Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Boys From County Clare

The Boys from County Clare(2003)
Directed by
John Irvin
Written by Nicholas Adams
Starring Colm Meaney, Bernard Hill, Charlotte Bradley, Andrea Corr, Shaun Evans.

When the awards are given out to Best Actor who Starred in a Star Trek Series, Patrick Stewart is the clear winner.  But the second choice is more interesting.  You could make a nice case for Scott Bakula, primarily from his performances in Quantum Leap.*  But my favorite is a dark horse:  Colm Meaney.

Meaney made a name for himself in a bunch of delightful British/Irish comedies such as The Commitments, The Snapper, The Van, and The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain. He specializes is bemused Irishmen and is always a delight whenever he's on the screen.

The Boys from County Clare** has Meaney as Jimmy MacMahon, a successful Irish businessman living in Liverpool in the early 60s.  He loves Irish music* and organizes a band to compete in the annual Céilidh competition in County Clare.

John Joe (Bernard Hill), the winner the previous two years, will have none of it and pulls out all stops to both keep Jimmy from competing. Jimmy, however, gives as good as he gets, and does the same to John Joe.

We learn the two have a deep-seated grudge between them that goes back to when they were boys.  Brothers, as a matter of fact.

There are also a subplot about one of the member's of Jimmy's band, Teddy (Shaun Evans) who falls in love with Anne (Andrea Corr), who plays with John Joe.

The movie is a delightful mix of comedy and drama, with a nice twist at the end. The two men fight, make up, fight, and generally act as royal pains in each other's butt. 

Meaney is excellent, of course. Jimmy is gruff and driven, and though he has a softer side, he refuses to let it come out.  Hill's performance as Jimmy Joe is also delightful.

This was another fine film by director John Irvin, who did Turtle Diary and Widow's Peak. As usual, he concentrates on quirky characters and small but rich situations.

And the music is just plain delightful.

*Enterprise was actually just a Quantum Leap episode, where Sam leapt into the body of a starship captain. The problem was that he needed to fix what went wrong in order to leap out, and the show was impossible to fix.

**Called The Boys and Girl from County Clare in the US, a pointless bit of marketing that ignored the main focus of the movie and makes it sound vaguely pornographic. 

***And thinks that new group of Liverpool musicians, the Beatles, will never amount to much

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Widow's Peak

Directed by
John Irwin
Written by High Leonard
Starring Mia Farrow, Joan Plowright, Natasha Richardson, Jim Broadbent

I wrote previously about how when making up a list of films to discuss here, I discovered the name of John Irwin, a British director whose name meant little to me until I realized I wanted to talk about several of his films.  Widow's Peak is the second.

It a charming little revenge comedy, set in the 1920s in the small Irish town of Kilshannon. The title refers to a hill overlooking the town, where widowed women go to live after their husbands have died. But these aren't a bunch of timid mourners.  Led by Mrs. Doyle-Counihan (Joan Plowright), they are the type of women who speak their mind and always get their way.

Natasha Richardson, Jim Broadbent, Mia Farrow But there is one non-widow living at Widow's Peak -- Miss Katherine O'Hare (Mia Farrow), a spinster who seems to have some secrets hidden away.  And when the Mrs. Edwina Broome (Natasha Richardson) -- who has been living in America comes to town, Miss O'Hare takes an instant dislike to her. Edwina and Miss O'Hare start to scheme against each other.  Soon the entire community is in a uproar.

It's a comedy of manners, and a very funny one, with a surprising and delightful twist at the end. 

Joan Plowright is spectacular as Mrs. Doyle-Counihan, who runs the little community as her own person benevolent fiefdom.  Mia Farrow -- in her first role after the messy breakup with Woody Allen -- is surprisingly devious, and Natasha Richardson matches her.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Robin and Marian

Directed by
Richard Lester
Screenplay by James Goldman
Starring Sean Connery, Audrey Hepburn, Robert Shaw, Richard Harris, Nicole Williamson, Denholm Elliott, Ian Holm

Sean Connery as Robin Hood.  Sounds like the casting for a first-class action adventure film.  But Robin and Marian is a much different movie, a unique look among films at the part of the legend of Robin Hood (or any hero) that is rarely shown.

The story is about Robin's later years. After spending years fighting in the Crusades with Richard the Lionhearted,* Robin (Connery) returns home to find King John (Ian Holm) running the country, and the evil Sheriff of Nottingham (Robert Shaw) still out there wanting to make his life miserable.  He seeks out Maid Marian (Audrey Hepburn), only to find that she has entered a convent. When the Sheriff tries to arrest Marian, Robin rescues her -- against her will -- and brings her back to the aging members of his Merry Men.

Despite everything, Robin and Marian resume their romance, leading to a final showdown with the sheriff and an amazingly beautiful ending.

The theme of the film is to ask the question "What happens when a hero gets old?" and it develops this in a charming and touching manner.

Robin and Marian

Connery's Robin is one of his top performances.  It's interesting to think that he was playing an old man over 30 years ago.  His Robin is always a hero, even when it might be inconvenient to be one. 

Audrey Hepburn is radiant as Marian.  She had been happily retired from films for a decade, turning down many offers until this one came along. Her Marian is radiant in a role that lets her use her strengths of an actress, and the star power of her and Connery together is a joy to watch.

This was a departure for Richard Lester, who was better known for his comedies like A Hard Day's Night, Help!, and The Ritz. Though there are funny moments, the tone is bittersweet and highly romantic in all the best ways.

It's not a swashbuckler, but rather a character study. If you want to see a different view of Robin Hood, this is a film to watch.

*Richard is portrayed as something of a jerk here, which actually is more like how he was in real life. Though a hero in the UK, he wrecked the country's economy with his crusading and generally wasn't much better than his brother John, who's always portrayed as a tyrant.  But he had a cool nickname, so that counted for a lot.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Regal Crown Sours (candy)

The biggest problem about writing about forgotten brands of food is that there is often no way of getting them back.*  Many of the things I'm writing about can be found in some way -- DVDs, CDs, old videotapes, etc.  But once food and candy goes, there's no way to get it back.

Which brings us to Regal Crown Sours.

I first saw them in the late 60s.  Large tubes (maybe about 5 inches and about 3/4 in in diameter) with hard candy.  They were made of up individual candies, each wrapped in wax paper, in sort of a flying saucer shape.  And they were sour.

Oh, not as puckeringly sour as things like Sour Patch Kids today. But compared to the usual hard candy fare -- Life Savers, lemon drops -- pretty sour.

The candy was imported from the UK, though I believe they originated in Denmark.  They came in several flavors:  Sour Cherry, Sour Orange, Sour Grapes (yes), and, my favorite, Sour Lemon.  As least twice the size of a Life Saver, they were a great bargain.  I tend to like things tart, and these were just wonderful.

Over time, though, they vanished.  I haven't seen them in a candy story in about 30 years and the last time I tried them was nearly 20  years ago, where I found them in the United Kingdom pavilion at the Epcot Center.  In among the faux-British shops was a candy store, and which sold -- yes -- Regal Crown Sour Lemon.

They were just as good as ever.

After the Internet came along, I learned about various old time candy sites and went to see if any of them had it.  Alas, the only place I've been able to see the Regal Crown sours are on lists of discontinued candy no longer available.

At least there is a possibility, with the interest in sour candy, that someone might bring it back. Of course, they'd have to deal with old folks like me saying "It's not the way I remember it," but I think it'd be worth it for another taste.

*Sometimes even the recipe is lost forever. Leiderkrantz cheese was discontinued by their last owner, Borden Foods, a couple of decades ago, and it would be impossible to get it back. The cheese's flavor depended on a specific culture of bacteria that was in the original factory (when they moved to a new one, they had to scrape the walls so that it could establish itself) that gave it its flavor. No one analyzed what the bacteria was, and it is impossible to duplicate, so even if someone wanted to bring it back, they're out of luck.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Scaffold (music)

The Scaffold -- Mcgough, Gorman, and McGear Mike McGear, Roger McGough, John Gorman
All Music Guide

You have to give Mike McGear a lot of credit. When he went into the music business, he had an automatic "in."  His name alone would have opened doors and probably have gotten him a contract. So he changed his stage name to "McGear" and tried to make it on his ability alone.

His real last name was "McCartney."

But McGear didn't want to trade on his brother Paul's reputation. Instead, he joined up with poet Roger McGough and post office cler John Gorman to form the Scaffold. And, to tell you the truth, the Scaffold was not likely to appeal to Beatlemanics. Their music was a combination of catchy tunes, humor, and clever lyrics.

The Scaffold is connected in many ways to the Bonzo Dog Band; they started out in the same venues, and later did albums with former members of the group.  They are not in the Bonzos class as musicians (actually, McGear, McGough, and Gorman didn't play instruments at all), but they have a similar goofy sense of humor.  McGear and McGough had a knack for catchy music that stays in your head, while McGough was an inspired lyricist.

And when I say McGough was a poet, I mean that literally.  He is considered one of the UK's top poets, especially as a performance poet.  His work has appeared in The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, and he's been granted a knighthood. In fact, his poem "Goodbat Nightman" was the only poem in that anthology that was also a popular song (by Scaffold, of course).  But his most famous work -- if uncredited -- was the dialog for Yellow Submarine, much of which was his doing.

Scaffold had a decent amount of success.  It helped that they used some top sessions musicians like Jack Bruce, Jimi Hendrix, Graham Nash, Ringo Starr, and a very young Elton John, so the music behind the voices was top notch.

Their single "Thank U Very Much" made the UK charts and they reached number one with "Lily the Pink," an old rugby drinking song cleaned up. 

Three albums were released -- Lily the Pink, Fresh Liver and Sold Out, while a live album of their stage show was released a few years ago.  In addition, there are a couple of compilations for the group, which probably capture them better -- they were more a singles and stage act than one that worked with albums.

However, the group couldn't continue forever.  They never made in impact on the US, and all had other interests.  McGough and McGear joined the British comedy rock group GRIMMS, then had solo careers, McGough as a poet, McGear with a couple of solo albums (one produced by his brother).

They left behind a couple of albums, and some fond memories.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Nightmare Cafe (TV)

Created by
Wes Craven and Thomas Baum
Starring Jack Coleman, Lindsey Frost, and Robert Englund

"Touch that remote -- and you die!"

As I've mentioned previously, anthology series on US TV are pretty much gone with the dinosaurs. The only way to try to get around it is to use recurring characters and make them involved in the story, like Quantum Leap. So when Wes Craven -- even back in 1992, a well-regarded director of horror -- wanted to try something, he had to create a different hook.  The result was Nightmare Cafe.

Nightmare cafeThe show was set up nicely in the first episode.  Frank Nolan (Jack Coleman) and Fay Petrovic (Lindsay Frost) coincidentally survive drowning the very same night and go into a small, abandoned restaurant that's near the water. No one is there, and strange things happen:  voices are heard, doors open into places miles away (or even hundreds of thousands of miles away) and a television shows scenes from their lives earlier in the day. And then there's the mysterious Blackie (Robert Englund), whose dry sense of humor shows a devilish tendency of stirring the pot and making a bad situation worse.

It turns out that Frank and Fay died that night. But the Cafe (which is a character all by itself) gave them a second chance.  They will work there and help give other second chances.

And so they run the cafe, which travels randomly from place to place (not unlike the TARDIS), putting them where they can do the most good.  It grants wishes (usually when you don't expect it), shows what's happening to the others on its special TV, punishes those who deserve it, and rewards those who do.

Jack Coleman is your standard hero type as Frank, and Lindsey Frost gives some nice life to Fay. But it's Englund's Blackie who quietly steals every scene he's in, giving you both laughs and chills.

Only six episodes were aired. The show probably sounded too much like an anthology (it was promoted as such, even though everyone working with it took pains to say it was not), and the tone varied -- a deliberate mixture of film noir, horror, and slapstick comedy or whatever fit best into the story to be told. 

In fact, it was clear that everyone knew the effort would be doomed. In the final episode, the very funny "Aliens Ate My Lunch," (a send-up of The X-Files a year before The X-Files went on the air, with a combination of aliens, cows, and midgets), they showed a "Where are they now" for all the characters in the episode -- and for Frank, Fay, and Blackie. Perhaps it was the anthology tag, or maybe the horror, but the show never found an audience.

Craven, of course, went on to add to his resume with the Scream franchise, and Englund (who had already achieved horror film immortality as Freddy Krueger) has worked regularly over the years. Coleman worked in TV and is now a regular on Heroes, and Frost has been successful as a guest star.

Maybe there was no chance that Nightmare Cafe would ever succeed, but it is indeed a first-class show that deserved more than six episodes.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Noises Off

Directed by
Peter Bogdonovich
Written by Marty Kaplan, from the play by Michael Frayn
Starring Michael Caine, Carol Burnett, Denholm Elliott,  Julie Hagerty, Marilu Henner, Belinda Blair, Mark Linn-Baker,     Christopher Reeve, John Ritter, Nicollette Sheridan

Noises Off  I first became familiar with Michael Frayn from his novel, The Tin Men. It's sort of science fiction (about robots) and was one of the funniest things I've read.  I read a couple of other novels of his, then lost track until I heard he changed to a playwright with Noises Off, and eventually won all sorts of awards for Copenhagen.

I also was a fan of Peter Bogdonovich. He started out with a real bang (literally) with Targets,* but lost his way after the flop of At Long Last Love.

So, when I heard Frayn's play was going to be directed by Bogdonovich with an all-star cast, I knew I had to see it.

Noises Off is a behind the scenes look at the production of a stage farce Nothing On. Director Lloyd Fellows** (Michael Caine) tries to keep order but the characters off-stage lives and stage characterizations lead to slapstick situations and some very funny lines.

The movie and play was designed in three acts at different stages of the production on the road to Broadway.  The first act -- the final dress rehearsal -- is a comic disaster, with people dropping lines, missing cues, and everything that can go wrong going wrong.  The second act shows a later performance -- but from backstage and you see what's going on behind the scenes in the same scene you saw in the first one. The third is opening night on Broadway, and brings the entire disaster to a triumphant and funny conclusion.

Bogdonovich does not try to open up the movie. There's really no point, since the original material is so good that you might as well stick with it. All the acting is first-rate, though Caine is memorable as the director and John Ritter*** is surprisingly good as an actor who stammers badly offstage, but has no problem reading his lines.

The movie got mediocre reviews. Part of the problem is that the play is so good that transferring it to film loses some of the frenetic humor on stage. Anyone who saw the stage production probably was disappointed by the movie, but if you hadn't the material is good enough for an enjoyable film.  Still, it flopped at the box office and sent Bogdonovich back scrambling for work.

Still, despite the carping, it's a very funny film farce, with too many funny scenes and lines to list.  Well worth digging up.

*Not counting Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women, but no one really counts that one.

**I'm using the names in the movie; there are variation in the play.

***Of all people.  I'm not a big John Ritter fan.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Steambath (TV)

image (1973)
Directed by
Burt Brinckerhoff
Written by Bruce Jay Friedman
Starring Bill Bixby, Jose Perez, Valerie Perrine, Art Metrano, Kenneth Mars, Herb Edelman

Bruce Jay Friedman is pretty much forgotten as a writer these days, but back in the 60s, he was a big success, writing very funny short stories, plays, and novels, usually dealing with Jewish New Yorkers, like Woody Allen, though more wry.

Steambath was his second play.  It ran for several months off Broadway, with a cast that included Anthony Perkins and Hector Elizondo, but obviously wasn't a major hit. So that's probably why when it was first adapted it was done for PBS.

The play was set in a steambath (obviously). Tandy (Bill Bixby in the TV version) finds himself there but doesn't know how he got there. It's populated by a variety of people, all waiting -- though for what, no one can say -- and getting few straight answers from the attendant (Jose Perez). But eventually, Tandy stumbles on the truth:  he is dead, and the steambath is a waiting room for heaven. And the attendant is God.

Very metaphysical, but also very funny.  Tandy wants to go back to his life and we learn about the various people in the steambath.

The show as a success for PBS; the local station ran it often in their fund drives at the time.  Not only because it's an interesting play, but because of the nudity. It was a steambath, of course, and the people inside only wore towels, which didn't always stay in place, especially to towel covering the top of Valerie Perrine as Meredith.

The real find of the play was Jose Perez. His God was put-upon and short tempered and unwilling to produce miracles just to prove who he was.  He had few credits beforehand, but starred soon after in Calluci's Department in a supporting role and as the lead in On the Rocks. They even tried to make the play into a series, with no success.

Valerie Perrine -- a fine actress who was typecast because she was both sexy and willing to do nudity -- never really had the success she deserved.  Bill Bixby, on the other hand, has been one of TV's most successful leading men.

Freidman worked on some screenplays, most notably Stir Crazy and Splash, and his short story "A Change of Plan," became the basis for The Heartbreak Kid.

Maybe one day, when PBS needs pledge money, they'll bring this back to enjoy.

Saturday, July 5, 2008


Directed by
Peter Weir
Screenplay by Weir (story) and David Williamson (Screenplay)
Starring Mark Lee and Mel Gibson
IMDB Entry

I've always been a history buff, especially war history. And the war I found the most interesting (after the Civil War) was World War I. It was one of the bloodiest of all wars, and filled with military incompetence (another subject I find fascinating). Yet World War I has gotten something of a short shrift by filmmakers. Once World War II broke out, the first war was forgotten except for a handful of films usually focused on the air war.

So a movie about Gallipoli was something I knew I had to see. If you're not familiar with the battle, it was an attempt by the allies to open another front by invading Turkey, a disaster of epic proportions. The plan -- in part developed by Winston Churchill* -- allied troops landed on a handful of beaches and were immediately pinned down by Turkish forces (led by Mustafa Kemel, later known as Kemel Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey). After several month and horrific losses (mostly by Australian and New Zealand units), the allies retreated.

The campaign was an important point both in Turkish history and in Australian and New Zealand history and Australian director Peter Weir decided to make a movie about it.

Weir had made a couple of critically successful films in Australia before this.  He recruited an obscure US actor, Mel Gibson**, and started the film.

Mel Gibson and Mark Lee Most of the film is not about Gallipoli. Frank Dunne (Gibson) and Archy Hamilton (Mark Lee) are Australians who met and become friends before deciding to join the army to fight the war. We follow their careers from Australia, to Egypt for training, and finally to Gallipoli itself.

The movie's most memorable moment was the final sequence in the battle, one of the most dramatic and frustrating war scenes put on film.  But it's primarily a film about friendship.

The film was a critical success and made some money at the box office. And when I first saw it, it was really nice to spot a potential star in the film. Of course, that seemed to be Mark Lee, who never really had any major hits.

Weir was able to move to the US on the strength of the film and was soon  was making a mark in Hollywood with The Year of Living Dangerously, Witness, Dead Poets Society, The Truman Show, and Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World.  Gibson also seems to have has some success as an actor and director.

But this is where they both started (in terms of being known to a US audience) and it's a great place to start.

* Who, for all his good points, evidently never saw a topological map of the Balkans and assumed they contained no mountains.

** Gibson had already made the original Mad Max, but it had only a very limited release in the US when Gallipoli was released.