Category Archives: Movies

Top Five Movies (or TV Shows) for the Fourth of July

  1. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” — Frank Capra really gets America. Or at least, he got the America of his day, and that means he got it the way I get it. (It feels like I was right there, in a previous life.)
  2. Young Mr. Lincoln” — If you don’t do anything else today, watch the clip above. You only have to watch the first minute and 18 seconds. It’s amazing, the best thing Henry Fonda ever did. I thought about Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” which is magnificent and of course has superior, modern production values. But I had another Spielberg flick below, and besides, this one’s awesome.
  3. John Adams” — Yeah, this one’s a TV show, which is why I added the parenthetical in the headline. I can’t think of anything better on how America became America. And as I keep saying, Adams is my fave Founder. He’s the one who rammed independence through the Congress. Jefferson just wrote it out — because Adams picked him to do it.
  4. Saving Private Ryan” — Yeah, I know — Bud and maybe others will say, “This isn’t Veteran’s Day, nor yet Memorial Day!” Yeah, well, freedom isn’t free. And this is the best film evocation of that ever made. I get chills, and misty eyes, during the cemetery scenes at the start and end. July Fourth message to us all: Earn this!
  5. Yankee Doodle Dandy” — Because there had to be a musical, and have you ever seen anything better than James Cagney dancing down those stairs? Particularly amazing if you only thought of him as a gangster type.

Honorable mention:

All the President’s Men” — Because America. Because First Amendment. Because scrappy newspapermen taking down a corrupt administration. Best part — the scenes in which Woodward and Bernstein interview people who do not want to talk to them. They are wonderfully ragged and awkward, which is what it’s like in real life. I really appreciate the director leaving them that way and not trying to slick them up, Hollywood-style.

"Yankee Doodle Dandy"

“Yankee Doodle Dandy”

Hidden camera footage from McMaster HQ: ‘People like that RE-form’

Oops. Wait a sec. Perhaps I should explain that this is a joke, before the cries of “fake news” start.

Anyway, I love this scene, and will use any excuse to go watch it again.

“Maybe we should get US some…”

I especially love the warning, storm-cloud look on Pappy’s face as he waits for what he just knows will be a monumentally stupid observation…

Pappy

Amazon sees me as a regular, action-oriented kinda guy

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I got a kick out of this….

I found a new option on my Amazon account and clicked on something that said, “Brad’s Amazon.”

That led me to category after category that Amazon had decided, based on my activity in the past, Brad liked.

Above and below you see the movies that Amazon thinks I’m most interested in. Apparently, I really dig some 007. (But I assure you, I much prefer Sean Connery to Roger Moore.)

Y’all know me. I like that stuff, sure, but my tastes are a bit… wider. Why just the other day, didn’t I get all artsy-fartsy with that French romantic musical I went to see? That was pretty eclectic of me, don’t you think? And if I look at the stuff I’ve watched recently via Amazon Prime, it’s at least somewhat broader that these options.

I’ve been watching stuff like old episodes of “House,” and the Irish cop series, “Single-Handed.” And “The Last Post,” about British Army types in Yemen in the early ’60s. And that scandalous Hedy Lamarr picture, “Ecstasy.” (Or at least, I watched enough to tell you it’s not as racy as people let on.)

Actually, that’s not all that broad a selection, is it? Maybe Amazon knows me better than I know myself. Maybe I’m really, just an uncomplicated, macho, action-oriented kind of guy. So… somebody run get me a beer (and not light beer) while I watch James Bond use the ejector seat on that guy again in “Goldfinger.” I liked that part…

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‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’

UMBRELLAS-OF-CHERBOURG

Having recently become members of the Nickelodeon, my wife and I on Sunday attended a special showing of “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, ” the film that launched Catherine Deneuve as a star.

I’m not what you’d call a big fan of colorful romantic musicals of the early 1960s, but this one was unusual, if not unique. And not just because it was in French.

First, it was at first glance visually very much like Hollywood films of the time — very Kandy-Kolored, none of that somber continental auteur black-and-white stuff. In fact, the colors were sort of a foreshadowing of the later psychedelic portion of the decade. The wallpaper alone in some of the interior sets would make you suspect there were some very funny mushrooms in the vicinity of Cherbourg.

Then there was the fact that it wasn’t just a musical musical, in the sense of people suddenly and without warning breaking into song for no good reason. Every word of dialogue, down to the most pedestrian remarks, was sung. A bit disturbing at first, but this operatic device worked, even with me. In the opening scene, a guy who works with one of the protagonists at a garage sings that he doesn’t like opera; give him movies instead. I could identify, ordinarily. Anyway, it made for a nice little internal joke.

If you get the opportunity to see the film sometime — it’s no longer showing at the Nick — it’s worth it just for the moments when suddenly, you recognize a tune the characters are singing. I was delighted and frustrated by this, because these tunes were very much a part of the background of the 1960s — the grownup, Muzak, “standards” part that was always playing somewhere, even though it’s not what we kids sought out. Here’s a cover of one. I’m proud that I made the connection on this one before the film was over, when suddenly my brain replaced the French words with “If it takes forever, I will wait for you.” Here’s another earworm from the film.

I had never heard of the film back in those days, but I certainly knew the tunes.

SPOILERS to follow…

That warning seems a bit unnecessary, but I’m hoping that some of you who haven’t seen it will see it sometime. As for those who have seen it, I’d be interested in what you think about how the film turned out.

As happens at the Nick, there was discussion of the film there in the theater before and after the showing. At the start, we were told that this apparently light story was set within the context of France’s traumatic experience in the Algerian War. But… I didn’t see any heavy political subtext. The structure of the film was in three parts, the first being boy-meets-girl and the second boy-leaves-girl-to-go-to-war. It could have been any conflict, or some other cause. The point was that the boy went away. There was nothing special about the fact that it was to Algiers.

Madeleine -- not only was there character in her face, but she had a sort of Katharine Ross thing going on...

Madeleine — not only was there character in her face, but she had a sort of Katharine Ross thing going on…

Then there was the ending, which in a sense was the least Hollywood thing about the film. And this is the real spoiler. We’d been set up to think it would be a terrible thing if Geneviève and Guy didn’t get back together — in conventional Hollywood terms. But from the moment Mssr. Cassard and Madeleine made their appearances, I felt that they were better mates for our star-crossed lovers. Sure, in Hollywood-values terms, Deneuve was beautiful as Geneviève — being beautiful was her specialty, especially when she was older — but Madeleine was more my type, and Guy’s, too, I thought. Not only did Ellen Farner have a kind of pre-Katharine Ross thing going on (and it was a law of movies in the ’60s — if Katharine Ross appears, you the male viewer will fall in love with her), but there was depth of character in her face. This is the girl you marry, Guy. And Messr. Cassard was more the kind of mate Geneviève needed, despite — or perhaps even because of — his over-trimmed mustache.

Anyway, I guess that’s enough on the subject of a film you probably won’t see unless you go out of your way. But it impressed me and I wanted to share that…

The psychedelic wallpaper was well ahead of its time.

The psychedelic wallpaper was well ahead of its time.

And remember, to our generation, it’s all about being cool

Some of you may think I was easy on Ralph Norman in that last post, saying he was only guilty of being uncool.

You forget that I’m a Baby Boomer, and Ralph Norman is, too. I look at him and I don’t see a member of my generation. I see a member of my parents’ generation, or maybe someone older than that. From his pictures, I wouldn’t be shocked to learn he is a Lawrence Welk fan. He looks like your parents’ friend who corners you at the party because he wants to share one word with you: “Plastics.”

Me in about '73.

Me in about ’73.

But eerily enough, he’s just a little more than three months older than I am. I looked it up.

And members of our generation asked little of life, beyond having other people see us as being cool. One of the things I love about the film “Almost Famous” — which is set in 1973, the year I turned 20 — is that it captured that facet of that moment rather well.

We didn’t seek to be rich, unless that just happened to us, in which case we wouldn’t object. We lived in a time of lowered expectations, with Watergate unfolding and America heading for the exits in Vietnam.

But we did hope, most fervently, to be cool. Or rather, as I said, to be seen as cool. Was that really too much to expect, we demanded of the heavens?

Anyway, it is against that cultural backdrop that you should consider the fact that Ralph Norman has been weighed, he has been measured, and he has been found to be decidedly uncool…

Bottom line, Ralph Norman’s just not cool

Norman during the meeting with constituents...

Norman during the meeting with constituents…

If you’ve seen “In the Line of Fire” as many times as I have, you’ll remember this part. Clint Eastwood and his partner are trying to track down would-be assassin John Malkovich, and are following a lead that takes them into the subculture of plastic modelers.

They’re talking to a friend of Mitch, the Malkovich character, who says see my expensive wheelchair? Mitch bought it for me. Then suddenly, he pulls out a semi-automatic handgun and says this is in case Mitch ever comes back — because he had credibly threatened his “friend’s” life.

The Secret Service agents sort of go “Whoa!” at the appearance of the gun. They do this not because they’re sissies who are afraid of firearms and other mean things. (Remember, one of them is Clint Eastwood.) They do it because there are times when it is uncool to whip out a loaded firearm, and one of those times is when you’re being interviewed by a couple of worried Secret Service agents.

Another such time is when you’re a member of Congress chatting with your constituents.

What I’m saying is that basically, Ralph Norman did a really, really uncool thing when he took out his piece and put it on the table during a meeting with voters.

He didn’t do a criminal thing — at least, not to my knowledge. And I don’t think anyone needs to have a cow over it the way Democratic Party Chair Trav Robertson is doing.

But it seems to me quite obvious that it fell way short on the cool-o-meter.

Your thoughts?

SCNormanGunREVISEDAriailx

‘Breakers’ above Columbia

tulips

I’m having a busy day with little time for blogging, so I just thought I’d share a picture that I like.

This is what I saw from my table at breakfast Monday morning. They were left over from the Capital City Club’s Easter dinner the day before.

They struck me particularly because the night before, we had started to watch a new Netflix movie called “Tulip Fever.” It’s about the market bubble in tulips that drove Europe, and particularly the Netherlands, mad in the 1630s, before the inevitable collapse.

We didn’t make it all the way through — it started to devolve into one of those tiresome plots in which bad things happen because of mistaken identity. But I watched enough to learn that multicolored tulips like the ones above were called “breakers,” and were particularly highly prized. Or at least, that’s the way this film told it.

Of course, right after I took this picture, I moved the flowers so I could pull down the blinds so the sunlight wouldn’t blind me while I read the papers on my iPad.

Beautiful vistas are sometimes wasted on me…

An image from the film, "Tulip Fever."

An image from the film, “Tulip Fever.”

 

Go see ‘Darkest Hour’ before it’s gone!

p05ndb9k

We finally got in to see “Darkest Hour” at the Nickelodeon over the weekend — the first time we went it was sold out and we were turned away — and it was everything I’d hoped it would be.

It’s only running there three more days after today, so run see it before it’s gone. (I don’t know how long it will be at the mass-market theaters where it’s showing). And get your tickets online in advance — that’s what we did, and the place was packed for the 2 p.m. Saturday showing. I didn’t see a single empty seat. And the audience was apparently riveted. I was hungry, not having had lunch, but I told myself I wasn’t going to go for popcorn and a beer until I saw someone else do it. Nobody did — except a guy who was on the end of a row, and I was in the middle.

But that’s OK, the movie was great. Gary Oldman, as usual, was fantastic, and the makeup artists even more so. He really, really looked and sounded like Winston.

For someone like me who has always been very rah-rah-for-our-side regarding that conflict, it was very enjoyable because one is encouraged to cheer. I especially like the last line, uttered by Lord Halifax after Churchill has completely routed him and Chamberlain in the House of Commons. Doug probably won’t like that line — or the film itself — as much, since he dismisses Trump’s flaws as “just words.” The director has said, “It’s a movie about words and the power of words to change the world and change the course of history.”

Anyway, run see it and let me know what you think.

Statement: ‘Appy-polly-loggies, oh my brothers (and to all devotchkas and ptitsas)!’

a-clockwork-orange-why-alex-delarge-is-so-beloved-yet-creepy-af-1140006

Apparently The Onion had this back in November, but they just tweeted it again:

Alex DeLarge Forced To Step Down As Leader Of Droogs Amidst Allegations Of Sexual Misconduct

LONDON—Pushed out of power as the damning charges mounted, Alex DeLarge was forced to step down Wednesday as leader of the Droogs amidst allegations of sexual misconduct. “In an unfortunate development, we have been forced to remove Mr. DeLarge from his post due to the startling accusations of sexual impropriety that have come to light,” said Droog member Georgie, explaining that although the group had systems in place to swiftly address such allegations, it clearly did not adequately follow those procedures. “Even though these acts took place decades ago, it does not excuse Alex’s heinous and unforgivable actions. This is not at all what the Droogs stand for.” At press time, DeLarge had offered to undergo two weeks of rigorous aversion therapy to rehabilitate himself.

We have high hopes for this Ludovico Technique, which is the heighth of fashion in reconditioning, and we expect our droogie to be back at the Korova Milkbar in his platties of the night at fortnight’s end, slooshying to lovely Ludwig van.

For now, he has a bit of a pain in the gulliver, so bedways is rightways…

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ETV needs to think really hard about its demographics

Bob_Hope,_Bing_Crosby_and_Dorothy_Lamour_in_Road_to_Bali

I’ve read that public broadcasting is in trouble because its audience is aging. (OK, what I read was about NPR, but can’t the same be said about PBS?)

But you’d think they’d want to do something about that, instead of rolling with it to this extent.

Tonight, ETV is offering a deal to donors: Give at a certain basic level, and you get a CD of a documentary about… wait for it… Bob Hope! (Here’s who that was, kids.)

Then, if you give a little more, you get… CDs of all the “Road” pictures with Bing Crosby!

And if you give more, you get more Bob Hope stuff!

How shall I put this? I’m 64 years old — well into my dotage, as the Beatles (I’ll explain later who they were) once reckoned it — and Bob Hope was popular way, way, WAY before my time. I mean, my mother was only 9 years old when the first “Road” picture came out, so I’m thinking it was aimed more at her parents.

When I was young, only Lawrence Welk was more identified with the blue-haired set.

So, what’s the deal here? Why is this the pitch? I’m genuinely puzzled…

I shot this during one of the promotions. I shot it off the old cathode-ray tube upstairs instead of the HD model, because it seemed appropriate.

I shot this during one of the promotions. I shot it off the old cathode-ray tube upstairs instead of the HD model, because it seemed appropriate. A narrator said Hope and Crosby sort of invented the “breaking the fourth wall” thing, so they were cutting-edge. In 1940…

Dr. Strangetweet or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Don

Nothing. I just wanted to use that headline.

What a week.

Do you remember in the movie, when Peter Sellers as the President has his phone conversation with the Soviet premier?

Hello? Hello, Dimitri? Listen, I can’t hear too well, do you suppose you could turn the music down just a little? Oh, that’s much better. Yes. Fine, I can hear you now, Dimitri. Clear and plain and coming through fine. I’m coming through fine too, eh? Good, then. Well then as you say we’re both coming through fine. Good. Well it’s good that you’re fine and I’m fine. I agree with you. It’s great to be fine. laughs Now then Dimitri. You know how we’ve always talked about the possibility of something going wrong with the bomb. The bomb, Dimitri. The hydrogen bomb. Well now what happened is, one of our base commanders, he had a sort of, well he went a little funny in the head. You know. Just a little… funny. And uh, he went and did a silly thing. Well, I’ll tell you what he did, he ordered his planes… to attack your country. Well let me finish, Dimitri. Let me finish, Dimitri. Well, listen, how do you think I feel about it? Can you imagine how I feel about it, Dimitri? Why do you think I’m calling you? Just to say hello? Of course I like to speak to you. Of course I like to say hello. Not now, but any time, Dimitri. I’m just calling up to tell you something terrible has happened. It’s a friendly call. Of course it’s a friendly call. Listen, if it wasn’t friendly, … you probably wouldn’t have even got it.

The source of the comedy is that he is SO reasonable, so measured, so like a supremely patient elementary school teacher in his effort to calm the drunken Russian. Deferential. Diffident. Studiously unprovocative.

That doesn’t seem quite as funny now…

Dr-Strangelove-3-1

Why wasn’t there a Bond girl named ‘Reality Winner?’

Reality Leigh Winner, from her Instagram page.

Reality Leigh Winner, from her Instagram page.

“Who is Reality Winner?” is today’s most popular headline. Here are versions of that story from:

Her own self-description on her Instagram page simply says, “I lift, I eat, I have a cat.” That’s followed by lots of pictures of herself lifting weights, of food, and occasionally of a cat (although at first glance, there seem to be more dog than cat pictures).

Me, I’m just impressed that there’s someone at the center of a spy story with such a perfect Bond girl name, the sort that might cause James himself to say, “I must be dreaming.” First Anna Chapman (“From Russia with Va-va-VOOM!”), now this.

But I thought it was kind of odd that most of the coverage this morning was about her being charged with the NSA leak. I sort of thought the bigger news (and maybe this was played up bigger last night when I wasn’t paying attention) was what she had revealed:

Russian intelligence agents hacked a US voting systems manufacturer in the weeks leading up to last year’s presidential election, according to the Intercept,citing what it said was a highly classified National Security Agency (NSA) report.

The revelation coincided with the arrest of Reality Leigh Winner, 25, a federal contractor from Augusta, Georgia, who was charged with removing classified material from a government facility and mailing it to a news outlet.

The hacking of senior Democrats’ email accounts during the campaign has been well chronicled, but vote-counting was thought to have been unaffected, despite concerted Russian efforts to penetrate it.

Russian military intelligence carried out a cyber-attack on at least one US voting software supplier and sent spear-phishing emails to more than a hundred local election officials days before the poll, the Intercept reported on Monday….

You know how a lot of sticklers (particularly of the pro-Trump sort) have protested that it’s wrong to say the Russians “hacked the election,” when they didn’t actually break into our polling system, but just hacked party emails and leaked them and let the chips fall?

Which was true, which is why “hacked the election” was never the best way to say it.

Until now.

Oh, and by the way, it wasn’t some hacker “artist” operating on his own initiative, the way Putin tried to suggest the other day (channeling Trump with his “400-pound hacker“). This was the GRU

Ranking the Bonds (a Roger Moore memorial post)

Accept no substitutes, unless you're forced to.

Accept no substitutes, unless you’re forced to.

In breaking the news about his death this morning, The Guardian called Roger Moore “the suavest James Bond.”

The way I think of Moore.

The way I think of Moore.

OK. Maybe. I’d say Pierce Brosnan comes close, though.

The thing is, personally, I never quite accepted Moore as Bond, even though he played the part in more films than anyone. I thought of him as “The Saint.” Part of the problem in accepting him as 007 is that he had the rotten luck of following Sean Connery, who of course defined the role.

All of this is to build up to a Top Five List, in this case ranking the Best Bonds. Yes, I know; it’s been done to death. But it’s the first way I could think of to mark the passing of Simon Templar.

So here goes:

  1. Sean Connery. Yes, I know: It’s like picking the Beatles as “best pop group.” Barry in “High Fidelity” would sneer at me for being so obvious. But it’s not even close. He was Bond when Bond was cool — in the Mad Men, Playboy magazine era when wearing the right tux, drinking the right martini and having as many beautiful women as possible was fashionable, even praiseworthy. He wore his hyper-masculine image with just the right bit of irony, at a time when we boomers weren’t old enough to realize what a joke it was. Austin Powers showed us that, much later. (If you go back and watch the Connery films now, you’ll see Mike Myers wasn’t changing or exaggerating the details at all; the films really were that ridiculous.)
  2. Daniel Craig, particularly in “Casino Royale,” essentially an “origin story.” He’s the roughest, least-suave Bond, to the point that you’re a bit surprised to find out (in “Skyfall”) that he was of the landed gentry. He’s what you might suppose a guy with a License to Kill would be in real life — an ex-SAS ruffian who, if he showed up in a John le Carre novel (which he probably wouldn’t), would be confined to Scalphunters down in Brixton (think of the marginal character Fawn in Tinker Tailor and The Honourable Schoolboy).
  3. Roger Moore. He played the part loyally and with good humor for all those years, and if nothing else kept the franchise warm while we waited for another Connery to come along (which did not, and likely will not, ever happen). His was always the likable Bond, with the obvious question arising: Do we want Bond to be likable?
  4. Timothy Dalton. OK, so his films aren’t that memorable, and he only played Bond in one more film than that dabbler George Lazenby. But I thought he had a decent presence for the part, even though it was insufficiently explored. He’s the Bond we hardly knew.
  5. Pierce Brosnan. I hesitate to include him, since he brought so little to the part that I’m having trouble remembering the titles of the ones he played in. But I have to have five. The main thing I remember about the Brosnan films was that a BMW Z3 starred in one of them.

That’s my list. Your thoughts?

Daniel Craig: A bit of the old Ultraviolence.

Daniel Craig: A bit of the old Ultraviolence.

A family more like the Corleones than the Waltons

How the GOP leadership probably sees itself.

How the GOP leadership probably sees itself.

The thing that really jumped out at me from The Washington Post‘s revelation that Kevin McCarthy told fellow GOP leaders last year (when there was time left to head off the disaster) he thought Vladimir Putin was paying Donald J. Trump was Speaker Paul Ryan’s reaction:

Ryan instructed his Republican lieutenants to keep the conversation private, saying: “No leaks. . . . This is how we know we’re a real family here.”

The remarks remained secret for nearly a year….

Family? Really? If that’s what it is, then this family is a lot more like the Corleones than the Waltons — complete with omertà.

Wait, wait: I take it back. This is more like The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight

How Paul Ryan made it sound in that meeting last year.

How Paul Ryan made it sound in that meeting last year.

Revisiting the Hickory Huskers

Huskers

Back row: Whit, Jimmy, Strap, Coach Norman Dale, Everett, Merle, Buddy. Front row: Rade, Ollie.

All the Gamecock basketball excitement over the weekend caused me to go back and watch “Hoosiers” again, even though I had already done so once in the past month or two. I figured I needed to brush up on my sports jargon, so I could say stuff like:

You’re playing Gonzaga Saturday. Ain’t nobody knows ’em better’n me. Now, I been watchin’ how you’ve been breakin’ the colts. But, my friend, you cannot play them all the way man-to-man. They got no head-toppers. Gonzaga? A bunch o’ mites. Run you off the boards. You gotta squeeze ’em back in the paint. Make ’em chuck it from the cheap seats. Watch that purgatory they call a gym. No drive, 12 foot in. That’ll do…

I still think some of what Shooter told Coach was gobbledegook, but it sounded deep.

Anyway, as happens when I’m watching a movie with an iPad on my lap, I started looking up the colts to see what happened to them. Some of them tried to pursue a movie career, with minimal success. One (Merle) committed suicide at 39. Another — Rade, who violated Norman Dale’s 4-pass rule in the first game, is a successful dentist, and looks just the same except that his hair’s not slicked down.

Anyway, I ran across this fun picture from this past November, when the Huskers reunited in Indianapolis, and were interviewed on a radio show. I hope Kent Sterling, the radio host, won’t mind my sharing this. It’s pretty cool…

crop reunion

Pictured are, left to right:

  • Brad Long, who played BuddyThat’s the guy with the crewcut who mouthed off to the coach in the first practice and got kicked off the team — then, mysteriously, is back on the team later in the movie. It’s a mystery because the money men forced the director to butcher the movie to get it under 2 hours, and it was still awesome! The very last cut they made was to the scene in which Buddy asks Coach for another chance.
  • Dr. Steve Hollar, who played Rade — Rade had an attitude problem, too, but later became so loyal that in defense of Coach Dale, he threw the punch that got him and Dale kicked out of the game. “Got him good, didn’t I, coach?” “Yeah, you did.” Steve was playing basketball for DePauw University when he got the part. After filming, he went back to school and became a dentist.
  • Wade Schenck, who played Ollie — Ollie wasn’t no good, as he put it — “Equipment manager’s my trade.” But he scored the charity shot that got them into the championship game.
  • Kent Sterling, the radio guy
  • Maris Valainis, the immortal Jimmy Chitwood — Valainis showed up for the casting cattle call, and decided it was ridiculous with so many competitors, and got out of line to leave — and the director spotted him. He pulled the kid aside and asked him to show his basketball skills. Even though he was the only Husker who didn’t make his high school team in real life, he ended up portraying the best player anybody had ever seen in Indiana.
  • David Neirdorf, who played Everett Flatch — That’s Shooter’s son, who was initially embarrassed by what Coach was trying to do for his Dad. “Son, kick their butt!”

And who doesn’t get goose bumps when, at the end, the camera zooms in on the team photo and you hear Gene Hackman say, “I love you guys…”

Apparently, I did NOT use Hans Delbrück’s brain in building the new president

young-frankenstein

I began my day, my year, crying out in protest against a headline on The Fix:

I am as dismayed as Froderick Frahnkensteen at learning that apparently, at some point during this awful past year, I put an abnormal brain into a seven and a half foot long, fifty-four inch wide — but small-handed — gorilla.

But don’t blame me! Eyegor let me down. I had intended our new POTUS to have Hans Delbrück’s brain, you see…

Who was the bigger star? Carrie Fisher or Debbie Reynolds?

singin

I had this rough impression over the past day that, while the death of Debbie Reynolds got pretty good play in the news, it was mostly because she died one day after her daughter, Carrie Fisher. And while this may be an erroneous impression, it seemed that the play on Debbie was front-pagish, but the passing of Carrie got centerpiece treatment on the news sites I saw.

Perhaps this is a generational thing, but back in her day, it seems to me that Debbie Reynolds was by far the bigger star. Look at the starring roles she’s known for: “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Tammy and the Bachelor,” “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” “How the West was Won,” “The Singing Nun,” to mention the most obvious. All pretty much boffo at the box office. And her performance of “Tammy” topped the pop charts in September of 1957.

Some of those things were a bit early for me. “Singin’ in the Rain” was released the year before I was born, and I thought of it as an oldie that occasionally appeared on TV. But I remember the later ones, and I grew up thinking of Debbie Reynolds as a big, established movie star, like, I don’t know… say, the woman who stole her husband away, Elizabeth Taylor. (And what did she have going for her, that a kid would have seen, besides “National Velvet?” She was better known for her tabloid lifestyle with Richard Burton, who stole her away from Debbie’s husband.)

Whereas Carrie is, let’s face it, Princess Leia. But to my kids, and people younger, that’s as big as it gets — maybe bigger than being Scarlett in “Gone With the Wind,” back in my parents’ day. It made her an icon. My elder son invited a girl from school over to play when he was about 6 purely in the hope that he might persuade her to do her long hair up in those braided side buns. She didn’t go for it, so that was a bust. The fascination never left him, or any of us, I suppose.

To me, “Star Wars” was wonderful — I actually reviewed the movie in The Jackson Sun when it came out, and the review was enthusiastic. I remember it grabbed me so that when I was driving home afterward in my orange Chevy Vega, I had to keep shaking off the feeling that I was flying an X-Wing, trying to get into position to blow up the Death Star.

And I was, more or less, a grownup. So I can see how irresistible the pull was for kids. And we all enjoyed seeing her back in “The Force Awakens.”

The accolades for her went on about how in later years she had become an accomplished author, etc. And feminists said things like how much more they liked her as the mature “General Morgana” rather than the enticingly nubile princess. But let’s face it, folks. We cared because she was Princess Leia, period. And I doubt that that’s just true of us boys.

Oh we enjoyed seeing her play a supporting role in “When Harry Met Sally,” and we emitted delighted cries of recognition at her cameos in “The Blues Brothers” and “Austin Powers.” But even then, John Belushi and Mike Myers totally stole those scenes.

As a movie star, as one who got leading roles, she was Princess Leia, period. And don’t get me wrong — I honor her for it.

And maybe that’s enough to overshadow her mother, even though to musical fans, “Singin’ in the Rain” is pretty iconic. Interesting that both of them made the films for which they’d most be remembered when they were 19…

Anyway, I found the comparison interesting, and I wouldn’t want to take anything away from either of them. Rest in Peace, ladies…

"Aren't you a little short for a stormtrooper?"

“Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?”

Anton Lesser would (almost) be perfect as Stephen Maturin

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OK, so he’s showing a little too much age. But the face, and its expressions, are perfect.

WARNING: Only about two of my regular readers will find this interesting, but it really interests me and it’s my blog, so…

Awhile back, Bryan brought my attention to something in The Atlantic saying what I’ve said many times myself: One could not find better fodder for a high-quality television series than Patrick O’Brian’s series of historical novels set in the Napoleonic Wars:

The Next Great TV Show (If Someone Will Make It)

The case for Aubrey & Maturin

Fifteen years ago, when I finished reading Patrick O’Brian’s magisterial 20-novel Aubrey-Maturin series for the first time, I remember thinking, damn you, Horatio Hornblower. C.S. Forester’s renowned nautical protagonist was at the time enjoying the starring role in the British TV series Hornblower, and given the close similarities to O’Brian’s oeuvre—both concern the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic era—it seemed unlikely bordering on inconceivable that anyone would try to adapt the latter for television.

That was, of course, at a time when it almost went without saying that a project of such scope and pedigree would have to be British. But the televisual times have since changed immeasurably for the better on this side of the Atlantic, and now it’s easy to envision O’Brian’s books—which The Times Book Review has hailed as “the best historical novels ever written”—being adapted by any number of networks: HBO, obviously, but also AMC, FX, Netflix, USA … the list grows longer by the month.

Which is a very good thing, because if someone would merely get around to undertaking them, the Aubrey-Maturin novels could easily provide material for exquisite television, offering the action and world-building scale of Game of Thrones, the social anthropology (and Anglo-historical appeal) of Downton Abbey, and two central characters reminiscent of (though far more deeply etched than) Rust Cohle and Marty Hart in the first season of True Detective. Someone really needs to make this happen….

Absolutely. Each of the novels could fill a full season with riveting television, and we wouldn’t face running out of material for two decades, since there are 20 novels. This would be bliss.

These books qualify, collectively, as the greatest work of historical fiction ever. Not just the action, or the amazingly detailed description of everyday life at sea and on land in the early 19th century. O’Brian truly makes you feel like you are there. You know how, when you’re wondering whether you’re dreaming, you might reach out and touch something to persuade yourself of the reality of the experience? O’Brian’s novels pass the test, as you touch aspects of a life alien to the 21st century, but completely familiar to you after the first few pages.

But the greatest thing is the way the books hold up as literature, period — never mind the history or the adventure. The relationship between Royal Navy Captain Jack Aubrey and his particular friend, physician/naturalist Stephen Maturin, has been compared to Holmes and Watson, but it goes far deeper than that, and is much more perceptively nuanced. The relationships among all the characters offer insights into the richness of human experience seldom rivaled in anything I’ve ever read.

The trick, of course, is casting.

The film, “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” was well done and enjoyable. It got a few things wrong. For instance, it showed officers and midshipmen dressed in full uniform, as though for an admiral’s inspection, on ordinary days at sea. Which anyone who’s read the books knows is unrealistic.

Here and there, the casting and performances were inspired. David Threlfall was wonderful — he was Preserved Killick (although the bit where he was whining about saving grog for Saluting Day was off — wine would have been more believable). James D’Arcy made a creditable Tom Pullings, with just the right mix of diffidence and command competence. And as small as the part was, I could believe the hulking John DeSantis as Padeen, the loblolly boy.

Others were wildly off. Billy Boyd (you know, Pippin from “Lord of the Rings”) didn’t work at all as Barrett Bonden. Bonden was a big, strapping man, a fleet boxing champion and the very model of the perfect fighting sailor — not a hobbit. He tried, but he just didn’t have the right presence.

But what really mattered, of course, was the two leads — Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. Everything depends on them.

I thought Russell Crowe did a good, workmanlike job as Lucky Jack. But Jack Aubrey is a complex character, with two very different poles to his personality. There’s the kind, openly friendly, jovial, seemingly none too bright, corpulent English gentleman who so thoroughly enjoys bad puns that his face turns red and his blue eyes turn to slits as he laughs, and who is completely helpless on land, an easy mark for con men looking to relieve him of his prize money.

Then there is Captain Aubrey at sea, an imposing, confident, godlike creature who causes subordinates and adversaries to quail when they behold his countenance. As Maturin observes of his friend as he prepares to go into action:

‘Dear me,’ thought Stephen as Captain Aubrey came on deck, buckling this same sword, ‘he has added a cubit to his stature.’ It was quite true: The prospect of decisive action seemed to make Jack grow in height and breadth; and it certainly gave him a different expression, more detached, remote, and self-contained. He was a big man in any case… and with this increase in moral size he became a more imposing figure by far, even to those who knew him intimately well as a mild, amiable, not always very wise companion….

You’d think the latter persona would be harder to play, but it’s easy for Crowe — that’s his type. He has more trouble with the friendly, seemingly harmless, side of Jack. There are a couple of scenes when he bravely attempts it — when he springs a pun on Stephen, and when he plays the fool after a good bit of wine at dinner with his officers. But he never seems quite as harmless, as endearing, as my good friend, the character in the books. Crowe’s just way better at being intimidating.

But Crowe is perfect casting compared to Paul Bettany as Stephen Maturin. The doctor is Jack’s opposite — a perfect lubber at sea, but a genius at every other aspect of life. And Mr. Bettany, of whom I am normally a fan, does well at portraying him as a bookish man of science who is indignant that he is part of a purely martial expedition that won’t stop to let him study the zoological wonders of the Galapagos.

SPOILER ALERT, in case you haven’t read the books: But Maturin is something other than a brilliant physician, naturalist, gifted linguist (the foremast hands, and Jack himself for that matter, marvel at his ability to rattle away, “talking foreign twenty to the dozen”) and lover of music. He’s also an intelligence agent for the Admiralty, unpaid in that capacity because he does it entirely out of indignant hatred of Napoleon. He is often described as having a cold, “reptilian” look in his eye that puts people who see it on their guard, which he generally hides by wearing colored spectacles. And when violence is called for, he acts with a calm efficiency that is as different as night from day from the joie de combat that seizes Jack when he’s on an enemy’s deck with sword in hand.

But except for a brief moment at the end of the film, when Bettany picks up a sword and joins in the fighting against the French enemy — something for which the filmmakers have in no way prepared you — you’d think he was a pacifist, one who conscientiously objects to doing battle with the French or anyone else.

So, ever since I’ve first thought of how wonderful the Aubrey/Maturin books would be as a TV series, I’ve wondered who could play Stephen. And I think I’ve settled on someone, if the makeup people can make him look a decade or two younger.

He’s Anton Lesser, a British actor whom you see everywhere, but may not know by name, since he so effectively buries himself in his characters. He’s Qyburn on “Game of Thrones,” Chief Superintendent Bright on “Endeavour,” Thomas More in “Wolf Hall,” and most recently, Exeter in “The Hollow Crown,” that collection of Shakespeare’s history plays that I enjoyed so much on PBS.

Like Stephen, Lesser's characters often can't be bothered to shave.

Like Stephen, Lesser’s characters often can’t be bothered to shave.

Every time I see his face, I think, “There’s Stephen!” His face, his expressions, his physicality, just embody the character. He could don Maturin like a well-worn suit.

If only he’d been born about 20 years later. Maturin, fortunately, is sort of an ageless, crotchety, wizened character, who from the beginning, I gather from the books, looked older than he was, and acted older still. In fact, in some ways Lesser’s maturity adds to his resemblance to the character. But I admit, that loose skin in Lesser’s neck would look out of place on the young, penniless physician who meets Jack Aubrey in Port Mahon in the first book. (Yet, if he filled out to tighten his skin, he wouldn’t look like the nine-stone Maturin.)

Maybe he has a son who looks just like him and is also a gifted actor. Or maybe, as I said before, the makeup people can do wonders. But I have seldom ever found such a perfect match of type between an actor and a beloved character in fiction.

See, I told you you wouldn’t be interested. But I was sufficiently pleased at my discovery that I thought I’d share it with the one or two who might appreciate it…

As Thomas More in "Wolf Hall." There's the kind of joke Jack would love: Lesser as More.

As Thomas More in “Wolf Hall.” There’s the kind of joke Jack would love: Lesser as More.