Saturday, May 24, 2014

Awake (TV)

imageCreated by
Kyle Killen
Starring Jason Isaacs, Laura Allen, Steve Harris, Dylan Minnette, BD Wong, Cherry Jones, Wilmer Valderrama
IMDB Entry

US network television is always charged with pandering to the lowest common denominator.  There is a lot of truth in this, but sometimes a network comes up with a show with sophisticated content and great drama.  And a recent case of this was Awake.

The show is the story of Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs).  He’s a police detective with troubles:  His wife Hanna (Laura Allen) was recently killed in a car accident.  Or, rather, his teenage son Rex (Dylan Minnette) was.  Or both.  Or neither.

The fact is, Michael is living in two realities.  In one, his wife is dead and he has to deal with not only that, but also helping Rex cope.  Then, when he goes to sleep, he wakes up in a different reality, where Hannah is alive, but Rex was killed in the crash.  The only people who know his secret are his two psychologists (BD Wong and Cherry Jones),  one from each reality, neither of which believed him.

The concept could have been confusing, but one clever trick helps keep things straight:  the realities are color coded, one shot in a blue tinge, the other in a yellow one.*

One nice feature was that the events in one world could be used to affect the results in another.  Michael might learn an odd fact in the blue world that helps him solve a case in the yellow one. He’s sad about his losses, but he still can see his wife and son, and uses that to help both of them cope.  And, as the show goes on, the timelines start to diverge.

The show never got traction in the ratings.  The concept was difficult to explain and it only lasted 13 weeks.  The final episode did give it all closure.**  Ultimately, it was an ambitious series about loss that probably would have been better on a cable network than broadcast.

*They are referred to by the writers as the red and blue realities, for the color of a rubber band that Michael wears in each.  But the color schemes are clearly blue and yellow.

**Though the writers said they intended that it be a jumping off point if a second season was orders.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Jungle Jim (TV)

Created by
Alex Raymond, Don Moore
Starring Johnny Weissmuller, Martin Hudson, Dean Fredericks, and Tamba the Chimp
IMDB Entry

When you think of Johnny Weissmuller, you think Tarzan.  But he was more than just an actor, and more than just Tarzan.

Weissmuller was born in Austria-Hungary, and emigrated with his family to the US when he was a baby.  He contracted polio when he was nine and, as rehabilitation, he was told to try swimming.  It was a wise decision:  he took to the sport and became a champion, setting a world record in the freestyle and winning five gold medals in the 1924 and 1928 Olympics.  He established himself as one of the great freestylers of his age.

Weissmuller went into modeling and, in 1932, signed a seven-year contract with MGM.  His first major role was Tarzan in Tarzan the  Ape Man, which was such a hit that is spawned a series.  He was credited with the Tarzan yell* and he played the role in a dozen movies, which pretty much was his entire list of credits until 1948.**

At that point, Weissmuller was 44 and probably realized that his days of being able to run around with just a loincloth were numbered.  He left MGM for Columbia and started a new series:  Jungle Jim.

Jungle Jim was created by the great comic book artist Alex Raymond.  Raymond created the Flash Gordon strip and the long-running Secret Agent X-9, one of the first spy strips, and Rip Kirby.  He was known throughout the field as the artist most others wanted to be (and steal from).  His Jungle Jim started in 1934, as a reaction to Tarzan.*** It featured Jim, an Asian-based adventurer.

It seemed a good fit for Weissmuller, who appeared in 14 movies as the character from 1948-1954.  And then came television.

Jim (Weissmuller) and his son Skipper (Martin Huston) faced the usual African adventures,**** solving mysteries and teaching Skipper a lesson.  They were helped by their Hindu servant Haseem (Dean Fredericks) and by Tamba the Chimp.  Jim traveled in his plane, the Sitting Duck.  Stock footage abounded.

The TV show only lasted a season, but remained in syndication on Saturday mornings for years afterward. 

*The original yell was a combination of sounds (sources differ on exactly which one), but Weissmuller claimed it was all his, and learned to duplicate it for personal appearances.

**The one exception was a film Swamp Fire, where he co-starred with Buster Crabbe, the original Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon.

***Much like Flash Gordon was a reaction to Buck Rogers.

****Even though the comic was based in Asia. 

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Crunch Bird

Crunch Bird(1971)
Written and Directed by:
Ted Petok
Voices: Len Maxwell
IMDB Entry

By the mid-60s, the Oscar for best short animated film seemed like an anachronism.  Instead of being an integral part of any evening of movies, it was made by small studios and probably only saw the light of projection in film festivals.* They all tend to be forgotten, and one of the best – and an Oscar winner – was The Crunch Bird.

It’s a very short film – around two minutes.  There also not much to it:  it just tells one joke. 

But the joke is hilarious.**

Director Ted Petok set up Crunch Bird Studios and produced four other short films:  Crunch Bird II, Yetta the Yenta, The Mad Baker, and The Golfer***.  I saw The Golfer years ago, and it was similar in structure:  one joke, well told (though the joke was a bit weaker).

*Probably in Los Angeles, in the hope of getting an Oscar nomination.

**What really sells it is the blackout at the end.

***Which isn’t even listed in the IMDB, even though it was shown in theaters.