Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews, Television

Videophiled: Emmy-winner ‘The Normal Heart’ on Blu-ray and DVD

NormalHeartThe 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.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews, Science Fiction, Television

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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Posted in: Contributors, Essays, Guest Contributor, Television

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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Posted in: Contributors, Essays, Guest Contributor, Television

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

Posted in: by Jeff Shannon, Contributors, Television

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

Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Television

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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Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews, Television

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.

Continue reading at Videodrone

Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Interviews, Television

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?”

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Posted in: by Jeff Shannon, Contributors, Documentary, Essays, Television

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.

Continue reading on Movies On Demand

Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Television

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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