Friday, May 15, 2009

True Blood: The Complete First Season

True Blood creator Alan Ball is no stranger to HBO, having previously crafted the moderately successful series Six Feet Under. While that series handled some fairly weighty material at times, par for the course in its funeral parlor setting, his latest offering is a pop confection that is firmly focused on entertainment, not intellectual stimulation. It’s also riding the wave of the current vampire boom ignited by the Twilight book series and movie, as well as its own source book series by author Charlaine Harris, but don’t hold that against him.

The series follows the denizens of a Louisiana backwater as they come to terms with the public emergence of vampires as ordinary citizens. These vampires want rights, seeking to be treated no differently than their human counterparts with the ability to date and marry humans, vote, move freely in public, etc. This generates conflict in the community as the humans pick their side, with the majority coming down firmly against the vamps. The story is nothing new, bearing blatantly obvious overtones of the civil rights and gay rights movements as well as parallels to other fictional works such as Marvel’s X-Men comic book saga. The vampire theme is also overused and long in the tooth, so to speak, but the creators stir in enough fresh blood to give viewers sufficient reason to keep coming back for another serving.

The main plot revolves around Civil War-era vampire Bill (Stephen Moyer) and his budding relationship with human empath Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin). He’s a Southern gentleman, she’s a sweet girl who loves the fact that she can’t hear his thoughts, and together they attempt to define their relationship while navigating the court of public opinion. To add a romantic triangle, Sookie’s boss Sam also has deep feelings for her and deep feelings against Bill, but he’s not exactly what he seems. There’s also a season-long arc regarding a mystery serial killer in their midst, and while its resolution is nothing special, it does give the characters added friction as they explore their feelings.

As Sookie bounces back and forth between her paramours throughout the season, their supporting characters also get significant exposure, primarily Sookie’s prickly best friend Tara (Rutina Wesley), their flamboyantly gay co-worker Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis), and Sookie’s gonzo brother Jason (Ryan Kwanten). Kwanten in particular gives the show a welcome jolt as a lovable dumb jock who gets in one comedic mess after another, usually at the expense of his character’s dignity, similar to Stifler in the American Pie movies. Aside from these three characters, the rest of the supporting cast is uniformly unremarkable during season one.

The True Blood DVD box set includes all 12 season one episodes spread across five discs. Special features include six audio commentaries with cast and crew, a faux documentary examining the integration of vampires into the human world, “Tru Blood” beverage ads extolling the wonders of the synthetic blood imbibed by discerning vamps in the show, Public Service Ads by the human coalitions on both side of the Vampire Rights Amendment debate, as well as vampire-centric product ads for a variety of essential goods and services.

True Blood: The Complete First Season is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and digital download on May 19th, 2009.

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Tuesday, May 05, 2009


It’s difficult to judge Valkyrie entirely on its own merits due to the back story of the top talent involved in its creation, namely director Bryan Singer and star Tom Cruise. Singer was coming off the lackluster reception of his previous effort, Superman Returns, while Cruise has been more notable for bizarre behavior than any tangible box office respect in the past few years. As something of a comeback vehicle for both of them, it seemed like a smart move, tackling a deadly serious drama in the hopes of reconnecting with their previous critical success in films such as Singer’s The Usual Suspects and Cruise’s Collateral. Even the film’s story seemed like a winner, examining an ill-fated assassination effort against Adolf Hitler. Unfortunately, the resulting film fails to deliver, offering glimpses of potential but nothing that materializes into a meaningful final product.

Cruise plays a German rebel bearing the unwieldy name of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, a disaffected member of Hitler’s forces who ultimately comes to believe that the country would be far better off without Hitler in control. After hooking up with other rebels at various levels in the chain of command, he leads a daring mission with two objectives: to hopefully assassinate Hitler, and definitely seize control of the country by executing one of Hitler’s own security protocols codenamed Valkyrie. Since we already know how well that turns out for them, the film predictably lacks a certain amount of tension, but its plodding execution robs it of the rest.

The filmmakers made some unfortunate choices that detract from the film’s power. First, the actors are almost entirely British and American, so it’s never quite convincing to accept the characters as German. Sure, it wouldn’t make much sense to have them deliver their lines in German, and German actors would detract from the box office potential, but it just doesn’t work in its current form. Second, and even more distracting, is the matter of Stauffenberg’s fake eye. You see, he loses an eye in battle at the beginning of the film, so for the rest of its length we’re treated to either Cruise in an eyepatch or Cruise with a fake eye that looks far more unreal than a fake eye. Singer even calls attention to it with a couple of close-ups, but the fake effect is more creepily unrealistic than just plain creepy, taking viewers right out of the film every time it pops up.

Cruise is a fine, dedicated actor, but he and Singer never seem to get a handle on this character, moping through with a one-note performance that doesn’t give Cruise any opportunity for his usual penchant for big dramatic moments. He’s sullen, morose, and barely able to generate any viewer empathy in what should have been a slam-dunk role. Maybe he was distracted by the fake eye, maybe he and Singer were intending to portray the character’s singular, unflinching dedication to his quest at the expense of any other emotion, but the end result left this viewer barely able to root for him. Against Hitler!

Valkyrie is available on DVD, 2-disc DVD with Digital Copy, and Blu-ray on May 19th.

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