Monday, November 30, 2009

Feel Good Movies: Stephen Chow Battles Bad Guys and Books in "Fight Back to School"

Chow Sing-Sing (Stephen Chow), on the verge of being disqualified from the police force, Special Duties Unit (SDU), is sent on an undercover mission to recover a senior officer's stolen pistol. Unfortunately, Sing-Sing is to pose as a student, and while he can brave terrorists and gunfights, he finds the idea of returning to school absolutely horrific. Before long, finding a missing gun takes a backseat to Sing-Sing's frequent bouts with trouble, as he falls asleep during lectures and typically skips his homework. The cop finds solace in Miss Ho (Sharla Cheung Man), and Sing-Sing quickly falls for the sweet, compassionate woman, who becomes his tutor. Partnered with another undercover officer, "Uncle" Tat (Ng Man-Tat), posing as the school janitor and also as Sing-Sing's father, Sing-Sing stumbles upon an arms smuggling case.

Fight Back to School (1991) is a perfect example of Hong Kong comedian Stephen Chow's brand of comedy, known as mo lei tau, which roughly translates to, "Makes no sense." While some of this particular style of comedy doesn't quite work for English-speaking audiences (especially the great deal of word play within the dialogue), the absurd manner in which many of the scenes play out is amusing for viewers of any language. For instance, Tat, in an effort to stop smoking, often chews on a stick or a hairbrush. He even replicates exhaling smoke, and at one point in the film, with no explanation given, he actually breathes out smoke. Chow's comedy also includes classic slapstick. Sing-Sing is actually Tat's superior, but with Tat playing his father, he must display his authority in front of others. As soon as people's backs are turned, however, the two men scuffle like children.

At its heart, the movie is about the underdog rising above seemingly unbeatable odds. Chow shines at playing such characters. Even when he's playing unlikable men, such as 1996's The God of Cookery, chances are that he will see the error of his ways and will redeem himself. The romance between Sing-Sing and Miss Ho is cute, another trademark of Chow's films. Many of the actor's leading ladies have been excellent, noteworthy actresses, such as Brigitte Lin (1992's Royal Tramp II), Karen Mok (1995's A Chinese Odyssey I and II), Gong Li (1993's Flirting Scholar), Anita Mui (1992's Justice, My Foot!), and Carina Lau (1996's Forbidden City Cop).

Fight Back to Sch
ool was followed by two sequels: Fight Back to School II (1992), in which Sing-Sing has to pose as a student once again, and Fight Back to School III (1993), which drops the "school," but does follow Sing-Sing going undercover. While Cheung has starred in quite a few movies with Chow (and appears in both sequels), actor Ng Man-Tat has had the privilege of being Chow's co-star the most frequently, including the God of Gamblers sequels (1990 and 1991), Tricky Brains (1991), Love on Delivery (1994), The Lucky Guy (1998), and King of Comedy (1999). Watching the two actors together is a treat!

In 1990, Chow starred in All for the Winner, a parody of Wong Jing's very popular 1989 gambling film, God of Gamblers (starring Chow Yun-Fat). Chow became a star in Hong Kong virtually overnight when his film proved just as successful as the film it was making fun of. By 1992, Chow was so popular that he had starred in the top five grossing films of that year. He broke box office records in 2001 with his charming, effects-laden Shaolin Soccer (also starring Vicki Zhao Wei and, not surprisingly, Ng Man-Tat). Though his record was broken the following year with Infernal Affairs (remade in America in 2006 as The Departed, directed by Martin Scorsese), Chow was the champ again in 2004 with his outstanding action epic, Kung Fu Hustle, for which he finally achieved fame in the U.S.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Holiday Shopping Poll

With the hustle and bustle of the Christmas shopping season upon us, in which of the following shopping establishments would you most like to spend some time?

1. The Shop Around the Corner bookstore in You’ve Got Mail, where proprietress Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) offers up some especially excellent children’s books in a family owned bookstore. The credits list Books of Wonder Bookstore and I recognized (and drooled over) their Oz book section in the film. Tom Hanks plays the owner of Fox Books, a successful chain of discount stores, with whom Kelly is communicating via e-mail. You’ve Got Mail is a remake of The Shop Around the Corner as is In the Good Old Summertime. The latter is a musical and the store featured there is Oberkugen’s Music Shop, run by S. Z. “Cuddles” Sakall.

2. The FAO Schwarz toy store in Big, where the owner of the Macmillan Toy Company (Robert Loggia) plays a couple of duets with the child-adult Tom Hanks on a Walking Piano. That truly looked like fun to me!

3. Neeley’s Department Store, owned by wealthy John P. Merrick (Charles Coburn), in The Devil and Miss Jones. Neeley’s is undergoing labor union discussion, much to the dissatisfaction of the very private Merrick, who chooses to work there and learn what is taking place. The store is well staffed by Mary Jones (Jean Arthur), Hooper (Edmund Gwenn), and Elizabeth Ellis (Spring Byington).

4. Macy’s Department Store, in 1947’s heartwarming Miracle on 34th Street. Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) actually works there as does the lovely, but skeptical, Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara). You may run into Doris’s young daughter, Susan, (Natalie Wood) while shopping.

5. Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, a toy store with a supernatural bent. Mr. Edward Magorium (Dustin Hoffman), at 243 years, is seeking to leave and chooses to bequeath his extraordinary shop to Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman). You would want to have a strong belief in magic for this store and its merchandise to truly benefit from your shopping experience there.

Cast your vote in the poll in the sidebar...and happy shopping!

Trivia Time Part 12 : The Answers

Rick, Becky and Dawn, you guys did not to too bad this week. Here is what you missed:

#1. Count Basie composed the theme for the show M Squad on NBC.
#2. The star was Lee Marvin.
#3. Billy May & Al Hirt did the theme for The Green Hornet.
#4. Brain Buster #1.Steve Allen composed and had a hit with "Gravy Waltz."
#5. Brain Buster #2. The movie clip in "You Might Think", is from Robot Monster. (Gorilla suit with helmet.)
#6. Brain Buster #3. Sam Fuller directed James Dean in Fixed Bayonets for 20th Century-Fox in 1951.
#7. Brain Buster # 4 The Stars were Gene Evans &Richard Basehart . Rick, how could you miss this one?

Underrated Performer of the Week: Pam Grier, Cinema's First Female Action Star

In an interview with Charlie Rose, filmmaker Quentin Tarantino suggested that Pam Grier may have been the cinema’s first female action star. In a 1975 interview article in Ms. Magazine, Jamaica Kinkaid wrote that Grier’s films of the 1970s displayed a “woman who is independent, resourceful, strong, and courageous.” Undoubtedly, her strong female heroines were in sharp contrast to the supporting roles played by most actresses in the action film genre. Yet, despite her groundbreaking roles, Pam Grier’s career as a leading actress was fleeting—with the exception of a revival of sorts in Tarantino’s 1997 Jackie Brown.

Grier was born in Winston-Salem, NC, but moved frequently due to her father’s career in the military. She entered beauty contests and sang backup to Jimmy Womack before landing a job as a receptionist at budget-minded American International Pictures. After a bit part in Russ Meyer’s satire Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Grier starred in 1970’s The Big Doll House, a Philippines-shot “women in prison” picture. She followed it with two similar films (Women in Cages and The Big Bird Cage) and supporting roles in the bigger-budgeted Hit Man (a remake of Get Carter) and Scream, Blacula, Scream (a sequel to—what else?—Blacula). Her career got a boost when she landed a co-starring role opposite Margaret Markov in 1972’s Black Mama, White Mama, an above-average rip-off of The Defiant Ones that was co-scripted by future filmmaker Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs).

That film’s success led to the title role in 1973’s Coffy, Grier’s most famous action film. By this time, blaxploitation films had evolved into a lucrative genre. The term “blaxploitation”—derived from “Black” and “exploitation”—was used in the early 1970s to denote action films with predominantly African-American casts. The genre’s biggest stars were Richard Roundtree (Shaft), Fred Williamson (Hammer), and Jim Brown (Slaughter). But Pam Grier held her own in Coffy, as a fierce heroine obsessed with bringing down the drug kingpins responsible for her eleven-year-old sister’s addiction. The lovely Grier didn’t hold back—Coffy was every bit as violent and ruthless as the criminals she killed and maimed (“Coffy—she’ll cream you!” screamed the ads).

Grier followed up Coffy with Foxy Brown (1974), another violent revenge picture in which her heroine destroys a dope-prostitution ring responsible for killing her worthless brother and her undercover narcotics agent boyfriend. Although Coffy and Foxy Brown were both big hits, the blaxploitation genre began to receive criticism for its violence and promotion of African-American stereotypes. As a result, Grier played a private detective in the more subdued Sheba, Baby and a fashion photographer in Friday Foster (both 1975). Neither film did big business and, by 1976, the blaxploitation genre pretty much came to an end with martial arts-themed movies like Black Belt Jones. Grier’s career as a leading action star ended, too.

She got occasional supporting roles in mainstream movies: she played opposite then-boyfriend Richard Pryor in the stock car biography Greased Lighting (1977); she was a killer prostitute in the Paul Newman cop film Fort Apache, The Bronx (1981); she played the “Dust Witch” in the atmospheric Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983); and she was Steven Seagal’s partner in Above the Law (1988). She stayed busy with television, too, playing Philip Michael Thomas’ girlfriend in a few Miami Vice episodes.

But lead roles eluded Grier until Quentin Tarantino offered her the title role in Jackie Brown (1997). Tarantino had long admired Grier’s action films and he had considered casting her in Pulp Fiction. Her portrayal of a stewardess mixed up with an arms dealers and FBI agents in Jackie Brown earned her critical praise and a Golden Globe nomination. She subsequently returned to supporting roles, but continues to stay busy, having recently completed a long run in the TV series The L Word.

Pam Grier never married, although she has been romantically linked with Pryor and former basketball player Kareen Abdul-Jabbar. She is a cancer survivor. She was named as one of Ebony Magazine's "100 Most Fascinating Women of the 20th Century.”

Friday, November 27, 2009

An Ice Cream War Leads to a Meaningful Life in "Comfort and Joy"

Scottish filmmaker Bill Forsyth's quirky comedies Gregory's Girl (1981) and Local Hero (1983) made him a critics' favorite. So, it was quite a surprise when this follow-up effort garnered lukewarm reviews. I think Comfort and Joy is a much warmer, funnier film than its predecessors (though not funny in a laugh-out-loud way). And I put no stock in those bland reviews, such as the one in which Variety made disparaging remarks about its “conventional plot.” Conventional? Just how many movies have been made about warring ice cream companies?

Bill Paterson stars as Alan, a Glasgow radio disc jockey whose comfortable life receives a sudden jolt when his kleptomaniac girlfriend Maddy (Eleanor David) leaves him shortly before Christmas. After four years of living together, she starts packing one evening and explains to Alan casually: “I meant to tell you ages ago.”

Alan is devastated. His best friend Colin (Patrick Malahide) tries to convince him that he has been “handed a new life.” So, when a girl in a Mr. Bunny ice cream truck smiles at him, Alan follows her—only to see the vehicle attacked by masked men with bats. The Mr. Bunny employees repel their assailants with ice cream and syrup, although one masked man pauses during his escape to ask Alan to broadcast a radio dedication to his mother.

Alan learns that the attackers work for Mr. McCool, a rival ice cream company. He soon finds himself acting as a mediator between warring factions. It’s a role that gives a new purpose to his life. Or, as Alan explains to his boss: “I wasn't myself before, but you thought I was myself. But now, I am myself. Or very nearly. My life was the wrong flavor. I was raspberry when I should have been vanilla.”

Bill Paterson's charming performance, Forysth's quirky characters, and the unexpected unraveling of the plot blend together to create a consistently amusing picture. Its greatest strength, however, lies in the humor created by Forysth's central theme: Nothing is as it seems. Forsyth starts by showing us an apparently happy couple, but later reveals that one of them has been planning to end the relationship for some time. In another scene, Alan spies a beautiful woman across the aisle from him in a store. He thinks she's flirting with him, but when she moves from behind the aisle, he sees that she is pushing a baby carriage and smiling at the baby strapped on her chest. The same theme even extends to the Mr. Bunny-Mr. McCool war. Charlotte, the French-speaking co-owner of Mr. Bunny has an unexpected connection with Mr. McCool, who's Italian and not Scottish (as his name implies).

Quirky films often don't stand the test of time, but this odd little movie has stayed with me over the years…right down to the catchy Mr. Bunny ice cream truck music.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Gift Ideas for Classic Film and TV Fans

Looking for gift ideas for the classic film and TV fans in your family or circle of friends? The Classic Film & TV Cafe is here to help! Below are some recommendations chosen by our contributors:

The William Castle Film Collection, $80.95 retail - Includes eight classics from the master of gimmicky chills: 13 Frightened Girls, 13 Ghosts, Homicidal and Strait-Jacket (both with Joan Crawford), The Old Dark House, Mr. Sardonicus, The Tingler (with Vincent Price), and Zotz! Sorry, you'll have to provide your own gimmicks. Recommended by ClassicBecky.

Gone With the Wind, 70th Anniversary Collection, 5-Disc DVD Set, $69.92 retail - This limited and numbered one-of-a-kind velvet box contains more than 8 hours of extras, including a new documentary narrated by Kenneth Branagh, “Warner Bros. Home Entertainment presents 1939: Hollywood's Greatest Year,” and the featurette “Gone with the Wind: The Legend Lives On.” It also includes an exclusive 52-page hardcover production art and photo book, ten 5”x7” watercolor reproduction art prints, bonus CD soundtrack, and reproduction of the original 1939 program. Recommended by Dawn.

The Fugitive (TV Series), Season 1 and 2 Box Set, $125.98 retail – One of the greatest TV dramas of all time still makes for compelling viewing. Both seasons include several stand-out episodes, including: “The Girl from Little Egypt” which features an extended flashback to the night of Helen Kimble’s murder; “Corner of Hell,” in which Richard Kimble has to defend his pursuer, Lieutenant Gerard, from moonshiners intent on lynching the detective. If the box set is pricy, you can purchase parts 1 and 2 of each season. Note: Some of the music cues have been replaced due to issues with the rights; despite complaints from videophiles, that doesn’t detract from a great series. Recommended by Toto2.

I Spy (TV Series), Season 1, $19.95 retail – Robert Culp and Bill Cosby play international spies in this “cool” lighthearted series from the 1960s. The fast-paced episodes feature exotic locales and plenty of action…but most of the show’s charm can be attributed to the natural camaraderie between the two leads. Seasons 2 and 3 are available for the same low price. Recommended by Paul 2.

Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 1, $49.95 retail – It’s not often that a genre film collection features five truly classic films: The Asphalt Jungle, Gun Crazy, Murder My Sweet, Out of the Past, and The Set-Up. The main attractions for many film fans will be Out of the Past, the definitive film noir, and Murder, My Sweet, the best adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s detective Philip Marlowe. But the real find here is Gun Crazy (aka Deadly Is the Female), a terrific B-film with John Dall as a young man with two passions: guns and a pretty sharpshooter (Peggy Cummins) whose ambitions lead to a crime spree. Recommended by Rick29.

Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends, The Complete First Season, $21.93 retail – Journey back to Frostbite Falls, Minnesota, in this animated classic series that set the standard for clever stories that appealed to kids, but also contained satiric humor for adults. Plus, you get Fractured Fairy Tales, Mr. Peabody, and Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties! Seasons 2 and 3 are available, too. Recommended by Paul 2.

The Fantastic Films of Ray Harryhausen - Legendary Monster Series, $57.95 retail – There are several Ray Harryhausen collections available, but this one includes his two finest films: The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts…plus you get The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, and The Three Worlds of Gulliver. Jason’s fights with the Harpies and the skeletons in Argonauts have to be seen to be believed—no computer special effects can match them. In short, this is a box set to be enjoyed by kids from 1 to 92 (as Mel Torme might say). Recommended by Rick29.

Most of the gifts above are available for less than the retail prices through stores like Amazon, Costco, DVD Planet, and others. Through the end of November, http://www.deepdiscount.com/ is running a 40% off sale with free shipping. But be sure to check your prices at several places to ensure you get the best buy. The Classic Film & TV Cafe does not endorse any merchandise dealers.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Power of Love in "The Enchanted Cottage"

The cottage, we are told, is the only wing saved from a great estate built by an English nobleman on the New England shores. He loaned it to newlyweds and allowed them to live there for as long as they wished, a tradition maintained for over 150 years—until broken by the current owner. Even though the cottage has become overgrown with moss and ivy, it remains a flower waiting to blossom. But whereas a flower needs water and sunlight, the cottage needs to be filled with the love between two people to bring alive its enchantment.

The cottage’s owner, Mrs. Minnett (Mildred Natwick), a lonely widow, decides to rent it to a couple who will soon be married. She hires Laura Pennington (Dorothy McGuire), a young woman described as “terrible homely.” The groom-to-be, Oliver Bradford (Robert Young), finds the cottage quaint and charming, even though his fiancée is less than enthused. But before the couple can marry and move into their honeymoon home, Oliver receives his commission as a pilot and must report for duty during World War II.

When he returns a year later, his face disfigured and his right arm paralyzed from an airplane crash, Oliver is a different man—bitter and intent on keeping to himself. He ignores his family and former fiancée and moves into the cottage. He is eventually befriended by composer John Hillgrove (Herbert Marshall), who lost his sight as a pilot during World War I. Oliver also finds a kind and earnest companion in Laura, who has fallen in love with him.

The outcome of The Enchanted Cottage is never in doubt. We know that from the opening scene where John recounts the story as a tone poem at an evening gathering. Therefore, the film relies heavily on its well-drawn characters, strong performances (particularly Marshall), and a sense of “magic” created by John Cromwell’s atmospheric direction, the almost-expressionistic sets which incorporate paintings of the cottage, and Roy Webb’s lyrical music.

Cromwell makes brilliant use of lighting, especially in the shadow-filled scenes when Oliver first returns and when he locks himself in his room when his family visits (his face first revealed to the viewer by the light of a match in the blackness of the room). Cromwell’s direction is equally masterful, as when the camera makes a sweeping circular move, stopping just short of Oliver and Laura’s faces as they explain excitedly to John how they’ve “changed.” Interestingly, Cromwell was also an actor, winning a Tony in 1951 opposite Henry Fonda in Point of No Return.

Composer Roy Webb is sadly one of the least-remembered composers of the 1940s and 1950s, despite writing music for classics such as The Spiral Staircase, Notorious, Out of the Past, I Remember Mama, and several of Val Lewton’s horror films. Webb’s score for The Enchanted Cottage, which includes a lovely piano concerto, earned him the last of his Academy Award nominations (he never won).

Harriet Parsons produced The Enchanted Cottage at a time when there were few women working in film production in Hollywood. She acquired the rights to the original stage play, which was written by Arthur Wing Pinero in 1923 (and also made as a 1924 silent film). Parsons hired screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen to adapt the play (Herman Mankiewicz contributed to the script, too). It’s interesting to note the parallels between The Enchanted Cottage and Bodeen’s screenplay for Lewton’s 1944 Curse of the Cat People. Both films can be viewed as traditional fantasies or as “real events” in which the fantastical elements occur only in the minds of the characters.

While The Enchanted Cottage can’t compete with the great romantic fantasies, like A Matter of Life and Death and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, it holds an enduring appeal. It’s a well-crafted film that leaves its viewers with a timeless message: The beauty of love is in the eye of the beholder.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Trivia Time Part 12

This week, I've posted a question at The Corner of the Cafe about Mannix. The first person who answers the question wins a "Free Pass" for the month of December. Good luck. Here are this week's questions:

#1. What TV theme did Count Basie compose?

#2. Who was the star of the show he composed? On what network?

#3. What theme did Billy May & Al Hirt do?

#4. Brain Buster #1. Who wrote and had a 60's hit with The Gravy Waltz?

#5. Brain Buster #2. In the Cars classic video "You Might Think", a movie clip is shown. From what movie is the clip?

#6. Brain Buster #3. Who was the first to direct James Dean in a feature Film? Name the film. What year?

#7. Brain Buster #4 Who were the two main stars in the above film?

#8. Brain Buster #5. Name in order the two actors who played Richard Diamond Private Detective.

#9. Brain Buster #6. Who played Sam, his secretary who was only shown from the waist down to show her wonderful legs?

#10. Brain Buster #7. How many different composers did the theme for Diamond on radio and TV?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Trivia Time Part Eleven: The Answers

Rick, Dawn, and Gilby, this is what you guys missed this week:

#1. Ozzie Nelson directed episodes of Adam-12.
#2. The great James Burton was Ricky's lead guitar player.
#4. Kent Mc Cord's first show was The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet. He was one of Rick's
frat brothers.
#5. Brain Buster # 1 Ward & Marcus both lived in the same TV house on the Universal backlot.
#7. Brain Buster #3. Elmer Bernstein composed the theme for The Rookies.
#8. Brain Buster # 4 Hey Landlord's two male stars were Will Hutchins and Sandy Baron.
#9. The first theme Hoyt composed for Hanna-Barbera was The Ruff & Reddy Show, the first thing they did after leaving MGM, it was a Saturday morning show on NBC in the 1950's.

This Week's Poll: Which Famous Dancer Would be Your Partner on "Dancing with the Stars"?

One of the few shows I watch on television is Dancing With the Stars. I guess it reminds me of the classic musicals that I enjoy watching. Sometimes, I wonder how much fun it would be to have the rare opportunity to pair up with a professional dancer in a ballroom-dance competition. I think my choice would be Ricardo Monalban because of his elegance, charm and grace on the dance floor.

Who would you choose to be your partner in the competition? Here are your choices:

1. Betty Grable - Dancer, singer, and actress. Her bathing suit photo made her the No. 1 pin-up girl of the World War II era.

2. Cyd Charisse - Her roles focused on her talents as a dancer, and she danced with Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Ricardo Montalban.

3. Rita Hayworth - One of the American Film Institute's "Greatest Stars of All Time."

4. Gene Kelly - Actor, dancer, singer, director, producer, and choreographer.

5. Fred Astaire - Dancer, choreographer, singer and actor.

6.  Ricardo Montalban - Television, theater and film actor.

Hosts:  Gene Tierney and Vincent Price.
Costume Designer:  Edith Head.
Band:  Tommy Dorsey.
Judges:  Esther Williams, Jimmy Durante, and Peter Lawford.

Underrated Performer of the Week: Diana Muldaur

Starting in the mid-1960s and for the next thirty years, Diana Muldaur was one of the busiest performers on television. The dark-haired actress with the striking eyes guest starred in dozens of TV series, ranging from Hawaii Five-O to Kung Fu, Fantasy Island, Charlie’s Angels, and Hart to Hart.

She appeared in two episodes of Gene Roddenbery’s original Star Trek: playing a scientist whose body becomes possessed by an intelligent alien in season 2’s “Return to Tomorrow” and portraying a blind telepath in season 3’s “Is There Truth No Beauty.” Two decades later, Roddenberry added Muldaur to the cast of StarTrek: The Next Generation as the Enterprise’s chief physician, Dr. Kate Pulaski. She left the hit series after a single season, stating in a People Magazine interview in 2000: “I don’t think they were happy to have me there.”

In 1989, the same year in which she left The Next Generation, she joined McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney and Kuzak on NBC’s popular L.A. Law. She earned two Emmy nominations for her portrayal of aggressive attorney Rosalind Shays in seasons 4 and 5. But it was her character’s shocking death—Shays fell down an elevator shaft—that earned her a place in television lore.

Muldaur also played game warden (and best-selling author) Joy Adamson in Born Free, a short-lived 1974 series adapted the hit movie about Elsa the lioness.

Though she occasionally had roles in theatrical films, big screen stardom eluded Muldaur. Still, she played opposite John Wayne in McQ and had her best screen role in Thomas Tryon’s The Other.

Off screen, Diana Muldaur served as board member on the Screen Actors Guild and as president of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. She has been married twice. Her first husband, actor James Vickery, died of cancer in 1979. She has been married to writer-producer Robert Dozier since 1981. She has bred Airedale Terriers and served as a judge at dog shows.

Friday, November 20, 2009

That Girl (1965-1971)

When I was growing up, That Girl was one of the shows to watch. I loved seeing the hair and fashions and the lighthearted comedy. Marlo Thomas was wonderful in this series. Hollywood did not ruin Marlo, as she went on to write several wonderful books and to carry on her father's work for St. Jude Hospital.

In the 1960s, Marlo Thomas was That Girl. Her Ann Marie character opened the door for a new generation of women. Ann was not just a daughter and girlfriend. She was an aspiring actress who leaves home to pursue her career in New York City. She has wonderful chemistry with her boyfriend, magazine writer Donald Hollinger (Ted Bessell). Ann and Donald are one of TV's great comedy teams. Ann the free-spirited one, and Donald the more practical one.

That Girl has a wonderful cast of actors: Dabney Coleman, Bernie Kopell (Get Smart, The Love Boat). Guest stars included Sally Kellerman, George Carlin, Rob Reiner and Terry Garr.

The final episode was going to have Ann and Donald getting married, but Marlo Thomas (who was also an executive producer) refused, believing that it sent the message that a woman's main goal in life was to be married.

Check out a clip at:  http://www.imdb.com/video/screenplay/vi3802400025/

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Universal's Sherlock Holmes Series with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce--A Top to Bottom Review

Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce made their debuts as Holmes and Watson in two 1939 films produced by 20th Century-Fox, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Set in Victorian times, these classy mysteries featured high-end production values befitting of literature’s most famous sleuth. Alas, Fox chose not to pursue a series and that opened the door for Universal, which approached Rathbone with a novel concept: Why not update Holmes to present-day and pit him against modern villains?

From 1942 through 1946, Universal produced the 12 “modern day” Sherlock Holmes films. These were “B” films with running times under 70 minutes. Director Roy William Neill, who specialized in getting the most out of his small budgets, helmed all the films except the first (Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror). Mary Gordon appeared as the 221B Baker Street housekeeper Mrs. Hudson in most of the entries and Dennis Hoey made several appearances as a fairly inept version of Inspector Lestrade. Here are my ranking of all 12 series entries from best to worst.

1. The Scarlet Claw (1944) – One of the best of all Sherlock Holmes films, this smart little mystery finds Holmes and Watson chasing a “phantom” over the marshes of Canada. The murderer, a former thespian, is a master of disguises—which sets the stage for several tense sequences. Bruce adds just the right amount of humor in this one and Neill keeps the atmospheric proceedings moving at a snappy pace. This is easily my favorite Rathbone Holmes film, to include the more expensive Fox pictures.

2. Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943) – Arthur Conan Doyle’s story “The Musgrave Ritual” serves as the inspiration for this clever entry that finds Watson working at a country mansion being used as a convalescent home for soldiers. There are ancestral rituals, would-be ghosts, and—of course—murder. Best of all, there’s a giant chessboard on the floor that provides the key to the mystery. Milburn Stone (Doc on Gunsmoke) co-stars; look quickly for a young Peter Lawford.

3. The Pearl of Death (1944) – This entertaining adaptation of Conan Doyle’s “The Six Napoleons” features Rondo Hatton as the series’ most distinctive villain: The Oxton Creeper, who kills his victims by breaking their backs at the third vertebrae. Actually, the Creeper is a supporting player as Holmes and Watson investigate the theft of the Borgia Pearl. But Hatton does make a pretty scary killer and director Neill creates a chilling atmosphere.

4. House of Fear (1945) – At the Drearcliff estate in western Scotland, seven middle-aged men have formed a club called “The Good Comrades.” With no next of kin, each club member agrees to make his fellow members his beneficiaries in case of death…then two of them die after each receives an envelope with five orange seeds. The resolution may be a little disappointing, but this compact adaptation of Conan Doyles’s “The Adventures of the Five Orange Pips” is a bit of a pip itself.

5. The Spider Woman (1944) – The always reliable Gale Sondergaard elevates this entry as the sinister villainess behind the “pajama suicides.” Her verbal sparring with Rathbone accounts for several delightful scenes. It’s too bad she didn’t return for an encore (although she did star in The Spider Woman Strikes Back, as a different character in a non-Holmes film).

6. Terror By Night (1946) – A young man and his mother hire Holmes to accompany them on a train to Edinburgh and protect the Star of Rhodesia diamond. The villain turns out to be Colonel Sebastian Moran, whom Holmes describes as Professor Moriarty’s “most sinister, ruthless, and diabolically clever henchman.” It’s a solid entry, buoyed by the train setting and Watson’s chance to play the hero for once.

7. Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943) – Professor Moriarty makes his first appearance in the series in the guise of Lionel Atwill. Unfortunately, he’s not in much of the film. As a result, the film’s entertainment value rests mostly on Rathbone’s enjoyable disguises and an overly-complex cipher (the only part retained from the short story "The Adventure of the Dancing Men").

8. The Woman in Green (1945) – With Henry Daniell as über-villain Moriarity, this should have been an instant classic. Instead, it’s only a sporadically interesting yarn about a surprisingly grisly blackmail scheme that involves the murder and mutilation of random young women.

9. Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942) – Holmes battles the Nazis in the first of the Universal series. It’s an interesting premise: A Nazi radio broadcast predicts disasters—such as a train derailment—which then take place. Unfortunately, the film’s execution is pedestrian and its propaganda overdone. This film, like the others shot during World War II, ends with a stirring Rathbone speech about freedom and the defeat of evil.

10. Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943) – Holmes and Watson journey to the States to retrieve a valuable document stolen by enemy spies. Fortunately, this is the last film to pit Holmes against the Nazis. It’s a rather ho-hum affair, except for George Zucco as Holmes’s nemesis. Zucco portrayed Moriarity memorably in Fox’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

11. Dressed to Kill (1946) – The theft of an inexpensive music box intrigues Holmes enough to pursue a case that leads to a planned crime of far greater proportions. Except for Patricia Morison as the villain, there’s not much to recommend in this stale entry. It was Rathbone’s last appearance as Holmes on the big screen.

12. Pursuit to Algiers – Holmes and Watson accept the mission to protect a young royal heir who is returning from London to his (fictional) home of Rovenia. Most of the action takes place aboard a stagey ocean liner filled with supposedly mysterious suspects. There’s an obvious twist, which is sadly the best thing about this soggy tale.

If you're in the mood to read more about Mr. Holmes and Dr. Waton in the movies and on television, check out ClassicBecky's post Elementary, My Dear Fans. Just go to the index at the bottom right of the Cafe's main page and click on sherlock holmes.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Feel Good Movies: "I Hope You're Going My Way Too"

In May of 1944 the United States was embroiled in the dark days of World War II. After 2 ½ years of war, grief and fear of the future, American audiences chose as their favorite movie a little film which helped them remember what life is ultimately about -- love of God, love of people, humor in the midst of difficulty, ordinary human beings living each day as it comes. Going My Way was a Paramount film directed by Leo McCarey. McCarey was known mostly for his comedies before the 1940’s, working with such greats as the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields and Mae West. During the 40’s, McCarey became increasingly concerned about the needs of people struggling with wartime difficulties, as well as social injustice of the economically disadvantaged.

Going My Way is the story of two Catholic priests at St. Dominic parish in a poor neighborhood. Fr. O’Malley (Bing Crosby) arrives at the parish supposedly to assist the aging pastor, Fr. Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald). In point of fact, the Bishop has plans to eventually replace Fr. Fitzgibbon, who is now in his 70’s and is reluctant to retire. Fr. Fitzgibbon has been a priest for 45 years, and it has been that long since he has seen Ireland or his now extremely elderly mother. Fr. O’Malley’s modern, easy-style personality rubs the fiery old pastor the wrong way, and Fr. O’Malley is kind to him, always careful to show respect and patience in their relationship. Throughout the movie, we meet people who cross paths with Fr. O’Malley – Carol (Jean Heather), a runaway whose future causes no end of concern for the priest, Ted Harris Jr. (James Brown), whose interest in Carol is a further cause for concern, Genevieve (Rise Stevens), whom Fr. O’Malley once loved, and a gang of neighborhood boys led by Tony Scaponi (Stanley Clements). (You have to love that name, Tony Scaponi!) A third priest, Fr. O’Dowd (Frank McHugh), the same age and modern outlook as Fr. O’Malley, turns up to be another thorn in the old pastor’s side. Fr. O’Malley deals with each person in the same spiritually dedicated, yet firm feet-on-the-ground attitude which characterizes his moral makeup. There is great humor in this story, sorrow, and an ending that is quiet and intensely moving.

Going My Way is a slice-of-life movie, simply portraying the life of a church parish day to day. There is no hurry to McCarey’s direction, allowing each scene to unfold with rich personality and character-driven plot. The audience feels as if they know the people in this film as old friends, as proven by the fact that this was the highest-grossing film of 1944. In those days, without television or re-runs, that meant that there was a lot of repeat viewing and thus more theatre tickets sold. Going My Way swept the Oscars that year, winning best picture, best director, best actor for Crosby, best supporting actor for Fitzgerald, best screenplay, best song for “Swinging On A Star” written by Van Huesen and Burke. This was in a year where competition was stiff and the movie was up against such films as Cary Grant’s Arsenic and Old Lace, Olivier’s Henry V, Garland’s Meet Me In St. Louis and Ingrid Bergman’s Gaslight, among others. Interestingly, Fitzgerald and Crosby were both nominated for best actor, as well as Fitzgerald’s nomination for best supporting actor, a double-nominee practice that was later disallowed.

The cast of Going My Way is one that shines in its individual parts. Bing Crosby is perfection as the younger priest who sings and plays piano, just as comfortable with boogie woogie as spiritual songs. His work with the neighborhood boys in turning them into a choir is beautifully portrayed. (One of the boys is Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer who we remember from Our Gang serials.) They truly sing like angels when they perform the title song with real-life opera great Rise Stevens. But it’s their performance with the song “Swinging On A Star” that audiences really loved. The film also introduced a lovely little lullaby, "Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ra", which captured the hearts of many. The part of the old pastor, Fr. Fitzgibbon, seemed tailor made for Barry Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald was 56 at the time, only 15 years older than Crosby, yet he seemed and looked very old, a testament to his acting and good makeup. He is funny and sweet in his part, and you can’t help but love him.

Wonderful Frank McHugh as Fr. O’Dowd is the perfect comic relief with his distinctive way of speaking and his famous high breathy laugh. McHugh was a member of the Irish Mafia, a spoof name for a group of actors, mostly Irish, who met fairly regularly which included James Cagney, Spencer Tracy and Pat O’Brien. Stanley Clements (Tony Scaponi) eventually replaced Leo Gorcey in the Bowery Boys last seven movies. And, if you are old enough, you may recognize James Brown (Ted Haines) as Lieutenant Masters in the Rin Tin Tin television series. The rest of the supporting cast round out this wonderful ensemble with solid performances.

In the next year, 1945, Crosby again reprised the role of Fr. O'Malley in The Bells of St. Mary's, which also starred Ingrid Bergman.  Once again the film was a huge hit, and in my opinion, Bergman still holds the gold medal as best and beautiful screen nun ever.

Director McCarey and Bing Crosby were both devout Catholics and that shows in their dedication to the film and their love for the ideals of the Church. After the war, Crosby obtained permission to screen the movie for Pope Pius XII and met with him personally. Some, particularly in our own time, pronounce this movie as saccharine and overly-idealistic. I disagree completely. It truthfully set forth ideals and the efforts of ordinary people to live up to them. Now, when scandal has marred the image of the Catholic Church, this little movie is a timely reminder that the same ideals are still there, and that 99.9% of priests are as good and dedicated as Fr. O’Malley. That is a living legacy from Leo McCarey and Bing Crosby.

"Name the Movie" Game (17 November 2009 Edition)

Put on your game face, Café patrons, because I am thinking of a movie.

Rick’s Rules Reminders:

1. You may ask up to five yes or no questions a day. Each guess does count as one question.

2. Please number each question or each guess to make it easier for me to respond to them.

3. The player who is the first to guess the movie correctly will be the one to make the selection for the following week’s Name the Movie Game.

4. The game will end on Saturday night if the movie is not guessed before then.

I will be able to answer questions tonight until 11 p.m. Eastern.

Here we go! I am thinking of a movie that was made in the 1950s. This movie was adapted from a play. Good luck!

Cafe du Cinema Society Discusses "The Night of the Hunter"

Film critic Leslie Halliwell once described The Night of the Hunter as a child's terrifying fantasy.  And while much of the film is presented from a child's point of view, director Charles Laughton pulls both young and adult viewers into this fantasy world. Once inside, the viewer becomes exposed to all the horrors faced by the characters--especially the children John and Pearl. Hence, The Night of the Hunter becomes a horror film. Much of its horror is psychological---lurking beneath the film's surface in the form of horrific and suspenseful elements, the character's perversions and madnesses, and potential psychological fears and fantasies. For example, we see an owl that appears to be gentle and harmless. Yet, it suddenly swoops down and kills a rabbit. Laughton seems to be saying that horror can lurk where we least suspect it--in a wise, old owl or even a "preacher."

Do you agree that The Night of the Hunter is a horror film? If yes, how does Laughton create horror and suspense in his film? And if you disagree, let's hear some feedback as to why! Remember, the Cafe du Cinema Society is all about interactive, online discussion.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Hitchcock Blonde!

Consider...a succession of beautiful blonde actresses...the first few of whom naturally exuded a quality of feminine refinement that appealed to director Alfred Hitchcock and which he incorporated into a character type that he used repeatedly in his films. Ultimately, Hitchcock took possession of and honed this persona to a fine point. His final blonde stars were scrupulously stylized to fit his very specific image.

Joan Barry (Emily Hill in Rich and Strange, 1931)...London-born Barry first worked with Hitchcock when she dubbed Anny Ondra's voice for the sound version of Blackmail. She later starred in another of the director's early sound films, Rich and Strange. In addition to being a blonde, Barry possessed a delicate beauty that Hitchcock would seek again. (Note: This British actress should not be confused with the American actress Joan Barry who was legally entangled with Charlie Chaplin)

Madeleine Carroll (Pamela in The 39 Steps, 1935, and Elsa Carrington in Secret Agent, 1936) Often referred to as the first of Hitchcock's "ice cool" blondes, Carroll bore a striking resemblence to Joan Barry. Her career skyrocketed with the success of The 39 Steps and, following Secret Agent, she signed with Paramount and made several films in the U.S.

Carole Lombard (Ann Smith in Mr. & Mrs. Smith, 1941) Hitchcock's only screwball comedy, Mr. & Mrs. Smith starred one Hollywood's great Golden Age comediennes, the lovely Lombard. She sparkled as the stubborn, beautiful and well-heeled Mrs. Smith; not exactly aloof, she was certainly intelligent and fashionable. Hitchcock directed at Lombard's request and it was the last of her films released during her lifetime.
(Note: Mr. & Mrs. Smith airs today, 11/16, on TCM at 4:15 pm Eastern/1:15 pm Pacific)

Grace Kelly (Margot Wendice in Dial M for Murder, 1954, Lisa Fremont in Rear Window, 1954, and Frances Stevens in To Catch a Thief, 1955) The quintessential "snow covered volcano" that all others are measured against. Kelly, one of the definitive beauties of the 1950s, naturally possessed elegance and refinement - she was also able to effortlessly portray the chilly allure that so appealed to Hitchcock.

Kim Novak ("Madeleine Elster"/Judy Barton in Vertigo, 1958) Novak was a very popular movie star of the 1950s and a departure from the type Hitchcock had previously cast as his blonde love objects. Among other things, she was more voluptuous than those before her. Her sultry allure was toned down with a chic and often subdued wardrobe as well as the application of quiet but precise makeup. In a new "twist," Novak wore her hair in a stylized up-do throughout most of the film - this was the memorable "French Twist" Hitchcock liked to explore with his camera. Novak's enigmatic performance much enhanced the mysteries of Vertigo.

Eva Marie Saint (Eve Kendall in North by Northwest, 1959) Though not a sex symbol like Novak, Saint was also a departure from the actresses Hitchcock had cast before her. A dedicated dramatic actress, she was known for starring in films like On the Waterfront and A Hatful of Rain as well as live TV dramas - what Hitchcock called "kitchen sink" roles. However, she got the full treatment once chosen to play Eve and was transformed into a cool glamour girl whose urbane artifice belies her vulnerability. Saint was coiffed, costumed and made up to seductive, slightly brittle perfection. Being a solid actress, she was able to carry off with ease the role of a government operative while encased in fullblown Hitchcock Blonde regalia.

Tippi Hedren (Melanie Daniels in The Birds, 1963, and Marnie Edgar in Marnie, 1964) Hitchcock's final pale-haired icon, Hedren's was the most controlled expression of Hitchcock's archetype. More model than actress at the time, Hedren's mannequin-like qualities seem emphasized by heavily sprayed bouffant hairstyles, a sophisticated and strictly coordinated wardrobe and fastidious makeup. Hitchcock coached Hedren closely and constantly, intensely involved in her every move. Her career faltered when she bought out her contract with Hitchcock following Marnie.

Footnote:
Truffaut and Hitchcock discuss "the Hitchcock Blonde"

Hitchcock: You know why I favor sophisticated blondes in my films? We're after the drawing-room type, the real ladies, who become whores once they're in the bedroom.
Truffaut: What intrigues you is the paradox between the inner fire and the cool surface.
Hitchcock: Definitely...Do you know why? Because sex should not be advertised...because without the element of surprise the scenes become meaningless. There's no possibility to discover sex.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

This Week’s Poll: Who would you send on a secret rescue mission?

Here’s the scenario: An important political figure has been kidnapped and is being held in an isolated fortress. You’ve been assigned to find the team that can complete a successful rescue mission. Your first phone call is to Jim Phelps, of course, but—bummer!—his Impossible Mission Force is booked for the season. In fact, a lot of potential rescue specialists (e.g., Snake Plissken from Escape From New York) are on other assignments. So, your choices have been narrowed to the following:

The Dirty Dozen – They’ve got the experience, the numbers, and a tough-minded leader in Major John Reisman (Lee Marvin), plus Trini Lopez can keep everyone loose with a song here and there. The fact they use poetry to learn their missions is a bit of a concern (e.g. “One: down to the road block, we've just begun; Two: the guards are through…”). But the only big downside is that Maggot (Telly Savalas) is an unstable homicidal psychopath.

Robin Hood and his Merry Men (The Adventures of Robin Hood) – I know…their only weapons are swords, longbows, and wooden staffs. But, hey, some of them are really good with the longbow (splitting an arrow is fine shootin’), plus they’re crafty with disguises and know how to stage an effective ambush. The only area of concern is that they do seem to enjoy a big outdoor barbeque more often thanthey should—that could be a distraction.

The Magnificent Seven – Yes, there are only seven of them…but five of them are pretty handy with guns and knives. Chico (Horst Buchholz) may not be the quickest with a six-shooter, but the kid’s got chutzpah as evidenced by his infiltration of the Mexican bandit gang. Of course, the weakest link in the Seven is Harry Luck (Brad Dexter), who’s not particularly good at anything and will have to be convinced gold is involved before he’ll participate.

Major Smith and Lieutenant Schaffer (Where Eagles Dare) – Only two people, you say? Well, remember that Smith (Richard Burton) and Schaffer (Clint Eastwood) own this type of mission: They staged an impressive rescue of a British general (well, an actor playing the general) from a mountain fortress overrun with German soldiers during World War II. Plus, they employ effective undercover help in the guise of Mary Ure and Ingrid Pitt. But before you make them the easy pick, consider this: they blow up a lot of stuff so their rescue might generate some negative press and Smith keeps important information to himself (like if there’s a mole in your organization).

Lee, Roper, and Williams (Enter the Dragon) – You’re correct…these guys aren’t really a team and Lee (Bruce Lee) is the only one with any kind of professional experience. Plus, Roper (John Saxon) has a gambling problem, Williams (Kelly) is wanted after a run-in with racist cops, and both of them are easily distracted by the opposite sex. The good news is that these three can handle any number of bad guys just by using their hands and feet, plus Williams will spout some memorable dialogue (“Man, you’re right out of a comic book!”).

I know, it’s a tough choice! But you were hired to make hard decisions like this. Keep in mind that if the rescue is unsuccessful, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions.

Trivia Time Part Eleven

This week I'm starting a semi-regular feature question: Who Am I?

As an actor, I've worked with among others: Steve McQueen, Rock Hudson, Whit Bissell, and James Brown. As a director, I worked with Matt Dillon. Who am I?

#1. Besides his own show, Ozzie Nelson directed episodes of what show?

#2. Who played lead guitar in Ricky Nelson's TV band?

#3. Name the shows Sharon Gless did with Robert Wagner?

#4. What show was Kent McCord on before Adam-12? What did he play?

#5. Brain Buster # 1. What do Ward Cleaver and Marcus Welby have in common ?

#6. Brain Buster #2. What do the TV shows Gidget, The Name of the Game, Dan August, and It Takes a Thief have in common?

#7. Brain Buster #3 What late 60's TV show theme did Elmer Bernstein compose?

#8.Brain Buster # 4. Who where the 2 male stars of the NBC show Hey Landlord?

#9. What was the first theme Hoyt Curtain composed for Hanna - Barbera?

Trivia Time Part Ten: The Answers

It was very good to see some new players this week, Veejay and Austin2. Hope both of you become "regulars". You, along with Rick, Sherliee, and Gilby, did OK. Here is what you guys missed.

#1. Sharilee was right; it was a Volvo. I was looking for the model. It was a P 1800.
#3. Rick got part of this right, but did not tell what happened to them. Catwoman used a "Raygun" on them and took their voices.
#5. Gilby, the spot was for Nestles Toll House Morsels. I wish I could find it on YouTube.

#7. Mike Post said he used Zip a Dee Doo Dah as a basis for the Baa Baa Black Sheep theme. Listen and see if you can hear it.

Everything Hunky Dunky: "Cuddles" Sakall is the Underrated Performer of the Week!

Carl, the head waiter in Casablanca. Restaurant owner and master chef Felix in Christmas in Connecticut. Music store owner Otto Oberkugen in In the Good Old Summertime. S.Z. Sakall amassed an impressive resume of supporting roles during his brief 15-year stint in Hollywood.

He was born Eugene Gero Szakall in Budapest in 1884. When he went into acting, he took the stage name Szoke Szakall and starred in a string successful Eurpean musicals and comedies. He left for the U.S. at the outbreak of World War II. All three of his sisters died in Nazi concentration camps.

He made his Hollywood debut as S.Z. Sakall in the Deanna Durbin-Kay Francis musical It's a Date. He quickly gained attention for his supporting roles in The Devil and Miss Jones (as Charles Coburn's butler), Ball of Fire (as one Gary Cooper's fellow scholars), and Yankee Doodle Dandy (as the naive backer of one of George M. Cohen shows). He was 59 when he played Carl in Casablanca, a role he almost turned down.

In The Film Encyclopedia, Ephraim Katz wrote of Sakall: "Fractured English, flabby jowls, and an excitable personality were his stock-in-trade in a long list of endearing portrayals." That endearing quality earned him the nickname "Cuddles" and, by 1945, he was sometimes billed on screen as S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall.

Sakall appeared in three films with Errol Flynn: the Westerns San Antonio and Montana and the comedy Never Say Goodbye (one of my favorites among his films). He played three characters named Felix (Christmas in Connecticut, My Dream Is Yours, and Painting the Clouds with Sunshine). For me, his finest hour was as Barbara Stanwyck's befuddled friend and "ghost cook" in Christmas in Connecticut, who announces "catatroph!" when things are bad and "everything hunky dunky" when they're good.

S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall's last film was an adaptation of the operetta The Student Prince in 1954. He died of a heart attack the following year.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Feel Good Movies: Love is the International Language in "Better Off Dead"

When choosing a "feel good" movie, it might seem odd to pick one in which the main character tries to kill himself in various ways. But Savage Steve Holland's 1985 comedy classic, Better Off Dead, is a definitive feel good feature. It's a charming, romantic tale of love lost, love found again, and crazed paperboys who will do anything for two dollars.

High school teen Lane Meyer (John Cusack) is excited about the upcoming trials for the ski team. But thanks to the obnoxious ski captain, not only does Lane not make the team, but the captain proceeds to steal his girlfriend, Beth, a girl with whom Lane is undeniably obsessed. Heartbroken, Lane attempts suicide in ridiculous ways, none, of course, which prove successful. Eventually, Lane decides that the best way to win back Beth is to ski the K-12, a notorious slope that has reportedly only been defeated by the loathsome, girlfriend-stealing ski captain. He gets help from an unlikely person, the sweet French foreign exchange student, Monique (Diane Franklin), staying at the house across the street.

In spite of Lane's death wish, Holland's movie never takes itself seriously and doesn't even play like a black comedy. One of the reasons for this is the casting of Cusack. The actor is like a young James Stewart. He's consistently delightful, and he can do no wrong (Cusack even played a hitman in 1996's Grosse Pointe Blank, and you couldn't help but love him). So his suicide attempts just seem funny, especially when they include covering himself in bedsheets, planning to set himself afire (and gingerly applying primer while at the dinner table). They're also humorous because they all invariably go awry -- just watch what happens with the aforementioned primer.

Another reason the film is lighthearted fun is its focus on Lane's perspective. Nearly the entire film is his point-of-view, with drawings that animate themselves, a ludicrously difficult math class in which Lane is the only student not in awe of the complex lecture, and dancing hamburgers that perform Van Halen songs. Worst of all, everyone is asking about Lane's recent break-up, from his math teacher to the postal carrier and even Barney from The Flintstones. In Lane's world, his oblivious mother is a horrible cook (her food sometimes crawls off the plate), his father can only relate to him with the help of a book, and his never-speaking younger brother is fruitful in all his endeavors, mostly creating functional "toys" from catalogs and cereal boxes.

But what really makes Better Off Dead work is the wonderful romance between Lane and Monique. Monique is staying with the Smiths, an abrasive mother and her neurotic son who won't leave Monique alone (she mockingly calls him "Casanova" while speaking to Lane). Monique feigns an inability to speak English -- mostly to evade discussions with the Smiths -- but this leads to fun scenes of Lane opening up to her, not realizing that she can understand him. Monique is smitten, of course, and Lane ultimately falls for her. At its very core, Better Off Dead is a love story. A peculiar love story in which a paperboy on a bike equipped with skis isn't considered abnormal and is really just a minor nuisance, but a love story nonetheless.

Holland followed this film with One Crazy Summer the next year. It was a similar movie also starring Cusack and Curtis Armstrong in prominent roles (Armstrong played Cusack's friend in Better Off Dead), with Cusack as a cartoonist (he apparently dabbled in that craft in this film). Holland himself was an animator and designed the animated sequences in both films. Better Off Dead is an affectionate, unforgettable movie, and if you ever doubt its popularity, just grab someone off the street and say, "I want my two dollars." There's a good chance that person will know what you're talking about!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Feel Good Movies: A Life-Affirming Month is Shared in "Enchanted April"

While sitting on a bus in dreary, rainy 1920s London, Lotty Wilkins (Josie Lawrence) spies the following newspaper advertisement:

TO THOSE WHO APPRECIATE
WISTERIA AND SUNSHINE
SMALL MEDIEVAL ITALIAN CASTLE
on the shores of the Mediterranean to
be Let furnished for the month of April.



When she spots an acquaintance, Rose Arbuthnot (Miranda Richardson), reading the same ad at the Nightingale Women’s Club, Lotty decides it must be providence. She sees in Rose a soulmate who also needs a break from her monotonous everyday existence. Lotty proposes that they rent the castle and take a vacation just for themselves. As she explains to Rose: “I’ve been doing things for other people since I was eleven and I don’t feel any better for it.”

To defray the costs, they advertise for two other roommates. Only two women respond: Mrs. Fisher (Joan Plowright), a lonely, elderly woman who wants to “sit in the shade and remember better times” and Caroline Dester (Polly Walker), an attractive socialite tired of being relentlessly pursued by men.

During the month they share together in their lovely chateau surrounded by verdant splendor, these four women learn about each other, gain insight into themselves and their loved ones, and emerge with a new outlook on life. Perhaps everything works out too neatly in the end, but Enchanted April is a joyous, life-affirming film and there’s nothing wrong with that.

The cast is impeccable, with the four leading ladies receiving excellent support from Alfred Molina as Josie’s business-minded husband and Jim Broadbent as Rose’s feckless, but redeemable, husband. Michael Kitchen charmingly plays the owner of the castle, the visually-impaired George Briggs.

Equally impressive is Mike Newell’s subtle direction. The London scenes are photographed in drab, brownish tones, while the color seems to explode with brilliance when the action shifts to Italy. Newell also makes effective, constrained use of voiceovers that let us eavesdrop into each character’s thoughts.

Enchanted April was made for BBC television, but released theatrically in the U.S. Its source novel was first adapted for the screen in 1935, but I’ve never seen that version. This one is a film to be cherished.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Name the Movie Game!

This week's game is courtesy of ShariLee--last week's winner:

It's game time! Time to rack those film fact-filled brains!

A brief reminder of the rules: (See Rick's earlier blog for the complete rules)

1) Each Café patron may then ask up to five “yes or no” questions about the film each day. And guessing the name of the movie, counts as one of the questions.

2) Number your questions when you ask them. For example: “1. Does this film take place in the 20th century?” That will make it easier for me to answer your questions.

3) The first player who guesses the film correctly wins the game and gets to pick the film for the next week. Since all comments have a date/time stamp, that will be used to determine the winner if two or more people guess the film correctly on the same day.

4) Remember the Game ends on Saturday night.

I will be able to answer all questions posted today from about 9PM until 11PM. Then tomorrow I will be online around noon and online off and on through out the day and night. Same for the remainder of the week.

Are You Ready?

I'm thinking of a movie that was made in the 1950s. Since tomorrow is Veteran's Day, the movie I am thinking of takes place during a War, that is the movie's setting is during a War but it may not necessarily be considered a War Genre Film.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Trivia Time Part Ten

Wow, the 10th edition of Trivia Time already.
Becky there is no Booby Prize this week. This week, there is no pattern to the questions, or are there?

#1. What kind of car did Roger Moore drive on the The Saint?
#2. What was the "reason " the productors of Cagney & Lacy give for "dumping" Maude Addams?
#3. What 60's rock group was on Batman? What happened to them on the show?
#4. Natalie Wood had a small non-credited non speaking cameo on what TV Show?
#5. In the 70's Natalie Wood did a commercial for what product?
#6. Brain Buster # 1. What future famous composer produced the first Chad & Jeremy LP?
#7. Brain Buster #2 Mike Post said he based this show's theme on Zippy Do Dah. What is the show?
#8. Brain Buster #3 Mike Conners was a big time jock at what school? What was his sport? What was his "nickname? BTW he used this name in a few early roles.
#9. Brain Buster # 4 Before he became an actor, Mark Harmon was also a big time jock at what school. What was his sport, and at what position?

Feel Good Movies: A Delightful Italian Neorealism Variation of Cinderella - "More than a Miracle" (1967)


I fell head over heels in love with this movie in 1967. I saw it 6 or 7 times, immersing myself into its charming and delightfully different reworking of the basic Cinderella tale. In Italy it was titled Cinderella Italian Style; however, a prince seeking a bride and a peasant girl longing for a better life are the only similarities to the original. The eclectic mix of fairy tale elements, including flying monks and an ancient sorceress, royal romantic intrigue, unexpected moments of comedy and drama, the charisma and lusty chemistry between Sophia Loren and Omar Sharif, a lovely musical score and sweeping vistas of the starkly beautiful Naples countryside proved to be a thoroughly soul-satisfying movie-going experience that did not diminish with multiple viewings.

More than a Miracle was the brainchild of Sophia Loren's husband, producer Carlo Ponti, who envisioned a film which would appeal to an international audience. Omar Sharif, whose star power had increased following his performance in Doctor Zhivago, was chosen to play the devastatingly handsome, but arrogant, Prince Rodrigo. Ponti's choice of director Francesco Rosi. however, was startling. His previous films, Salvatore Guiliano (1961) and Hands Over the City (1963) incorporated the Italian neorealism themes of social and political injustice created by the ever-increasing disparity between the classes, exemplified in the classics The Bicycle Thief and Umberto D. Amazingly, amidst the fantasy and magic, Rosi effectively applied the socioeconomic tenets of neorealism to the relationship between Sharif's prince and Loren's peasant girl, and the painfully obvious difference in their social status, which almost derails the requisite happily ever after ending.

The hoped-for happy conclusion of this fractured fairy-tale is attained after a series of unusual events triggered by Prince Rodrigo's failure to obey an order from the King of Spain to find a wife. He escapes from the meddling of his marriage minded mother, riding his magnificent white horse at breakneck speed, resulting in a tumble out of the saddle. He walks to a monastery where he gets advice from one of the friars about finding a wife and is offered a method of choosing the right one. While looking for his horse, he encounters the strong-willed peasant girl Isabella. He finds himself attracted to this earthy beauty and decides to subject her to the friar's test. It looks like she will fulfill the requirements when she makes a disqualifying mistake. Rodrigo is furious with her for not completing the task, and decides to punish her. His plan is to pretend he is dead and then disappear. The horrified Isabella acquires a spell to bring him back to life, but misreads the formula, resulting in an immobilized Rodrigo, his entire body frozen like a statue. Various bizarre concoctions are used in an attempt to counter the spell, including an ammonia-scented, warm yellow liquid. However, it takes a kiss from Isabella to release him from the curse. A revived Rodrigo wreaks his revenge on Isabella by locking her in a large wooden barrel and rolling it down a hill towards the sea; however, she is rescued by a a rag-tag gang of beach urchins. A repentant Isabella abandons the black arts and obtains a position in Rodrigo's household as a laundress, hoping to win his love on her own merits. She doesn't realize how close she is to attaining her goal as Rodrigo already harbors a deep affection for her, which soon evolves into the love of Isabella's dreams. Of course the issues of her lower class status and his mother's staunch opposition to such a union must be resolved. Rodrigo concocts what seems to be a perfect solution: He organizes a dish-washing contest among the 7 prospective brides and declares that he will marry the woman who breaks the least amount of dishes, knowing that their lily white hands have never come in contact with dish water. He disguises Isabella as a princess certain that she will be the winner and his bride. As predicted, Isabella is far ahead of the others, when inexplicably her dishes start to break in half. Her momentum is disrupted and she becomes increasingly frantic as the breakage continues to diminish her lead. She is ultimately defeated by a pampered aristocrat who had never worked a day in her life! Rodrigo is stunned and infuriated by this unexpected turn of events and publicly denounces Isabella, his rage blinding him to the possibility of sabotage. A despondent Isabella flees from Rodrigo's anger and contemplates drowning herself, but is convinced by the gentle friar from the monastery, now a saintly presence, to return to Rodrigo and reveal the conniving contest winner who used her diamond ring to weaken the stability of Isabella's stack of plates. The lovers are reconciled and their engagement is announced with much fanfare as they walk arm in arm through the crowd, aware of nothing except the love in each other's eyes.

In his TCM article on More than a Miracle, Jeffrey Stafford wrote:

“When More Than a Miracle opened theatrically, it was well received by most Italian film critics but failed to find an audience outside its own country. Maybe the mixture of flying monks and jousting tournaments and cackling witches and dishwashing contests (a major set piece towards the film’s climax) was just too eclectic for American moviegoers. Either that or sixties audiences felt they were too hip for an old-fashioned fairy tale. The Time magazine reviewer probably said it best: ‘That anybody would bother these days to make so slender and fanciful a film is a miracle in itself; to do it with such a profusion of visual beauty is More than a Miracle’ "(Stafford,TCM, Par. 4)
The fact that I had never considered myself even remotely hip may have been the reason I found comfort and joy in this "lost" (not available on VHS or DVD) component of Sophia Loren's filmography. Those who ignored this film robbed themselves of the opportunity to see Sophia's radiant and lighthearted performance and a chance to marvel at her incredibly vibrant beauty. I may have been an audience of one, but I was more than willing to suspend disbelief and bask in the whimsical glow of this enchanting film.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

This Week's Poll Goes to the Dogs--the Disney Dogs!

Yes, an obvious pun—and a bad one—but it had to be said. Yet, no one can deny that Walt Disney Productions made some of the cinema’s most memorable dog films. Your challenge this week is to vote on your favorite one. The canine candidates are:
 
One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961) – The very scary Cruella De Vil has Dalmatian puppies kidnapped so she can use them for a Dalmatian fur coat! Highlights: the “twilight bark”; the human/canine double wedding; the TV show parodies “What’s My Crime” (a favorite of the kidnappers) and the Kanine Krunchies jingle; and Dalmatians rolling in soot to disguise themselves as black Labrador Retrievers.

Lady and the Tramp (1955) – Opposites attract when Lady, a sheltered, pampered Cocker Spaniel, meets Tramp, a scrappy mixed breed that lives in the streets. Highlights: Lady and the Tramp sharing a candlelight spaghetti dinner as they’re serenaded with the pretty “Bella Notte”; the sneaky Siamese cats singing their signature tune (“We are Siamese if you please; we are Siamese if you don't please”); and the marvelous dog’s eye view of the world throughout the film (ever notice that one rarely sees the humans’ faces?).

Old Yeller (1957) – A large, stray “yeller dog” adopts a frontier family. The oldest of the two sons (Tommy Kirk) rejects the dog at first, but grows to love the loyal, courageous animal. Highlights: Yeller’s refusal to eat a tempting slab of meat hung in front of him all night long as a test; Yeller sneaking onto the bed of the younger boy; the tears-inducing climax; and Yeller’s pups…which look like Golden Retrievers even though Yeller was mostly a Lab. The sequel, Savage Sam, isn’t nearly as good.
 
Greyfriars Bobby (1961) – This is the amazing true story of a loyal Skye Terrier who slept on his master’s grave in an Edinburgh cemetery every night for 14 years. Given that laws required an ownerless dog to be destroyed, the City of Edinburgh adopted Bobby. One of Disney’s least known dog films is definitely worth a rental. Highlights: Bobby’s first day alone in the city; the children in the orphanage watching for Bobby; and Bobby gradually endearing himself to the crusty cemetery caretaker (Donald Crisp). The same story was the basis for the earlier Challenge to Lassie (1949).

The Incredible Journey (1963) – A Labrador Retriever, a Bull Terrier, and a Siamese cat (a nice one) are separated from their family and must trek 200 dangerous miles back home. There are no talking animals here (unlike in the 1993 remake in which we “hear” the animals’ thoughts). Instead, there’s some narration (which makes it seem like a documentary at times), a trio of impressive canine and feline thespians, beautiful landscapes, and a porcupine.

Those are your candidates! Confer with your pup, if you have one. I’m not sure feline advice would be unbiased in this case (I imagine they’d favor 101 Dalmatians and Incredible Journey, which feature nice kitties…as opposed the conniving Siamese twins in Lady and Tramp).