Sunday, July 8, 2018

Robert Culp Rocks "The Outer Limits"

The 1950s and 1960s television landscape featured many anthology series, and a number of those shows planted their feet firmly in the genre of the fantastic: The Twilight Zone, One Step Beyond, Thriller, and Science-Fiction Theatre, to name a few. There was one short-lived show that proved to be as groundbreaking and influential as its better-known counterparts: the original version of The Outer Limits. The series was the brainchild of writer-producer Leslie (Stoney Burke) Stevens. Along with Joseph (writer of the screenplay for Psycho) Stefano, and a talented crew of actors, writers and an amazing array behind the scenes talent, they produced some of the most creative, chilling and thoughtful hours of science-fiction (often laced with horror and fantasy) on television. There are a number of episodes I could write about, but for this week, I’d like to focus on a different kind of alien invasion tale, entitled Corpus Earthling, starring Robert Culp.

Culp plays Dr. Paul Cameron, a surgeon who has a steel plate in his head as a result of a previous injury. His wife Laurie (portrayed by Salome Jens) works with geologist and researcher Jonas Temple. While visiting them in their lab, Cameron thinks he hears voices coming from a couple of rock samples they’re studying. The voices are talking about a takeover of the planet Earth. When the aliens realize Cameron can hear them due to the metal plate in his head, they try to induce him to jump from a window, but the attempt fails. Cameron thinks he’s going crazy; and neither Jonas nor Laurie can hear the voices. But does that mean they aren't there?

Laurie (Salome Jens) and the alien invaders
After Laurie and Paul leave, one of the interstellar rocks takes over Dr. Temple’s body. Now possessed by the aliens, he is driven to search out Laurie and Paul, who’ve left town for a few days so Paul can rest. Temple (played by Barry Atwater, who later went on to portray vampire Janos Skorzeny in the classic telefilm The Night Stalker) follows the couple, and Laurie is taken over as well. The now transformed Temple and Laurie both cause Cameron to doubt himself, and his life becomes a living nightmare. Cameron must make some difficult choices, as he’s the only one standing between the aliens and their plan to conquer Earth. Alien rocks taking over the Earth may sound like a silly premise, but the straight-forward treatment of the idea and stark look of the episode bring the idea home. It's a nicely-crafted tale, written by Orin Bortsen, based on a story by Louis Charbonneau.

The Outer Limits was always noir-inspired, baroque and Gothic in its look and feel, due in no small part to the inspired work of cinematographer Conrad Hall (who later went on to win several Oscars) and director Gerd Oswald, who both contributed to a significant number of episodes. The dark atmosphere gives life to the hellish experience of Paul Cameron, who’s well played by Culp, especially in the creepy scene when he discovers the now-transformed Laurie, who both tempts and repels him in equal measure. Culp appeared in two other excellent episodes of the show, The Architects of Fear, and the Hugo award-winning Demon with a Glass Hand, which was penned by the late Harlan Ellison.

If you’re looking for something a little different in your classic science-fiction television diet, give The Outer Limits a try. There was no on-camera host for the show, just an eerie control voice proclaiming “There is nothing wrong with your television set…” The series lasted a season and a half, and boasts an unusually high number of quality episodes for such a short-lived run. Other stars that appeared on memorable episodes of the series include Martin Landau, Sally Kellerman, David McCallum and Robert Duvall. There’s an excellent website devoted to the series called We Are Controlling Transmission, which can be found here: Episodes of the show can be found on Hulu, and the first season of the series was recently released on Blu-Ray by Kino Lorber.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Leaves of Grass: Ed Norton Times Two

What if your past came back to haunt you in the present? The 2009 drama Leaves of Grass offers one answer to that question. Bill Kincaid (Norton) is a philosophy professor at Brown University; he’s been successful in the world of academia, and is being courted by Harvard to create a philosophy curriculum within their law school. A phone call from home changes everything. Bill is told his twin brother Brady has been killed. Bill hasn’t been home in years and left his old world behind to re-invent himself in a new place, with a new life.

Ed Norton and...Ed Norton in Leaves of Grass
Bill heads home to Tulsa, but discovers Brady (also played by Norton) isn’t dead after all. He’s hatching a plan to break free of his allegiance to a local drug distributor, and start over with his pregnant girlfriend. Brady’s a pot grower, who makes some of the most potent weed in the state. He needs Bill to pose as him in order to enact a plot to outwit the drug dealer. Bill refuses at first, but is drawn into his sibling's plan. He also has to deal with his own demons, and reconcile his memories of the family he left behind.

Norton is excellent in the dual role, as the strait-laced Bill, and the free-spirited Brady. He expertly conveys Bill’s reluctance to deal with the ghosts of his past; the mixed emotions he feels for his brother, and his buried feelings of resentment towards his mother (a nice supporting turn by Susan Sarandon).  As Brady, he portrays how the brother who stayed behind feels about his sibling, who deserted the family, and never looked back. 

The story goes in directions you don’t expect, with moments of drama and pathos mixed with some unexpected black comedy. The fine supporting cast includes Keri Russell, Richard Dreyfuss and Tim Blake Nelson, who also wrote and directed the film. A soundtrack of Southern style rock and folk is a nice touch that adds flavor to the movie. This is a unique film, a little different from the usual Hollywood product. The closest comparison would be the films of The Coen Brothers (Blood Simple, Fargo, Miller’s Crossing). If you’re a fan of intelligent dramas that are a little off center, then I recommend you give Leaves of Grass a try.  Here's a link to the film's trailer:

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Milius: Portrait of a Zen Anarchist

The ‘film school” generation of the 60s and 70s gave us such writer-directors as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and John Milius. Who's John Milius, you ask? You may not know his name, but you’re certainly familiar with some of the films he’s worked on as a writer, director or both: Apocalypse Now (1979), Conan The Barbarian (1982), Red Dawn (1984) and later, the HBO series, Rome (2005). Now a new documentary entitled Milius (2013) covers the life and career of this talented, sometimes controversial filmmaker. Milius came to prominence as a screenwriter in the early to mid 1970s. He worked on movies such as 1971’s Dirty Harry (Milius did an uncredited rewrite of the script, and came up with the famous “Do you feel lucky, punk?” speech) and writing the screenplays for the 1972 Robert Redford film, Jeremiah Johnson, (for which he received a record payday at the time) and the Dirty Harry sequel, Magnum Force (1973).

Milius quickly became one of the most in demand writers in Hollywood. Interestingly enough, at a time when the movie business (and the country as a whole) was in the midst of a more liberal stance politically, he was very conservative, but was still able to be a success in the industry. He wrote and directed the old-fashioned adventure film, The Wind & The Lion (1975) starring Sean Connery, Candice Bergen and Brian Keith as Teddy Roosevelt, one of Milius' personal heroes. He also wrote the famous monologue about the USS Indianapolis that Robert Shaw performs in Jaws (1975), as a favor to his friend Spielberg. Then he co-wrote the screenplay for Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, a project that he, Lucas and Coppola had talked about endlessly since film school. The documentary covers the genesis and production of the celebrated Vietnam war epic (and Milius' contributions to it) in great detail.

During the 80s, Milius worked on bringing Robert E. Howard’s legendary Conan character to the screen in Conan The Barbarian, and wrote and directed the original Red Dawn, about a Russian military takeover of the US, and a group of teenagers who rebel against the invaders. The film covers a lot of ground talking about these two movies, and the political controversy that was sparked by Red Dawn during its original release. During this period, Milius (and the entertainment business in general) were being heavily criticized for the overly violent content of films. And while Milius had famous friends and colleagues like Lucas, Coppola & Spielberg, his over the top personality often rubbed studio executives the wrong way, causing some of his projects to be derailed or cancelled. The self-proclaimed "zen anarchist" could sometimes be his own worst enemy.

The documentary is a well-rounded portrait of Milius, and features fascinting interviews with Lucas, Spielberg and Coppola. There are also comments from Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Milius’ children, as well as current filmmakers like Bryan (X-Men) Singer and Kurt (Sons of Anarchy) Sutter, who've been inspired by him. The Lucas and Spielberg sequences are some of the most engrossing parts of the film. While they often give interviews about their current projects, it’s fascinating to see them really open up about their friendship and collaborations with Milius, and tell stories about their early days working together in the 70s. Milius really is the kind of larger than life persona that you don’t see in today’s Hollywood, and even the studio executives he knocked heads & battled with admit they admire his talent.

The latter part of the film goes into some health struggles Milius has suffered after having a stroke a few years ago, which is why he’s largely seen in archival footage. He’s working to get better, and is hoping to get a long in development project about Genghis Khan produced. This is an absorbing portrait of a man who’s given us a host of iconic movie moments. It’s a must see for fans of 70s & 80s cinema, and if you've read Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, you'll see that a lot of the information from that book resonates in this documentary. Milius, which was directed by Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson, is often shown on the EPIX cable channel and is available for digital viewing at various sites. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer:

Thursday, June 14, 2018

It's All About Ray...Lamontagne

My latest piece for the wonderful arts & entertainment website Culture Sonar takes a look at the very talented singer-songwriter Ray Lamontagne. You can check it out by following the link below the photo. Feel free to use the search function to check out my other articles! Thanks for reading!

Monday, June 4, 2018

The Sounds of "Muscle Shoals"

The best stories, whether they’re fact-based or fictional, give you a true sense of their place and time. That's one of the strengths of the fascinating music documentary, Muscle Shoals, which was originally released in 2013. The film gives us an in-depth look at the Alabama town where two well-regarded studios have given us classic music by Percy Sledge, The Rolling Stones, Wilson Pickett, Arthur Alexander and many others. It’s also the story of producer Rick Hall, a fascinating man who survived quite a bit of personal tragedy and went on to open the celebrated FAME studios. Hall was a determined, driven man, who changed the shape of his own destiny, as well as the lives of many others. He gathered together a talented crew of studio musicians that came to be known as the Swampers, who became the backbone of the “Muscle Shoals sound.”

For many of those interviewed in the film, including Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Steve Winwood and reggae icon Jimmy Cliff, the town and its atmosphere have as much to do with the sounds they created and recorded there as the music itself. They all talk about the special energy of the place, and how being there affected them. Many artists found that the trajectory of their careers were changed by recording in Muscle Shoals, including Aretha Franklin, who was having trouble finding a sound on record which matched the intensity of her live shows. Until she headed to Muscle Shoals, and did a session with the Swampers for the song “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” and her career changed forever. That’s just one of the classic tunes that were recorded at FAME studios.

Another interesting fact brought out by the film is that many people thought the Swampers were black, due to the funky, R&B laced grooves they were creating; in fact, they were mostly white. But they were playing and recording with many black artists at a time when the civil rights movement was at its height. Hall points out that there were no color lines in the studio, and everyone got along with each other. The Swampers became one of the most in demand backing groups in the business, even attracting the attention of Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler, who eventually brought them to LA to play on some sessions there.

That success caused a rift with Hall, and the Swampers eventually broke off and founded their own studio, Muscle Shoals Sound Studios. They became just as successful in their own right, and the town found it now had two studios producing memorable music by Paul Simon, The Staple Singers, Rod Stewart, Bob Dylan and many others. The film is filled with excellent performance clips, and that footage, coupled with the intimate behind the scenes stories, really make the movie worth viewing. There’s also some interesting background on Lynyrd Skynyrd, who made some of their first recordings in Muscle Shoals, and famously name checked the Swampers in their song “Sweet Home Alabama.”

Muscle Shoals is about a remarkable town, an amazing group of people and the wonderful music they made. The story of Rick Hall (who passed way earlier this year) the Swampers and the songs that sprang from this celebrated location is essential viewing for rock and roll fans. The film was produced and directed by Greg 'Freddy' Camalier. Along with Standing In The Shadows Of Motown20 Feet From Stardom and The Wrecking Crew,  this is one of the best recent documentaries about the people “behind the music” I've seen. The movie is now available on DVD, Blu-ray and for online viewing at various sites. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer:

Saturday, May 19, 2018

An Offbeat Coming of Age Story

Every once in a while, I like to champion a little known film which may have escaped the notice of most viewers. This time out, I'm recommending a little movie called Son of Rambow (2007), a film by writer-director Garth Jennings & producer Nick Goldsmith, who also teamed up for the big screen version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in 2005. Son of Rambow is the story of two British school kids: Lee Carter, the requisite bad boy, and Will Proudfoot, a quieter and more introverted young man, whose family belongs to a strict religious sect called the Plymouth Brethren. Due to his family’s beliefs, Will is not allowed to watch TV or see movies. When the two boys become friends after being thrown together by circumstance, Lee invites Will to star in a movie he’s making, inspired by First Blood (1982), the first cinematic appearance of RamboAfter seeing the Sylvester Stallone action film at Lee's house, Will agrees to participate in the project.

Bill Milner & Will Poulter in Son of Rambow
The two boys work on the film using video equipment they secretly borrow from Lee’s older brother, who’s something of a bully. Will hides their activities from his widowed mother, who’s struggling with her decision to leave the Brethren, and start a better life for her family. The boys' ideas for the movie become even more ambitious, and the rest of the school, including some French exchange students, become involved in the project. Lee intends to enter the finished movie in a young filmmaker’s competition. As their friendship grows stronger, both Will & Lee will find themselves tested, as their personal lives interfere with the film they're making. Both boys must grow up a lot faster than they thought. Can their friendship survive this experience? Will the movie get finished, and will anyone get the chance to see it?

Son of Rambow is a charming, likable story with a gentle and quirky sense of humor. In some ways, you can compare this film to the character driven, whimsical stories of director Bill Forsyth, who wrote and directed Gregory’s Girl (1981) and Local Hero (1983)Son of Rambow is a coming of age story that has some genuine laughs, a few tears and it still manages leaves you smiling at the end. The movie gives you a real sense of the 1980s timeframe in which the story is set, with believable and relatable characters. The cast is very good, with both Will Poulter as Lee and Bill Milner as Will giving wonderful performances. I highly recommend checking out this film, which is based on writer-director Jennings and producer Goldsmiths own childhood experiences in the 1980s. This is one of those "under the radar" type of films you'll definitely enjoy, and find yourself recommending to friends after seeing it. Son of Rambow is available on DVD. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer:

Sunday, May 13, 2018

A "Fantastic" album from Elton John

Here's a link to my latest article at Culture Sonar, the marvelous arts and entertainment site. It's a retrospective piece on one of Elton John's best records, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, which wasn't just an album, it was an event. You can read all about it by following this link: Thanks for reading!