Saturday, December 10, 2011

No Sh!t Sherlock

You know, we still aren't in love with Netflix streaming. We kept our streaming subscription after we dropped disks just so that we could watch Have Gun - Will Travel. Now that those are done, we had to search around for something else to watch. We came up with Sherlock, the new BBC Sherlock-Holmes-set-in-modern-times series. Needless to say, we are keeping our streaming subscription.

For this version, John Watson (Martin Freeman) is a wounded veteran of the war in Afghanistan - just like in the original! But he is a veteran of the current conflict, not the British Empire's last fracas in the area. That is touchstone for the series: when they update the stories, some things translate directly, some are strangely changed. For example, Watson makes Holmes famous by writing about him, not in the penny-dreadfuls, but on his blog.

Holmes is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, a name to be reckoned with. He has spooky eyes, wideset, pale blue, with slight epicanthic folds. His Holmes is brilliant and autistic, although he prefers to be considered a "high functioning sociopath".

This is not the Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett Holmes. He is younger and somewhat twitchier. He certainly isn't Robert Downey Jr. He is much more cerebral. He is also quite modern, always texting or checking something on his laptop. Although he is much less charming, his boundless self-confidence has a touch of Dr. Who about it, which is natural, since writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss are also writing Doctor Who.

Freeman's Watson, on the other hand, reminds me a bit of Arthur Dent. He has the same peeved expression, with a touch of incomprehension, when Holmes breaks another convention of normal civilized behavior. He is much less of a bumbler than some past Watsons, but around Holmes, anyone will eventually feel like an idiot.

Watson isn't the only source of humor in the show. Holmes' ego and other's reactions to him are a lot of fun. The mysteries are pretty good - maybe not great, but not shabby - and new (as far as I remember), not updates of the original story. But the characters of Holmes and Watson are the best part.

Now the bad news: There are is one season available, 3 episodes of about 90 minutes. We've seen them all. There's another 3 episodes coming up. After that, who knows?

You know, we've been watching a lot serial films lately - James Bond, Fast and Furious, Marvel Comics, Pirates of the Caribbean. When you find something good, you want more. We want more.

Boone Companion

 It was on TV from 1957 to 1963. It was the reason that we kept Netflix streaming when we dropped the disk subscription. We watched it all 221 episodes, mostly over dinner. Have Gun - Will Travel may have been the best TV show of its era.

HG-WT starred Richard Boone as Paladin, a gentleman, man of fashion and learning and a gunfighter. He lived in post-Gold Rush San Francisco. It still showed some rough edges as a frontier town, but the Carlton Hotel, where he resided, was the peak of civilization. When he was in town, he dressed in elegant brocades and opera cloaks, ate gourmet meals and intrigued with fashionable ladies. But he also read newspapers from every frontier territory in the west. When he found a problem that he thought he could solve, he sent a note along with his business card.

The card shows a chess knight and the words "Have Gun - Will Travel/Wire Paladin/San Francisco". The card has its own theme, written by Bernard Hermann, that is played when the card comes out, which happens in every episode.

When he is on business, he wears his working clothes, all black, with a black hat and a black holster with silver (possibly platinum) chess knight on it. He is very good with this gun. Possibly the fastest in the West.

Boone is wonderful in this role. His lumpy face, with its big nose and silly little mustache, does not look like either a lover's or a fighter's, but he was very convincing as either. He was at his best when he was concerned, peeved or outraged. He hated injustice or cruelty. He had a great sense of humor and a large, uninhibited laugh. But when he was worried, his fingers twitched by his gunbelt, ready for action.

He knew how to use his fists as well (although confidentially, a blow to the back of the head would take him out of action for a few hours). Paladin's spirited scrapping probably owes more to stuntman Hal Needham. He went on to double for John Wayne and to direct Smokey and the Bandit, he got his start doubling for Boone.

He wasn't the only great supporting actor on the show. We see Lee Van Cleef, James Coburn, George Kennedy and Charles Bronson, Whit Bissell, Mike Connors, Strother Martin and Ken Kurtis, Duane Eddy, L.Q. Jones and Jack Elam, even Vincent Price playing a ham actor. But even when the faces aren't familiar, the actors, and especially the actresses, seem to be delivering a lot more than expected.

It might be the directors - Andrew McLaglen did the honors most often, and he was indeed Victor McLaglen's son. Others were directed by Sam Peckinpah, Ida Lupino and Boone himself. Lupino's work was notable for the great fight scenes. Boone's episodes often had small touches of classic black-and-white cinema, close-ups with beautiful studio lighting that really stood out among the 2- and 3-light shots.

We also get shown some beautiful scenery, with whole episodes taking place in the wilderness, mostly around Bishop, Lone Pine or Bend OR. Admittedly, we do see the same 2 or 3 Old West town back lot sets over and over, but that doesn't really make any difference. Some of the best episodes are set on a single soundstage set, perfect little one-act plays.

Because the real star of the series was the writing. The stories tend to be as sophisticated as Paladin himself. They are often tragic - the classic plot is: A father hires Paladin to find his son and bring him to justice. Usually, the job is to make sure he is hung by the authorities and not lynched. The father doesn't want Paladin to free the son, not if the son is guilty. But he wants him punished with dignity. Sometimes the son is innocent, and Paladin can help him. Sometimes, he is guilty due to a momentary lapse, and, although it is terrible, he must pay. Even when he is just plain evil, Paladin makes us see the tragedy of his inevitable doom.

Of course, not every episode is tragic. Some have happy endings, with the bad guys gettting a come-uppance, or the enemies reconciled and everyone sharing a laugh and a feast. Some of them had women at the core, deceitful yet alluring women. Not too surprisingly, these are often written by Gene Roddenberry.

Another repeated theme is prejudice - against Armenians, Mexicans, Indians, Chinese, Jews, Gypsies and even African Americans. I felt that they were pussyfooting around the civil rights fights with Armenians or Chinese standing in for blacks, but several episodes were very specifically about equal rights for the recently freed slaves. A lot of these scripts are written by Shimon Wincelberg, with sensitivity and understanding of prejudice and oppression.

Since I mentioned Chinese, I have to talk about Hey Boy. In San Francisco, Paladin's factotum and comic foil is the Carlton Hotel's Chinese bellboy called Hey Boy. He is not ashamed of the name - when someone calls him Hey You, he corrects him. Although he is pretty much the stereotyped bowing Chinese gofer, as played by Kam Tong, he has a real personality, and a life in his immigrant community. A few episodes deal with his family and the San Francisco Chinatown. If he is a stereotype, he is a well-rounded one, and when he mutters in Chinese, Paladin knows enough of the language to reply in kind.

I would love to tell you more about this series, my favorite episodes, like the one based on Paladin's knowledge of molybdenum, or the one with Odetta. I could talk about Paladin's knowledge of cooking or his discernment of fine whiskey - he may have encouraged Jim Beam to bring his beverage to a wider audience in one episode. I could mention the love of his life, a bluestocking lady doctor, played by June Lockheart.

But really, you owe it to yourself to just watch these. Start at the beginning - the series is strongest in the first few seasons.

Now, I assume everyone has heard of Hec Ramsey?

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Blame it on Caine

Pulp (1972) is sort of the opposite of Get Carter (1971), the first movie that director Mike Hodges made with Michael Caine. Get Carter is a tense revenge thriller. Pulp, on the other hand, is a goofy romp.

Caine plays a pulp fiction writer who is living on Malta, possibly hiding out from an ex-wife. His internal monologue supplies the unreliable narrative. He is approached by gravel-voiced thug Lionel Stander to ghost-write an autobiography for an unnamed personage. Quick digression - We last saw Lionel Stander in If Only You Could Cook. He makes a great thug/stooge - definitely worth the price of admission.

Caine goes on a Magical Mystery Bus tour to meet his patron, only knowing that one of his fellow travelers would contact him. One does, but may not be the right one. Especially when he ends up dead. At the beginning of the movie, Caine's narration gives the body count, so you can start counting now. Of course, it is unreliable.

His contact turns out to be a cute backpacker, Nadia Cassini. And the subject of the autobiography he will be writing is a retired film star with mob connections, played by Mickey Rooney. It may be that some of those connections don't want this book published. Or maybe the trouble is coming from the fascist-lite politician Cippola, who never appears in the flesh, but his wife (Lizabeth Scott, last seen in Dead Reckoning) is one of Rooney's character's ex-wives. Anyway, someone is trying to stop the book - if that is the reason people are dying.

This is not a tightly plotted thriller - or comedy. It mostly makes sense, but just barely. Someone compared it to Beat the Devil, and there is indeed a Bogart and a Lorre imitator on hand to drive the point home. I hope everyone enjoyed making this. I enjoyed watching it.

The One and Only

I guess it was Mr. Peel who got me in the mood to watch a Bond film, so when On Her Majesty's Secret Service showed up in the Netflix streaming recommendations, Ms. Beveridge and I realized that neither of us had seen George Lazenby's one and only Bond and decided to watch.

I believe Mr. Peel also argues that Lazenby might be the best Bond, for some value of best. He does bring a certain weightiness to the role. His Bond takes things seriously. He can flirt with Moneypenny and drop a one-liner with the rest, but he is neither flip nor camp. He has feelings.

For example, he hates Blofled, incarnated by Telly Savales. He hates him so much that Q takes him off the case, fearing that he has lost his objectivity. So he goes on a busman's holiday, using shady character Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti) to get to Blofeld in an unofficial capacity.

And love? As much as he hates Blofeld, he love Tracy Draco - Diana Rigg. And who is better suited to be wooed by James Bond than Mrs. Emma Peel? Because this isn't a Bond girl he beds and forgets - he gets plenty of those in Blofeld's Alpine allergy clinic. No, this is one for the ages.

Indeed, this is a great Bond film, with some great mountain locations, including Piz Gloria (mirrored in the film Inception). However, I'm afraid I can't accept Lazenby as Bond - he just doesn't have the face for it. His low forehead and long nose give him a rodent-like look from some angles. From other angles he looks fine, and from still others, he looks different. Maybe if he had stuck around for a few more movies, his look would have settled down.

Best Bond ever? Daniel Craig.