Monthly Archive for July, 2013

The Gazebo

The Gazebo (7/31/13) TCM (1959 **1/2) Directed by George Marshall, based on the play by Alec Coppel, starring Glenn Ford, Debbie Reynolds, Carl Reiner and Martin Landau. Backed into a corner, a blackmailed TV writer/director¬† decides to kill his blackmailer and bury him in the backyard under a recently-purchased gazebo. From the opening title sequence of this film, I felt it shared a certain kinship with Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry (1955). That affinity was reinforced with several references to Hitchcock throughout, and at one point Glenn Ford’s character actually turned to Hitch himself to figure out how to bury his victim without a shovel. Unfortunately, The Gazebo never quite worked for me, and I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I’m not entirely sure what the core reason was for the near-miss. The script could have been stronger, but I don’t believe that’s the culprit. Many of the right ingredients were there, and in particular Debbie Reynolds, as Glen Ford’s wife, was bubbly and delightful as always.

The Newsroom, Season 1

The Newsroom, Season 1 (7/29/13) Netflix / HBO (2012 ***1/4) Created and written by Aaron Sorkin, starring Jeff Daniels, Emily Mortimer, John Gallagher Jr., Alison Pill, Olivia Munn, Dev Patel and Sam Waterston. 10 episodes, aired 6/24/12 – 8/26/12. Network anchorman Will McAvoy is convinced by executive producer MacKenzie McHale (who just happens to be his ex-girlfriend) to give reporting the news in a way that would make Edward R. Murrow proud a shot. Oh, Aaron Sorkin, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways… Let me get this out of the way right away: While this first season had its moments, The Newsroom never reached the same heights as The West Wing, which ranks high on the list of best TV shows of all time. Sorkin’s latest offering has a lot in common with his best-respected show, however, and perhaps the best way to compare them is that while The West Wing represented Sorkin’s fantasy of what an American presidency could be, The Newsroom is his idealized vision of network news. As with all of Sorkin’s series, series (including Sports Night and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip), this one struck a balance between the lives of its characters and the goings on of the world in which they lived. The grand conceit of The Newsroom was the use of real news stories taken from the recent past. Each episode occurred in chronological sequence, punctuated by historic events from roughly the year before the episode was broadcast. In the case of this first season, it featured the BP Gulf oil spill, Casey Anthony, Anthony Weiner (who was ironically back in the news as my wife and I watched Season 1) and the 2012 Republican primary. As for the actors? Jeff Daniels and Sam Waterston definitely brought their A-games to the show. Based on only ten episodes, it’s a little hard to judge the rest of the cast, but they’ve started to grow on me. Still, I do miss Jed, Josh, Donna, C.J., Toby and the rest.

The Blob

The Blob (7/25/13) TCM (1958 **1/2) Directed by Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr., starring Steve McQueen, Aneta Corsaut and Earl Rowe. A meteor lands in a field and its gooey center/inhabitant starts snacking on the residents of a small town. I watched this film many years ago and was surprised at the time just how weak the screenplay was. The casting of Steve McQueen (in his first starring role) is the main reason the film remains a classic. For the most part, it was standard teenage B-movie drive-in fare with a less-than-subtle message about how teenagers and adults should appreciate one another and work together. Given its low-budget roots, I wonder how the producers got the money to shoot the film in color. I was surprised to learn (via the TCM introduction) that the cringe-worthy title theme was composed by none other than Burt Bacharach! Now, here’s something from the Bureau of Weird Film Connections: Not long ago, I re-watched the Stephen King-penned Creepshow (1982) and while watching this film I realized how much Creepshow‘s “Jordy Verrill” episode had been based on the opening minutes of The Blob. One final note: I really shouldn’t be too hard on this movie. After all, it was responsible for inspiring a certain animated alien-fighting monster that provided me with some of the most interesting and satisfying work of my professional career.

Axe Giant: The Wrath of Paul Bunyon

Axe Giant: The Wrath of Paul Bunyon (7/23/13) SyFy (2013 **1/2) Directed by Gary Jones, screenplay by Jeffrey Miller, Gary Jones and Jason Ancona, starring Joe Estevez, Dan Haggerty, Amber Conner and Tim Lovelace. A first-offender’s boot camp turns into a horror-fest, thanks to a giant mutant named… Paul Bunyon. I recorded and watched this film solely because my friend Phil Garrett served as the film’s Co-Producer. I’m actually quite glad I did. I really admire the brass balls it commit to making this film. On paper, this screenplay must have seemed un-filmable on a small budget, but somehow they found the courage to go ahead and do it. While the F/X may not have been executed at the standards of ILM or Weta, it was obvious they were crafted with as much care as the clearly micro-level budget allowed. And for that I say, “Bravo!”

Once

Once (7/21/13) Sundance (2006 ***1/2) Written and Directed by John Carney, starring Glen Hansard, Marketa Irglova and Hugh Walsh. In Dublin, a “broken-hearted Hoover fixer sucker guy” street musician falls for a married Czech immigrant pianist, and together they make beautiful music together. I’ve loved this film since time I first saw it, and I’ve continued to enjoy its soundtrack on my iPod over the intervening years. Seeing it again for the first time in five years, I was slightly less impressed by its micro-budget filmmaking technique, mostly because that has become the norm in modern independent films and technological advances have really raised the bar for indie film cinematic production values. The simple story still remains sweet, however, even if the film’s lyrical conclusion may be unsatisfying to some.

California Suite

California Suite (7/21/13) TCM (1978 ***) Directed by Herbert Ross, written by Neil Simon, starring Jane Fonda, Alan Alda, Maggie Smith, Michael Caine, Walter Matthau, Elane May, Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby. Four groups of people check into the Beverly Hills hotel… but can they ever leave? Normally I wouldn’t list so many actors in the heading of my little capsule reviews, but in an ensemble film like this it’s impossible to leave any of the eight principles out. And if you look on the internet for the film’s original poster, you’ll see it features the faces of all eight. I hadn’t watched the film since sometime in the early 1980s, and what I found the most interesting this time around was the tonal spectrum of the four stories presented: In the original stage version, the stories were presented sequentially, rather than cross-cutting between them as in the film. The first, most drama-heavy story featuring Fonda and Alda was told pretty much in its entirety early in the film. A pattern slowly progressed with each short sketch being a shade lighter in tone than the one preceding it. The final Cosby / Pryor story playing practically as slapstick, and I found the last story the least engaging of them all. As a bonus, here’s one interesting bit of trivia, one that may win you a trivia championship someday: In this movie, Maggie Smith won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for playing an Oscar loser.

For Those Who Think Young

For Those Who Think Young (7/20/13) TCM (1964 **) Directed by Leslie H. Martinson, starring James Darren, Pamela Tiffin, Woody Woodbury, Paul Lynde, Tina Louise, Bob Denver, Nancy Sinatra and Ellyn Burstyn. A young, rich playboy named Ding falls for a college girl whose Uncle Woody is a comedian at a local nightclub. This film had a bizarre story structure, with two rarely-intersecting stories running alongside one another. In fact, about fifteen minutes into the film, after the point-of-view character shifted, I said aloud “who the hell’s story is this, anyhow?” It was an interesting choice in a film nominally aimed at a youthful audience, that one of the principal characters was a middle-aged man. Adding to the general sense that something was a little “off” was the film’s title, which had nothing to do with either storyline. After finishing the film I learned that “For Those Who Think Young” was actually the slogan for Pepsi Cola at the time. Not surprisingly, Pepsi was the film’s principal sponsor and their soft drink was mentioned several times throughout. Incidentally, the slogan was also used as the title of an episode of Mad Men. On another note, it’s worth calling special attention to the movie’s pre-Gilligan’s Island (1964-1967) castings of Tina Louise and Bob Denver, though their shared screen time was limited.

Bikini Beach

Bikini Beach (7/20/13) TCM (1964 **1/2) Directed by William Asher, starring Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello, Keenan Wynn, Don Rickles and… Little Stevie Wonder? An eccentric millionare intent on closing down the beach plus a British heartthrob sensation named The Potato Bug invariably adds up to an exciting drag race. This was the third film in the Frankie & Annette Beach series, and the backstory is that the part of The Potato Bug was originally meant to be played by none other than The Beatles themselves! Can you imagine what that film might have been like? When the Beatles became too big for supporting roles (going on to star in A Hard Day’s Night (1964)), they dropped out and Frankie Avalon wound up playing both “himself” and The Potato Bug. It’s worth mentioning, however, that several shots employed an double named (according to Imdb) Ronnie Dayton. Today, the effect would have undoubtedly been executed using digital techniques. Finally, it’s as clear as fine Waterford crystal that Avalon’s “Bug” served as a key inspiration for Mike Myers’ International Man of Mystery, Austin Powers.

Sherrybaby

Sherrybaby (7/19/13) Netflix (2006 **1/2) Written and Directed by Laurie Collyer, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, Giancarlo Esposito, Danny Trejo and Sam Bottoms. Parolee/addict Sherry Swanson returns home and wants to put her life back together, especially her relationship with her daughter. Given the subject matter, it should come as no surprise that this was not an especially lighthearted, “fun” film to watch. That’s true, but I was pleased (and frankly relieved) with its resolution. The cast was fine and their performances certainly gave a solid depiction of the facets of the human condition focused on in Collyer’s screenplay. Normally I wouldn’t call attention to something like this, but Maggie Gyllenhaal (one of the film’s producers) was surprisingly open to her body being used as a visual motif. Specifically, her nipples and/or breasts played such a prominent role in this film that they probably should have been given separate billing. Not that I minded, especially.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters!

Godzilla: King of the Monsters! (7/15/13) TCM (1956 **) Directed by Ishiro Honda and Terry O. Morse, starring Raymond Burr, Takashi Shimura and Momoko Kochi. An American journalist finds himself smack dab in the middle of the destruction of Tokyo by a radioactive 300-foot monster. The backstory of this film warrants a film of its own: The rights to the original Japanese version were acquired by an American company who realized their audience would be limited by Godzilla‘s all-Asian cast. And so they snapped into action, retrofitting the film to include an American hook by bringing in Raymond Burr to play a journalist named… Steve Martin! That seemingly innocuous 1956 name choice actually provided a great deal of enjoyment, in that every time his name was mentioned in the film (and it was mentioned a surprising number of times), I found myself grinning. As for the retrofitted scenes, some worked better than others, though the majority were “reaction shots” inserts of Burr standing in a variety of locations, usually alongside four or five Japanese extras. Seriously, somebody has got to make a movie based on the making of this film.