I’m always in keen anticipation when a new season of “Episodes” arrives. This is one of the funniest shows on the tube – though I have to admit my familiarity with small screen programming is limited – and I can’t wait to dive in. The fourth season (2015 / Showtime Entertainment, CBS DVD, Paramount / 1256+m (2 discs) / $29.99 / NR) is possibly the best since the first with Sean and Beverly Lincoln (Stephen Mangan and Tasmin Greig) summoned back from England when the sitcom they created – and have grown to loathe thanks to network tampering – is uncanceled in an act of revenge that prevents star Matt LeBlanc (Matt LeBlanc) from doing a pilot for a rival network. The Lincolns’ agent has leaked the proposal for another show (against their wishes) and they have to contend with a bidding war as well as Sean’s old writing partner who wants to claim credit. Network second-in-command Carol Rance (Kathleen Rose Perkins) inevitably gets involved with her new boss who this time is female and very jealous; the latter’s suspicion that Beverly is a closet lesbian in love with Carol provides complications and one of the season ending cliffhangers. Other subplots include former (and disgraced) programming honcho Merc Lapidus (John Pankow) launching a bizarre game show that LeBlanc has to host because his financial advisor has stolen half his money.
David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik created this cynical hoot of a show that may bite the hand that feeds them but does so ever so playfully. (Their deal with Showtime also specifies that they get to write all 10 episodes of a season before filming starts, which explains why sometimes more than a year passes between seasons.) The writing for the show is sharp and witty, and a terrific ensemble has been gathered to deliver it. Mangan and Greig deserve much of the credit since they are at the center of the show as the only two sane people in what appears to be an asylum without borders. They have terrific chemistry with each other and flawless comic timing. LeBlanc has grown enormously in my estimation since the first season. I wasn’t a fan before this show but his portrayal of a charming, self-centered monster is splendid. I’ve also come to like Perkins more with each season, though that has much to do with changes in her character; initially duplicitous (mostly to cover her boss’ transgressions) she’s become someone who simply always makes the wrong decisions, particularly in her love life.
There’s heavier, but no less excellent, TV on hand with the Norwegian/English/German/Danish co-production “The Heavy Water War” (Kampen om tungtvannet, aka The Saboteurs – 2015 / MHz Network / 270m (3 Discs) / NR), a compelling mini-series detailing the Third Reich’s attempt to create an atomic bomb and the allied effort to thwart that accomplishment. The story is told from several vantages, that of the Germans, the British and the Norwegians. The German viewpoint primarily centers on a scientist, Werner Heisenberg (Christoph Bach), a Jew headed for an extermination camp when Himmler recruits him. His goal is to build a nuclear reactor and he turns a blind eye to what the Nazis intend to do with the plutonium it will produce. A fictitious character, Erik Henriksen (Denis Storhol), is the manager of a plant that produces heavy water and sells it to the Germans. He rationalizes this as keeping people employed but given Norway is an occupied country there’s little choice as to where the D2O goes. The British side centers around Leif Tronstad (Espen Klouman Hoiner), a scientist and resistance fighter who fled Norway for England and brainstormed the various sabotage operations that finally took out the Hydro manufacturing plant. But even the apparent heroes have to rationalize their actions because each mission produces civilian deaths.
The production makes no bones about war being a dirty business no matter which side you’re on – and let’s not forget it is the winners who determine the good guys and the bad guys; had Germany won the war we wouldn’t be celebrating “The Heroes of Telemark” (the title of a 1965 feature film version of the events starring Kirk Douglas and Richard Harrison). There has been some debate as to the historical accuracy of the series, even aside from the inclusion of several fictional characters (none of the actual Hydro managers is depicted by name), including a female British soldier (Anna Friel) who serves as a sort-of love interest for Tronstad – and kudos to the writers for not taking this in then expected direction. The acting is as solid as the direction; while there is no comic relief to speak of the no one mistakes serious for ponderous and the pace makes the six 45-minute episodes fly by. I was particularly impressed by the sequences depicting a nighttime approach to and escape from the Hydro plant on skis, which are as thrilling as any big screen action film I’ve reviewed here. Additionally, the running time allows for the presentation and development of characters you care about (or at least are fascinated by). History needn’t be dry; it can be gripping filmmaking.
Two Israeli films are also on the serious side but neither can exactly be called gripping. “A Place in Heaven” (Makom ge-gan eden – 2013 / SISU Home Entertainment / 113m / $24.95 / NR) is the better of the two. It concerns a soldier, nicknamed Bambi (Alon Aboutboul), who sells his place in heaven to an envious Holocaust survivor for a plate of scrambled eggs (deluxe by the way). The former is agnostic while the latter is deeply religious and believes the soldier’s heroic actions have secured him said entry to the afterlife. The film follows Bambi through his life as a soldier who later becomes involved in politics, and as he marries and raises a family. After he’s murdered, his son Nimrod (Tom Graziani), who has become deeply religious (described here as “born again” – and who knew that term was used outside the Christian community?) searches out the contract holder – now a rabbi – to have the agreement negated. The tone is too subdued for its own good, particularly as writer/director Yossi Madmoni has created a script almost entirely of scenes that end with resolutions inferred but not depicted. Now there’s nothing wrong with not making the implicit obvious, but almost two hours of it, slowly paced and with a delicate music score and bland photography the film verges on being dramatically inert. Additionally, neither father nor son are particularly admirable characters. Dad had a habit of cutting off his adversaries genitals as proof of his kills (it’s implied that the revelation of this destroyed his chances of being Prime Minister) and regularly slaps his son around; Nimrod is such a prig that he calls his wife a whore because she was promiscuous before she found religion (he apparently however has no problem bedding his stepmother again this is inferred not depicted). I found the film interesting, mostly because of the performances and the mythic resonances, but hardly engaging.
The drama is a tad lighter in “Hora 79” (2013 / SISU Home Entertainment / 88m / $24.95 / NR) and director Eli Cohen (“acclaimed” per the press materials) has brought it in at a tidy running time – possibly too tidy for the size of his ensemble. The basic story has a folk dance troupe, long disbanded after a tragedy that killed two of their members, selected for salute at a festival and its members decide to perform rather than just bathe in the accolades. Seems I saw the same premise in another Israeli film a few months back. The film also follows the tried and true template of people past their prime trying to do what they used to do – and maybe shouldn’t be doing – one more time after a gap of many years. Not surprisingly old romantic feelings resurface with some of the dancers rekindling their passions while others find their passions remain unrequited. (It is a sign of how safe this film plays it that it’s the one gay member of the company who doesn’t connect. And while I’m on the subject: A single gay performer? In a dance company? Seriously?) While not exactly a collage of clichés there’s certainly nothing new here and there are no surprising or even inventive changes wrung on the material. (I couldn’t help pondering what Robert Altman would have made of it.) And as seems to be the case with most Israeli films it’s photographed in a most prosaic way (there must be some sort of law over there that cinematography mustn’t risk startling the horses). The dance performance, when it finally arrives, isn’t all that remarkable (the Duquesne Tamburitzans have nothing to fear from these folk dancers). This dramedy is a pleasant enough endeavor but aside from a final revelation about the troupe’s long missing and much hated founder it’s an awfully familiar one.
With “The Hoarder” (2014 / RLJ Entertainment / 89m / $27.97 / NR) we have pure overripe cheese of the horror kind. Seems that in an underground storage facility in Manhattan someone (or is it something?) is dragging people off and doing unspeakable things to them. That’s pretty much it as far as the plot (or rather merely the premise) goes and the running time is entirely taken up with a small cast of characters being killed or merely dragged off one at a time to a fate that isn’t detailed until the very end. And they inevitable meet their sticky end because they do something remarkable stupid under the circumstances such as investigating some odd noise in a dark corridor when they know there’s a killer on the loose.The most curious aspect of Matt Winn’s by the numbers exercise is that it has all the earmarks of a splatter film except the splatter. And it doesn’t provide much in the way of scares or creepy mood to compensate. And as far as any motivation for the gruesome goings on – forget it. It isn’t exactly awful (it is reasonably well acted) but it’s strictly for horror fans who feel they must see everything. Even they might prefer to wait until it lands in the Wal-Mart dump bin.