Monday, February 26, 2007

2007 Academy Awards

For many years now I have to admit I haven't kept my expectations for the Oscars very high. Indeed, last night I have to admit that part of me expected that when the winner for Best Director was announced, it would be Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu for Babel. And if Martin Scorsese won the Directing award, then Babel would take Best Picture. Fortunately, my fears were unjustified. Not only did Martin Scorsese win the Best Director award, but The Departed won Best Picture.

It was one of the high points of the night for me, seeing one of my favourite directors of all time finally recognised for his work by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It was made all the more better by the fact that the award was presented by three legendary Seventies directors and contemporaries of Martin Scorsese--Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg.

The night was made all the more better by the fact that The Departed also took Best Adapted Screenplay (although I rankled when the announcer said that it was based on the Japanese feature Infernal Affairs--the movie was made in Hong Kong!) and Editing as well. All in all, it was a very good night for Martin Scorsese.

As to the actor categories, for the most part they went the way I expected them to, although I was a bit surprised to see Alan Arkin walk away with the Best Supporting Actor award. Well, surprised and pleased. Arkin has always been one of my favourite actors and it is good to see him appreciated.

I have to admit that I was a little disappointed that Pan's Labyrinth lost the Best Foreign Film award, although I am glad that it lost to Lives of Others (quite frankly, both films should have been nominated for Best Picture). and Pan's Labyrinth did take home its share of awards, including Art Director, Cinematography, and Makeup. Ultimately, it took home more awards than Babel!

A greater disappointment for me was that Monster House lost the award for Best Animated Feature to Happy Feet. Not only is Monster House the better film, but so too is Cars. It was a case of the weakest film taking the award.

As to the ceremony itself, I think Ellen DeGeneres did a great job. She kept the awards upbeat and light hearted and good natured. And much of her material was genuinely funny, which more than can be said for some past Oscar hosts. Sadly, as usual the ceremony seemed to drag at times. I personally think that there both interpretative dance and Celine Dion should be banned from the Academy Awards. That having been said, I thought the musical number by Jack Black, Will Ferrell, and John C. O’Reilly was hilarious.

Over all, I have to say that this was an Oscar ceremony I am glad I did not miss, even if it dragged at times (don't all of them?). If anything else, it is good to finally see Martin Scorsese get some recognition from the Academy.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Best Years for the Academy Awards

There are some years when it seems that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has only a few movies worthy of Best Picture to choose from. And then there are those years when they are so many great films released that I imagine choosing a winner for the Best Picture award would be very difficult. Sadly, those years don't come around very often, but they do come around.

One of those years was 1939. Just consider the movies nominated for Best Picture: Gone with the Wind, Dark Victory, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Love Affair, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, Stagecoach, and Wuthering Heights. And these weren't the only great films released that year. This was also the year that Beau Geste and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex were released. Indeed, it is a mark of how good 1939 was that a classic like The Wizard of Oz did not take the Academy Award for Best Picture. Looking back, perhaps it should have, but then it was released the same year as Gone with the Wind, not only a classic but an outright blockbuster. Today The Wizard of Oz probably has more importance as a pop culture artefact than Gone with the Wind--I doubt there is anyone over the age of five in the United States who has not seen the movie at least once. But in 1939 Gone with the Wind was a juggernaut that could not be stopped. Indeed, for literally decades it would be the highest grossing film of all time.

Another great year for Best Picture nominees was the year 1975. That year such classics as Barry Lyndon, Dog Day Afternoon, Jaws, Nashville, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest nominated. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, although looking back I think that perhaps it should have gone to Nashville. Altman's classic was one of the truly great films of the Seventies, and, as good as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was, it wasn't as nearly as good.

The next great year for Best Picture nominees followed hot on the heels of 1965. Nineteen seventy six saw a particularly good crop of movies. And while one could debate if One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is better than Dog Day Afternoon or Jaws (but not, in my mind, Nashville), I think there can be little doubt that the weakest picture won the award in 1976. That year saw such classics as All the President's Men, Bound for Glory, Network, and Taxi Driver nominated, yet somehow the Best Picture award went to Rocky, a good movie in my mind but not Best Picture material. I can only figure that the votes were divided among the stronger pictures (let's face it, I have to admit that I have problems deciding if Network is a better film than Taxi Driver or vice versa) in a such a way that Rocky won through a plurality of votes. I certainly hope so. I would be sorely disappointed if a majority of Academy members honestly thought Rocky was better than Network or Taxi Driver!

Sadly, the cinema has not seen a year quite as good as 1976 ever since. Of course, considering that before 1975 the last really great year for Best Picture nominees was 1939, this should not be surprising. Sadly, the number of great pictures released in any given year is going to be somewhat limited. And even more sadly, not every truly great picture is going to be nominated for Best Picture. Indeed, a case in point is this year, when Pan's Labyrinth failed to get a Best Picture nod. Between the fact that only a few very great movies are released each year and the Academy sometimes failing to nominate them, I doubt we'll see years like 1939, 1975, and 1976 again.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Janet Blair R.I.P.

Janet Blair, the lively actress who starred in musicals and on television, passed on yesterday of complications from pneumonia. She was 85 years old.

Janet Blair was born Martha Jean Lafferty on April 23, 1921 in Altoona, Pennsylvania. She started performing early, and by her teens she was singing with Hal Kemp's band at the Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles. She was spotted by a talent scout for Columbia and, following Kemp's death in a car crash and the subsequent break up of his band, she signed with Columbia for $100 a week.

Initially, Blair appeared in B pictures, such as Three Girls About Town and Blondie Goes to College. Her breakthrough role in the title part of the comedy My Sister Eileen in 1942 came about when she was recommended by Rosalind Russell. She would go on to play opposite Cary Grant in the comedy fantasy Once Upon a Time and the Dorsey Brothers themselves in The Fabulous Dorseys. She may have been best known for her roles in The Fuller Brush Man (opposite comic legend Red Skelton) and The Black Arrow (1948).

Unfortunately, following The Black Arrow, Blair found herself typecast and was only being offered parts as the damsel in distress. Blair left Hollywood and went on tour with the road version of South Pacific, taking the role originated by Mary Martin. She also turned to television, making her debut on the small screen in The Ford Theatre Hour episode "Joy to the World". She would go onto appear in such series as The Goodyear Television Playhouse, The U.S. Steel Hour, Climax, Burke's Law, Switch, and Murder, She Wrote. She was a regular on Caesar's Hour with Sid Caesar during the 1956-1957 season. She was also a regular on The Smith Family, playing the wife of Jimmy Stewart's Detective Sergeant Chad Smith. Blair also appeared on Broadway in 1952 in the play A Girl Can Tell.

This is not to say that Blair did not occasionally appear in movies later in her career. Among her later films were Night of the Eagle (AKA Burn, Witch, Burn), Boy's Night Out, and The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band.

Although not often given credit for her talent as an actress, Janet Blair was a lively, energetic presence on the screen. She was gifted as a comedienne, with nearly perfect timing. She was well suit as a foil to such talents as Red Skelton and Cary Grant. And while she took such talent to the small screen, it is perhaps sad for movie buffs that she did not continue making major motion pictures. She was a talent that will certainly be missed.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Future Was Then

It is not simply clothing that goes through various fashions as time passes. The same holds true for architecture. And when it comes to architecture, sometimes current styles don't just dictate how things might look now, but how we think they will look in the future. In the 20th century there were two design movements which shaped the way people thought the future would look. More often than not, when someone read a science fiction comic strip or watched a science fiction movie, the look of the comic strip or movie was largely determined by these movements.

The first of these was the art deco movement, popular from around 1910 to 1939. Art deco combined many of the different styles from the very early 20th century, with influences from Art Nouveau, Bauhaus, Constructionism, and Modernism (with, at times a touch of the Gothic thrown in for good measure). Art deco tended towards sweeping, natural curves, stepped shapes, sunburst motifs, grill designs (much like a radiator grill), chevron type patterns, and the the aerodynamic designs of modern technology (which was part of the related Streamline movement--see below). It was an ornate style, which relied on aluminium, stainless steel, glass, and inlaid wood.

The style originated in France following the Universal Exposition of 1900, held in Paris. Its earliest practitioners had been disciples of Art Nouveau movement, including architect Hector Guimard and artist Eugene Grasset. Originally, it was called Style Moderne. Hard as it is to believe, it would not be called "Art Deco" until well after it had gone out of style. Art historian Bevis Hiller coined the term, taking it from the official name of the Exposition of 1925 (the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes), also held in Paris.

Regardless of its name, art deco soon became immensely popular as a style of design. Although today generally associated with architecture, it also influenced industrial design. Cameras (such as the Kodak Beau Brownie designed by Walter Dorwin Teague), watches and clocks (Cartier from the era), and even cars (the Nash Ambassador is an example) bore the mark of Art Deco. The movement influenced artists ranging from Georgia O'Keefe to Grant Wood (most famous for "American Gothic"). Of course, today it is best known for architecture, and several examples of Art Deco buildings survive to this day. Indeed, what may be the most famous building in the world, the Empire State Building, is a perfect example of Art Deco design, as is the neighbouring Chrysler Building. Radio City Music Hall, particularly its auditorium, is another example of Art Deco design. Radio City Music Hall wasn't the only theatre that used Art Deco--it was perhaps the single most popular style for cinemas of the era.

A movement related to Art Deco was Streamline Moderne (most often called simply "Streamline). Although not as popular as the more ornate Art Deco style, Streamline Moderne had its heyday in the late to mid Thirties. Relying on the aerodynamic look of aviation and automobiles, it used natural curves and long, horizontal lines. Examples of Streamline Moderne architecture are the Marine Air Terminal at LaGuardia Airport and the Strand Palace Hotel in London. The Streamline movement was perhaps bigger in industrial design than in architecture. The 1933 Chrysler Airflow is a perfect example of Streamline design.

At the time Art Deco must have seemed very futuristic to many, and it should not be surprising that many viewed the future in terms of art deco design. Perhaps the most blatant example of this is the comic strop Flash Gordon, written and drawn by the legendary Alex Raymond. Everything from the architecture to the space ships to the clothing was Art Deco in design. Raymond would have an enormous impact on future cartoonists, to the point that art deco was appearing in comic strips and comic books well after it had gone out of fashion in the real world. In early Superman comic books, artist and co-creator Joe Schuster drew both the planet Krypton and the city of Metropolis as Art Deco masterpieces (here I should point out that even Superman's costume was influenced Raymond's clothing in Flash Gordon...). With regards to movies, the serials based on the comic strip Flash Gordon would also feature Art Deco architecture (the finest example perhaps being Ming's Imperial Palace). Metropolis, Fritz Lang's sci-fi classic, strongly relied on Art Deco architechture, as did Things to Come, the 1936 sci-fi film based on the work of H. G. Wells. Both Lost Horizon and The Wizard of Oz relied more upon the related Streamline design than Art Deco.

While it was often portrayed as the look of the future, Art Deco gradually went out of fashion. Once it became mass produced, there were many who thought that Art Deco was rather gaudy. And when World War II erupted, Art Deco suddenly became too expensive a luxury for many to afford. Ironically, today Art Deco is more associated with the past than the future. Today it brings to mind the glamour and fashion of 1930s New York City and Hollywood more than it does life in the 21st century. For a time, however, it was thought to be the way the future would look, as demonstrated by numerous comic strips (most notably Flash Gordon) and comic books from the time.

While Art Deco had gone out of style, there would arise another design movement in the very late Forties that would also give shape to the way people viewed the future. This movement is best known as Googie, although it is also called Populuxe or Doo-Wop (personally, I prefer the latter names, although they are not the ones that stuck). Googie originated in southern California, where it became a popular design for restaurants, coffee houses, motels, and bowling alleys. It is difficult to say what the first example of Googie architecture was, but it is believed to have been the Bob's Big Boy in Toluca Lake, California designed by Wayne McAllister in 1949. Its name is derived from a coffee shop called Googie's located on Sunset Boulevard. One day architectural photographer Julius Shulman and Professor Douglass Haskell of Yale were driving past Googie's. The two stopped there and Haskell proclaimed, "This is Googie architecture." Unfortunately, the term would become permanently attached to the design after Haskell used it in an article he wrote for House and Home magazine in 1952.

Googie or Populuxe architecture made bold uses of glass and steel, using upswept roofs, large domes, acute angles, tailfins, cantilevered structures, and starbursts. According to Professor Haskell, a chief characteristic of Googie architecture was that "...whenever possible, the building must hang from the sky." The Googie or Populuxe movement was heavily influenced both by Fifties car culture and the interest in space travel which peaked in the Sixties. To this end, Googie architecture was designed so that buildings resembled space ships, or a the very least automobiles.

Perhaps the most famous example of Googie architecture is the Space Needle in Seattle, built for the World's Fair in 1962. An equally famous example is the Theme Building at the Los Angeles Airport. In both cases, the buildings seem to defy gravity. Aside from California, Las Vegas may have been where Googie was most popular. Indeed, the Sands Hotel (now long gone) was built by the inventor of Googie, Wayne McAllister himself. The famous Las Vegas sign (complete with starburst) and the Stardust Hotel "space orb" are other examples of Googie architecture in Las Vegas.

Of course, Googie was generally an architectural movement for fast food restaurants, coffee shops, gas stations, and motels. Indeed, perhaps the example of Googie architecture with which most people are familiar are the original McDonalds restaurants. In those days the restaurants were characterised by a single, 25 foot high, parabolic arch (not the smaller, double arches on today's McDonalds signs). Other common examples of Googie architecture were many of the Big Boy restaurants, the original Dennys restaurants, and many others.

Despite the fact that Googie was generally the architecture of such low scale establishments as gas stations, coffee shops, and fast food eateries, in the Fifties it was widely regarded as the look of the future. The original Tomorrowland in Disneyland in Anaheim, California largely relied on Googie design for its architecture. Children's books about space often featured artwork using space ships and spacesuits in a Googie design (Willy Ley's Conquest of Space is an example). And just as Things to Come twenty years before it had an Art Deco sensibility, the classic 1956 Forbidden Planet had a Googie sensibility. the classic Warner Brothers short, "Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2 Century," had a decidedly Googie look, as did the Commando Cody serials(1952's Radar Men from the Moon and 1953's Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe. Of course, the prime example of Googie design in a work of fiction is probably the prime time cartoon The Jetsons. The Jetsons lived in a world where every building soared into the sky like Seattle's Space Needle, where domes and arches and tailfins often appeared on even the lowliest building. In The Jetsons, every building was Googie in design.

By the mid-Sixties Googie design, which hadn't been particularly highly regarded even during its heyday, largely fell out of favour. By the mid-Sixties most fast food restaurants and gas stations were not built in the Googie style. Even science fiction TV shows and movie eschewed the Googie sensibility. Star Trek, first broadcast in 1966, featured no Googie architecture. And neither did 2001: a Space Odyssey, released two years later. Like Art Deco before it, Googie became not so much the look of the future as a style associated with the past (in this case, the car culture of the Fifties).

Neither Art Deco nor Googie would be forgotten, however, as both have their adherents to this day. Writer William Gibson even came up with a term for the architectural styles of the old sci-fi movies: raygun Gothic. The term is most often equated with Googie, although I think it more fitting of Art Deco (which is decidedly more Gothic in appearance, especially in the hands of Alex Raymond). There is even a word for enthusiasm for the ways in which people in the past pictured the future: retro-futurism. Even some relatively recent sci-fi movies have hearkened back to the look of sci-fi movies of the past, using Art Deco or Googie for their art design. Examples of such retro-futuristic movies are 1980's Flash Gordon (which used art deco designs like the original comic strip), Brazil (a futuristic, Art Deco dystopia), The Incredibles (with a good deal of Googie architecture), and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (a 1939 Art Deco New York as it probably only existed in Batman comics of the era as Gotham City). It is now 2007 and the world we in which we live hardly looks like Flash Gordon or The Jetsons, but there are no doubt many of us who wish they did.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Two Pop Culture Figures Pass On

Two figures who played a pivotal role in American pop culture recently died. I doubt very many people have heard of the first, although he had an important role in modern American life. The second was somewhat more more famous.

Robert Adler, inventor of the first practical, wireless remote control for television sets died Thursday, February 15 at the age of 93.

Adler was born in Vienna, Austria on December 4, 1913. After receiving his PhD at the University of Vienna in 1937, he migrated to the United States. He joined the research division of Zenith Electronics in 1941. During World War II he did work on high frequency magnetostrictive oscillators and electromechanical filters in communications equipment for the military.

After the war, among Adler's earliest inventions was the gated beam vacuum tube. The tube simplified the sound systems of early television sets and thus reduced sound interference. In 1958 Adler would develop the electron beam parametric amplifier, which was for its time the best and most practical amplifier for UHF (Ultra High Frequency) signals.

But Adler's lasting contribution to American culture would be the development of the ultrasonic television remote control, which was first sold in 1956. Zenith had introduced the first television remote in 1950, a device called Lazy Bones which was attached to the TV set by a cable. Lazy Bones proved not to be very popular because the cable made it unwieldy. The first wireless remote was developed by Eugene Polley in 1955. The Flash-matic operated on photocells. The disadvantage of the Flash-matic is that it did not function well in open sunlight, which could cause one's television set to start randomly changing channels. Adler then developed the Space Command remote control, which operated on high frequency sound to change channels on television sets. Alder's ultrasonic remote control proved to be such a success that it would be the industry standard until the Eighties, when infrared remote controls made Adler's ultrasonic obsolete.

In all, Adler held over 180 different patents for various inventions. His most recent was one for touch screen technology, just published by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office this February 1. The technology Adler developed would have a lasting impact, on everything from modern day TV screens to cell phones to computer touch screens.

The other important pop culture figure to pass on also died on Thursday. Ray Evans, who most often collaborated with Jay Livingston, was an Oscar winning composer and songwriter. He was 92 years old.

Evans was born in Salamanca, New York on February 4, 1915. He earned his degree in music at the University of Pennsylvania. It was there that he met Jay Livingston. Together they formed a dance band. After the two graduated, they set out on their careers as songwriters. Evans' earliest work was for the comedy team of Olsen and Johnson, although soon Hollywood soon became Livingston and Evans' ticket to fame and fortune.

Evans' first song for a film was "Times a-Wastin'" for Private Snuffy Smith in 1942. Often in conjunction with Jay Livingston, Evans went onto write many standards for the movies. Among them were "Buttons and Bows" (for the classic Bob Hope film The Palefale), "Que Sera, Sera" (Doris Day's signature tune, first sung in the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much), "Silver Bells" (the Yuletide standard from The Lemon Drop Kid, "Mona Lisa" (from Captain Carey U.S.A.), and "Tammy" for Tammy and the Bachelor.

Ray Evans not only wrote songs for the movies, but he also composed some of the most famous TV themes of all time. With Jay Livingston he composed the themes for Mr. Ed and Bonanza (both often ranked among the greatest theme songs of all time).

Along with his parter Jay Livinston, Ray Evans was among the greatest composers of film and television. Indeed, he wrote many of my favourite songs ("Buttons and Bows," "Silver Bells," "Que Sera, Sera"....) and two of my favourite TV themes (you can't beat either the Mr. Ed theme or the Bonanza theme). I am then greatly saddened by his passing.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Ghost Rider

When my best friend and I went to the theatre today, we had to stand in line for the first time in ages. The usher called for anyone wanting to see Bridge to Terabithia. No one moved. He called for anyone who wanted to see Hannibal Rising. No one moved. It was clear that everyone in line was there to see Ghost Rider.

Of course, I suppose it should have been obvious that in a small Southern county where tractor pulls and demolition derbies are popular that a movie about a motorcyclist with supernatural abilities would be a big hit. As to whether the movie was actually good, that is a different matter. While I am sure that Ghost Rider probably won't appeal to individuals in certain quarters, what I can say is that it is one fun ride.

Ghost Rider is based on the comic book character of the same name. In the comics, stunt cyclist Johnny Blaze sold his soul so that his mentor might be cured of cancer. Ultimately, because of this, Blaze transforms into the Ghost Rider at nightfall, a figure in a leather jacket with a flaming skull who rode a supernatural, flaming motorcycle. The movie does make some alterations to the Ghost Rider's origin story, which might offend some purists, although I feel that the filmmakers actually improved upon it in doing so. Despite the changes, however, Ghost Rider is for the most part loyal to the comic book, to the point that the Silver Age Ghost Rider (Carter Slade, a Western character who first appeared in February 1967) is even included in the film.

Ghost Rider has all the ingredients of a good popcorn movie. It moves at a fairly good pace and has plenty of action. The film features some good fight scenes, such as those in which the Ghost Rider must battle demons with various elemental powers (powers over earth, air, and water). The climax in which the Ghost Rider faces off with archvillain Blackheart is perhaps one of the better such fight scenes in a comic book movie, even taking some unexpected turns. The movie also has some superb special effects. Most importantly, the Ghost Rider looks convincing, with his flaming skull and fiery motorcycle. And there are some pretty impressive, FX driven scenes, such as one in which the Ghost Rider races up a skyscraper on his bike.

Ghost Rider also benefits from nearly perfect casting. Nicholas Cage, a comic book fan himself, was a good choice for Johnny Blaze. He gives the role a bit of quirkiness while still remaining convincing as a man under a curse. Peter Fonda is perfect as Mephistopheles, whose casting in the role is also a bit of an in joke (for those with poor memories, Fonda played Wyatt in Easy Rider, the motorcycle movie. Sam Elliott, veteran of many a Western, is perfectly cast as the Caretaker, who knows a bit too much about the Ghost Rider legend for his own good. For me the only casting which rang a bit false was that of Eva Mendes as Roxanne Simpson. Aside from not thinking she looks much like the Roxanne Simpson of the comic books (indeed, I've never thought Eva Mendes was particularly pretty), there are times when she simply doesn't seem convincing enough in the role.

Of course, Ghost Rider is hardly a perfect film. Some of the dialogue can be pretty goofy at times. And the romance between Johnny Blaze and Roxanne Simpson doesn't really add too much to the movie for me (here I guess it must be kept in mind that I didn't find Mendes's performance particularly good, which might affect my opinion of the romantic subplot). And at times writer/director Mark Steven Johnson's script plays a bit too much by the book, with a few cliches that were old in comic books and movies during the Golden Age of both media.

Regardless, I don't think these flaws will keep many people from enjoying the movie. It is clear that Ghost Rider is not meant to be a thought provoking, intellectual film, but simply a good, old fashioned, fun action movie with a supernatural premise. That it is executed with some good action scenes, fairly solid special effects, and plenty of tongue in cheek humour makes it all the more enjoyable.

Friday, February 16, 2007

King's Row

I am guessing that most of you reading this have not heard of Fulton, Missouri. For a city its size, however, Fulton does have a few claims to fame. People from Missouri know it as the location of the Fulton State Hospital, which was the first mental institution west of the Mississippi. Sports fans may know it as the home of Olympic champion Helen Stephens, AKA "the Fulton Flash," who won the women's 100 metre final at the 1936 Olympics. Even more people might know it as the city in which Winston Churchill made his famous "Iron Curtain" speech at Westminister College. Besides that speech, however, Fulton's most famous claim to fame may be as the city that served as the basis for the fictional town of King's Row in the novel of the same name by Henry Bellamann and the 1942 movie based on the novel (upon which a short lived 1955 TV series was also based.

Author Henry Bellamann was born and raised in Fulton. He started out as a music teacher, and eventually became a teacher at Julliard and Vassar. He published several volumes of poetry before writing his first novel, Petenera's Daughter, about the Amish in Missouri. King's Row was his fifth novel and would also be his most famous. And in his hometown of Fulton it would also become his most notorious. Many natives of Fulton at the time thought that many of the characters were based on actual people in the town and many of the incidents in the novel based on actual events that happened in Fulton. To say that they weren't happy would be a bit of an understatement.

As it is, they may have had reason to be a bit unhappy with Bellamann for King's Row. While I am not privy to the various individuals and events from Fulton's history that may have served as a basis for much of the novel, I am aware of resemblances between the fictional town of King's Row and the real life city of Fulton that are more than superficial. Indeed, even the town's name, "King's Row," seems to be drawn from Fulton's history. Fulton is the county seat of and largest city in Callaway County, often referred to as the "Kingdom of Callaway." The county received its nickname from an incident which took place during the War Between the States. In 1861 Union troops were nearing Callaway County. Colonel Jefferson F. Jones then assembled troops to defend the county and pulled off one enormous bluff. He had tree logs erected to resemble artillery and thus deterred the Union troops. It is unclear whether the citizens themselves called their county "the Kingdom of Callaway" after this incident or if the Union Army gave it this name, but either way the name stuck. It then seems to me more than coincidental that a native of Fulton, the county seat of the Kingdom of Callaway, would write a novel about a town called "King's Row."

The resemblances don't stop there. Anyone familiar with the layout of Fulton and the layout of King's Row will notice that they are virtually the same. There are even streets in King's Row with the same name as streets in Fulton! More importantly, it must be noted that there is a mental hospital in King's Row, which plays an important part in both the novel. And as I noted above, Fulton is the location of the Fulton State Hospital, the state mental hospital in Missouri.

The book King's Row would go out of print in the Sixties, although it would eventually see print again (in the Eighties, I believe) and has been in print ever since. Of course, the 1942 movie based on the book is probably even more famous than the book. Much of the material in the book didn't make it into the movie because of the Hays Office (such as one plot involving a closeted homosexual), but the film still captures much of the book's impact. The movie starred Robert Cummings (a native Missourian, although he was from Joplin in south Missouri rather than Fulton in mid-Missouri) and Ronald Reagan ass Drake McHugh. The role would give Reagan would have his most famous line. After his amputation, he asks, "Where's the rest of me...?" Although the novel initially caused a bit of a furore in Fulton, the town has since taken the novel and the movie to heart. To wit, the suit Reagan wore in the film is now on display at the Kingdom of Callaway Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Centre.

At any rate, Fulton is a place any fan of the book or the movie King's Row must see. For that matter, it is simply a nice place for anyone to visit. Among its attractions are Winston Churchill Memorial and Library (on the campus of Westminster College), Crane's Museum (complete with a re-created White Eagle gas station), the Auto World Museum, and the Helen Stephens Olympic Display (at the sports complex at the college), among other things. Whether it is actually King's Row or not, Fulton is a very special place.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Lost is Found Again?

I have to admit it, earlier this season when the first new episodes aired. I worried that Lost may well have been one of those great shows that turned bad. The biggest problem for me was that the bulk of those episodes focused exclusively on Jack, Kate, Sawyer, and the Others, with very little seen of the many other castaways. Worse yet, the episodes just seemed drab to me. I can still remember the flashback involving Sawyer, which revealed that he had been in prison and that he had a daughter. For me the episode did little to increase my understanding of Sawyer and little to give more depth to his character (a character who is already pretty well developed, in my opinion). My ultimate reaction was, "So what?"

Worse yet, the producers seemed to be making some serious missteps with regards to Lost. Now I understand that Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje wanted to leave the series for other projects, necessitating the death of Eko. And I can accept that. But I did not like the idea of one of my favourite characters arbitrarily being killed off by the Big, Black Smoke Thing. Personally, as popular and well loved as Eko was, I at least thought that he deserved a hero's death. Since he had to die, why couldn't it have been in an attempt to rescue Jack, Sawyer, and Kate? Or perhaps he could have sacrificed himself to save other castaways from the Big, Black Smoke Thing? Eko's death still leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

As bad as the death of Eko was the introduction of two new characters, Nikki and Paulo (played by Kiele Sanchez and Rodrigo Santoro respectively). Part of my problem with the two characters is that they just seemed to have appeared from nowhere. Granted, I realise that there are other survivors from Oceanic Flight 815 than the main characters, but how did these two go two whole seasons without so much as one line in an episode? Am I to believe these two simply remained in the background for two whole seasons only to one day decide to get involved in things and start taking part and even making suggestions to Locke and Sayid? I suppose that the producers can be forgiven for awkwardly introducing two characters--after two seasons I suppose they were bound to make that mistake one day. What I can't forgive is that neither Nikki nor Paulo seem the least bit interesting to me. To me the two characters are simply dull. Now it is true that Nikki and Paulo have not had much screen time. And perhaps after their flashback episode later in the season I will feel differently. but for now I can't help but wish that the two of them would be written off the show as soon as possible. Apparently I am not alone in this. From just surfing the web, it seems a majority of Lost dislike Nikki and Paulo.

At any rate, it did seem to me that the producers of Lost had, well, lost their way. Fortunately, with the return of Lost, this appears to have changed. Last week's episode, in which we learn about the past of Juliet of the Others, I thought was fairly good. The episode even had a bit of action, something which had been sorely missing so far this season. As to last night's episode, it centred on one of my favourite characters, Desmond. Furthermore, the episode was a welcome change of pace from the typical Lost episode (I would say more, but I don't want to spoil it for those who haven't seen it yet). The preview for next week's episode also looks interesting.

Of course, I know that there are those who want answers to many of the questions posed by the series. Who exactly are the Others and what are their connection to the mysterious Hanso Foundation? Why are the lives of so many of the castaways connected before they reached the island? I can understand why many fans want answers to these questions, and I must admit I want them to, but I have faith that they will answer them in time. The fact is, I would rather the producers take their time in answering all of these questions rather than to answer all of them at once, leaving us with nothing interesting to watch on the show for the next two or three seasons.

At any rate, I have liked the first two episodes of Lost since its return. And while I must admit that two episodes may be too few to determine whether the show is once more going to be as good as once was, I must also admit that J. J. Abrams and his gang do have a good track record when it comes to this show. Prior to the third season, there were very few episodes of Lost I disliked and I can't say that they made any serious missteps. I do hope I am right and that Lost is back on track.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Ian Richardson R.I.P.

Ian Richardson, the British actor of stage, screen, and television, died February 9 at the age of 73. He was perhaps best known for playing Machiavellian politician Francis Urquhart in the British TV series House of Cards and its sequels.

He was born on April 7, 1934 in Edinburgh, Scotland. He attended the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. He worked with the Birmingham Repertory Theatre and was a founding member of the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1960. His first appearance on television was in a production of As You Like It in 1963. His first appearance on film was in Marat/Sade, a part he had originated with the Royal Shakespeare Company and on Broadway in 1965.

Richardson may best be known to American audiences from his work on television. Besides House of Cards and its sequels (To Play the King and The Final Cut), Richardson also played Sherlock Holmes in adaptations of The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Sign of Four. He also appeared in television productions of Tinker, Tailior, Soldier, Spy, The Master of Ballantrae, The Canterville Ghost, the mini-series Gormenghast, and the TV series Bleak House. He was also the distinguished, older gentleman in the American commercials for Grey Poupon mustard.

Richardson also appeared in many films. He played Mr. Warren in Brazil, Ambassador Toulon in M Butterfly, Polonius in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead and Mr. Book in Dark City.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno)

Anyone who has studied fairy tales soon realises that, at least in their original form, they often have content we today would not consider suitable for children. Pan's Labyrinth is just such a fairy tale. The movie is at times beautiful, at times horrifying, and at yet other times it is both simultaneously. More than any film in recent years, Pan's Labyrinth captures the feel and look of the fairy tales of old.

Pan's Labyrinth is set in Spain in 1944, when Franco's regime was still active in fighting dissidents. The movie centres on Ofelia (played by Ivana Baquero), a little girl who goes with her mother to live with her stepfather, the sadistic Captain Vidal (played by Sergi Lopez). With the repression of Franco's fascist regime taking place everywhere around her, Ofelia soon finds herself swept up in a fairy tale world (which may or may not be imaginary) in which a faun informs her that she is a princess.

On the surface the harsh reality of Franco's fascist government might seem at odds with the sometimes horrifying fairy tale world which Ofelia visits. And yet del Toro weaves the two disparate worlds together to form a seamless whole. Like any good fairy tale, it is sometimes difficult to determine what is more horrifying--the sometimes fantastic creatures Ophelia encounters (such as the cannibalistic Pale Man) or the all too commonplace evils committed by her stepfather Captain Vidal. Del Toro is so successful in blending fantasy with reality that it is impossible to tell if Ofelia's fairy tale world is imaginary or real (I lean towards the latter myself, although I can see why others might disagree).

Not only is the script by del Toro and his direction impeccable, but words simply cannot do this the imagery of Pan's Labyrinth justice. Guillermo del Toro does what any good director should do--he shows the audience things that they have never seen before. Pan's Labyrinth was made with a budget of only $16,000,000, and yet it looks like a much more expensive film.

This is not to say Pan's Labyrinth is a great film simply because of del Toro's considerable talents. The movie also has a great cast. At only 11, Ivana Baquero already seems like an accomplished actress, lending Ofelia a vulnerability that is all too real against the backdrop of Franco's Spain. Sergi Lopez makes Captain Vidal one of the most black hearted villains to appear on the screen in years, and yet he is also utterly realistic. No cardboard cutout, the viewer understands all too well why Vidal is the way he is. Maribel Verdu also does well as Vidal's housekeeper, who has her own share of secrets.

To put it simply, Pan's Labyrinth is simply a great film. It is by far the best movie that Guillermo del Toro has ever made (which given the high quality of his other movies is really saying something). Indeed, it amazes me that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences failed to nominate Pan's Labyrinth for Best Picture or del Toro for Best Director. Although I have yet to see all the nominees for Best Picture, I can definitely say that Pan's Labyrinth is the best movie of 2006. In fact, I rather suspect that years from now film historians will look back and see the failure of Pan's Labyrinth to receive nominations for both the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars as a grave injustice. It is one of those few films which one simply must see.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Disney Returns to Cel Animation

Yesterday Ed Catmull, President of Pixar and Disney Feature Animation, announced that Disney was bringing back hand drawn animated films. For those of you who do not know the significance of this, it was only a few years ago that Disney announced it was no longer making traditional, cel animation movies. Instead, it would only make computer animated films, which at the time dominated movie screens. Of course, since then a good deal has changed.

For one thing, Disney's first computer animation film, Chicken Little, met with only modest box office success and mixed reviews. For another, since then Disney acquired Pixar, the computer generated animation studio whose films they had distributed for years. Ed Catmull, founder of Pixar, and John Lassiter, also of Pixar, were then put in charge of Disney's animation unit as its president and Chief Creative Officer respectively. Ironically, then, it took Pixar, the company that put CGI on the map, to bring back hand drawn animation at Disney. Of course, this wouldn't be a surprise to anyone who knows anything about Pixar. Lassiter has worked on cel animation features, and both Catmull and Lassiter are admirers of classic animation, including that, perhaps especially that, of Walt Disney.

At any rate, I am glad to hear Walt Disney will once again be making hand drawn animated films for the big screen. While I am a big fan of computer animation (I've seen most of the Pixar and Dreamworks movies in the theatre), I have always loved hand drawn animation. And I still think there is a place for it in today's world of CGI creations. It seemed to me a grave injustice that Disney decided to stop making cel animated films to begin with.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Tige Andrews and Frankie Laine Pass On

Recently two individuals have passed on with whom I rather suspect that younger readers (if I have any--I imagine this blog skews much, much more towards Generation X than Generation Y...) are probably not familiar. The first was Tige Andrews, whose name many readers might recogise from The Mod Squad.

Andrews died January 27 at age 89 from a heart attack. He was born March 19, 1920 in Brooklyn to parents of Syrian descent. Andrews served in the Army during World War II. After his return to civilian life he graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. He made his first appearance on Broadway as part of the ensemble in Mister Roberts. Later he would take over the role of Schlemmer in the play. Roberts would make a few TV appearances in the early Fifties (Kraft Television Theatre, Armstrong Circle Theatre, and so on), but the turning point in his career would be 1955. That year he again appeared on Broadway in The Threepenny Opera. It was also that year he was cast in
the role of Wiley in the movie version of Mister Roberts. He would also appear in various episodes of The Phil Silvers Show as Private Gander.

Over the next few years Andrews would appear in such films as Onionhead and A Private Affair, but his career would mostly be on television. He guest starred on such shows as Playhouse 90, Zorro, The Detectives Starring Robert Taylor, Star Trek, Gunsmoke, and The Fugitive. It was in 1968 that he was cast in the role of Captain Greer, the officer in charge of three young undercover officers. Andrews stayed with the series for three years and was even nominated for an Emmy.

Following The Mod Squad, Andrews guested on such shows as Kojak and Murder She Wrote.

I must admit that I was never a big fan of The Mod Squad, although I have to admit that it did have a good cast. As one of that cast, Andrews did display considerable talent. And I remember his well from his guest appearances on various shows in the Sixties.

The other individual to die recently was singer Frankie Laine, perhaps best known as the man who sang the theme to the TV show Rawhide. He died yesterday at age 93. Laine was born Frank LoVecchio on March 30, 1913 in Chicago, Illinois. He started singing as a child, but did not decide to pursue it as a career until he was 17. Unfortunately, it would be quite some time before he met with success. He worked dance marathons during the Thirties and later performed small jazz clubs. He worked a variety of jobs in addition to singing, including stints as a factory worker and used car salesman. It was 1943 that he moved to Hollywood and he sang in the background of various movies and even dubbed the voice of Danny Kaye in The Kid From Brooklyn. In 1946 Hoagy Carmichael discovered Laine in a Los Angeles club. The end result was a recording contract with Mercury Records. He also soon had his first his hit, "That's My Desire," a song then six years old.

Laine would continue to have hits throughout the late Forties and Fifties, including "Mule Train," "Shine," "Jezebel," and "When You're in Love." In 1955 he had his own variety show (Frankie Laine Time) and appeared on many variety shows of the era (The Ed Sullivan Show, The Perry Como Show), and so on). Of course, his best known work would come in 1959 with the theme to the TV show Rawhide). He would also perform the theme songs to the TV shows Gunslinger and Rango, and the theme to the Mel Brooks film Blazing Saddles.

Laine had fewer hits in the Sixties, although he still had a few (remarkable for an older artist in the wake of rock 'n' roll and the British Invasion). Declining health would force Laine to release fewer and fewer albums throughout the years.

I must confess to always having liked Frankie Laine. "Rawhide" has always been one of my favourite TV theme songs, and I always loved the song "Mule Train." He definitely had a strong voice--he could be heard even without a microphone! Indeed, Laine marked a sharp break from the crooning style of such singers as Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. And in being influenced by the rhythm and blues singers of the era, Laine's vocal style could be considered a forerunner of early rock 'n' roll. At the same time, however, it is hard to peg Laine in any given genre. Although generally considered a jazz artist, he performed songs that could be considered country, folk, gospel, and even rock 'n' roll. One thing about Frankie Laine, he was certainly unique.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Crash (2004)

With the Oscars not far away, I thought it might be good to take a look at last year's winner of Best Picture, Crash. Crash essentially explores the assumptions often made about race in the United States, against the backdrop of Los Angeles. Its structure is like that of many of Robert Altman's films, with multiple storylines which intersect at various points in the plot. Unfortunately, Paul Haggis is not Robert Altman.

While I think that in exploring assumptions about race Haggis had noble intentions, the sad fact is that noble intentions do not make a great movie, or even necessarily a good movie. Crash is in many ways a very flawed film. Indeed, it makes use of stock characters and stock situations that were old decades ago. A perfect example of this is Matt Dillon as a racist cop. Now I am sure we are all aware that racist cops do exist in real life. And I am sure that the LAPD has its share of racist cops. But where both the small and big screen are concerned, racist cops were old hat nearly twenty to thirty years ago (I don't guess Haggis has ever seen Black Caesar, Dark Blue, Heart Condition, or any of the other myriad films with racist police officers). Quite simply, it seems to me that the racist cop has become a stock character with no more weight or shock value than any other stock character. Another example is Don Cheadle as a black detective who comes from a poor family and whose brother is on the other side of the law. This is a stock situation that is even older than that of the racist cop. It dates as far back as Angels With Dirty Faces (made in 1938). Although I know that this occurs in real life (indeed, one of my best friends is a lawyer, archaeologist, and Marine whose brother is, well, in prison...), it is a situation that has been seen in movies over the years that it had long ago lost any power it has.

A far worse problem than the use of stock characters and stock plots in Crash is the fact that at times the plot seems downright contrived. The problem is that Haggis has disparate individuals who move in totally different circles (Dillon's racist cop and Christine, the wife of television director Cameron Thayer, are an example) encounter each other and the encounter each other again in ways that seem very unlikely and highly unrealistic in a city the size of Los Angeles--in some cases, these encounters and re-encounters seem to me like they would be unlikely in a city the size of Columbia, Missouri! One such coincidence in a film might be acceptable, but Crash has so many that some viewers might find it difficult to suspend their disbelief.

Another problem I have with Crash is that there are a few moments when characters (such as Matt Dillon's racist cop) pause to explain their thoughts and motivations to other characters. This simply strikes me as artificial, as it seems to me that in real life people rarely, if ever, explain why they are the way they are or why they do some of the things they do. Indeed, I can't help that wonder if Haggis felt that audiences needed these explanations in order to get a better grasp of the characters or if he thought it would give the characters more depth. Either way, I think he was wrong. It seemed to me simply to be one more contrivance.

Beyond the problems with the script itself, it seems to me that in some respects Crash, a film which seeks to explore assumptions about race, is in some respects racist itself. As of the 2000 census, 9.99% of the population of Los Angeles was Asian, which means that there only 1.25% more African Americans (who made up 11.24% of the city's population) than Asians. Despite this Asian characters only appear briefly in the film. And when they do appear, the characters are underdeveloped and, at least to me, they show characteristics of established Asian stereotypes! This is not what one expects or finds desirable in a movie that is supposed to be attacking racism.

Despite its flaws, I must say that I enjoyed Crash and it does have its good points. Most of these are to be found in the cast's various performances. I thought Sandra Bullock was convincing as a rich housewife who practically becomes agoraphobic after she and her husband are carjacked. And I thought both Ludacris as Anthony and Larenz Tate as Peter gave good performances as intellectual car thieves who are anything but stereotypical (I loved Anthony's theories on the origins of rap music...). I must also say that I liked the storyline featuring Shaun Toub as Farhad, a Persian storekeeper worried about his own safety--not the least of which is because it is one of the few storylines which is not marred by the coincidences and contrivances that afflict so many of the film's other story arcs.

I hope that no one here thinks that I feel Crash is a bad film or that I did not like the movie. That having been said, I am not sure that I can necessarily say that it was a good movie, and I certainly cannot say it was a great film (it certainly did not deserve to win Best Picture). That having been said, it is an entertaining film which has its share of good points and bad points, and it is certainly worth watching at least once.