HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE-R, 1987, 81 minutes, Virgin Vision, $79.95.
Robert Townsend directs and stars in this low-budget comedy, a searingly funny satire about the frustrations of being a black actor in Hollywood, where white casting directors decide what is "black" and white writers create stereotypically racist roles. Townsend is wonderful as Bobby, a middle-of-the-road American who learns to jive and shuffle just to land a role in a movie that he believes ought to be picketed by the NAACP. A modern-day Walter Mitty, Bobby explores his moral dilemma -- job versus self-respect -- in his fantasies, a plot device that showcases Townsend's comic versatility. Bobby's musings turn into skits that form the loose, loony story line of this energetic message movie. (A Siskel and Ebert parody called "Sneaking Into the Movies" is one of the best.) "Shuffle" wallops the whites, but Townsend doesn't spare blacks either. As one NAACP picketer tells a TV reporter, "They'll never play the Rambos if they keep playing the Sambos." Townsend lands a mean lampoon. Rita Kempley
THE STEPFATHER R, 1987, 89 minutes, Embassy Home Entertainment, $79.95.
Joseph Ruben's "The Stepfather" may be the best movie about the breakup of a family since "Shoot the Moon." Surprisingly, though, it's not a serious domestic drama. Set outside Seattle in tidy suburban neighborhoods with tree-lined streets and cozy split-levels, it's a psychological thriller, but with real-life horror bubbling up. Taken from a handsomely crafted script by crime novelist Donald E. Westlake, "The Stepfather" deals with family tensions and the pressures of living up to the great American Dream. The movie is about a man (Terry O'Quinn) whose current name is Jerry Blake and who's obsessed with the idea of building for himself and his family a happy life that conforms to the images presented in ads and TV sitcoms. And if things don't work out as planned -- for example, if his wife and kids aren't "Cosby Show" perfect -- he doesn't just throw a snit, he kills them. O'Quinn's Jerry is a gargoyle, but with the bland features of Robert Young or Hugh Beaumont. And it's precisely his blandness that makes him so scary. He's a generic dad. For what it is, the film, with its allusions to Hitchcock's "The Birds," "Psycho" and "Shadow of a Doubt," is nearly flawless -- a terrific, disquietingly entertaining little film. Hal Hinson CHRISTMAS EVE ON SESAME STREET G, 1987, 60 minutes, Random House Video, $19.95.
Kermit dons a muffler, Big Bird his ice skates and the "Sesame Street" players their cheeriest smiles in this charming seasonal celebration. It's a sweet, but never cloying, video that finds the Muppets and their wee pals spending Christmas Eve as so many of us do -- wondering, as Oscar the Grouch puts it, "how a guy who's built like a dump truck is going to get down all those skinny chimneys?" Between cheery seasonal songs and heartwarming skits, Grover interviews real kids in hope of learning the secret behind Santa's annual squeeze play. The cute kids come up with cute answers, but not the really truly true one. Even the "Sesame Street" folks, it seems, can't produce miracles, though their carols assure us they believe in them. Oscar, the exception, does a Scroogey rendition of "I Hate Christmas," while Bert and Ernie enact a poignant "Gift of the Magi." The Muppets make this an all-embracing holiday eve by performing one song in sign language and another, partly in Spanish, that wishes the world "Feliz Navidad." And they also remember to say "Happy Hanukah." Rita Kempley BALL OF FIRE Unrated, 1941, 111 minutes, Embassy Home Entertainment, $19.95.
This screwball comedy starring Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck isn't as well regarded as others in the genre, but even if it's not exactly top-drawer, it's still jazzy fun. The movie, written by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder and directed by Howard Hawks, is about a batch of scholars from various fields, most of them old bachelors, who've cloistered themselves in a Manhattan town house to write an encyclopedia. Thrown into their midst is a gangster's moll and nightclub singer named Sugarpuss O'Shea (Stanwyck) on the lam from the cops. If a locomotive had steamed into the sitting room the effect couldn't have been more dramatic. In no time, Sugarpuss has the old boys shoving aside the reference books to form a conga line. Cooper, the group's grammarian who discovered the singer at her nightclub while researching street slang, is the last to warm to Miss O'Shea, but when he does it's the thaw of a lifetime. And who can blame him? Stanwyck shimmers with sex appeal, and it's so palpably raw that you'd swear you could measure it in watts. Her number with Gene Krupa's Band, called "Drum Boogie," is like a jolt of 100-proof whiskey; it nearly takes your head off. Stanwyck and Cooper don't really percolate together, but she cooks enough on her own to sustain the energy. And she's helped by a supporting stable of character actors including S.Z. Sakall, Leonid Kinskey, Henry Travers and Oscar Homolka. Hal Hinson LA TRAGEDIE DE CARMEN Unrated, 1983, in French without subtitles, 82 minutes, Home Vision, $39.95.
This is not the opera but Peter Brook's condensed, rearranged and intensified theatrical adaptation, which uses some of Bizet's music, a lot of spoken dialogue and a modified plot. It gets by with a mere seven singing actors, an orchestra of 12 and no chorus, reducing the grand gestures of the opera to a smaller scale and coloring them with a gritty realism. Filmed entirely in a Paris studio, it conveys nonetheless a strong sense of the local color of Seville, and it also emphasizes Gypsy customs and the ritual of the bullfight. Carmen's hapless lover Jose (Howard Hensel) is unshaven and not very bright. He kills a fellow soldier in a fight over Carmen (Helene Delavault), who is a witch and a prostitute, fast with a knife and guided only by momentary caprice. Then he has to fight the matador Escamillo for her -- charging at him again and again, futilely, like an enraged bull. Up in the mountains, finally ready to consummate his love for Carmen after a strange Gypsy ceremony, he has to fight and kill another man who claims to be her husband, while she consults her tarot deck and sings a song about death. Ultimately, as in the opera, it is inevitable that Jose will kill Carmen, but in this version Escamillo is also killed by a bull. Eliminating a lot of operatic convention, this is "Carmen" for people who don't like opera. Ultimately, it does not replace Bizet's work, but it has an intense impact in its own right. Joseph McLellan