Blu-ray/DVD: ‘Crouching Tiger’ revisited, ‘Kamikaze’ Fassbinder, South Korean ‘Wailing,’ and more

kamikaze89Kamikaze ’89 (Film Movement, Blu-ray, DVD) – Rainer Werner Fassbinder takes a rare onscreen lead in what would be his last screen appearance in Wolfgang Kremm’s 1982 new wave science fiction cop drama. Based on a satirical science fiction novel by Swedish crime writer Per Wahlöö, it’s a cyberpunk murder mystery in a totalitarian near future, where news and entertainment is controlled by a single entity called the Combine, a corporate monopoly that narcotizes the population with mind-numbing reality TV and upbeat news reports of sunny weather. Lt. Jansen (Fassbinder) is assigned to investigate a bomb threat at the headquarters of the Combine, which is run by a man known as Blue Panther, and given 72 hours to wrap the case (which is classified as a state secret) by his Chief, who is constantly under medical treatment.

This is a cartoon of a totalitarian culture where vegetables are forbidden and the police salute one another with a thumbs up and a smile and the film is filled with comic books both real and fictional (the Blue Panther is the star of his own series, where his nemesis Kyrsnopompas has become an icon of revolution) to hammer the message home. The mystery is silly and confusing but the film is entertaining, with Fassbinder dressed in a leopard-print suit and playing racketball in a police disco in his off hours. You can see the ravages of drugs and alcohol on Fassbinder, who is pale and pudgy and often out of breath in his scenes. He was dead by the time the film was released. This is more curiosity than classic but it is goofy fun and it features Fassbinder collaborators on screen (actors Günther Kaufmann and Brigitte Mira) and behind the camera (cinematographer Xavier Schwarzenberger) and a score by Tangerine Dream founder Edgar Froese.

It debuts on Blu-ray and DVD in the US with commentary by producer Regina Ziegler and the documentaries Rainer Werner Fassbinder: The Last Year (1982) and Wolf At the Door (2015) directed by Wolf Gremm, plus a booklet with essays by Nick Pinkerton and Samuel B. Prime.

crouchingtiger4kCrouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (Sony, Blu-ray, 4K UHD) – Ang Lee transformed his love of “wuxia pian” (China’s epic adventures of martial arts, chivalry, and melodrama of the past age) into a worldwide smash by creating, in his own words, “Sense and Sensibility with martial arts.” As much about the tragedy of repressed love and the rebellion of a feisty young princess (Zhang Ziyi) against an arranged marriage as a hot-blooded action film, it bubbles with heart, soul, and sheer poetry in motion. Michele Yeoh kicks up a storm while Chow Yun-Fat relies on poise, confidence, and minimalist movements to make himself the calm master in the center of frenzied fights. The film soars—literally—with high flying action scenes that border on magic, but it’s the romantic abandon and delirious imagery that gives the melodrama it universal appeal. Winner of four Oscars, including Best Foreign Language Film and Best Cinematography.

It’s been newly remastered from a 4K master for the 4K UHD release, and features a collection of new and archival supplements. New to this edition is the three-part “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Tiger – A Retrospective” featuring interviews with director Ang Lee, screenwriter/producer James Schamus, and film editor Tim Squyres, all conducted by Tasha R. Robinson (runs about 80 minutes all together), and the vintage featurette “The Making of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” plus six never-before-seen deleted scenes, two music videos, and a new introduction by director Ang Lee.

Carried over from previous releases are two commentary tracks, one with director Lee and longtime collaborator James Schamus, the other with cinematographer Peter Pau, an interview with Michelle Yeoh, and a gallery of stills. The filmmaker commentary is both entertaining and informative. Schamus cracks jokes but is genuinely sensitive to the film; he quips: “And now the exposition: Why are you doing this? I’m repressed and I’m in an Ang Lee movie,” during a conversation between the two female leads, but turns around to praise Michelle Yeoh’s performance as she holds the scene in close-up. Lee is no slouch in the humor department himself, but he’s more concerned with the cultural background, the themes of masters and disciples, and the physical ordeal of creating the film and the effects, especially the stunning martial arts sequences but also the amazing vistas and beautiful locations.

wailingThe Wailing (Well Go, Blu-ray, DVD), a South Korean thriller that takes a dark turn into supernatural horror, is the third feature from Na Hong-jin, director of The Yellow Seaand The Chaser, two of the more sophisticated thrillers to come out South Korean cinema. He does a nice job of putting his horror in the material world of modern life with Kwak Do-won as a somewhat dim underachiever cop who is way over his head investigating a double homicide in his little town. Kwak isn’t too bright but he’s a doting father to his smart little girl and there’s still a little spark in his marriage, even if they have to sneak off like a teenager to the backseat of their car to have a little private time. He’s gobsmacked by the bloody crime scene, unnerved by the sight of a silent woman who appears at each crime scene like a demonic spirit, and unsettled by the enigmatic Japanese traveler living in the hills (Jun Kunimura). They are all clearly interconnected and as the body count increases and an inexplicable plague of untreatable illnesses build he puts his attention to the Japanese man with a hidden shrine of incriminating photos. Is he a shaman or a villain, and is this a serial killer spree or demonic possession?

This is dark and disturbing and surprisingly long—over 2 ½ hours—and directed with a slow build that churns up the tension as it shifts suspicion around. Na splashes the crime scenes with blood and gore and suggestions of unimaginable violence perpetrated on the victims, and he captures weird scenes of unnerving behavior that could be evidence of dark forces at work or simply fevered imaginations at work. But it’s when Kwak’s pre-teen daughter develops a rash and starts spouting filthy language with a ferocious rage that comes and goes like a fever (recalling nothing less than The Exorcist) that the horror really hits home for Kwak, who tosses aside police procedure and overcomes his innate cowardice to save his daughter. That’s not entirely reassuring, mind you. Where American horrors tend to provide us with earnest cops and wise religious figures, this film (like an earlier, non-horror South Korean thriller, Memories of Murder) offers no such comforting protagonists or confident insights to the supernatural origins of the inexplicable events. And when things get really weird and twisted in the third act, the brakes are off on this ride.

On Blu-ray and DVD. In Korean with English subtitles, with two featurettes and the original trailer.

phantomtheatrePhantom of the Theatre (Well Go, DVD) – The Phantom of the Opera looms large in this Hong Kong haunted theater / romantic melodrama set in 1930s Shanghai, where a grand show palace is reopened for the first time since a troupe of acrobats died in a fire 13 years before. An ambitious filmmaker (Yo Yang) wants to shoot his debut feature, a supernatural romance, in the theater. A series of mishaps plagues the crew and scares the leading man off, prompting the director to step in opposite the lovely ingénue (Ruby Lin), who remains through the disasters. There’s a mysterious, scarred figure scurrying behind the scenes, characters burst into flame and appear to burn from the inside out (the director’s girlfriend is, coincidentally, the police pathologist), and flashbacks reveal that most of the players in this modern drama have direct ties to the fatal fire years before.

The film tries to have it both ways, delivering supernatural spectacle and then explaining it away with pseudo-science that doesn’t quite hold up, and turns into a revenge film and a murder mystery. It’s directed by Raymond Yip (Yip Wai Man), a veteran of popular costume epics and grand action films, and he gives it a lavish, colorful look. The old style melodrama is big and lush and romantic, like the old Hollywood pictures of the 1940s and 1950s with modern special effects. It may seem corny to American audiences but it’s entertaining and visually fun to watch.

On DVD only. In Mandarin with English subtitles, no supplements.

reignassassinsReign of Assassins (Anchor Bay, DVD) is a 2010 costume action drama making its belated American home video largely on the two international names in the Chinese picture: producer John Woo, who has a co-director credit, and star Michelle Yeoh of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragonfame. Yeoh is a top assassin for Dark Stone, a criminal organization determined to find the remains of a great martial arts master that is said to give great power to whoever possesses them. The relics are something of a MacGuffin here, an object to set the story in motion as Yeoh takes the treasure and disappears into a new life (thanks to a black arts version of plastic surgery) married to a poor but honest courier (Jung Woo-sung). When she reveals her powers to save her neighbors from a gang of bank robbers, however, the top assassins from Dark Stone arrive to take the bounty on her head. This is a colorful but unremarkable mix of martial chivalry, costume drama, romance, and period martial arts spectacle with swordplay, flying acrobatics, and special effects. Action star Michelle Yeoh is duly enigmatic and Korean star Jung Woo-sung provides the romantic warmth, but it is otherwise routine with little sign of Woo’s action pyrotechnics or his operatic approach to melodrama.

On DVD only. Mandarin with English subtitles, 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

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Blu-ray / DVD: ‘Mississippi Grind’ – an American original, plus ‘American Ultra’ and ‘Goodnight Mommy’

MissGrind
Lionsgate

Mississippi Grind (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD) plays like a seventies character drama, a meandering road movie through the byways of American characters who populate the card rooms and dice tables and racetracks, and an oddball buddy movie built on a chance encounter and an instant kinship between two losers gambling their lives away. Ryan Reynolds is Curtis, a good looking guy who has all the outward suggestions of a charming hustler, and Ben Mendelsohn is the self-destructive Gerry, killing his nights and his income at cards and sports bookies, betting everything on the fantasy of instant success on a single good night.

These guys are buddies by chance—they meet over a hand of cards and bond over top-shelf whiskey—and travelling companions by impulse when Gerry decides to follow Curtis to a big tournament in New Orleans. Curtis is generous and trusting to a fault, or maybe to a need, and a storyteller whose tales may or may not be in the orbit of reality. He runs in gambling circles for the charge of the action, not just the cards but the byplay, the people, that cardroom culture of oddball personalities. Gerry is a gambling addict and a pathological liar whose past is a wrecking yard of ruined relationships and failed promises and impulsive long shots and whose future is already in hawk to a loan shark (Alfre Woodard in a single scene-stealing appearance).

It could be the darker, bleaker answer to Robert Altman’s California Split, or a card-playing variation on The Color of Money without the calculation or mentorship of a veteran gambler running the show. Filmmaking team Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have a knack for finding the patter of dialogue, rhythms of body language, and the expressiveness of silences between the words that communicate what the words can’t, and they offer a great tour of the back hand of the American dream, folks spending their time and money making bets in hopes of making their fortune, but really just hooked on the games and playing until the money is gone.

Blu-ray and DVD with the featurette “Two of a Kind: On the Road with Mississippi Grind” plus an Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film (Digital SD for the DVD).

AmericaUltra
Lionsgate

American Ultra (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) reworks The Bourne Identity as a stoner comedy with killer punchline. Jesse Eisenberg is Mike Howell, a sweet, underachieving stoner prone to panic attacks. He’s getting by as a convenience store clerk in a dead-end West Virginia town with a supportive girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), who is almost impossibly understanding when it comes to his crippling psychological handicaps, and trying to find the right moment to propose—he can’t believe that she’s still sticking with him and doesn’t want to lose the best thing in his life. And then he’s attacked by two thugs in a parking lot and kills one of them with a plastic spoon.

Clearly we’re in the realm of bloody black comedy, where extreme violence is played for tongue-in-cheek humor (except when it isn’t) and our resourceful sleeper assassin has an inventive ingenuity when it comes to turning random objects into deadly weapons. Mike is the sole survivor of a modern super soldier experiment and some snotty CIA middle-management guy (Topher Grace) with a little too much power decides that Mike, whose memories (but not his killer instincts) have been wiped, is a liability and a threat to his own clockwork killer program, which he puts into the field after another agent (Connie Britton) activates him in hopes of saving his life. The collateral damage is comparable to that of a category 3 hurricane.

Smart-mouthed one-liners and creative killing aside, there’s nothing particularly clever in this take on the spy movie trope, but it does have momentum, a modicum of flair, and some flashy effects that, if not particularly effective, at least energize the project. Still, it’s the terrific, lived-in chemistry between Eisenberg and Stewart (who also starred together in the superb Adventureland) that sustains the enterprise and they are up for anything the film throws at them. The cascade of cruelly creative carnage gets a little numbing after a while and the filmmakers—director Nima Nourizadeh and screenwriter Max Landis—aren’t committed enough to believe their own cynicism, but Eisenberg and Stewart make this one true romance I believe in.

Blu-ray and DVD with filmmaker commentary, two featurettes, and a gag reel, plus an Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film (Digital SD for the DVD). Also on Cable-On-Demand and Video-On-Demand.

GoodnightMom
Anchor Bay

Goodnight Mommy (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) is an unsettling horror film built on scars (physical and psychological) that upset the connection between a mother (Susanne Wuest) and her sons, adolescent twins named Lukas and Elias played by real-life twin brothers Lukas Schwarz and Elias Schwarz. That fraternal connection is apparent in every scene, not just affection but the easy physical and emotional relationship between them, a sharp contrast to the void between them and their mother, who returns home from the hospital with her head covered in bandages from unspecified surgery.

Mom returns a changed woman, or so we gather from the brothers, who find her cold, aloof, demanding in a way she never was before. She locks them in their room like a fairytale wicked stepmother and even refuses to make dinner for Lukas, the quiet one who drives the suspicion that this woman is an imposter. Yet every time the suspicion tips to conspiracy or possession, filmmakers Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz tilt the scales in the other direction, offering a glimpse into mom’s troubles. She’s recently separated from her husband and this hospitalization (what is it? Cosmetic surgery, or something more serious?) only adds to her trauma, while the boys get lost deeper into their own private world.

There’s an element of unreality to the situation—why have the boys been left alone while mom was in the hospital, and if she needs such isolation and rest for recovery, why no nurse for her or nanny to watch over the kids, or at least a friend to drop over for comfort or a helping hand—but that isolation is also essential to the anxious atmosphere. Apart from a delivery man with a cache of frozen food and a couple of shuffling Red Cross volunteers seeking donations, they are cut off from the outside world and the filmmakers make the house increasingly alien and eerie. The psychological turns physical, all the more terrifying because it is so direct and intimate, a chamber drama of suspicion and desperation built on fear. Where is mama indeed.

On Blu-ray and DVD, in German with English subtitles, with the featurette “A Conversation with Filmmakers.” Also on Cable-On-Demand and Video-On Demand.

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

HaltCatch1
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: ‘Big Eyes’

Anchor Bay

Big Eyes (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) is Tim Burton’s second foray into strange but true stories of American termite art culture. Where Ed Wood was a valentine to artistic oddballs and eccentrics on the fringes told with an optimism that was certainly not mirrored in Wood’s real life, this is a story about the pain behind the façade of happiness and success.

Amy Adams is Margaret Keane, who painted thousands of portraits of sad-eyed waifs, and Christoph Waltz is Walter Keane, the born salesman who promoted her paintings into a pop culture phenomenon in the sixties and seventies while taking credit for painting them. Waltz plays the part like he’s perpetually on the hustle and Adams’ Margaret falls not so much for his charm as for his confidence, a dimension that becomes demanding, bullying, and threatening as he basks in the success of her work. Burton and screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (who also wrote Ed Wood and The People vs. Larry Flynt) empathize with Margaret and her ordeal and Adams gives a nuanced performance as Margaret, a single mother who escapes one bad marriage for another even worse, too timid to challenge the dominating Walter until she finds herself. For Walter it’s about money and attention and the adoration of fans (even if the art establishment finds the paintings commercial abominations). For Margaret, it’s a matter of honesty and identity. The paintings reflected her soul, not his.

Burton is also fascinated with the way her art was dismissed as kitsch while it was embraced by the public: Are the Keane big eyes paintings art, kitsch, both, or something else? The cross section of art and commerce is fascinating but not all that well explored. And while his instinct for visual excess is largely in check, he can’t help but give so many scenes over to Waltz’s exuberant hustle. The film works thanks to Burton’s affection for both the art and the artist, Adams’ resilient performance, and a story that is too fascinating to be fiction.

On Blu-ray and DVD with the featurette “The Making of Big Eyes.” The Blu-ray also features highlights from screening Q&As with director Tim Burton, actors Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Krysten Ritter, and Jason Schwartzman, screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, and the real-life Margaret Keane, and an UltraViolet Digital HD copy of the film.

Also on VOD from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and Xbox, on Cable On Demand, and Digital HD purchase.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Videophiled TVD: A revolutionary ‘Turn’

TurnS1
Anchor Bay

Turn: Washington’s Spies – The Complete First Season (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD) – The Revolutionary War was launched with a declaration of independence and fought for the ideal of self-determination and democratic representation. By any measure it was unprecedented and it gave birth to the first sustained democracy in the world (despite D.W. Griffith’s insistence that the Civil War as the Birth of the Nation), yet there are fewer dramatic portraits of the war in movies or on TV than practically any other American conflict, and fewer still that stand as significant productions in their own right: John Ford’s Drums Along the Mohawk, the HBO miniseries John Adams, and… I’m sure there are others, but none jump to mind.

Turn from AMC (the cable network of Mad Men, The Walking Dead, and Breaking Bad) doesn’t quite jump to the top of the list, at least based on the initial season, but it is an intelligent show with a novel approach: it’s built around the civilian spy network supplying intelligence to the revolutionaries under the noses of the occupying British soldiers. This is historical drama, not documentary, but it is based on the true story of the Abraham Woodhull, the head of the real-life Culper Spy Ring in New York City and Long Island. Jamie Bell plays Woodhull, a farmer in Setauket, New York, who sells his produce on the black market to both sides while committing to neither until he’s recruited by an old friend, Continental Army officer Ben Talmadge (Seth Numrich), to use his smuggling routes to pass messages. The one-time favor turns into a full-time commitment and puts him on the opposite side of the conflict from his father (Kevin McNally), the town magistrate and a committed law-and-order British loyalist, and in partnership with his childhood sweetheart Anna Strong (Heather Lind), whose husband was sentenced to certain death aboard a British slave ship for a crime he didn’t commit.

In a TV culture of anti-heroes and compromised protagonists, this is a fairly straightforward conflict: there are a few honorable Brits (notably Major Hewlett, the garrison commandeer played by Burn Gorman) but far more of them are brutal and sadistic, while the rebel sympathizers may be conflicted but are ultimately on the side of their neighbors. The show has its share of romantic and dramatic complications, especially as Woodhull contrives to carry information through British territory to the rebel forces while posing publically as a loyalist, and it’s light on action and spectacle. It takes some time for the story to get any traction, but when, about halfway through the season, George Washington arrives to discuss the fledgling spy network with Talmadge, the show offers a crash course in state of the art spycraft, circa 1776. That’s a fascinating history lesson that gives scope to the personal drama and illustrates just how novel a civilian espionage circle was in warfare. As the season develops, it also takes on the issue of slavery, though while it shows the hypocrisy of the British (who free the slaves only to make them indentured soldiers in their fight) it’s frustratingly quiet when it comes to exploring the colonists’ relationship to the reality of slavery and shies away from seeing the war through the eyes of the blacks who, in the event of American victory, would remain enslaved.

What I find most interesting is the portrait of conflicted loyalties among the Americans. Friends, neighbors, even family members cannot necessarily be trusted, but that doesn’t make them enemies. Woodhull secretly defies his father’s allegiances but never his father, who he loves and protects through the conflict, and he keeps his activities secret from his wife (Meegan Warner), who suspects something is going on but isn’t sure what. That’s the real human story of the show, not the personal conflicts between Woodhull and sneering, sadistic British officer Simcoe (Samuel Roukin) or Talmadge and Scot mercenary Robert Rogers (Angus Macfadyen) or the renewed passions between Woodhull and Anna Strong, flamed by the danger of their missions.

There are also fun bits of history woven through here, like the crossing of the Delaware from the point of view of a soldier at the back of the makeshift armada (Washington is never seen) and a rousing rendition of a British drinking song over dinner with British officers, which became the tune to The Star Spangled Banner. These are dropped in without comment, nudging the viewer to dig into their American history (Wikipedia should get a workout while watching the episodes).

10 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with two very brief featurettes that are really no more than promotional pieces and about 25 minutes of deleted scenes. This season will also be available on Netflix later this month.

The second season begins in April.