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Archive for February, 2011

Reminder 2/9/11

I just wanted to urge everybody to catch the second-season premiere of Elmore Leonard’s series Justified, which debuts on FX at 10:00 tonight, with repeat airings at 11:00 PM and 1:00 AM, as well as on Saturday at 12:30 AM.  I don’t know whether to regard it as the ultimate vindication or a kick in the teeth that the episode is called “The Moonshine War,” which as loyal BOF fans (with whom I forgot to celebrate the anniversary of my first post on January 26) know is also the title of one of my underdog favorite films, adapted—and later dissed—by Leonard himself from his eponymous novel.  I won’t enumerate all the reasons why I watched Justified religiously once it was on, but the reason why I tuned in originally can be summed up in two words:  Elmore Leonard.

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Whac-a-Matt

I recently told Madame BOF that I had come up with the perfect analogy for this Winter From Hell:  it’s like a big game of Whac-a-Mole, and we’re the moles—every time we think it’s safe to poke our heads up and try to reclaim our lives, POOM!  Never was this better illustrated than on Thursday…but I’m getting ahead of myself, because the latest installment of our tale begins last Wednesday when, if I haven’t lost count, we were more or less obliged to miss work for the fourth time in as many weeks.  I say “more or less” because, on this occasion, we could actually have left the premises, but (again, if my memory is correct with all of these wintry days blurring together) a major ice storm was forecast, spelling potential disaster for the leaky Maison Bradley.

Two things were working in our favor that day, a rise in temperature (although that brought with it the concomitant risk of turning any precipitation from snow into rain, perhaps a greater danger on top of frozen gutters) and some low-tech ingenuity on my part.  The warmer air allowed me to chop through to the top of the downspout, using a screwdriver as a makeshift chisel, whereupon a flash of inspiration led me to apply innumerable teakettles of boiling water, first to clear the top of the spout and then to help break up the rest of the ice.  I was up on that ladder until well after dark, but I cleared virtually the entirety of the gutters over the deck, which took me eight and a half hours, with Madame BOF shoveling snow off the icy base covering the driveway for six of them.

So far so good, it seemed, especially after my parents-in-law—who, like my siblings-in-law, are suffering similar tribulations in adjacent towns—arranged for some roofers to come to our house on Thursday to clear the other sections of roof and gutters that are not accessible from the deck.  This they did, with the added bonus of clearing the snow away from the satellite dish, so that we had a signal for the first time in more than three weeks, although true to form we got a new leak yet again discoloring the bedroom ceiling the morning before they came.  I was dismayed to see, however, that when the guys cleared the latest snowfall from the roof over the deck (which I had eschewed in favor of gutter-clearing), they let it refill the gutters on which I had worked so hard.

The worst was yet to come when we returned on Thursday from a sushi dinner that was partly to reward ourselves for our Herculean efforts the day before, and partly to celebrate the coming of the roofers, which we hoped would stave off the worst of any future risk, especially a collapsing roof.  Just as I was dozing off, the house was shaken by a loud impact that sounded like a large object striking it, now that the gigantic icicles to which it might have been attributed had been removed.  Although we have since theorized that similar sounds we and others have experienced were simply the result of the house resettling after being relieved of its icy burden, at that time it terrified my wife, so I saw no alternative other than to get up, get dressed again, and investigate.

Enraged with frustration and swearing profusely, I pulled my clothing back on, turned on every outdoor light we have, and plunged outside to make a circuit of the house and see if I could spot anything amiss, like a giant branch fallen on the roof or something.  But that single circuit nearly killed me, fighting my way through snow that was almost up to my knees, covered with a frozen crust so thick and hard that it cut one of my shins to ribbons.  By the time I got back inside, after finding nothing, I was wheezing like an antique steam engine and ready to kill the first thing that moved, so naturally it was then that she reported her discovery of a previously undetected leak, which had come down the wall of the office where I keep many of my most prized possessions.

My rage turned to total despair when, underneath the soaked and sagging ceiling tiles, I found several volumes from my personal reference library devoted to horror and science fiction films and television—which I have been compiling for almost forty years, and used to research all of my articles and books—soggy and ruined.  All of the boxes containing the laserdiscs given to us by our late friend Brian Ehlert were now sitting on wet carpet, and it remains to be seen whether the discs themselves have suffered or only the jackets.  It was already midnight, and we spent the next couple of hours moving things out of harm’s way and getting a tentative idea of what could and could not be salvaged, but even after we finally did get to bed, neither of us slept very much.

Under other circumstances, I would have stayed home on Friday to try to cope with the mess, but having missed so many days already, I couldn’t let myself get any further behind, and even when I got home, my work wasn’t done:  with major rain predicted for Saturday, I had to do whatever I could to undo the damage done by the roofers.  I was able to clear some of the ice and snow from the gutters that night, and a little bit more in the rain the following day, in between working on a forthcoming post for the Outer Limits blog while the bathroom window dripped merrily away.  It was warm and sunny on Sunday, which finally enabled me to clear the gutters completely (again) and the two of us to get most of the driveway cleared down to the asphalt for any future storms…

So here we are, poised for the next blow and as ready as we’re going to get; although they now say the major storm originally expected to hit us this Thursday may not come our way after all, we moles are, of course, not holding our breath.  Last night, I got home from work and found it was still warm enough that I could shovel the bulk of the remaining ice from the driveway, with the exception of that rock-hard band at the top where the plow so insouciantly dumps its load on us, almost hitting my wife on one occasion.  It’s late Tuesday night as I post this, the first day in about a week that I haven’t had to chop or mop or shovel or rake, and although they are calling for some pretty frigid weather in the next few days, I don’t care, as long as there are no storms.

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Any pleasure I would have taken in reporting this news has been largely dampened—in every sense of the word—by the discovery (literally as I sat down to begin writing) of a new leak, in our bedroom ceiling this time, followed by the resurgence of an old leak in the basement, and a fruitless session of chopping away at the ice in the gutters.  Madame BOF and I were left feeling utterly hopeless, with two more months of winter yet to come and the second storm in a double-header hitting tonight.  Be that as it may, however, issue #19 of Cinema Retro, that outstanding magazine devoted to the true cinematic Golden Age of the ’60s and ’70s, is a veritable goldmine for those who follow the careers of yours truly and my main man Gilbert Colon with any interest.

The cover story is a ten-page “Film in Focus Special” occasioned by the Blu-ray release of The Exorcist (1973), most of which is devoted to pertinent passages from the 1996 interview Gil and I did with its original author, screenwriter, and producer, William Peter Blatty.  Portions of said interview were published in Filmfax, but Retro will supposedly publish the whole enchilada over a series of issues; this installment is beefed up with color photos, sidebars by editor-in-chief Lee Pfeiffer, and Gilbert’s preview of Bill’s new novel from Tor, Crazy.  And, as if all that weren’t enough to entice you, Lee was able to squeeze in a last-minute review of Richard Matheson on Screen, opining that, “If you admire Matheson’s work, this book can be considered as essential.”

Meanwhile, as if this year didn’t suck enough already, John Barry has left us at the not-terribly-advanced age of 77.  Since his name will be familiar to BOF readers, I will not regurgitate what I’ve already written here about his place among my top ten favorite film composers, his seminal contributions to the James Bond series or, most recently, his work on the late Peter Yates’s The Deep (1977).  I will mention his Academy Awards for Born Free (1966)—for song and score—The Lion in Winter (1968), Out of Africa (1985), and Dances with Wolves (1990), as well as his nominations for Mary, Queen of Scots (1971) and Chaplin (1992), because even though none of them is a personal favorite, they surely display the length and breadth of his extraordinary career.

My choices are, as usual, a bit more eclectic, like Sidney J. Furie’s The Ipcress File (1965), from the novel by Len Deighton.  Bond co-producer Harry Saltzman intended to establish Deighton’s nameless and bespectacled spy (dubbed “Harry Palmer” and brilliantly played by Michael Caine in the film) as the anti-Bond, and despite Barry’s already strong association with the Bond series, Saltzman wisely allowed him to score the film.  One need only contrast the moody, world-weary main title theme from The Ipcress File with the dynamism of, say, Barry’s first full Bond score, Goldfinger (1964), or his pulse-pounding instrumental main title from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) to see how, even within the espionage genre, he could vary his work accordingly.

At the other end of the emotional spectrum, Barry composed a theme of suitably heartbreaking beauty for Nicolas Roeg’s solo directorial debut, Walkabout (1971), a unique tale of two children forced to undergo a coming-of-age odyssey through the Australian Outback.  With his seemingly effortless artistry, Barry captures both the lyrical majesty of the film’s setting and the bittersweet ache of its storyline.  Finally, as the author of the Matheson tome cited above, I would be remiss if I neglected to mention Barry’s work on Somewhere in Time (1980), a lush, romantic score that incorporates Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (Op. 43, Variation XVIII), proved to be one of his biggest-selling soundtracks, and was born out of the pain of losing both his parents.

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On the occasion of his 103rd birthday, we revisit this profile written for the late, lamented original Scifipedia website.

Displaying a rare commitment to SF and fantasy, George Pal (1908-80) produced, and sometimes directed, a dozen feature films that had a profound impact on the genre.  Most of his works had their origins in literature, and perhaps his greatest achievement was his adaptations of two classic novels by H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds (1953) and The Time Machine (1960).

Born Marincsák György to Hungarian stage parents, unemployed architect Pal was hired by Budapest’s Hunnia studio as an apprentice animator.  Marrying and moving to Berlin, he rose to the top of the UFA studio’s cartoon department until the Nazis’ rise to power drove him out of Germany, and then lived and worked in various European countries before emigrating to the U.S.

During the 1940s, Pal directed, photographed and/or produced dozens of animated shorts, combining puppets and stop-motion in his famous Puppetoons.  He earned an honorary Academy Award for developing the techniques used in the Puppetoons, and seven consecutive nominations for the best animated short subject, from Rhythm in the Ranks (1941) to Tubby the Tuba (1947).

Unlike other forms of stop-motion, the Puppetoons used replacement animation, which substitutes a series of figures in various poses or emotions, instead of manipulating one model.  Animator Ray Harryhausen got his start in the Puppetoons, but after working under Frank Capra in the Army’s Special Service Division during World War II, he declined an offer to rejoin Pal.

Harryhausen told me in our Filmfax interview, “George…was a very easy man to work with, and I was one of the first animators he hired….It was great experience, although it wasn’t the type of animation I was really delighted to do, because…[Pal] had twenty-four separate figures to make one step, and that meant substituting a new figure for each movement, which wasn’t really my cup of tea.”

Pal’s debut feature, The Great Rupert (aka A Christmas Wish, 1950), was among the first to combine stop-motion and live-action footage, as the eponymous animated squirrel aids Jimmy Durante’s down-on-its-luck family.  After this transitional effort, directed by actor Irving Pichel, Pal focused solely on live-action projects, although animation still featured in many of his films.

Also directed by Pichel, Destination Moon (1950) was adapted by genre giant Robert A. Heinlein from his own young adult novel Rocket Ship Galileo, and indeed the script, written with Rip Van Ronkel and James O’Hanlon, lacks sophistication.  But Pal’s breakthrough project set a cinematic standard rarely equaled, dramatizing a lunar flight with scrupulous scientific accuracy.

Based on the novel by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer, Rudolph Maté’s When Worlds Collide (1951) was the first of five films Pal made for Paramount, including the biopic Houdini (1953).  As two planets approach the Earth, one passes close enough to create mass destruction, also allowing forty colonists to travel there before the larger heavenly body demolishes our own.

Barré Lyndon’s updated script made The War of the Worlds more immediate, a precedent set by Orson Welles in his famous 1938 radio broadcast.  Pal’s initial collaboration with director and special-effects expert Byron Haskin, the film featured modern Martian war machines that are extremely impressive (albeit a far cry from Wells’s tripods) as they besiege the world’s capitals.

Although not strictly SF, The Naked Jungle (1954) nonetheless gave Haskin and Pal the opportunity to dazzle audiences with spectacular scenes of destruction, interwoven with human drama.  Adapted by Philip Yordan and Ranald MacDougall from Carl Stephenson’s “Leiningen vs. the Ants,” it starred Charlton Heston as a man trying to protect his plantation from army ants.

Haskin’s Conquest of Space (1955) marked Pal’s swan song for Paramount, undone by a melodramatic O’Hanlon screenplay.  Adapted by Yordan, Lyndon, and George Worthing Yates from a nonfiction book by astronomical artist Chesley Bonestell (a frequent Pal collaborator) and Willy Ley, it depicted a Mars mission jeopardized by a religious fanatic in conflict with his son.

With the fantasy tom thumb (1958), Pal moved to MGM, where he would remain for the next decade, and assumed directorial duties, as he would on his next four films.  A showcase for the acrobatic Russ Tamblyn in the title role, it featured Puppetoon sequences, songs, and rising star Peter Sellers as the henchman of Terry-Thomas’s villain, who tries to exploit the tiny hero.

The Time Machine won an Oscar for its special effects, as had Destination Moon, When Worlds Collide, The War of the Worlds, and tom thumb.  The script was by David Duncan, while Rod Taylor played the intrepid time traveler who journeys far into the future, when evolution has divided the human race into the passive Eloi and the subterranean Morlocks, who feed on them.

Disappointing on all counts, Atlantis, the Lost Continent (1961) was hampered by Daniel Mainwaring’s unusually outlandish script, adapted from a play by Sir Gerald Hargreaves.  Greek fisherman Anthony Hall rescues a princess and travels by submarine to her home, Atlantis, but it is dominated by mad scientists and destroyed by a volcano just after Hall has effected his escape.

Co-directed with Henry Levin, The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962) told the story of the brothers and dramatized three of their fairy tales:  “The Dancing Princess,” “The Cobbler and the Elves,” and “The Singing Bone.”  It featured an all-star cast and a screenplay by David P. Harmon, famed genre author and screenwriter Charles Beaumont, and William Roberts.

7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964) was adapted by Beaumont from Charles G. Finney’s novel The Circus of Dr. Lao, with Tony Randall as Lao, who enlightens people by showing them their true selves while in various guises (e.g., Merlin, Pan, Medusa, the Abominable Snowman).  William Tuttle’s makeup earned an honorary Oscar; Jim Danforth’s special effects were also nominated.

Even a reunion with Haskin could not save The Power (1968) from tensions between Pal and MGM’s régime du jour, which dumped the film with little promotion.  Based on the book by Frank M. Robinson, it starred George Hamilton as a man on the run from an unknown assassin, a telekinetic superman who is eliminating his colleagues—and any evidence of his own existence.

Pal’s many abortive projects over the years included an adaptation of Wylie and Balmer’s sequel, After Worlds Collide, and a follow-up to The Time Machine.  One of the most devastating was his attempt to film William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson’s SF novel Logan’s Run, which after a long period of development was taken out of Pal’s hands and given to Saul David.

“Poor George was stymied one time after another while he generated new enthusiasm,” Johnson told me in a separate interview.  “Each new regime that came in would throw out all the old projects and say no to almost everything….[He] was linked to the deal for the longest period of time, during which he managed to teeter on there at MGM, trying to get one thing and another together…”

Pal’s final film, Doc Savage—The Man of Bronze (1975), showed how sadly out of step he had fallen with current public tastes.  Released by Warner Brothers, and directed by Michael Anderson, it sought unsuccessfully to recapture the spirit of the old serials, with Ron Ely (better known onscreen as Tarzan) playing the hero of Kenneth Robeson’s lengthy series of pulp novels.

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