Tuesday, November 15, 2011

American Masters: Woody Allen

Posted By on Tue, Nov 15, 2011 at 2:30 PM

Woody Allen: American Masters
9 p.m., Nov. 20 and 21
WFYI (Channel 20)

I’d like to thank Woody Allen someday. For Annie Hall and Manhattan, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Broadway Danny Rose and Zelig, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point and Midnight in Paris. For the books and stories — especially The Kugelmass Episode. For showing me the full beauty of Rhapsody in Blue. For helping me understand humanity a little better. For the line “you say that like it’s a negative thing.” And so much more.

It’s unlikely I’ll ever get the chance to do that, but in a way, I feel like filmmaker Robert Weide did it for me with his excellent two-part American Masters biography of Allen. In these 3½ hours, Weide hits on much of what makes Allen great while addressing his foibles and failures as well. He gives us a well-rounded picture of a brilliant filmmaker whose approach to work is surprisingly simple.

“It’s just storytelling and you tell it,” Allen says at one point. “There’s no big deal to it.”

This career retrospective takes us from the streets of Brooklyn, where Allen Stewart Konigsberg grew up in a family with a loving little sister and parents who either argued or didn’t talk to each other, to his metamorphosis into Woody Allen. He started as a joke writer and evolved into a standup comic, screenwriter, actor and director. Weide touches on most of his 40-plus films, lingering on the most important ones, and shows us how he works and, perhaps more importantly, how he thinks.

Part one covers his early life and career up to 1980’s Stardust Memories; part two delves into more professional and personal behind-the-scenes stories. (The credits in both parts are done in the same font that Allen uses in his films.)

What Weide does so well throughout is to show rather than merely tell. Numerous actors discuss Allen’s directing style — “It’s a bare-bones clarity than any personality can understand and interpret,” says Sean Penn, who actually smiles at a couple of points. But rather than leave it to talking heads to tell the story, Weide shows Allen directing Naomi Watts and Josh Brolin in a scene from You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger so we can see what Penn means.

Allen says he writes longhand on a legal pad and then types his scripts on an old Olympia typewriter. We see that. Allen says he has a drawer filled with movie ideas. We get to see that — and hear one about a man who inherits a magician’s tricks. Actors talk about letters Allen wrote them; we see multiple examples. Allen even walks through his old Brooklyn neighborhood to reminisce.

What emerges is a portrait of a man driven by his work, who believes he’s never going to get it quite right but wouldn’t think of not trying. He’s self-deprecating —“I don’t really care about commercial success and the end result is, I rarely achieve it” — realistic, fatalistic and, sometimes, a bit un-self-aware.

In the portion that deals with the breakup of his 12-year relationship with Mia Farrow and the lurid aftermath, Allen says, “I didn’t think I was that famous to warrant that coverage.”

Um, really? But in typical fashion, he also offers a superb one-liner: “It took a little edge off my natural blandness.”

The film ends beautifully, with Midnight in Paris becoming his most financially successful picture ever and with a quote that sums up his view of his life perfectly. I won’t spoil it here, but it’s a great laugh line. Thanks for that, too, Woody.

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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Review: Williams and Spielberg's 'Master Class'

Posted By on Tue, Nov 8, 2011 at 2:45 PM

AFI’s Master Class: The Art of Collaboration
8 p.m., Tuesday, Nov. 15, with repeats at midnight and 4:30 a.m.

We know what filmmaker Steven Spielberg and composer John Williams have done together — 25 films, including four Indiana Jones movies, Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List, E.T., Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, to name several.

How they work together, and why, is the subject of “The Art of Collaboration,” an hourlong master class before a room of eager American Film Institute students in which they discuss their nearly 40-year body of work. The talk takes a little while to get focused, but once it does, you’ll be engrossed.

For the first 15 minutes or so, Spielberg and Williams blow kisses at each other. Spielberg, Williams says, walks around the room and “imbibes the sound of the orchestra — and loves it, like he’s paid a ticket to a concert.” Williams — Spielberg calls him “Johnny” — creates music that takes the movies “to an entirely different level,” Spielberg says.

Given their track record, they’ve certainly earned the right to praise each other’s work.

In the first segment, they also show some of their favorite combinations of music and movies, including scenes from Vertigo, Spartacus and On the Waterfront, and I wish I’d been there to argue with them. In each scene they showed, I found the music too loud and overly, unnecessarily dramatic. (I’m not suggesting that I know anything remotely close to what they know about film or music; this, to me, is strictly a matter of personal taste.)

But once they get rolling, telling stories about how Williams presented Spielberg with the music for Jaws and showing scenes from E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark to illustrate their points, the discussion becomes fascinating.

Williams said their collaboration more or less works like this: Spielberg shows him the film. (Williams rarely reads the screenplay.) Williams retreats to his writing room. He’ll write several themes for characters, locations, whatever is needed. Spielberg will come in and talk, and Williams will play a few notes, or perhaps something more elaborate. On the brilliant soundtrack for Catch Me If You Can, Williams said he needed Spielberg to hear the full orchestra to have the music make sense. The famous five-note sequence for Close Encounters had to be written before the scene was shot.

Williams said he can tell by Spielberg’s facial expression whether he likes what he’s heard.

Spielberg says he’ll often tell his editor, “The movie’s gotten so much better in that room” — meaning the room where Williams writes.

The two began working together on 1974’s Sugarland Express. Spielberg had been a TV director till that point. He’d heard Williams’ soundtrack for Mark Rydell's adaptation of The Reivers (1969) and vowed that if he ever got to make a movie, he’d find John Williams.

They devote the last 20 minutes or so of their master class to answering questions, and the AFI students ask a number of good ones, including one about how to get started in the business. They don’t directly answer that, though. Williams suggests that they shouldn’t try to be the next Steven Spielberg, lest they end up disappointed.
He tells them to “confront with joy and pleasure and a sense of opportunity every little simple task we’re given, rather than to try and do the big task, rather than to try to shoot Gone With the Wind.”

Spielberg’s advice is simple: “Just remember to learn your craft…. You shouldn’t think of yourself as an artist. You should let other people think of you as an artist.” But when someone does give you a shot, he says, you need to show them that you have “the basic knowledge of the craft of putting together a story.”

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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Review: AMC's 'Hell on Wheels'

Posted By on Tue, Nov 1, 2011 at 7:00 AM


Hell on Wheels
10 p.m. Sundays

Colm Meaney closes the first episode of “Hell on Wheels,” AMC’s new series about building the transcontinental railroad, with a lovely soliloquy of sorts in which he asks rhetorically: “What is the building of this grand road if not a drama?”

If it wasn’t a drama back then, it certainly is now. And a grand one at that.

“Hell on Wheels” takes us back to 1865. The country’s North and South have reunited, however tenuously, and now, in the words of Meaney’s character, Thomas “Doc” Durant, it’s time to unite east and west by rail. The federal government has hired Durant to oversee the construction, and he approaches the task with glee and gluttony. There’s a fortune to be made, and he’s going to reap every dime.

The project attracts all kinds of people — some seeking work, others looking to erase their past, still others looking for vengeance. They include Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), a former Confederate soldier searching for the men who raped and murdered his wife; Elam Ferguson (Common), an emancipated slave; and Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott), whose love is killed by an Indian while mapping the route for the railroad.

Their stories form the center of this drama.

“Hell on Wheels,” named for the tent city that moved along as the railroad was built, has a lot going for it. This week’s pilot episode reels you in with a fast-moving, intrigue-filled script that establishes the characters and action quickly. The show also has a look that’s both stylish and gritty. Some of the construction work is “hotter than a whorehouse on nickel night,” as one character says, and it certainly looks that way.

And the actors bring a kind of Clint Eastwood-esque steel to their characters. All harbor secret sorrows (a prerequisite of TV dramas), and they prove themselves to be more than tough enough.

Looks like Sundays will be the night of period dramas for a while. First “Boardwalk Empire” on HBO, then “Hell on Wheels.”

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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Review: 'America in Primetime'

Posted By on Tue, Oct 25, 2011 at 7:00 AM


America in Primetime
8 p.m. Sundays
WFYI (Channel 20)

Television is, as Howard Beale said in the film Network, “the most awesome goddamn force in the whole godless world.” Therefore, from time to time, it deserves some scrutiny and perspective.

For that, let’s turn to America in Primetime, a four-hour, four-week PBS series that focuses on character types — Independent Woman, Man of the House, The Misfit, The Crusader — to show how they have evolved on television and how we, the viewers, have changed along with them.

On the surface, this series is pure entertainment, a chance to see clips from many of the greatest television series ever and to hear from a staggeringly impressive array of brilliant television practitioners. From Jerry Mathers to David Lynch and Ron Howard to Larry David, we hear broad, intelligent views on why these shows were/are special.

Beyond that, we get a glimpse into the thought processes of those who made the shows. So David Chase weighs in on Tony Soprano’s constantly conflicted role as the head of the household, Norman Lear discusses the world shifting under Archie Bunker’s feet, James L. Brooks talks about The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi and The Simpsons, and so on.

No one offers any stop-the-presses observations, but they make points worth knowing. Former NBC executive Warren Littlefield reminds us of a scene in The Cosby Show pilot where Theo tells his dad he should accept him for who he is — a D student. Regular folk. Not a doctor or a lawyer like his parents.

Tom Werner, a co-creator of the show, said the audience applauded at that moment because they were conditioned to clap for a boy standing up to his father.

“Theo,” his father responded, “that is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard in my life. You’re going to try as hard as you can, and you’re going to do it because I said so.”

Littlefield said he felt a wave of approval from the audience. Werner said the reaction was, “Oh, my God. The parents have taken back the house.”

If I’d been producing America in Primetime, the next clip I would have shown was Tony Soprano acknowledging to his wife that neither of them had much leverage over their children. But that’s me.

Instead, the producers of America in Primetime — Tom Yellin, Lloyd Kramer, Dalton Delan and David S. Thompson — take us through a range of shows and parenting approaches. Homer Simpson, Bernie Mac, Ray Barone, Cam and Mitchell (from Modern Family) and more.

Independent Woman — the first and probably best of these four hours — shows us the broadest changes in television: from perfect moms like Donna Stone and June Cleaver to Lynette Scavo of Desperate Housewives, who hates being a mother, and from Laurie Petrie (who wasn’t allowed to sleep in the same bed with her husband) to the women of Sex and the City and the woman of Weeds. The makers of Roseanne — including Roseanne Barr herself — make a strong case, too, for the importance of having a TV character who was overweight, overworked, underpaid and underappreciated.

In The Misfits, we learn that Rainn Wilson’s family apparently isn’t all that different from Dwight Schrute’s (scary) and that The Larry Sanders Show was about a group of people who love each other, except that show business got in the way (a funny observation/description).

The fourth hour, The Crusaders, covers a significant range of types — Jack Bauer, House, Omar from The Wire and Dexter among them. The last of those leads to the only real dissent in the series — whether Dexter, about the serial killer who works for the police department, has redeeming qualities. The Wire’s David Simon doesn’t think so.

No series like America in Primetime can be complete, of course, and you’ll undoubtedly end each hour saying, “Yes, but what about …?” But this series is smart, topical and highly enjoyable. Well worth an hour of your Sunday night.

Also this week:

Allen Gregory (8:30 p.m. Sundays, WXIN-59), a new animated series, stars Jonah Hill as the voice of a pretentious, spoiled 7-year-old boy. Allen has two dads, and when the second dad is forced to go to work and stop home-schooling, Allen must go to — gasp! — public school, where he doesn’t come close to fitting in.

It’s a cute idea, and I’d like to be able to tell you whether I thought the pilot episode was good, but I can’t say one way or the other. I had no reaction at all. Didn’t like it, didn’t hate it, might watch it again, or not.

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Thursday, October 6, 2011

Laura Dern stars in HBO's 'Enlightened'

Posted By on Thu, Oct 6, 2011 at 3:30 PM


Enlightened begins with Laura Dern’s character, Amy Jellico, ready to snap. The affair she's been having with her boss has gone public inside their company, she's being transferred from a job she loves, she’s recently divorced and she’s living with her cold and distant mother.

In short, Amy is about to make Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction seem almost like the girl next door. Amy’s not murderous, but she is in the midst of a breakdown.

And then, after the eruption, comes … enlightenment. She goes off to Hawaii for treatment and comes back imbued with the logic of self-help. She learns to say things like, "You can walk out of hell and into the light" and "You can change, and you can be an agent of change."

That’s great. But as Ian Hunter once sang, “I wanted to conquer the world, but the world has a mind of its own.” And Amy is about to find out that the world doesn’t want to change, that the world thinks anyone who's relentlessly cheerful is, perhaps, crazy.

The world might be right. But Dern straddles that fence magnificently, giving one of the finest performances you’ll ever see, as part of one of the best new series of 2011. Dern is in almost every frame of every episode — there are no “B” stories here — and she earns every second of screen time.

She injects her character with a remarkable amount of nuance, flowing from the cheerful optimist to the raging beast and back. One scene among many stands out: When Amy hands her drug addict ex-husband (Luke Wilson, in a terrific performance) a brochure for a treatment facility, we watch Dern’s face reflect many moods and reactions. She’s subtle and stellar. You feel bad for her, but you also feel like she should know better.

Enlightened is fascinating on multiple levels: the reaction from Dern’s co-workers after she returns from treatment; the way her soul-sucking company chooses to deal with an employee it would rather not have; how a person can stay positive in a world where she gets no support. (In a great bit of dialogue, Amy says to her mother — played by Dern’s real-life mother, Diane Ladd — “It’s good to see you, Mom.” To which mom replies, “Why?”)

Why, indeed. Mom is a pill, Amy’s ex-husband is a self-centered jackass and her co-workers are either weasels or damaged. She’s trapped in an untenable situation and she knows it. And all the self-help books in the world can’t help her.

A certain number of viewers will relate. Others can take comfort, knowing their life is so much better than Amy’s and that they’re watching a gifted actress give a wonderful performance. Enlightened is exceptional.

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Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Nation of Drunkards: Q&A with Ken Burns

Posted By on Thu, Sep 29, 2011 at 12:00 PM


Ken Burns' new film tells the story of a single-issue political movement, the demonization of a particular ethnic group and people who felt they had lost control of the country and wanted to take it back.

No, it’s not about the tea party. The film is called Prohibition, and it runs on WFYI (Channel 20) at 8 p.m. Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, with repeats immediately following the initial airing.

For about five and a half hours over three nights, the film documents how the United States came to outlaw alcohol from 1920-1933.

The film is filled with fascinating facts — like how in 1830, the average American older than 15 drank 88 bottles of whiskey a year. And how in the 1800s and early 1900s, alcohol taxes funded one-third to around one-half of the federal budget. And how the income tax was created to eliminate the government’s dependence on tax revenues from alcohol sales.

I’ve enjoyed some of Burns’ other films more, but I felt like I learned an extraordinary amount from this one.

“I think that’s the best review,” Burns said when I told him that.

Here’s the rest of our conversation:

NUVO: The amount people drank was just staggering.

Burns: We’ve got a nearly six-hour series divided into three parts. The first is called "A Nation of Drunkards," and that was really no lie. John Adams began his day with an alcoholic beverage. People drank way, way more than they drink now. Drunkenness — it wasn’t called alcoholism — was a severe social problem, and it prompted a very legitimate attempt by what we felt was a new utopian society to try to come to terms with it. The idea of temperance — drinking less, which was an incredibly smart thing to do — just metastasized into this single-issue campaign.

NUVO: Then there’s the amount of money the taxes on alcohol brought in. That’s what really funded the government.

Burns: More than half of all the internal revenues — remember, we had a lot of import-export, on which there were excise taxes — generated for the federal government came from taxing beer, wine and distilled spirits. So one of the comfortable feelings those industries had was, “We’re the fifth-largest industry. Nothing’s going to interrupt this. There may be local laws that could interfere, but that’s all right, we can get around them.”

But what happened was, this single-issue lobbying campaign — the organization the Anti-Saloon League — led by the shrewdest of them all, a man who could have senators shake in their boots, Wayne B. Wheeler, rather cynically — that’s my opinion — allied himself with the progressives, who were looking for the redistribution of wealth. This was in the Gilded Age, where there was such disparity of wealth, and they hoped to pass an income tax. When they supported it, when the conservatives supported it, then you had a real movement toward Prohibition. Coupled with World War I, where the Germans were suddenly the enemies, beer equals treasons, it was ripe for the dominos to fall and we ended up with an amendment to the constitution and then a draconian law on top of that that even the supporters were shocked at. They thought they might have Near Beer or 3.2 (percent alcohol) beer or something.

NUVO: Going in, did you know that’s why the income tax passed?

Burns: Not at all. To us, we know what it’s like to be taught a lesson. And quite often, it’s homework. What we like to do with you is share a process of discovery. So we realized that we were in possession of the conventional wisdoms about Prohibition — the images of a Model-T careening around rain-slicked Chicago streets , Tommy guns ablaze, mini-skirted flappers with their hair bobbed and braless, part of a new sexual revolution, the wonderfully propulsive jazz that seemed to fuel the orgy, the speakeasy culture. And we’ve got all that. And it is sexy, it is exciting, it is violent.

But we have a much deeper dive into what happened, and we find that stunningly unfamiliar to us. So we just hope to share our process of discovery rather than assign it as homework.

NUVO: This film is really a confluence of a lot of other films you’ve made.

Burns: I’m in the middle of three films that are dealing significantly with the Depression: this; the Dust Bowl, which is finished and we’re now sound editing (for release in 2012); and a major series on the Roosevelts. And we’ve already dealt with the Depression in Jazz and in Baseball and in other films we’ve done. The cross-meshing of these things gives you infinitely more perspective to see them and understand American history. And the biggest thing is that people are so much like today. We always try to impose this arrogance that we in the present have over the past. It just isn’t there. Human nature has never changed.

NUVO: You’re going to hear the comparisons to HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, so …

Burns: I think it’s terrific. Once again, we’re part of the Zeitgeist. We always feel like we’ve chosen something and then all of a sudden, everyone else seems to be. They started that long after we began ours, but because of our PBS construction, it took a little longer. But how wonderful that there’s a drama out that speaks directly, in a dramatic way, to the things we’re doing in documentary.

NUVO: Have you watched it?

Burns: I think I’ve missed one episode. They did great casting — Capone, Rothstein, everybody’s really great. And once again, I think they’ve struck gold in The Sopranos model. Everybody wishes they could kill the people who piss them off, and gangsters get to do that. And the women — and they’re always attractive women — take their clothes off a lot. This is a winning formula.

NUVO: An interesting part of “Prohibition” is that you don’t have star commentators like you do in so many of your films. You have good ones, but no one emerges.

Burns: I think Danny Okrent does. He’s so wonderfully smart, and has written this book (Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition). It’s not a companion; it’s a parallel effort and we just drew on his expertise and some of his research and went in our own directions. I think a real surprise sleeper is Pete Hamill, who has a gravitas.

NUVO: You have that great Pete Hamill quote, “If you want to get people to brush their teeth, make toothpaste illegal.”

Burns: Mark Twain once said the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. That opening phrase, “Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits,” we could have almost quit there. Mark Twain. Prohibition. Boom. Done.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Contenders: A look at presidential losers

Posted By on Tue, Sep 27, 2011 at 8:30 AM

Richard Smith of C-SPAN looks into the lives of past presidential hopefuls in the new series 'Contenders.'
  • Richard Smith of C-SPAN looks into the lives of past presidential hopefuls in the new series 'Contenders.'

You’ve probably forgotten about Eugene V. Debs and Wendell Willkie (if you ever knew of them), but C-SPAN hasn’t. So the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network will be in Indiana two of the next four Fridays — this week in Terre Haute to discuss Debs, then on Oct. 21 in Rushville to remember Willkie.

The visits are part of a series called “The Contenders” (8 p.m. Fridays), which examines the life and times of 14 men, from Henry Clay to Ross Perot, who have run for president and lost but changed political history.

The show is the brainchild of presidential historian Richard Norton Smith, a professor at George Mason University and former head of six presidential libraries. Smith is among several historians who share their insights, take calls and show us why these men deserve to be remembered.

Debs was a five-time socialist candidate for president, union leader and peace activist who was jailed twice for his activities. Willkie, a liberal Republican, ran against Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 and went on to back FDR in many ways.

“My hunch is, very few people, if you stop them on the street, could name either man,” Smith said in a telephone interview.

Here’s more of what he said.

NUVO: Before we get into the show, a question about current presidential politics. I think the 2012 election is shaping up like the 1980 election, where you had an ineffectual president running against someone I would describe as scary. The scary candidate was able to convince the public he wasn’t so scary, and he won. What do you think?

Smith: It’s an interesting thesis, and I wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand. I think a couple of things I would at least factor into the equation: Ronald Reagan went into the 1980 election, although he certainly scared some people, with a long relationship, a non-threatening relationship, that went back to a movie career and television. I remember growing up, every New Year’s Day, he hosted the Tournament of Roses Parade. People were less inclined to fear him than a Barry Goldwater or Rick Perry. That pre-existing relationship is a significant factor.

The other thing is, Jimmy Carter, by 1980, whatever one thought of his performance, he didn’t have a base you could point to. That had always been a potential weakness. You can argue Carter was ahead of his time in some ways — recognizing the way political trends were developing that the Democratic Party had to become a post-New Deal party in some ways. You could look at Carter and see a preview of Bill Clinton.

But there is an attachment to Obama. There is a base that’s not going to desert him whatever happens. I understand the tenor of the coverage, but the story isn’t that he’s got 42, 43, 44, 45 percent approval ratings. Given the circumstances and the duration and the prospects, I think those are pretty impressive numbers.

You’re absolutely right that he’s a weakened candidate. You can certainly make out a scenario where it’s almost the Republicans’ to lose. But that and a buck and a half will get you a cup of coffee.

NUVO: OK, on to “The Contenders.” What made you want to do this?

Smith: I’m surprised no one had done this before. It seems like such an obvious idea. On the other hand, there’s nobody who would do it in today’s media climate other than C-SPAN. As a biographer, these people are fascinating in their own right. I’m particularly drawn to corners of the American experience that have not had a lot of attention. These individuals, many of them are unknown today. But many of them are a window on a period or a movement or an impulse in the American political character that might not be appreciated otherwise.

The two Hoosiers have relevance to today. It’s amazing, if you stop of the 1912 election and contrast it with the 2012 election. None of us knows what’s going to happen, but we certainly do know what the prevailing political mood is, and it’s certainly very different from a century ago, which was Gene Debs’ strongest performance. And indeed, you could argue if TR (Theodore Roosevelt) had not been in the field, Debs would have gotten considerably more than 900,000 votes. In some ways, TR and even (Woodrow) Wilson stole the left, which is one of the functions third parties often perform. But beyond that, it’s also highly timely that Debs is reintroduced to Americans not only as the face of a significant socialist movement, but as a major figure in the history of organized labor.

With Willkie, of course, there’s this debate that goes on, this wishful thinking about: Can someone get into the field at this late date? What they’re really asking is: Can someone be drafted? Do we still have dark horses in American politics? Given the nature of the media and the primary process, is that possible? Could a Willkie happen today? He is arguably the most improbable major party nominee for president in the 20th century. Maybe Horace Greeley in the 19th century. With Willkie, it’s tough to imagine anyone coming from a more unlikely set of circumstances.

What makes Willkie even more relevant is after 1940, when he was in some ways a man without a party. He was actively courted by FDR for what seems to have been a sincere desire on Roosevelt’s part to bring about a reconfiguration of American politics. At the end of his life, Roosevelt wanted to have a liberal party and a conservative party. Of course, more immediately, he wanted to have Willkie’s support in 1944. But I also think in classically Roosevelt fashion, he was able to simultaneously pursue his self-interest with a larger, more visionary goal. They both coalesced in the person of Wendell Willkie.

Sixty-plus years later, you could argue that FDR’s goal has been realized. I leave it to voters and to viewers to decide for themselves whether a more purely ideological politics is better than parties that had, to varying degrees, left and right wings. Those are just a couple of examples of how these people deserve to be better known than they are and have some contemporary significance.

NUVO: Will you go to Terre Haute for the Debs show?

Smith: I’m not involved with the details of that particular program, but it is certainly true that a significant part of these broadcasts are the locations. It’s an opportunity to develop the biographical story against the physical backdrop of a place that is indelibly associated with this person.

NUVO: A guy like Debs coming from Indiana almost seems improbable today.

Smith: There are people who will scratch their head in wonderment at the thought of Mr. Socialist being from Indiana, but Indiana was the ultimate swing state in the post-Civil War era and into the early part of the 20th century. There was nothing automatically conservative or Republican about Indiana. You knew it was always going to be in play.

That’s one reason why, just as Ohio has been called “The Mother of Presidents,” Indiana’s been called “The Mother of Vice Presidents.” If you look at the number of times a Hoosier was on a ticket, almost invariably in second place, it’s because Indiana was a key swing state and both parties would do whatever it took to win it over. Benjamin Harrison carried Indiana by 2,400 votes in 1888. That gives you some idea of how hotly contested it was.

NUVO: Brian Lamb, who founded C-SPAN, is from Indiana. Did he require you to put two Hoosiers in the show?

Smith: I have to say, I was not under pressure from anyone. I submitted this list of 14 names. We toyed with expanding it and cutting it. But only C-SPAN would say you could have 90 minutes every Friday night for 14 weeks. There’s no one else on the broadcast spectrum that would think of such a thing. We knew it couldn’t go any longer because we’re up against a campaign. At the same time, it’s a bit of a counterpoint to the campaign. It’s designed to shed a light on whatever perspective comes with the passage of time. Brian is a Hoosier and a great champion of all things Indiana, but there was no pressure. I have no pressure defending those choices.

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Monday, September 12, 2011

Marc reviews CW's 'H8R'

Posted By on Mon, Sep 12, 2011 at 9:44 AM


8 p.m. Wednesdays
WTTV (Channel 4)

Once in a while, a TV show comes along that defines its era perfectly. H8R is such a show. Reality, celebrity, hatred, hidden cameras, stupid behavior — H8R has it all.

The premise is simple: Find a person who hates, hates, hates a celebrity, then have the celebrity confront that person and try to win him/her over.

In a society filled with an overwhelming amount of irrational hatred, nothing could be more timely.

So in episode one, we have a guy named Nick who hates Snooki from Jersey Shore and a woman named Danielle, who despises Jake Pavelka from The Bachelor. Nick thinks Snooki is “the Newark of New Jersey … a drunken donkey.” And Danielle thinks Pavelka is “cocky, like a douche…. I think he might be gay.”

Now, I don’t understand why anyone would waste energy on Snooki or Jake — or most any entertainer, really — or why these “celebrities” care whether someone hates them. But then, there’s a lot about our culture I no longer understand.

Anyway, Snooki shows up where Nick is playing pool and tries to win him over by offering to cook an Italian dinner for him and his family. And Jake visits a pool where Danielle is relaxing and takes her flying and to The Bachelor house.

To find out whether they win over their haters, you’ll have to watch for yourself.

But really, what a perfect idea for a show. Take someone with a hate based on what’s written in the tabloids or how a celebrity appears on TV (gee, you think they could they be playing to the camera?) — in other words, a hate without substance — and then have it confronted.

As you might imagine, some people are going to back down because their hate is just bluster. Some will never back down because their mind isn’t open. And perhaps later in the season we’ll see celebrities who deserve the scorn they’ve earned.

But H8R is perfect for the times because we’re living in a country with so much seething, such unfounded anger.

Every day I find myself wondering the same thing Forbes magazine asked in 1992: Why do we feel so bad when we have it so good? And Nick Lowe’s question — What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding? — is as germane today as it was when he wrote it in the 1970s.

There are no more debates or honest disagreements. We go from zero to 60 in an instant. You’re either with us or you’re the enemy. And we must destroy our enemy.

It’s utter insanity. Not only can’t we all get along, but sometimes the more unstable members of our society have to shoot those they disagree with.

I find this frightening. And I suspect I’m not alone.

So I look forward to future episodes of H8R with Barack Obama and a member of the tea party and Rush Limbaugh and a member of (I’d volunteer to be on with Dick Cheney.) But in actual future episodes, the celebs include Kim Kardashian, Eva Longoria and — wait for it — Ron Artest. That’s an episode I wish they’d recorded around Conseco Fieldhouse.

Sure, H8R probably won’t solve anything. But maybe it’ll convince a few people to calm the fuck down.

Watch clips from H8R here.

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Monday, August 22, 2011

Melissa Villasenor's Got Talent

Posted By on Mon, Aug 22, 2011 at 7:00 AM

Melissa Villasenor
  • Melissa Villasenor

Google the words “female impressionist” and the first names that come up are the artists Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt.

Looks like that could change.

If you haven’t been watching “America’s Got Talent” (8 p.m. Monday, 9 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, WTHR-13), turn it on this week. You’ll see Melissa Villasenor, a 23-year-old former Forever 21 clerk who does dead-on impressions of celebrities such as Drew Barrymore, Owen Wilson, Michael Jackson, Judy Garland, Zooey Deschanel and many others.

Villasenor’s now in the semi-finals and, no matter what happens from here, she’s on her way up.

“I would love to win,” she said in a phone interview. “But I don’t put that pressure on myself. I just want to take each performance and do a good job.” About her comedy, she added: “My standup is clean and it’s silly and it’s me.”

The California native first impressed her friends with her Britney Spears impression when she was 12. Soon, she was singing as Christina Aguilera and Scott Stapp of Creed.

“Once I got laughs from people, I realized that was what I wanted to do,” she said.

A successful performance at a high school talent show led her to the Laugh Factory Comedy Camp, where she began to take standup seriously.

Female standup comics who do impressions are exceedingly rare (Tracey Ullman and who else?), and impressionists of either gender who do as wide a range of voices as Villasenor are rarer still.

In auditioning for “America’s Got Talent,” she wowed the judges and the audience by going from Barbara Walters to Natalie Portman to Miley Cyrus to Kathy Griffin to Christina Aguilera in 90 seconds.

“I felt very free when I was walking out there,” Villasenor said. “I didn’t feel scared. I was just like, we’ll see how it goes. I was excited, but I wasn’t too excited. I don’t get ahead of myself. I don’t like to be too confident.”

To develop her impressions, she starts by watching interviews on YouTube with the celebrities she wants to imitate. She’ll study their mannerisms and write down a few phrases they say. “Then I’ll listen for a while and pause it and try it out with my recorder and then just go back and forth and back and forth,” she said.

Whoopi Goldberg didn’t work, but almost everyone else has. And celebrities have noticed. Villasenor’s Sarah Silverman impression earned her kudos from the comic, and Kathy Griffin gave her a shout-out on Twitter.

As she’s moved up in the “AGT” ranks, Villasenor has also been working on her standup act. She now has 30 minutes of material she’s happy with — enough to headline in Phoenix not long ago — and expects to have an hour ready in a couple of months. “There’s so much work to be done,” she said.

She’d also like to be a road comic, develop a sitcom about herself, write a movie about her life, do a Comedy Central hour special, release an album of singing impressions and be a cast member on “Saturday Night Live.”

“It’s been one of my dreams all my life to be on that show,” said Villasenor, who was inspired by Dana Carvey, Gilda Radner and Chris Farley, among others. “I can just envision myself there. I did audition two years ago, but it just wasn’t my time.”

Her time appears to be closer.

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Monday, August 1, 2011

Kurt Vonnegut, the Documentary

Posted By on Mon, Aug 1, 2011 at 7:00 AM

Filmmaker Bob Weide (Rahoul Ghose/PBS)
  • Filmmaker Bob Weide (Rahoul Ghose/PBS)
Some news from Sunday’s PBS sessions: Filmmaker and three-time Emmy-winning director Bob Weide, who began working on a documentary about Kurt Vonnegut in 1988, hopes to finish it in the not-too-distant future.

Of course, that’s what he told me in 2001, too. But this time, he sincerely means it.

Weide first met Vonnegut in 1982, not long after Vonnegut saw his Marx Brothers documentary “In a Nutshell.” It took him six years to get Vonnegut's permission to make a film.

Over the years, Weide collected Vonnegut family films and numerous interviews with the author, including footage of Kurt touring his boyhood home on Illinois Street.

Weide has worked on the Vonnegut documentary for all these years in his off hours, when he hasn’t been working on shows like "Curb Your Enthusiasm" (as producer and director) and making documentaries. His latest, about the career of Woody Allen, is scheduled to air Oct. 21 as part of PBS’ American Masters series.

The delays in the Vonnegut production have been due to lack of financing, not lack of desire, Weide said in an interview here. He loved Vonnegut, and the two were friends until Vonnegut’s death in 2007. Weide said he misses his friend. Here’s what else he said.

NUVO: So what is happening with the Vonnegut film?
WEIDE: The Vonnegut film never found financing. It was always out of my own pocket. So I’d work on it here and there. In January 2009, there was a new push. Kurt died when I was in England, doing a feature film, and I flew back to New York for his memorial service. I thought: Well, I’ve really got to finish the film. So after I did this feature, "How To Lose Friends and Alienate People," which was a big hit in the U.K. but totally died on the vine here, I thought it was time to finish. There was another flurry of activity.

But then I needed some income. I said, I’m going to approach Woody again and see if I can get his permission to do this film. If I get the Woody Allen film going — which, to me, seemed eminently financeable — maybe I can piggyback the Vonnegut film on top of this. Then, getting the financing for the Woody film proved to be not so easy, for a lot of boring reasons. But once the money came in and I went to work on it, it became so overwhelming a time investment that it was a joke to me that I was going to be able to work on Vonnegut at the same time. It’s something I work on, it’s backburner, I work on, it’s backburner. But my intent is, after the Woody film is delivered, to get back to work on it again — so I can say it was 25 years in the making.

NUVO: Do you have an estimated time of arrival for it?
WEIDE: No. I’m never doing that again. Because every time I think I do, I just feel foolish.

NUVO: Let’s talk about Woody Allen. How do you tell his story in four hours?
WEIDE: That’s the big challenge. My heart breaks with everything I can’t include. I think it’s about 3½ hours. You have to figure out what the important points are and what story you want to tell. You can’t include every amusing anecdote and every funny clip. Certainly, there are going to be people who look at the film and say, “I can’t believe you didn’t even mention this film” or “I can’t believe you didn’t show this clip.” It’s bound to happen. There’s nothing from "The Front," which was the picture he acted in but didn’t write or direct. I know people who are big fans of "What’s Up, Tiger Lily?" It’s not even mentioned. I think we’re talking about a lot of DVD bonus material.

NUVO: How do you deal with the controversy in his life?
WEIDE: To me, it was like dealing with the bad reviews he got after “Stardust Memories,” or anything else. As a filmmaker, I tell the story I think is interesting to tell. I couldn’t care less about any of that stuff. It didn’t interest me then; it doesn’t interest me now. But obviously I can’t just dismiss it, because people will cry “foul” and say Woody is pulling the strings — which he’s not. He has no creative involvement.

Since this is essentially about his career — it’s biography too, but it’s about his career — the question is how that chapter affected his career. And the answer was: Hardly at all. He never missed a beat. He would have a casting session before going off to court. He never missed a Monday night playing with his jazz band. He wrote a play during that time. He was still doing a movie a year. Yes, it has to be covered, so it’s covered. He talks about it, other interview subjects walk through what happened and I show the media circus that erupted. It’s dealt with like anything else that happened in his life.

NUVO: Do you think the controversy diminished him in the eyes of the public?
WEIDE: If you think about it, very little has changed. Whether there’s any number of people who took it personally and vowed never to see a Woody Allen movie again, he’s never been a big box office draw. “Annie Hall” made less money than any other film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture — at least up until that time. His following has always been a devoted following, but a cult following. So I don’t see his place changing at all. And remember: That was 20 years ago, 1992.

NUVO: What’s your relationship with him now? Are you friends?
WEIDE: He’s not asking me to lunch. We’ve never socialized. He’s very cordial, and we seem to have struck some kind of chord. He knew me a little bit, and he knew my work, and we have a lot of mutual friends. I don’t know if he vetted me. He and I hit it off. There are a lot of emails back and forth that are very funny. He’s never refused a request and he’s never not answered a question. But it’s about the work.

NUVO: You worked as a guest director this season on the Palestinian chicken episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” which is getting rave reviews. Did you know the episode was good when you were making it?
WEIDE: I had no feelings about it that were different than any other “Curb” episode I’ve directed. You never know going in. I do the best work I can. I was glad to be back — it was like a high school reunion, in the good sense. When I was on the show full time, I used to be involved in the stories. Now, it’s like any guest director: Here’s the storyline and we’ll shoot for a couple of weeks. I read it and thought it was amusing, but there wasn’t a hint of it being anything special in the public’s eyes until I started hearing from people who had seen the press DVD, which I hadn’t even seen.

NUVO: That was the first episode where Larry (David) has ever acknowledged that yes, he can be a jerk to people, but sometimes it does some good.
WEIDE: Yeah, that’s true. I have to say, Vonnegut used to say this, Woody Allen says this: Sometimes, you don’t even realize that stuff until you read what the critics write. I can assure you that wasn’t anything that was on Larry’s mind, but it’s something people have talked about.

NUVO: Last question: Is Palestinian chicken a real thing?
WEIDE: Actually, it is. When the press started to come out, out of curiosity I started Googling the phrase “Palestinian chicken” to see what people were writing. Ninety-five percent was about the episode, but every now and then, I’d see recipes for Palestinian chicken that had been on the Internet for a year.

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PBS Will Be Music to Your Ears This Fall. Or Not.

Posted By on Mon, Aug 1, 2011 at 6:59 AM

Cameron Crowe and Eddie Vedder, circa 1992
  • Cameron Crowe and Eddie Vedder, circa 1992

Hard to say whether it's just good television or a strategy to get Baby Boomers to tune in, but a half-dozen PBS shows scheduled for the fall are music-oriented. Popular music, that is.

"There are not a lot of places for a wide range of music on television," PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger told TV critics on Saturday. "So being able to highlight that here is something that we’re really happy to be doing."

You might quibble with Kerger's claim; after all, in a 500-channel universe, you don't need to look far to find music on TV. I watch at least a concert a month on HDNet. But the range of music PBS will be offering? That's another story. And the quality? Another story still.

American Masters will salute Pearl Jam on Oct. 21 with "Pearl Jam Twenty," a film made by Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous, Say Anything, Singles), who's been friends with the band since its beginning 20 years ago. In talking about the band with critics, Crowe presented himself as a hugely knowledgeable fan as well as a biographer. I asked him whether he thought Pearl Jam still made significant music.

"I do," he said. "I think you listen to a song like 'The End' or 'Just Breathe' from Backspacer, and you can feel it. It’s real and it’s passionate and, you know, I wish we could have got more into the Backspacer era in the film. There was just so much from the earlier years that we wanted to cover. Yeah. I just think they continue to be worthy of our attention in a very rare and wonderful way."

I would have argued, but he didn't ask my opinion. And I have to say that while I think Pearl Jam has achieved moments of greatness, I'm not at all sure the band is worthy of the American Masters title. We'll see how well Crowe makes his case.

"'60s Pop Rock: My Music" (Dec. 3) is a pledge special featuring Davy Jones, Peter Noone, a configuration of the Jefferson Airplane and others performing exactly the songs you'd expect them to perform. Something tells me we're into something not so good, but I'm not the audience they're trying to reach. So go ahead: feed your head.

In addition to being a wonderful actor, Hugh Laurie turns out to have an affinity for New Orleans music. He visits NOLA for "Let Them Talk" (Sept. 30), in which he talks and performs with luminaries such as Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas and Tom Jones (yes, that Tom Jones). I'm always a little leery of someone in another field covering classic roots music (Blues Brothers, anyone), but from the clips we saw, Laurie appears to have significant ability. And he certainly has charm to spare.

I'm much more jaundiced about "Smokey Robinson Presents: Human Nature, the Ultimate Celebration of the Motown Sound" (air date to be announced). The special features Human Nature, a four-man Australian vocal group that covers Motown classics. Smokey told critics Human Nature has "it," but in the song the quartet performed for us (The Miracles' "Ooo, Baby Baby") and the clips we saw, I didn't see or hear "it." Unless "it" is American Idol-ization of Motown. This one smells of "pledge special."

PBS also plans to air shows called "Give Me the Banjo" and "Women Who Rock" (both in October). They'll be presenting those programs to critics on Sunday. So, more tomorrow.

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Friday, July 29, 2011

Simon Says: It's Funny

Posted By on Fri, Jul 29, 2011 at 9:00 AM


British actor Simon Bird has already starred in one of TV's great sitcoms — The Inbetweeners — and he thinks he may have found another in Friday Night Dinner. The story of two brothers who go home every Friday to break bread with their parents debuts at 11:30 p.m. Saturday on BBC America.

"Like any family, you get to know them as the show goes on," Bird said. "And they have their own in-jokes and vocabulary, like any family does. I think it's nice that by the end, you feel like you're part of that family."

Bird, 26, plays Adam, a jingle writer who torments, and is tormented by, his brother Jonny (Tom Rosenthal) and their parents, Jackie (Tamsin Greig) and Martin (Paul Ritter). Mom and dad are forever concerned about Adam's non-existent love life.

Bird said the show's creator, Robert Popper, told him Friday Night Dinner is based on two ideas. One is that whatever age you are, whenever you go home to your parents, you revert to being a child. The second is that dads, when they hit the age of 50-55, "just start becoming a bit weird."

Martin, the dad, is exceedingly odd. He eats from the trash can and the floor, rarely wears a shirt and doesn't hear well. Popper said he modeled the characters after his own family. Bird's character is based on Popper himself.

"Simon's got a nice take on things, he's got good timing and he's got a good comic brain," Popper said. "He knows timing. It's a very specific show, because I want people to speak in a certain way — very fast. It's quite musical. That's the way I hear it."

Popper and Bird had worked together on The Inbetweeners — Popper was a script editor for the comedy about four British teens awkwardly navigating adolescence — and asked him to be part of Friday Night Dinner. Bird has just finished a movie version of The Inbetweeners (in which the boys go to Crete after finishing their exams), and agreed to play Adam. The movie is scheduled for Aug. 19 release in England, where the show ran for three six-episode season and was an enormous hit.

So far, Friday Night Dinner has just filmed the one six-episode series. Popper is writing the second, which is scheduled to begin filming in March.

"Things take a lot longer in England because we don't have 20 writers writing a series, we just have one," Bird said. "It takes eight or nine months to write a series and then it takes a year all around to get a series from start to finish."

Bird grew up mostly in England but spent a year in Massachusetts as a teenager when his parents taught at Tufts University. (They're now teaching at Claremont McKenna College in California.) He grew up wanting to be a comic but began to consider acting after he did some theater as a university student.

He said he's been fortunate to be part of two shows where he's had great chemistry. On Friday Night Dinner, he and his "brother," Rosenthal, bicker like real siblings. And on The Inbetweeners, Bird and his three buddies were four of the most real teenage boys you'll ever see.

"You can't really fake that kind of camaraderie," he said. "I mean, a good actor probably could."

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