WWI Centennial -- BBC style
Owls Head — My Boy Jack (2007, BBC DVD, NR, 94 min.). This film, David Haig's adaptation of his own stage play (1997), brings the first World War down to a very personal level, and the tragedy of the war becomes even more acute. However, World War I was more than a tragedy, it was also a colossal waste of young men throughout the continent. Great Britain lost nearly 12,000 soldiers on the first day of the war, and later, in the Battle of Loos, lost more than 7,000 men to gain only 200,000 yards in the battle of the trenches.
Haig also stars as writer Rudyard Kipling, father of soon-to-be-18 John (known as Jack; another nice performance by Daniel Radcliffe of the "Harry Potter" films). Jack is terribly nearsighted, but he wants desperately to fight against the Germans. First, he is turned down by the British Navy and then the Army's officers corps. His next step is to join as an infantryman, but his father, who is involved in the British war effort as a speaker and propaganda writer (he glorified the British military as the place for heroic men to be and, in this film at least, says those young men who do not volunteer for war should be shunned), pulls some strings and gets him into the Irish Guards as a 2nd lieutenant in charge of 20 recruits. The play is based on Kipling's poem of the same name, written in 1915 after his son disappeared in the Battle of Loos, and used as a prelude to a story in his book, "Sea Warfare," written about the Battle of Jutland.
Kim Cattrall plays Carrie Kipling, the wife who strongly disagreed about sending Jack off to war. Carey Mulligan plays their daughter Elsie, who knows Jack would find any way to escape what he considered an oppressive home. A highlight of the film is a brief battle sequence that includes some upside-down camera work. Brian Kirk directed this highly emotional film. Extras include an interview with Radcliffe, Haig and Cattrall; deleted scenes; and the show "Pity of War" (49:38), in which Niall Ferguson explores the causes and motivations behind the war (subtitle "Why the Great War Was a Great Mistake"). Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 3 stars
Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it
37 Days (BBC DVD, NR, 159 min.). This new three-part miniseries explores in great details all the behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts between Great Britain, France, Russia and Germany and the German demands that Austria takes action against the Serbs, after the June 28, 1914 assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand during a visit to Sarajevo. War was declared between Great Britain and Germany 37 days later. The miniseries is more "Masterpiece Theatre" than a war film, and very well acted.
Ian McDiarmid ("Star Wars I, II and III") is terrific as British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey, assisted by Eyre Crowe (Nicholas Farrell), who is very anti-Germany. Tim Piggott-Smith ("Downton Abbey") plays British Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith of the Liberal Party, with Sinead Cusack playing his wife, Margot. While the British characters get more depth, in particular, German Kaiser Wilhelm II (Rainer Sellien) and General Helmuth von Moltke the Younger (Bernhard Schutz) are much more one-note. One German fares better; that is Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg (Ludger Pistor), chancellor of the German Empire and who worked with Grey to defuse the Balkan crisis and maintain a policy of detente with Great Britain.
The historical detail is fascinating here, and an acting highlight is a testy British cabinet session two days before war was declared. (Britain was sort of forced into the war by a secret 1912 agreement Grey made with the French that they would protect the Mediterranean, while Britain would protect their shores.) There are no bonus features. Grade: film 3.5 stars
Royal Cousins at War (BBC DVD, NR, 120 min.). The two-part documentary tells the story of the three monarchs, all cousins, who reigned over Europe's greatest powers at the outbreak of the First World War: Tsar Nicholas II of Russia; Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany; and King George V of England. Narrated by Tamsin Grieg, the series details the rot that had set in prior to the war, rot that, in effect, doomed monarchy as the prime form of governance in Europe.
The first episode tells the story of the emerging divisions and rivalries between the interrelated royal houses of Europe and features the little known story of the two Danish sisters, Princess Alexandra and Princess Dagmar, who had pulled off the dynastic coup of the 19th century by marrying the heirs to both the British and Russian thrones. Following the invasion of their native Denmark by Prussia in 1864 during the Wars of German Unification, the sisters became the core of an anti-Prussian coalition that prefigured the great anti-German alliance of 1914. Their sons, King George V and Tsar Nicholas II, were close friends.
The series also looks at the tangled relationship between the German Kaiser and his English mother, Vicky, the oldest daughter of Queen Victoria. Disabled from birth, Kaiser Wilhelm had a complex love/hate attitude towards his mother, which transferred itself to Britain as a whole, strongly influencing his foreign policy.
Churchill's First World War (BBC DVD, NR, 93 min.). As you may know, Winston Churchill's career was derailed, and almost destroyed, in World War I. Churchill, then 39, was Britain's First Lord of the Admiralty, and he insisted on sending troops and supplies to bolster Russia against Germany by forcing the men through a narrow strait into the Black Sea. The resulting Battle of Gallipoli was a disaster that saw 56,000 British seamen killed. This documentary then follows Churchill trying to rehabilitate his reputation by taking up active service in the British Army at the front lines in France. The story is partially told through Churchill's own letters to his wife, and trusted confident, Clementine. Richard Lintern narrates.
14 War Stories (BBC/Looks, 2 DVDs, NR, 430 min.). The stories portrayed here were written 100 years ago in diaries, letters, postcards and telegrams. They tell what is was like for a French child to watch German battalions march through town; for a British housewife to volunteer as a war nurse and comfort dying soldiers; for a German soldier to cower in a muddy trench; and other personal stories. The producers use dramatizations and archival war footage. A bonus feature looks at the making of the series, including interviews with the filmmakers and behind-the-scenes footage.
The World Wars (History Channel/Lionsgate, 2 Blu-ray discs, NR, 270 min., due Sept. 9). This outstanding, three-part miniseries takes a different approach to covering World War I and World War II. The coverage of the First World War center on the participants who would become main players in the Second World War. It combines re-enactments and newsreel footage with narration by Jeremy Renner and expert interviews, including U.S. Senator John McCain, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld, among others.
Adolf Hitler (who almost died twice!), Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Benito Mussolini, Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, George Patton were infantrymen and privates in World War I, the "war to end all wars." Patton's story picks up when he was fighting the Mexicans and came up with the idea of putting machine guns on cars to fight Pancho Villa. Shortly thereafter, he would be in charge of the American tanks and troops that helped break the trench warfare stalemate in France, working with Douglas MacArthur, who was variously chief of staff, brigade commander and divisional commander during combat operations in France. After the war, MacArthur took over West Point, instituting numerous reforms in the way future officers were trained.
The series also follows Churchill, from ordering what became the disaster at Gallipoli to fighting on the front lines in France (see also "Churchill's First World War" above). We see how the Germans sent Vladimir Lenin back to Russia from exile, with $10 million in cash to fund what proved to be a successful revolution, after Lenin meets Josef Stalin. The Germans tried a similar strategy with the Mexicans, hoping to keep the United States occupied and out of the war, but that effort failed. We also see the seeds planted for the Second World War in how harshly Germany was treated as a conquered nation (reparations kept the country poor) and in how Japan was ignored at the Versailles peace talks.
Bonus features include more than an hour's worth of deleted scenes; in-depth looks at Churchill, Hitler, FDR, Stalin, Patton and MacArthur; and 10 featurettes on both wars. The series is presented very well. Grade: series 3.5 stars
Onto some lighter material:
Blended (Warner, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 117 min.). The third pairing of Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore (after "50 First Dates" and "The Wedding Singer") finds them as mismatched single parents on the same African safari tour. There are plenty of laughs here and only a few annoying characters, and the African scenery helps. However, as usual with a Sandler film, it could have been much better had it been more focused.
Barrymore (I had forgotten how adept she is at comedy) is Lauren, who organizes closets for a living with best friend Jen (Wendi McLenoon-Covey). She has two really badly-behaved sons. Sandler is Jim, who lost his wife to cancer and is raising his three daughters alone. The two have a disastrous first date at Hooters, of all places (the sentimental explanation comes much later) and vow never to see each other again. However, Jen is dating Jim's boss and, when Jen's romantic safari to Africa blows up, Lauren buys her ticket and Jim buys his boss' ticket -- with neither knowing what the other is doing. It also turns out the whole safari thing is a "blended family" experience.
Of course, Jim and Lauren start to warm up to each other, especially through interaction with the children (most of whom are quite good), including ostrich rides and parasailing. Their meals are shared with an obnoxious May-December couple, played by Kevin Nealon and Jessica Lowe, who definitely should have been left out, because it is all crude humor. Also, Terry Crews as the always singing safari host got annoying real fast. The bonus are 10 really short behind-the-scenes looks at specific scenes; a 5:53 gag reel (Sandler says to Barrymore: "I haven't kissed you in 10 years"); and six deleted scenes (6:12), four of which are actually hilarious. Grade: film 2.75 stars; extras 2 stars
The Double (Magnolia, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 93 min.). Director/co-writer Richard Ayoade goes for style in a big way in this Kafkaesque tale of a worker (Jesse Eisenberg as Simon James) who leaves so little impression on his coworkers that, when his doppelganger (Eisenberg as James Simon) shows up at work and wows everyone, no one notices that there are two of them -- not even the boss (Wallace Shawn). The film actually is based on a novella by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, retaining the written work's psychological focus, but externalizing everything that was left ambiguously inside his protagonist's head.
We first see Simon forced to give up his seat on an otherwise empty subway car. The incident emphasizes his meekness and inability to stand up for himself. At work, he has literally made no impression in seven years; when he loses his badge, the neither the guard, nor eventually the firm's computer system, recognizes him. When James shows up as a new employee, he is much more assertive and gets along with people easily. He offers to mentor Simon, who is hooked on coworker and neighbor Hanna (Mia Wasikowska) -- whom he spies on a lot through his telescope -- if Simon takes a test and does some of James' work.
There is a slight resemblance in setting to Terry Gilliam's "Brazil," but Simon's "enemy" is not the state, but rather the look-alike who is starting to take over his life. Extras include a brief making-of (4:46); a look at the cast and director (4:30); an interview with the director (6:22); and an AXS TV promo. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 2.75 stars
Rage (RLJ/Image, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR,98 min.). Nicolas Cage plays Paul Maguire, a former employee of the mob who has been living a straight life for 15 years. However, when his teenage daughter Caitlin (Audrey Peeples) is kidnapped, he believes his past has come back to bite him. His effortsw to find his daughter result in many deaths and ignite a war between Russian mobster Chernov (Pasha D. Lychnikoff) and his former boss (Peter Stormare as Francis O'Connell). Danny Glover plays the police detective who knows of Maguire's past and warns him to let the police do their job.
The film quickly becomes a senseless bloodbath, with Maguire helped by two old friends (Max Ryan and Michael McGrady). There is a car chase just to have a car chase. The reveal of what happened to his daughter is a surprise, but it hardly makes watching the film worthwhile. What is interesting is director Paco Cabezas complicated final shot, which is shown during the closing credits. It goes from upstairs outside to the street. An even longer extension of the shot is included as one of the five deleted scenes (15:01). An alternate ending is significantly different through one detail and the theft of 15 years ago is much more brutal and comes at the beginning of the film instead of in flashbacks. There also is a making-of feature (5:18). Grade: film 2.5 stars; 2.25 stars
Adventure Planet (Arc DVD, PG, 81 min.). In this animated film, siblings Norva and Jorpe live in Thailand and have unique abilities to communicate with nature. They encounter Sam, son of the president of the Capital State, when he gets lost on a scouting expedition. While Sam is impetuous and fool-hardy, he comes to appreciate his companions, after his electronic gadgets go haywire and strange, burning objects plunge from the sky (they are energy-hungry devices that threaten to engulf the planet). The voice cast includes Jane Lynch, Brooke Shields, Bailee Madison, Drake Bell and J.K. Simmons.
Some new TV sets:
The Originals: The Complete First Season (Warner, 4 Blu-ray + 5 DVDs, NR, 929 min.). This is one of the most successful spin-offs in recent memory, taking the ancient vampires known as The Originals from "The Vampire Diaries" and moving them to New Orleans, where Klaus Mikaelson (the wickedly good Joseph Morgan) plans to reestablish his control over the French Quarter. His brother Elijah (Daniel Gillies) and sister Rebekah (Claire Holt) join his efforts. Currently, the vampire population of the city is under the leadership of Klaus' estranged protégé Marcel (Charles Michael Davis) -- Klaus and Marcel's breakup was over Marcel and Rebekah's romance -- while opposing them is a coven of witches. The series, whose second season will begin this fall, also has a cursed clan of werewolves, and a werewolf-vampire hybrid offspring. Overall, the show is darker than "The Vampire Diaries" and much more fun to watch.
Bonus features include commentary on the pilot by creator Julie Plec and director Chris Grismer; a 2013 Comic-Con panel with Plec and the cast; a 2014 PaleyFest panel with the cast and producers; a look at the show's origins; a look at how the writers blended fact with fiction to generate strong roots in New Orleans for the Mikaelson family; a montage of key storylines and scenes of the family, including some from "The Vampire Diaries"; and deleted scenes. Grade: season 3.25 stars; extras 3 stars
Crossbones: Season One (Universal, 2 DVDs, NR, 386 min.). Set in 1729 on the secret island of Santa Campana, Edward Teach, better known as the pirate Blackbeard (John Malkovich in an at times bizarre performance), rules over a rogue nation of thieves, outlaws and miscreants under the title of Commodore. The show, which was cancelled before its final two episodes aired (but both were shown Aug. 2), is based on the book, "The Republic of Pirates" by Colin Woodard.
The series begins with Blackbeard attacking an English vessel to obtain a prototype navigational tool. His effort is thwarted by Tom Lowe (a likeable Richard Coyle), who is an undercover British spy. Lowe nonetheless is taken prisoner and survives by becoming the island's doctor. He also still has a secret mission to assassinate Blackbeard, if possible. Claire Foy plays Kate Balfour, a possible love interest for Lowe, even though he has a secret past with her disabled husband (Peter Stebbings). Chris Perfetti plays Lowe's appealing, but timid assistant Oswald, while Ezra Buzzington is Bluebeard's second in command, Oswald. The main British baddie is Julian Sands as William Jagger. The bonus feature is a collection of deleted scenes. Grade: series 2.75 stars
Almost Human: The Complete Series (Warner Archive, 3 DVDs, NR, 558 min.). This was a show that did not deserve to be cancelled, and I am not sure why it did not catch on. Executive produced by J.J. Abrams and J.H. Wyman, the series, set in Los Angeles in 2048, pairs a human police detective (Karl Urban as John Kennex), recently recovered from a devastating attack (he lost his leg and was in a coma for 17 months), with a manmade robot (Michael Ealy as Dorian). Dorian is an older model -- Michael threw his newer model robot partner out of the car window -- decommissioned for police work and about to be sent the space station. Instead of logic-based, Dorian's robot was created to be human-like. One of the strengths of the series is the growing relationship between human and robot. Lili Taylor is a plus as police Captain Sandra Maldonado. When the show aired on TV, some episodes were out of the intended order, which I, at least, found a bit confusing. Bonuses include unaired scenes, a gag reel and the 2013 Comic-Con panel with cast and creators. Warner Archive discs are made on demand and are available at www.warnerarchive.com online. Grade: series 3.25 stars
Revolution: The Complete Second and Final Season (Warner, 5 DVDs, NR, 943 min.). On the other hand, this clearly was a show deserving of cancellation. The show had an interesting premise -- all electricity has been blacked out, forcing mankind to survive as if it were a couple hundred years ago (hence all the swordfights) -- but it lost me when, halfway through season one, it killed off the character that the whole show up to then had been searching for. Now, in season two, the formerly bit shy and inexperienced daughter (Tracy Spiridakos as Charlie Matheson, Rachel's daughter and Miles' niece) is suddenly an expert at fighting and dealing with men. The season has Charlie, Rachel (Elizabeth Mitchell) and Miles (Billy Burke) done in Willoughby, Texas, where they discover Rachel's father, Dr. Gene Porter (Stephen Collins). Tom Neville (Giancarlo Esposito), a former captain and then major with the Monroe Militia, defects to the Georgia Republic with his son Jason (J.D. Pardo). Neville continues to be an adversary, as do Patriots officer Edward Truman (Steven Culp). New blood was injected with the introduction/recruitment of Sebastian Monroe's (David Lyons) long-lost son, Connor (Mat Vairo). Meanwhile, scientist Aaron Pittman (Zak Orth) discovers the nanites have consciousness and are controlling people and events. It all dissolves into a bit of a mess. Bonus features include a gag reel, deleted scenes and four featurettes, including the 2013 Comic-Con panel with the cast and creators. Grade: season 2 stars; extras 2.25 stars
The Walking Dead: The Complete Fourth Season (Anchor Bay, 5 Blu-ray discs, NR, 696 min.). The show continues to be one of TV's best, shocking you in new ways (the episode with Carol and the two young girls). The first half of the season seeks the Governor (David Morrissey) attack the prison, scattering our band of heroes, until most head for the promise of Terminus, at the end of the railroad line. The Governor issue is resolved and one beloved character dies. The main part of the season deals with Rick (Andrew Lincoln) being beaten down so low by events and then struggling to recover his mojo. His son, Carl (Chandler Riggs), continues to mature and forges a bond with Michonne (Danai Gurira). Gradually, the old group gets back together, overcoming deadly obstacles -- including human ones -- in the process. Extras five audio commentaries, three extended episodes, deleted scenes and eight featurettes. Grade: season 3.75 stars; extras 3.5 stars
The Blacklist (Sony, 5 DVDs, NR, 939 min.). The joy of this show is watching James Spader play ex-government agent Raymond "Red" Reddington, who has been on the FBI's most wanted list for decades for brokering deals with criminals across the globe. He was referred to as The Concierge of Crime. Now, Reddington has mysteriously surrendered to the FBI with an offer to help catch the world's most elusive criminals. His only condition is that he speaks only to Elizabeth "Liz" Keen (Megan Boone), an FBI profiler fresh out of Quantico.
We learn Liz was adopted and the show plays with the mystery of who her real father is, and whether it might be Red. Liz and her school teacher husband are trying to adopt a child, but Red says Liz should not trust her husband, and he proves correct. The arcs that go through the season are wonderful, while some of the individual cases of the week are horrifying. The show quickly creates a strong ensemble cast. Bonus material includes audio commentary on the first and last episodes, a behind-the-scenes look, and 22 episodes of "Beyond the Blacklist," a 4- to 5-minute web look at each episode. Grade: season 3.5 stars; extras 3 stars