Category Archives: Television

Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert (2018, David Leveaux and Alex Rudzinski)

The opening of Jesus Christ Superstar is the only place the three leads really interact. Jesus, Mary, and Judas all interact. Through and behind the songs, this quick narrative plays out. In addition to showcasing the performers–John Legend is Jesus, Sara Bareilles is Mary, Brandon Victor Dixon is Judas–and giving them brief solos, the sequence also establishes certain aspects (and limits) of the adaptation. Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert is both stage production and filmed performance of stage production. Sometimes the direction syncs, sometimes it doesn’t.

For example, director Rudzinski (who directed the filming) is far more interested in the physicality–and implied physicality–of Bareilles and Legends’s relationship. How they move and touch. Whereas Leveaux, who directed the stage production, isn’t really interested. Leveaux isn’t interested in how the cast emotes. Otherwise you wouldn’t have the guy at the end blinking rapidly to show interest in levitating messiahs.

Rudzinski, on the other hand, is very interested in the emoting. Sometimes way too interested in it. Well, only when the stage production is in a lull. Rudzinski can direct movement, he can’t direct lull. The opening is good, the finale is great (because it fully showcases Dixon), and the “Arrest” direction is truly awesome. Leveaux and Rudzinski do it as reporters sticking microphones and cameras in Legend’s face. But Leveaux has a lot of lulls. And Rudzinksi can’t really direct them.

Partially because Legend’s not great at the close-up acting. Dixon’s great at it. It’s hard to believe Dixon is going through all that work when no one’s even going to see him from the audience (but the camera sees this performance). Bareilles is somewhere in between. Her numbers usually stay in long shot, the close-ups saved for the more personal moments with Legend. Singing-wise, Dixon and Bareilles are good. Bareilles has one great number, but not the previous one, which is way too restrained.

Legend’s fine. It’s not a particularly great part. And he does look like he wandered off a Star Wars set. His followers look like an eighties multi-racial (but mostly white) movie gang. The priests look like something out of a Matrix sequel. The sets are scaffolding but generically urban. It looks very eighties. Down to the multi-racial gang.

But Legend’s fine. He just doesn’t impress like Bareilles or, particularly, Dixon. Though “The Temple” is pretty awesome in Live. It works out.

Jin Ha is great. Norm Lewis is almost as great. Jason Tam’s way too much just there. Erik Grönwall isn’t good. Ben Daniels is good but not great. He’s ostentatious in the wrong way. Similar to Alice Cooper, who’s cameoing. Thanks to the filmed live nature of Live in Concert, you even get to see him going around the front of the stage for the audience. He takes a victory lap for what amounts to stunt miscasting. He’s okay, but it’s a lousy “King Herod’s Song” number.

They should’ve gotten David Lee Roth.

The end is really impressive, starting with “Superstar.” Leveaux saved all the flash for the finale; the flash is big enough scale, Rudzinski can get a lot of coverage. It works out. Because so long as Jesus Christ Superstar doesn’t mess up a few things, it’s always going to work out.

Dixon should’ve gotten to dance through the whole thing. And Legend needed an acting coach. Or Leveaux needed a better take on the character.

And David Lee Roth. He would’ve been so good.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by David Leveaux and Alex Rudzinski; written by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice; produced by Neil Meron, Marc Platt, and Craig Zadan; aired by the National Broadcasting Company.

Starring Brandon Victor Dixon (Judas), John Legend (Jesus Christ), Sara Bareilles (Mary Magdalane), Ben Daniels (Pontius Pilate), Norm Lewis (Caiaphas), Jin Ha (Annas), Jason Tam (Peter), Erik Grönwall (Simon), and Alice Cooper (King Herod).


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Harvest (1953, James Sheldon)

Dorothy Gish isn’t just top-billed in Harvest, host (and narrator) Robert Montgomery introduces the episode hyping her presence. So it’s a tad disappointing when it turns out Gish gets less and less to do throughout the hour-long television play. When she does get things to do, they happen off-screen. Instead of giving her an arc, writer Sandra Michael actually takes away from Gish in the third act, giving time to a newly introduced character.

It might be okay if there were something more interesting going on, but there’s really not. Most of Harvest has to do with nonagenarian Vaughn Taylor preparing for his one hundredth birthday. Mentally preparing, not party-planning. Taylor’s in a bunch of makeup and sort of dodders around, talking too loud about how grandson James Dean isn’t going to take over the family farm.

Dean gets a lot to do. He’s in love with city girl Rebecca Welles, who just can’t understand why he’d want to stay on that smelly old farm anyway. Dad Ed Begley doesn’t know Dean doesn’t want to be a farmer–writer Michael knows Begley and Dean ought to have some scenes together because the characters have things to talk about, but Harvest skips every single one of those conversations. Instead, Begley either tells Gish or Taylor he’s talked to Dean.

The action takes place around the house, specifically the kitchen, occasionally the front porch. Harvest takes some side trips–into the city, out into the field, 1,000 miles away to check in on Gish and Begley’s other sons–but it’s mostly just the kitchen. Where Gish prepares coffee, Begley sits silently, Dean sits jittery, and Taylor dodders.

Harvest doesn’t take any of its characters seriously enough. If it’s going to be about homesteader turned farmer Taylor turning one hundred and watching his family farm collapse, the writing needs to be better and a better actor needs to be playing the part. Director Sheldon doesn’t do much with his actors, but no one’s anywhere near as problematic as Taylor. While Begley is mostly scenery (which is almost better than when he gets lines because Michael writes them so poorly), he’s better than Taylor’s “best” scenes.

Dean’s okay. Harvest cuts away from his character development just as it gets interesting. Gish is okay. She really doesn’t have anything to do but make coffee in a percolator but she does it with a level of engagement far beyond anyone else. Begley looks lost.

Welles is pretty bad.

Montgomery’s narration is obnoxious, but no worse than the frequent choir singing reminding the viewer how blessed are the starving farmers and aren’t they quaint. Keep hope alive for tomorrow is Harvest’s motto (or some such thing). Instead, it seems like the television play just wants to avoid responsibility for its content.

Sheldon’s direction–outside his lack of interest in the performances–is fine. Harvest never feels cramped, one primary set or not.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by James Sheldon; written by Sandra Michael; produced by Robert Montgomery; aired by the National Broadcast Company.

Starring Dorothy Gish (Ellen Zalinka), Ed Begley (Karl Zalinka), Vaughn Taylor (Gramps), James Dean (Paul Zalinka), Rebecca Welles (Arlene), John Connell (Chuck), John Dennis (Joe), Joseph Foley (Herb), Nancy Sheridan (Louise), Mary Lou Taylor (Fran), and Frank Tweddell (Mr. Franklin); narrated by Robert Montgomery.


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V (1983, Kenneth Johnson)

About half of V is quite good. Unfortunately, V was a two-night mini-series and the first half is good part. The second half, not so much. The first half has human-like alien visitors arriving on Earth, in hopes of making a chemical compound to take back home to save their planet. Turns out they’re lying about pretty much everything and they’re actually bad aliens. It’s just they’ve taken over the planet by the time anyone notices. Traditional good guys like American presidents or the military are taken completely unawares and it’s up to the little people. Actually, specifically, it’s up to the scientists. Because the aliens hate scientists. Because they science things and find out the truth. It’s actually never explained.

Writer and director Johnson sets most of the action in Los Angeles. There are the doctors at a hospital and their supporting cast, then these families in one neighborhood. Everyone is interconnected. Richard Lawson is a doctor at the hospital, his dad (Jason Bernard) works at a chemical plant, that chemical plant is run by Hansford Rowe, who is married to Neva Patterson, whose son from a previous marriage is lead Marc Singer.

In the first half, Singer’s only the lead because he’s the cocky white guy. In the second half, he’s the lead because he’s the cocky white guy who does dangerous things and makes the hard decisions. Second lead technically is Faye Grant. She’s a med student who ends up running a resistance cell. She works with Lawson. Remember him? He started this particular interconnected character web.

Grant starts V kind of second-fiddle to Ron Hajak. They’re a couple, living together, she’s the med student, he’s the stockbroker. Yuppie love. Or, as my wife put it, Ken and Barbie in the Malibu Beach House. It’s only significant because eventually Hajak disappears. And it turns out without the Ken and Barbie bicker thing, there’s not much to Grant. Johnson gets her about halfway through the first episode without having anything just for her.

Second half, she’s the resistance leader.

Grant is not good. She’s sympathetic. But the performance isn’t good. The part isn’t well-written. Johnson has a problem with the female parts here. Though it’s cool how V passes Bechdel; Grant is unsure in her newfound command, sweet older woman Camila Ashland reassures her. Unfortunately, Ashland’s not good either. She’s sympathetic. And Blair Tefkin’s feckless teenage girl is a whole other problem.

Oh, and Joanna Kerns as Singer’s ex-wife. Her part’s crap.

Anyway. Those parts are problems. Penelope Windust’s part is better for half of V–she disappears in the second half because… well, because her husband–Michael Durrell–gets to have a huge character arc out of nowhere. Not a particularly good arc either, in terms of writing or plotting. It drags, actually; Johnson makes a movie with flying saucers and somehow makes more requests for disbelief suspension when the sci-fi visual part is done. Sure, it comes back for the grand finale, but it’s way too action-oriented. Johnson is not good at the action. He’s good at the gee whiz factor, which isn’t appropriate in V after twenty or thirty minutes and he knows it. So then there’s no more gee whiz.

The finale features a starfighter battle. But the starfighters are spacious minivan-type starfighters. Johnson tries for sci-fi action in the sequence and fails miserably. It’s also way too long a sequence. It’s okay compost shots of the starfighter minivans, but then there are these terrible one or two-shots of the starfighter pilots. It looks like they’re sitting at tables. There’s even a rear gun in the minivan. Because Johnson needs another Star Wars nod. Besides some production design stuff, there’s also a sequence where the aliens arrive and a high school band plays The Imperial March from Empire.

That arrival sequence? It’s at Patterson’s husband’s plant, which Singer is covering, and Tefkin is playing in the band. It’s so unfortunate the second half of V doesn’t bring the cast together better. Johnson spends a lot of time being pragmatic about how to transition between characters and how to build subplots. Even when the writing is thin (Tefkin) or the acting isn’t great, there’s always something going on.

And then the beginning of the second half brings in a bunch of stray threads. Only Johnson doesn’t want to do melodrama so he goes for surprise. Melodrama probably would’ve worked better.

The second half also throws in good guy alien Frank Ashmore and his sexy sidekick, Jenny Neumann.

Johnson has an intricate thoughtful script for the first half. He builds his subplots, he cultivates them. Second half, he either tears them up or ignores them. He doesn’t build anything new for half of V. He just stops. The second night is a premature victory lap.

And gives Durrell way too much to do.

The first half just has the better writing, both of events and characters. Leonardo Cimino lives in the same neighborhood as Durrell. Cimino’s grandson is a collaborator. There are a lot of collaborators. Johnson’s a realist. David Packer plays the grandson. He’s crushing on Tefkin, incidentally. Packer’s good, though he gets a lot better writing and direction than Tefkin.

So you watch the first half and it’s all these interesting characters and how they’re experiencing an alien invasion. The second-half is totally different. At least, except when–especially at the end–Johnson wants to do callbacks to the first half.

The biggest and most immediate callback is Michael Wright. He’s Lawson’s thieving baby brother. But then he gets a great monologue and Johnson directs the heck out of it. So is it a problematic callback?

Sure?

Wright’s fine. Singer’s fine. Jason Bernard, Cimino, Evan C. Kim, Rafael Campos. They’re all fine. Bonnie Bartlett gives the best performance, even with a small, thin role. Overall, adequate acting, lot of charm; the TV movie way.

With caveats–V is a successful TV miniseries. Johnson keeps it together for over three hours and over a hundred speaking roles.

He should’ve just done the first half. Written the women’s parts better too, but the second half is superfluous. The narrative ambition is gone. The special effects ambition is present, but distorted. Bad finish. Especially when people are reconnecting and the scenes are all weak.

Good special effects overall. Some great makeup effects. Johnson does do one great action sequence. It’s right at the beginning. Again, he had a lot more ambition at minute four versus minute 105.

V doesn’t have a good ending. Johnson doesn’t even try to find one. It’s infuriating.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Kenneth Johnson; director of photography, John McPherson; edited by Paul Dixon, Alan C. Marks, Robert K. Richard, and Jack W. Schoengarth; music by Joseph Harnell; production designer, Charles R. Davis; produced by Chuck Bowman; aired by the National Broadcasting Company.

Starring Marc Singer (Mike Donovan), Faye Grant (Juliet Parrish), Jane Badler (Diana), Michael Durrell (Robert Maxwell), Michael Wright (Elias Taylor), David Packer (Daniel Bernstein), Leonardo Cimino (Abraham Bernstein), Evan C. Kim (Tony Wah Chong Leonetti), Jenny Sullivan (Kristine Walsh), Blair Tefkin (Robin Maxwell), Penelope Windust (Kathleen Maxwell), Richard Lawson (Dr. Ben Taylor), Peter Nelson (Brian), George Morfogen (Stanley Bernstein), Bonnie Bartlett (Lynn Bernstein), Frank Ashmore (Martin), Jason Bernard (Caleb Taylor), Rafael Campos (Sancho Gomez), Diane Cary (Harmony Moore), Robert Englund (Willie), Ron Hajak (Dennis Lowell), Joanna Kerns (Marjorie Donovan), Camila Ashland (Ruby Engels), Viveka Davis (Polly Maxwell), William Russ (Brad), Neva Patterson (Eleanor Dupres), Andrew Prine (Steven), Tommy Petersen (Josh Brooks), Jenny Neumann (Barbara), and Richard Herd (John).


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Lizzie Borden Took an Ax (2014, Nick Gomez)

A horrific crime. An infamous suspect. An unrelenting prospector and his search for the truth. Or not. I mean, technically most of the above statements could be used to describe Lizzie Borden Took an Ax, but none of them accurately captures the ninety-one minute TV movie.

There is some time spent on the crime. But Stephen Kay’s insipid teleplay already assumes Lizzie Borden’s guilt. It’s not about how or why Borden (Christina Ricci in a vacant performance) might have done the deed, but it’s also not much about how Ricci “got away with it.” There’s a trial sequence. It’s the worst part of the movie, which is saying a lot. Maybe because you finally get to see unrelenting prospector Gregg Henry come up against Kay’s bad writing. The writing lays waste to Henry, who ought to have some phenomenal part and instead doesn’t. According to the film, he doesn’t have much interest in truth. He’s justice-minded, sure, but without any convincing reasons for his passion. Once it’s clear Henry’s not getting any more character or any better scenes, he fades into the background.

Or it’s Steve Cosens’s lousy interior photography at the trial. Henry fades into that drab. But he could’ve had a good part. If the writing were better, if the direction weren’t weak. Director Gomez actually shows some interest at the beginning, when they’re recounting the murders. It’s not effect interest–the way he’ll frame a static shot to bring out the period details–but it’s an interest. It’s better than when he flubs a jump scare. Once he flubs the jump scare, it’s even more all over for Lizzie Borden. There’s just nothing to take seriously about it.

Ricci doesn’t have a character to play. Kay and Gomez have so little interest in Borden as a protagonist, they’re unwilling to commit to any characterization. At least Clea DuVall, as Ricci’s sister, gets to have emotional breakdowns. Ricci isn’t even allowed affect. No personality, no affect. Gomez’s direction is really bad. It’s goofy TV movie stuff a lot of the time, but it’s a goofy TV movie script so what else is he going to do with it, but Gomez doesn’t even help the actors. It’s so bad.

Also contributing to the endless depths of bad is the soundtrack. Lizzie Borden, set in 1892 New Jersey, has a hip, modern, country-twinged white man blues rock soundtrack. No women, however. The trappings of Ricci’s nineteenth century female are best exemplified through crappy songs. That anachronism is the only one in the movie. Unless you count Kay’s unbelievable court proceedings as anachronistic.

The guys have better parts. Shawn Doyle and Billy Campbell get through Lizzie Borden unscathed. They don’t try to hard, they phone it in, but they phone it in professionally. The parts are also better because they’re infinitely thin. Campbell’s the family lawyer who’s now defending Ricci. You’d think he might have some reaction to it. But no.

Oh. Right. The trial. The trial is terrible. The writing’s terrible, the direction is terrible. Gomez can’t get any intensity out of the proceedings, partially because Kay’s a bad writer, but also because there’s nothing to be intense about. The case hasn’t been made interesting. The characters haven’t been made interesting. It’s just awful stuff.

Stephen McHattie is the father. Historically, he seems like he was a bastard. Kay and Gomez make McHattie a bit of a grumbler, but he’s no bastard. Ricci might be a succubus though. It’s discomforting to what degree Gomez and Kay refuse to empathize with or even consider Ricci’s reality.

There are some terrible small supporting performances but it’s hard to blame the cast. It’s all Gomez and Kay.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Nick Gomez; written by Stephen Kay; director of photography, Steve Cosens; edited by Henk Van Eeghen; music by Tree Adams; production designer, James McAteer; produced by Michael Mahoney; aired by Lifetime.

Starring Christina Ricci (Lizzie Borden), Clea DuVall (Emma Borden), Gregg Henry (Hosea Knowlton), Stephen McHattie (Andrew Borden), Shawn Doyle (Marshall Hilliard), Sara Botsford (Abby Morse Borden), Hannah Emily Anderson (Bridget Sullivan), Andrea Runge (Alice Russell), and Billy Campbell (Andrew Jennings).


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