Think Like a Man Too
Not having seen the original, I’m not qualified to draw comparisons to the two Think Like a Man comedies directed by Tim Story (Fantastic Four) and adapted by Keith Merryman and David A. Newman from the Steve Harvey book, “Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man.” Many of the critics who liked the first movie attacked Think Like a Man Too for drifting too far from the mothership and borrowing more from The Hangover and Bridesmaids than anything by Harvey. I didn’t recognize anything particularly Harvey-esque in the sequel either, but enjoyed it more than The Hangover, Part III, which may be one of the laziest big-budget efforts in modern cinema history. In “TLAM2,” the almost identical cast of characters is reunited in Las Vegas for the wedding of Michael (Terrence Jenkins) and Candace (Regina Hall). Just as in The Hangover, Caesars Palace serves as the headquarters for the wedding and the guests. The story mines all of the usual Vegas touchstones – reckless gambling, male and female strippers, a night in jail, a party van, a crowded swimming pool, a token pugilist – but is driven by a simple challenge: who will have a wilder night, the bachelors or bachelorettes? You can probably imagine 90 percent of what’s going to happen in the ensuing 90 minutes, but so what? Two things keep “TLAM2” from sequel-itis: the parallel storylines, which take full advantage of the attractive mixed-race cast, and Kevin Hart’s over-the-top performance as Michael’s best man. His frenetic approach to the material elevates every scene in which he appears, without dominating or overwhelming the other cast members. Without him, there’d be no movie. It’s tough for Las Vegas to look anything but glorious in hi-def and that’s another major selling point here. The package adds a gag reel, deleted scenes and four uninspired making-of featurettes,
Out of the Clear Blue Sky
Every September, it is demanded by the mass media that Americans relive the tragedy of 9/11 in agonizing detail, even though there’s next to nothing new to report or answers forthcoming to questions that have lingered since the attacks. The same could be said about annual commemorations of Pearl Harbor. The difference, of course, is the concept of closure provided by the complete and utter defeat of Japan in World War II and Americanization of its ancient culture. Conspiracy theorists will continue to debate the root causes of these events, even as they ignore the government-sanctioned genocide of Native Americans in the “taming” of the West. (Would a Native American History Month commemoration be too much to ask?) In the case of 9/11, however, the media insist that we remember something we’ll never forget and recall people who will forever live in our hearts. How many more times do we have to watch those airplanes crash into the Twin Towers before we can erase those terrible images from our minds? (We’ve been protected from the worst of them.) Closure didn’t come with the capture of Saddam Hussein – someone who may have learned about the attacks at the same moment we did – or death of Osama Bin Laden … or, for that matter, the much-delayed completion of the 9/11Memorial Museum in Lower Manhattan. If Congress and White House can’t even agree on where and how to try the unindicted prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, or a timetable for our armed forces to exit Iraq and Afghanistan, how can the victims and survivors possibly complete the healing process? The media can’t help themselves, of course. Commemorating important events is the easiest and least expensive way to fill news holes and attract attention to news divisions that have given up covering anything but car chases, fires, celebrities and royal births.
Occasionally, though, a documentary will be released that advances the story in a way that honors the victims and treats survivors and next of kin as something other than fodder for sound bites and tear-jerking video. Out of the Clear Blue Sky is interesting because of its tight focus on a single corporate entity devastated in the attacks on the Twin Towers and its ability to survive and fulfill its promise to families of “missing” employees. Cantor Fitzgerald, a powerful financial-services company, occupied five floors directly above the impact zone of one of the hijacked airplanes. Within seconds, the firm lost 658 members of its New York-based staff – two-thirds of its total work force – and, possibly, its ability to continue operating on Wall Street. In the immediate wake of the disaster, television outlets made CEO Howard Lutnick the go-to executive for tearful interviews and bold promises for supporting family members of the missing. Known for his ruthless business tactics, Lutnick’s first challenge was convincing a seemingly heartless Wall Street bank that the company could honor its financial commitments in the few days allowed them by the shutdown of market activity. Otherwise, it would foreclose on the company and conceivably ignore Lutnick’s commitments to the families. His makeshift team met that goal, but, a few weeks later, the media would join some family members in questioning whether the CEO was doing enough to make them whole. Once again, the company’s honor was at stack, even to the point that donors to a relief fund were demanding explanations or reimbursement. Director Danielle Gardner, who lost a brother in the attacks, is most interested here in documenting the healing process over the next 10 years than taking on government miscues, the health concerns of first-responders, the effects of the economic collapse on relief efforts or anything to do with the terrorists. As such, Out of the Clear Blue Sky occasionally feels as if its release might have been financed by Cantor Fitzgerald. The overriding story of how one company fought back through the tears to create an extended family of survivors and employees is compelling on the face of it, though. Subsequent news reports on the company’s progress and its considerable charitable commitments reflect that reality, as well.
Richard Lewis: Bundle of Nerves
Watching comedian Richard Lewis in Bundle of Nerves, I naturally flashed back to a night, more than 25 years ago, when I first saw him perform live. It was in an intimate room in a Chicago hotel famous for the many legendary comics and musicians who had previously stayed there and whose ghosts may still be haunting the stage and lobby. What I remember most was laughing non-stop throughout the show and, at one point, almost falling on the floor. I’d seen Lewis on the late-night talk shows and he was even funnier in person. The only one of four segments that’s intended to be drop-dead funny on Bundle of Nerves is the HBO “Magical Misery Tour” special recorded in 1997, at New York’s Bottom Line. While Lewis didn’t dwell on the subject of his recent efforts to clean up from a dependency on drugs and alcohol, he clearly was testing his ability to work straight. He needn’t have worried. Lewis was able to fall back into a familiar groove, reciting his litany of neuroses and exploiting chronic hypochondria and overbearing Jewish relatives. In this way, he recalled the famously neurotic musician and wit, Oscar Levant, as well as Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Jackie Mason, Sarah Bernhardt and, by extension, Jonathan Winters, with whom Lewis shared an alcohol addiction. Their standup routines could be so revealing that we sometimes felt as if we were in the same room with them during a therapy session. On stage and in talk-show appearances Lewis wore black from wing-tipped tuxedo collar to trademark Converse sneakers. He paced the stage like Groucho Marx on speed or Chuck Berry in full duck-walk. He once described his long dark hair, which he constantly combed with his hands, as “like two beavers standing up and having a fistfight.” The other three sections of Bundle of Nerves reveal very different sides of the comedian.
First shown in 1977, as a summer fill-in for “Saturday Night Life,” Diary of a Young Comic describes how an aspiring standup comedian, very much like himself, unsuccessfully experimented with a dozen different formats before latching on to one that worked. The credit actually goes to his girlfriend, a Marilyn Monroe look-alike, who simply advises him to repeat for audiences his nightly harangues about himself and his family. The most interesting part of the movie, today, is being reminded of how the world looked to struggling comedians in the period immediately before the club and sitcom boom of the 1980s. In 1995, the freshly sober Lewis appeared in two very good movies about alcoholics, Leaving Las Vegas and the barely released Drunks, which is included here. In it, Lewis plays an AA regular who’s about to break his sobriety streak by going on a bender. During the course of a long night, we listen to harrowing stories told in his absence by other people in recovery. House of a Lifetime is a new documentary, in which Lewis leads us on a tour of his Hollywood Hills home, then overflowing with paintings, photographs, posters, objects d’art and tchotckes collected by Lewis over the course of his career. Many of the names and faces will be familiar to fellow Boomers and someday will be of substantial value to other collectors and fans. The collection includes gifts from fellow comedians, famous rock stars, actors and photographers. When, after a long and angst-filled gestation period, Lewis and Joyce Lapinsky decided that the time was right to get married – and his shrink gave his blessing – she ordered him to cull through his “museum” and make some hard decisions about what stays and what goes. His loss is our gain.
The Battery: Blu-ray
The Dead 2: Blu-ray
In baseball parlance, the “battery” commonly refers to the pitcher and the catcher of a specific game. Apparently, the term harkens back to the Civil War, when the firepower of a team’s pitching staff reminded one wag of artillery batteries. It would evolve to denote game-day pitchers and catchers. In Jeremy Gardner’s strangely affecting The Battery, two former baseball players, catcher Ben (Jeremy Gardner) and pitcher Mickey (Adam Cronheim), escape the zombie apocalypse by setting out for the New England countryside, where, they suspect, only the least aggressive of undead fiends might reside. Just in case, however, Ben carries a handgun and baseball bat, neither of which he isn’t at all reluctant to use on the occasional zombie in their path. Mickey’s the opposite of Ben. He tunes out the horror by wearing headphones and listening to music, while also recalling when life wasn’t an endless struggle. One day, Mickey intercepts a radio signal from the Orchard, an anonymous group of survivors who could be 100 miles away or right around the corner. He falls in love with the ethereal voice of the woman on the other end of the transmission, but is cautioned against attempting to find the group’s camp. By this time, though, Mickey is already hooked. Because comparatively few zombies are killed in The Battery, genre purists may not be happy with the return on their investment of time and money. Fans of “The Walking Dead,” however, should appreciate the break from tradition and cliché provided by Mickey and Ben’s bromance and road-trip elements. Reportedly made for $6,000, the only real zombie trope missing from The Battery is a post-apocalyptic cityscape, which would have cost too much to replicate and no one would miss, anyway. The actors’ lack of polish works to the film’s advantage, as do the folk-rocky songs that comment on what’s happening on the screen. The movie made the rounds of the international film-festival circuit, winning several awards before debuting on the Internet. The DVD/Blu-ray adds commentary with Gardner, Cronheim and producer/DP Christian Stella; the surprisingly entertaining 90-minute making-of documentary “Tools of Ignorance” (another baseball reference); “Rock Plaza Central at the Parlor: The Music of ‘The Battery’”; and an outtake reel.
For those who absolutely, positively require massive doses of blood-drenched action to enjoy a zombie movies, there’s Howard and Jonathan Ford’s The Dead II. Dozens, perhaps hundreds of zombies are blown to smithereens in their sequel to The Dead, while more than a few humans have chunks of skin and musculature torn from their bodies. Essentially, both movies are the same. Here, an infectious epidemic spreads from Africa to an arid region of India, where an American engineer (Joseph Millson) just happens to be working. When Nicholas learns that his pregnant girlfriend, Ishani (Meenu Mishra), is trapped near the slums of Mumbai, he must battle his way across a 300-mile desert wasteland, mostly populated with tall, gaunt and ravenous undead natives. During the course of this odyssey, Nicholas picks up a precocious 9-year-old boy with the intention of carrying him to safety. Both films were shot on location and take advantage of scenery and architecture unique to the rural countryside. Local zombie mythology also is integrated into the story. The Ford Brothers really know what they’re doing, zombie-wise, and both pictures are genre-toppers. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and a half-hour interview with the filmmakers, conducted by genre critic Billy Chainsaw. In it, they discuss the film’s unique setting, the underlying themes, process of making the new film, role of fan support, and several of the more unusual challenges of working with locals. Throughout the movie and interview, it’s almost impossible not to flash on Liberia’s current ebola apocalypse and how it could play out, if ignored by international health and medical authorities.
Friend 2: The Legacy
Fans of Asian gangster films will want to check out Friend 2: The Legacy, if only because they’ve already seen its 2001 predecessor, Friend, and want to complete the experience. I haven’t had the pleasure, but gather from critics on genre websites that Friend 2’s a worthy, if noticeably different successor to the monster hit. Kwak Kyung-taek’s sequel picks up 16 years after the events of the operation, only months before the jailed gangster Joon-seak is to be discharged from prison in the killing of his childhood friend and adult rival Dong-soo. Now, the murdered gangster’s hoodlum son, Sung-hoon, is residing in the same prison and his mother begs Joon-seak to keep an eye on him. (In this regard, it helps to have seen Friend.) They hit it off to the point where the elder man asks the younger one to join forces when both are released from stir. Of course, Joon-seak neglects to inform Sung-hoon of their connection by spilled blood. In Joon-seak’s absence, his gang has grown in his size and dominance of the Busan underworld. The aging chairman is on his last legs, however, and Joon-seak’s former underling is clearly in charge. He offers Joon-seak a small fortune to take a permanent vacation in Thailand, or some other pleasant outpost far from Busan, but Joon-seak’s honor and pride are too invested in the gang to surrender. While Sung-hoon agrees to enlist younger troops for Joon-seak’s gangster army, the secret relationship threatens to burst wide open at inopportune times. In bonus interviews, Kyung-seak credits Godfather II as the inspiration for Friend II, but his explanation only amounts to something ridiculously macho like, “to be a man, one must fulfill his destiny by acting manly at all times.” In Friend II, that pretty much translates to, “some men are destined to be gangsters and, therefore, the right thing to do is be an honorable one.” The extras add making-of material and character profiles.
Eraserhead: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Graduation Day: Blu-ray
Prom Night: Blu-ray
If all one remembers about their initial encounter with David Lynch’s first feature, Eraserhead, is being thoroughly grossed out and more than a little bit frightened, it might be time to revisit the experience. The movie may not be any less punishing to watch after nearly 40 years — when it became a staple on the fledgling midnight-movie circuit – the sparkling Criterion edition reveals facets that have long been relegated to the film’s shadows. The temporal distance not only allows us to watch the startlingly ambitious movie with fresh eyes, but also recall how much of an unknown quantity Lynch was in 1977. He wouldn’t get another opportunity to work his magic until 1980, when, as producer of Elephant Man, Mel Brooks hired him to direct and co-write the story of the grotesquely deformed John Merrick. In 1984, Lynch was handed the reins to the oft-delayed and ill-fated adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune. Finally, two years later, the overwhelmingly positive response to Blue Velvet would cause critics to add “Lynchian” to their lexicon. If anything, it gave mainstream and arthouse audiences a reason to seek out a VHS copy of Eraserhead, so as to determine if Blue Velvet was just a fluke or the true artist had re-emerged in the kinky mystery. Other filmmakers would attempt to tap into Lynch’s imagination, but, finally, they gave up. The filmmaker is here to offer a hints, at least, as to what was going on in his mind when he committed Eraserhead to film. True, he doesn’t reveal any deep, dark secrets in the bonus package. What he does allow, though, is a glimpse into how the excruciatingly long and difficult gestation period might have influenced certain decisions, including the maintenance of Jack Nance’s hairdo. Nance, of course, plays Henry Spencer, the Lynch surrogate whose living nightmare involves the care and feeding of a freakishly demanding infant, who bears a resemblance to the monster in Alien. As is the case with most dreams and nightmares, the story progresses erratically with sharp, unexpected turns into the horror that is the Spencer/Lynch’s subconscious. (And, yes, fans will recognize tropes and behaviors that will be repeated in Lynch’s subsequent work.)
What’s especially noteworthy in this exquisitely upgraded Criterion edition is the black-and-white cinematography, which, along with the hauntingly atmospheric music, was meticulously choreographed by Lynch, Herbert Cardwell and Frederick Elmes. Today, the set design might be described as post-industrial or dystopian. Thirty-seven years ago, though, it was simply off-putting and creepy, as were most of the peripheral characters. In addition to vintage and fresh interviews with director’s assistant Catherine Coulson, actors Charlotte Stewart and Judith Anna Roberts, and Elmes, the bonus package includes TV-calibration instructions by Lynch; six newly restored short films, from 1967 to 1995, with introductions by the filmmaker; featurettes and trailers from 1977, 1979, 1982, 1988, 1997, 2001 and 2014; and an illustrated booklet, featuring an interview with Lynch from filmmaker and writer Chris Rodley’s 1997 book “Lynch on Lynch.” If some of the material is repetitive, all of it is fascinating.
Like Eraserhead, Tobe Hooper and co-writer Kim Henkel’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a bona-fide game-changer in the horror genre and is nearly as disturbing today as it was 40 years ago, when it was banned outright and condemned by church leaders in several countries. Clearly influenced by Psycho, Night of the Living Dead and Last House on the Left, it would go on to inspire at least two generations of masked freaks, toolbox killers, backwoods psychopaths and talisman worshippers, including those in HBO’s genuinely frightening “True Detective.” Loosely based on the saga of Wisconsin serial killer and ghoul Ed Gein, Texas Chainsaw Massacre describes what happens when a van full of college students confronts the reality of true evil after paying a visit to a graveyard vandalized by body snatchers. On the way, they pick up a seemingly demented hitchhiker, who, feeling dissed, puts a curse on them. After stopping at a gas station with no fuel to sell, only worms, the students find a desolate-looking farmhouse that could easily serve as the gateway to hell. Eventually, three generations of very sick men – The Cook, Leatherface, Grandfather, the Hitchhiker – reveal themselves to the audience, along with a basement full of meat hooks, saws and power tools. The rest, of course, is history. Now, 40 years later, MPI Media Group has released Texas Chain Saw Massacre into Blu-ray in a four-disc anniversary set. Originally shot on 16mm film stock, it has been re-mastered in 4K and presented in 1080p with an all-new 7.1 channel lossless soundtrack. (The necessary lack of technical polish is retained.) It arrives with four audio commentaries on disc one and a separate disc dedicated to bonus features, most of which are carry-overs in 480i. New deleted scenes and outtakes are presented silently, due to missing production audio. Also new are “Grandpa’s Tales: An Interview with John Dugan” and “Cutting Chain Saw: An Interview with Editor J. Larry Carroll.” The cast and crew’s harrowing recollections of the shoot, which took place at the height of a brutal Texas summer, compare with those in Eleanor Coppola’s Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse.
Made in 1981, in the first wave of truly cheesy rip-offs of Halloween, Prom Night, Friday the 13th and other early slasher hits, Graduation Day is unremarkable except for the presence of a pre-“Wheel of Fortune” Vanna White. Spoiler alert: her most memorable scene merely requires her to lean on a piano with two other high school girls, admiring the music of a horny Marvin Hamlisch look-alike. Some might consider the appearance of scream-queen Linnea Quigley to be a plus, as well, except for the fact she was hired in mid-picture after another actress decided that she didn’t want to fulfill the nudity clause in her contract. She hardly makes any impression, at all. The story opens as a track coach pushes his star runner to the point where she has a heart attack after crossing the finish line. Needless to say, this causes the girl’s team members, boyfriend, school administrators and relatives to want to pay him back in kind. The girl’s sister (Patch Mackenzie), an ensign in the navy, returns to their hometown to stand in for her during the school’s honors’ presentation. This, of course, makes her one of a half-dozen suspects in an inexplicable series of murders also involving her teammates and friends. Graduation Day suffers most for the long stretches of time in which nothing that happens makes any sense – logically or otherwise – and the killer literally appears out of nowhere to perform his/her evil deeds. It’s difficult to imagine why anyone would spend the kind of money it takes to restore such a turkey, but that’s never stopped the good folks at Vinegar Syndrome from attempting to make cultists happy. Its Blu-ray edition is newly restored from the camera negative in 4K and, for the first time, presented in its original aspect ratio. It adds fresh interviews with Mackenzie, producer David Baughn, editor Martin Sadoff and director Herb Freed.
No sooner had I typed the title, Prom Night, on the previous item, than a copy of the newly released Blu-ray edition was delivered to our doorstep. It describes how a traumatic incident comes back to haunt a group of high school girls, who mistakenly believe the misadventure is well behind them. Six years earlier, a younger girl, Robin, had died in an accidental fall while playing hide-and-seek in an abandoned building. Deciding she wasn’t sufficiently cool the older girls and taunted her, until she was backed into a precarious window ledge. The girls vow never to reveal the true circumstances of the accident, which was attributed to an unidentified prowler. The chicken comes home to roost six years later, on the occasion of the now-teenagers’ disco-themed prom night, which also coincides with the anniversary of the incident. The central mystery not only involves the identity of the soon-to-be slasher, but also whether the killings will be gory enough to satisfy teen audiences who presumably had already survived Halloween and Friday the 13th. Despite the estimable presence of Jamie Lee Curtis, who was just emerging as a bona-fide scream queen and sex goddess, Prom Night failed to go down in genre annals as a classic. It did well enough at the box office, especially in Canada, to inspire three sequels, though. Synapse Films is sending the movie out in a new 2K high-definition transfer from the original 35mm camera negative and a 5.1 Surround remix specifically created for this release. (The original 2.0 Mono track is included, as well.) The package adds a bunch of bonus features, but only a stills gallery and outtakes are new to the Blu-ray.
What two genre clichés could possibly be more tiresome right now than movies involving found-footage and Bigfoot? They thrill is gone and has been for a long time. By combining the two elements, writer/director Bob Goldthwait risked alienating those adventurous viewers who’ve stuck with him since 1991, when Shakes the Clown was released, and through Sleeping Dogs Lie, God Bless America and World’s Greatest Dad, none of which could be accused of being conventional. If I didn’t already know Goldthwait’s role in the production of Willow Creek, I wouldn’t have guessed that he had anything to do with it. I’ve seen other movies in which found-footage was employed strategically in the pursuit of one elusive critter or another. The last one, I think, was set in the jungles of Indonesia and involved a killer monkey demon, or some such thing. Because it only struck at night, the whole point of the movie was to build the viewers’ anticipation and fear of the unseen to a point where it’s practically intolerable and spring the trap as the final credit roll is about to unwind. Another such thriller may have involved a tiger hunt in India, but that memory could have been derived from watching a National Geographic adventure after a few drinks. Here, Goldthwait takes us to the mountains surrounding Willow Creek, California, a small town that prides itself as being the Bigfoot Capital of the World, because it’s near the river bed where the famous Patterson-Gimlin film was shot in 1967. It’s also a headquarters for Humboldt County’s marijuana-growing community, but that’s only hinted at in the movie. Willow Creek is far better made than most of the found-footage flicks I’ve seen … the nights are darker, the silence more profound and noises more ominous. Jim (Bryce Johnson) and his girlfriend, Kelly (Alexie Gilmore), have committed their resources to making a film about the Bigfoot legend, how local residents deal with the phenomenon and their own pursuit of the truth. Instead of commuting 17 miles to the Bluff Creek site on a rugged logging road, the researchers chose to pitch their tent in the woods. Instead of turning off the camera’s light to sleep, Jim insists on documenting the escalation of their anxiety. Goldthwait makes it easy for us to buy into the conceit and rewards our patience with a pretty cool reveal. You may need to hit the rewind button a couple of times before you realize what you’ve just seen, however. Spoiler: it’s not zombie Bigfoot. The Blu-ray adds commentary, a deleted scene and making-of featurette from Bryce’s perspective.
Spartacus: The Complete Series: Blu-ray
Prisoners of War: Season 2
Arrow: The Complete Second Season: Blu-ray
Hannibal: Season 2: Blu-ray
Awkward: Season 3
South Park: Season 17: Blu-ray
One way to tell that the holiday gift-giving season is upon us is the sudden availability of elaborately conceived and ghastly expensive DVD/Blu-ray collections. Movies and TV shows previously released on a seasonal or a la carte basis are re-packaged with a mix of old and new bonus features and the occasional high-gloss finish. Some, including Spartacus: The Complete Series, are tweaked even further with “collectible” toys, booklets and packages. The pricing seems extreme, until one realizes that only chumps pay MSRP rates and deep discounting has become the industry norm. Even the websites operated by individual studios, networks and producers, where MSRP is the norm, have gotten into the game. “Spartacus” arrives in two complete-series sets: the one listed at $150 is thick enough to contain 13 discs and 2,136 minutes of content; and the second, priced at a hair south of $200, comes in a box more suited to table games, so as to accommodate a souvenir Spartacus figurine and display case. Beyond that, they’re virtually the same. The convenience of having all four seasons of the hit Starz series in one handy package – one truncated as a prequel, after the death of Andy Whitfield – is the drawing card here, after all. (Apart from the buff slave warriors, naked Roman damsels and bloody battles in the arena, anyway.) The supplemental material new to “Complete Series” includes three new commentaries for “Blood and Sand”; “Fan Favorites With Liam McIntyre,” in which the actor counts down the top-10 fan-favorite moments from the series; “Scoring a Hit,” with composer Joseph LoDuca discussing the details of his work on the show; “An Eye Full,” with prosthetic and prop supervisor Roger Murray; a short interview with second-unit director Paul Grinder; and “The Last Word,” with John Hannah, who played the loathsome Quintus Lentulus Batiatus. Those unfamiliar with Spartacus should know that it employed the stylized visual look of “300,” in the service of a story set largely at House of Batiatus. It is where gladiators are trained to win or die, their owners partake in orgies and a slave revolt is led by the Thracian slave called Spartacus. The action is never short of exciting and the blood-letting can be shocking. The routine nudity, sexual liaisons, rapes and fertilization rituals raised the bar on depravity set decades earlier by “Caligula” … all in the name of historical accuracy, we’re assured.
Season two of the penetrating Israeli mini-series, “Prisoners of War” – the inspiration for Showtime’s “Homefront” – picks up at the cliffhanger left behind after the first stanza, but takes its time solving the mystery left behind. The story focuses on two of three POWs captured in Lebanon and held in Syria for 17 years. They’re released after a lopsided prisoner exchange, but not before a third Israeli was beaten and left for dead in the terrorist stronghold. In addition to the trauma they experienced as hostages, the two men would find their return home to be anything but a picnic. Their families had changed dramatically in the men’s absence and they couldn’t get over the feeling that their friend had died for something they’d done. The cliffhanger disabused us of that notion, at least, but left us with the greater mysteries of why he had been spared and his apparent conversion to Islam. It will take all of Season Two to answer those questions and tie up loose ends from Season One. In addition, Israeli intelligence agencies compete against each other to complete a top-secret mission that, if successful, could only raise more troubling questions for everyone involved. It’s a terrific series, well worth the effort of finding and binging on.
It’s gotten to the point where you can’t tell the television superheroes and their superpowers without a scorecard. For the last two years, I’ve been blissfully unaware of the existence of a CW show, “Arrow,” based on the DC Comics character Green Arrow. Now, I’ve learned, that the hit show has spun off yet another character from same universe, “The Flash,” to debut next month on the same network. Today’s generation of superheroes, starting, perhaps, with “Smallville,” features impossibly good-looking young people who look as if they just stepped out of Michelob commercial. Stephen Amell portrays Oliver Queen, a billionaire playboy turned hooded vigilante, who is based on the DC Comics character Green Arrow. After surviving a ship wreck on an isolated island for five years, Oliver returns to his home city with a mission to right the wrongs of his father and save the city from the crime that has grown in his absence. If Season One was dedicated to establishing Queen’s backstory and Arrow’s return from the island, Season Two allowed the show’s writer’s to expand the mythology beyond the pages of the comic book. Among the Blu-ray extras are commentaries on select episodes, deleted scenes, a gag reel and the featurettes, “From Vigilante to Green Arrow,” “How Did They Do That?!” and “Wirework: The Impossible Moves of Arrow.”
If television is overstocked with comic-book superheroes and glamour-puss protagonists, it isn’t often that a bona-fide psychopath and serial killer gets his props. The idea is so far-fetched, it’s difficult to imagine anyone less fiendishly charismatic than Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelson) and his arch-enemy FBI agent Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) who could pull off such a conceit. Fortunately, author Thomas Harris created a character sufficiently flexible that he can be a monster one moment and anti-hero the next. Lecter, himself, was in no need of reinvention, but it would take someone else’s imagination to keep the series fresh and surprising for more than a season, and that required a closer look at secondary characters. The show’s production values helped keep it afloat, as well. They’re on full display in the Blu-ray edition of “Hannibal: Season 2.” It adds a season overview, with spoilers; eight commentaries, with creator Bryan Fuller and cast members; the making-of featurettes, “The Style of a Killer,” “Bodies of Lies” and the feature-length “This Is My Design”; after-show post-mortems; a gag reel; and deleted scenes.
The third season of the teen soap opera, “Awkward,” continued to remind us of how much fun high school could have been if it had been scripted by MTV writers and populated by highly attractive twenty-somethings. Jenna “The Invisible Girl” Hamilton (Ashley Rickards) still controls the spotlight, with a love life that would be the envy of most prom queens, despite the occasional, er, awkward moment. The new DVD includes webisodes, cast interviews, a photo shoot, after-show material, casting tips, “Tegan and Sara: Guest Music Supervision,” campaign videos, “Most Awkward Moments” and “Who Do I Want to Be?”
Alongside such topical comedians as Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Bill Maher and the occasional Morgan Spurlock documentary, “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone represent the voice of America’s political left in the media. Unlike the namby-pamby liberals found on the op-ed pages of newspapers and Sunday-morning news shows, they’ve shown an ability to stand up for their beliefs without being buffaloed by the Fox News rabble, Republicans who’ve caved in to the Tea Party and would-be censors at their own networks. Instead of being fed a steady diet of gutless politicians on the news programs, wouldn’t it be interesting to hear Parker and Stone et al. comment on social and political issues, instead of Joe Biden, John McCain and Dianne Feinstein? Or, include Stewart, Colbert, Oliver or Maher on a panel of journalists asked to question candidates in a debate? It usually doesn’t take long for hot-button issues to find their way into the storylines on “South Park,” where Stan, Kyle, Eric and Kenny can take a whack at them. In the Season 17 opener, Cartman infiltrates the National Security Agency, which had angered him by spying on social-media accounts. Before the uncharacteristically short 10-episode season was over, the lads would take on true-crime shows on TV, Minecraft, emo and Goth kids, the Trayvon Martin trial, biblical prophecy, “Game of Thrones,” Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. The coup de grâce, however, came with the three-part “Black Friday” trilogy, in which world peace is threatened by a fissure splitting South Park kids over the collective purchase of online gaming platforms. Among the new writers added in Season 17 is former “Saturday Night Live” cast member Bill Hader, The Blu-ray adds several deleted scenes; “#SocialCommentry,” a “trivia track” with pop-up comments in the form of tweets; and mini-commentaries.
PBS: The Roosevelts: An Intimate History: Blu-ray
History Channel: The World Wars: Blu-ray
BBC: 14 War Stories
BBC: Churchill’s First World War
Some of us are old enough to remember how long it took for Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” to arrive on VHS after it aired on PBS in 1990? A limited-edition set was promptly rolled out at a cool $299, but it would take a couple more years before more-affordable packages to arrive. Followers who missed an episode were required to wait for the re-broadcast or borrow a cassette tape recorded by a friend. After more than 20 years, I’m still waiting for my VHS copies of “Lonesome Dove” to be returned. By contrast, anyone lacking the time to watch or space on their DVR to record PBS’ riveting14-hour “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History” needn’t lift more than a finger to catch up with it via PBS.org, iPhone, iPad, AppleTV, Roku, Blu-ray or DVD. Buy a copy of the boxed set from PBS, with or without the companion book by Burns and Geoffrey C. Ward, and, in addition to a sizeable discount, it will throw in a free tote. While on the site, you might consider picking up Teddy Roosevelt or FDR bobble-head figurines, 500-piece puzzles or copies of the “American Experience” profiles. I mention this for no other reason than to marvel at how much faster the world is turning than in the Pleistocene Era of home electronics.
Fact is, “The Roosevelts” can stand alongside Burns’ “Civil War,” “Baseball,” “The West,” “Jazz,” “The War,” “The National Parks” and “The Dust Bowl” as essential viewing for history buffs or anyone desirous of some brain candy after dinner. They’ll be treated with many delicious surprises about these three remarkable Americans and their families. In this case, what we don’t know about the Roosevelts fills a boxed set the size of a doorstop. Obviously, most of us were taught to associate FDR with the economic recovery after the Depression and shepherding us through World War II. Teddy is remembered as great outdoorsman who advised us to walk softly, but carry a big stick, and Eleanor as a standard-bearer for liberal principles. Fewer of us learned exactly how closely knits the Roosevelts were. Presidents Theodore and Franklin Delano Roosevelt may have been related by blood, but their roots anchored them in separate wings of the family. Teddy’s niece and FDR’s wife and fifth cousin, Eleanor Roosevelt, bridged the two camps while maintaining a distance caused by her early separation from a misfit father and by becoming the butt of jokes by her patrician aunts and cousins. Simply knowing how these three fascinating people are related is one thing. Understanding the significance of such an unusual relationship, especially within the context of a much greater family drama, is quite another. All three were to the manor born and great things were expected of them by their parents, siblings, cousins and the political establishment of New York. As American royalty goes, the primary difference between the Roosevelts and the Kennedys, whose paths began to cross during FDR’s stint as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, was that one family’s blood ran blue and the other’s was tainted by bootleg whiskey. (The Kennedy patriarch was introduced on this week’s episode of “Boardwalk Empire.”) The similarities, though, are uncanny.
Technically, the documentary starts at Theodore’s birth in 1858 and ends with the 1962 death of Eleanor. It would be impossible, though, to tell any of the Roosevelts’ stories without digging a bit further back into family history, which is exactly what Burns does. In a very real sense, as well, the Roosevelt legacy extends as far forward as the current political aspirations of Hillary Clinton, who, like Eleanor, pragmatically stood by her man when he was cheating on her. “All of the Roosevelts were wounded people with something to overcome,” explains historian Geoffrey C. Ward at one point in this warts-and-all presentation. For his part, Teddy was obsessed with meeting his father’s expectation or attempting to compensate for a single act of perceived cowardice in the Civil War. “The Roosevelts” could never be mistaken for anyone else’s film, besides Burns. The archival photographs and period music are interwoven with the observations of such Burns regulars as David McCullough, George Will, Doris Kearns Goodwin and narration of Paul Giamatti, Meryl Streep and Edward Herrmann. The years-long research pays off in some remarkable revelations and photographic finds, including one of Teddy’s son, Quentin, immediately after he was killed in an aerial dogfight over France and film from a harrowing expedition in Brazil, with son Kermit. Pictures of FDR, before and after he was stricken with polio, also add to what we know about the man’s courage and stamina. The Blu-ray includes bonus segments, including a peek at the interior of Sagamore Hill, a look at Roosevelt home movies and an overview of the musical efforts provided by composer David Cieri; a making-of featurette on Burns’ determination to create a documentary solely about the Roosevelts after touching on their accomplishments in previous productions; and deleted scenes from all episodes, including a deeper understanding of Theodore’s childhood, the creation of John Singer Sargent’s White House portrait of Theodore, and Eleanor’s interaction with the Tuskegee Airmen.
History Channel’s “The World Wars” uses dramatizations to explain how, in reality, the global conflagrations of the 20th Century were inextricably bound together and not separate events, as we’ve been taught. Actors looking very much like FDR, Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin and Adolph Hitler take us from the closing days of World War I through the negotiations that divvied up the world at Yalta. If the producers had pushed the argument, they would have been able to argue that today’s geo-political world is shaping up a great deal like it was before 1914. Not a great deal of new information is shared in “World Wars,” but the actors do a decent job impersonating these formidable figures and adding a different dimension to the historical discussion.
The BBC’s “14 War Stories” offers a tremendously compelling view of World War I, from the direct point of view of average people through their observations in letters, postcards, telegrams and diaries. The producers assume we already know enough about the war to override any need to delve too deeply into the common wisdom. What’s important here is how the fighting impacted people from several different countries, economic backgrounds and ages. Among those we meet are soldiers from both sides of the lines that divided Europe; children caught in the middle of the fray; a teenage girl who can’t bear to live apart from her Cossack father, so she follows him into the war; a German mother who encourages her son to enlist, but is devastated by his death after only four days on the front; soldiers condemned to man the trenches for four awful years, most without advancing more than a few feet; victims of severe battle fatigue and poison gas; and nurses as damaged by the war as their patients. In all storylines, the dramatizations are interlaced with actual newsreel footage and photographs. (A character in a train might look out a window and see archived images taken a century ago.) The one thing I didn’t expect was the amount of time devoted to the political and social turmoil that dominated the closing days and weeks of the war. Frustrated, disillusioned, exhausted and angry, Allied and Axis soldiers universally were inspired by the overthrow of Russia’s royal family and the Bolsheviks’ declaration of peace to stage mutinies of their own. By the time soldiers and citizens realized that their patriotism was being exploited to maintain the obscenely lavish lifestyles of crowned heads and war profiteers, though, millions of them had already been slaughtered or starved to death. The very real fear of western Europeans joining the Bolshevik tide nearly paralyzed Allied leaders and, 20 years later, would make decisions that led to the Cold War.
“Churchill’s First World War” demonstrates how decisions made as Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty shaped Winston Churchill when he was required to lead his country into war. The disastrous Battle of Gallipoli weighed heavy on him for the next 20 years and influenced how he would direct forces in the early years of World War II. Part of what we learn here is revealed through Churchill’s intimate letters to Clementine.
Also from BBC Home Entertainment are several other titles related to the centennial of the start of World War I. Among them are “Royal Cousins at War,” which tells the story of the three monarchs who reigned over Europe’s greatest powers at the outbreak of the war –Tsar Nicholas II, Kaiser Wilhelm II, King George V – and the public’s revulsion with the monarchies at its end. In “37 Days,” a cast led by Ian McDiarmid and Tim Piggott-Smith chronicles the chain of events that led from the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, to the declaration of war between Britain and Germany 37 days later. In “My Boy Jack,” Rudyard Kipling’s son is swept up in the enthusiasm to fight the Germans, a mood stoked vigorously by his father. He has, however, been rejected twice for being terribly short-sighted. Even so, Rudyard is determined that his son should go to the front and finds a way to get him accepted by the Irish guards, where he was made an officer. Carey Mulligan, Daniel Radcliffe, David Haig and Kim Cattrall star in this story about a famous father’s misplaced loyalties.