Revisiting an old friend: “Ellery Queen” TV series

12 04 2011

At last, a show I love that came and went too quickly in the 70’s, “Ellery Queen,” is out on DVD. I had given up searching for it on Amazon, so I actually didn’t find out that it was released last year until I ran across the boxset at Sam’s Club.

the definitive onscreen portrayal of Ellery Queen

The series, which aired during the 1975-76 season, is as wonderful as I remember…terrific cast headed by Jim Hutton and David Wayne, great production values, lovely period setting, fabulous guest stars. It’s a crime (and I use that word on purpose) that the show only lasted a season, killed by stiff competition (the hit show “The Streets of San Francisco” over on ABC). But even if it had caught on with the public, it wouldn’t have lasted much longer, since Hutton died of liver cancer in 1979, at the tragically young age of 45.

David Wayne and Jim Hutton

I tuned in to “Ellery Queen” because I liked Jim Hutton, who had appeared in a couple of the movies he made with John Wayne, including one of my favorites, “Hellfighters.” He and David Wayne, as Inspector Richard Queen, had perfect chemistry; the scenes between Ellery and Richard are some of the highlights of the episodes.

Jim Hutton with artwork used in "The Adventure of the Comic Book Crusader"

The attention to period detail was rich, and the stories, done as “fair-game” mysteries in which all the clues to the murder of the week are presented for viewers paying close attention, were beautifully written. And, in a unique device for the time, Ellery broke the “fourth wall” late in the story to challenge the viewer to solve the mystery before he did onscreen– a device used in the Ellery Queen novels.

The show was created by the famed TV writing/producing team of Richard Levinson and William Link, who are also responsible for series such as “Columbo” and “Murder She Wrote” (the latter show even used a script originally penned for “Ellery” for the season 2 that never materialized). Levinson and Link were longtime devotees of Ellery Queen, and their love for the material shows.

If you haven’t had a chance to see this great show, go rent it or buy it. It’s a treasure.


“Surrogates” — a thought-provoking thriller

6 06 2010

I am a fan of Bruce Willis, and I like the choices he makes regarding the projects he selects. “Surrogates” was, for me, another enjoyable ride. It’s ostensibly a murder mystery, set in a near-future world in which people can choose to live their lives vicariously by jacking into “surrogates” — humanoid robot replicas who look perfectly human (a bit too perfect, in fact) and move through society in place of their human operators. Crime rates are down, and war is fought by these robots instead of people, while the small proportion of humanity that rejects the use of surrogates has been relegated to robot-free slum zones. Society is a lot prettier — surrogates are invariably better-looking, idealized versions of their operators — while the bulk of humanity has been reduced to overweight, unkempt, bathrobe-clad couch potatoes who never venture outside, preferring virtual reality to the real deal.

Willis plays Tom Greer, an FBI agent who, in the course of investigating the deaths of several surrogate operators, is cut off from his surrogate and must navigate the real world, no longer insulated from crowds or physical pain. The film is a thoughtful study of denial and escape, and the isolation of humanity due to technology, as much as it is a thriller. Watching Tom struggle to function as a human out in the cold, cruel world, a formidable obstacle among the many that he encounters as he seeks the truth about the killings, was remarkable. The story gradually peels away the layers of his existence, revealing that he lost a son, that his scarred and depressed wife has buried her grief behind her pretty, perky surrogate’s persona and is unable to show her true self even to her husband. Tom’s quest to reconnect with her and salvage his marriage is a poignant subplot running through the story.

Willis is marvelous, playing two roles in the film — Tom’s surrogate, whose pleasantly blank countenance and incongrous blond hair is eerie, even creepy — and Tom himself, a haunted and vulnerable man who never loses his determination to find justice, and never gives up on his wife.

I like “falling in love” love stories, but I’m always up for a good “keep the love alive” story or subplot, because maintaining a love relationship is often more of a challenge than finding love in the first place. The love-story subplot of “Surrogates” was an effective and affecting way to explore the film’s themes of isolation and escape, and added an emotional resonance to an already entertaining film. Thumbs up from me.

Back with something funny

19 04 2010

Yow, lookit all the cobwebs on this blog! My bad. The bedroom flooded in the Mother Of All Rainstorms during the winter, and it’s taken months to repair the damage — including moving the soggy furniture and several crowded bookcases into the living room and hallways and every other bit of spare space for forever. It was like camping out, except indoors, with workmen tromping through every day, busting holes in the wall, measuring for mold, hammering, painting, etc. We had an air purifying fan (loud) going 24/7 for several weeks, that was fun. No wonder I never liked camping.

So! Here’s something that tickled me this morning. It’s 4 months old, and no doubt everyone’s seen it but me — I don’t have time to go to YouTube and check out the cool vids du jour. But luckily my husband does, and he told me about it. It’s long, but well worth your time if you’ve ever suffered through a movie that cost enough to feed a small country, and should have been great, but was a resounding turkey.

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace Review

I’m one of those people who watched that trainwreck known as “The Phantom Menace” with a WTF?! look on my face throughout. I was ticked off by it long before the hype died down and hating the Star Wars prequels became fashionable. For those of you too young to have experienced the thrill and wonder of the real Star Wars trilogy when it originally hit theaters, my sympathies. Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, George Lucas made good Star Wars movies. As Lord Acton wisely said, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

In my work as a writer, effective story structure is the sun around which my universe revolves. Rarely have I seen such a hilarious primer on story structure as this. I went to Mike’s website, and lo! he has reviewed a bunch of Star Trek movies too. As well as the even worse SW prequel, “Attack of the Clones.” I can’t wait.

Avatar = Pocahontas

3 02 2010

As I mourn for the Vikings’ horrific overtime loss in the NFC Championship (just how many times can zillion-dollar-paycheck, award-winning running backs fumble away the football?), I have been watching movies. “Troy” is fantastic (see the extended Director’s Cut), “Taken” is a great little cathartic action flick with a wonderful turn by Liam Neeson, “Forbidden Kingdom” is a lush fantasy with two of my favorite action stars, Jackie Chan and Jet Li, “Valkyrie” is a beautifully made homage to a small group of German soldiers and politicians who tried to assassinate Hitler during WWII, and “Sherlock Holmes” is an absolute delight, with Robert Downey Jr. just marvelous in the title role. Last night was “Vantage Point,” a tense and intricate story about a terrorist attack, viewed through the perspectives of many different players.

I haven’t gone out of my way to see “Avatar,” though it has already been recommended to me by a film-buff buddy. When I saw the initial previews, I was all, “Eh. I already saw ‘Ferngully: The Last Rainforest.’ And knowing that James Cameron wrote the thing automatically gave me pause. His better films, such as “Aliens” and “The Terminator,” were written or co-written by other people. I enjoyed “Titanic” as a meticulous gazillion-dollar documentary about the doomed ship, and didn’t pay the soap-opera storyline much mind. “Avatar”‘s $2 billion return and now #1 Moneymaker status is just making me resist all the more; I don’t want to squirm through another “I’m king of the world!” Oscar acceptance speech. And I have never forgiven Cameron for two-timing Linda Hamilton. But I digress.

Yesterday my husband showed me this: James Cameron’s Avatar = Disney’s Pocahontas. Priceless! We still aren’t rushing out to climb on the Cameron bandwagon, but I’ve already gotten my money’s worth.

“The Blind Side” gets a thumbs-up from me.

22 12 2009

I’m a sucker for feel-good sports dramas. I enjoyed “Miracle” and “The Rookie,” partly because they were emotionally satisfying for me, and partly because I knew the real stories behind the screen dramatizations. I’m adding “The Blind Side” to the list. I remember being very touched when I first heard about Michael Oher’s journey to success with the Baltimore Ravens, and I was looking forward to seeing how the movie version handled the story.

I was not disappointed. This story is about compassion and love, determination and persistence, and faith. It’s about the rewards that can come when you do the right thing, stand up for what you believe in, and follow your heart. Knowing that Oher is making a difference with the Ravens in his rookie season makes the story all the more heartwarming.

I’ve followed Sandra Bullock’s career for a while (Remember “The Bionic Showdown”? Anybody?), and it’s wonderful to see her in a great role. She tackled the character of Leigh Anne Tuohy with gusto, and she is a huge part of the effectiveness of this movie for me. John Lee Hancock (no surprise that he did “The Rookie”) has another winner.

I saw a TV interview with the Tuohy family over the weekend, and they were warm, funny, well-spoken and humble. I got the impression that the real-life Tuohy-Oher story went so smoothly that the filmmakers felt the need to inject some conflict into the tale (such as daughter Collins’ friends questioning the family’s motivations in taking in Michael) to give it more drama. The most touching moment of the interview for me was when Collins recounted how she unexpectedly broke down during a morning-show interview a couple of days earlier, after being asked what life would be like without Michael in the family. She said that he is so much a part of the Tuohys that imagining a Michael-less life is simply unthinkable to her.

Go see “The Blind Side,” if you haven’t already.

Darren McGavin, David Duchovny, and “The X-Files”

9 07 2009

I’m a big fan of The X-Files. My husband and I are currently watching the entire series and movies again, in chronological order. He missed a lot of episodes during the show’s run, and he is enjoying seeing them for the first time.

We’re in the middle of the 6th season, which exhibited a renewed spirit and creativity following the company’s relocation from Vancouver to Los Angeles. Last night we watched “The Unnatural,” which was David Duchovny’s first directorial effort and his first solo writing credit for the series. It was originally written as the third episode to feature the character Arthur Dales, who started the X-Files. Dales was played by the great character actor Darren McGavin, of “Night Stalker” and “A Christmas Story” fame, in two earlier segments. Alas, McGavin fell ill and had to be replaced by another fine actor, M. Emmit Walsh, after a bit of rewriting.

When I first saw “The Unnatural,” I couldn’t help wondering what might have been, had McGavin been able to play Dales. I assumed he had not been able to shoot any footage – but happily, I was wrong. The DVD includes two deleted scenes with McGavin playing Dales. Watching him, especially in the final poignant, heartfelt scene, in which Mulder gently comforts the grieving Dales by validating his work, was like being given a wondrous gift. Those scenes were McGavin’s last onscreen work, and the folks who put together the DVDs did us all a great service by including them.