Sunday, July 30, 2017

To Be Alive!

Johnson's Wax Pavilion(1964)
Directed by
Francis Thompson and Alexander Hammid
Written by Francis Tompson, Alexander Hammid, Edward Field
Narrated by Edward Field
Wikipedia Entry
Most of the exhibits of the New York World’s Fair were real: models and buildings that portrayed the future and the past. But one of the most acclaimed exhibit of the fair was the Johnson’s Wax pavilion – a short movie called to be alive!
Part of it was a gimmick. This was a few years after Cinerama brought the (mixed) wonders of a super wide screen to theaters, but the fad had not quiet died yet.  To be alive! tried something similar, but instead of having three cameras projecting across one extra wide screen, it use three regular-sized screens separated by a foot of black. This was easier to deal with technically, and audiences learned to ignore the black space immediately.
The movie is the musings of a narrator, who, tired of the rat race,* starts to wax poetic about how things were when he was a child.  The movie starts with the life of a child, and then follows a life span as it celebrates human existence. 
The strength of the film is in its images, which show people from all over the world, doing what the love and enjoying the world around them. The three-screen format was a feast for the eyes.
The film was a sensation.  The New York Critics Film Circle gave it a special award, unprecedented for a nontheatrical film. It was considered ineligible for an Oscar because of its format, so they cut it down into on single-screen version that played in LA and won the award for documentary short.  While still inspiring, the movie loses much of its impact when you cut out 2/3rds of the images.  Here’s a look:

The movie, like most of the World’s Fair, was ephemeral, more so because it required special equipment to project it. But it was a minor masterpiece that deserves to be remembered.
*The images were very similar to those used years later in Koyaanisqatsi

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Missionary

Directed by
Richard Loncraine
Written by Michael Palin
Starring Michael Palin, Maggie Smith, Trevor Howard, Denholm Elliott, Phoebe Nicholls
IMDB Entry

HandMade Films was a UK-based film company that had a long list of good films to its credit in the 1980s. It’s founding was due to a favor. The Monty Python group had discovered that the financing for Life of Brian fell through at the last minute, George Harrison stepped in to produce it.* The studio continued successfully for about twenty years, producing dramas like The Long Good Friday and comedies (often involving the Monty Python actors) like The Missionary.

In 1906, the Rev. Charles Fortescue (Michael Palin) is returning to England after ten years as a missionary in Africa, where his fiancée, Deborah Fairbanks (Phoebe Nicholls). Fortescue is soon given an assignment by the Bishop (Denholm Elliott) to help fallen women redeem themselves. To help set things up, Fortescue writes for money from Lord Ames (Trevor Howard) and is invited to their home, where he meets his wife Lady Isobel (Maggie Smith), who is especially interested in the project (and in Fortescue). But Fortescue goes into the work and begins to develop a . . . different way to bring the women to his church.

Michael Palin is perhaps the most underrated comedian in Monty Python, and shows off his acting in portraying Fortescue as an innocent who slowly begins to figure out what is going on. Maggie Smith is excellent (of course) as Lady Isobel, who is far from the prim and proper English lady.  Phoebe Nicholls is a wonderful surprise as the aggressively naïve fiancée** and the rest of the cast is filled with veteran UK actors who know how to make the most of their roles.

The movie is more amusing than laugh-out-loud funny, but is an entertaining and somewhat bawdy delight.

* Eric Idle called it “the most expensive movie ticket every bought.”

** When asked what she thinks a fallen woman is, she says, “Women who have hurt their knees?”

Sunday, July 16, 2017

My Hero (TV)

My Hero(2000-2006)
Created by
Paul Mendelson
Starring Ardal O’Hanlon, Emily Joyce, Geraldine McNulty, Hugh Dennis, Lill Roughley, Philip Whitchurch, Lou Hirsch
IMDB Entry
Superhero TV shows usually concentrated on the acts of heroism and derring-do. But My Hero did a different take, using another common sitcom trope: the fish-out-of-water comedy.
It features the life of Thermoman (Ardal O’Hanlon), a superhero from the planet Ultron, but mostly his civilian life as George Sunday.  George runs a health food shop and develops a crush on Janet Dawkins (Emily Joyce)  after rescuing her from falling in the Grand Canyon. Janet is a nurse, working with Dr. Piers Crispin (Hugh Dennis), a raging egomaniac, and Mrs. Raven (Geraldine McNulty), who has the disposition of Attila the Hun. Arnie (Lou Hirsch) is a friend of George from Ultron who tries to guide him about human ways and Tyler (Philip Whitchurch) is an aging hippy who knows George’s identity, but is constantly spouting nonsense, so no one believes him.
George is still confused about Earth habits and expressions. It’s an old gag about the foreigner who takes everything literally,* but the show was endlessly inventive in keeping it fresh, mostly because George is smart enough to realize it pretty quickly when it happens. O’Hanlon is just perfect in the role – confused, but also very charming.  Emily Joyce is impressive as the calm center of the action, the straight woman to the madness around her.**  Geraldine McNulty is terrific as the woman who has a nasty word for everyone.
The show makes the most of the talents of the actors involved, and the writing is top-notch. In many ways, this was My Favorite Martian in England, but the main difference is that the show dealt with more human issues instead of just gimmicks.
My Hero ran 51 episodes over six years. The final year, they tried to pull a Doctor Who and replace O’Hanlon with another actor, but the show died off after that.
*I can think of examples of it from The Three Stooges.
**One nice thing is that they don’t drag out the revelation that George is Thermoman – Janet finds out 2/3rds of the way into the first episode.