LULLABY

(DVD, Digital and Video-On-Demand; AVENUE PICTURES/ARC ENTERTAINMENT (117 minutes/Rated R); 2014)

LULLABY

I’m gonna let you guys into my life and my head and my heart for a little bit. I’m a sensitive guy… no, really, I am. Movies like this one touch me. I shed a tear or two watching LULLABY. Why? Good story, good acting? Partly, but the main reason is this: The underlying premise of the movie is something that is very near to me (I can’t say “dear” because… CANCER SUCKS!). In a span of approximately 10 years, I lost my father, my sister and my brother to cancer. My brother-in-law, a couple of beloved uncles and an aunt, too, during that same period; my sister-in-law succumbed to liver failure, as well. In the middle of all of that, my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. I act as her caregiver… I’m the only one left. I watch her die a little bit more each day. I’ve spent far too many days in hospital rooms and funeral homes and I know that I’ve got more of both in my future. Look… I’m not complaining. I’m just using my experiences as a reference point for a review of the movie, LULLABY. Knowing these things may help you understand (at least a bit) where I’m coming from in regards to this film.

LULLABY (Garrett Hedlund) (publicity still)

LULLABY (Garrett Hedlund) (publicity still)

Garrett Hedlund leads a strong ensemble cast as Jonathan, the wayward son of a well-to-do family. LULLABY is a bitter-sweet coming-of-age story for Hedlund’s character. Jonathan is coming home after several years; his cancer-stricken father has decided to end his suffering. In short, the father (brilliantly played by Richard Jenkins) is – according to the statutes of the State of New York – committing suicide, with the assistance of his well-meaning doctor (Terrance Howard in a small role that amounts to no more than a couple of short cameos… what Howard does with those cameos speaks to the power of, not only his talents, but those of the entire cast). Jonathan reluctantly returns, telling his mother (Anne Archer), “He’s been dying for twelve years!” and asking, “Why is this time any different?” When she explains his father’s plan, Jonathan, enraged, storms out of the room. Taking refuge in the hospital’s stairwell, he lights a cigarette (he seems always to be getting into trouble for smoking in places where it’s prohibited… the film opens with him lighting up in the airplane restroom and, later, he walks into the hospital lobby and lights another smoke… both scenes are actually pretty funny) and practices a little primal screaming. He soon discovers, however, that he isn’t alone; a couple of flights above is a young woman who, like his father, is dying of cancer. Meredith (Jessica Barden) is a wise-beyond-her-years high school senior who hides her pain and fear behind a tough facade; when she asks for a cigarette, Jonathan gives her a look. “What? You gonna tell me that it’ll kill me?” Through his interaction with Meredith, the troubled musician is humbled and begins to look inward at who he is and what he’s become. There are several scenes between the pair that some may call “schlocky,” but they are so sweet and gentle that you can’t help but be touched.

LULLABY (Garrett Hedlund, Anne Archer, Richard Jenkins, Jessica Brown Findlay and Daniel Sunjata) (publicity still)

LULLABY (Garrett Hedlund, Anne Archer, Richard Jenkins, Jessica Brown Findlay and Daniel Sunjata) (publicity still)

Other key elements leading to Jonathan’s growing up involves an ex-girlfriend (another small but pivotal role, played by Amy Adams), his “I’m way too good for this” sister, Karen (Jessica Brown Findlay), who is struggling with her own demons. She files an injunction to stop her father from going through with his plans and comes unglued when he tells the family that he gave all of his money to charities and other causes. There’s a great scene where she comes clean to Jonathan, growing up a bit herself. The mother, Rachel, goes through several stages of grief, alternately being the strong woman holding the family together as she always has or completely falling apart, railing against the situation, her husband and God. One of Robert‘s last requests is to bring his family together for the traditional Passover Seder, performing the ritual early because he won’t be around at the Passover and because this is the first time in seven years that his whole family has been together. The scenes in the hospital’s chapel are powerful, heartwarming and… funny. You’ll understand when you watch. I should mention Jennifer Hudson as the in-your-face, tell-it-like-it-is nurse who first confronts Jonathan as he enters the hospital lobby, lighting a cigarette. She’s featured prominently in another heart-wrenching episode with Robert and Jonathan.

LULLABY (Jennifer Hudson and Terrence Howard) (publicity still)

LULLABY (Jennifer Hudson and Terrence Howard) (publicity still)

So, I know that I’m kinda skating around a lot of important stuff here, but I hate to be one of those guys that give away every detail of the movie. Ultimately, all I can do is recommend that you watch LULLABY with a box of tissues on hand. The subject matter and some strong language may be too intense for the young’uns, but it could open up a dialogue with junior high school aged kids (and older) who may be going through (or will eventually experience) similar situations. I told you at the top of this piece about my experiences. Obviously, they weren’t nearly as dramatic as those of the Lowenstein family, but they left there marks. LULLABY isn’t the type of movie that opens up old, painful memories; rather, it brought back some feelings that are really just under the surface: warm, happy memories of the people I love. And… okay… some sad ones, too. I honestly don’t believe that there’s a day that goes by that I don’t think about picking up the phone and calling my Dad or my sister or my brother. If you’ve lost someone close, you know what I mean. One of the most jarring aspects of LULLABY is Richard Jenkin’s make-up. As Robert becomes weaker and nears the end, there are moments when I could see my father’s face, sallow and small (he was always so much bigger than life to me), but with a peace that came from the knowledge that his pain and suffering was at an end and he was going home. That alone was worth the price of admission.


BEYOND THE TROPHY

(ARC ENTERTAINMENT/NEW FILMS INTERNATIONAL (99 minutes/Rated R); 2014)

BEYOND THE TROPHY

BEYOND THE TROPHY is certainly an enjoyable roller coaster ride of a flick, kinda like GOODFELLAS or THE GODFATHER filtered through that bizarre Woody Allen mockumentary, TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN and THE DUKES OF HAZZARD (the TV show, not that stupid movie). Okay… I know that may make the movie sound like an inept free-for-all, with good-intentioned “bad guys” and imbecilic and boorishly corrupt police and, yeah, there is a bit of that going on but, I think it’s more of the general vibe of the film than an actual plot description (although, at one point, one of the characters does say, “I’m told that you have an offer that I cannot refuse”). It is, I suppose, a cautionary tale about power and how far a man will go to obtain that elusive “trophy.”

BEYOND THE TROPHY (Michael Madsen) (publicity still)

BEYOND THE TROPHY (Michael Madsen) (publicity still)

The story begins at the end, with the narrator (Cole Lambert, greasily played by Michael Madsen, the kingpin of the Los Angeles mob) explaining that the little scenario was actually set in motion seven months earlier. Flash back those seven months and, after he introduces himself and his chief rivalas, Lambert intones, “Hey, welcome to Los Angeles, gangster capitol of the Western world. And, I can prove it. Alright, so this is what happened, best as I remember it. This is based on actual events, so… the names and identities have all been changed… to protect the guilty, to protect the innocent or, to protect me.” And so begins the chronicle of a seven month downward spiral of a good cop slowly going bad.

BEYOND THE TROPHY (Stephen Cloud) (publicity still)

BEYOND THE TROPHY (Stephen Cloud) (publicity still)

What follows is a confounding, semi-circular tale of lies, deceit, shady business dealings, gangsters (Lambert’s LA faction and a Las Vegas faction run by Gino, played by Robert Miano), mobsters (of the Russian and Cuban varieties), crooked cops, young idealistic cops, undercover cops, strippers, underage strippers, undercover strippers, car chases, shoot outs and – most confusing of all – cops double-crossing other cops who are busy double-crossing the bad guys who are double-crossing the cops so that they can double-cross the other bad guys who are double-crossing… I think you get the idea. You gotta have uninterrupted time (a little over 90 minutes) to watch BEYOND THE TROPHY or you will never be able to keep all of the underhanded dealings straight in your head. Situations and partners change so quickly that even the slightest distraction will have you lost in the nether-regions of some obscure sub-plot. But, then, that’s half the fun of watching. Most of the characters are so sleazy, you may spend some gray matter thinking up a cool demise for each.

BEYOND THE TROPHY (Stephen Cloud and Michael Masini) (publicity still)

BEYOND THE TROPHY (Stephen Cloud and Michael Masini) (publicity still)

As undercover police officers Danny (Michael Masini) and Terry (Stephen Cloud) are outed to their crime “bosses,” Gino and Cole are forced to team up, taking down the Russian mob czar and several of their own double-dealing underlings in an attempt to get at the cops. In the middle of all of this is Gino’s one true love, Angela (Ali Costello), who he presents to Danny in an effort to get the semi-crooked cop to tip his hand. Of course, as is often the case, Angela and Danny fall for each other, effectively adding another double-cross to the double-cross attempted by Gino. The Russian mob, having been infiltrated by Terry (he’s married to the bosses niece) and Officer Chastity Bachman (Brooke Newton), the daughter of Detective Sergeant Bachman (Eric Roberts), who may or may not be on the take for one or more of the criminal elements involved. By the end of the movie, there is one man left standing, with a surprise ending that – given the backstabbing throughout – no one will see coming (at least, I didn’t).

BEYOND THE TROPHY (Eric Roberts) (publicity still)

BEYOND THE TROPHY (Eric Roberts) (publicity still)

Bottom line for BEYOND THE TROPHY: I wasn’t sure after the first 10 minutes or so if I would even make it through the whole thing. However, I stuck with it and glad I did. The story is an ingenious take on the gangster genre and is thoroughly entertaining. Just don’t get distracted while you’re watching!


FROM A DARK PLACE: THE PAUL HOUGH INTERVIEW

PART 1: AN INTRODUCTION

The Human Race

The son of director John Hough, Paul Hough, like his father, has a rather dark palette from which he works. This rather frightening visionary focus has given life to some of the most depressing (and bloodiest) world views in the past decade plus. From the plight of a suicidal amputee in the music video, “The Enemy,” by Fozzy to the brutal reality of extreme backyard wrestling in THE BACKYARD to the new movie, THE HUMAN RACE, Paul has taken the universal themes of suffering and man’s inhumanity to man to new heights. Yet, in all of this pain and misery (and exploding heads), there is a subtle beauty that focuses on some of the more enjoyable aspects of the human condition. These aspects – unquestioning friendship, love, hope, belief in a higher calling, religion in all of its varying forms (Muslim, Christian, et cetera) – tend to make the grotesquerie more palatable… even enjoyable.

The school, the house, and the prison are safe. Follow the arrows, or you will die. Stay on the path, or you will die. If you are lapped twice, you will die. Do not touch the grass, or you will die. Race… or die.” That is the startlingly simple premise of THE HUMAN RACE. Eighty people, all who were unlucky enough to be occupying the same city block, are struck by a blinding white light (was it God? A priest, who is seen offering comfort to a homeless – junkie? – woman believes that they are in Purgatory) and transported to an undisclosed area and given the instructions above. Through two flashback vignettes, we meet three of the 80, survivors of their own personal hells: Veronica (Brianna Lauren Jackson), a young woman who has lost her family to a particularly aggressive form of cancer only to find out that she, too, has been stricken. She curses God for his cruelty. Flash forward to her doctor’s office where Veronica is told that her cancer is in total remission. She looks to the heavens and gives thanks, only to find herself a part of this macabre race; Eddie and Justin (Eddie McGee and Paul McCarthy-Boyington), two soldiers who meet for the first time on an Afghan field of battle. Eddie has, basically, been blown apart, his left leg is gone and Justin is determined to save him. Justin drags Eddie into a cave and using his own body, covers him to keep him warm until they can be rescued. Back in civilian life, they both work with underprivileged or disabled youth. Other “racers” include a pair of deaf friends (Trista Robinson and T Arthur Cottam), a Tour de France bicyclist (played by Cinderella drummer Fred Coury), a pregnant woman, the priest and homeless woman mentioned earlier, a Korean War (?) Marine vet with a walker, three vicious BEAVIS AND BUTTHEAD types, a self-absorbed, Better-Than-Thou yuppie type, a young girl and her little brother… in other words, people from every walk of life, representing every facet of the social, racial, political and religious spectrum. Any more information than what I’ve already given would ruin the movie for you; let’s just say that, “THE HUMAN RACE takes more twists and turns than I thought possible for a film of this kind, especially one that runs less than 90 minutes.” The plot, script, acting and visuals all work together perfectly to present a stunningly moving look at the foibles and fallacies that make up the human condition. The following interview with writer/director/producer Paul Hough offers insights into his career, his journey to make this movie and the film itself.

PART 2: AN INTERVIEW

Director Paul Hough (uncredited photo)

Director Paul Hough (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: Hey, Paul, thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions about your new project.

PAUL: You’re welcome, Darren, it’s a pleasure.

THE MULE: So, let’s start at the beginning. Your father is famed director, John Hough, who had a penchant for the gruesomely horrible… maybe the only person to ever work for both the legendary Hammer Studios and Disney. How has his work influenced you, particularly in the making of this brutal new film, THE HUMAN RACE?

PAUL: My dad has a career that doesn’t focus on one particular genre but got those Disney films because of the horror movies he made. Disney wanted someone who could bring something dark to Disney. He taught me early on to make sure I said something when making a film, to have a point of view. Not necessarily overtly but to bring something that was me to it. He taught me also to try and make everything as interesting as possible when shooting and taught me how to cover things from the best and most unique angles.

THE MULE: This isn’t – so to speak – your first rodeo, but it is your first feature length, scripted endeavor. Can you give us the breakdown of your short films and the extreme wrestling documentary, THE BACKYARD?

PAUL: I did a short called THE ANGEL, which can be found on YouTube with Eddie McGee and Celine Tien (both from THE HUMAN RACE) and did a music video, also with Eddie, for Chris Jericho’s band, Fozzy (called “Enemy” – also online). In that, you can see quick glimpses of Fred Coury and Luke Y Thompson, who also appear in THE HUMAN RACE. I met Luke after he wrote a good review of THE BACKYARD (he is a film critic, currently working for THE VILLAGE VOICE). THE BACKYARD was about kids who wrestle in their backyards, using weapons such as barbed-wire baseball bats, staple guns and nails. The documentary focused also on their parents, who were more than often supportive and were high school teachers, principals, doctors and nurses.

THE BACKYARD poster

THE BACKYARD poster

THE MULE: THE BACKYARD is every bit as violent and as bloody as THE HUMAN RACE, but everything was real. Did that make things harder for you, knowing that these guys were really hurting themselves and each other? Did their brutality, in any way, affect the way you approached THE HUMAN RACE?

PAUL: It didn’t really make it hard because I wasn’t the one getting hurt. And they were going to be doing this whether I was there or not. While I was shocked at a lot of what I saw, I found it an amazing sub-culture which I enjoyed being immersed in. There was an incident in Modesto which was scary because these really tough guys (presumably from a gang) had seen some of the kids fighting in the street and lighting each other on fire – and were super unhappy about it. It was very unexpected and there was a lot of tension. I thought it could have got really ugly – but, luckily didn’t. And there was another incident in England, where a 15 year old blades and cuts himself with a razor blade. He wouldn’t stop bleeding as I’m doing the interview and it was hard then, as to whether I should keep filming – but I did, since there were other adults off-camera who attended to the situation. It’s funny – in THE HUMAN RACE, there is a lot of blood. And in THE BACKYARD there was a lot of blood. And the reality is, when I see someone bleed, it makes me ill. I hate the sight of blood in real life. But I was comfortable with the blood in THE HUMAN RACE because I knew it was movie blood, and comfortable with the blood in THE BACKYARD because it, too, seemed like movie blood to me because I was watching it from behind a camera.

THE MULE: You wear many hats for this project: Producer, director, writer… I understand that you even had a hand in the visual effects end of things. Do you have a favorite part of the creative process? How does writing for yourself differ from writing a script for another producer or director?

PAUL: I wore many hats out of necessity – not out of desire. If I had my choice, I would only direct. Maybe write and direct – but my main focus is on taking a compelling story and making it happen on camera. Unfortunately, due to circumstances, I had to produce this, edit this, do FX for this. I had to write something that was practical enough for me to shoot. When writing for someone else or for a budget, I think you have more freedom.

THE HUMAN RACE (Brianna Lauren Jackson) (publicity still)

THE HUMAN RACE (Brianna Lauren Jackson) (publicity still)

THE MULE: The title of the movie works on – at least – three different levels. The first two are quite obvious from the beginning; the third is revealed in the final 15 or 20 minutes of the film, with a twist ending that kicked the whole thing up a notch for me. Without giving anything away, when you came up with the idea, did you start with one level and find that the others played well into what you wanted to say, or was it a simple case of coming up with a great play on words for the title and working from there?

PAUL: I started with the ending of the movie before anything else – and the knowledge that I wanted Eddie McGee in it. I think the idea of running then came next since I love to torture Eddie in everything we do together – and what better than to put him (a guy with one leg) into a marathon-type race. The title of the movie came then, as I was writing other aspects of the movie and just fit perfectly.

THE MULE: Aside from the obvious horror/sci-fi aspects of the film, there are also several underlying themes that are woven into the fabric of THE HUMAN RACE: Religion is a big one; racial and economic divides; sex, I guess, is unavoidable in any circumstance. Was the purpose of introducing these themes to draw the audience away from the larger theme, allowing for a greater impact at the end of the movie?

PAUL: A lot of the movie is from the characters’ points of views and you don’t really know where you are – along with them. They are people from all walks of life who express their different views. Certainly, because of the blinding white light it gave a path to introduce Christianity. Once I had that in – I wanted somewhat balance by introducing a Muslim. Overall, however, all of these themes and the conflict of these themes is both a reflection and representation of the human race and the struggles it has with itself.

Side note: one of my favorite critical reviews of the movie is this one: www.myhorribleidea.com/the-human-race-2013

THE HUMAN RACE (Gabriel Cullen) (publicity still)

THE HUMAN RACE (Gabriel Cullen) (publicity still)

THE MULE: Making this movie was a very slow process. Can you take us through the various stages and give us a little insight into why it took so long to complete?

PAUL: It took over four years to make. We started to shoot for seven days, then stopped due to lack of money. A few months later, I saved up some more money, so we could shoot for two more days. Then we’d shut down again until I could raise more money – so months would go by until we could shoot for a few more days. I’d never recommend to someone they shoot a movie this way but… it was the only way I could get this movie done.

THE MULE: Given the time lapses between shooting, was it hard for you to maintain continuity? Most of the cast are adults, which may cause some small problems (weight change and the like), but there are two children who play small but important roles. How did you handle those growth spurts and physical changes that kids go through?

PAUL: The kids’ stuff wasn’t a problem at all – all of their stuff was shot at the same time. But otherwise, it was difficult, but I made all the actors responsible for their own continuity. There is one scene, however, that I had to shoot before I lost a location and Eddie’s hair was super short compared to the rest of the movie, so I had to shoot it from a super low angle just to disguise his haircut. It’s weird having to make choices like that – but when you’re making a movie you can’t anticipate or plan everything and have to adapt as you go along.

THE MULE: The set-up for the first death was ingenious. It was one of many unexpected swerves throughout the movie. It was so unexpected that I have to ask: Was it planned from the start or did other factors – scheduling and budget issues, perhaps – cause a change in direction?

PAUL: No, this was planned. I wanted a character that you really like – and then kill her off – in the same way Hitchcock killed off Janet Leigh in PSYCHO.

THE MULE: Obviously, with 80 people forced to participate in this “event,” you couldn’t possibly flesh out the character of each and every one but, the several that were more than just extras all seemingly had a back story, allowing the audience to identify each with a label: Hero, Villain, Victim. How did your vision of each main character play into the casting? Did any one audition cause you to rethink any of those roles and adjust the script accordingly?

PAUL: One of my favorite characters in the original script was a huge guy called the Blob. I just couldn’t find someone large enough for this role – and then when I did find an actor who was close – right before filming, he (inexplicably for the movie) went on a diet and… didn’t look like a Blob anymore. His part then got cut from the movie when he no showed on a particular day. That was incredibly frustrating but, again, is something I just had to deal with. I wrote the movie around a lot of actors I actually already knew and some were friends who started off as extras and then got promoted into bigger roles as the movie went along.

THE HUMAN RACE (Fred Coury and Paul McCarthy-Boyington) (publicity still)

THE HUMAN RACE (Fred Coury and Paul McCarthy-Boyington) (publicity still)

THE MULE: One of the primary characters is played by Fred Coury. Even though you’ve worked with musicians before, on videos by the bands Pitbull Daycare and Fozzy (the latter also featured Eddie McGee), Fred is more out-front in an acting capacity here. How was he to work with? Was this his first acting gig?

PAUL: He was actually fantastic to work with – and a really amazing actor. Being a rock star, he has a great confidence that shows through on screen. After the shoot, he told me he had quit acting but I hope one day he’ll return to it.

THE MULE: You worked with Eddie McGee and Celine Tien, one of the youngsters, previously on the short, THE ANGEL. Were their parts for this movie written with them in mind or was it just a lucky coincidence that they both ended up in the cast?

PAUL: Both written with them in mind. In THE ANGEL, the Grandma was Celine’s real Grandma. In THE HUMAN RACE, her brother character is actually her real brother. I hadn’t seen her for a few years s,o while I wrote the role for her in mind – I still needed to audition her. Originally, there was only one kid in the script – but when she came to the audition, she turned up with her brother – who I thought was fantastic – so I made the role two kids rather than one.

THE MULE: Honestly, I wasn’t familiar with Eddie McGee, but when I found out that he was a cast member of the game show BIG BROTHER during its first season, I didn’t hold out much hope for this movie. I’m happy to say that I was wrong. The guy’s got chops… leading actor, action/adventure/sci-fi/horror chops. How did you become acquainted with Eddie and, based on a few things that I’ve read elsewhere, how did he become the “go-to” guy on your projects?

PAUL: Yeah, his being on BIG BROTHER has not been a good thing for his acting career. The only good thing is that he didn’t become a “reality star” per se – since his season happened before the whole reality boom. I’m hoping, going forward, that he’ll become Eddie McGee from THE HUMAN RACE and that his BIG BROTHER past will become that – a thing of the past. I met him while I was looking for a double-leg amputee for the Fozzy video. I couldn’t find anyone who wanted to do the role – since most people found the character I wanted (ie: a disabled suicidal person) not suited for them. Eddie shared the same philosophy and beliefs of myself and taped an audition for me. He got the role and… I hope to work with him now on everything I do. He is an amazing actor and we’ve gone through a lot together. When you find someone as good and as brilliant as he – then he does certainly become your “go-to” guy.

THE HUMAN RACE (Trista Robinson) (publicity still)

THE HUMAN RACE (Trista Robinson) (publicity still)

THE MULE: Speaking of projects, what’s next up for Paul Hough? In a bit of a spoiler, THE HUMAN RACE left itself open for a sequel. Will there be one?

PAUL: I’d love to do a follow up to THE HUMAN RACE and already have a script written – but it will depend on how successful this film is first. I’m off to Korea in a month, working on a new dark thriller which I hope will be my next project…

The film debuts in limited theatrical release and on Video-On-Demand and iTunes on June 13, 2014. Comparisons to the apocalyptic Japanese bloodbath, BATTLE ROYALE and the Young Adult book/film series, THE HUNGER GAMES (among others) are unavoidable but, THE HUMAN RACE is, in my humble opinion, not to be missed.


A LIFE WELL LIVED: THE LOWELL THOMAS INTERVIEW

PART 1: THESE ARE A FEW OF MY FAVORITE THINGS

COMBAT! Season 2 regulars (Dick Peabody, Jack Hogan, Pierre Jalbert, Tom Lowell, Conlan Carter) (screen capture)

COMBAT! Season 2 regulars (Dick Peabody, Jack Hogan, Pierre Jalbert, Tom Lowell, Conlan Carter) (screen capture)

I am a big fan of classic television. In many cases (oh, alright… most cases), I was around for the original airings of these shows, which includes the five season run (1962-1967) of COMBAT!, the World War II military drama starring Rick Jason and Vic Morrow. However, being quite young (at least for the first two or three seasons) and very rarely in control of the sole black and white set in the home, I didn’t see a single episode of COMBAT! during its original run. I was actually introduced to this incredible series a few years after its initial run when it was shown on a local UHF station as part of a midday block with THE RAT PACK. I would actually walk (run) home from school for lunch to catch as much of the show as I possibly could before I had to hoof it back for more learnin’ and, during summer vacation, I was glued to the set while COMBAT! was on. Of course, the program has been rerun from time to time throughout the ensuing decades and, now, you can own the entire series on DVD (no word on a blu-ray release, though).

THAT DARN CAT (Hayley Mills and Tom Lowell) (publicity still)

THAT DARN CAT (Hayley Mills and Tom Lowell) (publicity still)

I‘m also a big fan of those family-friendly, ultimately loopy Disney movies of the early-to-mid ’60s. To be more specific, I was actually enamored of Hayley Mills. I had a huge crush on her when I was a kid (and, truth be told, she stills looks amazing at nearly 70). One of my favorites from that bizarre, undoubtedly trip-induced Disney canon was THAT DARN CAT. And that, my friends, is where Disney and COMBAT! intersect. A young actor named Tom Lowell was featured prominently in the first two seasons of COMBAT! and also appeared in THAT DARN CAT with Hayley Mills (he was also in THE GNOME-MOBILE and THE BOATNIKS for Disney, as well as guest spots on THE TWILIGHT ZONE, BONANZA, THE ADDAMS FAMILY and too many others to name… for that, check out his page at www.imdb.com). I’ve been watching those COMBAT! DVDs that I mentioned earlier and, after reading of the death this past January of cast member Pierre Jalbert (he played Caje for the entire run of the series), I went looking for information about the other COMBAT! regulars. That search led me to Lowell Thomas, the very same actor from those Disney movies that I loved as a kid. Sending a blind introduction via e-mail explaining who I was and that I was interested in interviewing him about his career, particularly his COMBAT! days, Mister Thomas very graciously consented.

PART 2: THE INTERVIEW

COMBAT! (Tom Lowell as Billy Nelson) (publicity still)

COMBAT! (Tom Lowell as Billy Nelson) (publicity still)

THE MULE: Mister Thomas, you are currently the Director of Theater Arts at Bishop Alemany High School in Mission Hills. As a young man, what opportunities were available to you in high school and college? How do your experiences as a student affect your work as an instructor?

LOWELL: I had a very supportive family and teachers in both high school as well as college. My father was the head of the Speech and Drama Department at Cal State Sacramento, and both he and my mother were supportive.

THE MULE: For your acting career, you flipped your name. Lowell Thomas became Tom Lowell. What prompted the change?

LOWELL: I had to change my name because “Lowell Thomas” was a famous newscaster/journalist/film narrator/developer of Cinerama, who was already a member of the Screen Actors Guild, and there is a rule in the Guild that you cannot have the same name as anyone else. So my agent just turned my name around.

THE MULE: Obviously, most people will recognize you as Private Billy Nelson, a role you played for three years, in the television series, COMBAT! And, that’s what has brought us to this interview. However, you did produce a solid and memorable body of work in a relatively short period of time: guest-starring roles in several still-popular-today series; a stint on the soap, DAYS OF OUR LIVES; several movies, including four for Disney. As the bulk of this interview will focus on your days on COMBAT!, before delving into that, which of these roles stick out in your mind as particularly enjoyable, from an acting standpoint, as well as a more personal level… relating to the people you worked with.

LOWELL: There were several roles that were the most enjoyable. A couple of the GUNSMOKE episodes; THE LONG, HOT SUMMER, directed by Mark Rydell; THAT DARN CAT; but, most of all COMBAT!. COMBAT!, because of the relationship between the guys on the show – we all became family.

THE GNOME-MOBILE (Tom Lowell and friend) (publicity still)

THE GNOME-MOBILE (Tom Lowell and friend) (publicity still)

THE MULE: In the last couple of decades, a lot of actors have made the decision to make Disney or Disney style movies… family and kid friendly movies… for their children. Are you proud of your work with Disney, especially as your kids or grandchildren hit that age group that would understand and enjoy those movies?

LOWELL: I’m very proud of the work I did at Disney and, yes, those were the first films with which my grandchildren became acquainted.

THE MULE: Even though you continued to work in front of the screen, on a limited basis, you eventually moved behind the camera, working on commercials at first before working on and developing several series for different networks, stations and companies. Did you always have the desire to produce or was it something that came later? How did your experience on-screen help you in your move to the producer’s chair? What major differences do you think exist between acting and producing?

LOWELL: I became a commercial producer out of necessity – I was unable to make the transition from “teen actor” (which I played into my 30s), to adult, and had trouble finding work. I was offered a position as a commercial producer at that time and took it. But my time as an actor helped me in the production area.

THE MULE: Billy Nelson, your character from COMBAT!, died in your first appearance. Later, obviously, like Lazarus, Private Nelson was resurrected. Why did the producers, first of all, decide to make the character a one-and-done and, what was involved in the decision to bring you back as a regular?

LOWELL: Yes, supposedly, Billy died in the opening episode, with Tab Hunter. That was the initial concept. However, I had already done three more by the time that one was aired, because Burt Kennedy, the producer/writer/director who created the character, enjoyed the relationship between Billy and Littlejohn and convinced the series producers that they needed the character of Billy. Soon, Billy and Littlejohn became the “comedy relief” of the show. And yes, the camaraderie that you saw on the show, was genuine. We all truly had a great time together – hung out after shooting – had parties together and truly liked and respected each other. We all kept in touch with each other through the years. Unfortunately, there are but a few of us left. Jack Hogan (Kirby), Conlan Carter (Doc), Shecky Greene (Braddock) and Steve Rogers, (the first “Doc”). We had our 20 year reunion at Vic’s funeral (something that never should have happened), then when we had a fan-based reunion in Las Vegas, we were greeted at home by the knowledge that Rick had died. Very sad. I kept in contact with and visited with Dick Peabody often, even a few months before he died, and had kept in touch with Pierre – he and his wife would come by at holidays – and just recently, we lost him. The humor on the set was the thing I miss the most from all those guys – it was great fun.

COMBAT! (Dick Peabody and Tom Lowell) (publicity still)

COMBAT! (Dick Peabody and Tom Lowell) (publicity still)

THE MULE: I don’t think that chemistry within an ensemble can be faked. Likewise, I think that ensembles without a certain chemistry can’t pull off a comradeship that simply does not exist. It seems that the main group of actors on COMBAT! had a genuine fellowship on set. Am I wrong? How deep did that commitment to the core group of seven actors go? Did those relationships last past your time on the show?

LOWELL: Yes, the camaraderie that you saw on the show, was genuine. We all truly had a great time together – hung out after shooting – had parties together and truly liked and respected each other. We all kept in touch with each other through the years. Unfortunately, there are but a few of us left. Jack Hogan (Kirby), Conlan Carter (Doc), Shecky Greene (Braddock) and Steve Rogers, (the first “Doc”). We had our 20 year reunion at Vic’s funeral (something that never should have happened), then when we had a fan-based reunion in Las Vegas, we were greeted at home by the knowledge that Rick had died. Very sad. I kept in contact with and visited with Dick Peabody often, even a few months before he died, and had kept in touch with Pierre – he and his wife would come by at holidays – and just recently, we lost him. The humor on the set was the thing I miss the most from all those guys – it was great fun.

COMBAT! cast reunion, 1996 (Conlan Carter, Tom Lowell, Pierre Jalbert, Rick Jason, Jack Hogan, Dick Peabody) (uncredited photo)

COMBAT! cast reunion, 1996 (Conlan Carter, Tom Lowell, Pierre Jalbert, Rick Jason, Jack Hogan, Dick Peabody) (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: I’ve read and heard from several sources that Vic Morrow was one of the most generous actors that they had ever worked with. Obviously, Vic and Rick Jason were the leads. What memories do you have from your time on-screen and off of those two gentlemen?

LOWELL: Vic was a very generous actor and would help (especially a young actor just starting out) at any time. I once asked him, in my naivete, what it felt like to be a “star.” He said he wasn’t a star, he was a “comet” – that he’d burn brighter, but have a shorter life span than a star! How prophetic. Rick was a solid “movie star.” Having been raised in the studio system, he generated a great deal of respect.

COMBAT! stars Rick Jason and Vic Morrow (publicity still)

COMBAT! stars Rick Jason and Vic Morrow (publicity still)

THE MULE: The show was known for a certain gritty realism in dealing with its scenes of war, as well as moral issues and personal relationships. Can you tell us about your favorite episodes and why they stand out? How about some episodes that may stick out in your mind as clunkers?

LOWELL: I guess the most favorite episodes were those that Dick and I had some of our comedy scenes – those written by Burt Kennedy. We had several times in which the show was short, Burt would whip up a three-minute comedy scene the night before and hand it to us in the morning. We’d fool with it for an hour or so and shoot it – we knew it was good by the reaction of the crew the minute it was over – they’d break out into laughter! I also loved the ones in which I got some dramatic chops – great for the ego.

COMBAT! Season 2, Episode 1 ("The Bridge At Chalons") guest star Lee Marvin with Vic Morrow and Tom Lowell (screen capture)

COMBAT! Season 2, Episode 1 (“The Bridge At Chalons”) guest star Lee Marvin with Vic Morrow and Tom Lowell (screen capture)

THE MULE: Besides the regulars, you also worked with an impressive set of guest-stars. Who were your favorites to work with?

LOWELL: We had many guest stars but, the one that impressed me and intimidated me was Lee Marvin. In the episode, Marvin is severely wounded and Sergeant Saunders and I are carrying him on a stretcher through the woods (the back lot at MGM) when I tripped on a rock and the stretcher slipped out of my hands, dropping Lee to the ground. I’m thinking, “Oh, my God, I just dropped Lee Marvin on his head!!!!!” I thought he’d get up and clobber me, so I began to profusely apologize and he said: “Don’t apologize, kid – don’t ever apologize!” I thought that was cool.

THE MULE: Likewise, you worked with some great writers and directors, who went on to do more impressive work. Do you have any memories of working with guys like Richard Donner and Robert Altman?

LOWELL: Yes, I worked with Dick Donnor and Bob Altman, both interesting and intense directors. Donnor got me on the first day of shooting – we rehearsed a scene and he turned to me and, with a deadpan face, said: “You really gonna do it like that?!” I was stunned – then the rest of the guys burst out laughing – “Got th’ kid again!!” You see, I really was “Billy Nelson.”

Lowell Thomas (Tom Lowell) at the 2002 TWILIGHT ZONE convention (uncredited photo)

Lowell Thomas (Tom Lowell) at the 2002 TWILIGHT ZONE convention (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: I know you attended a TWILIGHT ZONE convention in 2006. Would you consider doing another convention, like Comic-Con or something highlighting classic television?

LOWELL: I’ve attended three TWILIGHT ZONE conventions and they were very enjoyable… and, yes, I’d certainly be interested in doing another – Comic Con or Television classics.

THE MULE: Do you ever get the itch to get in front of the camera again?

LOWELL: Yes, I’d love to do more TV or movies. I have, over the past few years, done some plays locally and have just completed a leading role in an animated feature, HERO OF COLOR CITY. So, yes, I’m ready.

THE ADDAMS FAMILY (Tom Lowell with Jackie Coogan) (screen capture)

THE ADDAMS FAMILY (Tom Lowell with Jackie Coogan) (screen capture)

THE MULE: You’ve made a tremendous impact on people like me who remember (and still enjoy) COMBAT! But, at the end of the day, how do you want people to remember Lowell Thomas?

LOWELL: How do I want to be remembered – I just hope I’ve had the same kind of impact on my students that Professor Fowler (Donald Pleasance), in the TWILIGHT ZONE episode, “Changing of the Guard,” had on his.

THE MULE: Thanks you so much for your time and for all the years of enjoyment that you’ve provided to TV and movie geeks like me.

LOWELL: Thanks for remembering.


WAY OF THE WICKED

(MATT KELLY FILMS/ODYSSEY MEDIA/IMAGE ENTERTAINMENT (92 minutes/Unrated); 2014)

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Director Kevin Carraway’s WAY OF THE WICKED is a supernatural thriller, kind of a cross between THE OMEN and SCANNERS; WAY OF THE WICKED is a tale of obsession, with a priest (Christian Slater, in a small, but pivotal role) trying to stop a troubled youth he believes to be the spawn of Satan (a kid named Robbie – played to the brooding hilt by Jake Croker – recently returned to the town he grew up in and just wanting to be left alone by the arrogant, judgmental popular kids); WAY OF THE WICKED is a study in teenage societal mores, somewhere between LORD OF THE FLIES and MEAN GIRLS; WAY OF THE WICKED is a love story, like TWILIGHT without the shiny vampires, out-sized werewolves and cloying sentimentality; most of all, though, WAY OF THE WICKED is a movie about a father’s love for his daughter (Robbie’s best… make that, only… friend from his middle school days, current snob and property of the Big Man On Campus). The father (Vinnie Jones), a police detective trying to overcome the guilt he feels over his wife’s death, has become doting and overprotective of his daughter, Heather (Emily Tennant). This, of course, leads to Heather rebelling as only a 16 year old can: sneaking out of the house late at night, getting drunk, lying about everything and, generally, acting like she’s better than everyone else. Until Robbie drives back into her life and challenges the status quo at the school, Heather is content to snub her nose at the peons, make fun of all the losers and be treated like chattel by the King of Asses, Greg (Aren Buchholz).

WAY OF THE WICKED (Emily Tennant and Aren Buccholz) (publicity still)

WAY OF THE WICKED (Emily Tennant and Aren Buccholz) (publicity still)

Heather’s posse begins treating Robbie poorly for having the unmitigated audacity to speak to Greg’s woman and bad things start happening to the stooges. Father Henry, skulking in the shrubbery, has seen enough and contacts Detective Elliott to relate his fears regarding Robbie’s Satanic parentage. Elliott, of course, dismisses the cleric and his theories, having suffered a crisis of faith when his wife died and… well… the guy just sounds nuts! That, however, doesn’t stop him from confronting the beleaguered youth, who he sees as a moral threat and a bad influence for his little girl. Weird things continue to take place, including the ultimate comeuppance of uber-tool Greg, giving credence to the priest’s theory and pause to the detective. All the while, we are made aware that there’s more than one person with a secret to keep in the sleepy, out of the way little town. There are more than enough surprises and twists to keep the plot fresh and the story interesting (though, at one point, I did suspect what the outcome would be, only to be turned in a completely different direction by another swerve). Of course, as in all supernatural movies worth their salt, the climax takes place in a cemetery.

WAY OF THE WICKED (Christian Slater) (publicity still)

WAY OF THE WICKED (Christian Slater) (publicity still)

The relationships, particularly John and Heather Elliott, as well as Heather and Robbie (their story is fleshed out nicely through flashbacks), fuel the story more than the supernatural aspects and add a certain amount of believability to the plot. If Jones seems to be a little over the top in his overbearing attitude toward the daughter, I’m willing to give him a bit of a pass. I mean, he’s not exactly a cute and cuddly kind of guy and that deep, sandpaper-raw voice doesn’t lend itself well to syrupy dialogue, so I accept the compromises he makes to bring the story to life. Croker, as the ultimate outsider, reminds me of a younger version of Slater (both in his brooding demeanor and his physical appearance). The intensity that he brings to the role of Robbie can only be described as “smoldering.” Unfortunately, Slater and Croker only share one scene in the movie and, even then, the characters really don’t interact.

WAY OF THE WICKED (Vinnie Jones and Jake Croker) (publicity still)

WAY OF THE WICKED (Vinnie Jones and Jake Croker) (publicity still)

So, to wrap things up with a nice big bow and without blowing the whole thing by relating any more of the story or plot twists, what can we take away from WAY OF THE WICKED? Well, you don’t have to be a fan of supernatural or horror movies to like this one, although the violence could be a turn-off: While there are great, loving relationships and a good deal of emphasis is placed on a rather ROMEO AND JULIET type love story, you should probably keep the kiddies away from it. The story may not be new, but it is very well done and features enough twists (as well as some fine acting) to make it worth checking out. It’s available pretty much everywhere on both DVD and Blu-Ray; digital copies are also available.


SAVING GRACE B JONES

(NEW FILMS INTERNATIONAL/ARC ENTERTAINMENT (115 minutes/Rated R), 2014; Original Theatrical Release, 2011)

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The instant I saw the title, I knew that SAVING GRACE B JONES was going to tug at the heart strings. It does. The first thing that usually comes to a guy’s mind when he sees those words is: “Chick Flick.” However, I gotta tell you, that definitely is not the case with this movie. Actress Connie Stevens (HAWAIIAN EYE and a butt-load of TV and movie appearances) acts as director, executive producer, co-writer and narrator on what turns out to be a thrilling – and, yes, heartbreaking – tale of a perfect Central Missouri family driven to the brink of desperation by a confluence of events that they have no control over. Without giving away too much, here’s the plot of the “inspired by a true story” film:

SAVING GRACE B JONES: Tatum O'Neal (publicity still)

SAVING GRACE B JONES: Tatum O’Neal (publicity still)

Set in 1951, Rylee Fansler portrays 10 year old Carrie (Stevens narrates as the adult Carrie). Already traumatized by the death of her mother, she becomes even more withdrawn and noncommunicable after witnessing a brutal stabbing. Her father makes the decision to send her to a small rural town called Boonville to spend the summer with an old Army buddy and his family. As Carrie settles in with Landy and Bea Bretthorst (Michael Biehn and Penelope Ann Miller) and their free-spirited daughter, Lucy (Evie Louise Thompson), she seems to be putting the gruesome memory behind her. She and Lucy even tag along when Landy travels to Oklahoma to bring his sister, Grace (Tatum O’Neal), home to live with the family. Grace had suffered horrible injuries when she was hit by a truck on her wedding day in 1935. The grueling recovery process drove Grace over the edge and she had spent the past sixteen years in a mental institution or, as they were commonly called then, an insane asylum. An underlying concern, hinted at throughout the movie, is a seemingly Biblical rain that constantly threatens the town, close to the Missouri River.

There are also hints of the abuse that Grace has had to withstand as a patient in the institution… all in the name of healing. Piper Laurie appears, in a delightfully wicked turn, as the asylum’s director, Marta Shrank. She is of the opinion that anyone ever admitted to such a place can never be released, as they are a threat to themselves and those around them (a sentiment, by the way, shared by most of Boonville, including the pious Reverend Potter): “… the best doctors and judges we have said that people who come here will never be right again. Maybe the doctors are smarter than you and me.” She isn’t very fond of her charges or of the two children that have accompanied Landy Bretthorst to bring Grace home and, with one of the best lines in the movie, she declares: “Tommy, it’s been so many years since I’ve seen children. They’re almost like little people, aren’t they?”

SAVING GRACE B JONES: Evie Louise Thompson and Rylee Fanser (publicity still)

SAVING GRACE B JONES: Evie Louise Thompson and Rylee Fansler (publicity still)

Grace’s homecoming isn’t the smooth transition that Landy envisioned. Things are complicated by the fact that her groom lives across the street from the Bretthorsts with his pregnant wife. The rains continue to fall intermittently adding to the feeling of isolation, as Landy is constantly called away to help with sandbagging at outlying areas. However, both Lucy and Carrie have found a kindred spirit, as they grow close to the troubled woman. In one particularly poignant scene, Grace and Lucy are sitting on the roof of their porch (apparently, a sanctuary for both). Grace opens up a bit about her life, saying, “I wonder if anyone will ever know why I existed? I am crazy, you know.” She tells her niece about some of the things she did in her youth, concluding with the insightful line, “It’s funny… the hard thing about being crazy is, you don’t get to do crazy things anymore.” This tender moment, of a completely lucid Grace interacting with one of the few people in her life that doesn’t judge her, is – literally – the calm before the storm. She’s still fighting her demons but, the one person who may be able to help her is too busy to see how much she needs him. Everything comes crashing down for Grace and the family after a tragic accident that…

SAVING GRACE B JONES: Connie Stevens, Evie Louise Thompson, Rylee Fansler and Tatum O'Neal (publicity photo)

SAVING GRACE B JONES: Connie Stevens, Evie Louise Thompson, Rylee Fansler and Tatum O’Neal (publicity photo)

But, that would be telling! From this point forward, the narrative takes on a considerably darker tone. Relating the events of the last half of the film would ruin an excellent movie if you haven’t seen it. So, just let me add these few thoughts: The acting throughout is top notch and – I could make some crack about her family and upbringing here – Tatum O’Neal displays, for the first time in a long while, the skills that made her the youngest person to ever win an Academy Award (Best Supporting Actress for 1973’s PAPER MOON). Penelope Ann Miller, as the harried sister-in-law, also delivers a solid, low-key (for the most part) performance. SAVING GRACE B JONES skillfully addresses the stigma that the mentally ill continue to face today, with a forthright depiction of the patient, as well as the problems and decisions faced by the family that loves them, while still managing to incorporate an exciting secondary story. Guys, don’t be afraid of this flick; it will actually hold your attention to the end. You may want to have a box of tissues handy, though.


POSEIDON REX

(DVD and Digital; ANDERSON DIGITAL/ITN DISTRIBUTION/TITAN GLOBAL ENTERTAINMENT (79 minutes/Unrated); 2014)

Poseidon Rex Key Art

Okay… let’s get this out of the way right now: POSEIDON REX is no SHARKNADO or SHARKTOPUS. Personally, I found those “SyFy Originals” unwatchable, at best. Here, while the acting (particularly by the leads, Brian Krause, Anne McDaniels and Steven Helmkamp) is histrionically over the top (as is the dialogue, which may account for the acting), you can at least conceive of some of this stuff actually happening… well… maybe not. But, still…

POSEIDON REX (publicity still)

POSEIDON REX (publicity still)

The special effects are hit and miss: The CGI gunfire is bad… really bad; the creature – a sea-dwelling cousin of the Tyrannosaurus Rex, though bigger and meaner, with tiny flippers for arms – is, alternately, awesomely believable in the underwater sequences or appears to be a cartoon overlay that never quite matches up with the surrounding terrain when it’s out of the water. And, even though the characters seem to contradict themselves from one line to the next, it’s still better than those horrid movie remakes of STARSKY AND HUTCH, GET SMART and THE DUKES OF HAZZARD. By the way, if the military represented here (some unidentified branch of the United States Armed Forces and the Belize Coast Guard) is the best and brightest, we are all doomed to be eaten by gigantic beasts of some variety. This movie is kinda like a train wreck or watching the Chicago Cubs… as devastating and horrible as it is, you just can’t look away.

POSEIDON REX (Brian Krause and Anne McDaniels put the pinch on a newly hatched P-Rex) (publicity still)

POSEIDON REX (Brian Krause and Anne McDaniels put the pinch on a newly hatched P-Rex) (publicity still)

POSEIDON REX is a great movie to put on when you and your friends are just hanging out, looking for something mind-numbingly incoherent to fill an hour-and-a-half. Like all of those cheesy 1950s monster and science fiction movies, this is the good kind of bad, a bizarre mish-mash of THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (the template for director Mark L Kester), GODZILLA (GOJIRA, the original), KING KONG (the one from 1976, with Charles Grodin in the title role… or was it Jessica Lange? Oh, wait… never mind), JURASSIC PARK, GREMLINS, THE DEEP and CAPTAIN PHILLIPS. There’s even a hint of A-TEAM (the original television series with Mister T) in there as, with plenty of firepower on display, no one is seemingly capable of hitting the broadside of a barn (or a forty foot tall sea behemoth). So… suspend belief (in good acting and dialogue), disengage those brain cells and give POSEIDON REX a try, but… be warned: THERE WILL BE A SEQUEL!


LOCKER 13

(BROTHERS’ INK PRODUCTIONS/ARC ENTERTAINMENT (103 minutes/Rated R); 2014)

Locker 13 KA 15-1

LOCKER 13 is good. It’s not the “Greatest Movie Ever Made” (that would be 1985’s RUSTLER’S RHAPSODY starring Tom Berenger… don’t argue… I’m a professional… you know I’m right!) but, it starts with an interesting premise and each of the NIGHT GALLERY style vignettes builds the tension via sharp right turns (and, in some cases, a complete reversal) in the plot (plots?), keeping the viewer guessing and invested in the story (if not the occasionally seedy characters). That’s quite a feat. Add in the creepy, horror/thriller elements that – like all of the best movies of the ilk – are more implied than actually seen (very little blood and mayhem and no creepy-eyed little kids crabwalking on ceilings) and you’ve got a nifty little film. It may not break any box office (limited US release was March 28, 2014) or sales records (DVD releases exactly one month later), but it’s cult status is virtually guaranteed!

LOCKER 13 ( Jon Gries and Jason Spisak) (photo credit: ARC ENTERTAINMENT)

LOCKER 13 ( Jon Gries and Jason Spisak) (photo credit: ARC ENTERTAINMENT)

The movie starts with a beautifully shot exterior scene, apparently of an Old West town. As it becomes obvious that we’re actually looking at an Old West theme park, we’re introduced to the principals: Skip, a new nightshift janitor and ex-convict (played by Jason Spisak) and Archie, his philosophical supervisor (Jon Gries). As Archie takes Skip on a tour of the park, he recounts stories regarding various items the two come across on their rounds.

LOCKER 13 ( Ricky Schroder andTatyana Ali) (photo credit: ARC ENTERTAINMENT)

LOCKER 13 ( Ricky Schroder andTatyana Ali) (photo credit: ARC ENTERTAINMENT)

An old pair of boxing gloves are oddly out of place in a church pew and, when Skip asks about them, Archie’s tales begin. “Down and Out” follows a washed-up fighter (Ricky Schroder) who’s looking for one more shot at the big time. He gets his shot, leaving a path of death and destruction in his wake. Is his success (and notoriety) due to those old, borrowed gloves? The always beautiful Tatyana Ali is the girlfriend/moral compass of the story.

LOCKER 13 ( Bart Johnson andDavid Huddleston) (photo credit: ARC ENTERTAINMENT)

LOCKER 13 ( Bart Johnson and David Huddleston) (photo credit: ARC ENTERTAINMENT)

Booger from the REVENGE OF THE NERDS franchise (Curtis Armstrong, who most recently has had a recurring role as the Angel, Metatron, in SUPERNATURAL) presents an acquaintance for initiation into a seemingly innocuous organization, “The Benevolent Byzantine Order of the Nobles of the Enigmatic Oracle.” Death, mayhem and blood sacrifices are all, apparently, part of the ceremony… or is it all a joke and, if so, who is the joke aimed at? The great character actor David Huddleston plays an integral role.

LOCKER 13 ( Alexander Polinsky) (photo credit: ARC ENTERTAINMENT)

LOCKER 13 ( Alexander Polinsky) (photo credit: ARC ENTERTAINMENT)

In an odd act of the “pay it forward” maxim, a suicidal man (Alexander Polinsky) is coached by a stranger (Jason Marsden, who also produced the fourth segment and may be best remembered for his portrayal of Nelson on FULL HOUSE) who intimates that he prefers a more spectacular ending than the boring dive from a rooftop. Everybody needs help, but what kind of help is thihs member of “The Suicide Club” offering?

LOCKER 13 (Krista Allen) (photo credit: ARC ENTERTAINMENT)

LOCKER 13 (Krista Allen) (photo credit: ARC ENTERTAINMENT)

Have you ever wondered how those mystery writers are able to think up such believable stories? In “The Author,” a philandering husband and a contract murder make for a great mystery novel: was it the wife, the girlfriend or the private secretary? The one with the best confession goes free but, like all good murder stories, this one has a twist ending.

Another twist brings us to the final episode, “The Other Side,” in which the janitor Skip takes the lead. It all ties in with Archie’s stories about futures and probabilities and making the right decisions in your life. It may have you asking, “Can you see the real me?”

There are psychological twists and turns throughout the 103 minutes (that’s an hour and 43 minutes for those who are too lazy to do the math) of the film which is very reminiscent of Rod Serling’s TWILIGHT ZONE and previously mentioned NIGHT GALLERY series. I must admit to being suckered by a couple of the twist endings, making the edge-of-your-seat experience that much more enjoyable. A note of interest: The first three stories were actually released as short between 2007-2011 (or there-abouts) but work exceptionally well within the framework of the over-all anthology style of LOCKER 13.


THE BEST OF BUD ABBOTT AND LOU COSTELLO, VOLUME 1

(Universal Studios Home Entertainment; 2012)

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When I was a kid, Friday night television was filled with THE MIDNIGHT SPECIAL and the late night “chiller theater,” an old (usually black and white), cheaply produced and horribly acted horror or sci-fi movie. Saturday and Sunday afternoon television was filled with old movie series (such things would be called “franchises” today) from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s: The Bowery Boys (the third incarnation of the Leo Gorcey/Huntz Hall act, we were also gifted with earlier versions the Dead End Kids and the East Side Kids), Tarzan (of the Johnny Weissmuller variety, though we would occasionally get a Ron Ely or some other latter day Ape Man), Ma and Pa Kettle, Francis the Talking Mule and – of course – Abbott and Costello.

Recently, I’ve been revisiting my youth by procuring (and spending way too much time watching) DVD collections of some of my favorite comedies. The horror and sci-fi fix comes from two places: those DVD collections of 50 movies for super cheap prices (mostly dubious prints of even more dubious titles) and my friend, Cap’n Willard over at www.willardswormholes.com, who somehow finds (for the most part) superior prints of those same schlocky, crappy movies I loved as a kid and offers a weekly dose of “Friday Night Drive-In Movies.” Check it out… you’ll love it! Anyway, those comedies (and sometimes the Japanese monster movies) had me rolling when I was a kid and they have the same affect on me now. No vulgarities, no pretensions, no color… just good, clean yucks.

So, apparently, THE BEST OF BUD ABBOTT AND LOU COSTELLO, VOLUME 1 has actually been around for a few years, but the version I have is a reissued set. Everything is the same, movie and bonus feature-wise, but I guess the packaging is a little different and, rather than two discs with 2 movies on each side, we have four one-sided discs with 2 movies apiece.

Bud Abbott and Lou Costello (publicity photo)

Bud Abbott and Lou Costello (publicity photo)

The collection starts – as it should – at the beginning, with Bud and Lou’s first film appearance in 1940’s ON NIGHT IN THE TROPICS. The Vaudevillians are not the “stars” of this film; they are billed third, below Allen Jones and Nancy Kelly, though fourth-billed Robert Cummings actually has more screen time and is more integral to the actual story than the comedians. That story involves impending nuptials, a jealous former lover, an insurance policy and a pair of “adjusters” charged with getting the groom to the church on time. A weird premise, to be sure, but one that works in that loopy 1940s Hollywood way. I understand that some 20 minutes of the story was cut to give more onscreen time for Abbott and Costello to perform some of their more famous Vaudeville bits (including “Who’s On First”). That, obviously, leaves some gaping holes in the plot that gives the flick a disjointed, unfinished feel. My question is, “Why, for Heaven’s sake, didn’t they cut a musical number or two or that incredibly strange production number at the end of the movie instead?” Studio thinking back then was that a lighthearted comedic script, no matter how well written, couldn’t carry a feature film alone and – even with musical diversions – definitely couldn’t hold an audience’s interest for more than 90 minutes (ONE NIGHT… clocks in at a whopping 82 minutes!). Read on and you’ll find, as I did, that those annoying musical numbers were there for a reason beyond studio incompetence.

Abbott and Costello with the Andrews Sisters (BUCK PRIVATES publicity photo)

Abbott and Costello with the Andrew Sisters (BUCK PRIVATES publicity photo)

The first star vehicle for Bud and Lou came via 1941’s BUCK PRIVATES, the first of three military themed flicks by the boys. Slicker Smith (Bud) and Herbie Brown (Lou) are a couple of small-time swindlers, selling fake (or maybe stolen) silk ties on the streets. To avoid the cop who busted them, the pair duck into what they think is a line for a movie and end up enlisting in the miliary. When they get to boot camp, they meet up with the police officer again, this time as their no-nonsense drill instructor. This is a plot that worked more than once for the Three Stooges and it works just as well here. Of course, there’s still plenty of music, provided by the Andrew Sisters (the first of three appearances in Abbott and Costello features). The film may be most famous for premiering the Sisters’ biggest hit, “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” Once and future Stooge Shemp Howard makes the first of several appearances with our duo, as an Army cook. The movie was the second highest grossing movie of the year (behind only SERGEANT YORK), causing Universal to stop production on the duo’s next film, HOLD THAT GHOST in favor of another military film, IN THE NAVY. Having conquered Vaudeville, Abbott and Costello had now conquered Hollywood and had become the biggest comedy stars of the day!

Abbott and Costello with Shemp Howard (IN THE NAVY still)

Abbott and Costello with Shemp Howard (IN THE NAVY still)

IN THE NAVY finds our heroes protecting the identity of America’s heartthrob crooner, Russ Raymond (Dick Powell), who just wants to be left alone for awhile. When Raymond joins the Navy to travel as far away from his fans as he can get, the boys follow. So does a journalist (played by Claire Dodd) who has promised her editor to find and photograph the singer for the tabloid she works for. Lou’s character, Pomeroy Watson, has a huge crush on Patty Andrews of the singing sister act and writes her to tell her that he’s a big shot in the Navy. With Smokey Adams’ (that’d be Bud) help, Pomeroy convinces Patty and her sisters that he is the captain of a ship heading to Hawaii and – of course – hilarity ensues. As improbable as the entire sequence appeared, the United States Navy wasn’t amused and the whole thing had to be presented as a dream after Pomeroy gives himself the mickey planned for the real captain. More songs, more dance, more Shemp (this time a Navy cook) and more bits from Bud and Lou’s Vaudeville routines, including the hilarious 7×13=28 sequence. Not the pair’s best, but still fun.

Abbott and Costello (HOLD THAT GHOST publicity photo)

Abbott and Costello (HOLD THAT GHOST publicity photo)

HOLD THAT GHOST (the third Abbott and Costello feature of 1941!), along with WHO DONE IT?, are my personal favorites on this collection. While the guys were making IN THE NAVY, an earlier version of this film (then called OH! CHARLIE!) was screened for test audiences. It didn’t fare too well, apparently, as most of the audience members asked, “Where are the Andrew Sisters?” Once IN THE NAVY wrapped, Abbott and Costello re-shot parts of the film and added wrap around nightclub scenes, featuring the Andrew Sisters and monotone vocalist/band leader Ted Lewis. I guess good things happen when you listen to your audience… the film just missed the top 10 that year, finishing as the 11th highest money-maker. The plot revolves around the boys’ inheritance of an old speakeasy owned by a mobster. Lou’s scenes with comedienne Joan Davis (including a dance routine to “The Blue Danube Waltz”) are great and we are introduced to Costello’s famous “Oh, Chuck!” bit. A classic, with or without the musical numbers. By the way, in case you’re curious, Shemp’s back – this time as a soda jerk.

Universal again pushed back production of another film (RIDE ‘EM COWBOY) to further capitalize on the military-themed success of BUCK PRIVATES and IN THE NAVY, opting instead to go with the weakest of Bud and Lou’s early output (again, released in 1941), KEEP ‘EM FLYING. The plot’s fairly thin and the story’s weak as the pair follow their barnstorming stunt pilot buddy into the Army Air Corps (the United States Air Force didn’t split from the Army until 1947). Both Shemp Howard and the Andrew Sisters are gone, but Martha Raye, playing twin waitresses in a USO-run diner, has several funny scenes with Costello.

Abbott and Costello (publicity photo)

Abbott and Costello (publicity photo)

With RIDE ‘EM COWBOY, the team are once again in trouble with their boss and decide to hide out at a dude ranch. Lou has a local Indian after him to marry his daughter and a scene with the Indian in the bunkhouse is pretty funny. Less music this time but, thankfully, some of that music is provided by Ella Fitzgerald, including “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.” Five movies in little over a year has obviously taken a toll; while not as bad as KEEP ‘EM FLYING, this one sure ain’t no HOLD THAT GHOST!

The pair were “loaned out” to MGM Studios for their next film, RIO RITA and, since this collection comes to us from Universal Studios, it isn’t included. Their next Universal movie, PARDON MY SARONG, finds Bud and Lou as Chicago bus drivers who get in trouble when they drive a playboy yachtsman (played by Robert Paige) and his lady friends across country to an event in California. The Chicago Transit Authority don’t usually take to kindly to those sorts of things and this is no exception. A warrant is issued and Detective Kendall (William Demarest at his exasperated best) tracks the boys down. Kendall arrests the pair, which leads to a great bit on a ferry… the hilarious “Go ahead and back up” routine. Bud, Lou and the playboy (and his antagonistic love interest) end up on an island with native girls, a jealous suitor and a villainous doctor (exquisitely portrayed by Lionel Atwill). The Ink Spots appear in a nightclub scene, as do a dance troupe called Tip, Tap and Toe. The trio do a gravity defying slip and slide routine that, while it adds nothing to the story, is fun to watch. Later, on the island, the natives perform a ceremonial dance that looks (and sounds) more like a Busby Berkeley production number. Still… all in all, PARDON MY SARONG is a definite step up from the last two films.

Abbott and Costello (publicity photo)

Abbott and Costello (publicity photo)

This collection ends with WHO DONE IT?, the first Abbott and Costello movie to not feature musical numbers. The pair are wannabe mystery writers, working as soda jerks in a broadcasting company building. There’s a real murder during the broadcast of a radio show called “Murder At Midnight” and Bud and Lou set out to solve the crime, thinking that doing so will prove that they can write believable murder mysteries. Mary Wickes is funny as a secretary wooed by Costello’s character, Mervin Q Milgrim; William Gargan is a no-nonsense police detective and William Bendix plays his bumbling assistant. There are a lot of funny bits involving Lou and an elevator operator, played by Walter Tetley. The roof-top scene that ends the flick is one of the more clever wrap-ups of any of these early Abbott and Costello vehicles. WHO DONE IT? Is the duo’s best film since HOLD THAT GHOST and it is these two that get the most play around my house.

Costing somewhere between 10 and 15 dollars (depending on where and how you buy it), THE BEST OF BUD ABBOTT AND LOU COSTELLO, VOLUME 1 is well worth the investment. You can’t go wrong with these classics… especially at this price! Now, I’m off to find the second volume in this collection. (DT)


THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY

(WARNER VIDEO, 2012)

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I have a confession to make: I wasn’t thrilled about BATMAN BEGINS. So much so, in fact, that I never even deemed it worthy of my time to watch it! I think it may have been the title. Maybe, I just didn’t want another BATMAN AND ROBIN (I still have nightmares over George Clooney and Chris O’Donnell’s costume nipples… and often wonder why Alicia Silverstone’s costume was nipple-free). Could be that the truth lies more with me being more of a Marvel guy. Whatever the reason, I have avoided it until now. And, whatever that reason may be, it has also caused me to avoid – plague-like – SUPERMAN RETURNS (apparently, the only thing that one had going for it was a completely nipple-less costume!).

THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY (Christian Bale) (Publicity still)

THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY (Christian Bale) (Publicity still)

Okay, while I’m feeling confessional, I’ll also tell you that the only reason that I went to see THE DARK KNIGHT (at a real, live drive-in, no less!) was because my niece and nephew wanted to see it and I wanted them to enjoy the drive-in experience at least once in their lives. By then, of course, everyone was talking about Heath Ledger’s turn as the Joker and Academy Award in the same sentence. Even though Mister Ledger was dead, I knew that even a “pity Oscar” was out of the question for an actor in a “super-hero” flick. A lot of people were even going so far as to say that he absolutely personified the Joker. When friends and acquaintances heard that I’d (finally) seen the film, all I heard was, “What did you think of Heath Ledger’s Joker? Wasn’t he awesome?” To which I replied, “That wasn’t the Joker! Sure, he played a really great psychotic murderer, but that character wasn’t the Joker.” On this point, I was adamant. Why? Comic book tradition and origin stories: The origin story given for this guy wasn’t the origin of Batman’s nemesis, the Joker. It was a story that would make almost anybody criminally insane and homicidal. It simply wasn’t what made the Joker who he was. I didn’t seem to mind that the origin of Two-Face was actually closer to the Joker’s than his true origin. But, I digress!

Next, of course, came the trilogy’s climax, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. What can I say? The Bane character never thrilled me and… Anne Hathaway as Catwoman? No thanks! Not interested! Plus… the thing was like 27 hours long or something. But, then along came Christmas in the year of our Lord 2012. With it came THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY COLLECTOR’S GIFT SET and a really sweet price for all three movies. I’m a sucker for a good deal, so…

Anyway, this is where the kicking of my own butt begins! BATMAN BEGINS wasn’t BATMAN AND ROBIN, PART DEUX. Batman’s origin story wasn’t exactly like the comics, but it was close enough. Christian Bale made an okay Batman and a great Bruce Wayne and iconic characters from Batman lore were treated with respect to their importance to the mythos (particularly Ra’s Al Ghul and the Scarecrow). Gary Oldman’s Jim Gordon and Michael Caine as the Wayne family butler, Alfred, were almost spot on and both performances were definite highlights. Even at two hours and 20 minutes,I was pleased with the movie overall.

THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY (Heath Ledger and Christian Bale) (publicity still)

THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY (Heath Ledger and Christian Bale) (publicity still)

Bale’s throaty take on Batman begins to deteriorate in THE DARK KNIGHT and I just wanna give the guy a lozenge! That’s a minor complaint, but one that takes on larger proportions in the final film. Heath Ledger shows up early on and, after much consideration, I must say that – origin story aside – he really does make an excellent Joker! Aaron Eckhardt is dutifully solid as hot-shot District Attorney Harvey Dent and dutifully tragic as Two-Face… an acting job that, unfortunately, gets lost amid the manic performance of Ledger. Director Christopher Nolan gets even darker here than he did in BATMAN BEGINS, a portent of things to come (and a fitting homage to writer/artist Frank Miller, whose 1986 comic book mini-series, THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, is the basis for Nolan’s vision on this trilogy). This movie takes the Batman to a very dark and violent place… and I like it!

Clocking in at just over three hours, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES takes place ten years after the last movie and sees Bruce Wayne in retirement (or, more precisely, his alter-ego is in retirement) and a Gotham City in desperate need of a hero. Bane (played by Tom Hardy and almost incomprehensible beneath that mask) is brought in to taunt the Batman out of retirement so he can kill him and assure victory for organized crime. I’m not gonna give you any spoilers (I’m sure that there are still people out there who haven’t seen these movies) but, let’s just say that hilarity DOES NOT ensue! Christian Bale’s Batman is even less understandable than in the last flick, but we muddle through. His Bruce Wayne is still good, though. Caine and Oldman are still rock solid as Alfred and (now) Commissioner Gordon, but… Holy Bat-Crap, Adam West! Anne Hathaway is… oh, just to be nice, I’ll merely call her horrible as Catwoman/Selina Kyle! Her take on this iconic villain even makes that turd with Halle Berry look good! Ra’s Al Ghul is back (and a major part of the storyline), but Ken Watanabe has been replaced in the role by Liam Neeson. Toss a coin to decide who delivered the better Ra’s. This finale definitely ups the violence factor, but also adds more of a comic book feel, which I, as true comic geek, certainly appreciate.

The whole thing is nicely packaged and, at right at eight hours of content (not counting special bonus material), a great value. Plus… the fact that the movies are fantastic doesn’t hurt.