Category Archives: hollywood

RIP Karen Black

Earlier today I found out that actress Karen Black had passed away via a Tweet from my good friend Andy Burns, also editor-in-chief of Biff Bam Pop!. Another Tweeter’s response was that he had no words. That’s how I feel. We’ve lost one of the good ones, a legend of the genre. Karen Black died yesterday in Los Angeles from ampullary cancer at the age of 74.

When I said genre, I am of course talking about the horror genre. Karen Black probably most remembered film is one where she played a tour de force of four characters in Dan Curtis’ TV movie of the week Trilogy of Terror. It was at the aforementioned Andy Burns’ website, Biff Bam Pop!, that I talked about how that film still scares the crap outta me. You can read that here.

While it’s true she made her share of horror films, notably Trilogy, and Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses among others, it’s a fact she never stopped making movies. But of all the films Ms. Black has made, it is the movies of the 1970s that defne her. Hell, one could even say that Karen Black defined film in the 1970s. She changed the way women and sexuality were portrayed on the big screen.

Among her films are some of the best or at least most memorable of the decade, including Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, The Great Gatsby, Capricorn One, In Praise of Older Women, Hitchcock’s last movie Family Plot, and Robert Altman’s Nashville. She also starred on stage and on television as well as film. She was a composer, screenwriter, producer, and author of children’s books.

I met her once a few years back, at a Chiller convention near the Meadowlands. We were about to leave and I saw this seemingly crazy woman screaming at people to get her something or other. The men surrounding her scrambled. I realized it was Karen Black. She was holding court in the lobby of the hotel.

I was either brave or stupid, so I approached her and told her she was great in Easy Rider and Nashville, and that I loved her in Trilogy, even though she scared me to death in it. She was kind, and soft spoken, and thanked me, even shook my hand. Moments later she was barking at underlings again, but to me, and other fans who approached her she was an angel.

That’s how I will remember Karen Black – a kind loving woman who adored her fans. Not the psychopath possessed by a Zuni fetish doll. And that’s probably for the best. We’ve lost one of Hollywood’s great actresses, and she will be missed.

Ray Harryhausen 1920-2013

Possibly one of the greatest special effects artists who ever lied passed away today. Ray Harryhausen was a big part of my childhood, and a big part of my adulthood. He influenced so many people, and in turn, he was influenced by another genius, Willis O’Brien, whose work in stop motion animation made King Kong the classic film, and the classic character he is today. He learned at the master’s side and took that art even higher. Harryhausen was one of the greats.

I can’t even guess how many times I’ve seen Jason and the Argonauts. I seriously think a hundred times would be a conservative guess. There’s nothing by Harryhausen that I didn’t love (and that includes oddities like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and the Puppetoons), but Jason is probably my favorite. I remember as a kid, channel 29 had the rights to it, and I never missed it when they aired it. The film is a beautiful piece of art, from start to finish, and it fueled my early love of the Greek myths.

I love the Sinbad films, 20 Million Miles to Earth, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and It Came from Beneath the Sea. I watch them relentlessly when they air. Harryhausen’s involvement in Beast led to a semi-rational hatred of the Godzilla films, which he felt both ripped off and cheapened his work. His statements to that effect didn’t lessen my respect and awe for his work, but man oh man, it did hurt this Godzilla fan.

I was never really a fan of Clash of the Titans, as by then, his age, and the amount of time it took to do his Dynamation, made him begin to cut corners and it just didn’t look as good any more, to me at least. But then again, Harryhausen cutting corners was nothing new, as 1955’s It Came from Beneath the Sea featured a five-tentacled octopus.

None of that diminishes Harryhausen’s accomplishments and my love for his films. We have lost one of the living legends of Hollywood, and a master of an animation style that may never be the same again. Ray Harryhausen will be missed.

The Hatchet Man

The Hatchet Man ~ This 1932 Warner Bros. classic, from the heart of the pre-code gangster era, has an all star cast – Edward G. Robinson and Loretta Young in the leads, along with J. Carroll Naish and a pre-Ming the Merciless Charles Middleton. In fact, it may have been his performance here in Asian make-up that won him the villainous role in the “Flash Gordon” serials.

Even with the terrific cast, a script based on the popular play The Honorable Mr. Wong, and the brilliant direction of William Wellman, there is much to shame this film by today’s standards. Besides the non-code depictions of narcotics and adultery, the politically incorrect use if the word Oriental, and violence typical of this era, there’s the fact that this is the equivalent of an Asian minstrel show – the majority of the actors are whites portraying Asians.

Nevertheless, the direction and performance of the cast are exemplary. Loretta Young shines through her make-up, and we see both the hard side and the little seen soft side of Robinson. Edward G. plays the ‘hatchet man,’ the fist of justice among the tongs in Chinatown, San Francisco. While some of it is misperception, much is a tale of the old ways giving way to the new world.

When the tongs go to war, it’s not like a John Woo or Ringo Lam flick, but it does match up to the gangster films of its day, and you do get to see some fancy hatchet work. If you can get past the make-up and the stereotypes, this one’s worth watching.

Jack the Giant Slayer

Jack the Giant Slayer ~ Fairy tales are hot in Hollywood right now. Whether it’s the two Snow White flicks last year, Hansel and Gretel with guns a few weeks back, or the hit TV series “Grimm” and “Once Upon a Time,” or even the Fables comic books – fairy tales are big business. Now it’s Jack’s turn.

This weekend, The Bride and I saw Jack the Giant Slayer at the fabulously remodeled AMC Marlton 8 Theatre, and it wasn’t just the great reclining lounger seats that made for a great movie experience – the flick was pretty good too. The big budget CGI send up of the ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ story had adventure, horror, romance, and even comedy. I might go so far as to say it reminded me a bit of The Princess Bride. Now let me be clear, it’s no Princess Bride, but it had all the hallmarks.

Bryan Singer’s take on ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ is filled with CGI giants all in need of serious dental care and repair, and a fabulous cast of character actors. Ian McShane from “Deadwood” is excellent as the King, and Ewan McGregor as the protagonist who’s not the hero of this story is terrific. However, the leads are only adequate and the actors behind the CGI giants are pretty much unrecognizable. This doesn’t stop the flick from being enjoyable, despite the story’s simplicity and predictability. There are surprises, and that helps.

This is a great popcorn flick, moves quickly, never bores, and was the perfect film to test out a terrific new theater. Thumbs up all around.

Vogues of 1938

Vogues of 1938 ~ Regular readers of this blog know I love “Dark Shadows” – the TV series, not last summer’s Johnny Depp vehicle. Well, when I saw this movie listed, starring Joan Bennett, DS’ Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, the Collins family matriarch. I know she had a serious film career before DS, over seventy movies, but I’d never seen any, that I know of, so I had to check this out.

Walter Wanger’s Vogues of 1938 is a lavish color musical that also stars Warren Baxter as the male lead opposite Bennett. She’s a socialite who becomes a model after a failed marriage. The sets and costumes are terrific for the time, and the print is crisp and bright.

The movie is clever and snappy, like most from the decade. The story is weak, but plays second to the terrific musical numbers and the visuals so it’s okay. The worst part is …Joan Bennett! She’s stiff, fake, and unappealing. Literally everything works on this flick except her. I’m glad she found her home finally in soap operas. Worth seeing, but be forewarned.

The Barrens: Thoughts on the Trailer

There’s never been a really good movie about the Jersey Devil, and there are damned few good books. “The Pines” by Robert Dunbar is really the only fiction one that springs to mind. “The Jersey Devil” by James F. McCloy and Ray Miller is probably the best among the non-fiction books on the legend. And as far as movies go, there have been a few, all awful, the worst of the bunch about a decade ago was called 13th Child and struck a new low in cinema.

This one, The Barrens features “True Blood” star Stephen Moyer playing a man who takes his family camping and finds himself convinced he’s being stalked by the Jersey Devil. Even the trailer, just a few seconds over two minutes long, is already full of inaccuracies about the legend. I’m a South Jersey boy, I should know.

The worst mistake of all is in the title itself. The Barrens referred to are the Pine Barrens, so called because of the short stunted trees in the region, not at all like the ones we see in the trailer depicting the Ontario, Canada location. As yet, the film has no release date.

Ernest Borgnine 1917-2012

Ernest Borgnine passed away yesterday at the ripe old age of 95, from kidney failure.

I grew up with him in “McHale’s Navy,” but some of the younger folks might know him from “Airwolf” or surprisingly (at least to me) “Spongebob Squarepants.” Besides those roles, Borgnine also acted in dozens of television shows in his six decade career, including an Emmy nomination for his role in the last couple episodes of “ER” when he was 92.

Borgnine was also a stage star, and because his television credits are so dominant, many folks forget what a legendary screen actor he was. He won the Oscar for his role in 1955’s Marty, and was outstanding in many other films like From Here to Eternity, The Dirty Dozen, Willard, The Devil’s Rain, The Poseidon Adventure and even Harlan Ellison’s infamous The Oscar.

I recently saw the man interviewed on TCM. He was as boisterous and lively as he had ever been, happy to tell tales of the old days and more recent times, a happy library of the industry. We have lost one of the great actors of Hollywood.

Mirror Mirror

Mirror Mirror ~ Sometimes it just seems too easy to me for Hollywood to take a public domain property like a fairy tale, in this case, Snow White, and put their own spin on it. Most times though, we’re not talking new spin, but a contemporary, sometimes mocking, and most times different for different’s sake, look at it.

In the case of Mirror Mirror, more than a different take, we get a spotlight for Julia Roberts with her fading star to vamp and overact in the confines of a fantasy over the top role – the evil queen. Roberts is so delicious in the part, she overshadows the rest of the cast, including the usually overwhelming Nathan Lane and the seven dwarves who were particularly entertaining. And if you’re fans of “Little People, Big World” and “Pit Boss,” you’ll see some familiar faces.

This take on the Snow White, despite the differences, was a tad predictable (and not just because most of the flick has been telegraphed in the previews either), though still entertaining. If nothing else is playing, a good afternoon out, but better a wait for rental or OnDemand. Whatever you do, stay for the Bollywood credit sequence, it’s awesome.

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Tony Curtis 1925-2010

This is a bad week for Hollywood, we are losing all the good ones. Yesterday we lost director Arthur Penn, and this morning the news comes that also last night actor Tony Curtis passed away. His daughter Jamie Lee Curtis confirmed his passing from cardiac arrest after several medical maladies this past year. He was 85.

Tony Curtis starred in my favorite film of all time, The Great Race. It was a fave when I was a kid, and remains to this day. I watch it every time it airs from start to finish, nearly three hours. It’s got adventure, romance, music, history, satire and comedy. Throw in the fight between good and evil and race cars, and it just can’t be beat. And in the center of it all, as the dashing hero radiating charisma, is Tony Curtis. That’s the kind of guy he was, the epitome of the leading man, even when he was playing a parody of one.

Curtis was great in everything he was in. Whether he was in drag as in Some Like It Hot, getting an Oscar nod in The Defiant Ones, or being the best thing in the completely dreadful telemovie Tarzan in Manhattan, he was always marvelous. He was the undisputed star of so many movies, including Houdini, Operation Petticoat, Boeing Boeing and Spartacus.

Born Bernie Schwartz in Hells Kitchen, he came to Hollywood in the late 1940s and became an almost instant star. He was married to Janet Leigh and romantically linked to Marilyn Monroe. He also played regular roles on television on shows like “The Persuaders” and “Vega$,” and on this the fiftieth anniversary of “The Flintstones,” he might be remembered for his guest appearance as Stony Curtis. The last time I saw him on television was on “The Graham Norton Show” a year or so ago. He didn’t look well, but he still rocked the house with his stories of old Hollywood.

This is indeed a sad day. We have lost one of the legends of Hollywood.

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RIP Arthur Penn

The man behind not only some of my favorite films, but some of the greatest films ever made, period, has passed away. Director Arthur Penn died last night at the age of 88.

His vision and talent changed the film industry in the late 1960s and changed the way we watch movies in both expectation and complexity. Among his films are the groundbreaking Bonnie and Clyde, The Miracle Worker, Little Big Man, Alice’s Restaurant and The Missouri Breaks. These are all films I will watch all the way through every time I see them on. They were not many, one every few years, but what he lacked in quantity he made up for in quality.

Penn began in television, but he also worked on the Broadway stage winning both the Tony and the Pulitzer. This great man will be missed. We have truly lost one of the legends of the field.

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