Monday, August 26, 2013

Tales of the City: 20th Anniversary Edition DVD review

Note: There seems to be a fair amount of misinformation floating about the internet concerning this DVD release. As someone who has owned Tales of the City on VHS and in its previous DVD incarnation (and viewed both many, many times), I can confirm: This is the most complete version of the series I have seen on home video here in the U.S. If you’re already a fanatic like me, and don’t need the introduction to Armistead Maupin’s world, scroll down to the DVD Extras portion of this review for more info. If you’re new to Tales, read on…

Based on the book of the same name, Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City was originally a daily serial presented over a period of years in the San Francisco Chronicle. Eventually the columns were collected and made in to a series of five books, which Maupin followed with what seemed the final book in 1989 (Sure of You), bringing the total to six and the saga to an end. Not so fast! Maupin restarted the franchise in 2007 with Michael Tolliver Lives, which was followed by Mary Ann in Autumn in 2010. The ninth Tales book, The Days of Anna Madrigal, is set for publication next year, and is said (by Maupin) to be the final book in the series.

But back to the tale that started it all – the one on which this miniseries is based. Set in San Francisco of 1976, it begins as the story of Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney), a young, na├»ve girl from Cleveland who visits San Fran one summer, and after spending a week there, she decides she doesn’t want to return to Ohio. And once you start immersing yourself in San Francisco through Maupin’s prism, you’ll be right there with her.

Soon enough Mary Ann finds a cozy little apartment on Russian Hill at the fictitious 28 Barbary Lane, which is run by cool spinster Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis). Anna enjoys growing pot in her garden, and she’s more than happy to share with her tenants – or her “children”, as she refers to them. When Mary Ann asks Mrs. M if she has any objection to pets, she replies, “My dear, I have no objection to anything.”

Also living at #28 are: Mona Ramsey (Chloe Webb), a hippie chick free spirit who works in advertising; Brian Hawkins (Paul Gross), the local lothario with an unapparent heart of gold; Michael “Mouse” Tolliver (Marcus D’Amico), Mona’s gay roommate, who’s based heavily on Maupin himself; and vitamin salesman Norman Neal Williams (the late, but truly awesome Stanley DeSantis)…but the less said about Norman the better - you need to discover his complexities on your own.

The denizens of 28 Barbary Lane are sort of the “have nots” – no money, uncertain futures, problematic relationships and the like. Across town live the “have dollars,” symbolized by the Halcyon family: patriarch Edgar (Donald Moffat), a wealthy businessman, his lush of a wife Frannie (Nina Foch), their society daughter DeDe (Barbara Garrick), and her lecherous husband Beauchamp (Thomas Gibson). While the Halcyons definitely have money, their futures are as uncertain and their relationships as problematic as the kids on Russian Hill.

Also onboard in supporting roles are Billy Campbell, Michael Jeter, Paul Dooley, Ian McKellen, Paul Bartel, Parker Posey, Mary Kay Place, Country Joe McDonald, Rod Steiger, McLean Stevenson, and Karen Black as herself. But I mean, really - McLean Stevenson…woah! In his only scene he harrumphs, “Why is it always The Marriage of goddamn Figaro?” upon being forced to go to the opera. “South Pacific – now there’s a musical!”

Does it sound busy? The graceful tapestry weave of these people’s lives is only one remarkable aspect of the series. Nothing ever seems forced or shoehorned – only natural and right. The maze in which they all travel among one another is a seemingly effortless “six degrees” type of construction – a distinct hallmark of Maupin’s prose.

Maupin has often said a primary influence when writing is Hitchcock, and from the opening visual, Vertigo itself is a guest star – it even begins with the famous swirling musical cue from Hermann’s score. Its structure appears deceptively soap operatic and big chunks of the story are wrapped up in mysteries and secrets. I’m certainly not going to blow any of its many surprises by talking about them here. Suffice it to say, few of the characters are who you think they are by series’ end.

Given the time period and locale, the story naturally features diverse assortments of drug use, sexuality and frank nudity. When it originally aired as part of American Playhouse on PBS (it was a co-production with Britain’s Channel 4), you can imagine the uproar from the conservative public. Protests, picketing and threats ensued – many PBS stations, bowing to pressure, refused to air it, while others played an edited version. (I’m unsure how many aired it uncut.) Despite the controversy, it achieved massive ratings and the plan was to follow with an adaptation of Maupin’s second book, which picks up about 4 months after the first tale ends. PBS caved and four years passed before Showtime stepped up to the plate and agreed to help finance More Tales of the City.

Given how much TV has changed since 1994, Tales seems positively mild by today’s standards, but the ground that was broken by the series should always be recognized. Twin Peaks changed TV for the viewer; Tales of the City, I would posit, changed TV for producers. One wonders if cablers like HBO and Showtime got deeper into the TV series game in part due to the troubles that befell Tales, and the recognition that there was an audience for adult TV fare – stuff that shouldn’t be burdened by network restrictions. Tales was in fact the first major TV project from Alan Poul – you may recognize that name from shows such as Six Feet Under and The Newsroom.

Poul also spearheaded the follow-ups, More Tales (1998) and Further Tales of the City (2001). Both of those series are very good, but from production standpoints, neither quite scales the magical heights of the original. There’s an attention paid to period detail in the first Tales which the sequels somewhat lack. It feels like it was shot in 1976. I’ve actually had to tell people that it wasn’t, despite the obviousness of stuff like Laura Linney being too young to have starred in something lensed in the ‘70s. The time gap between the first two series also led to numerous cast changes in the sequels – although Linney and Dukakis (and a handful of others) stuck with it over the years.

Each intricate relationship in Tales portrays a very different slice of life, but my personal favorite is the clandestine affair that develops between Edgar Halcyon and Mrs. Madrigal. Rarely is such passion between “seasoned” actors/characters shown onscreen, and Moffat and Dukakis do not love one another in ways you might expect - there’s a great whimsy and kindness displayed by the meeting of these two lost souls. It’s likely some of the best acting both actors have done in their entire careers. One scene in particular that stands out is when free-spirited Anna takes stuffy Edgar to the beach and they spy a group of hippies flying a kite. Edgar remarks that it’s something he hasn’t done in years; Anna tells him to hang on. She sprints over to the kids and returns with the kite telling Edgar “We’ve only got ten minutes!” Edgar asks how she struck a deal with them. Cut to the hippies passing around one of Anna’s joints. While it isn’t the most complex scene in the series, it may be one of the most real.

DVD Extras: There are commentary tracks featuring Maupin, Linney, Dukakis, Garrick, and director Alistair Reid on episodes one, three, and six. There’s also 36 minutes worth of rehearsal and behind the scenes location footage. All of this material has been ported over from the previous, now out of print Acorn DVD edition from some years back. Likewise, the 8-page booklet that was present in that set has been reproduced here with some minor alterations.

The cause for celebration here is that, as stated at the top of this piece, this DVD is the most uncut version of Tales ever seen on home video here the States, and to the best of my knowledge, this is as complete and uncut as Tales can possibly be.

There were instances of dubbing on all previous home video versions, and all in episode two: The horribly dubbed-over profanity from Parker Posey’s Connie Bradshaw, when she's in bed with Brian - her two “fucks” - are now intact. Likewise Michael and his buddy’s casual use of the word “dick” was always replaced with “stick” (though not nearly as obviously as Posey’s fucks). Here, the dicks are back - yes the dicks are back. Scream it from the rooftop – the dicks and the fucks are back for the 20th Anniversary!

Now this wasn’t the case on VHS, but on the previous DVD, during Michael and Jon’s roller skating scene (also in episode two), Donna Summer's “Love to Love You Baby” was replaced, but it is now back for the new DVD. Though the back of the set has a disclaimer saying “Due to music rights, this program has been modified for home video presentation,” to my ears all the tunes are in their right places as they should be, and I was unable to find any replacements, anywhere on this set. So really when we talk about a “cut” version of Tales, what we’re really talking about is these little oddities that have plagued episode two over the years – all of which have been rectified for this DVD release.

Also, I believe making their debut on this set are lengthy previously on episode recaps at the top of episodes two through six. I'm sure I've never seen these before, but I could be wrong on that one. (Bear in mind, I never saw any of the PBS broadcasts; I first encountered the show about four months later when the tapes were released.)

The previous Acorn DVD was a three-disc set, whereas this is only two, and the packaging for this set is not as nice or as elaborate as the previous DVD. Some will cry foul that Tales was not given the luxury treatment for its 20th – that the packaging isn’t better, or that new special features weren’t produced. Keep in mind that the home video market is a much different place today than it was ten or even five years ago. Across the board, lavish DVD sets are no longer being produced with the same frequency as they were in days gone by. That the out-of-print Tales got a new DVD release in a dwindling marketplace is good news; that that DVD is the complete, uncut version - just in time to celebrate 20 years - is the best news of all.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Doctor Who: The Green Death Special Edition DVD review

Though “The Green Death” wasn’t the end of the Jon Pertwee/Barry Letts era of Doctor Who, it was most definitely an end. An entire story was crafted around the wing spreading, falling in love, and exit of Katy Manning’s Jo Grant, and it hung its heart so slavishly on its sleeve that even though it wasn’t the first time the show had done something of this ilk (Susan in “The Dalek Invasion of Earth”), it sure felt like it. While “The Green Death” may not be the pinnacle of the Pertwee era, surely it’s in his Top Five stories, and as such is more than deserving of some double-dip, special edition love, of which theres plenty to be found on this two-disc set.

With Jo Grant leading the charge, the Doctor and UNIT head to the Welsh coal mining village of Llanfairfach, where a miner has died in an accident – his dead body glowing bright green. The nearby Global Chemicals plead ignorance while promising a rich, oil-driven future for planet Earth. But dashing Professor Clifford Jones (Stewart Bevan, Manning’s real life beau at the time) and his band of hippie genius followers have plenty to say on all matters global, chemical and fungal. Meanwhile, something else is stirring below the planet’s surface – something more horrific than anyone is even aware, and behind the scenes at Global Chemicals, there’s the mysterious, possibly maniacal BOSS…

Affectionately known by many as “the one with the maggots,” “The Green Death” is so much more than that – though the fact that it’s known as such does speak to how creepily brought to life the nasty critters are. Aside from being a smashing, character-driven love story, “The Green Death” is also an ecological wake up call and a taking to task of the corporate mentality – aspects of it that, while occasionally dated from an execution standpoint, remain as timely as ever in this Monsanto/Koch Brothers-driven climate of fear and paranoia. More so than any other of the series, the Barry Letts era often ruminated on important issues and issued corporate indictments while telling its thrilling action adventure stories, and I’m not sure that any of them conveyed such messages as eloquently as “The Green Death.” Much cinematic sci-fi of the early seventies (Soylent Green, Silent Running) went down similar roads, so it’s entirely fitting that Doctor Who was doing the same.

Does it have minuses? Sure. There are numerous instances of terrible CSO work – stuff that to my eyes could easily have been avoided, but then I’m no expert on the ins and outs of this serial’s production schedule. The flying critters that the maggots morph into in episode six are not terribly convincing. The actor (Tony Adams) playing the rather prominent role of Elgin fell sick somewhere after recording episode four, leaving the production in a lurch. They were forced to create a new character for episode five to take his place, giving Elgin an unfinished story arc, and emphasis placed on a different character we’ve nothing invested in.

Katy Manning and Stewart Bevan
But none of those things even come close to taking away from the heartfelt story of a young girl who once upon a time met a brilliant scientist that whisked her away to distant worlds – a young girl who eventually grew up and fell for another brilliant scientist that offered to take her on a whole new set of adventures, including marriage - all while her mentor slips away quietly into the night. Yes, Jo Grant grew up, and so did Doctor Who and us, right along with her. “The Green Death” is truly a “very special episode” of Doctor Who, and now it exists in a very special edition. Read on… 

DVD Extras: Everything from the previous edition – such as the commentary track with Manning, Letts and Terrance Dicks, and the faux-doc “Global Conspiracy!” starring the increasingly ubiquitous Mark Gatiss – have been ported over. A new, proper making-of entitled (of course) “The One With the Maggots” is a loving look back, featuring all manner of cast and crew. A short bit entitled “Wales Today” consists of some silent location footage from “The Green Death,” as well as a news report about Pertwee returning to the location in Wales 20 years later. “What Katy Did Next is a brief news report on her leaving the show, as well as a clip from an arts and crafts program she hosted after leaving Who called SerendipityAnother installment of “Doctor Forever!” focuses entirely on the attempts of Russell T. Davies and then BBC Controller of Drama Jane Tranter to bring Doctor Who back from the dead, as seen through their eyes. A fascinating story this one is. You’ll be amazed the revival got off the ground at all, given the sheer amount of negativity that surrounded them.

Death of the Doctor
Speaking of Davies – all hail RTD! Not only are both episodes of the Season Four Sarah Jane Adventures story “Death of the Doctor,” guest starring Matt Smith & Katy Manning and written by RTD, on here, but RTD and Manning recorded commentary tracks for both – as well as for “The Green Death” episode six! So, yes, for nearly 90 minutes you get to listen to the pair of them gab, and the love and emotion and the stories and the utterly riotous laughter they share are all just so bloody infectious; it’s well worth the upgrade for these three tracks alone. And, yes, there’s plenty of talk about Elisabeth Sladen. Might want to keep a box of tissues handy…“Death of the Doctor” is an outstanding post-script to the story of Jo Grant, and its inclusion here is not only appreciated, but perhaps also warranted.

Richard Franklin and Jon Pertwee - you gotta see this!
Further, there are more new commentary tracks on episodes three, four and five of “The Green Death” featuring Richard Franklin (Mike Yates), actress Mitzi McKenzie (who plays Nancy), and visual effects designer Colin Mapson, all moderated by Toby Hadoke, who clearly at this point has one of the coolest jobs on the planet. There are also Radio Times listings in PDF form, a slighty longer photo gallery, and a coming soon trailer for next month’s release of “The Ice Warriors.”

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Doctor Who: Spearhead from Space Blu-ray review

Note: If you are interested in opinions on “Spearhead from Space” as a piece of drama, you can read last year’s special edition DVD review by clicking here, as this Blu-ray review will only discuss the disc quality, new bonus features, etc.
Just one year ago we got a spiffy new special edition DVD of “Spearhead from Space,” and though I was quite happy with that disc, at the time I bemoaned, “If ever there was a classic Who story that begged for a Blu-ray release, it’s this one...”

Here we are a year later and my wish has been granted. As “Spearhead” is the only classic Who story shot entirely on film – 16mm – it’s ripe for 1080p presentation, and the results are more or less what you’d expect: a crisp, clear transfer (likely the same one used for the SE DVD last year) that allows the story to look sharper than ever before. What really grabs the eye – what Blu-ray is so often perfect at revealing – are the colors! I’d always thought of “Spearhead” as a relatively drab-looking story in regards to its color palette, but this new Blu-ray allows it to pop and sparkle like never before. Now bear in mind, it’s still 16mm – so don’t expect a night and day difference between this release and last year’s SE DVD, but to the eye that spends time and effort looking for the little improvements 1080p allows, this is worth the upgrade.

It is somewhat interesting to note that within the span of a single year, “Spearhead” has technically been seen in four different home video presentations: the SE DVD from last summer, two versions presented within the first “Doctors Revisited” collection from last month (one of which, from a quality standpoint, is the antithesis of this Blu-ray), and now this release. It’s difficult to imagine that the hardcore collector doesn’t already have a version “Spearhead” in their collection, so to sweeten the upgrade, in the special features arena, the BBC have put together a disc different than perhaps expected. Read on…

Blu-ray Extras: The BBC has opted to carry nothing over from the previous DVD incarnations, which for some fans may not be seen as a positive. I’m viewing this Blu-ray as a potential addition to one’s collection, rather than a replacement for last year’s SE DVD. Instead, a new batch of extras has been lovingly prepared.

“A Dandy and a Clown” is a heartfelt, 45-minute documentary on Jon Pertwee. It doesnt focus all that much on Doctor Who, but rather spends the bulk of its running time exploring his life and career on either side of his tenure as the Third Doctor, via interviews with some of those that knew him best. Likewise, the 30-minute piece “Carry On: The Life of Caroline John” is an intimate look at the late actress who portrayed Liz Shaw for a single season. We’ve never had such a doc on John prior to this disc, so it’s a welcome addition. Via interviews with her family and friends, it traces her love for the stage as well as her time on Who, her insecurity over the work she’d done on the show, and her reactions to the subsequent revelation that she was actually quite beloved by fans. Both productions look marvelous in HD, and rank among the classiest docs ever seen in the classic series range. Also presented in HD is a whopping 23 minutes of experimental silent footage taken from the Pertwee title sequence, and a two-minute restoration comparison. Finally, there’s a coming soon trailer for the SE of “The Green Death” presented in SD. No commentary track, no production notes subtitles, no photo gallery – though a brand new menu screen has been created for this disc.

So if you’re a freak for all things Who and Blu, you’ll no doubt want to add this to your collection. It seems unlikely that we’ll be getting any other single-story classic series releases on Blu-ray such as this one. The only other candidate that might benefit from such a presentation would be the Paul McGann TV movie, though, like much American TV of the ‘90s, while it was shot on film, I believe it was edited on video, which could present a whole host of problems for a potential high-def release. I imagine mounting a process along the lines of what’s been done with the Star Trek: The Next Generation Blu-rays would be in order. 

UPDATE: Check out this article at the RT website. It seems more work was done on Spearhead in order to bring it to Blu-ray after all.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

The Thick of It: Seasons 1-4 DVD review

Since the folks at the BBC tell me that today’s complete series DVD release of The Thick of It, starring the new Doctor Peter Capaldi, is entirely coincidental, I’ll have to take their word as gold. I thought for certain there was some kind of mild conspiracy at work here - to get this out on DVD in the U.S. just days after the news broke - but they assure me that is not the case. So let’s just assume that a little bit of the Capaldi/Doctor magic is already at work, because this is a series that’s never been available on DVD in the States (though it’s been streaming through Hulu for some time), and its presence on a R1 silver platter is long, long overdue.

The Thick of It - a biting, gut-wrenchingly hilarious farce/satire - traces the frequently inept goings-on within the lower levels of British government. Though members of the cast routinely drop out and are replaced (as would be apt to occur on the political playing field in the real world), Capaldi’s vicious, acid-tongued spin doctor Malcolm Tucker is always present, and generally recognized as the character who dictates the pulse of the series. You can no doubt tell that he’s a major cog in this wheel by the fact that his face is plastered across the front of the DVD box. It might even lead you to believe he’s the star of the series, but really he is not, as the show is often an ensemble effort – it’s just that Capaldi’s role allows for him to shine the brightest. Tucker has mastered the art of being a vulgarian. There is no seeming end to the parade of colorful profanities that spew from his mouth, and it’s a marriage of actor and writing born in TV heaven. If similar magic happens with him on Doctor Whoand I predict it will - we’re in for quite the treat.

Much of the fantastic, whizz-bang, listen-close-or-youll-miss-it writing is done by series creator Armando Iannucci, who has since gone on to create Veep for HBO, a series which is very, very good, but not as great as The Thick of It. There could be numerous reasons why that is. Certainly it’d be easy to suggest that it’s because Veep does not feature Capaldi as Tucker, and it’s noteworthy that Iannucci never even tried to replicate Tucker on Veep in the form of another character – because that sort of success cannot be duplicated. But I think the real reason The Thick of It is the stronger series of the two is because Iannucci’s talents err on the side of the U.K. He was born in and raised on Scotland (like Capaldi). It’s who he is as a person, and that’s where his writing shines the brightest. When I watch Veep, I often find myself thinking, American politicos and their ilk aren’t smart enough to talk like this.” It in no way ruins Veep for me, but it does sometimes take me out of the reality of the show. Such thoughts never occur while watching The Thick of It, though, admittedly, that may have more to do with my idealization of the U.K. and its peoples than anything else.

In any case, The Thick of It is a Britcom that belongs on the same short list of series that includes Fawlty Towers, Absolutely Fabulous, Blackadder, and The Office. It’s that perfect, and one of the great achievements in the U.K. pop cultural lexicon. Since 2005, there have been four seasons and two Christmas specials – all are contained within this set, alongside an extensive host of extras including deleted scenes, commentary tracks, and featurettes. To be honest, I’ve not even had the chance explore every nook and cranny of the set, as I just received it late last week. But I’ve seen and reviewed enough TV on DVD over the years to instantly recognize that this collection is TV on DVD done right, and with the big announcement this week, I felt that I had to get something up on the day of its release. So here we are. Now go forth and do whatever it takes to procure a copy of this fooking brilliant DVD, ya pissbowl! 

Monday, August 05, 2013

Doctor Who: Why Peter Capaldi Is the Ideal 12th Doctor

Over half a century, eleven actors have starred in the British sci-fi TV series Doctor Who, one of pop culture’s longest-lasting franchises. Yesterday afternoon, Peter Capaldi, best known for his role as Malcolm Tucker on the political comedy The Thick Of It, was announced as the twelfth Time Lord. Presumably, we’ll first see him in the final moments of this year’s Christmas special, when Matt Smith, the youngest actor to have played the Doctor, regenerates into Capaldi, who will be the second oldest.

Showunner Steven Moffat claims there was only one name on his shortlist of actors, and that was Capaldi. With such certainty in his pocket, can he win back some of the people he’s lost over the past couple years? Will casting a 55-year-old man alienate some of the “squee” contingent upon whom the fanbase has been built in recent times? Can a series that has relied on back-to-back young, attractive actors (we’ll throw a bone to Eccleston on this one) present a lead so vastly different and still survive? The key to Doctor Who’s longevity is change, and in the modern era, what seems like the riskiest change yet may end up being the show’s most brilliant move in years. Here are four reasons why...

To find out the four reasons, click here to visit Vulture.

The Best of Fridays DVD review

Likely to appeal mostly to the over 40 crowd, The Best of Fridays brings to DVD for the first time 16 episodes of the short-lived subversive sketch comedy series that from 1980 to ‘82 set out to give Saturday Night Live a run for its funny. Noteworthy for jump-starting the careers of cast members Larry David and Michael Richards, the Los Angeles-based Fridays mirrored its New York cousin in nearly every way. Musical guests include The Clash (their network TV debut), KISS, Devo, Dire Straits and The Cars. Short films – some of which are made by and star Mike Nesmith – pepper the show’s perimeters. Friday Edition, featuring Melanie Chartoff, is the show’s newsy Weekend Update. Among the numerous special guests (the Fridays equivalent of guest hosts - who don't start appearing until the second season) are Billy Crystal, William Shatner, Karen Allen, and Andy Kaufman. Kaufman made Fridays history by staging a breakdown in the middle of a sketch and engaging in fisticuffs with announcer Jack Burns (the moment was recreated in the Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon starring Jim Carrey). The bit brought the series so much attention, he returned the next week for an encore. Both episodes are on this set.

As with SNL, the sketches are the real meat of Fridays, and though they sink as often as they swim, many remain pop cultural signposts of enormous nostalgic value. The Best of Fridays,” which includes over two hours of cast and writer reunion interviews, is the only place to find a jaw-droppingly elaborate, 15-minute Rocky Horror parody lampooning the Reagan administration, entitled, of course, “The Ronny Horror Show, featuring the late president in drag. Or how about a mash-up of Star Wars and Woody Allen, featuring Larry David as Han Solo and Michael Richards as Darth Vader, entitled Star Wars Memories? Yes, if you're of a certain age bracket, this collection is an instant trip in the way back machine to a time that you've all but forgotten, mostly because you were high on so many drugs - another topic Fridays revels in and is famous for. 

Larry David as Han Solo