Monday, April 19, 2021

That Time James Bond’s Kid Brother Had His Own Adventure

In the ‘60s, the wildly successful James Bond series starring Sean Connery as the super spy became one of the most copied and parodied franchises in film history. There were the FLYNT films, the Matt Helm films, something called SUPER AGENT SUPER DRAGON, LICENSED TO KILL (decades before the Bond series used the same title), THE IPCRESS FILE (produced by Bond co-produder Harry Saltzman), DEADLIER THAN THE MALE, and the TV series The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and Get Smart, for starters (much too many to keep listing).

But the most curious of these knock-offs is Alberto De Martino’s 1967 action comedy entitled OPERATION KID BROTHER, or its original title, O.K. CONNERY, or its later video release titles OPERATION DOUBLE 007, or SECRET AGENT 00 (none of these are good titles). This Italian flick’s big gimmick is that it stars Sean Connery’s younger brother, Neil. 

Neil, who had more than a passing resemblance to his famous brother, played a cosmetic surgeon whose chief skills are hypnotism and lip-reading. But what’s really comically notable is that his name is his own, Neil Connery, and his brother, whose name is never mentioned, is described as the Secret Service's top agent, is obviously 007, and whose name is likely Sean in this film’s wacky world.

So they couldn’t use the name, James Bond, and when someone mentions his code number “00…” someone interrupts then, so they apparently can’t use that either.

Then there’s the rest of the cast, which is brimming with cast members from the Bond series including Bernard Lee who played Bond’s superior M, Lois Maxwell who played secretary Moneypenny (she’s named Miss Maxwell, which is really unimaginative, but I guess is keeping with the theme), Adolfi Celi from THUNDERBALL, Yee-Wah-Yang from YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, Daniela Bianchi from FROM RUSSIA FROM LOVE, and Anthony Dawson from DR. NO.

The effect here is that the filmmakers wanted to trick moviegoers into thinking that this film is part of the official Bond canon. The soundtrack, written by Ennio Morricone (!) and Bruno Nicolai, buttresses this conceit with its convincing variations on the Bond theme, and comparable incidental music.

A strange element here is that Neil’s voice is dubbed by an American actor and it doesn’t seem to fit. One of the reasons that he was cast was because along with his looks, his voice sounded like his brother’s. From what I’ve read, this was for some sort of medical reasons, but, man, was it bad timing for him to not have his voice for his film debut. There was also the matter that he refused to shave off his goatee, which is even mentioned in the movie (“I’m attached to it”).

OPERATION KID BROTHER (that’s the title I’m going with) is billed as a comedy, but it’s not very funny, nor does it try to be for most of its running time. When a character says “You read too much Fleming,” it’s obviously an attempt to be an inside joke but it’s more a groaner. The plot is a typical one about thwarting world domination (of course), which ends in a big battle at the villain’s castle base in Munich. The gray metal interiors look like half finished sets from YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE – consider it Bond on a budget.

It’s hard to fault Neil for this not-so-craft cash grab. Who can blame him for attempting to step into the shoes of his international super star brother. Trouble is, he didn’t get to walk in them very far as he was only in two other movies: the 1969 schlocky sci-fi thriller THE BODY STEALERS (also known as THIN AIR, or INVASION OF THE BODY STEALERS - jeez, can’t these film stick with one title?), and the 1984 action comedy ACES GO PLACES 3, in which he had a cameo as Mr. Bond. After that it has been reported that his career as a plasterer ended in the mid ‘80s, and he went on the run a company in Glasgow, but besides that nothing much is known about Neil’s life in the decades since.

OPERATION KID BROTHER got something of a second life as an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 in 1993, though I don’t think it’s one of their better ones. The original film, under the OKB title is currently available streaming on Amazon Prime, which is where I watched it. Can’t say I’d recommend it, but those who are curious about this curio may get a kick by checking it out.

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Monday, April 12, 2021

Star Trek + The Monkees = GALAXY QUEST

Since the sci-fi comedy GALAXY QUEST was released around Christmas 1999, it has become a cult favorite loved by fans of the property it skewers, Star Trek, and satire aficionados alike. The Dean Parisot-directed parody has spawned comic books, Deluxe Edition DVD and Blu rays, a documentary, and there’s talk of a sequel or TV series resurrection.

But let’s set the Wayback Machine for September 1966 in which two shows premiered on NBC during the first all-color television season: Star Trek and The Monkees. Star Trek (it feels weird to describe as everyone knows the premise) was about the crew of a starship in the future on a five-year mission though the program only ran for three years; while The Monkees was about a fictional four-piece rock band trying to make it in show business in the midst of their wacky adventures.

Now while The Monkees started out as a made-for-TV group, the major popularity of their music resulted in the members learning how to play their instruments (well, two of them, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork, were already musicians) so that they could perform on their records, and tour unaccompanied.

Later, the Monkees’ Mickey Dolenz remarked “The Monkees really becoming a band was like the equivalent of Leonard Nimoy really becoming a Vulcan.”

Dolenz made this analogy so many times that Tork once replied, “This Vulcan line, Mickey, give it up for God’s sake!”

Another Star Trek connection is that when Walter Koenig was hired to play Anton Chekov in season three of the space opera, the character was added for two reasons: to appease criticisms from Russians that they weren’t represented in the cast, and, more importantly to cash in on Monkee-mania. It was hoped that Koenig’s youth, and reasonable resemblance to Davy Jones would attract younger fans. Koenig even wore a moptop wig to complete the effect.

Now let’s go back to the future. After a successful run of movies, Star Trek was such an established franchise that it was endlessly parodied. But the writers of GALAXY QUEST, David Howard and Robert Gordon, came up with a different angle. The movie was as much a satire of Trek as it was Trekkies, dealing with the cast of a long defunct space series depressingly attending conventions and having to exploit their characters. Tim Allen portrayed the William Shatner/Captain Kirk lead, alongside a hilarious ensemble including Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Tony Shalhoub, Sam Rockwell, and Daryl Mitchell.

The premise was that aliens have mistaken the show’s reruns for documentaries and have come to seek help from the crew to defeat an evil alien race. So obviously Allen and his cohorts have to actually become the Federation (or whatever they call it) heroes that they’ve been pretending to be.

Screenwriter Howard has said that he got the idea for the plot of GALAXY QUEST while watching a IMAX documentary that featured narration by Nimoy. While this may be true, it’s difficult to believe that the Monkees’ influence wasn’t part of the equation. Especially considering that Allen’s character is named Jason Nesmith. Boom!

Ignoring Tork’s “give it a rest” request, Dolenz has continued to make his analogy but has amended it somewhat replacing Star Trek with GALAXY QUEST:

“Have you seen GALAXY QUEST, the movie about fictitious sci-fi characters visited by real aliens to save their planet? That’s what happened to The Monkees! It started out with fictitious people and all of a sudden we were made into a real pop band. And we weren’t just actors playing the fool. We were cast in the same way as you would a West End musical - you had to sing, dance, move, act, improvise and play an instrument. The closest thing I could describe it as is a stage musical on television.”

Whatever the case, from Chekov’s Davy Jones-styled wig to the premise of actors morphing into their roles, Star Trek, The Monkees, and GALAXY QUEST are forever entwined. I hope they do produce more GALAXY QUEST in some form of other as long as they never give up, and never surrender (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

Live long and prosper.

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Thursday, April 01, 2021

Finally! Film Babble Blog’s 2020 In Review

I know, I know – it’s April and I am only now getting around to look back at some of the most notable films of last year. Honestly, as 2020 was so compromised by the pandemic, and films were a lot fewer (many were delayed until this year); I decided against doing a ‘best of’ this time around. So I am going to do it differently as I’m not going to give the movies numbers in order to rank them. I’m going to just babble about a handful of titles, five to be exact, that stood out to me over this weird, sad year.

The last movie I saw on the big screen before the pandemic hit was Leigh Wannell’s THE INVISIBLE MAN, starring Elizabeth Moss. Sadly the theater I attended the film at, Six Forks Cinema, permanently closed not long ago. 

The film, which was originally supposed to be part of Universal’s Monsters Cinematic Universe (not to be confused with Legendary’s MonsterVerse or is it?), but after THE MUMMY flopped that franchise appears to be dead in the water. No matter, the film stands on its own largely due to the performance by Moss as a woman who is being stalked by an abusive ex (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) - a scientist who has discovered the formula for invisibility. This loose adaptation of H.G. Wells classic 1897 novel is a stylishly suspenseful treat that comes equipped with a number of genuine scares, and fiercely clever moments.

While under quarantine, I mostly caught up with TV series which I wrote about here, and watched older films, but I did catch some new releases like Christopher Nolan’s TENET. A new release Blu ray I should say. I almost braved the Covid 19 scare to see it at one of the few open theaters, but I chickened out and waited for home video. 

Nolan’s latest attempt at visionary filmmaking is certainly entertaining but I had difficulty understanding what I was watching. A great, gripping John David Washington, and Robert Pattinson, whose work keeps getting better, star as undercover CIA operatives travel backwards and forwards in time in order to prevent World War III. Got it? It’s hard to outright recommend as it’s so baffling, and purposely convoluted, but Nolan fans should dig it. I’ll give TENET this – it totally deserves its Oscar nomination for Best Production Design.

If I was posting a list with numbers, I probably would pick Aaron Sorkin’s THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 for #1. This great historical drama features a well-chosen ensemble including Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Black Panther Bobby Seale, Sacha Baron Cohen as hippy (or yippie) activist Abbie Hoffman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as prosecutor Richard Schultz, Frank Langella as Judge Julius Hoffman, Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden, Mark Rylance as defense attorney William Kunstler, and Michael Keaton as U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark. That barely scratches the surface of the actors involved as it’s a big-ass cast, and I don’t want it to take up the bulk of this paragraph. Sorkin’s screenplay may be his best yet. The dialogue is devoid of his weakness for cutesy wordplay, and each character is more compellingly drawn than some of his past endeavors, and I say that as a fan. If you don’t know anything about the Chicago 7, this is a recommended place to begin. I’ll be pulling for it to get some Oscar gold, which it should since it got six nominations including Best Picture.

Another fine film I enjoyed was Darius Marder’s SOUND OF METAL, which concerns a heavy metal drummer who has to cope with losing his hearing. The rightly Oscar-nominated Riz Ahmed portrays the deaf musician, who you really feel for as his life is emotionally upended, and he suffers through a stint at a rehab for the deaf run by a Vietnam vet (Paul Raci). Ahmed does warm up to his fellow residents, but his girlfriend (Olivia Cooke) disappears from his life. The authentic feeling movie is outfitted with a stirring sound mix that effectively depicts the sounds of deafness, which may seem impossible, but Marder and crew pull it off and received an Oscar nomination for their efforts (like TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7, SOUND OF METAL scored six well-deserved noms). The last bit and the ending may be rushed, but this film’s gritty realness, and lack of pretension make it a major must see.

Paul Greengrass’ NEWS OF THE WORLD is maybe the most stone-cold entertaining of the five films in this round-up. Based on the 2016 novel by Paulette Jiles, this western, set in 1870 follows Tom Hanks as Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, an ex-Civil War confederate soldier who makes his money by reading select newspapers to captive audiences as he travels through Texas. One day on a road through the woods, he comes across a 10-year old girl (Helena Zengell) who either goes by Johanna or Cicada hiding out in an overturned wagon. Before long the duo are saddled together as Hanks takes the girl, who identifies as a Kiowa Indian, on the long trek to her supposed home in Castroville, Texas.

They get into a rocky mountainside gun fight, encounter a massive dust storm, endure a devastating wagon accident, and have to figure out how to get away from a rag-tag army of renegades ruled by evil land baron Farley (Thomas Francis Murphy). Now these elements may sound like frontier clichés, but Director Greengrass handles the material confidently, never needing to reach into his catalogue of BOURNE-isms. Hanks’ Kidd is a familiar persona – the everyman that he’s honed for decades – but he inhabits the character with the likability we expect from the two-time Oscar winner. As Hanks’ travelling companion, Zengall is the real stand-out with her driven, naturalistic performance. I’m betting we’ll be seeing a lot of her in years to come. NEWS OF THE WORLD received four Oscar noms, but with its competition I’m thinking it might not win any of the categories. If it does score at least one Academy Award, I would bet on Dariusz Wolski for Best Cinematography as his landscape imagery is ginormously gorgeous.

As I usually have spillover on these Best of entries, Here’s some other films I enjoyed in 2020: Lee Isaac Chung’s MINARI, Regina King’s ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI…, Thomas Vinterberg’s ANOTHER ROUND, Kelly Reichardt’s FIRST COW, Kitty Green’s THE ASSISTANT (excellent Julia Garner performance), George C. Wolfe’s MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM, Chloé Zhao’s NOMADLAND, and Charlie Kaufman’s weird, unwieldy I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS.

Also these documentaries: Alexander Nanau’s COLLECTIVE, Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk’s ATHELETE A, Jeff Orlowski’s THE SOCIAL DILEMMA, Garrett Bradley’s TIME, Bryan Fogel’s THE DISSIDENT, Seth Porges and Chris Charles Scott III’s CLASS ACTION PARK, and the Spike Lee Joint, DAVID BYRNE’S AMERICAN UTOPIA, which is more of a concert film than a doc but they often reside in the same category.

Alright, so I finally tackled 2020 in review. With hope, I'll be back on my game next year.

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Saturday, March 27, 2021

JABBERWOCKY: The Monty Python Film That Wasn’t

Now, to get it straight, Terry Gilliam’s 1977 medieval fantasy comedy JABBERWOCKY is not a Monty Python film. But it’s easy to see why it was mistaken and marketed as such. It starred Python’s Michael Palin, and featured Python Terry Jones in a small part, and, of course, Python Gilliam directed and co-wrote. And the movie was following MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL so its aesthetics were heavily familiar.

Gilliam: “It was probably a mistake for my first film, JABBERWOCKY, to be set in medieval times, when it came out right on the heels of HOLY GRAIL.”

While these obvious similarities helped to keep JABBERWOCKY from being its own thing, its marketing is what really plagued it. Many of the various poster designs were graced with “Monty Python’s…” Let’s begin with one of the most derivative.

This was one of the posters promoting HOLY GRAIL:

Now this is one of the JABBERWOCKY one-sheets:

Pretty blatant thievery, huh? Too close for comfort, for sure. Now, here’s an ad from a newspaper during the era.

And a German poster for the film that features the tagline “Monty Python Unter Den Raubrittern” which translates to “Monty Python Among the Robber Barrons,” which is quite odd.

To be fair, some of the poster designs would tout “From the director of MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL” and not jump up on the false advertising bandwagon.

Although Gilliam highly objected to these terrible re-brandings of his solo directorial debut, the misleading labeling survived into the ‘80s VHS revolution as you can see on the cover of the first videocassette version of the film:

The post was inspired by a recent viewing of JABBERWOCKY. I realized I had bought a DVD of it well over a decade at a big box store that was getting rid of their video inventory via cheap mark-downs of DVDs. Then my copy would stay on a shelf for ages until I finally decided, just last week, that I should give it a whirl. I had seen parts of it when I was a kid, but that really doesn’t count that as it was nearly 40 years ago.

I hate to say I didn’t care for JABBERWOCKY. Palin’s lead was a bit too earnestly dumbfounded by his squalid environment, and a lot of the dialogue was really dull. The fights with the Jabberwocky monster were the film’s most involving moments although the towering creature seemed a lot like the The Black Beast of Aaaaaargghh from HOLY GRAIL.

See? It always comes back to HOLY GRAIL when discussing JABBERWOCKY. I agree with Gilliam that it was a mistake to do a medieval movie so soon after Monty Python’s comic masterpiece set during the same time period. Gilliam would soar to much greater heights with TIME BANDITS, BRAZIL, THE ADVENTURE OF BARON MUNCHASEN, and TWELVE MONKEYS, but despite all the work he’d done with Python, when going solo, he had to start somewhere.

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Thursday, March 18, 2021

Movie Quote Mania: GRAND CANYON

Now, I can’t say I’m a big fan of Lawrence Kasdan’s drama GRAND CANYON which I saw when it was released back in 1991. I remember thinking that it was like a big screen episode of 30something (a popular show at the time) with its neurotic dialogue and white liberal guilt. Not that it matters now as it’s a mostly forgotten film.

But what I absolutely loved about this movie, which was written by Kasdan and his wife Meg, it is that at one point, Steve Martin’s movie producer character, Davis, says “That’s part of your problem: you haven’t seen enough movies. All of lifes riddles are answered in the movies.

It was a rare dramatic (and rare bearded) role for the former Wild-and-Crazy-Guy, and Davis’ arc of getting shot in a mugging which leads to an epiphany that he will no longer make violent movies, is one of GRAND CANYON’s strongest links.

Davis’ enlightenment is short lived and Davis tells his friend Mack (Kevin Kline) that he’s “regained his senses,” and that he “was talking like a moron.”

As Martin and Kline are driving around a large studio lot on a golf cart through sets and sound stages, Martin pontificates: “There’s so much rage going around - we’re damn lucky we have the movies to help us vent a little of it.”

“That line is so tired,” Mack responds. “I’m shocked you’d use it.”

When they reach Davis’ destination, he asks Mack if he’s ever seen SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS to which Mack says “no.” That’s where the line comes in - watch a YouTube clip of the moment:

Martin’s Davis tells Kline’s Mack the plot of SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, which incidentally is where the title O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU comes from, as he thinks his arc resembles that of the protagonist of that classic film. Then he limps away towards a sound stage. And, scene!

So that’s another entry in the Movie Quote Mania series. The main reason I adore this quote so much is because it’s true - all of life’s riddles are indeed answered in the movies.

Stay tuned for more choice movie quotes, and my choice commentary.

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Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Yaphet Kotto Was A Bond Villain, But He Really Wanted To Be Bond Himself

When the great Yaphet Kotto passed away a few days ago, quite a few obituaries singled out his two most famous roles: the villain in the 1973 James Bond adventure LIVE AND LET DIE, and a spaceship engineer in the 1979 sci-fi classic ALIEN. Of course, the accomplished actor played a variety of roles over multiple decades in such notable films as HARD COLLAR, MIDNIGHT RUN, ACROSS 110TH STREET, THE RUNNING MAN, BRUBAKER, and many others, but in a 1985 interview in the sci-fi/fantasy magazine Starlog, it was Bond that he wanted to talk about most.

As a kid, I used to subscribe to Starlog, so shortly after Kotto’s death I dug up the interview. After discussing turning down the iconic parts of Lando Calrissian in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (“I decided I didn’t want to be king of the science-fiction movies”), and Winston Zeddemore in GHOSTBUSTERS (“the first time that producers actually sought after me to play a comic role”), Kotto explained to Starlog’s Brian Lowry that “When I did LIVE AND LET DIE, the only thing I regretted about it was that I was playing the wrong role. I was the arch-villain that James Bond was after, and all. Through the film, I said, ‘You know, I should be playing James Bond.’ Ever since I was a kid, I've wanted to play James Bond!”

But it’s one thing to simply want to play James Bond - so many people have had the same dream - but Kotto tried to make it happen.

Kotto: “I wrote a script that was a James Bond-type film - the only difference in this high-action/chase/adventure picture being that it would be a black man. And, I’m prejudiced so I cast myself in the lead role.”

The interview reveals that the title of the 007-ish project was TOMORROW IS THE SAME DAY, and Kotto was hoping for it to be ready for release in late 1985 or early 1986. “The whole purpose of this movie is to change my image in the marketplace,” Kotto said. “I get to wear a tuxedo, nice clothes, say cute lines - you name it.

As film geeks like me well know, TOMORROW IS THE SAME DAY (love that title!) never came to be, but Kotto kept working, including co-starring on all seven seasons of Homicide: Life on the Streets in the 90s and a handful of film roles until retiring in 2008.

I can’t find any mention of Kotto’s supposed Bond-like dream project anywhere else. The Starlog interview is the only source for this information I can locate so I am tempted to think he was just toying with the sci-fi monthly. That makes some kind of sense as it was a publication aimed at teenage nerds, and maybe he thought making up a movie about his playing a master spy would be fun.

I really can’t say, but I like the idea anyway. In conclusion, here’s the cover of the Starlog issue that Kotto’s interview appears in, which really takes me back.

Such a busy roster that this mag features: STAR TREK! Space! E.T.! BABY! LADYHAWKE! V! CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR! A VIEW TO A KILL! And then, at the very bottom of the cover “Yaphet Kotto of ALIEN.” They really buried the lede. They should’ve risen it up on the cover and changed it to something like “Yaphet Kotto reveals that he’s the next Bond.”

Yeah, that would’ve sold more copies for sure.

R.I.P. Yaphet Kotto

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Thursday, March 04, 2021

Movie Quote Mania: A SHOT IN THE DARK

“It’s all part of life’s rich pageant, you know.” – Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers)

This quote, which was prompted by Sellers’ co-star Elke Sommer noticing Clouseau is wet after falling in a fountain (“You’ll catch your death of pneumonia, you will”), appears in A SHOT IN THE DARK (1964), the second entry in THE PINK PANTHER series. You can watch the full clip below.

What’s notable about this line is that it inspired the title of R.E.M.’s fourth album released in 1986. Reportedly the band had rented A SHOT IN THE DARK, and had used the phrase “It’s all part of life’s rich pageant” throughout the making of the record in response to various mistakes. Eventually they decided that it was the perfect name for the album, and the rest is history.

I was reminded of the line when watching a rerun of the ‘80s NBC show, St. Elsewhere, in which one character said it three times. The episode came after the release of the R.E.M.’s Lifes Rich Pageant (no apostrophe), so it may have been inspired by it, but also could have been a nod to the Sellers’ film. Or it could just be because it’s an idiom that’s long predates A SHOT IN THE DARK.

Stay tuned for more Movie Quote Mania.

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Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Blog With A Cause Revisited: What Happened To The THREE IN THE ATTIC House?

One thing I’ve been bad about since I started this blog back in 2004 is following through on some series ideas. I start off with a post that I announce will be the beginning of a new series, then maybe do a second post then I let the series fall through the cracks.

Well, inspired by a thread on Facebook, I decided to revisit a subject from ages ago. Back in the late 2000s, I lived in the historic district of Chapel Hill, N.C. (my home town), and got involved in a small movement to save a house from demolition. The house, the Edward Kidder Graham House on the edge of the UNC campus, that served as the set of an obscure movie from the ‘60s: Richard Wilson’s bizarre 1968 comedy THREE IN THE ATTIC.

The movie concerns Christopher Jones as an unfaithful boyfriend whose three girlfriends (Yvette Mimieux, Judy Pace, and Maggie Threttlock) him in their sorority attic to punish him with more sex than he can take. I wrote about it in The Chapel Hill Newspaper, and on this here blog (read Part 1 & 2). In the summer of 2008, Ernest Dollar (executive director of the Preservation Society of Chapel Hill) asked me to host an outdoor screening of THREE IN THE ATTIC at the Horace Williams House (where I was the Caretaker).

Trouble was that the film was out of print and hard to find on video. I located a bootleg DVD of the teensploitation flick, and we showed that on a big bed sheet in the backyard. The audience appeared to really enjoy it as they laughed a lot throughout.

I introduced the movie by saying, “Durham has BULL DURHAM, what do we have? PATCH ADAMS (filmed in Chapel Hill in the late ‘90s)? No, we have THREE IN THE ATTIC!”

But what I never followed up on is what happened to the Edward Kidder Graham house. I moved to Raleigh in 2009, so I lost track of whether it attracted a buyer. I learned later that it was sold to Molly Froelich in 2010, and she started on the grand task of restoring the house. In 2013, it was sold to Martin and AraLu Lindsey, who finished the restoration. I have no idea if the flurry of activity around the house that the Preservation Society stirred up had anything to do with it, but I’m glad we did what we could to raise awareness of this cool historic home/movie location.

In the years since, THREE IN THE ATTIC has been re-issued on DVD along with its soundtrack (pictured at the top of this post). Although the DVD has gone out of print, the movie is available on Amazon Prime. In 2019, Quentin Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD, which is set in 1969 as it deals loosely with the Manson murders, has several references to the film. Firstly, a THREE IN THE ATTIC TV spot shows on Brad Pitt’s television at his squalor-filled trailer.

Among other advertisements for the film we see this glitzy Pantages Theater marquee:

Finally an excerpt of Chad & Jeremy’s “Paxton Quigley’s Had the Course” from THREE IN THE ATTIC plays at one point and is featured on the soundtrack of ONCE UPON A TIME. Seems that this many shout-outs would greatly suggest that Tarantino is a fan of the largely forgotten film.

Such a fan that Tarantino offered Paxton Quigley himself, Christopher Jones, a part in PULP FICTION, but Jones turned it down apparently because he didn’t want to have to order Maynard to wake up the gimp. Since 1970, the James Dean look-a-like Jones’ career largely went quiet with his last film being Larry Bishop’s MAD DOG TIME (1996). He passed in 2014.

So the odd little legacy of THREE IN THE ATTIC keeps on keepin’ on. It’s no classic, or even really a cult classic, but it is a funny curio that captures Chapel Hill in the late ‘60s. I’m glad the house was saved and renovated whether the film had anything to do with it or not. And, of course, I sure hope they paid special attention to the attic.

More later…

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Farewell to Christopher Plummer & Other Fallen Favorites

There once was a thing called the Celebrity Death Rule of Threes, in which over a short period of time there were three well known figures who passed away. One example would be a week in September, 2003, in which Warren Zevon, John Ritter, and Johnny Cash died in quick succession. There are many other examples, but that one sticks out in my mind. The phenomenon is even mentioned in the Dirty Harry movie, THE DEAD POOL (1988).

But over the last several years or more, it seems that celebrities aren’t dying in threes; they’re simply dying daily as I feel like I’ve been posting obituary after obituary lately.

Last week, I just finished writing and posting my tribute to the great Hal Holbrook (read it here) when I learned that another great actor, Christopher Plummer, died. This is my attempt to catch up on paying respects to Plummer and a few other favorite folks who have recently passed, with hope before we lose any more legendary performers.

I’ll start with Plummer. As a kid, the first film I ever saw with the grand actor was Blake Edward’s 1975 comedy, THE RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER. This movie, the third in the Peter Sellers Pink Panther series, wasn’t mentioned in many of Plummer’s obituaries, but it’s still notable to me as he appears to be acting in a very different movie than the one featuring Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau antics. Plummer was taking over the role of Sir Charles Litton aka “The Phantom” from David Niven, who played the part on the first movie in the franchise.

The next film of Plummer’s I saw was John Huston’s THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING (also 1975). Plummer, billed third after Sean Connery and Michael Caine, portrayed legendary writer Rudyard Kipling, one of many historical figures he embodied including Leo Tolstoy, Captain Georg von Trapp, Julius Caesar, John Barrymore, Aristotle, Captain Christopher Newport, King Herod, and 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace.

On the fictional character front, Plummer took on Abraham Van Helsing, Sherlock Holmes, Nicholas Nickleby’s Uncle Ralph, Ebenezer Scrooge, Oedipus, and Santa Claus.

One role I had forgotten about was Plummer’s performance as the Shakespeare-quoting Klingon Commander Chang in STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY. I was told by a few friends on Facebook that he also narrated the movie’s teaser trailer, and he voiced the character in two video games.

This wide range of roles, which only scratches the surface of Plummer’s career, shows that the man could bring his unique brand of dignity to every genre whether it would be a silly parody like DRAGNET, schlocky sci-fi like STARCRASH, romantic time-travel dramas like SOMEWHERE IN TIME, heist thrillers like THE SILENT PARTNER, psychological thrillers like DOLORES CLAIBORNE, rom coms like BEGINNERS, which won him his only Oscar; and multiple animated features including AN AMERICAN TAIL, BABES IN TOYLAND, THE GNOMES’ GREAT ADVENTURE, and the HOWARD LOVECRAFT franchise, which were among his final films.

Again, this is a broad overview largely because there’s a lot of Plummer’s filmography that I’ve not seen. I haven’t even seen THE SOUND OF MUSIC! Actually I think I saw parts of it in the ’80s but that still doesn’t count. I’ve admired his rich work thoroughly throughout the years, and hate seeing him go, but after over 200 performances, the 91-year old actor certainly deserves his rest.

R.I.P. Christopher Plummer (1929-2021)

Cloris Leachman, the most awarded actress in Emmy history, sadly passed away at the end of last month. Although primarily known for her work in television, she won an Academy Award for her role as lonely housewife Ruth Popper in Peter Bogdonavich’s THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (1971).

But she’ll probably be best remembered as landlord Phyllis Lindstrom on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Leachman was a delightfully acidic presence on the classic sitcom even if her spin-off show, Phyllis, wasn’t great (it only lasted two seasons).

Leachman’s turns in a few classic Mel Brooks movies (YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, HIGH ANXIETY, and the lesser quality HISTORY OF THE WORLD PART I) made up for that, as did her roles on Malcolm in the Middle and, oh jeez, I forgot she was on The Facts of Life! Leachman even voiced a character in BEAVIS AND BUTT-HEAD DO AMERICA!!! Despite that last credit, she was a class act all the way. Sue Ann Nivens could not be reached for comment.

R.I.P Cloris Leachman (1926-2021)

Speaking of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I learned from a tweet by James L. Brooks that his old writing partner, Allan Burns, passed away on January 30. Burns co-created and wrote for The Munsters, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Rhoda. He also wrote for The Bullwinkle Show, Get Smart, My Mother the Car, The Duck Factory, and the MTM spin-off shows, Phyllis, and Lou Grant. He also created Cap’n Crunch! Sounds like a comedy deity to me.

For more on Burns, I highly recommend the New York Times’ obituary by Richard Sandomir:

Allan Burns, a Creator of ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show,’ Dies at 85

This image is from the That's Entertainment blog (2021)

R.I.P. Allan Burns (1935-2021)

Now, despite the title of the post, I can’t really say that Dustin Diamond was a favorite. Like some other folks posted, I’ve never saw the teen favorite sitcom Saved by the Bell, but somehow was aware of Diamond’s character Screech. As some folks do when hearing of someone’s demise, I read up on the actor and this is what I learned:

Things I didn't know about Dustin Diamond: His middle name was Neil - that's right, full name Dustin Neil Diamond. He put out a sex tape called Screeched – Saved by the Smell in 2006, which he acted in and directed. He was in a heavy metal band named Salty The Pocketknife for which he played bass and wrote many of the songs. He wrote a book called Behind the Bell that angered his Saved by the Bell co-stars. He did time for his involvement in a bar fight. Interesting life for sure.

Rest in Screech: Dustin Neil Diamond (1977-2021)

Another figure that I can’t say I’m a fan of is pornographer Larry Flynt, best known for his ultra sleazy magazine, Hustler, who died just a day ago. But I am a fan of Miloš Forman’s THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT (1996), which is why I am featuring a still of Woody Harrelson playing Flynt in one of the film’s excellent court scenes. It’s how I prefer to think of him.

R.I.P. Larry Flynt (1942-2021)

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Friday, February 05, 2021

Hal Holbrook: A Film Babble Blog Appreciation

arlier this week, one of my all time favorite actors, Hal Holbrook, passed away at 95. The grand performer brought his brand of folksy gravitas to many movies including ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, CAPRICORN ONE, MAGNUM FORCE, THE FOG, WALL STREET, THE FIRM, and INTO THE WILD, which earned him an Academy Award nomination (he should’ve won).

Holbrook’s presence also stole many episodes of such television shows as Evening Shade, The West Wing, The Sopranos, Grey’s Anatomy, Sons of Anarchy, NCIS, ER, and Designing Women, where he acted alongside his wife Dixie Carter.

But his defining role, one that nearly every obit had in their headlines, has to be as the legendary author and orator Mark Twain, who he portrayed 2,200 times over 63 years. The one-man show entitled Mark Twain Tonight, which Holbrook devised and updated through its long run, won the actor a Tony and an Emmy nomination for the CBS broadcast of the play in 1967. There were also three record albums featuring different performances of the material, one of which I own and consider great stand-up comedy (I need to seek out the others).

Here’s a clip from the 1967 special, Mark Twain Tonight (much of the rest of the program can be found on YouTube):

Back to his film work, as that’s how I first came to know him. The first film I saw of his when I was a kid was Peter Hyam’s CAPRICORN ONE (1978). The conspiracy thriller involved NASA faking a mission to Mars, and Holbrook was the Mission Controller who had to convince the astronauts, portrayed by James Brolin, Sam Waterson, and O.J. Simpson (!), to go along with the scheme.

This gave the grand thespian to do what he did best, deliver a wickedly compelling speech which you can watch here (ignore the foreign subtitles; I couldn’t find it without them).

Holbrook played essentially the same role, a dignified yet corrupt authority figure, in Hyam’s THE STAR CHAMBER. The 1983 Michael Douglas legal thriller concerned a secret group of judges who carry out sentences of criminals who beat the rap because of technicalities. This gave Holbrook the chance to make another great speech, but I can’t find it on YouTube so we’ll move on.

It’s possible that the part that led to these dark thrillers was his shadowy (literally he was bathed in the shadows of a dark parking garage) portrayal of Deep Throat, the informant whose meetings with Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) helped break the scandal surrounding the Watergate break-in. It’s a small but incredibly juicy role, one so mysterious that we didn’t know who the real man it was based on until 30 years later when his identity was revealed to be FBI agent Mark Felt.

Holbrook’s distinguished demeanor was used to great effect in many parts with political leanings. In one of his earliest films, WILD IN THE STREETS, a wonderfully campy ‘60s romp about teen rebellion, he played a Senator trying to coral the youth vote. This has a crazy scene in which Holbrook and other legislators in Congress are dosed with LSD – quite a different take on an insurrection.

In the short-lived TV series, The Bold Ones: The Senator (1970-71), Holbrook plays another lawmaker, Senator Hays Stowe. He won his first Emmy of five for his performance which I have not seen, but will correct that soon (it’s available on DVD thankfully). He won another Emmy for his portrayal of President Abraham Lincoln in the 1974 mini-series, Sandberg’s Lincoln

Holbrook also played Lincoln in the 1985 mini-series, North and South, and appeared in Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film LINCOLN, as Francis Preston Blair. In George Washington, a 1984 TV movie about the first President, he took on the role of John Adams, and played fictional Commander in Chiefs in The Kidnapping of the President, and UNDER SIEGE. So yeah, there was definitely something Presidential about the guy.

One of my favorite parts he played was in Oliver Stone’s 1987 financial thriller WALL STREET. As Charlie Sheen’s brokerage boss, it’s another small but juicy role, but every line Holbrook’s Lou Mannheim says packs a punch as you can see below:

This post just touches on Holbrook’s rich career as there is a lot of his work that I haven’t seen. I’m intrigued by a TV movie he made in the early ‘70s called That Certain Summer, in which Martin Sheen and he play a gay couple, but it looks like it’s hard to find. Incidentally he was in a few other projects with Sheen – WALL STREET, and The West Wing series.

Although he hasn’t acted since 2017, and he hung up his white suit as Twain a few years before that, I’m seriously going to miss this excellent actor. Luckily the bulk of his career is accessible, and will keep fans like me entertained for years to come.

R.I.P. Hal Holbrook (1925-2021)

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Saturday, January 23, 2021

R.I.P. Larry King: Legendary Broadcaster/King of Cameos

While largely known as an iconic radio and television host, the late Larry King, who just passed away earlier today at the age of 87, has been in nearly 70 movies and TV shows in small but crucial roles where he portrayed himself for the most part. So I thought that while others are celebrating his lengthy career of interviewing every imaginable celebrity from Presidents to criminals and every kind of newsmaker there is on talk radio and CNN, we would take a look at his second career as the King of the Cameos.

King’s first foray into show business was in 1961, when at 27-years old he played a DJ (of course) named Sleepy Sam on Miami Undercover. Check out a clip featuring King from the mostly forgotten black and white crime drama that only lasted a season:

It was almost a quarter of a century later that he got his big break, one that led to him being the go-to in many comedies. In 1984, King appeared in GHOST BUSTERS in the magazine cover montage that was a trope of many movies at the time. You know, when our heroes gain instant stardom, and we see them in a montage that shows them on the cover of every magazine? That’s right, you got it (see also: TOOTSIE).

While GHOST BUSTERS credited his name, his next motion picture gig just identified him as “TV Talk Show Host.” But since that move was the little seen and little liked EDDIE AND THE CRUISERS II: EDDIE LIVES!, it so doesn’t matter.

King got his name credit back in his next several movie appearances: CRAZY PEOPLE, THE EXORCIST III, and DAVE. Ivan Reitman’s DAVE featured King in one of his juiciest cameos, though at the time it was most likely seen as an Oliver Stone cameo. The film involved Kevin Kline as an earnest everyman who, because of his strong resemblance, is brought in to take the place of the President, who is in a coma. Stone, at a time when the controversy over his 1991 film JFK was still in the air, the Director goes on King’s show to point out that there are distinct differences in how the President looks now compared to before his stroke. “Do you think that you’re a little paranoid, Oliver?”

King spent a good deal of the ‘90s making guest appearances on seemingly every show that aired including The Larry Sanders Show, Coach, Murder One, Murphy Brown, Spin City, Frasier, and, of course, The Simpsons.

King’s connection to the Muppets was cemented in his turns on Muppets Tonight, Sesame Street, and his allowing Kermit to guest host Larry King Live on April Fool’s Day in 1994.

During this same period, King showed up in THE LONG KISS GOODBYE, CONTACT, OPEN SEASON (not to be confused with the 2006 animated family film or its sequels), MAD CITY, PRIMARY COLORS, BULWORTH, ENEMY OF THE STATE, THE JACKYL, and the horrid oddity that is AN ALAN SMITHEE FILM: BURN HOLLYWOOD BURN.

King didn’t slow down in the next few decades, in fact, as if the Simpsons wasn’t enough, he doubled down on voicing cartoon versions of himself. In the animated 2007 Jerry Seinfeld comedy, BEE MOVIE, he appeared as Bee Larry King:

In the 2012-2016 seres, Gravity Falls, he played Wax Larry King:

But in the SHREK franchise, King played a character not based his persona: Doris, the Ugly Stepsister. King first played the part in SHREK 2 (2004), then reprised the role in SHREK THE THIRD (2007), and SHREK FOREVER AFTER (2010):

King’s cameos continued in such films as THE CONTENDER, JOHN Q, THE STEPFORD WIVES remake, a movie actually called THE REMAKE, SWING VOTE, CHLOE & THEO, THE POWER OF FEW, and something called DUDE BRO PARTY MASSACRE III, in which he played a character named Coach Handsey.

TV work during the same era was just as busy as he did more than one Law & Order series, poked fun at himself on the shows 30 Rock, Boston Legal, and 1600 Penn; got serious on multiple episodes of American Crime Story, and put in many hilarious appearances on Conan O’Brien’s TBS program, Conan, over the years.

King’s connection to the Muppets was cemented in his turns on Muppets Tonight, Sesame Street, and his allowing Kermit to guest host Larry King Live on April Fool’s Day in 1994.

King will be certainly be missed, but he left a lot behind in his stamps on so many movies and TV shows so we’ll keep seeing him pop up in unexpected (and expected) for ages. One interesting tidbit that I’m sure will delight fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that comic book mastermind Stan Lee (1922-2018) portrayed King in a brief moment in IRON MAN 2:

Pretty neat to see one icon portray another, huh? I had actually forgotten about this as Ive pretty much forgotten all of IRON MAN 2.

But back to the King:

R.I.P. Larry King (1933-1921)

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Friday, January 15, 2021

MLK/FBI: The Film Babble Blog Review

Opening today in select theaters, and on VOD:

MLK/FBI (Dir. Sam Pollard, 2020)

ike many folks, I’d heard for most of my life that civil rights activist icon Martin Luther King Jr. was the target of intense surveillance by the FBI, but I was unaware of the full extent of the Bureau’s secret campaign. Sam Pollard’s new documentary, MLK/FBI, releasing today on the anniversary of King’s Birthday, explores in excellent depth how it all went down.

A few lines of capitalized text tell us at the beginning of the film that “By exposing the secrets of his private life, the FBI hoped to humiliate King, and weaken his authority as a leader.” The intro goes on to say that, “Now, thanks to newly declassified documents much of their intelligence in available to the public.”

The narrative kicks off with the historic March on Washington in 1963, the occasion of King’s rousing “I Have a Dream” speech, as it was the event that prompted the FBI, particularly FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, and the FBI’s head of domestic intelligence, William C. Sullivan, to determine that King was “the most dangerous negro in the future of our Nation,” and that they must “use every resource at our disposal to destroy him.”

The doc backtracks to 1956 to give us background on one of the first major fights of the movement which involved segregation, and how King met Stanley Levison, a Jewish lawyer from New York, who became an important advisor to the Reverend. As Levison had ties to the Communist Party, this alarmed the Feds, and they began wiretapping the man’s phones, and bugging his office and hotel rooms. This investigation led to doing the same to King, but instead of the Feds finding subversive info, they discover that their subject has been engaged in a series of infidelities with many various girlfriends.

MLK/FBI swiftly shuffles through such events as King’s meetings with JFK, RFK, and Hoover; the criticism King received for speaking out against the war in Vietnam, the infiltration of King’s and other black organizations by FBI informants, and, of course, the assassination of MLK, through scores of archival photos, lots of well chosen historical footage (some of which I wasn’t familiar with) smartly blended with clips from appropriate period films like THE FBI STORY, WALK A CROOKED MILE, and BIG JIM McCLAIN.

And there are insights aplenty from such interviewees as King associates Andrew Young, and Clarence Jones; David J. Carrow, whose book The FBI and Martin Luther King Jr.: From Solo to Memphis provides this film’s basis, and former FBI director James Comey, who remarks, “I think this entire episode represents the darkest part of the Bureau’s history.”

It’s an extremely engrossing history lesson, but one doesn’t have to be a history buff to appreciate Pollard’s examination of how one of America’s greatest moral leaders was scrutinized by a shady agency during an overwhelmingly tumultuous time. MLK/FBI is as essential as a historical documentary can and should be.

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