Saturday, June 7, 2008

Kung Fu Panda

I have loved martial arts movies since I was a kid, back in the days when the TV series Kung Fu was still on the air and Bruce Lee was still alive. I have loved animated movies since I was a kid, too. For that reason it was a safe bet I would to see Kung Fu Panda.

Fortunately, Kung Fu Panda did not prove to be a disappointment. Kung Fu Panda focuses on Po, a panda and the son of a noodle cook in ancient China who nonetheless wants to be a kung fu hero. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately, as the case may be). Po soon finds himself chosen as the Dragon Warrior, the chosen hero who must defend the valley against the rogue kung fu fighter Tai Lung.

Although Kung Fu Panda is a comedy and an animated movie, it plays out very much like a traditional kung fu movie. In fact, rather than being a parody of the genre, I would instead say that it is a comedy in the genre, not unlike those made by Jackie Chan (who provides the voice of Monkey of the Furious Five). In fact, I must point out that the role of ordinary bloke suddenly forced into the role of hero is a recurring theme in Jackie Chan's movies. That is not the only cliche of the kung fu genre included in the film, as Kung Fu Panda includes more cliches that could be found in any number of Shaw Brothers or Golden Harvest films. What is more, almost all of the kung fu moves featured in the film are authentic, albeit modified slightly for the various animal characters. Even the Dreamworks logo at the beginning is remniscent of both the Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest logos! Kung Fu Panda is hardly a parody of martial arts films. Instead, it is very much a homage.

Beyond being a well written, loving homage to the kung fu movies of old, Kung Fu Panda benefits from one of the best voice casts of any animated movie. Jack Black is suitably cast as Po, the lazy, overweight panda who soon finds himself out of his element. The Furious Five, the five champions of the valley, are also well cast, with Jackie Chan as Monkey, David Cross as Crane, Angelina Jolie as Tigress, Lucy Liu as Viper, and Seth Rogen as Mantis (my favourite of Five). Beyond Black, however, the best performances may belong to the masters of the monastery and the villain of the piece. Randall Duk Kim gives a solid performance as Oogway, the ancient turtle who is the head master of the monastery and invented kung fu. Dustin Hoffman does well as Shifu, the master of the Furious Five and Po's master. In fact, sadly, I think this may be one of Hoffman's best performances in years. Last, but hardly not least, Ian McShane does a great job as Tai Lung, the traitorous kung fu warrior bent on the destruction of both the monastery and the valley. McShane simply seems to have been born to play villains.

Of course, what also makes Kung Fu Panda so enjoyable is its top of the line animation. Dreamworks is in top form with this film. Between the excellent realisation of the characters on screen and the vocal performances, it is sometimes easy to forget that these animated, talking animals are not real. The film also features some truly great action scenes. Many of the battles and, in particular, an extended sequence involving Tai Lung (you'll know it when you see it) are simply astounding.

The plot of Kung Fu Panda will be familiar to anyone who has watched more than his or her fair share of martial arts movies. While this might seem like a flaw, it hardly detracts from the movie. Kung Fu Panda more than makes up for this with a well written story, great vocal performances, fantastic animation, some exceptional action scenes, and plenty of very funny comedy that involves everything from visual references to the kung fu movies of old to outright slapstick. This is simply one fun movie.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Mel Ferrer R.I.P.

Actor and director Mel Ferrer died June 2, 2008 at the age of 90. He was known for such films as Scaramouche, Lili, and Wait Until Dark.

Mel Ferrer was born Melchor Ferrer in Elberon, New Jersey on August 25, 1917. He attended the Boveé School in New York and Canterbury Prep School in Connecticut. He then attended Princeton University for two years, before he left school to pursue acting full time.

Ferrer began acting as a teenager, starting out in summer stock. After dropping out of Princeton to pursue acting full time, he also wrote the children's book Tito's Hats and was an editor for a newspaper in Vermont. Ferrer first appeared on the Broadway stage as a dancer in the chorus, but it would not be long before he occupied the stage. His first part of any significance on Broadway was in the revival of The Kind Lady in 1940. That same year he played a small role as a reporter in the play Cue for Passion. Ferrer's acting career was interrupted when he contracted polio. During this period he worked as a disc jockey for a small radio station and later wrote, directed, and produced radio shows for NBC.

It was in 1945 that Ferrer directed his first feature film, The Girl of the Limberlost. He also returned to the Broadway stage, in the play Strange Fruit. While his dream was to direct motion pictures, Ferrer found himself acting more than anything else. He appeared in the revival of Cyrano de Bergerac on Broadway from late 1946 to early 1947. In 1948 he made his film debut as an actor in the movie The Fugitive. In 1949 he was cast as the male lead in a film for the first time in Lost Boundaries. In 1950 he was able to direct two more films, Vendetta and The Secret Fury. The Fifties were a particularly fruitful time for Ferrer's acting career. He appeared in some of his best known films, among them Rancho Notorious, Scaramouche, Knights of the Round Table, Lili, War and Peace, and The Sun Also Rises. In 1959 he directed Green Mansions, and The World, the Flesh, and the Devil. During the Fifties, Ferrer appeared one last time in Broadway--in the play Ondine.

Mel Ferrer's career would falter in the Sixties, as he spent more and more time in Europe. He continued to appear in some notable films, including Et Mourir de Plaisir (Blood and Roses), Les Mains D'Orlac (also knowns The Hands of the Strangler and The Hands of Orlac), The Longest Day, and Sex and the Single Girl. He entered film production, producing the films Wait Until Dark, and The Night Visitor. The Seventies saw Ferrer appear in such films as A Time For Loving, W, and Brannigan. Increasingly, he was appearing in low budget, exploitation fare, such as Eaten Alive and Nightmare City (AKA City of the Walking Dead.

The remainder of Ferrer's career was spent largely in television. He had appeared in television in the Fifties on the special Christmas with the Stars in 1953, Producer's Showcase in 1957, and Zane Grey Theatre in 1959. Starting in the Seventies, he guest starred on such shows as Hawaii Five-O, Wonder Woman, The Return of the Saint, Dallas, and Murder She Wrote. He was a regular on the shows Black Beauty, Falcon Crest, and Wild Jack. He appeared in the mini-series Peter the Great and the telefilm Catherine the Great.

Mel Ferrer was certainly a talented actor who was also very versatile. He was as convincing in the lead role in Scaramouche, playing a young man who trains in the sword so he can duel the master swordsman who wronged him, as he was in the film Lili, the carnival's handicapped puppeteer. He could be a great leading man or a great villain. He could fit into a Hollywood swashbuckler as easily as he could a low budget horror movie. Few actors were quite as versatile.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Yet Another Star Trek Veteran Passes On

Robert H. Justman, associate producer on Star Trek for much of its run and co-producer for the rest of it, passed May 28 at the age of 81 from complications from Parkinson's Disease.

Justman was born in Brooklyn on July 13, 1926. his father, successful in the produce business, decided to move the family to Los Angeles and enter show business by buying a studio. After serving in the Navy during World War II, Justman attended UCLA. His career in show business began in 1950 as a production assistant. As such he was a part of such films as Joe Palooka in the Squared Circle, Red Planet Mars, and Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kid. By 1952 he had become an assistant director, working on the shows The Doctor, I Married Joan, The Life of Riley, Letter to Loretta, and The Adventures of Superman. He also worked as an assistant director on such films as Man Crazy, Kiss Me Deadly, Affair in Havana, and Mutiny on the Bounty.

It was on The Adventures of Superman that Justman first worked as an associate producer. He would not produce another show until Star Trek in 1966. Justman became linked to the show when he was hired by Herb Solow, Desilu's executive in charge of production on the show, in 1964 as an assistant director for its pilot episode "The Cage." When "The Cage" was rejected by network executives as "too cerebral," Justman was brought in as both assistant director and associate producer on the second pilot, "Where No Man Has Gone Before." He remained associate producer for the show's first two seasons and became a co-producer in its third season. In fact, in some respects Justman was a bit of a jack of all trades on Star Trek. It was also a technical consultant on visual effects on the show, in addition to having been assistant director on both pilots.

Justman was a co-producer on the cult series Then Came Bronson for its single season in 1969, and a producer on the short lived series Search and The Man From Atlantis. He would be a supervising producer on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Among his many contributions to that show was fighting for Patrick Stewart cast as Captain Jean-Luc Picard. Gene Roddenberry did not like the idea, but Justman convinced him Stewart was the right choice.

Justman had served on both the Board of Directors of the Directors Guild of America and the Producers Guild of America. With Herb Solow, he co-wrote the book Inside Star Trek: The Real Story, perhaps the definitive book on the original show.

Even had he not worked on Star Trek, Justman would still be worth remembering. He worked on several classic shows, including The Adventures of Superman andThe Outer Limites. Then Came Bronson, Search, and The Man From Atlantis may not be household names today, but I have very fond memories of them from my childhood. Of course, it is Star Trek for which he will be remembered, which is perhaps fitting given his impact on the show. He was with the series before it even aired and there when it was cancelled. As an associate producer Justman was involved with everything from props to sets to scripts to casting. He was certainly among the people who made that show a classic and perhaps the most famous American science fiction series of all time.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

A Shroud of Thoughts 4th Anniversary

As hard as it is to believe, it was four years ago today that the first entry of A Shroud of Thoughts was published. Through it all, I've managed at least three posts a week. That having been said, I won't guarantee that every one of those posts were good...

For those of you wondering where the title of the blog comes from, I took it from Lord Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage canto iii stanza 113, which is quoted below:

I have not loved the world, nor the world me;
I have not flattered its rank breath, nor bow'd
To its idolatries a patient knee,
Nor coin'd my cheek to smiles, nor cried aloud
In worship of an echo; in the crowd
They could not deem me one of such; I stood
Among them, but not of them; in a shroud
Of thoughts which were not their thoughts, and still could,
Had I not filed my mind, which thus itself subdued.

As to the nom de plume I have always used on this blog, it is the Middle English form of Mercury (it can be seen in Chaucer's works, and it survived into Early Modern English to be seen in Shakespeare as well).

As is my custom on the blog's anniversary, I have compiled a list of what I consider to be the best posts of the past year, the "Greatest Hits," if you will. They follow below:

The Week of June 17, 2007 (contains the three part "TV Show Revivals")

The Week of June 24, 2007 (contains the three part article "Defining Generation X")

The Week of July 1, 2007 (contains the two part article "Advertising Mascots")

Total Television (TTV) (July 12, 2007)

There No Need to Fear...Underdog is Here (August 6, 2007)

Week of August 12, 2007 (contains the four part article "African Americans in Comic Books")

Cinema Killed the Radio Star: How Elvis Presley's Movies Nearly Ended His Career (August 22, 2007)

Superman's Pal, the Smut Monger (August 29, 2007)

The Family Sitcom Cycle from 1968-1972 (September 9, 2007)

When Spinoffs are More Successful than the Original Seires (September 26, 2007)

Plagiarism--the Sincerest Form of Flattery (October 7, 2007)

The Horror Movies of Val Lewton (October 20, 2007)

Vincent Price (October 28, 2007)

Mutt and Jeff Turn 100 (November 15, 2007)

The Week of November 18, 2007 (includes the articles " Tomorrow is Thanksgiving...Who Needs Pilgrims." "Boris Karloff's 120th Birthday," and "Black Friday")

The Ghosts of Christmas Past (December 10, 2007)

"Don't Shoot Me Santa Claus": Bizarre Christmas Songs (December 16, 2007)

The Rankin/Bass Christmas Specials (December 22, 2007)

The Week of Yule (contains the articles "Father Christmas," "Santa Claus," and " When TV Cartoons Become Live-Action Movies...")

The Week of December 20, 2007 (contains the four part article "A History of Power Pop")

The Week of January 13, 2008 (contains the two part article " Aurora: the Company That Monsters Built...And Destroyed")

The Credits Squeeze (January 26,2008)

The Week of February 17, 2008 (contains the two part article "Southern Pulp)

Doc Savage Turns 75 (March 1, 2008)

"White Rabbit" by Jefferson Airplane (March 2, 2008)

Home is Where the Heart Is....Even on Television (March 17, 2008)

The Dark Side of the Office (April 2, 2008)

You’ll Never Find Someone Like Her: an Interview with Karen Stever (April 7,2008)

Cats on Film (May 3, 2008)

Winnie the Pooh (May 10, 2008)

Recreating New York (May 23, 2008)

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Originator, Bo Diddley, Passes On

Bo Diddley, known as "The Originator," one of the foremost pioneers of rock 'n' roll, passed at the age of 79. The cause was heart failure.

Bo Diddley was born in Ellas Otha Bates in McComb, Mississippi on December 20, 1928. He was raised by his mother's first cousin, Gussie McDaniel. Following her husband's death, McDaniel and the family moved to Chicago, where McDaniel became Ellas's legal guardian and his last name was changed to McDaniel. Ellas was taught classical violin from age 7 to 15. At age 12 he took up the guitar. Ellas enrolled at Foster Vocational School, but later dropped out. While he was there he built a guitar, a violin, and an upright bass. He left school to perform with friend, washtub bassist Roosevelt Jackson. They were later joined by guitarist, Jody Williams, and a harmonica player, Billy Boy Arnold.

Originally called The Hipsters and later The Langley Avenue Jive Cats, they played at the open air market on Maxwell Street. Ellas supplemented his living with various jobs and even tried to become a professional boxer. It was in 1954 that the band made a demo record which attracted the attention of Chess Records. Signed the a contract, the band then looked for stage name for Ellas McDaniel. It was Billy Boy Arnold who came up with the name "Bo Diddley," which he said in the biography Bo Diddley: Living Legend by George White described "a bow legged guy, a comical looking guy." The name could also have been a reference to the diddley bow, a homemade, stringed instrument used in the Mississippi Delta where Ellas was born.

"Bo Diddley" would also be the title of the band's first single, released on Chess's subsidiary Checker. It went all the way to #2 on the Billboard singles charts in 1955. Bo Diddley would have three more hits in 1955 alone. Naturally success meant Diddley was in demand and, in 1955, he appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. Sullivan wanted Diddley to perform "Sixteen Tons," the song made popular by Tennessee Ernie Ford. Diddley went ahead and performed "Bo Diddley" instead. Backstage Sullivan told Diddley that he would never work in television again. In fact, it would be over ten years before he did appear on TV again. His fight with Sullivan hardly hurt his career. Bo Diddley continued to have a string of hits, including the standard "Who Do You Love," that continued into the early Sixties.

Unfortunately, Diddley's success was not to last. as rock 'n' roll changed over time. In an effort to create new hits, Chess tried to use Diddley to capitalise on the Twist craze with the album Bo Diddley is a Twister in 1962 and the surf pop sounds of The Beach Boys with the album Bo Diddley's Beach Party in 1963. As Diddley's success declined here, he toured the United Kingdom with The Everly Brothers in 1963. His sales increased dramatically in Europe and Britain. Sadly, this was not the case in the United States. The British Invasion, led by The Beatles, arrived in 1964, Diddley's heyday was over. Although he continued to record until 1996, he would never have another hit.

Diddley did continue to perform. In 1972 he played a concert with The Grateful Dead at the Academy of Music in New York City. In 1974 he appeared at the Monterey Jazz Festival. In 1979 he opened for The Clash. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.

The influence of Bo Diddley is probably impossible to calculate. His signature, "Bo Diddley" beat, also called "shave and haircut (three strokes/rest/two strokes)," became one of the basic rhythms of rock 'n' roll. The rhythm influenced artists from Buddy Holly to The Who to U2. Diddley would be influential in other ways as well. His guitar work often involved distortion and frequent use of tremolo. His stage performances, in which he jumped, wielded his guitar as if it was a weapon, and shook, influenced performers from Elvis to Hendrix. Diddley even pioneered the use of odd looking guitars. He used a square guitar, the original which he built himself from a square body of his own design and the electronics from a Gretsch guitar. In 1958 he had Gretsch build him a better model, which they named "Big B." Although he was not making hits for long, Diddley was certainly influential, and certainly deserved his title of "The Originator."

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Two Veterans from Star Trek Pass On

Two men who worked on the original Star Trek, one who composed the series' famous theme and the other who directed several of the best loved episodes of the show, recently passed.

Alexander Courage, who composed the theme song to Star Trek and incidental music for a few episodes of the show, died on May 15, 2008. He was 88 years old.

Courage was born on December 10, 1919 in Philadelphia. His family moved to New Jersey while he was still very young. He learned to play the piano when he was only five years old. He later took up the French horn and cornet. In 1941 he graduated with a bachelor's degree from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. In 1942 he enlisted in the Army Air Corps, where he served as a band leader.

Following World War II Courage found a job with CBS Radio. He composed music for show ranging from Broadway is My Beat to This Is Hollywood to The Adventures of Sam Spade, Detective. In 1948 he found a job as an orchestrator and arranger for MGM. Among the films upon which he worked were Annie Get Your Gun, Singin' in the Rain, The Band Wagon, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Guys and Dolls, Funny Face, and My Fair Lady.

His first work on television was on the series M Squad, which aired from 1957 to 1960. He would also work on the TV shows Riverboat, National Velvet, and Bus Stop. It was in 1966 that Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry asked Courage to compose the theme for the show. Roddenberry's only request was that he wanted no "space music," and instructed him not to use electronics. Courage would also write incidental music for the show. He went onto write the theme for Judd for the Defence, as well as incidental music for The Waltons, Land of the Giants, and Medical Center, among other shows. He continued to work as an orchestrator and arranger in movies, working on such films as Fiddler on the Roof, Legend, Hook, and L.A. Confidential.

Alexander was a co-founder of the Composers and Lyricists Guild of America. He was also an accomplished photographer whose pictures had appeared in Life, among other magazines.

In writing the Star Trek theme, Alexander Courage wrote one of the most recognisable themes in the history of television. There are those who argue that the theme's four note fanfare at the beginning are second only to those of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony when it comes to music. While he may not have been prolific when it came to writing TV theme songs (his theme for Judd for the Defence was the only other one he wrote), he will certainly be remembered.

Joseph Pevney, who directed many episodes of Star Trek and other shows, died May 18 at the age of 96.

Joseph Pevney was born in New York City on September 15, 1911. He entered show business while still young, performing on vaudeville as a boy soprano. He left vaudeville to become a stage actor. He made his debut on Broadway in a role in the play Battle Hymn in 1936. He would go into perform in such plays as The World We Make, Lily of the Valley, and Home of the Brave. In 1946 he directed the play Swan Song on Broadway. He served in the Army during World War II.

Pevney moved to Los Angeles in 1946, where he had a small acting career in film. He appeared in such films as Nocturne, The Thieves Highway, Body and Soul, and Shakedown. Shakedown would also mark Pevney's debut as a movie director. For the next many years he would direct several movies, among them Meet Danny Wilson, Tammy and the Bachelor, Man of a Thousand Faces, The Plunderers, and Cash McCall.

The TV series Johnny Staccato marked his debut as a television director, in 1959. He would go onto direct episodes of The New Breed, Ben Casey, Wagon Train, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and The Munsters. It was in 1967 that he directed the first of fourteen episodes he would direct for Star Trek. Among the episodes he directed were some of the best loved from the series: Amok Time, The City on the Edge of Forever, The Devil in the Dark, The Trouble with Tribbles, and Wolf in the Fold. He was tied with Marc Daniels for having directed the most episodes of Star Trek. Pevney would go onto direct episodes of Bonanza, The Virginian, Marcus Welby, Adam-12, The Rockford Files, and Trapper John M.D.. He retired in 1985.

Joseph Pevney was a prolific and talented director. From 1950 to 1966 he directed over 35 movies. The sheer number of hours of television he directed are staggering. In fact, he directed episodes of some of the most significant shows in the history of television, including The Fugitive, Mission Impossible, Bonanza, and Bewitched. The quality of his work can be seen in the episodes of Star Trek he directed. While many of his episodes benefited from good scripts, it is safe to say that they would not have been nearly as good were it not for Pevney's talent.