Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Those Lips, Those Eyes

Those Lips, Those Eyes (1980)
Directed by
Michael Pressman
Written by David Schaber
Starring Frank Langiella, Tom Hulce, Glynnis O'Connor, Jerry Stiller, Kevin McCarthy
IMDB Entry

In 1980, Frank Langiella was primarily a stage actor who hadn't made (and didn't seem interested in making) the jump to films.  He had made a version of Dracula that didn't set the world on fire and which nobody remembers, but little else.  Perhaps his love of the stage was why he appeared in Those Lips, Those Eyes.

It's the story of Artie Shoemaker (Tom Hulce), a young man who was bitten by the acting bug and got a job running props for a summer stock theater in the 1950s.  But Artie is inept and nearly loses his job when actor Harry Crystal (Frank Langiella) rescues him and take him under his wing.  Harry helps Artie get back on his feet and also provides a little assistance with his crush on chorine Ramona (Glynnis O'Connor).

The film is mostly a charming slice of life, and affectionate look at the stock theater of the time.  Artie's father (Jerry Stiller) tries to discourage him and get him to finish med school, while Harry shows him the glamour of the stage.

Langiella is at his best.  His Harry is a born showman, a man with enough talent to dream about Broadway roles, but not enough to actually get them. He dominates every scene he's in.*

My favorite was toward the end of the movie.  The play is being performed, and Harry is phoning in a performance, tired and feeling the work isn't worthy of his talents.  Then he hears word that a Broadway agent is in the audience.  He immediately turns it on, becoming mesmerizing on stage.

Despite good reviews, the movie did poorly.  It was the high point of Michael Pressman's directorial career, though he has worked steadily in TV ever since. 

*Though, even at his best, Hulce was not a dominating actor.  He usually played a schlub, becoming known on the big screen as Larry Kroger in Animal House.  Larry was a recurring character in National Lampoon's Dacron, Ohio, stories -- the owner of the yearbook in their High School Yearbook Parody -- and always very put upon.  As a matter of fact, when I heard he was cast as Mozart in Amadeus, I thought it a horrible choice, but I didn't know what the play was about, and he did an excellent job.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Dinosaurs (TV)

Created by
Michael Jacobs, Bob Young
Voices by Stewart Pankin, Jessica Walter, Jason Willinger, Sally Struthers, Kevin Clash, Sherman Helmsley, Florence Stanley
IMDB Entry

Any description gives the wrong impression.  A show by Jim Henson Associates and Disney, about walking and talking dinosaurs, with cute catchphrases and a view of family life.  It certainly sounds like a children's show, and was marketed as such.  But Dinosaurs was something much more:  an often pointed satire about just about anything it could get its sights on.

The basic concept for the show came from Muppet creator Jim Henson, who wanted to do a show with puppets about dinosaurs living in a 50-style TV sitcom family.  Henson died (far too young) before the concept was developed, but Michael Jacobs and Bob Young fleshed it out and sole the concept to Disney to be aired on ABC.

The Sinclair family. The show follows the adventures of the Sinclair* family:  Earl (voice of Stewart Pankin), the put-upon father**, his wife Fran (Jessica Walter), son Robbie (Jason Williger), daughter Charlene (Sally Struthers), and their baby, Baby (Kevin Clash).  Earl was a blue-collar traditionalist, while Robbie would often question the values.  Baby was aggressively cute,*** though he would always torture his father.

Other character included Earl's boss at the Wesayso Corporation, the despotic B.P. Richfield (Sherman Hensley), Earl's best friend Roy Hess (Sam McMurray), and his mother-in-law Ethyl Phillips (Florence Stanley).

The voice actors on the show were all just fine, and the puppeteers were amazing.  The characters faces were capable of a wide range of expressions, and their movement is so natural that you forget that these are people surrounded by pounds of foam rubber.

The show was similar to many other sitcoms, but always had a satirical edge, mocking fame, religion, TV shows (sometimes with direct parodies), prejudice, politics, fashion and other issues in a way that was surprisingly pointed.  One of my favorites was the two-part episode "Nuts to War," where the dinosaurs go to war with each other over the years crop of pistachio nuts. 

And then there was the final episode, one of the most surprising finales in TV history.  It had an ecological theme, where the actions of the WeSaySo Corporation leads to the extinction of a beetle, which is the only thing that keeps a certain creeper vine in check.  Fiasco leads to fiasco until Earth is blanketed in clouds, cooling down and becoming uninhabitable.  The last scenes show the Sinclair family in their house as winter arrives, waiting to die.  It's a chilling episode of what always had been a comedy and one of TVs most downbeat moments.  Few shows had had the nerve to end by killing off the entire cast, and this is the only one where it's genuinely tragic and not a gimmick.

The show has been out on DVD, marketed as a children's show.  And though it works on that level, like most Henson projects, it's aimed for a fare more grown-up audience.

*One of the subtle jokes on the show was naming the characters for oil companies.  "Sinclair" is an especially appropriate choice, since Sinclair Oil used a brontosaurus as its logo on its service stations.

**A redundant description for all 50s sitcoms.

***His voice was the same guy who did Elmo on Sesame Street.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Swamp Thing (comic book)

image (1972-1976)
Created by
Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson
Wikipedia Entry

Back in 1971, it was  slow day at work. One of my co-workers suggested I run down to the local drugstore and pick up a couple of comic books.*  He gave me money for one, so I went out and searched for titles.  Among them, was something called Swamp Thing.  I thought it was the stupidest sounding title ever, and knew I had to have it.  Not only was I pleasantly surprised, but the book quickly became a comic book classic.

The origin** was the story of Alec Holland, a scientist working with his wife Linda in the swamp to develop his "bio-restorative formula," sort of a super fertilizer. When enemy agents try to steal the formula, Alec resists, and, for his trouble, is left unconscious in his laboratory with a ticking bomb.  He wakes up just as it explodes and, drenched in the formula and burning up, he runs into the swamp.

The bad guys go after Linda, just as up from the swamp rises a muck-encrusted mockery of a man (love that phrase) -- Alec, turned part man, part plant.  He kills some of the bad guys, but Linda dies, too.  He then goes off to find the people responsible.

On the way, he meets Abigail Arcane, who begins to understand that the creature is human, and his friend Matt Cable, who blames the monster for the death of his friend Alec***.  The concept of a monster who was human, told from the monster's point of view, seemed very fresh at the time.****

The first series had the Swamp Thing meeting up with versions of classic movie monsters like the Patchwork Man (i.e., Frankenstein's monster) and even superheroes like Batman.  Len Wein had a real flair for dramatic writing and powerful incidents so it became more than just a tour of monsters. 

And the art by Berni Wrightson was spectacular.  Wrightson was a master of horror comic art.  His work is finely detailed and very creepy.

After ten issues, though, Wrightson left.  He was replaced with artist Nestor Redondo.  Many didn't notice the change, but while Wrightson's art is appreciated today, Redondo is only the guy who replaced him.  The two were similar in style, but Wrightson was clearly better.

After the first story arc of 13 episodes, Wein left, too, replaced by David Micheline.  The comic, though still a good one, slowly lost readers and a bit of its freshness.  After 24 issues, the series died.

It remained forgotten for six years.  But Wes Craven directed a Swamp Thing film in 1982, and, to cash in, DC started the new Saga of the Swamp Thing comic,  It limped along for a year and a half until they hired a successful UK writer who had never done work in the US -- Alan Moore. Moore completely revamped the character, changing him from a man/plant hybrid to a "plant elemental," and the book became a critical and popular success.*****

People still remember the Alan Moore version, and much of it has been reprinted.  The original run, however, has gotten short shrift. One reprint book stopped at issue 10, to showcase Wrightson's art, but leaves off the last three issues the Wein wrote, essentially leaving out the conclusion of the arc. 

The original Swamp Thing was a landmark in the history of comics, and still stands up well today.

*Yes, comics were sold in drugstores back then. Also, believe it or not, Marvel Comics were hard to find:  you either got DC or inferior brands like Charlton Comics.

**Actually, Swamp Thing was based upon a one-shot story by the same creative team that appeared in House of Secrets, set in the early 20th century.  In it, Alex Olson makes the discovery.  When he returns from the swamp, his partner is trying to kill Alex's wife.  The Swamp Thing protects her, but, unable to communicate who he was, returns sadly to the swamp. 

***A neat trick that they became such close friends -- they first met in the beginning of the origin issue.

****Sort of.  A few months earlier, Marvel had come out with Man-Thing, who seemed very similar, probably because Len Wein wrote the origin story.  There were no lawsuits, though, since the two comics quickly went off in different directions.  Man-Thing now is best remembered for its Annual -- called Giant Sized Man-Thing.  At the time, all Marvel's double issues were called "Giant Sized," and the obvious double entendre was missed.  In addition to laughs at the name of the issue, the comic featured the debut of Marvel's strangest hero, Howard the Duck.

*****It's probably the only work by Moore I don't particularly care for, though.  There are certainly some excellent episodes, but the entire concept of "plant elemental" just was too labored for me, and I missed the pathos of Alec losing his humanity, the central concept of the original run.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Misfits (TV)

(2009 - )
Written by
Howard Overman
Starring Iwan Rheon, Robert Sheehan, Lauren Socha, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Antonia Thomas
IMBD Entry
Complete Episodes Available at Hulu

Alicia, Curtis, Kelly, Nathan, Simon
is not forgotten, of course.  In the UK, it won the BAFTA award for best drama in its first season, and is currently getting ready for Season 3. In the US, however, it is completely unknown.  I stumbled upon it by accident on Hulu and soon came to realize it was one of the greatest TV shows ever.  It is clearly the best to feature characters with super powers.

The premise is that a mysterious storm travels through an English urban neighborhood, giving people strange abilities.  What makes this different is two things.  First, the characters don't automatically become heroes or villains.  In many cases, their powers have limited use, anyway, and they have to go about their lives. And second, the powers are tied in with the characters fears and desires.  Thus, the nerdy boy who want to be left alone develops the ability to turn invisible.  The girl who's always worried about what people think about her can now read minds.  

The show focuses on five young men and women in a community service program for minor crimes. 

  • Simon (Iwon Rehon), a somewhat creepy guy who clearly wants to be left alone.  He's also the smartest of the group, though the others dislike him at first.
  • Nathan (Robert Sheehan).  He's the most outrageous personality, someone for whom the phrase "anything for a laugh" is far too tame. He crosses over the line and then continues.  But he gets the funniest lines, and you do get to know the reason for his attitude; it's a strange combination of utter asshole and sweet guy, sometimes all at once.*
  • Kelly (Lauren Socha).  She has serious anger management issues and speaks in an accent that US viewers might be hard to follow.  But ultimately, she is worried about what people think of her.
  • Curtis (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett). A near world-class athlete, but whose career was derailed when he was caught with drugs.  He's the most decent person of the bunch, though he is filled with regrets.
  • Lauren (Antonia Thomas).  Party girl supreme, who is not afraid to use her sexuality and good looks to get what she wants.  Her power is actually more a curse than anything useful.

They're basically good, but screwed up just a little, unhappy with their lives and lack of direction.

The gang gets into hot water the very first episode, and things start exploding from there.  Things get dark and scary for them, not only due to their actions, but as they meet up with others with powers.  One of the subplots of the first season is that Nathan seems to have no superpower, though he is sure he must.  When it's revealed, it's a scene that manages to be equally hilarious and horrifying.**

No one tries to take over the world.  No government agency uses the group for spying and derring-do.  This is not that sort of show, and it survives due its plotting and characterization.  We see the main characters change over the events, and things that seem to be heading in one direction often veer off into another.  All the characters have great depth, their actions and powers working in strange ways that almost always contradict your first impression of them.  There are scenes of great sadness and pathos, other scenes that are wildly funny, others that are horrifying.  Often at the same time.

So why is the show on Hulu and not some cable network?  Part of it is that it's made on a British schedule:  six episodes per season; currently only 13*** are available.  But I think the bigger issue is the fact that the show is definitely R-rated.  The language is explicit and there are some blatant sex scenes and there is no good way to censor them for US audiences without losing most of the point. 

If you're looking for something new and different in your TV watching, go to Hulu and start watching Misfits.  By episode two, you'll be hooked.

*One of the questions about the third series of the show is due to the fact Sheehan has quit; it is a big role to drop.

**And I don't mean this is a horror comedy.  You laugh, but the situation is not played for laughs in the slightest.  Overman does this sort of balancing act all the time:  things that seem utterly stupid, but also menacing and horrifying.

***12 regular, plus a Christmas episode, though the idea of the show doing a sweetness-and-light Christmas seems surprising.