Archive | July, 2013

Troop Beverly Hills: What a Thrill!

30 Jul

When I wrote my first blog piece two years ago, I included Troop Beverly Hills (1989) among my guilty pleasures from the 1980s. Of course, my favorite of that bunch was and still is American Dreamer, a delightful mix of comedy, romance, and intrigue starring Jobeth Williams (fresh from 1983 Best Picture nominee The Big Chill) and Tom Conti (fresh from his Best Actor nomination for 1983’s Reuben, Reuben); the delightful duo cavort against a French backdrop while at least one of them models plenty of 80’s high fashion. I think it was Guy Flatley, writing in Cosmopolitan, who boldly proclaimed that if Oscars were awarded simply by the amount of fun performers seemed to be having onscreen, Williams would be a prime candidate. Exactly. (If it wasn’t Flatley, then it was surely Liz Smith during her stint as a Cosmo critic.)

TroopBeverlyHills

Reviewing Troop Beverly Hills for the New York Times, no less than Janet Maslin wrote that the movie as a whole was a mixed bag at best but praised Long for her “indefatigable pluck,” describing the performance thusly: “So ”Troop Beverly Hills,” which opened yesterday at the Warner and other theaters, is only fleetingly amusing, but Miss Long does make it fun for a while. Tossing her carrot-colored hair and modeling a succession of fabulously awful outfits by Theadora Van Runkle, she makes the story’s predictable moves in a refreshingly trim, buoyant way.” Maslin further writes, “There’s a lot more in this same vein, some of it awfully tired, but Miss Long manages to remain game even after the material has run out of steam.” Maslin also commends director Jeffrey Kanew for keeping the action “lively even at its silliest…” (PHOTO: Supreme Courtney)

I  think the same can be said about Shelley Long as Phyllis Nefler in Troop Beverly Hills. I had a chance not so long ago, well relatively, to catch up with the flick among friends, and it did not disappoint. The comedy about a ridiculously pampered–self-absorbed–Beverly Hills mom trying to navigate a tricky divorce while acting as her daughter’s “Wilderness Girls” leader is by no means an irrefutably great movie designed to garner awards and last a lifetime, nor does it serve up one belly laugh after another though it is consistently amusing. Simply put, it’s a fun movie. No more, no less–and Long is a hell of a lot of fun in it. (Retroactive Golden Globe or American Comedy Award nod for Long, anyone? Anyone?)

There is something incredibly pleasing, even joyful,  in watching Shelley Long play a woman who, more often than not, takes great delight in simply being who she is: a well-meaning busybody who fills her days spending lots of time and money on outrageous fashions and jewelry along with expensive beauty and hair treatments. Her enthusiasm, with accompanying  self-satisfied squeals of euphoria, is infectious.  On the other hand, she also has a history of starting all kinds of egalitarian projects with little or no follow-through. Her decision to sponsor her daughter Hannah’s scout troop is a chance to bond with the girl and to redeem herself in her ex’s eyes.

What makes Long so special? Well, she has a lightness about her as though she somehow floats through her scenes. Plus, she has some of the most precise diction of any actress in the whole history of movies. It’s funny how accustomed we’ve become to performers who pummel through their dialogue, all the while wasting vowels and dropping consonants. Not Long.  Her vowels are ripe with fullness, and she hits her consonants with crisp precision. Listen closely to her exquisite delivery of a late night horror story shared around a mock campfire at a mock campout–in a jungle motif bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel, no less.  So, there’s that, of course, but Long also boasts savvy timing and a flair for physical comedy. Additionally, she’s a nimble dancer, and she’s quick with a double take. (Btw: Yes, “The Freddie” is a real dance; see the clip at the end of this article.) Plus, she has a cute figure and knows how to handle the over-the-top costumes dreamed up by no less than the great Theadora Van Runkle–the Oscar nominated designer of the groundbreaking–and oft imitated–Bonnie and Clyde (1967).  Oh, and look at the gloriously regal neck. Exquisite. Perhaps the most amazing thing about Long’s performance as Phyllis Nefler is that she really does invest a lot of heart into the character,  and that, along with so much joy, saves Mrs. Nefler from being a shrill caricature, a one-dimensional representation of a shallow, pretentious, nouveau riche simpleton.  There are plenty of reasons to not like Phyllis Nefler, and one very good one to give her the benefit of the doubt, and that’s Long.

^ Shelley Long, the tall one in the center, rocks her latest "Van Runkle" along with the Wilderness Girls of Beverly Hills (l-r): Emily Schulman, Kellie Martin, Mary Gross (mostly obscured save for her green beret), Tasha Scott, Jenny Lewis, Long, Aquilina Soriano, Heather Hopper, Carla Gugino (partially hidden), and Ami Foster. (PHOTO:

^ Shelley Long, the tall one in the center, rocks her latest “Van Runkle” along with the Wilderness Girls of Beverly Hills (l-r): Emily Schulman, Kellie Martin, Mary Gross (mostly obscured save for her green beret), Tasha Scott, Jenny Lewis, Long, Aquilina Soriano, Heather Hopper, Carla Gugino (partially hidden), and Ami Foster. In this scene, the girls accompany Long to a divorce hearing; just prior to this they were busy spreading goodwill in the community, resulting in one of the script’s funniest one-liners.  (PHOTO: Pointy Toe Shoe Crew)

Oh, and this isn’t a one woman show. No, part of the fun of the movie is the appealing cast. Long’s estranged lug of a husband is played by the great Craig T. Nelson, who at the time of the film’s release was just beginning his lengthy–and Emmy winning–run as ABC TV’s Coach, that is, after enjoying immense popularity as the dad in the Poltergeist movies. Nelson’s Fred Nefler is a thankless role, but the actor is a good sport and provides a winning dash of goofiness. Nefler’s Wilderness Girls nemesis, a no-nonsense taskmaster and suck-up with a military streak, is played by the phenomenal Betty Thomas. Again, at the time, Thomas was still basking in the glow of her multiple Emmy nominations–and one win–per TV’s groundbreaking, gritty crime drama, Hill Street Blues.  In all her years on the show, Thomas’s Officer Lucy Bates often went through hell, but in Troop Beverly Hills, her last official acting credit before becoming an acclaimed TV and film director, Thomas shows off the comic chops she developed in Chicago’s famed Second City improv troupe. Basically, she’s the khaki equivalent of the Road Runner’s long-suffering–oft humiliated–Wile E. Coyote, and Thomas attacks the role with gusto. Rounding out the adult principal players are Audra Lindley and Mary Gross. Lindley, fondly remembered as daffy Mrs. Roper from Three’s Company, brings well seasoned wisdom to the part of the Wilderness Girls’ open-minded mother hen, and Saturday Night Live vet Gross ignites a few sparks as an earnest assistant troop leader caught between Nefler and the shenanigans orchestrated by Thomas’s Velma Plendor. Heck, even the characters’ names are funny.

At this point, you might be thinking, wait a second, is this a genuine feature film or is it a made-for-TV offering? After all, aren’t most of these performers, including Long, best known for their work on television? Well, yeah, there’s that, but, again, I think that’s what makes the movie so much fun: it’s filled with recognizable faces, and that itself creates a kind of shorthand for audiences; plus, as the movie frequently airs on television, it’s already perfectly scaled for home video. Not only that, it is just chock-a-block-full of cameos designed to delight boomers and moviegoers of previous generations: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dr. Joyce Brothers, Patrika Darbo, Robin Leach, Cheech Marin, Ted McGinley, and Pia Zadora along with, yes, Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello–not to mention Tom Wright, who bears a strong–and convenient–resemblance to Sugar Ray Leonard, and real-life Beverly Hills beauty maestro Christophe Schatteman as himself. Oh, and the hits just keep on coming as three likable performers score in secondary roles. Playing the Neflers’ well-meaning cook/housekeeper gave the one and only Shelley Morrison a career boost in the years after The Flying Nun but before she struck gold as feisty Rosario on Will and Grace; Edd Byrnes, best known as 77 Sunset Strip’s “Kookie” and Grease‘s Vince Fontaine, plays a has-been actor who’s itching for a comeback (make that an offer he can’t refuse), and Brit Stephanie Beacham, perhaps best known at the time for TV’s Dynasty, is perfectly cast as a glitzy Jackie Collins type novelist who also happens to be Long’s best friend. Beacham’s dry delivery is perfect for some of the screenplay’s smartest one-liners.

Oh, and Troop Beverly Hills serves up plenty of movie “in” jokes with references to the likes of Apocalypse Now, The Godfather, Patton, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Valley of the Dolls, The Way We Were, and the original Mission Impossible TV series. Plus, the big jamboree sequence that figures during the last act easily (almost too easily) recalls a similar episode in Goldie Hawn’s superficially similar (and Oscar nominated) fish-out-of-water comedy, Private Benjamin. See, this is a movie buff’s delight! Oh, yeah, disposed Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his shoe loving wife  Imelda, fresh from the then headlines, are roasted and served on toast as well. Now, the beauty of these references is that they’ll give grown-ups plenty of laughs even though younger audiences–the movie’s key demographic–might laugh without necessarily understanding all the nuances of the gags.

troopbev

In its first year on the air, Cheers, Long’s classic sitcom, suffered incredibly low-ratings, but the highly acclaimed show nonetheless won Emmy awards as both Outstanding Comedy series and Outstanding Actress in a Comedy. Not bad. Long (seen here with Jenny Lewis) has amassed a total of six Emmy nods and four Golden Globe nods, including Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy for her work in the 1984 film Irreconcilable Differences (w/Ryan O’Neal and Drew Barrymore). Long left Cheers after teaming with Bette Midler, still in her Disney/Touchstone heyday,  for the smash hit Outrageous Fortune. Big-screen stardom seemingly beckoned, but despite a big push from the Disney folks, Long’s Susan Isaacs’ penned vehicle Hello, Again under-performed at the box office, and despite what we now recognize as the cult appeal of TBH, big screen success eluded Long until 1995’s Brady Bunch reboot, which was directed by her Troop Beverly Hills foe, Betty Thomas. (PHOTO: Reel Film Reviews)

Now, about that younger demographic. According to Box Office Mojo, Troop Beverly Hills only earned a paltry 8 million or so during its brief run in the spring of 1989–and even in 1989, 8 million was only a pittance. Additionally, the site shows that TBH only lasted three weeks in theaters, yet that does not jibe with my recollection. We played the movie at the theater where I worked, and I seem to recall a run of more like 4-5 weeks, maybe even–generously–6.  Of course, there have been instances in which film studios and/or distributors have been known to take a loss on a flick and just stop tracking grosses even as the film continued to play in theaters.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. I know TBH was far, far from a blockbuster, but I remember it doing steady business, especially on the weekends. Let me give you an example.  I distinctly remember walking out of the theater early one Friday evening after the movie had already been playing at least a week, and there was a line of a dozen or more young girls already buying tickets for the next showing, which was still probably 30 or 40 minutes away. Now, what I have never forgotten, even after all this time, is that a handful of these girls were acting out parts of the movie amongst themselves, recalling very specific scenes, lines of dialogue, etc. Okay, so what does this mean? I’ll tell you what it means: these girls had already seen the movie at least once, possibly twice; otherwise, how would they have been able to recall bits and pieces of it so readily?  That’s why I always remember this as being a perfect fit for the old UA Prestonwood Creek 5. I don’t remember it as a movie that came and went in a flash.

Yes, this is a movie with much appeal to both boys and girls.  My nineteen year old niece loves it, and she’s been watching it for years as it airs regularly on TV (as previously noted). I fully confess that if I’m ever clicking through channels looking for something to watch, I will stop searching in an instant if I come upon TBH at any point; plus, I owned it on VHS back in the day, and now I have it on DVD (no extras, alas); however, if you think my niece is such a devoted fan only because she’s grown up around me, you’d be wrong.  I happen to know many people her age and even a little younger who love the movie, as do a whole bunch of people in their twenties and thirties–and they’re the ones who were watching the movie when they were actually children. Oh, and you know what else? While researching this article, I stumbled upon a something of a phenomenon (news to me) in which young women come together for….wait for it….Troop Beverly Hills themed bachelorette parties and bridal showers. Yep.  It’s true, thereby once again proving that even when movies fail to attract huge crowds in theaters, they can still find their audiences eventually if given a chance, but, of course, I saw firsthand the seeds of all that one Friday evening in 1989.

Those girls at the  movies that night were clearly hooked, and they grew up, much like my niece, watching the movie on TV as often as possible, and I imagine that in the 24 years since then, they’ve shared it with their own children. Of course, all those adorable lasses onscreen have also grown-up, many of them doing quite well for themselves in the twenty-plus years since. Jenny Lewis, as Hannah Nefler, had already played a much more malevolent “Sunshine cadet” in a classic episode of The Golden Girls; she later made her mark as the thrillingly gifted singer of the alt/folk-rock band, Rilo Kiley (scroll down for a vid); Kellie Martin, as the daughter of Ed Byrne’s  underdog actor, has had quite a career. She was still in her teens when she earned a Primetime Emmy nod for her supporting turn in Life Goes On; later, she starred in Christy before joining the casts of E.R. and Army Wives. She also scored as the Mystery Woman in a series of movies for the Hallmark channel. Lovely Carla Gugino, now in her forties (if you can believe that), continues to act in everything from Brian de Palma’s Snake Eyes to her role as  the mom in the first batch of Spy Kids movies and the recent Sigourney Weaver series Political Animals.  Then, there’s Tasha Scott, the pint-sized vocal powerhouse who belts out the anthemic  “Cookie Time” while wearing what can only be described as a period-correct Tina Turner wig.  (Props to composer Randy Edelman for his witty variations on the “Cookie Time” theme.)  Scott hasn’t done much lately, per the IMDb, but as was the case with Lewis, I was already familiar with her from one of NBC’s Saturday night sitcoms. In Scott’s case, the show was Amen, and her vocal chops blew me away then, too. Oh, and let’s not forget Tori Spelling, everybody’s favorite showbiz brat, who pops up here and there as a member of a sneaky, overachieving rival troop.

Most of this movie is harmless, and these awkward young girls are a hoot as they try to keep up with their colorful leader: sitting around a campsite reading magazines (defining their personalities in the process), playing dress-up (and still looking like girls playing dress up rather than girls pretending to be hookers), and clumsily trying their best to mimic Mrs. Nefler’s moves during dance class. Of course, kids love this movie. On the other hand, Phyllis’s judgment isn’t as sound as it should be, and while she makes a few false moves, such as allowing the girls to pass out copies of Penthouse at an old folks home, she never really places them in any great danger. Still, she sometimes takes her duties a little too lightly, so some of Thomas’s character’s concerns are justified, which is the point, really. Phyllis needs to be reminded that she’s still the adult in charge.  Even so, I believe the good outweighs the bad in this case, like in an episode of The Facts of Life (from the same era), and this is actually quite an empowering flick for youngsters who’ve been characterized, or ostracized,  as outsiders. Again, think about the steadfast appeal it has for longtime followers. Furthermore,  I came across a great blog article about the movie awhile ago that I want to share. It’s entitled “What I’ve Learned from Phyllis Nefler,” and I think it puts a lot of what’s onscreen in perspective. I’ve included a link. Have fun.

Okay, time to wrap it up. Troop Beverly Hills is directed by Jeff Kanew, who hasn’t done a whole heck of a lot lately in films  (concentrating mostly on TV work these days),  but he was hot stuff back in the 1980s thanks to the success of Revenge of the Nerds.  Again, he doesn’t break new ground, but he keeps things moving–and there’s some lovely camera work, such as a shot of the landmark Hollywood sign that pulls back to reveal the troops’ campsite accompanied by a sound-a-like of  The Tokens’ “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” A nice touch, that. Again, the whole thing lasts only a few seconds, but it reveals a lot; likewise, there’s a nice continuous shot of Phyllis and Fred clashing over one thing or another as they climb their home’s winding staircase and then carry on the conversation while walking down a corner and making a few turns along the way. Kanew also includes a number of decidedly 1980s signifiers: Spago, Jane Fonda’s Workout studio, and the familiar yellow and white stripes associated with the famous Giorgio Beverly Hills boutique. I’m sure Kanew scarcely had any idea that he was fashioning a 1980s time-capsule during the shoot, but he did, and it’s perfect. The screenplay, by the way, is credited to Pamela Norris and Margaret Greico Oberman, based on a story by Ava Ostern Fries. Certainly, these writers have considerable résumés, what with both Norris and Oberman enjoying Emmy nominations for Saturday Night Live; Norris’s credits also include Designing Women while Oberman has also written for Square Pegs and Army Wives.  At any rate, theirs is a smart screenplay with some well-observed bits. For example, the joke isn’t just that Phyllis takes her girls on a camping trip to an exclusive hotel but that she takes them to an exclusive hotel with jungle-print wallpaper. Those references to Valley of the Dolls resonate because they’re perfectly in character for Beacham’s steamy novelist.  Again. there aren’t a lot of belly laughs, but there are plenty of sight gags and one-liners to keep the chuckles coming at fairly brisk pace.

Oh, and about those costumes. Van Runkle surely deserved accolades of some kind for doing almost the impossible: creating parodies of 1980s fashions, which were already fairly ridiculous.  Even better is the way Van Runkle shows how Phyllis constantly reinvents her drab troop leader uniform with incredible style, each new version tweaked so as to be appropriate for a given occasion, including a day at the marina, a not so PC lesson on Native Americans and the turquoise jewelry movement,  or a khaki inspired fashion show fundraiser. What a thrill.

Thanks for your consideration…..

Troop Beverly Hills in the New York Times:

http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=950DE2D81F30F930A15750C0A96F948260

“What I’ve Learned from Phyllis Nefler,” at Hello Giggles: http://hellogiggles.com/what-ive-learned-from-phyllis-nefler

One example of a Troop Beverly Hills bachelorette party/bridal shower on Pinterest:

http://pinterest.com/pin/226165212506816033/

Another look at a Troop Beverly Hills bachelorette party, per Sara Zimmerman Photography:

http://www.sarahzimmerphotography.com/weddings/troop-beverly-hills-themed-bachelorette-party-wedding-photography/

^  Fred Garrity of Freddie and the Dreamers passed away in 2006. He certainly had some unique dance moves.

^ The band was part of the 1960s British invasion though I scarcely remember “The Freddie” though, of course, I’m all about “I’m Telling You Now.” In the above clip, Freddy and the band are joined by Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, who, like Garrity’s signature dance, make cameo appearances in Troop Beverly Hills.

^ Jenny Lewis (Hannah Nefler) all grown up as the lead singer of the now apparently defunct band Rilo Kiley though Lewis perseveres. This song, “Silver Lining” is about as close as the band ever got to a big, radio-friendly hit single though I think her most exquisite vocal is on the title track to the Under the Blacklight cd. Lewis’s guitar playing band-mate Blake Sennett also got his start has a child with roles on Boy Meets World and Third Rock from the Sun. Oh, and yes, this song suspiciously recalls George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” which also suspiciously recalls “He’s So Fine” (written by Ronald Mack and originally recorded by The Chiffons).

Photo Credits:

Supreme Courtney: http://supremecourtney.blogspot.com/2012/02/valentines-day-really-frosts-my-cookies.html

Point Toe Shoe Crew: http://pointytoeshoecrew.com/2011/10/21/the-weekend-special-we-got-more-bounce-in-california/

Reel Film Reviews:  http://tinyurl.com/mgketkf

Ranger Danger

22 Jul

I’m reposting “Ranger Danger” because I want to clear the air about an unfortunately timed coincidence.

Confessions of a Movie Queen

This piece was originally posted on Sunday, July 14, 2013. I began writing it that day–right after I saw the dreadful second weekend box office dip for the already disastrous Lone Ranger movie on Box Office Mojo.  Imagine my surprise when I came home today and found an issue of Entertainment Weekly in my mailbox. Why is that surprising? Well, I received an issue of the magazine, dated July 26, this past Friday (the 19th, to clarify), which means that for some reason last week’s issue arrived a week late. When I didn’t get an issue a week ago, I just figured that EW, as is often the case, was still on hiatus following a special double issue that likely came out around July 4th. Seemed plausible to me.  At any rate, when I opened my week-old issue today, I was stunned to find a huge story about

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American Emmy Story

18 Jul

Where to begin with this year’s Primtime Emmys? Don’t worry. I’ll try to keep this brief because this blog is actually about movies, not television, though TV is seemingly much more hospitable to actresses than is often the case with feature films. Also, the Emmys have so many categories that I can barely keep up with all of them, especially since I don’t get HBO, Showtime, or any of the other premium channels that offer such shows as Homeland. Plus, I barely have time to watch even a small handful of series with any regularity. Full confession: I love Amy Poehler, but I’ve never seen an episode of Parks and Recreation though I hear it’s wonderful, and I congratulate Poehler on her nod. I think I’ve barely seen more than snippets of such top contenders as The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family though I am happy for the people associated with both shows. I’ve seen multiple Emmy winner Jim Parsons. a proud Houston native, on a few talk shows, and I’ve been a fan of Ty Burrell (Modern Family) for awhile based on his work on other shows. I’ve yet to watch a single episode of Scandal, but I know it’s generated plenty of buzz and has tons of fans. I know several people who love it. I’ve seen Scandal’s Emmy nominated star of plenty of talk shows and magazine covers, so I’m happy for all of her success.

LindaCardelliniMadMenSeason6--241243501554318511

Emmy nominee Linda Cardellini (Mad Men). Of course, I love Jessica Lange in almost anything, and I’m thrilled that she earned an Emmy nomination for American Horror Story: Asylum. I’m even more thrilled for Sarah Paulson per her searing portrayal of a railroaded reporter in the same series; however, I am damn near ecstatic at the inclusion of the great Linda Cardellini, who has earned her first Emmy nomination, in the “guest” role category, for her performance as Sylvia Rosen in Mad Men. Of all the women with whom that manipulative adulterer Don Draper has dallied, none of them has ever gotten under Don’s skin the way Sylvia did. Cardellini was simply breathtaking, in scene after impossible scene, as a seemingly neglected doctor’s wife who simply could not get enough of Don’s shennanigans even when he treated Sylvia like shit–until, of course, she had enough though enough was never enough for Don, and just when we all thought it was over, Sylvia’s vulnerability–as a mom with a son on the verge of being sent off to Vietnam–got the best of her, of Don, and of everybody else. If you only know Cardellini as the spoiled Chutney–she of the gargantuan perm–in Legally Blonde, or as nerdy Velma in the Scooby Doo movies, then you need to take a second look at this incredibly versatile actress as soon as possible. Of course, the nominations for Cardellini, Paulson, Lange, Elisabeth Moss, Robin Wright, Kerry Washington, and all the rest provide compelling evidence that television often offers much more challenging roles for actresses than do feature films. This year, the heat was so intense that there was no room in the drama series category for previous winners Mariska Hargitay (Law and Order: Special Victims Unit), Kyra Sedgwick (The Closer), and Julianna Margulies (The Good Wife) while there was no room in the comedy category for perennial fave Betty White (Hot in Cleavland) though White earned the 20th nod of her career for hosting Betty White’s Off Their Rockers.

This is the year that a show produced through digital movies and shows-on-demand service Netflix makes Emmy history, and that show is the political drama House of Cards, starring two-time Oscar winner Kevin Spacey, who also serves as an executive producer. The show reeled in a total of nine nominations, including Outstanding Dramatic Series, Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, and Outstanding Lead Actress in Drama Series–the wonderful and oft under-appreciate Robin Wright, a onetime Dallas gal. Congratulations, y’all!

Also, the Netflix rejuvenated comedy series Arrested Development generated a few nods, including Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy (Jason Bateman). I haven’t see any of the new episodes, but I used to tune-in sporadically  when the show originally aired on Fox.  Oh, and I’ve been a fan of Bateman’s since just about forever.  Meanwhile, the big broadcast networks (ABC,  CBS, NBC, and Fox) were shut out of the Best Drama series category though PBS’s Downton Abbey secured a place on the finalist’s roster, and I only watch that show intermittently as well.

On the other hand, I was completely caught up in this year’s most nominated series American Horror Story: Asylum, which scored 17 nods. To clarify: this show is in the mini-series or made-for-TV movie category since each season is a self-contained story with a rep company of actors on board portraying different characters from the ones they played in the previous installment, so kudos to the fine cast members who snagged nominations starting with the one and only Jessica Lange, who won an Emmy as a supporting player for her work in the previous season. This go-round she played stern Sister Jude, the head nun at a dangerously unstable mental home. Well, it’s complicated. If you think  Lange was just doing a rehash of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’s villainous Nurse Ratched (portrayed onscreen by Oscar winner Louise Fletcher),  you’d be wrong. Lange’s character has a huge arc, and the actress provides layers and layers of feelings, that is, conflicted emotions. If you catch the show in reruns, be prepared to hate her, and then sit back and watch what happens. Also nominated from the same show are Sarah Paulson (Lana, the railroaded lesbian reporter), James Cromwell (the doctor with the Nazi past), and Zachary Quinto (a seemingly soft spoken…psycho). I have to say that Paulson, promoted as a supporting player, perhaps impressed me even more than Lange. Lana is a reporter whose life is all but destroyed after she tries to write an expose of the creepy mental facility.  Again, in a saga that takes place over several, several years, Paulson gets a chance to really hone her acting chops,  playing a character who experiences a flurry of ever-escalating emotional changes. Good job! That noted, I thought Lange and Paulson were more evenly matched not by Cromwell and Quinto, though they are both swell actors, but by un-nominated Evan Peters as morose Kit, a man who seemingly lives two lives. How’s that? Well, you’d have to watch, but, trust me. Peters did amazing work as a man who can scarcely believe his own fortune. Of course, the Emmys are just super, super competitive.

To the surprise of no one, I’m sure, the mighty, mighty Jon Hamm is back in the race for his magnificent portrayal of  TV’s most handsome cipher, Mad Men‘s Don Draper. Hamm is so good, so absolutely invested in Draper, that it’s often easy to forget that he’s really acting–it almost seems as though he really is Draper, but, of course, he’s not. That’s why it’s sometimes shocking to see Hamm on SNL, a movie, or some other show being so completely different. Ad-whizman Draper has been spiraling out of control for awhile now, but this season he crashed hard, and Hamm skillfully managed the next-to-impossible: he made audiences care about what happens next, and that’s a feat considering the number of bridges this master manipulator can burn in a single episode. Mad Men has won Outstanding Drama Series in four of its previous five seasons, but Hamm, consistently nominated as well, has never won. His closest competition always seems to be Breaking Bad‘s Bryan Cranston. Maybe this year will be different though I’m not hopeful since Breaking Bad has generated tons of interest in its final season. I’d also love to see Elisabeth Moss take home a trophy for playing Mad Men‘s Peggy Olson, Don’s protégé. Not only does Olson serve as a stand-in for the emerging women’s movement as the show moves out of the 1960s and into the 1970s, she also has a most unique relationship with Don. She’s never slept with him, thank god, but she perhaps knows him better than almost anyone including his current wife and ex-wife, yet she does not know as much as she thinks she does.  At the same time, as an ad exec, Olson is becoming more and more like Don, a development crystalized in the last look at the character in the most recent season finale. Moss is a double nominee this year thanks to her work on Top of the Lake (courtesy of New Zealand’s Jane Campion).  On the other hand, despite a smattering of Mad Men acting nods, I’m still a little irked that the wonderful Vincent Karthiser, who consistently excels as weasley Pete Campbell has yet again been overlooked. Everybody hates Pete. Exactly.

Thanks for your consideration…and my apologies to Jason Bateman, whose name I originally bungled in a previously and prematurely published draft of this article.

Here is a link to the official Emmy website: http://www.emmys.com/

Emmy coverage at Variety.com: http://variety.com/2013/tv/news/emmy-nominees-2013-emmys-awards-nominations-full-list-1200564301/

Ranger Danger

14 Jul

This piece was originally posted on Sunday, July 14, 2013. I began writing it that day–right after I saw the dreadful second weekend box office dip for the already disastrous Lone Ranger movie on Box Office Mojo.  Imagine my surprise when I came home today and found an issue of Entertainment Weekly in my mailbox. Why is that surprising? Well, I received an issue of the magazine, dated July 26, this past Friday (the 19th, to clarify), which means that for some reason last week’s issue arrived a week late. When I didn’t get an issue a week ago, I just figured that EW, as is often the case, was still on hiatus following a special double issue that likely came out around July 4th. Seemed plausible to me.  At any rate, when I opened my week-old issue today, I was stunned to find a huge story about The Lone Ranger‘s dud debut and the possible impact that so many gimmicky roles has had–and might continue to have on Johnny Depp’s career. The writer even zeroed in on one of Depp’s best non-gimmicky roles in 1997’s Donnie Brasco–just as I also point out in my post. 

Here is my point. In the two years that I have been writing this blog, I have committed a few boo-boos, and I usually try to clean those up just as soon as possible. When I use the word “boo-boo,” I mean factual glitches that I should have double-checked before I hit the “Publish”  button; sometimes, my typing skills fail me, and I have typos rather than outright spelling errors. To me, those are different things. At the same time, I want to be clear that one thing I have never done is plagiarize another writer’s work. (The EW article is by Owen Gleiberman, btw.) Anyone who has read this blog with any regularity has no doubt noticed the abundance of links I include with my articles: The New York Times, the Internet Movie Database, Box Office Mojo, Variety, Entertainment Weekly, and various books–mainly Alternate Oscars by Danny Peary and Inside Oscar by Mason Wiley and Damien Bona. I have also quoted other websites and books, especially biographies and autobiographies.

I was a journalism geek in high school, I majored in English in college, and I have successfully completed an “Information Literacy Certification” program at the college where I now teach. Believe me, I do understand the peril of plagiarism, and I know how to cite sources. Even for a mere blog piece. I have actually dealt with plagiarism among students in my job as a teacher, and I have delivered bad news, in the form of an “F,” to my students who have been caught.  Furthermore, I had already told some of my friends that I was planning on writing an article entitled “Remember When Johnny Depp Didn’t Suck?” if and when The Lone Ranger proved to be the turkey that I had a hunch it would be. Plus, as noted, in the original article,  I wanted to go back and spotlight the original Lone Ranger TV series’ use of The William Tell Overture; likewise, I wanted to write a little something about Jay Silverheels, the actor who made the Tonto character famous back in the day. Oh, and I thought it would be fun to mention Rango, 2011’s Oscar winning animated feature–which I had not seen at the time of its victory. 

Gleiberman’s article was written right after The Lone Ranger opened, and the issue likely shipped just as the movie was headed into its second weekend–keep in mind that journals are often dated a week ahead so that the date actually reflects the last day the periodical should be on the stands before the new issue hits–this is, as I understand it, a tool to help vendors when they’re stocking. If I had received the July 19 issue as scheduled, it probably would have arrived on Friday, July 12 or Saturday, July 13; I  probably would have also referred to Gleiberman’s article anyway, but I would have cited it. That’s how I roll. Looking at this from my perspective, knowing now that my article actually appeared on the heels of Gleiberman’s, I feel creeped-out.  I know my blog is not necessarily important writing, and it doesn’t have a huge audience. Plus, I’m guessing that a lot of my readers probably don’t think too much about Entertainment Weekly anyway–though I have been a subscriber since the first issue, early in 1990, with k.d. lang on the cover. Still, I value my integrity as much as anybody else values his/her own. I  also guess it’s fair to say that both Gleiberman and I share some of the same concerns when it comes to Depp, and we both think the actor did some of his finest work in Donnie Brasco. Of course, Gleiberman and I differ in that he actually had to sit through Depp’s turn as the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland while I took one look at the overwrought makeup and knew the film wasn’t for me. I didn’t mention Alice in my article for the very reason that I had not seen the film, nor do I plan to do so (plus, that one, unlike The Lone Ranger and even Dark Shadows, was a huge, huge, hit) ; likewise, I have often written skeptically of Depp in the past as when I wrote about his interest in playing Nick Charles in a new Thin Man movie–just as his and director Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows reboot was about to flop hard in the spring of 2012. I also had some commentary about his over-generously Oscar nominated performance in Sweeney Todd (2007) in a 2011 piece I wrote about Ryan Gossling in the same year’s Lars and the Real Girl. Anyway, that’s all. I feel the need to clear the air. 

Here is a link to Gleiberman’s article:

http://insidemovies.ew.com/2013/07/15/johnny-depp-career-lone-ranger/

Here is my original article:

Well, by now I’m sure that most of you know Disney’s attempt to refashion the old-school  The Lone Ranger TV and radio series as a souped-up big bucks franchise has failed miserably. With a reported budget of $215 million (per Box Office Mojo), the movie grossed a relatively meager 48 million in its first five days, which, don’t forget, fell into what is generally considered a long holiday weekend,  traditionally a strong and important period for moviegoing. (To clarify, the movie opened on July 3rd.)  Of course, 48 million seems like a lot of money–only because it is–but compare the numbers to Despicable Me 2, which opened the same weekend:  a first place finish with a gross of 148 million, that is, at least three times the amount of The Lone Ranger.  Ranger Danger.

Now, in its second weekend, The Lone Ranger is fading faster than that ever-fabled cloud of dust.  With a dip of over 60%–never a good sign–the movie fell from #2 on the charts to #5. With domestic grosses of 71 million, and steadily declining, its  chances of recouping are slim to none, considering that even if the film earned back its staggering production costs, that still doesn’t cover marketing and distribution expenses. Oh, and don’t talk to me about foreign sales because I see a great big Ranger Danger alert there too, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Now, it probably comes as a surprise to no one that I could have easily predicted this mess if only anyone had asked me, and here’s why:

  1. Armie Hammer is not a star. Who’s Armie Hammer, you ask? Exactly. He’s the guy playing the Lone Ranger. Funny thing, that. Am I the only one who remembers the last time, a big Hollywood studio tried to relaunch The Lone Ranger as a big screen entertainment only to meet a disastrous fate? In that one, circa 1981, the masked man was played by Klinton Spilsbury, a name every bit as memorable as Armie Hammer. Actually, I never saw the 1981 redo, but I’ve never forgotten the name, and last weekend, when I was looking for a whatever happened to Klinton Spilsbury type article, I came across an interesting piece at EW online. (I’ve included a link following this article.) There’s no doubt that Spilsbury was a great looking guy, once described as a cross between a young Clint Eastwood and a young Warren Beatty. Okay, that’s hot; check the photo in the article. Even so, Spilsbury reportedly just couldn’t “act” all that well. Now, I’m not implying that new masked man Armie Hammer cannot act, but he’s not a star. That’s an important part of this equation.  Hammer is blandly good looking, but he’s no Klinton Spilsbury, and if he were a more seasoned talent, he might have been perfect, but, so far, he has not demonstrated star quality in his most high profile roles: The Social Network, J. Edgar, and Mirror, Mirror (all more or less supporting roles, btw). At this point, yeah, I guess he seems likable enough, but I’m not even sure he’s a good–strong–actor.
  2. Wtf, Johnny Depp as Tonto? I want to state right here for the record that the minute I saw Johnny Depp’s over-the-top makeup as Tonto, in publicity photos probably released about a year or so ago, I knew that The Lone Ranger held no interest for me.  I know he was reportedly inspired by a painting entitled I am Crow by Kirby Sattler, but I think he got carried away and went too literal.  I also know I should not criticize a movie I have not seen, and I’m not doing that. I’m explaining why I don’t want to see the movie, and why, looking from the outside, I think appears to be–no, is–a mess.

    johnny-depp-in-donnie-brasco

    Remember when Johnny Depp didn’t suck? Before he achieved mega-blockbuster status, and his first Oscar nomination, with 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, Depp was known mostly as the idiosyncratic, charismatic star of often quirky features, such as Edward Scissorhands, Benny & Joon, and Ed Wood (all of them Golden Globe nominated) as well as the great American classic, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. For me, his best performance is also his least typical: the conflicted undercover agent in 1997’s Donnie Brasco, (above)  based on a true story. This is an instance in which this gifted actor proves himself with talent and characterization, down to the most minute detail, rather than personality, tics, costume, and makeup. Edward Scissorhands and Gilbert Grape tie for a close second. Lately, his filmography, with few exceptions, is full of crap, including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Tourist, Dark Shadows, and, now, The Lone Ranger. Oh, and don’t get me started on Sweeney Todd.

  3. For me, the problem is that Johnny Depp is still very much a star, which would almost be fine if the movie were entitled Tonto, but it’s not, and I think it’s a mistake when the top-billed actor, which is Depp, is playing the hero’s partner. As it is, they’re not equals, not even close. It’s confusing and out-of-balance. I have only heard mixed reviews about Depp’s performance. I know he wanted to do something different to distinguish his performance from Jay Silverheels on the old TV show, but there have been complaints that he hasn’t exactly advanced portrayals of Native Americans.  Indeed, there is even controversy about a non-Native American playing the character. Depp says he comes from Cherokee blood; others disagree. I’m sure Rodney Grant, Eric Schweig, and even Wes Studi would have been just fine in the role. For the record, Michael Horse, also a Native American, played Tonto in 1981’s The Legend of the Lone Ranger. So there.

    tonto

    Hindisght, as the old saying goes, is always 20-20, which is why I think it’s almost too easy–now–to criticize Jay Silveheels (above) and his portrayal of Tonto in the old Lone Ranger TV series, which ran from 1949 to 1957. Some critics, including Native American author Sherman Alexie, complain that Tonto was, well, not so bright. Since, unlike Alexie, I am not Native American, I’m sure my reading of the character is much different from his, and I respect that. I also know I care not to revisit the Lone Ranger anytime soon lest all my illusions be shattered. What I remember is that most of my friends always thought Tonto was the cool one in the equation. Yep, Tonto was cool, and Silverheels was a good looking guy, much easier on the eyes than that masked man. I never thought of him as merely a sidekick. To me, he and the Lone Ranger were partners. Of course, maybe that’s just a reflection of my white privilege. It’s possible. Still, I’d like to point out that in an era in which Native Americans, or as we called them then, Indians, were often portrayed as noble savages, or just savages, Silverheels offered a welcome  variation, and he wasn’t a drunk, a con artist, or a buffoon, per countless sitcoms. Instead, he was to borrow a quote, unequivocally good. Okay, the pidgin English is pretty indefensible.  Silverheels (nee Harold J. Smith), a Mohawk hailing from Canada, was a hardworking actor who amassed, per the IMDb, a whopping 102 TV and film credits in his career (including Key Largo and Broken Arrow), many of them uncredited.  He also reportedly knew how to laugh at himself when necessary per his appearance in a famous Tonight Show skit with Johnny Carson.  His contribution to American pop culture has not gone unappreciated as he was recognized with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame besides being inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, the first Native American so honored. He did not appear in the first several episodes of The Lone Ranger though once his character was introduced, he was there for the entire run of the series–unlike Clayton Moore who was briefly replaced as the titular character. Silverheels passed away in 1980. In his later years, he was a prominent activist and acting coach.

  4. Oh, I know someone somewhere will be quick to point out that since Depp is the bigger, and more beloved, star, and one of the film’s producers as well, it made perfect business sense to build the marketing campaign around him, but I say…not so fast, Kemosabe. That so-called smart business sense is really nothing more than corporate bait-and-switch greediness (not to mention a generous dollop of ego). Plus, hello, it didn’t work, did it? The movie is an epic stinker. What would have made more sense would have been to not make the movie at all and spend the 215 million on a handful of solid, if modestly budgeted, flicks. Another thought would have been to bank less on Depp’s magnetism and to cast someone more nearly equal as the Lone Ranger in the first place, say, Channing Tatum or even Matthew McCOnaughey, or why not go for broke and cast Depp in both roles? Hey, now that’s an idea!
  5. I think the suits at Disney over-estimated The Lone Ranger‘s appeal to younger moviegoers. Oh sure, people 50 and older might have fond memories of watching seemingly endless reruns  of the Lone Ranger and Tonto on black and white TV back in the day, but, come on, today’s target demographic of teens-to-twentysomethings have little or no awareness of that old series in their collective consciousness–aside, possibly, from the signature music–and, heck, even my generation avoided the Spilbsury reboot. Some things are just better left in their own eras. This is also why I think The Lone Ranger will have difficulty in overseas markets. It’s too specific to a particular moment in U.S culture. Of course, the people at Disney had other ideas. They likely anticipated the dearth of awareness among their target audience, so they basically attempted to reinvent The Lone Ranger using the Pirates of the Caribbean template: hire the same actor, Depp, give him outrageous costumes and makeup, and, oh yes, hire the same director, Gore Verbinski. Also, throw lots of money at it and fill it with huge explosive action sequences; however, if that’s all the powers that be had in mind, wouldn’t it have been more prudent just to make another Pirates of the Caribbean movie? God, please no.  Not that.  I liked the first one a lot, and I loved Depp in it, especially. There was novelty in his performance, and it was a nice little kick in the pants; I think I might have liked the second one even more at moments, but the third one was a mess, and I skipped the last one. I plan to skip the next installment, in the planning stages, as well. By now, the whole thing is tiresome.
Rango is an animated western in which Johnny Depp voices the title character, a chameleon who takes on the role of sheriff in a lawless town.

Neighbor, have you still not caught up with Rango, 2011’s Oscar winning animated feature film? If not, well, don’t you think it’s time?

If you just have to see Depp in a western directed by Verbinski, you might check out the next best thing: Rango, 2011’s Oscar winner for Best Animated Feature. In this one, Depp provides the voice of the title character, a chameleon, literally, with an identity crisis–nice, huh?–who wanders into a town right out of the Old West. What follows is an pastiche of a bunch of flicks reenacted by desert critters,  most notably Chinatown, with Ned Beatty doing a gosh-darn good job of recreating John Huston’s villainous Noah Cross as a turtle, along with High Noon and the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood. It’s all marvellously fun, with lots of cinema in-jokes, and the animated effects are beautifully rendered. Depp, free from human form, does an excellent job of giving supple voice to his character.

Finally, a few weeks ago, I did a piece that covered some of the most memorable scores to westerns of a certain era, mainly How the West Was Won, The Magnificent Seven, and The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, along with such equally legendary TV themes as Bonanza, Rawhide, and Dallas. At the time, I considered including the theme from The Lone Ranger, that is, a portion–the fourth movement–of  The William Tell Overture by Giochino Rossini. Ultimately, I did not include it for two reasons: 1. Unlike the other pieces in the entry, it is not an original piece of music, that is, again, it was not composed specifically for the Lone Ranger series, right?  2. Because the release of the latest Lone Ranger movie was just around the corner at the time, I did not want my article to be perceived as plug for anything connected to the Disney corporation. Those folks get enough coverage; however, I have since considered the possibility that the rich, thrilling, almost epic, scores for the likes of How the West Was Won, The Magnificent Seven, etc., might have very well been inspired by the use of Rossini’s music in its TV western context. Isn’t it just about the most profound example, or one of the most profound examples, of classical music being re-appropriated for pop culture? Yes? Isn’t it also possible that the impact of it inspired such composers as Alfred Newman & Ken Darby (How the West Was Won), Elmer Bernstein (The Magnificent Seven), and all the rest as they evoked the spirit of the old west?  This is not a claim, but rather an interesting proposition.  I’m including a clip of The Lone Ranger series here; you can go back to the previous piece if you so choose to make a determination or comparison for yourself.

Thanks for your consideration…

The Lone Ranger at Box Office Mojo: http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=loneranger.htm

The Legend of Klinton Spilsbury” at Entertainment Weekly online:

http://insidemovies.ew.com/2013/07/02/lone-ranger-klinton-spilsbury/

Johnny Depp explains the inspiration for his Tonto makeup:

http://insidemovies.ew.com/2012/04/22/johnny-depp-reveals-origins-of-tonto-makeup-from-lone-ranger-exclusive/

Artist Kirby Sattler’s website: http://kirbysattler.sattlerartprint.com/

Article about Depp’s alleged Cherokee heritage from a Native American perspective: http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2013/06/17/disney-exploiting-confusion-about-whether-depp-has-indian-blood-149941

Jay Silverheels at the Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0798855/

National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum: http://www.nationalcowboymuseum.org/Default.aspx

Native American actor Wes Studi follows Silverheels into the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum:

http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2013/04/19/wes-studi-be-second-american-indian-inducted-hall-great-western-performers-148919

Lengthy blog article about Silverheels via the indie radio station WFMU: http://blog.wfmu.org/freeform/2009/03/tonto-via-toronto-the-rise-and-fall-of-jay-silverheels.html

From the Los Angeles Times, Why Sherman Alexie dislikes Tonto: http://articles.latimes.com/1998/jun/28/entertainment/ca-64216

An excerpt from the documentary, Jay Silverheels: The Man Beside the Mask –  I’ve included this clip because it shows that everyone has an opinion about Silverheels, including an unidentified Native American that appears to be actor Michael Horse, who played Tonto in 1981’s The Legend of the Lone Ranger. Unlike Klinton Spilsbury, Horse has gone on to bigger and better gigs, such as Twin Peaks, Roswell, and the Oscar nominated animated feature Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, among many, many others. Still, he has only positive things to say about Silverheels:

High Noon on the Island of Good and Evil Under the Sun

5 Jul

Well, Michael and I finally saw Quartet, the late 2012 release that marked the directorial debut of two-time Oscar winning actor Dustin Hoffman. The movie didn’t make it to Dallas until February or March, a tad anti-climactic since despite generally kind reviews, the popularity of star Maggie Smith,  and the savvy marketing folks at Weinstein, the film was an Oscar casualty. Not a single nomination even though Smith did eke out a Globe nod. Funny thing, that. Again, Smith, with a lengthy career that includes two Oscars and scads of other awards and/or nominations, is probably as popular–that word again–as she has ever been thanks to the import series Downton Abbey (okay, and Harry Potter), yet for all the hoopla, I found her to be no better and certainly no worse than usual in Quartet.

quartet-film-cast

^ The marvelous cast of Dustin Hoffman’s Quartet (l -r): Pauline Collins, the great Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, and Maggie Smith.

Instead, I was most captivated by Tom Courtenay, a sterling British actor–and two time Oscar nominee (last in the race for 1983’s The Dresser) as a lovesick chap who was once all but destroyed by Smith’s Jean Horton.The two opera singers were briefly married, but the marriage was short-lived, and Horton went on to an ever more illustrious career. Now, she’s old, apparently destitute, and on her way to Beecham House, a retirement home for singers and musicians; meanwhile, Courtenay’s Reginald continues to nurse a broken heart, and it’s touching, almost heartbreaking, to see a such a distinguished man try NOT to wear his heart on his sleeve. I think he’d be relieved if he didn’t have a heart.

Quartet was filmed at the popular Hedsor House and Park in Buckinghamshire, England. The estate has been featured in a number of films and TV shows, including The Golden Compass, MTV’s The Girls of Hedsor Hall, and the upcoming Red 2. Oh, wouldn’t I love to stroll those sumptuous grounds and just relax.

What I’m really leading up to is that, once again, Michael and I are unlikely to take a vacation this year. Our plans fell through last year as well, but to make up for the disappointment, I immersed myself in Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982). Allen’s film, an early 20th century romp set on an idyllic country estate, was the next best thing to an actual weekend getaway; certainly, it was much, much, much less expensive than an actual getaway.

So far, this summer doesn’t look too promising either: too many commitments, not enough time, and not enough scratchola. With that in mind, it looks like I’ll be watching–and writing about–another scenic gem, one also starring Dame Maggie:  1982’s exquisite adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun.

Ustinov_evil_under_the_sun_1981_portrait_w858

Led by Peter Ustinov as Christie’s methodical sleuth Hercule Poirot, the cast of Evil Under the Sun is chock-full of Oscar winners and/or nominees. Ustinov has two statuettes for Best Supporting Actor: Spartacus (1960) and Topkapi (1964, a fave of ours); additionally, he earned nominations for appearing in 1951’s Quo Vadis and for co-writing 1968’s Hot Millions. He earned a British Academy nod for his first outing as Poirot in 1978’s Death on the Nile. Albert Finney, you might recall, won an Oscar nod for portraying Poirot in 1974’s Murder on the Orient Express. Ustinov went on to play Poirot in a few TV adaptations as well as yet another feature film, Appointment with Death–not from Bradbourne and Goodwin but, instead, the cheapie Cannon/Golan-Globus organization. Ustinov passed away at the age of 82 in 2004.

I was living in San Francisco when this gem was released, and even though I’m a Christie fan–I try to read at least one of her books, sometimes more, every year–and even though I thought Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and Death on the Nile (1978) were both a lot of fun, I never thought too much about seeing Evil Under the Sun. I think maybe I was “making do” on limited resources–heck, S.F. is an expensive place, especially for people in the so-called “service industry.”  Maybe the title and the participation of Smith just seemed too similar to Death on the Nile (in which Smith sparred with Bette Davis, Angela Lansbury, and Peter Ustinov, among others); maybe I didn’t know what to believe after the last big Christie offering, The Mirror Crack’d. Yes, about that unfortunate business.  Though all four of the Christie releases in this paragraph were produced by the team of  John Bradbourne and Richard B. Goodwin, and even though the two earlier releases had each snagged a handful or awards and/or nominations, The Mirror Crack’d was a fiasco, a painful last grasp at major movie stardom for most of the participants: Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and Kim Novak. A beast that one. Mercilessly slaughtered by the critics in a way more deadly than even Christie could have devised (thank god, she’d already passed away), the movie likewise tanked with audiences when it was released in time for the 1980 holiday season–when everyone was else was flocking to the likes of 9 to 5 and Stir Crazy.

True confession: I didn’t see The Mirror Crack’d back in the day. I wanted to at first, but I was, uh, between jobs for a bit, and when I read the reviews, I was frankly relieved, knowing what little money I had would not be wasted. I caught up with it on VHS in 1989.  Again, simply dreadful. I watched it again, sometime in the past year or two, at the urging of a friend, but it doesn’t even work as camp. I guess, the only good thing that came out of The Mirror Crack’d was that someone had the good sense to parlay Angela Lansbury’s performance as Christie’s Miss Marple into TV’s longrunning Murder, She Wrote (after Doris Day and Jean Stapleton reportedly turned down the chance to play mystery writer turned amateur sleuth, Jessica Fletcher). But I digress.

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At the time of Evil Under the Sun’s 1982 release, Smith had already won Oscars as Best Actress (The Prime of Jean Brodie, 1969) and Best Supporting Actress (California Suite, 1978) in addition to nominations for 1965’s Othello (Best Supporting Actress-as Desdemona) and 1972’s Travels with My Aunt (Best Actress). Her filmography now includes additional Best Supporting nods for A Room with a View (1986) and Gosford Park (2001). Of course, younger movie fans simply love her as Professor McGonagall in the Harry Potter movies.

So, Evil Under the Sun. There I was last summer when a co-worker noticed that I was reading Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence. (Didn’t I just mention that I try to read at least one Christie per year?)  He asked if I was a big Christie fan and, knowing that I’m all about movies, asked if I’d ever seen Evil Under the Sun. Then, he told me the thing that stuck.  He said that Evil Under the Sun was the perfect movie–that’s the word he used, perfect. He went on to elaborate that he wouldn’t argue that it was the best movie ever made, or even that it was his all-time favorite movie. He just thought it was perfect in and of itself.  Okay, so I was intrigued, and the next time Michael and I had a night off together, we watched…the perfect movie.

Well, I don’t know that Evil Under the Sun is a perfect movie, but it sure is a lot of fun.  Sure, a few liberties have been taken with Christie’s original text (as I have since learned),  but the plot construction is pretty tight as Christie presents a murder in which every possible suspect seemingly has an iron-clad alibi.  Simply, a rather loose-knit bunch of showbiz types, and a few anxious followers, converge upon a sprawling retreat nestled near the Adriatic Sea; however all the fun-in-the sun is marred when petty jealousies and shocking alliances emerge, resulting in death by strangulation.

Of course, even with all those alibis, someone must be lying because as Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot (Peter Ustinov)  maintains, a murder has most definitely been committed. Someone is definitely dead, and someone definitely did the deed. Btw: the title of this blog piece is not just a clever play on words as the time of day is important to the particulars to the crime.  The twist, for lack of a better word, is that everyone’s alibi can be corroborated by another party, even a disinterested party though this is no grand conspiracy of the sort described in Murder on the Orient Express, but it manages an interesting turn or two.  Hint: just remember the magician’s old maxim:  “People believe what they see.”

Now, what’s not an illusion is how Evil Under the Sun works as a smashing travelogue. Though Christie’s original is set at a resort in Devon, the movie, again, takes place near the Adriatic though filming was actually done on location in Mallorca, Spain. Per the DVD, I believe the story goes that director Guy Hamilton was actually living in Mallorca at the time, and that location was picked specifically because it had not been overrun with high rise hotels as many potential sites had been. The setting needed to be pristine, tranquil, and secluded; that it is.

James Mason Verdict

This photo shows actor James Mason in his last Oscar nominated role as Paul Newman’s nemesis in The Verdict, which was released the same year as Evil Under the Sun (1982). Mason had previously been nominated for his performances in A Star is Born (1954) and Georgy Girl (1966); leading for the former, and supporting for the latter. Mason passed away shortly afterward (in 1984) at the age of 75.

Make no mistake, even with a cast that includes Smith, Ustinov, delightful Diana Rigg, Roddy McDowell, hunky Nicholas Clay [1], Jane Birkin, Colin Blakely and a few others  (profiled throughout this piece), Mallorca is really the star of the piece. Per the IMDb, screenwriter Anthony Shaffer, who also adapted Death on the Nile, once said: “The location is important. The island should be a star. Just as the Nile steamer [in Death on the Nile] and the Orient Express [in Murder on the Orient Express] were stars.” There’s a scarcely a bad shot in the whole movie. Instead, the actors are constantly framed against bright blue skies that fill up the screen, sparklingly clear turquoise waters, spectacularly photographic jagged terrain, and a gorgeous estate replete with verdant gardens and landscaped terraces–not to mention grand exterior steps. Also, according to the IMDb, it appears as though many of the hotel exteriors were filmed at the historic Raixa estate; the interiors were created on English soundstages, and they’re not bad: huge rooms, lavishly appointed in a style that mixes Moorish and Art Deco elements.

Of course, a breathtaking natural location is only as good as the cinematographer entrusted to capture it for moviegoers’ delight, and in this case, that means  Christopher Challis, a British Academy Award winner for Arabesque (starring Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren, 1966) with additional BAFTA nods for The Deep (1977), and Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines… (1965).  Challis’s work in Evil Under the Sun is so good he can even be forgiven for his part in the execrable The Mirror Crack’d. Heck, I’ll likewise excuse director Hamilton for his part in the earlier debacle.

sylvia-miles-evil-sun-9

Sylvia Miles appears as Mason’s wife. They play a pair of pushy–desperate–theatrical producers. Miles is a two-time Oscar nominee for Best Supporting Actress: Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Farewell, My Lovely (1975).

Oh, and there are more goodies besides. In a departure from their previous Christie offerings, which featured mostly original scores, Bradbourne and Goodwin, and presumably Hamilton, made the choice to score Evil Under the Sun with a batch of vintage tunes by no less than Cole Porter, including “Night and Day,” “You’re the Top,” “Begin the Beguine,” and “Anything Goes.” What’s not to love? Once again, perfect music for a holiday! Plus, there’s some wonderfully witty–if not outright bitchy–dialogue, such as: “If you were a man, I’d divorce you!”  Speaking of wit, pay close attention to Anthony Powell’s witty costume designs. How’s that you say?  In one scene, Smith and Rigg wear evening ensembles that seem to be competing with each other. Oh, and there’s a lot of polka-dots and other happy, colorful patterns.

Powell, of course, won an Oscar for Death on the Nile, and good for him, though he was not even nominated for Evil Under the Sun, which was largely passed over for awards consideration on both sides of the pond, netting only an Edgar Allen Poe nod for Shaffer’s screenplay; the Poe awards, btw, date back as far as 1946 and are presented by a group known as the Mystery Writers of America. I guess after all the accolades lavished on Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, the Christie productions had become just a tad familiar to Oscar voters, Globe voters, etc. Too bad because there is so much top-of-the-line talent involved, and the results are smashing. Indeed, as I mentioned earlier, a co-worker calls it a perfect movie; moreover, a post on the IMDb message boards heralds it as “The most underrated movie ever?” Clearly, it has ardent, and quote vocal, admirers. Oh, and just to clarify, the performances are a hoot. Ustinov is endearing as Poirot, a feat that, while McDowall, Riggs, and Smith are good for a few yucks.  I’m glad I finally caught up with this gem, but now I wish I’d seen it on the big screen back in the day.  The visuals are simply breathtaking and yet another testament to the power of movies.

But, you might ask, what about the mystery? What about man’s inhumanity against man? What about spoilers? Oh, relax. Just enjoy the scenery and let Christie work her particular genius–and just be glad, especially if you’re squeamish, that most of the violence and/or bloodletting takes place offscreen. Of course, no one wants to be killed while on vacation, but that’s part of the fun, the illusion,  of movies. We can luxuriate in suspense and fabulous locales without a lot of hassle and without going broke. It’s a momentary escape, and then order is restored. By the way, have you priced excursions to Mallorca lately??  If you’re like me, and a real vacation seems just out of reach, for whatever reason, you can treat yourself to the next best thing to an actual  exotic holiday via Netflix or your local video store–and why stop with just one Christie outing? With all the money you’ll save by not going to Mallorca for real, you can spend a few more dollars and  extend your travels to the Nile River and the Orient Express, headed to London from Istanbul. Let your imagination soar.

Thanks, Agatha.

[1] Clay, who racked up 48 TV and film credits in a career that began when he was just a teen (including portraying Lancelot in John Boorman’s 1981 Excalibur),  passed away at a mere 52 in 2000: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0165551/?ref_=sr_1

Raixa Estate, Mallorca, Spain: http://www.raixa.org/index.php

Mystery Writers of America: http://mysterywriters.org/

Evil Under the Sun @ the Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0083908/?ref_=sr_1

Murder She Wrote trivia @ the IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0086765/trivia?ref_=tt_ql_2

Hedsor House (per Quartet):  http://www.hedsor.com/