6/18/2015

TV on DVD Review – Pretty Little Liars: The Complete Fifth Season (2014-2015)

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Pretty Little Liars may indeed be guilty of endlessly teasing out the true identity of the villainous "A" that’s been stalking the quartet of high school beauties since before the show even began. However, because the show's escalating game of cat and mouse has been running for so long, those on both sides of the lens have gotten much better at playing it.

And luckily for viewers settling in with the twenty-five episodes that comprise the newly released fifth DVD box set, this translates to the strongest season of the wildly successful ABC Family Channel original series so far.

Though it’s a thoroughly modern series where the latest technological devices carry with them a threat on par with a deadly weapon, there’s always been something refreshingly old-fashioned about the structure and style of the of the fan favorite (also dubbed PLL).

Based on Sara Shepard’s collection of eponymous novels, Pretty Little Liars has long been obsessed with the past – in particular the consequences of its characters' adolescent sins under the rule of former Queen Bee, Alison DiLaurentis (played by Sasha Pieterse) that continue to control the fate of the so-called liars in the present.


Picking up exactly where the fourth season left off, season five begins with the aftermath of a gunshot blast which puts one person's life on the line while bringing another – namely Alison – back from the dead.

Reveling in the motifs of classic literature and film noir, the impressively shot season premiere makes thematic and cinematographic allusions to The Third Man as the very much alive Alison runs through the city streets, her shadow multiplying in size much like Orson Welles's did in Man as the unforgettable Harry Lime.

Although PLL’s tendency to focus solely on the identity of "A" in previous installments caused the narrative to stop and start as if playing musical chairs, fortunately the return of Alison brings with it a deeper understanding of the show's many enigmatic supporting players from Melissa to Mona and beyond.

Filling in some of the missing notes of what transpired the night that Alison was buried alive, Pretty Little Liars wisely moves beyond that played out song.

Far more interested in the long con overall, while the show still knows how to shock with its trademark startling third acts, in its fifth season, it shakes up the tempo, moving beyond the short term satisfaction of formulaic genre thrills. No longer content with one hit wonder watercooler moments, the increasingly unsettling last dozen episodes included in this binge-worthy collection achieve something closer in spirit to operatic tragedy.


Expanding the mythology of the series to reveal that the roots of the story most likely began with the parents of its characters, Pretty Little Liars indulges its passion for the past even more.

Never shying away from self-conscious theatricality, in stepping up its love of doubles, doppelgangers, strong character/color associations, red herrings, and Hitchcock blondes, Pretty Little Liars has morphed into one of cable’s strongest successors to David Lynch and Mark Frost’s early ‘90s ABC classic Twin Peaks complete with its own Laura Palmer by way of Alison DiLaurentis.

And while it's always played with point-of-view and unreliable narrators (at least in retrospect), season five marks the first time that we begin to see the cracks in the friendship of the girls – with and without Alison – last for longer than an episode. Thus it’s only fitting that the cover image for the DVD is a shattered mirror with the reflection of each girl contained within and separated from the next by a shard of glass.


Stumbling on new evidence concerning their neighbors, parents, lovers, and siblings – the group goes from lying to the police for Alison to discovering one of several lies their friend has told them in the place of truth.

Keeping additional secrets from one another leaves everyone wondering where their loyalties lie and likewise just how much they can trust the suspicious new residents that enter their lives like clockwork each and every season. Yet by cleverly changing the way they're reflected back to one another onscreen, the audience starts to view the characters in a new light as well.


Building upon the solid foundation of its intricately plotted, puzzling episodes including some season standouts written by showrunner I. Marlene King (and directed by supporting cast member Chad Lowe), even when Pretty Little Liars threatens to grow too convoluted with some questionable twists and turns that rely too heavily on the tunnel vision of its characters, its charismatic cast keeps it grounded in reality.

Though by now they could populate an entire town in sheer number alone, to their continual credit, the gifted ensemble (anchored by series standout Troian Bellisario), are able to turn on a dime– readily revealing unexpected personality traits from one moment to the next.

More specifically in season five, a classmate’s role goes from minor to major, leading to an alarming twist and a shocking revelation wherein we realize that – much like the other beloved characters we're now starting to suspect – one of the evil masterminds may have been hiding in plain sight since the show's series debut.


Thankfully whereas the lack of parental involvement defied logic to a more dubious degree earlier on, now that the characters have gotten a little older, Pretty Little Liars is able to more convincingly raise both the level of suspense along with its characters' independence.

Released just in time for the show's sixth season return, the DVD set offers us a great opportunity to get reacquainted with the characters to better prepare us for the show's promised "Summer of Answers.”

From a home explosion in the one hundredth episode to an elaborately preserved crime scene that's been transferred to a storage unit, the fifth season of Liars finds the fate of multiple characters in jeopardy while moving from creepy camp to deadlier stakes than we'd previously encountered thus far.


In its most frightening season bookend yet (that once again ties into the theme of karmic revenge), the girls go from lying about an abduction to protect their friend to becoming part of a horrific kidnapping plot for real in the span of twenty-five thunderously paced episodes.

To its credit, this season does answer some longstanding questions to a greater degree than the show did before in its maddening two steps forward, one step back approach. Nonetheless the chilling cliffhanger’s final moments make it obvious that – in staying true to the spirit of PLL since the very beginning – the key to solving the riddle and point of "A" has less to do with the future than it does with 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.

6/05/2015

TV on DVD Review – Major Crimes: The Complete Third Season (2014-2015)

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Another female-led police procedural basic cable crime drama with a built in audience as loyal as the cast and crew that journeyed from one set to the other when one ended and the other began – on the surface, there doesn’t seem to be that much separating The Closer from its spinoff Major Crimes.

Yet what makes each series work so well – and in the case of Major Crimes actually exceed the original – isn't their many similarities but what each one does differently with (a majority of) the same ingredients, from its talented writers and directors to its stellar cast and crew.


While Captain Sharon Raydor, the character that Mary McDonnell embodies on Major Crimes is just as in charge as the tough but tender, powerful Southern belle Brenda Leigh Johnson (played by Kyra Sedgwick on The Closer), Major Crimes never lets us forget that there's much more Raydor than the level-headed calm she demonstrates week in and week out in any given episode.

A working mother who uses those same skills with her team in valuing honesty and loyalty above all, on Major Crimes, much more than The Closer, we truly believe – as early as midway through the very first season – that these characters have formed an on-the-job second family.


Driven more by its interpersonal dynamics than simply a crime of the week mentality, although the intricate mysteries and high profile cases still chart the course for the season, Crimes is less defined by grit than most procedurals including the at times emotionally distant, by-the-numbers plotlines and unflappable professionalism of The Closer and Sedgwick's otherwise beautifully played Brenda Leigh.

Venturing beyond the walls of the police department to show us Sharon's home life as the soon-to-be adoptive mother of former runaway teen turned material witness Rusty Beck (Graham Patrick Martin), even though we were riveted as early as season one, by the time we've reached Major Crimes' third season, we feel like we've gotten to know its supporting players better than ever before.


And this is especially true when it comes to G.W. Bailey's veteran crime solver Lieutenant Louie Provenza. Whereas he was little more than one half of The Closer's most consistent forms of comic relief in the past alongside Tony Denison's Andy Flynn, in yet another example of Major's character evolution, the oft-cynical Provenza has morphed Rusty's father-figure and the unexpected source for wisdom of the heart.


Of course, that's not to say, Provenza hasn't lost his sense of mischief – ribbing his old pal Detective Andy Flynn over what even Flynn's daughter perceives is a romantic relationship between him and Sharon that leads to some awkward situations for the two.

And this is just one of many subplots that tie into the season long theme of "expectations." Moreover, two of the strongest entries included in this four disc set (namely the episodes entitled "Sweet Revenge" and "Zoo Story" both of which should be sent immediately in to net McDonnell and company a well-deserved Emmy) show us the fierce determination of Raydor to proudly make Rusty a member of her family tree.


Understanding that the show is at its best when the stakes are high for others and we’re just as invested in the plotlines of its minor characters as its ensemble leads, season three gives The Closer regular and long-time fan favorite Deputy Chief Fritz Howard (Jon Tenney) a seriously close call.

Forcing Fritz to reevaluate things on two fronts when a personal scare coincides with a job offer, the situation forces Lieutenant Mike Tao (Paul Michael Chan) in the hot seat when it comes to Fritz and a sadly offscreen Brenda Leigh.


Left in the dark about that incident, the squad soon finds itself pushed into a test of loyalty of their own, when Detective Julio Sanchez (Raymond Cruz) finds himself getting too hot-tempered in the interview room and on the scene, putting cases and jobs at risk.

Mixing things up for our existing favorites, the third season brings Malcolm Jamal Warner aboard as a new colleague who becomes involved with Provenza's protégé, Detective Amy Sykes (Kearran Giovanni) in addition to reuniting the cast with old friends and enemies such as a few whose alliances aren't as easily or initially decipherable.


Expanding upon the ingredients that made The Closer stand out including making the femininity, intuition, and maternal instinct of its characters a strength rather than a weakness, Major Crimes continues to raise the bar in delivering viewers a much more organic law enforcement family of “blue bloods” than the ones we typically see on the small screen.

While the crime writing continues to be as uniformly excellent as it was on The Closer, by continuing to invest as much energy into its cases as it does its characters, Major Crimes has remained not only a major draw but a modern cable classic for those who cherish both character dramas and crime stories alike.

Not only proof that some spinoffs are better than the original, Major Crimes just also happens to be the best police procedural currently playing on basic cable TV.


   

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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.

DVD Review – Looney Tunes: Musical Masterpieces (2015)


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Although Merrie Melodies most likely began as Warner Brothers Animation's own Looney Tunes styled response to Walt Disney’s Silly Symphony cartoon shorts that dominated the Academy Awards during their triumphant ten year run from 1929 to 1939, WB’s Melodies struck a popular chord with audiences so much so that the series (which began in 1931) lasted until 1969.

Acclaimed one-reel shorts that thusly never ran longer than ten minutes, Warner’s Merrie Melodies define the golden age of animation for the studio.


Daring in their musicality yet familiar in their packaging, the shorts – which starred some of the Looney Tunes most beloved characters (from Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd to Porky Pig and Speedy Gonzales) –grew even more celebrated with each passing year.

Frequently serving as their youngest viewer's earliest introduction to the world of classical music, the Merrie Melodies, which also took their cues from (and likewise inspired) the feature length Hollywood musicals they played alongside theatrically, additionally helped pave the way for the rock docs and music videos that would follow.


Breaking cultural barriers, the eighteen animated shorts included in this one disc collection feature everything from jazz and opera to piano concertos and the blues, illustrating the diverse range of the series.

Framing the action as part of a chase in some of their most popular hits (not unlike the way their biggest 1940’s rival, Metro Goldwyn Mayer did with their historic Tom and Jerry releases), the ingeniously crafted Merrie Melodies made each and every genre accessible to viewers of all ages and levels of musical education.


Boldly removing dialogue here and there, such as in a bulk of the revered classic Rabbit of Seville, the master craftsmen working behind the scenes strove to bring the emotion of the music front and center with each successive release.

Yet as entertaining as the diverse titles were, one of Merrie Melodies' greatest achievements was in the way it would routinely drive home the fundamentals of rhythm and tempo right alongside the story's tongue-in-cheek plotlines and occasional lessons about empathy, hard work, respect, and love rolled into the laughs.

Of course, not every offering had a larger moral behind it as we quickly discover in the often heavily censored, violent Ozarks set square dance Hillbilly Hare.


Wisely lessening the shock value of the short, (which like a few others hasn't often seen the light of day as part of the overly crowded archive collection), Hare plays right after the 1957 Chuck Jones helmed masterpiece, What's Opera, Doc? that was selected as the "greatest cartoon ever made" in a 1994 research study voted on by a thousand professionals working in the field of animation.

No stranger to the art form or devising great chases, having directed some of the best Tom and Jerry shorts in MGM history, it's always a thrill to see the Jones classic in all its glory.

One of three Merrie Melodies shorts included in the Library of Congress's National Film Registry along with the Jones directed One Froggy Evening (which happens to be featured on this DVD as well) and Duck Amuck, Elmer Fudd's familiar strains of "Kill the Wabbit" in What's Opera, Doc? are instantly recognizable for generations of viewers.

Although it's missing Duck Amuck as well as the trio of Merrie Melodies that garnered Warner Brothers Academy Awards in the category of Best Original Short, the inclusion of the still heartbreakingly beautiful Nelly's Folly, among other rarities, is a bonus.


Nonetheless, the order of the shorts is a bit awkward in places throughout the lengthy presentation. For, following the intelligent back-to-back listing of two send-ups of Walt Disney's Three Little Pigs made fifteen years apart that involve a shared character, WB’s enjoyable Oscar nominated Rhapsody in Rivets, which plays best as a prequel to Rhapsody Rabbit is positioned eleven tracks after what should technically be its follow-up title.

Boasting optional commentary tracks for the shorts including a few multiple offerings and special features for some of the disc's most iconic works, Musical Masterpieces is a thorough release that will appeal to a wide array of viewers from children to casual fans and cinephiles alike.


And given that this is a phenomenal 133 minute plus introduction to the dying art of animated theatrical shorts, I only hope that this is just the first in a series of Looney Tunes: Musical Masterpieces releases that will make their way to DVD (or better yet, Blu-ray).

Created in the era of the talkie (as silent films merged with the music that was often performed live in movie-houses across the country), the Merrie Melodies collected here serve as an entertaining and informative reminder of just how innovative the field of animation, medium of short film, and particularly the genre of musical movie-making can be.

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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.