DVDs for 7/28/09 – The Middleman, Polanski’s Repulsion, the original Life on Mars begins and the new Battlestar Galactica ends

The Middleman and sidekick: the pop-art phase
The Middleman and Wendy: the pop-art phase

The Middleman is my discovery of the week, a TV series that ran for a brief but brilliant twelve episodes on the ABC Family Channel last fall before it succumbed to dismal ratings. Perhaps it would have found its audience on the SciFi Channel (now just identified by the mutant SyFy logo). Perhaps a cult audience will likewise discover this deliciously tongue-in-cheek spy fantasy series on DVD and the groundswell of support will revive it like Family Guy. (I can dream, can’t I?) All I know is that it was canceled before I had really heard about it, let alone ever seen an episode, and it had me in the first ten minutes of the pilot episode. Matt Keeslar is a Boy Scout of a special agent – part Men in Black operative, part Doctor Who freelance good guy with a faceless boss and a crotchety receptionist robot stuck in battle-axe mode – who specializes in unconventional cases (aliens, demons, a genetically enhanced super-ape that aspires to be a mafia Don). and Natalie Morales is Wendy Watson, an art-school grad and sidekick in training scouted by The Middleman (it’s apparently his name, his job and his rank all in one) from her adventures in temping. Keeslar is both colorful and clean, like Jack Bauer with impeccable manners and kick-ass skills, while Morales is Piper Perabo with a dash of Rosario Dawson. And by jiminy, it’s gosh-darn great, absolutely hilarious and marvelously inventive, a rare gem of genre TV that both lovingly quotes and hilariously parodies its inspiration. It deserves to be seen by everyone who likes their genre TV funny, clever and hip as they come. More on this when I complete the series. For now, I’m doling the episodes out like precious treats.

Criterion originally released Repulsion on laserdisc, the old-school high-definition standard of the pre-DVD age. For its long-awaited DVD and Blu-ray debut, Criterion goes back to the original elements for a beautiful new digital transfer approved by director Roman Polanski. "I always considered Repulsion as the shabbiest of my films," confesses Polanski in the commentary track, originally recorded in 1994 for the laserdisc, referring to the technical seams and budgetary limitations. Reviewing the film after decades, it’s in fact a masterfully conducted portrait in madness, a horror defined not in the the murders perpetrated by an unbalanced young woman (Catherine Deneuve) losing herself in nightmares and phobias, but in the loss of self as the alienated Belgian beauty disconnects from the world and unravels into her fantasies and fears. Deneuve’s Carol is a child-woman both fascinated and repulsed by sex, but her nightmare fantasies of rape also suggest repressed memories of abuse bubbling to the surface in her isolation and urban alienation. Polanski doesn’t explain, he explores with imaginative detail and eerie imagery (walls split with a thundercrack, hands reach out from the hallway like a Cocteau nightmare, food decomposes) as the fragile girl slips into helpless madness. One thing is certain: Apartment living is dangerous to your mental health and your soul in Polanski’s movies. This is his first victim.


"My name is Sam Tyler. I had an accident, and I woke up in 1973. Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time?" I disliked the American version of Life on Mars, the try-so-hard-it-hurts American revision of the through the looking glass British cop show that became a stateside sensation of BBC America. No, that’s not quite right. I hated the American version, with its pious commentary and exasperatingly preachy hero. Thankfully the original has arrived, and it is superb. Life on Mars: Series 1 stars John Simm as the 21st century Manchester DCI (that’s Detective Chief Inspector to us yanks), the newest member to a rough and tumble 1973 detective squad with a hard-drinking boss (Philip Glenister) who isn’t particularly worried about the civil rights of his suspects but is dead serious about protecting the people of his working class jurisdiction by any and all means at his disposal. Tyler is convinced he’s there for reason, and maybe if he finds that reason and fulfills his destiny, he can get back, but there are no answers in this collection of eight episodes, only moral quandaries, quantum conundrums and revelations about the dad that abandoned him when he was four… in 1973 Manchester. The writing is superb, the setting perfect working-class industrial grunge, the characters are right out of badass seventies cop shows and the performances refreshingly free of self-conscious affectation or cliché. The show only ran for two series in Britain. The second series comes out Acorn DVD in the fall.

The original Battlestar Galactica of the seventies was a simple show of heroic humans fleeing the evil Cylons, robots built to destroy the human race. That simplicity was tossed through the airlock for this gritty, rough and ready revision and it maintains that narrative, moral and spiritual complexity right to the journey’s end in Battlestar Galactica: Season 4.5, which begins with discovery that the "homeland" they call Earth is long dead from nuclear war. One-time villain Baltar (James Callis) is a messiah, or at the very least a holy prophet, the soft-speaking President (Mary McDonnell) withdraws from leadership in her illness while human fear of the (no-longer eternal) Cylon threat spurs an attempted coup against Commander Adama (James Edward Olmos) and his pact with the rebel Cylons who have joined forces with the human fleet. In the final ten episodes of the series, the show explores the legacy of the Cylons (and the roots of the civil war), a rebellion on Galactica and the realization that survival of both races depends on co-existence.

The fast cars and daring heists franchise fishtailed all over the place with in-name-only sequels until the original cast – outlaw racer Vin Diesel, maverick cop Paul Walker, partner-in crime girlfriend Michelle Rodriguez and good girl Jordana Brewster – finally reunited for Fast & Furious, the high energy, low brain-wattage fourth film. After a high speed heist of a moving tanker truck, it downshifts into a modern version of a seventies outlaw racing drive-in movie by way of a crime thriller that puts the outlaw and the cop on the same track. It’s pure pulp fantasy in muscle cars and revenge movie clichés with a big budget and lots of digital effects. But for all the overproduction of the speed scenes, I confess that some of the set pieces are pretty impressive, if really, really stupid. Really.

For the rest of the highlights (including the documentary Harvard Beats Yale 29-29, internet series turned DVD thriller Angel of Death, a new release of the out-of-print cult film The Saragossa Manuscript and the Blu-ray debut of Enzo G. Castellari’s 1978 Italian war thriller The Inglorious Bastards), visit my weekly column, which goes live every Tuesday on MSN Entertainment, or go directly to the various pages dedicated to New Releases, Special Releases, TV and Blu-ray.

I also previously reviewed The Inglorious Bastards on my blog here.







Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I’m a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I’ve written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View.

I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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