Blu-ray: ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’

StarWarsForceStar Wars: The Force Awakens (Walt Disney, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD) – J.J. Abrams takes over the reins of the Star Wars franchise with what is technically a sequel (“Chapter VII: The Force Awakens”) but is just as much a course correction, a reboot, and a return to the source. It’s been called a shameless remake of the original Star Wars and refreshing return to the innocence and energy and pulpy fun that first entranced a generation of fans. I lean toward the latter, but even for those who find it rehash, I would point out that The Force Awakens is not aimed at the adult fans who grew up on the original trilogy all those decades ago. I’m one of those who saw the film on its first run and was thrilled by it. I think that Abrams is trying to recreate that experience for a whole new generation eager to be captured by the charge and action and exotic Amazing Stories covers come to life in a fairy tale space fantasy that takes place long ago and a galaxy far, far away…

To that end, this installment (set 30 years after Return of the Jedi) picks up with another scrappy kid from a desert planet who finds a runaway robot with secret plans and escapes from the resurgence of the Republic with a hunk of junk ship that just happens to be the Millennium Falcon, teams up with Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), who are still smuggling and scamming through way through the galaxy well past retirement age, and joins the resistance under the command of Leia (Carrie Fisher). This time, however, the kid with the essence of the force within is a spunky, inventive young woman named Rey (Daisy Ridley) and her running buddy is a former Stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega) who goes AWOL after his first mission, which turns into a pitiless massacre of innocents.

The echoes with the original Star Wars are unmistakable to any fan; there’s a bar filled with mercenary alien types (which Abrams creates largely with old-school make-up and masks), an even bigger and badder Death Star, a masked Darth Vader acolyte (Adam Driver as Kylo Ren) who leads the new Imperial army with the help of the dark side of the force, and yes, those plans reveal the weakness in the new planet-killing weapon. Abrams is clearly devoted to recapturing not just the mythology and style of Lucas’ original trilogy but the innocence and energy and fun. After trying to steer the Star Trek prequels into the Star Wars universe, he’s found the right vehicle for his instincts. But while he honors the original, he adds (with the help of co-screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan, who scripted Empire and Return of the Jedi for Lucas, and Michael Arndt, who scripted Toy Story 3) some terrific touches and colors of his own.

The cast is far more inclusive than Lucas’ films, starting with our next generation heroes Rey, a capable and fearless young woman, and Finn, a young black man whose conscience pushes him to find courage he didn’t know he had. Oscar Isaac charges in as smart-talking flyboy and charismatic rebel hero Poe Dameron and leaves you wanting more (we’re sure to see more of him in future films). The roly-poly BB-8 is a delightful creation that rethinks the robot paradigm with both practical innovation and creative playfulness. And all those fabulous planetary landscapes and alien skies recall the wonder of Lucas’ visions without simply rehashing them.

So yes, there is a familiarity to it. This isn’t a rethinking of the space opera and Abrams doesn’t try to take the Star Wars universe into a more mature direction. But perhaps that is as it should be. We’ve already got comic book movies trying to rework the superhero mythos for adult audiences. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is aimed at the child within us all.

On Blu-ray and DVD with a superb transfer. The three-disc Blu-ray edition features the 69-minute “Secrets of The Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journey,” which chronicles the production from the development of the story through filming, and a collection of shorter featurettes, all under ten minutes apiece. “Crafting Creatures,” “Building BB-8,” “Blueprint of a Battle: The Snow Fight,” and “ILM: The Visual Magic of the Force” are production pieces that take the viewers into the creation of key scenes and special effects. “John Williams: The Seventh Symphony” looks at the composer who defined the music of the series from the first film. “The Story Awakens: The Table Read” features only brief excerpts from the first table read with the entire cast in a four-minute piece and there are six deleted scenes.

Also includes bonus DVD and Digital HD copies of the film.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens [Blu-ray]
Star Wars: The Force Awakens [DVD]
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Plus Bonus Features) [Digital HD]

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.

Videophiled: ‘A Most Violent Year’

MostViolent
Lionsgate

A Most Violent Year (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) should have been an Oscar contender. Written and directed by J.C. Chandor (Margin Call) and set in the crime-ridden culture of early 1980s New York City (which was the most violent year on record in the city’s history), smart, shadowy tribute to the crime dramas of the seventies and early eighties, when the culture of crime and corruption was treated as a systemic issue rather than an outlier problem solved in the final reel. Oscar Isaac plays an ambitious businessman in the oil heating market determined to succeed without mob ties and Jessica Chastain is his fierce, fearless wife, the daughter of a mobster who is convinced that he needs to mob up when his trucks and his salesmen are targeted and the assistant D.A. (David Oyelowo) is looking into his books (yes, he’s been paying off officials, which is business as usual in that culture). She’s got a bit of Lady Macbeth to her Brooklyn character but Isaac is determined to remain (relatively) honest even when his entire business teeters on collapse as he scrambles to raise money for a deal that will either make him rich or leave him broke. Isaac and Chastain are excellent (though Chastain is left to fill in what the script fails to provide in terms of dimension) and Albert Brooks is almost unrecognizable as Isaac’s pragmatic (and loyal) lawyer

Chandor expertly takes us through gray area between the culture of official corruption and the criminal underworld (organized and unorganized crime both) and favors the human drama over gangster spectacle. It is a violent world, and a shadowy one (the New York winter setting is beautifully shot by Bradford Young, who has a way of suggesting that even daylight is a shadow cast by something wicked), but the violence is all in personal, intimate terms, inflicted on real people who are not equipped for this kind of warfare. His direction is both gritty and graceful, if perhaps a little studied and removed. Though not exactly glorified, the film portrays this business battlefield as a historical set piece, seen from a distance and elevated to Shakespearean dimensions. There is a cost to every decision, including the choice not to fight criminals on their own terms. Isaac’s performance clarifies that conflict beautifully.

Blu-ray and DVD, with commentary by filmmaker Chandor and producers Neal Dodson and Anna Gerb, three featurettes, and deleted scenes. The Blu-ray also feature a bonus Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film.

Also on digital and cable VOD and at Redbox.

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Videophiled: ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ Folk and ‘The Broken Circle Breakdown’ Bluegrass

insideLlwen

Inside Llewyn Davis (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD, On Demand), the latest by the Joel and Ethan Coen, was almost entirely overlooked at the Oscars this year. Perhaps that’s because, despite the astounding recreation of the Greenwich Village scene and an atmosphere and texture that you can almost feel through the screen, struggling folk singer Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) is not a particularly likable guy. Which is not to say he’s a villain or even a bigger jerk than some of the folks around him, but while he’s not mean-spirited or malevolent (well, apart from that one time, and you’ll know it when you see it), he is insensitive and self-absorbed. Despite the beauty of his musical performances, he doesn’t connect with people. And he certainly doesn’t get what folk audiences see in the rest of the musicians struggling for an audience at the local folk clubs.

Inside Llewyn Davis is a road movie that circles back on itself in pretty much every way, a road to oblivion that Llewyn tramps in hope of finding his success, but is not a success story. Llewyn has been called “a loser” by some critics, but that’s not fair. His failure isn’t artistic, it’s commercial, and he endures the bad luck that afflicts so many of the hard-luck characters of the Coen Bros. universe without the comic bounce or dogged resilience that saves those few who persevere. That sly, sardonic Coen tone is more understated here, found in the little details of existence and the odd nuances of the offbeat characters (and John Goodman is truly one outsized, offbeat creation as a jazz musician with a heroin addiction) and the unusual situations that get amplified and echoed throughout the film. Just don’t expect the punchlines or big dramatic payoffs you get from other filmmakers. It’s not altogether satisfying necessarily, but neither does it let go when it’s over. The music, which T-Bone Burnett once again helped create for the Coens, is superb.

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BrokenCircle

The Broken Circle Breakdown (Tribeca, DVD, Digital, VOD), one of five nominees for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars this year (it lost to The Great Beauty), is devastating. And I mean that in all the best ways. The story of a passionate love rocked by tragedy, it is both joyous and anguished, celebratory and sad. It’s set in a subculture of bluegrass aficionados in Belgium (who knew?), where it is practically love at first sight for banjo player and singer Didier (Johan Heldenbergh, who also wrote the original play) and tattoo artist Elise (Veerle Baetens), who soon joins the band as the sole female voice in the male harmonies. When their child, a little girl showered with love, is diagnosed with a deadly illness, they face the crisis in very different, unharmonious ways.

Director Felix Van Groeningen breaks up the timeline, introducing the couple as the try to hold it together while their daughter undergoes hospital tests and procedures and then flashing back to their early romance to contrast with the contemporary story. The structure gets more fractured as it continues, amping up the anxiety and the urgency of their ordeal. But while the film doesn’t flinch from the heavy toll it takes on Didier and Elise and their relationship, this isn’t all about ordeal. Johan Heldenbergh and Veerle Baetens are compelling performers who invite you to invest in their lives and the band provides a community of support and love for them and their daughter. The music they make, all covers of classic bluegrass songs, overflows with joy, just as the romance that plays out in flashback. The triumph of Van Groeningen is wrapping the heartbreak and anger up in the love and the support and leaving us celebrating what was rather than mourning what’s lost.

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