I think I see your problem. You have this list. It’s a list of people you need/want to buy a Christmas gift for. The trouble is that they’re into home theatre, and you don’t know Star Trek from Star Wars. You couldn’t tell a Wolf Man from a Wolverine. And you always thought that Paranormal Activity was something too kinky to talk about. Fortunately, Upcomingdiscs has come to the rescue every Christmas with our Gift Guide Spotlights. Keep checking back to see more recommendations for your holiday shopping. These gift guides ARE NOT paid advertisements. We take no money to publish them. HBO is the spotlight today. A couple of television’s best shows had full-season releases in 2015. Of course, we’re talking about The Wire and Boardwalk Empire. There were also a few more gems hidden in the year. HBO has stood for premium television for a long time. Before you start shopping for that home video fan, you really need to see what HBO has to offer on Blu-ray.
The Wire The Complete Series:
“Some things stay the same. I mean the gamer is the game.”
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A newspaper reporter and a cop go into a bar… It sounds like a setup for a pretty lame joke. It’s actually the story of how one of the greatest television shows to ever air got started. It was the brainchild of two real-world players who hadn’t yet seen their worlds portrayed accurately in television of film. They set out on a mission to change all of that. And, changing all of that is exactly what they did.
The reporter was David Simon. He had worked at the famed Baltimore Sun for years. He had a first-hand look at the worlds of both the police and the players in the drug game. He had a front seat to some of the most violent blocks in the country. He knew there was potential for a television drama with the stories he had to tell and had already told in the pages of the Baltimore Sun. He put down those experiences in a book. Those experiences became the jumping-off point for the NBC drama Homicide: Life On The Streets. It was a pretty gritty look at the homicide squad of the Baltimore Police Department. But, there is only so much you can portray on network television. It would take a platform like HBO to tell the stories he really wanted to tell.
The cop was Ed Burns. He was a veteran detective of over 20 years. In the course of his job, of course, he crossed paths with the Sun reporter. When these two came together The Wire was born, and television would never be the same.
The scene is West Baltimore. To some it’s like a battlefield. The residents live in constant fear of being hit by stray bullets. Drug dealers own the streets, and the cops have been reduced to an occupational force with more of an adversarial relationship to those they have been sworn to serve and protect. Police presence can cause riots, and children are too often caught in the crossfire. From that description you might think I was talking about the current news reports coming out of cities like Baltimore right now. Now that’s the power of a series that will remain timeless. The issues and circumstances depicted here could have been ripped from the headlines of a 2015 news report. Instead it was written for a television show starting back in 2002. HBO couldn’t have picked a better time to bring this show back to our attention and in high definition for the first time. The Wire still works.
This was an intimidating review to write. I could fill pages and pages here, and I could never cover all of these phenomenal stories and wonderful characters. You just can’t do them justice in such a short space. Books have been written about the show, and I don’t expect there are many more deserving. If you know the show, you have an appreciation for the problem. If you do not know the show, then I envy you quite a bit. You’re about to embark on this journey for the first time, and I can’t tell you enough how lucky you are. This show is something completely its own, and you can’t really compare it to anything else. Forgive me if I haven’t found the right words to describe this experience. It’s a show that will move you while it entertains you. Like I said, it’s a force of nature, and how do you describe that? “That’s just the nature of things. Age is age. Fat is fat. Nature is nature. Nature don’t care. Nature just is.”
Boardwalk Empire The Complete Series:
“As you know, in less than two hours liquor will be declared illegal by decree of the distinguished gentlemen of our nation’s Congress. To those beautiful, ignorant bastards. Rest assured that, dry though the country may be, I am in the midst of concluding arrangements that will keep Atlantic City wet…”
HBO has finally released a full series set of Boardwalk Empire on Blu-ray. This is an HBO trend that has gone full tilt in the last year, seeing such hits as The Sopranos, True Blood and soon The Wire all coming in wonderful full-series releases. They look great on your video shelf. Together they create a tremendous number of hours of quality television. I love having it all in one place. If you’re new to the show, what better time to climb on board? Here’s a primer on what you’re going to see. I almost envy you folks who will watch it all for the first time in one sweep.
The story centers on Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Buscemi). He’s the city treasurer for Atlantic City in the 1920’s. The story begins just hours before the start of Prohibition. He works with the movers and shakers of the City Council and pretty much owns the Mayor. Nucky controls the city’s purse strings, and he’s the center of political power in the town. Like the Godfather, people come to Nucky when they’re in a jam, and he collects favors like many of us collect DVD’s or Blu-rays. He puts them on a shelf until he has the need to use them. One such piece of his collection is Margaret Schroeder (McDonald). Her husband beats her and gambles away his earnings. Nucky offers her help…and eventually much more. Let’s just say he’s good at removing obstacles. But make no mistake. Whatever he does is always for his own benefit, and helping others is a side effect that he can often cash in on. Most important, now that Prohibition has begun, Nucky controls the flow of booze into the city.
“If we’re good today, we’ll be better tomorrow.”
There’s already talk of a film with Martin Scorsese in the director’s chair. Without giving away any spoilers, the team itself reminds us that it would “obviously” need to be a prequel. I have to say they have really whetted my appetite for more of the younger Nucky. I certainly want to see Buscemi back, but there should be more of the Marc Pickering character. It wouldn’t hurt to see Harrow again, either. The five years were filled with some wonderful characters and moments. Ah, but, “What’s the sense of looking back, it never does any good.”
Game Of Thrones Season 4:
written by John Ceballos
“All men must die.”
The official tagline for Season 4 of HBO’s Game of Thrones also doubles as a helpful reminder of author George R.R. Martin’s no-character-is-safe philosophy. But even plastering that quote all over posters, promos, and the cover of this exemplary-in-every-way Blu-ray set isn’t likely to prepare you for the most devastating and thrilling season of a show that specializes in “devastating and thrilling.”
Since the start of season 4 coincides with the middle of “A Storm of Swords”, the action within these episodes moves at a comparatively breakneck pace. Fans of the Thrones TV show — which has been expertly shepherded to the small-screen by co-creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss — have been conditioned to expect each season to build towards something epic/earth-shattering in the penultimate episode. But instead of waiting for that ninth episode this time around, viewers get their first tectonic jolt during Ep. 2/“The Lion and the Rose.” The show never really looks back from there.
“If you want justice, you’ve come to the wrong place.”
At this point, even the most naïve Thrones fan probably felt that sentiment was a little redundant when it was uttered by a character during season 4. Martin appears to enjoy toying with reader/viewer expectations. (Pascal’s Oberyn seems like a sluttier Inigo Montoya on paper, but that’s before Martin presents his idea of an exotic, charming prince.) Then again, that “all men must die” saying — the English translation of the High Valyrian phrase “Valar morghulis” — doesn’t specify that “all good men must die.” In fact, season 4 also marks the departure of some of the show’s best and most detestable villains. And while I’m handing out superlatives, I’ll say Ep. 8/ “The Mountain and the Viper” features one of the most gruesome deaths in the history of television anything. I actually had some trouble going to sleep the night after that episode originally aired. (Special kudos to the Thrones sound department.)
Game of Thrones is rightly lauded for its audacious storytelling and visual spectacle, but the show continues to have some of the best acting on television. The series particularly excels in extensive two-person duets, whether it’s Arya’s complicated relationship with The Hound (Rory McCann), or Tyrion grimly holding court with a variety of visitors. Dinklage won an Emmy for his work in season 1 — and picked up a nomination for his work in season 4 — but his work here represents a career-high in my opinion.
Girls Season 3:
by John Ceballos
“Writers are a ridiculous class of people who make everything about themselves.”
For many, the current face — and oft-naked body — of “writers who make everything about themselves” is Lena Dunham, the creator/star/writer/director of HBO’s Girls. The equal-parts brilliant and maddening quarter-life crisis comedy became one of the most polarizing shows on TV over its first two seasons, as self-involved heroine Hannah Horvath sought love and a career as a writer in NYC. At the start of season 3, Hannah has both of those things…which is why I’m astounded — and, frankly, pretty impressed — that she remains as egotistical as ever.
If season 3 had a theme, it’s that each of the main characters was making a real effort to grow up and improve their lot in life. (Heck, it even extended to secondary characters like Alex Karpovsky’s Ray, who got serious about his coffee shop manager job.) Of course, the degree to which the characters succeed varied greatly. Jessa struggles with crushing boredom as she attempts to live a drug-free life. It’s great to have Kirke back on the show full time after missing a good chunk of season 2 due to her real-life pregnancy; Jessa’s acid-tongued assuredness is a necessary antidote to the other girls’ different shades of insecurity.
Meanwhile, Marnie flails as she tries to carve out an individual identity for herself. If Marnie’s arc this season feels a little haphazard — going from a YouTube humiliation, to a demeaning (for Marnie) gallery job, to crushing on an actor/musician who has a girlfriend — it’s because Dunham and company had to adjust on the fly. Christopher Abbott — who played Marnie’s on-again/off-again boyfriend Charlie during the first two seasons — abruptly departed the show over a reported dispute about his character arc. It could’ve been mildly disastrous, but the show made the sudden departure feel as earth-shattering to Marnie as it must’ve felt to everyone involved with making the show.
The Knick Season 1:
“Welcome to The Knick.”
The Knick is the fictional Knickerbocker hotel in 1900 New York. It’s a hospital that was once part of an affluent neighborhood but now finds itself in an area falling to poverty. Still it’s a place where innovations are being made on a daily basis, thanks to an inspired group of doctors led by Dr. J.M. Christiansen (Frewer) and his relentless search to find ways to decrease the mortality rate in surgery patients. So the hospital continues to have a great reputation, even if the local poverty is now causing The Knick to lose money, something the board of directors is looking to turn around.
In the pilot we meet Dr. Christiansen and his Deputy Chief of Surgery Dr. John Thackery (Owen). Together they are attempting to increase the survival of both mother and child when surgery is required to deliver the baby. Yet another failure leads to the suicide of Christiansen and the promotion of Thackery, considered a brilliant surgeon himself. The promotion comes with a condition from the board. He must accept as his deputy Dr. Algernon Edwards (Holland), who has worked with the most brilliant medical minds in Europe. He comes with a long list of qualifications that prove him to be a brilliant surgeon in his own right. The problem is that he also happens to be black. Thackery resists accepting Edwards, because he doesn’t believe the patients will allow a black doctor to operate on them. It’s a fear that’s founded in the reality of 1900 New York.
I have to warn you that this show is not for those with a weak stomach or a sensitivity to gore. While we might not have the likes of Freddy Krueger patrolling the halls of The Knick, there is a tremendous amount of gore. This is not like your typical network hospital show. The images take you ringside with these operations. You’ll be witness to every bloody detail for each of these procedures. For me it was more the use of needles. Strangely enough, they are not used much in the surgeries, but rather Thackery’s constant need to shoot up. The production values are high, so no detail is spared at any time here.
That production detail extends to the hospital and the surrounding 1900 New York streets. The show does a remarkable job of bringing this era and location alive. It might be easier inside the hospital where it’s all about the set dressing. But in the world we are brought into a place where horses and carriages still prevailed. This is a place where electricity is just finding its way to common use. The telephone is a brand-new device that many people are not yet accustomed to using. This is a time when surgeons did not use gloves or masks. It’s a time cocaine was the most common way to relieve pain during and after surgery. It’s a time when a doctor believed pulling all of your teeth could cure and prevent insanity. Finally, it’s a time when cocaine addiction is treated with heroin.
The entire series is directed by Steven Soderbergh. His unique style and storytelling can be found in every frame of the series. A couple of years ago he announced he was stepping away from feature film for a while. Little did we know he’d find the perfect outlet for his creativity in television. It’s not surprising, however. More and more A-list actors and directors are finding that cable television offers them a world of opportunity you can’t find in a feature film. With production values measuring up to that standard and a long form to tell the story, shows like this are transforming the television landscape almost on a daily basis. This is another example of just how good television can be right now. It’s an exciting time for reviewers like myself to get to binge-watch these things to deliver them up to entertainment fans like yourself.
I’m a pretty huge Star Trek fan. One of my favorites memories comes from the fourth movie. McCoy has to visit a present-day (1980’s) hospital to rescue a member of the crew who fell and was severely injured. As he’s making his way through the halls, he constantly remarks about the barbarism of the state of 1980’s medicine. For the film it made for some rather humorous moments, to be sure. When you watch a show like The Knick, which doesn’t hold back on the images, you start to see a scene like that in an entirely new light. Many of the things done here look absolutely barbaric to us, but look a little closer, and you realize it was cutting edge for the time. You’ll find yourself feeling lucky you didn’t have to rely on this level of medical care. The show really gives us a sober look at how far medicine has come. “It’s time to start getting better.”