Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Scarface

Scarface Poster(1932)
Directed by Howard Hawks
Screenplay Ben Hecht
Starring
Paul Muni, Ann Dvorak, George Raft, Boris Karloff, and Osgood Perkins
IMDB Entry

Back when I was in college, this wasn’t exactly a forgotten film.  It was considered one of the best gangster films of the early 30s. But a funny thing happened: Brian de Palma did a film with the same name that was originally designed to be a remake.  The remake was a sensation, and has vastly overshadowed the original.

Which is a shame.  Scarface is still one of the best of the 30s gangster genre. It went over what was familiar ground even then (both The Public Enemy and Little Caesar had come out the previous year), but Scarface was more violent, and overall was better than the other two because it had a bit more depth.

What it didn't have, was an iconic actor as the lead.  James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson were strong film personalities that dominated the screen made their gangster films work.  Paul Muni is pretty much forgotten.  He was a big star in the 30s, but his films are rarely shown (though you have to see his classic I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang to really understand parts of Woody Allen's Take the Money and Run, which has scenes that are a direct parody).

George Raft and Paul MuniScarface is the story of Tony Camonte (Muni) who, like Tom Powers and Little Caesar, is a brutal, small-time crook who works his way up to be crime boss.  Muni is abetted by his pal Guino Rinaldo (George Raft) and his sister Francesca, who is Guino's girlfriend.  The most interesting bit is the relationship between Tony and Francesca, which shows them as more than just brother and sister.  The hints of incest were quite daring for the time.

Boris Karloff has one of his few non-horror roles of the 30s as Gaffney, a rival gang leader and shows that he could have been quite successful without horror.  George Raft's performance of Guino defined his entire career.  Guino's habit of flipping a coin became Raft's trademark, so much so that he did cameos for years afterwards.  Even more, it became a trademark for anyone parodying a gangster film. 

I mention Osgood Perkins primarily because you probably know his actor son, Anthony. And the screenplay was by film and theater legend Ben Hecht, best known nowadays as author of The Front Page.

The film ran into censorship trouble with the new Production Code; Hawks and his producer, Howard Hughes, released it without code approval.  That may be one reason why back in the 70s it was harder to see than the other gangster films.  And with Paul Muni a forgotten actor, there was little impetus for its revival.

Hawks, of course, went on to a very successful career and it considered one of the greatest of American directors.  This is definitely one of his major works, and a film worth seeking out.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Neighbors

(1981)
Directed by
John G. Avildsen
Written by Larry Gelbart
Based on a Novel by: Thomas Berger
Starring: Dan Ackroyd, John Belushi, Cathy Moriarty, Kathryn Walker
IMDB Entry

I may be the only person in the world who liked this film, but it's my web page and I can feature what I like.

It helped that I read the book.  Neighbors was based on a novel by Thomas Berger, a clever writer best known for his novel Little Big Man (made into a movie starring Dustin Hoffman) and the reversal of sexes novel Regiment of Women. Neighbors an odd novel. Earl Kease lives a perfectly ordinary life in the suburbs, until the new neighbors show up.  Harry and Rarmona are wild, unpredictable, and possibly psychotic.  Or maybe it's Earl who is psychotic. Harry and Ramona, and Earl's wife and daughter behave irrationally -- except they insist it is Earl who remembers things wrong.  It's arbitrary and quite funny with the humor coming from the fact that the characters seem to change personality for no reason at all (except maybe that Earl's grip on reality isn't all that firm).

Captain Vic, Earl, and RamonaThe movie was directed by John G. Avildsen, who earlier did Cry Uncle, and I suppose it was something of a coup to get Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi. The casting of Ackroyd as Captain Vic (the character of Harry, renamed from the book) was especially brilliant:  he matched the character in the book perfectly.  Belushi played Earl, and was quite good as the quiet, normal guy. Oddly enough, the two actors switched parts, but, despite the critics' comments that Belushi would have been better as the wild man Vic, it was very a wise decision.  Belushi's just fit the image of Vic/Harry, who was a more psychotic wild man than Senator Blutarski would have been.

The movie does appear to be disjointed, partly because of friction between Ackroyd and Belushi and Avildsen. The two SNL veterans didn't care for Avildson's comic ideas (nor those of writer Larry Gelbart, who also cowrote Movie Movie). It's also due to the fact that the movie tried to be true to the novel, where the characters did bizarre things supposedly without any logical motivation.  That may be a turnoff.

Cathy Moriarty, fresh from her Oscar nomination in Raging Bull is also perfect as the sexy Ramona.  The movie was John Belushi's last, alas.

If you sit back an accept the idea that the characters are not going to behave logically, though, it's a funny and entertaining film.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

American Flagg! (Comic Book)

(1983-84)
By Howard Chaykin


I read comics sporadically:  I'll pick them up regularly for awhile, then go ten years or so without reading them at all.  Around one of these times, I happened to attend a local comic book convention featuring Howard Chaykin.

I was impressed by his work on the graphic novel, Empire, written by one of my favorite SF writers, Samuel R. Delany.  With Chaykin in town, I took the book to be autographed and told him I thought it was the best comic book ever (I wouldn't say that today, but it was certainly very sophisticated for its time).  He thought I was referring to his newest project: American Flagg!

It wasn't an unreasonable assumption.

American Flagg! was set in 2033. Reuben Flagg was a Plexus Ranger -- a cop -- sent to a wild and decadent Chicago (in a fragmented US) to keep order.  Flagg had been the star of a popular TV show before being replaced by what would now be called CGI effects.

Chaykin populates Chicago with a wild cast of characters. There's corrupt mayor C. Keenan Blitz and his daughter Medea Blitz (Chaykin liked puns). There's Flagg's boss, Hammerhead Kreiger, and his daughter, Amanda. There's Gretchen Holdstrom, proprietor of the Love Canal brothel franchise ("Love Canal" was very much in the news at the time), William Windsor-Jones (the current Prince William in middle age), and the Russian pilot Crystal Gayle Marakova.  And, of course, there was Raul, the talking cat, and Luther Ironheart, the robot with a holographic head.

But, no, the strip wasn't comedy.  Reuben was trying to keep order in a chaotic and violent society and, while there were jokes, the entire strip was basically an antiestablishment view of society.  It was early cyberpunk.

Chaykin structured the comic into three-issue stories, and the first year was part of one arc, centering on the mysterious Peggy Kreiger, the mother of Amanda and Medea (yes, she got around), who vanished long ago (or did she?). He sprinkled in a bit of social commentary whenever he could.  For instance, in a visit to South America, one of the streets was labeled "United Fruit Boulevard." There were even some protests in the letter column that this was gay bashing until someone explained about the United Fruit Company and what they did in South America.

After completing the first year, Chaykin took a few issues off and when he came back, it was never the same.  There were visits to other areas (like the People's Democratic Prairie, a communist state in western Canada), but once the essential mystery of the first year was solved, it just wasn't the same. Eventually, Chaykin left, and the book lost contact with the world he created.  He came back to try to salvage it (retitling it Howard Chaykin's American Flagg! and renumbering it), but it had lost what had made it great.

The weakness of the later episodes cast a retrospective pall upon the original year. I think that at one point, the first dozen issues were collected into graphic novel form, but that's hard to find. It's a comic that's worth rediscovering.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Bob (TV)

Bob logo(199-93)
Created by
Cheri Steinkellner, Bill Steinkellner and Phoef Sutton
Starring Bob Newhart, Carlene Watkins, Cynthia Stevenson, John Cygan, Andrew Bilgore, Timothy Fall
IMDB Entry

Pop quiz: suppose, as a network executive, you have a TV sitcom with a well-known star, great supporting cast, and clever scripts.  It's not doing too bad in the ratings, either.  What do you do?

Well, you certainly don't treat it like Bob.

This was Bob Newhart's return to TV after the triumph of the Newhart 1finale (well, except for a Bob Newhart Show reunion special that continued where Newhart left off -- one of the better reunion specials on the air). The concept was a good one:  Bob McKay (Newhart, of course) was a comic book writer/illustrator and the creator of a failed superhero, Mad Dog. Years later, Mad Dog gets a revival, and Bob -- now working as an artist at a greeting card company -- is asked to help.

"Because of the exciting nature of this comic, we cannot allow you to read it until you sign this release."But there's a problem. Harlan Stone (a combination of Harlan Ellison and Frank Miller), is the new writer of the strip, and wants to darknight Mad Dog into the brooding, moody, haunted superhero who was the new style in the 90s.  "We can unleash the beast and reveal the true Mad Dog-a tortured, maniacal vigilante!'' Stone exclaims. Bob wanted Mad Dog to be an older model -- truth, justice, that sort of thing.  (Marvel Comics actually did a series of Mad Dog comics to tie in with the show.)

But that was only a part of the show.  Newhart knew how to use a good supporting cast, and a lot of the fun involved Albie Lutz (Andrew Bigore) and Chad Pfefferle (Timothy Fall), twos slightly warped, low-level comic book geek employees.  Cynthia Stevenson (later Georgia's Mother in Dead Like MeI) was also there as Bob's daughter Tricia (the only time Newhart had an offspring in any of his shows). Stevenson at the time had a nice loopy persona and was great at ditzy comedy.

The show was created by three writers of Cheers (Cheri Steinkellner, Bill Steinkellner and Phoef Sutton) so the writing was always sharp and funny. Even the title of the show was a joke: After The Bob Newhart Show and Newhart, Bob Newhart joked on the Johnny Carson Show that his next sitcom would follow the progression and be calledBob.

The episodes soon went far afield from comics:  One great episode starred George Wendt as "The Guy Who Played Norm on Cheers," and old friend of Bob's who can't avoid being confused with his TV roles. There was also a very funny show where Albie, Chad, and Tricia played "Mystery Date," and a nasty little parody of Barney the Dinosaur. Dick Martin, who directed some of the episodes, had some funny on-screen appearances as an old comic book writer friend.

The show got great critical buzz, but, for some reason, CBS moved it around the schedule like a chess piece in an earthquake.  Ratings were -- middle of the pack, and especially good when it was shown on Monday -- but were definitely hurt by the fact it didn't have a regular home.

Still, CBS decided to renew.  But I really wouldn't call it a renewal.  The entire premise was changed.  Bob left Ace Comics (leaving Harlan, Albie, and Chad behind) and went back to work for the greeting card company he had been at before Mad Dog called.  Betty White and Jere Burns were added to the cast, and the scripts were taking from the Beginning Sitcom Writers Guide to Bad Comedy.  It was unwatchable, and unfunny and quickly cancelled.

The first season is well worth preserving on DVD, so we can again see a show that deserved much better than it got.