Tuesday, April 12, 2011

modern mediocrity & better stuff

"Big Bang Theory" - the polar opposite of mediocre
"Modern Family," the sitcom that apparently has been the answer to all of ABC's desperate prayers, is the latest bit of dreariness to be hastily acclaimed by TV critics.

This is understandable, given what's on the tube these days and how anxious TV scribes are to demonstrate to their readers and their bosses that they aren't completely negative. I mean, you have to like something if you want to keep your job in an era when critics are not only expendable but completely unnecesssary.

And, of all the mediums, televison is the most critic-proof.

"Modern Family" - created by Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd - isn't necessarily bad, just depressingly conventional.

Let's see... There's the sassy wife (the indespensible, show-saving Julie Bowen), her boob of a husband (the increasingly irritating, unamusing Ty Burrell), her vulgar, crotchety father (Ed O'Neill playing an updated, well-heeled version of Archie Bunker, something which at least, oh, three viewers were absolutely dying to see, right?) and a bunch of kids who talk like, well, middle-aged sitcom writers. This is revolutionary?

No, it's the other characters who give this dated piece the semblence of a new paint job - a gay couple (played by a very good Eric Longstreet and the hugely annoying Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and the granddad's va-va-voom Latina wife (Sofía Viagra - er, Vergara - who is actually more annoying than Ferguson). I say all of this not on the basis of just watching the show's pilot or two or three subsequent episodes but all of them.

I didn't exactly refuse the Kool-Aid that everyone else seemingly drank.

Masochism? No. I just had to see if I was the one who was out of step - or every TV critic in America. This reception isn't surprising, given that "Modern Family" has the veneer of trendiness and entitlement - qualities that the public (and critics) too often mistake for sophistication. ("Murphy Brown" and "Frasier" are two other humdrum sitcoms that came with the same sense of entitlement, effectively hookwinking audiences.)

In the meantime, there are - for me, at least - four other present sitcoms deserving of the acclaim that has been so mindlessly lavished on MF.

For starters, there's "The Big Bang Theory," covered here in August of '09 in which I proffered the opinion that its creator Chuck Lorre was channeling Howard Hawks' "Ball of Fire" in his celebration of nerddom. Stars Jim Parsons, Johnny Galecki, Kaley Cuoco, Simon Helberg, Kunal Nayyar, Mayim Bialik and Melissa Rauch have become close friends.

Then there's the Independent Film Channel's eccentric, eclectic and very saavy "Portlandia," created by and starring the new Mike Nichols and Elaine May - Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein.

Sweet and fractured are the two best words to describe Greg Garcia's completely endearing "Raising Hope," shown on Fox. Martha Plympton is a revelation and comes into her own as the way-casual matriarch of the blue-collar Chance clan that sweats the small things but manage to sail through major catastrophes unscathed. Cloris Leachman is inventively used each week as a running joke on old-age dementia - which would be cruel if each joke wasn't so darn funny and observant. Lucas Neff, Shannon Woodard and Garrett Dillahunt round out the excellent cast. Finally, there's "The Middle," the criminally neglected ABC show that precedes the overrated "Modern Family" and that has more heart and more laughs in a single episode than MF has had for the past two seasons. Patricia Heaton is, hands-down, the wittiest woman working in Hollywood and her Frankie Heck is the most inspired female character to show up on TV in ages.

And she is ably supported by the wonderful Neil Flynn as her husband and the three kid actors who actually seem like kids and not something recruited from a cereal commercial - Charlie McDermott, Eden Sher and Atticus Shaffer.

Friday, April 08, 2011

cinema obscura: John Korty's "Alex and the Gypsy" (1976)

I suppose that it's a sign of wavering faith when a studio goes through as many titles for a film as a moviegoer goes through popcorn.

Jack Lemmon's now-forgotten "Alex and the Gypsy," which the actor made for one-time directing wunderkind John Korty, is one of those unfortunate films. Made and released by 20th Century-Fox in 1976, the movie's assorted working titles included "The Gypsy and the Phoenician," "The Main Man and the Gypsy," "Tattoo" and "Skipping." At the producer's sneak preview that I attended in Westwood in September of '76, the on-screen credit read "Love and Other Crimes." Good title.

But by the time it was released a month later, it was "Alex and the Gypsy."

The edgy movie was an attempt by Lemmon to keep up with the changing times. Director Korty was a critics' darling who specialized in small indie films ("riverrun," "Crazy Quilt" and "Funnyman") and first-rate TV films ("The Diary of Miss Jane Pitman" and "Go Ask Alice"). "Alex" would be his first film for a major studio. His next, Paramount's "Oliver's Story" two years later, pretty much ended Korty's big-screen career.

He's worked exclusively in TV ever since.

Lemmon's co-star, meanwhile - the Gypsy of the title - was the unique, tempestuous Geneviève Bujold who was the go-to actress at the time when a filmmaker wanted someone who was young, singular and trendy.

"Alex" also marked the first major screen role for James Woods following his bits in Sydney Pollack's "The Way We Were," Karel Reisz's "The Gambler and Arthur Penn's "Night Moves," a good role in Elia Kazan's low-profile (way low-profile) "The Visitors" and a small sampling of TV credits.

Lemmon had just come off Melvin Frank's film of Neil Simon's "The Prisoner of Second Avenue," in which he turned in one of his finest, if least heraled, performances and was looking for the antithesis of Neil Simon. Lawrence B. Marcus's script for "Alex" resembled nothing that Lemmon had ever done before, dealing with a fiery love affair between mismatched people - an affair told bracingly in unchronological form. The action skips around, buncing back and forth in time, revealing bits and pieces that add up to a colorful, multi-dimensional whole.

Thirty-five years ago, this film apparently both exhilarated and baffled Fox. It was something that mainstream studios rarely, if ever, pursued. "Alex and the Gypsy" suffered the fate of being ahead of its time. If there was ever a template film for Fox Searchlight, this is it.

Lemmon plays Alexander Main, a rumpled, cynical bail bondsman (the middle-aged counterpart to the Elliott Gould of that era) and Bujold is Maritza, a woman from his past who has stabbed her husband and now needs Main's services. However, he's reluctant, given that she's "crazy" (his word) and likely to skip. On the sidelines is Wood as Crainpool, Main's Bartlesby-like office assistant for whom Main once posted bail and, as a form of repayment, keeps the young man in veritable servitude.

"Alex and the Gypsy" is worth discovering - or rediscovering. It's a pitch-black comedy - grim, gritty and unapologetically realistic. And it gives Bujold one of film's great fade-out lines. (Spoiler alert, here!) Yes, Maritza does skip on Alex by chartering a small plane. As he desperately chases after it down the runway, the pilot asks her, "Who the hell is that?"

"Oh, him," she replies. "He's just a crazy gypsy."

Note in Passing: Like Fox, Jack was also somewhat unsure of "Alex and the Gypsy." In his book, "A Twist of Lemmon," Chris Lemmon recounts how his father asked buddy Walter Matthau what he thought of it.

Without missing a beat, Matthau quipped, "Get out of it."

Bad advice - comical but bad nevertheless.

For what it's worth, Jack followed "Alex" with ... "Airport '77," studio drek about as far away from counterculture cinema as one can get.

Truth be told, I've always marched to a different drummer where Jack's films are concerned and I humbly submit "Alex and the Gypsy" as one of his better efforts, certainly in terms of his brave performance.

Release it on DVD already!

Friday, April 01, 2011

turner classic movies. april. 2011.

Turner Classic
Movies in April puts the spotlight on Ray Milland, its star of the month, screening 30 films that spanned a 22-year career, including his Oscar-winning role in Billy Wilder's "The Lost Weekend (1945), pictured here and airing at 8 p.m. (est) on 26 April.

The month kicks off with a mini-tribute to Jane Powell, one of MGM's more endearing musical-comedy talents who, from where I sit, was never fully appreciated by Metro. (Those deadly "That's Entertainment!" films kept pushing Judy, Fred and Gene, while ignoring such essentials Powell, Howard Keel and The Champions.) Worth checking out, Powell-wise, are Leslie Kardos' "Small Town Girl" (1953), airing on 1 April at 6 a.m.; definitely Roy Rowland's "Hit the Deck" (1955) at 4 p.m. and Roy Del Ruth's "Three Sailors and a Girl" (1953), with the indispensible Gene Nelson, at 6 p.m.

In his Friday, October 25, 1963 review, Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote:

"Obviously, Mervyn LeRoy did a little bit more than merely place his camera in the Helen Hayes Theater and shoot a straight running photograph of a performance of 'Mary, Mary' to get a film of the Jean Kerr comedy. But you would hardly be able to tell it from the rigidly setbound quality of his film version of the long-run stage play, which came to the (Radio City) Music Hall yesterday."
That just about says it all. Rarely has a film of a play been as faithful as LeRoy's film version of Kerr's urbane comedy, which was the most celebrated stage farce of its time. Turner airs it at 10 p.m., 1 April. As Crowther indicated, the work of LeRoy's art director John Beckman and set decorator Ralph S. Hurst borrows heavily from the play's famed designer, Oliver Smith. Debbie Reynolds took over Barbara Bel Geddes's stage role, but the play's leading men, Barry Nelson and Michael Rennie, were back on that familiar set.

Yes, the film - about a divorced couple brought together for income tax purposes - is stagebound, but that's not necessarily bad. I like the idea of being transported back to the Helen Hayes Theater in 1960. The film perfectly approximates the joy of attending a matinee performance of a stylish, sophisticated comedy.

Jean Kerr, who wrote "Mary, Mary," was of course the wife of the Times' great theater critic, Walter Kerr, and her adventures as the wife of a critic has been the subject of two other films - Charles Walters' bubbly "Please Don't Eat the Daisies" (1960), with Doris Day and David Niven as Jean's and Walter's on-screen surrogages, and Don Weis' "Critic's Choice," the film version of the 1960 Ira Levin stage comedy with Bob Hope as a theater critic whose wife, played by Lucille Ball, writes her own play.

"Secret Ceremony" (1968), a helping of fabulous trash directed by Joseph Losey and starring Elizabeth Taylor and Mia Farrow as a faux mother-daughter team and Robert Mitchum, airs at 2 a.m. on 2 April. I suggest you either stay up late or tape it.
Joshua Logan is not exactly beloved by cinéphiles but I like his filmography and his movie version of "Tall Story" (1960), the play by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse which he directed on Broadway, remains a hugely watchable collegiate delight. Jane Fonda, in her film debut, plays a girl who goes to college largely to snare a tall man. Anthony Perkins, in the role created on Broadway by Hans Conreid, is the basketball star she hopes to ensnare. There's top support here by Ray Walston, Anne Jackson, Murray Hamilton, the playwright Marc Connelly,Joe E. Ross and, in a small bit, Tom Laughlin and, an even smaller role, Robert Redford.

Perkins made "Tall Story" the same year that Hitchcock's "Psycho" was released. The two roles could not be more dissimilar and we all know which one took. Immediately following "Tall Story" are two more Perkins titles, both directed by Anatole Litvak - "Goodbye Again" (1961) and "Five Miles to Midnight" (1963), both in glorious black-and-white and pretty glorious in themselves.

You can't go wrong with Billy Wilder's "The Major and the Minor" (1942), starring what is probably my favorite actress, Ginger Rogers, in a comic tour-de-force. It airs at 8 p.m. on 5 April. A few days later, on 7 April, James Garner commands the spotlight on Turner with a day of screenings that culminates with a 6:15 p.m. screening of Delbert Mann's intriguing "Mister Buddwing" (1966) perhaps Garner's artiest film - an Evan Hunter story which pairs the actor with Jean Simmons, Katherine Ross, Susanne Pleshette and Angela Lansbury.

Elia Kazan honoros his heritage with the stirring personal epic (all 168 minutes of it), "America, America" (1963) at 12:20 a.m. on 10 April.

As for the rest of the day, Turner Classic Movies will preempt its scheduled programming for a memorial tribute to Elizabeth Taylor, screening the following titles (all times Eastern) through 11 April:
6 a.m. – Lassie Come Home (1943)
7:30 a.m. – National Velvet (1944)
10 a.m. – Conspirator (1952)

11:30 a.m. – Father of the Bride (1950)
1:15 a.m. – Father’s Little Dividend (1951)
2:45 p.m. – Raintree County (1957)
6 p.m. – Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
8 p.m. – BUtterfield 8 (1960)
10 p.m. – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
12:30 a.m. – Giant (1956)
4 a.m. – Ivanhoe (1952)

A shameless, obscenely entertaining guilty pleasure, "Home Before Dark" is a tangy, campy soap opera in which director Mervyn LeRoy out-Sirks Douglas Sirk.

This handsome 1958 Warner Bros. film, which Turner airs at 2:30 p.m. on 11 April, deserves the success - and the following - that Sirk's "Imitation of Life" enjoyed a year later. Instead, it has fallen into oblivion. Who knows what happened? Perhaps, at 136 minutes, the film was a tad too long to be fully companionable for audiences. Too long? Personally, I wouldn't sacrifice a minute.

Or perhaps Joseph F. Biroc's handsome black-and-white cinematography put off people who were expecting Technicolored glamour. Or maybe, Jean Simmons, its leading lady, was more of an actress than a Star, unlike "Imitation of Life's" Lana Turner who clearly relished the high-camp theatricality of Sirk's piece.

The skeletal plot, written by Eileen and Robert Bassing (based on a novel by Eileen), is also something of a heartbreaker, with Simmons cast as Charlotte, a woman unwanted by her pretentious husband Arnold (Dan O'Herlihy), who conspires with her stepmother Inez (Mabel Albertson) and stepsister Joan (Rhonda Fleming) to steal Charlotte's inheritance from her father. Charlotte is especially fragile, having just been released from a state mental facility in Massachusetts - and it becomes clear what drove her there. Exacerbating matters, her husband is having an affair with the stepsister.

LeRoy masterfully exploits the juiciness of his material, taking it into camp when necessary, such as the delicious sequence in which, Charlotte, more unstable than usual, has her hair done up like Joan's platinum 'do, buys a dress that Joan would wear and generally makes a fool of herself at a dinner party - all to impress Arnold and win his love.

Simmons, who gives a quiet, relatively simple performance considering the material, won the New York Film Critics award for this top-notch, seriously neglected film.

"Home Before Dark" will be sandwiched by Paul Henried's juicy Bette Davis vehicle,"Dead Ringer" (1964) and Vincent Sherman's Paul Newman-starrer, "The Young Philadelphians" (1959).

RKO raided MGM for its casting of James V. Kerns sprightly film musical, "Two Tickets to Broadway" (1951), with a nifty score by Sammy Cahn (who came up with the story for the film) and Jule Styne. Janet Leigh, Tony Martin, Eddie Bracken, Gloria DeHaven and Ann Miller head the cast of this unsung charmer, with the inimitable Barbara Lawrence (a Fox contract player) on hand for good measure.

"Hostile Witness," airing at 3:30 a.m. on 13 April, is a play that star-of-the-month Ray Milland first appeared on London's West End in 1966 and, later than year, moved to Broadway's Music Box Theater. It played on Broadway for 156 performances, after which Milland toured the U.S. with a road production and then made it into a film, directing it himself. Milland plays an attorney with a knack for successfully defending guilty criminals. In his New York Times review on 18 February, 1966, Stanley Kaufmann called Jack Roffey's play "sturdy and servicable" - an example of "that hardy perennial, the courtroom melodrama."

For something lighter, there's George Marshall's comic Civil War novelty, "Adance to the Rear" (1964) with the appealing cast of Glenn Ford, Stella Stevens and Melvyn Douglas, at 11:30 p.m. on 13 April, followed immediately by the early Mitzi Gaynor vehicle, "Golden Girl" (1951), directed by Lloyd Bacon. Jack Lemmon has one of his more curious film roles in Robert Parrish's "Fire Down Below" (1957) in which he and Robert Mitchum are the unlikely owners of a tramp steamer with a single passanger - a very shady Rita Hayworth. Well, at least it has a catchy title song. Catch it at 11:30 p.m. on 16 April.

Delmer Daves wore many hats as a filmmaker, which made it impossible to pidgeon-hole him. He often moonlighted as the Douglas Sirk of the teen melodrama and, "Parrish" (1961) is something of his masterwork in this singular genre, what with Troy Donohue in the title role, Claudette Colbert as his mother and Karl Malden, scaring the bejesus out him as his wicked stepfather. Compulsively watchable, "Parrish" airs at 4 p.m. on 17 April.

Speaking of singulr, Chantal Ackerman is highlighted with two works early on 18 April - her towering "Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles" (1975), with the sublime Dlphine Seyrig as a most unlikely prostitute, and the documentary "Hotel Monterey" (1972), about the residents of that hotel. This invaluable double-bill kicks off at 2 a.m.

Turner, which celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Civil War this month with 34 titles, offers one of the lesser known at 5 a.m. on 19 April - Phil Karlson's "A Time for Killing" (1967), starring Glenn Ford and Inger Stevens.

Doris Day earns a seven-film tribute on 22 April, with Hy Averback's difficult-to-see "Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?," one of Day's final films, airing at 4:30 p.m. It's all about the infamous New York blackout, during which she somehow got pregnant. Terry-Thomas and Robert Morse co-star.

The month winds down with Henry Koster's "The Inspector General" (1949) with a very good Danny Kaye at 9:30 a.m. on 27 April; Phil Karlson's "The Phenix City Story" (1955) at 10 a.m. on 29 April and another Glenn Ford title, Delbert Mann's "Dear Heart" (1964) at 4 p.m. on the same day.

Moving into May, you don't want to miss the irristable Stanely Donen film musical, "Give a Girl a Break" (1953) at 4:30 a.m. on 1 May. It stars Debbie Reynolds, Bob Fosse and The Champions - Marge and Gower.