Posted in Movie Reviews, Television

July 4th Roundup

“Yankee Doodle do or die!”

Has any biopic had a more visible reason for being than 1942’s “Yankee Doodle Dandy”? This terrific movie, featuring the once-in-a-lifetime performance of James Cagney, may be one of the best World War II propaganda films Hollywood would produce.

Ostensibly the life story of George M. Cohan, Broadway songsmith, playwright, producer and actor, whose career peaked before World War I, the movie is shot through with anachronistic exhortation to “get behind the man behind the gun,” as the film’s additional lyrics to “Grand Old Flag” urge. In similar fashion, so do the additional verses of Rodgers and Hart’s “Off the Record,” from 1937’s “I’d Rather Be Right,” tweaking Hitler and Japan. Was it any wonder? “Yankee Doodle Dandy” premiered only seven months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, at a time when war production and home front restrictions were gearing up. While a Cohan biopic had been a possibility for a number of years before then, the fortuitous match of current events and flag-waving subject resulted in one of the most memorable Hollywood films of that era. Watching it today, you can easily imagine audiences in 1942 responding when Cagney, during the World War I “Over There”scene, turns to the camera and proclaims “Everybody sing!”

In true biopic fashion, there’s a lot of editing and sanitizing with respect to Cohan. While depictions of real figures in his life—Sam Harris, Fay Templeton, the other members of the Four Cohans—appear in the film, both his marital history and his anti-union bias are scrubbed (His siding with Broadway producers rather than actors in the 1919 strike that lead to the creation of Actors Equity was the real reason for his split from producing partner Sam Harris). Yet “Yankee Doodle Dandy” features that wonderful Cohan song catalog, and best of all, James Cagney.

I can think of few other stars of that era for whom the description “There’s no one else like him” is more apt. Whether as Cohan or Tom Powers in the iconic “Public Enemy,” or the psychopathic Momma’s boy Cody Jarrett in “White Heat,” there’s not a moment you can—or even want to—take your eyes off him. His boundless energy, that cocky strut, the feeling that only he and the audience are in on the joke, all stand him in excellent stead in “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” More than that, you sense he enjoyed every minute shooting the film, which makes for the happiest of viewing experiences. Yet he’s not just a sunny song and dance man: the scene he plays with the memorable Walter Huston as his dying father is one of the most poignant he ever shot. Rarely has a Best Actor Oscar been more deserved than the one awarded Mr. Cagney for his performance in “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

Long before Turner Classic Movies I grew up with “Million Dollar Movie,” featured on one of the local New York City stations. The program would run the same film every night for an entire week, and “Yankee Doodle Dandy” would show up regularly. Even though I can probably recite all the film’s dialogue by heart, I never tire of watching it. It’s so Warner Brothers—S.Z. Sakall as Schwab, the roped-in producer of Cohan’s first hit (“I pwomise, I pwomise”); George Tobias as tin-ear producer Dietz, spending his wife’s money; Irene Manning as Fay Templeton, actually playing the piano for “Forty-Five Minutes From Broadway;” the raucous, jalopy-riding teenagers who show up on Cohan’s front lawn (“Stix Nix Hix Pix”). And there’s Cagney, tapping down those White House stairs.

Long may it wave!

P.S.: In case you’re wondering, Cagney copied his “Yankee Doodle Dandy” dancing style directly from George M. himself, as is evident in a YouTube video from the 1932 film “The Phantom President” (Warning: Cohan appears in blackface for a good portion of the clip). While Cagney’s normal style did feature some “on his toes” tap work, his dancing more closely resembled that of a typical hoofer of that era. Check out the “Shanghai Lil” number from “Footlight Parade.”

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Detecting Again: Olivia Coleman (DS Ellie Miller) and David Tennant (DI Alec Hardy), “Broadchurch”

Holidays are always the best time for binge-watching, and this July 4th is no exception. Somehow I missed that Season 3 of “Janet King” just dropped on Acorn TV, I’ve barely started the latest run of “Orange is the New Black” and I haven’t even touched “Glow” yet. Best of all, though, the latest, and unfortunately last, season of “Broadchurch” recently premiered on BBC America.

I was terrifically let down when I learned that “Broadchurch” will shortly end. However, after watching the first episode of the new season, I think I know where the show is headed. “Broadchurch” at its best is about the impact of crime—on the family and friends of the victim, on the community and on the police who investigate. This was starkly portrayed in the first season of the show which focused on the murder of 11 year-old Danny Latimer. The second season, while rich in character portrayal, meandered in plot. However, “Broadchurch” seems to be back at full throttle in its current episodes. Even after three years the repercussions of young Danny’s murder are still being felt, and a new crime threatens the community. Stunning in its detail, this episode walks us through the police and hospital response to a rape—the compassion and support offered to the victim and the painstaking efforts to obtain, catalog and preserve evidence of the crime. The tone of this sequence couldn’t be more fitting. Needless to say, we’re far beyond what “Law and Order: SVU” can depict.

On a happier note, I’m delighted to see the return of my favorite bickering (un)married couple, the detective partners Ellie Miller and Alec Hardy. The lapse of three years hasn’t spoiled their style or their differences. There’s added value this time around—it’s eye-opening to see Ellie having to instantly change gears from ace detective to exasperated single mother called to a meeting at school to discuss her 15 year-old son’s suspension for dealing porn. And it’s odd to see loner Alec Hardy parenting his teenage daughter. But unlike other shows, “Broadchurch” has a way of using issues outside crime and police work to illuminate rather than distract.

Looking forward to the next seven episodes.

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Posted in Television

Detecting

The-Fall

Query: Why is it U.K. television does police procedurals so much better than we do in the U.S.?

I just saw Season 1 of “The Fall” and “Broadchurch,” respectively, and I’m still marveling at how well these shows told their stories. I can only think of two series set on our side of the Atlantic that match their grit and intensity: the classic 1990’s “Homicide: Life on the Street” and more recently “The Wire,” though the latter is really a portrait of Baltimore with each season of the show focusing on a different facet of the city (in order: the police, the waterfront, the black community, the schools and finally the politicians).

“The Fall,” set in Belfast and starring Gillian Anderson as Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson, is the old story of the hunter and the hunted, but with a twist—you’re not always clear as to which is which. Gibson’s on the trail of a serial killer who stalks women, breaks into their homes and later returns to murder them, ultimately washing, grooming and posing their bodies for discovery. I won’t lie—this show is incredibly intense and the assault and murder scenes are very difficult to watch. Nevertheless the story is absorbing because the murderer is such a far cry from whom you’d expect: Paul Spector (the incredibly handsome Jamie Dornan), a grief counselor who’s married with two children. His wife is a neo-natal nurse, and because they work opposite shifts she hasn’t a clue as to how her husband spends his time while she’s at the hospital.

DS Gibson is one ambitious cop. She never hesitates and she never quits. Originally she’s imported from the Metropolitan Police Force to help solve the murder of the former daughter-in-law of a powerful politician. Through just a modicum of finagling Gibson gets herself appointed SIO (senior investigating officer) on another case involving the murder of a young female attorney. To the distress of her superior officer, she sees the connection to the earlier murder and drops the serial killer card on the table for all to see.

Gibson is something of an enigma. Warm she’s not, yet she handles peers and subordinates well—the scene in which she talks a fellow detective down from hysteria after he witnesses a suicide is extraordinary, as is the manner in which she assuages the guilt of an officer who along with her partner might have prevented the attorney’s murder. For the most part, though, she’s extremely guarded; the only character with whom she appears to be at ease is the medical examiner, Dr. Reed Smith (Archie Panjabi). Although we see her pick up a cop in record time (her technique resembles how you and I would choose a steak from the meat case of our local supermarket), it doesn’t appear that she enjoys the sex beyond the merely physical. A very cool customer indeed.

It’s evident that Gibson is leading her quarry on. But she and Paul Spector seem to be distorted mirror images of each other, since he’s obviously doing the same with her. I’m looking forward to the second season of this show, which has already aired in the U.K., for a resolution of this very high-wire tension. The suspense, as they say, is killing me.

Broadchurch

 

“Broadchurch,” though focused on a murder investigation, centrally poses the following question: “How well do you really know your neighbors?” For the residents of a seaside town in Dorset, the answer is not a welcome one.

DS Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) returns to work after a three-week vacation only to learn that the job she wanted has been filled by the imported DI Alec Hardy (David Tennant), a cop with a huge blot on his record due to a botched murder investigation. To say Ellie’s not happy is an understatement, but she and her new boss are immediately confronted with the murder of an 11 year-old boy who happens to be her son’s best friend. And Broadchurch, being the small town that it is, is a hotbed of everyone being in each other’s business. Stoking the flames of distrust even higher are the ladies and gentlemen of the press, one of whom is Ellie’s nephew. No one is above suspicion, whether obvious or not: the local vicar, a telephone repairman who receives psychic messages from the dead, the murdered boy’s father, Ellie’s son. DS Miller is forced to learn more about her neighbors than she ever wanted, and in the middle of it all, we see a bereaved family attempt to come to terms with their grief.

The pace of Season 1 of “Broadchurch” keeps the story at just the right simmer over its eight-episode length. I was totally absorbed by the relationships of the town’s residents and especially by the interaction of Hardy and Miller. What would a detective be unless he had a Past (capital “P”), and Hardy certainly does, as we come to learn. He’s rude, he’s brusque, but he’s so much fun to watch. He’s got a laser-like focus when he questions witnesses and suspects, something we only see develop in Miller (as Hardy insists on calling her) over time. This in turn makes you realize that their superior was right all along in filling the lead slot with a detective who was up to the job from the start.

If there’s a fault in “Broadchurch” it’s only in an exceptionally heavy anvil dropped in the seventh episode, though even this serves the purpose of coalescing your thoughts as to whodunit. The ultimate resolution is crushing, if not entirely unexpected, but there’s resilience: “Broadchurch” will be back for a second season, though BBC America won’t be airing it until March (in the meantime I’ll be checking YouTube religiously for uploads). The show’s American version, “Gracepoint,” also starring David Tennant, didn’t fare as well, having been cancelled after ten episodes. I saw the first (long before I watched “Broadchurch”) and didn’t care for it. The California coastal town seemed unreal and the pace threatened to be excruciating. Having stuck with the interminable “The Killing” for its first season, I wasn’t eager to go through that experience again.

Why anyone felt the need to transplant “Broadchurch” is beyond me. If ever there’s a poster child for “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” it’s this show. I hope it continues for quite some time.