Saturday, 21 July 2007

Shirley Slesinger Lasswell R.I.P.

Most of you are probably not familiar with the name of Shirley Slesinger Lasswell, but if you are under forty you have been exposed to her work. Shirley Slesinger Lasswell was the woman for turning A. A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh into a merchandising empire. She passed from respiratory failure at the age of 84.

Shirley Slesinger Lasswell was born Shirley Ann Basso in Detroit, Michigan on May 27, 1923. In 1947 she was a dancer on Broadway when she met literary agent Stephen
Slesinger backstage on the show Hellzapoppin'. Stephen Slesinger was responsible for the merchandising of such characters as Tarzan, King of the Royal Mounted, Tom Mix, Charlie Chan, and a number of other characters. He was also a creator of various characters, whom he hired others to write and illustrate (in the case of comic strips), among them Red Ryder. He also entered the field of film and television production, producing adaptations of Red Ryder, King of the Royal Mounted, and so on. In the Thirties he acquired the rights to Winnie the Pooh.

Stephen Slesinger died in 1954, whereupon Shirley Slesinger took over his business. She concentrated on Winnie the Pooh, seeing a good deal of potential in Milne's creation. Not only did she design much of the merchandise, everything from toys to clothing, she actually went door to door to the top department stores selling Winnie the Pooh merchandise. It was in 1961 that Slesinger and Daphne Milne, the widow of A. A. Milne, entered into an agreement with Disney that gave them the television, trademark, and other commercial rights to Winnie the Pooh. In return Disney would pay the Slesinger and Milne families royalties from all Winnie the Pooh products the company produced. Eventually, in 1991, Slesinger Lasswell would be forced to sue Disney for underpaying royalties and mixing the money made from Winnie the Pooh with such Disney characters as Mickey Mouse.

After Stephen Slesinger's death, Shirley Slesinger married Fred Lasswell, Jr., longtime cartoonist on Barney Google and Snuffy Smith. They were married for 37 years.

In merchandising Winnie the Pooh, Shirley Slesinger Lasswell introduced many people to A. A. Milne's characters. While I have little doubt that A. A. Milne's books would still be published today, they probably would not have readership that Slesinger Lasswell's exposure created. She then has had part in the continued popularity of the one of the best loved literary creations in the Twentieth Century.

Friday, 20 July 2007

Where Does J. K. Rowling Go From Here?

It was ten years ago that readers were first introduced to the young wizard named Harry Potter. His creator, Joanne Rowling (who used her initials--the K was borrowed from her father's mother because she lacks a middle name--because Bloombury feared boys would not read a book written by a woman), has lived with the young spell caster even longer, having conceived him on on train trip through England way back in 1990. One has to wonder, with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows coming out in a few hours, what she will do next.

After all, Rowling created one of those rare things in Anglo-American pop culture, an outright phenomenon. They are not precisely common. Off the top of my head I can only think of three other phenomena: The Beatles, Star Trek, and Star Wars. Rowling herself has said that she will never write anything nearly as popular again. And as much as her fans (among whom I am one) love her, it is most likely true. Pop culture phenomena are very rare, and I can think of no creator (whether writer, filmmaker or TV producer) who has ever created more than one.

Rowling has also said that she has no immediate plans for the future. At the moment she is not planning to write anything else set in the world of Harry Potter (and definitely not any more Harry Potter adventures), but then she has also stated that she will never say that she will never write anything set in that world again. It does seem like she wants to continue writing, and she will simply write what she really wants to write. I suppose that must seem unusual to many, as with the success of Harry Potter she is set for life. She is the richest woman in the United Kingdom; her wealth even surpassed that of the Queen. As a writer, I understand perfectly. A writer lives to write, whether he or she must do so to earn a living or not.

Of course, no one but Rowling can know what she will write. I rather suspect she will return to the world of Harry Potter, but there will be some time before she does. After all, like most people writers prefer a change of pace after doing the same thing for so long. My best friend has a theory that she might do what Stephen King did when he wrote under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman; assume a pen name just to find out if it was sheer luck that led to the success of Harry Potter or inborn talent. I am not so sure about that, although I rather suspect that if she ever writes an adult book she might use a pen name. J. K. Rowling is too identified with young adult fiction. And I rather suspect her given name, Joanne Rowling would be too.

Regardless of what Rowling decided to write in the future, I am sure many will read it. I doubt it will see the success of Harry Potter, but I've no doubt that it will be successful. And I know I will be one of the people to rush out and buy it.

Thursday, 19 July 2007

Robin and Marion

Many, many years ago two of my friends watched Robin and Marion on VHS (yes, it was that long ago). Both of them love classic movies and their tastes are quite similar. That having been said, one of them loved the movie. The other, a fan of the old swashbuckler movies made by the likes of Errol Flynn, hated it. Quite simply, Robin and Marion is not your standard Robin Hood movie.

Released in 1976, Robin and Marion was directed by Richard Lester during his swashbuckler phase (in the Seventies he directed The Three Musketeers, The Four Musketeers and The Royal Flash as well). The movie begins just as Robin Hood (played by Sean Connery) and Little John (Nicol Williams) return from the Crusades with Richard I (Richard Harris). While Robin was gone, Marion (Audrey Hepburn) became a nun and rose to the position of abbess of her abbey. The film's primary focus is their reunion and the renewal of their romance. Robin and Marion is hardly a simple romance movie. Not only does it contain the prerequisite action scenes, but it is different from any other movie focusing on the outlaw from Sherwood Forrest. Although still a force to be dealt with, Robin is older and not nearly as spry as he once was. Contrary to viewing Robin as an outlaw and enemy to be despatched, the Sheriff of Nottingham (Robert Shaw) sees him as a respected adversary, even if he still wants him dead. Richard Lionheart is hardly the epitome of chivalry. It is revealed that he has killed women and children without mercy. Only King John, played by Ian Holm, appears as he usually does in the Robin Hood mythos.

Indeed, Robin still bears the scars, both physical and psychological, of the Crusades. It is clear from his conversations with Marion that for Robin the Crusades were not some glorious "holy" war to free Christians under Muslim rule and liberating Jerusalem, nor were they some grand adventure. Instead, they were simply often meaningless slaughter. King John, in a dispute with Pope Innocent III, over the appointment of the Archbishop of Canterbury, called important church figures to him. Marion has no intention of obeying the King's order and has decided to resist in protest. Made shortly after both the end of the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal in the United States, and Edward Heath's term as Prime Minister in the United Kingdom, Robin and Marion reflects attitudes towards the Vietnam War and the increasing distrust of government on both sides of the Atlantic.

Of course, the primary reason to watch Robin and Marion are the performances of Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn. The two are wholly convincing in their roles, alternately melancholic and romantic, remembering better days and hoping for a better future. Robin and Marion is ultimately about love lost and found again.

Robin and Marion is definitely not for every Robin Hood fan. If one expects his or her Robin Hood movies to be filled with spectacular sword battles, grand escapes, and impossible feats of archery, then this is not the movie for him or her. On the other hand, if one enjoys a character study of two of the most legendary characters in English literature in their later years, then he or she will definitely enjoy this movie. If anything else, the performances of Connery and Hepburn make it worth a look.

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Spoiling the Party

I'm sure we all have them, those friends who insist on telling one every single detail of that cool new movie they have seen or that cool new book they have read. Sadly, most of us don't want to know every single detail of a movie we haven't seen or a book we haven't read, wanting to experience them for ourselves. Fortunately, most of us can talk our friends into not telling us everything about movies and books they've just seen and read.

Unfortunately, that is not the case with the Internet. With the development of the World Wide Web, it seems a whole new phenomenon arose--spoiling books and movies on a heretofore unmatched scale. It seems that there are many people out there who, once they have read a book or watched a movie, cannot wait to post every single detail to their personal website or their own blog. What makes this even worse is that some of the people who do this should know better. I am sure we have all read reviews by professional critics who insist on summarising the whole book or movie, thus spoiling any surprises. I don't know about others, but I tend to avoid such critics like the plague.

What make spoiling on the World Wide Web even worse are the situations of books and movies that are pirated and reach individuals before their official release date, or errors made by various stores who accidentally sell material before it is officially released. This situation has arose with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Even though Bloombury in the United Kingdom and Scholastic in the United States set the release of the book as this coming Saturday, copies have already been sent out to people. Namely, Deepdiscount.Com sent copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows out early, Some customers received them as early as yesterday. While the number of copies sent out only amounted to 1/100th 1% of the total copies being printed here in the States, spoilers and purportedly entire copies of the book have made it to the Internet. This has not only displeased J. K. Rowling, but many Potter fans as well. There are many of us who do not want to know what happens until we have finished the book ourselves.

Indeed, the Harry Potter series is one of those book series in which the element of surprise provides much of the enjoyment in reading them. It seems to me to be true that spoilers can be worse for some works than it might be for others. I must confess that I don't mind if a friend tells me that superhero Captain Zero defeats the evil Dr. Malevolens at the end of The Amazing Adventures of Captain Zero (don't bother looking that up), because in most superhero movies the good guy defeats the bad guy in the end. On the other hand, I will be very unhappy if someone were to announce the ending of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to me or let slip the ending of the latest M. Night Shyamalan movie. When a book or movie has a twist ending or relies largely on a very important plot point for much of its enjoyment, spoiling is even worse than for other works.

Of course, there are those movies and books which once had surprising twists or plot turns that are no longer so surprising because they have become part of pop culture. Perhaps the prime example of this is the fact that Darth Vader is the father of Luke Skywalker. When Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back came out this was a shocking revelation and most Star Wars fans avoided telling their friends for fear of spoiling the movie. Nearly thirty years later, however, it is common knowledge. Not only has this once shocking revelation become part of pop culture, but the first trilogy makes it blatantly clear who fathered Luke and Leia. Another example of this is the ending of Pscycho. When the movie was first released in 1960, Alfred Hitchcock went to extra lengths to avoid the twist ending from becoming public knowledge. Critics were denied a private screening lest they reveal the ending before the movie came out. Hitchcock also had a strict policy that no one would be admitted late to the movie, so that audiences would have to watch the film from the very beginning. Of course, today the end of Pscyho is known even to people who haven't seen the movie!

I realise that there is to some degree or another a demand for spoilers where movies and books are concerned. There have probably always been those people who turn to the last page of a book to read the ending. I would imagine these are the sort of people who rush to these web sites containing spoilers. While there are those who probably want to know the ending of a book or movie before they have read or seen it, I would daresay there are more of us who don't want to know. Sadly, those who post spoilers essentially act as killjoys for those of who want to experience plot twists and climaxes for ourselves.

Of course, I don't know what motivates people to post spoilers to the web sites. For some it may be the same reason that those aforementioned friends have for spoiling things--they simply want to share that great movie or great book with everyone else. In other cases, I am not so sure. I can only assume that they take some malicious pleasure out of ruining watching a particular movie or reading a particular book ourselves.

Sadly, beyond avoiding certain websites and the reviews of many critics, there is very little the average person can do with regards to spoilers. In the Information Age it is getting increasingly difficult for people to not know the end of a book or movie before it comes out. As for myself, I can only hope I don't hear about the ending of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows before I read it (hopefully next week sometime).

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

The Ongoing Fantasy Movie Cycle

Like any other medium, the movies go through cycles. That is, at any given time movies of a particular genre or certain types of movies are going to be more popular than others and as a result more of that sort of movie will be made. To put it simply, a cycle is a trend or direction towards certain types of films. Examples of cycles are the one towards the action movies of the late Eighties and early Nineties (which gave birth to Lethal Weapon and Die Hard) and the cycle towards torture chic horror movies (which included Hostel and Saw) which has, fortunately, ended just recently.

Another example of a cycle in movies was a fantasy cycle that began in the late Fifties with movies like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Hercules. I rather suspect that particular cycle grew out of the success of such popular sword and sandal epics as The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur. From Biblical and historical epics to fantasies set in a pseudo-historical milieu was only a short step. Another fantasy cycle began in the Eighties with Excalibur and Dragonslayer in 1981. Precisely what started this particular cycle is difficult to say. It could have been the continued popularity of The Lord of the Rings and the fad towards Dungeons and Dragons, although I don't think anyone can say for certain. Regardless, a lot of fantasy movies were made in the Eighties.

It seems that we are once more in the middle of a fantasy cycle. In this case the causes of this one aren't hard to find. In fact, it would seem the catalysts for this cycle both lie in the world of literature. One of these catalysts is Tolkien's classic fantasy novel Lord of the Rings. Published in the Fifties, by 1965 the novel (published in three volumes) had become an outright phenomenon. By the Seventies it had arguably become an institution. As early as the Sixties there were plans to bring Lord of the Rings to the big screen. Big names such as The Beatles, Stanley Kubrick and John Boorman all considered adapting it into a motion picture. Animator Ralph Bakshi succeeded in bringing part of the novel to the screen in 1978. Unfortunately, Bakshi's animated adaptation left a lot to be desired, combining material from the first two books, Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. It was left to maverick film director Peter Jackson to bring Lord of the Rings to the big screen. Just as the novel was published in three volumes, so too did Jackson adapt the novel as three movies. Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), and Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) not only did big box office (all three films rank in the top ten highest grossing movies worldwide), but they were critically acclaimed as well. With the Lord of the Rings movies an over all success monetarily and critically, it would seem to only be a matter of time before Hollywood would create more fantasy movies.

The other catalyst for the current fantasy movie cycle was a series of young adult novels centred on a young wizard named Harry Potter. Joanne Rowling (now known to the world as J. K. Rowling) sent her book to several British publishers, rejected every time until Bloombury at last bought it. In 1997 Bloombury published Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone with little expectation for a huge success. American publisher Scholastic apparently saw something in the book that Bloombury did not. They made the unprecedented move of paying Rowling, an unknown at the time, $105,000 for the book's American rights. It was published in the United States in 1998 under the title Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Despite Bloombury's doubts, that first book became a roaring success, having sold 70,000 copies as of July 1998 (before its publication here in the United States). The second book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, was number one on both British and American bestsellers lists the first week it came out. As phenomenal as the success of Harry Potter was, it was natural that a film adaptation would be made. In 2001, the same year that the movie Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring came out, the movie adaptation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was released. It grossed $317,575,550 and started one of the most successful franchises of the Naughts.

With the success of both the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies it should then be no surprise that a new fantasy cycle would begin in the Naughts. In fact, the only thing that surprises me is that it didn't start sooner. It would be two years before another major fantasy movie would be released, and I don't think that the release of that film can really be attributed to the success of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. Released in 2003, Pirates of the Caribbean: the Curse of the Black Pearl was based on the famous theme park ride at Disneyland. Regardless, it was a smash hit and no doubt fueled the new fantasy cycle.

For the next fantasy films of any importance it would be another two years, and even then not all of them would be huge hits. The Brother's Grimm was the creation of director Terry Gilliam. It was a fictional account of an adventure the famous scholars had in battling a supernatural menace in French occupied Germany in the Napoleonic Era. The film only grossed $37,916,267 at the box office and was poorly received by the critics. The next fantasy film to be released that year did not emerge from Hollywood, but from Canada. As a low budget film made outside the United States, Beowulf and Grendel did not receive a wide release here. It also received mixed reviews from critics. Regardless, it has a cult following of individuals who realise just how good the film really is. If The Brothers Grimm and Beowulf and Grendel had been the last fantasy films released that year, the cycle might have never begun. Fortunately, December of 2005 saw the release of Disney's adaptation of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The film grossed $291,710,957 at the box office and received generally good reviews.

Two thousand six would only see two fantasy films in the cycle, and one was definitely not meant for children. El Laberinto del fauno (known as Pan's Labyrinth in the States) dealt with the horrors of Franco's Spain, complete with the violence that accompanies a fascist government. Indeed, in some respects was as much a horror film as a fantasy film (it is perhaps best described as "dark fantasy"). Indeed, it is even unclear whether the fairy tale in which the main character finds herself swept up into is real or imaginary. El Laberinto del fauno did very well at the box, received some of the best reviews of any film released in 2006, and even won several Oscars. The other fantasy film of 2006 was Eragon, an adaptation of the hit novel by Christopher Paolini. Like the Harry Potter series, Eragon is a young adult book with a large following of grown ups. Despite the novel's immense success, the movie fizzled at the box office in the United States. It also received negative reviews from critics, who as a whole thought the film was both derivative and dull. Fans of the book perhaps reacted more negatively than movie critics--little wonder as it departed a great deal from the novel.

This year saw the adaptation of another young adult book considered a classic by some. Bridge to Terabithia was written by Katherine Patterson and first published in 1977. It won the Newberry Award. With the success of both the Harry Potter movies and The Chronicles of Narnia: the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, it was perhaps a natural for film adaptation. Despite being based on a novel considered by many to be a classic, the movie changed many points in the novel. One point it didn't change is that, like the novel, Bridge to Terabithia isn't a total fantasy. It is more about a fantasy world created by two children than a fantasy world per se. This could explain why the movie didn't do so well at the box office--from February to April it only made $120 million. For the most part the movie received good reviews from the critics, despite a lack of enthusiasm on the part of audiences.

Like Bridge to Terabithia, 300 is not strictly a fantasy movie. It is very loosely based on historical events (the Battle of Thermopylae), although in such a stylised way that it would certainly appeal to fans of fantasy. Indeed, of the movies released in this fantasy cycle, beyond the Lord of the Rings movies and Eragon, it could be the one that has the most in common with the fantasy films of the Eighties. It certainly isn't a children's movie, containing more violence than ten other movies and a sex scene.

While Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the first full fledged fantasy movie released this year, it is hardly the last. In fact, the number of fantasy movies released the latter half of this year proves we are in the middle of a fantasy movie cycle. Next up on the big screen is Stardust, an adaptation of Neil Gaiman's illustrated novel, centring on a young man who ventures through Fairie to retrieve a fallen star. I am a huge fan of Gaiman, so I am naturally looking forward to the movie adaptation of Stardust. Only a week or two following Stardust, The Last Legion will be released in America. Although based in part on history, the film looks as if it has some fantasy elements as well (the sword Excalibur plays a role, if that gives you a clue). This October will see the release of an adaptation of the second book in Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising Sequence. The film looks like it differs from the novel a bit, updating the story and changing a few things here and there. But from the trailer it looks like it will be a good movie.

This November will see the release of another adaptation of Beowulf. This version is computer animated and has some big names attached. Not only is it directed by Robert Zemeckis, but its script is written by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery (co-writer on Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction). While I have little doubt as to the talent involved in the film, I do have my concerns as to how loyal it will be to the classic poem. Finally, in December there is what I think will be the big fantasy movie of the year (aside from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, of course): The Golden Compass. The Golden Compass is based on the first book in the His Dark Materials series, originally titled Northern Lights in Britain, but retitled The Golden Compass here. The books are huge in the United Kingdom, nearly as big as Harry Potter. And it is easy to see why. Of the recent young adult fantasy novels, it is arguably the most original. Regardless, the trailer to the film looks spectacular, even if it departs from the book in one major respect (there is no mention of God or religion, pivotal points in the books).

Two thousand seven does seem to be the year in which this new fantasy cycle kicks into high gear. Aside from further installments in established franchises (Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, and so on), there are several fantasy films being released in the coming years. Next year will see an adaptation of The Lions of Al-Rassan, the historical fantasy by Guy Gavriel Kay. A new version of Masters of the Universe based on the Mattel toys and cartoon of the Eighties, is set for release in 2009. Two thousand nine and 2010 will see the release of The Elfstones of Shannara and The Sword of Shannara respectively, based on the successful Shannara series by Terry Brooks. Of the various fantasy movies coming out, these are the ones I am least looking forward to. If the movies are as dull as the books, I pity anyone who has to sit through them.

At any rate, this decade's fantasy cycle does seem to differ from previous fantasy cycles a good deal. Both the fantasy cyle of the Fifties and the one of the Eighties more or less concentrated on heroic fantasy, whether in the form of sword and sandal movies (Hercules, Jason and the Argonauts) or more or less medieval fantasy (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Excalibur). While heroic fantasy movies have formed part of this cycle (the Lord of the Rings films and Eragon are examples), there are also other films which are definitely not heroic fantasy. The Harry Potter movies are based in the present day and concentrate more on wizardry than swordplay. The Golden Compass is set in a Victorian world that combines magic with steampunk technology. Today's fantasy films seem much more varied than ones in the past.

Another way in which this fantasy cycle differs is that many of the films of the cycle that took place in the Eighties were decidedly adult in nature. Excalibur, Conan the Barbarian, The Warrior and the Sorceress, and some other films featured graphic violence, nudity, and even sex scenes. Graphic violence, nudity, and sex are lacking from many of today's fantasy films for the simple fact that they are based on novels written for young adults. One will not see a beheading in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, nor will one will see a sex scene performed in plate armour in The Golden Compass. Quite simply, the original works were written for people under 18, even if plenty of people over that age read them. In a way, this makes this cycle similar to the one of the Fifties, where there was very little objectionable for a child to see in the films aside from the occasional scantily clad woman.

It is hard to tell how long the current fantasy boom will last. As a fan of the genre, I hope it lasts awhile. Indeed, hard as it is to believe, there are still some classic fantasy works that should be adapted into live action, feature films, but have not been yet. My choice for what should be adapted would be the series The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander. Disney adapted the first two books as The Black Cauldron in 1985, but I could see a more loyal, live action adaptation of the first book as a springboard for a new franchise. At any rate, there are many fantasy works out there, and almost all of them are better than the Shannara books. With any luck, this fantasy cycle will last long enough to see them adapted.

Monday, 16 July 2007

Crime Story

The Eighties is remembered for such police dramas as Hill Street Blues and Miami Vice, but there is one that has largely forgotten when it should not have. Crime Story was one of the most revolutionary television shows on the air in the Eighties, far more so than its sister series Miami Voice.

The executive producer of Crime Story was movie director Michael Mann. who was also the executive producer on Miami Vice. With the success of that show, NBC gave Mann licence to create a new show as he saw fit. Mann had an idea that he had considered doing as either a feature film or TV movie, but concluded it might be best done as a TV series. The idea was to follow a major crimes unit starting in Chicago in 1963 to Las Vegas in 1980, all of in the space of 20 episodes. Mann had gotten the idea from Berlin Alexanderplatz, Rainer Werner Fassbinder's epic, German, 15 1/2 hour film which followed its lead character, Franz Biberkopf, through the ear of the German Weimar Republic. To develop the project, Mann brought in writers Gustave Reininger, a former Wall Street banker who had written L' Ordre et la sécurité du monde and episodes of Miami Vice, and Chuck Adamson, a former Chicago police officer who had acted in Mann's movie Thief. Adamson put Reininger in contact with police detectives in Chicago, who sent Reininger to talk with organised crime figures while wearing a wire. Mann's bold vision for a show that would span seventeen years was effectively quashed when it was figured that a budget would not permit the necessary changes in cars, fashions, and so on through the years. It was then decided that the series would be set in Chicago in 1963. That having been said, the show did move from Chicago to Las Vegas in its first season. What is more is that time seemed to past more swiftly on Crime Story than on other series. Starting in in 1963, by the end of the first season it was apparently early 1965.

As the head of the Chicago Major Crimes Unit on the show, actor Dennis Farina was cast as Lieutenant Mike Torello. Like Adamson (with whom he had worked), Farina was a former Chicago police office and had even worked in Chicago's Central Investigative Unit, the real life counterpart of the show's fictional "Major Crimes Unit." He had previously appeared in Mann's movie Thief and the movie Manhunter (the first adaptation of Thomas Harris's Red Dragon, which introduced Hannibal Lecter to the world). Dennis Farina was not the only actor with real life experience pertaining to his role. John Santucci, who played archvillain Ray Luca's right hand man Pauli Taglia, had been a jewel thief at one time. Anthony Denison was cast in the role of Torello's archnemesis Ray Luca, a petty hoodlum who rose to the top of Chicago's crime organisation known as the Outfit. He was based on real life gangster Tony "The Ant" Spilotro, who made a similar rise to the top of the Outfit and who would eventually find himself in Las Vegas (Spilotro was also the basis for Joe Pesci's character of Nicky Santoro in Scorsese's movie Casino).

When the show began Crime Story focused on the Major Crimes Unit in Chicago in 1963. It was the Major Crime Unit's duty to investigate major crimes, in particular those linked to organised crime. On the show the unit was headed up by Lt. Mike Torello. Torello was assisted by Sgt. Danny Krychek (Bill Smitrovich), who was also his best friend. The Major Crime Unit often went to lawyer David Abrams (Stephen Lang) for help with legal matters. On the opposite side of the law was Ray Luca, a street thief who rapidly rose to the top of Chicago's Outfit. Luca's right hand man was Pauli Taglia, a hoodlum who wasn't too bright but more than made up for his lack of intelligence with almost unwavering loyalty. With the episode "Kingdom of Money," which aired January 30, 1987, the show moved to Las Vegas. Ray Luca, anxious to take over casinos in that city, made the move by convincing the Outfit it could be a very lucrative venture. At the same time, the Department of Justice hired Mike Torello to head a team that would investigate mob ties in Las Vegas. Somewhat unrealistically, nearly the entire Chicago Major Crimes Unit made the move to Las Vegas (in the show's defence, it should be pointed that hiring an all new cast would have been very expensive for a show that already had a big budget). David Abrams went with Torello and the former members of the Major Crimes Unit as the new Justice Department team's lawyer. Many have assumed that the move to Las Vegas was made to increase ratings, although it appears to have been planned all along.

At the time Crime Story was a revolutionary TV series. The show was shot in a deliberately cinematic style reminiscent of film noir. Executive producer Michael Mann and his line producers went to great extents to capture the feel of the era. Music from that time period played an important role in setting the mood. In the latter part of the first season one might hear "The Last Time" by The Rolling Stones followed by "Unchained Melody" by The Righteous Brothers. That having been said, Crime Story was even more revolutionary in having a serialised storyline, combining story arcs with stand alone episodes. Alongside Hill Street Blues (which debuted five years earlier) and Wiseguy (which debuted a year later), it was a pioneer with regards to such serialised dramas today as Lost, 24, and Jericho.

Despite being something relatively new on television, or perhaps because of it, Crime Story never did well in the ratings. Part of this may have been due to the fact that NBC constantly moved the show in its first season. First scheduled on Friday following Miami Vice, it was moved to Tuesday nights after only a few episodes. There it aired opposite the then popular show Moonlighting on ABC (for those who are wondering, it was the show that gave Bruce Willis his big break). It was moved back to its original Friday night time slot, right after Miami Vice, well before the season's end. This probably had the effect of preventing the show from developing a large enough following to guarantee good ratings.

Throughout its run Crime Story featured guest stars who would later become famous. David Caruso appeared in a few episodes of Crime Story, well before finding success with N.Y.P.D. Blue and CSI: Miami. Future movie actor Gary Sinise appeared in a first season episode, as did Ving Rhames. Also in the first season, Soon to be movie star Julia Roberts appeared as a sexually abused teenager. In the first season comic Andrew Dice Clay was a semi-regular on the show. In the second season Kevin Spacey guest starred as a crusading Senator. David Hyde Pierce also appeared in the second season, as did Billy Zane. Of course, some of the guest stars on Crime Story were already famous. Pam Grier, most famous for her Blaxploitation movies, appeared in five episodes throughout the show's run as an investigative journalist. Deborah Harry, only recently after Blondie has split up, appeared in the penultimate episode of the first season. Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner appeared in four episodes of the series.

By the second season the time frame was pretty much 1965. The setting also remained Las Vegas, albeit with forays into Mexico and Latin America. The show also became even more larger than life than it previously had been. At one point Luca and Pauli, on the run from the law, take refuge at an atomic testing site and must survive an atomic bomb blast. This puts them afoul of the Atomic Energy Commission. In other episodes Torello found himself dealing with spies and a corrupt judge. Through it all, however, the focus of the show remained Torello's struggle with Luca.

For its second season NBC moved Crime Story to Tuesday night and left it there. While this made the show easier for viewers to find, it also meant that once more it was airing opposite Moonlighting. More so than many shows on the time, getting good ratings was pivotal for Crime Story. The show was a period piece, which meant that it needed period cars and period fashions. It was also shot on location in Las Vegas, which further increased its budget. Finally, Crime Story had a larger cast than most shows. Much of the time the show followed as many as ten characters, usually more. By the second season its episodes could run upwards to $1.4 million. Without high ratings, this ultimately spelled the end for Crime Story. The show was cancelled at the end of its second season. For fans this was frustrating as the show ended with a cliffhanger, in which Torello, members of his team, Luca, and Pauli, were all trapped in a plane without a pilot. Since the show was cancelled, the cliffhanger was never resolved.

Crime Story would be rerun on both the USA Network, A&E, and AmericanLife after its run. Both seasons are also currently available on DVD. Ever since its cancellation, Crime Story has maintained a following. Sadly, it still has not quite been recognised for its place in television history. Well before 24 and Lost, Crime Story featured serialised storylines. And well before many other shows, Crime Story featured a cinematic style. Although many don't remember it, this is one show that shouldn't be forgotten.

Sunday, 15 July 2007

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (the movie)

It is often the case with movie franchises that as they go along the quality of the movies deteriorate. The Harry Potter franchise seems to be an exception to the rule. In my opinion, at least, each movie has been better than the last one. I have to say that I can't even say that about the books.

I must say that I had my doubts as to how good Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix would be. Quite simply, I didn't know if David Yates was capable of handling a big budget feature with a good deal of special effects. After all, Yates had previously directed a few shorts, TV movies, episodes of TV series, and one feature film (The Tichborne Claimant), not exactly the resume of a director one would expect to direct a big budget summer blockbuster. That having been said, David Yates has accomplished something that only a few directors have seemed capable of doing this summer. He has not only directed a big budget, special effects laden movie in a well established franchise, he has done it well.

Oh, the movie does leave a great deal of the book out, something about which I imagine many sticklers will complain. Even so, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix captures the spirit of the novel perfectly. Like the book, the movie is very dark. Harry, Ron, and Hermione are all three growing up, and the challenges they face are darker and deadlier than ever. Yates has given the film a good pace. It neither unfolds too swiftly, nor does it drag for long periods of time. Like Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire before it, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is very, very British, as any Harry Potter movie should be. The movie also benefits from what could be the best climax of any Harry Potter film.

As usual, the performances are as good as ever. This is to be expected, as Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Alan Rickman, and Michael Gambon have been playing their roles so long they must know them inside and out. That having been said, Gary Oldman delivers a stellar performance in his third outing as Sirius Black. Newcomers Evanna Lynch, as the rather strange Luna Lovegood, and Imelda Stauton, as Ministry official and teacher from Hell Dolores Umbridge, both capture their characters perfectly. James and Oliver Phelps deliver some much needed comic relief as the Weasley twins in what is otherwise a fairly dark film. Although she appears only briefly in this film, Helena Bonham Carter plays Sirius Black's cousin Bellatrix Lestrange with convincing madness.

Over all Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is a bright spot in a summer movie season that has only had a few. And it is good to see that the Harry Potter franchise is continuing on the right course. Too many franchises seem to have stumbled of late.