Friday, May 20, 2016

HBO and the bane of 'edge'

Lena Dunham, HBO's poster girl

It came as little surprise to learn this week that Michael Lombardo is leaving his current post, or that his exit comes on the heels of his colleague Michael Ellenberg doing the exact same thing last January. And until this week, I had no idea that Lombardo and Ellenberg even existed.

I guess I should explain.

Ellenberg was HBO's executive in charge of drama, replaced in January by someone named Casey Bloys, formerly HBO's executive in charge of comedy.  (Got that?)  And Lombardo is/was HBO's programming president.  I'm not sure what these three guys do exactly, but from where I sit, none of them was doing an impressive job. For about two years now, I've been burdening my wife with complaints about HBO, specifically its erratic, largely unsatisfying programming and the anemic number of episodes aired for each show - usually 6 or 7, tops, for its comedies.

I'm using the word "comedies" loosely here because precious few HBO comedies of late have been funny.  They've mostly been "edgy," a quality which has become the new porn for the average TV viewer.  (But more about that later.)  Anyway, despite gobbling up umpteen undeserving Emmy awards every year, HBO has become a dim shadow of itself, coasting on the dusty credentials created in its heyday by "The Sopranos" and "Sex and the City" (and, much later, "Curb Your Enthusiasm") and pushing the "edge" envelope instead of anything remotely creative.

Its shows have become naggingly similiar.

It's difficult to pinpoint when the decline started but I trace it back to such shows as "Big Love," essentially little more than a trendy re-do of "The Sopranos." and "Hung," a puerile, one-joke affair about a guy's infamously huge penis which, for some reason, HBO refused to show. Yes, HBO!

But let's move to the present.  Beyond "Games of Throne," which has become something of a franchise (if there is such a thing in the world of cable TV), and the initial season of "True Detective" (which was terrific on every level), what else is there on HBO?  There's Bill Maher shamelessly pontificating (and, much worse, generally repeating himself), an occasional worthwhile film (the current "All the Way") and a collection of recurring sitcoms, each of which, at best, was worthy of one good season.

"Girls," by wunderkind Lena Dunham, got off to an edgy start (there's that word again) but has been stale for about three years now - although its enthusiastic depiction of nasty, dirty sex sets it apart from anything else on TV or even in movie theaters. (Virtually no one is modern film has sex anymore and, when they do, the woman usually wears a brassiere.  Huh?)  The Duplas Brothers' "Togetherness" was smart and had promise but actually disintegrated during its painful second and final season.  And the mercifully short-lived "Looking" only confirmed every bad idea that homophobes have about gay men. Did it really intend to do that?

Then there's "Ballers," a show whose humor is limited to that dubious title.  (Real mature, HBO.)  Mike Judge had a good idea with "Silicon Valley," but after season one, it went on an endless loop with the same storyline repeated ad infinitum (i.e., some heartless shark is always trying to steal the clueless techies' progressive ideas and bastardize them).  And "Veep" has been so reduced that it now exists as an excuse for the talented Julia Louis-Dreyfuss to end every lame joke with the word "cock," or "balls," or "pussy" or worse. This is Emmy-worthy? What happened to the sophisticated humor that "Veep" promised and delivered in its first season?

Laura Dern's now-forgotten "Enlightened" was a true original, a tiny gem, but even that went on one season too long. TV has yet to learn when to call it quits, a good case in point being CBS's "The Big Bang Theory," a once-oddball delight which has been neutered into a conventional sitcom success.

Aaron Sorkins' "The Newsroom" kept getting renewed, even though one season was quite enough, thank you.  And, this year, the much-touted "Vinyl" was an unwatchable mess, despite the behind-the-scenes, high-powered presence of Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger (or perhaps because of it).

But it had "edge," something that AMC successfully introduced (and milked) with "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad," hooking viewers on bad behavior and rationalized amorality - and inspiring the three tired major networks to do the same with the likes of "Scandal" and "The Good Wife."

The negative result of the network's lazy preoccupation with edginess is that it has conditioned the average TV viewer to except and accept nothing less.

"Nashville," an exceptional, old-fashioned piece of serial storytelling which refreshingly eschewed "edge," never received much love from ABC, which continually showed its preference for the aforementioned "Scandal," and it was prematurely canceled this week. Its audience was reportedly smaller than "Scandal's" but I'd wager that it was a lot more intelligent and discerning. (ABC's earlier obsession was the overrated sitcom, "Modern Family," which despite a bit of diversity, isn't modern at all but rather retro and dated, what with its doofus dads and self-satisfied, know-it-all moms.)

Perhaps viewers picked up on ABC's disinterest. The Emmy voters certainly did, ignoring "Nashville" every year of its four seasons. But kudos to Connie Britton (pictured above with Charles Esten), Hayden Panettiere and their leader Callie Khouri for fearlessly remaining true to their mission, namely telling an on-going story straight, with no frills. Or edge.

The same Emmy disinterest seems to have plagued A&E's exceptional "Bates Motel," which, week-in and week-out, boasted world-class performances by stars Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore (pictured below), whose strange, intricate acting duet has very carefully prepared us for events that will take us (in its fifth and final season) to the Hitchcock film that inspired it, "Psycho." So, why has this show been ignored?

Perhaps because A&E lacks Emmy credibility?

Who knows. All I know is that both it and "Nashville" have acquired loyal cult followings that a more responsible, astute television executive would have nurtured and exploited to the advantage of both show and network.

But those days - and those men (yes, they're mostly men) - are gone.

Sadly.

Still it was a joy to encounter the intelligence and rare adventurousness of "Bates Motel" and "Nashville," both more satisfying than the edginess that the networks now covet to the extreme and that HBO sells as high art.

Note in Passing: The media have been deeply invested in the rise of "edge" on television, particularly the Arts & Leisure section of The New York Times, which provides recaps of only the trendiest shows, the usual suspects.  Can't get enough of "Scandal" or "Girls"?  Well, check out the Times, which has been complicit in the hasty elevation of such shows.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

cinema obscura: annoyingly altmanesque

Robert Altman in 1978, directing Mia Farrow and Vittorio Gassman in "A Wedding."  Not good.

As a working critic, I was often in the minority on films and filmmakers, guided by a rather simple, but rigid, personal theory - namely, that there is no place for loyalty (actually, blind loyalty) in movie criticism.

I was embarrassed by a colleague who developed a crush on a movie or moviemaker early on and willfully refused to grow or move beyond that.

I was impossible.

Which brings me tone of my early heroes of the cinema - Robert Altman.

Altman was already something of a Hollywood veteran when he made his breakthrough film, "M*A*S*H" (1970), at age 45. As rebellious as the young audience to which it appealed, "M*A*S*H" restlessly defined the New Hollywood of its time, and with both that film and the one that followed, "Brewster McCloud" (1970), Altman perfected an improvistory style driven by a lot of rapid, energetic, overlapping verbal outpouring.

I was half Altman's age (part of his target audience) and I was in love.

What he created was a cinematic riff, a cool-jazz style to which he would invariably return during his up-and-down career, arguably hitting something of a peak with "Nashville" (1975), his most defining film.

"Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson," "Quintet," "The Player," "Short Cuts," "Prêt-à-Porter," "Dr. T and the Women," "Gosford Park," "The Company" and "A Prairie Home Companion," (his final film in 2006, the year he died) carefully followed the same formula - and were all over the map in terms of hits, misses and in-betweens.

But the formula turned rancid with two titles in particular - "A Wedding" (1978) and "Health" (1980), which is alternately known as "H.E.A.L.T.H." and "HealtH."  (Don't ask me why.)  These two films, both made for Twentieth Century-Fox, find Altman at his most condescending and most cynical, a filmic trademark of his that was starting to wear terribly thin.

His rancor, which was so bracing in "M*A*S*H" and so trendy in "Nashville," was beginning to leave a vaguely nasty aftertaste.

And the two are also painfully unfunny, with "A Wedding" serving as a rather snide, brutal attack on the titular event - which was already something of a cliché in movies - and "Health" aiming at the facile political correctness and hypocrisies of health-food devotés - an idea that was ahead of its time and very promising. But a missed opportunity here.

Both have huge casts, the usual ragtag Altman collection of disparate actors.  "A Wedding," a true narrative mess, details the coming together of two families - Eurotrash on one side (Vittorio Gassman and Nina Van Pallandt as the parents of the groom), vulgar WASPS on the other (Paul Dooley and Carol Burnett as the wannabe parents of the bride, named Snooks and Tulip, no less).  Neither is spared Altman's vitriol or judgment.

Lillian Gish, Mia Farrow, Geraldine Chaplin, Howard Duff, Dina Merrill, Viveca Lindfors, Lauren Hutton and literally dozens of other familiar actors come and go and bump into each other in the film's monied setting, a sprawling Oak Park mansion.  "A Wedding" is easily Altman's most (over-)populated movie, but no one here is companionable.

 James Garner and Ann Ryerson trying to resuscitate Lauren Bacall (and "Health")
"Health," meanwhile, takes jabs at health-food fanatics holed up at a convention in Florida. Seeing it again recently, I was struck by how much I've disliked Robert Altman's taste in actors (frankly, his ever-changing "stock company" always left me cold); by his misuse of his occasional celebrity players (in this case, Lauren Bacall, Glenda Jackson, James Garner and, again, Burnett) and by how self-conscious, obvious and shrill Altman could be when attempting decidedly odd/oddball touches.

Case in point: The wildly annoying strolling singers in "Health" who warble inane numbers while wearing ridiculous "vegetable" costumes. (FYI: "Health" originally clocked in at 105 minutes, but for some reason, the Fox-owned print of it that would unreel with some frequency on the Fox Movie Channel runs five minutes less - 100 minutes. Curious.)

It was the release of this film when I started to seriously question my enthusiasm for Altman, a fascination that started in my youth but dwindled as both he and I aged. Towards the end, I found his films as annoying as those singers. Anyway, I realize that Hollywod rarely remakes bad films, but given how health-conscious that present-day society pretends to be, "Health" should be an exception. Time has caught up with it.

The material is definitely ripe for a revamping. Perhaps Wes Anderson or Alexander Payne could get it right. Just a suggestion.

Essential Altman: That said, there are a number of Altman films that mean the world to me, starting with "Brewster McCloud," which remains a vivid seminal movie experience from my lost youth.  Following closely behind it are "California Split," Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean," "Popeye," "Fool for Love," "Cookie's Fortune," "Prêt-à-Porter," "A Prairie Home Companion," "Dr. T and the Women"and the very idiosyncratic "A Perfect Couple," not the usual Altman suspects.

And, yes, "M*A*S*H" remains a revelation.  As for "Nashville," it's addictively watchable, but knowing that Altman originally shot it as an eight-hour film, I'm way too aware of its many narrative gaps.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

the feel-bad movie of all time

Shelley Winters routinely abusing poor Elizabeth Hartman, whose character is blind, in "A Patch of Blue." Awful film.

In an earlier essay titled joe’s dreaded genre, I confessed that as much as I regard and respect animals (or, possibly, because I respect animals), I don't like films about animals.  These movies are always sad, often grueling to watch, and rarely ends well for the animal in question.

"Born Free."  "Old Yeller."  All of MGM's "Lassie" movies.  These can leave me depressed for weeks.  So I avoid them.  Ususally. I made an exception with David Frankel's 2008 “Marley and Me,” a great film about the life of a dog, from puppyhood to death. Still, Marley died. Funny, I have no problem or qualms whatsoever watching any human die on screen.

However...

Yes, however.  I become equally depressed by films in which humans are bullied or abused without surcease or any purpose, simply for the sake of being cruel. There are three in particular which put me in a foul mood and all of them are about the careless, often sadistic treatment of women.

One is William Fruet's 1972 Canadian film, "Wedding in White," starring a repellent Donald Pleasence as the nasty drunk-father of downtrodden Carol Kane who has just been raped - and subsequently impregnated - by his best friend, also a drunk. Kane is represented symbolically by the poor dog (unseen, thank goodness) that her father keeps chained in their cellar.

Another is actress-turned-filmmaker Joan Chen's "Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl" ("Tian yu") of 1998, about a teenage girl with dreams who is lied to and sent to remote area where she is kept indefinitely and essentially finessed into prostitution (but without the pay).  It's a well-made, ugly film.

But the worst, hands-down, is Guy Green's "A Patch of Blue" (1965), in which the lovely Elizabeth Hartman made her film debut as a young blind woman who is ruthlessly abused not only but her mother (Shelley Winters at her most strident and dislikable), but also by her sleazy grandfather (Wallace Ford), disconcertingly called "Ole Pa," and by the mother's awful best friend (Elisabeth Fraser).  Saintly Sidney Poitier is also in this but his niceness is overshadowed by the vile Winters-Ford-Fraser triumvirate.

A recent screening of "A Patch of Blue" on Turner Classic Movies, where it has become a staple, reminded me of just how abhorrent this film is.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

together! at last!

Janice Rule and Kim Novak (with Jimmy Stewart and Pyewacket) - Two "Picnic" leading ladies who later joined forces in "Bell, Book and Candle" (1958)

Here's a new parlor game - a connect-the-movie-dots, along the lines of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.

My version deals with two actresses who played the same role - one on stage, one in the film version - and who subsequently appeared opposite one another in another film. OK, admittedly it's the kind of useless information that lurks in the mind of someone who has spent way too much time in the dark watching way too many movies, but it's fun.

Here goes...

Kathy Bates caused something of a sensation when she starred on Broadway in Terrence McNally's "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune." But when Garry Marshall adapted McNally's piece into a film, he shortened the title to "Frankie and Johnny" and passed on Bates. He hired Michele Pfieffer to play the role created so indelibly by Bates.

Flashforward 15 years and Stephen Frears' makes a film called "Chéri" starring ... Michele Pfeiffer and Kathy Bates. Hmmm. Makes one wonder how they got along on the set of "Chéri," what they talked about, right? Well, they apparently liked each other because Bates and Pfeiffer subsquently teamed on David Hollander's "Personal Effects."

And then there's...

Janis Paige starred in "The Pajama Game" on Broadway, Doris Day played in the movie version and they subsequently appeared together in "Please Don't Eat the Daisies." (To complicate matters here, Day made her film debut as the second female lead in Michael Curtiz's "Romance on the High Seas." The film's female lead was ... Paige.)
   
Janice Rule starred in "Picnic" on Broadway, Kim Novak played in the movie version and they subsequently appeared together in "Bell, Book and Candle" on screen.

Anne Bancroft starred in "Two for the Seesaw" on Broadway, Shirley MacLaine played in the movie version and they subsequently appeared together in "The Turning Point" on screen.

Lauren Bacall starred in "Cactus Flower" on Broadway, Ingrid Bergman played in the movie version and they subsequently appeared together in "Murder on the Orient Express" on screen.

Oddly enough, this game seems restricted to women exclusively. The only two actors who seem to have stage-to-film link are David Wayne, who created Ensign Pulver in "Mister Roberts" on stage, and Jack Lemmon, who won the Oscar for the film version. Some 20 years later, the two teamed in Billy Wilder's remake of "The Front Page."

Can you think of any others?

Sunday, May 01, 2016

McGuane times two

A good writer is a magician of sorts, a fabulist who can make the trite seem, well, fabulous.

Thomas McGuane certainly qualifies as a good writer and, back in the 1970s, he produced two scripts seemingly married to the same essential plotline.

Released a year apart, Frank Perry's "Rancho DeLuxe" (1975) and Arthur Penn's "The Missouri Breaks" (1976) are both original scripts about cattle rustlers and land barons. Both are Westerns but the former is modern, comedic and, at 93 minutes, rather breezy, while the latter is darker, more traditional and, at 126 minutes, something of a trial to sit through.

While it's never been acknowledged that both are based on the same material, it's compelling to compare and contrast, observing how McGuane creatively moved his pieces - his characters - around, changing relationships while adhering to a tale told twice. Here goes...

Point One

In "Rancho DeLuxe," Jeff Bridges and Sam Waterston play two contemporary cattle rustlers who, perhaps unwisely, set their sights on the livestock of the newly transplanted Clifton James and wife Elizabeth Ashley, who came to Montana from Scehnectady, New York.

In "The Missouri Breaks," Jack Nicholson leads a cattle-rustling ring and decides - again, perhaps unwisely - to take on cattle baron John McLiam, a widower with a grown daughter, played by Kathleen Lloyd.

Point Two

In "Rancho DeLuxe," James hires pokey old Slim Pickens to ensnare rustlers Bridges and Waterston. Traveling with Pickens is his niece, Charlene Dallas, who is what James Agee would have called "a dish." Ah, but Pickens and Dallas are not exactly what they seem to be.

In "The Missouri Breaks," McLiam hires Marlon Brando, a cattle-rustling regulator with an eccentric way of handling the job. He dons disguises to dispatch his unfortunate prey. In both films, the hired hand recruited to entrap the rustlers engages in a kind of play-acting. Both Pickens and Brando play characters who consider their line of work a "sport," approaching it in highly theatrical ways that are not all that dissimilar.

Point Three

In terms of "love interest," in "The Missouri Breaks," Nicholson forges a relationship with Lloyd, while in "Rancho DeLuxe," one of James' goons, played by Harry Dean Stanton, becomes smitten with Dallas. (Note in Passing: Richard Bright plays James' other goon - Burt to Stanton's Curt.)

In both cases, the romance is doomed by deceit and betrayal.

Point Four

The respective endings is what sets the two films apart. "The Missouri Breaks" ends on a note that's bloodier than anything that preceded it, as difficult as that is to image." "Rancho DeLuxe," on the the other hand, ends without violence, with the two heroes rather blissfully in jail, a dénouement that, oddly enough, recalls the ending of ... "The Producers."

Point Five

Oh, yes, and the two films were released by United Artists. And perhaps not coincidentally, Elliott Kastner was a producer on both films.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

elvis & ann & george & janet

The curious split-screen finale of "Viva Las Vegas"

In "My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business: A Memoir" (Three Rivers Press), Dick Van Dyke reminisces about his debut movie, "Bye Bye Birdie" (1963), and director George Sidney's infatuation with Ann-Margret.

In one chapter, Van Dyke describes the moment when he and co-star Janet Leigh walked on to a sound stage to find Ann-Margret sitting on Sidney's lap.  Both looked at each other and, in unison, said, "Uh-oh."

Later, after the first preview of the film, Leigh (who was supposed to be the star of the film and who had worked with Sidney on several films prior to "Birdie") walked up to Sidney and asked, "Where did that song come from?"  She was referring to the new title song that (1) was never in the stage version, (2) apparently was filmed in secrecy and (3) shamelessly showcases A-M. There were other reports - althought not in Van Dyke's book - that Leigh then slapped Sidney across the face. She felt betrayed.

The film version of "Bye Bye Birdie" got off to a bumpy start.  It was supposed to be directed by Gower Champion, who helmed it on Broadway. It was to be his first as a filmmaker.  Champion hoped to cast Jack Lemmon and Debbie Reynolds in the leads. He had wanted Lemmon for the stage version - the two had co-starred years before in a Betty Grable musical, "Three for the Show" (1955) - but Lemmon was already committed to a straight play, "Face of a Hero," the same season. 

And so the stage role went to Dick Van Dyke. Chita Rivera, of course, was his co-star on Broadway, playing the self-described "Spanish Rose."  I've been critical of Ann-Margret's miscasting in the film - and I've no idea if that decision was made by Champion or Sidney - because she's supposed to be playing a character who is either 15 or 16.  But Leigh was also serioulsy miscast as a Latina, as would have been Debbie Reynolds.

Either change the backstory of the character or hire a Hispanic actress.  Why not Rivera?  Or Rita Moreno who has just won an Oscar?

But the casting became a moot point after Champion read Irving Brecher's bowdlerized adaptation of the play and quite the Columbia production, taking Reynolds with him. They went over to Paramount where they made "My Six Loves" instead, which would be Champion's debut as a director. 

And "Birdie" was inherited by Sidney, an old movie-musical veteran who, for some reason, tried to turn the property into a Frank Tashlin film.

But George Sidney was no Frank Tashlin.

It was a huge success, so much so that Sidney and A-M went off to Metro to participate in an Elvis Presley property, "Viva Las Vegas," in which A-M plays a character closer to her own age. The pairing of Elvis and A-M seemed perfect, given that they were essentially mirror images of each other, gender notwithstanding. And publicists wasted no time implying that they were romantically involved, although Elvis himself never verified it.

Turner Classic Movies occasionally airs a fascinating featurette in which Elvis's surviving handlers discuss the making of "Viva Las Vegas" and Geroge Sidney's "crush" (their words) on Ann-Margaret in particular.

There were apparently problems with Sidney giving A-M more close-ups than Elvis until his people tuned him up and explained to Sidney that "Viva Las Vegas" was an Elvis Presley film, not an Ann-Margret vehicle.

Which makes one wonder if there ever was a "relationship."

The final scene in "Viva Las Vegas" is particularly telling.  It's a reprise of the title number featuring Elvis and A-M but they aren't actually in the same shot together, although they are both on screen.

Why?

My guess is that Elvis' people wanted this to be his moment and vetoed the idea of his filming it with A-M.  So did Sidney get around this dictum by filming Elvis separately and then adding A-M to the scene with a split screen?  Whatever the explanation, it's an incredibly awkward finale. 

For those who care, Turner is airing both "Viva Las Vega" and "Bye Bye Birdie" back-to-back Thursday (April 28), starting @ 4:30 p.m. (est).