Saturday, August 30, 2008

Quick Change

Quick Change (1990)
Directed by
Howard Franklin and Bill Murray
Written by Howard Franklin from a novel by Jay Cronley
Starring Bill Murray, Geena Davis, Randy Quaid, Jason Robards, Phil Hartman, Tony Shaloub
IMDB Entry
View the trailer

There's a comment in My Dinner with Andre to the effect that New Yorkers don't leave the city because it's their own prison, and they can't.  Quick Change demonstrates this in a literal -- and very funny -- way.

I've mentioned before that a bad name can kill a film. In addition, if your film is best appreciated by a small segment of the movie audience, you're going to have even more problems, even with a popular star in the cast.  And if the film is hard to describe in a nutshell, you might as well give up.

These were the hurdles facing Quick Change. It is a particularly nondescript title that really didn't do a good job of describing what was going on.  It was a comedy, but the jokes were best appreciated by native New Yorkers, and any plot description makes it seem like a heist film instead of a comedy.

Bill Murray was riding high after the success of Ghostbusters and Scrooged, and evidently loved Howard Franklin's script. But he didn't want to mess it up, so Murray decided to codirect with Franklin.

The movie starts out as a bank robbery/caper flick. Grimm (Murray), a man dressed as a clown -- in full makeup -- starts by robbing a New York City bank and taking hostages.  Through an ingenious ruse, Grimm and his friends Phyllis (Geena Davis) and Loomis (Randy Quaid) get away with the money and elude the police. All they have to do it get to the airport and fly off to a life of luxury.

And that's when their troubles begin.

It becomes impossible to get there. Roads are blocked, traffic is jammed, buses go nowhere.  They are robbed, have their car fall into a ditch, and generally get caught up in various weird comic catastrophes. Meanwhile, Chief Rotzinger (Jason Robards) catches on to Grimm's ruse and starts to look for him.

Lauging on the inside type of clown Murray's usual ironic detachment serves him well, though it patience is sorely tried by what fate throws at him.  Some consider this one of his best roles (at least until Lost in Translation).

Geena Davis is good as always, and Randy Quaid plays the type of role that he specializes in:  the somewhat bewildered sidekick.  And Robards is also fine as the world-weary cop who always gets his man.

The film is probably best appreciated by New Yorkers, but anyone can understand the feelings when you keep getting thwarted in what you want to do.  It did only so-so at the box office, helped that, despite the names in the cast, it was shot for a low budget.

Murray hasn't directed again (yet), and Franklin hasn't been much in evidence -- two other films, including The Public Eye. But when I think of Bill Murray, I'll always remember him as the "crying on the inside type of clown."

Friday, August 29, 2008

Davy (book)

Davy (1964)
by Edgar Pangborn

"I'm Davy, who was king for a time.  King of the Fools, and that takes wisdom."

So starts one of the great openings in science fiction, and one of its greatest novels.

Davy is about life in a post-apocalypse America, where an nuclear war and global warming* has devastated the landscape. The ocean has risen, and the United States has broke up into many small states, all dominated by the Holy Merican Church, a fundamentalist variation on Christianity.

Davy** is the son of a legal prostitute (allowed by the Church as a way to repopulate) who grows up in a church orphanage and is sent out as an indentured worker in a tavern.  He runs away and makes his way from his home in Skoar to adventures throughout the country of Moha and beyond.

There isn't a strong plot, but the book doesn't need it.  Davy goes from place to place, meets friends and lovers, and eventually marries Nickie, a woman who is everything -- smart, attractive, and very sexy.

And sexy is a major concept of the novel. Davy's adventures are often quite bawdy, in a world where sex seems to come with very few hangups. I suppose you could describe him as horny teenager, but Davy always includes affection as part of the mix and the women he beds (and who bed him) do so with delight and with a great deal of romance.  I can't imagine how this was taken in the staid world of science fiction of the early 60s, when the genre avoided mentions of sex altogether.

The novel is written as Davy's journal of his life, with some notes and footnotes by friends and by the lovely Nickie. And the scene where the two meet is one of the most wonderful in all of science fiction.

The structure of the book seems disconnected -- just a series of adventures -- until you get to the end. I remember my first reaction to it was that, "Pangborn didn't cover what happened next."  Then I realized he had -- through asides and notes we learned all we needed to know of Davy's life from the end of the narrative until the present.

Another thing that I especially loved was the place names.  Pangborn lived in upstate New York and used a garbled version of actual place names. I live in the area, too, so it was fun to figure out what they were.  Some were easy:  Nuber (Newberg), Rensler (Rensselaer), Nuin (New England), Vairmont, Katskill.  I did need help to figure out Kanhar (Canajoharie) and some I haven't figured out yet.

The book has always been well regarded by those who read it. The fact that it's out of print is partly a condemnation of the changes in publishing over the years. The cover I used was for the edition I first read from 1982, and back then and before you could expect good science fiction books to go out of print but then reappear seven or so years later. Now they don't come back, and are forgotten.

Pangbourn wrote other well-regarded books. A Mirror for Observers won the International Fantasy Award*** in 1955, and some of his other books, including The Judgement of Eve, were set in the same world as Davy.  He also wrote some mysteries and other books, with an output of about eight novels and a couple of short story collections.

Every once in awhile, Davy comes back into print. If you ever see it, snatch it up.  You won't be disappointed.

*This is before the nuclear winter model was developed.

**He has no last name.

*** A short-lived attempt at a science fiction book award that was soon overshadowed by the Hugos.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Tall Guy

Directed by
Mel Smith
Written by Richard Curtis
Starring Jeff Goldblum, Emma Thompson, Rowan Atkinson, Kim Thompson

Richard Curtis one of the UKs top screenwriters.  He broke out with films like Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and The tall guyLove Actually* though he made his name in the UK with things like the Blackadder TV shows.

The Tall Guy was one of the first features written by him, a very funny sex/romantic comedy.  Maybe it's not as superb as Love, Actually, but his talent is in full gear.

Dexter King (Jeff Goldblum) is an American actor living in London and working as the straight man in a comedy act starring the insufferably obnoxious Ron Anderson (Rowan Atkinson).  Dexter's role requires he take abuse -- both on stage and off -- from Anderson, who has ever bad quality a person could have, and isn't even particularly funny.

Dexter meets nurse Kate Lemmon (Emma Thompson) when visiting his doctor.  Soon they embark on a funny and passionate affair. Dexter loses his job with Anderson but it cast in the lead of a musical adaptation of The Elephant Man entitled Elephant! and jeopardizes everything when he starts an affair with his costar.

Goldblum goes through the part with his usually ironic understatement, with knowing asides that are always amusing.

And most people think of Thompson as a Serious Actress, but she really got her start in comedy.  This was her first feature role, and she has superb timing and also gets the most out of the script. And, perhaps surprisingly, the two make an excellent romantic couple. There's one particular scene, where they make love over (and in) lunch, that's one of the sexiest and most passionate scenes in film.

The production of Elephant! is a hoot. Curtis uses the opportunity to satirize Andrew Lloyd Weber with a bizarre and overwrought set of songs with such absurdities as tap dancing elephants.


The film was a modest success.  Curtis, of course went on to more success, as did most of the people involved.  Director Mel Smith (his first film, too) did a little directing, but is more noteworthy as an actor, his most noticeable role was the Albino in The Princess Bride.

It's a minor gem in Curtis's career. And remember -- Somewhere up in heaven there's an angel with big ears.

* Let's just pretend the Mr. Bean films don't exist.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

It's Garry Shandling's Show (TV)

Created by
Garry Shandling and Alan Zweibel
Starring Garry Shandling, Molly Cheek, Michael Tucci, Scott Nemes

I'm a big fan of metafiction -- stories and movies about stories -- and certainly the most metafictional TV show of all time was It's Garry Shandling's Show.

Shandling had started out in Hollywood as a writer, contributing scripts to Sanford and Son; Welcome Back, Kotter; and Three's Company. After an automobile accident, he decided to go into standup and became so successful that he became a regular guest host on The Tonight Show.

Why a duck? So, like many comedians, he decided to do a sitcom. Joining with Saturday Night Live veteran writer Alan Zweibel, they created It's Gary Shandling's Show.

The show was a sitcom about Garry Shandling's sitcom.  Garry and the rest of the cast knew they were in a sitcom, and could do various sitcom tricks with the conventions of the genre.  Take, for instance, the well-remembered theme song:

This is the theme to Garry's Show,
The theme to Garry's show.
Garry called me up and asked
if I would write his theme song.
I'm almost halfway finished,
How do you like it so far?
How do you like the theme to Garry's Show?

Gary would do his "time thing" to cut to a later time of the day without showing it. He would talk to the audience, of course*. The studio audience was an integral part of the show (I recall one show where he talked about big band music, and the cameras showed the studio audience, all with little toy trumpets, moving back and forth in unison in time to the music. Gary commented, "That's a really big band.").

The show was an early success on Showtime (one of their first original series), but gained many more fans when the new Fox Network picked up the reruns and ran them on Sunday night starting in 1989**.

As a sad footnote, the show was the last TV appearance of Gilda Radner before her death. In a funny but poignant exchange, Shandling asked why he hadn't seen her in awhile.  Gilda replied, "Oh, I had cancer. What did you have?"

Eventually, the show ended and Garry moved on. He scored a big success with The Larry Sanders Show, but times since then have been difficult.  After the notorious flop What Planet are Your From?, he seems to have had few credits, returning to standup.

The show has been overshadowed by Larry Sanders, but it was a funny take on sitcoms with an audacious premise that always delivered.

*Not exactly new to TV -- George Burns was doing it in the 50s.

**The Fox Sunday night schedule in this time frame was one of the better lineups comedy line-ups of all time, with Married With Children, Shandling, Tracey Ullman, and Duet.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Traffic (music)

1967-69, 1970-75
Steve Winwood (organ, piano, guitar), Jim Capaldi (drums, percussion), Chris Wood (flute, saxophone), Dave Mason (Guitar), others.
Wikipedia page

One of the problems with the classic rock radio format is that it concentrates on singles. While there are many fine groups who made both successful singles and albums, there are others that were primarily album groups. In the 70s, that was fine, but as time went on, they stopped getting airplay on classic rock stations and faded away.

Traffic was one of the best of these.  They're remembered, at best, for one song (that wasn't a hit single, oddly enough), and for being one of the early groups that starred Steve Winwood before he became a successful solo artist. But back in the 70s, it was in the top tier of groups out of the UK.

Winwood started performing professionally at age 15, and writting and singing the hit singles "I'm a Man" and "Gimme Some Loving" for the Spencer Davis Group when he was 19.   After leaving the group, he wanted to start out with his own group.  Picking several musician friends -- Jim Capaldi, Chris Wood, and Dave Mason -- he formed Traffic (the name comes from their desire to "keep music moving" and they included a logo of arrows curved into a roundabout) and recorded their first album, Mr. Fantasy, in a studio in Berkshire, UK, that Winwood built with the money he made from the Spencer Davis hits.

But there was already trouble.  Winwood and Capaldi (who wrote together) had disagreements with Mason about where they wanted the group to go. Mason evidently wanted to stick with pop tunes, while Winwood/Capaldi leaned toward jazz and blues.  Mason walked out while the album was being finished.

The group had two UK hit singles with Mason's "Paper Sun" and "Hole in My Shoe," but when the album was released in the US, Mason's other contributions were left off* and he wasn't listed as a musician (though he did get credit for his songs that remained).  In addition to the two British singles, the album featured gems like "Colored Rain," "No Face, No Name, No Number," "Heaven is in Your Mind," and, of course "Dear Mr. Fantasy," a musing on life as a rock star.  Winwood and Capaldi has voices that meshed brilliantly; even when they were singing the same note.  It was an artistic success, and did well enough to allow for a second album.

Traffic -- Winwood (front), Capaldi, Wood, and Mason And between albums, Mason returned. Whatever differences everyone had, they decided to put them aside and continue.  The result -- called simply Traffic -- was considered even better. Winwood and Capaldi contributed songs like "Pearly Queen," "Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring," "40,000 Headmen, and "Vagabond Virgin," while Mason's more pop contribution included "You Can All Join In," "Crying to the Heard," and the classic "Feelin' Alright?", by far their most successful song.**

But the tension in the band returned and Traffic broke up. Several leftover tracks (Traffic was originally planned as a double album) and a live performance were put together in their "final" album Last Exit.

Winwood joined up with a couple of musicians from an obscure group named "Cream," to form Blind Faith.***  The others added a musician billing himself as Wynder J. Frog to form Mason, Capaldi, Wood, and Frog, which did some live gigs but never got an album contract.

Once Blind Faith fell apart, and after a short stint touring with Ginger Baker, Winwood returned to his Berkshire studio to record a solo album, to be titled Mad Shadows.**** During the recording, he asked Capaldi to help him with the songwriting.  Then they decided that Chris Wood would be just the person to add flute and sax. And with them all there, it was a simple step to decide to reform Traffic.

The result, John Barleycorn Must Die, was a triumph.  All six songs on the record were gems, starting with the aptly named instrumental, "Glad," then with "Freedom Rider," "Empty Pages," the superb "Stranger to Himself," "John Barleycorn" (an old folk song done as straight folk) and finally, "Every Mother's Son." It was their biggest success, reaching #5 on the US charts.

But there were problems. The instrumental lineup -- organ, woodwinds, and drums -- was awkward live.  In addition, Jim Capaldi, while a fine drummer in the studio, tended to get excited and off the beat when in front of an audience. His songwriting and vocals were essential to the group, but his drumming had to be improved.

So the group brought in help. Ric Gretch, who was the most obscure musician in Blind Faith, joined on bass, while Jim Gordon became the drummer.  Gordon was one of the top session drummers in the business, and played with such people as Delaney and Bonnie, the Byrds, the Beach Boys, Joe Cocker, George Harrison, and, most famously, Derek and the Dominoes§. Finally, they added Ghanaian percussionist Rebop Kwaku Baah and started recording.

The result was The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys. This was another triumph -- six songs that were nearly of the level in the previous album. The title song is what is most commonly Traffic song played on the radio, a condemnation of the record industry. The album also includes standouts like Capaldi's "Light Up and Leave Me Alone," Gretch's "Rock and Roll Stew," and Winwood's "Many a Mile to Freedom" and "Hidden Treasure."

About this time, the group went on the road in the UK.  And, for some of these performances, Dave Mason rejoined.

So when Winwood's old record company insisted he owed them an album, the live album was released. Though not technically by Traffic. Each of the musicians were listed on the cover, so the album -- Welcome to the Canteen -- is listed as by Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi, Dave Mason, Chris Wood, Ric Gretch, Rebop Kwaku Baah, and Jim Gordon, certainly one of the longest band names for an album (it did, however, have the Traffic logo, which appeared on all their albums).

Welcome to the Canteen While not a great album, Welcome to the Canteen is quite good as contractual obligation albums§§ go. It includes a mix of Traffic songs, a couple of Dave Mason solo songs, plus "Gimme Some Lovin"" from the Spencer Davis days.

But nothing lasts, especially with Traffic.  Gretch left, as did Gordon§§§.  They were replaced with David Hood and Roger Hawkins, respectively, both members of the Muscle Shoals house band where Capaldi had done some solo recording.

The new lineup put out Shootout at the Fantasy Factory. While not reaching the heights of the previous two studio albums, the title song is another great one.

Traffic went on the road for another live album with this new lineup. On the Road was a nice album, but the songs were not up to the studio versions.

After the tour, Hood and Hawkins returned to Muscle Shoals, and Rebop moved on. Adding bassist Roscoe Gee, the group put out When the Eagle Flies, a decent effort (which sold well), but without any real standout cuts. Of note to me is that former Bonzo Dog Band member Vivian Stanshall co-wrote one song on the album, a role he later played with out Winwood compositions.

After a tour, Traffic broke up. Winwood had a very successful career as a solo artist, most notably with "Back in the High Life" and "Arc of a Diver." He put out a new album this year. Capaldi had some success as a solo artist and songwriter, dying of stomach cancer in 2005. Chris Wood's story was even sadder, as he died of pneumonia in 1983.  All is not sadness, though: Dave Mason's solo career also goes on (with some weird detours like an album he recorded with Mama Cass Eliott) and he's best known for his hit "We Just Disagree."

But the group faded from memory. Though they had several top ten albums, they never had any big US hits. "Low Spark" gets airplay, but little else, and the group gets short shrift as just a station along the road of Steve Winwood's career.

But they should take their place among the top half dozen UK groups of their era.

*It didn't hurt the album any.  They weren't very good.

** In terms of cover versions.  At one point, a new version of the song was being released every three weeks, most famously by Joe Cocker.

*** The king of the supergroups.  When it came out, though I didn't know about Winwood and wondered why he was writing the songs instead of Eric Clapton.

****Not to be confused with the Mott the Hoople album of the same name.

§ (Got tired of asterisks.) He shared songwriter credits on "Layla," which would have made him a rich man today, if he were allowed to spend the money.

§§ These are albums that the record company insists the artist record to fulfill a contract, usually after the artist left the record company on bad terms. The need to produce an album for people who you are pissed off at leads to interesting artistic tension, though generally the musicians will record a half-assed album and hope it doesn't disappoint their fans.

§§§ Gordon, alas, developed schizophrenia and ended up murdering his mother, evidently believing she was the voice in his head that was tormenting him.  He was convicted of murder (his attorney was unable to use the insanity defense) and is still in prison.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Cyril M. Kornbluth (author)

Wikipedia Entry

When I first started getting into science fiction in the early 60s, one of the interesting part of the field was that all my favorite authors were still alive and producing work.  It was nice to know there'd be a new Heinlein novel, or Asimov short story, or there'd be new new stories by Larry Niven, James Tiptree, Jr..   and others.  At the time, there were only three of my favorites who had died:  Stanley G. Weinbaum, Henry Kuttner, and Cyril M. Kornbluth.*

Cyril M. KornbluthKornbluth was a member of the legendary Futurians science fiction group and started writing young; his first story was published when he was 17. He went on to write a series of excellent short stories, using his own name and a series of pseudonyms.

He was primarily a short story writer. He did publish several novels -- some in collaboration with fellow Futurian Frederick Pohl -- but, like many of the best SF writers of the 50s and 60s, was at his best with short works.

By far his best-known work was "The Marching Morons," which postulated a world where intelligence was bred out of the human race. A man from the present is awakened after centuries of hibernation and becomes the one responsible for dealing with the problem.  If the plot sounds familiar, it's because the film Idiocracy took it almost wholesale.  I loved the movie, but I was annoyed that they gave Kornbluth no credit.

"The Little Black Bag" is also fairly well known, since it was used as an episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery. It's assumes a similar background to "The Marching Morons," except in reverse, where an artifact from that time period (a doctor's bag) is sent to the present.

I'm also fond of his "MS Found in a Chinese Fortune Cookie" about a man who discovers a way to save the world, but who is stopped by a cabal of a very unlikely sort.

"The Rocket of 1955" -- the name sounded quite futuristic when it was published in 1945 -- was the anatomy of a very clever scam, while "Thirteen O'clock" was an enjoyable fantasy romp with a sexy little pixie woman whose main weapon plays upon the lust of men by offering to shrink them down to her size. "Time Bum" is about another con, with a clever twist.

Alas, Kornbluth had health problems.  He suffered from heart disease and eventually died of a heart attack after shoveling snow and then running for a train.  He wasn't quite 35.

He did have the distinction of winning a Hugo Award for Best Short Story 15 years after his death for "The Meeting," a story finished by Fred Pohl from a section of story that Kornbluth never completed. "The Little Black Bag" won a retro Hugo award in 2001.**

NESFA Press has published a collection of Kornbluth's short stories.  It's a good place to discover one of the field's forgotten greats.

*Cordwainer Smith died about the time I started reading, but some of his stories were still in the pipeline.

**Retro Hugos gave awards to people for stories written in the years before the Hugo Awards were officially given.  Though an honor, it says more about the staying power of the stories than whether they would have won back then.  There is confusion as to what exactly they represent -- what people would have thought were winners at the time, or what stories are best remembered today.  I'd assume the latter, since they are generally well-known stories.  But back in the 50s, some forgotten stories won (most obviously, They'd Rather Be Right by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley, a book that hasn't been in print since it won).