It has been close to 40 years since Jack Benny died in 1974, even longer since his TV series ended a 15-year prime-time run. But he still ranks among the great comedians, and you can get a taste of why in a new DVD collection.
The Jack Benny Program: The Lost Episodes (Shout! Factory, 18 episodes, $29.93) presents selected telecasts from between 1953 and 1964 along with bonus material such as sketches from Benny’s television specials, Benny bits from newsreels and a discussion among two Benny associates and writer-actor Harry Shearer, who as a child actor worked on Benny’s TV and radio shows.
The black-and-white programs were digitally remastered from Benny’s personal kinescopes (an early TV-recording process) and, even with some signs of age and technical limitations, are more than watchable. None has been seen since its original telecast, and they are episodes apart from the ones appearing in public-domain collections over the years. (A fine essay included in the DVD set covers technical and other issues that kept many Benny episodes out of circulation.) Antenna TV also airs old episodes.
The show itself is more of a variety show, including monologues, sketches and musical numbers, all anchored by Benny’s screen personality — famously cheap, more than a little vain but able to destroy an audience with a carefully timed pause. It’s a carryover from his radio show, which Benny preferred to TV, since he could play more with the audience’s imagination on radio. Also carried over, and sometimes the best part of the show, are commercials integrated into the program, including in comedy sketches that managed to simultaneously tout products and make fun of the promotional process.
The guest list in the DVD set is impressive, including former President Harry S. Truman and Jack Paar along with the likes of Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Natalie Wood, and Benny’s close friend George Burns. But it’s the great Benny who makes it all work.
In movies like Super 8 and We Bought a Zoo, Elle Fanning has demonstrated considerable likability and naturalness, making her worth watching even when the material is less than wonderful. But her skills as an actress are on marvelous view in the often bleak but still touching drama Ginger and Rosa (Lionsgate, $19.98 standard DVD).
Written and directed by Sally Potter (Orlando), the film follows best friends Ginger (Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert) whose lower-class lives are caught up in the political and social movements of the ’60s, as well as in personal trials. Ginger is the more fragile and dreamy of the two, but that does not make her less wise, especially in the middle of upheaval. It’s a sparkling performance from Fanning, emotionally rich and subtly rendered. Englert is also good, as is the rest of the cast (including Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks in a different kind of role). But it’s Fanning’s movie.
Extras include a making-of piece, audio commentary by Potter, deleted scenes, cast interviews, and more.
James McAvoy is familiar to many as the young Charles Xavier in X-Men: First Class (a role he will reprise in a sequel to that 2011 film) or for his work in art films like Atonement and Last King of Scotland. But in Welcome to the Punch (IFC, $24.98 DVD, $29.98 Blu-ray), he ventures into Kiefer Sutherland’s 24 territory.
McAvoy plays Max Lewinsky, a tough, obsessed and deeply flawed lawman who in the opening of the film is outdone by master criminal Jacob Sternwood (Mark Strong, Sherlock Holmes, AMC’s upcoming Low Winter Sun). Their confrontation has left Max with a tattered reputation and a ruined knee. But when circumstances bring Jacob out of hiding, Max sees a chance at redemption and revenge.
Written and directed by Eran Creevy, the film is frequently suspenseful and quite willing to mess with your expectations about its characters. (Almost from the beginning, the cool Jacob is far more engaging than the feverish Max, regardless of which is on the right side of the law.) The influences are also evident, from a scene that plays deliberate homage to John Woo to a stylishness and laconic manner reminiscent of Michael Mann. The result is not a great movie — my early suspicions about some characters were all confirmed — but it is at times a very good one.
Extras include a making-of piece and interviews.
Down video road
As Showtime’s Dexter goes through its final season, the DVD and Blu-ray release of it has been set for Nov. 5, the same date as a complete-series box with new elements. The first season of the current Beauty and the Beast TV series will be on DVD on Oct. 1. The first season of HBO comedy Family Tree will be on DVD and Blu-ray on Oct. 29. The original The Muppet Movie will be on a 35th-anniversary Blu-ray on Aug. 13.