Friday, May 16, 2008

Actor John Phillip Law Passes On

John Phillip Law, who played Sinbad in the 1974 film The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and the blind angel in Roger Vadim's Barbarella, passed at the age of 70 on Tuesday.

Law was born in Los Angeles, California on September 7, 1937. to Deputy John Law of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and actress Phyllis Sallee. As a child John Phillip Law appeared as an extra in the films The Magnificent Yankee and Show Boat (1951). He attended the University of Hawaii where he decided to become an actor after taking drama classes there. After attending college, Law moved to New York City where he worked with Elia Kazan at the Lincoln Center Repertory Theatre. In 1964 he appeared in a bit part in the play Changeling on Broadway. In 1965 he appeared in another bit part in the play Tartuffe.

Law made his first credited screen appearance in the Italian film Smog in 1962. He would follow that up with appearances in two more foreign films (Tre notti d'amore and Alta infedelta before receiving his big break in the 1966 comedy The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming! In the film he played Alexei Kolchin, the Russian with whom an American teenager falls in love. Law played a major role in Otto Preminger's Hurry Sundown and the lead role in Mario Bava's Diabolik. It was in 1968 that he appeared as the blind angel Pygar in the movie Barbarella.

For the next several years Law was very much in demand, appearing in the films The Sergeant, The Red Baron (as Baron Von Richthofen himself), and The Love Machine. It was in 1974 that he appeared in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, for the film for which he is perhaps best known. Unfortunately, Law's career never again reached the pinnacle it had in the late Sixties and early Seventies. The rest of his career was spent in action-adventure films, often made on low budgets and often made in Italy. Among the more notable films in which Law appeared later in his career were The Cassandra Crossing, Tarzan the Ape Man, and Vic. He also appeared on television, guest starring on The Love Boat, Murder She Wrote, and It's a Living. In 1998 he did a run on the soap opera The Young and the Restless.

I have always thought of John Phillip Law as a talented actor whose career just never quite caught fire. His performances in The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming!, Barbarella, and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad were impressive. In some respects, I have to wonder that had he been born twenty to thirty years earlier he might not have been a bigger star. It seems to me that he was born to play the role of the heroic swashbuckler and that he would have been well suited for the sorts of roles played by Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power. Unfortunately, in the Sixties and Seventies, roles such as that were the exception rather than the rule. At any rate, it is sad to know that he is gone.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Recording Engineer Larry Levine Passes On

Larry Levine, the recording engineer who provided the technical expertise behind Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound," passed on Thursday, which was his 80th birthday. He had suffered from emphysema.

Levine was born on May 8, 1928 in New York. He served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. Following the war his cousin Steve Ross, who owned Gold Star Recording Studios in Hollywood, taught him how to be a recording engineer.

Levine first worked with Phil Spector on the song "He's a Rebel" by The Crystals. Together they would work on some of the most legendary songs in the history of rock 'n' roll, including "Be My Baby" by The Ronettes, "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" by The Righteous Brothers, and "Da Do Ron Ron" by The Crystals. Levine created the Wall of Sound by using an echo chamber to make music performed by several musicians sound even larger. It was not atypical for a recording session to involve three to four guitars, a brass section, multiple pianos, and, of course, vocals.

In addition to Phil Spector, Larry Levine also worked with The Beach Boys, The Carpenters, Dr. John, Eddie Cochran, Sonny and Cher, and Wings. He won a Grammy for Best Engineered Record for his work on the 1965 hit "A Taste of Honey" by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.

Larry Levine was one of the greatest recording engineers of all time. While it was Phil Spector who first envisioned the Wall of Sound, it was Larry Levine who had the knowledge to actually make it succeed. Both with and without Spector, the records that Levine engineered had a lush, full sound, a sense of dimension that many other records of the time could match. Levine was certainly an innovator in his field, and I doubt anyone will ever quite match him.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Here He Comes...Here Comes Speed Racer

Speed Racer debuted this weekend to some truly bad reviews and only made an estimated $20,210,000 at the box office. Neither is a particularly auspicious start for a motion picture. While I am a loss to explain why more people didn't see Speed Racer (I can only figured they went to see Iron Man again instead), I think I can explain why it received so many bad reviews. Critics were expecting an action movie about a race car driver. What they got was a live action cartoon. And that is the key to enjoying Speed Racer. Once you accept that it is essentially live action cartoon, you can simply sit back and enjoy the ride.

Indeed, the strongest point of Speed Racer may well be its amazing, over the top visuals. This is literally a live action cartoon that the Wachowski Brothers have directed. The colours are bright and flamboyant. The cars in the races do things that absolutely defy both the laws of physics and gravity--catapulting over each other, spinning through the air to land safely and continue on their way, driving up cliffs... It should then come as no surprise that the movie boasts 2,000 different special effects shots. With this many effects the Wachowski Brothers pull off what are some of the most amazing race scenes ever shot on film. Arguably, it is when Speed is behind the wheel that the film really comes alive.

The remarkable visual sense of this movie goes beyond its often incredible effects. Particularly when it comes to the Racer home (where Mom, Pop, Speed, little brother Spritle, Chim-Chim the Chimp, girlfriend Trixie, and mechanic Sparky all live), the movie looks in some respects like it could be set in early to mid-Sixties. If it is the early to mid-Sixties, however, it is the Sixties of this century, as there is technology that is advanced even by today's standards. Indeed, I am not sure what the cars run on, but it is obviously not petrol.

Speed Racer starts slow. And early in the movie the plot feels somewhat disjointed, as the Racer family past is revealed and the various subplots involving Royalton Industries and Racer X are put into place. Once the movie kicks into high gear, however, it never lets up. And viewers are not simply treated to some exciting race scenes, but a story of family versus corporate interests--a story all to relevant to our times.

In the end Speed Racer is more than a faithful adaptation of the classic anime series of the Sixties. It is itself essentially a live action cartoon: bright, colourful, loud, and ultimately a whole lot of fun.