Sunday, June 29, 2014

Duet (TV)

Created by
Ruth Bennett & Susan Seeger
Starring Matthew Laurance, Mary Page Keller, Chris Lemmon, Alison La Placa, Jodi Thelen
IMDB Entry

It was extremely difficult it to set up a fourth broadcast TV network. When Fox came along with plans, it was assumed by everyone it would fail. But it was a good time for it:  there had been an increase in independent TV stations* looking for programming.  And Fox started small – originally with shows only on Sundays.  But even that wouldn’t mean much if they didn’t have good programming.  And Duet was one of the shows that they based their original Sunday schedule on.**

It was a romantic comedy where Ben Coleman (Matthew Laurence) was in love with Laura Kelly (Mary Page Keller). Their best friends were yuppies Richard (Chris Lemmon***) and Linda Phelps (Alison La Placa), and Laura had a younger sister Jane (Jodi Thelen) who was just a little bit ditzy.

The show was hardly groundbreaking, but survived by good writing. The plots were pretty standard, but there were plenty of funny line, and the worked like all good comedy – by being unexpected. 

In addition, the cast was very appealing.  The two breakout characters were Linda and Jane.  Alison La Placa was wonderful – self centered, controlling, and very very funny.  Jodi Thelen was even better, as the ditzy comic relief.  As a matter of fact, the leads of the show took a back seat to the other characters as time went by.

In the second season, Linda became pregnant.  The final episode had her giving birth.  Then the show did something unusual:  the third season took place three years later.  The baby had grown and Ben and Laura had married – unusual for a romantic sitcom in that it was not shown.  Toward the end, Linda took a job in a real estate agency.

The show was cancelled, but that job was the basis for a spinoff:  Open House.  Alison La Placa was the star, with Lemmon and Keller (her character now divorced) joining her.  Added to the new cast was a up and coming comedian named Ellen DeGeneris.****

The show didn’t catch on, but La Placa did.  Or tried to.  She starred in three sitcoms in the next three years, and all failed.  None of the other actors fared much better, though all have worked relatively regularly since.

But the show did what it needed to do: be an entertainment that was strong enough to keep Fox afloat.

*I lived in Schenectady at the time and two new ones had cropped up.

**The others were Married with Children, 21 Jump Street, The Tracey Ullman Show,  and Mr. President.  All but the latter were successful, and Tracey Ullman spawned their biggest hit:  The Simpsons.  Despite – and maybe because of, George C. Scott, their biggest name, Mr. President was pretty awful.

***Yes, Jack’s son.

****Who was the equivalent to Jodi Thelen in the new show, but not as good.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette (music)

Album CoverThe Four Seasons (1969)
Allmusic Entry

Popular music is always a struggle to keep relevant.  Music tastes change and older acts have to find ways to keep up. It was the changes in music in the late 60s that lead the Four Seasons to record their least typical album, The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette.

The group had peaked in the early 60s, but by 1967, they had slowly faded from the charts* and were struggling to come out with a new album.  And Sgt. Pepper suddenly made an album of well written pop songs seem old fashioned.  You needed to be more ambitious and a concept album/rock opera seemed the way to go.

So Four Seasons songwriter Bob Gaudio teamed up with composer Jake Holmes** to create a concept album.

The album is ambitions, to say the least.  It’s a satirical look at American life in the 60s, with ambitious lyrics and philosophical concepts.  Gaudio still knew how to write a catchy tune, and the songs cover all sorts of aspects of life.  And despite a touch of pretentiousness, the songs are all first class.

But it was in many ways a mistake.  The problem was that fans of the group were disappointed that it has no hits in the “Sherry” or “Walk Like a Man” mold.  At the same time, people who might have been interested in a concept album of this nature considered the group to be irrelevant.  The album snuck into the bottom of the top 100 albums, but probably mostly do to its long-time fans buying it on the name of the group alone.***  It was a failure.

It was certainly a misfire.  The Four Seasons underwent some upheaval. and revamped with Frankie Valli featured more prominently.  Eventually, they had a renaissance – but The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette was forgotten.  It’s not even hinted at in Jersey Boys.

It’s certainly not a great album, but the music is excellent and deserves not to be forgotten.

*Not unusual for a popular music groups; even the Beatles figured they’d have about five years at the top even if they hadn’t broken up.

**Best known as the one Jimmy Page stole “Dazed and Confused” from.

***The cover didn’t help much, either.  It was designed to look like a newspaper (much like Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick three years later), and the name of the group is obscured in the design.  Also, with the words “American Crucifixion and Resurrection” on the front it as bound to give the wrong impression.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec

Directed by
Luc Bresson
Written by Luc Bresson, from the comic books by Jacques Tardi
Starring Louise Bourgoin, Mathieu Amalric, Gilles Lellouche, Jean-Paul Rouve, Philippe Nahon, Jacky Nercessian. Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre
IMDB Entry

American films are filled with comic book movies these days, but one of the best of the past five years was a movie out of France that manages to be charming in every way. 

The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec was adapted by Luc Bresson from a comic book series out of France set in the early years of the 20th century and featuring Adele, sort of a female Indiana Jones.  The movie adapts two stories into one.

The movie begins in Paris with the mysterious hatching of of an ancient pterodactyl egg, cause by the psychic meddling of Professor Esperandiue (Jacky Nahon).  The best of the Paris police force goes to investigate, led by Inspector Caponi (Gilles Lellouche).  And the authorities want to call on Adele Blanc-Sec* (Louise Bourgoin), but she is in Peru at the time.

But she’s not.  She’s in Egypt, digging to find the tomb of Ramses II, and evading her archnemesis Dieuleveult (Mathieu Amalric) in order to bring a mummy back to France.  Adele returns and gets involved in the hunt for the pterodactyl, while using the mummy as a way to help cure her sister Agatha (Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre), who has a hatpin in her brain.

Adele & Friend

As you may have gathered, the film had a light tone and goofy charm.  Director Luc Bresson is best known in the US for The Fifth Element and this has the same sort of visual charm that never takes itself too seriously.  Louise Bourgoin has the perfect attitude for her adventuress character: capable, charming, but with enough depth to make her more than just two-dimensional.  The casting is a major asset; all the characters have memorable non-Hollywood faces that helps to give them personality.

One thing I especially liked was that the film had the feel of a comic book adventure.  It does not actually end -- it sets up a new adventure.  I don’t think one was ever planned, but it gave the impression of a comic book that doesn’t just end.

The movie was very successful in France, but not in the US. Of course, being subtitled hurt it, but I don’t think many American moviegoers these days want  comic book films that are light hearted (or without fight scenes, and where the archenemy is not defeated in the end).

It’s on Netflix.  And, really, how could you resist a movie that had pterodactyls and mummies?


* Her last name translates into “dry white” as in wine.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Painting

The Painting -- she's not jumping; she's trying to fly2011
Directed by
Jean-François Laguionie
Written by Jean-François Laguionie, Anik Leray
Voices by Jessica Monceau, Adrien Larmande, Thierry Jahn, Julien Bouanich, Céline Ronte, Thomas Sagols, Magali Rosenzweig, Chloé Berthier
IMDB Entry

In America, animated films are for children.  Yes, they do entertain adults,* but the perception is that adults go to them in order to bring their kids.  It’s different in Europe, where animated films are not pigeonholed, and a movie like The Painting can be made.

As the title states, the movie is about a painting.  Much like Toy Story, the people in it have come to life, and have created their own society, with three levels:  the Alldunns, who are finished and who think themselves superior, the Halfies, who are not quite complete, and the Sketchies, who are just rough drawings and at the bottom of the social barrel.**

Ramo (Adrian Larmande) is an Alldunn in love with Claire (Chloé Berthier), a Halfie.  Lola (Jessica Monceau) is a friend of Clare who suggest they go to seek the artist and ask him to finish the painting.  Joined by Plume (Thierry Jahn), a Sketchie, they go on a journey of discovery and find out that they can leave the painting and visit others in the abandoned studio of the artist in order to find him.

imageThe film, as it must be, is visually sumptuous, filled with color and delight. Laguionie pays homage to some of the great artists, using their style as templates for some of the artwork visited.  There’s a war scene, a visit to Venice during Carnivale, and many other delights in the search. It even has a message, not only the obviously against social snobbery, but more about art and life.

Of course, the film was barely released in the US.***  Part of this was the subtitling:  American’s don’t like subtitles, and there probably wasn’t enough interest to have it dubbed.  But a bigger reason no doubt was one of the characters – a painting of a Rubenesque nude who gives the group guidance and a gateway.  American audiences no doubt would be outraged by this in a “children’s movie”**** and cutting out the scenes would wreck the plot.  So the film only got very limited release.

It’s available on Netflix, though, and is a delight for fans of animation.

*Chuck Jones, America’s greatest cartoon genius, said he made all his films for himself.

**American translation.  The French words are “Toupins,” “Pafinis” (roughly “not finished”) and “Reufs” (“Roughs”).  Much more imagination.

***Luckily, it was a success in France.

****Some – very loud Americans – are even more Victorian about sex than the Victorians, who accepted nudity in art.