Editor’s Notes: The Spiders, Maggie’s Plan, The Nice Guys, Weiner, The Huntsman: Winter’s War, Narcos: Season One, A Taste of Honey, The Wonder Years: The Complete Series, The Bloodstained Butterfly, The Walking Dead: The Complete Sixth Season will be released on their respective formats August 23rd.
The Spiders (Kino Lorber) is the 1919 silent film that established Fritz Lang as a master of epic storytelling, which would be on view eight years later in Metropolis. The Spiders reflects Lang’s fascination with Asian culture. International adventurer Kay Hoog (Carl de Vogt) finds a message in a bottle floating in San Francisco Bay that tells of a hidden Incan city filled with gold and includes a map to its location. He sets out in search of the treasure, which includes the precious “Buddha’s Head” diamond. Along the way, he must contend with an organization of criminal spies known as The Spiders, who will employ any form of treachery, including murder, to snatch the artifacts from his possession.
Think of The Spiders as a forerunner of Raiders of the Lost Ark. It has exotic locations, plenty of action, priceless archaeological artifacts, a nefarious organization determined to snatch them away, and an intelligent hero ready to fight to preserve them.
The movie is accompanied by music composed and conducted by Ben Model. Silent films were never shown dead silent. There was always music to accompany them — full orchestras in first-run theaters in large cities, an organist or at least a piano player matching music to on-screen action. Model’s score nicely enhances the action scenes.
At 173 minutes, the film is far too long, and viewers will have to accustom themselves to a much slower pace than contemporary pictures. The soundtrack is in stereo and the print features color tinting.
There are no bonus features on the Blu-ray release.
Maggie’s Plan (Sony Home Entertainment), written and directed by Rebecca Miller, daughter of playwright Arthur Miller, is about a 30-something career counselor (Greta Gerwig) at a New York college who hasn’t yet found love. When she meets anthropology professor and struggling novelist John Harding (Ethan Hawke), she falls in love for the first time. Complicating matters, John is in an unhappy marriage with Georgette (Julianne Moore), an ambitious academic who is driven by her work. With some help from Maggie’s eccentric best friends, married couple Tony (Bill Hader) and Felicia (Maya Rudolph), Maggie devises a plan that intertwines their lives and connects them in humorous ways.
Owing a lot to Woody Allen, Manhattan upper middle-class types, and screwball comedy, Maggie’s Plan often enters the realm of farce but manages to provide depth to its characters, making them more than mere joke spewers. Director Miller has a deft touch, drawing humor from the characters and their their hang-ups, flaws, and aspirations. Maggie is a modern-day romantic heroine. Some of the plot points are familiar, but the light touch makes for a pleasant time.
Bonus extras on the Blu-ray release include commentary with director Rebecca Miller, Sundance Film Festival Q & A, outtakes, and the featurette “Controlling Fate: The Making of Maggie’s Plan.” A digital HD copy is enclosed. The film is also available on DVD.
The Nice Guys
The Nice Guys (Warner Home Video) takes place in a seedy section of Los Angeles in 1977. Widowed, drunken private investigator Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is not above taking financial advantage of his clients. March’s life takes an unpleasant turn when he encounters thug-for-hire Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe). But soon they reluctantly team up to locate a missing woman, Amelia Kuttner (Margaret Qualley), assisted by March’s 13-year-old daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice). During their search, they learn Amelia is linked to a recently murdered porn star named Misty Mountains. Their search narrows to the only remaining celluloid copy of a porn movie that has embedded in it a corporate expose involving the auto industry and air pollution.
Though the plot tends to be convoluted, the chemistry between Gosling and Crowe keeps things percolating. It’s refreshing to see a movie that’s not a franchise installment, super-hero flick, or remake. The Nice Guys has a freshness, even though it harks back to gumshoe flicks from decades ago with more than a nod to film noir. Writer/director Shane Black has blended two distinct genres — comedy and action drama — using March and Healy as a hardboiled Laurel and Hardy duo eluding bad guys who’d like to eliminate them, chief among them an assassin named John Boy (Matt Bomer).
Director Black has taken pains to make The Nice Guys stylish. The period detail — clothing, hairstyles, Star Wars T-shirts, pet rocks, blaring Disco music — set the action in a definite time and place.
The film has a breezy quality despite considerable violence and bloodshed. The sub-plot of March trying to be a good father to Holly seems a tacked-on device geared to humanize him. Gosling has a nice rhythm and laid-back quality to his performance as he tosses off one-liners and smoothly works the physical comedy. Crowe is surprisingly effective, both when he goes for laughs and when he switches to his tough-guy mode. A bit heavier than in recent films, he has the look of a guy who’s broken his share of other people’s bones.
Bonus features on the 2-disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack include a making-of behind-the-scenes featurette and the cast and crew telling anecdotes about the movie’s auteur, Shane Black. A digital HD copy is enclosed. Also available is a single-disc edition in the DVD format.
Weiner (IFC Films) refers to Anthony Wiener, a young New York Congressman destined to be a star of the Democratic Party until a 2011 sexting scandal forced his humiliating resignation. Two years later, he ran for mayor of New York City, hoping his ideas would overshadow his past lack of judgment. Weiner is a captivating look inside his attempt at a political comeback, which derailed when new sexting allegations were made public. Granted total access to the candidate and his campaign, directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Sternberg follow Weiner from his surge to the top of the polls to his desperate attempt to forge ahead despite the media’s incessant coverage of the new, damaging news.
The documentary plays almost like a Greek tragedy, with Weiner destroyed by his own flaw. Though it is an accurate account of Weiner’s downfall, it sometimes feels like a mockumentary by Christopher Guest with Weiner a nearly farcical character initially denying sexting, then confessing, resigning, apologizing to his constituents and taking therapy to repair his marriage to Huma Abedin, a Hillary Clinton aide. Weiner’s personal tragedy unfolds as the cameras unflinchingly record his embarrassment and despair, even as he tries to keep an optimistic point of view.
Weiner is not your typical talking heads documentary. The film has a driving energy and a palpable sense of suspense as we wonder how — or if — Weiner can extricate himself from a political quagmire of his own making. There are no bonus features on the DVD release.
The Huntsman: Winter’s War
The Huntsman: Winter’s War (Universal) is both prequel and sequel to 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman. The early part of the film shows events leading up to the Huntsman’s rescue of Show White, but most of the film takes place seven years later, after wicked queen Ravenna’s death. Charlize Theron has been brought back from the dead to chew up more scenery as Ravenna. In a “borrowing” from Disney’s Frozen, Ravenna’s sister Freya (Emily Blunt), who’s been jilted, creates perpetual winter in an icy kingdom where she rules over kidnapped children whom she trains to become tough soldiers forbidden to feel love. Also on hand is huntsman Eric (Chris Hemsworth), who has eyes for the warrior archer Sara (Jessica Chastain). Snow White, played unenthusiastically by Kristen Stewart in the earlier film, does not show up this go-round.
We learn the back stories of the main characters. Eric was one of many who were taken from their homes and conscripted into the army of Ravenna’s sister, Queen Freya, growing up as a child soldier. Eric is weary of battle, yet sets aside his personal problems to help mankind. We also learn about a tragedy that turned Freya into an embittered looney. The relationship between Ravenna and Freya is explained
The movie is an amalgam of many fantasies, with Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones prominent sources. The tone is dead serious. With all its CGI, over-the-top acting, and melodrama, The Huntsman: Winter’s War is like eating a small salad for dinner — enjoyable, but leaving you hungry for something more substantial. The blatant cribbing of major plot points from Frozen is a transparent and awkward attempt to attract that film’s considerable fan base.
Exclusive extras on the 2-disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack, which includes both theatrical and extended versions of the film, include the featurettes “Two Queens and Two Warriors,” “Meet the Dwarfs,” and “Magic All Around - A Look at the Visual Effects.” Other bonus features include deleted scenes, gag reel, director’s commentary, and a look at behind-the-scenes filming with the cast. A digital HD copy is also included.
Narcos: Season One
Narcos: Season One (Lionsgate) follows the true story of the rise of the 1980s international cocaine cartels and the battle waged by law enforcement to stop them. At the center of the conflict are the notorious Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura) and the two DEA agents sent to take him down: Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook) and Javier Pena (Pedro Pascal).
This ten-part Netflix series allows time for deep characterization. It’s chilling to see how calmly Moura’s Escobar inquires about the families of Colombian police officers, an implied death threat if the cops interfere with his drug shipments. Using not only veiled threats, but outright bribery and murder, Escobar continues to run his lucrative drug business. By contrast, the good guys are far less colorful. Holbrook’s Murphy is a bland, by-the-book agent in the style of Eliot Ness. Pascal’s Pena has more fire and is more interesting. Character actor Luis Guzman co-stars as murderous cartel boss Gascha.
Rather than portraying Escobar as a one-note villain, the show explores his early life and the conditions that led to his rise in the illegal drug trade. He has compassion for the poor, tries his hand at politics, balances family life with an extra-marital affair, and orders assassinations as easily as ordering a rum and Coke. Previous large and small-screen portrayals of Escobar have never delved as deeply.
Bonus extras on the 3-disc Blu-ray release include four making-of featurettes, deleted scenes, and audio commentaries. A digital HD copy is included.
A Taste of Honey
A Taste of Honey (The Criterion Collection) is Tony Richardson’s 1961 film about the lives of the British working class. Jo (Rita Tushingham) is an uneducated white slum dweller from the northern industrial city of Manchester. She and her mother, Helen (Dora Bryan), sneak out of their flat to avoid paying the rent and take another dingy furnished room. While walking around the docks, Jo meets a ship’s black cook, Jimmy (Paul Danquah), and becomes pregnant after a one-night stand. Left on her own when her mother is about to marry, Jo gets a job in a shoe store and moves in with her gay co-worker Geoff (Murray Melvin), forming an atypical domestic couple until Jo’s life is once again thrown into turmoil by her mother’s unexpected return into her life.
The movie presents a gritty, depressing portrait of slum life and the poverty, lack of education, and hopelessness it entails. Ms. Tushingham, who won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival, plays Jo as an adrift soul, letting fate govern her life. Awkward yet endearing, she elicits sympathy for Jo and sustains our concern as she navigates the pitfalls of youth in unforgiving surroundings. The movie is sad, but also sweet, particularly in the scenes between Jo and Geoff — two of society’s outcasts who bond despite dissimilar orientations and outlooks on life.
Bonus features on the Blu-ray release include new interviews with actors Rita Tushingham and Murray Melvin; audio interview with director and co-screenwriter Tony Richardson from the 1962 Cannes Film Festival; excerpt from a 1960 TV interview with “A Taste of Honey” playwright Shelagh Delaney; a look at the film’s stage origins; Momma Don’t Allow, a 1956 short film by Richardson; and a critical essay.
The Wonder Years: The Complete Series
The Wonder Years: The Complete Series (Time Life) is an affectionate look at growing up in the late 60s and early 70s in suburban America.
The central character, Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage), a sixth grader at Kennedy Junior High School, tries valiantly to reduce his teenage angst while dealing with older brother Wayne (Jason Hervey), rebellious sister Karen (Olivia d’Abo), workaholic father Jack (Dan Lauria), and housewife mom Norma (Alley Mills). Regular characters on the show are Kevin’s best friend, Paul (Josh Saviano), and potential love interest girl-next-door Winnie Cooper (Danica McKellar). Daniel Stern provides off-screen narration as an older, wittier Kevin.
What makes the show a genuine TV classic is its combination of sentiment, nostalgia, and top-notch writing. For those who grew up then, the show is a beautiful recreation of the era, as seen through the eyes of a child gradually taking on the responsibilities of adulthood, with all the trials and tribulations they entail. Kevin and his friends are placed in coming-of-age situations against the background of actual historical events.
The set contains over 300 classic period songs as they were used in the original broadcasts, by such artists as Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, The Byrds, Simon & Garfunkel, Aretha Franklin, and James Taylor, and Joe Cocker’s theme for the show.
This box set of 22 DVDs contains all 115 episodes from the program’s six seasons, which aired from 1988 to 1993. Included are complete show notes with episode synopses, cast member reflections, “Current Events,” highlights from the first cast reunion in 16 years, roundtable discussions with Danica McKellar, Fred Savage, and Josh Saviano; 6 newly produced featurettes, the one-hour ABC broadcast of the series finale, and exclusive interviews with the show’s creators and cast.
The Bloodstained Butterfly
The Bloodstained Butterfly (Arrow Video) is one of the tamer entries among “giallo” — the 20th century Italian genre of film with mystery and often slasher, supernatural, horror, or crime fiction elements. “The Bloodstained Butterfly” combines giallo with courtroom drama. A young woman’s dead body is found in a park during a thunderstorm and Italy’s best detectives are assigned to the case. Newscaster Alessandro Marchi (Giancarlo Sbragia) is incriminated. Several eyewitnesses report having seen him fleeing the scene, his fingerprints are on the murder weapon, and there’s mud on his coat that matches the mud in the park. Everything seems to fit neatly, but all is not as it appears.
With its emphasis on the police investigation and lengthy courtroom scenes, the film will remind viewers of TV lawyer series such as Perry Mason or Law and Order. Fans of giallo might be disappointed, however, in that the horror element is understated. Director Duccio Tessari uses some imaginative camera angles in the exterior scenes, but unlike other giallo films made around the same time, The Bloodstained Butterfly lacks a timeless quality and visually is very much a product of the early 1970s. The major drawback is the slow pace — far from the rapid editing modern movie viewers have come to expect.
There are a romantic subplot involving Alessandro’s daughter, Sarah (Wendy D’Olive), and her boyfriend, Giorgio (Helmut Berger), a gifted, disturbed pianist with a dark secret; an intense sex scene; and references to hot-topic social issues of the period. The script is well constructed, with several plot twists and red herrings to keep the viewer off balance. The cinematography is impressive, particularly in its original widescreen format, and the soundtrack interpolates Tchaikovsky’s Concerto No. 1 with a more traditional score.
Bonus features on the 2-disc Blu-ray + DVD Special Edition include original Italian and English soundtracks, newly translated English subtitles for the Italian soundtrack, new audio commentary, visual essay on the film, new interview with actor Helmut Berger, interview with the actress/wife of director Duccio Tessari, Italian and English theatrical trailers, gallery of promotional images, and reversible sleeve containing original and newly commissioned artwork.
The Walking Dead: The Complete Sixth Season
The Walking Dead: The Complete Sixth Season (Anchor Bay) begins with Alexandria’s safety shattered by multiple threats. The people will have to toughen up while many of Rick’s followers will need to take a step back from the violence they had needed to embrace. These reversals won’t happen easily, or without conflict. But now Rick’s (Andrew Lincoln) group is fighting for something more than survival — they’re fighting for their home, and they will defend that at any cost, against any threat, even if that threat comes from within.
The first half of Season 6 deals with an approaching zombie herd and an attack by a rabid band of maniacal predators called the Wolves. Overlapping story lines focus on different characters during the crisis. We also learn Morgan’s (Lennie James) back story to understand what motivates his no-kill personal code. The second half of the season portrays the survivors as darker and far less moral than in previous seasons, posing the dramatic question, “Are these people heroes?” The later episodes suggest that a major character has died, for a “gotcha” cliffhanger.
Bonus extras on the 5-disc, 16-episode Blu-ray release include deleted scenes and several behind-the-scenes featurettes. A digital HD copy is enclosed. Season 6 is also available in a 5-disc DVD edition.