Monday, October 20, 2014

On TV: Those Twisty Teeth

Have you seen Twisty the Clown on this season's American Horror Story?  If you saw him, you'd remember him.  He's got a set of choppers that you just can't forget.
Look at those teeth.  Aren't they scary?  That's not a clown you book for a children's birthday party.  Not unless the kids are in The Addams Family.
It's obvious that folks in the American Horror Story production team appreciate classic films.  One classic silent film provided the inspiration for Twisty the Clown.

Actor Conrad Veidt is famous to millions of classic film fans as the Nazi villain, Major Strasser in 1942's Casablanca.  Veidt starred in a number of silent films that were quite influential.  In one of them, he played a young noble whose face was surgically disfigured by order of a despotic king.  Years later and because of his disfigurement, he joins a traveling circus troupe and becomes a top act.  In 1928, Conrad Veidt starred as Victor Hugo's The Man Who Laughs.  Veidt's make-up made his screen character memorable.  There was an elegant horror to his disfigured face.  His face gave circus audiences a start when it popped through the curtain.  The noble is now a circus freak.
He is conflicted about his looks when true love comes into his tortured life.  He will discover that love is blind.
Veidt's face as The Man Who Laughs reportedly inspired illustrators such as Bob Kane when creating The Joker for the original Batman comic books.
In 2005, the film and Veidt's silent screen look continued to be referenced by illustrators.
In a way, Twisty the Clown's teeth have stood the cinematic test of time considering that they were inspired by a deformed smile first seen in 1928.

By the way, if you want to see a compelling performance, watch and study Conrad Veidt as The Man Who Laughs.  It's a silent film.  Today's young actors can learn a lot from Veidt's physicality in the lead role.  He poetically evokes all the feelings of this mistreated, grotesque, human man.  It is truly a film classic anchored by a great lead performance.

For another lesson in excellent physicality during a film performance, watch John Carroll Lynch in 2007's Zodiac.  Based on a true serial killer murder mystery that made national headlines, Zodiac was directed by David Fincher (Fight Club, 1999).  He gave us this year's hit, Gone Girl.  The scene you need to see is Lynch's police interrogation scene.  He plays a big, brawny, bad-tempered single man.  He knows that the police suspect that San Francisco's  Zodiac serial killer may be a gay man.  He's extremely self-conscious about his movements and mannerisms during the interrogation.  He doesn't want to move in a way that will make him appear gay.  He doesn't want his temper to get him in trouble.  He's at odds with the cops.  He's at odds with himself.

John Carroll Lynch is brilliant in that scene.  On American Horror Story, the actor plays Twisty the Clown.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

NETWORK Predicted It

I noticed a big billboard in the cineplex lobby on my way out from having seen (and loved) Birdman.  I was in the big cineplex across from Manhattan's Lincoln Center.

Remember the 1976 classic, Network, the satire with its award-winning original and prophetic screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky?  Peter Finch played aging, avuncular network news anchor, Howard Beale.  Beale's newscast is traditional and low-rated.
He has an emotional breakdown and he becomes delusional.  His delusional state gives way to rants, angry rants that are televised live on the air.  Faye Dunaway plays the soulless network executive who manipulates Beale's madness into big ratings for the company.

She introduces the change of the set and the new format for the newscast headed by Howard Beale, now the "mad prophet" of the airwaves.  Beale's new format has a studio audience.

A studio audience that laughs and applauds and cheers during the news.  Diana (Dunaway's character) has erased the line between news and programming.

I saw Network in its theatrical release.  I saw it several times, it was that good.  Movie audiences always howled with laughter at the sight of a national newscast with an applauding studio audience.  We TV viewers were still in the Walter Cronkite era then.  We still had a line between news and programming. It was slimmer than before, but it was still present.

I used to hear people talk about the news features done by Cronkite or Peter Jennings -- or the editorials by Eric Severeid and the investigative reports by journalist pitbull Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes.  It's different now.  Today millions of TV viewers talk about and are devoted fans of satirical newscasts with studio audiences that laugh, applaud and cheer.  Actor/comedians are asking harder, more probing questions than some TV journalists are.  These hugely popular actor/comedians who give us the news are...Jon Stewart, the most popular host of The Daily Show...
...and Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report.
I bet that, if either one of them guest anchored the CBS Evenings News for one week during November sweeps, its ratings would increase big time.  The ratings would top what CBS anchor, Scott Pelley, gets.  Just my opinion.
We look to fake newsmen to get more fulfilling news reports.  They rant in a way that touches our wounded hearts and minds in the same way Howard Beale's "I'm as mad as hell" declaration connected with his national TV viewers.  And I can understand why.  Stewart and Colbert do incisive, intelligent, provocative, bold and compassionate work.  They make you think.  They make you laugh.  And they make you cheer.  Theirs are the reports folks talk about the next day.  Theirs are the reports that get posted on Facebook and Twitter.  Just like in Network, viewers turn to a news show with a studio audience and an untraditional format.  Life has imitated art.

I thought of all that when I saw this billboard in the cineplex lobby.  It was full of rave reviews for a new political drama, directed and written by Jon Stewart.  Notice the words "the world's leading fake newscaster."

Stewart's film is called Rosewater.  It stars the wonderful Mexican actor Gael García Bernal (Y Tu Mamá También) and Shohreh Aghdashloo, of NBC's Grimm and Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for 2003's House of Sand and Fog.

I wish Paddy Chayefsky had lived long enough to be a guest on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart to discuss the state of TV journalism today.  That interview would rock and folks would definitely talk about the following day.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Michael Keaton as BIRDMAN

I just saw Birdman this afternoon.  In a word -- wow.  If Michael Keaton does not get an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, if the film does not get an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, Hollywood heads need to be examined.  Keaton is absolutely fascinating and surprising.  He really takes you on a journey in this performance.  I'd give Michael Keaton an Oscar nomination right now for Birdman.  He did some thrilling dramatic work.  As thrilling as a superhero story with life as the special effects.
  Yes, this is the same guy who was Mr. Mom and Beetlejuice.  And Batman.
Does the world know what you're capable of?  Director Alejandro González Iñárritu has given us a masterful, highly original cinematic jazz composition about respect and validation.  Keaton plays a movie star, famous for having been a box office champion as a superhero.  His Hollywood glory days are over and he's now older.  He seeks to do something new and artistically relevant.  He takes a risk.  He's producing and acting in a play based on work by Raymond Carver.  He takes a risk and he's willing to do the hard work.  The play is in troubled, unpredictable previews before its Broadway opening.
He's had a sexual fling with one fellow cast member and punches the crap out of another.  His daughter is out of rehab, she's there with him in New York City and some rehabilitation needs to be done on their relationship.  There, too, he's willing to do the work.  He displays some magical super powers of his own.  This actor seems to be in a stage of madness, in more ways than one.  This movie is surreal and wonderful.

To a little degree, it's like an action hero version of All About Eve for guys.  Edward Norton co-stars as the annoying, talented fellow cast member.  I think Norton was doing a vocal and slight physical riff on William Hurt.  He had some Hurt mannerisms.  Norton is one of the most versatile film actors we've got.  Look at him as skinhead racist in American History X, watch him in Fight Club, see his musical comedy performance in Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You, watch his brilliance as the British doctor punishing his adulterous wife in the excellent and greatly overlooked remake of The Painted Veil, see his scout master role in the loopy Moonrise Kingdom, and then catch him as the pain-in-the-ass egotistical actor in Birdman.  Norton nails this new role.

I did not expect to connect to Keaton's actor as deeply as I did.  But we had a few things in common.  In the first ten minutes of the movie, when the aging performer is alone and listening to his winged alter ego, I knew exactly how Keaton's Riggan Thomson felt.  As a former VH1 celebrity talk show host and veteran network entertainment reporter, I've felt the same way when I've watched the rich Billy Bush host his show biz news programs.  Thomas was a hit in 1992.  I was a hit in 1992.  (He was on the big screen.  I was on TV screens).  He wants to be respected and validated and do some relevant new work today.  So do I.  We're both in the same age category.

I got my first taste of Keaton's quirky comic acting skills when I saw him just about steal 1982's Night Shift away from its star, Henry Winkler.  I became an immediate Michael Keaton fan.   We moviegoers liked his comedy so much that we didn't think he could pull off the darkness and emotional dissonance of 1989's Batman.  But he did.  And it was a box office blockbuster.  Now the former action hero movie star is playing a former action hero movie star.
Who knew that Keaton was capable of the more complex rawness he shows in this new black comedy?  I loved his performance as a guy trying to reconnect to family members, his career and his self-respect.  I plan to see Birdman again.  This is the best and brightest work of Michael Keaton's film career to date.  Wow.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014


Casey Wilson makes me laugh.  A lot.  I love the way she does physical comedy.  I love her rapid-fire pop culture references when a character she plays has a hissyfit.  I loved her on ABC's sitcom, Happy Endings.  The sitcom's promos did not lie.  That show was like Friends.  Only with black people.  She played Penny.  I totally dug Penny's friendship with Max, the Chicago bear cub who was one of the most refreshing gay male sitcom characters I'd seen in years.  That slacker was just like gay dudes I knew when I lived in Milwaukee and spent time in Chicago.  He ate carbs, he was no slave to fashion, he'd rather watch a ballgame on TV instead of a Sex and the City marathon, he found good men well over 40 to be sexy and he could name five classic movie westerns that did not have any musical numbers performed by Judy Garland or Doris Day.  He was a regular guy, a great pal, who just happened to be gay.
However, Happy Endings did not get huge ratings like Will & Grace, a straight gal/gay man sitcom that took place in a New York City where 99% of the black people who live below 23rd Street on Manhattan's west side, as Will and Grace did, somehow mysteriously disappeared.  Where were we?  We were hardly even included as background actors.

Casey Wilson premieres tonight in a new sitcom that airs on NBC.  It's called Marry Me.  She's a 32 year old woman who's been dating a man for six years.  She wants him to propose to her.

I've always felt that NBC's Will & Grace in 1998 was what Caroline in the City should've been in 1995.  But network TV was still nervous about giving viewers positive gay characters on weekly television.  If you can, watch Casey as the unmarried lady on Marry Me.  She has two gay fathers.  She explains it to you in the premiere episode.
Her fathers are played by Dan Bucatinsky (formerly of Scandal) and Tim Meadows (formerly of Saturday Night Live).

Back in 1987, NBC had a sitcom called My Two Dads.
Both men were straight but I felt that it should've really been about a straight man and a gay man raising a sweet little girl together and becoming better men because of co-parenthood.

If My Two Dads had been done that way, Marry Me could be sort of a follow-up to it.  Watch and let me know what you think.  Break a leg, Casey.


I admit it.  In the 1990s, I was once in a show so bad that the first three words of one major newspaper review were "Not since Chernobyl..."  I totally understood how the playwright played by Matthew Broderick felt in IT'S ONLY A PLAY, the show now filling seats at Broadway's Schoenfeld Theatre on West 45th Street.
The playwright, actors and producer in this opening night story have something in common with us all. They want to be liked.  They want to be validated.  They want their hard work to be appreciated.  But they're constantly at the mercy of critics -- people who are to the theatre what ants are to a picnic.  And, let's face it.  It's easier to review a play than it is to write one.

It's Only A Play has the kind of celebrity name-dropping and wickedly catty comments about the rich and famous that put it in the same category as The Man Who Came To Dinner.  Just like that play, this one could become quickly dated because of changing times and celebrity culture.  Look at the funny 1940s movie adaptation of The Man Who Came To Dinner.  Nowadays, some young viewers would not be familiar with Somerset Maugham, Deanna Durbin, Eleanor Roosevelt and other celebrity names dropped.  But a comedy like Neil Simon's The Odd Couple can still play to the masses because it's more mainstream.

A hightone  acquaintance of mine criticized Terrence McNally's It's Only A Play with the remark that name-dropping does not constitute satiric comedy.  Maybe not.  But I wouldn't want to spend a Saturday night with him.  I wouldn't want to spend it with a snooty Poindexter know-it-all.  In the last three years, I got hit hard by the Great Recession.  I lost my job, my apartment and most of the stuff in it.  Then I nearly lost my mother.  I've been in New York City for a few weeks of auditions and job interviews.  I needed some big laughs and It's Only A Play delivered.  Is it a great play?  No.  But it is very entertaining.   I would definitely go to see it again on a Saturday night.

Stage-turned-TV sitcom actor James Wicker is exactly the kind of character with exactly the kind of outrageous dialogue that you want to see in a role played by Nathan Lane.  He is terrific.  There are actors who never get the kind of ovation in their entire careers that Lane got for his entrance.  New York's love affair with Nathan Lane continues.  Matthew Broderick has, once again, a fine co-star chemistry onstage with Lane.  They have definite personality together -- more than Broderick has alone.
The sitcom actor and the playwright are best friends.  Two top veterans -- Stockard Channing as the diva actress out of rehab and F. Murray Abraham as a critic who's a playwright wannabe -- have been giving us laughs since the 1970s.  Abraham,  the Best Actor Oscar winner for Amadeus who is elegant and touching in this year's movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel, was a hoot as the flaming queen in McNally's The Ritz onstage and on film.  Channing and Abraham show they've still good sterling comedy chops in this production.  Channing's diva actress is the kind of deliciously out of control woman that would've gotten big audience laughs from Joan Rivers.  The diva star is foul-mouthed, fearless and fabulous.  Channing first clicked with TV audiences as the ugly duckling-turned-sexy killer swan in one of the best of the ABC Movie of the Week made-for-TV movies.   The Girl Most Likely to...  was a clever, wickedly funny and still relevant black comedy/murder mystery.  The hit 1973 original network feature was written by Joan Rivers.  It co-starred Ed Asner as a bumbling detective.
Lovely and versatile Megan Mullally stars in McNally's comedy as the ditzy producer.  Rupert Grint seems to be having lots of fun modeling his stage director after the British bad boy characters Malcolm McDowell played so well in movies in the 1970s.                                                                                                                                      
Tall, lanky newcomer Micha Stock is an absolute hoot as clueless young Gus, sort of butler at the opening night party.  Gus' send-up of a big number from Wicked was better than some new network sitcoms I've seen this month.  In fact, if this was the era of the Norman Lear sitcoms and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Micha Stock would've been hired for featured TV roles in a heartbeat.
This McNally plays does touch on some food for thought -- like the current state of Broadway's home in New York City.  The theatre district is now starting to look like a Midwest mall.  As Broderick's playwright says, cherished old theaters get torn down but they're not replaced with new ones.  A hotel goes up instead.  How does that affect the arts and future theatre artists in New York City?
About reviews -- we also wonder if actors can take criticism, even if it's constructive and accurate.  Or do their egos make them want to read only good things, even if they're inaccurate.  You have to give actors and playwrights credit for their durability.  With movies, the actors have finished the project and made their money when the reviews come out.  A movie can get panned by the critics but still go to become a box office hit that spawns a sequel.  In TV, changes can be made and a show can continue after some sharp reviews.  But with the stage, the show is frozen.  A bad review can cause a production to close.  McNally knows that first-hand.  He wrote the book for a musical based on Steinbeck's East of Eden in the late 1960s.  Its opening night was also its closing night.

Another thing to keep in mind is that bad reviews are often fiercely funny and quite quotable.  There's snarkiness in this play that will appeal to today's social media generation.

It's Only A Play is like a theatrical version of TV's reality show, Survivor.  The company of this new play wants to survive in Broadway's concrete jungle and the one person they want to vote off the island of Manhattan is the highly influential theatre critic for The New York Times.  Behind the refreshing vulgarity and the bitchy comments, we see a quickly fading NYC.  We lost three famous women this year who typified the inimitable New York City show biz dame -- Elaine Stritch, Lauren Bacall and Joan Rivers.  Who can follow them?  The Kardashians?  I don't think so.  In a way, McNally shows us the New York City that we're losing as our city becomes more and more generic -- like a mall.

I loved spending a night with those entertaining Terrence McNally characters.  I hadn't laughed that much at a play in years.  I thank It's Only A Play from the bottom of my funnybone.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Columbus Day Conversation

Italian buddy:  "My ancestors came over to this country on a boat."
Me:                  "So did mine."
On this holiday, we honor Christopher Columbus.  Happy Columbus Day.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Jimi Hendrix Movie Lacks Rhythm

The star of the film is André Benjamin, formerly of hip hop music's OutKast.  He does a pretty good job as the late rock legend, Jimi Hendrix.  It would've been great to see Benjamin play Hendrix in a movie with a better, more developed screenplay.  Also, it would've been really great if this new movie had been granted the rights to use some classic Hendrix music in it.  In the looks category, André Benjamin was well-cast as Hendrix.
That's one of the disappointments of Jimi:  All Is By My Side.  This focuses on Hendrix's life when he left New York City and became a blazingly hot music star in 1960's London.  Pardon me for dropping a name but, during my VH1 host years in the late 1980s, I interviewed Paul McCartney in London for a one-hour special.  He mentioned his awe when he was one of The Beatles and saw Hendrix perform.  This feature needed to awe us with this icon talent in the spotlight.  But it didn't.  For a film in which a legendary show biz entertainer is the focus, it doesn't deliver what the filmgoer has a right to expect.
Musically, we don't get "Purple Haze" or "All Along the Watchtower" or "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Woodstock.

Although this film doesn't claim to be a biopic, it will be in the minds of most moviegoers.  So, let me use movie biopics as examples:  When you saw Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles in Ray, Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash in Walk The Line, Angela Bassett as Tina Turner in What's Love Got To Do With It, Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner's Daughter, Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues and Susan Hayward as Lillian Roth in 1955's I'll Cry Tomorrow, your focus was on the person who became a star.  You saw where they came from and what made them a star. You saw the obstacles they faced and, if their stardom burned out for a while, you saw how they rose from the ashes and went on to another personal victory.  First and foremost, the attention was on the star, the subject of the biopic.
In Jimi:  All Is By My Side, Hendrix is practically a supporting player in his own story.  The first twenty minutes are more about the women in his life than they are about him.  He has a few lines and speaks bumpersticker-like statements -- the "Today is the first of the the rest of your life" kind of talk.

Apparently, he had a black girlfriend.  That character appears in one scene.  I wanted to know more about the relationship with her, a New York woman who seemed to know the real Jimi.  But we only got that the one short scene with her.  Then the attention goes to the two white British girlfriends that Jimi had.  The movie is more about them than it is about him.  There's not a satisfying balance in the screenwriting.  It's like seeing a biopic about John Lennon in which most of the screen time goes to Yoko Ono.

This film was written and directed by John Ridley.  He won an Oscar for his adapted 12 Years a Slave screenplay.

Like Ike Turner, Hendrix apparently had some physical abuse issues.  He viciously beats the heck out of one girlfriend in public.  Was there a history of violence in his life, in his upbringing?  What were the excesses or problems that eventually caused this rock superstar to die at age 27?  We don't learn those facts.  The script and direction are as choppy as the editing.

Another thing:  Jimi:  All Is By My Side has an ending so abrupt that a few people in the Friday night movie audience when I saw it blurted out loud, "That's it?!?!"

I knew exactly how they felt.  That was the most frustrating and unexpected climax since my prom night.  What a major disappointment.
The movie should've been called Jimi:  All About My Girlfriends.