Wednesday, March 22, 2017

TCM TiVo Alert for March 23-31

March 23–March 31


THE PETRIFIED FOREST (March 23, 8:45 am): In one of his first major roles, Humphrey Bogart plays Duke Mantee, a notorious gangster on the run. Bogart was so great in this 1936 film as the heavy – bringing depth, emotion and character to the role – that Warner Brothers spent nearly five years casting Bogart in other movies as the bad guy. But very few were of this quality. Duke and his gang end up in a diner near the Petrified Forest in Arizona with the police chasing them. The gang takes everyone inside hostage, including Alan Squier (Leslie Howard), a once great writer who is now an alcoholic. Not fearing death because of what life has become for him, Squier engages Duke in conversation, pushing his buttons. The interaction between the two is outstanding. Also at the dinner is Gabrielle Maple (Bette Davis), who owns it with her father and grandfather. Davis is excellent and even subdued as a secondary character.

A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (March 24, 1:30 am): It's horrifying in parts, but the story is told so well and the acting is superb. Alex (Malcolm McDowell) is the leader of the Droogs, a gang of thugs who get high on drug-laced milk and then terrorize London with "a little of the old ultraviolence," They brutally beat up, rape and/or kill arbitrary people for kicks (pun intended). The scenes are graphic, but some include a bit of entertainment. You'll never hear the song "Singin' in the Rain" the same way again. Alex is caught by the authorities and agrees to go through a process to remove his violent behavior by being repeatedly exposed to graphically violent scenes. He's then sent out into the world without the ability to defend himself, and payback is a bitch. Director Stanley Kubrick points the finger at people and government for society's violence and its failings. It's very well done, but be warned again, it's deeply disturbing. 


GOJIRA (March 23, 8:00 pm): This is not your father’s Godzilla, with Raymond Burr inserted for American audiences. No, this the original, inspired by a tragic accident that took place when America exploded the first H-Bomb in the Marshall Islands, which used to belong to Japan until World War II. A nearby fishing boat, thought to be out of range of the fallout, got caught and the crew died horribly. That was eight months before this film went into production. Godzilla is a metaphor not only for The Bomb, but for America. In other words, Godzilla R Us. Forget about the American version of the film, which at times didn’t appear to make sense amid all the cuts. This version makes perfect sense and it’s meaning is clear. It’s also a very frightening and serious film, in contrast to the ever increasing silliness of its sequels (except for the first, Gigantis the Fire Monster). It’s a picture that deserves to be seen.

THE THING (FROM ANOTHER WORLD) (March 23, 1:30 am): It’s the scientists (led by Robert Cornthwaite) versus the military (led by Kenneth Tobey) in this sci-fi classic about the discovery of a flying saucer and its occupant near the North Pole. The occupant is alive and represents a wealth of knowledge from an advanced society. One problem: he lives on blood and regards humans as only necessary for his subsistence. Also, he’s busy breeding more of him. Written by Charles Lederer, produced by Howard Hawks, and directed by Christian Nyby (though many film historians assert that it was Hawks who actually directed the movie and giving Nyby, his film editor by trade, a director’s credit), it combines horror and thrills with dark comedy, utilizing its setting well to give the film a claustrophobic feeling. If you’ve seen it before, watch it again. And if you haven’t – this is one film you can’t afford to miss. Also of note is composer Dimitri Tiomkin’s haunting score, achieved with a Theremin.

WE AGREE ON ...TORMENT (March 26, 2:00 am)

ED: A+. Director Alf Sjoberg’s bleak, coming of age drama, with a screenplay by Ingmar Bergman, is also an anti-fascist allegory in its study of the relationship between an idealistic and sensitive student (Alf Kjellin) in a strictly repressive school and his bullying Latin teacher (Stig Jarrel), who makes life hell for the young man. The fact that the young man’s father takes the side of the teacher without even listening to his son’s rational explanation is used by the director and screenwriter as a commentary on parents who ignore their children’s inner lives. The student’s ongoing relationship with an alcoholic store clerk who also moonlights as a prostitute leads to the discovery that the man she says is tormenting her is none other than the Latin teacher, and this discovery will lead to the student’s doom. Though the film is somewhat never in its narrative and execution, it gets points for its subject matter and its sharp black and white photography. Consider that while Sjoberg was making this drama, in America the best we could put out was a weak Val Lewton drama on the perils of juvenile delinquency (Youth Runs Wild) and that MST 3000 favorite – PRC’s I Accuse My Parents.

DAVID: A+. Ingmar Bergman wrote the screenplay and directed small parts of this film, including the finale with Alf Sjoberg as the director, If you watch Bergman-directed films you can see Sjoberg’s influence: The crisp black-and-white cinematography, effective use of shadows and  the slow mental breakdown of one of the main characters. Torment is about problems at a Swedish high school, primarily caused by a cruel and sadistic Latin teacher, (Stig Jarrel). We never learn the teacher’s name, but all of the students and some of the other teachers call him Caligula behind his back. (Yeah, he’s that bad.) The movie focuses on one student, Jan-Erik Widgren (Alf Kjellin), the target for much of Caligula’s torture. Widgren falls in love with a slightly older woman who works at a store near the school, selling cigarettes. A troubled soul, she tells Widgren of her victimization at the hands of a mysterious older man. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out who is the older man. It's a deep and compelling film with an impressive conclusion.

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

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Mask of Fu Manchu

The Psychotronic Zone

By Ed Garea

The Mask of Fu Manchu (MGM, 1932) – Directors: Charles Brabin, Charles Vidor (uncredited). Writers: Irene Kuhn, Edgar Allan Woolf & John Willard (s/p). Sax Rohmer (novel, The Mask of Fu Manchu). Stars: Boris Karloff, Lewis Stone, Karen Morley, Charles Starrett, Myrna Loy, Jean Hersholt, Lawrence Grant, & David Torrence. B&W, 68 minutes.

It’s hokum, hokum on a grand scale, but what saves it from being just another excursion into camp is the strength of its performances and the money lavished on sets. Despite a plot that bordered on the ridiculous, it went on to influence not only just about every serial featuring mortals versus super villains from the ‘30s to the early ‘50s, but also goes beyond that to James Bond and Indiana Jones.

As America slid deeper into the Great Depression, the studios were seeking to make films that not only appealed to an audience shell-shocked by the economy, but would provide enough of a return to keep the studio afloat. Universal had great success with Dracula and Frankenstein the year before and the other studios rushed to cash in on the horror boom. But MGM, like Warner Bros., eschewed the supernatural approach in favor of flesh-and-blood villains. For their villain they turned to the pulp novels of English writer Sax Rohmer (real name Arthur Sarsfield Ward), whose Fu Manchu series (14 novels and story collections published between 1913 and 1959) depicted the adventures of the Chinese criminal mastermind. For many readers, the series reinforced the concept of the “Yellow Peril,” a common fear of Asian domination at the time. Fu Manchu was the incarnation of the Yellow Peril: highly educated (with a doctor of philosophy from Edinburgh, a doctor of law from Christ’s College, and a doctor of medicine from Harvard), inscrutable, and totally amoral, seeking to wipe out the white race. He was not the first supervillain (that honor goes to Fritz Lang’s Dr, Mabuse), but Rohmer’s evil mastermind has been the subject of a number of films. A series of 23 short silent films starring H. Agar Lyons as Fu Manchu was made in England between 1923 and 1924, all of which seem to be lost today. Warner Oland, who later portrayed Charlie Chan, played Fu Manchu in three prior films for Paramount: The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu (1929), The Return of Dr. Fu Manchu (1930), and Daughter of the Dragon (1931). 

The studio beat the publicity drums to rouse audience interest. Colliers magazine serialized Rohmer’s latest Fu Manchu adventure, The Mask of Fu Manchu (on which the film is based) from May to July of 1932. Doubleday published the hardcover edition of the novel in October 1932. 

The film began production in early August 1932, with Charles Vidor as director and Courtenay Terrett writing the screenplay adaptation. Within a couple weeks, they were fired. A new team of scriptwriters and a new director – Charles Brabin – were hired as replacements. The production was rushed and chaotic, with Brabin reshooting Vidor’s material. Hollywood wags called it The Mess of Fu Manchu. It was also quite elaborate, accounting for the picture's relatively high cost for the period – over $327,000.

For its rendition of Fu Manchu, MGM borrowed Boris Karloff from Universal. To play his sex-crazed daughter, Fah Lo See, the studio called on its resident Exotic, Myrna Loy. When Karloff saw an early version of the script that called for him to bounce back and forth between speaking flawless Oxford English to speaking pidgin, he decided that the only way to approach his role was to not take it seriously. When Loy complained about the quality of the script he told her of his plans and she agreed to follow along. Being as the two of then had to be there, anyway, they might as well have some fun with it. In her autobiography Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming, the actress noted that when she saw the film many years later, “It astonished me how good Karloff and I were. Everyone else just tossed it off as something that didn't matter, while Boris and I brought some feeling and humor to those comic-book characters. Boris was a fine actor, a professional who never condescended to his often unworthy material.”

That attitude is what makes this film such fun to watch. We take a perverse pleasure in watching the wily doctor at work, and his daughter is an enticing piece of eye candy, a sadistic and sensual dragon lady. Lewis Stone was cast as Fu’s nemesis, Commissioner Nayland Smith of the British Secret Service, who was forever battling Fu wherever and whenever he appeared.

As the film opens, Sir Lionel Barton (Grant) has been summoned to the office of Commissioner Nayland Smith (Stone). Sir Lionel is astonished to to learn that Smith knows about his proposed expedition to the Gobi Desert to seek the tomb of Genghis Kahn. Smith informs Barton that Khan’s golden mask and scimitar are also being sought by Dr. Fu Manchu (Karloff), who believes that, once possessing these ancient artifacts, he can unite the Asian peoples in a war against the West. Thus, it is imperative that Barton get to the tomb before Fu Manchu. 

Later, at the British Museum, Barton tells his long-time friends and collaborators, Von Berg (Hersholt) and McLeod (Torrence), about the mission. They immediately agree to accompany him. However, as Barton leaves his office at the museum, he is set upon by three sinister figures who were disguised as mummies. They overpower and kidnap him.

Days later, Smith is visited in his office by Barton’s daughter Sheila (Morley), who is inquiring about the whereabouts of her father. Smith tells her he received a telegram informing him that Fu Manchu is holding Sir Lionel captive somewhere near Liangchow. He also tells her he is sending an expedition to rescue her father, and that McLeod and Torrence, along with Sheila’s fiancé, Terry Granville (Starrett), will carry on with the quest for Genghis Kahn’s artifacts. Sheila wishes to go with them, arguing that her knowledge of the expedition, learned over the years from her father, will save precious days of searching. Despite Smith’s apprehensions, she is determined to accompany the mission.

We now find ourselves at Fu Manchu’s headquarters, where he is attempting to bribe Sir Lionel for the information on the whereabouts of the secret tomb, first with the offer of money, then by the offer of his own daughter, Fah Lo See (Loy). When Barton rejects both with the proper amount of contempt, Fu subjects him to the “torture of the bell,” tying Barton under a large bell that is constantly rung. After some time has passed, Fu enters the room, stops the bell, and gives Barton a drink of salt water. He then offers fresh water, food and sleep if only Barton will tell him where the tomb is located. Barton still refuses, so Fu has the bell restarted. 

Meanwhile, with the help of Sheila, the expedition finds the entrance to Genghis Khan’s tomb. Von Berg, McLeod, Granville and Sheila lower themselves into the underground tomb. As McLeod breaks the seal on the tomb the group notes a warning posted above: “May the curse of the gods descend upon him and his forever who dares enter herein.” Once inside they discover the skeleton of Genghis Khan wearing the legendary golden mask. Resting on his lap is the golden scimitar. As Terry removes these artifacts, the team’s Chinese laborers rush into the chamber and throw themselves at the feet of Khan’s skeleton. They are only dispersed when the archaeologists fire their guns into the air.

Back at Fu’s palace, he is holding court, having gathered the leaders of all the Asian nations. He calls forth his “ugly and insignificant daughter” to address the assembly. Fah Lo See informs then that the prophecy is about to be fulfilled: Genghis Khan has returned to lead Asia against the world. 

The archaeologists reach town and find Nayland Smith waiting for them, having joined in the hunt for Fu Manchu. He takes them to a deserted house, telling them that he knows that Fu Manchu is in the vicinity, and that it is imperative that the artifacts are shipped out of the country as soon as possible so that they are in a position to negotiate for Sir Lionel. The artifacts are placed in an upper room with McLeod locked in to guard the treasures. However, Fu Manchu’s minions are watching, and before long McLeod is found dying with a knife in his back.

Smith now tells Granville it is imperative that they leave with the artifacts that night. Granville replies that everyone is worn out from the events of the day, but Smith reminds him of what Fu might do if he discovers they have a beautiful white woman with them. 

The next day, Terry finds a human hand wearing Sir Lionel's ring. Fu sends a messenger to inform the expedition that he will return Barton for the artifacts. Sheila agrees and Terry delivers the sword and mask to Fu. Fah Lo See, who is attracted to Terry, orders her father's men to whip him when the sword turns out to be fake. She wants to make love to him later, but is stopped by her father, who has other things in mind for Terry. Fu then has Sir Lionel's body delivered to the expedition's compound and Smith sadly reveals that he had made the phony relics to fool the evil warlord. He then tells Von Berg that he knows where Fu is hiding and sets out to rescue Terry. 

Smith enters an opium den, where he sees a man with the Tattoo of Manchu on his shoulder. He follows the man and locates the secret entrance to Fu's headquarters. After Fu discovers Smith, Smith demands the release of Terry just as Terry is about to be injected by Fu with a serum that will make him totally subject to the Doctor's will. Fu prepares the serum, derived from various reptiles and deadly insects, and tells Terry that it is the smallest dose, so that he will be himself again for Fah Lo See. Smith is tied to a table in a room where below him are alligators.

Soon Terry, now under the drug’s influence, goes to Sheila. Sheila suspects that Terry has been drugged when he blankly asks for the real artifacts, but she and Von Berg still go with him and are captured by Manchu's men. At Fu's headquarters, Sheila sees Fah Lo See with Terry and manages to snap him out of his stupor. Fu orders Sheila to taken away to be prepared as a human sacrifice to the gods. The next morning, as Sheila lies on the sacrificial table, Smith breaks free from his alligator-infested cell and releases Terry. Together they free Von Berg and tamper with Manchu's electricity machine, sending an electrical charge to the sword, killing the Doctor. While Terry rescues Sheila, Smith and Von Berg use the machine to send shocks to Manchu's men. On the boat back to England, Smith decides to throw the evil sword overboard, making the world safe once more for British imperialism.


The Mask of Fu Manchu is nothing if not outrageous, a lavish fantasy of paranoid Yellow Peril anxiety. The idea of the Yellow Peril was a common one in the Western world. In America, it dates back to the immigration of Chinese and Japanese after the Civil War. The fear really took off with the emergence of Japan as a world power after the First World War. One of the main sources for this fear was the media empire of William Randolph Hearst. Thus, it seems to be no accident that Hearst’s film unit, Cosmopolitan Productions, was the one behind the film. The racism runs throughout, commencing right from the opening scene where Nayland Smith cajoles Sir Lionel to take up his expedition by conjuring up visions of an all-out race war should Fu Manchu get to Genghis Khan’s relics first: “He’ll lead hundreds of millions of men to sweep the world.” This gets right to the roots of the fear – that a charismatic leader will emerge, unify the masses and lead them to the conquest of the West. 

Rohmer, on one hand, saw Fu Manchu, as “yellow peril incarnate.” Yet, despite these anti-Asian sentiments, Rohmer made Fu Manchu extraordinarily intelligent, even displaying noble traits. Rohmer also allowed for a certain grudging respect between the Chinese master criminal and his thoroughly British nemesis, Nayland Smith. This subtle point is lost in The Mask of Fu Manchu.

Of course, what every Asian man and woman desires is white men and women as bedmates. When Smith exhorts the expedition’s team to leave camp as soon as possible, he gives them a warning: “Do you suppose for a moment that Fu Manchu doesn’t know we have a beautiful white girl with us?” 

Later, when Terry is captured, Fu Manchu turns him over to his nympho daughter, Fah Lo See. She orders Terry to be strung up, stripped to the waist, and whipped into unconsciousness. She cries “Faster! Faster!” to the black slaves wielding the whips, watching in a state of undisguised and increasing sexual arousal. (In the original script, she does the whipping herself.) Having had her victim carried to her bedroom, Fah Lo See runs her long fingernails over his chest and is about to jump his bones when her father interrupts. She makes it clear to her father that she has designs on him as her next boy toy. "He is not entirely unhandsome, is he, my father?" To which Fu Manchu responds, "For a white man, no.” But the Doctor has thought up a way to get the knowledge of where the real treasures are. “May I suggest a slight delay in your customary procedure?” he says to his daughter, giving us a possible hint that this scenario has played out frequently before. The Doctor then uses his knowledge to extract the blood from a variety of toxic animals, including rattlesnakes and tarantulas, and mixing it with some of his own blood, concocts a serum that will render Terry completely under his will. After he has served his usefulness, Fu will return him to his daughter as her personal sex-slave.

Another instance of undisguised racism occurs after Fu Manchu takes Sheila into custody. “You hideous yellow monster,” she spits at him. The Doctor intends using her as a sacrifice to the gods in front of his assembled guests. Decked out in shimmering white robes, Shiela is carried in by the Doctor’s black servants while the crowds stretch out to paw at her. As she is placed upon the alter, Fu Manchu looms over her and addresses the crowd: “Would you all have maidens like this for your wives? Then conquer and breed! Kill the white man and take his women!” The crowd responds much as we expect, enthusiastically endorsing his idea.

At the end, after Fu has been vanquished, the heroes are on a boat when they suddenly hear a gong, followed by the arrival of a Chinese man (Willie Fung). Their worries are put to rest when the man, dimwitted and properly servile, speaking in pidgin English, is only announcing – between short bouts of inane giggling – that dinner is being served. We can all rest easy.

While the Asians, and Chinese in particular, are endowed by the scriptwriters with some intelligence (Fu Manchu, after all, has three doctorates), the Africans are reduced to little more than mindless brutes. Fu Manchu keeps a small army of black henchmen serving  as muscle, and sometimes as victims – nameless, faceless ciphers who stand around wearing nothing but nappies, lending a homoerotic undercurrent to the proceedings. It's hard to look at them without concluding that Fu Manchu and his daughter like having such models of masculine physicality on the premises.

Interestingly, as time passes and more Fu Manchu stories are put on film, none comes close to the malevolent spirit of this film. Even looking over this film today, the attitudes are so over the top as to be laughable, perhaps because we can see clearly that neither Karloff nor Loy is taking the nonsense seriously. In an interview given years later, Loy told of reading into psychology in order to understand her character better and going up to director Brabin, saying, “I’m playing a nymphomaniac.” In fact, the attitude of both Karloff and Loy gets us in the audience to sympathize with them, as the whites are so obviously humorless.

The film's main problem is its pacing. It seems to have been shot while the crew was on speed. Everything is happening at an accelerated pace, as though the object was to get the film over with as quickly as possible, making it seem even shorter than its 69 minutes. There were so many rewrites that the fate of Fah Lo See was entirely forgotten at the end. Director Brabin’s main failing is that he is not an action director. As a consequence, the film runs to the static and talky. Though it was shot by the noted cameraman Tony Gaudio, Brabin prefers to let the camera hang back and let the action play out in front of it rather than immersing it into the action. Brabin shoots Karloff for maximum malevolent effect. We first see him appearing on the right side of the frame while on the left an oval funhouse mirror distorts and stretches his face into a disembodied mask. The director’s use of underlighting for both Fu Manchu and Fah Lo See heightens their exotic menace. To further emphasize the difference, Karen Morely's Sheila is blonde and clad in white, while Loy's Fah Lo See is dark and clad accordingly.

Fortunately for Brabin’s rather static style, the film’s main attraction is its torture scenes, which are truly amazing, ranging from Sir Lionel tied upside-down inside a huge bell and tortured by dangling grapes over his lips and giving him salt water to drink to Nayland Smith placed on a bed precariously suspended over a pit of alligators along with a sand-timer that slowly causes it to overbalance. And, for added effect, Von Berg is tied to a seat between a giant clamp-like device with two spiked pads slowly moving towards him.

The sets, designed by Cedric Gibbons, are simply inspired. Brabin does an excellent job decking out Fu’s hideout, Kahn’s tomb and the hotel where the heroes stay with moody lighting and mysterious shadows. Also impressive are entire wall-size maps in the museum, the tomb interior filled with opulent costumery, and a bed built into the wall. 

Kenneth Strickfaden, famous for designing the laboratory equipment for Universal's Frankenstein films, was employed to create the film's electrical equipment. The makeup designed to transform Karloff into Fu Manchu required three hours preparation each day before shooting, with putty to fill in the area around his eyes and a reshaping of his nose. Tooth caps and long fingernails were applied, along with a wig, mustache and painted eyebrows.

The performances overall are excellent. As mentioned previously, both Karloff and Loy excel as the villains of the piece, even though there were times when both would break down into giggles reciting their lines. Karloff does a marvelous job playing his character to the hilt while being careful not to go overboard. He takes obviously obscene delights in the tortures he inflicts on his victims, balancing them out against a subservient, perfectly mannered Hollywood-type Chinese accent. Karloff’s interpretation is in direct contrast to the Fu Manchu portrayal by Christopher Lee over 30 years later: Karloff’s Fu Manchu is delightfully lascivious, while Lee’s is cold and distant.

Myrna Loy brings energy and conviction to the role of Fah Lo See. Exotically beautiful in her gowns and headdress, her sensuality and libidinous attitude pushed the limits of the Pre-Code era.

As Nayland Smith, Lewis Stone is given little to do besides direct traffic. Jean Hersholt, Karen Morely and Lawrence Grant bring solid professionalism to their black and white roles. Charles Starrett, playing boy toy Terry, didn’t make much of an impression in the film. Prepped by both Paramount and MGM to be a romantic star, he failed and landed at Columbia, where he made quite a niche for himself in the ‘40s as B-Western hero The Durango Kid. When the series finally ran out of steam in the early ‘50s after almost 50 movies, Starrett retired. Shrewd investments returned a small fortune that he and his wife used to travel the world.

Fu Manchu proved a difficult character to kill. He returned in 1940 in a 15-chapter serial for Republic, The Drums of Fu Manchu, with Henry Brandon as the Doctor. There were six Mexican films from 1943 to 1949 starring David T. Bamberg. John Carradine was Fu Manchu and Sir Cedric Hardwicke was Nayland Smith in a short televised play for NBC directed by William Cameron Menzies, The Adventures of Fu Manchu: The Zagat Kiss, in 1952. In 1956, Glen Gordon starred in a 30-minute syndicated series about the Doctor. It lasted for only 13 episodes before being canceled.

Christopher Lee starred in five Fu Manchu films produced by Harry Alan Towers: The Face of Fu Manchu (1965), The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966), The Vengeance of Fu Manchu (1967), The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968), and The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969). Tsai Chin played his daughter Lin Tang. Finally, Peter Sellers played both Fu Manchu and Nayland Smith in The Fiendish Plot of Fu Manchu (1980). 

But perhaps the most lasting effect of The Mask of Fu Manchu is the influence it has had on the action/adventure films that followed it. Such serials as Flash GordonBuck Rogers, and those with Commando Cody among others featured their heroes up against villains that employ elaborate electronic devices to try and enslave the earth. The James Bond series, both books and films, takes many cues from both Rohmer and The Mask of Fu Manchu. The most recent influence of the film can be seen in the Indiana Jones series, with archeologist Indy taking on the forces of evil wherever he finds them. While we may never see Dr. Fu Manchu again, we will still be able to enjoy those influenced by the style for years to come.

Memorable Dialogue

Fu Manchu introduces himself to Sir Lionel Barton: “I am a Doctor of Philosophy from Edinburgh. I am a Doctor of Law from Christ’s College. I am a Doctor of Medicine from Harvard. My friends, out of courtesy, call me ‘Doctor.’”

Friday, March 17, 2017


Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

Logan (20th Century Fox, 2017) – Director: James Mangold. Writers: Scott Frank, Michael Green, James Mangold (s/p). James Mangold (story). Stars: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen, Boyd Holbrook, Stephen Merchant, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Richard E. Grant, Eriq La Salle & Elise Neal. Color, Rated R, 137 minutes.

What was all the hoopla about this movie? It’s two hours and 17 minutes of plodding through the culmination of Hugh Jackman’s 17 years portraying Logan, The Wolverine. Action scenes are miserly sprinkled between tiresome dead spaces where the audience speaks the lines before Logan manages to open his mouth. And when he does, the f-bomb appears frequently among other expletives. Even Patrick Stewart as a decrepit Professor Xavier has a shocking couple of bouts of profanity. This film will go down in movie infamy with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in the category of Why Was It Made? And to add insult to injury, it starts with a clever plug for the next Deadpool movie, which is much more entertaining than the entire film, with the exception of the final forest battle scene.

The year is 2029, Logan is a not-so-mild-mannered chauffeur who drives a 2024 Chrysler limousine in Texas for hire. He’s obviously aging, drinks profusely, staggers when he doesn’t limp and his power to self-heal is diminished by the poisonous effect of his adamantium skeleton. At a rainy funeral interment he’s confronted by Gabriela (Rodriguez), who recognizes him as Wolverine and begs him to go on a mission. He wants no part of it.

He drives back across the border into Mexico to an abandoned smelting plant in the middle of nowhere desert country, where Caliban (Merchant), the albino mutant tracker, and Charles/Professor Xavier are just getting by. The X-Men as a team are disbanded and as far as they know they’re the last of them. Charles is holed up in a toppled water tower and suffers from seizures (think telepathy gone wild) that paralyze normal people and cause severe pain to mutants unless he gets his medication. Logan uses the money he makes to score the drugs to control these seizures.

Long story shortened, Gabriela has smuggled several mutant children out of a laboratory belonging to Alkali-Transigen Corporation who were a part of a breeding program to control mutant behavior. The idea was to make them into weapons, but children will be children. There’s no controlling them. She brings Logan to meet Laura (Keen) who has a DNA similar to Logan’s and we learn soon on can sprout blades from her knuckles as he does. One difference, though, she can also generate these weapons from her toes.

Gabriela and Laura are pursued by Daniel Pierce (Holbrook) Transigen’s security chief and his robotically enhanced army of “reavers.” When they brutally murder Gabriela, Logan takes her seriously and brings Laura back to the hideout. Charles recognizes Laura for what she is immediately, but Logan refuses to believe that he could have a daughter.

Nevertheless, an attack by the reavers and Pierce forces Logan, Charles and Laura onto a journey to join her with the other mutant children in North Dakota. From there they hope to cross the border into Canada to a safe place called “Eden” extracted from a Marvel comic book. On the way, they make the acquaintance of the Munson family, Will (La Salle), his wife Kathryn (Neal) and their son Nate (Quincy Fouse) when a highway accident causes their horses to escape the Munsons’ trailer. Charles uses his telepathy to corral the horses and the Munsons invite the three mutants to dinner. Charles tries to use this opportunity as an example of how endearing family life can be to Logan but he doesn’t get it. The movie is not the only thing that’s slow here.

Pierce has captured Caliban and tortures him with sunlight until he agrees to use his mutant tracking power to find Laura, Logan and Charles and soon, they’re at the Munsons home and the poor Munsons get the worst part of that deal.

At one point toward the end of the movie, Logan confesses to Laura: “Bad things happen to people I care about.” And he’s right. Bad things happen to nearly everyone in this picture. It’s more like Marvel Comics meets Stephen King. The fight scenes are wildly violent and bloody, more than one head is lopped off or run through. If you like gore, this movie has it in spades. In fact the violence is so gratuitous it didn't impact me and eventually I didn’t care who won the battle, who was the hero and who was the villain. I found it tiresome. It could very well have been done in under an hour and 45 minutes, possibly without the vulgarity. But I do know there will be another episode centering around the children. Maybe it will be better. They’re cuter.

Rating: 1½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

Pondicheri Café
15 West 27th Street, New York

More like a bistro than a formal restaurant, Pondicheri has high ceilings, an open kitchen, plastic stools at the bar, aluminum chairs at the tables and cushion-less bare wood banquettes. The menu is a single laminated card with food on one side, drinks on the other. 

My server, Rafael, asked if I wanted a cocktail. He assured me the Crocus Sativus was made with gin and could be made with any gin they had. Beefeaters it is! The menu touted it simply as a saffron spin on a wet martini. A very attractive topaz yellow, it was a little spicy, a little lemony and a delicious martini.

Rafael helped me navigate the menu, loaded with strange categories like To Share…Or Not, Thalis (a kind of dinner sampling on a tray), For the Table, and Sides. He explained each category, pointing out the full-sized skillet on the next table as the Aviyal, a For the Table selection (impressively large). I knew what to do and ordered my meal and wine.

For the wine I chose the 2014 Bedrock Zinfandel from California. A beautiful dark red, full bodied with a definite blackberry flavor and soft tannins, it had peppery finish that would accent any spice on any dish.

My appetizer arrived. The khandvi was a dish I’ve never seen in any Indian restaurant and I was glad I ordered it: soft dough made from savory chickpeas rolled into pinwheels stuffed with coconut, cashews, sesame, herbs and spices, sliced and served in a yoghurt pomegranate sauce. The coconut was just a flavor and the cashews, finely minced, added a nutty flavor, but the sauce was the amazing part. The creamy smooth yoghurt had a spicy tang to it, moderated by the tart flavor of the pomegranate. A delightful finger-food complimented perfectly by the zinfandel.

After a little while my soup was delivered. Called red beet soup, it was roasted red beet soup with coconut, ginger and mustard seeds and a paneer (Indian home-made cheese) cutlet poking its head above the soup. It was blood red, a little viscous, and had a hearty, sweet flavor. When combined with a piece of the cheese and other ingredients, it was a marvel of cuisine and an almost erotic experience.

Since I know someone from Kerala (pronounced care-uh-luh) I chose the Kerala shrimp – shrimp and winter squash sautéed with coconut, sesame, kari (curry) leaf and a ginger masala. It was delicious, but I could not detect a hint of masala (spice). The shrimp were tender and fresh and the shells on the tails came off easily. The squash was still crunchy and flavorful but the overall taste was more sweet than spicy. The rice was not basmati rice, and though colored by turmeric, it was not flavored by it and was a little over-cooked. Otherwise, it was good. 

The bread, however, was amazing. The pistachio and apricot naan was totally new to me. (I had Peshawari naan before and it’s the closest match to this nutty, sweet bread.) The mint chutney accompanying it gave the bread a minty, spicy accent.

Though I finished my main course and the bread, I had the remainder of the rice boxed up to go home as I needed to save room for dessert. And what a dessert! The signature dish for Pondicheri Café is chai pie, made with a Parle-G crust (an Indian biscuit dough), and a combination of caramel and chai (spiced tea) pastry cream whipped into a dense, custard-like filling (almost as dense as firm ice cream) and topped with fresh whipped cream and candied cashews. It was dreamy. I got so involved in the flavors of caramel and spice and tea that I didn’t need my usual hot tea.

Rafael told me that Pondicheri has been doing business for eight months now and I could see by the clientele that they are successful. I thanked Rafael for his wonderful service, picked up my takeout and was about to leave the restaurant when the hostess offered me a unique pastry. She placed it in a white bag and I popped it into my takeout bag. The nearest thing I can compare it to is a blueberry biscuit, though it looked like a fruitcake/stollen hybrid. It was crunchy and sweet and had a crunchy sugar topping. Very nice. The next time I dine at Pondicheri I will bring a friend. I want to try their version of my favorite Indian dish Lamb Roghan Josh, one of those large For the Table dishes.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Cinéma Inhabituel for March 16-31

A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea

March is renowned in the popular imagination for “coming in like a lion and going out like a lamb.” Regarding TCM, March came in like a lamb and is going out like a lion.

Of course, the big news is the passing of Robert Osborne, TCM’s on-air host from its inception in 1994. I remember when TCM was launched. My cable company at the time, Comcast, did not carry the station until several years later. With Comcast, not carrying a new station upon its inception was par for the course. When the company announced that TCM would be appearing I was beside myself with joy. My wife and I watched the first night and saw Robert Osborne introduce the movie. “Great,” my wife said. “Another know-nothing host like Bob Dorian.” Dorian was at the time host of AMC, which was TCM’s rival for a couple of years until the company that owned it, Cablevision, wrecked the channel. 

No, no,” I replied. “Robert Osborne’s the real thing.” I dug out my worn copy of his book, Academy Awards Illustrated (with a forward by Bette Davis) and showed it to her. She was blown away by the wealth of information. “Yeah,” I said. “He’s a columnist for The Hollywood Reporter. A real film historian, not a paid spokesman.” I think what moved my wife was Osborne’s enthusiasm and love of movies, which came through loud and clear with every introduction. TCM easily became my favorite channel and remains so today. It is the ultimate essential.

Osborne was born on May 3, 1932, in Colfax, Washington. His father was a high school principal and coach, and his mother a homemaker. Osborne said his love of Hollywood began when in 1941, when his mother brought him a copy of Modern Screen magazine with Lana Turner on the cover. He became so engrossed that eventually he took a notebook and write down details about every first-run movie he could find. That interest never left him.

He gradated from the University of Washington with a degree in journalism. After graduation he began a career as a actor, working for 20th Century Fox and Desilu Studios. His first part in 1954 was an uncredited one as a stage driver in Death Valley Days. Most of his 11 movie and television roles were uncredited, including an appearance in Hitchcock’s Psycho

It is reported that Lucille Ball took a shine to him and gave him some useful career advice: give up trying to get into movies and write about them instead. In 1965 he wrote his book, Academy Awards Illustrated, which led to The Hollywood Reporter hiring him as a columnist and critic. In 1978 he published 50 Golden Years of Oscar, which won the 1979 National Book Award. He was elected president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association in 1981 and served a two-year term. In 1984 he began as the on-air host for The Movie Channel. When Ted Turner created Turner Movie Classics in 1994, it was a natural for Osborne to become the station’s on-air host. He remained so, hosting primetime movies in addition to hosting occasional specials, Private Screenings, where he interviewed actors and directors. He also established a weekly program in 2006 called The Essentials, featuring a movie that Osborne and his co-host considered essential for film buffs.

In early 2016, suffering from illness, Osborne stepped away from his duties as host. Osborne died at his Manhattan home on March 6, 2017. He was 84. 

He’ll be greatly missed. His combination of film knowledge, plus his boundless enthusiasm, made him the perfect ambassador for classic films. Although TCM is currently in good hands with Ben Mankiewicz succeeding Osborne as host, we can only hope the station will carry on the work Robert Osborne began. The network will pay tribute to Osborne on March 18 and 19.


March 23: At 8 pm, TCM is screening the original Godzilla (Gojira) from 1954. This is not your father’s Godzilla; in fact, Raymond Burr is nowhere to be seen. No, this is the original, which outside of a few weeks after its release in 1954, wasn’t seen widely in this country until 2004. Joseph E. Levine, who acquired the movie for U.S. distribution, lopped 40 minutes off it and replaced it with new footage featuring Burr as an American reporter who chases the Godzilla story to Japan and goes around talking to the backs of actors’ heads. This edited version was released in 1956 as Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and is the version we are familiar with today. It was seen by critics as nothing more than another campy sci-fi flick featuring a man in a monster suit who goes around stomping on miniature cities.

When the original gained widespread distribution in America through a DVD version, critics noticed that it was almost a completely different film from the one they were used to. It was much, much more than a movie about a giant lizard that runs amok in Tokyo. It is an allegory about the A-bomb and those that delivered it unto Japan. In other words, Godzilla R Us. When Levine acquired the movie he revoked all references to the bomb, Nagasaki, the fire bombing of Tokyo, and the emphasis on radiation poisoning. What was left was a film about a monster on the loose, much in the style of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, which, coincidentally, was the movie that inspired it, along with the Daigo Fukuryo Maru (“Lucky Dragon #5,” an ironic name as it turns out), a tuna fishing ship that strayed into a forbidden zone imposed around the Marshall Islands when we tested the first H-Bomb. The crew came down with radiation sickness and many died horribly. It became a point of contention between the Japanese and the Americans, and Gojira reflects that contention.

One scene that was lopped took place in the home of scientist Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura, who many film buffs will recognize as the star of Kurosawa’s Ikiru). As Yamane sits there with his daughter Emiko (Momoko Kochi) and her admirer Ogata (Akira Takarada), he laments the fact that Godzilla, the last of his species, has to be destroyed instead of studied. Ogata answers that, “Isn’t Godzilla a product of the atomic bomb that still haunts many of us Japanese?” There was no way Levine was going to let that one pass, nor the last line, where Yamane notes that, “If we keep conducting nuclear tests, it’s possible that another Godzilla might appear somewhere in the world again.” In removing the offending footage, Levine took out anything that might have made the film uncomfortable for American audiences. Terry O. Morse, who made his reputation mainly as a film editor, was hired as director to blend the new footage with the old as seamlessly as possible. Inshiro Honda directed the original for Toho Studios, with Akira Kurosawa as an uncredited executive producer. Kurosawa had also made his own anti-nuclear film that same year, titled I Live in Fear. It bombed at the box office, while Gojira was a hit.

Over the year Toho followed up its hit with sequels of diminishing quality. Eventually Godzilla would morph from being a force of destruction to being a good guy, a hero of children, much like competitor Daiei Studios did with its monster-in-a-suit, Gamera. In other words, Toho did to Godzilla what Hollywood would do to Elvis: they cut his balls off. There were attempts to restore the lizard to his former status, but they failed. Godzilla became a victim of typecasting.


March 29: It’s a night of movies based on the writings of Guy De Maupassant. Beginning at 8 pm, Vincent Price stars in Diary of a Madman (1963). At 10 pm it’s Le Plasir (1952), an episodic film based on three stories explore that explores what happens when pleasure, purity and sex meet up with each other. Directed by the great Max Ophuls, it stars Jean Gabin, Danielle Darrieux, Jean Servais, and Daniel Gelin, among others. As with any Ophuls film, it is a cinematic delight. At midnight it’s Mademoiselle Fifi, a 1944 film from RKO and producer Val Lewton. Told to make an anti-German morale flick, Lewton shapes it around the Franco-Russian War as a German officer (Kurt Krueger) tries to force a simple French laundress (Simone Simon) to be his mistress. Adapted from two De Maupassant stories: "Boule de Suif" (which also inspired John Ford’s Stagecoach, believe it or not) and "Mademoiselle Fifi.” It’s something of a curiosity piece today, and somewhat uneven in tone and execution, but is realized as only Val Lewton can. 

Believe it or not, even Jean-Luc Godard used De Maupassant as a source for a movie. The result, Masculin Feminin, can be seen at 2 am. Made when Godard made coherent films, it’s the story of an aspiring writer (Jean-Pierre Leaud) and his involvement with a rising pop star (Chantal Goya) and her two roommates. David likes it a lot more than I do, though I will admit it has its moment, only not enough of them. The movie was shot in Sweden. Ingmar Bergman, not exactly a fan of Godard, went to go and see it. His verdict? “A classic case of Godard: mind-numbingly boring.” 


March 26: At 3:30 am Renoir’s 1936 short, A Day in the Country is being shown as part of the De Maupassant theme. The family of a Parisian shop-owner spends a day in the country. At a picnic along the river, a bourgeois mother and daughter find romance while the men are busy fishing. The daughter falls in love with a man at the inn, where they spend the day. With Sylvia Bataille, Georges D'Arnoux (as Georges Saint-Saens), Jeanne Marken, André Gabriello, future director Jacques Becker, and Renoir himself as Poulain the Innkeeper. Becker and Luchino Visconti worked as Renoir's assistant directors. Look for the boy fishing from the bridge in the beginning of the film. It’s Jean Renoir's son, Alain.

Following at 4:30 am is one of Renoir’s early masterpieces, Boudu Saved From Drowning. Boudu (the wonderful Michel Simon) is saved from drowning in the Seine river by bookseller Edouard Lestingois (Charles Granval), who takes him in to his home until he recovers. Mrs. Lestingois (Marcelle Hainia) and the maid, Anne-Marie (Sévérine Lerczinska), who is also Lestingois' mistress, are far from delighted, for Boudu is lazy, dirty and salacious. And worse, Boudu becomes The Thing That Won’t Leave, maintaining that his savior is now responsible for his well-being. All attempts to adjust him to a middle-class, normal way of life fail. His antics include carelessly defacing priceless first edition books, flooding the kitchen, and other outrageous disturbances. In addition, he seduces Madame Lestingois and interrupts Mr. Lestingois' nightly visits to Anne-Marie, by insisting upon sleeping in the hall between their rooms. He later wins a lottery with a ticket given to him by Monsieur Lestingois, and decides to marry Anne-Marie. As they are drifting down the Seine in a river punt following their wedding, Boudu begins to yearn for the freedom he “lost.” The boat is somehow "accidentally" tipped over and Boudu disappears. While the others mourn his death, he swims ashore, changes clothes with a scarecrow, and sets out on the road again, a free man. Based a play by Rene Fauchois, it was remade in 1986 as Down and Out in Beverly Hills. But the 1932 version outshines any attempt at a remake. It is a comic masterpiece.


March 26: At 2 am it’s Torment, a 1944 film from director Alf Sjoberg, for which Bergman wrote the screenplay. This is a story of an idealistic high school student (Alf Kjellin), who saves a shop girl (Mai Zetterling) from harassment at the hands of his hated Latin teacher (Stig Järrel), who the students have named Caligula. At 4 am comes Hour of the Wolf (1968), a drama written and directed by Bergman about an artist (Max Von Sydow) in an emotional crisis punctuated by nightmares from the past while staying on windy and isolated island with his younger, pregnant wife (Liv Ullmann).  During "the hour of the wolf" – between midnight and dawn – he tells his wife about his most painful memories. It’s Ingmar Bergman's only horror film, and reminds me of a parody that took place on the old comedy show, SCTV.  On an episode of “Monster Chiller Horror Theater,” Count Floyd (Joe Flaherty) is showing this film for the kiddies out there. What follows is a brilliant and hysterical parody of the movie, called “Whispers of the Wolf,” and which elicits a reaction from the dumbfounded Count, who notes that “Hey, this isn’t a scary film at all! Who is responsible for this?”


March 25: At the dreadful hour of 4 am comes one of the most beautiful films to come from Japan, A Story From Chikamatsu, aka The Crucified Lovers (Chikamatsu Monogatari). It concerns Ishun (Eitarô Shindô), a wealthy scroll-maker in 17th century Japan who is married to Osan (Kyôko Kagawa). When he falsely accuses her of having an affair with his best worker, Mohei (Kazuo Hasegawa), the pair is forced to flee the city and declare their love for one another. Ishun orders his men to find them and separate them in order to avoid public humiliation. Based on a play by  classic Japanese author Monzaemon Chikamatsu (1653-1725), the Japanese title "Chikamatsu Monogatari" means "A Tale From Chikamatsu.” Director Kenji Mizoguchi realizes it beautifully, with an undercurrent of emotional power beneath the narrative’s surface that will resonate with the viewer long after the film ends. We would recommend recording it for later viewing.


March 30: A mini-marathon begins at 6 am and ends at 2:30 pm. Of the films bring shown we recommend Under Eighteen, with Marian Marsh and Warren William (10 am). A good film, it inexplicably bombed at the box office, despite the push from the studio. Read our essay on it hereEver In My Heart (11:30 am), starring Barbara Stanwyck and Otto Kruger, explores the anti-German prejudice doing World War I and has a decent melodramatic ending. And finally, at 12:45 pm, James Cagney is a racketeer who tries to improve conditions at a boy’s reformatory in the lively Mayor of Hell from 1933. The string linking all the films is that they were directed by Archie Mayo, an unimaginative studio hack (so much for auteur theory), which explains why even the best of them we mentioned are uneven.


March 20: The theme is “March Malice,” and the film the night is Michael Powell's shocking Peeping Tom (1960), airing at 10 pm. A cinematographer, raised by a sadist, photographs his female victims as he kills them. It is a deeply disturbing film and almost destroyed Powell’s career. Ignored for years, its reputation as a first-rate psychological thriller was restored due to filmakers such as Martin Scorsese, who championed it as a classic of the genre. I remember seeing it as a teenager late one Saturday night on New York’s Channel 9, and I have never forgotten it. I recommend it highly. 

March 22: At 4:15 am The Honeymoon Killers is being shown. Starring Tony LoBianco and Shirley Stoler, its based on the true story of Ray Fernandez and Martha Beck, who met through lonely-hearts correspondence and were executed in 1951 for the murders of Myrtle Young, Janet Fay, Delphine Downing and her 2-year old daughter Rainelle. To quote Michael Weldon in The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film: “Definitely not made by the usual bozos. Required viewing.”

March 23: Besides Gojira, viewers can see his future antagonist, King Kong in the 1933 original, at 10 pm. The two would later meet in one of the great dreadful encounters that would become so common to Japanese sci-fi. Also of interest is the 1957 Ray Harryhausen epic, 20 Million Miles to Earth, which airs at the late hour of 5 am.

March 25: At 10:15 pm comes the Barrymore brothers in the uneven, but fascinating Arsene Lupin, from MGM in 1932. John is the gentleman their of the title who is relentlessly pursued by the great detective Guerchard (Lionel). It’s all around Paris that Lupin plans to steal the Mona Lisa, but the police, led by Guerchard, believe they know Lupin’s identity and have a secret weapon to catch him. With Karen Morely. It was the first pairing of the brothers and is highly entertaining.

The evening would not be complete if we didn’t recommend the wild and wacky House (Hausu), airing at 2 am. Threatened by the presence of her new stepmother, spoiled schoolgirl Oshare, aka “Gorgeous” (Kimiko Ikegami), takes six of her friends to visit her aunt in the countryside for the weekend. Thus begins a roller coaster of a movie, in bright pastels and a cartoonish flair, with outrageous things happening to each of the girls. It’s a movie that has to be seen to be believed and it’s popularity saved Toho Studios from bankruptcy. Be warned, it’s pretty graphic, although more on the level of a Road Runner cartoon in its outrageousness. 

March 28: The one and only Hugo Haas lends his dubious directing tales to Lizzie (1957), airing at 12:30 am. Based on Shirley Jackson’s novel, The Bird’s Nest, it’s a story of a Los Angeles psychiatrist (Richard Boone) who uses hypnosis to get to the bottom of a mousy woman’s (Eleanor Parker) multiple personality disorder. As Beth, she’s a happy, well-adjusted woman. But as Lizzie, she’s a wild party hardy who writes threatening letters. With Joan Blondell and the director in a role as a kindly neighbor. Realized as only Hugo Haas can, it was the only one of his moves to receive serious notice.