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January 05, 2003

TV Alert

Friedrich --

Question for the day: In this era of widely-available video parlors and pay TV, who watches movies broadcast by the networks? Poor people who can’t afford cable? But AMC and Bravo show movies interrupted by commercials too, so presumably there are people who pay for cable who are willing to endure bowdlerized movies anyway. But who? No one who reads 2Blowhards, I’m sure.

Anyway, on to TV Alert, our semi-regular 2Blowhards service spotlighting some of what’s appealing from this upcoming week’s TV schedule.

Picks of the Week
Two William Wyler gems, “The Letter” and “These Three.” Wyler may have been the most complete director of classic Hollywood. He directed films in many genres, and had command of nearly all the elements of filmmaking: performances, visuals, pacing, structure, etc. As a filmmaker, he had hardly any weaknesses, and his best movies show the Hollywood style off about as fully and well as any films ever have. Some people find his work staid or dull. Younger film buffs especially often don't see the point of Wyler; they want something kickier or more overtly idiosyncratic (Welles, Huston). But then you wake up one day, the beauty of conventional filmmaking seems plain as day, and Wyler’s stature as a master of the calm, the sumptuous, and the adult becomes clear. (Filmmaker Josh Becker has a page devoted to Wyler here.) TCM this week broadcasts two of his best, both of them from his finest period.

The Letter (TCM: 10 pm Wednesday). High-class, Malaya-set melodrama, adapted from a Somerset Maugham play. Bette Davis is at her best as a plantation-owner’s wife who arrogantly thinks she can get away with murder. As the husband, Herbert Marshall gets to show off a lot of impeccably low-key style.

These Three (TCM, 10 pm Thursday). Miriam Hopkins and Merle Oberon are teachers at a girls’ school; Bonita Granville is the student who slanders them. From Lillian Hellman’s “The Children’s Hour,” where the lesbian overtones were explicit. Solid, beautifully performed, moving. And visual-art nuts will love Wyler’s use of space. With the cinematographer Gregg Toland, Wyler creates a richly textured mindscape: watch the stairwells, the corridors, the windows.

Movie Highlights
Cookie's Fortune (IFC. 9 pm Wednesday; 1 a.m. Thursday morning). An easygoing Southern mystery-comedy charmer, with a likably eccentric cast: Glenn Close, Julianne Moore, Charles Dutton and many others. Small and eccentric, the most relaxed and sweetest-natured of all Robert Altman’s movies. Set and shot in the adorable town of Holly Springs, Mississippi.

Mildred Pierce (TCM, 3:30 pm Tuesday). Michael Curtiz directs from a James M. Cain novel. Florid femme-noir: Joan Crawford falls for Zachary Scott; so does Joan’s spoiled daughter Ann Blyth. Stormy, tense, and essential viewing for fans of women’s films.

Moscow on the Hudson (HBO, 9 am Saturday). Comedy/drama by Paul Mazursky, and one of the best showcases for his distinctively soulful and rueful tone. Robin Williams, playing a jazz-loving Russian Jew who immigrates to the U.S., is surprisingly touching and subdued -- such an extraverted performer, yet here showing convincing signs of having an innner life.

Internal Affairs (Cinemax, 8 pm Saturday). Everyone’s favorite sleazy art-and-drugs-and-cops thriller, directed by Mike Figgis from a script by Henry Bean. An investigator (Andy Garcia) looks into the background of a cop (Richard Gere) who may be crooked: one of Gere’s best performances, and Garcia when he was still young, hungry, and beautiful. It’s one of Hollywood's sexier and gaudier recent productions, gorgeously produced but with a lowdown B-movie naughtiness of mind.

Documentaries I can recommend:
City Confidential and American Justice /b(A&E, at 6 and 7 pm every weekday evening). Two of the best current true-crime series, the first more rambling and atmospheric (and narrated by Paul Winfield, possessor of one of the greatest voices since Orson Welles), the second more conventional but featuring exceptionally interesting cases. True crime: Good stories! With beginnings and endings! And juicy characters!

The E! True Hollywood Story: Wayne Newton (E!,  9-11 pm Friday evening). People interested in showbiz in all its glitz, sleaze and occasional beauty and sweetness can do worse than checking in with this tabloid-style, solidly-researched expose series. This is one of its better episodes, about how a teen singing sensation grew into a Vegas mogul.

My bets for interesting documentaries I haven't yet seen:
A&E Biography: Bob Newhart (A&E, Sunday 8 pm). Fans of understated and/or deadpan humor won't want to miss this profile of Newhart, who managed to flourish during the noisy counterculture era not by trying to conceal or overcome his mildness and his poker face, but by putting them to comic use.

Mr. Death (IFC, Wednesday morning at 4 am). I don't have much patience with Erroll Morris' documentaries -- they strike me as brilliant and grotesque at the expense of his subject matter. But they’re certainly unusual and provocative, and lots of people find them striking. This one is about Fred Leuchter, a specialist in executions.

So many tempting shows; so little leisure time!



posted by Michael at January 5, 2003


My kooky wife, that's who...she sees the commercials not as an interruption, but as an opportunity to surf and see what she's missing on other channels. It's rare that she notices something missing either.

And I'm sorry, but, no -- I'm pretty sure she's not reading 2BH.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on January 6, 2003 9:38 AM

Hey Scott, that's hilarious, a way of viewing commercial interruptions in a positive light -- we should all learn from that. And I like her view of movies as being something like ... like what? A box of chocolates? A favorite pillow? There to serve and please, if not to be paid too awfully much attention to?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 6, 2003 2:28 PM

I've always had a fondness for William Wyler's films, though I've not yet seen the ones you mentioned. I had the great pleasure back in 2000 of seeing one of his few surviving silent films, The Shakedown, at the Sydney Film Festival, first silent film I saw with live accompaniment. You don't often get people applauding a film these days, especially not during the film, but you got that with The Shakedown...

Posted by: James Russell on January 7, 2003 7:00 AM

Hi James, I'm envious -- I've never had a chance (that I've been aware of, anyway) to see one of Wyler's silents. I'm glad to hear it was a gem. I'd always been under the impression that he didn't hit his stride till the mid-'30s, and I'm glad to hear I've been mistaken. Amazing to think that he made silent movies, and was still working (and in good shape) in the late '60s. [Sound of me scrambling for my reference books here.] Let's see... First film: Crook Busters, 1925. Last film: The Liberation of L.B. Jones, 1970. I wonder what kind of double-feature those two would make?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 7, 2003 8:54 PM

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