DISH gave us a freeview of Starz last week…and normally, this isn’t a huge deal because we’re still subscribed to the Starz Encore channels (the discount is supposed to end Tuesday…but I have decided to maintain radio silence only until Mom asks me why the satellite bill has suddenly gone up). A good many of the movies that I’m interested in watching on Starz eventually wind up on their subsidiary channel, often a month later. I’m a patient man.
But every so often, I’ll find something on Starz that I’m curious to see…and I’ve learned to beat this DRM horseshit (if I DVR a movie, I have to watch it before the freeview ends or I’ll lose it forever) by just downloading it from On Demand; I’ll still lose the movie after a time, but I get a 30-day window (in theory) to peep it. (This is why I wound up downloading The Memory of Justice  four times from HBO before I finally found time to see it.) I grabbed a few Starz offerings that I didn’t have any interest in keeping for the dusty Thrilling Days of Yesteryear archives (either too lengthy for a DVD recording or something I’d watch once and that’s it) yet very much wanted to check out all the same.
The Bitter Buddha (2012) – The title of this documentary is the nickname of actor/stand-up comic Eddie Pepitone, described by one participant in the film as “the Charles Bukowski of comedy.” The movie focuses on how Pepitone was a latecomer in the field of alt-comedy, and while he may not be a household name (he competed in the first season of Last Comic Standing, and his film credits include Old School  and The Muppets ) he’s well-regarded by his L.A. peers as a “comic’s comic”; among the familiar names who lavish praise on him in Buddha are Sarah Silverman, Patton Oswalt, Paul F. Tompkins, and Marc Maron (Eddie has made multiple appearances on Maron’s WTF podcast).
I’ve seen Pepitone a few times in some of YouTube comedian/activist Jimmy Dore’s videos (culled from his live appearances) and am a big fan of his angst-filled comedy; Bitter Buddha nicely captures his humor and includes a touching vignette in which he returns to his native New York for a gig (recorded and released as A Great Stillness) to bunk for a couple of nights with his father, with whom he’s had a troubled history. I identify a lot with Eddie’s middle-aged angst (he’s only five years older than I am), and the times I’ve seen him on Jimmy Dore’s show he’s been falling-down hysterical. (My favorite bit in Buddha is when he explains to the audience that his delivery of a simple inane detergent commercial line—”Honey, how did you get this shirt so fresh?”—can’t help but come off sounding a bit psychotic.) Two other Jimmy Dore regulars are in this movie—Paul Gilmartin (the host of The Mental Illness Happy Hour podcast—his alter ego of right-wing Ohio congressman “Richard Martin” is always a delight) and Jim Earl (author of Morning Remembrance)—as is comedian/impressionist James Adomian, who is seen with Eddie at an Occupy Wall Street protest. (Adomian is a semi-regular on Chapo Trap House, where he’s turned former Trump White House hanger-on Sebastian Gorka into a super villain [“Gorrrrrrkaaaa!“]…but my favorite is his Chris Matthews impression, which is even better than Darrell Hammond’s.) The Bitter Buddha is a no-frills look at a wonderful comedian who deserves to be better known.
Évocateur: The Morton Downey, Jr. Movie (2013) – From 1987 to 1989, Morton Downey, Jr.—the son of tenor vocalist Morton Downey and dancer Barbara Bennett (sis of Joan and Constance)—was the hottest, highest-rated talk show host in the nation. His program, in which he fearlessly berated guests (his favorite epithet was “pablum-puking liberal”) and wasn’t shy about getting up in their bidness (“Zip it!”), was so popular that even if you were in a market that didn’t carry the show it was impossible to escape the guy (he was always fodder for newspapers, tabloids, magazines, Saturday Night Live, etc.). Downey’s talk show was certainly nothing new—he was carrying on a tradition started by jerks like Joe Pyne and Wally George (Évocateur even features a clip of Downey on George’s program)—but it would not be an exaggeration to say that Sean (Morton’s actual first name) provided the inspiration for countless on-the-air personalities in his wake: Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, etc.
I couldn’t tell you whether or not Downey’s program ever aired in the Savannah market…but even if it did, I’m positive I never watched the darn thing. So you might be curious as to why I’d sit down with a documentary about a personality whom I have precious love for or interest in. Like his TV show, Évocateur is a car wreck…something that’s nigh impossible to turn away from, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t amuse me for an hour-and-a-half. I’d recommend it for people who are flummoxed as to the popularity of venues like Fox News Channel or aggregations like the Tea Party; in the interest of fairness, I’ll point out that Downey’s program also laid the groundwork for small screen liberal fromage like The Jerry Springer Show…hell, it was a preview of the odious “reality TV” genre in general. (Downey’s show was based out of Secaucus, New Jersey…and if we’ve learned anything from shows like Jersey Shore and The Real Housewives of New Jersey it’s that the Garden State is not Ground Zero for the boob tube’s Enlightenment.)
Évocateur is generous with clips from Downey’s talkfest; you might recognize the individual featured near the beginning of the documentary—it’s everybody’s favorite Libertarian politician Ron Paul, debating Mort on the issue of decriminalizing drugs. In addition, you may (or not) remember that Downey was responsible for giving hucksters like Gloria Allred and Alan Dershowitz much small screen exposure (for which I’m convinced Sean’s spending an eternity in a warmer portion of the afterlife), not to mention Al Sharpton (the infamous on-air tussle between the Rev and Roy Innis in highlighted in the movie). Évocateur features testimonials from such disparate TV fixtures as Pat Buchanan, Chris Elliott, and Sally Jessy Raphael, but the funniest bit in the movie to me is when Downey’s production team (Peter Goldsmith, Bill Boggs, and Rebecca Johnson) note that in the last few months Downey’s program had become “a sideshow”—prompting me to remark out loud: “The last few months?”
Oh, and in case you’ve always wondered…Downey confidante Lloyd Schoonmaker admits in Évocateur that the 1989 incident in which Downey claimed to have been attacked by skinheads in a San Francisco International Airport men’s room (they purportedly painted a swastika on his face and tried to shave his head) was all a fake. You knew this, of course…but it’s nice to have a bit of closure.
Trumbo (2015) – Not a documentary (it’s a biopic), I approached this one with a little trepidation because I had already watched the 2007 documentary on the legendary Hollywood screenwriter who ultimately “broke the blacklist” through perseverance and refusal to compromise his principles. I found the Bruce Cook biography that was the basis for this film on sale for Kindle one day, and in mentioning the bargain on Facebook a few of my fellow movie mavens asked if I had seen the movie. So when I spotted it in the Starz listings…well, the rest is history.
It’s a very well-done docudrama with Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston portraying Dalton Trumbo, a well-paid Tinsel Town scribe whose membership in the Communist Party is persona au gratin at a time when World War II has ended, and the U.S. needs a new bogeyman in the form of the Russkies (a.k.a. The Cold War). A dues-paying member of “The Hollywood Ten,” Trumbo is found in contempt of Congress after telling House Un-American Activities Committee chairman J. Parnell Thomas (James DuMont) it’s none of his damn business whether he’s a Red or not. The game plan for the Ten was to wait it out until the U.S. Supreme Court overturned their convictions because of the liberal lean of the Supremes as the time…but two of the Justices went to their greater reward in the interim, and a more conservative aggregation upheld the lower court’s ruling.
Trumbo served ten months in a federal prison (the delicious irony was that his persecutor, J. Parnell Thomas, also ended up in the same joint for tax evasion) and when released found it quite difficult to get work in the industry (the major studios had issued an edict that they wouldn’t hire blacklisted writers and the Screen Writers’ Guild kicked all blacklistees out of the union) despite eventually winning two Academy Awards for his efforts under “fronts” (for 1953’s Roman Holiday and 1956’s The Brave One). Trumbo finds work for himself and his fellow blacklisted scribes from the King Brothers (memorably played by John Goodman and Stephen Root), known for not giving a damn what a writer’s politics were as long as he got the assignments done on time, and in 1960 would receive onscreen credit for his work on both Spartacus and Exodus.
Despite the dramatic liberties taken with the historical record (for example, the “Arlen Hird” character played by Louis C.K. is a fictional composite of several of Trumbo’s fellow Hollywood Tenners), I enjoyed Trumbo very much. I was predisposed to like it, of course, because that period has always been of great fascination to your humble narrator, and the performances in the film are outstanding; Cranston got a Best Actor nom as the mercurial Trumbo, and in addition to Goodman and Root there are nice turns from Elle Fanning (as Trumbo’s combative daughter Nikola), Diane Lane (as supportive wife Cleo), and Christian Berkel (excellent as Otto Preminger). Helen Mirren (superb as Hedda Hopper) and David James Elliott (John Wayne) are “the bad guys” (even as the real-life Trumbo believed that there were no “heroes or villains” with regards to the blacklist—”only victims”) and while I thought Michael Stuhlberg okay as Edward G. Robinson, someone should have applied some old-age makeup to him (the real Eddie G. was twelve years older than Trumbo at that time). Jay Roach, who scaled cinematic heights with the likes of Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997) and Meet the Parents (2000), directed this one—a better example of The Blind Squirrel Theory of Film™ you’d be hard pressed to find.
Rounding out my On Demand recordings were two documentaries featuring “the greatest rock and roll band in the world”: The Rolling Stones, produced during what fans consider their “Golden Age.” The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus (1968) was a TV project that the Stones stuck on a shelf until a DVD release in 1996 (the band wasn’t satisfied with what they believed to be a substandard performance…and also believed they were upstaged by The Who), and not only features Mick and Keith and Company but Jethro Tull, The Who, Taj Mahal, Marianne Faithfull, and The Dirty Mac—a “supergroup” comprised of John Lennon, Eric Clapton, Mitch Mitchell, and Richards (Warning: Yoko Ono also performs with the group, in case you have any valuable glassware lying around should you watch this). Sympathy for the Devil (1968) is the notorious Jean-Luc Godard concoction that blends rehearsal/recording of the Stones’ classic with footage of black revolutionaries, a Fascist bookstore, graffiti sprayed on cars, and various revolutionary statements. I thought Circus was a lot of fun, but a line in Devil about the movie being “a waste of time” succinctly sums up that viewing experience.