300: Rise of an Empire: Blu-ray
When a picture grosses just north of $331 million in total revenues, it should at least be able to cover production and marketing costs, which probably were in the vicinity of $200 million. In the case of “300: Rise of an Empire,” Warners’ follow-up to “300,” though, any deals cut between exhibitors and distributors would determine where the extra shekels go, if any. As impressive as that number sounds in the abstract, it has to be weighed against a production budget that ballooned from $65 million to $110 million in seven years and, all-in, a reduction of ticket revenues of $125 million. The studio probably didn’t expect to inspire the same shock and awe in audiences that accompanied the release of Zack Snyder’s blockbuster account of King Leonidas’ stand against the Persians at Thermopylae. His hyper-realistic animation technique is no longer novel, after all, and there was exponentially greater risk in offering action junkies a substantially more complex history of ancient Greece. Given the positive response to mega-budget Hollywood movies in foreign markets lately, however, a return of $224.5 million from non-domestic theaters – down from $245.5, in 2007 – had to be more puzzling than the comparatively meager $106.6 million haul from U.S. megaplexes. Enough with the numbers, already. Was the movie any good and what does it look like in Blu-ray? In brief: pretty darn entertaining and terrific.
“300: Rise of an Empire” focuses on the Athenian general, Themistocles, and his confrontations at sea with the brilliant Greek-born naval commander Artemisia, widow of King Darius I and mother-in-law of Xerxes. (Here, anyway.) In a flashback, we are shown the retreat of Persian ships from the Greek victory at Marathon and death of Darius by Themistocles’ arrow. Years later, Xerxes would return to Greece and defeat the 300. By then, he had declared himself to be a god and rival for power with Artemisia. She would attempt to avenge her husband’s death at the Battle of Salamis, while Xerxes was stalled in his advance south at Thermopylae. Themistocles and Artemisia would engage in a series of mutually destructive battles and, in a brief love-hate hookup, fall into something resembling lust. Meanwhile, Xerxes had reached Athens and Leonidas’ distraught wife, Queen Gorgo of Sparta, agrees to contribute ships and men to Themistocles. The title, “300: Rise of an Empire” refers to the unification of Greek city-states into a single entity after the Persian army under Mardonius is repulsed. Once again, I caution students, who might someday be tested on these same historical events, against taking co-writer Snyder and director Noam Murro’s depiction of them as gospel. Although the characters are based on actual Greeks and Persians, it isn’t likely that much in the sequel happened in the way it’s presented here. Nor, is it likely that “Rise of an Empire” will resemble Frank Miller’s as-yet-unpublished graphic novel “Xerxes,” even though it’s noted in the writing credits.
Even so, there’s no reason that I can see that fans of “300” shouldn’t also get a kick out of “Rise of an Empire.” There’s plenty of blood and gore to savor and the sea battles resemble a nautical demolition derby, complete with Persian suicide bombers and tar-spewing warships. Anyone who really, really dug the “six-pack abs” digitally molded on the Spartans, should know that the “farmers, poets and craftsmen” of Athens are pretty fit, as well, and can kick major Persian ass. Something in the retsina, perhaps. If were to guess, however, more tickets sales could be attributed to the presence of the beyond-buff Eva Green, Sullivan Stapleton, Rodrigo Santoro and Lena Headey in the lead roles. The technically excellent Blu-ray adds the 30-minute “Behind the Scenes: The 300 Effect,” broken into “3 Days in Hell,” “Brutal Artistry,” “A New Breed of Hero” and “Taking the Battle to Sea.”; the 23-minute “Real Leaders & Legends,” which acknowledges the film’s loose representation of history and allows historians to add their opinions; “Women Warriors,” with Eva Green and Lena Headey discussing their characters’ reputation as empowered women, warriors and leaders; “Savage Warships,” on the ships and strategies of the Greek navy; and “Becoming a Warrior,” in which we watch cast members training for their roles. – Gary Dretzka
Winter’s Tale: Blu-ray
Not having read the best-selling novel from which “Winter’s Tale” was adapted, it would be impossible for me to explain why Mark Helprin’s novel was cherished and writer/director Akiva Goldsman’s adaptation barely put a dent in the Valentine’s Day box-office. I can’t remember seeing much in the way of pre-release publicity, which usually doesn’t bode well for a picture, or hear any buzz, one way or the other. It’s even more difficult to explain how any movie starring Colin Farrell, Russell Crowe, Jessica Brown Findlay, Jennifer Connelly, William Hurt, Eva Marie Saint and Will Smith couldn’t even score more than a weekend’s worth of good business. True, it wasn’t welcomed with much warmth from mainland critics, but how many young women trust mainstream critics for advice on romantic fantasies anymore, anyway? “Winter’s Tale” definitely qualifies as a chick flick, if not a sure-fire date movie. The presence of Crowe, Farrell and Smith, at least, should have suggested to guys that it wouldn’t be that much of a chore to sit through on a Saturday night, but my guess is that they’d rather play computer solitaire. I certainly didn’t hate the movie, which contains some legitimately magical moments. Still, I can see how a lot of young people might be scared off by its literary pretentions or confuse it with being yet another slick adaptation of a Shakespeare play. Then, too, there are times when the wonderfully delicate aspects of the story are overwhelmed by the roughness of the bad-boy elements, pitting Crowe against Farrell. Goldsman also waits too long for the star-crossed lovers to meet and start raising goosebumps on viewers’ arms.
Farrell plays a gang member, Peter Lake, who, as an infant, was given up by his parents when they were ordered to return to Ireland as possible carriers of TB. They placed him in a model sailboat, named “City of Justice,” and gave it a shove from Ellis Island toward the marshes of New Jersey. Later, he’s adopted into a crew of street urchins led by a Fagin-like demon posing as the gangster Pearly Soames (Crowe). Pearly’s boss, Judge (Smith), is none other than Lucifer, who has monitored Peter’s evolution from innocent to full-fledged criminal. As he nears adulthood, Peter decides to leave the gang and set out on his own. Judge, who measures the balance of good and evil on Earth, demands that Pearly get him back in the fold before a “miracle” happens. Surrounded by members of the gang, Peter climbs on the back of a white horse that just happens to be in the neighborhood. Just before they capture him, the Andalusian stallion displays its gossamer wings and speeds both of them away from danger. It isn’t long before the flying horse is revealed to be Peter’s guardian angel and partner in crime. Unbeknownst to Peter, it leads him to a mansion with a vulnerable safe and doomed young woman (Findley) waiting to die and become a star in the heavens. By this time, “Winter’s Tale” is less than halfway through and the magical realism and other fairytale conceits are only now beginning to kick into gear. It’s also becoming apparent that Academy Award-winning writer Goldsman (“A Beautiful Mind”) is having trouble maintaining his directorial grip on the controls. The book contains 700-plus pages worth of fantastical ideas, and the two-hour movie only has room for a few of them. Once those threads are allowed to reveal themselves, patient viewers will be rewarded with some thoughtful storytelling, as well as the fine cinematography of Caleb Deschanel and music of co-composer Hans Zimmer and Rupert Gregson-Williams. The Blu-ray adds several deleted scenes and a pair of background featurettes. – Gary Dretzka
Rob the Mob: Blu-ray
Here’s a prime example of an entertaining indie dramedy that would have gone straight-to-DVD, if it weren’t for a brief stop at the Miami International Film Festival and no more than 30 theaters at any one time. The protagonists of Raymond De Felitta’s “Rob the Mob” have been compared to Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barker, in that the Queens couple who targeted Mafia social clubs is finally brought down by their own hubris and false sense of immortality. Their lightly fictionalized story is based on a real-life crime spree, perpetrated in 1992 by Thomas Uva and Rosemarie De Toma, that couldn’t possibly have ended happily for anyone involved. For sheer chutzpah, though, it would have been difficult to top. The brains of the outfit, as it were, is the ex-con underachiever Tommy (Michael Pitt). Rosie, almost a dead-ringer for Jennifer Lawrence’s ditzy Rosalyn Rosenfeld in “American Hustle,” is Tommy’s willing moll and getaway driver. She’s delightfully portrayed by 29-year-old Tony-winner Nina Arianda, whose Queens’ accent rivals that of Fran Drescher. Rose gets Tommy a job at the same bill-collection agency she joined after her stint in stir.
He prefers, however, to attend the trial of mob boss John Gotti and listen to the testimony of Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano.” What Tommy hears convinces him that the social clubs, where the goombahs carry wads of cash instead of guns, would be an easy touch. He doubts that the victims would report the holdups to the police, especially the part where they were made to disrobe. What Tommy should have considered, though, was the fact that mobsters tend to do their own police work, with the incentive of cashing in on an “open contract.” When he stumbles on a list of contact names and numbers in one of the stolen wallets, Tommy foolishly comes to believe that it can be used as leverage against any bounty hunters. If Tommy is too stupid to inspire much sympathy in viewers, Jonathan Fernandez’ sharp script makes it easy for us to fully enjoy Arianda’s amazing performance. Also good in smaller parts are Andy Garcia, Ray Romano, Griffin Dunne, Burt Young, Frank Whaley and Cathy Moriarty. “Rob the Mob” won’t ever be confused with “The Godfather,” but it’s probably better than what’s on TV on any given night. – Gary Dretzka
The number of roles available to older actors has become so small that an age-discrimination lawsuit against the major studios probably would be greeted with a great deal of sympathy both by SAG and viewers. If an elderly character isn’t cranky, abusive, senile or bed-ridden, they simply don’t exist. Of course, as long as Meryl Streep (65), Susan Sarandon (67) and Harrison Ford (71) are still working, proving what constitutes being elderly in Hollywood might be problematic for plaintiffs. In “Redwood Highway,” 77-year-old Shirley Knight delivers the kind of performance for which she’s been known since the early 1960s, when she was Oscar-nominated for “The Dark at the Top of the Stairs” and “Sweet Bird of Youth,” and countless TV and stage appearances. It’s likely that Knight has been waiting for a long time to play a character as substantial as Marie, in Gary Lundgren’s prickly character study. At her son’s insistence, Marie is living in what appears to be a comfortable retirement facility in southern Oregon, from which she’s made a habit of escaping. Normally, such an assertion of personal liberty would be applauded by audience members. In Marie’s case, however, it’s clear that she’s probably better off under the supervision of caring staff and friendly residents, who aren’t taken aback by her occasional flashbacks to happier times. We’re not surprised by Marie’s hostility to her son (James Le Gros), but are taken aback by her aggressively adamant refusal to attend her granddaughter’s wedding. She doesn’t approve of Naomi’s decision to relinquish her freedom so early in her life and ignoring statistics that suggest modern marriage only causes pain. That Naomi and her fiancé are also living in a dome home, along a river, probably doesn’t please her, either. After Naomi leaves a stinging message on her phone, Marie decides to compromise. She’ll attend the ocean-side ceremony, but insists on making the 80-mile journey by foot. Oregon’s Redwood Highway is wonderfully scenic, but not always wide enough to accommodate trucks and hikers. Marie is too obstinate to accept rides from friendly strangers or succumb to the sores on her feet. It’s only when her ability to complete her mission on her own terms is put in severe jeopardy that she begrudgingly accepts some help. Among the kind souls are Tom Skerritt, a fine actor approximately the same age as Knight. He’s fared a bit better at getting substantial film roles, but it’s always a pleasant surprise when he pops up unannounced. Although the film’s ending is predictable, there are moments that precede it when Marie’s sanity remains open to question. Cinematographer Patrick Neary takes full advantage of the spectacular Oregon scenery, as well. The0 DVD adds an interesting interview with Knight, in which she discusses her work on stage, screen and television. – Gary Dretzka
Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me
Broadway legend Elaine Stritch has been entertaining people for even longer than Shirley Knight and is only now beginning to show signs of slowing down. Her toxic turns as Jack Donaghy’s mother, Colleen, on “30 Rock,” provided some of the show’s most memorable moments, as well as a prime-time Emmy. In 2004, the one-woman revue, “Elaine Stritch at Liberty,” scored two Primetime Emmys to go along with Tony and Drama Desk awards. There are only a couple of ways to take the woman we see in Chiemi Karasawa’s almost too intimate documentary, “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me.” The first is as a famously eccentric and frequently disagreeable artist whose best qualities are admired and worst tendencies are forgiven. The second is to watch about an hour of the film and decide that Stritch’s massive ego and savage outbursts are far too uncomfortable to put up with, even for another 20 minutes. Fortunately, none of it comes as a great surprise, as anecdotes about the great actresses’ professional and personal behavior are passed from one generation of actors to another. “Shoot Me” has been described as cinema vérité, but I doubt that Stritich has ever passed a camera with acknowledging it in some small way or another. She’s clearly a narcissist, prancing around Manhattan in her trademark black leggings, a man’s dress shirt, a top hat and Capezio heels, and someone who circles the spotlight like a moth. To her credit, though, she opens herself up to Karasawa’s camera in some extremely candid and uncomfortable situations, including a stay in the hospital and lying to herself about the effects on a recovering alcoholic from imbibing only one cocktail a day. Testifying in her favor are Stephen Sondheim, Alec Baldwin, Tina Fey, the late James Gandolfini, Cherry Jones, Nathan Lane, John Turturro, Tracy Morgan and George C. Wolfe. Karasawa also was given great access to rehearsals for her cabaret show. The DVD add making-of material, a deleted scene and interview outtakes. – Gary Dretzka
The Chef, the Actor and the Scoundrel: Blu-ray
Just when we begin to think that new revelations from World War II have begun to exhaust themselves, a book or movie will be released to disabuse us of that notion. Here are two films that, in very different ways, re-open the files on horrifying chapters in the disposition of the long cruel conflagration. Both describe events that aren’t generally known to Americans without a degree in 20th Century history. “Two Lives” explores how the consequences of Henrich Himmler’s Lebensborn pipedream reverberated throughout Germany and Norway throughout the rest of the century. The idea was to engineer an Aryan super-race by commandeering the offspring of blond, blue-eyed Germans and their counterparts in Nazi-occupied countries. If the war had ended differently, these children eventually would have been required to breed baby Aryans of their own. Inspired by a novel by Hannelore Hippe, Georg Maas and Judith Kaufmann have constructed a historical thriller, complete with falling walls, deeply embedded spies, murder, intrigue and seriously blemished reputations. “Two Lives” opens in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Berlin Wall and Iron Curtain, when clandestine operations and facilities were being rapidly shuttered and abandoned throughout Eastern Europe. We watch as Katrine Evensen (Juliane Koehler) calmly enters the East German orphanage in which she was raised and is directed to the archives in Leipzig, which, too, are easily accessed. Katrine removes a section of a page with her name on it and returns to her Norwegian home. Not long thereafter, Katrine and her mother are approached by a lawyer who asks them to testify in a trial against the Norwegian state on behalf of the children kidnaped for Lebensborn and their parents who were never informed of their children’s post-war fate. Katrine is the illegitimate daughter of Ase Evensen (Liv Ullmann) and a German occupation soldier and, as such, was hustled out of Norway with her blond hair and blue eyes. As the story went, teenage Katrine had escaped from the now-East German orphanage and made the arduous journey back to Norway and her mother at the height of the Cold War. The intrigue kicks into high gear when Katrine adamantly refuses to participate in the reparation hearings, mystifying Ase, the lawyer and viewers. Maas and Kaufmann take their time getting to the truth, but, when they do, much room is left for additional shocks. Although adapted from the novel “Eiszeiten,” we’re told in the end credits that the story’s central conceit is based on actual events. The actors, especially Ullmann, make it easy for us to buy into the tautly bound narrative, as well. Fans of political thrillers ought not pass up “Two Lives.”
Americans know so little about WWII resistance movements in countries other than France and Italy that almost any fact-based story is going to be of interest not only to history buffs, but also martial-arts and action fans looking for something different. Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” opened the door for such wartime movies, including “The Chef, the Actor and the Scoundrel” and recently reviewed “Eastern Bandits,” that successfully merge action, comedy and thrills. World War II was no laughing matter, of course, but such films as “Kelly’s Heroes,” “The Dirty Dozen,” “Catch-22,” “How I Won the War” and “Mr. Roberts” walked the thin lines separating comedy, drama and action. In China, where atrocities occurred on a daily basis, the truth is still too ghastly to be approached straight-on. Japanese occupying forces were no less cruel than the Nazis, whose Final Solution wasn’t limited to Jews. Hu Guan’s hybrid is set in 1941 Beijing, a city under quarantine by a cholera epidemic and with a 6 p.m. curfew imposed on it. It is insinuated that the epidemic was triggered by a botched experiment at the Imperial Japanese Army’s Unit 731. Located in Pinfang, it was created to develop biological and chemical weapons and test them on Chinese, Russian, Southeast Asian and Allied prisoners. (After the war, U.S. officials allowed leaders of the unit to go free, in return for information that might otherwise have been taken by the Soviets. Moscow chose to prosecute captured officers from such testing sites, while also developing weapons from information in confiscated documents.) How does one milk laughs from germ warfare and government subterfuge?
Here, a crack team of Chinese intelligence agents – one disguised as a cowboy – hijack a wagon carrying a Japanese general, biochemist and bodyguard, sending it careening into a Beijing restaurant/brothel. They discover a canister hidden on one of their prisoners, but don’t know how to extract information on what it contains. Sensing some kind of windfall, however, the owners and patrons of the restaurant hope to hold whatever it is they’re carrying for ransom. The humor derives from the crazy ways employed to get them to talk. They include staging a Chinese Opera and posing as fellow guests to trick their captives into revealing the truth before time runs out. It stars Liu Ye (“Curse of the Golden Flower”) as the Chef, Zhang Han Yu (“Special ID”) as the Actor and Huang Bo (“Lost in Thailand”) as the Scoundrel. The Blu-ray contains a blooper reel and making-of featurette, with interviews. – Gary Dretzka
Watching this strangely transparent psycho-thriller, I began to wonder who in the world it was intended to impress. Because of the lack of nudity, I assumed “Deadly Revenge” was made for one of the off-brand cable channels dedicated to specific genres. Female lead Alicia Ziegler may look fab in a bikini, but her inability to figure out what’s happening to her pretty quickly neutralizes that virtue. The way things are set up by director Michael Feifer and writer Jenna Mattison, her character, Cate, is in L.A. to work on a project for a prominent architectural firm. On her first day there, she’s paired with Harrison (Mark Hapka), a handsome lunk with whom she’d already had one brief encounter. On the night Cate’s booked on a flight to New York for a job interview, the couple find themselves locked in the office, which is in a hi-rise. After some squabbling, Cate and Harrison do exactly what we’ve been expecting them to do from Minute One. The PG-rated hookup quickly evolves into a full-blown romance, which only seems natural. When Harrison introduces Cate to his clinging mother, played by a still remarkably hot Donna Mills, the rest of the movie’s trajectory becomes only too obvious. It’s possible that newcomers to the psycho-thriller genre won’t be able to detect the movie’s key switchback moments, so, for them, I’ll refrain from revealing any more of the story … except to say that Harrison’s still traumatized by the death of his high-school sweetheart. The thing is, with just a little more imagination and effort, the filmmakers might have been able to save “Deadly Revenge” from irrelevance. – Gary Dretzka
The Cisco Kid
Here Comes Trouble
The latest releases from Fox’s Cinema Archives represent a typically diverse and eclectic selection of 15 titles from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. If they aren’t what most scholars would consider to be classics, the films do offer something of value to buffs, collectors and nostalgists, alike. To save money on marketing and production, each film is manufactured on demand, using DVD-R recordable media. Hardly any extras are added and the technical quality, while greatly enhanced, varies considerably by title and choice of aspect ratio. The titles I chose to look at are “The Cisco Kid” (1931), the second talkie version of the saga, with Warner Baxter as O. Henry’s “romantic bad man”; “Girl Trouble” (1942), a screwball comedy with Don Ameche playing a Venezuelan tycoon, with Joan Bennett, Billie Burke and, yes, Dale Evans; Chad Hanna” (1940), a period circus-based melodrama with Henry Fonda, Dorothy Lamoure and Linda Darnell; “Woman’s World” (1954), tests the theory “behind every successful man is a great woman,” with Clifton Webb, June Allyson, Van Heflin and Lauren Bacall; and “Here Comes Trouble,” (1936) about a jewel heist on an cruise ship, starring Paul Kelly, Arline Judge, Mona Barrie and Gregory Ratoff. Also newly available through on-line retailers are “Springtime in the Rockies” (1942); “The Bottom of the Bottle” (1956); “Maryland” (1940); “Blood and Steel” (1959); “Hold That Co-Ed” (1938); “Crack-Up” (1936); “The Cowboy and the Blonde” (1941); “I Was an Adventuress” (1940); “Everybody’s Baby” (1939); and “The Escape” (1939). – Gary Dretzka
I Spy: The Complete Series
Any resemblance between the original NBC series “I Spy” and the 2002 theatrical re-imagining –starring Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson — begins and ends with the names of the protagonists, which, for some reason, were reversed. The only way the movie could have been a bigger bomb was if it were titled, “Little Boy and Fat Man Redux.” The original “I Spy” ran for three seasons, from 1965 to 1968, on the Peacock Network. Like the spy-vs.-spy comedy, “Get Smart,” “I Spy” attempted to ride the same wave into shore as Sean Connery, whose interpretation of Ian Fleming’s secret-agent, James Bond, was being copied and parodied by actors around the world. The TV show’s success could be attributed as much to the easy rapport and Rat Pack-inspired insouciance between Bill Cosby and Robert Culp as any residual popularity from the 007 craze. “I Spy” also benefited from being partially shot, at least, in some of the most exciting cities in the world. The locations allowed for a greater diversity in the scripts and an earnest attempt on the part of the producers to confront global issues. The then-revolutionary decision to cast an African-American as a co-equal character to the white protagonist was of concern primarily to journalists and executives at four recalcitrant NBC affiliates in the South. Cosby and Culp demanded that the color of their skin not be exploited in storylines and that tired racial stereotypes weren’t to be used as plot devices. It was OK for the writers to recognize the elephant in the room occasionally, but not to kick it to see what happens.
The spies, Alexander Scott (Cosby) and Kelly Robinson (Culp) are able to travel to Hong Kong, Tokyo, Rome, Mexico City, Las Vegas, Madrid and Morocco under the guise of Robinson being an international tennis hustler and Scott his trainer and translator. It doesn’t take their communist counterparts long to see through the disguises, however. Sadly, far less imagination was expended on the action scenes than in the witty dialogue and location scouting. It’s easy to predict when a bad guy is going to burst into a room uninvited, holding a pistol and acting tough. Fistfights settle old scores and eliminate enemies. With too few exceptions, the women characters are limited to damsels in distress, bikini models and “hostesses.” But, that’s how things went in the 1960s, before teens and young adults tired of being fed stereotypes and preposterous plot devices. “I Spy,” at least, offered something beyond its badly staged fights, breakaway, sudden distractions and thinly disguised prostitutes. The interesting backdrops for intrigue and hip dialogue – much of it improvised – more than make up for such lapses. The diversity in guest starsq also is unusual for the period: Eartha Kitt, Leslie Uggams, Cicely Tyson, Philip Ahn, Jim Brown, James Hong, Ricardo Montalban, Gloria Foster, Martin Landau, Sally Kellerman, Gene Hackman, Carol O’Connor, Joey Heatherton, Jim Backus, Ron Howard, Peter Lawford, Norman Fell, Vincent Gardenia, Don Rickles, Wally Cox, Richard Kiel and Michael Rennie and future “Trekkers,” George Takei, Walter Koenig, Diana Muldaur and Roger Carmel. The new package from Shout!Factory and Timeless Media offers 4,100 minutes of entertainment and a booklet with essays and photos. What it doesn’t provide are bonus features, commentaries, re-mastered images and subtitles. Rights issues being what they are, this should come as no surprise to consumers, either. – Gary Dretzka
Showtime: Masters of Sex: Season One: Blu-ray
FX: The Bridge: The Complete First Season
Lifetime: Witches of East End: Complete First Season
IFC: Comedy Bang! Bang! The Complete Second Season
The Boondocks: Uncut and Uncensored: Season 4
Mama’s Family: Complete Fourth Season
NYPD Blue: Season 6
Nickelodeon: Dora’s Magical Sleepover
Whenever Showtime and HBO announce the details of another new mini-series, subscribers to the premium cable services wonder how they’re going to pull this one off. That’s how wacky they sound in the abstract. It began in earnest in the early 1970s on cable, with some original programming beginning to show up in the 1980s and beyond. It wasn’t until the arrival of “The Sopranos,” “Sex and the City,” “The Wire” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” however, that HBO began to put serious dents into the networks’ prime-time schedules and tarnish their prestige. Showtime, which launched in 1976, took a bit longer to commit to original programming, apart from comedy specials and T&A. Until the launch of “Soul Food,” “Queer as Folk” and “The Chris Isaak Show,” Showtime seemed content to play second fiddle. In 2004, “The L Word” demonstrated just how far a network could push the limits of premium cable and grab an audience that wasn’t limited to, well, lesbians. “Dexter” kicked off a run of unexpected success that continues today. Anyone who can predict what will become the next big show on HBO or Showtime has a clearer crystal ball than mine.
Last year, “Masters of Sex” came out of the gate fast and kept on getting better. Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan could hardly have done better portraying the real-life pioneers of the science of human sexuality, Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson. On a scale of 1 to 10 on the charisma meter, Masters would barely register a 1. And, while Sheen milks Masters’ square approach to a hot topic for all it’s worth, it’s Caplan who forces him to develop a personality not dictated by the demands of Eisenhower-era conformity and university politics. Before joining Masters, Johnson was a twice-married single mother of two children. More to the point, she didn’t consider sex to be something reserved for those married people anticipating parenthood. She knew more about orgasms than the man entrusted with writing scholarly papers about how they’re achieved. There’s plenty of nudity, of course, but it doesn’t get in the way of the storytelling and parallel storylines involving Caitlin FitzGerald, Nicholas D’Agosto, Beau Bridges, Julianne Nicholson and Allison Janney, all of whom could be in the running for Emmy noms in supporting categories. In addition to the sexual research and soap-opera sidebars, “Masters of Sex” takes a sharp knife to the hypocrisy of academia and its almighty pursuit of funding. This is one very binge-worthy series.
The same apples for “The Bridge,” a mini-series that I watched twice in extended bursts. The first time, it was the FX version of the story, which is set in the border towns of El Paso and Juarez, and the second time, the original version set in Malmo, Sweden, and Copenhagen. Although the mini-series mirror each other in the key story elements, the settings are polar opposites of each other. The titular structures couldn’t be more different, either. Anyone with a strong arm probably could fling a baseball across the bridge spanning the U.S. and Mexico. It’s heavily fortified to prevent unauthorized crossings – most take place below it – and make it a tad less difficult to smuggle drugs across it. In the original mini-series, the nearly 5-mile-long Öresund Bridge separates Denmark and Sweden, which, unlike Juarez, aren’t famous for their staggering murder rates, smugglers’ tunnels or unchecked illegal immigration. Both series open with an electrical outage on the bridge, followed by the disposing of a dead body at its center. In fact, the body belongs to two separate people, one recently killed and the other frozen and cut in half. Because the parts straddle the border, police from both sides are required to cooperate with other in the investigation. The male cops are hard-boiled, but willing to bend the rules when they feel it’s necessary. Danish actor Kim Bodnia is practically a dead-ringer for James Gandolfini, while Mexico City-native Demian Bichir is a bit more lean and wiry. (The latter was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his emotionally charged performance in “A Better Life.”) Carbon copies Diane Kruger and Sofia Helin play detectives Sonya Cross and Saga Norén, both of whom are obsessive, by-the-book cops and, in conversation, blunt to a fault. As different as the two investigations are, they follow the same trajectory. The Nordic and Southwestern backgrounds more than compensate for the repetitive elements that might otherwise discourage repeat viewers. The only problem I had with the FX version was the pacing, which forced what should have been the season-ending episode to arrive three shows too soon. That’s probably because the original was comprised of 10 episodes, while the re-make went into overtime to tie up the loose ends of the subplots. Interesting things happened in the longer series, but I felt drained by what happened in the 10th of 13 episodes. The second season of the Scandinavian iteration is already on Hulu Plus. The American “Bridge” returns on July 9.
“The Witches of East End” is the other half of Lifetime’s current prime-time one-two punch, with “Devious Maids.” In the past two or three years, the network has come a long way toward erasing its reputation for airing laughably bland and easily predictable original movies, targeted at women who enjoy disease-of-the-week fare and true-crime stories about notorious housewives. That strategy worked very well in the beginning, raising the network’s profile in the cable world and reaping a harvest in tear-stained dollars. No, Lifetime executives haven’t decided to steal male viewers from “Duck Dynasty” or “Top Gear,” although they’d probably take welcome them in a pinch. They’re almost certainly aiming for the same audience attracted to “Real Housewives of Orange County,” whose stars are spookier than the Long Island brujas on display here, The witches originally created by novelist Melissa de la Cruz for her Beauchamp Family series are also far better dressed and less needy than the phony housewives. Capturing the young-adult readers drawn to the ridiculously prolific author’s Au Pairs, Blue Bloods, Ashleys and Angels on Sunset Boulevard series, before they pledge allegiance to other shows, would be a big plug for Lifetime. “East End” follows the adventures of a family of witches, mother Joanna Beauchamp (Julia Ormond), her two adult daughters (Jenna Dewan-Tatum, Rachel Boston), and their aunt (Madchen Amick), as they navigate the shoals of the Hamptons’ social scene. The girls have been raised blissfully unaware of their exalted status within the witch hierarchy. It isn’t until one of them becomes engaged to a wealthy newcomer that they’re made aware of their inheritance. Among those conspiring against the Beauchamps is the always sultry Virginia Madsen. The show returns for a second season on July 6.
IFC’s wacky talk-show parody, “Comedy Bang! Bang!,” began its life as a podcast on the Internet’s Earwolf network. It plays back-to-back with “Maron,” a similarly anarchic comedy that was inspired by a podcast, “WTF With Marc Maron.” “CBB” is far more deadpan and self-consciously hip than “Fernwood Tonight,” the 1977 talk-show parody against which all others would be measured. It starred Martin Mull and Fred Willard, as a pair of wise-cracking hosts whose guest list is pretty much limited to residents of the Ohio town, who somehow are convinced that they possess talent. Frank De Vol, in real life a composer and arranger of show music, parodied aspects of his own career as bandleader Happy Kyne. Scott Aukerman and his musical sidekick Reggie Watts perform similar duties on “CBB,” which, again, like “Maron,” looks as if it takes place in a garage or basement. Its guest list is largely comprised of comedians and actors who are friends of Aukerman. As the show picked up steam, appearing on “CBB” and going along with the skits and sendups was a sure way of gaining street cred within L.A.’s creative and hipster scene. Many of the same guests would appear on mainstream talk shows, whenever they had something to pimp, and seeing them perform without a leash on “CBB” could either be a jarring or refreshing experience for their fans. Among the guest stars represented in the Season Two package are
Zach Galifianakis, Jessica Alba, Aziz Ansari, David Cross, Jim Gaffigan, Bill Hader, Pee-wee Herman, Gillian Jacobs, Rashida Jones, Anna Kendrick, Andy Richter, Zoe Saldana, Andy Samberg, Jason Schwartzman and Sarah Silverman. That should tell you all you need to know about what “CBB” is all about. The DVD package adds full-episode commentaries; deleted/bonus scenes and interviews; “Reggie Makes Music” and “Reggie’s Season 2 Music Supercut”; VFX tests; “CBB Crew Dance Party” and “Meet the Crew”; and “An Acting Lesson with Herb Roost.”
Season Four of the adult animated sitcom, “The Boondocks,” is distinguished primarily for being the show’s final stanza and the departure as executive producer of creator Aaron McGruder. It debuted on Cartoon Network’s late-night programming block, Adult Swim, where McGruder was accorded more the freedom to spread his wings and make his frequently twisted views on contemporary American culture take flight. Like McGruder’s newspaper comic strip of the same name, the show focuses on the Freemans, a black family that’s moved into a mostly white suburb south of Chicago. The Freemans aren’t likely to be confused with the Huxtables or Banks of Bel-Aire. Huey Freeman isn’t at all shy about espousing his left-wing beliefs, while brother Riley is a troublemaker with a taste for gangsta rap. Granddad is an incorrigible coot who easily could have been modeled after Redd Foxx’s character in “Sanford and Son.” Their white neighbors have some bizarre idiosyncracies, as well. “Boondocks” has occasionally raised the hackles on special-interest groups who object to the blunt language and riffs on such noted figures as Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and, even, Tyler Perry. Frankly, I don’t know how different Season Four would have been with McGruder’s participation. I do wonder, however, if “Boondocks” would have been better placed on one of the premium cable channels, where the censors don’t always show up for work.
“Mama’s Family: Complete Fourth Season” represents shows produced for its second highly popular year in syndication. Regular cast members Ken Berry, Dorothy Lyman and Allan Kayser stayed on the ship after it left NBC and experienced a brief hiatus, during which other cast members committed to other projects. Among the season highlights are Bubba’s dilemma over having two dates for the prom, a flashback episode to Mama and the family in their early years and Mama’s visit to Alex Trebek on “Jeopardy!” The DVD adds “Mama’s Family Tree: The Neighbors,” an interview with Beverly Archer (Iola) and “Under One Roof: A ‘Mama’s Family’ Cast Reunion.”
The sixth season of “NYPD Blue” is distinguished by the addition of Ricky Schroder to the ever-changing ensemble cast. This year, it included Kim Delaney, Jimmy Smits, James McDaniel, Gordon Clapp and Andrea Thompson, who would go on to become a CNN newscaster. By this time in the series, Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) had gone over to the light side and the behavior of Sorenson’s character even made his eyebrows rise. Among the guest stars are Terrence Howard, Daniel Benzali, Mos Def, Kevin Dillon and Emile Hirsch. The package contains 22 episodes on DVD for the first time.
Nickelodeon’s latest collection of Dora adventures, “Magical Sleepover,” invites your kids to a night of fun with Dora, Diego, and Boots at an art museum, where they’ll “journey into a painting to break the spell that turned Prince Miguel into a lion.” She also travels to Brazil to help Dora’s team win the Big Cup Soccer Tournament. – Gary Dretzka