Sunday, April 23, 2006

Once a Hero

Created by
Dusty Kay
Starring Jeff Lester, Milo O'Shea, Robert Forster, Caitlin Clarke, and David Wohl
IMDB Entry

Abner, Captain Justice, and WoodyThere are some TV shows that just don't deserve the treatment they get:  great shows that just never find an audience.  Once a Hero flopped badly, running only three episodes in 1987 (including the two-hour premiere) before cancellation, and racking up the worst ratings of the year.  Yet, in a just world, it would have been seen as the classic it was.

The idea was a brilliant one (and part of its problem):  what happens when a comic book superhero tries to live in the Real World, where there are no superpowers?  The hero in question was Captain Justice (created for the show, though Marvel did a two-issue tie-in).  In the set-up, the Captain realizes that he's repeating adventures, and, in the Real World, his creator, Abner Bevis, realizes he's in a rut.  So the Captain crosses over from his home town of Pleasantville to talk to Abner.

But the Real World is much different than it is in comics.

I watched the show on a whim.  Its two-hour premiere was on a Saturday night and it didn't look promising, but Milo O'Shea -- an actor who I know had a great reputation -- was listed in the cast.  I also had a rule to try to catch every SF TV show I could, since so many came and went, even good ones.  So I sat down to watch.

I was delighted.

What made the show work for me was the sly sort of logical humor that Joss Whedon later made his trademark.  Just like in Buffy, clich├ęd situations would be turned on their head in perfectly logical manners.  For instance, in the pilot, a kid (Woody -- one of the series regulars, if such a term makes sense here) was being relieved of his lunch money (and more) by a high school extortion racket.  He gives a speech to the head of the gang telling him he'll get even with him one day.  One of the thug's thugs punches Woody.  The leader of the gang chews out the guy who did the punching:  Woody had paid for his protection that week and should not be touched.  He then gives Woody a rebate.

You've got to love touches like that.

Later, there's an exchange that any comic book reader will also enjoy.  To understand, you have to realize that Captain Justice's name in the comic was "Brad Steele."  Woody's mother, Emma (a divorcee and reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper), asks about him, thinking he's the Big Brother who is supposed to help Woody.  And she begins to ask questions.

Emma:  And where do you come from?
Captain Justice:  Pleasantville.
Emma (highly amused):  Pleasantville?  You mean the place where Captain Justice comes from in the comic books?  That's hilarious.  What's your last name, Brad Steele?
Captain Justice:  No. Brad . . . Kent.

The plot of the pilot involved a small-time crook and extortionist named Edward Kybo.  Kybo's son is the one shaking down Woody.  Captain Justice insists that the way to solve the problem is to go to Kybo and tell him what his son is doing.  After all, a parent is supposed to be appalled at this, rPleasantville -- a real nice place to raise your kids upight?  But when he tells Kybo, the gangster looks at his son and asks, "How much do you clear a week?"  When he hears the number, he beams.

Later, Kybo thinks Emma is getting too close; he goes to his boss and says that she's a threat and should be knocked off.  His boss shakes his head.  "We don't knock off reporters anymore."

And finally, when Gumshoe (a hard-boiled detective who follows Captain Justice to keep an eye out for him) meets with Emma, he tells her about a potential story about the extortion in town.  Emma is uninterested, leading to the line, "Lois Lane, you ain't."

Captain Justice has to adjust with not having powers in the Real World.  There was a wonderful scene where he keeps trying to leap in the air like a kid playing Superman. Eventually, he copes, smashing in to rescue Emma (with the help of some explosives).  He grabs Kybo and forces him to repeat after him:

Captain Justice:  Repeat after me.  Crime . . ."
Kybo: Crime . . .
Captain Justice: doesn't. . . .
Kybo: Doesn't.
Captain Justice: (looks at Kybo, expecting him to finish the sentence)
Kybo: (After a long pause)  Pay!  Crime doesn't pay!

And the Captain decides to stay in the Real World.

The second episode involved the Captain's comic book girlfriend going looking for him.  Gaining the help from the Great and Powerful ("I am the Great and Powerful . . ." he begins by way of introduction, to which Gumshoe replies, "Save that for the Munchkins."), she sees the Captain is staying there, so she ties herself to the railroad track to get him to rescue her.  At one point, Gumshoe explains to Woody about women using an analogy, "A girl is like a baseball," that's something out of the hard-boiled world he's from.  Woody thinks it's the stupidest thing he's ever heard. And it was actually quite touching when Rachel returned back to Pleasantville, unable to cope with the real world.

The third episode had the Captain's arch enemy, Lazarus, making the trek to the Real World.  Again, it was sprinkled with clever bits.  For instance, Captain Justice applies for a job as an archeologist (his identity in Pleasantville) and his dressed down by the interviewer for using fictional credentials.

Later, they discover that Lazarus is in the Real World.  Abner and Gumshoe think he's probably going to blow up a dam and flood the city.  Captain Justice insists that Lazarus is probably planning to kidnap the Russian ambassador's daughter.  Kybo (who evidently finally was able to finish that sentence he had trouble with and turned into a cuddly comic relief guy) rushes in saying, "We have to do something!  Lazarus has kidnapped the Russian ambassador's daughter!"  Captain Justice pumps his hand, "Yes!" he says, going into a victory dance to Kybo's mystified look.

Lazarus meets with Abner, furious that he always loses to Captain Justice.  "Why do you hate me?" he asks.  Abner tells him that Lazarus is his favorite character, since it's so much fun writing a villain.  There's a lot of father/son interaction between Abner and Captain Justice, too, and the creator = God angle is clearly present throughout the show, though not enough to create controversy (which may have helped the show, alas).

Later Lazarus captures Captain Justice and, instead of fighting it out, the Captain surrenders.  "You win," he says.  "I've lost." (Certainly one of the few times you've heard that from a comic book character.)Lazarus is delighted.  "Let's do it again," he said.  But the Captain insists that this is the Real World now, and not a game.  That was something of a theme for a show:  the difference between the Real World and the world of comics, with something of a longing for the more uncomplicated past, but a realization that we have to live in the real world. 

Sounds a bit heavy, but it really didn't get in the way of the fun.

The fourth episode of the show never aired.  But in the previews, it was clear that the plot involved an actor who had played Captain Justice on TV and had gotten sick and tired of being associated with the role of a TV superhero and wanted nothing more to get out.  And who did the cast to play this?

Adam West. Just perfect, isn't it?

Why did the show fail?  In StompTokyo's discussion of it (read it:  it's nearly as good as this one), they talk about how Captain Justice was too old fashioned and unsophisticated for the Dark Knight generation of the time.  But if the show were to succeed, it needed to attract more than just the fanboys, and I think the old-style hero was hardly the problem.

It was more complicated.  First of all, the show appeared on Saturday nights.  That's the night with the lowest audience (today, they don't even bother putting on original programming on Saturdays), so the show was in a hole.  It was also going up against The Facts of Life

But the main problem is that not all network affiliates showed it (for instance, that it was never shown in the Boston area).  Evidently, after the show was picked up, they fired the actor who played Captain Justice for not playing the part straight enough.  Some affiliates took this as a sign that the show was a disaster waiting to happen, and thus they didn't show it.  It's hard to get ratings when a market like Boston isn't broadcasting your show.

It's also a hard concept to explain.  It was metafiction, after all (and I love metafiction), but that word would certainly scare off most viewers.  It also required a good deal of explanation that couldn't be summarized in a thirty-second spot. 

So the show was cancelled (remember, this was a time that if you got a month to make a ratings splash, it was a long time).  I remember Robert Forster (who played Gumshoe) being interviewed in a newspaper article trying desperately to get people to watch.

It's too bad.  It definitely deserved better.

Thursday, April 6, 2006

Death Watch (Le Mort en Direct)

: Bertrand Tavernier
Written by David Rayfiel, Bertrand Tavernier from a novel by D. G. Compton
Starring Harvey Keitel, Romy Schneider, Harry Dean Stanton
IMDB Entry

It's not hard to understand why this film is obscure:  As far as I know, it wasn't released in the US, except maybe in a few major markets.

I only saw it by chance.  I was at a science fiction convention -- Paracon in State College, PA around 1983 -- with SF agent Virginia Kidd as a guest (Kidd was one of the top SF agents at the time).  She brought the film, since it was based on a novel by one of her clients:  D. G. Compton's The Continuous Katherine Mortinhoe (US title: The Unsleeping Eye). It was shown at the con (a big deal, since this was before consumer videotapes) to a sparse audience, and, in her Guest of Honor speech, chastised the convention-goers for not seeing it (I had, so I felt good).

The movie has Keitel as a TV reporter who has a camera implanted in his eye to watch Schneider a woman who is slowly dying.  It's set in the future, where death is rare (at least, the natural death of a young person) and watching it happen was a type of reality show (long before the genre was created in the US). Keitel begins to interact with the woman and loses his objectivity and is finally transformed.

It's a neat look at a near future society.  Things haven't much changed, but there are subtle hints of the things that are.  One memorable one is when Keitel tells the store clerk there is something wrong with the subliminals after you heard a soft voice saying, "Do not shoplift" as he walks through.

It's hard to figure out what happened to the film.  This was just about the time Keitel was emerging as a critically acclaimed actor, and I did see coming attractions for the film some time after I saw it.  But I never saw it open.  Maybe Hollywood wasn't interested in thoughtful science fiction, especially if it came from a book.

Picking Up the Pieces

Picking up the Pieces(2000)
Directed by
Alphonse Arau
Written by Bill Wilson
Starring Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, David Schwimmer, Kiefer Sutherland, Elliot Gould, Fran Drescher, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Lou Diamond Phillips, and Cheech Marin.
IMDB Entry

Get a look at that cast.  And yet, the film got next to no release, despite being one of the funniest films in the past few years.

Allen plays a butcher from Texas (called "Tex'), one of the many bits of inspired casting in the film:  Arau probably got so many big names into the film because they were going to be something quite different than their usual roles and personalities 

Tex murders his wife (Stone) and chops her into bits.  One piece -- a hand with one finger extended goes astray.  And starts performing miracles. 

The story is filled with wicked humor and bizarre incidents. Tex tries to retrieve the hand, but it's become a sensation, bringing money and tourists into the small town in New Mexico where Tex dropped it.  The mayor loves the money, the church investigates, and Kiefer Sutherland begins snooping around, trying to find out what happened to Stone.

Why isn't the film better known?  Beats me.  The only reason I knew about it was that I saw it in my video store.  I'm a Woody Allen fan, and I'd never heard of it.  It had distribution problems, and a few bad reviews killed it, but I don't think I ever laughed harder in a long time.  (If you see it, pay special attention who plays the various priests and nuns.)

Screen Door Jesus

Directed by Kirk Davis
Written by Kirk Davis, Christopher Cook
Starring Terry Parks and a bunch of others you've never heard of.
IMDB Entry

Certainly the most obscure film on this list.

The fate of most indy films is always a matter of luck. I saw Screen Door Jesus at the Empire State Film Festival in Schenectady in 2003 and I felt it was the best film of the year.  Yet it didn't win the festival (despite my vote), even if it won awards elsewhere, and it didn't get to Sundance and vanished from sight.  When I made a comment on it at the film's website, I got a personal e-mail from the producer asking for more details.

It's a shame, really.  Screen Door Jesus is a series of interlocked stories about religious faith in the small Texas town of Bethlehem. The title refers to an image of Jesus found on the screen door of one of the people, and the problems it causes (the director was clever in not showing the picture, leaving the question of whether it actually existed up to the viewer).  Race also is part of the mix, first brought out in the opening where a Black Pentecostal church congregation is shown celebrating in song (with one white woman as part of it) then a White Baptist congregation is shown celebrating more sedately (with one black family in the crowd).

My favorite sequence is when one woman decides that her grandchildren need to know about Jesus. 

Grandmother:  "Jesus died, but then rose from the grave."
Kid:  "Like in a horror movie?"

Grandmother:  "If you didn't have a soul, you'd be just a robot."
Grandson:  "A robot?  Cool!"

And the immortal line:  "If Jesus has super powers, he could make a robot with a soul."

There are jokes, but ultimately, the film is a movie about belief, and respectful of it, and our opinions of the characters change as we learn more about them.  The grandmother I'm quoting is a bit ridiculous, but turns out to be much more a figure you feel sorry for by the end. 

If you go to the Screen Door Jesus website, you can find a few clips.

I see that they're still plugging away with it, trying to reach the religious audiences that made Passion of the Christ a hit. I'm skeptical that the attitudes will play well, but if it makes the film a success, more power to it.

The Well

The Well(1951)
Directed by Leo C. Popkin and Russell Rouse
Written by Russell Rouse, Clarence Greene
Starring Richard Rober, Gwendoline Laster, Maidie Norman, Harry Morgan
IMDB Entry

A movie about ten years ahead of its time in subject matter. It seems to have been recognized in its time:  two Oscar nominations, but it faded into obscurity.

Maybe, with Crash winning the Oscar, it's time to bring it back.  It's a film about racial tensions, built on a simple incident:  in a small, racially mixed town, a young Black girl vanishes.  Rumors arise saying she was last seen with a White man. 

And the town explodes.  The Black community wants the White man caught and punished; the White community tries to protect the suspect and fears a race riot.  Tensions rise and the town is about to explode.

Then, they find the girl has fallen into a well and the community unites to save her.

My favorite moment is just when things are about to turn ugliest.  The Whites are essentially arming themselves to go out and preemptively attack the Blacks.  Their leader is planning out orders when someone comes running in and says, "They found the little girl!"

The leader turns angrily.  "What little girl?" he shouts, then pauses.  "Oh," he says, very quietly.

If this film had come out in 1961, it would probably be considered an important landmark in race relations.*  But 1951 was a bit too early.  It didn't help that the film seems to have vanished.  I suspect it went into the public domain at one point, since a local TV station ran it several times a week in the early 80s (the station was struggling and was later bought out).  The production company seems to have gone out of business with the film; their earlier film DOA is PD, so this film probably is, too.  In any case, there doesn't seem to be a DVD or Video.  It's too bad.  The film is both important and well-done, and worth bringing back.

*It did get three Oscar nominations, but no wins.

Truly Madly Deeply

Directed by
Anthony Minghella
Written by Anthony Minghella
Starring: Juliet Stevenson, Alan Rickman, Bill Paterson
IMDB Entry

Some movies are cursed with bad timing. Before they come out, another film covers the same ground and you end up looking like a pale imitation before you even hit the screen. It's especially bad when your film really is better than the original. 

Truly Madly Deeply is a prime example. It's a film about a woman who lost her lover tragically, and who finds him returning to her as a Ghost.  But whereas Ghost is a tragic love story, Truly Madly Deeply is both a love story and a movie about moving on. 

Juliet Stephenson & Alan RickmanJuliet Stephenson plays Nina, who is in deep mourning due to the death of her lover Jamie.  She cannot get on with her life, and doesn't want to -- until Jamie shows up to help her along. 

The movie was written with Stephenson in mind.  Writer/Director Anthony Minghella knew of her work and gave her a vehicle to make her a star.  She is positively luminous -- bereft at the loss of her boyfriend, and joyous when he returns.

And Jamie is played by Alan Rickman. This is one of his few non-villainous roles, and it's nothing like you're used to seeing him. Jamie is charming warm and loving and you can certainly see why Nina misses him. I've often noticed that an actor known for playing villains makes a good hero when given the chance (and vice versa) and this fits right in. In this case, Rickman's dark screen persona gives some bite to a character who Nina believes is Mr. Wonderful.  He is, but not in the way she thinks, and few other than Rickman could do the role without becoming syrupy.

Stephenson never went on the be the star Minghella planned for her to be, though Minghella went on to acclaim, including an Oscar for The English Patient.  The movie is about life, and life's passages. Jamie has returned to Nina for a reason, and discovering why is one of the many joys of the film.

The Tenant (Le Locataire)

The Tenant(1976)
Directed by
Roman Polanski
Written by Gerard Brach & Roman Polanski, from a novel by Roland Topor.
Starring Roman Polanski, Isabelle Adjani, Melvyn Douglas, Shelley Winters
IMDB Entry

A neat piece of psychological horror.  Polanski had had major commercial success with Rosemary's Baby a few years before, and this film is in the same vein. In fact, to fully enjoy it, you need to have seenRosemary's Baby.  It's not a sequel, and I suppose you can enjoy it without seeing the earlier film, but Polanski assumes you've seen the previous movie, and plays upon those expectations, much like Woody Allen assumes you know Casablanca when you seen Play it Again Sam (though, of course, Polanski is much darker).

Polanski plays the lead, a Polish exile in Paris who is looking for an apartment.  He hears that one is soon to be available:  its resident, a young woman, has jumped out of the window in a suicide attempt, and is dying.  Polanski goes to see her and, while he's there, she screams.  The meaning of that scream is the twist that makes the movie one of the best horror films ever.  Polanski plays with your expectations and things are not what they seem, with a final scene that's both chilling and a twist you will never see coming.

Black Moon

Directed by Louis Malle
Written by Malle, Ghislain Uhry, and Joyce Bunuel
Starring Catherine Harrison, Therise Giehse, Joe Dallasandro.
IMDB Entry

Louis Malle had the ability to make movies about the strangest subjects.  Le Souffle au Coeur was a warm gentle comedy about incest. Lacombe, Lucien had as its hero a Nazi collaborator. If his Pretty Baby were made today, it'd be classified as child porn.  My Dinner with Andre famously shows nothing but two people talking.  But Malle had the ability to take these awkward subjects and make fascinating films about them.

Black Moon was his last film before leaving France for the US (and eventually marrying Candice Bergen).  I wish I could tell you what it is about, but I don't think anyone knows, not even Malle.  The plot, such as it is, shows a young woman during a time of an unnamed war to takes refuge in a farmhouse.  She meets the inhabitants:  an old woman, a man, and a unicorn.  There's very little dialog and no explanation of anything.

But the film has power.  It's more like a poem than a story, with images and scenes that have stuck in my mind for 30 years.  Most notably, there was the unicorn, a Shetland pony with a horn, really, who bobs around mysteriously.  The final image, where the girl nurses the unicorn is one of the most memorable in film.

Not for everyone, of course, but if image and mood are important to you, it's fascinating.