Blu-ray: ‘Freaks and Geeks: The Complete Series’

FreaksGeeksBDFreaks & Geeks: The Complete Series (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray) – Somewhere between Dawson’s Creek and Welcome to the Doll House is this sharp, funny, and surprisingly poignant high school dram-edy (for lack of a better word), which premiered in 1999 and lasted for a single season.

Junior Linda Cardellini (of the Scooby-Doo movies and Mad Men) grounds the series as the former class brain who, in the first episode, is in the midst of a startling identity crisis. Rejecting everything she once took for granted, including her place in the school hierarchy, she gravitates toward the “freaks,” a group of stoners, under-achievers, and minor key rebels, sort of led by rebel without a clue Daniel (James Franco, looking perpetually stoned). Meanwhile her Freshman brother (John Francis Daley) is a Steve Martin-quoting, Dungeons and Dragon-playing, skinny little “geek,” hanging with his friends, pining for a pretty cheerleader, and trying to avoid the mean-spirited pranks and hazing that he seems to be the perpetual butt of.

Set in 1980 Michigan and executed with a brilliant sense of fashion, music, and pop-culture zeitgeist, the hour long show is no sitcom (though it’s funnier than most) and the humor is often a sneaky way to explore the pain of teenage social nightmares, from the bullying, humiliating torments of bigger and older students to crushes, dating, and the social rites of passage that put kids on stage without giving them the script. It’s compassionate without losing itself in sentimentality and understanding of the crises that drive these kids to their often self-destructive behavior without letting them off the hook for their decisions. No show on TV better captured the subtleties or the dynamics of the high school caste system. The Pilot features a longer “director’s cut” with footage not seen on TV and the 18 episode series (of which only 15 were originally shown on NBC before it was yanked from the schedule for good) is returned to its intended order, ending on a satisfying and moving open-ended conclusion that leaves the characters stretching themselves to the future in moments of discovery and defiance. Watch for Ben Stiller in an uncredited cameo as a frustrated Secret Service agent in The Little Things.

The series has been released twice on DVD. The Blu-ray box set features two complete versions of the show—the original broadcast presentation in the full frame Academy ratio and a special widescreen TV version—plus all of the supplements from the previous DVD releases. That includes 29 commentary tracks. Really. No, I’m serious. There are 29 commentary tracks, featuring various combinations of cast and crew (“No, we do not think the show is so important that it demands almost 30 commentary tracks,” writes Executive Producer Judd Apatow in an accompanying Q&A, “but you have to understand, we miss each other. Recording commentary tracks was a great way to see each other….”) The participants include creator/co-executive producer Paul Feig (who based many of the scripts on his own high school experience), executive producer Judd Apatow, directors Jake Kasdan, Lesli Linka Glatter, Ken Kwapis, Bryan Gordon, and Miguel Arteta, writers Mike White, J. Elvis Weinstein, Jeff Judah, Gabe Sachs, Patty Lin, Rebecca Kirshner, Bob Nickman, and Jon Kasdan, actors Linda Cardellini, John Francis Daley, James Franco, Samm Levine, Jason Segel, Martin Starr, Seth Rogan, Busy Philipps, Betty Ann Baker, and Joe Flaherty, recurring and guest actors Dave (Gruber) Allen, Natasha Melnick, Stephen Lea Sheppard, Jerry Messing, Joanna Garcia, Sam McMurray, Sarah Hagan, Claudia Christian, Tom Wilson, and “high concept” tracks featuring the production team, the teachers (in character, talking about the students!), studio executives, even parents of the stars and fans. And no, that’s not all. There’s a Q&A at the Museum of TV and Radio in 2000, a 70-minute featurette with Feig, Apatow, director Jake Kasdan and half a dozen cast members (worth it just to see Seth Rogen giggle like a goof as he riffs on stage). There are deleted scenes from every episode (with optional commentary by Judd Apatow and actors Martin Starr and John Francis Daley), actor auditions (see Linda Cardellini and Busy Phillips swap roles), complete table reads of three episodes, outtakes, bloopers, alternate takes, and other raw footage and behind-the-scenes clips, plus a booklet with essays and an episode guide.

Freaks And Geeks: The Complete Series [Blu-ray]

More TV on disc at Cinephiled

TV on Disc: ‘Show Me a Hero,’ ‘Mr. Robot,’ ’12 Monkeys,’ and the rest of the best of recent TV on disc

Show Me a Hero (HBO, Blu-ray, DVD), a six-hour HBO miniseries developed by David Simon (The Wire) and William F. Zorzi from the non-fiction book by Lisa Belkin and directed by Paul Haggis (with a subtlety and nuance I didn’t know he had in him), stars Oscar Isaac as Nick Wasicsko, a city councilman who became the mayor of Yonkers in 1988 with an anti-public housing campaign at a time when resentment to the court-ordered low income housing was so fierce it bordered on hysteria.

A drama on public housing policy and city politics may not sound like the makings of compelling drama but Show Me a Hero showcases what Simon does best: exploring real-life events and issues through a dramatic lens that puts politics, economics, and social justice in personal terms.

Wasicsko runs an underdog campaign against a five-term incumbent by riding the wave of anger over the city’s “capitulation” to the court (after delaying for years through failed appeals). When the last of the appeals is rejected, Wasicsko resigns himself to the inevitable but the middle- and working-class white population that elected him sees it as a betrayal of their support and he suddenly finds himself in the impossible position of negotiating a deal that will pass the city council and meet the legal obligation, or face crippling contempt fines that could bankrupt the city in a month. He does the right thing for the city and is punished for it, destroyed by the very anger he stoked to get elected. The politics of denial drives the city elections and the city council meetings for years to come.

Sound like any political culture we know?

While Wasicsko is at the center of the story, he is only one character in an expansive canvas that encompasses not just the politicians but the white homeowners resisting change (Catherine Keener, whose bedrock civility gets carried away by the mob passions) and the folks struggling to make a life for themselves in the crime-ridden projects, from a health-care worker going blind from diabetes (LaTanya Richardson Jackson) to a single mother from the Dominican Republic whose best option is leave her children back in the DR while she supports them from Yonkers. The superb cast also includes Bob Balaban, Jim Belushi, Jon Bernthal, Alfred Molina, Peter Riegert, and Winona Ryder.

The tragedy evoked in the show’s title (the complete quote by F. Scot Fitzgerald is “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy”) is Wasicsko’s obsessive quest to get back into elected office. While others are able to accept change and evolve their understanding, Wasicsko becomes a political junkie who needs the affirmation of election and he betrays friends and former colleagues along the way.

Simply put, this is one of the best TV productions of 2015 and a startlingly relevant portrait of the politics of anger and opposition at all costs.

And don’t skip the end credits: pictures of the real-life people are shown side-by-side with the actors, a reminder that this fiction comes from real life.

The Blu-ray and DVD editions include the featurette “Making Show Me a Hero,” somewhat misleadingly described as “an extended look at the series’ production” but is, at just over six minutes, more promotional short than documentary.

MrRobotS1Mr. Robot: Season One (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD) – “There’s a powerful group of people out there who are secretly running the world.”

Rami Malek, who has given impressive performances in small roles for years, takes the lead in this cerebral conspiracy drama as Elliot, an intense, socially awkward hacker who works for a computer security outfit by day and metes out justice by night. It may make him sound like a superhero but Elliot is emotionally troubled and unstable, self-medicating to keep his equilibrium and spying on everyone in his life to discover their secrets. He’s recruited by a cabal of revolutionary hackers called fsociety, led by an enigmatic anarchist known as “Mr. Robot” (played by Christian Slater) to hack a powerful corporation known as Evil Corp and erase the debts of millions of citizens. Portia Doubleday is his professional colleague and best friend, bonded by a shared tragedy, Carly Chaikin a fellow hacker whose true identity is revealed in one of the show’s great twists, and Gloria Reuben (E.R.) his concerned therapist, one of the few people that Elliot genuinely cares about (which he expresses in his own destructive way).

It has an element of science fiction but it’s more of a conspiracy thriller viewed from the perspective of a schizophrenic hero, whose dryly witty narration reveals his tormented mind. He’s paranoid and has hallucinations and the series keeps us locked in his perspective, slowly sorting out what’s real from what’s in his head. The series, created by relative newcomer Sam Esmail, borrows from Fight Club and V for Vendetta(among other films and pop-culture artifacts) but takes the portrait of corporate power, cyber-crime, and grass-roots activists as anarchist hackers into unexpected directions. It earned rave reviews during its summer season debut and won two Golden Globes. A second series is scheduled for summer 2016 on USA.

10 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with a featurette and deleted scenes.

12MonkeysThe SyFy original series 12 Monkeys: Season One(Universal, Blu-ray, DVD) takes the premise of the 1995 Terry Gilliam time travel film of the same name (which was, in turn, inspired by Chris Marker’s 1962 experimental shortLa Jetée) and springs off into a sprawling story that ricochets through a timeline that gets rewritten along the way.

In the movie, Bruce Willis is a time-traveler from a post-apocalyptic future trying to stop a plague that will kill most of humanity. In the series, Aaron Stanford (Pyro in the X-Menmovies) takes over the Willis role as time-travelling agent James Cole and Amanda Schull is Dr. Cassandra Railly, a virologist who overcomes her skepticism and becomes his partner in 2015. The series opens much like the film does, with Cole tracking the brief clues and landing in an asylum to find the meaning of the mysterious “Army of the 12 Monkeys,” then expands beyond the film with a complicated conspiracy involving black ops labs, biological weapons, an ancient plague, and a mysterious assassin known as “The Witness” (played by Tom Noonan) determined to unleash a killer virus upon the world.

This Cole enters as a seemingly unstable character but soon loses his schizophrenic edges (he ostensibly gets used to the physical and mental shock of time travel) and becomes a focused, committed professional. Taking over the madness duties is Emily Hampshire as Jennifer Goines, the daughter of a calculating corporate conspirator (Zeljko Ivanek, playing another of his icy villains) who dumps her in an asylum. Kirk Acevedo (a veteran of Fringe, another series with shifting realities) is Cole’s best friend turned nemesis (which is one of the show’s least convincing twists) and German actress Barbara Sukowa (a veteran of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s company) is the scientific genius keeping the machine working in the future.

It’s a part of the new wave of ambitious SyFy original shows and it has fun playing with the shifting timelines (each jump opens by identifying the year) and conundrums and filling out the bleak future (left largely unexplored in the film) where marauding gangs prey upon survivors and sabotage the scientists trying to save the past and create a new future. In terms of ambition and creativity, it falls somewhere betweenContinuum, another high-concept SyFy series built around time travel, and the superior Fringe.

12 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with deleted scenes, auditions, webisodes, and a gag reel. The second season begins on SyFy in April.

UnrealS1UnREAL: Season One (Lifetime, DVD), an acidic satire of reality TV created for the Lifetime Network, is set behind the scenes of a Bachelor-like show (here called Everlasting). Constance Zimmer is Quinn King, the manipulative producer who engineers conflict to manufacture the kind of showy drama that gets ratings, and Shiri Appleby is production assistant Rachel Goldberg, Quinn’s star protégé. Nobody is better at that kind of mind games and psychological manipulation than Rachel and it makes her miserable.

That pretty much sets the stage for everything that happens behind the scenes of the contrived dating show, in which a dozen or so contestants compete for a handsome young British bachelor (Freddie Stroma), the show’s shallow, self-involved Prince Charming and heir to a hotel fortune. But while there is a catty competitiveness between the women, the real drama is behind the camera where Quinn and her team conspire to bring out the worst behavior in the contestants. Created by Marti Noxon (a veteran writer-producer of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Mad Men, andGlee) and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro (a war-scarred veteran of the real The Bachelor), it’s less a parody of reality TV than a savvy, scathing satire of the culture that feeds the genre. It also takes on issues of sexism and the position of women professionals in the entertainment industry, all with the same black humor and lively clash of personalities. It was voted one of the 10 best shows of 2015 by the AFI. A second season is slated for summer 2016.

10 episodes on two discs on DVD.

downton6Downton Abbey: Season 6 (PBS, Blu-ray, DVD) is the final run for the BBC series that revived the Upstairs Downstairs melodrama of the families living on inherited wealth and the servants who work for them as a portrait of a culture going extinct in the 1920s. It became a phenomenon in both Britain and the U.S., where it became the most popular show on PBS, and won multiple Emmy Awards and Golden Globes over its first five seasons. It’s an odd kind of social commentary filled with a nostalgia for that kind of class system, at least as practiced by patriarch Lord Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) and his family, notably his more modern-thinking (but still class-conscious) daughter Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), and supported by the servants raised in this way of life, notably head butler Carson (Jim Carter).

The sixth and final season of the series delivers happy endings all around, as if rewarding viewers for their devotion to the lives of the wealthy and the service classes alike. Tom (Allan Leach), the working class mechanic who married into the family, returns to the manor. There are marriages (both among the aristocrats and the servants) and opportunities for the characters to grow and learn as the series observes the passing of an era (one family is forced to sell their manor and the Crawleys open their home to visitors as a fundraiser). Cousin Rose (Lily James) comes back for the finale and, of course, Maggie Smith offers her hilariously withering commentary throughout at Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess.

The show has a passionate following and the final season brings it all to a satisfying, audience-pleasing end that never dares question the privileges of inherited wealth and title. And, of course, there is no violence, foul language, or nudity, though there are the occasional breaches of etiquette.

The Blu-ray and DVD editions present 8 hour-long episodes plus the two-hour series finale (listed as “Christmas Special”) and 30 minutes of featurettes.

TrueDetS2True Detective: The Complete Second Season (HBO, Blu-ray, DVD) of the crime anthology series created and written for HBO by crime novelist Nic Pizzolatto takes on an entirely new mystery, complete with a new setting and cast of characters. This one comes out of the tradition of L.A. crime fiction, the kind that James Ellroy loved to fill with political corruption and compromised cops, and creates an elaborate web of criminal cover-ups, gangsters, and graft.

Colin Farrell plays an unstable detective with anger issues who is in the pocket of gangsters, Rachel McAdams is a rising detective whose reckless personal life impedes her career, and Vince Vaughn is a smooth career criminal trying to go legit as a developer on the ground floor of a major new redevelopment scheme. His ambitions are short-circuited when a city manager is murdered and his seed money stolen, a crime that launches the tangled storyline of the season and lands Vaughn in trouble with his mobbed-up partners. Farrell and McAdams, joined by a motorcycle officer (Taylor Kitsch) who would rather be back on patrol, are assigned to the murder, an investigation that isn’t supposed to go anywhere but ends up sending them into a conspiracy involving the rich and powerful of this (fictional) economically depressed California town, an industrial town in the grip of recession.

After the (perhaps overenthusiastic) acclaim for the Southern Gothic first season, audiences were disappointed that the show left pulp weirdness for more familiar urban crime drama and critics lambasted the show for its more familiar character types and plot twists (not to mention its sometimes arch dialogue). But it’s a well-written show with a vivid atmosphere of seediness and desperation, characters and relationships that get more interesting along the way, and excellent actors delivering solid performances.

8 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with commentary on two episodes by the creator and cast members and three featurettes, plus an Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the season.

LastKingThe Last Kingdom (BBC, DVD), based on the first two novels in Bernard Cornwell’s “The Saxon Stories” series of historical novels, retells the story of King Alfred the Great, the ninth century Saxon King of Wessex, through the eyes of Uhtred of Bebbanburg (Alexander Dreymon).

Born a Saxon but captured and raised by a Danish warrior, Uhtred is a man between two worlds. Blamed for the massacre of his Danish family (who are murdered by another Danish clan) and cheated out of his rightful Saxon heritage by his uncle, he pledges his loyalty to Alfred (David Dawson) to defend Britain against the invading Danish forces and seals his pledge with a marriage to a Christian woman, Mildrith (Amy Wren). A mix of historical and fictional characters, The Last Kingdom presents the birth of Britain as an uneasy alliance between the Christian Alfred, the sickly but learned and wise youngest son of King Aethelwulf, and the pagan peoples who identify themselves as neither Dane nor Saxon but simply Britons. It features a contemporary perspective on faith and religion, which imposes its own intolerance on the kingdom (and especially on Uhtred, a steadfast pagan who refuses to observe Christian rites), but it also allows for complex characters who see beyond religion, including Alfred, whose anemia is cured and dying infant son saved by a pagan “sorceress” and healer (Charlie Murphy).

The BBC series (which played on BBC America in 2015) is a handsome period production that tells a busy story of betrayal, vengeance, romance, conspiracy, loyalty, and a nascent sense of patriotism to the British kingdom represented by Alfred, and presents a realistic portrait of life in the dark ages and lavish battles that illustrate the tactics of medieval warfare. Matthew Macfadyen and Rutger Hauer co-star in the first episode as honorable Saxon and Danish elders, respectively. A second series has been announced for 2016.

8 hour-long episodes on two DVDs, no supplements.

TV on disc: ‘Better Call Saul,’ ‘Peaky Blinders,’ the end of ‘Hannibal,’ the beginning of ‘Game of Thrones,’ and more TV on disc

BetterCallSaulS1Better Call Saul: Season One (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD) – Bob Odenkirk is Jimmy McGill, a struggling lawyer trying to get both respect and clients in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in this prequel series to the award-winning Breaking Bad. He was Saul Goodman in that show, the shady lawyer who helped Walter White hide his drug money, but Saul was once Jimmy, a conman (he earned the nickname Slippery Jimmy) who cleaned up his act, got a law degree from a dubious school, and set out his own shingle in a utility closet in the back of a strip mall beauty shop.

Better Call Saul takes a different tone from Breaking Bad, playing it is a dark comedy and character piece that shows Jimmy’s struggles. He’s the younger brother of a once successful and respected lawyer (Michael McKean), who is now holed up with a phobia for electrical signals, trying to prove himself to his brother while chasing clients with more bravado than confidence and watching schemes backfire. The series also feature Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), the ex-cop who will become Saul’s reliable field man and fixer. Odenkirk is a mix of salesmanship and desperation as Jimmy, who isn’t taken seriously by clients or other lawyers, and he lets us see the person under the pose. For all his schemes, he wants to play it straight and prove himself. It’s the beginning of an odyssey that will eventually turn him into the morally untethered Saul Goodman. The series was nominated for seven Emmy Awards and Odenkirk’s performance earned Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations.

10 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with uncensored versions of three episodes, cast and crew commentary tracks on each episode, and the featurettes “Better Call Saul: Day One” and “Creating the First Season.”

Exclusive to the Blu-ray are bonus featurettes “In Conversation: Bob Odenkirk & Michael McKean,” “Good Cop, Bad Cop: Becoming Mike,” and “In the Studio,” the montage featurettes “Jimmy in the Courtroom” and “Jimmy Kaleidoscope, a table read for the pilot episode, deleted scenes, and a bonus commentary track in character by Craig and Betsy Kettleman.

PeakyBlindersPeaky Blinders: Season One (BBC, Blu-ray, DVD), set in North England industrial city of Birmingham in the years after World War I, ” is a British TV gangster drama starring Cillian Murphy as Thomas Shelby, who applies the lessons of warfare to turn a crime family into a major criminal enterprise, and Sam Neill as his nemesis, an Inspector from Belfast brought in to clean up the corrupt and ineffectual police and stop the IRA presence in Birmingham. The battle becomes personal when Grace (Annabelle Wallis), an undercover agent who takes a position a barmaid in Shelby gang saloon, refuses the Inspector’s romantic overtures and falls for Thomas. The series title comes from the name of Shelby’s gang, so called because they sew razor blades into the peaks of their caps.

Created and written by Steven Knight, the writer of Eastern Promises and writer/director of the acclaimed Locke, it’s a sharp, smart, gritty show and a vividly realized period piece set in a volatile culture where the IRA and the communist union organizers are both targeted as terrorists, the Italians and Gypsies fight to keep their piece of the underworld as Thomas schemes to expand the Shelby family business, and the cops are as thuggish as the crooks. The shadow of the war hangs over it: the friends and family lost, the women who ran things while the men fought and aren’t so quick to hand things back over, the victims of shell shock reliving the war with every loud noise, and the disillusioned working class men who fought for their country and came back to poverty and hard times. Though set close to hundred years ago, the soundtrack is filled with energetic modern rock songs from The White Stripes, Nick Cave, and others. The series went straight to Netflix in the U.S.

The first season of six episodes debuts on Blu-ray and DVD, with a featurette. It’s a very handsome show and the Blu-ray gives you a better opportunity to appreciate the terrific textures of the production.

HomeFiresMasterpiece: Home Fires (PBS, Blu-ray, DVD) is another period piece from British TV, this one set in a rural village 1940, just as Britain was sending off its young (and sometimes not so young) men to fight in World War II. Home Fires is about life on the homefront and it focuses on the women, from wives and mothers looking to fill their lonely days by contributing something to the war effort to community leaders taking charge of the transformation to a wartime society.

Samantha Bond takes the lead here as Frances, who challenges Joyce (Francesca Annis), the elitist, upper-class leader of the Women’s Institute, and transforms it from an exclusive social club to an open communal society devoted to supporting the war effort in every way they can, from sending letters the boys on the front to increasing food production to creating a communal air raid shelter. Inspired by the book “Jambusters” by Julie Summers, the show presents a large canvas of characters and issues, some of that follow a familiar formula (a young woman working in the war office has an affair with a married officer), some less predictable, and along with the expected portrait of chauvinism is the issue of class played out through the snooty aristocrat Joyce sabotaging the efforts of Frances at every turn.

There’s no surprise that the six-episode series, which takes in a year or so in their lives, emphasizes how the communal effort overcomes conflict to foster acceptance, understanding, and mutual respect. It’s more uplifting and affirming than challenging or surprising, and it is handsomely made with convincing period detail and a fine cast delivering top notch performances. It played in the US on the PBS showcase “Masterpiece” and a second series of the drama has been announced.

Six episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, no supplements.

CodeS1The six-part Australian mini-series The Code (Acorn, DVD) is a political thriller about a government conspiracy uncovered by web reporter Ned Banks (Dan Spielman) and investigated with the help of Ned’s younger brother Jesse (Ashley Zukerman), a genius, borderline autistic hacker on parole for cybercrimes. It opens on a car accident in the outback that leaves two Aboriginal students critically injured and a video recorded by one of the students that their teacher (Lucy Lawless in a small role) sends to Ned. His investigation leads to a biotech company and secret illegal activities and he and Jesse are attacked and intimidated into dropping the story.

It only makes them more determined to uncover the truth, which reveals connections to the government and a cover-up ordered by Minister David Wenham. The series, created by Shelley Birse (who also wrote episodes of the hit Aussie series “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries”), combines a drama of corporate corruption and government complicity in covering up illegal behavior that it secretly sanctioned with a journalistic investigation in the internet age, and the web-based communications and cyber-hacking is incorporated into the storytelling by bringing the text into the images. It’s nothing new but it is effective and helps make the digital elements part of the physical drama. The series goes back and forth between the city, the halls of Australian government, and the dusty, empty outback, which makes it something different for American audiences, but it’s also well written and effectively directed, and the six-hour format brings it to a satisfying conclusion.

Six episodes on two discs on DVD, no supplements.

HannibalS3Hannibal: Season Three (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD), the final season (at least as of this writing) of the unlikely NBC take on the Thomas Harris novels, moves from series developer and show-runner Bryan Fuller’s original stories inspired by the books and characters to incorporate story elements from the novel Hannibal and adapt Red Dragon directly over the course of the final six episodes (making it the third screen version of the novel). Mads Mikkelson is Hannibal Lecter and Hugh Dancy is Will Graham, two men locked in a perverse kind of battle of wills as Lecter treats Graham as a test subject in a perverse psychological experiment, as if tempting him to give into the dark side. The season opens with Lecter in Europe with his psychiatrist (Gillian Anderson) posing as his wife, somewhere between prisoner and reluctant conspirator in his continued murder-as-fine-art spectacles, clues that draw Graham and his boss Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) to follow. This is a unique kind of show, a work of visual beauty in service to stories of gruesome violence and mad murderers, more European art movie than American crime procedural. Fans cursed NBC for cancelling the series, an international production shot in and around Toronto, but it’s amazing than an American network supported a show this strange and surreal and aesthetically unique as long as it did.

13 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with commentary on ten episodes by Bryan Fuller and various members of cast and crew and the two-hour documentary “Getting the Old Scent Again: reimagining Red Dragon” leading the substantial menu of supplements. There are also two short featurettes, all of the “Post Mortem with Scott Thompson” webisodes, deleted scenes, a gag reel, and an Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the entire season (SD for the DVD release).

InsideAmyS3Inside Amy Schumer: Season 3 (Paramount) is the season where Amy Schumer’s acclaimed Comedy Central series leapt from cable hit to cultural phenomenon thanks to acclaimed skits that went viral on YouTube. This is the season that satirized sexual double standards with guest stars Tina Fey, Patricia Arquette, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus celebrating that latter’s “last f***able day” and parodied sexualized music videos with the song “Milk Milk Lemonade.” The episode “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer” parodied the famous movie, this time with an all-male jury (including Jeff Goldblum, John Hawkes, Vincent Kartheiser, and Paul Giamatti) passing judgment on Schumer’s sex appeal and physical appearance. In another skit, she’s the perfect undercover cop because she is so plain that no one every notices her. In much of the show, Schumer presents herself as a hard-drinking, sexually reckless woman, but her humor cuts both ways as she takes on body shaming, pay inequities, birth control, sexual assault, and other issues through often provocative skits.

10 episodes on two discs on DVD, with uncensored versions of the episodes, a bonus unaired sketch, a collection of unaired interviews, and outtakes.

Gift IdeasGameThronesS1Steel

Game of Thrones: The Complete First Season Steelbook (HBO, Blu-ray)
Game of Thrones: The Complete Second Season Steelbook (HBO, Blu-ray)

HBO’s sprawling, muscular adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s fantasy epic is arguably the pay cabler’s biggest success since The Sopranos became the water-cooler show of its day. It’s also been one of the best-selling TV shows on disc. So it’s not surprising to see a Blu-ray upgrade of the first two seasons.

Sean Bean is the ostensible hero of Season One as Eddard Stark, ruler of the northern kingdom and the Hand of the King (Mark Addy), a once fearsome warrior married to a ruthlessly ambitious queen (Lena Headey) who plots to put her clan on the throne and eliminate Stark. But that’s just the broadest strokes of a very complicated story with where family dynasties plot their way to power through marriages, war, and political gamesmanship, and an exiled princess (Emilia Clarke) unites the barbarian hordes of a land across the water to take back her family legacy. And it doesn’t begin to trace the equally compelling story of Tyrion Lannister, the debauched “black sheep” of the ruling family played by Peter Dinklage (who won an Emmy for his performance). Like a medieval answer to I, Claudius, he’s a dwarf with a sharp mind and a fierce understanding of the ways of power that he hides under his court jester antics. It’s a form of protection as well as escape; he’s not perceived as a threat.

GameThronesS2SteelSeason Two uses the foundation of that season to build an increasingly complex narrative with characters that become more interesting with every challenge. And the biggest challenge: a free-for-all civil war after the sniveling little prince Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) is elevated to the throne by his cold-blooded mother (Lena Headey) and the scheming Lannister family, and their struggle to keep him in power as the boy turns every tantrum into a brutal display of his rule and multiple claimants to the throne make their play for the crown as the balance of power shifts with every alliance and betrayal.

The fantasy elements are still merely grace notes in a fictional historical epic that otherwise plays like a fanciful take on Europe of the Dark Ages, and the scale of the production – in particular battle of King’s Landing, which takes up the entire penultimate episode of the season – suggests feature film values. The series is shot in Ireland, Morocco, Malta, Croatia, and Iceland, with striking, dynamic landscapes defining each fictional land represented in the show. But it wouldn’t mean much without the strong writing, vivid characters, and superb cast. Show creators/producers David Benioff and D.B Weiss know how to keep the show focused on story and character. Storytelling matters, and this is a fiercely-told story.

Each season is ten episodes on five discs. The video master appears to be the same but new to disc is a theater-quality Dolby Amos soundtrack for high-end systems. The supplements are the same: seven commentary tracks on the first season, twelve on the second (there’s some doubling up), featuring a mix of participants including developers / show runners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (on the series premiere) and most of the stars and major creative collaborators at point or another, numerous production and interview featurettes, interactive guide modes with offer background material and “In-Episode Guides,” a viewing mode with pop-up factoids and guides running through the episodes. These are well-produced extras and worth the visit for fans of the show.

 

The steelbook case is small and sturdy—it’ll fit neatly on the shelf with your other volumes—and the discs are stacked on short spindles inside: three discs on one side, two on the other. I’m not fond of spindles and it can scratch the disc it any grit gets caught between them, which can be an issue in a family household, but if you’re a careful collector it should be fine.

And each features a sigil magnet with the crest of the Starks (First Season) and the Lannisters (Second Season).

GreatAmericanThe Great American Dream Machine (S’more, DVD), produced for PBS in the early 1970s with an unconventional format that mixed comedy skits with documentary segments, animated interludes, and satirical shorts, was an early victim of political pressure on public television. It seems that Congress didn’t like public funds spent on political or social satire. But for two years, this unusual, almost forgotten mix of variety show and offbeat TV newsmagazine presented clever comedy bits by Albert Brooks (his “Famous School for Comedians” anticipates the shorts he made for Saturday Night Live), Chevy Chase (one of the musical faces that opens the show), Charles Grodin, and Marshall Efron between profiles of fringe figures (from Evel Knievel to roller derby athlete Ann Calvello to custom car innovator Big Daddy Roth) and byways of American culture (visits to both “Honeymoon Hotel” and “McDonalds University”).

Dick Cavett recites Carl Sandburg and Mark Twain, Andy Rooney offer his wry kvetching opinions years before it became a staple of 60 Minutes, and Studs Turkel discusses the issues of the day with Chicago citizens. There are short documentaries and musical performances and animated interludes and interviews with folks on the street, adults and children alike, but no host and no studio audience. Compared to modern shows this takes its time—even the animated opening credits are unusually long—but it is a TV landmark and a fascinating time capsule of American culture in the early 1970s and its offbeat approach is still interesting. The programs presented on this four-disc box set appear to be taken from “best of” revival episodes and there are no broadcast dates or episode numbers on the cases or in the booklet, but the collection presents thirteen hours of original segments, most remastered from videotape.

On four discs on DVD, each in a separate case with a menu of segments (it does not, however, separate the episodes from one another) filled with typographical errors and an accompanying booklet with an essay by David Bianculli, all in a paperboard slipsleeve.

The Whole Story

McHale’s Navy: The Complete Series (Shout! Factory, DVD), a service sitcom about a misfit PT boat crew in the South Pacific during World War II, is notable mostly for its ensemble. Oscar-winner Ernest Borgnine is the fun-loving, big-hearted McHale, a former tramp steamer skipper commissioned as a Lt. Commander with his own ship and crew because of his knowledge of the islands and seaways, Tim Conway is his lovable but incompetent executive officer, and the great Joe Flynn the eternally exasperated Captain who hates the way McHale flaunts rules and discipline despite his superb record fighting the Japanese. Carl Ballantine is the top grifter in the crew and Gavin MacLeod co-stars. In the fourth season the entire cast is relocated to a small Italian village to patrol the waters of the Mediterranean with the liberation of Italy.

McHaleBeauty

Most of the episodes are variations on the same theme: McHale’s crew hatches some scheme or gets caught up in some activity that breaks navy rules and then they have to cover it up before the Captain can catch them in the act. There’s nothing original here but the ensemble timing is superb. The series was moderately popular and a syndication staple through the 1970s, giving it some nostalgia appeal, and it launched Conway’s career.

In addition to the complete four seasons, this box set features the two big screen movies featuring the original cast, both directed by series producer Edward Montagne and released when the show was still on the air. McHale’s Navy (1964), which doesn’t bother even bother coming up with a variation on the series name, is like a feature-length episode revolving around a horse racing scheme. Borgnine is absent from McHale’s Navy Joins the Air Force (1965), which slips Conway in the lead when Parker gets mistaken for a pilot and assigned to duties in the Air Force.

JusticeLeagueUnJustice League Unlimited: The Complete Series (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) – The signature superhero series of the Cartoon Network was developed by Bruce Timm (Batman: The Animated Series) in the early 2000s for the Cartoon Network as a more mature take on the all-star superhero team that counts Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman as charter members. This is no happy-go-lucky group of seventies-era “Super Friends” saving the world with a smile and a chummy sense of togetherness. Choppy relationships, clashing personalities (the grim Green Lantern, lighthearted jester The Flash, grim, haunted Martian Manhunter and, of course, Batman, who explains himself with the line: “I’m not really a people person”), and lots of suspicion make these teammates an often contentious and always interesting group.

It was simply called Justice League for the for two seasons of the series who but it became Justice League Unlimited in 2004, adding new charter members (among them Green Arrow, Supergirl, and Black Canary) and shifting from multi-episode stories to more self-contained episodes, though a long-running battle with Lex Luthor, the super-villain who turns the government against the supergroup and creates a powerful nemesis, Cadmus, to take down the heroes, runs through the first half of this collection.

39 episodes on three discs, with commentary on episodes “This Little Piggy” and “The Return” with producer Bruce Timm and others and three featurettes: “”And Justice For All,” on the revamping of the show with its new characters and a new direction; “Cadmus Exposed,” with Timm, Mark Hamill and others discussing the entire Cadmus storyline; and “Justice League Chronicles, with series writers, producers, and directors discussing their favorite moments among final-season episodes.

Also new and notableFearWalkS1

Outlander: Season One – The Ultimate Collection (Sony, Blu-ray) collects the episodes previously available in two separate releases. Adapted from the bestselling historical romances by Diane Gabron, it’s the first Starz original series to be both a bonifide critical and popular hit. It’s intelligent and interesting, full of historical and cultural detail, and builds on a situation that calls upon magic yet remains grounded in a very real world where the threat of violence and death are ever present. And it’s all told from the perspective of a smart, observant, modern (circa 1945) British woman magically transported back to 18th century Scotland who is doing all she can to stay alive long enough to escape back into her world. 16 episodes plus supplements.

Fear the Walking Dead: The Complete First Season (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD), the prequel series to AMC’s hit zombie apocalypse drama, begins at ground zero, or at least time zero, with the first outbreaks of the undead virus in Los Angeles. It launched with a six-episode season that centers on an extended family around Kim Dickens and Cliff Curtis and ends with the city collapsing into chaos. With two featurettes.

Marco Polo: The Complete First Season (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD) of the Netflix original series features 10 episodes plus featurettes, deleted scenes, rehearsal footage, and galleries of art and stills.

LegendsMystery Science Theater 3000: Vol. XXXIV (Shout! Factory, DVD) presents four more episodes never before released on disc: The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1957) and The Undead (1957) directed by Roger Corman, Bert I. Gordon’s War of the Colossal Beast (1958), and The She-Creature (1956), all produced by American International Pictures. The four-disc set includes new introductions by Frank Conniff, the original documentary It Was a Colossal Teenage Movie Machine: The American International Pictures Story (2015), and four mini-posters.

From the 20th Century Fox Cinema Archives comes the debut seasons of three recent shows: the ABC comedy Cristela: The Complete Season 1 with Cristela Alonzo (22 episodes); Legends: The Complete Season 1, the TNT deep cover thriller with Sean Bean, Ali Larter, and Morris Chestnut (10 episodes); and Kingdom: The Complete Season 1, the DirecTV boxing drama with Frank Grillo and Matt Lauria (10 episodes).

And the entire run of a couple of shows that didn’t make it past a first season: the behind-the-scenes showbiz comedy The Comedians: The Complete Series with Billy Crystal and Josh Gad (13 episodes) and the sitcom Weird Loners: The Complete Series with a mere six episodes. These are all DVD-R releases.

Calendar of upcoming releases on Blu-ray, DVD, Digital, and VOD

OutlanderComplete

Videophiled: ‘The Wire: The Complete Series’ on Blu-ray

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HBO

“Follow the drugs, and you’ll find dealers and users. Follow the money, and you have no idea where the case will take you.” So began the first season of HBO’s compelling tale of cops, crooks, and the social and bureaucratic forces that both divide and bind them, and the begining of an epic series that set the high water mark for television drama. I’m not generally one for sweeping statements, but The Wire is the best original show ever made for television.

Created by David Simon (co-creator of the landmark cop show Homicide: Life on the Street), it’s marked more by the mundane realities of procedure and politics (on both sides of the law), and the intricate details building cases and connecting the dots of evidence, than by drug busts and shoot-outs. The first season follows the single investigation of an inner-city drug dealer and the violence surrounding his ambitious expansion, while the narrative is built around Baltimore police detective McNulty (Dominick West), a hard-drinking divorced cop whose dedication is endangered by a big mouth that gets the better of him when he’s indignant, and D’Angelo Barksdale (Larry Gilliard Jr.), the sharp young nephew of West Side drug lord Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris). The structure recalls Richard Price’s novel Clockers (though not the movie) in the way it gives equal time to both worlds, exploring both the intricacies within each and the interaction between the two. (It’s surely no coincidence that Price was drafted to become part of the show’s writing bullpen.) D’Angelo opens his eyes to the street politics when he’s demoted to slinging product from the towers in the slums and the show opens our eyes into both worlds. The deliberate pacing and attention of complex detail marked it off from every other crime show on TV, and Homicide star turned director Clark Johnson can take some of the credit for setting the tone and style in the first two episodes (he did similar honors on the pilot of The Shield).

The second season opens with hard-drinking loose cannon McNulty shuffled off to the harbor patrol (his punishment for bucking the chain of command) and the special squad commander Daniels (Lance Reddick) consigned to the police archive dungeon. Then McNulty fishes a corpse out of the water and starts a whole new investigation rolling. The team is back in business, and this time they leave the drug crimes of the street for human smuggling and corruption on the docks… and it’s all kicked off by a spat between a petty Irish cop and the local dock workers union. The drama brings us into the complexities of organized crime on the docks, the desperate tactics and petty scams run by an underemployed dock workers’s union in a faltering economy, and the victims sacrificed by international crime lords in the human cargo trade, but Simon and company continue to follow the drugs as well. Avon Barksdale’s drug operation is now being managed by Stringer Bell (Idris Elba). His big ambitions sets the foundation for the third season, which pulls the story the task force back into the affairs of Barksdale’s expanding drug operation. But what makes this season so compelling is the doomed, inspired, and utterly unthinkable solution to the drug problem that Simon proposes and then illustrates, with startling frankness, both the pros and cons of his modest proposal.

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By the fourth season, as Simon and company boldly take on the broken education system, it’s clear that Simon’s ambitions are no less than a complex portrait of the American city (specifically Baltimore) with fictional stories illuminating the social and bureaucratic forces that make our cities work, or just as often, not work. Through the course of thirteen episodes that follow the lives of four friends in the eighth grade, Simon reveals the failure of the school system and the inability of the classroom structure to reach kids raised in a culture that is close to a war zone. These are kids on the killing streets of Baltimore’s drug-filled slums, where the behavior best suited to survival is the type that disrupts classrooms. It’s a devastating story with characters that are knots of complications and contradictions in a world where the internal politics of the system (any system) kills all innovation and stops progress dead in its tracks.

The Wire ended its run by casting a light on how and why the media covers the news. The newsroom of The Baltimore Sun becomes part of the narrative weave of the show, intertwining its challenges with the stories it’s supposed to be covering: crime, politics, the schools and the community as a whole. As with each previous season, the old stories are woven into the new: money earmarked for the police by the Mayor has been drained by the floundering school system, which had been starved and neglected and fallen in debt thanks to previous administrations. So wild card McNulty concocts a crack-brained scheme to pry money out of the city: he invents a big, headline-grabbing serial killer (a complete fiction) and Detective Lester Freaman (Clarke Peters), perhaps the most gifted and brilliant detective in the department, becomes his accomplice and retrofits the evidence to keep the fiction alive. He builds cases and pieces together evidence like a master puzzlemaker, and he and McNulty concoct a lie so big, with such far-reaching implications, that the city can’t risk the truth getting out. Certainly not the ambitious and irresponsible junior reporter (Tom McCarthy) who inadvertently contributes to the conspiracy by adding his own fictional details to the story, suspicious embellishments that glory-hungry editors are willing to let through without scrutiny. “We have to more with less,” proclaims its managing editor. “You don’t do more with less, you do less with less,” complains the newsroom’s voice of reason and bearer of standards, City Editor Gus Haynes (Clark Johnson, of Simon’s Homicide), and so they do, but with splashier headlines.

Creator David Simon is especially critical of what he sees as the media’s dereliction of responsibility as the community’s watchdog and his insistence comes with a noticeable loss of nuance in that particular story, but the scope of the show remains just as ambitious and rich. The writing is the best on television (including scripts co-written by authors Richard Price, Dennis Lehane, and George P. Pelecanos), with a novelistic sweep and complexity unprecedented on the small screen and a brilliant symmetry as the show comes to a close. It doesn’t have the neat poetic drama of the “Dickensian” narrative (as the paper’s editors like to call it), merely the satisfying changing of the guard, with irony and poetic justice, rewards and punishments, guilty who go free and innocents who flounder. Yet for all the incompetence and corruption that keeps percolating to the top, there remain good cops, dedicated editors, honorable folks who take the places of those burned out by the system that resisted all efforts to change it. The show ends with a system that perpetuates itself – a system reproduced in microcosm in everything from city politics to the school system to the drug hierarchy of the streets to the newspaper to, of course, the legal system – and people that continue to struggle against it even as others give in. To complete the symmetry, co-star Clark Johnson, who directed the show’s debut episodes, returns to direct the 90-minute series finale, which appropriately enough features a spirited wake.

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There are a lot of “Complete Series” collections out there, but this an essential, not simply because it invites repeat revisits but because of the show’s unity. Each season is like a novel in a self-contained cycle and together they make a complete whole.

The Wire: The Complete Series was released on DVD in 2011 its original broadcast format. Since then, HBO remastered the series in Digital HD, and in the process they changed the aspect ratio from the squarish 4×3 of the old TV standard to the widescreen 16×9 format of the current flatscreen standard. This choice was made against the wishes of creator and producer David Simon.

Simon weighs in on his issues with the transformation in this feature on his blog from 2014, in advance of the launch of the HD version on cable and digital formats: “At the last, I’m satisfied what while this new version of The Wire is not, in some specific ways, the film we first made, it has sufficient merit to exist as an alternate version. There are scenes that clearly improve in HD and in the widescreen format. But there are things that are not improved. And even with our best resizing, touchups and maneuver, there are some things that are simply not as good. That’s the inevitability: This new version, after all, exists in an aspect ratio that simply wasn’t intended or serviced by the filmmakers when the camera was rolling and the shot was framed.” Sam Adams weighs in on the issue at Indiewire.

Many viewers won’t notice the difference. Even many fans of the show will likely ease into the widescreen without difficulty. But it should be noted that HBO did not give viewers the option for the original version on Blu-ray, so purists will want to hold onto their DVDs.

That said, it’s a handsome image with all the atmosphere of the original broadcasts, but with greater detail and clarity. It presents all 60 episodes of the five seasons of the TV epic, along with all the commentary tracks and featurettes from the earlier DVD box set, including the retrospective featurette “The Wire Odyssey” (a chronicle of the first four seasons), “The Wire: The Last Word” (a reflection on the state of the media today featuring series creator David Simon), and three character “prequels” (little scenes of Prop Joe and Omar and the first meeting of McNulty and Bunk, each running under two minutes).

New to this release is the “The Wire Reunion,” an 85-minute roundtable discussion recorded at the Paley Center for Media in October 2014 and featuring creator David Simon, producer Nina K. Noble, and 11 members of the cast: John Doman, Larry Gilliard, Jr., Seth Gilliam, Jim True-Frost, Jamie Hector, Michael Kenneth Williams, Sonja Sohn, Wendell Pierce, J.D. Williams, Michael Lee, and Bob Wisdom (Dominic West and Idris Elba were unable to attend but are represented by video messages). Also includes an Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the entire series.

20 discs in five cases collected in a box set. It’s a simple presentation, which I prefer over the more elaborate boxes, which often look cool on a shelf but are far less convenient when it comes to actually accessing the discs.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Videophiled TVD: ‘Mr Selfridge: Season 3’

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PBS

Mr Selfridge: Season 3 (PBS, Blu-ray, DVD), British TV’s urban answer to Downton Abbey, continues with the story of Harry Selfridge (Jeremy Piven), an American department store entrepreneur and marketing pioneer in London whose populist approach is a refreshing change from British restraint and conservatism.

Opening with the end of World War I and the funeral of Harry’s wife (a victim of the 1918 influenza pandemic), this season focuses on his romance with an ambitious and philanthropic young businesswoman (Kelly Adams) trying to build homes affordable housing for returning war veterans. Meanwhile his daughters are recast as young twentysomething women and given the spotlight when one (Kara Tointon) marries a Russian Prince in exile and another (Hannah Tointon) becomes a wild child who flirts with the proprietor of a notorious nightclub, and his son and heir apparent (Greg Austin) secretly dates an employee at the store. The stories touch on the problems of returning veterans, the pressure on women to return to the home and give their jobs up to the men, and rising crime, but this is still more soap opera than social drama, with plenty of romances and complications among the store employees and the scheming Lord Loxley (Aidan McArdle) back to try and sabotage Harry’s success out of pure spite, this time by buying his way onto a seat on the Board of Directors.

The series shows on the PBS showcase Masterpiece in the United States and a fourth season will follow next year. 10 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with a 30-minute featurette.

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Videophiled TVD: The future of tech in 1983 in ‘Halt and Catch Fire’

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Anchor Bay

Halt and Catch Fire: The Complete First Season (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD) – The same year that HBO launched its modern tech comedy Silicon Valley, AMC premiered this offbeat (and sometimes off-putting) drama about the early days of the home computing revolution.

Set in a small Texas tech company in the early eighties, the story centers on three characters: Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace of The Hobbit trilogy and Guardians of the Galaxy), a former golden boy salesman from IBM rising from the ashes of a crash with a dream of taking on his old company with a visionary personal computer; Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), a computer engineer still licking his wounds from a failed attempt to launch his own machine; and Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), a rebellious young college student with a punk attitude and a genius for coding. Joe recruits these two underdogs to run the development team and sells the president of a small company on his grand vision with a lot of salesmanship. Then he turns to mindgames and corporate thievery. Their initial work is based on reverse engineering the foundation of a competitor’s operating system, but from there it’s all ingenuity and invention, from Gordon’s hardware designs to Cameron’s software ideas. Gordon’s wife Donna (Kerry Bishé), an engineer who works at Texas Instruments, is an uncredited fourth member of the team and the Clark family home life provides a contrast to the gamesmanship at work. As a trivia note, McNairy and Bishé previously played a married couple in the Oscar winning movie “Argo.”

The title of the show is a computer term for a command that engages every function to run at once and compete for dominance. That’s a fair description of the working relationship of these characters, a partnership that Joe constantly upends through manipulation, betrayal, and psychological warfare. He’s very much the focus of the show: enigmatic, unpredictable, driven by the ghost of some past crisis, and not above sabotaging his own team to steer the project in a new direction. The level of cutthroat tactics he uses on his own colleagues makes the show at times unpleasant, but it’s always interesting, and it has a terrific sense of time and place. The eighties never looked so drearily right.

The second season begins on AMC this summer. There is sexual content and adult themes but no explicit scenes and disc release features uncensored language. It’s for mature audiences. 10 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with three featurettes and brief five-minute pieces on each episode.

More TV on disc reviews at Cinephiled

Videophiled TVD: ‘Masters of Sex: Season Two’

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Sony

Masters of Sex: Season Two (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD) – Cable television, both pay and commercial varieties, has proven itself more fertile ground than the broadcast networks when it comes to nurturing period dramas that resonate with the present. Showtime’s drama about the pioneering work by Dr. William “Bill” Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Kaplan), partners in a landmark study of human sexuality, is one of the best. Like “Mad Men,” it uses its subject and setting to explore the lives of characters in that era and to reflect our own perceptions and preconceptions of sex, race, gender roles, and the complicated relations between men and women.

The first season set the scene—St. Louis in the 1950s, a prestigious teaching hospital, a leading gynecologist pursuing research that is controversial at best in the conservative culture with a partner who has no acknowledged credentials but shows a keen interest in and understanding of the topic and a way with putting the human subjects as ease—and introduced the complexity of the study, which was condemned when the initial findings were presented.

The second season enters the 1960s with Bill looking for a new hospital to sponsor his controversial study and Virginia, a single mother without a college or medical degree, struggling to support her kids while finding work that inspires and engages her. Meanwhile their private “sexual research” becomes a full-fledged affair without the excuse of the study as emotional cover and the physical intimacy leads to personal revelations that twine with the studies expansion into the psychological and emotional component of sexual activity, and into a more aggressive engagement with sexual dysfunction, which their own research finds to be more widespread than they ever imagined.

As Bill continues to remain emotionally and physically distant from his wife Libby (this may be the only show about a married couple in the late 1950s/early 1960s where single beds is an accurate reflection of their relationship), she gets a troubling education in her own bigotry and gets involved in the local chapter of a civil rights organization and its passionate organizer (Jocko Sims). Race becomes a major issue this season, both inside the study and out, and the show tackles it with characteristic intelligence and unexpected perspectives.

Masters of Sex is at its best when exploring the contradictions of its characters—Bill’s insistence on academic honesty while lying to his wife and making unilateral decisions about the study without consulting his partner, Virginia engaging in an affair with Bill while remaining a confidant of Libby—and the hypocrisies of society, and it does so with engaging personal stories. The third episode, set almost entirely in a hotel room in the aftermath of a coital engagement, plays like a chamber drama. Watching a prize fight on TV, Bill slowly reveals aspects of his childhood he’s to this point suppressed, opening the door to his conflicted ideas of masculinity that come to a head when his estranged brother tries to reconnect. The episode, directed by producer Michael Apted, is both revelatory and mysterious and is remarkably cinematic given its constraints.

Bill is correct that sex is one of the most powerful and least understand aspects of the human experience, but he’s still learning that there’s more to making a human connection than simple physical contact. There is plenty of nudity and scenes of sexuality but it is less explicit than many pay cable shows and it is all in service of the exploration of human sexuality: the boundaries of what we consider “normal” and acceptable, feelings of shame and fear, and the emotional complications that sex brings to a relationship. The third season begins on Showtime in July.

12 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with the 18-minute featurette “The History of Sex,” which surveys the historical backdrop of the era as featured in the show. Exclusive to the Blu-ray are two interview featurettes. “The Woman of Sex” (20 minutes) features interviews with Lizzy Caplan, Caitlin Fitzgerald, Annaleigh Ashford, Betsy Brandt, Ann Dowd, Allison Janney, and other actresses on the show and “The Men of Sex” (26 minutes) is a roundtable discussion with Michael Sheen as moderator and participant with fellow actors Beau Bridges, Teddy Sears, Jocko Sims, and Kevin Christy. Also features an Ultraviolet HD digital copy of the season.

More TV on disc reviews at Cinephiled

Orson Welles goes ‘Around the World’

‘Around the World with Orson Welles’

When handed the raw materials from an unfinished documentary about Elmyr de Hory, an art forger whose life was being written up by biographer Clifford Irving, Orson Welles took the opportunity to make something far beyond the concept of the traditional documentary. F for Fake has been called the Orson Welles’ first essay film, a true enough statement if you limit the accounting to feature films, but he had been doing short-form non-fiction since 1955, when he made Around the World with Orson Welles (a.k.a. Around the World) for British television.

It was ostensibly a series of travelogues, shot on location with Welles as tour guide, host, and narrator. Welles himself described them as “all sort of home movies—a vacation documented…,” but these are sort of home movies that only Welles could make. They are built on Welles’s public persona as much as on his directorial personality. He is “as always, obediently yours,” the worldly yet personable host who casts a spell with his voice, disarms with a boyish grin and invites the audience into his confidence as he tosses out cultural observations and historical asides.

Continue reading at Keyframe

Videophiled: ‘Foyle’s War’ – The final mysteries

Acorn

Foyle’s War: Set 8 (Acorn, DVD) – Foyle’s War debuted on British TV in 2002 as a mysteries series set on the homefront during World War II, where the cool-headed, rational Inspector Foyle (Michael Kitchen) was assigned to investigate domestic crimes against the backdrop of life during wartime. British TV long had a tradition for mysteries set in the colorful pre-war past, from Sherlock Holmes to Poirot, but this show started a vogue for darker stories in less glamorous settings and troubled times. It became a favorite in both Britain and the U.S. (where it played on Masterpiece Mystery), was revived twice after cancellation, and carried on after the show brought the war to an end war with Foyle working for the secretive MI-5 to fight the Cold War.

This set presents the final three episodes of the show, all scripted by series creator Anthony Horowitz. Set in the late 1940s, each mystery is a fictional take on the real life events and social realities of the era. While Foyle cuts through the tangled politics of crimes that reach beyond the borders of Britain, his assistant Sam (Honeysuckle Weeks) and her husband Adam (Daniel Weyman), an idealistic Member of Parliament struggling to make a difference, take us through the social and political situation of post-war life for ordinary citizens. Horowitz also takes the opportunity to explore Foyle’s superiors at MI-5, who slowly put their trust in his intelligence and sense of justice in a culture of compromise and secrecy.

In “High Castle,” the murder of a translator at the Nuremberg war crimes trials leads back to an act of treason in the war. “Trespass” deals with the conflicts over the emigration of Jews to Palestine and the rise of a Fascist party stoking anti-immigrant anger in Britain. “Elise,” the final episode of the show, weaves the story of a conspiracy within the intelligence service reaching back to the war with black market activities in the present, and it ends the show in a way that leaves the door open for yet another revival. It could happen. Horowitz has said this is the end but in the featurettes he’s careful not to close the door entirely.

On DVD, with “The Truth Behind the Fiction” interviews between Anthony Horowitz and historian and series consultant Terry Charman that explore the real-life history behind the stories among the supplements.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Videophiled TVD: ‘Manhattan: Season One’

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Lionsgate

Manhattan: Season One (Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD) isn’t about the city. It’s about the project. Set on the Los Alamos, New Mexico, military base in the early 1940s, it is about the development of the atomic bomb and the uneasy society in this gated community guarded by MPs who, like everyone else not directly involved with the project, don’t actually know what the brain trust of physicists and engineers are working on.

The real-life Manhattan Project was developed across multiple sites spread around the country (the series even visits one of those sites) but Los Alamos was at the center of it. This is where the device was to be designed and built and Robert Oppenheimer, the head of the program, had two teams working in competition on separate approaches. That’s where we come into the story with young physics wunderkind Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman), who arrives with his wife Abby (Rachel Brosnahan) to a high-security base that is not on any map (it’s simply identified as PO Box 1663) feels like a cross between a cheaply-built gated community and an internment camp. Charlie is assigned to the favored team led by Reed Akley (David Harbour) but he’s obsessed with impressing Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey), the brilliant leader of the misfit B-team who has a habit of bucking the chain of command. Olivia Williams is Frank’s wife Liza, a botany professor in her own right who is dismissed as simply another base wife by the military command even as she discovers the radiation accumulating around the camp (it’s killing the bees).

The tension between the military structure and civilian scientists and families is just part of the drama. Much of the story is caught up in the politics of the base: who gets to work on projects, how the money and equipment is used as leverage, how the culture of secrecy and suspicion undermines a sense of community and shared commitment. Hovering over it all is are representatives of the security services (notably West Wing veteran Richard Schiff) tracking every possible intelligence leak and possible sabotage attempt, especially after their mole in Germany is captured. At this point in the war, the focus is on the war in Europe and they are racing Hitler’s team to the bomb. Those stakes are more than simply a dramatic device. The fear of the Axis beating them to them bomb is a very real possibility.

This is the second original drama from the Chicago cable superstation and aspiring cable player WGN and it reaches for the level of human drama, social commentary, and historical perspective of shows like Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, and Masters of Sex. It largely succeeds. Thomas Schlamme, who visualized Aaron Sorkin’s ideas on The West Wing, is an executive producer and directs the pilot, setting the tone of the show. The Spartan setting helps stretch the budget, which uses the dusty streets, shabby shack housing, and forlorn isolation in the middle of nowhere to define the atmosphere of this community, and the personal dramas and challenges define the culture of suspicion and the social world of wartime America, with all its prejudices and anxieties. Some of the storylines stumble a bit and the personal betrayals at times come off as dramatic contrivances, but at its best the series dramatizes the stakes of the project—and the cost in lives—in human terms, and it casts its gaze on a culture that has not been explored on the screen in any depth.

The second season begins on WGN later this year.

Eight episodes on Blu-ray and DVD with commentary tracks on select episodes and four featurettes. Both also include Ultraviolent Digital copies (the Blu-ray edition has Digital HD).

More new releases on disc and digital at Cinephiled

Videophiled TVD: ‘Sons of Anarchy’ ends

SonsAnarchyFinalSons of Anarchy: The Final Season (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD) and Sons of Anarchy: The Complete Series (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD) – This drama of family ties, brotherhood, loyalty, betrayal, and honor in an outlaw motorcycle gang that practically runs the (fictional) Central California desert town of Charming grew from cult show to surprise hit for the FX network over the course of its seven season run.

The crime drama had taken on almost Shakespearean dimensions, from a “Hamlet”-like conflict between club heir apparent Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam) and his step-father Clay (Ron Perlman), while offering a kind of leather jacket soap opera and an idealized portrait of underworld brotherhood under fire. Jax was the well-meaning warrior prince determined to deliver Camelot to his brothers but constantly beset by blowback from his alliance and criminal activities. By the time the final season roared out in the fall of 2014, the club had left enough victims in the wake of their criminal activities and territorial battles to fill a small graveyard, including Clay and his own wife, murdered by his mother Gemma (Katey Sagal), the ferocious den mother of this wolf pack. As likable as this scruffy but loyal brotherhood could be, it was hard to overlook the violence of their business, the bodies dropped in misguided acts of vengeance (either by impulse or spurred by the lies of betrayals or cover-ups), and the innocents killed in the crossfire.

Those reservations aside, I remained a fan of the show to the end if only for creator Kurt Sutter’s commitment to the whole twisted idea of brotherhood and the fantasy that they are the protectors of their town. The bad boy romance of their world is a façade, but Sutter sure knows how to work that fantasy into brutal, bloodsoaked melodrama of retribution and redemption. The individual members of the club (at least those who survived to season seven) have all become distinctive, integral characters with their own issues and Gemma a broken, doomed figure spinning stories to delay the inevitable revelation and retribution. Jax’s young son (who knows what Gemma did) takes on the look of a zombie, haunted by the knowledge that his grandmother killed his mother and acting out with acts of violence at school. The hypocrisy he sees in the adult world is poisoning his soul, a truly innocent victim of the violent life of his father.

Annabeth Gish joins the show as the new sheriff of Charming, a veteran who understands that a certain amount of accommodation to the outlaw elements is necessary to keep things from blowing up on the streets, and Jimmy Smits is back as Nero, club ally and conscience to Jax, the compassionate and honorable father figure he lacked in Clay, and there are return visits from some familiar faces, notably Hal Holbrook as Gemma’s infirm father and Walton Goggins as Venus, a tough yet tender transsexual dominatrix with whom club hothead Tig (Kim Coates) falls in love in one of the most touching stories weaving through the series.

Guest stars include Marilyn Manson as a white supremacist taking care of business for the club in prison, Courtney Love as a pre-school teacher who tries to help Jax’s troubled son, Lea Michelle as a truck stop waitress who befriends Gemma, and small roles from Robert Patrick and Michael Chiklis (star of Kurt Sutter’s previous series, The Shield).

Charlie Hunnam and Marilyn Manson

As far as the idea of justice is concerned, the show follows its own tunnel-vision code. These guys sell guns to California gangs and run a brothel and a porn business (which, oddly enough, are managed by women and accommodating to the employees—you gotta love a socially progressive gangster) and routinely murder obstructions and threats, but Jax draws the line at drugs and the IRA pipeline that Clay established. In their world, that’s a moral stand, and while the show flirts with the collateral damage and unintended consequences of their business, it tends to overlook the bigger picture and ask up to look beyond the criminal code. But then that’s part of the outlaw romance of the series. And while there is a fatalism to much of it, Sutter also offers redemptive stories, rewarding longtime fans with a happy ending for a few deserving characters.

13 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, The final season expands each episode to 90 minutes (a little over 60 minutes without commercials), giving the stories more space to play out (it’s like getting an extra six episodes). The disc sets feature hour-long documentary “Carpe Diem: The Final Season of Sons of Anarchy” and featurettes on the legacy of violence, the motorcycles, the stories of the tattoos, and the guest stars of the final season.

Fox also releases the entire series in a box set on Blu-ray and DVD, a bargain way to get the complete show.

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Videophiled: ‘Outlander: Season 1, Volume 1’

Outlander S1V1
Sony

Outlander: Season 1, Volume 1 (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD), a mix of historical drama, romantic melodrama, and time-travel tale based on the novels of Diane Gabron, shows that Starz is starting to figure out this original cable series thing. That’s not to say they haven’t had their successes—Spartacus did just fine for them, thank you very much—but Outlander manages to combine serialized storytelling, budget-minded historical spectacle, and pay-cable nudity in a compelling story that never feels contrived or exploitative. It’s intelligent and interesting, full of historical and cultural detail, and build on a situation that calls upon magic yet remains grounded in a very real world where the threat of violence and death are ever present. And it’s all told from the perspective of a smart, observant, modern (circa 1945) British woman doing all she can to stay alive long enough to escape back into her world.

Caitriona Balfe stars as Claire Randall, who spent World War II as a combat nurse and, with war’s end, is finally reunited with her husband (Tobias Menzies) for a second honeymoon in the Scottish highlands. That’s where (and when), after witnessing a ceremony at an ancient Druid shrine, she’s cast back 200 years, landing in the midst of war between the occupying British army and the rogue Highland clans who are considered savages by the British. Both sides believe she’s a spy (especially a cold-blooded British officer who happens to be her husband’s ancestor and is played by the same actor) but she is slowly accepted into the MacKenzie clan and married to the handsome young Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), cousin to the clan laird and a man with a price on his head. It’s her protection from the British soldiers, if only in legal terms. But this sympathetic Brit in a Scottish land is still an outsider, much more than even they realize, and she keeps her wits about her in the hopes of returning to the shrine and hopefully getting back to her world and her husband. Her first husband. Needless to say, it gets complicated, and not just the timelines. She starts to fall for the romantic young Scot and it seems that Dougal (Graham McTavish), the clan laird, is falling for her.

Ronald D. Moore, the Star Trek TV veteran who rebooted Battlestar Galactica for SyFy, developed the show for Starz and scripts the key episodes of the first eight episodes, which ran on Starz in 2014 to strong ratings and reviews. Balfe gives Claire a courage and strength of character that makes her drama matter to us. No wonder everyone in this world is so fascinated with this woman who speaks her mind and has the courage of her convictions.

Eight episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with the featurettes “An Epic Adaptation” and “The Dresses and Kilts of Outlander.” The Blu-ray also includes three additional featurettes, 21 deleted scenes, and a bonus Ultraviolent HD copy of all eight episodes. The second half of the first season begins in April and a second season is already in production.

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