Saturday, July 15, 2006

Underrated Movies

I must admit that this week I had some concerns about A Shroud of Thoughts becoming The Death Blog, given the number of celebrities who died (June Allyson, Syd Barrett, Barnard Hughes, and Red Buttons). I must also admit that today is the anniversary of an encounter four years ago which would change both my life and myself forever. Given that the encounter did not ultimatley lead to what I longed for, today is somewhat bittersweet for me.

I then thought that today I would address a happy topic, namely movies that I consider to be underrated. These are films that either did not do well at the box office, were not well received by critics, or both. Regardless, these are films that many of my friends and myself (who I believe have fairly good tastes in movies) have always appreciated. So without further ado, here is a short list of movies I think have been underrated.

Rock & Rule (1983): This animated feature from Canadian company Nelvana was barely released in 1983. It only made around $8000 before disappearing to the netherworld of American premium cable channels and the Canadian Broadcasting Company. Fortunately, those who caught it on television in the Eighties and saw Rock & Rule at various art houses over the years, remembered it. And Rock & Rule is worth remembering. It is an animated, musical fantasy set in an apocalyptic future, which also happens to feature some of the best work by Cheap Trick and Blondie (including a duet between Cheap Trick's Robin Zander and Blondie's Deborah Harry). The cult following Rock & Rule drew over the years permitted it a DVD release. I can only hope that this gives it the large and appreciative audience it so rightly deserves.

The Name of the Rose (1986): This film, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, was based on the inernational bestseller by Umberto Eco of the same name. Like the novel, it centres on a noncomformitst, Franciscan monk and his apprentice who investigate a series of mysterious deaths in a remote abbey. When The Name of the Rose was first released, it received some very negative reviews from critics on both sides of the Atlantic. And while it did well in Europe, it bombed at the box office here in the United States. Regardless, The Name of the Rose is a truly good movie. Like the novel, it combines such diverse genres as mystery, thrillers, and medieval period pieces in a plot that explores the variety of religious belief in Europe of the Middle Ages. While not as challenging as the novel (which also explores the importance of books, language, philosophy, and other subjects in 600 pages), it is a challenging movie nonetheless. I rather suspect that this is the reason that many critics initally gave the movie poor reviews--they just did not know what to make of the film. And while The Name of the Rose did not do well in its first run in the United States, it has since become a cult film with a fairly large following. Fortunately, there are many who realise just how good the film is.

The Perfect Storm (2000): Directed by Wolfgang Petersen, The Perfect Storm was based on a true story. In October 1991 the fishing vessel Andrea Gail set sail on its final voyage from Gloucester, Massachusetts. Little did the men of the Andrea Gail know that they were sailing into what would come to be called "the Perfect Storm" or "the Halloween Storm," a Western Atlantic storm more intese than any before or since. Based on the book by Sebastian Junger, The Perfect Storm sometimes got the facts wrong, but it made up for it with a tale of bravery in the face of danger. The Perfect Storm is no mere disaster movie, owing more to such tales of man versus nature as London and Hemingway once wrote. Sadly, while it did well at the box office, it received only lukewarm reviews from critics and was overlooked at the Oscars.

Down With Love (2003): Down With Love received fairly good reviews. Unfotunately, released in July 2003, it did not fare well at the box office against that summer's blockbusters. I find this sad, as Down With Love is a truly unique movie. It is a 21st century homage to the sort of sex comedies that Rock Hudson and Doris Day once made. As such it captures both the era and the spirit of those films quite well. Indeed, if it was not for a few 21st century innuendos that are a bit too much on the head, one could almost convince himself or herself that it was made in 1963. And while many recent romantic comedies seem to have been made for women alone, like the Rock Hudson and Doris Day movies, Down With a Love is a movie both sexes can enjoy. In fact, it is one of the most romantic movies of recent years (Ewan McGregor's speech at the end is priceless). While it did not do well on its initial release, Down With Love has fortunately earned the cult following it deserves.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004): Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow has a place in film history as the first movie to place live actors in a computer generated world. This in itself is remarkable, especially considering Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow features some truly amazing visuals. Sadly, it recieved mixed reviews (some critics, such as Roger Ebert, loved it, others did not) and bombed at the box office. What so many missed is that it was not only a technological wonder, but a damn good movie. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is deft blend of influences from those Thirties flyboy comic strips (think Smilin' Jack), pulp magazines, the Fleischer Superman cartoons, Golden Age comic books, and Thirties screwball comedies. Out of these diverse elements came a truly original story with some great action sequences and some great exchanges between leads leads Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law. I rather suspect that if it is not already a cult film,, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow will become one rather soon.

I have always found it hard to understand why these films either failed at the box office, failed to receive critical acclaim, or both. In some instances I think it could have been because audiences and critics and sometimes both did not quite no what to make of them. Rock & Rule, The Name of the Rose, and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow are what I call genre melange--works which combine various genres together. Sometimes audiences (and often critics as well) are charmed by genre melange, as in the case of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. In other cases, such as many of the films here, I think the audiences and critics were just confused. In the case of Down With Love, I think it was a film in a genre which many viewers hadn't seen in a while and others had not seen at all. As a result, many probably did not know quite what to make of it. Regardless, I think all of these films deserve more acclaim than they have gotten.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Red Buttons R. I. P.

Comic Red Buttons died yesterday at age 87 from vascular disease. He had been ill for quite a while. Buttons was best known as a comedian, but received an Oscar for his dramatic turn in the movie Sayonara.

Red Buttons was born Aaron Chwatt in Manhattan on February 5, 1919. He would receive his stage name at age 16 while working as a bellhop at Ryan's Tavern in New York City. With his bright red hair and bellhop uniform, the orchestra leader there, Charles "Dinty" Moore, took to calling him "Red Buttons." It was that year that Buttons got his big break, performing in the Catskills with Robert Alda (who would also later become a successful actor, as well as Alan Alda's father). In 1939 Buttons performed in the Minsky brothers' notorious burlesque. This lead to Jose Ferrer casting him in the Broadway play The Admiral Had a Wife in 1941. Unfortunately, the play never made it to the stage. Set in Pearl Harbour, it was feared that the play might be considered offensive after the December 8th attack the Japanese made on the place.

Buttons was not off Broadway for long, however, as in 1942 he was cast in the play Vickie. He would later appear in the 1943 Broadway show Winged Victory. That same year he would make his movie debut in the film adaptation of Winged Victory, playing the same role. Draughted into the Army Air Corps in 1943, Buttons' career was interrupted by World War II.

Following World War II, Buttons resumed his career. He played a role in the Broadway play Barefoot Boy with Cheek. He also appeared in an uncredited role in the movie 13 Rue Madeline. The following year he appeared on Broadway in Hold It.

Despite his appearances on Broadway and on film, however, Buttons' greatest success would be on television. He made his debut in the medium on an epsiode of Suspense in 1951. The following year he received his own variety show, The Red Buttons Show. The series ran from 1952 to 1955 and was a huge success. Both the catchprase "Strange things are happening" and "The Ho-Ho Song (of which the previously mentioned phrase was part of the lyrics) would enter the pop culture jargon of the day. Buttons continued to appear on television for the rest of his career, making guest appearances on such varied shows as The Dinah Shore Show, Playhouse 90, Death Valley Days,Ben Casey, Rosanne, and Family Law. He would have another series of his own in 1966 with the short lived spy parody The Double Life of Henry Phyfe. He would later be a recurring charcter on ER. It would be his last appearance on either the small or big screen.

While Buttons had a successful TV career, he continued to appear in many motion pictures. As mentioned above, he won an Oscar for his role in 1957's Sayonara. He also appeared in the movies The Longest Day, One, Two, Three, Hatari!, They Shoot Horses, Don't They, and It Could Happen to You. He appeared on Broadway one more time in 1995 at the age of 76 in the one man show Buttons on Broadway.

Buttons also received a Golden Globe for his role in Sayonara. He was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Goldenn Globe his roles in Harlow and They Shoot Horses, Don't They. He was also nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Emmy for his role in ER.

There can be no doubt that Red Buttons was one of the most talented and versatile comics of the 20th century. His "Ho-Ho Song" may largely be forgotten now, but its influence can be seen in the novelty song (which has a cult following to this day) "They're Coming to Take Me Away" by Napoleon XIV (the lyrics of the two are remarkably similar). Many of the characters he played in skits in his show, such as the Sad Sack and Keeglefarven (a clumbsy, none too bright German) are remembered to this day. As mentioned above, Buttons was versatile. While he was a gifted comedian, he could just as easily play serious, dramatic roles. As an actor he was at home playing serious roles such as Airman Joe Kelly in Sayonara or more comedic roles such as Peanuts in Movie Movie. It is truly sad that he has passed on.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Barnard Hughes Passes On

Award winning actor of stage of television, Barnard Hughes, died Tuesday at the age of 90 following a brief illness. He was best known for playing curmudgeons and irasicble grandfathers.

Hughes was born in Bedford Hills, New York on July 16, 1915. He attended Manhattan College in New York City. Eventually he would become part of the Shakespeare Fellowship Repertory company in New York City. He made his debut on Broadway in Herself Mrs. Patrick Crowley. He would go onto appear in more than 400 roles on stage. On Broadway he would appear in such plays as The Ivy Green (1949), Advise and Consent (1960), Hamlet (1964), Much Ado About Nothing (1973), Da (1978), The Iceman Maketh (1985), and Waiting in the Wings (1999). Off Broadway he appeared in Uncle Vanya, A Doll's House, and Translations. He won a Tony Award in 1978 for his role in Da.

Starting in 1954 with an appearance on Kraft Television Theatre, Hughes began his long television career. He would make guest apperances on such shows as The United States Steel Hour, Way Out (a short lived series based on the short stories of Roald Dahl), The Defenders, Route 66, Cannon, All in the Family, and The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd. He was a regular or semi-regular on the shows The Guiding Light, Dark Shadows, The Secret Storm, and Blossom. He played lead roles in the series Doc, Mr. Merlin, and The Cavanaughs. Among his most notable television roles was that of Bob Newhart's father on The Bob Newhart Show. In 1978 he received an Emmy for a guest appearance on Lou Grant.

Hughes also appeared in films, beginning with a bit part in Playgirl in 1954. He would appear in such films as Midnight Cowboy, Cold Turkey, Maxie, and The Fantasticks. He had featured roles in Tron, The Lost Boys, and Doc Hollywood, and a starring role in Da, based on the play of the same name.

I always liked Barnard Hughes. In fact, I remeber him from the short lived Seventies sitcom Doc. He played Dr. Joe Bogert on the series, a curmudgeonly old doctor. I thought the series was very good in its first season. Sadly, they changed the format in the second season (only Hughes remained of the original cast), which effectively ruined the series. Regardless, Hughes's perfomance was still worth watching. It was his gift that even in lesser vehicles, Hughes would give stellar performances. Whether he was playing in a Shakespeare play like Hamlet or a genre movie like The Lost Boys, Hughes always gave the parts he played his all. I am then very saddened at this death.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Death of a Mad Genius--Syd Barrett

Syd Barrett died at age 60 many days ago from complicatons associated with diabetes. In 1965 Barrett co-founded the band Pink Floyd with Nick Mason, Roger Waters, and Richard Wright. Barrett was the band's guitarist in its early days. He also wrote much of the band's material.

Barrett was Roger Keith Barrett born in Cambridge on January 6, 1946 to pathologist Arthur Barrett and his wife Winifred. He attended the Cambridge County School for Boys (now called Hills Road Sixth Form College). His nickname "Syd" was taken from a local drummer named "Sid Barrett." Barrett changed the spelling, but took the nickname as his own.

In 1965 Pink Floyd was founded as "The Tea Set." It eventually became "the Pink Floyd Sound (the name possibly deriving from two blues singers from Piedmont--Pink Anderson and Floyd Council), later shortened to "Pink Floyd." They began with covers of American rhythm and blues before plunging into psychedelia. Establishing their own sound, they became one of the most successful bands in London.

This led to the single "Arnold Layne," which made the British top 20 despite being banned by the BBC. The sucess of the single led to a recording contract with EMI . Two follow up singles ("See Emily Play" and "Apples and Oranges") were released, as well as the classic album Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Barrett not only wrote "Arnold Layne" and "See Emily Play," but also eight out of the eleven songs on the album. As a guitarist, Barrett ventured where only a few at the time (such as Jimi Hendrix) dared to go. He experimented with distorition, feedback, and dissonance. He was one of the earliest artists to use an echo machine (a device with which musicians could produce an artifical echo).

Piper at the Gates of Dawn proved to be very successful. It reached #6 on the British charts. It did not do nearly as well in America, reaching only #131 on the Billboard album charts, although it did establish a cult following for Pink Floyd in the Untied States. To this day it still makes lists of the greatest rock albums of all time. Sadly, with the band's success came a deterioration in Barrett's mental state. His behaviour became increasingly erratic. Eventually David Gilmour (like the rest of the band, he was from Cambridge) was hired as a second guitarist to cover for Barrett. In January 1968 Gilmour officially replaced Barrett as guitarist and leader of Pink Floyd. Barrett did contribute "Jugband Blues" to their second album, A Saucerful of Secrets, but his participation in Pink Floyd was effectively over.

Barrett attempted a solo career, releasing two albums (The Madcap Laughs and Barrett in 1970). Unfortunately, his mental state effectively prevented him from furthering his musical career. He appeared on the BBC radio show Top Gear in 1970 and gave his only live solo concert at the the Olympia Exhibition Hall in London that same year. In 1972 Barrett formed the band Stars, but left not long after tthe group was formed. He made a failed attempt to record another album in 1974. This marked the end of Barrett's music career. Barrett retired to Cambridge where he lived out his life with his mother. He spent his time painting and working on his garden.

A compliation of Barrett's work would, Opel, would be released in 1988. His work would also be featured on several compilatons of Pink Floyd material.

The precise nature of Barrett's mental illness has always been a bit of a mystery. It is uncertain that whether he was schizophrenic or suffered from some other mental disorder. Earlier this year David Gilmour theorised that Barrett would have probably suffered a nervous breakdown even if he had not used such psychodelic drugs as LSD, but that the drugs probably accelerated his decline.

Despite his short career, Barrett would prove to have a lasting influence on rock music. David Bowie has admitted that Syd Barrett was a big influence on his work. Indeed, he even covered "See Emily Play" on his 1973 album Pin Ups. In addition, Barrett's work has been covered by Placebo, R.E.M., The Smashing Pumpkins, and Soundgarden. Marc Bolan (of T. Rex), The Jesus and Mary Chain, Pearl Jam, and Voivod have all cited Barrett as an influence. Barrett's various techniques, such as free form playing, distortion, and the use of the echo machine would prove to have a lasting influence on rock music in the Seventies and Eighties, not only upon pscyedelia but upon punk and post-punk as well. Among perhaps Barrett's most lasting influence was the impact he would have on his own band, Pink Floyd. Pink Floyd recorded the album Wish You Were Here (1975) as a tribute to their former leader. It must also be pointed out that mental illness recurs as a theme in Pink Floyd's music, partiuclarly in their two greatest albums Dark Side of the Moon (1973) and The Wall (1979).

Despite his madness, I think there is little doubt that Syd Barrett was a genius. His songs, particularly "See Emily Play," "Dark Globe," and "Astronomy Domine," remain listenable to this day. There are those who even believe Pink Floyd was at its best as their front man, surpassing even such later successes as Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall. While I am not sure I would go that far (there are very few albums that can best Dark Side of the Moon, in my opinion), I will say that Barrett's work with Pink Floyd is among the band's best and Piper at the Gates of Dawn still numbers among their greatest albums. It is sad that Barrett's mental illness prevented him from having more of a music career. It is sadder still that his death now prevents him from making further music. Barrett is as much of a legend in rock music as he was a man, but he was also one of the few men in the genre who deserved to be a legend.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

June Allyson R.I.P.

June Allyson died Saturday at the age of 88 of complications from acute bronchitis and pulmonary respiratory failure. She was the wholesome star who often played the role of wives in movies.

Allyson was born in the Bronx as Ella Geisman. She was raised by her mother, her parents having divorced when she was very young. At age 8 she had an accident that would leave her in a steel brace for several years. She took up swimming and dancing as therapy. This would lead to her career in entertainment. She started entering dance contests upon graduating high school. In 1937 she appeared in her first film role, in Ups and Downs, a musical short. She would appear in several more musical shorts throughout 1937 and 1938. In 1938 she played a role in the chorus on Broadway in Sing Out the News. She would appear on Broadway in specialty parts in several more musicals until 1940. She played the role of Minerva in the Broadway musical Best Foot Forward in 1941. This led to her being cast in the same in role in the 1943 film (starring Lucille Ball) based on the play. In 1944, with Two Girls and a Sailor, Allyson became a leading lady.

Allyson played in several more musicals, including Two Sisters from Boston and Good News. She also played straight comedic roles and dramatic roles, in such films as The Sailor Takes a Wife, The Three Musketeers, and the 1947 version of Little Women. Eventually she would play the wife in several movies, such as The Stratton Story and Strategic Air Command. In nearly all of her films Allyson played the non-threatening, optimistic, sweet natured girl next door (Jo in Little Women was typical of her roles). Only once did she play an unsympathetic role, as Jose Ferrer's sadistic wife in The Shrike. Audiences couldn't accept her in the role and the movie bombed.

In the late Fifties, Allyson increasingly appeared less in film and more on television. She made appearances on such shows as Zane Grey Theatre, The Dick Powell Show (she was married to Powell for many years), Burke's Law, The Name of the Game, The Sixth Sense, and Hart to Hart. She was spokesman for Depends adult undergarments for many years in the Nineties. She had her own series, The June Allyson Show, from 1959 to 1960. In 1970 she returned to Broadway in the play Forty Carats as the replacement for Julie Harris in the role of Ann Stanley.

It has often been said that in the Forties, while men might desire Rita Hayworth, it was June Allyson that they would want to take home to their mothers. I'm not so sure of that, as I suspect that they would rather take Betty Grable home to mother (Grable was both wholesome and sexy), but Allyson was certainly a taltented performer. She was a good singer and a fair dancer, good enough that she could turn in enjoyable performances in her musicals. In comedies and dramas she was perfect for the role of the wholesome, sweet natured girl next door. It was almost as if she was born to play the role of tomboy Jo in Little Women. If Allyson wasn't the typical movie star, she was a movie star nonetheless.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

I think it is safe to say that sequels do not have a good reputation. This is for good reason. Usually sequels never match the original movies they follow. Indeed, a lot of times they are far, far worse (just think of Jaws II). Fortunately, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest is not one of those sequels.

I cannot say that Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest is better than Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of he Black Pearl, but it is nearly as good. Like the first Pirates of the Caribbean, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest blends historical piracy with tidbits of pirate folklore and mythology, while at the same time creating its own mythology. Gore Verbinski's direction is as solid as it was on the first movie. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest delivers what one wants from a good pirate movie: astounding swordfights, ship to ship battles, colourful characters, and daring escapes. There is even a good deal of comedy thrown in for good measure. I cannot say that there is any sequence that tops the raid that Barbossa's crew made upon Port Royal in the first movie, but there are a few that come close. The first few minutes are particularly impressive.

Of course, like the first movie, much of the film's quality is due to the performance of Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow. A lot of actors would be tempted to camp it up in a sequel, but Depp doesn't. While Sparrow is still flamboyant, Depp still knows when to rein Sparrow in and be more reserved. Keira Knightley also does a good job as reprising her role as Elizabeth Swann. Indeed, her performance is even more impressive than the one she gave in the first movie. Knightley not only plays the independent, strong willed love interest, but gets to do some fighting in this one as well. Of the leads, only Orlando Bloom seems a bit stiff, but then that seems to he the personality of Will Turner (he was a bit stiff and reserved in the first film as well). Naomie Harris is impressive as the witch woman Tia Dalma.

I do have to warn anyone going to see Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. It does end in a cliffhanger, and one that is a surprise to boot. Most of the audience I saw it with did not seem to mind, but then I realise that there are those who (for whatever strange reason) don't care much for cliffhangers.

Anyhow, I would recommend Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest to anyone who loved the first movie, loves pirate movies, or just loves any well done movie that is just plain fun.