For the week of June 10th, HBO Home Entertainment is releasing the first season of True Detective on Blu-ray. True Detective arrived this year on a wave of anticipatory buzz – It would be HBO's first "limited" series (i.e., one where the main narrative and characters change every season, like American Horror Story), the brainchild of Jane Eyre director Cary Fukunaga and up-and-coming noir author Nic Pizzolatto, and it would star Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson - and the best part is, the show more-than lived up to the hype. This is one of HBO's strongest season debuts, and considering the network helped birth such all-timers as Deadwood, The Wire, and The Sopranos, the success of True Detective's first year puts it in the running for best premiere season ever. From the opening credits, a gorgeously composed montage of character and thematic motifs scored to the Handsome Family's "Far from Any Road," the show unfolds with such confidence. That's the real benefit of the limited form: rather than work around an indefinite endgame, Pizzolatto can structure True Detective like a single crime novel, or maybe just a slightly super-sized movie. In its broad strokes, True Detective feels like a melding of Zodiac and No Country for Old Men; as mismatched homicide detectives Rust Cohle (McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Harrelson) investigate a gruesome murder in Western Louisiana, they descend into not only a conspiracy of ritualized bloodletting that spans decades but also into a spiritual darkness that challenges and exposes the worst parts of their psyches. As a pure thriller, this material is bracing. Pizzolatto is old hand at this kind of gothic noir (read his great Galveston now for proof), giving equal weight to both the minutia of police work that send Cohle and Hart down the rabbit hole as well as the pulpy revelations that provide Season 1 with a number of crackerjack suspense sequences, and Fukunaga's gorgeously filmic shooting aesthetic makes True Detective look like the best David Fincher movie Fincher never made – working with the great DP Adam Arkapaw (who also shot Jane Campion's Top of the Lake miniseries), Fukunaga mostly eschews graphic violence and frenetic camera moves in exchange for languid, elegantly composed camerawork that highlights the surreality of the case, though when Fukunaga does cut loose with an action setpiece (a climactic pursuit of a madman through an abandoned Civil War armory, an undercover raid on a housing project that goes spectacularly awry and unfolds in one unbroken camera take), the effect is far more powerful because such moments of visceral intensity are the exception, not the rule.
Fundamentally, why this season of True Detective deserves a place in the history books is due to McConaughey and Harrelson, who live up to the expectations of their star-casting and then some. Cohle and Hart are, on one hand, a classic mismatched buddy pair – Cohle's a brilliant, antisocial nihilist, while Hart's the conservative family man – but even that distinction is limiting. Hart's amiable company man has a dark side, too, that comes out through his perceived failings as a man and father, while Cohle, for all his philosophizing and glib ennui, turns to nothing as an ethos because embracing the void is easier than embracing those things that make us flawed – and human. The two do stunning work, both together (the way each man sets off the other's B.S. detector provides the series with jolts of welcome humor) and separately, and ultimately, it's impossible to rank one performer as better than the other. McConaughey certainly has the showier part, and it's a doozy - the culmination of his extraordinary four-year renaissance as an actor and the best performance he has ever given - but Harrelson matches him in his own inimitable, low-key way: he has a hospital scene at the end that is as quietly devastating as any of McConaughey's larger-scale fireworks. Now, as some critics have pointed out, this first season isn't perfect. Although I disagree that it is deliberately misogynistic (it is about some misogynist characters, and as the response to The Wolf of Wall Street last year demonstrated, sometimes people have a hard time distinguishing between presenting misogynist characters and endorsing them), the female leads don't have near the amount of nuance as the male characters do and - true to HBO form - exist mostly to get naked, and frequently. Plus, there's an argument to be made that the finale, as terrifying as it is, is grounded in a way that deviates from the show's otherwise pervasive mood of creeping, cosmic terror (this isn't Twin Peaks, for better or worse). But the good stuff is so good that, frankly, the flaws don't matter. Pizzolatto is hard at work at Season 2; here's hoping he surpasses the lofty heights established here.
Kenneth Brown had equally effusive praise in his Blu-ray review, writing that "the series' opening 8-episode volley will remain one of the most meticulously crafted, deftly penned, remarkably performed, wholly absorbing, eerily unsettling television crime dramas in recent memory...Cohle and Hart aren't just from different sides of the tracks, they're from completely different walks of life, clashing over ethics, experience, faith, reason, philosophy, morality, action, reaction and really any conviction or tradition the nihilistic, at-times ruthless Cohle decides to dissect. Where one man retreats, the other pounces. Where one relents, the other presses the advantage. When one grows convinced, the other grows skeptical. When one seethes with anger, the other exudes calm...And while 'powerhouse' may be an overused word in critical circles, few other words are so fitting when labeling McConaughey and Harrelson's absolutely stunning, sometimes jaw-dropping performances. I'll save you the long-n-hyperbolic version and simply say the two are at the top of their game, essentially tackling two roles apiece - Cohle and Hart circa 1995 and 2012 - both of which are so divergent and initially disparate that it only highlights the nuance and skill McConaughey and Harrelson brought to the table...Pizzolatto's unshakeable marriage of story, character and performance is only intensified by his command of atmosphere, music and cinematography. Director of photography Adam Arkapaw and composer T Bone Burnett provide the distressingly beautiful fabric of a frayed, unstable Louisiana at the crossroads of sweat-stained spirituality and encroaching hopelessness. The sun-struck expanses and buzzing harmonies of True Detective's South are also home to a dark, disturbing underbelly; one that draws upon the works of Robert W. Chambers, H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, and Thomas Ligotti. At any point in Pizzolatto's mystery, an ancient, indescribable beast could have risen from the depths of some subterranean ruin and the series wouldn't have faltered for a second."
Universal Studios Home Entertainment is bringing Non-Stop to Blu-ray. The film - the latest in Liam Neeson's ongoing crusade to wrest the "Most Bad-Ass Member of the AARP Crowd" distinction away from Harrison Ford - finds the actor working in very familiar action-movie territory. His Bill Marks is a U.S. Air Marshal who's still reeling from the loss of his family (shades of The Grey), but when an unknown madman ransoms the lives of everyone on Marks' current flight, the dissolute lawman snaps into action to find the terrorist and save the plane (think of it as an air-bound Taken, in many ways). Non-Stop even reunites Neeson with his Unknown director Jaume Collet-Serra, who manages to inject a good deal of that earlier picture's M.O. into this one - like Unknown, Neeson's character is also trying to uncover a conspiracy that may have ties with the U.S. government. Unfortunately, Non-Stop also shares Unknown willingness to plunge head-first into implausibility. While no one is expecting these kinds of movies to adhere to rigid standards of logic and coherence (part of why The Grey and Taken are so much fun is that they cheerfully thumb their noses at cinematic realism), Collet-Serra pushes things so far out of the realm of possibility that after a while, you can't take anything that happens semi-seriously. This lack of realism impacts Non-Stop's third act in a big way after the movie introduces an element of topical political criticism to its villain(s?)'s motivations, and the movie just crumples – all the contrivances just can't bear the weight of angry, real-life stakes. Other critics have suggested that Collet-Serra is deliberately trying for a bonkers cartoon logic, and key moments in both Unknown and Non-Stop reinforce this implication: in Unknown, he stages the death of at least two Big Bads in ways that would befit Wile E. Coyote, and the liquid flight mechanics at the end of Non-Stop feel cribbed from a Tex Avery or Chuck Jones short. But there's a big disconnect between these winking Looney Tunes beats and the portentous drama surrounding them, and so neither extreme really works, the comedy or the pathos. To his credit, Neeson does come out of this thing unscathed, playing Marks' depression and alcoholism as if he were doing Long Day's Journey Into Night and securing all the audience's emotional involvement in the process, though you wish the film's absurdly talented cast were so lucky. People like Julianne Moore and Lupita Nyong'o and Scoot McNairy and Corey Stoll and Michelle Dockery and Anson Mount and Linus Roache and Shea Whigham (most of the cast reads like a Who's-Who of actors that appear on popular television shows) show up and are reduced to one of three roles: 1) cannon fodder, 2) red herrings, or 3) stage decorations (Ms. Nyong'o is particularly ill-served in this regard - she is an Academy Award-winning actress, and she's limited to two facial expressions and almost no substantive dialogue). They deserve better. So does the viewer.
In his Blu-ray review, Kenneth Brown wrote that "Non-Stop is as frantic and busy as it is exhausting. Sideways glances, shifty passengers, suspicious faces, questionable motives, claustrophobia, a ticking clock, an abundance of cell phones (each with too-good-to-be-true service), and a devious plot to frame Marks as the terrorist mastermind conspire to make Collet-Serra's slowburn, 40,000-feet actioner a sweaty, jittery misfire of modern suspense. Hanging more than its hat on post-9/11 anxieties, the film fancies itself much smarter and savvier than it really is, falling back on small but sleek spectacle and cheap sleight of hand whenever it's struggling to deliver. It's noisy but never quite resonates. 'Splodey but rarely explosive. Familiar and derivative, even at its most clever. Big Dumb Fun without the self-awareness to realize it isn't a high class thriller. But it would be passable -- exhilarating perhaps -- if it weren't for the third act. The jump-the-shark revelations surrounding the film's true villain are so misguided and silly they're downright anticlimactic. Despite the potential Non-Stop toys with in earlier scenes, the ending out-Shyamalans Shyamalan with a bone-headed *gotcha* twist that bursts into flames long before it crashes. Even those who haven't checked out before the last twenty minutes will have difficulty suppressing the urge to laugh in utter disbelief."
From Touchstone and Disney comes The Spike Lee Joint Collection. Technically, it's The Spike Lee Joint Collection: Vol. 1 and The Spike Lee Joint Collection: Vol. 2, but serious Lee fans will want both. Together, they comprise all four films that Lee made for Touchstone. Although that number represents a fraction of his total body of work, the four features do depict, with a fair degree of accuracy, the dominant thematic obsessions that have dogged Lee throughout his career, all with varying degrees of success. The best film in the set is on Volume 1: 25th Hour, which ranks alongside Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X as one of Lee's crowning achievements. Lee takes David Benioff's source material – a novel about wealthy drug dealer Monty Brogan (played in the film by Edward Norton) saying goodbye to his friends and family on the last day before a seven-year prison stint – and turns it into something deeper, more resonant. Just as Do the Right Thing spun a day in the life of a Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood into a parable on race relations in 1980s America, 25th Hour becomes a look at nothing less than the American Dream, in all its glories (the lyrical visualization of "life out West" that ends the picture) and tragedies (the brutally unfair anti-drug law that costs Monty his future). And something more: Lee set his film in post-9/11 Manhattan, and the psychic impact of the World Trade Center bombings still lingers on the characters. As the opening shots of the Twin Towers memorial lights remind us, something's missing here, and the only thing anyone can do is try to move forward. Lee is firing on all cylinders here, and everyone around him responds with some of their best work, from Rodrigo Prieto's fleet cinematography to Terence Blanchard's mournful score to the stellar performances from a cast than includes Norton, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper, Rosario Dawson, Anna Paquin, and the great Brian Cox.
Next up on Volume 1 is He Got Game. He Got Game is a pretty typical film in the Lee oeuvre (which is to say, atypical for any other filmmaker) in that brilliance just overwhelms some of the dodgier ideas. The premise is, to put it bluntly, nonsense: convicted murderer Jake Shuttlesworth (Denzel Washington) gets a special pardon from prison, provided he can convince his estranged son Jesus (NBA star Ray Allen) to play basketball for the warden's alma mater. It's the stuff of bad pulp, and Lee doesn't help matters with a lurid subplot that finds Jake protecting a fragile prostitute (Mila Jovovich) from her terrifying pimp (Thomas Jefferson Byrd); while it's commendable that Lee has never shied away from depicting on-screen sexuality (his first feature-length film, She's Gotta Have It, remains a bracing look at the differences between male and female libidos), he's a little too content to linger on Jovovich's exposed flesh. However, the good stuff is so good that by the end, these flaws don't matter. Lee hits his most important targets: 1) a condemnation of the college basketball system, and 2) Jake and Jesus' beyond-strained relationship. To his girlfriend (Rosario Dawson again), to his classmates, to the sea of recruiters that court him (including a very funny John Turturro), Jesus is just a commodity, and they shower him with promises of fame, sex, and money in order to distract him from the fact that they'll be using him more than he'll be using them. So it goes with Jake, and the extraordinary thing about Washington's work is that he's able to convey conflicting desires simultaneously. Critics overlooked Washington's performance, which might be his finest hour: on one hand, Jake knows he hasn't finished atoning for his sins, especially in his son's eyes, but on the other, the only way he can gain his freedom is to manipulate Jesus into a premature emotional reconciliation, and Washington conveys all that moral guilt with his eyes and his body language. This is Lee's elegy to the sport – the gorgeous, Aaron Copland-scored opening sequence casts the actual mechanics of basketball as the last true vestige of perfect Americana – and his condemnation of those who keep it from transcending base human yearnings.
Volume 2 begins with the flawed-but-interesting Summer of Sam. It's hard to watch the film and not see it as Lee's direct rebuke to his most vehement critics; for years, Lee's detractors had branded him a chronicler of black stories, and he responded with this, an epic look at how an Italian-American neighborhood in New York crumbled under the threat of the 1977 "Son of Sam" killer. That said, even if Lee attempted the project on a dare (there are only two African-American characters of note, and they have very small roles), he's so good at conveying the tone of the Bensonhurst locales that you quickly forget the provocation. Lee saturates himself in 1970s culture, from the music (including the definitive movie use of The Who's "Baba O'Riley") to keen observations of the neighborhood's varying sociological divisions: there's a hierarchy, starting with Ben Gazzara's genial mob boss and moving down, past John Leguizamo's hapless hairdresser and his wife (Mira Sorvino), their angry circle of friends (personified by Michael Rispoli), and ending at Adrien Brody's idiosyncratic, sexually ambiguous rocker. When tensions finally explode, it starts at the bottom, as the already downtrodden lash out to make themselves feel less oppressed. In its fine-grained detail, in its cataloguing of milieu, Summer of Sam is as good a screen representation of New York City as Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon and Lee's own Do the Right Thing. The problem is, Summer of Sam runs a punishing two-and-a-half hours, and you really feel the length in the backend when things grow increasingly ugly. It isn't just the Son of Sam killings (though what we see of them is gory and unpleasant), but as the collective paranoia begins to drive Lee's cast of characters to desperate actions, the film devolves into a never-ending spate of angry sex, rampant drug use, and brutal beatings. The Twilight Zone's "The Monsters Are Due on Main Street" achieved a similar effect, and using far fewer grisly details.
Finally, Volume 2 concludes with Miracle at St. Anna. In many ways, Miracle at St. Anna's is a perfect example of when, as in She Hate Me or Bamboozled, Lee overreaches to disastrous effect. What might be an affecting drama about four black WWII soldiers who take shelter in a besieged Italian village falls flat because Lee has too much he wants to say (It's a postmodern detective story! It's a tale of magical realism! It's a racial polemic! It's a rebuke to Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers!) in too many different ways, and that torrent of creativity comes at the expense of narrative coherence or quality of performance; Lee's so determined to give his African-American G.I.'s their time in the spotlight that he never finds a satisfying way to end the damn movie, and you wish he could have sketched his heroes in more than war-movie stereotypes (Derek Luke is the stoic platoon leader; Michael Ealy the cocky ladies' man; Laz Alonzo the empathetic narrator; and Omar Benson the simple giant). But that's why even his failures – the near-anonymous Oldboy aside – still feel like pure auteur expressions: when Lee can focus his boundless ambition, few filmmakers can touch him, and when he can't, as is the case in Miracle at St. Anna's, you sense the same greatness that powers a 25th Hour, except it's undisciplined, untamed. At the end of the day, the cinema needs more of that wildness.
Finally, the action-thriller Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit arrives on Blu-ray this week, courtesy of Paramount Home Entertainment. Chalk this underperformer up to a case of the "Franchise the World Really Doesn't Care about Anymore." As popular as the Jack Ryan pictures have been in the past – and The Hunt For Red October, Patriot Games, and Clear and Present Danger still hold up as cracking, surprisingly brainy spy dramas – Paramount's been struggling with revitalizing the series ever since Ben Affleck rebooted the character in The Sum of All Fears (and as miscast as Affleck is, the film itself is actually quite good, with Phil Alden Robinson's muscular direction and a stellar cast doing wonders to compensate for Affleck's leading-man deficiencies), and the studio certainly did itself no favors this time by churning out yet another reboot. This time, Chris Pine takes over as Ryan, and the film watches as he overcomes a horrific war injury to become a lowly CIA analyst charged with stopping a Russian terrorist (Kenneth Branagh). The setup reads as generic, and it largely plays out as such. The only surprises come from seeing how many previously existing properties Adam Cozad and David Koepp's derivative script can appropriate – there's a little Batman Begins here, a little The Bourne Identity there, a dash of Mr. & Mrs. Smith (Keira Knightley plays Ryan's fiancée, and she gets involved in his mission, too, to predictable results) and a whole mess of 24 clichés to patch the whole thing up. Pine makes for a more believable Ryan than Affleck, but it becomes clear early on that he's using his considerable charisma to hide the fact that the role, on the page, is less of a living, breathing character and more of a repository of screenwriting devices. Pine is doing the same thing over at the Star Trek franchise, and I actually would have liked to have seen Kevin Costner's world-weary CIA mentor take over as an older, more experienced Ryan (the mix of ruthless pragmatism and charm that Costner brings is, by far, the best thing in Shadow Recruit). Nevertheless, Shadow Recruit isn't a bad movie. It's watchable and reasonably engaging, and Branagh, who pulls double-duty here as both Big Bad and the film's director, does an admirable job of bringing clarity and impact to the movie's well-constructed action sequences. It's just that Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is as disposable as a Happy Meal or a piece of beach-reading, and that's what Paramount needs to overcome. If the studio wants Jack Ryan to matter to other people, it needs to make sure he doesn't evaporate from memory when the end credits roll.
Martin Liebman's Blu-ray review called the film "little more than a clone of other, similar genre films, [though] it's hard not to enjoy Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit on a basic level. It's very smooth and slick, expertly crafted, every scene a perfect example of modern filmmaking techniques flawlessly executed and edited. The action is well done and smartly limited; the movie is defined by its story and characters and not its action, and that the action is rather sparse in screen time only enhances its credibility and excitement. On the other hand, it's almost impossible to get into the movie on any level beyond the superficial, largely because there's simply nothing of value going on underneath. All of its emotions, even the ones that sort of work, are built on the backs of recycled character interactions and dynamics. The film absolutely fails to build the relationships to the point where the audience cares. What's here is fully transparent, with no real surprises about where the movie is headed, why it's headed there, or what the ultimate outcome will be. It's play-it-safe filmmaking 101, the quintessential example of a movie with no real purpose or value beyond empty entertainment."
Ordered and on the way to me.
The Man From Laramie
Heaven Knows Mr. Allison
All that Heaven Allows
Tarzan - Disney Club early release
Hercules - Disney Club early release
Spike Lee Vol 1
Spike Lee Vol 2
I got "True Detective", "Spike Lee Vol. 1 and 2", Criterion "Godzilla" because it's on a great sale price, Mondo Vision's blu ray of Andrjez Zulawski's "Possession" (1981) (which you have to order directly from their website at this time), and a regular Echo Bridge DVD set of horror titles because it contains such rare gems as Stuart Gordon's "Daughter of Darkness" (with Anthony Perkins), Stuart Gordon's "The Pit and the Pendulum" (with Jeffrey Combs, Lance Henrikson, and Oliver Reed), and "Bay Coven" (with a very young Woody Harrelson), I believe there are 15 films in all in that set. The only one I'm getting that isn't a new release for the 10th, is "Godzilla".
True Detective (amazing show!)
Spike Lee Joint Vol. 1 (though I would have just liked a standalone 25th Hour release)
All That Heaven Allows (though I'll wait for the Criterion sale at Barnes & Noble later this summer)
@brad1963: Thanks for mentioning The Train. I'm stunned that the writer of this column didn't think it was worth mentioning. (He does think it is worthwhile on the other hand to give us what amount to mini-reviews of the entire Spike Lee Collection).
Like you I'm waiting for my copy of The Train. TT shipped it last Tuesday which was a complete surprise. It usually takes ten to twelve days for a TT release to be delivered (Canada). I'm looking forward to finding a couple of hours to settle down in my HT and enjoy it.