Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Unreliable Nathan

Nathan Rabin often writes about flops.  In fact, he has a whole book on them. But those are cinematic disasters.  In a recent A.V. Club post, he writes about a TV flop and misses the boat.  The show in question?  The ill-fated sitcom Mulaney, canceled earlier this year.

Rabin starts with a discussion of how talented and popular John Mulaney was before he created his show.  No.  He wasn't that well known, much less beloved. As for talent, he'd been a decent writer for SNL, not much more. Neither his material on that show nor his standup were especially impressive.  Perhaps a small group had heard of him, but he was less famous than most comedians who get sitcoms--Cosby, Roseanne Barr, Tim Allen, even Seinfeld or Louis C. K.  Essentially, his name meant nothing, and if he was to make it in a show, the show had to sell him, not the other way around.

Everyone knew Mulaney was in trouble when NBC turned it down, even though it had SNL producer Lorne Michael behind it.  Fox picked it up, but it was already damaged goods. Still, if the show was okay, it had a chance.

Each episode featured Mulaney doing a bit of standup in front of the studio audience (or so I'm told--I bailed pretty quickly).  Here's what Rabin has to say about it:

In the first illustration of the show’s colossal miscalculation, these stand-up comedy bits are way too short, often hovering around the one-minute mark. It’s a testament to how little Fox understood Mulaney’s appeal (or maybe to how Mulaney misunderstood his own appeal) that the network somehow assumed that audiences would be in a hurry for Mulaney to stop doing stand-up (something he’s very good at) and start acting (something he is, to put it diplomatically, not quite as gifted at).

Completely wrong.  This was a sitcom. People were tuning in for enjoyable plots with entertaining characters and funny lines.  Killing the action dead with some standup, just because you think you've got a funny comedian, was a bad decision.  Seinfeld started that way, but he was a well-known comedian and the concept of the show--that we'd see how his stand-up came from his real life--was how it was sold to the network.  But even that show soon realized that's not what an audience wants in a sitcom and dropped the angle.  If Mulaney wasn't as good at acting as standup, tough, he'd better learn. Seinfeld wasn't much of an actor either, but that's the part of the show that mattered.

Worse is Rabin's main thesis--that doing the show live, three-camera style, doomed it as a throwback. This is nonsense.  It's true that TV has gone crazy for one-camera shows shot like a film, and there's a lot you can do with that format.  But a live show, which used to be the norm (Norm!), is still around. In fact, the most popular sitcom of the past decade, The Big Bang Theory, is done that way and still going strong, as are several other hits presently on air. Critics may care about the format, but the audience doesn't.  And seeing as how Mulaney's main TV experience was on SNL, a show that's a live as can be, doing it that way was probably the right decision.

What doomed the show was weak writing and clichéd characters.  NBC saw that, so refused to put it on the schedule even after developing it.  It's exceedingly hard to create a good show, no matter how much talent is behind it.  But the "problems" Rabin mentions didn't matter at all.

Monday, August 31, 2015

To Be Blunt

I've watched the first two episodes of Blunt Talk, a new comedy on Starz. The channel doesn't have the cachet of HBO or Showtime, but it did produce one of my favorite shows, Party Down (which was a total flop), so who knows?

It stars Patrick Stewart as Walter Blunt, an outspoken British newscaster working at the fictional UBS network headquartered in Los Angeles.  The first episode has him drunk driving and getting caught in his car with a transsexual prostitute.  He fights the cops and it blows up into a national scandal, threatening to derail his career.  He decides to interview himself on his own show about the incident, and collapses on air after taking too many drugs.  The second episode has him missing a flight to Galveston to cover a hurricane, so he pretends to be there via green screen, utilizing a local porn studio.

You get the idea.  Blunt is an outrageous but loveable character--not uncommon on TV these days--who gets involved in outrageous storylines.  He's got a staff for his TV show--one of them played by Jacki Weaver--each with their own quirks, as well as a long-suffering boss Bob (Romany Malco) and his valet Harry (Adrian Scarborough) who takes care of all his personal (sometimes kinky) needs and who served with him in the Falklands.  He also has complex fantasies while high which we get to see.

I was reminded of a few other recent cable comedies with a lot of allegedly outrageous activity but mostly mirthless results, including House Of Lies and HAPPYish.  Above all, though, it reminded me of Bored To Death, an HBO comedy starring Jason Schwartzman, Ted Danson and Zack Galifianakis.  The concept was quite different--a novelist living in Brooklyn who's a private investigator in his spare time.  But, like Blunt Talk, it was a fine cast with a fairly open premise, and lots of dialogue that's supposed to sound clever, or even witty, but keeps falling short.

So I wasn't too surprised to discover the creator and writer of Blunt Talk is Jonathan Ames, who was behind Bored To Death.  Maybe this show will improve as it goes along, but it'll have to get a lot better to keep me watching.

If anything holds the show together so far, it's Patrick Stewart lively performance.  He does well with the material he's given. He's not especially known for comedy, though thanks to people like Ricky Gervais and Seth MacFarlane, he's shown his comic chops in the past few years.  In fact, MacFarlane has signed on as executive producer of the show. But, like House Of Lies and HAPPYish, it takes more than a charismatic lead to make a show work.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

A, B, C

Z For Zachariah, which opened this weekend, has quite a cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Margot Robbie and Chris Pine.  The thing is, that's it.  There's no one else in the movie unless you count the dog.

It's one of those end-of-the-world stories, where these three may be the only people left on Earth. (And from what I understand, the original novel has only two character, so I guess we should be happy to get three. But then, Hollywood has always loved triangles.)

But here's the thing. In the credits, under "Casting By," there are three names listed--Kerry Barden, Allison Estrin and Paul Schnee.  Are you telling me it took three people to cast this film? There are only three actors, and they're all relatively well-known.  Was one person assigned to find the best actor for each role?

Seems to me the director could have cast this film sitting at home in a chair with his eyes closed.

Saturday, August 29, 2015


Jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker died when he was 34.  If he'd stayed alive, he'd be 95 today.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Bill W

I just read Wild Bill Wellman: Hollywood Rebel.  It's written by his son, William Wellman, Jr., who grew up to be an actor, but nowhere near as famous as his director father. Wellman was one of the most successful directors in Hollywood history, but was he any good?  At the very least, he was a workhorse, who knew how to turn out features at a regular clip--he made over 80 in his career, ones that tended to make money, and sometimes were more than just hits.

Wellman had quite a life before getting into movies.  Born on Leap Year in 1896, he grew up a juvenile delinquent, and then became a great flier in WWI, winning the Croix De Guerre.  His war experience helped him not only as an action director, but as someone who knew how to control a set--he was more than willing to bully people to get his way.

In the 1920s he found himself in Hollywood, and his fame as a pilot helped him meet people.  Douglas Fairbanks, maybe the biggest star of them all, hired him as an actor. He soon discovered he wanted to be on the other side of the camera, and in a few years worked his way up from messenger boy to director. It helped he was hardworking and talented, and also that he had connections--when the studio heads saw him talking to General Black Jack Pershing they were impressed.

Wellman started turning out cheap, profitable pictures, often Westerns. He did have trouble getting along with the suits, and sometimes even got into fights.  He also had trouble with women.  He married  five, finally hitting the jackpot in 1934 with Dorothy Coonan.  They stayed married until his death in 1975, and had seven kids.

Late in the silent era, Paramount decided to do a huge action picture about flying, called Wings.  Rather than use one of their A-directors, they took a chance with the guy who actually knew about flying.  The film was tremendously expensive, and a hard shoot, but Wellman delivered, and Wings, released in 1927, became one of the biggest hits of the decade--the Star Wars of its day.  It also won the first Best Picture Oscar.

Oddly, Wellman was then sent back to churning out smaller pictures, rarely having his choice of assignment.  He left Paramount for Warner Brothers, where he worked with Darryl Zanuck, who virtually ran the place.  Here he made another classic of its genre, The Public Enemy (1931).  It's maybe the greatest gangster picture.  As soon as Jimmy Cagney shoved a grapefruit in his girl's face, he became a star.  He was originally cast in the best friend role, but Wellman and Zanuck soon switched the parts when they saw his work.

Wellman made some other fascinating pictures at WB, such as Night Nurse, Heroes For Sale and Wild Boys Of The Road.  He liked to try every genre, and it can be hard to tell his style, except it's mostly no-nonsense, with the story always moving ahead (Zanuck had some say about that) and solid but generally not distracting camera work.

He made The Call Of The Wild at MGM, with Clark Gable and Loretta Young, and then started working with independent producer David O. Selznick.  Out of this collaboration came two well-remembered films, both in glorious Technicolor at a time when black and white was the norm--A Star Is Born (the first version, and many think the best) and Nothing Sacred (a comedy with the queen of screwball, Carole Lombard).  He also helped out for an uncredited day or two on Selznick's greatest production, Gone With The Wind.

In 1939, he went to work at the big studios again.  At Paramount he made Beau Geste starring Gary Cooper--probably the best version of the story.  At Twentieth Century Fox he made the Ginger Rogers comedy Roxie Hart--based on the hit play Chicago which would eventually be the hit musical Chicago.  He also made The Ox-Bow Incident there, a "serious" Western starring Henry Fonda. He went on in the mid to late 1940s to create some highly regarded war films, including The Story Of G.I. Joe at United Artists, and Battleground at MGM.

He worked steadily in the 1950s, including a number of films starring John Wayne, such as Islands In The Sky and The High And The Mighty.  (He got three Oscar nominations as director for A Star Is Born, Battleground and The High And The Mighty, only winning a shared Oscar for the original story of A Star Is Born.)  His last film, released in 1958, was another flying picture, Lafayette Escadrille.

The book isn't that well written--perhaps we should expect that from his son, who shares inside information, but sometimes too much of minor mishaps and practical jokes that aren't as interesting as Wellman's film career.  But it gets the job done.

As for Wellman the director, it's hard to know what to think of him. I think many of his "classics"--A Star Is Born, Nothing Sacred, The Ox-Bow Incident, The High And The Might and others--are overrated.  But if he made a fair number of middling features, and not that many great films, he made more than his share of decent titles.  He'll be remembered.

Thursday, August 27, 2015


Great TV shows tend to have a voice from the start.  They may improve over time, but titles like The Sopranos, Mad Men and Breaking Bad let you know right away they were different and they were special.

Most shows, however, just remind you of other shows, and you only hope that they're entertaining enough to pass the time.  Even by this standard, it doesn't look like TNT's new drama Public Morals is going to make it.  Created by and starring Edward Burns, it's another show featuring cops and gangsters--where would TV be without them?

It's a period piece, set in New York in the 1960s.  The look isn't as dazzling as, say, Boardwalk Empire, or even Magic City, but that's not nearly as important as solid characters and compelling conflict.  We mostly follow the cops in the public morals division.  (This is one reason why it has to be period--a lot of what was "vice" then is legal now.) Burns is Officer Terry Muldoon and Michael Rappaport plays his partner Charlie Bullman.  We also get to know some of the other cops in the unit, as well as Muldoon's wife and kids.  The pilot also features Timothy Hutton (who's looked better) as a major hood.

The cops have a pretty good deal. Their detail isn't that hard and allows them plenty of opportunity for graft.  It also allows plenty of chances for us to see the seamy side of life--gambling, prostitution and so on--which means the guys get to show how tough they are every now and then.

What the pilot doesn't offer is anything new.  The dialogue is fairly cliched and the situations--dealing with a hooker, infiltrating the hoods, worry about a hell-raising kid--we've seen before.  Unless the show can distinguish itself in the next episode or two, I don't see much reason to stick around.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Hold Your Head High

It was 95 years ago today the Nineteenth Amendment, giving women the right to vote, was made law.  There are people alive today who lived when women couldn't vote (though not many remember it). It's pretty simple, as most good Amendments are.

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

I always wonder what would happen if they didn't put in that last sentence. Wouldn't the Necessary and Proper Clause handle it?

In honor of this event, today is also Women's Equality Day, proclaimed by Congress in 1971.

WHEREAS, the women of the United States have been treated as second-class citizens and have not been entitled the full rights and privileges, public or private, legal or institutional, which are available to male citizens of the United States; and

WHEREAS, the women of the United States have united to assure that these rights and privileges are available to all citizens equally regardless of sex;

WHEREAS, the women of the United States have designated August 26, the anniversary date of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, as symbol of the continued fight for equal rights: and

WHEREAS, the women of United States are to be commended and supported in their organizations and activities,

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that August 26 of each year is designated as "Women's Equality Day," and the President is authorized and requested to issue a proclamation annually in commemoration of that day in 1920, on which the women of America were first given the right to vote, and that day in 1970, on which a nationwide demonstration for women's rights took place.

A little wordier and less poetic.

Then there's Go Topless Day, celebrated on the Sunday nearest Women's Equality Day (it was the 23rd this year). It was invented in 2007 and designed to promote equality.  Make of it what you will.

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