Tuesday, March 31, 2009

MOVIES: #1 North To Alaska

I might have mentioned an affection for dark-haired beauties with French accents. It all started with 1960's North To Alaska, the 'northern' with John Wayne struggling against a conman, crooks and thieves, his own partners and trying hard NOT to fall in love with Capucine's character, Michelle aka Angel.

When I saw this on TV in the mid-sixties, I liked all of the movie, but especially the brunette model from France who became the love interest of many a BIG Hollywood name. William Holden, Peter Sellers and the producer of this movie, who installed Capucine in the only female role of consequence in the show. Charley Feldman was right to fire the original director (who protested the casting) and bring on Henry Hathaway to ride herd on some of the most intriguing acting talent Hollywood had at the time.

Wayne, of course, was the headliner, playing Sam McCord. Sam and his partner, George Pratt, played by Stewart Granger, hit a gold motherlode. It was enough for Sam to be sent off down the coast to fetch George's lady-love, Jenny, and some needed mining equipment. George stayed behind to guard the gold, along with his kid brother Billy, played by Fabian, crossing over from making teen girls swoon. Before setting off on the boat, Sam, ran into newly-arrived conman, Frankie Canon, played by Ernie Kovacs. It was one of the last movie roles Kovacs ever played. He died less than two years later. But the comedian-by-trade left an indelible mark with his crook-with-a-smile Frankie.

Sam had a problem in Seattle. George MIGHT have over-stated the relationship he had with Jenny just a little bit. She was now married with kids. Sam moped around a bit and then came up with a genuine brainstorm. He inveigled a prostitute to 'become' the future Mrs. Pratt, figuring George wouldn't know the difference, having been away for so long, and all. Michelle more or less jumped at the chance.

The trip back took a bit of time, including stopping at a logging camp where the locals knew Sam and made Michelle feel quite welcome. It's where we got the first concrete evidence the big lug and Michelle were meant for each other. Naturally, Sam wouldn't hear of it. He was bringing back George's girl. That was it.

The town they eventually come back to, was in complete chaos. Lawlessness had largely broken out under the guise of... well... paid-for jurisprudence. Frankie controlled the town and had his mitts on most of the gold in the area. George and Billy were holdouts, but even the Prat/McCord claim was under contest. And of course, we had gun-toting raiders trying to take what they had mined by force. Despite all of that, George had finished the cabin he and Jenny would be living in, a few feet from the other men's cabin. When Sam got back with his switched bride, George fought off some immediate disappointment, but then got behind the plan full-bore.

Fortunately, true love's path, which is about the same path as lay between the two cabins, eventually won out in the end. Frankie got involved (he knows Angel from before) to his own ultimate detriment and downfall. Sam clued in at the end and we had ourselves a happy ever after.

Trust me, there are a lot of laughs and some great stunts in this movie, enough to evoke The Three Stooges. Frankie is sort of a larcenous Dean Martin, smoking a stogey and grinning, while trying to steal everybody's eye teeth. George and Billy have their moments. And Capucine remains radiantly above it all throughout the movie. It's just about perfect entertainment, right through to the end when the great Johnny Horton lets loose with the title song over the closing credits.

I was in Los Angeles, staying in a hotel across from the UCLA Medical Centre, the night John Wayne died there. I was really quite touched by the special Jack Perkins ran that night. John Wayne wasn't a multi-talented actor. He played John Wayne in just about every movie he ever made. But he did it with an honesty and a wink, and that's all the audience ever really deserved. You knew what you were getting when you went to a John Wayne movie.

This was John Wayne as good as he ever was. Ernie Kovacs was brilliant and it's a tragedy it was to be one of his final performances. And then there was Capucine, the desirable, and troubled, beauty with the 'Frenchy' accent. She, too, had a tragic ending to her life, succeeding after many failures, to commit suicide.

Despite all of that, North To Alaska remains my favourite movie of the twentieth century.

Monday, March 30, 2009

MISC: Bonus

Bonus: Something given or paid in addition to what is usual or expected.

I have worked for close to four decades now, maybe a third of that time on full-time staff at some company. The rest of the time, various companies have been clients. In all that time, I have received bonuses THREE times. The first was a Christmas turkey while still in the employ of my original employers, The Bramalea Guardian weekly newspaper. The result later was that I didn't take a holiday for almost three years. The second was a cash bonus from some food brokers that were clients. I gave them free or low-cost service for much of the following decade before firing them as clients ... about two years later than I should. And the third was when a cheque arrived in the mail from Sri Nanda Lal Dutta, who wanted to reprint an article of mine from The Bridge World for the then upcoming Indian National Bridge Championships Souvenir Album. At least THAT act of generosity didn't result in me working like a madman after the fact.

To me, a bonus is unexpected, a tacit pat on the back that says, "Good job, keep it up." I have never expected a bonus, been grateful (to the point of ridiculousness) upon getting one and operate under the assumption that the last bonus I've seen WILL BE the LAST bonus I will ever see. See definition above.

Now, LOTS of companies hand out bonuses come year end as a matter of course. I know people who BUDGET in their bonus. That's bizarre to me. Especially the ones who budget in big amounts, REGARDLESS of whether the company is doing badly and splendidly. Near as I can tell, those things SHOULD have an effect on bonuses, even to the point of potentially NOT HAVING bonuses.

In my not so humble opinion, if the company loses money, bonuses shouldn't be paid. Even if one person does great and makes the company a heap of money, while the rest of the people piddle that profit away, I don't believe anybody should get a bonus. Give the person with the Midas touch a raise, but no bonuses.

Matt Taibbi, who might be the best magazine writer around these days (apologies to Maureen Dowd, who's fallen a tad), has taken on the AIG situation twice this month, once for Rolling Stone and once for AlterNet. Taibbi's language tends to be a bit raw, but he uses the profanity to make points. Both articles are excellent (read the Rolling Stone article first) and give just about the best analysis of the disaster that AIG has become, that I've read.

If, after reading the articles, you have the slightest iota of empathy for Jake DeSantis, maybe you shouldn't be reading this blog. Or more likely, you shouldn't be having somebody read this blog to you.

MOVIES: #2 Electric Dreams

Computer geek meets beautiful, intelligent classical musician. Love ensues. They live happily ever after. I tried to make that my life story. I failed. But I have a sort-of movie version to watch when memories overtake me. Electric Dreams from that most Orwellian of all years, 1984, is my second favourite movie of the twentieth century.

Nerdly Lenny von Dohlen decides to go computer shopping and brings home parts of a computer that are vaguely Apple AND Commodore AND Radio Shack-like, circa 25 years ago. He sets up the computer in the living room of his apartment and starts to design the perfect brick for buildings. A champagne spill interrupts the process and suddenly, von Dohlen's Miles has a new buddy, Edgar the sentient computer.

While Miles is away at work, Edgar starts learning things. At one point, he overhears Miles' new neighbour, Madeline, played with absolute perfection by then new-comer Virginia Madsen, practicing a piece with her cello. Edgar and Madeline then engage in playing Giorgio Moroder's The Duel, a reworking of what is commonly thought of as J.S. Bach's Minuet in G Major, although a quick search on Wikipedia introduces the possibility it was actually written by another composer, Petzold. Whatever the origin, Moroder turns the piece in a central part of the score to the movie and it's unforgettable for weeks after hearing it in the movie (several times).

Now, I have to admit that I can't tell you much about classical music today. I blew my chance when I had an accomplished violinist in front of me regularly. It's not that I don't appreciate classical music, it's just that the I rarely found pieces that lifted me. The Duel does that. Every time. Despite the memories it brings back. And technically, it really doesn't fall into the classical music category. It's electropop, as is most of the soundtrack to this movie.

And what a soundtrack! Moroder mixed in his own stuff with lots of Electric Light Orchestra and Culture Club. Phil Collins gets in there with his redo of the Supremes' You Can't Hurry Love. They even find a way to get Dale Evans into the ending with Happy Trails to You, minus the long-dead Roy Rogers, of course. And there's enough actual classical stuff to keep the more refined listener happy, albeit at a slightly faster pace than usual.

But enough about the music and onto the music-maker. While this wasn't Madsen's debut, she only had one other movie to her credit before this one. She plays a struggling cellist who has to contend with the band lech while striking up the charming little romance with Miles. Von Dohlen plays nerd for the whole movie, pop-bottle bottom glasses and all. Miles basically falls in love with Madeline on sight. Takes her a little while to come around, but come around she does. It's all very feel-good, until the unwitting cause of their blooming love butts in.

Edgar, still a nameless computer at that point, but one with Bud Cort's voice, becomes jealous of Madeline's relationship with Miles. For a brief period of time, the movie turns into a stalker movie of sorts, as Edgar interferes with the relationship, coming close to killing Miles and Madeline. Only when love is truly explained to Edgar does he voluntarily take a step back and allow the young lovers to move on without him (it?). All of San Francisco celebrates to the vibe of Together in Electric Dreams.

Now, I obviously have a connection of a personal sort to this movie. My heart leaps up my throat every time I watch the initial The Duel playing and see Madsen crinkle her nose in joy while playing her instrument. I remember that manifestation all too well when I saw Laura do it. But regardless if you always hated 80's music, this is a best-of collection wrapped around a beautiful love story.

If nothing else, will your definition of love match the movie's?

Sunday, March 29, 2009

MOVIES: #3 Local Hero

I mentioned back in the beginning of the month that The Coca-Cola Kid would be one of two movies where the theme was puncturing the arrogance that some Americans have. Here's the bookend, the delightful Bill Forsyth comedic commentary, Local Hero (1983).

The plotline hews perilously close to The Coca-Cola Kid. A Yankee comes to some far-off place to spread a few US dollars around and buy up something of local charm and worth. It was a soda-pop company in the Australian-set The Coca-Cola Kid that Eric Roberts was trying buy. In Local Hero, Peter Reigert's out to buy a whole Scottish sea-side town in order to build an oil refinery there.

I have just about always liked Reigert's work. He does 'wry' awfully well. He's plain likeable in almost everything he does, even here, as he invades the town of Furness at the behest of his Texas oilman boss, played by Burt Lancaster, in full big britches mode. Expecting a quick finish to his business, Reigert is surprised that he will be staying awhile. He finds time to bond with some of the locals as his attempt to buy up the town goes in circles and circles.

Things happen. Some things little, some things bigger, some things just plain mystical. Reigert and assistant Peter Capaldi cause a bit of a fuss by running over a rabbit while motoring about. Then there are the Russians and the issue of the mermaid. Love blooms in so many ways. It's as if the little Scottish town is the lodestone for yearning and the solution to those feelings. Standouts for me amongst the locals were Urquhart, played by Dennis Lawson, and Marina, played by Jenny Seagrove. They're just two of the characters that linger long after the final credits roll.

The town captures the hearts and minds of both Reigert's Mac and Capaldi's Danny. Lancaster arrives to set things right late in the movie, baffled by the apparent act of his ace, Mac, going native. In far less time than it took for Mac to become enraptured, Lancaster's Felix joins the fine folk of Furness in spirit and mind.

All of this magic by Forsyth is polished to a degree of delight I haven't seen much of over the years. He adds in the Northern Lights and a great score by Mark Knopfler to make the words, sounds and pictures coalesce into that rarest of all things, a feeling of happiness.

You owe it to yourself to be happy today. Rent it.

TV: Primeval 3 Kick-off Leaves Me P...

Well there's only one way to finish the title, isn't there. I CANNOT believe that the creative folks behind the British TV series Primeval STILL can't get an intelligent person or two to PROOF READ the scripts before they get filmed and have them point out obvious flaws!

The kick-off to the new season Saturday introduced some neat new SF elements into the time-traveling show (well, at least the baddies and the monsters do a fair bit of time travel). The team is back, intact, which I'd heard was not going to the case. The one exception, Steven (James Murray), is gone the way of the dinosaur, literally, but Prof. Nick Cutter (Doug Henshall) and assistants Abby (Hannah Spearitt) and Connor (Andrew Lee Potts) haven't forgotten him. In addition, we have two key government figures still around, the helpful Jenny (Lucy Brown) and the snarky, one-liner machine, Sir James (Ben Miller). Because we don't have enough dark-haired beauties in the show, Sir James has a new boss with an agenda (Christine Johnson, played by Belinda Stewart-Wilson) instead of his flunky with an agenda, Leek, from last year.

Right off the bat, we are introduced to the new head of the security team, Captain Becker (Ben Mansfield) and I'm thinking my main complaint from last year will be addressed. The soldiers ALWAYS disappear when things with the monster of the week get interesting. I KNOW it's a budget issue. But it's completely and utterly idiotic that the professor and his two young assistants would be in the lead position of tangling with the multi-ton nasties they encounter each week. But it will be different this year. Right?


A gator on steroids comes through a portal and lands smack dab in the middle of a museum. It gets out cuz somebody opens a door. Isn't that ALWAYS the way things go? It kills the boss lady, but finds her red outfit disagreeable and decides not to eat her (as good an explanation as anything else), before setting off for more agreeable food. It kills a few times more, but apparently has a no-munching policy.

The captain appears and disappears during the subsequent chase, while ALL OF HIS MEN congregate back at the museum. If they are there to stop further intrusions from within the anomaly, they do an INCREDIBLE job of being inconspicuous doing it.

Meanwhile, the gator thing is being chased by the unarmed professor and Abby, who sports a dart gun and a mean karate kick. After the obligatory tour by the monster through a local mall (same as last year) and the obligatory ride in the elevator (same as last year), the chasers and the chasee meet up. And SURPRISE!, the monster escapes. The gator has had enough and goes back to the museum to seek a way back to the warmth and time of its own. It takes the river route again, even though Abby DOES point out the river must feel like a cold shower, since it's been apparently hanging around the Nile River back in its own time.

And here's where sanity REALLY comes off the hinges. It comes back THROUGH A DIFFERENT DOOR. Not just to the room where the the anomaly is, but to the museum ITSELF!!!! Just how many doors does a museum closing for the night HAVE OPEN?!?!?

You think THAT'S BAD? It gets worse. The gator's in the room with the squadful of soldiers (who have been otherwise hiding since they entered the museum), and seems determined to cause a ruckus while it seeks the exit back home. It snaps and snarls and makes like a dumb brute. The captain wants to shoot the thing. Good idea? Yes. But the newest member of the team has a better idea. Not Captain Becker, but Dr. Sarah Page (Laila Rouass). She suggests they BOW DOWN in supplication to the monster. She's an Egyptologist and more or less, thinks this monster is the living embodiment of an ancient Egyptian deity, despite being told minutes before, it's a refugee from 55 million years ago. Abby agrees, suggesting a wounded, violent animal my not be moved to violence by the offering up of heads on a platter. The gator thinks about it for a second, everybody gets to bend back from the green screen, and then it turns around and heads for the anomaly exit.


I know there is a really lame attempt to cover up for this inanity later in the show and start the series off onto a different path. Cutter has a EUREKA! moment and decides all the monsters of myth are probably based on past anomalies allowing creatures from different time periods to pop up and give substance to their legends. The team will be tracking down the old monsters of myth and try to find the anomalies that allowed them to come through. Or something like that.

But monsters used to having people prostrating themselves before them? And too picky to satisfy a hunger? And gifted with GPS? And ... why oh why do they have to screw this up so royally?

Oh, and yes, nasty old Helen (Juliet Aubrey) makes her end-of-show appearance to complete the existing cast's return. Just like last year. ARRRGGHHHH!!!!

I loved the first season of Primeval. There were a handful of good episodes in season two. But I'm thisclose to calling it quits before the writing on this show sends me 'round the bend. We'll see next week.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

MOVIES: #4 Jaws

I do NOT go to movies to be scared, repulsed, shocked, sickened, confused, dazed, made angry or bored. That cuts me out of the potential audience for stalker porn, torture porn and most other movies aimed at teen-aged idiots ... which is waaaaaaaaaay too many of that particular age group. If they didn't attend in numbers parents should be ashamed of, Hollywood wouldn't make these kind of movies.

On the other hand, I went to see Jaws twice when it came out in 1975.

I had read Peter Benchley's novel BEFORE seeing it the first time, just after graduating from high school. There was a certain familiarity that led me to believe I'd have no problems with the flick, even given my squeamishness about things nasty and watery. I sat there like everybody else and basically grinned as the swimmer in the opening credits went glug, glug to her demise. Then things got ... scary. The night-time boat sequence with the diver in the murky water exploring a recently sunk boat cost me about 3 months of my life. At least that's how many extra times' worth I calculated my heart beat when ... you know ... the thing that comes out of the hole.

And so it began. The first fright film I'd seen since the Kolchak pilot on TV. Only this time, it wasn't a monster in the closet, it was Bruce the Shark nibbling on folks here and there. Roy Scheider's townspeople versus the shark. And Bruce won most of the time. Until the end, when the humans discovered they only had to win once and made shark tartare out of Bruce. (I keep calling him Bruce, because Steven Spielberg dubbed the big mechanical shark used in the movie with that name).

What I found very interesting was the fact that the movie diverted in so many key ways from the book. Richard Dreyfuss' character in the book is a heel who beds the wife of Scheider's Police Chief Brody. You more or less cheer when he gets the close-up of the shark's teeth. In the movie, he certainly is not cuckolding with Lorraine Gray as Mrs. Brody and you do sort of hope he makes it through the other side of the confrontation with Bruce.

The other actors you immediately think of with Jaws are Robert Shaw's all-man Quint and Murray Hamilton's all-weasel Mayor. Shaw obviously made the biggest impression, playing the barnacled captain of the too-tiny boat that goes out hunting Bruce. In fact, it isn't until that hunting trip in the movie's final act that we see Bruce in the flesh, so to speak. The legendary troubles Spielberg had with Bruce were what prompted the famed film-maker to use a lot of shark POV shots. That still wouldn't have worked without John Williams' Oscar-winning score and the liberal use of the famous two-note warning sound that played when Bruce was lurking.

I survived the viewing of Jaws and made plans to see it the next week. The reason? This was the perfect date movie in a way. If your girl didn't spend most of the movie clutching you tight, you were in serious relationship difficulty. I can attest that the plan worked perfectly.

On the other hand, when 'it' came out of the hole in the boat in the night sequence, I jumped in my chair. Again.

Friday, March 27, 2009

MOVIES: #5 Star Wars IV- A New Hope

Let's get some business out of the way. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope is THE Star Wars movie. The one that started it all. The movie that ended the almost decade-long darkness that was the early seventies for science fiction movies. The original.

Of course, not a lot of Star Wars was original, even back in 1977. Evil empires, beautiful princesses, callow youths, aged mentors, pirate captains etc. But the mix was great and Star Wars is the only movie I've ever seen three times in a movie theatre.

I saw it opening weekend when word of mouth wasn't quite as massive as it would be today. I knew about the movie because I subscribed to Jim Steranko's Comixscene magazine. I even knew Luke Skywalker was originally to be called Luke Starkiller. So I entered the theatre full of hope and was happy to report that. that hope was not dashed. Peter Cushing and the voice of James Earl Jones were perfect representations of the Evil Empire. Carrie Fisher was perfect as the combative princess, although she might have taken to wearing skin-tight spandex rather than an evening gown and ear-muffs (she made up for it later). Mark Hammil was a great callow youth and you can't do better than Alec Guinness for the mentor. Harrison Ford hadn't become a walking cliche yet, in the cliched role as pirate captain. And as a bonus, we got Anthony Daniels as the charming, iron rod up his butt, robot and Peter Mayhew as the big furball companion to all.

George Lucas mixed it all up to offer up a movie for its time and for the next three decades. So many industry-wide standards came from the movie. The font for the titles, the use of his own in-house special effects magicians (eventually spun off into a separate money-making machine), the merchandising of the movie into an unimagined number of licensees. It was that good.

So I went to see it again. This was about three months later. I was at the North American Bridge Championships at the time and my squad was about to play a team with Omar Shariff. The rest of the team hadn't met him and I had. So I opted to sit the round out and go kill time at the movies. Nothing appealed to me and the idea of seeing Star Wars in a bigger, better theatre seemed like a good idea. So I queued up. The line inched its way towards the ticket window. I was standing behind a couple who were in earnest discussion with the seller. "We only have one ticket left, do you want it or two for the next show," said the ticket-seller.

I waited, sizing up the couple. Was the guy geek enough to ditch the girlfriend for what was probably his first viewing of the movie? Would he suggest SHE take the ticket and he'd catch it later with the guys? I was hoping for eternal love of course. And I uttered a "YES!" under my breath when the guy said they'd take two for the later show. I then hopped up to the window and snatched that last ducat.

And once again, I was enthralled by the sheer majesty of the tale. It was a fable come to life and I enjoyed it immensely. My team lost back at the bridge table, but I'd come up a winner.

Cut to earlier this decade when Lucas brought out the new and improved version of the movie in a re-release to beat all but Disney's re-releases. Things were different and that's why Patrick and his son dragged me out to sit in the last row and take in the revised classic.

Let me tell you, it didn't matter to me originally that Han Solo shot first. And the Leia-Luke smooch really only got icky because of later stories in the series. Well ALL the rest of the stories, but I digress. Still, the enhanced graphics did make this a worthy trip to the cinema.

I'd been to several movies twice, including tomorrow's entry on the list. But this was the only movie I've ever handed over hard-earned cash to see thrice. Plus, I think I have four different copies of the movie on tape or disk. Or five. Which seems appropriate, considering it's place on my favourite movies of the twentieth century.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

MOVIES: #6 The Paper Chase

In 1973 I was thinking about college in a year's time. I was headed to Ryerson on a journalism scholarship, but I was trepidatious about leaving the friendly confines of Bramalea Secondary School, where I generally had the run of the place. So, imagine my horror when The Paper Chase was released that year.

YOU can have Friday the 13th and Jason and all, THIS was MY DEFINITION of a horror flick. It made the college experience look like something worth failing my final year at good old BSS over. Timothy Bottoms plays a bit of a rebel student, who runs afoul of John Houseman. He gets 'shrouded!' Literally told by the prof that he's 'dead' to him and will not be recognized at all. Me, with my big mouth, that would have been ME. At least it was, in my nightmares. (Oddly enough, those nightmares became largely true during my astonishingly brief sojourn at Ryerson).

Houseman, who was a major pitchman for an investing firm at the time, was an odd choice to become a movie star so late in life. His Professor Kingsfield could have stepped from the Smith-Barney commercials sets he habituated right into this movie. He'd been working in the movies since 1938, and was even involved in the 1941 classic, Citizen Kane. But for one uncredited role, he hadn't acted in a movie in the 35 years separating his debut from this role as the Harvard law professor. Second time out proved lucky for Houseman, who merely won the Oscar for best supporting actor.

Professor Kingsfield was an autocratic professor in this movie. He terrorized students the way only a one teacher ever got to me in high school. Outside of Frank Marsellus, my Grade 10 French teacher, I wasn't all that scared of my teachers. (Here's an earlier blog entry detailing my tangling with Mr. Merciless!) I openly feuded with a couple of them, Mr. Cannon in history and Mr. Mohammad in math, but only Marsellus got to me. Maybe it was because I'd spent the summer before, diddling with the class assignment computer in an effort to escape him. Transposed a couple of digits in my self-serving screw-up and ended up with him as my French teacher AND my home-room teacher (which was supposed to be impossible. Ahh, the wages of sin). But like Houseman, it turns out nasty and adversarial brings out the best in some students. Like me. Like Bottoms' shaggy-haired James T. Hart.

Hart doesn't give up when Kingsfield gives him ample opportunity to do so. He hustles. He ends up as almost a hero to a small study group of Kingsfield's students, including ones played by Edward Herrmann, Graham Beckel and James Naughton. There were others, but Herrmann, Beckel and Naughton stand out. In the end, not all of the students survive Kingsfield's inquisitions.

Late in the movie, Hart is faced with a decision. He's been dating Lindsay Wagner's character and discovers her link to Kingsfield. Kingsfield, who doesn't like Hart, but has, more or less, developed the merest hint of respect for the shrouded one, demands he make a choice. The girl or the passing mark Hart's worked so hard for. For me, it would have been an easy choice, given my past interaction with Wagner. For Hart, not so much.

It's his last act of real defiance in the movie and a good capper. Didn't make me sleep any easier thinking about university was going to be like.

NOTE: This is one of the movies that turned into a REAL GOOD TV series. Houseman also starred in the series, which debuted on network TV back in 1978 before being cancelled. It then was revived two years later in first-run syndication, and ran for three more seasons. It is DEFINITELY worth tracking down on video-tape. I don't think DVD's have ever been released of the series.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

MOVIES: #7 Bridge On The River Kwai

There is a penalty to pay in watching The Bridge On The River Kwai, the great 1957 movie that is almost the film negative of The Great Escape (#19 earlier this month). You will NOT get that Colonel Bogey March out of your head for the next month. You'll be hearing the song whistling through dreams, nightmares and daytime nod-offs due to lack of sleep.

But I digress.

This is one of the few memorable occasions English classes had for me during school. As a class, we read the Pierre Boulle novel when I was in Grade 9. I quite enjoyed the novel and was glad to hear we were going to see the movie at the local theatre a week later. It was to be one of two movies of books we were forced to read and later watch, that I actually enjoyed during my school years (To Kill a Mockingbird being the other one). Most times, I found ways to weasel out of these trips, but not this time. And I was glad I wasn't motivated to do otherwise.

The setting is a Japanese POW camp in Burma. The Japanese commandant, Colonel Saito, played with Oscar-worthy relish by Sessue Hayakawa, is determined to get his mix of allied prisoners to construct a bridge over the River Kwai (the novel's title in some editions is Bridge Over the River Kwai ... translations can get like that). He's, let's say ... enthusiastic, about forcing the (Col. Nicholson) Alec Guinness-led Brits. William Holden (Commander Harry Shears), an American, escapes the camp and almost immediately turns around and leads a small commando unit back towards the camp. It's almost like he's trying to break back in. In fact, he, and his unit, need to blow up the bridge the Japanese are forcing the prisoners to build, a key link in creating the supply line the Japanese need in southern Asia.

What Shears encounters is the fact that Guinness, in an Oscar-winning role himself, feels honour-bound to build the best bridge possible and does exactly that. The internal fight over honor to his troops, to his side, to his bridge, is fascinating to watch play out. Right to the last moment, you cannot anticipate how he will perform. There just isn't any version of that internal struggle in The Great Escape.

The act of not breaking out, quite the reverse, is one of the main differences between the two movies. The Far Eastern setting is very different than The Great Escape's setting in Germany. The prisoners have a completely different building goal in the two movies, The Great Escape's tunnels and the bridge of the title in this movie. In fact, Saito and Nicholson are such honour-bound characters, they almost seem like two faces of the same man, something completely different in The Great Escape. There are many other polar opposites that pop up amongst the similarities that movies about World War II POW camps have to have. It's fascinating enough to fill up almost three hours of screen time.

Of course, the ending, with Nicholson stumbling through the muddy water towards the firing controls of the explosives planted on the bridge is unforgettable.

Almost as much as that damn song.

NOTE: It should be noted that the original source material IS a novel, which was loosely based on a real event during the war. The Nicholson character was made up of whole cloth, quite different from the actual prisoner leader in the River Kwai POW encampment. And Saito was a second-in-command and was actually a decent-enough fellow that the actual prisoner leader interceded on his behalf at the War Crimes Tribunal after the war. These facts should not take away from the exceptional film made by David Lean. But it IS a work of fiction.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

MOVIES: #8 My Cousin Vinny

In most comedies, at least some of the humour comes from embarrassing stupid people. Sometimes, MOST of the movie's laughs come at the expense of characters that can be charitably called dim. The reason My Cousin Vinny is my eighth-most favourite movie of all time, is the almost complete dearth of stupid characters in the 1992 breakout movie for Marisa Tomei.

If you haven't watched the movie in some time, do yourself a favour and watch it again. Nobody's stupid, except for possibly the bar rats that Joe Pesci's title character takes in a bet. Otherwise, they are all good people, trying to do the right thing. And the clash between Pesci's Jersey lawyer and the residents of the small Alabama town he comes to, to defend his cousin on a robbery/murder charge, is where the laughs are.

Ralph Macchio plays the throwaway role as Bill Gambini. He calls in his cousin Vinny, who comes to town for his first big case as a newly-minted lawyer. He's accompanied by his girlfriend, Mona Lisa Vito. Tomei turned Vito into an icon, displaying brains beneath the Jersey princess persona, and saving things at the end. In the meantime, she gave voice to millions by stamping her foot and saying "My biological clock is ticking like this." And people haven't stopped referring to biological clocks since then. Tomei might have been a surprise choice to some in winning her Oscar for the role. But not to me.

The judge, the wonderfully laconic Fred Gwynn, was on to Vinny right from the start, but was slow getting his proof of some Yankee shenanigans (Vinny was name-dropping another lawyer's name to get the right to defend Billy). But he wasn't stupid. And certainly, the sheriff played by Bruce McGill and the DA played by Lane Smith weren't stupid, despite believing in their own open-and-shut case against Billy and his friend.

It's always a mistake to equate stupidity with lack of experience. Vinny was completely clueless about the law because he got a night-school diploma and didn't understand Southern hospitality. But he learnt quickly enough and rediscovered the treasure he had at his side just in time to come away a winner.

But the real winner is the viewer at home, watching a smart comedy without any stupid people to spoil the good time.

Monday, March 23, 2009

MISC: Ideas That MIGHT Make You Go Hmmmmm!

Sometime today, I will get down to the nitty-gritty of writing the final seven movie reviews of my ongoing series, My Favourite Movies of the Twentieth Century. But for right now, some random ideas that occurred to me over the last fortnight.

The American government is grappling with finding a legal way to get back those AGI bonuses. Seems there's laws on the book that prevent targeting such a small group of people. So, here's the overall law that fixes THAT problem and future problems. Publicly-held companies cannot pay out bonuses if the company failed to make an after-tax profit during the financial year in question. All existing bonus arrangements immediately become null and void where prohibited by (the new) law. This would effect the twits with retention bonuses (aka blackmail) and even better, the CEO's who issue themselves bonuses and golden parachutes while sending their companies careening to the basement.

Solar Power. Wind Generated Power. Let's do both at once. Set up turbines with solar panels and have them generate power of each kind.

In this time of willing (and wanting) more regulation in industry, specifically the financial industry, maybe some can sop over into the TV biz. First rule I'd make as national broadcast czar? TV programs start and end on the hour or half-hour. First company NOT broadcasting a live event that runs a minute or two long, I'd fine 'em a million bucks and double the penalty each time out. I haven't watched a single moment of American Idol this year, and I won't be changing that statement any time soon. Problem is, I can't watch any show that follows it either. HEAR THAT ADVERTISERS!

Is Canada's TV industry so destitute of male actors any more that Adam MacDonald appears on BOTH of CBC's prime-time newbies, Being Erica and Wild Roses? It's the same role (different names) on both shows with the Wild Roses character being only a little less of a lout, when he's not drunk or stoned. And while we are at it, can anybody explain why Being Erica is so well-written while Wild Roses is the new definition of terrible? On the other hand, the music over the opening credits in Wild Roses is GREAT (Black Horse and Cherry Tree) while Being Erica's theme song makes me wish for fingernails being dragged over a blackboard.

Finally, I DID get an answer to what you call a citizen of Niger. They are Nigeriens, as opposed to Nigerians, who come from Nigeria.

MOVIES: #9 Die Hard I

When Wesley Snipes' movie Passenger 57 came out, the tagline was, "Die Hard on a plane." That says a lot about Die Hard, the 1988 battle between Bruce Willis and some Eurotrash terrorists that begat a franchise ... and not a few imitators.

Die Hard actually produced a very good sequel before the franchise petered out idea-wise. I read the book the second movie was based on last year and thought it felt familiar. Felt compelled to look it up and discovered how right I was. Wish the rest of the series had been based on good books. But enough kvetching.

The original's plot is well known. Alan Rickman's squad of goons and hi-tech flunkies, most with vaguely German accents, take over the Nakitomi building just as its Japanese corporate parents host a Christmas party for the workers there. Included amongst the workers is Bonnie Bedelia's character, who's estranged husband, Willis' John McClane, is on the way to see her. McClaine, a cop when not saving the world from terrorist threats, arrives just in time to slip into the building, just as it's closed up tight.

Once he ascertains who's doing what, Willis conducts a one-man running battle with the bad guys and saves the day, even when the true intentions of Rickman's Hans Gruber are revealed late in the movie. It's the kind of movie that inspired comic books back in the day. In many ways, this movie WAS a comic book, without the longjohns and masks. Very entertaining.

Although this is largely a running battle of wills between the rough and ready McClaine and the snobbish Gruber, other characters had a chance to shine. Reggie VelJohnson played the disbelieving cop, who became McClaine's link to the outside when Willis dropped a body onto his car to get his attention. Great scene. And Hart Bochner had a brief but memorable turn as a weaselly guy.

The movie had more than it's share of memorable scenes and lines. The one that's seems to have outlasted it's original charm was McClaine yelling "Yippie kai yay ..." ending with a sobriquet my mother would rather me not repeat. It's staying power, and that of the original movie, is demonstrated here in the ninth slot on my list.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

MOVIES: #10 Cleopatra

Elizabeth Taylor. What more do you need to make watching the 1963 epic, Cleopatra, worthwhile?

For me, Cleopatra has always defined 'epic' when it comes to movie-making. The most expensive movie ever made (at the time, and for a long time after), Cleopatra literally put THOUSANDS of movie extras on the screen, and then let the focus fall on the most beautiful woman in the world. Now, to me, that title belonged to mom, but the violet-eyed Taylor was a REAL close second. I knew that, and I was all of seven at the time.

This was a BIG-TIME MOVIE for a little kid. And it got even better when it was shown eventually on TV. Over two nights! It was THAT long. The theatrical version ran over three hours and the TV version (the so-called director's cut, a novelty back then), was almost TWICE as long. What could be more epic than that?

We all know the story. Little girl becomes the queen of Egypt largely through accident and the fact she's more cut-throat than her brother. At the same time, Julius Caesar and Marc Antony were taking control of Rome. Rome meets Egypt and Cleopatra, who finesses her way through what WOULD have been a destructive war by bedding Rex Harrison's Caesar. Of course, Richard Burton as Antony was her true love (on and off screen). Caesar's death plays into the course of events and we have a rip-roaring finale down to the meeting between asp and breast.

Fascinating stuff, even for a pre-teen. It's gotten better over the years, as I appreciated the inter-play between Burton and Taylor and what was going on off the set. The number of actors who later became stars in the movie in their own right is legion. Too many to list here. But I have to tell you, I liked some of the lesser-known guys in this. George Cole and Cesare Danova give standout performances in supporting roles to the big stars. Look for them as Flavius and Apollodorus, respectively.

It takes a night, or two, to really, really watch the full Cleopatra. There'll be flaws that you will notice, including a switch in style of talk midway, because the original plan WAS for two separate movies. But despite all those warts, this is still a movie where you see the money ON-screen.

And the most beautiful woman in the world...after mom.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

MOVIES: #11 The Magnificent Seven

See, I haven't been playing with the numbers. The Dirty Dozen WAS #12, The Magnificent Seven is #11, not #7. And the reason The Magnificent Seven is #11 is that it distills the best of what the various action flicks (and their stars) were. At least for me.

The 1960 flick was not all that original. It wasn't the first, nor the last, of the offspring of the Japanese movie, The Seven Samurai. The Seven Samurai and Rashomon were the two most obvious gifts to western Cinema by Akira Kurosawa, in terms of generating remakes and slight variations. In this case, I actually like the western version. And by western, I mean Western.

A poor Mexican village gathers what resources it can and sends three of its members out to hire a 'gang' to fight off a band of murderous marauders, led by Eli Wallach at his lip-curlingest best, that regularly afflicts their village. The assembled crew reads like a who's who from movies previously detailed on my list. Steve McQueen from The Great Escape, Charles Bronson from The Dirty Dozen and James Coburn from Harry in Your Pocket. Plus Brad Dexter, Horst Buchholz and Robert Vaughn (mentioned frequently hereabouts for Hustle). AND Yul Brynner. All have their moments as they organize the villagers for the coming showdown with the bullying marauders. I especially cherish Vaughn for moments on the way to the village, and Brynner, once the action starts at the village.

The movie is the perfect distillation of the siege movie. The underdogs should be overwhelmed, but aren't, thanks to pluck and ingenuity. As usual, the underdogs DO come out the other side on top, losing a few heroes along the way. This is no The Alamo or Masada. And it's all done to a wonderful score by Elmer Bernstein.

This is a good movie where the white hats beat the black hats. Simple, straight-forward, feel-good movie-making.

Friday, March 20, 2009

MOVIES: #12 The Dirty Dozen

I swear, on a stack of whatever religious material you care to name, the placing of 1967's The Dirty Dozen in the twelfth spot on my list is NOT a fix. My favourite dozen movies haven't changed since I added the eighth movie to the list 17 years ago. That's when The Dirty Dozen fell to number #12, where it's stayed ever since.

This movie is a three-act play with an introduction training section, a caper at a war games and then the real caper, invading a Nazi stronghold during World War II. Each section has its own charm. Humour permeates the first two sections before it gets down to the serious business of war in the final section. Because you've grown to care about the Dirty Dozen prior to that assault, when all of them don't make it out to the other side, you feel a sense of loss.

And that's odd, because the Dirty Dozen were all punks, criminals and crooks. Some were insane (Telly Savalas' character). All were hauled out of jail and offered a choice. A suicide mission or life in prison, if not the wrong end of a firing squad.

Savalas, John Cassavetes, Jim Brown, Charles Bronson, Clint Walker, Donald Sutherland and Trini Lopez were the principals of the Dozen, and there isn't a bad performance in the lot. Cassavetes and Sutherland played weasels who enjoyed killing, while Brown, Bronson and Walker were 'misunderstood' and violent, a bad mix. Lopez was making a detour from his singing career, but plays an ordinary kind of guy caught in bad circumstances. He's memorable for being the first of the dozen to die en route to the German chalet.

Corralling the Dozen were the guy with the plan, Lee Marvin, and his right hand, Sgt. Bowen, played by Richard Jaekel. Jaekel's dead-set against the idea in the first place, but comes around as he eventually comes to respect the crew of criminals chasing death in the future. By the time Marvin's team of misfits wins the war games by playing dirty, everybody sees these guys as more than numbers on a prison uniform. Marvin gets able back-up from Ernie Borgnine and George Kennedy amongst the American star-shouldered set. And let's not forget Robert Ryan as the stick in the mud with no imagination general that opposes all of these shenanigans.

The training and war games that dominate the movie to begin with are filled with gallows humour and downright funny bits. Ryan's surrender at the command post is a great scene. When the movie turns, and it turns nasty in the final act, it does so without regard to human life. It's chilling to see the reverting to form survivors of the Dozen tossing grenades into a bunker, fully aware that civilians amongst the Nazi officers were dying too.

It is hard to believe an outcry wouldn't be raised if that scene showed up in a movie today. It would be alright to have some OTHER side doing it to Americans. Having Americans doing it, as in this movie, would result in some interesting PR difficulties. Still, having killers revert to form, after humanizing them through two hours, doesn't seem to be a stretch.

I only mention this ethical difficulty to viewers who might see the movie and expect something different from my description of the action before the final assault. But please, please rent this one if you haven't seen it. It's a truly great movie.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

MOVIES: The Basketball Interlude

The NCAA Basketball Tournament starts in about an hour and I think I should explain why there aren't any movies on my favourites list from the last century that I have been detailing this month. Especially since I consider these four days as the best four days of the year, better than my birthday and Christmas all rolled up in one.

That's because there's never been a truly great basketball movie. There was a good one last century in Hoosiers and a pretty good one this century in Glory Road. (I'm disallowing documentaries, like Hoop Dreams). But really, there's a dearth of good roundball movies.

Many, many of the movies feature depressing looks at the inner-city kids. Fine dramas, none of which I ever want to see again. I never stop the channel switching when surfing, to see how drugs and crooks have decimated life after life of potentially great basketball players. Most times, these movies are about off-court stuff, rather than what's on court.

On the other hand, there's movies like the 1979 duo of Fast Break and The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh. Both are worth a chuckle, the first with Gabe Kaplan and the kids, the second at the sheer idiocy of Julius Erving and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar signing on to one of the worst movies ever.

Of course, both of those movies 'feature' the same type of ending, the one almost ALL basketball movies have. You know, the one where the conclusion comes down to the last few seconds of the game and the underdog's shot to win is always in the air at the buzzer. Ninety percent of the time, it goes in. Arrrrggghhhh! Just once, I'd like to see the underdogs AHEAD and defending against that last shot. Just once. Please!

There are THREE basketball movies that I fondly recall. The first was a 1951 black and white movie called The Harlem Globetrotters. I probably saw it when I was about ten. Two things still remain from that first viewing (I've probably seen it two or three times since). The dribbling artistry of Marques Haynes, who I saw in person much later (and he was ancient by the time) with the Harlem Magicians, and the sheer ability of Goose Tatum. The movie featured mostly actors in the non-player roles and the Trotters playing themselves. It was a different era and the clown aspect of the team was non-existent then, as they barnstormed against real teams, not the Washington Generals. Recommended.

Moving to more contemporary times, we have White Men Can't Jump in 1992 and The Air Up There in 1994. White Men Can't Jump was about playground hustling as much as it was about basketball and it really only lingers in memory for the title, a long-held belief amongst basketball fans. I'm guilty, even though I've seen pale men soar. It's just that it's so rare, that it can be commented on. On the other hand, I can offer you a much funnier experience without the racial angst in The Air Up There, which stars Kevin Bacon as a basketball coach on a recruiting trip to Africa. Yes, the ending is predictable, but the ball is fun and I still stop and watch any time I find it surfing. If you DON'T get shivers up your spine as The Mint Juleps sing Higher and Higher through the ending and into the credits, you're dead!

Enough reading this blog. Get back to watching the real thing on TV!

MOVIES: #13 Jurassic Park

Michael Crichton, god rest his soul, produced some real clunkers and some real winners over his years of turning books into movies. On the plus side were Andromeda Strain, Terminal Man, Westworld (which went from movie to book) and 1993's Jurassic Park. On the other side, just about everything else. His books were almost always better than the cinematic version, with the exception of Jurassic Park.

We'd all come to associate special effects with spaceships and monsters, using small models and plenty of latex. We weren't prepared for what Jurassic Park brought to us sixteen years ago. Computer special effects you could believe in. And that first shot as the cameras pull back to show the dinosaurs in the valley, after Sam Neill's Dr. Alan Grant discovers some humongous dino scat, is one of the best shots ever.

The principal adults in the movie, Neill, Laura Dern, Richard Attenborough and Jeff Goldblum, all turned in good performances. I also have to note Wayne Knight's character and his crowd-pleasing end. But the stars were the dinosaurs, all brought to you by the Oscar-winning SFX team of Stan Winston's. Not only could you believe, but Winston even managed to make that mama T-Rex have some personality. And who can ever forget the laugh of the movie (no, not Knight's dispatching), but the second-long shot of the right-hand mirror of a jeep fleeing the T-Rex. The one that has, "Objects in mirror are closer than they appear." THAT'S movie-making!

Just like his book series, the Jurassic movies never again met the levels of the original. And today, the special effects and creature-making toys out there would make Winston of 1993 weep with jealousy.

But back then, you believed. And there's nothing better to say about any movie.

BASKETBALL: Pitt Not The Pitts

It's time to predict the NCAA Pool and offer any reader of this blog a free shot at winning their pools.

Let's start with the Final Four, which will come from Louisville, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Memphis, UConn, Oklahoma or Gonzaga, with my ratings of each, roughly in that order, assuming all things are equal. But all things aren't equal.

First, Louisville is a lock for the trip to Detroit. I just don't see anybody pushing the Cardinals en route to winning the MidWest. I see them beating Moorehead St, Siena, Wake Forest and West Virginia before Detroit looms. Wake Forest, a one-time top-ranked team in the country might not even get by Arizona and West Virginia will be coming off a tough game against Michigan State. Do Arizona or MSU scare Louisville? No. So write up the Cardinal for the MidWest. I have first-round upset winners in Siena, Arizona and USC in that bracket. I normally always take higher seeds in the weekend games because of lack of time to prepare, but I like West Virginia to beat Kansas, and then do it again against Michigan State.

In my list of Final Four candidates, I had Memphis rated ahead of UConn despite being seeded lower. I can see Hasheem Thabeet having six GREAT games and UConn winning the national championship. Or I can see Thabeet in foul trouble and not even getting to the West final. Say, losing to Purdue. I'm convinced now (I wasn't three days ago) that Purdue's Robbie Hummel is healthy and ready to minimize Thabeet and Washington's Jon Brockman before him. And that will put Purdue into the regional final against the surviver of the 'M' side of the bracket, Memphis. Karma might be paying Memphis coach John Calipari back for having Kansas steal away the Tigers' apparent crown last year. He's replaced Derrick Rose with Tyreke Evans and, as tough as it is to believe, he hasn't lost much losing the first pick in last summer's NBA draft. The Tigers are playing hard on D, pitching the disrespect game hard and seem poised to take advantage of an injury or two. As for upsets here, I like Maryland over Cal and the Purdue run to the Elite Eight. That's all.

The equivalent to Purdue will be Villanova in the East, taking advantage of playing the first two rounds in Philly, and then taking out Duke, who has no inside game to scare the Wildcats at all. That second-week match-up will be an entertaining run and gun affair, but I just don't think Duke's team has 40 minutes in them. I've seen the Blue Devils play 30+ great minutes against North Carolina twice, but they just can't seem to shake the second-half shooting slump that last about eight minutes and turns leads into deficits. So, I see 'Nova getting to the regional final before coming acropper of the Pittsburgh Panthers. And the reason I can't see Villanova in the final four is that I don't see how they get DaJuan Blair into foul trouble. And Pitt doesn't lose if he isn't in foul trouble. Otherwise, he's a 21st-century Paul Silas. And with time off for healing, I think Pitt wins the region and a ticket to Detroit. Not much in the way of upsets in this one. Just Florida State's mini-upset over Xavier in the second round. I've flipped on the popular first-round exit call for UCLA, thinking now that Darren Collison will be healthy enough to slow Eric Maynor's star from ascending and the Bruins will indeed beat Virginia Commonwealth. Sorry Mr. President Obama.

Which brings me to the South and the minefield for all bracket predictors. Ty Lawson healthy would equate to a North Carolina cruise through virtual homecourt advantage all the way to Detroit. But he's not and won't play the opener against Radford. That's no problem, but second-round opponent Butler might be, regardless if he plays after at least a 10-day layoff. Butler's kiddie corps might not have a lot of respect or fear for the Tarheels and will be the first of the hurdles NC has to clear to get to Detroit. And if Butler doesn't upset the apple cart, next week's games against Gonzaga and then Oklahoma might. Each COULD get to Detroit. And if Ty Lawson is out, or plays sub-standard ball while playing at less than healthy levels, then North Carolina WILL fall. As it is, I believe North Carolina with a healthy Ty Lawson is really the best team in the country. And I think he'll be healthy enough to get TO Detroit, despite the tripping chances along the way. But I'd find a few pools to enter and split them between NC (60 per cent), Oklahoma (30 per cent) and Gonzaga (10 per cent). And because I think North Carolina is second only to UConn as shaky number ones, I wouldn't have any pools with North Carolina on top. I just think there's too great a chance they don't get there. And they really cost you points if they lose early. As for upsets, I've already called for Butler to beat LSU and I like Western Kentucky over Illinois (Chester Frazier's hurt). That and Arizona State beating badly over-seeded Syracuse in the second round covers the upsets.

So we get to see three one-seeds in Louisville, Pitt and North Carolina in Detroit, joined by two-seed Memphis. According to my rating Louisville should beat Memphis and Pitt should lose to North Carolina. But I just outlined how I can't pick North Carolina to win it, since it's, more or less, on the head of an injured player. So, the final comes down to Louisville and Pitt. Louisville beat Pitt all year long. Louisville's my top-rated team. So I should be crowning the Cardinals. Right?

Nope. I HATE, absolutely HATE when teams play for the third time. Especially if one team's won the prior two meetings. Stats say the trend should continue. History says different. There's something about over-confidence and the other team being ticked about the earlier losses that has the series break 2-1 waaaaaaaay more often than it should.

So, the 2009 NCAA National Championship will be won by the Pittsburg Panthers. You can take that to the bird's cage.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

MOVIES: #14 Aladdin

Okay, before you start yelling at the screen and picking up the phone to call me out, on including this movie here, let me explain. I have fond memories for 1992's Aladdin for a lot more than what YOU saw at the local cineplex. Honest.

Aladdin was the first movie I took my niece Paige to where she didn't sit for most of the movie on my lap. She was three, maybe four at the time. She'd been to see some movies before Aladdin, including a VERY SCARY Sleeping Beauty. This is one movie that kids under, say, the age of eight should be barred from. It's the ONLY movie she and I ever left early. It was with some trepidation that the little ball of talk and I ended up at the movies again. This time was at the old, long-gone Centennial Mall Theatre, which is a party favours store these days.

There were maybe four people in the theatre when we got there. We moved to what was OUR seats in the house, four rows down from the top, far-side from the entrance, on the aisle. I shucked Paige's jacket, pulled down the seat next to my aisle seat and put the jacket on it. I put her drink in the holder and told her to sit on the seat. I turned around and put my drink in my holder and then I heard a squeaky little voice from behind me. I turned around.

"Uncle Gary, I don't think I'm gonna like this," said Paige. And she had good reason. Picture a little girl sitting in a seat that had partially righted itself, turning Paige into a human letter V. Her knees were up around her ears and her eyes were big and shiny enough to light up the room. I've long learned that you never, never, never ask a woman her weight, even a young one in the making. So I can't tell you how much Paige weighed at the time. But it wasn't enough to keep her seat down.

So I did what any good uncle would do. I sat for the whole movie with my right lag straddled over the corner of Paige's seat to keep it down.

The only time I stopped doing that was when Paige uttered the three (well, maybe four) words EVERY uncle in the world, babysitting some young girl away from home, fears above all others. "Uncle Gary, I gotta GO!"

I'd played through the scenario in my mind several times. I'd always insisted on Paige going to the ladies room at least twice before heading to the movies. And I ordered her that little drink that theatres were willing to sell back then. She wasn't a big drinker anyway. But I'd still not come to the decision of which bathroom to take her into if the situation had come up. Now was going to be the time to put up.

Off we went, skulking our way out of the theatre and heading for the washroom area. I had a backup plan. If I was very, very lucky, the ten-spot I kept in my wallet for the specific purpose, could be used to get one of the girls at the snackbar to help with the dilemma. Turns out, I was very, very, VERY lucky. A mother with her own toddler was travelling the same path and this wonderful lady saw the look on my face. She deduced the problem and offered to help. She even turned down the reward. A veritable saint that woman!!!

It turns out, I never, ever had to make the decision of which room to invade with Paige. I guess I earned some good Karma by taking time out of my day fairly frequently back then to spend with my niece at the wonderful place called the movie theatre.

Now about Aladdin. Sure, it's here on this list for reasons other than quality. But it IS a pretty good animated flick. Robin Williams is properly frenetic as the Genie and Gilbert Gottfried, a guilty pleasure, gets a lot of great lines as Iago the Parrot. Aladdin and Jasmine make pleasant Disney stars and the music's better than good. It might not actually be as good as Toy Story, but for reasons outlined above, it's the animated star of my list.

Even if you don't have your own niece or little girl to take to see it, rent it and enjoy it.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

MOVIES: #15 Ferris Bueller's Day Off

Ferris Bueller's Day Off, the 1986 John Hughes masterpiece, spoke to me. I never quite had the day, that good old Ferris had. And I never had a Mia Sara to squire around. I didn't have any sisters to drive to distraction, nor a principal as weaselly as the one played by Jeffrey Jones. But I DID have a friend like the one played by Alan Ruck and I DID enjoy the occasional obligatory day off during high school and got creative doing it.

And that's why I love the movie. It read like how I 'wanted' my high school biography to read.

Matthew Broderick made a fine Ferris Bueller, certainly better than Charlie Schlatter did in the TV remake. He deadpans his way through a well-constructed day off school that starts when he plays sick to two parents, too easily snowed. His sister, played by future media circus Jennifer Anniston, is on to Ferris' shenanigans and drives herself crazy trying to catch him in the act of ditching. The race between Ferris, his sister and the parents back to the house at day's end adds the only bit of tension the movie has. Or needs.

Otherwise, it's really like a two-hour chill-out pill. Ferris convinces Ruck's Cameron to allow him to borrow Cameron's father's precious convertible and the duo arrives at school to spring Sara's Sloane. This was Sara before the blonde makeover in the late unlamented Birds of Prey TV series, a knockout who should have had a better career.

The threesome then turn Chicago into their own party town. There's a ballgame at Wrigley and a parade t0 enjoy. Along the way, the car does, more or less, get destroyed. The dramatic interaction between Ferris and Cameron slows the movie for a spell, but things pick right back up with the race back home.

There's few out-and-outright comedies on my list, although most all of the movies at least have a chuckle or two. It's odd that this list eventually mirrors the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences in that there is so little respect for comedies in general. Consider this one tug on the funny bone in protest of their, and my own, prejudices.

Monday, March 16, 2009

NEWSPAPERS: The Death Spiral

I love newspapers. I read The Toronto Star every day, mostly before I even touch the keyboard and head out onto the internet. But in saying that, I have to admit The Star feels a lot like non-caffeinated coffee these days, after years of drinking high-test (a metaphor, I don't drink coffee, one of the reasons I was drummed out of the reporters' union [G]). It's a pallid shadow of itself. And so is the newspaper industry.

There was a day and time where I read four dailies and at least one weekly. And that was AFTER I left the business full-time. After I moved to radio back in the early 80's, I would read The Star, The Toronto Sun and The Toronto Globe and Mail, race through the Brampton Daily Times (where I was a columnist on various subject matters) and read the twice-weekly Brampton Guardian, my professional home for most of the preceding decade. I had never worked a job in my life before becoming a sportswriter. And some cynics will point out it was the last full-time job I ever had, to boot. I met an awful lot of good people in those newspaper years. And some are still left in the dying throes of a millennia-long business that has a future measured in years, not decades.

Clay Shirky has an essay on the subject that is scary and insightful. I read it and realized just how innocent I was back then.

My main aim each week was to extract as much editorial space for sports out of the advertising department as I could get. We were forever leaving material out because those ad guys just HAD to run some niggling little ad, instead of letting some little Johnny or Jill derive immense pleasure for reading their name in the paper for having scored a goal. I even befriended the ad guys, hoping sympathy for my plight (and those of Johnny and Jill) would get them to shrink an ad (or seven) and give me ten more inches to list house league badminton scores, or whatever else I was fighting for. It worked every now and then. And every now and then, they'd try to play me, by opening up one or two completely empty pages. I was always prepared with a Remember Winter photo page or a Remember Summer photo page when they pulled that stunt. Only time they ever caught me was when they did it two weeks running. But as evidenced here, I can write a lot about nothing, and I called their bluff.

For me, being a sports reporter was about the best job ever invented. Other than the weekly proof-reading in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, the job was perfect. Night work and no need to REALLY be there until a civilised hour of the morning. Free entry to things I would have paid to see. The seasonal changes meant that JUST as I was getting sick and tired of hockey, it was ball season. The reverse happened every fall. New waves of people to meet each year. The pleasure of working under a Canadian icon, Ken Giles, the long-time sports editor of The Guardian. The fact that they didn't force me to take vacations (I worked just short of three years straight without a vacation, at one point).

But all things come to an end. I had an ego and a personality clash that prompted me to move on to a radio career. I have had some regrets over the years for the decision. But the unionization of the place would have spelled the end of my newspaper career within a couple of years anyway. And now, the situation newspapers find themselves in, makes me glad I didn't stick around.

Make no mistake, I don't think this is really newspapers' fault, as much as I think it's just natural evolution. As I said, I know people in the industry. They are smart, dedicated and WANT to find a way to keep the old way of life operational AND serve a customer base with different needs, wants, and abilities to circumvent that that was the newspaper of our youth.

I stopped reading The Times first. It went belly up. The Guardian went next. I didn't have any Johnnies or Jills to follow in the local paper. My nieces and nephew made no move to join any team that would garner the occasional write-up. And I wasn't the most ardent food shopper, the main reason MOST of Brampton gets The Guardian for. In fact, I phoned The Guardian and made the free delivery go away, because the company was mandating its carriers put the paper in the mail-box, something I hated with a passion. And since they would NOT allow for the placement of the paper in the front door, no more Guardian. The Globe (another former employer) went next, followed by The Sun, about two years ago. All I'm left with now is The Star (yes, another former employer).

The Star of even three, four years ago, was a humongous tract of paper daily. The Saturday Star was Canada's NY Times. My lack of muscle fitness is directly related to The Star turning puny right before my eyes. I can now look at every page in The Star during my stay in the reading room during my morning rituals. Never could say that in the past. I put out newspapers in the blue bin once every month or six weeks, instead of weekly. The Star has even changed format twice in the last 18 months, making the paper less-useful with each re-design.

Still, it's my connection with my professional past. And I'll be taking it until the last edition comes out ... which might very well be within my lifetime. Don't forget, I'm an old coot.

What can be done to save newspapers? Not much. USA Today was the trojan horse that spelled the doom of the industry. It reduced all stories to news bites, mere paragraphs or two about each thing under the headline. If anything, it helped develop A.D.D. in newspaper readers. Its success has been mimicked by the internet AND newspapers ever since. Most with degrees of success in the low teens. Even Time and Newsweek suffered from the same reading trends, resulting in the pamphlets with multiple checklists that those magazines have become. I'm awaiting the day when a newspaper publishes NOTHING but headlines (the fun part) and a bunch of checklists. The webification of the art form will have become complete.

A newspaper can only survive today with local news about interesting people. They ARE out there, it takes time to find them and journalists have to get away from their desks and the phones on them, and get out amongst the people. There isn't a will nor a budget to do that these days. Newspapers have to BREAK stories that require connecting dots. Mere one fact and out breaking stories no longer survive long enough to make tomorrow's early edition. They will have been on the web for hours by then. It's ANALYSIS and EXPLANATION that still remain the purview of the newspaper. At that, newspapers should REVERSE the USA Today model and make stories LONGER, not try to fit in as many paragraphs masquerading as stories as possible.

None of that's going to happen. The Rocky Mountain News died last month and it won't be the first of the great North American papers to go this year. MOST will morph into web-sites and there-in lies the future of journalism. At least I hope it does.

'Cuz, if it comes down to we bloggers being journalism in toto, the world will be a scary, less-informed space!

MOVIES: #16 Harry In Your Pocket

One of my great discoveries this past year was a copy of 1973's Harry In Your Pocket, the story of two young grifters, the pro pickpocket and his mentor/partner. It's all about learning the art of pickpocketing. After seeing it, I'm betting you walk around with a hand over your wallet for weeks.

This is a early seventies movie. It was probably filmed much earlier, as the fashions tend to run to the hot pants era that spanned the end of the sixties into the very early seventies. Why's that important? Trish Van Devere. Having just married George C. Scott at the time of the movie's release, she was a bit of an attention-getter. Absolutely gorgeous, great legs and she shows them off in this movie with hot pants and mini-dresses aplenty.

Van Devere isn't the only scenery. There's LOTS of what makes places like Salt Lake City, Seattle and Vancouver beautiful. Lots of great shots of ferry boat travel, too. An absolute advertisement for each place. And really, in the more than 30 years since, those facts haven't changed much.

As for the movie, Van Devere and Michael Sarrazin are the young grifters. They meet-cute with one of the master pickpockets of the day, played with relish by James Coburn. He was hot at the time, coming off his Flint movie series, and was nearly as popular as Sean Connery in the movie spy business. Here, he's Harry of title fame. The fourth main character is Harry's mentor Casey, played with pitch-perfect precision by Walter Pidgeon. Casey is getting on in years, but he's still spry enough to participate in Harry's work. And he's a darn good teacher, as the kids soon learn.

The movie DOES turn into a primer on pickpocketing. The young 'uns get their lessons, find themselves wanting to expand and leave the nest a little early, and the end comes when Casey's skills and mental faculties start to break down. There comes a moment when the pickpocket team comes apart and decisions have to be made as to who goes to jail and who doesn't.

It's a good ending when justice DOES prevail in this movie. All the same, I've separated much of my wallet's contents ever since. And, when walking through crowds, I DO tend to look penniless, while keeping my hand close to where the money is.

NOTE: A word of warning. I don't think this movie is out on DVD. You'll have to catch it on late night TV. If you get a REALLY good copy, let me know. Mine's only so-so.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

MOVIES: #17 Speed

I don't know of any people in the movie business that don't like Sandra Bullock. I worked with her (for but a single day) in one of her earliest movies, the made for TV, Bionic Showdown: The Six Million Dollar Man and Bionic Woman. Even then, still in her early twenties, she exhibited all the joie de vivre that made Speed such a hit in 1994.

It would have been easy to add her to this list for While You Were Sleeping, the movie that made most everybody in America fall in love with her. But I prefer the thrills, action and twists of the bus with a bomb in perpetual motion. There weren't any buses jumping gaps in roads in While You Were Sleeping! Let me also mention The Net, which I'm living the first part of, at least. But we are here to talk about Speed.

Speed is, in essence, a caper movie. The crook is a really funny and creative Dennis Hopper, and he's trying to earn some bucks as an extortionist. He's wired a bus full of people with a bomb that will be triggered if the bus slows to below 50 MPH. All he wants is some retirement money and a little revenge on the cop he thinks ruined his life. Keanu Reaves plays the cop, one willing to shoot THROUGH partner Jeff Daniels, to stop a suspect in the opening moments of the movie. Reeves is from just down the road in Georgetown, and this is his best 'adult' role, assuming you've seen him act like a juvenile in the Bill and Ted adventures.

The bus is packed with the usual gang of faceless people ... and Bullock. She plays Annie Porter, who emerges from the pack to become the driver when events create the need for a new driver. She's inexperienced, but takes to the big wheel like a pro. She corners, rides the meridian and jumps the bus over gaps in highways that would make Evel Knievel blanch. And she looks pretty doing it.

In the meantime, Reeves is busy tangling verbally with Hopper and trying to get ONTO the bus. He succeeds in the derring-do and then helps the bus riders create their own mid-traffic get-off stop. It's all quite thrilling.

Lastly, Reeves sees through the smokescreen caused by the day's festivities and engages Hopper in a one-on-one duel that ends appropriately.

Reeves wasn't the only Canuck involved. The writer was Graham Yost and it was his launching pad in Hollywood. Prior to that, Yost, the son of Elwy Yost, the host of TVOntario's Saturday Night at the Movies for decades, was a TV writer of some nondescript shows.

NOTE: While I heartily recommend Speed, the less said about the sequel, the better. Really, REALLY BAD. You've been warned.