The Overlook Hotel. The Blu-ray version includes a director’s cut that is 28 minutes longer than the theatrical version and includes on-screen chapter titles. Special features include various making of documentaries, such as a joint interview with Mike Flanagan and Stephen King. By Mark Redfern (Buy it here.)
Dr. Who and the Daleks (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
Diehard Doctor Who fans are likely aware of the two big screen movies based on the character made in the 1960s; more casual fans might be surprised that they exist. While the First Doctor (played by William Hartnell) was having fairly low budget black & white adventures on the BBC on the small screen, in 1965 the character was adapted into a full-color film with a bigger budget and starring Peter Cushing as The Doctor battling the Daleks in part to cash-in on the Dalek craze that was sweeping the UK at the time. The film recreates aspects of several early Doctor Who TV stories, including The Doctor’s first encounter with the dangerous Daleks. However, several big changes were made, much to the chagrin of fans. Firstly, we was not referred to as The Doctor, but as Doctor Who (with Who being the revised character’s last name). And instead of being a time and space traveling alien from the planet Gallifrey, a Time Lord, this Doctor was simply a human inventor and grandfather who designed the TARDIS (his time and space machine) himself. And his granddaughter Susan is much younger in the film than the teenaged version on TV. Still, the basic plot remains pretty much the same as the TV version.
For fans in 1965 used to seeing the TARDIS and Daleks in black & white it must’ve been quite a sight to see it all in such vibrant colors. The film is a bit dated, but it’s certainly a fun curiosity for Doctor Who fans. Special features on this Blu-ray release include Dalekmania (an old ’90s documentary on the big screen films), a documentary about restoration of the film, and audio commentary featuring film critic/film historian Kim Newman, film historian Robert Shearman, and Doctor Who writer/actor Mark Gatiss. By Mark Redfern (Buy it here.)
Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
Peter Cushing returned as Doctor Who the following year in 1966’s Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D., which was an adaptation of the BBC TV Doctor Who story The Dalek Invasion of Earth (from 1964), again in full color when the show was still in black & white and again with the character being an inventor from Earth rather than a Time Lord. It follows the plot of the original TV serial well, with Doctor Who and his travelers finding a future London in ruins and under the control of the Daleks. The film is grittier than the first one, featuring more action set pieces. It’s also notable for featuring Bernard Cribbins as Tom Campbell, a new character not from the TV version, a police officer who accidentally goes into the TARDIS thinking it’s an actual police box. Four decades later Cribbins would play a recurring role on the modern Doctor Who as Wilfred Mott, the grandfather of Tenth Doctor companion Donna Noble. Special features include an interview with Cribbins about the film, the aforementioned Dalekmania documentary from 1995, and again audio commentary featuring film critic/film historian Kim Newman, film historian Robert Shearman, and Doctor Who writer/actor Mark Gatiss. By Mark Redfern (Buy it here.)
Back to the Future The Ultimate Trilogy 4K Ultra HD (Universal)
What else can be said about the Back to the Future films? They remain one of the most beloved trilogies of all time. The first film was the biggest one of 1985 and is a perfect movie. Everything set up in the first act is paid off in wonderful and unexpected ways later in the movie. Back to the Future doesn’t seem dated at all and retains its magic 35 years later. 1989’s Back to the Future Part II seems a little more past its prime, mainly because the first portion takes places 30 years in the future from the first film and 26 years after it came out, which is actually five years ago. So the filmmakers’ vision of 2015, with flying cars and fax machines in every room, was way off, but co-writer/producer Bob Gale and co-writer/director Robert Zemeckis knew they couldn’t accurately predict the future and just wanted to make a fun sequel and this they achieved. 1990’s Back to the Future Part III took Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) to the old west and reversed their roles slightly from the first one, with Marty being the voice of reason when Doc falls in love with school teacher Clara Clayton (Mary Steenburgen). The climax with the steam train is one of the best sequences in the whole franchise.
My wife likes to jokingly tell people that I own Back to the Future on almost every format possible and it’s true that I have it on VHS (both in the American NTSC format and a British copy in PAL), on laserdisc, on DVD, as a digital download, and on Blu-ray (if only I had it on Betamax—I just looked it up and there’s a copy on eBay for $74.50, but that’s okay, I’m good). Well now the trilogy is available in 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray for the first time, so I was thankful when Universal sent me over a copy for this gift guide. And what’s more, it comes equipped with over an hour of brand new bonus features, with the most notable one being a collection of lost audition tapes featuring other well-known actors who originally auditioned to be Marty, Doc, and others, including Billy Zane and Peter DeLuise as Biff; Kyra Sedgwick as Jennifer; and C. Thomas Howell, Ben Stiller, and Jon Cryer as Marty. By Mark Redfern (Buy it here.)
The Wizard (Shout! Factory)
If Under the Radar readers know anything about The Wizard it’s probably that it co-stars future indie rock icon Jenny Lewis, who was 13 when the film was released in 1989. Lewis was already a child actor who had guest starred on The Golden Girls and was a regular on the short-lived sitcom Life with Lucy, playing Lucille Ball’s granddaughter, by the time The Wizard came out, not to mention playing Shelley Long’s daughter earlier that year in Troop Beverly Hills. In The Wizard she tags along with two half-brothers Corey Woods (a Wonder Years-era Fred Savage) and Jimmy Woods (Luke Edwards), who are trying to get to California for a video game tournament. They are pursued by their worried dad Sam Woods (Beau Bridges) and older brother Nick Woods (Christian Slater, the same year Heathers came out), as well as a bounty hunter hired by Jimmy’s mother and stepfather. The Wizard was poorly received by critics at the time and didn’t do well at the box office, but remains an interesting oddity from the era of 8-bit video games and for fans of Lewis and the other actors in the film, including an uncredited Tobey Maguire in his film debut.
Shout! Factory’s new two-disc Blu-ray release includes a 4K transfer, audio commentary from director Todd Holland, and several other special features (including new interviews with Fred Savage and Luke Edwards, but alas not Jenny Lewis). By Mark Redfern (Buy it here.)
Star Trek: Picard: Season One (Paramount/CBS DVD)
Our writer Steve King just declared Star Trek: Picard the best TV show of 2020 and season one as one of the best Star Trek seasons ever. While that is debatable, the show is a bold and mature follow-up to Star Trek: The Next Generation, with Patrick Stewart reprising his role as Captain Jean-Luc Picard, now an admiral but long since retired from Starfleet and off on a galaxy spanning mission of great personal urgency. Other familiar Star Trek faces return—including Jonathan Frakes as William Riker, Marina Sirtis as Deanna Troi, Jeri Ryan as Seven of Nine, and Brent Spiner as Data—but mainly new characters share the center stage with Picard. Stewart is always welcome on any screen, with his performance echoing his turn as an older Professor X in Logan (although Picard has many more wits about him than Professor X did in that film). Star Trek: Picard is Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes and season 2 is even more anticipated with word that Whoopi Goldberg is returning as Guinan, with other Next Generation cast members also rumored to be coming back. The season one DVD and Blu-ray includes two hours of bonus features, including interviews with Stewart, deleted scenes, and gag reels. By Mark Redfern (Buy it here.)
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (Warner Bros.)
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) might be one of the last movies many people saw in an indoor movie theater, considering it was one of the last big movies to be released before COVID-19 struck and closed most theaters for awhile, causing almost all of 2020’s blockbusters to be pushed back to 2021. The pandemic could be attributed to why Birds of Prey disappointed at the box office, making just $201.9 million worldwide compared to other recent DC Comics hits like Joker and Aquaman, both which earned over a billion dollars worldwide each. Then again, Birds of Prey was in U.S. theaters a full month before the lockdown took hold, so there’s no denying that the incredibly violent R-rated film just didn’t connect with mainstream audiences. A PG-13 version might’ve done better, but that’s not really Harley Quinn’s style, and maybe it should’ve simply been titled Harley Quinn instead of its convoluted title. At least critics generally liked it and now viewers can rediscover it at home.
Margot Robbie reprises her Suicide Squad role as the anti-heroine Harley Quinn, who is freshly broken up with The Joker, which puts a target on her back now that she’s no longer under his protection. Eventually she teams up with other female heroes Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and police detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) to protect teenaged pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) from brutal crime boss Black Mask (a game Ewan McGregor). Directed by Cathy Yan and written by Christina Hodson, Birds of Prey has a wicked sense of humor and fantastic fight scenes. Regardless of the film’s fortunes, Robbie will be back as Harley Quinn in next year’s The Suicide Squad. Special features on the Blu-ray include various documentaries and a gag reel, as well as the ability to watch the film in Birds Eye View Mode, which is “loaded with Harley-ized looks, fun facts and Easter eggs, all viewed in a Birds-centric style.” By Mark Redfern (Buy it here.)
Joker (Warner Bros.)
When it was announced that filmmaker behind The Hangover trilogy was making a gritty 1980s set film about the Batman villain The Joker in the style of Taxi Driver, many were skeptical, and few probably expected it to be the first and only R-rated movie to earn a billion dollars worldwide and be nominated for 11 Oscars (including Best Picture), winning two, for Joaquin Phoenix’s startling performance as the title character and for Hildur Guðnadóttir’s memorable score. Co-writer and director Todd Phillips pulled it off, making Joker the kind of talked about film that becomes a cultural phenomenon and brings out people who rarely venture out to movie theaters. Special features include a making of documentary and an interesting look at the many different takes to the scene where Arthur Fleck/Joker comes onset on the live talk show Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) hosts. Phoenix did his entrance many different improvised ways and it’s fascinating to get a window into his process. By Mark Redfern (Buy it here.)
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