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A Memorial Day salute in HBO's John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls

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Lionizing a lion in winter in John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls. HBO photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Fittingly premiering on Memorial Day, HBO’s John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls affords him an opportunity to, in a sad sense, see his own obituary.

The respect and admiration for the cancer-afflicted POW turned Arizona senator is non-partisan and clearly more than pro forma during this 1 hour, 45 minute film (May 28th at 7 p.m. central).

McCain himself seems to be in firm control of his emotions during an interview filmed last August on his 80th birthday at his Sedona, AZ home shortly after he had been diagnosed with brain cancer. Others are not, including former Vice President Joe Biden. Extolling McCain’s valor under adversity, Biden pauses and is near tears before saying, “He’s a good friend.”

A formidable list of friends and onetime foes contribute fresh interviews for the Peter Kunhardt-directed film. Besides Biden, the roll call includes Barack Obama, Bill and Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, Henry Kissinger, Joe Lieberman, Lindsey Graham and John Kerry. McCain’s first wife, Carol, his current wife, Cindy, several children from both marriages and Ted Kennedy’s widow, Vicki, also participate.

The notable no-show is Sarah Palin, McCain’s controversial running mate in his 2008 presidential bid. McCain now says he should have trusted his instincts and gone with Lieberman, but his advisors warned him of a “bloodbath” at the Republican National Convention if he tried to run with a former Democrat turned Independent. Palin is seen only in archival footage, with McCain saying that selecting her “was another mistake that I made” among several he acknowledges.

McCain antagonist Donald Trump is neither mentioned nor shown, which is perfectly fine. He’s otherwise available nearly 24/7 on the three cable news networks.

The film’s title comes from the famed 1940 Ernest Hemingway novel, which also was made into a movie starring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman. The main protagonist, Robert Jordan, selflessly dies for a perceived greater cause during the Spanish Civil War. “And by the way, I re-read Hemingway,” McCain says near film’s end. “And Robert Jordan is still my hero.”

From the very start, a duly reflective McCain says, “I have lived an honorable life, and I am proud of my life.” So if he’s in fact near the end, McCain is determined to “look back with gratitude. You will never talk to anyone that is as fortunate as John McCain.”

Along the way, though, he has regrets. Not only about choosing Palin, but of eventually succumbing to a “war crimes confession” when he thought death was imminent from the oft-brutal treatment he received during a five-and-a-half year imprisonment in what became known derisively as the Hanoi Hilton.

“And I will be ashamed and embarrassed about that for my whole life,” McCain says.

He’s also bracingly contrite about his enabling role in the Charles H. Keating Jr. savings and loan scandal (forever a “black mark”) and his politically expedient decision to support flying the Confederate flag over the South Carolina State Capitol (“as a symbol of heritage”) during his down-and-dirty 2000 presidential primary campaign against George W. Bush. McCain’s subsequent full and public apology soon after he dropped out of the race remains a remarkable example of undiluted political candor.

After filming ended on the HBO documentary, McCain offered another major mea culpa in his new book The Restless Wave: Good Times, Just Causes, Great Fights and Other Appreciations. He now says he erred in very actively supporting the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

All in all, this is a catalog of very considerable proportions. But unlike a certain sitting President, McCain is willing to admit his faults and mistakes. “I’ve been tested on a number of occasions,” he says in the film. “I haven’t always done the right thing.”

Columnist David Brooks of The New York Times says McCain is one of the few high-level politicians with an “authentic” inner voice. “He has never been able to lie to himself very well.”

An enduring latter day image for many is McCain’s trip to Washington last July against his doctors’ and family’s wishes. His face bruised and very much still healing from recent surgery, he cast the “No” vote that torpedoed Republicans’ efforts to repeal “Obamacare” in full. Footage from that night still resonates, as does plentiful archival film from his POW years.

McCain recalls that when he refused preferential treatment because his father was a “big admiral” in the Navy, a North Vietnamese interrogator assured him, “Things will be very bad for you now, McCain.’ “

“And the fun began,” McCain adds drily, referring to the ensuing ramped-up torture.

His first marriage crumbled after his return to U.S. soil. McCain doesn’t talk about this, and perhaps wasn’t asked. But first wife Carol says he was “looking for a way to be young again” by having an affair with the much younger and future Mrs. McCain. “And that was the end of that . . . I was pretty much blindsided, and it broke my heart.”

Still, when reporters looked to her to say “negative things” about her ex-husband during the 2008 presidential campaign, Carol says she’d never do that to him and is sad that he’s not likely to be around much longer.

Obama, who seems to genuinely admire his former opponent, says that “we weren’t really running against John McCain. We were running for a new direction for the country.”

McCain repeatedly worked “across the aisle” in efforts to get things done in Washington. As the film shows, he formed alliances with the likes of Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden among others. And when Obama defeated him, McCain called for unity and support after earlier upbraiding a woman at a campaign rally who had branded the Democratic nominee “an Arab.”

“He could not have been more gracious,” Obama says.

McCain’s sometimes cranky demeanor also goes with the territory. Longtime friend Lindsey Graham says bluntly, “He can be an asshole one minute and your dearest friend the next.” But through it all, Graham says, there’s never a doubt about McCain’s loyalty and love.

Some might find For Whom the Bell Tolls to be too easy on, if not downright deferential, to McCain. But this last testament in many ways also underscores the respect and admiration he has won from those he’s battled fiercely. The so-called “Art of the Deal” is associated with another Republican, but it’s McCain who recurrently embodied it.

“John McCain successfully fought in Congress for these and other causes,” says a printed epilogue.

It turns out to be quite a list.

GRADE: A-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

HBO stays in a fun-free zone with its latest original film, The Tale

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Laura Dern/Isabelle Nelisse as Jennifer Fox in The Tale. HBO photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
HBO’s original films haven’t been much fun lately.

Last month’s Paterno starred Al Pacino as the legendary Penn State coach who looked the other way to varying degrees when confronted with accounts that one of his longtime assistants had been a serial sex abuser of young boys.

This month’s Fahrenheit 451 remake revisited the unyielding book-burning future made famous in Ray Bradbury’s same-named 1953 novel.

Now comes The Tale (Saturday, May 26th at 9 p.m. central), which recounts director/writer Jennifer Fox’s real-life recovered memories of her sexual abuse as a 13-year-old at the hands of a Svengali-like couple.

Laura Dern plays the grown, 40-year-old Jennifer; Isabelle Nelisse co-stars as a young, impressionable, introverted Jenny in search of fulfillment beyond her lot in life as one of five siblings being raised by parents she can’t stand.

“The story you are about to see is true -- as far as I know,” Dern’s Jennifer narrates at the start. More to the point, director/writer Fox says in HBO publicity materials that her goal in making the film isn’t to determine “whether it happened,” but to grasp “How and why did it happen, and how and why did I spin it as a positive story to myself?” (She is the only character in the film to use her real name.)

Un-peeling these layers doesn’t come easily for the adult Jennifer. Nor is The Tale easy to watch, particularly when Jason Ritter exudes creepiness as an initially benignly smiling running coach with a goal of becoming 13-year-old Jenny’s lover after first repeatedly praising her as being “so special” and “so deep.”

The role is a complete departure for Ritter, who has spent this season playing a divinely inspired do-gooder in ABC’s now officially canceled Kevin (Probably) Saves the World. Ritter’s Bill (later depicted as the since much-lauded William P. Allens) doesn’t have to use “adult” language during his intimate scenes with Jenny. In fact, seldom if ever have G-rated words seemed so foul-mouthed. (The film’s closing credits say that all sex scenes with a minor were filmed with a body double. But there are still closeup shots of the 14-year-old Nelisse’s face while she experiences Bill’s deflowering of her.)

His accomplice is horse riding coach “Mrs. G” (first name Jane), who is played as a younger woman by Elizabeth Debicki and in present-day scenes by Frances Conroy. Bill and Mrs. G are beasts of prey who also are sleeping with each another.

“We want you to know that Jane and I are lovers,” Bill tells the young Jenny while at the same time further reeling her in.

“I’m happy you have each other,” Jenny replies. “And I want you to be miserable together like my parents.” They tell her this is more evidence of being wise beyond one’s years. Whatever it takes.

The adult Jennifer’s mother, Nettie (Ellen Burstyn), is a meddler whose discovery of her 13-year-old daughter’s troubling letters first brings The Tale into focus. Jennifer had “forgotten” about them, but finds that’s no longer an option. Her boyfriend, Martin (Common in close to a throwaway role), has a lone scene of consequence when he demands that Jennifer be forthright with him after daring to call her a “victim.” Otherwise Dern pretty much has as many scenes with a glass of red wine as she does with Common.

Those who invest in The Tale will get a “payoff,” even if it seems more than a bit contrived. The film no doubt will get a ringing declaration of support from the #MeToo movement and an Emmy nod for Dern, who’s currently filming Season Two of HBO’s Big Little Lies. In truth, though, the strongest and bravest performance is by Nelisse as the 13-year-old Jenny, who in a few out-of-body moments shares scenes and dialogue with Dern.

Although there’s no nudity, many assuredly will reject The Tale’s subject matter out of hand. In this view, its overall story of innocent susceptibility, bogus fulfillment, latter day denial and hard-earned closure triumphs over what Bill does to Jenny in the name of “love.” Still, I’m not going to try to sell you on anything. Just know what you’re getting in for -- and proceed with both caution and an open mind if you decide to make the investment.

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

HBO's remake of Fahrenheit 451 generates little heat

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Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon smolder in Fahrenheit 451. HBO image

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
The books go up in flames a bit faster than the movie itself in HBO’s adaptation of sci-fi author Ray Bradbury’s famed Fahrenheit 451.

Directed in oft-plodding and recurrently preachy fashion by Ramin Bahrani (Chop Shop), the film is touted as being relevant anew in times where “we have willingly given up our knowledge, identity, books, history, dreams, culture -- everything -- to tech companies, big business and politicians.”

That’s Bahrani’s stated view in HBO publicity materials. But it hasn’t gotten that bad yet, has it?

The new version premieres on Saturday, May 19th at 7 p.m. (central), two generations removed from Francois Truffaut’s 1966 Fahrenheit 451, which starred Oskar Werner and Julie Christie. Bradbury wrote the original book in 1953 as a cautionary tale tied to the repressive, Communist-hunting “McCarthy era.”

Some changes have been made by Bahrani and HBO, particularly the omission of troubled “fireman” Guy Montag’s wife, a key character in the novel. Michael B. Jordan’s Montag lives alone, save for the audio companionship of judgmental YUXIE, the film’s Alexa of the future.

Montag otherwise is devoted to his very tightly wound mentor and commander, Captain John Beatty (Michael Shannon). At his orders, the flame-throwing members of the fire brigade seek out book-hiding resistors and destroy their contraband in full view of an omnipresent live TV show.

“Do you want to know what’s inside all these books? Insanity,” Beatty assures Montag, who’s also told that too many books espousing too many contrary opinions ended up sparking a civil war in which eight million people died. In the end, survivors “demanded a world like this.”

Beatty dismisses Franz Kafka as a “pornographer and a sexual pervert,” but has a secret thirst for guidance and writes the wisdom of famed deep thinkers on cigarette papers while home alone. Montag also has secrets. He’s stolen a copy of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground and increasingly keeps company with “eel” (resistor) Clarisse McClellan (Sofia Boutella), an off-and-on informant who hits her off switch again as the plot congeals, er, thickens.

The film isn’t much of a read, though. Jordan, who’s also an executive producer, is constantly captured in closeup, looking either wide-eyed or vexed. His growing attraction to Clarisse tends to be a snooze, with their not exactly dynamic scenes together seemingly spliced into the film at random moments.

Shannon is accomplished at portraying inner turmoil. His taut, deeply religious FBI agent in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire became adept at self-flagellation in hopes of making himself whole again. But Beatty for the most part comes off as one big prototypical snarl, even while being conflicted.

Fahrenheit 451 briefly shows a taboo Marvin Gaye album, but resists resorting to a few bars of The Doors’ Light My Fire. That’s what’s needed, though, with a film whose BIG FINISH fails to ignite much of anything. The optimum book-burning heat from which the title is drawn ends up being a disappointing film that can’t seem to rise above room temperature.

GRADE: C-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Led by CBS (and save for ABC), the new fall season is all in with minorities and women as leads

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The new look cast of the Magnum P.I. reboot. CBS photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
The face and faces of network prime-time television underwent a major makeover this week with the announcements of next fall’s new series on ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and The CW.

Diversity and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the impact of the #MeToo movement, are abundantly evident while white males in large part have slipped to second banana status after having it their own way for decades. Oddly enough, ABC is the only exception this fall, but already has an established track record in casting women and people of color in lead roles. In that context, the network’s fallback to earlier times in some ways can be seen as being diverse in reverse. More on this later.

The most striking sign of these times, CBS’ Magnum P.I. reboot, will star a Latino in the title role with a female Higgins (first name, Juliet) who not only has a pair of Dobermans but is skilled in the martial arts.

Another reboot, The CW’s Charmed, has three Latina sisters as its apprentice witches.

CBS’ previous fall schedule had males in the lead roles of all six new series. Save for the network’s S.W.A.T. re-do, all of them were white.

New entertainment president Kelly Kahl, who had barely begun his new job back then, promised to steer a change in new directions the next time around. He’s done considerably more than that. CBS’ course correction amounts to a full U-turn. The half-dozen newcomers slated for fall 2018 premieres star either people of color, or in the Murphy Brown reboot’s case, the same woman who made the role famous along with a trio of Candice Bergen’s original cast mates.

For its God Friended Me drama series, which bears a more than passing resemblance to the long-running Touched By An Angel, CBS chose young African-American actor Brandon Micheal Hall after his sitcom The Mayor got a quick ax from ABC last fall. The network’s two other fall comedies, The Neighborhood and Happy Together, respectively star Cedric the Entertainer and Damon Wayans Jr. Both are built around African-American households enduring a sudden incursion of white folks.

The other first-year CBS drama, FBI, gives top billing to Missy Peregrym and Egyptian actor Zeeko Zaki, with veteran Jeremy Sisto also featured.

Fox has just two new fall series, plus a life raft for Tim Allen’s Last Man Standing, which spent a year in exile after being canceled by ABC at the close of the 2016-17 season.

The Rel stars African-American comedian Lil Rel Howery as himself. The Cool Kids, with veteran African-American actor David Alan Grier given top billing in Fox publicity materials, is set in a retirement home and also stars Vicki Lawrence, Martin Mull and Leslie Jordan.

NBC’s fall lineup likewise has only a small sprinkling of three new fall series. The network’s lone freshman sitcom, I Feel Bad, is written by Aseem Batra and built around a vexed mom played by Sarayu Blue. A first-year drama series, Manifest, is topped by Melissa Roxburgh, who starred this season in The CW’s since canceled Valor. The other new drama, a medical series titled New Amsterdam, goes against the grain by casting a white male, Ryan Eggold, in the lead. He’s rebounding from the short-lived spinoff series The Blacklist: Redemption.

Besides its new look version of Charmed, The CW is offering All American, a high school football drama with African-American leads Taye Diggs and Daniel Ezra. There’s also a spinoff of The Vampire Diaries and The Originals. It’s called Legacies, with Danielle Rose Russell from The Originals listed as the lead member of the cast.

That leaves ABC, a practitioner of diversity when diversity wasn’t necessarily cool with shows such as black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat, Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder. The network also has showcased take-charge moms in comedies such as American Housewife, Speechless and the Roseanne reboot.

For fall 2018, the network has three additions with white males as their clear centerpieces. Nathan Fillion, who previously had success with ABC’s Castle, returns to the network as a middle-aged newcomer to the LAPD in The Rookie. Alec Baldwin gets his own interview hour, The Alec Baldwin Show, after a one-episode sneak preview in March. And a new comedy series, The Kids Are Alright, is set in the 1970s, with an Irish Catholic brood of eight sons and no daughters vying for laughs along with their vastly outnumbered parents.

Another new sitcom, Single Parents, focuses on a 30-something dude named Will (former Saturday Night Live regular Taran Killam), who’s “lost sight of who he is as a man,” according to ABC’s description of the show. The ensemble freshman fall drama A Million Little Things bills white actors Ron Livingston and David Giuntoli as the leads.

For those keeping score, this makes ABC the CBS of a year ago while CBS rather suddenly will have more shows with African-Americans in the leads this fall than any of its rivals. Plus a Latino Thomas Magnum.

White males, who pretty much had everything going their way for decades, are hardly in a position to cry foul. Not yet anyway. Save for ABC as an outlier, the coming fall can be seen as an act of contrition for the days when white males kept getting another turn at bat whether their previous series failed or succeeded. Now many of them are sliding off the playing field while people of color and women have become priority first-teamers.

This is so much the case that NBC’s midseason nod to the past glories of Cheers will be called Abby’s and star Natalie Morales as both the owner and dispenser of unbreakable rules. Neil Flynn, who’s winding up nine seasons as the co-star of ABC’s The Middle, will be playing a supporting role as a barroom fixture named Fred. Had The Middle ended just a year or two earlier, he might well have been running the place. In the new climate, it’s getting to be a little too late for that.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

The CW goes super and supernatural in new Sunday addition to 2018-19 lineup

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Everybody’s gotta have a reboot. So come again, Charmed. CW photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
The little network that could is adding Sunday nights next season while announcing the final seasons of three veterans.

Supergirl and a new version of Charmed are The CW’s first Sunday duo while Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Jane the Virgin and iZombie will all be saying farewell. The latter two series won’t show up until midseason, as will another returnee, The 100.

CW is adding three new series to its fall lineup while also canceling a trio -- Valor, The Originals and Life Sentence. The network’s expansion to Sundays leaves only Saturdays vacant.

Here are CW’s three fall newcomers:

Charmed (drama) -- The original aired from 1998 to 2006 on the now defunct WB network, with Shannen Doherty, Alyssa Milano and Holly Marie Combs playing bewitched sisters Prudence, Phoebe and Piper Halliwell. In the reboot, the siblings are named Mel, Maggie and Macy Vera. Mel (Melonie Diaz) is a “firebrand social justice warrior,” according to CW publicity materials, while Maggie (Sarah Jeffery) is merely “fun-loving.” Macy (Madeleine Mantock), a “brilliant geneticist,” shows up later as the surprise older sister. Rupert Evans is dropped in as Harry Greenwood, “officious” chairman of Hilltowne University’s women’s studies department but more importantly the apprentice witches’ “Whitelighter” (advisor/guide).

All American (drama) -- Based on the real-life experiences of pro football player Spencer Paysinger, this series dramatizes his transition from a tough Compton neighborhood to Beverly Hills. Spencer James (Daniel Ezra) has been recruited by high school football coach Billy Baker (Taye Diggs), who envisions him as the team’s new star. In order to protect his “transfer permit” to Bev Hills, Spencer is required to move in with the Bakers. This doesn’t please the coach’s son, Jordan (Michael Evans Behling), the team’s star QB and spotlight-grabber.

Legacies (drama) -- This offshoot of The Vampire Diaries and The Originals continues with the stories of “the next generation of supernatural beings at The Salvatore School for the Young and Gifted.” Matt Davis and Danielle Rose Russell are carryovers. He played Alaric Saltzman on Vampire Diaries and she was Hope Mikaelson on The Originals.

Here is CW’s new fall lineup:

Monday
Legends of Tomorrow
Arrow

Tuesday
The Flash
Black Lightning

Wednesday
Riverdale
All American

Thursday
Supernatural
Legacies

Friday
Dynasty
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Sunday
Supergirl
Charmed

CW also has announced these new midseason series:

Roswell, New Mexico (drama) -- The WB and then UPN got a total of three seasons out of Roswell, whose cast included then unknowns Katherine Heigl and Colin Hanks. Now here we go again with another take on “ground zero for those who seek proof that aliens exist.” The focal point is Roswell native Liz Ortecho (Jeanine Mason), who blew town a decade ago after death of her older sister. She returns to tend to her ailing father while also rekindling her onetime crush on Max Evans (Jason Behr in the original, Nathan Parsons in the reboot). Max is now a cop, but he also turns out to be something else.

In the Dark (drama) -- A woman named Murphy (Perry Mattfield) is a “hard-living, hard-drinking, disaffected twentysomething with a penchant for cigarettes and casual sex.” She’s also blind and resentful of both her caring parents and the guide dog they’ve provided her. His name is Pretzel and he’s played by Levi. Then a seeming murder happens, or did it? Murphy liked the guy, who otherwise was dealing drugs. So she and Pretzel investigate.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net