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The PrisonerThe Complete Series (A&E)For a series of only 17 episodes, it’s no exaggeration to say that The Prisoner is still among the most influential TV shows ever. With Patrick McGoohan playing a retired secret agent who awakes to find himself imprisoned in a mysterious place, The Village, where all inhabitants have numbers, The Prisoner embodies late-60s counterculture in film and television: a skeptical attitude toward authority and fearless experimenting with previously taboo subjects, e.g., hallucinatory drugs, mind control and indoctrination. The quality varies from episode to episode--some merely mark time in order to put “number six” through his weekly paces--and the large white balloon, the “Rover,” which tracked down those members of the village who tried to escape, remains rather silly. But overall, The Prisoner is an absorbing and quite surreal viewing experience.
The high-definition masters used for this Blu-ray release are gorgeous, with colors that literally pop out of the TV screen to make the show’s bizarre yet familiar setting more realistic, as does the newly remixed 5.1 surround sound track. The bonus disc of extras contains a feature-length documentary about the series, Don’t Knock Yourself Out; new featurettes, The Pink Prisoner and You Make Sure It Fits!; alternate edits of two episodes; audio commentaries on selected episodes; and much more.
DVD of the Week
It’s Garry Shandling’s Show! The Complete Series(Shout! Factory)In 1986, when Garry Shandling‘s first “sitcom“ appeared on a network called Showtime, there was nothing like it on TV--and, nearly a quarter-century later, it‘s still a unique series. Although I prefer The Larry Sanders Show to this--the later HBO series was more polished, more consistently funny, and had better supporting actors and guest stars--there‘s no denying the originality of Shandling and Alan Zweibel‘s conceit of a show about a comedian living the single life: Shandling constantly looks into the camera and talks to the studio audience (and us) and there are hilarious cameos from then-current celebs like Vanna White, Martin Mull, Rob Reiner, and Gilda Radner (whose last TV appearance this was).
The 72 episodes from the series’ four-year run are included in this 16-disc boxed set, beautifully packaged with a 36-page book that includes appreciations by Larry Gelbart and Judd Apatow; the image and sound quality are quite good. The bonus features that are scattered among the discs feature several audio commentaries by Shandling, Zweibel and other writers, six new featurettes about the series, and outtakes from selected episodes.
Of course, it's sappily good-natured, but skewering one-liners that Woody puts in David’s mouth compensate, as does the lovely cinematography by Harris Savides, which makes the streets of New York glisten with romantic fantasies. Even though there are no bonus features—par for the course on all Woody Allen DVDs or Blu-rays—Whatever Works looks so ravishing in hi-def that I can’t wait until such classics as Manhattan, Zelig and Crimes and Misdemeanors finally find their way to the new format.
DVD of the WeekOn the Road with Charles Kuralt (Acorn Media)For two decades from 1967-1987, newsman Charles Kuralt crisscrossed the country in a mobile home (actually, six of them by the time he was done) to record his impressions of everyday life in these United States. Kuralt’s On the RoadCBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, began as a segment on the then was spun off into a series of its own. As this DVD set shows, Kuralt’s humane and humble vignettes of people who in other hands would be considered eccentrics at best and oddballs at worst are slices of Americana worth watching over and over. Each of the 18 episodes comprise several reports on ordinary citizens such as: the men who built the Golden Gate Bridge; a super shoe salesman; a man who uses his junk mail as kindling to heat his house year-round; a family that owns a ginger-ale business. Kuralt also has time for short detours like showing a collection of rural mailbox posts made with everything from horseshoes to old farm plows, which celebrate America as it is, with no condescension of preconceptions. I look forward to future On the Road releases soon.
September Blu-rays RoundupCamille(NEM)The mighty, photogenic Niagara Falls is the star of this specious would-be comic drama about a free spirited young woman, her reluctant husband and honeymoon plans gone awry. Sienna Miller pours on the overacting as Camille, James Franco tries to underplay her doormat husband, and veterans Scott Glenn, David Carradine and Ed Lauter look properly embarrassed as elders in this couple’s life.
For 90 minutes, we are force-fed cutesy dialogue, annoying caricatures masquerading as loveable eccentrics, and—too little, too late—stunning shots of one of the world’s natural wonders (even if those familiar with the area know that the movie’s geography makes no sense). Those shots of the Falls are top-notch on Blu-ray; there are no extras.Dinosaurs Alive!(Image)This 40-minute film was originally made for 3-D viewing on those huge IMAX screens, so inevitably, there’s something lost watching it on a smaller TV screen. Even so, Dinosaurs Alive! is a treat for dinosaur lovers of all ages, as it mixes the latest findings with recreations of life millions of years ago, thanks to the very latest CGI technology.
Michael Douglas narrates as a group of eager scientists find and preserve fossils, but the real reason to watch is to see the dinosaurs in action, looking far more realistic and menacing than they did in Jurassic Park (which is ancient stuff now that it’s 16 years old). The bonus feature is a making-of documentary, along with BD Live material.Disney’s Earth (Disney)This entertaining nature documentary shows us one year in the life of our planet’s animal kingdom, from polar bears in the Arctic to great white sharks off the coast of South Africa, with many others in between, all frolicking, hunting or being chased as James Earl Jones’ booming bass voice narrates. Put simply, the photography by several teams over the course of five years is absolutely marvelous; it’s sometimes hard to believe that this is actual footage of real animals, not merely CGI effects (we’ve been spoiled by computerized “action” in current movies). Needless to say, this Blu-ray release is the gold standard, with breathtaking visuals, superb surround sound audio, and extras that delve into the fascinating outdoor shoot.Easy Virtue(Sony)This rollicking adaptation of an early Noel Coward play plays off stiff-upper-lip British and devil-may-care Americans. Car racer Larita (deliciously haughty Jessica Biel) marries John Whittaker (Ben Barnes), son of whimsical Mr. Whittaker (Colin Firth) and bitch-on-wheels Mrs. Whittaker (sharply amusing Kristen Scott-Thomas); the household is turned upside down when John appears with his Yank bride.
Coward's wit, left intact by director Stephan Elliott and co-adapter Sheridan Jobbins, includes his perceptive look at the differences between Brits and Yanks. Elliott’s fresh musical take on songs by Coward and contemporaries punctuate the action, sung by the actors. (Yes, that's Biel’s breathy "Mad about the Boy" over the credits.) Extras are deleted scenes, gag reel, director’s commentary and the film’s New York premiere.Hero (Miramax)
Zhang Yimou’s 2002 martial arts epic outdoes Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for eye-popping action, and with this Blu-ray release, goes far beyond what Ang Lee did. The 99-minute Hero is an epic in the truest sense, covering lots of visual and narrative ground in a breathtaking fashion, notably the explosive fight sequences, where the participants literally fly around each other, and the incredible widescreen compositions that feature the most delirious color-coding ever. An array of stars—Zhang Ziyi, Jet Li, Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung—are sensational eye candy, but Hero itself is the star, with Blu-ray’s hi-def transfer giving it a thrilling new “look.” Extras include making-of featurettes and interviews.Iron MonkeyLegend of the Drunken Master (Miramax)
These two action flicks, along with the far superior Hero and far bloodier Zatoichi, form The Ultimate Force of Four Blu-ray boxed set. Drunken Master is a vintage Jackie Chan vehicle, and Iron Monkey is a mediocre example of the genre, which is why “Quentin Tarantino Presents” is being slapped on its cover. And why not? If neither movie is especially memorable or original, each has its moments, and the fast-paced stunts and action sequences are worth it for those who take the trouble to watch them. The films don’t look as good as Hero (what could?) or Zatoichi, but the transfers are acceptable, and extras include interviews, behind the scenes glimpses.The Quick and the Dead (Sony)
This forgettable 1993 western is director Sam Raimi’s most derivative film, with none of the stylishness he brings to his horror flicks. The actors largely phone it in, from Sharon Stone’s vengeful woman to Gene Hackman’s nasty villain; only Leonardo DiCaprio has any bounciness to his performance.
Even the Blu-ray transfer isn’t much of an upgrade from the original film, which might have been the lone reason to sit through it again. There aren’t any extras, either.Silverado(Sony)
Lawrence Kasdan’s revisionist western seemed a breath of fresh air in 1985, but its jokiness and sentimentality haven’t worn well. A capable cast (Kevin Kline, Scott Glenn, Danny Glover, Brian Dennehy) is overwhelmed by Kasdan’s cutesiness and inability to take anything seriously, so that when the dramatic climaxes kick in, they are at sea.
Kevin Costner, in his first starring role, acts so unhinged that it’s unsurprising it took another couple years (with Bull Durham and The Untouchables) for him to become a star. At least Silverado looks fine on Blu-ray, with stunning New Mexico locations doing the bulk of the work. Extras include new interviews with Kasdan and Costner.Sons of Anarchy (Fox)
This biker drama is based on Hamlet, of all things, and stars Ron Perlman and Katey Segal as leaders of a gang who take matters into their hands too often, which gives her son (Charlie Hunnam) pangs of conscience. As with many new action series, Sons of Anarchy is so visually fluid that it takes awhile to realize how hackneyed its storylines and characters are. But—particularly on Blu-ray—enough is notable both visually and histrionically (the excellent acting is led by the always underrated Segal) that it remains a fun if bumpy ride. Extras include interviews, deleted scenes, a gag reel and making-of featurettes.Sugar (Sony)Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s follow-up to Half Nelson is a subtly-done character study about a Dominican baseball player (an authentic portrayal by Algenis Pérez Soto) who begins playing for an Iowa farm team hoping to graduate to the big leagues. With minimal condescension and maximal insight, Sugar shows the difficulties for both Latino players and their American hosts, balanced by small triumphal moments on and off the field for someone desperately trying to learn English while deal with teammates and coaches…and remembering his family back home.
Well-shot with a subdued palette by cinematographer Andrij Parekh—and faithfully rendered in the first-rate Blu-ray transfer—Sugar fulfills the promise of this writing-directing team’s debut. Extras include interviews and making-of featurettes.Terminator: The Sarah Connor ChroniclesThe Complete Second Season (Warners)This action-packed chronicle of a future where robots and humans do battle was inspired by the Terminator films starring a certain California governor. But the heroine, Sarah Connor (played by Linda Hamilton on the big screen and by Lena Headey here), is the nexus of the series. Even amid dynamic set pieces, Headey’s dignified portrayal humanizes and propels the show forward.
On the debit side, this is a five-disc Blu-ray set whose material could snugly fit on two or three discs. Still, the visuals are spectacular, and the solid extras include commentaries on select episodes, storyboards, “terminated” scenes and behind-the-scenes featurettes.The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi (Miramax)Takeshi Kitano’s samurai epic has the requisite buckets of squirting red blood, but it’s a far cry from Kurosawa’s and Kobayashi’s classics. Whether he was aiming to update or outdo them is immaterial, since he does neither. Zatoichi is well-made, like all Kitano films, with cleverness in the storytelling and filmmaking. And the bloodletting sequences look absolutely fantastic in the new hi-def transfer: you’ll instinctively cover your eyes to avoid being hit by spurting red geysers.
Just don’t expect anything earth-shattering: unless, of course, you’ve never seen Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Hara-kiri or Samurai Rebellion! Extras include a 50-minute making-of featurette and interviews with Kitano’s collaborators.
Poets have never been served well on the big screen; why is it so difficult to show artists practicing their art without getting ludicrous? The nadir of poetic biopics is Agnieszka Holland’s Total Eclipse (1995), which paired the doubly-miscast Leonardo DiCaprio and David Thewlis as the French poets Rimbaud and Verlaine. The former’s name often sounds like “Rambo” when spoken, and the rest of the movie follows suit, to giggle-provoking effect.
So it’s to Jane Campion’s credit that, in her film about 19th century British poet John Keats’ affair with Fanny Brawne, Bright Star, never descends to those depths. If anything, Campion errs in the opposite direction, not highlighting the act of literary creation but rather the romance, which makes the film more conventional and more palatable.
Campion’s film covers the final years of Keats’ tragically short life (he died in Rome at age 25 of tuberculosis), when headstrong, intelligent Fanny became his muse and lover. Poetically illiterate, Fanny was a talented seamstress and consistently spoke her mind on various subjects, a rarity for a woman of that time. In that sense, she’s of a piece with the strong-willed heroines of Campion’s other films, from her debut, Sweetie, to her most recent feature, In the Cut. That Campion presents their relationship entirely from Fanny’s point of view might be historically suspect but dramatically correct, since it concentrates on them as people, not as a martyred poet and his long-forgotten muse.
It also allows Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish to give splendidly authentic portrayals. Whishaw’s strong acting as Keats never turns him into the eternally moribund artist, which would have been the easy way out. He also plays Keats’ youthfulness as part of his personality, which humanizes him considerably.
Still, it’s Cornish’s Fanny that pushes Bright Star above the usual moribund movie fare that tramples on real-life stories like so many wild elephants. Cornish is that rare actress who never falls into the trap of over-emoting, instead burrowing into the soul of every character she plays, whether an addict in Candy, a returning Iraq War soldier’s girlfriend in Stop-Loss, or even a young American girl in France in A Good Year. Similarly, as Fanny, Cornish’s wonderfully subdued acting makes us care for her and her love for Keats. When she hears the news of his death and doubles over sobbing as if she were in physical pain, it’s an emotionally gut wrenching moment of the kind one rarely experiences onscreen.
Campion’s luscious visual palette (high marks to Greig Fraser’s impressively tangy cinematography) never sinks to the annoyingly expressionistic look of the earlier Sweetie, The Piano and The Portrait of a Lady. And early 19th century England is presented realistically, as it was lived, not as it’s supposed to look in the movies: for example, the scenes where Keats’s poetry (especially excerpts from his epic poem "Endymion") is read are handled in an off-hand, almost casual manner, what is probably was like in reality.
Even though it’s being marketed as a heart-melting romance (and can certainly be enjoyed that way), Bright Star tells an adult story with penetrating intelligence, making it Campion‘s best film since An Angel at My Table, her 1990 biopic about New Zealand writer Janet Frame. Maybe she should stick to real people.
Bright Star Directed and written by Jane Campion Starring Abbie Cornish, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox, Paul Schneider Opens September 18, 2009
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