Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Flash and the Pan

(Music) (1979-1980) Henry Vanda (guitar, vocals), George Young (synthesizer, lead vocals), Les Karski (bass), Ray Arnott (drums), Warren Morgan (piano)

Henry Vanda and George Young were big names in the Australian music industry from the 1960s on. They first came to prominence with the most successful Australian group of the decade -- the Easybeats (the Bee Gees were more successful internationally, but the Easybeats were the bigger stars down under), who broke through with an international hit of "Friday on my Mind," written by them.

Then they went into record production and songwriting. Young helped his younger brothers Angus and Malcolm into the record business, where they recorded as AC/DC.

In the late 70s, between projects, Vanda and Young decided to start putting out albums again. Instead of using "The Easybeats" or even their own names, they named themselves "Flash and the Pan."

The name, of course, was a pun on "Flash in the Pan," and a lot of people thought that might be their name at first. An album was put out; it was marketed in the US, at least with a striking Hypgnosis cover showing a bunch of people sitting in the sun on the beach with a bunch of frisbees flying around them.

And, oh yes, a nuclear mushroom cloud in the background. The image fit. Flash in the Pan played a kind of apocalyptic rock music, dealing with death and destruction, often on a large scale. The album included the dark "California," dealing with an accidental nuclear war ("He pushed the wrong button and soon there'll be no place called California"). "Down Among the Dead Men" was about the Titanic, while "Walking in the Rain" is about depression. The songs were always in a minor key, but what really made them sound different were George Young's* lead vocals, which were spoken rather than sung and sounded like they were coming from the speakers of an old radio. Vanda** sang the choruses and it worked as a counterpoint.

The group had one successful single: "Hey St. Peter." It got airplay on MTV due to a nicely goofy video that made the catchy tune seem less bleak than it was, but wasn't a real hit.

In 1980, the group was back with their second album, Lights in the Night. It also had a great cover.

It looks like a black cover with that odd logo of the cube flying past the three faces. But note the scratch across it. It revealed the cover of the first album underneath, something that you could see on the original LP, though isn't obvious on CDs. There were further scratches on the back, showing the back of the first LP. It was as though someone had taken the first cover and painted it over with thin black paint, and if you looked closely enough, it was all there.

Once again, the songs were superb. "Media Man" was about an amoral reporter (much like Don Henley's "Dirty Laundry" a few years later). "Restless" was about insomnia. "Welcome to the Universe" -- a great upbeat tune -- says that life is a circus, while "Make Your Own Cross" sings about how people search out their own suffering. "Lights in the Night" is about UFOs, and "Atlantis Calling" is a wistful look at another disaster ("On behalf of unknown heroes/For heroes there must be/In any land that crumbles/And sinks beneath the sea").

The album sold even worse than the first.

It really didn't matter too much to Vanda and Young; since this was just a side project. They put out a few more albums after this, but they had absolutely no impact whatsoever. Even I -- a major fan -- never realized they were out until I checked the Allmusic Guide.

They probably were too much a niche to ever be popular, even if Vanda and Young had worked to make them so (as far as I know, they never bothered to tour). But it was a strange and wonderful musical direction while it lasted.

*At least, I think it's Young. The credits are unclear. **Unless it was Young.

Monday, January 28, 2008

The Time of Their Lives

Starring Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Marjorie Reynolds, Gale Sondergaard, Binnie Barnes, Anne Gillis.

Abbott and Costello were once referred by Andrew Sarris as the most minor of comedy teams. But they were big stars of the 40s, and their careers fell into two parts. One were the vaudeville comedy team who would often work their stage bits into movies, things like the sublime "Who's on First" and the unknown and underrated "7 x 13 = 28" (where they "prove" the math in three different ways). The other was the mock horror films like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, where the boys were put into danger and the comedy was from Costello's fearful reaction coupled with Abbott's putting him there.

But one movie that doesn't fit the mold is The Time of Their Lives. It's not one of their funnier films, but it is certainly their most charming one.

Costello plays Horatio Prim, a tinker and patriot during the Revolutionary War. Prim has gotten a letter of commendation from George Washington and wants to use this to show his patriotism to Tom Danbury (Jess Barker) the employer of Nora O'Leary (Anne Gillis), who Horatio wants to marry. But Danbury's butler, Cuthbert Greenway (Abbott), keeps him from doing so, and then Nora discovers Danbury is involved with Benedict Arnold's treason. Danbury's fiancee, Melody Allen (Marjorie Reynolds) finds out about the plot and rides off with Horatio to get help.

But as they try to leave, they are shot. Dead.

Yes, this is a comedy. Bear with me.

Horatio and Melody's corpses are thrown down the well, and they are cursed (literally) to haunt the grounds of the estate.

Yes, a comedy. A romantic one at that.

Cut to 1946. Horatio and Melody's ghosts are still haunting, living near the well. They will remain that way until their names can be cleared by the letter from George Washington.

One of the group restoring the estate is Dr. Ralph Greenway, a descendant of Cuthbert. And, as in all movies of this type, he happens to look exactly like Cuthbert (It's Abbott again, of course). Emily (the always spooky Gale Sondergaard) believes the estate is haunted, and the only way to fix it is to find the letter.

Horatio, of course, mistakes Ralph for his ancestor Cuthbert, and gets in a few licks (one of the few times Costello had the upper hand), and Ralph makes amends for his ancestor's misdeed of hiding the letter.

Costello is charming as Horatio. Lots of film comedians want to emulate Chaplin and go for pathos, and most fail. But Costello pulls it off. It helps that he is in such a dire situation (he wants throughout to meet up again with Nora in heaven), but you can really feel for his situation.

I also like Marjorie Reynolds as his fellow ghost Melody. They are the real team here, and you kind of wonder why Costello is still so enamored of Nora with Melody around.

Gale Sondergaard made a career of playing spooky and sinister women. The look of the witch in Disney's Snow White was based on her, and she was the first choice for the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz, a role she turned down because she didn't feel she was right for the role (it would have been quite different). Here she added an air of creepiness to the entire surroundings.

Because of the nature of the plot, Abbott and Costello have few scenes together, and several of those involve Abbott interacting with a ghost (sometime with the ghost being invisible). This was evidently by design: the two men were feuding at the time and didn't want to be in the same room together if they could help it.

Because of its lack of belly laughs, and romantic plot (out of fashion these days), the movie tends to be overlooked. But it shows Costello in a different light, and has charm to spare.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

"Other Voices" -- the Doors

(Music) Robbie Krieger (guitar), Ray Manzerek (keyboards), John Densmore (drums).

Everyone who knows rock music knows about the Doors. Jim Morrison's apocalyptic personal history and dominant stage personality made him into a legend. And when he died, he became one of rock music's immortals. Of course, the group broke up without Jim, except for a controversial attempt to reform the past year or so.

Well, not really.

The legend of Jim Morrison obscured the truth: the Doors were always a band, not just backup musicians for the Lizard King. Songs for their albums* were originally credited to "The Doors," partly so the group could share royalties and partly as a recognition that they worked as a group. This led to odd confusion. I remember one reviewer talking about how Morrison's songwriting was what made the group a success, completely ignoring the fact that "Light My Fire," their biggest hit and the song that put them on the map, was written by Robbie Krieger.

So when Jim Morrison died, the rest of the group had a unique problem. They were musicians and songwriters who really weren't dependent to their front man, but who were only considered backing musicians for him. They also owed albums to their record company and had already been working on songs and musical ideas for it. So what do you do?

The answer was "Other Voices."

The title, of course, refers to Morrison being gone. Krieger and Manzerek handle the vocals, and, though no Morrison, are certainly as good as most rock singers. The songs are also generally good. "Ships with Sails" is a pretty tune, a more upbeat version of "Riders on the Storm." "I'm Horny, I'm Stoned" is a funny tune about the madness of being a rock star. "Variety is the Spice of Life" ("That's what the judge is gonna tell my wife.") is a funny tune about a man's wandering eye. The other songs are all quite good. If it had been a debut album from a new band, it would have led to at least a cult following and maybe a successful career.

But these were the Doors. Though the album was moderately successful, making the top 40 albums), the legend of Morrison overshadowed the group's attempt to redefine themselves. They put out a second album, "Full Circle," which just dented the charts (I'm not familiar with it), then broke up.

And the Morrison legend continues. Alas, any story of the Doors ends in a Paris bathtub, so the fact that the group tried to continue with him has gotten lost. Doors fans are Jim Morrison fans and aren't interested in the rest of the people who worked side by side with him, and often gave him the words and music he was singing.

It wasn't until 2004 that "Other Voices" (and "Full Circle") made it onto CD, and that's out of print. It doesn't deserve this sort of obscurity.

*Except for "The Soft Parade," where Morrison evidently hated Kreiger's songs so they were credited the way they often are now: Krieger-Doors or Morrison-Doors.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Little Lulu

(Comic Book)
Created by Marge (Marjorie Henderson Buell)
Comic book written by John Stanley

As any boy growing up in the 60s, I loved comic book. And by that, I mean superhero comic books.*
So, when I was visiting my female cousins one afternoon and stumbled upon a stack of Little Lulu, I was less than impressed. Clearly, these were girl comics.
But I had an odd trait: show me something in the comic book form, and I'll read it. I can't help myself. So I started reading the back issues of Little Lulu.

They were terrific. I couldn't put my finger on why. There was no action. They were amusing, but not hilarious. But I enjoyed them immensely.

Nowadays, I have a better grasp of why: They were just well-written stories in comic book form.

Little Lulu was created by Marjorie Henderson Buell, who used the pen name of Marge for her work. Lulu started out as a recurring panel in the Saturday Evening Post, and graduated to comic strip and finally comic book. It was the latter where it reached its peak. Marge was a smart businesswoman and managed to syndicate the name all over the place, and even eventually as a TV cartoon.

And, similarly to Walt Disney, she couldn't write everything she had her name on. I get the impression she started hiring others early on, and the real find was John Stanley.
Lulu was originally a mischievous girl who love pulling pranks. But Stanley gave her a personality, a groups of friends to interact with, and rich backstory. Lulu was about grade school age, and her friend and foil was Tubby Tompkins. Lulu and Tubby had a rivalry/friendship that stood out among kid comics. There was also Lulu's best friend Annie; Tubby's friend Iggy; Annie's brother Alvin; and Gloria, Tubby's heartthrob.

Veering off, there were also Witch Hazel and Little Itch. They weren't part of Lulu's suburban world, but rather a real witch and her bratty niece, who tormented the Little Girl who picked Beebleberries. These were all stories within a story that Lulu would tell Alvin. The witches were nasty and always tormenting the girl (who was drawn to look like Lulu -- I'm sure the idea was that she was Lulu in a different continuum), but the girl managed to turn the tables at the end.

The stories were all clever and well plotted. When not concentrating on Witch Hazel, they dealt with kid's issues and never failed to end up a satisfying and fun read.

Stanley eventually quit the comic and it lost its way. Eventually, Marge sold the title to her distributor. Little Lulu limped along, never particularly impressive, and was finally killed in the mid-80s.

Dark Horse Comics is currently republishing the book. While not showing the genius of reprints like Krazy Kat, Pogo, and Peanuts, Little Lulu is a look at a pleasant and unassuming book that only serious comic book fans are aware of.

*To be precise, DC superhero comics. Despite the fact I lived less than 100 miles from Marvel's headquarters, you could not buy Marvel Comics where I was. The only reason I knew about them was because a friend of mine who had lived elsewhere before we met had a collection. You could stump a classroom full of people with the trivia questions "What is Spider-Man's secret identity," or "Name two of the Fantastic Four."

Monday, January 21, 2008


Created by Chris Thompson
Starring Jay Mohr, Illeana Douglas, Jack Plotnick, Jarrad Paul, Buddy Hackett

With some shows, the first time you watch them, you say to yourself, "This won't last the season." Often this is because the show is just plain terrible. But, occasionally, it's because the show is good, but probably unpalatable to the general public.

The key example: Action.

The show was actually developed for cable. So it was filled with bawdy jokes, bad language, and edgy characters. Creator Chris Thompson pitched the show to HBO, then decided to get HBO to raise their offer by also pitching it to Fox, thinking the subject matter was too iffy for broadcast.

And, as you probably guessed, HBO turned them down and Fox said, "Yes." Sometimes it doesn't pay to be too smart.

Action was a show about moviemaking (so, of course, I loved it). Peter Dragon (Jay Mohr) was a Jerry Bruckheimer-type movie producer, whose last film was an unmitigated disaster.
Desperate, he hooks up with the former child star Wendy Ward (Ileana Douglas) who is now working as a prostitute (he needed someone to show up with him at an opening). Ward picks out a script from unknown screenwriter Stewart Glazer (by Jared Paul) and Mohr has to use it to produce the make-or-break film for him: Beverly Hills Gun Club.

Peter Dragon is probably the sleaziest main character to ever appear as the star of a prime time TV show. He's an unthinking liar who doesn't give a crap about anyone else, the type of person who kicks people on his way up and on the way down. He videotapes his sex sessions with movie stars (Sandra Bullock, who shows up to beat the crap out of him for it). He will be sweet and seemingly sincere when he wants something, and insult you the moment he gets it. His only real redeeming quality is that he's funny. Jay Mohr does a great job in making such an unsympathetic character so much fun to watch.

What also helps is the fact that, in many cases, Dragon has reason to insult the people around him. His leading lady shows up 50 pounds overweight. His leading man is a druggie. Everything around him falls apart, all giving him reason to blow up.

Wendy Ward tries to get him to behave better, but is not above prostituting herself for the film. She keeps her hard edge throughout, but Ileana Douglas manages to make her likable.

I'm also fond of Jared Paul as the screenwriter Stewart. He is one of the few not caught up in the Hollywood scene -- not quite yet -- so his offhand comments about what he sees are always funny. Jack Plotnick plays Dragon's assistant and whipping boy (When he refers to Wendy as "your whore," Dragon replies, "No, she's my prostitute. You're my whore.") Lee Annenberg is also memorable as Bobby G, the money man behind the picture, who is gay, but will not only never admit it, but will sue you if you make the allegation. Finally, there's Buddy Hackett, who is Dragon's uncle and chauffeur.

The show had some interesting guest cameos: Bullock, Selma Hayak, David Leisure. They all kidded their image and showed how Peter is a terrible human being, which seems to be an asset in Hollywood.

The show never stood a chance in the ratings. Fox stuck with it for ten weeks, then pulled the plug, but not without a series finale. In the final episode*, Beverly Hills Gun Club starts shooting. It's a disaster. Things go wrong, of course. People don't like the dialog so it has to be fixed. A pigeon in the sound stage ruins a take. Lines are flubbed. And finally, when things go right, there is no film in the camera. Peter goes berserk and suffers a heart attack. And dies. At 9:30 p.m. on Thursday -- the time the show was aired. And to top it, the EMTs steal his watch; no one is honest in Hollywood.

It is a perfect ending to a great series.

*The DVD adds several unaired episodes that were never run and which take the story on from there.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Children of Heaven

(Bacheha-Ye aseman) (1997) Written and Directed by Majid Majidi
Starring Amir Farrokh Hashemian, Bahare Seddiqi
Iran is not exactly a world cinema power, so saying that a movie is the best movie to come out of the country is pretty faint praise. Nevertheless, Children of Heaven ranks up with the output of any country's cinema. It's a fairly simple story. Ali (Amir Farrokh Hashemian), a young boy living in Tehran, takes his sister Zahra's (Bahare Seddiqi) shoes to be repaired, and on the way back, loses them. This is a disaster: their family is too poor to buy new shoes. In order to keep the loss a secret from their parents, the two children form a plan: the will share. Zahra will wear the shoes to school in the morning, then give them to Ali to wear to school in the afternoon.

Of course, there are complications in trading off the shoes and trying to keep the secret. Then Ali discovers there will be a footrace. Third prize is a pair of shoes, so Ali enters. This sets up a race result that unlike anything in American films that show competition, and a truly beautiful moment.

The two young actors in the film are just wonderful. Their performances are absolutely real, without any sign that they are acting at all. Director Majid Majidi makes everything about the movie look fresh. It may be a different culture, but the issues facing everyone are the same.

The film got an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film, but lost to Life is Beautiful.

Majidi has become the top Iranian director, both on the strength of this and of other films he's been making. It's a great look at childhood, poverty, and love.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Good Guys

(TV) (1968-70)
Created by Jack Rose
Starring Bob Denver, Herb Edelman, Joyce Van Patten
Bert's Place on the Web, a Good Guys Fan site*

Bob Denver is a TV icon. His role of Maynard G. Krebs in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis put him on the comedy map, but, of course, the character he is best known for is Gilligan. In 1968, after Gilligan's Island was cancelled, Denver got a starring role in a new and different series, The Good Guys. The name referred to two lifelong friends Rufus Butterworth (Denver) and Bert Gramis (Herb Edelman). Rufus ran a taxi service, while Bert owned a diner, which he operated with his wife, Claudia (Joyce Van Patten).

This was a different style of comedy for Denver. Bert was less slapstick than Gilligan, and the humor was much more character oriented. The predicaments were the type of thing that really happened to people. Rufus was a little bit dim, but his friendship for Bert was an endearing quality, and he would as often as not help to fix the problems he caused.

What made the comedy work was the cast. Denver was fine as Rufus, with only a slight hint of Gilligan in the role. Herb Edelman had a long career as a character actor, best known as Murray the Cop in the film version of The Odd Couple. He did a lot of TV, but rarely in a recurring role except for the part of Stan in The Golden Girls. Joyce Van Patten (yes, she's Dick's sister) had a long career as a character actor in TV.

The show premiered to critical acclaim and mediocre ratings. And, as is too often the case with a gem like this, the network got involved and ordered changes. Alan Hale, Jr., and Jim Backus from a well-known TV island showed up as guest stars, and the show veered more and more toward slapstick.

The show was renewed, but CBS required a revamping (has that ever improved ratings?). Bert's diner was moved from the city to the shore, Rufus ditched his taxi to be Bert's partner, and it was no longer filmed in front of a studio audience. The ratings languished, of course, and the show was cancelled after two seasons.

Denver's next role was the execrable Dusty's Trail -- Gilligan's Island in the west, right down to the mix of characters. He did some guest star work, but was probably too well identified with Gilligan to ever break free of the role. It too bad The Good Guys wasn't a bigger success to show that Denver could be more than just Gilligan.**

*No link to the IMDB. Their current policy of not listing the credits of series regulars unless someone comes in and spends hours highlighting every single episode is just plain nonsensical. Why not put the regulars in every episode when the show is created? Then users can remove them on the few occasions they aren't in the show. But for obscure TV, you have to search and scroll down to find any of the actors who starred in it.

**Krebs is a great role, too, but when was the last time you saw Dobie Gillis on TV?

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Mr. 880

(1950) Directed by Edmund Golding
Screenplay by Robert Riskin
Starring Burt Lancaster, Dorothy McGuire, Edmund Gwenn.
Edmund Gwenn's place in film history is secure. He is famous for one role: Kris Kringle in the greatest of all Christmas films, Miracle on 34th Street. As a further highlight to his resume, he appeared in one of the greatest of all giant insects movies, Them!, as the wise old scientist. You know his strengths: a softspoken charm and playfulness.

Mr. 880 is another fine role for him. The movie is a gentle comedy about an unsual subject: counterfeiting.

Steve Buchanan (Burt Lancaster) is a Secret Service agent, on the trail of a counterfeiter. His target is an odd duck: he only counterfeits one-dollar bills (which was rare even back when the dollar bought a lot more) and he was very bad at his trade (he misspells "Washington" on the bill). But he has been passing these for over twenty years with no sign of getting caught.

Buchanan manages to find the neighborhood where the counterfeiter is operating and goes undercover. He becomes part of the neighborhood, and romances Ann Winslow (Dorothy Mcguire).

Gwenn plays Skipper Miller, a charming old man who is loved by everyone in the neighborhood. And, yes, it's not a spoiler to tell you that Skipper is the counterfeiter. Buchanan begins to catch on. But Skipper is only passing the bills from time to time in order to make ends meet. Buchanan has to decide how to deal with the issue.

Gwenn, of course, is delightful -- Kris Kringle without a beard. And Lancaster relaxes a bit (he was often too intense in his roles until he learned to relax in Atlantic City).

The script is by Robert Riskin, one of the 30's greatest screenwriters. You've probably never heard of him, but he worked with Frank Capra. Capra didn't like to share credit, but Riskin wrote the screenplays for It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Lost Horizon, You Can't Take is With You, and Meet John Doe. He also wrote the screenplay for the more obscure American Madness, which Capra borrowed freely from when he made It's a Wonderful Life (American Madness was about a kindly bank president who believes in making loans for the little guy. When he is on the verge of collapse due to a run on the bank, his friends come through to donate money to help him out. All it's missing is angels.). Working without Capra, Riskin wrote the gangster comedy The Whole Town's Talking. Mister 880 is in a long line of his fine scripts.

The film got Gwenn his second Oscar nomination (he had already won for you know what). It's a worthy addition to the other two films that made him famous.

Monday, January 14, 2008


Jay Ferguson (vocals), Randy California (guitar), Mark Andes (bass), John Locke (keyboards), Ed Cassidy (drums).

Spirit was an impressive melding of rock, blues, and jazz. It boasted three top-notch songwriters in Ferguson, California, and Andes. They put out four albums of superb musicianship before the original lineup broke up. They had one song that became a standby on FM radio, but no big hits, and suffered from some poor decisions.

One was signing with Lou Adler. Adler was a top record executive of the time, and he signed the group to his Ode records label, distributed by Epic (which was a division of Columbia Records*). Adler, though was dissatisfied with Epic, and took the first opportunity he could to jump his label to A&M, where, renamed as Ode 70, he hit real success with Carole King's Tapestry.

But in the shuffle, Spirit was lost.

The original lineup played in the Los Angeles area before forming. Cassady had the most experience -- because he was old enough to be the guitar player's father. He was a jazz drummer before joining the group, and played with Cannonball Adderly, Roland Kirk, and the legendary group the Rising Sons (with Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder). He was the "face" of the group, with his shaven head -- even more unusual in the late 60s than long hair. When he played, he made what Lillian Roxon called "amazing facial distortions."

Randy California (born Randy Wolf) was Cassady's stepson (I told you he was much older) and had played with (and was influenced by) Jimi Hendrix before Jimi hit it big. Mark Andes was briefly in an early version of Canned Heat, and Ferguson and Locke were up and coming musicians in the LA area.

In their first incarnation, they recorded four albums:

  • Spirit. Their first album was a bit tentative, more jazzy that rock, but still a first class job. The highlights are "Fresh Garbage," "Mechanical World," "Topanga Window," and "Gramophone Man." There's also "Taurus," which has gained some notoriety lately: it sounds suspiciously like the opening to "Stairway to Heaven," and since Spirit opened for Led Zeppelin, there have been charges that Jimmy Page stole it.
  • The Family that Plays Together. This had the biggest hit, "I've Got a Line on You." It didn't go that high on the charts, but was an FM standby. Other highlights are the beautiful ballad "Darling If," "Jewish" (based on a Hebrew prayer), " and the rocking "All the Same." The group had reached its stride.
  • Clear. Not quite as good as the previous album, but some fine songs like "Dark Eyed Woman," "So Little Time to Fly," "Give a Life, Take a Life," and "Apple Orchard." The record company picked the wrong song to promote as a single.
  • The Twelve Dreams of Doctor Sardonicus. Quite simply, one of the twenty best rock albums ever. Twelve songs that are all classics. There is a wide range, with a great production job by David Briggs. Some rock hard; others rock softly, still others are achingly beautiful ballads. It ranks up with the best of the Beatles for tunefulness and eclectic sounds. I really can't pick a favorite. I love "Nature's Way," a ballad about death that never mentions the subject. "Animal Zoo" is a fine rocker, as is "Mr. Skin" (a reference to Cassady, though it seems rife with double meaning). "Why Can't I Be Free" is a beautiful moment, showing California's way with melody. "Morning Will Come" is a catchy single. If you haven't heard it, get it -- it will amaze you.
Alas, the group started falling apart during the Doctor Sardonicus sessions. There were the same forces that drew the Beatles apart: talented songwriters who were going in different directions, plus the fact that the group could never really break through. Ed Cassidy has been quoted as saying they knew they were breaking up, and thus were trying to go out with a bang.

They broke up as the album was in final production, which left it in enough limbo that Epic didn't promote it (why spend the money on a group that won't record any more albums?). It did poorly (though over the years, it has gone platinum).

The name went on. Locke and Cassady brought in a couple of outsiders to put out the album Feedback, but it was as if Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman hired a few unknowns and called themselves the Rolling Stones. The group's songwriters were gone, and most fans ignored it. The group's name continued with various original members along from time to time, though only Cassady and California were constant. I lost track after the break up, but what little I heard was good, but not up to the brilliance of Sardonicus. It was a pinnacle that few groups could reach, and tended to overshadow later efforts.

Andes formed Jo Jo Gunne, and Ferguson had a solo career with a hit single "Thunder Island." Randy California also tried a solo career, then returned to Spirit, which essentially became his band. The group in various incarnations continued on until California's death in 1997 (saving his son from a riptide**).

It was a shame that the group never got the success it deserved. But Doctor Sardonicus is an essential album to anyone looking for good music.

*I go into this because many of these relationships have been forgotten as divisions are sold and merged. The Allmusic Guide's biggest flaw is that they only list the current (or most recent) labels for CDs, not the label where the group originally appeared).

**I like the term. "Rip Current" has no poetry.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Howard the Duck

(comic book)(1976-79) Written by Steve Gerber
Pencils by Gene Conlan
Howard the Duck appreciation page
Toonopedia Page.

George Lucas has a lot of answer for. Sure, Star Wars was a great movie, but its success put an end to the age of films for grownups. Hollywood saw that the key to big bucks was to make films for teenage boys, and that's all too often what we're stuck with.

And then there's Howard the Duck.

All anyone remembers is Lucas's movie. The film was a critical and financial disaster (not quite as bad as some say -- so eventually people may start talking about it positively -- but still no great shakes). It is the target of jokes and gives everyone the impression that the comic was no great shakes, either.

That's a mistake.

Howard was really intended to be a one shot. Steve Gerber needed an interesting visual for a story he was writing for the comic book Man-Thing (we were so innocent back then . . . ), so he came up with Howard, a cigar smoking, pistol-packing duck from another dimension. Howard caught on quickly and was soon rewarded with his own title.

Gerber soon was able to let his penchant for weirdness to take over. Howard was often the only sane creature in the situation, as he was faced with madmen, super villains, and assorted strangeness, meanwhile trying to do the mundane tasks of earning a living trapped in a world he never made. He was aided at first by Beverly Switzler, a beautiful redhead, and came up against his nemesis, the Kidney Lady (who thought Howard was out to steal her kidneys).

The stories ranged all over the place. Howard ran for president (with the All-Night Party), suffered a nervous breakdown (where he was visited by the rock group KISS), and generally had crap thrown at him, as he tried to wisecrack his way out of it. There were nice plot twists, like when Beverly was forced to marry the villain Dr. Bong -- and decides she like him.

The strip was extremely popular. Issues of Howard the Duck #1 were selling for $60 or more. There was even a spinoff newspaper strip, probably the oddest newspaper strip this side of Zippy the Pinhead.

It didn't last, of course. Gerber (who was also editing the book, so he had free rein) began to miss deadlines, and the stories got stranger and stranger. He was fired; there were lawsuits, and book started losing its appeal. Eventually, it was switched to a black and white magazine, ostensibly to allow for stories without worrying about the Comics Code, but by that time, it had stopped being relevant.

Various other versions have been revived over the years, with limited success.

And then there was the movie. Now, if you mention Howard, that's all anyone will remember. That's a shame, because at its peak, the comic was among the best ever written, and something of a pioneer in pushing the envelope.

Friday, January 11, 2008

The Opposite of Sex

Written and Directed by Don Roos
Starring: Christini Ricci, Martin Donovan, Lisa Kudrow, Lyle Lovett, Johnny Galecki
IMDB Entry

Don Roos is one of the more interesting directors working today. His first film, The Opposite of Sex, is a bawdy and hilarious look at sex and relationships.

The story involves Dede Truett (Christina Ricci), who, when pregnant, goes to live with her gay brother Bill (Martin Donovan) and wrecks havoc with his life. She sleeps with his boyfriend, Matt (leading to one of the best exchanges in years: "I'm bisexual." "Puh-lease! I went to a bar mitzvah once. That doesn't make me Jewish. ") There are mixups and confusion caused by Dede's scheming that leads to the ultimate ending.

But what really makes the film work is the dialog. And the actress who really shines -- and has all the best line (like the bar mitzvah one) is somewhat of a surprise if you're familiar with her image: Lisa Kudrow. Kudrow plays Lucia, Bill's best friend, as a cynical and bitter wisecracker. And it helps that her lines are so outrageously funny. It gets so that you keep wanting to hear her speak, knowing it'll be great -- and the script doesn't let you down,

Christini Ricci was also cast against type, playing the Machiavellian Dede as a sexual manipulator. She sleeps with Matt primarily so that she can fool him into believing he was the baby's father. She consistently stirs the pot to make things work our to her advantage, and Ricci does a magnificent job,

The rest of the cast is fine, too. I liked Lyle Lovett as a cop (Lovett is a favorite of mine as a singer, and is an intriguing presence).

But it's really a showcase for Roos, whose script is crackling with the best dialog since the 1930s(though much more sexually explicit). Roos went on to direct the underrated Bounce and even more obscure Happy Endings, both of which are worth watching.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

A Boy and His Dog

(1975) Directed by L. Q. Jones Written by L.Q. Jones, based on a story by Harlan Ellison Starring Don Johnson, Susan Benton, Jason Robards, Tim McIntyre
IMDB Entry

Harlan Ellison is a legend of science fiction. Part is due to his writing; his work for years has been among the best the field has to offer, and he's won more science fiction awards than anyone other than Connie Willis. Part is due to his TV work: he's written scripts for The Outer Limits, Star Trek, Space: 1999, The New Twilight Zone, and Babylon 5. Much is due to his personality. Harlan is larger than life: witty, nasty, indignant, kind, vicious, and everything in between. SF fans make up legends of Harlan and if not all of them are true (one told to me was just an older joke with Harlan's name added), they are all entertaining.

A Boy and His Dog is one of the few adaptations of one of his story stories (as opposed to a script written for TV). The story was a Nebula Award winner, and packed quite a punch in its day, especially with the twist at the end.

It's the story of Vic (Don Johnson) and his dog, Blood (voice of Tim McIntyre), who live in a post-apocalyptic world. Blood is genetically enhances; he can talk to Vic and can warn him of danger (as well as be a weapon). The two are inseparable, until Quilla June (Suzanne Benton) shows up. She comes from an underground society, people living in bomb shelters and trying to pretend life is normal. And soon, Vic has to decide who is more important.

The film was directed by L.Q. Jones. If the name's familiar, it's because of his work as an actor. He's appeared in over a hundred films and TV shows, usually westerns, and most often playing the grizzled old timer. Sam Peckinpah especially loved to use him. This was one of his few forays into directing (and writing) and he does an interesting job of translating Ellison to the screen.

Ellison, of course, hated it. While some of his criticism is valid (especially of the final scene), some of the the changes that Jones added to the story made it work that much better, especially the bizarre imagery of life underground. Ultimately, it is one of the few successful adaptations of an award winning SF story.

There's a very young Don Johnson in the lead. This was his first starring role, but it didn't seem turn him into a star; that took another ten years. Jason Robards has a small part, possibly as a favor to Jones. The movie is still unique in that it's the only Nebula Award winning movie to be made from a Nebula Award winning story.

Monday, January 7, 2008

The Space Explorers

(TV) (1958) (Animated) Produced by: William Cayton
Directed/Written by: Fred Ladd
Starring Cliff "Ray" Owens, Jimmy Perry, Francine "Sonya" Owens.Official Space Explorers Web Page

I have to admit, it's been awhile since I saw this one. Quite awhile. It's possible that it's not as good as I remembered (I was only six at the time). But that doesn't matter. The Space Explorers was probably the most influential TV show I ever watched.

It was originally created as a movie, but was broadcast as a series of cartoons, syndicated throughout the country. The show owes its life to totalitarianism: when Sputnik went up, American panicked and tried to find ways to get kids interested in science. William Cayton and Fred Ladd, who had been working on a feature version of the show, teamed up with the Hayden Planetarium in New York to create a cartoon series for syndicated TV.

The situation in the show was basic. Commander Perry (voice of Cliff "Ray" Owens) has taken off in a new spacecraft and . . . vanished. His young son Jimmy (voice of Kerry Mark Joels) joins Professor Nordheim (Owens again), his female assistant Smitty, and a neighbor, Nancy Williams (both women voiced by Francine "Sonya" Owens) to search for the missing ship.

In each episode, the explorers would travel through the solar system, looking for Commander Perry and, incidentally, stumbling upon some sort of astronomical phenomenon that Professor Nordheim would explain. The science predominated over the adventure, but the show was very exciting to kids of the time.

Oh, and remember my mention of totalitarianism? It wasn't just the Communists that supplied the impetus. In order to make the show work on a low budget, Cayton and Ladd used footage from earlier films. And the opening sequence of the spaceship lifting off was taken from Weltraumschiff 18, a film made in Nazi Germany in 1939.

The show was broadcast in 6-minute segments during children's programming, so broadcasting was spotty. I can't say where I saw it -- it was shown in the New York City area with Officer Joe Bolton, but we couldn't get New York stations in 1958, so it was more likely from WNHC in New Haven or WTIC in Hartford.

A second series, The New Adventures of the Space Explorers went on the air in a similar format in 1961, and it's possible that's about the time I first saw it (especially if they reran the first series). Ladd went on to be involved in the first invasion of anime in the US, producing Astroboy, Gigantor, Kimba, Eighth Man (a favorite of mine) and Speed Racer.

As for me, this was my first introduction to science fiction. It brought me a real love for the genre, which eventually manifested itself in a mildly successful attempt to become a science fiction writer. Without the Space Explorers, it's possible I'd be writing historical fiction, and what fun would that be? (As John Barth once pointed out, "Science fiction authors aren't like you or me. They have more fun.")

Saturday, January 5, 2008


(2006) Written and Directed by Sean Ellis Starring Sean Biggerstaff, Emilia Fox, Shaun Evans, Stewart Goodwin, Michael Dixon IMDB Entry I hadn't planned on writing this up so soon, but I happened to mention it on my favorite message board (The Straight Dope Message Board) and someone actually listened to me, rented the movie, and raved about it. So I figured I should write it up here. I was intrigued by the cover image (OK, I'm a male), and the description, and also went along with my daughter's "wheat rule" (if the cover of a DVD has "wheat" -- film festival awards -- it's worth renting) and picked it up.

The concept is a fascinating one. Ben Willis (Sean Biggerstaff), a student at art college, breaks up with his girlfriend and goes into a massive depression, which manifests itself as complete insomnia. Wanting to do something with his extra eight hours, Ben starts working the night shift at a 24-hour grocery. But time passes too slowly, so as a coping mechanism, he imagines he brings it to a stop.

He wanders through the aisles, where everything is stopped and begins to undress and sketch the women who are frozen there.

Now, this seems like the plot for a cheap sex film, but director Sean Ellis has something else in mind. Ben is in love with the female form and his sketches all bring out the beauty of those he freezes. The images are designed for their beauty (and the concept of beauty is an important theme of the film)

He also starts building a friendship with his coworkers, all of whom have different ways of coping with the long nights. They play jokes on each other, run shopping cart races, pretend they're kung fu masters, try to create esprit de corps, or just plain try to ignore the clock altogether.

Ben starts up a relationship with Sharon Pintey (Emilia Fox), who is intrigued by the fact he is an artist. There are some nice twists. For instance, a practical joke is played on Ben which, in most comedies, would have been played as an embarrassing case of mistaken identity. In the film, Ben realizes very quickly he's been the victim of a joke, and the situation plays out in a very realistic and more affecting manner. All the characters have quirks and depths that keep surprising you.

The film has an interesting history. It was originally a short subject of 18 minutes, showing Ben stopping time in the grocery. It was then expanded into a feature, with the original 18 minutes intact. The script was written in a week, but it was several months before he could get the cast back together to shoot the new scenes. As Ellis was finishing it, he found out the original short was nominated for an Oscar (it didn't win).

The film has a lot to say about beauty and relationships and time, and is a real gem.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Forces of Nature

(1999) Directed by: Bronwen Hughes Written by: Marc Lawrence Starring Ben Affleck, Sandra Bullock, Maura Tierney, Blythe Danner, Ronnie Cox IMDB Entry

I've never understood why so many people seem to hate Ben Affleck. Granted, he's made some stinkers, but he's also made some good films, things like Chasing Amy, Shakespeare in Love, Bounce, Good Will Hunting, Dogma, Jersey Girl, and Hollywoodland. He always comes across as a likeable guy, and is quite willing to kid his own image (as in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back).

He's a bit limited as an actor (though Hollywoodland shows he does have enough range to put out a fine performance), but there are many actors who are similarly limited. It may be the whole Bennifer thing -- his appearance as a tabloid superstar turned a lot of people off to him.

Forces of Nature is one very nice film, and a good role for Sandra Bullock, to boot. It's faint praise to say this is Bullock's best role since Speed; her career since them has been one dismal film after another. But this is something she can also stand out in.

The film is in many ways a remake of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, a movie that is somewhat overrated (good, but not classic). Ben Holmes (Affleck) is flying to Savanna, GA, to marry Bridget Cahill (Maura Tierney), but, after a series of mistakes, he is forced to travel with Sarah Lewis (Bullock).

It's a road picture, as various problems make the trip both funny and complex. Ben finds himself becoming attracted to Sarah as they make the journey together. He's a conventional sort and he finds her more freeform approach to life very appealing. There's a nice chemistry between the two; you can see Ben's attraction grow.

The movie is smart enough to come up with an ending that is somewhat surprising given Hollywood conventions, but also perfectly reasonable and emotionally right.

Maura Tierney is also good as Bridget, who knows Ben better than he does himself. Tierney at this point was best known for her role on Newsradio, and seeing her as the dramatic center of the film was quite surprising at the time. This is a fine romantic comedy with a twist that really makes it stand out.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Fort Apache

(1948) Directed by John Ford Story by James Warner Bellah Screenplay by Frank S. Nugent Starring Henry Fonda, John Wayne, Shirley Temple, Ward Bond, Pedro Armendarez, Victor McLaughlin, John Agar, Guy Kibbee IMDB Entry

Picking out a great but forgotten film by John Ford is nearly as hard a choosing one by Alfred Hitchcock. Both are great directors whose work is viewed and written about decades after their deaths. But my choice was a film that seems to be overlooked despite it showing themes that Ford not only used later, but also was highly praised.

Fort Apache was the first of what later was called Ford's "Cavalry Trilogy," though he never conceived them as being interconnected. And it was a tossup for me to choose between this and the second of these films, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, which features what is probably John Wayne's best performance.

But I like Fort Apache for several reasons. Number one is Henry Fonda. He plays Owen Thursday, who has just been assigned to run the fort. Thursday is ambitious, interested in glory, and a stickler for military rules. Wayne plays Kirby York, his second in command. Thursday comes from the east (his daughter is name, tellingly, Philadelphia), and thinks he knows how to handle the problem with the Indians in the territory. York, who has been at the fort for ages, knows more, but since he's second in command, he has to defer.

This sets up a very interesting conflict. Thursday does not like York's more relaxed method of command. He also thinks he knows what's best when dealing with the Indians, despite York's protests.

Because there's a second element: the treatment of native Americans. They are definitely mistreated, especially by Thursday, who sees an Indian war as a way for him to get the glory he deserves, and the Apache tribes as savages to be tamed. York, on the other hand, knows the Apaches are willing to be honorable if treated honorably. One of the major conflicts is when York discovers that Thursday has forced him to lie to Cochise. York is furious, but is forced to swallow his anger because he is second in command.

The movie's climax is a parallel to Custer's Last Stand, with Thursday blundering into a trap after sending York back for insubordination. And despite his miscalculation, Thursday ends up becoming a hero (though a dead one). In one of my favorite scenes, a reporter asks York about the story and whether it is true. There is a pause, and then York confirms it. This tacitly parallels the famous line from Ford's later The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

Fonda is great in a very atypical role. He manages to bring a great deal of depth to a character who in other hands would be just a martinet. Wayne, too, is excellent as a man who is forced to do what is against his better judgment.

In addition to the main plot, there are some great scenes of life in the cavalry. There's a nice sequence showing a formal ball at the fort, and a sequence of the soldiers on patrol (paralleling what was shown on She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.

Victor McLaughlin is fine comic relief as Sgt. Major O'Rourke, the man who keeps the men in line. Shirley Temple is also good in one of her better adult rules as Philadelphia.

For its sympathetic treatment of Indians, and the acting of Wayne and Fonda, Fort Apache is a movie to seek out.