This week, it’s a cornucopia of great titles with great extras for you to enjoy. From a children’s TV staple to the pinnacle of basic cable’s hold on Sunday nights to one of the most unconventional science fiction movies of the last several years, they’re all right here. Along with, get this, OTHER STUFF AS WELL!
This is a show that hits me right in the nostalgia button. Airing between 1986 and 1990 (when I was 2 to 6 years old…holy crap!), Pee-wee’s Playhouse was one of the most popular and lauded children’s programs, and still nearly 30 years later it’s hailed up and down the place. I remember watching this very vividly, and “vivid” is perhaps the only way it can be remembered; the colors and sets and characters and pacing were all incredibly vibrant and exciting and they stick with you. Back in the late-90s, several volumes of the series were put out on VHS, and I was brought right back to waking up Saturday mornings to watch Pee-wee Herman (Paul Reubens) and his house full of talking things get up to silliness and shenanigans. Now, I’m delighted to say, Shout Factory has released all 45 episodes of this landmark television series, looking and sounding more gorgeous than ever thanks to a Reubens-overseen HD upgrade, now on Blu-ray.
Reubens created the character of Pee-wee Herman, a giggling child with a tiny grey suit and red bowtie, at the Groundlings and then his own adult-humored stage show, and eventually parlayed that into appearances on David Letterman and even his own feature film, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, directed by Tim Burton. After that success, CBS came to Reubens about developing the character into half-hour children’s cartoon, but the comic insisted on it being live action. Miraculously, CBS allowed this, and even allowed Reubens to essentially be in total control of it from beginning to end. Even when production moved from New York to L.A. following the first season, Reubens maintained almost total control of the show. And it shows! Pee-wee’s Playhouse has a very definite thread of humor for grown-ups amid the lessons and things children loved. These went completely over my head as a wee one, only slightly landed on rewatch later on, but firmly hits my entendre-sensitive ears now as a grown-ass man.
For those who’ve never seen or can’t remember the show, each episode contains the following: A nearly 3 minute opening title sequence with music by Mark Mothersbaugh and sung by Cyndi Lauper doing a Betty Boop voice, Pee-wee doing various art projects or chores, waking up Conkey the robot and asking him what today’s secret word is (if anybody says the secret word, you have to scream real loud), get a visit from Reba the Mail Lady (S. Epatha Merkerson), get a visit from Miss Yvonne, the most beautiful woman in Puppetland (Lynne Marie Stewart), throw to a Penny cartoon (a claymation short featuring a little girl with pennies for eyes), get a visit from the King of Cartoons (William Marshall), play the cartoon he brings (usually an old public domain or easily obtained bit of nothing), get a visit from Cowboy Curtis (Laurence Fishburne), talk to one or more of the following living inanimate objects: Chairry, Clocky, Globey, Dog Chair, Mr. Window, Mr. Kite, Magic Screen, and Floorey, look at his ant farm, check in with the Dinosaur Family, talk to any of the other puppets, like Pterri the Pteranadon, Dirty Dog, Cool Cat, Chickie Baby, or the Cowntess, talk Randy the wiseass marionette out of doing something awful, and get a wish from Jambi the Genie (John Paragon). That’s a typical 25 minutes of television. It’s BANANAS how much they were able to pack into that show, and every single time it ends you go “aww, already?”
On top of the gorgeous transfer of each and every episode, the set is also packed with bonus interview material, covering every aspect of the Playhouse, from its inception to the casting, to the writing, to the puppets, to the music, to the merchandise, to the legacy, and beyond. It’s astonishing just how many amazingly talented people were involved in this program (and how many of them show up to be interviewed). I for one never thought Laurence Fishburne would come back to talk about being Cowboy Curtis, but he does and he talks a lot and is genuinely thrilled by it. It’s a show that everybody who worked on it remembers fondly. Reubens himself doesn’t appear in any of these interviews, however, but he’s definitely a presence felt in every inch of it.
This set is highly recommended and well worth everybody’s time.
This was certainly the Summer of Good Sci-Fi. Right at the top of it is Bong Joon-Ho’s multinational dystopian future allegory Snowpiercer. Based on a French comic book from the ’80s, Snowpiercer tells the story of the last remnants of humanity all living aboard a giant, miles-long super train which runs perpetually around the entire world, designed and operated by Wilford, hailed by many as a savior and a god, but by the people in the back of the train as a tyrant. You see, the whole train is a caste system; those who can afford it live in the front of the train and those who can’t are relegated to the back of the train in cramped, dirty conditions, fed bricks of protein gelatin, and are subject to whatever the train’s security force deems necessary. It’s a pretty crummy existence. There have been attempts at uprising before, but they’ve all been put down. But maybe that will change.
A group of back-dwellers are hatching perhaps the best chance yet; Curtis (Chris Evans), one of the few people in the back with all of his limbs intact, has figured out that there is a moment every day where four gates are open at once. If they can wedge these open, Curtis and others like Edgar (Jamie Bell), Andrew (Ewen Bremner), Tanya (Octavia Spencer), and their aging mentor Gilliam (John Hurt) can move forward and retrieve Namgoong Minsoo (Song Kang-ho) from the prison section — the drug-addicted man who designed all of the locking mechanisms for the train’s gates. He brings his daughter (Ko Ah-sung) along and agrees to help on the stipulation that they keep the pair of them fully stocked with cubes of hallucinogen made from flammable refuse. It’s not as easy as it appears, though (not that it appeared very easy) because there are lots of people working for Wilford who want to stop this insurgence, including his mouthpiece Mason (played by a denture-wearing and Yorkshire-accented Tilda Swinton). Blood will need to be spilled if this insurrection is to work.
This is easily one of the best films of the year, and despite it’s straight-ahead (pun intended) narrative, it’s got a lot of deep dark secrets along the way. Like the best of science fiction, this is a movie that is about more than what you see on the surface and, though it’s incredibly enjoyable the first time, it benefits greatly from hindsight.
The Blu-ray for this is surprisingly rich with extras. There’s a critics commentary on the actual film, an hour-long French documentary on the making of the movie, several EPK-style behind-the-scenes looks, and more. It’s a great movie that gives you great content. Buy the Blu-ray for sure.
Split seasons are unequivocally the worst, can we agree on that? Can we stop pretending it’s for the integrity of the show and just admit that it’s a network thing? In the case of AMC, Mad Men is one of the few series it can count on to be up there in the ratings as well as the awards, so, like Breaking Bad, they decided to split up the final season over the course of two years, making each half only about 7 or 8 episodes. It’s stupid, I as a fan of those shows don’t like it, and it, and all it does is make us irritated. So there.
But that’s not what we’re talking about exactly. The first half of AMC’s first real drama (still one of the best shows on TV) is counting down the days until the change that’s going to happen both at the end of the series and the end of the 1960s. The 7 episodes that comprise this half-season are all about showing Don Draper (Jon Hamm) dealing with not being the top dog anymore and still desperately wanting to be that. He’s been asked to stay at home by the partners because of his drinking and his unprofessional conduct, but all he wants is to get back in there. When he does, it’s to the chagrin of several people he once counted as friends and allies, including Peggy Olson (Elizabeth Moss) and Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks), but not to Roger Sterling (John Slattery) who’s still in the middle his weird drug den midlife crisis. Don’s wife Megan (Jessice Paré) also doesn’t want him to go back to work, but that’s because she lives in L.A. and he’s still in N.Y. pretending to be a big shot. Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) is in L.A. doing the same thing along with sadsack Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm).
Despite only being seven episodes, this half-season is full of really wonderful storytelling and performances, much like it has always been, and when we get the moon landing in episode 7, we know we’re very close to the end.
The Blu-ray has commentary on every episode, documentaries about the Gay Rights movement, the Gay Power movement, the Trial of the Chicago Eight, and a behind-the-scenes look at Robert Morse’s last day on set. It’s a great show, it’s a great set, go buy it.
The Vincent Price Collection: Volume II – Just like the one from earlier in the year, Scream Factory has cleaned up and released another helping of great Vincent Price horror films, including House on Haunted Hill, The Return of the Fly, The Comedy of Terrors, The Raven, The Last Man on Earth, Tomb of Ligeia and Dr. Phibes Rises Again.
Life After Beth – A girl (Aubrey Plaza) dies after breaking up with her boyfriend (Dane DeHaan) only to resurrect with no memory of the breakup. Which is great, right? Well, it’s fine until she wants to know what happened to her, and starts wanting to eat people. This comedy/drama/horror film also stars John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon as Beth’s parents.