Battlestar Galactica: The Complete Series (Universal) – Yes, I’m aware that this oddly designed box set is not new this season. It was actually released in the summer but I only received it while working on the MSN “Best of 2009” DVD and Blu-ray list. And while it didn’t make the list, it’s one of the best TV shows of the decade and, for all the issues with the packaging, still the best way to get the entire show in one cost-effective swoop.
Forget the original clunky, kitschy 1980s sci-fi series. This series is more than a revival, it’s a creative, clever, and compelling rethinking of the show. The drama about the human survivors of an intergalactic massacre on a deep space wagon train search for the mythical plant Earth is reborn with a new generation of Cylons (a robot race originally created by humans who declare war on their creators) and a fascinating new command dynamic. In place of the paternal guidance of Lorne Greene is Edward James Olmos as Commander Adama, an old-school Battlestar commander in an archaic ship, and this time he’s sharing power and responsibility with a civilian President (Mary McDonnell), much to his crusty frustration. And there are other inspired reinventions: Baltar (James Callis), an absurdly evil and short sighted villain in the original, is a tormented scientist tricked into becoming a traitor and haunted by a phantom Cylon sexpot (Tricia Helfer), and the swaggering hotshot pilot Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) is a cigar-chomping, rule-breaking girl who looks like she could kick Dirk Benedict’s ass around the galaxy and back.
The Middleman is my discovery of the week, a TV series that ran for a brief but brilliant twelve episodes on the ABC Family Channel last fall before it succumbed to dismal ratings. Perhaps it would have found its audience on the SciFi Channel (now just identified by the mutant SyFy logo). Perhaps a cult audience will likewise discover this deliciously tongue-in-cheek spy fantasy series on DVD and the groundswell of support will revive it like Family Guy. (I can dream, can’t I?) All I know is that it was canceled before I had really heard about it, let alone ever seen an episode, and it had me in the first ten minutes of the pilot episode. Matt Keeslar is a Boy Scout of a special agent – part Men in Black operative, part Doctor Who freelance good guy with a faceless boss and a crotchety receptionist robot stuck in battle-axe mode – who specializes in unconventional cases (aliens, demons, a genetically enhanced super-ape that aspires to be a mafia Don). and Natalie Morales is Wendy Watson, an art-school grad and sidekick in training scouted by The Middleman (it’s apparently his name, his job and his rank all in one) from her adventures in temping. Keeslar is both colorful and clean, like Jack Bauer with impeccable manners and kick-ass skills, while Morales is Piper Perabo with a dash of Rosario Dawson. And by jiminy, it’s gosh-darn great, absolutely hilarious and marvelously inventive, a rare gem of genre TV that both lovingly quotes and hilariously parodies its inspiration. It deserves to be seen by everyone who likes their genre TV funny, clever and hip as they come. More on this when I complete the series. For now, I’m doling the episodes out like precious treats.
Criterion originally released Repulsion on laserdisc, the old-school high-definition standard of the pre-DVD age. For its long-awaited DVD and Blu-ray debut, Criterion goes back to the original elements for a beautiful new digital transfer approved by director Roman Polanski. "I always considered Repulsion as the shabbiest of my films," confesses Polanski in the commentary track, originally recorded in 1994 for the laserdisc, referring to the technical seams and budgetary limitations. Reviewing the film after decades, it’s in fact a masterfully conducted portrait in madness, a horror defined not in the the murders perpetrated by an unbalanced young woman (Catherine Deneuve) losing herself in nightmares and phobias, but in the loss of self as the alienated Belgian beauty disconnects from the world and unravels into her fantasies and fears. Deneuve’s Carol is a child-woman both fascinated and repulsed by sex, but her nightmare fantasies of rape also suggest repressed memories of abuse bubbling to the surface in her isolation and urban alienation. Polanski doesn’t explain, he explores with imaginative detail and eerie imagery (walls split with a thundercrack, hands reach out from the hallway like a Cocteau nightmare, food decomposes) as the fragile girl slips into helpless madness. One thing is certain: Apartment living is dangerous to your mental health and your soul in Polanski’s movies. This is his first victim.
[Note – due to a glitch, some of the reviews for the MSN DVD column this week may not yet be up when you click on the links.]
Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (originally released in the U.S. as Stairway to Heaven) is as gorgeous and romantic as films come. The film opens with a celestial prologue and narration providing a sense of cosmic comfort of someone watching over it all, of some divine authority in charge. It plays like the British answer to the opening of It’s a Wonderful Life, which came out the same year (is it coincidence that the post-war era inspired such a need for heavenly affirmation?), but immediately swoops down from the majestic calm of the stars into the terror of World War II and a bomber pilot giving his farewell to life over the wireless as his plane burns furiously around him and he prepares to make a blind leap without a parachute. Powell gives the scene terrible beauty – the wind whips the cabin, the fire flickers around his face, the clouds have a texture so palpable they look like you could step out into the sky and walk to heaven on them – and an emotional power to match.
Unabashedly romantic, beautifully textured in warm color and cool monochrome, and brilliantly poised on the edge of fantasy and reality, Michael Powell’s 1946 A Matter of Life and Death is the first essential DVD release of 2009…. It’s a perfect romantic fantasy and a stunning creative achievement (“Ah! We are so starved for Technicolor up there,” quips the conductor as the gray monochrome of the afterlife blooms into the almost surreal hues of Earthly color), powered by the passion for life and love.
I write further on the film for Parallax View here and review the DVD for MSN here.
Also new this week in the TV section is Battlestar Galactica: Season 4.0, which features the first ten episodes of the show’s final season (the concluding episodes begin this month on the Sci-Fi Channel) plus the previously released “prequel” film Battlestar Galactica: Razor. The original Battlestar Galactica of the seventies was a simple show of heroic humans fleeing the evil Cylons, robots built to destroy the human race. That simplicity was tossed through the airlock for this gritty, rough and ready revision, but it flies into unexpected territory in the first ten episodes of the fourth and final season. One-time villain Baltar (James Callis) becomes a messiah, or at the very least a holy prophet. Our soft-speaking President (Mary McDonnell) resorts to dictatorial measures to quell dissent. Military career man Apollo becomes the advocate for civil rights. Meanwhile a civil war is erupting among the Cylon race, the newly “revealed” Cylon sleepers in the Galactica fleet face an identity crisis and the final conflict seems inevitable. This is still the best science fiction series on TV, a drama that thrives in the atmosphere of moral ambiguity, spiritual mystery and survivalist reality, which is only enhanced by the down and dirty production design.
A decade before The Godfather, Albert Lattuada deglamorized the gangster chic of the Italian mafia with the bitter comedy Mafioso. Alberto Sordi stars as Antonio, an energetic parody of the middle class success story, running around the factory with a clipboard and a stopwatch and playing ringmaster back in his modern apartment home with his chic blond wife and two blond little girls. What has him so excited is a vacation trip to his home village in Sicily, a place of simple beauty and generous folks, to hear him tell it.
He’s still bubbling with his idealized memories of the town when they finally arrive, which makes him oblivious to the reality that we see: an impoverished, bleak place village that time seems to have abandoned to its superstitions and cloistered fear of outsiders – his modern wife included. Half of Antonio’s friends have died or gone to prison, victims of the unforgiving culture of crime and vengeance, and a mafia is the town elder, as much feared as revered. He’s the man who makes a modest request from Antonio in the form of a veiled threat: an offer he can’t refuse.
Lattuada’s direction is pitch perfect as he slips the film from the comic satire of culture clash and oblivious idealization to the grave reality of the world nobody dares admit exists, let alone defy. The film never loses its sly humor, but it turns darker with a force that packs a gut-punch, and the willful blindness to the malignant mafia simply perpetuates the cycle.
The Criterion edition features a small collection of interesting but hardly compelling interviews, both archival and original for this disc.
Also this week from Criterion are two-disc editions of The Ice Storm, with new commentary by director Ang Lee and producer/screenwriter Schamus and a retrospective documentary with new interviews with stars Joan Allen, Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci, and Elijah Wood, and Hiroshi Teshigahara’s documentary Antonio Gaudi.