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The Address: a here and now Ken Burns film about Lincoln's most enduring words

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Greenwood School boys with “complex learning profiles” have a date with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Those who memorize it get immense satisfaction and a commemorative coin. PBS photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
The Gettysburg Address took just two minutes for Abraham Lincoln to deliver, so it figures that Ken Burns would turn it into a 90-minute film.

That’s the easy joke. But The Address is both an intimate and a “little” film compared to The Civil War (11.5 hours), The War (14 hours), Baseball (18.5 hours), Jazz (20 hours) and other Burns’ epics during his more than 30 years with PBS.

Premiering Tuesday, April 15th at 8 p.m. central (on KERA13 in Dallas), The Address is without sweeping scope but does resort to typically Burns-ian piano or violin interludes during its occasional contextual flashbacks to Nov. 19, 1863. That’s the day Lincoln began his “Four score and seven years ago” masterpiece. You might say it’s stood the test of time despite being reviled at the time by the Chicago Times as “the silly, flat, dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.”

The Address is largely a telescoped look at an annual rite of Putney, Vermont’s Greenwood School, which challenges its students to memorize Lincoln’s words and deliver them at a candle-lit school dinner at which everyone gets dressed up. Greenwood accepts only boys with “complex learning profiles,” limiting its enrollment to 50 with an age range from 11 to 17. Those who successfully navigate “The Gettysburg,” as teachers call it, receive an official Greenwood coin and the priceless satisfaction that comes from completing a daunting task.

The film caps Burns’ national “public outreach campaign” to remind Americans of the importance of the Gettysburg Address. He announced the initiative on the eve of the speech’s 150th anniversary last November. A companion website, learntheaddress.org, since has welcomed video readings from one and all. Among those answering the call: President Obama and the four living former presidents, Carol Burnett, Louis CK, Whoopi Goldberg, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, Martha Stewart, Bill O’Reilly, Usher, Taylor Swift, Jerry Seinfeld, Rita Moreno, Conan O’Brien, Steven Spielberg and Dallas mayor Mike Rawlings.

Colbert does a comedic riff while wearing a beard and stovepipe hat to giggles from his studio audience. O’Brien does it straight.

In The Address, we see the students in class and sometimes at play. All are identified by first names only, and it seems that everyone gets at least a few seconds of camera time. Teachers gently but firmly guide them through initially halting memorizations of The Gettysburg. Seven of the students also are chosen as narrators of the film.

Ian, 14, is particularly down on himself. He talks of being taunted at previous schools, and in one scene, his self-pitying behavior comes close to being very tiresome, if not contemptible. But he rallies and re-dedicates himself to learning Lincoln’s words. “It just tells people I’m not stupid,” he tells the camera. “I’m not dumb. I’m not worthless.”

The Address becomes an instructive and affecting film, although not a true Burns classic. Still, it’s nice to him as a fly on the wall in a contemporary setting, with cameras capturing the here and now rather than recycling telling images from long times ago. The talking heads remain in place, but this time they’re actual participants in an ongoing journey rather than historians and academics telling us what Lincoln must have felt like on that day.

Those who take a look Tuesday night might want to stick around for the closing credits and a surprise bonus snippet of a Greenwood School student asking, “Do you want me to do it as William Shatner?” And so he does -- for a few select passages.

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Ten takeaways from Mad Men's Episode 1, Season 7

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Don and Peggy: Will they have each other’s backs again? AMC photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Rather than give you voluminous chapter-and-verse Mad Men recaps each week, let’s try dispensing 10 bite-sized takeaways or talking points. It’ll be easier on both you and me.

Some are meant to get fans thinking further about what just happened. Others are strictly trivial or informational. Here we go with the Sunday, April 13th Season 7 premiere, subtitled “Time Zones.”

1. Maybe this is only wishful thinking, but the final moments seemed to set up an eventual re-teaming of Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss). Both were left thoroughly miserable and unfulfilled -- to the very evocative Vanilla Fudge version of “You Keep Me Hanging On.” Career-wise, Don still needs Peggy and Peggy still needs Don. So let bygones be bygones. There’s a lot of ad money still on the table, and these two are better suited than ever to make it happen for them while their old creatively constipated agency keeps corroding from within.

2. I was in the Marines when Vanilla Fudge released their psychedelic, harder-rockin’ cover of The Supremes’ hit in 1968. It became our weekend anthem at the San Diego USO club. And it’s never gone stale.

3. Don clandestinely funneling his pitches through old-line ad guy Freddy Rumsen (Joel Murray) -- with Peggy as his audience in Sunday’s opening scene -- reminded me a bit of Johnny Carson secretly sending monologue jokes to David Letterman after he retired from The Tonight Show. Dave never let on until Carson’s death in January 2005. He then did an entire monologue’s worth of Carson jokes, revealing their origin at the end of it.

4. Yes, that was former Party of Five and Scream movies star Neve Campbell as the comely widow sitting next to Don on their “red eye” flight back from Los Angeles. Interestingly, in the 2013 HBO docu-film Seduced and Abandoned, Alec Baldwin and writer/director James Toback used Campbell as one of their non-starter selling points for Last Tango in Takrit, basically a fake remake of Last Tango in Paris. They took it to Cannes in hopes of raising money but more in the interests of poking at the underbelly of today’s Hollywood film industry. As probably intended, Baldwin and Toback were told more than once that Campbell lacked the marquee stature to shake any big money trees. But hey, look at her now.

5. January Jones, who memorably played Don’s wife, Betty, in early seasons of Mad Men, was not seen during Sunday’s re-launch. Jones still gets second billing, only to Hamm, in the series’ credits. But can creator/executive producer Matthew Weiner find any more viable ways to work her back into this mix, other than a few scenes here and there with the Draper children? I’m not sure he should even try anymore. But oldest daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka) should still very much be a keeper.

6. Don’s current wife, Meg (Jessica Pare), learned to her delight in Sunday’s episode that she’s still in the running for a role in the NBC pilot Bracken’s World. The fictional drama series about the movie business eventually premiered on Sept. 19, 1969 in a Friday 9 p.m. (central) slot opposite the second hour of CBS movies and -- get this -- Jimmy Durante Presents the Lennon Sisters. A re-tooled Bracken’s World staggered into a second season but was gone by the end of 1970. Its last telecast was on Christmas night of that year. Leslie Nielsen played movie studio head John Bracken.

7. I remain convinced that adman Roger Sterling (John Slattery) will die of various conspicuous consumptions before the end of Mad Men’s run. He was very much at it again Sunday night.

8. Hamm’s work as one of TV’s all-time signature characters likely will never be rewarded with a best actor Emmy. The odds-on favorite for this year’s ceremony is already Matthew McConaughey for his work in HBO’s True Detective, with Bryan Cranston again likely in the hunt for the final season of AMC’s Breaking Bad. Hamm deserves better but would be in good company. Others who never won an Emmy include Larry Hagman (as J.R. Ewing), Andy Griffith (Sheriff Andy Taylor), Angela Lansbury (Jessica Fletcher), Jackie Gleason (Ralph Kramden) and James Arness (Marshal Matt Dillon).

9. Matinee idol adman Bob Benson (James Wolk) was referenced once but not shown in Sunday’s re-launch. He’s been playing a contemporary adman this season, opposite Robin Williams and Sarah Michelle Gellar, in the CBS sitcom The Crazy Ones. But it’s a long shot to be renewed, so Wolk’s Benson might still have a shot before Mad Men ends its run with a second seven-episode arc next year.

10. Save for Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), I’ve gotten really bored with the rest of the younger supporting ad men on Mad Men. The less seen of them, the better.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Getting its Billy Bob on: FX's mesmerizing Fargo

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Billy Bob Thornton is evil-doer Lorne Malvo in Fargo. FX photo

Premiering: Tuesday, April 15th at 9 p.m. (central) on FX
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, Allison Tolman, Colin Hanks, Bob Odenkirk, Keith Carradine, Oliver Platt, Adam Goldberg, Russell Harvard, Glenn Howerton, Kate Walsh, Joe King
Produced by: Noah Hawley, Warren Littlefield, Joel Cohen, Ethan Cohen, Adam Bernstein, Geyer Kosinski

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Billy Bob Thornton’s malevolent Lorne Malvo prowls through FX’s Fargo like the Mayhem Man in those current-day Allstate insurance commercials.

He’s much deadlier, though, ending or destroying lives whenever it suits his purposes. Collateral damage is the cost of doing business. And Malvo very quietly goes about that business while also ensnaring others in his web. Prepare to be ensnared as well. This is one helluva television show.

It’s nearing 20 years since Joel and Ethan Coen’s now classic original 1996 Fargo feature film. Both NBC and CBS soon passed on proposed TV series versions, with the latter network reaching the point of making a pilot starring a pre-Sopranos Edie Falco.

The risk-taking FX network didn’t exist back then. But it’s in full bloom now, and Fargo turns out to be a perfect fit as a 10-episode “limited series” that could return for a second season but not with the same mix of characters. FX’s American Horror Story and HBO’s True Detective are already cast in this mold.

Fargo has the Coen brothers’ blessing -- which is no small accomplishment -- and lists them among its executive producers. But the hands-on architect is Noah Hawley, whose most recent effort, the Austin-made My Generation, lasted for just a few eye blinks on ABC in fall 2010.

Hawley, with an assist from former NBC entertainment president Warren Littlefield, is on far firmer ground this time. Most of it is rock-hard and snow-covered, with accommodating Calgary, Alberta standing in for Bemidji, Minnesota, circa 2006.

Fargo the TV series has the same opening disclaimer as Fargo the movie. It claims to be based on a “true story.” But at the “request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”

Nonsense. Not that it matters. The Coens cobbled their Fargo together from various more or less real-life incidents. Hawley does likewise with a new set of characters and circumstances. Still, you’ll see some carry-over prototypes while also hearing a re-arranged version of that indelible theme music.

Martin Freeman (Watson in PBS’ Sherlock films) brilliantly plays insurance salesman Lester Nygaard, a stammering milquetoast whose wife is fed up with his overall ineptness. In the movie, William H. Macy played the similarly weak Jerry Lundegaard, who sold cars instead of policies. Bundled against the cold, both could be mistaken for Elmer Fudd.

Relative newcomer Allison Tolman (a Baylor University grad who earlier eked out a living as a Dallas stage actor) is likewise superb as dogged deputy sheriff Molly Solverson. She diligently pursues every lead, as did Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson in the movie. But Marge was married and pregnant. Molly is the single daughter of a former cop turned restaurant owner (the ever sturdy Keith Carradine as Lou Solverson).

Thornton’s character is the new Fargo’s most original creation. But the movie’s principal criminals, Carl Showalter and mute Gaear Grimsrud (Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare) are loosely reprised as Mr. Numbers and Mr. Wrench (Adam Goldberg, Russell Harvard). This time, however, they’re in hot pursuit of Malvo after he murders one of their own.

A quartet of featured characters is entirely new to FX’s Fargo.

Colin Hanks plays Duluth cop Gus Grimley, a single dad whose initial timidity in the presence of Malvo prompts him to slowly grow a spine.

Bob Odenkirk, soon to star in AMC’s Breaking Bad spin-off, Better Call Saul, keeps busy as soon-to-be Bemidji police chief Bill Oswalt. Possessed of a weak stomach at crime scenes, he also turns out to be a constant roadblock to Molly’s detective work.

Oliver Platt is Stavros Milos, who’s susceptible to blackmail as the pompous and prosperous “supermarket king of Minnesota.”

Kate Walsh, coming off a long haul through Grey’s Anatomy and its Private Practice spinoff, plays former Vegas stripper Gina Hess, wife of an ill-fated trucking company owner who has delighted in bullying Lester since their high school days.

The Tuesday, April 15th premiere episode runs from 9 to 10:37 p.m. (central), so set your DVRs accordingly. FX also sent three more one-hour episodes for review, allowing TV critics to fully immerse themselves in this frozen winter “Uff da” land. Some practical questions also crop up, such as why Lester is allowed to freely visit and revisit what’s become a major crime scene. Or how Malvo, in Episode 4, is so sure of being exonerated.

Some of this should matter, I guess. But Fargo flexes far more than it vexes. Its sense of menace, primarily from Thornton’s Malvo, holds the balance of power in a sparring match with the loopy goings-on that also permeated the film. It all begins when Malvo and Nygaard have a chance encounter in a hospital waiting room. Speak of the devil.

Fargo also is graphically violent in fits and spurts, with Malvo the overall orchestrator. He’s not one to ever raise his voice, but those on the receiving end can feel its chill. Thornton, in his first TV series outing, gives off a very vivid vibe from the dark side of his personal moon. “This is a man who doesn’t deserve to draw breath,” he tells the pliant Lester. It’s contagious.

The new Fargo bobs, weaves and occasionally unravels a bit. Still, it’s never less than entrancing, with the recurring panoramic shots of an unforgiving deep freeze serving as stolid supporting characters. Winter has finally drawn its last breath throughout most of the country, but it can’t be stopped in Fargo. This is a not-to-be-missed series replete with simpletons, blowhards, cold hearts and salt-of-the-earth pillars who’d best not be underestimated.

Say “aw geez.” And then settle in.

GRADE: A

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

HLN goes nuts for "social media generation"

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So how and where will Nancy Grace fit in on the new HLN?

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Ding dong, Nancy Grace could soon be gone, so at least there’s that.

But if she’s hard to swallow, what about the slate of programming announced Thursday on the new, re-branded HLN? Formerly Headline News Network, it’s now billed as the “first TV home for the social media generation,” even though the now defunct Current and the new Pivot network also have positioned themselves as havens for “millennials and the millennial-minded.”

At Thursday’s CNN Worldwide Upfront presentation in New York City, HLN’s new executive vice president and general manager, Albie Hecht, raved about a “programming slate designed to heighten the all-screen experience -- TV, digital and social.” HLN’s publicity release also described this initiative as “diving further into a social media filter” after previously announced shows such as One.Click.Away. and NewsToonz (previously titled I Can Haz NewsToons).

The centerpiece of HLN’s latest announcements is The Daily Share, a one-hour nightly program that will “provide a digest of what people are watching, searching, playing, sharing, shopping and creating in every aspect of their social lives.”

But that’s not all. How about the exciting new America’s Most Liked, a game show that supposedly can “take someone from Internet nobody to web superstar. One just has to use their special or unusual talents to compete in viral challenges and try to get the most ‘likes’ from the ‘all screens’ audience.”

There’s also News or Not, another quiz that challenges viewers’ “knowledge of real social media news headlines.” Perhaps determining the veracity of “Boy Trapped in Refrigerator Eats Own Foot” -- or something like that.

In The Social Life, “twitter star, travel junkie, sports fan and foodie Ali Nejad enlists his nearly one million online followers to take on missions.” And in 2 Spouses, 3 Houses, “youtube star Jessica Edwards looks at a couples’ social media ‘likes, hearts and pins’ to help her find three choices for their dream home.”

There’s much more where these came from, but let’s briefly move to parent news network CNN, which also is in the midst of a makeover. On Thursday, the network announced it has ordered new prime-time series from Mike Rowe (of Dirty Jobs fame), Lisa Ling, and longtime America’s Most Wanted host John Walsh.

Additionally, The Jesus Code aims to “take viewers on a forensic and archaeological journey through the Bible.” Plus, the previously announced docu-series The Sixties, from executive producers Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman, will premiere in May.

CNN also has renewed its Peabody-winning Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown for four more “cycles” and picked up Morgan Spurlock Inside Man for at least one more go-around.

Two CNN holdovers, Erin Burnett Outfront and Anderson Cooper 360, will remain on the weeknight schedule from 6 to 8 p.m. (central) before an array of original series, films and in-house documentaries takes over at 8 p.m.

All bets are off, of course, whenever a jumbo jet goes missing or a big vacation cruise liner gets its toilets stopped up. CNN surely will remain your “all-in” 24/7 non-stop news source in those cases.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Colbert will step in when Letterman steps out

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By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Moving quickly but hardly surprising anyone, CBS has named Stephen Colbert to succeed David Letterman as host of the network’s Late Show. The network said Thursday that it’s a five-year deal.

Colbert, who will turn 50 on May 13th, had been heavily rumored as Letterman’s heir apparent since his surprise retirement announcement on April 3rd. Since October of 2005, Colbert has hosted Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report, which airs at 10:30 p.m. (central) on weeknights following the network’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

Letterman’s final Late Show will be on a yet to be announced date next year. Colbert’s premiere date will be announced after Letterman “determines a timetable,” CBS said. A location for the show also will be disclosed later, the network said. The Colbert Report and Late Show both are taped in New York City, so CBS presumably is talking about a studio rather than any coastal shift.

CBS Corporation chairman/CEO Leslie Moonves praised Colbert as “one of the most inventive and respected forces on television. David Letterman’s legacy and accomplishments are an incredible source of pride for all of us here, and today’s announcement speaks to our commitment of upholding what he established for CBS in late night.”

CBS entertainment chairman Nina Tassler added: “Stephen is a multi-talented and respected host, writer, producer, satirist and comedian who blazes a trail of thought-provoking conversation, humor and innovation with everything he touches.”

Letterman, in a separate statement released later Thursday, said: “Stephen has always been a real friend to me. I’m very excited for him, and I’m flattered that CBS chose him. I also happen to know they wanted another guy with glasses.”

Colbert, in his official comments, at first took a serious approach. “Simply being a guest on David Letterman’s show has been a highlight of my career,” he said. “I never dreamed that I would follow in his footsteps, though everyone in late night follows Dave’s lead.”

He then cracked, “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go grind a gap in my front teeth.”

The gap between ratings for Late Show and NBC’s The Tonight Show has widened since Jimmy Fallon replaced Jay Leno in February of this year. Letterman, 67, had been trailing by a particularly wide margin among advertiser-prized 18-to-49-year-olds.

Colbert for the most part will be himself on Late Show. On The Colbert Show, he parodied a conservative windbag modeled after the likes of Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck.

Colbert appeared as a walk-on guest during Fallon’s inaugural Tonight Show, taking a selfie with the new host. They’ll now be doing battle at 10:35 p.m. (central), with Colbert still the oldster opposite Fallon, 39, and ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel, 46.

Before launching The Colbert Report, Colbert spent eight years as a featured correspondent on The Daily Show. He also was a member of Chicago’s famed Second City improvisational troupe.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net