Friday, April 19, 2019

Happy Easter!

The Funhouse TV show this weekend will continue my pattern of exploring terrible modern-day Xtian propaganda cinema, but the blog needs a dose of the old Easter Blasphemy as well. So I hereby resurrect (ouch) this clip, which has meant so much to so many people. Especially the guy to whom it happened.

I was very glad to capture this item from a Spanish-language "Funniest Home Videos"-type show. Was equally glad it won a prize on the show (as I'm sure was the winner).

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

More reviews of those little silver discs...

You will notice that the vast majority of these reviews are very positive in nature. For the record, I will note that I lean these days toward reviewing things that I suspect I will love or am curious to see. (I wrote for several decades about movies that were mere commercial pap.) When it comes to defining things I enjoy, we return to the Funhouse specialty: “high art to low trash… and back again.”

One of Brigitte Bardot’s most serious (and successful) performances was in suspense-master Henri-Georges Clouzot’s La Verite (1960). The Criterion release includes much information on Clouzot’s career, and his heavy penchant for terrorizing cast members (including his wife Vera).

More gems from the Dick Cavett archive emerge. In new sets from S’more Entertainment called “Inside the Minds of…” are a selection of interviews he did with comedians on his “later” shows (on PBS, USA, and CNBC). 

The wonderful character study Mikey and Nicky (1976) might not be the sort of genre-inversion it’s touted as by film critics on the Criterion release of the film, but it’s still a wonderfully acted crime picture with a (literally) killer ending.

Another underrated gem from post-WWII France, Panique (1946) by Julien Duvivier is a powerful story of a man unjustly accused of a crime.

Chris Marker’s The Owl’s Legacy (1989), from Icarus, is a sublime miniseries that explores the lasting influence of the ancient Greeks. It’s more linear and “normal” than most of Marker’s work, but it still has some beautiful moments and brilliant insights into the modern world (courtesy of a long-gone civilization). 

Fassbinder’s long-missing miniseries Eight Hours Are Not a Day (1972) finally got a release in the U.S. and while it is (again, that phrase) a lot more “normal” than his other work, when it focuses on a working class family’s struggles to get by, it is terrific (although a little more of Kurt Raab’s weirdness would’ve been beneficial). The Criterion release contains much background info on the series (including a discussion by participants on how it was cancelled after five shows, when it was supposed to run eight).

Star/co-scripter Chris Elliott and director/co-scripter Adam Resnick spend a good deal of the time putting down their film Cabin Boy (1994) in the supplements found in the new Kino Lorber release of the film. They’re wrong — the film might have been a personal failure for them, but it now has a well-earned cult and is far better than its initial, vicious reviews indicated.

Terrence Malick’s lyrical, abrasive, and mind-altering Tree of Life (2011) is found in two 
different versions in the new Criterion release of the film. One is the theatrical version, while the other is a re-edited version with 50 minutes of unseen footage.

Olivier Assayas’ Cold Water (1994) has a bravura party sequence utilizing a great number of early Seventies hits from American, British and European musicians. It’s a beautifully choreographed scene that all but dwarfs the rest of the film, which is certainly good but not as kinetic as the party sequence.

The exemplary Criterion box Dietrich and von Sternberg in Hollywood includes the six films that Marlene Dietrich made in America with her mentor and Svengali, the stunningly talented Josef von Sternberg. The box includes many extras that explore several issues, from the fashion-related (Marlene introducing men’s pants as a garment option for women) to the deadly serious (the backlash in post-war Germany that plagued her, because she supported the Allies in the war and not her Fatherland!).

Francois Ozon’s Double Lover (2017), from Cohen Media, is a taut thriller that becomes predictable in the third act but has the same ominous edge that was found in Ozon’s best suspense dramas (See the Sea, Criminal Lovers).

The Arrow box set Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years.Vol. 2. Border Crossings: The Crime and Action Movies contains five crime pictures that foreshadow Suzuki’s great Sixties mind-blowers, with taut storylines, fragmented visuals, and absolutely stunning visuals.

Another beautiful working-class parable from Aki Kaursimaki, The Other Side of Hope (2017) is a second (after his sublime Le Havre) tale of immigrants attempting to assimilate (and to remain) in Finland.

Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse (1991), one of the finest films about the artistic process — and about the relationship between artist and model — comes back into print in the U.S., thanks to Cohen Media.

In the Seventies, Robert Altman had a run of stunning, startling films. Stunning because of their originality and innovation, startling because he leapt from genre to genre, reinventing each one as he went. Images (1972) was his take on the suspense thriller — it’s a dream film that blurs the character’s identities and probes the dreams and fantasies of its lead character (Susannah York).

Some of W.C. Fields’ classic Thirties pictures were reworkings of his silent features like It’s the Old Army Game (1926). This particular silent, released by Kino Lorber, has some gags he later reworked with dialogue and some that function perfectly as visual gags (including one involving a baby gagging on a diaper pin). All that, and the usual Fields adorable, virginal young woman character is played here by Louise Brooks!

Finally, Fassbinder fans can see one of the finest lead performances he ever gave (in a film he didn’t direct). Volker Schlondorff’s Baal (1969) keeps Brecht’s text but moves the action into the present and includes some very memorable imagery, most of it inhabited by the perpetually swaggering Fassbinder as the charismatic, degenerate antihero.

The Arrow box set Jean-Luc Godard + Jean-Pierre Gorin: Five Films, 1968-1971 fills in the gap in Uncle Jean’s DVD-ography by offering a set of all but one of his “Dziga-Vertov group”-era films, beautifully restored and put into perspective by great visual and print documents.

The 1967 anthology feature The Oldest Profession offers different filmmakers’ takes on prostitution, with the most notable inclusion being “Anticipation” by Godard. His last collaboration with Anna Karina, it is a post-Alphaville slice of poetic sci-fi. 

Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years, Vol. 1: Seijun Rising: The Youth Movies features five early films by Suzuki that are mostly conventional compared to his later cult films. There are small seeds of the later stylistic “fever” he displayed, though, and the films are very watchable melodramas. 

Eight Films by Jean Rouch, an invaluable box from Icarus, gives American viewers a crash course in the work of this fascinating ethnographic filmmaker whose films are not strict documentaries but are instead a fusion of documentary, fiction film, and outright fantasy, concocted by Rouch in tandem with his casts of African non-professional performers. The best film in the box is hands-down Petit a Petit (1971), a wonderful, plotted film about African businessmen on the loose in Paris trying to figure out how to build a giant skyscraper in their home country.

Pennebaker’s landmark 1967 rock doc Monterey Pop was re-released both in its theatrical version and in a big box set with more concert footage.

Melville’s much copied Le Samourai (1967) was re-released with additional supplements. The film is a masterpiece, possessing an influence that grows with every passing year.

After several decades, Fellini’s final film The Voice of the Moon (1990) finally got an official U.S. release by Arrow. The film may not be Il Maestro’s finest, but it still has beautiful moments and a touching lead performance by Robert Benigni.

The superb filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa made his “foreign language” debut with Daguerrotype (2016), shot in French (and released to streaming platforms by the wonderfully titled studio “Under the Milky Way”). The film is a suspense drama about a photographer’s assistant who falls in love with his boss’s model (who also happens to be his boss’s daughter).

Orson Welles’ later films are exemplary models of how to make movies on low budgets. One of the best “lessons” in this regard is his visually arresting adaptation of Othello, made over a three-year period in two different countries (Italy and Morocco) with various and sundry budget limitations and cast difficulties blighting the production. Welles still came up with a masterpiece (released in two different cuts, in both 1952 and ’55) that perfectly catches the tone of Shakespeare’s work.

Godard’s La Chinoise (1967) stands not only as a razor-sharp depiction of upper-middle class radicals but also foreshadowed the feeling of youthful rebellion that led to the May ’68 riots in Paris. The Kino Lorber re-release includes some fascinating supplements.

John Garfield gives a terrific performance in the noir drama The Breaking Point (1950), an adaptation of a Hemingway story. The film offers much evidence as to why Garfield was such a revered performer (especially by other actors) and the way in which noir dread crept into even the most esteemed literary adaptations.

I have a lot of trouble with Michael Hanneke’s cinema, but his work with Isabelle Huppert in The Piano Teacher (2001) produced one of his best films and one of her best performances.

Albert Brooks succeeded with both critics and at the box office with his “yuppie road picture,” Lost in America (1985). The Criterion release contains an interview with Albert, which is honest (but fans of his comedy were hoping he would do an audio commentary for the picture).

Robert Bresson ended his career on a grim and beautifully innovative note with L’Argent (1983). The film is of a piece with his earlier work but also features a fascinating view of the modern world, which seems to indicate that Bresson had had his fill of mankind, and felt we cannot be truly redeemed. (And yet the film is one of the most engaging of his post-Sixties works.)

It’s great to see the works of the least-seen (in the U.S.) member of the French New Wave, get official U.S. DVD/Blu-ray releases. Arrow’s The Jacques Rivette Collection is a good sampler of his “mid-period work,” with Duelle (1976) being the best film in the collection.

Monday, March 18, 2019

What I write when I’m not writing here (part 1 of two)

Jean Seberg in Godard's segment of
The World's Greatest Swindlers
Every nook and cranny on the Internet exists for one thing. No, not porn – relentless self-promotion! Thus, I herewith offer a number of the reviews I’ve done for the Disc Dish site. The reviews are in-depth, filled with information gleaned in the watching and reading of supplemental materials, and (I hope) entertaining.

I haven’t done an entry on my work for DD since 2015, so this piece will be broken into two parts. Screw streaming – support the little silver disc industry! 

The anthology film The World’s Most Beautiful Swindlers has been very hard to see over the last few decades. It includes two good episodes from Japanese and Italian directors, but is most notable for having a characteristically amoral entry from Claude Chabrol and Godard’s only reunion with Jean Seberg – a short in which she plays a journalist in Marrakesh.

The Criterion re-release of Ghost World includes old and new supplements. It also reminds us how good a film based on a comic book can be. 

The Kino release of Josef von Sternberg’s final film, Anatahan, contains the director’s re-edit of the film (including nudity) and supplements that discuss both Sternberg’s career and the difference between the two versions of the film.

I am a major fan of Francis Ford Coppola’s low-key character studies, and Rumble Fish is one of his most brilliantly stylized features.

Leos Carax’s sublime Lovers on the Bridge finally was issued in a deluxe edition on disc. 

Multiple Maniacs, John Waters’ second feature, received the Criterion treatment, with the no-budget 16mm film being restored into a pristine shape it never had in the first place.

Fassbinder’s Fox and His Friends remains one of the filmmaker’s most important statements about the exploitation of a minority by people in that minority.

The seminal caper film, The Asphalt Jungle, joins the ranks of Criterion’s releases.

One of the best modern Westerns, Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller, reappears in a deluxe edition.

The documentary Eat That Question is comprised entirely of interview footage with Frank Zappa (with a tiny bit of his music).

Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is that thing of rare radiance – a spoof of an era made while that era is still going on.

The film that made Luis Bunuel want to be a filmmaker, Fritz Lang’s Destiny, finally gets a prestige release on disc.

Terrence Malick’s The New World appeared on disc in a director’s cut that “balances” the segments of the film in a better way.

Malick's New World
Alain Resnais’ Muriel reveals his genius for shuffling time and memory.

One of the finest black comedies of all time, Dr. Strangelove, comes ready with new supplements and a host of the older ones.

Olivier Assayas has been showcasing the talents of Kristen Stewart in the last few years. In Clouds of Sils Maria, she joins Juliette Binoche for a character study concerning friendship between women of different ages. 

Wim Wenders: The Road Trilogy groups together three of his best early films, including the epic-length but still small in scope classic Kings of the Road.

Bogart gave arguably his best performance in Nick Ray’s hard-hitting noir In a Lonely Place. 

Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street, Sam Fuller’s delirious crime picture, finally gets a prestige release.

Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson’s The Forbidden Room offers stories within stories (and a sterling cast led by Charlotte Rampling and Udo Kier). 

Out 1 is one of the late Jacques Rivette’s masterworks, a 13-hour film that reflects the post-’68 mindset in France and offers one of the filmmaker’s best paranoid fantasies.

An underrated comic portrait of an era, Serial skewers self-help and new-age philosophies and movements.

Wim Wenders’ The American Friend is a masterful character study, allegory, and crime picture with two great lead performances by Bruno Ganz and Dennis Hopper.

Bruno Ganz in The American Friend
Burroughs: the Movie comes back into distribution, replete with outtakes.

The Mr. Warmth box set offers several Don Rickles specials and every episode of his sitcom CPO Sharkey.

Alain Resnais’ long-“missing”sci-fi love story Je t’aime, je t’aime finally receives a restoration and a U.S. release.

The superb box set comprised of episodes from the visionary PBS series The Great American Dream Machine reminds us how good and far-ranging PBS programming was in the Seventies.

Standup comedian and Lefty troublemaker Barry Crimmins is profiled in Bobcat Goldthwait’s funny and poignant Call Me Lucky.

A never-before-seen Frank Zappa concert film, Roxy: The Movie, finally saw a release nearly 40 years after it was shot. 

The American Dreamer is a portrait of Dennis Hopper in the period after Easy Rider, when he was one of the most sought-after filmmakers in America (and one of the craziest).

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Put them all together, they spell…: Huppert in ‘The Mother’

Huppert, official portrait for
The Mother (photo: Peter Lindbergh)
When you have the opportunity to see one of the finest actresses in the world in live performance, you should jump at the chance. Especially if she is Isabelle Huppert, and even if she appears in a play as obvious and belabored as The Mother, currently at the Atlantic Theater Company in Manhattan (now through April 13).

Huppert is a miraculous performer who seems to choose her roles on the basis of how much they will challenge her and how complicated — and tormented — these women are. In the process she has created an incomparable portrait gallery that gets better with each year, even when the films or plays she stars in are significant only because she is in them.

Such is the case with The Mother, a modernist empty-nester lament in which the titular character, portrayed perfectly by Huppert, has lost her mind because her children have grown up and left home. The unseen daughter isn’t that much of a loss to her, but her son… well, therein lies the drama (and dark comedy and sleek stagecraft).

The opening scene finds Anne (Huppert), a jumpy wife, greeting her husband as he comes home from work with accusations and insults. Then we see the same scene in a less contentious mode. That pattern continues for the whole play — first we view events from Anne’s shattered perspective and then we see a more sedate version. Anne is a Frenchwoman living in the U.S. (one assumes the change in the play was made to accommodate Huppert’s strong French accent) with a busy workaholic husband (Chris Noth), who may be having an affair or just stays overtime at work to avoid Anne.

Their daughter is never seen and barely referred to, but her son (played by African American actor Justice Smith) is her pride and joy — and she is overjoyed when he argues with his girlfriend (Odessa Young) and ends up back at the family home.

Anne’s version of things includes the characters making declarative statements about themselves that are remarkably unsubtle — this is one of the play’s surprises that rather quickly tires itself out. Anne tells her hubby “I’ve been had” (in reference to getting married and having kids), the son’s girlfriend proclaims “I’m young and beautiful,” and the son announces to his mother at one point that he will hug her very tightly (the second half of that declaration would constitute a spoiler — and is subsequently undone when we leave Anne’s mind).

One could blame the fact that The Mother is a translated play for the intermittently stodgy dialogue, but Florian Zeller is a critically lauded French playwright and the translator here is Christopher Hampton, who makes a specialty of adapting such things to English. One can take comfort in the fact that the play is only 85 minutes long and the central reason for attending, Huppert, is sitting onstage as the audience files in. (She is reading a book, hides her face behind said book, making mischievous faces and yawning every so often.)

The stagecraft adds to the play’s general air of discomfort. Drug vials and bottles of wine are hidden below and behind an ultra-modern couch, projected signs on the back wall give us the numbers of the versions of scenes (“un,” “deux,” “trois”), and a microphone is situated at the edge of the stage so that Anne can deliver a nervous speech about her son (useful here as a dodge to shift our attention from the movement of furniture on the set).

The cast of The Mother: Smith, Huppert, Young, Noth.
The performers make the most of the material and add emotion to what is an overly simplistic scenario. Odessa Young admirably plays the son’s girlfriend and two other fantasy figures in Anne’s visions. Justice Smith has the most difficult role, as the barely sketched son who primarily tries to avoid his mother’s overly Freudian embrace (at one point the very drunk Anne does indeed straddle her son on the floor). Chris Noth lends shading to the “Father,” who is alternately a caring husband and an adulterous prick.

Huppert has inhabited this terrain before, as an incestuous mom in Christophe HonorĂ©’s Ma Mere (2004). Here she works on several levels, being at once neurotic, stubborn, caring, cruel, schizo, and also very sexy. Huppert is one of the most fearless performers currently working, and here that includes playing a 47-year-old mother who dons a red dress and hose and garters onstage at one point.

As I noted the last time I reviewed Huppert onstage, she is the primary reason to see The Mother. In this case, the “queen of meltdowns” plays a woman who is already on the edge when the play begins.

As she has done so often onscreen, she exquisitely incarnates a woman who is on a downward spiral and in the process inspires admiration for her craft, if not deep sympathy for the character.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

When the best disguise is age: Deceased Artiste Albert Finney

Although Albert Finney became a movie star around the time of his “hellraising” contemporaries, his desire to keep his private life private connected him more closely with other colleagues, like Alan Bates and Tom Courtenay (his later “dresser”). The “angry young men” definitely split into two camps: the first was comprised of the ones who closed down pubs and were very publicly drunk; the second were actors who generally hid from the public and paparazzi.

There was indeed a dearth of gossip about Finney on this side of the pond. Aside from the much-discussed affair that sprouted between Albert and Audrey Hepburn on the set of Two for the Road in 1967, his name was not a gossip column staple (like, say, Richard Burton).

With second wife Anouk Aimee.
According to a Daily Mail article that appeared after his death, Finney’s love life was a topic of much discussion in the British press. According to the article: “Gossip columns reveled in his liaisons with the likes of singers Joan Baez and Carly Simon, actresses Samantha Eggar, Jacqueline Bisset, Jane Asher, Jill Bennett and model Erica Creer.” Yet, on the other hand, Finney was such an intensely private person that no one knew he had developed cancer in 2007 until he came back to work in film in 2011 and mentioned it himself.

So, when discussing Finney, his work takes centerstage. One can speculate what turned his handsome face of the Sixties into the hardened mask he bore from the Eighties onward — he seemed to have lived a particularly hard life in those two decades — but he was not the kind of gent who manifested his vices publicly. An interesting take on this was part of Malcolm McDowell’s recent comments on Finney in The Hollywood Reporter: “He was quite a ladies’ man, and he loved food and he loved wine. He would gorge himself at restaurants, but when a part came, he'd check into a fat farm and get back into fighting weight.”

He began as a stage actor, studying at the esteemed Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. His first big break came when he understudied Laurence Olivier in a 1959 production of Coriolanus and went on when Olivier was sick. Finney discusses the moment in this interview clip:

Two films turned him into a star. The first was the “kitchen sink” classic Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). The film is the most stark (along with This Sporting Life) of the Angry Young Man pictures, although it does also adhere to the “you put a bun in her oven, lad!” plot twist that defined a lot of these films (as wonderfully pointed by “SCTV” in the sketch “SCTV British Film Festival: Look Back in a Bloody Rage”). 

Look Back in Anger (1959) might be the best written of this type of film, but Saturday Night and Sunday Morning has hard-hitting emotion that makes it a U.K. equivalent to Rebel Without a Cause (albeit with an older lead character). Finney’s Arthur Seaton is the perfect sympathetic antihero for the start of the Sixties, a young man who believes there’s something better than the world he inhabits, but he’s not sure how to get there, so a drunken spree and a quick shag will suffice in the meantime.

Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones (1963) made Finney a bona fide movie star (before appearing in it he had already turned down the lead in Lawrence of Arabia, which made Peter O’Toole a bankable box-office name). A charming, playful adaptation of a classic light novel by Fielding, the film set the pace for many sex comedies to come — it could be argued that it is one of the two most imitated British films of the Sixties (the other being A Hard Day’s Night).

The remake of Night Must Fall (1964) showed Finney stretching, as he played a monstrous killer (equipped with a never-to-be-forgotten hat box). The character, of course, is charming as well as homicidal.

As mentioned above, the only time Finney’s name heavily appeared in the gossip columns on these shores was when he had a real-life affair with costar Audrey Hepburn on Stanley Donen’s Two for the Road (1967). The film is an engaging study of a relationship that is unraveling. As is the case with so many celebrity romances, the love affair of Finney and Hepburn didn’t last much longer than the shooting of the film.

One of his finest pictures is Charlie Bubbles (1968), which he also directed. It’s a masterful character study of an author going through a mid-life crisis. He’s able to cavort in public with his best friend (Colin Blakely) and can get away with anything, but he doesn’t care. He feels affection only for his son and his ex-wife (the amazing Billie Whitelaw), both of whom are doing fine without him. 

Charlie is the perfect end to the “kitchen sink” cycle of films, in that its working-class hero has risen up in society and is an empty shell (he only seems alive when challenged by his best friend or his ex). It was noted in some online bios and obits for Finney that, while he wasn’t in love with acting in the movies, he did like the wealth it provided. The film seems to reflect this, and its beautifully poetic finale says that “escape” is the only thing that one wants when one has it all.

While the film strikes one as a “guy’s movie,” Finney’s key collaborators were women. Whitelaw is terrific as Charlie’s down-to-earth ex-wife and (the polar opposite of Whitelaw) Liza Minnelli is quite good in her grown-up movie debut as Charlie’s American secretary.

The woman whose contribution to the film was most important wasn’t onscreen. Shelagh Delaney, who scripted the 1961 kitchen sink classic A Taste of Honey, wrote the screenplay. Thus making Charlie one of the two greatest male mid-life crisis movies written by women, the other being Five Easy Pieces (1970), scripted by “Adrien Joyce” aka Carole Eastman. 

Both films in fact end the same way — with an “escape” sequence in which our antihero takes off and seems to have left an American/British character study and entered a very European art film.

It’s a shame that this was Finney’s only work as a director (besides a telefilm), because Charlie is an accomplished piece of work. And in case one wonders whose films exerted an influence on Finney, Charlie is seen reading The Films of Antonioni at one point.

He appeared in a few movies in the Seventies, continuing his intermittent pattern from the Sixties – working on films when they offered him a very interesting role while also appearing with some regularity on the British stage. He only did two plays on Broadway, Luther and A Day in the Death of Joe Egg; he never appeared in American theater after 1968.

The Daily Mail article contends that Finney had a “lazy” side, which meant he took time off from acting because he preferred laying around. When you think about it, though, what better moment to take time off from your work than when you’re young, handsome, rich, and having a busy love life?

At this point he started assembling a portrait gallery of odd-looking characters — he was still quite handsome at this point, whereas in later years he was a dyed-in-the-wool character person, as his face was a hardened mask. The first instance of this change in his movie work was the musical Scrooge (1970), one of the best post-Sim adaptations of A Christmas Carol.

Finney makes a perfect Scrooge, and the makeup augmented his exquisite acting. His singing isn’t perfect, but it’s certainly good and the songs are not spoken, in the manner of Burton, Harris, and Rex Harrison. Perhaps the high spot — besides the scary Ghost of Xmas nightmare and Alec Guinness’s turn as Jacob Marley’s Ghost — is this sublimely pre-punk anthem of misanthropy.

Following that, Finney recorded an album that was released in 1972 on Motown Records (!). I have the LP and it’s fairly listenable, but Albert lacked Jimmy Webb to supply him with material and so the record sank without a trace.

His two finest “made-up” roles were most certainly Winston Churchill in the telefilm The Gathering Storm (2002) and his amazing incarnation of Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express (1974). The film was perhaps the best — along with And Then There None (1945) — Agatha Christie adaptation, thanks to several factors: the insanely perfect ensemble gathered for the picture, Sidney Lumet’s deft direction (proving that he wasn’t just a “New York director”), and Finney’s sublimely sharp (and somewhat grotesque) performance as Poirot.

Finney did consent to interviews but purely for purposes of promotion, Thus, there is no record of him addressing the fact that the Eighties saw him dive headfirst back into movies — in fact, working in so many that he began doing genre pictures in addition to A-level “prestige” productions.

So, for every Annie (eh), Shoot the Moon, and The Dresser, there were several movies like Wolfen, Looker, and Loophole (all 1981!). I have fond memories of some of the genre titles, but it is fascinating that Finney starred in these films while turning down major honors — he refused royal titles not once but twice and didn’t care whether he got an Oscar nomination.

On never turning up to the Oscars, Finney reasoned: “It seems to me a long way to go just to sit in a non-drinking, non-smoking environment on the off chance your name is called. It’s as if you are entered into a race you don’t particularly want to run in.” Yet he was fine with acting in sub-part movies and an increasing amount of TV works, both in the U.K. and the U.S. 

Annie (1982) is a lopsided movie musical, primarily because John Huston was not a musical director. Shoot the Moon (1982) had some beautiful moments but is an oddly paced drama. The Dresser (1983) is the best picture in this period of his career and, curiously, is the only time he did Shakespeare on screen. (He did a lot of it onstage in his early years and was branded “the next Olivier” by some critics.) As “Sir” in The Dresser he had to ham it up heavily, as his character is anything but subtle.

The single best role he had in the “later” part of his career (acknowledging that he kept acting for nearly 30 years after it) is the lead in Huston’s Under the Volcano (1984). He’s superb in the role and the film is an example of Huston at his best, depicting a man at the end of his rope. Death hangs over him throughout the picture and there’s never a false note from Finney.

When genius teleplaywright Dennis Potter was devising his final work — a pair of interlocked miniseries called Karaoke and Cold Lazarus (both 1996) — while suffering from terminal cancer, he found his alter-ego in Finney, who plays a Potteresque writer in the series. The two shows are not as utterly perfect as Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective (then again, what is?). 

Cold Lazarus contains one of Potter’s ultimate images of the writer’s place in the pop culture hierarchy: the head of writer Daniel Feeld (Finney) has been kept alive so that his thoughts and memories can provide new programming for TV. When he asks to be disconnected and finally die, his request is denied because his memories are getting such excellent ratings.

One of his forgotten performances is a masterstroke of casting that was unfortunately in a film where the star was miscast. Alan Rudolph’s Breakfast of Champions (1999) starred Bruce Willis, who was outshone by both Nick Nolte as his transvestite employee (a used car salesman) and a grubby Finney as Vonnegut’s greatest creation, the pulpsmith Kilgore Trout, who has the answers to cosmic questions hidden in his short stories, published only in men’s magazines.

Trout is a sublime character — a workaday Joe whose fiction contains transcendent truths. Finney is wonderful in the role, to the extent one wishes the whole film were about him (and Nolte).

Finney’s last movie role was a supporting part in the Bond film Skyfall (2012), but his last significant part after a productive decade where he had scene-stealing supporting roles on British TV and in films like Miller’s Crossing and Erin Brockovich —  was as the vengeful father in Sidney Lumet’s terrific last picture Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007). Albert could definitely be a scary guy onscreen, and in Devil, he is that indeed. As the dad of Ethan Hawke and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, he looks to find the people behind the killing of his wife, not realizing that his sons were responsible for the death.

As if his nearly five decades of fine acting wasn’t enough, we can also be grateful to Finney for investing in several films that might not have been made without his help. He was an uncredited producer on a few films he starred in, such as Night Must Fall and Gumshoe. Even more importantly, the man who starred in one of the seminal kitchen sink films was a financial backer of two of the filmmakers who pointed the way to the next movement in rebellious British cinema.

He invested in Lindsay Anderson’s If... (1968) and O Lucky Man! (1973), which together served as farewells to the Angry Young Man character in U.K. cinema. He also was the key investor in the first feature from another native son of the town of Salford, filmmaker Mike Leigh.

The aptly titled Bleak Moments (1971) is far from Leigh’s best, but it served as a “calling card” of sorts for the many Leigh telefilms that followed, which crystallized his style and themes. From a wonderful reminiscence that Leigh wrote for the Guardian: “As a backer, Albert’s behaviour was impeccable. No interference of any kind, only full support and warm enthusiasm. He would visit the rehearsals occasionally, quietly watching improvisations, murmuring with excited amusement. Similarly, he would show up now and again on location, spreading his unique bonhomie and goodwill to a tired and overstretched young cast and crew. In post-production, he was gently encouraging at all times.”

Leigh was a significant member of the “next generation” of filmmakers who chronicled the lives of working-class characters, echoing the concerns of the films of the late Fifties and Sixties but also addressing the nuances of urban (and suburban) life in the Eighties and Nineties.

There is no other way for me to end this piece than to include the very quiet and beautiful ending of Charlie Bubbles (apologies for the crap visual quality). This finale resounds through the years.

Friday, January 18, 2019

In the writers’ room: the late 1980s Steve Allen radio show, with Bob Einstein and others

Mitch O'Connell's great drawing
of Steve Allen
Hearing really smart people being really silly is a rare delight. One of the smartest and silliest comedians in American TV history was Steve Allen, who (like the equally sublime Sid Caesar) was keen to surround himself with really funny writers. So it came as no surprise that when he returned to radio at the end of the Eighties he invited on his show not only standups and singers (he hosted each show with a piano in the studio) but also an ample amount of comedy writers.

I have incredibly fond memories of this radio stint by Steverino, which began in 1986 on local WNEW-AM (the one-time home of “the Make-Believe Ballroom” and “the Milkman’s Matinee,” of William B. and the wonderfully versatile Gene Klavan). I had a tedious data-entry job at the time and was laughing out loud from the flow of one-liners and puns — thankfully that job allowed Walkmans (I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now). It later was syndicated on the NBC radio network and sadly became less listenable, since the long stretches of silly conversation between Steve and his friends was broken up by many, many commercials and Steve himself seemed bored by the process.

That’s my memory of the show, but that memory has been challenged by a generous YT poster’s uploading of several episodes from the syndicated show. Said uploader had access to the satellite feed for the program and has woven the off-air breaks in where the commercials used to be. So instead of the agony of endless commercials we now can hear Steve gabbing with his guests and indicating what really fascinated him (or just noodling on the piano when it’s clear he’s bored that day).

The program was initially done in NYC with Steve and his cohost Mark Simone (now a right-wing talk-radio host, his earlier radio comedy on local stations like WPIX-FM predated the “shock” of Stern and his successors). Then Steve did the show in L.A. via satellite with Simone holding down the fort back in NYC – this was the formula later used by Air America: a comedian assisted by a radio person who could keep the show running on time and let the host know when he or she was about to hit a “hard break.”

At its best, this was the natural precursor to today’s comedy podcasts in that it was really a “show about nothing” that just consisted of Steve riffing with whatever guest came by that day. If no celebrity guest was booked, it was just Steve chatting about random topics with his comedy writer friends. Among those who came on with the most regularity were: Herb Sargent (SNL mainstay and the scripter of Funhouse favorite Bye Bye Braverman), Sheldon Keller, Larry Gelbart, and the recently departed “Super Dave Osborne,” aka Bob Einstein. When the mood was right, and Steve’s mind was cooking, it was indeed like listening in to a writer’s room of comic greats.

Bob Einstein (left) on Steve's TV show.
The best segment hands-down was “the Sleazy News,” in which Simone would read utterly ridiculous stories from supermarket tabloids to allow Steve and company to make up lines as they went along (and do some very nice call-backs later in the show). Sargent was deadpan as hell and spoke the least of the group, but could usually top whatever was said before him. Einstein was in peak form on the show, mostly because he kept the conversation on the edge, an edge that sometimes went into “adult areas.”

At this time Steve, a renowned liberal for decades, had not yet slipped into his final depressing identity as an advocate of “clean humor” and right-wing values. But he was already in his “clean that up!” mode, so his infamous teacher’s bell was rung quite often in reaction to Einstein’s jokes, which Steve considered somewhat risque. 

As a listener I believed this was a bit Steve was doing, but in the off-air moments edited into these tapes by the YT poster it becomes clear that he really was concerned about Einstein’s “questionable” jokes. (Although Einstein’s “bad boy” persona on the show kept Steve alert and vital, which resulted in some very funny moments.)

This was also the period where what a friend called Steve’s “professorial” mode truly came to the fore. The comedy writers and Simone had to keep the mood light because Steve, an inveterate research-addict, would suddenly stop the flow of comedy to look up a word that had been used or try to seriously discuss a topic that had been joked about.

These interludes, along with the fact that Steve is audibly heard yawning and conducting business with his secretary (including signing checks on-air), makes one wonder what was really going on with him at this point – he was only 65 but sounded at points like he was heading toward retirement (but he wasn’t, since he continued to make TV appearances and do live speaking gigs until the time of his death at 78).

Perhaps he had become so dispersed in his fascinations that he had a mild form of ADHD, since he could be so easily distracted from the show’s conversational threads — a major pace-killer was when he would stop the proceedings to play through a new melody he had thought of, in hopes it would be his next song. It might just be that Steve, a comedian whose mind was razor sharp, couldn’t constantly be functioning at full tilt, deconstructing the language and playing with ideas and expressions.

But let’s not dwell on the odder aspects of Steve’s hosting skills in the late Eighties. He was one of the greatest natural wits to ever grace the airwaves (ample evidence can be found in his books Bigger Than a Breadbox and Schmock-Schmock!). So when his short-lived radio show (from ’86 to ’88) was at its finest, it was unabashedly silly and delightfully amusing.

The 16 segments that have been posted on YT contain different sublime moments of brilliant, quick humor and all seemingly come from the last week of new episodes. I will point out some highlights and let you check out the rest yourself.

The poster has put these segments up in the order in which they aired. The first one I must highlight is this, in which (at 29:15) Bob Einstein goes that extra mile — doing an impression of Jayne Meadows, Steve’s longtime wife, who seemed to be a real-life Margaret Dumont, existing in a sphere that was prim and proper and miles away from the intellectual and silly worlds that Steve inhabited in his work.

Einstein-as-Jayne is waking up late and trying on different clothing, including a scuba suit. (When he brings the character back later in the show, she asks, “Do you think the shower cap should go under the derby?”)

A prime example of the “Sleazy News” segment, again with Einstein on the phone. Among the topics discussed are stupid things said in courtrooms and a wild Jamaican party that wrecked a Manhattan hotel.

Steve was indeed a modern intellectual, but he also harkened from a different era of show business. So when he decided that he would like to “reason out” what was the problem with Jimmy the Greek’s famous statements about why blacks were so good in sports, everyone in the L.A. and NYC studios kept trying to stop him. It makes for some great swerves, since Einstein, Simone, and Sargent have to keep moving the conversation away from Jimmy the Greek.

A nice “introduction” to Steve Allen (and his many credits) is delivered by Einstein at 13:46.

More discussion of Jimmy the Greek’s remarks, this time with guest Jack Carter. Carter tells an old joke about African-Americans (which isn’t openly racist but is certainly a groaner) and discusses his TV career, which included a late Forties network show that featured performers in blackface!

A fun roundtable discussion and listener phone-in segment, about games the gents played as kids.

A packed house on this episode, as comedy writers Iles and Stein, and the great standup-actor Steve Landesberg join Steve, Mark, Herb, and (of course) Bob Einstein. The last-mentioned gets an “inappropriate” Irish joke in because it’s St. Paddy’s day (at 17:40).

Very interesting discussion off-air with Steve Landesberg about off-color jokes Landesberg used to do in his act (so Steverino *could* listen to jokes with dirty words in ’em; he just got crazy about anything even moderately saucy being said on-air by the Eighties). At that point Allen tells Landesberg he believes Bob is doing more questionable jokes “to bug me.” (Meaning, again, that it wasn’t just shtick when Steve disapproved of what Bob had said).

More of the Iles and Stein/Landesberg episode. Steve does a priest character (“Father Mulcahy”) with a few good lines — Steve’s tossed-off remarks on the radio show were far funnier than the scripted sketches. Einstein does his excellent “Jaynie-bird” impression again at 15:00.

In this part of the same episode, the conversation turns to gag writers for U.S. presidents (of course, Reagan was in office when this show aired).

Even more of the Iles and Stein/Landesberg show. Bob is “warned” about his bad boy behavior by Steve around 3:00 of the next video. For some reason, Steve did let Einstein go anywhere comedically. (Btw, the mentions of picketing have to do with a writer’s strike that was going on at the time.) Iles and Stein contribute to the conversation at 30:00.

A great “Sleazy News” segment around 43:00, but also interesting to hear Einstein asking Steve about the end of the radio show at 26:00. Steve felt it was taking up too much of his time and slowing down his book projects and other engagements. If the show hadn’t become as riddled with commercial breaks as it did on the NBC Network, I would’ve disagreed with his decision.

More group insanity in this segment, including a discussion about gorilla women and alligator men at the beginning. Also, talk of UFO landings and Paul Winchell. Jim and Henny Backus show up as the clip continues and Steve discusses game shows and how they are massive moneymakers (since they cost so little to produce).

One of the most interesting segments here is an off-mic chat in which Steve and Bob Einstein discuss the investments of Merv Griffin.

The final segment features Jim and Henny Backus going over Jim’s career in some detail. Steve notes how the hour they’re in was the final original hour of the program but reruns would be run for several weeks afterward — if I remember correctly these were tapes of the earlier WNEW shows that were wonderfully funny (but were, of course, cut to the NBC Network standard, with the maximum amount of long commercial breaks).