New This Week
One of the most exciting shows on TV the last two seasons has been the Starz cable TV series, Outlander based on Diana Gabaldon’s series of historical fantasy novels. There have now been eight in Gabaldon’s series published between 1991 and 2014.
In the first season of the show, based on the first novel, we meet Claire (Caitriona Balfe), a British nurse during World War II who is on a second honeymoon in Scotland in 1946 with her professor husband, Frank Randall (Tobias Menzies). Wandering off on her own, she goes through a stone wall and finds herself in the Scotland of 1744 where she is accosted by a British soldier who it turns out is her husband’s cruel ancestor, Jack Randall (also played by Menzies). She is rescued by dashing Scottish highlander Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) and his clan. By the end of Outlander – Season 1, Part 1, she will have fallen in love with the virginal Jamie, married him, and taught him the joys of sex. She is now a bigamist, with a husband in two centuries.
As Outlander – Season 1, Part 2 plays out, the love between Claire and Jamie deepens and in the most provocative episode, Jamie saves Claire’s life by becoming bisexual Jack Randall’s sex slave. He will be rescued by Claire after losing his will to live, but regain it though Claire’s unwavering love.
Outlander – Season 1, Part 1 was released on Blu-ray and standard DVD in March 2015, Outlander – Season 1, Part 2 was released in the same formats in September 2015, and the complete Outlander – Season 2 has now joined them in both formats.
Outlander – Season 2 begins in 1948 with Claire, now three-months pregnant and believing Jamie dead, back in her own time. Frank agrees to raise the child as his own and they move to Boston where Frank has accepted a professorship at Harvard. Claire agrees to forget about Jamie and true to her word, doesn’t utter his name until after Frank’s death twenty years later. Despite her promise, though, she can’t stop thinking about him and the bulk of the season is spent once again on their tumultuous relationship in Scotland and France. The season ends in 1968 with Claire returning to Scotland and revealing the past to her daughter Brianna who refuses to believe her at first. When she learns through historical records that Jamie did not die in battle, Claire goes back through the stone wall to search for him. The already-greenlit seasons 3 and 4, based on the third and fourth Outlander novels, will explore the complicated relationship between Claire and Jamie even further.
Another series I have recently become enamored with is the The Doctor Blake Mysteries from Australia. Now filming its fifth season, only the first two have been released on standard DVD in the U.S. with the third set for release in January 2017. Seasons 3 and 4, however, can be ordered from Amazon now through third party vendors. Season 3 is available from the U.K. and Season 4 from Australia, but you need a region free player to play them in the U.S.
The series is unique in that it begins in 1957 and advances a year each season. One of the most intriguing episodes from Season 2 is set in movie theatre in 1958 in which a murder is committed during the showing of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Although the mysteries are themselves entertaining, what is especially outstanding about the series are the characters led by Craig McLachlan as the middle-aged doctor who returns to Australia to take over his late father’s practice and his second job as police pathologist. The exceptional supporting cast is headed by Nadine Garner as Blake’s widowed housekeeper and, in-time, romantic interest.
Newly released on standard DVD only, Meg Ryan makes her directorial debut with Ithaca, a remake of William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy, previously filmed in 1943.
The film is certainly pleasing to the eye as it follows the day-to-day adventures of 14-year-old Homer Macauley as he learns life’s lessons delivering telegrams during World War II and the concurrent story of his soldier brother Marcus and Marcus’s orphaned buddy Tobey George. What it fails to do, however, is tell a coherent story. You need to have some familiarity with either the novel, the earlier film, or the 1984 Broadway musical to follow the narrative. Ryan and frequent co-star Tom Hanks (Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail) are the marquee actors in the film, but Ryan has very few lines and Hanks, who is supposed to be a ghost, has none, unlike their counterparts (Fay Bainter, Ray Collins) in the earlier film.
A more age appropriate Alex Neustaedter does fine in Mickey Rooney’s old role as Homer, as do Jack Quaid (Ryan’s son) and Gabriel Basso as Marcus and Tobey, but Hamish Linklater in James Craig’s old role as the owner of the telegraph office and Sam Shepard in Frank Morgan’s old role as the old telegrapher drawn to the bottle, fall short of their predecessors.
Woody Allen’s latest film, Café Society is a low-key effort about a young man (Jesse Eisenberg) who goes to Hollywood in the mid-1930s in search of his fortune and falls in love with his hotshot agent uncle’s (Steve Carell) secretary (Kristen Stewart), not knowing that she is his uncle’s mistress. Complications ensue and not everyone gets what they want, but they all become rich in the process. It’s neither one of Allen’s best, nor one of his worst, but maybe because there isn’t much going on, I spent a lot of time observing the way the actors related to one another throughout the film. I have never seen a film in which actors shook their heads so much while delivering lines, Eisenberg and Stewart especially. I found it ridiculously distracting.
Café Society is available on both Blu-ray and DVD.
Far more entertaining than Café Society are two new-to-Blu-ray comedy classics that have stood the test of time, one for nearly forty years, the other for eighty.
In 1977, the year that Allen’s best film Annie Hall won the Oscar for Best Picture, the other nominees for the top prize were the original Star Wars, Julia, and two from director Herbert Ross, The Goodbye Girl and The Turning Point. All of them have now been released on Blu-ray in the U.S. except The Turning Point. The Goodbye Girl is the latest to be upgraded.
The Goodbye Girl, written by Neil Simon, may not be as seminal a comedy classic as Annie Hall, but it is often laugh-out-loud funny and provides a taste of 1970s life in Manhattan that is quite sweet. Richard Dreyfuss won an Oscar as the struggling actor sharing his apartment with abandoned showgirl Marsha Mason and her precocious daughter, Quinn Cummings, both of whom were nominated for their performances as well.
Even better is Frank Capra’s 1936 gem Mr. Deeds Goes to Town in which Gary Cooper plays the first of four Capra good-man-against-the-world characters that were a hallmark of his career, the other being Mr. Smith Goes to Washington with James Stewart, Meet John Doe with Cooper again, and It’s a Wonderful Life with Stewart again.
Cooper plays a small-town guy who inherits an estranged uncle’s fortune and thanks to newspaper shenanigans, appears to be a dimwitted fool who the crooks after his money try to have declared incompetent so that they can get their hands on his newfound fortune. The film’s showpiece, a thirty-minute-long sanity trial, which coined the terms “pixilated” and “doodling,” is still uproariously funny.
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town was a huge success during the Great Depression, playing more than a year at theatres throughout the country that usually ran a film for just one or two weeks. Cooper received his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor and Capra won his second for Best Director.
This week’s new releases include Blu-ray upgrades of Time After Time and Daisy Kenyon.