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.