When Brendan Fraser went away

Image from Getty via EW.com.

If 2021 goes as planned, we should be seeing Brendan Fraser in a couple movies this year — one of them a crime thriller, “No Sudden Move,” directed by Steven Soderbergh.

That shouldn’t be exceptional. For many years, from the early ’90s until about 2009, Brendan Fraser was in tons of movies. Some were box office smashes — “The Mummy” series, “George of the Jungle” — and some were critical hits, including “Gods and Monsters,” which should have earned him an Oscar nomination.

He was hot. There’s even an ancient website — it seems to run through about 2005, when Fraser had a photographic exhibit in New Orleans — that walks through his career in the movies and with his photographic hobby, in the days when a personal website was somewhat unusual.

And then he seemed to vanish.

There were several reasons for this, points out Zach Baron in “What Ever Happened to Brendan Fraser?”, which was published in GQ in 2018. It’s my Sunday read.

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Sunday read: Notes from Roger Ebert

Image via Rogerebert.com.

A few days ago on Twitter, writer Chris Jones shared a series of Post-it Notes he’d gotten from Roger Ebert when he interviewed Ebert for Esquire in 2009. The notes were pure Ebert: funny, longing, sad, matter-of-fact.

It has been 11 years since Jones’ moving, insightful piece appeared in Esquire’s March 2010 issue. I remember when it came out: There was a great deal of surprise that Ebert, who had had part of his jaw removed due to cancer, had agreed to sit down in person and let himself be photographed. Jones, an excellent writer who’s made a habit out of surprising perspectives (try his profile of Carrot Top on for size), didn’t waste the opportunity.

His story is my Sunday read.

Ebert has been dead for almost eight years now, but his impact hasn’t faded. The website he founded, rogerebert.com, is filled with the same kind of concise reviews and thoughtful articles he wrote himself for decades; now they’re done by a whole staff of contributors, including Christy Lemire and Matt Zoller Seitz. (His own work, of course, is also available, as well as a blog from his wife, Chaz.) Now that the Internet has made everybody a published critic, one could do worse than emulate Ebert, who tried to find the good even in mediocre films.

What’s more, he always kept a sense of discovery about him — and he brought that spirit to the country through his long-running partnership with Gene Siskel. As I wrote about the pair in an appreciation of Ebert, “They were, in a word, refreshing – especially for those of us, like me, who grew up far from the film centers of New York and Los Angeles. Where else could you get a sense of movies that might never come to your town? Where else could you take part, even from your living room, in the debate between two guys who really knew their stuff, and were entertaining as hell to boot?”

Jones went much deeper.

Now his hands do the talking. They are delicate, long-fingered, wrapped in skin as thin and translucent as silk. He wears his wedding ring on the middle finger of his left hand; he’s lost so much weight since he and Chaz were married in 1992 that it won’t stay where it belongs, especially now that his hands are so busy. There is almost always a pen in one and a spiral notebook or a pad of Post-it notes in the other—unless he’s at home, in which case his fingers are feverishly banging the keys of his MacBook Pro.

I probably read Jones’ story two or three times when it came out. He was fair and he was honest and he captured something … heroic in the midst of struggle. (Ebert would probably hate that I termed his medical battles “heroic.”) It led to a lot of chatter among the chattering classes, which I’m sure Ebert — who enjoyed the spotlight — liked, but it wasn’t written as that kind of “Up Close and Personal” sentimental glurge that TV networks and celebrity magazines like to put out. It was matter-of-fact, like the man himself.

I miss that ferocity.

You can read “Roger Ebert: The Essential Man” here. (And follow Chris Jones on Twitter. You won’t be disappointed. The man has a very real girlfriend and does not let anyone insult his CBC T-shirts.)

Sunday read: It’s the pictures that got small

The Oscar nominations will be announced Monday morning, and I mean no offense to the prospective nominees when I say they seem … small.

I saw a handful of them — “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Mank,” “Da 5 Bloods” — and I plan to catch up with “Sound of Metal,” “Judas and the Black Messiah,” and “One Night in Miami,” among others, in due course. But, like probably all of you reading this (that is, both of you), I saw them on my television, in my living room — not in a theater on a big screen among dozens or hundreds of people. And an HDTV, even a home-theater-sized one (which mine isn’t), is no substitute for the moviegoing experience. I mean, I also watch “Saturday Night Live” reruns and the wonderful “Ted Lasso” on a TV.

So, even though many of those Oscar hopefuls probably look great on the big screen, virtually nobody saw them on the big screen. We saw them on streaming services.

As a result, they seem diminished. They’ve become just another TV show, something to flick past as you’re channel-surfing, or to freeze-frame when you go to the bathroom. (I can hear Christopher Nolan sobbing.)

The films of 2020, at least in the way they were presented, are another victim of Covid.

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Review: ‘Answers in the Form of Questions’ by Claire McNear

Answers in the Form of Questions: A Definitive History and Insider’s Guide to Jeopardy! by Claire McNear

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Claire McNear’s history of “Jeopardy!”, “Answers in the Form of Questions,” is about what you’d expect: amiable and breezy, optimistic and self-deprecating, with a few nice insights but also few surprises.

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Alex Trebek, 1940-2020

Image from Jeopardy Productions.

More than 30 years ago, “a student from New Orleans, Louisiana” — that would be me — appeared on “Jeopardy!” In the time since, whenever people find out about my quiz show claim to fame, they have two questions: “How did you do?” And: “What is Alex Trebek really like?”

The first question has a simple answer. In an exciting game, I went into Final Jeopardy with a narrow lead over the second-place challenger, missed the question, and left with some nice parting gifts, including a case of Pepsodent and several packages of dried prunes.

Entering the “Jeopardy!” lair in 1987.

The second was much harder, for Trebek — then in just his third year of hosting — had a reputation for standoffishness. In my very limited experience, he appeared only when the show started taping, kept to himself during the commercial breaks, and exchanged some small talk with us after the match was over. He seemed perfectly pleasant, very polished, and smart in a quiet sort of way. It would be years before his more casual, fun-loving side would come out on the show.

Alex Trebek died Sunday. He was 80. His death was not unexpected — he had announced last year that he was receiving treatment for pancreatic cancer, had taken short breaks because of that treatment, and said in interviews that he sometimes hosted the show in incredible pain — but it is still a tremendous loss.

I know it is for me, a longtime game show fan and player.

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Paddy Chayefsky, the real prophet

Image from Warner Bros.

The votes are being counted. I’m foolishly reading a lot about the process and its possible outcomes, though the usual suspects are saying what everybody knows: We’re a divided country, and regardless of who becomes president, we’re not going to easily fill in the chasm between the Two Americas. (John Edwards had it in terms of economics, but there are so many other indicators that split us. And what’s Edwards up to these days, anyway?)

But I keep coming back to “Network,” a 44-year-old movie which — despite its incredible wordiness and turned-up-to-11 performances — still resonates today. (I know, I’m always coming back to “Network.”)

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But it’s good television!

I didn’t watch the debate last night. I knew I wouldn’t be able to stomach even 15 uninterrupted minutes of the person a friend calls The Only President We Have.

(“Uninterrupted.” Ironic word choice there, Leopold.)

Based on the ratings — the only yardstick The Only President approves of — it appears I wasn’t alone. The audience was big — about 65 million across eight channels — but that’s still substantially fewer people than the 76 million who watched the first debate between him and Hillary Clinton four years ago.

Still, the numbers may go up when other channels and the Internet are added in, and they’re still the highest for a television program in 2020 than anything outside the Super Bowl. And there’s a reason, beyond the fact that the future of what’s left of the free world depends on the outcome of this election, that debates featuring Mr. “Sir” President do so well: He’s outrageous. He’s his Twitter feed come to life.

He’s good television.

Maybe I should put that phrase in quotes, because “good television” seldom means good television. It means car-wreck television. It means that the so-called cool medium has become hot, and you can’t look away.

At its best — a rare occurrence — good television is immediate and meaningful, a live (or live-on-tape) event that crackles with the energy of live theater.

But usually, “good television” is the equivalent of bad pulp fiction, momentarily enjoyable but soul-suckingly, time-wastingly meaningless. Think your if-it-bleeds-it-leads local newscast. Think pro wrestling. Think reality shows.

Think of a person that term defines. He’s Lonesome Rhodes. He’s Diana Christensen. He’s television incarnate.

There’s nothing left in you that I can live with. You’re one of Howard’s humanoids. If I stay with you, I’ll be destroyed. Like Howard Beale was destroyed. Like Laureen Hobbs was destroyed. Like everything you and the institution of television touch is destroyed. You’re television incarnate, Diana: Indifferent to suffering; insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death are all the same to you as bottles of beer. And the daily business of life is a corrupt comedy. You even shatter the sensations of time and space into split seconds and instant replays. You’re madness, Diana. Virulent madness. And everything you touch dies with you. 

(Is it any coincidence that former GOP strategist Rick Wilson likes to say, “Everything Trump touches dies“?)

I hope the networks — particularly the cable news folks — are happy about the guy who’s given them spectacular profits. Sure, the profits may be Pyrrhic in the long run, what with the state of the country, the world and all.

But, hey, it’s “good television.” In the meantime, we’ll just keep amusing ourselves to death.

The least interesting character on ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ is Mrs. Maisel

The 72nd Primetime Emmy Awards are set for Sunday night, and once again “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” earned a boatload of nominations — 20 in all (including the Creative Arts Emmys) — including nods for several regular cast members, guest star Sterling K. Brown, and for outstanding comedy series. The voters obviously liked Season 3 as much as Seasons 1 and 2.

It definitely deserves a few honors, particularly one for Brown, who grabbed the screen every time he appeared as Reggie, manager of Johnny Mathis-style singer Shy Baldwin. But I thought Season 3, overall, was uneven — mainly because the main character, Miriam “Midge” Maisel herself, hasn’t really grown much since Season 1.

In fact, I would say she’s become the least interesting character on the show.

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Eugene Levy, mensch

From Eugene Levy’s Twitter account.

It’s good to see this video of Eugene Levy receiving tributes from friends in honor of his lifetime achievement award at the Newport Beach Film Festival. It’s both funny and touching, much like its subject.

It’s nice that Levy has gained more attention in recent years, now for “Schitt’s Creek,” which is much like the actor — sweet, humorous, a little off-balance, and rich in humanity. Of course, he’s always been so, dating back to his “SCTV” days or as part of Christopher Guest’s improvisational troupe. This exasperated performance as “Alex Trebel” always had me on the floor.

But though it’s nice that Levy is being honored by the Newport Beach Film Festival, what he really needs is an Oscar nomination. I’m one of many who believe he should have gotten one for his performance in “A Mighty Wind,” playing the troubled Mitch Cohen, a folksinger who suffered a breakdown after the split of his duo, Mitch & Mickey.

For much of the movie, his condition is played for laughs. But Levy never lets you forget there’s a real person beneath the burnout, and when he and Catherine O’Hara (as Mickey) sing their big hit, “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow,” it’s wonderfully heartbreaking — all those years, all that pain and distance, bridged in the looks the two give one another.

Here’s to you, Eugene Levy.

Review: Really, ‘Perry Mason’? (SPOILERS)

Matthew Rhys as Perry Mason. Photo from HBO.

The following story contains spoilers for the finale and the first season of HBO’s “Perry Mason.” If you’d rather not know what happened, stop reading now.

For the most part, I enjoyed HBO’s new noir version of “Perry Mason.” The acting was wonderful — it’s always great to see actors such as Lili Taylor, Stephen Root and Matt Frewer ply their trade — and the plot, though a little more tangled than necessary, seemed properly ripped from early-’30s Los Angeles: a little real estate “Chinatown,” a little Aimee Semple McPherson, a little dark brutality amid the bright palm trees. (To the show’s credit, the movie business was barely mentioned. This is gritty, Art Deco downtown L.A., not the movie colonies towards the coast.)

Best of all was the production design: from the costumes to makeup to special effects, “Perry Mason” was as perfectly wrought as a colorized snapshot, right down to the red Federal Reserve seals on the money. Every detail was thought through.

Except for one: A satisfactory ending. Sunday’s finale was a lost opportunity.

It’s not that I expected a confession on the stand, the way that it would have happened in the Raymond Burr TV show. The show’s setup was too complex for that, involving a baby’s kidnapping and murder, the child’s accused mother, financial shenanigans with an evangelical church, and dirty cops. “Perry Mason” even winked at the TV show, with the first half showing Ennis, the dirty cop who killed the witnesses to the murder, getting grilled by Matthew Rhys’ Mason. Turns out it’s just a rehearsal with the courtroom scenes taking place in Mason’s head.

“Nobody ever confesses on the stand,” Hamilton Burger, the ADA who’s been tutoring Mason, tells him.

Instead, Mason “wins” a mistrial of Emily Dodson, the accused mother, saving her from execution. That makes logical sense, but left something to be desired dramatically. Moreover, at that point the show had about 20 minutes to go. So, I wondered, what about Ennis? What about Sister Alice, who had fled town at the end of the previous episode? What about her church?

There were a few answers, but they were presented as denouement, as if the entire eight-episode run was a prologue to a series to come. (And there’s almost certainly going to be a season 2.) We see scenes of Hamilton Burger, the helpful ADA who’s planning to take on Root’s DA Maynard Barnes, reveal the chicanery of the church. We see Ennis grabbed and drowned, mobster style, by his partner — justice, perhaps, but among thieves, not in a courtroom with the good guys. And we see Tatiana Maslany’s Sister Alice turn up as a diner waitress at the very end, having moved on from the church (which her mother, played by Taylor, has continued).

So: No operatic high notes? No climax? No clear-cut victory?

I mean, I love “Chinatown,” which is as dark as they come. I love “Double Indemnity” and “Sunset Boulevard” and “White Heat.” I appreciate ambiguity. But those films started and ended with corrupted figures who never really escaped their corruption. In some cases, in fact, they just got deeper.

The Perry Mason of HBO’s “Perry Mason” is no white knight — he has scars from World War I, he cuts corners — but he’s still more of a classic hero, and he should get more of a triumph than a mistrial. He should have been able to face down Ennis or the church and truly revealed the rot we know is there. Instead he pulled off the equivalent of squeaking in a lead run on a ground-ball out and then having the game called for rain.

And, if the creators are going for full dark ambiguity, I’d rather have Ennis get away than be killed by his partner.

I’ll be curious to see season 2 of “Perry Mason,” assuming we get rid of Covid long enough for them to shoot one. But season 1 ended with a philosophical lesson, not a climactic aria. All the production design in the world can’t make that satisfactory to me. Not right now, anyway.