THE DVD SHELF: Miniseries "Tales of the City," Peter Brook's Film Version of "Lord of the Flies" and Oscar-Winning "Babette's Feast"
By Steven Suskin
This month's column looks at the controversial 1993 miniseries "Tales of the City," with said tales from San Francisco novelist Armistead Maupin; and two new Blu-rays from the Criterion Collection, Peter Brook's 1963 "Lord of the Flies" and Gabriel Axel's 1987 "Babette's Feast."
Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City [Acorn]—the 1993 miniseries, based on Maupin's 1978 novel of the same name—was highly controversial when it premiered, so much that the UK network Channel Four couldn't initially find a U.S. partner. They did eventually line up PBS, which broadcast the show with stern warnings about nudity, coarse language, drug use and sexual situations. "Tales of the City" took place in San Francisco, after all.
Watching the new 20th Anniversary Edition, the warnings can be pretty much discounted. The drama, though, remains very good. There are some who place this in a class with the best miniseries ever; I've not seen them all, so I'm no judge. But "Tales of the City" remains compellingly watchable and graced with an intriguing set of characters and storylines.
Sheltered young Mary Ann from Cleveland, finishing a San Francisco vacation, decides to quit her job and stay. She lands in an unconventional apartment complex on a steep hill run by the mysterious Mrs. Madrigal. Through her downstairs neighbor Mona and Mona's platonic friend/roommate "Mouse," Mary Ann finds a job and an interrelated set of friends and acquaintances that you might say cover the San Francisco scene of the time.
Since Mary Ann is played by Laura Linney and Madrigal is Olympia Dukakis, you might easily imagine that there is some high quality acting going on. An understatement, as it happens. Dukakis is especially good in a complicated role. Also on hand are Chloe Webb as the freewheeling Mona; Marcus D'Amico as the mouse on the prowl; Paul Gross as a hetero on the prowl; Billy Campbell as a gynecologist involved in multiple plotlines; and Donald Moffat as a middle-aged executive (and Mary Ann's employer) who finds himself swept into a relationship with Madrigal. There are also brief but notable performances from the likes of Rod Steiger as a bookseller, Edie Adams as a healer, Michael Jeter as a gossip columnist and Janeane Garofalo as a girl at a bar who works for Frances Ford Coppola. Plus Ian McKellen sitting around a dining table making catty comments.
"Tales of the City" captures a time and a place and a dandy cast of characters, and does it well in six episodes. Acorn includes commentary on three on the episodes (from Linney, Dukakis and others) plus a 36-minute bonus including location and rehearsal footage. There is also an 8-page booklet offering illuminating background on the creation of the show in a repressed time.
The Criterion Collection continues to bring us upgraded Blu-rays of their most popular titles. This month features two unique, exceptional, and highly unusual films. Peter Brook's Lord of the Flies was made back in 1963. At this point Brook was thoroughly established—thanks to his work with the Royal Shakespeare Company and The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden—but hardly the renowned genius that he would become with such productions as Marat/Sade (1964) and the legendary 1970 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. William Golding's astonishing 1954 novel was difficult to adapt into a film, and took quite a bit of doing (including several screenplays, including two from Peter Shaffer).
Brook wound up following the novel closely, and the results speak for themselves. The Blu-ray features a new, restored digital transfer supervised by Gerald Feil (co-editor, co-cameraman and associate producer); audio commentary by Brook, producer Lewis Allen, and others; a deleted scene; a 2008 interview with Brook; a 1980 interview with Golding; and "Living Lord of the Flies," a new piece composed of footage shot by the actors during production.
Criterion also gives us a Blu-ray of Gabriel Axel's unforgettable Babette's Feast, the 1987 film which enjoyed international acclaim and managed to become the first Danish movie to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. The tale of two pious sisters and their housekeeper in a small village in late 19th century Denmark, this is a film to be watched repeatedly and—like the feast cooked by the housekeeper—savored. The new digital restoration only enhances it. Bonus features include new interviews with director/writer Axel and Stéphane Audran, who played Babette; a 1995 documentary on Karen Blixen (AKA Isak Dinesen)—who wrote the original story—which was published in the Ladies Home Journal in 1950 and is reprinted in the booklet; and a new set of English subtitles.
(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes", "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at email@example.com)
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