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.”

Sunday, December 13, 2015

White Heat

(1949) Directed by Raoul Walsh
Written by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, suggested by a story by Virginia Kellogg
Starring  James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O’Brien, Margaret Wycherly
IMDB Entry

The gangster film was an relic of the 30s.  Usually produced by Warner Brothers, and often starring some combination of James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson or George Raft, the genre gave such great films as The Public Enemy, Little Caesar, Scarface, and The Roaring Twenties.  One of the last of the genre – which focused on the rise and fall of a bad guy – was White Heat.

Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) is a sociopath, long before the word was common.  The movie starts out with the robbery of a mail train, where Jarrett cold-bloodedly murders the crew – and one of his gang.   He holes up with his wife Verna (Virginia Mayo) and his mother (Margaret Wycherly), but when the police find them out, he confesses to a lesser crime that he says he committed at the time of the robbery and is given a short sentence.  Unconvinced he really is innocent, the police put an informant (Edmone O’Brien) in prison to gain Cody’s confidence to put him away, as well as capture some of his associates.

Cagney is electric as Cody.  He’s a character with no morals at all, and also one who is completely unpredictable.  What’s even more interesting – and quite creepy – is his fixation on his mother.  She supports him in all his endeavors, treating him as her little boy.  And Cagney’s scene when he discovers his mother is dead is one of the most emotionally raw in film of the time.

Wycherly’s mom is also memorable, a woman nearly as psychotic as her son. The movie is also known for its finale, when Cody finally gets to the top of the world.

After White Heat, things had moved toward noir.  In the late 50s there was a short revival of the gangster film, and, of course, The Godfather made great use of the genre.  But White Heat marked the end of the era of Warner Brothers gangster films in the pure form.
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*
Trivia alert:  The third guy down from Cagney when his question is passed along is Olympic Decathlon Champion Jim Thorpe.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Old Dark House

The Old Dark House(1932)
Directed by
James Whale
Written by Benn W. Levy from the novel from J. B. Priestly
Starrring Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton, Lilian Bond., Ernest Thesiger, Eva Moore, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Elpeth Dudgeon,Brember Wills
IMDB Entry
Full Movie on Youtube

The original Frankenstein was a sensation, making Boris Karloff a star and putting director James Whale on the top of the Hollywood heap.  His next venture into horror was also something of a classic and defined the genre of “Strangers caught in a creepy house during a story” subgenre of horror:  The Old Dark House.

The movie starts by showing Philip and Margaret Waverton (Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart) driving with their friend Penderel (Melvyn Douglas) in a vicious Welsh storm.  The roads wash out, and they are forced into stopping at an old, dark house for shelter.

He house is home to the Femms:  Horace (Ernest Thesiger), wanted by the police and trapped in their house and Rebecca (Eva Moore), slightly deaf and somewhat of a religious fanatic.  Their mute butler, Morgan (Boris Karloff) skulks around the premises.

They are soon joined by two other travelers:  Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton) and his chorus girl “friend” Gladys (Lilian Bond).  And there are other people in the house:  Horace’s centenarian father (Elspeth Dodgeon*) and his brother Saul (Brember Wills), both locked away from the others.

There is conversation and romance, creepy matters and attacks.  Nothing too terrible by modern standards, but the dialog and characters drive the plot.

Karloff is an fine menace,** but it’s really an ensemble piece.  Each actor gets a moment to show his stuff.  Laughton is great as the rich ne’er-do-well, while Thesiger is just enough off to make him worth watching.  And the entire production is shot in a dark and moody with the deep shadows characteristic of German Expressionism.

Boris Karloff & Gloria Stuart

To modern eyes, there’s a fascinating gay subtext.  Whale open about being gay – far more than most in his era -- and Laughton was considered by many to be at least bisexual.  There’s a scene at the end with some homoerotic overtones and a comment that arguably was the first use of the word “gay” to mean homosexual in a mainstream source.

In any case, the film was successful, and spawned many imitators, so much so that the situation became a cliché.  Though the acting is crude by current standards, the film stands out for its humor and its concentration on character.

Whale continued his winning streak of horror with The Invisible Man and his masterpiece Bride of Frankenstein (which also included Karloff and Thesinger), and with the musical Show Boat. 

The others in the cast were also very successful.  Laughton and Douglas won Oscars and Massey was nominated for one.***  Gloria Stuart is best known to modern audiences today as Old Rose in Titanic, and nearly all the rest worked regularly in films into the 1950s or later.

The film became forgotten partly due to rights issues and partly because it was sandwiched between Whale and Karloff’s two Frankenstein films.  But it still had plenty to offer viewers today.

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*She was billed as John Dudgeon and is clearly intended to be an old man.  It’s an interesting piece of casting, possibly chosen because a woman’s voice was thought to be more like that of an old man.

**There’s an amusing title card that assures the audience that Karloff really is the same actor from Frankenstein.

***A side note is that Massey played Jonathan Brewster in the movie version of Arsenic and Old Lace, a character who was supposed to look like Boris Karloff.  Karloff played the role on Broadway, but was not released to play the role on film.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

My Favorite Year

image(1982)
Directed by
Richard Benjamin
Written by Norman Steinberg and Dennis Palumbo
Starring Peter O’Toole, Mark Lin-Baker, Jessica Harper, Joseph Bologna, Lainie Kazan
IMDB Entry

Live television was a new and exciting form of entertainment in the 50s, and the pressure and fun of putting on a show every week has rarely been shown on film.  My Favorite Year is a loving portrait of early television.

It shows Benjy Stone (Mark Lin-Baker), an intern on The King Kaiser Show.*  When the show books swashbuckling movie star Allan Swann (Peter O’Toole), they are faced with a problem:  Swann is a heavy drinker** and Benjy promises to Kaiser (Joseph Bologna) that he’ll keep him sober.  Naturally, the two men bond and, of course, disaster ensues. 

O’Toole is magnificent as the larger-than-life Swann.  His declaration “I am not an actor!  I’m a movie star!” should be on anyone’s list of great movie quotes.*** He got an Oscar nomination for this, but, of course, didn’t win. Mark Lin-Baker is also fine as the starry-eyed but serious Benjy.

The film also captured the feel of doing a live show every week.  Mel Brooks, who helped produced, was a writer for Your Show of Shows, and Swann is based on Errol Flynn, who was a guest.  Several others involved with the show were also in the cast of the movie, notably Selma Diamond.

Director Richard Benjamin was best known for his acting roles and this was his first theatrical film.  Alas, his career never took off, and most of his credits were flops and critical disappointments.

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*A pastiche of the great Your Show of Shows with Sid Caesar.

**As was O’Toole, who managed to function and Sid Caesar, who, sadly could not.

***As his reply to the ladies room attendant when he stumbles in and is told, “This is for ladies only”:  “So is this ma’am, but every now and again I have to run a little water thought it.”

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Confession (L’aveu)

The Confession(1970)
Directed by
Costa-Gavra
Written by Jorge Semprun from a book by Lise & Artur London
Starring Yves Montand, Simone Signoret
IMDB Entry

Costa-Gavras was one of the most political of all film directors, often basing him movies on real-life political events.  His movie Z was a condemnation of the Greek junta of the 1960s.  But Costa-Garvras hated repression in all forms.  Where Z was an attack on the right wing, The Confession did the same for a communist regime.

It’s the story of Artur Ludvik (Yves Montand), aka Gerard, who is a vice-minister of Foreign Affairs in communist Czechoslovakia.  He is suddenly arrest – for no reason he can think of – and thrown into jail.  Government agents harass and torture him to confess various crimes that probably were never committed.  Even his wife Lisa (Simone Signoret) begins to think he might be guilty.

The movie is taken from Artur and Lisa London’s account of Artur’s actual trial, where he was sentenced to life in prison.  It’s a harrowing movie, where one can see just how torture can break down a man into confessing anything.

The most memorable scene for me was toward the end.  Gerard had confessed and was being marched to his show trial, along with several others.  They are given back the clothes they were arrested in, but everyone has been so starved that they fit far too loosely.  One of the defendants has his pants fall down, starting a wave of laughter among the prisoners.  It’s a wonderful and fully human moment.

The movie is memorable (if for nothing more than the poster) and still has a lot of relevance today.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Mandarin Chocolate Sherbet (food)

By Baskin-Robbins
????-????

I’ve written before about foods that were no longer made, such as Regal Crown Sours and Screaming Yellow Zonkers.*  Usually, it was because the manufacturer was out of business and the recipe lost.  Mandarin Chocolate Sherbet was made by Baskin-Robbins, which is still in business and presumably knows the recipe.  Yet as far as I can see, it hasn’t been made in years.

It’s a shame.  The flavor has never been seen elsewhere.  It’s a dark chocolate sherbet with just a hint of orange, that you don’t notice until you swallow.  Despite the fact it’s somewhat light – sherbet instead of ice cream – there was a rich, dark chocolate taste that melts on the tongue.

There were many fans.  It was named the best Baskin-Robbins ice cream by Paul Passell and Leonard Ross and it deserves to be.  Yet even though it was discontinued years ago, there was no sign of them being willing to bring it back.

Which is a shame.  There was no other ice cream like it.

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*Both have come back, if only for a short time.  I’d like to think this blog had something to do with it.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Hardware Wars

image(1978)
Written and directed by
Ernie Fosselius
Starring Frank Robertson, Scott Mathews, Jeff Hale, Cindy Furgatch, Bob Knickerbocker, Paul Frees
IMDB Entry

Nowadays, anyone with a cell phone can make a movie.  But back in the 70s, it took a lot more than that:  cameras, film, sound equipment, etc. There also was nothing like Youtube to get your film to the public.  You had to find movie theaters who were interested (at a time when the short subject was dead) or film festivals. And, to have any chance, it had to be good.  Hardware Wars overcame those hurdles, and is the best Star Wars parody ever.

The movie is in the form of a trailer, and which parodies every aspect of Star Wars.*   It shows Fluke Starbucker (Scott Matthews) finding the droids 4-Q-2 (Frank Roberson)** and Artie Deco (Canister Vacuum Cleaner).  Fluke goes to Augie "Ben" Doggie (Jeff Hale)*** and they sign up Ham Salad (Bob Knickerbocker) and his Wookie Monster (brown Cookie Monster puppet) to rescue Princess Anne-Droid (Cindy Furgatch) and the evil Darph Nader.

In addition to the Mad Magazine style names, the movie plays off Star Wars, giving each important scene a twist.  The "Hardware" in the title is descriptive:  many of the items are in film are animated household appliances.  The Millennium Falcon is an iron; the Deathstar, a waffle iron; other spaceships, toasters.  The special effects are some of the worst ever committed to film.

Once nice touch was the narration, which was done by veteran voiceman Paul Frees, who had also done the narration of the original Star Wars trailer.  And all the dialog was recorded after shooting, so the words only occasionally match the lip movement.

The movie was an immediate hit on the film festival circuit, winning a bunch of awards, and became a mainstay of science fiction convention film programs for years.  It grossed over $1 million, pretty nice return on the $8000 it cost to make.

Ernie Fosselius continued to work in films, usually in the background.  He parodied Apocalypse Now with Porklips Now, which didn't make much of a splash, and a few writing and directing gigs fell apart.

But making the film that George Lucas has called the best parody of Star Wars counts for a lot.

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*I'm not calling it "Episode IV: A New Hope" because that wasn't in the name when Hardware Wars came out.

**Designed to look like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz.

***The reference is to an old Hanna-Barbera cartoon, Augie Doggie and his Doggie Daddy.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Clyde Bruckman

image(1894-1955)
IMDB Entry
Wikipedia Entry

I never got into The X-Files.* But when I was looking at an episode list, I noticed one titled “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” which some people consider one of its best.  But the name of Clyde Bruckman rang a bell, as someone who worked with most of the great names of early film comedy.

Bruckman was born in San Bernadino, California and began his writing life as a sportswriter for the San Bernadino Sun.  He made a name for himself as a sportswriter who eventually tried a hand at fiction.  In 1919, he was hired to write intertitles at Universal.** He came to the attention of Buster Keaton, who hired him to be a gagwriter*** for his first feature film, Three Ages

But, as the cliché goes, he wanted to direct.  After one short subject, Cowboys Cry for It, he was given the chance to share directing credit with Keaton on one of the greatest of all silent comedies:  The General.

There is some question as to how much directing he had done, an issue that often came up during his directing career.  Keaton had directed several of his own features, though often with a co-director.  It’s likely that Keaton worked as the director of actors, while his co-director dealt with the things he couldn’t do while performing.  But, in any case, it was the start of Bruckman’s career behind the lens.

He continued directing comedy short subjects.  Two years later, he added Putting Pants on Philip to his resume, a landmark film that first had Laurel and Hardy together as a team.****  He did several other Laurel and Hardy films, as well as films starring Harold Lloyd, starting with Welcome Danger, Lloyd’s first talkie. 

Bruckman’s career faltered with the coming of sound.  But it didn’t stop him from a few more notable films as he hooked up with W.C. Fields.  The Fatal Glass of Beer with Fields is one of the funniest short subjects ever made.***** His last directing job was on Fields’ classic The Man on the Flying Trapeze.

His problems getting work was due to his alcoholism.  That wasn’t necessarily a deal killer in Hollywood, but Bruckman went beyond their patience when he vanished during the production of The Man on the Flying Trapeze, with Fields (uncredited) going behind the camera to stay on budget.

Bruckman went back to writing.  He wrote the story for several Three Stooges shorts (including You Nazty Spy!, one of their best) as well as working on films for Andy Clyde an other lesser-known comedians of the era.

But trouble struck in the 40s.  His old employer Harold Lloyd sued the studio for plagiarism after Bruckman reused some gags he had written for Lloyd films.  It was ultimately a ridiculous lawsuit – some of the gags in question predated Lloyd’s use, and Bruckman had written them in the first place – but Lloyd won the suit. 

Bruckman was broken. The studio fired him and he ceased to make an effort.  Buster Keaton, who never let an old friend down, hired him to write an episode of his TV show, and he got a job writing for Abbott and Costello’s show.  But once again he started recycling gags and Harold Lloyd sued again, putting an end to his career.

And, ultimately, his life.  Borrowing a gun from Buster Keaton, Bruckman committed suicide on January 4, 1955.

It was a sad ending to a funny man.  Bruckman certainly had talent before the bottle took it away, and considering he worked with most of the names we still recognize as comic icons, he couldn’t be all that bad.  Most likely, his best work was codirected (or entirely directed) by the comic geniuses he worked with,****** but there had to be a reason why they were willing to work with him.  Maybe he was a nice guy; maybe they took pity on his drinking problem, but, one way or another, he had a career most people would envy.

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*I have nothing against it, but it’s just isn’t my cup of tea.

**The title cards shown during the movie.

***Bruckman’s sportswriter background probably helped:  Keaton was a baseball fanatic.

****They had been in movies together, but didn’t work as a team before this.  Laurel knew Bruckman from Cowboys Go For It, in which he appeared.

*****Though it was far more Fields’s film.  Fields had shot a version, but the studio hired Bruckman to add shots that Fields didn’t want to do.

******Several of his films had a second, uncredited director, too.  I would assume that they took over when Bruckman was too drunk to function.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Homicide: Second Shift (Web)

image(1997)
Created by
the producers of Homicide: Life on the Street
Starring Joe Grifasi, Allison Janney, Ray Anthony Thomas, Michael Ornstein, Josh Pais, Murphy Guyer
Wikipedia Entry

TV is still figuring out how to deal with the Internet, and it was far worse in the early days of the web. One of the most interesting examples was by the TV show Homicide: Life on the Street.  Already one of the best shows of its era, the producers decided that the way to go was to integrate it into the web.  The result was Homicide:  Second Shift.

A web page was set up, covering the solution of a mystery by the “second shift” of the Baltimore cops featured in the show.  Now this was before home broadband was financially feasible, so the result was a web page outlining a crime, where you would click to see evidence and clues, as well as the cops involved.  “Scenes” were created by graphics surrounded by dialog.

image

The website design was excellent, very advanced for the time.  Even today, it doesn’t look dated.

The crime on the net was connected to the TV show. In one episode of the show, for instance, a cop we’ve never seen before calls one of the regulars aside to discuss the case.  In another case, the online version showed events that happened both before and after what was on the air. 

Actors, most notably Allison Janney, were cast to play the roles, usually to be photographed for the web page.  A few of the TV cast also were used.

The experiment was a critical success, but not very popular.  The pages were really only just text and graphics (though excellent design) and there was no interactivity.  For most fans of the show, it was a curiosity. As I suppose it is today.