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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

DEXTER: THE COMPLETE SIXTH SEASON -- DVD review by porfle



If you've read my reviews of seasons three and five of the Showtime series "Dexter", you already know that it's one of my favorite TV shows of all time.  So it's no surprise that, for me, watching the 4-disc DVD set DEXTER: THE COMPLETE SIXTH SEASON is akin to opening the biggest, ribboniest package under the Christmas tree.

While Santa didn't sprinkle quite as much magic happy dust on this present as he usually does, the further adventures of everyone's favorite serial killer still generate a kind of hypnotic watchability that compels me to consume the entire season in one marathon viewing session.  As usual, the main story arc concerns Miami's Finest trying to track down the latest high-profile serial killer to terrorize the city while several side stories allow us to watch Dexter mete out final justice to other deserving killers who have somehow managed to escape formal punishment. 

Chief among these is Ronny Cox (ROBOCOP, TOTAL RECALL) as a crotchety old retiree named Walt whom Dexter (Michael C. Hall) discovers to be his first real role model, a multiple murderer from Oregon who was never caught but, while irritably doddering through his golden years in Miami, may have begun trying to recapture past glories in his chosen field.  Cox seems to be having a ball as the unrepentent old perv while he and Hall play off each other in some of the season's most darkly amusing moments. 

Another interesting side trip for Dex finds him attending his high school reunion to stalk the one-time star football player, suspected of killing his wife--one of the few people who were nice to geeky Dexter back in the old days--and making it look like a suicide.  Here, his always wryly amusing and insightful voiceover observations include this gem: "High school--a small world unto itself, combining all the warmest elements of a federal work camp with those of a third-world poultry farm.  It's a miracle I graduated without killing anyone."


Dexter is shocked to find that his improved looks, cool job (blood-splatter analyst for the Miami PD), and strong sympathy factor (his wife Rita having been murdered by season four's bad guy, John Lithgow) have finally made him popular, which hinders his murderous intentions to a deliciously comical degree.  In fact, some of his misadventures here, including trying to get a blood sample during a touch football game, are about as laugh-out-loud funny as this show gets.

While Dexter's difficult evolution as a human being has been mostly about him simply feeling anything resembling an emotion, he's now developing a strong fatherly affection for his toddler son Harrison while getting even closer to his stepsister Deb (Hall's real-life wife Jennifer Carpenter), a detective on the force.  Season six finds him finally exploring his spiritual side, or lack of one, as he questions the existence of God and the sincerity of one-time killer Brother Sam (Mos Def in a fine performance) who claims to have turned his life around.  The cynical Dexter's relationship with Brother Sam not only proves enlightening but also affords him the opportunity to punish yet another killer who has eluded his just reward. 

All of this serves as a backdrop for the season's main storyline, this time concerning the extremely bizarre murders committed by former college professor Dr. Gellar (Edward James Olmos) and his reluctant acolyte, Travis (Colin Hanks), who believe that their ritualistic acts of murder will set into motion God's final apocalyptic destruction of the human race.  While their characters are pretty interesting and their heinous deeds--in which their victims are used to create gruesome tableaux that will shock and horrify a sinful world--are suitably nightmarish, the "religious fanatic" angle seems a tad tired and overused by now. 

It's as though the show was stuck for a motive this season and simply went back to that old standy, the Book of Revelations, which has always been an endless source of material for writers to fall back on.  Not only that, but Gellar and Travis lurk around in an actual "theme" lair like Batman villains, with a creepy abandoned church serving as their convenient hideout.  Most of their strident rantings on sin and doomsday are the same old familiar stuff, written by writers whose main knowledge of religion seems to consist mainly of what they've seen in other movies about homicidal religious fanatics. 

Still, the storyline is involving enough and it gives the show an excuse for some wildly flamboyant visuals in addition to a chilling mid-season twist that had me doing a doubletake.  Dexter, of course, gets personally involved with the killers and finds himself secretly racing against his co-workers to capture them himself, thus satisfying his urge to kill within the strictures of late stepfather Harry's "rules" (former cop Harry, as played by James Remar, being the one to first recognize young Dexter's true nature and channel it in a more "constructive" direction). 

This places not only Dexter but those he's learning to love in grave danger before it's all over, resulting in some contrived but suspenseful situations (including the now-traditional "capturing of Dexter by the bad guy") that seem straight out of the old Saturday afternoon serials.

As always, Dexter's adventures are the main course but the series is laced with a variety of subplots, each of which holds its own.  The big dramatic threads this time include callow detective Deb being promoted to Lieutenant over Sgt. Angel Battista (David Zayas) as a result of political gamesmanship between former Lieutenant and now Captain Maria LaGuerta (Lauren Vélez) and a Deputy Chief whom she blackmailed to get her promotion. 

In addition to ongoing friction between Deb and LaGuerta, LaGuerta and Battista, LaGuerta and the Deputy Chief, Deb and live-in lover Detective Quinn (Desmond Harrington), and Quinn and partner Battista (scorecards available in the lobby), there's also a subplot in which Deb suspects she's falling in love with Dex--surely one of the show's creepiest developments yet. 

The four-disc, 12-episode DVD set from Showtime, CBS DVD, and Paramount Home Media is in 16:9 widescreen with Dolby Digital sound (English 5.1 surround plus English, Spanish, and French 2.0 stereo) and closed-captions.  Extras include cast interviews and biographies, a photo gallery, and two sample episodes of the Showtime series "House of Lies."  (You can also "unlock additional bonus features on your PC via E-Bridge Technology", whatever the hell that is.) 

Additional note: all four discs begin with the same annoying Showtime promo, which can't be skipped or fast-forwarded through.  This would be bad enough, but the promo contains a HUGE spoiler for the season's shocking surprise ending.  So if you don't want to know about it in advance, avert your eyes!

DEXTER: THE COMPLETE SIXTH SEASON finds our contemplative serial killer wondering what he's going to pass onto his son as he grows older and more aware that Dad isn't quite normal.  I'm anxious to see how Dexter's spiritual and emotional evolution progresses in the next season, just as I am to see more deserving human monsters get what's coming to them at his hands.  But most of all, I can't wait to see what happens right after the blackout of this season's very last episode, one of those abrupt cliffhanger endings that's both awesome and incredibly frustrating. 


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Sunday, July 29, 2012

STORM HAWKS: HAWKS RISE AGAIN -- DVD review by porfle



(NOTE: This review originally appeared in 2007.  It's based on a no-frills screener so there's no mention of the final disc's bonus features.)

It took me awhile to get into STORM HAWKS: HAWKS RISE AGAIN (2007), but once I did, it turned out to be a pretty enjoyable cartoon. 

Produced by Nerd Corps Entertainment and the Cartoon Network, this series comes to DVD on a five-episode disc that begins with a two-parter called "Age of Heroes."  Here we learn that the good people of the planet Atmos, where the people live in mountaintop cities called "Terras", are constantly under attack from the evil Master Cyclonis and her Talon warriors.  Defending against her sinister schemes for world domination are a high-flying force of heroes called Sky Knights.  One of these teams, the Storm Hawks, is made up of five callow youths (average age--fourteen) who must constantly prove themselves in order to be taken seriously by the older Sky Knights and become officially recognized by the Sky Council.

Aerrow, their leader, assembled the team to carry on in place of the original Storm Hawks, who were killed when a Sky Knight named Dark Ace betrayed them and joined forces with Cyclonis.  Other members are Finn, the wise-cracking sharpshooter; Junko, a big, reptilian dynamo who's really a pussycat at heart; Piper, the girl member of the team who navigates their carrier ship, the Condor, and plans battle tactics; Stork, ship's pilot and technical whiz who's a bit on the creepy side and would rather avoid danger; and Aerrow's co-pilot Radarr, a small furry creature.  In "Age of Heroes", the new Storm Hawks are denied membership in the Sky Knights due to their age but end up saving the day during a fierce sky battle with Cyclonis' minions. 

The animation, which looks like old-style cel art manipulated by computers, is beautiful, with great character design and dazzling backgrounds that create a richly-detailed fantasy world.  The main characters are likable and their funny, sharply-written dialogue and often slapstick-tinged interplay keep the stories light even in the most perilous situations.  And you don't have to worry about your tykes being traumatized, because nobody ever gets killed on this show--everyone involved in the mile-high mayhem is wearing a parachute.

One thing that bugged me during the initial two-part episode was the pacing.  There's a scene in THE CROW where a speed-fueled Skank is hyperactively pantomiming the story of his buddy T-Bird's demise and Top Dollar wryly comments, "Maybe we should just tape this and play it back in slow-motion."  That's how I felt during most of the sky-cycle dogfights and other action here.   The attention-deficit editing is so rapid-fire that scores of beautifully-designed images go by in a blur--it's like watching something that's stuck on fast-forward, and the excitement and suspense don't get a chance to build because you just get numb to it after awhile. 

Fortunately, by the next episode on the disc, "Gale Force Winds", the pace is slowed down a tad and we're give more time to enjoy the action and appreciate the visuals.  Bob Buckley's zippy musical score also gets a chance to stretch out and not be such a sonic barrage.  The airborne battle scenes are exhilarating once we can actually tell what's going on, especially as the personalities of the characters begin to develop more fully.

Next comes "The Code", a cool story in which the Storm Hawks are challenged to a competition by the foppish, conceited Sky Knights known as the Rex Guardians, who have a screaming fan following and even their own action figures.  When the evil Dark Ace gets into the act, there's a spectacular aerial battle over the fan-filled arena. 

The final episode, "Tranquility Now", is about a group of wizened timekeepers who tend a giant clock which regulates the navigational systems of all Sky Knight carrier ships.  This is disrupted when two of Cyclonis' main baddies, Ravess and her musclebound brother Snipe, invade the clock fortress and force the timekeepers to shut it down.  Junko comes to the fore in this tale when he loses his knuckle-busters, on which he depends for increased punching power, and must do battle with his own fists and fortitude.  There's a lot of good bone-crunching action in this episode and another exciting sky battle between Aerrow and the Dark Ace. 

As I said before, I didn't like this cartoon very much at first but it really started to grow on me after awhile.  Once you get past the frazzling pace of the initial episodes and settle in comfortably with these characters and their high-flying adventures, STORM HAWKS: HAWKS RISE AGAIN is a lot of fun.


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Friday, July 27, 2012

Image Entertainment unveils "RE-ANIMATOR" for the first time on Blu-ray™ September 4th!



“One of the greatest horror movies ever made.” --Entertainment Weekly

RE-ANIMATOR COMES TO LIFE ON BLU-RAY™ FOR THE FIRST TIME!


On September 4th, Image Entertainment resurrects one of the greatest horror films ever made with the Blu-ray™ debut of Stuart Gordon’s cult classic H.P. Lovecraft’s Re-Animator. Presented in a brand-new 1080p HD transfer approved by producer Brian Yuzna, the 1985 shocker was ranked #32 of 50 on EW’s “Top 50 Cult Films,” inspired two sequels as well as an award-winning stage musical!

Featuring high-resolution DTS-HD audio and packed with bonus features, the Re-Animator Blu-ray™ hits retail with an SRP of $17.97. Also available on DVD for an SRP of $9.98.  Pre-book for both is August 7th.

Adapted by Dennis Paoli, William J. Norris and Stuart Gordon from the H.P. Lovecraft short story, Re-Animator tells the strange tale of medical student Dan Cain (Bruce Abbot) and his girlfriend Megan Halsey (Barbara Crampton), both of them drawn to odd new student Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) who’s conducting secret experiments involving the re-animation of dead tissue. When one of the instructors, Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale), stumbles upon their activities, West murders him -- but is brought back to life, now thirsting for revenge as well as lusting after Megan. The final denouement features the re-animated Dr. Hill squaring off against Herbert and Dan in a battle royale within the school’s morgue, complete with resurrected “henchmen” and undoubtedly one of the greatest visual double entendres in all horror cinema!

Bonus features for the Re-Animator Blu-ray™ include:

    * Documentary: “Re-Animator Resurrectus”
    * Audio Commentary by Director Stuart Gordon
    * Audio Commentary by Producer Brian Yuzna and Actors Bruce Abbott, Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton and Robert Sampson
    * Interview with Director Stuart Gordon and Producer Brian Yuzna
    * Interview with Writer Dennis Paoli
    * Interview with Composer Richard Band
    * Music Discussion with Composer Richard Band
    * Interview with Fangoria Magazine editor Tony Timpone
    * Deleted and Extended Scenes
    * Theatrical trailer
    * TV Spots



H.P. Lovecraft’s Re-Animator BD
Street Date:                 September 4, 2012
Pre-Book:                    August 7, 2012
UPC #:                        014381822052
Catalog:                       REA8220BD
Aspect Ratio:              Anamorphic Widescreen (1.85:1)
Audio:                         DTS HD Master Audio 5.1
Retail Price:                 $17.97
Genre:                         Horror, Sci-fi/ Fantasy, Creature Features, 80’s, Feature Film, Cult Movies, Cult/Classic Horror, Monsters
Rating:                        R
Run Time:                   95 minutes
Year:                           1985

DVD also available:

H.P. Lovecraft’s Re-Animator DVD
Street Date:                 September 4, 2012
Pre-Book:                    August 7, 2012
UPC #:                        014381821925
Catalog:                       REA8219DVD
Aspect Ratio:              Anamorphic Widescreen (1.85:1)
Audio:                         Dolby Digital 5.1
Retail Price:                 $9.98
Genre:                         Horror, Sci-fi/ Fantasy, Creature Features, 80’s, Feature Film, Cult Movies, Cult/Classic Horror, Monsters
Rating:                        R
Run Time:                   95 minutes
Year:                           1985


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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

DEAD SEASON -- DVD review by porfle



With NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, George Romero created a zombie mythology that just won't die.  Filmmakers are still adding their own chapters to the story and exploring various nooks and crannies of the scenario Romero set into motion over forty years ago.  The characters and settings may change, the timeframe may be updated, and the zombies may move a little faster sometimes, but we know that it all stems from that one night when a guy named Johnny taunted his jittery little sister in a gloomy cemetery with the words, "They're coming to get you, Barbara..."

DEAD SEASON (2012) is director Adam Deyoe's contribution to this sub-genre, and, like many of the others before it, it assumes we know the drill and need little or no exposition to get the ball rolling.  Thus, we join a former paramedic named Elvis (Scott Peat) already dodging "walkers" (the script, we learn from the commentary, was written before HBO's "The Walking Dead" popularized the term) in his search for food and shelter, and trying to hook up with a woman who calls herself Tweeter (Marissa Merrill) whom he's met over the airwaves. 

After a wild and woolly escape from over a hundred extras in some pretty passable zombie makeup, Elvis and Tweeter sail to an island off the coast of Florida (actually Puerto Rico) that they think is "walker-free."  It isn't.  The living inhabitants are a paramilitary bunch led by hard-ass Kurt Conrad (James C. Burns) whose philosophy is that if they don't "strip themselves down to the wires" they aren't going to make it.  This means being ruthless and totally unsentimental, and it also means that Elvis and Tweeter must make themselves useful to the group if they expect to eat or, in fact, live.

As in the better zombie movies, the constant menace of the living dead serves as a backdrop for intense interplay between the human characters, with Conrad's increasingly domineering behavior alarming the two reluctant newbies even as they try to fit in.  Elvis' medical skills are put to good use, especially in the treatment of Conrad's listless daughter Rachel (Corsica Wilson), the last link to his more human side.  Meanwhile, Tweeter joins the search and destroy team and gets to kill zombies which have overrun the island ever since a Dutch cruise ship sank nearby (which I thought was a pretty cool touch). 

DEAD SEASON brings lots of good ideas to the table and keeps things interesting most of the time, making up for occasional lulls by offering some surprising and sometimes shocking twists along the way.  While directing and editing aren't always slick, the low-budget film boasts several furious action sequences that are often grippingly suspenseful, in addition to some extremely dramatic exchanges such as the one in which Conrad springs his darkest and most dreadful secret on a stunned Elvis. 

Performances by the leads are exceptionally good, with James C. Burns playing good-guy/bad-guy Conrad to a tee and making us sympathize with his intentions even when his methods seem repellent.  Peat and Merrill are a great team as Elvis and Tweeter--even their brief lovemaking scene manages to convey a sense of erotic desperation rather than being merely obligatory. 

The unglamorous yet tomboy-attractive Merrill in particular shines as a female character who can handle herself impressively in action situations without simply being the stereotypical "strong woman."  Peat, on the other hand, is adept at letting his emotional side show through even when he's smashing zombie skulls with a sledge hammer.

The DVD from Image Entertainment is in 1.78:1 widescreen with Dolby 5.1 surround sound.  No subtitles, though closed-captioning is available.  Extras include a making-of featurette, deleted scenes, outtakes, and a trailer.  The cast and crew commentary track is fun while being casual almost to a fault--in fact, it sounds as though someone's absent-mindedly kicking the microphone during the whole thing. 

As you might expect, the human characters' fragile veneer of civilization begins to fall apart at the seams during the final act as their compound is overrun by zombies and all hell breaks loose.  Nods to Romero abound--some of the grisly gore setups are an obvious reprise of familiar horrors from DAWN OF THE DEAD--but the action-packed, richly character-driven DEAD SEASON stands on its own as a modest but worthwhile entry in the zombie mythos. 



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Monday, July 23, 2012

ON THE INSIDE -- DVD review by porfle




Here's another one of those movies about life ON THE INSIDE (2011) in which a guy who really isn't all that bad has to make it through life in the slammer (or, in this case, nuthouse) one day at a time while dealing with the genuine psychos and nutballs he's forced to live with. 

Only this time, Allen (Nick Stahl) isn't an innocent man, or someone who accidentally killed someone, as was Alan Alda's character in Truman Capote's THE GLASS HOUSE.  In the first scene we see him getting ready to murder a man for raping his girlfriend--which, in movie terms, is perfectly acceptable--but, alas, accidentally targeting the wrong guy.

So, we're pretty ambivalent toward Allen to begin with and will become more so when flashbacks reveal how troubled he really is.  This makes for a fairly interesting main character to serve as a vehicle for writer-director D.W. Brown's themes of redemption and forgiveness.  Stahl's performance is low-key almost to a fault (that's pretty much his style anyway, SIN CITY's "Yellow Bastard" notwithstanding), but then again, Allen is meant to be a little numbed by it all.

Living as he does in a psychiatric evaluation facility he meets a variety of interesting people including Pruitt Taylor Vince (NATURAL BORN KILLERS, DROP DEAD SEXY) as the rotund, googly-eyed Ben, a very troubled man yearning for friendship but plagued by terminal weirdness and the occasional burst of "acting out."  Ben hates women--which he attributes to a glandular problem--although he also admits to "a few non-women-related problems" too.  He's probably the film's most entertaining character and the talented Vance doesn't seem to have to work too hard to make him that way. 

The other two people in Allen's new life are ultra-violent sociopath Carl Tarses (Dash Mihok, THE FP, I AM LEGEND) and timid, insecure female inmate Mia (Olivia Wilde, COWBOYS & ALIENS, TRON: LEGACY).  An experimental program to bring male and female prisoners together socially allows Allen and Mia to meet-cute and fall in love, but their private time together will be shattered when Carl escapes from maximum security and wreaks bloody havoc within the facility, eventually ending up right between the two lovebirds with a pair of scissors. 

Mihok does his best but doesn't really invest Carl with either the unsettling menace or the "banality of evil" quality that we expect.  He's basically just a big hyperactive bully who kills, and is actually more funny than scary.  As Mia, Olivia Wilde struggles against some bad dialogue--her scenes with Stahl aren't all that well written--and direction in the final scenes that would probably make any actress look bad. 

Cross-cutting between Carl's escape and Allen and Mia's romantic encounter builds to a clash that should've been a lot more intense than director Brown manages to make it.  The whole thing finally becomes pretty mawkish and melodramatic at the end--made even more so by being awash in music that underscores every moment full-tilt--until the final minutes are so overwrought as to border on ludicrous.  A similar scene at the end of THE GLASS HOUSE shows how a bit less unrestrained sentiment can be much more effective. 

Tariq Trotter gives a good, natural performance as sympathetic guard Tom Bogotus, while Shohreh Aghdashloo is the very picture of the ineffectual, bleeding heart authority figure as Dr. Lofton.  When Tom tries to talk to her about lax security in the facility, she chalks his attitude up to difficultly with his transition back to work from vacation.  Later, a little blatant symbolism illustrates her cosmetic approach to problem solving. 

Joanne Baron ("Sledge Hammer!", DRAG ME TO HELL) is also fine as Mrs. Standings, whose caring demeanor helps bring Mia out of her shell.  Mrs. Standings is the only authority figure we see besides Tom who seems to know what she's doing and actually cares about helping the inmates.

The DVD from Anchor Bay is in 1.78:1 widescreen with Dolby 5.1 sound and English and Spanish subtitles.  The sole extra is a commentary featuring director Brown, actress Joanne Baron, and actor Daniel Franzese, who plays one of the bad guards whom we just know is going to get his sooner or later.  The movie is also available as a Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack.

ON THE INSIDE is technically efficient and fairly involving, but no more so than that.  The over-the-top ending, an overt effort to wring out some sort of big statement, works against what should have been a simpler and more straightforward story.


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Friday, July 20, 2012

THE DEAD GIRL -- movie review by porfle



(NOTE: This review was originally posted online in 2007.)

There are few things more exciting for a movie buff than to be so blown away by a film that you're captivated by every minute of it and still excited about it long after it's over, which is exactly the effect THE DEAD GIRL (2006) had on me. It's without a doubt one of the most satisfying and exhilarating movie experiences I've had in years. I can find no fault with it--it does no wrong.

Arden (Toni Collette, hardly recognizable as the mother in THE SIXTH SENSE) is an introverted, emotionally-troubled woman caring for her invalid mother (Piper Laurie as yet another nightmarish mom), who makes life a living hell for her with her constant, bitter haranguing.

One day while walking by herself in a field near her house, Arden discovers the dead, nude body of a young woman. The battered corpse has the numbers "12:13" tattooed on her arm. Arden reports her find to the police and becomes the focus of unwanted local notoriety and curiosity, notably from a morbid supermarket bag-boy named Rudy (Giovanni Ribisi), who asks her out.


She hesitantly accepts, and while getting ready to go out is cruelly taunted and ridiculed by her mother until she finally reaches the breaking point. Arden and Rudy spend a strangely intimate night together in her station wagon parked in the woods.

Rudy is fascinated by serial killers and is generally rather creepy, yet in his clumsily sympathetic way he's the best thing that has happened to Arden in a long time. In fact, she considers leaving her mother to whatever fate awaits her and taking her chances on a new life with Rudy.

This, it turns out, is merely the first story in a series of episodes that are related in one way or another to the dead girl. We are next introduced to Leah (in a deeply-moving portrayal by Rose Byrne), whose sister has been missing for fifteen years. Her single-minded parents have never given up on finding her and Leah's homelife is eternally dominated by her sister's shadow, driving her to therapy and anti-depressants.


One day as she works as a forensic pathology student, she finds herself examining the dead girl and discovers a distinctive birthmark on her hand--one which matches the birthmark her missing sister had. With this, Leah envisions an end to her phantom sister's oppressive influence over her life and a new beginning at last. But it is not to be.

There are several more stories to be told, and each one is a fascinating and richly emotional character study that is brought to life by an incredible cast. Mary Steenburgen and Bruce Davison play Leah's obsessed parents, James Franco her nerdy boyfriend. Mary Beth Hurt (THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP) gives an intense performance as a neglected housewife whose husband (Nick Searcy) abandons her for days at a time--she makes a discovery about his mysterious nocturnal outings that will throw her life into turmoil. Marcia Gay Harden is fine as Melora, the dead girl's mother, who comes to identify the body and stays to delve into the heartbreaking details of her runaway daughter's last days.

This is Karen Moncrieff's second feature as writer-director (the first was 2002's BLUE CAR), and she displays a sure hand throughout. The story is scintillating and original, and her handling of it is visually exquisite.


Not a moment is wasted--every shot counts and adds to the emotional weight of the story. My attention never wandered for a second. And there isn't a single false step along the way. This is the sort of finely-crafted filmmaking that doesn't come along every day.

And finally, there's the dead girl herself. Brittany Murphy plays Krista, who we see storming through the last day of her life like a force of nature. She's a tragic figure, on the skids and down on her luck, but she's tough as nails and never gives in. I won't give away anything else about her or what finally happens, but everything is tied up nicely and the ending is both haunting and resonant.

This is probably Brittany Murphy's finest hour, in a beautifully-rendered film filled with remarkable actors giving memorable performances.  I guess you could say I kinda liked it.



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Thursday, July 19, 2012

THE GREAT ESCAPE -- movie review by porfle




When I was a kid, there were some movies that I looked forward to seeing on TV with the same keen anticipation I felt for an impending holiday.  The annual airing of THE WIZARD OF OZ was one, of course.  But equal to that perennial favorite in my mind was John Sturges' World War II blockbuster THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963), which, for awhile back in the 60s, would also show up on the tube about once a year.  CBS would usually show the 172-minute film in two parts on Thursday and Friday nights, meaning that after the first half I was forced to suffer an excruciating 24 hours waiting for the payoff.  But it was worth it.  And now that I have it on DVD and can watch it anytime I want, the old magic remains undiminished.

Based on a true story recounted in the book by former WWII POW Paul Brickhill, with a screenplay by James Clavell (SHOGUN, KING RAT), the film takes place mainly in a German prisoner-of-war camp that has been designed to contain those Allied captives who are continually trying to escape.  As the commandant, Luftwaffe Colonel von Luger (Hans Messmer) tells Group Captain Ramsey (a solid, dignified James Donald): "We are, in effect, placing all our rotten eggs into one basket.  And we intend to watch that basket very carefully."  Such a plan is doomed to backfire, of course, as this congregation of escape-happy soldiers immediately begins plotting the biggest, most elaborate POW escape ever. 

Richard Attenborough (JURASSIC PARK) plays "Big X", the leader and mastermind, who coordinates the digging of three separate tunnels.  His objective is to get so many men out of the camp--as many as 250--that the Nazis will be forced to devote thousands of soldiers to tracking them down.  It's fascinating to see the lengths our heroes must go to in order to obtain tools for digging and wood for shoring up the tunnels, and how they manage to disperse all those tons of dirt, without the guards detecting anything.  And as amazing and improbable as it all may seem, every pertinent detail of the escape is based on fact, while the film's characters are composites of actual people.  One of them, "Tunnel King" Wally Floody, served as a technical adviser during filming.


David McCallum ("The Man From U.N.C.L.E.") is Ashley-Pitt, the "Dispersal" expert.  Donald Pleasence, a real-life WWII POW, plays Blythe, a mild-mannered birdwatcher who serves as "The Forger" of false identity papers and such, while his roommate, American flyer Hendley (James Garner) is "The Scrounger" who can be counted on to obtain whatever is needed, chiefly through blackmailing the guards.  The odd-couple friendship of Blythe and Hendley is one of the most emotionally compelling elements of the story, especially when Blythe later loses his eyesight and is told he must stay behind until Hendley insists on taking him out of the tunnel with him.

Charles Bronson and John Leyton play "Tunnel Kings" Danny and Willy, without whose tireless efforts and expertise the escape would be impossible.  Danny, it turns out, suffers from claustrophia, though he forces himself to dig because he "must get out."  This malady will prove very inconvenient on the night of the escape when panic overtakes him at last.  Another prisoner on the verge of the breaking point is the "wire-happy" Ives (Angus Lennie), a diminutive Scotsman whose prolonged confinement keeps him a hair's breadth away from making a desperate attempt to climb the fence.  And James Coburn is Sedgwick, a droll Aussie pilot whose knack for building something out of nothing makes him the indispensible "Manufacturer."

These rich characterizations, along with a wealth of suspenseful situations and some great comedy relief, keep things rolling along until the night of the big breakout, which is one of the most gripping sequences ever filmed.  Everything that could go wrong does, yet seventy-six men manage to escape before the guards finally get wise and come down on them with guns blazing. 

For the final third of the film we see the escapees desperately trying to make their way out of the country via trains, planes, automobiles, or on foot.  Since we've had so much time to get to know and care about these characters, and empathize with their desire to get back home, their skillfully cross-edited stories pack a substantial emotional payoff--especially when we see them recaptured, killed during flight, or coldbloodedly executed as "spies." 


The post-escape part of the story is the most fictionalized element of THE GREAT ESCAPE, but that's fine with me--the actual events have been augmented with more action and thrills, while maintaining the spirit of what these men went through.  And I can't imagine a sequence in any movie that is more engrossing or involving, for so long, as this one. 

Which brings me to the best part of the film, for me anyway--Steve McQueen's iconic Capt. Virgil Hilts, dubbed "The Cooler King" since his attempted escapes and disrespect for authority keep him locked up in a cell more than anyone else in camp.  At first he's a loner trying to escape independently, whether through the wire or via a wild "human mole" scheme he almost pulls off with his pal Ives, but eventually he comes around and becomes one of the most important participants in Big X's escape plan.  (In actuality, all of the American prisoners were moved to a different part of the camp shortly before the escape, but that's a quibble I'm willing to overlook.)

By the time the escape occurs, we feel almost as confined as the characters themselves and are in need of a catharsis that can only be provided by some good old freewheeling action.  So when Hilts steals a motorcycle and makes a mad, cross-country dash for Switzerland with the Nazis hot on his heels, charging through checkpoints and hurtling airborn over barricades, with Elmer Bernstein's soul-stirring musical score soaring triumphantly in the background, we can feel the delirious rush of freedom.


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Monday, July 16, 2012

Latest From Acorn Media--Best Brit TV: Damian Lewis in "Forsyte", "Holy Flying Circus", "Cloudstreet", "Injustice", "Laconia"

Acorn Media (British TV) and Athena (Best Documentaries) DVD Release Calendar

“Acorn Media, chief curators of the best Brit TV” –TIME Magazine

*Acorn Media on Facebook and Twitter


July 17th: JAMES MAY’S 20th CENTURY (U.S. debut), the Top Gear host explores the innovations that made the modern era; M.R. James’s CASTING THE RUNES (DVD Debut), offers a classic tale of mystery and the supernatural from the father of the modern ghost story; and BILL MOYERS ON ADDICTION: CLOSE TO HOME, called “TV’s most comprehensive look ever at addiction and recovery” (San Francisco Chronicle).



July 31:

THE STORY OF THE COSTUME DRAMA (U.S. Debut) – Required viewing for any fan of British television, this captivating new documentary tells the stories behind iconic productions with stars and scenes from Brideshead Revisited; I, Claudius; Upstairs, Downstairs; Pride and Prejudice; The Jewel in the Crown; Poldark; Doctor Zhivago; and many more. The first episode aired on PBS stations in spring 2012; however, Acorn is releasing the complete five-episode series on DVD. Narrated by star Keeley Hawes (Ashes to Ashes; Upstairs Downstairs), these five episodes give an inside look beyond the ornate clothing, sprawling manors, and addictive story lines that have riveted millions of television viewers for decades.

THE COSTUME DRAMA CLASSIC COLLECTION – Representing the finest of the captivating costume drama genre with sumptuous costumes, lavish sets, and addictive plots, this set features four celebrated, star-studded Masterpiece Theatre period dramas PLUS The Story of the Costume Drama documentary listed above. The value-priced 15-disc collection includes more than 36 hours of star-studded programming, including Doctor Zhivago, the 2002 adaptation starring Keira Knightley (Pirates of the Caribbean, Atonement); Lillie, the BAFTA-winning 1978 drama with Francesca Annis (Wives and Daughters, Cranford); Lost Empires, starring Colin Firth (The King’s Speech) in a coming-of-age story from 1986; and Upstairs, Downstairs, Series 1, the iconic British drama’s original 1971-1972 series. (15-disc, $99.99)

THE KENT CHRONICLES (DVD Debut) – Three historical miniseries (The Bastard, The Rebels, and The Seekers) featuring William Shatner, Kim Cattrall, Don Johnson, Patricia Neal, George Hamilton, Delta Burke, and Tom Bosley. Chronicling the saga of the Kent family in early America, the star-studded Revolution-era romp is based on the bestselling novels by John Jakes (North and South), the “godfather of the historical novel.” The miniseries follow the fortunes of a young Frenchman (Andrew Stevens, Dallas) as he immigrates to America during the Revolutionary War and crosses paths with historical heavyweights including Paul Revere (William Shatner), Benjamin Franklin (Tom Bosley, Happy Days), Samuel Adams (William Daniels, St. Elsewhere), and George Washington (Peter Graves, Mission: Impossible). Nominated for two Emmys® and a Golden Globe®. Broadcast in the late 1970s.



August 7:

THE SINKING OF THE LACONIA (DVD Debut) – “The best bit of drama on the BBC in 20 years”(The Independent) – New, gripping WWII tale with an outstanding cast offers a harrowing true story of heroism, heartbreak, and unexpected humanity during the midst of World War II. Seen on Ovation Network’s “The Best You’ve Never Seen” premieres in spring of 2012, the miniseries features Ken Duken (Inglourious Basterds), Andrew Buchan (Garrow’s Law), Franka Potente (The Bourne Identity, Run Lola Run), Lindsay Duncan (Rome) and Brian Cox (The Bourne Supremacy). In September 1942 at the height of the battle for the Atlantic, a German U-boat torpedoed the RMS Laconia, sinking the British ship without knowing that it carried more than 2,000 passengers, many of them civilians. BONUS: Documentary featurette, “The Sinking of the Laconia: Survivors’ Stories” (29 min.)

GARROW’S LAW, SERIES 3 (U.S. Debut) – “BBC period drama at its very best” (British Heritage) – Conclusion of the acclaimed British legal drama ripped from the pages of history. Seen on BBC and PBS. Award-winning series stars Andrew Buchan (The Sinking of the Laconia, Cranford) as virtuous barrister William Garrow, a man unafraid to confront the injustices of the 18th century English legal system. Series also stars Alun Armstrong (Little Dorrit, New Tricks), Rupert Graves (Sherlock, The Forsyte Saga) and Lyndsey Marshal (Rome, Being Human, The Hours).



August 14:

THE FORSYTE SAGA COLLECTION – “Stunning any way you look at it” (Vanity Fair) - Damian Lewis (Homeland, Band of Brothers, Life), Gina McKee (Notting Hill, The Borgias), Rupert Graves (Sherlock, Garrow’s Law), Ioan Gruffudd (Horatio Hornblower, Ringer), Julian Ovenden (Foyle’s War), and Corin Redgrave (Trial & Retribution) star in acclaimed literary adaptation. Value-priced complete collection includes footage not seen in the hit PBS broadcast. The two complete miniseries tell the story of a family bitterly divided by ambition, adultery, and revenge. Based on John Galsworthy’s epic Forsyte novels, the sumptuously addictive adaptations impressed critics and fans alike when they aired on PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre from 2003-2004 and were voted #2 on the list of viewers’ favorite programs of all time. The DVD 5-dics boxed set includes the complete unedited U.K. broadcast edition, featuring more than 20 minutes of Series 1 footage not included in the edited U.S. broadcast; as well as a bonus 20-minute making-of featurette.



August 21:

MEGACITIES (Athena, U.S. Debut) – “A must-see” (The Times) – Fascinating new BBC documentary looks at the future of urbanization and human habitation through five of the globe’s most populous cities. Filmed on location in five of the world’s largest cities in everything from sleek high-rises to swarming slums, and hosted by BAFTA-winning journalist Andrew Marr, Megacities explores how these metropolitan hubs define every aspect of their inhabitants’ daily lives. The documentary includes segments on London, U.K.; Dhaka, Bangladesh; Tokyo, Japan; Mexico City, Mexico; and Shanghai, China. Available to U.S. audiences for the first time, Megacities aired on BBC One in June 2011 but has not aired on U.S. television.

CRISIS AT THE CASTLE (Athena, DVD Debut) – Three grand homes—three big headaches – This dramatic exposé of the challenges of castle ownership follows the owners of the magnificent Sudley Castle, Burton Court, and Kelburn Castle as they are faced with pivotal decisions about how to preserve the family home in the face of rising costs, fading public attention and crumbling infrastructures. Seen on public television in 2007.



August 28:

INJUSTICE (DVD Debut) – “Cancel all plans this week - you won't want to miss this stylish thriller" (The Sun) – An exciting psychological thriller from the creator of Foyle’s War. James Purefoy (Rome, Episodes, and opposite Kevin Bacon on FOX’s forthcoming series The Following) leads a distinguished cast featuring Dervla Kirwan (Ballykissangel), Charlie Creed-Miles (Five Days), and Nathaniel Parker (The Inspector Lynley Mysteries) in this taut five-part thriller that merges legal drama, police investigation, and high-tension suspense in an atmosphere of moral ambiguity. Injustice was broadcast on ITV and DirecTV in 2011. Besides Foyle’s War, BAFTA-nominated screenwriter Anthony Horowitz’s other credits include Collison, Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Midsomer Murders, the most recent Sherlock Holmes novel, The House of Silk, and the hit Alex Rider book series.

Agatha Christie’s POIROT, SERIES 6 (Blu-ray and DVD) – Sixth series of Agatha Christie’s beloved mysteries debuts on Blu-ray. Newly remastered and in original U.K. broadcast order. Seen on PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery! and A&E. Starring David Suchet with guest star Damian Lewis (Homeland) in one of his first roles. Four feature-length episodes previously aired in 1995-96.



September 4:

CLOUDSTREET (DVD Debut) – “Handsome period drama” (Entertainment Weekly) – Adapted by Tim Winton from his award-winning novel, the acclaimed Australian miniseries is exquisitely filmed with an outstanding ensemble cast led by Kerry Fox (An Angel at My Table) and Essie Davis (Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries). Broadcast on Ovation in April 2012 as part of their “The Best You’ve Never Seen” premieres, the miniseries was nominated for eight Australian Film Institute awards, including best miniseries. Set around Perth from 1943–1963, it tells the story of two rural families, each scarred by catastrophe, who end up sharing a large, ramshackle house that shudders and groans with memories of its own. The DVD 3-disc set includes all six-episodes and a bonus disc with five behind-the-scenes segments.

HOLY FLYING CIRCUS (Blu-ray/DVD Combo Debut) – “A-…Sharply written, hilariously profane ‘docudrama’” (Entertainment Weekly) – Offering a Pythonesque peek behind the scenes of one of the most notorious—and beloved—films from the legendary troupe, the fantastical docudrama was nominated for a BAFTA for Best Single Drama. This hilariously heretical docudrama reimagines the controversy behind Monty Python’s Life of Brian and the resulting debate pitting Michael Palin and John Cleese against a Church of England bishop and a staunchly Catholic broadcaster. Broadcast on the Ovation Network in April 2012 as part of their “The Best You’ve Never Seen” premieres, Holy Flying Circus is written by Oscar®-nominated writer Tony Roche (In the Loop) and stars Darren Boyd (Little Dorrit) as John Cleese, Charles Edwards (The Shell Seekers) as Michael Palin, Roy Marsden (P.D. James mysteries), Tom Fisher (The Illusionist), and Stephen Fry (Jeeves and Wooster) as God. Bonus features include deleted scenes, stills, and outtakes.

YOUNG JAMES HERRIOT (U.S. Debut) – “The ultimate in feel-good...dramas” (The Times) – New miniseries offers a fascinating look at the early life and education of a beloved British author and vet. This inspiring British drama unfolds against the backdrop of rising fascism in Europe and profound social change at home. But for young James Herriot, learning to become a veterinarian always came first. The three-part miniseries aired on the BBC in the U.K. in December 2011 but is available to U.S. audiences for the first time with its DVD release. Using his many years of veterinary experience, James Herriot wrote a series of books about animals and their owners and his bestselling books were the basis for the long-running BBC adaptation All Creatures Great and Small.



Late September-October:

From Acorn Media: The Crimson Petal and the White, New Tricks Season 8, Special Branch Set 1, Thomas & Sarah, Kidnap & Ransom Complete Series 1 & 2,  Vexed Series 1, Waterloo Road Series 1, and The Complete Red Green Show

From Athena: Joseph Campbell: Mythos – The Complete Series, Understanding Art Impressionism, Brave New World, and Bill Moyers: A World of Ideas II



January – July 3, 2012 DVDs:

From Acorn: DOC MARTIN, Series 5 (DVD Debut); WASHINGTON: BEHIND CLOSED DOORS (Home Video Debut); NEW TRICKS, Season 7 (DVD Debut); LOVE IN A COLD CLIMATE (Long-awaited DVD Debut) starring Judi Dench; THE BEST OF FOYLE’S WAR; MIDSOMER MURDERS, Set 20 (U.S. Debut, Blu-ray and DVD), John Nettles’ final episodes of the series; GEORGE GENTLY, Series 4 (U.S. Debut, Blu-ray and DVD); MONROE, Series 1 (U. S. Debut); MURDOCH MYSTERIES, Season 4 (U.S. Debut, DVD/Blu-ray); I, CLAUDIUS: 35th Anniversary Edition (bonus packed with many previously unavailable extras); BBC’s TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (Now on Blu-ray); Barbara Taylor Bradford’s A WOMAN OF SUBSTANCE TRILOGY; ABOVE SUSPICION, Set 1 (U.S. Debut), from the creator of Prime Suspect and starring Ciarán Hinds (Harry Potter); AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT Series 1-5 (Blu-ray debut, DVD); and POLDARK: The Complete Collection (Value-priced collection), a must-see for costume drama fans

From Athena: THE CODE (U.S. Debut); THIS IS CIVILIZATION (DVD Debut); TIME TEAM: UNEARTHING THE ROMAN INVASION (U.S. Debut); TREASURE HOUSES OF BRITAIN (DVD Debut); IN THEIR OWN WORDS (Athena, U.S. Debut) includes J. R.R. Tolkien, Sigmund Freud, George Orwell, Jane Goodall, Salman Rushdie, Evelyn Waugh, Margaret Mead, and the only surviving voice recording of Virginia Woolf; SECRET WAR (DVD Debut); BATTLEFIELD DETECTIVES (Athena, DVD Debut); BILL MOYERS: CAPITOL CRIMES; and THE WINDSORS (U.S. Debut, Athena).



Acorn’s and Athena’s DVD sets are available from select retailers, catalog companies, and direct from Acorn Media at (888) 870-8047 or www.acornonline.com and www.athenalearning.com.
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Friday, July 13, 2012

HIJACKED -- DVD review by porfle



A not-bad effort to generate AIR FORCE ONE thrills on a hoo-hah budget, HIJACKED (2012) does its best to make us believe we're flying first class even though it's strictly an economy ticket all the way.

Aside from a pretty lively shoot-out during which we say "hi" and "bye" to my man Vinnie Jones in all too short a time, the first fifteen minutes or so are just exposition to get us on that private jet where a terrorist group known as "The Tribe" will take over and try to force big-time business tycoon Bruce Lieb (Craig Fairbrass) to transfer a couple billion bucks into their bank account. 

Little do they know, though, that CIA agent Paul Ross (Randy Couture, THE EXPENDABLES) is aboard, and he's already peeved because his girlfriend Liv (Tiffany Dupont), who just went to work for Lieb, is currently giving him the cold shoulder.  So he's all set to kill, maim, and generally interfere with some bad guys, which, of course, he will eventually get to do for our viewing pleasure. 

But first, innocent people get messily blown away, a ticking time bomb is discovered, and certain good guys turn out to be working for the bad guys.  Plot turns such as this force Randy Couture to act, which really makes him mad.  Fortunately, he's not all that bad.  In fact, he kind of reminds me of a cross between Jason Statham and a bulldog, and the fact that he's not matinee-idol handsome adds a gruff realism to his character. 

His counterpart, terrorist leader Rostow Pawlak, is played by Holt McCallany (ALIEN 3, FIGHT CLUB) in a casual, unaffected style that's way better than the usual moustache-twirling villainy and adds some subtle humor to even the most hardbitten scenes.  Stuntwoman Ashley Cusato isn't bad as his right-hand woman Liesel, one of those coldblooded babes who enjoys shooting first and then shooting again later.  The rest of the performances hover between good and fair.

Director and co-writer Brandon Nutt has a pleasing directing style and the camerawork is fairly good here, so even though the film still looks low-budget, it's at the high end of low-budget.  Viewers accustomed to the sometimes cheesy SPFX of the AIRPORT movies will probably give the CGI shots of the airplane's exterior a pass for not always looking absolutely convincing. 

What's harder to overlook is the abundance of stupid moves made by the good guys, constantly giving the bad guys chances to escape, not hitting them hard enough to knock them out, or, incredibly, simply leaving them unattended with guns and knives lying around.  Co-writer Declan O'Brien (WRONG TURN 3, 4, and the upcoming 5) may be used to getting away with this kind of lazy writing in his slasher flicks, where we expect such rampant derpitude, but in an action movie it tends to hinder our suspension of disbelief. 

The DVD from Anchor Bay is in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen with Dolby 5.1 sound.  No subtitles or bonus features.

As a hardboiled action flick, HIJACKED is strictly small potatoes from the "take it or leave it" bin.  Still, with a fair amount of suspense and some pretty good action here and there, it isn't nearly as bad as it could have been in less capable hands.


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Thursday, July 12, 2012

"DEXTER: The Complete Sixth Season" Debuts on Blu-ray & DVD August 14



THE MOST-WATCHED ORIGINAL SHOWTIME® SERIES RETURNS WITH A SEASON TO DIE FOR

DEXTER: THE COMPLETE SIXTH SEASON

Featuring Behind-The-Scenes Interviews With Cast Including Special Guest Star Colin Hanks, The Critically Acclaimed Series Debuts On Blu-ray and DVD August 14


HOLLYWOOD, Calif. (May 30, 2012) – America’s favorite serial killer is back for a new season of thrilling drama and unexpected twists when DEXTER: THE COMPLETE SIXTH SEASON arrives on Blu-ray Disc and DVD August 14 from Showtime Networks, CBS Home Entertainment and Paramount Home Media Distribution. Featuring gripping performances from special guest stars Emmy® and Golden Globe® nominee Yasiin Bey, Colin Hanks (King Kong) and Academy Award® nominee Edward James Olmos (”Battlestar Galactica”), catch up on every suspenseful episode of the Emmy-nominated sixth season before new episodes premiere on SHOWTIME on September 30.

Golden Globe winner* Michael C. Hall continues to captivate audiences with his portrayal of mild-mannered, yet grisly serial killer Dexter Morgan. It has been a year since the fifth season’s emotional conclusion, and Dexter has finally come to terms with his identity. As he tries to move on, his existence is shattered when he crosses paths with an enemy unlike any that he’s faced before. The new adversary, a delusional religious zealot with unflinching convictions, draws Dexter into a dangerous game that could end in disaster. With powerful performances by series stars Jennifer Carpenter, Desmond Harrington, C.S. Lee, Lauren Velez, David Zayas and James Remar, DEXTER: THE COMPLETE SIXTH SEASON is a killer good time.

DEXTER: THE COMPLETE SIXTH SEASON Blu-ray includes three discs of all twelve episodes of the sixth season, plus bonus features via BD LIVE, and will be available for the suggested retail price of $67.99 U.S. The DVD includes four discs which feature all twelve episodes and special features plus bonus content via E-Bridge Technology for the suggested retail price of $54.99 U.S.

The DEXTER: THE COMPLETE SIXTH SEASON Blu-ray is presented in 1080p high definition with English 5.1 Surround, English 2.0 Surround, Spanish 2.0 and French 2.0 with English Subtitles. The DVD is presented in widescreen 16:9 with English 5.1 Surround, English 2.0, Spanish 2.0 and French 2.0. The Blu-ray and DVD are not rated in the U.S. The total running time is approximately 618 minutes. Episodes and special features are as follows:

Episodes:

·       Those Kinds of Things
·       Once Upon A Time…
·       Smokey and the Bandit
·       A Horse of a Different Color
·       The Angel of Death
·       Just Let Go
·       Nebraska
·       Sin of Omission
·       Get Gellar
·       Ricochet Rabbit
·       Talk to the Hand
·       This is the Way the World Ends


Special Features:      

·       Interviews (on Disc 4 on DVD; via BD Live on Blu-ray)
·       Michael C. Hall
·       Jennifer Carpenter
·       David Zayas
·       Lauren Velez
·       C.S. Lee
·       Colin Hanks
·       Desmond Harrington

·       First Two Episodes of “House of Lies” (on Disc 4 on DVD; via BD LIVE on Blu-ray)
·       First Two Episodes of the Fifth Season of “Californication” (via E-Bridge Technology on DVD; via BD-Live on Blu-ray)
·       First Two Episodes of the Second Season of “The Borgias” (via E-Bridge Technology on DVD; via BD-Live on Blu-ray)


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MIDNIGHT SON -- DVD review by porfle



Jacob (Zak Kilberg) is already a little weird--he burns in the sunlight and must remain nocturnal, living alone in a basement apartment and working the night shift as an office building security guard--but now he seems to be developing a ravenous appetite that can't be satisfied by food.  The janitor where he works (Tracey Walter) jokingly suggests that since the human body stops growing at 25, and since Jacob is now 24, perhaps he's on the verge of transforming caterpillar-like into a new being.  He happens to be right, but MIDNIGHT SON (2011) isn't about butterflies--it's about vampires.

Writer-director Scott Leberecht pays homage to the standard vampire flick here and there, especially when Jacob rents the original "Fright Night" to see if it can shed any light on his new condition, but this story is more concerned with what it would be like to be a vampire in the real world.  When Jacob discovers that his newfound hunger is for blood, he must find various ways to procure it while hiding his ghastly addiction from the rest of the world.  (One of the film's subtle bits of humor comes when he tries to order whole human blood over the phone.)

Eventually he ends up dealing with a hospital worker named Marcus (Jo D. Jonz) who first supplies him with expired human blood and then, for a price, something a little fresher.  Jason's moral strength is thus tested when it clashes with his unquenchable thirst.  This sick and ill-fated relationship gives MIDNIGHT SON some of its most horrific moments as Marcus' methods become more extreme and he draws Jacob into some truly disturbing situations. 

In the middle of all this, naturally, comes romantic interest Mary (Maya Parish), whom he meets selling candy and cigarettes on the street corner.  She's attracted by his "lost boy" quality until he starts doing strange little things like biting her throat during lovemaking and sporting day-glo eyes at odd moments. 

Parish is endearingly effective as Mary and we empathize with her confusion over Jacob's behavior as she tries to reach out to him, gradually realizing that there's something really wrong with the pale, frail loner besides a skin disorder and a social dysfunction. 

The film's pace is deliberate, almost dreamlike, while building slowly and inexorably toward a conclusion that, while lacking the jaw-dropping quality of a David Cronenberg finale, is nevertheless memorably disturbing and even exhilarating.  Along the way there are a number of standout scenes as Jacob's "condition" compels him to strike out violently when vexed (as a rude office executive discovers to his regret) while suffering flashbacks of brutal attacks he can't quite recall committing.  With the murder of a female office worker outside the building comes a doggedly inquisitive cop (Larry Cedar as Detective Ginslegh) who helps ratchet up the suspense in the film's second half. 

Leberecht's sure-handed direction and the imaginative cinematography by Lyn Montcrief give the film a look that transcends its meager budget.  The cast is uniformly good, with Kilberg's bleary-eyed restraint contrasting nicely with Parish's nervous energy.  As Marcus, Jo D. Jonz does a great job with his character's extremes and the various shadings in between.  Arlen Escarpeta is also good as Marcus' little brother Russell, who gets caught up unwillingly in the increasingly dark proceedings.  Tracey Walter (BATMAN, AT CLOSE RANGE) is a welcome presence in his brief but important role as Jacob's co-worker.

The DVD from Image Entertainment is in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen with Dolby 5.1 sound.  No subtitles, but closed-captioning is available.  Extras include deleted scenes, cast and crew interviews, a trailer, and an entertaining commentary track featuring Leberecht, Kilberg, Parish, and Jonz. 

MIDNIGHT SON is one of those horror movies that tries to get at the source of the folklore--in this case, how the more outlandish vampire legends over the years might have originated with normal people suddenly succumbing to a bizarre genetic disorder--and does so in a creative and compelling way.  What it lacks in expensive gore effects is made up for with some gruesomely effective situations and lots and lots of blood.  And while it does explore the emotional consequences of Jacob's condition, it doesn't go all emo on us like some of the more recent vampire tales.  In other words, this is definitely not your sister's "Twilight." 


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Sunday, July 8, 2012

BALL & CHAIN -- movie review by porfle



How would you like it if, when you reached a certain age, your parents started shopping around for the person you would marry and spend the rest of your life with?  And you'd be introduced to that person for the first time at a dinner attended by both families?  Pretty horrible, huh?

BALL & CHAIN (2004) lets us vicariously experience that horror through the eyes of Bobby (Kal Penn, HAROLD & KUMAR GO TO WHITE CASTLE, SUPERMAN RETURNS), a nebbishly-nice Indian guy who is trapped by cultural tradition into just such an arrangement.  The funniest part of the movie, in fact, occurs early on as the reluctant Bobby sits down at the dinner table and scans the faces around him to see what his pending bride will look like.  His eyes light upon a very attractive young woman named Saima (Lisa Ray), and he breathes a long "Hi!" of relief.  But Saima realizes Bobby's mistake and nods to the right, indicating the person sitting next to her.  Bobby follows her nod until his expectant gaze lands upon the most hideous creature this side of a Basil Wolverton portrait from MAD magazine. 

The horse-faced Ruby (Purva Bedi) is gawky, has stringy hair, a big nose, a startling facial mole, and sports some kind of scary dental apparatus that is dripping with cookie crumbs.  Bobby does a take worthy of a Tex Avery cartoon and screams "Aw, HELL NO!" before fleeing the table like a man on fire.  Ruby begins to bray like a lovesick donkey as masticated cookies dribble from her mouth.  Bobby returns for another look -- surely he must've been hallucinating -- but the beast is still there.  "Uh-uh!" he affirms, running off to find a window to jump out of.

The film never gets quite this funny again, although there are several moments that should provoke howls of laughter (such as the subsequent wedding scene) but never quite hit the bullseye.  And the funniest characters, Bobby and Ruby, are shoved to the sidelines as the rest of the movie focuses on Bobby's friend Ameet (Sunil Malhotra), who soon faces his own arranged engagement with the lovely Saima.  We can tell Ameet likes her but chafes at the thought of marriage.  Saima, on the other hand, can't stand Ameet, especially since every time he's around her she ends up drenched with various liquids. 

We know, of course, that they will eventually fall madly in love, but this occurs after Ameet has so successfully turned Saima's parents against him (especially when he tells them he's quitting his job to become a dancer, and proves it by shucking his pants and boogeying around on the dinner table) that they banish him from their daughter's presence forever.  So Ameet must somehow find a way to win Saima back even as her Papa (Asrani, who looks like a cross between Jack Soo and Larry Storch) begins to interview other prospective husbands. 

One of these suitors is the lizardlike, self-adoring ladies' man Ashol (Ismail Bashey), who wins over Papa with his baby-oil charm while showing his true bastardly horndog side to the horrified Saima.  At one point he ogles a large-breasted woman in a restaurant and tells Saima that she must get a boob job, then reveals his violent nature when she refuses.  This moment is played a bit too realistically for a comedy.

As their wedding day grows imminently closer, Saima flees to the arms of Ameet every chance she gets, and they share romantic walks on the beach and cutesy love talk and stuff like that as the movie occasionally veers dangerously close to "chick-flick" territory, leaving us to wonder: "Where are the laughs?  What happened to the funny?" 

Ameet tells Saima of his fantasy in which he arrives at his wedding to the girl of his dreams on an elephant, just like an Indian prince.  Of course, this gives us an idea of how the movie is going to end, with Ameet crashing Saima and Ashol's wedding on an elephant, but the image we conjure in our minds is much funnier than the actual scene, which is played more for it's "aww, isn't that romantic" qualities than for it's humor. 

While at first it looks like the final sequence is going to be a spoof of Dustin Hoffman's mad dash to the church at the end of THE GRADUATE, this doesn't really go anywhere, and the only satisfyingly funny thing about the ending is seeing the comeuppance that Ameet and Bobby have planned for Ashol.

It may sound as though I didn't like BALL & CHAIN very much, but I did enjoy it, although it was hardly the laugh-fest the trailer seemed to promise.  All of the lead characters are appealing, Ashol is a very effective bad guy, and the story sometimes glows with a genuine warmth that most comedies don't strive for.  I especially like the way Bobby and Ruby grow closer as the movie progresses--she gradually turns from an ugly duckling into, uh, a somewhat less ugly duckling--which made me wish we'd gotten to see a lot more of them.  My overall impression of BALL & CHAIN is similar to Kevin Costner's assessment of Bill Pullman in WYATT EARP -- not all that great, but "affable."  If anything, this movie is definitely affable.


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Friday, July 6, 2012

10 ITEMS OR LESS -- movie review by porfle



I love Morgan Freeman.  That is, I love his acting and his movie persona.  I don't know what he's like in real life--for all I know, he may be the reincarnation of Vlad the Impaler and feast upon barbecued babies three times a day.  But I'll watch a Morgan Freeman movie anytime.  Even an aimless, somewhat boring comedy, which is what 10 ITEMS OR LESS (2006) seems to be for much of its running time.  Nevertheless, I'm giving it a fairly positive rating, and if you can make it all the way to the end of this review, you'll see why.

Morgan Freeman plays a washed-up actor known only as "Him" (people keep recognizing him from his old movies and saying, "Hey! You're...HIM!") who hopes to begin a comeback by starring in a low-grade independent film project.  A gabby doofus who is a gofer for the project drives him to a grocery store, where he is to do research for his role as a store manager.  The gofer drops him off in the parking lot, promises to pick him up in an hour, and drives away, never to be seen again. 

Inside, the store is practically empty except for four or five customers who are constantly being haranged by a young Spanish woman named Scarlet (Paz Vega) who runs the "10 items or less" checkout.  This is where the movie gets its name, so it's a good thing she didn't clean the restrooms or it might have been called "Don't Forget To Flush." 

Scarlet yells at the customers who display dubious behavior over the P.A. system and berates them if they bring her more than ten items to check out.  She also hates and berates the skank who runs the other checkout (Anne Dudek in the role of "Other Checker") because she gets to sit on her ass all day since she's banging the manager, who happens to be Scarlet's weaselly ex-husband. 

Him is instantly fascinated by Scarlet because she can count how many items are in a basket faster than Rain Man, and because she seems so charmingly hostile.  When it's time for him to leave and the gofer fails to show up, he is unable to do simple things like call someone to come get him, because he is a movie star.  So Scarlet offers to drive him home, although she has to go to a job interview first.  She hopes to get a job as an office manager, and Him, who likens the job interview to a movie audition, which is something with which he actually has some functioning experience, is suddenly delighted with the prospect of helping her land the role.

"Costuming" is important, so they go to a department store to buy her a new blouse.  Him displays a childlike fascination for, among other things, the fact that the T-shirts don't cost $100 like they do in Movie Star Land.  The camera follows Him around while he gazes in wonder at garment fixtures and chats with people (he's a "people person.")  This is a bit like when someone wanders around shooting home video of various things for hours and then forces you watch it because they don't understand how soul-crushingly boring it is, and you want to kill them.  But it's also somewhat endearing to see Morgan Freeman taking a stab at playing such a lighthearted character.

They stop off at a car wash to wash Scarlet's car, because first impressions are important in an audition, and thus commences what is designed to be a humorous musical interlude.  As the car enters the stall, a sprightly salsa song sashays onto the soundtrack while we watch a montage of images: Scarlet puts on her new blouse in the bathroom, Him wanders around the gift shop and sniffs a car deodorizer; Scarlet applies makeup, Him watches a tender moment from THE YEARLING on the waiting room TV; Scarlett puts on lipstick, Him gaily helps the attendants wipe off some cars and they present him with a cap for being such a good helper.  I left out a few other things that are shown, because I'm only mentioning the more exciting ones.

Before pushing off again, Scarlet and Him sit in the car and rehearse for her job interview.  Assuming the role of interviewer, he fires off a bunch of probing questions at her and she gets frustrated.  Intuitively, he comes to the conclusion that she has already given up on herself, and that even at her young age, life has already made her feel as old and hopeless as he did on his last birthday. 

Watching this, I realized that the movie had come to a dead stop, had ceased trying to be funny-cute, and, for the first time, had become really interesting.  Morgan Freeman wasn't piddling around anymore.  He was acting.  With his quiet, sage voice and air of humane empathy, he had suddenly managed to turn both Him and Scarlet into human beings worth caring for, if only for a moment.  Morgan Freeman is just that damn good, in spite of himself.  And then, the moment's over and the movie gets boring again.

They eat at Arby's and belch at each other, and then sit on her car hood overlooking the bay and discuss the "10 items or less" that they love and hate most about life.  Then they drive around singing a song about her upcoming job interview, which is starting to seem like it must have been  scheduled for next week.  The song goes:  "Oh, please sit down...how do you do...this job's for me...the rest is poo."  This is repeated three or four times, God help us.  Then she teaches Him a Spanish song, and he asks her what the words that they just sang meant, and she slowly translates them for him, line by line, and I begin to think, "Please, let a train crash into them.  Please."

Finally, they make it to the job interview.  I'm not going to tell you how it turns out, because if I have to sit through all the boring parts of this movie to find out how the job interview turns out, then so do you.  Two nice things happen, though.  When Scarlet is nervously walking toward the front door for what may be the most important moment of her life so far, we can see how proud Him is of her and how much he has grown to care about her in such a short time.  The other nice thing is the part where Him is sitting in the waiting room, and he and the male receptionist (Jim Parsons as "Male Receptionist") have a funny conversation.  That's right--funny!  Woo-hoo!

Finally, Scarlet drives Him home.  They drive and drive, as Paul Simon sings about how his father was a fisherman.  Driving, driving...and then, something else funny happens that actually made me laugh.  Wow!  Two for two!  Seriously, it's an awesome gag.  Beers all around.

After that, the movie comes to its final scene, and I'm not going to tell you what happens here, either.  Because everything that's come before, as boring as much of it may have been, builds up to a simple, heartfelt moment between Scarlet and Him that is emotionally resonant and left me genuinely moved.  And what seemed for most of its running time to be a really lame comedy ultimately revealed itself, in its final moments, as a portrait of the deep attachment that can form between two strangers in a single day if they connect on a basic human level.  Morgan Freeman pulls out some of that real acting again, Paz Vega proves that she's a fine actress as well, and writer-director Brad Silberling turns out to be not such a bad filmmaker after all. 

At first I thought I'd never watch this movie again, but now I'm not so sure--if the slow parts that came before can lead up to such a heartwarming ending, then maybe they're worth sitting through, and maybe even worth a little reevaluating after the fact.  Earlier, while listing the 10 ITEMS OR LESS that he loves in life, Him names one that is particularly apt in this case:  a "strong finish."


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Thursday, July 5, 2012

L'ENFANT (THE CHILD) -- DVD review by porfle




(This review originally appeared online in 2005.)


"We'll have another."

That's what petty-thief schlub Bruno tells his girlfriend Sonia after he sells their baby in L'ENFANT (2005).  She's a wimpy space-case who lives on the dole and has a boyfriend who sublets her apartment without telling her while she's in the maternity ward.  He's a narcissistic bum with a serious case of arrested development, who employs little kids to steal stuff for him to fence because "working's for f**kers."  They both cavort around playing like children and living life one goofy screw-up at a time.  And now they're responsible for the welfare of an infant boy named Jimmy.  Jimmy, needless to say, didn't do too well in the mom-and-dad lottery.

This is a subtitled, documentary-style Belgian film that won the Palm d'Or at Cannes, which means that you'll either be engrossed by its slice-of-lowlife account of Bruno and Sonia's dimwitted exploits or bored out of your skull by it.  I found it pretty interesting, watching the inexorably downward spiral of Bruno's life as he goes from barely scraping by on a daily basis to scraping the pavement.  It's mainly his story--Sonia (Déborah François) is there to offer him moral and financial support, which he continually squanders until he commits the final outrage and she throws him out.  After that, we watch his desperate, doomed struggle to maintain what's left of his life until he finally hits bottom.

Bruno (Jérémie Renier) is interesting to observe in the same way that it's interesting to watch someone fall asleep with a lit cigarette in his hand and wait for it to burn down to his fingers.  I'm not even sure I hate him since he's too childlike and stupid to know right from wrong, and I found myself feeling bad for him because he seems incapable of knowing any better.  When he deals with the school boys who steal for him, he's in charge simply by rank of age, although on a mental and emotional level he's basically one of them.  (And much more the title character than Jimmy.) 

He reminds me of a shrimpy, feckless cross between David Lee Roth and Kid Rock, strutting around in a fancy jacket and hat that he threw away his ill-gotten money on because he can't see past the next minute of his life.  By the end of the movie, he's had to sell the hat and the jacket is practically a dirty rag. 

The final outrage, as I mentioned before, comes after Bruno's fence suggests to him that there are couples who will pay big money for a baby.  So he takes Jimmy out for a walk in his pram one day and comes back without him.  The scene that shows the switch being made is unsettlingly offhand--Bruno goes into a dark, empty apartment somewhere, lays the baby on the floor, and stands waiting in the next room for a while.  Then he goes back in and there's a pile of cash where the baby was.  He stuffs the 5,000 Euros in his pocket and goes off to tell Sonia the news, with about as much comprehension of the enormity of his act as someone who just snuck a ten spot out of his mom's purse.

Sonia's response is to pass out from shock and end up in the hospital.  Nonplussed by her extreme reaction and fearful of what she'll tell the police when she wakes up, he decides to trade the cash back in for the baby and make everything hunky-dory again.  Trouble is, the baby brokers claim that this transaction will cost them double what they originally paid, so now they want 5,000 Euros from Bruno and promise to beat him brutally once a week if he fails to come up with the payments. 
Thus, Bruno's happy-go-lucky life as a petty thief is now devoted to desperately trying to scrape up enough cash to stay in one piece.  And to make things worse, his former soulmate and source of unconditional love, Sonia, now utterly despises him.

Most of the time L'ENFANT looks as though someone simply followed Bruno and Sonia around for awhile and recorded their tawdry exploits unobserved.  This is a style that can look like crap if it isn't done well, but brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, who collaborated on the direction and script, know how to do cinema-verite right, and their cast is filled with actors who are convincingly natural. 

The story goes from point A to point Z in an informal fashion, finally coming to a stop like a record needle slipping off the last groove when there's nothing left to tell.  Things actually heat up toward the end with a botched purse-snatch and an exciting chase as Bruno and his young accomplice Steve (Jérémie Segard) flee from their dogged pursuers on a motorbike.  But it would all be rather pointless if not for the fact that circumstances finally compel Bruno to perform a selfless act that gains him a semblance of redemption which keeps L'ENFANT from being a distasteful wallow in squalor and nothing more.


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Tuesday, July 3, 2012

AGATHA CHRISTIE'S POIROT: SERIES 5 -- DVD review by porfle



David Suchet's brilliant portrayal of Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is the highlight of yet another DVD collection of scintillating mysteries from Acorn Media.  The two-disc set AGATHA CHRISTIE'S POIROT: SERIES 5 contains eight more wonderfully entertaining examples of why Poirot is one of the most popular fictional detectives of all time.

He's also one of the genre's most charmingly odd protagonists, as Suchet delights in bringing to life all of Poirot's many eccentricities including a comical fastidiousness, an obsessiveness matched only by Phil Hartman's "Anal Retentive Chef", and a robust ego which gives him a twinkly-eyed glow whenever someone offers praise for his abilities, which are considerable.

The fussy, impeccably-dressed Poirot is known both for his archly-styled moustache and a peculiar mincing walk that makes him resemble a large wind-up toy.  Always on the scent for a challenging mystery, the renowned private detective is joined once again by his dull but reliable associate, Captain Arthur Hastings (Hugh Fraser), and his kindly, spinsterish secretary Miss Lemon (Pauline Moran).  They're an appealingly odd trio, with Hastings handling Poirot's legwork and other physical requirements while Miss Lemon often relishes the opportunity to lend her own assistance to a case. 

Each story is exquisitely mounted for a television production, boasting a rich, consistently convincing period flavor (mid-30s England) and the slightly faded look of old picture postcards.  The fifty-minute episodes are short and sweet, with no padding and a brisk pace that always gets right to the point of things.  They often end with the classic gathering of the suspects as Poirot theatrically lays out the elements of the case to his rapt audience before zeroing in on the guilty party with a vengeful flourish.

"The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb" begins the set with the classic story of archeologists who open up an ancient tomb and then start dying off one by one due to some dreadful curse.  Only this time, Poirot suspects that the curse is due to a modern-day killer trying to cover his tracks by way of ancient superstition. 

The episode establishes such a crackerjack setting and mood that it doesn't seem to go on long enough--it's a bit like an old "Mummy" movie without the Mummy, or a boys' adventure yarn for adults.  The ending wraps up the story neatly with Poirot demonstrating a bit of his usual understated sentimentality which is always both unexpected and disarming.

"The Underdog" features one of those horribly obnoxious rich tycoons who's just begging to be murdered in a story like this.  His worst quality, in Poirot's eyes, is that he's ignorantly dismissive of his great collection of Belgian bronze miniatures which Poirot admires but which the millionaire industrialist regards as something to be melted down for scrap. 

Although the man's subsequent murder brings no tears to the detective's eyes, he doggedly pursues the identity of the killer amidst the usual plethora of suspects, including TITANIC's "Mr. Lightoller", Jonathan Phillips.  Before it's over, Miss Lemon is pressed into service to use her newly-gained expertise at hypnosis in the questioning of a witness.

In "Yellow Iris", Poirot receives an anonymous reminder of an earlier case which he was unable to solve due to circumstances beyond his control.  Finding that the conditions of the event are about to be recreated in London several years later gives him a chance to finally bring the murderer of a young woman to justice. 

One delightful moment of this episode comes when we see the infinitely fussy Poirot's breakfast, consisting of six tiny, perfect squares of toast in a symmetrical pattern and topped with identical dabs of marmalade.  Another demonstrates his unending vexation at being mistaken for a Frenchman, with the following exchange coming as he's being arrested by Argentine policemen:

"Don't worry, Mr. Poirot, I'll call the French embassy!"
"No, no, no, no!  The Belgian embassy!"


"The Case of the Missing Will" reintroduces us to Poirot's former adversary and current friend, Chief Inspector Japp (Phillip Jackson), a diligent but unimaginative detective who grudgingly relies on Poirot's insights where his own are often inadequate.  "The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman" finds Miss Lemon with a new admirer, Mr. Graves, who unfortunately may be involved in the murder of an Italian businessman being blackmailed by a member of an ancient Italian crime organization.  Hastings' love of automobiles is once again used to comic effect here, while also giving the episode an excuse for a rare car chase at the end.

We get a look at the young Poirot as a junior police officer on the Belgian force in "The Chocolate Box."  When he and Japp travel to Brussels to attend the Chief Inspector's induction as Compagnon de la Branche d'Or, the Belgian government's highest honor, Poirot is taken back to an old case from his youth which caused him great conflict with his boss and was never fully resolved.  It's a real treat seeing Suchet playing a younger and more dynamic Poirot, already showing signs of brilliance but hamstrung by his shortsighted superiors. 

In "Dead Man's Mirror", another insufferable millionaire enlists Poirot's aid in the matter of an industrial development scam before becoming the victim of an apparent suicide, which, of course, Poirot perceives as the classic locked-room murder.  Jeremy Northam guest stars. 

Finally, "Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan" finds Poirot vacationing at a seaside resort with Captain Hastings due to his doctor's orders to take it easy for awhile.  It isn't long before the lure of a mystery assails his keen senses and he becomes involved in the robbery of some priceless jewels from a hotel room, with the owners' maid Celestine the only possible culprit since she was alone in the room with them at the time.  Sorcha Cusack ("Jane Eyre") and Simon Shepherd ("Wuthering Heights") guest star in this fine conclusion to the collection, which features a hysterical running gag with Poirot being repeatedly mistaken for a newspaper contest character named "Lucky Len."

The 2-disc DVD from Acorn Media is in 4:3 full screen with Dolby Digital sound and English subtitles.  No extras.

With irresistibly intriguing mysteries and lush, authentic period atmosphere, AGATHA CHRISTIE'S POIROT: SERIES 5 is some of the finest episodic television ever produced.  Best of all, David Suchet's portrayal of Hercule Poirot is something that all fans of great detective fiction can treasure. 


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Sunday, July 1, 2012

MIDSOMER MURDERS: SET 20 -- DVD review by porfle



Fans of the "Midsomer Murders" DVD sets who have been dreading the end of John Nettles' run as Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby can breathe easier.  Although his successor, Neil Dudgeon as cousin DCI John Barnaby, appears prominently on the front cover with him, the baton doesn't get passed until the last minutes of the final episode of Acorn Media's four-disc set MIDSOMER MURDERS: SET 20 (which finishes up season 13 of the series), giving us four more all-Nettles Barnaby mysteries to savor while we can.

Regular viewers will know why this is a good thing.  John Nettles is wonderfully cast as former MI6 agent Tom Barnaby, now a no-nonsense Detective Chief Inspector in rural Midsomer County where one of the area's rustic charms is its rather shocking murder rate.  Barnaby isn't one of those dazzling masters of deduction like Sherlock Holmes, but a wise, insightful, and patient detective who works each case as though it were a fascinating puzzle. 

Barnaby has few quirky eccentricities to make his character more interesting--in fact, aside from being so brilliant at his job, it's his seeming ordinariness that sets him apart from the rest.  When not on a case, his ideal situation is to be at home watching telly with his wife Joyce (Jane Wymark) or tagging along to one of her many modest social affairs, while looking forward to the occasional visit from their daughter Cully (Laura Howard). 

He has an amusing but not overly comic relationship with his younger partner, Detective Sergeant Ben Jones (Jason Hughes), who must grudgingly do most of Barnaby's grunt work for him even though we know he's on his way to becoming an outstanding detective himself under Barnaby's wise tutelage.  As is the case with most detective teams of this nature, Jones is often amazed at Barnaby's keen leaps of logic and acts as a surrogate for the viewer.

With his career winding down, Barnaby's not the tireless bloodhound he once was--in fact, in three of the four stories here his participation is due to his wife being involved in situations that lead to murder.  The first and perhaps best of the bunch, "Master Class", finds Joyce helping to stage a competition for young pianists in which the four best get to attend personal classes with virtuoso Michael Fielding (James Fox) in his stately home, where one will be ultimately be chosen as his prodigy. 

One of the four, Zoe, is a troubled girl who claims to witness a mysterious blonde woman with a baby drowning in a nearby river, although the police can find no trace of her.  Interestingly, the first murder doesn't occur until well into the story after the competition among the four finalists and their parents has become fierce.  Suspects abound, including Fielding's creepy sisters and a fifth contestant who doesn't react well to being cut from the contest.  The typically gruesome murders include a hanging and a throat slashing. 

Death by electric sliding door and a broken wine bottle to the kidneys are featured in "Not in My Back Yard", with Barnaby once again tagging along as Joyce attends an open house for a modern mansion that has been built in rustic Great Pelfe against the protests of local residents.  With members of the Midsomer Conservation Society accusing town council members of a scam to develop their precious land, dead bodies start cropping up and Barnaby is forced to put his detective hat on as a parade of suspects file by.

"The Noble Art" is a boxing themed story with a local boy winning the world middleweight title, which causes some grief to those who bet a bundle on him to lose.  When a solicitor is murdered by mysterious means, three people who had secret dealings with him at the time are cast under suspicion, including the boxer's manager, the manager's unfaithful wife, and a prominent citizen who was being blackmailed by the solicitor's assistant after having a homosexual affair with him.

The boxing atmosphere helps make this one interesting as does the performance of Kevin R. McNally, who has a voice and carriage reminiscent of Orson Welles, as Barnaby's old friend Gerald Farquharson.  Farquharson is hosting an upcoming recreation of a historic bout on his estate which will serve as a scenic backdrop for the ever-growing body count.  Interestingly, Barnaby's instincts and understanding of human nature fail him notably during this investigation, and it isn't until late in the episode that he even begins to sort out who the killer is. 

Finally, "Fit For Murder" has a nervous Barnaby (his police fitness examination is coming up) accompanying Joyce to Swaveley Manor health spa, where a property dispute between owners Luke and Phoebe Archbold and Phoebe's former friend Miranda Bedford escalates into various acts of murder including death by tampered-with weight machine and drowning in a floatation chamber.  The health spa setting is reminiscent of "Thunderball" but without the international intrigue. 

What really makes "Fit For Murder" so involving is the fact that it's Tom Barnaby's last case.  The anniversary of his father's death--at the very same age that Barnaby will be on his next birthday--makes him uncharacteristically wistful and introspective here, as he ponders his past life and current circumstances with an increased awareness of his own mortality. 

I've never seen this side of the character before and it humanizes him in a poignant but not overly sentimental way.  It also, needless to say, prompts him to consider retirement while he's still able to enjoy life with Joyce, handing over the reins to cousin John in a touching farewell at the episode's close. 

The four-disc set from Acorn Media is in 16:9 widescreen with Dolby Digital sound and English subtitles.  Extras consist of a photo gallery and a text essay entitled "Goodbye to Barnaby."  (Also available in a 2-disc Blu-Ray version.)

John Nettles' tenure as the top cop in Midsomer County comes to an end in typically entertaining style with MIDSOMER MURDERS: SET 20, which should be of interest to both longtime fans and newcomers to the series.  As usual, some episodes are outstanding while others are simply par for the course, but they're always fun to watch.


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