Thursday, July 29, 2010

Louis (2010) — Blow that horn, young Satchmo

Directed by Dan Pritzker. Starring Jackie Earle Haley, Shanti Lowry and Anthony Coleman. Shot by Oscar-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond as a modern re-imagining of early silent film, Louis is an homage to Louis Armstrong, Charlie Chaplin, beautiful women and the birth of American music. The grand Storyville bordellos, alleys and cemeteries of 1907 New Orleans provide a backdrop of lust, blood and magic for 6-year-old Louis (Anthony Coleman) as he navigates the colorful intricacies of life in the city.

The film will premiere in five US cities in late August with live music provided by Wynton Marsalis, along with pianist Cecile Licad and a 10-piece all-star jazz ensemble.

For more information, go here: "Louis" a Silent Movie with Live Accompaniment by Wynton and Jazz Ensemble to Premiere in August with a US Tour

Note: Louis is a companion piece to Dan Pritzker's feature film Bolden, a mythical account of the life of Buddy Bolden, the first Cornet King of New Orleans and starring Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker) Wendell Pierce and Lowry. Bolden is set for release in 2011.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Bugs Bunny: 70 years old and only one gray hare

Here's a bushel of carrots saying Happy 70th Birthday to Bugs Bunny, whose screen debut in the Warner Brothers animated short "A Wild Hare" occurred on July 27, 1940. Tex Avery directed.

I base my life on his teachings.

Also appearing for the first time on 7/27/40: the Billboard song charts.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966) — It's a Vlad, Vlad, Vlad, Vlad world

Ah, the good old days of the Cold War. Even though the planet's two most powerful adversaries threatened to bring everyone to nuclear annihilation, from our perspective today those sure look like simpler, purer times. At least it's difficult to imagine today's international tensions being lampooned by a dozen familiar character actors in a middlebrow comedy about enemy soldiers accidentally stranded in an apple-pie American town.

Then again, already this summer we had those strange few weeks in the news, something about deep-cover Russian spies out to make big trouble for Moose and Squirrel in suburban humdrum America. Of course, the news cycle boosted the made-for-reality-TV cuteness of Anna Chapman (rather, "Anna Chapman"), who's now back in Mother Russia where her Clairol Girl features accompanied her inherent ugliness in a hero's welcome. Still, if Firefly/Serenity's Jewel Staite plays her in the inevitable TV movie, maybe a greater international good has been served.

Meanwhile, the self-replicating crazy-makers drill their wells even deeper by telling us that foreign Islamist terrorists are sneaking into Real America by collaborating with Mexican drug cartels, as if we're being urged to imagine Blofeld and SPECTRE teaming up with Al Pacino's Tony Montana, probably with a bit of Grand Theft Auto thrown in for extra excitement.

And jeez, Edith, we just watched, eyes rolling, the Breitbart-Sherrod controversy. Because the universe has a keen sense of irony, that little imbroglio arrived gasoline-hosed by the Fox News Birth(ers) of a Nation Power Hour during recognition of To Kill a Mockingbird's 50th anniversary. Plus, hordes of invading American Muslims, like dirty Commies in the days of yore, apparently need to be refudiated here in the land of the free. Oh, and look — it's becoming clear that Vietnam more and more shares a big, porous border with Afghanistan (see History, doomed to repeat it).

I wonder: Will the big take-away from the year 2010 be how often we've looked back to the 1960s and sighed heavily? The times they are rewindin'? Perhaps we can find comfort in the apostle Paul, who was there too and once wrote:
Paranoia strikes deep in the heartland,
But I think it's all overdone.
Exaggerating this and exaggerating that,
They don't have no fun.
These are, as Shakespeare might put it, tragical-comical-historical times, and you can decide for yourself what order those words should come in.

It can be instructive, or at least perspective-adjusting, or maybe just amusing, to let movies take us back in time a few decades to see that the more things change, the more some people, well, not so much. (Yeah, I know: I similarly hobbyhorsed Mockingbird and Blazing Saddles recently too. I'm like a dog with a bone that way.)

Therein lies my urge to revisit 1966's The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.

This is one I caught on Sunday afternoon TV quite often as a '70s kid, and even then I knew I was watching something from some vague "before" time. Still, I remember finding it humorous and fun. Every time I see Alan Arkin in anything, which isn't often enough these days, I flash back to enjoying him first here in the role that made the erstwhile Second City alum and Broadway actor a movie star. Indeed, Arkin, as the hapless lieutenant charged with getting his beached crewmates back home safe and sound — and spouting authentic Russian learned for the film — is worth the viewing all by himself. And back then, with my nascent critical eye, I could tell that this was a well-made piece of funny business; at least in my memories it has maintained a good-looking, A-list production gloss.

But does it hold up today, 44 years later? Like two others from 1966 I've written about here, Our Man Flint and Fantastic Voyage, the answer is a qualified yes, though this one — in its spoofing of stepping-on-rakes paranoia and "there be foreigners!" saber-rattling — is more tuned to the phobias of our times.

After a Soviet submarine runs aground near a Norman Rockwell New England coastal village, nine sailors (led by Arkin) venture ashore ("we are of course Norwegians") to quietly borrow a motor boat for a tug back to sea.

Naturally, it isn't long before misunderstandings on both sides escalate the incident and the "Russian invasion" boils over to potential cataclysm.

The running hither-and-thither townspeople include a vacationing New York writer (Carl Reiner in the longest sustained Jimmy Stewart impression on record) and his wife Eva Marie Saint. Young Sheldon Collins plays their son Pete as the same trigger-happy little shit be played in the following year's The President's Analyst.

Giving the film a balancing world-weary deadpan is Brian Keith as the straight-faced police chief. His placid existence receives an unwelcome kick from Paul Ford (The Music Man) as the VFW hawk out to secure the borders and defeat the invading Red legions. Assisting him is Jonathan Winters as, pretty much, Jonathan Winters. Theodore Bikel appears briefly as the Russian captain.

And it wouldn't be Hollywood without a syrupy romance between the Pretty American Girl (Andrea Dromm) and the Handsome Good-Hearted Russian Lad (John Phillip Law), with both actors making their Hollywood debuts.

Comely, sunny-haired Dromm caught my attention back in the day, looking for all the world like a Beach Boys song given form and flesh. I knew her best from TV reruns of her other 1966 role: "Yeoman Smith" in the second pilot episode of Star Trek. She spoke only one line ("The name's Smith, sir"), but she looked mighty cute there on the Enterprise bridge. I've read that Dromm was offered a choice between an ongoing role in the still-unproven TV series and a lead part in this big Hollywood movie. Choosing the movie was the obvious best move at the time, though she has said that if she'd known what an enduring hit Star Trek would become, she might have chosen differently. As it is, you probably don't have to Google hard to find Yeoman Smith fanfic steaming up pixels somewhere.

At 6'5" with a blue-eyed boyishness, it's only natural that Law went on to become a mid-list movie and TV sex symbol. Genre-film cognoscenti salute his presence in Mario Bava's Danger: Diabolik! ('68), as the blind guardian angel Pygar kinking it up with Jane Fonda in Barbarella (also '68), as Snoopy's arch nemesis the Red Baron in Roger Corman's Von Richtofen and Brown ('70), and as the stout-hearted sailor-adventurer confronting nifty Ray Harryhausen creations in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad ('73).

Their romance is the vessel from which the movie's Make Love, Not War oils are poured, as in the sugary charm of their Capulet-Montague seaside dialogue:
Alexei: "In Union of Soviet, when I am only young boy, many are saying, Americanski are bad people, they will attack Russia. So all mistrust American. But I think that I do not mistrust American... not really sinceriously. I wish not to hate... anybody! [He chucks a stone into the sea] This make good reason to you, Alison Palmer?"
Alison: "Well, of course it does. It doesn't make sense to hate people. It's such a waste of time."
Beyond Arkin's performance, what saves The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming from being just a cloying, farcical fossil is a clever screenplay by William Rose (The Ladykillers, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World) and director Norman Jewison's steady hand on the tiller.

The even-handed script parades no simplistic evil empires or Old Glory platitudes. Instead it mines the nervousness and paranoia on both sides, and the climax comes with townsfolk and submariners literally staring down each other's gun barrels — a tidy little metaphor for the Cold War. The crisis' contrived resolution may leave you either wiping a tear or rolling your eyes (as if those are mutually exclusive), with World War III narrowly averted by good ol' hands-across-the-water pluck.

Pub Trivia Contest points: Rose based his screenplay on a 1961 novel, The Off-Islanders, written by Nathaniel Benchley. Later, Nathaniel's son Peter found his own way in life by writing the novel Jaws, which Steven Spielberg turned into another little look-what-showed-up-on-the-beach movie you might have heard of.

It's easy to see why The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming was welcomed as a warm and affirming counterpoint to its darker cinematic cousins such as Fail-Safe. It skewers hawkish reactionism and mob militancy, and its sympathetic portrayal of the beached Russians — not to mention the panicky buffoonery of the Americans — probably gave the more rabid Commie-haters conniptions.

It was popular in its day and praised by contemporary critics, with Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role (Arkin), Editing (future director Hal Ashby), and Adapted Screenplay. It won the Golden Globes for Best Musical/Comedy and Best Actor (Arkin), with noms for Best Screenplay and Most Promising Newcomer (both Arkin and Law).

Although it's frozen in amber now, it remains an amusing (if dated and overlong) slice of the 1960s. To Boomers above a certain age it's a fondly remembered piece of fluffy nostalgia. For everyone else it's an entertaining-enough time portal to another epoch. DVD film-fest this one with Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove for a snapshot of how a previous generation's fears played out in popular culture.

In 44 years, what comedies will they be making about us and our time? I have some ideas....

Music: The Red Elvises, "Tchaikovsky"
Near at hand: An origami globe built from intersecting Hearts suit playing cards.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Harlan Ellison: Dreams With Sharp Teeth (2008)

A literary hero of my youth, and a writer whose best work I admire on different levels now. I've met him a couple of times at writer conventions and such, and can testify that when he makes eye contact with you it's like having a stare contest with a cobra.

I got to know him a bit in a different way when he called me and Elizabeth at our home more than once to ask how he could help out with a friend of ours, a well-loved fantasy novelist, who was dying of cancer. Despite how he comes across in his self-maintained and self-mythologizing enfant terrible, "I'll punch you in your hamburger hatch, asshole" demeanor, that's how he made his biggest impression on me. Well, that and his writing, of course. But you know what they say about books and covers.

Written and directed by Eric Nelson.

More here.

Harlan interviewed at The Onion A.V. Club here.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Harold Lloyd Compilation

MsBluecat did the good work here.

Music: Moby, "Run On," a traditional folk song also known as "God's Gonna Cut You Down."

Hat tip: Roger Ebert

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

My blushes, Watson!

I'm mentioned in an article with Arthur Conan Doyle, Isaac Asimov, Poul Anderson, and Nicholas Meyer. Also Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Norman Mailer, and Gore Vidal. Wish it had spoilered the plot of my story correctly, but hey, I'll take it.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Pic picks: Bacall of the wild

“You know you don’t have to act with me, Steve. You don’t have to say anything, and you don’t have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and… blow.”

35 Movies in 2 Minutes

35mm from Pascal Monaco on Vimeo.

Can you name all 35?

Monday, July 12, 2010

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) — Another man's skin

If I were an absolutist about my dayplanner, or a bit more observant regarding literary bechmarks, I'd say I'm a day late on this post. But I didn't realize until a few hours ago that yesterday, July 11, marked the 50th anniversary of the 1960 publication of Harper Lee's novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. (Blame the neglect on my attentions being elsewhere, what with yesterday such a gorgeous day here in Seattle, with the lowest tides of the year making tidepool eco-systems a manifestly Cool Thing, and with Elizabeth and I stepping out to catch Book-It Rep's final performance of The Cider House Rules, Pt. 1 as part of my ongoing (re)birthday celebrations.)

Anyway, Happy Birthday, TKAM. It's a novel that was a formative reading experience of my youth, one that — like The Grapes of Wrath and a few others — rewrote my inner hard drive at an age when the upgrade stuck.

Naturally, all this easily brings me to thinking about the movie adaptation from two years later, and the convergence of my own birthday also this past weekend.

It's a long road between To Kill a Mockingbird and, say, an African-American U.S. president, not to mention an African-American chairman (nominally at least) of the Republican National Committee. And we're not talking years, baby, but the hard-marched mileage. As someone born in the year between Lee's novel and the movie that brought Lee's humanist hero, Atticus Finch, to the screen in 1962, watching the movie gets me pondering things beyond the film's much-loved and much-analyzed virtues.

Of course there's Gregory Peck's indelible and deeply personal portrayal of a small-town Southern widower lawyer whose steadfast decency and integrity spur him to accept an unwinnable case, defending a "nigger" accused of raping a white woman. Both Lee and Peck cue us in that while Atticus may be the story's hero, he is far from "super" and is aware of it. Like all of us, he has his self-doubts. He knows both his profession and his fellow townsfolk well enough to see that any victory will be hard-fought at best. Still, his spine is built on doing what's right despite the cost or the odds, and like a good father he aims to pass that trait along by example to Scout and Jem. We can admire him not just because of his steadfastness and decency, but also because he manages to be so steadfast and decent in spite of being so, well, ordinary, just like us. Therefore we intuit — in the way that the best fiction tweaks our inner software — that we can rise to that standard too. As literary role models go, Atticus Finch strikes us as more identifiable and attainable than many.

And by telling its story through the eyes of children — tomboy Scout (Mary Badham, a remarkable debut performance), squired by her older brother Jem (Phillip Alford) — the film deserves the warm affection we hold for its authentic-feeling evocation of childhood in all its textures and preoccupations and endings.

And anyone who knows To Kill a Mockingbird only as required classroom reading knows that it calmly yet resolutely placed our hand over the nation's flaming racial issues. While set in Alabama during the Great Depression, its reason to exist was the prejudice that finally became too endemic to ignore in the 1950s and '60s. It came camouflaged in nostalgia, but its targets were wholly contemporary. Like The Grapes of Wrath, it exposed the cruelty and cowardice intertwined with poverty and ignorance, and victims whose inherent blamelessness amounts to exactly nothing when the injustice is so ingrained it's institutional.

All that's by now such well-trod ground that to call the film an "American classic" feels redundant. But for a viewer whose years so far pretty much equal the film's, it comes as a useful jolt to watch To Kill a Mockingbird and see how much has changed — in America and its looking-glass, Hollywood — during that single lifespan.

An autobiographical digression:

As I mentioned in my post about Blazing Saddles, in the small southern town (north central Arkansas) where I grew up, there was, when I was a kid, a small section on the outskirts known as "nigger town." Yeah, leaves a bad taste in your mouth, doesn't it?

Fortunately, before that poisonous background radiation could shrivel my own tissues, it was effectively shielded by my dad, who had more Atticus Finch in him than I realized at the time — more than he ever realized, I think, before he died a few years ago. He never read the book, I'm sure, and probably didn't see the movie (books and movies becoming part of my DNA for reasons far removed from inheritance on either side), but he possessed and demonstrated an innate decency and liberal-mindedness that was as recognizable on him as his ever-present Stetson hat and bow ties (oddly fashionable only on him and the current Doctor Who).

A car salesman for most of my life, he was an honest man in an often crooked trade. Avocations included rodeo calling, auctioneering, the local Kiwanis and Lions Clubs, Toastmasters International, and raising quarter horses on a green mound of acreage he simply called The Farm. Everybody knew Phil Bourne. He'd sincerely shaken the hand of everyone in town. Twice. With just a high school education from an even smaller town before joining the Navy in WWII, he became a leader in his community (a Justice of the Peace for years) and his church (for decades an Elder at Central Presbyterian on Main Street).

What I remember best was how often he exhibited a big-heartedness and generosity of spirit that extended to people he didn't even have to know personally. Although I stepped away from the church at an early age, he remains to me a model Christian, of the type who views life and other folks in it through the Jesus of the parables and the Beatitudes, rather than the type who abuses the religion for selectively chosen excuses for prejudice and soul-shrinkage. He was a liberal in the best egalitarian sense, and a conservative in the Burkean ethical sense, though he'd never think to apply such words to himself, their better traits being simply deep-rooted and humbly applied without fuss or a need for either labels or attention.

As far as I could tell, he'd give a great deal of credence to Atticus' dictum:
"If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks: You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it."
He got along with all kinds of folks.

He was flawed, certainly as a father, but I like to think I received some of my better characteristics from him. (My mother, on the other hand, was another piece of work; she never fully sloughed off the racism she picked up from her Faulkner-novel Mississippi upbringing.)

He had in him just enough Atticus Finch by way of Andy Griffith to leave an impression. And those qualities remained steady even against the rightward-tilting local zeitgeist; he was an ardent Obama supporter in a county that went as red as a blood clot in that election. I regret that he didn't live long enough to see that inauguration, though I remember him remarking approvingly on the tectonic social changes that Obama represented and that he'd lived long enough to witness. (I can only imagine the crestfallen look on his face if he'd heard that a national neo-Nazi group [Anti-Defamation League link] has headquartered in the town since 2002.)

Outside of some recently sparked nostalgia, I have no need or call to visit Russellville, Arkansas anymore. But I do know that the climate there has improved noticeably since I was young. "Nigger town" no longer exists as a term white kids there use. On a different but related track, I was bowled over to hear that the local university now has a group called the Bisexual, Gay and Lesbian Alliance, another welcome continental shift that would have been unthinkable when I was a kid trying to see the horror movies playing at the now-demolished Ritz Theater. (Glimpses of Valerie Leon on the poster for Blood from the Mummy's Tomb probably kick-started my puberty.)

Boy. I didn't start this post planning to digress into a life-story side trip, but looking at To Kill a Mockingbird brings all that up quite unexpectedly. It got me to look back at the dramatic and accelerating, albeit incomplete, social upticks that have occurred in its (and my own) relatively short lifespan.

Isn't it cool when a book or a movie does that?

Where were we? Oh, yeah...

The film couldn't have been more precision-molded to be a Hollywood masterpiece if it had rolled off a Rolls-Royce line. However, rather than anodize it by tritely calling it "timeless," let's instead say that To Kill a Mockingbird was the right movie at the right time. As a consciousness-raiser, it is of and for the early 1960s, when movie audiences were not necessarily integrated and shocks sharper than the term "nigger lover" came only from Alfred Hitchcock.

Inevitably then, to us today its topicality can appear muted or off-balance. The racism plot involving the innocent black man Tom Robinson, played by Brock Peters, keeps its eyes on how the corrupt courtroom trial and its tragic aftermath affect the white characters (and audiences). Tom's family and other black characters are almost incidental. Although Mockingbird's moral passion comes in a strategically mainstream movie that's sometimes too aware of its Teachable Moments, that doesn't reduce the effect of our understanding — really getting — that Tom's innocence or guilt never was the point or concern of that jury. This is not a trial about justice, but about holding on to control. We can scarcely imagine how that courtroom scene impacted an audience in a movie house in Mississippi in 1962.

The instances when director Robert Mulligan achieves an effect by choosing bluntness over finesse are smoothed by the more sensitive — often sublime — elements, such as Horton Foote's respectful and restrained screenplay, the Southern gothic atmosphere captured in Russell Harlan's rich black-and-white cinematography, and the ideal casting at every level (including Robert Duvall's screen debut as ante-Sling Blade Boo Radley). Complementing it all perfectly is Elmer Bernstein's gentle and heartrending score.

Notice how often Scout actively tries to see things by broadening her perspective — from up in a tree, for instance, or from the railing of the courtroom's balcony. With the Tom Robinson plot intertwining with Scout and Jem's education in seeing more clearly the "ugly things in this world," a world they're only beginning to comprehend, today the film offers an extra accumulated layer of "meaning."

Less than six months after Mockingbird premiered, a white racist gunned down Medgar Evers outside his home in Jackson, Miss., and the civil rights movement found its flash point. The event catalyzed people, black and white, nationwide. It took thirty-one years for Evers' killer to be brought to justice, but during those years so much happened that, looking back, Scout and Jem's loss of innocence personifies our own as a nation. Their Halloween night journey through the woods, where they are assaulted by Bob Ewell, a man who had publicly proclaimed his own righteousness, is pointedly metaphorical enough to support any number of term papers on the story's symbolism — not to mention any number of reflections on the current flailing state of America's reactionary right. (No doubt the jurors at Tom's trial would also claim that they merely wanted to "take America back.")

Despite recently revivified reminders of what Atticus Finch learned the hard way, that some juries refuse to be convinced in the face of their own ugliness, we can nonetheless love To Kill a Mockingbird both as a movie and as a reminder that less than one lifespan (mine, for example) separates To Kill a Mockingbird from right now. Although not without great costs in human lives and suffering, in that single generation four hundred years of culturally entrenched Jim Crow, and the mentalities that fostered it, withered. They weren't utterly uprooted, nor was their cultural soil completely sown with salt, but still their choking, strangling vines aren't as ignored as they once were.

Today black actors and filmmakers, such as Spike Lee, bring a "black perspective" to our screens directly, or (just as significantly) don't feel that they have to at all.

Brock Peters died two weeks before the release of To Kill a Mockingbird's 2005 DVD. His screen career started with 1954's Carmen Jones, which capitalized on the novelty of its "all Negro" cast. Nowadays, chances are that he's more recognized by viewers as Captain Ben Sisko's father on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (a TV series that delivered some fine episodes facing racism head on) and as a Starfleet admiral in two Star Trek movies — in both cases he plays a man of authority whose skin color is not commented upon or is in any way material to the story. 

It may not be the 23rd century yet, but by any measure that's really important we can call that progress.

If you're looking to pick up To Kill a Mockingbird on DVD, currently Universal's two-disc "Legacy Series" edition from 2005 is the way to go. It brings the film home in a mostly spotless print with the correct 1.85:1 (anamorphic) aspect ratio. Some grain pops out a time or two when Mulligan apparently had to artificially zoom in for a close-up, but otherwise this is a fine image. Along with the original monaural soundtrack, this edition adds DD 5.1 and DTS 5.1 audio options, and both are pleasing and subdued while spreading the crickets and birdsongs around the ears just enough.

There's a commentary audio track with director Mulligan and producer Alan J. Pakula. It's an informative but lackluster first-hand retrospective.

Most of the other extras are more enlightening. Topping the list are two feature-length documentaries that delve into the film and its marquee star. Charles Kiselyak's 1998 Fearful Symmetry: The Making of To Kill a Mockingbird rambles through much of its 90 minutes, but it's a thorough backgrounder supported by interviews with Peck, Robert Mulligan, Horton Foote, Mary Badham, Phillip Alford, Brock Peters, Robert Duvall, producer Pakula, Elmer Bernstein, and more.

Then from Turner Classic Movies we get A Conversation with Gregory Peck (97 mins.), an outstanding personal and probing 1999 documentary on the star from director Barbara Kopple (Harlan County USA). It was co-produced by Peck's daughter Cecilia, and it delivers testimonials by Mary Badham, Lauren Bacall, Martin Scorsese, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Jacques Chirac, Peck's children, and others.

Scout Remembers is a 12-minute NBC News interview with Mary Badham from 1999.

Other welcome bits are an excerpt from the Academy's tribute to Peck, hosted by his daughter (Harper Lee is there and receives a standing ovation); clips from Peck's Oscar acceptance speech and AFI Lifetime Achievement Award acceptance speech; lengthy production notes; the theatrical trailer narrated by Peck; and a set of international Mockingbird movie posters well reproduced on firm 5x7" card stock, plus a card with a message from Harper Lee. It all comes in a handsome and extra-sturdy book-like case.

Music: Esperanza Spalding, Junjo
Near at hand: Show poster for The Flying Karamazov Brothers.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

"Yeah, I know, and such small portions"

Today's my birthday.

No big deal, ordinarily, except that one year ago this same date was so close to being my final birthday — given that I kind of died for a bit that morning during a "routine" heart surgery gone horribly wrong — that you would have made a foolhardy bet to lay down money otherwise. (cf. This blog's first post.)

And yet here I am, pleased to be here, thrilled to be married to a rare woman who was fiercely determined to stare down those odds and slam Death's door so hard you could hear his bony foot crunch in the jamb. I'm here enjoying a (re)birthday with a new appreciation of the expression, "Whoa." Thanks yet again to all of you who were near us (figuratively as well as geographically) through the ensuing weeks and months deep into 2010. It's good to be alive, and many of you are among the reasons why.

Now, after a year the moratorium is up. Having glimpsed The Other Side, I’m finally permitted to tell the truth about it:

It's an enormous mid-range restaurant. Its staff is made up of every god human beings have invented in our own image. In other words, they get to serve us for a change. Its branding slogan: "Have it Yahweh."


The decor is tacky — think Denny's with the orange extending to every horizon — but as tidy and clean as a Carnival Cruise Line lounge. For the most part the service is impeccable. ("Hello, my name is Osiris, I'll be your waiter.") But I swear that when Dakuwaqa, the Fijian shark god, refilled my water glass he copped a bit of an attitude. Fortunately it was Aphrodite's shift and when she saw him do it she dropped his ass into the decorative fish tank near the salad bar.

The menu comes chiseled on two stone tablets, so it’s unwieldy. Nonetheless, I'm here to say that Thor's Grand Slam breakfast is literally awesome on toast, and that Quetzalcoatl can brew one fantastic bottomless pot of coffee. I passed on the daily special — the Prometheus pâté — in favor of Herne the Hunter's all-natural veggie burger, which was a bit dry but helped me carb up for my weeks in a coma. Sadly I wasn't there long enough to try the pizza ("The Passion of the Crust"), but I can testify that Zeus does indeed wash his hands after using the restroom, although I'm thankful for the ceiling fan in there.

Naturally I checked out the juke box. Too much Styx, and evidently Zarathushtra got the rights to his theme song back from Stanley Kubrick. I really dug a new group called Chthonic Youth. But before I could punch in the entire Eric Clapton catalog, I heard Mercury call my name over the loudspeaker. Time to go.

On my way out, I wanted to buy a t-shirt, but the deity at the counter was a Mayan howler monkey god in a bad mood and who could fling something unmentionable with an arm like Cy Young. Damn. I did, however, duck fast and yoinked a fistful of mints from Kali, who was restocking the bowl while simultaneously making change and scrubbing down the counters.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

"That sounded a bit treasony me!"

Henry VIII (played by Brian Blessed) on Twitter, as Henry 8.0:

Friday, July 2, 2010

Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956) — Aliens like Ike

This entertaining antiquity so perfectly captures the spirit and content (good and bad, which can be interchangeable terms here) of 1950s "B" sci-fi cinema that it deserves its own commemorative postage stamp.

A small-budget opus perfectly tuned to its times, today Earth vs. the Flying Saucers is an essential treat for fans of vintage genre mileposts or of the stop-motion animation ingenuity of Ray Harryhausen — two categories of fandom with a significant overlap. And let's add anyone who thinks that Independence Day had an original idea in its bloated little head. 

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers hit the screens in 1956, when Americans were up to their poodle skirts in a UFO craze that impacted pop culture from book shelves to lunchboxes. Certainly, when compared to A-list saucer sagas such as The Day the Earth Stood Still ('51) or Forbidden Planet (also '56), there's no question that this is a modest little pulp potboiler with no pretensions but a good deal of two-fisted rock 'em, sock 'em verve.

Having sent a giant octopus to deliver carnage to San Francisco in It Came from Beneath the Sea ('55), this time Harryhausen brought alien marauders down from the skies to fire their disintegrator ray guns and crash their saucers into Washington D.C. landmarks — a wrecked saucer slicing through the Capitol Dome is one of filmdom's perfect images — during the climactic battle scene.

When an alien spacecraft lands on Earth, scientist Russell Marvin (Hugh Marlowe) suspects that the aliens' declaration of peaceful intent is a ruse. Of course he's right. The aliens contact Marvin and arrange for an onboard meeting, where they reveal their plans to take over Earth, giving Marvin 56 days to set up a conference in Washington D.C. for humanity's surrender, or else the orbiting attack fleet will let it rip with their superior bad-assitude.

Resistance is, as is the way of things, futile, a point demonstrated by the casual obliteration of humanity's fighter jets, armies, and assorted postcard monuments.

With his new bride (Joan Taylor) by his side, Marvin gains Pentagon support to build a super-raygun that exploits a weakness in the spaceships' propulsion fields. Then the gloves come off as humans and saucers duke it out with apocalyptic brio on the White House lawn and elsewhere throughout the Eisenhower administration.

The actors in Earth vs. The Flying Saucers don't embarrass themselves, even when their characters are dime-novel cutouts with dialogue earnest to the point of calcification. Only a cad would complain that the abundant scientific jargon baloneys through the "sci" half of the sci-fi equation, or that the helmeted aliens are dull stiff-legged tin men.

Like the following year's 20 Million Miles to Earth, this sprocketed prufrock is not Citizen Kane, nor was it meant to be. Earth vs. the Flying Saucers stands tall above most of its drive-in kin thanks to the sheer spectacle of Harryhausen's painstaking model animation effects. The whirring gunmetal-gray spaceships, dishing out destruction as they leap off the pages of magazines schoolboys hid behind their math books, still offer testimony to Harryhausen's uniquely subtle and expressive imagination and skill.

Genre stalwart Curt Siodmak contributed to the script and director Fred F. Sears (who helmed nine movies in '56 alone) kept the engine running with zero flair yet with straight-faced aplomb and gosh-wow vigor.

It's all high goofiness, but as one of Harryhausen's early black-and-white popcorn flicks (recently well colorized for DVD and Blu-ray), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers helped set the table for Jason and the Argonauts, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Mysterious Island, First Men in the Moon, and other achievements that solidified his name as a maestro whose influence on fantastical films remains palpable today.

Triviata: That's Paul Frees' uncredited voice, very familiar to at least two generations, providing both the narration and the voice of the alien attack force. In 1996, Tim Burton, with an affectionate wink and a nod, saluted Earth vs. the Flying Saucers in Mars Attacks.

Music: The Who, Who's Next
Near at hand: Ceramic coaster with an inset Claddagh design.