Sunday, January 25, 2009

Mots d'Heures: Gousses, Rames (book)

mots d'heures: gousses rames by Luis D'Antin Van Rooten

You sometimes wonder why a particular book is published. Usually, it's because a book is particularly bad. But in the case of Mots d'Heure: Gousses, Rames, you wonder where they expected to find enough people to appreciate its brilliance.  The province of Quebec, of course. And English speakers who knew how to pronounce French (though not to be able to translate it, since a translation misses the point). 

But if you know your high school French, the book is a pure delight.

Let's start with the title.  Mots d'Heures: Gousses, Rames.  Say it out loud.  Say it again (if you're not familiar with French pronunciation, "Mots" is pronounced like "moe," and "d'heures" is pronounced "deur," with the "eu" drawn out a bit).  Try it a few times (aloud; it doesn't work unless you hear it).

Get it?  Yes, the title of the book is pronounced like "Mother Goose Rhymes."

And that's what it is.  Van Rooten took a bunch of well known nursery rhymes, used French phrases to approximate the sounds, and produced the book as a scholarly analysis of a French book of sayings.*

The result is both hilarious and delightful.  Each poem is a treasure hunt, where you say them aloud to find out what they really are.  Consider, for instance:

Jacques s'apprête
Coulis nos fête.
Et soif qui dites nos lignes.


Pis-terre, pis-terre
Pomme qui n'y terre


"Adieu, notes laïque," dit d'acteur frêle
D'horizon Hawaii canot tel
Baux, dix anneaux en tonneau. Filou elle,
Adieu, notes laïque," dit d'acteur frêle.**

The book is addicting, especially since that you will often forget what the poem actually is and have to puzzle it out again.

What's even more fun is the fact that the translations aren't entirely gibberish.  Van Rooten's footnotes indicate some of the more esoteric terms, and the meaning is a bit cryptic, but it does say something (and the footnotes are a guide).

Van Rooten had an interesting career.  He was best known as a radio and TV actor, and also appeared in some films and on Broadway.  Toward the end of his career, he switched from acting to writing, and put out several successful books of humor.

I just found out about this one a few weeks ago.  My parents had visited Quebec (the perfect audience for this, of course) and my mother gave me a copy. It took me a few minutes to understand what was going on, but once I did, I was delighted.

I'm sure that many people will not be able to get the joke, of course. If you don't know French, you're out of luck. But if you do, the book is a wonderful look at how sense and sound interact.


* Complete with footnotes.

**(drag mouse over to read)  Jack Sprat, Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater, and "I don't not like thee, Dr. Fell.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Michael Dunn (actor)

IMDB Entry
Wikipedia Entry

Some actors can't avoid being typecast. Many of them try hard to break through the typecasting, but Michael Dunn knew better. There was one type he was always called upon to play, and he always played it brilliantly.

Dunn was a dwarf. He stood 3' 10" as an adult, and weighed under 80 pounds.  But that didn't stop him from having a very successful acting career -- so much so that, next to Billy Barty, he was the actor people first thought of when the script called for a little person.

By all accounts, Dunn was highly intelligent, and it shows in his acting. He always seemed to bring something interesting to his roles and was never content with just phoning in a performance. Dunn decided quite early on not to let his small stature affect his career.

After trying college and toying with joining a monastery, Dunn moved to New York and started getting small roles* in the theater. He had some success with a cabaret show (Dunn was a fine singer) and got the attention of TV casting directors.

I first saw him when he appeared in the pilot episode of Get Smart as Mr. Big.  But his most notable role was a few years later, when he played Jim West's arch enemy, Dr. Miguelito Loveless, in The Wild, Wild West.

Dr. Miguelito Loveless Loveless was one of television's great villains.  He was a mad scientist, but not one who chewed the scenery at all costs.  Loveless was a cultured man who generally spoke softly and commandingly, but who always seemed to have more going on than the script warranted. Dunn was front and center, a screen presence that made him dominate the scenes he was in.

Alexander A little later, Dunn appeared in his best-known role -- the appearance of Alexander in the Star Trek episode, "Plato's Stepchildren."** Once again, it is a find performance, with Dunn holding his own against Shatner's bravura style.


There was also the TV movie Goodnight, My Love, an attempt at a Raymond Chandleresque hard-boiled detective story, with Dunn as the partner of Richard Boone.  It was an intriguing pair-up -- the hulking Boone and the tiny Dunn. Dunn drove the car, and there was a nice little scene where they left it with valet parking, and the driver had to fit into the seat and pedals modified for Dunn, making a small but significant point about accessibility long before it became the law. The movie was made as a potential pilot for a TV series, but was never picked up.

Dunn continued to work up until his premature death. His physical condition caused heart problems, and he died of it at the age of 38. 

His legacy is important, though.  He was one of the first little person actors to insist on being treated with dignity, and was an inspiration that led to various shorter people to try their luck with acting. But he also deserves to be remember because he was a damn fine actor.


*I refuse to say it.

* Best known for the Kirk-Uhura interracial kiss.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


Directed by
Irwin Winkler
Written by Jay Cocks
Starring Kevin Kline, Ashley Judd, Jonathan Pryce
IMDB Entry.

I've been a fan of Cole Porter ever since I had a role in the musical Anything Goes when I was in college. I still think he was one of the top American popular song composers.* And Porter had a complex and unusual life.  So when I heard that there would be a musical biography of him, I made it my business to see it.

The movie shows Porter (Kevin Kline) at the end of his life, when Gabe (Jonathan Pryce) comes by as his life is flashing before his eyes -- as a musical. 

It's an interesting conceit, and gives the film a structure instead of moving from scene to scene. In addition, it allows Porter to view and reflect on the things he did -- triumphs and mistakes. 

Ashley Judd & Kevin Kline The central story involves his relationship with his wife Linda (Ashley Judd).  Porter was gay, and made no secret of it to Linda, who accepted it as part of him.  There were problems, of course, but when Porter had his biggest crisis -- getting his legs crushed by a horse while out riding -- she comes back to him.  The movie implies there is a real fondness between them, even if they were sexually incompatible.

Kline is always an interesting actor, and he really brings Porter to life -- showing him to be a man with a cheerful outlook and unconventional sexuality.  When he breaks into "Be A Clown," the movies is an especial delight.

Ashley Judd is also fine as Linda, who cares for her husband more than he does for her. 

The movie was sprinkled with great Cole Porter songs, of course, some sung by Sheryl Crow, Elvis Costello, John Barrowman,** Alanis Morrisette, and Natalie Cole.  And, of course Kline is no slouch as a singer.  The songs alone make the movie worth watching***.

Alas, the film did poorly. It got some critical pans (including a lot of nitpicking by critics who were too concerned with accuracy over drama), and was too much of a niche film to be a blockbuster.  It appeared to have lost money overall.

But if you don't mind a few narrative conceits and some great songs, you just might want to check this out.


*The American popular song genre is called "The Great American Songbook" these days, and really reached its peak in the 1930s.  My list for the best would start with George Gershwin (and Ira Gershwin), Porter, Irving Berlin, Harry Warren, and Jerome Kern.

**Long before I saw him as Captain Jack Harkness.

***I do wish they had found a way to include "Always True to You in My Fashion," one of my favorites and also a song often considered to encapsulate Porter's feelings about his relationship with Linda. But I can understand the omission, since it would be hard to perform the song in a way to make the parallel clear.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Middleman (TV)

The Middleman (2008)
Created by
Javier Grillo-Marxuach 
Starring Matt Keeslar, Natalie Morales, Brit Morgan, Mary Pat Gleason, Jake Smollett, Brendon Hines.
IMDB Entry

When people think of quality TV, ABC Family Channel does not come to mind. I see that Kyle XY  gets some buzz, but really, it is pretty much a wasteland of "family" comedies and dramas with about as much edge to them as a block of wood, the shows that are not quite good enough for their sister network, The Disney Channel.  So the last thing you'd expect from them is a delight like Middleman.

In a nutshell, the show is The Man from U.N.C.L.E. crossed with Men in Black, with a hint of The Avengers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and every comic book you ever loved.  Only funnier and more entertaining.

In the pilot,* we meet Wendy Watson (Natalie Morales), an aspiring artist working as a bored receptionist at a scientific establishment. Something goes wrong and a monster is created.  Wendy is too blasé to be terrified and when the Middleman **(Matt Kesslar),  a Men-in-Black type agent, appears to defeat it, he takes note of her lack of fear and offers her a job.

The Middleman is an agent for O2STK*** and is looking for an assistant. Wendy joins him in fighting aliens and other menaces.   The office is run by Ida (Mary Pat Gleason) a large robot woman in a tacky housedress for whom sarcasm is her primary language.

Wendy's personal life conflicts with her new job, causing problems with her friend and roommate Lacey Thornfield (Brit Morgan). They are both helped by the guy next door, Noser (Jake Smollett).  Naturally, Wendy can't tell them about her top-secret middleman job (though there are hints of romantic sparks between Lacey and the Middleman), which leads to some problems with her friendship and her social life with Tyler Ford (Brendon Hines), who otherwise would be a kindred spirit.

The bare description doesn't do justice to just how entertaining the series was.  Some of the various menaces the Middleman fought included:

  • Giant venomous flying fish whose bite turns victims into zombies.
  • Mexican wrestlers.
  • Gun-toting gorillas.
  • A duck caught in a hole in space and time.
  • Evil alien overlords disguised as the members of a boy band****
  • A succubus who works as a fashion designer.
  • Aliens addicted to plastic surgery.
  • Vampire ventriloquist dummies.
  • A cursed tuba

In addition to the general silliness of plotting, there was also shout outs to adventure series and movies.

Some were obvious -- Titanic, for instance.  Others required a knowledge of popular culture, like in the final episode where Wendy was transported into an evil parallel world.  How did we know that?  Because all the men there wore goatees (and the Middleman looked a lot like Snake Plissken*****).  There was also one episode where the aliens were being investigated by an organization suspiciously similar to U.N.I.T. from Doctor Who.

Some were even more subtle, like when the Middleman introduced him and Wendy as "Alexander Scott and Kelly Robinson."

Note that this wasn't just reference comedy.  If you didn't get the reference, it didn't matter -- the show was still fun.  But getting the reference made you watch very carefully. It was as though the scripts were written first and then people went through them to figure out what media references fit the script.

I also liked the fact that they knew when to hold back. The final episode involved palindromes, and a criminal who left drawings at the scene of his crimes.  The first showed a man.  The next showed a plan. The next showed a canal. And the final one  showed . . . a hat.  "A hat?" Wendy asks.  "How does that fit in?"******

Each scene had a title, a la The X-Files that told time and location. In some episodes they have fun with that, using random time zones from around the world, or using "Lunch Time," "Dinner Time," "Hammer Time," and "Jail Time."

I could go on and on about the great moments in the show. There was the time Noser played "Stump the Band" (people would shout out names of songs, and he'd say, "Yes, I know that one."). The show was just densely packed with humor and strangeness, they type of thing where you had to pay attention every moment for fear of missing something that would have you laughing out loud.

The stories worked because, despite the fact they were off-the-wall, the writers took it all seriously.  Sure, there was slapstick, but the show remained grounded just enough to sell the concept.

Much of that is due to the two leads.  Matt Kessler played the Middleman -- the straightest of straight arrows -- perfectly seriously, even in the most bizarre of situations.  The Middleman could have been like the old Adam West Batman, but Kessler was never jokey.  The Middleman believed in what he was doing, and that helped sell the show.

Natalie Morales was also good as Wendy, a comic book/TV/movie geek whose ironic look at life contrasted nicely with the Middleman's seriousness.  She was often skeptical of what was going on, only to be shown that things were even weirder than she imagined.

Ida Credit also has to be given to Mary Pat Gleason.  Her Ida was always a hoot.  Britt Morgan was nice as Lacey, the type of best friend/roommate most women would love to have.

The whole enterprise was developed as a TV series by creator Javier Grillo-Marxuach, but when that didn't work out, he turned it into a graphic novel until he was able to sell the concept to the network.  Grill-Marxuach is a master of combining story and comedy and getting writers who could see his vision through.

The show ran in the summer of 2008. As of this moment, there is no word on whether it will be back or be canceled, but it seems likely we'll see no more of the Middleman (though it made a few best of 2008 lists). Another network may have had more success for it (though, as some have pointed out, it would probably fit best if Comedy Central and the Sci-Fi Channel merged).

Luckily, the show is available for downloading at iTunes. It's a perfect way to watch the Middleman fight evil -- so you don't have to.


*"The Pilot Episode Sanction."  All the show titles were over-the-top parodies of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. show titles.

**His real name is never revealed.

*** Organization 2 Secret to Know.  This is just the Middleman's name for the organization; it has no actual name -- because it's too secret to know, of course.

****Varsity Fanclub, to be exact.  I don't know much about them (I'm hardly the usual boy band target audience), but you have to give them credit to appear on a TV show that makes them megalomaniacal alien villains.

*****Star Trek reference, if you need an explanation.  And Snake Plissken was from the movie Escape from New York.

****** A panama hat, but of course, Wendy had never seen one and so was unable to complete the palindrome.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Al Derogatis (TV)

Al Derogatis He didn't have the voice for it.  He looked less like an athlete than any athlete that ever lived. He didn't have a quick wit or clever way of expressing himself.  Yet Al Derogatis was probably the best color commentator in the history of football broadcasting, setting a standard for both that has rarely been topped.

Derogatis came along too early to really benefit from playing pro football. He joined the New York Giants in 1949 after an all-America career at Duke, and was their regular offensive tackle as a rookie, and became a defensive tackle the next year, leading to a Pro Bowl appearance in 1951.  Alas, after the 1952 season, a recurrence of a knee injury suffered in college recurred, forcing his retirement and he left football to go into the insurance business.

But Derogatis kept his contacts in football.  He worked for the Giants as a scout and in 1963 was broadcasting their  games on radio.  Eventually his work was noted and he joined the NBC TV team in 1968, and was paired with the great Curt Gowdy in 1971 as their number 1 broadcast team, broadcasting three Super Bowls (most notably, Super Bowl III, when the Jets upset the Colts) and many other pro and college events.   Derogatis was replaced as Gowdy's partner by Don Meredith in 1974, and eventually retired from the job, his last year in the booth being 1977.

This bare history tells you very little about what made Dero great. His strength was in explaining what was going on -- what made the play work or fail.  His insight into the subject was unmatched, often pointing out things before the instant replay came up.  If you were new to the game, he made it more understandable.  If you were familiar with it, he'd routinely point out things you never noticed before.

And he always remembered the game came first.  No anecdotes about his playing career.  No tangential discussions (even when the game was a blowout).  Just a calm, professional demeanor that was designed to enlighten, not entertain (the game was the entertainment; Dero just made it more entertaining).

Of course, few people pat attention to football commentators, and those that do remember the self-promoters, the ego-driven, and the terrible.  Derogatis was none of these things.  He also had a reedy voice, a bit high-pitched for a modern announcer.

Football broadcasting has changed so that the color commentator is supposed to be part of the show, so Derogatis was something of an anachronism by the time he retired.  But those who remember him agree:  he was one of the best.  And it's sobering to think he probably wouldn't be given much of an opportunity today.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Animals (music)

Original Group:
Eric Burdon (vocals), Hilton Valentine (guitar), Alan Price (keyboards), Chas Chandler (bass), John Steel (drums)
Wikipedia Entry

The Animals -- don't they look wild? The original British Invasion was an exciting time in music, and several groups made their names above the rest and had tremendous staying power. But, after the "big four" of the era (The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, and the Kinks), there is a name that vied as chart-toppers, but who eventually faded away.  Now, they even look like one-hit wonders, which vastly underestimates their talent.

I'm talking about the Animals (as you've obviously guessed if you read the title).

The Animals came out of the same musical roots as the Rolling Stones, starting by playing covers of blues numbers and keeping to their blues roots.  They picked up their name because the looked like animals on stage.*

The group was led by singer Eric Burdon and they were quickly discovered and signed to a contract.  In a few months, they had put out their one perennial hit, an adaptation of an old folk/blues song, "The House of the Rising Sun." That's what is remembered best today, but what is forgotten is that they had a series of successful singles and albums in the US and the UK, including the hits "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," "We Got to Get Out of this Place," and "It's My Life.** There were also some very strong versions of blues classics like John Lee Hooker's "Boom Boom." 

But the group was never a very stable one.  Original member Alan Price left early on, and various musicians came and went.  Burdon was the one continuing performer, and in 1966, he formed basically a new group called "Eric Burdon and the Animals," which started off in a more psychedelic mode, with great songs like "San Franciscan Nights," "Monterrey" (about the famed pop festival), and the brilliant "Sky Pilot" (an antiwar song about a military chaplain). 

Eventually, even that broke up.  Burdon left and the Animals were gone.  He had a later hit with the song "Spill the Wine" with War**.

So why don't people think of the Animals when they consider the British Invasion?

First, of course, was lack of staying power.  The original group was together for far less time than the other big names. In addition, the group had constant turnover.  The Beatles, Stones, Who, and Kinks really had only one important change of personnel among them (Brian Jones leaving and Mick Taylor joining), but the Animals rarely kept the same personnel from year to year.

In addition, they wrote fewer original songs -- most of the original group's hits were covers (though when the started giving Burdon top billing, they did start writing themselves).  Their albums tended to be song collections when the other groups were working on more thematic works.  And with the group breaking up in 1969, time made people forget (the Beatles also broke up that year, but their influence was immense).

So nowadays, they're reduced to "House of the Rising Son" on most radio stations (and occasionally "It's My Life" and ""We Got to Get Out of This Place").  Certainly when people think of the great groups of the British Invasion, they do not come to mind.

*Either because of their stage act or their unkempt appearance; accounts vary.  Though, looking at their album cover, they hardly seem that way today.

** Not the Bon Jovi song.

**War, which was a working band when Burdon found them, started singing their own vocals and had a very successful career.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

After the Thin Man

After the Thin Man (1936)
Directed by
W. S. Van Dyck
Story by Dashiel  Hammet
Screenplay by Francis Goodrich and Albert Hackeett
Starring William Powell, Myrna Loy, James Stewart, Elissa Landi, and Asta
IMDB Entry

There are probably thousands of Christmas films, and quite a few memorialize Easter or Fourth of July. But few celebrate New Year's Day, and After the Thin Man is still one of the best.* It also belies the general rule that sequels aren't up to the quality of the original.

The movie starts where the previous film, The Thin Man, leaves off.** Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy***) take a train to Nora's home in San Francisco right after solving the Thin Man case**** to meet Nora's relatives for New Year's -- and they think she married somewhat beneath their upper class society (he's a detective, of all things!).  Nora's cousin Selma (Elissa Landi) asks Nora and Nick to look into the disappearance of her husband, Robert.  With the help of family friend David Graham (James Stewart), they find a web of intrigue and mystery.

A lot of things make this film work. Number one, of course, is the chemistry between Powell and Loy. At a time where films usually portrayed single people falling in love, or the comic battle-axe wife, the idea of showing a married couple still in love with each other was welcome. Nick and Nora were the type of marriage people aspire to, where they husband and wife still find each other fun and sexy. Their jokes show real affection, even when it's a put down.

The only objection is a more modern one: Nick and Nora drink more than is usual today. It's part of their lifestyle, but calling them alcoholics (as some have) misses the point -- their marriage is a party, and, like every party, a few drinks are no crime.

There is also Asta, the biggest canine star of the 30s. Asta was played by a wire-haired terrier name Skippy and steals as many scenes as possible (as long as Powell and Loy allow it, of course). Asta is probably the best-known names of the Thin Man films, since he is a common crossword puzzle clue.

Finally, there's the plot. Hammett was responsible for the story. Hammett is one of the the 20th Century's greatest mystery writers, and the story is a nice compendium of twists and surprises.  Directot Woody Van Dyck keeps things moving at his usual rapid pace.

James Stewart, of course, went on to be a major Hollywood star.  After the Thin Man was one of his earliest roles, and it's fun to see him cast in a role that isn't much like the persona he's famous for.

The film was evidently a success.  Powell, Loy, and Asta made another four "Thin Man" films in the next decade, of varying quality. They have pretty much been forgotten, especially since the original is close to a movie classic. But you could do worse than watching Nick and Nora spin their mystery/comedy magic.

*I don't care much for The Poseidon Adventure.

**And, no, "The Thin Man" does not refer to William Powell; it was a character in the first film.  The series kept the name despite the fact it wasn't technically accurate, other than that the film actually takes place after The Thin Man.

***As if I needed to identify them.

****Which takes place on Christmas.