Monday, December 28, 2009


As with my previous top ten list, my top documentary list is sure to omit many excellent films which I just did not see. There are many of these films that I had been told I must see, but I just didn’t. That being said, these are my stand-outs in no particular order.

Confessions of a Superhero (Matthew Ogens).
The poster for this film depicts Christopher Dennis, an actor posing as Superman on a therapist’s sofa. This is the perfect image for Confessions. Four struggling actors put on superhero costumes and hang out on Hollywood Boulevard posing for pictures with tourists for cash in between auditions. All four of these individuals are so well fleshed out that you share their broken (and in one case, realized) dreams. Hopeful and heartbreaking at the same time, Confessions shows that in the journey to realize our dreams, through self-delusion or hard work or both, we discover our blessings and true talents.

All We are Saying (Rosanna Arquette). Actress Arquette (8 Million Ways to Die) interviews many famous musicians about the creative process and the changing face of the music industry. What could be a lot of pretentious talking heads turns out to be a life-affirming examination of the passion involved in creating anything that is a piece of yourself.

Maxed Out (James Scurlock). Scurlock does an excellent job of translating his book of the same title to the big screen. An incisive and sobering look at the credit card / lending industry and its predatory practices on those with the most to lose. Maxed Out is a great companion piece to Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room and The Corporation, two other great docs this decade about the corporate malfeasances that have led to the mess we are in today.

Slasher (John Landis). Famed comedy and horror director Landis examines predatory behavior as well. This time it involves the used car business. The film follows Michael Bennett, a traveling ringmaster of festive “slasher” sales. Bennett, a genius at the art of valuing automobiles and closing the deal, provides a gateway into the manipulations inherent in these activities directed to those in the lower socio-economic circles. It shows how much and how little things have changed since The Maysle’s Salesman from 1968.

Hard Road Home (Macky Alston and Andrea Meller). No doc had the visceral impact on me than this one. HRH profiles the Exodus Transitional Community, a faith-based group of ex-convicts in Harlem who have banded together to provide job-placement for their peers. The struggles that lead to failures and victories are documented so effectively that you know these flawed heroes so well by film’s end. During the screening I attended, Julio Medina, the founder, was introduced and I felt overwhelmed by a heroism that one can rarely find in today’s world. Go to to learn more about this exceptional program.

Journeys with George (Alexandra Pelosi). There was such a plethora of political documentaries these past ten years that they sort of blended together. This one stood out by trumping wonkishness with personality. Before the new culture wars and before 9/11, Pelosi, a liberal photojournalist, palled around with George W. Bush on his campaign media tour in 1999. Although on opposite ends of the political spectrum they develop an awkward fondness for each other that cannot exist today in the red meat partisan wars drummed up to sell division and diversion. The relationship between the daughter of the right’s soon-to-be public enemy number one in the House and 43 himself, shown in a light that perhaps is his truest goofy persona (one that should have remained on the bus by the way) mirrors an uneasy harmony between the left and right which was reflected in the screening I attended in the capital of Texas with bigwigs from both parties cheering and heckling at different scenes. Those were the days.

Zombie Girl: The Movie (Justin Johnson, Aaron Marshall, and Erik Mauck). Zombie Girl documents twelve-year old Emily Hagen making her first film, Pathogen. To anyone who has ever set out on a dream project whether it be film, theater, music or anything else, this story can hit home like no other. Part filmmaking tutorial, part family relationship drama, part coming of age comedy, ZG is entertaining, informative and heartwarming. Winners of the Spirit of Slamdance Awards, the filmmakers have succeeded in the art of showing and not telling (or editorializing on) a story about real people creating an unreal world and all the difficulties that lie therein. With a wonderfully appropriate soundtrack that will stay with you as much as Emily and her family does. Side note: An interesting counterweight to this film is the doc Lost in La Mancha which painfully documents the travails of Terry Gilliam failing to realize his big-budget adaptation of Don Quixote.

Fog of War (Erroll Morris), Trials of Henry Kissinger (Eugene Jarecki), and Why We Fight (also Jarecki). These three documentaries are a not-so-unbiased but effective study of the lingering effects of decisions made that affected millions of lives. These films together provide an excellent mosaic of the history of our country, our military, and our leaders during a period of pre-assassination paranoia and later years of our nation’s cancer of hopelessness and despair. Whereas Michael Moore incites and divides, these films make their points with a studied dignity.

Life of Reilly (Frank Anderson and Barry Poltermann). A document of the stage play performed by Charles Nelson Reilly, not long before he passed away. Reilly, who most people would know as the sarcastic Greek chorus from Match Game and (to us Saturday morning geeks) Hoodoo from “Lidsville”, discusses his life in this funny, touching, and revealing dialogue interspersed with clips and photos. You have to see the film (or start googling) to discover what a rich, influential, and troubled life Reilly led. There is so much more to a famous life than what is just remembered and regurgitated.

Fish Kill Flea (Brian Cassidy, Aaron Hillis, Jennifer Loeber) and The Last Western (Chris Deaux). I disingenuously lump these two well-made docs together as they both reflect a lost era in today’s ever-changing world through a place suspended in time. The former a seventies-era supermall in upstate New York turned rag-tag flea market. The latter a Golden Era Western movie set turned into Pioneertown. Interviews and footage of the colorful inhabitants of these respective dinosaurs are sad, funny, and very American. In a changing American landscape.

Honorable Mentions:
Hell on Wheels (Bob Ray) Documenting the re-birth of the female Roller Derby in Austin Texas and the conflicts between the two upstart leagues. Painful and thrilling. Much like roller derby, I imagine.

Hell House (George Ratliffe) A Christian haunted house in North Texas suburbia. What could have been a cynical attempt to mock religion is frightening look at the lengths evangelism can take.

A Special screening of A President to Remember with filmmaker Robert Drew doing a q and a afterwards. The father of cinema verite in America (director of the revolutionary “Primary” in 1960 of which footage was used), Drew pieced together candid and incredibly revealing footage of the Kennedy White House. To see behind the scenes “home movies” of Camelot and then hear from the man behind the camera was too much excitement for this political junkie. A night to remember. An honor.

Sunday, December 20, 2009


My “Top Films of the Decade” list is very subjective for two reasons. First, I haven’t seen enough films over these past ten years to give a comprehensive and diverse overview. Second, the best films I’ve seen are revisited or new viewings of amazing films of the 60’s and 70’s. To compare apples to apples, I have three categories: Top American Studio films; Top Independent/Festival films; and Top Documentary Films. Here is my Studio list:

Note: Many of my Studio films were released as “independents” but if they include major star power, second generation power directors, or are produced through a mini-major boutique studio, they are considered studio films here.

Top Ten Hollywood Films (followed by the obligatory obsessive compulsive second top ten and my Scotty awards):

Sideways (Alexander Payne) Payne proves again that he is the closest director we have to the humanistic, literate character-driven comedies of the 70’s (see Hal Ashby). Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church create the Odd Couple of the new millennium in this film that speaks to everyone who has a dream, gave up on a dream, is in love with life and in love with misery. In other words, being an artist and being human.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Shane Black) Black’s directorial debut was the closest I felt to the sheer cinematic excitement I felt upon my first viewing of Raiders of the Lost Ark over thirty years ago. (And I told him so in the Driskill lobby.) Simply
thrills, great acting, hilarious and chilling surprises, insane premise, and surprises galore. Downey was born to play this role and Kilmer starts his grand stroll into excellent character acting.
Dogville (Lars Von Trier) Once again, pushing the envelopes of taste and propriety, Von Triers has created a world (literally) on a stage that shocks, reviles, amazes, and is the truest reflection of society, scarily. A much-needed whack in the head released in the buildup of the new culture wars.
Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff) This film spoke to me on so many levels….the nerd, the outcast, the comic book collector. In a strange world between modern grime and retro chic, this Ghost World is a funny and tender meditation on our obsession with the past and our uncertainty about our future (among many other things) in a politically correct world.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry). Jim Carrey in his best role and Kate Winslet at her most organic (save, maybe Holy Smoke) in this psychedelic tone poem with a socko soundtrack. What could be pretentious turns into a universal story about unrequited love. One of the best casts of the decade and a killer script by Spike Jonze.
Little Children (Todd Fields). Don’t be fooled by the subject matter. Based on the book by Tom Perotta, this adaptation adds to the themes, rather than diminishes them. A biting satire in the guise of a haunting melodrama, this is one of those films that takes you into a world for two hours and it feels like one. From the inspired spoken narration to the mesmerizing Oscar-nominated comeback performance by Jackie Earle Haley, Little Children pulls no punches in examining groupthink and mores in modern America suburbia.
Return to Me (Bonnie Hunt) Yes, my cynical ass has hated formula romantic comedies for some time…except this one. Written by, directed by, co-starring the Chicago wunderkind Hunt (my wife in another life, I’m sure), Return to Me is funny, sad, smart, heartwarming, sardonic and, even with a contrived premise, believable. And a Dean Martin soundtrack to boot. Rom-coms shouldn’t die off, they just need to be all made by Miss Hunt.
Lost in Translation (Sophia Coppolla). This is the part Bill Murray was destined to play and it resurrected his career into an Indiewood Icon. From the inspired setting in Tokyo and the show-biz in-jokes scattered throughout to the sexily sullen Scarlett Johansson and the appropriately ambiguous ending, Coppolla captures the angsts and longings of young and old. Beautifully shot and scored.
Monster’s Ball (Marc Foster) Much has been said about the lovemaking between Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton in this terrifying slice of southern gothic, but the real thrill lies in the brutally honest yet hopeful portrayal of race and class relations since Ashby’s “The Landlord”.
Watchmen (Zach Snyder) Save “Ironman” I haven’t jumped on the superhero bandwagon. But this film, based on Alan Moore’s graphic novel, is much, much more than an action film. It is Forrest Gump on an acid trip with Dr. Strangelove. The revisionist history and political satire are thankfully ramped up from the source, creating an over-long but satisfying study on what makes a hero in a world of anti-heroes.

Runners-Up (Next 10)

Bobby (Emilio Estevez). Through the music, settings, and costumes, this ensemble film about the few hours leading up to RFK’s assassination accurately reflects the shattered dreams of a confused America in 1968 witnessing Her third earth-shattering tragedy in five years time.
School of Rock (Richard Linklater) Much as Bonnie Hunt did with a formula revamp in “Return to Me”, Linklater proved that comedies about underdog kids overcoming adversity doesn’t have to pander to audiences through cheap sentimentality, crude gags, and cartoonish characterizations. This film is the closest he came to the original Bad News Bears.
Punch Drunk Love( Paul Thomas Anderson) Anderson figured out how to use Adam Sandler’s talents in this off-beat and delightfully uneven love story. Instead of playing his stuttering man-child with a temper for laughs, PT and Sandler created a complicated, tortured protagonist with some real anger issues…who falls in love. Everything from the act-changing visuals to the “Popeye” soundtrack add to one of the most bizarre love stories since Harold and Maude.
The Cooler (Wayne Kramer). Much as the Ocean’s Eleven remake tried to do, The Cooler,
with strikingly honest performances by William H. Macy and Maria Bello, portrays a Las Vegas that is dying and leaving behind its Rat Pack roots to wallow in corporate servitude.
Maria Full of Grace (Joshua Marsten) With a beautifully realized star-turn by Catalina Sandino Moreno) this film is a chilling and hard-hitting exploration of the sordid lengths one must go through to escape a horrendous situation only to be in a new world of continued but slightly more hopeful depravity.
Reservation Road (Sam Mendes) Although slightly marred by Leo’s histrionics, Mendes’s best film since American Beauty is a journey into the past that peels the skin off of the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and exposes the blood and guts of unrealized potential, dreams unanswered, torrid attachments, unsatisfied yearnings, and finally, the ultimate betrayal.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead ( Sidney Lumet) Lumet (“Network”, “Dog Day Afternoon”) still has it, resurrecting the edgy realistic tension of the best seventies crime thrillers (like Spike Lee’s “Inside Man”also did this decade).
Pursuit of Happyness (Garbriele Muccino). Surprisingly uncheesy, unpreachy story of hope with Will Smith in one of his best performances.
Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy). Another welcome throwback to seventies conspiracy porn, this feature (with the last on-screen performance of the great Sidney Pollack) is well-paced and smartly written with Tilda Swinton providing one of the best characterizations of the decade.
Art School Confidential (Terry Zwigoff) A second cousin to Ghost World, “Confidential” takes the hilarious mocking of the pretensions of the art world in the former and expands upon it.

Wild Card:
"Once" (John Carney) Not sure how to classify this one....foreign film, indie, musical, drama...whatever. Anyway, this Irish film was a beautiful narrative rendition of the relationship between two people. Effectively using songs (hard to do) to convey emotions and conflict. Sadly, I saw the leads, Glen Hansard and Marketa Iglova, perform at Stubb's and watching the worshipping fan-base swoon over the Swell Season, took away the melancholic underdog vibe of the film.

SCOTTY AWARDS for the decade:

Scene Stealer: Fred Willard in “Best in Show”
Funniest Woody Allen film: “Hollywood Ending”
Best Meet-Cute: Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei in “The Wrestler”
Better Than Ever Female: Marisa Tomei
Overall Female Performances: Kate Winslet
Most Consistently Good Female Performances: Laura Linney
William H. Macy Pinch Hitter Award: JK Simmons
Overall Male Performances: Phillip Seymour Hoffman
Better Than Ever Male: Josh Brolin
Consistently Good Male Performances: Tom Wilkinson
Biggest Disappointment: Men Who Stare at Goats
Best Justification to see sex and violence: History of Violence
Best First Five Minutes in the Biggest Unrealized Potential of a Film: “Idiocracy” (Mike Judge)
Biggest Loss: Robert Altman
Biggest Fraud on the Moviegoing Public: “The Terminal” (Steven Spielberg)
Most Eagerly Awaited and Most Easily Forgotten:
“Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls” (also Spielberg)
Worst Trend: Torture Porn
Most enjoyable studio film I only saw ‘cuz it was shot locally: “Miss Congeniality” (Donald Petrie).
Guilty Pleasure: “Down with Love” (Peyton Reed)
Biggest emotional punch in the Stomach: “In America”(Jim Sheridan)
Best Western: “The Proposition” (John Hillcoat)
Best Western: Hotel
Worst Trend in Independent Films: Independent Films following an Independent Film Formula and sadly, succeeding (see “Napolean Dynamite”)
Most welcome and needed return of a genre: satire
(see “Thank You For Smoking”, “Bamboozled”, “War, Inc.” , “Pretty Persuasion”, “The TV Set”, and “Tropic Thunder”)
Straight to DVD special mentions: “Come Early Morning”, "The King", “Oh in Ohio”, “Pretty Persuasion”, “Diggers”.
Best neurotic return to indie filmmaking of yore: "Frownland"(Ronald Bronstein)
Favorite festival find not released on DVD: "Sexless" (Alex Holdridge)...Woody Allen meets Richard Linklater, a template for my dream project.
Favorite festival find released on DVD: "Easy Listening" (Pamela Corkey). This Boston-shot indie is a "Marty"-like story of love set in the 60's. Set in the world of elevator music, the film evokes the nostalgic feel of those Capitol Record album covers and the cool, almost hip but not quite feel of the era.

Stay Tuned for my indie and doc lists.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

From Get Smart to Get back into movies: Brooks and Henry

In 1965,  the classic "Get Smart" was created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry.  Mel Brooks, already known for his zany contributions to Your Show of Shows, would later bec0me a comic icon for writing and directing "The Producers", "Young Frankenstein", "Blazing Saddles",  and "Spaceballs".  Buck Henry would later be known for writing "The Graduate" and  "To Die For" among many other films, as well as his many stints as guest host on early SNL episodes.

During their successes on the big screen, Brooks and Henry made some forays into network TV sitcom-land.

Henry's immediate follow-up to "Get Smart" was 1967's superhero sitcom parody "Captain Nice" (NBC) starring William Daniels.
 Similar to the "Munsters-Addams Family" controversy, a competing bumbling superhero program appeared during the same time on CBS ("Mr. Terrific").  It lasted half a season.

Brooks followed up his early 70's cinema successes with "When Things Were Rotten", a Robin Hood parody on ABC in the fall of 1975.
 Oddly, he would make a successful Robin Hood feature film parody in the 90's.  I always wondered how much material he stole from this series...which lasted a couple of months by the way.  Great theme song though.  And what a cast:  Dick Van Patten, Bernie Kopell, Dick Gautier (all hold-overs from Get Smart) and the incredible Misty Rowe.

Henry, having co-directed "Heaven Can Wait" with Warren Beatty, decided to create the cience fiction satire "Quark" on NBC in 1978.  
 Hot on the trail of the new "Star Wars" phenomenon, this well-cast and well-written sitcom starring Richard Benjamin just didn't gel with audiences.  Either that or the adventures of a garbage scow in outer space just was to expensive to produce.  This will be a cult classic someday much like Brooks "Spaceballs".

So now I'm waiting for these guys to team up again on a script called "The Creators" about the travails of creating followup TV successes when you become hotshots on the big screen.  Now with all the quality cable programming, it seems the tables have turned.  Of course, Mel is on Broadway now and Henry is signing autographs at film festivals.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Tale of Two Islands

Hanna-Barbera created two live action "wrap-around" shows for Saturday Morning.  Basically, they were costumed characters engaged in skits and music who introduced various cartoon shorts.

The first, on NBC in 1968, the iconic "Banana Splits Adventure Hour" (with characters created by Sid and Marty Krofft) included a live-action serial called "Danger Island."  Remember "UH-OH CHONGO" or words to that effect?  These very colorful and well-made episodes starred Jan Michael Vincent and were directed by Richard Donner who would go on to help "Superman: The Movie", "The Omen", and the "Lethal Weapon" franchise.  

Nine years later, "The Skatebirds" premiered on CBS.  Less revered than its predecessor, these roller fowls introduced the live action "Mystery Island."  You think they could have come up with something a little different.  Well, there was a little more sci-fi to compete with the Filmation live-action kidvid at the time.  

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Pray For the Wildcats

On the last post, I made reference to this ABC Movie of the Week where Andy Griffith plays a sadistic businessman torturing his professional co-horts on a desert motorcycle trip.  This is one of the most bizarre TV movie memories I've had (a close second is retiree Martin Balsam beating up gang members in "Siege"). This is a cast made in boomer heaven:  William Shatner (playing the good guy), Robert Reed and Marjoe Gortner (child preacher).  Watch this clip at your own risk.

Andy Griffith / Dick Van Dyke : Same timeline

I had recently seen Andy Griffith in a marvelous performance in the indie film "Waitress." He did this film a couple of years ago playing a lovable but crusty cafe patron. Yesterday, I saw Dick Van Dyke make an appearance on "The Bonnie Hunt Show." It dawned on me that with all of the celebrities of yore that have passed on lately, these two guys are still going strong. And then I pondered on how their careers paralleled. I have lots of free time.

1960-1968: "The Andy Griffith Show" CBS. Major hit.
1961-1966: "The Dick Van Dyke Show" CBS. Major hit
Both produced by Sheldon Leonard with connections to Danny Thomas and Desilu studios.
Andy Griffith was a spinoff from the Danny Thomas Show and Dick Van Dyke had similar styling to the Danny Thomas Show.

Both guys left hit series in the late '60's. Then in the early 70's both came back. Both on CBS.
After Griffith failed in a comedy-drama "Headmaster", he immediately did "The New Andy Griffith Show" in 1971. He tried to rekindle the old magic with some of the same writers and similar small-town settings. It didn't work.
Van Dyke came back with "The New Dick Van Dyke Show." Also in 1971. But this show had many format changes over a three year run and never really found its legs. Also created by Carl Reiner with inside TV jokes.

Then in the early 70's, both made controversial made for TV movies for ABC.
In "Pray for the Wildcats," Griffith played a crazed businessman that takes three cohorts on a motorcycle trip through the desert. He was nuts.
In "The Morning After," Van Dyke (in a semibiographical performance) played an alcoholic. Very dour stuff.

In the eighties and nineties, both guys would come back playing in detective/lawyer shows.
Griffith: Matlock
Van Dyke: Diagnosis Murder

Both Griffith and Van Dyke are TV pioneers.

Do Pirhannas Dream of Diving Pigs? Remembering Aquarena Springs

Do you remember Aquarena Springs in San Marcos?

This was a laid-back theme park on the San Marcos River.  Attractions included:  A glass-bottom boat, a mermaid show, Ralph the diving pig, a skyride (every park had a skyride in those days), a "space needle" with a viewing room that went up and down, a hotel, a golf course, a "submarine theater", a midway with dancing chickens and other "carnival-style" animal abuse, and a gift shop.

In the seventies, my parents and I would drive up from San Antonio and meet our Austin relatives there for a picnic (near the golf course).  Later that decade, when I lived at Lake McQueeney, I remember a "casting call" for hot girls in bikinis.  This was for the low-budget "Pirhanna" which was shot at the park.  This girl Peggy, who I had a crush on in high school,  regaled us with tales of being on this Hollywood set and participating in "panic" scenes a la Jaws.  This involved screaming and running out of the swimming area with other scantily clad teenagers and beer belly locals.

Fast forward a couple of years and I actually was attending Southwest Texas State University (now sadly renamed Texas State University) and educumakatin' myself right near the park.  I took a couple of hikes back in the lush hill country behind the hotel but never really took in the attractions much.  Some twelve years or so after graduating I was doing some writing and decided to drive up from SA and stay at the hotel to do one of those "solitary retreat" things.  Little did I know, the park (which had been sold to the university years earlier and remade into an aquatic educational center) was going to close soon.  This retreat turned into "The Shining."  The old hotel had a moldy, mildewy smell.  The halls were vacant.  It was dark and grungy.  But cool, in a "Barton Fink" kind of way.  I would lay at the pool with my tablet.  Just me and the swans...I believe Ralph had retired by that time and was taking care of the abused chickens.

Two years ago, the wonderful Alamo Draftouse had an outdoor screening of "Pirhanna" at the park.  What a wonderful night.  The park was closed.  Most of the attractions were still there but ghostly and vacant.  The skyride launching pad, the submarine, the gift shop, the needle.  And in the distance, you could see "Old Main."  That was the university landmark:  a beautiful old castle-looking building that housed the journalism department.  The full moon, Old Main peeking out ominously from trees, the broken down carnival, and the reliving of killer fish where the blood originally flowed led to a surreal evening. The film was shown on a large screen right on the waterfront.  The director, Joe Dante ("Gremlins", "Twilight Zone", "The Howling", etc) was in attendance and couldn't have been more kind as I asked him if he remembered Peggy in the polka-dot bikini.  John Sayles, who wrote this script, was not there but he should have been.  I think he would have been inspired to do a character-driven piece on old amusement parks that end up closed down:

Thanks for being there.  They are eating the guests.

Sunday, May 17, 2009


One year after "The Odd Couple" went off the air, Tony Randall ("Felix Unger") returned to ABC prime time in a situation comedy produced by MTM. In "The Tony Randall Show", Tony played a judge in Philadelphia. This was an extremely funny and well-written show. It was produced by Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses, the two comedy writers-producers responsible for the classic "Bob Newhart Show". Pretty good pedigree. I have very fond memories of this show and its theme music. Tony's hangdog assistant was played by Barney Martin who later played Jerry's dad on "Seinfeld". After one season, the program moved to CBS for a season. This show needs to be released on DVD.

After writing and producing a surprisingly tasteless "Animal House" rip-off originally titled "Mad Magazine's Up the Academy" (directed by cult filmmaker Robert Downey Sr.), Patchett and Tarses produced an ABC sitcom about a convenience store which lasted a couple of episodes after tons of hype. They had an interesting guest star in one episode:

Speaking of Dave, he often had Tony Randall as a guest on his show. Randall, always classy, was a great sport usually appearing in a gag sequence. Some funny clips from early NBC-era Dave and lastly a classic clip from CBS Dave:

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Odd dog mind meld

No, this isn't the newest band.

In the early seventies, there were two hippie trippy programs that somehow were the same thing in my memory until I was able to sort it out later in life. This is one reason why those of us growing up during this time THOUGHT we were on drugs but weren't. It's kind of like an acid trip for geeks.

"The Point" was an ABC special broadcast in 1971. It was based on a fable and music (and album) by Harry Nillson. Nillson's music is definitely one of the more pronounced soundtracks of this time what with the hit "Everybody's Talkin'" from "Midnight Cowboy" and the Coconut song popularized by the Muppets among his work. I had a pretty progressive speech-drama teacher in sixth grade and he showed us "The Point" on a TV monitor in class. This was in SEGUIN, TEXAS mind you. Dustin Hoffman provided the voice of the father, but Ringo Starr dubbed the voice for the British release on VHS. I can't remember which voice I heard. Here's the music and premise:

"The Boy and His Dog" is an incredible film based on a novella by famed writer Harlan Ellison. It's an post-apocalyptic vision (very Mad Max for its day) with a young Don Johnson scavenging for food and sex with his talking dog. Well, they speak telepathically.Alvy Moore (Hank Kimball in "Green Acres") co-produced it and actually had a decent part in it. Now, I never saw this movie as a kid. It was R-rated and difficult to find on video in later years. I have no idea where my memory of it comes from except perhaps reading about it. I finally saw this film around six years ago and it blew me away. Here's why:

So, the POINT of this blog about a BOY and his DOG is....well, there is no POINT. I just can't understand why these two very different stories about A BOY AND HIS DOG (albeit both pharmaceutically inspired) somehow conjoined themselves for thirty-odd years in my brain.

If anyone out there has similar media mind melds, I'd love to hear about them!

Monday, May 4, 2009

Every celebrity who was alive in 1978

Some stage manager got fired after this fiasco. You don't tick off Archie Bunker, Bea Arthur, Lucy, Carol, Ed Asner, Lassie, Sheriff Taylor, Mike Wallace, Glen Campbell, Matrshall Dillon, John Amos, Dale Evans, Bert Convy, Wonder Woman, Captain Kangaroo and half the Waltons and get away with it! It's a good thing Andy Rooney wasn't there.

Facebook Import: ABC- Still the One...then came Cosby, Seinfeld, Rachel, etc

In the fall of 1977, the coolest hippest thing (at least for a guy starting high school as I was) was to be watching ABC. This was when the network was king. The "t and a" revolution was just starting -- jiggle TV they called it.
I had my Farrah poster and a huge crush on Kristy McNichol. It started with "Happy Days'. Then came "Barney Miller", ", "SWAT", "Charlie's Angels", "Welcome Back Kotter", "Baretta", "Starsky and Hutch", "Family", "Laverne and Shirley", "What's Happening", "Three's Company", "Battle of the Network Stars", "Donny and Marie", "Hardy Boys-Nancy Drew", "Bionic Woman" "Six Million Dollar Man", and "Eight is Enough".
With the epic mini-series "Roots" and "Rich Man Poor Man", ABC had quality programming to add to it's credentials but CBS with it's roster of Norman Lear sitcoms, MASH, and the MTM stable of comedies and dramas still had the upper hand in that department.

This fall, ABC brought out "Love Boat" and "Soap" (with all the added controversy) and Redd Foxx's new variety show (which lasted only a few episodes but I loved it). Also premiering was a sitcom that took place in Plains, Georgia called "Carter Country" (read Jimmy) dealing humorously with race relations in the south. Finally, "Fantasy Island" would arrive midseason.

Oh, yeah--and "Monday Night Football" to boot. Plus Barbara Walters just moved over to ABC from "The Today Show".

It was this weird mixture of post-Brady Bunch/Partridge Family teenybopper family fare with innuendo and pushing the limits (Three's ( Soap, and Redd Foxx's variety show) and the aforementioned "T and A" (Three's Company, Charlie's Angels).

So, Justin Timberlake talks about Bringing Sexy Back. Well, ABC brought it back the First Time....and on network TV...scarin' the hell out of everybody.

Two fun clips:
This one is an overall promo touting ABC as ending world hunger and curing cancer.....but it so exemplifies the mid-seventies. Whereas contemporary TV shows and films try so hard to mimic this era , this clip speaks volumes.

And this clip, from 1978, is great. It shows all the stars at the time in this big happy gathering. We added "Mork and Mindy", "Taxi" , "Vegas" (before Paris was there--both of them) and "Battlestar Galactica (The FIRST ONE, with Papa Cartwright) . Ya gotta love it! This is almost as good as Robert Evan's Anti-Drug NBC lovefest in the early eighties. Put your disco ball up for this one.

Norman Fell went out with a smile on his face, I'll tell you that!

More on ABC in another post

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Fred Silverman, Nancy Walker, and Scooby Doo

I was just reading about Fred Silverman. He was an influential programmer and innovator for network tv in the 60's and 70's. His career highlights seem to greatly influence the elements of programming that meant the most to me.

Silverman started programming for CBS in the mid-60's. He brought all of the superhero shows to Saturday Morning. All the cartoon product tie-ins which have been so prevalent in childrens programming really started with this guy. Yes, there were sponsorships by toy companies and cereals in the early 60's but Silverman really got the whole programming block concept going on Saturday mornings. So, not only did he greenlight Space Ghost, Frankenstein Jr., Herculoids, and the Wacky Races but he was responsible for bringing one of the most popular characters in the history of animation to audiences: Scooby Doo. Scooby started a whole decade of meddling, crime-fighting teenagers with goofy animal buddies. He also brought back the Flintstones in new episodes with a teenage Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm.

When he began programming prime time, he was responsible for the "rural purge". He cancelled every show with a tree in it, regardless of the ratings. So "Beverly Hillbillies", "Mayberry RFD", "Green Acres" and "Hee Haw" were axed. Silverman decided to cater to the new baby boomers with a much more sophisticated brand of sitcom. Thus was born "Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "All in the Family".
Basically, he was responsible for making CBS the Tiffany Network. At this time, the quality of programming was unmatched (to this day, in my opinion). The Lear and MTM labels flourished in the early 70's. Also, "Sonny and Cher", "Good Times", "Bob Newhart Show" and "The Waltons" became sensations.

Then ABC grabbed him in '75. Now Silverman became responsible for what became, for me as a young male, paradise. He made ABC a powerhouse with the "jiggle TV" concept. He put "Happy Days" in front of a howling studio audience. Now, he did for Garry Marshall and his stable of comedies what he did for Lear and MTM on CBS. The Fonzie phenomenon started a trend of shows devoted to sex symbols and wet t-shirts. Along for the ride, some stars were made: Farrah ("Charlie's Angels), Travolta ("Welcome Back, Kotter"), Suzanne Somers ("Three's Company"), Robert Blake ("Baretta"), Donny and Marie, "Love Boat" and "Fantasy Island". He brought "Roots" to TV, starting the trend of miniseries. Oh, and "Battle of the Network Stars". Well, the latter seems more like an entry in his next chapter. He also brought Scooby Doo to ABC with all these huge Saturday morning blocks with Laff-a-Lympics, Scrappy Doo, Dynomutt, and Scooby Dum. Velma even looked a little hotter.

Prime Time sex stars olympics:

Scooby's olympics:

Quicky, it is interesting to point out that Silverman also really capitalized on the spin-off phenomenon. On CBS there were the All in the Family offspring: "Maude", "The Jeffersons", "Good Times". And the MTM children: "Rhoda", "Phyllis". On ABC, "Happy Days" bred "Laverne and Shirley" and "Mork and Mindy".

He also must have really liked Nancy Walker. She played Rosie in the paper towel commercials, remember? Well, she rose to fame and won Emmy nods for playing Rhoda's mother on MTM and "Rhoda". When Silverman moved to ABC, Lear created a show for her on that network aptly titled, "The Nancy Walker Show" (she played a Hollywood talent agent). That was cancelled very quickly in the fall of '76 and she starred in "Blansky's Beauties", a very strained spinoff of "Happy Days". She ran a showgirl chorus line in a Vegas casino in the fifties...I think Chachi worked with her. She ended up back with Rhoda on CBS. Funny, she worked with all the big sitcom producers in the 70's at one time or another.

Back to Silverman. After his phenomenal success at ABC, NBC made him president and CEO. Can he pull off a hat trick? Well, while ABC continued to titillate and CBS went back to huge audiences by going back to the country ("Dukes of Hazzard" "Flo", "Dallas"), NBC refused to escape from its seventies doldrums. So Silverman tried a Love Boat type show called "Supertrain". Flop. A quality Larry Gelbart-scripted dramedy called "United States". Flop. HIs own cornpone country show spinoff, "Sheriff Lobo". Sort of flopped. He brought back his favorite family, The Flintstones, in prime time. Flop. He brought back friendly animals, "Here's Boomer". Flop.
He brought back the only hit character NBC had in his own show, Fred Sanford himself. Flop. He created a weekly "Big Event" which could be anything. Flop. His main success at this time was a new family of sitcoms derived from "Diff'rent Strokes" ("Facts of Life" and, oooof, "Hello Larry"). But he woudn't let us down. Before he left NBC, he brought us "Hill Street Blues". When David Letterman failed in his morning show, Silverman kept him at the network until he launched the now legendary late late night show after Carson. Whereas launching the eighties with Bochco inspired dramedies and Letterman lunacy leaves a wonderful legacy, he also left us with "The Smurfs" and started reality tv with "Real People". Ouch.

Well, my fondest memories of TV in my favorite TV years were thanks to this guy. Tiffany TV, T and A TV, and NBCTNT TV. Yes, I have fond memories of the bad NBC years. That's just me. The Flintstones, Scooby Doo, McLean Stevenson, and Nancy Walker all thank you.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Plop Comics

My favorite comic book, my guilty pleasure was DC's Plop comics. I was trying to figure out how to create an entry on this and I came across this incredible youtube video which tells the whole story. Thanks to RevSpike:

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Videotaped vs filmed sitcoms

As a kid, I always realized when a sitcom was "taped before a live studio audience" or "filmed before a live studio audience". And it's funny that the fact that one of the cast members told me at the end had nothing to do with it. Funny, I've never been a technical person, but I always bugged my family and friends with this fascinating observation. The reply was usually, "I don't really know but the show is funny (or lousy)."

In the fifties, Desi Arnaz created the three camera studio audience setup with "I Love Lucy". Most comedies were broadcast live across the nation (kinescope), and were never saved in any way for posterity. In the mid-fifties, sitcoms started using the recorded laughtrack in lieu of a live audience. This allowed for more intimate closeups and outdoor shooting (you know, for when the Beav confronts the bully). In the sixties, most sitcoms used laughtracks due to the special effects (Bewitched, Jeannie, Beverly Hillbillies....well actually the special effect on the Beverly Hillbillies was that it was a top-rated series for eight or so years). Dick Van Dyke and Lucy were the few exceptions during this time.

Mary Tyler Moore's sitcom premiered in fall of 1970 with the three camera audience setup. Then four months later, Norman Lear brought All in the Family to the forefront of the American scene. Lear based many of his landmark sitcoms on British series and like those series he realized the cost savings in shooting on videotape. Videotape is cheaper than film. He even eliminated establishment setting tags (like the musical cue with the apartment/office building zooming in). So his made the shows pretty cheap to film.
To complete the history, M*A*S*H was one of the few seventies sitcoms to use a laughtrack (and that was controversial). In the 80's most sitcoms decided to go cheap and they looked cheap on video. Newhart's second series started on video and for reasons I will explain later, switched to film for the next seven years. In nineties, almost all sitcoms (ala Friends and Seinfeld) had that filmed studio audience. This became the standard "look". Otherwise there was no audience at all (The Office, 30 Rock, Arrested Development). I believe a lot of the "filmed before a live audience" sitcoms these days are actually done on video that mimics film. If you close one eye and stand on your head you can see it during any unfunny scene.

For some reason (or many obvious reasons), filmed sitcoms seem so much more realistic. With taped sitcoms, it was like being in the audience, a stage play almost. You could hear the audience coughing sometimes. This worked with the Norman Lear comedies because they were a form unto themselves. The acting and writing were superb at first. Then as the seventies moved into the eighties, poorly written sitcoms with stagey acting were taped. This just made filmed shows look so much better.
Videotape hell:

At first, it was shocking. Soap operas and variety shows were taped. Not sitcoms. They were bright, heavily lit. The sets looked like sets. When four people sat around the dinner table hey left a gap for the audience to look in (like a play). I have no idea why this "table" thing was different for film--the medium shouldn't have anything to do with staging. There were more up close close-ups. The audience had to applaud when the actors entered. Actually, Garry Marshall did this on his filmed sitcoms...enter Fonzie or Laverne.

Speaking of Happy Days, remember the first episode filmed in front of an audience? Fonzie dated the stripper? Still the funniest episode.
Did you know the first season of The Odd Couple was filmed with a laughtrack and no audience. It moved to a soundstage in 1971 during the second season. That set would end up as Laverne and Shirley's apartment. It is now the condo from Two and a Half Men. (It's a good thing Laverne and Shirley moved to Hollywood in 1980).
Did you remember that the first season of "Newhart" (the innkeeper in Vermont version) was videotaped? The remaining seven seasons were filmed. Bob just had to be filmed. It seemed that the original Bob Newhart Show always hued brown earth tone colors amidst a sea of checkered polyester. Here is rare videotaped Bob:

And did you know that even though Barney Miller was taped during its entire run only the first two seasons had an audience. After that, the producers would screen the finished episode to a live audience and capture the reactions. All in the Family did this as well during the Stephanie year and all the Archie Bunker Place episodes. This allowed more improvisation on the set I suppose.

Speaking of Barney Miller, that was was the best looked videotaped sitcom. The producers used a filter to give it a grimy, New York feel. Very effective.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Scott's reviews Ghostbusters television series

My young celebrity encounters

Meeting HR Pufnstuf at San Antonio's North Star Mall circa 1970.

Annissa Lewis (Buffy from Family Affair) made a rare appearance that year as well at this mall. There was such a throng of people, someone had to carry her on his shoulders.

I was a guest in 1970 on San Antonio's Captain Gus show. It was on the CBS affiliate. They showed Popeye and Little Rascals. "Ahoy, maties"

Facebook import: Bad Sitcom theme songs - two late seventies styles

Well, not bad really, just really cheesy.Here are some good examples of late seventies-early eighties openings. :Here is the filmed Garry Marshall-esque comedy opening for "Angie". Note the "entering the circle" cast motif. I had a huge crush on Donna Pescow. See Doris Roberts in an early role....still playing the mother, whats up with that.

This one is considered one of the worst sitcoms in tv history. A good example of the Norman Lear-esque videotaped sitcom opening. Say what you will, but McLean Stevenson was the best thing about MASH. Also note Joanna Gleason, Dirk Diggler's mom in Boogie Nights...and MEADOWLARK LEMON!!!!

Saturday, February 21, 2009


With “The Watchmen” film coming out, I thought I would write about Charlton Comics. The superheroes from the The Watchmen characters were purchased and licensed by DC Comics in 1986 from Charlton. In the fifties and sixties, this relatively obscure comic book publisher had created a number of superheroes that it never used in its comic lines. Alan Moore had the idea of using many of these characters in his own comic, thus the transition.

That being said, this entry deals with my experience and memories of the Charlton line in the sixties and seventies. As with many of my journal entries here, I deal mostly with cartoon and television adaptations.

Charlton comics had a certain feel. Due to the fact that they cut costs by printing on a second hand press that was used to print cereal boxes. This accounted for the yellowish, dull look to their pages and covers. Compared to the brightness and color of, say, a Gold Key comic or the density and detail of a DC or Marvel, this line of comics always seemed a bit inferior. I won’t go into the early history of the comics. As the superhero years wore down in the late sixties, I was introduced to the Charlton line.

At that time, and through the seventies, the main genres were war-themed comics, gothic horror stories (in a manga style, ahead of its time), and romance stories. And a few superheroes still popped up, E-Man most noticeably of which I still own my copy of the first issue.

In 1970, Charlton took over the Hanna-Barbera cartoon franchise from Gold Key. I found the artwork to be inferior, the covers rather pedestrian, and was disappointed that HB (my favorite cartoon franchise) was singled out for this relocation. Whereas Gold Key continued with the current Saturday morning titles such as Scooby Doo, Charlton took over the older titles, even bringing some back which GK had let slide. The titles were The Flintstones, Yogi Bear, The Jetsons, Top Cat, Huckleberry Hound, Quick Draw McGraw, and Magilla Gorilla. A year little a new title, Hanna-Barbera Parade (10 issues) was created to include all the pre-1964 Hanna-Barbera characters in various stories. These covers were often quite exciting as they included a menagerie of characters in some theme (much like GK’s earlier “Bandwagon”).

An important note here: Charlton actually published a HB title based upon their cartoon shorts of Abbott and Costello starting in 1968, predating the other titles. This was always odd, as GK still took care of all HB titles. This title actually lasted 22 issues and dovetailed with the aforementioned HB infusion through 1971.

Most of these HB titles lasted no later than 1972, with The Jetsons and Top Cat going 20 issues through 1973. However, Yogi and The Flintstones lasted until Marvel took over the franchise in 1977. The Flintstones actually became a Charlton touchstone begetting sequel comics featuring Barney and Betty Rubble, Dino, and Great Gazoo. Even the new teenage version of Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm had a long lasting run by Charlton starting in ’72. When GK completely abandoned the HB line in 1975, Charlton took over Scooby Doo until the Marvel takeover. They also published issues based on current HB Saturday morning fare: Valley of the Dinosaurs (with Pat Boyett artwork), Hong Kong Phooey, Speed Buggy, Wheelie and the Chopper Bunch, and Korg: 70,000 BC (a live-action show). A couple of issues of The Grape Ape followed this. By this time, the quality of the artwork was improving and certain artists were lending themselves exclusively to HB titles (such as Fred Hines for Barney and Betty)

Personal note: Both Pat Boyett and Fred Hines were San Antonio-based artists which led to much excitement on my part in those days. I think I remember my dad, also an artist, trying to set up a meeting with these guys, but my memory is hazy.

In 1970, Charlton also took over two Jay Ward titles from GK, Bullwinkle & Rocky and Dudley Do-Right, each for seven-issue runs. Also, Underdog (similarly animated by GAmma Studios) had a short run at this time. These titles would revert back to GK by 1973, a fate not afforded the HB titles. To wrap up the Saturday morning titles, Charlton published a short run of the Krofft live-action puppet show The Bugaloos (another odd choice given the other Krofft shows were represented by GK). Also, Ronald McDonald had his own Charlton comic in the early seventies…talk about tie-ins.

Charlton also carried many King Features comics from the newspapers at this time: Popeye, Hi and Lois, Beetle Bailey, Blondie, Mandrake, The Phantom, Tiger, and Snuffy Smith.
As for prime-time series, Charlton had a run of the comedy-variety show Hee-Haw (a really strange choice) and the sitcom The Partridge Family. The heartthrob star of The Partridge Family, David Cassidy, even had his own title as did another icon, Bobby Sherman, possibly based on his sitcom “Getting Together”. And a short-lived syndicated science-fiction program called “Primus” had a Charlton run. There was a single issue based on the musical film “1776” which was even stranger.

The mid-70’s saw the now-classic Sci-Fi series Space: 1999 get a Charlton treatment. This continued with successful runs of The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, and Emergency. Whereas Gold Key always used live-action photos melded with cool title graphics on their covers, Charlton always used artwork to depict the characters on the covers.I believe that is all the TV-related titles from Charlton although in the fifties, I believed they carried “My Little Margie” a popular sitcom at the time (recently shown on ION television).