Branagh -- from epics to Swedish solace


 

 

Some of this TV season's finest moments are coming up in its final three weeks. That's when PBS airs the last season of "Wallander" movies; here's the story I sent to papers.

By Mike Hughes

Kenneth Branagh
keeps leaping between extremes.

He goes from epic to
intimate, from sprawling movies to tidy TV shows.

The movies he's
directed – including “Thor” and “Cinderella” -- have been
massive and colorful, with action and fantasy. His “Wallander”
mystery movies on PBS are pretty much the opposite.

“Wallander” --
returning for three Sundays -- fits its setting. “The first things
that struck us (were) how big it was,” Branagh said of rural
Sweden, “how flat it was, how far away it seemed, how isolated.”

All of those are
traits shared by Kurt Wallander, the police detective he plays.

The “Wallander”
mysteries are filled with quiet understatement. Indeed, it's tough to
grasp the fact that Branagh was starring in one of them while he was
planning his “Thor” movie.

Back then, Tom
Hiddleston – like Branagh, a Shakespearean actor – was playing
his “Wallander” assistant; Branagh had just cast him in “Thor”
as Loki. He recalls Hiddleston's “kind of very youthful, wide-eyed
kind of innocent-looking expression as he thought, 'Really? I'm going
to be doing that? Really? We're going to be in space and we'll be in
the middle of all that kind of adventure?'”

And now? Hiddleston
has gone on to be Loki in three more movies, with a fourth on the
way; he doesn't have time to do “Wallander.”

Branagh, however,
does. He keeps returning to “Masterpiece” in different projects.
“The series has had no better friend than Sir Ken,” said Rebecca
Eaton, the “Masterpiece” producer.

This feels like
familiar turf, Branagh said. “I grew up watching television, so it
was very important.”

That was in Belfast
until he was 9 and then in England. He became a hybrid – British
accent, Irish soul, blue-collar roots (his dad was a carpenter who
started a specialty company) and upscale education.

Branagh, now 55, did
the classics and at 27 starred in the “Fortunes of War”
miniseries, which would change his life. He fell in love with his
co-star, Emma Thompson; they married, divorcing six years later. And
he made his first trip to Los Angeles, to talk to reporters at a
“Masterpiece” press conference.

The flight was six
hours late and “people had been well-refreshed at that stage,”
Branagh recalled, bringing a loose night of music and laughs. “The
next day, I went for a walk in Beverly Hills .... You really felt the
distance and you thought, 'How amazing that this thing called
'Masterpiece' is gathering all these people together on the other
side of the world to talk about ... our work.”

Branagh twice
rejected offers to be the series host, Eaton wrote in “Making
Masterpiece” (Viking, 2013). Still, she wrote: “Ken has remained
a great and loyal friend to 'Masterpiece' and seems to understand
better than most actors, what a 'Masterpiece' broadcast can do for a
British actor's career.”

TV has always seemed
vital, he said. “My family weren't theatergoers, but we did watch
television. We went to the movies. And I was just aware ... of how
influential was the shared conversation about art or entertainment
you'd seen in your living room.”

So when he read the
“Wallander” novels, it seemed logical to film them for
“Masterpioece,” shooting in the Swedish locations they described.
“It's the land of the big sky, small houses, certain kinds of
colors used,” Branagh said. “And everyone seemed to be in a
rather melancholic painting.”

The project has
included 12 TV movies, shot in four three-film batches, spread over
seven years. Reflecting the novels, Wallander sometimes went abroad
... and, at the end, showed his age.

So this year's first
film finds Wallander in South Africa; the next two find his mind
retreating, Branagh said. “His own particular isolation ... makes
thimgs pretty tricky, if he is starting to become forgetful.”

There's no
Thor/Cinderella solution here. There's a bright and lonely man,
facing a premature fade.

-- “Masterpiece:
Wallander,” 9-10:30 p.m. Sundays on PBS (check local listigs)

-- Final season has
three films, May 8, 15 and 22

Branaepis eneth ag, NasterMMr

Janis: A search for truth, joy and powerfully passionate music


Janis Joplin's life was perfect for "American Masters," filled with extreme high and lows, plus immense talent and moments of quiet subtlety. So it shouldn't surprise us that the film airing Tuesday (May3) is ... well, masterful. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

For Laura Joplin,
the letters were an unexpected treasure.

One day, she
recalled, she mentioned that she might write a book about her sister
Janis.

“Mother got up and
she walked down the hallway,” she said. “And she came back with
these letters, literally wrapped in a faded red ribbon, and handed
them to me. And the past just rushed over me.”

Those letters became
the core of a book (“Love, Janis”) and now of a compelling
“American Masters” documentary on PBS. They showed Janis Joplin:

-- Fragile, grasping
for a place in life. “I wanna be happy so bad,” she wrote.

-- Then a sudden
rock star. “I just stumbled around being a music kid and fell into
this. Incredible.”

-- And then at the
top. “There's a real good chance that I won't blow it,” she
wrote.

She soon died of a
heroin overdose, but her sister doesn't see this as the cliche of a
downward spiral.

Janis was starting
to savor life, Laura said; but, like many people in 1970, she also
did drugs. “We do her a grave injustice by presuming that she blew
it .... She had an accident.”

For Laura, this
older (by six years) sister was “the girl who read 'The Wizard of
Oz' to me and took me by the hand and walked around the neighborhood.
Those were wonderful memories.”

That was in Port
Arthur, a Texas town where their dad was a Texaco engineer. “We
grew up in a family that talked about ideas,” Laura said. “Our
parents wanted us to express them and supported them.”

Others didn't. The
film says Janis was kicked out of the choir for not following
directions. (“She liked rocking the boat,” Michael Joplin, four
years younger than Laura, says in the film.) In high school, she was
a civil-rights activist targeted by the Ku Klux Klan; in college, she
was devastated by a fraternity stunt that had her elected “ugliest
man on campus.”

But for a time,
Laura feels, college live in Austin, Texas “was heaven for her. It
was full of all these creative people. The story is she walked into
this apartment and there was a guy sitting on top of the
refrigerator, playing the banjo. And she turns to her friend and
says, 'I think I'm going to like it here.'”

Her music tastes
expanded in Austin and soon fit neatly into San Francisco. “Janis
had a career in singing a lot of folk music and folk blues,” Dave
Getz said. “And she liked people like Odettta.”

She had some false
starts in San Francisco; at one point, friends sent her home to
straighten out. But she was back when Getz's band, Big Brother and
the Holding Company, auditioned for a female singer.

“Even before she
came, (we knew) she was going tobe the one we were looking for,”
Getz said. “And when she opened her mouth and sang with us at the
first rehearsal, ... it was just, 'Yeah, that's it.'”

The band had already
been doing “Summertime,” he said; “when she started singing it,
it went into a whole other stratosphere.” She locked into blues
classics by John Lee Hooker and Howlin' Wolf. “And then Janis
started presenting her songs. That was also a revelation.”

She gave a
powerhouse performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, but the
cameras weren't rolling; the band's manager hadn't signed film
rights. Joplin was furious and argued backstage; the agreement was
signed and the band was given an extra stage slot, preserved on film.

That “was the
turning point for Janis,” Getz said. It was when “she became more
like the star of the band and who people really came to see .... She
got tremendous attention after Monterey Pop.”

Three years and
several bands later, Joplin told Getz that she was going to call
herself Pearl. He disliked the idea, he said; she was “kind of
creating the myth of what she was about.”

But people loved
that sassy, brassy myth. When the “Pearl” album came out in 1971,
it reached No. 1 on the Billboard chart; so did its single, “Me and
Bobby McGee.”

By then, however,
Joplin had died. “She cleaned her act up and she was really excited
about her last album,” said Amy Berg, who made the PBS film.
“Things were going real well for her.”

Then the overdose
ended a bright and varied life at 27.

-- “American
Masters: Janis: Little Girl Blue”

-- 8-10 p.m. Tuesday
(May 3), PBS (check local listings)

 

Seriously? Postponed again?


When and if you ever get to see "Why They Hate Us," I think you'll consider it a solid, thoughtful report on a tough subject, The problem is getting to see it: Somehow, CNN has managed to postpone it for the second time. Here's the brief I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

CNN has postponed
its “Why They Hate Us” documentary ... again.

Fareed Zakaria's
film – an elaborate look at U.S.-Muslim relations – was
originally scheduled for April 11, then was bumped by political
coverage. It was re-scheduled for today (April 25).

At 3 p.m. ET today –
when the network's Web site was still listing the special -- a CNN
spokesperson said it had been bumped again. There was no word on why
it was postponed or when it might air.

 

Prince memories continue


TV has done a strong job of presenting memories of Prince in the days after his death. Particularly impressive was what "Saturday Night Live" did: In an empty theater, Jimmy Fallon -- a guy who loves music and musicians -- talked passionately about Prince as he introduced tapes of his "SNL" performances.

More things are being added. At 9:30 p.m. Tuesday (April 26), Fox will rerun the "New Girl" episode that had Jess and Cece invited to a Prince party. And today (Monday) and Tuesday, documentaries are on cable's AXS. They're mentioned in the final paragraph of this story (which is otherwise outdated) that I sent to papers:

 

By Mike Hughes

Memories of Prince
will continue to fill cable-TV this weekend.

After his death (at
57) Thursday, MTV switched its logo to purple and focused on his
videos and the “Purple Rain” movie. News channels had clips and
interviews.

Now that continues.
Here are examples from three channels:

-- VH1 will take
over the airings of “Purple Rain,” the 1984 movie that's also on
Amazon Video. The film won an Academy Award and a Grammy (both of
them for its overall score) and was nominated for a Golden Globe for
the song “Why Doves Cry.” That will be at noon and 10:30 p.m.
today (Friday, April 22), 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Saturday and 1 and 9
p.m. Sunday.

-- At 8 p.m.
Saturday, the Oprah Winfrey Network will rerun an “Oprah Winfrey
Show” interview. In 1996, Winfrey visited Prince's Paisley Park
studio in Minneapolis.

-- AXS reruns a
“Rock Legends” hour on Prince and has the TV debut of a
documentary, “Slave Trade: How Prince Re-made the Music Business.”
Those will be back-to-back at 1 and 2 p.m. ET Saturday and at 8 and 9
p.m. ET Tuesday. On Monday, “Legends” will be at 7 p.m. and
“Slave Trade” at 11.

 

"Hear My Song" won't be heard (or seen)


When I saw an advance screener of "Hear My Song" last week, I had mixed feelings. The music was magnificent; so was the direction by Francois Girard. The story, however, was often preposterous.

Still, I couldn't have guessed what would happen next: CBS and "Hallmark Hall of Fame" pulled the film, replacing it with reruns. I could grumble about the poor job they did of getting this information to reporters and viewers. More interesting, however, are the reasons behind the move. Here's the story I sent to papers Monday morning:

By Mike Hughes

Two dependable
forces, CBS and “Hallmark Hall of Fame,” left TV viewers
perplexed Saturday.

That was when the
movie “Hear My Song” was replaced by reruns. The reason involved
accusations of sex-abuse at the American Boychoir School, decades
ago.

None of that was
covered in the film, a fictional tale of a hard-scrabble kid who was
transformed by music. “Song” was directed by Francois Girard –
an art-film favorite since the 1993 “Thirty Two Short Films About
Glenn Gould” -- and co-starred Oscar-winners Dustin Hoffman and
Kathy Bates.

But it revived anger
from people who had seen officials try to duck responsibility for the
abuse. The school settled some cases (one for $850,000), filed for
Chapter 11 protection and moved twice.

Created in 1937 in
Columbus, Ohio, the school (Grades 4-8) had thrived near Princeton.
Its choirs sang for several presidents and Pope Paul VI and backed
Beyonce at the Academy Awards.

In 2002, however,
the New York Times wrote: “A dozen alumni from the 1960's to the
1980's described a pattern of sex abuse ... by two longtime
choirmasters and nine other staff members.”

The choirmaster
resigned and the school tried to have the blame confined to its
employees or to the boys, for not reporting it. Eventually, it sold
its campus and moved twice, now to Hopewell, N.J.

All of this is
unfamiliar turf for “Hallmark Hall of Fame,” which tends to be
benign.

It began in 1951 by
commissioning the now-classic mini-opera “Amahl and the Night
Visitors” (which, ironically, starred an American Boychoir
student). Then came Shakespearean plays and a switch to original
movies. Hallmark has said the 1986 “The Promise” is “the
most-honored dramatic special in television history,” with Emmys
and Golden Globes, plus a Peapody, a Humanitas and a Christopher.

There have been
three and four films a year, usually pointed to a greeting-card time;
“Hear My Song” -- three weeks before Mother's Day – stood out
for “Hall of Fame” as:

-- A return to a
broadcast network, after some years of being confined to the Hallmark
Channel.

-- A film not
produced by Hallmark. Originally called “Boychoir,” it had a
brief movie run in 2014; Hallmark bought it and dubbed it “Hear My
Song,” which is also the title of a 1991 film.

Then the backlash
began. Although the school in the film is fictional, it was patterned
after American Boychoir School; some of Boychoir's students are in
the cast and its choir provides the soundtrack. “Song” was shown
at the school, to launch a fundraising campaign.

Last week – too
late for TV magazines and many daily papers – the film was pulled.
“Hallmark was recently made aware of serious allegations of
misconduct made many years ago at a school similar to the one
depicted in the movie,” an announcement said. “After careful
consideration, it was decided that the movie will not air on CBS,
Hallmark Channel or Hallmark Movies & Mysteries.”

The school responded
with its own press release: “Our students and their designated
faculty and staff are being unjustly punished for events that
happened long ago and do not reflect our school today. Our boys ...
are justifiably proud of their work on this movie and our community
shares that pride.”