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Tag Archives: James Earl Jones

Old Folks in Road Movies

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harryandtontobetterleash

There’s a built-in poignancy about road movies involving codgers. Either they’re retracing footsteps of an embattled past, or they’re journeying into unknown territory in defiance of age and expectation. Either way, it can be engrossing to watch.

JACK NICHOLSON IN “ABOUT SCHMIDT”

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In “About Schmidt,” Jack Nicholson hits the road as a deeply ordinary man forced to question pretty much everything about how he’s lived his life. There are some very funny moments in RVs and a hot tub, but the overriding sense of sadness is strong. “About Schmidt” also boasts one of the most unusual choices for an ending that I’ve ever seen.

JANE DARWELL IN “THE GRAPES OF WRATH”

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It’s all there in her wonderful face: pain, fear, disappointment, resolve. Based on John Steinbeck’s great novel of Okies fleeing the dustbowl during the Depression, Darwell’s performance is rooted in a tragic, almost mystical view of travel as survival. She isn’t on the road seeking redemption or guidance. She wants to find a place for her family to live.

ALAN ARKIN IN “LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE”

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How great is this movie? Mr. Arkin’s work, in particular, is excellent. He takes a stock character, the cranky old guy, and knows exactly when to play him loud and when to play him soft. Road movies are always about the interior transformations and emotional movements, and “Little Miss Sunshine” wisely uses Arkin as a major catalyst.

ART CARNEY IN “HARRY AND TONTO”

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Art Carney won an Oscar as Harry, a philosophical widower tossed out of his New York City apartment. He roams the country with his cat, Tonto. Although this film has a few too many contrivances, it’s also undeniably moving. It makes a firm argument that loss and change can be accompanied by new experiences and new friendships.

JAMES EARL JONES IN “FIELD OF DREAMS”

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The great James Earl Jones isn’t the star of “Field of Dreams,” but his presence enlivens it immeasurably. His road from sarcastic skepticism to ardent belief in Kevin Costner’s quest is what gives the movie some zip at exactly the right moment.

GERALDINE PAGE IN “TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL”

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Page is heartbreaking in “Trip to Bountiful.” She plays an older woman, living with her shrill daughter-in-law and henpecked son, who wants to see her childhood home one last time. So she sneaks away and takes the bus. It’s such a quiet, winning performance; Page won a well-deserved Oscar for it.

RICHARD FARNSWORTH IN “THE STRAIGHT STORY”

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I’ll readily admit that I’d have been willing to plunk down full price to see and hear Richard Farnsworth recite the ingredients in soup. His manner had the simplicity and beauty of deep, still water. In “The Straight Story,” he plays a man who sets out on a riding lawnmower to visit his estranged brother, who lives in another state. It’s both boring and riveting, if that makes any sense.

And now, the Jimbo List is going to take a two-week break. Safe travels to one and all.

Fictional Presidents You May Not Remember

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Here in the final weekend before the 2012 presidential election, figuring out who will occupy the Oval Office seems all too real. Perhaps a brief respite is in order. To that end, here is a selection of fictional presidents for your politically-overloaded pleasure.

JAMES EARL JONES IN “THE MAN”

In 1972, the idea of a black president made for gripping drama. Here’s the premise for this TV movie that was released as a feature film: the President and Speaker of the House are killed, and the Vice President is in ill health and declines the job. Suddenly, the president pro tempore of the Senate – the great James Earl Jones – is president. What follows is a morality play about racial fears, idealism and political hardball. Guess who wrote the screenplay? Rod Serling.

JEFF BRIDGES IN “THE CONTENDER”

Speaking of political hardball, I greatly enjoyed this 2000 movie that had Jeff Bridges as a wily Commander in Chief. The film was primarily about Joan Allen as a senator being considered for vice president, but Bridges also stood out. Partly it had to do with his cutthroat deal making; partly it was his strange obsession with sandwiches.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN IN “STAR TREK”

Oh yeah – fictionalized versions of real presidents are still fiction, in my book. Now some of you may prefer “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” or even “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” but to me nothing beats seeing Honest Abe (Lee Bergere) battle bad guys with Kirk and Spock on an alien planet. If you need to know the rationale for this scenario, then you clearly don’t understand the crazy vibe of “Star Trek,” season 3, 1969.

MARTIN SHEEN IN “THE DEAD ZONE”

Please, you didn’t think I was going to use “The West Wing,” did you? This is The Jimbo List, not The Obvious List. Here’s a different sort of Sheen presidency. In 1983’s “The Dead Zone,” based on the Stephen King novel, Sheen is a nutjob Senate candidate. When the movie’s main character, a psychic, touches Sheen’s hand, he sees a vision of a future in which Sheen is president. Let’s just say it isn’t pretty.

FREDRIC MARCH IN “SEVEN DAYS IN MAY”

March had just the right formality and gravitas to ground this 1964 political thriller. He played a U.S. president who dared to negotiate a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviets during the Cold War. This, in turn, leads to a potential overthrow of the U.S. government by a mad general. It’s a little melodramatic, in the way movies used to be, but still satisfying.

TERRY CREWS IN “IDIOCRACY”

By no means is this a recommendation of the 2006 comedy, “Idiocracy.” I actually found it a little depressing. But it accurately reflects a fear many people probably have, that our culture is elevating stupidity and celebrity at the expense of essential institutions. Crews, who I generally get a kick out of, is a kick-ass, gun-toting Prez here.

JOHN TRAVOLTA IN “PRIMARY COLORS”

As anyone who saw “Primary Colors” knows, it’s a thinly-veiled look at Bill and Hillary Clinton, complete with habitual womanizing and feel-your-pain empathy. I thought Travolta did a very good job playing a fictional version of someone we all think we understand.

TIMOTHY BOTTOMS IN “THAT’S MY BUSH!”

Remember this 2000 Comedy Central series? It lasted only a couple of months, using George W. Bush as fodder for a merging of sitcom cliches with current events. It was created by the “South Park” guys, and it had plots that included gun control, abortion, wacky neighbors and trying to impress the in-laws.

JACK NICHOLSON IN “MARS ATTACKS!”

The Martians were by far the coolest part of 1996’s “Mars Attacks!” Nicholson, overacting with wild abandon, was front and center as the president in this all-star comedy extravaganza. A few laughs, nothing more.

MARY McDONNELL IN “BATTLESTAR GALACTICA”

Believe it or not, McDonnell was a more realistic president in this TV space opera than many of the other examples on this List. She was pragmatic, deceptive, ruthless and driven. She also happened to be on a space ship.

CHARLES LINDBERGH IN “THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA”

In this 2004 novel, Philip Roth envisions a world in which Charles Lindbergh beats Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940 election. The country quickly unravels in a frightening spiral of antisemitism. Roth adds his own family members into the alternate history, to great effect.

HENRY FONDA IN “FAIL-SAFE”

The burdens of the presidency weigh heavily on Fonda here, with good reason. There’s been a malfunction on one of our war planes – it’s about to nuke Moscow out of existence. Can we stop it? And if we can’t, what does the president do next?

ROBERT CULP IN “THE PELICAN BRIEF”

Pure potboiler, but lots of fun. Culp gives his supporting role as a villainous president a whiff of Ronald Reagan. He’s grandfatherly and let’s his staff do a lot of the heavy lifting.

KELSEY GRAMMER IN “SWING VOTE”

This somewhat minor 2008 comedy had a presidential election coming down to the vote of one dude out in New Mexico (Kevin Costner) who needed to recast his ballot. Grammer played the sitting president, running for re-election. I include this one mainly because it gives you a sense of what Grammer would bring to his fantastic portrayal of a Chicago mayor in TV’s “Boss.” In both comedy and drama, he’s believable as a powerful politician.

OLD RICHARD NIXON IN “WATCHMEN”

In the movie and comics versions of “Watchmen,” Richard Nixon has remained president right into the 1980s. It’s a chilling and cynical view of politics and public opinion, on a grand scale. With superheroes, of course.

PETER SELLERS IN “DR. STRANGELOVE”

What is it with these fictional 1964 presidents and their phones & nukes? Anyway, I loved Sellers in this role. His president, Merkin Muffley, was a mild-mannered guy handling an international crisis with all the bureaucratic pomposity we’ve come to expect from Washington, D.C. Here’s a typical line: “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”

So there you have it – a plethora of fictional presidents. Now, back to our regularly scheduled election!

TV’s Great Unseen Voices

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For all its emphasis on visuals, TV would be nothing without its sound. That’s particularly true in the case of these folks – narrators and announcers who elevate the material to greatness.

You’ll notice that I didn’t include announcers who are (or were) sometimes seen, such as the great Johnny Olson, or voices of particular characters, such as the late, great Dick Tufeld, who voiced the robot in “Lost in Space.” That said, here we go…

JAMES EARL JONES

(CNN)

His voice is like none other. It is the epitome of commanding. His brief sentence announcing, “This is CNN,” is equaled only by his Darth Vader movie dialogue. The reason may be that Mr. Jones combines vocal power with an undercurrent of emotion.

JOHN FACENDA

(NFL FILMS)

Facenda wasn’t called the “voice of God” for nothing. His narration of pro football highlights has been imitated again and again, but never matched. Here is his famous rendition of the poem, “The Autumn Wind.”

DANIEL STERN

(THE WONDER YEARS)

Great TV voices don’t always have to be authoritative. Stern, a fine actor, gave “The Wonder Years” just the right sort of  knowing, nostalgic vibe.

BORIS KARLOFF

(HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS)

Karloff’s voice narrating the “Grinch” is exquisite. He savors each Seuss-ian syllable, from “pantookas” to “bamboozlers,” and raises our spirits in the process.

RON HOWARD

(ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT)

Howard, by virtue of his even-keeled, reasonable tone, is an ingenious counterpoint to the utterly crazy goings on of the Bluth family. He also gets to poke fun at his own history as Opie Taylor and Richie Cunningham, adding another layer of wit to one of TV’s funniest shows ever.

CHRIS ROCK

(EVERYBODY HATES CHRIS)

I’ll admit this one may be a bit of a cheat. Rock obviously was trading in on his own persona for the entire show, and he actually did appear onscreen as a guidance counselor, BUT to me the show never would have worked without his gently subversive narration.

WILLIAM CONRAD

(THE FUGITIVE, ETC.)

Conrad’s voice was like a piece of steel that he could shape into whatever he needed – something highly dramatic, aggressive or deadpan funny. His voice work on the classic 1960s show, “The Fugitive,” was fantastic, as was his sublime work on the “Rocky and Bullwinkle” cartoons. Many viewers only knew him as the large dude on “Cannon,” but he was an all-time great voice guy, too.

MAJEL BARRETT

(STAR TREK)

Barrett was the computer voice for every one of the “Star Trek” TV shows, going back to Capt. Kirk and Co. It was both campily robotic and comfortingly familiar.

WILL LYMAN

(FRONTLINE, ETC.)

The precision of Lyman’s voice is phenomenal – not because of its dexterity, but because of the way it conveys import without emotion. At this point, viewers feel almost an implicit trust in material simply upon hearing Lyman’s voice. And that’s why his work on commercials for “The Most Interesting Man in the World” is so devastatingly funny.

DON PARDO

(SNL, JEOPARDY!)

There’s no logical reason why Pardo’s narration is so perfect. But it is. His voice is loopy, loony and lovable. I don’t even want to think about SNL without him. Here’s an odd little clip of him announcing the old version of “Jeopardy!” with Art Flemming.

Now it’s time for you to add to The List!