Screen Shots: ‘Taking of Pelham 1 2 3’, ‘Imagine That’

If you can get past the overbearing opening credits, which go on and on with loud guitar riffs, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is solid cops and robbers fare. The flawed movie works, thanks to Denzel Washington, who returns to acting, not the posing and strutting he’s been doing in recent film roles, as a city transit worker pushed to his limits by an extraordinary crime. John Travolta stars as a foul-mouthed thug who seizes a passenger-loaded subway train and demands $ 10 million in precisely one hour. Mr. Washington, in red-framed eyeglasses and an earring and bringing it home to a lovely wife (Aunjanue Ellis, last seen in Thomas Carter’s Gifted Hands), earns his way as a bureaucrat of dubious distinction, fumbling and stammering and joining John Turturro and James Gandolfini as a cocky cop and a groveling mayor in a New York City that no longer works. Based on the bestselling novel by John Godey, not exactly a remake of the taut 1974 movie of the same name (with Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw), this acceptable caper screeches to a satisfying conclusion that cashes in on what it has earned.

Eddie Murphy stars in a little dollop of sentimentality called Imagine That, which suits its pre-Father’s Day opening just fine. Packed with half the Beatles catalog in cover tunes, notched with the cutest little girl on screen (Yara Shahidi) and featuring a predictable but positive plotline about parenthood, Imagine That is pure, silly fun at no one’s expense. Murphy portrays a financial adviser who competes with a charlatan (Thomas Haden Church) named Whitefeather that uses Indian mumbo-jumbo to make his money picks seem like a communal rain dance, like CNBC’s anchors talking up another Obama “stimulus” package, leaving stuffed shirt Murphy’s character out of the loop. Martin Sheen’s big shot businessman comes along, as the Murphy character starts believing that his daughter’s imaginary friends are giving hot tips—and they do pay off—and it’s all pretty ridiculous pap until the whole thing crashes like a Ponzi scheme and daddy learns that making money and raising a happy child are not mutually exclusive. This Paramount movie must be the first since The Pursuit of Happyness not to depict businessmen as ogres, which these days is enough to put a movie studio in Herr Obama’s penalty box. Cute, harmless fun for the family—or an afternoon outing for dad and daughter.

Norman Lear DVD Collection

Norman Lear, creator and developer of several popular 1970s comedies for television, recently appeared at a press conference to promote his new deluxe DVD set, released by Sony today. The 19-disc set is a rehash of previously released first seasons of TV’s All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Maude, Good Times, One Day at a Time, Sanford and Son and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Their creator and developer, who was somewhat subdued at the presser, looks great and he’s still sharp. His work ages nicely, too.

Maude (1972–1978) is an exception. The CBS comedy starring the late Bea Arthur as strident Maude Findlay was more of a character than a show. The topically feminist-themed program was a spinoff (Mr. Lear’s first) of his vaunted All in the Family (1971–1979), which is based on a British series. While Mr. Lear is liberal and the comedy has that reputation, All in the Family depicted a likable white bigot—imagine such a character being introduced today—who often scored a point. Back then, a character could progress beyond idiocy and Archie Bunker became enlightened (he opened a bar in a later incarnation of the show). So, Mr. Lear reminds us that Archie was not an irredeemable bigot.

Another CBS All in the Family spinoff, The Jeffersons (1975–1985), is among the most successful shows in television. Why? I think it’s partly because the character George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley) held the show together as one of America’s most persecuted minority: the businessman. Always fresh, lively and interesting, the middle class American family was supported by the dry cleaning business that Mr. Jefferson worked to make profitable and its cast of characters defied stereotypes: sassy maid Florence (Marla Gibbs), quietly rebellious Lionel (Mike Evans), and, in early seasons, mean, old Mother Jefferson (Zara Cully), besides the more widely known characters Louise Jefferson (Isabel Sanford), British Mr. Bentley (Paul Benedict) and the show’s interracial couple, Helen and Tom Willis (Roxie Roker and Franklin Cover). The Jeffersons was a microcosm of America, with foreigners, mixed race kids, college-bound sons, independent women and one strong-minded, self-made businessman who was happiest making money and guiltlessly enjoying the rewards. George Jefferson would not have liked Barack Obama’s economic policies.

Mr. Lear explained that hugely popular The Jeffersons was created to blunt criticism that his other CBS spinoff series, Good Times (1974–1979), portrayed the American black family as poor and unglamorous. Good Times, contrary to its title, layered on layoff after layoff for the Evans family, who lived in a government housing project on Chicago’s South Side, and they could never seem to get out of poverty. That might have been the show’s point—that housing subsidies trap the working poor in a viciously downward economic cycle—but the writers evaded deeper causes and went for laughs, saddling Jimmie Walker as J.J. with the comic relief. In hindsight, the J.J. character is the show’s saving grace. Good Times was created when its matriarch, Florida Evans (Esther Rolle), left her job as a maid for Maude.

That particular connection speaks to Norman Lear’s success. His shows were not merely a platform for the knee-jerk liberal. Black working woman Florida told white liberal housewife Maude off in an episode in which racially obsessed Maude patronized Florida unceasingly and Florida finally begged Maude to leave her alone to do her job. In another episode, one of TV’s best depictions of white liberal guilt, Florida’s replacement, who is also black, quits rather than submit to Maude’s constant racial harassment. Norman Lear created dimensional characters.

Also included on this exclusively first season collection with a disc of features: the satirical Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (1975–1977), which was syndicated, One Day at a Time (1975–1984), and Sanford and Son (1972–1977), Mr. Lear’s only show from this collection not to air on CBS (it ran on NBC). The Los Angeles-based Sanford and Son is built around raunchy comedian Redd Foxx, though not enough credit goes to his onscreen son, played by Demond Wilson, who had the task of playing straight to his conniving old junkyard pop. With no relation to the phrase made popular in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), One Day at a Time followed the lives of a woman (Bonnie Franklin) who divorced her husband after 17 years and moved with her two daughters back to her hometown of Indianapolis, Indiana. One Day at a Time was an example of powerfully topical television programming, with episodes about youth suicide, drugs, job loss, and prejudice against women.

All of these shows, whatever their flaws, combine realistic characterizations with topical plots and humor and any of them are more realistic than the entire slate of today’s overproduced so-called reality shows. The extras—some run longer than others, with some stars in interviews, other stars glaringly absent—are admittedly a disappointment. This highly priced, handsomely packaged collection ($ 159.95) is strictly for those who haven’t bought the original first season products…and miss seeing the intelligent and thoughtful comedy of Norman Lear.

Pop Shots: Billy, Marx & Olivia

Billy Joel’s Storm Front (1989) is an underappreciated collection of ten songs that showcase some of his most interesting work. With rich rock-n-roll in piano, guitar, and horns, and of course his robust vocals, Billy Joel bursts with an angry and buoyant nostalgic anthem, “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” which, in retrospect, traces America’s decline. He sails into the fisherman’s “Downeaster “Alexa”, he goes to extremes, observes the fall of Communist Russia in “Leningrad”, and he wraps with a poignant acknowledgement of reality in “And So It Goes.”

One of Storm Front’s background singers created an album of his own at the turn of the century which is itself an excellent piece of pop music. Though it is a bit too polished, a crisp production of country and rock is on display in Days of Avalon by Richard Marx of Highland Park, Illinois. These 12 mostly romantic tunes cover a range of emotions—always with the talented Marx’s sincerity in top form.

His sappy 2000 song with Olivia Newton-John (ONJ), “Never Far Away,” is part of Olivia’s 2008 duets CD, Olivia Newton-John & Friends: A Celebration in Song. I highly recommend this album for anyone battling cancer or any of life’s difficulties. From the opening anthem, “Right Here with You” to the acoustic guitar-driven last track, Belinda Emmett’s (1974-2006) “Beautiful Thing,” this is one of ONJ’s best recent efforts. The powerful motivational song, “Courageous,” is the perfect jolt for these lousy times. But each old and new song, featuring pairings with Keith Urban, Jann Arden and one of modern pop music’s best songwriters, longtime ONJ producer John Farrar (“You’re the One That I Want”) offer melodic shots of optimism fueled by a positive sense of life and the type of encouragement that only comes from a true friend.

Book Marks: Gifts for Dads

With Father’s Day coming up on June 21, those in the market for a Father’s Day gift might get some ideas from my 2003 newspaper article about books for dads. Among the titles is an old favorite about a controversial Supreme Court nomination, Advise and Consent by Allen Drury, one of the most gripping and stimulating novels I have ever read. I still recommend these books as gifts (links to Amazon.com included; I make a small amount of money if you buy one through Amazon.com). I am currently reading new biographies and non-fiction books; I may write about them.

Screen Shots: ‘The Hangover’, ‘Land of the Lost’

It will probably make tons of money, and be highly popular in today’s tasteless culture, which is steeped in South Park, The Simpsons and professional TV cynics who ramble and rant—Stewart, Colbert, Conan, O’Reilly-n-Olbermann—but The Hangover is pure trash. The heavily marketed crude comedy is bound to tickle at some point and that does not mean it is good humor.

The story of four uncivilized males going to Las Vegas for a bachelor party is the same old thing: like the subversively anti-abortion themed Knocked Up, the jaunt is a thinly disguised excuse to trot out traditionalism as man’s highest potential. Find a woman—and this movie is as anti-female as it is anti-male—for birthing babies, conform to society, and fit in with others while suppressing one’s baser instincts. In the meantime, since we’re all louses deep down, go ahead and make jokes about Nazi extermination of Jews, and the physical and sexual abuse of infants and children. Only Justin Bartha (National Treasure) fares well while an unkempt Seth Rogen/Jack Black type deadpans throughout the disgusting affair, which is so repulsive it’s sure to be praised as ingenious. Bradley Cooper plays the same lecherous guttersnipe character he did in He’s Just Not That Into You.

The Hangover is, as its title suggests, a snapshot of man at his lowest—urging us to believe this is the best a man can get. At one point, someone rationalizes the vulgarities with the line that “that’s what guys do.” Maybe, but it is not what men do. This is Beavis and Butthead with a bigger budget—strictly for the glazed over types that do not want to think. Also in that camp, and opening this Friday, Will Ferrell in Land of the Lost, an adaptation of an asinine Saturday morning TV show of the same name (it aired in the 1970s). As with everything Ferrell does, it is anti-conceptual. The absurdist comedy may appear harmlessly goofy on the surface, and the funniest bit is a joke on Cher, but Land of the Lost merely amounts to yet another example of human self-degradation. This weekend, stay away from the movies, and Tivo or Netflix real comedy—anything with Cary Grant, Doris Day, the Marx Brothers, Marilyn Monroe, Bob Hope, Mae West. At their worst, they put today’s crass cutups to shame.