Category Archives: Television

The Cosmopolitans (2014, Whit Stillman)

The Cosmopolitans opens with some visual sarcasm, but it quickly moves to verbal. Writer-director Stillman is somewhat merciless, introducing characters just to comment on the absurd pretentiousness of the principals. Of course, Stillman doesn’t let the observers off easy either. It just takes longer for them to become clear; maybe the American leads are just too obvious.

Cosmopolitans is a series pilot (which, tragically, did not get picked up) and Stillman does spend time establishing his characters. But he doesn’t have much of an epical structure–they meet, they talk, they go to a party–and Stillman’s got no urgency with divulging. More information doesn’t necessarily make the characters more entertaining or more affecting.

The three leads–presumably–are Adam Brody, Jordan Rountree, and Carrie MacLemore. They’re Americans in Paris. Brody and Rountree have claimed Parisian status and probably need to be treated for intense Francophilia. Rountree’s lovesick, Brody’s affably brooding. Meanwhile, MacLemore is in Paris for a guy who abandons her for his writing. Because Frenchman.

Brody and Rountree take themselves way too seriously, while MacLemore has a somewhat better sense of her situation.

Adriano Giannini plays Brody and Rountree’s older, Italian friend who spends most of his time making fun of the Americans. He’s gentle about it, as opposed to Chloë Sevigny, who’s brutal about it. Luckily, Brody and Rountree are so pretentious, they can’t identify the digs as digs. Lots of funny barbs. Lots.

Freddy Åsblom has the showy part of Brody and Rountree’s rich, native friend. He pokes fun at them without Sevigny’s loathing or Giannini’s bewilderment. He ends up with some of the funniest moments.

Of course, eventually it’s Giannini and Sevigny who get revealed–either to another character or just to the viewer (but only because Brody and Rountree are oblivious). Stillman spares no one. He maintains a light tone, affable characters, and an adoration of Paris throughout. The Cosmopolitans might mock its leads’ Francophilia, but the pilot is delightfully drenched in it.

Beautiful photography from Antoine Monod, subtle, sharp editing from Sophie Corra, a great soundtrack–it’s a technical marvel. Stillman’s composition and direction are fantastic.

MacLemore gives the best performance of the leads. Brody and Rountree are a tad shallow, MacLemore has actual backstory and some sense. It’s a better part. Giannini and Sevigny are great; Sevigny’s deliveries are awesome. And Åsblom is quite good. His role is a little more difficult than it seems at first blush.

Again, it’s tragic The Cosmopolitans didn’t go to series; what Stillman and cast and crew did get done is wonderful stuff.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Whit Stillman; director of photography, Antoine Monod; edited by Sophie Corra; produced by Alex Corven Caronia; released by Amazon Studios.

Starring Carrie MacLemore (Aubrey), Adam Brody (Jimmy), Jordan Rountree (Hal), Adriano Giannini (Sandro), Freddy Åsblom (Fritz), and Chloë Sevigny (Vicky).


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Something for an Empty Briefcase (1953, Don Medford)

For a while, it seems like Something for an Empty Briefcase is going to have some grit. It’s set in a rough New York neighborhood, albeit constructed out of cardboard (Briefcase is a “TV play”). Lead James Dean is a recently released ex-con who’s looking for one big score to get him into a new life. So it’s strange when it turns out that big score is mugging Ohioan immigrant Susan Douglas Rubes. She’s willing to risk her well-being to pursue her ballet dreams. Dean’s just looking for a score. And a Briefcase. He really wants a briefcase.

It later turns out Dean’s a great pool hustler so there’s no reason he’d have to mug Rubes or anyone else. But S. Lee Pogostin’s teleplay is pretty weak. Dean’s got some great scenes in the first half and Rubes seems like she’s going to have some good material, but it all goes in the second half.

Instead of being about Dean and Rubes, it’s about Dean and local crime lord Robert Middleton. Dean wants out. Middleton won’t let him out. And previously mildly annoying didactic themes increase until they’re drowning out everything else. Dean’s performance suffers, though nowhere near as bad as Rubes’s.

Dean’s supposed to be a numbskull punk, Rubes is the one smart enough to make her dreams happen. But she gives him a dictionary (for his Briefcase) and it changes his life. Well, not as much as the next book he gets. No spoilers but it’s real obvious.

The writing for Dean and Rubes is uneven the first half, but not bad. Both actors do well with it, though Dean gets a little erratic at times. Director Medford follows Dean through his performance, not really directing him. Well, hopefully he’s not directing him because the histronics are way too loud. Also because Pogostin’s writing isn’t there.

Something for an Empty Briefcase is almost half good, which isn’t bad all things considered.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Don Medford; television play by S. Lee Pogostin; “Campbell Summer Soundstage” produced by Martin Horrell; aired by the National Broadcasting Company.

Starring James Dean (Joe), Susan Douglas Rubes (Noli), Don Hanmer (Mickey), Robert Middleton (Sloane), Frank Maxwell (Lou), and Peter Gumeny (The Policeman).


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Madame X (1981, Robert Ellis Miller)

Madame X never has good pacing. The movie starts with Tuesday Weld on trial, in old age makeup. She refuses to identify herself, hence the title, and won’t even assist her lawyer, Martina Deignan, in her own defense. Weld’s completely passive in the scene. Robert Hooks’s prosecuting attorney closing arguments dominate the scene, setting a problematic tone for the next hundred or so minutes.

Weld is the “star” of Madame X, and while she’s the subject of the movie, writer Edward Anhalt and director Miller never let her be its protagonist. Not for long anyway; not in the second half, when it matters. Instead, the supporting cast runs the movie. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. What’s worse is how good Weld is during most of the latter type. After a too long setup, Madame X turns into a series of vignettes with different guest stars. Weld doesn’t get much to do in these scenes, except be a little bit more of a fallen woman. Without material or even the movie’s attention, she’s great. While the script might not trying to build a character, Weld’s working on it.

And then in the narratively defective third act, when Anhalt’s script does give Weld some agency again, Madame X backtracks some of the work she’s done and gives her a shallow melodramatic finish. Madame X never wants to be anything but affecting melodrama; it’s one tragedy after another. And it’s not about them not adding up into anything, it’s about that anything not getting the time it needs.

The script has a real problem emphasizing the right character. Ellis’s direction doesn’t help. Some of the problems might just be the nature of TV movies, like defense attorney Deignan not getting enough time. When it seems like she might get some development, the third act surprise takes it away from her. That third act surprise disappoints too. There’s just no time for it–Madame X needed at least another ten minutes, maybe twenty.

So, while Weld’s the lead and she’s good at the beginning, problematic in the middle, great in the second half, persevering at the finish, Madame X is about the supporting cast. Weld might be in the foreground, but all the focus is on the background. Sometimes literally. Woody Omens’s photography is competent and effective; the content’s sometimes a mess but Omens shoots it fine. Madame X travels the world, but was probably all shot around L.A.; Omens hides it as well as he can.

Anyway. The supporting cast. Best is Jeremy Brett. He’s second-billed, which initially suggests he’s going to have a substantial presence. He doesn’t. But he’s great when he’s in the film. Then maybe Len Cariou. But the script fails him. So maybe Eleanor Parker. Script fails her too, but in different ways than Cariou. Parker’s one-note in her scenes with Weld. She’s a good mean matriarch but in her scenes with other people, she’s got a lot more texture. It’s the script. Anhalt’s script does no one any favors during dramatic sequences. Well, maybe Brett.

Then there’s Jerry Stiller. He’s not good, but he’s fine.

Granville Van Dusen is too slight. Even when he tries, he’s too slight. The script’s not good to him either. Robin Strand, billed like he’s going to have a real part, has a couple scenes. He’s not good. He’s likable, sort of, but he’s not good. The script even goes out of its way to make him sort of likable, which it rarely does for anyone.

Until the third act, Madame X seems like it’s going to be able to coast on Weld’s performance. It gets long once Weld gets demoted in agency–it’s long at the start because Van Dusen’s so boring and the script won’t get moving–but it gets real long once Weld stops leading it. Her performance develops to the point Madame X’s questionable attempts at soap opera melodrama don’t matter as much as what Weld’s going to do with them. Will it add up?

No. It won’t.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Ellis Miller; teleplay by Edward Anhalt, based on the play by Alexandre Bisson and the screenplay by Jean Holloway; director of photography, Woody Omens; edited by Skip Lusk; music by Angela Morley; produced by Paula Levenback and Wendy Riche; aired by the National Broadcasting Company.

Starring Tuesday Weld (Holly Richardson), Granville Van Dusen (Clay Richardson), Eleanor Parker (Katherine Richardson), Len Cariou (John Abbott), Jeremy Brett (Dr. Terrence Keith), Robin Strand (Willy Dwyer), Jerry Stiller (Burt Orland), Martina Deignan (Elizabeth Reeves), and Robert Hooks (Dist. Atty. Roerich).


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Hans Brinker (1969, Robert Scheerer)

Hans Brinker is clumsy and charmless. It plods through its runtime. Once it becomes clear Moose Charlap’s songs aren’t going to be getting any better and there’s not going to be much expert iceskating on display, it plods even more. A lot of things would help–better writing, better acting, better photography. Unfortunately, Hans doesn’t get any until it’s too late and then it’s only actors in the supporting cast.

The film starts with a flashback. Nineteenth century Dutch mason John Gregson has a fall. Then Hans fast forwards to Roberta Tovey entering an empty house and looking around wistfully. Then we finally get into the “present action” of Tovey’s memories, ten years after the first scene. Screenwriter Bill Manhoff never identifies when or why Tovey returns to look around, but he doesn’t do much as far as the teleplay goes so it’s no surprise.

Robin Askwith plays the title role. He’s a seventeen year-old Dutch boy with big dreams and no way to realize them; Gregson’s fall resulted in some sort of brain damage and he hasn’t been able to support the family. Oh, right: Gregson is Askwith’s father. And Tovey’s. She’s Askwith’s somewhat younger sister. The difference is never determined, but it’s not too far–Askwith can still romance her rich friend, Sheila Whitmill, and Hans can do a wrong side of the tracks romantic subplot.

But a chaste one. Hans is for kids, after all. Kids with great patience.

Maybe the only good scene in the whole thing is Whitmill reading a romance novel scene to Tovey and another friend. It’s strange and shows personality, something Hans never does when it’s chronicling Askwith’s romance with Whitmill or his problems with the better-off boys around the village.

The songs ought to be a little funnier, but Hans has no sense of humor about itself. Not even when Askwith and his chums go to Amsterdam (so Askwith can recruit doctor Richard Basehart to operate on dad Gregson) and their innkeeper, Cyril Ritchard, does a cockney accent to show they’re in Amsterdam, not the boonies.

Can Askwith convince Basehart to do the operation? Will the barely mentioned but apparently very important race for the silver skates ever arrive? Does Eleanor Parker–as Askwith and Tovey’s mother–actually sing her two songs?

Parker, Basehart, and Gregson all try at various times throughout the film. Gregson’s most successful, as Parker gets a lot worse scenes to do than he does. She also has to play opposite Askwith, who’s a petulant jackass (regardless of family tragedy), and he’s never good. Even when he’s being selfless, he’s somewhat unlikable. He’s a snot.

His nemesis, rich kid Michael Wennink, on the other hand, is drivel. Julian Barnes is okay as the nice rich kid.

There are some lovely locations, some almost good sets of exteriors, when Hans might show some kind of personality. But director Scheerer avoids it, like he avoids pretty much everything. After the first big group song, Scheerer stops doing it big and instead relies on Edelgard Gielisch’s bad editing to get the group numbers done. It doesn’t seem like Askwith or Tovey sing. At least not often.

There are a number of cringworthy songs, but “When He/She Speaks” is the clear cringe winner. It’s all about how Askwith and Whitmill only love each other because they don’t listen to each other. Instead they daydream about walks in the countryside and ignore the other’s thoughts.

The big finale has big plot contrivances and some ostensible surprises. It doesn’t go anywhere because director Scheerer and writer Manhoff don’t wrap anything up. Plus, Tovey can’t really be holding the knot because–even though Hans is her memories–she’s only present for like a quarter of the film. The narrative disconnect isn’t even annoying because at least it means there isn’t more stuff for Hans to do wrong.

Tovey’s fine. She’s got a lousy part. Parker’s solid, but Scheerer doesn’t give her much time on anything. Well, except the two songs, which either have Parker signing them or have them dubbed. They’re both awkward songs. Cringey awkward, not funny awkward. Funny awkward would have at least passed the time. But Hans has no sense of humor.

It’s joyless, which is a big problem for a kids musical, though it’s pretty clear Askwith’s Hans isn’t capable of experiencing joy. So why should anyone else.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Scheerer; teleplay by Bill Manhoff, based on the novel by Mary Mapes Dodge; director of photography, Günter Haase; edited by Edelgard Gielisch; songs and music by Moose Charlap; produced by Ted Kneeland; aired by the National Broadcasting Company.

Starring Robin Askwith (Hans), Roberta Tovey (Gretel), Eleanor Parker (Dame Brinker), John Gregson (Mijnheer Brinker), Richard Basehart (Dr. Boekman), Sheila Whitmill (Annie), Julian Barnes (Peter), Michael Wennink (Carl), and Cyril Ritchard (Mijnheer Kleef).


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