Archive for the ‘The Small Screen’ Category

Mildred Pierce (2011)

Monday, January 9th, 2012

Mildred Pierce (HBO) Difrected by Todd Haynes  Written by Tod Haynes; Jonathan Raymond  Starring Kate Winslet; Guy Pearce; Evan Rachel Wood; Brian O’Byrne; Mare Winningham; James Legros; Melissa Leo; Morgan Turner; Hope Davis; Marin Ireland; Ronald Guttman; Miriam Shor

Melodrama is most often synonymous with soapy, overdone weepies filled with big acting and plot overstuffed with tragedy. With Todd Haynes it becomes something very different - period piece, riff on earlier masters like Douglas Sirk, and simply put - emotion infused drama of the highest order. This five part, 336 minute HBO mini-series has already deservedly received a heap of awards, including an Emmy for Kate Winslet, Guy Pearce, and ones for music (the great Carter Burwell), casting, and art direction, and is nominated for many others. Based on the 1941 novel by James M. Cain, this adaptation follows the well-known 1945 film of the same name, which famously starred Joan Crawford. This version (perhaps owed in large part to the run time) remains truer to the book, telling the story entirely from Mildred’s perspective. Kate Winslet is nothing less than outstanding in a demanding role in which she is on screen throughout, dominating with a subtle, nuanced performance from start to finish. Guy Pearce as lover and later, husband, Monty; Melissa Leo as pal Lucy; and Evan Rachel Wood as grown up daughter Veda are also superb (young Morgan Turner is less successful as child Veda). Cinematographer Edward Lachman, who also teamed up with Haynes in Far From Heaven, gives the series a warm, cinematic look, and the period is lovingly evoked from an obviously talented design team and a director with a top-notch feel for period. The story revolves around the newly divorced Mildred’s search for identity and financial independence in pre-WWII America, but its narrow focus on one woman’s life does not belie the relevance to greater issues having to do with women, class, and the concept of the American dream. Though Mildred’s daughter Veda is a bit of a one dimensional character, blindly ambitious and pretentious from a young age, she is, of course, an outgrowth of something deep inside Mildred, a manifestation of her own desire to be better in the eyes of the community, and to live up to what she believes herself to be. Adapted by Haynes and director Kelly Reichart’s frequent collaborator Jonathan Raymond, the script is tightly wound and extremely well modulated. An exceptional piece of filmmaking for a cable television station that continues to provide a home for important work in several formats.

Unguarded (2011)

Monday, January 9th, 2012

Unguarded (USA) (doc) Directed by Jonathan Hock

Currently being shown on ESPN.

Chris Herren is a former NBA basketball player whose struggle with drugs and alcohol is documented in this look at one man’s battle to overcome his own personal demons.

Herren grew up in basketball crazed Fall River, Massachusetts, a working class community some 45 miles southeast of Boston.  A shorter distance to Providence RI, Fall River has a reputation as a depressed ex mill town that’s a long way removed from ‘better days’, a place where most are born, grow up, and die without leaving.

Raised in a basketball family, Herren, now 36, is one of the greatest high school players to come out of the state. He was an All American and the Gatorade Player of the Year during his senior season. In his junior year he and his team’s state championship drive was chronicled in Providence Journal writer Bill Reynold’s 1994 book Fall River Dreams. Reynolds has co-written a new book with Herren, entitled Basketball Junkie (2011), and the writer appears briefly in the film.

Following high school, Herren accepted a scholarship to Boston College, transferred to Fresno State, played in the NBA for the Denver Nuggets and Boston Celtics, and then overseas in five different countries, but throughout his journey drugs and alcohol ruled his life, and among other revelations is the fact that Herren admits to playing in college while under the influence of cocaine, and playing professional basketball while being a full-blown heroin user.

Longtime documentary director Jonathan Hock slickly frames the story by showing Herren in his current role as motivational speaker as he tells his story to different groups, interspersing interviews with relatives (the ones with brother Mike are particularly poignant), friends, and basketball insiders like coaches Jerry Tarkanian and Rick Pitino; old photos and footage; and journeying to some key spots in Herren’s past as he relates anecdotes about his playing career and raging substance abuse.

According to Herren he is now (at the time of the filming) three years sober, and spends his time working with recovering addicts, public speaking, and coaching kids. Married, with three children, and clearly contrite about his problematic history, Herren admits to neglecting his family and wasting lots of money on drugs, though, with the exception of a few stories, and some detailing of several arrests, very few specifics emerge about his behavior. Thus, though wife Heather emerges as a kind of stalwart hero, one is left to guess about the merely alluded to extent of what she endured, and immediate questions about her husband’s fidelity, how she has survived as he admittedly sold off their possessions, etc. abound.

As is the film is still a worthwhile cautionary tale, and one must credit the appealing Herren with being willing to expose himself in this way, but the final product is still an obviously manicured profile as opposed to a serious investigative documentary, and whether the supposition is true or not it feels very much as if Herren (like any addict worth their salt) is dictating the terms here. While it would be silly not to recognize the courage it takes to admit to nearly ruining one’s life in this manner, and callous not to applaud him for turning things around, it seems as if concerns for the people closest to him may have led Herren to be less than forthcoming regarding the experiences in his own life, and by extension, the lives of his family members. Admirable perhaps, but not necessarily conducive to telling the whole story.

One only has to look at some of the missing information to see that this is a less than fully rounded piece. In addition to the previous questions posed, there is little to no mention of brother Mike’s own, publicized trouble with the law, including a 2010 arrest and incarceration for beating his twenty five year old girlfriend; the nature of the brothers past and/or present relationship with father Al, or the senior Herren’s well-known career in Massachusetts politics; the impact of the two books involving Herren’s life; his parent’s divorce; the affect his mother’s death had on him; or, the fact that writer Reynolds married his mother. One is therefore left with a host of serious lingering questions about his ongoing mental health and treatment (scant information is given); his family background and possible problems in his childhood home; his wife and children’s road to healing (have they gotten the professional help they obviously deserve and need?); he and his family’s current financial situation; and the reasons why a handsome, superstar athlete with all the gifts in the world becomes a serious heroin addict.

Simply stating he grew up in Fall River and that there was a lot of pressure to live up to community/family expectations is frankly not nearly enough to begin to answer those questions, and unfortunately the film doesn’t even try. An interesting story, but given its handling perhaps better suited for a segment on HBO’s Real Sports.

Ten (and ten more) Television Shows Worth Watching

Tuesday, July 5th, 2011

Any list - particularly one involving television with its massive viewership and serial nature, is open to debate. For every group of Mad Men devotees there are no doubt an equally massive number of passionate fans of Family Guy, NCIS, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, or True Blood. This is, therefore, a subjective list of the best in narrative (as in it doesn’t include reality or talk programming of any kind) television currently on the air.

1. Mad Men (AMC)

Four seasons in, the best thing on TV. Already but a few pegs below The Wire and The Sopranos, and on par with Deadwood, as one of the best shows of the past decade.

2. Dexter (SHO)

Going into season six, Dexter may well have slipped some, but remains intriguing due to its signature color drenched cinematography and a gripping lead performance from Michael C. Hall, elements that help make this serial killer/police show one of the best on the air.

3. Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO)

Misanthropic Larry David brings his innovative black comedy back for an eighth season (Seinfeld only ran for nine) and it shows no signs of slowing down.

4. Boardwalk Empire (HBO)

Great start to a sweeping series that hints at the possibilities of becoming an all time great. One hopes only that, ala Deadwood, budget considerations don’t force a premature end.

5. Breaking Bad (AMC)

Bryan Cranston heads a solid cast as Walter White, the ex-science teacher turned cancer survivor/big time meth dealer/manufacturer. Three seasons in, the show continues to prove itself to be a singular series without legitimate comparison.

6. Men of a Certain Age (TBS)

Ray Romano’s first series following Raymond is an insightful, tonally complex look at middle aged men and their problems. Smart, understated, and well acted.

7. Friday Night Lights (NBC via DIR TV)

Yes, it’s nearly over, but Friday is technically still alive. It will be missed.

8. Nurse Jackie (SHO)

The brilliant Edie Falco heads a marvelous cast of a show that revels in the minutiae of one morally compromised woman.

9. Weeds (SHO)

Last season (six) was not a high point in the shows history as, with the advent of the Mexican criminal plot, it began to devolve into the absurd. While the jury is still out after a few mediocre first few episodes of season seven, Weeds has been a long time quality mainstay.

10. Louie (FX)

Like Seinfeld with less set dressing than season one and way, way, way more depression. From the brilliant comedic mind of Louie C.K., something of an anti-show. It’s at times, shockingly honest, in a really refreshing (though sobering) way. Like Men of a Certain Age minus any of the good times and/or friendly banter or comeraderie, or Curb except meaner and a lot lonelier and more misanthropic.

Ten More Good Ones (in no particular order)

Episodes (SHO) Matt Leblanc (that’s right, Joey) stars as a version of himself. Surprisingly good first season.

Californication (SHO) While it dropped off some during a wildly uneven fourth season, threatening to become a kind of parody of itself, the show survives thanks to consistently profane and clever writing; David Duchovony’s mostly likable miscreant writer Hank Moody; a quality supporting cast (Evan Handler; Natascha McElhone; Pamela Adlon); fun guest stars, and a high insider Hollywood quotient.

The Office (NBC) It has become de rigueur to bash this show in recent seasons, but it’s still one of the best things on TV. Will be interesting to see where the show goes following the Michael Scott departure.

The Sarah Silverman Show (COM CENTR) Absurd, but consistently funny stuff from the twisted mind of one of the best comics out there.

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FOX) Perhaps television’s most irreverent half hour keeps chugging along as it heads into it’s seventh season.

Modern Family (ABC) Disappointing fall-off after a stellar season one. This year might be make it or break it.

Parenthood (ABC) Though there are times when one wishes this family drama would take more chances, it is network television and this is about as good as it gets right now in terms of narrative drama heading into next season.

Life and Times of Tim (HBO) Critically (and critically) neglected animated series.

How To Make it in America (HBO) Another one the critics seem to have missed. An energetic show about two NYC hustlers trying to earn a buck.

The Ricky Gervais Show (HBO) Arose out of the podcast run by Gervais and his British Office partner Stephen Merchant, revolving around their animated discussions with idiot (savant?) Karl Pilkington.

It’s a Wrap for Party Down

Sunday, July 4th, 2010

Party Down(Starz)

Party Down recently finished its second season on cable channel Starz. Despite being the best little known show on the airwaves, it will not be returning for a third.

 Like so many other top quality televised comedy series of the past decade (Arrested Development; UndeclaredFreaks and Geeks, et al), Party Down didn’t get enough viewers/wasn’t well promoted or given enough time to find its way, and will simply fade away to a life on DVD. There was some indication the show wouldn’t be coming back as some of the leads began taking jobs on other shows (i.e. Adam Scott on Parks and Recreation), but one hoped that the channel might’ve recognized what they had and found creative promotional ideas to push what was one of the best shows out there.

The last episode of Season Two (entitled Constance Carmel’s Wedding) wasn’t a conclusive one as obviously there wasn’t enough cancellation warning. The show brought back ex-Party Down staffer Jane Lynch (Glee) as Constance, the bride celebrating her new age wedding to Howard Greengold (Alex Rocco), a loud, obnoxious oldster with an air tank and multiple marriages under his belt, whose daughter Mona (Jennifer Irwin) wants to stop the wedding to prevent, as she puts it, that ”cunt (from) spending our fortune on scented candles”

Like all of the events catered by the pink bow-tied ones the wedding winds up being something of a disaster. Casey (Lizzy Caplan) finds out that her scene in the Apatow movie has been cut. When Henry (Scott) tries to console her, she accuses him of not being able to understand because he doesn’t care about anything. Later, the vacuous Ryan (Kyle Bradway) is having trouble understanding a script he is reading for an audition, and (perhaps in part to prove something to Casey) Henry gets inspired by the project. Roman (Martin Starr) samples some wedding treats that turn out to be marijuana infused and gets hilariously super high. Supervisor Ron (Ken Marino) is looking at a promotion from owner Bolus Lugozshe (Michael Hitchcock), but finds his love for the boss’s daughter, the engaged Danielle (June Diane Raphael), too overwhelming to contain. Lydia (Megan Mulally) meanwhile, sees an opening with the divorced Bolus, and attempts to apply her charms.

The hijinks and basic formula were pretty much the same episode to episode, and yet writers/producers/ creators, ex-Veronica Marspartners, John Enbom and Dan Etheridge (Rob Thomas and Paul Rudd also co-created) managed to infuse the well-paced show with so much intelligent, cutting edge, pop-culture infused humor that it seemed to matter little. Recurring roles, guest stars, and cameos from the likes of Kristen Bell; JK Simmons; Ed Begley Jr., Rick Fox, Andres Royo; Joey Lauren Adams; George Takei; Ken Jeong; Thomas Lennon; Christopher Mintz-Plasse; and Steve Guttenberg added to the talents of a wonderfully strong cast. Unfortunately (though at this point, not surprisingly) another good one bites the dust, leaving the television landscape that much more barren in its wake.

William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe (2009)

Saturday, July 3rd, 2010

William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe (USA)Directed by Sarah Kunstler; Emily Kunstler

Access is often king when it comes to documentary, and who better to obtain entry to a subject than those individuals closest to said subject. At the same time, those who choose to take on the task of documenting real life people and events have a certain inherent responsibility, regardless of agenda, to try to tell the truth, a task made exponentially more arduous when said filmmaker has a close personal investment in their relationship with his or her subject or their legacy. The good news here is Sarah Kunstler and Emily Kunstler (who narrates), daughters of controversial defense attorney and social and political activist William, do a laudable job of asking some pertinent and difficult questions about many of the professional decisions made by their father. Were they as circumspect when it came to detailing and analyzing his personal life, this portrait might have felt a bit more rounded, though there is some brief coverage of the time before he became famous, which included a privileged upbringing, a stint in the army during WWII, a small private law practice, a first wife and two daughters, and a placid suburban New York existence. Kunstler served as director of the ACLU during the sixties, and is perhaps best known for his role in the 1969/70 Chicago Eight (later Seven) trial, where the sight of Black Panther Bobby Seale being bound and gagged in the courtroom would affect him to such an extent that he found himself forever changed. Through photographs, news footage, and taped interviews with Kunstler and many of those who knew him best, his career is recounted from his early activism for civil rights and peace, and his involvement with famous historical events like The Attica prison riot, the siege at Wounded Knee, and the Central Park wilding case. Emily talks about growing up in a household with a famous father who was a constant target for threats, and how the fear she and her sister felt as children affected them. At one point, the FBI purchased an apartment across the street from their childhood household to monitor their father’s  comings and goings. Later in his career, Kunstler began taking on a series of cases that confused even his most loyal and ardent supporters, defending mafia figures and a series of terrorist bombers. Regardless of what one thinks about Kunstler’s politics, however, his dedication to his ideals, which included the staunch commitment to the concept that even the most heinous of accused criminals deserve an adequate defense, must be admired. For many years, he was at the forefront of defending the disenfranchised, risking his own personal safety and reputation in mainstream society to put his money where his mouth was. Despite the many people who were critical of his love for publicity, and refusal to bow to public pressure when it came to unpopular clients, his funeral in 1995 was attended by thousands, many of whom benefitted in ways great and small from his fearless dedication to the principles he held sacred.

Season One of Parenthood Wraps

Friday, May 28th, 2010

Parenthood (NBC) (10pm)

There is a definite dearth of quality scripted drama on broadcast TV nowadays. Gone are the West Wings and ERs - hour long programs that became long term mainstays for their networks. While Parenthood  is in no way close to being in the same league as those modern classics it does contain some compelling characters played by a top-notch cast, and writing that is a step above standard tube fare. 

Parenthood aired its 13th and final episode (Lost and Found) of season one on Wednesday night. The show highlighted both the positives and negatives of a freshman season that has, at times, artfully walked the line between serious and more lightweight humor infused drama, but has also been hampered by some overly pat episodic conclusions that periodically undercut the edgier aspects of subtley developed familiar complications.

The cast, as noted, is a good one. Though Maura Tierney was forced to drop out for health reasons (necessitating the re-shooting of the pilot), Lauren Graham proved to be an adequate replacement as 40-ish single Mom/bartender Sarah Braverman, who returns to her childhood home with her two teenagers and hopes of making a new go of things. The Braverman siblings include uber responsible shoe company exec Adam (Six Feet Under’s Peter Krause); perfectionist corporate attorney Julia (Erika Christensen); and free spirited music producer Crosby (Dax Shepard).

This is a true ensemble, however, and parents Zeek (Craig T. Nelson) and Camille (Bonnie Bedilia); significant others Kristina (Monica Potter), Joel (Sam Jaeger), and Jasmine (Joy Bryant), and kids Amber (Mae Whitman) and Haddie (Sarah Ramos) all play prominent roles in the family dynamics that define the show. Issues include father Zeek’s financial woes; the surprise appearance of a son Jabaar (Tyree Brown), who Crosby didn’t know he had; Sarah’s affair with Amber’s teacher, Mark Cyr (Jason Ritter); Kristina’s issues with daughter Sydney’s (Savannah Paige Rae) friend’s catty mother, Racquel (Erinn Hayes); Adam and Kristina’s child Max’s (Max Burkholder) autism diagnosis; and a controversy between cousins Haddie and Amber having to do with a boy. Additional season guests include Mike O’Malley and Minka Kelly (Friday Night Lights).

The family contretempts mostly seem true to life. When the show is cooking it even feels as if it could turn into something… well, more. But the final episode illustrates the essential dilemma. Audiences who have watched the likes of Weeds; Six Feet Under; The Sopranos; Dexter; Deadwood; Mad Men; and Breaking Bad  have come to expect multi-faceted characters and psychologically complex, colorfully nuanced storylines. While one can understand the limits of network series, which don’t have as much freedom with language or sex, and also have imposed upon them the pressure to appeal quickly to wide reaching demographic categories, the show too often feels the need to make individual episodes and sub-plots work out neatly and happily.    

This holds true in a final episode that begins with great promise. After amping up the drama with Amber running away from home; Crosby’s pain and confusion over dancer Jasmine’s sudden move to New York; and Zeek’s financial mess and continued quest to get his wife back, we get an ending that includes Zeek serenading his wife in front of the whole family and then all of them joyfully attending Sarah’s son Drew’s (Miles Heizer) high school baseball tryouts. While the scene with Zeek singing to his wife pulled at the heartstrings, at best it was a schmaltzy way to bring a complicated, ongoing plotline to conclusion. Immediately after the song Camille is seen attending the baseball tryouts with Zeek and the rest, something she had adamently stated minutes before wasn’t going to happen. And oh boy, the tryouts - a musical montage obviously harkening back to the first show of the season when the family attends Max’s little league game, but a serious mis-step nonetheless. First, baseball tryouts last multiple days; second, virtually no outsider attends them, let alone an entire cheering and shouting extended family. While this might seem a small quibble, show writers and producers should know better, especially with something as important  as the wrap-up of your inaugural season.  

Based on the film of the same name, the series was brought to the small screen by the team of Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, who know their way around audience pleasing/middle of the road material. One can only hope that the showrunners will build on its strengths and stay away from the cliched cloying moments that threaten to sink the Braverman ship.

Party Down: Season 1 on DVD

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009

Party Down(Starz) Starring Adam Scott; Ryan Hansen; Lizzy Caplan; Ken Marino; Martin Starr; Jane Lynch; Jennifer Coolidge; Ken Jeong

Now available on DVD, season 1 of Party Down,a Starz original comedy series from Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas and several other Mars writer/producers (the team also includes Fred Savage and Paul Rudd). The show is based on a group of aspiring Hollywood types who work for the Party Down catering company and shares tonal similarities with programs like The Office and Freaks and Geeks (on which several Party cast members appeared). Though clunky in places from a production standpoint, Party Downis well cast, written, and acted. Adam Scott stars as Henry, who, within the reality of the show,  is well known for appearing in a series of beer commercials in which he uttered a famous catch phrase. Having recently decided to quit acting, he is depressed and disaffected, trying to quell his pain with booze, prescription meds, and cigarettes. Hired as a bartender by old friend Ron (Ken Marino), the ineffectual manager of the operation, he takes an instant liking to co-worker Casey (Lizzy Caplan), a struggling comedian. The other staffers include nerdy would-be screenwriter Roman (Martin Starr); vacuous actor Kyle (Ryan Hansen); and rommates Constance (Jane Lynch) and Bobbie (Jennifer Coolidge), two washed up middle-aged actresses who can’t let go. Ken Jeong plays owner Alan Duk. Jeong; Lynch; Coolidge; and Starr are well-known to TV and film comedy fans. Fans of Veronica Mars too will recognize many of these actors from the show, and Kristen Bell even shows up in one episode, playing a Nazi-like boss of a rival company. The show is not laugh out loud funny, and there is nothing groundbreaking here, but this is easily as good or better than most of the so-called comedies on network TV, and in the same ballpark as some of the better offerings on Showtime and HBO.

Let’s Get Lost (1988)

Thursday, August 27th, 2009

Let’s Get Lost (USA) (DOC) Directed by Bruce Weber

Bruce Weber’s films have a signature look - lush, high contrast black and white with scenes that sometimes seem as if they’re solely comprised of a series of expertly posed still shots. No surprise perhaps as Weber is best known as a fashion photographer. As he did with Oregon boxer (and Calvin Klein model) Andy Minsker in Broken Noses(made the year before), here he focuses on a single individual - jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, and poses him in a series of locations (driving in a convertible; at the beach; at an amusement park; at The 1987 Cannes Film Festival), weaving them with voice over, photographs (including the famous William Claxton ones) interviews, and music (much of it Baker’s) to great effect.

Baker was fifty six when Weber began making the film in 1987, and by 1989 he’d be dead. His middle-aged, wrinkled, sunken, hard-luck face is juxtaposed throughout the film with clips and photos of his fresh-scrubbed, high cheek-boned, youthful self. Imbued with Baker’s smooth though mournful music and haunting tenor vocals there is an air of sadness permeating the film. For all his professional achievement, this is not a life lived well or happily, and the regrets are inextricably linked with the main subject’s recollections of his own past.

Chesney Baker was born in Oklahoma in 1929. His family moved to California when he was ten years old. His father, who he describes as distant and cold, was a country western musician. He bought young Chet a trumpbone, which was too big for him to play, and then a trumpet, and within days the boy with a natural ear was playing his instrument with the skill of someone who’d had years of lessons.

Baker was a heroin addict for the majority of his adult years, a fact that is openly discussed in the film. As the film goes on it becomes evident that Baker is still an active addict, and there is more than one interview where he slurs his words or nods out. At one point Weber asks him about the best time of his life and Baker goes on to describe getting high by mixing heroin and cocaine. Like most addicts, Baker inflicted more than his share of pain on those who loved him, including his mother (who admits, with great difficulty, that he has been a disappointment as a son), his past loves, and four children.

It is to Weber’s credit that he doesn’t shy away from allowing those in Baker’s life to share in the telling. He is described by still bitter ex girlfriend, singer Ruth Young (herself a long time drug abuser), as being a manipulator and con man whose story about himself is always self-aggrandizing, and thus circumspect. She talks about an incident when Baker had his teeth knocked out, and says the real story is that Baker owed drug dealers and was beaten up because of it (Baker claims he was simply robbed while going to buy drugs). His second wife, British native Carol, the mother of three of his children (Paul; Missy; and Dean), talk about him blowing in and out of their lives whenever he felt like it, never telling them when he was coming or going.

Long time girlfriend Diane Vavre is in many of the scenes with Baker, but even she describes him as being untrustworthy, manipulative, and abusive, stating at one point that as long as you understand Chet’s a junkie you’re okay. Paul, Missy, and Dean (in their twenties at the time of filming), speak about living in small town Oklahoma, and seeing their father only on rare occasions. At one point one of them jokes that someone should tell their father they need money. We never hear from his oldest child, son Chesney Aftab, with second wife Halima, though Carol and his other children talk about Chesney coming to visit them and always managing to miss Chet’s visits, a fact they say upsets the young man who hadn’t had much contact with his biological father.

Though he died tragically in Amsterdam, having fallen from a hotel window, Baker survived longer than many of his fellow drug-addicted Jazz contemporaries, undergoing the loss of his teeth, which cost him years of playing trumpet (he eventually re-learned to play with dentures), failed marriages, and various drug related arrests. His professional life included playing with Charlie Parker, who had a hand in discovering him, being part of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, with whom he made some of his most famous recordings (including My Funny Valentine); being named top performer of the year in the fifties; long stints in Paris, and other cities across Europe, where he was wildly popular; and even an acting appearance in an Italian film (he was also jailed in Italy for possession). He was too the basis for the lead character Chad Bixby in the 1960 filmThe Fine Young Cannibals (directed by Michael Anderson), played by Robert Wagner.

Although opinions on the measure of Baker’s talent vary, he is at least in the discussion by most experts as one of the greatest jazz trumpeters who ever lived. His style was an embodiment of the cool, California sound, a fluid style thought to have arisen in relation to the temperate climate. Though Baker did not read music, or at least only had a rudimentary understanding of it, and though he did not compose, he had a tremendous ear for music, and a knack for being able to pick up nearly anything after listening to it once. His underrated voice had a kind of singular quality, mirroring a mellifluous instrument in some ways as he extended certain notes.

Though Weber, an openly gay man, is clearly objectifying Baker to some extent, admittedly having been initially drawn to a photo of him (as he likely was with boxer Minsker), there is perhaps something fitting about the treatment. Long after his death, Baker continues to enjoy iconographic stature, a fact that is likely attributable to several factors (including his race and talent), not the least of which being the way he looked. It is slightly odd though to see Minsker, Baker, and singer Chris Isaak (a Baker enthusiast) at a restaurant table in Cannes, looking a bit like the same person at three different ages.

The Academy Award nominated Let’s Get Lost has long been unavailable on DVD, although it has recently appeared on The Sundance Channel on cable.

The Boys Are Back: Entourage, Season 6

Saturday, July 18th, 2009

Entourage(HBO) Sunday Nights, 10pm; and on Comcast HBO on Demand

This past Sunday saw the return of Entourage, a show that has already baffled some with its longevity; and while it’s definitely an example of a program that hasn’t taken many chances throughout its first 5 seasons, perhaps the main reason is because from the beginning its formula was strong - a group of young wannabees from New York who surround a big Hollywood movie star. There was always no small degree of wish fulfillment at play, and the shows celebrity quotient has, from the get-go, been satisfyingly high.

Entourage has taken us through some of the ups and downs of the career of Vincent Chase (Adrien Grenier) - Vince on top; Vince on bottom; Vince in no man’s land, but the real draw and the heart of the show is the interaction between the guys. The obvious runaway character from the start was Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven), an example of an actor finding his perfect role at the right time. Piven, who has won three Emmys for his portrayal of the weasley uber-agent, brought his natural manic energy to a character whose naked ambition and greed knows no bounds.

The appearance of Ari’s assistant Llloyd (Rex Lee) in season 2 re-energized the show, providing a fitting foyle for Ari, as well a target for his non-stop abuse. Lloyd puts up with Ari’s shit, his ethnic and gay slurs, showing him nothing but loyalty and dedication (if occasional attitude) in return, but since his introduction it has been clear to those paying attention that Lloyd was biding his time, learning the business, making connections, and lying in wait till the moment was right to make his move. Episode one has Lloyd presenting Ari with an ultimatum - a promotion or he walks. It will be interesting to see what happens with Ari’s long suffering man servant.

This season will no doubt be about growing up. In Episode One Sloan (Emmanuelle Chriqui) convinces Eric (Kevin Connolly) that he should consider subletting her girlfriend’s house for a year while said friend is out of the country. Eric is conflicted because he knows that abandoning their latest frat-like mansion will upset the balance of cash cow Vince’s life (which is, after all, all of their concern). Meanwhile, Turtle (Jerry Ferrara) has a real live girlfriend, Jamie Lynn Sigler - playing a version of herself (the two are also dating in real life), with whom he now spends much of his time. With the Scorcese film (Gatsby) under his belt, and another big one on its way, Vince’s career is back on track, but once again he’s minus a committed relationship. Can a pretty young thing he likes who is either too busy with her career, or suddenly has to move away, or must go back to her fiancee be far off on the horizon?

We can expect more celeb cameos (including Zak Effron; Tom Brady; Matt Damon), which will inevitably either click (like Gary Busey; Saigon; Seth Green; Val Kilmer) or fall a bit short, but mostly Doug Ellin and friends have the right idea. Ellin gently prods the Hollywood establishment, but never really rips into it, for he, and the  actors in the show, are now all members of the A/B-list party they portray and they are well aware of where their bread is buttered. The aim is to slightly skewer instead of roast.

One thing that is mostly dead on, however, is the soundtrack, a usually interesting and eclectic mix of classic and new rock and hip hop. The opening chapter in season six is no different, as it features a diverse mix of songs from artists like The Cure; Easy E; and The Verve. The show isn’t always as cutting edge and up to date as the music though, as a reference to Greg Garcia and the dearly departed My Name is Earl  in show 1 demonstrates, but that’s the price you pay from peppering your plots with pop references. After all, they do have to film these things in advance.

Will Lloyd quit and work for someone else (studio chief Dana Gordon (Constance Zimmer) maybe)? Will Ari once again remind Dana during a phone conversation that they once slept together? Will Ari’s buddy Andrew Klein (Gary Cole) turn out to be a drunk and cost him clients, thus forcing him to eat crow and apologize to Babs (Beverly De’Angelo)? Will Eric continue to grow, obtaining other clients and separating his personal life from Vince? Will Eric get back with Sloan? Will Vince stay on top? Will bad actor Drama (Kevin Dillon) win a People’s Choice Award? Will Turtle blow it with his famous, way too hot girlfriend? Will Turtle smoke weed and play video games? Will Ari piss off the wife (Perrey Reeves) he really loves and be forced to buy her a jet to make it up to her? Will Shauna (Debbie Mazar) suggest one of the guys go fuck themselves?

Entourage has never put itself out there as being a show dedicated to examining world problems, politics, or pressing emotional and psychological issues, and it doesn’t. What it does, better than most shows in TV history, in fact, is show how a group of guys (albeit in extraordinary circumstances) behaves around one another, how hierarchy and roles are defined and re-enforced within the group, how loyalty is tested in variety of ways, and how ball busting is one hobby that never goes out of style, at least amongst male friends. The show might be repetitive, it might have a story arc that goes in more circles than a merry-go-round, but it’s usually a fun ride, and watching it is as comfortable and casual an experience as having a few beers with some old friends at your favorite local bar.

Pushing Daisies is Now, well…

Friday, June 26th, 2009

Pushing Daisies (ABC)

Though this is a week or so belated, it seems only right to wish a fond farewell to the ABC series Pushing Daisies, which will not be returning for a second season. The whimsical, fantastical, and colorful series, which went off the air for good recently (the show had previously stopped airing, but ABC ran three final episodes to cap the 22 show run), was a welcome change of pace on network television - currently dominated by reality and police procedural programs (just how many CSI and CSI clones are there anyway?).

Pushing Daisieshad a nice start, one that relied on a solid cast led by Lee Pace as Ned The Pie-maker, the man in charge of The Pie Hole, a restaurant exclusively dedicated to the making and selling of his fresh, wonderfully inventive and classic pies; Chi McBride as grizzled detective Emerson Cod; Brit Anna Friel as Charlotte “Chuck” Charles, Ned’s childhood neighbor and back-from-the-dead girlfriend; Kristin Chenowith as waitress Olive Snook; and Swoosie Kurtz and Ellen Green as Charlotte’s eccentric, ex-Aqua-gymnastic performing aunts (The Darling Mermaid Darlings), Lily and Vivian Charles.

Right from the beginning (the pilot was directed by Barry Sonnefeld) the show had a kind of ethereal, fairy-tale quality to it - with a deep-voiced, witticism spouting narrator (Jim Dale), bizarre costumes, and rich, multi-colored set design that consistently took us to never-never-land (not the ranch). The show was blessed with the eye-winking humor of a Fractured Fairytales cartoon from the 1960s, with visuals like an hour long Starburst commercial, and often boasted surrealistic fantasy sequences, the likes of which Syd and Marty Croft would have been proud. Show producers labeled it a “forensic fairytale,” and it was intended from the start to look like a storybook. The CGI aided visuals drew favorable comparisons to the work of director Tim Burton.

Created by Bryan Fuller, the scripts were full of double entendres and in-jokes, with mischievousness sometimes bordering on the naughty (starting with little ball of energy Olive’s low cut skirts and tops), like live action animation without the animation. The show felt like some kind of bizarre combination of The Wizard of Oz, Pee Wee’s Playhouse, and Alice and Wonderland with mile-a-minute, pun-filled dialogue straight of a 1930s screwball comedy or a 1940s detective noir. The inclusion of vintage automobiles and the distinct lack of modern technology contributed to creating an off kilter reality happening in a kind of nebulous semi-retro time period.

At it’s essence, it was a detective drama/comedy of sorts, with a touch of the supernatural (bringing back the recently murdered in order to ascertain clues to solve the crime), even if the end result, to whit, the solving of the mystery/crime, often seemed somewhat beside the point. The chemistry between the main players was good. Olive (Emerson Cod called her “Itty-Bitty”), pining over her beloved pie-maker, but begrudgingly befriending his beloved, the kind-hearted Charlotte. Ned, he of the unhappy childhood, possessing a gift that was also a curse (and in the beginning also a secret about what he, as a child, had done to Charlotte’s Dad) and Charlotte, the undead - two fated lovers desperately wanting one another, but unable to touch because it would kill Charlotte… again. The Aunts, nursing lifetimes of hurt and disappointment, and mourning the death of their dear niece (we would find out later the relationship ran deeper, or perhaps more dear?). Finally, the grumpy, curmudgeonly, money hungry detective Emerson Cod, the pop-out children’s book hobbyist, who we would discover wanted more than anything to see his long lost daughter again.

There were also a slew of notable recurring characters and guest spots filled by veteran actors like Stephen Root, David Arquette, and, fittingly, Paul Ruebens - each new episode unveiling additional, more absurdly wacky characters then the next. Along the way a bevy of unfortunate victims were decapitated, buried in cement, burned, suffocated, drowned, and thrown in pots of boiling substances, but somehow it was all accomplished with a feathery touch and just the right amount of camp to make it go down easy. Perhaps it was the very juxtaposition of the darkness looming behind all that joviality, color splashes, and smiles that made it work. The stories and the alliteratively named characters always verged on utter nonsense, but mostly things were kept in the realm of the believably unbelievable with a solid cast, enough heartfelt emotion, and that dose of underlying pain and despair, to keep us coming back.

By the end of the season the show did, unfortunately, run out of a bit of dramatic steam, and even before the cancellation became official it felt at times that the storyline would’ve needed to veer into a slightly different direction in order to stay vibrant and avoid the repetition it may have been experiencing. The final episode felt like what it has been reported to be - a rushed attempt to put some kind of capper on the limited run. Pushing Daisies deserved a better farewell, and probably at least another season to see if they could do a bit of re-invention and breathe new life into the proceedings, but we will never discover whether or not that would have happened. Death can, after all, come when we least expect it.