For movie watchers, few things can be more frustrating than films that begin with a sequence of immense promise, only to show over the remainder that the emperor truly wears no clothes. Two new examples come from the horror realm.
Until now, Ethan Hawke was having a wonderful year. Before Midnight, the third leg of his trilogy with director Richard Linklater and actress Julie Delpy, brought waves of critical acclaim and talk of another Oscar nomination for their collaborative screenplay, while The Purge turned a meager investment into a highly profitable box-office take.
Neither a chain of spice stores nor a Food Network program, The Seasoning House is a bleak-as-nuclear-winter thriller set during the Balkan conflict of the 1990s. A deaf girl named Angel (Brit teen Rosie Day) is taken from her home by soldiers who shoot her mother dead.
Paul Schrader’s The Canyons opens and closes with a montage of abandoned movie theaters. For this film in particular, that choice strikes one as symbolic in several ways: not only as a comment on the state of the industry, but on the state of The Canyons itself. You’re unlikely to find many 2013 films this empty.
What's a director of classic musicals doing in science fiction? Making Saturn 3, one of the worst of the genre Hollywood made in the immediate post-Star Wars / Alien era. Stanley Donen (Singin' in the Rain) takes to it about as well as you'd expect; he's in over his head.
Comedy! Missed the first-season set of Episodes? Skip it. Instead, grab the new two-disc set collecting the first two years. Although very much a Hollywood in-joke, the Showtime series tells that in-joke with excellence, anchored by Friends vet Matt LeBlanc starring as an A-holier version of himself, reduced to starring on a hockey sitcom overseen by two British writers too skilled for such crap. Episodes’ entire dysfunctional supporting cast proves wickedly funny.
Get a Lifeis not new to DVD, but Shout! Factory’s “Un-Special, Non-Anniversary Edition” is, and it’s the one to get. Chris Elliott’s groundbreaking television “anti-sitcom” has aged considerably well, arguably more hilarious now than in its low-rated 1990-92 run on Fox. Loaded with new bonus features, the set’s real draw are the 35 episodes themselves, featuring such irony-laden classics as the Cats-parodying“Zoo Animals on Wheels” and “Spewey and Me,” in which Chris befriends a vomiting E.T. I still can’t believe this show ever saw air, but the world is better off that it did.
Another comedic genius (before he sold his soul to Family Movie Hell) is celebrated in Steve Martin: The Television Stuff. Also from Shout! Factory, the box set rounds up his legendary ’70s TV specials that helped him transition from stand-up comedian to movie star. While creaky, they’re a blast to witness after only hearing about them for decades. Disc three includes bits and appearances from seemingly everywhere, including the stages of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live.
Drama! It may have lost this latest round of awards to upstart Homeland, yet it’s hard to argue that Mad Men: Season Fivewasn’t the show’s creative peak. As good as television gets — and these days, that means better than most feature films — the AMC stalwart served up some powerhouse storylines for the employees of Big Apple ad agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, particularly the rocky marriage of Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and trophy wife Megan (Jessica Paré). However, none are more dramatic than the one given to office manager Joan, played by Christina Hendricks, robbed of this year’s Emmy. At least she has good company: Nominated every season thus far, lead Hamm has yet to win.
Without the ’60s-set Mad Men, there would be no Magic City, a Starz original on the goings-on in a glitzy hotel in 1950s Miami. While nowhere near that show’s league, Magic City grew on me, working its seductive charms enough to keep me engaged over the course of its eight episodes.It helps to have Jeffrey Dean Morgan (The Possession)as our guide, Danny Huston (Hitchcock) as our villain and Jessica Marais (TV’s Legend of the Seeker)as
breakout eye candy. Pour an out-of-season mojito while watching this
one, and forgive the pilot’s scene that shamelessly cribs from The Crying Game.
Opt for tea, however, if you choose Downton Abbey: Season 3. It
won’t finish airing on PBS until mid-February, but you can watch it all
today. Just have Kleenex ready, judging from my wife’s reaction to the
season’s midpoint and finale. Conflict abounds at the majestic English
countryside abbey, and most of it manages to rise above the level of
pure soap. Creator Julian Fellows somehow continues to manage juggling
roughly two dozen characters under one roof. It’s the lone costume drama
pulled off with such biting humor and panache, I can’t bring myself to
Suspense! Marathons were made for series like J.J. Abrams’ Alcatraz. Canceled
after one season, it’s the kind of twisty mind-screwer that can lose
viewers week after week, thus working better in larger chunks. Clear
about a dozen hours and see if this sci-fi-tinged mystery about the
titular prison’s former residents clicks, or if you just feel Lost. Your mileage will vary, largely dependent upon your tolerance for co-star Jorge Garcia.
I’m also iffy on Copper: Season One, the
first original scripted program from BBC America. The cable channel
does just fine importing top-notch UK programming, but maybe you’ll like
this gritty, grimy, 19th-century procedural from the creator of Homicide: Life on the Street. To me, it feels like a detective spin-off of Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York — far from that director’s best work. Sherlock, it’s surely not.
Remember Wolf Lake?Me neither. The
2001 series died a quick death on CBS (and then UPN), perhaps ahead of
its time, considering today’s paranormal craze. Starring Lou Diamond
Phillips, Tim Matheson and a young Mary Elizabeth Winstead, the
single-season wonder makes for a nice surprise, with all nine hours and
an unaired pilot collected on the three-disc Complete Seriesset. As TV werewolves go, it beats MTV’s Teen Wolf and Syfy’s Americanized Being Human.
And finally, actual movies. Alfred Hitchcock got the short shrift by fall’s tepid Hitchcockbiopic; better tribute is paid by Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray reissues of two solid suspensers:1951’s Strangers on a Trainand 1954’s Dial M for Murder. The
former is superior, while the latter has been restored to its original
3-D presentation (assuming you have the proper equipment).
Grace Kelly in three dimensions?It’s a compelling visual argument for the oft-misused technology. —Rod Lott