Tuesday, June 30, 2009

DVR-TiVo-Or whatever recording device strikes your fancy-alert!

I apologize for not catching this sooner, but if you’re fortunate enough to receive TCM on Demand, you can treat yourself to the great comedy two-reeler Nurse to You! (1935) starring TDOY fave Charley Chase for a limited time (TCM’ll snatch it off their On Demand schedule July 4th). This is not only one of my favorite Chase sound shorts, but it receives beaucoup kudos from Leonard Maltin (in his invaluable The Great Movie Shorts) and Yair Solan, proprietor of the website The World of Charley Chase (from which I snatched the accompanying photo).

In Nurse, Charley plays the chief clerk for a company headed up by autocratic Clarence Wilson (the hatchet-faced old essobee from the Our Gang shorts), who refuses to allow him to take a half-hour off from work so that Charley can meet a doctor’s appointment and find out the results of an insurance physical exam he’s taken. Forced to give up his lunch period, Chase goes to the doctor (played as always with his usual aplomb by Billy Gilbert) but since he’s mistaken for another patient (a decrepit old geezer named “Chase”) he’s told he only has six months to live. Despondent over this news, he sadly makes his way back to his office when he gets a dressing-down from a traffic cop (Ben Taggart)—and as Gilbert’s words reverberate through his head, Charley not only tells off the cop, but his boss as well! It’s only when Mrs. Chase (Muriel Evans) returns home and learns of Charley’s “malady” that everything gets straightened out; in fact, not only does the boss not fire our hero—he promotes him for finally showing some backbone!

Granted, the plot in this short isn’t entirely original—but it serves as an excellent example of prime character comedy and contains some real rib-tickling gags (check out how Charley “shares” a newspaper and shoeshine). It’s also a marvelous showcase to present the neglected comic genius with one of his most sympathetic roles (I worship Chase, but sometimes his characters in the sound shorts come off as a tad obnoxious). Chase made a similar comedy in his silent days entitled The Fraidy Cat (1924), in which he plays the “coward of the county” who only discovers his gumption when he’s convinced he doesn’t have long to live. (This entertaining one-reeler boasts the casting novelty of having the neighborhood children who taunt Charley played by some of the then-Our Gangers, including Mickey Daniels and Joe Cobb.)

Update: The aforementioned Mr. Solan sent me a message via Facebook that a few other individuals are reporting The Chases of Pimple Street (1934) is also showing on TCM On Demand this week. I didn't see it in my lineup but it's possible that it may be accessible only to Bombast subscribers. Still, as Yair points out: "2 Chase talkies on demand...what a darb!"

Monday, June 29, 2009

R.I.P, Fred Travalena

The benign figure in the photograph above—for those of you who have not made his acquaintance—is Bill Crider...author, blogger, connoisseur of fine monster movie/serial trailers and on occasion, crotchety old man. (Yes, the one I crack all the “You kids get offa my lawn” jokes about.) I’ve never met Bill in person, but I consider him a solid compadre, for the reason that he was one of the first individuals to point out my blog and not be the teeniest bit embarrassed about it.

But I must confess that I’m a bit apprehensive about the possibility of meeting Bill in person—and that’s because I’m picturing him to look like this:

That’s right—the old Grim Reaper himself. (Unless I can talk him into a game of chess, I’m seriously boned.) I say this only because Bill, more often than not, usually has the news of the latest celebrity to snuff it up on his blog before anyone else—and I’m concerned that he may have a few connections to the underworld (and I don’t mean The Godfather, kiddies) best not talked about.

I just read on Bill’s blog that impressionist Fred Travalena has passed away at the age of 66. The name may not be familiar to many of you (his bailiwick was usually headlining the showrooms of Vegas) but I remember Fred from a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it summer TV series called Keep On Truckin’, telecast on ABC in 1975. The show featured fourteen, count ‘em, fourteen comics (male and female)—some of whom would achieve a bit o’fame afterward…many who did not. Among the familiar names: Franklin Ajaye, Didi Conn, Charles “Roger Rabbit” Fleischer, Wayland Flowers (and Madame), Jack “Mr. Carlin” Riley and Gailard “Hee Haw” Sartain. (Curiously enough, the show was originally to be introduced each week by Rod Serling, but Rod died two weeks before the show’s debut, and the introductory tapings were scrapped.)

Travalena was considered by many to be one of the most talented impressionists in the business, and I’m waiting for Mark Evanier to post some anecdotes because I’m pretty certain he crossed paths with Fred (Travalena did a lot of voice work for cartoons and the like). Keep On Truckin’ remains a mist in my memory, but I will never forget the other (pardon the pun) impression he made on me—playing Jim Nabors/Gomer Pyle in an uproarious Andy Griffith Show spoof (this one starred Merv Griffin instead of Andy Griffith) on SCTV.

Fare thee well, Fred. You will be missed.

“Nick! Heath! Jarrod! There’s a fire in the barn!”

TVShowsOnDVD.com is announcing that the Route 66: The Complete Third Season, Volume 2 collection has been rescheduled from its former August 25th date to October 20th, and that the complete set containing both volumes one and two will hit the streets on January 12th of next year (previously scheduled by Infinity-Roxbury Entertainment for November 10th). I don’t mind waiting a bit to acquire the full Monty (I think my position on “split-season” releases has been made quite clear) but I would be a bit remiss if I didn’t point out that I could have hand-walked Route 66 up and back in the time it’s taking for Infinity to get on the stick.

The big news for vintage television fans—and classic film buffs as well—is that E1 Entertainment (the company responsible for the Studio One: Anthology collection released last November in tandem with the Archive of American Television) will bring the Emmy-winning NBC-TV anthology series The Barbara Stanwyck Show to DVD this October…October 13th, to be precise. Although this collection will, too, be a split-season release (Volume 1, containing 15 of the 36 episodes telecast) it will certainly be a welcome addition to the libraries of televised dramatic anthology fans and those who are fond of Babs as well. Stanwyck appeared in all but four of the telecasts (the remaining four served as pilots for series starring other actors that never got off the ground) and earned a trophy for Outstanding Performance by a Lead Actress in a Series; one of the shows in which she appeared (“The Miraculous Journey of ‘Tadpole Chan’” [11-14-60]) was offered up as a pilot for a potential series, and while a mail-in campaign generated enough positive buzz for her character to appear in two follow-ups—“Dragon by the Tail” {01-30-61) and “Adventure on Happiness Street” {03-20-61)”—the series never really got off the drawing board. (Four years later, of course, Stanwyck would hit pay dirt with the hit TV western The Big Valley.)

One of my favorite childhood cartoon shows, Beany & Cecil, will see a second DVD release come this September 8th—ten years after a first volume was released by Image Entertainment (and which has been long discontinued, become a collector’s item in the process)! Hen’s Tooth Video is releasing Beany & Cecil: The Special Edition, Volume 2, and the disc will contain eleven classic cartoon adventures and a fistful of bonuses and extras. (I wouldn’t have thought it possible after the overloaded Special Edition, Volume 1—but there you have it.) I was such a huge fan of this show as a sprout that I even had a Cecil-the-Sea-Sick-Serpent jack-in-the-box, and when I think what might have happened had I or my mother thought to have kept that…well, let’s just say that people would be looking at me a lot different today. (As in, “What the hell is a forty-five-year-old man doing with a jack-in-the-box?”)

As for the last item on our list, it technically doesn’t fall into the category of classic or vintage television but since it borrowed so many of its conventions (particularly from George Burns and Jack Benny) I thought it was worthy of a heads-up to point you to the news that Shout! Factory will release the complete series run (1986-90, all seventy-two episodes) of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. A series that started out on Showtime before receiving a larger audience via the fledgling Fox network (I hated watching this on Fox, by the way—they had to edit the program to stick in all those commercials) I fell in love with this sitcom the first time I saw it and at the risk of arousing the ire of Larry Sanders fans I always preferred Shandling’s simply because I identified with it more (the episode that spoofs The Fugitive is still one of my all-time favorites of any television comedy)—an accurate depiction of my life had it been turned into a sitcom. I have a feeling the price tag on this baby is going to be astronomical (I may have to go back to mowing lawns) but I’ll find someway to obtain it; who knows, in the time it takes me to get it I’ll probably learn that they’ve edited the shows due to copyright restraints and won’t want it any more.

The wonderful world of Facebook #6

Sunday, June 28, 2009

I hear you knockin’…

From my blogging compatriot Bill Crider I received the sad news that Josephine Owaissa Cottle—better known to music fans and a nation of early TV addicts as Gale Storm—has gone on to her rich reward at the age of 87. The actress-singer’s career included a flurry of B-pictures for Monogram during the 1940s and 1950s (many in westerns starring alongside “The King of the Cowboys,” Roy Rogers), two successful television sitcoms and a brief recording career that included hits like the title post, Dark Moon, Ivory Tower and Teen-Age Prayer.

Loyal Thrilling Days of Yesteryear followers know that Gale always held a special place here on the blog; this article from July of last year (“The perfect Storm”) talks about the now-forgotten The Gale Storm Show, a sitcom that followed in the wake of My Little Margie (also examined here); and even watched an entire afternoon of films on TCM in a festival I dubbed “Make Mine Monogram.” It was always hard to really dislike Storm—sure, her perkiness could get on your nerves after a time but since Margie was a constantly repeated show on the TV channels I received as a youth it was sort of hard to avoid her. (And I do wish Storm’s other series—known in syndication as Oh, Susanna!—could be made available to television audiences today.)

R.I.P, Gale. You’ll never know how much you’ll be missed.

How did these animal crackers get in my soup?

Saturday, June 27, 2009

G-Men Never Forget – Chapter 12: Exposed

OUR STORY SO FAR: Since the last write-up on this serial occurred one month ago, Ivan G. Shreve, Jr., mastermind of the Thrilling Days of Yesteryear blog, was hoping he could abandon this project and no one would notice. But Shreve underestimated loyal reader John H., who sent him an e-mail reminding him he still had the final chapter to dissect, and so our villain had little recourse but to comply with John’s request.

As for the actual serial itself, the last time we dropped in on Special Agent Ted O’Hara (Clayton Moore), he was in hot pursuit of Vic Murkland (Roy Barcroft), notorious baddie who has held an entire town in the grip of fear by posing (thanks to plastic surgery) as kindly Police Commissioner Angus Cameron in order for his criminal activities to go unnoticed. Murkland is holding O’Hara’s female sidekick, Sergeant Frances Blake (Ramsay Ames) hostage but has decided that she’s served out her usefulness and has left her unconscious behind the wheel of his getaway car…which is just now taking a header off that oh-so-familiar Republic serial cliff…


Just when it looks as if Sergeant Blake is going to end up a crispy critter when Murkland’s escape car leaps off a cliff and explodes upon impact, her stunt double manages to jump from the vehicle in an incredibly unexpected turn of events…and I use that phrase with as much sarcasm as I can muster. As Ted comes to her rescue, and does the gentlemanly thing by helping her to her feet, the screen soon becomes filled with blaring newspaper headlines trumpeting: “SEARCH ON FOR CROOKED OFFICER” and “POLICE COMMISSONER EXPOSED”. A third headline screams “CAMERON ALLIED WITH MURKLAND,” which means, of course, that O’Hara still hasn’t figured out that Murkland and Cameron are one and the same. (This is not to say, of course, that there is no Cameron—he’s just spending some time “resting” at the sanitarium run by kindly old “Doc” Benson [Stanley Price].) Meanwhile, Murkland and Benson are in the sanitarium’s “receiving area” when Murkland’s flunky Duke Graham (Drew Allen) enters with a late-breaking bulletin:

GRAHAM: There’s a roadblock on…police barricades…there’s no way out of town…railway and bus stations are guarded, the airports…
MURKLAND (interrupting): You weren’t trying to run out on us, were ya?
GRAHAM: No, but we’ve all got to leave town and I thought…
MURKLAND: Suppose you shut up and let me do the thinking around here…

Dukie, this might not be the proper time or place to say this…but maybe you ought to seriously consider getting into another line of work. I hear Sonic’s hiring…

MURKLAND: You don’t think I went into this without a plan, do ya?

If that question is directed at me, the answer is “yes.”

MURKLAND: You know why I’ve been keeping Cameron alive?
GRAHAM: Sure I do, but if the law finds him…
MURKLAND: They’ll find him, all right…they’ll find his charred body in the burned ruins of this joint! He’ll be identified as the wanted commissioner, and the hunt will be over and we’ll move to new hunting grounds…

And you thought that Murkland was just grasping at straws for one last desperate bid at freedom. There’s only one small drawback to this plan: all of Murkland’s ready cash is tucked away in…wait for it…Cameron’s office closet—and the thought of going into what is clearly a trap causes Graham to not only wet himself but spill some sodium pentothal on the sleeve of his suit. Murkland is able to convince the feeble-minded Duke that it will be a cinch to get the loot (“I’m not expecting anyone to come back to the office so it won’t be guarded”) and tells him to take along his flunky Slocum (Dale Van Sickel…again) to do the job. (Sure, they’ve done this so many times, and the plans go hopelessly awry at the last minute…but this time it’s bound to work!)

The bells of the town clock begin to peal at 10:00pm, and we find the two henchmen entering the office and looking for the secret compartment that Murkland has stashed the money in. But surprise! The ever resourceful if slightly thick-as-a-plank O’Hara found the money that morning, and he’s been waiting patiently for someone to break into the office to go scrounging for it. The guns start a-blazing, and O’Hara and Duke shoot it out when Slocum is fortunate to make a hasty retreat. Outside the office, Francis is curiously putting in some overtime when she hears shooting inside; she opens the door to find Duke pointing a pistol straight at her…but he’s felled by a shot from Ted, who pronounces: “That’s the end of Duke Graham.” Ted then tells Frances he’ll arrange for the coroner to have the dear, departed Duke’s clothing sent to his place (clearly you can see where this is going) and instructs to contact the phone company for a record of all phone calls made from this office (something I would have thought had been taken care of a good while ago, but then the serial would have been about four chapters long).

Back at the sanitarium, Benson begins to worry about the fact that Duke hasn’t gotten back, and Murkland reassures “Doc” everything is fine. It is, in fact, Slocum who gets in touch with the two men via Ma Bell:

SLOCUM: O’Hara trapped us…the money’s gone and they’ve got Duke…
BENSON: All right…go into hiding, but do not come here…
(Benson hangs up the phone, and then proceeds to stare at Murkland.)
MURKLAND: Bring Cameron in here…

Murkland throws a chewed-on matchstick to the floor (music sting)…meanwhile, Frances has arrived at Ted’s bachelor digs and he’s got the Junior Mr. Wizard Chemistry Set out again, analyzing the peculiar stain on Graham’s clothing:

O’HARA: Hello, Sarge…

Look, I don’t know how these two will end up when this thing comes to an end, but I’ll bet dollars to donuts that little pet name for her is one of the first things that will go.

O’HARA: What did you find out?
BLAKE: Here’s a list of phone calls from Cameron’s office…most of them went to the Chief of Police…
O’HARA: Naturally…
BLAKE: …and after that, the D.A…
O’HARA: Mm-hmm…and then the mayor…
BLAKE: No…after the D.A., most of them went to Benson’s Sanitarium
O’HARA: I know where it is…and it clicks!

Probably the doors…the hinges could sure use some WD-40.

O’HARA: The sleeve of Duke Graham’s coat shows an indication of sodium pentothal…a drug they use in the treatment of mental patients

“As for this other stain…well, it’s clearly urine…”

BLAKE: Then maybe the sanitarium is Murkland’s hideout!
O’HARA: That’s just what we’re going to find out, Sarge…

So, it’s off to the sanitarium—where at this time, Commissioner Cameron is being brought into the receiving area at gunpoint by Benson. He’s instructed by the medico to put on his clothes:

CAMERON: Well—what is this, Murkland? Lost your nerve?
MURKLAND: Do as you’re told! Unless you want a shot in the back

Cameron gets dressed, and his “personal effects” are handed to him by Benson.

CAMERON: What’s the idea, Murkland? Don’t tell me O’Hara’s finally caught up to you…
MURKLAND: Not with me…but he did find out that Commissioner Cameron is working with Murkland…there’s a manhunt on for the Commissioner…and they’re going to find him…dead!

Cameron lunges at Murkland, who knocks his adversary to the floor…Cameron then receives a nice blow to the head courtesy of Benson, who hits him with a sugared-glass bottle. The two men decide to stash Cameron in his room, start the fire and…adios, muchachos! The blaze is going full guns, and Murkland and Benson are ready to get the hell out of Dodge when…wouldn’t ya know it, O’Hara and Blake pull up. (Don’t you hate people who drop in without calling first?) Murkland orders Benson to stall our heroes and “see if you can get rid of ‘em.”

O’HARA: Where have you got Commissioner Cameron?
BENSON: Commissioner Cameron? What would he be doing here? I just read that he was in trouble, but…
BLAKE: Then why did he telephone here all the time?
BENSON: Telephone?
O’HARA: That’s right, Benson…
BENSON: Oh, yes…uh…he had a niece who was a patient of mine for quite sometime…he used to make inquiries about her daily…

O’Hara isn’t buying this balloon juice (though in Benson’s defense, it’s kinda hard to come up with a good lie when there’s a fire raging behind the door of your office) and finding Murkland’s matchsticks on the floor isn’t selling the story either. In a flash, Murkland emerges through the door and starts throwing punches at Ted while Frances gets to tangle with the soft-as-a-grape Benson. Benson makes a feeble attempt to head for the hills, but Frances is on his tail—and the donnybrook between Murkland and Ted gets pretty spirited until Murkland knocks out Ted with another sugared-glass bottle. He’s about to administer the coup de Gracie when Cameron emerges from his cell and plugs his look-alike with lead:

CAMERON: You saved my life, O’Hara…glad I was able to reciprocate by killing Murkland…
O’HARA (more than a bit confused): Murkland? Well, then…who…?

Frances returns to the office with Benson handcuffed to a beat cop (I don’t think Doc will be doing any more nip ‘n’ tuck for a while), and she’s also accompanied by District Attorney MacLain (Frank O’Connor):

MacLAIN (to another cop flunky): Send in a fire alarm…what have you got, O’Hara?
O’HARA: I got Cameron…and Murkland…I’m not sure which is which!
CAMERON (stretching out his hand to MacLain for a hearty handclasp): How are you, MacLain? So Murkland even fooled the District Attorney…

Yeah, and don’t think MacLain’s opponent won’t remind folks of that come election time…

CAMERON: …Doctor Benson did a plastic surgery job on Murkland sometime ago, and he’s been holding down my office ever since…
MacLAIN (to the beat cop): All right, Al—take him away… (Philosophically) The most amazing case…
CAMERON: One that will be remembered by my department for a long time…
BLAKE: Right, Ted…G-Men never forget…
(Group laughter…and fade out.)

Epilogue
The plot of G-Men Never Forget (1948) may be an amazing case, but it’s certainly not an amazing serial. Many of the post-war Republics—while competently made and featuring far-superior production skills than their Columbia counterparts—have a mechanical feel to them, a sort-of paint-by-numbers approach that can be largely attributed to G-Men’s director, Fred C. Brannon. Brannon directed the majority of the cliffhanger product after William Witney graduated to Roy Rogers westerns (making some of the very best in that series) and John English hitched his wagon to Gene Autry’s. Brannon’s direction rarely reached any level beyond uninspired, and to call him a traffic cop would be heady praise indeed.

Brannon had a little assistance on this serial from Yakima Canutt, a legendary stuntman and second unit director whose previous directorial efforts at Republic included Manhunt of Mystery Island (1945) and Federal Operator 99 (1945) (both with Spencer Gordon Bennet) and later serials (in tandem with Brannon) included Dangers of the Canadian Mounted (1948) and Adventures of Frank and Jesse James (1948). With Canutt on board, you were guaranteed that at least the fight scenes would be first-rate (a definite plus in G-Men) but apart from that he didn’t leave much of a stamp—Mystery Island is probably the best of the bunch. (Though I think this gentleman might disagree.)

Another positive in G-Men is Roy Barcroft’s rare appearance as a good guy (as Cameron); when it came to serial villainy, very few actors could match Barcroft’s knack for pure dang-nasty evil…though it’s hard not to notice that the Murkland character gets more screen time, which is probably as it should be. The only other nice guy part I’ve seen Barcroft in (I’m sure there are many others) is a tiny role as “The Judge” in the 1969 Steve McQueen film The Reivers; most of the time the first moment you saw him onscreen you knew he’d be up to no good. (Among his highpoints of villainy: Captain Mephisto in Mystery Island [the actor often singled this out as his favorite], the titled bad guy of The Purple Monster Strikes [1945] and Hank Kilgore in Ghost of Zorro [1949].)

As for the other performers…they don’t fare so well. We all know Clayton Moore from the days of watching TV’s The Lone Ranger, and while that role fit the actor like a glove he had a tendency to be a bit of a stiff in other parts, particularly when he was assigned to be the hero. (That’s why I get a kick out of seeing Moore as the bad guy in serials like The Crimson Ghost [1946] and Radar Men from the Moon [1952]—at least it allowed him something different to do.) Ramsay Ames actually makes Moore look like a master thespian; the former dancer-singer was featured in only a few serials—including one of my favorite post-war Republics, The Black Widow (1947), and Columbia’s The Vigilante: Fighting Hero of the West (1947)—but for the most part found herself relegated to bit parts in B-pics and Westerns. (For some odd reason, I always remember with great fondness Ames’ turn in The Mummy's Ghost [1944], the penultimate (and daffiest) feature in the Universal “Mummy” series.)

I purchased my copy of G-Men from AC Comics, and was fortunate to procure it when it was part of a half-price sale…if you’re thinking about grabbing a copy you could probably locate it cheaper elsewhere. The AC Comics copy also contains Chapter Two of The Spider's Web (1938) as a bonus, a serial I discussed a good many years ago and is considered by many to be one of the best to emerge from the Columbia Studios fold.

A blog post is born

Friday, June 26, 2009

“Bigger. Better. Faster. Cheaper.”

This article (“Neality TV”) mentioned over at RGJ’s Television Obscurities piqued my interest this week—it talks about broadcasting impresario Neal Sabin, the mastermind behind Me-TV and Me, Too…which many individuals lucky to receive the two channels have either e-mailed or commented to me that it’s everything the once-proud TV Land used to be. Sabin describes his childhood fascination with television, which sounds eerily like a young kid who later grew up to write a blog about the same subject:

Regarding that passion, his five-foot eight-inch frame was quite possibly hard-wired with coaxial cable at birth. A common occurrence throughout his childhood: “I broke the tuner on my parents’ old Motorola furniture television so many times, switching between all of the channels and shows I wanted to watch, that it got to the point where the repairmen took the set out of the house because they wanted to try to better understand what I kept doing to it.” And: “My father was a corporate attorney who traveled a lot for business. I would ask him to bring back TV guides from the cities he went to so I could see the lineups that other cities had. Then I would write them all down and make up my own lineups. I even made up some of my own shows—a talk show or whatever. This was when I was ten years old.”

Positively scary. (My father wasn’t an attorney, but the rest of it is dead-on accurate.)

According to the article, Me-TV and Me, Too (Me stands for “Memorable Entertainment”) are available to Bombast Comcast and RCN subscribers, while only Dish and DirecTV carry Me. Sabin’s newest channel, This, is also briefly mentioned in the article—it showcases films from the MGM library, and runs a few classic TV shows as well: Mister Ed, Patty Duke, Bat Masterson and The Outer Limits. The interesting thing about This is that I was not aware that I got the channel (via CharredHer) until today, when I went hunting for something to look at during lunch and found that Scream Blacula Scream (1973) was showing on WNEG, an independent Toccoa, GA television station that was sold to the University of Georgia Research Foundation last year and will be used as a training facility for students in UGA’s Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. (The WNEG studios will be moved to UGA sometime this year, and plans are being made to add local programming to the This/America One lineup.)

I’m always pumped to see classic television represented on TV stations in any form possible—particularly since the crack staff at TV Land (and I call them that because they’re on crack) seem heckbent on destroying their own network with crap like Reality High School. I just wish some of the reruns were on a bit earlier during This’ daylight hours; the way they’re scheduled now even insomniacs are starting to get drowsy and night auditors are ready to call it a day.

Been there, done that, bought the soundtrack...

Thursday, June 25, 2009

R.I.P. Farrah and Jacko

When you’ve spent the better part of your day watching Budd Boetticher films on Turner Classic Movies, sometimes you have a tendency to miss the important things in life. Like the news of Farrah Fawcett’s passing at the age of 62 from cancer, or the bulletin announced a few hours ago that the “King of Pop,” Michael Jackson, died of cardiac arrest at the age of 50. Fortunately, I keep abreast of all these developments—as well as the one-liners—via Facebook, which proves that it is good for something after all (though the repercussions that I’m starting to get all my news from FB is a little unsettling at best).

Practically every pre-pubescent, red-blooded American male had the famous poster to your right hanging on the wall of his bedroom…except me, because quite frankly Farrah was never really my cup of Earl Grey. I was only thirteen years old when Charlie’s Angels made its debut on the ABC network, and even then it insulted my intelligence to the point where I would leave my younger sister Debbie to it, muttering about the lack of taste in modern television audiences (I was channeling my inner Brent McKee even then, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I told the neighborhood kids to stay off our lawn in Bill Crider-fashion). As an actress, Farrah was very limited and to me she came off as little more than a Stepford wife; but as we all know, The Blind Squirrel Theory of Film™ states that there’s always something on a performer’s resume that stands out as first-rate work…and in Fawcett’s case it was her mesmerizing portrayal of preacher Robert Duvall’s wife in the 1997 film The Apostle.

As for Jacko—well, the fact that I’m probably the only individual without a copy of his behemoth LP Thriller might demonstrate that I was never a huge fan (although sister Kat did have a copy…and played it endlessly much to my torment); but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I Want You Back is one of my favorite oldies—more so because a woman I once worked with in Morgantown broke out in a spirited dance when we played this on a CD player and demonstrated moves I didn’t think were possible for a person of her vintage (let alone mine). I’ll say nothing further about the tragic ending to his life and career—except that it won’t be long before the “Jacko isn’t really dead” rumors start…which is good for me, since I have sure-fire winning numbers in the pool.

R.I.P, Farrah and Michael. You will be missed.

Early to Budd, early to rise

Since I found myself wide awake this morning shortly after 6am, I decided to mosey out to the living room for a little TCM time—particularly since the channel is continuing their Great Directors Festival with a tribute to Oscar “Budd” Boetticher, Jr., a man who cemented his cinematic fame with a series of B-westerns in the 1950s starring Western icon Randolph Scott and produced by Harry Joe Brown. The lineup included the two Scott-Boetticher oaters I had not seen—Buchanan Rides Alone (1958) and Comanche Station (1960)—plus several other outstanding entries in the Boetticher oeuvre, as well as the documentary Budd Boetticher: A Man Can Do That. (This doc and the aforementioned shoot-‘em-ups are all available in a DVD box set released last November by Sony; it’s just that I hadn’t gotten around to opening it up yet.)

But before that, I tuned into one of Boetticher’s early efforts, a B-picture entitled Escape in the Fog (1945)—which stars Nina Foch as an honorably discharged Army nurse who for reasons unexplained experiences a recurrent dream in which a gentleman (William Wright) at the hospital she’s staying at is attacked by two other men climbing out of a taxi. Her friend, posing as a psychiatrist, is in actuality a federal agent who’s given an assignment by his superior (top-billed Otto Kruger) to travel to Hong Kong with a valuable list containing the names of those individuals assisting the Allies during WW2. (Konstantin Shayne, Ivan Triesault and Ernie Adams are among the Nazi bad guys trying to stop Wright from completing his task.) This movie starts out on a intriguing note, but about a half-hour in begins to get—as Graham Chapman might have phrased it—very silly…very silly indeed. (It’s actually less plausible than the plot of your average cliffhanger serial, to be honest.) Still, it was worth a glance to see Budd still finding his way—Boetticher had already learned that fog was the B-movie director’s best friend.

Fog is showcased in the Boetticher doc (and includes a clip or two) as is Budd’s first directorial credit, One Mysterious Night (1944)—one of the better Boston Blackie entries that I skipped a) because I’d already seen it and b) because it was halfway over by the time I got out of bed. What puzzled me about A Man Can Do That, however, is that Boetticher’s 1956 police procedural The Killer Is Loose is not even mentioned; Killer is one of my favorite Boetticher flicks, in which Wendell Corey—with the possible exception of Rear Window—enjoys his finest hour onscreen as Leon “Foggy” Poole, a milquetoast teller whose involvement in the hold-up of the building and loan company at which he’s punching a time clock results in the killing of his wife by trigger-happy Sam Wagner (Joseph Cotten). At his trial, Poole swears he’ll get even with Sam for croaking his missus, and two years later, uses his trustee status on an honor farm to make a break for it and go after Mrs. Wagner (Rhonda Fleming). This sadly neglected noir has a real nail-biting climax, and appearances from Alan Hale, Jr., Virginia Christine, Michael Pate, John Larch (as Poole’s ex-Army sergeant) and Dee J. Thompson. Catch this one if you haven’t seen it.

After Killer, I sat down and thoroughly enjoyed Comanche Station—though I probably would have enjoyed it more had the Boetticher documentary (which was on beforehand) not ruined the ending for me by showing it among the clips from Budd’s films. I’m not going to be evil and follow in their footsteps; I’m only going to tell you that the plot involves bounty hunter Jefferson Cody (Scott) and his rescue of a woman (Nancy Gates) kidnapped by Comanches; the two later meet up with Cody’s old Army buddy Ben Lane (Claude Akins) and his two saddle pals (Skip Homier, Richard Rust)—three men who would appear to be more of a threat than the Comanches that are on Cody’s tail. Station is considered one of the best Scott-Boetticher outings (John DiLeo has very heady praise for it in his book Screen Savers: 40 Remarkable Movies Awaiting Rediscovery) and while I don’t dislike the film I’m hesitant to call it the best (I prefer The Tall T [1957] or Ride Lonesome [1959]); it’s a bit derivative of the other westerns in the series: Akins’ character—the “doppelganger” to Scott’s “good guy”—is too similar to Lee Marvin’s splendid villain in Seven Men from Now (1956), and much of the dialogue between Akins and Rust is just rehashed from Lonesome. (I did, however, get a kick out of Akins’ Ben Lane’s refrain of “Hello!” when someone calls him by name.) But don’t let my opinion discourage you from seeing it; it’s a most worthy endeavor.

Buchanan Rides Alone (1958), on the other hand, is a real treat—it’s definitely the most offbeat of all the Scott-Boetticher oaters, with an unusually passive Scott (at times it’s like his character wandered into an extended episode of Maverick) finding himself in a corrupt border town run by an equally corrupt family (Barry Kelly, Tol Avery, Peter Whitney) and becoming embroiled in their feud when he attempts to help a Mexican prisoner (Manuel Rojas). Scott’s attitude in the beginning (“Isn’t there anybody in this town who ain’t named Agry?”) to what he calls a “ten-dollar town” (everything, including the price of a hotel room and a steak costs a sawbuck) reminds me of James Garner’s plight in Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969), a film that Burt Kennedy (who goes uncredited, but he worked on Buchanan with Charles Lang) later wrote and directed. (For a nice write-up on this one, check out “Uncle” Samuel Wilson’s take here.)

As I write this, Ride Lonesome is about to come to a close and I plan to re-visit Decision at Sundown (1957)—even though I consider it the weakest of the Scott-Boetticher collaborations. But at 5:30pm, I’m finally going to make time to see Bullfighter and the Lady (1951)—a film that has been on my must-see/must-tape list for quite some time now.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Oscar bash

Well, if you’re just turning on your computer you might be interested in this little piece of information—the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences announced today that they’re going to up the number of Best Picture nominees (beginning in 2009) from five to ten, and this has unleashed a largely negative response from film fans and buffs, chiefly revolving around the burning question: “Where in the hell are they going to come up with ten nominees?”

This move by the Academy—considered radical by many—isn’t entirely unprecedented. Back in 1932, they recognized eight nominees for the top prize, and then added two more for those flicks honored in 1933-34. Ten films was the standard, Oscar-wise, until 1945 when they reverted back to five and only five. Laura at Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings rightly points out that in those years, it was possible to find ten movies to be nominated and still leave a worthy candidate or two out of the running.

“Uncle” Samuel Wilson doesn’t completely dismiss this innovation, remarking “If the list becomes less ‘elitist’ than it supposedly is already, I tremble at the prospect.” (Unk was one of many who felt The Dark Knight got the Bat-shaft by being left off of the Best Picture nominations list last year.) Ed Copeland’s take on the news is a bit subdued at his blog (though I dearly love his observation: “While we’re at it, let’s start lobbying for the return of the Artistic Quality of Production category now”) but over on Facebook he wasn’t afraid to pull out a shiv and wisecrack: “I can’t wait for the FYC campaign for Paul Blart: Mall Cop.” (To be honest, Ed's post title--"They have a hard time coming up with 5 some years"--is something I will take a small exception to...in light of the reams of paper and millions of electrons expended so that critics can piss and moan after the nominees are announced: "They left [title] off the list...and [title]...and what about [title]?")

Those of you who read Thrilling Days of Yesteryear and still manage to maintain friendships know that I’m a bit of a sourpuss when it comes to this whole Academy Award business; I’ve always maintained that since the inception of the Oscars they continue—with a few exceptions—to get it wrong each and every year since. So I really don’t have a dog in this fight—I consider the Oscars to be little more than gratuitous back-patting (I’ve always loved Warren Beatty’s remarks at the 1976 ceremony: “We want to thank all of you for watching us congratulate ourselves tonight”) and any increase in the number of nominated films isn’t going to change the status of the Oscar telecasts from being an indeterminably long dog-and-pony show. (Dissenting views are, as always, welcome in the comments section—and remember…no spamming, please.)

When worlds collide #39

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

“Heeeeyyyyyooooo!!!”

Several of my esteemed blogging colleagues have already posted their farewells to actor-announcer-Carson sidekick Ed McMahon, who’s gone on to his rich reward at the age of 86. (I encourage you to check out these tributes by Ed Copeland, Tony Figueroa, J. Kingston Pierce…and though he hasn’t put anything up yet as of this writing, I’m sure Mark Evanier will weigh in with some McMahon anecdotes shortly.) While I’m always saddened to hear when a favorite actor or actress or musician or what-have-you passes from the scene, I think in Ed’s case it was sort of a blessing—he had a myriad of health problems (including breaking his neck after taking a fall in March 2007) that kept him from overcoming a series of financial troubles he had incurred over the years. (I mean, when Donald Trump starts paying your rent, you pretty much know your cloud is not going to have a silver lining.)

McMahon cemented his place in television history as second banana to Johnny Carson on the popular Tonight program, a show that essentially coded once Carson packed it in…and no Jay Leno or Conan O’Brien fan is going to convince me otherwise. (The two men had previously worked together on a popular daytime game show, Who Do You Trust?) McMahon always downplayed his role in the nightly proceedings, claiming that he was just there to laugh at Johnny’s jokes. But I think McMahon sort of short-shrifted his career; he was a tremendously talented comic actor when he worked solo—providing the only real laughs as George Segal’s boss in Fun with Dick and Jane (1977) and an equal amount of chuckles as Adam Arkin’s right-wing father in Full Moon High (1981), which features a funny reference to the Alpo commercials he did on Carson’s program. (He also has a nice turn in Larry Peerce’s The Incident [1967], in which he plays one of several passengers traumatized on a NYC subway train—take that, Pelham One-Two-Three!—by hoods Tony Musante and Martin Sheen.)

But for most of his career, he was content to just sit back and chuckle at his boss’ jokes (“You are CORRECT, sir!”) and play himself in a variety of guest appearances on such programs as Here’s Lucy, Amazing Stories, ALF, The Cosby Show and many, many more. Occasionally he would get a chance to take center stage and show audiences how multi-talented he was—his most successful venture co-hosting the popular TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes with the eternally youthful Dick Clark. (And I’m sorry to report this, but Ed’s going to have to do a little time in Purgatory for this indiscretion…and even longer for the Publishers’ Clearing House ads.)

If there is a place out in the Great Beyond where we mosey to after checking out of Hotel Earth, rest assured that it’s going to be a dandy place now that Ed has joined Johnny for what is surely the crème de la crème of all the Tonight Shows. (Just thinking of the celebrities available to stop by and sit on Carson’s couch for an anecdote or two is enough to make any fan’s mouth water.)

R.I.P, Ed. You will most assuredly be missed.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Best of the West

I passed this along to Bill Crider yesterday via e-mail, and in turn he posted it as an item on his mega-popular Pop Culture Blog. He gave TDOY generous credit for the finding, but I must come clean and shift the kudos to RGJ at Television Obscurities, which is rapidly becoming one of my favorite vintage television blogs.

In a nutshell, the Western Writers of America, Inc. compiled two separate lists: one acknowledging what their members feel are the Top 50 TV Westerns of all time, and the other the Top 50 TV Western miniseries. Lonesome Dove got the nod as the Numero Uno miniseries oater, but I found myself more interested in the regular series’ tally, which I have reprinted here for your perusal and benefit:

  1. Gunsmoke (1955-75)
  2. Maverick (1957-62)
  3. Rawhide (1959-66)
  4. Bonanza (1959-73)
  5. Have Gun, Will Travel (1957-63)
  6. The Rifleman (1958-63)
  7. Wagon Train (1957-65)
  8. The High Chaparral (1967-71)
  9. Death Valley Days (1952-70)
  10. The Virginian (1962-70)
  11. Deadwood (2004-06)
  12. The Westerner (1960)
  13. Cheyenne (1955-63)
  14. The Big Valley (1965-69)
  15. Wanted: Dead or Alive (1958-61)
  16. The Lone Ranger (1949-57)
  17. The Roy Rogers Show (1951-57)
  18. The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (1955-61)
  19. The Wild, Wild West (1965-70)
  20. The Rebel (1959-61)
  21. Little House on the Prairie (1974-83)
  22. The Young Riders (1989-92)
  23. Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (1993-98)
  24. Lawman (1958-62)
  25. Laredo (1965-67)
  26. Cimarron Strip (1967-68)
  27. Daniel Boone (1964-70)
  28. Branded (1965-66)
  29. Zorro (1957-59)
  30. The Yellow Rose (1983-84)
  31. Tales of Wells Fargo (1957-62)
  32. The Lazarus Man (1996)
  33. The Gene Autry Show (1950-56)
  34. Alias Smith and Jones (1971-73)
  35. Adventures of Brisco County Jr. (1993-94)
  36. Trackdown (1957-59)
  37. Kung Fu (1972-75)
  38. Lonesome Dove, the Series (1994-95)
  39. The Magnificent Seven (1998-2000)
  40. Broken Arrow (1956-60)
  41. F Troop (1965-67)
  42. Sugarfoot (1957-61)
  43. Guns of Will Sonnett (1967-69)
  44. Wild Bill Hickok (1951-58)
  45. Tales of the Texas Rangers (1955-57)
  46. Stoney Burke (1962-63)
  47. Sgt. Preston of the Yukon (1955-58)
  48. Restless Gun (1957-59)
  49. Laramie (1959-63)
  50. Hec Ramsey (1972-74)

Now, usually when I report on these lists I have a tendency to piss and moan about which shows were chosen and why they were ranked in the order they were…but to be completely honest, I don’t really have too much to disagree with here—and only a few minor nitpicks that probably won’t change things greatly in the long run. I certainly won’t disagree with their top pick; Gunsmoke is pretty much the dean of television westerns, given its twenty-season run with first-rate stories and fascinating characterizations (though as I often maintain and will continue to do so as long as there is breath in my body, the radio version is still the best of all). I was also pleased to see Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings fave Maverick come in at Number 2—but it would have been equally sweet if James Garner’s “forgotten” western Nichols had secured a berth in the Top 50.

I was kind of surprised to see The High Chapparal chart as high as it did; I consider myself a fan of the Latino Bonanza, but can still appreciate a funny observation from someone like Scott C. (of World o’Crap fame) who once remarked: “But two things always bugged me about that show as a kid: The awesome stupidity of Big John's son, "Blue Boy," and the constant suspense of waiting for Cameron Mitchell to die of heatstroke from wearing 20 pounds of black leather. Outdoors. During the day. In Ari-frigging-ZONA. (I’d also like to take this moment to direct Mr. C’s attention to the fact that his beloved Laredo clocked in at #25, which is not-too-shabby.)

I also thought The Westerner would rank higher than it did; it’s been a cult favorite of many Western fans despite its short thirteen-week run in 1960. I was also glad to see the inclusion of a few oaters that seem to have fallen by the wayside, including Lawman (#24; John Russell was without a doubt one of the most imposing sheriffs in TV western history), Trackdown (#36), Broken Arrow (#40) and Stoney Burke (#46). But the only show on the list that caused me to scratch my head extensively was the inclusion of F Troop (#41); I bow to no one in my admiration for the vaudeville antics of Forrest Tucker/Larry Storch/Ken Berry, etc. but truth be told, I really don’t consider the series a true western. Actually, I never considered Little House on the Prairie a “western,” either—but you can certainly make a stronger case for its inclusion than Troop. (Besides, if you put Troop on the list, it simply follows that Best of the West—the series that provided the title for the post—should be on there as well.)

As always, I was kind of intrigued at what shows were left off the list and one glaring omission is Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theater (1956-61), the first season of which I received in the Rancho Yesteryear mailbox yesterday afternoon. I cite Theater for one major reason—five of its episodes served as pilots for other successful TV westerns: “Badge of Honor” (#28) gave birth to Trackdown; “The Sharpshooter” (#51) sired The Rifleman; “Threat of Violence” (#58) kicked off the short-lived (and highly enjoyable) Black Saddle (1959-60); “Man Alone” (#81) begat Johnny Ringo (1959-60); and “Trouble at Tres Cruces” (#83) introduced Brian Keith as The Westerner. In addition, the Trackdown episode “The Bounty Hunter” (#21) served as the pilot for fifteen-ranked Wanted: Dead or Alive, and two Rifleman outings—“The Indian” (#21) and “The Raid” (#37) would feature a character named Sam Buckhart (Michael Ansara) that later received his own series, Law of the Plainsman (1959-60).

Other memorable TV westerns that failed to make the Western Writers’ grade: Bat Masterson (1958-61), Bronco (1958-62), Colt .45 (1957-60), The Deputy (1959-61), Lancer (1968-70), Outlaws (1960-62), Riverboat (1959-61), Shotgun Slade (1959-61), The Tall Man (1960-62), The Texan (1958-60) and Tombstone Territory (1957-59).

Anyway—many congrats to the winners!

Classic moments in the American sitcom #1 (Dick Cheney version)

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Judy, Judy, Judy…

There’s splendid news on the DVD front for Judy Garland fans…and especially those who have either fond memories of or are collecting her critically-acclaimed TV variety series that was originally telecast on CBS from September 29, 1963 to March 29, 1964. (Confession time: this is actually directed to my good friend Maureen, but I’m guessing she’s not the only fan.) The twenty-six episodes—previously available through Pioneer Entertainment, but have since been discontinued—will be re-released through Infinity Entertainment/Falcon Picture Group beginning July 28th, according to this announcement on TVShowsOnDVD.com.

Infinity plans to release these shows in thirteen separate volumes (containing two hour-long shows apiece) at a SRP of $19.95, which I personally think is a tad pricey—and truth be told, I’m not certain if tracking down the earlier out-of-print releases (even though they’re probably fetching arm-and-a-leg prices at Amazon, eBay, etc.) might not be a better bargain. Banditry aside, it’s nice to see an effort being made to keep these shows in the public eye—particularly since many people consider the content in these shows to be some of the highlights in the singer-actress’ up-and-down career. (The series, while receiving rave notices from critics, got clobbered every week by ratings champ Bonanza…but the fact that CBS President-professional prick James “The Smiling Cobra” Aubrey despised Garland didn’t help matters much either.)

Speaking of Bonanza, the official announcement for The Official 1st Season: Volume 1 and The Official 1st Season: Volume 2 is also up at TVShowsOnDVD.com—the release date for these sets has been moved up, however, to September 15th. (Plans are being made to make these sets available separately and together in one big pretty shrink-wrapped bundle in a pathetic attempt to keep Rick Brooks and I from constantly bitching about the practice of split seasons. Nice try, CBS-Paramount.)

In further CBS-Paramount news, the company is announcing that in addition to a new release of Alvin and the Chipmunks (the 1980’s version) hitting the streets September 8th, a separate release will contain three outings from the original series (The Alvin Show, which ran in prime time on CBS from October 4, 1961 to September 12,1962) and will include the debut episode. This was a series that I dropped in on frequently in my halcyon days of staring at the boob tube—it’s far superior to the 80s-90s incarnation, with a snappier theme song and features the supporting presence of wacky inventor Clyde Crashcup (voice veteran Shep Menken, doing a flawless imitation of Richard Haydn’s Professor Edwin Carp, a character who appeared frequently on Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy’s radio program).

The big news from CBS DVD-Paramount is the announcement of the first season release of the classic paranormal/supernatural series One Step Beyond, hosted-written-directed-produced by the legendary John Newland. There have been a myriad of public domain releases for this shoved-under-the-carpet program (I saw most of the reruns as a mere prat via WGN in Chicago), the most notable being that from the good people at Mill Creek. But CBS-Paramount has been making a concerted effort to complete some of the gaps in these classic television series (like The Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction) by releasing them to DVD, and it’s nice to see someone sit up and take notice of Beyond, which was doing creepy-weird long before Rod Serling was telling us we were trapped in a world of both shadow and substance. The first release will consist of twenty-two episodes (from the first season, January 20, 1959 to June 16, 1959) and is scheduled to hit the streets the same day as the Bonanza releases, September 15th.

Speaking of Mill Creek (oh, these transitions are flowing beautifully), they have obtained the rights to the Steve McQueen TV oater, Wanted: Dead or Alive (1958-61), when the previous rights owners, BCI Eclipse/Navarre called it a wrap last year. We mentioned here—thanks to Bob “Master of His {Public) Domain” Huggins—that the BCI sets were on sale for a limited time at Oldies.com, and now that they’re discontinued here’s your opportunity to get a second crack at them when Mill Creek releases Wanted: Dead or Alive – The Complete Series on August 25th. The entire series—all ninety-four episodes—tucked away on eleven discs for an SRP of $29.95! (And if you shop online, you can probably find it much cheaper…it is, after all, Mill Creek.)

Okay, and now our feature presentation…those of you who have worked themselves into a proper snit over the dearth of Mister Ed reruns available on disc (MGM-UA released two “Best of” sets in 2004 and 2005, for a total of forty-one episodes) can rejoice because the hardest working company in the TV-On-DVD bidness—Shout! Factory—will bring loyal fans of the loquacious equine the first season on October 6th (Mister Ed: The Complete First Season). Amazon.com has a listing up for it with a price tag of $33.99, so you can either pre-order a copy there and hope the price comes down (I have a sneaking suspicion it probably will) or you can sit back and wait to see what other bids will come from competing online stores. Because the mantra here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear boils down to “Reality television? Bah! Bring on unreality TV!” I guess I don’t have to tell you that further adventures of Wilbur Post and his smart-assed steed will be most welcome (I just need to “pony” up the scratch to get a copy).

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Bonus HBO and Cinemax!

I’m still trying to figure out why CharredHer managed to carry over the free weekend preview to Monday (I discovered the channels were still on when I turned on the TV set to channel five hundred and something, which I had left there to tape a Cinemax showing of Heaven Can Wait [1943]) but needless to say, good fortune smiled down upon the House of Yesteryear long enough for me to get a gander at two extra films:

Rendition (2007) – An Egyptian national (Omar Metwally) is returning to the U.S. after a recent trip to South Africa only to soon discover that he’s headed for more trouble than just lost luggage; a suicide bombing has taken the life of a CIA analyst in the Middle East and the group judged responsible just happens to have made several calls to the Egyptian’s cell phone. He can’t explain how it happened, so intelligence official Meryl Streep gives her people the green light to have him expedited to another country to work him over for a satisfactory explanation because, as she tells an underling (Jake Gyllenhaal): “The United States doesn’t torture.”

Meanwhile, Metwally’s wife (Reese Witherspoon) enlists the help of an old flame/friend (Peter Sarsgaard) to find her hubby; he works for a “liberal” Senator (Alan Arkin) who’s all for due process but is pragmatically timid about opening up an unknown can of worms and getting on Streep’s bad side. It’s up to Gyllenhaal to save the day (such as it is) when he begins to question the nature of his job watching Witherspoon’s husband being both waterboarded and the recipient of electric shocks.

Rendition is a film that succeeds on the strength of its players; I particularly enjoyed watching Streep play a real ball-busting bureaucrat who uses her Southern accent and charm to disarm her detractors, and Gyllenhaal has a nice way with a line (explaining to the official [Yigal Naor] in charge of Metwally’s interrogation he cracks: “This is my first torture”). Juno’s J.K. Simmons has a small role in this one (as Streep’s lackey) and as evidenced (insert gratuitous and shameless self-promotion plug here) by my recent guest post at Edward Copeland on Film I’ll pretty much watch anything with Alan Arkin. The film really doesn’t succeed as a whole; director Gavin Hood insists on even-handedness (though its liberal sympathies are evident, he doesn’t hesitate to remind the viewer that the rendition program came to us gift-wrapped from the Clinton administration) and this robs the interrogation sequences of their brutality…diluting the anger as well. I’ll give it three stars for a worthwhile if somewhat flawed effort.

Eastern Promises (2007) – Director David Cronenberg’s cult status has risen considerably over the past several years with one of the best thrillers I’ve ever seen in A History of Violence (2005) and this follow-up is every bit as good, ending up on many year-end “best of” lists of movie reviewers and critics in 2007. Naomi Watts plays Anna Khitrova; a midwife who tries to save the life of a pregnant Russian teenager named Tatiana (Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse) but is only able to spare her newborn child instead. She finds a diary among the girl’s effects and asks her Russian uncle (director Jerzy Skolimowski) to translate; when he refuses she takes the journal to a restaurateur named Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) for the same purpose…not knowing that he is a major player in the Russian mafia who knew the deceased Tatiana all too well.

I’ve sketched out only the briefest synopsis of this incredible film because I’m hesitant to give away too much to anyone who hasn’t seen it. The major part of the plot has to do with Semyon’s son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and his faithful chauffeur Nikolai (Viggo Mortenson, in a performance that nabbed him an Oscar nom); Nikolai is ambitious and wants to move up in Semyon’s organization but at the same he develops a tender affinity for Anna as well. How this mesmerizing thriller managed to get shut out of the Best Picture/Best Director/Best Screenplay races is something I just can’t answer but it’s easily one of the best films I’ve seen in recent years, and delightfully manages to pull the rug out from you just when you think you’ve doped out what’s coming next. This one is a must-see. (***1/2)