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Black Christmas
Dimension Home Video

Here's the story of a serial killer who returns to his childhood home, which happens to be a sorority house. OK, so it's not so original today, but when it came out back in 1974, seminal slasher Halloween was still four years away.

This pathetic rehash mines every cliché; from stock sorority babes to snowstorm isolation without power. It's so played-out and boring that you'll be distracted by the film's cheap look. (The lighting appears to be done by Bronner's, while the whirling snow looks straight from a box of Hungry Jack instant mashed potatoes.)

To stand out from the original, Black Christmas gives our killer a dime-store psych profile involving liver disease, an alcoholic whore mother and incest. He glows yellow with jaundice and his accomplice is his daughter-sister. Can you say family reunion?

And that, folks, is what's considered character development by writer-director Glen Morgan, whose multiplex claim to fame was that limp Willard remake in 2003. Several extras on the DVD include the actresses discussing their characters' motivations and history as if taping an Inside the Actors Studio episode. Merry fucking April Christmas! —Paul Knoll

 

Maude: The Complete First Season
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Of all the shows that Norman Lear birthed in the wake of All in the Family's revolutionary template, Maude was the most hamstrung by its success. The idea of putting a thoroughly "liberal" and "independent" woman at the center of a sitcom was interesting enough, but to make her an upper-middle-class grandmother on her fourth marriage seemed to be Lear's way of demanding that viewers not accept her as a simple post-'60s archetype. As often as she propounded progressive ideas — usually in the form of arguments with her moralistic, conservative neighbor, but sometimes in more dramatic fashion, such as when she got a pre-Roe v. Wade abortion — she showed her old-school roots. A meddling mom, a housewife who needed a maid, a limousine liberal with an unintentionally patronizing attitude toward the few blacks she encountered (her interactions with housekeeper Florida — Esther Rolle, Good Times' Florida — provide for the sharpest banter of the entire show), Maude was far from perfect. In this compilation of the first season's 22 episodes, Maude is seldom the hero; in fact, she's often the least sympathetic character. Though Maude would continue for five more seasons, the high bar Lear set with the first was hard to match. The compelling combination of an ideologically appealing lead character who happened to be a fully formed personality with inclinations both admirable and obnoxious eventually gave way to a more flatly drawn Maude who would occasionally wrestle with tough, made-for-TV issues. Here, though, as the Donny Hathaway-sung theme song burrows its way back into your brain, it's easy to remember how remarkable this series would seem on TV today, much less back in 1972. —Jason Ferguson

 

The Burmese Harp
Criterion Collection

Criterion released Kon Ichikawa's The Burmese Harp (1956) and Fires on the Plain (1959) on the same day, and watching these two anti-war movies in succession, it's hard to believe they were made by the same man. Ichikawa's lack of a signature style has always perplexed auteurist critics, and these films showcase this diversity with polar-opposite tones: The hopeful, tear-jerking poignancy of Harp and the brutal, unflinching pessimism of Fires. The latter may be one of the cinema's most nauseating but humorous train wrecks in war's pitiless terrain, but The Burmese Harp, about a soldier who leaves his loving unit to convert to the peaceful solitude of Buddhism in Burma at the conclusion of World War II, is its most humanistic look at the cost of war. The beautifully realized transfer captures the nuance of Ichikawa's meticulous lighting and sound design, crucial for a film that so joyously evokes the transcendent power of music through the titular instrument. Ichikawa and actor Rentaro Mikuni provide reflective interviews, and critic Tony Rayns' indispensable essay, included in the supplemental booklet, explores the movie contextually, analytically and politically with grace and ease. —John Thomason

 

Premium
Vivendi Visual Entertainment

What do you do if you're a struggling African-American actor who keeps going to casting calls and getting told by African-American directors that his readings aren't black enough for their liking? If you're Reginald "Cool" Coolidge, you pull out a fake glock and get physically ejected from the building. Not since I'm Gonna Get You Sucka and Robert Townsend's Hollywood Shuffle have these stereotypes been given such spot-on roastings. But this often hilarious film is also an effective urban romance, one where the skills Cool needs to be a successful working actor will come in handy winning back his former fiancee, whose impending wedding to someone else is only 36 hours away. There's genuine chemistry between stars Dorian Missick and Zoe Saldana too (which must be why both are also together in ABC's Six Degrees.) Incidentally, this was one of only four films to be featured on the official Myspace.Film page. Seriously, do you know how many air-guitar players you have to beat for that to happen? —Serene Dominic

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