Thursday, June 18, 2009

Defending Your Life

Defending Your Life (1991)
Written and Directed by
Albert Brooks
Starring Albert Brooks, Meryl Streep, Rip Torn
IMDB Entry

I first became aware of Albert Brooks when I was in college and his album, Comedy Minus One, showed up at our radio station.  The first side was a very funny standup routine, but the title track (the entire second side)*was inspired:  a comedy routine, only Brooks was the straight man and you were the comic.  The dialog was included, so you could make a fool of yourself reading it and having Brooks respond (with a laugh track).  I knew I wanted to see more of him.

Brooks has been called "literally a comedian's comedian," since his father, Harry "Parkyakarkus" Einstein.**  After trying his hand at standup, I next heard of him as a writer and maker of short films in the first season of Saturday Night Live.  In 1979, he made the film Real Life, possibly the first proto mockumentary.***  He made two other films in the 80s (Modern Romance and Lost in America), to good critical notices and mediocre box office.

Defending Your Life was his fourth feature and his best. Daniel Miller (Brooks) is a self-centered yuppie who is killed by crashing his brand new BMW into a bus. He wakes up in Judgment City, where the lives of the newly dead are judged before sending them to their permanent home -- and how you are judged determines where you go.  While there, he meets Julia (Meryl Streep), someone who lived an exemplary life and clearly will be moving on to a higher existence.  Miller's chances are not very good, and he may be doomed to go back to Earth to be reborn and try to get it right.

Brooks is fine, though this is a typical role for him. Streep is excellent in a difficult role. She is able to be Mary Poppins perfect without being cloying. People remember her in her serious roles, but it's often overlooked that she's a very talented comic actress.  Rip Torn gives his usual strong performance as Bob Diamond, Miller's representative at the tribunal, who tries his best despite his doubts.

The film is filled with clever touches.  Judgment City is like a cheesy resort (though there is a hierarchy -- Julia's hotel is better than Miller's more touristy version). People ride around on trams that were originally used for the Universal Studio tours. 

What makes this film Brooks's best is its message, which is that we need to face our fears and learn from our mistakes.  Miller -- like many of Brooks's characters -- is neurotic and tentative in everything he does, and he has to learn to leave that behavior behind.  The ending is extremely satisfying and really says a lot about how to live life.

The movie did well enough at the box office to give Brooks other chances to make films.  He followed it up with Mother, about a science fiction writer who was blocked due to issues with his mother (played very nicely by Debbie Reynolds) and The Muse, about a filmmaker who was having trouble writing his next film until visited by an actual muse (played by Sharon Stone).  Neither was a big success and Brooks continued with acting and especially voice acting, where he became an voice star as Marlin, who spent an entire movie Finding Nemo.

It would be nice is Brooks returned to writing and directing again (his last attempt, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim Word, was a flop), but he has a good list of quirky and neurotic comedies, along with the excellence of Defending Your Life.


*Back when records had two sides, children.

**Yes, Brook's real name is "Albert Einstein."  He tells the story that he once asked his father about it, and his father said he never heard of the other Einstein, though Brooks has also commented that his father was probably joking. Brooks is also brother to "Super Dave" Osborne.

***Zelig came out in 1983, This is Spinal Tap in 1984. The main difference was that Real Life was scripted, while the standard mockumentary is ad-libbed.

Sunday, June 14, 2009


Tarantula (1955)
Directed by
Jack Arnold
Screenplay by Robert M. Fresco and Martin Berkeley from a story by Fresco and Jack Arnold
Starring Leo G. Carroll, John Agar, and Mara Corday.
IMDB Entry

Giant insect movies of the 50s get a bad rap. The science is impossible, of course, and many (but not all) of the effects are crude compared to modern techniques.  And there's the glib oversimplification that they were a reaction to the fears of the atomic bomb. Of course, some of the movies are quite bad, too.

But there are a couple of gems.  Them! is well-known and highly respected, but lesser known was Jack Arnold's Tarantula*.

I've written about Arnold before, but if the name means nothing to you, it should.  His 50s science fiction films are all minor classics:  It Came from Outer Space, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Revenge of the Creature, The Incredible Shrinking Man.  He was able to take some very silly SF concepts and turn out classic films using them. Any one of his films has surprises that make them stand out from the ordinary monster flick.

Tarantula is the story of Professor Gerald Deemer (Leo G. Carroll). One of his assistants is found dead with an advanced and unusual case of acromegalia.** The local doctor, Matt Hastings (John Agar) tries to get at the heart of the mystery and when the dead assistant is replaced by Stephanie Clayton (Mara Corday), Dr. Hastings drives her to Professor Deemer's lab.  There they discover Deemer is working on a formula to increase growth in animals as a way to relieve hunger.  But Deemer has been accidentally injected with the formula -- and a tarantula that had been injected has escaped.

The plot involves the obvious:  the tarantula keeps growing and growing, killing people and terrorizing the community. But it also concentrates on Professor Deemer, who is not a mad scientist, but someone who genuinely wants to develop a scientific breakthrough, and who has to race to keep his own creation from killing him like it had his assistants.  Leo G. Carroll*** does a fine job as a man under a self-inflicted death sentence and who may not be able to do anything about it.

image The effects on the movie are surprisingly good, due to the decision to use a real tarantula as much as possible.  And while giant spider legs are probably not convincing in close ups, the long shots work very well.

The film is also notable in being on of Clint Eastwood's first roles.  He plays an air force pilot trying to kill the monster, but is unrecognizable under his oxygen mask. 

The film was a hit, and Arnold continued on a successful career in film and later television. But the film got lumped in with other giant monster films like The Deadly Mantis and The Giant Gila Monster as a sign of how bad films of the 50s were.  It is probably the least well-known of Arnold's SF films, but is nothing to sneer at.


*Yes, I know a tarantula is not an insect.  Let's keep this is a nitpick-free zone.

**An actual disease -- it's a glandular condition that causes abnormal growth.

***A favorite of mine from the TV shows Topper and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Freedomland U.S.A. (Amusement Park)

Rob Freedman's Freedomland Page


By 1950, the American amusement park was dead.  What were once the jewel destination of urban areas had deteriorated into a place for carnival game ripoffs, it they remained open at all.  In fact, when Walt Disney tried to get money together for one in the early fifties, he found it next to impossible.*

But Disneyland showed that you could create an amusement park in a suburban setting and have people flock to it. And people tried to follow suit.

This included Cornelius Vanderbilt Wood.  Wood credentials were golden:  he had worked with Disney to help create Disneyland.  After a falling out,** he struck out on his own, forming Magic Mountain in Denver and Pleasure Island in Wakefield, MA. Then he went on to the biggest market in the country -- New York City.

And Freedomland U.S.A. was born.

Wood chose an American history theme for the park, and took it all the way.  It was shaped like a map of the US and was divided into sections like "Old New York," "Old Chicago," "New Orleans," "The Great Plains," "San Francisco," and "The Old Southwest."  Each section had a rides and exhibits tied in with the theme.  "The Old Southwest," for instance, included the Burro Trail (real burros), Mine Caverns, Pony Express, Opera House and Saloon (non alcoholic drinks and entertainment), and Casa Loca (a house built all askew so perspective was messed up).  It was billed as "Disneyland East."

I visited the park the first year it opened.  I remember wanted to ride the burros (though the line was very long) and the Casa Loca.  Great stuff when you're eight.

Of course, there were problems.  While the park had plenty of parking, it was not easily reachable by public transport. And running an amusement park in sunny southern California gives you many more days of operation than around New York City.

Though it attracted good crowds the first year, it couldn't sustain it.  The "Disneyland East" comparison only made sense if you had never seen the real Disneyland. Wood may have had some interesting design ideas, but the park, even new, didn't have the "spare no expense" design that made Disney a hit.

Attendance continued to drop.  Attempts were made to attract a teenage audience, but that was doomed because of the poor public transport.  Finally, in 1964, the park, citing competition from the New York World's Fair, closed down.  The land was sold to build Co-op City (an apartment complex) and was quickly torn down.

Some of the rides and equipment were sold to various amusement parks, several to The Great Escape in Glens Falls, NY.  When I visited there several years ago, I didn't realize that the Cyclone ride had been taken from the original Freedomland. Alas, once the park was sold to Six Flags,*** the Freedomland remnants were slowly retired.

Very little exists now, except in memories and web pages.  But, for a short while, at least, Freedomland was the future of fun.


*He finally convinced the fledgling ABC TV network to bankroll the park in exchange for the rights to a TV show featuring Disney movies and characters.  Disneyland was ABC's first top five TV show, so both sides made out well in the deal.

**Disney removed Wood's name from any history of the park; as far as they are concerned, he never existed.

***Whose corporate mission seems to be to make visits there as unpleasant as possible, and makes it quite clear that they think their customers are cash cows to be milked dry.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Mission: Impossible (TV)

Created by
Bruce Geller
Starring Stephen Hill, Barbara Bain, Peter Lupus, Greg Morris, and Special Guest Star Martin Landau
IMDB Entry

Of course you remember Mission: Impossible.  The Impossible Mission Force, led by Dan Briggs, would further US foreign policy by secret undercover spy derring-do.  Briggs would get his message on a tape, and the catchphrase, "Please dispose of this tape in the usual manner" was on everyone's lips.

Stephen Hill, Barbara Bain, and guest star Martin Landau "Dan Briggs?" you ask.  "Who is Dan Briggs?"

And that's what has been forgotten.

Briggs, played by Stephen Hill, was the lead in the first season of the show.  In every episode, you'd see him choosing his team, going through a bunch of pictures and news clippings as he made his selections.*  Then he'd lay out his plan and have his team execute it.  Briggs was the mastermind who sat on the sidelines and oversaw, occasionally jumping in to make changes as the plans had to adapt.  It was rare for him to take direct action.

Briggs didn't use the same team each time.  Oh, there were the regulars -- Cinnamon Carter (Barbara Bain), Barney Collier (Greg Morris), and Willie Armatage (Peter Lupus) -- but special members of the team would show up from time to time as needed.  You got the impression that Briggs had dozens of agents on call and would select the right person for the job.

And, of course, the one expert who showed up the most (in every episode the first season, as a matter of fact) was Rollin Hand (Martin Landau).

Landau was not part of the original cast, but was hired for a guest shot in the pilot.**  Bruce Geller liked what he saw, so kept hiring him back, but for contractual reasons, he was not considered part of the regular cast.***

The show was a sensation.  It was always well plotted, with some tense and edgy stories (and, of course, a theme song).  The most memorable one for me was "Zubrovnik's Ghost," a mixture of spy story and Twilight Zone episode.

At the end of the first season, though, Hill decided to leave.  One reason was his religion:  He is an orthodox Jew and refused to shoot episodes on the Sabbath.  Geller kept insisting, so Hill walked away from the lead in a smash hit over it.

Geller didn't mind the loss.  He wanted the head of the IMF to be a more conventional action hero who could get in the middle of things, so he hired Peter Graves.

For me, that's when the show started to deteriorate.  I liked Briggs the mastermind more than Jim Phelps the man of action.  Also, the show had already become stylized and even routine.  "This tape will self-destruct" was used in every episode.****  The IMF was the same agents every time.  The list of fictional Eastern European countries (you could tell they were foreign because all the stop signs said "Alt!") grew longer and longer.  What was fresh and new the first season became familiar.

The show was a big success from the beginning, but the Phelps era ran for six seasons.  Since there were so many more episodes, people remember him as the only leader.  I would suspect that syndication tended to leave out the first season.*****

Hill continued to act and finally reached a modicum of familiarity as D.A. Adam Schiff on Law and Order.  Since he only appeared in a couple of scenes each episode, his religious preferences were simple to accommodate.  And I have no doubt there's a Mission:Impossible season one DVD out there.  But Stephen Hill (and Martin Landau) were what made Mission: Impossible into something other than an average spy show with a great theme song.


*Later, it became a series of 8x10 color photos.
**He was married to Barbara Bain, of course.
***I'm not entirely sure if he ever was officially made a cast member.
****It did start the first season, but Briggs also disposed of the tape himself by doing such things as tossing it into a furnace.
*****I remember when our local TV station finally started running the first season episodes.  The tape (which is disposed of in the usual manner) says, "Welcome Back, Dan.  It's been some time," and I agreed with the sentiment.