Sunday, June 30, 2013

Bad Company

Walter White, schoolteacher

I have an instinctive aversion to hype. Many times when I start reading about how some new TV show is the most awesome thing in the history of mankind, I'm immediately skeptical and avoid it for a long time, catching up long after the initial fuss has died down if then.  I've heard such things about the show Breaking Bad over the years and I paid little attention. It seemed as though every other new show coming out on cable the last few years shared this one's storyline of a decent person being corrupted by something or other. The very plot line of this show, a suburban parent getting mixed up in the drug trade, was paralleled by another program, Weeds. Still I saw that Breaking Bad seemed to scoop up awards every year so there looked to be something to it.  Recently I noticed that the show was available on Netflix Instant so a few days ago I finally sat down and began to watch the first episodes. My initial impression is...Holy Crap!

This show is about Walter White, a chemistry teacher living quietly in a New Mexico suburb with his pregnant wife and disabled teenage son. He is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and immediately starts worrying about what he's going to leave for his family when he dies. When his brother, a DEA agent, starts telling him about how lucrative the local drug trade is,  he decides to join forces with Jesse Pinkman, one of his former students who's now a small time drug dealer, to make and sell crystal meth. They try to sell the stuff to a bigger local dealer and things go very badly with Walter ending responsible for the deaths of two people  and an hitherto pent-up dark side starting to emerge.

I'm only four episodes into the first season so far and I'm really impressed by the focus of the storytelling and the depth of the characters.  I can already tell that Bryan Cranston deserved every acting award he's gotten for playing Walter White. Without often saying anything he expresses through his face and body a world of swirling emotions like horror, anguish, and rage. He looks like a man totally out of his depth most of the time but when pressed, there's an anger and potential for violence that takes less and less prompting to emerge. It's probably going to be significant that so far he has gone from beating up a high school jock making fun of his son and killing a drug dealer in self defense to destroying a man's car just because he's an obnoxious loudmouth. All the scripts so far have been by creator Vince Gilligan and I love the way that he has neither Walter nor any of the other characters give long soliloquies explaining their actions and thoughts. Most of their inner feelings are conveyed through gesture and expression.

This also applies to the Jesse Pinkman character played by Aaron Paul.  At first the guy is practically comic relief, a white suburban B-boy wannabe who talks in thick hip-hop slang and has a whacked out response to everything Walter says or does. As the episodes go on though, he starts to ripen into a real person.  In the last program I watched "Cancer Man"  he spends some time in his parents' house after running from his own place in a paranoiac, drug-fueled panic and it's poignant to see his futile attempts to connect with his parents and highly achieving kid brother.  You get the feeling there is basically a good man inside him and I have a feeling that knowledge is going to become wrenching as things go along.

I know I'm catching up with this show late. I'm just up to the point where Walter has told his family and friends about the cancer and he starts using the money from his one (and supposedly only) drug deal for his treatment.  Five seasons have been broadcast and the sixth and last starts in August, so I've got a ways to go.  I've heard a couple of general plot developments, that Walter gets deeper and deeper into the drug trade, his cancer goes into remission and his wife finds out what's he's doing.  Other than that I don't know any of the rest of the story and I don't want to yet. I have no idea what happens to the son, the drug cop brother-in-law or anyone else who comes into the plot.  I'm just very confident this show is going to be one hell of a ride.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Bobby Blue Bland

Damn. Another of the great ones has gone. R.I.P., Bobby.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Movie Roundup #18: Building A Mystery

Mystery House (1938) / The Patient In Room 18 (1938)

These two obscure b-movies were put together on a DVD for one of Warner Archive's mystery collections with good reason.  They're both derived from the books of mystery novelist Mignon G. Eberhart, specifically ones that featured the recurring characters of nurse Sarah Keate and detective Lance O'Leary.

Patient was actually the first movie released and came from Eberhart's first book.  The movie told the story of O'Leary being sent to a private hospital for a rest cure and getting involved in the murder of a wealthy patient and the theft of some valuable radium. I've never read Eberhart's books and don't know their tone but this film comes out as a standard romantic comedy-mystery featuring constant bickering between Keate, played by Ann Sheridan, and O'Leary, played by Patric Knowles, who happens to be her on again-off again boyfriend. Knowles tries to be the flippant smartass sort typical of the period but he ends up just this side of annoying. The mystery itself is intriguing but not too difficult. I figured it out pretty early on the simple principle of which character seemed to have the least motive.  The cast has a couple of familiar faces but is devoid of any colorful members of the regular Warner Brothers stock company. It's an okay picture but not really memorable.

The romantic comedy approach must not have brought in an audience because the other Eberhart adaptation, Mystery House, from the novel The Mystery Of Hunting's End, did things a little differently. Here Sheridan played nurse Keate again but O'Leary this time was played by Dick Purcell who is as suave and debonair as a block of wood. His character did not show up until the middle of the movie and was prone to getting knocked out every so often.  Somehow though he did eventually solve the film's mystery of murders at a snowed-in hunting lodge. The supporting cast was even more watered down and anonymous this time around though there was one familiar face, William Hopper who twenty years later would be wearing loud sport jackets and helping Raymond Burr solve crimes on a certain TV show called Perry Mason.

It's never a good sign when the detective hero gets second billing.
The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935)

This film came out a couple of years before the Warners pair from Republic Studios and was the first screen adaptation of an Ellery Queen novel.  I'm a Queen fan but I haven't read this particular novel.  From reports though this treatment follows the book pretty well despite dialing down a few lurid details. It has Queen leave New York for a vacation in California only to encounter the corpse of a man sitting on the beach clad only in an opera cape and swim trunks.  There is good creepy atmosphere to this film but also a few aggravating elements like a terminally unfunny comic relief police chief. Donald Woods, who I know mainly from playing James Cagney's older brother in The Public Enemy, does a good job capturing the studious, pontificating side of Queen but the script also has him being a totally out-of-character skirt chaser. When not sleuthing he spends his time flirting with top-billed Helen Twelvetrees, an early talkies star whose fame seemed to be on the decline by the time of this movie.  The movie's a little schizophrenic in tone but still entertaining overall.

The Fire Within (1963)

As I watched this Louis Malle film I felt like I was having one of those "deja va all over again" moments.  The film concerns a man who is living in a detox clinic while dealing with alcoholism.  He is estranged from his wife who lives in New York and is having suicidal thoughts.  He leaves the clinic for the day and spends it trying  to reconnect with old friends and find a reason to go on living but in the end goes back to the clinic and shoots himself.

With some changes that is also the basic plot of the Norwegian film Oslo August 31st which I found so unpleasant.  That's because both movies come from the same source, a 1931 French novel called Le Feu Follet.  Despite having the same bleak ending I liked Fire Within a bit more than Oslo. In that film the protagonist's life is on a constant downward spiral. His sister abandons him, his friends tell him things are hopeless and he sabotages his own job interview.  In Malle's film the protagonist is more the victim of his own alienation and inability to deal with a vibrant, lively world.  He has friends who care about him and try to talk him off the ledge but t's his own internal despair that does him in. Things may end badly for the guy but at least hope is out there as an option in this film.

The film, made during the early flowering of the French New Wave, has some of its style in jump cut editing and visual digressions and feels really alive (no pun intended). Maurice Ronet projects a convincing integrity as the main character and the supporting cast of people in his life, including Jeanne Moreau as an indolent, opium-smoking artist, is convincing. This film has real depth and drama to it. It's not an exercise in cheap nihilism..

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Movie Roundup #17: "...and looking very relaxed, Adolph HItler on vibes..."

The Bonzos

Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band - 40th Anniversary Celebration (2006)

It usually strikes me as a bit sad when members of an ancient rock band that split up many years ago decide to reunite and take their greying bodies out on a concert tour, trying to revisit all the familiar songs they had when they were much younger and really cared.  This DVD is not one of those sad cases.

This marks a reunion concert by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, a British unit of the late 60's and early 70's who specialized in satiric humor and psychedelic rock tunes crossed with 1920's jazz and pop.  They were very popular in England in their day and their wacky, surrealist humor really made them popular among other well-known cultural icons. Paul McCartney produced their one hit single "I'm The Urban Spaceman" and the band performed their song "Deathcab For Cutie" in the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour film. After they broke up, one of the band's lead singers and writers, Neil Innes, fell in with Monty Python, writing songs for most of the Python movies as well as doing the music for and starring as one of the Rutles in Eric Idle's Beatles parody All You Need Is Cash.

For this one off 40th anniversary show all the living original members returned.  Innes, Roger Ruskin Spear, "Rhino" Rodney Slater, Vernon Dudley Bohay Nowell, Sam Spoons, "Legs" Larry Smith, and Bob Kerr were all grayer and scragglier than they once were, but still up to playing their old songs and running about the stage with crazy props and costumes doing wild old vaudeville gags.  Innes played MC and did most of the singing, still possessed of the great shouting tenor voice he always had. The most glaring absence was Vivian Stanshall, the band's other lead singer and the most mericliess satirist, who passed away in 1995.

Bolstered by a few extra musicians the band started out with the 20's songs they played in their early days like "Whispering" and "The Sheik Of Araby" featuring spoons and musical saw solos.  Then they slid into their original work,  Innes cheerfully belting his great old songs like "The Equestrian Statue" and "We Are Normal".  This part of the show was titled heavily towards Stanshall's more comic numbers and since he wasn't there to do them, several popular British comedians, all from the generation that would have grown up with the Bonzos, enthusiastically filled in. Adrian Edmondson grunted his way through the operatic attack on suburban life "My Pink Half Of The Drainpipe" and ran around in a parrot costume for "Mr. Slater's Parrot".  Stephen Fry got to do the more upper class monologues like "Rhinocractic Oaths", Paul Merton, a new name to me, sang "Monster Mash" and Phil Jupitus, a round presence I also didn't know bellowed out the bodybuilding song "Mr. Apollo" and rolled on the floor while moaning the Elvis sendup "Canyons Of Your Mind".

I bought all of the Bonzo albums back in the day after the group had broken up and never saw them in their heyday.  It was a pleasure to finally see them perform, older but still full of crazy energy.

Carnegie Hall (1947)

When someone says "They don't make them like that anymore." this movie is a prime example.  Actually a two hour plus film concentrating on classical music is something they rarely made  even in 1947.  Back then high musical culture in the movies usually meant having someone like pianist Jose Iturbi play a classical piece in some MGM musical then come back later in the picture and play some boogie woogie to show he's really a down to earth guy.

 This independent production is a different animal, being full of unadulterated performances by the leading classical starts of the time like Rise Stevens and Artur Rubenstein.  These come in the services of a simple plot about a mother who works at Carnegie Hall and raises her son to be a classical pianist.  Unfortunately he encounters a pretty girl singer and dance bands and goes off to make his way in the popular music world.  He does this by joining the band of singer Vaughan Monroe, a stiff baritone vocalist remembered today if at all for "Ghost Riders In The Sky".  It's a bit odd today to see him regarded as a symbol of hip modern music but he's probably the best the producers could afford after shelling out for all the high-priced classical talent. Harry James shows up and plays trumpet near the end so that's an improvement.  The dramatic parts are wel carried well especially by Marsha Hunt as the mother, playing her more loving than domineering. William Prince is the son and Frank McHugh, sporting a bushy mustache and an Irish accent, is around as a family friend. It's a decent show and an interesting showcase for a lot of great classical names.

Actually, "jail bait" in this film refers to a gun, but the producers had other things on their minds.
Jail Bait (1954)

Thanks to Tim Burton and Plan 9 From Outer Space Ed Wood has come to be seen as the patron saint of bad movie making but all of his movies weren't as outlandish as the famous ones that featured cross dressing, Tor Johnson and a fake Bela Lugosi.  Jail Bait is a good example of that, a cheap little crime film that on the whole isn't too hard to take. Its plot concerns the son of a prominent plastic surgeon who falls in with a small time gangster and goes out to rob a theater. The robbery goes badly and the gangster ends up going to the surgeon to get a new face. As you might expect that doesn't end well.

Outside of the presence of Wood regular Dolores Fuller as the surgeon's daughter and some odd, stilted dialogue there is nothing that marks this as what has come to be known as "an Ed Wood film".  There are familiar players of the period like Lyle Talbot and Timothy Farrell in the leads and the production looks low budget but that's par for the course in this kind of cheapie.  The oddest features are what was recycled for this film. The music score was a repetitive guitar and piano theme by future Hanna-Barbera composer Hoyt Curtin that was used the previous year in the film Mesa Of Lost Women. Even odder, when a excerpt of the theater's stage show is shown, it's actually a comedy routine from the minstrel film, Yes Sir, Mr. Bones. Otherwise the film is most notable for being the screen debut of future Hercules Steve Reeves.  It's not a great movie but it's not long enough to be an obnoxious groaner either.