Friday, March 28, 2008

Hammer Returns with "Beyond the Rave"

Once the name in horror movies, Hammer Films had been dormant since the Eighties when they produced the TV series Hammer House of Mystery & Suspense. This would change come the Naughts. Hammer would establish itself on the World Wide Web and even maintains a presence on Bebo, Facebook, and MySpace. The studio, which has existed in some form since 1934, In May 2007 Dutch consortium Cyrte Investments (headed by Big Brother creator John De Mol) acquired Hammer Films and its catalogue of nearly 300 films. Hammer had previously been purchased in 2000 by a group which included ad man Charles Saatchi. This time around, however, it appears that the studio's new owners actually mean to make films.

Indeed, it was in September 2007 that the news broke that Hammer Films was making its first horror movie in 31 years (the last one being To the Devil a Daughter in 1976). In some respects Beyond the Rave has a lot in common with previous Hammer Films: beautiful women (Nora-Jane Noone, Sadie Frost), vampires, an English setting, and even an appearance by Ingrid Pitt. In other respects, it looks like it will be unlike anything produced by Hammer before. The movie is set in contemporary England, in which a soldier, about to leave for Iraq, searches for his girl friend after she attended a mysterious rave. What really sets Beyond the Rave apart from previous Hammer Film productions, however, is its means of distribution. It will be released in 20 parts on MySpaceTV beginning on April 17. Eventually it will be released on DVD.

Beyond the Rave is directed by Matthias Hoene (known for his commercials and music videos) and written by Tom Grass (who worked on the serial When Evil Calls). Its special effects are being handled by Tristan Versluis, who provided effects for Hot Fuzz and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Those who want to see the teaser trailer can go MySpaceVideos here.

I must confess that in some respects it looks more to me like something Hammer's rival Tigon might have done in their best years, but I must also confess I am still looking forward to it.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Richard Widmark R.I.P.

Richard Widmark, the actor who starred in movies ranging from Kiss of Death to To the Devil a Daughter, passed Monday at the age of 93. He broken a vertebra a few months ago and his health had declined considerably.

Richard Widmark was born on December 26, 1914 in Sunrise, Minnesota. He grew up in Princeton, Illinois. Widmark fell in love with motion pictures when he was only three years old, although he really wasn't interested in acting a child. He attended Lake Forest College, where he studied acting. He spent two years following his graduation teaching acting at the college before going to New York City in 1938. He soon found himself cast in the radio show Aunt Jenny’s Real Life Stories. As a radio actor Widmark found himself very much in demand, appearing in such shows as Big Sister, Life Can Be Beautiful, Joyce Jordan, M.D., Stella Dallas, and Inner Sanctum. He starred in the radio show Front Page Farrell and provided narration for Gangbusters.

Because of a puncture eardrum Richard Widmark could not serve during World War II. He made his debut on Broadway in 1943 in the play Kiss and Tell. He would go on to appear in the plays Get Away Old Man (1943), Trio (1944), Kiss Them For Me (1945), and Dunnigan's Daughter (1945). It was in 1947 that Widmark made his screen debut in Kiss of Death. His role as grinning, laughing psychopath Tommy Udo turned him into an instant star and earned him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. To this day Tommy Udo is regarded as one of the great screen villains of all time. He was signed to a seven year contract at Fox, where he made such movies as Yellow Sky, Road House, Night and the City, Panic in the Streets, and Pickup on South Street. Even in his early days as a movie actor Widmark defied typecasting. He played the villainous bandit Dude in the Western Yellow Sky, but also played the selfless physician Lt. Commander Reed in Panic in the Streets.

After his contract with Fox had ended, Widmark formed his own production company, and produced three films: Time Limit (1957), The Secret Ways (1961), and The Bedford Incident (1964). His career also continued unabated, as Widmark played in a diverse number of film genres, including Westerns (The Last Wagon, The Law and Jake Wade, Warlock, The Alamo, and Cheyenne Autumn), action/adventure (Run for the Sun, Flight from Ashiya), comedy (Tunnel of Love), film noir (The Trap). Prize of Gold), and drama (Judgement at Nuremberg). He continued to act throughout the Seventies and Eighties, his last film being True Colours released in 1991.

Widmark only appeared a few times on television. His 1968 detective drama Madigan was one of the rotating elements of the NBC Mystery Movie during its 1972-1973 season. He also appeared in the television movies The Last Day, Mr. Horn, and A Whale for the Killing, among others.

Quite simply, Richard Widmark was one of the greatest movie actors of all time. Throughout a career that nearly spanned five decades, he resisted being typecast. The reason for this was that Widmark could play a wide range of roles and be utterly convincing in all of them. He wholly believable as the psychopathic Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death, yet he was also believable as the heroic pilot Will Slattery in Slattery's Hurricane. He could play everything from the vilest mobsters to the noblest doctors. Widmark was also a private man who was very sensitive to the feeling of others. Playing the racist Ray Biddle in No Way Out, he apologised after every scene to Sidney Potier, even though Potier knew Widmark was simply playing a role in a movie! Widmark never appeared on talk shows, regarding himself as an ordinary guy rather than a celebrity. Indeed, Widmark was married to the same woman, writer Jean Hazelwood, for almost fifty five years until her death in 1997. In the end it can truly be said that Widmark was not only a great actor, but a stand up guy.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Neil Aspinall, The Beatles' Road Manager, Passes On

Another chapter in The Beatles saga has come to an end. Neil Aspinall, who served The Beatles first as their road manager and later managing Apple Corps for them, passed on Sunday night at the age of 66. The cause was lung cancer.

Neil Aspinall was born in Prestatyn, North Wales on October 13, 1941. His mother had evacuated Liverpool because of German air raids on the city (his father was in the Royal Navy at the time). His mother and he returned to Liverpool when Aspinall was a baby and the threat of the blitz had subsided. He attended West Derby School and the Liverpool Institute for Boys, where one of his classmates was Paul McCartney. He later met George Harrison at the Institute as well.

Aspinall had been working as an accountant trainee at a firm in Liverpool when Pete Best (then the drummer for The Beatles) asked him to serve as the band's part time road manager. In the early days his service as road manager for the band consisted of charging each member five shillings to transport them and their equipment in an old Commer van. By the time The Beatles had returned from Hamburg the group was making enough money that Aspinall could afford to quit his job as an accountant and become their road manager full time. There was only one time that afterwards that Aspinall would nearly leave The Beatles. Close friends with Pete Best, he was very angry when Best was fired as the band's drummer. Fortunately, Best assured Aspinall that he must remain with the band, while Lennon and McCartney were able to smooth things over with him.

Eventually Aspinall's duties would go far beyond that of a road manager, as at times he acted as a personal assistant to The Beatles. Along with Mal Evans, Aspinall wold check the band's gear for concerts, arrange meals and accommodations, and even decided which groupies were worthy to meet The Beatles. When George Harrison was sick with the flu, it was Neil Aspinall who stood in for him in rehearsals for the band's historic appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. It was Neil Aspinall who sought out the many photographs of celebrities The Beatles wanted for the cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. He even participated, albeit rarely, in Beatles recordings. He sang in the chorus on the song "Yellow Submarine." He played harmonica on "Being for The Benefit of Mr Kite" and tamboura on "Within You Without You." The character of Norm the road manager in the movie A Hard Day's Night was based loosely on Neil Aspinall.

Following death of Brian Epstein, the group's manager, it was Neil Aspinall who took over management of Apple Corps. So valued to The Beatles was Aspinall that when music entrepreneur Allan Klein was brought in to straighten out their finances, John Lennon told him "Don’t touch Neil and Mal, they’re ours (Mal being Mal Evans). Aspinall would see The Beatles' empire through the break up of the band, numerous lawsuits, and several important projects. Among those projects were the two disc set of The Beatles performances on BBC Radio (Live at the BBC), Yellow Submarine Songtrack (an album including every song in the movie), the Cirque du Soleil show Love, and his crowning achievement, The Beatles Anthology. The The Beatles Anthology ultimately became a six hour miniseries (the home video version being nearly 13 hours) and accompanying recording.

Neil Aspinall not only produced The Beatles Anthology, but also Let It Be and Hendrix: Band of Gypsys.

Loyal to The Beatles to the end, Aspinall joked that he ever did write his memoirs, they would only be published after he died. It appears, however, that Neil Aspinall took whatever secrets he had about The Beatles to the grave, as he seems to have written no memoirs.

Neil Aspinall was perhaps the individual closest to The Beatles, closer than even Brian Epstein or George Martin. His association with them lasted decades, from the beginning until last year when he finally stepped down from Apple Corps. So valued was Aspinall to The Beatles that in 1988, when The Beatles were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, George Harrison stated that Neil Aspinall should be considered the fifth Beatle. As a man who oversaw The Beatles' empire and who was their trusted friend for decades, it is very sad that he had to die all too soon.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Warner Brothers Cartoon Quiz

As regular readers of this blog probably already know, Beth of the lovely voice laid down a challenge for me at the first of the year. The challenge was simply this: I must create and post one pop culture quiz a month in A Shroud of Thoughts. The quizzes can have a single theme or simply be a collection of random things. At the end of 2008, the reader who has accumulated the most points throughout the year will win a pop culture related prize. For those of you curious about the prize, I decided that it will be a pop culture related key chain of the winner's choice, to cost no more than $5.00 (minus sales tax). The price limit is for the simple fact that I can't afford platinum plated key chains... I'll provide the answers around the end of the month.

Yesterday was the day Christians observe Easter, which brings to mind bunnies, which brings to mind Bugs Bunny, which brings to mind Warner Brothers cartoons. The theme of this month's quiz in then Warner Brothers cartoons....

1. In what year was the first Looney Tunes cartoon released?

2. What is the title of the theme song to the Warner Brothers cartoons (bonus points for the year it became such)?

3. In what year did Porky Pig make his first appearance?

4. What legendary animator created the original Daffy Duck?

5. What is considered the first official Bugs Bunny cartoon?

6. In what cartoon did Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny parody Wagner?

7. In what cartoon did Marvin the Martian first appear?

8. What is Chuck Jones's full name?

9. In what year did Warner Brothers first shut down their animation unit?

10. What famous sports figure co-starred with the Warner Brothers cartoon characters in the movie Space Jam?