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Thursday, February 28, 2013

A Note from Ronald Reagan, Twenty-Five Years Ago

Ronald Reagan (1976)
  I am not much of an activist.  I have never campaigned for any candidate, never carried a picket sign, never chained myself to a tree.  (Though I have been tempted to chain myself to one of those old coffee shops that they're always needlessly tearing down.)  However, in 1988, as a Senior in High School, I sent President Ronald Reagan a birthday card for his last birthday in office.  He turned 77 on February 6, 1988.  I do not remember what prompted me to do this, though it was most likely suggested to me by my father, or a teacher.  But I'm grateful to whomever it was that put the idea in my head.
  Growing up in the 70's and 80's, my generation had a front row seat to some very big historical moments on the world stage.  We saw the apex of the Cold War, the rise of Terrorism, and the fall of the Berlin Wall.  They were scary times.  Yet through eight years in the 1980's, we were privileged to have a man in the White House who never flinched from his role as the leader of our country.
  Many pundits and comedians enjoyed poking fun at the President's age, often without even attempting to hide their malice.  I never understood that.  There was something serenely comforting about having a man of his age and stature at the helm.  Yes, there were jokes about Reagan being old--like an old grandfather.  I saw that, however, as an asset.  What was even better, was the fact that he wasn't just a grandfather who was always ready to dispense his wealth of common-sense wisdom, but you just knew that this guy had your back.  He wasn't going to let anyone mess with you.  (When is the last time a President responded as swiftly and decisively as Reagan did after the murder of our soldiers in Berlin?)
  And so, as Reagan's time in office was coming to a close, I took time out from my teenager's busy schedule of school and work to send him a simple birthday card.  I don't remember what I sent him.  A store-bought card.  Just a hand-written note.  I don't know.  And I might have even forgot that I sent him anything at all except that one day in March, a large, manila envelope arrived in the mail.  The stamp on the top left corner of it was labeled The White House.  Inside, protected by a piece of cardboard, was a small sheet of paper, embossed with the seal of the President of the United States at top center.  The President had sent a thank-you note.
  Now despite the fact that the signature had been signed with a felt-tip pen, I had no illusions that President Reagan had actually signed the paper.  Maybe he had.  But I've always assumed that this was a form letter, and that the signature was done with a mechanical pen.  I do not think there were printers that could replicate such a signature in 1988, though it is marginally possible, I guess.  At any rate, I would be surprised to discover that it was an actual signature.  Tens of thousands of people might have sent him birthday wishes.  Imagine how many grade-schoolers might have done so as a class project.  So I'm gonna stick with my guess that the President never knew about my note and a very low-level, White House assistant to an aide's assistant oversaw the mailing of countless form-letter thank-you notes.  And that's perfectly fine with me.
  What I do know is that after I received it, I carefully placed it back in the manila envelope.  Over the years, despite the many times I've moved from State to State, and throughout my twenty-plus years of marriage during which time I've helped my wife raise five children, that envelope has been kept safely in an old cardboard box high up on a shelf.  From time to time, I've pulled it out to show to my children as they grew up.  Just yesterday I did it again, for my youngest sons, who had never seen it.
  When I looked at the date on it, I realized that it had been twenty-five years since it had come in the mail.  In fact, the date on the note was February 29th, a leap year.  That in itself is pretty cool.  At the suggestion of my wife, I scanned the note into the computer, to share with friends and family.  Then I carefully placed it back in its envelope, that single piece of cardboard ensuring that it never gets bent or torn.  Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed something else in the envelope.  It was a note I had placed in there a few months after it arrived.  It had been so long ago that I'd forgotten it was there.  I have no memory of writing it.  I'd never pulled it out to show my older children.  I'd overlooked it.  But this time I saw it.  Just a short note in blue ink from a seventeen-year-old young man who had taken the time to jot down a few words.
     This document is important to me.
     I believe Ronald Reagan is and will be
     one of our best Presidents.
     Jason Reeser

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

My View of that Cold Turkey Dick Van Dyke and Some Kind of a Nut (Part One)

  On January 27th, 2013, Dick Van Dyke was honored at the SAG awards with their 49th Life Achievement Award.  And you would have to be living under a rock to not know about this 87-year-old's amazing career in show business.  He is, of course, the iconic comedian of the 1960's, as showcased in his television series 
The Dick Van Dyke Show, which ran from 1961 to 1966.  You can ask my kids, this is still one of the my favorite shows ever on television.  But Van Dyke is also known world wide as the singing, dancing, cockney-accented Burt from Mary Poppins.  Those of my generation will easily recall that his performance as the wise and fun-loving chimney sweep was sure to be on our TV sets every Thanksgiving night.  And it was always a special treat when his equally entertaining Chitty Chitty Bang Bang appeared on TV every now and then.  But his successes were not limited to the 1960's.  His series Diagnosis: Murder (1993-2001) ran for 178 episodes.  And a new generation of fans were treated to his comedic skills in the film Night at the Museum.

  But these are merely bookends on an impressive lifetime performance by Dick Van Dyke.  According to the movie site IMDB, Van Dyke has appeared in twenty feature films and nearly fifty different television series and movies.  He has kept busy over the years, and judging by his appearance at the SAG awards, he's just as spry and nimble as ever.
  I was able to catch two of his movies the this week that I captured on DVR from Turner Classic Movies: Some Kind of a Nut, and Cold Turkey.  These films, both filmed around 1969 (Nut being released in '69, Turkey released after a brief hold-up in '71), are not as well known as others in his portfolio.  Frankly, I'd never even heard of them.  But I needed something to watch while I hit the treadmill, so I threw them up on the screen to see if they were any good.
  I was pleasantly surprised.
  Let's look at them in the same order I did:
Poster Image from
Some Kind of a Nut, 1969
  This satire takes a comedic look at the fears of conformity in society.  Van Dyke plays Fred Amidon, a bank teller who grows a beard while on vacation.  If you've ever done this, you know that it will draw a strong reaction from most people who just can't get used to change.  As expected, everyone wants him to shave it off.  Even Fred himself doesn't particularly like it.  But as he says, "something just clicked" and that was it.  He refused to cave in to everyone's demand.  You'd think he'd decided to become a Communist.  His rebellion does not go unpunished.
  He's fired, his girlfriend's family is aghast.  And she's not too happy either.  But the more pressure that is put to him, the harder he digs in his heels.  Then, one night, after a lot of drinking and hanging out with the counter-culture chick played by the alluring Zorha Lampert, things spin out of control.  Before it's over, he's a television celebrity, he's institutionalized, and he manages to regain the respect of his soon to be ex-wife Rachel, played by Angie Dickinson, who is in her prime in 1969.
  These types of little comedies were all over the 1960's.  They often championed some sort of cause, blew plenty of raspberries at the establishment, and pandered to the counter-culturalists and their love of all things Eastern, Herbal, and peace-loving.  Usually, they end up so bizarre and out-of -this-world that the movie is not really watchable by any of us sane people four decades removed from that goofy period.  (I'm thinking of James Coburn's psychedelic effort in The President's Analyst, which becomes painful to watch really early in the movie.)  But here in Some Kind of a Nut, writer/director Garson Kanin manages to keep the story sensible, even as the wackiness ensues.  Kanin comes from a solid writing background, however, having won his spurs writing such well-known classics as Adam's Rib, Pat and Mike, and the original stage version of Born Yesterday.  Yes, he can unleash the absurdity, but he knows how to get it back on the leash before it runs away from him.
  As with most comedies in the late 60's, there's a good deal of eye-candy with the actresses, led of course by Angie Dickinson, though the larger role of Van Dyke's girlfriend is played by Rosemary Forsyth, once considered to be a rising star.  (Nut was filmed after an extensive maternity leave that is blamed for her disappointing career.)  Forsyth does the job required of her, but Dickinson firmly takes center stage, despite her smaller role, and Lampert uses her oddball character to steal the show.  Now, I'll admit the real failure here is the idea that Amidon is trying to keep his new girlfriend instead of patching things up with Rachel, since Rachel is actually a 38-year-old Angie Dickinson.  I mean, really?
  Dick Van Dyke is fun to watch in this, since it seems a bit outside of his usual shtick.  He's a bit on the edgier side, at least he's edgier than Rob Petrie and Burt, though that doesn't take much.  But no matter that he's running around with his new girlfriend while still officially married to Dickinson (they're days away from the divorce being final), Van Dyke can never really erase his image as a Boy Scout.  It is just in his DNA.  But that's what makes this film work.  You never dislike Fred Amidon.  And if another comedic name from that time had taken the role, say maybe Dean Martin, Elliot Gould, Jack Lemmon, George Segal, or Alan Arkin, Amidon would have come off more or less as a creep who just needs to shave his beard and be done with it.  After all, beards do have a tendency to add a sinister quality to men.  But Van Dyke keeps his happy-go-lucky spirit despite the depressing turn his life takes.
  And of course, we're treated to his superb, physical style during a lengthy scene in which Amidon is drunk and falling all over himself as well as climbing along rooftops.
  When all is said and done, and all the foolishness is pushed aside, this is a satisfying movie with characters you can care about and a happy ending that actually makes sense.
  Some Kind of a Nut can be seen on Amazon's Instant Video.  I have not been able to find it anywhere else, including Netflix.
  I'll cover the second movie Cold Turkey in Part Two of this post.
Below you can see Some Kind of Nut free on Amazon if you are a Prime Member, or watch it for only a few dollars.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

My View of Seven Thieves

An obvious attempt to market the movie as an
Ocean's Eleven knock-off, despite the fact
it was released four months before
the Rat Pack extravaganza.
Everyone knows the heist caper Ocean's Eleven--all you youngsters know the Brad Pitt, George Clooney, glitzy production by Steven Soderbergh; you older kids might first think of the Rat Pack glamour flick from the days when Frank, Dean, Sammy, and Peter were the hottest ticket in town.  They were both entertaining movies.  Both of them sold tickets because of their stars; as ensembles go, these movies are some of the best examples of an ensemble cast with dynamite chemistry.
  The Ocean's Eleven success did more than just propel the Rat Pack (and eventually the Clooney/Pitt Pack) to iconic status.  Released in August of 1960, it almost completely erased the film Seven Thieves from our collective memory.  Unfortunately for those actors and technicians who worked on Seven Thieves, it was released only four months prior to Ocean's.  This gave it very little time to garner any sort of loyalty from the viewing public.  I think I can see several reasons for this:
  The obvious jumps out at us right away--who would most people rather watch?  The young, dynamic Rat Pack lead by Sinatra and his side-kick Dino?  Or  the elderly Edward G. Robinson with his dour companion Rod Steiger?  Thieves might have had an advantage with the alluring Joan Collins in its corner (she does a strip-tease, more or less), but at best this leaves the film evenly matched with Ocean's own glamorous screen-goddess Angie Dickinson.
  Just as obvious is the fact that Ocean's is filmed in color, Thieves in black and white.  Now, that's not a problem for a cinephile  like myself, but it certainly didn't help this movie at a time when the public was increasingly coming to expect color films at the theaters.  Black and white was okay for television, even though color television had been broadcast since 1951.  (Oddly enough, it wasn't until the 1970's that more Americans were buying color TVs instead of black and white ones.)  But a film about casinos really ought to be seen in color.
A far more appropriate ad campaign for a
film that easily stands on its own two feet.
  The third difference that hits you right away is the comedy found in Ocean's, which is non-existent in Thieves.  The Rat Pack spends more time making jokes than being tough-guy crooks.  The whole feel of the movie is that it is all a lark.  And it was.  The boys filmed it in the afternoons, after waking up late from their nights of performing in Vegas.  There was little acting, since they were essentially playing themselves.  It was all shot right there in the casinos where they performed.  (Including Dino's crooning in his little piano bar.)  There's no humor in Seven Thieves.  Though a heist movie, it also carries a pretty heavy Noir atmosphere, much like the French heist film Rififfi.  By 1960, the Noir train had run out of steam; the dark days of WWII were getting farther away, the boom of the 50's was well established, and people weren't looking to explore the darker side of life anymore.
  So why have I mentioned all of that?  Why don't I just review Ocean's Eleven and forget about Seven Thieves like everyone else?  Because it's a darned good movie, that's why.  So let me tell you all about it.
  The film opens when a professor by the name of Theo Wilkins (played by the unique and fascinating Edward G. Robinson) lures an old partner to Monte Carlo for the typically perfect heist.  The partner, Paul Mason (the staid, menacing Rod Steiger) wants nothing to do with it.  He's been in prison, and is not too eager to get caught again.  But as Wilkins points out, this one is fool-proof!  And he's assembled a team.
  You know what comes next: we begin to meet the crew.  There's the beatnik played by Eli Wallach.  If you're a fan of his, like I am, you'll know he's always a bit wild.  But for some reason, I never saw him as a beatnik.  But it suits him here.  He plays in the band as we meet the enticing Melanie, played by a twenty-seven-year old Joan Collins.  She's still a bit young here, and hasn't quite hit her stride yet in Hollywood, but you can tell she has charisma.  She's a stripper who wants to make that big score and get out of her club life.  Collins was famously trained by Candy Barr, a somewhat notorious stripper from the 50s.  (Please note the link will take you to her Wikipedia page, but there aren't any pictures there, guys, sorry.  But if you're really interested in her, I can tell you she shot her second husband and hung around with the likes of Mickey Cohen.  So...)  The rest of the team is filled in with the pretty boy safe-cracker (Michael Dante), the muscle (Berry Kroeger) and the fish-out-of-water Alexander Scourby, playing the "inside man" at the casino.
He's having an affair with her?  Are you kidding me?
(Alexander Scourby and Joan Collins in Seven Thieves.)
  I'll leave the musical dance number alone.  Watch the film and judge for yourself if Ms. Barr taught Ms. Collins anything worthwhile.  This is 1960, of course, so the strip-tease is anything but.  I will say it seems out of place, since the atmosphere of the rest of movie does not fit in with a club-act like hers.  But I'm sure the executives at the studio insisted on this to put seats in the seats, so to speak.
  One of the unique characters in this film is Raymond, played by the very English Alexander Scourby.  Some of you might know him from those commercials that used to run all the time advertising the Bible on audio tape, read aloud by Alexander Scourby.  He's very proper, always the unshakable Brit.  But not here.  Yes, he's the assistant to the Director of Casino operations, but he's also having an affair with Melanie, and he's the one who provides the information needed to locate and extract the money.  But he's one anxiety attack away from the funny farm.  He's a mess.  Who would have though Alex Scourby would be the comic relief?
  Edward G., as always, is top notch.  He has that haunting lilt to his speech.  I don't often say this about a guy, but his voice is mellifluous.  He could talk me into a crime caper, I'm sure, no matter how much I didn't want to get involved.  Yes, he's always portrayed as the gangster tough guy, but that's missing the point about him.  When he's not actively trying to intimidate you, he's subtly at work on you, suggesting, probing, giving out little bits of wisdom like chocolates.  Watch him in The Cincinnati Kid, or Double Indemnity, and you'll see what I mean.  And he gets it right here too, with a little twist; he shows unabashed love for his friend Paul Mason.  Who knew Edward G. could do this?  His face opens up, he looks like a kid who's just opened a Christmas present.  You can see he is so delighted to be with Rod Steiger, which is odd, since Steiger never seems to inspire this in anyone.  Ever.  But that is explained later in the film.
Steiger takes control of the crew and never lets go.
(left to right: Robinson, Steiger, Collins, and Wallach.)
  And speaking of Rod Steiger, let me say a few things.  First of all, I've always had a reserved respect for him.  Not because I don't like his acting, but because he's always played reserved, hard-to-like characters.  Almost always noble, full of good-intentions, Steiger's characters just have trouble being nice to whomever he happens to be next to.  One gets the idea there isn't anyone he is fond of, respects, or wishes to make happy.  Robert Osborne, the TCM host, said the same thing.  Saying he was surprised when Steiger came on the show to co-host a few movies, he was very affable, and easy to get along with.  All of which I point out because that is Steiger's character, Mason.  He doesn't want to be there.  If he has to be, he's gonna be in charge, and no one is going to question how he does things.  Beyond that, he says very little.  The Alpha dog who really just wants to be the lone wolf.  And of course, Melanie finds this irresistible, and her loyalties to Wallach, Scourby and even Robinson pale in comparison to her desire to be with Paul.  Some guys have all the luck.
  One more observation on Steiger.  I can see that Russell Crowe is our generation's Rod Steiger.  Both have that same solid, quiet power that keeps the camera entranced.
  Joan Collins has become something of a joke to our society.  Her success as the bad-girl of Dynasty as well as a few forays into the tawdry, near-porn of her late-70's films, as well as her stint as Potiphar's wife on stage in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat have all combined to convince us that she is nothing more than a sexed-up cougar who's only career asset was her body and her seductive ways.  But if you watch some of her earlier works, you'll see a talented actress who knew how to hold her own with actors like Steiger, Richard Burton, and yes, even William Shatner.  Here, in Thieves, she is more than just eye-candy.  Her effect on the usually unflappable Steiger is enough to spark some excellent scenes between them.  They're not Bogart and Becall, but they're not far behind.
  The heist itself is well done, with that same slow, systematic atmosphere one finds in other heist movies like Riffifi and the little known Maximilian Schell/Peter Ustinov Topkapi.  While there is tension as Steiger and Dante risk the high window ledges above the Mediterranean, the better story is on the casino floor as Wallach and Robinson put on their show for the casino officials, which includes one of my favorite actors, Sebastian Cabot.
  This is 1960, and so the Breen office still would not allow crime to be successful unless the crooks were eventually punished.  You know this going in, and I won't spoil the way they handled it.  It is not the strongest finish to a film, but it does manage to surprise you.  After all, who would have thought that I'd find it touching when Rod Steiger holds Edward G. Robinson in his arms and actually sheds tears?  I sure didn't.
  Seven Thieves is not the best heist caper you'll ever see.  It may not even be the best movie of 1960.  But I would strongly recommend it.  Ignore the silly newer posters/DVD covers for it.  It is not anything like Ocean's Eleven.  The marketing department needs a swift kick in its collective backside for trying to ride that horse.  Directed by Henry Hathaway (Kiss of Death, Niagara, True Grit), this movies stand easily on its own merits, and you'll be glad you took the time to look it up.  For now, you can rent it for just $2.99 from Amazon.  (See below.)  It is available at Neflix, though not for instant watch.

Friday, February 15, 2013

5 Songs I've Been Stuck on Lately

Presently, I have about 19,000 (give or take) songs in my music folder.  Now, considering there are 1500 sub-folders in there, we can assume that some of these are album cover jpgs, then there are the duplicate songs that are on several different albums, including some albums that are completely duplicated due to my inability to organize things properly.  So a conservative estimate would suggest that I have about 15,000 individual songs.  That sounds hard to believe.  But when you consider I have an album entitled 50 Must-Have Mystic Gregorian Pop Remixes, it begins to make sense.  (And if you're wondering why I have 50 Must-Have Mystic Gregorian Pop Remixes...well, it's because...they're...Must-Have.  But it was not an impulse buy, I can assure you.  I sampled most of the tracks first to make sure that they were the best Mystic Gregorian Pop Remixes, and even though it was only 99 cents to download it, I got out my calculator and did enough math to know that I was getting a pretty good deal--just 1.98 cents per song.  You really can't beat that.)  Anyway, since I have a plethora of songs, you would imagine that I am always listening to something new.  After all, if each song were just three minutes long (okay, so the Kansas songs average two or three times that, but we'll ignore them for this fascinating speculation), it would take me 750 hours to listen to all of them non-stop.  And given that I do not listen to more than twelve hours of music a day, this would mean at the best I could listen to all of them in about 62 and a half days.  But of course this is not the case.
  I usually spend my time listening to the same two or three albums.  Occasionally, a new album (or an old one) will upset the apple cart.  This happens every so often, sometimes sooner, sometimes later.  Even in my car, which is so old-school, CDs litter the front and back seats as well as the floors and glove compartment, I still only listen to a handful of albums.  There are a few staples that I also listen to, those few albums that will never go out of style, but there are only about five of them.
  So what I am trying to get at is the idea that I've got music coming out of my ears...actually, that's not's going into my ears, but that's beside the point...I've got music coming out/going into my ears but I still only listen to a few songs at any given point in time.
  And that brings us to my post today, which will highlight some of the songs that I keep playing over and over again.  These are not the best songs that I've ever heard.  But they are the songs that have had my attention for the last month or more.

1. Catseye, by Cannister Six, from the album Paris Lounge, Deluxe Volume 2.  The first time I heard this, I thought--man, that girl sounds awful!  I was going to skip to the next song.  But then I hesitated, as she kept going, and I thought, "that's not as awful as I thought."  I know, a stellar review, right?  So then I listened to it a second time.  By the third time it played, I clicked.  And I've been listening to it so much my family is probably sick of it and trying to develop ways to delete it from Spotify.  But if you give it a chance, it will get into your head, and you might be glad of the fact.  An added benefit for this song is its anonymity.  In an age where you can find any information about whatever and whoever on the Internet, I can find precious little information on this song.  It is almost as if it does not exist.  Wonderfully mysterious.  It can be found on Spotify.

2. Song for the Crickets, by Parov Stelar, from the album The Princess Part One.  You already know my preoccupation with Parov Stelar.  (Check out my review of The Princess Part One if you missed it.)  This song begins with crickets, and if you turn it up nice and loud, sitting in the center of the stereo speakers, you'll get this awesome vibe as the crickets fill your head.  The song is subtle, very chill.  And there is a point where the crickets come back into the background as the song comes to a momentary standstill.  The crickets take over, in this hip little rhythm, and you won't want it to stop.  Brilliant.

3. State of the Art, by Gotye, from the album Making Mirrors.  This crazy little song is infectious.  It is a simple little story, about a family who has just acquired a Cotillion, a synthesizer, much like families used to get one of those massive Hammond organs you always saw sitting in people's living rooms in the sixties and seventies.  As the song says, "when the Cotillion arrived, we threw out the for an arm and a leg, we get three half-dozen beats to choose from, so that we can pretend, there's an orchestra in the lounge room."  Full of everything that made messing around with synthesizers groovy (I bought one while I was in High School, and fiddled with it all the time), you can't help but listen again and again.  (Click the song title for the video.)

4.  Le Temps de L'Amour, by Francoise Hardy, as heard in the movie Moonrise Kingdom.  This is a fun little song from an absurd movie that came out last year.  Wes Anderson's story of young love has this wonderfully goofy, sweet scene between the two star-crossed lovers featuring this song played on a little mobile record player on the shores of a lake.  I don't understand French, but I know a great song when I hear one.

5. Stylo, by the Gorillaz, featuring Mos Def and Bobby Womack.  If you haven't seen the video, be sure to check it out.  But the song itself is intriguing and I can't seem to stop listening to it.  I've only heard the radio edit, so don't get mad at me if you listen to the explicit edit.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

My View of Tour Saint-Jacques

Just across the Seine from Notre Dame Cathedral on the right bank is a lone tower-- Tour Saint-Jacques.  Standing 171 feet high, it is surrounded by far more popular sites: the Louvre, the Palais-Royal, Hotel de Ville, and of course Notre Dame.  For today's look at this spectacular Gothic tower, I'll take a break from writing and let the video camera do its work.