Tuesday, April 30, 2013


May 26th will be the 100th anniversary of the birth of British actor Peter Cushing. A number of books and film magazine tributes are scheduled to be released in celebration of this. One of the first is PETER CUSHING: A LIFE IN FILM, written by David Miller and published by Titan Books.

This book is actually an updated version of THE PETER CUSHING COMPANION, written by Miller and published by Reynolds & Hearn in 2000. Both books have the same number of pages (192) and the chapters in each begin and end on the same page. The main text--dealing with the life of Peter Cushing--is the same.

What makes A LIFE IN FILM different is the layout and the addition of several more photos. A LIFE IN FILM also has two color photo sections (the original book had no color photos). The highlight of the new photos is a stunning full-page color still of Cushing in costume playing the role of Osric in Olivier's HAMLET. The new book also has a nice collage of Cushing pictures on both front and back endpapers. A LIFE IN FILM also features a new introduction and an afterword. The poignant foreword by Veronica Carlson (who co-starred with Cushing in two films) is carried over to the updated volume.

So...is A LIFE IN FILM worth buying? Well, if you are a major Cushing fan (and I don't think there are any "casual" Cushing fans), you probably already have THE PETER CUSHING COMPANION. If you have the earlier book I wouldn't say you need to get the new one...but I think A LIFE IN FILM is worth getting just for the picture quality alone.

If you do not own A PETER CUSHING COMPANION, and you are a fan of Peter Cushing's (or of British Gothic Horror Films), then A LIFE IN FILM is definitely a worthy purchase. Miller's biography of Cushing is one of the best volumes on the actor, along with Christopher Gullo's IN ALL SINCERITY, PETER CUSHING and Deborah Del Vecchio and Tom Johnson's PETER CUSHING: THE GENTLE MAN OF HORROR AND HIS 91 FILMS. It's ironic that Miller's work has been retitled A LIFE IN FILM--what made the biography stand out was it's extensive look at Cushing's stage and television career. When most writers mention Cushing, it is only in the context of his horror films.

Coming soon: a new edition of Peter Cushing's memoirs and Wayne Kinsey's THE PETER CUSHING SCRAPBOOK.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Rating The Star Trek Films (Part Two)

This blog deals with the big screen adventures of the Star Trek: The Next Generation crew. The TNG cast only made four movies, and while none of them are as terrible as say, STAR TREK V, none of them are as great as STAR TREK II. The term "missed opportunities" can certainly apply to the TNG movie era as well. All four films are competently made, and entertaining to watch--but overall they just don't seem to reach that next level of being outstanding or memorable. (Some fans believe there are individual episodes of TNG that are far better than the movies.)

The Next Generation always had a different vibe than the first Star Trek TV series. TNG was more politically correct, more touchy-feely. If Captain Kirk came across an evil computer, he'd just blow it up--the TNG crew would sit around and talk about the computer, then they'd spend more time talking TO the computer. A Star Trek movie is supposed to be popular science-fiction, which means space battles, explosions, impressive FX sequences, etc. All these things were incorporated into the TNG features, and they worked for the most part--but they are plenty of times were certain TNG cast members look a bit uncomfortable acting out their roles. I think it's safe to say that TNG was best served on the small screen.

As in Part One of this blog, movies are listed in my personal order of preference.


This movie is to TNG as WRATH OF KHAN is to the original series. After a very desultory start with STAR TREK: GENERATIONS, the Next Generation crew really get a film all to themselves, with TNG's main villains along for the ride. The movie opens with a spectacular space battle between the Federation and the Borg (one of the best overall Star Trek movie moments). The Borg then go back in time (more time travel!) to stop the Federation from forming in the first place. The Enterprise-D of course goes after them...Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) was once turned into a Borg, and his quest for vengeance against them is a major plot point.
TNG star Jonathan Frakes directed FIRST CONTACT, and he's certainly no William Shatner when it comes to helming a Star Trek feature. This is all a TNG fan could have wished for--the Borg, an action filled story, and a new and interesting character in the Borg Queen (Alice Krige). There's even a nice cameo by Dwight Schultz as fan favorite Lt. Barclay. The story also brings in sub-plots about the creator of warp drive Zefram Cochrane (introduced in ST:TOS; here played by James Cromwell) and the first meeting between citizens of Earth and an alien race (the Vulcans, of course). Cromwell plays Cochrane a shade too broadly; he's set up here as a drunken comic relief.
Everything clicked in FIRST CONTACT....even the time travel aspect doesn't come off too bad (I still feel that this was kind of "borrowed" from STAR TREK IV). The question is....why didn't the other TNG movies work as well?


The very first TNG film is burdened by having to carry along the remnants of the original series. The movie doesn't even open with the Next Generation cast...it begins with Kirk, Chekov, and Scotty seeing off a new Enterprise. The new ship's maiden voyage is interrupted by a "ribbon" of space energy which supposedly kills Kirk. This "ribbon" is the Nexus, a energy field which gives whoever resides in it the ability to live in their own version of paradise.
Apparently Paramount wasn't that confident that a TNG movie would be that successful, so they stuck Kirk into the GENERATIONS screenplay. The idea of Captain Picard and Captain Kirk meeting face to face is cool one on the surface....but on the big screen it wound up being anti-climactic. Kirk's death falls kind of flat; and it also takes away from the main story at hand.
The thing that brings Picard and Spock together is the Nexus, and it's also the thing that makes the story somewhat confusing. The Nexus creates wanton destruction....yet if a being is able to be trapped in the Nexus, that being can spend eternity in a dream-like state. When Picard enters the Nexus, he experiences what his life would have been if he had married and raised a family. Naturally Picard is able to break free from the control of the Nexus (only Starfleet officers seem to have the ability to reject paradise when it is handed to them) and break Kirk out of it as well.
Picard uses the Nexus to go back in time (again!) and stop bad guy Dr. Soran (Malcolm McDowell) from his scheme to control the energy field for himself. Picard (with sacrificial help from Kirk) succeeds, but this begs the question.....how do we know that Picard isn't still in the Nexus, and his victory is just what his mind wants to believe?
One would assume that Malcolm McDowell would make a fantastic Star Trek antagonist, but Dr. Soran falls short of the Khan level. A sub-plot has Data getting a chip that makes him act "human". This gives Brent Spiner a chance to shine, but it doesn't really lead anywhere.
The main highlight of GENERATIONS is the Enterprise-D's saucer section separating from the rest of the ship and crash landing on a planet. The special effects for this are spectacular, and just about every Trekkie has long dreamed of seeing a "saucer separation scene".
As a big ST:TOS fan, I have to admit that GENERATIONS would have been a lot better off if Captain Kirk did not appear in it. The Nexus is a unique angle, but a hard one to understand.


This is the movie where Captain Picard tries to act like Captain Kirk. Starfleet has come across a planet inhabited by a race called the Ba'ku. Because of the special radiation surrounding the Ba'ku planet, the people are basically immortal. Starfleet (and a race known as the Son'a) wants to develop this planet for it's own purposes; Picard wants to protect the Ba'ku from being exploited, and he's willing to disobey Starfleet to do it.
Just like Kirk, Picard violates the Prime Directive (has anybody in the entire history of Star Trek actually FOLLOWED the Prime Directive?), goes against his superiors, and even gets to have a romance. The dramatics of Picard's "insurrection" are lessened by the fact that the Ba'ku are gentle, beautiful people who are kind of like space hippies, while the Son'a are mean and ugly. If the Ba'ku were the ugly ones, then maybe Picard's actions would have carried more weight. But the script makes it way too easy to support Picard's rebellion, especially when it gives him an attraction with a Ba'ku woman (Donna Murphy).
Near the end of the film it is revealed that the Ba'ku and the Son'a are the same race, but it comes too late to add any depth to the situation. The theme of a "paradise planet" is one that has been used in the Star Trek Universe several times. If you are a major Trek fan, you've been down this road before (major characters going down to the planet and starting to "change" or said characters acting "youthful"). It's disappointing, especially after FIRST CONTACT, that Producer Rick Berman and Co. would go down such a well-traveled road.
The supporting cast includes F. Murray Abraham as the leader of the Son'a, and the wonderful character actor Anthony Zerbe as a Starfleet Admiral.
INSURRECTION is capably directed by Jonathan Frakes, and it's mildly diverting....but if you want Captain Picard to be a bad-ass, then you should really let him be one.


The farewell for the Next Generation crew worked a bit too well; it almost killed off the Star Trek movie franchise. NEMESIS features the Romulans, a Star Trek race never really dealt with in the film series. Trek fans love the Romulans, and there was a huge buzz about them finally making it to the big screen. Unfortunately, they're wasted. The main villain is a clone of Picard named Shinzon (a very young and very skinny Tom Hardy) who has somehow taken over the Romulan Empire. How a clone of a Starfleet officer became the leader of a xenophobic race like the Romulans is never explained--heck, there's a lot of things in this movie that don't get explained.
Journeyman Stuart Baird was called on to helm this entry, even though he had no experience with the Star Trek Universe whatsoever. It shows in the final product. NEMESIS is also the darkest-looking and murkiest of all the Trek films--maybe this was supposed to be atmospheric, but it just makes everything look ugly.
We get introduced to a earlier (and not as intelligent) version of Data. The new android is a setup for Data's eventual fate...a fate which happens to be a rip-off of Spock's in WRATH OF KHAN. (I guess if you wind up running out of ideas, you can always steal from your own history.) The Romulans are a intriguing race, filled with possibilities...but instead of the script actually dealing with them, we get a guy doing a Patrick Stewart imitation.
Where NEMESIS really fails is in being a true send-off for Picard's crew. A large number of scenes, mostly "character moments", were cut out of the film. These are the things that true TNG fans wanted to see in the first place. A prime example is the wedding of Riker and Troi. What is one of the most important events in TNG becomes almost a throwaway. Poor Wesley Crusher (Wil Weaton) got the shaft entirely. Here's there at the wedding banquet, sitting at the end of the table--you just have to look real hard for him. There are a number of cut scenes on the NEMESIS special edition DVD, and these are more interesting than what made it into the final film. Telling TNG fans that NEMESIS is the big send-off and then denying the fans the chance to see the characters have some final nice moments was not very smart. Paramount needs to one day release a special cut of NEMESIS...but that probably won't happen.
And one more thing. Somebody at Paramount decided to release NEMESIS at the same time as a Harry Potter film, a James Bond film, and a Lord of the Rings film. The result? To this date, NEMESIS has made less money than any other Star Trek feature.

The Next Generation films were produced (Rick Berman) and written (Brannon Braga, Ronald Moore, etc.) by veterans of the TV series. Despite that, all the features (with the exception of FIRST CONTACT) are just about average. In all honesty, after FIRST CONTACT, I could have ranked the rest of them in a number of ways...it really wouldn't have made much difference.

So that's it. I....oh wait, I forgot something, didn't I?

STAR TREK (2009)

J. J. Abrams' re-boot (or whatever you want to call it) goes along pretty well for the first half-hour or so, and then Vulcan gets blown up....and forty years of Star Trek history get wiped away so Abrams can appear to be "edgy". Chris Pine's Kirk is so arrogant and cocky that the William Shatner Kirk would have punched him in the face. You wouldn't want Pine walking your dog, let alone commanding a starship. The "new" Spock and McCoy are okay....but Uhura acts like a upscale supermodel, and Scotty is portrayed as a Highland redneck. As for Sulu and Chekov, they're just....there.
Leonard Nimoy gets an extended cameo in an obvious effort to make this movie an "official" Star Trek story. But if anything, Nimoy's presence just underscores how lacking the new Trek really is.  But hey, this movie made a lot of money, and the kids love it....so what do I know?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Rating The Star Trek Films (Part One)

The hype machine is already being cranked up for next month's debut of the new Star Trek feature from J. J. Abrams. I'm not all that particularly excited about this latest re-imagining/re-working/re-interpretation of the Star Trek Universe--but it gives me an excuse to discuss the entire Star Trek movie series.

It's hard to believe that there was a time when people were clamoring for any type of new Star Trek adventures. The original series (hereafter to be known as ST:TOS) ended in 1969, and the first Trek movie came out in 1979. Since then there's been 10 more feature films, four different television series, and tons of auxiliary stuff connected with the franchise. The revival of Star Trek was due to the fans wanting it back; now some would say it's time to give it a rest. With the financial success of Abrams' 2009 re-boot, Paramount seems to be in it for the long haul. There's starting to be a generational gap between fans of ST:TOS and fans of the new movies (kind of like the gap between Doctor Who fans). I have a feeling that these movies I'm about to discuss will seem as quaint to some as a number of the early James Bond entries do to a younger audience.

For the purposes of these blogs, I will rank the movies in quality, number one being the best. Part One will focus on the films featuring the ST:TOS crew, Part Two will deal with the movies starring the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation (otherwise known as ST:TNG).


Obvious...in fact, it's so obvious that everyone seems to take for granted how great KHAN really is. It's ironic that producer Harve Bennett and director Nicholas Meyer were not Trek fans before making this film. A quick perusal of some of the original TV episodes was enough to give Bennett and Meyer proper knowledge of Star Trek's dynamics....the same dynamics that Gene Roddenberry had seemed to forget. KHAN is well-paced, exciting, interesting, and easy to follow and understand even if you know nothing about Star Trek. The movie looks great (Bennett and Meyer made a wise decision to change the Enterprise's interior scheme and get rid of those awful Starfleet pajama uniforms from the first movie) and James Horner contributes a stirring score, though certainly not in the same league as Jerry Goldsmith. The Enterprise crew is a lot more on the mark than in the first film; Nicholas Meyer has said in interviews that he wanted the characters to act like recognizable human beings, and they do. As for Ricardo Montalban, his performance has now become a major pop culture reference, but if Montalban's Khan were not larger than life, this movie wouldn't have worked. Kirstie Alley almost steals the film as Lt. Saavik...and yes, she actually looked that hot back in the day. Unfortunately, Saavik as a character would wind up being wasted later on in the series. If KHAN has a problem, it's Kirk's son David Marcus (Merritt Butrick). Considering that this is the offspring of the franchise's lead, the character just isn't developed enough to make the viewer care about him.
Without doubt the greatest Star Trek film of all...and one of the best modern science-fiction films.


Nicholas Meyer, the Bruce Sutter of Star Trek, was called from the bullpen again to save the franchise from the botched root canal that was STAR TREK V. The sixth entry is basically the Cold War in space, with the Klingons as the failing Soviet Union. It's a bit too obvious, but it works, thanks to Meyer's deft handling. Meyer lets the entire crew shine in their last feature film appearance together. Sulu even gets his own command (something that should have happened years ago). There's fine support from Christopher Plummer as a Klingon Commander (although the character's constant quoting of Shakespeare gets to be annoying) and David Warner as the Klingon leader (Paramount must have felt ashamed at the way Warner was mis-used in STAR TREK V).
The main problem here: Kim Cattrall as a turncoat Vulcan Starfleet officer. (The role was originally supposed to be Saavik, but Kirstie Alley didn't want to return.) Cattrall is so blatant a villain that she should have worn a sign around her neck saying I'M A BAD GUY.
All in all, a very nice sendoff for the original Star Trek crew.


For some reason, people seem to look down on this movie. It's certainly not on the level of KHAN, but it's far better than most of the later entries. After the events of the last picture, Kirk finds out that the late Spock's soul may still be "alive". Leonard Nimoy got the chance to direct, and he did an excellent job. SEARCH is the best acted out of all the ST:TOS films. The humor is understated and arises out of the situation (things would change pretty quick in the next installment). SEARCH also has a unique visual style--Charles Correll probably did the best job of cinematography on the entire series.
William Shatner gives his best movie performance as James Kirk. (Was Shatner at the top of his game because he was showing off for Nimoy?) This is a Kirk on the absolute brink--he's just found out that he can bring his best friend back from the grave, and he's not going to let anyone stop him. This includes destroying the original Enterprise (I still think this rings false; Kirk got out of even worse situations plenty of times before without having to blow up the ship). I'm sure that no one was surprised at the ending of SEARCH, but the climax on Vulcan is hauntng and moving.
Kirstie Alley did not return as Saavik, and she was replaced by Robin Curtis. Just about every Trek fan has found Curtis' take on the role to be lacking; but in her defense, Saavik and David Marcus are not fleshed out very well. Because of this, the death of Kirk's son just doesn't have the impact it should have. The underwhelming response to Curtis as Saavik doomed the character to oblivion. The Star Trek movies were never good at introducing or maintaining new characters.
STAR TREK III is the most underrated, and under appreciated, of all the Trek movies.


This is the movie that is loved by those who don't like Star Trek. After disobeying Starfleet orders to save Spock, the crew has to go back in time to the 20th Century in order to save the universe from a probe causing destruction. The reason for going back in time? The probe was trying to communicate with humpback whales, which do not exist in the 23rd Century.
This film made a killing at the box office, and was popular with critics and the general public. Leonard Nimoy as Spock even made the cover of Newsweek (a big deal back in those days). One of the things I remember about seeing VOYAGE in a theater is how well the audience responded to it. It is very entertaining and very well made.
But....like a lot of things made in the 1980s, it just doesn't hold up very well. The whole "save the whales" plot is a bit too simplistic. Whenever ST:TOS had an episode about time travel, it was always stressed how important it was to not screw up the time-space continuum. In VOYAGE, that gets completely thrown out the window. If Kirk had met Edith Keeler in this movie, he would have married her. I realize that VOYAGE is supposed to be the "fun" Star Trek movie, but some of the gags and situations look pretty labored today.
The crew (including Kirk and Spock) all act like idiots. The lowest Starfleet cadet would know how to behave properly in this situation--the Enterprise crew go out of their way to attract as much unwanted attention as possible. Yeah, it's funny, but there's a line between amusing and dumb. All the comedy did make people love the movie--unfortunately every Star Trek film since has tried to find ways to put in some silly comic sequence.
Robin Curtis gets a throwaway cameo as Saavik (it's like Paramount was saying, "Thanks...don't let the door hit you on the way out"), and Catherine Hicks plays a 20th Century marine biologist who helps out the crew in their quest to grab some whales. Kirk winds up taking Hicks to the 23rd Century--thankfully she never appeared in any other Trek adventures.
The film's highlight is an appearance by Jane Wyatt as Spock's mother (Wyatt had played the role in the TV series). Wyatt's scene with Spock is probably the best in the film.
Make no mistake--I like this movie, it is very funny, and Leonard Nimoy made an entertaining tale. VOYAGE is a very good film--it's just not a great Star Trek movie.


This film has always been considered to be a bomb (it actually made a fair amount of money). The plot is rather slight (a NASA space probe sent to travel the universe has been "upgraded" by alien technology and it returns to Earth looking for it's "Creator"). The most important part of TMP was the reunion of the Star Trek cast. No matter what the script had been, this movie probably would have been a letdown. The story was still being worked on even during filming (always a bad sign). Paramount originally wanted this to be the start of a new Trek TV series, but after seeing the grosses from STAR WARS, they enlarged the project to a feature film.
Because Paramount didn't really know what they wanted, there's a somewhat incomplete aspect to TMP. The version that everyone is familiar with is NOT the theatrical version, it's the longer cut which was shown on network TV. And there's even a third version--a "Director's Cut" supervised by Robert Wise and released on DVD in 2001. Someday Paramount needs to release a super-duper home video version of TMP containing all the relevant cuts of the film, and a booklet that explains all the changes and different scenes for each. But because TMP is considered one of the worst of the series, more than likely it won't happen.
This was the only Star Trek feature film personally produced by series creator Gene Roddenberry. A number of fans have complained about Paramount taking the films away from Roddenberry's control--but after watching TMP, can you blame them? It's easy to see that Roddenberry was trying to go the anti-Star Wars route and make a "serious" science-fiction film. Roddenberry should have tried to stick to the TV series' concept of a "space western" instead. TMP gets bogged down in it's own pomposity. The TV episode-style plot is dragged out to over two hours, and the movie is really, really slow. Douglas Trumbull's special effects are fantastic, and they're still impressive today--but without a gripping narrative to hang them on, they're just a bunch of pretty pictures.
In a way TMP is really a trial run for The Next Generation TV show. Decker (Stephen Collins) is an early version of Riker; Ilia (Persis Khambatta) is Deanna Troi. And just like the crew of TNG, the crew of TMP sit around and talk about doing something instead of actually doing something. This is the worst looking of all the Trek features--the set decoration is horrible, and the ship's main colors seem to be beige, grey, and pale blue. Every room and hallway in the ship looks mind-numbingly the same--if you had to spend a five-year mission in this place, you'd go crazy in six months.
The best thing about TMP is a magnificent sequence showing the refurbished Enterprise in all it's glory. Backed by Jerry Goldsmith's titanic score, it's one of the best moments in Star Trek movie history. By the way, Goldsmith's work isn't just one of the best Star Trek musical scores...it's one of the best overall movie scores, period.
Another plus is that TMP doesn't have any silly humor (if anything, it's humorless). One other thing needs to be pointed out about TMP: it's the only time that Paramount spent a major amount of money on a Star Trek film. And it's the only time they hired a top-flight director (Hollywood legend Robert Wise). The ends didn't really justify the means.
The first Star Trek film was not the total disaster that most fans think it is, but with at least three different versions of it existing, it's hard to make an adequate judgement on it. Gene Roddenberry does deserve some credit for trying to make a serious science-fiction film, but maybe he should have just tried to make a good Star Trek film.


Is this movie really that bad? Yes. Yes it is.

After seeing all the critical acclaim Leonard Nimoy got for directing the third and fourth films of the series, William Shatner decided to pull the old "Give me the director's chair or I won't play Kirk" card. Shatner also came up with the original story, involving Spock's from-out-of-nowhere half-brother Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill). The idea of a major character suddenly being confronted by a close relative that no one knew about seems tailor-made for a mediocre TV show, not a Star Trek feature. Nevertheless, Sybok is the real star of this movie, if you want to call him that. Spock's brother takes over the Enterprise so he can travel to the center of the Universe and meet God.
When you set up a plotline that deals with meeting the Almighty, you're dooming yourself to failure. I guess Shatner deserves credit for coming up with a high-concept idea, but FINAL FRONTIER in no way comes close to living up to that concept.
The comedy success of STAR TREK IV gave Shatner plenty of leeway to use even more dopey scenes. While Nimoy knew how to direct a comic sequence, Shatner clearly didn't--his style appears to be more of the "Throw it on the wall and see what sticks" school of film making. One wonders what type of movie Shatner was trying to make. There's tons of goofy humor, yet at the same time there's a subplot about what "God" really is and how different people relate to a supreme being. The end result is a jarring mishmash that winds up with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy singing "Row, row, row your boat" (the scene is supposed to be touching, but it's just contrived).
The supporting crew members really suffer in this one--Chekov and Sulu have a scene where they get lost in the woods (George Takei and Walter Koenig give off a vibe of total embarrassment), Scotty gets to do a Moe Howard pratfall (I have to say he does nail it), and, in what is probably the most jaw-dropping, head-scratching scene in all of Star Trek movie history, Uhura does a fan dance on top of a sand dune.
But there's more! Esteemed actor David Warner is in this movie as a Starfleet diplomat....and he has absolutely nothing to do. I'm not exaggerating--Warner's character could have been played by someone walking down the street outside the studio, and it wouldn't have made any difference. For all the things William Shatner did (or didn't do) in this film, the worst crime of all is taking an actor like David Warner and using him like a piece of furniture.
I will defend William Shatner in one detail. The original script called for the false "God" to attack Kirk with various demons and monsters in a show-stopping FX sequence. Paramount did not allow the budget for such a climax, and it was severely truncated. Despite the fact that Star Trek was one of Paramount's major money-making franchises, the studio was always strangely reluctant to spend a lot of cash on it.
Is there anything good about THE FINAL FRONTIER? Well...there's a couple of decent lines ("What does God want with a Starship?" "Not in front of the Klingons.")...and...that's about it.
William Shatner has reinvented himself into an endearingly camp pop culture icon...he's now the Leslie Nielsen of the 21st Century. The big problem with STAR TREK V is that Shatner wasn't trying to be camp....he was sincerely attempting to make a decent movie. Kinda scary, ain't it?

The best way to sum up the Star Trek films starring the original Enterprise crew is with the phrase "missed opportunities". There's one great film, a couple decent ones, a couple mediocre ones, and a really bad one. Considering that Star Trek is science-fiction, one would think that there would be unlimited potential in a movie series, and that talented producers, writers, and directors would be able to come up with all sorts of exciting story concepts. As a Star Trek fan, I honestly have to say that while overall the films are for the most part enjoyable and entertaining, I always think the Trek movies could have been so much more than what they became.

Sunday, April 21, 2013


42 is a movie I really wanted to see. But I also felt a bit trepidatious. If there's anything I love more than movies, it's baseball. Because of that, I was fearful that 42 might be filled with typical sports-film cliches and various historical and technical mistakes. I needn't have worried--42 is more than just a great baseball movie, it's an impressive recreation of a important moment in modern American history.

The story begins by setting the social and historical background of America and baseball in 1945 through the words of African-American sportswriter Wendell Smith (Andre Holland). We are then introduced to Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), who announces that he is going to sign a black player to the Dodgers organization. At that time, every Major League (and official Minor League) baseball player was Caucasian.  Rickey's "Great Experiment" is to break the unofficial color line then in effect throughout Major League Baseball.

Writer/Director Brian Helgeland adroitly handles these early scenes in a crisp, efficient manner. He explains to the audience what it needs to know and what Rickey is doing without being convoluted or boring. Because of this we are quickly introduced to Negro League player Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman). We find out enough relevant information about Jackie, and about the situation that he is going to face. Helgeland thus sets up the rest of the film in a way that even non-baseball fans and those who don't know a lot about Jackie Robinson's story can still be involved in the tale.

And a dramatic tale it is. Some historians say that Jackie Robinson's debut in the Major Leagues was the actual beginning of the Civil Rights movement. What really worried me was that 42 might be infused with extra "stuff"--but Helgeland wisely sticks to the facts. With all the interesting real-life figures, and all the importance behind the real-life events, Helgeland didn't have any need to stray too far. Some might think, for example, that the garrulous Branch Rickey is a bit exaggerated, but the eccentric, larger-than-life baseball legend is presented pretty much as the way he was.

As for Harrison Ford....a number of aging, former leading men have wound up winning Best Supporting Actor Oscars (Sean Connery, James Coburn, Christopher Plummer, etc.), and the erstwhile Captain Solo/Dr. Jones may be the next. By the end of 42, you forget that it's Ford as Rickey...Ford submerges himself in the role. Chadwick Boseman does well as Jackie Robinson. It's refreshing that Jackie is not portrayed as a saint--he's a real human being, a proud, competitive man with a wife and a child to support. Boseman (and the script) also give Jackie a somewhat suspicious nature, explained in the movie by Jackie being abandoned by his father and by Jackie exclaiming that he doesn't like relying on anyone else. Considering what Robinson had to go through, it's easy to understand that suspicion.

Those things that Robinson had to go through are shown in a truthful and (thankfully) non-PC manner. Unlike just about every modern-day movie hero, Jackie Robinson has to not lash out, to not get easy revenge. Jackie's inner conflict is presented very well, as is the support of his wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie).

42's production design and art direction are top-notch. You absolutely feel you are in 1947--there isn't really a false note in the film. As far as I can tell, all the various uniforms are accurate, and we get to see some stunning CGI recreations of late, lamented baseball stadiums such as Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds, and Sportman's Park. (If CGI has to be used, this is the way to use it.) A number of real-life baseball personalities are dramatized including Pee Wee Reese, Ben Chapman, Burt Shotton, Dodgers play-by-play man Red Barber, and Eddie Stanky. Special mention must be made of Christopher Meloni as the fiery Dodgers manager, Leo Durocher. (Somebody needs to make a movie based on Leo's life.)

The baseball scenes look great, and Chadwick Boseman must have studied films of Jackie....he runs like him, he slides like him, and he even copies his batting stance. When Boseman is wearing the Brooklyn Dodgers uniform, he uncannily resembles Jackie Robinson.

How good is 42? At the screening I attended, the audience applauded as the credits came up. That almost never happens whenever I go see a film. I think part of the applause was for Jackie Robinson as much as the movie. But 42 really is an impressive achievement. It's more than just a baseball story, or a historical story--it's an American story, and it should be seen by all Americans.

Friday, April 19, 2013


How low-budget is INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN? It's so low-budget, they couldn't even put a "THE" in the title.

INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN has long been a staple of public domain home video. Retromedia Entertainment has now released the film on DVD in enhanced 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen. The picture quality still isn't great, but this DVD is probably going to be the best version of this movie.

INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN features classic horror icon Lon Chaney Jr. as Butcher Benton, a hardened criminal who is executed, then revived by a scientist trying to increase cellular regeneration. The scientist's experiments render Butcher invulnerable (and mute), and soon the living dead man is on his way from San Francisco to Los Angeles to get revenge on the men who turned State's evidence on him.

INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN was made in 1955. At that time in his career Lon Chaney Jr. was working steadily as a character actor. He was shifting between major features such as HIGH NOON and cheap horror/sci-fi projects such as the film discussed here. Butcher Benton is basically a rehash of Chaney's portrayal of Lennie from OF MICE AND MEN and his role in MAN MADE MONSTER. The main difference is in those earlier films Chaney is someone the audience sympathizes with, while Butcher is a bad guy right from the beginning. If the script had made Chaney more of a victim of circumstance (like in so many of his great horror roles) INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN would have made more of an impact.

What makes INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN stand out from all the other 1950s monster flicks is it's seedy film noir atmosphere. The movie is narrated by the police detective working the case (Casey Adams). There are times when Adams' DRAGNET style delivery gets to be unintentionally amusing, but it does help the viewer figure out what is going on. (I get the feeling the narration was added on after filming to cover some of the gaps in the screenplay.) Despite the horror/science-fiction angle, INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN is really a crime story, set in the non-glamorous parts of L.A. There's some unusual location shooting of what looks like a skid row district, giving the movie an almost gritty documentary feel. The problem is this sequence just makes the rest of the story look even cheaper and weaker.

Butcher Benton has a torch for a burlesque dancer (Marian Carr). There are a number of scenes set backstage at the burlesque house (the police detective has the hots for the lady as well). The burlesque angle also contributes to INDESTRUCTIBLE's grimy feel. But Carr is given some scenes to explain that she's really a nice girl--she became a dancer because she needed a job--and she didn't even know that "Charles" (she calls the Butcher by his real name) was a crook! Yeah, right.....
Marian Carr 

The idea behind INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN is a good one--violent criminal is brought back from the dead, and cannot be killed by bullets--but like a lot of low-budget monster pictures, the result does not live up to the premise. Lon Chaney Jr. by this time was not in the best of shape, and he's stuck playing another big, mean, lumbering madman. Director Jack Pollexfen constantly shows a extreme close-up of Chaney's jowly face, quivering with rage--but this shot loses it's effect after it's been used about twenty times. There's plenty of stock footage of police cars and motorcycle cops--some of these shots are used more than once. It seems that there was a lot of padding added to this film....but according to a number of internet sources this movie had a lot cut out of it. There's a number of stills which show scenes that don't appear in the final film, including one of Chaney breaking into a police station and carrying off Marian Carr in the time-honored monster-movie tradition. Why this sequence was cut is puzzling, as it looks more intriguing than most of the stuff that's in the actual release.

This scene is not in the film!

If you have a movie called INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN the audience expects to see the title character being....indestructible. For most of the running time we see Chaney being shot at by cops and surviving, but that's about it. His special power kind of goes to waste. Toward the climax things pick up a bit. The cops track Chaney to the Los Angeles sewer system, and Lon gets nailed by a bazooka blast, after which he walks around holding his stomach as if he had a bad lunch. Lon then gets attacked by flamethrowers, which allows him to wear a gruesome face makeup (just like his old days at Universal). The Butcher then winds up at a electrical station, where he rides an overhead crane into contact with a power transformer, frying him for good.

INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN is not a great role for Lon Chaney Jr., but it is a very representative one. It's also not a great film, but it does have enough unusual aspects to be worth viewing for fans of Chaney Jr. and fans of 1950s horror/science-fiction films.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Chaplin And Keaton

Today is Charlie Chaplin's birthday. A lot of bloggers are writing posts about him, and Turner Classic Movies has been showing Chaplin films all day. I suppose I should write a post....but the thing is, with all due respect to the Little Tramp, I'm more of a Buster Keaton fan.

Mind you, I'm fully aware that Chaplin is one of the great icons of cinema history. He was in all certainty a great artist--he usually wrote, produced, directed, and starred in his own films, and he composed the music for most of them as well. It's just that, in my humble opinion, Buster Keaton's prime work was a lot more entertaining--and a lot funnier.

Whenever I watch Chaplin, I always get the feeling that he's trying a bit too hard to impress the audience. Charlie was a sentimentalist at heart, and he goes right for the viewer's emotions. Buster Keaton never played to the audience's sympathies (at least not until he got stuck at MGM in the 1930s and he had no control over his stories). Keaton goes for the laugh, or the gag. Keaton's best movies are like well-oiled machines--the gags follow each other naturally, and they never seem forced. THE GENERAL is the most perfect example of this. Every little gag or funny incident interlocks with one another. It's as if the action is happening for real instead of being staged.

The Keaton films from the 1920s still hold up today. Keaton, as a director and storyteller, was far more visually innovative than Chaplin. Chaplin never really left his British music hall roots--his directorial style in the 1940s and 1950s is just about the same as it was when he started making movies in the 1910s. Chaplin didn't even make a full talkie until THE GREAT DICTATOR in 1940.
Chaplin certainly wasn't a bad filmmaker...but his movies are ones you admire more than really enjoy. No matter how many times I watch one of Buster Keaton's best entries, I still wind up being amazed at some of the things he did.

The best way to define the difference between Chaplin and Keaton is to quote from Buster's autobiography, MY WONDERFUL WORLD OF SLAPSTICK (co-written with Charles Samuels):

.....Chaplin's troubles began when he started to take himself seriously. This was after he had produced A WOMAN IN PARIS.
......But the avalanche of praise for Charlie's brilliant directing also turned his head, I am afraid. It was his misfortune to believe what the critics wrote about him. They said he was a genius, something I would be the last to deny, and from that time on Charlie Chaplin, the divine clown, tried to behave, think, and talk like an intellectual.

This passage from Keaton's book is very telling. Keaton would never consider himself an intellectual, or a genius, or an artist. He looked upon show business as a job, a profession, something he had been doing since almost the very day he was born. Keaton wanted to make people laugh instead of impressing them.

In 1951 Chaplin asked Keaton to play a role in Charlie's film LIMELIGHT. Keaton discusses this in his autobiography:

.....He seemed astonished at my appearance. Apparently he had expected to see a physical and mental wreck. But I was in fine fettle. I'd just been in New York for four months doing an average of two TV guest shots a week. So I was prosperous and looked it.
"What have you been doing, Buster?" he asked. "You look in such fine shape."
"Do you look at television, Charlie?" I asked.
"Good heavens, no," he exclaimed. "I hate it. I will not permit it in my house. The idea of actors letting themselves be shown on that lousy, stinking, little screen!"

Note the difference between Buster and Chaplin's attitudes. Buster was willing to stay innovative and work with new technology and new methods; the great artist Chaplin considered himself above that sort of thing.

In fact Buster Keaton did a huge amount of television work, including many commercials (there are dozens of them on YouTube). There are a number of books and articles saying that Buster was "reduced" to working on TV, but Buster wasn't reduced to anything. He worked right up to when he died in 1966, and he kept his name and legacy current to a younger audience. If Buster were alive today, he would probably be making comedy videos for his Facebook page, and he'd more than likely have a Twitter account as well.

I realize that liking one actor or director over another is a matter of personal taste. I respect Chaplin and his work...but I actually own just about all of Keaton's silent movies on home video. I own them not because I'm supposed to as a film buff--I own them because I enjoy watching them. Chaplin's output really does seem to be from another age, while Keaton's still has a freshness and sharpness to it.

Charlie Chaplin was one of the greatest figures in the history of popular culture. But I'd rather watch Buster Keaton.

Buster Keaton (left) and Charlie Chaplin in LIMELIGHT

Monday, April 8, 2013

Lon Chaney

This weekend I am participating in a Chaney (Sr. and Jr.) Blogathon, hosted by the sites Movies Silently and The Last Drive In. This is my post for Lon Chaney Sr. I wrote it earlier this year on Chaney's birthday, and it represents what the senior Chaney means to me personally.

Lon Chaney is of course best known for being The Man of a Thousand Faces. His unique makeup skills enabled him to play a range of legendary characters, including the Phantom of the Opera and the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Chaney is considered the first horror film star but he really wasn't--his roles were not in the realm of the supernatural. The Phantom, the Hunchback, and all the other grotesques Chaney gave life to were human beings, no matter how strange they may have looked. That is the true genius of Chaney--his performances were larger than life but they were real. No CGI-induced monstrosity could match the power of Lon Chaney.

What gets forgotten whenever Chaney is discussed is how most of his characters were not after power, or riches--they were after love. In just about every role he played, Chaney is hopelessly in love with a young, beautiful woman. Even when Chaney is portraying a "normal" person--such as the Marine sergeant in TELL IT TO THE MARINES--he's in love with a woman he knows he cannot win. Lon Chaney wasn't a horror film star, but he was the ultimate example of cinematic unrequited love. Chaney was always losing out to some younger, "proper" leading man. Most of those leading men were pretty lame. The best example of that is Norman Kerry, who co-starred with Lon in three famous films--THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, and THE UNKNOWN. Kerry had a wimpy moustache, slicked back hair, and a permanent smirk on his face. I've read that Kerry never took movie work seriously, and he and Chaney didn't get along. So I always wondered why Chaney worked with Kerry so much....surely a big star like Chaney could have gotten someone else if he had wanted to.

Then I realized that Chaney knew a guy like Norman Kerry made him look good. Even in 1920s, audiences more than likely thought about Kerry the way people do today. Chaney's so-called monsters were actually the good guys--the ones people really wanted to see win, the ones people wanted to see find happiness. Chaney may have played men who were considered ugly, but they also had more verve, charisma, courage, and native intelligence then just about anyone else in the cast. I said in an earlier blog post that Chaney's Phantom was the ultimate romantic hero. You could easily say that Lon Chaney was one of the great movie romantic heroes, period. If love is the most powerful, and the most destructive, of all emotions, then no actor proves this more than Chaney. In movie after movie, Chaney loves with all his heart and soul, and he usually winds up either destitute or just plain dead.

No other actor personified the tragedy of personal rejection better than Lon Chaney. I think that's why his legacy will go on and on. His legacy is more than just creating a bunch of cool-looking freaks--it's a legacy of creating a link to the deepest and most heartfelt of all human emotions.

Friday, April 5, 2013


If THE BAD NEWS BEARS IN BREAKING TRAINING is an example of a movie sequel that works, THE BAD NEWS BEARS GO TO JAPAN is a prime example of one that doesn't. This 1978 film was the final original Bears entry, and it's easy to see why there weren't any others made after this.

In BREAKING TRAINING, the Bears won the right to play a game in Japan. That would seem to be enough material for a decent story--and it is--but BNBGTJ spends very little time on the actual Bears. The star of the film is an over-the-hill Tony Curtis, as shady agent Marvin Lazar. Curtis was a huge matinee idol in the 1950s and 60s, but here he's just an aging leading man playing a very annoying character. Marvin Lazar hopes to use the Bears' game in Japan to make some quick cash, and while his con artist act is supposed to be amusing, it just leaves the audience wishing one of the Bears would hit him upside the head with a baseball bat.

Why the Bears would even let themselves be represented by Lazar is a head-scratcher. Some of the original Bears are not in this film, and they are missed, especially Tanner. It would have been great to see how someone like Tanner would have reacted to Japanese culture. Tanner certainly would have dealt with Marvin Lazar in his own special way. BREAKING TRAINING showed how the Bears were able to fend for themselves; in this story Lazar makes all the decisions and moves the story along. The Bears are not the main focus, and the movie suffers because of this.

Jackie Earle Haley is back as Kelly Leak. One would expect Leak to be the Bears leader (as he was in BREAKING TRAINING) but in most of his scenes with the team Kelly is either standing off to the side or placed in the background. The viewer keeps waiting for Kelly to confront Lazar, but it never happens. Kelly spends most of the movie away from the team, involved in a romance with a young Japanese girl. One reason for this may have been by this time, Haley looks about twice as old as the rest of the team. But as anyone familiar with the Bad News Bears series knows, Kelly Leak is a main component of these films and to have him separated from what is going on doesn't make much sense.

One of the new characters introduced in BNBGTJ is Ahmad's younger brother Mustapha. When you have a movie about kids, and you bring in an even younger and supposedly "cuter" kid....it says that you are desperate for new ideas. Mustapha spends most of his time hanging out with Lazar...it's obvious Mustapha is supposed to "humanize" the con man. Their scenes together are not cute or funny. The rest of the new Bears are totally unmemorable.

At least the movie really was filmed in Japan. We are introduced to such events as a judo match (in which Lazar takes part to win some cash) and a typically strange Japanese game show. However, the Bears have very little to do in either, and we really never see the team have much experience with Japanese culture. We unfortunately get to spend a lot of time with Tony Curtis. Somehow someone got the idea that all the Bad News Bears fans wanted to see a slick publicity agent go through a mid-life crisis. Curtis goes through the film being a conceited, fast-talking jerk. There are actors who could have played this role and made it interesting and entertaining--Tony Curtis isn't one of them.

The most disappointing thing about BNBGTJ is that it was written by Bill Lancaster, the man who wrote the script for the first Bears film, and the producer was Michael Ritchie, who directed the original. Usually a sequel fails because it is put in the hands of people who were not connected with the original, but that excuse cannot be used here.

If THE BAD NEWS BEARS GO TO JAPAN had actually been about the Bad News Bears, it would have worked. Instead we get to spend nearly the whole running time with a very unappealing Tony Curtis. But even if this entry had been successful, there was very little future in store for the series. For one thing, the kids would have kept growing up. There's also the problem that even though the Bears are presented as a wacky team of mediocre misfits, they're always playing a big game in every film. There's only so far you can go with the "lousy underdog sports team plays for the championship" concept.

The Bad News Bears are very much a product of the Seventies. They are politically incorrect, but at the same time decent-hearted and somewhat quaint. Yes, they cuss a lot....but compared to movie & TV kids of the 21st Century, they're pretty tame. All over America today various local Little Leagues are shutting down. Most kids can hit .400 on a video game, but they can't swing a bat to save their lives. The Bad News Bears film series is probably more enjoyed now as an nostalgic escape by grown adults. If you take the time to watch the Bears movies again (especially the first two), you might be surprised at how well they hold up and how entertaining they are.

Monday, April 1, 2013


In Issue #172 of Video Watchdog, Quentin Tarantino listed his Top 50 Best Movie Sequels. Coming in at No. 19 was THE BAD NEWS BEARS IN BREAKING TRAINING. This is a movie that is written off by most as nothing more than a quickie attempt to continue the success of THE BAD NEWS BEARS. But there's a lot more to it than that, and there are legitimate reasons why someone like Tarantino would rate it so highly.

BREAKING TRAINING is casually dismissed by most because it does not feature Walter Matthau or Tatum O'Neal, the big-name stars of THE BAD NEWS BEARS. One has to remember that the BEARS films are about a Little League team--there wasn't a movie called MORRIS BUTTERMAKER & AMANDA. The kids are the real main characters, and although Matthau and O'Neal are missed, BREAKING TRAINING doesn't really suffer all that much without them. Why Buttermaker and Amanda are not around is never really explained--the movie totally avoids the subject, thereby freeing the audience from being constantly reminded of them. A unique way of going about it, to be sure, but certainly a lot better than some of the convoluted reasons trotted out by other sequels for the lack of a certain character or performer.

Something else is not explained in BREAKING TRAINING--why the Bears get to go play a game in the Houston Astrodome against a Texas Little League Champion. In the first BEARS movie, the team lost in the championship game. Since the sequel was made a year later, did the Bears win the title the next year? Or did the team that the Bears lose to in the first movie, the Yankees, have to forfeit the crown because their coach slapped his son during the game? Or....maybe it's just one of those "movie things".

All of the kids from the first film return in BREAKING TRAINING, a major reason why this sequel works so well. The nerdy Timmy Lupus is laid up with a broken leg; he cannot accompany the team to Houston, but his situation becomes a major sub-plot.

As BREAKING TRAINING begins, the Bears have to find a way to Houston without a Coach (or any parental supervision). They also need to find a pitcher, which team leader Kelly Leak (Jackie Earle Haley) provides in the person of Carmen (Jimmie Baio), a kid with more attitude than ability. The kids all con their families into approving the trip, and soon they are off, traveling in that bastion of 1970s American transportation...the strangely painted van (driven by Kelly Leak).

The comedic "road trip" has long been a film staple. The road trip presented in BREAKING TRAINING is quaint compared to modern movies....heck, it's quaint compared to modern prime time television. Despite all the cussing and the presumed bad behavior, the Bad News Bears kids are pretty normal...another reason for their continuing cult popularity. During the team's overnight motel stay, the most provocative things the kids do are engaging in a pillow fight and looking at some Playboy magazines.

In one of those incredible coincidences that only happen in movies, Kelly's estranged father lives in Houston. Kelly contacts him and persuades him to be the Bears' Coach and "official" chaperon (the Bears can't play in the big game without one). For an ordinary, working-class guy, the elder Leak has a fair amount of inside baseball knowledge (including how to properly execute the hidden ball trick) and the Bears (SPOILER ALERT) win this time....earning them the right to play a game in Japan.

Most sequels are not very good. BREAKING TRAINING works because it takes a set of defined characters, expands upon those characters in certain ways, and puts those characters in a different environment than the original film....but also in a somewhat similar situation.

Kelly Leak is still kind of a bad-ass, but he's matured a bit. It's Kelly Leak who takes over as the Bears leader--he's the one who hatches the plan to get the kids to Houston, and he's the one who gets his Dad to become the team's coach. The strained relationship between Kelly and his Dad is portrayed rather realistically--just like the first BEARS film, BREAKING TRAINING has some emotional moments that one just doesn't expect to find. William Devane plays Kelly's Dad as a blue-collar guy thrust into a unusual situation. Jackie Earle Haley once again gives Kelly Leak far more complexity than the role would seem to need on the surface.

The person who really steals this film is Chris Barnes as the loud-mouth Tanner. Tanner promises the bedridden Lupus that the Bears will win the game for him, and during the team's motel room stay, Tanner is further inspired by a late-night viewing of the "Win One For The Gipper Speech" from KNUTE ROCKNE, ALL-AMERICAN. Tanner even gets to give his own Rockne-like locker room pep talk. But it's during the big game that Tanner really takes the film over. The game is played between an Astros double-header, and officials come on to the field to stop it because the Little Leaguers are taking too long. Tanner, incensed that he cannot keep his promise to win one for the Looper, refuses to leave the field, and leads the officials on a merry chase. This leads to BREAKING TRAINING's most famous scene--Coach Leak starts to lead the crowd in a chant of "LET THEM PLAY!!", and soon everyone in the stands (and various real-life members of the 1977 Houston Astros) are on the Bears' side. I have to admit that whenever I'm watching a baseball game (or at one), whenever a rain delay is about to be called, I have to resist the urge to start shouting "LET THEM PLAY!!"

Special mention has to be made of the Astrodome. In the 1970s, the Astrodome was considered a technological marvel. In today's world of pseudo-retro-quirky ballparks, that's hard to believe, but that's how it was. In BREAKING TRAINING, the Astrodome is almost an actual character. Director Michael Pressman constantly shows it in extreme long-shot, looming over the horizon, and the Dome is even given it's own musical motif. The Bears see the Astrodome as an almost Grail-like quest, and any kid in the 1970s would probably feel the same way. In the Seventies domed sports complexes were looked upon as impressive edifices. I'm no fan of the cookie-cutter ballparks of my boyhood, but I do have to admit that the whole fake-retro stadium era of today is starting to become somewhat generic.

THE BAD NEWS BEARS IN BREAKING TRAINING is certainly not as good as the movie that spawned it, but it's not just a cheap knock-off. It's an entertaining film in it's own right, and it's because the story focuses on a group of kids that are totally real, especially to anyone growing up in that era. If you haven't seen BREAKING TRAINING in a while, or if you've never seen it, I suggest you take the time to seek it out.