DVD buys this week include: How I Met Your Mother seasons 2 through 6 (see below), A Midwinter's Tale (also see below), The Last Starfighter, Ice Pirates, and Jean-Claude Van Damme four-pack that includes Hard Target, Lionheart, Sudden Death and The Quest for our upcoming Van Dammathon.
DVDs: I've often gone on record saying I was done with the traditional, multi-camera, laugh-tracked sitcom, but I do have exceptions in my DVD library, including Sports Night and Steven Moffat's Coupling. However, How I Met Your Mother was recently pushed on me, and surprise, surprise, it charmed the pants off me within only a couple of episodes. Sure, some of the actors had already generated some good will through other work (Alyson Hannigan and Neil Patrick Harris mostly), but really, it's that it shared a number of traits with Coupling that really sold me. Like that show, there is a clever use of structure, as the character of older Ted tells the story to his kids, freezing the action here, inserting flashbacks there, even censoring himself at certain points. Any extreme absurdity can be covered by the idea that the narrator could be exaggerating for comic effect, and yet, the characters are made very real too, and there's real heart to their performances. No one plays a single note, and unlike other banter-happy sitcoms, the characters are actually allowed to laugh when someone cracks a joke. And in my old age, I've become a sucker for a truly romantic story, which the Ted-Robin story delivers in spades. Plus, an abnormally large number of Whedonistic guest-stars as NPH and Hannigan apparently slip their friends in. Sold and sold again. The extras are middling to very good. You've got commentaries on 6 of the 22 episodes (entertaining stuff with the cast and/or crew), a standard, but well-made making of feature, a blooper reel that's entirely too much about corpsing, and a couple of inconsequential musical montages.
Season 2 continues in the same vein, with a little more heartbreak, but again, some grand romantic gestures. The show now feels comfortable sending us into more and more flashbacks within the primary flashbacks, and already I'm trying to imagine a Omnibus edition of the show (when it eventually wraps) that takes us through the entire story in order. Coupling continues to come to mind, as scenes are hinted at, then later revealed, the same kind of narrative puzzles that made that show great. The characters get more depth and at this point, I couldn't even name a favorite. Strong cast, strong writing, I can definitely ignore the canned laughter. The Season 2 DVD does a little better than the first, with commentaries on 7 episodes, music videos for "Let's Go to the Mall" (the full version features a faux-Brian Mulroney!) and the theme tune (which is really the tail end of an entire song), a blooper reel that actually goes beyond corpsing, and three deleted scenes. The best bit, however, is the making of that uses the same kind of structural back-and-forthing the show does to take us through the process of creating the season finale.
Addicted! Season 3 was as strong as the first two, though my private joy of Whedonistic guest-stars is traded in for guests like Scrubs' Sarah "Second Becky" Chalke (hot), James Vanderbeek (not) and Britney Spears (nottttt), who nevertheless avail themselves well. We've seen break-ups in each season, but this one has the first bromance break-up. The continuing soap opera continues to progress well, and we get the first teasing about the Mother, but teasing is really all it is. The DVD extras are getting better, with commentary on 7 of the 20 episodes this time, 8 if you count the interminable, psychobitch musical commentary "Ted Mosby is a jerk" by... Britney?. There are also deleted scenes, the best (unrated) outtakes yet, a behind the scenes piece on one of the episodes, a short retrospective of past seasons, a featurette on favorite moments, Lily and Marshall's honeymoon videos, and two music videos - Robin Sparkles' Sandcastles in the Sand, and Marshall's You Just Got Slapped. Definitely fun to be had.
And now a triptych of quirky British films. While he was prepping his 1996 Hamlet, Kenneth Branagh made A Midwinter's Tale (AKA In the Bleak Widwinter), a film I've had on VHS for a while (and which I discuss periodically on Hyperion to a Satyr), but just now have converted to DVD. I don't know if it just wasn't available, or if I kept typing A Midwinter's Dream in the search bars (it's a Rheostatics song, a mistake I am likely to make). I watched it (for the umpteenth time) as soon as I got it. This low-budget comedy filmed in black and white features misfit actors trying to put on Hamlet for Christmas. The tone is not unlike something like Best in Show, with lots of quirky vignettes that will make anyone who knows any actors smile, but that also pulls at the heart strings and ultimately, delivers an excellent Hamlet montage. Surprising performances abound, and Michael Maloney shines especially. He's in a lot of Shakespeare movies, but usually playing a foolish douche (Laertes, Rosencrantz, Roderigo, the Dauphin). Here, he makes a good protagonist, filled with passion, and lights up the screen as Hamlet. We've also got Richard Briers, John Sessions, Joan Collins(!), and Nicholas Farrell (who is far more adept at comedy than I would have previously believed). I wish there were extras on the DVD, but alas.
If you thought How I Met Your Mother had a long title, what about The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Back Down a Mountain? This Hugh Grant vehicle has him play the title role (but not, in my opinion, the central role), a WWI-era surveyor who is tasked with measuring Wales' first mountain, which turns out to be 16 feet shy of being anything more than a hill. The Welsh village, led by a pub owner played by Colm Meany (great to see his name above a movie's title) rejects the idea and attempt to build an extra 20 feet before the surveyors (Grant and the criminally under-credited Ian McNeice) leave for their next assignment. So of course, they have to be delayed. What you get is a gentle comedy (not unlike, say, Waking Ned Devine) based, as it turns out, on true events. Writer-director Christopher Monger credits his father and grandfather for handing down the tale. Lovely, and while the perpetually confounded Hugh Grant gets his big romantic hero moment, etc., it's far more about the impious Meany coming together with the strict village pastor to mount a community project.
Speaking of Colm Meany, my next pick is The Damned United. What? A sports movie? Me?!? And a biographical one to boot? AND about British football? Between this and The King's Speech, director Tom Hooper seems to have a knack for taking real life stories that, as 2-line blurbs, seem slight and uninteresting, and turning them into captivating, rich and powerfully executed feature films. The Damned United is the story of maverick team manager (we'd say "coach") Brian Clough, well-known in Britain but a mystery to me, who took on a team he hated and failed where he had always succeeded before. Michael Sheen turns in a fun, layered performance, with strong support from Timothy Spall as his assistant manager and Meany as his legendary rival. The film's clever structure, taking us from "present day" 1974 to the past to see how the rivalry started, is a highlight, but spinning the story into what is essentially a professional love triangle means even this non-sports fan has something to latch onto and care about. You don't need to understand the nuances (or politics) of football to love the film, but what's there manages to register anyway (often through actual archival footage that reminds you this really happened). It's an excellent DVD package too, with a commentary track by Hooper, his producer and Sheen, some 40 minutes of deleted scenes (with optional commentary), and somehow almost an hour's worth of featurettes on the production, the acting, Clough remembered by the players who knew him, and the way British football has chanced since the 70. Sadly, none of the real tv interviews could be included.
Chang Cheh's Five Shaolin Masters suffers from too slow a place initially (can't the characters speak... more... quickly...?), but manages to deliver some strong action scenes in the later half. After the burning of the Shaolin Temple, five disciples escape and seek the help of other Han rebels, while avoiding the traitor that sold them out to the Manchus. The long set-up introduces us to the five, as well as five evil masters which will have to be defeated. After the required training montage, it's 5 vs. 5 in the ultimate showdown. It's Chang Cheh, so yes, some brutal violence. Homoeroticism too? Well, not much, but there isn't a single female character in the film (not even sure there were any female extras). That's par for the course for director Chang's Shaw Brothers work, which at least benefited from lots of location work, innovative choreography by, among others, Lau-Kar Leung, a cameo by my man Gordon Liu, and a sympathetic performance by a hounddogged Fu Sheng.
Books: The 10th volume of Brian Wood's DMZ (called Collective Punishment) collects the five stand-alone tales from DMZ 55 to 59, all taking place during the heavy bombardment of Manhattan. Each is drawn by a different artist, and may use new and old characters alike. Matty only shows up in the last one. Though we're essentially taking a break from the main plot, that doesn't mean the larger cast doesn't take casualties. It does. And one is left with the feeling that the next chapter will take the DMZ into far starker territory. Up til now, we've recognized New York. Wood is opening himself up for different stories set in the city's ruins. Each tale is emotionally effective, with strong and at time even beautiful art by the likes of Andrea Mutti, Nathan Fox, Cliff Chiang, Danijel Zezelj and David Lapham. Almost makes me regret I'm waiting for the trade with DMZ, because I'd like to read the next chapter NOW.
Hyperion to a Satyr posts this week:
III.i. To Be or Not to Be - Slings & Arrows
III.i. To Be or Not to Be - Classics Illustrated