12/15/2015

TV on DVD Review: A French Village - Season 1


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AKA: Un Village Français

Gripping right from the start (and long before the first bullet is fired), this sophisticated and naturally suspenseful period soap opera offers historical drama fans a fresh breath of French air following years of traditionally stagey WWII television fodder of the mothballs and museum reenactment variety.

Created for the network France 3 by Frédéric Krivine, Philippe Triboit, and Emmanuel Daucé, the critically well-received A French Village has been a long-running success since its 2009 debut.

Beginning its chronicle of the lives of more than a dozen characters during wartime sixty-nine years earlier in the summer of 1940, back in its native France A French Village is about to enter what is purported to be its seventh and final season.

While it will take awhile for those in the states to catch up to that extent, this newly released slim-packaged, space-saving, and instantly seductive four-disc first season Region 1 DVD set from MHz (which delivered Denmark’s superlative smash Borgen to western audiences) gives us a great place to start.

Impeccably well-researched yet refreshingly relatable, A French Village deftly avoids genre trappings by focusing just as intensely on the facts as it does on the deceptively real (but really fictional) figures that move the character-driven plot forward.

Lushly photographed and exceptionally well-crafted, while a Blu-ray edition would obviously be the best way to fully appreciate the high definition origins of Village, the technical specs of the DVD release are – much like the show itself – on par with a feature film.

Set in one of those picturesque communities where everyone knows everyone else (for better or worse), A French Village takes place in the fictional, titular French village of Villeneuve, which is situated near the edge of the Swiss border in France’s Jura province.

Easing us into the rhythms of life in the countryside, long before the Germans arrive in Villeneuve in full force, Village's writers and directors begin to foreshadow things to come, planting clues like seeds which begin to grow, shift, and change, until they evolve into some of the twelve episode first season’s most complicated plotlines.

Fraught with tension and laced with ironic twists and counterpoints such as in an unforgettable sequence where village schoolchildren stumble upon a cannon in the idyllic countryside while on a field trip – mere moments before bullets rip through the scene – the pilot is easily the standout of the series so far.

Begging to be watched in quick succession, although it’s easy to fly through the first disc as conflicts arise involving the birth and subsequent hasty adoption of a young baby by village doctor turned mayor Daniel Larcher (Robin Renucci), the action begins to cool down midway through the four-disc set.

 

Ramping up the drama as those in Villeneuve are forced to adapt to this "new normal," soon enough unexpected alliances start to form among residents from all walks of life as citizens band together to form an early version of the resistance.

Taking advantage of the slightly slower pace to flesh out the characters even more, the stresses of life in the occupied community test preexisting relationships, putting an even greater strain on the romantic and family lives ofVillage’s population.

Exploring the many shades of gray in between what perhaps during peacetime most would've deemed black or white or right or wrong, as Village starts incorporating action, intrigue, and espionage into some of the show's sudsiest love triangles, the series becomes dangerously addictive.

Demanding your attention over the course of its phenomenal four final episode run (which rivals the first disc in terms of binge-worthy greatness), Village's first season finale leaves you excited for things to come in the seasons to follow.

Although it is anchored by male main characters (as perhaps indicative of its patriarchal time period), A French Village earns bonus points for not discounting the community evident in its name in what amounts to a true ensemble effort.

Capably alternating between the dramatic, frantic, tragic, and romantic – sometimes within the same scene – the series moves seamlessly from classrooms to dining rooms to brothels and beyond, incorporating the point-of-views of numerous residents into each roughly sixty-minute episode.

Whether focusing on a young schoolteacher who finds her heart pulled in two very different directions or the young son of a communist who is forced to think quickly to keep his father’s secrets, the series juggles a number of plotlines and perspectives with the same level of care and commitment. And it's fascinating to see the personalities and priorities of Village's characters evolve over the course of a few months.


Guilty on occasion of cutting a few corners in logic, at times A French Village is so jam-packed with plot that we can’t help but feel a few scenes that offered greater clarification might have been left on the cutting room floor. Yet, to its immense credit, the show’s flaws are extremely few and very far between.

Abruptly cutting to the twelfth episode’s final credits immediately following a deadly confrontation between a handful of villagers that the show had been building up since the very first episode, needless to say, by the end of the successful first season, A French Village leaves us eager for the upcoming release of the second set from MHz.

A must for Francophiles and history buffs, A French Village is also ideally suited to Acorn Media enthusiasts who thought they’d exhausted their catalog of thematically and/or topically similar historical dramas from Upstairs, Downstairs to Foyle’s War and beyond.

An intelligently written and sharply executed stunner of a WWII soap about everyday people doing their best to adapt and survive during wartime, A French Village also serves as a vital reminder that while facts are important, you can't underestimate the role that humanistic storytelling plays in ensuring that history lives on.

   

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Text ©2015, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy of this title in order to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

12/04/2015

DVD Review: Santa's Little Helper (2015)


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Further proof that the WWE is filled with potential star quality, although Santa’s Little Helper provides another terrific showcase for its likable lead, unfortunately Mike “The Miz” Mizanin’s reunion with his Christmas Bounty director Gil Junger is infinitely less successful than the pair’s earlier holiday movie, which was released two years ago in 2013.

Upbeat and fast-paced cookie cutter Christmas fare baked with a variety of ingredients often seen in countless other direct-to-DVD and/or made-for-TV seasonal releases, Helper does receive extra points however for refusing to follow only one tried-and-true recipe.


Yet as well-intentioned as the film is, unfortunately it also serves as a painful reminder to screenwriters (and cooks) everywhere that while you can always add more sugar and spice to your final dish, you can’t exactly take it away.

Carved out of the familiar comfort food appeal of a Scrooge or Grinch style narrative centered around Mizanin’s coldhearted corporate businessman, although Santa’s Little Helper opens on a strong note, it loses the good will and momentum it establishes early on by spiraling out of control.


More like a collection of seasonal SNL skits than one cohesive work, while most contemporary holiday movies play pretty fast and loose with storytelling logic, Santa’s Little Helper spreads itself so thin that it waits until the last ten minutes of the movie to try and resolve multiple plot-points.

Attempting to serve up something for everyone (including the kitchen sink) in the hopes of satisfying all appetites ages six to sixty, Santa’s Little Helper moves awkwardly from one scene at a senior center where a shirtless Mizanin sweats to the oldies with some randy retirees to a third act “Hail Mary” North Pole style gauntlet that pits Mizanin against WWE Diva Paige.


Conveniently boasting a digital copy to entertain kids during this season’s travels, although most parents won’t be thrilled at the prospect of explaining a Magic Mike reference to their children, aside from a few spicy moments, Helper is best appreciated by grade school aged WWE fans eager to see Mizanin and Paige tackle an albeit short-lived Santa themed obstacle course.

Largely forgettable and disappointingly nonsensical to everyone else in spite of its charming cast (including a spunky Annalynne McCord), it’s safe to say that you won’t want to line up for a second helping of the overstuffed Helper.

However, those on the lookout for a fun, if admittedly hokey family-friendly action themed holiday comedy would be better off hunting down Junger and Mizanin’s previous collaboration via Christmas Bounty.


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Text ©2015, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy of this title in order to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

11/04/2015

Blu-ray Review – The Following: The Third and Final Season


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  Photo Slideshow                  
             




One of the most disturbing programs to ever air on American broadcast TV, from the very beginning The Following has felt less like a network crime drama than a small screen horror movie of the week.
 
Frequently defaulting to gruesome torture as opposed to just coloring a little outside the lines of the macabre to build suspense, although the show's penchant for gore and depravity was established in the show's original pilot (as a fitting ode to its Edgar Allan Poe inspired Gothic horror origins), the use of shock for shock's sake only increased with time.

Testing our patience as well as our stomachs, the Kevin Williamson created work of Seven era David Fincher style Neo-Noir still had its moments in season two.

However, much like a superstitious villain on the verge of getting caught, shortly after a genuinely surprising opening sequence of nerve-wracking episodes, the thrillingly original series began relying too heavily on the same M.O. that had initially set The Following apart early on.


And long before its cast members engaged in a 2015 web video spoofing both the show's paranoia as well as its frequent use of double agents and triple crosses (via the twists that had once floored us), The Following's overreliance on fake outs had started to grow stale to savvy viewers both on social media and at home midway through its rollercoaster second season.

Having embraced its original status as a cult favorite much too literally by doubling or – depending on your math – tripling down on the idea of killer cults, the middle installment of the largely chaotic albeit still compelling serial thriller required its audience to suspend disbelief in a greater way than ever before.


Buoyed by The Following's top notch cast however, the series has rallied along with the lead character played by Kevin Bacon who’s in a much better place literally and figuratively as its final season kicks off.

Of course, we know the tranquility won’t last long but thankfully, when the show’s trademark horror suddenly begins, this time around the writing matches the intensity of its performers including breakout star Michael Ealy who rivals James Purefoy's diabolical mastermind Joe Carroll in terms of both spine tingling moments and evil supremacy as what Joss Whedon would call this season’s “big bad.”

Making the most of the natural chemistry of its characters and character actors – namely Kevin Bacon's (anti)hero Ryan Hardy and Purefoy's aforementioned villain – The Following revisits some of the alarming themes that it had been flirting with from the very first episode, which similar to the show's fake-outs and gore have only grown more apparent over the years.


Going deeper into the existential arena of whether Hardy needs Carroll to remain the "hero," the show also starts to explore the psychological overlap between the two men who had originally been friends.

Although fascinating, this arc is pushed much too far – paying off incredulously in a handful of episodes that threaten to "jump the shark" with regard to The Following as Ryan Hardy goes completely off the rails. Still, thankfully knowing they needed to wrap things up in time for the conclusion, Williamson and company right this ship before long.

Aspiring to deliver something structurally and stylistically commensurate to the incredibly complex, corkscrew-like twists and turns of the vastly superior, intellectually demanding first season, fortunately for viewers, the storyline is much more focused in this, the show’s final outing.

While it still falls prey to contrivances and repetition as the final fifteen episodes make their way to the finish line, to The Following's immense credit, season three wastes no time trying to recapture the same tangible electric shock that made the hairs on the backs of our necks stand up during its critically acclaimed premiere year.

While truncated seasons also mean that a few characters are shortchanged – similar to ABC’s suspenseful soap How to Get Away With Murder, The Following is proof that TV is largely better served with quality versus quantity network orders of ten to fifteen episodes where creativity reigns supreme and filler is left on the sidelines as it is on cable channels.


Much like 24 which had served as a main source of inspiration for Bacon’s dark hero, a few plot strands are left dangling in the end, perhaps in the hope of a last minute renewal or even a standalone feature-length follow-up on any number of channels or platforms that might continue Ryan Hardy's plight to take out the serial killers that walk among us.

Nonetheless, thanks to a return to taut, twisty character-driven storytelling (versus big picture cult-minded gimmickry) as well as a firmer grasp on the type of paradigms that serve the show best, the third season of The Following serves as a worthwhile final chapter to Fox's forty-five episode daring Gothic horror series.


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Text ©2015, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy of this title in order to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

10/16/2015

Blu-ray Review: In the Courtyard (2014)


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In the delightful international hits Apres Vous and Priceless, French writer/director Pierre Salvadori delivered his own unique spin on Francis Veber style mistaken identity paradigms and early twentieth century Hollywood screwball romantic comedies.

Craving a change of pace from those earlier intricately written, dialogue-heavy screenplays, Salvdori replaced Billy Wilder and Ernst Lubitsch with Anton Chekov and Stephin Merritt as inspiration for his latest and most experimental effort In the Courtyard. And turning once again to autobiographical elements in his past, the filmmaker decided to fall back on two character ideas that had long fascinated him

Yet while separately the two oddball characters of a depressive musician who walks away from success and a housewife pushed to the brink of insanity by the appearance of a crack in her living room wall might have inspired two very different and worthwhile narrative endeavors, there’s little if anything holding Salvadori's fragile Courtyard together besides the charm of actors Gustave Kervern and Catherine Deneuve.

Not bothering to delve very far into his characters’ backstories or pay off on the musical background of the main lead (who might as well have been a telemarketer), Salvadori and his co-writer David Léotard overwhelm the already threadbare plotline with an endless parade of eccentric characters that continually pull focus away from the two leads. And though it’s been given an impressive transfer to Blu-ray high definition, the film is often reminiscent of an unfunny sketch comedy.

While it doesn’t need the romantic glow of Vous or the ritzy polish of Priceless level luxury apparent in his earlier Lubitsch-like comedies, Courtyard is devoid of much needed warmth and energy thanks to its overly washed out color palette, largely uninspired edits, and fly-on-the-wall style cinematography.

Fascinated by the potential of symbolism and allegory, while Salvadori infuses In the Courtyard with some refreshing moments of situational humor (as opposed to his former standby rapidfire wit), this melancholy dramedy is far too bitter than sweet or even bittersweet.

With the songs of Stephin Merritt’s Magnetic Fields and the spirited performances serving as the film’s saving grace, you can’t help but think how much stronger the work could’ve been if it had taken a cue from Once or in God Help the Girl and put the musical plotline to good use.

Uneven, messy, and relentlessly downbeat, while In the Courtyard marks an ambitious attempt for Salvadori to develop an old idea in a new way and move beyond his winning screwball comedy formula, in the end it's a gamble that fails to pay off.


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Text ©2015, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy of this title in order to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

10/05/2015

TV on Blu-ray Review: The Big Bang Theory – The Complete Eighth Season


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Not cut out for a life riding the rails as a modern day hobo after he ran away from home, in the eighth season premiere of The Big Bang Theory we check back in with Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) only to find him uncharacteristically pantless and alone.

A clever reintroduction to the show's four-time Emmy winning MVP, the opening sequence serves offers the highly-verbal Jim Parsons a rare opportunity to give his mile-a-minute wit a rest and let his physical comedy skills shine through.


A success masqueraded as failure, not only does the first episode illustrate how far Sheldon Cooper has come since the very start of the show but – given his season-long journey from external to internal vulnerability, it also makes an intriguing bookend – foreshadowing where The Big Bang Theory will leave him in the most mature season of the CBS hit so far.

An instantly iconic image in a series that continually strives to top itself, the sight of a helpless Sheldon Cooper wandering around in his drawers is just the first in an endless parade of set-ups and plotlines for Parsons to navigate through in during its nine month span.

Still as entertaining as it is, once you laugh your way through another inventive twenty-four episode installment only to discover that one of actor Kunal Nayyar's biggest dilemmas of the entire season is when his character Raj accidentally breaks a drawer, it's hard to ignore the way that the show's dueling drawers serve as a study of comedic contrasts in more ways than one.

Saddled with the divorce of his bickering parents and a beautiful if downright creepy girlfriend (played by the talented Laura Spencer), once again Raj is largely left out of the main events, serving up reliable volleys of witty line reads from the sidelines in B and C subplots throughout the season as Big Bang's most underutilized performer.


Returning to the formula that fueled the show’s earliest seasons for a few of the biggest episodes of the year, while other cast members are similarly overlooked in favor of storylines surrounding the three original leads (including underrated, versatile pro Johnny Galecki and consistently charming Kaley Cuoco), season eight tries to share the wealth a bit more than before.

With Leonard (Galecki) and Penny (Cuoco) on stable ground at long last, Big Bang has ramped up its emphasis on the rollercoaster relationship between Sheldon and his long suffering gal pal, Amy Farrah Fowler, thereby necessitating scene-stealing actress Mayim Bialik to deservedly graduate to the show's fourth lead.

And after years of playing well off one another to augment their unique brand of chemistry, those behind Bang's scenes have made the refreshingly big decision to capitalize on the strong bond between Simon Helberg and Melissa Rauch as Howard and Bernadette Wolowitz, leading to some of the season eight’s most memorable scenes.


A nice change of pace from the relationship woes of Leonard and Penny which had usurped way too much time earlier in the series run as the millennial version of Friends' Ross and Rachel, giving Howard and Bernadette their share of the show's A-storylines fills the two with a newfound confidence and offers Sheldon, Leonard, Amy, Penny, and Raj the opportunity to explore new comedic terrain.

Mercifully backing off a bit on Bernadette’s clichéd yelling, Big Bang’s recalibrations help prepare us for the show’s increasingly dramatic tone, resulting in a number of surprisingly multifaceted episodes in the last half of the eighth season.


Although in the past, Big Bang occasionally overwhelmed the subplot concerning the dominance of Simon Helberg's Howard by the women in his life with "To the Moon, Alice!" Honeymooners style hostility that at its worst came off as misogynistic and mean, by now the series realizes it is tonally at its best when it goes for just the right blend of sour and sweet.


Delivering its fair share of teary laughs, in season eight Big Bang handled the unexpected heartbreak of Howard regarding the loss of his perpetually offscreen mother (to reflect the real life passing of actress Carol Ann Susi) with particular grace in a series of unexpectedly moving episodes that also hint at future storylines for the couple in the coming years.

Frequently compared to fellow Warner Brothers series Friends which appears to have helped lay the structural groundwork for the series in terms of juggling three to four subplots or conflicts per twenty minute episode, while Big Bang Theory does adhere to its predecessor's passion for holiday episodes, relationship twists, and season-ending cliffhangers, to its immense credit, Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady's series stays true to its own unique roots.


Ensuring that science will always play a fundamental role, one particularly compelling plot arc this time around focuses on a collaboration between Sheldon and Leonard which wins them both admiration and an internet troll.

But although The Big Bang Theory centers on a group of characters with extraordinarily high IQs, its most authentic material is still derived by the challenges they face in everyday life.

Thankfully understanding that one of the best friendships on the series is between Sheldon and Penny, season eight gives us one of the duo's sweetest endeavors in which they undertake an experiment to fall in love.


Moving beyond mere questions of romance, now that their characters are a little older and wiser, many begin to ask themselves the tough questions. In addition to the death of a loved one and the collapse of a business, the ensemble begins making plans for the future while taking stock of their lives, including Penny who goes from aspiring actress/halfhearted waitress to taking a stable job and begins working from nine to five.

While obviously its characters are more well-adjusted than they were when the series started thanks largely to the women in their lives (and in the underwritten Raj's case the long-overdue ability to talk to them without alcohol), The Big Bang Theory has certainly come a long way since it was originally dubbed "beauty and the geeks" and centered on Penny as its sole female voice.


This being said, it still gets plenty of mileage out of the group's devotion to a science fiction fanboy lifestyle by way of a hilarious run-in with security at Skywalker ranch, an epic ping pong battle for a replica TARDIS, and Sheldon and Amy's first boy-girl G-rated sleepover in a living room fort.

However after years of watching the Big Bang boys' adventures, some of this season’s most original plotlines focus on the adventures undertaken by the show's trio of far more courageous girls, whether they’re embarrassing themselves in Penny’s apartment or testing their limits in Vegas.

While its laugh track can feel a little canned at times, there's something wonderful about its dedication to situation comedies of the past. Refusing to follow current trends like everyday mockumentaries or thirty minute dramedies designed to represent faux reality TV, The Big Bang Theory remains one of the best classically structured contemporary comedies on network TV.


Proving that the best way to remain current is to continue building its characters while also switching up the A and B story leads, although it occasionally recycles plotlines from years' past given its demanding twenty-four episode run, there's far less filler here than we typically see on most rival network series.

Newly released on Blu-ray, Digital and DVD to coincide with the return of Fall TV, once again The Big Bang Theory reminds viewers why its number one in its category with a two-disc sharply executed season of high definition comedy that's largely top-drawer.


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Text ©2015, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy of this title in order to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

9/30/2015

Blu-ray Review: In the Name of My Daughter (2014)


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A fascinating, fact-based thriller from director André Téchiné, In the Name of My Daughter charts the suspicious disappearance of young casino heiress Agnès Le Roux which occurred nearly forty years ago in the south of France.

With one eye on land and another on the sea, there’s something transient about the way Adèle Haenel plays Agnès right from the start as someone perpetually restless and ready to leave.

Like a young girl trapped in the body of a mermaid, throughout Daughter, the heiress is compulsively clad in a bathing suit, whether dressed up to the nines for dinner or clinging to her lover on the back of a motorbike. Always eager to out-swim her troubles, minutes after she gets off a plane in one of her earliest scenes, Agnès Le Roux hits the beach.


Arriving in Nice to finalize a divorce, we soon discover that the daughter of casino owner Renée Le Roux (Catherine Deneuve) has returned home with the goal of breaking free. But after forming a fast friendship with her mother's overly ambitious right hand man, fast-talking lawyer Maurice Agnelet (played by Guillaume Canet), Agnès' desire for liberty is quickly replaced by her desire for Maurice.

Considering just how different the two seem, it’s an unlikely pairing to say the least. Citing fear of an ear infection as the reason he refused to swim with her right from the start, Agnès goes out of her way to reel him in, not understanding that she can’t change the mind of a man determined to keep his head above water without running the risk of going under herself.

Heartbroken when Agnès makes it clear that regardless of what is asked of her she'll be siding with Maurice, Renée promptly fires the man she'd long suspected of trying to take over her job.


Completely under the spell of the serial seducer, Agnès finds herself caught in the midst of a three-way battle between not only Renée and Maurice but also her mother's mafia-aligned rival on the verge of taking over Renée's casino.

Yet while in retrospect we feel for the victim and especially her mother who perhaps knew better than anyone that her daughter was headed for a crash (even if no one could expect how much), Téchiné’s film is still bogged down by the selfish nature of its largely unlikable cast of characters.

Having loved and lost and loved again – like a compulsive gambler ejected from the casino that keeps coming back – Agnès remains not only determined but desperate to keep her dwindling hold on Maurice.

Blind to her mother’s struggles and eager to leave the casino behind, Agnès pressures Renée for her father's inheritance in order to open a boutique. Unwilling to wait until things settle down, not to mention unable to see the forest for the trees, Agnès hires Maurice as her lawyer, promptly letting him talk her into a multi-million dollar betrayal that's the equivalent to World War Three.


Although this was a pivotal moment in the real life case, onscreen, this decision occurs much too quickly out of left field and feels as though a vital scene had been left on the cutting room floor.

Holding us at arm's length, even though it's dramatically compelling, Daughter is ultimately missing the kind of insight into the minds of its coolly detached main characters that a stronger support system of friends and confidantes would've been able to provide.

Still despite a few missteps here and there, the dedication of Daughter's dynamic cast – especially Guillaume Canet’s terrifying turn as the man whom Deneuve's desperate mother believes murdered her daughter – help keeps us riveted throughout.

A chilling psychological portrait of emotional abuse that's occasionally a bit too chilly for its own good, in its strongest moments, In the Name of My Daughter feels like a French variation of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy blended with Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley.
 
 

Of particular interest to viewers in France and Italy who've followed the infamous the case in the news over the past four decades, nonetheless Daughter is the type of film where the less you know going in the better off you'll be.

With this in mind, although the Cohen Films release has been given a gorgeous transfer to Blu-ray high-definition, viewers should be warned not to read the summary included on the back of the box, since it shockingly reveals more than three fourths (or roughly 95 minutes) of the film's overall plot.

An Official Selection at the Cannes Film Festival,while admittedly the film's final act set within the last two decades of the mother's crusade for justice fails to live up to the power and urgency of the rest of the picture, all in all it's well worth tracking down.

Filled with impressive art direction and beautifully shot, In the Name of My Daughter is sure to appeal to amateur sleuths eager to read more about not only the case but also the three trials referenced in the movie's postscript.

While there's enough intrigue in the south of France to have fueled an entire miniseries (especially considering the number of questions we're left with including the role played by the mob) Téchiné’s thriller nonetheless offers viewers a satisfying opportunity to get our feet wet before wandering further into the deep end of its real life mystery.

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Text ©2015, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy of this title in order to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

9/25/2015

Blu-ray Review: Love & Mercy (2014)


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AKA: Love and Mercy

Like the waves of the ocean that inspired so many of The Beach Boys' earliest hits, Love & Mercy moves back and forth in time between two of the most pivotal decades in the life of its subject Brian Wilson (played by Paul Dano in the 1960s and John Cusack in the 1980s).

As multilayered as one of Wilson's symphonic Pet Sounds compositions that likewise move between multiple time signatures and keys, Tree of Life producer Bill Pohlad's phenomenal true life tale is a wonderful labor of love.


Experimental but still both palatable and accessible to viewers more accustomed to the traditional extended flashback formula often employed in contemporary biopics, while Love & Mercy may indeed "get around" in its chronology, it never wanders out too far off the deep end, learning a valuable lesson from the overly fragmented Bob Dylan opus I'm Not There which was partially penned by Love co-writer Oren Moverman.

Helping to ease the transitions in time by shooting a majority of the earlier sequences on Super 16 millimeter film, frequent Wes Anderson cinematographer Robert Yeoman infuses his '60s set footage with vibrant, nostalgic golden light to shower Wilson with (as he famously sang) "the warmth of the sun."


And since we're missing a good decade of drama, Yeoman's innovative and impressionistic lensing not only emphasizes the changes in Wilson's life but it also serves as a painterly shortcut for the audience. Inviting us to read between the lines of drama left on the cutting room floor, we're struck by the weight of Wilson's offscreen loss and heartbreak through the stark and sudden shift in both color and camera.

Replacing the brilliant glow of loved ones who'd filled his younger years with harmony, music, laughter, love, and sunlight with the harshness of cool blues and white prescription pill hued overcast light makes us acutely aware of the isolation felt by Wilson under the care of a domineering psychiatrist (played by Paul Giamatti) in the 1980s during one of the bluest periods of his life.


However, even though Love & Mercy is centered on Brian Wilson, the surprising heroine of Pohlad's picture is Wilson's then-girlfriend Melinda Ledbetter (beautifully portrayed by Elizabeth Banks) who helped liberate her future husband from his overly controlling doctor/legal guardian.


From one of Love's earliest scenes where the two meet in a Cadillac showroom to their tentative escape from one of the doctor's spies by diving into the same waves he'd sung about decades before, given the role that love played in liberating Wilson, Mercy is thematically on par with the impressive if more traditionally structured Johnny Cash endeavor Walk the Line.

Featuring one of John Cusack's strongest turns in years, although Love & Mercy plays even better to Brian Wilson devotees (myself included) who have a greater frame of reference for details about the composer's past that are only briefly referenced in the film's dialogue, Pohlad's sensitively drawn portrait nonetheless remains one of the best musical biopics that I have seen in quite some time.


Unlike some genre efforts that get so caught up in the drama that the music nearly becomes an afterthought, the filmmakers behind Love & Mercy allow Wilson's creative process to guide some of the film's most inspiring and memorable sequences.

Rather than focus on music video style montages of screaming fans and tour dates or settle for the "a-ha" light bulb moments of brilliance that gave birth to a hit song, Pohlad and Moverman celebrate all aspects of Wilson's musical genius while presenting the soundtrack of The Beach Boys as a vital part of his biography.


Racing to keep up with the music and voices in his mind (that would later lead to a misdiagnosis of schizophrenia), we travel with the gifted Paul Dano's '60s era Wilson from one studio to the next several times per song and watch in awe as he layers impromptu inventions and multiple "pet sounds" on top of one another to result in an endless harmony.

Trying to turn mistakes into instrumental beauty and dissonant noises into sweet melodies, as masterful as the movie is, in the end perhaps Love & Mercy's greatest feat is the way that it enhances our understanding of Brian Wilson's lush pop music symphonies.

   

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Text ©2015, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy of this title in order to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

TV on DVD Review: Gotham – The Complete First Season (2014-2015)


Now Available to Own


 Photo Slideshow
   




Rather than rebuild Gotham from the ground up for 2014's stylish small screen series of the same name, Mentalist mastermind Bruno Heller opted to dig deeper into the origin stories of some of D.C. Comics' most notorious heroes and villains.

Although he initially follows the Batman play-book to the letter in a pilot that is anchored by the shocking murder of Bruce Wayne's parents which leaves the boy orphaned and sets him on the path of becoming the Dark Knight, Heller makes a bold decision to deviate from tradition in a move that both helps and hinders Gotham in equal measure.


For instead of jumping ahead in time to center the series around the adult Bruce Wayne's double life as a wealthy playboy and the caped crusader as expected, Heller breathes much needed new life into the famous franchise for its latest incarnation by promoting Officer Jim Gordon (an excellent Ben McKenzie) to the show's lead.

Working alongside the equally captivating character actor Donal Logue as his cynical partner Harvey Bullock, McKenzie's young idealistic rookie defies the status quo of a historically corrupt police department, eagerly taking down a colorful rogue's gallery of B-villains as the next generation of future A-villains wait impatiently in the wings.


And through McKenzie and Logue's terrific dynamic, Heller establishes what will become a recurring motif in the series of multi-generational partnerships among those on both sides of the law. Fortunately, this technique works extremely well for two of the best and brightest members of the Gotham P.D.

However, the same magic cannot be duplicated in a few of the densely populated show's other unlikely pairings, which is particularly apparent in the first half of the season when we're inundated by so many unlikable characters and the overwhelmingly bleak tone that Gotham begins to wear on our patience.

Moreover with so many double-crosses and shifting alliances, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep everyone straight, especially when formerly vital players are suddenly dropped from Gotham’s storylines as if their scenes were edited out for time and left on the cutting room floor.


And although the behavior of some of Gotham’s secondary characters (including Jim's troubled fiancé Barbara) grows increasingly illogical, the structurally challenged series fortunately finds its footing once again in a gripping final quartet of episodes involving Milo Ventimiglia's horrific Ogre.

Better off developing complex multi-episodic arcs instead of following in the footsteps of an early X-Files "freak of the week" standalone paradigm that does little to advance the overall storyline, as the seeds are planted for the future, Gotham's exceedingly well-researched writing staff begin to exude confidence in the season's stronger second half.

Soon enough, new threats emerge from the shadows – some of whom rise to power while others fall from grace.

Carving out clever new backstories for fan favorite characters like Edward Nygma (a.k.a. The Riddler, played by Cory Michael Smith), Gotham is at its best when it employs foreshadowing so subtle that if we weren’t aware of the impressive minds working behind the scenes, we’d swear it was accidental.


Undoubtedly challenged by an overly padded twenty-two episode season that was extended after it had already begun, at times the tonally uneven Gotham swings like a pendulum from over-the-top gross-out violence to darkly comedic camp.

Caught between a variety of genres and audience brackets, while some of the coming-of-age arcs for the younger cast members lag in comparison the show’s grittier crime elements, the uniformly excellent and refreshingly diverse cast of all ages, races, and faces (including terrific newcomers like Robin Lord Taylor, Camren Bicondova, and David Mazouz) help keep us riveted.

Along with McKenzie and Logue, season one's MVPs also include the versatile Morena Baccarin as Jim Gordon's lady doctor love Leslie Thompkins, scene-stealer Jada Pinkett Smith as notorious villainess (and Penguin's former mentor turned nemesis) Fish Mooney, as well as a refreshingly bad ass version of butler Alfred Pennyworth played by Sean Pertwee.


An artistically sumptuous series, Heller's show is filled with texture and sparkle in its jaw-droppingly inventive costume and set design.

Set in an indeterminate period of time, while Gotham owes perhaps the biggest debt of gratitude to Tim Burton's two breakout Batman pictures based on Frank Miller's comics, it's also indicative of the best parts of other franchise favorites.

A TV series that’s cinematic in scope, from Graeme Revell’s thrilling score to the freewheeling creativity on display in the luminous cinematography bathed in the silvery, gunmetal gray moonlight of a dark night sky, Gotham follows through on the recipe of something old, something new, something borrowed,and something blue.


Along the way, the screen is filled with old world Italian gangsters that might as well have wandered off the Warner Brothers lot in the 1930s and '40s working alongside Hammer horror style villains sure to terrify young viewers.

And although the Gotham City Police Department resembles a more chaotic version of Grand Central Station, Logue and McKenzie's Serpico meets French Connection style '70s antihero antihero leads do their best to keep things moving in the right direction without a Bat-signal to save the day.


A character driven superhero spinoff that's steeped in richly extensive D.C. Comic mythology, only time will tell if viewers will tune in long enough to see Bruce Wayne take his place as Gotham’s dark night somewhere down the line.

Yet even though Heller didn't exactly reinvent the wheel, putting Batman on the back burner and ignoring the well-traveled terrain undertaken by the Batmobile in previous productions forced him to look beyond all of the caped crusader's wonderful toys and try something new.

Knowing that there’s much more to an origin story than a mere prologue, even though it falls short from time to time, Gotham proves that there's more than one way to reboot a series – using present day Batman mythology as the jumping off point to delve deeper into the past.

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Text ©2015, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy of this title in order to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.