Hamlet (2009) (BBC) – David Tennant followed up his successful run as Doctor Who by taking on the melancholy Dane in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s modern-dress 2008 production of Hamlet. The acclaimed and hugely popular production was subsequently adapted to the small screen for this three-hour BBC presentation with stage director Gregory Doran behind the camera, premiering on the BBC in late 2009 and on PBS at the end of April 2010, less than a week before the DVD and Blu-ray release.
Tennant is amazing. Not simply brooding in the opening scenes, he’s downright insolent in the face of his mother’s over-hasty marriage to Claudius (Patrick Stewart), the brother of Hamlet’s dead father. When the ghost appears (Patrick Stewart again), it’s just enough to tip him from indignation to vengeance, which he follows with a ruthlessness that cares not who is caught in the crossfire. His Hamlet is intense, angry, caustic, mad in both senses of the word. His humor has an aggressive edge to it, played up to keep the court off-guard but delivered by Tennant with a viciousness I haven’t seen before. It’s not a game, nor just a feint, but a cruel joke that the vulnerable Ophelia (a rather bloodless Mariah Gale) is too often the victim of. In most productions I’ve seen, Hamlet shows little if any remorse at the killing of Polonious hiding in the queen’s closet (he’s just sorry it wasn’t the king). Here his callousness is out of control, and while gripped in his fire for revenge, it also reveals just how far he’s tipped over the edge, not caring who is hurt in the collateral damage. Patrick Stewart, who played Claudius thirty years earlier opposite Derek Jacobi’s Hamlet for another BBC production, comes on all concern for his nephew and stepson, exuding a warmth that is slowly replaced by a cold resolution when Hamlet’s play in fact catches the conscience of a king, or at least cuts to the truth of the matter in a way Claudius can no longer ignore.
There is some inspired direction and Tennant is intense in the role as he slides deeper into his darkness, but I found the most of the cast indistinct and held arm’s length by the direction. The contemporary halls of power of this set (actually a shuttered college that they redressed for the production) are handsome and gleaming but coldly alienating (a feeling intensified by close-circuit cameras that constantly keep Hamlet under surveillance). Mirrors and reflections are a significant motif in the production and the spiderweb cracks of Gertrude’s mirror splinters the reflections with jagged insistence, a dynamic theatrical effect in a production that can’t decide if it’s theater or cinema. The hybrid his handsomely mounted, to be sure, and the aesthetic conception and visual unity as impressive as the performances, but the emotional dimension feels overwhelmed by the canvas, the cast swallowed up in the empty, echoing rooms. The play’s the thing and it’s uncut here, but it does feel like a production brought to the cameras rather than an organic piece of drama coming alive in front of us. Both the Blu-ray and DVD feature the half-hour BBC featurette “Hamlet: Behind the Scenes,” which discusses the transition from stage to screen and the creation of the Elsinor sets on the campus of the disused St. Joseph’s College.
Marcus Welby, M.D.: Season One (Shout! Factory) – Robert Young, once the patient and comforting father in “Father Knows Best,” ages into a passionate, compassionate and, at times, cantankerous old family doctor in this hit series. Marcus “Mark” Welby is a general practitioner, a dinosaur in a world of medical specialists and a dedicated physician who still makes house calls and takes a personal interest in the lives of his patients. He’s not just a doctor, he’s a therapist and a family friend whose psychological understanding of his patients is as important as his diagnoses. It’s old fashioned medical drama, with the unorthodox but bullheaded Welby clashing with his equally headstrong, charmingly arrogant and talented young assistant, Dr. Steven Kiley (James Brolin), a brilliant and modern intern who rides a motorcycle and (in the feature-length pilot) signs on for a year-long stint with the old dinosaur to see what he can learn. But there’s also a touch of “House” in this M.D. as he diagnoses all sorts of maladies, from tumors to autism to LSD side effects, while teaching his by-the-book assistant to treat the whole patient, not just the illness. There’s a significant footnote to the set: one of the final episodes of the season, “The Daredevil Gesture,” was directed by a rising young talent named Steven Spielberg.
The show ran for seven seasons, landing in the top ten in its first season and jumping to number one in its second. The set features 26 episodes on seven discs in a double-wide case with hinged trays, plus the original 1969 TV-movie pilot. No supplements, but there’s an episode list in the case and a nice episode guide booklet.
Iron Man: Armored Adventures – The Complete First Season (Vivendi) – Originally made for the Nicktoons channel and launched in 2009, in wake of the hit live-action, this animated super-hero series reworks the Marvel comic book character-turned-hit movie franchise in the “Spider-Man” mold. Call it “I was a teenage Iron Man,” with Tony Stark as a high school genius (rather than the adult millionaire playboy) who builds the iconic suit of techno-armor as an extracurricular project, only to have it save his life when his industrialist father’s jet is bombed and his father murdered. Now he teams up with best friend Rhodey (who monitors the equipment) and gal-pal Pepper Potts (the spunky jabberjaw daughter of an FBI agent) to take on the corporate villain who turned his company into a munitions contractor as well a secret society tied up in something that is either ancient technology or pure magic. The American show is actually an international coproduction made in partnership with a British partner and a French animation studio. The animation is in the 3D CGI mode but the characterizations are strictly two-dimensional and the visuals look like mannequins in motion: awkward and stiff. The mechanical creations, however, look pretty good. 26 episodes on four discs in a digipak, plus storyboards and galleries of sketches.
Invader ZIM: Season One (Nickelodeon) – “Prepare your bladder for imminent release!” ZIM is an overzealous, pint-sized warrior who, with his factory-reject robot GIR (cleverly disguised in a zippered dog suit), is sent to conquer to the Planet Earth, or so he thinks. It’s pretty obvious that this walking disaster area was just sent as far away from his planet as the command staff could manage. Manically funny and wonderfully strange, the crazed battle between the obsessive ZIM and the geeky schoolboy who is the only one to see through ZIM’s façade became a cult favorite of kids and adults alike after it premiered on Nickelodeon in 2001. With previous DVD releases out of print, Nickelodeon presents the initial 20 episodes (with 36 stories) from 2001-2002 as an Amazon exclusive, a set of four discs in a standard disc with a hinged tray produced in the DVD-R burn-on-demand format.
Dirt: Season Two (Lionsgate), the sour and cynical FX satire of the world of celebrity and tabloid journalism, is a ghoulish portrait of the paparazzi and gossip rags and of the circus of excess and screwed-up personalities at the other end of their lenses. It didn’t improve in its second season and it was cancelled after a mere seven episodes in early 2008. You can probably chalk up the DVD release of the second and final season to the success of Courteney Cox in Cougar Town but Ian Hart, as schizophrenic photographer Don Konkey, is the only thing that makes it worth seeing. Seven episodes on two discs.
Also new this week are the 1970s revivals The Honeymooners Specials: Second Honeymoon (MPI) and The Honeymooners Specials: Valentine Special (MPI), the 1984 British mini-series Freud (BBC) with David Suchet, Tracey Ullman’s State Of The Union: Season 2 (Eagle Vision), Penn & Teller B.S!: The Seventh Season (Paramount) and On the Road with Charles Kuralt: Set 2 (Acorn)
For more DVD releases, see my picks for the week at my blog.