Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Brosnan kicks butt as vengeful, bitter spy in ‘The November Man’

By Steve Crum
Whereas Pierce Brosnan as James Bond would bed down virtually all the ladies he encountered, Brosnan’s Peter Devereaux spy has a lot more than ladies on his mind in the edgy thriller worth seeing, The November Man. Here is a ticked-off ex-CIA guy, driven by revenge, and bitter about virtually everything and everybody. It appears that years of faithful government service have twisted Devereaux into his cold hearted demeanor, and now he is surrounded by assassins. Literally. 
Maybe it is a cheap shot to make comparisons between Brosnan’s Bond and Brosnan’s Devereaux, but maybe not. After all, he portrayed the man “licensed to kill” in four movies, 1995-2002. The spy genre has been a staple for Brosnan’s career, one that jump started with his title role in TV’s Remington Steele. Despite showing his acting chops in the heavy drama Evelyn, and a musical detour in Mama Mia!, it is Brosnan as a spy the public pays big bucks to savor. In fact, early last year, Brosnan enthusiastically admitted, “We’re gonna do a piece called November Man, so I shall jump back into that arena.” He even played a reluctant spy in 2001’s The Tailor of Panama.
Back he is, and, despite all the expected violence, it makes for comfort viewing. As “The November Man,” Brosnan is a nitty, gritty, Bondish (due to his handsomeness) secret agent with absolutely no penchant for tongue-in-cheek joking, drinking non-stirred booze, or loyalty to the Queen. The gimmicky gadgetry is absent too. 
The film is based on one of a popular series of spy novels written by Bill Granger. Director Roger Donaldson, who helmed Dante’s Peak (with Brosnan), nicely balances pulsating action with intimate set pieces. Referencing the latter, of particular note is the car sequence involving Devereaux and his ex-wife. 
The “November Man” nickname is revealed in both the movie and its trailer: “After you passed through, nobody lived.” The moniker is apt with the qualification that many of the killings are attributable to the bad guys either chasing or being chased by Devereaux. 
After a flashback introduction involving an assassination attempt and the emotionally upsetting outcome that caused CIA operative Devereaux to opt out of the spy game, the action resumes several years later. He is retired, and living a leisurely, obscure life in Switzerland. A young CIA protege, David Mason (played by Luke Bracey), finds Devereaux and wants him back in the spy game. Enough spoiler danger dangled, so let us say the action soon picks up. 
Devereaux becomes a reluctant spy who finds himself both with and against his former agency. His adversaries include a corrupt Russian official, the sleazy Arkady Fedorovc (Lazar Ristovski), who is responsible for heinous war crimes the CIA has kept covered up for years. In other words, who can Devereaux trust? Make that “whom.” Further complicating the works, Devereaux becomes a self-appointed protector of key witness Alice Founier (Olga Kurylenko)…who is being tracked by the calculating Russian assassin Alexa (Amila Terzimehic). Then there is Devereaux’s old CIA pal, Hanley (Bill Smitrovich), whose allegiance is questionable. To paraphrase Mad Magazine, it’s spy vs. spy vs. spy. 
Two side notes: [1] Olga Kurylenko was a Bond girl who played opposite Daniel Craig’s James Bond in Quantum of Solace…another Bond comparison. [2] Playing the assassin with the uniquely attractive face, Amila Terzimehic is a Bosnian champion gymnast. 
“Do all your friends try to kill you?” “Eventually,” answers Devereaux. Since a sequel to The November Man is already planned, just announced by Brosnan, Peter Devereaux will undoubtedly continue to encounter hopeless friendships. ——————————

GRADE on A-F Scale: B

Friday, August 15, 2014

Addressing the issue of cross-dressing in Hollywood

By Steve Crum
Two occurrences prompted my writing about actors cross-dressing on TV and in movies: the recent death of Robin Williams, and this week’s Entertainment Weekly cover that features Kevin Spacey in drag. Williams’ arguably best film role is that of the title character in Mrs. Doubtfire, which features him in a dual role of father/ex-husband who has lost child custody and chooses to pose as an elderly female nanny to be near his kids. The film is both hilarious and touching, and Robin Williams is brilliant.
The Kevin Spacey gag cover is his impression of Vice-President Selina Meyer (played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) from the TV show Veep. An alternate cover for the same issue showcases Louis-Dreyfus dressed as Spacey’s President Frank Underwood in House of Cards, another hit television show. Tit for the proverbial tat. 
Cross-dressing has been around since the beginning of motion pictures and television. Glancing further back, I would not be surprised if cavemen sometimes dressed as cavewomen. There has to be a Neanderthal joke here somewhere.
Although I am not much of a fan of cross-dressing extremists like RuPaul and the like, there are some c-d bits and sequences that have made me laugh. I think the key is the c-d is done either by comedians or very good actors in the context of a script. A guy merely dressed like a babe, singing like Judy Garland, or traipsing around a stage like a female model is novelty at best. Transgender or not, his drag bit is a drag. 
Listed in no particular order, here are my favorite cross-dressing memories (or mammaries) throughout TV and movie history. This is not a definitive listing. These are my picks.
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•JULIE ANDREWS—Victor/Victoria (1982)…Andrews is superb as a Depression era talent in Paris who finds fame posing as a man posing as a woman singer. To make matters hilariously more complicated, James Garner’s hoodlum character falls for her/him/her.  
•BOB HOPE—The Princess and the Pirate (1944)…Hope poses as a woman to avoid being hurt. He also dresses in drag in Casanova’s Big Night (1954), The Lemon Drop Kid (1951), and several other flicks. In many comedies, Hope’s included, the leading male comic dons a wig and dress to elude the bad guys. 
•MILTON BERLE—from his Texaco Star Theater and onward (1948-throughout his long career)…Berle’s frequently portrayed drag queen was so identified with him he repeated it on a classic Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour episode in 1959.
•ROBIN WILLIAMS—Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)…Williams is simply hilarious, from accidentally setting his (Mrs. Doubtfire’s) breasts on fire while cooking to his frantic quick changes at the restaurant. 
•CURLY HOWARD of The Three Stooges—Uncivil Warriors (1935)…Romancing a Yankee general; and Micro-Phonies (1945)…Lip synching a record by a female opera singer.
•JACK LEMMON and TONY CURTIS—Some Like It Hot (1959)…In 1920’s Chicago, two musicians witness The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and are soon on the run in an all-female band. But “nobody’s perfect.” 
•CARY GRANT—I Was a Male War Bride (1949)…Grant dresses as Ann Sheridan’s French female friend officer so he can return to the United States with his wife (Sheridan) during WWII. 
•TOM HANKS and PETER SCOLARI—Bosom Buddies (1980-82)…An entire series was inspired by Some Like It Hot, except this is set in an all-female boarding house in which the two young men are living out of desperation. 
•HARVEY LEMBECK—Stalag 17 (1953)…Lembeck gussies up as a makeshift woman to dance with Animal (Robert Strauss) during Christmas in a German POW camp. 
•ALAN HALE with male cast members—This Is The Army (1943)…Irving Berlin’s song, "Ladies of the Chorus," gets cross-dressing laughs.
•JACK BENNY & RAY BOLGER—Charley’s Aunt (1941) & Where’s Charley? (1952 ), respectively…In both Benny’s comedy take and Bolger’s musical comedy version (“Once in Love with Amy”), the stars portray a friend’s proper, dowdy aunt. On TV and stage, Benny occasionally dressed up as Gracie Allen to play comedy opposite George Burns. 
•MARY MARTIN—Peter Pan (1955)…It was an original, live television spectacular when Mary Martin acted, flew, and sang as the boy who never grew up.

•ANTHONY PERKINS—Psycho (1960)…Norman’s murderous momma is shown from above, in silhouette, and through a shower curtain at various times throughout Alfred Hitchcock’s chilling thriller, but he/she is finally seen in closeup during the basement scene near the end. 
•TIM CURRY—The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)…Curry’s transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania is a highlight of this cult musical comedy. 
•DUSTIN HOFFMAN—Tootsie (1982)…He can only get a job acting in a soap opera if he is a woman, so Hoffman’s character dresses and acts (very well!) as a woman. 
•BARBRA STREISAND—Yentl (1983)…Babs plays a Polish Jew in early 1900’s who poses as a male to study the Talmud.
•GWYNETH PALTROW—Shakespeare in Love (1998)…Paltrow’s 16th Century Shakespearean actor won her a Best Actress Oscar.
•MARTIN LAWRENCE—Big Momma’s House (2000)…An FBI agent goes undercover. Lawrence can be very funny, and he is here.
•EDDIE MURPHY—The Nutty Professor (1996) as Granny Klump + the same role in the 2000 sequel. Murphy should have been Oscar nominated for brilliantly playing Granny and a half dozen other characters. Credit the makeup man as well. Tyler Perry’s Madea character was reportedly inspired by Murphy’s Granny Klump.
•GLENN CLOSE —Albert Nobbs (2011)…To make more money as a male butler in a posh 19th Century Irish hotel, she dresses the part. Close was Oscar nominated.
•BUSTER KEATON—Sherlock Jr. (1924)…Buster briefly wears dress and scarf to help him escape. Buster also went drag during The Hollywood Revue of 1929.
•MARLENE DIETRICH—Morocco (1930)…Dietrich, as cabaret singer Amy Jolly, wears a tuxedo, which turns on Gary Cooper’s legionnaire character. The very thought of her in a tux caused a minor sensation in 1930.
•STAN LAUREL (1934)—The March of the Wooden Soldiers aka Babes in Toyland…Stan dresses as a woman to trick the villain. He became a ballerina in 1943’s The Dancing Masters. In fact, Laurel posed as women in numerous movies. 
•LIONEL BARRYMORE (1936)—The Devil Doll…Barrymore plays a murderous ex-con who hides as an old woman, sending out shrunken humans to kill his enemies.
•LON CHANEY—The Unholy Three (1925 silent and 1930 talkie)…”The Man of a Thousand Faces” plays both Prof. Echo and elderly Mrs. O’Grady, so disguised to help Echo and his gang perpetrate robberies. 
•ELIZABETH TAYLOR—National Velvet (1944)…Taylor’s Velvet Brown disguises herself as a male jockey so she can ride in a steeplechase. 
•LOU COSTELLO—Abbott and Costello Meet The Killer, Boris Karloff (1949)…Lou is dressed as the hotel maid to hide from Karloff and associates.
•ALEC GUINESS—Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)—One of Guiness’s many disguises is that of the distinguished, daffy Lady Agatha D’Ascoyne.
•CHRISTOPHER HEWITT—The Producers (1968)…As c-d director Roger De Bris, Hewitt (later TV’s Mr. Belvedere) is expectedly flamboyant and funny. 
•JOHN TRAVOLTA—Hairspray (2007)…Edna Turnblad is a major part of this musical comedy, and Travolta carries that big momma persona well. 
•JOHNNY DEPP—Ed Wood (1994)…In character, Depp dresses as a woman in a couple of scenes.
•HARVEY KORMAN—Korman’s buxom Jewish woman popped up in multiple sketches on The Carol Burnett Show (1967-77).

•FLIP WILSON—Geraldine Jones on his Flip Wilson Show (1970-74)…His/her catchphrase was “The devil made me buy this dress!”
•KENAN THOMPSON—Saturday Night Live (2003-14)…Thompson has hilariously played a variety of characters, including female.
•JAMIE FARR—M*A*S*H (1972-83)…While Farr’s Corporal Klinger repeatedly tried to get out of the Army by dressing as a woman, he eventually gave up. Then he married a Korean woman.  
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An addendum: Radio had its own c-d star. Actually, he was a cross-talker since radio was an audio medium. Beulah featured a black maid, Beulah, who was voiced by Marlin Hurt, a white male. When the show was later renamed The Marlin Hurt and Beulah Show, Hurt did both Beulah’s voice as well as her white male employer. 

No, I did not forget ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, who voiced the very astute female Effie Klinker in addition to male dummies Charley McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Checking in & out with Harry Ritz & Family

By Steve Crum

Several years before I sold the bulk of my large autograph collection at huge loss to a rip off dealer in Los Angeles (but that’s another story), I was parceling out pieces of it on eBay. One of those pieces was a cancelled check signed by the late Harry Ritz of Ritz Brothers fame. 

I had originally purchased it via an eBay auction a couple of years before that, and hoped to make a profit in its resale. But before the week-long auction ended, a roadblock appeared. I received a private eBay inquiry asking for information about the item. It was from the Harry Ritz’s daughter, and she had a question from her mother, Naomi, Harry’s widow. Somehow the word got to them about the Ritz check. 

Anyway, the tone of the daughter’s question put me ill at ease. “Where did you get that check? It’s my father’s, and my mother wants to know.” I must say that I was visibly shaking, while thoughts about a lawsuit for selling someone’s bank check, albeit cancelled, loomed. And this someone was high profile. 

I really thought her inquiry was step 1 of being sued. I double checked eBay’s rules and found nothing prohibitive about selling a cancelled check. If so, eBay would be just as guilty as I for allowing me to post it.

I responded, via eBay, that I had purchased the check by eBay auction a couple of years before. The next day, I received a response to my response…from Harry’s widow.

“That is Harry’s signature and his check,” she said. “I was just curious as to how you got it. Thank you,  Naomi Ritz.” Whew, not even the hint of any legal action. 

End of inquiry. Soon end of auction…selling Harry’s cancelled check for $30. 

But the value of having interacted with the Ritz Family is priceless.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Blast off with ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ for sci-fi summer fun

By Steve Crum
While Star Wars creator-director George Lucas borrowed heavily from the 1936 movie serial Flash Gordon, director-screenwriter James Gunn grabs more than just a general concept from Star Wars for Guardians of the Galaxy. Then again, Gunn and co-writer  Nicole Perlman's primary source is the Marvel comic book written by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning. So credit them for the heavy lifting. 
Guardians is not a clone of Star Wars, but the similarities are abundant, making it almost as compelling and entertaining as its non-credited screen daddy. In fact, Guardians of the Galaxy is about the most fun 121 minutes one will spend at the movie theatre this summer. It is the kind of sci-fi movie a parent can take a 6 year-and-older child to see. All will have a great time. 
After all, the honed digital effects are complemented by wildly diverse alien characters, including a talking, blasting raccoon, in a typically cliched, good versus evil plot. Add abundant laughs, heroics to the max, and some very smart dialogue. Much of that clever talk is delivered by central character Peter Quill aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt of TV’s Parks and Recreation), who is kidnapped as a 1988 Earth youngster early in the movie and transported to outer space. Twenty-six years later, he is scrounging around an abandoned planet, still playing the cassette tape of 1980’s music on the Walkman he had with him during his abduction. Music, particularly ‘80s sounds, are paramount to the Guardians’ soundtrack. (Composer Tyler Bates aptly provides the main score.)
A running joke is Quill’s frequent use of euphemisms and metaphors, which virtually every alien, friend or foe, misconstrues for the literal meaning. Quill, it seems, is the only one with any sense of humor. Quill even makes a Kevin Bacon joke, which totally falls on deaf, alien ears. Chris Pratt has admitted that he plays Quill as a combination of Han Solo and Marty McFly. I would add that there is a heap of Luke Skywalker thrown in as well, particularly since Quill has spent most of his child and adult years parentless. It turns out Quill was “adopted” by Yondu (Michael Rooker), leader of a vicious group of space thieves known as the Ravagers. 
Things change for Quill when his looting turns up a glowing, baseball-size, power sphere known as “the orb,” sought after by many but none so intensely as Ronan (Lee Pace) who is acting on orders from supreme Kree leader Thanos (voiced by Josh Brolin). They are the very bad guys who want to destroy the peacekeeping efforts of the Nova Corps leader (Glenn Close) to keep peace on Xandar. 
Along the way, Quill organizes one of the oddest super hero squads in movie history: green skinned Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), the tree-like humanoid Groot (Vin Diesel’s voice), and Rocket, the talking squirrel…er, raccoon. Brad Cooper provides the voice. Together, they are formidable heroes, much like Skywalker, Solo, Leia, Chewbacca, R2-D2, and C-3P0  are in Star Wars. There is just no way to avoid the comparison. 
Should I also compare thee prison sequence with the cantina bar bit in Star Wars? Or the Dark Emperor Thanos with Star Wars’ evil emperor? Let me count the ways. 
Formula or not, Guardians of the Galaxy maintains its fresh appeal from opening to end credits. The film greatly benefits from Chris Pratt’s loopy, devil-may-care persona. Add yet another franchise to Marvel’s universe.
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GRADE on A-F Scale: B+