Sunday, July 24, 2016

Bob Roberts

Bob Roberts(1992)
Written and Directed by
Tim Robbins
Starring Tim Robbins, Giancarlo Esposito, Alan Rickman, Ray Wise, Brian Murray, Gore Vidal
IMDB Entry

Political movies in the US are relatively tame. Usually, they are wrapped in the flag, or move away from the reality into a safe alternate situation. Bob Roberts is nothing of that, and ends up being provocative, frightening, and (hopefully not) prophetic.

Roberts (Tim Robbins) is a right-wing would-be politician, who was both a successful businessman and a singer-songwriter, a conservative Bob Dylan.*  He enters the Pennsylvania senate race against liberal Brickley Paste (Gore Vidal) and the movie is a mockumentary following the campaign.  Roberts puts forth a clean image, but Bugs Raplin (Giancardo Esposito) starts to sense something is wrong.

Robbins wrote, directed, starred, and wrote the songs for the movie.  He comes across as bland, but something about him is too slick, and the character never seems as good as he looks.  He also deals with subtle moments; the most chilling portion of the film is a single shot of him tapping his foot.

The movie was well regarded at the time, but has slowly been forgotten.

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*The parallel is deliberate.  His album titles mimic the titles of Dylan’s early albums.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Fegoot (book)

By Grendel Briarton

FeghootAh, Ferdinand Feghoot.  Traveler through space and time*and always ready to show up in any situation and crack the world’s worst puns.**  He even gave his name to the literary form: the feghoot.

It began in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.  Grendel Briarton’s** first effort immediately set the stage when, when Feghoot was captured by a shaggy alien with a hand on its head and holding a hypodermic needle.  But Feghoot wasn’t fazed:  he recognized the creature for what it was:  a furry with a syringe on top.

And it continued for years and over 120 variations, all capable of eliciting appreciative groans from any audience.  There were only two rules:  You couldn’t use made up names, and you had to keep it as short as possible.

The first time I encountered one was in an issue of Venture Science Fiction, *** who’s Feghoot told of a Paris landlord who jumped in the river and refused to come out because he didn’t have enough rents to come in out of the Seine.

The concept took off.  George Scithers, editor of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, helped keep it going with other authors. Asimov himself wrote several, including the brilliant “Death of a Foy.”****

Currently, Steve Pastis uses feghoots in his comic strip, Pearls Before Swine.”

But, if Briarton hadn’t actually invented the genre, he certainly popularized it. The originals are still brilliant puns, if some of the references are a bit dated.

And remember:  a gritty pearl is Michael, L.Ld.

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* Preceded Doctor Who by several year.

**A anagrammatic pseudonym for author Reginald Bretnor.

***A short-lived sister publication of F&SF.  It published a full-length novel in every issue, but only lasted a short time in each of its two separate runs.  For many years afterwards, though, the masthead of F&SF had a line “including Venture Science Fiction.”

****Scithers turned it down for Asimov’s, probably because it broke rule number 1.  But if you’re Isaac Asimov, you can break rules.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Sally Bananas (comic strip)

1969-73
Created by
Charles Barsotti

Writing comic panels is a different art than writing comic strips, and few people are successful at both.  Charles Barsotti was a long-time New Yorker cartoonist who tried several times to launch a strip, but never had much success.  But one of his failures was a delightful strip named Sally Bananas.

There wasn’t much to the strip.  Sally was pretty much the only character, a hippyish young woman who lived in the park.  The story was told in Barsotti’s trademark art – simple lines and curves.  Sally would talk about the world around her.

I remember the strip very fondly for one particular strip that still brings a chuckle.

Panel 1
Sally (upon meeting a strange looking creature):  “What are you?”
Creature:  “I’m a Roovil”

Panel 2
Sally:  “What a Roovil?”
Roovil:  “I don’t know, but I eat money.”

Panel 3
Sally:  “You eat money?”
Roovil: “Sure.  Haven’t you heard that money is the eat of all Roovils?”

Panel 4
Sally (walking away):  “Imagine renting a roovil suit to make that stupid joke.”

I love puns, but what sells the strip is the final panel.

The strip only ran three years.  Issues with the comic syndicate didn’t help, and it was probably too whimsical for a mass audience.  Barsotti returned to the New Yorker and continued his successful career until his death in 2014.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Dead Again

Dead Again(1991)
Directed by
Kenneth Branagh
Written by Scott Frank
Starring Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Andy Garcia, Derek Jacobi, Robin Williams, Wayne Knight
IMDB Entry

When Kenneth Branagh burst on the scene, he was a wonder.  Writer, director, actor, and a sensation for taking Henry V – a Shakespeare play that had already been filmed to production – and getting nominated for two Oscars.  People wondered what he’d do next, and the result was Dead Again.

Mike Church (Branagh), a private eye, is guilted into investigating the origins of a mysterious woman (Emma Thompson), who showed up, unable to speak and suffering from amnesia.  After some investigation, he is led to Franklyn Madson (Derek Jacobi), a hypnotist who thinks he can help.  Mike is skeptical, but it leads them to a long-ago murder Roman and Margaret in better dayswhere composer Roman Strauss (Branagh) is executed for the murder of his wife Margaret (Thompson).  With the help of disgraced psychiatrist Cozy Carlisle (Robin Williams*), he begins to unravel the mystery, which seems to have continued to the present day.

The movie is often described as “film noir,” but it’s better called a Hitchcockian pastiche.  It feels like a Hitchcock film, with the suspense thick and the visuals dramatic.  Branagh’s roles are also well played, with Mike being a disheveled PI type, and Roman as a European artiste.  Emma Thompson was establishing herself as one of the top actresses of the time, and Derek Jacobi was as good as he always is.

The movie was a critical and commercial success.  Branagh’s directing career continued strongly with his Shakespeare adaptations, but dropped off at time went on.  His work outside of Shakespeare has not been successful, and he’s now better known as an actor, especially in Wallender.

But Dead Again is filmmaking at its best – bravura, cleverly plotted, and a pleasure to watch.  It hooks you in and keeps you guessing and never lets up.

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*Williams was uncredited at his own request, so moviegoers wouldn’t be misled in to believing the film was a comedy.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Alice in Wonderland (TV)

(1983)
Alice in WonderlandDirected by
Kirk Browning
Written by Lewis Carroll; based on a production by Eva La Gallienne
Starring Kate Burton, Eve Arden, Kaye Ballard, Richard Burton, James Coco, Tony Cummings, Andre De Shields, Colleen Dewhurst, Andre Gregory, Geoffrey Holder, Zeljko Ivanek, Nathan Lane, Donald O’Connor, Austin Pendleton, Maureen Stapleton, Sven Svenson, Fritz Waver, Alan Weeks, Richard Woods
IMDB Entry
Full Movie online

Alice in Wonderland is very hard to dramatize. There are many problems:  a picaresque plot* that has no dramatic arc, a main character who is smart but otherwise ill-defined, the need to interpolate materials from two books into one, etc.  But probably the most successful Alice was a PBS version in the early 80s that managed to add all the elements and have all the joy and whimsy of the book.

This version is based upon a version by Eva La Gallienne and Florida Friebus from 1932.**  The PBS version hewed closely to the two books and solved the problem of including elements of both by first showing scenes from Alice in Wonderland and then segueing directly into Through the Looking Glass.  Thus, the integration worked far more smoothly than most version.

But it’s the frame tale that makes this version.  We are introduced by a group of actors who are complaining that “she” – the actress playing Alice –is going to be terrible on stage.  We cut to her in the dressing room and she smokes and is trying to memorize “Jabberwocky” – and not doing a good job of it.  She looks in the mirror and turns into Alice, her short black hair becoming long and blonde.

The play follows the book pretty closely.  Scenes are cut, of course, but it’s done very well.  And the switchover to the second book works perfectly:  instead of waking from a dream, Alice goes into the looking glass world.  And it keeps many of Carroll’s poems by turning them into songs.

The set and costume design follow John Tenniel’s original illustrations.

The strength is the final scene where Alice recited “Jabberwocky,” turning a story with an “it’s all a dream!” ending into a triumph for her.

Kate Burton*** played Alice.  She was 26 at the time, and that was a smart move.  Too often, Alice is a child or teen, an actress who can’t work Carroll’s lines in a natural manner.  Burton may not be a child, but she understands the work better, and thus the dialog gets don’t correctly.

Alice and the White KnightIt’s hard to pick the best of any of the cast, but most notable are Nathan Lane (early in his career) as the mouse, Donald O’Connor as the Mock Turtle, Andre Gregory as the Mad Hatter, Maureen Stapleton as the White Queen, Colleen Dewhurst as the Red Queen, and Richard Burton as the White Knight (probably the most sympathetic character in Carroll’s works).

The special was taken from a Broadway production of the play, with all of the cast – except for Alice – changed.  It was videotaped in a TV studio, but didn’t try to change the “stagy” aspect of things.

But, like most things Alice, the special was ephemeral.  It was only aired a couple of times and forgotten.  But if you love Lewis Carroll, this is how it should be done.

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*No, not picturesque.  A picaresque is a story where the main character goes from adventure to adventure, or place to place, but with no general arc.  Don Quixote is probably the best known in literature.

**Both were successful actresses with long careers.  La Gallienne was a legend of the theater, and got an Oscar nomination for Resurrection.  Friebus had a long career in films and TV, and played one of Bob Hartley’s patients in The Bob Newhart Show. The opening night cast of the play included Burgess “Penguin” Meredith, Howard da Silva, and Whit Bissell (a familiar face in many 50s SF films).  The next year, it was the basis for an all-star movie version made by Paramount.

***Daughter of Richard Burton.  I see in her IMDB entry that she is a “highly respected and talented audio book reader,” so her skill at reading lines has kept with her.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Love (music)

image1966-
Members*:
  Arthur Lee (songwriter, vocals, guitar), Bryan MacLean(songwriter, rhythm guitar, vocals), John Echols (lead guitar), Ken Forssi (bass), Michael Stuart (drums), Alan “Snoopy” Pfisterer (drums).
Wikipedia Entry

It’s difficult to break into music, and some extremely talented groups never had the success they deserved.  That’s especially true when your songs are an eclectic mix that’s not easily categorized.  Add to that internal strife and you have a recipe for failure.  Love was never a big success in sales, but they produced one classic album.

The group starts with Arthur Lee.  He was a black kid growing up in Los Angeles and an aspiring songwriter and musician.  He started composing songs in his teens – surf music and the like – and several of them were recorded.  When the Byrds came along, Lee was inspired, as he felt they were using the same sort of sound he was working for.  He formed a small folk-rock group which he eventually named Love.  In 1966, after being signed to Elektra Records, the group put out their first self-titled album.

It was certainly eclectic, with folk rock and what later to be called “garage rock” being featured.  It received good reviews, but with only modest sales.

Once nice thing about the 60s was that record companies were willing to stick with an artist who didn’t become an immediate hit, so the group followed up with Da Capo.  Like the first album, it was nearly all Arthur Lee compositions.  Most notably, it was one of the first albums to have a track fill an entire side (and the first single album to do it) with the jam “Revelation.”  Lee’s music was still evolving to add psychedelic and punk themes.

But there were tensions.  When they came to record their next album, Lee and Bryan MacLean started out being backed by studio musicians.  This caused the rest of the band to realize they were missing out, so they rejoined Lee and MacLean and started to be serious about their music.  The result was their masterpiece Forever Changes. Here’s an example:

But Lee’s eclectic approach and complex melodies** wowed the critics, but didn’t help with sales, and the album was their worst seller yet. 

Lee decided that they needed a new approach and fired the rest of the band.  Their next album, Four Sail was a bit of a disappointment, and the various follow-ups never allowed for a turnaround.  Lee moved to more of a hard rock sound, which probably alienated his older fans without attracting new ones.

Lee finally went solo*** but had no success.  There were various attempts to get the old gang together, but they never came to much.  Lee also went to jail for several years,**** during which Brian MacLean and Ken Forssi both died.

Love’s influence is vast, with many people listing Forever Changes as favorites, including Robert Plant and Jim Morrison.  Many UK acts have also cited them.

Lee died in 2006.  The remnants of the group, with a couple of the original members, is still touring as more and more people come to discover and appreciate them.

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*Love was so much in flux that the number of musicians is hard to pin down. They went through almost as many drummers as Spinal Tap, for instance.  These are the names listed in Lillian Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia – which also mentions two former members

**Just to get this out of the way:  one of their songs on the album, “Red Telephone” has the line “We are normal and we want our freedom.” This line is also used in “We are Normal” by my favorite band, the Bonzo Dog Band.  The two songs got the line from the same source:  the play Marat/Sade.

***Which he was doing starting with Four Sail, anyway.

****The prosecutor on the case was later found guilty of misconduct.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Local Hero

Local Hero(1983)
Written and Directed by
Bill Forsyth
Starring Burt Lancaster, Peter Riegert, Peter Capaldi, Jenny Seagrove, Dennis Lawson, Jennifer Black, Fulton Mackay
IMDB Entry

Bill Forsyth was a Scottish writer/director who loves his characters.  He had a knack for creating quirky but real people to populate his films, and his scripts often meandered in ways you’d never expect.  Local Hero is his best work.

“Mac” McIntyre (Peter Riegert) is an executive for a Texas oil company run by Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster).  He’s sent to Ferness, a small town on the Scottish coast, with plans to buy up land for an oil refinery. Mac meets with the oil company’s agent, Danny Oldsen (Peter Capaldi) and takes rooms at the hotel/pub run by Gordon Urquhart* (Dennis Lawson).  Gordon also runs everything else in town and, unbeknownst to Mac, knows all about the plans.  The townspeople are perfectly happy to take their money from the refinery, except for Marina (Jenny Seagrove), a marine biologist who wants to protect the local environment.

The movie allows you to enjoy the characters.  Marina seems to have some miraculous secrets, and Gordon is a charming conniver.  There’s also a Russian sea captain who docks in order to watch over his stock portfolio, and Ben Knox, a beachcomber who owns the beach.

Burt Lancaster is wonderful.  At this time in his career, he had learned to be a little less intense and the result is – like everything else in the film – is charming.  All of the character vie to be funny and very, very human.

This was Forsyth’s most successful film.  His next, Comfort and Joy, was also a charmer, but his career petered out after that.  Maybe it was his leaving Scotland. 

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*Thankfully, no relation of Francis Urquhart.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Allen and Rossi (comedy)

Allen and Rossi1957-1968
Marty Allen
(Morton David Alpern) (1922- )
Steve Rossi (Joseph Charles Michael Tafarella) (1932-2014)
Wikipedia Entry

Comedy teams are a thing of the past.  Even though standup is going strong, the idea of a comedian and straight man combo – a setup dating back to vaudeville – has died out.  The form seems too stagy for today’s tastes.  Allen and Rossi were one of the last big stars in the genre.*

Steve Rossi was actually discovered by Mae West.  He was a singer, and West loved having handsome men surrounding her in her shows.  He went on to be a singer with Nat “King” Cole.  When Cole heard he was thinking of doing comedy, he hooked him up with Marty Allen, a standup comedian. 

The two worked out an act, but it was a flub on the part of Allen that gave them their catchphrase.  In one show, Allen blanked on his line and blurted out “Hello, dere.”  It helped to make them a star.

Their act was simple, with Rossi asking questions of Allen, who would come up with the punchline.  Unlike other straight men, Rossi rarely joked, leaving the laughs to his partner, but singing a song to either open or close the act.

Allen’s appearance worked for him.  Like many comedy duos, they were mismatched in size:  Rossi was tall and slim, Allen was short and chubby. He had a round face and large eyes that helped him sell the joke, but the goofiest part of his was his hair – a wild, curly mop that gave the impression of a dandelion.  The jokes are far too “jokey” for audiences today, but Allen still manages to get laughs out of it.  He also did “impressions,” which consisted of Rossi announcing him as a celebrity and Allen not making the slightest attempt to mimic the person, and even starting out with “Hello, dere.”

The act was a smashing success, doing the club and the talk show circuit, and eventually The Ed Sullivan Show, where they became favored comedians.** Which leads them to the main reason they’re cited today:  they were on the show for the Beatles’ first appearance.  That’s a hard act to follow, but Allen and Rossi managed to charm the audience of teenage girls who were not their usual demographic;

The two of them appeared in three of the four Ed Sullivan Shows that featured the Beatles, and seemed to have a mutual liking for the fab four.

The two continued to perform in nightclubs and TV, and in 1966 appeard in the film The Last of the Secret Agents?, which flopped badly.***  Finally, in 1968, the two split (amicably).

Rossi kept trying with other partners, but drifted away from show business.  Allen kept busy as a game show celebrity on The Hollywood Squares and occasional actor.

The two occasionally re-formed the act for Las Vegas, drawing their old fans.  It all ended with Rossi died in 2014.

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*Not the very last – Rowan and Martin were probably the last to be major mainstream stars, while Cheech and Chong were big among youth.  Key and Peele are one of the few currently successful, but they’re sketch comedians, not stand up.

**They appeared there 44 times.

***The clip I found appears to be pretty awful, though it could be scene as a certain inspiration for Austin Powers.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Governor and J.J. (TV)

Governor and JJ(1969-70)
Created by
Leonard Stern and Arne Sultan
Starring Dan Dailey, Julie Sommars, Neva Patterson, James T. Callihan
IMDB Entry

Leonard Stern was a major name of 1960s comedy, if for nothing else than his creation (with Roger Price) of Mad Libs.  But he also produced and wrote TV shows with his partner Arne Sultan, shows like  Get Smart, He & She, The Good Guys, and Macmillan and Wife. The Governor and J.J. was just another example, and deserved more than the single season it was on.

The show was about William Drinkwater (Dan Dailey), governor of an unnamed state (probably in the midwest). He was a widower, so the role of First Lady fell to his 20-something daughter, J.J. (Julie Sommars).  J.J. was a mildly rebellious child of the 60s, who much preferred her work as a curator at the local zoo and who often disagreed politically with her father (mildly). 

The show was only political in the general sense, usually dealing with personalities more than real issues.  Often, J.J. would say something that was potentially embarrassing, and the governor would have to work with her to put out the fire.  Or other other way around:  J.J. had to find evidence to quash a potential scandal (which turned out to be an innocent error, of course).

Dan Dailey was a Hollywood and Broadway hoofer, appearing in many musicals of the 40s.  Julie Sommars had been a frequent guest star on TV.

The show won three Golden Globes, for Best Comedy Series, and for Best Comedy Actor and Actress.  But the Golden Globes didn’t mean much back then, and poor ratings doomed the show to a single season.

After then, Dailey’s appearances were less frequent.  Sommars worked steadily in TV, and eventually got a regular role in Matlock.

I’d love to be able to see it again.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Charade

Charade(1963)
Directed by
Stanley Donen
Written by Peter Stone (screenplay and story), and Mark Behm (story)
Starring Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Walter Matthau, James Coburn, George Kennedy, Ned Glass
IMDB Entry

Stanley Donen is an extremely underrated director.  Partly this is because his best work is with musicals, which are passe as a film form.  He directed several classics – On the Town, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Funny Face, The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, and, of course, one of the greatest films of all time, Singin’ in the Rain.*  By the 1960s, he seemed to grow tired of musicals and he switched to one of the best of all Hitchcock pastiches – Charade.

Regina Lampert (Audrey Hepburn) is an American living in Europe, having a final lone vacation before she divorces her husband.  She runs into the suave stranger Peter Joshua (Cary Grant), but when the returns to her home in Paris, her husband is dead, leaving her only a few trivial items.  But three sinister men – Tex Panthollow (James Coburn), Herman Scobie (George Kennedy), and Leopold Gideon (Ned Glass) show up at the funeral.  The CIA gets into the act:  the administrator Hamilton Bartholomew (Walter Matthau) reveals what’s going on.  The three men and her husband were part of a group who stole gold from the French resistance.  And there is a fourth man, Carson Dyle, and Peter Joshua (who keeps popping up to help out Regina) might just be Dyle.

The movie is full of double crosses and plot twists.  It’s clear the Cary Grant** is having a lot of fun playing the mysterious Mr. Joshua.  Hepburn also seems to like the light romance.

Coburn, Kennedy, and Glass are familiar film heavies of the time, and also make the most of their roles.  Walter Matthau is also especially effective.

The movie was a big hit at the time, and was well regarded for the way it managed to be both Hitchcockian and original.  Donen continued to direct, with quite a few successes, including the brilliant Movie Movie

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*Co-directed with Gene Kelly

**If you’re doing a Hitchcock pastiche, why not use one of his favorite actors.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Gambit

Gambit(1966)
Directed by
Ronald Neame
Written by Jack Davis (screenplay) and Alvin Sargent (screenplay); story by Sidney Carroll
Starring:  Shirley MacLaine, Michael Caine, Herbert Lom
IMDB Entry

Caper films are always entertaining, but the key – like with anything else – is to keep them fresh.  Gambit is an attempt to try a little big different with the genre with a tricky plot and lost of double crossing.

Harry Dean (Michael Caine) discovered Nicole Chang (Shirley MacLaine), who is a Hong Kong showgirl.  She also bears a striking resemblance to the late wife of a wealthy man, Shahbandar (Herbert Lom), which leads to Dean’s plan:  Nicole will meet with Shahbandar as a way to get into his apartment, and Harry will use the distraction to steal a valuable statuette of Shahbander’s wife.  It seems rather simple at first, but begins to get more and more complex at time goes on.

The movie has several gimmicks.  First of all MacLaine does not speak during the first half hour of the film, as the plot is revealed.  It seems to go off perfectly, but it turns out that it didn’t work at all, and the real plot involves multiple twists so that you can’t really know what’s going on until the end.

At the time it came out, Maclaine was a top star and she’s wonderful, first as the mysterious dancer, and later as a real person.  Michael Caine was still a rising star when cast, but his success in The Ipcress File had started his career.*  He gives his usual fine performance.

The movie has pretty much been forgotten.  Director Ronald Neame had an up-and-down career, with successes like The Poseidon Adventure and The Prime of Miss Jean Brody, but nothing that really put him on the map. 

The movie does have some wonderful ideas, well executed, but time seems to have left it alone.

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*Alfie, which gave him wider stardom, was released just before Gambit.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

I.Q.

I Q(1994)
Directed by
Fred Schepisi
Written by Andy Breckman (story and screenplay) and Michael Leeson (screenplay)
Starring  Tim Robbins, Meg Ryan, Walter Matthau, Lou Jacobi, Gene Sacks, Joseph Maher, Stephen Fry, Tony Shalhoub, Charles Durning,
IMDB Entry

Fred Schepesi directed a nice little list of interesting films in the 80s and 90s, ranging from serious drama, to spy thrillers, to adaptations of plays, to comedy.  But he was especially good at romance, and I.Q. was a weird and charming film about love and advanced physics.

Ed Walters (Tim Robbins) is a garage mechanic who ends up doing a repair for Princeton doctoral student Catherine Boyd (Meg Ryan).  Sparks fly, though Ed is the only one to recognize it, since Catherine is already engaged to James Moreland (Stephen Fry).  Still, Ed won’t give up.  He finds something of hers and decides to return it, where he meets her uncle, Albert Einstein (Walter Matthau).  Einstein and his scientists friends Liebknecht (Josephy Maher), Godel (Jacobi), and Podolsky (Gene Saks) team up to turn Ed into an intellectual so Catherine will fall for him.

Now, forget about historical accuracy.  Like Inglourous Basterds, the film just doesn’t care.  What makes it work is a sense of sweetness, where Einstein is a doting uncle and the other physicists are committed to the idea that love is more important that intellect.

Matthau has a lot of fun with the role, and the romance is in some ways secondary to the matchmaking scenes.  But overall, it’s a charming little comedy.*

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*I’m sure I liked it because of my interest in all things Einstein, due to my grandfather’s friendship with him.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

You, Me, and the Apocalypse

image(2015-16)
Created by
Ian Hollands
Starring Matthew Baynton, Jenna Fischer, Joel Fry, Gaia Scodellaro, Rob Lowe, Megan Mullally, Pauline Quirke, Karla Crome, Patterson Joseph, Kyle Soller, Fabian McCallum
IMDB Entry

There are clearly some anglophiles at NBC.  Years ago, they attempted to bring British shows like Dame Edna and Spitting Image to American TV.  They were critical success, but flops in the ratings.  This year, NBC decided to do it again with the end-of-the-world comedy/drama You, Me, and the Apocalypse.

There series follows many stories in a world where a comet is about to strike Earth and end all life there.  Jamie Winton (Matthew Baynton) is a bank manager is Slough* who is suddenly arrested as a terrorist.  Jamie is still getting over his abandonment by his wife Layla, and starts to discover he had a twin brother Ariel, who is with her and who is head of a group of hackers.  Meanwhile, Rhonda McNeill (Jenna Fischer), who is going to jail for hacking the NSA.  She’s innocent but wants to protect the real culprit, her son Spike (Fabian McCallum)as a hacker to protect her son Spike.  In jail, she befriends the white supremacist Leanne (Meagan Mullally).

At the same time, Sister Celine Leonti (Gaia Scodellaro) is asked to work at the office of the Devil’s Advocate at the Vatican, led by the rather unpriestly Father Jude (Rob Lowe).

And then the word gets out:  a comet is about to hit Earth.  So things get a bit complicated.

The story starts out as a black comedy with some serious elements, but as it goes on, it becomes a serious film, with overtones of religious faith and straight-on adventure.  It constantly surprises as characters do things you never thought they’d do

The cast is, of course, excellent.  Mathew Baynton is especially excellent as both Jamie and Ariel, switching from lost and decent, to pure evil.  Meagan Mullally’s Leanne is so different from her role in Will and Grace that you wonder if it’s the same actress.

The show just finished its first season on NBC with a cliffhanger.  Unfortunately, the ratings were not great, so there’s doubt there will be a second season.  At the moment, it can be watched on the NBC site and also on Hulu; give it a look.

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*A town about 20 miles from London

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Roxanne

Roxanne(1987)
Directed by
Fred Schepisi
Written by Steve Martin, based upon Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand
Starring Steve Martin, Daryl Hannah, Rick Rossovich
IMDB Entry

When I first started seeing Steve Martin on Saturday Night Live, I didn’t much care for him.  He would come on stage, looking and sounding like he was about to be funny, but I would realize afterward, it was all presentation:  he wasn’t all that funny.  In the “wild and crazy guy” skits, he was always overshadowed by Dan Ackroyd.*  And his early films seemed to confirm my feelings.

But a funny thing happened. For some reason, even though I didn’t like him as an actor, I started watching his movies.  All of Me showed that he could be a good actor when he wasn’t playing a comic.  And Roxanne made me change my entire opinion of him.**

Now, let me make one thing clear.  I’m a big fan of Cyrano de Bergerac, starting when we read it – in French – in high school.  I also love the movie with Jose Ferrer** and Roxanne is a great adaptation, modified for modern times.

You know the story.  Cyrano is named C. D. Bales (Martin), in love with Roxanne (Daryl Hannah).  But Roxanne loves the handsome Chris (Rick Rossovich).  Chris is inarticulate, but Bales – with an large, ugly nose – helps him with Roxanne by supplying romantic words and letters.

Martin was a surprise as a romantic lead and his performance is just perfect.  His Bales is a little less stiff than Jose Ferrer’s, and his romance seems even more heartfelt.  Hannah makes a charming modern-day Roxanne.

The rewrite gives the movie a happy ending.**** but that can be forgiven.  It’s overall a wonderful reworking of a great play.

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*I didn’t like “King Tut” because it paled in comparison with the Bonzo Dog Band far nuttier “Ali Baba’s Camel.”

**I discovered later that Martin wasn’t so much as being a comedian, as playing a comedian.  He was acting a role.

***It used the translation by Brian Hooker, considered the best and most faithful to the original.  Comparing it to the French version, it clearly uses the best choices that keep with the original.  One moment, for instance, is when Cyrano insults a man by saying he is not a man of letters, except for three.  In French, it’s “F-O-U” (crazy).  Hooker directly translates the speech, but uses “A-S-S.”

****Spoiler:  Cyrano de Bergerac is a tragedy.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Sledge Hammer (TV)

Sledge Hammer(1986-88)
Created by
Alan Spencer
Starring David Rasche, Anne-Marie Martin, Harrison Page
IMDB Entry

Satire has a checkered history on TV.  It’s hard to keep it going over the course of a series, and even a spoof can flag.  But one of the better examples was Sledge Hammer.

Sledge Hammer (David Rasche) was the gung-ho-est cop in the San Francisco Police Department, teamed up with his best friend and partner, a .44 Magnum.  He believes in shooting first . . . and not asking questions.  His official partner, Detective Dori Doreau (Ann-Marie Martin) acts to try to tone down his penchant for gunplay, all to the frustration of their boss, Captain Trunk (Harrison Page).

The show was completely over the top.  Hammer was an extrapolation of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry.  He wasn’t very bright, had a short temper, and was barely competent, but ended up catching the crooks due to dumb luck.

Rasche was an alumni of Second City in Chicago and does a great job.  The show also had a penchant for ridiculing other TV shows as part of its plot.

The show was not very successful in the ratings.  So much that the producers decided to go out with a literal bang.  In the final episode of the season, a nuclear bomb threatens the city.  It’s up to Hammer to disarm it, and he says his catchphrase, “Trust me.  I know what I’m doing.”

The bomb blows up, destroying Hammer, the cast, and the entire city.

Then came the bad news:  despite the poor ratings, ABC decided to renew it for another series.  Not a problem:  the second season has a title card saying, “The following season of Sledge Hammer! takes place five years earlier that nuclear explosion.” It screwed with the continuity, but no one cared.

It was a funny gem that deserves to be better know.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Great Train Robbery

(1979)
Directed by
Michael Crichton
Written by Michael Crichton from his nove.
Starring Sean Connery, Donald Sutherland, Leslie-Anne Down
IMDB Entry

Sean Connery is a lot more than just James Bond.  He walked away from the iconic role, but not from further interesting films, where his talents could be apparent.   The Great Train Robbery* is a lesser known showcase for his talents, and a gem.

The England of 1854, Edward Pierce (Connery) is a gentlman thief, one whose goal is less to steal money as it is to outwit the police.  He learns that there is a monthly shipment of gold, and hatches a plot to steal it all, joined by Robert Agar (Donald Sutherland), a safecracker, and a crew of others, including his mistress Miriam (Leslie-Ann Down).

It’s your standard caper film, enhanced by the acting and the setting and some clever plotting.  Connery is brilliant, and it gives him a chance to say one of my favorite Connery lines ever (don’t try to follow what Sutherland is saying; there’s a lot of argot and plot related material.  Just let him rant, then listen to what Connery says):

Sutherland also is fine.  His name recognition is high, but too many of his roles he just came in to be Donald Sutherland.  This is one chance to not only be a character, but to play one that’s different from his usual image.

Michael Crichton, of course, is known for his thriller novels and the movies made from them, often touching on science fiction.  He didn’t direct a lot, but this is probably his most successful film.

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*UK Title The First Great Train Robbery

Sunday, February 14, 2016

They Made Me a Criminal

image(1939)
Directed by
BusbyBerkeley
Written by Sig Herzig, from a novel by Bertram Millhauser and Beulah Marie Dix.
Starring:  John Garfield, Claude Rains, May Robeson, The Dead End Kids (Billy Halop, Boby Jordan, Leo Gorce, Huntz Hall, Gabriel Dell et. al.)
IMDB Entry

Ah, yes.  Busby Berkeley.  Master of the musical, genius of the movie dance.  And how about those Bowery Boys, with the bad jokes and malapropisms and Three-Stooges lite violence.  Certainly if they ever worked together, the result would be a gritty drama like They Made Me a Criminal.

It’s the story of Johnny Bradford (John Garfield), a boxing champion who is accused of murder.  He’s been framed, of course, but he has to fake his own death and moves to a farm in Arizona owned by his grandmother (May Robson).  It’s also the home for a group of juvenile deliquents (the Dead End Kids), who he helps to go straight by the power of boxing.  Meanwhile, New York detective Monty Phalen (Claude Rains) is sure that Bradford is still alive and goes all Inspector Javert on  him to bring him in.

John Garfield was an up-and-coming star in 1939 and this was his first starring role.  The title of the film pretty much describes his career – a long list of gangsters and shady people, who he played with passion and fire.  His career never took off into stardom (though he was the lead in many films) because he was argumentative and, more importantly, that he was blacklisted after refusing to name names to the House Unamerican Activities Committee.  The stress was an contributing factor to his health, and he died of a heart attack in 1952 at age 39.

The Dead End Kids had come to prominence in the Broadway production of Dead End and when it became a movie, they came along.  All were untrained as actors, but the producers liked their rough persona and they became a fixture at Warner Brothers after the film.  The group changed, with spinoffs and meldings and eventually became known for cheap comedies as the Bowery Boys and/or the East Side Kids.

Claude Rains hated his role, feeling he didn’t fit the character.  He had tried to turn down the part, but the studio insisted and he performed under protest.

As for Berkeley, he wasted to branch out of musicals and do something dramatic.  The movie was a success,* but he quickly returned to doing musicals.

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*And even referred to the song “By a Waterfall” from one of Berkeley’s films.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Rabbit-Proof Fence

image(2002)
Directed by
Philip Noyce
Written by Christine Olsen from a book by Doris Pilkingon
Starring Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury, Laura Monaghan, Kenneth Branagh, David Gulpilil
IMDB Entry

Western treatment of native cultures was never a high point of humanity. Sometimes, it was naked cruelty and genocide, but at other times, purely good intentions were disasterous.  Rabbit Proof Fence is the story of the latter.

It’s set in Australia in 1931.  The Australian government has embarked on a policy of “helping” children born to one aboriginal and one white parent.  This policy is carried out by the Protector of Aborigines, A. O. Neville (Kenneth Branagh).  He learns of three girls, Molly (Everlyn Sampi), Daisy (Tianna Sansbury) and Gracie Fields (Laura Monaghan) who are “half-caste,” and signs an order removing them from their home and put into a school.

They don’t go easily, but end up 1500 miles away at the Moore River Native Settlement.  The three girls hate it and decide to run away.  When they find the rabbit-proof fence, they realize that this can be their way home.*

The film follows their journey as the girls walk across the outback, scavenging and avoiding the tracker Moodoo (David Gulpilil), an agent of Neville, who quickly realizes their plan and tries to recapture them – for their own good, of course.

Branagh was wonderful, portraying a man who was certain he was doing good, but who only did evil.  It was a clever and nuanced performance.  The actresses playing the three girls were also impressive, carrying the movie.

It’s a movie that’s not quite a triumph, but not quite a tragedy, and it shines a light on a shameful part of human history.

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*A little background.  Rabbits were imported to Australia as food animals when the colony was established.  They weren’t a problem until someone released them into the wild for hunting arond 1859.  They bred like . .. rabbits and ten years later were a massive pest.  When shooting barely dented the population, various rabbit-proof fences were set up, though they only slowed the flood a bit. 

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Krazy Ikes (toy)

Krazy Ikes(1964 – ??)

Toymakers in the 50s and 60s loved plastic.  And why not?  It’s a cheap material, colorful, and can be used in many ways.  Building toys, especially.  When I was growing up, the main ones were Tinkertoys, Lincoln Logs (both made of wood) and Erector Sets (made of steel).  But both were limited.  Lincoln Logs just allowed you to build log cabins, Tinkertoys were totally freeform, and Erector Sets were held together by nuts and bolts that were a pain to set up and take down.  When my parents took a trip to Copenhagen, they brought back a Danish toy that I had never seen in the US:  Legos.  The other toys were lost in their wake.

Not that people tried.  Whitman, Inc. had been making a toy since the 30s, and changed it to plastic.  Instead of making houses, you made people and animals.  They called it “Krazy Ikes.”

imageIt was a clever design.  There were several bodies, with little round stubs – a sphere on a short connector – for the legs, arms, and heads.  There were also heads, but the key were the arm/legs.  These snapped onto the stubs and could be moved in any position (think ball-and-socket joint).  This made the results fully artculatable and posable in any postion.  You could mix and match to make anything you wanted.

It was a brilliant idea.  Not only could you make whatever you wanted, but you could also play with them, interchange parts, and generally have fun.

Alas, the toy had a very short life.  By the 70s, it was gone.  Too bad.  I enjoyed it almost as much as Lego – and mostly because you could use your imagination.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Mott the Hoople (music)

(1969-1973)
Ian Hunter (guitar, keyboards, vocals), Mick Ralphs (guitar, vocals), Overend Watts (bass), Verden Allen (organ), Dale “Buffin” Griffin (drums)
Wikipedia entry

In memory of David Bowie and Buffin.

It’s rare that rock acts get second chances.  Their success can usually be plotted on a bell curve, and once you start to drop, it’s over except for the oldies circuit.  One notable exception was Mott the Hoople. 

imageThey first came to attention in 169 for two reasons:  A high energy album, which featured the hard rocking “Rock and Roll Queen.”  And a cover featuring artwork by M. C. Escher.*

The album put them on the map.  Made up mostly of covers, it did include works by band members Ian Hunter and Mick Ralphs.  It was not a major hit, but it put the group on the map, and people expected them to be stars.

But it wasn’t to happen.  Their follow-up, Mad Shadows, was considered a step back and their next, Wildlife, garnered little interest.**  Brain Capers did even worse*** and they lost their contract to Atlantic/Island records.  It looked like they were going to have to go back to their day jobs.

Then, David Bowie stepped in.  A fan of the group, he offered to produce their next album, and gave them one of his songs:  “All the Young Dudes.”****

The song was a hit, reaching #3 in the UK and #27 in the US.  The album of that title also charted.  The group was back in business.

But could they keep up the success without Bowie, who had other projects.  The answer was their album Mott, which was a rousing success.

The album had a theme about life of a rock and roll band.  “All the Way from Memphis” – the opening song, and a classic of rock – told of a time that Hunter once lost his guitar. 

Other songs talked about their life and their fans, but seemed to have a sense of humor about it all. The album doesn’t have a bad track on it.

But success started to take its toll.    Mick Ralphs left to form Bad Company, so the next album, The Hoople was recorded without him.  He was replaced by “Ariel Bender,” a pseudonym for Luther Gosvenor of Spooky Tooth.*****  Ian Hunter had written most of the music, so started thinking about a solo career.

The album was a step backwards, but then, that was pretty much inevitable.  Ian Hunter left for a solo career.  Watts and Buffin, tried to keep things going, but the group was just a shadow of itself, and, other than live and compilations, the group was done.

It turned out to be a short run, but with one classic album and another two that nearly reached classic status, Mott the Hoople were an important part of the 70s rock scene.

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*Escher had not quite made it in the popular culture at this point; the album cover was many people’s first experience of him.

**”Whiskey Woman” was a pretty good rocker like “Rock and Roll Queen,” but it paled to the original.

***It wasn’t helped by a amateurish cover. 

****After they had turned down “Suffragette City.”

*****Verdan Allen had quit during the Mott sessions when they wouldn’t include his songs.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

I Married a Witch

image(1942)
Directed by
Rene Claire
Written by Robert Pirosh and Marc Connelly, based on an uncompleted novel by Thorne Smith (completed by Norman Matson)
Starring  Fredric March, Veronica Lake, Robert Benchley, Susan Hayward, Cecil Kellaway
IMDB Entry

In the 1940s, there was a small boomlet of fantasy films and at some point someone thought to try to use Thorne Smith again.  Smith was a popular fantasist of the 1930s, best known today for Topper. So in 1942, French director Rene Clair got hold of an unfinished novel by Smith, The Passionate Witch and managed to convince Preston Sturges and Paramount to make it into a move.  The result was I Married a Witch.

It starts in colonial Salem, Massachusetts, where Johnathan Wooley (Fredric March) convicts Jennifer (Veronica Lake) and her father Daniel (Cecil Kellaway) of witchcraft, where they are burned at the stake and the ashes buried beneath a tree, but not before Jennifer curses Wooley and all his descedants to marry the wrong woman.

In 1942, the curse continues, but a bolt of lightning frees Jennifer and Daniel.  They go seeking the descendant of Wooley – Wallace (March) who’s about to marry Estelle Masterson (Susan Hayward).  Jennifer appears in a human body to torment Wooley – but ends up falling in love.

The story is slight, of course, and March and Lake make the most of their roles.*  March was the better actors, as his two Oscars show; Lake really was just a hairdo.  Still, she is fine as Jennifer, and Cecil Kellaway does a good job as her father.

The concept, of course, was used the next year in Fritz Lieber’s novel Conjure Wife and, of course, years later in Bewtitched.**

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*Evidently, they hated each other on the set

**Though the TV show just used the idea; the characters were far different

Sunday, January 3, 2016

The Six Wives of Henry VIII (music)

image(1973)
Written by
Rick Wakeman
Performed by Rick Wakeman, Bill Bruford, Mike Egan, Seve Howe, Alan White, Dave Winter, Dave Lambert, Chas Cronk, and others.
Wikipedia Page

I was, and still am, a fan of progressive rock of the 70s.  It’s fashionble to scoff at it, calling it bombastic (which was part of what made it great) and self-indulgent (a code sneer for mucians who produce songs that last longer than four minutes), but the concept of melding rock with classical and jazz is exciting; rock can be more than three chords (though three-chord songs can be great, too).  One of the landmarks of the genre was Rick Wakeman’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII.

Wakeman was a keyboardist and first came to prominence as a studio musician* and was first credited as a member of the folk-rock group, The Strawbs.  He backed David Bowie and joined Yes for the Fragile album, where he became known to the public.

During his years with Yes, he decided to do a solo album, which became Six Wives.  Wakeman had read a biography of Henry VIII and he realized something he had been working on would fit in with what he was reading about Anne Boleyn.  Wakeman gathered musicians he worked with with Yes and The Strawbs and put together the album.

Each of the six songs are named after one of the six wives.  They are musical impressions – there are no lyrics, though some songs have vocals.  The order is a bit odd:  it’s not chronological.

My favorite is “Catherine Howard,” which starts out with a beautiful melody before going off into other directions.  The songs all switch from rock, to classical, to waltzes and is always interesting.

A&M Records, which distributed, thought it would be a flop:  an instrumental album of a melding of classical and rock.  But they were wrong.  It got a big boost in the UK when he performed it on The Old Grey Whistle Test.**  Wakeman got lucky:  the show competing with his performance – a biography of Andy Warhol – was cancelled at the last minute and the audience turned to – and loved – Six Wives.  The album caught on in America and went gold.

Wakeman continued success with other themed albums:  Journey to the Center of the Earth, The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, but he made his mark with Six Wives.

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*That’s his piano on Cat Stevens’s “Morning has Broken.”

**A UK music show that concentrated on more serious rock music.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

I Married a Monster from Outer Space

image(1958)
Directed by
Gene Fowler, Jr.
Written by Louis Vittes
Starrring Tom Tryon, Gloria Talbott, Peter Baldwin
IMDB Entry
Full Movie at the Paramount Vault.

It certainly has one of the most sensational titles from the 1950s, but I Married a Monster from Outer Space plays down the sensationalism in a story that is remiscent of Invasion of the Body Snatcher. It also has similarities to another great SF film of the era, It Came From Outer Space.

It starts out at a bachelor party.  Bill Varrell (Tom Tryon) is returning home when he hits a body in the road.  But when he checks, it’s disappeared.  Perplexed, Bill is accosted by a monster, who takes him over.

The marriage goes on, and his bride Marge (Gloria Talbott) notices strange things about him – he can see in the dark and he appears to not know things he should.  After a year, she begins to realize that her husband isn’t her husband.  But by that time the town is infested with these doppegaengers, who keep her from calling for help.

The monsters – aliens – are basically men dressed in rubber suits, but that’s normal for movies before CGI.  What makes it interesting is the subtext; it’s quite clear that Marge and her “husband” are having sex, even though she hasn’t gotten pregnant. 

The movie portrays 50s paranoia, though the monsters end up being fairly benign.

The cast and director and even the writer were working in televion and probably hoped to make the leap into features.  All worked for years afterwards, though stardom eluded them. 

The biggest star, and most successful career belongs to leading man Tom Tryon.  He grew tired of acting about ten years later and started writing horror novels.  The Other was a best seller and a movie, and he had most of his books made into films or TV miniseries.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Root Boy Slim (music)

(1944-1993)
Wikipedia Entry


I’ve always been attracted to weird music.  And as this Christmas season is upon us, I started thinking about Root Boy Slim.

Root Boy was born Foster MacKenzie III.  As his real name might indicate, he was raised in a wealth family, in private schools and eventually at Yale.*  But Root Boy was too wild to stick with his WASP upbringing; he loved being outrageous and shoking and soon was fronting a blues band.

After school, he moved home to the Washington, DC area** and formed “Root Boy Slim and the Sex Change Band” which developed a reputation for bizarrely theatrical shows and songs about politics an culture.

A self-published record was noticed by Warner Brothers Records, and Root Boy was signed to a contract.  The single was the delightful “Christmas at Kmart.”


The album was filled with songs scornfully commenting on the current scene.  The most successful song was “Boogie ‘Til You Puke,” a scathing takedown of the college disco scene.  Other songs included “I Used to be a Radical,’' “Dare to be Fat,” and “You Broke My Mood Ring.”  Toot Boy had a growly blues voice*** and looked far from a rock star.  His songs were fairly witty, but though the album had some airplay, it was not a success.

After that, Root Boy went from record company to record company, with various band changes,****  but little success.  Their last original album came out in 1990; Root Boy died in 1993.
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*Where he was a fraternity brother of George W. Bush, a year younger than him.  Bush banned him from the fraternity house when he returned after graduation.

**Once, high on LSD, he jumped the White House fence and actually made it to the door. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

***Similar to Captain Beefheart, though the Captain was a far more original songwriter.

****He once appeared in the Albany area as “Root Boy Slim and the Black Silk Stockings.”