Ben Foster’s performance in the HBO and HBO Max ‘The Survivor’ movie (now streaming) easily rates as among his most challenging. To play Harry Haft, Foster transformed, first by losing 62 pounds to weigh 122 as this emaciated Auschwitz prisoner who was forced to box other prisoners to stay alive. The losers would die. It’s brutal, it’s true. Once those sequences were filmed – in black-and-white – production shut down for 5 weeks so Foster could regain 50 pounds. He seems unrecognizable as the chubby cheeked Haft in the postwar and 1960s sections of Barry Levinson’s film. Foster, I only recently discovered, has always had this kind of extra commitment with his work as these edited excerpts from a recent Zoom interview attest.
Q: Ben, late last year when it came out on 4K UltraHD I re-watched the John Travolta-Thomas Jane 2004 superhero movie ‘The Punisher.’ [It’s a classic revenge drama where Travolta’s Florida mob boss murders Jane’s Frank Castle, his wife and children. Only Castle survives to recover and assume this new identity as the Punisher. He hangs out in an obscure building where Ben Foster’s Spacker Dave and 2 others live. This oddball trio befriend the Punisher and are punished and terrorized for it.] I was surprised to realize, ‘Oh my God, look who’s here! It’s Ben Foster.’ The first time I saw ‘Punisher’ I had no idea [who you were]. Have you listened to how the director Jonathan Hensleigh talks about you in the audio commentary? About your determination to be real? Do you remember you were wearing these facial piercings and there was a scene where they’re ripped off to torture you? And you insisted that they really rip them off?
Actor Ben Foster attends the Los Angeles premiere of the Lions Gate film “The Punisher” at the ArcLight Cinerama Dome April 12, 2004 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
BEN FOSTER: Oh dear. I’m not saying it’s the way to do it. In fairness it wasn’t ‘ripped’ out. It was we couldn’t figure out the makeup. We couldn’t figure out how to get a fake eyebrow piercing that would look credible. So I got it pierced. Will Patton was a wonderful actor and he’s pulling these things out. He didn’t rip it out. Basically, I would tap him when I was bleeding, ‘It’s fine.’
Q: I think it signifies a commitment that many others do not share. Which makes Harry Haft very much a piece of your body of work perhaps?
BF: I enjoy the sensual experience of being alive. And pushing myself physically at times feels like a great door into a role. It’s kind of the fastest way in. If you have a lived experience, you can transmit something that does feel perhaps more true.
Q: ‘The Survivor’ ends — I would think it brings not just me but everybody to tears to hear it – with ‘God Bless America’ being sung at a 1963 wedding. It seems to be such an optimistic note. When the bride, a refugee, says, ‘We’re here in America where we’re safe’ — and you just look at what’s happening in the world now and what’s been happening. Can you talk a little bit about the optimism of that era in thinking the worst was over when it seems like it’s never stopped?
BF: It hasn’t stopped. Look at the rise of anti-Semitism in our country in the last five years. [In late April it was announced that anti-Semitic attacks were at a horrifying high.] It’s stirring. I find that that choice that Barry chose for the film was bittersweet. It’s sweet because it reminds us of values that perhaps we’ve lost sight of. And that’s bitter because there’s so much fear and violence right now. We have to keep going in spite of it.
Actor Ben Foster and Director/Producer Barry Levinson from HBO Max’s ‘The Survivor’ attend Deadline Contenders Television at Paramount Studios on April 09, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images for Deadline Hollywood )
Q: I see you have 3 more movies [including ‘The Contractor,’ ‘Hustle’] lined up for this coming year. All sorts of films. Was it easy to leave Harry Haft — once you’ve done probably the most intense collaboration of your career — to go back to quote regular movies?
BF: I have an incredible wife [actress Laura Prepon] and two kiddos that keep me on the way. Give me a lot of purpose. Harry, you have to do that once.
MIGHTY & MEMORABLE There’s pure joy in Toronto – yes, Toronto, that Canadian metropolis that all too often plays other cities but never itself. Because Toronto is the setting for the animated funny-smart-provocative-richly entertaining ‘Disney Pixar Turning Red’ (4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray + Digital Code, Disney, PG). It’s all about Mei Lee and a young girl’s adolescence as she tentatively steps from the nest with an over-protective Dragon Mom to bond with her best school friends and go see the boy band of their dreams. Only strangely, whenever Mei Lee is stressed she turns into a 6-foot red Panda! The songs by Billie Eilish & Finneas are rousingly appropriate. Bonus: 6 deleted scenes, an audio commentary by director Domee Shi who is the 1st solo woman to direct a Pixar feature. There’s a featurette on making the Boy Band, their songs and choreography and another on how a sequence went from inspiration to execution.
GIANT PROBLEM: In Disney and Pixar’s all-new original feature film ‘Turning Red,’ 13-year-old Mei Lee ‘poofs’ into a giant panda when she gets too excited (which for a teenager is practically ALWAYS). Featuring Rosalie Chiang as the voice of Mei Lee, (© 2022 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.)
GLORIOUS AS ALWAYS ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ (4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray + Digital Code, WB, G) ranks alongside ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ ‘Casablanca’ and very few others as a most beloved Golden Age Hollywood hit that endures and now seems timeless. Defined by Gene Kelly’s singing in the rain solo on a rainy Hollywood block with an umbrella, ‘Singin’ (1952) satirizes the film industry’s transition from silents to sound in the late 1920s. Debbie Reynolds, 19, was forced on the creative team of co-directors Stanley Donen and Kelly – and she’s terrific! As Lina Lamont, the obnoxious deluded dimwit of a silent star, Jean Hagen is beyond amazing (especially if you consider her extraordinary work earlier opposite Sterling Hayden in Huston’s ‘The Asphalt Jungle’). Special Features: An expansive commentary with just about everyone (Donen, Reynolds) except Kelly, and the featurette ‘Singin’ in the Rain: Raining on a New Generation.’
This undated file photo shows US actor Gene Kelly with actress Debbie Reynolds from the movie “Singin’ in the Rain.” (Photo credit should read FILE/AFP via Getty Images)
TIP TOP DUET While today Sidney Poitier stands as the prime interest in Norman Jewison’s Oscar-winning 1967 detective drama ‘In the Heat of the Night’ (4K Ultra HD, Special Features Blu-ray, KL Studio Classics, Not Rated), the film works not as a solo vehicle but primarily as a buddy movie with a fish-out-of-water element. Rod Steiger won the Best Actor Oscar as the small-town Southern sheriff whose eyes – and life – are opened by his encounter with Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs, a Black detective from Philadelphia who is smarter, braver and paid more. Its 5 Oscars include Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay and Editing. The 4KHD special edition includes both lackluster sequels where the only interest IS Poitier: ‘They Call Me Mr. Tibbs!’ (’70) and ‘The Organization’ (’71). There’s an audio commentary by Jewison, Steiger, co-star Lee Grant and cinematographer Haskell Wexler and another audio commentary that features the mega-producer Robert Mirisch.
REMARKABLY MUSICALIZED I am still confounded by the absence of Peter Dinklage from SAG and Oscar Best Actor nominations this year. I’ve said his was the performance of the year, not Will Smith’s. As the poetic swordsman of Edmond Rostand’s ‘Cyrano’ (Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Code, MGM-Universal, PG-13) in Erica Schmidt’s musicalized version, Dinklage is commanding and commandingly vulnerable. Joe Wright has fashioned a theatrical world on Italian locations that soars with a cinematic confidence that’s irresistible. Haley Bennett is an ideal Roxanne and Kelvin Harrison Jr. a very effective tongue-tied Christian. Bring out the hankerchiefs. Bonus: A Making of.
Peter Dinklage stars as Cyrano in Joe Wright’s “Cyrano,” a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film (Photo Peter Mountain © 2021 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.)
CLASSIC ‘60s BRIT NOIR A classic of British film noir, the 1962 ‘Jigsaw’ (Blu-ray, Cohen, Not Rated) is an exemplary example of a police procedural that trusts its audience to follow various leads and continually question, Whodunnit? The dismembered victim, an initially unidentifiable woman, is never seen – it was a different time and gore was considered distasteful. But we feel the pressure on the 2 local detectives, one a veteran, the younger one given to quips, to quickly find the killer before others die. Produced, written and directed by Val Guest (‘Expresso Bongo’) on Brighton locations, ‘Jigsaw’ is engrossing, filled with vivid character sketches as Guest easily circles round the clues and happenings right up to a surprising conclusion.
AN ICON REVISITED Mark Rappaport has established himself as a unique filmmaker. He makes video ‘essays’ on famous celebrities that mix film footage and documents as a narrator muses on their lives, accomplishments and art. He became famous with the recently re-released ‘Rock Hudson’s Home Movies’ and here now is his 1995 ‘From the Journals of Jean Seberg’ (DVD, Kino Classics, Not Rated). Seberg was the truly tragic star who died in 1979. She was 40; her legacy has only gained gravity in the ensuing decades. Mary Beth Hurt ‘plays’ Seberg who reflects on her life as it’s illustrated in her work. Plucked from obscurity in Marshalltown, Iowa, by the talented but bullying producer-director Otto Preminger to play Joan of Arc, Seberg ingloriouly flamed out – a ‘discovery’ who bellyflopped big time in this ’57 version most notable for nearly really burning her at the stake. Written off, she staged an incredible comeback opposite Jean-Paul Belmondo in Godard’s instant New Wave classic, ‘Breathless.’ Her life was in many aspects a mess. Hounded by the FBI for her support of the Black Panthers, she committed suicide. BONUS! Other Rappaport films on Anita Ekberg, the Swedish icon of Rome’s Trevi Fountain in ‘La Dolce Vita,’ and Debra Paget, the ‘50s screen beauty who starred in ‘The Ten Commandments’ and was Elvis Presley’s conflicted love in ‘Love Me Tender.’
ITALIAN ALPINE SLEUTHING Italy’s Piedmont region near the Italian Alps is the setting for this popular detective series ‘Rocco Schiavone: Season 1’ (Blu-ray, 4 discs, 12 episodes, Kino Lorber, Not Rated). Rocco is exiled from his beloved Rome constabulary as a departmental punishment for not playing politics. Up north he is definitely a fish out of water – there’s mileage about how he doesn’t know enough to wear a pair of boots to walk in the ever-present snow! Nevertheless he’s capable of finding killers. Rocco, 40something and craggy, is played with gruff complexity by Marco Giallini who is revealed to be anything but a straight arrow cop yet still has his own sense of right, wrong. Happy – who wouldn’t be – with his decades- younger beautiful mistress, there are surprises here as we follow Rocco’s assimilation in the provinces. In Italian with optional English subtitles.
VINCENT’S DOUBLE WHAMMY Is Vincent Price, the horror maestro, still remembered, much less revered, today? His was an inescapable presence in ‘60s horror movies. But Price began in the ‘40s as an accomplished and suave actor (think Preminger’s ‘Laura’) who found his defining career first with the 3-D “House of Wax’ and then the now-classic horror film 1959 ‘The Fly.’ ‘The Abominable Dr. Phibes’ (1971) & ‘Dr. Phibes Rises Again’ (‘72) (Blu-ray, KL Studio Classics Double Feature, PG & PG-13) are classier late-career Price efforts that glorify gory revenge with a bit of tongue in cheek fun. Special Features: 2 audio commentaries on each ‘Phibes,’ one with the director Robert Fuest who died in 2012 at 84.
American actor Vincent Price (1911 – 1993) as Dr Anton Phibes on the set of the horror film ‘Dr Phibes Rises Again’, UK, 6th January 1972. (Photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
AVA, SHELLEY & DUFF This latest 3-film collection ‘Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema VI’ (Blu-ray, 3 films, KL Studio Classics, Not Rated) has major stars in minor movies. Ava Gardner who became a star with the classic 1946 noir ‘The Killers’ tempts Fred MacMurray in ‘Singapore’ from ’47. Howard Duff plays a T-agent on the trail of vicious counterfeiters led by Dan Duryea in the ’49 ‘Johnny Stool Pigeon’ which is directed by future horrormeister William Castle (‘I Saw What You Did,’ ‘Strait-Jacket,’ ‘House on Haunted Hill’ & ‘The Tingler’). Castle notes that ‘Stool Pigeon’ is mainly significant as the movie that launched Tony Curtis (‘The Vikings,’ ‘Some Like It Hot’) – although as a hired gun Curtis never speaks a word. The 3rd film here, from’51, sees Shelley Winters getting top billing in the watery ‘The Raging Tide.’
ROLAND EMMERICH’S SCI-FI Germany’s Roland Emmerich has long thrived in Hollywood with big budget hits – ‘Universal Soldier,’ ‘Independence Day,’ ‘Godzilla’ and ‘The Patriot’ — that made big box-office. That didn’t happen with the elaborate sci-fi thriller ‘Moonfall’ (4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray + Digital, Lionsgate, PG-13) which stars Halle Berry and Patrick Wilson. The premise is the moon has been tilted off its rotation and is heading to destroy, you might guess, planet Earth. Can humanity survive? Only if NASA can manage a miracle. That’s where Berry, a former astronaut, is crucial. She has a theory yet only 2 people – her astronaut ex (Wilson) and conspiracy theorist KC Houseman (3rd billed John Bradley) believe her. There they go! Up and away – but hey, that’s just the start. Special Features: Emmerich and writer-producer-composer Harald Kloser’s audio commentary, a Making of and ‘Exploring the Moon: Past, Present and Future.’
K.C. Houseman (John Bradley), Brian Harper (Patrick Wilson),and Jocinda Fowler (Halle Berry), from left, share the cockpit in ‘Moonfall.’
HUNGARIAN CLASSICS From 1945 until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 Hungary was under Communist Russian domination and it was director Miklos Jancsó who stood up to their abuse of power with a series of films set in historical periods that won audiences around the world. Jancsó died in 2014 at 92. Two of his best are now packaged in this double bill of ‘The Round-Up’ (’66) and ‘The Red and the White’ (’67) (Blu-ray, Kino Classics, Not Rated). Jancsó was known for his swirling camera and elaborately choreographed tracking shots. ‘Round-Up’ is set in a prison camp where guerillas who revolted against the Hapsburg dynasty in 1848 are tortured. Now restored from its original 35 mm camera negative in 4K. In Hungarian with optional English subtitles. ‘Red & White’ is set in 1916 central Russia and illustrates the mutual destruction between Russia’s Red soldiers in a civil war and the counter-revolutionary Whites. The film memorably jumps from a deserted monastery to a riverbank hospital to a final hillside massacre. Also restored in 4K by Hungary’s National Film Institute. Both black-and-white films have audio commentaries and short films by the auteur as well as being in Hungarian with optional English subtitles.