Saturday, September 13, 2014


Directed by
Irvin S. Yeaworth, Jr.
Written by Jack H. Harris, Dan E. Weisburd, Jean Yeaworth
Starring Ward Ramsey, Paul Lukather, Kristina Hanson, Alan Roberts. Gregg Martell, Alan Roberts
IMDB Entry
I don’t particular like scary movies.  To me, they are like a practical joker tripping you as you walk by – my main emotion is annoyance, not fright.  There is only one movie that actually scared me when I saw it, and that was Dinosaurus!  It probably was because I was eight at the time, because watching it today makes it only seem silly. 
But fun.
In the movie a group of Americans are working on a Caribbean island, when they stumble across a find:  two dinosaurs and a cave man (Gregg Martell),* all exceptionally well preserved.  During a storm, they are struck by lightning and, as Dr. Henry** Frankenstein proved, lightning brings the dead back to life.  So a giant brontosaurus*** is roaming the island, along with – of course – a tyrannosaurus rex.****
Meanwhile the cave man becomes friends with a boy of the island, Julio (Alan Roberts) and suffers from the culture shock of 20th century civilization.
imageThe cave man scenes are played for broad comedy and are generally effective, while the dinosaur attacks, which may seem frightening when you’re eight, don’t really hold up.  Still, the special effects were well done for the day.
Director Yeaworth had already made his mark on the monster movie genre a couple of years earlier with The Blob.  None of the cast had particularly memorable careers, though a few worked semi-regularly as TV guest stars.
But for several months afterwards, I would look outside to see if a T. Rex was coming.
*Yes, I know that’s an anachronism, but for sticklers for scientific accuracy, this is the least of their worries.
**His name in the James Whale/Boris Karloff classic. Smile with tongue out
***That’s what they called it in 1960, and I’m sticking to it. Smile with tongue outSmile with tongue out
****Has there ever been a dinosaur movie without a T. Rex?

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Popeye & Thimble Theater

Directed by
Robert Altman
Written by Jules Feiffer, based on characters crated by E.C. Segar
Starring Robin Williams, Shelley Duvall, Ray Walston, Paul Dooley, Paul L. Smith, Richard Libertini
IMDB Entry

In memory of Robin Williams.

When you make a comic book movie, people expect it to match their expectations and that it sticks to an authentic vision of the character.  The problem with Popeye, which was savaged by critics when it first came out, was that it didn’t match expectations, and that it was an extremely authentic and accurate portrayal of the character.  It’s jut that people didn’t know the original character.

A little history.  Popeye was originally introduced in a long-running comic strip. Thimble Theatre, which showed the comic adventures of Olive Oyl, her brother Castor Oyl, and her boyfriend Ham Gravy.  In 1929, Olive and Ham were looking for someone who knew how to captain a boat.  Coming up to a likely looking guy in a sailor’s hat and with immense forearms, they asked if he was a sailor.  The reply was “What do you think I yam? A cowboy?” 

Thimble TheatreSoon the non-cowboy took over the strip and it was renamed.  Ham Gravy and Castor vanished, to be replaced by Bluto and a cast of memorable characters like J. Wellington Wimpy, George W. Geezil,* Swee’Pea, Alice the Goon, Eugene the Jeep, and many others.

In 1932, King Features started producing cartoons starring Popeye, directed by the Fleischer Brothers.**  It quickly became a formula, as Popeye would end up getting in danger, then eating a can of spinach which gave him the strength to defeat his foes.  In 1941, the Fleischers were fired and other people took on the cartoons, which were further simplified in format.

Meanwhile, the strip had gone its own way, with complex stories that lasted many weeks.***  Popeye only rarely used his spinach ex machina.  The stories were wonderful, but Seger died in 1938 of leukemia and the strip went into other hands, making the change to a daily joke strip and dropping many of the characters.

By 1980, when it was decided to make a live action version, the original Thimble Theatre starring Popeye had been forgotten, and the early Fleischer cartoons were not as well known at the later Paramount/King Features/Associated Artists versions.

Popeye was put on screen after Paramount lost out on the bidding war for Annie.  Producer Robert Evans wanted a comic book musical, and picked Popeye, since Paramount held the rights.  He hired Jules Feiffer to write the script.

If you don’t know the name, Feiffer is one of the greats in the comic strip field.  His strip, Feiffer, still seems to be running**** and he wrote successful plays, animated cartoons, and histories of the genre.  A Feiffer decided to go back to the original Seger version.

Meanwhile, Robert Altman was brought in to direct.  It’s an odd choice; Altman was best known for ensemble comedy/drama with overlapping dialog and sexual situation.  He also had a long history of critical successes but financial flops; he still managed to get work regularly though, partly because he had once directed M*A*S*H to immense success and producers thought he might do it again.

Altman built an entire cartoon village on Malta***** for his film, and, indeed, Sweet Haven is one of the characters.  In the movie, Popeye (Robin Williams) come to town and ends up falling for Olive Oyl (Shelly Duvall) while helping the town get out from under the thumb of the pirate Bluto (Paul L. Smith). He also meets his Pappy (Ray Walston) and gets between both Wimpy (Paul Dooley) and Geezil (Richard Libertini).

The characters were the perfect visual representation of Segar’s.  Some of this was makeup, of course, but everyone agreed that Shelley Duvall was born to play Olive.  Few critics noticed that Richard Libertini was the perfect representation of Geezil, however; most critics and fans had no idea who he was.

Williams did fell overwhelmed by the part, but I think he acquitted himself well.  Once use of his talent was having him ad lib while muttering under his breath; that was how Popeye spoke in the Fleischer cartoons.  However, the makeup and other prosthetics made it a strenuous role.

Since the movie was referencing things few remembered, it confused audiences.  Some said it wasn’t faithful to the cartoons, a clear case of missing the point.  It still made some money however, even if it wasn’t a blockbuster.  It’s considered a flop, but if you know its background, you’ll look at it quite differently.

*Arch enemies.  Wimpy would mooch from Geezil and always left him frustrated.  Wimpy’s one catchphrase, “I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today” made it into the movies, but his other one “Come to my house for a duck dinner.  You bring the duck” did not.

**The original Fleischer versions can be identified by the credits appearing on a ship’s hatch as the doors open and shut.

***A hallmark of most newspaper strips of the time.

****In The Village Voice for many years.

*****It’s still there as a tourist attraction.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Metamorpho (comics)

image(1965 – 68)
Created by
Bob Haney (writer) and Ramona Fradon (artist)
Wikipedia Page

Comic book heroes come and go, and it’s hard to keep track of which of the older ones are still around, but one of the most interesting heroes of the early 60s was Metamorpho, since it didn’t follow the usual tropes.

Metamorpho was created by Bob Haney.  DC at the time was trying to create offbeat and “different” superheroes, and Metamorpho certainly fit.

Rex Mason was an adventurer hired by unscrupulous millionaire Simon Stagg to retrieve the “Orb of Ra” – a one-of-a-kind Egyptian artifact hidden in a pyramid.  On the way to Egypt, Rex fell for Stagg’s daughter, Sapphire, giving Stagg a reason to dislike him.  When trying to steal the orb, Rex is knocked out by Simon’s henchman Java* and exposed to the Orb.

As everyone knows, being exposed to magical devices causes great changes and Rex turned into a strange looking man with a chest that was half orange and half purple, with a ghostly white head and legs of mismatched colors.  He also developed the ability to change into any element.

Unlike most heroes, Rex hated the transformation and wanted to return to being human.  He also wanted to leave Simon Stagg’s employ, but Stagg discovered that Rex’s only weakness was the Orb, and used that to control him.  So Rex took on the name Metamorpho and reluctantly became a superhero.

The series premiered in The Brave and the Bold** in January 1965. It must have been a big hit, since he was given his own comic within a year.  The comic had a high degree of parody in the way it portrayed the villains Metamorpho faced, but Rex’s plight was handled seriously:  he hated being a superhero and looked for ways to become human again, even turning down a membership in the Justice League because he expected to change back.

The comic ran for 17 issues.  A female version, Element Girl, joined him for a few episodes*** and Metamorpho joined the Outsiders over the years. 

*Supposedly named because he was a “Java man,” a caveman skeleton of the time.  I don’t remember if Java’s origin was ever described.

**Usually new characters were premiered in DC’s Showcase comics; The Brave and the Bold featured Batman team-ups.

***Her most memorable appearance was years later in Sandman #20.

Sunday, August 3, 2014


Written and directed by
Whit Stillman
Starring Carolyn Farina, Edward Clements, Chris Eigeman, Taylor Nichols, Ella Thompson
IMDB Entry

There was one name that didn’t quite fit when the nominees for best original screenplay came out for 1990.  You had Bruce Joel Rubin, who had written the phenomenally popular Ghost. They there were Woody Allen, Barry Levinson, and Peter Weir, all of whom had made their mark as writers and directors.  But the fifth was an obscure name who had written (and directed) his first film:  Whit Stillman.  His nomination for Metropolitan certainly was unusual:  it was a small independent film that made less than $3 million in the US.  Why was he up there with the others?

Because, quite simply, he deserved it. 

Metropolitan is about a group of upper-class New York college students during debutante ball season.  Tom Townsend (Edward Clements) gets involved with the group as a way to spend time with Serena Slocomb (Ella Thomson), who he has a crush on, even though she’s seeing someone else.  The cynical Nick Smith (Chris Eigeman) starts to give Tom advice, as the group goes through the season, aware it is a dying tradition, but also too much a part of it to want to give it up.

The story goes through a passel of romantic complications, but it’s less a movie about plot than it’s one about dialogue.  Stillman had a gift for it, and the characters are articulate and very funny, sort of a mix between John Sayles Return of the Secaucus Seven and half a dozen Woody Allen films.  The words draw you in and make the plot only an afterthought.*

Of course, Stillwell was not going to win, but the nomination helped him to make more movies.  His next, Barcelona, saw the same sort of people as in Metropolitan only with the added complication of being outside the US.  It shared some themes and references to Metropolitan, and his third film, The Last Days of Disco, saw the social group involved in the disco scene.**  There are references between the films (especially the first and third) and the two make up a thematic trilogy.

But, in the blockbuster world that came up in the 90s, the films were squeezed out.  It didn’t help that The Last Days of Disco flopped, and it was 11 years until Stillman directed again.  Still, the trilogy is filled with smart dialog and plenty of entertainment value.

*The acting also could have been better; most of the cast did not appear in much other than this.

**Whitman wrote a fascinating novel from the screenplay, based on the premise that one of the characters in the movie was writing about what the movie got wrong.  The Last Days of Disco, with Coctails at Petrossian Afterwards, is usually listed as a novelization, but that conceit made it more than just a retelling of what was on the screen.

Sunday, July 27, 2014


Writen and Directed by
Pablo Berger
Starring Maribel Verdu, Macarena Garcia, Emilio Gavira, Daniel Gimenez Cacho, Imma Cuesta, Angela Molina
IMDB Entry
In 2012 fairy tales were hot and it was the year of Snow White.  Not only was she a major character in Once Upon a Time, but there were two major Hollywood films about the story:  Mirror Mirror, and Snow White and the Huntsman. Neither film impressed anyone* but naming the best version of the story out that year is easy:  It’s Blancanieves.  And I can prove it with two words:  bullfighting dwarfs.
In the 1920s, Antonio Villata (Daniel Gimenez Cacho) is a renowned bullfighter, plying his trade with his pregnant wife Carmen (Imma Cuesta) in the stands.  But he makes a fatal mistake and is badly gored and left paralyzed.  Carmen goes into labor at the same time but dies as her daughter is born.  Antonio’s nurse Encarna, seeing Antonio as a rich, helpless widower, schemes to get into his good graces and marries him.  Meanwhile the baby – also named Carmen – lives with her grandmother Dona Concha (Angela Molina) until her death, when she become the ward of her stepmother and ailing father.
Encarna has no use for the girl and turns her into a household drudge, keeping her away from her father and torturing her for disobedience.  After she grow up, Carman (now Macarena Garcia) becomes a problem to Encarna, so is sent into the woods to be killed. Left for dead, a dwarfs find her and she discovers her innate talent for bullfighting.
I have left out an important fact about the film:  it’s silent and in black and white.  That turned out to be an big problem for the film since, just as they were starting to shoot it, The Artist premiered at Cannes.   The high concept was gone. Pablo Berger had been working on developing the film for years, and his disappointment was intense.
But there is one difference between the films.  The Artist was a love letter to the Hollywood silent film, whereas Blancanieves was the same for European silents. And Blancanieves is not the same sort of feel good story.
Not your usual Snow WhiteAs for the cast, Mirabel Verdu redefines the archetype of evil stepmother. She is vain, cold, scheming, heartless, and gratuitously cruel.  Not to mention just a little bit sexually kinky.  Sofia Oria is heartbreaking as the young Carmen, while Macarena Garcia bring real star quality and emotional depth (all without words) to her adult version.
What really sets the film apart is the way it’s willing to jettison the fairy tale to make a stronger story.  It follows the lines of the original story, but concentrates more on young Carmen’s troubles and throws in plenty of things that are not in the original.
The film was a critical success, winning most of Spain’s major film awards. It was their entry into the Best Foreign Film Oscar, but did not get a nomination.  However, the success of The Artist killed the novelty of the black and white images, and the two other Snow White variations that year probably made the concept a hard sell.  Its US box office was dismal.
Now, though, it’s on Netflix, and one of the best films I’ve seen in awhile.
*Though I think both are better than their reputation says

Sunday, July 13, 2014

I Love You Again

Directed by
  W. S. Van Dyke
Written by Charles Lederer & George Oppenheimer and Harry Kurnitz, from a story by Leon Gordon and Maurine Dallas Watkins
Starring William Powell, Myrna Loy, Frank McHugh, Edmund Lowe. Donald Douglas
IMDB Entry

One of the most tired of all sitcom tropes is amnesia – someone gets hit over the head and loses all memory.  It’s a sure-fire plot device if you don’t mind the clichés – the person doesn’t recognize friends, and his friends get into a comic tizzy trying to set things straight.  It’s usually the sign of a poor writing staff. I Love You Again takes this an, by turning it on its head, comes up with a very good movie.

On a cruise ship, Larry Wilson (William Powell), a stick-in-the-mud businessman gets hit on the head.  He quickly realizes that he’s really George Cary, a con man and has been thinking he was Larry for the past nine years.  With the help of an buddy from the old days, Doc Ryan (Frank McHugh), he returns to his wife Kay (Myrna Loy), who is in the middle of divorcing him.  And when he learns that his marriage to Kay has made him an important member of the community, he goes to use his position to swindle them all.  But there’s a complication:  he falls in love with her, and she has no desire to return to her boring husband.

There’s no need to point out the chemistry between Powell and Loy; the two had been together for nine films at this point (including some of the Thin Man series) and were practiced in playing off one another.  In this case, the relationship is a bit more fraught that usual, as Kay is sick and tired of Larry and doesn’t want to go back to him.

And, of course, Frank McHugh is always a delight. 

The direction is vintage Woody Van Dyke.  He was a very successful director of the 30s, know for his breezy style and fast-paced dialog.  However, since he didn’t work on “prestige” films and concentrated on more lowbrow work, he was underrated by critics.

Though a success, the movie was overshadowed by the Thin Man films and didn’t get the notice at time went on.  But it’s a real gem of its day.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Duet (TV)

Created by
Ruth Bennett & Susan Seeger
Starring Matthew Laurance, Mary Page Keller, Chris Lemmon, Alison La Placa, Jodi Thelen
IMDB Entry

It was extremely difficult it to set up a fourth broadcast TV network. When Fox came along with plans, it was assumed by everyone it would fail. But it was a good time for it:  there had been an increase in independent TV stations* looking for programming.  And Fox started small – originally with shows only on Sundays.  But even that wouldn’t mean much if they didn’t have good programming.  And Duet was one of the shows that they based their original Sunday schedule on.**

It was a romantic comedy where Ben Coleman (Matthew Laurence) was in love with Laura Kelly (Mary Page Keller). Their best friends were yuppies Richard (Chris Lemmon***) and Linda Phelps (Alison La Placa), and Laura had a younger sister Jane (Jodi Thelen) who was just a little bit ditzy.

The show was hardly groundbreaking, but survived by good writing. The plots were pretty standard, but there were plenty of funny line, and the worked like all good comedy – by being unexpected. 

In addition, the cast was very appealing.  The two breakout characters were Linda and Jane.  Alison La Placa was wonderful – self centered, controlling, and very very funny.  Jodi Thelen was even better, as the ditzy comic relief.  As a matter of fact, the leads of the show took a back seat to the other characters as time went by.

In the second season, Linda became pregnant.  The final episode had her giving birth.  Then the show did something unusual:  the third season took place three years later.  The baby had grown and Ben and Laura had married – unusual for a romantic sitcom in that it was not shown.  Toward the end, Linda took a job in a real estate agency.

The show was cancelled, but that job was the basis for a spinoff:  Open House.  Alison La Placa was the star, with Lemmon and Keller (her character now divorced) joining her.  Added to the new cast was a up and coming comedian named Ellen DeGeneris.****

The show didn’t catch on, but La Placa did.  Or tried to.  She starred in three sitcoms in the next three years, and all failed.  None of the other actors fared much better, though all have worked relatively regularly since.

But the show did what it needed to do: be an entertainment that was strong enough to keep Fox afloat.

*I lived in Schenectady at the time and two new ones had cropped up.

**The others were Married with Children, 21 Jump Street, The Tracey Ullman Show,  and Mr. President.  All but the latter were successful, and Tracey Ullman spawned their biggest hit:  The Simpsons.  Despite – and maybe because of, George C. Scott, their biggest name, Mr. President was pretty awful.

***Yes, Jack’s son.

****Who was the equivalent to Jodi Thelen in the new show, but not as good.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette (music)

Album CoverThe Four Seasons (1969)
Allmusic Entry

Popular music is always a struggle to keep relevant.  Music tastes change and older acts have to find ways to keep up. It was the changes in music in the late 60s that lead the Four Seasons to record their least typical album, The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette.

The group had peaked in the early 60s, but by 1967, they had slowly faded from the charts* and were struggling to come out with a new album.  And Sgt. Pepper suddenly made an album of well written pop songs seem old fashioned.  You needed to be more ambitious and a concept album/rock opera seemed the way to go.

So Four Seasons songwriter Bob Gaudio teamed up with composer Jake Holmes** to create a concept album.

The album is ambitions, to say the least.  It’s a satirical look at American life in the 60s, with ambitious lyrics and philosophical concepts.  Gaudio still knew how to write a catchy tune, and the songs cover all sorts of aspects of life.  And despite a touch of pretentiousness, the songs are all first class.

But it was in many ways a mistake.  The problem was that fans of the group were disappointed that it has no hits in the “Sherry” or “Walk Like a Man” mold.  At the same time, people who might have been interested in a concept album of this nature considered the group to be irrelevant.  The album snuck into the bottom of the top 100 albums, but probably mostly do to its long-time fans buying it on the name of the group alone.***  It was a failure.

It was certainly a misfire.  The Four Seasons underwent some upheaval. and revamped with Frankie Valli featured more prominently.  Eventually, they had a renaissance – but The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette was forgotten.  It’s not even hinted at in Jersey Boys.

It’s certainly not a great album, but the music is excellent and deserves not to be forgotten.

*Not unusual for a popular music groups; even the Beatles figured they’d have about five years at the top even if they hadn’t broken up.

**Best known as the one Jimmy Page stole “Dazed and Confused” from.

***The cover didn’t help much, either.  It was designed to look like a newspaper (much like Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick three years later), and the name of the group is obscured in the design.  Also, with the words “American Crucifixion and Resurrection” on the front it as bound to give the wrong impression.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec

Directed by
Luc Bresson
Written by Luc Bresson, from the comic books by Jacques Tardi
Starring Louise Bourgoin, Mathieu Amalric, Gilles Lellouche, Jean-Paul Rouve, Philippe Nahon, Jacky Nercessian. Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre
IMDB Entry

American films are filled with comic book movies these days, but one of the best of the past five years was a movie out of France that manages to be charming in every way. 

The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec was adapted by Luc Bresson from a comic book series out of France set in the early years of the 20th century and featuring Adele, sort of a female Indiana Jones.  The movie adapts two stories into one.

The movie begins in Paris with the mysterious hatching of of an ancient pterodactyl egg, cause by the psychic meddling of Professor Esperandiue (Jacky Nahon).  The best of the Paris police force goes to investigate, led by Inspector Caponi (Gilles Lellouche).  And the authorities want to call on Adele Blanc-Sec* (Louise Bourgoin), but she is in Peru at the time.

But she’s not.  She’s in Egypt, digging to find the tomb of Ramses II, and evading her archnemesis Dieuleveult (Mathieu Amalric) in order to bring a mummy back to France.  Adele returns and gets involved in the hunt for the pterodactyl, while using the mummy as a way to help cure her sister Agatha (Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre), who has a hatpin in her brain.

Adele & Friend

As you may have gathered, the film had a light tone and goofy charm.  Director Luc Bresson is best known in the US for The Fifth Element and this has the same sort of visual charm that never takes itself too seriously.  Louise Bourgoin has the perfect attitude for her adventuress character: capable, charming, but with enough depth to make her more than just two-dimensional.  The casting is a major asset; all the characters have memorable non-Hollywood faces that helps to give them personality.

One thing I especially liked was that the film had the feel of a comic book adventure.  It does not actually end, with a new adventure being set up.  I don’t think one was ever planned, but it gave the impression of a comic book that doesn’t just end.

The movie was very successful in France, but not in the US. Of course, being subtitled hurt it, but I don’t think many American moviegoers these days want  comic book films that are light hearted (or without fight scenes, and where the archenemy is not defeated in the end).

It’s on Netflix.  And, really, how could you resist a movie that had pterodactyls and mummies?


* Her last name translates into “dry white” as in wine.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Painting

The Painting -- she's not jumping; she's trying to fly2011
Directed by
Jean-François Laguionie
Written by Jean-François Laguionie, Anik Leray
Voices by Jessica Monceau, Adrien Larmande, Thierry Jahn, Julien Bouanich, Céline Ronte, Thomas Sagols, Magali Rosenzweig, Chloé Berthier
IMDB Entry

In America, animated films are for children.  Yes, they do entertain adults,* but the perception is that adults go to them in order to bring their kids.  It’s different in Europe, where animated films are not pigeonholed, and a movie like The Painting can be made.

As the title states, the movie is about a painting.  Much like Toy Story, the people in it have come to life, and have created their own society, with three levels:  the Alldunns, who are finished and who think themselves superior, the Halfies, who are not quite complete, and the Sketchies, who are just rough drawings and at the bottom of the social barrel.**

Ramo (Adrian Larmande) is an Alldunn in love with Claire (Chloé Berthier), a Halfie.  Lola (Jessica Monceau) is a friend of Clare who suggest they go to seek the artist and ask him to finish the painting.  Joined by Plume (Thierry Jahn), a Sketchie, they go on a journey of discovery and find out that they can leave the painting and visit others in the abandoned studio of the artist in order to find him.

imageThe film, as it must be, is visually sumptuous, filled with color and delight. Laguionie pays homage to some of the great artists, using their style as templates for some of the artwork visited.  There’s a war scene, a visit to Venice during Carnivale, and many other delights in the search. It even has a message, not only the obviously against social snobbery, but more about art and life.

Of course, the film was barely released in the US.***  Part of this was the subtitling:  American’s don’t like subtitles, and there probably wasn’t enough interest to have it dubbed.  But a bigger reason no doubt was one of the characters – a painting of a Rubenesque nude who gives the group guidance and a gateway.  American audiences no doubt would be outraged by this in a “children’s movie”**** and cutting out the scenes would wreck the plot.  So the film only got very limited release.

It’s available on Netflix, though, and is a delight for fans of animation.

*Chuck Jones, America’s greatest cartoon genius, said he made all his films for himself.

**American translation.  The French words are “Toupins,” “Pafinis” (roughly “not finished”) and “Reufs” (“Roughs”).  Much more imagination.

***Luckily, it was a success in France.

****Some – very loud Americans – are even more Victorian about sex than the Victorians, who accepted nudity in art.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Awake (TV)

imageCreated by
Kyle Killen
Starring Jason Isaacs, Laura Allen, Steve Harris, Dylan Minnette, BD Wong, Cherry Jones, Wilmer Valderrama
IMDB Entry

US network television is always charged with pandering to the lowest common denominator.  There is a lot of truth in this, but sometimes a network comes up with a show with sophisticated content and great drama.  And a recent case of this was Awake.

The show is the story of Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs).  He’s a police detective with troubles:  His wife Hanna (Laura Allen) was recently killed in a car accident.  Or, rather, his teenage son Rex (Dylan Minnette) was.  Or both.  Or neither.

The fact is, Michael is living in two realities.  In one, his wife is dead and he has to deal with not only that, but also helping Rex cope.  Then, when he goes to sleep, he wakes up in a different reality, where Hannah is alive, but Rex was killed in the crash.  The only people who know his secret are his two psychologists (BD Wong and Cherry Jones),  one from each reality, neither of which believed him.

The concept could have been confusing, but one clever trick helps keep things straight:  the realities are color coded, one shot in a blue tinge, the other in a yellow one.*

One nice feature was that the events in one world could be used to affect the results in another.  Michael might learn an odd fact in the blue world that helps him solve a case in the yellow one. He’s sad about his losses, but he still can see his wife and son, and uses that to help both of them cope.  And, as the show goes on, the timelines start to diverge.

The show never got traction in the ratings.  The concept was difficult to explain and it only lasted 13 weeks.  The final episode did give it all closure.**  Ultimately, it was an ambitious series about loss that probably would have been better on a cable network than broadcast.

*They are referred to by the writers as the red and blue realities, for the color of a rubber band that Michael wears in each.  But the color schemes are clearly blue and yellow.

**Though the writers said they intended that it be a jumping off point if a second season was orders.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Jungle Jim (TV)

Created by
Alex Raymond, Don Moore
Starring Johnny Weissmuller, Martin Hudson, Dean Fredericks, and Tamba the Chimp
IMDB Entry

When you think of Johnny Weissmuller, you think Tarzan.  But he was more than just an actor, and more than just Tarzan.

Weissmuller was born in Austria-Hungary, and emigrated with his family to the US when he was a baby.  He contracted polio when he was nine and, as rehabilitation, he was told to try swimming.  It was a wise decision:  he took to the sport and became a champion, setting a world record in the freestyle and winning five gold medals in the 1924 and 1928 Olympics.  He established himself as one of the great freestylers of his age.

Weissmuller went into modeling and, in 1932, signed a seven-year contract with MGM.  His first major role was Tarzan in Tarzan the  Ape Man, which was such a hit that is spawned a series.  He was credited with the Tarzan yell* and he played the role in a dozen movies, which pretty much was his entire list of credits until 1948.**

At that point, Weissmuller was 44 and probably realized that his days of being able to run around with just a loincloth were numbered.  He left MGM for Columbia and started a new series:  Jungle Jim.

Jungle Jim was created by the great comic book artist Alex Raymond.  Raymond created the Flash Gordon strip and the long-running Secret Agent X-9, one of the first spy strips, and Rip Kirby.  He was known throughout the field as the artist most others wanted to be (and steal from).  His Jungle Jim started in 1934, as a reaction to Tarzan.*** It featured Jim, an Asian-based adventurer.

It seemed a good fit for Weissmuller, who appeared in 14 movies as the character from 1948-1954.  And then came television.

Jim (Weissmuller) and his son Skipper (Martin Huston) faced the usual African adventures,**** solving mysteries and teaching Skipper a lesson.  They were helped by their Hindu servant Haseem (Dean Fredericks) and by Tamba the Chimp.  Jim traveled in his plane, the Sitting Duck.  Stock footage abounded.

The TV show only lasted a season, but remained in syndication on Saturday mornings for years afterward. 

*The original yell was a combination of sounds (sources differ on exactly which one), but Weissmuller claimed it was all his, and learned to duplicate it for personal appearances.

**The one exception was a film Swamp Fire, where he co-starred with Buster Crabbe, the original Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon.

***Much like Flash Gordon was a reaction to Buck Rogers.

****Even though the comic was based in Asia. 

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Crunch Bird

Crunch Bird(1971)
Written and Directed by:
Ted Petok
Voices: Len Maxwell
IMDB Entry

By the mid-60s, the Oscar for best short animated film seemed like an anachronism.  Instead of being an integral part of any evening of movies, it was made by small studios and probably only saw the light of projection in film festivals.* They all tend to be forgotten, and one of the best – and an Oscar winner – was The Crunch Bird.

It’s a very short film – around two minutes.  There also not much to it:  it just tells one joke. 

But the joke is hilarious.**

Director Ted Petok set up Crunch Bird Studios and produced four other short films:  Crunch Bird II, Yetta the Yenta, The Mad Baker, and The Golfer***.  I saw The Golfer years ago, and it was similar in structure:  one joke, well told (though the joke was a bit weaker).

*Probably in Los Angeles, in the hope of getting an Oscar nomination.

**What really sells it is the blackout at the end.

***Which isn’t even listed in the IMDB, even though it was shown in theaters.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Alice in Wonderland

Directed by
Norman Z. McLeod
Writen by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and William Cameron Menzies from the book by Lewis Carroll
Starring Charlotte Henry, Richard Arlen, Gary Cooper, Leon Errol, Louise Fazenda, W. C. Fields, Cary Grant, Sterling Holloway, Edward Everett Horton, Baby Leroy, Mae Marsh, Jack Oakie, Edna May Oliver, May Robson, Charlie Ruggles, Alison Skipworth, Ned Sparks, Billy Barty, Billy Bevan
IMDB Entry
Full Movie at the Internet Archive

Alice in Wonderland is nearly impossible to dramatize.  The biggest hurdle is the story really has no plot:  Alice meets one odd character after another, has a strange conversation, then moves to the next.  In addition, Alice has no backstory* and other than being intelligent and matter of fact, there’s not much depth of personality. 

In 1933, when Paramount decided to film the book, they did something that had never been done on such a large scale:  they used an all-star cast.   Every major character in the books was played by a big-name Paramount star of the, making it have more big names than any other film made before.

The story starts out with a bored Alice seeing the white rabbit in the garden.  But instead of following, she goes through the looking glass and meets up with some chessmen, among other things.  Then, seeing the rabbit again, she follows, where the story starts following Wonderland.

The film’s strength is in its special effects and costume design.  Writer William Cameron Mendes was primarily a set designer and worked hard to get the looks right.  Given the technology of the time, they not bad today, if a tad bizarre.***  You really couldn’t see most of their faces, since they also decided to use costuming and masks to make them look like the characters in the book.

Gryphon, Alice, and Mock TurtleCharlotte Henry is just fine as Alice, but most of the actors, while professional, seem to treat the role for what it is:  a brief cameo where no one can tell who they are without the credits. Cary Grant is definitely unexpected as the mock turtle,** and W. C. Fields is a obvious choice for Humpty Dumpty.   Still, the movie does stick more to the story of the original book than most adaptations and keeps a lot of the incidents and dialog intact.  There’s a animated version of “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” and the Mad Tea party is pretty much intact.  Indeed, other than the short sequence with the mirror, the film follows the original book better than most adaptation.

When released, the film was an expensive flop.  Audiences had a hard time suspending disbelief when watching people in costume, it seems.  It gave rise to conventional Hollywood wisdom that you can’t do this type of fantasy, and it wasn’t until The Wizard of Oz that it was tried again.

The actors in the film weren’t hurt by its flop; a side effect of being unrecognizable.  Charlotte Henry made more films, but never transitioned from child star to adult. 

The film was pretty much forgotten once Disney put out its animated version in 1951.****  Disney didn’t care much for his version, putting his finger on the problem when he said, “Alice has no heart.”

The film has faded from memory, but overall still has plenty of joys.

*Yes, I know about Alice Liddell, but without that knowledge, there character is complete generic.  The joys of the books (favorites of mine) are many, depth of characterization is not one of them.

**Of note to film buffs is Cary Grant’s ad lib in His Girl Friday when he refers to Earl Williams by that name. 

***I’m surprised that this wasn’t a favorite film to see when you were high – maybe because it was in black and white.

****Sterling Holloway was in both versions:  the Frog in 1933 and the Cheshire Cat in 1951.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Andy Clyde (actor)

andy clyde(1892-1967)
IMDB Entry

Moviegoing was a different experience in the 1930s.  No multiplexes, of course, and instead of there being a single movie on each screen, the show went on all evening, with cartoons, newsreels, previews of coming attractions,* and, of course, short subjects.  Nowadays, people are generally only aware of two of the major short subject series:  The Three Stooges and Our Gang (The Little Rascals), but there were many more, and one of the longest lived series were those starring Andy Clyde.

Clyde was born in Scotland, the son of music hall performers.  He moved to the US in 1912 and broke into silent movies with Mack Sennett in 1922, where he established his character – an old man with walrus moustache and wire-rimmed glasses.  He soon began to star in a series of silent short subjects and moved easily into talkies.

When Columbia started doing short subjects, Clyde, who had a contract dispute with Sennett, was the first person they hired.  The Andy Clyde comedies were a mainstay of their program.  He appeared in 77 films until the unit was shut down in 1956, in addition to 68 before joining Columbia.

Clyde always played a father or uncle.  He was mostly a physical comedian; his big strength was his ability to do a double take. 

In addition to his series, Clyde appeared in features, often as a comedy sidekick in 40s westerns, since his persona fit the “grizzled old prospector” images to a T. 

The end of the short subject didn’t mean the end of his career, and Clyde moved easily to television, appearing as a guest star, usually in westerns.  He had recurring roles in The Real McCoys and Lassie, and popped up on shows as diverse at Gunsmoke, Dr. Kildare, The Bob Cummings Show, the People’s Choice, and many others.  He continued to work regularly almost up until his death in 1967.

*Now they call them “trailers.”

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The People’s Choice (TV)

Sock, Mandy & Cleo(1955-58)
Created by
Irving Brecher
Starring  Jackie Cooper, Patricia Breslin, Bernadette, Mary Jane Croft, Paul Maxey

More often than not, child actors’ careers are over at puberty.  The transition to adult actor is difficult, even when they want to continue in the business.  Jackie Cooper was a major child star in the early 30s, starting out in Our Gang* comedies and getting an Academy Award nomination for Skippy.  He worked regularly until the war, but struggled afterwards** to reestablish himself.  Luckily, TV came along and he started with guest roles and as part of the repertory company for Robert Montgomery Presents.  But he tasted success on the small screen with The People’s Choice.

Cooper played Sock Miller, a young politician in the town of New City, California.  He was dating Mandy Peoples (Patricia Breslin), daughter of the town’s mayor (Paul Maxey).  The show centered on the romance – witch took an unusual turn at the end of the second season:  Sock and Mandy got married.  Unfortunately, fate required that they keep the marriage secret until Sock made enough money to support her in the style Mayor People’s wanted.

CleoThe big star of the show, however, was Cleo (Bernadette), a basset hound.  Voiced by Mary Jane Croft, Cleo would comment on the actions with sardonic asides.  This was still a relatively new concept,*** but it was more than just a cute idea.  Cleo was genuinely funny and whenever the camera cut to her (often wearing some weird getup like glasses), audiences knew a zinger was coming.

The show was created by Irving Brecher.  He had was a very successful Hollywood screenwriter, best known for having the sole writing credit for The Marx Brothers’ At the Circus and Go West.****  He also had an uncredited role in the screenplay of The Wizard of Oz. 

The show was also interesting in that it showed progression in the characters over its run.  Sock had different jobs, his marriage to Mandy was revealed, and other things changed as time went by.

The series ended after three seasons.  Cooper, now firmly established as an adult TV star, went right on to another long-running TV series, Hennessey about a navy doctor.  He continued in guest roles and is probably best known to modern audiences as Perry White in the first three Christopher Reeve Superman movies.

The People’s Choice is an overlooked gem of the 50s.

*The actual name of the series.  It was produced by Hal Roach, who sold the series to MGM in 1938 (when it was past its prime).  When he tried to sell the original shorts to TV, MGM owned the name, so he used The Little Rascals.  I prefer Our Gang because it’s original and describes the group far better.

**One of his films, Kilroy Was Here, paired him with the big child star of the teens, Jackie Coogan.

***Charles M. Schultz had only created Snoopy a year or two before.

****Other writers were probably involved, and the Marx were known to ad lib a lot – and no one could write for Harpo.  But Brecher is the only writer to get a sole credit for any of their films.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Free Enterprise

Free Enterprise(1998)
Directed by
Robert Meyer Burnett
Written by Mark A. Altman, Robert Meyer Burnett
Starring Eric McCormack, Rafer Weigel, Audie England, William Shatner.
IMDB Entry

TV stars have always had it rough.  Once they become associated with a role, it often follows them forever.  Al Hodge was recognized as Captain Video for years after the show ended, making it hard for him to get work.  George Reeves had a love/hate relationship with Superman.  Clayton Moore stopped trying to fight it and became the Lone Ranger for years after the show was off the air.  And William Shatner was willing to acknowledge his being identified as Captain Kirk, while also working to act in other roles.  Free Enterprise allowed him to poke fun at his image, while showing he could do something more.

The movie is semiautobiographical, actually based upon how it was made. Mark (Eric McCormack) and Robert Burnett (Refer Weigel)* were die hard geeks and whose greatest hero was William Shatner (William Shatner).  They happen to run into him and manage to convince him to appear in their movie. 

The movie is a loving tribute to geekdom, and Shatner has a field day.  His character is just short of crazy, a combination of the Shatner cliches of grandiose ego.  He insists, for instance, that he do a rap version of Marc Antony’s speech in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.**

Shatner at the time was at a lull in his career and his role here – and his penchant for comedy – revitalized it.  Actor Eric McCormick also was a TV star by the end of the year with Will and Grace.

*Who, not coincidentally, share their names with the film’s screenwriters.

**The movie depends on him being able to pull this off,

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Mighty Joe Young

Mighty Joe Young(1949)
Directed by
Ernest B. Schoedsack
Written by Ruth Rose, from an original story by Merian C. Cooper
Starring Terry Moore, Ben Johnson, Robert Armstrong, Mr. Joseph Young of Africa, Frank McHugh, Lora Lee Lichel, Primo Carnera, Charles Lane.
Technical Creator Willis H. O’Brien
First Technician Ray Harryhausen

King Kong was a milestone in film and in stop-motion animation, due to the animation of Willis H. O’Brien.  It was followed by a sequel, Son of Kong, the same year, but O’Brien became disenchanted with director Ernest B. Schoedsack and even asked to have his name removed from the credits.  It wasn’t until 16 years later that they worked together on a third giant ape film, Mighty Joe Young.

The movie beings in Africa, where eight year old Jill Young (Lora Lee Michel), the daughter of a rancher, trades for a baby gorilla, which she names Joe.  Twelve years later, showman Max O’Hara (Robert Armstrong) goes to capture animals for a new African-themed night club, with Gregg (Ben Johnson), a cowboy from a wild west show, along to help gather specimens.  Things are looking successful when the camp is disrupted by a giant ape:  Joe Young (Mr. Joseph Young).  They try to capture him but when it looks like he’s about to kill one of the crew, Jill (grown up to be Terry Moore) comes on the scene and scolds Joe until he lets the man go unharmed.  Joe will do whatever she asks.

Max thinks this will be a sensation, so he persuades Jill to bring Joe to Hollywood.  Things go well, at first . . .

Joe vs Lion

The star of the film is Joe Young and the animation that makes him completely believable.  He’s nowhere near as big as Kong – 10-20 feet tall,* but he has plenty of personality and even a humorous side.  There are several set pieces – Joe’s attack on the camp, for a start – that are masterpieces of the format.  O’Brian, and his young protégé, Ray Harryhausen** not only animated Joe, but fit him in superbly with live action.  You have to watch very closely to see the places where live actors switch to be their stop motion counterparts. 

The casting of Armstrong – who was Carl Denham, leader of the expedition, in King King – is a nice touch, and Terry Moore and Ben Johnson are appealing leads.  Moore is especially nice in her reluctance as a performer and how much she hates stardom, and this was Johnson’s first noticeable role.  There’s a bit of stunt casting with former heavyweight champ Primo Carnera*** plays himself going up against Joe.  And character actors Frank McHugh and Charles Lane**** also showed up.

The film did not to well when originally release.  It did win an Oscar for Best Visual Effects, but that doesn’t impress audiences, and the movie did poorly so much so that a planned sequel was never started.  Schoedsack never directed another feature.  O’Brien worked from time to time, but not regularly;  Ray Harryhausen had eclipsed him.

The movie is a charming use of one of the most demanding techniques in film, and is worth watching for the set pieces alone.*****

*He changes size in different scenes, an effect that Schoedsack insisted on for dramatic effect.

**The two great geniuses of stop motion; Nick Park is the third.  Harryhausen later claimed that he did most of the actual animation work, since O’Brien was bogged down with technical challenges.

***Carnera was billed as the tallest heavyweight champ of all time (he wasn’t) and was known for being one of the strongest champs around.  He was supposedly managed by mobsters and was something of a curiosity, which continued after he lost the championship to Max Baer in 1934.  Interestingly, he was heavyweight champion when King Kong was released.

****A typical Charles Lane performance of the era:  three lines of dialog and not credited.

*****Disney did an undistinguished remake in 1998.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Arresting Behavior/Bakersfield PD (TV)

(1992, 1993)
Created by
Larry Levin
Arresting Behavior starred Leo Burmester, Ron Eldard, Chris Mulkey, Lee Garlington, Amy Hathaway, Eric Balfour, Joey Simmrin
Bakersfield PD starred Ron Eldard, Giancarlo Esposito, Chris Mulkey, Tonyy Plana, Brian Doyle-Murray, Jack Hallett
Arresting Behavior IMDB Entry
Bakersfield PD IMDB Entry

Cops came on the air in 1989, and was a sensation.  I suppose it was inevitable that it spawned parodies.  I was going back and forth which of these two shows I’d write about; they always struck me as quite similar, even considering their origin, but when I realized that the same person created both, my decision was made.

Arresting BehaviorArresting Behavior was the first.  At the time, the networks were experimenting with short-run series that ran in August as a tryout.  Seinfeld was the most successful of these, and Arresting Behavior was another experiment with the idea.

It was a direct parody of Cops.  Bill Ruskin (Leo Buhrmaster) and Pete Walsh (Ron Eldard) were two policemen in Vista Valley, CA, who were the subjects of a Cops-like show as a TV crew followed them around.*  Everything was played straight and without a laugh track, as they ran into comic situations in the stationhouse and on the job.  Pete’s brother Donny (Chris Mulkey) was also on the job, and was dealing with his messy divorce, and a restraining order that kept him 500 feet away from his kids at all times. 

One of the most memorable scenes was when Donny had the restraining order amended so he could get within 100 feet of his kids, so he meets them on a baseball diamond and hits fungoes.  By the end of the scene, he browbeats the kids so badly that it’s back to 500 feet by the time the show ends.

The humor is the type I love:  subtle jokes that sneak up on you.  And the point of view allowed for some other memorable moments:  you could see, for instance, that Ruskin’s wife was sleeping with the cameraman, though Bill never caught on.

The series got some critical notice and ran for the seven weeks it was planned for, but ABC declined to pick it up.

Bakersfield PDThe next year, creator Larry Levin managed to pitch essentially the same concept to Fox with Bakersfield PD.  It was the same situation:  a comedy about the life in a mundane police department.  Detective Paul Gigante (Giancarlo Esposito), who was half Italian and half Black,** had been transferred from the FBI to the more rural Bakersfield, and was teamed up with Wade Preston (Ron Eldard again).  Chris Mulkey was there, too, as a less psychotic officer, and Brian Doyle-Murray*** played the grizzled old desk sergeant.

The show played up Gigante’s professionalism and sophistication against the more laid back approach of the Bakersfield PD.****

The show ran a full season, but once again the humor didn’t catch on and the show was cancelled.  Levin produced some other shows, but nothing of note.  Mulkey, who had come to prominence in Twin Peaks, has had a very successful career in TV, usually in drama, while Eldard has been a dependable, if less prominent, TV and movie face.

And, of course, a few years later, Reno 911 took the concept and made it a hit, but used far broader humor for its success.

*This is a very common conceit these days, but it still was new back in 1992. 

**Shades of Al Giadello of Homicide:  Life on the Street, which premiered earlier that year.  As a further connection, Esposito joined Homicide toward the end of its run.

***Brother of Bill.  He added “Doyle-” to avoid confusion with another Brian Murray.

****Much like the tension in Hot Fuzz (though not as good).

Sunday, February 23, 2014

All that Glitters (TV)

All that Glitters(1977)
Created by
Ann Marcus and Norman Lear
Starring Barbara Baxley, Eileen Brennan, Vanessa Brown, Anita Gillette, Linda Evans, David Haskell, Chuck McCann, Lois Nettleton, Wes Parker, Gary Sandy, Louise Shaffer, Tim Thomerson, Jessica Walter.
IMDB Entry

In the 1970s, Norman Lear ruled sitcom TV, creating socially prograssive comedy that pushed what was acceptable on TV.  Many of his shows were classics, but even his flops had their strengths.  All That Glitters was one of his biggest flops (I can’t seem to find any clips of it on Youtube), but it also was one of his most audacious ideas.

It was developed after the success of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. That show had become a phenomenon despite being a syndicated late night soap opera parody, and Lear decided to try it again.  This time, though he wanted to make a soap opera with a different premise and the idea suddenly came to him:  create a show set in a world where gender roles were reversed.

Lear got Ann Marcus (who had worked on Mary Hartman) to write the book and first script, attaching it to that concept.**  In it, women held the positions of power:  company presidents*** and political leaders.  Men ran the households for their wives, and could only get low paying jobs like secretaries or waiters.  And the women were the ones who had affairs and dalliances while their husbands were supposed to be demure and happy to keep their husband’s dinner warm.  It was like a reverse Mad Men.

The show focused on Globatron, a big multinational corporation run, like everything else in this world, by women.  The company president was L. W. Carruthers (Barbara Baxley), who would sexually harass her female workers (usually secretaries).  The other executives has the same type of  privilege men had in the 50s.  Meanwhile the men were househusbands with the worries of a stereotypical 50s woman.  For instance, Bert Stockwood (Chuck McCann) worried about his weight and whether he was still attractive to his executive wife, Christina Stockwood (Lois Nettleton).  Dan Kinkaid (Gary Sandy) was complemented on having the best looking ass in the company.  One major subplot involved finding a new woman to show the right image for the company’s new cigarette line – rugged and strong.  The choice was Linda Murkland (Linda Gray), who turned out to be a transsexual.

Note that this avoided the usual joke about gender reversals:  the women are perfectly competent in their jobs and the jokes come from them acting like men, not being unable to act like men. 

It was a solid cast of people who ended up with long careers after the show.  The most amusing bit of casting was Wes Parker as Glenn Langston; Parker had played in two world series as the starting first baseman of the Los Angeles Dodgers and got the part out of the blue. I also loved seeing Chuck McCann; in the early 60s, he was one of the great triumvirate of TV kiddy show hosts in New York City, along with Sandy Becker and Sonny Fox.  Some have said that McCann was the best part of the show; his issues were more real than those of the people in charge.

The show was controversial (not surprising for anything for Lear).  The opening theme mentioned that God was female and created Eve first; some religious groups objected.  Another problem was that the concept was probably not suitable for a five-day-a-week soap opera format; the idea has limited variations and came off as a bit heavy-handed.  It was also a difficult sell to individual stations.  It only ran about three months before the plug was pulled.

And it was pulled hard.  The show has never been on DVD,**** was never syndicated, and doesn’t even have clips on Youtube.  Even photos of the show are hard to track down.  It’s truly been forgotten.

I wouldn’t expect the show to hold up particularly well over the years, but it might be interesting to see again.

*Like The Hot L Baltimore.”

**Marcus, who worked with him writing Mary Hartman, really didn’t want to work on the new show, but did the script and bible and soon returned to MH.  She does not like the fact that Lear took sole credit for the show’s creation.

***The show appeared before the redundant term “CEO” was coined.

****Possibly for the same reason it took so long to get Mary Hartman onto disk – too many episodes.  Five times a week adds up quickly.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes

Private Life of Sherlock Holmes(1970)
Directed by
Billy Wilder
Written by Billy Wilder & I.A.L. Diamond
Starring Robert Stephens, Colin Blakely, Genevieve Page, Christopher Lee, Clive Revill, Irene Handl, Tamara Toumanova
IMDB Entry

Long-time readers of this blog* might note I have a liking for Sherlock Holmes.  If someone does a version of the story, it’s likely I’ll be there.** But it did take me awhile to get to Billy Wilder’s 1970 version.  I had heard bad things about it, and just never got around to it until recently.

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes stars Robert Stephens as the character and Colin Blakely as Watson.  The setup is the same as always:  Holmes and Watson sharing an apartment with their landlady, Mrs. Hudson (Irene Handl).

The movie consists of two stories.  The first has Holmes called by a Russian Ballerina, Madame Petrova (Tamara Toumanova) with a proposition that she father a child with her to get the best of brains and beauty.  What is interesting, and quite surprising given the time, is that Holmes gets out of her proposition by claiming to have a gay relationship with Watson, possibly not the first time this was suggested, but the first time it was portrayed on screen.  The idea was far more daring for its time then it would be today.

That over with, the movie moves on immediately to the case of a mysterious woman (Genevieve Page) who is found in the Thames and brought to Holmes to find her identity.  Her mystery, and the disappearance of her husband, for the bulk of the film.  It’s really more of a spy film than a mystery, as everything turns out to be part of a secret project that enemy agents are trying to quash.

The movie is an odd duck.  It was evidently meant to have two more stories, one of which was actually shot but dropped from the final version. It’s also strange that the first story is completely dropped, even though elements introduced as a sideline to it turn out to be important to the main story.  It’s certainly not the type of script that Billy Wilder and his long time writing partner, I.A.L. Diamond were capable of. It marked the beginning of Wilder’s decline; the movie got so-so reviews, as did three of his last four film.***

Watson, Holmes and Mrs. HudsonBut the movie has its moments:  Watson’s discomfort at being thought gay, and Genevieve Page as a woman who manages to outdo Irene Adler as a love interest.  The dialog is also Wilder and Diamond’s high level, enough so that it makes up for the un-Holmesian plot. And Stephens and Blakely make a fine Holmes and Watson.

It’s a worthwhile addition to the many Sherlock Holmes films. 

*If such creatures exist.

**I hadn’t heard the the BBC was doing a version of the story.  My wife just  happened to catch the opening credits and called me in; I fell in love with it.

***Only The Front Page had critical success, because it was the first accurate adaptation of the play (with the final line intact) and because Walter Matthau was born to play Walter Burns.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

State and Main

David Mamet
Writer David Mamet
Starring Alec Baldwin, Charles Durning, William H. Macy, Sarah Jessica Parker, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Patti Lupone, David Paymer, Julia Stiles, Rebecca Pidgeon
IMDB Entry

In memory of Philip Seymour Hoffman.

David Mamet is best known for for his serious films and plays, especially the brilliant Glengarry Glen Ross.  But in 2000, he tried his hand at comedy.  The result, State and Main is uneven, but entertaining overall.

The movie is about a favorite subject of filmmakers – the madness of making a movie.  The production of the new film, The Old Mill, has to suddenly relocated into Vermont and State and Main shows the havoc it causes.  The film’s director, Will Price (William H. Macy), tries to keep things going, though he has a slight setback when he discovers the town doesn’t have an old mill.  He leaves it up to screenwriter Joseph Turner White (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who gets stricken with massive writer’s block.  In the meantime, Clare Wellesley (Sarah Jessica Parker) suddenly decides not to do the nude scene she had agreed to do and leading man Bob Berringer (Alec Baldwin), whose eye for underage women got the kicked out of their last location, is smitten with local teen Carla (Julia Stile), who knows exactly what she wants.

The cast is certainly a good one.  Most of the actors probably jumped at the chance to work with Mamet.  And while the result may not have been typical Mamet,*  it also has plenty of laughs with a lot of farcical notes.

imagePhilip Seymour Hoffman shows his incredible range by playing White, a man filled with self-doubts, but also very funny and charming as he builds a relationship with Ann (Rebecca Pidgeon), the town bookstore owner. People are rightly praising Hoffman after his tragic death this week, but little of the praise mentions his ability to do things like light romantic comedy.

The movie did only so-so in the box office and probably didn’t make back its budget.  Mamet returned to what he was best at – dramas filled with brilliant dialog about men and double crosses.  The rest of the cast continued with their successes. 

*It didn’t have as much swearing.

Monday, January 27, 2014

John B. Sebastian (music/album)

John B. Sebastian (MGM version)(1970)
  John Sebastian (vocals, guitar, harmonica, piano, percussion), Stephen Stills (guitar, harmony vocals). David Crosby(guitar, harmony vocals ), Graham Nash (harmony Reprise editionvocals), Dallas Taylor (drums), Buddy Emmons (pedal steel guitar, Moog synthesizer), Paul Harris (keyboards), Ray Neopolitan (bass),
Danny Weis (guitar), The Ikettes (background vocal), Buzzy Linhart (vibraphone)
Wikpedia Entry

John Sebastian was the guiding force and primary songwriter for the Lovin’ Spoonful*.  Of course, few groups can remain together over the long run, and Sebastian quit the group in 1968 to go solo.  His first solo album, John B. Sebastian is a classic effort, whose success was deliberately hampered by, not his record company, but a record company he had nothing to do with.

The story is complex.  The Lovin’ Spoonful recorded for Kama Sutra Records, which was distributed by MGM.  Sebastian recorded the album for Kama Sutra, too, but before it was released Kama Sutra ended their agreement with MGM by the simple expedient of disbanding and forming Buddah Records.  MGM was not happy.

Sebastian didn’t pay much attention to this as he  gathered a bunch of his old music friends for his first solo record.  After the album was recorded, a single, “She’s a Lady” was released, but did poorly.  Then MGM made a decision that, since Kama Sutra was no more, they’d be releasing the album on their label.  No big deal – except that the insisted it be released as a Lovin’ Spoonful album and insisted that this was to fulfill their contract with the group.

Sebastian balked.  He wasn’t a member of the Lovin’ Spoonful (which had gone on unsuccessfully without him), so didn’t feel obligated to stick to their contract.  Also, the contract was with Kama Sutra, not MGM, so Sebastian felt there was no obligation in any case.  So he went to Reprise Records, who were more than happy to sign him, especially since he was a big hit at Woodstock.

MGM still insisted they owned the album, but in early 1970 – a year late – Reprise was able to get the master tapes and the rights to release it.  Shortly afterwards, MGM released it, too, claiming again that the Lovin’ Spoonful owed them an album, and that, since they had released the single, they could release the album, so there.

Reprise sued and the MGM version was taken off the shelves.**  But not before they also released John Sebastian Live, which they were forced to withdraw.

But with all this, what about the actual album?  It’s some of Sebastian’s best work.  “Red-Eye Express” is a fun opener, and “She’s a Lady” is a fine ballad.  There are also such gems as “You’re a Big Boy Now,”*** “Rainbows All Over Your Blues,” and several others.

The musicians involved were budding stars, most notably Crosby, Stills, and Nash before they became Crosby, Stills, and Nash.

The album a moderate success, reaching #20 on the charts, but not a major hit.  Sebastian continued to record, but never became a major solo star; his biggest hit was the number one hit “Welcome Back” in 1976. And he stuck it to MGM when he named his live album “Cheapo Cheapo Productions Present Real Live John Sebastian.” (The phrase “Cheapo Cheapo Productions” was one of Sebastian’s comments on the MGM live album).

In any case, once you cut through the legal nonsense, John B. Sebastian is an excellent album, an advance on what he was doing with the Spoonful, but still maintaining a similar joyous feel.

*I’ve realized I’ve been writing a lot about the Lovin’ Spoonful and its members lately. 

**Not until after my brother bought it, and eventually gave it to me.

***Also recorded with the Spoonful.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Paper Lion

Paper Lion (book)(Book: 1966, Film 1968)
Book written by
George Plimpton
Movie directed by Alex March
Screenplay by Lawrence Roman, based on the novel
Starring Alan Alda, Lauren Hutton, Joe Schmidt, Alex Karras, John Gordy, Mike Lucci, Pat Studstill. Vince Lombardi
IMDB Entry.

George Plimpton would seem an unlikely person to have a best seller about sports.  He was a Harvard and Cambridge educated intellectual, and editor in chief of The Paris Review, a well-regarded literary journal.  But he did love sports, and in 1958 came up with the idea that made his fame: showing how a regular person (Plimpton himself) would fare against professional athletes.

He started in 1958, facing a series of National League batters in an exhibition game.  He fared poorly (he tired badly and had to be relieved) but wrote a successful book about the experience called Out of My League.  His next role was to box against Archie Moore and Sugar Ray Robinson.  But his biggest success was when he managed to make his way onto the exhibition season* roster of the Detroit Lions in 1963.

Plimpton’s background was supposed to be kept secret; he was the team’s new third-string quarterback, a rookie from Harvard who was trying to make the team.  The players, however, began to be suspicious as training camp progressed. 

The book not only covers Plimpton’s trials as a regular person trying to play with the pros, but lists anecdotes about the training camp and the other players.  Many stories involve defensive tackle Alex Karras, who wasn’t even in camp at the time.**

Plimpton got his chance to play in a team scrimmage,*** where he lost yardage on every play.  There was a plan to play him in an exhibition game, but Commissioner Peter Rozelle refused to let him.

Plimpton wrote up his experiences in articles in Sports Illustrated in 1964, and in 1966, they were expanded into a book.  It was a best seller.

And, like most best sellers, Hollywood decided to make it into the movie. To star, they picked an obscure actor best known for being the son of a big Broadway star.****  This was Alan Alda’s first major movie role and he certainly looked enough like Plimpton.  The film also had Lauren Hutton as his girlfriend (her first movie role).  And director Alex March had the idea of using actual football players as the members of the Lions, led by Alex Karras.

Plimpton is warnedThe movie took liberties on the book (and gleefully admitted to it).  Karras, of course, was in the camp, and Alda’s Plimpton actually played in an exhibition game.  It was otherwise a nice movie version of the book.

Alda’s career stalled for several years after the film (though he won a Golden Globe as Best Newcomer), but he eventually became a TV icon.  Hutton carved out a long career.  But probably the most surprising success at the time was Alex Karras, who, when he retired, became a successful actor in TV and movies like Blazing Saddles and Victor/Victoria. 

Director Alex March was a TV veteran, and continued to work on the small screen, with only one other movie to his credit.

Plimpton continued trying out other sports, most notably in
The Bogey Man, where he went on the PGA tour.  He also had a minor acting career, claimed the title of “Fireworks Commissioner of New York City,” and tended to pop up as one of the few intellectuals that the general public liked to see.  He died in 2003.

*As they called it at the time.

**He had been suspended for betting on games.

***Wearing the number “0.”

****Robert Alda, who created the role of Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Special Notice: Staroamer's Fate -- win a free copy! is excerpting my novel, Staroamer's Fate this week. Read the excerpt and then comment.  Two commenters -- one from the US and one from outside the US -- will win a copy of the book.

If you like science fiction space opera, give it a look.

Contest ends Saturday, January 26, so hurry!  (You must register for the site to comment.  It's free!)