A Most Violent Year: Blu-ray
For many years, the 105-year-old National Board of Review has prided itself in being the first critical organization to reveal its list of the year’s best films, as well as handing out awards in several awards categories. As such, it not only has avoided getting lost in the avalanche of similar announcements, but also assured that no one in the greater cinematic community could forget its very existence. By comparison, the membership of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association is an open book. Because of the attention given the board’s announcement by celebrity-obsessed media, publicists for the movies and artists so honored are accorded a head start in the increasingly competitive and absurdly expensive race for Oscars. (Never mind that most of the films named won’t reach audiences beyond New York and L.A. until mid-January, if at all.) When the NBR anointed J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year 2014’s Best Film, along with bestowing top honors on stars Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac – who shared the prize with Birdman’s Michael Keaton — it raised expectations for Academy Award nominations that never came. (The academy would also largely overlook the NBR’s other season-bests, Fury, Gone Girl, Inherent Vice, The LEGO Movie and Nightcrawler, all of which were undeservedly snubbed.) Even if it had made the finals, though, A Most Violent Year wasn’t likely to beat Birdman, American Sniper, Boyhood or The Grand Budapest Hotel for Best Picture. Still, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see it nominated for the unfilled ninth or tenth slots in the category. Alas, it wasn’t to be … such is life in the mean streets of Hollywood.
It’s worth noting that the title of Chandor’s easily recommendable thriller derives from the fact that 1981 – the temporal setting of A Most Violent Year — was one of the most violent, perhaps the most violent year in New York City history. No single industry, ethnic group or social stratum was immune to the madness. In a scenario that might have attracted Sidney Lumet, Isaac plays Abel Morales, the owner of one of the city’s leading suppliers of heating oil. Just as his business is about to expand, someone begins hijacking Morales’ trucks and selling the valuable contents on the black market. Like Morales, viewers are kept in the dark as to who’s responsible for the sometimes violent attacks, except that the likely suspects include competitors, a Teamster rep, loan sharks and organized crime. Chastain is typically excellent as Morales’ wife, a mobster’s daughter with a taste for Armani and protecting the company she helped prosper. Also terrific are Albert Brooks as Morales’ ethically conflicted lawyer and David Oyelowo, an ambitious district attorney, desperate to announce indictments. The interesting thing about Morales is that, for all of his gangster swagger and slick attire, he may be the one character in A Most Violent Year whose integrity is the least questionable, and that includes his wife. Even if I found myself tying up loose threads in the narrative, none interfered with my enjoyment of the picture. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Chandor and producers Neal Dodson and Anna Gerb; the 44-minute background featurette, “Behind the Violence”; four “conversations” between longtime friends, Chastain and Isaac; deleted scenes; and other tidbits.
If A Most Violent Year appeared to come out of nowhere to capture three top National Board of Review honors, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar began generating audible buzz even before debuting in early October. Here’s what Variety’s chief film critic, Scott Foundas, had to say about it, “Interstellar reaffirms Nolan as the premier big-canvas storyteller of his generation, more than earning its place alongside The Wizard of Oz, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Gravity in the canon of Hollywood’s visionary sci-fi head trips. Global box office returns should prove suitably rocket-powered.” And that’s just what happened. To date, it has earned more than $672.6 million in the international marketplace, of which $188 million can be attributed to domestic revenues. As was the case with A Most Violent Year, however, early buzz failed to translate into high-profile nominations. It received four nominations in technical categories and one for Hans Zimmer’s original score, resulting in a single Oscar for visual effects. Typically, I don’t like to paraphrase other critics’ observations, but, as comparisons go, it would be difficult to find any more apt than the four classics mentioned in the Variety review. If you think The Wizard of Oz might be a stretch, well, judge for yourselves. Authors Jonathan and Christopher Nolan conjure a time in the foreseeable future when the planet has exhausted its ability to replenish its resources and a mass evacuation, as unfeasible as it sounds, is seen as a possible way to save humanity. The problem of finding a suitable planet to relocate the masses, however, remains unsolved. To this end, NASA has embarked on a highly classified mission – under the guidance of Nolan mainstay, Michael Caine — to send a select group of astrophysicists and a biotechnologist to a location somewhere in the direction of Saturn, where a newly identified wormhole might provide a superhighway to inhabitable worlds orbiting the massive black hole Gargantua.
As if to provide a more identifiably human protagonist for Interstellar’s audience to embrace – other than the data jockeys, engineers and conceptual cosmologists at NASA and Cal Tech — we’re given veteran military pilot and astronaut, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey). A quintessentially down-to-Earth heartlander, Cooper retired to his vast family farm after NASA lost its funding. Evidence already visible on the horizon suggests, however, that a second Dust Bowl is imminent and, this time, nothing of lasting value will be spared. Cooper shares the farm with his crusty father-in-law (John Lithgow), teenage son Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and precocious 10-year-old daughter “Murph” (Mackenzie Foy), who believes her bedroom is haunted. If so, the poltergeist is sufficiently well-versed in the properties of gravitational waves to leave binary-coded coordinates that lead Cooper to the hidden NASA facility supervised by Caine’s Professor Brand. During a final visit to the farm, Murph demands that Cooper not join the mission and throws a heart-breaking tantrum when he insists that he has no recourse but to at least attempt to save mankind. If he makes it back to Earth, which seems unlikely, Cooper knows that his children will have aged by as many as 50 years, while he’ll still be handsome and spry. (It’s complicated.) In the meantime, however, Murph (now, Jessica Chastain) will have joined Brand at NASA headquarters and Tom (Topher Grace) will have taken over the farm.
Once the space probe has left the Earth’s atmosphere, Interstellar moves swiftly into territory previously explored by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke. Cooper’s crew consists of Brand’s biotech daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), scientists Romilly (David Gyasi) and Doyle (Wes Bentley), and a pair of intricately programmed robots. There’s no way I could do justice to what happens when they enter the wormhole, accept to say that it isn’t like anything we’ve ever seen before on film. Instead of merely providing a visual treat for acid heads – as 2001 would become — the Nolans combine aspects of traditional sci-fi with survival drama, metaphysics, advanced cosmology and theology. McConaughey’s good-ol’-boy demeanor ensures that the mission won’t sail completely over the heads of viewers without PhDs. This isn’t to say, however, that amateur astronomers, Trekkies and other card-carrying space nerds will be disappointed by concessions made for those of us who are tested by the jargon in “The Big Bang Theory.” The science is sound, if theoretical, and expertly rendered by CGI wizards right here on Earth. To this end, an entire disc in the Blu-ray package is dedicated to interviews, making-of material, explainers and a 55-minute featurette in which the Nolans introduce us to theoretical physicist Dr. Kip Thorne, upon whose research Interstellar is based. Besides helping a generation of filmmakers make “the most exotic events in the universe … accessible to humans,” Thorne’s reputation recently was enhanced by an event depicted in The Theory of Everything. As portrayed by Enzo Cilenti, Thorne wins a bet with Stephen Hawking – based on theory that underlies Interstellar – who was then required to subscribe to Penthouse magazine for a year. He also was involved in the creation of Errol Morris’ “A Brief History of Time,” the PBS mini-series “The Astronauts,” Carl Sagan’s novel, “Contact,” and the “Interstellar” video game and tie-in novel.
The Immigrant: Blu-ray
Several excellent films have been made about the American immigrant experience and sometimes perilous passage from Ellis Island to the Promised Land, just a short ferry ride in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. As such James Gray’s Palme d’Or-nominated The Immigrant shares elements of period pictures that include The Godfather II, Ragtime, Once Upon a Time in America, the CBS mini-series “Ellis Island,” the 3D IMAX Across the Sea of Time, John Sayles’ The Brother from Another Planet and Emanuele Crialese’s sadly underseen, Golden Door. Likewise, images from Stephen Wilke’s “Ellis Island: Ghosts of Freedom,” JR’s “Unframed: Ellis Island” and Lewis Wickes Hine’s “social photography” consciously and subliminally have provided countless art, set and fashion directors with an accurate look at how millions of immigrants spent their first few days in the United States. Extremely well-crafted and emotionally taxing, The Immigrant depicts one Polish immigrant’s introduction to the dark side of the American Dream, circa 1921. Ironically, if it suffers at all, it’s from the familiarity we have with all of the movies and documentaries that were informed by the same photographs and newsreel footage. Practically every scene harkens to images already etched into our collective consciousness. It couldn’t help but distract me, even momentarily, from the personal drama of Ewa Cybulska. As portrayed by Marion Cotillard, Ewa is an impoverished refugee from war-torn Eastern Europe. As if the trip from Poland weren’t taxing enough, her sister, Magda (Angela Sarafyan), is quarantined in the island’s hospital after showing possible symptoms of TB. Meanwhile, rumors that Ewa turned tricks on the voyage west cause immigration authorities to separate her from the pack, as well. Like a turkey vulture attracted to roadkill, showman/pimp Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix) just happens to be in the cavernous waiting room as Ewa is led to a holding area.
In a scenario that I can’t recall seeing previously in movies set on Ellis Island, Weiss is able to bribe a guard into allowing Ewa to do an end run around the validation process. Ewa speaks enough English to be wary of Weiss’ intentions, but not enough to feel secure in the teeming streets of lower Manhattan, where, she’s been led to believe, her aunt and uncle have abandoned her. Before being introduced to prostitution, Ewa works in the costume department of Weiss’ burlesque house and occasionally appears on stage as Lady Liberty. Still committed to getting Magda off the island, she has pretty much indentured herself to the miracle-worker, Weiss. She also has made a friend in his cousin, Emil (Jeremy Renner), who’s better known around town as Orlando the Magician. Emil is no more trustworthy than Bruno, but, at least, he isn’t a procurer of destitute young women. As the tension between them nears the volcanic level, all three characters find themselves running out of time to accomplish their respective goals. Things get especially dire for Ewa as the full weight of New York corruption and the debilitating exploitation of immigrants causes her to despair of ever freeing her sister. Can Bruno or Emil work their devious wiles before they’re either killed or run out of money? Stay tuned. If there’s something strangely off-putting about Cotillard’s portrayal – her ability to speak English goes largely unexplained – it doesn’t keep us from sympathizing with her plight or that of the other women helped by Weiss’ crooked connections. Because Gray and Phoenix had already collaborated on The Yards, We Own the Night and Two Lovers, it isn’t surprising that Weiss is the most fully realized character in The Immigrant. The Blu-ray adds Gray’s commentary and featurette, “The Visual Inspiration of ‘The Immigrant’,” which describes how the filmmakers were able to nail the period look, using Hines’ photographs and period paintings as primary source material.
Three Night Stand
If You Don’t, I Will
There are so many things wrong with the straight-outta-Canada rom-com Three Night Stand that it begs the question as to how it got green-lit in the first place. If I were to guess, I’d say that it was sold on the promise that teenagers and young adults would find it difficult to stay away from a sexual farce set in the gorgeous Laurentian Mountains, not far from Montreal, and starring such familiar hotties as Sam Huntington, James A. Woods and Meaghan Rath – all three from the North American iteration of the BBC’s “Being Human” — Emmanuelle Chriqui (“Entourage”), Reagan Pasternak (“Being Erica”), Aliocha Schneider (“Les Jeunes Loups”) and Dan Beirne (“Flashpoint”). Writer/director Pat Kiely had enjoyed a few moments in the spotlight as a key collaborator on Who Is KK Downey?, a publishing-industry satire that found some fans on the 2008 festival circuit. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Kiely also played a recurring character on “Being Human.” Instead of attempting to cobble together a successful rom-com from these inarguably attractive parts, Kiely might have been better served if he’d made a feature version of the supernatural crime series. As it is, Huntington and Rath play a yuppie couple, Carl and Sue, whose marriage is failing for a dozen different reasons. Carl hopes to re-kindle the last remaining spark of their relationship during a weekend getaway in the snow-covered mountains. In one of those coincidences that only occur in movies held together by star power and duct tape, the lovely chateau is owned and managed by Carl’s old girlfriend, Robyn. When Sue learns that it once served as a love shack for Carl and Robyn, the exotic beauty begins to suspect she’s being played. Also staying at the resort are a French-language pop star, Anatolii, and his bi-cougar mom, Lise, and two of Carl’s friends from work, who responded to his distress call. Complicating matters even further is the arrival of Robyn’s estranged husband, Aaron, a pugnacious asshole from B.C., who can’t accept the fact that she left him for anything or anyone else. Somewhere in this mess is the framework for a decent farce, I think, but Kiely simply was incapable of pulling one out of the fire. The dialogue bounces awkwardly between French and English; the women are incalculably more attractive and sympathetic than the men; the sexuality is closer to PG than R; and Anatolii’s relationship with his mother is inexplicably perverse. The only thing wrong with the gorgeous wintertime setting is Kiely’s attempt to wring humor from a sex scene that requires of the characters that they wear cold-weather gear and remain on their snowmobile. It’s about as romantic as a tortoise humping an old shoe.
Sophie Fillières’ strangely compelling French dramedy, If You Don’t, I Will, deals with several of the same issues addressed in Three Night Stand, but vive la difference. Where Kiely attempted to mine humor from a played-out vein, Fillieres allows it to emerge organically from situations most viewers wouldn’t necessarily consider to be fertile ground for laughs. Emmanuelle Devos and Mathieu Amalric, who are as simpatico as any two actors can be, play a middle-class couple from Lyon whose 15-year marriage has run its course. Things Pomme and Pierre once happily shared now provide excuses for corrosive bickering and strategic indifference. At first, it’s easy to believe that Pomme deserves the bulk of our sympathy, but the more we learn about their personal history together, the less we’re inclined to solely blame Pierre for their mutual distress. Pomme has a son from a previous marriage, but he’s old enough to get along on his own, and she’s recovering from surgery for a brain tumor that happily was benign. He’s supportive, but has a girlfriend on the side. They probably are capable of maintaining a semblance of marriage for many more years or they could wake up one morning and pull the plug on the charade. On a hike through the mountainous Chamoiselle Forest, Pomme abruptly decides to take off on her own, while Pierre heads for the parking lot. Days pass in this gorgeous setting, allowing her plenty of time and opportunity to contemplate her present and future. Increasingly more concerned about his wife’s well-being, Pierre returns to the forest, where Pomme’s already plotting her exit. Without revealing what happens from this point in If You Don’t, I Will, I can say that it’s nothing most viewers will be able to predict. It’s also here that the dark comedy really kicks in. Like so many other French entertainments, If You Don’t, I Will wouldn’t last 20 minutes on the DVD players of most mainstream American viewers. For the art-house crowd, however, the joy of watching Devos and Amalric play off of each other should be reason enough to invest in a rental. The Film Movement release adds interviews with the stars and writer/director, as well as the funny Belgian short film, “Driving Lessons.”
Massacre Gun: Blu-ray
In an enjoyable interview included in Arrow Video’s lovingly restored Japanese crime thriller, Massacre Gun, the formidable genre star Jô Shishido allows that such films essentially attempted to do little more than slavishly re-create the noir conceits of B-movies cranked out of Hollywood in the 1940-50s. In time, the industry would develop a genre style of its own – combining noir conceits, with violent crime, sexual exploitation and rock music – but that would come later in the ’60s. At the beginning of the decade, though, filmmakers used their medium to depict the anti-social by-products of the American occupation. As was the case with American noir, the reliance on monochromatic was less a stylistic choice than one based on studio economics. Japanese filmmakers developed a keen eye for the nuances of black-and-white cinematography and, while largely derivative, churned out a steady supply of yakuza and samurai hits. Some, of course, were better than others. By 1967, Yasuharu Hasebe (Black Tight Killers), Seijun Suzuki (Branded to Kill) and Shohei Imamura (Pigs and Battleships) had emerged from the pack as directors to take seriously. In between historical epics, Akira Kurusawa had contributed High and Low (1963) and The Bad Sleep Well (1960) to the upper shelf of gangster-genre flicks. If movies such as Hasebe’s Massacre Gun failed to impress western audiences, it’s probably because the action sequences lacked the visual credibility even of TV’s “The Untouchables” and we had more than enough hoodlums with which to contend on our shores. Viewed from a distance of 50 years, however, they can be enjoyed for their sheer entertainment value and technical flare. Here, Shishido plays an obedient a mob hitman, Kuroda, who, after being forced to execute his lover, decides to go straight. This, of course, isn’t looked upon with approval by his bosses or the gangsters who depend on him for their income and protection. After they tear apart the nightclub and boxing gym belonging to Kuroda and his brothers, a full-blown mob war becomes impossible to avoid, with heavy casualties on both sides. The shootouts are stylishly shot, but it’s the nightclub scenes that are most memorable. That’s primarily because of the cool-jazz soundtrack by Naozumi Yamamoto and atmospheric art direction of Takeo Kimura. Besides the interview with Shishido, the Blu-ray adds a fresh one with writer and film historian Tony Rayns; a gallery of rare promotional materials; an illustrated booklet, with new writing on the film by Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp and illustrations by Ian MacEwan; and original archive stills.
Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn
Invaders From Mars: Blu-ray
It’s been nearly 100 years since the first film adaptation of Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Since then, it’s been remounted for screen and television more the 50 times, including here in first-time director Jo Kastner’s Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn. If one can get past the fact that this adaptation was filmed in Bulgaria, instead of Missouri, the Danube makes a reasonable facsimile of the Mississippi and only a few of the European actors retain a discernible accent. Kastner’s screenplay follows the trajectory of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” finishing with a hint of what’s to come with Huck and the escaped slave, Jim, as they drift down the river on a raft. American stars Jake T. Austin, Joel Courtney and Katherine McNamara should be familiar to pre-teens and teens who follow such shows as “The Fosters,” “R.L. Stine’s ‘The Haunting Hour,” “Happyland” and “Wizards of Waverly Place,” if not their parents. Val Kilmer, who’s impersonated Twain on stage, plays the author as a very old man, recalling the events of his stories for a pair of young admirers. Parents could certainly use Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn as a starter set for kids they want to introduce to the classics of American literature.
No matter how much time kids spend grousing about their parents, doing chores and homework, one of the primal fears shared by all children is that they’ll wake up one morning and find them gone completely or so changed that they might as well be robots. It’s just that feeling of abandonment and uncertainty that informs Invaders From Mars, more so in Toby Hooper’s 1986 remake than in William Cameron Menzies’ original 1953 version. Although both films are built on the same foundation – Richard Blake’s timeless screenplay – Dante’s mission appears to have been engaging teens and pre-teens, who, unlike their parents, already were conversant with most sci-fi conventions and archetypes. After all, by 1986, how kids hadn’t already fallen in love with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and the first Star Wars trilogy? When the original was released, Martians were as likely to invade the U.S. as hordes of Chinese communists. Hooper knew it would have taken more to frighten American kids than the thought of E.T. returning to Earth with all of his friends and relatives on a giant spacecraft. The critics lambasted his remake, but, once again, treated it as if it were made specifically to please them and people old enough to remember Menzies’ picture. Instead, the collaborative team of Hooper, writers Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby, and creature-effects masters Stan Winston and John Dykstra, decided that kids in 1986 probably could use a few laughs to lighten the thought of losing control to Martian invaders. Grown-ups will appreciate the filmmakers’ efforts to engage older viewers with trick casting and other homages to the original. For example, Jimmy Hunt, who played young David MacLean in the original, was cast as the police chief in the remake. Hunter Carson, fresh off his stellar debut in Paris, Texas, is frequently joined on screen here by his mother, Karen Black, cast as the school nurse who becomes convinced David is telling the truth. The Shout Factory Blu-ray adds Hooper’s entertaining commentary; the excellent 36-minute backgrounder, “Martians are Coming: The Making of Invaders From Mars”; a production illustration gallery from artist William Stout; storyboards; and a stills gallery.
By reversing the physical settings, as well as the nationalities of the lead characters from Jean-Luc Godard’s epochal Breathless (“A Bout De Souffle”), the ever-provocative American writer/director Jim McBride risked offending tens of millions of film buffs who regard the nouvelle vague classic as one of the most important films in the international repertory. Richard Gere’s career was still very much on the ascendency, but almost everything else about McBride’s Breathless was a risk most observers didn’t think was worth taking. Mainstream reviews of the finished products appeared to concur with that observation. In a very real sense, however, the filmmaker probably was inspired as much by the irresistible Otis Blackwell/Jerry Lee Lewis song of the same title, which preceded even the release of Godard’s movie. It’s heard throughout the 100-minute Breathless, sung by Lewis, Gere and X. There’s nothing wrong with Gere’s frenetic portrayal of Las Vegas gigolo, who steals a Porsche to get to L.A. to cash an IOU from a fellow hoodlum. Unfortunately, for everyone involved, he foolishly gets into a chase with a highway patrolman. The movie could have ended there and then, if Jesse hadn’t found a handgun in the glove box and left it on the front seat, where the temptation to use the damn thing was too great resist. The violent act certainly doesn’t help his chances of getting to L.A., locating his banker and hightailing it to Mexico with the girl of his dreams. Twenty-year-old Valerie Kaprisky, whose experience was largely in soft-core sexploitation flicks, couldn’t have been a less likely candidate for the job of being the UCLA architecture student with which Jesse becomes obsessed after a tryst in Las Vegas. If Gere offers a reasonable alternative to Jean-Paul Belmondo, Kaprisky could never be mistaken for Jean Seberg. She looked too much like a teenager and her English was almost laughable. What she did have going for her, though, was a body that must have defied the urge for her to get dressed every morning. And that was perfectly alright with Jesse, who, of course, was doomed from the point of his altercation with the cop. If there was one Blu-ray re-release that warrants commentary or backgrounder it would be McBride’s Breathless, but, alas, all we get is a trailer.
BET: The Book of Negroes
PBS: Masterpiece Mystery: Grantchester: Blu-ray
If Black History Month had existed when I was in school, I might not have been so taken aback by the off-putting title of its mini-series, “The Book of Negroes.” After all, the word, “negro,” exists mostly as the n-word that spawned the more onerous n-word, whose usage today is condoned as street slang in some circles and condemned as a racial epithet when thrown around by others. Indeed, when American publishers decided to pick up Canadian novelist Lawrence Hill’s historical novel for distribution here, its title was changed to “Someone Knows My Name.” Although, it refers to a notion at the heart of the book and mini-series, it hardly packed the same intellectual and emotional punch as “The Book of Negroes.” Frankly, though, throughout much of the mini-series’ first three episodes, I wondered if I wasn’t watching an attempt to bridge ABC’s landmark “Roots” with last year’s tentatively linked “12 Years a Slave” and “Belle.” It opens in West Africa, in 1750, when native slave traders murder the parents of young Aminata Diallo (Aunjunae Ellis) and put her on a boat leaving for South Carolina. Naturally traumatized, Aminata befriends a boy from a nearby tribe, Chekura Tiano (Lyriq Bent), who was in the company of the slave traders, but took pity on her because she could speak his language … and she was pretty. At the end of the trek, however, Chekura, too, was put in chains and loaded on the boat to America. Their oft-interrupted friendship/romance exists as the primary subplot throughout all six episodes, beginning with their separation at the slave market in Charleston and, a few years later, a reunion in the forest behind the plantation that’s become her home. Aminata has a couple of things going for her that the other female slaves, at least, don’t. She is conversant in several tribal languages and English; she can read, write and engage in the art of storytelling; maintains Islam as a moral and ethical foundation; and, from her mother, has learned how to “catch” babies as a midwife. Each of these attributes evolves, later on, into a survival skill.
The melodramatic elements of the mini-series begin to disappear, when, Aminata is able to escape the clutches of both a sadistic owner and one who treats her well, but sells her infant daughter into slavery. The series then moves to New York, where a flourishing colony of free slaves exists under British rule. As the Revolutionary War heats up, Chekura and other former slaves are given an opportunity to clean their slates by agreeing to fight with the Redcoats. Knowing that American rebels, if successful, weren’t likely to accept their status as freed men, thousands accepted the offer. One of the conditions for surrender gave blacks who fought on the side of the British the right to be shipped to Nova Scotia, where they would be able to live freely and attempt to carve out a living from the frozen tundra. There was a catch, however, and it becomes the dramatic turning point in the mini-series. No former slave would be allowed to join the Canadian colony, if his or her former owner demands their return. Even slave-owner George Washington went along with this horrifying caveat. To make sure that as few of the former slaves were shipped back South as possible, Aminata agrees to organize a register of the New York blacks and turn it over to the British commander (Ben Chaplin) in negotiations with the Americans. And, yes, it became known as “The Book of Negroes.” Without giving away too much more of the increasingly compelling plot, I’ll only allow that the story carries us to Nova Scotia, where the locals prove to be nearly as racist as any plantation owner, and on to Sierra Leone and London, where abolitionists have launched a crusade to outlaw slavery and re-patriate blacks in another tribe’s backyard. Even though “The Book of Negroes” is technically a novel, it is largely based on the type of factual material that makes our Founding Fathers look like the short-sighted hypocrites many of them were. This country’s “original sin” still tarnishes our society. Much of the mini-series was shot on location, including the part of Nova Scotia where the black colony was originally established. The deleted scenes and short featurettes are good, too.
Leave it to the Brits to come up not only with another terrific “Masterpiece Mystery” series featuring an unusual protagonist, but also a nifty odd-couple pairing of crime fighters. The setting for the ITV/PBS production “Grantchester” is post-war England, where Sidney Chambers (James Norton) is vicar of the titular village, just outside Cambridge. He is frequently joined by Detective Inspector Geordie Keating (Robson Green), who, despite being an embittered alcoholic, is able to see through the boozy fog long enough to find evidence overlooked by other cops. While you’d think Grantchester would be an unlikely place to sustain yet another series about heinous criminality, there’s seemingly no end to a cop’s work in rural England. Keating may be a bit of an archetype when it comes to world-weary police detectives, but Chambers is a real piece of work. As conceived by novelist James Runcie, the sexy vicar smokes, drinks, loves jazz, lies, steals and struggles with memories of a murder he witnessed while serving in World War II. Moreover, while he’s juggling relationships with two women (Morven Christie, Pheline Roggan) who couldn’t be more diametrically opposed, physically and emotionally, he allows himself to be seduced by a gorgeous torch singer. Tessa Peake-Jones and Al Weaver provide comic relief as the vicar’s bossy housekeeper and his naïve curate. The Blu-ray package adds interviews and making-of material.