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.