Dexter: The Complete First Season
(Showtime, 2006) created by James Manos Jr., w/ Michael C. Hall, Julie Benz. Rating: NNNN; DVD package: NN
Dexter Morgan is highly weird posing as normal. He's a serial killer working for the Miami police as a blood specialist and struggling to control his compulsion to kill by only exercising it against other killers.
That's an old trick - evil in the service of good. Anybody remember Forever Knight? But the series has a stranger agenda. Dexter, who's an emotional void, tries to keep his secret and maintain the illusion of normality with his co-workers and strictly-for-show girlfriend, but he's coming apart at the seams because a better, more artistic serial killer is sending him coded messages via dismembered bodies.
We're supposed to sympathize with him. That's not easy when our hero rhapsodizes over the unknown's work and performs his own grisly butchery, as he does every episode. But from time to time, we feel for him anyway, and that makes us even more uncomfortable.
Michael C. Hall (Six Feet Under), as Dexter, also makes it hard. He's a charming presence, but he's also a good actor, and he persistently undercuts Dexter's cheeriness and humorous voice-overs with a real sense of disconnection and, occasionally, despair. Julie Benz, as his sweet girlfriend, balances him nicely and never descends into annoying sappiness.
The show does a good job of opening up Jeff Lindsay's source novel, staying true to the basic story, changing some character relationships and filling in good, relevant subplots that make interesting comments on the ordinary murderers we read about in the news.
There's a nice doc on the work of real-life blood spatter experts in the extras, but no making-of doc, and the two commentaries are barely worth listening to.
Extras Discs one to four: 12 episodes, selected episode commentaries, blood spatter doc (disc four), episodes one and two of Brotherhood. Wide-screen. English, Spanish audio.
(Columbia, 2007) D: James Foley, w/ Halle Berry, Bruce Willis. Rating: NNN; DVD package: NNN
Halle Berry looks too soft and pretty to play Rowena Price, but she does it anyway and makes her looks work for the character.
Rowena is an investigative reporter, smart, vindictive, ruthless, manipulative, self-centred and careerist, with a particular, personal glee in bringing down rich and powerful men. I've known women just like her, and Berry nails her to a T. It's a terrific portrait of a not very likeable woman.
When a childhood friend of Rowena's turns up dead in the river, she goes after high-powered ad man Harrison Hill, a hardcore womanizer with violent tendencies. Bruce Willis plays it smooth and steps back to give Berry lots of room in their scenes. Another good performance that suggests a complex, layered character.
Giovanni Ribisi, as Rowena's co-conspirator and would-be lover, takes a more aggressive approach and brings lots of character to what could have been a simple best-friend role.
Three people isn't many to drive a character-driven mystery suspenser, but writer Todd Komarnicki has built in some great twists, and James Foley, whose directing credits include the outstanding Glengarry Glen Ross, knows how to build tension into the simplest scene.
The extras are slim but to the point: acting and production design. Nobody ever says why they went for what they call the "hot fudge sundae" look - warm tones over a cold background - but it works well, even in the bizarre but relevant credit sequence, and it's subtle enough to be worth pointing out in detail.
Extras Making-of doc. Wide-screen. English, French audio. English, French subtitles.
RoboCop: 20th Anniversary Collector's Edition
(Fox, 1987) D: Paul Verhoeven, w/ Peter Weller, Nancy Allen. Rating: NNN; DVD package: NNNN
This is about the 10th release of RoboCop, and a lot of the extras here have been culled from earlier editions, notably director Paul Verhoeven's lively and informative commentary with writer Ed Neumeier and producer Jon Davison.
But disc two has some nice new features that involve extensive interviews with the cast and creators. It's amazing how much work goes into what looks like simple villainy.
There's also some very nice making-of material centred on stop-motion animation and matte painting, and an older making-of doc that gives a very clear picture of a thoroughly miserable shoot.
The set gives us both theatrical and unrated cuts, and for once the unrated version is worth it. The violence is played out more graphically, fulfilling the best part of the director's vision, that violence should hurt and have consequences.
Verhoeven has other ideas for his hard-action science fiction tale of a murdered cop turned into a corporate-owned law enforcement machine, but they don't hold up under scrutiny. Yes, Murphy (Peter Weller) looks Christ-like now and then and Frankenstein is an unavoidable comparison, but neither of these metaphors goes anywhere or adds anything to the movie. Neumeier comes closer to the mark when he calls the film social satire on the Reagan years.
Extras Disc one: director, writer, producer commentary, 2001 retrospective making-of doc, 1987 making-of docs, storyboard with commentary, deleted scenes. Wide-screen theatrical version. Disc two: villains doc, effects doc, Robocop suit doc. Wide-screen extended version. Both discs English, French audio; English, Spanish subtitles.
The Lives Of Others
(Sony, 2006) D: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, w/ Sebastian Koch, Ulrich Mühe. Rating: NNN; DVD package: NNN
In 1984 East Berlin, with the state police running 100,000 employees and 200,000 informers, a security man is sent to get something on a playwright famous for his loyalty. He becomes fascinated with the lives of the playwright and his actress girlfriend, and his ideological commitment is gradually contaminated by humanity even as the playwright begins engaging in subversive activities. Things unravel for both of them.
Writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck tells his chilly, heavily researched story quietly, mostly in medium shot, with muted colours and muted performances. It produces an effect of pervasive, institutionalized terror without a shred of onscreen violence. All the performances are excellent quiet, naturalistic portraits of habitually guarded people, but leading German actor Ulrich Mühe as the security man stands out for how much he conveys with almost invisible shifts in his carefully blank face.
It's clear from the highly detailed extras that von Donnersmarck didn't intend his film as a fable, but it's easy to see its relevance to our current slide toward police states.
Extras: Director commentary, director interview, making-of doc, deleted scenes. Wide-screen. German audio. English, French, Spanish subtitles.
Coming Tuesday, August 28
Blades Of Glory
Will Ferrell and Jon Heder play rival figure skaters forced to team up.
(Alliance Atlantis, 2006)
Parker Posey in a spy drama from Henry Fool director Hal Hartley.
Masters Of Horror: Season One
(Anchor Bay, 2005)
One-hour movies from some of the top directors in the field, including John Carpenter, Stuart Gordon, Dario Argento. Best horror around today.
The Naked Kiss
(Vci Video, 1964)
Samuel Fuller's hard-boiled saga of a hooker who finds redemption, then horror in a small town.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb