Freaks and Geeks: The Complete Series (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray) – Somewhere between Dawson’s Creek and Welcome to the Doll House is this sharp, funny, and surprisingly poignant high school dram-edy (for lack of a better word), which premiered in 1999 and lasted for a single season.
Junior Linda Cardellini (of the Scooby-Doo movies and Mad Men) grounds the series as the former class brain who, in the first episode, is in the midst of a startling identity crisis. Rejecting everything she once took for granted, including her place in the school hierarchy, she gravitates toward the “freaks,” a group of stoners, under-achievers, and minor key rebels, sort of led by rebel without a clue Daniel (James Franco, looking perpetually stoned). Meanwhile her Freshman brother (John Francis Daley) is a Steve Martin-quoting, Dungeons and Dragon-playing, skinny little “geek,” hanging with his friends, pining for a pretty cheerleader, and trying to avoid the mean-spirited pranks and hazing that he seems to be the perpetual butt of.
Show Me a Hero (HBO, Blu-ray, DVD), a six-hour HBO miniseries developed by David Simon (The Wire) and William F. Zorzi from the non-fiction book by Lisa Belkin and directed by Paul Haggis (with a subtlety and nuance I didn’t know he had in him), stars Oscar Isaac as Nick Wasicsko, a city councilman who became the mayor of Yonkers in 1988 with an anti-public housing campaign at a time when resentment to the court-ordered low income housing was so fierce it bordered on hysteria.
A drama on public housing policy and city politics may not sound like the makings of compelling drama but Show Me a Hero showcases what Simon does best: exploring real-life events and issues through a dramatic lens that puts politics, economics, and social justice in personal terms.
When handed the raw materials from an unfinished documentary about Elmyr de Hory, an art forger whose life was being written up by biographer Clifford Irving, Orson Welles took the opportunity to make something far beyond the concept of the traditional documentary. F for Fake has been called the Orson Welles’ first essay film, a true enough statement if you limit the accounting to feature films, but he had been doing short-form non-fiction since 1955, when he made Around the World with Orson Welles (a.k.a. Around the World) for British television.
It was ostensibly a series of travelogues, shot on location with Welles as tour guide, host, and narrator. Welles himself described them as “all sort of home movies—a vacation documented…,” but these are sort of home movies that only Welles could make. They are built on Welles’s public persona as much as on his directorial personality. He is “as always, obediently yours,” the worldly yet personable host who casts a spell with his voice, disarms with a boyish grin and invites the audience into his confidence as he tosses out cultural observations and historical asides.
[Originally published in Movietone News 40, April 1975]
The first of the best films of 1975 has been and gone, and won’t be back, at least at your naborhood theatre. LoveamongtheRuins appeared on ABC-TV on March 6; reportedly, an agreement with Sir Laurence Olivier ensures that it will never be released theatrically. One can only hope that the film will soon be leaked quietly to 16mm nontheatrical distributors (as, for instance, is the case with Losey’s A Doll’sHouse), for it’s a treasure, a shining testimonial to the glories of memory and dreams that deserves better than to become merely a memory itself.
Britain’s audacious answer to The Twilight Zone for our plugged-in world of social media and screen culture, Black Mirror seemed to come out of nowhere. The anthology show debuted on Netflix in December with “The National Anthem,” which caused a viral sensation. That first episode addressed hacking, cybercrime, political protest, and extortion with a savagely satirical story about the kidnapping of a royal family member. To save her, the Prime Minister was instructed—in the form of a video ransom demand streamed for the world to watch—to fuck a pig on live television, and he did. “The National Anthem” was the most transgressive thing I’ve ever seen on TV, and I see a lot of TV.
Written by English journalist-turned-satirist Charlie Brooker, Black Mirror’s creator, that episode was wickedly, nastily funny. Unlike most premium American television, however, its shock value has a real point. The YouTube terrorism of “The National Anthem” is but an nth-degree exaggeration of our own cyber-bullying, celebrity phone hacking, and North Korean cyber-attacks.
I know, I know: old and slow. My only possible defense is that we have either been guests or had guests since December 23rd, a sojourn involving passports, dear distant family, dear semi-distant friends and a last emotional good-bye at the airport yesterday. The cats barely know what lap to turn to, while I’m summoning up all my reserves to turn up in two matching shoes.
To get to those Globes: they were just Sunday and I know I’m behind on the newspapers, but where’s the outrage? Or even the irony over the results of the Globes TV Movies or Mini-series category? I’m talking about the sublime OliveKitteridge, anchored by the unsparing eloquence of Frances McDormand, being beaten by the TV show Fargo. Let’s be honest,the initial good will of Fargo-the-miniseries would never have existed without our collective infatuation with McDormand’s singular character in, ummm, Fargo-the-film. (Just the memory of the actress’s back, squared in rectitude as she marched up to get her FargoOscar in 1997 is enough to kick off a smile.)
Let’s catch up on a month of TV releases. And as Halloween is coming, let’s begin with some shows from the dark side.
Penny Dreadful: Season One (CBS, Blu-ray, DVD) takes a premise similar to the graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentleman: the characters and supernatural beings of 19th century horror literature all exist in the real world.
Oscar-winning screenwriter John Logan created this series, which revolves around a trio of original characters who take on the supernatural underworld of London, and scripts all eight episodes of the debut season. Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) is searching for his daughter Mina, who has been taken by a vampire (as in the novel Dracula), with the help of Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), a medium with a troubled past and a possible curse upon her. Josh Hartnett is the American Ethan Chandler, who comes to London as part of a Wild West show and hires himself out as a gunman to the team. Assisting the team is Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), whose first experiment (Rory Kinnear) has returned to demand a mate, and weaving through their stories is the decadent Dorian Gray, who woos Vanessa. One episode reworks The Exorcist and the season finale suggests that Bride of Frankenstein and Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde will be part of the story next season.
The title captures the tone of the series and horror director J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage) sets the ominous, shadowy mood as he helms the first two episodes. It features impressive production values, strong writing, excellent actors, and a Gothic atmosphere that favors mood over spectacle, and Logan intelligently and creatively weaves the classic stories into this original drama. Dr. Frankenstein after all abandoned his first born, essentially setting the moral yardstick for his offspring, and the show offers a compromised human Frankenstein and an angry, outraged creature with both the sensitivity and the emotional instability of a child that can rip the heart out of another person. And while the vampire of this tale is never referred to as Dracula, the show offers an interesting take on the story. But it’s the original characters that are the most compelling, notably the rocky relationship between bereft father Malcolm and tormented Vanessa, a kind of foster daughter in the shadow of his absent daughter, both needed and rejected by Malcolm. If blood defines family in the first episodes of the show, loyalty and sacrifice defines it by end of the season, and it is the American cowboy who brings that lesson home. I have a fondness for dramas built around makeshift families and offbeat teams who earn the loyalty of one another, and through the course of the season, Penny Dreadful turns into that kind of series.
It’s one Showtime’s most popular and most acclaimed shows to date, and outside of a Showtime subscription or a la carte digital purchases of individual episodes, disc is the only way to see the show. If you’re a horror fan, it’s definitely worth it. Eight episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with numerous featurettes and bonus episodes of other Showtime original shows.
Turner Classic Movies is turning all the Fridays in September over to films from that brief period in the early thirties when the studios thumbed their collective noses at the toothless Production Code and pushed the boundaries of sex, violence, and bad behavior without judgment or consequences in film after film. The iron boot of censorship came down in 1934 and stomped out all that deliciously salacious content, but for a few years Hollywood acknowledged and even flaunted sex between consenting adults (married or not). The films from this era were branded “Forbidden Hollywood” when they were rediscovered and revived for audiences in the 1990s, but today they are better known as Pre-Code. Turner Classic Movies has four full Fridays full of forbidden Pre-Code delights.
While there are gems aplenty throughout the month, I’ll spotlight a few of the most interesting and audacious rarities and lesser-known glories, including two from the coming Friday line-up.
Set those DVRs now!
Friday, September 5:
Safe in Hell (1931) – Think of this as a kind of B-movie riff on Sadie Thompson (the original bad girl in the tropics melodrama) directed with a merciless brutality by William Wellman. It stars the largely forgotten Dorothy Mackaill as a scuffed-up, street-smart answer to Miriam Hopkins and she is amazing as the hooker who is whisked off to a Caribbean island to flee a murder charge. The film’s title is no exaggeration; imagine Casablanca as a lice-infested backwater run by mercenary opportunists and filled with the sleaziest criminals to escape a manhunt. They all take their shot at seducing Mackaill, the sole white woman in this island prison, and she shoots them all down with the brash directness of an experienced urban doll who has spent her life fending off passes. Yet somehow the film manages to give them all a shot at redemption when she is tried for murder (it’s a different murder, and yet the same one, in the crazy logic of the melodrama contrivances) and they line up in her defense. Wellman it snappy and sassy as he winds the story from the cynical to the sentimental to the spiritual with equal commitment.
Too Much Johnson, the Orson Welles film (or rather film project) that was long thought lost (the last print was reportedly destroyed in a fire in Welles’ Spanish home in 1970), was found a few years ago and restored. It’s not a feature or even a short, per se, more of an experiment shot to accompany a production of the theater farce “Too Much Johnson,” but at least the first section plays just fine on its own as a tribute to silent slapstick comedy with Joseph Cotten doing Harold Lloyd antics and Buster Keaton chases as a serial philanderer pursued by a jealous husband. The film was unfinished but mostly complete and you can watch both the workprint and a “reimagined” version with the outtakes removed at the National Film Preservation Foundation website. An HD version of both are available through the subscription streaming service Fandor.
I wrote an essay on the film for Keyframe: “This would all be interesting but academic if it wasn’t also entertaining and Too Much Johnson is a hoot. The prologue was designed to open the play, introduce the characters and situations, and set the racing pace for the stage scenes with a wild slapstick chase through the streets of New York to the ship that carries the story to Cuba. It plays just fine on its own (with an assist from intertitles added by NFPF), like an open-ended Mack Sennett farce that races through German Expressionism and Russian Formalism on the way to the docks. The subsequent sequences, both much shorter and apparently incomplete, are not as self-contained or coherent but they do feature some eye-opening moments for Welles fans.”
The third wave of Amazon Prime Instant Video Pilot Season shows will be available to sample on Thursday, August 28. As in previous waves, Amazon has made the pilot episodes of five new shows available to all Amazon customers (you don’t have to be a Prime member to watch them), and they will decide which shows move forward to full series based on audience feedback.
This time through, they have enlisted some interesting directors to create for the small screen. Whit Stillman heads to Paris for The Cosmopolitans, a continental romantic comedy, David Gordon Green (director of Pineapple Express and HBO’s Eastbound and Down) stays home in New Jersey for Red Oaks, a coming-of-age comedy set in 1985 (it’s produced by Steven Soderbergh), and Jay Chandrasekhar offers the sitcom Really, about a tight-knit group of married couples in Chicago. Each of these are in the half-hour format.
There are also two hour-long shows: Marc Forster (World War Z) takes the helm on Hand of God, starring Ron Perlman as a judge of dubious morals who goes vigilante after receiving messages from God, and writer / producer Shaun Cassidy delivers Hysteria, with Mena Suvari as a neurologist faced with virtual virus spread through social media.
The Normal Heart (HBO, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD), the made-for-HBO feature based on Larry Kramer’s play and directed for cable by Ryan Murphy, arrives on disc the day after winning the Emmy Award for Outstanding Television Movie. Kramer wrote the play in 1985, based in part on his own experiences as a gay activist in the early years of the AIDS crisis, and it captures an era when thousands of gay men were dying yet the mainstream media shied from reporting on the plague (as it was called then) and government officials would not even say the name AIDS in public. 30 years out of time, it seems more of a polemic than ever but it also captures the fear and fury of the men in the community facing a crisis that even the government won’t acknowledge.
Mark Ruffalo takes the lead as Ned Weeks, a writer and activist that Kramer based on himself. He’s the rabble rouser of the group that he founds in 1981, a guy so angry and confrontational that he’s finally pushed out. But the internal politics reflect the culture at large—many of the most active members of the group (played by Taylor Kitsch, as the photogenic face of the gay men’s health group, Jim Parsons and Joe Mantello, who played Ned in the original stage production) still haven’t come out in public—and the fears that many have of creating a panic that will turn the public against them. Matt Bomer co-stars as Weeks’ boyfriend, a New York Times reporter who also hasn’t come out, and Julia Roberts is apparently the only doctor in New York City who is concerned with the still-unidentified disease. Most of these characters were based on people Kramer knew, friends and family alike, and some of these characters are dead before the film ends in the year 1985. Just like in real life.
It came to HBO after a successful stage revival but 30 years out of time it plays more like a period piece, removed enough from the immediacy of the crisis to really pour on the sense of outrage and fear, something that the earliest films to confront AIDS could never allow themselves to do. That outrage, and the committed performances of the cast, surely helped this feature earn its Emmy last night.
On Blu-ray and DVD with a nine-minute featurette on author Larry Kramer and the autobiographical roots of the original play. It sheds some interesting perspective on the personal dramas explored here. Also available as a Digital purchase and free for subscribers to HBO via Cable On Demand and HBO Go.
An Adventure in Space and Time (Warner, Blu-ray+DVD Combo) is a TV movie made for the BBC but it is a movie nonetheless, a bit of pop culture celebration that takes on the creation of Doctor Who in 1963 (just in time for the 50th Anniversary!). Scripted by veteran Doctor Who writer Mark Gatiss and produced by current Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat, it’s sweet, it’s sentimental and it’s nostalgic. It’s also unexpectedly engaging as a piece of light historical drama made with an affectionate passion and more than a hint of the BBC series The Hour in its observations of the inner workings of the broadcaster half a century ago.
David Bradley plays William Hartnell, the aging veteran actor who reluctantly takes on the role in what he sees as just a kid’s show, and Jessica Raine is Verity Lambert, the former production assistant given the assignment of creating a prime time family show by her mentor (Brian Cox), now a ranking executive at the Beeb. She’s the first female producer at BBC and her director, Waris Hussein (Sacha Dhawan), was a rare director of Indian descent, and their stories are a small but important part of this portrait of an institution in transition. Together they overcome budgetary limitations with flights of fantasy and creative special effects and the show recreates iconic events in the first four years of the series, from the series debut getting clobbered when it had the unfortunate luck of showing the night (British time) of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy to the first appearance of the Daleks to the explosion of Who-mania in Britain.
[Note: The UCLA kindly let me view the entire available copies of Oboler Comedy Theatre; however, I was not allowed to take pictures of any of the episodes. Therefore, this article will not have pictures from the program. I could not view one episode called Dog’s Eye View, because the kinescope negative was never developed. Additionally, it is unclear whether the final episode of the series, Mrs. Kinsley’s Report was ever filmed.]
There is nothing wrong with Oboler Comedy Theatre (1949), except that it is rarely funny and is almost unwatchable. Oboler basically films some of his comic radio plays without any eye towards adapting them to a visual medium, directing with a visual style so static that he makes Herschel Gordon Lewis look like Max Ophüls. Without competent visual collaborators, Oboler is lost at sea. The only reason to watch these shows is to see Oboler’s radio troupe make rare appearances in a visual medium.
Oboler did not direct a film between 1947 and 1951; his last film for a studio was the MGM-produced The Arnelo Affair (1947). In interviews, Oboler stated that he was tired of directing filmed adaptations of his radio plays, yet the majority of the episodes of Oboler Comedy Theatreare adapted from his own radio plays. In 1948, Oboler toured Africa for eight months to gather sound for the Frederick W. Ziv radio company, recordings that later aired on NBC’s documentary radio program Monitor. Oboler was also finding it increasingly difficult to work with collaborators. He penned only three radio shows for The James and Pamela Mason Show (1949) before leaving the program. By the time he made Oboler Comedy Theatre, which was independently produced and aired over ABC, Oboler was an independent artist.
At first, Oboler was excited about the new medium of television, yet despite several attempts over a fifteen year period, Oboler never found the success that he sought in TV. Oboler’s failure may have prompted him to make the anti-television satire The Twonky (1953). The Twonky is much more interesting than Oboler Comedy Theatre; however, for the most part, the film demonstrates Oboler’s inability to handle comedy.
In his two films for MGM—Bewitched (1945) and The Arnelo Affair—Oboler brought his trademark stream-of-consciousness style to moviemaking. These films are stunningly photographed by Charles Salerno, and Bewitched, especially, has some impressive camera work; particularly, a crane shot, which starts at a window and tracks all the way down to an alley. Oboler did not use the stream-of-consciousness style in his comic radio plays, and that style is also absent from Oboler Comedy Theatre.
Even in radio, Oboler’s was rarely adept at comedy. His fortes were suspense, fantasy, and horror. From the get-go, these TV plays fail to elicit laughs. Oboler introduces the episodes by dubbing an attractive woman with his voice. He explains this odd choice in the following way: “even as the world needs laughter, what it needs more is pretty faces.” The four episodes that I discuss in this article are Ostrich in Bed; Love, Love, Love; Triple Feature; and Mr. Dydee.
[Note: The television production of Night of the Auk is not available on home video in any format. The UCLA film library kindly let me view a video cassette of the production. However, I was not allowed to take any photos; nonetheless, there are pre-existing photos of the TV production, on the Internet, that are included here. Unfortunately, the quality is somewhat poor. Additionally, there are low fidelity video clips available at the links below.]
On May 2, 1960, William Shatner took his maiden voyage on a spaceship in a television production of Arch Oboler’s ill fated Broadway play Night of the Auk. Shatner plays Lewis Rohnen, the megalomaniacal leader of mankind’s first expedition to the moon, which at the start of the play, is making its return to Earth. Auk is written entirely in a Walt Whitmanesque poetic form and watching Shatner declaim his lines in blank verse is immensely entertaining, akin to the pleasure of watching him speak Esperanto in Incubus.
William Shatner, as Lewis Rohnen, is the heavy of this five act tragedy. Rohnen is a spoiled billionaire who has privately funded the expedition. In order for Rohnen to receive the prize money for his venture, the expedition must both land on the moon and one of its crew must walk on its surface. However, upon landing on the moon, Rohnen discovers that its surface is radioactive. Undeterred, Rohnen gets one of the crew members drunk and encourages him to walk on its surface. However, before the ill fated crew-member returns, Rohnen’s expedition accidentally blasts off for home. To make matters even worse, Rohnen touches off a nuclear war when, during a radio broadcast to Earth, he claims the moon for the United States. William Shatner turns in a compelling performance as a neurotic egomaniac and even his occasional overacting seems to befit the role of a larger than life schmuck whose actions cause the end of the world as we know it. Shatner is supported by an able cast including Warner Anderson (Oboler’s The Arnelo Affair) as a hardened military General and James MacArthur (Swiss Family Robinson) as a wide-eyed communications expert.
It is unclear how much of a hand Oboler had in the production. But, given the presence of Warner Anderson, and of Oboler favorite Raymond Edward Johnson as the narrator, it appears that he had some involvement.
The piece is directed by the Broadway maestro Nikos Psacharapoulis. Despite the fact that Oboler’s play is cut by nearly a third, Psacharapoulis remains true to Oboler’s vision. Nothing of Oboler’s play feels lost, and its pacing may, in fact, be improved. Psacharapoulis seems to have cut some of Oboler’s more confusing language—his director’s script is filled with question marks. Given the limited set and space, Psacharapoulis does a surprisingly good job of using an active camera, with tracking shots, overhead shots, and few close-ups. The piece is shot entirely on black and white video.
The set is very minimal and somewhat amusing. It looks like a multi-platformed conversation pit, with filing cabinets, levers, a ticker-tape machine, and an airlock in the rear wall. The props are similarly minimal and somewhat comical. For example, the actors use absurdly long binoculars to see Earth from the ship. The majority of the cast wears jumpsuits with pocket protectors, which makes them look like big interstellar nerds. But for some reason, the ship’s scientist, Dr. Bruner wears a button down sweater.
Overall, Night of the Auk is worth watching and is genuinely compelling entertainment despite its limited visual appeal.
“My mother just gets … impulsive. She has these ideas about things …”
That’s 17-year-old Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) in the premiere episode of “Bates Motel,” explaining to his admiring new teacher, Miss Watson (Keegan Connor Tracy), why he’s been bounced around to five different high schools. His mother Norma (Vera Farmiga) has just moved them from Arizona to White Pine Bay, a sleepy coastal Oregon town, following the tragic (accidental?) death of her second husband. Apparently Norma has valid reasons for her impulsive behavior. Either that, or … she just goes a little crazy sometimes.
We’ve heard that line before; it’s from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 horror/suspense classic “Psycho,” in which motel owner Norman (now in his twenties and played by Anthony Perkins) is revealed to be a homicidal psychopath, driven to murder by an extreme case of split personality.
Continuing our tribute to the best of 2012, here are my picks for the top TV releases on disc.
1. “Game of Thrones: The Complete First Season” (HBO) – Pay cable is always looking for the next buzz show, a series that gets people talking, watching and subscribing. “Game of Thrones,” the epic fantasy set in a medieval world of warring kingdoms, cutthroat royal families, barbarians, dragons, and some undefined evil kept at bay (at least up until now) behind a massive wall taller than a skyscraper, is such a show. This complex, intelligent, and visually impressive production is the most lavish fantasy epic TV has ever seen. This could be a fanciful take on Europe of the Dark Ages but for the echoes of supernatural forces massing outside of the borders. The casting is superb, the production looks amazing, like a medieval epic shrouded in the shadow of a winter storm, and the writing is intelligent and always surprising. Like so many HBO shows, it takes its time unfolding its story and doesn’t follow the expectations of TV storytelling (major characters are constantly sacrificed to the ruthlessness of the story), but it casts its spell from the opening scenes.
The disc release is as lavish as you could hope, with solid commentary tracks and plenty of interesting featurettes and interviews, and the Blu-ray includes an interactive “In-Episode Guide” viewing mode and the superb “Anatomy of an Episode” mode that offers the sixth episode with a fully integrated audio-video commentary track with video interviews, storyboards, and other picture-in-picture supplements. (Full review here)
2. “Homeland: The Complete First Season” (Fox) is the first Showtime original series to take on HBO in the realm in which the latter dominates: dense, challenging, intelligent drama. This show, adapted from an Israeli TV series called “Prisoners of War” about contemporary POWs struggling to find their place when they return home, was developed for American audiences by its Israeli creator Gideon Raff with Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon of “24” and cast with two superb actors in the lead: Claire Danes as a CIA analyst who has trouble working well with others and Damian Lewis as an American Marine back home after eight years of captivity under Al-Qaeda and may be a sleeper agent. This incarnation is wrapped tightly in the war on terror and the American intelligence culture, but behind the realpolitik thriller is also the story of war and captivity takes its toll on the folks on the front lines. The actions and decisions of its characters puts issues of patriotism, faith, and responsibility to family into focus in ways we don’t often see. The first season earned six Emmy awards. (Full review here)
3. “Mildred Pierce” (HBO) is less a remake than a new run at adapting the James M. Cain novel. Previously made into a Hollywood classic (which earned Joan Crawford her only Oscar), it’s been transformed into a five-hour mini-series by Todd Haynes, who casts Kate Winslet in the title role as the mother blindly devoted to her sneering, status-conscious daughter. There’s none of the murder mystery plot that Hollywood added to the depression-era melodrama. This is a character study in maternal sacrifice, a skewed success story rooted in guilt and damaged self-esteem and powered by willful blindness of her daughter Veda’s (Evan Rachel Wood) evolution and her own compromises. The mini-series form has largely migrated from the networks to cable, and HBO is the perfect place for such an adult production. Superb. (Full review here)