Thursday, May 28, 2015

Turns Out, There Really Is No Place Like Home

"And you're not getting away with anything! I got all your names and your addresses!"

George (Jack Lemmon)

It was easy to sympathize with George (Jack Lemmon) and his wife, Gwen (Sandy Dennis).

They were from small–town Ohio, visiting New York City so George could interview for a big job. He was sure he would get it, too. And they were both excited on the flight to New York. This was the opportunity George had been building up to; now, all his hard work was going to pay off. They were finally going to live the kind of life they had always wanted.

But the beautiful dream soon became a nightmare in "The Out–of–Towners," a movie based on a Neil Simon play that made its debut on this day in 1970.

We've all had periods in our lives when it was just one damn thing after another, but George and Gwen's trip to New York was the mother of all bad experiences. It certainly made my worst one–damn–thing–after–another experience look like a walk on the beach.

It's safe to say George and Gwen suffered just about every indignity imaginable.

The plane couldn't land because of air traffic and bad weather so, after circling long enough to ruin George's dinner reservation, the flight was diverted to Boston. George and Gwen had to take a train, which all the passengers on their flight and others were doing as well so the train was packed. They were hungry so, instead of dinner at The Four Seasons, they decided to eat in the train's dining car. But it was packed, and they had to stand in line. By the time they got a table, almost no food was left.
George: I was going to take you to dinner at one of the best restaurants in the world. Here you are eating peanut butter on white bread with nothing to drink. If you ever get your mouth open again, I wouldn't blame you if you never talk to me.

Gwen: Oh, my God!

George: What's wrong?

Gwen: I lost my left eyelash!

When the train arrived in New York, George and Gwen found out there was a strike, and they would have to walk to their hotel in the rain. By the way, their luggage had been lost.

And that was just their arrival in New York.

In some 24 hours, they were mugged twice — once while they were asleep in Central Park (their room at the Waldorf–Astoria was given to someone else because they did not contact the hotel by a certain time). At one point (probably my favorite part of the movie), George temporarily lost his hearing because a manhole cover on which he had been standing only seconds before was blown into the air and came crashing down next to him, creating a sound that kept echoing in his head and prevented him from hearing complete sentences. It was a harrowing time, to be sure.

Through it all, George kept writing down the names of the people whom he perceived to have mistreated him (whether they had or not) and their addresses, ostensibly so he could sue them when he got back to Ohio. And that really was where he would be going. I'm not sure when that became clear to the audience, but, long before the movie ended, I figured out that George and Gwen weren't going to be relocating to New York, that soon they would be on their way back to small–town Ohio.

(And I figured they would probably get on their knees and kiss the ground after they disembarked in Ohio.)

The experience appeared to make George paranoid. By the end of the movie, he really seemed to believe he had been the victim of some vast conspiracy, which was a hard sell, even if he could make a somewhat compelling case.

But, as bad as their trip to New York was, it really seemed to make George and Gwen appreciate what they did have in small–town Ohio — even if it wasn't perfect and didn't have all the amenities of a big city.

When George finally did go to his interview, Gwen worried that he would be offered the job — and would accept. She had realized that she really didn't want to live in New York.

Turned out George had been offered the job.
Gwen: What did you say, George?

George: What did I say? What do you think I said?

Gwen: I don't know, George. I was hoping you would say no. I was hoping you would say that you and your wife don't really belong in New York. That you wanted to live the rest of your life in Ohio. That you never wanted to see a big city again as long as you live. That you didn't want to live here or in, uh, Chicago or San Francisco or New Orleans or Paris or any other place where people have to live on top of each other, and they don't have enough room to walk or to breathe or to smile at each other. That you don't want to step on garbage in the streets or be attacked by dogs or have to give away watches in the middle of your sleep to men in black capes. That you were through traveling on trains that had no place to sit and no food to eat. And you didn't want to fly in airplanes that have no place to land and no luggage for you when you land there. That you wish you never came here, and the only thing in the world you really wanted was to pick up your wife and carry her to the airport and fly home ... and live happily ever after. That's what I was hoping you would say, George.

George: That's funny. That's what I told him, word for word.

Lemmon and Dennis were perfectly cast. They had more than enough Midwestern values in their personalities to make the parts of George and Gwen work.

Personally, I always thought Lemmon and Dennis were superior to Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn, stars of the 1999 remake. I guess I could always imagine Lemmon and Dennis living in rural Ohio, and I couldn't really picture Martin and Hawn living there.

Not that Martin and Hawn weren't believable as a couple — but Lemmon and Dennis were middle class enough to pull it off.

Lemmon was manic, like Daffy Duck on speed, meticulously keeping track of everyone who wronged him. Dennis was mousy, supportive of her husband but, when you got right down to it, determined and, like the famous Molly Brown, unsinkable.

It was a great character study.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Returning to the Planet of the Apes

Cornelius (David Watson): If you are caught by the gorillas, you must remember one thing.

Brent (James Franciscus): What's that?

Cornelius: Never to speak!

Brent: What the hell would I have to say to a gorilla?

I would never categorize myself as a fan of science fiction. I do like what could charitably be called mainstream science fiction — at least as it pertains to the movies. I haven't read much science fiction in my life, but I've seen some movies — all of the "Star Wars" movies, for example, and "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and "2001: A Space Odyssey."

And the "Planet of the Apes" movies. The sequel to the first movie, "Beneath the Planet of the Apes," premiered on this day in 1970.

I don't remember when I saw the first two "Planet of the Apes" movies, but I do know the circumstances. I saw them as part of a double feature at the movie theater in my small central Arkansas hometown. It was an old–fashioned single–screen theater, the only movie theater in town other than the drive–in on the outskirts of town, and first–run movies were never shown there. If one wanted to see a movie when it was popular, it was necessary to drive to Little Rock.

And in the summers the local merchants would sponsor free movies for the children in town on Wednesday afternoons. All a kid had to do was pick up a pass at just about any store in town and then present it on the date that was printed on the pass. Presto! You were in. Drinks and snacks still cost you money, though, but not that much, at least not when compared to what you've got to pay for drinks and snacks today.

The movies that were shown typically were a few years old, and the producers were wringing a few more bucks from them before they were retired (this was before cable and home video revived movies that were believed to have outlived their profitability). Investing in free movies was good public relations for the businesses in town. I didn't know a single mother who didn't appreciate having a few hours away from her children every Wednesday.

Most of the time, the kids paid little attention to the movies that were being shown. They were more interested in throwing popcorn at each other. And I was no different, I guess. But I remember times when I was interested in what was on the screen, and the occasion I saw the first two "Planet of the Apes" movies as a Wednesday afternoon double feature was one of those times — which also must have meant that, by that time, it was at least a year, maybe more, since the sequel had been released. I didn't think of that. I just watched the movies, mesmerized by them.

In hindsight, I think that seeing those two movies at a young age impressed upon me — especially the first movie with its unexpected ending — that movies could entertain as well as provide effective social commentaries on whatever the filmmaker wished to comment simultaneously. That may not seem like much of a revelation to you, but to my 11– or 12– or 13–year–old mind at the time, it really was a revelation.

The second movie wasn't as good as the first, but it had much better special effects, and the continuation of the story made sense to me. Charlton Heston was back, albeit in more of a supporting role this time, and James Franciscus was in it as an astronaut who had been sent in search of the lost space ship. Kim Hunter was back as Dr. Zira. Linda Harrison returned as Nova, the beautiful mute.

And the audience pieced together what had happened to earth over some 20 centuries as well as what had happened on the planet since the first movie. From the by–now famous finish of the first movie, it was clear that a nuclear war had broken out, and most of the world's population had been wiped out. Life had to begin again, but this time it evolved into a world in which apes were the rulers and humans the ones who were reduced to acting on animal instincts.

Since the original movie two years earlier, apparently the gorillas had staged some sort of military coup and were dispatching an army to the Forbidden Zone — where Heston had disappeared.

Most of the humans on the planet were mute, like Nova, but there was a subset of humans living beneath the surface (hence the name of the movie), worshiping a nuclear weapon. They accomplished many things through mind control, but, in the end, it was the bomb that stood between them and being overrun by the apes.

I wasn't very impressed with the next three movies in the "Planet of the Apes" franchise — nor have I been very impressed with its recent reincarnations — but I thought the sequel that premiered 45 years ago today was a worthy followup to the first movie and adequately answered some lingering questions.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Going Back to the Future ... One More Time

Marty (Michael J. Fox): I'm sorry, Doc. It's all my fault you're stuck back there. I never should have let Biff get to me.

Doc (Christopher Lloyd): Well, there are plenty worse places to be than the Old West. I could've ended up in the Dark Ages. They probably would have burned me at the stake as a heretic or something.

The final installment of the "Back to the Future" trilogy premiered on this day in 1990.

Some people never thought there should be a sequel to the original, let alone a third movie. I didn't particularly mind, as I wrote last year on the 25th anniversary of the premiere of the sequel, mainly because I enjoyed the premise. But, in hindsight, I must admit that the concept had about run its course after three movies. I'm glad they didn't go all "Rocky" — or, God forbid, all "Star Wars" — on us. That could have been messy.

(Still, time travel does have certain things in common with space travel, does it not?)

Beyond that, there were a few things for which I was grateful when I saw the trilogy's final installment.

For one, I was glad the producers of the movie didn't try to return to the future. I think they explored that concept about as much as they could — without actually knowing what the future held, which, of course, was the point of "Back to the Future Part II." Other than that, I can't think of too much in the way of other themes about the future that could be plausibly explored.

It is that very knowledge that we do have about the past that makes the concept of traveling back in history, not forward, so appealing. And the temptation always seems to be to go back to a time when a major event occurred, like the attack on Pearl Harbor, and use the knowledge one brings from the future to change that past.

(It is a theme that was explored in what is probably my favorite episode from the second generation of the Twilight Zone TV series. It was about a visitor from the future who returned to Dallas in November 1963 and altered history by preventing the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Turned out, though, that history requires something of equal value when its predetermined course is altered. Because the assassination had not happened as it was intended, serious storms erupted around the globe and the Soviet premier was assassinated.)

No, I don't think there was any more fertile ground to be plowed in the future. But the past is a different matter. The past is as vast as space, offering countless opportunities. The stuff about the '50s was pretty much exhausted, though, so it was essential to pick a different time, and the old West was as good as any. Marty could interact with his ancestors, Irish immigrants, and the always present inventor of the Time Machine, Doc Brown.

I thought it was good, for example, that Lea Thompson could continue her fine work in the third movie, playing Michael J. Fox's great–great–grandmother after playing his mother in the first two movies. And that lent itself nicely to some clashing–centuries humor. For example:

At one point, at a fund–raising party in the town square, Marty held up a plate that had the word Frisbee written on it. Frisbee, apparently, was the name of the maker of the plate or the business that served whatever had been on the plate, but Marty, of course, associated it with the plastic disc that was such a popular toy in the '70s and '80s. Marty said to his great–great–grandparents, "Hey, Frisbee! Far out!"

"What was the meanin' of that?" Fox, playing his great–great–grandfather, asked after the latter–day Marty had sauntered off.

"It was right in front of him," Thompson's character remarked.

Another thing I liked about the casting was that it featured Mary Steenburgen, an actress with whom I was familiar long before she started appearing on America's movie screens. For a time, she was a student at the central Arkansas college where my father was a religion professor, and she appeared in some campus productions. I think I even saw one once. Hard to remember now. But I knew her name. It was distinctive.

Ten years before she appeared in the final "Back to the Future" movie, Steenburgen won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in "Melvin and Howard." As far as I know, she is the only former student of that college to win an Oscar — probably the only one ever to be nominated for an Oscar.

Personally, I have always thought she was a good actress — even though she hasn't been nominated for an Oscar for any of her performances since.

Film critic Roger Ebert complained that the "looking-glass quality" from the first two movies was absent in the third, and there is something to that. There is also something to his characterization of the pace of the first two movies as "dizzying," a pace that, it seems to me, is inappropriate for a tale set mostly in the Old West — even if it did involve time travel as well.

Ebert didn't care for the sitcom quality of the Old West as presented in "Back to the Future Part III," but he did find one part of it endearing — the romance between Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) and Clara (Steenburgen).

He found one constant in all three movies: "a sort of bittersweet, elegiac quality involving romance and time."

"In the first movie," Ebert wrote, "McFly went back in time to be certain his parents had their first date. The second involved his own romance. The third involves Doc Brown and Clara. In all of these stories, there is the realization that love depends entirely on time. Lovers like to think their love is eternal.

"But do they ever realize it depends entirely on temporal coincidence, since, if they were not alive at the same time, romance hardly would be feasible?"

Hmmm. The relationship between romance and time travel. Something to ponder on the 25th anniversary of Part III's debut.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Task of Living

"It seems to me, once in your life, before you die, you ought to see a country where they don't speak any English, and they don't even want to."

Mrs. Gibbs (Fay Bainter)

Martha Scott was a good actress, one who has not been given enough credit — perhaps because, in a career that spanned seven decades, from the stage to the big screen to the TV screen, she was only nominated for a Best Actress Oscar once.

That was for her performance in "Our Town," which premiered on this day in 1940. She lost — but, to be fair, she had some stiff competition. She was up against Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Joan Fontaine and the winner, Ginger Rogers.

"Our Town" also received nominations for Best Picture, Best Sound Recording, Best Score, Best Original Score and Best Black and White Art Direction. It deserved all six nominations — and lost all six awards.

To more sophisticated 21st–century eyes and ears, "Our Town" probably seems hopelessly corny, but to me it seems pretty representative of small–town America well into the 20th century. There were things about the story that reminded me of the then–small town in Arkansas where I grew up. It was set in the first decade of the 20th century in New Hampshire, right next door to Vermont, which my family visited when I was a child because my parents had friends there, and that small New Hampshire town easily could have been the small Vermont town in which my parents' friends lived.

It was the kind of place where milk and newspapers were home–delivered on a daily basis, and nobody felt the need to lock the doors before going to bed at night. Changes did come to the fictional town — Grover's Corners — as they did in my hometown but at a glacial pace. The most important changes were the ordinary, everyday things that were happening in the lives of the town's residents — births, deaths, weddings, going to school, going to work, falling in love, falling out of love. You know, life.

Because that really is what is going on — life, whether it is in the big city or the small town. People are living their lives, doing the best they can under sometimes difficult circumstances. Sometimes the challenges seem to be too great and the rewards too few, and that seems to draw people together. It's all part of life, be it in New York City or Grover's Corners, at the turn of the 20th century or the turn of the 21st.

Scott played Emily, the young bride of George (William Holden), and it is about this couple that the story revolved, from their first meeting to their tenuous courtship to their wedding day — to the day when Emily died in childbirth, and George and the family took her to the town cemetery for her burial. Grief, of course, is a part of life, too, and Emily's death was devastating for George.

The movie was based on a play in which Scott played Emily so she was reprising a role she knew well. The movie retained many of the tactics of the stage play — for example, the presence of the narrator (called the Stage Manager) who, along with the audience, observed the events, the joys and the sorrows of Grover's Corners.

When Emily died in the stage play, the theater audience observed her conversation with her mother–in–law, who had died some time before, as the mourners trickled away from the cemetery. The scene was effectively re–created in the movie.

Against the advice of her mother–in–law and the others in the cemetery, Emily chose to go back and re–live a random day in her life. When it was over, she delivered a memorable tribute to the world of the living: "Goodbye, goodbye, world. Goodbye, Grover's Corners ... Mama and Papa. Goodbye to clocks ticking and Mama's sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new–ironed dresses and hot baths ... and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you."

"Our Town" was remade for TV in 1977 with Glynnis O'Connor playing Scott's part — passably but not exceptionally.

Martha Scott did it better.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Night the Lights Went Out in Seattle

"Every year I go to my family reunion and I answer the same questions: 'No, I'm not married,' 'No, I don't have any kids,' 'Yes, I still have that tattoo,' 'No, you can't see it.'"

Roz (Peri Gilpin)

As the second season of Frasier drew to a close 20 years ago tonight, the emphasis of the final episode was on celebrations — and relationships.

Roz (Peri Gilpin) was despondent because, for the first time in a long time, she had not returned to her native Wisconsin for the family reunion. She tearfully told Frasier that her family always had fun at the reunions.

"Like this one time there was this huge cheese party," she told him, "and one of my uncles started speaking in cheese language. You know, like instead of saying, 'Hello, how are you?' he'd say, 'Hello, Havardy.' Someone else would go, 'Oh, I'm Gouda.' Oh, I don't know. What would come after that?"

Without batting an eye, Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) replied, "If I'd been there, the sound of a gunshot."

Frasier wasn't entirely unsympathetic, though, and he invited Roz to join his family for a birthday celebration for his father (John Mahoney) — who, as it turned out, was quarreling with Daphne (Jane Leeves) over his exercises.

And then Niles (David Hyde Pierce) showed up, and he was angry because one of his patients had called Frasier's radio show complaining about her therapist, and Frasier had recommended that she start seeing a different therapist.

"Two years of my hard work," Niles lamented, "wiped out by one of your two–minute McSessions."

It wasn't exactly the warm, harmonious family atmosphere Frasier thought he had offered to Roz to cheer her up.

Especially after the lights went out.

It was a power outage affecting a portion of the city, and it just happened to occur when Martin was blowing out the candle on his birthday cake. "Well, we know there's nothing wrong with Dad's lungs," Niles remarked on the darkened set.

And, as so often happens in such circumstances, there was some bonding that went on between those who were riding out the storm together. Frasier was the glue that held it all together. After confessing earlier to Roz that he had been looking forward to the weekend, he wound up ministering to each member of his family — and his extended family, as he called Roz and Daphne.

Initially, they bonded over a game Frasier remembered from a party he had attended — "I'm the Dullest Person." Each contestant named something he/she hadn't done and if another contestant had done it, that person had to give the first person a penny. The one who wound up with the most pennies was the winner.

Frasier talked Daphne into getting the ball rolling. She protested that she couldn't think of anything, but Frasier insisted. "Oh, I don't know," she said. "Because I've never made love in a lift or a phone booth or on an aeroplane or a merry–go–round."

"Okay, that's good," Frasier said, "but strategically speaking that's not the best way to get our pennies. You see, it should be something that someone else might have actually ..."

The sound of a penny being tossed into a dish could be heard, and it wasn't long before everyone realized it was Roz who had tossed in the penny. It was followed by three more.

"I was in college," Roz said. "I was trying to find myself!"

"All you needed to do was look under the nearest man," Niles said.

It occurred to me that, as sharp as the writing usually was on Frasier, it was especially good in season premieres and finales. Frasier's season finales especially tended to be rather introspective. This season–ending episode — called "Dark Victory" in a delicious play on the Bette Davis movie of the same name — was particularly good.

And the use of the fireplace in the power outage was inspired. It lent a kind of intimacy to the program that it seldom achieved, even when one considers all the ways it succeeded at other things in its 11–year run.

In fact, if someone was to ask me to recommend an episode as a good overview of the best qualities of the Frasier series to show to someone who had never seen an episode of Frasier before and wanted to know what all the fuss was about, this episode would be on my short list.

It was that good.

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Windbag and the Lion

As I have mentioned before, I like movies that are based on actual historic events.

It goes with the territory, I suppose. I have always been something of an amateur historian. I even minored in history in college. Historical movies (sometimes they are called "biopics" even if they aren't biographical in nature, although I usually reserve the term biopic for movies that really are biographies, not just movies about events that played prominent roles in the subject's life).

But, in a way, I feel torn about "The Wind and the Lion," which premiered 40 years ago today. It isn't really a biopic. It is loosely based — very loosely based — on a rather obscure event called the Pedicaris incident.

Now, I like to think I'm a reasonable guy — and, even though I'm that history geek you were warned about, I'm not as rigid as you may think. I can be flexible about movie adaptations as long as they are basically faithful to the truth. I'm willing to allow for some poetic license in the crafting of dialogue, for example, or some other details. I don't get bent out of shape, say, if the cars in a movie did not exist until a year or two after the event in the movie took place. My brother is the one who inherited the mechanical aptitude in the family, and he might get worked up over something like that, but, to me, it is a general detail that I can overlook.

What I find significantly more difficult to overlook is a movie that rewrites history. It doesn't have to be as blatant as, say, a movie about Pearl Harbor in which the blindsided Americans waged a counterattack that drove the Japanese from the Hawaiian islands before they inflicted as much damage as history tells us they did. It can be more subtle than that.

It wasn't hard for "The Wind and the Lion" to be subtle, being as very few people knew about the Peridcaris incident, which took place in 1904, at the time it happened — or for decades thereafter — much less in 1975 or after.

So the folks who made the movie apparently felt free to fudge on some details — like, for example, the fact that a man, not a woman, was abducted by turn–of–the–century Arabs who provide an interesting contrast with groups like Isis today.

The leader of the gang, played by Sean Connery, proudly asserts that he doesn't kill women and children; the leader of radical Muslims today could make no such claim — although that leader no doubt would agree with Connery's character when he asserts that he is merely Allah's instrument and that whatever happens is Allah's will.

That's a pretty common assertion from anyone who absolutely believes God is on his side — and that it is a blank check for him to do as he pleases.

The woman was played by Candice Bergen, who was 29 and rather pretty when the movie premiered. The man who really was kidnapped in the incident on which the movie was based was a rather plain businessman in his 60s. In the movies, sex appeal trumps the truth — but that really isn't a surprise, is it? Sex is profitable; the truth rarely is.

Speaking of truth, I have my doubts that the portrayal of President Theodore Roosevelt, who was seeking a full term after becoming president following the assassination of President McKinley three years earlier, was entirely accurate. Teddy, who faced the challenge as president of doing something to save the hostages, was played in a cartoonish way — always a belligerent windbag who frequently appeared to be more concerned with his image than anything else — by Brian Keith.

Now, I have no doubt that Roosevelt possessed such qualities — I have read many books about his life and presidency — and I agree that he was a strong–willed man, a rugged individualist who craved adventure — but I don't think he was always the blowhard that he appeared to be in "The Wind and the Lion."

Of course, I could be wrong.

At the Oscars, "The Wind and the Lion" received two nominations — for Best Original Score and Best Sound Mixing — and lost both to John Williams' score for "Jaws."

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Revealing How Darth Vader Became Darth Vader

Padmé (Natalie Portman): So this is how liberty dies, with thunderous applause.

What I will always remember most about "Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith," which made its debut 10 years ago today, is something that almost no one else will remember.

It is the only Star Wars movie I have seen at the theater with my father — and, even though Episode VII apparently will be showing on America's movie screens sometime next year, Episode III likely will be the only Star Wars movie I ever see with him. (And, unless my brother went with him to see another of the Star Wars movies, it may be what he remembers as well.)

My brother and I took Dad to see it on Father's Day 2005. He saw Episode IV, which was the first Star Wars movie, way back in 1977, but I didn't see it with him. He might not have seen it at the theater at all. He may have waited to see it on TV, whenever it was first shown.

Dad doesn't go to the theater alone; typically, he went with my mother when she was alive. When the first Star Wars movie was showing in theaters, though, I saw it with Mom, who loved movies and often watched a movie multiple times and might very well have gone to the theater with him to see it a second time. So that may have been when he saw it, but I don't know that for certain. All I know is he didn't see it with me.

And then I saw the next two installments in the Star Wars franchise with friends — on both occasions in theaters that were far from where Dad was living at the time. That wasn't really unusual for me, though. I have rarely seen a movie in a theater with my father since I was a small child. In those days, I imagine he took me to movies that I wanted to see and were appropriate for my age group. I doubt that he wanted to see them.

Dad wanted to see this one, though. He has never said why, but my guess would be that it would answer a lot of questions for him, just as it answered a lot of questions the Star Wars fans had about how Darth Vader came to be. He just didn't care to sit through the first two episodes.

Might have been a good idea if he had, though, since his mental image of Obi–Wan Kenobi was Alec Guinness, not Ewan McGregor. And Hayden Christensen surely was not his idea of Darth Vader. If, along with the rest of the audience, he had been familiar with the actors playing the younger versions of those characters, he wouldn't have had to ask me who they were.

Anyway, the movie answered all the questions about how Anakin Skywalker gravitated to the Dark Side — although, in hindsight, I suppose it wasn't too hard to guess. For all the buildup the movie received for how it would answer all the lingering questions about Darth Vader and his relationship to Luke and Leia, the Star Wars trilogies have been pretty transparent, haven't they? There clearly are biblical parallels in the battle between good and evil, the conflict between the Force for good and the Dark Side.

I guess that was what intrigued my father. He was a religion professor when I was growing up — like his father before him. I also remember that he enjoyed science fiction — the Star Trek TV series, for example, and "2001: A Space Odyssey." Maybe he liked the mix of biblical morality stories played out against a futuristic backdrop. The light saber duels — and there were many in "Revenge of the Sith" — provided an obvious example.

Looking back on it, I am inclined to wonder if "Revenge of the Sith" might have been a metaphor for something more sinister, like the rise of radical Islam.

Natalie Portman's character may have held the key to that — and perhaps it may have given us a clue of what to expect in the third Star Wars trilogy. Her strong female character seemed to be eliminated faster in "Revenge of the Sith" than it probably would be even in a radical Islamic environment.

Speaking of Portman, she wasn't exactly a newcomer when she made "Revenge of the Sith," even though she was not quite 24 when it premiered. She was a big–screen veteran, having had several minor roles and a few major ones in the previous decade. By the time I saw "Revenge of the Sith," I had already seen Portman in Episodes I and II, as well as "Cold Mountain," so I knew she had some talent.

But, even though there were times when "Revenge of the Sith" was a swashbuckling romp of which Errol Flynn would have been proud — and the dialogue could have been better — Portman never gave in to the temptation to camp it up.

And that probably wouldn't have been too hard to do with all the technological bells and whistles that George Lucas used in the sixth (but, apparently, not final) installation in the Star Wars franchise.

I can only wonder what is in store in Episode VII.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Some Enchanted Evening

Frasier (Kelsey Grammer): We'll make the place very, very exclusive! No sign on the outside, no advertisements and, oh, an unlisted number!

Martin (John Mahoney): Hey, well don't stop there! Maybe you could post some guards on the roof who can shoot people as they try to get in.

One of the always funny themes that was explored from time to time on Frasier was the sibling relationship between Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) and Niles (David Hyde Pierce). It frequently reared its head when the brothers attempted some project together — writing a book, going into a psychiatric partnership together, competing as a doubles team in squash tournaments — and, on the surface, they looked like a perfect match for a partnership. Both were elitist with very similar tastes in just about everything. On occasion, they even found themselves falling for — and competing for (or thinking they were competing for) — the same woman.

Now, appearances can be deceiving, and partnerships of all kinds succeed — and fail — for many reasons, but, as a rule, I believe the old adage that opposites attract is a pretty good one for business partnerships. It has always seemed helpful — to me, anyway — for one partner to be the big–picture guy, the promoter, while the other was the nuts–and–bolts guy, the details guy, the one who excelled at keeping the books and managing expenses.

A pair might be all right in poker — well, it beats no pair — but I don't think it is preferable in a business partnership. It is often said that two heads are better than one — but I would add that they need to bring separate skill sets to the table. And, after the episode of Frasier that premiered 20 years ago tonight, I had to wonder if the Crane brothers didn't think so, too.

A fixture on the Seattle restaurant scene was going under, and Niles and Frasier — while having a farewell dinner at the restaurant — decided to invest in it. The idea of running an exclusive restaurant appealed to their elitist natures, and they paid no attention to their father, who tried to make them aware of the hard work and long hours that go into making most restaurants succeed.

To be fair, few (if any) restaurants have been beset by as many opening–day calamities as Frasier and Niles' enterprise. Of course, Frasier and Niles brought a lot of it on themselves.

For one thing, their chef's signature dessert, Cherries Jubilee, kept getting additional doses of brandy because Frasier wanted "those cherries to be jubilant!"

Be careful what you wish for.

When the cherries were fired up, as it were, it caused an explosion — in which Roz (Peri Gilpin), who had been pressed into service as a substitute waitress, was caught, with predictable results. The fire — well, the smoke it caused — set off the sprinkler system.

Prior to that, Niles and Frasier had been micromanaging the chef, a creative sort who finally decided he had had enough and left the brothers without saying a word.

Then Niles tried to go out the wrong door and wound up knocking out one of the waiters. Frasier broke another waiter's nose trying to carry the other injured waiter through the other door. The bartender volunteered to take them both to the emergency room.

That, of course, left the Cranes short–handed. The rest of the kitchen staff skedaddled out of the restaurant when they heard that the head of the immigration bureau was having dinner there that night.

So Frasier pressed Martin (John Mahoney) and Daphne (Jane Leeves) into service.

As things were crumbling around Frasier, who should show up but his radio station colleague, Gil Chesterton, the pretentious and effeminate food critic, with four other restaurant critics from the Seattle media.

After the Cherries Jubilee explosion — and the sprinkler system it set off — those critics couldn't wait to tell their readers/listeners. And if they ever forgot what had happened, Gil assured Frasier, he would remind them.

Yep, it was a real disaster, all right. And Martin got a chance to gloat. He had predicted it all, and he had maybe the best line of the night when he answered the phone amid the smoldering rubble of opening night and spoke to someone who wanted to make a dinner reservation. Martin inquired about the seating preference. "Smoke damaged or non–smoke damaged?"

Friday, May 15, 2015

Death of a Bluesman

"The beautiful thing about learning is that no one can take it away from you."

B.B. King

B.B. King, the legendary blues recording artist, died last night in Las Vegas at the age of 89, and many in the media snapped up the obvious headline from what may be his best–known recording — "The Thrill Is Gone."

If I was still working on the copy desk, I might have gone that way, too. Some headlines are too obvious to ignore, but this one seems to be a bit overused today. Oh, well. I guess it was inevitable.

I always wanted to see him perform in person. My last opportunity was about a year ago when he performed in this area, but I was working part–time jobs at the time and couldn't afford a ticket. I realized at the time that I might never get another chance to see him.

Now he will forever be another opportunity I missed — like when I was making plans to see John Lennon the summer after he released "Double Fantasy" — the word was that he intended to go on tour that spring and summer, and I wanted to go wherever he would be closer to my home in Arkansas, even if that meant driving a long distance — but he was murdered in December. That wasn't so much an opportunity missed, I suppose, as an opportunity that never was.

As I say, King is probably best known for "The Thrill Is Gone," and that's probably an appropriate comment on the occasion of his death, but the truth is he will never be gone, thanks to the many recordings we have of his performances in the studio and on stage.

If there is another word that is linked to his name, it is Lucille, the name of his guitar and the inspiration for another classic B.B. King song, one that is well worth hearing on this day.

Whatever he was playing, B.B. King was entirely animated, changing his facial expression with every note, every chord, every lyric. I never saw him in person, but I saw him enough on TV to know that was his style. His whole body got involved in a song, not just his hands and fingers.

Lots of people do something like that, but he was an original. If you see a musician doing that these days, I'd bet dollars to doughnuts he/she was influenced by B.B. King, either knowingly or unknowingly.

He influenced a lot of people. Richard Gehr of Rolling Stone compiled a list of "10 Legendary Acts That Wouldn't Exist Without B.B. King," which is a reminder of just how much music lovers owe B.B. King. Maybe we would have gotten Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Santana, the Allman Brothers, Stevie Ray Vaughan anyway — but my guess is they wouldn't have been quite the same. Some might have been decidedly different.

Listen to a B.B. King album — any of 'em — and you'll see what I mean.

I never learned how to play the guitar myself, but several of my friends in college knew how to play, and many of them were wannabe blues musicians. They all tried to play what was clearly B.B. King style, and a few were pretty good, too, but not that good. There was only one B.B. King.

I've always been partial to "Why I Sing The Blues," a lesser–known King tune, to be sure, but invaluable if one wants to know about B.B. King the man, what motivated him.

"I've been around a long time," he sang. "I've really paid my dues."

I imagine that is a sentiment to which many people could relate.

I've seen several written tributes to King today, and they all seem to conclude with "R.I.P., B.B. King" and some sort of reference to the afterlife — usually something about how heaven has "a hell of a band" (which has become something of a cliche over the years). I have lots of questions about the afterlife. I'm not nearly as certain of its existence as many people I know — which is, I suppose, the very essence of faith.

And maybe I don't have enough. I surely don't have enough faith as far as some people are concerned. I don't know if B.B. King completely ceased to exist when he died last night or if his spirit is floating out there somewhere.

If it is the latter, I will say this. It gives a new meaning to the phrase "blue heaven."

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The End of the Beatles' Long and Winding Road

Forty–five years ago today, the fourth and final movie featuring the Beatles — "Let It Be" — made its debut. Beatles fans were already becoming familiar with the music from the film — the soundtrack had been released in the United Kingdom a few days earlier and would be released in the United States a few days later.

At the Academy Awards the next year, the "Let It Be" was declsred the Best Original Score.

It was also released about five weeks after Paul McCartney had announced he was leaving the band. The signs of an approaching breakup had been there long before.

"Let It Be" was the only Beatles movie that had no real plot, which made it, in my opinion, the purest of the movies when it came to musical content. That is what the movie really was, a document of a prolonged recording session. It was also the filmed record of a popular band going through its death throes. It happens to most bands, I suppose. For any of several reasons, the band reaches its limit, and the members all understand it is time to look for something new. It didn't seem to surprise them, and it shouldn't have come as much of a surprise to anyone who had been paying attention, either. Nevertheless, many fans still seemed to be in shock at the thought of the Fab Four never performing together again.

I guess it all defied logic. The fans could read newspapers and magazines that detailed the band's breakup, yet, at the same time, there was another Beatles movie showing at the nation's theaters, and new Beatles music was playing on the radio. Nothing really seemed to have changed, the deniers told themselves, conveniently overlooking the evidence of an approaching breakup that had been accumulating for months. How could it be over?

Ah, but it was. The Beatles never performed as a band again. They each recorded solo albums and frequently collaborated with one or more of their former bandmates. I believe all four did play on one of Ringo Starr's albums — but on separate songs.

There were probably some hard feelings that lingered for awhile. Each Beatle seemed to have his personal agenda. In the movie, there appeared to be personality clashes between McCartney and each of his bandmates — but especially George Harrison, it seemed — at one time or another. John Lennon seemed to be obsessed with his new love interest, Yoko Ono. I'm sure Ringo had his issues, too. I just never could figure out what they were, other than he just wanted the band to keep making music — like they did when Beatlemania was new and the Beatles dominated the charts.

In the rapid–fire universe of popular music, a few weeks or months can seem like a lifetime. The half–decade that passed between the Beatles' first movie — "A Hard Day's Night" — and their last — "Let It Be" — must have seemed like a millennium, especially when you think of all the musical territory that was explored by the Beatles in the interim.

Their music had certainly traveled light years from "Can't Buy Me Love" to "The Long and Winding Road," on the silver screen. They had gained an astonishing amount of maturity since they made their debut in America.

I found it fascinating to watch the Beatles taking those final, often tortured steps on that long and winding road. I still do. I seem to come away from each viewing with a different — and no less valid — sense of what I have seen and what significance it may have had in the eventual outcome.

Maybe that was the idea all along.

Friday, May 08, 2015

No Such Thing as a Sure Thing

Skipper (Alan Hale Jr.): There's a table in this Navy manual that tells me how much I should weigh.

Gilligan (Bob Denver): Maybe it's under "tonnage."

The castaways on Gilligan's Island had lots of time to think about what they wanted to do when they returned to civilization — as they were almost always sure that they would.

In the episode that first aired 50 years ago tonight, the Professor (Russell Johnson) was working on a dye marker that everyone believed would be sure to bring their salvation to them — and soon — so Gilligan (Bob Denver) and the Skipper (Alan Hale Jr.) were making plans for enlisting in the Navy when they got back to civilization.

But there was a problem. According to Navy regulations, the Skipper was overweight and Gilligan was underweight. The obvious solutions were that the Skipper had to go on a diet, and Gilligan had to start eating just about anything he could get his hands on.

As usual when one of them had a problem, the rest of the castaways pitched in to help. The girls, Mary Ann (Dawn Wells) and Ginger (Tina Louise), spoon–fed Gilligan. So did the Howells (Natalie Schafer and Jim Backus) — in their blue blood sort of way.

And Ginger tried to make the Skipper's diet yield greater results by encouraging him to do some exercises that she promised would be good for his figure. She proceeded to demonstrate some of them for him.

The Skipper said he would try, but "mine will never look like yours!" I guess that was an understatement.

He gave it a pretty good shot, but while the spirit was willing, the flesh was weak when the Skipper saw Gilligan packing away food while he had to be content with practically no calories at all.

And, at first, he felt put upon when he was asked to feed Gilligan when the girls were asked to help the Professor in some way. But then he appeared to realize it was a golden opportunity for him to sample the food he had only been able to observe from a distance. Gilligan caught on, though, and took over the feeding.

In the meantime, the Professor had been making progress on the dye ("shiny junk" is what Gilligan called it). He had a delightful conversation with Ginger, as I recall, in which Ginger reminisced about mixing two chemicals together in chemistry class. "Do you know what I got?" she asked.

"Expelled," the Professor replied.

"No," Ginger said. "I got a date with the cutest young fireman."

Gilligan had become so conditioned to eating that, near the end of the episode when the castaways needed that "shiny junk" to signal to a passing plane or boat, it was revealed that they couldn't use it because Gilligan had consumed it.

Once again, Gilligan had foiled an apparently likely rescue.

Personally, I never thought the rescue was that likely. There were gaping holes in the story that even I saw when I first saw the episode at the age of 7 or 8.

But it was still entertaining, as always.

The Beatles' Swan Song

Forty–five years ago today, the Beatles released "Let It Be," the last album they would release as the Fab Four. It was also the soundtrack for the movie of the same name.

It was released on this date in the United Kingdom. The album was released in the United States 10 days later — after the movie hit the theaters.

In the years ahead, there would be compilation albums released exploring various themes. There would be a concert album that combined tracks from concerts in the Hollywood Bowl recorded about a year apart. There would even be a couple of singles that were made by combining recordings of the long–deceased John Lennon and the then–three surviving Beatles.

But there would be no more new, original albums.

Anyway, "Across the Universe" is my favorite song on the album. I have long said it is my favorite Beatles song of all, and it probably is although there are several songs that are worthy of that designation.

As it has been with many Beatles songs, there are plenty of cover versions of "Across the Universe" out there — and, as I have admitted many times before, as a rule I'm not a fan of Beatles cover songs — but I think my favorite is the one Fiona Apple did for the movie "Pleasantville."

Her voice always seemed right for that song — well, to me it did.

The title track is certainly a fan favorite. It was ranked the 20th greatest song of all time by Rolling Stone, and I am certain that it is one of the most recognizable Beatles tunes ever recorded. Probably more recognizable than "Hey Jude" or "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" — or even "I Wanna Hold Your Hand."

I've heard — more than once — that Paul McCartney wanted to write the Beatles' equivalent of "Bridge Over Troubled Water," arguably Simon and Garfunkel's signature song, so he wrote "Let It Be." That would be plenty for most people — to have inspired a Beatles song — and I like both songs, but I think Simon and Garfunkel's song was better.

(Even though Paul Simon, who wrote most of the song, loathed the part that Art Garfunkel wrote — "Sail on, silver girl ..." — and reportedly came to believe that he, not Garfunkel, should have sung it on the record.)

I would certainly list "Let It Be" as one of the favorites from the album. It was the title track, after all.

Another favorite is "Get Back," which was performed in the famous rooftop concert on the roof of Apple's (that's the recording company, not the computer company) headquarters in London in January 1969 — the last public appearance of the Beatles.

If you get the chance to see the movie, you can see portions of the 42–minute concert that drew a crowd of curious onlookers, including British police who broke up the show.

If you listen to the album, you'll hear several songs that aren't generally well known to non–Beatles fans — like "One After 909," "Two Of Us," "I Me Mine" and lots more.

But nothing can compare to the feeling I get when I see the Beatles performing "I've Got a Feeling" for an audience.

Wish I could have been there.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

A Different Drummer

Secretary: Can I get you anything, sir?

Gart (James Daly): Yes, a sharp razor and a chart of the human anatomy showing all the arteries.

"A Stop at Willoughby," the episode of the Twilight Zone that premiered on this day in 1960, has always been one of my favorite episodes from the series — and I'll be damned if I know why.

I do know that Rod Serling said it was his favorite episode from the first season of the Twilight Zone, but I'm not certain that he ever said why. Maybe he didn't know.

I'm a devotee of the Twilight Zone marathons on Syfy every Fourth of July and New Year's. Most of the time, the marathon is composed of episodes from the original series, but once it was half episodes from the series that ran in the mid–1980s — which I enjoyed even though most of my friends didn't care for the second incarnation of the series — and I had fun getting to see those episodes again.

My point is, though, that every time Syfy has a Twilight Zone marathon, I look for "A Stop at Willoughby" in the schedule, and I am sure to watch it, whenever it is on, even if it is in the middle of the night. I've been known to get up out of bed to watch it.

I still can't tell you why I like it so much. I can only tell you that there are a handful of Twilight Zone episodes that are like that for me. I haven't met a Twilight Zone fan who is not like that about certain episodes. Some of them can tell you exactly why they like the episodes so much, but most seem to be like me. I can't tell you why I like certain episodes the way I do — nor can I tell you why I dislike certain episodes, too. There are some that I will look for in the schedule so I will know when not to watch the marathon.

The only conclusion I have been able to reach is that we Twilight Zone fans are a discerning bunch. We can be passionate about watching certain episodes — and just as passionate about not watching other ones.

It probably has something to do with the fact that the protagonist feels trapped in his job, his life, his everything. He didn't think he was being true to himself. I've felt that way. I know exactly how he felt. Most of us probably do.

Anyway, "A Stop at Willoughby" was about an advertising executive named Gart (James Daly) who had been pushed to his limits by the stress of his business. As the audience was just getting to know him, he was in a high–pressure meeting waiting for his young protege, who had been given a $3 million account to handle.

Turned out, the protege had resigned and taken the $3 million account with him to another agency. We all have bad days, but Gart's was textbook bad. On the train ride home, after glancing out at the falling snow, Gart dozed off. He was probably in a hurry to get the day over with.

And Gart began to dream — a really odd dream that had him riding in a turn–of–the–century train and visiting a turn–of–the–century place called Willoughby in the summer of 1888. It was a serene place of town squares and horse–drawn wagons, barefoot boys with fishing poles and band concerts — very appealing for a man who preferred a slower pace. Gart could see it from his window. But before Gart could leave the train, he woke up and he was back in the present day with all of his problems.

He found no sympathy when he got home. He found a wife whose opinion of him was that he lacked the drive to succeed.

That's what the episode was about — the pressure to produce even if one works in a field he loathes. Sometimes that can be done. Apparently, at one time, Gart had been one of those people who could produce in spite of a work environment he detested. But no more — and he knew it.

"Some people aren't built for competition," Gart told his wife, "or big, pretentious houses they can't afford. Or rich communities they don't feel comfortable in. Or country clubs they wear around their necks like a badge of status."

Gart dreamed of Willoughby again when he was commuting on the train, but again he was unable to get off before the train started to move. He resolved to get off the next time.

And he did.

He reached his breaking point at the office and called his wife, begging her to be home when he got there, but she hung up on him.

He was next seen riding the train again. He fell asleep again, too, but not before expressing the desire to return to Willoughby again. And he did. He got off the train and mingled with the people there.

The next thing the viewers saw was the modern train stopped along the tracks. A passenger had jumped from the train and was lying dead in a snow bank. A hearse was on the scene to pick up the body. After the body was loaded, the hatch was closed, and the audience could see "Willoughby & Son Funeral Home" written on it.

Gart had escaped.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

An International Affair

One of the things I enjoyed most about Frasier was the conversations Kelsey Grammer's character had with his radio listeners. Typically, the callers were celebrities who were never seen, but they were heard. If the celebrity had a distinctive voice, you could probably guess who it was, as I did many times, but if the celebrity's voice wasn't too distinctive, it could really throw you — as it did many times.

In the episode that aired 20 years ago tonight, things opened with Frasier in his booth taking a call from Gretchen. I was certain that Gretchen was played by Teri Garr — but it turned out that it was Glenne Headly. Maybe it was the German accent that threw me off.

Gretchen was from Bavaria, and her husband was a fencing instructor. Gretchen told Frasier she believed her husband was having an affair with one of his students. How could she be sure? Roz (Peri Gilpin) piped up with some advice: offer two choices for dinner, one a calorie–packed meal, the other one low in calories. If he opted for the calorie–packed one, Roz said, it meant he was happily married; if he picked the other option, it meant he was trying to keep trim for his new love interest.

After the conversation with Gretchen, Frasier really didn't give it another thought — until that evening, when Niles (David Hyde Pierce) mentioned that Maris had taken up fencing. "She stays up late into the evening," he said, "working with her instructor."

That got Frasier's attention. He already suspected that Maris was having the affair with the fencing instructor — and then the fencing instructor's wife called the show again the next day to report that she had taken Roz's advice, and her husband had selected the diet plate.

Then she said she had found a love letter that he had written. It was addressed to a pet name in German that translated to "my not quite human woman."

That was enough for Frasier, and he resolved to confront Maris with what he knew.

New viewers of Frasier might have expected to finally catch a glimpse of the elusive Maris, but I knew better — I had been conditioned by Cheers! and Norm's often mentioned but never seen wife — and I was right. Frasier tried to confront Maris when he believed she was in her sensory deprivation tank, but, when he opened the door, he found Niles there instead.

The audience eventually figured out, by way of snippets of conversation, that Niles had left his brother and gone to confront his wife. Frasier, meanwhile, returned home. Later, Niles showed up and got some advice from his brother and his father.

It was his father's advice — to confront the other man — that he followed.

But there was something of a language barrier. Gunnar (Brian Cousins), the fencing instructor, only spoke German. Marta, Niles' maid, spoke spotty English, but Spanish was her native tongue, and, as Frasier (who could speak Spanish) learned, Marta had picked up German from a German family for whom she worked in her Central American village "just after the war."

Thus, the table was set for a comedic bit that, at least in the annals of television, is as old as I Love Lucy. Niles would pose his questions in English. Frasier would translate into Spanish for Marta. Marta would translate into German for Gunnar. When Gunnar gave his reply, Marta would translate into Spanish for Frasier, and Frasier would translate into English for Niles.

Through this bucket brigade approach, Niles accused Gunnar of stealing his wife, but Frasier mistranslated, and Gunnar was told that he was accused of stealing Niles' shoes. That provoked the start of a duel between Niles and Gunnar.

It was a fascinating display of swashbuckling. I never knew that Pierce could handle a foil that well. Perhaps he studied fencing when he was younger.

Now, at this point, I feel I ought to point out a couple of flaws in the story. Let's be clear here. I am not saying that the revelation that Pierce knew how to use a foil was one of them. It was not. That was a pleasant surprise.

One flaw is that, although Frasier was presented as being unfamiliar with how to speak German in this episode, during his run on Cheers!, he did speak German on at least one occasion. And later in the Frasier series, he conversed with his latest love interest (Patricia Clarkson) in German.

But that is the sort of thing that most folks probably wouldn't know or be able to guess when watching this episode.

The other is more glaring, I think. It involves the sensory deprivation tank. Niles was inside when Frasier, from outside the tank, thought he was speaking to Maris — and he spilled the beans about her affair. But that's the thing about sensory deprivation tanks. It means being deprived of all one's senses, not just a few. Consequently, Niles shouldn't have been able to hear what Frasier was saying.

Anyway, when it was established that Maris, not Niles' shoes, had been stolen, Niles was reassured of Maris' love, and Gunnar was dismissed.