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    December Preorders / The Howard Chronicles

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    Survivors of this roller-coaster year of 2016 need a little Christmas now, and Twilight Time hopes to make things festive two weeks before the holiday arrives with a bountiful array of new hi-def Blu-ray December 13 movie treasures that merrily span the spectrum of entertainment choices. There are two distinctive and wittily observed studies of moviemaking behind the scenes, courtesy of writer/directors Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Woody Allen. Two titles offer beautifully made, star-encrusted experiences with hallmark themes of Yuletide favorites, one a beloved exemplar of reverent religiosity and courage, the other a wonderful visit with rich characters created by the godfather of the celebratory Christmas tradition, Charles Dickens. Action fans whipped into a frenzy by race-against-the-clock disaster prevention suspense can opt for a rarely seen Japanese thriller, and devotees of special effects wizardry can savor the family-friendly vibe of a visually amazing charmer bearing the mighty imprint of the great Ray Harryhausen. Preorders open today at 4 PM EST/1 PM EST for The Barefoot Contessa, The Bullet Train (aka Shinkansen Daibakuha), The Keys of the Kingdom, Nicholas Nickleby (2002), Stardust Memories and The 3 Worlds of Gulliver, TT’s contributions to year-end season cheer.

    New in theaters forty years ago this week, a topsy-turvy movie satire about the bizarre consequences of a politically incorrect, ranting maniac dominating the media airwaves took audiences and critics on a wild ride that resonates even more presciently today, Network (1976), written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet. The ripple effect that occurs when a button-down news anchor mentally cracks and promises to commit suicide on the air triggers a ratings windfall and a flood of politically incorrect, “telling-it-as-I-see-it” ramifications with a seething “mad-as-hell” vibe that prompts the audience to declare they’re “not gonna take it anymore.” As magnificently played by Peter Finch, Howard Beale served as a crazily heroic figure, an uncorked genie whose cynical rage at the rigged system around him was fused with blazing insight, thanks to Chayefsky’s trippy and trenchant prose. So large was the effect of Howard Beale that it tended to overshadow a quieter but equally devastating story that came to theaters a couple of months earlier, also about a guy named Howard who worked (somewhat) in television, trying to make his way in a rigged system, and driven by conscience to take a stand. That earlier effort, The Front (1976), written by Walter Bernstein and directed by Martin Ritt, was crafted, like the Chayefsky/Lumet opus, from its creators’ experiences. Both writer and director ran afoul of the dreaded 1950s House Un-American Activities Committee’s anti-Communist witch-hunts, bore the scars of years of blacklisting to prove it and in “not gonna take it anymore” fashion, generated the story of a small-time bookie named Howard Prince (deftly played by Woody Allen in a rare acting-only foray) who agrees to be the front-man for a talented but blacklisted TV writer (Michael Murphy). This leads to the building of a shaky but profitable franchise for this apolitical, unlettered Howard, who takes on other shadow “clients” and earns him the respect of an aspiring producer (Andrea Marcovicci) and a cool lifestyle upgrade. Just as in Network, the absurd humor and the tragic undertones of the times are inextricably linked in The Front, and the downside, embodied by the outsized and victimized figure of the great Zero Mostel as a HUAC-targeted comedian, sours Howard’s dubious success and awakens his dormant moral sense big-time. Though Howard Beale’s ramblings became enduring catchphrases echoing even more ominously throughout the year we’ve just experienced, Howard Prince’s final words in The Front are even more pungent and relevant to our anarchic media present, and you can experience them, and the enthralling tale preceding them, on Twilight Time’s hi-def Blu-ray.