It's a measure of the broadening of the television audience that all manner of subjects and genres can produce successful series that, in turn, do well on DVD. Today, for example, we're looking at horror [the Masters of Horror episodes Family and Pro-Life], science fiction [The Lost Room], an airline comedy [The Loop], a very adult airline soap [Mile High], and a series on empire building throughout history [The History channel Presents: Engineering An Empire] – hosted by Buckaroo Banzai, himself, Peter Weller…
Masters of Horror: Family
John Landis' second season entry for Showtime's Masters of Horror series is a delightfully odd, more than averagely subtle piece, Family. George Wendt stars as Harold Thompson, a seemingly sweet, middle-aged guy with a nice house in the burbs. He's a cheerful guy who has only one real vice – killing people to create an ideal family for himself!
When David [Matt Keeslar] and Celia [Meredith Munroe] move in across the way, he becomes enamored of her – targeting her to become his new "wife" when Matt leaves her. In the sunny world of their cheerful little suburb, Landis takes a smart, sneaky script from Brent Hanley and makes us wonder about what goes on in the minds [and basements] of our neighbors.
Family plays almost like a classic Twilight Zone episode, what with its twists and surprises. If it wasn't for the judiciously placed gore, it might have been airable on network TV. Although all three actors are extremely good here, the piece really works because of the counter-casting of Wendt. The impact of seeing "Norm" doing these things adds just enough extra impact that we are not quite able to figure out the twists – and they are pretty cool. Family matches Landis' first season film, Deer Woman for odd humor and the deftness with which he brings about his twists – and it surpasses his previous MoH effort in creating contrasts behind surface appearances and the film's skewed reality.
Features include: Audio Commentary by writer Brent Hanley; Skin and Bones: The Making of Family; Terror Tracks: Mastering The Family Score; Original Storyboards by William David Hogan; a Stills Gallery; an updated John Landis Bio, and the Original Screenplay [on DVD-ROM].
Masters of Horror: Family – Grade: A
Features – Grade: A
Final Grade: A
The Lost Room
Last December's Sci Fi Channel event mini-series, The Lost Room, didn't garner the ratings landslide of a Triangle, though it was certainly a smarter, more engaging work. Combining a superb cast [Peter Krause, Elle Fanning, Julianna Margulies, Kevin Pollack, Roger Bart, Dennis Christopher and more] with a twisty script [by Laura Harcomb and Christopher Leone], the mini-series follows police detective Joe Miller as he tries to find his daughter [Elle Fanning] who has gone missing from a very strange motel room…
The mini-series opens with Miller being unable to catch a two-bit thief because he goes through a door and vanishes. Instantly, our attention is grabbed. When Miller does get his hand on the key, he discovers that it makes any door open into a motel room – room 10 of the Sunshine Motel. When his daughter, Annie, goes into the room by herself, she disappears – and becomes the focus of Joe's actions as he tries to learn what happened to her, and how he can get her back.
He learns about the key – and over one hundred objects from the room that have unique abilities [a comb that stops time for five seconds; a ballpoint pen that microwaves human flesh; a bus ticket that teleports its victims to a specific destination…]. Along the way, he encounters various obstacles – mostly in the form of people who have one or more of the objects, and representatives of two opposing forces that have differing philosophies about what should be done with those objects.
Well thought out and equally well written, The Lost Room is a very engaging mini-series. The characters [including some of the villains and peripheral characters] are interesting and mostly sympathetic [Kevin Pollack's Karl Kreutzfeld, for example, has a very compelling reason for acquiring objects – possibly even more compelling than Joe's]. The mini-series is beautifully shot and the special effects are among the most effective [and integral] you will ever see in a television program.
The only feature on the two-disc DVD release is a thirty-minute making of featurette, Inside The Lost Room. It's reasonably comprehensive, and most of the cast members interviewed provide intelligent insights into both their characters and the mini-series as a whole – which in no way minimizes the lack of a good audio commentary…
The Lost Room – Grade: A
Features – Grade: D
Final Grade: B
Sam Sullivan [Bret Harrison] is the youngest airline executive ever, having fallen into the job right of college. As a junior executive at twenty-four years of age, his world is one of a unique duality: the responsibility of a very high-powered job, and the instinct of the young to explore live [read party!]. At work he deals with a vaguely potty-mouthed CEO, Russ [Philip Baker Hall], a randy senior exec, Meryl [Mimi Rogers], who has a habit of touching him inappropriately, and his assistant, Daisy [Joy Osmanski], an acerbic woman of similar age [and who belabors the fact that she finished fourth in her class at Harvard].
At home, he's sharing an apartment with his hedonistic older brother, Sully [Eric Christian Olsen], his college buddy, Piper [Amanda Loncar, on whom he has a major crush [and is completely oblivious to it], and Lizzy [Sarah Mason], a ditzy bartender who definitely helps her roommates keep they party animals growling…
When he's working, Sam is given such assignments as marketing a now low-cost carrier [and you will laugh at the original marketing strategy] – a move that seems to kill the originally assigned executive, or find cost-cutting measures that won't cripple the airline [his apparent ruthlessness prompts admiration from Russ].
In his social life, complications arise that consistently cause problems with his job, as when Lizzy's buddy stays with them for a while – she's a rep for an alcohol distiller and develops a thing for him. The resulting partying prevents him from working on the marketing for that low-cost carrier [though, once away from the permanent party that is his bartender's buddy, his experience turns into inspiration…].
The Loop is one of the smarter sitcoms I've encountered this season. Between the problems of helping to run an airline, and surviving his social life, Sam is one of the most entertaining sitcom leads around. The supporting cast is remarkably good –
and any series that counts Philip Baker Hall as a regular can count on my checking it out.
Feature: Thesis: Work vs. Play – essentially a making of featurette centered around Sam ["Thesis" is the nickname Russ has given him because of his being fresh from college…].
The Loop – Grade: B+
Features – Grade: D
Final Grade: B-
Mile High: The Complete First Season
This British soap is built around a pilot, a purser and six flight attendants for Fresh air, a low-cost airline that connects London with a number of vacation/party destinations. The review that's quoted on the first season DVD package describes it as being in the tradition of three British series that seem somewhat incongruous: Absolutely Fabulous, The Office, and Footballers' Wives. Incongruous, that is, until you see how the airline is run, how hedonistic most of the main characters are, and how much sex [and nudity] there is.
The series begins with Fresh's newest attendant, Marco [Tom Wisdom], arriving for his first day and being pranked to the point where it's almost his last. The prankster is Will [Adam Sinclair]; not quite enough of a queen to be a true gay stereotype, but close [until you get him to know him over the course of the season]. The purser who almost ends Marco's career, Janis [Jo-Anne Knowles], is known as the Ice Queen, but has a really interesting past.
Others to key on are John [Matthew Chambers], the handsome, womanizing pilot whose departure from Fresh nearly killed his girlfriend at the time, Emma [Emma Ferguson], who looks like butter wouldn't melt in her mouth – but has problems with booze and sex; Lehanne [Naomi Ryan], best friend to both Emma and Jason [James Redmond] – who is a womanizer because the woman he loves isn't in love with him, and K.C. [Sarah Manners], a free-spending, free-wheeling lass who lives beyond her means and sleeps with all the wrong guys.
Mile High is a lot of fun, once you get past the idea of all those influences. The characters [with the possible exception of Will] seldom go too far over the top to be relatable; the scenery [both human and geographic] is spectacular; the intertwining of various plot threads [not to mention relationships and one-night stands] is enough to keep one on one's toes, and the general atmosphere is real enough to balance the show's soapiest moments. The cast chemistry is extremely good [essential for this kind of series], and the show is well done, technically.
The first season DVD set contains no features.
The History Channel Presents: Engineering An Empire
Engineering An Empire is a good example of how history can be presented in a manner that couches its education in entertaining terms. While every episode deals with the engineering feats of a different empire [from Ancient Greece to The British Empire], and every episode features the usual assortment of talking heads, CG reconstructions and onsite tours [by host and University of Syracuse instructor Peter Weller] give their subjects an extra bit of depth and reality.
Of the twelve episodes included here, my personal favorites are The Aztecs [the only ancient civilization besides Rome to build aqueducts without being influenced by other civilizations] and The Maya: Death Empire [which shows how we learned that the Maya were not the peaceful people we had originally thought them to be – and ponders their mysterious disappearance…].
Other empires explored include: Greece, Rome, Napoleonic France and The British Empire – and each receives the same kind of thorough treatment. Weller, it turns out, is an engaging host, and while it may surprise some to know that he's a respected scholar and teacher – as well an actor and musician – it seems fitting that he is as accomplished in so many areas as his most iconic film character, Buckaroo Banzai.
Feature: Behind The Scenes Featurette – a look at Weller as he fine tunes his details and mingles with the peoples of the lands he visits.
The History Channel Presents: Engineering An Empire – Grade: A
Feature – Grade: D
Final Grade: B
Masters of Horror: Pro-Life
Pro-Life is a tale about a teenaged girl who has become pregnant – and wants the baby gone because she knows there's something wrong about it. Angelique [Caitlin Wachs] persuades two doctors [Mark Feuerstein and Emmanuelle Vaugier] to take her to a nearby clinic that performs abortions. Meanwhile, her father, Dwayne [Ron Perlman] is deciding whether to obey a restraining order to force his way into the clinic to prevent her having one.
As the film progresses, we learn how Angelique was impregnated – and witness Dwayne receiving an otherworldly command to "protect the baby." In the space of a few hours, Angelique's baby grows to full-term – despite an effort to abort it. And while the baby is growing inside her, her father and brothers have stormed the clinic – resulting in an all out gunfight. Things go rapidly downhill from there.
After the brilliant Season One Masters of Horror episode, Cigarette Burns, I have to say that I was disappointed by John Carpenter's second season effort, Pro-Life. The story, about a father who is hell bent on protecting his daughter's unborn baby, frequently seems clumsy and lacks the usual visual flair and wit we expect from Carpenter – at least for the most part. The conceptualization of the baby and its father, are interesting, although the big twist is obvious almost immediately.
Even the pro-life/choice debate is barely a part of the proceedings – one or two valid points are given for each side of the debate and it's quickly forgotten. In essence, then, Pro-Life – for all its apparently controversial possibilities – is little more than an old-fashioned monster movie. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but compared with the brilliance of Cigarette Burns, it feels a bit flat.
Overall, the piece is not unintelligent, and there are some superb performances [notably Perlman and young Ms Wachs]. Between them and the monster make-up [purely brilliant], Pro-Life does entertain – and scare. Just not as much as one would expect from Carpenter.
Features: Audio Commentary by Carpenter and writers Drew McWeeny & Scott Swan; Demon Baby: Birthing the FX Sequence; Final Delivery: The Making of Pro-Life; Storyboard Gallery; Stills Gallery; updated John Carpenter Bio, and the Original Screenplay on DVD-ROM.
Masters of Horror: Pro-Life – Grade: B-
Features – Grade: A
Final Grade: B