Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Underrated Movies: Special Guest Picks #10

Long-time fans might remember our friend Dan McCoy from his piece way back in March. Now he comes along and swipes two movies I’d been meaning to do myself: (Can you guess which two? I’ll bet you can…)

California Split (1974)

Robert Altman is one of my favorite American directors, and this is in the upper tier of his work, but it’s under-seen and (as a result) under-loved, probably because it wasn’t available on DVD until 2004—and even that DVD is now out of print.

There’s not much in the way of traditional plot here – Elliott Gould plays a compulsive gambler who falls into an enabling/co-dependent friendship with George Segal, who is well on his way to a gambling problem of his own, and the film simply follows them on their relentless quest for more action. The screenplay (which writer Joseph Walsh originally developed with Steven Spielberg) somehow manages to be about the depressing subject of compulsive behavior, without being depressing itself. This is a comedy – albeit a cagey, bittersweet one – that drifts along on Altman’s overlapping dialogue (Wikipedia notes this was the first non-Cinerama movie to use 8-track stereo) and Elliott Gould’s charm (I think that cineastes sometimes overstate the quality of 1970s American film, but I love any time period that would allow Gould to be a movie star).

Lastly—and I’ll try not to offer spoilers—the movie finds a way to avoid the “compulsive gambler story” cliché of ending with the characters losing everything. The film plays the much more interesting, and realistic, trick of turning a traditionally “happy” ending into a sad one. Rumor has it that the film is out of print to clear the way for a new DVD release that will restore scenes that had to be altered or cut in the first version, due to music rights issues. Let’s hope it’s back in circulation soon.

Road Games (1981)

I rented this movie after seeing Not Quite Hollywood, the documentary about “Ozsploitation” films—exploitation movies that poured out of Australia in the 1970s and 80s. This is a much more restrained film than some of the gonzo visions catalogued in that doc, but it carries some of the disreputable charge that the best thrillers tend to pack.

Speaking of thrillers: why were they so great in the late 70s and early 80s, and are so terrible now? I can’t answer that question, but it may be because those films still followed the lessons of Hitchcock’s “ordinary man” thrillers (with an added dose of sex and violence courtesy of the MPAA ratings system), whereas modern thrillers prefer nonsensical twist endings.

Richard Franklin, the director of Road Games, certainly took his cues from Hitchcock (in fact, after this film he directed Psycho II, which—I’ll give it this—is just about as good as an unnecessary sequel to a masterpiece could hope to be). Road Games is essentially Rear Window made as a trucker film. Instead of a laid-up photographer watching neighbors through their apartment windows, our hero is a long-haul truck driver who spends his days talking to himself, or his pet dingo (like I said: Australian). As he drives, he spies on his fellow travelers, in their cars, and becomes convinced that one of them is the serial murderer who’s been terrorizing women along his route. Things get more complex when an attractive young hitchhiker he picked up goes missing, and the police become convinced he’s the one behind the killings.

With a charming (and young!) Stacy Keach as our hero, a fresh-faced Jamie Lee Curtis as the hitchhiker, stylish cinematography, a great sick joke ending, and the best Bolero-knock-off score in the world, Road Games is the Rear-Window-meets-Duel ozsploitstravaganza you didn’t know you needed.

The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)

The Coen Brothers have such a devoted cult that it seems silly to proclaim any of their films underrated (unless you’re a contrarian championing Intolerable Cruelty or The Ladykillers, in which case: you’re wrong). However, The Man Who Wasn’t There had the bad luck to come after O Brother, Where Art Thou? which was a bona fide phenomenon (albeit as much for its soundtrack as anything). It seems to have slipped through the cracks, even with Coen aficionados.

The outlines of the story are pure James M. Cain—Ed Crane, a barber, blackmails his wife’s lover to get funds to start his own business. (That the funds are to enter the newfangled field of “dry” cleaning just points up how small his dreams are.) When confronted, he ends up killing his rival, and gets away with it… except his wife is accused of the crime. However, while the outlines might be noir, the side touches—references to existential philosophy, war paranoia, and sci-fi/UFO imagery—create a larger tapestry of 1950’s cultural influences that build on one another, to distinct but ineffable effect. While it may be an ironic joke when Ed’s lawyer refers to him as the “modern man,” it’s also no more than the truth.

The film is beautifully acted—Billy Bob Thorton is amazing in his ability to be funnier the less he does. Listen to his hilariously uninflected reading of “I’m gonna take his hair and throw it out in the dirt. I wanna mingle it with common house dirt.” Frances McDormand’s unlovable traits somehow manage to make her all the more lovable. And Tony Shalhoub as the lawyer Freddy Riedenschneider makes you curse the film performances we’ve lost due to eighty seasons of “Monk”.

The Coens get a bad rap for being diagrammatic in their scripts and cold and unfeeling toward their characters. I don’t find either criticisms to be valid. The inclusion of the UFO theme in The Man Who Wasn’t There is the sort of touch that comes from screenwriters going with their gut, rather than what makes “sense,” and the film’s transcendent ending is almost as moving as Hi’s final monologue in Raising Arizona —albeit in a much sadder way.

Doomsday (2008)

Here’s where I lose my credibility… but who gives a damn about credibility anyway? Credibility is what happens when you stick to recommending stuff everyone agrees is “good.” If you’re an interesting person, you’re going to have some idiosyncratic tastes, and you should be willing to defend them. Doomsday got a bad rap for two reasons (1.) it was director Neil Marshall’s follow-up to The Descent, which was a remarkably disciplined horror film that built to the best monster freak-out this side of Aliens—an instant classic with genre fans, and (2.) critics and audiences complained that it was derivative of other films—most notably early John Carpenter and the Mad Max films.

To that I say (1.) I loved The Descent too, but this is a whole ‘nother thing. That was a claustrophobic slow-burn thriller and this is an everything-and-the-kitchen sink action extravaganza. (2.) The director has expressly stated this is an homage to those films. To criticize it for being derivative is missing the point. Yes, there’s been a deluge of recent movies referencing yesterday’s cheap thrills, and—at worst—those films can be curdled in irony. But Doomsday takes great joy in its derivativeness, borrowing but not winking, and always moving like a cannonball.

The plot is typical post-apocalyptic claptrap: a deadly virus has decimated Scotland, and the British government has walled off the entire country. When the virus resurfaces in London, decades later, Major Eden Sinclair is tasked with venturing into the land north of the wall where she must dodge lawless survivors and locate the one doctor who may have a cure for the disease.

The fun is in the way the film shifts from being a gloss on Escape From New York into a medieval bloodbath a la Excalibur, all before ending with a thrilling chase straight out of The Road Warrior. Some might call this “uneven” or “crazy” or even “crazy bananas.” Me, I like the way the film leaps from genre from genre, never getting dull—like any film that has a group of plague-survivor punks doing a choreographed dance number to The Fine Young Cannibals’ “Good Thing” ever risks being dull. Plus it has Rhona Mitra (best known for replacing Kate Beckinsale in the Underworld series and for being nude in Hollow Man) actually turning in a very credible (and sexy) action hero performance while strutting around in leather pants. Sometimes it’s the simple pleasures, y’know?

Dan McCoy has been going strong since his last appearance... His animated web series 9am Meeting got him a gig animating promos for Cinemax in his inimitable style, and it also won big at the New York Television Festival. Meanwhile, his funny podcast about the worst recent cinema, The Flophouse, is still going strong and he had a popular piece about zombies in Slate. The man is on fire.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Storyteller’s Rulebook #57: ...And The Bad Advice Solution

Last time I talked about the problem with smothering your hero in good advice, especially if you don’t show that such advice is always somewhat dubious. But if you really want your hero to change in a dynamic way, don’t give him good advice until he finally says, “okay!” Give him bad advice until he says, “no!” Doesn’t that sound more dramatic? Don’t believe me? As proof, I present… …my favorite scene of all time!

Heroes needs special skills but they also need flaws, flaws that they can struggle heroically to overcome. This means that it’s always tempting to give a hero, especially the hero of a workplace TV drama, the most struggle-riffic flaw of all: alcoholism. Everyday is a struggle for a recovering alcoholic. Nobody trusts them entirely. They’re surrounded by temptation. Their self-denial, even if it succeeds, can push them to do other bad things in frustration. It’s dramatic gold!

But it can also be a dramatic pothole. The big problem with the recovering alcoholic character is that it’s ultimately an either/or situation. We all know that if they have one more drink, then they’ll have a hundred, so there’s no gray area for the writer to play around in. If you want to keep them straight, your choices are narrow.

It used to be a no-brainer to say that “Hill Street Blues” was the greatest TV drama of all time. There have been a lot of challengers to that throne in the last decade or so, so I won’t start that debate now, but it’s still a contender. Throughout the first season, the chief, played by Daniel J. Travanti, got very tough on an alcoholic cop played by Kiel Martin, insisting that he join AA or quit the force. We followed Martin’s descent until he hit rock bottom. Finally, in the final scene of the first season, he drags himself to an AA meeting. There, he’s surprised to see Travanti himself, who tells his own harrowing story of beating the bottle.

From that point on, we knew that Travanti had the danger of relapse hanging over his head, along with all of the other threats he had to avert. Finally in the fourth season, it all came crashing down. He was under investigation, his career seemed over, his wife had left him… would he finally crack? He sniffs an open bottle, but in desperation he calls his 12-step sponsor, whom he hasn’t spoken to in forever. The man’s secretary tells Travanti that he’s at lunch and then he’ll be out for the day. Travanti insists that it’s an emergency and gets the name of the restaurant...

Let’s pause here and point out that this is going to be a very tricky scene to write. We’ve been building up to this moment for four years. We know that Travanti probably won’t fall off the wagon, because we’ve already been through that storyline more than once with the other cop. But what can the sponsor possibly say that would be powerful enough to turn him around at this point?

Travanti finds the startled man in the restaurant and sits down across from him, begging him for reasons not to drink. They’ve obviously been through a lot together, but rather than speak from the heart, the sponsor can only give Travanti half-hearted platitudes about hanging in there. Travanti notices that his sponsor is panicky and trying to get him to leave as soon as possible. He soon finds out why as the waitress brings the man the scotch he ordered. Travanti is heartbroken to see that he’s fallen off the wagon, but the sponsor doesn’t appreciate his scorn—he launches into a bitter denunciation of the program, saying that it’s not actually a big deal—he’s still in control. It sounds pitiful. That’s all Travanti needs to hear. He leaves so that his former sponsor can have the drink he so badly needs. We know that Travanti’s not going to become a drunk again.

Positive examples and good advice are never as powerful as negative exa mples and bad advice. Saying no is always a stronger dramatic choice than saying yes.

Underrated Movie #98: Alice's Restaurant

Warning! Do NOT clean up after Thanksgiving until youve seen...
Title: Alice’s Restaurant
Year: 1969
Director: Arthur Penn
Writers: Venable Herndon and Arthur Penn, based on a song by Arlo Guthrie
Stars: Arlo Guthrie, Pat Quinn, James Broderick, Geoff Outlaw, Micheal McClanathan, and Officer Obie as himself

The Story: Arlo Guthrie plays himself: bouncing around the country, trying to stay out of the army, getting picked on for his long hair, occasionally visiting his dying father, and eventually coming together with his hippie brethren to form a makeshift commune in a deconsecrated church in Stockbridge, Mass. There we get a complex portrait of the ups and downs of the countercultural life. Happier incidents like the one you may know of as the “Alice’s Restaurant Thanksgiving Massacree” are interwoven with sadder tales of those that don’t survive the journey.

How it Came to be Underrated: Because it was based on a funny song, and the cast mixed actors with amateurs playing themselves, many people falsely assume that this is a mere novelty, rather than the profound and heartbreaking tale of life in the ‘60s that it is. It’s a much stronger portrait of that year than Easy Rider or, god forbid, Zabreski Point.

Why It’s Great:

  1. Americans like to claim that the World War II gang were the “Greatest Generation”, and that’s true, if you consider a bloodbath the greatest thing that our country can accomplish. Of course, it seems more likely to me that an even greater generation were the kids that stopped a war, impeached a crooked president, started the environmental movement, and got more rights for women, blacks, gays and everybody else than anybody thought possible. Call me crazy. This is a warts-and-all portrait of the kids caught up in all those acts of liberation. Like their fathers at Anzio, they’re too busy trying to survive to realize that they’re collectively making a difference.
  2. By 1967, many great directors were waiting in the wings, hoping to finally bring the intellectual and spiritual vitality of the French New Wave over to American movie screens. Penn was an unlikely visionary: his style is scruffy, loose and downbeat, but he turned out to be the one that finally ignited American’s own artistic explosion with Bonnie and Clyde. Nevertheless, he’s rarely mentioned today as one of the great filmmakers of that era, but that’s fine: His movies have more in common with each other than they do with any others. He was a one-of-a-kind weirdo genius.
  3. It’s an odd little sub-genre and they’re usually terrible: the film-as-memoir where a non-actor plays himself, but Arlo actually does a great job. Of course, as with any memoir, there’s always the danger of being a little self-serving… Watching this movie, I realized that every man has one ultimate sexual fantasy: to one day turn down the offer of sex. Arlo turns down quite a few here: too young, too old, too married… You begin to suspect that the man doth protest too much. Maybe these are all the offers that he later wished he’d turned down.
  4. Hearing the song (which I love) you would think that it would never work if Obie was turned into a sympathetic character—his blind antagonism is the whole driving force of the narrative! But your first clue that they’re doing something different here is that Penn got the actual Officer Obie to play himself. Why on earth would he agree to do that? Well, it’s because he’s kind of the hero in this version! He’s a good friend of Alice and he attends the opening of the hippie restaurant with his family –where he even cuts the “Eat Me” cake and serves it! Yes, he does later overreact to the littering, but that actually looks like a pretty crummy crime when you see it onscreen, and so you actually feel for Obie when you see that the judge is literally blind to his evidence! It’s an amazing act of literary transformation: turning a great one-sided ballad into an even greater two-sided movie.
  5. Like Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”, the theme here is the slippery relationship between warmth and cold as we grow older. Moments of great joy keep sliding down into sadness. As Arlo asks the last time he sees his father: “Now that they’re finally not after me to do what I don’t wanna do, what do I wanna do?” Or, put another way: “Can you get everything you want at Alice’s Restaurant?” Only an existential storyteller like Penn could find so much meaning in such an innocent question.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Penn made a lot of underrated movies, including 1965’s Mickey One and 1975’s The Missouri Breaks. It’s a fine thing to say of any artist: every movie he made (except for Bonnie and Clyde) is still the subject of broad critical disagreement. Nobody ever knows quite what to make of this guy.

How Available Is It?: It’s available to watch instantly but I reccomend the DVD with a folksy commentary by Arlo himself, where he complains good-naturedly about how Penn managed to make such a sad little movie out of his funny song.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: It Was Their Town!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Storyteller’s Rulebook #56: The Good Advice Problem...

If a hero has three close friends, they need to have different personalities and they should represent different things to the hero—different paths he could take. Don’t give him a bunch of interchangeable best friends who all want the same things out of life and out of him. If they’re realistic, they’re going to give the hero conflicting advice, and each will seem dubious in their own way. The 40 Year Old Virgin did this especially well. At first glance, the four guys egging Steve Carrell on all seem to be giving him the same advice—get yourself laid. But as the movie goes on, we realize that each is pulling him in different directions based on their own baggage.

This rule also applies when you’re creating contrast between a best friend and a love interest-- the hero should never get the same advice from both. They should each want him to be a different person. You, as the writer, have already decided what’s wrong with your hero, so your tendency will be to have everybody in his life give him that same advice over and over, but in real life, anytime anybody gives you advice it’s colored by their own wants and needs— a love interest and a best friend want different things from you and for you.

But wait, you might ask, won’t their self-interested advice make them unsympathetic? Not really-- giving a character a limited perspective will just as often make a character more likable. Believable weaknesses, ones that we recognize from our own life, are forgiveable. After all, it’s an example of a character going after what they want, which is what the audience always wants to see.

And ultimately, the audience loves that moment when they realize that, by seeing many different sides of the same situation, they now have more perspective than any individual character has. This is a big part of what fiction can do for us: give us the feeling of wisdom that comes from the ability to understand multiple points of view, not just the limited perspective we’re stuck with in real life.

Good advice isn’t always all that it’s cracked up to be, but next time we’ll talk about the most valuable advice of all, bad advice...

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Underrated Movies: Special Guest Picks #9

Hello? Anybody still in town? At least I know that the Canadians have no excuses—your Thanksgiving was weeks ago! If you can hear me, here’s a Special Guest Column from Matt Carman. I recently had a piece in the ‘zine run by Matt and his significant other Kseniya, so they’re returning the favor with their underrated picks. This week it’s Matt’s turn:

Streets of Fire (1984)
Directed by: Walter Hill
Written by: Larry Gross and Walter Hill

Streets of Fire is what would happen if the Max Fischer Players adapted director Walter Hill’s The Warriors into a musical. The sets are repetitive and simple (apparently every block in Hill’s dream city sits under an elevated train track with a diner on the corner), shootouts come with cartoonishly large explosions, and pretty much everyone is white.

But it’s also the closest we’ve got to a Han Solo rock opera, if you’d be into that sort of thing. Gunny drifter Michael Paré reluctantly signs up to save smooth-cheeked rock star Diane Lane from shirtless-in-rubber-fireman’s-pants Willem Dafoe. Along the way Paré will rescue a lost doo-wop group, get into a crunchy sledgehammer duel, and shoot first in every cantina in town. This is an unbridled story about young passion, young adventure, and young Dafoe, whose facial crags have apparently not changed since 1984.

If the songs behind Lane’s lip-synched performances sound like those of a Lady Meatloaf, it’s because they are; Jim Steinman, writer of most Loaf hits, penned and arranged many of the tunes for the film. These songs are incredibly, infectiously good, and the concert scenes showcasing them are big, over-the-top productions. For evidence, check out the clips of “Nowhere Fast” and “Tonight is What it Means to be Young.” Then try to keep from playing them again.

TiMER (2009)
Written and Directed by: Jac Schaeffer

As author Kevin Wilson once said of his short stories, many of which bend reality in tiny ways, “When you present something strange and perhaps not possible, if you don’t blink, if you simply incorporate it into the story without making too much of a show about it, it will have a better chance of being accepted by the reader.”

TiMER writer-director Jac Schaeffer seems to agree with this principle. At the heart of the story is an implant device, a magical technology which counts down to the moment at which you will (and it is a definite, infallible will) meet your soul mate. The setup seems ripe for explanations and arguments, but Schaeffer smartly avoids any potential sci-fi navel-gazing to focus on the effects this technology has on Oona and her small, perfect-match-minded circle. It’s not about how, but what then.

The film’s neutral color palette and soft, even lighting can sometimes feel like a toothpaste ad. But underneath the gauzy visuals are smart performances and naturally witty dialogue, and a relieving refusal to slide in to the usual boy-meets-girl tropes. Without driving it in too much, the characters’ unease with the device reflects our increasingly complicated struggle to decide how much knowledge is too much. When Oona’s teenage brother’s alarm sounds, his disappointment is clear; he won’t get to meet girls, make mistakes, and eventually find the right one (or not). His road to “happiness” is standing five feet away, and the device is pushing him to take the sure thing over the exciting unknown. TiMER eliminates the need to question compatibility, and in doing so, shows how much faith it can take for two people to commit to each other in the real world.

Two Documentaries “About” The Past:
Billy the Kid (2007) Directed by: Jennifer Venditti
Stevie (2002) Directed by: Steve James

It’s easy for a documentary to manufacture nostalgia – who doesn’t love feeling warm and fuzzy about the past? – but it’s rare to see an honest depiction of all the halting uneasiness between the memories. Billy is a 15-year-old karate student and heavy metal fan stumbling through a year of high school in rural Maine. He’s a cracked genius with an accidental knack for brilliant one-liners (“Years of loneliness have been murder,” he says to a group of men clapping outside a diner after they witness his first kiss). Adults and younger kids are generally impressed and a little confused by his unfiltered honesty and forwardness, while his peers unfailingly refuse to understand him.

Director Jennifer Venditti first met Billy while casting teenage extras for a short film. Unable to forget him, she later came back to chronicle his ups and downs and frank philosophies. It’s easy to see why he stuck in her head. Billy somehow manages to make every moment feel simultaneously uncomfortable and charming. Even his most mundane exchanges seem to say something about the ways we all relate to each other. Drama may be life with the dull bits cut out, but in Billy the Kid the “dull” bits are the most dramatic.

In Stevie, director Steve James decides to revisit his past following the release of his hugely successful Hoop Dreams. He returns to rural Illinois to check in on the titular Stevie, to whom James had been a Big Brother in his college years. But the warm reunion fades as we learn about adult Stevie’s emotional, mental, and criminal problems, and witness his tense moments with everyone who tries to reach out to him.

James remains involved even as Stevie’s troubles become darker and more disturbing, and the tone of Stevie changes along with them. James struggles, often on screen, to justify his desire to help someone whom he once loved but no longer likes. At times, Stevie comes off as a real-life (though much less sexually charged) version of Oz’s Chris Keller – in spite of his awfulness, we want him to win, and then we feel guilty for wanting that. Though it begins as an experiment in rekindling relationships and revisiting the good times, Stevie ends up making a case for leaving the past alone.

Step Up 3D (2010)
Directed by: Jon Chu
Written by: Amy Andelson and Emily Meyer

Even (or especially) if you aren’t into dance, the choreography in Step Up 3D is often mind-blowing. This film also makes the strongest case I’ve seen for the recent wave of 3D films – while the technique is clumsily shoehorned into most movies, here it’s essential. 3D requires that we clearly see objects on various planes, so director Jon Chu eschews the usual close-up/quit-cut style for wide angles and long takes, allowing us to actually see the dancers’ every impossible movement.

The centerpiece of the movie is a single-take routine in which the awkward Moose (Adam G. Sevani) and his lady friend goofily interact with everything and everyone on a New York City street, set to a remix of Fred Astaire’s “I Won’t Dance.” It’s one of many grin-inducing sequences in this celebration of collaboration, and the moment at which Step Up 3D transcends its sappy genre to become a surprising love letter to performance.

Matt Carman is a writer/photo-blogger/etc. living in Brooklyn. He and Kseniya Yarosh co-edit the biyearly essay collection “I Love Bad Movies” which you can get here. His secret is that he scours the VHS-for-sale shelves of every video and thrift store he can find looking for buried treasure, which usually mean anything with Ryan O'Neal or James Remar (who luckily is in almost everything).

Monday, November 22, 2010

Storyteller’s Rulebook #55: Angry Minds Don't Think Alike

When a husband and wife are extremely like-minded, we say that they “finish each other’s sentences”. Why is this such a remarkable trait? Because it’s hard to do. But you wouldn’t know that from watching bad movies, where people do it all the time.

I’ve talked before about the quest to create pithy dialogue that’s good enough to provide a “trailer moment”. Of course, it’s possible that the movie only has six good lines, and we’ll end up complaining that “All the good lines were in the trailer,” knowing that we’ll never get our $12 back.

This is why it baffles me when even the trailer has terrible dialogue in it. There’s a trailer now for a revenge thriller called Faster. It’s got two very talented stars and you know I love my action movies, but this smells rotten, sight unseen. The trailer, which, as per usual, gives away everything, ends with a moment that’s clearly from the end of the movie, when revenge-seeker Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has caught up to slimy villain Billy Bob Thornton. Looking beat, Thornton laments: “I created my own hell.” Johnson looms over him, growling back: “And I’m the demon that crawled up out of it.”

How many things are wrong with this exchange? We’ll overlook the first one --people don’t actually tend to converse while beating each other up-- because that’s a well-established convention of the genre. But I still can’t accept it when one character extends another character’s metaphor. Sure, I’ll buy that these characters may shout angry things at each other, but they’re not going to listen closely to the other’s figure of speech, accept that metaphor as a good way to sum up the situation, think of a way to twist that metaphor to address their own concerns, and then continue the other person’s sentence, using the same general language and tone.

When you’re confronting someone about something, and they sum up the situation metaphorically, you’re more likely to respond, “No, it’s not like that at all, asshole.” If they’re speaking figuratively, at a time like that, you’ll be all the more tempted to respond in a more literal fashion, or, perhaps, non-verbally. Alas, there’s only one language that we all speak, and that’s chin music.

You only have one brain, so it’s natural to write each line as a continuation of the previous one, using the same language and continuing the same train of thought. But your characters all have different brains, and they have no interest in finishing each other’s sentences.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Underrated TV on DVD #19: Police Squad!

As promised, here's an epilogue to last week. Tomorrow, we move on, I promise!

Series: Police Squad!
Years: 1982, six half-hour episodes
Creators: Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker
Stars: Leslie Nielson and Alan North

The Concept: An absolutely absurd goof on cop TV shows like “Dragnet”, and storytelling conventions in general.
How it Came to be Underrated: The creators had sold it based on nothing but the opening credit sequence, but ABC got cold feet when they realized how bizarre the actual show was going to be. (ABC complained that you actually had to watch the TV set to get the visual jokes.) It was cancelled after six unheralded episodes, only to be reborn five years later as the “Naked Gun” movie series.
Sample Episode: 1.1, “A Substantial Gift” or possibly “The Broken Promise” (the narrator doesn’t agree with the onscreen title)
Writer: Abrahams, Zucker and Zucker
The Story: Nielson and North investigate a stenographer who killed her boss and framed another man for the murder. They get their gal (but first they kill off half the city.)

Why It’s Great:
  1. The creators made this between making Airplane and Top Secret for the big screen and they brought over their trademark lightning-fast pun-heavy wordplay. “We think we know how he did it.” “Oh Howie couldn’t have done it, he hasn’t been in for weeks.”
  2. Every episode, Frank would get stumped and bribe a shoeshine-guy-turned-stoolie who always had an inside line on every case.

    After Frank paid him off and left, someone from another profession would discover that the stoolie was equally knowledgeable about other topics… In the first episode, a priest slips him a twenty and asks “What do you know about life after death?” Here’s a visit from a later episode:
  3. I hadn’t seen this show since I fell in love with early “Dragnet”, which just makes it funnier. As always, Nielson’s trademark deadpan delivery is flawless: “We’re sorry to bother you at a time like this, Ma’am. We would have come earlier but your husband wasn’t dead yet.”
  4. Every episode respected the cop-show tradition at the time of ending the episode with a laugh and a freeze frame, but the actors just faked the freeze frame, even if it meant having to endure scalding coffee cascading down their hands:
How Available Is It?: It’s got a nice DVD with lively commentaries on half the episodes
What the Remake Did Wrong: All of the other examples of “The Original was Better” Week have been foreign shows that were unwisely adapted for US TV. This one is an American show that lost a lot of its charm when it made the jump to the movies. The movies were mildly funny but they don’t prepare you for the absurd pleasures of this show. It didn’t help that they replaced the very funny North with America’s sweetheart, O. J. Simpson.
But Don’t Take My Word For It:

Friday, November 19, 2010

Underrated TV on DVD #18: Coupling (UK)

Whoops, I missed a day yesterday, so I'll have a dangling show to cover later... Oh well...
Series: Coupling (UK)
Years: 2000-2004, 4 seasons, 28 half-hour episodes
Creators: Steven Moffat
Stars: Jack Davenport, Gina Bellman, Sarah Alexander, Kate Isitt, Ben Miles, Richard Coyle

The Concept: Three hip single guys and three hip single girls hang out at a big-city drinking establishment, where they chat amiably about work and sex. Sound familiar? Yes, it was a British knockoff of “Friends”, which is why it had no business being one of the best sitcoms ever made. The problems was that they hired a writer named Steve Moffat who quickly proved to be the TV-genius of his generation. (Did you all watch “Sherlock”? Damn, that was good.)
How it Came to be Underrated: I’m stretching, since this is a beloved show, but here in the U.S. its reputation was besmirched by its big-flop American remake.

Sample Episode: 2.9, “The End of the Line”
Writer: Steven Moffat
The Story: Steve and Susan, the show’s on-again, off-again couple, have been together a year and they’re feeling the malaise of familiarity. After they find themselves flirting with the opposite sex, each attempts to call the other, only to encounter a bizarre series of quickly escalating lies on the other end of the line. As the puzzle-box of a plot unfolds, we see how a few little lies build into a big fiasco.

Why It’s Great:
  1. Though it superficially resembles “Friends”, this show owes just as much to “Frasier”, though it manages to be better than either show at their best. It combines the hipster zeitgeist of the former with the intellectual wordplay and complicated farce plots of the latter, but most episodes of “Friends” were too dopey and “Frasier” was usually too emotionally cold. Moffat trumps them both by basing his witty dialogue on a solid emotional foundation. He really has a lot to say about the way men and women interact—he just chooses to say it as cleverly as possible.
  2. This episode plays some very nifty tricks with overlapping timelines that allow the cast to play out the same scenes from multiple points of view. This episode is quite simply the smartest example of the thirty-minute format I’ve ever seen. That sort of time-trick, and much of the tone of this show, has now been re-borrowed back to the U.S. by the writers of “How I Met Your Mother”, but one of the many reasons that show can’t hope to reach the heights of this one is that American shows are now a full 33% shorter that their British cousins. American sitcoms will soon reach the length of “Saturday Night Live” skits.
  3. The formal beauty of this screenplay is gob-smacking. It’s as intricately structured as a piece of renaissance poetry. In fact, it’s sort of like a sestina, since Moffat has set himself the challenge of getting as many laughs as he can out of a few key lines that each get repeated over and over by many different charaters: “I’m Giselle!” “I’m Dick Darlington!” “Where are you going?” “It’s up to you.” And then of course there’s the title of the episode, which refers to the situation and the structure and the story-arc, all simultaneously. I’m in awe.
  4. What made most of the American “Friends” knockoffs fail was that they couldn’t resist picking sides in the war of the sexes. It’s harder to write a show in which both sexes have equally legitimate grievances. That’s what makes the “multiple perspectives” trick so satisfying—it serves the theme, not just the humor.
What the Remake Did Wrong: This is actually pretty baffling-- NBC hired some “Friends” showrunners to reset the show in Chicago, got a pretty-good cast (it had the same talented star as a previous underrated show “Better Off Ted”), and, for the most part they re-used the original Moffat scripts word for word. So why was it so excruciatingly bad?? Literally the same scripts that made me hyperventilate in the original evoke not one single laugh in the remake. Here are some suspects:
  1. Farce, more than any other form, depends on timing, and apparently that fell off the boat halfway across the pond. In this case, I blame the directors and editors more than the cast.
  2. Everybody was too likable. They softened every line reading. All of the bite was gone.
  3. And they were all equally attractive. Their version of Geoff, the goofy one, was just a handsome guy who had been made up to look slightly goofy. Richard Coyle, the original, was congenitally goofy.
  4. Let’s face it, you can get away with a lot of smutty dialogue if you say it with a British accent, but it just sounds tacky when we say it.
How Available Is It?: The entire show is available to Watch Instantly, as well as on DVD. But beware the fourth season, where Coyle, the most lovable character, was replaced by a pale imitator. (The American show never even made it to DVD, and you can only find it online with Swedish subtitles burned in, which is the funniest thing about it)
But Don’t Take My Word For It:

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Underrated Movies: Special Guest Picks #8

It’s appropriate enough that our guest here during TV week is emmy-winning writer Elliott Kalan, who has come back to be our first-ever three-timer. (See his earlier picks here and here.) Of course it’s also “The Original Was Better” week, which doesn’t exactly apply to Elliott’s show, “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”. Let’s see what he’s cooked up for us this time in a super-sized post:


Directed by: Ray Enright & Busby Berkley
Written by: Delmer Daves & Robert Lord

Let’s get one thing straight. I’m a big Busby Berkley musical number fan, as I’m sure you all are, too. But even I have to admit that much of the time the actual films around those musical numbers aren’t all that great. That’s what makes me so frustrated that Dames isn’t better known, because it’s one of the few Berkley musicals that would still be plenty of fun without the musical numbers. For one thing, it’s a cavalcade of the Hollywood contract players we all know and love. Sure, you’ve got Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, and Joan Blondell in there (and incidentally my favorite Blondell performance of all time), but the real story and screentime belongs to Hugh Herbert as the puritanical, prohibitionist millionaire Ezra Ounce (who’s nonetheless addicted to alcoholic nerve tonic) and Guy Kibbee and the immortal Zasu Pitts as the relatives desperate not to get caught doing anything filthy lest he cut them out of his will. The quick zoom-in on Kibbee’s frightened, blinking face as he discovers YET AGAIN that Joan Blondell has found some way into a compromising position in his bed is worth the cost of admission.

This movie is wall-to-wall goofy in the best possible sense, thanks in large part to a sharp-silly script by future tough guy director Delmer Daves. It provides just the right setting to the jewel of some of Berkley’s best work, like the title number, a tribute to beautiful women arranged in geometrical shapes; “I Only Have Eyes For You” (the specific number parodied by Joe Dante in Gremlins 2), and most gorgeously of all in “The Girl At The Ironing Board”, a period musical number of batshit insane genius involving a wild-eyed Joan Blondell, turn-of-the-century laundry practices, hilariously artificial stock footage of birds, and the gayest pair of pajamas ever shown on film. It’s a masterpiece of barely-submerged sexual passion, and really, really funny.

The Mad Miss Manton (1938)
Directed by: Leigh Jason
Written by: Wislon Collison & Philip G. Epstein

If there was one thing rich people in the 30s seemed to do a lot of, it was act silly and stumble into murder mysteries. Both are true of Barbara Stanwyck in The Mad Miss Manton, a fast-paced, sharp-witted (screenplay by Philip G. Epstein of the famous Casablanca-writing Epstein brothers), whirling dervish of a movie. As Melsa Manton, has a hard time convincing anyone there’s actually been a murder, thanks to her reputation as the leader of a pack of chattering rich gals well-known to the press and public for causing trouble. All of these things are true. It only makes it more difficult when Henry Fonda, the reporter she hates for giving her that deserved reputation, loudly falls in love with her, thus inaugurating a classic screwball love-battle.

My only real complaint about the movie is the presence of Hattie MacDaniel in one of her “black dialect maid” roles, but if I didn’t watch any movies with egregious racism in them than I’d NEVER get to enjoy classic Hollywood.

Five Star Final (1931)
Directed by: Mervyn LeRoy
Written by: Robert Lord & Byron Morgan

What better film for our current era of unruly and ethics-free journalism than Five Star Final, in which city editor Edward G. Robinson is forced against his will to destroy a few perfectly innocent lives in the hunt for a big story. Pushed to increase circulation by his bosses, Robinson (and adoring secretary Aline MacMahon, worlds away from her ruthless mantrap in Gold Diggers of 1933) agrees to dig up the 20 year-old murder committed by Nancy Voorhees (not Jason’s mom), now a domestic housewife living in anonymity with her husband and grown daughter. The best part, though, is the reporter he chooses to do the digging -- creepy ex-seminarian-turned-sleazeball Vernon Isopod, played by a pre-Frankenstein Boris Karloff at his absolute slimiest.

This being a 30s newspaper melodrama, things quickly take a tragic turn, leading to desperate soul-searching by Robinson. As heavy-handed as it is (and as fascinatingly creaky is the acting by former silent star H. B. Warner playing Voorhees’s husband), the story is punchy, brisk, and gets you in the gut. There’s something viscerally moving and repulsive about the final shot of that day’s paper being swept out of the filthy gutter by a street cleaner -- today’s news is tomorrow’s trash, and the people ruined by it are quickly forgotten.

God’s Country (1986)
Directed by: Louis Malle

America is an interesting place. That’s the first thing you learn from Louis Malle’s documentary about the tiny farming town of Glencoe, Minnesota. It’s almost as if the act of pointing a camera at something makes it newly fascinating and unique, even farmers at work, old ladies watering flowers, or middle American weddings. The variety of lives taking place in a seemingly boring place is bewildering, and the minimal narration or viewpoint turn the film into a strange rorschach test of the viewer’s own sensibilities. What comes through most of all is Malle’s wonder at the United States and the people in it.

Of course, that’s only the main body of the film. Most of the footage was shot in 1979, but in order to finish it Malle returned in 1985 to revisit some of the people and places from the earlier footage. The juxtaposition is, at times, jarring -- between back then and slightly-less-back-then the bottom dropped out of the farming economy, making life harder for this bunch of folks previously excited to be leaving behind the strife of the 70s. But there’s also a real joy to how little some things have changed. The old woman is still watering her flowers, life continues, America still exists and the fundamental fact of its character goes unchanged.

Perhaps the thing that’s most striking about
God’s Country is that the point of it seems to be that it has no point. Malle may have perhaps begun shooting with the idea of revealing the closed-mindedness of the American “heartland”, but it soon becomes a series of people telling their stories and revealing themselves as human beings. Aside from some anti-Reagan stuff at the end (which 25 years later feels kind of quaint, if still heart-breaking), there are few political axes or social indictments -- if people are shown being foolish it’s merely because people do foolish things. Like most great documentaries, God’s Country is at its best because it has set out not to explicitly argue a point of view, but just to document something. The beauty of it is how well it documents something that many of us would wrongly assume isn’t worth documenting at all.

The Driver (1978)
Directed by: Walter Hill
Written by: Walter Hill

Ryan O’Neal is a professional getaway driver. The BEST professional getaway driver. Bruce Dern is a detective dedicated to finally catching him. There’s a femme fatale-ish woman, some untrustworthy crooks who’ve contracted The Driver, and assorted other lowlifes. Nobody has any real names, and there’s not a hell of a lot of dialogue. And it’s kind of the best car-based action thriller ever.

Now don’t get me wrong -- I’m not a huge fan of driving movies. I like car chases, but I don’t like movies about cars. The same way that I love westerns, but I lose interest when they spend too much time with the horses. Luckily, The Driver isn’t some pretentious paean to the glory of the open road, like Vanishing Point. If anything, it feels like the feature length spin-off of the slickest, coolest, most car chasingest crime TV series never made. When we drop in on the film, most of the character relationships already exist. The story doesn’t necessarily go anywhere, and there aren’t any big emotional changes. There’s just The Driver being chased by The Detective while he tries to stay somewhat principled in a life of crime. If there was any justice in the world, it would have aired every wednesday night on ABC from 1979 - 1985.

And the car scenes are pretty awesome. My personal favorite is when The Driver, in order to show off his skills to a particularly arrogant crook, methodically demolishes an expensive car by driving just close enough to the pillars of a parking garage to snap off the doors, mirrors, lights, and so forth while never endangering anyone inside. And if a scene where a man methodically destroys a car doesn’t interest you, than I think we have no business talking to each other.

Elliott Kalan
still writes for “The Daily Show”, still co-stars on a very funny podcast called The Flophouse, and still hosts a wildly entertaining monthly screening series at 92Y-Tribeca in New York called Closely Watched Films. But you already knew all that. What’s new is that he’s one of the authors of a new book, and he’s gotten himself married off. Sorry, ladies.

Underrated TV on DVD #17: The Kingdom

Series: “The Kingdom”, originally “Riget” in Denmark
Years: 1994 and 1997, 2 seasons, four 70-minute episodes each
Creators: Lars Von Trier
Stars: Ernst-Hugo Jaregard, Kirsten Rolffes, Holger Juul Hansen

The Concept: The goings-on at a Danish hospital are already contentious enough, but they only get worse when it starts to seem that good and evil forces are laying down the battlelines for some coming spiritual warfare.
How it Came to be Underrated: Even with all of Von Trier’s fame, this didn’t get a DVD release here until recently. Instead, it showed in arthouse cinemas in two five-hour showings for hardcore movie-goers only. Luckily the show is so involving and creepy that we all had a fun time.
Sample Episode: 1.1, The Unheavenly Host
Writer: Tomas Gislason
The Story: Perpetual malingerer Mrs. Drusse bluffs her way into the hospital by faking a brain disease, but she decides she has to find a way to stay when she communes with an angry sprit in the elevator. She comes up against a visiting Swedish surgeon with little sympathy for mysticism, but he has ghosts of his own he’s trying to outrun.

Why It’s Great:
  1. Von Trier already had a swiftly rising film career when he took this sidetrip into TV, but his inspiration was clearly David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks”. There were lots of American attempts to copy the creepy charm of that show but nobody got close. Only in Denmark could they recreate the magic.
  2. Unfortunately it also had something else in common with that show…The second season, like the first, ends on a cliffhanger, and the third season was supposed to wrap it up, but the two main stars both died a year after the second season wrapped, so it looks like that will never happen. That’s a bummer, but given how weird Von Trier is, isn’t it pretty likely that we wouldn’t have gotten much closure anyway? What we have is still a very satisfying show.
  3. What makes it all work is that there’s enough sturm und drang to fill a normal hospital drama, plus a healthy heaping of comedy. All of the horrific spookiness is just icing on the cake.
  4. It’s nice to finally to finally have this on DVD, but it’s crazy to think to that it arrived ahead of the greatest hospital show ever, “St. Elsewhere”—another show that wasn’t afraid to get seriously weird. Only the first season of that show ever made it to DVD, even though it has Denzel Washington in it—speaking English.
How Available Is It?: The whole thing is now available to watch instantly as well as DVD.

What the Remake Did Wrong: I have four words for you: “Stephen King’s Kingdom Hospital”

But Don’t Take My Word For It: