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I have vague memories of watching the “Star Wars Holiday Special” back in 1978 – I was 4 but could always recall the scene when Lumpy, the little Wookie member of the Chewbacca clan, saw his stuffed animal torn apart by vile Empire scum. That moment stuck in my head for years, along with dusty memories of things looking less like the lived-in world of George Lucas’ movie and more like a CBS variety show. While the show was never broadcast again – living in infamy as an unforgettable moment in TV history – the new documentary A DISTURBANCE IN THE FORCE (91 mins., 2023; Giant) offers a highly entertaining look back at a moment in pop culture that would never be repeated, boasting both insight for fans as well as a wider appeal to casual viewers.
Jeremy Coon and Steve Kozak’s effort assembles a wide swath of participants, from network TV variety show vets like writer Bruce Villanch and director Steve Binder (who both worked on the “Holiday Special”), to Star Wars geeks and admirers like Kevin Smith, Seth Green, Paul Scheer, Patton Oswalt and Bobcat Goldthwait. They also bring in Donny Osmond to give younger viewers a necessary understanding of what the network TV variety show was back in the ‘70s – and explain how the demands of that niche synced up with George Lucas’ desire to keep “Star Wars” in the public eye, during that time between the original’s 1977 release and “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980).
While Lucas needn’t have worried, his apprehension at the time over his future movie empire’s prospects can clearly be seen in the ridiculous amount of what today would be described as “cross-platform synergy” he engaged in, with creations Darth Vader, C-3PO and friends making appearances on everything from “Donny & Marie” to a Wolfman Jack special. The “Star Wars Holiday Special” was, then, a natural offshoot of that period, providing the entire movie cast with its own eclectic platform wherein Lucas’ creative vision gave way to CBS executives brandishing their own idea of entertainment. That meant Bea Arthur and Art Carney serving as “Special Guest Stars” and the Jefferson Starship dropping in to perform a song in front of a “laser light show” – all the while a rightfully embarrassed Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and a singing Carrie Fisher attempt to bridge the gap between the Earth-bound realities of ‘70s network TV and what was, and still is, one of the greatest box-office hits – and influential sci-fi fantasy films – ever made.
The marriage didn’t work…at all…but fans have never forgotten the “Holiday Special,” trading old VHS recordings that have become more numerous as the years have passed; my personal favorite was a WCBS New York tape, which Lukas Kendall once brought over to my house in high school, complete with commercials. These included a “CBS Newsbreak” segment wherein an anchorwoman noted the lack of pregnancies stemming from the Blizzard of ‘78 (“said one nurse, most of the men must’ve been out shoveling snow”!) and a local “Fighting the Frizzies…at 11!” news tease that ended up being referenced in a South Park Christmas episode years later.
“A Disturbance in the Force” offers loads of footage of the show itself with both a look at its actual production history (no surprise that it, too, was a disaster, with the original director fired after just a few days) and place in pop culture history. While the latter element doesn’t offer a lot of fresh insight, it’s enjoyably covered with lots of rare footage from variety specials like Mark Hamill’s appearance on a Bob Hope show; die-hard fans, meanwhile, will almost certainly find interest in a look at how the program came together, and all of it is pleasingly paced at a just-right 90 minutes.
Giant has released “A Disturbance in the Force” on Blu-Ray, in a no-frills but good looking 1080p (1.78, 5.1) transfer. One thing’s for sure: even with its infamous rep, did the “Holiday Special” do any more damage to the franchise than “The Last Jedi”?
New & Noteworthy
VARSITY BLUES 4K UHD/Blu-Ray (104 mins., 1999, R; Paramount): While it may have been aimed strictly at teenagers – especially those then infatuated with the hit TV teen drama “Dawson’s Creek” – most who saw the Winter ‘99 Paramount hit “Varsity Blues” were not disappointed with the final product.
“Creek” star James Van Der Beek is surprisingly good as a back-up quarterback on a Texas high school team whose coach (Jon Voight) is a stubborn S.O.B. who routinely embarrasses his players and drives them over the brink with his desire to win. As if the player-coach adversarial relationship – and the usual underdog sports movie formula – wasn’t enough, “Blues” also throws in Van Der Beek’s relationship with the injured starting QB’s sister, his passion for the fine arts (and desire to go to Brown University), the black running back’s claim of Voight being a racist, the fat kid’s obsession with not being good enough, a small-town girl needing to be a sex kitten for the star quarterback (or else she won’t leave the damned town), and last but not least, the Sex Ed. teacher who moonlights as a stripper at a local hotspot!
This latter element shows what audience “Varsity Blues” is aiming for, since a good film could have been made from just one or two of those subplots, especially the Voight character. Of course, that isn’t what this movie has on its mind; the topless strippers seem to be going right for the teenage male market, even though that entire sequence has nothing to do with the rest of the movie! (Except provide gratuitous T&A, of course).
On the other hand, at least “Varsity Blues” has solid football sequences and a competent soundtrack, featuring a nice score from Mark Isham. Its central marketing towards a teen demographic prevents it from being a movie that transcends its genre, but taken on its own terms, at least it’s an entertaining picture, and is filled with attractive young stars in support including Ali Larter, Amy Smart, Paul Walker, and Scott Caan among them.
Paramount’s 4K UHD (1.85) of “Varsity Blues” kicks off their 2024 UHD slate and offers a good, if occasionally uneven, Dolby Vision HDR transfer with 5.1 Dolby TrueHD sound, the Blu-Ray, a Digital HD code, and extras carried over from previous releases (commentary with Brian Robbins and the producers; featurettes; etc.).
THE DEVIL’S PARTNER Blu-Ray (73 mins., 1961; Film Masters): Film Masters’ latest Roger Corman retrospective offers this independently-produced, New Mexico-lensed tale of the macabre, involving an elderly man (Ed Nelson) who strikes a deal with the devil. Soon “Pete Jensen” becomes the younger “Nick Richards,” the man’s nephew, and begins a series of Satanic occurrences in and around the town of Furnace Flatts.
Corman picked up Charles Rondeau’s film for distribution and “The Devil’s Partner” is a good cut above the usual shenanigans from the B-movie icon, featuring a sense of atmosphere and an interestingly laid out story that’s fairly absorbing for its era. Film Masters’ Blu-Ray hails from a new 4K restoration of original 35mm archival elements (in both 1.85 and 4:3) and features a “Monster Party Podcast” commentary; the third part of Ballyhoo’s “Filmgroup Story” documentary; and a new interview with Corman.
Film Masters, as they have with several of their recent releases, has further sweetened the pot by also including a “bonus” HD print of Corman’s little-seen CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA (75 mins., 1961), whose title exploited the genre market even though the film itself is a crime movie spoof wherein a gangster blames his crew’s murders on a sea monster! Robert Towne (yes, the screenwriter of “Chinatown”) makes an acting appearance in this quickie, here presented in both its theatrical version as well as an extended TV version Corman shot additional scenes for. A commentary by Tom Weaver, Corman, Larry Blamire and Kinta Zertuche is on-hand plus a restoration demo and 2024 “recut” trailers for both movies.
New From MGM: Several of Alan Arkin’s starring vehicles from the late ‘60s and ‘70s have seldom been circulated over the years – movies like the nutty “Fire Sale” (a Robert Klane-penned black comedy with a section that presaged “Weekend At Bernie’s”) and POPI (113 mins., 1969, G; MGM), a fascinating, occasionally touching, but often strident story about a Puerto Rican father (Arkin) struggling to make ends meet for his two sons (Miguel Alejandro, Ruben Figueroa) in Spanish Harlem. Seeing that political asylum seekers get a better shake coming into America (talk about parallels to our present “open border”), he sends them to Florida in the hopes they’ll be adopted by a wealthy family, in this Arthur Hiller-helmed UA release.
I had never seen “Popi” though I recall reading a section on it in one of Harry and Michael Medved’s Golden Turkey Awards books. There’s no doubt “Popi”’s heart is in the right place but, like a lot of films from its era, the tone is all over the map: rich insights and gentle family sections give way to biting social commentary and adult material that seems out of place in a “G” rated film (of course, the G rating was a lot more lenient in the early MPAA days). Arkin presses too hard at times and seems geared more towards finding a comic grounding for the film which Tina and Lester Pine’s script isn’t always aspiring to – yet the picture’s message remains strikingly relevant, despite the tonal shifts (the second hour is notably inferior to the opening act) and occasionally uncomfortable, if expected, stereotyping going on.
Debuting on Blu-Ray, “Popi” offers a fine MGM master (1.85, mono) with a Dominic Frontiere score typical of its era – with a chorus singing “Popi” over the main titles of course!
Another Hiller comedy debuts on Blu-Ray this month: the more effective ROMANTIC COMEDY (101 mins., 1983, PG; MGM), one of the many early-mid ‘80s vehicles featuring Dudley Moore. This time Moore plays a struggling playwright who finds inspiration from a young writer (Mary Steenburgen), leading to a collaboration, their inevitable romance – and break-up – in an adaptation of Bernard Slade’s play which the author scripted for the screen. The result is a predictably stagy, occasionally enjoyable, at-times frustrating movie which pairs the couple, separates them, brings them back together, then rinses and repeats in a manner that comes off as overly contrived under Hiller’s direction.
Thankfully, the performances of Moore and Steenburgen – who are aided by ace character actors Frances Sternhagen and Rob Leibman – compensate, and Marvin Hamlisch contributes a breezy, tuneful score. Hamlisch also joined forces with Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager for the forgettable single “Maybe” from Peabo Bryson and Roberta Flack, who had far more success together with their earlier hit “Tonight I Celebrate My Love.” MGM’s Blu-Ray offers a serviceable 1080p (1.85, 2.0) master with no extras.
EDDIE MURPHY RAW Blu-Ray (90 mins., 1987, R; Paramount): Slickly shot concert movie, released by Paramount at the height of its star’s box-office power, features Murphy riffing on parents, sex, relationships, Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor among others. Highly profane – the movie had to be cut down to an R from its original X rating! — “Raw” isn’t as funny as Murphy’s seminal 1983 concert special “Delirious,” relying more on shock value than its predecessor, but it’s still hilarious in places, with director Robert Townsend capturing the raucous energy of Murphy performing live at New York City’s Felt Forum (The Theater At Madison Square Garden). A Christmas ‘87 release that became the highest-grossing stand-up concert film of all-time – a designation it still holds even today – “Raw” debuts on Blu-Ray for the first time in a no-frills but attractive 1080p (1.85, 2.0 DTS MA) catalog master from Paramount.
Well Go USA New Releases: Available January 23rd from Well Go, YOUR LUCKY DAY (90 mins., 2023) is Daniel Brown’s drama following the fallout from a lottery ticket’s winnings and a group of witnesses who turn cutthroat in vying for a cut of its $156 million jackpot. An ensemble cast does a solid job in this well-crafted, tight drama in HD from Well Go (1080p, 5.1 DTS MA) later this month…Something different also hits on January 23rd: WOLF PACK (105 mins., 2022) is a contemporary Hong Kong action drama about a military-trained physician who infiltrates a mercenary group in order to find answers about his father’s death. There, he uncovers a nefarious plot with millions of lives in the balance. Max Zhang stars in direcor Michael Chiang’s action-packed outing, on Blu-Ray with a 1080p transfer and Mandarin 5.1 DTS MA sound with English subtitles.
Now available from Well Go, THE FLYING SWORDSMAN (104 mins., 2023) spins an old-fashioned wuxia tale of a lost treasure being sought by eight assassins, previously behind a nefarious plot that claimed the life of two warriors. This Mandarin-language Hong Kong import is new on DVD from Well Go sporting a 16:9 transfer, 5.1 Dolby Digital Mandarin audio and English subtitles…Now available from Well Go, THE CHILDE (118 mins., 2023) was one of last year’s better-reviewed Korean imports. Director Park Hoon-Jung’s story follows an amateur boxer who heads from the Philippines to Korea, hoping to find his estranged, rich father while being pursued by a mysterious hitman. Potent action spices up this character-driven, contemporary thriller new on Blu-Ray with Well Go’s Blu-Ray boasting a 1080p transfer and 5.1 DTS MA Korean audio with English subtitles.
THE MARSH KING’S DAUGHTER Blu-Ray (109 mins., 2023, R; Lionsgate): Adaptation of Karen Dionne’s book stars Daisy Ridley as a woman raised in the backwoods by her estranged father, the “Marsh King” (Ben Mendelsohn), who kept her and her mother captive in the wilderness and whose recent escape from prison throws her family and current life into jeopardy. Neil Burger (“The Illusionist”) has made a number of interesting if not always successful films and this one falls somewhere in the middle of his filmography, offering solid location work and convincing performances but an abrupt and not always cohesive narrative – indicating that too much from its source was being packed into a feature film length. Lionsgate’s Blu-Ray (2.39, 5.1 DTS MA) includes a featurette, Burger’s commentary, the trailer and a digital HD code.
FAR HAVEN DVD (102 mins., 2023): Bailey Chase stars in this western as a wrongly accused prisoner who returns to a small Arizona townin order to start over with his two young kids – until his father-in-law is killed by a gang he ends up having to take arms against. Amanda Righetti co-stars with veterans A Martinez, Martin Kove and Bruce Boxleitner appearing in support of Gary Wheeler’s new film. Imagicomm’s DVD (16:9, 1.78) is now available and includes an “Inside Look” featurette.
NEXT TIME: Arrow and OCN Reviews! Until then, don’t forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards and direct any emails to our email address. Cheers everyone!