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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

"Know" More Culture - The Way ‘The Day the Clown Cried’ Died

Jerry Lewis in 'The Day the Clown Cried' (1972;
It was the 1970’s.  One-time A-lister Jerry Lewis was working in various capacities in Hollywood but really wanted to leave his mark, and the tone and style of film was changing rapidly, more or less leaving him behind.  Screenwriters Joan O’Brien and Charles Denton finished their script for the Day the Clown Cried and Lewis was approached to play the lead.  He was apprehensive to say the least.  Mostly known for screwball humor, Lewis feared he just wasn’t the right person for this sort of role.  Yet, ultimately, he came to the conclusion that it is an opportunity to star in something truly meaningful, and took up the reins as the lead character, the doomed clown named “Karl Schmidt”.

The film’s story is pretty straightforward.  Set during the start of the Holocaust, a clown who was once a top performer at a major circus falls hard after a career slump.  One day after being arrested by the Gestapo for mocking Hitler, he finds himself in a work camp.  At the lowest point in his life, during a chance encounter with some child prisoners, he realizes that he may still be able to at least bring joy to these young kids.  Performing the best he can, the broken man is heartened by the reactions of his young audience.  However, the Nazi leaders at the camp are not too thrilled by his bringing of joy and force him to be separated.  Ultimately, after he continues to defy their orders, he is commanded by pain of death to rally and escort the children to a train headed to the notorious death camp Auschwitz, but after a mistake finds he, himself, trapped in one of the cars, he is forced to accept fate.  Ultimately he is tasked with leading the children into the “showers”, and the film ends with him entertaining the children one last time before fading out.  Their fate was sealed.  

Doesn’t that sound like fun?!  No.  This was the reaction of just about everyone who saw the film during its limited screenings in 1972.  The film was described in the nicest terms as “misguided” and “confused” and at worst “a catastrophe”.  The question is, what really happened?  Well, Lewis himself had always been rather secretive about the project, but other sources indicate that during filming and post, he took over as director and began making a plethora of changes to the script to make the lead character more sympathetic.  The clown was meant to have a redemption arc, but instead he was written as a man who was simply broken and needed that last moment of inspiration to feel redeemed, as opposed to being a complete dirtbag at the start.  On top of that, Lewis attempted to inject more of his personality into the character.  He renamed the protagonist to Helmut Doork and added several moments of schtick to the screenplay.  The days leading up the film’s initial screenings led Lewis to believe he was making something important, and his notorious arrogance shined through, not only during the production but during the pitches and press bytes.  The movie showed, and his time as a leading man was marked as “over”.  Sure, Lewis continued performing, but this movie was a demarcation point in his career.  To this day, with all of his legacy aside, The Day the Clown Cried is the single piece of ephemera that has boundlessly captivated film historians, students and fans.

Becoming something of a legend these days, The Day the Clown Cried has been the subject of discussions in terms of remakes, documentaries and just plain fascination in Hollywood for over twenty years.  A number of performers, including Robin Williams, have been considered for a remake, adapting the film’s original screenplay, but nothing ever came about.  This movie has such a legendary stigma to it that it has become somewhat untouchable, while at the same time remaining a holy grail among cinema fanatics.  It’s very, very difficult to find footage of the movie and very few people have actually seen it in its entirety, in its original cut.  Every few years or so, footage of the film will leak onto the Internet but will often be removed.  This is largely due to the fact that the only official print of the movie is in Lewis’ own possession, as he continues to demand the film never be released or seen by anyone.  It has also been tied up in litigation for decades, with various involved parties fighting over control of the finished product, but the stalwart Lewis has never stopped fighting to prevent it from coming to light.  

By all accounts, the lore and history behind the Day the Clown Cried is far more captivating than the film itself.  I’ve only seen glimpses of the finished product, getting the rest of my knowledge of the plot from various sources online.  From what I saw, it’s a dreary and honestly kind of ugly film visually, with very low-lighting and lots of walls and backdrops that are dirty or aged.  The scenes I’ve seen that are a little brighter looking are overshadowed by the film’s tone.  It doesn’t help going in knowing what the movie is actually about.  All of the fluff at the start seems that much more meaningless.  

I have always wondered what the ultimate intention was for The Day the Clown Cried.  I am of the mind that any story can be told, and any story told well, no matter what the subject, can be appreciated.  However, from all I’ve heard, this is one big hot mess.  Any time footage leaks onto the Internet, there is a brief period of buzz followed by a sudden silence.  Almost as though everyone who was ever excited about seeing it actually really regrets their decision afterward. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Faces Behind the Camera - Bryan Fuller,0,214,317_AL_.jpg
Bryan Fuller (source: IMDB)
You know “that guy”?  Yeah!  Him!  Everybody has that one actor in film and TV that just pops up everywhere but you never know his name or remember what you saw him in.  Now, what if “that guy” was not an actor but a television creator, writer and producer?  Now, imagine that the same individual was responsible for some of the best television shows of the last fifteen years.  Yeah.  That’s Bryan Fuller.

The closest point of comparison to Fuller I can make is a somewhat more whimsical version of Joss Whedon, the creator of TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly and, most recently, the director of Marvel’s The Avengers movies.  Like Whedon, Fuller has a knack for writing captivating characters in unique situations and he excels at dialogue.  For a big-budget Hollywood movie, sometimes just dangling keys is enough to be entertaining, but having to operate on a limited budget for a TV show spanning a broader length in terms of story is much more difficult, especially when you are trying to sell an audience something so strange as to be occasionally unsettling.

A characteristic of Bryan Fuller’s series that I actually kind of like is his somewhat light approach to the dark topic of death.  Almost all of his shows have some darker undertone superimposed on bright or humorous backdrop.  This goes especially for his “big four” as I like to call them, but we’ll get to those in a moment.  First, it is important to know that Fuller does not have many credits to his name, and that is often a positive sign… No, really.  Granted, he has only been active in the industry since the late 90’s, so it stands to reason his career thus far would be barely impactful… right..?

Well, it really starts in 2000 with his work as a writer and producer on the spinoff series Star Trek Voyager.  I am not really a Star Trek fan, per se.  I have recently gotten into The Next Generation, watching episodes here and there, and liked what I’ve seen so far, but I have not watched Voyager, so I cannot really give any personal opinion on that one show, still, for an up-and-comer, landing such a position on such a storied franchise is very, very impressive.  The question is: Does he prove himself worthy of gaining such a credit early on in his career?
Dead Like Me (Showtime; source: Pintrest)
The first of the “Big Four” is 2001’s Dead Like Me, one of my favorite shows of all time and one of the most criminally short-lived shows in the history of television (both will be running themes here).  The series follows an apathetic teenager who died suddenly in an accident on her first day of work, only to be kicked back from the afterlife to the undead, tasked with becoming a Reaper.  She is then forced in with a crew of fellow veterans of the Reaper title who seemed to be trapped in limbo as she carries out her duties, ferrying souls to the afterlife.  It’s definitely a dark series but, in spite of its themes, it’s a comedy, and a damn-funny one at that.  It’s defined by its uniquely sardonic take on death, while still dealing honestly with the effects of loss, especially on the family and how they are unwittingly watched over by a daughter who only felt unappreciated before her passing.  It’s comically-grim, yet occasionally moving, and if you haven’t seen it, I give it my strongest recommendation.
Wonderfalls (2004; Fox)
Now, on that note, “Big Four” entry numero dos is Wonderfalls.  This is the first show that would really begin to highlight Fuller’s curse as a producer of hitting the right note but never maintaining a series beyond a few seasons.  This series ALSO followed an apathetic young lead, this time a worker at a gift shop for a Niagara Falls tourist trap.  The cyclical girl begins to have strange hallucinations of anthropomorphic objects (sculptures and the like) around her place of employment appearing to come to life, giving her one-word clues to… something.  When she discovers what that ‘something’ is, it becomes clear that as insignificant as she may have felt at first, she really does serve a greater purpose.  Wonderfalls is a strange show filled with many of the quirks that made Dead Like Me so damn enjoyable.  The writing is good, the characters are fleshed out naturally and never feel superfluous and the performances are all excellent.  Sadly, this great series lasted only a handful of episodes before its ultimate cancellation, and I have only the simplest explanation as to why it didn’t really last: bad timing.  It came up against the NBA games for the first third of its run, then Fox did what they do best, stopping the show dead in its tracks in favor of American Idol.  After only four episodes, the show was forced into a three month hiatus, followed by another Fall hiatus that same year.  The entire season (which was only 13 episodes) took ten-and-a-half months to complete.  It never stood a chance.

This was a big problem in the mid-2000’s.  The culture-killing Writers Strike of 2001 left many producers cold and bitter and what came out of that was an unfortunate and disastrous takeover of reality television.  Since these shows were cheap to produce, required zero support from the Writer’s Guild of America and proved to be quite successful, most shows that ran in the early 2000’s were just cut off in favor of the cheaper alternative.  This is why there was this massive sudden influx of dreadful reality TV that lasted for nearly a decade, with most networks only coming out of this Hellish slump in the last five-to-six years.  During this period, Fox’s American Idol was an audience-stealer and, as a result of this, the network would preempt entire series in favor of this one show, airing it as much as five nights a week in some periods, during which they rarely offered any show alternatives.  It was because of this decision that many cable networks began to rise up with their own original primetime programming, eventually taking over a majority of the prime time slots ever since.  I’m sure, at this point, in-spite of Idol’s success, Fox is sort of kicking themselves for driving out their audience.  Dead Like Me, Firefly and the excellent Freaks and Geeks were just a handful of shows killed by the WGA strike, the latter two of the three’s demise being helped along oh-so-handily by Fox executives..
Pushing Daisies (2007; ABC)
However, even after the unfortunate passing of Wonderfalls, Fuller was not deterred.  In 2007, Pushing Daisies premiered, this time on ABC.  This was a strange show.  It was honestly unlike anything else on television.  It had this whimsical tone, filled with wide-angle lenses, Douglas Adams-esque narration, odd undertones of death and sex and the occasional musical number, all set to a super-polished Americana theme peppered with very bright colors.  The series followed the Piemaker, Ned, who discovered as a boy that he had the power to bring the dead back to life with a touch, but only for a few seconds.  He learned tragically that if he did not touch the resurrected again, something (or someone) nearby will die in their stead.  So naturally, as an adult, an intrepid P.I. is there to exploit his powers to talk to the dead to solve mysteries.  Nope.  Not kidding.  They go on adventures and everything, and as funny as that sounds, there is a strong sense of tragedy surrounding the entire show.  His best friend, the love of his life, and one of his few true friends dies and his choice to raise her from the dead for good leads to more than a few complications.  Aside from someone else dying for her to live, there is the sad reality that he can never touch her.  There is a heartbreaking poetry in this idea, and it is presented nearly flawlessly in Pushing Daisies.  Also, like much of his work to this point, this series revolved heavily around death.  

Pushing Daisies is, by-far, Fuller’s most successful series.  It lasted two seasons but, unlike his previous shows that ended far too soon, I think it was enough.  It ran its course, plots were addressed and resolved and any more would have just been turning the wheels.  Instead of keeping this alive, Fuller and ABC did the right thing and touched it a second time, to put it down for good.  Yet, during its run, it won numerous awards and was nominated multiple times.  Lee Pace and Chi McBride were both great as always, but the show-stealer here was the then-mostly-unknown Kristin Chenoweth (unknown, at least, outside of the theatre scene).  At the time of the show’s production, Chenoweth was already a beloved Broadway star and it shows in her performance.  Her energy and vocal talents take over, especially in the second season, where she goes from being a supporting character to a more driving force in the overarching story.  Every show has the one character that people remember the most coming out, and for me, Chenoweth’s Olive WAS this show.
This brings us to today.  Bryan Fuller’s current notable project is the series Hannibal, a prequel to The Silence of the Lambs in which we see a younger Hannibal Lecter in his prime.  I’ve watched the first few episodes of the series myself and I… didn’t really like it.  Not to say that it was bad by any stretch.  It certainly stands out in terms of quality compared to most shows on network television today, but I think knowing it was Fuller’s work going in left me a little jarred.  It is so unlike his other efforts as to be sort of off-putting for me as a long-time fan.  I wanted there to be a hint of the charm found in his previous works, but what I saw of Hannibal is far too serious.  Now, I plan to go back and rewatch the first season, just so as not to dismiss it entirely because I may have missed something.  I want to like Hannibal, I really do, but I will require a lot of convincing.  

So, you have a talented young writer/producer who is notable for working on a few of the most criminally short-lived television series of all time.  This is a running theme, largely because TV executives are forced to look at short-term gain through ratings rather than long-term popularity.  It also doesn’t help that most of these shows were shoved into the fray against insurmountable odds.  Still, they have their fans; and justifiably-so.  Bryan Fuller is a tremendous talent and I as his career progresses on, I foresee him having a long string of successes and fan favorites.  His vision and style is just unlike anyone else in the industry today, despite a few imitators.  If you have not seen any of the series listed in this article, I strongly recommend checking them out, they are all good in their own distinct ways and have much wider appeal than their short runs might have you believe.

Monday, March 9, 2015

"Know" More Pop-Culture- The Grindhouse

Just before the market crash of 1929 known now as Black Tuesday, movie theatres were opening like mad to accommodate the massive demand for a growing pop culture phenomenon dubbed the motion picture.  Films were being churned out in numbers that are inconceivable by today’s standards, but shorter silent films were often inexpensive to produce and required little in terms of quality.  So, the result was a pretty wide range of film ideas, some good and some… not so good.  A not-so-well-known fact about the early days of cinema is “nudie” films were extremely common.  Even in the 19th Century nickelodeons, a short film featuring a topless dancer was far more common than one might imagine.  As films took to the big screen, and the Hays Code took over in the 1930’s, most of these sorts of films were driven out.  Given their reputation and poor storage, most of these movies have suffered the tragic fate shared by so many films of the early 20th Century: degradation through disintegration.  This was a consequence of the celluloid used for years to print film media.  Since it was now “illegal” to show nudity and other banned content in theatres, an underground was formed.

42nd Street Grindhouses (Source:
42nd St. in Manhattan is arguably the most famous theatre district in the world (not discounting Los Angeles’ famous Beverly Cinema), and many of the joints on this stretch of road were not ready to give up the profitability of sexuality.  There was just one problem: That damn Hays Production Code!  So, many theatres repurposed their floors to become burlesque theatres, performance theatres typically featuring women dancing seductively and singing songs riddled with innuendo.  Some of these clubs also became associated with New York’s Red Light District, though most were nothing more than very tame strip clubs.

As the decades rolled on, the theatres that continued to show movies often bought reels to cheap movies of poor quality, showing them several times throughout the day, as opposed to the one or two showings-per-film common at that time.  The rates would increase during the day, capping off around 6pm.  This set the tradition of the Matinee Price so common in theatres.  This trend continued through until the 70’s, when things began to change dramatically.  This process of repeated showings became known as “grinding” and became the namesake of the theatres that practiced this new profitable idea.  The existence of these “grindhouses” actually spurred a new market for cheap, quickly-produced films that in many ways were built to violate the already weakening Hays Code, featuring copious amounts of sex, graphic violence and other material that was, in that period, very controversial and some films are still shocking by today’s standards.

While these same grindhouses were showing films that would or could not be shown in other major theatres, they also did show many major releases, as well as a number of films that are widely regarded as modern classics.  Another fact is some entire genres owe their very existence to these theatres.  In-particular, slasher, spaghetti westerns, martial arts and blaxploitation films would likely have never caught on without help from the grindhouse districts.  However, as the 80’s came around,  the market for these films in theatres shrunk rapidly due to the proliferation of home video.  Within a few years, the theatre market would collapse all around; a consequence of the rapidly-growing video market and the advent of megaplexes, which were competing to be bigger-budget attempts to monopolize local theatre markets by offering more and more movies and showings at a time in a single location.

The exploitation genre continues on, though it’s subgenres have split off, with newer films being mostly inspired by the 70’s classics rather than trying to craft any real identity of their own.  However, in spite of the cinema collapse, the legacy of the grindhouse persists to this day directors like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez are highly inspired by the films of the 70’s grindhouses and many modern action and horror movies draw a lot of inspiration from the grindhouses.  Also, many films from the grindhouses’ heyday have found a new market thanks to home video and digital distribution, garnering a new cult following and have themselves crafted a dedicated and unified fan culture.

The question is: Were the grindhouses disreputable garbage heaps throwing out nothing but gore and pornography?  Or, rather, were they inspirational and daring cultural hubs that would leave a lasting impression on future audiences?  I would say they are a little of both.  If they weren’t just a little controversial and didn’t do things differently from the norm, it is likely they would not even be talked about to this day.  It left quite an impression by defying the standards and refusing to accept the rules set by a paranoid and aggressive censorship bureau, instead embracing the strange and opening the gates to a new idea of film that was not only unknown to most, but was outwardly banned by major theatres.  The grindhouses paved the way for a new era of independent filmmakers and broke down barriers to artistic expression.  Modern film would likely not even exist in its current form if it weren’t for this film culture.  So, next time you scoff at an Italian sexsploitation flick, consider that many films you love may not have even been made if it weren’t for the theatre owners brave enough to show it in the first place.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

TV Pilot Hell: Bubsy (1993)

NOTE: When I wrote the first draft for this it was nine paragraphs and two-and-a-half pages long!  I did my best to edit it down as much as possible. 
The 90’s was a great decade for animation.  Batman, Animaniacs, Daria… The list goes on and on and honestly, even the laziest, stupidest series from that decade seem to have their fair share of fans.  However, there has always been one medium that has failed to create a real lasting success in animation: Video Games.  Sure, there were moderate successes like The Super Mario Bros. Super Show and Sonic Sat. A.M., but these were mostly short-lived and more reflected the popularity of their source material than any actual objective quality.  So, given the (at best) mediocre standards of video games-to-animation, where does Bubsy fit on that scale?

Well, first, a little backstory: Bubsy was a mascot game created for the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis in the early 90’s.  It was an effort by the fledgling studio Accolade to create a lasting series and, surprisingly, it kind of worked.  The few games in the series were spread across the SNES, Genesis, Jaguar and the Playstation and Bubsy 3D, released on Sony’s flagship console, is ranked among the worst video games ever made.  So, in a nutshell, Bubsy was an attempt by a B-studio to put out a game that will be their Mario or Sonic.  Accolade was banking so hard on this that they actually commissioned to have an animation group work on a tie-in for their game.  The company of choice was a small studio called Calico Creations.  Never heard of them?  Well, how couldn’t you!? I mean they are only the masters who brought us the majestic Denver the Last Dinosaur and Widget the World Watcher!  I mean, come on!  (No… Seriously, these guys were bad…. Very bad.)

On paper, there is one promising credit: Rob Paulsen, who did the voice for Bubsy in the games and is back for the TV show.  Paulsen is a tremendously-accomplished voice actor who worked on just about every animated series of note from the past thirty years.  He’s a highly-regarded talent and hearing his voice in this show is like if Peter O’Toole interrupted one of Michael Bay and Ehren Kruger's comic relief moments to give a resounding monologue.  They must have been desperate and paid him a ton in hopes that this series would catch on.  As with most animated tie-ins from its time, Bubsy was an attempt to expand name recognition and popularity.  It didn’t work… at all…

That was a lot of setup to cover and for that, I apologize.  Still, even knowing myself the ill fate of this franchise going in, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.  The pilot for Bubsy is entitled “What Could Possibly Go Wrong?” (Which was also the title character’s uninspired catch phrase), and follows Bubsy, his friend Arnold (voiced by another talented voice performer in Pat Fraley), and a couple of obnoxious twins as Bubsy volunteers to be the guinea pig for a powerful piece of technology created by doctor Virgil (...ugh) Reality.  The device is a helmet that can harness the imagination of its wearer and conjure it into reality.  So, essentially it’s Anthony from Twilight Zone: The Movie… except more overblown and stupid.  The rest of the episode involves all of the characters, and a team of villains led by a spoiled, fat, female cat, battling for control over the helmet.  It’s all a device to create a bunch of slapstick animated set pieces to sell the show, and boy does it fail.

The problem with Bubsy as a character is, even in the video games, he was essentially a Sonic rip-off with greatly-inferior level design and there simply isn’t much you can do with this premise.  At least with Sonic going in there actual characters and a plot that felt like it could be fleshed out in some way, but Bubsy was never that interesting to begin with.  It would be like making Frogger into an animated series (Oh!  WAIT!!!  They actually DID that!)  A result of this lack of personality is a lead character that is forced and over-confident as to be completely stupid.  This has worked in the past with some characters (Bugs Bunny, for instance) but here, it just feels like Bubsy suffers from some sort of chemical imbalance that leaves him completely incapable of expressing any emotion outside of “Ohhhhh yeaaaah!”.
Now, to talk about the actual quality of the episode.  A common problem with a lot of animated series is the writers and animators go in wanting their show to be for kids and simply try to make it as flashy and noisy as they can to keep their interest, forgetting that even silly shows like Animaniacs had a fair share of quieter character moments.  When the show is just noise and grunting from start to finish “exhausting” doesn’t even begin to describe it.  There is not one moment for the audience to breathe here.  Either Bubsy is fast-talking and spouting out his catch phrase for the tenth time or Arnold is grunting and growling after every line.  Every character has one joke that is driven in over and over for the entire episode and the animation is lackluster and lazy, with most scenes just showing the characters in one frame posing or falling on a moving background.  This show is scene-to-scene just noise and flashing lights.  It has no substance and not even one joke lands, it’s all wrong.

I find it interesting that Obvious Villain Cat character (I can’t be bothered to look her up name again) uses nails on a chalkboard to torture her minions because this show felt like someone was doing that for twenty minutes.  It’s loud, stupid, unfunny and really just boring.  As bad as this is, and as shocked as I was watching it, I will likely not even remember seeing this before too long.  It just was not interesting enough to care about and it doesn’t surprise me that it wasn’t picked up to series.  It was further proof that a show that is clumsily thrown together as an advertisement for a brand most people were already indifferent about just doesn’t work.  Still, that hasn’t kept studios from trying over and over again.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

TV Pilot (Heaven!) - Northern Exposure (1992)
Northern Exposure (1990-1995; CBS)

Creators: Joshua Brand and Joe Falsey
Starring: Rob Morrow, Barry Corbin, Janie Turner

When I was a kid, there was a lot of hype surrounding Northern Exposure.  It aired as a mid-season replacement on CBS in the Summer of 1990.  After CBS’s 10pm timeslot opened up with that Spring’s finale of the beloved Newhart and the failure of The Dave Thomas Comedy Show, this little series came out of nowhere and become a winning and beloved titan in the eyes of millions. Morrow plays Joel Fleischman, a New York doctor who is given an opportunity to work in lovely Anchorage, Alaska, but his big greeting to the city hospital does not go as planned.  He is informed his position was full and was redirected to the small, fictional town of Cicely, Alaska where he is greeted by a shrewd former astronaut who is consumed by his desire to turn his small hole-in-the-wall town into a booming resort.  Trapped in this strange place due to a legal contract, the breaking of which could result in a prison sentence, Joel opens a small practice with only the help of the awkward Marilyn.  Joel interacts with the locals, including a tomboyish pilot and a friendly young leather-clad bro-dude, and it all seems he has to make the best of it while he waits for his wife (who is still in the big city) to finally arrive in town.

Northern Exposure had a lot going for it; a funny premise, a smart and talented cast and a great team of writers, but the show had a troubled history behind the scenes.  After the first few seasons were extremely successful, CBS inexplicably cut the show mid-season to air new test programming during Sweeps.  This killed any momentum the show had for that running season.  Other issues, including actors demanding more pay and a failed list of new characters being introduced drive viewers away, resulting the in the show’s ultimate cancellation.  A lot of this could be traced back to some of its stars (Morrow in-particular), moving into film.  Morrow landed a major role in the critical darling Quiz Show, and as a result he began to seek either more compensation from CBS, or better film roles.  Sadly, his film career never really took off.  He’s a charismatic performer, good looking and was adaptable, able to play different types of characters, but ultimately his career landed him back in TV on the quality crime thriller Numb3rs after a decade of movie flops.
This is an example of how a very simple premise, a likeable cast and a smart team of writers can create something special under very strenuous circumstances.  A midseason replacement always has a few things going against it.  First, it moves in to fill a time slot for a show that people just did not watch.  Reason then dictates they were watching something else.  DVR was not a thing, and while you could record a different channel on the VCR at the same time, it was still a toss-up battling two other networks’ existing programming (Fox did not have a slot past 10pm).  Secondly, there is the risk of the network experimenting with other new programming for the Fall season.  This is what happened in Northern Exposure in its last year, with CBS breaking the season up to test other new shows in its slot.  The final major obstacle for this series was the fact that it ran on Monday nights, meaning for several months out of the year it was competing with ABC’s Monday Night Football.  

All-in-all, Northern Exposure tenaciously triumphed over great adversity thanks to a devoted fanbase and the chops that come from being a multi-year Emmy and Golden Globe nominee.  The final season’s cast and crew changes did it in, but that happens all of the time with TV, and the fact that this show lasted for four seasons is quite the accomplishment because most shows do not make it that far, even some really good ones.  It’s a funny, well-written show with a lot of warmth (in spite of the climate) and lastly, I’m willing to bet the mooseburger is actually quite delicious.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

"Know" More Pop-Culture - What Happened With 'Turn-On'?
Turn-On's TV Title Card (ABC Television; 1969)
In February of 1969, a notorious TV pilot would air that would shock many and become notorious as one of the biggest television disasters in history.  I mean, the events of that fateful night make the trainwreck that was Joanie Loves Chachi look like Cheers by comparison.  So, what happened?

ABC led up to Turn-On with a lot of promotional hype.  It was the brainchild of the previous year’s big hit Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In’s executive producer George Schlatter, and the network was ready to set it up for a full twelve-episode first season before the pilot even aired.  Turn-On premiered on February 5th, 1969 at the 8:30pm time slot.  All seemed innocuous enough on the surface and with popular McHale’s Navy-star Tim Conway guest-hosting, people tuned in to see what ABC had been selling them for months.
Turn-On Promo;
TV Guide Clipping
Reactions to the show were immediate and visceral.  The Cleveland, OH ABC affiliate refused to continue airing the show after the first commercial break and Denver’s local producers refused to air the show at all after the network screening.  The show was described as “crass” and “blue”, bombarding the sensitive 1969 American audience with fast and not-so-subtle sex jokes.  A second episode was recorded in full, but was never released, with only a few very brief scenes clipped in as part of a documentary for BBC Channel-4 in the UK.  It is incredibly difficult to find footage of this show, but the few scenes I have seen indicate this show’s cancellation was not a tragic loss by any stretch.

Most of the show had slapdash sketches and quick stingers filmed in front of a blank white stage backdrop.  There would be props and some set dressing for certain sketches, but it was all actually pretty plain.  This was likely an artistic choice as the very funny piece of TV psychedelia that was Laugh-In came from the same producers and it had more quality in its production design.  Some complained that the show was unwatchable due to the hyper-kinetic editing which, mixed with the white background, reportedly caused some viewers to become “physically ill”, though, I do not know how true this actually is.  In reality, Turn-On was likely just too much for the audiences of its time.  The sex references and the very direct jabs at public figures like Richard M. Nixon really put people off of the show.  A number of affiliates issued complaints their local customers made, and the show was killed for good a few days after its debut.  

The notorious pilot didn’t do much for the cast, either.  The lovely Teresa Graves would go on to join Laugh-In that year, but only for one season.  She would then appear in a few blaxploitation films (most notably the Fred Williamson vehicle That Man Bolt) and would get her own short-lived show Get Christie Love! in the mid 70’s.  She then would retire from acting shortly thereafter and would focus primarily on philanthropy.  Tim Conway kept doing his thing, and remained successful in-spite of this disaster.  He later spoke about it, not really showing any regrets.  In-fact, he was in good spirits about it, but Conway was already a TV veteran by 1969, so he’d seen the worst come and go.

By most accounts, Turn-On was simply ahead of its time.  It was too much for the period in which it aired and it would be more than six years before SNL would piss off half the country in 1975, but it just did it a lot better.  A large factor that arguably led to the show’s abrupt end was that it just wasn’t that funny.  It was all edge and no wit.  Carol Burnett put TV comedy over the edge in the 60’s and 70’s but inspite of all of her controversies in her time, she was a well-loved and respected woman, but most of all she was just very, very talented.  Not to discount Tim Conway in any respect, but even his chops weren’t enough to keep Turn-On… Turned on… (Sorry I couldn’t resist… it was too easy)

TV Pilot Hell - Turner & Hooch (1990)

The dreaded one-joke premise.  It’s a nearly guaranteed show-killer and here, we have an absolutely braindead TV sitcom based on a pretty bad police comedy.  Quality TV series based on movie franchises are extremely rare and this is an example of how to take a movie that was already pretty unfunny and drive its single joke right into the ground.  The first ten minutes of this TV series seems like an hour, and it doesn’t get any better.

In 1990, Tom Hanks was already too hot a commodity to appear in low-grade crap like this, so instead we get B-list actor Thomas F. Wilson as Det. Scott Turner, who most probably remember best as Biff Tannen from the Back to the Future movies, or as Coach Fredricks from Freaks & Geeks.  He’s not a bad performer when he’s playing off of better actors, but here he is just awful.  He is not leading-man-material, and he spends every scene struggling through his lines.  However, as much as I complain about Wilson’s performance, the supporting cast is far worse.  This film even goes so far as to add an obnoxious delinquent kid to the mix, making what is already a really lazy and dull comedy into something that is nothing short of unwatchable.  He is far, far worse than Kid from Dick Tracy, another legendarily bad child performance from around that time, and like Hooch, he has one character trait: He gets into trouble!  Oh… how zany…  To top it all off, this show ends with a pillow fight between the kid and Turner complete with period-appropriate sax solo and a freeze frame on Hooch.  I wish I were making this up…

The rest of the supporting cast includes Wendee Pratt as Mrs. Turner.  She had a few roles after this but is mostly known for her brief run on the soap opera One Life to Live.  The rest of the characters just show up then disappear, having no real effect on the show, existing only to set up the next scene.  Comic Relief Cop (his name is ‘Boney’... Because he’s fat..?) appears to tell Det. Turner what the next act of the show is and sends him on his way, and the show has a brief appearance by a lively chef who knows Turner, and I am assuming he is meant to be a recurring character but here he only exists to facilitate the introduction of that damn kid.

This show is written in cliches.  This is common in sitcoms, but here everything has been done over and over again and Turner & Hooch goes the extra mile by taking those cliches and just replaying them ad-nauseum during its 23 minute run.  The kid is a runaway thief who ends up in the care of the unwilling cop.  The wife is a goody-goody who wants to help the “misunderstood” kid, only existing in the entire show to make sure Turner is stuck with Hooch and an aggravating child actor (Det. Turner really needs to get a divorce).  There are no other cops of consequence and imagine my surprise when the titular cop wasn’t called in to get chewed out by his tightly-wound and heavily-caffeinated chief.

All of those complaints aside, the episode is just a mess.  Scenes bounce between each other so fast it is actually a little disorienting and I have a sinking feeling this was meant to be a one-hour block but was cut in half after producers saw the finished product.  I make that assumption based on the fact that it feels like chunks of the show are missing.  Character introductions are fast and short and never really establish any sort of relationship.  The marriage between Det. Turner and his wife feels more like the relationship between a homeowner and a maid.  The kid in the show is bad, sure, but he seems like he was born ready to wind up in the care of a cop, never showing any resistance or surprise about anything.  Ultimately, nothing comes together.  There are sections of the story that feel lost and there is zero, ZERO character development.  The only thing we get is Hooch running into things, knocking people over and simply just causing a ruckus so we can get a zany jazz solo followed by a soul-crushingly-bad reaction shot from Thomas Wilson, who acted like he just didn’t want to be there at all.

Turner & Hooch aired on NBC in the Summer of 1990.  A Summer premiere (especially pre-2000) is usually a bad sign anyway, but hoooo-boy!  1990 was a bad, BAAAAD year for television.  To give you an idea of how awful this year was, Turner & Hooch, as stillborn and bland as it is, is not the worst cop-with-a-dog comedy series of that Summer!  The problem with Turner & Hooch is it’s just boring and lazy.  Outside of some of the performances, there isn’t really anything painful about it, and I can honestly see myself forgetting this show even exists.  At least with famously bad shows like Small Wonder you remember why it was bad.  Less than an hour after sitting through this snore-fest I was only thinking about what I wanted for lunch.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 1 - The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

The Shawshank Redemption (1994;
Castle Rock Entertainment)
Director: Frank Darabont
Writers: Frank Darabont screenplay adapted from the short story by Stephen King
Starring: Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Bob Gunton, Clancy Brown

Here it is.  After all this time, all the delays, everything… I’m here.  The Shawshank Redemption is my favorite film of all time.  I have a few reasons for this.  First, this movie came out when I was still pretty young, and I saw it for the first time at thirteen (I think).  It changed the way I saw movies forever.  It was the first real drama that I ever fell in love with, and after seeing it I needed to see more.  I was inspired to seek out all the movies I had heard about but never saw because they weren’t action or comedy movies, and it opened up an entirely new world for me.  Aside from the very personal influence this had on me as a film fan, it is objectively a great, great movie.  It was nominated for numerous Oscars but did not take home any statuettes, but then again, it was the 1995 Academy Awards, where it was up against the likes of Forrest Gump, Quiz Show and Pulp Fiction.  That is some stiff, STIFF competition.

The film follows a banker named Andy Dufresne who is convicted of murdering his wife and her supposed lover and sentenced to life within the dreary stone walls of Shawshank Prison.  There he befriends a slick smuggler named Red who begins to guide him and help him adjust to the reality that faces him.  However, Andy refuses to embrace his fate, taking every opportunity to remind his fellow inmates that there is hope beyond the prison’s walls.  He enters the corrupt prison and changes the lives of everyone there by simply refusing to let go of hope.

The Shawshank Redemption is not slogged down by a lot of the typical cliches of modern dramas.  There is no forced romance, no comic relief, no big tense dramatic moments (at least not until the very, very end of the film) and no forced melodrama.  The movie is told over several years of Andy’s sentence until his ultimate and impossible escape.  He leaves behind hope to his friends and retribution to those who abused their power.

One can come up with any number of allegories that may fit the story of Shawshank, but I like it as a simple story of a man who changes everything.  I know deeper meaning can be found, but I prefer to see this film today the same as I did in my young age.  It means something to me.  It was a demarcation point in my life as a kid growing up in a period of excess, where I began to seek out something different than what was being sold to me.  It has had a tremendous impact on me because, to this day, I remember how this movie changed me, and I am always willing to find the next movie to forever alter the way I perceive popular culture.

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 2 - Schindler's List (1993)

Schindler's List (1993; Universal Pictures)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Thomas Keneally (novel); Steven Zaillian (Screenplay)
Starring: Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes

This is the film a lot of hardcore film fans probably expected to be #1.  It currently ranks #7 on the IMDB top 100, it’s #8 on the American Film Institute’s, and it won an impressive seven Oscars including best picture.  It’s probably as close to “perfect” as a film can get.  The only reason it is number 2 on my list is because the number one slot is reserved for my favorite film of all time.  It’s a personal choice, and does in no way mean I think less of this movie.  That said…

Schindler’s List tells the story of industrialist Oskar Schindler (Neeson), a shrewd businessman who operates in the employ of the Third Reich for the war effort while turning a profit, but in the end, he is faced with a choice: greed, or the right thing.  The film is told in two parts: the first focuses on the Nazi’s advance in power and their segregation of Jews into the ghettos, the second centers on the Final Solution, where the remaining few were shipped to camps and a systematic genocide began.  Meanwhile, Schindler himself is hiring a number of Jewish workers for his factory and as he is essential to the Reich’s success at the time, he becomes an obstacle of sorts for the cruel Nazi Lieutenant Amon Goeth (Fiennes).  Schindler’s right-hand man Mr. Stern (Kingsley) begs him to help, but at first Schindler is reluctant until a fateful encounter at a Nazi train depot almost finds Stern in Birkenau until Schindler cames to his rescue.  After this near loss of his colleague and friend he is inspired to do all he can to save as many lives as possible by signing them on as recruits for his factories to protect them from the trains to the concentration camps.  Of course, there is a lot more to this film than that, but for a core synopsis, that’s the best I can word it.

Schindler’s List forces the audience into a hard position.  If you were Oskar Schindler, how far would you go to save these otherwise-doomed souls from the hands of the evil Third Reich?  Because, his stand against Hitler’s forces could have not only cost him his enterprise, but his very life.  Yet, the revelation that he can use his influence to help people, even if it is just a few in the grand scheme, makes his actions all that more meaningful.  This is a story of one man doing all he can to save only a few lives at the risk of losing his freedom.

The film is shot in beautiful black and white, having a deep contrast creating a very crisp look.  Every shot is astounding, too.  There are beautiful scenes juxtaposed against a rightfully-mournful tone.  Likely the most striking and memorable visual moment shows a young girl in a bright red dress against the entirely black and white scene.  This one piece of symbolism has become the defining image of the film from an artistic standpoint.

The performances by all involved are just excellent, too.  Ralph Fiennes in-particular gives a grim and harrowing Oscar-nominated performance as the Nazi officer.  Every scene with him is just chilling.  Unlike a cartoonish villain lacking humanity, we see that in him because we know what he is, but his performance is quite understated despite a few shocking moments.  Liam Neeson gives the best performance of his career here and shows a hint of just how much of an essential performer he could have continued to be if it weren’t for the dreadful Phantom Menace grinding his career to a screeching halt for nearly a decade.

I railed against the Oscars a few times during this list but the Academy got it right in 1994, because in-spite of not ONE actor from this film winning an Oscar, the movie as a whole was recognized for the artistic achievement it was.  There are very, very few films that really depict the Holocaust in any capacity for a few reasons.  First, it isn’t the sort of subject one associates with “entertainment” and secondly, if you mess things up, you are through.  Nobody will respect you as a filmmaker again.  This goes all the way back to the notorious Italian Nazi exploitation flicks of the 70’s which have gone down in legend as some of the most deplorable pieces of cinema ever filmed.  So, it’s understandably-rare to see a quality, successful film tackle this subject, especially as masterfully as Schindler’s List does.

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 3 - Pulp Fiction (1994)

Director: Quentin Tarantino
Pulp Fiction (1994; Miramax)
Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Ving Rhames, Bruce Willis, Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer

I want to be clear here, and I do not think this is hyperbole: 1994 is one of the greatest years in the history of film.  SEVEN of my top 40 movies of the 90’s are just from 1994.  The American Film Institute released their updated list of 100 Greatest Movies in 2005, a list spanning a century of film, and there were four movies on their list from 1994.  In fact, Pulp Fiction isn’t even the last film on THIS list from that year!

Pulp Fiction is a series of interwoven stories of violence and debauchery and it is absolutely glorious.  There is no one scene that isn’t captivating.  It is a powerhouse of cool direction, a distinct and fresh look and tone, and most of all a stunning screenplay.  So, naturally, it didn’t win the Oscar in 1995, but I’ve already gone over how worthless the Academy Awards are so I won’t bother you with that again.  Instead, let’s talk about one of the greatest films of all time.

Before directing Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino made a couple other genre films including the previously-reviewed Reservoir Dogs.  Tarantino draws heavy inspiration from the classic 42nd St. Grindhouses of the 60’s and 70’s.  These theaters were known for their release of unvetted indie films, often branding the exploitation label, that for the most part remained unrated and rarely saw any release outside of these theatres until the mid-to-late 80’s.  These are the theatres that brought us the great Blaxploitation classics like Shaft and Superfly, the two of which were rare examples of great movies leaving the Grindhouse and getting a wide release (largely thanks to their hit theme songs).  We also saw a lot of graphic horror from Italian directors like Lucio Fulci and Bruno Mattei who rarely saw any form of wide distribution, even in the video market, their films mostly remaining cult classics looming in the underground horror scene.

So, what does this have to do with Pulp Fiction?  Well, this is a movie that amalgamates ideas from the various genres of the time.  The title refers to “Pulp” a largely pejorative word used to describe entertainment that is considered low-quality but is widely popular.  The movie uses directorial styles, fashions and concepts that were common in the Grindhouses, but were rarely embraced by the mainstream film industry.  This is part of what makes Pulp Fiction such an amazing film, it is a beloved, winning classic that employs and draws its inspiration from films that were almost entirely marginalized.  It’s very acclaim and success is itself a commentary on the manufactured idea of “mainstream” entertainment.

Pulp Fiction’s plot is actually a series of interconnected storylines all wrapped around a handful of jobs and the daily lives of two hitmen, Julius and Vincent (Jackson and Travolta).  They exchange memorable banter as they travel around Los Angeles, from cleaning out an apartment of misguided college kids, to taking a local crime lord’s wife (Thurmond) out for a night on the town.  Between these wrapper plot lines, we get other stories revolving around a boxer on a rough deal and a couple of crazed robbers, and that really does only scratch the surface.

The fascinating thing about the film is how everything really comes together.  We see plotlines that are, at first, complete non sequiturs, but as the film goes on, harkening back to these scenes reveals a beautifully-woven series of smaller stories forming a greater whole.  In fact, I believe (and this is speculation) a large part of why this film is so beloved is how it uses these stories to paint an involving picture that encourages audiences to see how it all comes together, creating a sort of active viewing experience.  You mind is processing the stories individually, and when it all comes together it is like an ecstatic revelation.  

There isn’t a bad performance in this movie.  Not one.  This is very rare as even the best movies have a few throwaway acting choices, but Tarantino's meticulousness pays off here.  The cast is huge and everyone has a reason to be there.  This is all supported by the screenplay and, to be honest, if this were a top 40 based on writing alone, Pulp Fiction would be number one.  This is hands down one of the greatest screenplays of all time.  It’s fast, witty and the dialogue, even from the simplest scenes, is superb.  It’s funny and has a charm and character you just don’t see in most movies, this especially goes for Oscar movies, which actually trend on the boring side (and I say this as a film snob).

Monday, March 2, 2015

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 4 - Goodfellas (1990)

Goodfellas (1990; Warner Bros.)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: Nicholas Peleggi
Starring: Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro

Scorsese returns for his final film on my list.  Goodfellas is the astoundingly-told odyssee of a man’s rise through the ranks of a local crime family, and his ultimate fall.  Henry Hill (Liotta) grew up admiring the local gangs.  The mob guys were the ones with the fancy clothes, nice cars and most of all, the respect.  As he grew up, his ties to a local heavy-hitter named Jim Conway (De Niro) and his association with the violent and unpredictable Tommy (Pesci), drove him to climb the ranks in the Family, at his peak becoming a successful and respected leader.  All seems well, but as a shaky marriage crumbles, and addiction consumes his life, Hill’s legacy becomes a faded memory barely filling an otherwise hollow shell.

As I said in my article on Casino, Scorsese knows how to tell an epic character study that spans many years.  Goodfellas’ narrative is told from the perspective of a man who always loved what he had become, until finally we see what he becomes by the end of the story.  It seems like it may have even been glorifying the life of a gangster, until we see what happens to those who are deep inside.  It’s a hard-edge look at the lives of a few powerful guys and how everything can all so easily fall apart.

Liotta gives a career-defining performance here.  I’ve always liked him as an actor, but I have yet seen him recreate the excellence he showed here.  Scorsese can often bring the best out of his performers and Liotta seems like he was just right for this role.  Good looking, smart, fast, a strong commanding voice… everything he needed was there and he didn’t just take it and run, he owned it.  Every scene he is in is highlighted by a subtle acting style that reflects mood and tone so well that you feel sucked in.  Joe Pesci gives his most famous (and Oscar-winning) role here, notably in the classic “Am I funny to you?!” scene.  Lastly, De Niro gives one of his more understated performances here, never going too far into the extreme, rather finding a nice soft balance.  His emotional scenes are so good, and he has just enough presence to not be overshadowed while never feeling like he’s trying to steal the show, as De Niro is occasionally want to do.  

Goodfellas has gone down as one of the greatest films of all time, and like many movies that share this title, it was heavily snubbed by the tone-deaf Academy.  It received a number of nominations, but Liotta was snubbed his nomination shot, and the film lost the Best Picture nod to the absolutely dull Dances With Wolves, a film that only has a legacy of being the movie Avatar rips off.  1991’s awards have somewhat become notorious, and deservingly-so.  Have YOU heard of most of those movies?  Probably not.  Dances with Wolves, sure.  Awakenings was a good movie, yes.  However, Goodfellas’ Oscar-snub is just another mark on an already messy and unreliable record for The Academy Awards, with most of the more winning films going down as forgotten or mediocre pieces, while the movies that got the finger tend to be highly praised… I’m talking to YOU How Green Was My Valley?! (If you don’t know, look it up)

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 5- Reservior Dogs (1992)

Director: Quentin Tarantino
Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen, Steve Buscemi, Tim Roth, Chris Penn

Reservior Dogs (1992;  Miramax Pictures)
The heist film is a classic genre with a long proud tradition of quality films.  Going all the way back to the silent era, the crime caper has been seminal in the action/thriller genres.  In 1992, Quentin Tarantino brought us Reservoir Dogs, a heist movie where the heist is only part of the story.  The core of the movie involves the interactions between a group of thieves hired to work a job for a local boss.  In an empty warehouse, the tough crew awaits their chance to meet up with their contractor, and finally split to leave this botch-job behind them, but nothing is that simple.  The entire job is a mess from the start, and while all of the hired men claim to be professionals, these guys do not work well together for the most part.  It all culminates in a series of disasters, betrayals and surprises that just make this a fun sit.  

The quality of this film comes down to a few key points.  First off, you have Tarantino’s trademark fast, witty banter and it is top-notch here.  The often funny dialogue and perfectly distinct personalities of the characters makes this film flow smoothly.  For a flick that takes place almost entirely in a mostly-empty warehouse with only a few interactions at a time, Dogs really never feels slow or flat.  It comes down to the dialogue and execution.  Second is the way violence is used in the movie.  While all of Tarantino's films are violent, unlike Kill Bill, which revels in it's 70's exploitation ways, Reservior Dogs' bloodier scenes are disturbing and really nail home the personalities of the characters involved.

There are a few notably memorable scenes, too, arguably the most famous of which involves Madsen, duct tape, a straight razor and Stealer’s Wheel.  If you know the scene you know this movie.  If you haven’t seen this famous movie moment, do not just go watch the one scene.  Instead, seek out Reservior Dogs in full and watch it through.  It isn’t a long movie, but it is a fun quotable, delightfully-exploitative and gritty picture full of everything Tarantino does best, all presented with a snappy screenplay and a spot-on cast of great actors in their prime.