‘The Great’ is wicked fun

By Tom Von Malder | Oct 26, 2020
Photo by: Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult star in "The Great."

Owls Head — The Great … An Occasionally True Story: Season One (Paramount, 4 DVDs, NR, 9 hours 39 min.). You say you want a revolution? Well, you could not have a more congenial partner for a coup than the future Catherine the Great, here played by Elle Fanning in her first TV series role. Catherine leaves behind forward-thinking Paris full of romantic anticipation and idealism as she heads to Russia to marry Emperor Peter (Nicholas Hoult of the “X-Men” films), the not-so-great son of Peter the Great. In addition to not living up to his father’s reputation, Peter – best-described as an oaf and a spoiled brat – has his dead mother’s ideals to live up to. All he has done so far, though, is have her corpse mounted in a glass case. Peter can be very cruel too, as when, during his war with Sweden, he has the heads of defeated soldiers adorn the dinner table.

Yes, “The Great,” adapted by Tony McNamara, with others, from his own play, is a wickedly funny show. It is very ribald and mostly depicts the Russian aristocracy as fools. The women feel entertainment consists of discussing dresses or rolling balls on the lawn, and they wear their wigs as if they were hats. The men kowtow to Peter because it is deadly not to. Peter’s only real friend is Grigor (Gwilym Lee), who has to be content to sharing his wife Georgina (Charity Wakefield) as Peter’s concubine – usually with cuckolded Grigor in the same room.

Marial (Phoebe Fox) is assigned as Catherine’s maid. She is a former lady of the court, whose father messed with Peter and, in retaliation, Peter made the whole family servants. Marial remains feisty though and is a suitable companion for Catherine. In fact, it is Marial who first mentions the word “coup,” but more on that in a bit.

Upon her arrival and next-day marriage, after an intrusive examination by Archbishop Archie (Adam Godley), who happens to be Marial’s cousin by the way, Catherine pours out the details of what she expects with be a romantic first coupling with her husband. Marial knows to expect otherwise, but Catherine is shocked at the dispassionate promptness of the event. Growing frustrated in her personal life, Catherine decides to focus on making Russia great, bringing enlightenment and raising up women. She asks Peter if she can establish a school. However, when he learns women are to be taught there, he has the building burned down, saying, “Women are for seeding, not for reading.” (Peter, by the way, loves to come up with similar catchphrases, most of which verge on dumbness.) The Archbishop’s viewpoint is “people underestimate the joy in suffering.”

Catherine is driven to trying to escape in a box, but Peter has her nearly drowned. Shortly thereafter, Marial suggests there are unhappy men in Russia looking for a leader. The two then hatch plans for a coup involving Peter’s death. As he has no heir, the empress would rule in his place. Catherine decides to convert Orlo (Sacha Dwahan) to their cause, as he shares a love of progressive reading with her. However, Marial is dubious, as Orlo has survived as one of Peter’s advisors for more than a decade. Catherine first decides to use seduction as a recruitment tool, but the encounter goes hilariously wrong.

Other characters of note include General Velementov (Douglas Hodge), who has a tremendous crush on Catherine and even suggests to Peter that he become her lover. However, Peter, who thinks Catherine having a lover will make her happy and thus not such a buzzkill when around him, instead gives her Leo Voronsky (Sebastian De Souza), noted for the size of his appendage and the fact that having mumps as a child has rendered him sterile. (Leo will confess to Catherine that he actually has only had sex once, which makes me think the sterility angle might not be yet proven.) Catherine at first wants nothing to do with Leo, other than sparing his life, until she learns that Peter has actually been discussing killing her because she is not a happy wife.

Also of note is Peter’s Aunt Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow), who has the only key to the room where Peter’s secret half-brother, the child Ivan (Charlie Price), is locked away.

The show, which already has been renewed for a second season, has excellent acting throughout and a truly funny script, filled with memorable moments and lines. The costumes are colorful and the settings rich in period detail. The pilot episode received two Emmy Award nominations: for Matt Shakman’s direction and McNamara’s writing. Extras include a look at the series (11:38) in which McNamara calls it “a story of female empowerment” and others refer to it as a period satire and “bonkers with dark and comedic elements”; a look at the fashions and set tours by the actors who inhabit those sets (15:28); and a fun gag reel (5:48). Grade: season 4 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

Quiz (AMC/RLJE, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR, 152 min.). Also based on a true story, and a three-part miniseries that sticks more to the truth than “The Great,” is “Quiz,” about the 2001 scandal that accused a husband and wife and a man they had never met with scheming to cheat ITV game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” of the top prize. Matthew Macfayden plays Charles Ingram, who went on the show and answered all 15 questions correctly to win the 1 million pounds prize, while Sian Clifford plays his wife, Diana. The other man accused is Tecwen Whittock (Michael Jibson), who allegedly steered Charles to the correct answers by coughing.

The miniseries, though, belongs to Michael Sheen as show host Chris Tarrant. He is wonderful during the show segments that make up most of the second episode and Macfayden, with his hesitations and answer changes, is a worthy match. The first episode is about how the show was developed, while the third is mostly devoted to the trial. The original idea was called “Cash Mountain” and the creators said it combined the British’s two greatest loves: drinking and pub quizzes. We see how Diana’s brother (Trystan Gravelle as Adrian Pollock) studied the show and created a practice machine so he could be the fastest to answer the qualifying question. In fact, Adrian appeared on the show four times and Diana was a contestant once, before Charles’ winning appearance.

Although some scenes make it look like the Ingrams might have been guilty, I was left with the impression they were innocent. The series is directed by Stephen Frears (the excellent “A Very English Scandal”) and written by playwright James Graham (“Brexit: An Uncivil War”). There are 13 minutes of extras, including brief looks at the series, constructing the set, Sheen as Tarrant and Macfayden and Clifford as the Ingrams. Grade: miniseries: 3.25 stars; extras 2 stars

Tremors: Shrieker Island (Universal, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR, 102 min.). This is the seventh film in the “Tremors” series and quite possibly the last, as a key character is given a sendoff that includes the actor’s work in the previous films during the closing credits. The film is way, way better than the previous one, “Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell,” which was an unmitigated disaster. In fact, this may be the best “Tremors” since the first film in 1990, which starred Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward. Michael Gross came on board as Graboid hunter Burt Gummer in the second film in 1996 and has appeared in all the sequels.

What sets this film apart is that it is played less for humor and is set on some wonderful mountainous islands in Thailand. It often looks like the same locale used for Kong Island in the new King Kong films. The settings are colorful, lush and beautiful.

The opposition this time are Graboids and their Shrieker offspring who have been genetically enhanced to make them super-predators. The Shriekers use bioacoustics as a weapon. The altered creatures are established on an island owned by Bill Davidson (Richard Brake of “Doom,” overacting just slightly) as a hunting preserve for rich Silicon Valley types that he actually has contempt for. Of course, his clients are just fodder for the Graboids and Shriekers. One of Bill’s helpers (Cassie Clare as Anna) is upset with the hunt and eventually will help the other side, which is an environmental group led by Dr. Jas (Caroline Langrishe), whom, we learn, once had a relationship with Burt.

When Jas and helper Jimmy (Jon Heder of “Napoleon Dynamite”) realize the Graboids are also threatening their Wildlife Preserve, Jimmy goes off to recruit Burt, who has been hiding away in Papua, New Guinea, looking the worse for wear as a Robinson Crusoe clone.

Throughout the film, Jimmy keeps referencing “Predator,” but he also mentions “Rambo” and “Evil Dead.” Certainly, the film borrows from “Jurassic Park” (a hunter caught in a loo). Burt is without a gun this time, having to rely on his wits and, oh yeah, a flamethrower.

In addition to the gorgeous locations, the film is added by some very decent special effects. There are two extras (not seen): 13 minutes of the Gummer character and a closer look at the Graboids. Grade: film 3 stars

The Last Starfighter (1984, Arrow Video, Blu-ray, PG, 100 min.). “The Last Starfighter,” which has the same basic theme as the first “Star Wars” film without the sophistication, has always been a favorite. This new 4K restoration, scanned from the original camera negative, comes loaded with extras.

Lance Guest (“Jaws: The Revenge,” “Halloween II”) plays Alex Rogan, a young man who dreams of going to more than the local community college, but is stuck helping his mother (Barbara Bosson) run the Starlite Starbrite trailer park. Alex has a younger brother (Chris Hebert as Louis) and a girlfriend (Catherine Mary Stewart of “Weekend at Bernie’s,” “Night of the Comet” as Maggie Gordon).

One of Alex’s pastimes is to play the “Starfighter” arcade game outside the trailer park’s office. When he one day sets a new record on the machine, a signal is sent to its creator, the alien Centauri (Robert Preston of “The Music Man”), as the machine actually is a recruitment device for pilots to fight against the Ko-dan Armada, “led” by the traitor Xur (Norman Snow), which is threatening Planet Rylos and the other Star League worlds. The forces Xur “commands” actually do not think much of him.

At the Starfighter base, Alex meets Grig, an iguana-like alien, who becomes his navigator. Grig is played by Dan O’Herlihy of the two “RoboCop” films and “Halloween III: Season of the Witch.”

One of the fun parts of the movie is that while Alex is off defending Rylos, a Beta Alex clone takes his place on Earth to the befuddlement of Maggie and the occasional amazement of Louis. It also is fun to see Preston playing a different kind of huckster.

The film is directed by Nick Castle (“Escape from New York”), who provides audio commentary with production designer Ron Cobb. There also are audio commentaries by Lance Guest and Jackson Guest, and a new one by Mike White of The Last Projection Booth podcast. There are new remote interviews with Stewart, who says she stuck to her “Days of Our Lives” character (9:28), and composer Craig Safan, who created a big orchestral score as well as suing two synthesizer players (12:20). In his interview, writer Jonathan Betuel says he was influenced by “The Once and Future King” and it only took him four days to write the script (9:27). Supervisor Kevin Pike discusses the special effects (10:14) and science fiction author Greg Bear discusses the then-groundbreaking digital production (7:46). In this new restoration, the segments that are digital – Centauri’s car flying; the starfighters – stick out more. It is a unique blend of live action and animation.

There also are looks at the arcade game and other props with collector Estil Vance (7:24); an archival making-of featurette (24:19); another archival making-of with director Castle (32:02); and nine image galleries, including a different location awards ceremony. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 4 stars

Back to the Future: The Ultimate Trilogy (Universal, 4K UltraHD + Blu-ray, 9 discs, PG, 5 hours 40 minutes). The three films – “Back to the Future” (1985, 115 min.), “Back to the Future Part II” (1989, 107 min.) and “Back to the Future Part III” (1990, 118 min.) – gat the 4K UltraHD treatment for the first time and come in a collectible discbook. There also is a bonus disc with more than an hour of new bonus features.

Everyone knows the story of how 17-year-old Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) travels back in time in a DeLorean car to when his parents (Lea Thompson as Lorraine Baines and Crispin Glover as George McFly) were in high school. History threatens to unwind as Lorraine falls for Marty instead of his father. Eccentric inventor Dr. Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd) had created the time machine. In the future, Doc is apparently killed by Libyan terrorists, so when things start to go awry for Marty in the past, he must seek out the 1955 version of Doc.

In the first sequel, they travel to 2015 and find Marty’s family is in ruins. While in the future, Marty buys a sports almanac with the outcome of 50 years’ worth of games. While he throws it away, Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson) finds it and then steals the DeLorean to go back to 1955 to give his younger self the book.

In the second sequel, Doc Brown is trapped in 1885, so Marty needs to find the 1955 Doc and where the DeLorean has been hidden for 70 years.

The three films come with all the previous released bonus material, which is quite extensive and includes making-of featurettes and audio commentaries. The new bonus features include lost audition tapes, with Billy Zane and Peter DeLuise trying out for Biff, Kyra Sedgwick for Lorraine and C. Thomas Howell, Jon Cryer and Ben Stiller for Marty (3:45). A very good, indeed fascination featurette has Jack Roper looking at whether a human being could survive the pressure sound wave from the speaker, traveling through time and the lightning strike (19:47). This scientific approach works well. Producer Bob Gale, who wrote the original film with director Robert Zemeckis, gives a tour of The Hollywood Museum’s “Back to the Future” exhibition (10:17).

There also is a look at the new 2020 “Back to the Future: The Musical,” including a Manchester, England interview with Gale (he says the original “Back to the Future” movie script was rejected 40+ times), actor Lloyd and musical performers Roger Bart (Doc) and Olly Dobson (Marty) (28:15), plus two in-studio music videos, “Gotta Start Somewhere” (2:33) and “Put Your Mind To It” (2:59), the latter sung by Dobson. Both ae very good songs. Grade: overall box set 4 stars

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