Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category

Obit watch: January 15, 2017.

Sunday, January 15th, 2017

Tommy Allsup, guitarist, producer, and historical footnote.

As a guitarist, he was touring as a part of Buddy Holly’s band in February of 1959. This is the same tour that Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson were on…

Mr. Allsup flipped a coin to see whether he or Valens would get a seat on the plane. He lost and took a bus to the next stop on the tour.
Holly, Valens, the Big Bopper (J. P. Richardson) and the pilot, Roger Peterson, died when the plane crashed in the Iowa countryside. Their deaths were recalled as “the day the music died” in Don McLean’s 1971 hit song, “American Pie.”

For the record: William Peter “The Exorcist” Blatty. NYT. WP.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. I’m torn about this. On the one hand, I hate to see nearly 150 years of history flushed down the drain, and I’m sad for the circus population that’s going to lose their jobs (and possibly, for some of them, homes). I’m also sad that this decision appears to have some roots in the organized campaigns by various “animal welfare” organizations. (Remember, when you see those sad animals on TV and Sarah McLachlan in the backgrond: that money’s going to pay Ringling’s legal fees.)

On the other hand…the last time I went to a Ringling Circus was over 30 years ago, before my first attempt at college. And what I remember most about it from that time was that I found it kind of sad and depressing. It isn’t that I’m some sort of crypto-animal-rights activist; it just felt like there was something sad and wrong about the whole thing. I guess I’m sad for the people, and sad for the lost history, but I’m not so sad for the institution itself. (And as the article notes, Feld Entertainment has a bunch of other stuff going on, much of which appears to contain the phrase “…On Ice!” so they’ll probably do okay for a while longer.)

Obit watch: December 29, 2016.

Thursday, December 29th, 2016

The Grim Reaper finally caught up with Vesna Vulovic (or Vesna Vulović). She was 66 years old, and had managed to outrun him for nearly 45 of those years.

If that sounds callous, well, Ms. Vulovic had an amazing story. You might even remember it if you were an obsessive reader of the Guinness Book of World Records when you were young.

Ms. Vulovic was a flight attendant on JAT Flight 367 between Stockholm and Belgrade on January 26, 1972. She had actually swapped places with another girl and wasn’t originally scheduled to work this flight. As we see so often in movies and television, this never ends well…

An hour into the flight, the plane, a DC-9, blew up over the Czech village of Srbska Kamenice. As others were believed to have been sucked out of the jet into subfreezing temperatures, Ms. Vulovic remained inside part of the shattered fuselage, wedged in by a food cart, as it plunged.
Trees broke the fall of the fuselage section and snow on the hill cushioned its landing.

Ms. Vulovic is believed to have fallen 33,000 feet, which (according to Guinness, at least) is the longest documented fall survived without a parachute. She was badly injured, but Ms. Vulovic was the only survivor of Flight 367. It is generally believed that the plane was blown up by a terrorist bomb in the forward cargo hold.

But an investigation by two reporters in Prague in 2009 challenged that account. They concluded that the DC-9 was mistakenly shot down by the Czechoslovak Air Force at an altitude of only 800 meters, or about 2,625 feet.

I think the Wikipedia page (I know, I know) on Flight 367 has a fairly good explanation of why this theory is bolshie bushwa. Here’s a hint: the black boxes…

…which provided the exact data about the time, speed, direction, acceleration and altitude of the plane at the moment of the explosion. Both black boxes were opened and analysed by the service companies in Amsterdam in the presence of experts from Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and the Dutch Aviation Office (Raad voor de Luchtvaart).

I could buy a couple of Communist countries being in on the conspiracy. But the Dutch?

Sometimes there’s just nothing you can say. Debbie Reynolds: NYT. LAT. A/V Club.

Obit roundup: December 28, 2016.

Wednesday, December 28th, 2016

Carrie Fisher: NYT. LAT. A/V Club.

You know, I’d totally forgotten this one:

NYT obit for Vera Rubin.

NYT obit for Richard Adams.

Obit watches, firings, ocelots, and other stuff: December 27, 2016.

Tuesday, December 27th, 2016

I think I’m going to wait until tomorrow to try to pull together the Carrie Fisher obits. Not that it was entirely unexpected (though I think we were all hoping for the best for her), but I feel better letting things sit for a day.

By way of Lawrence: Richard “Watership Down” Adams. A couple of pithy quotes:

The book, and a subsequent animated film in 1978, became synonymous with rabbits and at least one enterprising butcher advertised: “You’ve read the book, you’ve seen the film, now eat the cast.”

“If I saw a rabbit in my garden I’d shoot it,” he once said.

By way of my beloved sister-in-law: Vera Rubin, noted female astronomer.

Rubin’s uncovering of evidence for dark matter revealed that “there’s much more out there than we would expect based on our common-sense experience,” said James Bullock, professor of physics and astronomy at UC Irvine. “Today, the standard interpretation is that 80% of matter is in this form that’s different than anything that is known to science. And without this dark matter, a lot of other things about the universe don’t make sense: Galaxies themselves wouldn’t exist; stars wouldn’t exist, and we would not exist.”

Rex and Rob Ryan both OUT in Buffalo.

The Bills went 1-7 this season against teams with a record better than .500, with the one victory coming against the New England Patriots, who were without suspended quarterback Tom Brady and started rookie third-stringer Jacoby Brissett.

He’s still due $16.5 million after compiling a 15-16 record as Bills coach, a .483 winning percentage that is actually the best of the seven head coaches (including Perry Fewell on an interim basis) who have followed Wade Phillips since the 2000 season.

Babou (either one), call your office, please.

…biologists working in Laguna Atacosa National Wildlife Refuge near Harlingen found the first known ocelot den in two decades.

Meanwhile, the BBC reports that the cheetah is “rapidly heading towards extinction”. While sad, this comes as no great shock to us…because, as we all know, cheetahs never win.

This is kind of cool, at least to me: a homebrew short-range transmitter that sends out time signals on the WWVB 60 KHz frequency. Why would you want to do this, other than for the challenge?

Unfortunately, I can’t get my wristwatch to receive the 60 kHz amplitude-modulated time signal in my dorm room in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Overheard in the office…

Wednesday, December 21st, 2016

“It’s just not Christmas until I see Hans Gruber fall from the Nakatomi Tower.”

Obit watch: December 18, 2016.

Sunday, December 18th, 2016

Finally found a reliable source to confim: Zsa Zsa Gabor. (Edited to add 12/19: NYT. A/V Club.)

In 1958 she made an impression as a strip-club owner in the Orson Welles cult classic “Touch of Evil” and appeared in the campy “Queen of Outer Space,” one of her many more forgettable movies. She acted in at least 30 films.

You know, I have seen “Touch of Evil”, but I don’t remember Zsa Zsa at all. (It was a while ago, though. It might be worth watching that again, especially since I think the current version is slightly different than the restored version I saw.)

Well covered elsewhere, but for the historical record: Dr. Henry J. Heimlich, inventor of the epinonimous maneuver.

Cahiers du cinéma: The Library of Congress recommends…

Thursday, December 15th, 2016

Huh. I guess it is that time of year again.

Quick takes:

  • I think “Rushmore” is okay: I like the “plays” within the movie much more than I like much of the movie. Not one I would have chosen, personally.
  • “The Decline of Western Civilization”? That’s a bit of a surprise, but not one I’d necessarily dispute: I hear it’s actually a pretty good documentary about the LA punk scene, but have not seen it. (It wasn’t even available on home video until recently.) Will we get “Part 2: The Metal Years” next year?
  • I will admit to never having seen “The Atomic Cafe”, but how does a bunch of cut together clips from other sources make this list?
  • Evan Hunter represent!
  • Ditto “Richard Stark”! Seriously, both “Blackboard Jungle” and “Point Blank” are interesting choices. (Haven’t seen either one, but I love the Parker novels and McBain’s work. Need to fix that.)
  • Perhaps I am incapable of experiencing joy, but my memory tells me “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” was fun when I saw it, but not a timeless classic. Maybe it belongs on this list, but for technical achievement.
  • I love Hitchcock, but I’m not a huge fan of “The Birds”. It just seems kind of silly to me.

Edited to add: nothing to do with the LoC list, but I wonder: was one of the Simpsons writers a closet 87th Precinct fan?

Obit watch II: Electric Boogaloo.

Friday, November 11th, 2016

Robert Vaughn. NYT. A/V Club.

That’s a great photo in the NYT. Two beautiful women and a Thompson? Living the dream.

And Lawrence: we should put “Battle Beyond the Stars” on the list.

Short notes on film: October 30, 2016.

Sunday, October 30th, 2016

Since we’re talking about movies anyway, I’d like to make another recommendation. And this one won’t cost you anything.

Last Saturday, it was just Lawrence and I for movie night, and we didn’t want to burn “John Carpenter’s The Thing” with just the two of us there. We had trouble settling on something to watch. We tried “The Architects of Fear” episode of “The Outer Limits”, but neither of us could really get into the episode: it seemed too talky and too relationship oriented, and we turned it off after about 10 minutes. (Also, man, they, like, totally ripped that plot off from “Watchmen”, right?)

We tried watching David Cronenberg’s first movie, “Stereo” (which is on the Criterion disc of “Scanners”) and that was one hot pretentious mess. I think we also made it about 10 minutes into that as well.

We ended up watching, for our feature presentation, a movie I’ve been wanting to see, but which may not technically qualify for Halloween viewing. It is kind of creepy, and falls into the category of “film noir”, so if you’re willing to extend Halloween creepy to noir…(says the guy who has gone in costume as Sam Spade, complete with Maltese Falcon).

The movie in question is 1948’s “He Walked By Night” directed by some guy named Alfred L. Werker (who was supposedly either “assisted by” or “fired from the film and had it taken over by” Anthony “fired from ‘Spartacus'” Mann).

Richard Basehart – excuse me – “Richard Basehart!” – is a burglar specializing in thefts of electronics. At the start of the movie, he shoots and ends up killing a police officer, triggering a massive manhunt by the LAPD. The police lure him into a trap at one point, but he shoots his way out (leaving another police officer paralyzed). The LAPD continues to pursue him, but things are complicated by the fact that he has no criminal record, changes his methods to throw off the police, and almost seems to be one step ahead of them…like he was a former police officer or something.

(Possible spoilers ahead.)

This is often cited as a hugely influential noir film. It is a little stagey (but it was also 1948) and there’s a lot of stuff in it that feels today like clichés. (“I’m taking you off the case because you’re too close to it!”) The thing is, those weren’t clichés in 1948: this is one of the origin points for a lot of what you see in later noir films and procedurals well into today.

A very young (and very thin) Jack Webb plays a police lab technician:

(“You will believe a man can use a slide projector!”) There’s an interesting story behind that: while he was working on this movie, Webb became friends with LAPD Detective Sergeant Marty Wynn, who was working as a technical advisor on the film. One thing led to another, and, well…Webb and Wynn’s friendship and discussions ultimately led to the creation of “Dragnet” (which shares a lot of DNA with this movie.)

Even with all the staginess and talking, this is, in my opinion, a remarkably compelling movie. It is short (one hour nineteen minutes) but something is going on in almost every frame to advance the plot. And there’s also a feeling of some real stakes at play here: any of the good guys (or an innocent bystander) could get killed at any minute. As Ivan G Shreve Jr. notes in his writeup at “Thrilling Days of Yesteryear”:

The unwritten law of the men in blue is there is nothing more dangerous than a cop killer; after all, if someone is crazy enough to shoot a cop, he’s liable to inflict even more grievous injury on an innocent member of the public.

There’s also a lot of really good cinematography: the use of underlighting and shadows to convey a sense of danger and dread is top-notch. And the crime is broken somewhat by lab work (Jack Webb’s role isn’t trivial), but more so by dogged, unrelenting police footwork.

The movie is actually based on a real incident, the Erwin “Machine Gun” Walker case, and it is surprising how closely it sticks to the facts. Walker, like Basehart’s protagonist, was an electronics expert who stole to finance his experimentation. He carried around homemade nitroglycerin that he’d carefully desensitized (to make it safer to transport) had a pretty extensive arsenal (mostly stolen from military armories), experimented with making his own fake driver’s licenses and license plates, and he had worked before WWII as a police dispatcher/radio operator.

There are a few small deviations from historical fact, and one omission: Walker shot and wounded the two LAPD detectives first, the police officer he killed was a highway patrolman (not an LAPD officer), and Walker wasn’t gunned down in an LA sewer. Walker was actually captured alive and sentenced to death, though that sentence was never carried out. One thing the movie doesn’t touch on – perhaps it was too early – was that Walker was emotionally disturbed by his wartime experiences: part of the motivation for his crimes was that he wanted to build a radio-based device that would turn metal to powder, use that device to force the governments of the world to raise military pay, and thus make war “too expensive” to be fought.

You can watch “He Walked By Night” on Amazon Video, and there are several DVD editions of it. Interestingly, though, the film is in the public domain in the United States: you can also download it for free from the Internet Archive.

If you like noir films, or Jack Webb, or Richard Basehart, I recommend you do so. I think you will find this movie amply repays your investment of time and bandwidth.

Not forgotten, just disappeared. (#1 in a series)

Sunday, October 30th, 2016

I’ve noted that if you’re going through Hollywood history, you keep running into people who had short but interesting careers. Maybe, like Zita Johann, they were in the movies for just a few years, then went off to do something else. Maybe they were only in one movie ever: but wow, their performance in that one movie was something to behold. (I have someone specifically in mind in this category, but you’ll have to wait for that one.)

I’ve also threatened to start doing a regular series about these people, and now seems to be as good a time as any to kick it off. Let’s talk about Kathleen Burke.

She was 19 years old and working in Chicago as a dental assistant when she won a Paramount Pictures sponsored contest. She was announced as the winner on September 29, 1932. The first film she was in was released in December of 1932 (according to Wikipedia and IMDB). Seems like a really, really, short production schedule: it makes me wonder if those sources are right. Or maybe they filmed certain parts of the movie first, and then just backfilled the sections she was in? Interesting question.

After that first movie, she was in a fair amount of stuff between 1933 and 1938. Most of it I’ve never heard of, though “Murders at the Zoo” is described as “particularly dark for its time”. She was also in “The Lives of a Bengal Lancer” though I can’t tell how big her part was.

By 1938, she’d retired. She died in 1980: she was 66.

What about that contest? And what about that first movie?

Well, there were (allegedly) 60,000 entrants in the contest. And Ms. Burke, as the winner, got the role of…

…Lola, “The Panther Woman” in “Island of Lost Souls”.

“Island of Lost Souls” is the first (real) adaptation of H. G. Wells “The Island of Dr. Moreau”. (I add that qualifier as there were apparently two short silent adaptations before it.) I want to say it is probably the best, but I confess: I have not seen most of the other ones (including, tragically, the Brando/Kilmer/Frankenheimer version). We watched “Island of Lost Souls” around Halloween last year: it may just have been the state of mind I was in, but I found it genuinely interesting and creepy.

And Ms. Burke is quite memorable in it. I wouldn’t say she was “attractive” in a conventional sense, but “Lola, The Panther Woman” did have something going on for her. Actually, pretty much everyone in this movie is good. There’s an excellent Criterion edition of “Island of Lost Souks” that’s packed with extras, including interviews with David J. Skal and members of Devo. (“Island of Lost Souls” was, I gather, a big influence on the band.)

(Damn, those Ohio boys really get around. But I digress.)

I commend “Island of Lost Souls”, and Ms. Burke’s work as “The Panther Girl” to your attention. It may be a little late this year, but perhaps next year, when the pumpkins start showing up in church parking lots and the air turns cold, you can start a fire, plug in the Criterion blu-ray, and admire Ms. Burke and her work.

Kathleen Burke’s Wikipedia entry.

Art update.

Thursday, October 20th, 2016

The Jerry Orbach Memorial Art Car is funded.

I’m looking forward to getting my bumper stickers.

Questions: which one should I put on? I’m kind of partial to “My child is a honor student…”, but feel free to argue your case in the comments.

And which one should I take off to make room? Right now, I’m thinking: as much as I liked CHeston, and as much of an NRA supporter as I am, the “My President Is Charlton Heston” one is faded almost to the point of being unreadable. It might be time to let go. (And I’ve got window stickers out the wazoo.)

Obit watch: September 28, 2016.

Wednesday, September 28th, 2016

For the historical record, Shimon Peres. NYT. WP.

Herschell Gordon Lewis, noted film director (“Blood Feast”, “Two Thousand Maniacs!”). A/V Club.