Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Eli Wallach vs. "The Magnificent Seven"

This post is part of the Great Villain Blogathon, sponsored by my fellow bloggers at Speakeasy, Shadows & Satin and Silver Screenings. For more details, and a list of posts, please follow this link: https://hqofk.wordpress.com/2017/02/24/the-great-villain-blogathon-2017/. Thanks for reading!

The Magnificent Seven (1960) is the fondly remembered Western remake of Akira Kurosawa’s classic Seven Samurai. The movie has a wonderful cast, including Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen. They’re members of a group of gunfighters hired to rid a small Mexican village of a bandit that has been victimizing them. But we don’t meet the title heroes until a bit later in the film. In the opening scene, we’re introduced to Calvera, the villain of the piece, who’s vividly portrayed by Eli Wallach. He’s marvelous in this sequence, riding into the village and strutting around like he owns the place. And at this point in the story, he does own the place. Calvera starts lecturing Sotero, one of the village leaders, on why his life is so difficult. He has to provide food and shelter for his men. Since they're outlaws, he and his crew are on the run, and have to stay one step ahead of the law. It’s a tough existence, at least according to Calvera. When one of the villagers challenges him, he casually kills the man and reminds everyone he’ll soon return to pick up more supplies.

The villagers decide to take action, and hire Chris Adams (Brynner) to gather a band of hired guns to help them drive away Calvera. Chris warns them that once they go down this violent road, there’s no turning back. At this point that we begin to meet our heroes, who are played by a cast of rising stars including James Coburn, Charles Bronson and Robert Vaughn. What’s interesting is that after the opening scene, Calvera isn’t seen onscreen for almost an hour. But he’s always a presence. Everyone talks about him, and discusses what the'll need to do defeat him. We know that once he and his men meet Chris and his crew, sparks (and bullets) will fly. And they do, in a tense scene where Chris asks him to "ride on" and leave the villagers alone. But Calvera won’t be put off so easily. He and his men battle the “seven” in the first of several well-staged action sequences from director John Sturges.

Yul Brynner & Eli Wallach
Calvera feels, like many antagonists, that he isn’t a villain. He’s just taking advantage of the situation. He and his men need provisions, and the village is a means to an end. He believes our heroes are disrupting the natural order of things. It’s his view that “If God did not want them sheared, he would not have made them sheep.” Calvera is a formidable, sly and menacing adversary, who isn’t above using a bit of guile to get what he wants. He tries (unsuccessfully) to convince Chris and the others to come over to his side. After our heroes are defeated and banished, it seems the bandit has gained the upper hand. But the warriors return and fight Calvera and his men alongside the villagers. “You came back…for a place like this…. a man like you….Why?” he asks, with his dying breath. Even at the moment of his defeat, he can’t understand why Chris & the others would return to aid these people. His question remains unanswered. 

Eli Wallach was a well-respected stage actor who made his film debut in Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll (1956). It’s a testament to his talent that he holds his own against the star power of Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen and the rest of the cast. He makes an unforgettable impression as Calvera, in an energetic and intense performance that never slips over into parody. In his autobiography, The Good, The Bad & Me: In My Anecdotage, Wallach fondly discusses the movie, and tells some interesting stories about the production. The men who were hired to play his gang in the film ended up bonding with him. They all went riding in the morning before filming, and insisted on making sure his riding accessories and gun were in working order before he used them. Wallach also wore a silk shirt and gold rings, as he felt it showed what a bandit like Calvera would do with his ill-gotten gains.

Wallach appeared in many fine films during his long career, including strong roles in two other Westerns, How The West Was Won and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, where he stole the show from Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef. The Magnificent Seven is an exciting film with a great cast, a literate script, and of course, that rousing score by Elmer Bernstein. The movie has spawned several sequels, a TV series and a recent remake starring Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt. But none of the subsequent villains have been quite as distinctive, or as memorable, as Calvera. I re-visit the film often, and while I enjoy all of the wonderful performances in this iconic Western, Wallach's is indelibly etched into my cinematic memory. Here's a link to the trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=abwMykCREW0.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

20 Feet From Stardom: Powerful Voices Emerge From The Background

Ever wondered about those backup singers you hear on so many great rock & roll songs, like the magnificent voice rising up during The Rolling Stones classic “Gimme Shelter”? Producer & music industry executive Gil Freisen did, and the result is 20 Feet From Stardom, a revealing 2013 documentary that covers the careers of several of these artists, including Merry Clayton, Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer and Judith Hill. The film includes interviews with these talented women, as well as appearances by Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger & Sting. It’s a fascinating look at the lives of some amazing singers, who were featured on songs that are now considered classics, like the Phil Spector produced “He’s a Rebel,” which features vocals by Love. Many of the artists profiled here became the “go to” session singers for many artists and producers of the rock era.

Several of the interviewees point out that the “hooks” we sing along with on many of these songs are actually the parts the backup singers performed. The artists who made use of these incomparable voices, like Jagger, Elton John, Sting & David Bowie, praise the added dimension these singers gave to their music. But the film also covers the dark side of the story. While Love sang the lead on “He’s A Rebel,” the record was credited to producer Phil Spector’s girl group The Crystals, who hadn’t even heard the song, and were on tour when Love recorded it. Spector actually pulled this trick with several releases, denying Love the success she could have achieved if the songs were released under her own name. Clayton, whose vocals on “Gimme Shelter,” were so memorable, unsuccessfully tried to launch a solo career, a problem which has also plagued some others profiled in the film, including Tata Vega & Claudia Lennear.

Lisa Fischer, who sang backup for Luther Vandross, and has toured extensively with The Rolling Stones, did have a semi-successful solo career, and is thankful for that success. She’s philosophical about the ups & downs of being a working musician. Judith Hill, the youngest of those profiled in the film, has been featured on NBC’s The Voice, and is currently trying to make the transition from backup singer to solo performer. The artists profiled all discuss the difficulty of going on that particular journey. The stories they tell are moving, insightful and revelatory. These singers have a shared history that helps bring their experiences into razor sharp focus. 20 Feet From Stardom is a look back at an important period in rock history; these indelible songs and unforgettable voices continue to influence today's artists. The movie features some incredible studio and live performance footage of these singers at work with artists like Vandross, Bowie and Ike & Tina Turner. The film climaxes with a wonderful cover of the Bill Withers classic “Lean On Me” sung by Darlene Love, Jo Lawry, Lisa Fischer & Judith Hill.

Directed by Morgan Neville, 20 Feet From Stardom has received many accolades, including the 2014 Oscar for Best Feature Documentary. It’s a must see movie if you are a music fan; if you don’t know who these singers are now, you certainly will after seeing this film. I’ve loved many of these singers for years, and I found the movie (and their stories) entertaining, illuminating & mesmerizing. The film is now available on Blu-ray & DVD, and is also streaming on some demand services. The disc version contains some deleted scenes, as well as an additional half hour interview with some of the film’s featured artists, conducted by New York Times music critic Jon Pareles. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tWyUJcA8Zfo.

Author's Note: This month marks the 6th anniversary of John V's Eclectic Avenue. Thanks to all who've read, supported, and spread the word about the blog over the years!

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Marshall Crenshaw & The Bottle Rockets: A Fantastic Double Bill at Stage One

Marshall Crenshaw and The Bottle Rockets
Marshall Crenshaw has been thrilling fans for several decades with his memorable sound, which encompasses pop, rock & folk. For his performance on April 2 at the Fairfield Theatre Company’s Stage One, he brought along some friends: the Missouri based alt-country powerhouse The Bottle Rockets. In essence, we got two incredible shows for the price of one. The Bottle Rockets kicked off the evening by tearing through a blistering set of kick out the jams, country-flavored rock. The set included several songs from their 2015 release South Broadway Athletic Club, including the jam band-esque “Ship It On The Frisco,” the allegorical  “Dog,” and the jangly “Monday (Everytime I Turn Around)”

Lead singer & guitarist Brian Henneman, drummer Mark Ortmann, bassist Keith Voegele and guitar master John Horton share the unique chemistry that allows them to sound loose and spontaneous, but simultaneously tighter than Ortmann’s drums. Everyone in the band got the chance to shine with some memorable solos, and you can see why this group is so well regarded for their passion-fueled live shows. Sprinkled throughout the more recent tunes were a handful of key tracks from across their 25-year career, such as “Kerosene” and the raucous “Indianapolis." Other favorites like the pulsating "Radar Gun" & the Neil Young-ish "Thousand Dollar Car" rounded out the set list.

Marshall Crenshaw
After The Bottle Rockets wrapped up their set, there was a brief break before they returned to the stage to back up Marshall Crenshaw. He started off his portion of the night with a stellar version of Buddy Holly’s “Crying, Waiting, Hoping.” Crenshaw then segued into a mix of more recent compositions such as “Red Wine” and “Television Light” along with staples like “Cynical Girl” and “There She Goes Again.” He was enthusiastic & in good spirits, providing strong vocals and some excellent guitar work. While the more well-known songs from his repertoire garnered the strongest audience reaction, there were other highlights during the show, including a lovely version of Grant (Husker Du) Hart’s “2541” and an incredible take on “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” featuring stellar work from Ortmann & Henneman.

Crenshaw & The Bottle Rockets have been playing together for several years now, and they shared a nice camaraderie during the show. The full-bodied backing of the group brought a tougher edge to Crenshaw’s music. Despite the passage of time, his well-crafted tunes definitely retain their wit, charm, and melodic hooks. The latter portion of the night featured a mini-set of Crenshaw’s classic power pop, from “Someday, Someway” to “Whenever You’re On My Mind.” The encore, a marvelous cover of Chuck Berry’s “Back in the USA,” was a fitting coda to a great show, especially in light of Berry’s recent passing. Special thanks to the staff at the Fairfield Theatre Company; Stage One is a wonderful venue for live music, and this phenomenal evening was no exception.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Retro Movie: The Legend of Hell House

The haunted house thriller is a longtime staple of horror films, and 1973's The Legend of Hell House is one of the better entries in the genre. As the movie opens, physicist Dr. Lionel Barrett is asked by a wealthy man to conclusively prove (or disprove) the existence of life after death. He's given one week to investigate Belasco House, which is considered the “Mount Everest of haunted houses.” The house was owned by Emeric Belasco, a notorious occult practitioner & murderer. Belasco went missing after a series of horrible events took place on the premises. No one has been able to explain the strange things that have occurred at this location, also known as "Hell House." Barrett’s joined by his wife Edith (Gayle Hunnicutt), as well as two mediums, Ben Fischer (Roddy McDowall) & Florence Tanner. Fischer was involved in a previous attempt to cleanse the evil energy from the house, which ended in failure. He’s still scarred by the experience, which left several people injured or dead. Fischer is wary of getting involved in this new investigation.

Roddy McDowall & Pamela Franklin
As the group tries to figure out exactly what is going on in the house, the supernatural forces within begin targeting individual members of the team. When Florence tries to communicate with the spirits in Hell House, she's first contacted, then attacked, by the unearthly presence. The ghost who speaks through her claims to be Belasco's son, but is that its true identity? Edith is also affected by the spirits in the house, but in a much more sensual fashion. She tries to seduce Fischer on two occasions while her husband is sleeping. Once she's aware of her actions, she's mortified. These incidents cause more tension within the group. Despite all of this, Barrett clings to the fact that there's a scientific explanation for these uncanny occurrences. Meanwhile, Fischer has kept his psychic power closed off since returning to the house. He has to decide if he'll once more open himself up to the danger there, in order to help the team. Can they solve the mystery of Hell House, and survive the experience?

"This house....it knows we're here."
The movie is a bit less subtle in its horror and scare elements than previous haunted house or ghost stories such as The Uninvited or The HauntingBut it's a great deal of fun; it's kind of a cross between a Hammer film and a B-movie thriller from the Roger Corman era at American-International Pictures. In fact, James Nicholson, a founder & former partner of AIP, produced the film. The movie is well-directed by John Hough, who provides an eerie atmosphere, and builds a nice level of tension as the story moves forward. There are some genuinely creepy moments, and couple of nice twists and turns to the tale, courtesy of screenwriter Richard Matheson. The movie is based on Matheson's novel Hell House. There's also a subtle & nicely crafted electronic score by Delia Derbyshire & Brian Hodgson, which is ideally suited to the tone of the film.

The cast is wonderful; they achieve the perfect balance in their performances, never going too far over the top. The Legend of Hell House is a treat for Roddy McDowall fans; there’s nothing better than seeing him give his all in a juicy role like Fischer. He's outstanding in the film. Pamela Franklin is excellent as Tanner; she pulls off a difficult part very successfully. In an earlier role, she appeared in The Innocents (1961), the classic ghost story based on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. Clive Revill as Dr. Barrett & Gayle Hunnicutt as his wife Edith both have some nice moments, but this movie is really a showcase for McDowall & Franklin. Genre fans take note; look fast for Michael Gough, who appeared in several British horror films of the 1960s & 70s, and played Alfred in Tim Burton's Batman movies. He has a brief but important cameo in the movie. The Legend of Hell House is an effective, intelligently made chiller that should please discerning fans of old school horror. The film is available in a Blu-ray edition from Scream Factory, and as of this writing, is also streaming on Netflix. Here's a link to the movie's trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hXzZViYiI3o.

Friday, March 24, 2017

The Robinsons Encounter Some Strange "Invaders From The Fifth Dimension"

This post is part of the Favorite TV Episode Blogathon, hosted by A Shroud Of Thoughts. Thanks to Terence at that site for letting me participate! To view the other entries, please use this link: http://mercurie.blogspot.com/2017/03/the-3rd-annual-favourite-tv-show.html.

During the mid to late 60s, producer Irwin Allen had his own science-fiction empire on television, with four shows airing at various times. Lost In Space, Voyage To The Bottom of The Sea, The Time Tunnel and Land of The Giants featured exciting stories, appealing characters, and colorful costumes and special effects. While I enjoy all of Allen's series, I have to admit the sci-fi kid in me has a real soft spot for Lost in Space. The show has seen a resurgence of interest in recent years. In 2015 the series celebrated its 50th anniversary. Stars Bill Mumy, Marta Kristen, Angela Cartwright & Mark Goddard have appeared at a number of conventions to celebrate the anniversary, as well to promote the Blu-ray release of the complete series.

The aliens capture Dr. Smith
Lost In Space, which originally ran from 1965-68, followed the adventures of the Robinson family. Their ship, the Jupiter 2, goes off course on a mission to Alpha Centauri. Along for the journey with parents John and Maureen Robinson are their children Will, Penny and Judy. Also onboard are co-pilot Major Don West, the traitorous Dr. Zachary Smith and a robot aptly named...Robot. It’s Smith’s sabotage that causes the ship to go astray. During the series’ first year, the Jupiter 2 is stranded on an alien planet as the crew tries to effect repairs. Most fans prefer this season’s black & white tales, before Jonathan Harris’ Smith character transformed from an outright villain into a more buffoonish, comedic foil.

One of the best of these early episodes (and a personal favorite of mine) is “Invaders From The Fifth Dimension,” which originally aired on November 3, 1965. Maureen & Judy observe a strange blip on the ship’s radar, but when they call Don over to take a look, there’s nothing there. Meanwhile, Dr. Smith sees a strange ship land, and is promptly captured by its alien crew. They explain they need a brain to power their ship’s damaged computer, so they can return to their own dimension. Of course, they’d like to use his brain. But the conniving Smith tells them he’s got a better idea. He can bring them Will’s brain, which he says will prove much more effective for their needs. The aliens install a shock collar on Smith & release him, telling him the device will kill him if he doesn’t return with Will as soon as possible.

Smith finds Will, and cons him into going back with him, saying there’s a threat to the family, and only Will can help stop it. As they make their way to the alien ship, Smith slowly plays on the boy’s fears, manipulating his emotions. First, he conveniently uses Will’s walkie-talkie to demonstrate the depth of a sand pit, effectively disposing of Will’s method of communicating with the rest of the family. Then there’s a chilling moment where Smith convinces Will some water he wants to drink is unsafe, simply by playing on his insecurities. Jonathan Harris is excellent in these scenes. This is an openly evil, villainous Dr. Smith who uses guile & subterfuge to get what he wants, and doesn’t care about anyone but himself. There’s precious little of the over the top mannerisms that would define the character in later episodes of the series.

The Robot tries to rescue Will, who's trapped inside the ship
While Smith & Will head for their rendezvous, John and Maureen realize their son is missing and head off in the land rover-esque Chariot (along with the Robot) to look for him. Don joins the search from the air by using the rocket powered Jetpack. Everyone converges on the alien ship. Will discovers what the aliens really need him for, and decides to remain with them for the good of his family. Smith is set free, and tries to make everyone think he & Will were captured together, and that only he was able to escape. As Will prepares to make the ultimate sacrifice, the aliens learn a lesson about humans & their emotional attachments. Of course, there's a happy ending for all...well, except for the aliens.

This is an exciting, well-paced story. The black & white photography lends an atmospheric quality to the episode. The alien craft is truly unique: it's definitely different in look & design than many of the types of models used (and often re-used) in Lost in Space and the other Irwin Allen series. The creepy mouth-less aliens are also eerie & effective. The episode was directed by Leonard Horn, a television veteran who was also behind the camera for the classic Outer Limits episode “The Man Who Was Never Born,” starring Martin Landau. Shimon Wincelberg wrote the story for “Invaders From The Fifth Dimension.” He co-wrote “No Place To Hide,” the original unaired pilot for Lost In Space. Footage from that pilot was used in the first five episodes of the series. Wincelberg also penned episodes for Star Trek, The Time Tunnel and Mannix.

The episode showcases the talents of Jonathan Harris as Smith & Bill Mumy as Will. They’re both very effective here, and the interaction between the characters is quite different than how it’s portrayed later in the series. This is one of the best installments of the show, along with such gems as “The Derelict,"  the two-part “The Keeper,” which guest starred Michael Rennie, and “There Were Giants In The Earth." During the second season the tone of the show shifted from science-fiction adventure to a whimsical fantasy with more overt comedic & campy elements. After that, Lost In Space rarely reached the heights of its first year, but it was always fun to watch the adventures of the Robinson family, as well as the heroes of Irwin Allen's other enjoyable TV series.

A couple of additional notes regarding this episode: We get to see both the Chariot and the Jetpack in this story, which would become a rare occurrence as the series progressed. Also, you can catch a quick glimpse of Bob (the man inside the Robot) May’s legs during the climax, when he moves out from behind some rocks. The Robot also gets one of the best lines in the show, during this exchange with Maureen:

Robot: I determine an alien presence.
Maureen: Alien? You mean from this planet?
Robot: On this planet, WE are the aliens.
Maureen: Touché.

Please make sure to visit the rest of the Favorite TV Episode Blogathon entries at the link above, and if you're looking for more coverage of Lost In Space here at Eclectic Avenue, you can follow these links: http://jveclectic.blogspot.com/2015/10/get-lost-in-space-all-over-again.html and http://jveclectic.blogspot.com/2016/12/a-retro-tv-christmas.html. Thanks for reading!

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Fall: An Enchanting Adventure

In today's world of big budget special effects extravaganzas & superhero franchises, there aren't many movies that can truly be called unique. Here at Eclectic Avenue, I often try to call attention to noteworthy films that have flown under the radar for some viewers. This week, I'm recommending the The Fall (2006), a spellbinding story directed by Tarsem Singh. Set during the silent film era at a hospital in Los Angeles, the film stars Lee Pace (from TV's Pushing Daisies and Halt & Catch Fire) as Roy Walker, a movie stuntman. Roy is hurt performing a stunt, and while recovering from his injuries, he meets a young girl named Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), who has suffered a broken arm. To pass the time, he tells her a fantastic story of high adventure about a heroic masked bandit & his stalwart allies (including Charles Darwin?!) and their efforts to rescue a beautiful princess from a vile villain named Odius. 

Roy continues to recount the story, and the line between reality and fantasy begins to blur. The friendship between the two deepens. Alexandria becomes involved in the telling of the tale, interjecting her own ideas into the story. But Roy may have an ulterior motive for befriending the girl, and all is not as it seems. What will happen in both stories, the real life one & the imaginary tale? How will it affect Roy and Alexandria's relationship? The answers are both enthralling & surprising. To say much more about the story and its twists and turns would spoil this beguiling, original film for 1st time viewers. Suffice it to say that this is truly a journey worth taking.

Catinca Untaru & Lee Pace
The movie was filmed in stunning locations all over the world (including Italy, France, Spain & India) over a period of four years. Director Tarsem Singh financed much of the production with his own money. The Fall was a deeply personal project & true labor of love for him. The absorbing screenplay is by Singh, Dan Gilroy & Nico Soultanakis. It's a fascinating look at storytellers, who can alter and shape the direction of a tale, and how the telling of a story can affect the storyteller as well. You may notice some parallels to The Princess BrideThe Wizard of Oz, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen in the film, though this tale takes a decidedly darker, but still compelling, turn as the story moves forward. 

Singh brings a remarkable visual palette to the film. There are some spectacular & breathtaking sequences during the fairy tale portions of the story; it really is an amazing & extraordinary film. Lee Pace and Catinca Untaru have great chemistry, and work very well together. Untaru's performance feels very real & unforced. Much of the dialogue between the two co-stars was improvised, to allow their relationship to feel more natural. The film is available on DVD and Blu-ray. If you're in the mood for something a little different on your next movie night, take a look at The Fall. I think you'll really enjoy visiting Tarsem's marvelous and imaginative world. Here's a link to the film's trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IwsYyRc9j4g.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Journey Back to the Planet of the Apes

The Planet of the Apes franchise has experienced something of a rebirth in recent years. The film series was successfully rebooted beginning with 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, followed by 2014's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and continues with War for the Planet of the Apes, which is scheduled for release this summer. There have also been several new graphic novels & comic book series based on the films, including a crossover with the classic Star Trek crew. Now editors Rich Handley & Jim Beard bring us Planet of the Apes: Tales From The Forbidden Zone, an anthology featuring sixteen fascinating short stories set in the classic Apes universe. The backdrop for the stories spans the era of the five original films to the worlds of the 1970s live action & animated television series. The authors include such well-regarded science-fiction, fantasy & comics scribes as Nancy Collins, Will Murray, John Jackson Miller & Paul Kupperberg.

Standouts include Dayton Ward’s “Message In a Bottle” which acts as a coda to the live-action TV series; Bob Meyer’s “The Pacing Place” a "what if" style alternate ending (or is that a new beginning?) to the original 1968 movie, and “Milo’s Tale” by Ty Templeton, a story about the simian scientist who was featured in the 1973 film Escape from the Planet of the Apes. You’ll also find tales populated by such familiar faces as Cornelius, Zira, and Nova, as well as characters from the live action television show, and the Saturday morning animated series Return to the Planet of the Apes. Both editors contribute engrossing stories to the collection; Beard's "Silenced," moves across several settings & time periods from the Apes mythology and Handley's absorbing "The King is Dead - Long Live The King" takes place after the events of Battle for the Planet of the Apes, the final film in the original cycle.

The book also features “Of Monsters & Men,” Kevin J. Anderson and Sam Knight’s look at a young Dr. Zaius, and Greg Cox’s “Endangered Species” an intriguing tale set many years before the time period of the original 1968 film. There's even a story focusing on the mutants from Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Dan Abnett's "Unfired." This project is a labor of love for these fine writers, who are obviously fans of the Apes saga and its colorful characters. They've clearly taken the project seriously & therefore have provided us with some well-written, thought-provoking and entertaining genre fiction. Planet of the Apes: Tales From The Forbidden Zone is an enjoyable anthology of original tales set throughout the history of that frightening future world where intelligent apes rule, and man is subservient. As a longtime fan of the Apes epic, I had a great time reading this book, and I think you will, too. Planet of the Apes: Tales From The Forbidden Zone is now available online at sites such as Amazon and also at brick and mortar stores like Barnes & Noble.