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Videophiled: ‘An Adventure in Space and Time’ – The Birth of Doctor Who

AdventureSpaceAn 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.

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What Ever Happened to the Laughs in ‘Oboler Comedy Theatre’?

By Matthew Rovner

[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.]

Arch Oboler in the studio for ‘Lights Out’

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 Theatre are 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.

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Night of the Auk

By Matthew Rovner

[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.]

James MacArthur and William Shatner in the TV production of ‘Night of the Auk’

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.

The original stage production of ‘Night of the Auk’

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.

More information on the production, plus photos and video clips, can be found at the official James MacArthur website.

Copyright © 2013 Matthew Rovner

TV Review: ‘Bates Motel’

“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.

Continue reading at Roger Ebert.com

Videodrone’s best of 2012: TV on disc

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)

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TV on Disc: ‘Sherlock: Season Two’

It sounded like a terrible idea at the time: update Sherlock Holmes to the 21st century of texts and computer searches and blogs.

To the surprise and delight of all, the first series of Sherlock, the BBC revival / revision of the classic detective developed by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss was intelligent, inspired, clever, compelling, and very, very entertaining. Sherlock: Season Two (BBC), which consists of three feature-length mysteries, ups the ante and the ambition.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is still a tetchy, borderline Asperger syndrome genius more interested in a challenge than justice and Martin Freeman’s Watson holds his own as a witty, warm, loyal and often critical assistant to his eccentric roommate. But in this run the anti-social Holmes has become a media celebrity and Jim Moriarty not merely an underworld mastermind but an insane criminal who, like Holmes, just wants a challenge.

The creators don’t just update the classic stories, they reimagine them. The inspirations are imbedded in the tweaked titles — “An Affair in Belgravia” (with Lara Pulver as a memorable Irene Adler), “The Hounds of Baskerville” (set in Britain’s answer to Area 51), and “The Reichenbach Fall” (with Andrew Scott as insane criminal genius James Moriarty) — and writers Moffat and Gatiss (who serves double duty as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft onscreen) spin new stories out of the situations and characters and iconic elements of the originals

The three episodes are really feature films, not just in running time but in scope and depth and complexity, and director Paul McGuigan adds a visual aesthetic to match in the first two films of the second season. We don’t simply observe the way Sherlock cases a room, we get a peek into the way he picks out details and files away observations, and an idea at the restlessness of his OCD mind.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman

But it wouldn’t work without the characters, the fully-realized characterizations, and the chemistry. As played by Cumberbatch, Holmes is a magnificent character and this is the first incarnation to allow him to be such a thoughtless misanthrope (even while showing the cracks in his emotional armor). But let us please acknowledge that Freeman’s far less showy yet equally realized John Watson is the best screen incarnation of this character ever, an intelligent, capable military doctor with as much courage as compassion. And the makeover of Lestrade from the bumbling foil and comic relief of previous adaptations into a competent, talented police detective with both professional and personal interests in Sherlock only adds to dynamic. It’s always more interesting when Sherlock is the smartest person in a room full of smart people.

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Watching with Ron Ely, TV’s original Tarzan

Ron Ely seem to be enjoying his retirement. Most famous for playing Tarzan in the first TV incarnation of the story, he also played another great pulp hero, Doc Savage, in a 1975 movie, starred in a short-lived revival of the TV series “Sea Hunt” and even took over hosting duties for The Miss American Pageant from Bert Parks for a brief time. Off screen, he published two private eye novels, “Night Shadows” and “East Beach. According to the IMDb, his last screen appearance was over a decade ago (in, appropriately enough, the jungle girl show “Sheena”).

The Warner Archive release of the first season of Tarzan, featuring a buff, tanned and toned Ely in a loin cloth and little else, reminds us that he played the role closer to the original Edgar Rice Burroughs conception, as an erudite man raised in the jungle, educated in Europe, and now living back in his jungle home out of preference. The actor, now 73 years old, is just as well spoken as his character and he talked to Videodrone by phone to discuss the show, the role that defined his career, and his affection for “Survivor.”

Videodrone’s review of “Tarzan: The First Season” is here.

What are you watching?

I watch every new show that comes out. It’s hard to name them all because they turn over so fast. Some I get attached to and then they disappear. Currently I like “The Good Wife,” “Smash,” “Awake,” I like some of the reality shows. I like a show I would have definitely done twenty years ago, “Survivor.” I would have loved to have done that.

They wouldn’t have stood a chance against you.

Well, now, I was an actor playing a guy that could survive in the wild. I was not a guy who could survive in the wild, I don’t think. I don’t know. It would have been a fun experience, it would have been delightful to test yourself against that kind of circumstance.

Have they sent you a copy of the “Tarzan” series yet?

They have indeed and it is magnificent. I have not been able to see all of them but I have run a couple, just kind of spot checked, and they look really sharp and good. They’ve done a fabulous job in mastering these shows.

How did you get the part of Tarzan?

Actually, it’s a short story. I came back from a trip to my mother’s home in Texas on a Sunday night. There were messages there to call my agent. I talked to them Monday morning and they said, “It’s about Tarzan.” Now I had discussed “Tarzan” earlier, in the movie version of it, which I wasn’t interested in, and they said, “This is a little different, at least go in for the meeting.” So that’s really what I was doing, I was going in for a meeting. I won’t say just as a courtesy, but it partially was that. So then at the meeting they said, “Can we put you on film?” I said, “Yes,” and they put me on film the next day, and then the day after that, which was Wednesday, I was told, “That’s it, you’re it,” and on Friday I was on a plane to Brazil. I was as surprised as anybody when I found myself on a plane, flying in to Rio de Janeiro, and I finally thought, “What am I doing? What am I here for?”

Continue reading at Videodrone

The Promised Land Will Be Wheelchair-Accessible

“Lives Worth Living” premieres on the PBS series “Independent Lens” on October 27th at 10:00 p.m. (ET/PT). For more information, visit the film’s PBS website and filmmaker Eric Neudel’s website.

To be disabled in America, in 2011, is to occupy the midpoint of a metaphorical highway, some stretches smooth and evenly paved, others rocky and difficult to navigate. When you look back at the road behind, you feel proud and satisfied that people with disabilities (PWD) have made significant progress since the days when we had no voice, no place in society, no civil rights whatsoever. Looking ahead, you see fewer physical obstacles but other remaining barriers, in terms of backward attitudes and ongoing exclusion, that society is still stubbornly reluctant to remove.

title card-fred fay.jpgLike those of us with disabilities, Eric Neudel’s documentary Lives Worth Living is situated at that halfway point on the rocky road of progress. In just 54 inspiring and informative minutes, Neudel’s exceptional film (airing Oct. 27th at 10pm on the PBS series Independent Lens) provides a concise primer on the history of the disability rights movement in America. The film culminates with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26th, 1990.

And yet, it’s only half the story. In a perfect world, PBS would immediately finance a sequel so Neudel (who has devoted his career to documenting political and civil rights struggles) could chronicle the first 20 years of the ADA. That history is still unfolding, and the struggle to enforce and fully implement the ADA is just as compelling as the struggle for disability rights throughout the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.

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The Ernie Kovacs Collection: Ode to TV’s Comic Genius

Sometime in the late 1970s, some enterprising programmer at PBS had the brilliant idea of resurrecting a series of half-hour comedy specials from the late 1950s written and produced by and starring Ernie Kovacs and running them back to back with its long-standing reruns of the ever-popular Monty Python’s Flying Circus. With that single connection, a whole new generation discovered the genius of Kovacs and his creative approach to TV comedy, which twenty years later had aged only in terms of the tools. It’s now more than 50 years since his final special was broadcast (posthumously, it must be said; he died weeks before it ran) and while the technology is primitive, the inspiration, the unexpectedness, the ingenuity and the grace of execution is as fresh and surprising and funny as ever.

Those specials are collected in Shout! Factory six-disc set The Ernie Kovacs Collection—they are indeed the highlight of a box of comedy genius—but merely represent a single disc in the six-disc set, the apex of work he began early in the 1950s in chat shows, variety specials, game shows and whatever else he was offered.

Ernie Kovacs was both the George Melies and the Tex Avery of live TV, playing with the untapped possibilities of the still evolving medium by imagining the impossible and finding the technical resources (some of them ingeniously simple) to make it happen. In an era before computer animation, digital editing or even videotape, when sketches played out like a filmed stage show, he created gags with the quality of cartoons and defied audience expectations with images created with primitive blue-screen and spilt-screen effects, unexpected editing and self-reflexive acknowledgements of his place a TV entertainer interacting with an audience. His inventive use of the tools of the medium and his conceptual approach to comedy was not simply ingenious, it was in the service of wildly creative humor, and his legacy is seen in everything from Laugh-In and Saturday Night Live to Monty Python’s Flying Circus and David Letterman.

What’s so rewarding about this set—the pure entertainment value aside—is how it reveals that this distinctive sensibility was there from the beginning of his TV work when he hosted a morning show out of Philadelphia and various other chat show formats for NBC through the early fifties. Kovacs is genial and fun, always appearing to riff off his prepared material as he segued from the familiar TV host duties to conceptual gags like a video DJ, and always bringing the audience along as if a conspirator in his pranksterish plot to reveal and poke fun at the conventions of the live TV medium. He is remarkably relaxed in front of an audience or speaking to a camera with a conversational ease, a gift that is often forgotten when remembering his work as a comic innovator. And it’s all the more effective set against his cheeky gags and wild comic ingenuity, like he’s setting the audience up for a familiar skit or variety show presentation and then pulling the rug out from under all expectations without blinking.

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Antichrist and The Complete Larry Sanders – DVDs of the Week

Antichrist (Criterion)

I’m not sure how I manage to keep my simultaneous fascination with /repulsion for Lars von Trier in balance, but it’s back with a vengeance in Antichrist (Criterion), another provocation that is at once beautiful and perverse, personal and cynical, and filled with his sour vision of the emotional small-mindedness (small-heartedness?) of the human animal. This one, a portrait of marriage as a morass of anger, suspicion and power after she (Charlotte Gainsbourg) falls into a pit of suicidal depression and he (Willem Dafoe), a psychiatrist, takes personal charge of her treatment in a rural escape called Eden that von Trier twists into a diseased hell: paradise rotted.

Antichrist: Sex and Death

It all turns on the death of their infant child, which crawls through an open window and falls to its death while the parents are occupied in a slow-motion ballet of aggressive, feral sex. Anthony Dod Mantle is back behind the camera delivering Von Trier’s now familiar art-house look of carefully composed and stunningly sculpted establishing shots and framing sequences (like the B&W prelude of sex and death in the whisper of falling snow) while handheld photography takes us through the cover art frame and into their psychodrama.

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Short Notice: “The Marshal”

[Originally published as a “Short Notice” in Film Quarterly, Summer 1974]

“The Marshal” (episode No. 6211 of The Rifleman TV series). I recently had the extraordinary experience of showing Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country to a University of Washington film class and then going home to discover an ancestor of sorts on television. Knowing that Peckinpah had worked on The Rifleman, among other shows, and noticing that Warren Oates and James Drury were listed in the cast of that evening’s rerun, I tuned in. The episode indeed proved to be a Peckinpah: teleplay, direction, and a co-credit for story. A crucial installment in the development of the series, it introduced regular-to-be Paul Fix as Micah Torrance, a once-renowned lawman who had managed to live long enough to take off his badge—but only by losing his nerve and taking to the bottle. Torrance comes to the attention of Lucas McCain (Chuck Connors) and the town marshal, played by R.G. Armstrong (Ride the High Country, Major Dundee, Cable Hogue, Pat Garrett), and McCain sets about rehabilitating him by putting him to work on his ranch. About that time, Oates and brother Robert J. Wilke appear, hot on Torrance’s trail and determined to repay him for shooting them up in the line of duty some years previous. Drury, who played the least depraved of the Hammond boys in Ride the High Country, rides into town with them but pretends to only a loose affiliation; he affects a mellifluous manner and mocks their illiteracy—they are clearly akin to such “damn drygulchin’ Southern trash” as the Hammonds and the Strother Martin–L.Q. Jones types in later Peckinpah—while targeting Marshal Armstrong’s niece for seduction. If Drury’s motivation is ever declared, I missed it; but at any rate he has soon shot and killed Armstrong, then enticed McCain into town with the news that Oates and Wilke did it. There is a concluding fight, McCain falls wounded after downing Wilke, and Torrance—effectively if not actually one-armed like James Coburn’s Sam Potts in Major Dundee—manages to do for the others with a shotgun. The episode ends with McCain recuperating and Micah Torrance sporting the marshal’s badge he will wear throughout the rest of the series.

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The Man Behind Walter Bishop: “Fringe” star John Noble interviewed

Australian thespian John Noble was best know to American audiences as King Denethor in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films before he became Walter Bishop in Fringe. The character is a tortured genius who spent 17 years in a mental facility, treated with heavy doses of pharmaceuticals and receiving no visitors, until he was released into the custody of FBI agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) and Walter’s estranged son, Peter (Joshua Jackson), whose resentments smooth out to affection over the course the show. On the one hand, Walter is an entertaining eccentric with limited social skills and a childlike delight in the smallest things. On the other, he’s a broken soul whose earlier experiments sacrificed people in the name of science and now, as he rediscovers his humanity in the social world, has to face the human cost of his actions. His compassion and responsibility is returning and it’s painful.

John Noble as Walter Bishop on "Fringe"
John Noble as Walter Bishop on "Fringe"

Noble’s resonant voice takes on a continental quality for the role, vaguely but indistinctly American. “When I first approached the character, I was looking for something that was unique,” he explained about the accent. “We could have done standard American, but looking for something a bit more Trans-Atlantic, because my experience with academics, they do have a slightly different way of talking. They mix with people from all over the world. So I guess what I settled on was something which could have been like a Boston accent but with English adaptations, and that was the Trans-Atlantic one.” When he drops character, however, his Australian heritage comes through loud and clear.

The road to this interview was unusually complicated. His tentative availability during an abbreviated set visit was scotched due to production shifts. A scheduled conference call became an exercise in frustration when I couldn’t get a question through, thanks to a connection glitch. Finally a direct phone interview was arranged via a temperamental cell phone, and despite the drop-outs and fuzz I was able to get in a questions in a brief ten minute discussion. The following interview, conducted by phone on March 29, features our discussion plus a few comments from the earlier conference call.

Spoiler alert: The conversation reveals elements of the episode “Peter” (which aired Thursday, April 1). The rest of the season is discussed in more vague terms.

Fringe is about a lot of things, but the most interesting story to me is the human story of Walter Bishop rediscovering his conscience and his humanity as he reconnects with his son and starts to care for the people he works with, and starts to see the damage of his experiments on the people that he loves and on people he’s just now meeting.

The retreat into insanity was a defense mechanism based on the theory you’re taking, which I do agree with. He became aware that he effected basically the whole stability of society. So whether he retreated into society to survive that or it’s a defense mechanism, which is also possible, I think it’s a very good point. However, coming out of it, he’s having to face all that again and it’s tragic. It’s bloody awful, isn’t it.

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TV on DVD 2009 – The Great, the Rediscovered and the Timeless

What I love about TV on DVD is the sense of discovery, of rediscovery and celebration of great television from all eras. You’ll not find Lost or Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles or even The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency on this list. Those shows and other hit series and cult shows and top-notch special presentations, as superb as their DVD presentations may be (and yes, Lost and Terminator are beautifully produced DVD and Blu-ray sets), are well represented and don’t need me to draw attention to them. Here’s a collection that includes classic drama, contemporary comedy, timeless non-fiction, stand-out science fiction and various points in between. Not necessarily “the best” of TV on DVD, it’s a selection of shows, old and new, archival and ephemeral, that been given a new life on DVD and a whole opportunity for audiences to discover them.

Sesame Street
Sesame Street

10. Sesame Street: 40 Years Of Sunny Days (Genius) – Celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the longest running children’s television show in history with a combination video scrapbook and greatest bits compilation. After an intro that eases us into the cultural flashback with snapshots from each season we join Gordon leading a child onto Sesame Street, promising that it’s a street like no other, for the show’s debut episode. Ernie sings “Rubber Ducky” and Kermit sings “It’s Not Easy Being Green,” there’s an orange Oscar the Grouch (he went green later; apparently, it was easier for Oscar to be green, the color of mold), and Alistair Cookie (Monster) introduces Monsterpiece Theater’s production of “Me Claudius,” all in the first half hour.

There’s a greatest hits of musical guests from Diana Ross and James Taylor to Destiny’s Child and Alicia Keyes (plus the crazy quilt of guest stars imploring Ernie to “Put Down the Ducky”) and Muppet skits (spotlighting the great comedy chemistry of Ernie and Bert and the surreal humor of Jim Henson’s crew) sprinkled through the programs. Pop culture flashbacks—R2D2 and C3PO help Big Bird to count, The Fonz teaches us the difference between on and off in his own inimitable way and the Cookie Monster discos—place the show unmistakably in its various eras. And touchstone moments of the street portion of the show are revived, including the day the grown-ups finally see the Snuffleupagus, the marriage of Maria and Luis and the birth of their daughter, and most touchingly the discussion with Big Bird as they try to explain the death of Mr. Hooper (after the real-life actor, Will Lee, passed away). That’s the draw this show has for baby boomers who grew up on the show. For the current crop of tots, we get closer to the present with the first appearances of Elmo and Abby Cadabby and the contemporary guest stars, from Robert DeNiro explaining his own brand of method acting to Elmo to Neil Patrick Harris singing and dancing as The Shoe Fairy. The nostalgia factor is pretty irresistible for adults and playful approach of education and gentle tenor of its skits makes it perfect of children of any generation, making it one of the few kids DVDs that adults may enjoy just as much as (if not more) than their kids. The two-disc set also includes a half-hour of behind-the-scenes footage and interviews (which can be accessed while watching the show or viewed as a separate supplement), an optional pop-up trivia track and a few bonus bits.

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Deadly Sweet, She Beast, Jean-Claude and Captain Kirk – DVDs for the Week

Deadly Sweet (Cult Epics)

"Deadly Sweet" from Cult Epics
“Deadly Sweet” from Cult Epics

Shot in England by an Italian director with a French leading man and a Swedish sex-doll leading lady (both dubbed into Italian), Deadly Sweet is advertised as a giallo (an Italian horror with cruel and flamboyant murders) but is really a vague murder mystery romp directed as a pop-art object. Jean-Louis Trintignant stars as an out-of-work actor who spots sex-kitten Ewa Aulin at a disco and rushes her out of a murder scene where she’s the prime suspect. As they flee down the steps of the fire escape, the screen shifts into grainy black and white and fragments into split screens and repeated images while the percussion of the metallic march fills the soundtrack. That’s just a taste of the stylistic playroom to come. Tinto Brass went on to a career in soft-core erotic movies (most notably the grotesque Caligula), but here he’s embracing the creative energy and anything-goes culture of sixties cinema and tossing every impulse into the film.

The story is incomprehensible, having something to do with a stolen diary with apparently embarrassing disclosures, a dwarf who shadows the couple through the city, a group of thugs who kidnap Aulin, strip her down to her undergarments and tie her up in a kinky scene that evokes Bettie Page bondage. And yet it is a film of marvelous energy and delirious imagery. The style is appropriated from comic books, experimental cinema, the French New Wave and the British New Wave, with special attention to Godard and Richard Lester, Antonioni’s Blow-Up (a visit to a photography studio turns into an impromptu fashion shoot) and TV’s Batman (graffiti-esque word-balloon punctuations in a fight sequence). In other scenes, he sends the actors into the streets and shoots cinema verité style, following them through the foot traffic from a concealed camera and building the scene out of snatches reaction shots from the observers. It all ends up at “a happening,” a big counter-culture ball filled with hippies and social butterflies where Brass films the winding progress of Trintignant and Aulin through the crowd as if it were a concert movie. Aulin looks exactly like the kind of baby doll playgirl to be found at such a party, but Trintignant (who mugs it up in other comic scenes) it still pretty stiff and establishment in such a free and freaky atmosphere. It’s miscasting of the highest order and it matters not a whit. Brass is having a great time and it is infectious.

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