About Me

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Montreal, Quebec, Canada
I am a Montreal-based actor, writer and comedian. When U.S. President John F. Kennedy was shot, I was three days old. I cried all day. My favourite books of all time are Moby Dick by Herman Melville, The Last Temptation by Nikos Kazantzakis and The Ewoks Fun Time Activity Book by Chirpa and Pamploo. I am a member of The Vestibules, On The Spot Improv and The Best Buy Battery Club. Except for the Battery Club, I've been at all this stuff for over 20 years. Enjoy my blog.

Friday, December 31, 2010

An Offbeat Tribute to Those We Lost in 2010

Happy New Year's Eve everybody!

Here is my somewhat morbid, non-comprehensive offbeat musings on some of the talented people we lost in 2010...

Dennis Hopper (1936-2010)

When Dennis "Easy Rider, Apocalypse Now, Blue Velvet" Hopper died, a clip of him reciting "If" by Rudyard Kipling from the Johnny Cash Show turned up everywhere on the net.

This is the clip that comes right before that. It's the only time I've ever seen him sing. Hopper and Cash seem to connect almost a little too well. Seems like they've both been down that same substance abuse road

I remember renting this fascinating little curiosity on VHS in the 90's. The early HBO film, Witch Hunt, features a rare sympathetic lead role for Hopper. It is also most likely the only time Hopper ever even attempted to pull off the hard boiled gumshoe PI role.

Check out not just the premise of this one but also the name of the private eye.

Peter Graves (1926-2010)

Depending on your generational reference point, Peter Graves is either most famous as Mission: Impossible! team leader Jim Phelps, as the creepy yet humourous Captain Clarence Oveur in Airplane! or as that guy that seems to host of all those biography things on TV there.

Though, I'm pretty sure that almost no one knows him only as the star to the 1950's sci-fi film, The Red Planet Mars.

Long story short: radio transmissions are established with intelligent Utopian life on Mars. The message from Mars: worship God more. Think of the Jodie Foster movie Contact with a ton of 1950's cold war propaganda thrown in.

Irvin Kershner (1923-2010)

The Empire Strikes Back is undoubtedly the film that Kershner will always be best remembered for. You could maybe throw in Kershner bringing Sean Connery back to the role of James Bond after an twelve year absence in Never Say Never Again or Kershner filming Frank Miller's ambitious screenplay for Robocop 2 or the trippy 70's Faye Dunaway horror thriller, The Eyes of Laura Mars. Really, though, the name Kershner is synonymous with what is arguably the best Star Wars movie of the series.

However, 16 years before introducing the world to AT-AT Walkers and Boba Fett, Kershner found his way to Montreal to direct a low budget Canadian movie entitled The Luck of Ginger Coffey . Robert Shaw plays an Irish journalist emigrating with his family to Montreal in 1964. Based on the novel of the same by Brian Moore, the film chronicles the struggles of adapting to a new life in a new country.

This movie is a must for any Montrealer. The film captures the many of the city's landmarks and neighbourhoods in all their 1964 black and white splendor. It is fascinating just on its historical terms alone. A bus ad in one scene plugs the still three years away Expo '67. There is also a cameo by what looks like a 17 year-old Don McGowan (there's a generationally specific Anlgo Montreal reference for ya).

Robert Shaw is, as always, great in the title role. The Luck of Ginger Coffey is a really good little film to boot.

It's easier to find the posters for this film on the web than it is to find the film itself.

The Luck of Ginger Coffey is also an extremely rare archeological find: an independent English Canadian film from the early 60's (there's no connection to the NFB or the CBC in this production and Canadian film tax credits were still years away).

I managed to catch this wonderfully obscure gem on on History Television a few years back but, alas did not manage to record it. There is a DVD edition available on Amazon UK but you'll need a multi-region player to watch it. If you are so inclined, it's worth the trouble.

Gary Coleman (1968-2010)

Forget "Whatch you talkin' about Willis?", Coleman's best role ever was as the boy genius Interstellar President Hieronymus Fox on the classic 70's sci-fi series Buck Rogers in The 25th Century.

Tony Curtis (1925-2010)

For those my age, the strongest association with Tony Curtis is not Some Like It Hot or The Defiant Ones or Spartacus or The Persuaders or even The Bad News Bears Go To Japan.  No, for us Boomer-Gen X Tweeners, Tony Curtis is Stony Curtis. In fact, as a child Curtis' guest appearance on The Flintstones created a great deal of confusion. I was under the impression that Stony Curtis was actually the man's real name. Stony and Tony sounded very similar and, after all, Stony did look and sound like the guy in movies like Boeing, Boeing.  As far as I was concerned, everyone kept getting Stony Curtis' name wrong when they called him Tony Curtis.

4 years of film and theatre school school managed to straighten that misconception out.

Here's Stony in at the pinnacle of his career...

Jackie Burroughs (1939-2010)

One of Canada's greatest actors, known for her roles in Road to Avonlea, A Winter Tan, The Grey Fox and the one of the greatest TV series ever (Canadian or otherwise), Slings and Arrows.  But for me and my pals in my sketch comedy troupe, The Vestibules, she will always be remembered as the women who stormed up to us out of nowhere at the 1990 Canadian Radio Awards reception in Toronto and declared "You guys are so fucking funny!".

We figured out who she was later...

J.D. Salinger (1919-2010)
Colbert never did land this guest
At the time of the brilliant reclusive writer's death, I posted a link to a brilliantly funny tribute to the man written by those really funny guys at www.theonion.com. Here is another great Salinger piece of theirs I recently turned up.

Cory Haim (1971-2010)

Another person on the list that I've actually met...well, kinda.  There was about 10 minutes in the mid-90's when SCTV legend Joe Flaherty was supposedly interested in directing a potential TV pilot for The Vestibules. The whole thing was set up by a local producer who had gotten lucky and managed to get a movie called Snowboard Academy into production. As a means of acquainting Flaherty with our work, Paul, Bernard and I drove up to Mont Blanc to do a show for the cast and crew of the film (which included Flaherty, Jim Varney, Brigette Neilson and Cory Haim). 

If having someone talking loudly and obnoxiously through your entire show constitutes meeting them then, yes, we met Corey Haim. 

On a serious note, at least his demise was not drug related which, based on his behavior that night years ago,  I was, at first, convinced was the case.

James MacArthur (1937-2010)

Book 'em Danno...sorry, James, couldn't resist...

The adopted son of Academy Award winning actress, Helen Hayes, James MacArthur was the last surviving principal cast member of the legendary 1960's/70's TV cop show Hawaii Five-0 (his part is played by Scott Caan in the current re-boot).

Before 5-0, MacArthur appeared in number of other film roles including a few Disney flicks. He was also something of teen heartthrob for super brief period of time.  That time included a bit of a not-unShatner-like music career. This is song charted at #94 in the US in 1963.

It's called The Ten Commandments of Love.

It's my understanding that several small towns in the US have this version of The Ten Commandments posted in their courthouses, particularly in the more male-dominated regions...

Frank Frazetta (1928-2010)

Frank Frazetta is universally recognized as one of the greatest fantasy painters that ever lived. He was largely famous for paintings like this one:

Frazetta was one of the few artists who had the ability to, with one painting, make both men and women insecure about their body image simultaneously.

A rare gift.

Frazetta is well known for his paintings of Conan The Cimmerian, John Carter Warlord of Mars, Kull, Tarzan and, of course, Woody Allen. Yes. Woody Allen.

Frazetta was also a movie poster artist and early in his career, this was one of his assignments:

Oddly, Woody never contacted Frank for the Annie Hall or Manhattan posters...

John Forsythe (1918-2010)

Hmmm...not a hat in sight...

And, finally, big shout out the to the late great John Forsythe, star of Charlie's Angels, Dynasty, The John Forsythe Show and the original guy who "had on a hat".

Happy New Year
All The Best for 2011!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

10 "It's Ain't Always Such a Wonderful Life" Christmas Movies

10. A Midnight Clear (1992)

A Midnight Clear is one of the most underrated war movies out there (and ditto that on Christmas movies too).

This indie 1992 movie features an all star Brat Pack of The 90's cast: Ethan Hawke, Gary Sinse, Kevin Dillion, Peter Berg and Arye Gross. They play an American Intelligence unit isolated in the Ardennes Forest during The Battle of The Bulge in World War II.

The Battle of the Bulge was a last ditch attempt by the Germans to turn the tide of the war back in their favour. It almost worked. The offensive was launched on December 16, 1944 with much of the bloodiest fighting taking place over Christmas and New Years.

In the midst of the fighting, the American soldiers are approached under a flag of truce by a lost German platoon. The war is pointless for them by now and they just want to surrender. Far removed from the fighting, the "enemies" find themselves celebrating Christmas together.  Then tension mounts when the war once again reaches their doorstep and the two enemies are lead down a path from which there is no coming back.

A Midnight Clear is one of those films that doesn't hit you over the head with messages. The anti-war sentiments are there, to be sure, but they just lie there subtly, allowing the audience to come to their own conclusions.  The same is true of the film's sympathetic and ambiguously heroic deception of these particular men who fought in World War II.

The film was made at a time when WWII was not in vogue in Hollywood. The war movie genre was still under the shadow of the lingering 80's obsession with movies about the Vietnam War. Even the box in the video store compared the movie to Platoon. It would be another six years before Spielberg and Saving Private Ryan would make WWII cool again.

A Midnight Clear is a lost gem, an underdog in the combat film genre, a great alternate Xmas flick and well worth seeking out.

9. The Apartment (1960)

The Apartment won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1960.  It was one of those Best Pictures that actually deserved the honour. It was directed by Billy Wilder, legendary for directing one of the best film comedies of all time, Some Like it Hot. Wilder plays things a bit more dark and real this time around. He once again casts his Some Like it Hot favourite, Jack Lemmon, along with an unrecognizably young Shirley Maclaine and Fred MacMurray in what was probably his last non-family friendly role.

Set in the final week of the 1950's, The Apartment follows the story of a mid-level insurance company drone, played by Lemmon, trying to work his way up in the company. He has a unique strategy to achieving that goal. He lends out his apartment to four different managers so that they can use it as secret hideaway for all of their many extramarital affairs (and you thought Mad Men did it first). Chief among the managers is head honcho Fred MacMurray.

Things get a little complicated when Lemmon starts to hit it off with one MacMurray's main squeezes, played by Maclaine.  Over Christmas and New Years,  there's love, betrayal and attempted suicide. Yet Wilder manages to keep even the darkest moments both appealing and funny.

The Apartment features a performance from MacMurray that is so incredibly creepy you will never watch My Three Sons or Son of Flubber (yep, those stupid Robin Williams Disney things were remakes) the same way again.

The Apartment is a more realistic take on Christmas. Life goes on during the holidays; it's not like all your issues and conflicts just go on an extended Christmas break like the banks do.

8. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Stanley Kubrick is quite possibly the greatest film director who ever lived.  His films have a visual language and meaning all their own. Kubrick is many things but he is not a panderer. Either you keep up with his audacious storytelling methods or you don't. It's that simple.

That may explain why Eyes Wide Shut still remains Kubrick's most maligned and misunderstood film. Some critics went so far as to say that Kubrick must not have finished editing it at the time of his death (he never lived to see the film released) or that he caved into studio pressure to tone down the extensive amount of orgy scenes. I don't think those critics understand Kubrick all that well. It's a much more complex film that they are giving the legendary director credit for.

And, oh yeah, it all takes place around Christmas.

Eyes Wide Shut is a story of sex and betrayal, both real and imagined. Kubrick does for Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut what he did for Ryan O'Neal in Barry Lyndon: makes him look like a much better actor than he is. Cruise, after a confession from his wife Nicole Kidman (both real and movie version at the time), heads out into the streets of a backlot in London made to look exactly like New York City. He embarks on a a dream-like journey of sex, surreal experiences and well, more sex, really.  He encounters an elite orgy of anonymous sex that reflects the inner world of his psyche run wild (See Stanley? I'm keepin' up). The orgy scenes are not about being shocking, sexy or caving or not caving into the studio censorship. Those scenes are much more oneiric in nature than any of those things.

And, oh yeah, they take place around Christmas.

One of the things I love about Eyes Wide Shut is how Kurbick (like the candles in Barry Lyndon) lights entire scenes with Chirstmas lights. I have never seen another movie that has used holiday lights as artfully and beautifully as Eyes Wide Shut.

And ya just gotta love any movie that ends (SPOILER ALERT) with Nicole Kidman standing in the middle of a crowded toy store on Christmas Eve saying the words, "We have to fuck."

I suggest that any of the maligners who may be reading this out there take another look at Eyes Wide Shut. I mean, who has ever really liked a Kubrick film on first viewing?

And, besides, Christmas is a time for forgiveness.

7. On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)

It was only after seeing this movie three times and reading the book that I realized it's a Christmas movie. It's as close as James Bond ever gets to anything yuletide. Well, aside from Sean Connery calling his attache case with a pop-out knife and exploding gas canisters in it, "A nasty Christmas present" in From Russia With Love. K....um...that was really geeky, wasn't it?

In this Bond outing, George Lazenby fills Sean Connery's shoes (for just one movie, as it would turn out). Lazenby is no Connery. In fact, he's barely even a Moore (and certainly not a Craig or even a Brosnan or a Nelson or Niven or....okay, I'll stop now). Though he does nail the last line of the movie, which in this case, is pretty damn important. Yep, this is the one were Bond gets married. Given that he is definitely not married in any other subsequent Bond movies, well, um, I think that's a spoiler alert.

In Lazenby's inexperienced hands, Bond comes off as a more vulnerable and less confident than any another 007 in cinema history (and I"m including Woody Allen's Bond from the 1967 comedy version of Casino Royale).

Back to the Xmas connection.

Ernest Stavro Blofeld, Bond's only multiple movie arch nemesis (played this time around by Telly Savalas -it wasn't just Bond they kept recasting), threatens to launch a major biological attack on the free world on Christmas Eve 1969, unless his demands are met.

James Bond spends Christmas Eve in a car chase on solid ice and in one of the greatest ski chases ever put on film. Bond launches an all-out assault with a group of mercenaries on Blofeld's remote complex high in the Swiss Alps on Christmas Day (again, you gotta be an eagle-eyed Bond fan to catch the references to the actual days).

At one point, Blofeld  manages to capture Bond on Xmas eve. "Merry Christmas, 007" says Blofeld to Bond as 007 awakens. The first thing that comes into view as Bond's vision de-blurs in a POV shot, is Blofeld's Christmas tree.

Let's just pause on that for a second.

Blofeld is a guy who shoots his own henchmen in cold blood just to make a minor point and kills associates who bother him with lethally electrically wired chairs in the middle of bad guy board meetings. Just a movie before, Blofeld attempted to destroy most of the world with thermonuclear weapons. The man is the CEO and founder of an organization called the Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion. Yet,  in the middle of planning and executing a massive complex plot to attack the free world with a horrific plague , he still takes time out to go and pick out a Christmas tree, transport it back to his remote complex in the Swiss alps and decorate it.

There is hope for the world after all.

6. Batman Returns (1992)

Outside of some wrapping paper I manage to track down every year, Batman makes a rare connection with the yuletide season in this movie. Batman Returns is the second and last Tim Burton directed Batman film and my personal fave of the 1989-97 caped crusader franchise.

Christmas is a back drop for the action in this story and it is a backdrop Burton takes full macabre advantage of.  There are giant exploding presents, screaming women thrown off roofs into Christmas trees and lethal brightly colored candy cane weapons. In the back story for Danny Devito's wonderful take on The Penguin, the "freakish" baby is both born and abandoned by his wealthy parents at Christmas. Michael Keaton's acceptable Batman and Michelle Pfeiffer's incredible Catwoman (and I am not just talking about the costume) have a twisted mistletoe-inspired rooftop fight.

Few directors can utilize childhood imagery with such twisted juxtaposition to darkness the way Burton can. Yet somehow Burton is, at the same time, always able to somehow create a sense of security amongst the dark visions of evil elves and bat-infested Christmas trees.

That in itself is a Christmas miracle.

5. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang(2005)

Before Robert Downey Jr.'s being fired from Alley McBeal for a heroin bust and his big Iron Man renaissance, he kinda drifted around in a random array of under-the-radar roles. This is one of them.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a great movie.  The story follows Downey's small time NYC crook as he literally runs from the cops into an audition that just happens to be going on at the time. In the heat of the emotional moment of the chase, he actually lands a role in a Hollywood movie. Downey is then sent to LA where he is to prepare for the role of private eye by hanging out with a real private eye played by Val Kilmer (in a wonderful performance).

Downey finds himself in LA cruising around with Kilmer at Christmas time. Downey also manages to stumble across Michelle Monaghan as a struggling actress. Monaghan's role in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is sure to satisfy anybody's sexy Santa's helper fetish. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang uses the classically surreal setting of Christmas in LA to maximum effect.

Also used to great effect are the legendary hard boiled detective writings of Raymond Chandler. His work is heavily referenced and integrated into the film. The movie is broken up in to chapters that borrow the plot, themes and titles of Chandler's The Lady in the Lake, The Little Sister, Farewell My Lovely, Trouble is My Business and The Simple Art of Murder. Though the movie does not take itself quite as seriously as any of those books. In fact, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang has a great deal of fun with the pulp detective fiction genre.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang marks the directorial debut of Shane Black, the Hollywood screenwriter who gave us the first two Lethal Weapon movies, The Monster Squad, The Last Boy Scout, The Last Action Hero and The Long Kiss Goodbye. Four of his screenplays use the backdrop of Christmas in LA. 

Xmas in LA is quite a popular setting for the non-Christmas Christmas movies, as our next selection undoubtedly demonstrates.

4. Die Hard (1987)

This scene is about as into the Christmas spirit as Die Hard gets

A perennial favourite on just about every alternative Christmas movie list out there, Die Hard is also a movie that forever redefined the action genre.

It's Christmas Eve in LA. New York cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) is town to try and patch things up with his ex-wife.  In the middle of her company's Xmas party, heavily armed men storm the tower and take control of the company's massive skyscraper. McClane, who happens to be out of the room at the time, finds himself  the lone hero who must.....okay, if you've read this far I really don't need to go on.

Die Hard is a massively entertaining piece of escapism. I say even though the screenplay displays some of the laziest writing I have ever seen. Everyone in the movie but the bad guys, Willis, his ex-wife and Urkel's friend's cop dad is unnecessarily stupid, arrogant and just plain unlikeable. It's as if the only way screenwriters Jeb Stuart and Steven E. De Sousa could make Willis a sympathetic character was by making everyone around him an asshole. Nonetheless, Die Hard is (even on the umpteenth viewing) full of great one-liners, exciting and genuinely suspenseful, despite the massive amounts of gratuitous violence.

Also Willis displays the most innovative use of Christmas packing tape I have ever seen. I'm still waiting for that one to turn up on Martha Stewart's show.

Die Hard 2 also takes place on Christmas Eve. Unfortunately, the story is set in Washington DC so there is tons of snow and winter tableau's everywhere.  That automatically makes it too Christmassy for this list.

A screening of Die Hard around the crazily busy holiday season is a great way to unwind. Die Hard also nicely counteracts all the nice and happy yuletide images the media feeds us constantly throughout December.

A wonderful bit of Christmas movie-tie in marketing

3. Black Christmas

When I was a kid, they ran a trailer for Black Christmas during The Flinstones. It scared the hell out of me so much that my father, understandably, wrote a letter to the CRTC regarding the inappropriate airing of horror movie trailers during freakin' cartoons (some of those are his exact words). I think it was that negative memory and my perceived silliness of the premise that kept me away from Black Christmas for many years to come.

Until a few years ago, to be exact. One Christmas, IS, the wonderful love of my life, and I got not only to spend our first Christmas together but also to host all the yuletide festivities in our own home. It was almost midnight Christmas Eve and I was busy putting out and organizing the army of presents generated by two families. IS was watching TV at the time.  Suddenly, the sounds of the Pope's midnight mass from The Vatican was replaced by low budget 70's horror atonal piano horror movie music and screaming with Silent Night echoing in the background. I found it both distracting and mood breaking. I looked up at IS and asked her why she was watching, of all things, Black Christmas now. She calmly responded, "This is my 'It's a Wonderful Life'".

I gained an immediate new-found respect for Black Christmas at that moment.

It has grown on me in the years since.  It's a very well directed and well crafted horror thriller. Black Christmas pre-dates the holiday themed slasher movies trend begun by John Carpenter's Halloween by four years. It's also the first movie to use the much subsequently overused and quoted line, "The call is coming from inside the house!".

Black Christmas was directed by one of Canada's finest directors, the late Bob Clark. Clark also went on to direct the massive hit sex comedy, Porky's. Those two movies alone have made Clark a pariah among Canadian culture elitists who believe that this country's culture begins and ends with Pierre Burton and Farley Mowat. Even Clark's excellent Sherlock Holmes mystery, Murder by Decree, can't turn that perception around. It may also rub a lot of people the wrong way 'cause it has many a horrific murder set to the strains of holiday music (also one of the first horror films to use the ironic music juxtaposition device). That and both movies were made on Canadian Government Tax Credit programs.

Black Christmas is one of those horror movies that is actually a pretty good movie. Clark uses strategically placed silences, slow motion and accompanying slowed down sound effects and aforementioned juxtaposition of murder in the midst of tinsel and colourful blinking lights to create a film that is genuinely creepy, tense and scary. Black Christmas also features a great deal of that 70's "Hey, we can swear in movies now!" dialogue, including one scene in particular where the "C" word is thrown around so much that it would render the film virtually unreleasable in today's market. Oddly, the violence, though, is considered tame by today's standards.

Black Christmas stars a pre-Superman,pre-mental breakdown Margot Kidder, a pre-SCTV Andrea Martin, a post-Zeffereili's Romeo and Juliet Oliva Hussey and a post-2001, pre-2010 Keir Dullea (my guess is that they took advantage of the fact the he was in Toronto shooting the embarrassingly low budget Canadian Sci-Fi series, The Starlost, at the time) . Cementing its classic B-movie status is the appearance of John Saxon as the initially disbelieving cop turned last minute savior.

You can always count on some Canadian cable network running low on their seasonal Cancon to run Black Christmas at least once every December.

The recent "all 70's horror movies must be remade" craze gave us a 2006 version of Black Christmas (with Andrea Martin as the only returning cast member).

Avoid that one at all costs.

2. Joyeux Noel (2005)

One of the brutal realities of war is that war doesn't just stop because it's Christmas.

Or does it?

Joyeux Noel is an amazing trilingual (English, French and German, everybody speaks in their native tongue-none of this Hollywood "the entire world speaks English with an accent" silliness) film that explores just that idea. The story is based on a number of true incidents of unofficial spontaneous cease fires, yuletide and otherwise, that happened during World War I. They were more than just cease-fires. Soldiers from both sides would climb out of their horrible rat infested trenches and actually celebrate the holiday (or just hang out) together.

There is one particularly moving scene in Joyeux Noel. One of the German soldiers hears the Scottish troops over in their trenches playing Christmas Carols on the bagpipes (they often fought in very close quarters in that war) on Christmas Eve.  Silent Night played on the bagpipes might not be most people's idea of easy listening music but it does inspire the German soldier in question. Turns out the guy was an opera signer in civilian life (yeah, it's a bit of a conceit but run with it). He makes the incredibly brave move of climbing out of the trenches singing the "O Come All Ye Faithful" . He stands right in the middle of "no man's land", just belting out the carol. It is this act of pacifistic bravery that inspires the other British, French and German troops to get out of their trenches as well.

In the case of the these impromptu cessation of hostilities, the festivities were often stopped not by the soldiers themselves but but by commanding officers as soon as they got wind of the activity. This is what happens in Joyeux Noel. All of the soldiers are severely punished for acting contrary to their job description.

The punishment the German troops receive is immediate reassignment to the Eastern Front.  Yes, the Eastern Front was infamously awful in both World Wars. The film ends on a chilling line. As the German soldiers are being transported to the Eastern Front by train, one of them says, "I'm Jewish. I don't even care about Christmas". 

1. Meet John Doe (1941)

Meet John Doe is the darker, more realistic version of It's a Wonderful Life. The two films are both directed by Frank Capra. Meet John Doe was released in 1941, five years before It's a Wonderful Life. Meet John Doe was a big hit in its initial release and has now faded into obscurity while the opposite is true of It's a Wonderful Life. The two films contain many of Capra's recurring themes but feature very different treatments of those themes and ideas.

Now let's talk about Meet John Doe on its own terms.

In 1941 before the US entry into WWII, the Great Depression was still dragging on. A newspaper columnist, played by the wonderfully underrated Barbara Stanwyck, is laid off. In response, she writes a letter to the editor under the name John Doe stating that Mr. Doe will jump off the roof of City Hall on Christmas Eve (still several months off) to protest the current state of the country's social and economic ills. The letter causes a sensation and Stanwyck is hired back. In a effort to keep sales up, the paper's editor concocts a plan to create an actual John Doe. They find a former baseball player played by Gary Cooper. Cooper is now homeless (or a "hobo" as was the term then) and agrees to pretend to be John Doe 'cause he needs the money to fix his bum arm that's keeping him out of the major leagues.

It's not long before John Doe creates a massive grass roots movement of common people. The movement is funded by the paper's owner and publisher played by Edward Arnold. Arnold's character is an early 1940's version of a media mogul, owning multiple newspapers and radio stations. Arnold is, of course, putting up the money to back John Doe  in order to serve his own political ambitions. His jackbooted-motorcycle-riding private security force and lines like "What this country needs is an iron hand" betray Arnold's crytpo-fascist leanings. In 1941, fascism was on the march (to put it mildly) in Europe and Asia. The US was still predominantly isolationist and, really,  no one was really sure whether fascism would catch on in America or not.

As soon as Cooper and Stanwcyk (who is both Cooper's speech writer and his love interest) clue in to Arnold's true ambition, they stand against him. Arnold, in turn, reveals to the media that he owns that John Doe is really a "fake". The exposure of the "fraud" is in an incredibly emotionally powerful scene set in a stadium full of Doe supporters.

Now thoroughly publicly discredited, Cooper decides that the only way to save the John Doe Society (as the movement is now called) is to follow through on the message of the original letter and jump off the roof of City Hall on Christmas Eve.

Highly regarded by film academics, directors and screenwriters, Meet John Doe is an otherwise forgotten film. You really gotta look to find a TV airing, even around Christmas. The DVD is put out by small time companies and usually has bad sound and not the greatest picture.  It is still worth seeking out, especially at this time of the year and especially if you're starting to get a little tired of It's a Wonderful Life.

Take a look at this scene.

(and that's big WTF? on all that Dead Zone stuff)

There are no angels in Meet John Doe. God is often referred to there is no evidence of His divine intervention like in that other Capra Christmas classic. Edward Arnold is not Lionel Barrymore.  He does not make speeches and judgments. He is not curmudgeonly. He is quieter, more scheming and a lot more powerful than Barrymore ever was (and I'm even counting when Barrymore is seen running the whole town in an alternate reality).  Much much scarier, in other words.  Gary Cooper is a bit more morally ambiguous than Jimmy Stewart. The bad guy is more powerful, we're not really sure if the good is really good and there is no tangible morally superior force in the universe. It's not the kind of movie you want to watch while wrapping your presents on Christmas Eve.

Meet John Doe ends on note of hope but not one of certainty. That's kind of what Christmas, and life, is really like.

Merry Christmas,
Happy Holidays,
Season's Greetings,
and Happy Whatever Else We're Supposed To Say Now,
All The Best for 2011!


Friday, December 17, 2010

A Very Youtube Christmas

I took some time out from all of my holiday madness to look up some of the more interesting Xmas fare being offered up on Youtube this season...

Let's start off with Billy Idol's Christmas Album.

Yes. Billy Idol. Christmas album.

The guy seems to be a bit confused  about the difference between a White Wedding and a White Christmas.

If you like your holidays kinda creepy and disturbing, Billy is your guy.

Then let's move on to this little gem.

Every good geek out there knows just how awful the once-aired-yet-still-recorded 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special. However, did you also know that there is a Star Wars Christmas album?

According the poster on Youtube, this is the best track on it:

Is there anything Anthony Daniels will not do in the name of George Lucas?

This next one I'm quite touched by. My sketch comedy group, The Vestibules recorded a song about a billion years ago called Christmas on Acid (still available on CD, BTW, at www.thevestibules.com). Recently, somebody actually went to the trouble of translating the song into Spanish.

This amazes me. Take a look:

Felix Navidrogo has got to be the greatest lyric translation of all time!

This is the crossover everyone has been demanding:

Oh, what Jack Bauer sacrifices for the security of the country he loves!

This is proof to the argument that Christmas, in fact, has its roots in winter solstice related page rituals that pre-date the birth of Christ by, well, quite a bit, actually...

Here is a wonderful mash-up that makes you wish that Gene Autry and The Police would have worked together more often.

I hope Rudolph gets the message.

And, finally, here are my pals John C. Reily and Wil Ferell doing an uncanny imitation of David Bowie and Bing Crosby's legendary Xmas duet:

Personally, I find the last gag a little too on the nose but (that's often the case with the Funny or Die stuff). Other than that, man, did those guys nail it. Reilly's even got Bing's frequent cue card glances down.

Stay tuned for my list of the 10 Best "It Ain't Always Such a Wonderful Life" Christmas Movies...

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

John Lennon 1940-1980

John Lennon in the anti-war film How I Won The War

Rounding out the dark early December anniversaries is the shooting of John Lennon on December 8, 1980.

During my morning run today, my iPod shuffle eerily offered up Starting Over (Lennon's last hit single before his death), on this, the 30th anniversary of that fatal shooting in New York City. Needless to say, I found myself reflecting on the events of three decades ago today.

I remember it very well.

Earlier blogs have spoken about the role The Beatles have played in my life. I have even mentioned that I was at the memorial for John Lennon in Central Park in New York City on December 14, 1980.

I remember coming home from a rehearsal for a play that the Narroway Theatre Troupe (there are a tiny amount of you who will know that name) was putting on later that month (the one and only Christmas play I have ever involved with). I put on my clock radio to fall asleep to that night.

Suddenly the top 40 tunes of CKGM stopped and the DJ was talking about a famous musician who had just been shot. I was half awake. I didn't catch the name but, at that moment, I was pretty sure it was Keith Richards. I had just read Up and Down With the Rolling Stones and getting shot somehow seemed in keeping with Richards' lifestyle. Then the DJ repeated the name: John Lennon. I was suddenly completely awake. I was also stunned. I could not get my head around it : who the hell would want to kill John Lennon? How could the peace guy get shot?

I remember some yahoo on Facebook on last year's anniversary said "John Lennon said 'All you need is love' when all he really needed was Kevlar vest". Spoken like a true reactionary, pal. Lennon was advised many times by many people that he should have bodyguards. A really famous guy like Lennon hanging out in public in NYC unprotected was not a good idea, he was told. Lennon would not hear of such a thing. So, in a way, he did die for peace.

End of rant. Back to blog.

As fate would have it, I had asked my parents for a major b-day present that year: to go on a three day high school trip to New York City. Much to my surprise, they agreed. It would be my first time in the city. Our train tickets were for the Friday, as it turned out, after the Monday that Lennon was shot.

That would put me in NYC for the planned public Lennon memorial on December 14, 1980.

The trip was an incredible eye-opening blast. A seventeen year-old in NYC for the first time: need I say more?  Well, maybe...but let's save that for another blog.

On that Sunday, the last day of our trip, we were scheduled to visit The Metropolitan Museum of Art. An amazing museum, to be sure. I have been there many times since. At that particular moment in history, though, the MMA ran a distant second to a once-in-a-lifetime vigil for a slain rock legend.

The teachers supervising us did not see it that way.  They were not at all into the idea. At the time me and the other kids saw it as The Man denying us something we really wanted. When I think back on it now, though, taking their age into account, they were probably as probably as big or bigger fans of Lennon than we were. More likely, they were terrified of taking a bunch of teenage bumpkins from Canada into a Central Park crammed full of 250,000 New Yorkers. Any number of things could happen, none of them good. In 1980, NYC was closer to the city of Charles Bronson's Death Wish than to the Post Giuliani Times Square Disneyland it is today. And they'd already had one lost kid incident that trip.

After a few half-hearted arguments about the MMA being a very important cultural institute, they finally relented.

Attending the John Lennon memorial was a moving experience. People were crying all around me. Many aging boomers showed up with their old hippie protest signs and paraphernalia. I remember seeing one of those American flags with peace signs where the stars should be that some activist turned accountant had no doubt dug out of a trunk in his attic that morning.

Like the man says in the clip below, there was literally no noise in all of Central Park for ten minutes. The only sound was that of the helicopters overhead. Ironically, that sound conjured up images of Vietnam from Apocalypse Now in my head. I was standing next to the ABC News van and even they shut up (you can see the van in this clip but not me).


I really owe it to my parents and those teachers that I was even able to be there at all for such a moving moment in time.

The other side of the coin was that, frankly, that was the largest amount of people I have ever seen in one place at one time in my entire life. After the vigil, I fulfilled my teachers' worst fears. Caught up in the massive push of 250, 000 people all trying to leave Central Park at the same time, I quickly lost sight of my group. I remember making a majorly conscious effort to not panic. I found the roots of a massive tree, the highest elevated surface I could find. and stood on top of it. I did not move from that spot until a middle-aged history teacher on the verge of a simultaneous nervous breakdown and heart attack  found me.

He later told me, "We're lucky it was you. I'm not sure any of these other kids would have had the same common sense." . My apologies to any of the other students who were on that trip with me who may be reading this now but that is what the man said.

The next night I was back in Montreal in rehearsal for a show that opened the following weekend (it strikes me that I had a rather amazing well-rounded life back then -I can only hope that I was enjoying it to the fullest). When I told my fellow cast members that I had been at the Central Park Lennon memorial the day before, they just stared at me in disbelief.

December 1980 also marked the emergence of Lennon's Merry Xmas (War is Over) as a  new Christmas standard. It was a natural. It was Christmas time and the song was connected to a major news story. Besides which, many radio stations at the time went with an all Lennon/all Beatles 24 hour playlist for a week after Lennon's death. That's a lot of airtime to fill.

Before December 1980 Merry Xmas (War is Over) was rarely heard on the radio at all, even on the rock stations around the holidays. It was a single that never even charted in the US.  I'm guessing that an early 70's traditional folk standard turned Vietnam war protest song doubling as a yuletide tune would have been just a tad too contentious for the pre-1980 pop culture mainstream. Even Phil Spector's choir of angelic children could not get the song past that issue.

Every December since, Merry Xmas (War is Over) has gotten a ton of airplay. Today, it has been covered by Andy Williams, Jessica Simpson, Neil Diamond and Celine Dion. If that's not a sign of total mainstream acceptance, what is?

Among many many other things, John Lennon actually managed to be the last songwriter to introduce a new Christmas standard.

Let's go out on that one.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Date Which Shall Live in Infamy

For those of you unfamiliar with the historic speeches of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, this blog is not about some terrible experience from my single days.

No. I'm referring to the second in the trio of dark early December anniversaries: the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. It was 69 years ago today that Japanese pilots sounded the "To hell with Babe Ruth!" battle cry that would set into motion a series of events that would transform the world.

When I was in Hawaii a few years back, I made a point of visiting Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial.

This is the view from the boat approaching the memorial:

Pearl Harbor is pretty shallow in places so the smoke stack of the USS Arizona still pokes up from the water:

Keeping in mind that I come from a family filled with World War II veterans, I must point out that the commentary and general attitude at the Memorial in those early post-911 days was a tad heavy-handed to say the least. With all due respect, they talk about the USS Arizona like it was the only battleship ever sunk in the history of warfare.

Don't get me wrong, the Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial are amazing historic sites to behold. They really should just let them speak for themselves.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Remembering December 6, 1989

Early December marks a trio of horrible anniversaries: the shooting at L' Ecole Polytechnique on the 6th, the attack on Pearl Harbor on the 7th and the shooting of John Lennon on the 8th. I've always found the terrible trilogy to be a grim counter-point to the gradual onslaught of yuletide cheer.

It is with something of a heavy heart that I recount my memories of December 6, 1989 and the days that followed. I say that because my tone in the rest of my blog may suggest otherwise.

Working in comedy when horrible things like this happen ain't easy. I am still haunted by memories of a show I was in on September 12, 2001 when some majorly misguided stand-up comic rolled out his all new 911 material (I wonder if that would fall into Glen Beck's 9-12 program?).  That, however, is a blog for next September.

Back in 1989, I was writing, performing and producing a weekly sketch comedy radio series with my good pals and colleagues, The Vestibules. We already had our first CBC contract by then but we were still doing our series for CKUT 90.3 FM, Radio McGill. We saw it as a good way to continue to generate new material.

The show aired Thursday nights which meant that 90% of said new material for that week's show was written after 10 PM on Wednesday night. We knew nothing of the Polytechnique shooting that night (just as an aside I have never known what to call the event. I have never liked the Montreal Massacre. It sounds like something an American news network's graphics department came up with).

Not that we saw any news, American or otherwise that night. We were shut away from the world in Breakfast Studios throwing crumpled up bags around the room in attempt to either distract ourselves from the fact that we still didn't have a show written or in the hopes that physical activity would somehow indirectly inspire us to write the Greatest Sketch in the History of Comedy.

I did not learn of the shooting until waking up Thursday morning. I was just getting out of bed so that I could head right back to  Breakfast Studios to help prepare our newly written and recorded show for that evening's broadcast. My clock radio had just gone off. I heard the news for the first time on CKUT FM from an incredibly nervous sounding and shaken up kid clearly reading a wire story verbatim.

One of the newly written and recorded sketches that we had for the show was about these two gruff sounding sleazy movies critics. The critics review and hate just about every movie that was out at the time.  The only movies that get good reviews from these guys are soft core pornos. A simple joke, I know, but trust me, it was all in the performances. It did not take long for us to realize that it was a sketch that, under the circumstances,  none of us were comfortable with putting on the air.

Problem was that we had nothing else ready to put in the questionable sketch's place. So we spent most of the morning and early afternoon re-editing the bit. We cut out anything that we felt might be inappropriate. As it turns out, that was most of the sketch. It made the show a little short but CKUT didn't have all that strict a schedule to adhere to. The remaining bit left even our biggest fans going , "Huh?".

It was worth it.

As I look back on it now, I still wonder if  we were being overly sensitive or not. I think, though, that either way, it was my own (and I can only speak for myself on this score) way of showing, if only to myself, that yes, this horrible event affected me and that, yes, I did what I could.

I would do the same thing again today.

The day after that show aired, I was in the Friday night McGill Improv show (BTW, for the record, I never even attended McGill University) .  In the show, we were playing an improv game called "Most Deaths in a Minute". I'm not sure whose idea it was to even play that game that night but I suspect that some kind of iconoclastic reaction against the media bombardment about the event over the two previous days figured into the decision.

For the non-improv cognoscenti out there, the game is exactly what it sounds like: come up with as many different ways to die in a given location as you can in one minute. Of course, we got the suggestion of "school". Today under those circumstances, I would just turn the suggestion down cold. Back then, being the young Johnstonian  improv purists that we we were, we took it.

The timing of one minute began. There was hesitation amongst the players. Then finally someone ran onto the stage. Seemingly without even thinking, she said, "Is there where the engineering final is?" and then mimed getting shot. I believe the phrase "too soon" was invented that night.

Many years later, I had the occasion to reunite with that player. I told her the story of how she made the first joke about the December 6 shooting. She did not remember the incident at all and was mortified by even the suggestion that she did such a thing. In retrospect, I probably shouldn't have mentioned it.

Working in comedy over the next 21 years, that was the one and only joke that I have ever heard about the events of December 6, 1989.

I hope it stays that way.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Leslie Nielsen: a dramatic appreciation

I've been reading a bunch of obits for Canadian actor Leslie Nielsen.  Notice that I wrote "actor" and not "comic actor" or "funnyman".  

I say that because almost nobody is really looking at this guy here:

Namely, the first 30 years of Nielsen's acting career as a dramatic leading man and character actor. Fair enough. The man's real fame came with Airplane! and, perhaps even more so, the hit Naked Gun movies. However, Nielsen pulled off a pretty incredible dramatic acting career before everyone kept calling him Shirley. 

I feel that it bears some scrutiny.

Nielsen studied with legendary acting teacher Sanford Meisner. I trained intensively for a couple of years in the Meisner technique with an acting teacher who was trained by Meisner himself.  That's ain't no easy shit, I can tell ya.

The original studio plan for Nielsen was to make him a leading man. Most notably, in the sci-fi classic seen here:

That plan continued when Nielsen went, incredibly,  up against Chuck Heston for the title role in Ben Hur.

This his is screen test:


However for the 50's, 60's and 70's TV and character parts in movies were Nielsen's destiny. 

The guy guest starred on almost every show in TV history: Bonanza, Gunsmoke, The Defenders, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, MASH, Wild Wild West, Columbo, Cannon, The Man From UNCLE, Barnaby Jones, Kojak, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, Ironside and even the abysmal Canadian series The Littlest Hobo. Whenever I watched TV with my parents when I was a kid, there was always a rousing round of "What? Him again?" every time Nielsen would turn up on yet another show. When I showed my parents Airplane! on VHS years later, they, more than any other audience I've ever seen, really got the joke behind casting Nielsen.

 The best dramatic acting I've ever seen Nielsen do was an episode of Hawaii Five-0. For the record, I wanted to back up that claim with a clip. However, the Computer Gods were against me on that one today.

One of his most memorable character roles was as the captain of the ill fated ocean liner the S.S. Poseidon in the 70's disaster classic, The Poseidon Adventure. Take a look at this short clip.


Even in the comedies, Nielsen was always cast as the in the non-comedic parts. Like in this Don Knotts vehicle:

Notice that the DVD makes it look like Nielsen is Don Knott's wacky sidekick. Understandable. He's probably a bigger draw than Knotts these days. In the movie, though, he's the very much the heavy against Knott's funny man.

The Minister of Defense's brother also ended up in his fair share of B-movies. Like this buff role in Day of the Animals:


The ultimate low point of Nielsen's dramatic career had to be:

Yeah, Nielsen is the bad guy in this one. Though he's not slumming it alone as a quick look at the credits on the poster will tell you. BTW, Nielsen's bad guy drug dealer's plot is to kill Knievel in a stunt "accident" in Mexico so that he can smuggle cocaine back in Evel's coffin because who, after all, would search Evel Knieval's coffin? 

Just had to get that out there.

I don't think it's a complement to his acting skills that the writer/directors of Airplane! saw comedy in Nielson's dramatic acting.  Nonetheless, Nielsen was a savvy enough actor to play the deadpan guy who doesn't get the joke with aplomb.

I remember seeing this movie in the late 80's.

In this film starring Barbara Streisand and Richard Dreyfus, Nielsen plays a crazed john that Streisand's high class prostitute allegedly murdered. He appears in flashbacks and is quite creepy. However whenever Nielsen appeared on screen there were uncomfortable murmurs and giggling all over the theatre. And I remember thinking to myself, "That's it. The man's dramatic career is over".

And I was right.

Nielsen's ever rising stardom into the 90's consisted of more Naked Gun sequels, Mel Brooks films and fare like Wrongfully Accused, Spy Hard and Mr.Magoo. Each one was progressively less deadpan, less subtle and less funny.

Still, Nielsen remains, in my opinion, an actor of great versatility and, even in the worst movies, moments of brilliant delivery.

Probably the my fave of Nielson's dramatic work is his starring role in the 1950's Wonderful World of Disney mini-series, Swamp Fox.  Nielson played General Francis Marion, a real historical figure from the American Revolution (the same guy, in fact, that Mel Gibson played in The Patriot).  A Disney series from the 50's about the American Revolution; it don't get much squarer than that, folks. Even so, Nielson possesses an undeniable charm in the role.

I have a recording of Nielson actually singing the theme the song (which does not appear on any of the DVD's of the show that I've seen).  I wanted to post it but, again, the Computer Gods don't seem to like Mr.Nielson today.

So we'll just have to settle for the rest of cast singing the theme to Nielsen:

Leslie Nielson: dramatic and comedic actor, 1926-2010 RIP.

The Article That All The In-Flight Magazines Rejected

The 10 Greatest Airline Disaster Movies of All Time

10. Zero Hour! (1954)
On a long transcontinental flight, the crew of a passenger airliner is incapacitated by food poisoning. The only person on board who can land the plane is burnt out veteran combat pilot suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.

Sound familiar? And kinda funny too?

That's probably because the plot of Zero Hour! was lifted entirely by the makers of the great parody film, Airplane! Many of the shots, costumes and even types of actors are almost exactly the same as in Airplane! Even some of the dialogue is verbatim.  The producers of the Airplane! actually optioned the rights to Zero Hour! to avoid any legal complications.

But enough about Airplane! for now. Let's talk Zero Hour!.

Once you get past the temptation to utter the words, "and don't call me Shirley" after every line of dialogue, Zero Hour! is actually not a bad B-movie airline disaster thriller. It was written by Canadian author Arthur Hailey (based on his teleplay), whose later novel Airport would lead to a slew of airline disaster movies in the 70's (but more on that later). 

In Zero Hour!, Ted Stryker (even some of the character names are the same) must not only get over to his traumatic World War II flying memories but he must also land the plane in question before any of the afflicted passengers and crew die of food  poisoning, including his own son (the premises do differ somewhat). Adding to the tension, Stryker (played by Dana Andrews, an odd casting choice for a leading man) has his estranged wife (played by the equally oddly cast Linda Darnell) right in the cockpit with him. Just to keep things hopping, Hailey decided to throw in the plane losing altitude over a mountain range and Stryker's former adversarial air force CO is, coincidentally,  turning up as the guy assigned to talking him down (that role, incidentally, is played by the perfectly cast Sterling Hayden of Dr.Strangelove fame -boy, I wish they woulda got him to reprise that role in Airplane!).

The last 15 minutes of Zero Hour! is text book "keep raising the stakes" screenwriting. Despite the stiffness that seems to inhabit many Hollywood films of the 1950's, the climatic plane landing scene is actually quite exciting.

In a rarity for Hollywood, the film retains the Canadian setting from Hailey's original teleplay. Stryker is a former RCAF pilot and the flight in question is a Winnipeg-Vancouver run. However, nobody in the cast sounds at all Canadian (funny how they can get away with that the other way around, eh?).

Here's an interesting factoid that may win you a trivial pursuit game one day, the teleplay version of Zero Hour! was Canada's first live dramatic television broadcast . It starred a young James Doohan in the role of Stryker.

9.  Skyjacked (1972)

Charlton Heston seemed to spend the 70's alternating between starring in dystopian sci-fi films and starring in big budget disaster films. Skyjacked just manages to squeak its way into the latter category.

In Skyjacked, Heston plays the pilot of a commercial flight hijacked by a crazed Vietnam veteran (combat trauma often played a key role in these stories) played by James Brolin. Brolin demands that the plane be flown to the Soviet Union. I guess "Take this plane to Cuba" was, even then, just a little too done.

Chuck plays to his strengths in this one: the self-righteous, egotistical, slightly morally ambiguous yet strong hero. Brolin, looking much like his son Josh does today, plays the classic early 70's archly unreal psychotic. The guy could just as easily be pulled out of any episode of Hawaii Five-0 or The Mod Squad.

The crazed vet just back from 'Nam was often the norm for the manner in which Hollywood dealt with the war in Vietnam at the time: subtle implications about the high cost of the conflict without  ever making any direct criticisms.

Skyjacked features a great deal of in-air tension, a taunt climatic style talk-down landing sequence that actually happens half way through the movie and a budding young romance between Laurie Partridge and 70's TV Spider-Man.

Best of all, though  is the opening sequence in which Heston freely lights up a pipe: not just on board the plane but in the cockpit during take-off.

8.Die Hard II (1990)

There's an episode of The Simpsons were the first Presidential primaries of the year are held in Springfield. For some reason, all the candidates end up in Homer's living room appealing for his vote. Included among them is politician turned actor turned politician turned actor again turned AIG reverse mortgage spokesman, Fred Thompson. Thompson (who was actually trying to run for President at the time) and all the other candidates are ordered out of the house by Homer. Thompson stays behind. Says Homer to Thompson, "That means you too." to which Thompson replies, "But I was in Die Hard".  Homer stares down Thompson saying,  "Two! TWO!".

That pretty much sums it up: Die Hard II is not Die Hard. Though it is a much better movie than the two more Die Hard movies that would follow in the seventeen years to come. It is a pretty entertaining movie to watch, despite the ever escalating levels of violence and mayhem.

More importantly, though, Die Hard II belongs in this genre. The Die Hard sequel is probably the most action packed of the all the airline disaster films. True, 80% of the action does take place on the ground but the main thrust of the story is all about preventing several planes from crashing.

Die Hard II features a great fight between Bruce Willis, John Amos (J.J. Walker's dad turned evil) and the head honcho bad guy William Sadler (in one of the most underrated villain performances of all time) that takes place entirely on the wing of plane during take off. It's a solid climatic scene for such and action-packed movie, even if does require you to shut off your brain.

Die Hard II: Die Harder also wins The Most Idiotic Movie Title of All Time award hands down.

7.  The High and The Mighty (1954)

No. This is not the story of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 70's.

Sorry. Couldn't resist.

The High and The Mighty is one of the earliest airline disaster films. Commercial air travel was just beginning to be accessible to most of the population in the 50's. Naturally, then, so was the fear of airline disasters. That's one reason why this movie was such a huge hit back in '54.

John Wayne brings his artificial cowboy machismo to the cockpit in this story of a Honolulu-San Fransisco flight gone bad. As with so many of these films, Wayne's co-pilot character has got a back story filled with emotional trauma. He lost his family in -you guessed it- a plane crash some years back. Spencer Tracy was originally cast in the part but backed out at the last minute. Wayne, one of the producers of the movie, jumped into Tracy's role days before shooting started. Let's just say that Spencer Tracy and John Wayne are, well, very different actors.

Long story short: an engine burns out while the plane is flying over the middle of the pacific ocean. John Wayne overcomes his emotional trauma filled back story to take over flying the plane and (SPOILER ALERT) manages to land the plane safely . The burnt-out pilot in question is played by Robert Stack , who would later become better known as that guy in Airplane! who takes off one pair of sunglasses to reveal another pair underneath.

An "all star cast" (by film historian standards, anyway) makes up most of the 17 passengers on this flight (different times in the airline industry indeed). Almost all of them have a back story told  in the full tedium of 1950's exposition. Each story is somehow impacted and in true old Hollywood style resolved during or after  the disaster. In one of the more interesting stories, a passenger shoots  at another passenger,  using a gun that he easily brought onto the aircraft in his suit pocket.  Such an act of weapons smuggling could be easily be imitated today without any possible risks or consequences.

The High and The Mighty is an incredibly fun film to watch for both its historical curiosity and its undeniable entertainment value.

6.  Flight of the Phoenix 1965

Not to be confused with the mediocre 2004 remake.

In Flight of the Phoenix, the disaster opens the movie. Like many disaster movies, the film is about the sheer determination to survive in the face of certain death. Jimmy Stewart plays a washed up pilot (anyone seeing some common themes here?) reduced to flying around oil company employees in North Africa. Stewart ends up crashing one such plane right in middle of the Sahara desert. The chances of rescue are slim and the chances of survival are next to nil.

The survivors of the crash are a mix of British, American and Europeans, all from varied classes and social backgrounds. Included among them is a German aviation engineer. He hatches a plan to fly the stranded survivors out of the desert. Only his plan is not to repair the very badly damaged plane but to build an entirely new plane out the old plane's salvageable parts. It's a plan that will challenge the energy, remaining food and water supplies and, ultimately, the spirits of the survivors.

The Flight of the Phoenix features an incredible ensemble cast of male stars and character actors (sorry, it's 1965, no women flying around the desert working for oil companies here) of the era: Stewart, George Kennedy, Ernest Borgnine, Peter Finch, Richard Attenborough, Ian Bannen and Hardy Kruger. The Flight of the Phoenix adheres to my Kennedy-Borgnine Axiom of Entertaining Movies: any film featuring both actors is a good one.

This movie is real old school man's man stuff all the way. The only woman in the picture appears briefly in a mirage. The Flight of the Phoenix was directed by Robert Aldrich a director of similar machismo fare like Kiss Me Deadly, The Dirty Dozen (the Kennedy-Borgnine Axiom applies) and,one of the greatest macho conflict movies of all time, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Stewart spends the entire movie basically playing the angry, cynical  and disillusioned pre-Clarence The Angel George Bailey. That said, Jimmy is really very good in this film. Most of the other guys fill the various levels of testosterone needed to propel the hard edges of the story, with the exception of the intentionally Pansy-waisted Richard Attenborough (his part was played by Miranda Otto in the remake).  Elleston Trevor's novel is given a fine screen treatment here.

One major subtext issue is completely side stepped in Flight of the Phoenix. Namely that of all these foreigners flying around the desert in order to maintain a controlling interest in the region's oil. There's a great scene where a bunch of Bedouins make camp near the wrecked plane. The encounter is far from a joyous opportunity for rescue. Rather the first words on almost every body's lips are "Arabs! They'll kill us!". Aldrich never really gets into why that is.

Things were still quaint in 1965. Nobody was being forced to look at the bigger picture of the whole middle east oil situation just yet.

5.  Airport '75 (1974)

Charlton Heston weighs in with his second appearance on this list. The sequel to the massively successful Airport (more on that one later), Airport '75 was actually released in 1974 by the forward thinking studio execs at Universal.

Zero Hour!'s Dana Andrews also makes a second appearance on this list as the small aircraft pilot who suffers a massive heart attack while flying. Rather than just crashing, Andrews ends up ramming his plane into the cockpit of a 747 that had the misfortune of flying by right at that moment. The 747 is left with one big gaping hole. Co-pilot Roy Thinnes and navigator Erik Estrada are sucked out of the newly ventilated cockpit and pilot Efhrem Zimbalast Jr. is left incapacitated.

That just leaves, egads, the stewardess to fly the plane. Karen Black plays the pre-flight attendant era stewardess in question.  Fortunately, Black's experienced pilot/aviation expert beau is back on the ground as the movie's on-call hero.  That is the role played, naturally, by Heston.

In 1974, it was so inconceivable that Karen Black could land a plane all by herself, that the only possible solution had to be lowering Heston on a tether into the hole in the cockpit from a helicopter flying above the disabled plane.  Seems like a perfectly practical plan to me.

All that so we can get the requisite nail-biting climatic plane landing scene with Chuck at the helm.

Airport '75 boasts a classic 70's all star cast: Efrem Zimbalast Jr., Erik Estrada, Linda Blair, Dana Andrews, "comedian" Sid Caesar (that's how he's billed in the trailer though the guy does absolutely nothing funny, intentional or not, during the whole movie), Helen Reddy, and reprising his role from the first Airport movie, George Kennedy (also making his second appearance on the list but, sorry, no Borgnine this time around). 

Karen Black is the only member of the cast that is actually emotionally invested in the material. Roy Thinnes comes in as a close second but his part is tiny and he's killed off way too early in the movie. 

To be fair, though, Heston does totally nail the line "Climb, baby, climb!".

4.  Air Crew (1980)

The Russian film Air Crew (Ekipazh is its Russian title) has the distinction of being the only non-Hollywood movie on this list. Foreign disaster movies in general are pretty rare. The USSR makes its first entry into the "catastrophe movie" (as it is called on a Russian movie fan site) genre with a fascinating and riveting film.

About the first hour of the movie (referred to as Part 1 on the DVD) follows the personal and professional lives of the flight crew of the title. Part 1 is practically indistinguishable from any foreign film of the era revolving around personal and social drama . Close-ups are rare so as not to create too much emotional involvement. Much of the action is covered in extended austere long shots.

In "Part II", Tarkovsky becomes Emmerich as our cast of characters gets into action. It really feels like a whole different movie. The editing is more quickly paced and there many more emotionally engaging close-ups.

The air crew is assigned to an Aeroflot airliner sent on a rescue mission to the remote Russian city (aren't they all?) of Bidri. I suppose a disaster that takes place during a commercial flight may well have been deemed "too bourgeois" by the state owned studio, Mosfilm. The city of Bidri has been besieged by an earthquake which has caused a volcano to erupt in turn creating rapidly spreading fires all over the city. Did I mention that a runaway or two got damaged  along the way? Such ramped up, pull-out-all-the-stops action was rare even in Hollywood at the time. Keep in mind that Michael Bay was still directing Donny Osmond videos in 1980. Speaking of which, the special effects in Air Crew do get a little Gerry Anderson at times but in my book, that ain't a bad thing.

The air crew's mission is to fly the Bidri survivors out before an impending avalanche covers the only surviving runway.  Given the size of the Soviet Air Force in 1980, you'd think they could scrounge up an aircraft better suited to the job than a passenger airliner but is better if you not ask so many questions, comrade.

In another seemingly staunchly anti-Hollywood move, the action of the disaster does not have any direct relation or impact on the character's stories. There's none of these "Do I rescue my ex-wife or my young girlfriend?" moral dilemmas that Chuck Heston is routinely faced with in these kinds of movies.

Air Crew also does something that I have never seen any disaster flick do: it follows the stories of the survivors many years after the "catastrophe".  Fascinatingly, the pre and post disaster story arc is at best only indirectly impacted by the disaster itself. It's like the disaster is just this one extraordinary event in the middle of otherwise normal lives. There's a subtle message to the proletariat buried in there somewhere.

Air Crew features some really good performances by Georgiy Zhzhonov, Leonid Filatov and Aleksandra Ivanes: an early 80's Soviet all star cast...probably.

My favourite line in the film is when an old babushka type lady, watching the wild fires encroach on the runway, turns to the pilot and co-pilot (who have still not yet boarded the plane) and says, "You're men. Do something.".

The following scene (only the beginning of Part II of the film, BTW) is in Russian with no subtitles. However, the more keen viewers among you may just be able to keep up with what's happening.

3.  Air Force One (1997)

A rousing and exciting picture that proudly displays the determination of the American spirit. With the help of a Benedict Arnold in the US Secret Service, Russian terrorists take control of the greatest plane in the world belonging to the greatest country in the world: Air Force One. It is a crisis that would be the true moral test of any great President. In this movie, the President Marshall is no exception.

The Commander-in-Chief splendidly rises to the challenge, refusing to negotiate with the terrorists, taking them on entirely on his own instead, at great risk to both himself and his family. Air Force One is suspenseful and thrilling while still upholding all of the values and courage of those who fight to defend freedom.

The movie is only flawed by the left wing tendencies of its European Socialist Director, Wolgang Peterson. Peterson previously made the three hour Nazi apologist epic, Das Boot. The German director here once again adopts a classic liberal progressivist stance by taking the side of America's enemies. The dialogue of Ivan Korshunov, the lead Russian terrorist, actually attempts to explain and even justify the man's immoral  actions. Many of the familiar old and tired "blame America first" arguments are predictably invoked. The actor who plays Korshunov, Gary Oldman, backs up Peterson's unwarranted and ungrateful bashing of his adopted country all the way. He actually plays the part with a great sensitivity and humanity. It is interesting to note that Oldman, a veteran of London's hard left theatre scene, has, in other movies, endowed similarly vile characters with inappropriate humanity, among them the punk rock anarchist Sid Vicious, the radical homosexual agenda pushing playwright Joe Orton and the amoral evil spawn of the undead, Dracula.

Fortunately, Peterson has the good sense to finally set everything right in the end. President Marshall (played by Harrison Ford, surely this generation's reincarnation of The Duke himself, John Wayne) finally asserts the ultimate superiority of America when he utters the famous line, "Get off my plane!" just before dispatching Odman's "nice guy" villain to the fires of Hell.

God bless Air Force One.

2.  Airport (1970)

Airport is the movie that really built the airline disaster genre. It spawned three sequels and gave rise to an entire big budget disaster genre of the 70's. It also established the many-stories-in-one approach that has been a standard in the disaster genre right up till The Day After Tomorrow. Unlike many of its predecessors, airline and other wise, Airport is a tightly written and directed, entertaining, if somewhat old fashioned, movie.

Airport's also got that all star cast thing happening: Dean Martin, Burt Lancaster, Helen Hayes, Jacqueline Bisset and making his third appearance on this list, perennial disaster fave George Kennedy (but again, no Borgnine). The disaster this time around is nice and simple: a desperate man trying to blow up a plane for insurance fraud purposes. Fortunately, pilot Dean Martin (and, no, the disaster does not involve Dean hitting the cocktails in the cockpit) is able to intervene at the last minute but not before the bomb goes off. The explosion tears a hole in the aircraft's fuselage. Martin is now faced with having to land a disabled plane in the middle of a blizzard in a -you guessed it- climatic landing scene. It's a disaster that is just big enough to create credible tension without going overboard in the ol' believability department.

Raising the stakes is a sub-plot involving Kennedy's efforts to get a snowed in aircraft off of the only available runway without damaging it and before Martin's plane has to come in for its emergency landing. To this day, I can not attempt to drive a car out of a snowbank without thinking about Kennedy chomping down on his cigar as he full throttles that aircraft in an all or nothing bid to clear the runway.

In a nice nod to the corporate aviation culture, Boeing is thanked, in actual dialogue, for making aircraft  reliable enough to withstand everything that the plot of Airport could throw at them.

Airport is based on the novel by Zero Hour! writer, Arthur Hailey. As such, the plot is filled with a soap opera in the skies involving infidelity, financial corruption, divorce and, in a ground-breaking move for mainstream Hollywood in 1970, the spectre of a potential abortion.

The passengers in Airport board the plane without going through a metal detector or any other kind of security screening. In fact, security personal are not even anywhere to be seen. My favourite line in this oh so wonderfully dated movie comes during a scene where Burt Lancaster and his airline staff are presented with evidence that a passenger on one of their flights may be carrying a bomb. Says Lancaster, dumbfounded and straight-faced, "A bomb? Why would anybody want to bring a bomb onto an airplane?".

1.  Airplane (1980)

Airline disaster genre purists will no doubt balk at my placing a comedy in the number one spot on this list. So my apologies to all one of you.

Airplane! is probably the best parody movie ever made. Like Airport and disaster movies, it spawned an entire genre. A genre that is still with us today in the form of four Scary Movie films and endless array of Date, Disaster and Superhero Movie movies.

But don't hold that against it.

Aside from still being able to make me laugh to this day, many of the movies on this list are either parodied or otherwise represented in Airplane!. Elmer Bernstein's brilliant score is very much a parody of the Airport's' classic Alfred Newman score. There's the singing to the little sick girl scene from Airport '75.  There's thunderstorm from Skyjacked. Then there's the sets, wardrobe, make up, lighting, cinematography, plot, dialogue and exclamation mark in the title from Zero Hour! Even Robert Stack from the cast of The High and The Mighty makes a career-defining appearance in Airplane!

One of the things I love about Airplane!, other than the great "and don't call me Shirley dialogue" and the gag a second pacing, is that the movie just takes its plot seriously enough that it is still somewhat engaging (even  amongst all the extremely fun silliness).

I remember watching Airplane! for this first time and during the climatic plane landing parody that ends the movie, I recall actually get caught up in not just the comedy but the drama of the moment. Quite a feat that.

Apparently, the biggest battle directors David Zucker, Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrams had with the studio was over including an all-star-cast style dramatic actors like Stack, Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves and Leslie Nielson (interestingly, Charlton Heston and George Kennedy both passed on starring in Airplane!) instead of established comedic actors. That kind of casting had not yet been done at the time and no one in Hollywood could get their heads around it (including the movie's casting director!).

One studio the director/writer team took the film to wanted to cast Dom DeLuise, Don Knotts and Harvey Korman in Airplane!.

Now that would have been a disaster movie.