By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com
The DVD Wrapup: Through the Looking Glass, Café Society, Our Kind of Terror, Buying Democracy and more
Alice Through the Looking Glass: Blu-ray
Not having done my homework ahead of watching Alice Through the Looking Glass on Blu-ray, I just assumed that Tim Burton had directed the sequel to his and Disney’s Alice in Wonderland. In fact, I wasn’t relieved of that notion until I started looking into the movie’s production background for this review. Burton stayed on as producer, but handed off the baton to relative newcomer James Bobin, whose name has been affixed to Muppets Most Wanted and The Muppets and television’s “Flight of the Conchords” and “Da Ali G Show,” which might explain the presence of Sasha Baron Cohen, as Time. Although the drop-off at the international box office was huge — $1.025 billion for “Alice,” to $287.1 million for “Looking Glass” – I don’t think any of the blame can be laid at the feet of the director, returning screenwriter Linda Woolverton, composer Danny Elfman or Lewis Carroll, for that matter. If anything, “Looking Glass” was a far more difficult film to market. Somewhat darker than “Alice,” it has rarely been adapted for the big screen and didn’t have a history with Disney. Inconveniently, as well, “Looking Glass” opened almost simultaneously with news of Amber Heard’s filing for divorce from Johnny Depp and, five days later, obtaining a temporary restraining order against him. I suspect, though, that anyone who enjoyed Burton’s “Alice” will want to take a chance on “Looking Glass,” anyway.
In it, the grown-up Alice Kingsleigh has returned to London after long and arduous voyage to the Orient – as eastern Asia was once known – only to learn of her father’s death and that her unctuous ex-fiancé, Hamish Ascot (Leo Bill), has taken over her father’s company. He plans to have Alice sell him the ship in exchange for her family home, which her mother (Lindsay Duncan) sold to him to retain her standing in society. Unable to make a choice, Alice hides from Ascot’s guards in her late father’s study. As the guards are threatening to break down the door, Alice’s butterfly friend Absolem (Alan Rickman, in his final voiceover role) disappears through a magical mirror that leads back to Underland. There, Alice is greeted by such old friends as the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen), the Tweedles (Matt Lucas), the Dormouse (Barbara Windsor) and the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry). They inform her that Tarrant Hightopp, the Mad Hatter (Depp), is in poor health because his family has gone missing following the attack of the Jabberwocky. The queen persuades Alice to convince Time – the demi-god human/clockwork hybrid, who dictates passages in Underland using a Chronosphere — to save the Mad Hatter’s family … in the past. She cautions Alice that if her past self sees her future self, everything will be history. The wondrous adventure takes her through various time/space/shape continuums, before she can return home to save her father’s ship. The Blu-ray overflows with bonus material, including music videos, making-of and background featurettes, hidden Easter Eggs, character profiles, commentary and deleted scenes.
Café Society: Blu-ray
If, as was the case in the 1970-80s, such writers and directors as Paul Mazursky, Michael Ritchie, Neil Simon, Herbert Ross, Elaine May, Nora Ephron, Mike Nichols, Francis Veber, and Larry Gelbart were still competing for the same adult audiences, Woody Allen wouldn’t stand so alone in the American filmmaking firmament. Neither would his detractors feel as if they have to make excuses for buying tickets to see his annual film. Café Society is a lot like his previous five romantic dramedies and fantasies — Irrational Man, Magic in the Moonlight, Blue Jasmine, To Rome with Lovee, Midnight in Paris – in that they almost guarantee audiences of a certain age that they won’t regret venturing out to the local arthouse to take advantage of early bird or seniors discounts. It’s not only because his films are devoid of gratuitous nudity, profanity, zombies and fart jokes, although that would be reason enough for some folks. Perhaps, it’s because the people he recruits represent a cross-section of today’s most accomplished and interesting actors and that the scenarios and gags aren’t intended to appeal to the lowest possible audience denominator. I wouldn’t mind seeing what he could do with a sequel to Bananas, Sleepers or Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask, but that boat sailed a long time ago.
Café Society, which performed twice as well at the overseas box office, is set in the 1930s, when a young Bronx native, Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg), decides that he doesn’t want to work in the family jewelry business until he gives Hollywood a shot. Conveniently, his Uncle Phil (Steve Carell) is one of the most powerful talent agents in town and, after blowing Bobby off for a few weeks, finds some menial errands for him to do. Phil introduces Bobby to his secretary Veronica, nicknamed Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), who is tasked with helping him settle into Hollywood. In a contrivance only Allen could pull off without it seeming ridiculously calculated, Bobby falls in love with Vonnie’s unpretentious approach to life, but is rebuffed by her allegiance to her secret lover – guess who – who promises to divorce his wife, but doesn’t deliver on it. Fast forward a few years, after Bobby has returned to New York and accepted a job with his gangster brother, Ben (Corey Stoll), running a high-end nightclub. It’s here that Bobby meets divorcée Veronica Hayes (Blake Lively) and they begin the process of settling down. Of course, Allen arranges to have Vonnie and Bobby meet once again, not terribly unlike the way Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman would reunite a few years later at Rick’s Café Américain. The best thing about Café Society isn’t the story of Bobby and Vonnie, however. It’s the period re-creations of how the posh set waits out the Depression in Hollywood and Manhattan, which are as glamorous as any MGM musical from the same period. Typically, the Blu-ray is short of bonus features, limited to an “On the Red Carpet” featurette and photo gallery.
What We Become: Bluray
If it weren’t for the distinction attributed to Bo Mikkelsen’s debut feature that it’s “the first post-apocalyptic zombie movie” made in Denmark, I’d probably dismiss What We Become as a direct lift of the first few episodes of “Fear the Walking Dead” and leave it at that. The setting doesn’t feel particularly Scandinavian or even reveal anything a Swede or Norwegian might consider to be fodder for a Danish joke. (They’re what passes for humor in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin.) Set in a typically suburban neighborhood north of Copenhagen, the typically middle-class Johansson family assumes that one summer day is going to pass just as they always do in that part of the world. What they can’t possibly foresee is the Zombie Apocalypse – can anyone? — which looms right around the corner. It begins with TV reports of a serious virus spreading through a section of its viewership area. The Johannsons don’t begin to show their concern until an elderly neighbor reports the death and subsequent disappearance of her husband, who, as usual, was perched in front of the TV. They don’t even panic when armed men in Hazmet gear suddenly appear in the neighborhood warning residents to stay indoors and wash their hands.
It’s when the armed men begin to cover the windows of secured homes with sheets of plastic, however, and infected neighbors are hauled off, never to be seen again, and food supplies dwindle, that the Johannsons and their uninvited guests do, indeed, panic. When, unexpectedly, the soldiers pull back to an area separated from the neighborhood by fences, a few residents risk death by checking out the ruckus. It’s then that the extent of the Zombie Apocalypse becomes apparent. Mikkelsen does a good job ratcheting up the fear factor from paranoia to full-blown panic. The only thing that differentiates What We Become from the dozens of other zombie flicks we’ve seen, however, is the degree of danger he’s willing to impose on the youngest Johannson daughter (and her pet rabbit) and her older brother, who’s just fallen in love with the new babe on the block. Still, I’d be more impressed had Mikkelsen chosen to make the movie according to Dogme 95 specifications.
Our Kind of Traitor: Blu-ray
If, at 85, John le Carre is going to keep writing novels, someone in England is going to find the money to adapt movies and mini-series from them. Thank goodness. In the last five years, we’ve seen Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, A Most Wanted Man, “The Night Manager” mini-series and Our Kind of Traitor, with a mini-series remake of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold set for next year. Less cloak-and-dagger than a game of musical bank accounts, Our Kind of Traitor describes a subterranean world in which brazen Russian oligarchs and gangsters ruthlessly control financial institutions once known for their stability, anonymity and conservative principles. Why settle for numbered accounts in Swiss bank accounts – whose security no longer can be guaranteed to tyrants and other miscreants — when you can convince a respectable putz to buy a bank for you? As we learned from Iran-Contra and other Reagan-era shenanigans, the CIA and MI6 frequently tag along with the gangsters and cartels to facilitate operations of their own design. Here, a British professor, Perry (Ewan McGregor), is vacationing with his wife, Gail (Naomie Harris), in Marrakesh, where he befriends a boisterous Russian gangster, Dima (Stellan Skarsgård), who senses that his usefulness to the mob has run its course.
After a few games of tennis, Dima asks Perry to do a favor for him. He wants him to deliver a USB drive to MI6 agents, who might consider allowing him to defect in exchange for a list of names and account numbers of British politicians helping Russian oligarchs launder money through London. All Perry has to do is hand the drive to MI6 agent Hector (Damian Lewis) and get back to business as usual. There is, as usual, a hitch. If the intelligence agency is going to accuse British politicians of corruption, Hector demands more information from Dima. He asks Perry to pay one more visit to his new friend, who demands protection for his family if he’s going to keep cooperating. The exchange is arranged to coincide with the signing of an important banking agreement. Once again, easier planned than done. What director Susanna White and writer Hossein Amini’s Our Kind of Traitor lacks in suspense, it makes up for in a bravura performance by Skarsgård. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, a making-of featurette and interviews with cast and the creative team.
The Best Democracy Money Can Buy
Here’s another documentary that Republicans will avoid like a heat-seeking, Zika-carrying mosquito. That’s because The Best Democracy Money Can Buy spells out exactly how our democracy has been corrupted by politicians and election judges bought and paid for by our wealthiest citizens. When Donald Trump says, “This election is rigged,” he’s right. It isn’t the media that’s corrupt, however. Nor is it the entity that’s stealing votes. Trump “henchman,” Kris Kobach, Kansas Secretary of State, claims that his computer program has identified 7.2 million people in 29 states who may have voted twice in the same election. Sound familiar? In fact, most of these purged suspects are minorities–mainly Democratic voters – whose first and last names are among the most common in the country: Jose Gonzales, Albert Jackson, anyone name Kim, for example. Men and women serving their country overseas also are targets for fraud. What the election judges fail to take into account when disqualifying a voter are middle names and such suffixes as Jr., Sr., III etc., which would explain the seeming discrepancy. Add them together and the number of voters Donald Trump and his buddies claim have voted in different states on the same day soars into the millions. Or, to put it another way, millions of people with the same first and last names have been denied the right to have their ballots weighed. And, that’s presupposing that people of color were allowed to vote in the first place, given draconian ID procedures that create unconscionably long waits, but only in heavily Democratic districts. And, no, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy isn’t just another Michael Moore production, although he’s promised to release a doc of his own this week. Rolling Stone investigative reporter Greg Palast uses a mock-noir approach to deliver his evidence, consulting such celebrity gumshoes as Ice-T, Richard Belzer, Rosario Dawson, Willie Nelson and Shailene Woodley. The search takes Palast from Kansas to the Arctic, the Congo and to a swanky Hamptons dinner party held by Trump’s sugar-daddy, John Paulson, a.k.a. “JP The Foreclosure King.” The DVD adds extended interviews and reports from Azerbaijan, Congo and Liberia. It’s as disspiriting as it is fascinating.
Child’s Play: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Waxworks Compilation: Blu-ray
Count Dracula’s Great Love: Blu-ray
One of the most popular and enduring horror franchises in history, the series inspired by Tom Holland and Don Mancini’s Child’s Play is scheduled to spawn a sixth sequel next year, Chucky 7. Its immediate predecessor, Curse of Chucky, was released on VOD on September 24, 2013, and DVD/Blu-ray two weeks later. Having branched out into comic books and video games, Chucky is as recognizable a brand name as Cabbage Patch Kids, which he resembles. Actually, the character’s full name, Charles Lee Ray, was derived from those of notorious killers Charles Manson, Lee Harvey Oswald and James Earl Ray. As they are wont to do, parents’ groups protested the violent nature of what ostensibly was a toy, and blamed a murder or two on its influence. In the original, newly released into a dandy Blu-ray from Scream Factory, the toddler-size doll is possessed by the mind and soul of the Lake Shore Strangler (Brad Dourif), a Chicago mass murderer obsessed with black magic. After the killer is shot by a cop and left for dead in a toy store, he utters a voodoo incantation that causes lightning to strike the store and trigger the curse. It manifests itself after a single mom (Catherine Hicks) scrapes together enough money to purchase a burn-damaged Chucky doll from a street peddler. It’s an immediate hit with her son, who’s been pre-sold on the doll in television commercials. (Mancini has said that Child’s Play began as a satire on toy marketing and merchandising for children, before being re-written as horror.) The rest is mayhem. The idea of turning a child’s toy or ventriloquist’s dummy into the antagonist of a story typically is traced to Richard Attenborough and William Goldman’s chilling 1978 Magic and episodes of “The Twilight Zone” and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” In fact, the subgenre probably originated in 1925, with Tod Browning’s The Unholy Three. The first Child’s Play isn’t nearly as schlocky as some of us might remember it to be. The writing is sharp and the scenario is as credible as these things get. I can’t vouch for its sequels. The Blu-ray package adds new commentary with Holland to go along with previous tracks with actors Alex Vincent and Hicks and designer Kevin Yagher, producer David Kirschner and screenwriter Mancini. A second disc offers a dozen making-of and background featurettes, interviews and marketing material.
I suppose it’s worth recalling that movies about wax museums didn’t originate with the 2005 Paris Hilton vehicle House of Wax. In fact, they can be traced to Paul Leni’s 1924 Waxworks and Michael Curtiz’ 1933 The Mystery of the Wax Museum. In Anthony Hickox’s 1988 horror/comedy, Waxwork, newly released into Blu-ray, with its 1992 sequel, Waxwork II: Lost in Time, which alludes briefly to “Alice in Wonderland.” In a relatively familiar scenario, an evil magician creates a wax display of famous monsters and murderers and invites a group of unsuspecting young college students to view the collection. When they overstep their boundaries, however, the students find themselves trapped in the deadly tableaux. The original stars Zach Galligan, Deborah Foreman, Miles O’Keefe, Michelle Johnson and David Warner and features the special effects of Bob Keen (Event Horizon). In the sequel, Mark and Sarah (Galligan, Monika Schnarre) have managed to escape the deadly wax museum before it was destroyed. Amazingly, one deadly wax hand escaped destruction, as well, and follows Sarah home. It murders her stepfather before she can destroy it. (Disembodied hands also constitute a subgenre, starting with 1946’s The Beast With Five Fingers.) When Sarah is accused of the murder, she and Mark must travel back in time to stop the still-present evil. The Blu-ray includes commentary with Hickox and Galligan, as well as the new feature-length film, “The Waxwork Chronicles,” an isolated score and audio interview with composers Roger Bellon and Steve Schiff, an archived making-of piece, still galleries and music video.
Paul Naschy was to Spanish-language horror movies what Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing were to Hammer Films and Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi were to Universal’s classic monster flicks. Last week, we cited Naschy’s triple-character turn in A Werewolf in the Amazon, which was made several decades past his prime. It’s no coincidence that Javier Aguirre’s 1973 Count Dracula’s Great Love (a.k.a., “Cemetery Girls,” “Dracula’s Virgin Lovers” and “The Great Love of Count Dracula”) resembles the Hammer Dracula films that began with The Horror of Dracula, albeit with considerably more T&A. After their carriage breaks down and their driver is killed in a freak accident, a group of young women is forced to spend the night in a strange and isolated former sanatorium, owned by the secretive Dr. Marlow (Naschy). While three of the four women are quickly attacked by Marlow/Dracula’s undead servants, the Eternal One reserves the beautiful virgin Karen (Haydée Politoff) to be his bride and redeemer of his long-dead daughter. There’s nothing subtle about Spanish horror and The Horror of Dracula is no exception. Even so, Dracula completists will savor this “unclothed” addition to their collection. The Vinegar Syndrome package is comprised of a fully restored edition from its uncut international negative and featuring a never released feature length audio commentary track with star Naschy and Aguirre; new interview with actress Mirta Miller; an English dub and original Spanish-language soundtrack; stills gallery; eight-page booklet by Mirek Lipinski; and reversible cover artwork.
A Beautiful Now
To paraphrase Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine, once again, I think that the problem with writer/director/producer Daniela Amavia’s freshman feature comes down to this: “Daniela, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of five little millennials don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” As is so often the case with indie debuts, the elevation of sticky personal relationships to universally relatable drama can be a dubious exercise. In A Beautiful Now, a passionate dancer, Romy (Abigail Spencer), has come to the point in her professional life where pursuing a career in the arts is swiftly becoming a losing proposition. She hasn’t lost more than a step or two artistically, but can’t help hearing the padded toe steps of the next generation of dancers approaching from a mile away. At one particularly delicate juncture, Romy decides that the best way to solve her dilemma is to lock herself in her bathroom with a handgun and make sure that a handful of estranged friends (Cheyenne Jackson, Collette Wolfe, Elena Satine, Patrick Heusinger and Sonja Kinski) is gathered outside the door either to empathize with her or be made to feel eternally guilty. Amavia uses flashbacks to convince us of Romy’s promise as a dancer, as well as the importance of certain pivotal moments in her personal life. Outside the door, the friends recall their own relationships, especially those shared with Romy. The setup harkens to The Big Chill, minus the football games, Motown hits and accomplished characters, and that’s what’s missing in A Beautiful Now: something to make us feel better about sharing our time with these people. Still, there’s just enough substance here to give Amavia more hope for the future than Romy.
The Missing Ingredient: What Is the Recipe for Success?
Among the many things that make New York great are the institutions that endure the vagaries of time, fashion, trends and hype. These include restaurants, some of which didn’t survive the 2008 Depression. All big cities have restaurants that have stood the test of time. Very few of them have been the subject of documentaries. Of the films that describe what it takes to make a high-profile restaurant great, yet vulnerable to failure, the best are The Restaurateur, A Matter of Taste, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, King Georges, Spinning Plates and Le Cirque: A Table in Heaven. Excellent docs about hot-dog joints, delis and food trucks also abound, but are of a decidedly different texture. Michael Sparaga’s The Missing Ingredient: What Is the Recipe for Success? assumes we know what makes a restaurant great, especially the quality of the cuisine, attention to detail, commitment of the kitchen and wait staffs, and ambience. Sparaga is as interested in defining what makes restaurant an “institution,” which is something else altogether. To do this, he focuses on two New York restaurants, neither of which would be known outside the five boroughs, unless a viewer chanced on one of them on a visit. Before it closed in 2010, Gino’s was known for 65 years as an Upper East Side bar, restaurant and “club” where the elite from New York’s political, business, athletic and cultural worlds felt comfortable enough to dine regularly and get drunk before going home. Its red sauce was legendary, as was its trademark red wallpaper, comprised of 314 nearly identical zebras. The reviews weren’t always salutatory, but that wasn’t the point.
Pescatore, a Midtown staple on Second Ave since 1993, is the other restaurant profiled in “Missing Ingredient.” It has served its fair share of celebrities, but has remained best known as a neighborhood attraction in a part of the city that promotes the latest trends and positive reviews in the Times and glossies. General manager Charles Devigne recognized the fickleness of his customers and decided to do something radical – sacrilegious, even – to re-define the bistro and attract a more stable clientele. His controversial decision to borrow one of Gino’s iconic features – the zebra wallpaper — inspires Sparaga’s exploration of the undefinable quality that transforms a simple eatery into an institution. Instead, it gave him an opportunity to re-interview the same quintessential New Yorkers from whom he sought opinions on the closing of Gino’s. To say it misfired for Devigne is like dismissing the controversy over the introduction of anew recipe for Coca-Cola as a tempest in a teapot. In New York, even the simplest gesture can be blown into an earth-shaking contretemps that demands comment, no matter how little anyone outside the cognoscenti cares. Frankly, most interest in “Missing Ingredient” will be by reserved for New Yorkers who’ve heard of Gino’s and Pescatore and felt a certain kinship to the people who dined, drank and worked there. Parsing the restaurant economy is interesting, as well, but only to those who understand its dynamics.
Last of the Mississippi Jukes
The South’s juke-joint tradition extends well beyond the introduction of electronic jukeboxes in the 1940s and the great migration north of field hands, sharecroppers and care givers. More likely than not, the word “juke” derived from the Gullah word joog, meaning rowdy or disorderly. They could be found at rural crossroads, near where plantation workers and sharecroppers struggled to make a living. They were barred from most white establishments by Jim Crow laws and were gouged as a captive audience by club owners. Robert Mugge’s excellent 2003 music documentary, Last of the Mississippi Jukes, explores the fading traditions of rural juke joints, as well as their urban counterparts in Jackson, the state capital. The blues, as we know it today, was first played by itinerant musicians in juke joints, largely in the Delta. It would travel north, to Memphis, first, and then Chicago and Detroit. The two Mississippi venues featured are Jimmy King’s Subway Lounge, which, for three decades, operated in the basement of the black-owned Summers Hotel, in Jackson, and actor Morgan Freeman and attorney Bill Luckett’s Ground Zero Blues Club, in Clarksdale. The story is told by blues historians Dick Waterman and Steve Cheseborough, by surviving club owners, local politicians and musicians. Among the latter are Alvin Youngblood Hart with Sam Carr and Anthony Sherrod; the House Rockers and the King Edward Blues Band; Bobby Rush, Chris Thomas King, Vasti Jackson, Patrice Moncell, Eddie Cotton, Greg “Fingers” Taylor, Lucille, Abdul Rasheed, Levon Lindsey, J.T. Watkins, Dennis Fountain, Pat Brown, George Jackson, Steve Cheseborough, Casey Phillips, Jimmy King, David Hughes and Virgil Brawley, who provide the musical backdrop to the painless history lesson. The doc has been updated to report on the status of clubs visited in 2003.
75th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor
As we approach yet another landmark anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, it’s difficult to imagine anything new being learned about the terrible historical event. The fact is, however, that every new advance in marine technology, micro-photography and industrial forensics gets us closer to long-submerged facts. The title “75th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor” is tad misleading in that it’s a compilation of previously released programming from History Channel, including “60th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor.” These shows are “Deep Sea Detectives: Japanese Sub at Pearl Harbor” (2003), “History: Other Tragedy at Pearl Harbor” (2001), “Live From Pearl Harbor Highlights” (2001), “The Letter From Pearl Harbor” (2011), “Unsung Heroes of Pearl Harbor” (2001), “Tech Effect: Pearl Harbor” (2004) and “What Went Down: Pearl Harbor (2009). The shows haven’t lost their ability to inform and entertain, even if much of the narration is repetitive. The most newsworthy of the reports describes how the first salvo in the war came from American sailors who destroyed a miniature Japanese submarine approaching the harbor an hour before the air attack. A deep-sea submersible locates the wreckage, substantiating eye-witness accounts from the seamen that more than 60 years were treated as rumors or outright fabrication. I wish the producers had added updates to these reports, especially what’s happened to the sub since its discovery. There’s also previously classified material on the nearly derailed Operation Forager, the invasion of Saipan. They owe it to the veterans, some no longer with us, who were interviewed for the shows.
Amazon Prime: Doctor Thorne
Freefall: Guilt: Season 1
Esquire/ITV: Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands: Blu-ray
Diehard fans of the late, lamented “Downton Abbey” won’t have their appetite completely sated by the elegant British import, “Doctor Thorne,” but, like the PBS/ITV sensation, they can take some solace in knowing it was written by the estimable Julien Fellows. He also introduces all four chapters of the story, which Fellows adapted from the Anthony Trollope novel. Ostensibly, it follows the life of penniless Mary Thorne (Stefanie Martini), an orphan who grows up with her much admired uncle, Doctor Thorne (Tom Hollander), and her relationship with the Gresham family at nearby Greshamsbury Park estate. The Greshams have fallen victim to personal vices and ill-considered financial dealings, so, when it comes time for them to marry off their handsome eldest son, they expect him to pick the wealthiest of all eligible bachelorettes (Alison Brie). When he falls, instead, for the family’s servant girl, Lady Arabella Gresham (Rebecca Front) makes sure she’s banished from the household. What Trollope allows early on, and almost none of the other characters, except Dr. Thorne, are aware, is that Mary stands second in line to inherit a fortune left by the disreputable Sir Roger Scatcherd (Ian McShane). First in line is Scatcherd’s gluttonous son – Mary’s half-brother – who refuses to forgive the Greshams’ debts, unless she agrees to marry him, instead of Frank Gresham. If all of that information sounds like a giant spoiler, you should know that almost all of it is revealed in Chapter One, at Sir Roger Scatcherd’s deathbed. Thorne’s commitment to maintain his brother’s secret complicates the proceedings almost beyond repair … or until the final chapter. Again, as was the case with “Downton Abbey” and most other period pieces from England, most of the fun comes in the set and costume designs, terrific acting and splendid estates at which the exteriors were shot. The package includes several making-of featurettes and interviews.
If you’ve never heard of the British export, Guilt, it’s probably because you’ve never heard of the Freefall cable network, formerly ABC Family. The more often these operations change their names, the less likely we are to find shows we want to watch. “Guilt” isn’t the kind of story you’d expect to find on a “family” service, but, while a tad salacious, it likely would get a PG-13 if it had to pass the MPAA board. Grace Atwood (Daisy Head) finds herself in a mess when her best friend, Molly Ryan (Rebekah Wainwright), is murdered, and she blacked out from drugs at nearly same time and in the same room as the killing. Grace’s sister, Natalie (Emily Tremaine), is an American practicing law in London. She pledges her allegiance to Grace, but is flummoxed at every turn. One of those turns takes Natalie to a high-end brothel, where Grace and most of her girlfriends worked as prostitutes, hosts or cocktail waitresses. By the time the trial begins, there are several prime suspects, besides Grace, and other characters plotting various forms of revenge. At 10 episodes, the story is allowed to play out in due course and without much overcrowding. My guess would be that Guilt would have found more eyes on BBC America or a similar network. Hard to tell if it will be renewed. Billy Zane plays a champion defense attorney, looking very much like fellow Greek, Telly Savalas.
Beowulf is the legendary hero and king of the Anglo-Saxon epic poem that has befuddled English majors for generations. It took Hollywood a bit longer to find something worth salvaging in the ancient 8th Century text. It came in 1999, with Christopher Lambert in the title role. He would be followed in the part by Gerard Butler, Chris Bruno, Ray Winstone and hunky Kieran Bew. The monster, Grendel, has only been as formidable as the special-effects budgets have allowed. Still Beowulf fits right into the current craze for comic-book superheroes and epic fantasies. “Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands” does away with Grendel, but isn’t remotely short of monsters, trolls and demonic warriors. The story picks up 20 years later with Beowulf returning to his homeland of Herot, in the Shieldlands, to pay his respects to deceased king Hrothgar (William Hurt). Past jealousies mean Beowulf gets a frosty welcome, especially from Hrothgar’s wife, Rheda (Joanne Whalley), and son, Slean (Ed Speelers). The town is being attacked by a creature and Our Hero is accused of murder. The political intrigue gets thick after a while, leaving viewers waiting to grasp, besides ferocious critters battling buff swordsmen. The mini-series’ 12 episodes are available for download on Esquire, as well as this attractive Blu-ray.