Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews, Musicals, Science Fiction

Dark Star in Hyperdrive and TV Is Frank Sinatra’s Lady – DVDs of the Week

Dark Star: The Hyperdrive Edition (VCI)

Think of Dark Star as John Carpenter’s answer to the glistening designs and metaphysical ponderings of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. Deglamorizing the allure of space-age technology by giving it a drab, industrial practicality, Carpenter and co-writer/special effects supervisor/actor Dan O’Bannon give us not heroic space jockeys bravely exploring the unknown but “truck drivers in space” stuck on the fringes of the galaxy in a broken-down ship long past a dry-dock overhaul, numbly trudging through the twentieth year of a mission to blow up unstable planets.

The bridge crew of Dark Star

The captain is dead (but still available for information, sort of, if he’s thawed from suspended animation), Lt. Doolittle (Brian Narelle) has uncomfortably stepped into command (his working motto is “Who cares?”), the crew is slipping into apathy and entropy and only the annoying, slow-witted Pinback (Dan O’Bannon) showing any signs of social engagement or curiosity (which lands him in a battle wits with a flabby beach ball of an alien trickster). Any sense of purpose has degenerated into a race to get rid of the bombs so they can turn around and go him. This is not a wide-eyed celebration of the wonder of space but a state of stasis and depression cause by isolation and meaninglessness of their mission. “Waiting For Godot in Space,” is how one collaborator defined the film, a description even more indicative of Carpenter’s original version of the, when it was still an ambitious student short growing beyond its boundaries.

On a budget of $65,000, Carpenter and O’Bannon cobble together a dank spaceship out of spare part that anticipates the claustrophobic industrial gray of the Alien ship (which O’Bannon later scripted) and manufacture a fritzed-out intelligence system that brings new meaning to the term “smart bomb.” As the ship collapses around the wearily indifferent crew, the acting captain engages a persistent talking bomb in phenomenological philosophy in the most direct parody of Kubrick’s classic. This is no lost masterpiece, mind you. The acting is inconsistent, the pacing is awkward (partly as a result of rewrites and new scenes to expand the film to feature length) and the production values at times distractingly shoddy. Yet the writing is often clever (the final destinies of the characters pay off from the seeds sown in the opening minutes) and the production design and execution overall a triumph of ingenuity and creative solutions. It’s a grungy, darkly humorous declaration that, in the end, boredom and human slovenliness trumps technology and high ideals.

Engage the bomb (note the helpful warning label: Caution, Thermonuclear Device)

John Carpenter’s feature film debut was originally undertaken as an ambitious college project at USC on a starvation budget and then moved off campus to expand and rework for theatrical distribution when Jack H. Harris (producer and/or distributor of The Blob and numerous other independent genre films) signed on to “present” and distribute the film. Let There Be Light: The Odyssey of Dark Star, a new feature-length (almost two hours long) documentary on the origins, production, evolution and distribution of the film, digs into its unique pedigree and road to completion. Carpenter is not on hand for new interviews and Dan O’Bannon died in 2009 but both are well represented in archival interview segments, as is conceptual artist Ron Cobb. New interviews with actor Brian Narelle (Doolittle), cinematographer Doug Knapp, art director Tommy Lee Wallace, visual effects artists Greg Jein, producer/distributor Jack H. Harris and others fill out the story of the production, the culture of USC at the time and the way the film was reworked outside of USC (the scenes with Pinback and the alien, including the cleverly-produced elevator shaft sequence, were added to fill out the running time). And one bit of production trivia I found very interesting: the 16mm original had to be reframed shot by shot for the 35mm blow-up for theatrical distribution to maintain Carpenter’s compositions.

This new edition (officially the “Hyperdrive Edition,” with the tongue-in-cheek subtitle “36 ½ Year Anniversary) boasts a newly remastered transfer from a 35mm print and frame-by-frame digital restoration, but given its origins (shot on 16mm film in a USC campus studio) it’s still a soft-looking film: clean and bright but fuzzy. The two-disc set features both the theatrical release and the tighter, shorter 68-minute cut closer to Carpenter’s intentions, with a little less exposition and filler (gone are the asteroid storm scene, Doolittle’s musical interlude and some of the down time with the crew). “Super-fan” Andrew Gilchrist offers commentary on the theatrical release and there are new video interviews with actor Brian Narelle and author Alan Dean Foster (who wrote the film’s novelization) and a written introduction by Dan O’Bannon among the supplements.

Frank Sinatra: Concert Collection (Shout! Factory)

Frank Sinatra had sung on TV and even hosted variety specials and series, but when he strutted through the empty hallways of NBC studios, took a stool next to a lonely microphone and belted out the opening lines to “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” it was a television revelation. Here was the mature, confident, at times even swaggering saloon singer and balladeer in a solo showcase. Frank Sinatra: A Man and His Music (1965) is just that: No comedy skits or tired banter, not even any guest stars, just the singer and his songs.

Sinatra swings for the TV audience

The mix of classic tunes (“I Get a Kick Out of You,” “The Lady is a Tramp,” “Witchcraft”), key songs from his 1950s reinvention (“Come Fly With Me,” “You Make Me Feel So Young”) and recent recordings (“My Kind of Town,” “This Is All I Ask”) is mirrored in an effective medley anchored in “It Was a Very Good Year,” giving us a brief tour of career from the bobby-soxer heartthrob crooning hopeful ditties (“Young at Heart”) to the reflective maturity of the present day (the melancholy “Last Night When We Were Young”). Vocally Sinatra is in excellent form – clear and bold, with the dexterity of his 1950s recordings now colored by phrasing at once thoughtful and seemingly spontaneous – and the combination of top-notch arrangements and impeccably chosen material makes this 1965 special Sinatra’s finest televised hour. It was an event and the beginning of a great tradition that this essential (at least for Sinatraphiles) box set celebrates by collecting all ten of his signature network specials, from the sixties through the eighties, along with two non-network rarities. More on those later.

In his immediate follow-up, A Man And His Music Part II (1966), the Chairman of the Board invites daughter Nancy to guest star and even gets funky (or at least attempts it with a jokey swagger) in a medley of “Downtown” and “These Boots Were Made For Walking” with his little girl. Those are, to be perfectly frank, low points of an evening with the Voice, who spends the rest of the special trading between brassy up-tempo numbers with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra and quiet ballads with conductor Gordon Jenkins. Kicking off the evening with “Fly Me To the Moon,” which he belts out like he’s competing with the driving brass, he launches into such classics as “Moonlight in Vermont” and “You’re Nobody Til Somebody Loves you.” A subdued medley with Jenkins (“Just One of Those Things,” “My Heart Stood Still,” “But Beautiful,” “When Your Lover Has Gone”) is followed by a bracing finale with Nelson Riddle, including “Luck Be A Lady” (the song he should have sung in Guys and Dolls), his latest single “That’s Life”, and “My Kind of Town.” Sinatra’s still trying to be hip (Riddle’s band is joined by an electric organ) and his tortured jokes are accompanied by phony canned laughter, but once he’s swinging, Sinatra is his classy old self.

Frank Sinatra organized A Man And His Music + Ella + Jobim (1967), the third in what had become an annual TV event, around the loose theme of “rhythm,” and chose for his exploration two artists of impeccable credentials: the scat stylings and jazz influenced delivery of Ella Fitzgerald and the quiet Latin groove of Brazilian Bossa Nova legend Antonio Carlos Jobim. The program combines beautiful ballads (“Ol’ Man River,” “Put Your Dreams Away”) with brassy up-tempo tunes (“Day In, Day Out,” “Get Me to the Church on Time”), though one medley includes some forgiveable but hardly memorable attempts at contemporary pop, mixing snatches of “How High the Moon” with “Up, Up and Away,” “Don’t Cry Joe” with “Ode to Billy Joe.” The show slows for a relaxed medley with Jobim, who accompanies a lounging, cigarette smoking Sinatra with guitar and whispering backing vocals while the Voice drops his volume to an intimate conversational tone for “Change Partners,” “I Concentrate On You,” and Jobim’s own “The Girl From Ipanema.” Ella duets with Sinatra on two medleys (contributing a fabulous scat rendition of “Stomping at the Savoy”), solos on “Body and Soul,” “It’s All Right With Me” and “Don’t Be That Way,” and finally the two burn up the program with one final duet, a high octane, show-stopping performance of “Lady is a Tramp,” with Nelson Riddle’s orchestra driving the brass to keep up.

There were plenty of TV specials in the fifteen years before Sinatra: The Man And His Music (1981) but Shout! Factory places this show as part of the “A Man and His Music” collection. It makes a fine bookend to the series, with Sinatra ending his series of TV specials with the Count Basie Orchestra: a pair of class acts who declare their graceful styles in the opening number “Nice and Easy.” No longer belting them out in the autumn of his years, Sinatra plays the evening in a lower key. His voice is a little rough and even croaks periodically, but his phrasing and timing are still in fine form and he’s a relaxed host, introducing each song as he drifts between Basie’s band, a full orchestra conducted by Vincent Falcone and a smaller group conduced by Gordon Jenkins. Sinatra bounces from classics like “At Long Last Love” and “I Get a Kick Out of You” to contemporary songs like “The Girl From Ipanema” (with lovely guitar accompaniment by Tony Mottola), George Harrison’s “Something,” and “Monday Morning Quarterback.” His best songs are performed with Basie, whose band’s bold rhythm section and driving horns mesh perfectly with Sinatra during “Pennies From Heaven” and “The Best Is Yet to Come.” He leaves the evening—and, as it turned out, his final network appearance—with the final anthem of his illustrious career, “New York, New York,” and Bob Hope’s signature song “Thanks For the Memories,” which Sinatra wears with dignity and style. The quiet applause of the orchestra is a moving and sincere tribute a fine show and a brilliant career.

Rewind back to Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back (1973) for the “Around the World” section of the collection, featuring Sinatra performing in concert, in front of audiences large and small. Sinatra announced his retirement from show business in 1971. Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back announced to the world that Frank Sinatra’s retirement was over. In a setting the balances the intimacy of nightclubs with a concert hall layout, Sinatra (backed by a 40 piece orchestra led by Gordon Jenkins and Don Costa) confidently delivers a slate of quintessentially Frank tunes: “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” (reprised his first TV special), “I’ve Got the World On a String,” and a short medley of ballads. A series of “singing sailor” film clips introduces guest star Gene Kelly, who joins Sinatra in a self-effacing song and dance number called “We Can’t Do That Anymore,” followed by a gentle Kelly soft shoe to Sinatra’s rendition of “Nice and Easy” (another standard in the specials repertoire). Having mined the past, Sinatra looks to the future with three new numbers: “Let Me Try Again,” “Send in the Clowns,” and “You Will Be My Music.” Sinatra’s voice is no longer in its prime, but his phrasing and showmanship are top notch and his interaction with an audience nice and easy. The Chairman of the Board wasn’t just back, he was back on top singing his songs.

Frank Sinatra is the Main Event
Frank Sinatra is the Main Event

Sinatra: The Main Event (1974) opens with Sinatra striding through the sold out Madison Square Garden crowd, accompanied by his handlers and bodyguards, like an athlete stepping into the ring for a prize fight. If not for the gray hair and tuxedo, he could very well be—Howard Cosell’s histrionic introductory rap sets the concert up as a world championship bout. While this 1974 concert does not capture Sinatra at his prime (his voice at times sounds weak and he chokes on a few high notes), his tone improves over the course of the set and his phrasing remains as seemingly effortless as ever. Accompanied by Woody Herman and his Thundering Herd, Sinatra delivers his usual mix of impeccably well chosen standards (“All The Way,” “The Lady Is a Tramp,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”), signature tunes (“My Kind of Town,” “My Way”), and even a pop standard he effectively makes his own: Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.” A sports arena is hardly the ideal setting for the Chairman of the Board—he’s forced to shush the massive crowd before he can attempt the intimate “Angel Eyes”—but by the same token he has this keyed up audience dancing in the aisles to his brassy rendition of “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.”

The next disc goes international: Princess Grace of Monaco (the royal formerly known as Grace Kelly) introduces her one-time movie co-star Frank Sinatra in benefit concert Sinatra In Concert At Royal Festival Hall (1971), one of his last performances before he announced his (short-lived) retirement for the first time. The mix of classic and contemporary include different arrangements of George Harrison’s “Something” (which he reprised for his final TV special) and “One For My Baby” (with Bill Miller’s saloon piano in fore). Though the show was only broadcast in Britain, it was previously released on VHS and DVD in the U.S. By contrast, Sinatra In Japan: Live At The Budokan Hall, Tokyo (1985) makes it American debut in any form in this set. The 71-minute show, recorded in 1984 and only released in Japan, showcases Sinatra in his late career and, apart from “L.A. Is My Lady” and “Mack the Knife” (from his most recent album) and his seventies repertoire additions “Something” and “New York, New York,” it’s all Sinatra standards, songs he’d lived for decades, from “The Lady is a Tramp” to “My Way,” plus “Come Rain or Come Shine,” a song he hadn’t performed live since recording it in 1961. This is as late into Sinatra’s career as the set travels.

For the “Primetime” disc, we rewind back to the sixties. Sinatra (1969) brings the artist back to the intimacy of a small venue (a private studio audience getting a privilege performance) and is the first special since the inaugural The Man and His Music to showcase the Voice as a solo act and he carries the show with no guest stars. Sinatra dedicates his show to the songwriters and, accompanied by Don Costa’s Orchestra, he fetes the new generation of tunesmiths, kicking off the show with the up-tempo “For Once in My Life” and presenting such songs as “Little Green Apples,” “Goin’ Out of My Head,” “Didn’t We,” and two tunes and a poem by Rod McKuen. The highlight of his contemporary slate is his 1960s anthem “My Way,” but as usual it’s his classics that carry the show. Standards like “All The Way,” “Fly Me To the Moon,” and “My Kind of Town” are mixed with less familiar gems like “Please Be Kind” and Cole Porter’s “You’re Sensational.” Sinatra mugs between songs as the cut-up, delivering often painful jokes to canned laughs and having way too much fun with a medley of silly film clips of career low-lights, but he’s sincere and solid with the new material (well, the poem is a bit arch) and once he starts swinging with his standards he’s in the groove.

The other two shows on the disc are shared with guest stars. Francis Albert Sinatra Does His Thing (1968) has a groovy title, hip guests (Diahann Carroll, who duets with Sinatra on a medley of spirituals, and The 5th Dimension) and a wide variety of song selections. Sinatra And Friends (1977), also making its American home video debut, features Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, Natalie Cole, Loretta Lynn, Leslie Uggams, John Denver and tenor Robert Merrill, each with a spotlight solo and then a duet with Sinatra (except for Merrill and Martin, who team up for a number from “Guys and Dolls” with Sinatra, Merrill taking the part of Nathan Detroit that Sinatra played in the movie).

The final major debut on this set is Concert For The Americas (1982), Sinatra’s first pay-cable show (shown on Showtime in the U.S.), recorded in 5000-seat Altos de Chavón Amphitheater in the Dominican Republic. At 90 minutes it is the longest show in the set, and apart from the orchestra and a couple of collaborations (one song with drummer Buddy Rich, two more with guitarist Tony Mottola, including an intimate “Send In the Clowns”), it’s a one-man show: no monologues, a little patter and 19 songs that span his career, including the very personal “The House I Live In” (his paean to universal brotherhood and racial and religious tolerance, which he first delivered in song in the 1945 short film by the same name).

All have been remastered from videotape and have all the weaknesses of the technology of the era—the sixties productions have soft images with color blurring and occasional tape damage that are exaggerated on high-definition systems, the later shows have stronger images with less time-related degradation—but the audio is solid in all of them and that’s what counts for these productions. They may not be high-fidelity but they have been cleaned up and sound far better than they ever could have on their original broadcasts. A bonus disc features archival artifacts spotlighting the Sinatra of the fifties, starting off with the 1957 half-hour TV special Happy Holidays With Bing And Frank, directed by Frank Sinatra and shot in color on film. It’s a curious time-capsule, with Bing and Frank singing carols and trading quips over cocktails, then hitting the way-back machine to go caroling in Merry Olde England. There’s a touch of Rat Pack humor under the bonhomie they are supposed to be sharing in the evening, just a hint of Sinatra’s wise-guy attitude and hipster humor seeping into the family show, and picking out those barbs in the holiday cheer give this show a curious place in the Sinatra legacy. Interestingly, because it was produced and preserved on film rather than video, this is the best-looking show in the set. Vintage Sinatra (2003), originally produced for PBS and regularly pulled out for pledge drives, is an hour-long anthology of live performances from his 1950 TV shows interspersed with remembrances and comments by Frank Jr., Nancy and Tina Sinatra. The video quality is not the best and the audio sometimes is thin, but this showcases the cream of Sinatra’s catalogue and some superb performances (including a version of “Night and Day” that swings harder than any from the sixties or seventies shows). Also features an additions 25 minutes of TV performance clips and an excellent 44-page booklet with photos and notes on the shows by Sinatra scholar Bill Zehme. Seven discs in a box set of five standard cases.

Cross-published with

Available at Amazon:
Dark Star: The Hyper-Drive Edition
Frank Sinatra: Concert Collection