Friday, January 23, 2015

Worth Mentioning - Taut! Torrid! Tremendous!

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Cody sandwiches Cheers guest stars and a film long delayed between cyborgs and Elmore Leonard cowboys.

THE TALL T (1957)

The first Elmore Leonard work to ever be adapted for the screen was his short Western story Moment of Vengeance, which was first published in the Saturday Evening Post on April 19, 1956. On September 28, 1956, an adaptation of the story, about a rancher who doesn't approve when his 18-year-old daughter elopes with a gunfighter-turned-hired-hand, written by television writer Lowell Barrington, directed by Alvin Ganzer, and starring Ward Bond, Angie Dickinson, and Gene Nelson, aired as an episode of the CBS anthology series Schlitz Playhouse of Stars. Unfortunately, this episode isn't available to be viewed anywhere, on any format. It has apparently been lost to time.

Another Western short story by Leonard, The Captives, was published in the February 1955 issue of the pulp magazine Argosy. That story became the second Leonard work to be adapted for the screen and the first feature film to be made out of his writing.

Directed by Budd Boetticher from a screenplay by Burt Kennedy, filmmakers who both enjoyed careers that spanned more than forty years, the adaptation of The Captives was re-titled The Tall T by the time it first reached the big screen on April 1, 1957.

Randolph Scott stars as Pat Brennan, a man who's looking to get a ranch started and, at least for the first act of the movie, is one of the most jovial lead characters I've ever seen in a movie of this type. He's just a naturally happy, friendly guy, and takes everything in stride, even when he loses his horse in a bet.

He catches a ride back toward home on a stagecoach driven by his pal Rintoon (Arthur Hunnicutt), which has been chartered by the unpleasant Willard Mims (John Hubbard) and his new bride Doretta (Maureen O'Sullivan), daughter of a rich copper miner.

Stopping by a way station, the group finds that the place has been taken over by a trio of outlaws (Richard Boone, Skip Homeier, and Henry Silva) who were looking to rob the regularly scheduled stagecoach, which will be coming along before too long, but are instead given a new idea by the weaselly Willard as he pleads for his life. They could get a whole lot more money by holding Doretta hostage than by robbing a stagecoach.

Rintoon is killed, Willard is taken off to handle the ransom deal, and Brennan and Doretta have become captives.

Of course, murderous outlaws can never be trusted to just let their hostages go once a ransom has been paid, so it's up to Brennan to find a way to outsmart and overpower their captors while he gradually becomes close to Doretta, whose husband married her for money, not for love.

For a 77 minute long movie based on a story that was roughly 39 pages, The Tall T (named after the ranch where Brennan loses his horse, although the tagline will tell you that "T is for Terror") is rather faithful to the source material, whole exchanges of dialogue even made it straight to the screen. It's just what's called an "expanded adaptation", adding scenes, elongating them, fleshing things out. The story began with Brennan waving down Rintoon's coach, while that happens 19 minutes into the movie because it shows us what happened to Brennan before that moment.

Within those first 19 minutes is a scene where Brennan interacts with the man who runs the way station and his young son, a scene which gives us more information on them than was given in Leonard's story. We know the station man was a kind, lonely widower. His son was a good little kid who Brennan was bringing candy back to. This makes it even more chilling when the stagecoach arrives at the station later and the outlaws say they've killed the pair and dumped them down the well. Brennan even drank water from that well earlier.

The performances are great across the board. Randolph Scott acts so happy in the early scenes that it was jarring, but once things got tough I started liking him more. He has some great, well-written scenes with Maureen O'Sullivan and Richard Boone.

Elmore Leonard is best known for his crime stories with modern settings, but his Westerns are worth checking out as well. This is proven by The Tall T, a suspenseful, entertaining thriller.

WINGS (1990 - 1997)

After viewing my way through the entire runs of Cheers and its spin-off Frasier in 2012 - 2013, I was wanting to spend more time in the world of those shows. The episodes of the short-lived spin-off The Tortellis aren't available, but there was another show to choose from. In 1990, around the time that the eighth of Cheers's eleven seasons was nearing its end, Cheers producers David Angell, Peter Casey, and David Lee joined together to create another sitcom that aired on the same network. Wings.

Like Cheers, Wings is centered on one primarily location. Rather than a Boston bar, here we have the Tom Nevers Field airport on the island of Nantucket, thirty miles from the coast of Massachusetts. The characters we get to hang out with here include Tim Daly as the responsible and obsessive compulsive Joe Hackett, pilot and owner of the small airline Sandpiper Air; Steve Weber as Joe's irreverent brother Brian, who works as a pilot for him; Joe's longtime friend and eventual wife Helen Chappel (Crystal Bernard), who runs the airport diner while dreaming of being a professional cellist; David Schramm as Roy Biggins, the sleazy owner of Aeromass, the only other airline that operates out of Tom Nevers; oddball mother hen Fay Cochran (Rebecca Schull), who works the Sandpiper ticket counter; and Thomas Haden Church as dimwitted mechanic Lowell Mather. Helicopter pilot Alex Lambert (Farrah Forke) stuck around for a couple seasons as Brian's love interest, Amy Yasbeck joined the show in its last few episodes as Helen's sister Casey and became another love interest for Brian, and after making an impression during his appearance as a waiter in the second season, Tony Shalhoub was boosted to a series regular when his character, often-depressed Italian immigrant Antonio Scarpacci, became a taxi driver and spent a lot of time at Tom Nevers from season three on.

All of these characters have their own charms, and it was a joy to spend time watching them. Wings is a show I watched quite often as a child, I was very fond of it at the time, and my favorite character was Brian. I found him to be really funny, and he seemed so cool. I don't know how cool he is now, but he's certainly entertaining.

One memory I have of being of a fan of Wings in the early '90s was when a school classmate who also liked the show notified me that his mom had made him stop watching it because the characters engaged in premarital sex. Oh well.

Upon these latest viewings, Shalhoub's fantastic turn as Antonio may have boosted him into the series MVP role for me. The nonsense Lowell would come up with also provided some good laughs. The character exits the series at the beginning of the seventh season due to Church having landed a leading role on the show Ned & Stacey. An attempt was made to replace Lowell with another dopey mechanic, Brian Haley as Budd Bronski, but it never quite stuck, and Bronski only ended up being in a handful of episodes.

Wings wasn't a spin-off of Cheers, but given that Joe and Brian primarily flew back and forth between Nantucket and Boston, there were connections made between the two shows. George Wendt and John Ratzenberger show up in one episode as their Cheers characters Norm and Cliff, on Nantucket for a fishing trip. Kelsey Grammer and Bebe Neuwirth guest star as Frasier and Lilith Crane in an episode, and Kirstie Alley has a brief cameo as Rebecca Howe in another.

Wings didn't last quite as long as Cheers and Frasier, it had an eight season run compared to their eleven each (and the first season of Wings was only six episodes long), but eight seasons and 172 episodes is very respectable. I have now successfully completed watching every single Wings episode, and it was an endeavor I enjoyed very much. It's a great little sitcom, and I will continue to revisit it in the future.

Most of the episodes are available to watch on Netflix, but if you want to make the complete run yourself, be warned - there are, for reasons unknown to me, 24 episodes that are not streaming on the Netflix website. I didn't find this out until I had reached the two-part season finale, and it was a pleasant surprise to find out that I basically had another season worth of episodes to catch up on.


Sarah Michelle Gellar stars in this adaptation of Brazilian author Paulo Coelho's novel as the titular Veronika, a young woman who attempts suicide by mixing alcohol and an overdose of prescription medication.

Veronika is seemingly successful in ending her life, but not in the way she had intended. The overdose doesn't kill her. Instead, she wakes up in a small psychiatric facility in the countryside two weeks later, where she's notified by doctors Blake (David Thewlis) and Thompson (Florencia Lozano) that the effects of the overdose have triggered an inoperable ventricular aneurysm that will rupture and kill her within days.

Being under the supervision of doctors and nurses, Veronika is forced to wait things out as a patient of the facility. With death hanging over her head, she starts to feel more strongly about life, and during these last days her stand-offish demeanor gradually wears away and she gets to know some of her fellow patients.

She has limited screen time, but Erika Christensen delivers a great character performance as Veronika's roommate Claire. Melissa Leo plays Mari, the patient who has been there the longest. The most important connection Veronika makes is with a young man named Edward (Jonathan Tucker), who hasn't spoken a word in years. Something draws the pair together, and because of this there are some major personal breakthroughs made while they're in each other's company.

Having not read the source material, I can't speak to how well screenwriters Larry Gross and Roberta Hanley have adapted it, but director Emily Young brought their script to the screen in a capable manner.

I felt that Veronika's character development could have been handled a little better in the writing, but Gellar does fine work in the role. When Gellar first started gaining attention in the second half of the '90s, her career appeared to have a lot of promise, but for most of the decade since the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series ended, she has primarily done vocal work and starred in a couple short-lived television shows. Her performance here made me wish that she was more prolific. She's a good actress, and I'd like to see her in more, higher profile movies.

It's unfortunate for everyone involved that Veronika Decides to Die has been stuck in a sort of distribution limbo for a while. The movie was shot in 2008 and has been available in some territories since '09, but is only now making its way to North America thanks to Phase 4 Films. What the hold-up was, I don't know, with the talent involved (particularly with Melissa Leo having won an Oscar in 2011) it's something that should have been released everywhere already, and having seen the movie for myself now, I can say it wasn't an issue of quality.

Veronika Decides to Die does have a feeling of missed opportunity to it, it could have been much more striking and emotionally effective than it is, but as it stands it's still an intriguing, serviceable drama with interesting characters who are brought to life by a solid cast.

VICE (2015)

In the not-too-distant future, there exists a resort called Vice, an adult playground where there are "no rules, no laws, and no consequences". Bruce Willis plays Julian Michaels, the Mr. Roarke of this twisted Fantasy Island, where people can pay for the pleasure of committing robberies, murders, rapes, anything they want.

How is this possible? Well, visitors of Vice are given access to guns that only work on the residents of the resort, who (as in the Michael Crichton cult classic Westworld) are cyborgs. Referred to as Artificials, these beings look and act human because they are made of genetically cloned human tissue. They even have feelings. As far as the Artificials are concerned, Vice is the real world and they're living out their real lives within it, but for the visitors they're just toys at their disposal. If an Artificial is murdered, it's just a two day turnaround to get them back in service. And they'll never remember it, because their memories are wiped every day. Each day starts the same for them, they live their lives in an endless loop.

One Vice resident is a young woman named Kelly (Ambyr Childers), and she believes that each day is her last day of work at a resort bar before she leaves to pursue her dreams. It may seem like a strange idea to program a cyborg that can never leave a resort with the thought that she's about leave, but the technicians felt that it would be good for her attitude, it'd put her in a celebratory mood. It was a mistake, though, because she really wants to leave. Another mistake is made when Kelly gets murdered and Michaels has her rushed back into service within 24 hours.

Retaining terrible memories and getting a traumatic glimpse behind the curtain of Vice's inner workings, Kelly makes an explosive escape from the resort.

homas Jane plays a hard-boiled cop named Roy, who has a serious dislike of Vice, feeling that it enhances criminal behavior in its visitors. They don't just get it out of their system in Vice, they get a taste for it there and take those urges back out into the world with them. With Kelly being tracked through the city, Roy's jurisdiction, by assault weapon-wielding Vice security officers, this could be the event he can use to take Vice down once and for all.

There is really nothing within Vice that you haven't seen done before, done better, done in a cooler fashion, but that doesn't mean that this telling of a familiar story doesn't have its own merits.

The primary draw of the film is Thomas Jane as Roy. Without his line deliveries and screen presence, the movie would have been much more lacking than it is. When he's not on the screen, the movie sometimes threatens to drown in bland sap, especially when Kelly is spending time with a widower/Artifical designer played by Bryan Greenberg. Thankfully, Jane comes along to rescue it every time.

Bruce Willis has limited screen time as Julian Michaels, which is another check in the pro column in my opinion, following his lackluster, disinterested performances in most of his recent films. He really doesn't put much effort into his role here, either.

The occasional bursts of action are fun, with some moments of madness in the third act, although the movie does leave you with the feeling that a lot more could have been done with its scenarios and with the character of Kelly.

Director Brian A. Miller and screenwriters Andre Fabrizio and Jeremy Passmore, the trio behind the 2014 film The Prince (which also featured Bruce Willis in a villainous role), haven't created the next great action/sci-fi spectacle here, but they did make 96 minutes of diverting entertainment that's good for a viewing.

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