Thursday, May 21, 2015

Remembering Late Nights with David Letterman


As I watched the finale of "The Late Show with David Letterman" last night I couldn't help but remember how much a part of my life the man was and is. Now I have to be honest, I haven't really paid all that much attention to Letterman since he moved over to CBS, but I did watch both "Late Night" and "The David Letterman Show" which aired on weekday mornings in the early 1980s.

As far as the morning show went, I remember laughing out loud at it, and my mother thinking I was weird because she couldn't figure out what was so funny. I also recall when "Late Night with David Letterman" came along he would refer to that morning show as 'way back in the late fifties.' Before this of course I knew Letterman from his stand-up comedy and guest-hosting on "The Tonight Show."

I remember that Philadelphia came to "Late Night" late (pardon the pun), not airing the show until a few months after it had begun. However, back in the analog day of pre-digital cable, I could precariously hold the dial between Philadelphia NBC affiliate channel 3 and NYC affiliate channel 4, and get a reasonable broadcast of "Late Night" from New York.

This is the way I first met Larry 'Bud' Melman, Chris Elliott, and Stupid Pet Tricks, the most memorable (and disturbing) of which had a dog drinking milk from his owner's mouth. I remember frequent guests Sandra Bernhard, future frenemy Jay Leno, and fellow only-New Yorker (at least at the time) Howard Stern. I was much happier when I could see the show on channel 3 finally, and remember seeing great acts of the day like R.E.M. and Indigo Girls.

Still, even though I hadn't watched much of "The Late Show," I'm sad to see Dave go. Last night's viewing only cemented the reasons that I should have been watching. Have a great retirement, Dave, come back and visit some time.


Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Towns That Dreaded Sundown


Producer/director/actor Charles B. Pierce, perhaps best known for making Bigfoot famous in The Legend of Boggy Creek, took another 'true story' and mined it for this Sam Zarkoff American International movie that serves as the blueprint for the traditional slasher film. Written by Earl E. Smith, in 1976's The Town That Dreaded Sundown, we learn the tale of the Phantom Killer who terrorized young couples on lovers lanes in Texarkana in 1946.

The movie begins documentary style establishing the period, including narration by Vern Stierman who also did the job more than ably for Boggy Creek. His frequent voiceovers keep the film solidly in docudrama mode, which for the most part works.

Unlike the slasher flicks that would follow, this one views things from law enforcement as opposed to the kids. Veteran character actors Andrew Prine and Ben Johnson take point in the investigation with great chemistry, along with Bierce himself providing much needed comic relief as their sidekick. Also look for Dawn Wells, Mary Ann from "Gilligan's Island," late in the film.

The film looks very good, and the period is set well. I loved the music, the clothes, the cars, and even the language. Kudos go to Jaime Mendoza-Nava, an underrated composer of 1970s B-movies who deserves more credit than perhaps he's been given. He was good. The film gets all As for atmosphere. And it's not just a great period piece for the 1940s, but also 1970s cinema as well.

Stuntman and later stunt coordinator Bud Davis played the masked killer known as the Phantom. Except for the ridiculous trombone scene, he is actually pretty frightening. And his white bag mask conjures imagery of the Ku Klux Klan, which is scary enough, but notably it made me wonder what the movie was really about when I saw the video box before I ever saw it.

The Town That Dreaded Sundown was reimagined in 2014 by Ryan Murphy, the brains behind "Glee" and "Nip/Tuck," and his sometime collaborator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, a big muckety-muck at Archie Comics, and whose credits also include The Stand comics for Marvel, HBO's "Big Love," and the 2013 remake of Carrie. It might seem like an odd fit, but it kinda works.

This is notably not a remake as much as it's a sequel, one in which the original movie is a movie based on the real events. Yeah, I know, it's a whole new level of meta. There are many
parallels, and the narration is a nice touch. With "Nip/Tuck" so many years ago, and more than a few seasons of "Glee" since then, it's easy to forget that Ryan Murphy has a very deft hand with suspense and horror.

Watching these two flicks back to back was an intense but entertaining evening of television, two generations of creators giving their take on a supposedly true story. They're both worth a look, more so for horror fans. And don't forget, it might have happened decades ago, but they never did catch the Phantom...

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Coonskin


Coonskin ~ Up front, folks, this one may be rough, so if you have certain sensitivities, you might want to skip this review. And, as a white writer in a politically correct world, I also feel the need to tread lightly when talking about this 1975 animated feature by Ralph Bakshi. Like I said, it's rough, take a deep breath, and follow me if you dare.

The opening, visually and verbally is strikingly and disturbingly racist. It's a precursor to what is to come, and sets the pace well. I understood what it was, accepted it for its time, and still winced as if physically struck. No matter how much DMX using the N word one listens to, there's just no preparing for this opening. What followed the racist Vaudeville joke told in animated blackface, was also hard to take, but at least it was full of talent and power.

Scatman (Scat Man in the opening credits) Crothers sings the seemingly racist song "Coonskin No More" with liberal use of the N word, but it's an amazing song as well. It's sad that many folks have forgotten what a tremendous talent the man was musically, although he's usually remembered for his acting. After recovering from thinking about how Crothers went from doing "Hong Kong Phooey" to this and then moved on to The Shining, I realized what Bakshi was trying to do, a little song and dance, and a little shock and awe.

This was his attempt to show the black experience, granted from the eyes of a boy who grew up in a black and Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. Bakshi was creating what he called his own ghetto art, blending the genres of blaxploitation, crime drama, and folk tales with a realistic and unapologetic racism that maybe a lot of the world doesn't want to admit existed, or sadly, still exists. Yeah, I'm putting a fancy spin on it, and despite its truth, it's very hard to watch in 2015.

Coonskin is a mix of animation and live action, owing much to The Song of the South as its characters and lessons are similar. The cast also includes Philip Michael Thomas who later gained fame on "Miami Vice," Pulitzer Prizing winning actor/director/writer Charles Gordone, and the one and only Barry White. The actual story is very seventies, so seventies in fact, I am sure that Quentin Tarantino loves this flick. And he does.

About an hour into Coonskin I realized that I had in fact seen some of it at least before. Doing a little research I learned that it had also been released as Street Fight, which is where I saw a bit, and also Bustin' Out. This is not a great movie, it's not even a good movie. There's a lot going on, a little bit of everything, with very little to hold it together. Some interesting animation, and music, some intriguing commentary on race, but also a lot of the usual crap like sex and drugs that Bakshi throws into everything he does for no reason.

I can't recommend Coonskin, except for the curious, the fans of folks involved, and those with strong stomachs and high tolerance for the politically incorrect. Watch at your own risk.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Why the Mad Men Finale Failed Me


I have loved this show, and still love it quite a bit. I was just left a bit disappointed with the series finale last night. I have nothing against happy endings, or for that matter, open ended endings, or even unhappy endings. As with anything however, it's the journey, not the destination. And of course, only the interesting parts of the journey.

I was happy for Joan, for Roger, for Stan and Peggy, even for Pete. I wished Joan had kept her relationship, and that Peggy joined her in business, but these are small things, and good things. But then there's Don. It always comes down to Don Draper. I'll say it. We all love him, but he's a despicable human being. Don Draper is a monster. Except when he is pitching. At that moment of magic where he is doing his job, we all love him, and that is what we all have tuned in to "Mad Men" to see - the legendary Don Draper pitch.

For much of the season, Don has been a drag on the story, a waste of air time, out of his element, and doing things we neither wanted to see nor wanted him doing. It was the same in last night's finale as he wasted his time, and our time, at that hippie retreat.

Oh, I do get it. Don needed that part of the journey. Without that smile of revelation at the retreat, there would have been no Coca-Cola commercial on the mountaintop, arguably one of the greatest achievements in advertising, and the crowning moment of the real world McCann-Erickson. We are to assume that Don Draper is the engineer of this masterstroke, but man oh man. Didn't we all want to see Don pitch that? That's why I feel more than a little cheated. This was no "Sopranos."

On a side note, did anyone else also see "Happyish" on Showtime last night? They did a slightly different and just plain wrong spin on the famous Coke commercial. I'm really loving that show, and you can hear me talk a bit about it on this week's episode of The GAR! Podcast.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Arrow S03 E23: "My Name Is Oliver Queen"


If you read my review of last week's episode of "The Flash," or saw it, you know that Arrow came to the aid of his costumed friend in Central City to help take down the Reverse-Flash. You also know that Arrow in turn asked for the Flash's help. One would assume that help would come in this, the season finale of "Arrow." It does. And if that's all the help the Flash is going to be, Arrow sooo got the short end of the deal.

At the end of the last episode Team Arrow was left in a dungeon dying of the Alpha and Omega virus, while Oliver and R'as Al Ghul were on their way to Starling City to wipe it out with the virus. The good news is that Malcolm was able to inoculate Team Arrow with a method that would have made the 1966 Batman proud, while the Flash secured the Nanda Parbat headquarters and released our heroes. Then he went home, quickly, but nowhere near as quickly and mysteriously as Team Arrow went home. Are we sure Starling and Tibet aren't like next door to each other? This is getting ridiculous.

Oliver plays his hand on the plane over Starling and turns on R'as, who of course escapes with the virus, and the only parachute. Seriously, is this a joke? The only parachute?? Nevertheless R'as swears vengeance and Oliver and Nyssa crash-land the plane. They join Team Arrow where Oliver gets his ass kicked physically and verbally by Diggle and Felicity. Good.

Hindsight on dumbass Oliver's plans almost always add up to the same problem - trust. Just trust someone, let them in on what is planned. I can't help thinking of that old Woody Woodpecker cartoon where if Woody had only gone to the police in the first place, none of this would have ever happened. If Oliver has only just said a few words to Diggle and Felicity, even as simple as, "Trust me, no matters what happens, or how it looks, just trust me." all of this could have been avoided.

As Team Arrow searches for R'as in Starling they discover what his real plan is. His enemy Damien Darhk is in the city, R'as wants to kill two birds with one stone. Darhk's assistant is portrayed by Christopher Heyerdahl, who played one of the most sinister villains in recent television memory - The Swede from AMC's "Hell on Wheels." This alone made me think that it was really Darhk pretending to be his own assistant. Ah, such a fleeting moment and a sweet cameo. Word is Darhk will be one of the big bads, if not the big bad next season.

There is a considerable amount of resolution this episode, almost as if the series was ending. Diggle leaves over the differences with Oliver, although rumor has it he won't be gone long, with a costume in his future. R'as dies at Oliver's hands, the mantle going to Malcolm, as pre-agreed. Thea is now Speedy, who along with the Black Canary, will be protecting Starling City. Katana has returned to seclusion. Roy is gone, for the moment, and the Atom blew up real good. Oliver and Felicity have driven off for the coast, like they're in the end of Blade Runner, presumably to live happily ever after.

This is not the end however, it's only the end of the season. Stephen Amell has said that Oliver won't be the Arrow any more. That's a bit of misdirection, hinted at when Thea suggested 'Red Arrow' as her codename. Oliver will not be the Arrow any more (and really he can't be in light of Roy taking the rap for him), but he will be Green Arrow. Finally. And as for the Atom, we know he'll be back in "Legends of Tomorrow."

There's a nice shout out to writer Denny O'Neil and artist Neal Adams, as cross streets. They not only created R'as Al Ghul but also redesigned Green Arrow for more relevant times, producing some of the best (in my opinion) stories about both characters. There's also a Marc Andreyko namedrop later, his being the creator of the Kate Spencer version of Manhunter. Here is some reading for later about how one writer thinks they wasted her character. I kinda agree.

For my other reviews of the entire "Arrow" series, click here. And if you'd like to discuss this episode and anything else in the Arrowverse, please join the Arrow Discussion Group on Facebook.