BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Studio One Anthology (B+)
U.S.; various directors, 1948-58, Koch Vision
Almost no television show epitomized the so-called Golden Age of live TV drama as much as Studio One -- which presented to American audiences everywhere within reach of a TV signal on Monday night a golden decade of quality live original theater from 1948 to 1958. (Playhouse 90, which had longer formats and just as strong a pedigree, was the other one.) This lovingly assembled anthology pays a fitting tribute to the former show -- with 17 hour-long dramas from its heyday and four panel discussions and overviews from many of its later famous participants.
The dramas include Studio One's inarguable masterpiece, the original Sept. 26, 1954 production of writer Reginald Rose's Twelve Angry Men, directed by Franklin Schaffner, and starring Robert Cummings (his all-time best performance in Henry Fonda's later movie role of determined Juror No. 8), plus Franchot Tone, Edward Arnold, Paul Hartman, John Beal, Walter Abel and Norman Fell.
We can see why they call it a Golden Age: a mix of great, chancy scripts, and dedicated, hungry young actors. We can also see why even the most celebrated Golden Age dramas, like the original versions of Paddy Chayefsky's Marty, Rod Serling's Requiem for a Heavyweight and Charlie Rose's The Comedian are so little seen today. These live videoplays were preserved on kinescopes, photographed from TV showings at the time, and their visual qualities suffer compared to the slick, clear images we're used to today. Still, dramatically, they're often amazing, and the fact that they were shot live -- by genius directors like John Frankenheimer, Arthur Penn, Sidney Lumet and Studio One mainstay Schaffner, gives them a real electricity and excitement.
Schaffner was one of the two Studio One directorial wheelhorses, along with Paul Nickell; the main writers here included Rose, Serling, and Gore Vidal. The often young actors making some of their first precious mass appearances included Charlton Heston, Eva Marie Saint, Jack Lemmon, Sal Mineo, Lee Remick, Art Carney and (in a serious part, written by Vidal) Leslie Nielsen. There's a flash of James Dean in the overviews; maybe we'll see more of him in any Volume Two.
This is a set that should be gobbled up by young writers and actors today, who will get to see what risks you can take and win, when your means are limited and sponsors (like Westinghouse, represented by iconic pitchwoman Betty Furness) will take chances.
Paul Nickell, 1953
From George Orwell's novel, with Eddie Albert and Lorne Greene.
Almanac of Liberty (B)
Paul Nickell, 1954
Adapted from William O. Douglas by Reginald Rose.
The Arena (B+)
Franklin Schaffner, 1956
Written by Rod Serling; with Wendell Corey and Chester Morris.
Confessions of a Nervous Man (B+)
Paul Nickell, 1953
Written by George Axelrod; with Art Carney and Jacqueline Susann.
Dark Possession (B)
Franklin Schaffner, 1954
Written by Gore Vidal; with Geraldine Fitzgerald and Leslie Nielsen.
The Death and Life of Larry Benson (B)
Paul Nickell, 1954)
Written by Rose; with Lee Remick and Morris.
Paul Nickell, 1956
Written by Rose; with Sal Mineo and Ralph Meeker.
Julius Caesar (B)
Daniel Petrie, 1955
Adapted from William Shakespeare, by Leo Penn. With Theodore Bike, Alfred Ryder and Shepperd Strudwick.
June Moon (B)
Walter Hart, 1949
Adapted from Ring Lardner Jr. and George S. Kaufman by Gerald Greene; with Jack Lemmon, Eva Marie Saint, Edward Andrews and Glenda Farrell.
The Medium (B)
Paul Nickell, 1948
Music and libretto by Gian-Carlo Menotti; with Marie Powers.
Pontius Pilate (B)
Franklin Schaffner; 1952
Adapted by Worthington Miner from Michael Dyne; with Fitzgerald, Cyril Ritchard and Francis L. Sullivan.
The Remarkable Incident at Carson Corners (A)
Paul Nickell, 1954
Written by Reginald Rose; with Harry Townes and O. Z. Whitehead.
The Storm (B)
Yul Brynner, 1949
Adapted by Worthington Miner, from McKnight Malmar; with Marsha Hunt.
The Strike (B)
Franklin Schaffner, 1954
Written by Rod Serling; with James Daly and Bert Freed.
Summer Pavilion (B)
Paul Nickell, 1955
Written by Gore Vidal; with Miriam Hopkins and Elizabeth Montgomery.
Twelve Angry Men (A)
Franklin Schaffner, 1954
Written by Reginald Rose; with Robert Cummings, Franchot Tone, Edward Arnold and Paul Hartman.
Wuthering Heights (A)
Paul Nickell, 1950
Adapted from Emily Bronte; with Charlton Heston.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Hamlet 2 (C)
U.S.; Andrew Fleming, 2008, Universal
Making an unfunny movie starring Steve Coogan -- that daffily articulate comic actor who, like Peter Sellers, seems to have an almost flawless instinct for getting the laugh -- might seem a truly amazing achievement. That is especially true in writer-director Andrew Fleming's Hamlet 2
But talent isn't everything, as Fleming sometimes seems to be suggesting. Perhaps his real message and theme is "lack of talent is everything" -- which, in this case, seems like wishful thinking. Hamlet 2 -- whose title is its funniest part -- is an arch, forced, febrile tale of the doomed, idiotic Tucson high school production of an apparently witless script by a dopey, hysterical drama teacher named Dana Marschz (played by Coogan), who senselessly imagines himself as both Hamlet and Christ while his life seemingly falls apart on all levels.
Not only has the school fired him and given him a mixed-ethnic class of Anglo brown-noses and Latino troublemakers, but his annual school play -- a slot usually devoted to Marschz' banal staged adaptations of corny inspirational movies (like Dangerous Minds) -- has becomes a Tucson cause celebre, protected by a truculent ACLU headline-grabber and attacked by a bevy of right wing stereotypes. (Truth to tell, the stereotypes don't seem that far from reality.)
All this is somewhat reminiscent of The Producers gone wrong, and also of that classic political moment when Vice Presidential legend J. Danforth Quayle, misremembered the United Negro College Fund slogan "A mind is a terrible thing to waste" and somehow came up with "What a waste it is to lose one's mind." Fleming is trying in Hamlet 2 to satirize Hollywood and the dopey inspirational movies that Marschz adores, although what he's actually done is make an even dopier inspirational movie. Meanwhile, Coogan tries virtually everything to make us laugh, including running into class in drag and flashing everybody. (Even that left me grinless.)
Unfortunately, Coogan's contract apparently also required him to speak his lines, which, in this case, can't be improvised into any kind of quasi-humor. Only one thing could perhaps have worked: recycling the gag from Tropic Thunder where he gets blown up in the first ten minutes or so. That would have saved the estimable star of Twenty Four Hour Party People. He could have escaped into something funnier -- albeit without Elisabeth Shue. It wouldn't have saved the movie though.
The House Bunny (B-)
U.S.; Fred Wolf, 2008, Sony
This one looked predictably corny and awful. The House Bunny is a comedy from the Legally Blonde writing team (Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith) about blond Playboy Mansion Hef-mate Shelly Darlingson (played by Anna Faris of the Scary Movie series) who supposedly gets kicked out of the Mansion as too old (she's a venerable 27), and ends up as a college sorority house mother for a housed full of lovable losers, wallflowers and misfits who've gotten themselves in an Animal House fix. They're about to be decertified for lack of pledges, and they're being sabotaged by the nastiest, snootiest, bitchiest sorority in town.
Naturally, Shelly pops up, spiffs up the sorority gals and seems to save the day, proving that Marilyn Monroe and Reese Witherspoon weren't the only "dumb blondes" who weren't dumb, and that its dangerous to call somebody vapid when you probably don't know what it means. Surprise: this movie is funny -- largely due to Faris, who manages to be sexy, sweet and hilarious all at once. I loved her Exorcist voice and her sex appeal tutoring and, in general, she cracked me up continuously.
The House Bunny has exactly the stuff you'd expect. It's full of dopey things, and there's a whole romantic subplot with Faris and Colin Hanks that makes little sense. But, like Mamma Mia!, this is a movie that may make you smile and laugh despite yourself. An added bonus: The Playboy mansion scenes have cameos for Hef and his Gleesome Threesome -- from that surprisingly diverting reality TV show, the guiltiest of guilty pleasures. Not as diverting, funny or charming as Anna Faris though. She's a superbabe bunny and a half.
The Women (C)
U.S.; Diane English, 2008, New Line
Makeovers aren't always an improvement. George Cukor's classic 1939 movie of Clare Boothe Luce's all-female comedy The Women is an often delightful Hollywood-Broadway period piece that still can kill you. But the new version -- ultra-glossy, contemporized and more politically correct though it may be -- eventually doesn't really work.
The original was one of those all-star MGM glamour machines -- starring Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine and Paulette Goddard -- and summoning up a world of luscious Depression-era wealth and crazy romance, filled with beautiful or humorous-looking people saying witty or outrageous things. Couldn't we use another like that?
We could. But Diane English's contemporary remake -- which tries to copy the magic and graft onto the manners, styles and mores (and, in some cases, social-political clichés) of today -- misses the mark despite a pretty nifty all-star cast of its own, including Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Eva Mendes, Jada Pinkett Smith, Debra Messing, Bette Midler and Candice Bergen, joined by scads of others. The new ensemble has beauty, grace, style and humor and I liked watching them -- but something doesn't click.
Is it because the famously conservative Boothe Luce and the more liberal English (creator-producer of Murphy Brown) are basically an ill-fitting match? Probably. Boothe Luce was one of the leading Republicans of her day and The Women is basically a conservative text, whatever the politics of Cukor's writers. (His MGM adaptors included Anita Loos, Jane Murfin and, uncredited, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Donald Ogden Stewart.) English's Murphy Brown, by contrast, was the major feminist TV show of the 90s.
Superficially, there's a rapprochement. English keeps the basic story line of The Women -- in which society wife Mary Haines (played in 1939 by MGM queen Shearer, now by Ryan), finds that her husband Stephen is cheating with gold-digging department store perfume seller Crystal Allen (then Crawford, now Mendes). Mary, unwisely gives in to temper and divorce but ultimately, with a little help from her friends, including the super-catty Sylvia Fowler (then Rosalind Russell, now Bening), turns the tables.
And English has kept Boothe Luce's central gimmick: the fact that we never see a man onscreen. Instead we spy on the world of the women as Boothe Luce saw it then: a plush domain of society homes, department stores, dressing rooms, powder rooms and all femme Reno divorce hotels. But English has changed it, in more ways than a chronological transplant.
It may be a case of too much of the old story, too many of the new mores. English seems to me way too nice to all her ladies -- at last for the good of comedy and satire -- lightening up even on the ones the original writer trashed. Boothe Luce, who married Henry Luce and kept him, enjoyed dishing it out to her fellow dames. And when Crystal says, "There's a name for you ladies," one more used in kennels, she has Booth Luce's approval even though she's the villainess. Sweet Mary, the ideal society wife who grows claws, still has not much life beyond her marriage, which is why we're supposed to cheer when she gets her hubby back. But English turns the old movie's fashion show, an Adrian gimmick in 1939, into Mary's triumphant debut as independent designer.
English wants Mary to have it all. But incredibly she wants that also for devious Sylvia who was the most two-faced character in a play full of two-faced women. The character is a true friend who's manipulated by hardcase gossip columnist Carrie Fisher (the original had Hedda Hopper) into betraying Mary publicly and feels terrible about it. Imagine Rosalind Russell feeling terrible about anything she does -- except maybe a missed manicure appointment -- and you can gauge the difference. Bening is fine, but she doesn't steal the show like Russell.
There aren't enough kennel candidates, and the movie needs a few. Poor Eva Mendes has to handle most of the villainess chores Crawford nailed, but since she's been encouraged to play her part mostly for laughs, there's not enough pizzazz and conflict.
The ideas behind Boothe Luce's The Women -- that rich society women should hold onto their men with wit and guile and that lower class "other woman" are floozies who should lose in the end -- wouldn't play today to a modern post-feminist audience. For English, her women have to pass other tests: making it and staying loyal to each other. But there are plenty of modern Sylvias and I would have liked to see, and laugh, at a few. I also missed that gloriously dippy "Ah, l'amour! L'amour! Toujours l'amour!" of Mary Boland, whose role has been taken over by a very savvy Bette Midler.
Meg Ryan seems an odd choice to fill Norma Shearer's shoes -- Irving Thalberg's widow and the pre-Greer Garson grande dame of the MGM lot. But it turns out to be a good part for her, a return to her old style and persona: sweetheart Meg, with the honeybunch smile. Debra Messing sometimes delightfully expands on Phyllis Povah's baby-making Edith, a one-joke samba in the original and Jada Pinkett Smith's hip black lesbian writer Alex seems spun out of the brief part of the mannish "old maid" of 1939. Cloris Leachman is the film's most consistent laugh-getter as cynical housekeeper Maggie (Mary Cecil in 1939), who keeps zapping of zingers. There's no counterpart I could see to Joan Fontaine's good young wife Mrs. Day.M.o,
One aspect of The Women which you wouldn't think would translate well is the total absence of men -- though not, in this case, of males. But English actually takes us right out onto the city streets and shows us crowded maleless sidewalks, stores, and big lawn parties. It's pretty artificial of course, but you're amused by the ingenuity it takes to keep the gimmick afloat until the last turn of the screw. I remember nearly everything about Cukor's The Women, which he inherited from Ernst Lubitsch after getting booted from Gone With the Wind. What I'll probably remember longest about the new one are Leachman's zingers and those femme-blanketed streets.
Death Race (C)
U.S.; Paul W. S. Anderson, 2008, Universal
Death Race -- with Jason Statham as an unjustly imprisoned racer trapped in a deadly "reality show" car race -- is an almost monotonously exciting action movie. Like too many modern movie thrill-spectacles; it puts you through the wringer but leaves you with little afterwards. It's so fast and slick and grimily violent, so empty of human content or humor, that it almost puts you to sleep. A modern crash-athon that's a remake of the Roger Corman-produced 1975 cult classic Death Race 2000, directed by the genial Paul Bartel, this new one makes you long for the good old days when you could make a movie for a million or slightly under -- and when that movie was as likely to have the content of a The Last Picture Show or a Five Easy Pieces as an Easy Rider.
Like many movie-loving '60s survivors, I have a soft spot for Corman, the man who made Bloody Mama and many others. He is an honest-to-Vincent Price drive-in movie auteur who directed films like Attack of the Crab Monsters and The Wild Angels, who was once described as "The Orson Welles of Z Pictures" and whose bulging filmography includes 55 films as helmer and 385 as producer -- including the current Death Race where he's an executive producer.
Death Race 2000 was directed by the genial B-guy Paul Bartel (Eating Raoul) from an Ib Melchior-Robert Thom-Charles Griffith script, with David Carradine and the pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone as dueling drivers Frankenstein and Machine Gun Joe. In the new Death Race, written and directed by Paul M. S. Anderson (Alien vs. Predator), those two roles are taken by Statham and Tyrese Gibson (Four Brothers). But the names -- and the idea of a murderous road race conceived for a bloodthirsty future audience -- are the main legacy from the first movie, which was a cheerfully blowzy satire as well as an action movie, somewhat campily directed by Bartel, about media violence and car culture. This one is more expensive and bloodier.
Anderson's Death Race jettisons most of the humor, settling instead for a grim, grinding set of car races staged inside a prison for a sadistic, wildly popular reality TV show, sanctioned by opportunistic warden Hennessey (Joan Allen). The combatants include Statham, as the screwed-over Jensen Ames, falsely convicted of his wife's murder, and now masquerading at Hennessey's behest as the legendary driver Frankenstein, with Gibson as his main rival. Among the other drivers: the killer who murdered Jensen's wife and framed him for the slaying.
When Corman and Bartel made the first Death Race, it was part of a whole '70s series of cross country car chase or race films, ranging all the way from lyrical naturalistic sagas like Two Lane Blacktop to surreal or comic concoctions like Vanishing Point or The Gumball Rally. Death Race 2000 was both surreal and comic: the drivers got points for hitting pedestrians and Bartel sent up machismo. This Death Race wallows in it, salting in lots of macho encounters between Jensen and Joe, Jensen and hard-bitten mentor Coach (Ian McShane, on a holiday) and even Jensen and Hennessey. There's a sex interest, Natalie Martinez as Jensen's navigator, and there's also a sort of surprise ending that doesn't quite work.
One of the big problems with big action movies these days may be that so many of them have made money, without good characters or a decent script, or with trunkfuls of cliches -- just like this one -- that producers may feel that originality and personality and social insight aren't necessary. That's why Pineapple Express was such a surprise; it could have been an entertaining movie, even without the action scenes. Death Race without action scenes, would have been arduous and grimy, and Anderson probably shouldn't have scripted it all by himself, without apparent collaborators. The dialogue is so functional and soulless, that the cars have more personality than the drivers.
Death Race, which was shot on a real location, Montreal's Terminal Island, has a lot of visual smack and pow. But too much of the time, that's about all it has. Corman used to do it cheaper, better. Remember?