Friday, June 29, 2018

Remembering Harlan Ellison: “For a brief time, I matter”

I’m sorry to learn of the passing of Harlan Ellison, the great writer of what’s sometimes called speculative fiction. He died in his sleep this past Thursday, at the age of 84. As readers and moviegoers know, he was famous for a post-apocalyptic novel, A Boy and His Dog, that was made into a cult film in 1975. He’ll also be remembered for his contributions to a number of TV series, including The Outer Limits, Star Trek, and the rebooted Twilight Zone. Science fiction and fantasy were his great loves, but he also wrote for such down-to-earth shows as Route 66. Not to mention The Flying Nun, which—given its heroine’s penchant for soaring through the air à la Mary Poppins—wasn’t entirely down to earth at all.

The news of Harlan’s death takes me back to those long-ago days when I was Roger Corman’s story editor at Concorde-New Horizons Pictures. Though Harlan and Roger shared an interest in fantasy and science fiction, few people realize that they came very close to working together on a TV project. I should know: I was there.

When I first came aboard at Roger’s Concorde-New Horizons Pictures in 1986, Roger was thinking of branching out into television production. This despite the fact that the glacial pace of TV decision-making appalled him, and he was never fully comfortable in a roomful of men in suits. After NBC showed itself willing to back a futuristic series produced by Roger, Harlan was hired to create the pilot for Cutter’s World. This was to be a father-son outer space saga modeled on the old TV western, The Rifleman (which had starred Chuck Connors and Johnny Crawford thirty years earlier).

At first working with Harlan was a total joy. No novice (like so many of our usual screenwriters), he was a master at creating character, dynamic action, and atmosphere. He seemed to like me too, saying that he would consider dubbing one of the female characters Beverly, were it not for the fact that I shared the name with his sister, whom he loathed. Then trouble arose. Once Harlan had written his first draft and we had accumulated extensive notes from NBC, his writing process seemed to grind to a halt. In fact he was suddenly unreachable by phone, and today’s new-fangled methods of communication (like email and text messaging) did not yet exist. There was a network deadline to be met, and it was clear that by waiting for Harlan to re-emerge, we would miss it. Under Roger’s directive, I had no choice but to make the changes myself.

When he found out I had dared to try improving his writing, Harlan went livid. His temper, of course, was legendary, and I bore the full brunt of it that day. When I told him I had no choice but to obey the man who signed my paychecks, he sneered that I reminded him of the people of Hitler’s Germany, “just obeying orders.” That’s how, for the one and only time in my life, I was accused of being a Nazi. (No surprise: the series was derailed by NBC soon thereafter.) 

I eventually realized I wasn’t alone in facing Harlan’s wrath. His 1967 time-traveling Star Trek episode,  “The City on the Edge of Forever,” was widely praised, but Harlan was incensed that Gene Rodenberry, among others, had made changes to his script. He and Rodenberry then feuded for two years, and a lawsuit later followed. Surprising arrogance for man who’d said of himself, “For a brief time I was here, and for a brief time, I matter.”

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Baby, He Can Drive My Car: James Corden Plays Carpool Karaoke.

James Corden, currently playing a wily insurance investigator as part of the big-name cast of Ocean’s Eight, is nothing if not versatile. On the British stage and on Broadway, he took on a key part in Alan Bennett’s comic drama, The History Boys, and then reprised his role in the film version. I saw him starring on Broadway in an outrageous farce, One Man, Two Guvnors, based on a piece of Commedia dell’arte tomfoolery by 18th century Italian author Carlo Goldoni. As a harried servant struggling to juggle the demands of two very different bosses, Corden was so outrageously endearing that I wasn’t surprised to see him walking off with the Tony award for lead actor in a play.

Beyond his dramatic and comic chops, Cordon is known as a clever writer and an able producer. And did I mention he can sing? He was well cast as the amiable but troubled Baker in the 2014 film version of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. And since 2015, as host of TV’s The Late Late Show, he has introduced the world to the Carpool Karaoke segments that regularly rack up millions of views on YouTube. The concept is simple: Corden appears behind the wheel of a car or van on a city street., welcoming a famous pop culture figure who just happens to show up. He flicks on the car radio, and then he and his guest happily burst into song. With Adele in the passenger seat he tooled around London, racking up 135 million views and becoming in the process the biggest viral sensation of 2016. I’m a fan of the segment in which Corden pulled up in front of the White House, expecting a formal tour, and “discovered” that Michelle Obama was volunteering to be his personal guide. The two of them harmonized on Beyoncé’s “Put a Ring on It,” after which Missy Elliott popped up in the back seat to join in a spirited rendition of “This is For My Girls.” A good time was had by all.

And fans of Broadway musicals can’t beat the segment in which Corden and Lin Manuel Miranda pull out all the stops on the opening number from Hamilton. Wouldn’t you know it – they just happen to find Audra MacDonald, Modern Family’s Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and 30 Rock’s Jane Krakowski strolling down Broadway. Musical theatre veterans all, they climb aboard and launch into an hysterically over-wrought version of “One Day More” from Les Miz. What makes segments like this one truly sing is the enthusiasm of Corden and his guests, along with an appearance of spontaneity (yes, I’m sure it’s all carefully planned, but still!) that’s truly refreshing.

It’s long been true that new pop culture heroes are made on radio and TV. I remember standing in my mother’s kitchen in the early Sixties, listening to Allan Sherman sing “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah,” and recognizing that a star had been born. Somehow, back in the day, we all seemed to be listening to the same radio stations, and watching the same TV shows. When Elvis Presley—and later the Beatles—appeared on TV’s Ed Sullivan Show, all of America was apparently watching. Today, though, the Internet has brought us a new wrinkle. I don’t know how big James Corden’s Late Late Show audience might be, but YouTube has significantly expanded his fan base. Five days ago, the show posted his Carpool Karaoke tour of Liverpool’s Penny Lane and environs with the still adorable Paul McCartney. It has since been seen by 17.5 million viewers, and the number of  happy fans keeps rising.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Ocean’s Eight: Things to Do in Denver When You’re Wet

 I was recently in Denver, a beautiful state but (at least during my visit) a rainy one. On my last day, I ran out of museums and historic sites to visit, and it was too wet for outdoor recreation. That’s why I found myself in a large, posh Cherry Creek shopping mall, watching some of Hollywood’s grandest dames commit major larceny. In the process of stealing a fabulous diamond necklace, they walked off with my heart too. I admit it: I’m a sucker for clever heist movies, and this one is a lulu.

For one thing, it makes fabulous use of its New York settings. There is, of course, the museum of museums: the awe-inspiring Metropolitan Museum of Art, on the occasion of its fabled high-fashion gala. (Some of the world’s most storied real-life movers and shakers can be glimpsed as guests.)  We also see one of New York’s grandest jewelry stores in all its glory. But, by way of contrast, we also get a glimpse of hipster New York and grunge New York, fire escapes and food trucks. Our characters get to dress up and dress down, posing as glamour queens and as the humbler folk who serve them.

I’m not always a fan of movies that re-work male starring vehicles as a statement of female empowerment. Ocean’s Eight of course borrows from the 2001 George Clooney/Brad Pitt Ocean’s Eleven, itself a more modernized version of the old Rat Pack flick released 40 years earlier. The premise here is that the departed Danny Ocean’s sister, played by Sandra Bullock, gets out of prison, determined to make herself rich while righting a few wrongs. (Yes, it’s possible to consider her behavior as a kind of over-the-top #metoo statement.) She’s an expert con artist, with an admirable talent for taking things to which she’s not entitled. Of course part of the fun is seeing her assemble her team, which includes a sensible second-in-command (a punked-out Cate Blanchett), a computer whiz (Rihanna), a jewelry expert (Mindy Kaling), a light-fingered homegirl (the intriguing Awkwafina), and a suburban mom with a secret (Sarah Paulson). Helena Bonham Carter, always a treat in ditsy roles, plays an out-of-fashion fashionista with delicious aplomb. And then there’s Anne Hathaway as the dim-bulb Hollywood star whose swan-like neck will bear the fabled Toussaint necklace that has been escorted out of the Cartier vault for the occasion.

What’s fun about the gender switch here is that it makes a sly comment on women’s social role as creatures of beauty and fashion. The conspirators are so darned attractive that most of the folks they encounter don’t think them capable of major chicanery. There’s also the fact that the three characters of color (those played by Kalin and her two single-named castmates) are able to forward the scheme by blending in as janitors, kitchen workers, and servers. (They also eventually get to blossom like butterflies in fabulous gowns.) But it’s especially pertinent that greed is not the group’s only motivation. We’re left with an ending in which we realize that what Bullock’s character wants most of all is the emotional satisfaction of staying true to her brother’s memory.

The movie smartly makes room for the actresses’ idiosyncratic talents, like Bullock’s comfort with the German language and Bonham Carter’s lovely French. And it provides a delightful role for James Corden as an insurance investigator who’s more complicated than he seems. So is one of the other main characters, which makes for yet another of the film’s nice surprises. Bravissima! This is hardly a deep film, but surely worth coming out of the rain.