Friday, May 30, 2008

The Ritz

The Ritz (1975) 
Directed by
Richard Lester
Written by Terrence McNally
Starring Jack Weston, Rita Moreno, Jerry Stiller, Kaye Ballard, Treat Williams, F. Murray Abraham, Paul B. Price, Jerry Stiller
IMDB Page

Pure film farce is rare.  Oh, you have comedies, but the rapid-fire humor and outrageous situations and complex plotting is very hard to pull off. And add to that some subject matter that is dicey today and you have a movie that vanishes from consideration.

But when you have one of the funniest characters in film, it deserves to be known.

Terrence McNally, who adapted the screenplay from his original play, set The Ritz in a gay bathhouse.  This gives it a whole new dimension to the heterosexual bed hoppping that characterizes good farce.  And throwing a straight man into that scene leaves things ripe for comic possibilities.  And when you get one of the top comedy director of the time to film it, the result is hilarious.

Gaetano Proclo (Jack Weston) is a salesman from Cleveland who becomes the target for murder by his mob-connected brother-in-law, Carmine Vespucci (Jerry Stiller).  Proclo ends up hiding out in the Ritz, a gay New York Bathhouse, thinking at first that it's like a health spa.  He is quickly disabused of that notion and becomes the romantic target of Claude Perkins (Paul B. Price), a "chubby chaser," who tries to seduce Proclo with promises of candy and other treats (starting with food).  Michael Brick (Treat Williams) is a detective with a buff body and a ridiculous high voice who is looking for Proclo, and also becomes the object of the affections of others in the Ritz. Chris (F. Murray Abraham) is one of the bathhouse regulars who tries to help Proclo in adjusting.

And then there's Googie Gomez (Rita Moreno), an aggressively untalented singer at the baths, who thinks Proclo is a Broadway producer and her route to stardom.  Proclo thinks she is a man in drag, and tries to avoid her, as well as his brother-in-law (who's coming for him with a gun), Claude Perkins and everyone else in the bathhouse.

Moreno invented the character of Googie, performing as that alter ego at parties, where McNally happened to see her.  Speaking with an weirdly exaggerated Puerto Rican accent, she is convinced that she is the greatest talent ever to appear on stage, despite all the evidence to the contrary. She's the type of character that causes you to lean just a little bit closer to the screen just to make sure you don't miss anything she says.

The result is a mad mix of jokes and very funny situations.

The acting is all first-rate. Farce requires good timing, and most of the cast had been in the Broadway version, allowing them to work perfectly as a team to make the jokes work.

And Richard Lester was the perfect director for such a film. Lester had vaulted to the top of comedy filmmaking with A Hard Day's Night (and The Mouse on the Moon), and directed a series of very good films:  Help!, Petulia, The Three Musketeers, The Four Musketeers, and Robin and Marion.  He was famous for his rapid cutting style, something that is almost routine these days, but which was a big revelation in the 60s.  He actually shot this one in a more standard (for the time) style, but his penchant for humor gave it just the right touch.

The movie did well enough, and even got a few Golden Globe nominations, but it faded away.  The subject matter made it unsuitable for TV and, the AIDS epidemic made the behavior portrayed in it much too dangerous to be funny.

But I do miss Googie Gomez. If there was any character who deserved to have more films, it was her.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Buffalo Bill (TV)

Buffalo Bill (1983-84)
Produced by
Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses
Starring Dabney Coleman, Joanna Cassady, John Fiedler, Max Wright, Geena Davis, Meshach Taylor, Charles Robinson
IMDB Entry

The first rule of casting your TV show is to have a likeable main character. But what happens when you don't want a likeable character? When your star's most famous role is being one of the blackest of comic villains? Well, you end up great but forgotten.

The show as designed as a vehicle for Dabney Coleman. At the time, Coleman was best known at the double dealing mayor in Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, the villain in Tootsie,  and as the nasty boss Franklin M. Hart in the movie Nine to Five, a male chauvinist pig of towering proportions.* The producers, Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses were former writers for the MTM productions like The Bob Newhart Show and decided the best way to work around it was to use good writing and a nicely sympathetic cast.

Bill Bittinger (Coleman) was the host of a mid-day talk show in Buffalo, NY. He was egotistical, vain, sexist, conniving, two-faced, and sneaky, though managed (most of the time) to keep his true nature off the air.

Geena Davis, Joanna Cassady, and Max Wright He did drive the others on the show crazy, though.  They included Jo Jo White (Joanna Cassady), his director; Karl Shub (Max Wright), the station manager; Woody (John Fielder), the stage manager (who was independently wealthy, but still loved his job); Wendy Killian (Geena Davis), his research assistant; Tony (Mesach Taylor), the assistant director, and Newdell (Charlie Robinson), the make-up man who didn't take any of Bill's guff.

As you can see by the cast list, there were talented people, and the show was well regarded by critics.  And it didn't help that there were some controversial themes.  One show -- a two-parter called "Jo Jo's Problem" was a very funny and touching episode about Jo Jo mulling an abortion**.  It also didn't help that NBC didn't have any idea what to do with the show, so let it out to die.

I can't single out anyone in this excellent cast.  I've been a big fan of John Fielder (best known as the neurotic Mr. Peterson in The Bob Newhart Show*** ) and his Woody is wonderful -- a sweet guy who knows that Bill really has a heart of gold (Bill doesn't, of course).

Geena Davis was also memorable. She had only appeared in a small part in Tootsie at the time, and this was just a wonderful role for her. Her Wendy was a delight to watch.  Max Wright later had TV success in Alf, as did Meshach Taylor in Designing Women, and Charlie Robinson in Night Court.

But talent isn't enough in the TV game.  Ratings matter and despite acclaim and awards (11 Emmy nominations and one Golden Globe win), the show was canceled after two seasons.

Coleman tried a few more times to headline a comedy (The Slap Maxwell Story, Drexel's Class, and Madman of the People), but, even though they were well regarded, too, audiences didn't show up.  Ultimately, his characters's abrasive personalities didn't play well in prime time. 

Still, Coleman has remained busy, as have all the other main members of the cast. They show may have been forgotten, but its influence lives on.****


*It was hard to take him seriously when he showed up in On Golden Pond as Jane Fonda's fiance and later husband; you got the impression he had something nefarious on his mind.

**One of the last network shows that portrayed a main character deciding to end the pregnancy; even now, that topic is off limits.

***And on Broadway as the only white member of the original cast of Raisin in the Sun.

****Four footnotes -- a record.  But I wanted to say that Pardon My Enthusiasm is now a successful show with an unlikeable character -- the type of thing Buffalo Bill  was trying to do.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Morning Chex Press

(1960s)
By Ron Goulart

If you're like me, you read the back of cereal boxes.  When I was a kid, they were colorful things, filled with offers for toys (send in your boxtops) and other things.  Definitely kid's territory.

Which could be a problem if you had a cereal for adults. This was long before nutrition was a selling point, so the question was what to put on the box?

Ralston-Purina, makers of Chex Cereal (and Purina Dog Chow) decided to do something different.  They hired an ad copywriter (Ron Goulart) to write a newspaper parody on the back of their boxes.  Thus, the Morning Chex Press was born.

Every few months, a new box would come out. They were filled with jokes, oddball stories, a weather report, and the "No Pictures Comic Strip."  The results were a delight.  I think one reason I still love Corn Chex and Rice Chex is thinking about the old Chex Press.  I'll admit I don't remember too many details (even the Internet gives no specifics), but I do remember looking forward to reading the box each time we bought a new one.

Goulart was just starting his career as a writer. He later developed into one of the funniest writers in science fiction before branching out to write mysteries, including a fairly recent series featuring Groucho Marx as a detective. He's also well known for his various books on popular culture.

It seems unlikely that the Chex Press will be seen again. Cereal boxes are even more ephemeral than regular newspapers (which at least have microfilm). And Ralston-Purina spun off its human food division, which was then sold to General Mills in 1997, as Ralston decided to concentrate on manufacturing store brand cereals instead of their own (which leads to an interesting point:  if you buy store brand Chex-equivalent, you're buying from the original manufacturer; if you buy Chex, you are not).

In any case, the Chex Press seems gone for good. I'm somewhat saddened that I can't go back and see what I liked so much.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

All You Need is Cash

(1979)
Directed by Gary Weiss and Eric Idle
Written by Eric Idle
Starring Eric Idle, Neil Innes, John Halsey, Rickie Fartaar, Michael Palin, George Harrison, Bianca Jagger, Mick Jagger, Dan Ackroyd, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray
IMDB Entry
The Rutles Web Page

As I mentioned before, Eric Idle had bad luck in his post-Monty-Python endeavors. That didn't mean they were all terrible, though, and All You Need is Cash is a movie that needs to be mentioned.

The term "mockumentary" was coined by Rob Reiner to refer to This is Spinal Tap. Certainly that put the finishing touches on all the elements of the genre (having the movie basically ad-libbed by the actors), but is it the first? Probably not. There were scripted mocumentaries before Spinal Tap (though not many). Woody Allen's Zelig certainly fits the definition, and you could make the argument that A Hard Day's Night could be considered the first (it did, after all, show a day in the life of the Beatles).

The Rutles But All You Need is Cash deserves consideration as a pioneer.

It was Eric Idle's baby. After Monty Python ended, Idle created a show for the BBC called Rutland Weekend Television, similar in concept to Second City TV in Canada -- the broadcast day of a small TV station that was an excuse for various skits and hijinks. One recurring bit was that of the Rutles -- Rutland's prefab four.  Idle got his friend Neil Innes of the Bonzo Dog Band* (scroll down) to help write music. 

Idle brought the tape of one of the songs to an appearance on Saturday Night Life and Lorne Michaels liked it enough to do an entire special on the concept.

The concept is just what you'd think.  Dirk McQuickly (Idle as Paul McCarney,  pretending to play bass guitar left handed), Ron Nasty (Innes, as John Lennon), Stig O'Hara (Ricky Fataar -- once a member of the Beach Boys and here standing in for George as the Quiet Rutle**) on lead guitar) and Barry Wom (Barrington Womble, played by John Halsey, on drums) met in the clubs of Liverpool, polished their act in Hamburg Germany, and returned to become the center of Rutlemania.

Much of the fun comes from the shock of recognition. Innes's songs can lull you into believing they are Beatles songs.  Consider, for instance, "Ouch":

 

Or especially, "Piggy in the Middle"

This is more than reference comedy; the parodies are so exact that you can't help but being enchanted by them. And the changes in the Beatles over the years were neatly matched in the film.

Idle plays multiple roles, too (the only one of the prefab four to actually have a background in acting).

The TV was broadcast on NBC on March 22, 1978. Ratings were dismal. There was a theatrical release, and the film probably made back its cost -- since it was made dirt cheaply.

A record album came out at the time.  And, many years later, in response to the Beatles's Anthology album, they added some new songs can released Archeology (without Innes).

The film is a high point of musical satire and an early example of the mockumetary genre. And the songs are just as wonderful now as they ever were; the shock of recognition is still there.

*Idle and Innes had worked together on Do Not Adjust Your Set, and Innes wrote several songs for Monty Python).

**He never says a word.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Nuns on the Run

(1990)
Written and Directed by
Jonathan Lynn
Starring Eric Idle, Robby Coltrane, Camille Coduri, Janet Suzman.

Poor Eric Idle. He never really established himself once he left Monty Python, despite being the one person who wrote sketches without any partner. He was limited to guest star roles in so-so comedies (and horrible ones, like Nearly Departed) and voice work.  He also worked on turning Monty Python and the Holy Grail into Spamalot (where he gets songwriting credit*)

Alas, his best post-Python work was in a very funny movie that no one has seen, called Nuns on the Run.

For title alone, it clearly is a movie worth watching.

The situation is very similar in situation to Whoopi Goldberg's Sister Act, which came a couple of years later (but whose basic script was written before). Charlie and Brian getting into the habit (sorry)

Brian Hope (Robbie Coltrane) and Charlie McManus (Eric Idle) are two low-level gangsters who want to leave the mob. Their boss doesn't like this and tries to have them killed -- after they collect some money for him.  But they escape with their lives and the money and end up having to hide out in a convent.

Charlie knows nothing about Catholicism, and has to lean from Brian. The two have to deal with being men in a woman's institution (including the showers), plus dealing with Brian's girlfriend Faith (Camille Coduri).

It's really Robbie Coltrane's movie. His has most of the best lines (the role was originally offered to Michael Palin) and is a very funny presence. Idle is good as Charlie, though, as he tries to figure it all out while not blowing their cover.

The movie did adequately at the box office, but was no hit. Director Lynn went on to direct My Cousin Vinnie and The Whole Nine Yards, far more conspicuous success.  Coltrane, though well-liked in the UK, never was able to establish himself in the US.  He was certainly not leading man material, but seems to be a fine character actor. His career wasn't helped by the outcry over the great but forgotten The Pope Must Die!, which might have made a difference.

It's a nice little comedy that, like many, got lost in the shuffle. As a footnote, this was the last major production of Hand Made Films, George Harrison's film production company that produced a nice string of British comedies in the 80s.

*Incorrectly in the case of the song "Brave Sir Robin," which was written by his friend Neil Innes of the Bonzo Dog Band)>

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Captain Nice (TV)

(1967)
Produced by
Jay Sandrich
Created by Buck Henry
Starring William Daniels, Alice Ghostley, Ann Prentiss
IMDB Entry

I grew up loving superheroes.  I was also a big fan of satimageire and spoofs (probably, like most people my age, from reading Mad Magazine). So the combination was like catnip to a cat.  And when NBC announced they were doing a superhero spoof at a midseason replacement, I was there.

The show was created by Buck Henry.  Henry had just created Get Smart and wanted to do a superhero spoof much like the other show was a spy spoof. The result was Captain Nice.

Carter Nash (William Daniels) was a police chemist* who developed developed a serum that gave him superpowers. He took on the identity of Captain Nice and started fighting crime.  His mother (Alice Ghostley) was the only one who knew is identity and sewed him a costume.  Sgt. Candy Kane was his girlfriend, who kept getting in trouble and had to be rescued.

The show was just irreverent enough to make it work both as spoof and superhero. Carter was never as dumb as Maxwell Smart, but often had problems trying to live up to the superhero lifestyle. Here's a look at the first few minutes of the first episode.

William Daniels, whose been working regularly on TV and movies ever since, brought quite a bit of sincerity that grounded the concept. And Alice Ghostley was a busy character actor in the 60s, best known as Aunt Esmerelda in Bewitched.  Ann Prentiss (Paula's younger sister) also brought fun to her role.

There was even a novelization by the great William Johnston.

Alas, the show didn't catch on.  It wasn't quite as good as Get Smart, but what hurt it the most was the fact that CBS decided to premier a very similar show, Mr. Terrific, the same night. If there were only one, it's possible Captain Nice would have survived.  As it is, the two shows become a more obscure version of the Addams Family/Munsters debate.

William Daniels, of course, is still working today, and went on to some fame in St. Elsewhere and Boy Meets World (I saw him on Broadway playing John Adams -- the lead -- in 1776). Ghostley kept busy as a character comedienne, and Ann kept working.

They used to say satire was what closes on Saturday, and this definitely fit the bill. It's too bad, since the show had some great potential.

*An honorable profession for superheroes -- see Barry Allen.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Starcrossed (book)

(1976)
by Ben Bova

The Starcrossed In 1973, some TV producers decided to create a science fiction series and actually went about it the right way. They hired Harlan Ellison to write the treatment.  Ellison has written scripts for some of the best SF on TV (The Outer Limits, Star Trek, The New Twilight Zone, Babylon 5) and certainly he could come up with something exciting.

And he came up with The Starlost.

The trouble was, the producers didn't trust the material and knew nothing about SF, so once production began, everything fell apart.  Ellison's concept (which even he admitted was cliched, even though the producers thought it was brilliant and original) was watered down, and the show's cheap production values were blatantly apparent.  Ellison washed his hands of the project (changing his credit to "Cordwainer Bird") and has trashed it in print even since.  The show lasted for 16 episodes -- all syndicated -- before dying a lingering death.

And he is right.  The show was dull and plodding, introducing the well-worn concept of a generation ship as though it was the newest concept under the stars.

But this isn't about The Starlost.  It's about a book that is the one thing that made the series worthwhile (if not worth watching):  The Starcrossed by Ben Bova.

Bova was in on the disaster from the start, hired as technical consultant.  He's primarily known as a hard SF writer, but strayed into comic territory as he wrote something very unusual in science fiction:  A roman a clef.

The Starcrossed is the story of the production of The Starlost. In the book, Bill Oxnard (who is clearly Bova himself) is the technical advisor of a 21st century TV show based on Romeo and Juliet (hence, The Starcrossed), developing a new form of 3D TV. Becoming involved, he is treated to the antics and wild behavior of the main character, Ron Gabriel.

Gabriel is blatantly based on Harlan Ellison. If you're not familiar with him, he is a legend in the science fiction world. And that's not hyperbole: there are jokes that go around SF conventions that substitute Harlan's name for the original punchline. He is a larger than life character who revels in attention, and can be nasty and funny at the same time.  If you know about Harlan, you'll love this book.

Bova was friends with Ellison, so he's not treated unkindly, but he is a cyclone going through the madness of the TV production. I don't know how much of the book was true, but the outlines are there, and Gabriel is always fun to read about. It certainly captures the flavor of a bad TV production team who drives their head writer crazy with their cluelessness.

This was quite a departure for Bova, best known for his hard science books. But the result is a funny satire of the insanity of TV.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of the War of the Worlds

 (1978)
Music and Lyrics by
Jeff Wayne
Performers include:  Richard Burton, David Essex, Justin Haywood, Phil Lynott, Julie Covington, Chris Thompson
Web Page

The rock opera seems to be long past dead. The idea of an album with a theme and plot is quaint in a time when people buy songs individually, but it was an important subgenre in the 60s and 70s.

And one of the best (if not the one with the clunkiest title) was Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of the War of the Worlds.  Wayne started out writing music for West End musicals in London and moved on to be a record producer for many years. But Wayne was still composing, and, in 1978, got a group of big names together to record his take on War of the Worlds.

War of the WorldsThe album follows Welles's novel more closely than any other adaptation of it.  Wayne knows enough to let the story speak for itself and to concentrate on the music, which is an appealing combination of rock and classical, with a dramatic bent.

Richard Burton as the narrator gives the disk a lot of its strength. Burton often overacted, but in this case his performance is nicely subdued.  He doesn't sing, but he draws the images -- probably directly from the novel -- with a keen sense of drama. Maybe since he was only  a voice, he found it easier to hit the right notes to hold the story together.

Justin Haywood of the Moody Blues sings a couple of the songs. One, "Forever Autumn," was a minor hit, but -- though an excellent song on its own -- it's a bit out of place in the story, a love song in the middle of the carnage of the invasion.

The rest of the singers are all fine, taking various characters from the novel and telling their story.

The album was a major success in the UK, but barely charted in the US, where it was poorly promoted.  CBS records had no idea what to do with it, and never seemed able to capitalize on any potential.

Wayne went back to producing, not coming out with another album of music for almost 15 years.  That record, Spartacus, was in the same vein, but nowhere near as good. There have also been attempts to turn it into a stage show -- so far, unsuccessful.

You can listen to it online at the War of the Worlds Website (click on "Click here for music player").  It holds up very well and is rock opera at its best.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Baseball is a Funny Game (book)

(1960)
By Joe Garagiola

If people know Joe Garagiola at al these days, it was for his stint as a sports announcer and Today Show host.  Most people might recall he was a ballplayer (he talked about it often enough) and Arizona Diamondbacks fans might note him as the father of Joe Garagiola, Jr., the team's general manager.

Most people don't realize he was a best selling author, too.

Garagiola was a journeyman ballplayer.  He was lucky enough to play for one World Series champs, but played most of his career on mediocre to terrible teams. He could catch and hit well enough, but was never a star and eventually was out of the game at the fairly young age of 28.

But Garagiola was a storyteller.  He grew up in the same neighborhood as Yogi Berra and had dozens of stories about Yogi from when they were kids. He could tell a funny story with the best of them, and, after retiring, he wrote Baseball is a Funny Game.*

Baseball is a Funny Game Two things made it work.  First was Garagiola's sense of humor. It's filled with funny stories about players, umpires, owners, and managers.

But the second was Garagiola's inside look at the game. He talked about the people in the clubhouse -- what the trainers did, the job of the clubhouse boy -- and in the front office, and what their jobs were. The book is filled with insights even today, like his example of front office interference, where he explains how a general manager may ask his field manager to play a player to make him easier to trade.

There was also a great chapter entitled "Between the Foul Lines," which describes what it feels to be a major league player.

The book was a smash.  It stayed on the New York Times Best seller list for 13 weeks and remained in print for years.  It made Garagiola into a major name and talk show guest (He substituted for Johnny Carson, and had the Beatles on the show that night). And he parlayed a fair to middling baseball career into a household word on TV.

Not too bad for a poor boy from St. Louis.

*Some sources say the book was ghostwritten. While I'm sure he had an editor's help (he was not a great student, preferring baseball to class), I find it hard to believe the book was ghostwritten out of the whole cloth. It's unlikely in the extreme that a publisher would assign a ghostwriter to an unknown ballplayer. And Garagiola continued to repeat the stories in the book through his sportscasting years (as his critics often pointed out). At most, the ghostwriter took down what Garagiola was saying and made sure it was in professional form, but the voice is definitely Joe's.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Waking Ned Devine

Waking Ned Devine(1998)
 Written and Directed by Kirk Jones
Starring Ian Bannen, David Kelly, Fionnula Flanagan, Susan Lynch, James Nesbitt, Eileen Dromey

I'm a sucker for charm, and for farce. Waking Ned Devine has both, a quiet little Irish comedy that leaves you laughing.

In the town of Tullymore (population 52) on the Irish coast, word gets out that someone from the village has hit it big in the lottery.  But who? Jackie O'Shea (Ian Bannen) and Michael O'Sullivan (David Kelly), two old moochers, want to know, figuring they can cadge a bit of money from the winner.  After a diligent bit of reasoning, they realize the only person it can be is Ned Devine (Jimmy Keogh).

Sure enough, he has the winning ticket.  Unfortunately, he is dead -- of shock at learning the news.

Ned has no family.  The lottery money would go back to the state. Which Jackie and Michael think is a shame.  So the concoct a plot to pose as Ned and take the money from the lottery claim agent.  The entire town gets involved, planning to split the money.

But there's a fly in the ointment.  Lizzy Quinn (Eileen Dromey) refuses to take part in the scheme.  And she can get a 10% reward if she turned everyone in for fraud . . .

There is also a subplot about Pig Finn (James Nesbit) and Maggie O'Toole (Susan Lynch).  Pig (who raises pigs) want to marry Maggie, since he's the father of Maggie's son Morris.  Maggie refuses, and Pig tries to change her mind.

David Kelly and Ian Bannan The movie is funny from start to end.  Ian Bannen and David Kelly are great as the conniving Jackie and David, with Kelly especially good (he's probably best known to American audiences from his part of O'Reilly the carpenter in Fawlty Towers).  Both turn on the charm in especially winning roles.

Dromey is also great as Lizzy Quinn. The final resolution of her situation is one of the comic highlights of the film.

Director Kirk Jones later helmed the delightful Nanny McPhee and seems to be working on a film now with Robert DeNiro. This was his first feature, and he brings out plenty of sweet and quirky performances.

It is. ultimately, a tall tale, but one shown with such charm as to be irresistible.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Dick

(1999)
Directed by Andrew Fleming
Written by Andrew Fleming and Sheryl Longin
Starring Kirsten Dunst, Michelle Williams, Dan Hedaya, Will Ferrell, Bruce McCollough, Terri Garr, Dave Foley, Harry Shearer
IMDB Entry

There's a particular unnamed genre that I'm quite fond of.  Not alternate history, but alternate explanations for actual history. It's fun to come up with with a plausible story that fits closely to the facts (one reason conspiracy theories are so popular -- it's the same game).

One of my favorite in this sort-of-genre is Dick.

Arlene & Betsy It is about the Watergate scandal. Betsy Jobs (Kirsten Dunst) and Arlene Lorenzo (Michelle Williams) are to helium headed teenagers who just happen to live in the Watergate. When rushing out to mail a letter to the "Meet a Date with Bobby Sherman" contest, the run into a strange man in the stairwell.  Later, at a White House tour, they see him again:  G. Gordon Liddy (the always great and always underrated Harry Shearer).  Liddy takes them to President Nixon (Dan Hedaya), who charms them and, to buy them off and keep an eye on them, tells them that they are now his official dog walkers.

It then starts to get even funnier.  One my favorite moments is when Arlene -- now with a mad crush on Nixon -- takes Rosemary Wood's tape recorder and records a confession of true love to him.  For 18 1/2 minutes.*

The movie plays out in this vein. The Watergate scandal mysteries are all explained (like the identity of Deep Throat) in ways that are always both logical, surprising and very funny.

Dan Hedaya IS Dick Dunst and Williams are great as the clueless teens who bring down the president, but the real bravura performance is that by Dan Hedaya.  Hedaya is a busy actor in character roles (his best known one was as Carla's husband in Cheers and its spin-off TheTortellis). This is one of his few major roles, and he makes the most of the chance.  His Nixon is almost as clueless as the girls, but with a sinister edge.

The film flopped at the box office.  Maybe the concept was too esoteric, or the combination of highbrow and lowbrow (much is made of the word "Dick") not appealing to either group.  In addition, if you didn't know the history, you'd miss a lot of the jokes.

Director Fleming (who had created some interest with The Craft) has worked sporadically.  His best known film was the pointless remake of The In-Laws.

Most of the other actors, though, did fine. Williams is working steadily and Dunst went on to film icon status by kissing Spider-Man.

But if you know anything about Watergate, the film is the second-best made on the subject (after All the President's Men)

*If you're familiar with Watergate -- I lived through it -- that number is hilariously significant.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

McDonald and Giles (music)

(1971)
Ian McDonald
(organ, clarinet, flute, guitar, saxophone, piano, vocals)
Michael Giles (Drums, vocals)
Peter Giles (bass)

Progressive rock has gotten a bad rap, criticized for being self-indulgent and bombastic, and pretty much having died out by the let 70s, killed by disco and especially by punk and New Wave.  Punk was especially scornful of the musicianship and instrumentation, since their entire raison d'etre was to go back to basic (and, following the Ramones, with musicianship not considered important).

But in the early part of the decade, it was considered the direction that rock was going in, using classical and jazz structures and allowing the musicians to expand their horizons. Granted, there were some self-indulgence, but the attitude today is that if you write a song longer than five minutes and it's too long. That's a ridiculous limit -- classical composers routinely had their music go on for ten minutes or longer, as did jazz musicians. Even today, one of the major names of progressive rock -- Pink Floyd -- is often categorized as psychedelic, partly because progressive has a bad name.

image

McDonald and Giles comes out of the progressive tradition. Both McDonald and Michael Giles were part of the first incarnation one of the earliest progressive rock successes, King Crimson. Peter played with his brother and Robert Fripp (also of King Crimson). 

They decided they didn't like where King Crimson was going, so broke off to record their own album.  It's a charming bit of music, led by two main pieces:  "Suite in C" (a group of songs linked by their key) and "Birdman."  The latter filled the second side of the LP, a rock mini-opera about a man who wanted to fly, a tale similar to Brewster McCloud. The songs are generally light, showing off McDonald's multinstrumental abilities.  Giles is different from any other drummers, with a unique sound.

The album never went anywhere, mostly because the songs, while good, didn't have the type of hooks needed to make a splash.  The group broke up, McDonald eventually joining Foreigner (that's his saxophone on "Double Vision") and Michael Giles becoming a sessions drummer. 

It was unlikely from the start that the group would ever have been a major success, and it seems as though McDonald and Giles wouldn't have lasted very long.  But the put out one nice little album that shows talent and humor.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Young and Innocent

(1937)
Directed by
Alfred Hitchcock
Written by Charles Bennett, Edwin Greenwood , andAnthony Armstrong, from a novel by Josephine Tey
Starring Derreck de Marney, Nova Pilbeam, Edward Rigby.

I'm a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock, so when I saw a DVD set at Wal-Mart of most of his early British films -- for $5 -- I snapped it up.  With movies like The Thirty-Nine Steps, The Lady Vanishes, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Sabotage, it was a steal, and if any of the other films were worthwhile, it would be gravy.

I've already written about The Skin Game, but there are other gems on it.  One of the most fascinating of these was Young and Innocent.

Hitchcock is famous for his "running man" films, where an innocent man is suspected of a crime and has to clear his name.  The Thirty-Nine Steps made his reputation, and he reached perfection of the theme in North by Northwest, but on the way there were others.  I've written about Saboteur before, but Young and Innocent was new to me -- and quite a good film.

Robert Tisdale (Derrect de Marney) discovers a dead woman washed up on the beach, strangled by the belt of a raincoat. When he goes to get help, others discover the body, and notice him running away.  He is arrested -- he knew the woman and stood to benefit from her will. Knowing he has little chance of the court system, he makes a break, using Erica Burgoyne's (Nova Pilbeam) car. Erica, who is the daughter of the of the local chief constable, wants to take Tisdale back to jail, but he manages to convince her that he is innocent and needs to find his old raincoat -- mysteriously stolen -- and produce the the belt to prove his innocence. 

Hitchcock's cameo Hitchcock gives this theme his full attention.  There are plenty of great scenes, sharp dialog, and bravura direction. The shot where Hitchcock reveals the murderer is justly famous, a long slow camera movement across a ballroom until it goes to close-up on the man's face.

The leads are quite attractive. Most of their work doesn't seem to have traveled to the US, but both handle their roles with a lot of charm.  Nova Pilbeam is especially good in showing the conflicts she has -- she wants to trust Tisdale, but, as a policeman's daughter, knows where her duty lies.

It's always nice to see more of what you love about a director. Young and Innocent is a real treat for Hitchcock fans.