Category Archives: Show Biz

Here come the nice: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 6, 2018)

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Oh, Mr. Rogers, you sly son-of-a-gun. As it turns out, you get to have the last laugh, even though you were not alive to defend yourself. From a 2007 Wall Street Journal piece:

Don Chance, a finance professor at Louisiana State University, says it dawned on him last spring. The semester was ending, and as usual, students were making a pilgrimage to his office, asking for the extra points needed to lift their grades to A’s.

“They felt so entitled,” he recalls, “and it just hit me. We can blame Mr. Rogers.”

Fred Rogers, the late TV icon, told several generations of children that they were “special” just for being whoever they were. He meant well, and he was a sterling role model in many ways. But what often got lost in his self-esteem-building patter was the idea that being special comes from working hard and having high expectations for yourself.

[…] Some are calling for a recalibration of the mind-sets and catch-phrases that have taken hold in recent decades. Among the expressions now being challenged:

“You’re special.” On the Yahoo Answers Web site, a discussion thread about Mr. Rogers begins with this posting: “Mr. Rogers spent years telling little creeps that he liked them just the way they were. He should have been telling them there was a lot of room for improvement. … Nice as he was, and as good as his intentions may have been, he did a disservice.”

Signs of narcissism among college students have been rising for 25 years, according to a recent study led by a San Diego State University psychologist. Obviously, Mr. Rogers alone can’t be blamed for this. But as Prof. Chance sees it, “he’s representative of a culture of excessive doting.”

And of course, it’s no secret that the Fox news crowd has been gleefully vilifying the beloved children’s television host for quite some time now; holding him accountable as a chief enabler of the “participation trophy” culture they so vociferously mock and despise.

But here’s the funny thing. Several of the more interesting tidbits I picked up about Fred Rogers in Morgan Neville’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (currently available on PPV) were: (1) He was a lifelong registered Republican, (2) He studied to be a minister, and (3) He came from a well-moneyed family. I wonder if his fire-breathing conservative critics were aware this radical hippie commie cuck-creator was one of them!

In his affable portrait of this publicly sweet, gentle, compassionate man, Neville serves up a mélange of archival footage and present-day comments by friends, family, and colleagues to reveal (wait for it) a privately sweet, gentle, compassionate man. In other words, don’t expect revelations about drunken rages, aberrant behavior, or rap sheets (sorry to disappoint anyone who feels life’s greatest pleasure is speaking ill of the dead). That is not to deny that Rogers did have a few…eccentricities; some are mentioned, and others are implied. It goes without saying that he was an unusual and unique individual.

The bulk of the film focuses on the long-running PBS children’s show, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, which debuted in 1968. Neville demonstrates how Rogers sparked children’s imaginations with the pleasant escapism of “Neighborhood of Make-Believe”, while gently schooling them about some of life’s unfortunate realities. Right out of the gate, Rogers intuited how to address the most pervasive fears and uncertainties stoked by current events in a way that (literally) a child could understand and process (a clip showing how Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination was handled is poignant beyond words).

If anything lurked beneath Rogers’ genteel countenance, it was his surprisingly steely resolve when it came to certain matters-and you could file these under “eccentricities”. For example, there was the significance of “143” in Rogers’ personal numerology. He used that number as shorthand for “I love you” (“I” is 1 letter, “love” is 4 letters, and “you” is 3 letters). “143” was also the consistent weight he strove to maintain all his adult life; helped by diligently swimming the equivalent of 1 mile in the pool nearly every day.

That same resolve is evidenced in an extraordinary bit of footage I’d never previously seen. The Republican Nixon administration (not unlike the current one) devoted a good portion of its first year vindictively hamstringing various achievements by the previous Democratic president. Lyndon Johnson’s Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, which created and earmarked funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, was an early target.

When Congressional hearings commenced in 1969 to address the White House’s requested 50% budget cuts for CPB, Rogers appeared before the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, to speak on behalf of Public Television. Armed with little more than a few notes, some song lyrics, and his unique brand of friendly persuasion, you watch in amazement as Rogers turns the (initially) comically gruff and hostile committee chairman into a puddle of mush in just under 7 minutes, prompting the senator to chuckle and quip “Looks like you’ve just earned 20 million dollars.” Straight out of a Frank Capra movie.

Granted, there is virtually nothing to shock or surprise most viewers, especially if you are one of Fred Rogers’ “kids” who spent your formative years riding Trolley Trolley (and you “entitled” so-and-sos know who you are). And yes, expect the waterworks, especially if you’re sentimental. That said, anybody with a heart should go in with a box of Kleenex on standby. I was 12 in 1968, so I was already too hip for the room back in the day…but I’ll be damned if I wasn’t peeling onions every 10 minutes or so while watching this film.

With apologies to Howard Beale, I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everyone knows things are bad. There is so much vitriol, spitefulness, division, and ill will floating on the wind that it’s an achievement to make it to bedtime without having to ingest vast quantities of pills and powders just to get through this passion play (with apologies to Joni Mitchell). I think this documentary may be what the doctor ordered, just as a reminder people like Fred Rogers once strode the Earth (and hopefully still do). I wasn’t one of your kids, Mr. Rogers, but (pardon my French) we sure as shit could use you now.

 

Take a kiss without regret: Scotty & the Secret History of Hollywood (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 25, 2018)

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I’m stiff on my legend,
The films that I made
Forget that I’m fifty
‘Cause you just got paid

-David Bowie, from “Cracked Actor”

Marilyn Monroe once famously said “Hollywood is a place where they’ll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul. I know, because I turned down the first offer often enough and held out for the fifty cents.” Of course, she was specifically referring to the craft of acting, and the difficulty of maintaining integrity while toiling in the skin-deep recesses of the Dream Factory. Indeed, there are myriad stories of those who got off the bus in Tinseltown with stars in their eyes, determined to “make it” at any cost-only to get chewed up and spit out; dreams shattered, souls crushed.

Then you have people like Scotty Bowers, the subject of Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood. When recently discharged Marine combat veteran Bowers came to Hollywood in 1946, he had no illusions about becoming a “star” …in fact he had virtually no expectations at all. He had no acting aspirations. What he did have was a knack for fixing cars, a winning personality, and strapping good looks. He was perfectly happy to land his job working at a service station on Hollywood Boulevard.

As recounted by the now 90-something Bowers, what happened to him soon thereafter almost parallels Dirk Diggler’s journey in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights; a sort of pilgrim’s progress story for hedonists…the difference being that Bowers’ story is real.

What begins as a chance encounter at the pump with actor Walter Pidgeon, who immediately senses something “special” about Scotty and invites him over to his house for a “dip in the pool” ends up as a decades-long dip in Hollywood decadence for the affable ex-serviceman. Bowers became (to use the polite term) a “procurer to the stars”, arranging trysts for many of Hollywood’s closeted elites. He does name names; Bowers certainly shows no coyness in that department (they’re all dead now anyway, he figures).

Bowers also developed quite a rep for his own, erm, “servicing” prowess, with both men and women. Yet, there is no braggadocio on his part; this is a person so straightforward, charming, and refreshingly devoid of sexual hang-ups that by the time he matter-of-factually recalls engaging in “a three-way” with Lana Turner and Ava Gardner, you’ll find yourself thinking, “Yeah, okay. I can totally see how that could happen. Why not?”

But it’s not all about the sex and the salaciousness (OK, mostly…but not all). Some of the “secrets” divulged in the film have been public knowledge for years (in particular, anyone who has leafed through Kenneth Anger’s “Hollywood Babylon” will be shocked, shocked at a number of these revelations). And some of this ground was already covered in the excellent 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet. Still, Tyrnauer does a good job at contextualizing the historical reasons Bowers’ clients had to keep this all so hush-hush.

There is also a Grey Gardens vibe conjured up by the footage of Bowers at home with his wife. In addition to a rather obvious hoarding issue, Bowers doesn’t flinch when the odd skunk or coyote wanders into his garage to feed on the treats he leaves out for them.

There are brief glimpses into darker parts of Bowers’ psyche; there are hints of  PTSD symptoms going back to his WW2 experiences, and he speaks at one point of being molested as a child (oddly, as if sensing how it might be perceived, he goes out of his way to give it a sex-positive spin-but it’s an unconvincing coverup of denial).

But the real fun is in the dishing; and you’ll find yourself leaning forward as Bower chats and charms his way into your guilty pleasure center (you may even start to see what Walter Pidgeon saw all those years ago). Speaking for myself, I’ll never again be able to look at Bringing Up Baby or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? without certain…subtexts.

Blu-ray reissue: Woodfall-A Revolution in British Cinema [box set] ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 11, 2018)

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In 1958, taking their cues from the Italian neo-realist movement and Cahiers du Cinema crowd, director Tony Richardson, writer John Osborne, and producer Harry Saltzman founded Woodfall Films, an indie production studio that aimed to shake up the staid UK movie industry by creating what would come to be known as the British New Wave. The studio’s oeuvre was initially pigeonholed as “angry young man” or “kitchen sink” films, but there was more diversity in style and content than that labeling would infer, as this 8-film collection demonstrates.

This 9-disc set features 5 films directed by Richardson: Look Back in Anger (1959; ***½), The Entertainer (1960; ***), A Taste of Honey (1961; ****), The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1962; ****), and Tom Jones (1963; ****). That would make for a fabulous collection in and of itself; but also included are Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960; ***½), Desmond Davis’ Girl with Green Eyes (1964; ***), and Richard Lester’s The Knack…and how to get it (1965; **½). This is also a showcase of breakthrough performances from the likes of Richard Burton, Albert Finney, Rita Tushingham, and Tom Courtenay.

There are over 20 hours of extras (in which I have made but a small dent so far) spread out over the 8 films plus a 9th disc dedicated solely to bonus material. In addition to new and archival interviews with filmmakers and actors, there is a treasure trove of rare shorts by Richardson, Reisz and others, plus an 80-page booklet with essays on all 8 films.

Picture and sound quality are excellent (many of the films are newly restored; Tom Jones looks particularly gorgeous) with one caveat: for whatever reasons, The Knack…and how to get it is glaringly unrestored. The transfer of the film is decent enough, but the print is a little rough in patches and the audio somewhat muffled (thankfully there is a subtitle option). It’s a minor hiccup in an otherwise stellar package. A film buff’s delight!

SIFF 2018: Every Act of Life ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 26, 2018)

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I’m not really a theater person (some of my best friends are…does that count?), so I confess I’ve only seen one of playwright/librettist Terrence McNally’s works (the movie version of The Ritz-which I love). That said, I found Jeff Kaufman’s doc about the writer and gay activist very enlightening. The film tells his life story, from small-town Texas roots to his inevitable trek to NYC to conquer Broadway. Fascinating archival footage, plus colorful anecdotes from the likes of Nathan Lane (one of McNally’s latter-day acting muses), Rita Moreno, Meryl Streep and Bryan Cranston, all topped off by candid reminiscences from McNally (still going strong at 79).

SIFF 2018: The People’s Republic of Desire **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 19, 2018)

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You thought America’s Got Talent was a mind-numbing celebration of mediocrity? Wait ‘til you get a load of China’s “digital celebrity universe”. Equipped with little more than a digital camera, an internet connection, and even less talent, China’s most popular online celebrities gear up for a contest in which whomever successfully begs the most money from their fans wins. A truly bizarre subculture. Fascinating subject, but this documentary becomes an endurance contest for the viewer.

Blu-ray reissue: Mickey One ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 9, 2017)

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Mickey One – Indicator Limited Edition Blu-ray

Arthur Penn’s 1965 existential film noir stars Warren Beatty as a standup comic who is on the run from the mob. The ultimate intent of this pursuit is never made 100% clear (is it a “hit”, or just a debt collection?), but one thing is certain: viewers will find themselves becoming as unsettled as the twitchy, paranoid protagonist. It’s a Kafkaesque nightmare, with echoes of Godard’s Breathless. A true rarity-an American art film, photographed in expressive, moody chiaroscuro by DP Ghislain Cloquet (who also did the cinematography for Bresson’s classic Au Hasard Balthazar and Woody Allen’s Love and Death). Nice transfer. Extras include a 40-page booklet and a new interview with Penn’s son Matthew.

But he plays one on TV-Bill Nye: Science Guy (***)

By Dennis Hartley

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In a nonsensical world such as ours, it somehow makes perfect sense that it took a Cornell-educated Boeing engineer-turned TV sketch comic-turned-goofy kid’s science show host to become logic’s ultimate champion in the sometimes downright insane public debate among (alleged) adults regarding human-caused global warming.

Such is the long strange trip of Bill Nye, aka “The Science Guy”, recounted in a new “warts and all” documentary by David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg called (wait for it) Bill Nye: Science Guy. While the filmmakers’ non-linear structure (which vacillates abruptly between eco-doc,  spotty biography and science lesson) takes acclimation, there does seem to be a method to the madness.

Is there “madness” behind Nye’s transition from the bubbly “Science Guy” persona to the relatively more glum-faced crusader we have seen in more recent years taking the science deniers to task? Even the film’s subject himself is unsure of exactly “who” he is at times; as revealed in a fascinating segment where Nye is interviewed by neuroscientist Heather Berlin, who is conducting a study on the effects of celebrity and fame on the brain and the psyche.

She sees in Nye “a great test case” with which to explore her thesis. After admitting that the pressures of fame have made him “close [himself] off” in his public and personal life, Nye becomes palpably (and uncharacteristically) uncomfortable in front of the camera.

As if to further assure us that they are not making a hagiography , the film makers allow some of their subject’s former TV collaborators to dish some passive-aggressive disgruntlement that suggests Nye’s desire for fame and fortune (in the early days, at least) may have trumped any altruistic intentions to bring science to the masses. That said, there are still a number of admirers like Neil deGrasse Tyson on camera to praise Nye and his accomplishments.

My favorite part is where Nye goes to Kentucky for a public debate with anti-evolutionist Ken Ham. Nye first takes us along on a tour of Ham’s Creation Museum, where he finds one particular exhibit suggesting dinosaurs and humans co-existed at the same time to be “very troubling”. Luckily, for viewers like myself who are fully ready at this point to begin hurling objects at the screen, an antidote is administered soon thereafter with a shift back to reality (and sanity) when Nye attends the National Science Teacher’s Conference.

There are also some genuinely touching moments; during a family visit, Nye reveals that his brother and sister struggle with Ataxia, a rare neurological disease that affects balance and gait. While it is a hereditary affliction in his family (his father had it), Nye has never shown any signs to date of having inherited the malady himself. Consequently, he admits to suffering from a kind of “survivor’s guilt”, which has haunted him all of his adult life.

Another chunk is devoted to examining Nye’s current “day job” as CEO of The Planetary Society, which was co-founded by his mentor Carl Sagan (Sagan’s widow Ann Druyan, who co-wrote the 1980 PBS series Cosmos and is the creator-producer-writer of the 2014 sequel Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, also appears throughout the film).

While they may not have crafted a definitive portrait of Nye, the filmmakers do manage to pass on his “Science Guy” persona’s infectious enthusiasm for the joy of discovery. And it did leave me with the comforting thought that he’s one of the good ones who are out there, holding up the line of defense against blind superstition and purposeful disinformation. In light of the current state of our union, we need all the help we can get in that department.

SIFF 2017: The Fabulous Allan Carr ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 20, 2017)

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If you learn one thing about the business we call “show” from Jeffrey Schwarz’s profile of late movie producer Allan Carr, it’s this: For every Grease, there’s a Grease 2. Yes, the same man produced both films. But there was a lot more to this flamboyant showman, who first demonstrated his inherent genius for turning lemons into lemonade when he secured domestic distribution for a no-budget Mexican exploitation flick about the Uruguayan rugby team plane crash survivors who kept alive by gnawing on their less fortunate teammates (you remember Survive!). He produced some huge hits…and probably more misses. But his hits were big enough to sustain a hedonistic lifestyle, which included legendarily over-the-top parties. An entertaining paean to a special type of excess that flourished from the mid-1970s thru the early 1980s.

SJFF 2017: The Last Laugh ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 11, 2017)

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one. How many Jews can you fit in a VW? No, seriously…you should stop me, even if you haven’t heard it. Because if you do know the punch line, and you think it’s funny, shame on you. Of course, if you’ve never heard it, and now you’re dying to know the punchline, then, shame on me for propagating this horribly tasteless joke, even in this strictly academic context. Because now you’re going to Google it anyway, and if you do, and think it’s funny, then, shame on both of us.

I’ve had people tell me that sophomoric joke over the years, having no idea that I’m Jewish. And every time, I am so tempted to completely destroy them with one simple sentence: “You know, I have relatives on my mother’s side of the family who died at Auschwitz.”  But I don’t. I take the high road; I give a perfunctory chuckle, glance at my watch and mumble something about being late for this thing I have to get to right away.

I think that’s the gist of this documentary, which is built around this rhetorical question: Can the Holocaust be funny? Now, I am by no means a prude, or a P.C. scold. As a former stand-up comic, I firmly believe that when it comes to comedy, no subject is taboo, including the Holocaust. That doesn’t mean that I find anything intrinsically funny about the Holocaust…because I don’t. I think it’s possible to cogently stick to my comedy credo as well my opinion that only a sociopath would find the Holocaust “ha-ha” funny.

But, “Tragedy + Time = Comedy”, right? Anyone? Bueller?

Even Mel Brooks, who is one of the professional funny people on hand to opine on the topic, won’t “go there”. Remember, this is the guy who gave us “Springtime for Hitler”. However, as he astutely reminds us, he may have made fun of Hitler, the Nazis, and the very idea of the Third Reich in his classic film The Producers…but he wasn’t “making fun” of the Holocaust, or milking laughs from it in and of itself in any way shape or form.

And that’s the general consensus from nearly all the comedy luminaries who appear in the film, like Sarah Silverman, Gilbert Gottfried, Rob Reiner, Judy Gold, Carl Reiner, Susie Essman, Larry Charles, Jeffrey Ross and Harry Shearer; that nothing is off limits in comedy, but everyone still reserves the right to draw their own line, and not ever cross it.

But what about those who actually lived through the Holocaust? That’s where the film gets particularly fascinating; when director Ferne Pearlstein invites survivors to weigh in. It is through their stories that the film ultimately finds not only its heart and soul, but critical historical context concerning a people who have developed a deep-seated cultural fatalism and sense of gallows humor purely as a survival mechanism to get through all the shit that’s been dumped on them for 5,000 years. Hey, quit laughing-that’s not funny.

(For more info, visit the Seattle Jewish Film Festival website)

The man behind the ears: For the Love of Spock ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 17, 2016)

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Even the unflappable Mr. Spock himself (had he actually existed) might have arched an eyebrow at the prodigious outpouring of sentiment surrounding the passing of “his” alter-ego Leonard Nimoy last year. That, coupled with recent TV marathons and associated hoopla marking the 50th anniversary of the original Star Trek series, makes Adam Nimoy’s heartfelt documentary about his father all the more timely (and touching). While careful to compartmentalize Leonard Nimoy the human being from his Star Trek character’s indelible legacy, For the Love of Spock still manages to maintain a fairly even tone between personal reflection and fan-pleasing celebration.

Like a lot of show-biz kids, Adam had to come to terms with having to “share” his famous parent with legions of adoring fans. In fact, between the ages of 10-13, Adam saw very little of his father, due to his involvement with the original run of Star Trek (1966-1969). While he doesn’t go into specifics, Adam refers to periods of their lives where he and his father had “issues” communicating with each other.

Undoubtedly, not having one of his parents around while he was weathering the raging hormonal changes of puberty may have been a contributing factor. Nimoy doesn’t sugarcoat the bad times, either; particularly in reference to his father’s career slide in the early 1970s (in the wake of the unceremonious cancellation of the series by the network), which led to some problems with alcohol.

Thankfully,  Nimoy avoids descending into the kind of navel-gazing that has sunk a few similar documentaries that deal with growing up in the shadow of a famous parent. He remains mindful of the film’s core audience, devoting the lion’s share to, well, the love of Spock.

There’s lots of archival footage, plus snippets Leonard Nimoy did for this film (which was still in production when he passed away). There are also observations by fans, cast members of the current Star Trek film franchise, and former colleagues like William Shatner, George Takei, Michelle Nichols and Walter Koenig (Koenig shares a little-told backstage tale about the voice casting for the Star Trek cartoon series that speaks volumes about Nimoy’s generosity of spirit).

If I have any quibbles, it would be with the syrupy music score, which is over-intrusive at times. The film might feel a tad overlong for some (especially if you’re not a Trekker). But its heart is in the right place; and for those of a certain age, it’s a pleasingly nostalgic wallow.