Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Turning Back the Clock: A Tribute to the Best Time Travel Movies

I have always been intrigued by the concept of time travel. The end of the year seems like an appropriate time to list my picks for best time travel films and then learn what Cafe readers have to say about the subject. Starting from the top:

Mary Steenburgen and Malcolm McDowell.
1. Time After Time. This ingenious concoction of science fiction, thriller, and romance comes from the fertile imagination of Nicholas Meyer. Meyer first gained recognition with his best-selling mystery The Seven Per Cent Solution, which teamed up Sherlock Holmes and Sigmund Freud. Meyer serves up a second unique pairing in Time After Time--only with two nifty differences. Instead of working together, the pair are friends-turned-adversaries in the form of H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell) and Jack the Ripper (David Warner) . And instead of setting the plot in the past, it involves time travel from the past to the future. The usual time travel conumdrums are explored here, but they never get in the way of a delightful love story and clever social satire. In short, an underrated gem.

2. The Terminator. Given the blockbuster status of its sequels, it's easy to forget that the original Terminator was a sleeper hit by unknown director named James Cameron. Although Terminator 2 is a near-perfect action film, the first Terminator is grounded by a solid love story and gets kudos for setting the concept in motion. I imagine most of you have seen it, but those who haven't I won't spoil the "nested loop" that makes the head-scratching plot so memorable. By the way, I've often wondered if Cameron borrowed parts of his premise from the 1966 Michael Rennie B-film Cyborg 2087.

3. Repeat Performance. Decidedly offbeat 1948 B-film stars Joan Leslie as a popular stage actress who kills her husband on December 31st--and then gets the chance to live the year over again. Knowing the outcome, can she change the events that lead up to her murderous act? This atmospheric film benefits from a surprisingly good cast with Richard Basehart, Tom Conway, and Natalie Schaefer. It was remade for TV in the late 1990s as Turn Back the Clock with Connie Selleca. Repeat Performance is not shown often on TV; I haven't seen it in years.

4. The Time Machine. George Pal's 1960 adaptation of the famous H.G. Wells novel is still the best version. The once state-of-the-art special effects hold up pretty well and Rod Taylor makes an appealing hero (Alan Young, from TV's Mister Ed, is even better as a friend). Taylor's romance with Yvette Mimieux (as Weena of the Eloi race) lack a certain magic for me, but Wells' ideas remain fresh and the time machine itself looks way cool.

5. Somewhere in Time. There are people that loathe this film and those that love it. I naturally fall into the latter group. I must admit, though, that my perceptions are clouded...I first saw this romance with my future wife when we were young and very much smitten with one another (we still are). The plot, which Richard Matheson adapted from his cult novel Bid Time Return, stars Christopher Reeve as a playwright who falls in love with a photograph of an actress (Jane Seymour) and wills himself back in time to be with her. The leads are photogenic and likable, the location filming at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island is breathtaking, and the music score by John Barry (who weaves in Rachmaninoff) is one of my all-time favorites. By the way, for many years, Somewhere in Time was the top-grossing film in Japan...though it flopped in the U.S. until rediscovered years later on video.

6. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Leonard Nimoy devised the entertaing premise which sent the original Enterprise crew back in time to rescue some humpback whales (who are needed to save Earth in the future). Nicolas Meyer, who already explored time travel in the aforementioned Time After Time, contributed to the screenplay. Although some of the social humor is now dated, this is one of the best of the Star Trek film series and, accounting for inflation, is probably the biggest box office hit of the original Trek pictures.

7. Back to the Future. Speaking of blockbusters, this family smash about a teenager who goes back in time and meets his parents in high school is undoubtedly the best known time travel movie with contemporary audiences. The performances are engaging and the story gets a lot of laughs out of its unlikely situations (Mom, as a teenager, is attracted to her son). The sequels, which were shot back to back, are not as good. Back to the Future 2 gets mired in its plot entanglements by sending its heroes to multiple time periods. Back to the Future 3 is set primarily in the Old West and at least restores some charm to the series.

Sean Connery in Time Bandits.
8. 12 Monkeys and Time Bandits. Although these movies are very different, I list them together because they both sprang from the fertile imagination of Terry Gilliam. For me, Time Bandits is an adult fantasy masquerading as a family film; its visual images (e.g., a knight on horseback bursting into a child's room) are what I remember most. 12 Monkeys is a richly layered time travel film, in which once again a person from the future is sent back in time to alter future events. I have several friends who will cringe to see 12 Monkeys listed way down in the No. 8 spot. I admit, I haven't seen it in awhile, so I may be off base on my ranking of this one...but if so, not by much for me.

Honorable mentions: Berekley Square and its remake I'll Never Forget You, the influential French short film La jetee, Planet of the Apes, and 1964's The Time Travelers (which may feature the most bizarre ending of all time travel movies).

OK, so there are my choices. What have I left out and how would you rank the best time travel pics?

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Top Ten Posts of 2019

As the year draws to a close, the Classic Film & TV Cafe traditionally ends it with a countdown of our ten most viewed posts. We published a total of 95 in 2019. Naturally, the countdown is a little skewed, since those posts that came out at the start of the year will have more views. But that won't stop us...we love year-end lists!

We included only posts that were originally published during 2018. If we had not, The Five Best "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" Episodes would have crushed the competition (as always). We also omitted our monthly quizzes. To build a little suspense, we'll begin at No. 10 and work our way to No. 1.

But before we get started, we want to thank each of you who visited this blog this year and send some extra love to those who took the time to leave comments.

10. The Snubbed By the Oscars Awards...the Results Are In!

9.  Chambers of Horrors: The Fear Flash and the Horror Horn!

8.  Joan Crawford in Strait-Jacket.

7.  James Garner Stars in a Disney Duo.

6.  The Five Best Shirley MacLaine Performances.

5.  An Interview with Constance Towers.

4.  An Interview with Ruta Lee.

3.  An Interview with Barbara Bain.

2.  Five Favorite Films of the 1950s Blogathon for National Classic Movie Day

1.  Interview with Jerry Mathers.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Ring of Bright Water: An Otter Delight

Mij the otter.
In 2005, the newspaper The Daily Telegraph called Ring of Bright Water “one of the best-loved British films of all time.” And yet, this unusual, charming 1969 tale about a man and an otter remains an obscurity in the U.S.

Bill Travers stars as Graham Merrill, a London resident who spots a playful otter in a pet store window on his way to work. Over the next few days, an inexplicable bond forms between the two and Graham winds up with a pet otter he names Mij. Otters and city life do not mix, so Graham makes a major life decision and moves to rural Scotland.

Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna.
Graham befriends Mary (Virginia McKenna), a small town doctor, and lives a quiet life with his otter along the coast. His tranquility, though, comes to a crashing end when tragedy strikes.

Ring of Bright Water was loosely based on Gavin Maxwell's autobiographical book of the same title. A colleague gave Maxwell an otter in 1956 and he raised it in rural Scotland. He became close friends with poet Kathleen Raine; she wanted a romantic relationship, but he did not. It was one of her poems that inspired the title of Maxwell's first work about living with otters. That book, Ring of Bright Water (1960), was a hugely popular and critical success. Maxwell wrote two sequels: The Rocks Remain (1963) and Raven Seek Thy Brother (1968).

Gavin Maxwell and otter.
Maxwell's life would make an interesting film biography, but that's not the purpose of the movie adaptation. It focuses on the otters (there are some wild ones in addition to Mij) and they make for fascinating subjects with their canine-like muzzles, grunting sounds, and graceful movements when swimming. The rural countryside and windswept beaches are picturesque as well. The whole visual experience comes across as incredibly idyllic.

Of course, it doesn't always make sense. After Graham quits his London job, it's unclear how he makes a living in Scotland. At one point in the film, Graham becomes concerned with being able to feed Mij, but wouldn't that have been an even bigger problem when they lived in the city? And while I am no expert on aquariums, I'm not sure one could make one big enough for a swimming otter out of driftwood and scrap pieces of glass.

A curious Mij examines a suitcase.
Stars Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna, who were a real-life married couple, made a more renowned animal film three years earlier with Born Free (1966). That picture provided a juicy role for McKenna, so it's Travers who gets the spotlight this time around. A tall, rugged actor, Travers knows how to play off the adorable otters...I mean, you can't upstage a playful otter slithering in the sand or cavorting with a dog. Travers also co-wrote the screenplay and, in real life, he and his wife became great animal preservation activists.

Ring of Bright Water pales next to Born Free--but there's no shame in that, as the latter ranks among the finest films ever made about the bond behind humans and animals. Taken on its own, Ring is a rewarding look at one man's fascination with one of nature's most fun-loving creatures.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress

Toshiro Mifune as Rokuota.
I just want to say upfront that the least interesting thing about The Hidden Fortress is that George Lucas has said it inspired Star Wars (1977). Akira Kurosawa's 1958 adventure can stand on its own. It was a huge hit in Japan when first released and has garnered critical raves since then. That said, I had mixed feelings after recently watching it again.

Set in Japan in the 16th century, The Hidden Fortress opens by introducing Tahei and Matashichi, two greedy, constantly bickering peasants. After being captured by and then escaping from the Yamana clan, they encounter a mysterious stranger. They tell him how they plan to navigate through enemy lines to safety in Hayakawa. The peasants don't know that the stranger is General Rokuota (Toshiro Mifune), who has been tasked with the mission of transporting Princess Yuki through dangerous Yamana lands.

The bickering duo.
Rokuota realizes that the peasants' plan is ingenious. He takes them to the location of a hidden fortress, where they eventually encounter the princess. The peasants, though, think she is a mute girl of no importance. Princess Yuki plays that role to the hilt when she, Rokuota, Tahei, and Matashichi start their journey with the enemy close behind. It's a trek filled with danger and, of course, the two greedy fools--who make both idiotic and unintentionally intelligent decisions.

The first half-hour of The Hidden Fortress plods along relentlessly, focusing on the ineptitude of Tahei and Matashichi. Initially, they are an amusing pair, but their act quickly grows wearisome. The story finally picks up when Kurosawa injects some much-needed drama. We learn that Rokuota's sister has died in Yuki's place in an effort to protect the princess. Later, after the quartet has begun its journey, we discover that Yuki's servants have also sacrificed themselves to buy their mistress valuable time.

The defiant princess.
In contrast to the film's sluggish opening, its final 90 minutes comprise an exciting, near-perfect action film. Rokuota fights four assailants on horseback, hides in plain sight in a town infested with the enemy, and--best of all--confronts an old nemesis in an elaborate duel with spears.

Director Akira Kurosawa's focus, though, is on the princess. When we first meet her, she is obstinate, defiant, and petulant. She undergoes a transformation during the journey, becoming more compassionate, learning to rely on others, and displaying courage when required. In a key scene, she thanks Rokuota for allowing her to experience the journey and learn what she never could have known inside the castle walls.

Misa Uehara as Princess Yuki.
Toshiro Mifune projects a compelling presence (as he did in most of his films), but is more serious than in better-known movies where he played broader characters (e.g., Sanjuro, Yojimbo). That's a good thing considering that the peasants are played for comedic effect. That leaves it to Misa Uehara to provide the most captivating performance as Princess Yuki. Given little dialogue, she defines her character using facial expressions and body language. Surprisingly, this was the actress's first film and her acting career consisted of just nine movies from 1950 to 1960.

As always, Kurosawa incorporates vivid landscapes into the action, with the story punctuated with forest trails, rocky paths, dusty pits, and sweeping hills. It's one of the reasons why some of his films worked so well when remade as Westerns (The Magnificent Seven, A Fistful of Dollars).

When released in the U.S., The Hidden Fortress was edited from its 139-minutes running time. One version cut 13 minutes and a later reissue eliminated a whopping 49 minutes. I'm hoping that's all at the start of the film!

Monday, December 16, 2019

Seven Things to Know About Sue Lyon

1. According to author Rebecca Bell-Metereau, director Stanley Kubrick looked at photos of over 800 girls before casting 14-year-old Sue Lyon in Lolita (1962). Kubrick had seen her on an episode of The Loretta Young Show TV series.

2. Tabloids suggested romances with Richard Burton and producer James Harris on the set of Sue Lyon's second film The Night of the Iguana (1964). Lyon denied the rumors, stating that she was involved with recently-divorced actor Hampton Fancher.

Fancher and Lyons in a L.A. Times photo.
3. Lyon and Fancher married in late 1963; he was 25 and she was 17. Fancher played one of Karl Malden's no-good sons in the Troy Donahue vehicle Parrish (1961). Two decades later, he co-wrote the screenplay to cult sci fi film Blade Runner (1981).

4. Sue Lyon continued to be in demand in the 1960s, appearing in John Ford's 7 Women, opposite George C. Scott in The Flim Flam Man, and with Frank Sinatra in Tony Rome. However, juicy film roles began to dry up by 1970 and she started appearing as a guest star in TV series such as The Virginian and Night Gallery.

With Richard Burton in Night of the Iguana.
5. She divorced Fancher in 1964 and didn't marry again until she tied the knot with Roland Harrison, a African American who played fullback for the San Diego Chargers. She and Harrison adopted a 14-year-old boy named Robert and she gave birth to their daughter Nona. However, the marriage was a short one, lasting just ten months.

6. In 1973, Sue Lyon married Gary "Cotton" Adamson, a convicted murder serving his sentence at the Colorado State Penitentiary. They divorced a year later, with Lyon explaining to the The New York Times: "I've been told by people in the movie business, specifically producers and film distributors, that I won't get a job because I'm married to Cotton. Therefore, right now we can't be married. But that doesn't mean love has died. I'll always love him." According to the Associated Press, Adamson escaped from the Colorado State Hospital (now the Colorado Mental Health Institute) in 1976, but was subsequently arrested after robbing a bank.

7. Sue Lyon's last acting role was a small part in the movie Alligator (1980). Her current status is unknown, but her daughter Nona Harrison Gomez is on social media.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

The Alternate Movie Title Game (Volume 2)

Here are the rules: We will provide an "alternate title" for a classic movie and ask you to name the actual film. Most of these are pretty easy. Please answer no more than three questions per day so others can play. You may have an answer other than the intended one--just be able to defend it! Good luck.

1. The Big Cat on a Snowy Day.

2. A Really Good Life Insurance Policy.

3. Italian Vacation.

4. Farewell for Conrad.

5. Writer on a Binge.

6. Murdered Man Walking...and Asking Questions.

7. The Lying--But Likable--Magazine Columnist's Holiday in New England.

8. Librarians vs. Computer.

9. Former Girlfriend of a Dead Mountain Climber.

10. Message on a Train Window.

11. Bodybuilders and Bikinis and Rickles.

12. A Glass of Glowing Milk.

13. We Are the Martians!

14. The Mysterious Dr. Frail.

15. Queen of Neewollah.

Monday, December 9, 2019

John Thaw as Kavanagh Q.C.

John Thaw as James Kavanagh.
While John Thaw was still appearing sporadically in episodes of Inspector Morse, he also starred in another, very different, TV series called Kavanagh Q.C. (1995-2001). The "Q.C." stands for Queen's Counsel and Thaw plays a middle-aged barrister who practices law in London. Unlike the solitary Morse, James Kavangh is a family man with a wife seeking a professional career, a daughter at university, and a teenage son.

The first three seasons feature Kavangh's private life as well as his cases. He copes with the after-effects of his wife's affair, his daughter's relationship with a married man, his son's academic challenges, and the death of a parent. Starting with the fourth season, the episodes focus more on his cases as both a defending attorney and a prosecutor. Unlike the U.S. legal system, British barristers can handle cases from either side--imagine Perry Mason as a prosecutor!

Oliver Ford Davies.
Kavangh practices law with two other senior barristers: Peter Foxcott (Oliver Ford Davies), who also serves as Head of Chambers, and the pompous, ambitious Jeremy Aldermarten (Nicolas Jones). Cliff Parisi (Call the Midwife) plays the chief clerk, who assigns the cases and manages the business affairs for River Court (the name of the practice). Other barristers come and go over the course of the series, to include Anna Chancellor as Julia Piper, Jenny Jules as Alex Wilson, and Valerie Edmond as Emma Taylor.

The writers of Kavanah, Q.C. handle some of the character departures in clumsy fashion. For example, the intelligent Julia Piper decides against moving to Africa with the man she loves. In a later episode, she suddenly decides to leave the law practice and work for a non-profit organization...in Africa. There's no mention of her former fiance. Then, a year later, Julia suddenly pops up in Florida, where she is married (but not to her one-time fiance) and pregnant. There's no explanation with how she got from Africa to Florida.

Despite such disruptive inconsistencies, the overall writing is above-average and there are several first-rate episodes. One of the best concerns a cover-up when a young man is injured on his job and suffers permanent brain injuries. Other engrossing plots find Kavanagh representing military officers in court-martial hearings and even a priest in a church tribunal.

Anna Chancellor as Julia.
The only episode that's truly bad is "In God We Trust," which finds Kavanagh traveling to the U.S. to help Julia with a death-row murderer's appeal. Although the setting is supposedly Florida in 1997, it comes across more like the Deep South during the racially-charged 1960s, right down to a bigoted governor running for re-election.

Still, that's a rare misstep for a solid TV series with a strong lead performance. For viewers only familiar with John Thaw as Morse, his performance as James Kavanagh will be an eye-opener. Whereas Morse was an introvert with few friends, Kavanagh is a outgoing family man and passionate barrister. It's a great role for a fine actor and the best reason to watch Kavanagh, Q.C. As of this post, it was streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Dead Again: Past Lives Remembered

Branagh as Roman Strauss.
It was inevitable that Hollywood would come calling on Kenneth Branagh after he made Shakespeare films fashionable again with 1989's Henry V. Branagh used his newfound influence to star in and direct the stylish contemporary mystery Dead Again (1991). He also made sure that two of his Henry V co-stars, then-wife Emma Thompson and the incomparable Derek Jacobi, were given juicy parts. That was a wise decision considering their considerable acting prowess.

The brilliant opening sequence is composed of newspaper clippings which tell the backstory of composer Roman Strauss, who was suspected, arrested, convicted, and executed for murdering his wife Margaret in 1949. The film then opens in contemporary L.A., with a woman (Thompson) awakening from a nightmare to find herself at the Saint Audrey's School for Boys. She will not speak, has no identification documents, and appears to be amnesiac. The school's headmaster sends for Mike Church (Branagh), a private eye who was once a student at the Catholic orphanage.

Branagh as P.I. Mike Church.
Church agrees to place an ad in the newspaper for information leading to the woman's identity. He also plans to drop her off at a mental hospital, but changes his mind after seeing it. He take the woman, whom he later names Grace, to his home. 

The next day, an antiques dealer named Madson (Jacobi) comes calling. He wants to help Grace through hypnosis. Church protests, but Madson puts Grace under a trance quickly and she regains her speech. She then accepts Madson's offer of help and the next day, while under hypnosis, reveals that she was Margaret Strauss in a previous life.

Emma Thompson as Margaret.
There's a Hitchcockian quality to the script and one suspects that's what drew Branagh to Dead Again. The decision to have Branagh and Thompson also play Roman and Margaret not only strengthens the narrative, but makes it easier for audiences to understand. However, it's disconcerting that only one person comments on the physical similarities when it's obvious from old photographs that Grace doesn't just resemble Margaret...but looks just like her!

The decision to film the extensive flashback in black and white serves two purposes. First, it also makes the somewhat convoluted story easier to follow. More importantly, it evokes L.A. in the 1940s as filtered through the lens of old black-and-white Hollywood films. It's Branagh's way of paying homage to classic cinema--especially the works of Hitchcock and Welles--in a contemporary mystery with film noir elements. The choice of scissors as a murder weapon is a obvious reference to Hitchcock (Dial M for Murder) as is the artwork in Grace's apartment (the giant scissors remind me of the Dali dream sequence in Notorious). Incidentally, some people claim that the decision to shoot the flashbacks in black-and-white was made after test screenings. However, I couldn't find a reliable source to confirm that claim.
A sample of the artwork in Grace's apartment.
Derek Jacobi as Madson.
Emma Thompson and Derek Jacobi dominate the screen, even though the former doesn't utter any dialogue for the film's first 30 minutes. An unbilled Robin Williams also impresses as an disconcerting former psychologist who stocks shelves in a grocery store. As for Branagh, it's a matter of two performances: he's perfect as the jealous Roman Strauss, but seems downright out-of-place as detective Mike Church. From his peculiar American accent to his verbal ramblings, the film would have been served better by someone who underplayed the role.

Dead Again is a stylish, often engrossing murder mystery--but also a forgettable one. I watched it again recently and, despite having seen it theatrically, I couldn't remember a single plot point beyond the general premise. It serves as a effective reminder of just how hard these kinds of suspense films are to make. We tend to forget that because Hitchcock and De Palma (to a degree), made it look so easy.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Just Another Stormy Monday

Sting as Finney.
It's "American Week" in Newcastle upon Tyne and the English town is abuzz with U.S.-themed parades, movies, and concerts. The mayor is also hosting a visit from Mr. Cosmos (Tommy Lee Jones), an American businessman with ambitious plans to revitalize the local economy. Cosmos has run into an obstacle, though, in the form of a nightclub owner named Finney (Sting). Finney has rejected Cosmos's lowball offer to buy The Key Club, which occupies prime real estate near the riverfront.

Meanwhile, Kate--a waitress who moonlights as a hooker for Cosmos--has a chance encounter with a young Irishman named Brendan. Newly arrived in the city, Brendan (Sean Bean) applies for a janitorial job at The Key Club and takes an immediate interest in Kate (Melanie Griffith). He also overhears two of Cosmos's goons planning to "convince" Finney to sell his nightclub.

Melanie Griffith as Kate.
Stormy Monday (1988), writer-director Mike Figgis's first theatrical film, features a fascinating, interweaving plot populated by characters whose backgrounds remain intentionally vague. The narrative's catalyst is the seemingly naive Brendan, who unintentionally works against Cosmos by warning Finney about the goons and then changing Kate's outlook on her life. It's interesting that Brendan interacts with every major character in the film except Cosmos, whom he doesn't meet until the climax.

Figgis goes out of his way to provide minimal background details about most of his characters. He reveals almost nothing about Brendan, allowing the audience to draw its own conclusions based solely on Brendan's actions on the screen (e.g., he respects women, he knows how to use a gun). Likewise, Cosmos and Finney are painted with broad strokes. Kate is the only character who offers any meaningful revelations about her past and even she is guarded in what she confides to Brendan.

Sean Bean as Brendan.
The result is that the actors appear to have been given the flexibility to shape their performances. This approach works well for the most part. Melanie Griffith exposes Kate's vulnerability. Sean Bean captures Brendan's innocence as he tries to connect the dots. Sting adds a little compassion to his smooth, cool nightclub owner. Only Tommy Lee Jones falters by making Cosmos nothing but a stereotypical American gangster.

Running a snappy 93 minutes, Stormy Monday mostly succeeds in putting a different spin on the British crime drama genre. It was adapted into a 1994 TV series called Finney, with David Morrissey in the title role. The action takes place prior to the events in Stormy Monday.

Incidentally, I'm not sure if the movie takes place on Monday. There is some rain in it, but not persistent precipitation. Therefore, I'm guessing the film's title is just an ode to the song "Stormy Monday," which B.B. King sings over the closing credits.


Here's a scene from Stormy Monday, courtesy of the Cafe's YouTube Channel: