Friday, July 25, 2014

Oliver! (Best Picture 1968)

Oliver! is a cute musical drama based on the book Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. At two hours it would be a great film filled with great scenes. Unfortunately, it runs closer to three hours, and so is padded and over-produced. Its heart is in the right place, but by the end of the film you can't help but think, "Could we have a bit LESS, please?"*

(*This is a reference to the famous scene where Oliver walks up to the manager of the work-house and timidly asks for more, which starts up a chaotic chase through the hall.)  

The basic story is this: Oliver is an orphan living in a work-house outside of London. He has a few adventures in his little town, then decides to escape to London, where he immediately meets The Artful Dodger, leader of a group of boy pick-pockets. He is introduced in succession to Fagin, the adult who takes care of the boys and fences their stolen goods; Nancy, a bar-keep and former pick-pocket herself; and Bill, Nancy's husband and the biggest and meanest thief in their neighborhood. Trouble ensues when Oliver is brought along on a pickpocket heist but is caught by Mr. Brownlow; at court the charges are dropped and Oliver is placed under Brownlow's care. Bill fears that Oliver will talk, so he connives to kidnap Oliver and bring him back to their quarters. Unfortunately, Nancy has a change of heart, and in the end, Oliver lives with Brownlow, who in a Dickensian coincidence, turns out to be his great-uncle. 

Reading that plot summary, you wouldn't think it would take nearly three hours to tell that story, would you? Well, one of the most obvious time-consumers are the musical numbers. There are eleven different songs in this film. (although atleast two were cut from the original London/Broadway version!) Each of these songs is atleast five minutes long. And mostly, the story stops while the singing and dancing is going on. "Food" for example is simply five minutes of thin, starving boys in the work-house singing about what they want to eat as they watch the work-house governors feast on a banquet. Worst of all, songs that would be perfectly fine at five minutes get extended to even more. The fun song "Consider Yourself" that should be an intimate ode to friendship between the Artful Dodger and Oliver turns into an epic dance number featuring the entire London population. Likewise, a silly song (and by silly I mean "stupid") called "Who Will Buy?" goes on for ten whole minutes! A parade of vendors and Oliver sing "Who will buy this wonderful morning? Who will buy this wonderful day?" as they dance around the city square. After three minutes, I just wanted to symbolically slam the door in these dancers' faces and say, "Move along there!" 
The best part of this film are the moments with Fagin (Ron Moody) , the Artful Dodger (Jack Wild), and the boys. There seems to be genuine affection between the participants, which makes even long, dragged out scenes such as "Be Back Soon" or "Pick A Pocket Or Two" almost bearable. Unfortunately, break up this cast and Fagin is nowhere near as interesting on his own. His solo song "Reviewing The Situation" is not funny, it's creepy. In fact, any moment we have with just Fagin, or Fagin with Bill and Nancy, we stop to think about how creepy the character really is. Now I don't suppose the name has any relation to the pejorative term for homosexuals, but it is an odd coincidence. "Fagging" in Britain has something to do with older class men bossing under-class men around, but I don't know if the term was in existence when Dickens created Fagin. Still, watching this film from the point of view of 2014, seeing Fagin prance around the boys and calling all the characters "my dear" doesn't really endear him, now does it? The Artful Dodger, on the other hand, is adorable in every scene he's in. Jack Wild was fifteen when he made this film but looks like he was twelve! (Mark Lester, who played Oliver, was only nine.) He had played Oliver in the London production, but was picked to play The Dodger in the film. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for this role, but lost to Jack Albertson (The Subject Was Roses, but more famously known for The Poseidon Adventure, Willy Wonka, and Chico And The Man). Jack Wild went on to additional fame as "Jimmy" on the TV series H.R. Pufnstuf
Now from the strengths let's talk about what I consider the weakest part of the story: Nancy and Bill. Bill is established pretty clearly as being a bully, thinking only of himself. Yet kind-hearted Nancy loves him, even singing the schmaltzy song "As Long As He Needs Me" to him after he hits her! This seems like a case-book abusive relationship to me! And another thing that bothers me: Nancy has put up with her unhappy life for a long time, but as soon as she sees Oliver and the possibility of his happiness with Mr. Brownlow, she risks her own life to help Oliver! Maybe we're supposed to think that Bill wouldn't *really* hurt her? That seems odd, since everything about Oliver Reed's portrayal of Bill Sykes enthuses violence. Shani Wallis as Nancy does a good job, but the plot lets her down. The producers seem to want to portray her as happy-go-lucky, but then need her to die at the end so Bill will get his comeuppance.
The technical side of the film is top-notch. Costumes and sets are beautiful, even if we never believe that this is actually London, and not a movie studio. In that sense, like everything else about this film, the sets are over-done. The stairway to Fagin's lair, for example, over some body of water, look absolutely fake. 
If you like musicals in general, and musical spectacles in particular, you are the audience this film was targeted for. If NOT...then either skip it, or watch it with the remote close at hand so you can skip through the L-O-N-G dance numbers.
*Academy Award Best Picture of 1968*
Produced by John Woolf
Directed  by Carol Reed
Screenplay by Vernon Harris
Based on the book 
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Here's a four minute trailer for Oliver!
Watch it and if you like what they're selling, you'll love the film itself.

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
Funny Girl
The Lion In Winter
Rachel, Rachel
Romeo & Juliet
I am not sure why Oliver! won this year, as Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo & Juliet is such a wonderful film. Funny Girl is another over-produced overly long musical drama starring Barbra Streisand. See the last comment above for my recommendation on this film. The Lion In Winter is the British version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, this time featuring Henry II and Eleanor. Interestingly enough, both Katherine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor won Best Actress Oscars for their harpy roles, while perennial Oscar wannabes Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole were both nominated but neither (ever) won. Rachel, Rachel was Paul Newman's debut feature as a director and stars his wife, Joanne Woodward. 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

JL #35 "The Polaris Gambit!" Afterward

Don't read this Afterward unless you've already read the story! 

So...did you guess or know who the bad guy was? Did you guess that this story would re-introduce Hawkman and Hawkwoman?
A little background information: when I finished my first run of JUSTICE LEAGUE stories in 2000, I had Hawkman and Hawkwoman return to Thanagar. As I was leaving Japan at the time, they stood in for me, saying good-bye to all the people that I was also leaving. So my series ended with them gone.

However, when I decided that I wanted to tell more JLA stories set in "my" universe, I realized immediately that I wanted The Hawks back. So the first plot that I came up with was this one, the Hawks in danger and calling their friends for help. However again, when I thought about it I realized that in the fictional world of "my" DC universe, the Justice League would have gone on without the Hawks. When Hawkman quit in "true" DC continuity, he was gone for seven issues. So I decided that I would tell a story or two (or three) without the Hawks, just to show that they had, in fact, been gone. Hence my stories with the Queen Bee, Dr. Destiny, and the JLA-JSA team-up.
And now finally here we are at the story I plotted out first, more than a year ago! This story is based very loosely on JLA #177, which had Despero playing chess with the Martian Manhunter. At that time J'onn was no longer a JLAer, so the situation was similar to my story need. However, that is about the only plot point I kept from his story.You will see next issue that my story is nothing like JLA #178, either.

Now here are a few moments that I really liked.

For me, Red Tornado and Elongated Man seem destined to be friends. Their personalities are absolute opposites, but maybe that's why they seem to work together so well. When I thought about how to start this story, I wanted to do two things: mention Red's adoption of Traya, and toss out a Firestorm reference. For some reason it just seemed natural that these two would be hanging out with their significant others. Is this just me?

Mera is one of my favorite characters, but she really hasn't gotten a lot of respect until the last few years. It made sense to have her here on patrol with her husband; it also allowed me to have another point-of-view so Aquaman wasn't just talking to himself as he dealt with the mystery of the alien chess pieces.
Sad to say, it never even occurred to me to bring Mera into the next issue. As soon as one of my buddies asked me about it, I realized I could have (should have) had her join in the fun. Sorry, Mera!! 

The Wonder Woman section was the most difficult for me to write. The way I had it originally, Diana defeated the chess piece easily, in a story that only took two pages. I realized I had to make it more difficult for her somehow. Eventually I hit on the idea of the chess piece being mobile, and being able to dodge her "bullets and bracelets" maneuver. This worked, and gave me the extra pages I needed.  
Did anybody realize that Green Arrow and black Canary were ignoring Count Vertigo because they had put ear-plugs in? This is why the chess piece attack comes as a great shock to them; they hadn't heard it moving behind them.

As soon as I was near completion of this section I thought I should have used a different villain (Slip Knot, anybody?) but by that point it was too late. I do think I have used the Count a bit too much. I will try to retire him for the foreseeable future.

One of the reasons I wanted to use Superman in this story is because I don't like how I draw him. I wanted an excuse to practice on him. He turned out okay, but he and The Flash are still my least favorite characters to draw. 
The other reason I wanted to use Superman is because I wanted to use Lex Luthor. What a great villain! He thinks he can stop The Man of Steel just by using his brains! What an ego! I knew I wanted to write for this guy. Two of my favorite bits are included here. 


One last thing about my name-dropping of Firestorm. After the original issues this story is based on, Firestorm joined the JLA in the very next issue. So will Firestorm join "my" JLA in # 37?! Stay tuned to find out...!*

*No. No, he won't.

Monday, July 21, 2014

JL #35 "The Polaris Gambit!" Forward

I can't say too much about this issue without giving the major plot points away. Suffice it to say that if you don't recognize the title or know whose hand that is on the cover, you're in for a surprise.

Speaking of that cover, it is my homage to one of my favorite splash pages, by Dick Dillin and Dick Giordano, from JUSTICE LEAGUE of AMERICA #111. I like how it turned out, but I don't like the black pencil. I should have used a black sharpie on the original instead.
If you play or collect Hero Clix, you might also have noticed that the poses of the pieces here mirror the Hero Clix characters.

This story is based on a plot by Gerry Conway. He wrote a story for an issue of JLA that I won't reference here to spoil the surprise but the only characters I kept from his story were Aquaman, Black Canary, Green Arrow, and Superman. I will talk about this in more detail in the Afterward, too. I did like including Mera here, though. I think Aquaman would always be on patrol with her or Aqualad, don't you? You're not supposed to swim alone, you know.

Be back on Comic Book Wednesday for the full story!

Friday, July 18, 2014

In The Heat Of The Night (Best Picture 1967)

This week we have arrived at one of the great Academy Award years in history. The 1968 nominees, awards, and ceremony had so much going on with them that the year merits its own book, Pictures At A Revolution by Mark Harris. Basically, Harris argues that 1967 was the first year that Old Hollywood and Young Hollywood really clashed. If you are a film history buff, you will enjoy this book. I absolutely recommend it.

To summarize the main issue: Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate were on one side of the aisle, the Young side, and Doctor Doolittle and Guess Who's Coming To Dinner were on the other. So guess who won? Yes, the vote-splitter, In The Heat Of The Night. Want to start a fight with your favorite film freak? Remind him/her that The Graduate lost to In The Heat Of The Night. Just stay back, because spittle does fly.

As for me, I love this film. Full disclosure: ITHOTN is one of only five Best Pictures I actually own. 

For the first time since 1961's The Apartment, a non-musical Made in USA drama set in current-day won the Best Picture Oscar. ITHOTN starts with a train arriving into town. Then we immediately join a cop in this small town during his nightly rounds. Except tonight, Officer Sam Wood finds the dead body of the Yankee investor. Police Chief Bill Gillespie takes over the investigation, telling Sam to check the train station. There, he finds a black man with a wallet full of money. Sam takes him in for questioning, assuming he is the murderer. At the police station, however, the suspect is allowed to introduce himself as a homicide detective from Philadelphia! In one of the great scenes in the film, the Chief taunts the detective about his name, Virgil Tibbs. "What kind of name is that? What do they call you up there in Philadelphia?" the Chief sneers. Virgil nearly screams, "They call me MISTER Tibbs!" Both hope that they have seen the last of the other. However, the widow of the murdered man is impressed by Tibbs' quiet professionalism and insists that he work on the case. The mayor talks the Chief into agreeing to this, to either use Tibbs as a scapegoat if he gets it wrong or to bask in the praise if he gets it right. So we have our dual dramas established pretty quickly: Who killed Mr. Colbert, and can Virgil figure it out before the whole town lynches him?

Although many people say that The Graduate or Bonnie & Clyde were better films, ITHOTN is not a bad choice. First of all, it's a pretty good murder mystery. Did you figure out who had killed Mr. Colbert? My guess is that there were so many red herrings that you didn't. Secondly, it is an awesome character study of the two leads. One is a fish out of water: a black man from the North not used to having to cow-tow to ignorant racists. Virgil is smarter and richer than the majority of the population of Sparta, Mississippi, and the white people there don't like to be reminded of that fact. Everywhere he goes he is met with resistance and hostility, and yet he perseveres. The other is a man being pulled in conflicting directions: he wants to believe that all black men are stupid, but he is being shown daily that this assumption is totally incorrect. He is being ordered to solve the murder case, but knows he can't do it without Tibbs' help. It's fascinating to watch one of those "good ole' boys," the Chief, as he works with Tibbs. They begin as adversaries, become reluctant partners, and eventually end up as something close to friends. In another of the great scenes in this film, Tibbs is interviewing the richest man in town, Mr. Endicott. When Tibbs' questions sound close to being accusatory, Endicott slaps Tibbs in the face. Without missing a beat, Tibbs slaps the white man right back. In Harris' book Pictures At A Revolution and in some of the DVD commentary, the talk was that this scene was shocking to the audiences of the time. Evidently, this was the first time a major Hollywood film had ever shown a black man hitting a white man. And the most interesting thing about this scene is the Chief's reaction. As soon as he recovers from his shock, Endicott basically tells the Chief to kill Tibbs. Yet, the Chief refuses. I couldn't help but think of Medgar Evars or Emmett Tills, and all the other nameless souls, who were killed for far less than laying a hand on a Mississippi VIP. Times they were a changing....
Moments before The Slap...
If you do not believe ITHOTN deserved its Best Picture, watch it again. This time watch everyone's eyes. Rod Steiger as the Chief goes from concern to confidence to shock to anger to frustration, and all of these emotions are on display in his eyes. Watch Sidney Poitier's eyes, too. As Tibbs he is under constant pressure, and you can see it in his eyes. It is telling that he only really gets to relax during the last scene, on a train leaving Sparta.

Speaking of the train, I liked how it "book-ended" the film: it brings Tibbs to Sparta at the very beginning (we don't know who he is at the time) and then takes Tibbs away at the end. This is as if to tell the audience that we, much like Tibbs, are guests in Sparta and that we are not to overstay our welcome.  Because how the film is set up, and because it is Sidney Poitier, we are immediately asked to identify with this stranger, and see things from his point of view. In another great scene, after Endicott has slapped Tibbs, he rants about how he is going to "get him." The Chief looks at him and says, "You're just like us," meaning, he is as prejudiced against certain people as the Chief is. Watch both actors as they play this scene. It's wonderfully done. And we as the audience have no choice but to look at our own prejudices, too.

Rod Steiger won Best Actor for his role as Chief Gillespie. Watch Steiger in Oklahoma!, On The Waterfront, and The Pawnbroker, then tell me whether he is not a totally different character in each of these films. Steiger never achieved super-star status, but he was always interesting to watch.

This film is very much a snapshot of its time. Watch it today and you are (hopefully) shocked to hear a witness say, "I won't talk in front of the nigger." And I couldn't help but laugh later in the film when Tibbs confronts red-neck racists with a rifle. I thought of the old axiom, "there's nothing a red-neck  fears more than a black man with a gun." Nowadays, of course, we are a nation filled with Virgil Tibbs. Perhaps this film had something to do with that....? By the end of the film, when the Sparta police force and several members of the town have realized that Tibbs is, in fact, smarter than the rest of them, there is a hope that this may lead to better race relations in Mississippi.

This movie was filmed in a town called Sparta, but in Illinois, not Mississippi. Sidney Poitier discussed locations and it was agreed that the film would not be shot in the South. The producers found Sparta, approximately 150 miles from the Illinois-Kentucky border, but were not exactly "welcomed" by the city. One scene, with Tibbs and Gillespie driving through a cotton field, was filmed in Tennessee. The skeleton crew filmed the scene and got out of town as quickly as possible. Director Norman Jewison says that the towns where they did location shooting were not supportive of them being there.

In The Heat Of The Night
*Academy Award Best Picture of 1967*
Produced by Walter Mirish
Directed  by Norman Jewison
Screenplay by Sterling Silliphant

Wow, what a trailer~! This really pushes the action
side of things. I want to see this film!

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
Bonnie & Clyde
Doctor Doolittle
The Graduate
Guess Who's Coming To Dinner

Sadly and ironically, the Academy Awards Ceremony for this year was delayed in April, 1968 because of the murder of Rev. Martin Luther King. Originally the ceremony was going to go on as scheduled, but when several black entertainers cancelled, Academy President Gregory Peck convinced the Academy to post-pone it for a few days until after King's funeral. According to Harris' book, host Bob Hope and several other "old Hollywood" types did not understand "what the fuss was about." Hope actually made several insensitive jokes and comments in his opening monologue about King's murder.

Otherwise, it's easy in hindsight to see that the Academy wanted to please as many people as possible with these nominees. Bonnie & Clyde was famously called "a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick" by the New York Times reviewer; he subsequently lost his job, and now most people agree it's a great piece of film-making. The Graduate won Best Director for Mike Nichols, one of the few times Best Director and Best Picture did not match up. If you have not seen The Graduate you should see it. It, like ITHOTN, is a product of its time. I saw it in college and it reminded me of The Catcher In The Rye for a new generation. In my opinion parts of it have aged well, but overall it didn't really "speak" to me. Guess Who's Coming To Dinner is a drama about inter-racial marriage, another hot topic in 1967. In fact, it was not until 1967 that the US Supreme Court struck down laws that had made it illegal.This movie is not bad, but it is basically just seven or eight characters sitting around talking about how bad racism is. As a participant in a mixed marriage, I won't say anything against it. However, I prefer ITHOTN. For a more "current" take on this issue, I recommend Guess Who, the 2005 comedy "re-make" starring Bernie Mac and Ashton Kutcher. Katherine Hepburn won Best Actress for her role as the mother. Interestingly, Beah Richards was nominated for her role as Sidney Poitier's mother; she also plays an abortionist in ITHOTN and Tibbs calls her character, "Mama." And Doctor Doolittle? How this dull epic managed to crash this group of classic films is beyond me. Hollywood must really have been in love with Rex Harrison.

Friday, July 11, 2014

A Man For All Seasons (Best Picture 1966)

I first saw A Man For All Seasons in high school. I want to say that one of my World History teachers showed it to us over a period of two days, but for some reason I think it was my English teacher...? I don't remember the details, but I do remember thinking that it was a wonderful film. And I remember that at about the same time my family had just watched "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII" on PBS (from BBC?), and that there was also Anne of 1,000 Days as well, both about Henry VIII. And of course Herman's Hermit's #1 Pop Hit, "I'm Henry VIII I Am" was from the summer of 1965. What was it about Henry that made him so popular at this time? Actually, when you think of "British Invasion" it usually references the musical side of things, but from the early Sixties a huge amount of British films, actors, and actresses enjoyed unparallelled success. What was it about British motion pictures that made them so popular at this time? Besides this film from 1966 we have previous winners Lawrence of Arabia and Tom Jones, and British thespians Rex Harrison, Julie Andrews, and Julie Christie winning top honors those years. After a year off next year, 1968 saw another British film win Best Picture and Katherine Hepburn win Best Actress in The Lion In Winter, a drama about Henry II. 
As for A Man For All Seasons, this is the true story of Sir Thomas More, a devout Catholic in the court of Henry VIII. It features great locations, wonderful costumes, a well-written script, and of course, superb acting.  Henry VIII was the king who went through several wives. He decides he is going to annul the marriage to his first wife Catherine(who was actually his brother's widow) and marry Anne Boleyn. However, the Pope does not agree with this action, so Henry breaks away from the Catholic Church to create the Church of England. More is put in a difficult spot: loyalty to his king, or loyalty to his church.
The first half of the film is setting up the confrontation. There is a wildly dramatic scene after More is named chancellor, and Henry appears at More's mansion to talk about his marriage. More believes himself safe as long as he does not directly state his opposition to the king. Robert Shaw plays Henry VIII as something of a petulant and self-centered child, insisting on his way. It is a marvelous scene to watch as More must choose his words and actions carefully, and Henry for his part is trying to convince his friend to admit his allegiance, something we know More will not (can not) do. In the very next scene, Henry, annoyed at More, refuses dinner at his mansion and rides away on his own royal barge, leaving his sycophants to fend for themselves. It is a silly, but dangerous, omen.

The last half of the film is More facing imprisonment, and then death, for refusing to sign an oath to Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn which would, in effect, disavow his loyalty to God. There is a lot of dramatic speeches and verbal jouncing during this part of the film, as several other Lords and noblemen try to convince More to sign the oath. More swears his allegiance to the King and new Queen, but refuses to sign the oath. Finally, a low-level nobleman named Richard Rich (no kidding) perjures himself by giving testimony that More did, in fact, not consider Anne his Queen. More is brought up on charges of treason. After Rich gives his testimony, there is a great scene where More tells the assemblage to choose to believe an honest man like himself over a base liar like Rich. Of course, politics being what they are, it was said that Henry wanted  More executed so as to be done with the whole re-marriage issue. Not long after More is executed, Anne herself is executed and replaced by one of her hand-maidens.
A Man For All Seasons is based on the play by Robert Bolt, who also wrote the screenplay. So there is  not a lot of action, but there is a lot of drama. Is Chancellor Cromwell trying to get More to sign the oath, or trying to get him to not sign it? There is a lot of intrigue and counter-plots, which makes it important to pay close attention to who knows who and who doesn't like who.

Paul Scofield portrays Thomas More, and as he is in the vast majority of the scenes, he really embodies the film. Scofield had played the part on stage, and the producers insisted he be cast in the film version. It is not a surprise that he earned the Best Actor Oscar for his role, beating out Steve McQueen, Richard Burton, Michael Caine, and Alan Arkin. Scofield brings a quiet dignity to the role, although he is moved to passionate speech when challenged by Cromwell or Rich. Rich, by the way, is played by a very young John Hurt. Cromwell is played by the great character actor Leo McKern. More's daughter is played by Susannah York. It is a wonderful scene when Henry asks her a question in Latin and she responds; it is painfully obvious to all but she that her level is better than the king's.
If you enjoy talented actors verbally sparring with one another over the fate of Great Britain...well, that is the majority of the period dramas. However, in a sea of period dramas, this one still stands above in the quality of the sums of its parts. This is a well-made piece of entertainment that is truly timeless.

A Man For All Seasons
*Academy Award Best Picture of 1966*
Produced by
Directed  by Fred Zinnemann
Screenplay by Robert Bolt

Winner of 6 Academy Awards, in case you don't catch that! ;-)

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming
The Sand Pebbles
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? 
Looking at the nominees, I find it hard to believe that anyone would have *not* picked this film to win. Alfie is a character-study of a British womanizer; think Marty meets Tom Jones. It made Michael Caine a star, but he is not a very pleasant character and it is not a very pleasant film. The Russians Are Coming was an example of early gladnost; a Russian submarine accidentally runs aground on a small island off the US east coast. It has it's moments, but it's not really Best Picture material. The Sand Pebbles is a great war movie, with Steve McQueen as an anti-establishment Navy man in 1920s China. And Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is the first film where every member of the cast was nominated for an Academy Award; Elizabeth Taylor and Sandy Dennis won, but Richard Burton and George Segal lost (to Scofield and Walter Matthau, respectively).