Saturday, October 25, 2014

Mystery, Alaska

image(1999)
Directed by
Jay Roach
Written by David E. Kelley, Sean O’Byrne
Starring Russell Crowe, Burt Reynolds, Hank Azaria, Mary McCormack, Colm Meany, Lolita Davidovich, Maury Chaykin
IMDB Entry

In the 1990s, David E. Kelley was riding high.  He produced (and wrote) several successful TV shows, including Emmy winner Picket Fences, Ally McBeal, and The Practice. In his spare time, he wrote screenplays for films, using his penchant for quirky characters and situations.  Mystery, Alaska was one of his best.

The name refers to a small town filled (like most of Kelley’s work) with eccentric characters.  Town life revolves around the “Saturday Game,” played on a frozen pond.  John Biebe (Russell Crowe) is the town sheriff, reaching the age when he’s having trouble keeping up with the youngsters.  Among the small stories of characters, there is some big news:  a reporter from Sports Illustrated hears about the game and writes up an article about it.  Suddenly, Mystery is on the map, and the townspeople are all affected by it.   And things get more frenzied when the New York Rangers show up in town to play an exhibition.

The sporting element is a small part of the film.  Most of it involves the characters, their loves, and their dreams.  Burt Reynolds is good as the town judge who has problems with the the hockey craziness, while Colm Meany* is the mayor who sees this as a way to promote the town.

One thing I really like about the film is the ending, which is a logical anti-cliche that has a strong emotional kick.

The movie did not do well.  The fact that it was subverting the tropes of a sports film probably didn’t help; it’s safe to saw there are few sports films like this.  But I found it an excellent entertainment.

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*Who never seems to make a bad movie.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The King of Hearts

king of hearts(1966)
Directed by
Philippe de Broca
Written by Daniel Boulangier, from a idea by Maurice Bessy
Starring Alan Bates, Genevieve Bujold, Pierre Brasseur
IMDB Entry

It was a movie that flopped when it first came out.  Years later, movie houses and fans discovered it and it became a major success, with weekly showings in front of enthusiastic audiences.  No, not Rocky Horror (which came years later).  It’s Le roi de couerThe King of Hearts.

In the late days of World War I, the Germans are retreating from an occupied town, but leave an unpleasant surprise:  enough bombs to destroy it all and the bridge nearby.  The allies are warned and mistakenly send Charles Plumpick (Alan Bates) to find the bomb and defuse it. 

Word of the bomb has gotten around, and the townspeople have deserted it.  Plumpick is spotted by the last German patrol and accidentally releases the inmates, who go into the town and take over the roles of the people.

imageThese are the type of joyously insane people that you see in old movies; everyone is having the time of their lives being what that imagined themselves to be. But Plumpick needs to enlist them in finding the bomb, something they do not care about and don’t feel the need to understand. Plumpick is named “The King of Hearts” and is treated like royalty, falling in love with the beautiful Coquelicot (Genevieve Bujold)

As you might have guessed, this is an antiwar film; the soldiers and the fighting is portrayed as being far more dangerous and insane than the inmates of the asylum.  The concept is hardly original, but the inmates are so utterly charming from start to finish, especially compared to the stupidity of the leaders, that it’s hard not to fall in love with the film.

De Broca was an up-and-coming director of the time.  “That Man from Rio,” two years earlier, was considered one of the best spy spoofs of the era, but that didn’t transfer.  After flopping in France, it eventually made it to the US.  Someone figured that the antiwar message was just the thing for the era, and a small theater in Cambridge, MA, started running it regularly.  It ran there for five years, and gained cult status.  It is still one of the better antiwar films made.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Rosel George Brown (author)

(1926-1967)

Rosel George BrownRight now, there is some debate in the science fiction field about the role of women in current science fiction. It’s indisputable that SF has had more male writers than females over the years, but even from the very beginning, women did try their hand at the genre.*  Many are overlooked today, and one that needs to be rediscovered is Rosel George Brown.

Brown was born in New Orleans and lived there most of her life, after getting an MA in Greek from the University of Minnesota. Biographical information is scarce; I believe her birth name was Rosel George, since her husband’s last name was Brown.

Her first sale was “From an Unseen Censor,” which appeared in Galaxy in September 1958.  Most of her short stories appeared there and in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. She was praised both by critics and readers of the time.

I imagefirst encountered her with her anthology A Handful of Time, which included most of her best short stories.  It was a book I kept rereading for years, but I seem to have lost my copy in the interim. 

Brown switched over to novels with Sybil Sue Blue, about a female detective of the future.  Sybil was strong and competent, a single mother who has to juggle both her work life and dealing with her teen daughter. 

She collaborated on the novel Earthblood with Keith Laumer.

In this time frame, of course, a lot of the sexist assumptions of the 50s and earlier fit among the more feminist concepts. You can’t blame Brown for that, though. Feminism started gaining mainstream attention in the mid-60s, but Brown’s last story short story came out in 1964, with Earthblood out two years later.    She was diagnosed with lymphoma and died in 1967 at age 41.

That left her to be just a minor footnote in the history of SF.  However, if she hadn’t died so young, she may have been recognized as one of the major names of the genre.

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*John W. Campbell published a story by Amelia Reynolds Long in the third issue of Astounding SF in 1937, and Long had been publishing regularly since 1928.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

T.H.E. Cat (TV)

(1966-67)
Created by
Harry Julian Fink
Starring Robert Loggia
IMDB Entry
Tribute Page

imageHe was reformed cat burglar and circus aerialist, and worked as a private detective and bodyguard, who used karate and his acrobatic skills.  His name was Cat.  Thomas Hewitt Edward Cat.

T.H.E. Cat* starred Robert Loggia as the main character in a role that was influenced by the hard boiled detective genre. He worked out of a bar Casa del Gato in San Francisco and went up against gangsters and the usual lowlifes.

The show was infused with style, with jazz music** and a film noir mood. Cat was laconic, content to use his skills to gain the upper hand instead of his mouth.  Bad guys were mean and bigger than life, and women, well, they all fell in love with him.  He played it much like Humphrey Bogart, though Bogart certainly was not one for acrobatics or climbing up walls.  Loggia was excellent in the role and was indeed what made the show worth watching.  He had a cool confidence that was hard not to admire.

The show only ran for one season, but did stick in the mind. 

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*The letters were always pronounced individually.

**Written by a pre-Mission: Impossible Lalo Schriffrin

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Alice’s Restaurant

image1969
Directed by
Arthur Penn
Written by Arthur Penn and Venable Herndon, from the song by Arlo Guthrie.
Starring Arlo Guthrie, Pat Quinn, James Broderick, William Obanhein
IMDB Entry.

In 1969, Arthur Penn was riding high, having had a critical and popular smash with Bonnie and Clyde.  It became a counterculture phenomenon, and that may be why he chose for his next feature film the anti-establishment protest song, “Alice’s Restaurant.” 

The song, if you don’t know it, is about Arlo Guthrie’s arrest for littering, which kept him out of the army during the Vietnam era.  The original version is over 18 minutes long* and is a dryly humorous song with an antiwar message.  It was a standard on college campuses in the 60s.

The movie follows Arlo Guthrie (Arlo Guthrie) as he meanders from from Montana (where his long hair and hippie looks don’t sit well) to his friends Alice (Pat Quinn) and Ray Brock (James Broderick) for Thanksgiving.  Guthrie decides to do them a favor and take their garbage to the dump.  When he finds out it’s closed, he dumps it with another pile of garbage.  The next day, Officer Obie (William Obanhein) arrests him and charges him with littering.

The movie expands on the song by showing more about the relationship of Ray and Alice, and also Arlo with his girlfriends.  It meanders along, buoyed by Arlo’s laid back and sly performance as himself.  

But the find of the film is the actor playing the part of Office Obie.  William Obanhein is uncannily like the real Officer Obie – because he is the real Officer Obie.**  He had spent his life as a cop in Stockbridge and when he heard they were going to make the movie, insisted on playing himself, saying, "If anyone is going to make a fool out of me, it might as well be me!"  After the movie came out, he was critically praised, but he ignored Hollywood and went back to Stockbridge.***

The movie is a mixture of moments than a plot-driven film, incidents rather than story.  But it’s an entertaining artifact of the hippie years.

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*About the same length as the gap in the Nixon Watergate tapes.  Hmmmmn.

**The judge who sentenced Guthrie to a $50 fine also plays himself.  Alice and Ray Brock appear as extras.

***I find that admirable. 

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Woman in White (book)

(1859)
By Wilkie Collins
Wikipedia Entry
Full book at Gutenberg.org

Edgar Allen Poe invented the mystery story with “The Murders of the Rue Morgue” in 1841, and the genre caught rapidly. But it was mostly a short story genre.  It was English author Wilkie Collins who started to create mystery novels, and The Woman in White is often cited as the earliest in the genre.  But the fact it was a pioneer doesn’t take away from the fact that it is still an extremely good book in its own right.

Wilkie CollinsCollins was born in 1826, son of landscape painter William Collins and grew up planning to be a lawyer.  In 1851, he met Charles Dickens. They became close friends and Collins started to write articles and short works. In 1852, his first novel, Basil, was published, and he started making a living at it.  In 1859, he wrote his fifth novel, The Woman in White.

The story centers on William Hartwright,* a drawing master who meets a woman dressed all in white, who is extremely upset and has some disreputable men trying to capture her.  He helps in her escape, but not after she asks him, “Do you know any baronets?” a question that piques his interest, especially when he learns she is an escapee from a mental asylum.  He is then hired to teach drawing at Limmeridge House to two young women: Laura Fairlie (who looks remarkably like the woman in white) and her half sister, Marian Halcombe.

Walter falls for Laura, but she is pledged to marry a baronet:  Sir Perceval Glyde.  There are many disturbing things about Glyde, including the fact that he clearly is marrying Laura for her money, but Laura’s hypochondriac uncle Frederick insists that the marriage must go through.  Due to Marian’s investigation, Laura slowly learns that Glyde – and his ebullient but dangerous friend Count Fosco – is up to no good.

Despite the fact the book is over 105 years old, it turns out to be surprisingly modern in many ways, and the plot never goes where you think it might go.  It revolves on a secret known by the Woman in White, and it turns out that the secret is not what anyone expects.

It’s told in an unusual style:  chunks of the book are told in the first person by different protagonists.  While most of the chapters are told by William Hartwright, others are told by Marian, Count Fosco, Laura’s uncle,  and one of Gylde’s servants, among others. 

The book is filled with wonderful characters.  Walter is a serviceable and resourceful hero, but the three most interesting characters are on the periphery. 

Laura’s uncle Frederick is a selfish and lazy hypochondriac who whines about the slightest change to his routine and it put out by the smallest request.  His section of the testimony is a delight of whining and complaints of how much work it is to remember.

There’s also Marian.  Laura is a pretty bland heroine, but Marian is clever, resourceful, insightful, and every bit a modern female protagonist. She advises Laura and protects her, and is willing to put herself at risk to ferret out Sir Percival’s plans.  If the book were written today, she would be the one that Walter falls in love with.

But the real find is Count Fosco.  He’s charming, but also dangerous, with a personality that dominates every scene he’s in, whether it’s doting on his pet mice and birds, scheming against Laura, or threatening murder.  His ego is a joy to behold, and his honest admiration for Marian – even though she is a threat to his plans – makes him one of the most interesting villains in literature.

The book was a popular success when it came out, even though the critics of the time thought it too melodramatic,** but the book has remained popular even today. 

Collins continued to write.  His book The Moonstone is another landmark in mystery fiction, establishing many important genre tropes and it what he’s best known for today. But he seems to have thought The Woman in White was his best work.  It’s still an wonderful read after all these years.

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*With a last name like that, you know he’s going be be a hero.

**Not an unfair claim; the means of resolution of the mystery is pure pulp years before pulp fiction was a thing. 

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Dinosaurus!

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

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Popeye & Thimble Theater

Popeye(1980)
Directed by
Robert Altman
Written by Jules Feiffer, based on characters crated by E.C. Segar
Starring Robin Williams, Shelley Duvall, Ray Walston, Paul Dooley, Paul L. Smith, Richard Libertini
IMDB Entry

In memory of Robin Williams.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Metamorpho (comics)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Metropolitan

image(1990)
Written and directed by
Whit Stillman
Starring Carolyn Farina, Edward Clements, Chris Eigeman, Taylor Nichols, Ella Thompson
IMDB Entry

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

Because, quite simply, he deserved it. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Blancanieves

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

Sunday, July 13, 2014

I Love You Again

image(1940)
Directed by
  W. S. Van Dyke
Written by Charles Lederer & George Oppenheimer and Harry Kurnitz, from a story by Leon Gordon and Maurine Dallas Watkins
Starring William Powell, Myrna Loy, Frank McHugh, Edmund Lowe. Donald Douglas
IMDB Entry

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Duet (TV)

Duet(1987-89)
Created by
Ruth Bennett & Susan Seeger
Starring Matthew Laurance, Mary Page Keller, Chris Lemmon, Alison La Placa, Jodi Thelen
IMDB Entry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***Yes, Jack’s son.

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

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette (music)

Album CoverThe Four Seasons (1969)
Allmusic Entry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec

Adele(2010)
Directed by
Luc Bresson
Written by Luc Bresson, from the comic books by Jacques Tardi
Starring Louise Bourgoin, Mathieu Amalric, Gilles Lellouche, Jean-Paul Rouve, Philippe Nahon, Jacky Nercessian. Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre
IMDB Entry

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

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

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

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

Adele & Friend

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Painting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Awake (TV)

(2012)
imageCreated by
Kyle Killen
Starring Jason Isaacs, Laura Allen, Steve Harris, Dylan Minnette, BD Wong, Cherry Jones, Wilmer Valderrama
IMDB Entry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Jungle Jim (TV)

image(1955-56)
Created by
Alex Raymond, Don Moore
Starring Johnny Weissmuller, Martin Hudson, Dean Fredericks, and Tamba the Chimp
IMDB Entry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Crunch Bird

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

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

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

But the joke is hilarious.**

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Alice in Wonderland

image(1933)
Directed by
Norman Z. McLeod
Writen by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and William Cameron Menzies from the book by Lewis Carroll
Starring Charlotte Henry, Richard Arlen, Gary Cooper, Leon Errol, Louise Fazenda, W. C. Fields, Cary Grant, Sterling Holloway, Edward Everett Horton, Baby Leroy, Mae Marsh, Jack Oakie, Edna May Oliver, May Robson, Charlie Ruggles, Alison Skipworth, Ned Sparks, Billy Barty, Billy Bevan
IMDB Entry
Full Movie at the Internet Archive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Andy Clyde (actor)

andy clyde(1892-1967)
IMDB Entry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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*Now they call them “trailers.”

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The People’s Choice (TV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 24, 2014

Free Enterprise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Mighty Joe Young

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

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

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

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

Joe vs Lion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Arresting Behavior/Bakersfield PD (TV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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