Saturday, November 28, 2009

WEEKENDS ON WESTFIELD: A WADDLE DOWN MEMORY LANE. As a child, my weekends were usually spent at my grandparents humongous Victorian house on Westfield Avenue in Pennsauken. I really don't know how many storeys to say it was huge. The basement at one time contained a public bar which had been known to serve a well-known gangster or two who crossed the river from Philadelphia in the 1940's; yes, you would recognize their names if you heard them. Even in my youth during the 1970's the bar was still there in the basement. Above was the ground floor (where my grandparents lived) which also featured a huge enclosed front porch. One storey up was another floor which functioned as a separate apartment for my great grandfather (the owner of the house). Then above that was ANOTHER floor reached by a winding stairs quite like the secret staircase found in the House of Seven Gables in Salem, Massachusetts; this led to a floor where my mother had had her room as a teenager. From the top windows you could see the river and Philadelphia.
My grandparents' house was literally two doors away from the borderline between Pennsauken and Camden; and only several blocks away from the site of Howard Unruh's "murder walk" in the 1940's when he became America's first serial killer to take a gun and start shooting random people. My great aunt and uncle once owned the store beneath Howard Unruh's apartment and allowed him to use a shortcut through their garden gate to reach his abode. When they sold the building, the new owners refused to let Unruh use this shortcut; the new owners were among Unruh's first shooting victims. As a child in the early 70's, Camden had not yet become the worst city in New Jersey. I was still able to walk the several blocks from Pennsauken with my grandmother and frequent an old-fashioned candy store that still existed in Camden; the kind with loose candy weighed and given to you in little white paper bags.
The aforementioned basement/bar of the house was naturally almost entirely below ground; only one small window waaaaaaay at the top of the wall (at ground level outside) let in a little light (and a glimpse of the grass above). It was generally too cold to be down there in winter but in warm weather (and especially in the summer) it was delightfully cool and dark. One of those old-fashioned art deco metal electric fans would rotate to and fro as my grandfather (Buster . . .his nickname) and I watched old horror movies like DRACULA on the black and white television positioned in front of an old green couch. The smoke from his occasional cigar would be scattered by the wind from the rotating fan. In a separate room behind the bar area was a laundry room and behind that was the hot water heater etc. In this narrow space between the wall and the water heater could be found a secret art gallery -- a sort of Lascaux cave from my mother's girlhood and teenage years when she would draw in coloured pencil figures of ladies wearing the 50's fashions of the day.
Some mornings my grandmother and I would walk the long length of Westfield Avenue (many many city blocks) towards the destination of Thor's Drug Store. At Thor's I would find my favourite Black Jack gum, new Justice League of America comic books on the rack, possibly a couple packs of Wacky Packs or You'll Die Laughing bubble gum cards which featured stills from classic B&W monster movies with a silly caption and a joke on the back. Along the way we'd pass the grand old-style movie palace the Walt Whitman Theatre; built by my great grandfather the architect. It was here that I remember The Exorcist was playing first run when it came out in 1973 (I was too young) and here also that I met Moe Howard of the Three Stooges on a theatrical tour he made shortly before his death.
Early afternoons on the weekend would generally involve my grandfather taking me to the holy grail of the Pennsauken Mart. This poor people's paradise was a wonderland to a little kid; sadly it was closed and torn down only a few years ago. In my grandfather's old clunker we parked in the parking lot and entered that long, dark hallway leading to the interior of the mart; passing the tattoo parlour where over a decade later I would sit watching my best friend get a Bat-Signal tattoo! Once inside the mart proper, I would make for the Mecca of the trip: the shop that sold all those comic books with the covers torn off. They would also have tables of paperback books (some with the covers torn off and some not) and, behind the cash register, a few actual comic books WITH covers on 'em and in plastic mylar bags. As far as I can remember, the first actual bagged and boarded comic book back issue I ever bought was right here at the Pennsauken Mart: FANTASTIC FOUR #91 . Among those paperbacks would be many of those Mad Magazine reprints in paperback form as well as The Partridge Family series of mystery thrillers (I kid you not) like TERROR BY NIGHT, THE HAUNTED HALL and MARKED FOR DANGER; all written by the bard of pre-pubescents Vic Crume. I still have 'em! Of course, I would always be thrilled if they had one of those RIPLEY'S BELIEVE IT OR NOT paperback books to snatch up immediately. Oh yeah, and CRACKED MAZAGINE (no, that's NOT a typo) was another favourite; MAD MAGAZINE too! If I was lucky they would also have an issue or two of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND to buy as well as many of those classic Marvel black & white horror comics (magazine size with the covers still on 'em) like VAMPIRE TALES (with my favourite Morbius the Living Vampire), DRACULA LIVES or MONSTERS OF THE MOVIES.
Next to the "comic book" store was a little place that sold Italian water ice, popcorn and funnel cakes. However, we could come back to that later because, after the comix, it was imperative to head about halfway down the mart concourse to the Listening Booth record store where I picked up some records (no cds in those days, sorry know-nothing tots). I would buy both 33 1/3rds and 45's. It was there that I bought such LPs as CHRISTMAS WITH THE CHIPMUNKS, THE ELECTRIC COMPANY, BATMAN, 4 MORE ADVENTURES OF BUGS BUNNY, CASPER'S HAUNTED HOUSE TALES and who knows what else. At the same time, I would buy the latest 45's representing the big hits of the day: Ringo Starr's "No No No/Skokiaan", Thelma Houston's "Don't Leave Me This Way", The Bee Gee's "Jive Talkin'", "The Penalty Box" by Dave Schultz of the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team (yes that was a BIG hit song!), Sailcat's "Motorcycle Mama" and many more. I still remember 'em because I've still got those same 45's!
After this, my grandfather would usually stop in the Beef & Ale taproom to get his beer. Yes, he was a drinker. During this time, I would sit next to him at the bar and thumb through my loot: comic books from DC and Marvel as well as my beloved "THE OCCULT FILES OF DR. SPEKTOR", RICHIE RICH & JACKIE JOKERS, MAD HOUSE GLADS, PLOP!, GHOSTLY HAUNTS, and BORIS KARLOFF'S TALES OF MYSTERY. After going up one side of the mart and down the other (possibly grabbing a slice of pizza on the way), it would be time to go back to Westfield Avenue where I would lovingly linger over all my loot! On Sunday, it would also be time to root through the Philadelphia Bulletin for the kid's activity pages and Sunday funnies. That night, after bathtime, the TV would feature MARY TYLER MOORE and THE BOB NEWHART SHOW before it would be time for bed. In summer, I would sleep on the enclosed front porch's pullout bed. All the windows would be up and the screens provided cool breezes and street sounds (sorry again, know-nothing tots, but there wasn't air conditioning either). As I'd flip through an AQUAMAN comic using only the outside street lights for illumination, I would drift off to sleep.
I often find myself back in that house on Westfield Avenue in a dream and, upon awakening, find myself filled with equal parts joy and pain since those days are gone and so is my grandfather and so is that house. Upon the death of my great grandfather, his will stated that the house must be sold and my grandparents moved out into Camelot apartments only a block away from my house in Marlton. That was 1978 and by January 1981 my grandfather was also gone; done in by the booze he consumed his entire adult life. The legend goes that that huge house on Westfield Avenue was split up into separate dwellings and eventually became a house of ill repute. Sometime in the 1990's, it was demolished entirely and now only exists in my dreams. The beautiful Walt Whitman theatre was demolished sometime in the early 1980's and the Pennsauken Mart, as mentioned before, was torn day a couple years ago. If you wait long enough, everything is torn down eventually. But I am so grateful that I can still get to visit that house as it used to be when the simple days of childhood cast that rosy glow over everything and made you believe that they were the good old days even when you were living through them. I can truly say that at that time I was almost always completely happy. That's a valuable thing to carry with you throughout your life.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Edward Woodward - They Didnt Believe Me

A belated tribute to the late Edward Woodward.

Monday, November 23, 2009

IN A WEEK WHEN THAT NEW TWILIGHT MOVIE BECAME THE HIGHEST GROSSING OPENING DAY IN HISTORY (shame on us), I draw your attention to an actual superb vampire movie: Låt den rätte komma in (aka LET THE RIGHT ONE IN). If you haven't seen it, you need to. All the talk is justified. It's been called the best vampire film ever. Weaverman has called it the best vampire film since NOSFERATU (in 1922!!!). It is without a doubt one of the greatest movies of the decade. Period. Just when you thought there was nowhere new you could take a vampire movie, along comes this one. TWILIGHT is not the apex of vampire movies (opinions of 12 year old schoolgirls to the contrary). Hopefully, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN will be.
Now, there is no way I'm going to give a synopsis since the film has to be seen and not described. Suffice it to say that 12 year old Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) is a quiet boy bullied at school who has a strange fascination with knives and a series of bloody murders in the newspapers. (The film takes place back in 1982 semi-Soviet Sweden). While out in the snow-covered play-yard of his apartment block, Oskar meets 12 year old Eli (Lina Leandersson) who immediately tells him they cannot be friends. The entire film basically concerns the relationship between these two kids: both of whom are very odd and one of whom just happens to be a little vampire. As most of you know, I am NOT a fan of child actors as a rule. But Hedebrant and (more particularly) Leandersson are both superb with the young girl turning in an absolutely magnificent performance. I can safely state right now that, should I produce a top ten list of favourite cinematic vampires, little Lina Leandersson would certainly be on it! Director Tomas Alfredson crafts a very quiet, subdued film which periodically erupts without warning into violent and disturbing incidents. There are also nicely done special effects which, shockingly, are done with a great deal of subtlety; they do not knock you over the head and at first cause you to think "Did I really see that" and then "Oh yeah, I really saw that". Here is a film which (sorry know-nothing tots) requires an attention span; you cannot text message, tweet or myspace while watching it -- actually you should never do that while watching ANY movie, you philistines -- you should WATCH a movie when you're watching a movie! But I digress). This type of subtle, intelligent storytelling will never get you a job in Hollywood, Mr. Alfredson. There you have to pummel us over the head repeatedly with a hammer. How dare you not underestimate the intelligence of your audience! Nothing is ever blatantly explained however one never feels lost and everything becomes clear almost subconsciously first -- and THEN it registers on the conscious mind. The only word that came to mind as the end credits rolled was "remarkable". This is a truly TRULY remarkable film and no feeble attempts by me to describe it can possibly do it justice. You really need to seek out this one!
FROM THE SUBLIME TO THE RIDICULOUS: FANTASTIC FOUR: RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER. My mother always told me that if you can't say something nice about somebody, don't say anything at all.
OK I'm done.
"YOUR HOUSE LOOKED LIKE HEAVEN HIGH UP THERE. THAT'S HOW I BEGAN TO HATE YOU!" Akira Kurosawa's TENGOKU TO JIGOKU (1963) aka HIGH AND LOW is something of a surprise to those who are used to most of his other films. For those expecting something like SEVEN SAMURAI, THRONE OF BLOOD, IKIRU, RASHOMON or even DREAMS, this film isn't really what we're used to from Kurosawa. It's actually a police procedural (not actually a "film noir" which it is sometimes called) based on a work by crime novelist Ed McBain. Not exactly Akira Kurosawa territory. But naturally, Kurosawa is a master of cinema and quickly proves that he is as much at home in that genre as in medieval Japan..
The film stars Akira Kurosawa's muse Toshiro Mifune as Mr. Gondo: an executive in the National Shoe company. Gondo is unhappy with the way the company is going (towards shoddier cheap merchandise) and is planning a major stock-buying takeover bid. Gondo's manufacturing malcontent reminded me of a similar character played by William Holden in EXECUTIVE SUITE; an executive who sees the former excellence of his company being brought down by slipshod product. Gondo is planning to spring his takeover buyout of the company the following day. However, on the eve of his undertaking, Gondo receives a phone call informing him that his son has been kidnapped and he will have to pay $30 million smackers for the boy's safe return. Fairly quickly, however, it is determined that the kidnapper goofed and kidnapped the chauffer's son instead. When he realizes his mistake, the kidnapper phones again and informs Gondo that he will STILL have to pay the ransom otherwise the boy will be killed anyway! Of course, if Gondo pays for the return of his chauffer's son, he will not be able to conclude his takeover bid and he will be ruined. This rather interesting moral dilemma forms the crux of the film's "will he or won't he" first half while the remainder of the film concerns the police procedures involved in trying to track down the kidnapper and return the boy safely.
Mifune is, as always, excellent as the hardened yet principled businessman Gondo and he brings a palpable anguish to his moral dilemma. Kurosawa brings quite a few tense moments of suspense to the film. The strengths of the director, however, are brought into sharper focus when Mifune is off the screen and the camera follows the police. Such a departure from a star the calibre of Toshiro Mifune could cause a film to seriously loose steam when re-focussing on a group of basically unknown (to Western audiences) police detectives and the possibly rather dry details of police procedure. It is Kurosawa's serious talent in the director's chair (as well as a tightly written script by Kurosawa's frequent collaborators Hideo Oguni, Ryuzo Kikushima and Eijiro Hisaita) which keeps things every bit as interesting and absorbing. It must be admitted, however, that the police are aided by the inclusion of that OTHER frequent Kurosawa megastar Takashi Shimura (IKIRU et. al) in the small role of Chief of Investigation. The over-two hour film does lose a little bit of steam during a slightly protracted sequence in which the kidnapper goes about town at night trying to buy heroin, but this is only a very minor quibble and doesn't detract from the overall effectiveness of the film. Camerawork, as to be expected in ANY Kurosawa film, is uniformly excellent. There is one particular scene in which the kidnapper (wearing mirrored sunglasses) peers out of the nighttime undergrowth. This scene I found very reminiscent of a similar scene in the early Hammer classic THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT (aka THE CREEPING UNKNOWN) in which Richard Wordsworth does much the same thing. Also, the bland yet sinister look of the kidnapper with his shiny shades undoubtedly inspired the look of Elijah Wood's cannibalistic psycho in SIN CITY.
There is a rumoured remake in the offing; the only thing fending off a sinking feeling at such news is the attachment of such names as Mike Nichols and David Mamet to the project.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

HAPPY 100th BIRTHDAY JOHNNY MERCER!!! The great songwriter was born 100 years ago on November 18th, 1909. In celebration of his centennial, we have taken over the lunar observatory of Dr. Janos Rukh over at our sister blog "BATHED IN THE LIGHT FROM ANDROMEDA" and will present many of Mercer's greatest songs. So please join us over there for the party. There will be boiled ham, bouillabaisse stew and a weeney bake!!! Oh, and maybe a brandy alexander to wash it all down.