Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Debut of World Cinema Paradise

Happy Holidays, my friends!

I am getting ready to leave town to spend the holidays with my family, but I wanted to drop a quick note about  an exciting new website, World Cinema Paradise.  The publisher and editor, Stuart Galbraith IV, promises to provide insightful and entertaining criticism and scholarship on a wide variety of film subjects.  I am pleased that Stuart has asked me to contribute essays and reviews to the site.  I will mostly write about comedy films, but I will occasionally venture out of my cozy niche.

My first essay will explore the history of daydreamers in comedy films.  I have written this article in conjunction with the Warner Home Video release of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947).  I am sure that most of you are familiar with the plot of the film.  A timid man copes with a haranguing mother, a haranguing boss and a haranguing fiancé by daydreaming that he is a heroic figure involved in daring exploits. 

I thank you all for your support of this blog in the last year.  You have my sincere good wishes for the coming year.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Dead Wrong

At one time, Hollywood's artisans worked tirelessly to craft films that made audiences feel good.  To that end, they sometimes made a point to sand down the hard edges in a story.  The good guys won in the end.  The lovable bartender that you thought was shot and killed during the big Western shoot out turns up again with a big smile.  He has his arm in a makeshift sling and he explains that the shot was only a flesh wound.  Today, young people have come to resent this type of drama, which they see as phony and safe, and they have let their feelings be known by sneering at happy endings and throwing their support (and discretionary income) to dramatic works that have a high body count.  The high body count is appropriate to them because, in their mind, nothing can be more truthful and dramatic than death.  But, when all is said and done, that is just another dull and contrived formula.  And, I must add, it is a lot less entertaining than the formula that came before it. 

I should make it clear that I hate a story that is contrived.  A script becomes contrived when the writer ignores his instincts and interferes with the natural progress of a story and its characters.  That is the biggest sin that a writer could commit.  The next biggest sin for a writer is to create characters that are not rational and authentic.  If a writer has done his job well, the characters that he has established will dictate their own actions, making the only decisions that a person of their nature could make.  When a writer fails to create living, breathing characters or a story that moves under its own power, he is left with a script that is dull and flat.  Too many of the films and television shows that I see today are dull and flat.  Correction, they are dull and flat and bloody.

Many jaws dropped when kindly old Hershel (Scott Wilson) was decapitated in front of his two daughters on the mid-season finale of The Walking Dead.  The same scene had played out on Game of Thrones two years earlier, but it did not make it any less shocking for fans of the series.  These days, television viewers are aware that a regular character in a series can be killed off at any time. They know without a doubt that at least one regular character will die in a season finale.  A showrunner will try to increase the shock value by making the death more brutal than any of the deaths seen on television before.  I offer as proof a scene from the season finale of The Sons of Anarchy.  Biker queen Gemma (Katey Sagal) is furious with her daughter-in-law Tara (Maggie Siff).  She grabs Tara by the hair, shoves her face down in a basin of dirty dish water, and repeatedly plunges a carving fork into the back of her head.  This one-upmanship is taking television down a dark and ugly path.

It isn't even that the brutality is necessary.  Something deep inside of the human heart makes it impossible for a viewer to ever sufficiently prepare themselves for these deaths.  A viewer will develop affection for a character that they see on their television every week.  It may be that they identify with the character and see them as a good person. It may be that they come to like the actor playing that character.  At some level, the brain does not completely distinguish between a fictional character and an actual loved one who is a part of their life.  This stimuli taps into the same deep-seated primal wound into which all of our grief pours after the death of a loved one. 

What is really sad is that every one of these tragic deaths is nothing more than a gimmick.  These deaths are only contrived to stimulate Internet chatter, which is a powerful promotional tool. 

If you are unhappy with this morbid situation, you should blame Nescafé instant coffee.  No, I am not kidding.  Between 1987 and 1993, the Nescafé company produced a series of twelve 45-second commercials that depicted a slow-percolating romance between a charming couple played by Anthony Stewart Head and Sharon Maughan.  In 1997, Head was cast as Rupert Giles in the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Head was given a prominent role in a first season episode called "I, Robot... You, Jane."  The plot involves a convergence of ancient evil and modern technology.  When a 15th Century book is scanned into a computer, a demon bound by the book is released into the Internet.  Buffy's Scooby Gang needs a more than fair knowledge of computers to remove the demon from its new online home.  It would have been easy for a regular cast member to suddenly reveal computer expertise.  But Joss Whedon, the show's producer, did not favor this sort of spontaneous knowledge.  For the sake of credibility, he introduced a computer teacher into the story.  The teacher was played by a leggy beauty named Robia LaMorte.  Head and LaMorte took to acting flirtatious with one another in their scenes together.  Head turned on the romantic charm that he had perfected in the Nescafé commercials.  With slightly different editing, these scenes could have been converted into a new series of instant coffee commercials.  At any moment, I expected Head to lift up a coffee mug and say, "No woman or demon can resist my coffee."

Whedon had no intention of making LaMorte a permanent member of the cast, but viewers were taken by the chemistry exhibited between LaMorte and Head.  They wanted LaMorte to stick around as Head's girlfriend.  That's when Whedon got a wicked idea.  He would pretend to add the actress to the cast only to kill her off after a few episodes.  Whedon said that he wanted to make it clear to viewers that no one is safe and "death is final and death is scary."  This strategy managed, in the end, to qualify LaMorte as Victim Zero.  Because LaMorte's death proved to be so thrilling to the show's fans, Whedon got into the habit of killing off regular characters and this had an influence on many other television series that followed - The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Dexter, Lost, The Shield, 24, Rescue Me, Boardwalk Empire, The Walking Dead and The Sons of Anarchy.  And this was because Anthony Stewart Head had learned how to compress his portfolio of seduction moves within 45 seconds of screen time.  Damn you, Nescafé!

It can be argued that the death trend actually started with The X-FilesThe X-Files' prime mover, Chris Carter, shocked fans when he set it up for Agent Fox Mulder's faithful informant, Deep Throat, to be gunned down by an assassin in the 1994 episode "The Erlenmeyer Flask."  But I do not believe that the death of Deep Throat was calculated in the same way as the death of Long Legs.  Also, it did not seem to directly influence other series.  The many deaths on Whedon's Buffy and Angel series did, without a doubt, have a lasting influence. 

The simple fact remains, though, that killing off a familiar and sympathetic character to jolt a viewer is not real drama.  Please, get rid of the decapitated fathers and bring back the bartender with the flesh wound.

Additional Note

Jean Hagen
In past decades, sitcom producers were less shy than drama producers about killing off regular characters.  But these premature deaths were not an attempt to grab ratings.  This was something that happened when an actor wanted to leave a series or a producer was desperate to eject an actor from a series.  Jean Hagen, who was unhappy working with Danny Thomas, made a quick departure from Make Room for Daddy in 1956.  It was explained in the series that Hagen's character, Margaret Williams, had died suddenly off-screen.  Similarly, the producers of M.A.S.H. killed off the character of Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake when actor McLean Stevenson left the series in 1975.  In 1980, Jean Stapleton made the decision to leave Archie Bunker’s Place because she felt that she had nothing left to bring to her iconic character Edith Bunker.  With great sadness, producer Norman Lear had Edith die off screen from a stroke.  Lear was at least able to take pride in the fact that he had defied a famous line from Paddy Chayefsky's Network (1976) that "No one ever gets cancer in Archie Bunker's house," which suggested the no beloved character on a successful television series ever dies.  In 1989, the writers of Cheers found a funny way to get rid of a reoccurring character.  It was explained in the script that Eddie LeBec, a hockey player, had been crushed beneath a Zamboni ice resurfacer.  The reason for the off-screen death was that Jay Thomas, who played LeBec, had made negative remarks about co-star Rhea Perlman on his radio show.

Drama producers got up and running with the death thing in 1991, which was a year that saw the demise of series regulars on thirtysomething, L.A. Law (Diana Muldaur's character Rosalind Shays stepped into an empty elevator shaft and plummeted to her death) and Beverly Hills, 90210.  The fact that viewers did not react to these deaths in an unfavorable way likely emboldened death pioneers like Carter and Whedon.

One More Note (published September 12, 2014): I found one other time that an early television sitcom had a series regular shuffle off this mortal coil.  In 1962, Kathleen Nolan left The Real McCoys series in a contract dispute.  The producers didn't see the viewers accepting a new actress in her role and saw no other way to explain Nolan's absence other than to kill off her character.  

The Bloat of DVD Extras

I was once addicted to DVD extras, but that was a long time ago.  I am no longer interested in the director commentaries and the "Making of" documentaries.  It was the beginning of the end when I watched the DVD extras for Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes (2001).  This ultimate collector's edition provided 13 hours of extras, but that included an hour-long documentary to show how stunt men were trained to walk like apes.  I'm thinking, why am I watching this?  It’s not entertainment.  It’s not educational.  Will it better my life if I know how to hunch over and walk bowlegged like a gorilla?  If I were to walk like that in public, people would do whatever it takes to avoid me. 

Burton provided the DVD with a director commentary track, which was mostly about how uncomfortable he was recording a director commentary track.  A movie was what it was, he said, and it either did or it didn't communicate what it was supposed to communicate.  It was left to the viewer to experience a film from their own personal perspective.  He didn’t want to impose his ideas on viewers and interfere with their interpretation of the story or characters.  But the problem is that I don’t listen to a director’s commentary for a director to be considerate of my personal perspective and keep his mouth clamped perfectly shut. 

I must admit, though, that Burton did give me a good laugh when he discussed his phobia of chimpanzees. He said that, unlike orangutans or gorillas, chimpanzees are capable of “psycho” behavior.  He was especially disturbed that chimps have been known to get their buddies together to beat another chimp to death.  The jungle, he insisted, must have its share of chimpanzee serial killers.

I’ve heard before about chimpanzees being testy.  They were always having trouble with chimps while they were making the old Tarzan movies.  Lex Barker, the official Tarzan from 1949 to 1952, once had a chimp bite him in the face for no apparent reason.  This was no nip.  The poor guy had to have half his face stitched up.  And it makes it worse that it was a young chimp that did the nasty deed.  A fully grown adult chimp would have probably tore Barker's head off his shoulders.

Tarzan and Cheetah estranged.
Burton’s phobia had an impact on the movie.  The script identified the scary main villain, General Thade, as a gorilla.  But Burton knew that was not authentic and he changed the character to a chimpanzee.  The director couldn't have enjoyed the fact that he needed to use actual chimps for several scenes.  On the set, he observed the complex social interaction the chimps had with trainers and actors.  It unnerved him how the chimps liked to pry open people’s mouths and look inside.  He had General Thade do that in the movie.  It became one of the movie’s stronger moments.  That scene had personal meaning for Burton, which is the reason that it worked.  I don’t think enough of the movie had meaning for him.  It was, when all was said and done, an impersonal big-budget claptrap.  For a Planet of the Apes geek like me, the film was a big disappointment.

As much as I liked Burton's remarks on chimps, it wasn't enough to make these DVD extras worthwhile.

Why I Don't Read Film Festivals Reviews

I refuse to read film festivals reviews, which provide overenthusiastic praise for films that won't be available to the general public for a year or more.  A particularly long delay occurred with the release of All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2006 but wasn't released to theatres until 2013.  Critics are so happy to be at a festival, where they are away from their mundane routine and are privileged to see films that us regular folk can't see, and they manage in their euphoria to give films far better critiques than they deserve.  But it's hard to avoid these reviews.  A film is no sooner screened at the Telluride Film Festival then reviews of the film are published by a variety of entertainment news sources.  The same occurs when the film is exhibited at the Toronto International Film Festival, then the New York Film Festival, and then the Edinburgh International Film Festival.  The film finally finds a distributor and the distributor spends months deciding what to do with the film.  How will they market it?  What type of distribution strategy should they employ?  Sometimes, the distributor arranges for reshoots.  Harvey Weinstein expressed great optimism when he purchased the film Happy, Texas (1999), but he then ordered for most of the film to be reshot.  This is not to say that the usual reworking of these films is nearly as drastic as that.  Fox Searchlight was mostly satisfied with Napoleon Dynamite (2004) and, in the end, they did nothing more than change the film's title sequence and pay the licensing fees to juice up the soundtrack with chart-topping tunes (Bow Wow Wow's "I Want Candy" and Jamiroquai's "Canned Heat"). 

Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
Eventually, the distributor will initiate a limited test release of the film in New York and Los Angeles.  Even more reviews than before make their way into the press.  Most of these films do not earn a wide release, which means that the average entertainment consumer won't get to see the film until it turns up on DVD several months later.  It makes it extremely frustrating if, as it often turns out, the film is not worth the wait.  How many glowing reviews did I read about Ruby Sparks (2012) before I was finally able to see the film for myself and realize that it was nothing more than a dull and pretentious feminist take on Splash (1984)?

Ruby Sparks (2012)
So, please, spare me festival reviews.


 While in the role of Lizzie MaGuire, Hilary Duff made a habit of squeaking, gasping, squealing or hiccupping the word "Oh!" to express surprise, delight, anger, disappointment, or any number of feelings.  Not the acting range of Meryl Streep, but her little noises became an endearing trademark.  At the time, the It! Girl was the Oh! Girl. 

When Duff got into the movies, a director got upset to hear her making her cute little squeak.  He explained that she wasn't playing Lizzie MaGuire and she didn't need to make that sound anymore.  She told him that the sound was all her own.  When she acted as Lizzie, she said, she was doing little more than being herself.  The director took time out of the production schedule to get Duff acting lessons.  He had special instructions for her acting coach to get rid of the squeak.  Hollywood likes to turn actors into commodities and they often get rid of those little quirks that make an actor special.  Someone should have reminded the director that Julia Roberts had a good career with her whooping laugh.  What about Jimmy Stewart's stutter, or Humphrey Bogart's twitchy lip, or Clint Eastwood's squinty eyes?  Our flaws are part of what make us individuals. 

We need more actors with quirks.  I am unable to tell apart many of the leading men working in films today.  It took me years to figure out the difference between Hayden Christensen and Ryan Phillipe.

Strange Can Be Funny

One of the weirdest and funniest scenes in film history occurs within the first thirty minutes of Mulholland Drive (2001).  The scene depicts a business conference at a film studio.  Executives welcome a mysterious visitor.  We don't know who this grim-faced man is, but everyone is treating him as if he's extremely important and they seem terrified of doing anything to displease him.  One executive apologizes to him for the bad espresso he was served on his last visit, but he assures him they have now found "one of the finest espressos" to serve him.  The man takes one sip of the espresso, gags as if he drank arsenic, and vomits up brown liquid into a napkin.  I have no idea what that was all about, but it was outrageous and unexpected and it made me laugh a lot. 

The Reformed Leland Orser

Let's take a look at the most recent work of actor Leland Orser.  First, we have a scene from Touch in which Orser gets shot in the leg.  Ouch!  Orser looks scared and his voice gets tremulous, but he manages to keep his cool.

Now, we have a scene from Magic City in which Orser plays a ghost who has apparently come to terms with his death.


The scene ends with Orser calmly striding into the ocean and disappearing below the waves. 


But Orser was not always so chill.

I remember when I saw Pearl Harbor in 2001.  It was quintessential Hollywood formula action film.  It was so derivative and predictable that nothing about it left the slightest impression on me.  Well, one scene did leave an impression.  At one point, an injured soldier is rushed into the hospital.  He's had his neck torn open and a nurse has to plug her finger into an artery to stop the guy from bleeding to death.

I enjoyed the scene not because I have a morbid sense of humor or I find blood or hospitals to be joyous things.  No, not at all.  It's that I recognized the actor who played the soldier.  The actor was Orser, who specialized at time in delivering top-notch hysterics to films.  He did it in Se7en (1995).  He did it in Alien Resurrection (1997).  He did it, now, in Pearl Harbor.  He was clawing at the nurse, he was bugging out his eyes, he was delivering his lines in panicked screech, and he was hyperventilating.  Orser was described by an astute blogger as The Panicky Guy.

Alien Resurrection (1997)
It reminds of the days when a character actor could make a good living with a specialty.  For example, a director knew that he could rely upon Billy Gilbert to perform a funny sneezing fit.

Very Bad Things (1998)
It's been years since Orser has had one of his freak outs on screen.  I can understand an actor wanting to move on to play other types of roles, but I still cannot help but miss the old panicky Orser.  I hope that he returns some day.

Talking Bees, A Killer Moon Plant and Curvy Ladies: A Fun Day with The Outer Limits

I watched a dozen episodes of The Outer Limits in one day.  It was a marathon with breaks only for snacks and squirts.  I have to admire the series for its audaciousness.  I mean, I couldn't do anything but laugh at killer moon plants that shoot popcorn and talcum powder.  

My favorite innovation, though, was a bee-to-human language translator introduced in the episode "Zzzzzz."  Once the machine translates bee-buzz into English, it relays the words out of a speaker box in a high-pitched, Mayor-of-Munchin-City voice.  That is funny stuff. 

Marianna Hill and Peter Brocco in "I, Robot" (November 14, 1964)
What makes the series even more enjoyable is the curvy-hipped actresses that share screen time with the robots and the aliens.  I love the fact that, in the late 1950s and the early 1960s, television casting directors favored actresses with a Marilyn Monroe type of physique.  I see this a lot in episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.  The lead actress would be curvy, the actress with a nonspeaking role as a receptionist would be curvy, and the actress who makes a brief appearance walking out of the bank would be curvy.  It was Planet of the Marilyns.  After Marilyn died, these well-rounded actresses gradually disappeared from the television landscape.  I can think of a number of actresses, including Sue Ane Langdon and Emmaline Henry, who survived the transition by quickly slimming down from Monroe size to Jackie Kennedy size.  The Outer Limits captured the last burning embers of television's Marilyn era.

Here are just a few of The Outer Limits Babes of the Week.

Salome Jens in "Corpus Earthling" (November 18, 1963)


Barbara Luna in "It Crawled Out of the Woodwork" (December 9, 1963)

Grace Lee Whitney in "Controlled Experiment" (January 13, 1964)


Joanna Frank in "ZZZZZ" (January 27, 1964)


Dee Hartford"The Invisibles" (February 3, 1964)

Janet De Gore in "Second Chance" (March 2, 1964)


Constance Towers in "The Duplicate Man" (December 19, 1964)

Elizabeth Perry in "The Brain of Colonel Barham" (January 2, 1965)