The television show I’ve most freely recommended to friends, family and strangers alike, “Breaking Bad” is the dramatic equivalent of a dialed-in baseball slugger – tightly focused on every pitch and unwilling to give away a single at-bat. There simply isn’t a better hour-long drama on network or cable television right now; a loose thread or momentarily escaped judgment in creator Vince Gilligan’s show isn’t an oversight or narrative contrivance, but merely a prelude to more emotional and/or physical nastiness. No series has more effectively tightened dramatic screws spanning multiple years than “Breaking Bad.” And with its split-schedule fifth season just now starting up on AMC, it’s the perfect time to save those episodes on your DVR and revisit season four, new to DVD.
Broadly, the story, for those still unfamiliar with the Emmy Award-winning show, centers on Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a one-time mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher who, after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, turned to cooking meth with a burnout former student, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), as a means to secure a solid financial future for his pregnant wife Skylar (Anna Gunn) and special-needs teenage son. In time, though, Walt himself has become darker and decidedly more ruthless, at the considerable imperilment of his family and DEA agent brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris). Season four details the agonizing, protracted falling out between Walt and Jesse, as well as their dangerously deteriorating relationship with secret drug kingpin Gustavo Fring (Emmy nominee Giancarlo Esposito), who operates a local fast food franchise. It’s superlative drama — smartly scripted and searingly acted.
“Breaking Bad: The Complete Fourth Season” comes to DVD spread out over four discs, housed in two slimline cases in turn stored in a nice cardboard slipcover. AMC and distributor Sony have really gotten these seasonal sets right, packing them with episode-specific bonus content (over 13 hours, in this case) both taken from the web during the series’ small screen run, and produced especially for this release. Five of the 13 episodes here are “uncensored,” which basically means just slightly longer versions, with a bit of flashy violence trimmed for TV. This doesn’t include an extended version of the season finale. Extended and alternate scenes also abound, and each episode gets an audio commentary track with cast and crew, which is a grand way to re-visit the material for diehard fans.
There are also 21 little episodes of “Inside Breaking Bad,” ported over from their Internet debuts. These are great (especially the one detailing Walt and Jesse’s fight sequence), with all sorts of interview material. Among the more light-hearted fare is a five-minute gag reel, in which Cranston reveals his penchant for nudity and comedy of self-humiliation — a goofy shower scene outtake of his gets black-barred, and he also surprises costar Gunn by showing up in one sequence wearing a giant baby diaper and bonnet. There’s also a collection of the “Better Call Saul!” commercials, a karaoke video, eight substantive featurettes examining the show’s sets, science, production design and the like, and a separate, 23-minute look at the big season finale, in which Esposito talks about how he uses Gus’ glasses to slip into character and Gilligan explains why he asked for 19 takes to get a crucial death scene just right, and to his liking.
Though not for all tastes, FX half-hour single-camera comedy “Wilfred” is a twisted little show. It opens with depressed Los Angeleno Ryan (Elijah Wood) penning a suicide note, and exclaiming, “Nailed it!” He then downs a punch of pills, only to later discover they were placebos, given to him by his ball-busting sister Kristen (Dorian Brown). Startled awake by his crush-worthy neighbor Jenna (Fiona Gubelman), Ryan gets talked into looking after her dog. The problem is, where everyone else sees a dog, Ryan sees Wilfred (Jason Gann), a foul-mouthed, impudent, pot-smoking guy in a scruffy dog costume. Hijinks ensue, as Wilfred gets Ryan in all sorts of trouble, but also teaches him a few life lessons along the way.
One could argue that the threshold for this sort of comedy is reached fairly quickly, but Gann and Wood make for a pretty winning comedic duo. A fair amount of the series’ laughs — particularly in its post-credit bumpers — lies in the comedy of composition, in which Wood is framed in either the foreground or background, reacting in deadpan frustration to Wilfred’s hijinks, which as often as not involve some sort of destruction of property, humping of inappropriate items, or both. Overall, though, the writing here is generally pretty clever, even if the characterizations seem somewhat necessarily limited.
“Wilfred: The Complete First Season” comes to DVD in a solid but not overwhelming little packaging. Split into two discs, its 13 episodes are presented in 1.78:1 widescreen, with a Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound audio track. Supplemental extras include a couple disposable compilation clips of Wilfred humping things and smoking weed, a moderately interested but cheesily presented FOX Movie Channel segment in which three film school students chat with Gann about the process of adapting the show from its Australian roots, a collection of 10 deleted and extended scenes, and a snippet from the show’s Comic-Con panel in 2011.
“Freak Dance” is certainly not the first film to skewer dance-movie conventions, but is amongst the smartest and most colorful — owing, no doubt, to the fact that it’s the brainchild of Upright Citizens Brigade, the irreverent cult sketch comedy group from which Amy Poehler sprang forth, among others. The story is boilerplate, dance-is-freedom claptrap, in which rich girl Cocolonia (Megan Heyn) flees her uptight mother (Poehler), and hooks up with Funky Bunch (Michael Cassady) and his misfit band of dancers. Together, they must rally to produce $3,023, in order to pay the necessary building code fines to save their beloved community center.
The comedy here is all broad, yes, but the music — by Jake Anthony and Brian Fountain, with lyrics from Fountain and co-director Matt Besser — is where the funniest satire lies, and these tunes, silly and frequently lewd, are a lot of fun. The cast has a lot of fun, making this ridiculous flick a treat for both longtime UCB fans and newcomers alike. Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case with a spindle-set tray, “Freak Dance” is divided into 12 chapters and presented in 1.78:1 widescreen, with a Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound audio track. Its supplemental features consist of an amusing set of eight phony PSA-style promotional tidbits on “the dangers of freak dancing,” two deleted scenes, an extended scene, its trailer and an audio commentary track with Besser and co-director Neil Mahoney.
It’s perhaps hard to believe (or maybe not so hard, given his toxic PR status), but Mel Gibson’s latest movie, “Get the Gringo,” bypassed Stateside theaters entirely, in favor of a VOD release. Now available on home video, it’s not that hard to see why. Though tabbed by Todd McCarthy as “likably disreputable” in his “Hollywood Reporter” review, the movie is a tired recycling of sweaty, south-of-the-border crime world cliches, and no more advanced or nuanced a piece of vengeful action — considerably less so, actually – than “Edge of Darkness,” Gibson’s last slice of leading man vigilantism.
The story centers around career criminal Driver (Gibson), who leads police on a mad dash across the desert with a car full of stolen cash. Crashing through the border fence into Mexico, he’s taken in by a band of corrupt cops, who ship him off to a prison community known as “El Pueblito,” with designs on divvying up Driver’s loot. Breaking free, Driver then teams up with a streetwise 10-year-old (Kevin Hernandez) who’s determined to extract revenge on the drug lord who killed his father. Grungy, frenzied, orange-filtered payback then ensues. Debut director Adrian Grunberg, an Icon vet who’s worked previously with Gibson in many capacities, achieves a certain singularity of narrative vision, but “Get the Gringo,” originally titled “How I Spent My Summer Vacation,” is all copped moves and aged strutting. It’s familiar and throwaway, and tries to earn points for winking at those facts. Alas, it doesn’t.
Presented in a two-disc Blu-ray/DVD/digital copy combo pack, “Get the Gringo” comes with a complementary cardboard slipcover that includes a bigger, broader shot of Gibson on the back cover. The movie’s 1080p 2.40:1 widescreen transfer is fine, free of edge enhancement or artifacting, even if the color scheme seems a bit aggressively saturated at times. A music video for “El Corrido del Gringo” complements three scene-specific on-set featurettes, as well as a broader, behind-the-scenes, EPK-style making-of overview that spotlights one of the movie’s chief selling points — its grubby, on-location feel. There’s no Gibson shouting, alas, though that’s probably a good thing.
Also new to Blu-ray is 1996′s “Phenomenon,” one of John Travolta’s first leading man starring roles after his career-resuscitating turn in 1994′s “Pulp Fiction.” Directed by Jon Turteltaub, the movie stars Travolta as George Malley, a friendly small town auto mechanic who, on the eve of his 37th birthday, finds his life transformed by a strange flash of light. Suddenly he starts to develop signs of genius-level intelligence, absorbing new information quickly and easily. His friends and neighbors — including best pal Nate (Forrest Whitaker), love interest Lace (Kyra Sedgwick) and physician Doc Brunder (Robert Duvall) — are of course amazed, and George tries to use his newfound knowledge for the good of his town. Later, as the federal government comes a-knocking regarding his sudden genius, it’s revealed that George’s condition is the result of an unusual tumor that doesn’t leave him with much time to live.
Those expecting anything approaching the darker or more action-oriented instincts of “Limitless,” another tale of sudden genius, are in for a big disappointment. “Phenomenon” is kind of treacly at times, but pleasantly mounted, earnestly acted and solidly structured by writer Gerald Di Pego. Fans of similarly ruminative adult-contemporary quasi-spiritual fare like Kevin Spacey’s “K-Pax” and Kevin Costner’s “Dragonfly” will find much to enjoy herein. Presented in a 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen, “Phenomenon” possesses steady blacks and consistent colors on Blu-ray, and is free of edge enhancement. Its 5.1 DTS-HD master audio track is clear, consistent and a fairly robust mix, even for a movie lacking the dynamism of a more genre-oriented effort. Dialogue is solid throughout, and the directional elements are well presented. Unfortunately for collectors, there are no supplemental bonus featurettes here apart from the movie’s trailer, meaning this upgrade is only worth it for hardcore Travolta fans or those not already owning the DVD.
The winner of the Best Screenplay Award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and Israel’s official entry and one of the final five nominees for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, director Joseph Cedar’s “Footnote” locates the universality of human jealousy and competition in a place that one might least figure to find it — a very specific subsection of religious academia. The movie tells the story of a latent rivalry between father and son professors who have both dedicated their lives to Talmudic studies. The father, Eliezer Shkolnick (Shlomo Bar Aba), is a stubborn purist full of swallowed resentment over being habitually overlooked by the establishment for his life work, which is most personified by a single citation from another, respected author and researcher. His son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi), meanwhile, is a well-regarded, up-and-coming academic whose slightly different holy text interpretations and translations create constant tension with his father. When Eliezer finds out he’s to be awarded the most prestigious honor for religious scholarship in the country, his pride and dormant vanity finally come bubbling to the surface. There’s one problem, though — the notification committee contacted the wrong Shkolnick, placing Uriel in the difficult position of having to try to negotiate a graceful exit strategy that can be agreed to by all parties.
Its esoteric bent aside, “Footnote” locates real, squirm-inducing emotions that will ring plenty of bells for those in particular who have dealt with shared-occupational-field jostling with family members. Cedar stages many great stand-alone scenes, but also indulges in a bit too many grandiose digressions, leaving the sullen character of Eliezer frustratingly remote and less developed in relation to Uriel. Still, arthouse foreign film fans and the NPR set will justifiably swoon over this generally perceptive and surprisingly amusing snapshot of the juggling act between head and heart that family drama so often presents. New to Blu-ray in a superb, color-consistent, 1080p high-definition transfer and 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen with a wide variety of subtitle options, “Footnote” also includes two solid little supplemental features — a behind-the-scenes featurette and “An Evening with Joseph Cedar,” in which the filmmaker submits to a Q&A and talks some about his own familial relationships and the genesis of the project.
“Doomsday Prophecy” shares a good bit in common with fellow schlocky movies of natural disaster mayhem like “Ice Quake” and “Stonehenge Apocalypse,” and it’s no great surprise, given their shared SyFy Channel roots and executive producers. The story this go-round involves the alignment of the solar system with the “galactic equator,” which triggers earthquakes that swallow up the Black Sea, and vast chasms that start spreading into densely populated areas. So is there a race against time to track down the modern-day Nostradamus who’s predicted this celestial phenomenon? Yes, yes there is. A.J. Buckley, Jewel Staite and Alan Dale, among others, invest much overwrought, soap-opera-style emotion in the dialogue and scenarios, but this offering is a paint-by-numbers genre exercise, with risible special effects. Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case in turn stored in a complementary cardboard slipcover, “Doomsday Prophecy” comes to DVD presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, with a Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound track and optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles. Its sole bonus feature is a short conspiracy-stoking/making-of featurette entitled “The Stories Are True.”
Directed by Scott Leberecht, “Midnight Son” is a surprisingly solid little micro-budget horror feature, even if it’s saddled with fairly terrible DVD box cover art. The fact that it centers around a character named Jacob may already have the hearts of Twi-hards aflutter, but this moody horror love story, about a kid with a rare skin disorder whose worsening symptoms lead him to consider drinking human blood, possesses an unexpected depth and deft shading of character.
A festival hit at Cinequest and Fantasia, the movie centers around Jacob (Zak Kilberg), whose burgeoning love for the equally lonely and damaged Mary (Maya Parish) is complicated by increasingly violent tendencies that peg him as the prime suspect in a string of grisly murders. Whereas a lot of younger directors prove themselves capable ringmasters of gore or other special effects wizardry, the fine performances in “Midnight Son” make a compelling case that Leberecht — a former ILM effects artist — also really knows how to work with actors to plumb emotions a bit deeper than merely visceral terror. The plotting here is more subtle than genre fans are typically used to, and the movie is not merely a good genre calling card, but the rare horror movie that immediately convinces a viewer of the filmmaker’s broader gifts as a dramaturgist. Released to DVD in a regular Amaray case with a complementary cardboard slipcover, “Midnight Son” is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, with a Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound audio mix. The best supplemental bonus feature is a feature-length audio commentary track with Leberecht, Kilberg and more of the cast, in which plenty of effective low-budget filmmaking tips and techniques are freely shared, alongside enjoyable anecdotes.
Written by: Brent Simon