Sunday, July 31, 2011

The 5 Best Train Movies

Trains in films began with Edwin S. Porter's film, The Great Train Robbery (1903). A few years later, D.W Griffith's film, The Lonedale Operator (1911), was the first to have villains tie up heroine on the railroad tracks, to wait for the speeding oncoming train, then to be saved just in time from their doom. Thankfully, train movies have become more entertaining over the years.

The following titles show some of my favorite five train movies:

Twentieth Century (1934). Comedy. Directed by Howard Hawks. Cast: John Barrymore and Carole Lombard, Walter Connolly, Roscoe Karns and Edgar Kennedy.

The story begins when, writer Oscar Jaffe meets lingerie model, Mildred Plotka and makes her the star of his latest play, despite how his two assistants, Oliver Webb and Owen O'Malley, feel about her talent. Oscar transforms her into the actress "Lily Garland", and both she and his play are a huge successes. Over the next three years, they have three more huge hits.

Feeling smothered, Lily tries to break off their relationship. Oscar talks her out of it, promising to give her more freedom. He secretly hires a private detective, McGonigle, to follow her. When she finds out, she leaves for Hollywood and becomes a great movie star on her own.

Without Lily, Oscar's plays are huge flops and he disguises himself to avoid creditors aboard the luxurious Twentieth Century Limited train, travelling from Chicago to New York City's Grand Central Station. By chance, Lily Garland also boards the same train at a later stop. Oscar sees a chance to get her to sign a contract with him. However, Lily is on her way to see Max Jacobs, to star in his play. Knowing that Lily maybe his last chance at success, he tells her that he wants her to play Mary Magdalene, in his new play. Oliver thinks he has found someone to finance Oscar's project, not realizing that his new partner Clark is a escapee from a mental hospital. When Oscar is wounded in a fight with Clark, he pretends to be dying...will he trick Lily into signing a contract?

A wonderful pairing of John Barrymore and Carole Lombard and a story which moves almost as fast as the train.

The Palm Beach Story (1942). Romantic comedy. Written and directed by Preston Sturges. Cast: Claudette Colbert, Joel McCrea, Mary Astor and Rudy Vallee. Victor Young contributed the musical score, along with a variation of the William Tell Overture for the opening scenes.

This is a very cute story about a wife Gerry, who decides to divorce her husband, Tom, and marry a rich man to get the money to finance Tom's invention. While on the train, Gerry meets one of the richest men in the world. When Tom goes to confront the man, Tom is introduced to his man-obsessed sister, who wants Tom to be husband number 6.

Colbert is perfect as Gerry. McCrea is wonderful playing her husband, but Vallee and Astor really steal the show as the eccentric millionaire and his sister. Also enjoyable to watch are the Ale and the Quail club and Dudley the old Wienie King.

The Train Robbers (1973). Western. Cast: John Wayne, Ann-Margret, Rod Taylor, and Ben Johnson. The movie was written and directed by Burt Kennedy. Mrs. Lowe wants the half million U.S. dollars in gold her late husband stole during a train robbery. Lane wants $50,000 reward, so he decides to help her, asking some old friends to help him. The men of the deceased husband of Mrs. Lowe also want the gold and will do anything to take the money from them.

Wayne and the rest of the weather worn cast perform well in this Western. Some of the scenes will remind you of a beautiful western painting.

The Train (1965). Cast: Burt Lancaster, Paul Scofield, Jeanne Moreau. As the Allied Forces are fast approaching Paris, German Colonel Von Waldheim, is taking France's most famous paintings to Germany. He manages to find a train to transport the valuable art. The French resistance wants to stop them from stealing their national treasures, but have received orders from London that they are not to be destroyed. The station master, Labiche, is enlisted to help make it all happen, but he is also part of a small group of resistance fighters trying to keep the train from ever leaving Paris.

The big star of the film is the train, shown in amazing detail, to keep you in suspense.

Strangers on a Train (1951). A psychological thriller produced and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, who was an expert when it came to using trains in his movies. Cast: Farley Granger, Ruth Roman and Robert Walker, and features Leo G. Carroll, Patricia Hitchcock and Laura Elliott.

Bruno Antony, thinks he has come up with the perfect plot to kill his father when he meets tennis pro Guy Haines on a train. His plan is to have Guy kill his father and in trade he would kill Guy's wife Miriam, freeing him to marry Anne Morton. Guy does not think he is serious, but Bruno goes ahead with his half of the 'deal' and gets rid of Miriam. Guy can't believe it and Bruno makes it clear that he will plant evidence to implicate Guy in the murder if he doesn't kill Bruno's father. How will Guy deal with Bruno's madness?

Strangers on a Train, a dark wonderful comedy and is one my favorite Hitchcock's films.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Day the Earth Stood Still: Do You Remember the Three Words to Save the World?

If there were a Hall of Fame for Timeless Movies, then one of its founding members would be The Day the Earth Stood Still. I've probably watched it at least once every decade since I first saw it on NBC's Saturday Night at the Movies in the 1960s. When I was a youngster, the film's fantastic elements--and Gort, the coolest robot on celluloid--appealed to me. When I was a teen, its stern warning about the perils of nuclear war resonated with me. With each subsequent viewing, The Day the Earth Stood Still has revealed something new: presenting itself as a Biblical analogy, an editorial on the influence of media on public opinion, a portrait of fear of the unknown, etc.

The films opens with Klaatu (Michael Rennie), a visitor from another planet, and his robot Gort making an unannounced spaceship landing in Washington, DC. When Klaatu exits from his ship and reaches into his space suit, a nervous soldier shoots him. While recovering in Walter Reed Army Hospital, Klaatu meets with the President’s secretary, Harley. The alien explains he must deliver a critical message to all the leaders of the world. Harley explains that’s impossible because of global political tensions. Klaatu confesses that he does not understand human conflict. He decides he needs to learn more about Earthlings from living among them. He escapes discreetly from the hospital and, as “Mr. Carpenter,” takes a room in a boarding house.

The success of The Day the Earth Stood Still hinges, in large part, on the casting of Klaatu. Producer Julian Blaustein and director Robert Wise originally considered Claude Rains, but his stage schedule made him unavailable. 20th Century-Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck suggested Spencer Tracy, but Blaustein worried that a well-known star would be a distraction (interestingly, that concern didn't apply to Rains). It was Zanuck who eventually "discovered" Michael Rennie, who was peforming in the British theatre. The tall, low-key Rennie brought conviction to the role, but his greatest accomplishment was making the alien visitor seem human. This is no small feat, as evidenced by a scene in which Klaatu reads the words of Lincoln and wants to meet him. This sequence could easily have come across as hokey, but Rennie makes it quietly effective and even heartfelt (since Klaatu has finally found someone who gives him hope about the human race).

With a human-like alien, it was left to the robot Gort to bring an eerie, other-worldly quality to the film. To make the robot as physically imposing as possible, the producers hired Lock Martin, a 7' 7" doorman at Grauman's Chinese Theater. To make Gort even taller, Martin wore 4-6" platform shoes. Walking in the heavy rubber suit in high heels was physically exhausting. There were two suits, one that laced on the front and the other in back. Martin changed suits depending on the camera angle, so that it looked like Gort had no "seams." In some shots, a static model of the robot was used. That Gort model was later bought by Larry Harmon, overhauled so it didn't look much like Gort, and used in Harmon's Bozo the Clown television show.

In addition to its visual impact, The Day the Earth Still even sounds other-worldly thanks to composer Bernard Herrmann's innovative use of a theremin (shown on right). One of the first electronic instruments, the theremin is "played" by moving one's hands in front of it to change sound frequencies. Its distinctive sound became almost a cliche through repeated use in other sci fi films of the 1950s. Still, Herrmann' score remains an impressive achievement today.

Loosely based on the Harry Bates story "Farewell to the Master," The Day the Earth Stood Still features strong religious undercurrents. Klaatu becomes a Carpenter (if in name only). He performs a "miracle" of global proportions. He brings a message of peace, but is largely misunderstood. And, of course, he is murdered and resurrected. Producer Blaustein credits screenwriter Edmund H. North for adding these provocative layers on top of a traditional science fiction tale.

The cast, music, and richness of themes contribute mightily to the film's timeless quality. But it's the story--along with that awesome robot Gort--that makes The Day the Earth Stood Still popular with viewers of all ages. I love to watch it with young people and tell them that they will need to memorize the film's classic phrase and repeat it at the appropriate point in the film...or the Earth will be destroyed. You'd be amazed at how many different variations I've heard of: "Klaatu barada nikto!"

Thursday, July 28, 2011

My 100 Favorite Films: From 40 to 31

This month’s countdown list features a double dose of Sidney Poitier and two very different science fiction films. As always, please keep in mind that these films are not what I'd consider the best 100 movies ever made. They are simply one classic fan's favorites. (An underlined title means there's a hyperlink to a full review at the Cafe.)

40. Out of the Past- My favorite film noir has Robert Mitchum as a man who has put his shady past behind him and found love with a good woman in a small community where he operates a gas station. But, as is often the case in the movies, his past catches up with him when a former acquaintance passes through town. With its contrasts of bright lights and dark shadows, Out of the Past is a visual feast. It’s also a compelling tale of a man pulled back into the shadows of his past—no matter how hard he tries to escape them. Kirk Douglas nails the manipulating villain; too bad he didn’t play more bad guys. Yet, despite the presence of Mitchum and Douglas, the film belongs to Jane Greer, an underrated and under-utilized actress who created one of the genre’s best femme fatales.

39. The Andromeda Strain – This superior science fiction outing pits four dedicated scientists against a microscopic menace capable of destroying all life on Earth. Its critics have labeled it slow-moving and overlong, but I find it intellectually exciting. Its thrills come not from action sequences (though there’s a doozy at the climax), but from the time-sensitive need to determine: What is the Andromeda Strain? How can it be destroyed? Why did a 69-year-old man and a six-month-old baby survive when Andromeda wiped out a New Mexico town of 68 people? Part of the appeal for me is that The Andromeda Strain includes one of my favorite plot devices: the forming of a team in which each member is introduced to the audience.

38. Lilies of the Field – A quiet film that has grown in my affection, Lilies contains my favorite Sidney Poitier performance. His Homer Smith is a stubborn man who is delightfully at odds with himself… and with a savvy Mother Superior. A drifter, Homer stops at a small farm run by nuns in the Arizona desert. He agrees to do a small roof repair and winds up building a chapel. The gentle conflict between Homer and the Mother Superior (wonderfully played by Lilia Skala) forms the heart of the film. But I also love how Lilies captures the flavor of the community, encapsulated in my favorite scene in which some local workers gradually force their assistance on Homer as he builds “his” chapel.

37. In the Heat of the Night - This racially-charged mystery, 1968’s Oscar winner for Best Picture, has aged gracefully over the years. The secret to its success can be attributed to its many layers. Peel back the mystery plot and you have a potent examination of racial tension in the South in the 1960s. Peel that back and you have a rich character study of two lonely police detectives, from completely different backgrounds, who gradually earn each other’s respect. Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger shine in the lead roles and Sidney delivers one of my all-time favorite lines of dialogue.

36. Executive Suite - The president of Tredway, the nation’s third-largest furniture manufacturer, dies unexpectedly in the opening scene. With no successor named, the company falls into the hands of five vice-presidents with equal authority. Since Wall Street viewed Tredway as a one-man company, the VPs realize the criticality of naming a a new president over the weekend—thus creating a high stakes battle for company control. The all-star cast (which includes Holden, March, and Stanwyck) is in fine form. However, it’s the film’s theme of quality vs. profit that always intrigued me. Indeed, I first saw this film in a college business course. It’s often compared to Rod Serling’s Patterns, another corporate drama made in the 1950s. It’s very good, with a killer ending, but Executive Suite is more entertaining.

35. To Kill a Mockingbird – For many fans, this film’s appeal lies with its literary origins and Gregory Peck’s powerhouse performance. While that’s also somewhat true for me, my favorite part of Mockingbird is its portrait of a time and a place through the eyes of a child. I don’t think any movie has done a better job of that (my runner-up is the French two-part film My Father’s Glory/My Mother’s Castle). Additionally, Mary Badham and Phillip Alford give incredibly naturalistic performancea as the children. Badham was equally good in This Property Is Condemned. Mockingbird is full of magical moments, with my favorite being Atticus’s formal introduction of Boo Radley.

34. Von Ryan’s Express - Released in 1965, just two years after The Great Escape, Von Ryan’s Express also tells the tale of a daring escape from a prisoner-of-war (POW) camp during World War II. While both films split their running times between scenes inside the camp and outside the fence (once the prisoners break out), the similarity ends there. A near-perfect blend of suspense, intense action sequences, and occasional humor, Von Ryan’s Express takes off when the prisoners hijack a German train. OK, I admit I’m a sucker for train movies—but this one is a gripping thriller with a flawed hero well-played by Frank Sinatra. I always thought Sinatra was an odd star, capable of excellent performances (here and in The Manchurian Candidate) and truly awful ones (The Detective).

33. Picnic – William Holden stars as a handsome drifter who wanders into a small town to see old chum Cliff Robertson…and inadvertently steals his girlfriend Kim Novak. Based on William Inge’s play, Picnic is about taking chances, whether it’s in the pursuit of passion (and perhaps love) or whether it’s two lonely middle-aged people willing to take a chance on each other. I know film buffs who may cringe when I say it, but Picnic is at heart a big screen soap opera—and that’s not a bad thing. My Mom loved this genre and when I watched these soaps with her as a kid, I called them “people stories”—apparently because characters talked a lot instead of engaging in swordfights, hunting vampires, etc.

32. The Leopard Man – Set in a small New Mexico town, this fascinating Val Lewton-produced suspense film concerns a black leopard that escapes during a foolish publicity stunt. When a young girl is found clawed to death, the leopard is blamed—but was it the killer? Leopard Man is justly famous for what Exorcist director William Friedkin once called "one of the greatest horror sequences ever filmed." However, it’s more than a one-trick pony. I’m surprised that film critics rarely note its complex, interweaving narrative structure in which the plot sometimes zigs and zags as the characters interact. I can’t think of many other films like it, except for La Ronde, in which the narrative device is much more obvious.

31. Quatermass and the Pit – Construction workers uncover the ancient skulls of “ape men” while working in a deserted underground subway station in the Hobbs End area of London. A scientist dates the ape men’s remains as five million years old, making them the earliest known ancestors of humans. His work comes to a sharp halt, though, when the excavations unearth a large metallic-like object in the rock. Is it a bomb? A spacecraft? And what does it have to do with stories of former Hobbs End residents claiming to have heard odd noises and experienced visions of “hideous dwarfs”? Writer Nigel Kneale hatched this incredibly inventive melding of science fiction and horror, the third film in the Quatermass series. Too many films are labeled “one of a kind,” but this little gem truly fits the definition.

Next month, I’ll count down the next ten, which include a gimmicky mystery, the greatest color film ever made, and a whole lotta dogs.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The 5 Best Episodes of the Original "Star Trek"

What a great example of ensemble casting:
William Shatner as Captain Kirk, Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock, George Takei
as Sulu, Nichelle Nichols as Uhura, Walter Koenig as Chekhov, Majel Barrett
as Nurse Chapel, James Doohan as Scotty and DeForest Kelley as Dr. McCoy. 
In his excellent article posted yesterday, "The Five Best Episodes of "the Fugitive", Rick expressed what I feel about my post today ... it is so hard to pick just 5 favorites of a series you love.  I am a rabid fan of Star Trek.  I've never been to a convention or paid $60 for the script of Episode 23 (more about that later in this article) ... I just know most episodes by heart, that's all.  There are so many that are memorable, famous, even just awful.  So I decided to pick the five episodes that really caught my mind, my heart or my funnybone.

The Conscience of the King (Season 1):  A troupe of Shakespearean players offers to perform Hamlet for the Enterprise, featuring Anton Karidian (Arnold Moss) and his beautiful daughter (Barbara Anderson).  Captain Kirk falls in love with Karidian's daughter, but he believes that Karidian may actually be Kodos the Executioner, a brutal dictator from Kirk's childhood who ordered the mass killing of some of his subjects and then disappeared.  Murders begin to take place on the Enterprise, and Kirk must find out who Anton Karidian really is.  Excellent episode with a fine climactic ending.

City on the Edge of Forever (Season 1):  Written by Harlan Ellison, and a Hugo award winner, this episode is considered by many to be the best of the series.  The Enterprise is taken back in time to 1930's America. Kirk falls in love with Edith Keeler (Joan Collins), an advocate for world peace.  However, Edith's impending death is known to Kirk, and he wants to save her, thus risking complete change of the future.  Spock and Dr. McCoy must help him through his heartbreaking dilemma. Fine acting and a great story prove this episode's award-winning status.

Wolf in the Fold (Season 2):  Women are stabbed and killed on a peaceful, welcoming planet.  Scotty appears to be the prime suspect, found each time with the dead women. He cannot remember anything.  A psychic senses the presence of a great evil, calling it Redjack. The lights go out-Scotty is found over her body. He is put on trial, with wonderful character actor John Fielder as an official convinced of his guilt. Kirk asks the computer to research the name Redjack-several meanings come up, one of which ... well, you'll have to find out.  Written by Robert Bloch, this is a favorite of mine.

The Trouble with Tribbles (Season 2):
Shatner shines in this funny episode with the adorable little Tribbles sold by slippery salesman Cyrano Jones (Stanley Adams). Kirk is supervising delivery of a special grain for an annoying official (Herbert Anderson, Dennis the Menace's father), a man who Kirk cannot help goading. The Trouble is that Tribbles reproduce in incredible numbers and love to eat the grain.  One of Star Trek's funniest memorable lines is from this episode:  "Who put the Tribbles in the quadrotritcale?"

Assignment: Earth (Season 2):  This episode was fun and starred Robert Lansing-I had a teen crush on him, which may be why I like this one. The Enterprise goes back in time to 1960's Cape Canaveral where they find a man from the future who has come to stop the successful launching of a rocket.  Lansing is Gary 7, the mysterious man with an interesting pet black cat.  A young Teri Garr plays his young and clueless secretary.  Who is Gary 7 and why is he trying to stop the rocket, which will change the future?  Designed as a pilot for a spin-off series, the story was not picked up by the network.  But it is a lot of fun.

Runner-up Episodes, pictures first:
Charlie and his first love, Yoeman Rand
Khan and Kirk

The Horta
Mirror, Mirror


Journey to Babel
Runner-up episode favorites:  Space Seed (featuring Ricardo Montalban as Khan); Charlie X (featuring Robert Walker Jr. as a teenager with lethal powers);  Journey to Babel (featuring Mark Lenard and Jane Wyatt as Spock's parents); The Devil in the Dark (featuring the ugliest alien ever, the Horta); and Mirror, Mirror (featuring an alternate universe in which Kirk, Bones, Scotty and Uhura switch places with their counterparts on a completely opposite Enterprise, a dictatorship where everyone plots to move up the hierarchy execution-style.  We get to see Spock as a logically ruthless science officer with a Mephistopheles-style goatee!)
Star Trek /Galaxy Quest - Even a rabid fan has to laugh! 
No discussion of Star Trek would be complete without a mention of a great spoof made in 1999, Galaxy Quest, with Tim Allen as the Captain, Alan Rickman as alien science officer and Sigourney Weaver as a bimbo communications officer.  Jokes aimed at Star Trek abound, with Allen as the egotistical Captain who still believes he was the reason the show succeeded, always being sure he got to take his shirt off in each episode, Rickman hilarious as the classically trained actor who hates the typecasting he has endured, and Weaver as the actress who resented her part as the sex object who did nothing but repeat what the computer said.

And now for the piece de resistance.  William Shatner spoofs himself in one of Saturday Night Live's funniest episodes.  It caused some stir among the fanatic convention group, but most viewers got one of the biggest laughs SNL ever presented, even for Star Trek lovers like me.  Just click on the link to experience a very entertaining comedy sketch featuring Shatner as a really good sport.  You'll love it!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The 5 Best Episodes of "The Fugitive"

The Fugitive, which aired from 1963-67, frequently appears on lists of the greatest U.S. television series ever broadcast. Its reputation is well-deserved. The first three seasons are so strong that it's difficult to pare down its best episodes for a top five list. Still, here's how one Fugitive fan would rank them:

Kimbles tries to avoid capture...again.
1. Landscape With Running Figures – Unofficially known as “the episode with Mrs. Gerard”, this season 3 two-parter has Kimble narrowly evading Lieutenant Gerard…only to come to the aid of a temporarily-blind Mrs. Gerard (Barbara Rush). The exceptional script provides a rare glance into Gerard’s private life and the impact of his obsession to capture Kimble. At one point, a frustrated Marie Gerard casually remarks: “Life without Kimble…what a pretty dream that used to be.” Barry Morse, whose character is often used to simply further the plot, takes advantage of an opportunity to shine here.

Suzanne Pleshette as the
concerned mother.
2. All the Scared Rabbits – A divorced mother (Suzanne Pleshette) hires to Kimble to drive her and her daughter from Iowa to California. What they don’t know is that the little girl has stolen a rabbit from her father’s laboratory—and it’s infected with a lethal strain of meningitis. This gripping, suspenseful episode is a great example of an episode where Kimble’s plight takes a backseat to the events surrounding him.

3. Moon Child – When the police pursue Kimble during a manhunt for a serial killer, the fugitive takes refuge in a dilapidated structure filled with dark passageways. At his wit’s end, Kimble is befriended by a young mentally-handicapped girl. This taut episode balances its chilling moments (involving the real killer) with Kimble’s touching relationship with the young girl.

4. Corner of Hell – On the run from Gerard, Kimbles stumble into the hideout of a family of moonshiners. At first, they want to get rid of him, but their plans change when he proves his worth. However, when Gerard tracks Kimble to the moonshiners’ hideaway and flashes his police badge…well, they don’t take kindly to the arrival of the law. This is one of the best of several episodes that placed Kimble in a moral quandary. In this case, does he flee, knowing that Gerard is certain to be murdered? Or does he help the man trying to capture him?
Gerard, bound in a chair, watches as Kimble (far right)
makes a plea to save his nemesis.
5. Dark Corner – Kimble finds a sanctuary on a farm where he is befriended by a young blind woman (Tuesday Weld), who must cope with a devious sister…but all is not what it appears to be. Plot twists weren’t commonplace during The Fugitive’s run and when they did appear, they were typically twists of irony. This atypical episode goes for the shock value and succeeds nicely.

Tuesday Weld plays the blind young woman who
shelters Kimble in "Dark Corner."

Honorable mentions: “The Witch” (a young girl make false accusations against Kimble); “Dossier on a Diplomat” (Kimble finds sanctuary in a foreign embassy); "The 2130” (a businessman uses a computer to track Kimble's whereabouts); and “Nightmare at Northoak” (Kimbles attains unwanted celebrity status when he saves children from a burning bus).

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The 5 Best TV Comedies ClassicBecky Didn't Like At All

I hope this is not my
fate after you read this.
Before I begin, I just want to tell my movie friends how much they mean to me, and how I would suffer in losing their friendship. I changed my mind about 35 times before deciding to count on the fairness and good humor of my friends in writing this little post  Of course, weekend blog posts don't get as much traffic, so perhaps I will retain some movie companions. Everyone has loving, nostalgic memories of comedy TV shows they watched as a child. I myself liked Gilligan's Island until the Professor made a radio out of coconuts rather than the more obvious need, A BOAT! The strange thing is, I could still sing the song word for word. So, for the fun of it, I am including the lyrics of the theme songs for each show. Without further ado, here are my picks for five comedy shows that I thought were just awful.  I pull no punches.  Some may be favorites for readers. If so, remember that the Classic Movie Blog Association does not allow foul language or disgusting pictures.

**Except for my summaries and comments, all quotes and trivia are taken from IMDB.  The theme song lyrics are from a lyric site, the name of which I can't remember, but consider this their credit.  Both of these sites have stuff  more interesting than the shows themselves**

My Mother, The Car
This inexplicable premise for a show actually made it onto the airwaves and lasted for 30 episodes in 1965. Jerry Van Dyke stars as David Crabtree, a man whose dead mother has reincarnated as a really special antique car. Ann Sothern is the voice of Mother, so fortunately she never has to actually appear. When Mother speaks to David, her voice comes from the radio, and the light blinks in sync with her voice. Avery Schreiber stars as Manzini, a stalker who wants the car, unaware that Ann Sothern is a built-in feature. Poor Jerry Van Dyke's career began and practically ended with this show. At the very same time, his brother Dick was captivating audiences with his show, one of the best comedies on TV. I wonder what Thanksgiving was like in the Van Dyke family.
*Jerry Van Dyke agreed to star on the series after turning down the lead role on Gilligan's Island and an offer to join the cast of the The Andy Griffith Show. (Bad moves, Jerry.)
*None. Even IMDB couldn't find a single funny quote.
Theme Song:
Everybody knows in a second life, we all come back sooner or later.
As anything from a pussycat to a man eating alligator.
Well you all may think my story, is more fiction than it's fact.
But believe it or not my mother dear decided she'd come back.
As a car...
She's my very own guiding star.
A 1928 Porter.
That's my mother dear.
'Cause she helps me through everything I do
And I'm so glad she's near.
(This guy has the ultimate Oedipus complex.)

Car 54, Where Are You
The wonderful Fred Gwynne plays Officer Muldoon, Joe E. Ross is Officer Toody and Al Lewis is Officer Schnauer. All very funny guys that I like like a lot. The story is about stupid policemen who do dumb things. That's about it. The show ran for 60 episodes in 1961-1963. The best thing that came from this show was that Fred Gwynne and Al Lewis ended up together in a cute show called The Munsters!  The worst thing is that this show won an EMMY for best director of a comedy -- was he the only nominee that year?!
*For the black-and-white location shots, the patrol cars were painted red so as not to confuse the local populace. (Confuse them? Didn't they see all the cameras and crew?)
*William Faulkner's favorite TV show. (The great William Faulkner! The author of "The Sound and the Fury"?  That makes me furious!)
*Officer Muldoon: "Here's your milk." (That's the only funny quote IMDB could find? What does that even  mean?!)
Theme Song:
There's a hold up in the Bronx,
Brooklyn's broken out in fights.
There's a traffic jam in Harlem
That's backed up to Jackson Heights.
There's a scout troop short a child,
Kruschev's due at Idlewild
Car 54, Where Are You?

The Flying Nun
Once upon a time (in the real world), there was a little nun who weighed about 85 pounds and wore the traditional habit of her order, which included a medieval coif that had wing-like sides. One day, when a tremendous wind was blowing, she was lifted off the ground about 1-1/2 inches for about 1-1/2 seconds. True story. From that funny little incident, a television show was born in which we watched Sister Bertrille (Sally Field) soar above trees and towns like the Mini-Me of 747s. Mother Superior Placido (Madeleine Sherwood) was always worrying. At least there was handsome Alejandro Rey as Carlos to look at. Somehow, they churned out 82 episodes, from 1967-1970. It was difficult to distinguish one episode from another, so the writers had a really plum job. Fortunately, Sally Field was not typecast as a flying nun, and went on to become a wonderful actress with a great career.
*Patty Duke was originally the first choice for the role of Sister Bertrille.
*In one episode, Sister Bertrille is looking at home movies of herself from when she was a teenager. The home movies were actually footage from Sally Field's previous series Gidget.
*Sponsors of The Flying Nun include Oscar Meyer and Colgate-Palmolive, makers of Fab Detergent, Bright Side Shampoo, and Palmolive Dish Liquid. (Well, I thought that was interesting.)
*At the time of the series' popularity, MAD MAGAZINE did a parody of Sister Bertrille, The Flying Nun in which she was "Sister Brazil, The Flying Nut." (Gotta love it.)
Sister Bertrille: Could you please help? I'll give you five percent of the profit!
Carlos: Sister Bertrille -- five per cent of nothing is still nothing!!
(Again, the only funny quote IMDB had. Ha.....ha.)
You don't need wings to flyyyyyyyy
Tiptoe through the skyyyyyyyy
As long as you got hea-ven byyyyyyyyyyy
You don't need wings to flyyyyyyyy
(Short, but pointless.)
(Don't you love the way the lyric site used all the y's to make it look melodic?  Duh.)

Green Acres
It is a shame that a fine actor like Eddie Albert (Oliver Wendell Douglas) will be remembered as an idiot who forks hay in his suit and tie. Eva Gabor (Lisa Douglas) didn't suffer from her part, as she was always considered a ditzy blonde with a sexy accent anyway. She was always trying to be a farm wife while dripping with diamond earrings, necklaces, rings...kind of reminds me of June Cleaver, who always vacuumed wearing high heels and a string of pearls. Oh no, don't worry -- I loved the Beav (Eddie Haskell was my favorite.)  Green Acres (as much of a turkey as any you'd find on a farm) ran for 170 episodes in 1965-1971). But then, the TV poll people never asked my opinion. The show did have a cute cast of characters played by decent actors: Pat Buttram (Mr. Haney), Frank Cady (Sam Drucker), Tom Lawson (Eb), Eleanor the cow, and best of all, Arnold the Pig.

*Mr. Haney had a basset hound named Cynthia who had a crush on Arnold.
*Before Eddie Albert was considered for the part of Oliver, the producers were seriously considering Don Ameche for the part.
*There has been considerable conjecture offered regarding in what state Green Acres might be set. (Seriously? Considerable conjecture?)
*Arnold the Pig was the only cast member to win an award for a performance in a sitcom. He won the coveted "Patsy" Award in 1967, given to the best performance by an animal. (Ouch! Sorry, real actors!)
*Although according to legend the pig that played Arnold was eaten by the cast and crew, Tom Lester has said that he just said it one time as a joke. (Aww! Too bad. that would have been the perfect ending for this oinker -- the show, not the pig.)
*Oliver Wendell Douglass: [after watching a "conversation" between Lisa and an oinking Arnold] How
can you carry on a conversation with him? I can't understand a thing he's saying!
Lisa Douglas: That's because you don't LISTEN
(Pure Shakespeare.)
Green acres is the place for me.
Farm livin' is the life for me.
Land spreadin' out so far and wide
Keep Manhattan, just give me that countryside.
New York is where I'd rather stay.
I get allergic smelling hay.
I just adore a penthouse view.
Dah-ling I love you but give me Park Avenue.
...The chores.
...The stores.
...Fresh air.
...Times Square
You are my wife. (Well, it was the 60's.)
Good bye, city life.
Green Acres we are there.

Petticoat Junction
Let's see -- pretty girls bathing in the altogether in a water tower, draping their underwear over the sides -- yeah, we can make a series out of that. And they did -- 222 episodes in 1963-1970. Again, nobody asked my opinion. Good thing for the network, which made a boatload of money on this one. And, once again, there was a good cast of actors (well, some were just pretty): Edgar Buchanan (Uncle Joe), Bea Benaderet (Kate), Frank Cady (cross-over from Green Acres as Sam Drucker), Linda Henning (Betty Jo), Lori Saunders (Bobbie Jo) and Meredith MacRae (Billie Joe). I liked the name of the Shady Rest Hotel, ,and the name of the train, The Cannon Ball.
*The dog on the show was simply named "Dog". While the dog's name was supposed to be Higgins, the name was never mentioned by any characters. (Then why name him at all?) His last acting role was as the title character in the movie Benji. (I really liked Benji!)
*Set in the same town as Green Acres. Characters from that series often appeared on this one. The series was also linked to The Beverly Hillbillies and the two shows occasionally crossed over. (I'm too scared to say anything about The Beverly Hillbillies.)
Quotes: Nada. Not one. (They might at least have mentioned the cool train whistle.)
Come ride the little train that is rolling down the tracks to the junction.
(Petticoat Junction)
Forget about your cares, it is time to relax at the junction.
(Petticoat Junction)
Lotsa curves, you bet. Even more when you get
To the junction.
(Petticoat Junction)
There's a little hotel called the Shady Rest at the junction.
(Petticoat Junction)
It is run by Kate, come and be her guest at the junction.
(Petticoat Junction)
And that's Uncle Joe, he's a movin' kind of slow at the junction,
(Petticoat Junction)
(Did anybody say Petticoat Junction?)

If it will redeem me at all, I still remember the tunes and words to all the theme songs -- I wish I had retained algebra that well!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The 5 Best Sidekicks in a Film/TV Series

Sidekicks in a series can be an essential ingredient to a film or TV show. The best sidekicks will enhance the story and characters, whereas the not-so-good ones are fruitless, empty vessels just taking up space. Still others, through no fault of their own, may wind up stealing the spotlight from the person(s) intended as the star. The following is a list of sidekicks that my wife and I assembled. These so-called sidekicks are people (or furry things) with whom we wouldn’t mind sharing adventures -- which should explain the absence of Robin from the TV series, Batman, who can stay at Wayne Manor with Bruce... not that I’m verifying that Bruce Wayne is Batman...

1. Chewbacca (the Star Wars series) Chewbacca, affectionately dubbed Chewie, belongs to a species known as Wookiee, from the planet Kashyyyk. He was the sidekick to Han Solo in the Star Wars original trilogy (1977-83). Chewie’s presence is an amazing union of ferocity and geniality. He’s both lethal and lovable. It’s perfectly reasonable that stormtroopers might flee at the sight of Chewbecca, but as he’s one of the good guys, it would be difficult as part of the Rebel Alliance to not monopolize time on the battlefield giving Chewie sneak-attack hugs. Chewbacca’s euphonic and beloved growls are actually a language, Wookieespeak (or, more formally, Shyriiwook). Speakers of Galactic Basic (a common tongue in the Star Wars world and similar to English) can understand Wookieespeak but, due to anatomical distinction, cannot necessarily speak it, in the same way that Chewie comprehends Basic but cannot physically articulate the language. This is how Han Solo and Chewbacca can have arguments in their native tongues. The 7’3” Peter Mayhew portrayed Chewie in the original trilogy and appeared in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and the infamous The Star Wars Holiday Special broadcast on TV in 1978. He also voiced Chewie for the animated series, The Clone Wars.
2. Daigoro (the Lone Wolf and Cub series) The Lone Wolf and Cub films (1972-74), based on a popular manga, detail the lives of Ogami Itto and his son, Daigoro. After his wife is killed and he is disgraced, Ogami offers Daigoro the choice of a sword or a ball: follow his father and wander as an assassin, or be with his mother. Daigoro, who is merely a year old, crawls to the sword. Ogami chauffeurs Daigoro (around three years of age when the series begins) in a wooden carriage that’s armed to the teeth. In an unforgettable scene from Baby Cart at the River Styx (the second of the series and a fan favorite), father and son are halted by a line of would-be assassins. Ogami pulls weapons from the cart and pushes it, with Daigoro, towards the samurai. Daigoro’s tiny foot triggers blades that protrude from the cart’s wheels and slice through a couple of ankles. In the same film, the little boy tends to his injured father by bringing him water and food. In one of the most endearing moments, Daigoro takes rice cakes from the foot of a Buddha statue, and drapes his vest over the Buddha as an exchange. Akihiro Tomikawa plays young Daigoro in all six films, made within three years. Shogun Assassin (1980), sometimes listed as a seventh entry, is actually a composite of mostly the second film and some of the first, and dubbed in English. Sequels to said movie were likewise reedits.

3. Dr. John Watson (Sherlock Holmes) One of the earliest examples of a sidekick, Dr. Watson almost acted as a sounding board for the brilliant mind of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s literary sleuth, Sherlock Holmes. But Watson was more than a simple assistant
. He was also a moral compass for Holmes, an intelligent man of action, and a friend to the socially awkward detective. Nigel Bruce played Watson, with Basil Rathbone as Holmes, in the popular series of films beginning in 1939 with The Hound of the Baskervilles. Some fans, however, did not appreciate the interpretation, as Watson was little more than comic relief. Frequent Hammer Films star Andre Morell fared much better in his portrayal of the doctor in Hammer’s 1959 Baskervilles adaptation, with Peter Cushing as the detective. Audiences were likewise receptive to David Burke in the first British TV series featuring the renowned Jeremy Brett, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1984-85). Burke stayed true to the nature of Watson’s literary roots, while Edward Hardwicke appeased fans with a winsome, affable Watson in three additional series that ran to the mid-90s, for a total of 28 episodes (and five of those feature length).
4. Fozzie Bear (The Muppets) Fozzie is, for all intents and purposes, a walking, talking teddy bear. He’s fuzzy and squeezable, and much like a teddy bear always by a child’s side (or an adult’s side, for those who weren’t so cruel as to neglect a faithful and cuddly companion), he often accompanies Kermit the Frog. They regularly appeared with one another on the TV series, The Muppet Show (1976-81), but perhaps their greatest pairing was in The Muppet Movie (1979), when Kermit, on his way to Hollywood, is picked up by Fozzie Bear. This leads to Fozzie’s now classic line: “A bear in his natural habitat -- a Studebaker!” Fozzie was a stand-up comedian, and though the Muppet audience was generally unappreciative, his honest nature and cheerful confidence put a smile on the faces of those watching at home. Created by Jim Henson, father of the Muppets, Fozzie was originally voiced by Frank Oz, who also voiced fellow Muppets, Miss Piggy and Animal, Cookie Monster in Sesame Street and Yoda in the Star Wars films. Oz moved on to directing humans, and Eric Jacobson is now the voice of Fozzie, as well as Miss Piggy and Animal.

5. Kato (the 1966-67 The Green Hornet) Before his rise to stardom in Hong Kong, Bruce Lee earned a starring role in a U.S. TV show, The Green Hornet. In the show, wealthy American newspaper publisher Britt Reid decides to become a vigilante for justice, and, like most people with money and power, has someone else do the majority of the work. Kato, a skilled mechanic, was Reid’s driver and, in essence, his muscle. The series only lasted a season, but Lee’s portrayal of Kato was so popular in Hong Kong that The Green Hornet was aired as The Kato Show. Retrospectively, of course, one can clearly see Lee’s charisma shine through the supporting character, even with Kato in disguise. But Hong Kong saw it first, and Lee made a trio of hugely successful films in said country. He only achieved fame in America with Enter the Dragon (1973), which had been released after his untimely death. With Lee a household name, episodes were edited together and released as feature films, The Green Hornet (1974) and Fury of the Dragon (1976), both movies focusing on Lee’s fight sequences. In the serials, The Green Hornet (1940) and The Green Hornet Strikes Again! (1941), Kato was portrayed by Keye Luke, who also played Charlie Chan’s “Number One Son” in numerous films, dubbed Mr. Han’s (Kien Shih) voice in Enter the Dragon, was a regular on the TV series, Kung Fu (Lee was considered for the lead but lost to David Carradine), and was Mr. Wong in the Gremlins films (1984/1990), unfortunately selling a Mogwai to irresponsible owners. Taiwanese musician/actor Jay Chou was Kato in the Green Hornet feature film in 2011.

Honorable mention: Q (the James Bond series) -- Though he was rarely in the field with 007 (1989’s Licence to Kill is an exception), Q (Demond Llewelyn, who was in nearly every Bond film) provided the MI6 agent with all of his gadgets and weapons. Perpetually exasperated by Bond, Q’s blasé attitude towards the spy is always a welcome sight.; KITT (Knight Rider) -- KITT (Knight Industries Two Thousand), a Pontiac Firebird Trans Am with artificial intelligence, was so capable that one can’t help but wonder why Michael Knight (David Hasselhoff) was even necessary. Had KITT any arms or desire to bed women, Michael may very well have been unemployed.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Bond Is Forever: “Die Another Day”

On assignment in North Korea, British agent James Bond’s (Pierce Brosnan) identity is exposed. Bond attempts an escape, as Colonel Moon (Will Yun Lee) apparently falls to his death, but 007 is ensnared and tortured extensively. Fourteen months later, Bond is released, as MI6 trades him for Zao (Rick Yune), who’s been disfigured with diamonds embedded into the right side of his face, the result of a rigged case from Bond’s previous mission. M (Judi Dench) explains to 007 that MI6 believed that he was leaking information while in captivity, but Bond attributes MI6’s presumption, as well as his blown cover, to an informer working in the West, as suggested by the colonel’s father, General Moon (Kenneth Tsang). Secured by MI6, Bond evades the agency and tracks Zao from Hong Kong to Havana, Cuba, encountering NSA agent Jinx (Halle Berry) along the way. Bond is ultimately led to his home turf of London, where a pompous British entrepreneur, Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens), has ties to Zao and another MI6 agent, Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike), who’s deep undercover. Graves, expediting a project known as the Icarus Space Program, has much more in mind than obtaining diamonds.

Die Another Day (2002), the sole Bond film from director Lee Tamahori, is a largely underrated entry in the series. Most criticisms of the film cite Bond’s reliance on gadgets and the abundance of CGI. The complaint of 007’s gadgets, which has been voiced of a great number of the series’ movies, tends to negate the first half of Die Another Day. Upon evading MI6, Bond is rogue, and he travels from Hong Kong to Cuba to England without the benefit of gadgets and having to make do with standard binoculars and a revolver. Only when he connects with Q (John Cleese) does he have the opportunity to utilize MI6’s specialized weaponry. The CGI in Die Another Day is admittedly overwhelming at times, particularly in a sequence near the end which almost resembles a computer game in play. This, however, is really a technical issue, perhaps the filmmakers overextending themselves. One might as well complain about the pronounced rear projection in more popular films such as Roger Moore skiing in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) or Sean Connery driving a car in Goldfinger (1964) or Thunderball (1965).

In addition to a distinctively convoluted plot that bounces Bond to beautiful locations around the world, Die Another Day is bolstered by expressive characters and zealous performances. Halle Berry, fresh from her award-winning turn in the previous year’s Monster’s Ball (including an Oscar), displays panache as Jinx. The agent’s initial scene with Bond is memorable, as 007’s typical seduction is counterbalanced by Jinx’ alluring mannerism; in other words, it’s difficult to tell who’s seducing whom. Viewers may favor Jinx in that regard, as it is Bond who wakes up to an empty bed. Stephens as Graves is a sour note, and it’s especially discouraging that he essentially takes over for Will Yun Lee as the lead villain, when Lee is far more energetic. Nevertheless, Pike as Miranda Frost and Yune as Zao more than compensate for Stephens’ shortcomings. Pike makes Miranda an appropriately cryptic character, her bitter demeanor towards 007 a sign of either distrust or secrecy. The tall, handsome Yune spends much of the film with his sparkling blemish to accommodate his pale skin, icy blue eyes and lack of eyebrows (the aftereffect of undergoing gene therapy). He’s a formidable opponent worthy of Bond.

There are numerous references to other films in the Bond series, the most notable being previously used gadgets clearly visible when Bond is with Q (e.g., the bladed shoe from 1963’s From Russia with Love, the crocodile sub in 1983’s Octopussy, and the
breathing apparatus from Thunderball, the latter which 007 uses in Die Another Day), Jinx’ emergence from the ocean echoing Honey Rider (Ursula Andress) in Dr. No (1962), and the NSA agent also bound and threatened with a laser, much like 007 in Goldfinger. In the script, elements of Ian Fleming’s novel, Moonraker, were incorporated, mostly pertaining to the villains. Additionally, Colonel Tan-Sun Moon’s name was likely inspired by the titular character in 1968’s Colonel Sun, written by Kingsley Amis (under the pseudonym of Robert Markham), the first Bond novel published after Fleming’s death, and the only one, discounting novelizations, until John Gardner continued the series in 1981.

Q supplies Bond with a sublime Aston Martin Vanquish, and 007 is eventually pursued by Zao in a Jaguar XKR. Both cars are, of course, outfitted excessively with munitions. Not to be outdone, Jinx drives a 2003 Ford Thunderbird, an elegant beauty on four wheels which is either unarmed or simply not given a chance to blow anything up. Ford released a limited edition 007 Thunderbird similar to Jinx’ car but with a slight difference: Her car was coral throughout (the color as described by the manufacturer, though it looks burgundy to match her attire), while the limited edition T-Bird had a white hardtop.

The film’s title song was performed by Madonna, who has a cameo as a fencing instructor. The opening credits differ from other Bond movies, as the focus is less on the sensuality of the series, and more on 007’s 14-month interrogation, consisting of regular beatings courtesy of the North Korean soldiers. Furthermore, the only soldier shown in clear detail is a beautiful female whom Bond sees when first taken into the room that will be his prison. She’s seen again during the credits, a reversal of sorts, as she seems to represent the lovely ladies typically the target of the spy’s philandering ways and at whose hands Bond is now suffering.

This was the second Bond film for John Cleese and the first movie without Desmond Llewelyn as Q since he debuted in the second of the series, From Russia with Love (with the exception of 1973’s Live and Let Die, in which Q does not appear). Though Cleese is credited in Die Another Day as Q (since it merely signifies his position), Bond never refers to him as such, only calling him Quartermaster. To date, the character of Q has not appeared in the Bond films with Daniel Craig.

On the plane ride to London, Bond is served a martini by a flight attendant played by Deborah Moore, daughter of previous 007 Roger Moore. The same year as Die Another Day, Hong Kong star Kenneth Tsang appeared in The Touch with Bond Girl, Michelle Yeoh, the two actors also sharing scenes with Jackie Chan in Police Story III: Supercop (1992).

This was the final film for Pierce Brosnan. Following Die Another Day, most presumed that the actor would be appearing in a fifth film, as audiences remained responsive to his portrayal of 007. However, amidst rumors of the studio prospecting for a young actor in the role (though Brosnan was only 49 in
2002, compared to Roger Moore, who announced his retirement at the age of 58), Brosnan left the series, or at least publicly stated that he was doing so. In the press, the actor cordially supported Daniel Craig’s casting. Brosnan will be remembered as a dashing, incomparable spy, and a distinguished actor whose portrayal of 007 will be forever ingrained in viewers’ hearts and minds.

My wife and I are fans of Die Another Day: the consistently impressive Brosnan, Berry as the resilient and self-assured Jinx, an imposing and vicious scoundrel in the form of Zao, and the reliable M, Q, Miss Moneypenny (Samantha Bond), and action set pieces. It is unquestionably flawed, and some critics boil grievances down to a singular component: the optional cloaking device for the Aston Martin Vanquish, allowing the vehicle to disappear. But if I have the choice between watching the Vanquish vanish, watching 007 float aimlessly in outer space (1979’s Moonraker) or watching the pale British agent pass for a Japanese man with bushy eyebrows (1967’s You Only Live Twice), I’ll take the invisible car.

Bond Is Forever will return next month with A View to a Kill (1985).