Tuesday, May 24, 2011

10 FAVORITES (35) - Silver Screen Soldiers

This week's 10 FAVORITES is something special, and not only because we are approaching a very special holiday (Memorial Day!), but this week I have a guest blogger (sort of).  For Memorial Day, I thought that this list's theme should revolve around Soldiers and how they fit into the compendium of our Pop Culture (i.e. TV, Film, etc.).  I was struck with the idea to list the best Soldier Movies of all-time, but there was one SNAFU: I am not a big fan of Soldier Movies.  Don't get me wrong, I love a well-formed story that revolves around any character or set of characters (Soldiers, included!), but when it comes to movies about war (and often the violence that inherently goes with war!) I believe Saving Private Ryan is really my only favorite (and that's really because of the talent involved!).  Beyond that, there are only a handful of movies (meaning like 5) that would qualify as my favorite Soldier Films.  So, for the list of 10 this week, I turned to one of the people I trust the most and the person who knows me better than anyone else in the world (mainly because he grew up with me!): My older brother!  He is a huge fan of Soldier Movies and has many favorites, but he had the task of whittling it down to 10 FAVORITES.  So let's go through what he came up with and what makes these films so distinctive:


Kelly's Heroes (1970)
One of the few war films that cleverly blends comedy, action and "buddy" tropes.  It is ably helped by a gifted ensemble that includes Clint Eastwood, Donald Sutherland, Don Rickles and Telly Savalas (to name a few!).

Von Ryan's Express (1965)
Based on the novel by David Westheimer, this film was a critical and box-office success in 1965 starring the indomitable Frank Sinatra as an American pilot captured by Italian troops in World War II.  The film was noted in its time for using real military vehicles shot on location and its award-winning visual and sound effects (which in 1965 was trailblazing).

Gettysburg (1993)
If you want to see one dramatic representation of the immense tale that can be told about the Battle of Gettysburg, then you must see this film.  It is extremely comprehensive in its narrative (running over 4 hours!) and gives a graphic visual picture of a time we still today try to understand.  The film is powerfully and expertly cast with a dynamic ensemble that includes Tom Berenger (Platoon), Martin Sheen (The West Wing), Jeff Daniels (Dumb and Dumber) and Stephen Lang (Avatar).

The Longest Day (1962)
It was inevitable that Hollywood would try their hand at giving the world a dramatic interpretation of the D-Day Normandy landings.  20th Century Fox pulled out all the stops and hired an all-star cast (and I mean all-star!).  Among the many many names cast in this massive film (in either a large part or a cameo) include John Wayne, Sean Connery, Robert Mitchum, Richard Burton, Rod Steiger, Robert Wagner, Robert Ryan, Roddy McDowall, Red Buttons, Peter Lawford, Richard Beymer, Sal Mineo and I could go on but I'm running out of room!

Saving Private Ryan (1998)
I've told you how I feel about this film.  When you add Steven Spielberg with Tom Hanks and Matt Damon, you get an amazing and poignant film that you will never forget.

Where Eagles Dare (1968)
This film is part "mission" movie (like Saving Private Ryan), part conspiracy-mystery film (like North By Northwest) and part buddy-buddy movie (like Lethal Weapon).  Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood star in this critically-acclaimed film about soldiers on a mission to save an imprisoned officer from the German SS.  Burton delivers an (as usual) fantastic performance as a British officer that makes it his business to hide the truth at every corner.

Apocalypse Now (1979)
Francis Ford Coppola's masterpiece is one that must be (and has been) studied in film classes all over.  His re-imagining of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness set amidst the "horrors" of the Vietnam War is considered by many to be the ultimate in storytelling.  Featuring an A-list cast that includes Martin Sheen (in a role that almost killed him), Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper and Robert Duvall (in a scene-stealing Oscar-nominated performance as a "napalm-loving" Sargeant).

The Great Escape (1963)
It is the ultimate Prisoner of War movie (sorry to that John McCain film!).  The cast (which includes Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, James Garner and Charles Bronson) is brilliant and the music (that unforgettable theme!) is perfect.  This Soldier Film would have no problem being in my handful of favorites.

The Dirty Dozen (1967)
For its time, this was considered one of the most violent of war films (at a time when other violent films like Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch were massive hits).  Lee Marvin (everyone's favorite old codger) plays a tough-talking Army Major who must command a rag-tag bunch of felonious soldiers through a dangerous and top secret mission.  The film's plot has become so iconic and has been parodied left and right in other films and various TV shows (like The Simpsons).

The Guns of Navarone (1961)
Based on the novel by Alistair MacLean (who wrote the screenplay and novel of Where Eagles Dare), this film has become one of my brother's all-time favorites (Seriously, I think it would be in his Top 20).  The story follows an Allied commando team that tries to destroy a German fortress along the Aegean Sea.  The cast is led by a top-form Gregory Peck and a steely cool David Niven (plus it includes a bravura-over-the-top performance from Anthony Quinn).

Glory (1989)
Edward Zwick has directed his share of powerful and poignant films over the years (Legends of the Fall, The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond, etc.), but none of them have touched the magnitude that is Glory.  Told from the point of view of the legendary Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (dynamically played by Matthew Broderick), it tells the tale of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, which was the first official regiment to accept black soldiers.  The movie has an amazing story to tell with a great ensemble cast that includes Morgan Freeman, Cary Elwes and (in his Oscar-winning supporting role) Denzel Washington.

A special shout out of thanks to my big brother for sharing his favorite Soldier Films with me (and by extension, this blog!).  And, in honor of Memorial Day, a special thanks to all the Soldiers (past, present and future) out there for all they do in the name of their country.  We shall think of you this upcoming weekend and always!

Thursday, May 19, 2011


This past Monday was the anniversary of a very sad day in my childhood.  On May 16, 1990, my Mom was driving myself and my brother home from school and she turned on the radio to hear the traffic report.  As we were waiting for the light to change, the NewsFlash came on and announced that Muppet creator (and all-around genius) Jim Henson had passed away that day.  For the rest of the day (and well into the evening), I was inconsolable.  Those of my generation understand why.  I didn't know him personally.  I didn't work with him or live in the same neighborhood as him.  But watching things like Sesame Street, The Muppet Movie, Fraggle Rock and The Muppet Show (quite frankly, the greatest TV variety show of all-time), I felt like I knew him and, more importantly, I learned from him.  I think of something I learned from the Muppets (and, by extension, Jim Henson) almost every day.  And every year, at this time in May, I try to celebrate the joy and inspiration that Henson gave me by sharing my favorite Muppet things with my circle of friends.  Well, now that I have this blog, my circle has grown larger and maybe we can share together.  This week's 10 FAVORITES is dedicated to the memory of Jim Henson and is all about my favorite Muppet thing of all-time: The Muppet Show!  So, here are the most sensational, inspirational, celerational AND Muppet-tational:


Episode 424: Diana Ross
At the time, Diana Ross was one of the biggest stars in the world and the writing staff at TMS used this icon perfectly.  She danced with a big bird (no, not that one!) and sang "Love Hangover."  She also coaxed Fozzie out of his usual bout of low confidence by singing one of her signature tunes, "Reach Out and Touch Somebody's Hand" (see below).  It's just brilliant!

Episode 208: Steve Martin
I love it on any series where it is clear that the writing team is stepping outside of its so-called "box."  Here, the Muppets shut down the show for a day to hold auditions.  One problem, they booked funny-man Steve Martin as their guest star.  But, of course, the "Wild-And-Crazy-Guy" makes these auditions quite hilarious.

Episode 105: Rita Moreno
This is the best episode of the first season (and the one that won them several Emmys that first year!).  It was here where you knew what the show could be and how best to utilize the talents of your guest star.  Oscar, Tony and Grammy winner Rita Moreno added an Emmy to her mantle for this fabulous performance.

Episode 217: Julie Andrews
I always wanted Julie Andrews to be my nanny just so she could sing to me!  Watching her in Mary Poppins or The Sound of Music OR her appearance on TMS, just entertained me to no end.  It didn't matter whether she was singing on a hillside (with a goat!) or with a bunch of Muppet monsters, she was just an enjoyable presence in my home.

Episode 214: Elton John
This episode is great just because of the melding of two geniuses.  The Muppet genius of Jim Henson (and all those around him!) plus the musical genius of Elton John makes for one of the most musically successful episodes of the series.  John sings most of his chart-toppers like "Crocodile Rock," "Bennie and the Jets," "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" and a hilarious duet with Miss Piggy on "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" (below).

Episode 506: Brooke Shields
Brooke Shields was one of the most famous child stars when I was growing up.  When the Muppets booked her on the show, the writers out-did themselves.  Of course, Lewis Carroll's classic Alice's Adventures In Wonderland was perfect for Jim Henson and his creative team (his famed Creature Shop since then worked on at least 3 variations on the Carroll tale).  Here, the Muppets get to try their hand at the many wacky characters in the story.

Monty Python and Fawlty Towers star John Cleese helped to co-write this episode and the comedic brilliance is multiplied.  His concept was to play it as a guest star who just didn't want to do the show.  Cleese is amazing at playing an exasperated, "diva"-like star, especially when they try to get him to sing (see below).

Episode 515: Carol Burnett
This episode received an Emmy Award for Best Writing of Variety Series and there are many reasons why.  The concept to have Gonzo running the Muppet Theater like its a 1930s dance marathon is too funny in and of itself.  Add the top-notch comedic timing of Carol Burnett and audiences are rolling on the floor.  I like to call this episode "They Shoot Muppets, Don't They?" (Well...at least I think it's clever!).

Episode 212: Bernadette Peters
There is really only one reason why this episode ranks so high in my mind.  One song, just one song that has become the anthem for Jim Henson and his work.  Watch Broadway diva-extraordinaire Bernadette Peters sing this hauntingly beautiful song to Kermit's nephew, Robin.  It just touches something in my heart (I am not made of stone!).

Episode 314: Harry Belafonte
This episode is both one of the funniest episodes of the series AND one of the most poignant.  The concept of the episode has Fozzie trying to write a script for the show (can you just imagine?).  Frank Oz is also a genius, especially when he puppeteered characters like Fozzie Bear or Miss Piggy or Cookie Monster.  In this episode, Oz goes all out in his characterization of Fozzie and makes us love him even more.  On top of all that hilarity, guest star Harry Belafonte brings a beautifully touching moment by singing his brilliant song "Turn the World Around" for the episode's finale (see below).

I hope this brought back good memories for those of you who, like me, grew up watching the creative genius that Jim Henson brought to the world.  I will never forget any of the things I have learned from the Muppets (in all their incarnations).  Thank You Jim!

"Life's like a movie, write your own ending."

Friday, May 13, 2011

10 FAVORITES (33) - Bad Small and Silver Screen Moms

Last week, I gave you all a list of the best Mothers from both TV and Film.  This week, I've decided to give you the opposite.  If Bambi's Mother and Claire Huxtable qualify as the best Moms in the fictional mediums, then which mothers qualify as the worst?  There are plenty to choose from, so let's get started.  Like last week, we'll begin with:


TV MOM #10
Lwaxana Troi from Star Trek: The Next Generation
She's self-absorbed, man-hungry, extravagant and extremely intrusive...oh, and she's an alien.  Lwaxana Troi (played with great flair by the late Majel Barrett-Roddenberry) was every one of those adjectives and more as Counselor Deanna Troi's Beta-Zed mother.  She cared more about finding a husband and reading people's thoughts than her own "little one."  Yet, in her own "warped" way, she had great affection for Deanna.

Estelle Costanza from Seinfeld
It's often thought that the louder the voice, the more of a pain the mother is.  Well, Estelle Costanza (played to annoying perfection by Estelle Harris) certainly fits that bill.  She made George's life a living hell and she was unapologetic about it.  She was just being herself, which can be quite admirable, only some times.

Lois Griffin from Family Guy
Compared to her husband, Lois Griffin is the perfect parent.  That being said though, she still is extremely selfish and has a sense of humor that is way out of control (perfect for the show that she's on, but still...WOW!).  Plus, she is the worst role model for her teenage daughter Meg, whom she seems to just despise (like everyone else on the show).

Benny Lopez from George Lopez
Loosely based on his grandmother (as talked about in his stand-up), George Lopez created the character of Benny Lopez, George's abusive and lazy mother (played by Belita Moreno).  Every hateful word that spread from her mouth was just awful, but half of the time it was excused because Benny was just as emotionally damaged as she tried to make other people.

Endora from Bewitched
What's worse than a mother who is absolutely un-supportive of your life choices? Try dealing with her when she has magical powers and uses them to make your life (and the life of your spouse) miserable. You know life won't be easy when your mother is constantly (and often purposefully) getting your husband's name wrong.

Liane Cartman from South Park
Eric Cartman may be one of the most vicious and evil characters ever created for a TV show, but you might forgive some faults when you look at his mother.  Liane Cartman is probably the biggest tramp in the entire fictional universe.  She'll do it with anyone (and I mean ANYONE!).  For a little while, through some strange and twisted plot device, it was thought that Liane was both Eric's Mother AND Eric's Father (don't ask!).

Marie Barone from Everybody Loves Raymond
She was a master at giving an insult with a smile, especially to her daughter-in-law.  Marie (the delightful Emmy-winner Doris Roberts) held firmly on to her sons (namely Raymond) and made it her business to deal with everything in her family.  She defended her actions by claiming that's what a Mother does, but she constantly undermined her son's respective marriages all while doing it in the name of Motherhood.  Can you say "Manipulative?"

Lucille Bluth from Arrested Development
Some women just shouldn't have children and Lucille Bluth (brilliantly played by Jessica Walter) would be the first one to say that...about other people.  She loved to drink and gossip and drink and spend money and (did I mention?) drink.  The messes she made of her four children is a testament to the kind of Mother she was.

Peg Bundy from Married...With Children
The original dysfunctional mother and the perfect stereotype for the bored housewife.  Peg Bundy (the amazing Katey Sagal) loved her bon-bons more than she loved Kelly or Bud (her children).  Maybe she felt neglected by her husband Al (the equally amazing Ed O'Neill) or maybe she just didn't care about anything.  Whatever the reason, Peg nearly tops the list of the Worst Mothers on TV.

Evelyn Harper from Two and a Half Men
Now that the news has come that the show will return next season (with Ashton Kutcher replacing Charlie Sheen), audiences who love this show (for some reason!) will get to see more of Holland Taylor's Emmy nominated performance as the most selfish Mother one will ever see on TV.  Evelyn always only thinks of herself and how much money she can make off of anyone (through her realty business).  It's no wonder her two sons turned out the way they did...tiger-blood and all!


Mama Fratelli from The Goonies
Played by the late Anne Ramsey, Mama Fratelli was a piece of work. Not only is she a vicious criminal (like Ma Barker, but meaner), but she chains up her deformed son, Sloth, in a basement. Thank God for Chunk! (I never thought I'd say that statement!)

Queen Gertrude from Hamlet
William Shakespeare knew how much a Mother's betrayal could affect the psyche of a young man and he made it the central conflict of his most famous play. Whether Gertrude is played by a great actress (like Glenn Close or Julie Christie) or is played by an unknown in a regional (or high school) production, her relationship with Hamlet and how she reacts to her son's treatment of her new marriage (to her late husband's brother and murderer!) is key to the personality of this ambitious and terrified Queen.

Kate McCallister from Home Alone
Every time I watch Home Alone (or it's New York sequel), I am constantly frustrated and angry at the mother and how easily Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) forgives her for LEAVING HIM HOME ALONE! I mean, I know kids love their mothers, but this woman shows how much Kevin means to her by punishing him the night before they leave and then leaving (albeit accidentally) him home by himself. Though she is perfectly played by Catherine O'Hara, I just think some things are unforgivable (at least immediately).

Mary from Precious - Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire
Comedienne Mo'Nique transformed herself and completely shocked audiences with her Oscar-winning performance as Mary, Precious' abusive and hateful mother. But it is in her last scene in the film where audiences realize how damaged Mary is herself and how the cycle of dysfunction continues.

The Alien Queen from Aliens
The Queen has one purpose in her whole existence and that is to destroy all human life and infest the world with her alien progeny. The only thing standing in her way: the heroic and feisty Ripley (the indomitable Sigourney Weaver), who is as nurturing as the Queen is destructive.

Disney's Wicked Stepmothers from Snow White and Cinderella
As part of Disney's Princess franchise, they should have a small sect including the two Wickedest Stepmothers in fairy tale history. The Wicked Queen (from Snow White) and Lady Tremaine (from Cinderella) are both filled with villainy and jealousy when they look at their respective stepdaughters. So they proceed to make the pretty Princesses life as miserable as possible. Not the best kind of Mother-figure in a girl's life, is it?

Beth from Ordinary People
One of the worst kind of Mothers is the kind of Mother who just gives up. Beth (as played by a stoic and reserved Mary Tyler Moore) gives up on everything especially her surviving son Conrad (Oscar-winner Timothy Hutton). Just watch her face as her son tries to hug her towards the end of the film.

Mrs. Robinson from The Graduate
Talk about a selfish rich bitch! Anne Bancroft will forever be remembered as the ultimate cougar Mrs. Robinson, who seduces young Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) and proceeds to let him date her daughter (the innocent Katharine Ross). She doesn't care about anything but her own desires.

Joan Crawford from Mommie Dearest
Everyone remembers Faye Dunaway screaming "No Wire Hangers! EVER!" and proceeding to spank the little girl with the hanger.  Dunaway's over-the-top work as Crawford has become so iconic that, even though Joan Crawford was a real person, she has become a character all the same.

Mrs. Iselin from The Manchurian Candidate
Brilliantly played by Angela Lansbury in the 1962 socio-political thriller, Mrs. Iselin is cold, over-bearing and absolutely manipulative. She even allows her son to become a Communist assassin and is willing to let him murder a political candidate to get ahead in Washington.  Just watch the chilling scene below.

There you have it, the Worst Mothers on TV and Film. Next week, we will explore the best moments and the best guest stars from one of my favorite shows of all-time: THE MUPPET SHOW!!!!!!

Friday, May 6, 2011

10 FAVORITES (32) - Great Silver and Small Screen Moms

As we head into this Mother's Day weekend, I wanted to make these next two installments of 10 FAVORITES really special.  Basically, because Moms deserve it.  Moms: It's the best job in the world and the pay-off (when done right) is so much better than cash, check or any of Oprah's Favorite Things.  So, I asked myself: "What do I love to talk about on this blog?" and "How can I make what I love to talk about special for all the Moms out there in the world?"  As I brainstormed, the answer came to me.  This week's 10 FAVORITES will be devoted to the Best Moms portrayed in both Television and Films.  (Next week, I'll do the Worst; but for now, we'll just focus on the Best!).  I dedicate this blog post to my beloved Mother, who I know is watching over me every step of the way (like a good Mother always does, no matter what!).  Here are:


TV MOM #10
Caroline Ingalls from Little House On the Prairie
While Michael Landon's Charles Ingalls was the anchor of the popular series, Karen Grassle's Caroline Ingalls was its heart.  She was a woman who, at a time when women weren't in charge, certainly knew when to giver her emotional support and her wealth of wisdom.

Roseanne Conner from Roseanne
She is an unlikely choice, but you can't compile a list of TV moms without thinking of her.  Yes, she was in-your-face and sometimes venomously abusive (to mostly others, not necessarily her kids); she showed that a mother in the 1980s and early 1990s worked their a**es off for their families, and no one worked harder than Roseanne.

Marge Simpson from The Simpsons
Yet another unlikely choice (considering who she's married to!), but Marge is overtly devoted to her kids.  Her "special little guy" may very well be the Devil's Advocate, but she clearly loves every minute she spends with precocious Bart, brainy Lisa and unforgettable Maggie.

Lorelai Gilmore from Gilmore Girls
Though she became a mom at 16, the minute she held little Lorelai (aka Rory) in her arms they were bonded for life.  Their strong closeness kept fans cheerful and tearful (and extremely caffeinated) through seven years (ably helped by the charm and wit of star Lauren Graham).

Elyse Keaton from Family Ties
She was a flower child-turned-architect and we couldn't get enough of her.  Throughout the NBC hit's seven years, Elyse cared for her three (eventually four!) kids with love, understanding and compassion.  That's quite a feat considering her oldest was the very conservative Alex P. Keaton (the irrepressible Michael J. Fox).

Olivia Walton from The Waltons
If you were growing up in rural Appalachia during the Depression AND World War II, wouldn't you want a Mother like Michael Learned's patient, sweet and endearing Olivia guiding you through turbulent years? John Boy certainly turned out pretty good!

Carol Brady from The Brady Bunch
When you're blending two families together, you need a Mom who is strong and understanding but has a great sense of humor and fun.  Carol Brady (much like Florence Henderson herself) embodies every quality I just described.

June Cleaver from Leave It to Beaver
Several "Baby Boomers" I know have admitted to wanting a Mom like June Cleaver.  She was the quintessential housewife and can give those "Real" and "Desperate" ones a run for their money.

Marion Cunningham from Happy Days
Like June Cleaver, Marion Ross' Marion Cunningham was the perfect housewife.  In the 1970s, we were nostalgic for the 1950s and Mrs. C was the best at creating a loving home for Richie, Joanie and the forever lost Chuck.

Claire Huxtable from The Cosby Show
Since I grew up in the 1980s, there was one mother who always stood out in my mind as successful (whether as a woman, a career gal or especially a Mother): Claire Hanks Huxtable.  The level of trust and respect that Phylicia Rashad's indomitable character showed her children (and her husband!) was so appealing that I just felt privileged to watch her every week.  Every Thursday night was a delight thanks to characters like Claire.


Rusty Dennis from Mask
Cher's performance as Rusty Dennis (mother of disfigured Rocky Dennis) is powerful and poignant.  Rusty has her own problems, but she fights tooth and nail for her kid to be as normal as possible.

Marta Hanson from I Remember Mama
For the longest time, Irene Dunne's heartbreaking performance in this film was the ultimate film Mother.

Mama Gump from Forrest Gump
According to Forrest, Mama always said a lot of things from the definition of stupidity to the similarities between life and chocolates.  If she were played by anyone else besides Sally Field, we would never believe a single mother in that time period (and that location!) would be that determined.

Elastigirl from The Incredibles
Not only is she a superhero, but she's a super-Mom!  Throughout PIXAR's action-filled delight, Helen "Elastigirl" Parr (charmingly voiced by Holly Hunter) is trying to adjust to her normal lifestyle and fighting to keep her family in tact. Pity some dejected fanboy has to ruin it all by kidnapping her husband!

Mrs. Molly Weasley from The Harry Potter films
From the second she meets are titular hero, she wants to take him under her wing (which is pretty crowded with seven other Weasley kids!). J.K. Rowling had to know someone like Molly Weasley in her lifetime to make her so endearing (people with personalities like her exist, we just have to find them!). She is such a delight that I smile every time I see Julie Walters' interpretation in the hugely successful films.

Sophie from Sophie's Choice
When one is faced with true evil and the most agonizing choice anyone can make, what is a Mother to do? In Meryl Streep's powerful Oscar-winning performance, she is forced by sadistic people to make that choice and is forever changed by the consequences. Wouldn't any Mother be? (See the original and absolutely heartbreaking scene here.)

Mrs. Brisby from The Secret of NIMH
Yes, I know she's an animal but she still counts! Her entire motivation throughout the film (one of the greatest and most underrated animated films of all-time, I might add!) is her children, specifically her youngest Timothy. Timothy is gravely ill and she is striving to save his life. Isn't that what any Mother would do?

Ma Joad from The Grapes of Wrath
If you were compiling the list from literary sources, Ma Joad would have to be at the top of the list.  She treks through the West with her impoverished clan in the era of the Great Depression and asks for nothing but faith from her family. Like the best Mothers, she is an eternal Teacher.

Aurora Greenway from Terms of Endearment
We all remember the "Give My Daughter the Shot!" scene. Like Lorelai Gilmore in the TV Moms section, Aurora's friendship with her daughter (expertly played by Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger as Mother and Daughter, respectively) is complicated but everlasting.

Bambi's Mother from Bambi
Yet another animal.  She makes the ultimate sacrifice a Mother can make.  Everyone remembers the first time they watched this pivotal and emotional scene.  Let's all cry together!

Next week, The Worst Moms from TV and Film!

Dedicated to the Memory of
A Loving Mother and Eternal Teacher!