Thursday, November 20, 2008

Battle Beyond the Stars

Directed by
  Jimmy T. Murakami
Story by Anne Dyer and John Sayles; Screenplay by Sayles
Starring Richard Thomas, Robert Vaughn, George Peppard, John Saxon, Sybil Danning

When a movie is a smash hit, other filmmakers rush to copy it. Usually the result is dire, since the people ripping off the film don't really understand (or care) what made it a hit in the first place.  Occasionally, though, there is something that stands out on its own.

Battle Beyond the Stars is a prime example.

The movie was produced by the legendary schlockmeister Roger Corman. In his long career, Corman produced almost 400 films, nearly all of them cheap knockoffs of the latest trend.  So when Star Wars started making hatfuls of money, he jumped on the bandwagon.  And why not?  Corman had made quite a few other science fiction films (like the original Little Shop of Horrors). 

Corman was also famous for using (and underpaying) young talent. His films were always a way to break into films and a surprising number of his actors, directors, and writers went on to successful careers.

In this case, he chose John Sayles. Sayles has written a couple of moderately successful novels, but was more interested in movies.  He first got Corman's attention with the script for Piranha, and Corman hired him again to turn his attention to a Star Wars clone. 

At the time, Sayles was working on his first directing effort, the superb Return of the Secaucus Seven, and probably some of his check from Coreman was used to pay for the film.  Perhaps because he was busy, Sayles took the easy way out. 

He stole his plot from The Magnificent Seven (and its Japanese inspiration, The Seven Samurai)The farming world of Akir* is threatened by the space tyrant Sador** (John Saxon) so Shad (Richard "John Boy" Thomas) sets out to find people willing to help with the defense.  He recruits Gelt (Robert Vaughn) and Cowboy (George Peppard) and five others in order to defeat Sador and save the world.

The film doesn't hide its origins.  Robert Vaughn was in The Magnificent Seven and Gelt has many of the same lines of dialog.  But what really makes the film work is Sayles's script, which is witty, and satirical, but also shows a love of the genre.  I saw it as the second feature at a drive-in, and I must say that was really the right element for it.

The film was one of Corman's most expensive. It was unusual for him to cast so many established actors, and the special effects budget was first class (unusual for Corman).  It seems to have been something of a success, but the budget was probably too rich for Corman's taste, so he returned to low-budget quickies.

Like many Corman films, this started a few major careers.  John Sayles, of course, went on to be a major name in independent films.***  Jimmy T. Murakami has directed occasionally, but this was his one major film.  James Horner, whom composed the score, has been very successful as a film composer, even winning an Oscar for his score for Titanic.  And why was he chosen to write that one?  Possibly on the recommendation of the film's art director (and creator of the spaceship models), a young man named James Cameron.

*A reference to Akira Kurosawa, director of The Seven Samauri.

** There was no need for subtlety, was there?

***And in Schenectady, his home town (or, at lease, my adopted one), where they named their arts magnet high school after him.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

In His Own Write/A Spaniard in the Works (book)

Written by
John Lennon
Art by John Lennon

Omnibus edition from the early 70s. The Beatles are the popular culture giants of the 60s, and possibly of the entire 20th century.  Their influence is everywhere -- music, movies, TV (The Monkees, most obviously), art and design (their record covers were groundbreaking), style, and just about everywhere else.  Even literature.  What is odd is that their -- or rather, John Lennon's -- influence in the area of books is often forgotten.

Back in 1964, when Beatlemania was in full bloom, Macmillan Publishers in the UK published a slim volume of short poems and vignettes and art by Lennon called In His Own Write.  I have no doubt that this, like many things associated with the Beatles, was just an attempt to cash in before the group was forgotten.*

But a funny thing happened:  the critics loved it.

The book is just a collection of what would today be called "flash fiction," usually describing a particular character -- "Partly Dave, "Good Dog Nigel," "Treasure Ivan" -- and filled with wordplay and somewhat surreal dark humor.  A favorite of mine is "A Suprise for Little Bobby**":

It was little Bobby's birthmark today and he got a surprise. His very fist was jopped off, (The War) and he got a birthday hook!
All his life Bobby had wanted his very own hook; and now on his 39th birthday his pwayers had been answered. The only trouble was they had send him a left hook and ebry dobby knows that it was Bobby's right fist that was missing as it were.
Whatto do was not thee only problem: Anyway he jopped off his lest hand and it fitted like a glove. Maybe next year he will get a right hook, who knows?

As you can see, it's funny and somewhat sick.***  And there's a lot of suppressed (and unsuppressed) violence in the stories, beneath the humor.****

The wordplay and puns were dazzling, and the stories were all very funny to read.  My favorite comment about the book was the review from Newsweek, which calls it "Frothing with original spontaneity. . . suggests that when John Lennon sings I Want to Hold Your Hand, he is wishing he could bite it."

My favorites here include "Partly Dave," "No Flies on Frank," "The Wrestling Dog," "Good Dog Nigel," "Deaf Ted, Danoota, and Me," and "I Remember Arnold."

The book was a hit, big enough for a sequel.  The next year saw Lennon's A Spaniard in the Works (a pun on the British phrase "A spanner [wrench] in the works.").  It wasn't as surprising as the first (no one had expected the Beatles to actually be literary), but still has plenty of the same sort of foolishness.  I think Lennon was working a bit too hard to attempt the sequel, so it does go overboard a bit, but there are still gems like "The National Health Cow."

Both books are enlivened by Lennon's illustrations -- insane little line drawings that either illustrate a story or just stand alone.

At one point, the books were turned into a play, but by the mid-70s, interest waned.  Ironically, these were one of the few things done by the Beatles that have faded away with time.  It seems to now be out of print

The books deserve to be rediscovered.

*Few believed at the time that the group would be anything other than a flash in the pan.

*The Table of Contents has it as "Surprise," but the actual story uses "Suprise."

***Or as they'd say today, "not PC."  But I was a big fan of sick humor simply because there were no taboos.

**** Michael O'Donoghue must have loved it.  O'Donoghue was a former National Lampoon writer and one of the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players (no one remembers that), who had a strong belief that all humor was violence, and the violence was funny.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Stunt Man

The Stunt ManDirected by
Richard Rush
Screenplay by Lawrence B. Marcus, from an adaptation by Richard Rush of a novel by Paul Brodeur
Starring Peter O'Toole, Steve Railsback, Barbara Hershey, Alan Goorwitz (Garfield), Charles Bail, Sharon Farrell

The Stunt Man was one man's labor of love, and is one of the best films about moviemaking ever made.

Director Richard Rush fell in love with Paul Brodeur's novel and knew he had to make it. He wasn't exactly a Hollywood name:  his most famous film at the time was the minor hit Freebie and the Bean, but Rush went out to turn the book into a film.  After years of work, Rush managed to get together the cast he wanted and started filming.

The Stunt Man is the story of Cameron (Steve Railsback), a drifter who is wanted by the police.  As he tries to escape them, he is nearly run down by a car, which swerves and ends up plunging into a river, killing the driver, Burt.

Which was the entire plan. The driver was a stunt man working on the World War I drama Devil's Squadron, directed by the somewhat mad director Eli Cross (Peter O'Toole). Cross takes Cameron on as a stunt man for the production, where he meets and falls for it's star, Nina Franklin (Barbara Hershey).  He wants Cameron to take Burt's place when the redo the stunt.

Only the question becomes, is it a stunt, or will Cross try to kill him for the film?

It's a movie that keeps you off balance and which blurs the line between reality and moviemaking.  One or my favorite moments in all of film is when professional stunt man Chuck Barton (Chuck Bail), is going over the river plunge, explaining to Cameron what will happen.  Cameron is sitting in the car, and Barton is telling him how the car will fill with water.  "At this point," he says, "you'll be needing some air, so you reach down beside the seat for the air tank."  Cameron reaches down, but there is no air tank.  "Don't worry," said Barton.  "It will be there."

And the question is:  will it?

Eli Cross gives a lesson in filmmaking This is one of Peter O'Toole's greatest roles.  His Eli Cross is mad, impulsive, profane, and a genius and meglomaniac. As Cross says, "If God could do the tricks that we can do he'd be a happy man!"  He keeps everyone guessing as to what he will do up to the final moment. It is a bravura performance; you can't take your eyes off him for a moment.

Railsback plays Cameron* as a man with a past, a Vietnam vet who comes home a bit dazed by the experience. He's not a traditional conflicted vet, and his brush with the law is more comedy that drama (something the movie mixes brilliantly).

There also should be mention of Chuck Bail.  Bail was actually a stunt man, and his Barton was probably based on his real-life personality. The way he takes Cameron under his wing is also a joy to watch.

Also fine is the always good Alan Goorwitz** from Cry Uncle plays Sam, the scriptwriter who is frustrated by Cross, but who recognizes his genius. Barbara Hershey plays Nina beautifully, and Sharon Farrell is good as the production's hairdresser.

There should also be a special mention of Dominic Frontiere's film score. It is by far one of the best -- so good that, for years, filmmakers would use bits of it for movie trailers when their music for the film wasn't ready. 

Rush finished the film in 1978, happy with the results, and delivered it to the studio.  Which refused to release it.

Evidently, they felt they had a flop on their hands. They figured the costs of releasing it would be greater than any profit, so it made more sense to take the loss instead of incurring a bigger loss due to advertising and distribution expenses.

After two years, Rush managed to get the studio to open the film for a week in Seattle. The box office was enthusiastic enough for the film to finally be released.

Alas, the studio seemed to be right.  Despite making a few best of the year lists, the film performed poorly.

However, if my experience has anything to do with it, the reason may have been due to a major screw-up on the part of the studio.  I went to see it early in a local theater and noticed as I watched that Cameron said something he couldn't possibly know.  Later, Peter O'Toole gave him that information.  And, as I thought about it, I realized that the reels were being shown out of order.  Once I figured out where (one scene abruptly cut out, then a later one continued that point), I was able to put the film together in my mind to see what was there.

Was this just the one theater?  I don't know.  I do know, however, when I saw it again in a second theater, the film stopped for a moment at the point where the reels were reversed, as though someone found the problem and fixed it.

In any case, the film. though well-liked in some circles, faded away.  This was before videotapes, so it did not show up on TV due to the language. It was fourteen years before Rush directed again, with the flop The Color of Night and I can't help but wonder if some of that was due to his nagging his studio to lose more money.

But the film is a great one in all respects. If you love movies, you'll love the film.


*His name, by the way, is an important plot element.

** He started out as Alan Garfield, changed back to his real name of Goorwitz, then returned to Garfield a few years later.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Mr. Pudgins (book)

by Ruth Christoffer Carlsen

imageOne of the great joys of going to school in the 60s was the Scholastic Book Club.  Every month or so, you'd get a list of books, all available for dirt cheap prices, even for the time -- sometimes as little as a quarter (when paperbacks were 50-75 cents).  And in among the various books I picked up was the wonderful, Mr. Pudgins, by Ruth Christoffer Carlsen.

When I read it, the book was marketed as being similar to Mary Poppins. The idea was simple.  Mr. Pudgins would come by to babysit for John, Pete, and Jane. At some point, he would sit back and smoke his pipe* and then magical things would happen.

For instance, John, Pete, and Jane would meet their mirror images who came out of the mirror to play -- and didn't want to go back.  The water faucets would have running soda, bathtubs would fly, and cars would turn into motorboats.

The stories were written in a very matter-of-fact style as the kids first were delighted by the new changes, but then discovered they weren't unmitigated successes.  It's not a book with a lot of action, but plenty of wonder.

This was the first novel for Carlsen (age 90 and living in Iowa City, IA). It took her 14 years before she published another, Henrietta Goes West, and wrote several more before disappearing (though she is still writing).

The book is hard to find, and I'm afraid the pipe smoking means it may never be reprinted.  That's a shame, since a book this wonderful deserves to be remembered.


*This was before the Surgeon General's Report.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Phase IV

Phase IV Directed by
Saul Bass
Written by Mayo Simon
Starring Michael Murphy, Nigel Davenport, Lynn Frederick
IMDB Entry

Every film fan is familiar with the work of Saul Bass, even if they may not know it.  He made his reputation by designing some very striking movie posters.  But Bass moved on from there to be a title designers and is considered the genius in creating title sequences.  Before he came along, titles were static affairs, a card showing the name of the movie and its stars.  Bass turned things around with a more dynamic style that was the beginning of the modern title sequence.  Bass's titles included moving text, stylized graphics, and many innovative techniques still in use today.  Some of his credits include The Man with the Golden Arm, Around the World in 80 Days, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, Goodfellas, Casino, and many others.

But like everyone in Hollywood, Bass wanted to direct (especially something that lasted more than five minutes).  So, in 1974, he directed the film Phase IV.

The film is ostensibly a horror film, but there's much more to it. Dr. Ernest Hubbs (Nigel Davenport) discovers a new breed of ant in the desert, one that seems to be developing sentience.  Worse, they have figured out a way to destroy their enemies and may be moving to destroy their biggest enemy of all -- man.

He takes James Lesko (Michael Murphy) and Kendra Eldridge (Lynn Frederick) to and experimental station to study them to find a way to defeat them.  But they don't want to be defeated and soon they are trapped by a hive mind that may be smarter than they are.

The movie stays away from the cliches and camp of the genre.  The ants make a very credible enemy, and the ending is a real surprise.

AntThe film is brilliantly designed; the images are as memorable as those in Koyaanisqatsi  or Days of Heaven. The ants are photographed in extreme close-ups, making them memorable foes.  They are the real stars of the film.

The film flopped.  A mystical, cautionary tale about ants attacking humans is not going to do well in the box office.  Bass never directed another feature.

But it's a thinking person's horror film that has something to say, and deserves to be better know.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

William Johnston (author)

(????--????) (1924 - )

Added 6/21/2010:  Edited now that I have new information (in green).  The main article remains the same for historical purposes, but see the note at the end.

Bet you can't even read his name. William Johnston is a mystery.  I've never seen any biography (even on the books he wrote).  I have a strong suspicion that the name is a pseudonym.  It's even possible that multiple writers used the name. His books are long out of print -- all paperback originals tied in with gimmicky TV shows.

He also wrote some of the funniest stuff I've ever seen.

Johnston's best known work was a series of novelizations of the Get Smart TV series.  Starting with Get Smart in 1965, he followed it with Get Smart Once Again! (1966), Missed By That Much! (1966), Max Smart and the Perilous Pellets (1966), Sorry, Chief... (1966), And Loving It! (1967), The Spy Who Went Out to the Cold (1968), Max Smart Loses Control (1969), and Max Smart and the Ghastly Ghost Affair (1969).

I loved the TV show, and bought the first book back when it was out.  I liked it so much that I read all the titles through Sorry, Chief . . . , buying a couple (I still have my copy of Sorry, Chief . . . ) and borrowing the rest from friends.  I also picked up his novelization for Captain Nice in a remainder bin.

Johnston was funny.  His strength was long, strange conversations, filled with catchphrases (some from the show, others for the book alone).  I can still get a smile from the phrases "six invisible guinea pigs," or "Vot you doink in mine staderoom?", things that came up time and time again, with wildly funny variations in Sorry, Chief. . .

Johnson also wrote a series of Happy Days books, one or two Flying Nun books, and a novelization of Klute*. There also appears to be a standalone novel, Sam Weskit on the Planet Framingham, which I'm sure didn't do all that well**.

In any case, Johnston disappeared in the mid-70s.  My feeling is that he was a pseudonym*** and he just moved on.  I would love to find out who he was, and also to see that his work returns to print.  With all the trademark issues, that might be impossible, but one can always dream.

On June 18, 2010, the mystery of William Johnston was solved. I had guessed wrong:  the name wasn't a pseudonym at all.  In any case, see Lee Goldberg's blog for the facts.

*Talk about one thing that doesn't match the others.

** The problem of writing novelizations is that no one remembers the author's name (other than Isaac Asimov for Forbidden Planet, but most people think the movie was made from the book, not vice versa).

*** If anyone knows, I'd love to find out. I have a suspicion it might be Ron Goulart, but I could be way off.