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US Blu-ray and DVD Releases: His Dark Materials, The High Note, NCIS, Eureka, Dispatches From Elsewhere, Valley of the Gods, and more

The High Note

His Dark Materials: The Complete First Season – I was never a fan of The Golden Compass, the 2007 film that adapted Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials book for the big screen, but I know the books are incredibly popular so I was intrigued when HBO announced a new series that would supposedly adapt the book series but do a better job of it. And now that I’ve dug into the show, I just have to wonder… why exactly are these books so popular? Or is it just that it’s unadaptable? After HBO hit a home run with Watchmen, I expected this series to be equally as amazing — or at least close to it — but I didn’t like it at all. I had no idea what was going on, for the most part, I don’t understand why people’s souls — that live in animals — are called Daemons (which seems unnecessarily confusing and makes them sound like a bad thing), and I don’t like any of the characters in the show at all. It takes a lot to make me not want to watch James McAvoy in something, as he’s one of my absolute favorite actors, but even he couldn’t save this show for me. Maybe if I’d read the books I’d feel differently, but a good show or movie doesn’t require foreknowledge of the source material. I’m sure this show has its fans, but I am definitely not one of them.

The High Note – One of the last main theatrical casualties of the Coronavirus is this music-themed drama starring Traces Ellis Ross and Dakota Johnson, which was scheduled to be released in March. I can’t recall if it actually made it into any theaters or not (I feel like maybe it got out to a few screens, but I’m not sure), but now it comes to home video this week, making it one of the few sort-of-theatrical releases to hit home video in the past two months. The film is a mostly enjoyable drama that treads familiar ground: Johnson plays Maggie, the assistant to famous singer Grace (Ross) who is, naturally, put upon, overworked, and under-appreciated. But Maggie wants more than to be just an assistant; she wants to produce. This is a story we’ve seen before, but that doesn’t really take away from the effectiveness of it. Ross is utterly fantastic in her role, and the film moves along at a pretty good pace, with characters engaging enough to keep us watching. It’s not a slam dunk, but it’s an enjoyable enough comfort-food film, the kind that’s easy to curl up on the couch with for a couple of hours.

NCIS Los Angeles: The Eleventh Season & NCIS New Orleans: The Sixth Season – While I’ve never been a huge fan of the whole NCIS franchise, it’s been a constant presence on the television landscape for almost two decades now. I’ve lost count but I think there are, like 17 spin-off series now. This week, we get the latest home video releases of two of them, NCIS Los Angeles: The Eleventh Season and NCIS New Orleans. First up, NCIS: Los Angeles sees LL Cool J and Chris O’Donnell return in the most action-packed show in the franchise. I like that the show changes up the formula a little bit; they still solve crimes, but this show is more apt to feature gunfights and car chases than some of the other ones. LL Cool J and O’Donnell have good chemistry as always, and the show remains an enjoyable enough distraction in its eleventh season. NCIS: New Orleans, meanwhile, sees Scott Bakula in the lead role and is a little more traditional in the NCIS format, although with that Louisiana bayou flavor to it. I like Bakula, and the supporting cast is good, so even though I don’t watch this show on the regular, I can appreciate a few episodes here and there when the DVD sets come around.

Eureka: The Complete Series – This is a fun one! Eureka was a series that aired on SyFy from 2006-20012, running a total of five seasons and 77 episodes, all of which have been collected in one place on Blu-ray for the first time. Colin Ferguson plays a former US Marshall who becomes sheriff of a sleepy northwestern town — that just happens to house the country’s brightest and best scientific minds. In this remote pacific area, they develop new technology and inventions, which — of course — work poorly when at all, which leads to all sorts of headaches for our poor sheriff. Eureka was always a really enjoyable show. The cast (which also included Ali Richardson Whitfield, Joe Morton, and Erica Cerra) was game for all sorts of goofiness, giving the show a nice comedic feel that could get serious when it needed to. Sure there special effects look a little dated now, but hey, this is SyFy… they probably looked a little dated back then! This set collects all 77 episodes on 12 discs, and the show looks nice on Blu-ray, plus there are some great archival extra features included. This is a fun throwback for fans of the show or those early 2000s SyFy shows that were always easy, enjoyable viewing experiences.

Dispatches From Elsewhere – This intriguing 10-episode series stars Jason Segel, Sally Field, Andre Benjamin (from Outkast), Richard E. Grant, and Eve Lindley, and it’s kind of hard one to talk about without giving too much away. What I will do is share the official logline of the show with you: “Feeling as though there’s something missing in the lives, four ordinary people stumble across a puzzle hiding just beyond the veil of everyday life, and their eyes are opened to a world of possibility and magic.” That’s all I really feel comfortable sharing without spoiling some of the story elements, but I can tell you that the show was created and produced by Segel, and it’s easy to feel his influence in the overall feel of things. I’ll say this: overall, I enjoyed the show. The cast is great and the story is intriguing. It is one of those series that likes to dole out mysteries and keep you wondering for a little while, which sometimes I can find frustrating. But overall, it’s a cool little show that has a different feel from a lot of the other stuff out there right now. Worth a look!

Valley of the Gods – Speaking of interesting, we also have a new movie on home video this week called Valley of the Gods, which stars Josh Hartnett, John Malkovich, and Bérénice Marlohe. So that’s already an odd pairing in my opinion, but add to that the fact that the film is about three people (whose lives barely connect) at complete opposite ends of the financial spectrum and a Navajo legend that may or may not come to life, and you can see where we’re going. I say, “may or may not” because who even knows? This is a film that’s all about atmosphere, symbolism, and metaphor, and very little about plot or story. I couldn’t really follow it at times, and what’s worse, I didn’t really want to after a while. The film is too long (clocking in at over two hours), and it just never clicks for me. The performances are good, but that’s just not enough to salvage a movie with either nothing to say or too much to say. I can’t tell you which it is.

Also Available This Week on Home Video:

  • Neo Ultra Q: The Complete Series – Mill Creek continues their excellent series of releases of the Ultraman franchise with Neo Ultra Q: The Complete Series. This new Blu-ray release is one of the most recent shows in the series, coming from 2013, and it was a 12-episode miniseries. Now, this is an interesting one, because it’s one of the shows I’ve seen so far that has less of an explicit Ultraman connection than many of the other shows so far. It clearly takes place in the same universe, but it’s really got more of an X-Files-meets-Godzilla feel to it, with a team of paranormal investigators… well, investigating things like giant monsters and weird phenomena. Because of this different take (and the fact that it’s a more modern show), I think I liked Neo Ultra Q more than several of the other shows I’ve viewed so far. It’s kind of hip, kind of cheesy, and that blend gives the show a cool vibe that I dug. If you’ve been collecting all the Ultraman releases from Mill Creek, you won’t want to miss this one, but even if you haven’t, this is a fun little slice of sci-fi craziness.
  • The British Invasion – This new 3-disc documentary set from Mill Creek is a bit uneven, but overall a pretty solid bang for your buck considering it’s a budget release. You get five music documentaries included, three of which focus on The Beatles. The included films are The Beatles: A Long and Winding Road, Inside John Lennon, Brian Epstein: Inside the 5th Beatle, The Rolling Stones: Just for the Record, and The Who: The Vegas Job. Each of these is what you’d call an “unauthorized” documentary, meaning you’re not getting music from the bands involved, and for the most part, you won’t see too many interviews with them, either, save for some archival footage. However, since you can find this release online for $10-$15 and you get five whole films, it’s hard to argue with if you’re a fan of the bands involved. It may not be a revelatory experience, but there are some interesting insights to be gleaned.
  • PBS Spotlight – This week we have several new releases from PBS, mostly focusing on people who have impacted the world. First up is Titans of the 20th Century, a six-part series that looks at world leaders who had a huge impact on the 20th century. The main focus is on Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, Franklin Roosevelt, and Adolf Hitler, but it does also touch on others such as Mussolini, Emperor Hirohito, Golda Meir, and John F. Kennedy. You get six episodes on two discs, and it’s a really interesting look at the history of the 20th century and how it was shaped by a handful of men and women. Next up is another look at a 20th-century leader, with the bio-graphical program American Experience: George W. Bush. This four-hour program gives us an in-depth look at Bush, his life leading up to the presidency included, but the main focus is on his election and the eight years he spent in office. It’s a really interesting look back, especially in light of the recent political situation in this country. Next up we have The Greatest Bond, a moving one-hour program about wounded service veterans whose lives are changed by getting service dogs. Even better, the service dogs are trained by female prison inmates! It’s a fascinating look at how these dogs change multiple people’s lives, what goes into training them, and how the veterans learn to work with them. A really great watch! After that, we have American Experience: The Man Who Tried to Feed the World, another one-hour episode about Nobel Prize winner Norman Borlaug, who worked during the 1960s and 70s trying to help solve India’s famine. He made a huge impact but as with anything that impacts people’s lives, controversy eventually erupted and followed him and his work for years. It’s a heavier watch than some of the other programming this week, but it’s worthwhile viewing. Finally, we have a kids’ release from PBS this week as well, the excellent Berenstain Bears: Bear Family Vacation. The more recent Berenstain Bears releases from PBS have been episode collections, but this is more of a movie, a 78-minute feature-length animated adventure. I’ve always enjoyed the Berenstain Bears and I find PBS’s animated expansion of the books to be very enjoyable. Kids should love this one, and I suspect some parents will too!
  • WB Archive Animation Spotlight – We have a lot of new Warner Archive releases this week. As a reminder, all Warner Archive releases are available here or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays are sold. In this first batch, we’re going to focus on a number of new animated releases from the Archive. First up is Final Space: The Complete First & Second Season. While the show is animated, it’s definitely not for kids. The series follows a lone astronaut who befriends a cute little alien creature named Mooncake who can secretly destroy planets. I remember watching this show early on and not really being sure what to make of it. It has overtones of everything from South Park to Futurama to Red Dwarf to The Orville, and there are times I chuckle at it and times I find it rather insipid. But for those of you who like it, this new Blu-ray release features both of the first two seasons, giving you 23 episodes total. Switching gears, we have a show that is absolutely geared for kids, and little ones at that, with Paddington Bear: The Complete Series. This 1989 animated series only lasted 13 episodes, but it’s a cute, sweet little show that kids will enjoy. It might look a little dated now, but for parents whose kids may have watched the excellent Paddington movies ad infinitum, this is a good way to bring some new Paddington into the house, and it’s really quite enjoyable. Finally, we have Taz-Mania: The Complete Third Season. I should mention that there’s a note on the packaging that states that Season 2’s release was accidentally labeled as Season 1, Volume 2, so if you’re wondering where the season 2 releases is, there’s your answer. Taz was always one of my favorite parts of the Looney Tunes universe, so I really enjoyed this show from 1991, which is a high-octane animated comedy adventure featuring Taz and his family. It also features the voice talents of the big three of animation voices: Jim Cummings, Rob Paulsen, and Maurice La Marche. Lots of fun!
  • WB Archive Classics Spotlight – Finally this week, we have another batch of releases from the Warner Archive, this time theatrical films, all of which fall under the classic Hollywood banner and all of which are debuting on Blu-ray. (Again, all Warner Archive releases are available here  or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays are sold.) First up is Romance on the High Seas, a 1948 romantic musical that stars Doris Day, but it’s more notable for being directed by Michael Curtiz (director of Casablanca) with musical numbers by the famed Busby Berkeley. The film’s story is pretty standard 1940s stuff, but the sure-handedness of Curtiz and the dazzle of Berkeley makes it shine a little brighter. Next up we have Pride and Prejudice, and this one is the version from 1940 starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier. (Interestingly, the screenplay was written by Aldous Huxley, the author of Brave New World.) This is pretty good adaptation, with Olivier especially shining as Mr. Darcy. I’m not a huge Pride and Prejudice fan overall, but I like it enough and this is a solid adaptation that looks pretty sharp on Blu-ray. Following that we have Girl Crazy, a1943 musical starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney and featuring music by no less than George Gershwin. Garland and Rooney are terrific on screen, and while I don’t get excited about musicals, it’s hard not to tap your toes along to this one. Next is Million Dollar Mermaid, an Esther Williams classic in which she plays real life swim star Annette Kellerman. Co-starring Victor Mature, the film also features water/dance sequences by Busby Berkely, and there’s no denying what a difference that can make in a film. Williams shines in the lead role here, and I enjoyed this one more than I expected to. Also, not sure how much restoration work Warner is putting into these titles, but this one especially looks outstanding on Blu-ray. Finally, we have Strike Up The Band, another Rooney/Garland team-up (they were both incredibly popular young stars at the same time), this one has a lot to like but it’s not my favorite. It’s a solid musical with lots of great songs, but it also runs a full two hours and feels a touch on the long side. Again, Garland and Rooney are terrific together, it’s just the film as a whole didn’t get me as excited as some of the others. Fans of the actors or classic musicals will love it, however.

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