Monday, December 31, 2007

La Belle et la bete

(Beauty and the Beast) (1946)
Directed by Jean Cocteau
Written by Cocteau and Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont
Starring Jean Marais, Josette Day
IMDB Entry

Myths are often retold. And Beauty and the Beast is no exception. The problem with retellings and remakes is that if there is a perfect version, they get forgotten by OK but inferior versions. That's why Jean Cocteau's La Belle et la bête deserves memorialization.

I don't have to tell you the story. You've probably seen the Disney version -- which is a pretty good movie in its own right. Gaston is one of my favorite Disney villains, because he doesn't see himself as a villain. He's going to save Belle, and do good. The movie also has some fine Howard Ashman/Alan Menken songs.

But it doesn't hold a candle to Cocteau's.

Jean Cocteau was a poet. This isn't hyperbole: Cocteau actually made his reputation as a poet (and playwright) before turning to films. He certainly had a poet's eye for beauty. La Belle et la bête is filled with beautiful, poetic imagery. For instance, when Beauty arrives at the Beast's castle, her way is lit by candelabra along the wall held by human hands. She glides down the hallway in a dreamlike movement, and the candles magically light as she passes.

The Beast's Hallway

Jean Marais is also memorable as the Beast. He appears like a lion, and his nobility makes him a perfect romantic hero. Legend has it that when the Beast was changed into a prince, Greta Garbo shouted out, "Give me back my beast!" Certainly the Beast is more romantic than any prince could be.

La Belle et la Bete

The film was made under difficult circumstances. World War II had just ended, and France was suffering from shortages of film and food. Cocteau made do with whatever film stock he could scrounge up, and the sumptuous banquets in the film were devoured by the crew and extras as soon as the scene was complete. Marais had to spend five hours a day for his make up, and Cocteau had to be hospitalized due to illness during shooting.

But none of the problems show up on the screen. The results are one of the most beautiful and romantic movies ever made.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The New Twilight Zone

(TV) (1985-1989)
Executive Producer: Philip De Guere
Episode Guide

In 1985, for no logical reason, the networks decided that anthology series were ready to make a comeback. At the time (and today) conventional wisdom was that people weren't interested in anthologies: they much preferred a series with recurring characters instead of being introduced to a new cast every week. An anthology was also dependent on good writing: if you like the characters, you might come back after a weak episode, but if the characters are new, then there's a good chance you won't. The last successful network anthology series was Love, American Style (it still is), and that had gone off the year a decade before.

There was a reason, of course, if not a logical one: Steven Spielberg. He had signed a contract to do Amazing Stories on NBC, and given an unprecedented order of two full seasons worth of shows. And network executives are nothing but bandwagon followers: if Steve is getting an anthology series, we should do our own. NBC added a revamped Alfred Hitchcock Presents, taking stories from the original series and coming up with new versions of them, with Alfred's original (colorized) introductions. CBS added George Burns Comedy World, which had George introducing short comedy episodes. And CBS also went to the well to bring up an old name: The New Twilight Zone.

Amazing Stories was really "Amazing story ideas." Too many of the stories were just an introduction of a concept, with flashy special effects (it had a great opening credit sequence, though). Alfred Hitchcock was probably a bad idea to begin with, since those who liked the originals weren't interested in updated versions, and those who didn't know the originals didn't care who Hitchcock was. Comedy World was funny, but completely ignored.

The New Twilight Zone, however, was a classic.

First of all, they did it right. Instead of commissioning all original stories (like Amazing Stories or George Burns) or doing remakes of classics (like Hitchcock), they had a mix: some new, some adaptations of originals, and some adaptations of science fiction short stories by major authors. These included Harlan Ellision, Robert Silverberg, Rockne S. O'Bannon, Joe Haldeman, George R. R. Martin, Greg Bear, Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, and Arthur C. Clarke, among others. Wes Craven, Peter Medak, Martha Coolidge, and Robert Downey (Sr.) directed episodes. Actors appearing included Bruce Willis, Richard Mulligan, Elliot Gould, Danny Kaye, Robert Klein, Annie Potts, James Whitmore, Jr., Robert Morse, Fritz Weaver, Shelly Duval, Richard Libertini, George Wendt -- in other words, a long list of well known names.

And the show allowed for free-form episodes: it ran an hour, but the stories could run from five minutes to 45. This helped avoided padding out episodes to fill the time needed, or cutting parts from the story in order to make it fit. They even hired the Grateful Dead to do the theme music.

Some of the more memorable episodes included:

  • Nightcrawlers. Directed by William (The French Connection) Friedkin, this was a tense tale about a Vietnam veteran with more then the usual type of nightmares. The format of the series served this well: it was originally shown without a commercial break within it, so the suspense kept building from start to finish.
  • To See the Invisible Man. From Robert Silverberg, this is about a society where people are punished by being made "invisible": no one will acknowledge their presence. The ending is one of the most emotionally rich scenes ever to be on TV.
  • Wordplay. The first script by Rockne S. O'Bannon (Farscape), this stars Robert Klein as a man who discovers that the people around him start using different meanings for words. "What do you want to eat for dinosaur?" for instance.
  • I of Newton. Fun "deal with the devil story" written by Joe Haldeman.
  • Gramma. Story by Stephen King, teleplay by Harlan Ellison
  • Shatterday. A Harlan Ellison story about a man (Bruce Willis) who finds a double is taking over his life.
  • Night of the Meek. A nice remake of the original TZ episode, with Richard Mulligan in the Art Carney role.
  • Monsters. A nice twist on the vampire legend, where a vampire moves next door to a young boy, who learns what the real monsters are.
  • A Matter of Minutes. An adaptation of Theodore Sturgeon's "Yesterday was Monday" with a script by O'Bannon, and starring Alan Arkin as a man who finds a bunch of mysterious blue workmen tearing down things in his neighborhood.

And that's just the first season alone. I could go on and list much more (it's hard not to); just check out the episode guide to see everything.

The show ran into a bit of controversy over a Harlan Ellison episode that the censors wouldn't allow (Ellison and controversy? How is that possible?). But the ratings were weak. The show was renewed, though they got away from the multiple story concept and began to fit them into TV-specific rates. The ratings continued to drop, but, for contractual reasons, CBS has promise a third season, there was one -- with a new writing team lead by J. Michael Straczynski. The show was on a lower budget, but still managed to put out some excellent episodes, including a dramatization of Tom Godwin's classic SF story, "The Cold Equations" and the delightful "Cat and Mouse" (there I go listing again).

Of course, once off the air, the show was quickly forgotten. The original overshadowed the remake (though I would argue the 1985 version was as good if not better), and the recent 2002 version is probably what people remember if the title "New Twilight Zone" is mentioned. But DVDs of the 1985 series do exist, and are a real treat for TV fans.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Larry Gore's Thing (comic strip)

(c 1968-1970) Larry Gore's Thing
Web Page

Who is Larry Gore? Well, he's described by Frank Jacobs as "two parts Groucho Marx, one part Machiavelli." William M. Gaines -- long time publisher of Mad Magazine, said Gore was "even madder than we are."

He made his living as a publicist and he did have some famous clients: Red Skelton, Mad Magazine, the Miss NYC Pageant, John Wayne. And his most famous publicity stunt became legend: Tiny Tim's marriage to Miss Vicky on The Tonight Show.

So what was Larry Gore's Thing? In theory, a newspaper comic strip, though it didn't look like one. There were no characters (other than Larry Gore). There often wasn't any art (other than maybe a stock photo). Often, it was printed sideways. It was filled with dumb jokes and pointless stories, fake ads, topical humor, celebrity quotes, and fake opinion columns that had no opinions. If anything, it was probably pitched as a comic strip version of Rowan and Martin's Laugh-in. Some items included:

  • Enter the "I'll Do Anything for Publicity Contest." The lucky girl who wins will be sorry.
  • Lifetime Guarantee on all of our pure mahogany coffins.
  • Factory to you! We eliminate the middleman's profit! The factory is mailed directly to you.
  • Boheck's* gives real food stamps. Yes . . . at last. Stamps that taste like food.
  • Today's Horoscope: avoid any astrology readings.
  • LESS Cigarettes: After countless laboratory tests, 99 out of 100 medical doctors suggest you smoke LESS.
  • Today's Horoscope: Stay cool. Don't go to Pisces.
Gore's only collaborator in this was artist Bob Clarke (best known for his work with Mad), who would add his own work to the clip art and photos.

The strip only ran a few years and in only a few newspapers (Newsday on Long Island being one of the few). Avon Books published a collection in 1970, but I don't think the comic lasted much beyond that. If you can find the book somewhere, pick it up.

*A play on "Bohack's," a Long Island supermarket chain that went out of business in the 70s.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Human Nature (2001)

Directed by Michel Gondry
Written by Charlie Kauffman
Starring Patricia Arquette, Tim Robbins, Rhys Ifans, Miranda Otto, Mary Kay Place, Robert Forster
IMDB Entry

The obscurity of this film is quite surprising. It's recent, and it's another film by the gloriously strange mind of Charlie Kauffman.

Kaufmann (sometimes with his twin Donald) wrote some of the strangest comedies of the past few years, starting with Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind. Those films are talked about all the time in one aspect or another, but Human Nature is forgotten.

That's odd. Human Nature was filmed right after Being John Malkovich (though the script was written earlier), and you would have thought it would have caught people's eye. It certainly has a lot of Kauffman's weird mixture of slapstick and deep philosophy. But the film seemed to vanish.

The plot is typical Kauffman (if anything about him can be said to be typical). Lila Jute (Patricia Arquette) is a young woman who suffers from hyperpilosity -- hair all over her body. She runs off in the woods to be with nature, but, eventually sick of it, returns and starts an affair with Dr. Nathan Bronfman (Tim Robbins), a scientist who's trying to teach table manners to mice. Meanwhile, Puff (Rhys Ifans) is raised as an ape by a father who left humanity to live like an Apeman. Puff is captured and becomes Bronfman's experiment, a way of seeing if he can be taught to be civilized. Gabrielle (Miranda Otto) is Dr. Bronfman's lab assistant who has an agenda of her own.

The movie is very funny. It starts with the murder of Dr. Bronfman by Lila, with Puff -- now seemingly cultured and refined -- testifying before Congress about the importance of the human and animal sides of life.

Kaufmann is fond of twists, and this is no different. I won't go into the details, but one of the major themes of the film is that humans are by nature duplicitous. All the characters lie to one another in different ways and betrayal is a fact of life. The surprises are fun to follow -- all the way to the end.

Tim Robbins seems incapable of giving a bad performance, and Patricia Arquette brings a lot of interest to Lila. I discovered that I had seen Rhys Ifans before -- in the Australian comedy Danny Deckchair -- and he stands out as he is taught to be refined, but with his animal nature taking over all too often. It's also fun to see Mary Kay Place and Robert Forster as Bronfman's parents.

If you like Kaufmann, give this a try.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

It Could Happen to You (1994)

Directed by Andrew Bergman
Written by Jane Anderson
Starring Nicholas Cage, Bridget Fonda, Rosie Perez, Isaac Hayes. IMDB Entry.

I've several times mentioned films with forgettable names. In these cases, the name could have been justified by saying there wasn't anything better. Not so for It Could Happen to You. The name is certainly forgettable, especially since it had been used at least four times before. The original title, though, would have been just perfect in a Snakes on a Plane way (though less silly): Cop Gives Waitress $2 Million Tip. A bit long, but which film would you more likely see?

Director Andrew Bergman made his mark as a writer, starting with Blazing Saddles and the original The In-Laws. He had also made a directing splash with The Freshman (in which Marlon Brando showed he had a sense of humor) and Honeymoon in Vegas (with the Flying Elvises).

It Could Happen to You was roughly based on a true story. Nicholas Cage plays Charlie Lang, a real nice guy cop. One day, when eating he realize he doesn't have the money to tip his waitress Yvonne Biasi (Bridget Fonda). So he makes a promise. Charlie has just bout a lottery ticket, and he promises to share his winnings with Yvonne.

As you can guess, the ticket wins.

Charlie is a man of his word, and wants to split the money. This doesn't sit well with his wife Muriel (Rosie Perez), who starts spending the cash as fast as she gets it. Yvonne, on the other hand, is shocked that Charlie shows up and realizes that men like him don’t com along all that often. The are complications due to marriages and ex-husbands, and a sweet ending.

Cage and Fonda make a nice couple. Cage is in his full-blown romantic mode, but it works fine. He makes Charlie so likeable that you want to relationship to succeed.

On the flip side, Rosie Perez is amazing as the venial Muriel. It's Von Stroheim's Greed played for laughs, and Perez plays the role to perfectly. She is another actress who never got the fame she deserved.

Isaac Hayes is also a delight as Angel, who might just be one. He narrates the story and may intervene (though it isn't really a fantasy).

Bergman's career hit a pothole after this. The film didn't do particularly well and for his next project, he did Striptease. While not as horrendous as Showgirls (which came out at about the same time), it was savaged (one of these days, someone will figure out how to translate Carl Hiaassen to the screen) and he didn't direct for a long time.

But if you're in the mood for some romance and comedy, this is a good place to start. Even with the horrible name change.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Hot L Baltimore (TV) (1975)

The Hot L Baltimore

Produced by Norman Lear
Starring: James Cromwell, Richard Masur, Conchata Ferrel, Al Freeman, Jr., Jeannie Linero, Gloria Le Roy, Robin Wilson, Stan Gottleib, Lee Bergere, Henry Calvert, and Charlotte Rae.

In 1975, Norman Lear was king of TV. He had several smash hit shows: All in the Family, Maude, Sandford and Son, The Jeffersons, and Good Times, all gaining notoriety by Lear's way of pushing the envelope of what was acceptable on TV. All shows dealt with subjects that had been deliberately ignored by TV: bigotry, racial issues, abortion, etc. So, in January 1975, Lear went for broke and pushed the envelope as far as it could go. The show was The Hot L Baltimore.

It had a pretty good pedigree -- the title came from an off-Broadway play by Lanford Wilson (whose cast included Judd Hirsch) that ran for over 1500 performances and won a Drama Critics Circle Award for Best American Play. Lear, of course, made massive changes, since the play was a slice-of-life drama and he needed to fix it up so it worked as a TV series.

The show was set in the rundown Hotel Baltimore (the title came because the "e" on the neon sign was blown out). Clifford Ainsley (Richard Masur) managed the hotel and tried to keep rein on its inhabitants, which included Bill the desk clerk (James Cromwell), in love with the prostitute April Green (Conchata Ferrell). Suzy Marta Rocket (Jeannie Linero) was another hooker, George and Gordon (Lee Bergere and Henry Calvert) were an older gay couple, and Mrs. Belotti (Charlotte Rae) would come to visit her weird son, Moose, whose exploits were described but never seen.

The subject matter raised fits. Hookers? Homosexuals? The protests were loud. ABC stood by the show and continued to let it run.

Conchata Ferrell The show was somewhat different from other of Lear's comedies in tone, far less strident and more based on characters. I especially liked Conchata Ferrell as April, the center of the show. It was not only usual to have a hooker as a main character in a show, but Ferrell was (and still is) a large woman. Hookers on TV and most movies (especially back in the 70s) were usually attractive women, more fantasy than reality. And Ferrell is a terrific actress. She's currently on TV as Bertha the housekeeper in Two and a Half Men, a role that seems to expand to give her more screen time for her amazing comic timing, and was great in a dramatic role in the pioneer western Heartland.

Masur was also good as the put-upon Ainsley and later developed a career as a character actor in TV. The most successful person in the cast was Charlotte Rae, who became a TV icon in The Facts of Life (I saw her on stage a few years ago at Ford's Theater -- yes, that Ford's theater).

But the protests did hurt ratings, and the show was eventually canceled due to low ratings. Sometimes when you push the envelope, the envelope pushes back.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Changes coming

I plan to start putting my comments here instead of on my web page starting soon. For now, see Great but Forgotten at http://www.sff.net/people/rothman

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Saboteur

(1942)
Directed by
Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay by: Peter Viertel, Joan Harrison, and Dorothy Parker
Starring Robert Cummings, Priscilla Lane, Otto Kruger, Norman Lloyd, Alma Kruger
IMDB Entry

SaboteurAlfred Hitchcock is one of my favorite film directors. It's hard to say that any of his films are actuallyforgotten (other than Bon Voyage and Adventure Malgache, two short films that only recently became available), or even overlooked, but one particular gem that seems to take the back seat inSaboteur.

On reason for this is Hitchcock himself. He considered the final scene to be a mistake, which he rectified in North by Northwest. And, indeed, North by Northwest is very much the same movie.  Both have a similar plot:  a man on the run, involved with spies, who tries to clear his name.  Of course, Hitchcock like that sort of situation, so Saboteur gets lost in the shuffle, since North by Northwest is more accomplished.

But that doesn't mean the older film isn't a good one.  Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) is a worker in an aircraft factory.  When a fire breaks out, someone hands him an extinguisher full of accelerant. Kane is blamed, escapes the police and goes to find the man who can clear his name (Norman Lloyd).  On the way, he meets up with Pat Martin (Priscilla Lane), who he takes along, first to keep her from going to the police, and later because she believes him (and, of course, falls in love).  The trail leads Kane to Charles Tobin (Otto Kruger), who, as is typical of Hitchcock, is a respectable man in society who has a dark side.

Robert Cummings & Norman Lloyd take in the sightsThe film has some great setpieces.  I especially liked the way Kane freed himself from handcuffs -- and the logical result of how he did it.  There was also a nice suspenseful scene at a party when Kane tries to tell the guests that Tobin is a spy.  There's Kane and Pat being picked up by a circus train. The saboteur's look when he passes the wreck of the Normanidie. And, of course, the final sequence at the Statue of Liberty (a dress rehearsal for the Mt. Rushmore scene in North by Northwest).

Robert Cummings is better known as a light comedian and early TV star.  He is pretty good in this more serious role.  And Otto Kruger is especially good as the suave villain. What's nice is that he gives some justification for his actions that isn't easy to refute.  And Norman Lloyd -- later to gain some fame as Daniel Auschlander in St. Elsewhere -- is very good as the title character.

If you like Hitchcock, or even if you don't, it's a small gem that's worth seeking out.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Smallest Show on Earth*

The Smallest Show on Earth(1957)
Directed by Basil Dearden
Screenplay by William Rose and John Eldridge
Starring Bill Travers, Virginia McKenna, Peter Sellers, Margaret Rutherford, Bernard Miles, Francis De Wolff
IMDB Entry

One of the Internet's great resources is archive.org.  If you're not familiar, they create shapshots of all web pages, so you can see what they looked like in the past.  But, for films, it's even better:  a bunch of public domain movies freely available for download. They include some pretty good films, too, since before TV, there was no reason to renew copyright, and studios sometimes forgot.

The Smallest Show on Earth is a charming little British comedy.  Matt Spencer (Bill Travers) and his wife Jean (Virginia McKenna) discover they have inherited a movie theater from an uncle that Matt can barely remember. When they go to claim their inheritance, they discover it's not an elaborate movie palace, but the Bijou, a "flea pit" neighborhood theater that is on its last legs.

To increase the value to get top dollar for it, they try to set it up as a going concern, keeping the trio of ancient staff (Margaret Rutherford, Peter Sellers, and Bernard Miles) on the job. 

The story is well plotted.  Matt and Jean's reasons for keeping the theater going -- something they are reluctant to do at first -- grow logically from the situation, and the way they turn drawbacks into benefits is smart and funny.

Peter Sellers and Bill TraversPeter Sellers is the best-known member of the cast.  Here he plays Mr. Quill, the old projectionist and the only one who know how to keep the antiquated Rube Goldberg projector running.  No mugging, but a performance that is both funny and charming. The movie is sometimes marketed as though Sellers is the star, but I doubt anyone would be disappointed.

Virginia McKenna is also very charming as Jean, and Margaret Rutherford -- a great British character actor and later Oscar winner -- is also good as Mrs. Fazackalee, the ticket seller and former lover of Matt's uncle.

The film is also a nice look into how old-fashioned neighborhood movie houses were run.  It will leave you smiling.

________________________________________
*Alternate title: Big Time Operators

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

War With the Newts (book)

(1936)
By Karel Capek

War with the Newts

Karel Capek's career boils down to one word:  Robot.  He popularized the term (evidently, he credited his brother for actually coining it) in his play R.U.R. in 1920.  It caught on.  (Oddly, the robots in R.U.R. were not mechanical; they were organic, more like the traditional science fiction android than robot.)

I read R.U.R. back in college in a science fiction course, so you don't have to. It has dated extremely badly and boils down to exploited workers revolting -- with an ending that is now one of SF's greatest clichés (and was probably a bit clichéd back in 1920).  So when, later on in the course, we were required to read Capek's War with the Newts, I was less than enthusiastic.

Then I read it.

War with the Newts is the work for which Capek should be remembered.  It's a deft satire, leaving the preachiness of R.U.R. behind but still making some fascinating points.

The book tells about the discovery of an intelligent type of salamander in the South Seas. At first, the salamanders are trained for menial labor, but as time goes by, they prove to be too intelligent for that. 

The story is divided into three sections. The first describes how the salamanders are discovered, and how they are soon put to use on underwater projects.

It's the second section that really stands out.  Entitled "On the Road to Civilization" it is a total parody of all human history, filled with strange footnotes and digressions.  I read it with a sense of incredible wonder at Capek's ingenuity.

In the final section, the Newts -- whose reproductive capacity far outstrips humans -- start modifying the world to meet their needs.  Capek is drawing a parallel between the Newts and the Nazis (who were rising to power in Europe at the time), but also makes some points about all dictators in general.

It's a book that's fun, but with an important point (still valid today). It's still in print, so go out an get a copy.  You'll be glad you did.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Magic

(1978)
Directed by
Richard Attenborogh
Screenplay by William Goldman
Starring Anthony Hopkins, Ann-Margaret, Burgess Meredeth
IMDB Entry

Like many movies I write about, Magic is badly named.  It's not about magic; it's about ventriloquism.  But that's a minor quibble about a neat little bit of psychological horror.

MagicThe plot is an old one, dating in films back at least to the 1920s:  the ventriloquist whose dummy takes on a life of its own.  Corky Withers (Anthony Hopkins), a failed magician, becomes a success on stage once he switches to ventriloquism.  His dummy, Fats, is nasty and cruel, but a big success.

But the success scares Corky.  You see, Fats seems to have a life of his own.  Is the dummy coming to life, or is it just Corky cracking up?  He goes off to try to figure it out, disappointing his agent (Burgess Meredith), but while there, ends up rekindling his relationship with his old high school sweetheart, Peggy Ann Snow (Ann-Margaret).  But it all leads to murder and retribution.

The talent involved makes this work.  This was one of Anthony Hopkins's first leading roles and he was quite a revelation at the time (of course, we all now know what he's capable of).  His Corky (and his doing the voice of Fats) is complex and surprising.

One of the nice things is that it's never completely clear whether Fats is really alive, or just a projection of Corky's split personality. The film cleverly avoids any clear-cut answer (though it does lean toward a non-supernatural explanation); when Corky is convinced that Fats is alive, you wonder whether he just might be right.

The script (and original novel) were by William Goldman, better known as the writer of Marathon Man and The Princess Bride and an Oscar winner for his screenplays of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President's Men. This one is often overlooked, but works very well.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

NBC Experiment in Television

(1968-1971)

IMDB Entry

NY Times Ad for the showYou really can't get more forgotten than this.  It's a TV show that’s barely listed in the IMDB* and without an entry in Wikipedia (as of this writing), and it's only mentioned in passing on the web.  It took me two days of searching before I could find an episode list online (Since taken down).   But it was one of the high points of TV, even if few people saw it.  "Off the beaten path" indeed.

Back in the late 60s, NBC was faced with a problem.  They wanted to provide late Sunday afternoon programming, but, after the football season ended, there were no sports to run (they didn't have the right to the NBA, the NHL was too much of a niche market, and junk sports hadn't been invented).  So the network took a bold step:  a limited series (as we'd call it today) of one hour, with drama, comedy, and documentaries -- presented without commercials. It was the unusual case of a network putting prestige ahead of profit.

The show was filled with recognizable names, both established or on their way to becoming well known. Some of the actors involved were Yaphet Kotto, Jo Van Fleet, Frank Langella, Nanette Fabray, Fritz Weaver, Bernadette Peters, Verna Bloom, Frank McHugh (a favorite of mine from the 30s), Jack Gilford, Nancy Walker, David Steinberg, Mildred Dunnock, Donald Pleasance, Richard Briers, John Gielgud, George Plimpton, Christopher Plummer, and Diana Rigg.  Some of the plays were written by such people as Jim Henson, Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter, John Guare, and novelist John Hawkes.  Documentaries featured people like Marshall McLuhan (they had him right there, though he evidently didn't like the result), Frederico Fellini, Arthur Penn (shown directing deaf actors), L'il Abner's Al Capp, and the Beatles.

Pretty impressive.

The show ran at various times on Sunday afternoons, as early as 3:00 pm and as late as 5:00. Twice it preempted Star Trek to run on Friday nights.  (I guess it was a sure sign that StarTrek was on the way out that they replaced it with a commercial-free show.)

The CubeNot everything was commissioned by NBC; several episodes were the first American showing of BBC programmes.  The Beatles were shown rehearsing "Hey, Jude" as a part of a show on music in Britain, hosted by Alistair Cooke (before he became connected with PBS).  The Pinter show -- short animations scripted by him, with a look at to how they were made -- starred several big British stars, and the Stoppard play, The Engagement, was made in the UK, probably for the BBC (and got theatrical release), but was shown in the US first.

One of the more memorable efforts was The Cube, a surrealistic comedy-drama written and directed by Jim Henson. No Muppets, but a strange story of a man trapped in a white cube, with people dropping by. Henson also directed Youth '68 for the series, a documentary about the youth culture of the time.

Of course, things had to come to an end.  Though the show was well regarded (it won a Peabody Award in 1969), by definition, any show on a network that ran without commercials is losing money.  The final season consisted on reruns, plus a documentary on Buckminster Fuller.  In addition, PBS was growing, and was a more natural fit for the type of programming the show offered.  Once NBC figured out how to put sponsored programming on Sunday, it was the end.  Prestige only goes so far.

____________________________________________
*It was not when I first wrote this entry.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Hoodwinked

Hoodwinked -- the Suspects(2005)
Written and Directed by Corey Edwards and Todd Edwards
Starring the voices of: Anne Hathaway, Glenn Close, Patrick Warburton, James Belushi, David Ogden Stiers, Xzibit, Chazz Palmenteiri, Andy Dick.
IMDB Entry

Hoodwinked starts out with Red Riding Hood (Anne Hathaway) visiting Grandma's house, with the wolf (Patrick Warburton) in the bed. After a witty variation on the dialog on the original, the Wolf jumps at Red, Grandma (Glenn Close) is discovered tied up in the closet, and the woodsman (James Belushi) crashes through the window.

Then the police arrive.

Yes, Hoodwinked is another postmodern version of a fairy tale, following the ground that Shrek and others plowed. What sets it apart is witty dialog and a surprisingly sophisticated story.

Because, in the movie, the scene at Grandma's house is not the main thread.  Chief Grizzly (Xzibit) has a bigger problem:  the Goody Bandit, who's been stealing recipes and putting bakers and candymakers out of business. The chief thinks the Wolf is involved, but his detective, Nicky Flippers (David Ogden Stiers) thinks otherwise.  So he has everyone tell their story.

Here's where it rises above most animated films:  the stories are all different and are colored by the teller's point of view. As each of the characters tell their tale, we see the different perspectives and discover that what one assumes is not exactly what happened. 

The concept is reminiscent of Roshomon, though by saying that, I give the wrong impression.  The movie is fun, and part of the fun is discovering how the original story (by Red) plays out with the information given by the other characters.  None of the characters are the way the appear, and it's fun to see the truth and how it all dovetails.

In the final part of the film, Red, Granny, the Wolf, and the Woodsman unite to bring down the Goody Bandit. While the identity isn't a big surprise, it still is both fun and entertaining. Directors Todd and Cory Edwards keep the action and jokes coming from start to finish.

All the voice actors are excellent. The main standout is Patrick Warburton as the Wolf, but Andy Dick is also worthy of mention in his small role.

The movie did well enough, mostly because it was relatively cheap, and there's talk of a sequel.  I'm looking forward to it.

Edited 12/15/2014.  The sequel was a major disappointment, alas.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Force of Evil

(1948)
Directed by Abraham Polonsky
Written by Abraham Polonsky, Ira Wolfert (from his novel)
Starring John Garfield, Thomas Gomez, Marie Windsor, Howland Chamberlain
IMDB Entry

The Hollywood Blacklist had many innocent victims. Abraham Polonsky may not have been innocent, but he was a victim, and I think films are weaker because of it.

Polonsky (not to be confused with Roman Polanski) had some success as a writer of films, most notably the boxing drama Body and Soul, and decided he wanted to direct. This was still unusual in 1940s Hollywood (Preston Sturges had done it, but few others), but Polonsky took his shot with the gem of a film, Force of Evil (Not to be confused with Touch of Evil)

The movie is the story of an upheaval in the numbers racket.  John Garfield (not to be confused in any way with Alan Garfield) plays Joe Morse, a lawyer for an organized crime group. The group is working to take over the numbers racket.  Their plan:  causing the number 776 to be the winner on 4th of July.  Bettors always played that number very heavily on that day, so if it came in, it would be too much for many bookies to pay off.  Those who didn't join the syndicate would not be able to cover their bets, and either would have to borrow from the syndicate, or go out of business.  Joe is responsible for trying to get bookies to join the syndicate beforehand.

John Garfield and Thomas GomezThe fly in the ointment is Joe's brother, Leo (Thomas Gomez), a small time bookie who doesn't want to fall in with the big time crooks. Joe has to convince Leo before July 4, and Leo -- an honest bookie who will pay everything he owes, even if it ruins him -- refuses.

Polonsky made no bones about being a Communist, and the film is clearly an allegory about how big business crushes the small competitor. But the film works not because of that, but because of the relationship between the two brothers.

Leo is the moral one in the film, while Joe learns too late that some things come at too great a price.  Thomas Gomez is terrific in the role.  He was a well traveled character actor, best known as one of Edward G. Robinson's henchmen in Key Largo, and this is a performance to savor of a man who wants to stand up for what is right.

John Garfield was good (as he usually was) as Joe, one of his best performances as a cynical man who learns that cynicism isn't good enough.  Garfield was a vastly underrused actor of his time, a leading man type who was typecast as criminals and never really got the breakthrough role where he could become a major star.  The movie he first starred in,They Made Me a Criminal, pretty much describes

Polonski's Communist leanings did not sit well once the Red Scare began.  He refused to name names and was thus blacklisted for almost 20 years.  He did some film work -- writing a screenplay or two with a front, directing at least once without being credited -- but didn't show up officially until Tell Them Willie Boy is Here in 1969.  Once again, he showed his revolutionary credentials (the movie deals with the treatment of Native Americans), but the film was much more heavyhanded. 

As for John Garfield, he truly was one of the innocent victims.  Never a Communist, but socially very liberal, his politics caught up with him in the red scare and he found it hard to get work.  The stress contributed to his dying of a heart attack at the age of 39.

The film has been rediscovered and the allegory may seem a bit obscure, but as a drama, it's still as good as ever.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

All These Women (För att inte tala om alla dessa kvinnor) (1964)

Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Written by Bergman and Erland Josephson
Starring: Bibi Andersson, Harriet Andersson, Eva Dahlbeck, Jarl Kulle
IMDB Entry
Back in college, I took a course called "Emergence of the Artist."  The idea was to follow the career of a film director and see how he developed.  The first time they gave it, it was about Alfred Hitchcock, but when I took it, the director in question in Ingmar Bergman.
The professor, Frank Gado, had his quirks.  One was that the only type of art that was worth studying was those which examined the relationship between man and God. The other was that he was a passionate fan (and acquaintance) of Ingmar Bergman.
We watched 23 films in the ten weeks of the course (Union College had 10-week trimesters and is still unable to change this to two 15-week semesters with various objections that boiled down to the argument "It can't be done!" as though 90% of US colleges didn't exist).
We started with Bergman's first film, Frenzy, (as writer, and it has nothing to do with the Hitchcock title) and went through a lot of things that are rarely shown these days:  Illicit Interlude, Thirst, The Naked Night.  And eventually All These Women.
In 1964, foreign films were given US titles, and All These Women is not exactly the Swedish title, which is better translated as Let's not talk about all these women. A bit wordy, but, in a way, it fits, since All These Women is unique among Bergman's films.  It's a comedy.  A slapstick comedy.
Yes, for someone known as making serious and often depression films. Bergman had his bright side.  Of course, his best known film (at least, in adaptation) is also a comedy:  Smiles of a Summer Night.  But that was a French-style reaction comedy, where the humor comes out of how the characters react.  All these Women is pure slapstick.
It announces this very early on:  it starts with a funeral scene.  But instead of Death in a black cape, the soundtrack is playing "Yes, We Have No Bananas."  The story involves flashbacks of the dead man, a famed cellist who has affairs with many women (he schedules their lovemaking so they don't meet).
Jarl Kulle plays Cornelius, a writer trying to do a biography of the cellist, Felix (who is never seen). The film was also Bergman's first film in color.
It did not get particularly good reviews, but I remember it was mildly funny and worth checking out.  It seems to have gained a bit in stature over the years, as people see the typical Bergman themes underneath the slapstick (it's clear that the character of Felix is a stand in for Bergman himself).  But it's especially fascinating if, as you watch the slapstick, you tell yourself this is slapstick done by Ingmar Bergman. The idea alone is worth quite a few smiles.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Heartbreak Kid

The Heartbreak Kid(1972)
Directed by Elaine May
Written by Neil Simon
Based upon "A Change of Plan" by Bruce Jay Friedman
Starring:  Charles Grodin, Cybil Shepard, Eddie Albert, Jeannie Berlin, Audra Lindley
IMDB Entry

I figured I should get this in before the Farrelly Brothers version hits screens this fall.  Nothing against the Farrellys (though they don't appeal to me much), but this is a film that needn't be remade.  The original was perfect (and from the trailer, I'm not hopeful about the new version).

Consider who was involved.  Bruce Jay Friedman was a major short story writer of the 60s.  Not literary (though he appeared in literary magazines), but with a warped sense of humor and a keen eye for human nature. Though I've treasured his story collection Far from the City of Class, I have not read "A Change of Plan," but the title alone is pure Friedman: an ironic understatement.

Neil Simon, of course, was already the toast of Broadway with an already long list of successful stage comedies. The rap on Simon at the time was that he was funny, but his characters had no depth (his Brighton Beach Memoirs changed perceptions) and that he went for the funny lines at the expense of characters.  In this, though, his screenplay stays away from wisecracks (I only noticed one) in favor of Friedman's vision.

Finally, Elaine May was considered one of the bright lights of sketch comedy, and her previous movie A New Leaf, had shown her to be a director of note.  The financial (though not artistic) fiasco of Ishtar was several years in the future.

The film is a real gem.  It's definitely May's best, but also had great roles for several of its stars.

The story is simple.  Charles Grodin (in his first major role) plays Lenny Cantrell, who is off on his honeymoon with Lila (Jeannie Berlin).  But as they drive south from New York to their hotel in Miami, Lenny begins to think he may have made a mistake.  And when he's there, he meets Kelly Corc\oran from Minnesota (Cybil Shepard) and decides she is the one for him.

So, he decides to fix his mistake.

Two scenes really stand out (out of many).  One is when Lenny explains to Kelly's parents (Eddie Albert and Audra Lindley) that he's fallen deeply in love with their daughter and wants to marry him.  There's only one small problem: he's on his honeymoon.  Albert does not take this well.  The scene is shot in a single take, the four principals framed so that you can see their reactions as Lenny goes through a long, sincere speech explaining what he wants to do.  It's all Lenny until he finishes, yet the reaction of the others -- Shepard's affection, Lindley's bewilderment, and Albert's slowly building anger -- is terrific.

The second is when Lenny finally tells Lila.  He takes her out to dinner at a restaurant famous for their pecan pie.  But they're out, and Lenny makes a ridiculous fuss over it.  It's clearly his way of putting off what he wants to tell Lila, and it has the same emotionally edgy humor that made Nichols and May the top comedy team of their day.

The real astounding performance here is Jeannie Berlin, May's daughter. Lila starts out nice and slowly begins to do things that make Lenny's decision reasonable.  She says the wrong things, does the wrong things, and makes you think that Lenny is better off without her.  Then, in one scene, she turns it all around, becoming a sad and pathetic figure and making it clear she is the one being wronged (looking at the trailer for the remake, they seem to be eliminating the sympathy in favor of turning Lila into a caricature). .  It is an award-worthy performance (and she did get an Oscar nomination and a couple of film critics awards for it). Alas, she made very little else (her starring vehicle, Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York, was a flop) afterwards.  Jeannie was not really leading lady material, but she had great potential in comic and second lead roles at the very least.

Groden is also great as Lenny, making a guy whose dumping his wife seem sympathetic.  You understand his reasons, yet, in the final scene, he shows that there are other reasons he doesn't understand.  Our reaction to Lenny is as complex as it is to Lila, and I'm afraid the remake will dumb it down.

Albert is a long way from Oliver Douglas in this, and gives a fine performance.  He never likes Grodin in the first place, and when he learns the story, his angry consternation is fun to behold.

The cast did well afterwards. Grodin, of course, has had a successful career.  Eddie Albert was already established (he'd already done Green Acres) and had continued success.  Cybil Shepard has become a star in her previous film, The Last Picture Show, and has also been successful, and Lindley (whose role here is pretty minor) became Mrs. Roper.

The only ones who had no later success were the two who were primarily responsible for making this a great film:  May and Berlin.  Such is Hollywood.

I hope the remake is better than the trailers indicate, but you owe it to yourself to see the original.

Ishtar

(1987)
Directed and Written by
Elaine May
Starring Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman, Isabel Adjani, Charles Grodin
IMDB Entry

If there ever was a movie with an undeserved reputation, it is Ishtar.  You've heard of it — the worst comedy ever made.  A mention of the name gets laughs.  The movie is supposed to be one big unfunny mess.

Only it isn't.

Now, I'm not saying Ishtar is a great movie.  But it is, overall, a good one.  And parts of it achieve great comedy.  It's certainly funnier than anything Adam Sandler has ever done (OK, faint praise, but still . . . )

There was one big problem with Ishtar:  its price tag.  It cost around $40 million to produce.  While nowadays, that's peanuts for a film (Sandler's The Longest Yard cost over twice that), it was expensive back in 1987:  one of the most expensive films up to that point.

That $40 million figure poisoned the well.  Critics back then, remembering Heaven's Gate, figured that any film spending that much money had to be trash.  Even worse, there was no sign of the money on the screen.  So the knives came out.

A few critics bucked the trend (I remember that Newsday on Long Island ignored the expense and gave it a good review, and Vincent Canby of the Times -- one of the top film critics of the day -- mentioned it as just missing out on his ten-best list).  But others went into the theater expecting trash (some even bragged about it),   Every single review did mention the price tag, which is interesting, but hardly relevant to whether the film was good or not.

So the film tanked.  Self-fulfilling prophecy and all that.  And it has developed a reputation for the ages that is totally unjustified on all counts.

The movie is often compared to the Hope/Crosby "Road" pictures.  It is indeed similar, but also much different.  The Road pictures were pretty much plotless meanderings —Hope and Crosby get in trouble, with Dorothy Lamour in the middle.  Hope wisecracks; Crosby sings and gets Lamour.  But the Road pictures were filled with "anything for a joke" lines, self-referential humor, and topical references.  Ishtar had none of these.  In their place, it had characters.  Hope and Crosby always were Hope and Crosby.  Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman were Lyle Rogers and Chuck Clark.

The plot involves two talentless singer/songwriters who go to the mythical Arabian country of Ishtar, supposedly to give a concert.  They get involved in a plot to overthrow the government involving a missing sacred map, and a CIA agent (the delightful Charles Grodin) who tries to use them to find the map and keep the government in power.  A mysterious woman (played by Isabelle Adjani) is involved keeping the mix moving.

The first twenty minutes of the film is pure comic brilliance.  I can see why a critic coming in with a chip on his shoulder would dismiss it:  it's a very dry, wry comedy of character.  Rogers and Clark's career is shown in flashback.  They have no talent, of course.  And it's all excruciatingly funny. 

It's helped by Paul Williams's brilliant songs. Their tunes are catchy but unmemorable, but it's the lyrics that make them such gems:

Telling the truth can be dangerous business.
Honest and popular don't go hand in hand.
If you admit that you can play the accordion,
No one'll hire you in a rock 'n' roll band.

(Elaine May and Dustin Hoffman also joined in.  A full list can be found at Richard Muller's Ishtar Lyrics website.)

The genius of the movie is that Rogers and Clark never really understand just how awful they are (except in a few flashes).  The have no conception that a song "I'm leaving some love in my will" might be inappropriate for an elderly couple.  They come up with really awful lyrics and start praising them as though they were the greatest things since Cole Porter ("When you're on, you're on" is one of the funnier lines -- said after a particularly bad lyric).  It's one of the few portrayals of the mindset of someone who is working his damndest to be artistic, but who just doesn't have the chops. 

The flashback ends with Rogers and Clark deciding to go to Ishtar for the gig.

When they reach it, the comedy does flag.  Adjani tries to recruit them both to find the map; Grodin tells Hoffman that she's a communist.  Hoffman is indignant that Beatty didn't tell him that Adjani asked him to be a communist.  There's a tedious bit about men with sunglasses all trying to shadow Hoffman and Beatty and trying to keep their movements secret from both the two men and the other spies.

Then Hoffman and Beatty go into the market, supposedly to make contact with an agent.  The password is to ask to buy a blind camel, and when they call the name of their contact (Muhammad), everyone answers to it (unsurprisingly).  This is where things pick up.

Hoffman and Beatty end up in the desert with the blind camel, with no food and little water.  There are some good gags, leading to one of the funniest scenes in film:  the arms auction.

Hoffman is captured by arms traders; Beatty escapes by donning Arab garb.  Hoffman tries to pass himself off as the translator to the native tribes they dealers are selling to.  Of course, a man who speaks English but not Arabic is immediately suspect, and Hoffman, at the risk of his life, is supposed to show his ability by telling the tribesman that their camels have been stolen.  Hands at his sides, he screams out gibberish.

But Beatty, disguised among the tribesman, begins to gesture and run to the camels; the others follow.  Hoffman's story is believed.

The rest of the scene is also very funny.  It is a real high point of any film.

Alas, after that, things fall apart.  The ending seems rushed, and doesn't really pay off properly.  It's OK, but it feels like May was very much under the gun to get things done, so patched together something that is just adequate.

But I don't find it disappointing.  The more I see the first section, the funnier it seems.  The humor is completely deadpan (which is why people missed it), but, if you pay attention, it's right on the mark.

The saddest thing about the flop is what it did to Elaine May.  She had made three previous films:  A New Leaf, The Heartbreak Kid, and Mickey and NickyThe Heartbreak Kid, in particular, is comic gold.  The story of a newlywed (Grodin again) who falls in love with Cybell Shepard -- on his honeymoon (with Jeannie Berlin, May's daughter and the part May probably would have played if she were younger at the time).  It's based on a Bruce Jay Friedman story (Friedman was a wonderfully warped writer) with a script by Neil Simon, and it's hilarious.  Watch it and never think of Key Lime Pie the same way again.

Where was I?  Oh, yes.  After Ishtar, May never directed another film.  That is a tremendous loss of a great comic talent.

So, if you have a chance, watch the movie.  You'll be pleasantly surprised.

(To learn more about Ishtar, visit the fan site at Ishtar: The movie.)

Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Heckler (comics)

(1992-93)

Written by Keith Giffen and Tom & Mary Bierbaum
Art by Keith Giffen and Malcolm Jones III
Wikipedia Entry

In the late 80s, writer/artist Keith Giffen had a radical idea for superhero comics.  He wanted to make them . . . comic.

Giffen's big successes were the various Justice League titles, where his combination of superhero action and slapstick humor was a breath of fresh air.  Sure, superheroes had the obligatory gibes while fighting a villain, but Giffen's went for the belly laugh, and wasn't afraid to show the heroes as cranky and definitely nonheroic in between battles.

Giffen also created the delightfully bizarre Ambush Bug, a comic book character who didn't have a serious moment, even if he did interact with some DC superheroes (as well as with the reader, his editor, and fanboys everywhere).  And Giffen was involved in the creation of Lobo, the most nihilistic character in the DC universe.

The Heckler contemplates Bushwack'r's trap -- issue 4And he cocreated the Heckler (Giffen at this time wrote the plots and did pencils, and had others handle dialog).  It was, perhaps, his weirdest creation. Probably because of this, it only lasted six issues.

The Heckler had a very stylized format:  every page of the comic (except the last pages of the issues 5 and 6) was laid out in a nine-panel grid. Since each panel was filled with jokes and bizarreness, this led to a rather claustrophobic feel.

The Heckler was your average superhero, patrolling Delta City, and dishing out justice and wisecracks.  In some ways, he wasn't much different from Spider-Man, Daredevil, or Bugs Bunny (and there were parallels to all three. Especially Bugs.).  In his regular life, he was Stu Mosely, who ran a diner called "Eats" (or it would be if the sign painter didn't keep screwing up:  "Fats" "Feets," "Yeast," etc.).  Stu was rather put upon: his artiste of a French chef tried to serve all the food in the form of works of art, his quest for a waitress brought in a series of completely unsuitable candidates, and his partner never showed up.

And that was the strength of Heckler: the utterly bizarre and surreal characters that inhabited Delta City.  They included the Minx, a bounty hunter dedicated to bring to justice all the bad dates she had had in her life; X-Ms, the superhero of tinseltown; and Nina, clerk at Dozens O'Donuts (they only sell glazed donuts, but they have dozens of them).  My favorite was Mr. Dude, a greaser who vaguely resembled Elvis and who evidently knew everything (the Pope would ask him for advice).   

The criminals were also a bizarre lot (remember, there were only six issues):

  • Boss Glitter, who ran the town and wore a mask.  Well, he didn't actually wear it:  he held it up on a stick like in a Renaissance costume ball.
  • El Gusano, which means "The Worm" in Spanish, and who has certain Annelid features -- notable, no face.
  • John Doe, the Generic Man, whose touch turned people into generic versions
  • Buckshot, whose freckles were buckshot and could shoot it.
  • Ratchet Jaw, with a machine gun for a mouth (literally).
  • The Cosmic Clown, an intergalactic hit man.
  • C'est Hey, a living scarecrow.
  • The Four Mopeds of the Apocalypse
  • The Flying Buttress (remember -ress is a feminine suffix).

But the greatest villain in the book was Bushwack'r.  He appeared in issue 4 and halfway through, I realized who he really was:  the Coyote from Roadrunner cartoons -- though he makes the cartoon coyote look like someone who knew what he was doing. His elaborate deathtraps for the Heckler -- who is completely unaware of them -- are worthy of Chuck Jones's best (the issue even shows a copy of Jones's autobiography).

The dialog by the Bierbaums was consistently funny.  The Hecker's jokes are funnier and more vicious than any other superhero, and the characters would always be going off on their own personal manias and tangents.  There's also a marvelously understated humor throughout, lines that wouldn't seem funny if I quoted them here, but which are hilarious in context.

It was evidently too weird for comic book buyers, and DC probably took one look at the first issue and said, "What the hell have we commissioned?"  The plug was pulled very rapidly, though it's hard to say it didn't have a chance to find its audience, since its audience probably didn't read comic books.  Since there was no connection or crossover with other strips, it was as though it never existed.  It's not even listed in the DC Comics Encyclopedia.

But if you search eBay and comb the cheapo bins, you may be able to pick some issues up (some people call it a limited series, which it was in a strict definition, but not by design).  It will be well worth the search.

Friday, July 13, 2007

VR.5 (TV)

(1995)
Created by Jeannine Renshaw
Starring Lori Singer, Michael Easton, Anthony Head, David McCallum, Louise Fletcher, Will Patton.
IMDB Entry

Anthony Head, Lori Singer, & Michael Easton of VR.5VR.5 was a show ahead of its time.  This doomed it to failure.

With The Matrix, and other films (not to mention virtual worlds like Second Life), the idea of virtual reality is just entering the mainstream.  But back in 1995, it was still a new, far-out, science fictional concept.  And setting a show based on virtual reality was a long shot.

The problem of virtual reality in fiction and films is that, since anything can happen, solutions to problems come out of the woodwork (this has happened as far back asTron)  If the hero has a problem, they can do something that had never been established as a possibility, since, well, anything is possible.  But if anything is possible, you have to work very hard on the script to keep things plausible.

VR.5 handled this problem with a great deal of imagination.  It starred Lori Singer as Sydney Bloom, a phone company employee and computer nerd who discovers how to enter into virtual reality at a level that gives her the ability to enter the dreams of others.  Her ability brings her to the attention of the Committee, which tries to use her for its own purposes.  She's assigned Dr. Frank Morgan (Will Patton) to be her guide and mentor.

I have to admit the first episode was not spectacular. It was the third episode that showed me that they were dealing with more than just routine:  Dr. Morgan was killed.

It was a shock.  He had every sign of being a regular (including being listed in the opening credits), and you don't kill off a regular in the third show.

The next show, her new mentor appeared:  Oliver Sampson, played by Rupert Giles  . . . I mean Anthony Stewart Head (he didn't use "Stewart" at the time).  The parallel to Giles on Buffy was uncanny:  Sampson was a little stronger, and not quite as witty, but otherwise the Giles we all learned to know and love.  I have no doubt that Joss Whedon saw Head's performance here when casting for Buffy (prior to this, Head's was best known in the US for a series of coffee commercials).

The show began to find more and more levels as it advanced.  Sydney learned that the Committee had its own agenda, and that Sampson could not always be trusted, since she wasn't sure whose best interests he had in mind. It focused in on the search for her father (David McCallum), who had been looking into VR and categorized its levels.  Sydney was at VR.5 -- where you could access the subconscious, but that was halfway up toe VR.10, where anything was possible.  She felt her abilities expand, and learned more about the Committee -- its factions and plans.

The show had some real depth to it, both in plotting and style. The VR sequences were designed as bizarre and surreal dreams, with imaginative use of splashes of color. They all had a kind of dream logic, which made the work.

The show ran ten episodes (there were 13 filmed), then cut off at a cliffhanger. Though there were fans, it was not enough for a DVD release.

The biggest casualty of the cancellation was Lori Singer.  She was a terrific presence and actress (she's also a model and professional cellist -- a highly unusual triple threat), but has worked very little since.  I would love to see her again.

Definitely a show worthy of a DVD.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Comfort and Joy

(1984)
Written and Directed by Bill Forsyth
Starring Bill Paterson, Clare Grogan, Eleanor David, Alex Norton, Patrick Malahide
IMDB Entry

Bill Forsyth came on the scene in the early 80s with several quirky little films set in his native Scotland. Gregory's Girlwas a coming-of-age story of a teenage soccer player who becomes infatuated on the first girl to play on the team.  His best-known film, Local Hero, tells how a Scottish town reacts to the idea of building an oil refinery on their shores. His movies were filled with odd and endearing characters and a meandering but entertaining plot.

Comfort and Joy is just as wonderful.  Around Christmas, radio DJ Alan "Dicky" Bird (Bill Paterson, who later appeared in Truly Madly Deeply), depressed over his girlfriend leaving, sees what looks like a gangland attack and gets involved in a territorial dispute between two rival Italian families.

Over ice cream.

The two families are rival ice cream vendors, "Mr. Bunny" and "Mr. McCool" in a humorously cutthroat battle over territory (evidently based on some real events in Forsyth's Glasgow). Bird gets involved and tries to achieve peace between the vendors, eventually coming up with a way to put an end to the battles.

The movie is filled with the quirky humor that made Forsyth such a delight. My favorite was watching them record the snappy little "Hello, Folks" song.  All the characters are a little off-center -- recognizably human, but with traits that make them unlike anyone else on film

It is a Christmas movie, after all, so you know that Bird will figure out a way to end the feud. Paterson is excellent in the role as the depressed everyman who tries to make sense of a strange situation.

Forsyth's career stalled after this.  He made a film of Marylynne Robinson's novel Housekeeping and a few other films that never really made any impression, eventually resorting to a sequel to Gregory's Girl.  It's a shame that such a charming and unique talent has had so little recognition or success.

Look at all three, Gregory's Girl, Local Hero, and Comfort and Joy if you want to draw knowing chuckles and eccentric but logical characters.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (Qian li zou dan qi)

Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles(2005)
Directed by Zhang Yimou
Written by Zhang Yimou (screenplay and story) and Zou Jingzhi and Wang Bin (story)
Starring: Takakura Ken, Zhembo Yang, Lin Qiu, Li Jaimin, Jiang Weng
IMDB Entry

Sometimes you pick up a film at random and are just plain blown away.  We rentedRiding Alone for Thousands of Miles on a whim:  we liked foreign films, and lately have been picking up a lot of very good Chinese movies.  This looked like an interesting one, so we decided to give it a shot.

We were familiar with the work of director Zhang Yimou -- and you might be, too.  He made two impressive martial arts films, Hero and The House of Flying Daggers, movies that had a great deal of depth in among the action.  However, we didn't recognize the name (all Chinese might not look alike, but Chinese names are often hard for westerners to grasp).  That might have been a good thing, since the film is much different, one that concentrates on character instead of plot, with nary a bit of violence.  In fact, everyone in the film is just so nice.  That's very refreshing.

Takakura Ken (I'm sticking with the Chinese tradition of putting the family name first, though he's also been billed at Ken Takakura) plays Mr. Takata, a man estranged from his dying son. The son was a documentarian, and, in a film he made, he talked about going to China to see a local singer perform the Chinese Opera that gives the film its title. Takata decides to travel to China to film the performance.  But there are problems. . . .

This is a film that is clearly an unfolding. Takata's journey takes him to a small village in Yunnan Province in southwestern China and a meeting with the singer's five-year-old son, Yang Yang.  In it Takata learns more about people, himself, his own son, and his life.

Takakura Ken is superb as Takata, a taciturn man who goes upon this journey to try to connect. The rest of the cast were not professional actors, but you'd never know it.  Especially good is Zhembo Yang as Yang Yang and Lin Qiu as Lingo, Takata's guide and non-interpreter.

The film also deals with an issue you rarely see:  language barriers.  Takata speaks no Chinese and is dependent on others to translate and understand others. Lingo (interesting coincidence of a name) knows very little Japanese and is always struggling to figure out what Takata is saying. It manages to work out with some strategic cell phone calls to a real interpreter, Jasmine (Jiang Weng). The barrier is constant, but Takata manages to work his way around the country.

The film is beautiful, with some amazing scenery as background. This is definitely a wonderful opportunity to see life in other cultures and the importance of family.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

God, the Devil, and Bob (TV)

(2000)
Created by Matthew Carlson
Starring (voices): French Stewart, James Garner, Alan Cumming, Laurie Metcalfe, Nancy Cartwright.
IMDB Entry

God, the Devil, and BobIt's not uncommon to look at TV shows and ask "What are they thinking?" Usually, it's when a particularly stupid concept somehow makes it to the air. After all, network executive tend to err on the side of stupidity. But, every once in awhile, you ask yourself this even though the show is of high quality.  NBC had a history of showing things that were good, but which you could never understand why they'd expect good ratings from it (for instance, Dame Edna and Spitting Image).

God, the Devil, and Bob was clearly in this category. A cartoon show with God as a main character? At a time when the religious right was strong, and unlikely to look kindly on any irreverence?  This had to be either an All in the Family home run, or it would fail miserably.

In the show, Bob Alman (voice by French Stewart) is chosen by God (James Garner) in a bet with the devil (Alan Cumming) to perform good deeds in order to show that the Earth has some good in it so God doesn't have to destroy it.  No one believes Alman, of course, and God is little help, but he muddles along trying to do his best.

Bob is not a saint -- he watches porn, goes to strip clubs, drinks, and sometimes neglects his family (though he learns to avoid the latter). His wife Donna (Laurie Metcalfe) puts up with him, since he manages to keep the peace with her and their 13-year-old daughter Megan (voice by Bart Simpson . . . I mean, Nancy Cartwright), who's quite a handful (as God says, "I have them until age 12, then Satan gets them until they're 20").  Sometimes God gives Bob a specific task; other times, he just shows up. 

James Garner is wonderful -- the sort of laid-back God that's easy to like.  He makes everything sound so smooth and easy.  And Alan Cumming is hilarious as the Devil -- petulant, childish, and evil, and always trying to make things worse for Bob.

The show was heavily protested when it came out.  Religious groups (who, of course, never bothered to watch the show) didn't like the image of God as Jerry Garcia (there is some resemblance, but the image is mostly the old man with the beard image -- just a short beard and hair) or the fact he was shown drinking beer. The message of the show was fairly reverent, and Garner makes an appealing God, but when God is concerned, some people have no sense of humor.  The show only aired four times before the low ratings convinced NBC that it wasn't worth the hassle.

Luckily, all 13 shows are available on DVD.  It's well worth a rental.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Scarface

Scarface Poster(1932)
Directed by Howard Hawks
Screenplay Ben Hecht
Starring
Paul Muni, Ann Dvorak, George Raft, Boris Karloff, and Osgood Perkins
IMDB Entry

Back when I was in college, this wasn’t exactly a forgotten film.  It was considered one of the best gangster films of the early 30s. But a funny thing happened: Brian de Palma did a film with the same name that was originally designed to be a remake.  The remake was a sensation, and has vastly overshadowed the original.

Which is a shame.  Scarface is still one of the best of the 30s gangster genre. It went over what was familiar ground even then (both The Public Enemy and Little Caesar had come out the previous year), but Scarface was more violent, and overall was better than the other two because it had a bit more depth.

What it didn't have, was an iconic actor as the lead.  James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson were strong film personalities that dominated the screen made their gangster films work.  Paul Muni is pretty much forgotten.  He was a big star in the 30s, but his films are rarely shown (though you have to see his classic I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang to really understand parts of Woody Allen's Take the Money and Run, which has scenes that are a direct parody).

George Raft and Paul MuniScarface is the story of Tony Camonte (Muni) who, like Tom Powers and Little Caesar, is a brutal, small-time crook who works his way up to be crime boss.  Muni is abetted by his pal Guino Rinaldo (George Raft) and his sister Francesca, who is Guino's girlfriend.  The most interesting bit is the relationship between Tony and Francesca, which shows them as more than just brother and sister.  The hints of incest were quite daring for the time.

Boris Karloff has one of his few non-horror roles of the 30s as Gaffney, a rival gang leader and shows that he could have been quite successful without horror.  George Raft's performance of Guino defined his entire career.  Guino's habit of flipping a coin became Raft's trademark, so much so that he did cameos for years afterwards.  Even more, it became a trademark for anyone parodying a gangster film. 

I mention Osgood Perkins primarily because you probably know his actor son, Anthony. And the screenplay was by film and theater legend Ben Hecht, best known nowadays as author of The Front Page.

The film ran into censorship trouble with the new Production Code; Hawks and his producer, Howard Hughes, released it without code approval.  That may be one reason why back in the 70s it was harder to see than the other gangster films.  And with Paul Muni a forgotten actor, there was little impetus for its revival.

Hawks, of course, went on to a very successful career and it considered one of the greatest of American directors.  This is definitely one of his major works, and a film worth seeking out.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Neighbors

(1981)
Directed by
John G. Avildsen
Written by Larry Gelbart
Based on a Novel by: Thomas Berger
Starring: Dan Ackroyd, John Belushi, Cathy Moriarty, Kathryn Walker
IMDB Entry
I may be the only person in the world who liked this film, but it's my web page and I can feature what I like.
It helped that I read the book.  Neighbors was based on a novel by Thomas Berger, a clever writer best known for his novel Little Big Man (made into a movie starring Dustin Hoffman) and the reversal of sexes novel Regiment of Women. Neighbors an odd novel. Earl Kease lives a perfectly ordinary life in the suburbs, until the new neighbors show up.  Harry and Rarmona are wild, unpredictable, and possibly psychotic.  Or maybe it's Earl who is psychotic. Harry and Ramona, and Earl's wife and daughter behave irrationally -- except they insist it is Earl who remembers things wrong.  It's arbitrary and quite funny with the humor coming from the fact that the characters seem to change personality for no reason at all (except maybe that Earl's grip on reality isn't all that firm).
The movie was directed by John G. Avildsen, who earlier did Cry Uncle, and I suppose it was something of a coup to get Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi. The casting of Ackroyd as Captain Vic (the character of Harry, renamed from the book) was especially brilliant:  he matched the character in the book perfectly.  Belushi played Earl, and was quite good as the quiet, normal guy. Oddly enough, the two actors switched parts, but, despite the critics' comments that Belushi would have been better as the wild man Vic, it was very a wise decision.  Belushi just didn't fit the image of Vic/Harry, who was a more psychotic wild man than Senator Blutarski would have been.
The movie does appear to be disjointed, partly because of friction between Ackroyd and Belushi and Avildsen. The two SNL veterans didn't care for Avildson's comic ideas (nor those of writer Larry Gelbart, who also cowrote Movie Movie). It's also due to the fact that the movie tried to be true to the novel, where the characters did bizarre things supposedly without any logical motivation.  That may be a turnoff.
Cathy Moriarty, fresh from her Oscar nomination in Raging Bull is also perfect as the sexy Ramona.  The movie was John Belushi's last, alas.
If you sit back an accept the idea that the characters are not going to behave logically, though, it's a funny and entertaining film.





Sunday, May 6, 2007

American Flagg! (Comic Book)

(1983-84)
By Howard Chaykin


I read comics sporadically:  I'll pick them up regularly for awhile, then go ten years or so without reading them at all.  Around one of these times, I happened to attend a local comic book convention featuring Howard Chaykin.

I was impressed by his work on the graphic novel, Empire, written by one of my favorite SF writers, Samuel R. Delany.  With Chaykin in town, I took the book to be autographed and told him I thought it was the best comic book ever (I wouldn't say that today, but it was certainly very sophisticated for its time).  He thought I was referring to his newest project: American Flagg!

It wasn't an unreasonable assumption.

American Flagg! was set in 2033. Reuben Flagg was a Plexus Ranger -- a cop -- sent to a wild and decadent Chicago (in a fragmented US) to keep order.  Flagg had been the star of a popular TV show before being replaced by what would now be called CGI effects.

Chaykin populates Chicago with a wild cast of characters. There's corrupt mayor C. Keenan Blitz and his daughter Medea Blitz (Chaykin liked puns). There's Flagg's boss, Hammerhead Kreiger, and his daughter, Amanda. There's Gretchen Holdstrom, proprietor of the Love Canal brothel franchise ("Love Canal" was very much in the news at the time), William Windsor-Jones (the current Prince William in middle age), and the Russian pilot Crystal Gayle Marakova.  And, of course, there was Raul, the talking cat, and Luther Ironheart, the robot with a holographic head.

But, no, the strip wasn't comedy.  Reuben was trying to keep order in a chaotic and violent society and, while there were jokes, the entire strip was basically an antiestablishment view of society.  It was early cyberpunk.

Chaykin structured the comic into three-issue stories, and the first year was part of one arc, centering on the mysterious Peggy Kreiger, the mother of Amanda and Medea (yes, she got around), who vanished long ago (or did she?). He sprinkled in a bit of social commentary whenever he could.  For instance, in a visit to South America, one of the streets was labeled "United Fruit Boulevard." There were even some protests in the letter column that this was gay bashing until someone explained about the United Fruit Company and what they did in South America.

After completing the first year, Chaykin took a few issues off and when he came back, it was never the same.  There were visits to other areas (like the People's Democratic Prairie, a communist state in western Canada), but once the essential mystery of the first year was solved, it just wasn't the same. Eventually, Chaykin left, and the book lost contact with the world he created.  He came back to try to salvage it (retitling it Howard Chaykin's American Flagg! and renumbering it), but it had lost what had made it great.

The weakness of the later episodes cast a retrospective pall upon the original year. I think that at one point, the first dozen issues were collected into graphic novel form, but that's hard to find. It's a comic that's worth rediscovering.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Bob (TV)

Bob logo(199-93)
Created by
Cheri Steinkellner, Bill Steinkellner and Phoef Sutton
Starring Bob Newhart, Carlene Watkins, Cynthia Stevenson, John Cygan, Andrew Bilgore, Timothy Fall
IMDB Entry

Pop quiz: suppose, as a network executive, you have a TV sitcom with a well-known star, great supporting cast, and clever scripts.  It's not doing too bad in the ratings, either.  What do you do?

Well, you certainly don't treat it like Bob.

This was Bob Newhart's return to TV after the triumph of the Newhart 1finale (well, except for a Bob Newhart Show reunion special that continued where Newhart left off -- one of the better reunion specials on the air). The concept was a good one:  Bob McKay (Newhart, of course) was a comic book writer/illustrator and the creator of a failed superhero, Mad Dog. Years later, Mad Dog gets a revival, and Bob -- now working as an artist at a greeting card company -- is asked to help.

"Because of the exciting nature of this comic, we cannot allow you to read it until you sign this release."But there's a problem. Harlan Stone (a combination of Harlan Ellison and Frank Miller), is the new writer of the strip, and wants to darknight Mad Dog into the brooding, moody, haunted superhero who was the new style in the 90s.  "We can unleash the beast and reveal the true Mad Dog-a tortured, maniacal vigilante!'' Stone exclaims. Bob wanted Mad Dog to be an older model -- truth, justice, that sort of thing.  (Marvel Comics actually did a series of Mad Dog comics to tie in with the show.)

But that was only a part of the show.  Newhart knew how to use a good supporting cast, and a lot of the fun involved Albie Lutz (Andrew Bigore) and Chad Pfefferle (Timothy Fall), twos slightly warped, low-level comic book geek employees.  Cynthia Stevenson (later Georgia's Mother in Dead Like MeI) was also there as Bob's daughter Tricia (the only time Newhart had an offspring in any of his shows). Stevenson at the time had a nice loopy persona and was great at ditzy comedy.

The show was created by three writers of Cheers (Cheri Steinkellner, Bill Steinkellner and Phoef Sutton) so the writing was always sharp and funny. Even the title of the show was a joke: After The Bob Newhart Show and Newhart, Bob Newhart joked on the Johnny Carson Show that his next sitcom would follow the progression and be calledBob.

The episodes soon went far afield from comics:  One great episode starred George Wendt as "The Guy Who Played Norm on Cheers," and old friend of Bob's who can't avoid being confused with his TV roles. There was also a very funny show where Albie, Chad, and Tricia played "Mystery Date," and a nasty little parody of Barney the Dinosaur. Dick Martin, who directed some of the episodes, had some funny on-screen appearances as an old comic book writer friend.

The show got great critical buzz, but, for some reason, CBS moved it around the schedule like a chess piece in an earthquake.  Ratings were -- middle of the pack, and especially good when it was shown on Monday -- but were definitely hurt by the fact it didn't have a regular home.

Still, CBS decided to renew.  But I really wouldn't call it a renewal.  The entire premise was changed.  Bob left Ace Comics (leaving Harlan, Albie, and Chad behind) and went back to work for the greeting card company he had been at before Mad Dog called.  Betty White and Jere Burns were added to the cast, and the scripts were taking from the Beginning Sitcom Writers Guide to Bad Comedy.  It was unwatchable, and unfunny and quickly cancelled.

The first season is well worth preserving on DVD, so we can again see a show that deserved much better than it got.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Carpet Makers (book)

(1995; English translation 2005) (book)
By Andreas Eschbach

The Carpet MakersIt's rare that you pick up an unheralded book and realize it is truly great. Even heralded books are hard to find.  In the science fiction/fantasy field, there were things like Dune, Replay, The Book of the New Sun, and Lord of the Rings.  Lately, that feeling has happened to me less and less often.

That's why The Carpet Makers blew me away. It was released in the US in 2005, and came out with little fanfare. The main reason I picked it up was that its first chapter had already appeared as a very memorable story in Fantasy and Science Fiction and I was delighted to be able to read more.

Andreas Eschbach is clearly the greatest SF writer Germany has ever produced.  Not that there's a lot of competition -- SF is an English-language game, and even the best from other countries (Stanisalaw Lem, for instance) are reinventing the wheel.  Eschbach clearly knows his SF and, more importantly, he know how to tell a story.  He's evidently very successful in Europe, but this was his first (and so far only) novel translated into English.

And what a book. Eschbach sets up an intriguing situation:  a universe ruled by an emperor, and about one planet, whose men make their living by creating carpets out of the hair of their wives and daughter, training one son -- and one son only -- to continue in their profession.  The emperor purchases the carpets and then . . .

No one knows.  Because the emperor has been deposed, and the mystery of the carpet makers is has been lost.

The novel's structure is different.  Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character, each with a different perspective. Little scenes are dramatized -- and dramatized memorably, each slowly coming nearer to the central mystery, while telling the stories of a wide range of people and how they are affected by it. And the resolution of the mystery is well worth the wait, and is one of the greatest dramatic outcomes I've seen in any book.  The solution is logical, with plenty of hints, and is also heartbreakingly terrifying.  And Eschbach does even more:  a final chapter that has an even greater kick that reflects on everything that has happened.

The book was released to good reviews, but didn't seem to be a big seller.  I've rarely found anyone who actually read it. And te biggest shame about the book is, if it did have poor sales, then no one will want to translate more of his work into English.  The Carpet Makers was Eschbach's first novel, and one can only marvel at how good his books will be as he continues to develop his craft.

And I'll be the first to buy one once they come out in English.

Addendum 12/13/14:  Still no translations, and none are likely.  I understand it would take $10,000 to translate a book, and Eschbach just isn’t worth it.  <sigh>