December: A great month for new movies, but usually not so great for movies on DVD and Blu-ray. It’s like the major studios, trying to get out their blockbusters and prestige pictures, put many of them in the back of the sled for delivery in the New Year. But there are a few choice items under the tree, like Ant-Man and the fifth M:I adventure, and some from the small screen, including the Blu-ray debut of The X-Files…
…plus the last call for Hannibal, which added Gillian “Scully” Anderson to its cast during its acclaimed three-season run. While I’ll always be an Anthony Hopkins/Silence of the Lambs kind of gourmand, there’s no doubt that Mads Mikkelsen brought something distinctive to the role of Hannibal Lecter, and I’m sorry the series ended without getting to the Clarice Starling arc, having brought elements of Hannibal (the sorry book and better 2001 movie) and Red Dragon into play during its run. Still, what we had was choice, and you can buy the whole incredibly stylish (and, for network TV, incredibly lurid, “corpse-of-the-week” violent) show for just over $40 on Blu-ray, the best, most immersive way to watch it. (Streaming, with its occasional drop-outs and, service depending, commercials, just doesn’t cut it for me.) The off-kilter chemistry between Lecter and his shrink (Anderson) comes to the fore as Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) licks his wounds and continues his pursuit of the ever-dapper cannibal, which segues into its replay of the “Tooth Fairy” story of the books. In some ways, Hannibal, the show, fulfilled, and even surpassed, what author Thomas Harris was getting at in the books (the movies jettisoned a lot of the dream-like philosophy behind the character)–so it’s too bad that show runner Bryan Fuller didn’t get the chance to bring them all in and wrap up matters properly. It’s another frustrating Deadwood-type situation for fans, starved for an ending. Yet you can feast on a bounty of supplements, including ten audio commentaries, “producers cuts” of several episodes, a host of featurettes, and a two-hour (!) exploration of the show’s Red Dragon redux. Buon gusto.
Remember “The NBC Mystery Movie,” the “wheel show” that rotated episodes of Columbo, McMillan and Wife, McCloud, and more in the 70s? Before that started going round in 1971, there was NBC’s The Bold Ones (1969-1973), which cycled episodes centered on doctors, the law, and a short-lived but Emmy-winning saga about a senator played by Hal Holbrook. All episodes of the fourth “spoke,” The Lawyers are now on DVD, with only The Protectors (the law one, with Leslie Nielsen and Hari Rhodes) awaiting release from Shout Factory next spring. The program, which engaged Roy Huggins (The Rockford Files) as executive producer and co-writer, is a time capsule from an era that was moderately left of center, and, while constrained by standards and practices, was relatively open in content: the two TV movies that birthed the show, 1968’s The Sound of Anger (directed by Michael Ritchie) and 1969’s The Whole World is Watching, are about premarital sex and campus unrest, respectively. They’re part of this set, leading into the 27 episodes, which star Burl Ives as an aging attorney and Joseph Campanella and James Farentino as the brothers he hires to assist him. Following the lead of the movies, some of them are hot-button topical (one about credit card agency abuses won a directing Emmy in 1972, one of the two Emmys the show won) and others are standard mysteries, all sharply written and well played by the three leads. In A/V terms the show is as is, and in rough shape sometimes. Still, you can see and hear an array of guest stars, including Holbrook, Dorothy Provine, Audrey Totter, Claudine Longet, A. Martinez, Mel Torme, Craig Stevens, Tim Matheson, Randolph Mantooth, and Darren McGavin as the credit card victim, someone we can all relate to as we charge and charge some more at Christmastime.
Give the gift of Roger Moore this Yuletide, with the entire run of The Saint (1962-1969), which can also be purchased in season sets. Purists regarding Leslie Charteris’ Simon Templar, the dashing, anti-establishment man of mystery who rights wrongs and confounds police worldwide, will prefer the grittier black-and-white episodes to the more fanciful color ones, which nonetheless pave the way for Moore’s later turn as an urbane and witty James Bond. (007 “girls” Honor Blackman, Shirley Eaton,and Lois Maxwell are among the guest stars.) The complete set is the first time all the episodes have been under the same “halo,” so to speak, in the US, and it includes the two ersatz “movies” made from two two-part episodes later in the run, The Fiction-Makers and Vendetta for the Saint. Commentaries with Moore and some of the show’s other talent, recorded for a 2004 release, are included, as is a brief featurette of the star directing some of the episodes, which he did quite adroitly.
Time to turn off the TV, but not your home theater. Direct from the big screen, or the smaller ones at the art house anyway: Mistress America, one of two fine movies written and directed by Noah Baumbach this year. The other, While We’re Young, is one of my very favorites, but this one’s no slouch, with Lola Kirke as a flailing Barnard student loosened up by her madcap soon-to-be-stepsister, played with typical off-the-wall gusto by Greta Gerwig. Other characters get involved in their Big Apple shenanigans, romantic tripwires are trod upon, Kirke, derailingly, writes a short story about Gerwig that everyone reads, and it’s all pretty whimsical-wacky, like the indie classic The Daytrippers on speed. It’s also over and out at 86 painless minutes, should this kind of thing not appeal to you as much as Spy or Trainwreck. I liked it well enough, but I’m a fan of Baumbach’s, whose offscreen relationship with Gerwig has yielded this and Frances Ha, his two airiest movies to date. Three brief promotional EPK clips highlight the sparse extras…but I’d wait for that inflated Amazon price (not enough stock?) to come down before blind buying.
If you like New York, you’ll enjoy Mistress America‘s gambol through Times Square…but you’ll really love the trip through Times that Harold Lloyd’s Speedy (1928) offers. It was Lloyd’s last silent (“Just when we figured it out, it changed,” Charlie Chaplin commented as the movies switched to sound) and he went out with a bang. Here his nebbish character “Speedy” Swift is in a supreme slapstick romp involving his attempt to save the city’s last horse-drawn trolley, operated by his sweetheart’s grandfather, from railway bad guys who covet the route. We know the ultimate winner in that contest, but the film also functions as a reminder that preservation has always been a part of city life. Its main purpose, however, is to entertain with crazy stunts, roping in the Babe Ruth for a cameo (Lloyd plays a huge Yankees fan) and climaxing with a chase so frenetic (and un-permitted) the trolley slammed into the Brooklyn Bridge, a mistake left in the film. Great stuff that also visits Coney Island for extra nostalgic kick, and another extras-packed Criterion disc, including an excellent commentary by Bruce Goldstein, Film Forum of New York’s repertory programming director, and TCM program production director Scott McGee; Goldstein’s outstanding documentary about the location shooting; a lot of archival footage of Babe Ruth; home movies narrated by Lloyd’s granddaughter Suzanne; and a restored two-reeler from 1919, Bumping into Broadway. A must-own for lovers of classic comedy.
Not a barrel of laughs, of the slap-happy kind anyway, is the documentary Burroughs: The Movie. I recall Howard Brookner’s portrait of Naked Lunch author William S. Burroughs getting a release in 1983, but then it disappeared, until Brookner’s nephew Aaron found a print of it among his uncle’s possessions and restored it in 2011. Brookner began filming it in 1978, as his senior thesis at New York University film school, and it’s a record of another vanished milieu in the city, with behind-the-scenes assists from the up-and-coming Jim Jarmusch (on sound) and Living in Oblivion director Tom Di Cillo, who shot the film. Obscure though it was for decades, I do think Brookner’s film did have a ripple effect, renewing attention on the influential author, who died in 1997. Allen Ginsberg, Patti Smith, and Terry Southern are among the downtown notables who spend some time with Burroughs, whose voice, seemingly from the beyond long before he passed away, dominates. No stone is left unturned, either in the nicely remastered film or in Criterion’s supplements, which include a candid, appreciative commentary by Jarmusch (his first-ever, I think), outtakes, an archival audio interview with the late Howard Brookner and a new interview with Aaron Brookner, an experimental edit of the film created by inventor and photographer Robert E. Fulton III in 1981, and footage from last year’s New York Film Festival, which debuted this restoration.
Film Movement sent over two DVDs of foreign films to look at, Secrets of War and Amorous. Guess which one I watched first? Well, OK, it wasn’t Secrets of War, but I wound up liking it quite a bit, being the story of a Nazi-occupied Dutch village that seems at a remove from World War II, until three children find their allegiance to one another tested by the quite differing loyalties of their parents. The title is banal but the emotions are credible, and it made for engrossing viewing.
Amorous, a British film, is and isn’t what’s promised on the box art. Its original title was Hide and Seek, and that’s what it’s about, dissatisfied young Londoners “hiding” from the world and seeking their own utopia. Part of that includes what used to be called “free love,” so, Amorous–but most of Joanna Coates’ film is about precarious emotional journeys taken by two couples outside their comfort zones, and better sex isn’t altogether the destination. It is part of it, however, and there’s a good dollop of non-exploitative nudity. Try it out with someone you love, late at night, with eggnog besides the bed.