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Archive for the ‘Humor’ Category

MOVIE PREVIEW: EINSTEIN’S ABS

In film, Humor on August 10, 2013 at 12:49 am

In the wake of Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter and Da Vinci’s Demons, Meathead Entertainment Corp is planning a much-needed update of that other historic nerd, Albert Einstein. Admittedly the greatest scientific genius since Sir Isaac Newton, Einstein’s image is in even more urgent need of a revamp to make him relevant to today’s generation.

Lincoln, though as ugly as sin in real life, was at least in good physical shape from a life of splitting rails and — as we now know — from the intense program of martial arts he undertook to be able to do away with vampires with one slice of his silver axe. Not only was he made handsome for the movie too, but the emphasis was taken right away from the petty affairs of the daylight world. What solemn aspect he retained was given a good reason — to rid the world of vampires, rather than be distracted by cheesey goals like saving the United States and abolishing slavery.

The original Da Vinci, reputed to be gay with a taste for younger men, was some years ago proposed for a biopic by the producers of Brokeback Mountain. His image would at least be improved to a tobacco-spitting cowboy who could carouse and shoot up a town with the best of them. Apparently the real Da Vinci could bend horseshoes with his bare hands and kept in shape through riding and other exercise, but spent an inordinate amount of time paintin’ on canvas and figgerin’ — no hobbies for a real man. He would also buy cages of pigeons just to set them free. It was thought better for the movie to make him into a heterosexual action man kissin’ on ladies and maybe biting the heads off pigeons where necessary to ward off evil-doers.

Professor Einstein, though of slight build, was undoubtedly the flabbiest and most flaccid of them all, spending years at a time hunched over his equations and other sedentary habits that have no value to the modern movie-goer. In real life he was said to be admired by Marilyn Monroe, who said she found his intellect sexy. Ah, but was she ever subjected to a view of his torso? I think not. At this stage the movie project is top secret but we can take a fair clue from the working title, Einstein’s Abs. Here for the first time I am able to announce what the rehabilitated Einstein is likely to look like on the screen:

swollen_muscles

The producers of the upcoming film noted particularly that in the case of the real Einstein his head seemed too big for the rest of his puny body — all the better to encase his gargantuan brain; moreover, that his hair was far too long and unkempt so as to fit the outdated image of the eccentric genius. Designer of the new screen character saw to it that these features were reversed in a balancing process to be more functional and appealing.

THE MONK IS ON YOU

In Humor, psychology/psychiatry, television on August 3, 2013 at 10:23 am

The tv series Monk started in July 2002 and is still going (as far as I know — we only get reruns here in New Zealand). But it’s never been the same since actor Bitty Schram (playing the feisty Sharona) left before filming the second half of series three; she appeared in just 38 episodes. Yes, the actor left — so this was not a creative decision as claimed by the producers but a power play, and it SHOWS.

Who knows what the creator of the series, one Andy Breckman, thinks of this. He must have worked out the balance of the characters to the nth degree if he’s gone through what most good tv writers do. Then just have it subject to arbitrary change when the producers, presumably rolling in more millions of profit each year, tell an actor “Take it or leave it.”

Yes, Traylor Howard is blonde and cute. (I admit to a prejudice against the ugly modern trend of females named with two unfeminine surnames.) I’ve seen her in a few teen movies from the early ’90s and she did well enough. But there is no way her character Natalie has “replaced” Sharona — who lent just the right spice to the mix. Ted Levine seems to me a very accomplished comic actor (and otherwise) and Jason Gray-Stanford does well too as the often hapless detective lieutenant. Tony Shaloub is expert in what he does on screen — but part of what he does is executive producer, and he doesn’t seem to be quite as good at this. It obviously creates an unhealthy power imbalance among the cast.

But whether this one event triggered more unfortunate trends I can’t say for sure. The comedy had gotten less clever, more slapstick. The tone is more crassly sentimental, to the point of getting us to feel sorry for geeky Teen Monk in numerous flashbacks. As if anyone’s interested — Yet, he might get his own series one day in a lucrative spinoff, as these things tend to happen. Straining for plots, Monk is put in less and less likely situations until credulity is strained beyond breaking. Knowing just a little about mental health, I’ve known from the start that someone who suffers from anxiety as constantly and intensely as Monk does could never bring himself to focus on a case for more than a few seconds at a time. No way could he function coherently as a detective over a whole case, never mind a genius who solves every case. But for the sake of involvement (which every good drama needs) I was willing to suspend disbelief.

Yet, the producers throw away this one main premise of the character when it suits them. After the umpteenth rerun episode I just started to watch — and felt too insulted to continue — Monk, on the run from the police, had just come out of the ocean to be greeted by his friend Leland Stottelmeyer (Ted Levine). The captain says something like, “That must have been hard since you can’t swim.” And Monk replies, “I was highly motivated.” These injokes are fine if the series wants to descend to the pat, unchallenging level of Murder She Wrote or Love Boat, but don’t expect me to hang around.

FILM ART PEAKS: Seventy years ago today

In art, film, history, Humor, sociology on July 8, 2013 at 5:19 am

King_Kong_1933There’s a long-time popular theory that film as an art form peaked in the silent days — when the greatest artists coming to film were painters, sculptors, writers, philosophers and other creative spirits — and the possibilities of sound had been virtually fully exploited by the end of the 1930s; certainly by the end of the Forties, for the sake of including the psychological profundity and visual stylishness of Film Noir. I happen to agree.

But by 1940 the possibilities of virtually every recognised film genre seemed to have been explored and fulfilled. There can hardly have been a better horror flick than Frankenstein, The Mummy or Bride of Frankenstein; a better fantasy adventure than King Kong; a better sc-fi than Shapes of Things to Come; a better swashbuckler than Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood or Tyrone Power’s Mark of Zorro; a better family musical than the Judy Garland Wizard of Oz; a better kids adventure than The Adventures of Tom Sawyer with unsung Tommy Kelly; a better social conscience film than the John Ford-Henry Fonda Grapes of Wrath; a better social/sophisticated comedy than My Man Godfrey with William Powell and Carole Lombard; a better screwball comedy than Bringing Up Baby (Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn); a better crime film than William Wyler’s Dead End; a better soap than Gone With the Wind; a better western than Stagecoach or Jesse James; a better women’s picture than The Women or Bette Davis’s The Letter; a better animated film than Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or Fantasia; a better noir than Marcel Carne-Jean Gabin’s Le Jour Se Leve; come to that, better foreign films than those of Sergei Eisenstein, Jean Renoir or Rene Clair; or, filmed that last year, a better definitive masterpiece than Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. After that, well, filmmakers were reduced to fiddling on a theme.

You know people have too much time to kill when they put out a movie called Cowboys & Aliens (2011) and are serious about it; it’s not a Mel Brooks comedy or Tim Burton send-up, or even those brothers who did the Airplane and Naked Gun flicks. I stumbled on this gem leafing through the TV Guide and came to be thankful I’m not rich and idle enough to afford the Sky Movies channel, just the MGM and TCM channels in a cut-rate deal, showing oldies. This film is not a cheapo, but stars James Bond superstar Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, who I once caught acting in a 1984 thriller involving the Amish and before that in a cameo in American Graffiti (1973). Since then he’s spent most of his time trying to figure out wookies and who-knows-what else.

Researching, it’s a DreamWorks adaptation of a comic book, the third in a series, believe it or not. And you know people have too much money when you find out it cost the gargantuan amount of $163 million — admittedly a fraction of what that woman won in the lottery but maybe enough to raise a few South Sea islands out of the drink to save a few hundred thousand people from global warming for the duration if others in the know put their heads to something worthwhile. That was just to film and edit it to get it in the can (no, the other one, worse luck), plus who-knows-how-much to promote it — probably Wizard_of_oz_movie_posterat least doubling the outlay. It took in a lousy $100 million at the box-office its first three months in the USA (plus the DVD crowd) and out of 120,000 responders at the IMDb site it’s scored barely six out of ten, very low for your average special effects blockbuster. So maybe there’s hope for the human race yet — apart from filmmakers.

Probably the best thing about the movie is the title — no, don’t expect me to actually watch it — almost clever the way it almost duplicates the old kids game of Cowboys & Indians. Almost, but nowhere good enough to be called witty. Leaving out the initial Star Wars cycle (1978), when the whole special effects genre was still novel enough to be interesting, the first movie I noticed like this, combining a reference to history as a veneer on top of thick, gooey fairytale fantasy, was Beethoven, which turned out to be a comedy about a dog. Of course, when a pretend-historical cycle came into fashion, they did movies on the actual Beethoven’s girlfriend and then Shakespeare’s girlfriend — betraying their anti-feminist belief that the only women worth taking notice of are women who’d succeeded with famous men, not in their own right: snob versions of Bunnies of the Playboy Mansion or Kardashians on tv. These were mixed in indiscriminantly with a lot of romantic novels from the Age of Romance: i.e. Jane Austen, ad nauseam, a.k.a. How to Misunderstand (and Catch) a Man 101.

Let’s not be too hard because this is probably what passes for creativity today, along with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, designer labels, junk sculpture, more comic book mentality and anything else that attracts heaps of bucks from gullible people with chronically fugged minds. Fans of this drek often justify themselves by saying it’s film art in the mold of The Beach Girls & the Monster or the finest works of Ed Wood — which were only ever intended as cheap knockoffs made for the lowest common denominator for a few thousand dollars each, and which only inconvenienced very few film craftsmen at a time and hardly more souls at the box-office. But we must brace ourselves. Every art form (maybe involving a handful of unrecognized films each year these days) goes through historical highs and lows. English-language poetry as a worthwhile art form (I don’t know enough about French, almost nothing about Russian) after the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras was fairly barren from the silencing of Milton around 1660, finding himself banned on Charles II’s restoration of the monarchy, and the advent of Samuel Coleridge and William Wordsworth c.1797; 137 years give or take. (In the intervening generations only Dryden, Swift and Pope made any mark in English-language poetry.) So, subtracting the 35 years we are in to the Star Wars age already, we can allow up to a century or so for film as an art form to get back on track.

Casablanca

PROGRESSING PAST VOCABULARY: The Three Essential Adjectives in Modern English

In anthropology, art, generational/fashion, Humor, literature, satire on June 11, 2013 at 1:38 pm
A little scholar of tomorrow, aspiring to fill her head with at least a dozen words for all occasions.

littlescholarIn days of yore, say back as far as the 1960s, there were massive tomes called dictionaries. Though it was known that the average person might have a vocabulary of some four thousand words or less, even “simplified” dictionaries would have as many as 65,000 to 75,000 words — so at least 60,000 too many for even the most talkative people. Those compiled by ancient, outdated educational institutions like Oxford and Cambridge Universities dating back to medieval times might include double that number in their more than comprehensive, overgrown volumes that contained the origin of the word, umpteen different meanings and senses, and examples of how these nuanced usages might be utilized in sentences by show-offs.

The language built up steadily, out of hand for over two thousand years, expanding to something with virtually infinite turns and twists. It came to be admired by so-called brainy people throughout the world just for its exquisitely descriptive value, unparalleled logical definition and finnicky grammar that qualified shades of meaning. All this was appreciated by just a few thousand elite around the world out of seven billion. If it had been confined to just one person’s head, like the maths in Archimedes’ this surplus knowledge could have been easily nipped in the bud as his was by his timely assassination by that Roman stud, cut and buff in his form-fitting battle dress making him look so hot.

But those dudes with their jive-ass — sorry — runaway egos painstakingly designed what they grandly called works of art based on this language, using imaginary imagery and tricky devices conjuring poetic beauty from a blank page — that went over the heads of everyone but a few of their own. When everyone knows that a work of art is something you can see in front of you like an awesome multicolored tattoo, mass produced so tried and true, with heaps of symbolic meaning, by a proper tattoo artist, or a nice mosaic coffee table with pretty colors, or hear, like a vocal on American Idol that can spread one syllable across eight notes. It all snowballed and got “stink”, to use a well chosen descriptive catchall in common New Zealand usage. So I say — All the more credit to recent generations who have simplified the language and made it accessible to a great many more people who are now able to be admired for their fluent speech, even their gift of the gab.

Those best at the art of simplification have invented an abbreviated written language too for text messaging, now coming into more general use and far more concise than the spoken word — an outmoded form of communication just begging to be clipped down to manageability. Soon we will all be speaking in grunts and moans, sighs and snorts, hand gesticulations and facial contortions that served our primate forebears so very well. Human communication is said to be 93% nonverbal anyway, so why not take this important lesson from our ancestors?

The biggest corporates, teachers and other cultural leaders are not doing too badly though. If we look at just one part of speech, the descriptive adjective, the necessary vocabulary for anyone speaking English can be boiled down to three words: “awesome”, “not okay” and “inappropriate”. The word awesome is not the awesome that used to be, that is, inspiring awe — a word that has no useful meaning whatever — but more like the “fab” or “groovy” of yesteryear. It is therefore an ideally leveling word that exalts all achievements and accidents of birth alike. Where we might say a man who has developed the ability to smoke a cigarette with his lips and drink an alcoholic beverage through his nose on the same breath is truly awesome, we could also courteously apply the term — though we don’t really mean it — to a steady, admittedly boring researcher with nerdy hornrim glasses (actually a geek to be honest), progressing by inches towards a cancer cure, in order to make him feel good about himself for a moment and caringly bolster his self-esteem with a white lie.

Inappropriate is hardly at all like the inappropriate of before, meaning unsuitable. Inveterate diners used to say, “It is inappropriate to drink red wine with fish, and white wine with red meat.” But to dance a rhumba to a chacha rhythm is no longer inappropriate but creative, original and maybe freaky to those with an extraordinary vocabulary expanded to take in impressive technical jargon according to their specialization on tv shows, cooking, music or dancing. Today inappropriate should be applied only in those situations where a cover-all adjective is needed for “anything I don’t like.” In this way “inappropriate” is a useful conversation stopper and final judgment that precludes all debate on or enquiry about a particular subject that is probably unnecessary in the first place, maybe involving abstract concepts which don’t even exist anymore in everyday life; only in the minds of over-intellectualized dweebs.

“Not okay” is perhaps the most versatile compound adjective, handy for almost every occasion. A bereaved family member interviewed this week about the searing effects on the loved ones of his 15-year-old nephew being punched and kicked to death by two rugby team mates at practice was able to summon up composure enough in his grief at the funeral to say straight from the heart, “Violence is not okay.” The same well-spoken, obviously well-educated Kiwi, probably in a high-flying occupation, in a different circumstance might rightly apply this adjective to a gauchely misapplied dessert sauce on a television cooking show, thoughtlessly dolloped on the plate instead of tastefully and aesthetically drizzled.

JAMES BOND: The Sky is Falling

In art, film, Humor on December 9, 2012 at 7:21 am

When my old friend (an occupational hazard of being friends for more than a quarter century) John is let off the leash by wife Bev he often drags me along to whatever man’s movie of the moment has caught his eye — and pays for me so I don’t have to break my vow of never paying to see a modern movie until they get some style; a little will do. He must have got the idea I was itching to watch any movie as I told him to be on the lookout for a re-release of Shane (1953), the unbeatable Western color classic I’d half-heard previewed on the radio. He doesn’t value the oldies as much as I do: They’re full of acting and dramatics, plotting, scene-setting and atmospherics rather than THE GREAT GOD TECHNOLOGY and cartoon theatrics, cartoon violence, cartoon sex.

I anticipated an Imax or 3-D version — but we haven’t been able to find it. Earlier this year it was the very, very lowkey remake of John LeCarre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy about early Sixties Cold War espionage within MI6. This time it was Skyfall, about early millennium Cold War espionage within MI6. The poor Brit spy schools haven’t learnt much in the past 50 years…

To avoid ‘spoiling’ the whole thing for you action fans, and to save myself the trouble, I’ll just mention a few lowlights and points worth noting.

* Near the beginning of the movie Bond goes through some of the usual leaping from tall buildings, chase scenes in a car, chase scenes on foot, fighting on top of a train. Every time I see him make incredible leaps into nowhere and other physically impossible moves I think of the old Warner Brothers cartoons. Not that Bond should necessarily be remade as a cartoon character — though it would be more believable and a lot funnier that way — but what about that half-and-half filming process they did for Tin-Tin ? At least it wouldn’t insult the people in the audience with a three-digit IQ by asking them to believe that actual humans are capable of all this.

* Daniel Craig’s permanently pursed lips — like the moulded plastic of a marionette hero from Thunderbirds — are starting to get annoying. I always half expect him to come out with something totally inappropriate in the context of making love to a woman: “Kissy, kissy!”

Skyfall* Daniel Craig shouldn’t have such close-cropped hair. There were several sustained shots of him front-on in silhouette and it made me think of The Return of Batfink or Wingnut People Conquer the Universe rather than James Bond. I’m not being picky here because I have a very similar problem myself, only lower down.

* I’ve never understood the hullabaloo about Dame Judy Dench and (Lord?) Albert Finney. Here they’re both in their seventies and it’s nice to see the old dears still trotted out and mentally competent, but I’d swear their faces had seized up worse than Charles Bronson’s in Death Wish IV or V that I reviewed a few weeks ago.

* Potential spoiler alert here: Just when we’d reached a point in the plot where I thought we were coming to the end of the movie — no real disappointment that it didn’t end here because there was plenty of good action still to come. Bond has chased arch-villain Javier Bardem (probably the best performer in the flick) down into the London Underground aware that he’s going to take out Dame Judith. As Bardem is climbing a metal ladder to escape his pursuer, Bond pulls his handgun and fires two shots that ricochet off the rungs and miss his nemesis. Bardem stops dead, but instead of Bond finishing him off with a third shot he stops to watch and listen as Bardem grapples with his bomb detonating apparatus, takes a few precious moments to grasp it, and places his thumb over the whoopsie button. Then he takes his time and tells Bond, rapt as an attentive schoolkid, a cute story about this being his new toy — after Bond had shown off his new issue handgun and radio in a previous scene. It’s the kind of exchange where you had to be there. But because this Bond is something of an automaton (hasn’t every hero been since The Terminator?), apparently with the brain reaction of a slow one, half of London is about to be destroyed and Dame Judith is forced to take premature retirement.

* Bond’s incompetence is attempted to be ‘explained’ beforehand through much tiresome exposition by his months off boozing in mourning and he is supposedly out of shape — Didn’t look like it to me, and this plot device didn’t work.

UGGOS OF THE WORLD, UNITE!: You have nothing to lose but your body image

In celebrity, film, Humor, music, television on November 15, 2012 at 7:46 am

This post is dedicated to the Susan Boyles of the world, and that big fat guy that Simon Cowell also ridiculed until he opened his mouth — then Cowell’s eyes sparkled with dollar signs; the Roy Orbisons, the Ernie Borgnines, Lee Marvins, Pat Hingles, Dennis Franzes, Charles Laughtons, Ed Begleys, Broderick Crawfords, Edward G Robinsons, Van Heflins, William Conrads, Linda Hunts, Kathy Bateses, Daniel Benzalis…

Even Rod Steiger, who was basically a good-looking guy but was told by a Hollywood producer, “Lose 40 pounds and I’ll make you a star.” Well, he made it anyway.

To Alan Ladd, a head shorter than the usual screen hunk, who was told by the director when playing a love scene in Boy on a Dolphin with Sophia Loren, “Ooh, that bruising’s terrible. Here, stand on this box and you won’t be bombarded in the face.”

To Phyllis Diller, who listened to some schmuck who said, “Hey, just get some plastic surgery and you’ll be cute” — and was never heard from again.

To Clark Gable, who pulled through as the hunk among a thousand babes at MGM, where he was at first dismissed with, “He’ll never amount to anything with those sugarbowl ears.”

To Fred Astaire, a human stick insect who made Jiminy Cricket look handsome, and went down in history as the screen’s most graceful male dancer.

To Judy Garland, ridiculed for a face that was anything but chocolate-box standard and a tendency to retain baby fat, and turned out to have more talent than any of them.

To Liza Minnelli, handicapped by being the daughter of Judy Garland mated with gifted but skunk-faced director Vincent Minnelli, and still made a worthwhile career.

To all the beautiful young women, fashion models, who were told by flamboyant men in charge who can’t appreciate their womanly curves, “Just a few more pounds, ducks” — and became junkies and/or died for it.

To those pretty boys Robert Taylor, Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power, who ignored or made little of their own incredible good looks to prove they had talent.

To Michael Jackson who swallowed all the hype about Aryan looks and paid the ultimate price for it.

And to Marilyn Monroe, one of the most vibrant screen presences ever, who to win conventional stardom submitted to casting couches, nose job, chin implant… so life would be perfect.

Special mention must be made of the stars of British television, who can look like the hind quarters of a British bulldog and still win romantic leading roles on the small screen. Just two of the most popular: David Jason, all 5ft-5 of him, bug-eyed, bulbous-nosed, all set off by a David Lloyd George haircut and Sydney spiv hat — and as Detective Inspector Jack Frost of the Denton police, Thames Valley, harassed by multiple lovers from one series to the next. Hugely popular for forty years, he was most believable as comedic secret agent in the slapstick title role of The Top Secret Life of Edgar Briggs; less as a serious detective still pulling slapstick turns. And Zoe Wanamaker, very successful in the romantic stakes on tv though seemingly hampered by her father Sam’s oversized upturned nose and lacking her father’s large soulful eyes. Congratulations also to Jack Shepherd (Superintendent Wycliffe), overcoming his anteater nose, Kevin Whately (Inspector Lewis), ageing to look like Stan Laurel, Warren Clarke (Dalziel), bulldog by nature and visage, and innumerable other English and Scottish detectives blessed with characterful looks.

Merit Awards for Uggos in American film genres: general purpose misfits Boris Karloff, Raymond Massey, Sam Jaffe, James Whitmore; Eli Wallach, Jack Elam, Neville Brand, Bruce Dern, Warren Oates, Strother Martin, L. Q. Jones for bushwhackers and trail scum; so-ugly-they’re-a-thing-of-beauty Lee Marvin, James Coburn, Lee Van Cleef; hoodwinkers, desert rats and down-and-out gentlemen Charles Coburn, Sydney Greenstreet, Fredric March, Dan Duryea, Albert Dekker, Ralph Bellamy and Edmond O’Brien.

TV REVIEW: THE MONK IS ON YOU

In Humor, psychology/psychiatry, television on December 24, 2011 at 7:12 pm

BittyschramThe tv series Monk started in July 2002 and is still going (as far as I know — we only get reruns here in New Zealand). But it’s never been the same since actor Bitty Schram (playing the feisty Sharona) left before filming the second half of series three; she appeared in just 38 episodes. Yes, the actor left — so this was not a creative decision as claimed by the producers but a power play, and it SHOWS.

Who knows what the creator of the series, one Andy Breckman, thinks of this. He must have worked out the balance of the characters to the nth degree if he’s gone through what most good tv writers do. Then just have it subject to arbitrary change when the producers, presumably rolling in more millions of profit each year, tell an actor “Take it or leave it.”

Yes, Traylor Howard is blonde and cute. (I admit to a prejudice against the ugly modern trend of females named with two unfeminine surnames.) I’ve seen her in a few teen movies from the early ’90s and she did well enough. But there is no way her character Natalie has “replaced” Sharona — who lent just the right spice to the mix. Ted Levine seems to me a very accomplished comic actor (and otherwise) and Jason Gray-Stanford does well too as the often hapless detective lieutenant. Tony Shaloub is expert in what he does on screen — but part of what he does is executive producer, and he doesn’t seem to be quite as good at this. It obviously creates an unhealthy power imbalance among the cast.

But whether this one event triggered more unfortunate trends I can’t say for sure. The comedy had gotten less clever, more slapstick. The tone is more crassly sentimental, to the point of getting us to feel sorry for geeky Teen Monk in numerous flashbacks. As if anyone’s interested — Yet, he might get his own series one day in a lucrative spinoff, as these things tend to happen. Straining for plots, Monk is put in less and less likely situations until credulity is strained beyond breaking. Knowing just a little about mental health, I’ve known from the start that someone who suffers from anxiety as constantly and intensely as Monk does could never bring himself to focus on a case for more than a few seconds at a time. No way could he function coherently as a detective over a whole case, never mind a genius who solves every case. But for the sake of involvement (which every good drama needs) I was willing to suspend disbelief.

Yet, the producers throw away this one main premise of the character when it suits them. After the umpteenth rerun episode I just started to watch — and felt too insulted to continue — Monk, on the run from the police, had just come out of the ocean to be greeted by his friend Leland Stottelmeyer (Ted Levine). The captain says something like, “That must have been hard since you can’t swim.” And Monk replies, “I was highly motivated.” These injokes are fine if the series wants to descend to the pat, unchallenging level of Murder She Wrote or Love Boat, but don’t expect me to hang around.

WARNER BROS DOUBLE FEATURE: MOVIE REVIEW

In film, Humor on May 31, 2009 at 9:56 pm

THE HIDDEN HAND (1942)

The curtain raiser of this Warners double feature of the war years — shown on the Turner Classic Movies Sky channel — is much like a glossy King of the Zombies (Monogram, 1941): a comedy horror full of mounting (and disappearing) bodies, revolving wall units and sparkling, unexpected wit and fast-paced fun of the kind you never expect in movies these days.

The whole premise is known from the outset as brother John (played hilariously by Milton Parsons) escapes from the lunatic asylum. The two bumbling cops tracking him play the game too, an argument settled by the sergeant with “Yeah, you’re just the guy who’d know where a lunatic would go!”

As adapted by Anthony Coldeway from a Rufus King play, directed by the studio’s B stalwart Ben Stoloff, lines are delivered fast and furious except when more careful timing is required for the special comedy bits. When crazy John Channing of the homicidally-inclined Channings turns up at his almost-as-eccentric sister Lorinda’s (Cecil Cunningham) mansion he approaches her bed full of intent, strangling hands outstretched. All stops in closeup as she opens her eyes, slowly comes to, and without blinking reproves him: “John!… Where have you been?”

He insists to her that he had to act mad in the asylum so he could be locked up “in a padded cell to get peace and quiet” away from the mad people. In escaping he hung a guard up in a tree: “It was fun… until he stopped moving… I suppose I shouldn’t have hung him up by the neck.”

There are no stars in this — Everyone is billed below the title in the opening credits. Top billed, who in their careers never progressed beyond starlets, are Craig Stevens, 24, better known from Fifties and Sixties television (especially as Peter Gunn); Elisabeth Fraser, 22, who peaked this year in the Columbia A-feature The Commandos Strike at Dawn with Paul Muni; and Julie Bishop, 28, who the year following this partnered Humphrey Bogart in Action in the North Atlantic and Errol Flynn in Northern Pursuit — both superstars, but in rather routine wartime flag-wavers so no breakthrough for her.

It’s the curse of the Channings, bumped off one by one as they await the bad news in the will of Lorinda, who’s faked her own death.

Willie Best in scared mode

Willie Best in scared mode

With Milton Parsons and 54-year-old character actress Cecil Cunningham, comedy honors go too to Willie Best, doing an over-the-top black servant of the period, scared into bulging eyes and body tremors. One gem he delivers about the Japanese houseboy (Kam Tong) — this was released within a year of Pearl Harbor: “Just can’t trust them Japs.” But it’s a stereotyped role, not as satisfying as Mantan Moreland’s lead role as an uppity servant in King of the Zombies the year before this.

Overall, highly entertaining viewing.

THE SEA WOLF (1941)

This is the kind of medium-budget adventure Warners could slip into its schedule easily, without having to shell out the massive $two million required for the occasional extravaganzas starring Errol Flynn and Olivia DeHavilland — currently in They Died With Their Boots On, the story of General Custer and how the Mrs won, and lost, him. Still its stars, Edward G. Robinson, Ida Lupino and John Garfield, were well up the ladder at WB and outlay for their salaries alone would have accounted for a considerable portion of the budget. There is nothing flashy in the special effects or set departments — just enough to be thoroughly convincing without going overboard like so many boring blockbusters do today with ludicrous overkill. And the portrayals are top notch from all concerned.

seawolfPug-ugly Robinson had been among the top flight of Hollywood stars in box-office popularity polls ten years earlier at the height of the gangster movie craze (Little Caesar, WB, 1930), which he ruled ahead of James Cagney long before Humphrey Bogart appeared on the scene, and was still highly paid in 1941 as an inimitable character star. He would leave the studio soon after this. John Garfield was an early method actor and graduate of New York City’s Group Theater — so an important onscreen figure but long before his time and accordingly under-appreciated compared with the smooth matinee idols who came along during World War II to take the places of established superstars who went into active service: if the likes of Joseph Cotten, Gregory Peck, Cornel Wilde, Van Johnson, Ray Milland, Fred MacMurray, etc, could ‘replace’ Clark Gable, Henry Fonda, James Stewart, Tyrone Power, Robert Taylor and so on. Already a nominal star in Warner A-movies for three years and quickly listed in popularity polls, Garfield (Garfinkle) would never quite make the top twenty male draws though a fixture in the top thirty.

Similarly, Lupino, an iconic figure of film noir through the Forties, was never in big-budget movies to earn the superstar label. But she did go on to be one of fewer than a handful of females directing in the studio era. Of an illustrious English family of comedians, now at 27 (same age as Garfield) she was rising rapidly at Warners after arriving at Paramount eight years before as a bleached blonde. Now a hardnosed WB brunette, by High Sierra released early 1941 she was already billed above central character Humphrey Bogart. For Out of the Fog this same year she was paid $40,000 — impressive for a new star. A loanout to Columbia for atmospheric murder mystery Ladies in Retirement also boosted her.

Wolf Larsen (Edward G. Robinson) confronted by his crew

Wolf Larsen (Edward G. Robinson) confronted by his crew

Lupino called herself the poor man’s Bette Davis, though that was really more applicable to the frequently mournful, over-emoting Susan Hayward at Twentieth Century-Fox a decade later. This was another period piece that was right up her alley — a gritty, dark tale from master storyteller Jack London. But as directed by Michael Curtiz it is fast-paced at the same time as being thoughtful, bearing no relation to the studio’s ponderous Thirties historical biographies such as The Story of Louis Pasteur, The Life of Emile Zola or Juarez — all of which, though praised in their time, came to weigh heavy on the career of thespian Paul Muni.

Garfield and Lupino are on the run (separately) from the law in fogbound San Francisco and in escaping find themselves in far more desperate straits on Wolf Larsen’s (Robinson) small sailing vessel — in business stealing seal pelts from genuine sealers. Larsen is so universally feared and hated that his own brother has sworn to send him to the bottom of the sea, and almost succeeds by ramming him broadside.

How will the crew, made up of press-ganged innocents and seasoned cutthroats, fare?

The featured cast includes Canadian-born Alexander Knox as cultured writer van Weyden, struggling through to maintain his integrity, and professional Hollywood Irishman Barry Fitzgerald as Cooky, Larsen’s stoolie and betrayed by him to be thrown overboard and lose a leg to a shark. Both are consummate screen performers and go on to fleeting stardom in 1944, via Wilson and Going My Way respectively.

Do young but disillusioned Garfield and Lupino find each other, or are they doomed?

MOVIE REVIEW — Ethnic Humor: A Tribute to Mantan Moreland

In film, Humor on March 22, 2008 at 8:03 am
Mantan Moreland at bottom right

Mantan Moreland at bottom right

Last night I sat up for one of those midnight Z-movies I usually expect to help me catch some z’s long before the end. It was King of the Zombies, made in 1941 by Poverty Row’s underfunded Monogram Pictures and released six months before Pearl Harbor, so just qualifying as pre-War. Looking it up later on the IMDb movie website I saw that the humorous side of the horror was provided by Mantan Moreland — a name I’d seen under supporting cast credits in movie books before but without knowing anything about who he was.

This guy was an all-out riot and virtually made the film, especially but not solely in his verbal sparring with Marguerite Whitten. She called him “Honey Lamb” and other endearments while he was mainly interested in how well she could cook. A highly amusing and imaginative courtship this was. Moreland showed perfect timing and delivery of a line that spelt TALENT with a capital T-A-L-E-N-T. So it was with considerable disgust welling up in my gorge that I read the IMDb entry on him, containing a long commentary virtually apologizing for his existence. The patronising implication was that Moreland was a poor dupe of a vaudeville entertainer for the white folks in his early career (he was 40 when this movie was made) but after the arrival of modern, enlightened souls like Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor, did his best to make up for past sins before his death. What a load of crap! This kind of slimy, condescending backhanded pity from an ignoramus sticks in my gizzard. Talent alone is what makes a movie special, and performing so-called ethnic humor is a field perhaps more demanding than any other. Even –especially! — if it’s your own ethnicity.

If you doubt this, take a look at Tortilla Flat, based on the story by literary titan John Steinbeck and made the same year with all the most expensive talent of gigantic MGM at its command. I watched it today, in daylight hours. It was directed by Victor Fleming, he of The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind, and starred acting heavyweights Spencer Tracy and John Garfield among others. By the way, should the original Hispanic settlers of the Monterey area feel grossly insulted on ethnic grounds that Tracy and Allen Jenkins (both with Irish roots), Garfield (Jewish), Hedy Lamarr (Austrian), John Qualen (Norwegian), Akim Tamiroff (Russian) even attempted portrayals of individuals from a foreign culture? To my mind, only veterans Frank Morgan and Henry O’Neill in relatively minor roles came away with much credit. Overall the casting, seen today, is fatal; Tracy in particular sounds like he had studied for the accent under Chico Marx. But they can get away with it because viewers who don’t know any better don’t care anyway; and those who do mostly shrug it off assuming it’s a sincere attempt at a worthy Steinbeck work. To think that probably a dozen genuinely entertaining flicks could have been made by Monogram or Mascot with the dough MGM blew on this!

Comparing the two films, and Moreland and Whitten with their fellow cast members I could see no way that they had demeaned their race by their sparkling performances. In fact, I strongly suspect their modern critics guilty of a craven cultural cringe. Comparing their sheer screen presence and talent with the Caucasian principals in the cast — Dick Purcell and John Archer — no genuine person of taste and discernment would believe they hadn’t swept the floor with them, the genuinely talented Joan Woodbury excepted. Political activists must deal with their own sense of shame and not project it on to artists such as Moreland and Whitten. King of the Zombies was rewritten and directed by Jean Yarbrough with the necessary quickie imperatives, but this tended to only add to the humor. For example, towards the end, “Mac”, the Dick Purcell character, stops four bullets at point blank range from the zombie master (Henry Victor). Then when John Archer is asked how Mac is, he answers fine “but those bullet holes didn’t do him much good.” It all made for an expertly done, hilarious romp that you don’t even see approached anymore.

The Thing About Writing

In Humor, literature on December 11, 2007 at 11:51 am
A resolute G. A. De Forest (Garbonza) intent on writing to the end

A resolute G. A. De Forest (Garbonza) intent on writing to the end

… Is that you’ve just got to keep going. Only beginners or fakes ever plead “writer’s block” to explain lack of motivation, absence of ideas or sheer amateurism. With modern word processors and computers, no longer is the old cliched image of the tortured soul tapping away at the keys on his typewriter, stopping frustrated after a few words, tearing the page away, screwing it up and throwing it in the trash can next to his special “writer’s desk” even comical. It just doesn’t apply, and serious writers would always have found that chronically constipated tragi-comic figure impossible to relate to anyway.

There’s no choice, if you’re truly compulsive about it like a real writer must be. In the supposed lag period after one book has been published and beginning another book there must be no lagging at all but simple continuity. A ‘vacation’ away from writing for me is more like torture. I’ve tried it before and it feels like my life has been put on hold. Always, by the second day, I am taking notes, writing passages, sample dialogue… The day after I completed my book, making the final touches to a 450-page monster that had been ten years in the researching, developing, writing, rewriting, editing and formatting, I was setting about polishing up projects I had put on the backburner for years, in various states of development. The project that was nearest completion I decided should take a back seat for now.

My thing is I like to, like many people, order the world around me to understand it better. And I do this by drawing up lists, seeing patterns in those lists and pointing out inconsistencies. This has long been just a hobby of mine: drawing up popularity lists of old movie stars; biggest-earning movies under each year of release; biggest-earning stars from whatever era; best songs, or songs I can remember from my childhood under various years. I can distinctly remember recordings that came out and were popular before my third birthday. When I mention these, other people assume I am a lot older than I am — I suppose because they most often remember songs from their high school era. Or maybe I do look older because I’m worn out from the frustrations and worries of being a writer, trying to do justice to the calling, and being distracted by normal everyday life intruding.

Years ago I figured out how to make my hobby into a profession of sorts — at least a vocation — and started writing pieces about pop culture history. Now it’s expanded into other interests, like philosophy and morality. Currently, I am planning and outlining a ‘top 10’ list of things that are wrong with the world, on which to base a book. It’s not exactly an original idea, but I’ll do it for my own piece of mind, just to make my own order from the world. There is always the hope, I think, for a serious writer, that if it is sufficiently well written and readable — and engages a sizable public — he might change the world in some way. I’m a pretty contented sort of guy, actually a little complacent now that my first major book has been published, but under the momentum of my compulsion there is no doubt I will generate enough material to fill out a book of a hundred pages or so. Look for it by the middle of 2008.

When Reality Strikes: One More Midlife Crisis

In celebrity, Humor, literature, philosophy on December 3, 2007 at 11:00 pm
G. A. De Forest in his study/junk room, January 2009

G. A. De Forest in his study/junk room, January 2009

When I reach a certain age, I keep telling myself, I will be able to accept all that life sends me with equanimity — that is, with a balanced attitude, in a state of zen-like indifference. My spirit will be whole, highly developed and impervious to any petty slights of this material world. Doesn’t seem to work that way. My experience in having my first real book published has delivered me more ups and downs in a few weeks than any other single year of my life.

There is nothing to compare with the sheer exhilaration of being accepted by a publishing company — in this case an e-publisher — who tells you they reject more than 90% of submissions. It was the first time since leaving school and doing particularly well in a few university papers and assignments — and that was thirty years ago — that I was told I was in the top 10-percentile in ANYTHING. Former lovers please note. This was acceptance, even praise, in the grown-up world, which — maybe because so long coming — has to count for more than a teacher’s opinion/encouragement of a student.

Quickly following this was great support from friends; the usual misunderstanding/ misinterpretation by family members; then the welcome distraction of getting the cover designed; tweaking the text until it’s just right; finding out the 15-page index I’d just compiled painstakingly has to be ‘automated’ (still don’t know what that is and don’t think I ever will) and so is left out, with an appendix too I thought was rather key.

But proof of the pudding, they say, is in the eating — which might have been relevant if I wasn’t doing a book, because not many people want to taste my pudding. Of a potential readership of around six and a half billion on the planet — most of whom seem to have been captured by J K Rowling with seemingly very little effort or signs of outstanding skill or originality — it is amazing the near unanimous consensus they seem to have come to in staying away from my book.

I’ve come to the realisation that when ego is involved — and I do have one — and as long as one considers oneself even marginally a social being and is therefore striving for and dependent upon positive feedback and reinforcement of your efforts from fellow beings, then one is always somewhat at the mercy of likeminded people and market forces: likeminded people for that essential reinforcement of spirit and purpose; the market for some reassurance that one’s book isn’t being bought just by friends. Always in the knowledge that the market for ebooks tends to be hogged by bestsellers with names like ‘Boys Have Penises; Girls Have Vaginas’ and ‘Your Parchese Evening: 101 Ways to Success ‘.

“BEACH BOYS vs BEATLEMANIA: Rediscovering Sixties Music”

In celebrity, Humor, literature, music on November 29, 2007 at 5:07 am

garydeforest

Garbonza is proud to announce that after many years in labor his imagination has borne fruit in a 448-page, 1lb 2oz book, name of BEACH BOYS vs BEATLEMANIA: Rediscovering Sixties Music. It includes a Foreword by Fred Vail, the legendary Beach Boy promoter and manager through the 1960s.

It’s not only about the two groups mentioned but about how we see the world and the fact that the best is not always recognized, never mind rewarded — even how history has been changed by the mass media, by the mass media making itself the news. A whole lot of other great (and not so great) bands, girl groups and solo acts of the period are mentioned in context as well as detailed in separate chapters.

The book is available from November 27th 2007 (that’s 36 hours ago — and how come no one has bought it yet?) at Booklocker.com for a very reasonable $19.95 paperback and $8.95 download copy. It is listed under the pseudonym G. A. De Forest as author: Garbonza is loathe to attract the undoubted ensuing opprobrium to himself in taking on such a controversial subject. Who dares to unseat the Beatles from their bogus 40-year reign? Garbonza, he answers modestly.

Make sure you read the two free sample chapters first — there are eight more you have to pay for, probably in multiples, for those Xmas-New Year gifts. Also, the freight gets cheap if you buy more than one copy of the paperback.

See my book published November 2007, ‘Beach Boys vs Beatlemania: Rediscovering Sixties Music’, available from Booklocker.com (offices and printers in London and Bangor, Maine) and Amazon outlets everywhere including the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, France and Japan.

Be sure to tune in for a future post, which will include excerpts from reviews of the book written by reputable magzines in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and my beloved Italy.

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