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]

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‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ – All Hail Caesar

Part prequel, part reboot and part reimagined origin story, The Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Fox) is not simply a revival of a beloved seventies series that took a serious dive into high kitsch. It’s a terrific character piece, a gripping prison break thriller with a wicked high-concept twist and the smartest action movie of 2011.

Andy Serkis will probably once again be ignored come Academy Award time, but his incarnation of Caesar, an ape with boosted intelligence (thanks to an experimental drug) raised as a member of the scientist’s family, is one of the top performances of the year. The fur and the primate musculature is all computer animation but the body language and facial expressions and personality is all Serkis, the man in the motion capture suit, and he gives us an evolution of character worthy of Spartacus or Moses: He leads his people to freedom, and he does so by watching, learning, understanding and taking command as a compassionate leader.

Simply put, Caesar is more dense and complex than any of his human co-stars (including James Franco as the revolutionary — or is that evolutionary? — scientist, Freida Pinto and John Lithgow) and grounds the high-concept idea in a character you can’t help but root for.

For such a clever and satisfying piece of science fiction writing (don’t blame apes for the rise, it’s all due to human hubris and recklessness) it has its logical gaps (how can a high-tech lab of animal testing and trials miss a pregnant test subject or let a human exposed to an experimental drug walk out of the facility with dangerous symptoms without even a check-up?), but they get forgotten in the thrill of the story.

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Oscar Hangover: Hosting the Week’s New Releases

Regardless of your take on their success as hosts of this year’s Oscar telecast (MSN’s Kim Morgan was less than impressed but Glenn Kenny cut them some slack), James Franco and Anne Hathaway are the home video stars of the week. Franco’s Oscar-nominated performance anchors “127 Hours” (Fox) and Hathaway bares all as the doomed lover in “Love & Other Drugs” (Fox).

127 Hours” is a great example of the dramatic film based on the well-known true tale where the success of the execution is not measured in depicting what happened — for we all know that — but, rather, in how,” writes MSN critic James Rocchi of Danny Boyle’s film of what was considered an unfilmable true story. Franco plays Aron Ralston, an outdoorsman who goes solo for his weekend thrills and ends up trapped and alone in a crevice, his arm pinned by a boulder and his existence suddenly reduced to a sliver of a world. There’s not a soul who knows he’s there.

The climax is no secret – he has to cut off his own arm and walk out on his own power – because Ralston’s ordeal became a major news story and he barnstormed the country to promote his best-selling memoir. What Boyle and Franco offer isn’t so much a film as a cinema stunt, a technical exercise in making inherently uncinematic material interesting and compelling, and Boyle and co-screenwriter Simon Beaufoy find interesting ways to open up an inherently internal experience. It’s just the subtext of emotional isolation and disconnection that is pat, contrived and unconvincing.

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DVDs for 01/04/11 – Machete Howl Catfish

Machete (Fox) – Born of a tongue-in-cheek trailer for a border revenge movie that never was, Robert Rodriguez’s big-budget drive-in flick is a more convincing slice of B-movie love than his earlier Planet Terror, certainly more coherent.

Rousing the immigrant nation

Danny Trejo (a Rodriguez favorite) is the former Mexican federalé who turns into a one-man strike force after his family is massacred by a drug lord (Steven Seagal—who can’t keep his accent consistent, let alone convincing—as the pudgiest Mexican drug lord yet seen in the movies) and he’s framed for the attempted assassination of a corrupt Senator (Robert De Niro) by his drug-dealing campaign manager (Jeff Fahey). De Niro’s drawling politico plays the anti-immigration card as a racist scare campaign (he secretly funds a vigilante border patrol run by Don Johnson and uses the patrols as a target range with moving targets) as Rodriquez turns Machete into the protector of the downtrodden immigrants of Texas who fill the lowest-rung of the job market. It’s no coincidence that this hatchet-faced hero uses the tools of Mexican laborers to do most of his battling—hedge clippers, weed eaters, cooking utensils and his weapon of choice, the machete. Don’t call it political subtext, though. Rodriguez’s politics are right on the surface and about as complex as the film’s revenge plot, a kind-of populist response to the anti-immigration rhetoric from the more extreme margins of the political echo chamber. Rather, this is Rodriguez’s Latino answer to the blaxpoitation action films of the seventies, complete with Trejo as an accidental sweet sweetback sex machine, irresistible to every woman he meets without making the slightest overture to toward them.

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