Sunday, December 23, 2012

What Time Are You? (music)

by Steve Kaczorowski

imageWhat Time Are You? is a self-published album of ten songs that came out around 1971. Normally, something like this is handed out to a few friends and relatives and never heard from again.  But in the most recent eBay auction, the album sold for over $1100.  Rare, certainly, but why such a collector’s item?

The story is a long one, and a fascinating one.  I knew Steve.  He went to my high school, a year after me.  I never met him before I graduated, for the simple reason that he transferred in the next year. My brother Ron, who even now does concert gigs back home, introduced him to me; they met because of their interest in performing.

You see, Steve was a rock star.  Under his stage name of Steve Martin,* he was a member of the Left Banke, and wrote their hits Walk Away Renee and Pretty Ballerina.  He clearly kept his contacts in the music business:  when I visited his house, he had promotional copies of dozens of albums.**  He was my age, but a year behind me because of the time he had spent touring. 

And he made his money by writing songs for established artists and then selling all rights to them.  When groups were short a song or two, he’d write something for them as work for hire.  These included “I Got a Line on You” by Spirit,*** “Signs” by the Five Man Electrical Band, and “I’d Love to Change the World” by Ten Years After.  He was also credited (as “Steve Martin”) on an album by the “Bosstown” rock group Orpheus.  He also did music production under the name of Steve Drake.

He used his contacts that spring, when he managed to get permission for what was the first North American production of Jesus Christ Superstar.  Steve alternated in the role of Jesus and word had it that some big names – including John Sebastian and Paul McCartney -- showed up.

And, at about this time, Steve recorded What Time Are You? I remember listening to it and was impressed.  The songs were melodic and catchy, with standouts like “I’d Love to Change the Word,” “Think I Better Find My Way Home,”  “Big Green Pearl,” and several others.  There were also some big names involved:  Robert Fripp, Don McLean, and Nicky Hopkins.  I remember how strange it was to hear one song and realize I knew the people it was talking about.  My father stocked it in his store.

Here’s “I’d Love to Change the World” (co-credited to Alvin Lee of Ten Years After):

I’d Love to Change the World

I then moved on until, a few years ago, I decided to track him down on the Internet.  That’s when I learned that Steve Kaczorowski was hoaxing us all.

It started out, like so many things, with a search on his name.  I found the transcript of an Internet radio that talked about him.  What Steve had done was take obscure album cuts, often by obscure British groups, remove the audio track (or mix it down so it sounded like a backing vocal) and sing the part himself. 

The more I looked into it, the more I discovered that just about everything Steve had told us was untrue.  A little while later, a web page was put up detailing the songs he used and the technical background of it all.  The only thing that is real is that he did, indeed, arrange for the school to do Jesus Christ Superstar, but not because of any contacts:  when Andrew Lloyd Webber found out, it was too close to opening night, so he agreed to allow it as long as no admission was charged.

Steve put out several other albums using the same trick:  taking existing songs, rerecording either the vocals or getting a band to play behind him, and releasing them, now as the “Steve Drake Band.”  These albums are all collectors items among those who know their history.

The funny thing is, no one who knew him begrudges him for this (including one guy who got caught up in a lawsuit when a band found out what was happening).  Steve was a nice guy, and came across as very modest about his “accomplishments.”  He never made any claims about his supposed past to me, for instance,**** and those who worked with him were impressed by his enthusiasm and creativity.

Steve died in 2009.

*Not the comedian.

**He played Cold Spring Harbor,  the first solo album by Billy Joel.  I was used to seeing promotional albums, because I was working at my college radio station, and a copy of Cold Spring Harbor was waiting at college when I returned.

***He recorded this as a single; my brother did some backing vocals.

****I heard them from other people.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Olive the Other Reindeer (TV)

Directed by
Steve Moore
Written by Steve Young, from a book by J. Otto Siebold and Vivian Walsh
Starring Drew Barrymore, Dan Castellaneta, Joe Pantoliano, Edward Asner, Peter MacNicol, Tim Meadows, Jay Mohr, Michael Stipe
IMDB Entry

There are times when you realize a TV show or movie is a classic, even before you get to the end. I don’t get that feeling often, but halfway through Olive the Other Reindeer, I knew that this was one.

The story is about Olive (voice of Drew Barrymore), a dog.  Olive loves Christmas, but when Blitzen is injured and can’t fly, she is disconsolate. Her pet flea Fido (Peter MacNicol)* hears Santa saying “Olive the Other Reindeer, and convinces her it means he expects her to help out.  Olive is not like other dogs, as her owner Tim (Jay Mohr) points out, so she decides to go to the North Pole to help out.  Her plans are discovered by an evil mailman (Dan Castellaneta), who hates Christmas because of the burden of extra mail, plus the fact he’s been on Santa’s naughty list.  He tries to stop her.  So, with the help of Martini (Joe Pantoliano), a con man penguin, she goes out to save Christmas.

Now, the “Save Christmas” plot has been done many times. To make it work, you have to do something different and Olive has plenty of this. The story is filled with puns (especially the character names), callouts to other shows (Olive passes Frostbite Falls on her way to the North Pole), good and funny songs (written by producer Matt Groening , creator of The Simpsons), and general silliness (Olive gets out of a tight spot by opening an envelope from “Deus ex Machina”).  The humor throughout is very layered, and you notice more jokes the more often you view the show**.

The voice cast is wonderful.  Drew Barrymore captures the wide-eyed innocence of Olive perfectly and Dan (Homer Simpson) Castellaneta makes the mailman a terrific comic villain.  Joe Pantoliano’s Martini make him the comic highlight of every scene he’s in.

The show mimicked the style of the artist of the original book, J. Otto Siebold.  It looks like paper cutouts of the characters in the books.  It’s a big change from the usual style of animation, and nothing like any American or Japanese animation at all.*** People are used to the three-dimensional computer animation, or something like Anime, or even the Disney style; this may have been a little distracting.

That may have been why it seems to have vanished.  Only the Cartoon Network is showing it this year, and that’s in time slots a long way from prime time.  The show seems to have been a labor of love by Groening, Barrymore, and the rest of the cast.  It’s a shame it’s not better known.****

*Who is hard of hearing (or, perhaps secretly evil).

**In one scene, Blitzen’s cousin Schnitzel (REM’s Michael Stipe) introduces himself as “flightless, unfortunately.”  Martini responds, “It happens.”

***It seems to me to be more European in style, like the works coming out of Czechoslovakia in the 60s.

****I purchased a copy of  it at the local supermarket; the cashier was confused, wondering why there was a dog on the cover.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Arthur Christmas

Arthur Christmas(2011)
Directed by
Sarah Smith, Barry Cook
Written by Peter Baynham (screenplay), Sarah Smit (story)
Starring:  James McAvoy, Jim Broadbent, Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Ashley Jensen, Ramona Marquez
IMDB Entry

I mentioned recently that I was a big fan of Aardman Animation. But one problem with Aardman is that they’re partnered with Sony Pictures; thus it wasn’t obvious to me that Arthur Christmas was their work.  I fixed that problem and discovered what is probably the best Christmas film since A Christmas Story.

The story is set at the North Pole, where Santa Claus is actually a job description, passed down from  son to father for centuries.  The current Santa (voice of Jim Broadbent) has been modernized by his oldest son Steve (Hugh Laurie) with a giant hi-tech sleigh, the S-1, and thousands of elves on board.  Arthur (James McEvoy), his younger son, is a gung-ho Christmas enthusiast, but far too clumsy to do anything other than answer children’s letters, most notably one from Gwen  (Ramona Marquez), who has many questions about Santa and to whom he writes a personal assurance that he exists and that Gwen will get the present she wants.

The high-tech delivery goes off without a hitch – except one.  Gwen’s present remains on the S-1, undelivered.  Arthur insists it has to be, but Steve and Santa are tired and missing one child out of billions doesn’t seem like a big deal.

But to Arthur, it is.  Joining up with his Grandsanta (Bill Nighy), they saddle up the old sleigh*, get some reindeer, and head off with the stowaway Bryony (Ashely Jensen), a wrapping elf** with the same sense of duty as Arthur.  Naturally, things don’t go very smoothly.

The film is very funny, with gags coming fast and furious without a stop. But the film had a heart, and isn’t afraid to show it.  I also like the fact that there really isn’t a bad guy.  Steve has his shortcomings and is clearly not the ideal choice for Santa, but he isn’t a bad person at heart, and his methods are essential.  The film also avoids showing people teasing Arthur for his clumsiness; though they make comments behind his back, you don’t see any out-and-out cruelty as the elves and family try to indulge him and get him out of the way.

Steve, Santa & ArthurThe cast is stellar.  Jim Broadbent and Bill Nighy have never appeared in a bad movie and they bring the characters to life.  Hugh Laurie has a lot of fun as Steve and James McEvoy is wonderful as Arthur, putting across his crazed, sweet idealism.  Imelda Staunton is a subtle delight as Mrs. Claus, who is clearly where Steve gets his organizational skill.  And it was great to hear Ramona Marquez.***

The movie suffered the fate of other Aardman films.  With the name “Aardman” obscured, people might not realize who made it, and the film was, like most Aardman films, more interesting in interesting and quirky characters than recognizable stereotypes.  It did adequately, but got a bit lost among bigger names.  It probably got hurt the most by opening the same week as The Muppets, which aimed at a similar audience but was a known quantity.

Luckily, it’s out on video.  Get a copy and see a real Christmas classic.

*Named “Eve.”

**Whose job it is to wrap presents.

***An amazing child actress.  She is a regular in the UK TV series Outnumbered, which depends on her ability to improvise a scene.  I suspect that her letter to Santa was at least party written by Ramona herself, who is was natural comedian by the time she was seven

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Out of Sight

Directed by
Steven Soderberg
Written by Scott Frank from a novel by Elmore Leonard
Starring George Clooney, Jennifer Lopez, Ving Rhames, Don Cheadle,
Albert Brooks, Dennis Farina
IMDB Entry

Elmore Leonard was a major success as a writer, but it took a long time for him to catch on in Hollywood.  But by the mid-80s and 90s, directors were taking his work and coming up with successful films like 52 Pickup, Get Shorty, and Jackie BrownAnd in 1998, director Steven Soderberg took on his book Out of Sight.

Leonard was great at creating quirky and memorable characters, and there are plenty of them in the film.  Jack Foley (George Clooney) is a small-time bank robber who finds himself in jail when he can't get his getaway car started.  He manages an escape with the help of his friend Buddy Bragg (Ving Rhames).  Unfortunately, Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez), a Federal agent with a love of guns, stumbled upon the escape.  Buddy stashes her and Jack in the trunk of his car to make an escape.

An oddball romance ensues.  Sisco is, after all, a cop, and doesn't forget her job is to bring Jack in.  But she is conflicted, so when Jack goes out on "one last job" -- to rob businessman Richard Ripley (Albert Brooks) of some diamonds, she tails along.  Is she going along, or is she playing him?  And what about Maurice Miller (Don Cheadle), a vicious criminal who is also out for the diamonds?

Clooney is unsurpassed in his generation as playing the light romantic lead* and his ability to be charming and funny makes him perfect for the role.  Jennifer Lopez is usually not thought of as a great actress, but she is fine here and the chemistry with Clooney is spectacular.  Don Cheadle is always great when playing a psychotic criminal, and Albert Brooks, Ving Rhames, Dennis Farina (as Karen's father), and an uncredited Michael Keaton** all make for a solid and entertaining film.

*Only Cary Grant was better.
*Playing the same part, Ray Nicorette, that he played in Jackie Brown, thereby making him one of a small group of actors who played the same characters in more than one non-sequel films.  Others include Akim Tamirof and Brian Donlevy (The Great McGinty and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek), Margaret Rutherford (playing a cameo of Miss Marple in The Alphabet Murders), Don Ameche and Ralph Belaman (Trading Places and Coming to America), and James Cagney (Yankee Doodle Dandy and The Seven Little Foys).

Saturday, November 24, 2012


Directed by
Akira Kurosawa
Written by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto & Hideo Oguni
Starring Takashi Shimura, Shinichi Himori, Haruo Tanaka, Minoru Chiaki, Bokuzen Hidari, Kamatari Fujiwara
IMDB Entry

Akira Kurosawa is known as Japan’s greatest film director,* known primarily for action-filled films like Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Roshomon, and Ran.  But early in his career, he showed a different side with Ikiru.

It’s the story about Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), a love-level government official toiling at a dull and boring job.  His life is empty, his wife dead, his son not all that interested in him.  When he discovers he has stomach cancer and only a year to live, he is lost in depression.  When he finds a former co-worker, who is now on her own and enjoying life, he realizes he has to break out of his depression and decides to take on small but difficult project:  to convert a vacant lot into a children’s playground.

Takashi ShimuraWatanabe has to battle bureaucracy and the calendar in order to get the playground finished.  Shimura is heartbreakingly good in the role, sad without being maudlin.

The movie has an important message:  that one man can make a difference, even in a small way.  Much of the film shows Watanabe becoming more and more despondent, until he take on his project with the clock running out for him.

Ikiru is often considered one of Kurosawa’s best, but it is not well-known in the US.  It was overshadowed by Roshomon and his next film, The Seven Samurai, and I suspect its long downbeat section turned off audiences who didn’t stick it out to the end.  It also didn’t have Kurosawa’s best-known actor, Toshiro Mifume.  So with an unknown cast, Kurosawa’s reputation was not enough for it to be noticed in the US.

*Other claimants are Yashijiro Ozu and, if you consider animation (and I do), Hayao Miyazaki

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Broken Arrow (TV)

Broken Arrow(1956-60)
Based upon the novel
  Blood Brother by Elliott Arnold
Starring John Lupton, Michael Ansara
IMDB Entry (pretty sparse)

In the 50s, the western was king of TV.  And the major villains of the westerns were the Indians.*  Oh, there were cattle rustlers and outlaws and bank robbers, but the go-to villains were usually the Indians.  Broken Arrow was one of the few shows that portrayed Indians in a positive light.**

It was based upon the novel Blood Brother, about the actual friendship between Tom Jeffords (John Lupton), an Indian agent, and Cochise (Michael Ansara), chief of the Apaches.  The TV show took this further, showing Jeffords working with Cochise for justice for the Apaches on the reservation.

Cochise was shown to be strong and noble.***  Jeffords was a TV western hero, except that he considered Cochise his friend and worked to balance the white man’s laws and desires with those of the Apaches.  He fought against criminals, both white men and Indians. 

Not that all Indians were this way: Geronimo was a frequent villain, though he was described as a renegade who split away from the rest of the Apaches

The title refers to a custom that you broke an arrow it indicate you were no longer fighting with a foe.  Also, Jeffords and Cochise were blood brothers; I bet a bunch of kids from that era took up the idea.

The show was successful enough to run two season, and was rerun another year on ABC to fill programming time.  It certainly was not one of the biggest westerns of the era, but its point of view made it different from the rest.

* “Native Americans” had not come into popular use, so I’m sticking with the 50s term.

**There were examples from the movies.  She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and other John Ford films were sympathetic, even in Fort Apache, where they attacked the soldiers, but were clearly provoked.  And Key Largo is sensitive to the Seminoles, though that wasn’t in the old west.

***Possibly too much so.  Ansara complained that the role only allowed him to stand around looking noble.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Devil and Miss Jones

Directed by
Sam Wood
Written by Norman Krasna
Starring Charles Coburn, Jean Arthur, Robert Cummings, Edwin
Gwynn, Spring Byington, S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall, William Demerest
IMDB Entry

There are some actors who are always a delight to see on screen.  For instance, Edwin Gwynn and S. Z. Sakall fit nicely into this category, and also have a propensity of showing up in good movies.  Jean Arthur also fits, as does William Demerest (though mostly due to his work with Preston Sturges).  And all four are in The Devil and Miss Jones.

The movie is a dramatized version of the current reality show, Undercover Boss.  John P. Merrick (Charles Coburn) is the richest man in the world and the owner of a department store who is concerned that his workers are talking about forming a union.  So he joins the store as a shoe clerk to find out who is behind this – with an eye to firing them.  He meets Mary Jones (Jean Arthur), who shows him the ropes and whose boyfriend, Joe O’Brien (Robert Cummings) has been fired for labor agitation.

Merrick learns that his conception of his workers is not what he thought it to be, and acts as Cupid for the couple, all while a romance develops for  him on his job.

Charles Coburn was not your usual Hollywood star.  He took up film acting in his fifties, but became a featured player a few years later.  He was a rotund man noticeable for his monocle.*  He plays the plutocrat very nicely as he changes from the rich, uncaring boss to someone who learns that his workers are not his enemies.  He received an Oscar nomination for the role.

Jean Arthur brought her comic presence to the role of Mary.  She was an actress who was able to play tough, but with a touch of strong emotion and was especially good in comic roles like this one. 

Coburn and Arthur are not well known today.  Coburn was usually a supporting player** and most of his films are fairly obscure to modern audiences.  Arthur is better known from her work in classics like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Shane, but she stopped acting in films after 1953, and rarely appeared on stage or television and became more and more reclusive.***

Director Sam Wood was one of MGM’s most dependable directors in the 1930s and is best known today for his directing A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races.  The movie was a success and Arthur and Coburn were teamed twice more.

The biggest reason for the film’s eclipse, though, was the fact the the title was used for a well-known porn film.  The Devil in Miss Jones was one of a group of fashionable porn films in the early 70s.  It is not uncommon to make porn versions of films, but in this case, the porn became better known than the original.****   I suspect this kept the original from being rediscovered, since people knew the X-rated one better.

*Other than Charlie McCarthy, he’s the only actor to become a star wearing one.  It was no affectation:  Coburn had bad vision in only one eye, and saw no reason to wear lenses on both.

**He won his Oscar in 1994 for The More the Merrier.

***Some reports have said she suffered from terrible stage fright.

****Which was pretty obscure when the porn came out.  Because Sam Wood was not an auteur favorite, and Jean Arthur and Charles Coburn were not big names, The Devil and Miss Jones did not show up  on the revival circuit.

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Great Mouse Detective

Mouse Detective(1986)
Directed by
Ron Clements, Burny Mattinson, Dave Michener, and John Musker
Written by a whole bunch, based upon novels Eve Titus
Starring voice of Barrie Ingham, Val Bettin, Vincent Price, Susanne Pollatschek, Candy Candido, Alan Young
IMDB Entry

Strange as it may seen now, by the mid-80s, Disney animation was in trouble.  The market for animated films seemed to have dried up, and Disney hadn’t had a big hit in years.  The pace was slowing:  only four animated films in the 70, and the two in the 80s were the bland The Fox and the Hound and the flop The Black Cauldron.  Disney seemed content to make their money by rereleasing their classics to new audiences.

This was unacceptable to new studio heads Jeffrey Katzanbach and Michael Eisner, who gave the green light to The Great Mouse Detective, probably the second most important animated film in Disney history after Snow White.

The story was based upon a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, Basil of Baker Street, by children’s author Eve Titus.  In the movie, Hiram Flaversham (Alan Young) is (like most of the characters) an anthropomorphic mouse, and a famous inventor among mousedom.  He’s captured by the bad Fidget (Candy Candido) and taken to the mad genius Professor Ratigan (Vincent Price), who wants to use his discoveries to take over the world. Hiram’s daughter Olivia (Susanne Pollatschek), seeks out Basil of Baker Street (Barrie Ingram) to find her father.  With the aid of Dr. David Q. Dawson (Val Bettin), they try to thwart Ratigan’s fiendish plan.

RatiganRatigan is one of the great Disney villains, and perhaps the first to have an established name playing the character.  And who could be better for it than Vincent Price.  He has a perfectly entertaining bit of hammy menace, gloriously evil and insisting above all that he’s a very large mouse, not a rat.

In many respects, this is minor Disney, but it was something very important for the studio:  a hit.  And it encouraged Disney to think that maybe animated films could still be their bread and butter.  The faith was paid off three years later when The Little Mermaid (also directed by Clements and Musker) became a smash hit.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Thanks (TV)

Created by Phoef Sutton, Mark Legan
Starring Tim Dutton, Kirsten Nelson, Cloris Leachman, Jim Rash, Erika Christenson, Andrew Ducote, Amy Centner
IMDB Entry
I generally enjoy* for their various lists and snarky comments.  But you have to take things with a grain of salt, and sometimes they get things completely wrong.  The most recent case was their attack on Thanks.**
Created by Phoef Sutton (a writer and producer for Cheers), Thanks was the story of the Winthrop family in Puritan New England in the 17th Century. James and Polly Winthrop (Tim Dutton and Kirsten Nelson) were the parents of William, Abagail, and Elizabeth (Andrew Ducote, Erika Christenson, and Amy Centner). Rounding out the family was James's mother Grammy (Cloris Leachman).
The show poked fun with the stereotype of the stern, repressed Puritan.***  One of the running gags was Abagail using her imagination to talk about new inventions (like a stove that runs on something other than wood) and being sent to the stocks for it.  There was a lot of humor in how the family's feelings ran up against the Puritan ethic.  For instance, this speech by James:
I have decided in hopes of lifting the spirits of the community to hold a gathering in the shop tonight. Everyone’s invited. There will be music and, well, not dancing, because that’s a sin. It will be a, well, not a party, because that would be wrong. But I assure you we’ll have lots of, well, not fun, because that’s against everything we stand for.
imageGrammy was, of course, the stereotypical horny grandmother.  It wasn't a new idea even back when the show aired, but no one plays that type of role better than Cloris Leachman.
The show was basically a family comedy set in the Puritan age, but that didn't stop it from getting a lot of humor from the juxtaposition.
Alas, the ratings weren't kind.  The show was introduced in August, so it wasn't going to make the fall schedule, and it didn't do well enough in the ratings to be renewed.  It wasn't a great show, certainly, but it had a lot of goofy charm -- a quality I prize very highly.
*I'm always amused at the reversal between it and Mad Magazine.  For most of my life, Cracked was a second-rate imitator of Mad.  Now, Mad is barely relevant while Cracked has found its footing.
**I'm convinced they never actually watched the show, and got their ideas about it from the sparse Wikipedia article on it.
***Something that is far from the reality; sexually, at least, Puritans were pretty liberal for the time, and most of the stereotype is really Victorianism being projected on them.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Kitchen Stories

Kitchen Stories(2003)
Directed by
Bent Hamer
Written by Jorgen Bergmark, Bent Hamer
Starring Tomas Nordstrom, Joachim Calmeyer
IMDB Entry

One of the points of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is that an observer affects the actions of what he’s observing.  But this applies to things in addition to nuclear physics: one of the first illustrative examples I read about it talked about a survey taker in a country with only one person.  And it has never been better or more charmingly illustrated in Kitchen Stories.

The film is set in Norway in 1950.  A few years earlier, Swedish scientists observed how Swedish women used their kitchens, observing them in order to find ways to make work easier.  Now, Folk Nilsson (Tomas Nordstrom) is sent to Norway to gather data about men use their kitchens, notably the kitchen of Isak Bjorvik (Joachim Calmeyer).  Nilsson’s rules are clear:  observe and don’t interact with the subject.  So he set up a lifeguard chair in Bjorvik’s kitchen, climbs up there each morning, and observes.

Observer and observedThe concept is, of course, silly in the extreme.  No one would ever think that anyone would grow used to having a guy in a tall chair watching him cook dinner, eat, set mousetraps, and go for a midnight snack. But the silliness is played very straight by the actors, and that’s the basis for the film’s success.

And, as should be obvious, the observer and observed slowly begin to interact.

This is a type of European-style comedy, where the humor comes from small, surprising, and extremely human reactions.  There is little conversation* and everything is told via how the two characters start to react and change in each other’s presence.  There are plenty of little laughs, and laughs for the best possible reason:  it shows human beings reacting to life.


*A point most US audiences will miss is the fact that Nilsson speaks Swedish while Bjorvik speaks Norwegian.  The languages are close enough for the other to understand, but they both stick to their own.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Pirates! Band of Misfits

Directed by Peter Lord, Jeff Newitt
Written by
Gideon Davoe
Starring (Voices of): Hugh Grant, Martin Freeman, Imelda Staunton, David Tennant, Jeremy Piven, Salma Hayek, Lenny Henry, BRIAN BLESSED.
IMDB Entry
Pixar may get all the publicity and box office smash, but for my money, Aardman Animations* is the sure thing when going to see a great animated films.  Their movies are not as successful.  Pixar makes films for all ages to enjoy; while Aardman makes films for grown-ups, so kids may not get the subtleties.  But Aardman’s output, though small, is consistently great.
Their most recent was The Pirates! Band of Misfits.**  Adapted from a children’s book, it’s about the Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) and his crew, who all agree the best part of being a pirate is Ham Night.  The Captain wants one thing, though:  to be named Pirate of the Year.  In the course of his inept attempt at capturing enough booty to win the crown from
Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven), Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek), and Peg Leg Hastings (Lenny Henry),*** he stumbles across the ship Beagle, and Charles Darwin (David Tennant).  He recognizes that Polly, the Captain’s parrot, is actually a Dodo and convinces him to sail to London**** to win an award from the Royal Society and from Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton), who hates pirates.  His second mate, the Pirate with the Scarf (Martin Freeman) is suspicious of Darwin’s motives, and the motives of Darwin’s pet ape, Bobo.
The crew
Like many other Aardman films, The Pirates! is animated in stop motion.  The main advantage of this is that it gives a sense of reality to the characters.  They aren’t just ones and zeros; they have a physical presence that still can’t be duplicated by computer animation.*****
But the fun isn’t the technique, it’s the story and the quirky characters and small subtle moments on the periphery.  Everyone, even the nonspeaking characters, have real personalities and there are dozens of small jokes and running gags that you have to pay attention to spot.
The movie did only a middling box office.  That’s a shame.  If you’re a fan of animation, pirates, and comedy, go see it.
*A few years ago, I was a a theater and the preview started out “From Aardman Animations.”  I immediately said, “Nick Park!” and knew I was going to see that movie.  Turned out, it was Chicken Run.
**UK title:  The Pirates! An Adventure with Scientists.  I like that one better.
***All three, plus BRIAN BLESSED lend their names to the credits but only appear in a very small portion of the film.
****To the tune of “London Calling.”  The song choice had me in hysterics that I couldn’t explain to my wife, since she doesn’t know the song or anything about the Clash.
*****There is some computer animation in the film, but only on backgrounds and effects, not on any of the characters, 

Monday, August 27, 2012

Slight hiatus

I've been asked to step in as program director for Albacon 2012. As such, it will be difficult for me to do a new post every week until after the con.  Please bear with me.

And if you're in upstate New York, consider attending.  We're putting together an excellent weekend.  Great, but not to be forgotten!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Nok Hockey (game)

(1942 – )

Before computers, there were many attempts to turn sports into games.  Some were ridiculous (e.g., Electric Football), some were successful (Strat-O-Matic Baseball), and some became standards in game playing in the schools – Nok Hockey.

Nok Hockey was introduced by Carrom, which was a maker of games played on wood boards.  They started out in 1889 and by 1942,  when Nok Hockey was introduced.  Carrom is still around today, but doesn’t seem to mention the game on its pages, even though it’s still available (with plastic hockey sticks instead of wooden ones).

The game was successful because it simplified the sport.  Whereas the usual table hockey sets had a full team of six players per side, all run by rods controlled by each participant, Nok Hockey didn’t bother with players and realism.  It was just a puck, two game-sized hockey sticks, and a goal.  It was played on a wooden playing surface divided into thirds.  The sides had wooden walls to keep the puck from flying out of the playing area.

Nok Hockey

There was a face-off at the beginning, then the players would shoot the puck.  You could not shoot a puck that was in the other team’s defensive area. The official rules let you fight for the puck in the “center ice” section of the board, but this rarely happened after you played for a while. Players quickly learned how to shoot so that the puck would be in their opponent’s zone, so it became a case of the two of you taking turns.*

There was a small cut-out about twice the size of the puck that was the goal.  And there was one more thing to make it difficult:  a square wooden block that acted as “goaltender,” making it very difficult to score a goal without banking it off one of the walls.

But there was also a trick – a shot that looked amazing to beginners, but was surprisingly easy to make.  You see, in the four corners of the board, there was a piece of wood at 45-degree angle. And the “goalie” also was tilted at a 45-degree angle.  Players quickly learned that if the puck was touching one of the walls, you could slap it down the side to the corner, where it would bounce, hit the “goalie” and slip into the goal.

Despite how impressive that shot looked, to win the game you had to master all angles to find the spot on the side that allowed the puck to slip into the goal.  Indeed, a game between two good players would have each of them shooting with the puck in their goal area much of the time. The ability to shoot the puck even when it was guarded by the “goalie” block was essential to be successful.

I first encountered in at summer camp in the early 60s.  It was a perfect game for rainy days:  action, competition, easy to learn.  I would guess that most sets were purchased by schools, camps, and other institutions where they had to give kids something to do.

It looks like the game is still being made, though Carrom makes very little mention of it on their web page. It may have trouble competing with the flash of modern video games, but it’s nice to know that someone somewhere is hitting the double bank shot and making a goal.

*I’m describing how I learned it.  People had many variations of the rules, though the general game was the same.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Colossus: the Forbin Project

Directed by
Joseph Sargent
Written by James Bridges, from a novel by D. F. Jones
Starring Eric Braeden, Susan Clark, Gordon Pinsent, William Schallart
IMDB Entry

It’s highly unusual for Hollywood to turn to written science fiction for its science fiction films* and its rare indeed when both the book and the movie are good ones.  There’s A Boy and His Dog, of course, but not many others.  D. F. Jones wrote Colossus in 1966, a good but minor SF novel that was eventually filmed as Colossus:  The Forbin Project.**

The story is an old one:  Dr. Charles Forbin (Eric Braeden) is developing a supercomputer, Colossus, to manage all US nuclear weapons system.  But, as soon as its turned on, Colossus comes up with a frightening message:  “There is another.”

The other is Guardian, the Soviet counterpart to Colossus, which has also gone live.  The two computers link to each other, and the worst happens:  the combine and try to run things.  Forbin is the only one who has a chance to stop it, since he’s the only human Colossus will communicate with.

Forbin & friendOne of the nice things about the movie is the way it avoids our expectations.  In nearly all movies with this setup, the hero finds a way to defeat the computer.***  But this isn’t an ordinary computer, and there are some nice subversion of expectations along the way.  One nice touch is how Forbin manages to get a chance to communicate with others without Colossus watching by pretending to have sex and insisting that Colossus doesn’t watch.

The cast is generally made up of TV actors, and director Joseph Sargent has primarily worked in TV.  His best known film is The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.  Eric Braeden as Forbin is still working regularly, but rarely as a star.

The movie got good reviews and did well enough for Jones to write two sequel novels:  The Fall of Colossus and Colossus and the Crab. But the movie was quickly forgotten to anyone now a big fan of SF films. 

*Especially nowadays.  Has any author other than Philip K. Dick have a movie made of his books lately?

**The movie was was originally billed just as The Forbin Project (that’s the title in Vincent Canby’s New York Times review of it), but somehow – perhaps when it came out on video, “Colossus” was added on.

**“I Always Lie®.”

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Creature from the Black Lagoon

Directed by
Jack Arnold
Screenplay by Harry Essex and Arthur A. Ross ; story by Maurice Zimm, from an idea from William Alland*
Starring Richard Carlson, Julie Adams, Richard Denning, Ricou Browning, Ben Chapman, Whit Bissell
IMDB Entry

The most recent of the classic Universal movie monsters, the Creature has gotten short shrift.  Unlike the big four – Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolfman, and the Mummy – the Creature hasn’t had endless sequels and variations, and, though he is know, and even something of a catchphrase, the movies that gave him life rarely show up any more.  The Creature is not forgotten, of course, though it’s as a phrase, but the movie that spawned him is rarely seen or talked about.

The Creature (often referred to as “the Gill Man”) was one of the many creations of film great Jack Arnold.**  It is far more science fiction based than most monsters, and gives the Creature some depth to make him interesting.

The story begins with the discovery of a mysterious fossil hand with webbed fingers in the depths of the Amazon.***  He shows it to Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson), a marine biologist, who persuades Dr. Mark Williams (Richard Denning) to bankroll an expedition to look into it.  And, of course. Reed takes his girlfriend Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams) along.  The creature, of course, does not want to be disturbed, and attacks anyone who comes near – except for Kay, who he develops a Kong-like crush on.

The movie is effective because of the look of the gill man (played by Ricou Browning in the water and Ben Chapman on land).   But as a movie, it works because of the Beauty and the Beast angle.  The Creature is fascinated by Kay, and one of the most cited sequences is when he swims beneath her, watching her in the water.  It’s sinister, but also a bit sexual (and may have influenced Jaws). 

The Creature and the woman

The movie was shot in 3D, in time to cash in on the first 3D boomlet. 
Like Arnold’s It Came from Outer Space, the effects are not overdone, with enough to make it clear that 3D is involved, but not shouting at you “Hey!  This is Threeeee-Deeeeee!”

It was successful enough to spawn two sequels:  Revenge of the Creature (directed by Arnold) and The Creature Walks Among Us. The Creature took his place as an iconic monster and it influenced all sorts of movies that used sea creatures as monsters.

But there was no revival (though new versions were planned and fell through) and the monster to most people is just a name from the past, more funny that frightening.  The movie, however, is a fine specimen of 50s science fiction horror, a genre that faded out too soon and is dead these days.

* Alland heard the legend when he was working on Citizen Kane.

**See my entries on Tarantula  and It Came From Outer Space.

*** After discovering the fossil, the leader of the expedition snaps it right off to bring it to the US.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

1863 (game)

Original Game (in Life Magazine)

1961 was a great year for American history buffs.  It was the 100th anniversary of the most important event in US history after the Revolution:  The Civil War. Celebrations and commemorations were everywhere.  Life Magazine had a six-part series on the war, written in part by Bruce Catton, the best-known writer in the field.*

And the final part of the series included a game:  1863.

The concept was simple:  at the beginning of the year, the war was still evenly matched, so either side could win.  So the North and South would fight to see if the result was the same as history.

1863 boardThe pieces (carefully cut out of the magazine and pasted on cardboard) were square tokens for infantry, triangular ones for cavalry, and gunboats, which were shaped like the bottom of a steam iron.  Infantry moved one space at a time, cavalry two, gunboats three – but only on water.  Infantry can move three spaces if they use a railroad.

Battles were won by whichever force was larger; pieces were stacked on top of each other to move together.  The larger force would win, but lose one fewer piece than the defenders:  if it was four against three, you could wipe out the three and have two units left.  Or you could decide to wipe out only one unit and have no losses at all.  If you captured certain key cities, one (for the South) or two (for the North) pieces were removed from the board.

As I played the game, I discovered a secret:  the South usually won.  While they started with fewer pieces than the North, they had better interior lines of control and could create strong defenses by concentrating troops.  It was difficult for the North to gather enough pieces to win a battle.  Meanwhile, the Southern forces could attack where the Northern troops vacated; since they could remove two pieces (10% of the North’s forces) if they captured a key city, and the North only could remove one (6%), a capture was worse for the North.

I used to have friends choose which side to play.  They always took the North.  I counted on that.

The game was popular, and Parker Brothers created a commercial version.  The game pieces were plastic, with a slight knob a the top and an indentation on the bottom, so they could be stacked and not fall over.  After I lost the original bits of cardboard, I got this version and continued to rewrite history.

I can’t find much about when Parker Brothers discontinued the game, but it seems likely the sales dropped after the Civil War centennial.  War games caught on at about that time, too, and compared to them, 1863 was pretty tame and was not realistic in the slightest.

But it was fun.

*Nowadays, Shelby Foote is the name that would come to mind, but Catton is still an important name.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Repo Man

Directed by
Alex Cox
Written by Alex Cox
Starring Emilio Estevez, Harry Dean Stanton, Tracey Walter
IMDB Entry

It’s hard to pull off true weirdness in a full-length film.  Weirdness usually works best in small doses; too much and it just gets silly.  Repo Man manages to be as weird as possible from start to finish.

Otto (Emilio Estevez) is a “middle class punk” fired from a dead-end job as a stock clerk in a supermarket.  Bored and depressed, he runs into Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) who offers him money to drive his wife’s car out of a bad neighborhood. After he’s chased by a couple of very irate men, Otto discovers that Bud is a repo man, repossessing cars for a living.  Otto joins up, and discovers that there’s a $25,000 reward for repossessing a missing Chevy Malibu – with something very dangerous in the trunk. 

The film is filled with strange set pieces and sight gags.  Otto’s parents are mesmerized by a TV evangelist, unable to look away from the screen.  Their house is supplied with cans of food (which is what it says on the cans: “Food.”  The bottles are labeled “Drink”).  One of the men in the agency (Tracey Walter) philosophizes:

A lot o' people don't realize what's really going on. They view life as a bunch o' unconnected incidents 'n things. They don't realize that there's this, like, lattice o' coincidence that lays on top o' everything. Give you an example; show you what I mean: suppose you're thinkin' about a plate o' shrimp. Suddenly someone'll say, like, plate, or shrimp, or plate o' shrimp out of the blue, no explanation. No point in lookin' for one, either. It's all part of a cosmic unconsciousness.*

One of my favorite subtle jokes is Bud talking about the Repo Code:

Never broke into a car, never hotwired a car. Never broke into a truck. 'I shall not cause harm to any vehicle nor the personal contents thereof, nor through inaction let the personal contents thereof come to harm' It's what I call the Repo Code, kid!**

Stanton’s Bud is also fascinating to watch.  He’s tough, but also very much off kilter, regaling Otto with stories and bizarre observations.

plateoshrimpTracey Walter made a career of playing scuzzy characters but actually can draw on a real personal sweetness that makes his Miller the center of attention in every scene he’s in.

Estevez*** has perhaps his best role as Otto, a slacker before the term was coined.  He has not much in his life until he becomes a repo man, and he takes to the wacky lifestyle with a matter-of-fact joy.

This was Alex Cox’s first feature film.  His next, Sid and Nancy, was a critical success, but he never made much of a splash after that.  His films also grew more serious and his attempt to recapture Repo Man with Repo Chick in 2009 barely made a ripple.

The movie may not be for everyone, but if you like something completely funny that keeps you off balance throughout, you can’t do much better.

“Let’s all get sushi and not pay.”

*If you look carefully at some of the background shots afterwards, you’ll be rewarded.

**A related point is that the driver of the Malibu bears a striking resemblance to Isaac Asimov.  And, while we’re name dropping, one of the producers of the film was former Monkee Mike Nesmith (and Iggy Pop did the theme song).

***Do I have to mention he’s Martin Sheen’s son and Charlie Sheen’s brother?  At the time the movie came out, I did.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

In Memory of Celeste Holm

Letter to Three Wives, from May of 2010.

Frank McHugh (actor)


imageThe contract player is extinct in Hollywood.  These were actors who were under contract with a studio and who were cast in dozens of films to play small and often similar roles.  Sometimes they would work their way up to featured and starring roles, but they were always dependable, both for the job and for their performance.  And Frank McHugh was the very definition of a contract player.

He was born in Homestead, PA, son of theatrical parents.*  By the age of 10, he was appearing on stage, and in 1927, he made his Broadway debut.  The timing was good:  at the time he established himself as a Broadway regular, talkies were coming in and Hollywood was looking to Broadway for new talent.

He signed with Warner Brothers and made his movie debut in The Dawn Patrol with Errol Flynn in 1930.  But that sort of adventure wasn’t his forte, and he started working on more comedic roles, including as one of the reporters in the original version of The Front Page.

He first came to my attention in Footlight Parade, one of the great Busby Berkeley musicals.** It stars James Cagney as a producer of “prologues” – live music shows performed in theaters before the main show.***  McHugh played Francis, the dance director, most notable for telling Cagney “it’s can’t be done, I tell you.  It can’t be done.”  He made in impression in every scene he was in.

Here is a nice compilation of his roles****

Frank McHugh

The movie seemed to spur a friendship with James Cagney; the two appeared in 11 films together.  McHugh appeared in over 100 films and easily made the transition to TV when the studios system collapsed.

*His sister Kitty and brother Matt also had long careers as contract players.

**With songs by the ultimate great but forgotten composer, Harry Warren.  Eventually, I’ll write about him.

***One of the great bits of movie magic is when you realize that Berkeley’s musical numbers could never be performed on a theatrical stage, let alone the stage in a movie house.

****Footlight Parade has more clips than anything else.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Julie and Julia

Written and Directed by
Nora Ephron
Based upon books by Julie Powell and Julia Child & Alex Prud’homme
Starring Amy Adams, Meryl Streep, Stanley Tucci, Chris Messina
IMDB Entry
(In Memory of Nora Ephron)

Nora Ephron was a writer known for her humor articles, but as a filmmaker and screenwriter, she made her mark with romantic comedies like When Harry Met Sally, You’ve Got Mail, and Sleepless in Seattle.  Her final film was also a love story – not only between people, but people united by a love of good food.

Julie Powell (Amy Adams) is stuck in a depressing job dealing with victims of 9/11.  In order to maintain her sanity, she makes a decision:  she would cook every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a year, and blog about it as she went along.

Meanwhile, we see Julia Child (Meryl Streep), a woman who is living in
France and isn’t sure of what to do with her life.  With the help of her husband Paul Child (Stanley Tucci), she learns to cook, and makes the decision to write a book about cooking.

The movie cuts between the two stories.  Julie goes into her  project with enthusiasm, also with the help of her husband Eric (Chris Messina) – at least at first.

imageMeryl Streep’s Julia dominates the film.  She is a woman who, once she gets started, accomplishes whatever she wants.  One of the most astounding realizations is that Streep – though not a tall woman – manages to make it believeable that she is really Child’s height of 6’2”.  She managed to play as though she is a big woman throughout.

Stanley Tucci is just wonderful as Paul.  It is probably the most joyful and successful portrayal of a happy marriage in films since Nick and Nora Charles.* 

Since Ephron is best known for her romantic films, she was probably attracted to this aspect of the story.  Her touch with dialog and character was sure and insightful, and the love story more touching than some of her more fictional ones.

Amy Adams is also fine, but does take a back seat to Streep’s strong role.

The film got Streep an Oscar nomination, but otherwise made little impact.  It was Ephron’s final film before her death in 2012.

*After I saw the movie, I read the book on which half the movie is based, My Life in France.  It’s a great read, covering how Child started as a chef despite the scorn for her cooking school instructor, and the fight to write Mastering the Art of French Cooking

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Hearts of the West

Directed by Howard Zieff
Starring Jeff Bridges, Andy Griffith, Blythe Danner, Donald Pleasance, Alan Arkin
IMDB Entry

In memory of Andy Griffith.  Originally published 5/1//2006.

Howard Zieff is a director who never quite reached his promise.  He started out with a funny road picture called Slither (No, not the more recent horror film of that title), about search for a missing fortune, then went on to direct several successful and easy to like comedies:  House Calls (with Walter Matthau and Glenda Jackson -- a big hit in its time), The Main Event (Barbra Streisand and Ryan O'Neill) and Private Benjamin (Goldie Hawn), and My Girl (Macauley Culkin, which he was still big).  Then, his career came to a halt:  nothing since the early 90s.

It's a shame.  Zieff was able to create quirky and interesting characters, and certainly seemed to have a commercial touch.  I don't know what happened to him, but I wish he did more.

Hearts of the West is my favorite.  It's set in the 1930s, where Lewis Tater (Bridges) a wide-eyed farmboy with dreams of being a writer of westerns, leaves home for Hollywood.  Without planning it, he ends up being a western movie star and wooing Blythe Danner.  Andy Griffith (an actor I didn't care for previous to this*, but the role made him a favorite) was an older, more experienced movie cowboy who turns out to be Tater's hero.

It's a move that loves moviemaking.  Bridges makes some rookie mistakes, like volunteering for a stunt without asking for more pay and suffering the consequences, and getting involved in a couple of crooks.  And it's also about one of my other favorite subjects:  writing.  It does contain one of my favorite movie lines of all time:  "Anyone can say he's a writer. But when someone else says you're a writer, then you're a writer."  Very true, not only in the context of the movie, but in writing overall.

*No, I don't like The Andy Griffith Show.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Wizards and Warriors (TV)

Created by
Don Reo
Starring Jeff Conaway, Julia Duffy, Walter Olkewicz, Duncan Regehr, Clive Revill
IMDB Entry

Fantasy is expensive.  Until CGI (and even after), it was difficult to create a convincing epic fantasy world without spending a lot of money.  It’s even more difficult in TV,* so you kind of wonder how a show like
Wizards and Warriors got greenlighted, especially before franchises like
Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter vastly expanded the audience.

Though it did help that it was good.  And funny.

The show follows Prince Eric Greystone (Jeff Conaway**), engaged to marry Princess Ariel (Julia Duffy) and bound to defend it from Price Dirk Blackpool (Duncan Regehr) of a neighboring kingdom.  As their names should indicate, Greystone is a good guy, and Blackpool is filled with evil plans, usually with the help of his Wizard, Vector (Clive Revill). Greystone has Marko (Walter Olkewicz), the strongest man in the kingdom and who talks to horses, as his aide.

The show never took itself seriously.  The funniest character was Princess Ariel, a medieval Valley Girl who was spoiled and flighty.***  Blackpool was your typical over-the-top villain played for laughs.

Everyone is clearly having fun.  Revill and Regehr make great comic villains, and Duffy is terrific in every scene she was in. 

But the show never caught on.  In addition to the hard sell for high fantasy back then, the show was also still finding its way in the early episodes.  Also the mix of comedy and adventure was ahead of its time; years later, shows like Hercules and Xena managed to find a way to create a mixture.  Add to that the fact that the show was expensive to produce, even using a lot of stock footage and cheap sets, and it boiled down to CBS cancelling it after only eight episodes.

Julia Duffy moved from here to Newhart, where she played the same type of character.  Jeff Conaway struggled with roles and drugs until he was rehabilitated a decade later in Babylon 5; it didn’t last and he died in 2011.

*Westerns, the meat and potatoes of 50s and 60s TV, suffer some of the same problems.  Studio sets won’t wash for outdoor scenes, and locations are always fraught with the problem of the 21st century intruding on the set. 

**This was his first series role after leaving Taxi.

***The most memorable line from the series was her declaration, when taken to an Inn, “I’ve had fun before.  This isn’t it.”

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Dark Star

Dark Star(1974)
Directed by
John Carpenter
Written by John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon
Starring Brian Narelle, Cal Cuniholm, Dre Pahich, Dan O’Bannon, Joe Saunders
IMDB Entry

John Carpenter made his mark with Friday the Thirteenth  and worked primarily in horror and dystopian science fiction with plenty of action.  Dan O’Bannon wrote Alien and also other action and horror films.  So you’d figure if the two of them would get together, the result would be an action-packed SF or horror film.  You’d be wrong.  The result was a comedy, with a decided lack of action.

Dark Star was unusual in that it was a low-budget sf film without monsters being front and center.  The ship that gives the movie its title goes around the universe destroying unstable planets.  As its acting commander, Lt. Doolittle (Brian Narelle) says, “Don’t give me any of this intelligent life stuff; find me something to blow up.”

Dark Star MascotBut the ship has problems.  Its commander, Powell (Joe Saunders) is dead and in a cryogenic locker, Sergeant Pinback (Dan O’Bannon) isn’t really Pinback at all, Talby (Dre Pahich) spends his time in the observatory, watching the stars, and  Boiler (Cal Cuniholm) likes shooting off the ship’s laser indoors.  The ship is out of toilet paper, the ship’s computer is cloying, the intelligent nuclear bombs they carry are becoming a little too intelligent, and the ship’s mascot – an alien that looks like a beach ball with claws – is becoming rambunctious.

Even worse, everyone is terminally bored.  Doolittle wishes he was back on Earth, where he could go surfing and everyone else goes about their tasks with the enthusiasm of a dead slug.

The ship is probably the most disorganized, cramped, and dirty in SF films.*  It looks like it’s been lived in for a year and the crew have long since given up on niceties like cleaning up or even personal hygiene.  There’s a stench on ennui in everything everyone does and says; Carpenter has said it was Waiting for Godot in space.

The set, though, was clearly a forerunner of Alien, which also has a lived in look (though not as lived in).  In addition, O’Bannon clearly expanded the subplot about the alien mascot – with mixes horror with the comedy – into the basis for Alien.

The movie was shot for on $60,000 as an expansion of a student film of Carpenter’s, so there was no question it would earn back its cost once it went into wide distribution.  It launched the careers of both Carpenter and O’Bannon, though none of the actors had any further success.

*Certainly up until this time.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Notes on a Scandal

Directed by
Richard Eyre
Written by Patrick Marber, based on a novel by Zoe Heller
Starring  Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, Bill Nighy, Andrew Simpson
IMDB Entry

Judi Dench is one of England’s most beloved actress, usually playing a no-nonsense but likeable woman.  Notes on a Scandal gives her a chance to play someone completely different – a conniving and machiavellian monster who is perfectly willing to destroy everything to get what she wants.

Dench plays Barbara Covett, a teacher in a London school. The new school year brings a new teacher in Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), who Barbara befriends after she helps her with some unruly students.  As time goes by, Sheba, unhappy in her marriage to her husband Richard (Bill Nighy*), starts an affair with Steven Connolly (Andrew Simpson) – a student in the school.

Barbara finds out and slithers into Sheba’s confidence, not by threatening to reveal the affair, but by helping her to hide it. Of course, she also has an ulterior motive in this and it quickly becomes a game of emotional blackmail.

Notes on a ScandalDench’s performance is memorable.  Barbara is bitter and cynical, and manipulative to the extreme, slowly and carefully drawing Sheba into her influence.  Yet she projects the feeling that she is basically a lonely and desperate woman, who is moved into delusion in her feelings about Sheba.

Equally good is Blanchett as Sheba, a pleasant but flawed woman who is drawn into Barbara’s schemes because she needs a confidante.  She is conflicted about her relationship with Steven, but still can’t break it off, despite Barbara’s manipulations.  As she says, “Secrets can be seductive.”

The film got Oscar nominations for Dench as Best Actress and Blanchett as Best Supporting Actress, but neither won, possibly because the both had won before.**  Also, given the state of the US filmgoing audience, it inevitably did poorly in the box office.

But if you want to see to top actresses at the top of their form, this is a must.

*Who, like Jim Broadhurst and the late Pete Postlethwait, seems to show up in every good film out of England made during his career.

**Both for playing Queen Elizabeth I.  Strangely, Anne-Marie Duff, who plays a small but important bit part at the end, also played Elizabeth.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Unusuals (TV)

Created by
Noah Hawley
Starring: Amber Tamblyn, Jeremy Renner, Harold Perrineau, Adam Goldberg, Terry Kinney, Joshua Close, Monique Curnen, Kai Lennox
IMDB Entry
Hulu Page

The Unusuals was . . . unusual.  It was both a comedy and a cop drama, switching from one genre to the next at the drop of a hat, with one of the most vivid casts of characters in recent years.
It’s set in the homicide squad of a New York City precinct, where the detectives are all a little bit strange.  Newcomer Casey Shraeger (Amber Tamblyn) when Detective Jason Walsh’s (Jeremy Renner) partner is murdered and Shraeger quickly learns that this isn’t an ordinary precinct.  Everyone has secrets and odd quirks.  Shraeger, for instance, is the daughter of an extremely wealthy family, who can’t understand why she wants to be a cop when she could be living a life of luxury.  Walsh has secrets of his own, and run a restaurant in his spare time without caring whether he gets a customer or not.
Other detectives included Eric Delahoy (Adam Goldberg), who has a brain tumor but is afraid to tell anyone about it or to have it treated.  Leo Banks always wears a bulletproof vest because he’s convinced he will die at his current age of 42.  Henry Cole (Joshua Close) is devoutly Christian, but is hiding some dangerous secrets in his past.  And Eddie
Alverez (Kai Lennox) is a swaggering jerk, who refers to himself in the third person, but can be an excellent cop when his ego doesn’t get in the way.  Also quite funny was the unseen dispatcher, a voice that talks about the strange crimes in the precinct, much like the PA announcer in the movie version of M*A*S*H,
The show was a cross between NYPD Blue and Barney Miller – serious issues and crimes, and funny dialog and characters.  The crimes also range from serious to weird, often changing tone from moment to moment to keep you off balance.  Creator Noah Hawley was involved with Bones for a few years before starting this and it seems to take some of the elements that were successful there.*
But the show never really caught on.  Evidently, the audience wasn’t intrigued by the mix of humor and crime.  The title probably didn’t help much, either – it’s not particularly memorable.  After ten episodes, it was canceled.
The show is still available on Hulu.

*Though no romance element.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Wedding Banquet

Directed by
Ang Lee
Written by Ang Lee, Neil Peng, James Shamus
Starring Winston Chang, May Chin, Ya-lei Kuei, Ya-lei Kuei, Sihung Lung
IMDB Entry

When one thinks of foreign language films, you don’t think of many films set in New York City where the main language is mandarin Chinese. The Wedding Banquet is an early film by director Ang Lee, in set in Manhattan and featuring a dilemma that shows how much social patterns have changed.

It’s a film about a very happy gay couple, Wai-Tung Gao (Winston Chang) and Simon (Mitchel Lichtenstein).  Wai-Tung is in his late 20s, and his parents are beginning to get more and more insistent he get married.  Naturally,* he can’t tell them the truth, and concocts excuses.  But the excuses run out and Wai-Tung is forced to act:  he finds a penniless girl from Taiwan, Wei-Wei (May Chin), who needs a green card, so he asks her to marry them.  His mother and father (Ya-lei Kuei and Sihung Lung) are overjoyed and fly to New York to be there.  But they are shamed by the sparse marriage at City Hall, and, when an old friend meets them, they arrange for an expensive wedding banquet to celebrate their union.

The result is a charming combination of comedy and drama, with revelations (obviously), mistaken identity and secrets, leading to an ending that resolves things delightfully.  The characters are charming and well drawn. 

The movie put Ang Lee on the map.  It got an Oscar nomination (but didn’t win), but that didn’t matter.  His next film, Eat Drink Man Woman** was a bigger hit and, and his version of Sense and Sensibility also showed his ability,  He returned to Chinese language films with the smash Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  A few years later, he won a directing Oscar for Brokeback Mountain.

Lee is now considered a top film director.  And while he has continued making films showing a great sensitivity to character, The Wedding Banquet shows that he was fine talent from the beginning.

*This being 1993  and not today.

*A movie you should never see on an empty stomach; you’ll leave the theater starving.  It was remade a few years later as Tortilla Soup.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

A New Leaf/Elaine May

A New Leaf(1971)
Directed by
Elaine May
Written by Elaine May from a story by Jack Ritchie
Starring Elaine May, Walter Matthau, Jack Weston, James Coco
IMDB Entry

Elaine May was a clear comic genius before she started working in movies. With her partner, Mike Nichols, they were astoundingly good stand-up comics, where the two of them would be both hilarious and psychologically astute. Here is their “Mother and Son” skit, which is both very funny and also ultimately dark and creepy.

Mother and Son

But all great comic teams come to an end and when the two of the amicably decided to move on, both moved into directing.  Nichols made a splash first with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1966, earning a Oscar nomination.  May took a bit longer to get the director’s chair,* but finally got her chance with A New Leaf in 1971.

The film is about Henry Graham (Walter Matthau), a spoiled rich wastrel who has run through his inheritance and is desperate for the money needed to keep up his lifestyle.  He meets up with Henrietta Lowell (May), a painfully shy botanist and, more to the interest of Henry, a rich heiress.  Henry goes all out to get the clumsy Henrietta to marry him, with the ultimate plan that he murders her and gets her fortune. But it’s not that easy, since Henrietta’s shyness and lack of class continually frustrates Henry.

And of course, no one was better at portraying frustration than Walter Matthau.  May plays Henrietta as a sweet but bewildered klutz, a perfect performance. 

The movie was beset with studio problems.  Originally, May wanted to have a subplot with Matthau murdering several other people, but the film went on too long and was cut.  The cuts seemed to have worked, since the film is ultimately a charming romantic comedy.

A New Leaf opened to good reviews, but poor box office, and I doubt May’s insistence on her own vision made many friends with movie executives, especially since the film’s cost was almost double its budget.  However, she struck gold the next time out with The Heartbreak Kid, even though she only directed.**  Still, the promotional material mentioned her name and it looked like she might make a big breakthrough in films, with two critical successes, and one commercial one.

Alas, it was not to be.  Her next film, Mikey and Nicky, was over budget and late; she shot an incredible amount of film (more than Gone With The Wind) as the two stars – Peter Falk and John Cassavetes – improvised for hours.  Her studio got angry at the delays and barely released the film.

It was 11 years until she directed another film.  That was Ishtar, which didn’t work out too well, either.***

May never directed again. Sexism certainly paid a part, but the fact that at least three of her four films came in late and over budget due to her penchant for perfectionism was probably the greater factor.  May vanished from Hollywood and rarely appeared on the stage, and only had a handful of movie credits, primarily as a writer.  Critics did love her in Woody Allen’s Small Time Crooks, where she was terrific in every scene.

May was a can’t-miss who missed.  But A New Leaf – even cut from her own vision – is a comic delight that makes you wish she had been far more successful.

*Was there sexism here?  Probably.

**The character of Lila was probably one she could have played, but she evidently wanted a younger actress, and cast her daughter, Jeannie

***The film was unfairly maligned when it came out, since it went massively over budget – the most expensive film up to that time -- without any crowd scenes or fancy special effects to show for it.  Everyone reviewed the price tag, but those who ignored that discovered a funny comedy with a few slow and uneven patches.  Critics are beginning to rediscover the film, and Heaven’s Gate and Cutthroat Island took over at the most expensive high-profile flop.  Eventually, I think it will be found to be a decent (though flawed) little film.