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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Blu-ray / DVD: The raunch of ‘Trainwreck’ and the melancholy of ‘Mr. Holmes’

TrainwreckTrainwreck (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) – I don’t think I laughed as hard at any movie comedy this year as I did with Amy Schumer’s big screen debut feature as writer / star. Abetted by the direction of Judd Apatow, who has been moving from male-centric comedies to more inclusive stories, she brings her raunchy style of social commentary and self-effacing humor to the big screen in film that plays with familiar conventions while Apatow gives it that loose, easy-going quality that brings the chemistry.

Schumer plays a version of her stand-up persona so no surprise she keeps her name. Amy is a commitment-phobic magazine editor and writer with a policy of one-night stands and a habit of binge-drinking. Her philosophy of dating—pretty much her entire life, in fact—is the unfortunate product of a misanthropic, irresponsible father (Colin Quinn), who had her and sister chant his motto “Monogamy isn’t realistic” from an impressionable age. Thanks dad. Her sister (Brie Larson in an underwritten role) apparently overcame the conditioning but Amy is living the dream, looking out for her own pleasure and cutting off any possibility of messy emotional complications by sneaking out once she’s sated her sexual needs.

She’s assigned to profile of sports surgeon Bill Hader, a sweetly nerdish guy who asks her out despite all the red flags her unfiltered interview sends out. They make a strangely cute couple, which creates a crisis for Amy, who has managed to keep commitment and emotional entanglement out of her life. Commitment is scary and that calls for another drink.

You could say Schumer upends the expectations of the traditional sex comedy, taking the role usually reserved for the crude, sex-obsessed guy whose cruel wit and pose of brutal honesty is just an excuse for self-absorbed insensitivity, but that undervalues her work. It’s not simply a matter of showing us that women can be just as glib and shallow and raunchy as men. She’s confident and brazen, a power professional with an unapologetic sexual appetite and an arrested emotional development, perhaps not an original but certainly someone we haven’t seen quite like this on the screen.

Schumer is the center of it all but she’s generous with the laughs, spreading it around the entire cast, and Apatow brings the chemistry out of the cast, from the guy talks between Hader’s doc and friend and former patient LeBron James to the strained date between Amy and boy toy John Cena, a personal trainer who fails hilariously when asked to talk dirty during sex and manages to make trash talk threats sound weirdly homoerotic. I credit Apatow and Schumer for making Cena authentically funny. It’s a little too generous at times, by which I mean overlong, a common issue with Apatow’s films, but on home video that’s less of an issue. And Schumer also makes the film’s one serious tearjerker of a scene completely authentic, a nakedly honest display of unconditional love for someone who never earned it. Mostly though it’s funny, a mix of filthy and sweet that makes it all work.

The film was released in an R-rated version to the theaters but there’s also a longer unrated version (about four minutes longer) for home video. Both versions are available on Blu-ray and DVD, along with commentary by Apatow and Schumer with associate producer Kim Caramele, the usual collection of deleted scenes, a gage reel, and the Apatow disc staple “Line-O-Rama,” which offers montages of improvisations from select scenes.

Exclusive to the Blu-ray is a “Behind the scenes” collection of a dozen short featurettes, the featurette “Directing Athletes: A Blood Sport” featuring the athletes who appear in the film, all the clips from the unbearably pretentious fake film within the film “The Dogwalker,” video and audio clips from the film’s promotional tour, extended scenes, and more deleted scenes, plus bonus DVD and Ultraviolet Digital HD copies of film.

MrHolmesMr. Holmes (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) – Behind a beak of a nose and a face dotted with liver spots, Ian McKellen doesn’t just look old. His 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes quavers with tremors, his face droops like melted wax, and at times the glint in his eyes glazes over like he’s momentarily checked out, dull and absent. As he forgets even the names of his closest companions, the worst fears of a man defined by his mental acuity are realized.

Directed by Bill Condon (who first collaborated with McKellan on Gods and Monsters), this post-Doyle Holmes mystery is ostensibly the secret of the forgotten last case that prompted the great detective’s retirement, but it’s really about all those human experiences Holmes is least equipped to confront: friendship, compassion, human connection, the reasons to continue living as his sharp intellect loses its edge. It’s fitting that his best friend is a spirited and curious schoolboy (Milo Parker), the son of his widowed housekeeper (Laura Linney, whose light Scottish lilt comes and goes), and he’s most alive while they’re up to mischief.

McKellan is touching as Holmes at 93, a man losing his memories and at times his ability to focus, and his frustration with his own fragility is all too real. He also plays the middle-aged Holmes in flashbacks, piecing together a case that he doesn’t recognize from Watson’s description and tries to reconstruct from clues found in an old cabinet. It’s all very low key and understated, refreshing after Condon’s time in the Twilight universe, and rooted in the complications of character and the culture of post-war England (an field growing green over the fading wreckage of a downed war plane and a visit to the ashen hillside of Hiroshima are reminders of both how close and how far away the war is in 1947). And it rather neatly plays with the idea of Holmes as both a real person and a fictional creation adored by readers of the stories, with the real Holmes bemusedly ticking off the fictional flourishes that Watson provided.

It’s all a bit tidy for a film that challenges Holmes’s belief that explanations are solutions with the unpredictable messiness of real life, but I guess even Holmes deserves a happy ending.

Blu-ray and DVD with two featurettes and bonus Ultraviolet Digital copies of the film.

DVD for 11/24/09 – Gomorrah, Funny People and Tora-san

Criterion is regarded by most collectors as the gold standard for international masterpieces and classic cinema on DVD. This season, it stakes itself out as a player in contemporary international cinema with the release of two acclaimed foreign films: Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale (due December 1) and, this week, Matteo Garrone’s sprawling docu-realist drama Gomorrah (Criterion). The signature image of Garrone’s adaptation of Robert Saviano’s non-fiction book, an exposé of the dominance of organized crime in Naples and Caserta, is a pair of teenage boys running around a deserted beach in their underwear while shooting off automatic weapons. (The cover of the Criterion edition transforms the image into a surreal vision of a skinny teenage boy walking through the city like a Godzilla child-man.) That’s as much glamour as you can expect from the this portrait of the mob: emotionally immature boys playing at gangster, oblivious of the reality behind their Tony Montana fantasy.

Boys with guns will be boys
Boys with guns will be boys

Set in the poverty of coastal regions of Naples and Caserta, Gomorrah is a long and at times grueling look at five stories of people caught up in the Neapolitan Camorra, the Mafia organization that rules the region. Their hands are in everything, from selling drugs and running guns to the rag trade and, yes, contracts to haul and dump garbage and toxic waste. The sprawl makes it hard to follow and harder to connect with the characters and their stories (I was far more engaged on a second viewing), but it makes its point about the reach of the Camorra and the culture it has spawned. Garrone, who came to features from documentary, he brings a clear-eyed approach to the film and captures an atmosphere of destruction and waste in a landscape of urban blight and poverty. Criterion is releasing the film on both two-disc DVD and single-disc Blu-ray (at the same price, as is their policy), each with the hour-long documentary “Five Stories,” video interviews with Garrone, actor Toni Servillo and author Roberto Saviano, deleted scenes and more.

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DVD of the Week Extra – Freaks and Geeks Yearbook Edition

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). Junior Linda Cardellini (late of E.R.) grounds the series as the former class brain who rejects her place in the school hierarchy and, in startling identity crisis, gravitates toward the school “freaks,” a group of stoners, under-acheivers, and minor key rebels, sort-of led by charismatic 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 duck the mean-spirited pranks and hazing aimed in his direction.

Those crazy kids at high school
Those crazy kids at high school

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 entire series, all 18 produced episodes (of which only 15 were originally shown on NBC before it was yanked from the schedule for good), is returned to the intended broadcast order. The finale is 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.

This series was originally released on DVD in 2004 in a top-notch set with 29 commentary tracks. Seriously. 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,” explains Executive Producer Judd Apatow, “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 are deleted scenes from every episode (with optional commentary by Judd Apatow and actors Martin Starr and John Francis Daley), outtakes, bloopers, alternate takes, audition footage and behind the scenes footage.

Hanging out with the cast
Hanging out with the cast

This new edition includes all the original supplements plus two bonus discs with even more deleted scenes, actor auditions (see Linda Cardellini and Busy Phillips swap roles) and other raw footage and behind-the-scenes clips (including the complete table reads of three episodes). My favorite addition to the set is the 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). The case is a mock yearbook, an 80-page tome with photos and essays and remembrances along with the very detailed episode guide reprinted from the original release.

Pineapple Express

The Judd Apatow factory, which has refreshed the coming-of-age comedy (for all ages of adolescent men) in comedies like Knocked Up, Superbad and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, has been stretching itself thin (that’s my best explanation for Drillbit Taylor and Step Brothers).

pinappleexpressposterbig.jpg
The superbad poster to "Pineapple Express"

One of the smartest things he’s done is to seek out directors not normally associated with his brand of humor and bring them on board. The sensibility of David Gordon Green, who jumps from indie dramas of small town tragedy to this stoner buddy comedy, is one of the reasons that Pineapple Express works. Not necessarily a director known for his sense of humor, he has a great time with the comedy while keeping his eye on the characters and the chemistry. The screenplay by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (from a story co-written with producer Judd Apatow) doesn’t really take us anywhere we haven’t been before, but it gets stoner culture in a way movies haven’t really done before, and it offers an accidental buddy film that works.

I don’t want to make too much of the film, mind you, but I don’t want to make too little of it either. This is a film that made me laugh and kept me so wrapped up in it that I didn’t even notice it ran almost two hours.

Seth Rogen is a wise-cracking straight man as Dale, a process server who is remarkably effective despite the fact that he tokes up between assignments. James Franco flashes his wide grin of innocence and benign amiability as the sweet, stupid, emotionally ebullient Saul, the friendly neighborhood dope dealer and the exclusive distributor of the sweet new herbal strain known as Pineapple Express. They’re not exactly angels – Dale has a high school girlfriend (who is, in all likelihood, more mature than he is, but still it’s a little discomforting and a lot inappropriate) and Saul gets a group of schoolkids stoned – but they are sincere and admirably loyal and don’t deserve the shitstorm that comes their way when Dale inadvertently becomes witness to a cop killing and leaves a calling card at the scene of his sloppy escape (note to self: don’t drive a getaway car when baked to the gills).

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