Wednesday, June 21, 2017

TCM TiVo Alert for June 23-30

TCM TiVo ALERT
For
June 23-June 30

DAVID’S BEST BETS:

TOP HAT (June 23, 1:00 pm): As a general rule, I don't like musicals, especially those with dancing. (Don't confuse that with movies with great music in which people don't suddenly break out in song. I like a lot of those.) So what's different about Top Hat? At the top of the list is Fred Astaire. As with most musicals, the plot is secondary. He's a dancer who wakes up the woman (Ginger Rogers) living in an apartment below him with his tap dancing. He falls in love, there are a few misunderstandings, and the two eventually get together. Astaire has great charisma and charm, and his dancing is so natural looking. He makes it look as easy as walking. The storyline is typical of a good screwball comedies from the 1930s (this one came out in 1935). But it's the dancing and the memorable songs, written by Irving Berlin, such as "Cheek to Cheek" and "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails," that make this movie a must-see and among my favorite musicals.

CAGED (June 26, 2:45 pm): Unlike nearly all the others in the unusual but often-visited women-in-prison film genre, Caged is well acted. Eleanor Parker was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar as the young innocent Marie Allen, Agnes Moorehead is great as warden Ruth Benton, and Hope Emerson was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar as the deliciously evil matron Evelyn Harper. Almost anything bad you can imagine happens to Marie: her new husband is killed in a robbery, she ends up in prison because she is waiting in the getaway car, she's pregnant while serving her sentence, she's victimized by other inmates and Harper, she has to give up her baby for adoption, and finally becomes bitter and hardened from all of her bad experiences. The story is similar to other women-in-prison movies minus the T&A. We still get a shower scene (no nudity as this is during the Code era) and the stereotypical prison lesbian. But there's a huge difference between Caged and the women-in-prison films of the 1970s. It's not only the excellent acting, but the powerful dialogue and actual plot – it was nominated for a Best Writing Oscar – that makes this gritty, stark, realistic film stand out among others in the genre.

ED’S BEST BETS:

THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (June 27, 12:30 pm): This is the original – and the best – version of James M. Cain’s classic novel (which also inspired Albert Camus, by the way). When it comes to noir, one would think that the MGM gloss was off-putting, but I think it actually helps the film. Garfield has never been better and Turner has never been more gorgeous. Not only can we see that they’re going to hook up, we can understand why they must hook up. The performances from the supporting cast are superb, the photography by Sidney Wagner is sharp and inviting, and Tay Garnett’s direction workmanlike, as he keeps the characters and the story in constant play. Despite the complaints of the changes in Cain’s original story (for censorship purposes), the film still outdoes the 1981 Nicholson-Lange remake in terms of the heat between the stars, not to mention the fact that Turner, while hardly a serious actress, ran rings around Lange’s performance.

ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (June 28, 2:15 pm): A gruesome and unsettling adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau starring Charles Laughton at his most fiendish as the mad doctor isolated on a remote island who is conducting experiments transforming jungle animals ostensibly into human brings, but in reality coming up with half-human abominations. Moreau's theory is that evolution can be sped up through experimental skin grafting. The man-beasts who populate the island know his laboratory as “the house of pain.” When Richard Arlen, the sole survivor of a shipwreck, arrives at the island Moreau wastes no time in trying to mate him with his most successful creation, a panther woman (Kathleen Burke). But Moreau’s empire comes crashing down after the arrival of Captain Donahue (Paul Hurst) and Parker's fiancee Ruth (Leila Hyams) who have come for the missing Arlen. The finale is equally gruesome as Moreau gets a taste of his own medicine from his creations. Banned in England, many film historians credit it with helping to speed enforcement of the Code.

WE AGREE ON ... THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (June 28, 1:00 pm)

ED: A. The original, and of the 18 remakes (!), still the best version based on the classic short story by Richard Connell. Said to be the second most used plot device (boy meets girl is the first), it’s about psychopathic hunter Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks), who has hunted every species on earth except for one: Man. On his isolated island, surrounded by coral reefs, he hunts any luckless person who happens to crash on his shores, adding them to his trophy case. When renowned big-game hunter Robert Rainsford (Joel McCrea) is marooned there, the game takes on a new life, as McCrea finds himself turned from honored guest to hunted prey. Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong are brother and sister, previous shipwreck survivors who are kept on the estate at Zaroff’s pleasure. Director Ernest B. Schoedsack keeps the action and the suspense moving without a let up. (Irving Pichel is listed as co-director, but it was Schoedsack’s film. Pichel worked more as a dialogue director.) Banks makes an excellent Zaroff, and when photographed at certain angles by cinematographer Henry W. Gerrard, he makes for an even more disturbing presence. (Banks had been wounded in the First World War resulting in a partially paralyzed face on his right side.) McCrea is his usual excellent self and Wray adds the required sex appeal. If the sets look somewhat familiar, it should come as no surprise, for the film was shot at the same time as King Kong (which was released later due to the time needed for special effects). One reason Schoedsack was interested in making the film was to show the futility and cruelty of hunting, and what better way for him to make his point? A note to bad film fans: Bloodlust, the 1961 remake, is featured as an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.


DAVID: AThis is a fast-moving 63-minute movie that has famous big-game hunter and writer Bob Rainsford (Joel McCrea) on the other end of the hunt. He is the lone survivor of a yacht that wrecks – we later find out it's not the first and it's no accident – and blows up in a pretty good bit of special effects for a 1932 film. After everyone else on the yacht is eaten by sharks, Rainsford ends up swimming ashore to a small island owned by Russian expatriate Count Zaroff (played deliciously evil by Leslie Banks), who lives there with a few henchmen and a pack of hunting dogs. Zaroff recognizes Rainsford and introduces him to two other previously shipwrecked guests, siblings Eve Trowbridge (Fay Wray) and her very drunk and clueless brother Martin (Robert Armstrong). That Martin gets it about 25 minutes or so into the film is a good thing as Armstrong's drunk schtick is the lone annoyance of this film. It turns out Zaroff is also a big game hunter, hunting the biggest game of all – he says ominously as he rubs the scar on the top of his head – man. He wants Rainsford to join him, but Rainsford is outraged and refuses. So the would-be hunter becomes the hunted. He and Eve are sent to the jungle to see if they can survive what Zaroff calls "outdoor chess." The action during the hunting part of the movie, filmed at night on the King Kong set, is nonstop and a lot of fun to watch. As Ed wrote, the storyline has been remade countless times, including episodes of TV comedies Gilligan's Island and Get Smart.

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

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Sin Ship

Film In Focus

By Ed Garea

The Sin Ship (RKO, 1931) – Director: Louis Wolheim. Writers: F. Hugh Herbert (s/p). Keene Thompson & Agnes Brand Leahy (story). Stars: Louis Wolheim, Mary Astor, Ian Keith, Hugh Herbert, Russ Powell & Alan Roscoe. B&W, 65 minutes.

A cursory glance at the title might lead one to think the film is about a floating bordello/casino/opium den loose on the waters. But it’s nothing of the sort. It’s really about the redemption of two people who have gone astray.

The film opens in the captain’s cabin of the ship, where Captain Sam McVey (Wolheim) is deep in conversation with First Mate Charlie (Herbert). Charlie wants to settle down. McVey laughs him off, “I don’t say no prayers, I don’t help no cripples and I don’t fall in love.”


Once on the dock they spot a comely women (Astor) walking alongside her minister husband. McVey is immediately taken: “A woman’s woman, ain’t she? And that’s the kind I like.” Charlie tries to splash a little water on the fire, “A little pretty for the likes of us.”

Later, at a seaside bar, the minister approaches McVey about giving them passage to Mexico. Getting another look at his wife standing outside, the captain quickly agrees.

The party soon shoves off, and while the minister and his wife enjoy the sun on the boat’s deck, McVey is figuring how to lure her down to his cabin. He sends Charlie to invite her to tea. As she enters the cabin McVey locks the door behind her. When she asks why he did that he replies, “Just a little idea of mine.” When she demands he open the door, he answers, “Do you think I was letting you and that husband of yours ride free because I was getting holy?”

His ideas of seduction, however, are quickly extinguished by his prisoner, who goes on the attack. “I know what’s wrong with you,” she says. “You’re soaked in liquor. Your mind is warped. You could be fine if you wanted to be. You’re the captain, You’re supposed to be better than your crew.”

As she sees she has him on the ropes, she continues. “You’re being the worst. The captain is the police, the judge and jury of his boat. He should protect his passengers. He’s supposed to have honor. But not you. You’re an animal. You have no fine feelings. Clean up your mind, your body, your soul. Then you’ll think better, live better.”

If she’s going down, it won’t be without a fight. However, she’s made her point. McVey throws the key on the table and tells her to leave. “Women are not all alike, Captain,” she says as she grabs the key to leave.

When she returns to her cabin she bursts out laughing. “McVey,” she tells her husband, “our noble captain, just pulled the 'Hairy Ape' gag on me. His man asked me if I’d like to have tea with him in his cabin. New idea, no? So I pulled the outraged good woman gag on him. Did I put on an act! Gosh, I almost believed it myself. And he fell for it! I left him groggy.”

Her husband reverts to his real self as he tells her to go easy, lest anyone discover they are really bank robbers Smiley Marsden and his wife, Frisco Kitty. “Wouldn’t be so good if he found out that you’re Frisco Kitty and these clothes are phony,” he says while pulling on his holy garb. “You seem to forget that they’re looking for Mr. Smiley Marsden, the man that cracked the Liberty National Bank in Seattle, accompanied by his dear wife.”

The next morning his crew sees a new Captain McVey one that has given up the bottle and is wearing a clean white shirt. They are stunned, to say the least. This isn’t the captain they know. One remarks, “Maybe he thinks he’s going to croak.”


Once in Mexico and ridden with guilt, McVey composes a note of apology to Kitty and gives it to Charlie to deliver. Later, in their cabin, Smiley reads the note. At the end McVey says he’s returning to San Diego. This unnerves Smiley. He tells Kitty that McVey leaving port so soon might lead the police to investigate and discover who his passengers were.

He tells Kitty that she must play up to McVey to stall him. For his part, Smiley will sabotage the engine so they can’t leave. She leave a drunken Marsden in his cabin that night to make her date with McVey. The complacent captain tells her how she’s changed his life. His apology is so effusive and sincere that she is clearly taken aback. Later, when she returns to Smiley, she declares that she just couldn’t go through with it.

Smiley sabotages the engined and McVey and crew are stuck. Things are beginning to fall apart. McVey invites Smiley and Kitty to the boat for dinner. She shows, he doesn’t. Kitty makes apologies. When she returns, Smiley is jealous that she went to see the captain.

The crew is beginning to blame their captain for the misfortune. At a showdown the crew tells their captain they believe it was he who sabotaged the engine so they would have to stay in Mexico. They also hint to him that Kitty may come to a bad end.

The plot climaxes when McVey saunters over to the hotel to warn Kitty and Marsden. Smiley angrily reveals his and Kitty's true identities. McVey, taken totally aback, denounces Kitty and knocks out Marsden just as an undercover police detective conveniently bursts into the room to arrest him for the bank robbery. While Kitty is being held in the hotel, McVey sneaks back to her room. He accepts both her apology and her declaration of love. Kitty and McVey vow to wait for each other, but it’s unnecessary as the detective all too conveniently shoots and kills an escaping Marsden and grants Kitty her release to be with her captain.

Afterwords

This was the only film directed by Wolheim before his untimely death from stomach cancer at the age of 50 on February 18, 1931. The Sin Ship marked his final appearance on screen and was released after his death. Shortly after he finished the film he was quoted as saying that this was his first and last film as a director and in the future he would concentrate on acting. Had he lived, I think it would be easy to say that he would have developed into one of the dominant character actors of the ‘30s. 

The Sin Ship overall is an enjoyable movie, with much more emphasis on character than plot. The cast is small, with the romantic triangle between Wolheim, Astor and Keith dominating the movie. Herbert provided a nice attempt at being comedy relief and it’s nice to see him in his early days before he typecast himself with the “Woo hoo hoo” nonsense. The best performance comes from Astor, who made the film while still mourning the death of her husband, director Kenneth Hawks (brother of Howard) in an airplane crash filming action scenes for the film Such Men Are Dangerous on January 2, 1930. Her evolution during the course of the film from the hard-edged Frisco Kitty is believable, though she could have benefited from a few extra scenes to further develop her character.

Ian Keith, as Smiley, has the juiciest role and he makes the most of it. He began his career on the Broadway stage before making the jump to moves in the Gloria Swanson vehicle Manhandled (Paramount, 1924). By the time he died in 1960 of a heart attack he had amassed 119 credits in film and television. His best-known role was that of Joan Blender’s alcoholic husband in Nightmare Alley (20th Century Fox, 1947). He also played John Wilkes Booth in D.W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln (U.A., 1930), Octavian in DeMille’s version of Cleopatra (Paramount, 1934), and was one of the actor originally considered for Universal’s Dracula after the death of Lon Chaney.


The weakest portrayal in the film comes from Wolheim himself. As the film progresses he frequently looks distracted, possibly the result of wearing two hats – that of an actor and that of a director. His direction is workmanlike and he was helped by the absence of action scenes. The appearance of the undercover detective at the end was a little too pat and the evolution of his captain from hard-drinking lout into reformed delinquent also strains credulity. When Astor is laughing as she tells Smiley about her encounter with McVey, she mentions him pulling “the hairy ape gag” on her. This is an inside nod to the fact that Wolheim became a star on Broadway playing the character of Yank in the original stage production of O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape in 1922. There is more than a little irony in the line muttered by one of the crew after McVey cleans himself up: “Maybe he thinks he’s going to croak.”

Wolheim’s death seems to have sunk The Sin Ship, as its studio, RKO, didn’t seem to have gotten behind it. Cliff Alperti, writing on the movie for his site, Immortal Ephemera, notes the film got mostly middling reviews, “which usually didn’t even bother to mention the death of its star and director, while playing across the country throughout half of 1931.”

In her autobiography, A Life on Film (Delacorte, 1971), Astor doesn’t have much good to say about the The Sin Ship, writing that due to money problems after the death of her husband she had to sign a contract “for which I had little enthusiasm” with RKO. The Sin Ship was one of eight films she made that year. I had the feeling reading the book that this was a time Astor preferred to forget for personal and professional reasons. She did manage to rebound in both areas: In June 1931 she married second husband Dr. Franklyn Thorpe, just a couple of months after the film’s release and she regained her career momentum with a meaty role in Red Dust (1932) for MGM with Clark Gable and Jean Harlow.   

Trivia

Alperti quotes Film Daily as saying that RKO hired out speedboats at $500 per day to keep other ships from interrupting their work in the area of Catalina Island where they filmed.

Although some blogs say otherwise, screenwriter F. Hugh Herbert and actor Hugh Herbert are not one and the same. The screenwriter's full name is Frederick Hugh Herbert. He was born on May 29, 1897 in Vienna, Austria-Hungary. Actor Hugh Herbert was born on August 10, 1884 in Binghamton, New York.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Adam West: In Memoriam 

By Ed Garea

Of all those who have donned the cape as Batman, none fit the role so well as Adam West. But what seemed like a blessing came to be a stranglehold, for he became so identified with the character that he ended up being horribly typecast, even though the show only lasted two and a half seasons.

West died on June 9 in Los Angeles at the age of 88. The cause was attributed to leukemia.

He was born William West Anderson on Sept. 19, 1928, in Walla Walla, Washington. His father, Otto, was a wheat farmer; his mother, Audrey, nee Speer, was a pianist and opera singer. He moved to Seattle when he was 15 with his mother after his parents' divorced and his mother remarried.     

Graduating from Whitman College in Walla Walla with a major in English Literature, West served in the Army, where he worked as an announcer on American Forces Network television. Later he worked as the station manager at Stanford while a graduate student.  
   
He moved to Hawaii on the advice of a friend, where he co-hosted a two-hour live variety weekday show called The Kini Popo Show, One co-star was a diaper-wearing chimp named Peaches. While in Hawaii he got a bit part in the Boris Karloff B-horror, Voodoo Island (1957).    


In 1959, West moved with his wife and two children to Hollywood, where he took the stage name Adam West. In his autobiography, Back to the Batcave, he explains he chose "Adam" simply because he liked the way it looked and sounded with “West," his middle name.    

He landed a contract at Warner Bros., paying him a grand sum of $150 a week. He spent his time there as a guest star in such fare as the TV series Colt 45BroncoLawmanMaverickHawaiian Eye77 Sunset StripCheyenne, etc. He also appeared in two Warner Bros. movies (both in 1959): The Young Philadelphians (as Bill Lawrence) and The F.B.I. Story (uncredited). 

After years of this sort of knocking around he split from Warner Bros. and got a break when he was cast as Detective Sgt. Steve Nelson on Robert Taylor’s ABC/NBC series The Detectives (1959-62), joining the cast when the show expanded to one hour in color.

After The Detectives was canceled, West appeared in such  forgettable film fare as Geronimo (1962) starring Chuck Connors, Tammy and the Doctor (1963) with Sandra Dee, The Three Stooges film The Outlaws Is Coming (1965), and Mara of the Wilderness (1965), in which he had the lead with Lori Saunders (Bobbie Jo Bradley on Petticoat Junction). He also traveled to Italy to star in a spaghetti western called The Relentless Four (1965).

Back in the United States, his fortunes were about to change. Producer William Dozier spotted him in a commercial for Nestle’s Quik, playing Captain Quik, a James Bond-type character with a sailor’s cap. West returned to the States, where he read the pilot script for Batman and signed a contract on the spot, asking only that he be allowed to approve who would play his sidekick. He selected Burt Ward, who had a brown belt in karate, but no acting experience.    

Batman, which premiered on ABC in 1966, was based on the popular comic book character created in 1939 by Bob Kane and Bill Finger. He was the crime-fighting alias of Bruce Wayne, a bachelor millionaire in Gotham City, and was soon joined by a young sidekick, Robin the Boy Wonder, aka Dick Grayson, Bruce Wayne’s ward. 

The show was an immediate hit, quickly spawning such imitators as Mr. Terrific (CBS), Captain Nice (NBC) and even a Broadway musical titled It's a Bird...It’s a Plane...It's Superman. When West appeared in costume on the cover of Life magazine, it marked the highest tribute to national popularity at the time.    


The series, filmed in color in an era of black-and-white, featured a revolving cast of villains headed by the Riddler (Frank Gorshin), Joker (Cesar Romero), Penguin (Burgess Meredith) and Catwoman (Julie Newmar). As the show ran on, new guest villains were added. It aired twice a week; the opening episode, a cliffhanger episode, played Wednesday nights, with the cliffhanger resolved the next night. “Same Bat-time! Same Bat-channel!” the narrator intoned. It was originally planned as an hour-long show, but ABC split it up when it found it had two time slots available on its primetime schedule. The ratings attested to its popularity: the Thursday installment was No. 5 in the Nielsen ratings for the 1965-66 season, and the Wednesday edition was No. 10.     

Nominated for the Emmy Award for outstanding comedy series in its first year, it lost to CBS’ The Dick Van Dyke Show. To take advantage of its burgeoning popularity, 20th Century Fox commissioned a movie, directed by Leslie H. Martinson. Rushed into production, it played in theaters during the summer before season two kicked off in September 1966.

What made Batman so appealing was that it was a comedy disguised as a drama; it was essentially played as a farce. The show’s brightly-colored costumes and sets, along with off-kilter camera angles, superimposed ear-popping dialogue balloons for fight-scene sound effects, and the wealth of irresistibly wacky gadgets that would get them out of any situation were among the elements that would later lead it to be seen as high camp. Winks, nods and double entendre jokes are strewn throughout, but are played straight. Even its theme song, one that only offered a single word repeated by a chorus, was itself campy. 

Added to all this was a Batman who was extremely clean-cut, a milk-drinking, wholesome-living model citizen who might exclaim “Darn it!” at times of extreme stress. West underplayed his part, leaving the histrionics to Robin, and leaving the villains to supply most of the camp.

In an interview conducted almost 40 years after the end of the TV show for an article in The Independent of London, West said that he played Batman “for laughs, but in order to do [that], one had to never think it was funny. You just had to pull on that cowl and believe that no one would recognize you.” He continued, “What I loved about Batman was his total lack of awareness when it came to his interaction with the outside world. He actually believed nobody would recognize him on the phone when he was Bruce Wayne, even though he made no attempt to disguise his voice.”   

By 1968, however, the allure wore off, and the show began to tank in the ratings. Batman – despite adding Yvonne Craig as Batgirl in order to boost ratings – was canceled in March 1968 after 120 episodes.

Suddenly West found himself unemployed with no prospects in sight. As Robin might have said, “Holy typecasting, Batman!” For a time, he made a living doing personal appearances as Batman, including an appearance in the Memphis, Tennessee-based wrestling territory, where he engaged in a verbal feud with Jerry “The King” Lawler while dressed in the cowl and a track suit. As these dried up, he did the only thing he could do under the circumstances – swallow his ego. An actor acts. 


He moved his family from the plush Pacific Palisades to Ketchum, Idaho, and went back to the days of guest shots on television shows interspersed with forgettable movies such as The Marriage of a Young Stockbroker (1971), The Specialist (1975), and The Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood (1980). He even appeared in a softcore porn movie, Young Lady Chatterly II (1985), starring Harlee McBride, wife of actor/comedian Richard Belzer.    

He also lent his voice in such cartoons as The New Adventures of BatmanLegends of the Superheroes, and SuperFriends: The Legendary Super Powers Show. He also voiced Batman in an episode of The Simpsons. His contribution to the animated Redux Riding Hood (1997), helped it receive an Oscar nomination for best short film.

But despite his formidable array of guest shots, he was never able to parlay them into another hit series, as, for instance, William Shatner, who, after Star Trek, found stardom on T.J. Hooker and later, Boston Legal.       

His fortunes took a decided turn for the better after Tim Burton’s 1989 film starring Michael Keaton as the Caped Crusader revived interest in the character. (West was considered to play the role of Thomas Wayne, Bruce Wayne's father, though originally, he wanted to play Batman.) Though he never appeared in any of the theatrically released Batman franchise motion pictures, West later had a recurring role as the voice of Mayor Grange in the WB animated series The Batman (2004). He also voiced Batman for the CGI-animated short film Batman: New Times (2005), co-starring with Mark Hamill, who voiced The Joker.


Throughout it all West continued to accept guest shots, movie parts and voice-overs. His voice-over work culminated in a long guest run (2000-17) on the animated series Family Guy playing Mayor Adam West, who could best be described as sadistic, corrupt, vacant, clueless, but utterly charming. In 2014, Warner Bros.’ DVD release of ABC’s Batman brought him back to his old fans and made him new ones. As late as last year he appeared in an episode of The Big Bang Theory playing himself. Hired to appear at a private birthday party where everything goes wrong, he utters the best line: “I still get paid, don’t I?”   

For his work, West received a few honors. In 1985, DC Comics honored West in their 50th-anniversary publication Fifty Who Made DC Great for his work on the Batman series. And in the documentary Starring Adam West, the film ends with him receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2012.     

In 1994, with Jeff Rovin, West wrote his autobiography, Back to the Batcave, which was published by Berkeley Books.  

West married three times: to Billie Lou Yeager (1950-56), Ngahra Frisbee (1957-62), and Marcelle Tagand Lear in 1970, who he met when they posed for a publicity photo at Santa Monica Airport with him in his Batman costume. She survives him, along with their two children, Nina and Perrin West. He is also survived by two children from his second marriage, Jonelle and Hunter Anderson; two stepchildren; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.     

For better or worse, he remains for many the only Batman that ever mattered, permanently associated with the part in a way that others who played the role are not. That he came not only to realize this, but to accept and embrace it, is illustrated by a speech he gave at the 2014 ComicCon: “When Batman was canceled, “The only thing I thought is that it would be the end of me, and it was for a bit. But then I realized that what we created in the show...we created this zany, lovable world. I look around and I see the adults – I see you grew up with me, and you believe in the adventure. I never believed this would happen, that I would be up here with illustrious people like yourselves. I’m so grateful! I’m the luckiest actor in the world, folks, to have you still hanging around.”

Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Mummy

Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

The Mummy (Universal, 2017) – Director: Alex Kurtzman. Writers: David Koepp, Dylan Kussman & Christopher McQuarrie (s/p). Jenny Lumet, Alex Kurtzman & Jon Spaihts (story). Stars: Tom Cruise, Russell Crowe, Annabelle Wallis, Sofia Boutella, Jake Johnson, Courtney B. Vance, Marwan Kenzari, Simon Atherton, Stephen Thompson, James Arama, Matthew Wilkas, Sohm Kapila, Sean Cameron Michael, Rez Kempton & Erol Ismail. Color, PG-13, 110 minutes.

Despite some resemblances, this film is not a remake of the original The Mummy (1932) with the genders reversed. The only thing shared by both is that the title character is mummified and buried alive as punishment for their sins. The rest is a mish-mash of several sub-plots, one of which throws a serious time anomaly into the mix.


Princess Ahmanet (Boutella) was next in line for the throne of Egypt after her father, Pharoah Menehptre. But Pharaoh’s wife gives birth to a son, sinking Ahmanet’s dreams of glory. Piqued, she makes a deal with the god Seth, much like a modern day witch. Out of it she gains supernatural powers and his dagger – a wicked looking, curved blade with a cheap plastic ruby on the hilt that glows menacingly. She uses this to slay daddy, son and wife (you don’t really see anything), and tries to use the dagger on her lover to make him the embodiment of Seth. But, Pharaoh’s guards intervene, kill the boyfriend, and mummify her alive. She is buried in Mesopotamia in a lake of mercury (a known witch-proofing substance).

Nick Morton (Cruise) and best friend Chris Vail (Johnson) are soldiers of fortune. Nick has stolen a map from archeologist Jenny Halsey (Wallis) that leads them to a small town near Mosul, Iraq (once part of Mesopotamia), where they hope to find great treasure. But the town is crawling with insurgents, and after dodging dozens of bullets and grenades, Chris calls on Nick’s superior, Colonel Greenway (Vance), to send in a drone airstrike. The bad guys run away and a gaping hole opens up, revealing the semi-final resting place of Ahmanet.

Meanwhile, in London, during the construction of a new “crossover” tube in the Underground, a huge boring machine breaks through a wall into a subterranean burial chamber dating back to the Crusades. There is a flashback to that time and we see a large plastic-looking ruby being entombed with one of the Crusaders. The construction crew are outed by an official looking man in a gray suit who takes over the site. We later learn his name: Dr. Henry Jekyll (Crowe). What’s a fictional character from 1886 doing in present day London?

Back in Iraq, Jenny catches up to Nick and Chris, identifies the sarcophagus they accidentally hoist up from the pool of mercury as New Kingdom Egyptian, and wheedles Colonel Greenway into loading it onto a transport plane back to London just before the insurgents return and a major sandstorm hits. Nick, bitten by a camel spider (yes they do exist, but are neither true spiders nor venomous) in Ahmanet’s tomb, is now under her control. He stabs Greenway fatally and tries to kill everyone else. Nick shoots him and he’s gone (but not forgotten). A huge cloud of crows smashes into the plane, setting it on a crash course for an abbey just outside London. Thanks to Nick, Jenny escapes with the only parachute. Nick doesn’t. He awakens later in a body-bag on a slab in a morgue. How? Why? He’s Ahmanet’s new “Chosen One” and next in line to be stabbed with the Dagger of Seth.

The creators of this film must have been great stew cooks. If an ingredient was available, in it went. Dr. Jekyll has to periodically inject himself with a multi-pronged needle to keep him from reverting to the murderous Edward Hyde (and he does once). Chris becomes a comical undead visitor to Nick, warning him and advising him much like the friend in An American Werewolf in London (1981). Jenny turns out to be an agent of the Prodigium (supernatural artifact collectors) and works for Dr. Jekyll. For devout followers of George Romero, Ahmanet reanimates an army of corpses to be her slobbering, shambling army of to bring Nick to her. As I said, a little bit of this, a pinch of that.

There was one scene of scientific accuracy, however. Ahmanet commands forth the sands of the desert in London and every pane of glass reverts back to its original element, quartz, i.e. sand. Hence, she’s able to re-create the moment in 1999 version of The Mummy, where Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) created a colossal image of his head in the resulting sand storm. Still a great effect.

There is a mythological inaccuracy: Seth is repeatedly called the god of death, and though his name rhymes with the state. He’s actually the god of storms, chaos and evil. Of the animal-headed gods, he the only one who is such an amalgam, it’s unidentifiable. Anubis is the proper god of death.

Sophia Boutella makes for a sexy Egyptian princess no matter what she’s wearing. Tom Cruise is not exactly another Indiana Jones, but adds a strange comic lilt to the story. Russell Crowe is hilarious as Dr. Jekyll and even funnier as Mr. Hyde, and Annabelle Wallis looked like she enjoyed the weightless scene in the plummeting airplane.

My favorite quote was from a voiceover: “Death is only a door. Those who die are not buried forever.” There are other lines that I liked which lightened the mood of the movie until it almost seemed like a comedy. Surprisingly, with all the forms of violence shown there was minimum gore and love scenes were brief. Young, sophisticated children – not toddlers – might actually like this film.

As for me, I had a good time watching in disbelief. Nothing was scary, nothing made me jump, I could predict each moment when something would happen.

Rating: 3 out of 5 martini glasses.

Marta
29 East 29th Street, New York

Ever choose a restaurant for a singular, unique appetizer? That’s exactly what I did with Marta. Though other restaurants were closer to the movie theater, this two-year old sister restaurant to the fabulous Maiella won out.


From the street it looks more like a classical museum: tall windows framed in white marble and pink granite, and a colonnaded entrance. Only an understated fuchsia neon sign gives the name in script. Inside, the entryway is lined with illuminated panels showing New York memorabilia and sites. The twenty-foot plus ceilings are a must to house the twin, colossal, black bricked pizza ovens on the back wall.

Mark, my server, asked if I wanted a drink. I chose the Cynar Spritz – Cynar, Cocchi Americano (a vermouth), orange bitters and Prosecco (Italian champagne). It’s been a long time since I even saw Cynar (an amaro made from artichokes) on a menu, and this brew was wonderful. The Prosecco took the bitterness out of the Cynar, as did the vermouth, giving it an almost candy-like quality. I mentioned the rarity of seeing Cynar in any restaurant to Mark and he pointed out the shelf behind the bar where I could count 18 amaros. I was agog.

With Mark’s help, I was able to choose three dishes. My first course was the reason for coming to Marta: the Fennel-spiced Sweetbreads with Duck Offals, rosemary and lemon. It was delicious – garlicky and lemony. It was a lovely duck liver, second only to goose. It could have been any organ meat, but I gambled and won.

The wine list was impressive, with many Italian wines I’ve seen in only a few places and some I did know existed. This menu had four red wines from the same region. I was instantly intrigued. The sommelier just happened to be passing by and Mark caught her and introduced me. She explained the flavors and strengths of the Lazio reds and I chose the 2013 Cesnese del Piglio Costa Graia, a blend of three crus (different batches from different sections of the vineyard). It was just as crisp and refreshing as a Frascati with a delicate nose, light tannins, subtle spice and blackberry fruit. Viva Lazio!


The second course was one of my all-time favorites, ever since I first tasted it in Montecasino, the Cannelloni stuffed with mushroom ragu, ricotta, pecorino and béchamel. It was sweet, lightly cheesy and, I guess it was the mushrooms, but I could swear there was a green vegetable involved. There was only one but I could have finished another.

Another thing I’ve never seen in an Italian restaurant is a sausage platter. German, yes, but Italian? The Salsicce Miste: Chicken, Duck and Pork sausages over broccolini with roasted garlic and a dollop of mustard, was as much a surprise to taste as it was to see. All three sausages were homemade and I could taste it. The duck were flat, crispy rounds that were the perfect match for the yellow/brown mustard. The chicken sausages were narrow curled sweetness better savored alone. However, the pork was comparable to the best head cheese ever. The broccolini was garlicky and tender and did not distract from the three sausage flavors. It was magical.

I understood from Mark that authenticity is the goal for the owner of Marta and that led me to the trio of gelato or sorbetto dessert. I chose Peach Bourbon and Roasted Strawberry Basil Sorbetto and Amarena Cherry Chip gelato. After one taste of each I chose the Peach Bourbon first. I could taste fresh peaches and the hint of Kentucky bourbon. The Roasted Strawberry Basil was amazing, with a rich, full flavor of wild strawberries with a smoky quality and the heady aftertaste of basil. But the creamy, crunchy Amarena Cherry Chip gelato was the winner. The “chips” are (of course) chocolate, and the almond and cherry flavors vied for attention in every spoonful.

Mark explained that all their espressos were double. Excellent. Now, for the after-dinner drink. With 18 amaros, I couldn’t choose. I asked Mark to check with the bartender as to which one was the least ordered. Soon I had a glass of Sfumato Rabarbaro (literally, Smoked Rhubarb). It was very similar to the Cynar but with a fruitier, headier flavor. It brought my whole meal full circle. Now I can say I’ve dined with two amazing sisters, Maiella and Marta.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Cinéma Inhabituel for June 16-30

A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal by Terry Teachout focuses on TCM’s venture with the folks at Fathom Events in bringing classic films to big screen in multiplexes across the country. This is especially important in that many revival houses are dying out. Yes, big-screen TVs make it easier to watch letterboxed films (watching such a film on a 19-inch TV is like looking through the wrong end of telescope), but take it from one who’s been – there is nothing like watching a classic film on a big screen with an audience. Since my college days I’ve spent more time than I care to remember watching classic films in revival houses in New Jersey and New York City. In grad school my friend, Jean-Paul Garrieux and I spent many an hour glued to the screen at whatever revival house was playing what we were looking for. From Ivan the Terrible, Part 2 to Jules and Jim to Horse Feathers to Detour, we saw as many as time permitted. 

One of my happiest times was when I took my late wife to Radio City Music Hall to see a special showing of Casablanca, her favorite film, for her birthday. (It was actually playing a week before. She was blown away by seeing it for the first time on the big screen in a theater packed to the brim, 6,000 capacity). Preceding the film was a new (at the time) cartoon from Warner’s called Carrotblanca, a send up of the movie with Bugs, Daffy, Tweety, Sylvester and the gang. The audience ate it up. When the film came on, all was quiet except for the reaction to one scene when Major Strasser asks Rick if he can see the Germans marching into his beloved New York City. When Rick answered by advising Strasser that there were some parts of New York it wasn’t safe to invade, the house exploded in laughter. Everyone there knew the line was coming. That’s what made it so special. As I said, my wife absolutely loved it on the big screen, and later, at the restaurant, we found ourselves seated next to another couple that had seen it. We ended up putting our tables together and discussing the movie over dinner. Such is the big screen experience.    

Here’s Teachout describing his experience: 

For me, though, it was even more instructive to watch North by Northwest in the company of a theater full of other people, many of whom were clearly seeing the film for the first time. When you’re watching it by yourself, it’s easy to forget that North by Northwest is less a cloak-and-dagger adventure story than a high romantic comedy with a light glaze of thriller sauce. Why is this the case? Because most of us tend not to laugh out loud when we’re alone. Not so the audience with whom I saw it last week. Instead of sitting somberly like a bunch of grim-faced graduate students, we all hooted at Ernest Lehman’s fizzy, flawlessly timed one- and two-liners (“I’ve got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives and several bartenders that depend upon me”). We even clapped at the end! That’s what the Big Screen Classics series is all about: It’s a priceless reminder of what we miss by watching classic films at home instead of on a big screen in the company of a happy audience.”

David also has taken advantage of TCM’s program and saw one of his favorites, Planet of the Apes, at a multiplex. He explains his experience: Planet of the Apes is one of my all-time favorite films, one I've seen about 50 times. I own the original Planet five-movie series on DVD. Yet watching it so many times on TV is nothing in comparison to seeing it on the big screen. The film comes alive and it's a completely different experience – and in a lot of ways a completely different movie – than the one I've watched over the past several decades. You can take in the entire film and enjoy it in the way it was meant to be shown in a theater. When I went, there were barely a dozen people in the theater, but I was fortunate to go with a fellow Ape movie lover. The two of us recited several of the lines – it was such an empty theater that no one was nearby – and even gasped at the end of the film even though we knew exactly what was coming. I would highly recommend watching a classic film in a theater setting, particularly if it's one you love. (Read our essay on the film here.)

Other films from TCM and Fathom Events this year are as follows:

  • Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Sunday, July 30 & Wednesday, August 2)
  • Bonnie And Clyde (Sunday, August 13 & Wednesday, August 16)
  • E.T. (Sunday, September 17 & Wednesday, September 20)
  • The Princess Bride (Sunday, October 15 & Wednesday, October 18)
  • Casablanca (Sunday, November 12 & Wednesday, November 15)
  • Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (Sunday, December 10 & Wednesday, December 13)

There’s something for everybody here. So take a date, your wife, or your family. It really is an experience of a lifetime.

OUT OF THE ORDINARY

June 18: As usual, the best movies of the day begin at 2:00 am. And at that hour we begin with Wong Kar Wei’s Chungking Express (1994), a beguiling mixture of comedy, romance and drama. It can be best described as a “slice of life” film. In separate episodes, two rather melancholy policemen happen to fall in love. In the first story, which highlights the sadder side of love, Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro), who has just broken up with his girlfriend of five years, falls for a mysterious underworld figure (Brigitte Lin). In the second part, Cop 663 (Tony Leung) has also suffered a breakup and forms a relationship with a beautiful woman (Faye Wong) who works at the counter of a late-night restaurant he frequents. The setting of the film draws us in. Chungking is presented as a multicultural place and we hear dialogue in Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese and Indian throughout the film. Both the acting and script are first rate, with the romance being applied in the right places instead of being allowed to dominate and pull the film down. Those who haven’t seen it will find it a nice surprise and quite compelling.


Following at 4:00 am is director Luchino Visconti’s Le Notti Bianche (White Nights, 1961). Based on “White Nights,” an early story written in 1848 by Dostoevsky, it revolves around two main characters, Natalia (Maria Schell) and Mario (Marcello Mastroianni), who live in the Italian city of Livorno, located on the Tuscan coast. Mario is a lonely, soulful man, happiest when simply wandering through the streets each evening. Natalia also is lonely: besides being shy she lives with her blind grandmother,  who is so protective that she pins their skirts together. Thus Natalia can't so go anywhere at all without alerting the old lady. They meet when he hears a woman crying in the street and walks over so see what is going on. It’s Natalia, who quickly warms to him after he scares off a bothersome man and comforts her by admitting how timid he is around strangers. They decide to meet at the same spot the next evening, where they learn more about each other.    

Natalia’s life is changed, and she begins a relationship with new boarder (Jean Marais) who has rented a room in her grandmother's house. She falls passionately in love with him, but he’s leaving for Moscow, where he hopes to improve his lot in life. He promises to come back in exactly a year and marry her if she's willing. Now the year is up and Natalia hasn't heard a word from him since he left. She fears she has lost him forever and opens up about this to Mario, who realizes that he loves her deeply, but uses this love to betray her by destroying a letter he has promised to deliver to her lover imploring him to return. Unaware of his actions, Natalia starts returning Mario’s affection, lending hope to his fondest dreams. However, her missing lover suddenly turns up. Though he’s three days late, he’s still head over heels about Maria. The story ends as it began, with Mario walking alone with only his thoughts on the darkening street.

June 24: Jean-Luc Godard takes us into the world of the absurd in Weekend (1968), itself airing at the absurd hour of 4:15 am. A husband and wife (Jean Yanne and Mireille Darc) are plotting the murder of her parents so they can get their hands on the inheritance money. That weekend they must travel to the parents’ home to pull of the murder. But along the route they watch a pair of drivers attack each other in the street, not realizing that soon they will be descending into a certain kind of hell as Godard weaves an absurdist nightmare. This was made as he began to deviate from the standard plot to delve into the pure absurd. Most of the movie is incomprehensible to a casual viewer and you will find yourself having to pay attention. Is it worth it? That is a question only the viewer can answer. Consider yourself warned.

June 25:  Pierre Etaix co-wrote, directed, and stars in Yo Yo (1965), a gentle and very funny comedy about the son of a ruined (in the 1929 crash) millionaire and his love, a horse rider in the circus. Their son, Yo Yo, dreams of restoring his father’s castle to the splendor he remembers from childhood. After World War II, Yo Yo resumes his career, becoming an international star of music halls, the cinema, and television. After spending a fortune realizing his dream, he gives a huge party to welcome his father and mother back to the castle, but thing do not go as he planned. Etaix was a disciple of Jacques Tati and worked as a writer on Mon Oncle (1958). The film reflects the influence on Etaix of Chaplin, Lloyd, and Laurel and Hardy. I think it’s safe to say that Etaix is not like those who came before him and he is just as funny without becoming maudlin in the process. Give it a view.

LOUIS WOLHEIM


June 20: Louis Wolheim, he of the battered nose and bulldog look, is having an evening dedicated to his films. At 8:00 pm it’s Gentleman’s Fate (1931). Louis is a gangster whose sheltered brother, John Gilbert, is left half of his father’s bootlegging business when their father contracts a fatal dose of lead poisoning. At 9:45 pm Wolheim is bootleg king Nick Scarsi in the silent classic, The Racket (1928), directed by Lewis Milestone. At 11:30 pm Wolheim is a railroad boss who gives a job to a drifter and regrets it when the drifter begins moving in on his girl, Jean Arthur in Danger Lights (1930), a film for railroad buffs. At 1:00 am Wolheim’s a lusty ship captain put in his place by passenger Mary Astor in The Sin Ship (1931). Louis and William Boyd fight to escape the Germans while fighting over Mary Astor in the silent Two Arabian Knights (1927). Finally, at 4:15 am, Wolheim looks on as Joel McCrea is trapped between shady lady Evelyn Brent and good girl Jean Arthur in The Silver Horde (1930).

PRE-CODE

June 23: Catch Fred and Ginger in the film that made them Fred and Ginger, Flying Down to Rio (1933), at 11:30 am. Dolores Del Rio and Gene Raymond were the stars, but all eyes were on Fred and Ginger and the amazing chemistry they generated.

June 24: At the early hour of seven in the morning It’s Robert Flaherty’s amazing documentary, Man of Aran, from 1934. Flaherty examines the lives of the native of the barren Aran Islands, located in Galway Bay, north of Ireland, and the daily struggle for existence they face battling the sea from which they get their sustenance. Some of the scenes at sea are truly breathtaking.

June 27: At 8:00 am it’s the excellent drama, What Price Hollywood? from 1932. Lowell Sherman is a drunken director who helps waitress Constance Bennet gain a foothold the business. She rises to become a star while he sinks ever deeper into an alcoholic morass. Leonard Maltin says it’s a sharp-eyed look at behind-the-scenes Hollywood and helped to inspire the 1937 A Star is Born.  

June 29: A bloc of Pre-Codes begins at 8:30 am with the Joan Blondell-Stuart Erwin comedy, Make Me a Star (1932). Erwin is a grocery clerk who, after taking a mail-order acting course, decides to go out to Hollywood and try his luck. Blondell is a sympathetic actress who gets him a job in a Western parody. The only problem is that no one bothers to tell the poor guy that he’s the comic relief. 

Following at 10:15 am is Man Hunt (1933), a  run-of-the-mill programmer about a teen detective (Junior Durkin) who helps the daughter (Charlotte Henry) of a jewel thief. 


At 11:30 am it’s Richard Dix and Elizabeth Allen in No Marriage Ties, from RKO in 1933. Dix is a sports reporter who gets drunk in a speakeasy and forgets his assignment, for which he is fired. For solace he returns to the speakeasy, where he overhears two men discussing a toothpaste ad campaign. He saunters over and rattles off a number of clever slogans and so impresses them that he is hired as a copywriter. Soon he rises to partner, which is the beginning of his downfall. It’s not much of a picture, but Dix, as always, gives an excellent performance.

And rounding things out at 1:00 pm, it’s Ginger Rogers in Rafter Romance (1933), a comedy about a sales clerk (Rogers) who falls for a night shift worker (Foster) with our realizing they share the same apartment. The film was thought to be “lost,” but it was rediscovered and restored by TCM. Turns out it was one of six RKO film that were removed from the studio’s library when they were sold to former studio executive Merian C. Cooper in 1946. 

PSYCHOTRONICA AND THE B-HIVE

June 17: When he’s framed for robbery, Chester Morris sets out to find the real thief in Boston Blackie Goes Hollywood (1942), at 10:30 am.

At 2:00 am TCM once again runs the awful double feature of Punk Vacation (1990), followed by Killer Party (1986) at 3:35 am. C'mon, TCM, these flicks have been repeated enough over the year. Give it a rest. I love psychotronic films, but enough is enough.

June 21: Dementia 13 (1963), an early effort from Francis Ford Coppola for Roger Corman, airs at 4:45 pm.

June 23: Ride the Wild Surf (1964), starring Fabian and Shelley Fabares, will be shown at 9:30 am. At 5:00 am those interested can catch Gidget Goes to Rome (1963), with Cindy Carol as the title character and James Darren returning as Moondoggie. It was the last appearance for Gidget in the movies. Next stop, a television series in 1965.

June 27: A James Caan double feature begins at 8:00 pm with the dystopian Rollerball (1975), followed immediately by his turn as a stranded astronaut in Robert Altman’s Countdown (1968).

June 28: A bloc of psychotronic classics begins at 11:45 am with Bela Lugosi in White Zombie (1932). At 1:00 pm it’s Joel McCrea and Leslie Banks in the wonderful The Most Dangerous Game (1932). Charles Laughton is magnificent in Island of Lost Souls (1933) at 2:15 pm. Following at 3:30, Eric Porter and Hildegard Knef lead a crew of stranded sailors on Hammer’s The Lost Continent (1968), where they battle man-eating seaweed, giant crabs, and Spanish conquistadors who still think the Inquisition is on. Finally, Boris Karloff stars in Val Lewton’s grim tale of the plague during the Balkan Wars, Isle of the Dead (1945), at 5:00 pm.

BAD MOVIE ALERT!


June 16: At 7:45 am comes one of the great stinkers of the screen, a movie that’s a perfect combination of unintended humor mixed with the right amount of camp. It’s none other than Liberace himself in Sincerely Yours (WB, 1955). In this wild remake of  the 1932 drama, The Man Who Played God, starring George Arliss. Liberace stars as a concert pianist (What else?) who loses his hearing. Like Arliss in the original, Lib sits in the balcony of his apartment with a pair of binoculars watching the people in the park across the street. Learning lip reading, he learns of their problems and being the great guy he is, helps them all out – even his secretary, who has fallen for another man. It’s a campy schmaltzfest, and the hospital scene near the end when Lib has his operation and the doctor is testing to see if his hearing has returned, is an absolute hoot, as is the ending with Lib tap dancing for all his wonderful fans. Warner’s originally had Liberace signed to multi-picture deal, but after the returns on this turkey, they decided to forget about it. David and I recommend you record this for later viewing, as it’s best viewed by a group along with plenty of popcorn and drinks. Smart remarks back to the screen are always welcome. How this ever missed out being on Mystery Science Theater is beyond us.