Steve Buscemi, Michael Shannon, Michael Pitt, William Hill, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Kenneth Williams, Aleksa Palladino, Shea Whigham, Michael Stuhlbarg
Atlantic City, 1920. When alcohol was outlawed, outlaws became kings.
From Terence Winter (Emmy®-winning writer on HBO's The Sopranos) and Oscar®-winning director Martin Scorsese, Boardwalk Empire is set in Atlantic City in 1920 at the dawn of Prohibition. The series chronicles the life and times of Enoch Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi), the city treasurer whose double role as politician and bootlegger makes him the city's undisputed czar at a time when illegal alcohol has opened up highly lucrative opportunities for rumrunners and distributors. In a city defined by notorious backroom politics and vicious power struggles, Nucky must contend with ambitious underlings, relentless Feds, rival gangsters - including Arnold Rothstein, Lucky Luciano and Al Capone - and his own appetite for women, profits, and power.
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Spanish DTS 2.0
French DTS 5.1
Castillian DTS 5.1
Runtime: 732 min.
Release Date: 1/10/12
• Audio Commentaries for Six Episodes
• “Enhanced Viewing Mode” Picture-In-Picture for All 12 Episodes
• “Character Dossiers”
• “Atlantic City: The Original Sin City” Documentary
• “Speakeasy Tour” Featurette
• “Making Boardwalk Empire” Featurette
• “Creating the Boardwalk” Featurette
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Panasonic 50" TH-50PZ77U 1080p Plasma Monitor; Sony STR-DG1200 7.1 Channel Receiver; Panasonic DMP-BD60K Blu-Ray Player using HDMI outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Kenwood 1050SW 150-watt Subwoofer.
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Boardwalk Empire: The Complete First Season [Blu-Ray] (2010)
Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 5, 2012)
With Martin Scorsese involved and Sopranos creator Terence Winter as the man to lead the project, HBO’s Boardwalk Empire came saddled with high expectations. So far, it seems to have lived up to much of the hype, as least if you regard awards as a measure of that; it didn’t clean up at the Emmys, but it did well for itself.
I was curious to finally give the series a look, so I glommed onto this Season One package. It includes all 12 shows from that year, and the synopses below come from the Blu-ray’s menus.
Here’s a general set-up for the series that appears on the package’s insert:
“Empire begins in Atlantic City in 1920. It is the eve of Prohibition, and county treasurer Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson is looking to cash in. As the undisputed ‘boss’ of Atlantic City, Nucky leads a double life as a politician and bootlegger; Prohibition may have outlawed alcohol, but in Nucky’s world, it has opened up highly lucrative opportunities for gangsters and rumrunners looking to provide ‘liquid gold’ for a thirsty nation. In a city defined by notorious backroom politics and vicious power struggles, Nucky must battle with a relentless federal agent, ambitious underlings, and opportunistic rivals – including Arnold Rothstein, Lucky Luciano and Al Capone.”
Boardwalk Empire: “Corrupt county treasurer Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) carves out a niche in Atlantic City as the country heads into Prohibition.”
I recall hearing fairly ho-hum reactions to the series when it debuted, and I thought those had a lot to do with the pedigree behind the series. With Scorsese as director of the first episode, people expected greatness but didn’t think the program delivered.
And I agree. Does “Empire” start the series poorly? No – it works as good exposition and sets up the main characters in a reasonably efficient manner. However, it doesn’t allow us to dig into the series with a really meaty story, unfortunately. The narrative lacks much to make it compelling and launches the series with a minor thud. I hope Empire improves from here, as this is a pretty average show.
The Ivory Tower: “Nucky closes ranks after arousing the suspicion of straight-arrow Prohibition Agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon).”
While I can’t say it gets me genuinely excited about the series, “Tower” at least offers a step up from the first episode. A lot of that comes from Shannon’s performance as the by-the-book Van Alden, a character who looks like he’ll provide a more than worthy adversary for the leads. Other elements work less well – I’m already bored with the Jimmy character – but the burgeoning conflict between Van Alden and Nucky ensures that “Tower” brings us into its action well.
Broadway Limited: “Jimmy’s (Michael Pitt) future is clouded by an unlikely witness to the woods massacre; Margaret (Kelly Macdonald) takes on a new job; Chalky’s (Michael Kenneth Williams) team pays a big price for his success.”
In a series packed with violent moments, I don’t think I’ll find any that makes me squirm more than the scene in which Lucky Luciano gets a painful treatment for gonorrhea. No, we don’t see the specifics, but any guy will find it tough to watch the implied treatment. “Limited” shows a genital focus in another cringe-worthy sequences when Van Alden puts the hurt on the massacre’s witness – ouch!
Once again, Van Alden acts as a lot of the episode’s appeal, as he’s quickly turning into the series’ most interesting character. I’m not sure I’d want to see a franchise that focused on him – he’s fairly one-note so far – but as a strong supporting role, he becomes magnetic. “Limited” moves the story along pretty well, too, and only the occasional emphasis on Jimmy – probably the series’ most drab personality – drags it down a bit.
Anastasia: “Jimmy forges new relationships in Chicago; Nucky fetes a US Senator; Chalky fingers a lynching suspect; Margaret and Lucy (Paz de la Huerta) clash.”
After the fairly eventful “Limited”, “Anastasia” feels a bit like a placeholder episode. Oh, it does advance certain narrative elements, and it’s reasonably enjoyable, but its emphasis on character over story limits it. Or maybe I just miss Van Alden, as he’s a non-factor here.
Nights in Ballygran: “Nucky’s attempts to usher in a joyous St. Patrick’s Day are undermined by Eli (Shea Wigham), Margaret and Van Alden.”
Maybe this episode should be called “A Woman Scorned”, as Nucky’s careless treatment of Margaret comes back to haunt him. It’s good to see her character developed a bit more, and the same goes for Eli; Nucky’s brother, he tires of his second banana status and attempts to grow a brain. As usual, the Jimmy side of things doesn’t do much for me, but the show moves along most of the characters well and sets up potential future drama.
Family Limitation: “Nucky investigates a Boardwalk theft; Jimmy scores points with Johnny Torrio (Greg Antonacci) in Chicago; Margaret stands up to Lucy.”
I know I’ve alluded to my fondness for Van Alden many times already, but the more I see him, the more I wish he was the lead of the series. I understand that Empire aims to be about the criminals more than the enforcers, but he’s still by fair the most interesting character, and Shannon’s typically intense performance makes him even more fascinating. Van Alden doesn’t get a lot to do here, but his moments leave a mark – literally, as it happens.
Otherwise, “Limitation” is a bit of a soap opera episode, as the Nucky/Margaret/Lucy triangle becomes more significant. Though I usually don’t dig themes such as that, this one works pretty well, partly because it’s interesting to see the Margaret role develop. I’d argue that out of all the series’ regulars, she’s the most different now compared to where she was at the start. That allows her arc to take flight.
Home: “Nucky purges some bad childhood memories; Jimmy forges a new alliance with a fellow veteran; Luciano (Vincent Piazza) and a friend cut a deal with the D’Alessio brothers.”
For once, the Jimmy story actually shows some life, mainly due to his friendship with the severely wounded vet Richard Harrow (Jack Huston). He’s a dark character with obvious psychological issues, so it’ll be interesting to see where he goes. It’s also pretty cool to get a scent of Nucky’s early life, as the introduction to his father (Tom Aldredge) adds intrigue. Director Allen Coulter throws in a few clever visual choices to make this a solid program.
Hold Me in Paradise: “While visiting Chicago during the Republican National Convention, Nucky gets some alarming news from Atlantic City.”
“Paradise” launches on a comedic note, as it shows more of Eli’s inferiority complex, but it becomes significantly more dramatic as it goes – and it also works to advance the series’ overall narrative. We see threats to Nucky’s domain and the methods he’ll use to protect his realm. One senses that the action will heat up soon, and “Paradise” sets up those developments well.
Belle Femme: “Nucky braces for war with a rival faction; Jimmy stands by his alibi; Margaret helps out Madame Jeunet (Anna Katarina).”
While the plot does move along here, “Femme” doesn’t produce quite the fireworks I might’ve expected. Still, it delivers reasonable development, and I especially like the changes in Margaret; when she deals with Jeunet, we can tell just how much Nucky’s rubbed off on her. Though not as eventful as I might like – at least not until the very end - the episode moves things along in a satisfying manner.
The Emerald City: “Nucky asks Margaret to toe the party line; Angela witnesses Jimmy’s violent side; Van Alden grapples with his emotions.”
I suppose I should really like “City”, as it shows shared screen time between Van Alden and Margaret, the series’ two most interesting roles. Their scene is brief but charged and should lead to something more dynamic later. Otherwise, the show advances the plot but not with a lot of terrific moments. It’s more than a placeholder but less than a great show.
Paris Green: “Nucky shakes up the status quo; Jimmy deals with some tricky family issues; Van Alden addresses Agent Sebso’s (Erik Weiner) ‘temptations’.”
The biggest shocker here comes from the reveal of Jimmy’s father; maybe the series hinted at his identity earlier, but if so, I missed those hints. Other big events occur as well; characters move on and major changes take place. The program acts as a good set-up for the season finale.
A Return to Normalcy: “Nucky braces for change on Election Day; Torrio brokers a deal between two nemeses, with far-reaching consequences; Jimmy ponders his future, as do Margaret, Van Alden and Eli.”
If you expect a slambang ending to S1, you’ll not get it here; outside of one Godfather-style sequence in which a rash of slayings occur, this is a firmly character-based show, and it does little to wrap up threads.
That could make it unsatisfying, as it leaves a lot of loose threads. However, it works fine overall, mostly because we can’t expect real resolution from a season-ender. After all, they need to leave room for the next set of programs. “Normalcy” does allow the season to feel like it came to a certain sense of resolution while it still leaves open space for development in the next year. It’s a good finish to the year.
The Disc Grades: Picture B/ Audio B/ Bonus B+
Boardwalk Empire appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.78:1 on this Blu-Ray Disc. The shows consistently looked good but not great.
For the most part, sharpness appeared positive. Some softness affected occasional wide shots, but the majority seemed reasonably distinctive and concise. I noticed no issues with jagged edges or shimmering, and I witnessed no edge haloes. As expected, no source flaws popped up during the clean presentation.
Also as expected of a period piece, Empire opted for a subdued palette. Occasional instances of bright hues popped up, but the series usually preferred a somewhat sepia feel. Within those constraints, the colors appeared clear and full. Blacks were fairly deep, and shadows usually satisfied; a few shots were a bit dense, but most appeared positive. All of this added up to a solid “B” image.
Similar thoughts greeted the more than acceptable DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio of Empire. Given the series’ semi-chatty nature, the soundscape didn’t come across as consistently involving. Still, it threw out more than a few sequences with a good sense of place and environment. These include storms, war flashbacks, and the occasional elements of violence. While these didn’t dazzle, they used the five speakers well and added a nice sense of the action.
Audio quality was positive. Speech seemed natural and concise, without edginess or other issues. Effects appeared accurate and dynamic, while music was rich and clear. Nothing here created a killer soundtrack, but like the visuals, the audio deserved a “B”.
The package comes with plenty of extras. Six episodes boast audio commentaries. Here’s what we find:
“Boardwalk Empire” - creator/writer/executive producer Terence Winter;
“Anastasia” - Winter and actors Steve Buscemi and Kenneth Williams;
“Family Limitation” - director/writer/executive producer Tim Van Patten and writer/supervising producer Howard Korder;
“Hold Me in Paradise” - Winter and director Brian Kirk;
“Paris Green” - Korder, director Allen Coulter and actor Michael Shannon;
“A Return to Normalcy” - Winter and Van Patten.
Across the various tracks, we hear about opening titles, cast, characters and performances, sets and locations, period details and historical elements, and a few other production areas.
The quality of the commentaries ranges from “pretty good” to “pretty blah”. There’s not a single one that’s really compelling, but there’s not a single one that’s a true dog, either. “Paradise” is probably the best of the bunch; at least it’s the chattiest, as most of the others suffer from a lot of dead space. While the tracks can be tedious, they do throw out enough good info to make them worthwhile. I’m not wild about them, but they’re acceptable.
Across all five discs, we find an Enhanced Viewing Mode for S1’s 12 episodes. This picture-in-picture feature offers a mix of text and video. During the soundbites, we hear from Winter, Buscemi, Williams, Van Patten, Shannon, Korder, director/executive producer Martin Scorsese, author Nelson Johnson, research advisor Ed McGinty, production designer Bob Shaw, music supervisors Jim Dunbar and Randall Poster, writer/story editor Steve Kornacki, property master Tom Allen, set decorator Carol Silverman, location manager April Taylor, art director Adam Scher, costume designer John Dunn, assistant costume designer Lisa Padovani, head makeup artist Michele Paris, hair department head Francesca Paris, visual effects supervisor David Taritero, Atlantic City historian Allen Permagent, African American Heritage Museum founder Ralph Hunter, Boardwalk of Dreams author Bryant Simon, Flappers and the New American Woman author Catherine Gourley, and actors Michael Pitt, Erik Weiner, Stephen Graham, Anthony Laciura, Michael Stuhlberg, Kelly Macdonald, Gretchen Mol, Vincent Piazza, Paz de la Huerta, Shea Whigham, Aleksa Palladino , Anatol Yousef, and Greg Antonacci.
The “Modes” cover four domains: “Production Insights”, “Locations”, “History”, and “Music”. These mean we learn about cast and performances, characters and story, sets, locations, costumes and period details, music, historical elements/references and a mix of other related areas.
Across the board, the “Modes” offer a terrific look at the series. They balance history and series production material in a neat way and teach us a ton about both areas. Best of the bunch? The final one, as it features a lot from an interview session with Winter and Van Patten; they give us a good summary of various series issues/topics.
Adding to my enjoyment, the “Modes” come with a very user-friendly interface. Many features of this sort make you sit through the entire program to access the tidbits, but this one lets you easily skip from one piece to the next. This means you’re not stuck with downtime; you can zip through the shows at your own pace. That’s the icing on this cake, so expect a lot of good information from the “Modes”; they’re the highlight of the set’s extras.
Also found on all five platters, we get Character Dossiers. These give us details on a mix of important characters and function as a kind of “family tree”. They deliver biographical notes as well as connections and photos. They’re fun to see, especially since they evolve over time; each episode gives us an update on the characters.
On Disc Four, we get two programs. Atlantic City: The Original Sin City fills 29 minutes, 35 seconds and boasts comments from McGinty, Johnson, Scorsese, Winter, Korder, Van Patten, Permagent, Hunter, Simon, Gourley, Atlantic City historian Vicki Gold Levi, archivist Heather Perez, Growing Up in the Other Atlantic City author Turiya SA Raheem, and freelance writer Jim Waltzer. The documentary offers a history of Atlantic City from its founding through the era depicted in Empire. It emphasizes events we see in the series and acts as a good piece of background. We’ll have heard some of these notes elsewhere – primarily during the “Enhanced Viewing Mode” – but “Sin” still delivers a tight and enjoyable history lesson.
Speakeasy Tour lasts 24 minutes, 39 seconds as it shows actors as they take us to various spots. Greg Antonacci takes us around Chicago, while Michael Stuhlbarg and Vincent Piazza wander Atlantic City. They let us see various former speakeasies in those locations and help make this a fluffy but still pretty informative piece.
Two more shows pop up on Disc Five. Making Boardwalk Empire goes for 19 minutes, 35 seconds and includes details from Scorsese, Winter, Van Patten, Johnson, Buscemi, Macdonald, Laciura, Pitt, Shannon, Kornacki, Korder, Weiner, Williams, Stuhlbarg, Graham, Piazza, Shaw, Dunn, Padovani, Whigham, de la Huerta, Mol, Yousef, Palladino, executive producers Mark Wahlberg and Steve Levinson, co-executive producer Gene Kelly, and actor Tracy Middendorf. The featurette looks at characters and story, historical facts, influences and liberties, cast and performances, sets and locations, costumes and period details. While a few decent notes appear, most of this offers promotion for the series, so don’t expect to learn much.
Finally, we get Creating the Boardwalk. In this four-minute, 54-second piece, we hear from Winter, Shaw, Buscemi, Macdonald, Van Patten, McGinty, Scher and Taritero. The program tells us the methods used to bring the Atlantic City circa 1920 setting to life. Though this one also feels promotional, it still delivers some decent notes.
As a series, Boardwalk Empire satisfies, but I’d find it tough to state that it excels. Perhaps burdened by sky-high expectations due to the talent behind it, it was almost inevitable that it’d fall short of the anticipated greatness. However, that doesn’t make it a flop; while it might be a relative disappointment, it’s still a pretty involving and entertaining piece.
The Blu-ray works well, too. It delivers good picture and audio as well as a solid set of extras highlighted by the “Enhanced Viewing Mode” components that accompany all the episodes. The series merits your attention, and the Blu-ray brings it home in a satisfying manner.
Viewer Film Ratings: 4.3 Stars|| Number of Votes: 10|