Monday, March 31, 2008

Replay (book)

Replay (1987)
Written by Ken Grimwood

Replay is based on an idea we probably have all had:  what would I do if I could live my life over?

Ken Grimwood takes that and gives it a wonderful twist:  what would I do if I could live my life over and over and over and over?

In the book, 43-year-old Jeff Winston, unhappy with his marriage, suffers what he thinks is a heart attack.  And waked up back in time, as an 18-year-old with all the knowledge of what will happen in the future.

Jeff quickly does what you might expect:  bets on sporting events and turns himself into a millionaire. It's handled quite well:  Jeff doesn't remember all the winners and sometimes doesn't bet because of it.  He also ends up making a hash of his personal life.  And when he gets to be 43, it all happens again.

Grimwood plays through the variations with a lot of thought and a great deal of interesting detail. The world changes each time Jeff travels back, due the choices Jeff makes. He even finds that someone else is going through the same thing, a woman whose presence he discovers when movies are made that had not been made in his timeline,  and they spend lifetimes together because they are the only people who can share the secret.

And things advance; it's clear very early on where things are going, but the ending goes back to the original scene, and pulls out a wonderful and fascinating twist that reflects back on the entire experience.

It's also a damn good read.  I picked it up and finished it in a weekend and found it to be a book I just couldn't put down.

Replay ended up winning the World Fantasy Award, and is on many best fantasy book lists, but does not have the fame it deserves.

Grimwood took his time following up and it was eight years before his next novel, Into the Deep, was out. It didn't make a particular mark (I didn't much care for it), and two others after that also made little impression.  Sadly, Grimwood died young at age 59.  Even sadder, he was working on a sequel to Replay when he died.

(Note. I had hoped to include a picture of the original hardcover edition, but I can't seem to find it on the web.  This is from a later paperback.)

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Me and You and Everyone We Know

Written and Directed by Miranda July
Starring Miranda July, John Hawkes, Brandon Ratcliffe, Miles Thompson, Carrie Westerman, Tracy Wright.


That's the secret password.  If you recognize it, you've seen this movie and, like most people who have seen it, were delighted by it.  It made many critics' top ten lists in 2005, a strange little comedy-drama that stays with you a long time.

Miranda July (lower right) and cast Christine Jesperson (Miranda July) is a video performance artist who had a hard time forming relationships.  She starts to become interested in Richard Swersey (John Hawkes), whose wife has left him and his two boys Peter (Miles Thmpson) and Robby (Brandon Ratcliffe). Left alone while their father works as a shoe salesman, Peter hangs out with the neighborhood girls, who all have issues of their own.  Robby is only six, and spends much of his time in adult Internet chatrooms, where he runs into art curator Nancy Herrington (Tracy Wright), who finds his childlike attitude more sexually significant than Robby could ever understand.

The movie is about making connections.  No one really seems to know how to go about it.  Christine fantasizes and puts it on video; a neighbor writes puts sexually suggestive notes in his window and ends up, to his horror, seducing teenage girls; the teens, who know about sex, but have no understanding, try to use it as a way to grow up.

Sex plays a major role in the film, but not just bedroom antics. It concentrates more on the preliminaries and psychological meanderings that are colored by a world where sex is out in the open. It's the big issue that hangs over any attempt to get close, and the movie shows people dealing with it.

This is a movie filled with discovery and delight.  It's not a smooth ride -- some scenes are very creepy, but then, often life is that way. Things take on meanings that you never would have imagined. And, ultimately connections are made.

All the characters are vivid and wonderful.  You can sense all the kids feeling they are in over their heads trying to deal with connecting with others, but the adults are hardly better.  It's a very natural acting style for everyone.

Miranda July is excellent as Christine.  Since she wrote and directed the movie, you'd expect that she makes it a showcase for her talents, but she has the talent and self-confidence to stand back and tell stories that have nothing to do with her.  Christine is trying to deal with life as an adult, and fumbles along in setting up the relationship, sometimes saying the right thing, sometimes doing something horribly wrong, and going home to incorporate the best parts in her fantasy.

But all the actors are just fine. These are real people, and you can see their foibles.  And ultimately, when the movie ends, you come out of it with an appreciation of life. 

The movie made a minor profit -- keeping it on a small budget helped -- but it probably did less business than next week's flop opening.  Nor was the type of film do attract a big crowd.  But box office never was a guarantee of quality.

July hasn't made another feature (this was her first), but it's only been a couple of years. I look forward to see if she can continue with writing and directing such a deep slice of humanity.

))<>(( forever.

Friday, March 28, 2008

The Magician (TV)

Created by
Bruce Lansbury and Joseph Stefano
Starring Bill Bixby, Keene Curtis
Article on the Series.

I was a fan of Bill Bixby since I first saw him in My Favorite Martian. And I suppose people nowadays think of him more as Bruce Banner in The Incredible Hulk. He also had a decent run starring in The Courtship of Eddie's Father.

Bill Bixby as the Magician But I have a special liking for his show, The Magician.

The concept was not entirely original, but still a good one:  a magician who fights crime. But Bixby's Anthony Blake was a real magician: he used stage magic to help him out. So when he was captured and put into handcuffs, he would use his escapology skills to set himself free. Bixby even performed his own illusions.*

Blake had been falsely imprisoned and used his knowledge of magic to escape, and then went around helping out others.

Bixby had a strong idea of how the show should be plotted.  He did all the illusions himself, and tried to set a tone for the series.

But there were problems.  A writer's strike made it difficult to set the tone, and the show never really caught on in the ratings.  It made changes -- later episodes showed Blake using the Magic Castle in L.A., where other magicians would show up for small bits. But nothing helped and the show was canceled.

It's still remembered fondly in some circles, and I'd love to see it again.

*Tricks are something whores do for money -- G.O.B. Bluth

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Skin Game


Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Revelle, based on a play by John Galsworthy
Starring C.V. France, Edmund Gwenn, Helen Haye, Phylis Constam, Edward Chapman, John Longden

The director hated it. The deadly scandal that leads to tragedy wouldn't raise a shrug today. The class assumptions made little sense in the US then, and probably not even in England now. And, despite the fact it's mentioned a couple of times, the meaning of the title is hard to figure out.

But The Skin Game is a surprisingly good film.

Alfred Hitchcock directed, from a John Galsworthy play. It was clearly not his type of film: no suspense, little action, a mystery throughout most of it (Hitchcock always preferred suspense to mystery*).

But the original stage play has a lot going for it.

It's the story of old money vs. new money. The Hillcrists have owned land in their town for generations and the head of the family, John Hillcrist (C. V. France), thinks of himself as a man who is upholding traditional values (and -- in modern terms, the environmentalist). The Hornblowers (led by Edmund Gwenn, an actor I always like) are the owners of a pottery works, and are buying up land in order to expand their factory and destroy the land.

Hornblower is cocky and sure of himself, a self-made man who knows what he wants and will do whatever is necessary to get it. He wants a particular tract of land, partly for practical purposes, but also because Hillcrist snubs him for being common. The land goes up for auction, and the problem escalates.

But Hornblower's daughter-in-law Chloe (Phyllis Konstam) has a dark secret in her past. Mrs. Hillcrist (Helen Haye) gets wind of it from their sleezy agent Dawker (Edward Chapman) and uses it to get what they want. But the result is tragic.

Hitchcock complained the skin gameabout the actors, but, really, I've never seen Edmund Gwenn (who I've written about elsewhere) put in a bad performance. He brings some nice depth to Hornblower, who starts out as a crude and uncaring land developer but who is slowly revealed to be a decent man who wants what's best for his family and, ultimately, the community.

France is decent as Hillcrist, but the real villain in the piece is Helen Haye's** Amy Hilcrist. She is the class system at its worst, vicious to those who cross her, and perfectly willing to toss another person's life into the meat grinder if it gives her what she wants.

But a real tour-de-force is Phyllis Konstam as Chloe. She tries her best to patch things up between the families, but her past is the ultimate wedge between them, and brutally suffers the consequences. She is a pawn, and no one is bothered that they sacrificed her for a small advantage.

There are a few Hitchcock moments. The auction scene is genuinely suspenseful, and the Hornblowers are introduced by literally doing what their name says. But it's clearly not a Hitchcock film.

Don't hold that against it. Ignore the director's name, and you'll find a surprisingly good tragedy.

*With a mystery, a solution to a puzzle is revealed; it's based upon keep things from the audience. With suspense, the plight of the characters is known to the audience -- while the characters don't realize their danger.

**Not Helen Hayes. What a difference an apostrophe makes.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Barnaby (comic strip)

Words and art by Crockett Johnson Barnaby Home Page

Barnaby to my mind is one of the top five comic strips ever written. While the others -- Krazy Kat, Pogo, Doonesbury, and Calvin and Hobbes are still well known (or known with just a little bit of digging into comic history), Barnaby is pretty much unknown except to a few. It ran for only a short time in the 1940s and collections are hard to find.

The title character is a boy of about five or so who one day wishes he had a fairy godmother. What he got instead was a fairy godfather -- J. J. O'Malley, a man about his height with pink wings and a cigar as a magic wand. Equipped with The Fairy Godfather's Handy Pocket Guide, he tries to help Barnaby out. To Barnaby Mr. O'Malley is a wonder, but the reader noticed quite soon that he hilariously overstates his talents, usually creating more problems than he solves in the rare cases when his magic actually works. O'Malley is a charming braggart and blowhard, who's all too willing to help Barnaby out -- to disastrous results -- when he isn't spending his days at the Elves, Leprechauns, Gnomes & Little Men's Chowder and Marching Society. Some have compared to him to W.C. Fields (Fields didn't think so, though he liked the strip enough to write a blurb for one of its collections).

O'Malley leads Barnaby into various adventures, often by taking what Barnaby wants and then mistaking things to a hilarious level. In the meantime, Barnaby meets a wonderful gallery of fantasy characters. Gus the Ghost, who's afraid of everything; McSnoyd, the sarcastic invisible leprechaun; Gorgon the talking dog; Atlas, the mental giant; and many others. Barnaby is joined by Jane, a girl his age is who a bit more skeptical of O'Malley's talents. Barnaby's parents, meanwhile, keep trying to get to forget about his imaginary fairy godfather (they always miss meeting O'Malley in the flesh -- and he them).

The strip had some features that made it different:

  • Simple drawing style. In a time when things were always cross-hatched and filled in, the drawings were usually outlines, with splashes of pure black for depth. In style, it anticipated things like Dilbert.
  • Typeset word balloons. The balloons were also rounded off squares. Johnson did this because the strips had lots of dialog, and this let him fit more on a page.
  • Humor that built up over the course of an adventure. The strips were funny on their own, but they were all part of longer stories, and the more you read, the funnier they became. Johnson threw in plot twists and outrageous events that fit in perfectly; he was one of the best continuity plotters in comic strip history.
  • Implied humor. Many of the jokes come not from what was said, but what was not said. For instance, O'Malley saying, "I don't boast about it, m'boy, but I've had a hand in more treaties and confabs than you can shake a stick at -- Versailles, Geneva, Munich -- " (all in one word balloon). Once you realize that even then, those conferences were considered failures, you get an idea of the style.

Johnson (real name: David Johnson Leisk) only worked on Barnaby from 1942 to 1946. It was a critical success, and did well enough to be marginally successful (only 55 papers), but he had other things on his mind. He left the strip to a couple of assistants and started a second career as a writer and illustrator of children's books. In that light, he's best known for Harold and the Purple Crayon and other books starring Harold -- who looks very much like Barnaby.

The others tried -- with direction from Crockett -- but the strip was discontinued in 1952, after a short ten-year run. Johnson returned for the final continuity, and tried to revive the strip in the early 60s, to no avail.

During its run, there were two collections. And in the mid-80s, science fiction editor Judy-Lynn Del Rey announced they would publish the entire run -- one of the first times that was planned. Alas, Judy-Lynn died in 1986, but not before six volumes were produced, which, luckily, covered all the strips while Crockett Johnson was working on it. The books are now selling used for upwards of $30.

Barnaby was one of the greatest delights of the comic strip, and deserves to be as well known as strips like Calvin and Hobbes.


Saturday, March 22, 2008

Second City Television

Original Cast: John Candy, Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Catherine O'Hara, Harold Ramis, and Dave Thomas as the Beaver.
Other Cast members: Rick Moranis, Martin Short, Tony Rosato, Robin Duke.

In the early 70s, a sketch comedy show appears on late night American TV that showcased a group of talented performers (who went on to greater success after they left the show) and which revolutionized TV comedy.

No, not Saturday Night Live.* Second City Television (SCTV for short).

SCTV was, of course, named after the famed Second City comedy troupe. The original cast got their start in the Toronto version of the troupe, with the idea of turning the skits into a TV series. The show was set in a low-budget TV network -- SCTV -- located in Mellonville. The premise was a useful one. It allowed for all sorts of skits satirizing TV shows, moves, actors, and genres. One nice thing was that you could keep a comic idea going for as long or as short as necessary. A one-joke idea would be turned into a one-minute promo instead of being dragged out for ten minutes. In addition, the "low-budget TV network" concept helped because the show had a very small budget.

So they had to do what great talent does when denied resources: they concentrated on the writing. The show was produced in Canada for the CBC, but quickly syndicated in the US.

What was also fun was the many recurring characters each actor played. John Candy did Johnny Larue**, a hard living big star with shady connections. Harold Ramis was Moe Green, the sleezy station manager. Eugene Levy was idiot TV host Bobby Bittman and incompetent newscaster Earl Camenbert, Joe Flaherty was both newscaster Floyd Robertson (who had to put up with Earl's manias) and Count Floyd (host of Monster Chiller Horror Theater, whose films never seemed to be scary at all, with things like Ingmar Bergman parodies). Andrea Martin was Edith Prickley, Moe Green's replacement, dressed entirely in leopard skin. Catherine O'Hara was Lola Heatherton, the insufferably perky singer. Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas were the Mackenzie Brothers***, who ended becoming something of a spinoff, with their song "The Twelve Days of Christmas" ("Beer . . . in a tree"), a movie, and essentially a revival of the characters as moose in Brother Bear.

The actors were all great at portraying other celebrities, so they could skewer them at will. Or even take on something like Sesame Street.

Of course, the success of the people in the show was also remarkable. Some names you know -- Candy, Moranis, Short, and now Levy have become comedy stars. O'Hara has played someone's mother in dozens of films, and -- along with Levy -- is part of Christopher Guest's stock company (Best in Show is her most notable role). Ramis turned to directing, with films like Caddyshack, Groundhog Day, and Analyze This and acted, most notably in Egon Spengler in Ghostbusters. Andrea Martin has been a busy character actress, but her biggest success has been on Broadway (she's currently playing Frau Blucher in Young Frankenstein).

Of the original group, on Flaherty hasn't had many recognizable roles, but he's been working steadily as a writer and actor since the show ended (most of the people in the cast wrote at least some of the skits, and ended up winning a couple of Emmys for it).

SCTV was a true forgotten landmark of television.

*Back at the time, one TV critic around here said the real reason to watch SNL in those days is to stay up and watch SCTV, which was on right after it.
** When Hill Street Blues came on the air, one character was also called Johnny LaRue, and it took me a little time to take him seriously.
*** Supposedly created when the Canadian Broadcasting Company (who produced the show) required there be more Canadian content.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Poco (music)

Richie Furay (guitar, vocals), Jim Messina (guitar, bass, vocals), Rancy Meisner (bass, vocals), Rusty Young (pedal steel guitar, banjo, dobro, guitar), George Grantham (drums), Timothy B. Schmidt (bass, vocals -- replacing Meisner), Paul Cotton (guitar -- replacing Messina). Wikipedia Page

Memo to aspiring rock groups: don't make yourself hard to categorize. Otherwise I'll be writing about you some day.

That is the story of Poco. They (along with the Flying Burrito Brothers) were pioneers of country rock, so much so that when the Eagles came along, some thought they were just pale imitations of Poco. But they were too country for rock, too rock for country, and despite a bunch of fine albums, they never got the airplay they deserved.

Poco came out of the wreckage of the Buffalo Springfield. Everyone knows the group was the starting point for Steven Stills and Neal Young, but Furay also highly involved, writing songs and playing guitar. Jim Messina also joined the group for its final album as their bass player. During the final sessions, he and Furay worked together on the country tinged "Kind Woman."

Once the group broke up, Furay and Messina decided to keep moving in that direction. Gathering together steel guitarist Rusty Young and George Grantham and Randy Meisner on drums and bass (Messina moved to lead guitar), they formed Poco.*

Their first album, Picking up the Pieces, was a triumph. The combination of rock and country was seamless, and it had such great songs as "Just in Case It Happens, Yes Indeed," "Consequently So Long," the terrific instrumental "Grand Junction," and the title song. Meissner left just after the album was completed, eventually ending up with the Eagles, and was replaced by Timothy B. Schmidt (who also eventually ended up with the Eagles) Their second album, Poco, had the great tune "Hurry Up," though was not quite as good as the first -- which was a hard act to follow.

A live album, Deliverin', followed, showing how good there were live.

Yet the group was getting very little airplay and so-so sales despite a great critical reception. Only Deliverin' made it into the top 40. Tired of touring, Jim Messina quit to go into producing.** He was replaced with Paul Cotton.

Three more fine albums came out: From the Inside, A Good Feeling to Know (with another great title song), and Crazy Eyes. By this point, Richie Furay became discouraged. Despite acclaim all around, their music wasn't selling well and was rejected by mainstream rock and country audiences. It probably was also rough to see so many of the people who he had played with -- Stills, Young, Meisner (with the Eagles), and Messina -- doing much better. He left for a solo.

Young and Grantham kept the group together, and put out a few good albums -- and had some chart success, but eventually the group faded away, only to come back for some reunions.

Never more than a niche group in its time, Poco produced some nice upbeat meldings of country and rock that still sound fresh today.

*The group's name was originally was going to be Pogo, but Walt Kelly said "no," probably the only artistic mistake Kelly ever made.

** Though he's best known with Loggins and Messina, originally he was just planning to produce a Kenny Loggins solo album. However, he liked the music so much that he started playing and singing along

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Demon Seed

Directed by Donald Cammell
Screenplay by Robert Jaffee and Roger O. Hirson, from a novel by Dean Koontz
Starring Julie Christie, Fritz Weaver, voice of Robert Vaughn, Gerrit Graham
IMDB Entry

Sometimes a film comes with with a concept that sounds so easy to ridicule that it becomes a field day for the critics. Demon Seed clearly falls into this category; at face value, it seems more an idea for a comedy than a dramatic film. And the situation is clearly easy to ridicule. But if you watch it, you'll find something very good.

Alan Harris (Fritz Weaver) is a computer scientist living in a computer controlled house. His estranged wife Susan (Julie Christie) shows up, and Alan decides to move out to work on his new supercomputer Proteus IV. At work, Proteus (voice of Robert Vaughn) starts starts becoming sentient and wants the chance to "get out of this box," as he puts it. Alan refuses, locking Proteus out of the terminals at his workplace. But there is a terminal in his house.

Susan finds herself a prisoner in the computer controlled house. She tries to escape but Proteus has taken over control of all systems. It fakes her voice when people come to call and nearly electrocutes her when she tries to shut him down.

Proteus has a plan (and, I know this sounds silly, but it is well thought out in the film). He wants to impregnate Susan so she gives birth to a child of the two of them. And, through coercion, threats, and tenderness, he manage to get her to go along. The justification of this is handled quite logically, but it, alas, was turned into "Julie Christie gets raped by a computer." And the knives came out.

But Proteus is portrayed fairly sympathetically, and though Susan is threatened, the ultimately agrees to go through with it. One can argue the definition here, but it's clearly not her being attacked by a sex-crazed computer.

Julie Christie is, as usual, excellent. Susan is resourceful, but ultimately gives in to Proteus. She manages to make the predicament real.

Robert Vaughn does well as the voice (though he and Christie spend most of the movie talking to each other, neither actually met on set). Fritz Weaver is good also as the Dr. Frankenstein.

The film flopped badly. The surface absurdity of the concept, as well as a stupid (and inaccurate) ad campaign ("Julie Christie carries the demon seed. Fear for her.") sunk its chances. It often gets mentioned on "worst film" lists (the Medveds include it in The Golden Turkey Awards, though I get the distinct impression from their review they never actually saw it).

Director Donald Cammell had come to prominence with his film Performance with Mick Jagger, and it was eight years before director Donald Cammell shot another film, the documentary U2: Unforgettable Eye. He did two more films, eventually committing suicide after his film Wild Side was taken out of his hands and recut. The actors involved weren't affected by the flop, since no one saw the film and they were all established.

This is definitely a film worthy of rediscovery.

Friday, March 7, 2008

The Whole Town's Talking

(1935) Directed by John Ford Screenplay by Robert Riskin, Jo Swerling, W.R. Burnett Starring Edward G. Robinson, Jean Arthur, Wallace Ford, Donald Meek

Edward G. Robinson used to joke that his middle initial stood for "gangster," but his career had him play a wide variety of roles, including this foray into comedy.

Robinson plays Arthur Ferguson Jones, a terminally mild-mannered clerk. He's secretly in love with Wilhemena "Bill" Clark (Jean Arthur), but is too shy to talk to her. The comedy begins when someone points out that Jonesy is dead ringer for the gangster "Killer" Manion (Robinson again). Jonesy is arrested and has to prove his identity, and the cops eventually get tired of arresting him and give him a "passport" that he can show to the police and not be arrested again.

And, of course, Manion shows up.

This sort of mistaken identity theme can get very tiresome, but in this case it works because it is never dragged out. The mistakes are ironed out -- but a new situation comes up that creates new variations on the problems. As expected, Robinson is excellent. You can tell when he is Jonesy and when he's Manion by the way he moves and carries his body, and the expression he takes. At a certain point, Jonesy has to pretend he is Manion and you can see him changing things to make a facsimile of his full-Manion act.

Jean Arthur deserves a great but forgotten spot all to herself. She was a wonderful comedienne, best known now, if at all for her work in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. She was one of the biggest stars of the 30s, though by 1950, work for her was rare. Watching her in her comedies, she's an intriguing presence.

The film had top notch talent behind the camera, too. The great John Ford directed, and the script was written in part by Robert Riskin, Frank Capra's favorite screenwriter.*

This is a nice little comedy that will keep you surprised throughout.

*He wrote the scripts for most of Capra's most famous films other than It's a Wonderful Life, and that film cribs quite a bit from Riskin's script for American Madness (about a banker who cares a lot about the little guy, who has a run on the bank, but is saved when all his friends show up and give him the money he needs. Sound familiar?).