Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Book review: Truth is a Total Defense by Steven Bochco

A TV fan will find a lot of good stories here. Bochco recounts his career and it's fascinating to read about the degrees of separation between "MacMillan and Wife" and "NYPD Blue," and all the backstage fighting to get there.
And, he names names. Who showed up drunk everyday, who was an hour late for shooting everyday because he couldn't poop anywhere but home, and who had her hair cut and permed in the middle of filming an episode (spoiler, Sharon Stone), and who was a total dick (David Caruso).

There's also some great stories about network executives, some good, some bad, and some elderly and confused (William Paley in a very funny cameo.)

The other star of the book is the tons of money a TV creator/producer can make.

Brandon Tartikoff plays prominently, and I saw some overlap with his book "The Last Great Ride."

Both books discuss TV in the 80s, and the authors' cancer battles.

Well worth reading if you're a fan of anything Bochco has done, and who isn't?

On the negative side, this is a vanity press product. You can tell because there's no publisher listed, and the book is rife with typos, grammatical errors and factual errors.

It's hard to believe one of TV's greatest writers doesn't know the difference between there, they're and their. Or its and it's, or Dianne Warwick and Dionne Warwick. He calls ABC president Bob Iger 'Bog' twice on the same page! And there's lots of repetition. He lists the actors he lined up for "Hill Street Blues," then three paragraphs later he lists them again. He constantly refers to Barbara Bosson as his ex-wife, yes we know. And he makes fun of Rock Hudson for not reading his scripts, but he mistakenly describes Hudson's character as a police detective where in "MacMillan and Wife" he was the police commissioner.

Crazy errors spell checker probably pointed out to him are all over the place.

I'm guessing he just dictated his memoir and an assistant with not a lot of background in TV history, or grammar just typed it in.

He keeps talking about the millions he's made. Steven, we love you, give an intern $500 to proofread your book.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Rural Purge mystery

In 1969 or 1970 or so, CBS instituted what was later described as the Rural Purge. Highly rated shows like "Green Acres," "Petticoat Junction," "Beverly Hillbillies," and "Mayberry RFD" were all cancelled. They had high numbers, but they had the wrong numbers. The Nielsen people started studying the demographics of their audiences. Advertisers no longer wanted big numbers, they wanted urban viewers, urban viewers with disposable income.

The rural shows were replaced with "Mary Tyler Moore," "Bob Newhart," "Arnie," "All in the Family," all shows that took place in big cities.

The experiment was a big success, it seemed counter-intuitive to cancel high-rated shows. But the advertisers were happy.

(Tragically, if they had gone by demographics only a couple years sooner, they would have never cancelled "Star Trek." On the plus side, demographics were the only thing that kept "Hill Street Blues" on the air.)

Here's what I don't understand, why would CBS pick up "The Dukes of Hazzard," the very definition of a rural show, only 7 years later?

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Film review: Ghostbusters

I went in with a lot of apprehension. The commercials really weren't funny, and I thought Paul Feig's "Bridesmaids" was terrible. (In fairness to me, I loved his Yahoo original series "Other Space."

Yet, this was a funny movie. I giggled through the whole film. Even during the (rare) slow parts I was still giggling from the previous jokes.

The plot: Estranged friends who wrote a book about the paranormal get called to ghostbusting action by a museum director whose museum is haunted. Meanwhile, a hotel janitor is working on a plan to unleash all of the city's ghosts. It parallels the original story while giving us enough new stuff.

Kristen Wiig acts as straight man for Melissa McCarthy and Kate McKinnon. She also pulls off some backstory exposition which is a serious as the movie gets, and gets away with it.

Chris Hemsworth is hilarious as the dim receptionist.

And even though pretty much the whole cast of the original makes cameo appearances, it's a reboot, not a sequel.

And not only do the cameos serve as an acknowledgement of the original, the film also points out the internet hate the film got before shooting even started. All while taking the high road and never losing the comedy.

Some casting notes: The only living cast members missing were Rick Moranis and William Atherton. I was pleasantly surprised to see "Other Space" stars Karan Soni and Neil Casey. By all means, let me recommend this show again. There were only 8 episodes, each hilarious.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Old-timey movie review: The Benson Murder Case

The more William Powell/Philo Vance movies I see, the more I appreciate  Michael Curtiz's The Kennel Murder Case. The rest are fairly amateur productions.

Once again William Powell is the detective, but he is not allowed to use any of the charm we'd see in the Thin Man. It's another unlikely whodunnit with another unlikely solution.  The first act is people arguing with the ultimate murder victim to the point of threatening him with murder. He of course is murdered and Philo Vance figures it out.

The film gets points for the murder taking place in a lodge on a dark and stormy night. This never gets old.

The characters and scenes are pretty standard. It's the cinematography that baffles me though. In some of the office scenes the camera is so far back we can barely make out the characters, yet we can see how high the walls are on the set.

In other shots of the same office, the camera is overhead. What?! Once again, baffling! Maybe for an establishing, outdoor shot, but indoors! In an room with people? Just goofy.

Compare this camerawork, to the daring, dizzying cinematography in Kennel Murder Case. Curtiz knew what he was doing.

Conversely, there isn't a single close-up in the entire film. All these great 30s character actors and we don't get to see any of them up close. I'm sure the close up had been invented then. Especially William Powell's expressive, handsome mug.

Check it out on YouTube, or if it ever turns up on TCM, but keep in mind, it's just a warm-up for Nick Charles.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Old-timey film review: The Bishop Misbehaves

Before Ted Turner bought up the MGM library, and before the networks bought up all the local TV stations, local stations would show films from the '30s on their late late movie.

In the early '80s, I was working the overnight shift at a self-service gas station and had a little TV to entertain myself in the long hours of the shift. After the local news, after Johnny Carson, after the Hawaii Five-O rerun, after Letterman (the Philadelphia NBC affiliate had no faith in this new show from the quirky standup so instead of showing it after Johnny, they showed it an hour later after Hawaii Five-O … before this they didn't carry it at all, until Letterman fans complained), the station had a late movie which featured these classic films.

Some 30 years later I vaguely remember watching this film, but when it showed up on TCM I had to watch it. I must have only watched the first 15 minutes because that's all I remembered.

This is as cozy as they come, there's crime, there's men with guns, but at no point does the viewer feel anyone's in danger. And it's as British as they come (even though it was probably filmed at MGM), there's a vicarage, old-fashioned pubs full of Brits with thick accents, and foggy backstreets.

The first third is the young couple plotting a heist. See, the young woman (Maureen O'Sullivan) says her dad was cheated out of a patent and wants to rob the villain who stole the McGuffin. Her new, American boyfriend (a concession to American audiences?) readily agrees and they recruit some British felons to assist.

This is Columbo-esque, the first half hour is the crime, then the detective shows up to start picking apart the perfect crime. The detective here is a great Edmund Gwenn, a mystery loving bishop delighted to stumble upon a crime. He finds little clues at the crime scene, but for the rest of the film his attention to detail is kind of forgotten.

There are a few laughs but it's not so much a mystery as a caper unfolding and derailing. It was based on a play and it's all very stagey as the Bishop talks to the characters in a couple of settings (the pub, the vicarage). But instead of a  real cat and mouse game it's more like, "I have a gun… wait, who turned off the lights?" "Now, I have the gun…" or "I have the incriminating papers … " (punch!)  "Now, I have the incriminating papers."

Some good jokes seem to fall flat due to the unevenness, it should have been all screwball instead of the occasional screwy moment.

The real disappointment comes at the end when the villain is shamed into doing the right thing.

That's it? No actual mystery-solving, or last-minute twist?

Just when I thought, well maybe a sequel could make things better, the last minutes of the film show Gwen throwing his collection of mystery books in a fireplace swearing to never solve a mystery again.

So, not all old timey movies are classics, but they'll do in a pinch on a late, lonely overnight gas station shift.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Missing Midnight Movies

Flipping through the channels at 1:30 this morning I came across "Heavy Metal" the 1981 animated film based on the magazine of the same name. (and they blurred out the boobs! This is silly because it was 1:30 in the morning, and the point of the whole movie was the boobs!)

Watching the film so late at night made me think of something that's not there anymore: Midnight Movies.

For you kids too young to remember, in the 70s and early 80s, on Friday and Saturday nights movie theaters would show cult films at midnight. The most famous of these was of course "Rocky Horror Picture Show," but there were others.

This was before VCRs, and these showings were pretty much your only chance to see some notorious films you heard about, but were never shown on TV.

What better way to show your maturity and independence as a teen than watching an X-Rated film at midnight with your friends, then coming home at 3 am?

If you weren't there, here's what you missed:

Rocky Horror: There's been terrabytes written about this film, so I'm sure you know all about it and more than likely have seen it. I will say this: It had a great rock and roll score, and it bothered me that we're supposed to feel sympathy for the main character even after he kills Eddie in cold blood.

Heavy Metal: A fairly true adaptation of the magazine; it really didn't need the McGuffin as a linking device, why link the stories at all? Sex and boobs and sword and sorcery, probably better as a midnight movie than watching it on TV.

Fantastic Animation Festival: When they advertised it, they stressed the Pink Floyd segment. Unfortunately, you have to sit through a lot of avant-garde stuff before this segment, and the audience of teen stoners I saw this with were getting pretty impatient.

The Ralph Bakshi Ouvre: Wizards, another adult sword and sorcery/science fiction epic, lots of fun; Fritz the Cat, cartoon animals having sex. Once again, films that would never be shown on commercial television.

The animated films I've mentioned all contain sex. In the 70s the only animation around was Disney animation, so when producers started making animated films it was as if they were intentionally trying to get as far away from Disney wholesomeness as possible. Cartoon characters having sex though, doesn't necessarily lend itself to good storytelling.

I look at "Futurama" as a happy medium. It's for kids, it's for grownups and it can get blue without actual sex for the sake of sex.

House of Wax: Every once in a while they'd throw in a horror movie. Usually this and "Creature From the Black Lagoon," both in 3D and both better on the big screen where you can feel the audience jump in their seats.

Amazon Women on the Moon: Probably made specifically for the midnight movie crowd. A cinematic brother to  Kentucky Fried Movie and TunnelVision, all of them episodic trippy comedies.

Paul McCartney: Rockshow: A recurring theme with midnight movies was  rock and roll. "Woodstock," "Quadrophenia" and "The Kids Are Allright," were staples.

Now, if we want to watch  a cult movie, we can stream it or watch it on one of 300 cable channels. What do teenagers do for fun now?

Monday, March 7, 2016

Overdue Gravity Falls finale review

Wow, what a great show. It would often go to the very edge of creepy or scary, then someone would say a joke to reel you back in.

But here's the real reason why the Weirdmageddon finale was great: The series was obviously inspired by the X-Files and Twin Peaks, but unlike those shows, Gravity Falls tied up its loose ends! They knew the ending from the beginning. They weren't making stuff up as they went along.

Serial mysteries like X-Files, Twin Peaks, Lost and 24 would throw in weird left turns and the viewer would think, "wow, that's incredible, how are they going to explain that?" And they never did!

Gravity Falls, being a limited series (a long limited series at that) threw us curveballs, confident in the knowledge that they would be explained.

Either way, really a great show equally intriguing and funny for kids and adults.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens (spoilers ahead)

The bad news which isn't too bad: Ultimately, it's a remake of Star Wars: A New Hope. It opens with a person under attack planting a message in a robot, then sending the robot off. A loner in the desert finds the robot, and the loner turns out to be much more important than initially thought.
And it ends with an attack on a Death Star that has a fatal design flaw ...again...

..and all kinds of familiar plot elements in the middle.

If you ignore these swipes (and more), you'll have a good time at the movies. It's often exciting, the new characters are great. It's easily better than the prequels. And you have Harrison Ford who is worth every penny of the $20 million he reportedly got.

There's a couple nice surprises: The turncoat stormtrooper, Kylo Ren's parentage.

Some quibbles: It took Luke Skywalker three movies to learn to do things with the Force that Rey learns in one afternoon.

For never handling a light saber before, Finn and Rey are really good with it.

But if you just forget the past, you'll have a good time at the movies.