Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Superman at 74

Reading my buddy Andy Fish's blog this morning I come to discover that today is Superman's birthday. From what he said, I guess DC set it up on the 29th of February because of the Leap Year.

You know. As in "Leaps tall buildings in a single bound". GET IT???

Oh well! With all that said, Happy Birthday Last Son of Krypton. You don't look 74.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Deputy Seraph (1959)

I had mentioned in my previous blog Love Happy is officially the Marx Brothers last film together. Although, they had appeared in a film titled The Story of Mankind in 1957, the Brothers did not actually appear together in the film.

In 1959, producer decided to try and make a pilot for a new television series starring the Marx Brothers titled Deputy Seraph. Encouraged by the audience reaction to the Brothers briefly appearing together at the end of an episode on General Electric Theater which featured Chico and Harpo titled The Great Jewel Robbery producers proposed a weekly series which would star Harpo and Chico as a pair of guardian angels who would possess people for a short time in order to help them with their problems.

The title itself reflecting the Western shows that were popular on TV at the time.

Groucho was cast as Deputy Seraph who would appear in every third show to help Harpo and Chico out of some pandemonium they created.

The clips below are only fragments of what was filmed of the pilot. When doctors discovered that Chico was suffering from arteriosclerosis (which would kill him two years later) and thus could not be insured, the producers had to cancel the project.

So this is why you hear the brothers answering to nobody or scenes seem fragmented. You're really watching outtakes rather than a full television episode.

I found it somewhat sad to watch seeing that Chico was so sick at the time and forgetting or unable to deliver any of his lines. For someone like me who prefers to remember the Marx's as they were in Monkey Business or Duck Soup, it might be better of the series never aired.

I am glad that Groucho never fell into the trap the Stooges did by continuing with Joe Besser or Curley Joe. Even if he recruited Zeppo or Gummo to fill in for Chico and Harpo after they passed on it wouldn't have the same dynamics as Groucho, Harpo and Chico.

Although, we are all familiar with Zeppo's persona. Which apparently both Groucho ha stated that Zeppo never got a fair shake by producers. To be honest, I'm not sure what kind of personality Gummo possessed when he was with the Brothers on stage.

To be warned, the picture quality and sound is a bit rough. But for Marx fans, it is interesting to watch from a historical point of view.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Love Happy (1949)

Love Happy is the last Marx Brothers film and has the distinction of being their worst. It also has the distinction of being one of the earliest films for a young actress named Marilyn Monroe. Who only appears for a very short scene in the film.

To be (somewhat) fair, it wasn't supposed to be a Marx Brothers film at all. It was designed to be a solo vehicle for Harpo Marx. However, it became a Marx Brothers film in order to once again get Chico out of gamble debts.

The movie itself was co-written with Harpo by former Warner Animation director Frank Tashlin. Which makes sense because there are certain scenes that have the feel of an animated cartoon.

To be honest, Tashlin was my least favorite of the Warner Animators.

For the longest time I have been on the fence on watching. I would prefer to remember the Marx Brothers the way the were early on. Even their farewell film The Big Store and their second farewell film (again only made to get Chico out of gambling debt) A Night in Casablanca, although not as strong as their earlier films, both movies had enough good bits to make them enjoyable and watchable.

It's just not the case with Love Happy. Because it was not meant to be a Marx Brothers film originally you do get this general feeling that Chico and Groucho were stuck in the film very arbitrarily. Especially Groucho who appears in a very small role as Sam Grunion who narrates the tale.

Considering that one of the biggest strengths of the early Marx Brothers films is Groucho's wit and put-downs. Having Groucho in such a limited role is one of the many shortcomings of this film.

Two other things that make it NOT feel like a Marx Brothers film was that Groucho barely appears with his brothers and this is the only Marx movie in which he does not appear in his trademark greasepaint mustache and eyebrows.

You really get the sense that Groucho himself doesn't want to do the film. And there's a reason for that. In later years, Groucho doesn't speak very highly (or at all) about this film.

Without the greasepaint mustache and eyebrows, I feel more like I'm listening to one of my cantankerous great-uncles rather than Groucho from those early films.

By that time all three of the brothers were pushing 60. They weren't particularly young by Hollywood standards when they started out. And now they were much older and trying to recapture much of the same schtick they did earlier in their career.

It would be like Charlie Chaplin trying to play the Tramp into his 60's.

By 1949 when this movie was released, humor had changed dramatically. The Marx's brand of comedy had been replaced by Abbott and Costello's brand of slapstick. I'm not sure if America in general really didn't know what to do with itself at that point.

Jazz music was starting to give way to what would be known as Country and Western. And even though there was this part of Hollywood that wanted to hold on to how they produced comedies in the past. There was something a bit cheaper about some of the movies of the 1950's which desperately tried to emulate the past.

A good example of this is Groucho's later film A Girl in Every Port. I had seen it a couple years ago when I had been really ill and uable to do anything else other than watch television. I blogged about it shortly thereafter.

The way I feel about Love Happy is the same way I feel about The Beatles Let It Be or Monty Python and the Meaning of Life. You can tell it's just not there for them anymore. It's not quite as bad as an aging rock group continuing long after their prime or the Three Stooges continuing to make movies with Joe Besser or Curly Joe.

But you can tell that the magic of those early films were long gone.

If you're a completest like me, I'd recommend watching Love Happy. However, if you're new to the Marx Brothers DON'T make this your first film. I'd recommend watching Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, Duck Soup, Night at the Opera or A Day at the Races.

A Night at the Opera was the first one I ever watched. So, that might be my recommendation for your first one.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx (2001)

I've found a lot of parallels between two of my favorite comedians Groucho Marx and Peter Sellers. Apart from the fact that Sellers could do a fairly spot-on impersonation of Groucho.

They were both damaged people. They both had domineering stage mothers. And near the end of their respective lives they were both taken in by young women who were accused of using them for their money.

Strangely enough, both cases both these women died horribly in later years.

However, the differences were Groucho came from a large family while Sellers was an only child. Sellers's mother spoiled him rotten and then would ridicule him for being spoiled rotten while Groucho's Mother made it painfully clear that Groucho was not her favorite. There have been claims that Sellers had been physically abusive to his wives and possibly his children while Groucho was just emotionally negligent to both.

Several years back I had read a really well written but very depressing biography on Groucho by Stefan Kanfer titled Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx.

Biographies can be a real mixed bag. Some like Mabel: Hollywood's First I-Don't-Care Girl by Betty Harper Fussell or Peter Sellers: The Authorized Biography by Alexander Walker I found to be very good.

Other notorious entries like The Life and Death of Peter Sellers by Roger Lewis and The Lives of John Lennon by Albert Harry Goldman leave you feeling like these authors really hated the person and the only reason they wrote a biography was just to smear the person's legacy.

Stefan Kanfer's accounts of Groucho is definitely in the "very good" column. Like I said good but depressing. Even after achieving success and stardom you never get the sense in this book Groucho is ever really happy. Although he is sometimes cruel to the people around him, you don't hate Groucho in this account. You feel sorry for him. Strange enough, the part I felt worst for him is when MGM forces him to wear a toupee for movies like At The Circus.

The Marx Brothers were not young men when they broke into Hollywood. They were all in their early 40's. Which I suppose by today's standards would be ancient considering you're a star at 15 and a has-been at 24.

So I probably would be very insulted too if I was constantly being reminded that "I'm getting old".

I found the bio to be both very insightful and informative. But don't expect a "feel good" story. Expect a very well written account.

I highly recommend you check it out. Especially if you're just discovering the Marx Brothers films for the first time and would like to know more about Groucho Marx himself.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Hammer Films Has Risen from the Grave

That would be the same Hammer Films that gave us the Frankenstein and Dracula movies from the late 1950's until the 1970's which starred Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. They're already getting mostly positive reviews about their first film The Woman in Black starring former Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe. Which makes me giggle at all the teens who are going to see this film because of Radcliffe and are probably getting scared out of their socks because Harry Potter is starring in a proper horror film.

Already there are murmers and whispers that Hammer is planning on filming a brand new version of Dracula. And knowing many of the past films produced by Hammer, you can rest assured that the Count will not "Sparkle".

Which begs the question, who should be Dracula. For me, anyone but Robert Pattinson... or Tom Cruise... or Jack Black.

Initially my vote would go to Sherlock actor Benedict Cumberbatch. He's tall, pale, thin and has a melancholy quality to his voice.
Here's a quick thought. Cumberbatch as Dracula with Daniel Radcliffe as Harker.

However, my thoughts then went to another classic series by Hammer: Frankenstein. And given the success they had on stage, perhaps Hammer should cast Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller in a new version of Frankenstein.

Ah!! But now comes the tricky question. Who should star as who? Given that both actors have swapped roles during different nights of the performance.

This might be interesting casting since both actors appar to be squaring off now... or at least their production companies are... over the part of Sherlock Holmes since Cumberbatch has now become a household name for playing the part on the hit series Sherlock and Johnny Lee Miller has been cast in the same role in an American version called... um... Elementary.

What do you think?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Antoine Capitani

I've been having a difficult time thinking of the right words over the past week or so since I learned about the death of my student Antoine Capitani. I don't deal with these things very well and putting down my thoughts into words is always a struggle.

I became Antoine's art teacher after I did an Art Tea's at Eagle Hill's Cultural Center. I had received an e-mail from the school's art teacher Pat Bock telling me a young student in her class would like to know if I would be willing to teach private lessons for him at the school.

This was the first time I got a chance to meet Antoine. Over the past year I watched his talents flourish as I continued with his lessons as well as working with him during the Artist in Residence program. Much like Antoine himself, his work was very honest and genuine. What he was feeling he put down on paper. I tried my best to help him cultivate those ideas into illustrations while also paying tribute to many of the artist he admired such as Magritte.

Fellow artist Veronica Fish who took part in the Artist in Residence and got to know Antoine as well posted an illustration of his on her own blog called The Dreaming. It was one of the first projects we worked on together.

In that one we payed tribute to his favorite artist Magritte and I can still remember suggesting that he do the lines for the clouds in marker.

Another one of his biggest strenghts was his use of color and his fearlessness in mixing colors. He really didn't take to coloring on Photoshop when I showed it to him. It just lacked the passion of coloring things by hand for him.

When I got the message about Antoine's death Wednesday morning it hit me hard. I felt like not only the world had lost a really talented and original artist but it also lost probably one of the nicest kids I have ever met.

Antoine was always kind and always genuine. Every lesson he would ask how I was doing and after Syd and I got married how my wife was doing.

Sometimes we forgot, or at least we don't see, the positive effect we have on the people around us. And what a giant hole we leave in people's lives when we're gone.

Two of my prize possessions are a t-shirt he made of one of his prints and a thank you card he made for me at the end of the Artist in Residence. I recently bought a frame for it and hung it in my studio.

I was also very happy to hear that Eagle Hill did a showing of Antoine's work after the Memorial Service they had for him on Monday. I was sorry I wasn't able to make it to the service or the show. I think I could have really used it.

I will miss Antoine. He was my student and for everyone who had the privilege of meeting he was a good friend.


I'm not one to talk about my own Birthday a lot. Not because I hate it or go into a funk every year because I'm a year older. I just don't like to make a big fuss over them.

Even growing up we never had the giant parties with a million kids, a pony ride and a ferris wheel. I suppose even as a kid I preferred small gatherings with a few friends.

The last couple of Birthdays have been really nice. This one was great because right before Syd and I went out on our Birthday/Valentines Day dinner I got a message from my niece wishing me a Happy Birthday.

Then I got two great gifts from Syd. One was a Doctor Who Bow Tie from Etsy (our favorite shop) and the other was a framed Murder By Death poster with Charles Addams artwork.

Syd and I decided to do hibachi at Jasmine's in Auburn MA for a Birthday/Valentines Day dinner this year. We had gone to Tenka's for sushi last year and hibachi looked like so much fun.

And it was!! It really was dinner and show wrapped into one. Besides the fact we had a very entertaining cook.

We met up with my cousin Jared and his fiancée Alicia met up with us. We hadn't had the chance to see them in a few months because of Jared adjusting to his night job so it was really great to meet up with them again.

I now love hibachi. Just for the gigantic burst of flame right at the beginning of the meal. Like I said, our cook was thoroughly entertaining. We were all amused by his humor and his skills with the skillet.

I ended up having the Land and Sea (sirloin and scallops) which was very tasty and Syd had the Fried Tofu. It was also the first time I had Sake spray into my mouth from a ketchup bottle. That was a first for me.

All in all it made for an excellent birthday and an excellent Valentines Day experience :-)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Happy St. Valentines Day

What better way to celebrate the holiday than with an image of the St. Valentines Day Massacre? Happy St. Valentines Day everyone!!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Batman: Year One

DC/Warner Premier's latest animated movie Batman: Year One was not half bad. My only nit-picky complaint was that I wished they kept the animation flat like the original David Mazzucchelli artwork instead of trying to flesh it out with shadows.

Otherwise it wasn't a bad adaptation of probably one of the best Batman stories to come out of the past 25 to 30 years. Maybe even better than some of the Batman films that have come out in that time too.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the story. It was written by Frank Miller in Batman issues #404 to #407 in 1987 and it recounted the beginning of both Bruce Wayne as the Batman and Jim Gordon first arriving in Gotham City.

Even though Batman is first learning the ropes, this ISN'T the "I'm doing this untilt he world doesn't need me" angst ridden, emotional and looking for closure Batman from the Christian Bale films.

Bruce Waybe makes it quite clear in this tale that he is not looking for closure. He wants to be Batman. You get a sense he's not looking to avenge his parents death. He becomes Batman because he wants to protect the streets so no one has to go through what he went through and give them the protector he never had as a kid.

He doesn't become Batman out of guilt. He wants to be Batman.

Another thing is they don't overdo the Batman voice for starters. A touch growly but nothing like the over-the-top incoherent guttural snarling Christan Bale attempts.

When he's talking to Alfred he isn't doing the voice. He's talking in his normal voice.

With that said, the cast in this one does a decent job. The bright spot in the cast is Bryan Cranston of both Breaking Bad and Malcolm in the Middle fame as the voice Lt. James Gordon. He sounds like a Jim Gordon who could probably kick your ass without breaking a sweat.

Batman: Year One is well worth checking out. I liked it better than both Under the Red Hood and Superman/Batman: Public Enemies. I was actually disappointed by Public Enemies while I thought Red Hood wasn't bad. But this one blows both out of the water.

Not a perfect adaptation of the comic, but then again I don't think there ever will be a perfect adaptation. Still, I enjoyed it.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Adrian Conan Doyle

I've always had a certain degree of sympathy for the children of a celebrity. Mostly because people say things like "Well they're not as good as their parent was" or "They only made it big because of their parent". And that is not always the case.

In the case of Julian Lennon. There were stories of other kids picking on him for being rich despite the fact he and his Mother barely got any financial support from his famous father John Lennon. And then even later on people making the the comparison of sounding alike vocally.

That's something that just cannot be helped. Naturally people do inherit certain inflections in their voice that sound similar to the parent.

But it becomes more glaring when one is in the spotlight though.

A couple years back I had bought a copy of The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes by Adrian Conan Doyle second hand. Adrian being the late son of the late Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It's been sitting on my bookshelf and recently in the last couple of weeks I decided to start reading it.

Naturally, it's not as strong as his famous father's stories. Not to mention Adrian tends to lean more closely to the visual sterotypes Holmes got stuck with such as the deerstalker and inverness cape.

However, I am enjoying the stories by the junior Conan Doyle immensely. It is only natural that ever writer comes in second to the original. But the stories that Adrian Conan Doyle wrote alongside John Dickson Carr are not half bad.

I'm not sure if Adrian Conan Doyle has written other stories featuring his father's famous creation. However, if he did I would be very pleased to pick up a copy.

But I am not disappointed with what I am reading so far.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Timothy Zahn, Star Wars, the Prequels, the Universe and Everything Else

I'm not as rabid of a Star Wars fan as I used to be back in 1990. I loved Star Wars around the time Empire and Jedi came out in the early 1980's. Fell out of it for a long while after the craze died down. And then rediscovered my enjoyment for the original movies sometime around my early teens.

After Jedi was released, it looked as though George Lucas had no intention of continuing the series. There were murmers about a series of movies set before the first movie... or fourth movie whichever way you want to look at it... but those were nothing more than idle gossip.

Not that Star Wars had become forgotten. But like any craze may it be Beatlemania or Batmania, it's only a matter of time before interest dies down and pop culture moves onto their new shiny red rubber ball of the month.

It was right before the series got a shot of renewed interest in the 1990's that my interest in Star Wars peaked again. I started reading many of the early Marvel Comics series with Carmine Infantino. Mostly because of the issue Doom Mission I used to borrow from the school library when I was younger which made me want to read other stories from the series.

However, my biggest surprise came when I was on a family vacation up in New Hampshire. We decided to stop by a bookstore to kill some time. And on the new release shelf I saw it.

Star Wars: Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn.

This wasn't a reprint of the films or even a reprint of an Alan Dean Foster Star Wars tale from the late 1970's. As far as I was concerned this was a brand new tale. Finally I would see how Luke, Leia and Han got along after the Death Star was destroyed and if the Empire would rear it's ugly head again.

How could a Star Wars series continue without a formidable nemsis like Darth Vader? That seemed the hardest to get my mind around.

Although, the idea of a Vaderless Star Wars series seems almost weaker by comparison, teenage Bret was not disappointed. The book was very enjoyable and Timothy Zahn's continuation of the world that George Lucas created was very well done.

Not to mention the enemies created for the story weren't bad. No Darth Vader or Emperor Palpatine. But not bad.

Even Zahn's concept of the Clone War was far more interesting than what we ended up seeing in Attack of the Clones. I thought the idea of the Jedi's fighting evil clones of themselves was a more interesting idea.

Clone Army. Meh!

I read all three books in the series. All of which were very good. I found the ending to the last book to be a bit flat. However, it was still a top-notch series.

I started to lose interest with the whole expanded universe created by the novel and comics. I felt like too much had been explained away leaving very little wiggle room. Even some of the information created in those comics and novels are now considered to be non-canoical with what has been told in the prequels.

Which brings me to the prequels.

In my opinion Timothy Zahn should have been the guy George Lucas phoned to write the prequels. Although, Jonathan Hales is credited for co-writing Attack of the Clones obviously that didn't help because the movie was awful. Sometimes the imput and outlook of someone else's ideas is what you might need. There is this tendency to become the crazed ruler of your own little world and think everything you dream up is utter brilliance.

Case in point, Jar Jar Binks. I don't think I need to say more but I will. To this day, George Lucas labors under the delusion that everybody loves Jar Jar Binks and thinks fans want to see more of him.

NO WE DON'T! I waded through all three of those rotten movies in hopes to see Jar Jar get run through with Darth Vaders lightsaber in Revenge of the Sith. Naturally you understand my disappointment that this never happened. Instead of a happy ending with Jar Jar getting beheaded, we are left with Darth Vader screaming out: "Noooooooooo!"

Thanks George.

You see what happened when George Lucas turned over the reigns to Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett for The Empire Strikes Back. The results were probably the best film in the Star Wars saga.

I truly believe the same results could have happened if he handed the reigns over to Timothy Zahn. He could have handed over what he had in mind and let Zahn do the rest.

I think what we could have had would have been better than what we got.

In the end, I got my copies of the original trilogy without the computer enhancements on DVD. I would prefer to remember Star Wars the way it was rather than what it became.

If you haven't read what has become referred to as The Thrawn Trilogy, I highly recommend you pick them up. If you like in the Woo, I know Annie's Bookstop of Worcester on James Street has copies of all three books at very reasonable prices.

I don't think you will be disappointed.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Game is Afoot... again?

Another Sherlock Holmes graphic novel in the works? Well, I can't say too too much just yet.

However, watch this space for any further news and developments...