Archive for June, 2008

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Repeated Viewings

June 28, 2008

Last night, in honor of Cyd Charisse (God rest her soul), I watched THE BAND WAGON for what I would guess to be the fourth or fifth time.  I’ve been finding something to like about this movie each time I watch it.  Sometimes I’ll watch it for the dancing technique of Fred Astaire (my eyes aren’t always on Cyd Charisse, but you can understand why they would be!).  Last night I decided to focus on the dramatic story line, and found it to be full of great comedy, and real dramatic tension as the company of actors tried to figure out how to salvage the train wreck that was their musical version of Faust.

I knew how the story would end, but I still sat there wondering if they would manage to pull it off.  That got me to think about why I’ll watch some movies again and again.  Do I watch some movies over and over again for the technical wizardry?  I’d be lying if I said the answer was always either yes or no.  Sometimes that’s just what I’m in the mood for-a movie with a lot of “How did they do that?” moments.  It’s fun to escape every once and a while, isn’t it?

But lately, I have found that the reasons I will watch some movies repeatedly is because the script is so well written that the dramatic tension is as fresh the fifth time as it was the first.  MIRACLE is a great example of what I’m talking about.  I watched the U.S. Hockey team beat the Russians live on TV back in 1980.  I remember where I was and with whom I was watching when Al Michaels yelled that immortal phrase, “Do you believe in miracles? YES!!!!”.  Still, when I saw the movie for the first time, and a few weeks ago on DVD, I still sat on the edge of my seat as the great moments in the hockey game played out.  What’s more, I kept wondering up to the Olympics scenes if these men from Minnesota and Massachusetts would EVER put aside their differences and become a cohesive team.

What’s even more surprising is that a movie doesn’t necessarily have to have a happy ending to maintain the dramatic tension on future viewings.  I’m thinking of PAY IT FORWARD in this case.  In the final act of the movie, Haley Joel Osment’s character becomes the victim of a violent attack by two school bullies.  And when I say violent, I mean knives and stabbing were involved.  Even though I know it ends tragically for this character, I still find myself hoping that when the doctor at the hospital breaks the news it will be different.  I know it may seem silly, as the movie plays out the same way no matter how often you watch it, but that’s what I mean about the dramatic tension when it’s done well.

So I say to you, don’t feel foolish for watching your favorite movies repeatedly.  If it meets your standard of dramatic tension, then you have every right to enjoy that same dramatic tension, whether it ends in a high or a low.

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More than Just SUNSHINE

June 26, 2008

Back at the end of April, I introduced you to my friend Heather Ferreira, and the world of SUNSHINE AGAIN.  Well, faithful readers, it is my happy duty to report that Heather is now a member of the WordPress community, and you can access her blog from mine by clicking on her link in my blogroll.  I strongly encourage you to do this, as you will read a fascinating interview in four parts on the site.

That brings me to the subject of this entry.  It turns out that our Heather is a wellspring of creativity and ideas for shows.  SUNSHINE AGAIN is just one project she has cooking over at her production company TeeVeeRex.  Pay a visit to her site at teeveerex.com, and you will find a grand total of 14(!) original concepts waiting to roll out (and yes that does include the flagship show I hope you all soon discover).  The common thread in all of these projects, as you will learn in the about section of the site, is that these shows are tributes to what were some of the best years of TV for people in Heather’s and my age group.  I just took a quick look at the description of the Supertwins Variety Hour, and immediately began to think of my favorite variety shows from my childhood, specifically THE HUDSON BROTHERS RAZZLE DAZZLE SHOW (now available from a Canadian company called Video Source, and highly recommended, if for no other reason than to watch Rod Hull and his Emu), and the ever-popular Friday night staple of DONNY AND MARIE.

The sitcom section boasts some original ideas that I am really taken with.  I love the concepts behind Grover, Barrytown, Tokens and Popcorn (the last one in particular for obvious reasons).  I can just see them all playing on a Saturday Night.  I also happen to think that Broads is a very ambitious idea that has not been tested yet.  I think it could be as empowering now as RHODA was in the 1970s or GOLDEN GIRLS and DESIGNING WOMEN were back in the 1980s.  My guess is that Heather would probably go more along with RHODA, but that’s just a guess.  It’s just hard for me to pick a favorite idea right now, because I find something to like in each of these concepts.

Thinking about these ideas puts me in mind of how E.B. White concludes his classic story of CHARLOTTE’S WEB.  So, if you don’t mind, I’m going to take a cue from Mr. White, and say this about Heather Ferreira, and her creativity.  It’s not often that someone comes along who is a good friend, and a good writer who is full of imagination.  Heather is both.

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All-Time Favorites: TIME AFTER TIME (1979 PG)

June 23, 2008

H.G. Wells’ classic story of THE TIME MACHINE has been a favorite of science fiction fans for generations. But what if Wells’ extraordinary machine were REAL? Not only that, what if one of the most notorious murderers in history stole it to travel into 20th Century America? That’s the hook of Nicholas (THE DAY AFTER) Meyer’s TIME AFTER TIME.

Malcolm McDowell plays the legendary H.G. Wells, and David Warner takes on the role of the notorious Jack the Ripper. As the story opens, Jack has just claimed another victim. Meanwhile, Wells is waiting to reveal some big news to his closest friends about his latest creation. There’s only one person missing, Wells’ friend Dr. John Leslie Stevenson. When Stevenson finally arrives, Wells reveals that he HAS perfected his time machine and plans to travel into the future. Wells believes that in the future, the world is a perfect place, and he wants to witness this for himself. The dinner party is interrupted when the police report that Jack the Ripper has struck again. The discovery of a bloody surgeon’s glove in Stevenson’s bag reveals the horrifying truth. Wells’ esteemed doctor friend is the notorious Jack the Ripper.

The good news is that the police know after whom they are going. The bad news is that there is no way they will be able to capture him. Stephenson has escaped in Wells’ time machine to San Francisco 1979. Fortunately for Wells, tracking Stephenson to 1979 will be simple enough, as the machine records the last trip on the dials. Finding Stephenson himself will be a different prospect altogether.

Wells arrives in San Francisco to discover that he is the subject of a museum exhibit. As impressed as he is, Wells has to find Stephenson and bring him back to 19th Century London. Part of the fun of this movie is watching Wells try to adapt to modern life. One of my favorite scenes involves Wells discovering McDonald’s fast food. He may not like Big Macs, but give him an order of fries and he’s delighted. Sad to say that not all of Wells’ discoveries are happy. When Wells DOES find Jack, thanks to a beautiful bank employee played by Mary Steenburgen, Jack shows Wells that the 20th Century is not only a far cry from Utopia, humans seem to have become even MORE violent than Jack himself. Jack feels perfectly comfortable in the 20th Century, and wastes no time in pursuing his thirst for blood.

Meanwhile, Wells romantically pursues the bank employee, only to discover that Jack is now going after her because of her kindness to Wells. Wells has no choice but to reveal to this lady who he really is, and he has only three days to convince the police that Jack the Ripper is alive and well and stalking the City by the Bay. Can Wells save his new love and defeat Jack the Ripper in three days’ time? You’ll have to see for yourself.

What I love about this movie is McDowell’s portrayal of Wells. As I said before the fun of this movie is watching Wells learn all about 20th Century living and technology. He never loses his sense of wonder and curiosity. But make no mistake: this is NOT a movie for young children. When Jack strikes you do see the blood, you DO hear the sound of flesh tearing in an early scene, and you may see a severed body part. It’s not overly gory, but it may make you uncomfortable. At least it’s kept to a minimum so as not to interfere with the story.

I also like the fact that it got me to ask myself which historical figures would be most curious about our times? I’d like to think that Thomas Jefferson would, and I’ll tell you why. Jefferson was a man of science and invention, and I like to think that he would be fascinated with such things as computers, cell phones and digital TV’s. Besides, you gotta love a guy who introduced fries to the U.S.

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AFI’s 10 TOP 10

June 18, 2008

First of all, I want to come clean about not watching the special that aired last night.  There are two reasons for this.  First, I don’t need to wait around for three hours while celebrities talk about these movies.  I’ve either seen them, or I haven’t, and of the ones that I HAVE seen, I either liked them or I didn’t.  Second reason:  I’m a HELL’S KITCHEN addict, and it was down to the final four last night.  I admit it, I think Gordon Ramsay is an interesting study in contrasts.  When you look at him you think he’s a really great guy to hang out with…then you see him in action in the kitchen, and it’s stay out of his way or get cussed out.  Then he turns around and enthusiastically congratulates you on a job well done, and heaps the rewards on you like he’s Santa Claus.  I’d love to saee him do an animated feature one of these days.  I think he’d have fun with it.

Back to the lists.  The first category is animation, and I’m not surprised that SNOW WHITE topped the list.  It was the one that started it all for the Disney Company.  I’m also glad to see that BEAUTY AND TTHE BEAST made the cut, along with SHREK and TOY STORY representing the latest trend in animation.  I guess there weren’t meant to be any real surprises there.

Next up is Romantic Comedies.  Being single, I’m not much of an expert on this genre, but what a pleasant surprise to see CITY LIGHTS in the top spot.  I remember seeing this when The Disney Channel had airing rights to the Chaplin library, and was very much taken with the story of the Little Tramp falling in love with the blind flower seller.  It is a timeless story, with a bittersweet ending.  I did see MOONSTRUCK, or rather, I tried to watch it, but just couldn’t relate to it (again, probably the bachelor element coming into play).  I’m hardly surprised to see that make the list, or my mom’s pick, SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE.

Westerns are another genre that I’m no expert in, unless you count the three Western comedies Disney made in the 1970’s, presumably to compete with BLAZING SADDLES (which did not make the cut, sadly).  I saw THE SEARCHERS in college as part of a film studies course, but I don’t remember much about it.  The reason is not that it was a bad film.  The reason is the projector had a very bad speaker, and in an auditorium setting, the last thing you need is to have to watch a movie, and not understand the dialog.  My parents would be thrilled to see CAT BALLOU on the list.  It’s not just one of their favorite Westerns, it’s one of their favorite movies of all time, period.  Need I mention the horse scene?

I’m a little disappointed with the Sports category.  Just a little.  Sure, ROCKY and RAGING BULL are the top two.  That’s not the disappointment.  CADDYSHACK is in there, too.  Again, not a disappointment.  I would have liked to have seen either MIRACLE or COOL RUNNINGS make the list.  MIRACLE is just great film-making, with amazing re-creations of the games that the 1980 U.S. Hockey team played at Lake Placid.  And isn’t it great to see Kurt Russell return to the Disney Studios 30 years after his Dexter Riley series?  As for COOL RUNNINGS, yes it’s another comedy, yes it’s another Disney film, but there’s so much real heart and emotion in it.  I still get choked up during the final scenes, when the Jamaican Bobsled Team crosses the line holding up their sled.

It’s no Mystery that Hitchcock is well represented in the Mystery category.  I won’t get specific about the actual movies themselves, since I haven’t seen too many of them.  One of the strictest rules I govern myself with here is that if I don’t know a movie, I won’t talk about it.

Were you surprised that WIZARD OF OZ is the number 1 Fantasy movie in its category?  Neither was I.  I think just about everyone who has seen this movie can quote at least part of it, complete with inflections.  This list I find an interesting mix of modern favorites and classics.  HARVEY and IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE are there.  By the way, did you know that Joe Raposo wrote a musical version of LIFE?  If you can get a copy of UNSUNG MUSICALS 3, you’ll hear two songs:  the title track, complete with a typical Raposo jazz bounce, and “In A State” a rousing dance number that incorporates the classic Charleston melody.  On the modern side, I see BIG made it, as did GROUNDHOG DAY, FIELD OF DREAMS, and my pastor’s favorite LORD OF THE RINGS.  I like balance like this, but I am surprised that the most famous Wizard to battle He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named was not there.  He must have been busy at the Ministry of Magic.

The Sci-Fi category seemed to take a modern classic turn.  I was never a fan of 2001, but who am I to argue with popular opinion?  If you all out there enjoy it, I’m glad.  You all know how I feel about E.T.  I also remember the first time I saw STAR WARS.  It was weird to find myself cheering for revolutionaries for the first time in my life, once I understood that The Empire was actually evil.  Hey, I was only six or seven.  I’ll also remember BACK TO THE FUTURE as the last movie my maternal grandmother would ever get to see before having to go into a nursing home.  I’m grateful that her last movie was a fun one.

I’m going to by-pass the Gangster genre.  Truthfully, I find most of these movies too violent or foul-mouthed for my taste.  I hope that those of you who do enjoy these movies found your favorite in there.

Order in the Court.  The biggest surprise for me in this category is not seeing PHILADELPHIA in the list.  This is no easy movie to watch, and seeing Tom Hanks’ character go from being relatively functional and healthy to a shell of his former self is heart-breaking. Then again, A FEW GOOD MEN is no walk in the park either.  I would have put MY COUSIN VINNY on the list, simply to balance the heaviness of the others.  All together now, “The two youts….”

Finally, the Epics, and boy are there some heavy-hitters on this list.  You’ve got Lawrence, Ben, Oskar Schindler, Scarlett and Rhett, and Spart6acus and Moses himself.  Wow.  just wow.  And, yes, my personal favorite, the first billion dollar box-office winner: TITANIC is there too.  This is one list I don’t think I can argue with.

What are your thoughts?  What would you have put into your top 10 in these categories?  Post them here, and I’ll see you next time!

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Movie Review: KUNG FU PANDA (PG ****)

June 15, 2008

I have to give the creative minds at DreamWorks Animation a lot of credit for originality.  Twice a year, they offer up a movie that puts an interesting spin on what could be a perfectly ordinary concept.  Their first offering for 2008 is the funny and exciting KUNG FU PANDA.

The Panda in question is Po (Jack Black).  Po would like nothing better than to be a part of The Fabulous Five:  five animals each representing a different fighting style of the martial arts.  The Five are Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan, who deserved to have more lines, but then, it’s not Jackie’s movie),  Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross).  Po dreams of joining this group and impressing them with his fighting abilities, but there are a couple of problems with this dream.  Problem one:  Po ‘s family is in the noodle soup business, and problem two:  Po lacks ANY kind of physical conditioning for Kung Fu.

Meanwhile, atop of The Faboulous Five’s mountain home, bad news is afoot.  The ancient turtle Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) is having visions of the evil Tai Lung (Ian McShane) escaping his prison cell and returning to the mountain to seek his revenge against the Master of the Five, Shifu (Dustin Hoffman).  Oogway and Shifu decide that only the Dragon Master will be able to restore peace to the valley.  To find the Dragon Master, the Fabulous Five will face off against each other to determine the Dragon Master.

This is a perfect opportunity for Po’s family to sell lots of noodles.  Po, on the other hand, sees this as an opportunity to get close to his heroes.  And, Po does indeed get close to his heroes, but the results are completely unexpected, as Oogway names Po as the Dragon Master.  Despite Shifu’s protestations, Oogway insists that Po be trained for the coming battle.

It’s obvious right away that NOBODY thinks Po stands a chance.  Even worse, NOBODY wants Po around, and have no problems making that clear.  Tigress is particularly resentful, as she felt that Oogway was going to choose her as the Master.  Meanwhile, Po’s training is painful for both Po and Shifu.  I should say that it’s painful for them and hilarious for us.  The Five’s training room is an insane obstacle course of spiked wheels, flaming floors, and unstable surfaces, and Po can’t handle any of it.

But Po isn’t ready to give up, despite his doubts.  In one of the best of the quiet scenes, Po and Shifu realize that they are meant to work together as Master and Student.  Shifu isn’t sure just how, but he does see a glimmer of hope in the big bear. That’s good, because the Five have gone off to seek out and defeat Tai Lung, who did escape from prison in a hair-raising battle scene.  Shifu, meanwhile discovers that Po’s motivation is food, and uses that motivation to train Po.  The climax of the training scenes gives new meaning to the phrase “food fight”.

The climax shouldn’t be a big surprise, and I don’t think there were meant to be any surprises at the outcome.  Still, getting to this outcome is nothing short of funny and amazing.  The kung fu sequences were blazingly paced, invoking Jackie Chan’s style more than once, although Chan only provides vocal support to the movie.  Furthermore, Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger’s screenplay offers several moments of verbal and visual comedy that kept me laughing and smiling all the way through.  I find it very interesting that this year, two of the best action movies I have seen revolve around martial arts, and both feature Jackie Chan, even though, as I said, he’s in a supporting capacity this time around.  I have a feeling that if KUNG FU PANDA continues to ride high at the box office, we’ll be seeing a follow-up within the next few years.

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The Return of Movie Musicals

June 11, 2008

Have you noticed over the past few years that movies based on Broadway musicals, along with original movie musicals, are making a comeback? I’m hardly complaining, myself. I love going to a Broadway musical, when I can afford it. You can thank my parents for that. They spent their honeymoon in NYC, back in 1967, and went to see shows both on and Off-Broadway. My sister took a liking to movie musicals right away, but I was a harder sell.

You see, my first exposure to movie musicals was the Rodgers and Hammerstein catalog, specifically OKLAHOMA! and SOUTH PACIFIC. I was forced to watch these, among other movie musicals during a summer week when I was a pre-teenager. I hated them. I hated these two in particular. To me, they were just plain CORNY. I can feel you throwing your popcorn boxes at me already, but I am not going to pretend to like something I clearly don’t.

Then something happened. I saw LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. I learned in those wonderfully silly 90 minutes that rock and roll was NOT the enemy of movie musicals. That lesson was driven home later when I saw JESUS CHRIST, SUPERSTAR at my aunt and uncle’s house. Unfortunately, i only half heard what was happening in SUPERSTAR, because my cousins were cracking wise the whole time. Little did I know that the producer of the former, and the composer of the latter would join forces to really get me interested in musicals in general. Yes, I’m a fan of CATS. The music is just fun to listen to, and this brings me to the heart of my column for today.

There are some musicals that have yet to hit the big screen. CATS was supposed to be an animated feature helmed by Steven Spielberg, but it never happened. That’s OK, you can still get the DVD version of the live-action musical. But there are other hits from the Great White Way I would LOVE to see:

SEUSSICAL. A flop on Broadway, but a huge regional and amateur hit. I think that based on their success with HORTON, Blue Sky would do a great job with the animation.

CHILDREN OF EDEN. While I’m on the subject of animation, I see this as the first made-for-TV animated musical miniseries. The first night would be Act 1, and the second night as Act 2. Then again, a big-screen version would be welcome as well.

ONCE ON THIS ISLAND. From the team that gave us SEUSSICAL comes this intensely moving Caribbean themed musical about a young woman who loves an upper class gentleman, and proves that love can indeed conquer death. The climax is a guaranteed tear-jerker.

MISS SAIGON. The composers of the mega-hit LES MISERABLES followed their success with this powerful take on Madame Butterfly, and the ultimate sacrifice a mother can make. When I hear the song “The Last Night of the World”, I can’t help but see a long camera pull-out from the balcony where the leads are singing and holding onto each other.

ONE RED FLOWER )Letters from ‘NAM). I saw this incredible musical at North Shore Music Theater not long after 9/11. I couldn’t talk at the end of Act 1, because I was afraid I’d start crying my eyes out. Taken from actual letters written by the soldiers who fought in this war, the musical tells the story of a mother who learns about the experience through these self-same letters. This could very easily be done as a series of vignettes. Meanwhile, I’m still waiting for a cast album of ANY kind.

BLOOD BROTHERS. “So, did you hear the story of the Johnstone twins? As like each other as two new pins.” So begins Willy Russell’s hit musical about two brothers separated at birth whose lives are tragically intertwined. The story is told by a narrator who could outline the events as a series of flashbacks.

As always, you can post your ideas here at anytime. I must thank my friend Peter Filichia of theatermania.com for indirectly inspiring me to write this article. I encourage you to read his column every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, if you love theater (those of you who don’t already read it, that is).

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All time favorites: LABYRINTH (1986)

June 6, 2008

Judging from the flat line on my stats, I get the feeling you faithful readers are looking for something new. What better time to launch a new semi-regular feature: My all time favorites.

I begin with Jim Henson and George Lucas’ LABYRINTH. My introduction to this wonderful movie was David Bowie’s song, “Underground”. I loved the song, and when I saw the previews, I really felt this movie would be something special. Unfortunately for me, it was gone from the theaters before I got a chance to see it. Four years later, I’m reading a book about the Monty Pythons, and I discover that Python alumnus Terry Jones had a hand in writing the screenplay. If I had wanted to see it before that point, I REALLY wanted to see it after learning about Jones’ involvement.

I finally got my chance two years later (I don’t remember why it was two years later), when my sister gave me a copy of the movie for Christmas. I watched it with my parents, and I was hooked. It’s been a favorite of mine ever since.

First of all, I love the concept. Sarah (Jennifer Connolly) is fed up with being forced to babysit her baby brother every Saturday night. This particular Saturday night, she decides to tell her baby brother a bed-time story in which the Goblin King (David Bowie) offers to take the baby away to his castle if she asks him. What Sarah doesn’t realize is that the King HAS fallen in love with Sarah, and IS ready to take the baby. Unwittingly, Sarah makes the request, and there the adventure begins. When Sarah refuses the King’s gift, he tells her that her baby brother is in the castle at the center of his labyrinth. Not only that, the King is only giving Sarah 13 hours to get to the center.

The labyrinth itself seems impossible at first, as Sarah can’t seem to find any of the corners or turns. Thanks to a friendly cockney worm, Sarah learns her first lesson of the labyrinth: don’t take anything for granted. The worm also unfortunately gives Sarah some hilariously bad advice about which path she should take. That exchange is the first of many hilarious exchanges of dialog. One of my favorites is Sarah trying to solve the truth-teller versus liar door puzzle. If you’re confused by Sarah’s dizzying logic during this scene, you’re not alone.  Even the guards don’t understand!

As you noticed from that last paragraph, Sarah is far from alone in dealing with the mysteries of the labyrinth. In her quest, Sarah meets Hoggle, a goblin who has to decide where his loyalties lie, Ludo, a lovable hulking beast with power over the rocks, The Fierys, a trio that literally lose their heads over having fun, a wise man with a wise-cracking talking hat, and Sir Didymus, a stout-hearted fox who rides an English sheepdog (who’s not so stout of heart). She also meets talking door knockers, some not-so-helpful Helping Hands, and goblins of every size and description, including ninja goblins!

It’s so hard for me to pick a favorite character. I just love them all for different reasons. I guess that’s because Didymus, Ludo, and Hoggle represent some of the best qualities we have in ourselves. I love Sir Didymus’ optimistic bravery, even when he’s hopelessly outnumbered. Ludo represents to me the love and friendship that we all long for, and Hoggle to me represents the struggle we all share to do what’s right, even when it’s inconvenient or dangerous.

LABYRINTH is also a visual stunner. I don’t just mean Jim Henson’s creations, which are impressive. The sets are brilliant. I mentioned what happens when Sarah first enters the labyrinth. She can’t find any turns until the Worm helps her out. It’s a brilliant optical illusion. The Helping Hands come together and separate to make faces to have a conversation with Sarah. And when Sarah eventually does enter the castle, she finds herself in M.C. Escher’s impossible stariways room. You have to see that one for yourself. I just can’t do it justice here.

Last, but certainly not least, is David Bowie’s music. Bowie wrote some great songs for LABYRINTH. In addition to “Underground”, Bowie leads the goblins in a lively “Dance Magic” number, sings a beautiful love song during a dream sequence, and a menacing song during the final confrontation. There’s not a bad song among them either.

LABYRINTH was not a box office hit during its initial release. I guess people still wanted Jim Henson to do more Muppet movies. I am happy to see that despite a disappointing box-office take LABYRINTH has become a favorite for so many people. I’m looking forward to my next visit Underground, because, just as Sarah says at the end of this movie, sometimes, for no reason at all, I just want to spend time with these characters.