Saturday, January 12, 2008

No Country for Old Men

If you haven't yet seen it, I have to warn you. No Country for Old Men is not quite like any movie you've ever seen. I can even go a step further and say that it will probably be unlike any movie you're likely to see in the future. Directed by the Coen Brothers and based on the book by Cormac McCarthy, its plot is very much that of a crime drama. It starts simply enough with Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbling upon the bloody results of a drug deal gone awry. This sets into motion a series of events in which the body count mounts quite steadily. Despite this, No Country for Old Men seems to owe more to the ethos of the Western than that of film noir. It isn't simply that the viewer is treated to scenes of the dry, rugged, southwestern Texas landscape, nor is it the fact that many of the characters wear cowboy hats and cowboy boots. Instead, it is that many of the characters could have come straight from a Western. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is the weary lawman, bemoaning the state of the world and waiting for his retirement. Llewellyn Moss is the no account loafer, trying to get by with doing as little honest work as possible. Even homicidal psychopath Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) lives by his own code, twisted though it may be. No Country for Old Men isn't so much a crime drama as it is a Western in the clothing of a crime drama.

This is perhaps fitting, as No Country for Old Men is very much in the mould of such films as The Wild Bunch and Tom Horn. Just as those films dealt with the dying of the Old West, so too does No Country for Old Men deal with a period of transition (the film is set in 1980). Ed Tom Bell is all too aware he is living in changing times, and he doesn't think those times are changing for the better. He reads an absolutely horrifying story in the newspaper, taking it as a sign things are getting worse. He and the sheriff from El Paso (Rodger Boyce) discuss how Texas has changed. Ed Tom Bell observes, "It starts when you begin to overlook bad manners. Anytime you quit hearin' 'sir' and 'ma'am' the end is pretty much in sight." No Country for Old Man is as much a tale of the changing West as any Western before it.

The theme of changing times mirrors another dominant theme in the film, that of the conflict between chance, free will, and fate. As in many of the Coen Brothers' films, most of the characters are simultaneously captains of their fate and victims of their own circumstances. It is often the case in the film that a character makes a decision, only to have circumstances intervene so that he is led in a completely different direction than he had decided upon. And often times it is unclear whether an individual's choice is truly his choice, or simply the whims of fate. Ultimately, in the world of No Country for Old Men, we are not so much dust in the wind as we are fish fighting against an increasingly stronger tide.

These themes are not simply examined through the words and actions of the characters. They are reinforced through the direction and editing of the Coen Brothers and the photography of Roger Deakins. Even the film's soundtrack, or relative lack of one, fits in perfectly with the film's themes. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that the majority of the film features no music whatsoever. And when it does, Carter Burwell's scoring is wonderfully subdued. No Country for Old Men is one of those few films where everything works well together, with nothing out of place.

Indeed, the movie features some of the best performances of any film released in 2007. Tommy Lee Jones is perfect as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. Bell is a character often given to uttering bits of wisdom and personal philosophy, and yet he does so without ever seeming overly pithy or pretentious. Josh Brolin also does well as Llewellyn Moss, a none too bright man caught in circumstances of his own making, yet very much beyond his control. Ultimately, however, the best performance belongs to Javiar Bardem. Bardem's Chigurh rarely speaks, but the very way he moves would be enough to frighten anyone. What makes Chigurh even more frightening is that Bardem's performance is wonderfully understated; Chigurh is no hysterical madman by any means.

Ultimately, I cannot say that this is the Coen Brothers' masterpiece. They have made so many great films that stating such would not be an easy thing to do. That having been said, it certainly numbers among their best. This is a film which takes for granted that its viewers have some intelligence. More importantly, this is a film in which everything works together to reinforce its central themes. Part Western, part crime drama, it's a combination that for No Country for Old Men works very well.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Imagineer Joyce Carlson R.I.P.

Joyce Carlson, ink artist on several Walt Disney shorts and feature films and one of the creators of the "It's a Small World" amusement ride, died on January 2 at the age of 84. The cause was cancer.

Carlson was born on March 16, 1923 in Racine, Wisconsin. She was a teenager when her family moved to California in 1938. After graduating from Santa Monica High School, Carlson took a job at Walt Disney, delivering mail, brushes, pencils, pens, and other supplies to the artists. It was six weeks later that Carlson became part of the Ink and Paint department, nicknamed the "nunnery" because the majority of women in the department were women. Initially she worked on training films the studio produced for the Army. She would go onto not only ink shorts for the studio, but feature films as well. She inked The Three Caballeros, Cinderella, Peter Pan, and Sleeping Beauty. She was the lead ink artist on Lady and the Tramp.

It was in 1960 that Walt Disney started replacing inkers with Xerox copying. Carlson then moved to WED Enterprises, later called Walt Disney Imagineering, the portion of the company in charge of developing attractions for the theme parks, which also developed Disney attractions for the 1964 New York World's Fair. Carlson worked on the Carousel of Progress (later an attraction at the theme parks) for the World Fair. Alongside Mary Blair and Marc Davis, she helped develop"It's a Small World" for the 1964 New York World's Fair. She also worked on developing "It's a Small World" at each of the Disney amusement parks. Among the other attractions Carlson worked on were the Jungle Cruise," "America Sings," "Pirates of the Caribbean" (inking), and "Haunted Mansion (inking)." Over the years she trained many of the Imagineers who work on the rides at Disney theme parks. Carlson was the first woman at Disney to have worked for the company for 50 years. She was also the first woman to ever work at WED Enterprises. In total, she worked for the company for 62 years.

For her work for the company Carlson was declared a "Disney Legend," the equivalent of a Hall of Fame at the company. There can be absolutely no doubt that she deserved it. Carlson inked some of Disney's best features, and was pivotal in developing rides for the company's theme parks. As a Disney Legend she received her own shop window on Main Street at Disney World. In a second storey window, right above the Emporium, a window is inscribed with "Dolls by Miss Joyce, Dollmaker for the World," As an inker and Imagineer who worked on many of Disney's best known rides, there could perhaps be no better tribute.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

James Costigan Passes On

Emmy winning television writer Jack Costigan passed on December 19. His exact age was unknown, but he was thought to be in his seventies or eighties.

James Costigan was born in the Los Angeles area. As a child he appeared in small parts in movies. As an adult he would move to New York where he would have small parts in plays and later on television. On television he played small roles on such shows as Kraft Television Theatre and The Web. He began his career writing for television a 1952 adaptation of Captain-General of the Armies for Studio One. Over the years he would writer for such anthology shows as Kraft Television Theatre, The United States Steel Hour, Hallmark Hall of Fame, and General Electric Theatre. He won an Emmy in 1959 for “Little Moon of Alban,” an original episode of Hallmark Hall of Fame.

In the Sixties, with anthology shows in decline, Costigan turned to writing for Broadway. He adapted his teleplay Little Moon of Alban” for the stage in 1960. He would write two more plays, The Beast in Me and Baby Want a Kiss.

In the Seventies, Costigan returned to television, writing prestige TV movies. His teleplay for Love Among the Ruins, which featured Katherine Hepburn who hires an ex-lover (Laurence Olivier) to defend her in a breech of promise case, won Costigan the 1975 Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Special Program - Drama or Comedy--Original Teleplay. He won another Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Special Program - Drama or Comedy - Original Teleplay in 1976 for Eleanor and Franklin.

Costigan would eventually turn to writing screenplays for movies in the Eighties. He wrote the screenplays for The Hunger, King David, and Mr. North.

While James Costigan was not prolific in his output when compared to other television writers, he was also one of the very best. His works almost always received good reviews and Costigan himself was recognised by the Writers Guild of America with the Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award for his achievement in TV writing in 1979. He may not have written as many teleplays as other television writers, but he wrote among the best.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Bill Idelson R.I.P.

Bill Idelson, the television actor, writer, and producer perhaps best known for playing Sally's boyfriend Herman Glimscher on The Dick Van Dyke Show, died December 31 at the age of 88.

Idelson was born in Forest Park, Illinois on August 21, 1919. His acting career began when in 1931, when he was only twelve years old, playing Skeezix in Uncle Walt and Skeezix, a radio show based on the Gasoline Alley comic strip. It was only a year later that he was cast as Rush, the adopted son of Vic on the radio show Vic and Sade. Idelson remained with Vic and Sade until World War II, when he joined the Navy, in which he served as a fighter pilot. Following the war he studied at the Actor's Lab and continued appearing in radio shows, including the long running soap opera One Man's Family.

With the old radio shows losing their audience to television, it was inevitable that Idelson would have a television career. His first TV appearance was as Bill Abbot on the TV show Mixed Doubles in 1949. Throughout the Fifties he appeared on such shows as Dragnet, Peter Gunn, and Leave It to Beaver. The Sixties would see Idelson appear on The Twilight Zone, Thriller, The Virginian, and My Favourite Martian. It was also during this decade that he was cast in his most famous role, that of Sally's boyfriend, Herman Glimscher, on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Still very attached to his mother, Herman even brought her along on a few of their dates! Idleson would also make guest appearances on such shows as The Odd Couple, Happy Days, and Will and Grace. Perhaps fittingly, among his last jobs was playing Herman Glimshcer once more on The Dick Van Dyke Show Revisited, the reunion special airing in 2004. As it turns out, Sally and Herman did finally marry!

Bill Idelson broke into writing for television with the episode "Long Distance Call" for The Twilight Zone. He would go on to write several episodes for The Andy Griffith Show, as well as episodes for Get Smart, Bewitched, The Odd Couple, The Bob Newhart Show, and M*A*S*H. He was a producer on both the TV series Anna and the King and The Bob Newhart Show.

Idelson wrote four books: Bill Idelson's Writing Class, Gibby, The Story of Vic and Sade, and Writing for Dough.

Although most people probably don't recognise his name, Bill Idelson was one of the most talented actors and writers to work in television. His role of Herman Glimscher on The Dick Van Dyke Show. While many actors would have played Herman very broadly, Idelson played him very subtly. One could just look at Herman Glimscher and tell he was a loser. As to Idelson's writing credits, he wrote some of the best episodes of The Andy Griffith Show, among other sitcoms. In fact, he won the Writers Guild Awards for best episodic comedy twice--once for an episode of The Andy Griffith Show and once for an episode Get Smart. Bill Idelson may not have been the most famous name in television, but he is one that should be remembered.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Golden Globes Cancelled

By now I am sure that all of you have heard about the latest causality of the writers' Strike. NBC and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association have announced that the usual ceremony will be replaced by a news conference because the Screen Actors Guild had announced its intention of not crossing the Writers Guild of America's picket lines. Sunday they issued this statement:

"We are all very disappointed that our traditional awards ceremony will not take place this year and that millions of viewers worldwide will be deprived of seeing many of their favourite stars celebrating 2007's outstanding achievements in motion pictures and television. We take some comfort, however, in knowing that this year's Golden Globe Award recipients will be announced on the date originally scheduled."

I have to admit that I am a bit disappointed that the Golden Globes ceremony was cancelled. I have always enjoyed watching the Golden Globes, seeing who wins and who loses. Here I must state that while I enjoy watching the ceremony, I have never particularly held the Golden Globes in high esteem. Ultimately, it seems to me that The Hollywood Foreign Press Association only numbers about 80 to 90 people in all, and they are not a part of the industry in the way that, say, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is.

Indeed,the announcement they issued about the Golden Globes ceremony being replaced by a press conference makes me respect the Golden Globe awards even less. Maybe I am reading to much into it, but it seems to me that in between the lines they are vilifying the writers for being on strike and causing the Golden Globes ceremony to be scrapped. Personally, I think the demands of the Writers Guild of America outweigh the Golden Globes ceremony in matter of importance. The writers are simply asking for 2.5% of any profits the industry makes on sales of digital media, and a bigger slice of the profits from DVD sales. Given that writers make only 4 cents out of every DVD and VHS tape sold and, insofar as I know, nothing on sales of digital media, I wholeheartedly support the WGA's decision to strike. To me all they are asking for is their fair share.

Of course, the cancellation of the Golden Globes ceremony has had a huge impact on Hollywood. According to Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation, in an AP story, the Golden Globe Awards bring $70-$80 million to Los Angeles' economy. The Golden Globe awards means money for Los Angeles in the form of hotel bookings, limousine services, catering, and so on. And because NBC will have exclusive access for coverage of the Golden Globes news conference, other media outlets will miss out on the revenue that covering the Golden Globes brings. In some respects, the cancellation of the Golden Globe awards ceremony is the biggest impact the writers' strike has had so far.

I do feel sorry for those actors who were invited to the Golden Globes ceremony for the first time, people like Casey Affleck, Nikki Blonsky, and Amy Ryan. While I don't set much store by the Golden Globes, I do realise that, for whatever reason, the awards are respected in Hollywood, and that it being invited to the awards is considered an honour for any actor. While I have no pity for the Hollywood Foreign Press Association or NBC, I do feel sorry for those actors for whom this would have been their first major awards ceremony.

The Golden Globes ceremony having been cancelled, the big question remaining is what is in store for the Academy Awards. In a Los Angeles Times story, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences executive director Bruce Davis was optimistic about being able to hold a traditional Oscars ceremony. Essentially, the Academy believes that they will be able to work out an agreement with the WGA so that the Academy Awards ceremony can unfold as usual. Right now I don't know how it will go for the Oscars. The Academy Awards are held in high esteem throughout the industry, including the industry's unions. It is then possible that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Writers Guild can work out some sort of agreement. That having been said, the WGA is on strike against ABC, who broadcast the Oscars ceremony. As respected as the Oscars are and as much as the writers might value them, I don't know that the WGA will issue waivers so that its members can work on the awards show. Let's face it, by not working on the Oscars, the WGA would be sending a message to the industry of just how important their demands are.

In the end I have to admit that I would be disappointed if the Academy is unable to hold a traditional Academy Awards ceremony. That having been said, to me the writers' demands for their fair share of profits outweighs any awards ceremony in importance, even the Oscars. In the end I would rather see the screenwriters get what they rightfully deserve rather see a traditional awards telecast of either the Golden Globes or the Oscars.

Monday, January 7, 2008

George MacDonald Fraser R. I. P.

George MacDonald Fraser OBE, best known as the author of the Flashman novels, passed on January 2, 2008 at the age of 82 from cancer.

Fraser was born on April 2, 1925 in Carlisle, England. As a boy he read a good deal, including Captain Blood by Rafael Sabitini and Tom Brown's School Days by Thomas Hughes (the latter would be very significant in Fraser's career). He attended Carlisle Grammar School and Glasgow Academy. During World War II Fraser joined the Army and served in the Border regiment in Burma. Towards the end of the war Fraser was given a commission and served in the Gordon Highlanders in the Middle East. Following the war, Fraser entered the field of journalism as a reporter for the Carlisle Journal. After marrying his wife Kathleen, Fraser emigrated to Canada where he worked on the Regina Leader-Post in Saskatchewan. After one year in Canada he returned to the United Kingdom. In 1953 he became a sub-editor at the Glasgow Herald. He would eventually become the newspaper's features editor for a time and then its deputy editor.

By the late Sixties George MacDonald Fraser had grown weary of journalism. He decided to "write his way out (his own words)" by writing a novel. It was at that time he remembered Flashman, a character from Tom Brown's School Days who bullied Tom Brown. Flashman was eventually expelled from school for drunkenness. Fraser decided to write a novel which would chronicle what happened to Harry Paget Flashman following his expulsion from Rugby School. It took Fraser two years to sell Flashman, collecting an inordinate number of rejection slips before it was accepted by Barrie and Jenkins, the same publishing house who published the works of P. G. Wodehouse. Flashman proved to be a success and ultimately there would be 12 Flashman novels published. In fact, the first novel was so convincing that many reviewers at the time thought Flashman was a historical figure!

The series success perhaps lay in that while the series had all the adventure and excitement of Rafael Sabitini's novels, it skewered Victorian sensibilities. Brigadier-General Sir Harry Paget Flashman VC KCB KCIE was a far cry from such heroes as Captain Blood and The Three Musketeers. He was a lovable rogue who fled from battle (even though he was a fair combatant), betrays friends, commits numerous adulteries, and even takes credit for feats of bravery not his own. Despite being a total cad, at the end of each novel Flashman inevitably walks away with medals for his valour and praise for his deeds of bravery.

Fraser also wrote other novels besides those chronicling the life of Henry Paget Flashman. His 1983 novel The Pyrates is a deliberate send up of both pirate novels and pirate films. His novel Black Ajax was a fictionalised account of Tom Molineaux, an African American prizefighter in England in the 19th century. His latest novel, The Reavers, is set in Elizabethan England and deals with a Spanish plot to overthrow the British throne.

Fraser not only wrote historical fiction, but he also wrote nonfiction works on history as well. The Steel Bonnets dealt with the Border Reivers of the English/Scottish border in the Middle Ages. The Hollywood History of the World: From One Million Years B.C. to Apocalypse Now examined the way history has been dealt with in film. Quartered Safe Out Here was Fraser's memoir of his service in World War II.

George MacDonald Fraser also worked in motion pictures. For director Richard Lester he wrote or co-wrote the screenplays for The Three Musketeers, The Four Musketeers, an adaptation of his own Royal Flash (the second Flashman novel), and The Return of the Musketeers. He also wrote or co-wrote the screenplays for The Prince and the Pauper, Octopussy, and Red Sonja (perhaps the low point of his career).

George MacDonald Fraser created one of the most memorable characters in 20th century literature. Even if he had done nothing more than create Flashman, Fraser would be remembered. Fraser did a good deal more than that, writing history books that were very accessible and memoirs that give a rifleman's view of World War II. In 1999 he was awarded the Order of the British Empire. Unlike the awards heaped on his character Flashman, this award was well deserved.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Some Power Pop Videos

Having written that epic, four part history of power pop, I am not really much in the mood for writing tonight. I then thought I would simply treat you to a video trip through power pop history, from the Sixties to the Naughts.

"All Day and All of the Night" by The Kinks

This is a clip of The Kinks performing on the ABC TV Show Shindig, which aired on January 20, 1965. This was only a few weeks before The Kinks' historic appearance on NBC's Hullabaloo on February 16, 1965. Their appearance on Hullabaloo resulted in a dispute between and the American Federation of Television and Recording Artists, who managed to get The Kinks banned from performing in the United States until 1969.

"I Can Hear the Grass Grow" by The Move

I am not sure where this clip originated. What I can tell you is that "I Can Hear the Grass Grow" was one of their most popular songs. It went to #5 on the British singles chart. It has been covered by Status Quo, Jellyfish, and The Fall.

"Open My Eyes"--Nazz

Yes, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan weren't the only artists to make videos in the Sixties, although in those days they were generally called "promotional films" or "promotional clips." "Open My Eyes" received a good deal of airplay in the Eighties on VH1 and on MTV Closet Classics (back when MTV actually showed videos...).

"Go All the Way" by The Raspberries

I don't know if this was a promotional clip made for "Go All the Way" or if it is a clip from American Bandstand or some similar show. At any rate, I feel as if I have to apologise on behalf of The Raspberries for the fashions--it was the Seventies...

"Dream Police" by Cheap Trick

This is the video for the song "Dream Police." The first time I ever saw it was on the short lived NBC TV show Pink Lady and Jeff. For those of you who don't remember the show, it was a variety show teaming Pink Lady, a Japanese singing duo barely able to speak English, with comedian Jeff Altman. It is now counted as one of the worst shows of all time. The only redeeming thing about Pink Lady and Jeff was that in those days before MTV it was one of the few places one could see music videos. In addition to "Dream Police," they also showed "Clones" by Alice Cooper and "Shayla" by Blondie.

"All Messed Up And Ready To Go" by The Records

The Records were the British power pop band of the late Seventies and early Eighties. Looking back, it is rather surprising that their success in the States was so limited, as their sound would appear to have been very accessible for American audiences. Sadly, I am not sure where this clip originated.

"Fly High Michelle" by Enuff Z'Nuff

This is the video for "Fly High Michelle" by Enuff Z'Nuff. Notice the contrast between Enuff Z'Nuff's Big Star/Cheap Trick style song and their Poison/Slaughter wardrobe...

"The Ghost at Number One" by Jellyfish

"Baby's Coming Back" may have done better on the charts (it actually cracked the Billboard Hot 100 chart, peaking at #61), but "The Ghost at Number One" seems to be their most popular song. At any rate, not only do I think it was their best song, but I also think it was one of the best power pop tunes to come out of the Nineties.

"Pumping on Your Stereo" by Supergrass

Supergrass is my favourite group from the Britpop movement of the Nineties. "Pumping on Your Stereo" is one of my favourite songs (I swear it shows influences from every major British Invasion band there was, from The Rolling Stones to The Who) and I love the video, especially the beginning (a tip of the hat to the cover of With The Beatles).

"Hide Another Mistake" by The 88

The 88 is one of my favourites among the current crop of power pop bands. And I love "Hid Another Mistake." I also like the video, which as a wonderfully retro Eighties feel. That having been said, I don't know what women in Eighties era aerobics garb really have to do with the song....

I hope all of you have enjoyed this video trip through power pop history!