Sunday, February 18, 2018

Jim West Faces a "Night of the Puppeteer"

The Wild Wild West was one of the most entertaining television shows of the mid to late 60s. Creator and producer Michael Garrison conceived the series as a sort of “James Bond in the Old West” which cleverly combined elements of the hugely popular spy genre with the traditional Western. The show followed the adventures of Secret Service agents James West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin), who battled all kinds of outlandish and colorful villains in the 1800s. West was the two-fisted man of action, and Gordon was a master of disguise, as well as the provider of unique gadgets the duo used to escape the deathtraps devised by evil criminal masterminds such as their frequent foe, Dr. Miguelito Loveless, masterfully played by Michael Dunn. Like the Batman series, the show featured a variety of famous guest stars portraying the villains, including Boris Karloff, Ida Lupino, Burgess Meredith, Ricardo Montalban, and Agnes Moorehead.

Lloyd Bochner
One of the more memorable episodes of the show’s first season (filmed in black & white) is “The Night of the Puppeteer,” which opens with Jim West visiting a Supreme Court Justice. Jim warns the man that two of his colleagues have been murdered, and they are concerned for his safety. During a puppet show being performed for the judge’s grandson, one of the puppets tries shoot the judge! Fortunately, West foils the attempt. Jim later examines the puppets, and finds a clue, which leads him to a bar called Triton’s Locker. While there, he gets into a fight with the patrons, and ends up in an elevator, which speeds him to an underground lair. There he meets Zachariah Skull, the mastermind behind the killings. It seems Skull has a bone (pun intended) to pick with the judges, and society in general. He intends to put Jim on trial for his life....though the final verdict has already been decided.

Skull is also a brilliant inventor, and has surrounded himself with life-size, steam-powered puppets that do his bidding, including a ballerina who dances with West. There are some nicely played scenes between Robert Conrad and character actor Lloyd Bochner, who imbues Skull with a subtly menacing quality. The sequences in Skull’s underground home are strikingly lit, and well staged by Irving J. Moore, who directed many episodes during the course of the series.  There’s a nice twist at the episode’s climax which recalls a classic horror film I won’t mention here, in order to avoid spoilers. Along with other eerie episodes of the series, like “The Night of the Druid’s Blood” and “The Night of the Man-Eating House” this entry veers into territory which might seem more at home on The Twilight Zone or Thriller, with some very effective results. The one drawback to the episode (written by frequent contributor Henry Sharp) is that the wonderful Ross Martin isn’t given much to do as Artemus Gordon.

The tone of The Wild Wild West shifted somewhat from darker episodes in the first year of its run to more outlandish adventures in subsequent seasons (and sometimes back again to more traditional, action-oriented Western tales) thanks to some behind the scenes shuffling of producers. But the series was always enjoyable, thanks to the chemistry between the two appealing leads, as well as the colorful villains, the lovely damsels in distress, and those amazing gadgets. And let’s not forget that wonderful train the duo used as their base of operations! The series ran for four seasons, and remains a fan favorite, thanks to syndicated reruns and DVD releases of the entire series. There were also two “reunion” telefilms produced, The Wild Wild West Revisited in 1979, and More Wild Wild West in 1980. Both featured Robert Conrad and Ross Martin reprising their roles. The Wild Wild West is a fanciful and delightful series combining elements of Westerns, sci-fi, fantasy, and action-adventure. It's well worth checking out.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

What is the Secret of "The Changeling?"

George C. Scott & Trish Van Devere
If you love ghost stories, you most certainly have several favorite films from the genre. Some fans gravitate to older films like The Uninvited, The Haunting, or The Innocents. Others favor modern tales like The Others or The Devil’s Backbone. But there’s one creepy thriller from 1980 that stands with the best of them. It’s the eerie haunted house tale, The Changeling, starring George C. Scott, and directed by Peter Medak. Scott plays a New York based composer named John Russell, who, after losing his wife and daughter in a car accident, relocates to Seattle. He moves into a Victorian era mansion, which has been vacant for some time. To say that the place has “issues” might be understating the case a little. John regularly hears loud banging noises in the house, and one night he sees the specter of a drowned boy in a bathtub.

He begins investigating the history of the house with the help of Claire, a member of the local historical society, who had rented him the house. Claire is played by Scott’s real life wife, Trish Van Devere. John discovers a hidden room in the attic, which contains a child’s wheelchair. John later holds a séance at the house (one of the film’s most effective sequences) and while listening to a recording of the event, can hear the voice of a young man named Joseph. As John and Claire dig deeper, they learn Joseph was a very sick child, who was not expected to live very long. His father murders him and replaces him with a similar looking child adopted from an orphanage. Why? That’s only the beginning of a twisted tale of murder, money and madness that will come to involve a Unites States Senator with a dark secret. Of course, if you know your mythology, you might just guess that secret before it is revealed later in the spoilers here.

While the bulk of The Changeling takes place in Seattle, it was mostly lensed in Vancouver and Victoria. The film is expertly crafted and well paced. The story is loosely based on some real life events that took place in Colorado. Writer Russell Hunter experienced some paranormal phenomena while staying at a hotel there, and ended up researching the hotel’s history. The screenplay by William Gray and Diana Maddox is loosely based on his experiences and the results of his research. The film was nominated for multiple Genie Awards in Canada and won several, including Best Film, Best Foreign Actor for Scott, Best Foreign Actress for Van Devere, as well as for John Coquillon’s wonderful cinematography. The first rate cast also includes movie veteran Melvyn Douglas, and familiar faces John Colicos and Jean Marsh in supporting roles.

Director Peter Medak does an excellent job creating an otherworldy mileu in the film, which doesn’t go for obvious scares. The Changeling doesn’t cop out on its supernatural elements, and has several very unsettling and creepy moments, some of which recall other chillers like Mario Bava’s Kill! Baby! Kill! The movie has a dedicated core of fans, and was a TV staple during the 80s, which is where I first saw it, and was intrigued by its compelling and offbeat story. In a genre cluttered with badly made and over plotted films, The Changeling is a terrific thriller, and a real gem. Watch out for that wheelchair! Here’s a link to the trailer:

This post is part of the O Canada Blogathon, hosted by my fellow bloggers at Speakeasy and Silver Screenings. I’d like to thank them for including me in the festivities! You can find out more by clicking the following link:

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Suzi Quatro: 5 Great Songs

This week, please check out another article I did for Culture Sonar, an excellent arts and entertainment website. This one is about rocker Suzi Quatro, a pioneering female rocker who was an inspiration for Joan Jett and many others; click on the link below to access the piece. You can also find my other work for the site by going to the main page ( and using the search function. Thanks for reading, both here at Eclectic Avenue and over at Culture Sonar.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

"The Shape of Water" is Amazing

Director Guillermo Del Toro has thrilled us with his visionary style and taken us to some incredible places in such acclaimed movies as The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labryinth, as well as the underrated Crimson Peak. Now he takes his artistry to a new level with his latest release, The Shape of Water. It’s a masterfully realized fantasy and a touching love story, featuring excellent performances by a top-notch cast. The film takes place in Baltimore in the early 1960s, during the height of the Cold War. The story centers on Elisa Esposito, who works as a custodian at a government facility. Elisa is mute, and communicates using sign language. She lives above a movie theatre and has two loyal friends: her neighbor Giles (with whom she shares meals and watches classic movies on TV) and her co-worker Zelda.

One day, an aquatic creature, which was captured in South America, is brought to the facility. The personnel there are studying the “monster” in order to gain an advantage over the Russians in the space race. One staff member, Colonel Strickland, abuses the creature on a daily basis, and sees it only as a means to an end.  Elisa is intrigued by this “monster,” and feels a strong kinship with it. Elisa tries to communicate with the creature, and befriend it. She starts bringing it meals, playing music for it, and teaching it sign language. The two form a close bond, and Elise decides to help the creature escape. That decision will change both of their lives (and the lives of Elisa’s friends) forever.

The cast is excellent. Sally Hawkins is a standout as Elise. She communicates all of Elise’s emotions; loneliness, passion, pain and ultimately joy, using mostly her eyes and her hands. It’s a luminous performance. She’s matched by an excellent supporting cast, including the incredible Richard Jenkins as Giles, and the wonderful Octavia Spencer as Zelda. Michael Shannon expertly enacts the villainous Colonel Strickland. Michael Stuhlbarg does a nice turn as a compassionate scientist who helps our heroes free the creature. Doug Jones, who’s the man inside the monster suit, does a superlative job portraying the creature. He’s done a great job playing monsters in other Del Toro projects (like Hellboy) but in this film he does some magnificent work. He imbues the character with such dignity and humanity that you can’t help but feel empathy for him.

The film also features a subtle message about tolerance and the acceptance of people’s (and other species) differences: Giles is a closeted gay man, and Zelda is an African-American woman. They’re two of the most positive and fully realized characters in the film. Del Toro doesn’t hit us over the head with a “message,” but you can’t help thinking about the time period in which these characters are living (the 1960s) and the things they had to endure from people like the violent and abusive Strickland, who essentially sees everyone else as being beneath him. It’s also a nice touch that the Giles character is an illustrator (like Del Toro) allowing us to see some of the story through his eyes. Giles also opens and closes the film with some marvelous narration, that truly sets the tone for this lovely, powerful and enchanting film.

The Shape of Water is part fairy tale, part love story and part monster movie. Del Toro (who has always felt a kinship with the monsters in stories like this) has stated that he was partly inspired to write the film based on his experience seeing Creature From The Black Lagoon as a child. He wondered why the monster didn’t get the girl. The movie plays to all of Del Toro’s strengths as a filmmaker. He and his technical crew have created a truly original look for the film. Of course, the fact that Elisa lives above a movie theatre allows Del Toro to compare the fantasy of the world of movies with the fantastical events taking place within his story. The Shape of Water is a lovely, emotional and powerful film. If you are partial to love stories, lyrical fantasies, and/or are a fan of Del Toro’s work, this is a must see. It’s hands down one of the best films of 2017. The movie features some astonishing, beautiful and brilliantly realized images that will stay with you long after the movie is over. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer:

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Is "Jedi" A New Direction for the Saga?

When Star Wars: The Force Awakens opened in 2015, audiences warmly embraced the film as a return to form after the disappointing “prequel trilogy” which began with 1999’s Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Director J. J. Abrams managed to provide fans with a jumping off point for a thrilling new adventure set in the universe created by George Lucas, while also giving them some new characters and storylines. Now the second film in the post Star Wars: Return of the Jedi timeline, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, has been released, and while it’s been phenomenally successful at the box office, it’s also spawned some sharply divided opinions among fans and critics. Many have compared the film to Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (generally considered the best film in the series) while others have pointed out it’s an enjoyable, but flawed, entry in the ongoing saga.

The story picks up shortly after the end of the previous film, with the remaining rebels (led by General Leia) fighting bravely against the evil First Order. Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) the heroine of The Force Awakens, has traveled to a distant world to find Luke Skywalker, who disappeared after trying (and failing) to train a new group of Jedi. One of those trainees, Kylo Ren, the son of Leia and Han Solo, has turned to the Dark Side, and become a leader in the First Order. He’s hunting down the rest of the rebels, and plans to obliterate them once and for all. Rey wants Luke to return to the fight, and help the rebels defeat the villains, and restore peace to the galaxy. By the way, I’m going to try to stay as spoiler free as I can for the rest of this piece.

We also catch up with several of the other characters from The Force Awakens, including former stormtrooper Finn, who’s now a part of the rebellion, and fighter pilot Poe Dameron, who clashes with Leia regarding strategy during their battles with the First Order.  Of course, the multiple storylines all converge toward the climax of the film, featuring the requisite space battle between the heroes and the villains, with the fate of our heroes (and the future of the Rebellion) at stake. The film is visually striking and features some nice performances, including Carrie Fisher as General Leia (in her final role) and Mark Hamill as an older, embittered Luke Skywalker.

The thing that has many fans buzzing is that the plot seems to ignore some major story elements established by Abrams in the first film, and the Star Wars saga as a whole.  The movie definitely subverts audience expectations more than once, and goes in some directions you don’t expect. There are some exciting sequences, as well as some nice nods to earlier films in the series. However, one subplot involving a visit to a casino slows down the middle of the film, and there’s one moment involving a major character that may give you pause. Ultimately, your own reaction to the film may vary, but the movie is well directed by Rian Johnson (Looper, Brick) who also wrote the screenplay. Johnson does take some risks with the the film, rather than playing it safe. The biggest question is: will Johnson’s take on the story be followed through when J.J. Abrams returns to co-write and direct the third chapter of this trilogy, Star Wars: Episode IX, slated for release in 2019. Only time will tell. Star Wars: The Last Jedi is currently in theaters. Here’s a link to the film's trailer:

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Two Series Seek Out "Star Trek's" Legacy

This week, please take a look at one of my recent pieces for Culture Sonar, the awesome arts and entertainment website where I also regularly share my thoughts on music and movies. This article is about two current science-fiction TV series that owe a great debt to the original Star Trek and its spinoffs; click on the link below the photo to access the article. You can also find my other work for the site by going to the main page ( and using the search function. Thanks for reading, both here at Eclectic Avenue and over at Culture Sonar

The OrvilleDiscovery and the Spirit of Roddenberry

Wishing my wonderful, loyal readers all the best for 2018!

Monday, December 18, 2017

Remembering the Talented Pat DiNizio

DiNizio (center) performing with The Smithereens in 2016
Since Pat DiNizio of The Smithereens passed away on December 12, songs like "Only A Memory" and "Top of The Pops" have been playing in heavy rotation on my iTunes, in my head, and most definitely in my heart. While we’ve suffered the loss of a number of musical icons over the last few years, this one caught me by surprise, and truly felt like a gut punch. DiNizio and the rest of The Smithereens are masters of that special type of power pop fueled rock and roll that could only be created by disciples of The Beatles, The Who and The Beach Boys, among other 1960s bands that influenced the style of DiNizio and his fellow New Jersey based rockers. A true rock/pop craftsman, DiNizio was equally adept at writing excellent rockers such as “A Girl Like You” and mournful tales of love and loss like “In A Lonely Place” which actually quoted dialogue from the Humphrey Bogart noir film whose title it borrowed. And those are only two examples of the amazing songs penned by DiNizio.

While The Smithereens had some mainstream success in the mid to late 1980s with hits like “Blood & Roses” and “Behind the Wall of Sleep,” the sound of grunge gradually took over MTV and the radio airwaves, and classic guitar based rock temporarily took a back seat to flannel shirted bands (though, ironically, Kurt Cobain was reportedly a huge fan of the band’s debut album, Especially For You). That didn’t deter DiNizio and his band mates from continuing to release excellent records like 11 and A Date With The Smithereens, which showcased DiNizios songwriting gifts and the band’s masterful musical chops. Their rocking sound was honed by years of playing in local bars and working as an opening for other touring bands. The Smithereens’s raucous live shows were always worth seeing, and the band retained a loyal following in the tri-state area. I count myself among those true fans. Not only did I see The Smithereens a number of times throughout the years, but I was lucky enough to meet them and tell them how much I enjoyed their work.

DiNizio also released several wonderful solo albums, starting with 1997’s Songs & Sounds, and did audaciously fun (and amazing) things like “The Living Room Tour” where he would actually perform at your house for you and your friends, hosted songwriting workshops and even tried out for a minor league baseball team. Through it all, he kept his sense of humor, his love of rock and roll and his dedication to his music, his band and their fans. The Smithereens continued to perform live, and released tribute albums to The Beatles and The Who, as well as their most recent disc of original material, 2011, which was one of their best. The band’s music never lost that straight-ahead garage rock sound, and like all great rock and roll, continues to sound fantastic as time goes on. It’s one thing pay tribute to your idols in your music, its quite another to create equally memorable songs of your own. Pat DiNizio and his bandmates managed to do just that for 30 plus years. Rest in peace, Pat. You will most definitely be missed. To paraphrase one of your lyrics, “we’re in a lonely place without you.”