Editor’s Notes: Imperium, Gleason, Last Girl Standing, The IT Crowd: The Complete Series, Hell on Wheels: Season 5, Volume 2: The Final Episodes, Outlander: Season 2, Bob Hope: Hope For the Holidays, The Sea of Trees are out on their respective home entertainment formats November 1st.
Imperium (Lionsgate), based on actual events, concerns a young FBI agent who infiltrates a group of white supremacists. Nate Foster (Daniel Radcliffe) is a desk analyst ordered to shave his head and go deep undercover to discover domestic terrorist organizations determined to rid America of Jews, African-Americans, and non-whites. Posing as an Iraq War veteran who’s become disillusioned with what America has become, Nate is accepted into a neo-Nazi group and constantly has to think on his feet to keep from being discovered.
Hollywood has focused a great deal on foreign terrorists lately, but this film reminds us that there are dangerous people plotting evil things right here in the United States. They often blend into their communities and keep their agendas hidden except from like thinkers. The character of Gerry Conway (Sam Trammell), for instance, is on the surface a normal, cultured family man who reads the great philosophers and loves classical music. He explains his racial hatred in a matter-of-fact manner that is especially chilling considering some of the rhetoric emerging from the current Presidential campaign.
Mr. Radcliffe could not have chosen a role further from Harry Potter. In fact, in most of his post-Potter films his roles push the envelope. The film is similar to The Infiltrator in that both movies deal with a good guy insinuating himself through guile, wits, and guts into a dangerous organization where a misstep could be fatal.
Imperium is an exciting film with first-rate supporting performances by Tracy Letts as a radio shock jock and Toni Collette as a gum-chewing FBI handler.
Bonus extras on the Blu-ray release include commentary with writer/director Daniel Ragussis and writer Michael German; cast and crew interviews; two behind-the-scenes featurettes; and trailer gallery. A digital HD copy is included.
Gleason (Sony Home Entertainment) is a documentary about 33-year-old father-to-be and former NFL football player Steve Gleason, who was diagnosed with the degenerative disease of amytrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), in which the body slowly fails over a period of months or years as neurons that control muscles die off. By the time the disease reaches the lungs, an ALS sufferer can no longer breathe on his own and soon dies. Given a life expectancy of two to five years, Gleason recorded video diaries for his baby son until his voice gave out, then learned how to use a machine to communicate.
The early scenes show an eloquent man determined to embrace fatherhood, heal a troubled relationship with his own emotionally detached father, and launch a foundation to help other ALS patients. As his physical condition deteriorates, the film becomes a study in marital devotion.
Interspersing Gleason’s video diaries with footage of the household, the movie chronicles the challenges to the family and the lifestyle changes they make to accommodate his worsening condition. From a changing gait and slurred speech, the disease leads to crutches, then a wheelchair, and the inability to talk.
Though director Clay Tweel doesn’t shy away from the frightening, depressing nature of this terminal illness, the film is notable for Gleason’s positive outlook on life. He knows the inevitable, yet determines to use the time he has left to enjoy his family and make a difference for other ALS sufferers.
The sole bonus feature on the DVD release is commentary with Clay Tweel and Michel Varisco.
Last Girl Standing
Last Girl Standing (MPI Media Group) is a thriller that deals with the lasting trauma of a horrible experience on its victim. Five years ago, a masked killer brutally murdered a group of friends. Since then, Camryn (Akasha Villalobos), the lone survivor, has struggled to reclaim her shattered life. Wracked with guilt and paranoia, Camryn leads a depressingly lonely existence until Nick (Brian Villalobos), a new co-worker, befriends her and attempts to integrate her into his circle of friends. But just when she might be ready to begin a new life, Camryn’s past comes back to haunt her.
Though the film easily qualities as a thriller and even enters the realm of horror, it also delves deeply into character. As we watch Camryn emerge from a five-year period of detachment, we get a look at what a victim of trauma must overcome to rejoin the world. Every day is a challenge for her until she begins to feel comfortable with a new group of friends.
Writer/director Benjamin R. Moody, however, sticks with traditional horror-flick ingredients; there’s a slasher, lots of gore, and considerable suspense. But what is driving the movie is concern for the troubled Camryn, the “final girl” in a slasher nightmare. Most horror films deal with the gradual picking off of characters until the final girl — because of a combination of luck and intelligence — manages to survive. But that’s where those films end. They never explore how the survivor fares in the aftermath of the bloodbath. Last Girl Standing takes this unsettling journey.
Special features on the DVD release include commentary with writer/director Ben Moody and producer Rachel Moody, making-of featurette, gag reel, filmed fight rehearsals, test footage, and set tour.
The IT Crowd: The Complete Series
The IT Crowd: The Complete Series (MPI Home Video) is a British TV series that takes place at Reynholm Industries, a hugely profitable company whose exact function is never made clear. The company’s Information Technology Department, located in the basement, is staffed by bitter slacker Roy (Chris O’Dowd, Bridesmaid”), super-nerd Moss (Richard Ayoade, The Watch), and technologically clueless middle manager Jen (Katherine Parkinson, Pirate Radio).
Among the bizarre situations the IT crew find themselves in are befriending a cannibal, designing the ultimate bra, and creating a charity calendar of topless nerds. As they toil to solve the most mundane technical issues and navigate the corporate landscape, they must also troubleshoot their unusual personal lives.
The IT Crowd has well developed central characters and doesn’t go after wisecracks and rapid-fire jokes. The humor builds with situations set up for their eventual comic pay-off. Not joke-y in terms of gags-per-minute, it satisfies in how the comedy derives from oddball situations and the personalities of the main characters. Though the setting is a tech company, those who have worked in any type of office environment will recognize many of the foibles and situations.
The characters are funny and likable. The first episode — which should grab us immediately — is not that sharp, but subsequent episodes hit their stride and set the tone as a clever deadpan geek-centered comedy.
The 5-disc DVD set contains all four seasons of the series. Special features include commentary with writer/director Graham Lineman on select episodes, deleted scenes, featurettes, outtakes, interview with Graham Lineman, original titles sequence, and the music video “Kalypso” by Sweet Billy Pilgrim, featuring Katherine Parkinson.
Hell on Wheels: Season 5, Volume 2: The Final Episodes
Hell on Wheels: Season 5, Volume 2: The Final Episodes (Entertainment One) tells the story of post-Civil War America, focusing on Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), a Confederate soldier who sets out to exact revenge on the Union soldiers who killed his wife. His journey takes him to Hell on Wheels, a lawless melting pot of a “town” that travels with and services the construction of the transcontinental railroad, where he finds himself a stranger in an unfamiliar world.
Along with the railroad’s engineering and construction, the show documents institutionalized corruption, the immigrant experience, the history of Chinese workers, and the plight of newly emancipated African-Americans during Reconstruction.
In Season 5, Volume 2, Bohannon finds himself in the mountain town of Truckee, California, home to the Central Pacific Railroad and thousands of Chinese workers whose language alienates them from the culture and traditions of America. Accepting the challenges of assembling a new workforce, Bohannon leads the effort to tunnel through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, sometimes achieving only inches a day in the race to complete the first transcontinental railroad.
The push to finish brings with it a reckoning for Bohannon and the men in his path — the bloodthirsty Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl), the mercenary Chang (Byron Mann), and the avaricious Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney).
This is hardly a glamorized version of the era. Corruption is rampant, prostitutes solicit openly, immigrants are taken advantage of, men deftly tiptoe around the law, and sudden death is an almost everyday occurrence. The characters — particularly Bohannon — are richly drawn, and the production design is fantastic for a TV series. The show has an epic sensibility, reminiscent of the feature film How the West Was Won.
Bonus extras on the 2-disc Blu-ray edition include the featurettes A Look at the Final Episodes and The Golden Spike, and 7 Inside the Episodes.
Outlander: Season 2
Outlander: Season 2 (Sony Home Entertainment), based on Diana Gabaldon’s international best-selling book series about a World War II nurse mysteriously swept back in time to Scotland in 1743, combines romance, science fiction, history, and adventure. Season 2 switches location from the Scottish Highlands to the Parisian court of King Louis XV.
Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and Jamie (Sam Heughan) arrive in France, intent on infiltrating the Jacobite rebellion led by Prince Charles Stuart (Andrew Gower) and stopping the battle of Culloden. With the help of Jamie’s cousin Jared (Robert Savannah), they are thrown into the lavish world of French society, where intrigue and parties are abundant but political gain proves far less fruitful. Altering the course of history presents challenges that begin to weigh on the very fabric of their relationship. But armed with the knowledge of what lies ahead, Claire and Jamie race to prevent a doomed Highland uprising and the extinction of Scottish life as they know it.
The shift to France makes it possible for the costume designers to go all out, and the costumes are luxurious and elaborate, often dominating dramatic scenes. The last monarchal era before the French Revolution is captured in all its hedonistic abandon as the nobles either were ignorant of the plight of the common folk or simply didn’t care about them. The basic concept of the show is kind of bizarre, but allows for time travel to play a role in the rewriting of history.
Outlander: Season 2 contains all 13 episodes in a 5-disc Blu-ray set. Bonus extras include 24 deleted and extended scenes with introductions, gag reel, podcasts, and featurettes. In From Book to Screen: Discovering the Differences, writers of the series discuss how they develop the scripts and work out plot points. Designing History: The Costumes of Outlander and Recreating 18th Century Paris deal with the show’s eye-catching costumes and period set designs.
Bob Hope: Hope For the Holidays
Bob Hope: Hope For the Holidays (Time Life) is a nostalgic look at the annual Christmas shows presented by comedian Bob Hope, whose connection to Christmas TV specials began on Christmas Eve 1950 with The Comedy Hour. These NBC specials became eagerly anticipated staples of holiday viewing each year. Bob, his wife, Dolores, and their family invited friends from the worlds of entertainment and sports to celebrate and reminisce about vintage seasonal sketches in the 1993 special Bob Hope’s Bag Full of Christmas Memories.
Highlights of this release include a compilation of his monologues from his many holiday tours for the USO, Redd Foxx and Hope playing reindeer reluctant to guide Santa’s sleigh, Hope and Red Skelton (as Freddie the Freeloader) experiencing a small Christmas miracle, Jack Benny visiting Santa at the North Pole for a holiday stickup, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt delivering a Christmas message, and Naomi and Wynonna Judd singing “Beautiful Star of Bethlehem.”
Department store Santas Bob and Robert Cummings swap stories on the subway, opera star Lily Pons performs a selection from “Lakme,” and Bob and Dolores Hope sing “Silver Bells” over a montage of him performing the song with an array of female costars from 17 holiday specials.
Bonus material on the DVD release includes Shanks for the Memory, about the world of golf according to Bob Hope, which contains clips of Hope with Bing Crosby, President Gerald Ford, and pro golfers Arnold Palmer, Ben Hogan, and Jack Nicklaus on courses around the world.
The Sea of Trees
The Sea of Trees (Lionsgate) is set in Aokigahara, a Japanese forest near Mount Fuji known as a legendary suicide spot. Arthur Brennan (Matthew McConaughey) is a depressed American science professor determined to end his life in the “sea of trees,” as the forest is also called. When he meets Japanese family man Takumi (Ken Watanabe), who’s intent on taking his own life, a bond forms between the two men and Arthur resolves to save them both.
Director Gus Van Sant (Milk, Good Will Hunting) uses flashbacks to show scenes from Arthur’s strained marriage to Joan (Naomi Watts), a high-functioning alcoholic, to explain why Arthur is so tormented. But this melodrama draws upon sappy dialogue about love, loss, and pain to such a degree that the film becomes a series of cliches about marital cheating, selfishness and alcoholism. Structured episodically, the movie lacks a straightforward narrative and feels more like a series of therapist’s visit than a cohesive whole.
McConaughey is reasonably effective, but in a lackluster role. Ms. Watts’ character is portrayed as a major ingredient of Arthur’s pain, which doesn’t come off as authentic. The main story, the flashbacks, and the relationship between Takumi and Arthur seem to be working against one another rather than formulating a captivating study of suicide and how a man becomes desperate enough to turn to it for solace.
The only special feature on the Blu-ray release is the making-of behind-the-scenes featurette The Sea of Trees: A Story of Beauty and Tragedy. A digital HD copy is included.