While Groucho tried out different characters and comic personae in his many TV appearances and Chico toned down his screen personality to varying degrees and even broke character to some extent (on the BBC talk show Showtime in 1959 and the specialty show Championship Bridge with Charles Goren in 1960, plus a delicious turn on I’ve Got a Secret), Harpo was always Harpo. He never spoke. He does, however, lost the wig and hat and tooting horn, for “A Silent Panic,” a 1960 episode of The DuPont Show with June Allyson starring Harpo as a mechanical man in a department story window. Among the many other goodies, let me highlight the outtake reel from the final season of You Bet Your Life and the 22-minute collection of family home movies from all three brothers, narrated by Harpo’s son Bill Marx (who is also the executive producer of the set).It comes with a 40-page booklet with an essay, photos, and an annotated program guide. And if you order directly from Shout Factory, you can get a limited special edition with an additional bonus disc and a poster.
Strong reprises his role in the American version, made for the commercial cable channel AMC, this time as Detective Frank Agnew, a Detroit officer who conspires with the frustrated partner of a brutal detective to kill the bad cop and make it look like suicide. Lennie James is the partner in murder, Detective Joe Geddes, and as the perfect crime unravels they discover that they have their own motives and secrets and they simply do not trust one another, a situation that gets worse when Internal Affairs starts its own investigation. Meanwhile an upstart gang leader (James Ransone) and his wife (Sprague Grayden), a bar-owner who was once married to a Detroit cop, are muscling in on gangster territory with big plans and a small fortune in stolen cocaine.
The contemporary Detroit setting gives the show a desperate environment of poverty and collapse and Ernest Dickerson, who directed episodes of The Wire and Treme, sets a gritty style and grim atmosphere in the first couple of episodes. The show did not get renewed for a second season but it ends with an appropriately cynical closure that satisfactorily wraps up the story. I found it more compelling than I expected, with excellent performances and interesting characters who are trying to hold on to their souls as they get mired deeper in their compromising situations. But there is so much dark drama on TV that it sometimes gets to be too much and this is dark stuff.
10 episodes on three discs on DVD, with promotional featurettes and deleted scenes.
It’s also streaming on Netflix.
There’s no shortage of independent horror filmmakers but Larry Fessenden is the filmmaker who puts the emphasis on the “indie” part of the equation. As a writer/director, he’s take the classic horror genres and turned them inside out. No Telling was his take on Frankenstein as an environmental drama, Habit, a vampire story set in the drug addict culture of New York City, Wendigo, a monster movie of myth and imagination and The Last Winter, an eco-twist on the ghost story in the culture of big oil. Plus, in addition to his own directorial efforts, Fessenden has produced or co-produced dozens of films, including Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy and Night Moves, Ti West’s The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, and Jim Mickle’s Stake Land, through Glass Eye Pix, his own production shingle.
Beneath, Fessenden’s latest, is a fish story: six teens stranded in a rowboat in the middle of the lake without a paddle while a giant man-eating catfish prowls the water waiting to eat his way through the buffet. What begins as a classic horror film, complete with teenagers who do all the dumb, reckless, aggressive things seemingly designed just to get them stuck in the water, transforms into an insidious character piece that strips away all pretense of humanity and lays bare the envy, resentment, spite and animosity they’ve been burying all this time under snarky remarks and dirty looks. Though it was made as a horror film for a cable channel, it plays more like an American indie drama: Mamet in a boat with a teenage cast and a seriously savage portrait of survivalism at all costs. On the occasion of the release of Beneath on Blu-ray and DVD a few months back, I spoke with Fessenden about the film, his career as a director and a producer, his support of independent filmmaking of all genres and why he’s still so committed to making his brand of horror cinema.
Keyframe: Beneath is the first feature you’ve directed that is not from your own script. Why this project and why the cable channel Chiller?
Larry Fessenden: As you know, I am also a producer and I went there to pitch some of my directors and just to get in with the channel. It seemed liked a fun proposition to produce a film through Chiller. They had money and they were ready to make some original features, and I went through some of the projects that I thought were interesting that we had lined up and they said, ‘Well, those sound good but we also have this,’ and they pulled out this script and I read it and I said, ‘Well I want to do this one, because I love the fish genre, I love how contained the story is, and if you guys are willing, I’d like to try my hand at it.’ I’ve never been a snob about how the work is done. I did another TV show written by some dudes. That was called Skin and Bones [for the series Fear Itself] and it’s one of my better pieces. It’s always exciting to take something and adapt it and put your spin on it and see how you come out. Like doing a cover song.
Locke (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), on its surface, sounds like one of the those high-concept / stunt thrillers and horror films that sprouted up like weeds a few years ago: one actor in a car, driving alone in a stretch of freeway at night, talking to the people in his life through phone calls (hands free, of course; the man is nothing if not responsible).
Except that Locke is not a crime drama or a horror film; there are no villains on his trail or masterminds toying with him by phone. Locke is about a man who, in the space of a 90-minute night drive from a construction site in Birmingham to a London hospital, makes a decision that defines his character and changes the course of his life forever. There’s no twist to the narrative, no shocking revelation, but the meaning of his journey is best discovered along the way as Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy)—husband, father, construction manager—explains it to his family and colleagues.
Tom Hardy is in the driver’s seat, literally and figuratively, for the entirety of the film, and there’s nothing showy in his measured, introspective journey. While those on the end of his phone calls–a wife on the verge of hysteria, nervous sons aware that something is wrong, a construction foreman suddenly promoted to take charge of the biggest concrete pour ever attempted in the UK—unravel at the news, Locke remains calming and deliberate while in conversation and struggles to hold himself together in between calls as he confronts the consequences of his decision.
British filmmaker Steven Knight wrote the tough, lean, uncompromising scripts for Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises. Locke is just as uncompromising, but what’s at stake here is the measure of a man faced with a difficult decision. Knight finds ways to keep the journey from getting dull or claustrophobic with the camera finding new set-ups within the confined space of the car, watching Locke in reflection or lit up by passing cars and overhead lights; imagery that reminds us of the transience of his situation, a man alone in a river of anonymous travelers. But it’s the personal journey that makes Locke, a terribly human story about one man who refuses to shirk his responsibility no matter what it costs to his career, such and emotionally powerful drama.
Blu-ray and DVD with commentary by director / writer Steven Knight and the featurette “Ordinary Unraveling: Making Locke.” Also on Cable VOD.
“Classics” is of course a fungible term, meaning everything from acknowledged masterpiece to practically anything more than 25 or 30 years old. The eight film of the first wave are largely plucked from the fifties and sixties, with a mix of acknowledged classics, award winners, and genre pictures. But for me, the highlights of the debut wave are two by Billy Wilder: Witness for the Prosecution (1957) and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970).
Based on the stage play by Agatha Christie, Witness for the Prosecution (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD) isn’t opened up for the screen so much as it is perked up with witty dialogue and wily characterizations, two strengths of Wilder and writing and producing partner I.A.L. Diamond. Charles Laughton plays the legendary barrister who defies doctor’s order and a heart condition to defend amiable but shiftless American Tyrone Power from a murder charge and Marlene Dietrich plays his German wife, a cool, suspicious character whose testimony seems to doom Power’s chances of acquittal. Of course, it’s a Christie plot so nothing is that simple, especially when incriminating letters are discovered, but the plot and the succession of twists is less interesting than the characters.
Shout Factory’s transfer is from a new HD master and released under their Scream Factory imprint, and they do something novel with the Blu-ray+DVD Combo edition. There are so many supplements in this edition, most of them created for this edition by Shout and all of them new to American home video, that they are split between the two discs.
So you get the two exclusive commentary tracks – one with stars Jessica Harper, Gerrit Graham, and Archie Hahn, Jeffrey Comanor and Peter Elbling (aka the Juicy Fruits), the other with production designer Jack Fisk – on the Blu-ray along with generous new interviews with director Brian DePalma and star / composer Paul Williams and a short piece with make-up artist Tom Burman (focusing on the distinctive mask), plus 26 minutes of alternate takes (presented in split screen to compare to the footage used in the film) and seven minutes of outtakes (showing changes made to cover a post-production change in the name of the record company).
The DVD features the balance of the supplements. The 50-minute documentary “Paradise Regained,” which features interviews with De Palma, producer Edward R. Pressman, and stars Williams, Harper, Graham, and the last William Finley, and the 72-minute interview with Paul Williams conducted by Guillermo Del Toro were both featured on the British Blu-ray released by Arrow earlier this year and licensed for this disc, along with an archival interview with costume designer Rosanna Norton and a little 30-second clip with William Finley and the Phantom action figure. Also new to this release are interviews with producer Edward R. Pressman and drummer Gary Mallaber, a guide through the poster design by the artist’s widow, and Gerrit Graham reading a bio he wrote for the film’s press kit.
It’s no fault of Shailene Woodley, who pretty much carries the film as the rebellious daughter in a society where you are defined by your clan. Her parents are Abnegation, which stands for the selfless, but Beatrice chooses Dauntless, the brave, rechristens herself Tris and jumps right into a warrior culture where her selflessness marks her for special treatment. It also rouses the attentions of the broody hunk Four (Theo James), who shares the same deep, dark secret that she does: her gifts straddle the factions, making her a danger to the Fascist Erudite clan. Because, as the film spells out for us, “If you don’t fit into a society, they can’t control you.” In this case, it turns out to be a literal form of control, which Tris rebels against and discovers an underground of like-minded rebels.
It’s all set in a ruined Chicago rebuilt after some unspoken apocalypse, protected from the dangers of the savage lands outside the walls. The plotting takes us through a familiar evolution of a character with a hidden gift who has to learn to get past preconceptions and take a stand for her convictions, but director Neil Burger and his crew fail to create a cast or a world around her to give the stakes any sense of power. That’s something that The Hunger Games gets right. The filmmakers have another film on the way to get it right so maybe they can take a cue.
Miles Teller is an angry Dauntless apprentice who feeds on the power and the violence of the competitive training environment, Maggie Q is the fringe artist who meets the rent by running the aptitude tests (think the Harry Potter sorting hat with sci-fi trappings), Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn are this society’s equivalent of the selfless, liberal, post-hippy parents who Tris thinks she’s rebelling against with the Dauntless immersion, and Kate Winslet gets to go all supervillain as the coldly calculating leader of the Erudite coup.
On Blu-ray and DVD with two commentary tracks (one by director Neil Burger, one by producers Douglas Wick and Lucy Fisher) and deleted scenes, plus an UltraViolet digital copy of the film. Exclusive to the Blu-ray release are two featurettes, “Bringing Divergent to Life” and “Faction Before Blood,” plus bonus a DVD.
Paul Muni won fame for his versatility on both stage and screen, transforming himself almost completely for his roles, and for the seriousness of his dramatic portrayals. His career spans from the ambitious thug turned gangland boss in Scarface (1932) to historical figures in The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) and The Life of Emile Zola (1937) to the aging doctor dedicated to helping the urban poor in The Last Angry Man (1959). For his sixth film, the 1934 release Hi, Nellie!, Muni took on something different: his first screen comedy.
Hi, Nellie! is a newspaper picture, a genre that thrived during the depression thanks to its high energy press room scenes, hard-boiled reporters, snappy patter, and street-smart sensibility. Muni plays Samuel “Brad” Bradshaw, a tough, up-from-the-streets editor of a big city newspaper, taking on the task with the soul of a reporter and a code of ethics that balances headline scoops with responsibility to the news.
Plays on TCM on Wednesday, August 6
Criterion’s 13-disc set, one of their last to come out in the Blu-Ray+DVD Dual-Format, picks six of his defining films from his 1961 debut to his 1982 Une Chambre en Ville, which makes its American home video debut in this set, all transferred from restored and remastered HD editions.
Lola (1961) is a bittersweet musical without the music, lovingly shot in Demy’s hometown of Nantes in black and white CinemaScope by Nouvelle Vague master Raoul Coutard, and set to a lovely score by Michel Legrand. Anouk Aimee, whose appearance in lacy tights, boa, and top hat made her an eternal pin-up dream, is a single mother looking for the father of her child in the port towns of Nantes. As in so many of his films, Demy reveals himself as both eager romantic and sadder-but-wiser realist, and for all the dashed dreams of the film it still manages to have its swoony romantic fantasy come true.
The first act of the 1951 crime picture The Unknown Man plays out like a classic courtroom drama with a social commentary heart. Walter Pidgeon is big business lawyer Bradley Mason, “the best civil lawyer in town and one of the finest in the country,” in the words of Joe Bucknor (Barry Sullivan), our narrator and conflicted District Attorney. Brad is coaxed by an old law school buddy into defending a young man (Keefe Brasselle) with a long criminal record who is on trial for murder. Mason is no criminal lawyer but he reveres the law and, afraid that this inarticulate, hotheaded young man may be railroaded into a conviction for a crime he didn’t commit, he takes the case. That’s just the beginning of Mason’s story, however. Questions linger in his mind after the case and he discovers just how nave he is when it comes to the reach of crime and corruption in his city.
Though it’s not exactly your typical crusading attorney story, The Unknown Man circles back to courtroom drama for the climax. By then, however, the road to justice has taken some complicated detours into the shadows of film noir territory. The syndicate became a presence in urban crime films after World War II and here it looms over the story, invisible but powerful and run by an unknown mob boss who may or may not even exist. Our moral, honest hero Bradley Mason is determined to find the truth.
Plays on Sunday, August 3 on TCM
After the death of Peter Sellers in 1980, Blake Edwards made the unexpected decision to revive the Pink Panther film franchise by creating not one but two sequels simultaneously without the defining presence of Sellers in the lead as Inspector Clouseau. Trail of the Pink Panther (1982), the first of the two, utilizes previously unseen footage shot for previous Pink Panther features for a kind of memorial for Clouseau, who is sent once again to solve the robbery of the Pink Panther diamond (the jewel stolen in the original The Pink Panther (1963) and disappears, apparently dead in a plane crash. A reporter interviews friends, foes, and colleagues of the legendary detective, allowing Edwards to use classic clips from the series.
Curse of the Pink Panther (1983) picks up the premise months later and spins it into an attempt to launch a new character under the Pink Panther brand. Clouseau’s boss and nemesis Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Herbert Lom) is directed to use a supercomputer to find the world’s greatest detective to find France’s greatest detective. Since only a complete moron on the level of Clouseau has any hope of figuring him out, he reprograms the computer search for Clouseau’s perfect match: the worst detective in the world. Enter Sergeant Clifton Sleigh (Ted Wass) of the New York Police Department, a walking disaster area that his commanding officer is overjoyed to pack off to Paris. Immediately upon reporting to duty, his clumsiness sends Dreyfus to the hospital.
Plays on Saturday, August 2 on TCM
So you know Captain America and Thor and Spider-Man and all those cool mutants from The X-Men. But just who are these Guardians of the Galaxy, as in the stars of the new film opening Friday? Some interstellar Avengers spin-off? Rejects from a Star Wars sequel? Are they even superheroes?
Marvel Comics is taking a big leap outside of its comfort zone of fan-favorite costumed heroes with this fairly obscure group of oddball anti-heroes. If early buzz and initial reviews are any indication, it’s going to pay off. The Guardians of the Galaxy promises to be the liveliest, most playful cosmic blast since the first Star Wars.
You don’t need to know the players to enjoy the ride, but all of the maverick characters had a history in Marvel comics before writer Dan Abnett and artist Andy Lanning plucked them from various corners of the Marvel Universe, tossed them together, shook vigorously, and sent them to the far reaches of the galaxy in 2007. Here’s a quick introduction to the team.
Peter Quill / Star-Lord, aka the human one (Chris Pratt)
Marvel-ous backstory: Introduced in 1976, the original Star-Lord was a NASA astronaut who was transformed into an intergalactic hero by mysterious forces.
Movie origins: Self-proclaimed galactic outlaw Peter Quill was orphaned young and scooped up into space by intergalactic soldiers of fortune. No surprise he grew up reckless, cocky and mercenary.
He got skills: He’s a marksman, a daredevil space jockey, and a con man. And he travels with his own soundtrack of 1970s pop tunes.
Heroic precedent: The charming rogue-for-hire with a souped-up space ship and a soft spot for underdogs is in the Han Solo mold with a dash of Captain Kirk. He does have that thing for green-skinned chicks, after all. Which brings us to…