TV on Blu-ray Review: The Casual Vacancy (2015)

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A contemporary Dickensian tragicomic tale of two communities and thirty-four characters, 2012's The Casual Vacancy may not have been part of J.K. Rowling's phenomenally popular Harry Potter series but that didn't stop the BBC and HBO from securing the rights to develop the U.K.'s fastest-selling novel in three years.

No stranger to weaving socioeconomic and political themes into Potter's fantastical coming-of-age storylines, as a book targeted to adults instead of children Vacancy offered Rowling the opportunity to do more than just shed a little light on the issues about which she was passionate.

Digging deeper into the topic of class warfare including its main byproduct of prejudice, in the novel Rowling likened the situation to a sort of suburban apartheid set in a west country town (likely modeled on her birthplace of Yate, Gloucestershire).

Yet determined not to lose herself in political theory, she took a cue from Potter and instead focused on her brilliantly conceived characters. Delving into the difference a small election could make in the lives and futures of the well-to-do Pagford community that's largely populated by those that wish to permanently separate from the poor residents living in the neighboring council estate dubbed The Fields, Rowling explores this from all sides to bring her concerns vibrantly to life.

Rather than voting to make The Fields part of the nearby city once and for all, the miniseries enhances the dramatic impact by paring the issue down even further so that the future a vital local community center becomes the focal point of the Pagford Parrish Council election.

Offering not just a safe haven for the children in both communities (especially those in the impoverished, drug dominated Fields) but also an all-important methadone and health clinic that's much easier for recovering addicts to visit than the one only accessible by unreliable bus service in the city, the aptly named Sweetlove House serves as a important humanistic symbol throughout the work.

And after the death of the beloved council member Barry Fairbrother (well played by Rory Kinnear), who was raised in The Fields but – thanks to the opportunities available with social welfare programs and places like Sweetlove House – went on to become a respected champion for civil rights in Pagford, the community center becomes a permanent reminder of Barry for the rest of the miniseries.

With his seat newly up for grabs and the Council suddenly missing their voice of reason, Pagford descends into chaos, especially after an unknown hacker calling themselves "The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother" begins posting the town's dirty secrets on the Council's website to expose the hypocrisy of those trying to claim his seat for the upcoming election.

Hoping to close the community center and instead build a tourist destination spa in its place (despite the fact that most of its neighboring locals wouldn't be able to afford it), the wealthiest and most powerful Pagford residents try to scheme their way to a victory, oblivious to the fact that everyone has something to hide and Barry's ghosts are watching.

Given Rowling's love of the classics, it's only fitting that veteran BBC miniseries scripter Sarah Phelps (known for the channel's recent critically acclaimed presentation of Great Expectations) was tapped to adapt Rowling's ambitious tome.

Staying true to Rowling's character-driven roots, although The Casual Vacancy is anchored by a large ensemble cast including the phenomenal Abigail Lawrie whose deceptively tough, battle-scarred sixteen-year-old Fields resident Krystal Weedon is the heart of the miniseries, Phelps tactfully cuts out the novel's excess.

Merging some characters into one while removing others completely, perhaps most impressively the screenwriter reconfigured key players in order to ensure everything harks back to the most important issues that Rowling longed to get across.

Although the jump from satirical SNL sketch worthy supporting roles to achingly real portraits of those who could easily be your friends and neighbors feels a bit jarring, Casual is at its best when it abandons the Potter-like players and delivers fly-on-the-wall docudrama.

Understanding that, Phelps sharpens her take on book even more, letting Rowling's stunningly crafted, flawed yet fascinating characters lead the way to terrific, often heartbreaking effect.

While some of the film's plot points are a tad too predictable and after the first episode far too much time is spent on unlikable characters that fail to move the plot forward, all in all, it's an intelligently crafted work which (like Animal Farm or The Wizard of Oz) takes an inventive approach to political allegory.

And this production is timelier than ever – not only for Americans gearing up for the exhausting mudslinging that goes along with a presidential election – but also relatable on a global scale for the clever way that Rowling's small town war can be applied to any number of settings and situations.

However, just like certain aspects of the satire fail to translate from the page, Phelps made an incredibly smart decision to rewrite the devastatingly heavy-handed, Thomas Hardy style ending that may have come off as far too hopeless on the screen.

Understanding that the viewer needs to be able to see the ways in which ignorance, apathy, bureaucracy, fear, and prejudice have failed its characters in order to fully appreciate not only what went wrong but also what went right (and how it could've stayed that way), Phelps's more affecting bittersweet coda reminds us of the basic good in people.

Reassuring us that it's never too late to try and fight for what's right (even if you're outnumbered and going it alone), the superbly crafted film helmed by Jonny Campbell plays better as a three hour feature than a three part miniseries.

Bolstered by top notch production values, Vacancy's strong cast and crew meets the screenplay halfway, abridging Rowling's epic with clever costuming, production design, and cinematography that aids in our understanding of this tale of two communities and way too many subplots through visual storytelling.

An extremely polished yet meandering miniseries that mirrors the state of Pagford after the death of Fairbrother by temporarily losing its way after the exceptionally crafted first installment, despite a few missteps, Vacancy finds its footing again and again.

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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.


Blu-ray Review: A Little Chaos (2014)

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For his sophomore feature as a director following his work on the acclaimed 1997 character-driven indie sleeper The Winter Guest (which starred his Sense and Sensibility screenwriter and costar Emma Thompson), Alan Rickman called upon another Sense collaborator in the form of Kate Winslet, with whom he hadn’t worked since they were cast as onscreen love interests in Ang Lee’s beloved ’95 classic.

Playing a poor but talented widow with a flair for architectural design, Winslet shines in Rickman's female-centric revisionist period picture that weaves a rich wish-fulfillment narrative about love, loss, gender, and gardening in the time of French King Louis XIV's court at Versailles.

A self-proclaimed "clay kicker" known for thinking outside-of-the-box – which we gather has been a constant requirement in her life as an intelligent woman of independent mind rather than independent means – after Winslet's gardening savant comes up with an ingenious way to conserve and incorporate water into the burgeoning garden design, she's invited to work alongside a master in the field, portrayed by Matthew Schoenaerts.

A victim of timing, while their natural chemistry is easily apparent, their love story takes awhile to bloom. And although she’s challenged by her own self-doubt as well as outside forces hoping to bring Winslet down professionally and personally, thanks to the film’s largely jovial tone and some amusing if half-baked supporting characters and subplots, we're never in doubt that our heroine will succeed by the film's end.

Infused with an intentionally modernist sensibility given its progressive treatment of gender roles and sexuality in all manner of male/female relationships, the lovingly crafted historical dramedy plays well to its target audience of Anglophiles whose DVRs are full of Masterpiece Theatre productions and female-centric series such as Call the Midwife.

And although the admittedly feminist fairy-tale arc makes an overt misstep as our intelligent widower finds herself finally able to let go of guilt only after a man tells her something isn't her fault, all in all, it's easy to forgive since overwhelmingly the film's heart is in the right place.

Overstuffed with talent – by trying to make room for all of its immensely talented cast of characters (including Rickman as the King and Stanley Tucci as his brother, the Marquus), Chaos loses us here and there with scenes that pull focus from the main journey undertaken by our heroine.

Augmented by the beautiful cinematography from Winslet's gifted Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind director of photography Ellen Kuras, while eventually it guides us back into Winslet's storyline thanks to the strong hand of Rickman, overall A Little Chaos may be best remembered as a lovely, decorative diversion much like the palace gardens themselves.

Lacking the roots and depth of a more sophisticated plotline, the nonetheless amiable, earnest effort from scripters Alison Deegan, Jeremy Brock, and Alan Rickman is like a lovely bouquet of wildflowers that quickly charms but loses its hold on us much too soon.

Featuring a standout score from Peter Gregson that matches the power of Kuras' hypnotic images, the newly released to Blu-ray feature ends on a high note for all in a showstopper of a finale that pulls back from a small garden party to gradually reveal the magnificent magnitude of the maze-like creation of interlocking gardens in one single breathtaking shot.

A welcome return to filmmaking for Rickman, although Little doesn't have as big of an impact as it might have with a sharper script, staggering moments like that closing sequence as well as his all-around skill with actors make us hope we won't have to wait another two decades for the talented actor to direct once again.


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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: The Man From U.N.C.L.E. – Season 1 (1964-1965)

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Before The Man From U.N.C.L.E. became a campy, colorful spoof in subsequent seasons, the series originally titled Ian Fleming’s Solo began in all seriousness in its initial season as the small screen’s black and white answer to the big screen’s Technicolor James Bond.

Unable to juggle both projects, the in-demand 007 scribe Ian Fleming signed over the rights to the two characters he'd created (including both The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and its spinoff The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. protagonists Napoleon Solo and April Dancer) for television producer Norman Felton and bowed out of the series.

Whereas Fleming's schedule was far too crowded, Norman Felton turned to his colleague Sam Rolfe whose calendar was set to open up just as their NBC series The Eleventh Hour came to a close.

Dubbed "the real man from U.N.C.L.E." by the show's star Robert Vaughn (who played the eponymous "man from U.N.C.L.E.” and retained the Fleming name of Napoleon Solo), Rolfe drew upon Fleming's notes to construct a bold, sophisticated, and refreshingly complex world of espionage.

Although he left room for situational humor and elements of science fiction in the international law enforcement agency's ongoing battle against the evil THRUSH (first called WASP in episode one), Rolfe established not only U.N.C.L.E.’s winning formula but the overall tone of the first season as a dramatic action series in his masterful pilot.

In doing so, he set the bar for the genre and decades of shows that would follow from Mission: Impossible to Charlie's Angels up through Scarecrow and Mrs. King to Alias and beyond.

While it took time to build a loyal following (thanks to a time slot change and a number of in-person meet and greets that introduced the stars directly to the viewers), U.N.C.L.E. learned early on how to connect to its audience by giving fans exactly what they wanted – namely more of Solo's second-in-command, the Russian agent Illya Kuryakin.

Played by the handsome blonde haired Scottish actor David McCallum with a then-hip Beatles style haircut, although Illya Kuryakin started off the show as a barely visible background bit player, it wasn’t long before he became Solo's irreplaceable partner and backup man.

An intriguing mix of quiet cool that played well off Vaughn's lighthearted warmth – while the network execs allegedly wanted "the Russian" off the show – the vital role that McCallum’s Kuryakin played on a series at the height of the Cold War cannot be understated as it’s one of the things that instantly set U.N.C.L.E. apart from traditional '60s TV fare.

And in addition to creating Kuryakin, Rolfe and the rest of the show's writing staff dared to think globally– making U.N.C.L.E. (which stood for United Network Command for Law Enforcement) a worldwide smash more than fifty years before the studios realized how important an internationally diverse cast is in a title's success.

While admittedly it is very '60s – taking the Bond-like approach wherein Solo often finds himself saving dizzy damsels in distress who easily fall into the arms of Vaughn's agent by the end of each fifty minute episode – the ambitious series regularly ramped up the action and excitement with each successive week.

From parking garage shootouts (complete with refreshing calls to reload rather than fire endlessly past the point of disbelief) to elevator shaft acrobatics, U.N.C.L.E. may have been broken up into play-like acts to accommodate mandatory commercial breaks but each episode played like a TV movie of the week. Therefore, it’s unsurprising that director Guy Ritchie turned it into a movie in 2015.

Furthermore as Solo and Kuryakin battled early versions of drones and biological weaponry along with changing color coded alert levels after surprise attacks on U.N.C.L.E.'s hidden New York headquarters (accessible through the fitting room of Del Floria's Tailor Shop), it’s easy to appreciate how effective the writers were at not only thinking outside the box but also ahead of their time.

While predictably not all of the twenty-nine episodes included in the first season's ten-disc DVD set are winners, the collection offers a number of standouts (including "The Dove Affair," The Deadly Decoy Affair," "The Mad, Mad Tea Party Affair," and "The Never-Never Affair," among others) that still hold up remarkably well today.

Transforming the pilot into a sexier Technicolor feature-length theatrical film designed to tap into the popularity of fellow MGM brand James Bond titled To Trap a Spy, after the success of the inaugural feature, the men behind U.N.C.L.E. went on to deliver two movies per season.

Totaling eight films in all, while sadly the first two season one entries aren’t included in this set, the Warner Brothers Archive Collection has packaged all of the movies together in a terrific four-disc release that I tracked down at my local library for this review. Although quite different conceptually, the colorful features are still an awful lot of fun and additionally offer aspiring screenwriters and those fascinated by the genre valuable opportunities to compare and contrast the two mediums.

With the departure of Rolfe after the first season, the show spiraled into then-trendy spy spoof terrain. And without that winning combination of suspenseful drama and action, U.N.C.L.E. lost its compass, changing in tone and style as a whopping five different showrunners were hired to try to steer it back on course over three subsequent seasons.

Of course that isn’t to say that the debut season didn’t experience its own share of growing pains, even with Rolfe and a writer’s room that included future Chinatown scripter Robert Towne. Especially apparent over the first few discs, the first season included a healthy amount of alterations in approach befitting of a show that largely took place next to a tailor shop.

From Film Noir inspired cinematography in "The Dove Affair" to lots of Hitchcockian wrong man (or woman) comprised plotlines featuring an ever-evolving outsider as an audience surrogate, it took awhile for U.N.C.L.E to realize it was at its best when it blended genres together rather than tried to follow one strict style.

Yet despite a few missteps and hiccups, the quality of season one, which featured memorable guest-stars (including a very young Kurt Russell along with William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy in the same episode, years before the debut of Star Trek) remained consistent throughout.

Although the lack of special features is a bit of a letdown, as a new viewer eager to check out the original series before catching the Ritchie remake, the main course of nearly thirty thrilling adventures alongside Solo and Kuryakin more than made up for it – proving to be as addictive as Jerry Goldsmith's instantly memorable, classic theme.

More than just part of our pop culture, U.N.C.L.E. has earned its place as an exhibit in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library as well as the C.I.A. A daring series that – much like its characters – stayed in the periphery for the first few weeks before eventually making its presence known, more than fifty years later, the legacy of Ian Fleming, Norman Felton, Sam Rolfe, and Robert Vaughn's Solo continues to live on – alongside David McCallum’s Kuryakin – as the first in a long line of television spies.

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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.


Blu-ray Review – Justice League: Gods and Monsters (2015)

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Given the sheer number of comic book remakes, reboots, and spinoffs released each year that all draw from the same creative well, by now the origin story has become the Kryptonite of comic book adaptations.

As expected as a syllabus on the first day of school, while typically these predictable prologues grind the action to a halt, Justice League: Gods and Monsters takes a decidedly different approach by crafting completely new backstories for the Justice League A-listers of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman whom we mistakenly thought we knew so well.

Of course, from online fan fiction to the daring interpretations of Batman via Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns (which inspired two very different adaptations by directors Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan), dark, dystopian plays on pop culture and popular material are nothing new.

But Justice League: Gods and Monsters takes it even further, moving past mere technique to bring us a whole new world populated by Gotham's now even darker knight, along with two of his fellow crime-fighters.

Stating that "the past is like another planet," this D.C. Comics full-length animated revisionist feature begins in space, which is the perfect place to introduce us to an alternate Justice League universe.

In a shocking twist on nature vs. nurture, not only is Superman's parentage hijacked by Zod (who imprints his own DNA to become the baby's biological father), but shortly into the movie, the child crash lands in Mexico as opposed to the American Midwest, giving Superman's oft-cited status as an illegal alien a timely politically layer.

Far from being the only character with a complicated past, this time around, college science nerd Kirk (instead of the dated moniker Bruce Wayne) is turned into the now vampiric Batman after a research experiment goes terribly wrong.

Although that Spiderman style twist makes him a reject on dating websites like eHarmony, Kirk puts his thirst for blood to good use. Engaging in some surprisingly violent superhero warfare that pushes the PG-13 rating to the limit in the first act alone, Kirk teams up with the temperamental Superman as well as the now Game of Thrones inspired goddess Wonder Woman whose arranged marriage as the daughter of the God of War turns into a post-nuptial massacre.

A far cry from the Dudley Do-Rights of series past as brought to life in popular '90s animated series, these Gods and Monsters are all too eager to wipe the floor with the opposition.

Establishing its fast pace right from the start, Gods and Monsters makes a hell of a first impression by kicking off just one of several action sequences that feel refreshingly organic when compared with some of the other "plug and play" moments of car chases and fights seasoned throughout other DC Comics films such as Son of Batman.

Earning a bad reputation and an ever increasing number of enemies, it isn't long before the film's characters are being set-up for the murders of scientists. And while they're baffled as to who would have the guts to try and frame the trio, Justice League: Gods and Monsters continues to swing back and forth like a pendulum – attempting to fill us in on the role that past events may have played in forming the people they've become today and those whose paths they've crossed.

With so much new material to cover in such a short running time, the filmmakers were smart to only focus on three members of the D.C. Comics crew.

Yet because in stark contrast to most superhero adaptations, the origin stories are far more compelling than the otherwise by-the-numbers contemporary plotline, perhaps Justice League would've played even better if it had placed only one (or at most two) protagonists under the revisionist microscope before working in additional characters in a follow-up film.

And while it's easy to overlook its at times chaotic construction, it soon makes sense why pasts were compared to planets in the film as – particularly when we jump from Batman to Wonder Woman – the move from one person's past to that of another can feel as awkward as going from one planet to the next.

Timing the release to help build up momentum for WB's upcoming live-action feature that centers around the very same superheroes, although the narrative of Gods and Monsters isn't quite as rock-solid as other titles in the animated series, it's nonetheless one of DC Comics' most creatively ambitious efforts in recent memory.

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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.