Sunday, July 23, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

Spider-Man: Homecoming (Marvel/Columbia, 2017) – Director: Jon Watts. Writers: Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Jon Watts, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers (s/p). Jonathan Goldstein & John Francis Daley (story). Based on the comic by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko. Stars: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr., Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau, Gwyneth Paltrow, Zendaya, Donald Glover, Jacob Batalon, Laura Harrier, Tony Revolori, Bokeem Woodbine, Tyne Daly, Abraham Attah & Hannibal Buress. Color, Rated PG-13, 133 minutes.

If you’re nothing without the suit, then you shouldn’t have it.” – Tony Stark.

This beautifully done direct sequel to Captain America: Civil War (2016) has the 15-year-old Peter Parker (Holland) bubbling with enthusiasm over assisting The Avengers as Spider-Man and at the same time coming to grips with his age and inexperience.

At 2 hours and 13 minutes, the film is a little long but worth it. Yes, Peter develops a crush on Liz (Harrier) but he can’t court her like a normal teenager because of his “internship” with Tony Stark/Iron Man (Downey Jr.) which gives him opportunities to fight crime as Spider-Man. This doomed relationship is further complicated by the fact that Liz is the daughter of Adrian Toomes/Vulture (Keaton), the main antagonist in the picture, and Tony has assigned Happy Hogan (Favreau) to be a kind of babysitter to Peter, making sure he doesn’t do anything Tony doesn’t want him to do.

The film links up nicely to the Battle of New York in The Avengers (2012) as Adrian’s salvage company is attempting to clean up the mess at the Avengers’ Tower but is interrupted by the U.S. Department of Damage Control (D.O.D.C.) – a Stark operation – and are put out of business by Anne Marie Hoag (Daly). Adrian and his crew swipe as much Chitauri alien technology as they can before being ousted and they use it to hybridize weapons for sale on the black market.

Peter find that keeping his identity a secret is harder than he thought when he sneaks back into his Queens apartment and is discovered on the ceiling by his roommate Ned Leeds (Batalon). Peter swears him to secrecy but throughout the remainder of the movie we see Ned bursting at the seams with his knowledge. He only blurts out that Peter knows Spider-Man once, giving Peter and himself – and Spider-Man – invitations to a party at Liz’s house. Of course, it ends in embarrassment for Peter.

Stark entrusts Peter with a high-tech tricked-out Spider-Man suit with all sorts of capabilities and firewalls to keep him from using them. Peter figures out what Adrian and his cronies are doing, tries to contact Happy but is rebuffed, and goes against the ring alone. Ned helps him hack into the suit to remove the GPS tracker and enable all the marvelous features (some deadly) of the suit. But when a Chitauri grenade malfunctions and the Staten Island Ferry is sliced in two from stem to stern, Tony takes back the suit.

The whole movie is a push and pull of emotions. Peter has to win Tony’s trust (and Liz’s heart – much easier), stop Adrian’s business, and keep his identity secret. This last one is the hardest. When Spider-Man saves Liz and fellow students from a plummeting elevator in the Washington Monument, Adrian concludes that Peter is indeed Spider-Man. And, when Peter arrives to pick up Liz for the Homecoming Dance there is an incredibly awkward scene as he and Adrian recognize each other. Adrian drives the couple to the dance and, though grateful for saving his daughter’s life, gives Peter the ultimatum of non-interference with his business before letting him out of the car.

To say the movie was a thrill ride is an understatement considering I saw it in 4DX. Not only was it in 3D but every move onscreen was translated to a movement of the individual seats in the theater. Every swing from a spider thread, every bash into a wall, every bullet whizzing by, was felt by the audience. The scene atop the Washington Monument was made even more dizzying and perilous by this fourth dimensional feature. As if the special effects weren’t amazing enough. Tom Holland is great as a student “friendly neighborhood” Spider-Man with all the goofs and mistakes as well as the triumphs. Robert Downey Jr. is a past master of his role. He’s got all the confidence, arrogance and tough love Peter can handle. Michael Keaton is once again fabulous. You despise him for what he’s doing but you understand why he’s doing it. He’s still a kind of Batman – one of the best in my opinion. Laura Harrier is sweet and seductive, but she’s sensitive and almost unlimited in forgiveness. The only character who fails is Marisa Tomei, and I think I commented on this in the last Spider-Man movie. She looks and acts nothing like the Aunt May from Marvel comics. You expect her to be dancing on a go-go platform rather than making apple pie and cookies. She’s too young. Gwyneth Paltrow got a little skunked in this movie, short time onscreen, but she made the best of it. And who knows, there may be a wedding between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts in the next one.

I started enjoying this film when I heard the powerful orchestration of the familiar Spider-Man Theme Song written by Robert Harris playing at the beginning credits. It was also fun to hear the pop tunes placed appropriately according to the action onscreen such as “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?” by the Rolling Stones and “Blitzkrieg Bop” by the Ramones. Be sure to stay through the credits to hear an interesting exchange between a prison mate and Adrian and see Aunt May almost drop the only “F” bomb when she walks in on Peter (in costume without the headgear).

Rating: 4 out of 5 Martini glasses.

Russian Vodka Room
265 West 52nd St., New York

Dorogie Tovarischi! (Dear Comrades!) Welcome to the “Home of hundreds of vodkas!” This quote from their website says it all but still doesn’t say enough.

My 14th Russian restaurant has none of the flash and folklore of the previous 13 (and none of the inflated prices, either). In fact, I breezed right by it before finding the entrance. On a long, polished, black granite wall there’s a picture window with the logo in red – a Soviet star made out of a martini glass with the hammer and sickle as the olive – and a single open door surmounted by a simple sign. Next to it a framed menu hangs from a chain on the black wall.

Lika, the woman who seated me and would become my server, asked if I wanted a drink, indicating the extensive list on the menu and leaving me to choose. The specialty cocktail list featured one that made me file the infused vodkas in my mind for later. I ordered the Filthy Russian martini, one of two I thought were politically incorrect (the other was the Red Bastard). Basically, it was a “dirty” martini made with ZYR vodka and olive juice and garnished with gorgonzola-stuffed olives. It was salty, but even James Bond would have liked it.

I told Lika that I was choosing three courses and when she frowned I knew I had chosen too much. She described the Herring under the coat as layers of herring and salmon and I concluded it to be a kind of fish lasagna. She directed me to a smaller appetizer and I was set.

Another server brought the bread basket – full of slices of dark and light breads warm and moist. I tasted a slice of sourdough and sipped my martini as I waited for the first course. The smaller appetizer was not exactly small and it was very filling. The Herring with Potatoes Russian Style was an oblong platter with a good-sized strip of fresh, silvery herring in the center, two large potatoes on one side, a row of sliced beets and a row of sliced red onions on the other, with a garnish of parsley. I wondered if every dish would match the overhead lighting as well as this one did. It was excellent. The fish alone was delicious, but combined with the other ingredients it was a simple, yet elegant dish, and I told Lika.

I was ready for my first infused vodka and couldn’t resist the garlic pepper and dill flavor. For those who don’t like garlic, stay away from this one. It was garlic supreme with dill accents and the power of a good vodka and spicy pepper aftertaste backing it up – made only for sipping. It would last through my next two courses and make each one that much better.

My second course was written simply, Russian Meat Dumplings, though from experience I know they are properly called Pelmeni (That’s when other places raise the price.). Similar to small wontons with more meat and less dough, they were served in a bowl with a side of fresh sour cream. Again, wonderful. I was feeling the atmosphere of this restaurant. The piano player had just started singing Russian songs, which helped.

The main course was a dish I haven’t had in maybe 20 years and remember loving from childhood. Served the Russian way, the Beef Tongue in Sweet and Sour Sauce was nothing like mother used to make, but in some ways better. The meat was invisible in its brown ceramic crock under large slices of yellow bell peppers. There was an avalanche of kasha taking up most of the square plate guarded by a slice of toasted baguette and slices of tomato and sweet pickle. The sweet and sour sauce was understated, not like the sometimes glutinous Chinese version. The tongue was a little overcooked for my tastes and tasted more like a steak, but I had no real problem with it. The memories still flooded back. The peppers were what made the dish. Together with the meat, it was heavenly. A surprisingly simple preparation. The garlic vodka added flavor to the relatively bland kasha.

Lika recommended the Honey Cake for dessert. The six inch by four inch slice of multilayered goodness topped by glistening raspberry compote made me wonder what the whole cake looked like. It was so sweet, a little tart, creamy, but definitely a cake. I’ve rarely enjoyed an unfamiliar dessert like this one. How can you top a confection like that? With more vodka, of course! Lika brought me the black current infused vodka, “on the house,” she said. It was almost opaque, dark, and tasted fruity and tart. I loved it.

I can tell how much I enjoyed the Russian Vodka Room by the fact that I neglected to get a business card as I usually would do. That only means I have to make a return visit to try some more of those remarkable foods and infused vodkas. Nostrovia!

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Friday, July 21, 2017

TCM TiVo Alert for July 23-31

July 23–July 31


INHERIT THE WIND (July 23, 11:45 am): An all-star cast – featuring Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, Gene Kelly, Claude Akins, and Harry Morgan – do a splendid job in this well-written film adaption of this fictionalized version of the famous 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial in which a teacher in the South is brought up on criminal charges for teaching the theory of evolution to his high school class. Most of the film takes place in a courtroom. The film, expertly directed by Stanley Kramer, gives viewers the feeling of being in that hot, packed courtroom with hostility in the air. While the storyline is an attack on Creationism, the actual target of this 1960 film is McCarthyism. 

THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (July 31, 9:15 am): This is one of my favorite films. Kirk Douglas is a movie mogul who needs the help of former friends, he betrayed all of them, for his comeback film. While waiting for his call, the three former friends – an actress (Lana Turner), a screenwriter (Dick Powell) and a director (Barry Sullivan) – share their stories of getting burned by Douglas in the office of a producer (Walter Pidgeon). The 1952 film is based on actual Hollywood figures or at least composites of them. It's an  enjoyable film to watch as it's smart, wickedly funny and entertaining with a wonderful cast. Gloria Grahame has a small but memorable role (that earned her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress) in addition to the fine job by the actors previously mentioned. Vincente Minnelli's directing brings out the best in each of the performers with a great screenplay from Charles Schnee. A bit of trivia: the five Oscars won by The Bad and the Beautiful is the most by any movie not nominated for Best Picture. The mystery is how did this film not even get nominated, particularly with the Best Picture award that year going to the overrated and overproduced The Greatest Show on Earth.


CAT PEOPLE (July 26, 1:00 pm): Producer Val Lewton’s first horror hit, this tale of a strange, shy woman (Simone Simon) and the man (Kent Smith) who fells in love with her depends more on shadows and suggestion than actual visual horror. Lawton creates an eerie atmosphere of mood and style that draws us in, and once it has us, builds relentlessly until the finale. Tom Conway and Jane Randolph give wonderful supporting performances. Watch for the swimming pool scene. Lewton’s first film and the harbinger of more wonderful horror to come.

DAY FOR NIGHT (July 31, 4:30 pm): This is one of Francois Truffaut’s wittiest and most subtle films – a film about the making of a film. While on the set of Je vous presente Pamela (Introducing Pamela), the story of an English wife running off with her French father-in-law, we also get to know the cast and crew shooting the film, each with his or her own set of problems. Hence the title: a technical cinematographic term for simulating a night scene while shooting during the day. Special filters and optical processors are employed to create the illusion. While Nathalie Baye and Jean-Pierre Leaud are wonderful in their roles, Valentia Cortese steals the picture as the fading actress Severine. For those new to Truffaut, this is the perfect introduction and one not to miss.

WE AGREE ON ... BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (July 29, 4:45 pm)

ED: A. A cursory glance at the title might lead one to think this is another run-of-the-mill Western, but it is taut, compelling drama about the injustice done to man because he was different from his neighbors. This is the first film to focus on the wartime outrages against Japanese-Americans, and is something of a cross between a Western and film noir. The film is set in the fictional Southwestern town of Black Rock, where the inhabitants are bound to a code of silence over the murder of Kokomo, a local Japanese-American farmer. On that bad day a one-armed stranger named Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) arrives on a train looking for Kokomo, only to be told by one of the town’s leading citizens, Reno Smith (Robert Ryan), that Kokomo was interned during the war. Macreedy’s not buying the explanation and begins to ask questions. That’s when the proverbial crap hits the fan as Smith and his henchmen try to keep Macreedy from finding out the truth. Though the film has its share of melodrama, director John Sturges keeps it moving at a brisk pace. Not one line or shot is wasted during the length of the film, and the photography by William C. Mellor perfectly captures the bleak atmosphere, using color and Cinemascope to its best advantage. Also not to be overlooked is the casting, with Tracy ultimately up against Smith and his henchmen, Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin. For his part Ryan gives the film another Western connection in that he was beginning to make name for himself as a villain in Westerns around this time. Written by Don McGuire and Millard Kaufman from the short story "Bad Time at Honda" by Howard Breslin. Produced by Dore Schary for MGM.

DAVID: A. This 1955 film is a combination of the suspense of an Alfred Hitchcock thriller with the action of a great martial-arts movie done in a Western style. The cast is filled with all-stars, led by Spencer Tracy playing a mysterious stranger with the use of only one arm. Robert Ryan is the main bad guy, aided by Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine, along with Dean Jagger as the town's alcoholic sheriff and Walter Brennan as its undertaker. It's obvious from the moment the stranger, John J. Macreedy (Tracy), gets off the train in Black Rock that, well, it's going to be a bad day there. Macreedy has a reason to be in town. That reason and his presence in Black Rock results in a lot of havoc for the townsfolk. The best scene is when Macreedy, using martial arts and only one hand, beats up Coley Trimble (played by Borgnine in my favorite role of his in cinema) in a bar fight. He only hits Trimble about five times and the fight lasts for about two minutes, but it's incredibly effective. See for yourself. A smart story with excellent action and great acting. 

For the complete list of films on the TCM TiVo Alert, click here.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Big Shakedown

Train Wreck Cinema

By Ed Garea

The Big Shakedown (WB, 1934) – Director: John Francis Dillon. Writers: Niven Busch & Rian James (s/p); Samuel G. Engel & Niven Busch (Story “Cut Rate”). Cast: Charles Farrell, Bette Davis, Ricardo Cortez, Glenda Farrell, Allen Jenkins, Henry O’Neill, Dewey Robinson, John Wray, Philip Faversham, Robert Emmett O’Connor, Renee Whitney, G. Pat Collins, Adrian Morris, Ben Hendricks, Jr.,  Sidney Miller & George Cooper. B&W, 64 minutes.

Warner Bros. used to claim that their films “were ripped from the headlines.” This one, however, must have been ripped from the funny pages. It takes an interesting subject – the problem of product counterfeiting – and reduces it almost to a bad comedy. A shame considering its cast and the story it was based on were both ruined by inept direction and bad screenwriting. 

Norma Nelson (Davis) and Jimmy Morrell (Charles Farrell) are planning to marry just as soon as their neighborhood pharmacy begins to make money. While Jimmy fills prescriptions, Norma runs the counter, dispensing everything from an ice cream cone for a Jewish kid (Miller) who keeps an account of every expenditure in a little notebook (Stereotype, anyone?) to a woman claiming she needs alcohol for her baby’s condition, even though Norma knows that bottle will never make it home.

Our other major player is an ex-bootlegger named Dutch Barnes (Cortez), who as of late is having a hard time in business ever since Prohibition was repealed. He tries to force his cheap swill on a local tavern, only to be told to hit the road. Upset at his latest setback, Dutch and a couple of his boys drop in at Jimmy’s place for a dose of headache powder. Unfortunately, Jimmy is all out of the name brand they ordered, but tells Dutch he can make one up just like it and for less. Jimmy’s concoction does the job, and as he and Dutch get to talking, Jimmy tells him that he can duplicate almost anything with only a few simple ingredients. He demonstrates this to Dutch by making an exact duplicate of a best-selling name brand toothpaste, Pearlydent, with simple ingredients in his back room. This gives Dutch an idea. Why bother bootlegging when one can simply counterfeit name brand goods, make them on the cheap and sell them as the real thing at the name brand price? 

He tells Jimmy they can make the fake toothpaste and sell it as the real thing to drugstores, picking up a nice piece of change along the way. Jimmy’s not too crazy about the idea, but he needs money to get married and figures there’s no harm in it. Dutch already has a sales network in place: instead of pressuring retailers to sell his rotgut, Dutch now uses his torpedoes to pressure merchants into selling his fake toothpaste. 

When Dutch asks if anything else can be replicated, Jimmy cheerfully volunteers a whole host of products that can be counterfeited. Dutch starts with having Jimmy counterfeit popular brands of cosmetics. The money pours in, and Dutch’s next request to Jimmy is for a counterfeit version of a popular antiseptic named Odite. Jimmy has to refuse because he lacks one of the main ingredients, but after Dutch gives him a bonus and supplies the ingredient, not only is Jimmy busy making the fake stuff, he’s also a newlywed, as the extra money has enabled him to marry Norma. 

As time passes Jimmy gets in deeper and deeper. Dutch comes up with new products to counterfeit and Jimmy just can’t say no. After Dutch’s girlfriend Lil (Glenda Farrell) catches him two-timing her with another bimbo, she goes to the makers of Odite and spills the proverbial beans. The company decides to prosecute. Mr. Sheffner (O’Neill), the chemist who invented the Odite formula, visits Jimmy and warns him about the nefarious Dutch. Jimmy agrees to sever his ties to Dutch, but the gangster, ever wily, tricks Jimmy into picking up an “associate” from Detroit and dropping him off at Lil’s place. The associate whacks Lil. Jimmy and Norma learn of the murder later over the radio and Jimmy realizes there’s no escaping Dutch now – he’s an accessory to murder.

With their witness gone, the company has no other choice but to drop their lawsuit. Shortly after, Dutch gets another inspiration. One of his workers collapses and is brought around by a doctor who uses digitalis, a drug that stimulates the heart muscle. Dutch’s next order to Jimmy is to make a batch of fake digitalis. Jimmy refuses, but when Dutch threatens to call Norma to the office and spill everything to her, Jimmy backs down and gets to work. 

Norma, pregnant, is due to deliver, but her heart condition prevents her doctor from using regular anesthetic. Instead, the hospital will use digitalis. Jimmy knows the digitalis sold to the hospital is fake and rushes out to his shop for the real thing, but by the time he gets back, Norma has lost the baby.

Out for revenge, Jimmy shows up at Dutch’s new plant to have it out with him, but Sheffner, the chemist from Odite, gets there first and shoots Dutch, who falls to his death in a vat of acid. Jimmy calls the DA, confesses all, and is exonerated at a trial. He and Norma are back at their cut-rate drug store as the film ends.


The main problem with the movie lies in its writing, especially its characterization. Jimmy, Our Hero, may be a pharmaceutical whiz-kid, but in the words of Tom Servo, he’s “dumber than a bag of rocks.” He also can’t keep his big mouth shut, especially when it comes to showing off how much he knows. He makes it easy to Dutch to manipulate him as they go down the Hollywood slippery slope from misdemeanor to felony to felony murder. 

It’s obvious the movie was made on the cheap and the assembly line. It was one of the last movies made before the Production Code went into full enforcement, but if we’re looking to anything racy, we might as well forget it. Aside from the references to bootlegging and the frequent mention of narcotics and drugs, there isn’t much for a Pre-Code fan to get excited about, save for the catfight between Lily and her rival for Dutch’s affections. Glenda Farrell probably considered herself lucky afterward that her minutes in this film were limited. Even hardcore Farrell fans have a hard time connecting her with this turkey.

Davis and Cortez acquit themselves well, though Davis has little to do except be a victim (she doesn’t even get mad at her husband for being such an idiot) and Cortez could have simply mailed his performance in, as he plays the stereotypical gangster without any wiggle room whatsoever. Allen Jenkins also puts in an appearance as Dutch’s enforcer.

Sidney Miller, who played the Jewish boy who kept such a careful record of his expenditures, played juveniles in quite a few films during the ‘30s, including Boys Town (1938), Andy Hardy Gets Spring Fever (1939) and Men of Boys Town (1941). In the ‘40s, when roles at the big studios dried up, he moved over to Monogram, including Hot Rhythm (1944). Read our review of it here. During the ‘50s, he went into television, and in the ‘60s added such skills as writing and directing to his resume. His most famous directorial stints were on The Mickey Mouse Club and Bachelor Father. His feature films include The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock (1959), Lou Costello’s only film without Bud Abbott, and Get Yourself a College Girl (1964) starring Mary Ann Mobley and Nancy Sinatra.

There’s an interesting scene that takes place in the Odite company boardroom. The announcement of the counterfeit Odite causes the company to file for bankruptcy. Sheffner, who founded the company, asks the board of directors to reconsider, as it is the common stock shareholders who will suffer, while the board, composed of preferred stockholders, will not suffer in the least. This little bit of social commentary is too little and too late in a picture that could have made much of it.

The scene where Dutch gets his is also badly handled and rushed, as if the director is saying ‘let’s get this over with already.’ I did like the fact that he fell into a vat of nitrohydrocholric acid. Talk about ramping it up. No such acid exists. It also anticipates the scene in House on Haunted Hill where Vincent Price’s supposed skeleton rises from a vat of nitric acid to lead unfaithful wife Carol Ohmart to her doom.

The message from the movie is simply, “If you take part in counterfeiting products, know that your crime is not harmless.” Too bad they fumbled away the chance to really drive it home with a solid script.

This was the last film from director John Francis Dillon. He died on April 4, 1934, a little under two months after the film was released, at the age of 49. He died from a heart attack.

Monday, July 17, 2017

William Castle

The Psychotronic Zone

By Jonathan Saia

In our current era of $12 movies, digital streaming, and Redbox, Hollywood has returned to one of its oldest gimmicks to get people back into the theaters: 3-D. Created in the 1950s, 3-D was one of many ploys to get audiences up from their new fangled television sets and back dishing out cold hard cash to Hollywood. It made going to the movies an event again, on par with the theatre, an experience you couldn't get anywhere else. Nor forget. But for William Castle, 3-D was for amateurs. 

William Castle excelled at the hard sell. With the personality of a carnival barker, Castle worked his way through Columbia's ranks, first as an assistant to George Stevens and Harry Cohn and eventually became a dependable director of "B" crime dramas. But after seeing a screening of Les Diaboliques (1955), he knew he wanted to make horror films. So he mortgaged his house and self-produced his first film, Macabre (1958), where a father has to find his buried alive daughter before it's too late.

Castle was afraid that the film alone would not get people to see it. With his house on the line, he needed a sure fire hit. So he came up with a gimmick: patrons could sign up outside of the theatre for a life insurance policy from Lloyds of London (a real policy, to boot) that would pay their beneficiaries $1,000 if they happened to die from fright during the movie. The audience loved it. The $90,000 film ended up making $5 million.

Castle’s subsequent films all had a gimmick attached, one more elaborate than the next. House on Haunted Hill (1959) had "Emerg-o" – a skeleton that flew over the audience; The Tingler (1959) had "Percept-o" – electric buzzers that shocked the seats; 13 Ghosts (1960) had "Illusion-O" – a special pair of glasses that helped you see the spirits; Mr. Sardonicus (1961) had the "Punishment Poll," allowing the audience to "choose" the fate of the antagonist; Homicidal (1961) had the "Fright Break" – a 45 second countdown to the climax where audience members who were too scared could leave the theatre and get a refund; Zotz! (1962) handed out "magical" amulets; and 13 Frightened Girls (1963) got attention for supposedly holding a worldwide casting call for the actresses.

For his next two films, The Night Walker (1964) and Strait-Jacket (1964), Castle used the greatest gimmick of all: bonafide movies stars Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford.

Combining his macabre sense of humor with horror and his very public interaction with his fans, Castle became known as the Low Rent Hitchcock. But this is an injustice to Castle. Only seeing him as a lesser version of a master or the King of the Gimmick sells him short. Castle was not merely some Barnum-like con-artist, shucking his snake oil on 42nd Street. He was a talented director and a brilliant producer. 

Even though his films were shot on the cheap and the quick, Castle elevated them to "A" entertainments, yes with the aid of the gimmicks, but more importantly with the craft. In fact, there are times when the gimmicks feel superfluous and more like a crutch than a desperate plea for people to buy tickets. Most glaringly is Mr. Sardonicus, a fine period piece full of chills and thrills and a well-written climax that doesn't need the so-called "Punishment Poll" it tacks on the end. When Castle has well-written material, he flourishes with the dialogue scenes, getting the best out of his actors (the highlight of House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler are the domestic disputes between Vincent Price's characters and their wives). But what comes through most in Castle's work is his love for the material – and his audience. His main goal is to entertain us. And he succeeds.

Three of my favorite Castle films follow. All are of equal value and artistic merit.

Homicidal is a fantastic thriller and great compliment to its progenitor, Psycho. A woman, whose mother forced her to live her life as a man, kills to keep her secret. The opening sequence is brilliantly paced, the score can only be described as Hermann-esque, and Jean Arless (who was really Joan Marshall using an alias) in the dual role of Warren/Emily is award worthy. Highly recommend this film. 

The Tingler is often cited as John Waters' favorite film (alongside Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!). Vincent Price is exceptional as a scientist who discovers a parasite that forms on our spine when we are scared. How to kill it? By screaming, of course. A true "B" classic. (By the way, The Tingler plays every year at CineFamily in Los Angeles during Halloween Week, complete with "Percept-o"). The Tingler is probably Castle's greatest work that you could call 100% his own.

But Strait-Jacket may just be Castle's crowning achievement. Off the success of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), Castle gathered the writer of Psycho Robert Bloch and the star of Baby Jane, Joan Crawford, to try and make a real "A" picture, void of gimmickry. It tells the story of Lucy Harbin, a convicted ax-murderess who is returning home after 20 years in an asylum. But as people wind up dead, her family wonders: Is She Cured?

Ever the diva, Crawford was in charge from the beginning. She chose her own camera man, her own co-stars, and demanded caviar and bourbon in her trailer at all times. As Pepsi's sitting Chairman of the Board, Crawford even got prominent product placement for her famous brand and a role for one of her fellow board members, Mitchell Cox, as her psychiatrist. Castle, eager to make a great picture with a great star, relented to her every desire, even shooting an extra scene when Crawford realized her co-star (Diane Baker, fresh off Hitchcock's Marnie) had given a great performance during the climax. And it paid off. Strait-Jacket is a wonderful film with a twist too good to spoil here and an Oscar worthy turn from Crawford. Ever the showman, even with a film that could stand on its own, Castle had a gimmick: passing out cardboard axes to the audience.

A few years later, Castle got a hold of a manuscript for a new horror novel. He loved it so much he bought the rights and took it to Robert Evans at Paramount. He knew it had the potential to be a huge hit. Evans agreed that he could produce it, but was leery about leaving millions of dollars in the hands of a "B" director. So he brought Roman Polanski over from Poland to make his American debut.

Castle was riding high from the success of Rosemary's Baby (1968) and thought he would go on to finally be an "A" producer, maybe even an "A" director. But the negative backlash from the conservative audience, labeling him a consort with the devil, in addition to the unfortunate death of Polanski's wife Sharon Tate at the hands of the Manson Family, and Castle's own failing health, derailed him from the mainstream. When he returned to work, Hollywood had changed its course to more a cynical type of filmmaking. Castle's brand of campy horror had become passé as the movies made way for the gritty realism of Dennis Hopper, Peter Bogdanovich, and Martin Scorsese. Castle returned to "B" movies, turning in low-rent films with titles like Project X (1968), a sci-fi spy movie, and Bug (1974) about mutant cockroaches.

Castle was the last of a dying breed, a true showman who understood the joys of going to the movies, not only for the art or the entertainment, but for the experience (the closest we have today would be James Cameron). Sometimes I wish Castle would have been allowed to direct Rosemary's Baby. It definitely retains some of his humorous take on horror, particularly in the character played by Ruth Gordon. And don't get me wrong. Polanski made one of the greatest films of all time. But maybe so would have Castle. Maybe he finally would have made his masterpiece and received the respect he deserved.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Cinéma Inhabituel for July 16-31

A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea


July 16: At 2:15 am comes a film from Chinese director King Hu (Hu Jingquan): A Touch of Zen (1971). Combining the artistry and story selection of Kurosawa with the action of a kung-fu programmer, we end up with an action-adventure film with a strong classical feel and a large dose of the spiritual. Think of an earlier incarnation of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which was strongly influenced by this film. Gu Shen Chai (Chun Shih), an artist, lives with his mother near an abandoned fort that is thought to be haunted. A stranger arrives in town wanting his portrait painted by Gu. We learn he is really Ouyang Nian (Tien Peng), a disguised army commander whose real objective is to bring a female fugitive back to the city for execution. While investigating strange noises one night, Gu meets the beautiful Yang Hui-ching (Feng Hsu) who is hiding out there from the agents who have murdered her family. Gu befriends her and finds himself caught up in her struggle to survive. It marks a change in his character from a bumbling bystander to a committed man of action. To say this is not your usual Wuxia (literally “martial heroes”) film is an understatement. This is a three-hour film, with the first hour or so devoted to Gu’s daily routine, so get out the popcorn and prepared to be patient. The Shaw Brothers this isn’t.

A highlight is the battle in the bamboo forest (which, I believe, was copied by Lee for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). Yang kills Ouyang, and his mission now falls to Men Da (Wang Rui), who marches his men to the village. Gu booby-traps the abandoned fort, and uses night guerrilla tactics to decimate the invaders. Yang and General Shi (Bai Ying), who helped orchestrate her escape and has come to defend her, are able to withdraw to the safety of Abbot Hui-yuan’s (Roy Chiao) monastery, but our hero Gu has set out in pursuit of Yang, with whom he is in love. Though he never finds her, he cares for their infant son.

Gu is now wanted by the Imperial forces, and as Yang and Wei go to aid him, another battle breaks out between them and men led by Xu Xian-chun (Han Ying-jie, the film’s martial arts choreographer). Once the film picks up steam, it never lets down, and therein lies its beauty. It’s one worth the time, loaded with symbolism and marked by masterful cutting from the dialogue scenes to the battle scenes. Fans of Asian cinema will love it and I can only ask those new to the genre to give it a chance. I first saw it around 1979 at a place in Irvington, N.J., called The Sanford Theater, where it was on a double-bill with another kung-fu epic I’ve since forgotten. The theater was packed as I remember, with the first kung-fu film being cheered and marveled at by the audience. But by the time this finished at around 11:30 pm, my friend and I were two of only about 10 people left. There simply wasn’t enough chopsocky for the rest of the audience.

July 23: A repeat showing of Wim Wenders’ 1991 opus, Until the End of the World is airing at 2:00 am. Set in 1999, William Hurt is Sam Farber, an American being chased by the CIA. He runs into Claire Tourneur (Solveig Dommartin), a woman enlisted by bank robbers to take their stolen loot to a drop point in Paris. Sam tells Claire the CIA is actually after a device invented by his father that allows anyone to record their dreams and vision.  Fleeing both the bank robbers and the CIA, their flight path eventually takes them to Australia, where they visit his father's (Max von Sydow) research facility in the hopes of playing back recordings Hurt made for his blind mother. There’s also a subplot about a damaged Indian nuclear satellite crashing and causing the end of civilization. We can only recommend this for die-hard Wenders fans. It is a terrible try by the director at making a sci-fi film seemingly without studying any earlier material in the genre. For those who love bad movies, I can promise you many laughs at the seemingly innumerable fatuous moments. Guaranteed you will get the feeling that Wenders made this because he is of the mistaken belief that he is smarter than the rest of us. This film is proof that he isn’t. 

June 30: Now we’re talking. A triple-feature of Yasujiro Ozu. Begin at midnight with the 1931 silent Tokyo no Korasu (Tokyo Chorus). As we have come to expect from Ozu, this is a subtle bittersweet drama focused around Shinji Okajima (Tokihiko Okada), a married insurance salesman with three children. On the company's annual bonus day, Shinji protests when an older worker is fired. Seems he had a knack of selling policies to people who kicked off shortly afterward, costing the company much yen. As a result of his protest, Shinji loses his own job as well. Now he and his wife must find ways to cope. After a series of misadventures, he runs into his former professor, who now owns a health food cafe. His former professor promises him help if Shinji will assist with the cafe. Part of that assistance consists of handing out handbills in the street, a major loss of economic and personal status. Unfortunately for Shinji, his wife sees him and is greatly shamed by the family's loss of status. But as time passes, she accepts the need for sacrifice and also begins to help out in the cafe. During the large opening banquet, guaranteeing its success, the old professor receives word that Shinji has been offered a teaching post in a small and distant town.

In showing us how the Depression has affected Japan, Ozu is far more honest than American moviemakers, exploring the connection between employment, self-identity and the status that accompanies it.

Ozu’s opening stresses the irony of events that spiral out of control. He opens with a young Shinji in college as he plays the “class clown,” and makes fun of his exasperated instructor (Tatsuo Saito) for the benefit of his classmates. Of course, the instructor turns out to the be the professor who owns the cafe and to whom Shinji turns for help. Ozu is a keen observer of the human condition, and this is what makes his films such a joy to watch. With excellent performances from Ozu regulars Okada, Saito and Emiko Yagumo, as well as a wonderful and winning performance from future star Hideko Takamine as their daughter.

A bit of real-life irony: Ozu is often praised as the most “Japanese” of Japan’s directors, but in reality, he, more than any of them, was influenced by Hollywood, especially Ernst Lubitsch and Harold Lloyd, and this influence can be seen in Tokyo Chorus. For instance, look for the scene where the salarymen are trying to count their bonus without anyone else looking on.

At 2:00 am comes 1957’s Tokyo boshoku (Tokyo Twilight), one of Ozu’s darkest pictures. Two sisters, Akiko Sugiyama (Ineko Arima) and Takako Numatya (Setsuko Hara), live with their father, Shukichi Sugiyama (Chishu Ryu). Akiko is a college student learning English shorthand. Elder sister Takako is running away from an unhappy marriage, toting along her toddler daughter. Shukichi works in a bank in Tokyo. Akiko becomes pregnant by her college boyfriend, Kenji (Masami Taura), which results in an abortion after she realizes that Kenji does not love her.

While looking for Kenji in a mahjong parlor, Akiko meets its proprietress, Kisako (Isuzu Yamada). Kisako seems to know a lot about Akiko and her family. Back at home, Akiko tells Takako about Kisako, and later Takako is able to figure out that Kisako is their long-lost mother.  

Takako pays a visit to the parlour and asks Kisako not to divulge her real identity to Akiko. But this backfires when Akiko learns of Takako’s visit and pries the truth from her. Takako tells her sister that their mother ran away with another man when Akiko was still in diapers. Akiko, badly shaken by the news, confronts Kisako for her side of the story. After the meeting Akiko angrily leaves the parlor, going to a nearby noodle shop for some sake.  Kenji enters, looking for her, and the two get into an argument. As Akiko leaves she is hit by a train at an intersection just outside the shop.

Badly injured in the hospital, Akiko passes away in front of her father and Takako, who later angrily confronts Kisako with the news of Akiko’s death. Kisako, distraught, agrees to leave Tokyo with her husband (Nobuo Nakamura) for his new job in Hokkaido. Just prior to departure, she visits the Sugiyamas to offer her condolences and tell Takako of her decision. However, Takako does not go to see her off at the railway station. 

As the film ends, Takako tells her father that she is going back to her husband to try to make their marriage work again, for she does not want her daughter to have the same experience Akiko did, lacking the love of one parent. Shukichi agrees with her decision. 

One of Ozu’s darkest works, Tokyo Twilight is rarely screened, and because of this and the man who directed it, the film is a must see. It expresses one of Ozu’s strongest held convictions – that tragedy is inevitable in the flow of life. 

Finally at 4:30 am comes a film from Ozu’s earlier days, a 1947 opus titled Nagaya Shinshiroku (a.k.a. Record of a Tenement Gentleman). Set in postwar Tokyo, a man named Tashiro (Chishu Ryu) brings a lost boy of about seven named Kohei (Hohi Aoki) to his tenement. No one wants to take the boy in, but finally a widow named Tane (Choko Iida) agrees to take him. The next day, she takes the boy back to his neighborhood in Chigasaki, about 40 miles away. There she finds his father has gone to Tokyo and left Kohei behind. Tane’s instinct is to leave him there, but Kohei follows her home. The next morning he disappears fearing a scolding after wetting the bed. Tane realizes she likes having him there, searches for him, and keeps him when he's found that night. Within days, she considers him her son. Eventually his father (Eitaro Ozawa) turns up and reclaims his son. 

Ozu uses all the subtlety and power at his command to present what seems like a simple story of a lost child slowly worming his way into a woman’s heart. But the child’s grubbiness and stoicism, aided by the lack of any cute exchanges, tells us that all is not what it seems. Ozu’s mise-en-scene is so unobtrusively deft we may not notice at first just how deeply the damage of World War II is impressed upon every shot, setting, and character of the film. Taking that into account along with Ozu’s well-known avoidance of close-ups and scenes of emotional outpouring leads us to the conclusion that Record of a Tenement Gentleman is less of a story about how an abandoned waif manages to unlock an elderly widow’s heart than it is more of a commentary on postwar Japanese society delivered in that distinct bittersweet lyrical that is a trademark of Ozu.


July 17: Two Pre-Code Westerns are on the schedule. Leading off at 6:30 am is Way Out West (1930), starring William Haines, Leila Hyams and Polly Moran. Grifter Windy (Haines) has cheated several ranch hands out of their money with a rigged roulette wheel. Caught, the boys want to string him up, but when they learns that he has also been robbed of his ill-gotten gains, they make him work off the debt at the ranch. While there Windy falls for lovely Molly (Hyams), but ranch foreman Steve (Francis X. Bushman) also has his eyes on her. This is a good chance to see William Haines in a talkie. He didn’t make that many of them because, as one of Hollywood’s most outspoken gay actors, he was forced out of film by Louie B. Mayer and went on to become one of Hollywood’s most successful interior decorators.

Following at 8:00 it’s Renegades of the West, from RKO in 1932. Tom Bigby (Tom Keene) has been hired by Curly Bogard (Rockcliffe Fellows) as part of his cattle rustling gang. Tom had previously spent six months in prison looking for the man who killed his father. Learning it was Curly, Tom keeps his identity a secret, but just as he gets the evidence he needs from Curly’s safe, none other than his old cellmate Blackie (Jim Mason) comes by to spill the beans. Directed by Casey Robinson, who later became one of Hollywood’s most notable screenwriters, this isn’t a bad film. Young Betty grable plays the ingenue and it’s a rare chance to see Rockcliffe Fellows. A star in silents since 1915, he made few talkies. His most notable sound role was as gangster Joe Helton in the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business. Film buffs should record this for later viewing.


July 25: William stars as Paul Kroll, a thinly-disguised portrait of real-life swindler and entrepreneur Ivar Kreuger, who before he ended his life in 1932 with a bullet to his heart in Paris, showed the world a thing or two about creative financing, modern capitalism and the art of swindling as he built an empire in the manufacture of matches. As he climbs the financial ladder, breaking commandments and swindling even his girlfriend, Kroll repeats his mantra: ”Stop worrying until something happens – then I’ll take care of it.” It’s this combination of story and performance that makes The Match King (1932, 1:30 pm) compelling viewing. 

July 29: On a lighter note, William is a corporate playboy who hires the secretary of everyone’s dreams (Marian Marsh) in 1932’s Beauty and the Boss at 7:45 am. William, who usually dominates his films, gets a run for his money from Marsh, who gives one of the best performances of here all-too-short career. Read our review of it here.


July 19: An entire morning and afternoon is devoted tom Joel McCrea, with almost off the films being Pre-Code. Among the highlights are Bird of Paradise (1932, 7:45 am), The Most Dangerous Game (1932, 12:15 pm), The Sport Parade (1932, 2:45 pm), and Bed of Roses (1933, 4:00 pm).


July 22: Bette Davis and Joan Crawford had one of the best-publicized feuds in Hollywood, but did you know Bette played a character based on Joan? In 1952’s The Star (10:30 pm), Bette is Margaret Elliot, an Oscar-winning actress who has not worked in several years. Margaret is forced to sell her belongings at an auction, is arrested for drunk driving, and is fired from a job at a department store for getting into a fight with the customers. Jim Johannson (Sterling Hayden), a former co-star of Margaret’s, confesses that he’s in love with her and tries to help her find a modicum of happiness. But Margaret can't give up her role as a star just yet, and to Jim’s despair, auditions for another part. The Star was written by Katherine Albert and Dale Eunson, two close friends of Crawford’s, who fell out with the star after a 25-year-long friendship. Crawford knew the film was about her and had a perfect revenge. Katherine and Dale asked Joan is she could counsel their 17-year-old daughter and talk the youngster out of getting married. Not only did Joan urge the girl to get hitched, she also managed the wedding and neglected to invite the bride’s parents! Though the movie tanked at the box office, Davis still garnered a Best Actress nomination, ultimately losing to Shirley Booth for Come Back, Little Sheba



July 16: AIP’s favorite beach couple, Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, star in Beach Blanket Bingo (1965), airing at 2:00 pm. Harvey Lembeck is along as Eric Von Zipper to provide the villainy, and Marta Kristen makes a most alluring mermaid who entrances beach bum Bonehead (Jody McCrea).


July 17: Ranchers in Montana who are about be forced off their land by a criminal gang led by Roger Caldwell (Harry Woods) call in the Trail Blazers (Ken Maynard and Hoot Gibson) to set things right. We were speaking earlier of Rockcliffe Fellows, but Harry Woods was also in Monkey Business as Alky Briggs, the mobster who is the opponent of Fellows. Woods worked in many B-Westerns as a bad guy. As will all the Trail Blazers films, this one is great fun to watch.


July 18: A mini-marathon of psychotronic films airs this morning and afternoon. We recommend Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) at 6:00 am; the silent version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hydestarring John Barrymore (1920) at 7:15 am; Roger Corman’s The Wasp Woman (1960) at 8:30 am; Lon Chaney Jr. and Claude Rains in The Wolf Man (1941) at 9:45 am; and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) at 2:30 pm.

July 26: Another all day mini-marathon begins at 6:15 with The Body Snatcher (1945) from producer Val Lawton. Other noteworthy films are The Bat (1959), with Vincent Price and Agnes Moorehead, at 8:00 am, Price in House of Wax (1953) at 2:30 pm, Lewton’s Curse of the Cat People (1944) at 4:15 pm, and Price again in William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill (1958) at 5:30 pm


July 22: A late-night double feature sees Phyliss Davis braving the torture of an island prison in Terminal Island (1983) at 2:25 am. Tom Selleck also stars as a mercy killer doctor. Following at 4:30 am is House of Women (1962), a loose remake of Caged (1950) with Shirley Knight in the Eleanor Parker role. Andrew Duggan is the uptight warden who uses the prison as his own harem. 


July 25: Beginning at 8:00 pm, the night is devoted to that icon of the 50’s teenager: the hot rod. We start with the aptly named Hot Rod, from Monogram in 1950). James Lydon is a teenager who restores a jalopy behind his father’s back with some unintended results until the requisite happy ending. It’s the first of the genre and worth watching.

At 9:30 pm comes AIP’s Hot Rod Gang (1958), starring John Ashley as John Ashley stars as John Abernathy III, a teenage heir to a fortune who is living a double life. He must live on the straight and narrow to meet the conditions of his inheritance. While he does so by day, at night it’s a different story, as he drive fast cars and sings in a rock combo at the local teen hangout. But when the hangout needs money to survive, Ashley invents yet another persona. He becomes singer Jackson "The Beard" Dalyrimple, replete with beatnik beard and beret. B-western sidekick Dub Taylor plays the hangout’s landlord who shows up for the rent money and offers comments about this young generation. And Helen Spring and Dorothy Newman also star as Abigail and Anastasia, Ashley’s spinster aunts who are oblivious to his double life. Jody Fair is Lois Cavendish, female hot rodder and Ashley’s squeeze.

At 11:00 pm Fair returns as Cavendish in Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow (1959), a continuation of the gang’s adventures. This time the gang has to raise money to save their clubhouse. Newman returns as the clueless Aunt Anastasia. The film is notable as the bridge from hot rod films to the Beach Party films of the ‘60s. Read our essay on it here

At 12:15 am car salesman John Bromfield learns that his boss is stocking stolen cars in Hot Cars (UA, 1956). But as he has a wife and sick kid to support, he reluctantly throws in with his boss, which leads to a chain of events culminating with a fight on top of a roller coaster. Watch for Joi Lansing as a femme fatale who attempts to seduce Broomfield. 

The rest of the night sees John Ireland as a wrongly convicted man who takes Dorothy Malone hostage during a road race from California to Mexico while fighting to clear his name in the Roger Corman-produced The Fast and the Furious (1954, American Releasing Corp.). James Dean stars in the oft-shown Rebel Without a Cause (1954) at 3:00 am, and the Bowery Boys enter a road race when Sach (Huntz Hall) invents a new super gas in Jalopy (Monogram, 1953).


July 22: Blackie must help catch an escaped maniac who is posing as Blackie in Boston Blackie’s Rendezvous (1945) at 10:30 am.

July 29: Blackie is framed for murder by femme fatale Lynn Merrick in Boston Blackie’s Close Call (1946) at 10:30 am.


July 29: Matthew Labyorteaux attempts to bring back his neighbor Samantha (Kristy Swanson) with the use of robotics after she’s murdered by her abusive stepfather in Deadly Friend (1986)airing at 3:35 am.

Preceding it at 2:00 am is then sci-fi thriller The Hidden (1987). An alien, slug-like parasite enters its hosts and turns them into killers. Michael Nouri and Kyle MacLachlan star.