Friday, March 31, 2017

Cinéma Inhabituel for April 1-15

A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea

We begin with some sad news. Colin Dexter, the author who created Inspector Morse, the irascible, poetry-loving detective who listened to Wagner while pursuing clues and fine ale through a series of 13 novels and a critically-praised TV show, died March 21 at his home in Oxford, England. He was 86.

Dexter, a former classics teacher, was suffering through a rainy family vacation in North Wales in the early ‘70s when he decided to kill some time by reading a detective novel left in the hotel. After he was finished, he decided he could do better and began sketching out an outline of a mystery about a young woman murdered while hitchhiking. The novel, Last Bus to Woodstock, was published in 1975, introducing readers to a new detective team of Inspector Morse and his good-natured, long-suffering detective sergeant, Robbie Lewis. 

ITV brought the books to television in the series Inspector Morse, which ran from 1987 to 2000, and was seen here on PBS. John Thaw played Morse while Kevin Whatley was cast as Lewis. After the series ran its course, a sequel followed, Lewis, with Whatley’s character now promoted to Inspector. A prequel, Endeavor, also appeared, with Shaun Evans portraying Morse at the beginning of his career.

The series achieved a popularity beyond Dexter’s wildest dreams, with Thaw’s brilliant interpretation of the gruff inspector bringing hordes of tourists to Oxford, where the series was set. The local tourist board seized the opportunity and created a series of Morse walks to meet the demand.

Dexter tore a page from Hitchcock’s book and appeared in cameos in various episodes of the series as a tourist, bum, doctor, prisoner, bishop, and professor, among others. 

Who would’ve thought that one of the most celebrated detectives in literary history came about because of a lousy vacation? They say necessity is the mother of invention, but sometimes boredom can also play a huge role.


April 2: A double helping of Francois Truffaut begins at 2:00 am with The 400 Blows (1959). A brilliant examination of a troubled adolescent, it was the first effort at filmmaking for the former critic for Cahiers du Cinema (Notebooks on Cinema). It’s followed at 4:00 am by what may have been his best effort, Day For Night (1973), a lively, light-hearted look at the everyday perils of filmmaking, when everything seems to go wrong and a director can only shake his head and trudge on. The title comes from the practice of shooting a night scene during the day using a special lens filter. For those interested in Truffaut, David, Christine and I listed our favorite films from the director. You can find it here.


April 9: Beginning at 8:00 pm it’s a night of rare animation, featuring independently made cartoons from Canada. Not only for fans of animation, but for anyone interested in the rare and different. In other words, the readers of this column.


April 12: OMG! It’s an entire evening devoted to films starring the one and only Frankie Avalon. Lest one assume the evening will be filled with “Beach Party” movies, it actually begins at 8:00 pm with 1962’s Panic in the Year Zero. Directed by and starring Ray Milland, this AIP production is about a vacationing family leaving Los Angeles for a camping trip just as a nuclear bomb wipes out the city. Ray and his family (Jean Hagen, Frankie Avalon, and Mary Mitchel) must suddenly fight to stay alive. Those new to it will find it watchable and interesting. To quote critic Michael Weldon: “All this would be very depressing except for the raucous music by Les Baxter and the bad acting by Frankie. Listen to the kids have friendly arguments about whether the canned food is radioactive or not.” On a side note, the film inspired the Steely Dan song “King of the World” on their second album “Countdown to Ecstasy.” 

At 10:00 pm comes the original Beach Party from 1963. A huge success when released it began a short-lived trend of follow-ups, none as bouncy or as totally enjoyable. Co-starring Annette Funicello, who popularized the bikini in America with this movie, as Frankie’s girl, Dolores. It also co-stars Bob Cummings (who walks away with the picture), Dorothy Malone, Morey Amsterdam, and Harvey Lembeck as the most inept biker that ever lived: Eric Von Zipper. Watch it, if not for the antics of Frankie and Annette, then for the wonderful music of surf guitar legend Dick Dale.

At midnight comes Frankie’s first real film, Guns of the Timberland (1960). He had earlier appeared as himself in the teen musical Jamboree! (1957). In this tepid Western, Alan Ladd and Gilbert Roland are partners in a timber concern who have a contract to cut logs in a territory abutting Jeanne Crain's ranch. Jeanne and the rest of the valley are opposed to the loggers for fear that it will leave no watershed for flooding, resulting in an ecological disaster. Frankie and Alan Ladd’s daughter Alana play a pair of young lovers. Frankie also gets to warble a couple of songs by Jerry Livingston and Mack David including “The Faithful Kind,” and one called "Gee Whizz Whilikens Golly Gee." 

2:00 am finds Frankie teamed with Dwayne Hickman as a pair of secret agents hot on the trail of the nefarious Vincent Price in AIP’s Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965). It seems that Dr. Goldfoot has created an army of bikini-clad robots programmed to seek out wealthy men and charm them into signing over their assets to the doctor. It’s up to Frankie and Dwayne to stop him.

And finally, for those still awake after all this, it’s Drums of Africa (1963) at 4:00 am. There’s a good reason for showing this mess from MGM at this late hour. It stinks. Lloyd Bochner is an engineer traveling to East Africa with Frankie, the owner’s nephew, to his employer’s railway construction site. Mariette Hartley provides the eye candy as a mission worker who, along with guide Torin Thatcher, warn the duo not to proceed until the Arab slavers have left the area. Do they listen? Not on your life, and are soon lost in the wilderness until rescued by Hartley and Thatcher. When Hartley is kidnapped by said slave traders, the three men team up to rescue her. This synopsis actually sounds better than the movie. Besides Frankie singing a song, the highlight comes when, about almost 70 minutes into the movie, a group of white men in blackface appear as “Masai warriors” in caveman outfits. Produced by the duo of Philip N. Krasne and Alfred Zimbalist and loaded with footage from King Solomon’s Mines, this epic was shot in the dark wilds of Bronson Canyon.


April 5: As if an entire evening devoted to Frankie Avalon wasn’t enough, TCM goes one further with an evening devoted to Zsa Zsa Gabor, a failed actress more noted for being Zsa Zsa than anything else. We begin at 8:00 as Zsa Zsa stars with ex-husband George Sanders in Death of a Scoundrel (1956), a rather entertaining B-movie from RKO that was one of the last to come from the dying studio. Sanders stars as the rich Clementi Suborin. When he’s found dead in his New York apartment, his secretary (Yvonne DeCarlo) recounts his story to the police about his rise from Czech refugee to rich New Yorker and the trail of betrayal, womanizing and fraud along the way that confirms the fact that almost everyone who knew him wanted him dead. Sanders is at his best as the scheming Suborin with Zsa Zsa as one of his victims. To make it a family affair, Sanders’ brother, Tom Conway, co-stars as the brother Suborin double-crosses back in Czechoslovakia. 

At 10:15 pm Zsa Zsa stars along with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in 3 Ring Circus (1954). Martin and Lewis are a pair of veterans who join the circus and predictably wreak havoc throughout the picture. Jerry wants to be a clown. Zsa Zsa is an egotistical trapeze artist.

The highlight of the evening takes place at 12:15 am with the screening of 1958’s Queen of Outer Space. Zsa Zsa is one of a population of women inhabiting Venus whose man-hating queen (Laurie Mitchell) has plans to disintegrate the Earth. The queen hates men because her face, hidden behind a mask, was scarred in a war with the planet’s men. The queen wants to kill a group of male astronauts who have landed there, but Zsa Zsa leads a rebellion to save them. Fans will quickly recognize the space suits left over from Forbidden Planet and the sets and giant spider from World Without End. Directed by Edward Bernds, who formerly directed the Bowery Boys and the Three Stooges.

At 2:00 am Zsa Zsa may be seen in a decent, if uneven, film from director John Huston: 1952’s Moulin Rouge. It’s the story of painter Toulouse-Lautrec, as interpreted by Jose Ferrer. The sets and the musical numbers are wonderful, as is Huston’s use of Technicolor, but Ferrer’s performance leaves something to be desired.

And finally, at 4:15 pm, comes Lili (1953) starring Leslie Caron as an orphan in France who gets a job with a carnival puppet show and forms a relationship with a crippled and embittered puppeteer, played superbly by Mel Welles. Zsa Zsa is the assistant to womanizing magician Jean-Pierre Aumont. It is a delightful film, highlighted by Caron’s singing of “Hi Lili, Hi Lo.” Due to the late hour, it should be recorded and saved for later. 


April 4: An interesting Ruth Chatterton film makes its appearance at 3:30 am, Journal of a Crime (1934). When Chatterton discovers that playwright husband Adolphe Menjou is in love with his mistress, Claire Dodd, and wants a divorce, Ruth takes matters into her own hands and shoots Dodd. Although hubby knows who did it, he decides to remain silent, waiting for his wife to crack under the guilt. But when a man named Costello (Noel Madison) is arrested for the murder, she visits him in prison and confesses. But he gallantly decides that as he’s responsible for another murder he might as well remain silent and face death. But the guilt overtakes Ruth and she decides to confess, but on the way to the prosecutor’s office she is hit by a car and develops amnesia. Her loss of memory leads to unseen consequences for the couple. It’s a pretty silly Pre-Code feature notable only for the superb performance of Chatterton, who plays it straight instead of simply hamming it up and chewing scenery. This was her last picture for Warner Bros. Declining box office and her outspoken attitude over the studio’s attempt to cut salaries at the height of the Depression led the studio to declare her as excess baggage. Don’t blink, or you’ll miss Melvyn Douglas as an actor in Menjou’s stage play.

April 5: At 6:00 am Ann Harding travels to French Indochina to be with fiancee Melvyn Douglas, commandant of a prison camp, only to find he’s now an alcoholic, in Prestige, a hackneyed melodrama from 1932. With Adolphe Menjou and Clarance Muse.

April 6: Slimy and corrupt night court judge Walter Huston will stop at nothing to avoid the clutches of watchdog Lewis Stone – and that includes framing innocent couple Phillips Holmes and Anita Page in the entertaining, though minor effort, Night Court (1932), airing at 11:15 am. Huston and Stone are worth the time expended.


April 1: The Maisie series continues with 1941’s Maisie Was a Lady at 10:30 am, followed by Lon Chaney, Jr. and Claude Rains in The Wolf Man (1941) at noon. Fashion models are the focus of late night, with a deranged murderer running amok in Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace at 2:45 am, followed by Peter Cushing as a doctor looking for suitable replacements for his wife’s (Sue Lloyd) scarred face in Corruption (1967) at 4:30 am.

April 6: Walter Huston gives one of the great despicable performances in 1932’s Kongo, a remake of 1927’s West of Zanzibar, with the one-and-only Lon Chaney in the role. One might think it difficult to follow in Chaney’s footsteps, but Huston does it brilliantly as the crippled madman who seeks revenge on the daughter of the man who took his wife away, with unseen and tragic results following. It was strong stuff when released and has lost none of its punch over the years, thinks to Huston’s performance.

April 8: At 7:30 am it’s Bela Lugosi vs. Boris Karloff in Edgar G. Ulmer’s underrated expressionistic horror, The Black Cat (1934).

Ann Sothern again takes center stage in Ringside Maisie (1941) at 10:30 am.

Late night begins at 2:30 am with The Zodiac Killer, a 1971 low-budget exploitation film about the serial killer who was never caught. Despite some terrible acting and writing, it deserves a look, but keep in mind that it is disturbing, with lots of hateful anti-female dialogue. The narrator warns us that “Somebody sitting next to you or behind you had killed!” Consider yourself warned. Seeking of woman killers, following at 4:15 am is Hitchcock’s 1960 macabre masterpiece, Psycho.

April 15: Hammer Studios’ version of One Million B.C. (1966), a remake of Hal Roach’s One Million B.C. (1940), airs at 8:30 am. Featuring stop-motion animation by Ray Harryhausen and Raquel Welch as the world’s sexiest cavewoman traipsing about in a fur bikini, it’s also notable for the appearance of cult actress Martine Beswick as Raquel’s rival. The poster featuring Welch in her fur bikini was a best seller and helped the actress establish herself as an instant sex-symbol. 

Maisie Gets Her Man from 1942, airs at 10:30 am, with the irrepressible Brooklyn showgirl launching a star act with Red Skelton. Look for Leo Gorcey as Cecil.

Late night features the laff riot, Night of the Lepus (1972) at 11:30 pm. (Read our essay on it here.) It’s followed by two MGM cartoons, The Hound and the Rabbit (1937) and The Hungry Wolf (1942) from director Hugh Harman.

At 2:00 am comes a most unusual film from director Bertrand Tavernier. Death Watch (La mort en direct, 1980). Taking place in the future, when medical advances have made premature death a rarity, the reality show Death Watch, a voyeuristic look at how people cope with the end of life, is a ratings hit. In the search for more and more events to televise, a reporter, Roddy (Harvey Keitel), has a camera implanted in his head that broadcasts everything he sees to a television station in Glasgow. His assignment is to show the audience the journey of Katherine (Romy Schneider), who's been recently informed that she's terminally ill, as she prepares for her last days. Complications ensue from the fact that Katherine has no idea she's being filmed. She previously rejected an offer from the show's producer (Harry Dean Stanton) to appear on it. This places Roddy in an uncomfortable position as he becomes close to his subject. This sad – and long – film was shot around Glasgow (in English) and was based on a novel by David Guy Compton. Ironically, two years after its release, Romy Schneider died at the age of 43 from cardiac arrest due to a weakened heart caused by a kidney operation she had months before.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

TCM TiVo Alert for April 1-7

April 1–April 7


SLEEPER (April 1, 8:00 pm): Besides Take the Money and RunSleeper is the best, most clever and entertaining of Woody Allen's "earlier, funnier movies." Allen's character, Miles Monroe, is frozen in 1973 when a routine gall bladder operation goes bad. He's defrosted 200 years later by doctors who are members of a resistance group living in a police state. The gags are fast and funny. One of my favorites is when the scientists ask Miles about life 200 years earlier, including this gem. Allen's interaction with Diane Keaton (Luna, a self-centered socialite) is pure magic, particularly when she helps Miles relive a scene from his younger days and when the two are disguised as surgeons stealing the government leader's nose – all that's left of him after a rebel bomb blows up the rest of him. While the dialogue is smart and funny, Allen also proves himself to be an incredibly talented physical actor. Allen's slapstick comedic talent – think Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton – shines best in this role.

THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (April 7, 10:15 pm): An authentic film that pulls no punches about three soldiers returning home from World War II attempting to adjust to life. The film features incredible performances by the legendary and lovely Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews, Fredric March and Harold Russell (an actual WWII vet who lost both his hands in the war). The film won seven Oscars, including Best Picture. Unlike some multi-Oscar films, this one is truly a classic that remains as real and as powerful as it must have been to movie-goers when it was released in 1946. It's very touching and beautiful.


SHADOW OF A DOUBT (April 2, 6:00 pm): One of the things that made Alfred Hitchcock the master of suspense was his attention to the finer points of human nature. And this movie is an insightful essay on what happens when evil comes to a place where no one would expect it; when it is right there sitting nest to you at the dinner table. Teresa Wright is Charlie, an extremely happy young girl in the happy and charming town of Santa Rosa, California, a picture-postcard kind of place. She is elated when her Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) comes to pay a visit, for she is especially devoted to him, with the two sharing almost a sort of telepathic relationship. But what she doesn’t know is that her beloved Uncle Charlie is on the lam, being suspected by the police as the “Merry Widow Murderer,” responsible for bumping off a number of rich widows back east. The fun in the film is her gradual realization that not all is well with Uncle Charlie and her growing suspicion that he’s not what he appears to be. Hitchcock is at his best in exploring their relationship as it develops and starts to change. But what really makes the film so effective is Hitchcock’s emphasis on what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil.” To look at Uncle Charlie or talk with him, one wouldn’t notice anything especially unusual. He is nondescript in almost every way, his only talent being in his ability to poison so many women. That a child completely undoes him only adds another dimension of irony to the picture. It was one of Hitchcock’s favorites and it is a film that I don’t believe gets the credit it should when compared to his thrillers of the ‘50s and ‘60s.

DAY FOR NIGHT (April 2, 4:00 am): This is one of Francois Truffaut’s wittiest and most subtle films – a film about the making of a film. While on the set of Je vous presente Pamela (Introducing Pamela), the story of an English wife running off with her French father-in-law, we also get to know the cast and crew shooting the film, each with his or her own set of problems. Hence the title: a technical cinematographic term for simulating a night scene while shooting during the day. Special filters and optical processors are employed to create the illusion. While Nathalie Baye and Jean-Pierre Leaud are wonderful in their roles, Valentia Cortese steals the picture as the fading actress Severine. For those new to Truffaut, this is the perfect introduction and one not to miss.

WE AGREE ON ... CALL NORTHSIDE 777 (April 2, 12:00 pm)

ED: A. As film noir caught on in the late ‘40s, it begat a new sub-genre: the semi-documentary. Of all the films shot in this format, Call Northside 777 is exceeded only by He Walked by Night. Jimmy Stewart is in top form as reporter P. James McNeal, who, the more he digs, comes to believe that Frank Wiecek, (Richard Conte) imprisoned for the murder of a policeman back in 1932, is innocent. To prove Wiecek’s innocence, McNeal must take on City Hall and the corridors of police corruption. Though the odds are greatly stacked against him, the dogged reporter digs through the piles of testimony, eyewitness accounts, and the like to prove his case. The film as the brainchild of producer Louis De Rochemont, famous as the producer of The March of Time newsreels, who came to Fox after the war and put together a unit to make semi-documentary dramas. In the hands of Fox’s best director, Henry Hathaway, a movie that could have bogged down in its own details instead comes to life as an absorbing and compelling slice of life, especially as experienced by the lower classes in Chicago. The only glitch in the film is the obligatory statement from McNeal to Wiecek that not many governments in the worlds would admit to such a mistake, but it is minor and comes at the end, almost as a afterthought. Besides Stewart several performances stand out: Conte as Wiecek. Lee. J. Cobb as McNeal’s editor, and Betty Garde as Wanda Skutnik, whose testimony sent Wiecek to the pen. It’s a film that should be seen, not only by noir lovers, but by all those interested in a good movie.

DAVID: A. As a journalist, I love movies that make reporters look like superheroes. This 1948 film, done in documentary style and based on a true story, stars screen-legend Jimmy Stewart as Chicago Times newspaper reporter P.J. McNeal. After his editor, played by the underrated Lee J. Cobb, sees an ad in the newspaper placed by a woman who believes her son was falsely convicted 11 years earlier of killing a police officer, he sends a skeptical McNeal to talk to her for an article. Over time, McNeal believes the son, Frank Wiecek, played by Richard Conte, is innocent. Despite roadblocks put in his way by state officials who don't want to be embarrassed by a potentially mistaken prosecution and conviction of a cop-killer, McNeal fights on. Do I really need to tell you how it ends? The movie is at its best when Stewart's questioning and tenacity are front and center. This is one of Stewart's finest and lesser-known performances.

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

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Bully for Bugs

Animation Nation

By Ed Garea

Bully For Bugs (WB, 1953) – Director: Chuck Jones. Writer: Michael Maltese (story). Animation: Ken Harris, Lloyd Vaughan, Ben Washam. Background: Philip DeGuard. Layout: Maurice Noble. Sound: Treg Brown. Music: Carl Stalling, Milt Franklyn (uncredited). Voices: Mel Blanc. Color, 7 minutes.

If there was anything that could be considered as the quintessential Bugs Bunny cartoon, this might be it, a knock-down, drag-out battle between Bugs and an angry bull loaded with marvelous sight gags.

According to Chuck Jones in his memoir, Chuck Amuck, the idea for the cartoon came one afternoon when Jones and Michael Maltese were in their workroom wrestling with a new story idea:

Suddenly, a furious dwarf stood in the doorway. ‘I don’t want any gags about bullfights, bullfights aren’t funny.’ Exactly the same words he had used to Friz Freleng about never using camels. Out of that dictum came Sahara Hare, one of the funniest cartoons ever made, with one of the funniest camels ever made.

After Eddie Selzer, Warner's animation producer and the “furious dwarf” mentioned above, returned to his office, Jones and Maltese had solved their storyline dilemma. Selzer was famous among the staff for his lack of judgment about cartoon subjects. He had once told Jones that a skunk that speaks French wasn’t funny. Result: For Scent-imental Reasons, which won an Oscar for Best Short Subject in 1950. Selzer, as Jones recalls, had no trouble going up to accept the award. 

Bully For Bugs opens at a bullring somewhere south of the border. An impeccably dressed and self-assured matador is standing in the middle of the arena. We hear a bellow and a bull crashes through the doors marked “Toros.” He sizes up the matador and smiles knowingly. The matador grows nervous and we see sweat beading up on his forehead. He throws his cape up in the air as the bull charges through it and begins to chase him around the arena.

Suddenly we see that someone is tunneling into the arena. It’s Bugs, who immediately grasps that he’s in the wrong place. “Hey, this don’t look like the Coachella Valley to me,” he says as he gets out a map and issues that frequent line: “I knew I should’ve made that left toin at Albuquerque.” He sees the matador run by. “Hey, I know. I’ll just ask this gent in the fancy knickerbockers.” He catches up to the fleeing matador and asks if he can direct him to the Coachella Valley and “the Big Carrot Festival therein.” But the matador is too busy fleeing for his life and climbs over the wall. Toro stops right behind Bugs and is snorting heavily. Bugs turns around and smacks him on the nose. “Stop steaming up my tail!” Toro retreats and chalks his horns like a pool cue. He then charges and rams Bugs out of the arena into town. As Bugs sails through the air he tells us, “Of course you realize this means war!”

Toro celebrates his triumph by moving a bead over a line like in a pool hall and bowing to the cheering fans, who are throwing roses at him. We quickly cut to two doors marked Cuadrillas. The doors open to reveal Bugs in a matador’s outfit holding a cape. Toro charges. Bugs stands still. Just before Toro reaches him Bugs holds out the cape, pulls it away and Toro runs head-on into an anvil atop a concrete block. Dazed (his eyes turn from red to light blue), he follows Bugs, who is waving his cape at him and they prance to the underscore of “La Cucaracha.” Toro regains his senses and makes a full charge at Bugs, who once again lifts the cape as Toro runs into the bull shield, piercing it with his horns. Bugs quickly nails them down with a hammer, as one would do with a nail. He thinks he has Toro where he wants him and remarks, “What a gulli-bull! What a nim-cow-poop!” But he is unaware that Toro has detached his horns (this is a cartoon) and bops Bugs in the head with his hoof, knocking the rabbit cold.

While Toro sharpens his horns on a manually powered grinding wheel Bugs interrupts to place a large rubber band over the horns. He then pulls back the band and places a boulder on the end like a slingshot. As he lets it go we see everything from the bull’s perspective. Now it’s Bugs’ turn to bow to the cheers, but as he does so he has his back to Toro and the bull rams him in the behind as he takes his bow, driving him through the wall. Bugs merely peers out at us with his hand on his face, much like Jack Benny, and gives us an embarrassed look.

The next scene finds Bugs wearing a sombrero, dancing up to the bull in tempo to the accompaniment of “Las Chiapanecas,” slapping Toro twice in the face each time he comes up to him. Toro follows, but gets the same treatment. As Bugs goes into a wild dance Toro charges and Bugs disappears into his hole. His arm reaches out to pinch the bull twice on the nose.

A very angry bull is once again sharpening his horns on the wheel as Bugs waits with a shotgun behind his cape. He turns to the camera and says, “Booby trap,” as Toro charges through the cape, swallowing the shotgun, which transforms the shape of his tail. When he strikes his tail against the ground, one of his horns fired a round. The Bull quickly grasps what’s going on, and smiling at the rabbit, begins to chase him, firing bullets from each horn. Suddenly we hear a ‘click, click’ as Toro runs out of bullets. He quickly gets a box of elephant gun bullets and proceeds to swallow the entire box. When he hits his tail against the ground to test fire, however, he explodes.

All this is noticed by Bugs, who is standing before the entrance gates, remarking, “What an im-bezzile! What an ultra-maroon!” Suddenly Toro charges and Bugs realizes he’s trapped against the doors. He awaits his fate by writing out a will and praying, but as the bull reaches him, Bugs simply opens the gates like a garage door as Toro runs past him through the town and out into the horizon. We hear the sounds of hammer and saw in the ring as we cut back to Toro, who bellows loudly and begins running back to the arena. Just before he arrives, Bugs has laid a slick of axle grease, which the bull hits dead on, sliding him up a ramp. He sails over a platform on which there is a paint brush laden with glue, on past a platform with a sheet of sandpaper, which sticks to the Bull’s underside, then past a platform holding a match. The sandpaper lights the match, which in turn lights a fuse. The bull floats at the same speed as the fuse burns and they arrive simultaneously over a barrel of TNT, which explodes, sending the unconscious bull flying into the wooden bull shield. 

The cartoon ends with the unconscious bull’s hindquarters sticking out, over which Bugs holds up a cape with the words “The End” stitched on it.


Several things about this cartoon stand out. One is that Jones did take some of his producer’s advice seriously and made sure the bull he drew was merely a caricature. In later interviews he remarked that if he drew the bull anatomically correct, it would have the effect of making the audience root for the bull and evoke feelings of pity, considering what happens to him.

When the bull moves, Jones and his animators have him leave behind multiple hooves in the air to simulate quick movement. He would do the same thing with Witch Hazel later on; when she moved quickly, hairpins were left in the air.

The gag with the bull holding the rubber band in his horns as Bugs placed a boulder on the other end and lets it go was first used in Jones’ 1948 boxing cartoon, Rabbit Punch. In that cartoon, the boulder moving forward and connecting is also shown from the victim’s perspective. Over the years, Jones experimented with perspectives. In his 1946 cartoon, Hair Raising Hare, he shows Bugs inside a suit of armor atop a horse galloping quickly to the sound of a freight train at the monster, who is also in a suit of armor, waiting to waylay Bugs. The action is seen from overhead as Bugs’ lance hits the monster head-on, driving him into the wall and bouncing off as a tin can labeled “Canned Monster.” 

The cartoon follows the format of Tex Avery’s Señor Droopy (1949) which sees challenger Droopy taking on the champion matador The Wolf for the affections of actress Lina Romay. Avery’s gags, however, were a lot wilder than those of Jones. 

In turn, the opening segment of Bully For Bugs would be reused by Friz Freleng in his 1963 Speedy Gonzales cartoon, Mexican Cat Dance. Animator Ken Harris also used part of the cartoon in his 1959 Hare-Abian Nights, in which Bugs entertains the Sultan with tales from his cartoons Bully For BugsSahara Hare, and Water, Water Every Hare. And even the Pink Panther got in on the act, as Bully For Bugs was remade twice as Bully For Pink (1963) and Toro Pink (1979).

Jones’ memoir, Chuck Amuck has other anecdotes about producer Eddie Selzer. According to Jones, Selzer’s stupidity knew no bounds. He was always asking to see the script for a cartoon. The simple fact of the matter is that cartoons do not have scripts, but are laid out on storyboards. No matter how many times his directors told Eddie about this, it simply went in one ear and out the other, and he continued to ask for scripts.

Another classic Selzer story as related by Jones was the time he walked in as four or five of the staff were laughing over a storyboard. “Just what the hell has all this laughter got to do with the making of animated cartoons?” he thundered. 

Those interested in the art of animation should obtain a copy of Chuck Amuck. It’s a scintillating peek into the mind of a creative genius, who, along with Friz Freleng, Tex Avery, Robert McKimson, Bob Clampett, Frank Tashlin, Michael Maltese, Tedd Pierce and a group of superbly talented artists gave us some of the finest animation ever produced.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Kong: Skull Island

Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

Kong: Skull Island (WB, 2017) – Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Writers: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein & Derek Connolly (s/p). John Gatins (story). Stars: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, John Goodman, Corey Hawkins, John Ortiz, Tian Jing, Toby Kebbel, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Will Brittain, Miyavi, Richard Jenkins, & Eugene Cordero. Color, Rated PG-13, 118 minutes.

Despite the attractive trailers, I was still wondering why this movie had to be made. Why would the story of King Kong need a prequel? But I was not expecting to be knocked back on my heels by this film. The story was told convincingly, the cinematography was stunning and the soundtrack powerful and entertaining. The special effects crew pulled out all the stops, introducing us to brand new monsters and titanic creatures. It even gave some plot explanations that were revealing.

The film starts with a dogfight over the island in 1944 and both fighter pilots have to parachute out of their disabled planes. Hank Marlow (Brittain) and Gunpei Ikari (Miyavi) continue their battle on the beach until Hank runs out of ammunition. He runs into the jungle chased by Gunpei and stops at the edge of an impossibly high cliff. But their conflict is interrupted by two immense ape hands gripping the cliff edge and Kong’s head rising up over the ledge like a hairy sun. The two flee and the audience is taken by the camera into the pupil of one of Kong’s red eyes.

As the opening credits roll, the years advance in the background and stop at 1973. The Vietnam War is virtually over and Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Jackson) is looking at his collection of medals wondering what they were all for.

Meanwhile, Bill Randa (Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Hawkins), a noted seismologist and geologist, are trying to obtain backing from Senator Willis (Jenkins) for an expedition to an uncharted island in the Pacific Ocean called “Skull Island,” discovered by satellite imaging. The island’s name is appropriate, since it’s shaped like a grinning skull in profile. The senator is extremely reticent, knowing Randa’s track record of hunting fantastic beasts and failing. It’s not until Brooks uses the unknown species and possible cures for disease argument that Willis gives in. The last thing Randa asks for is a military escort.

Preston Packard is delighted to be back in action and he and his Sky Devils helicopter squad are enlisted to accompany the expedition (though the men thought they were going home after Vietnam).

Randa enlists expert tracker, British Special Air Service Captain James Conrad (Hiddleston) to lead the intrepid caravan and photographer Mason Weaver (Larson) to record all findings. None of the men expected Mason to be a woman though. Lastly, he recruits eminent biologist San (Jing) – remember her from The Great Wall (2016)? – and Victor Nieves (Ortiz) a Landsat employee to ensure location of the island.

And now, the interesting science fiction. Skull Island has remained uncharted by a vicious, perpetual electrical storm surrounding it which cuts out all communication devices. Everyone in the crew with a brain is wondering why the supplies include seismic bombs and ample ammunition (including napalm) and are given the explanation that they’re needed for geologic surveys. With about a dozen military helicopters on board, the ship Athena (which, in actuality didn’t sail until 2003) sails for Skull Island. 

The apocalyptic circle of storms is daunting to most on board, especially Victor Nieves, but they plow through a calmer spot on the south side. Once on the other side, and everyone gets over how beautiful the island is, the soldiers start dropping the seismic bombs. Guess who notices the commotion? Kong devastates the entire flying fleet defending his turf. The survivors, which include all the major characters, divide into two groups to hopefully make it to the north side of the island where they have plans to be picked up.

On the way they encounter various native fauna; a Kaiju, a giant buffalo rises from a lake, (an amphibious prehistoric and fantastic beast with huge forked horns), the soldiers are best by a spider with legs exactly like the bamboo forest – dubbed “Mother Long-legs.” Nieves is aerially drawn and quartered by pterodactyl-like creatures called “Leafwings" with saw blades for beaks, and Major Jack Chapman (Kebbell) sees Kong wrestle a giant squid and have his own version of calamari sushi before sitting on a giant stick insect and getting eaten by a Skullcrawler.

The civilian crew are ambushed by the Iwi natives, a fearsome tribe with spears and ferocious facial makeup. But just when they think that all is lost, Hank Marlow (Reilly) appears and sets things right, telling them the story of his stranding in 1944 and how Kong rules the island. He named the lizard-like skull-headed creatures from the depths of Skull Island Skullcrawlers and informs the group that they haven’t seen “The Big One” that killed all of Kong’s family.

At gunpoint, Randa reveals to Packard that he’s working for a secret organization called Monarch which specializes in hunting “Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms.” He’s the only survivor of the U.S.S. Lautman, attacked by Kong in the past and that’s his motivation for this mission. Packard wants revenge on Kong for killing his men and will not be dissuaded. Meanwhile, Mason and Conrad learn the truth about Kong and want to save him from Packard and his men. But all want to get off the island alive.

Lots of excitement, action, moments to startle you, gratuitous and bloody violence and good use of 3D effects are in this movie. The acting is generally believable, even though Samuel L. Jackson is a bit over the top in his vengeful zeal. John Goodman is actually trim; he’s lost a lot of weight and looks like he’s enjoying every moment. There were no slow sections even with a tense standoff toward the end. I found myself gripping the arms of my chair at least twice. Henry Jackman’s music is awesome and the selection of pop tunes mixed in the story – “Time Has Come Today” by The Chambers Brothers, “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane, “Long Cool Woman (In a Black Dress)” by The Hollies, “Bad Moon Rising” and “Run Through the Jungle” by Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Ziggy Stardust” by David Bowie, and “We’ll Meet Again” by Vera Lynn – are the original tracks and are appropriate where they are inserted. It kept my toes tapping.

The only flaw was a temporal one. I checked when the original movie was released. If King Kong was kidnapped (or rather ape-napped) in 1933 and brought to New York, where he died, how did they only discover him in 1944? Forget about 1973. Otherwise, the film was great, including the minimal interaction between the non-existent Kong and live actors. I would definitely recommend it to everyone who would not get nightmares from seeing scary creatures, especially in 3D. Forget about the time problem and stay through all the credits for the de-briefing scene with Conrad and Mason with its innuendos of Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra and King Ghidorah. In the words of Randa, “This planet doesn’t belong to us. Ancient species owned this earth long before mankind. I spent 30 years trying to prove the truth: monsters exist.”

Rating: 4½ out of 5 martini glasses.

Sushi Seki of Times Square
365 West 46th Street, New York

I thought I’d been to every restaurant on “Restaurant Row” (46th Street) but this one opened 15 months ago and, one thing for certain, nothing is as sure as change in New York dining.

Besides the food, the most important part of a restaurant is its servers. They can make or break one’s dining experience. Fortunately, I had Nini, who helped my through the menu and explained the specials as we assembled my dinner. For my cocktail I chose the Koubai – Hendricks gin, plum wine, campari, rice vinegar and sea salt, a beautiful shade of rich orange in a ball-shaped glass with a hefty twist of lemon peel and a brownish-red Chinese Bay berry suspended over the drink. The plum flavor was dominant and the juniper of the gin gradually insinuated itself into the mix and the citrus from the lemon combined with the sweetness of the campari to make it an intriguingly delicious cocktail.

Choosing a sake was not easy – the list was so long, but the sake I chose was in a category by itself on the list: Ichinokura “Taru” sake, aged in cedar barrels with a subtle cedar accent to the smooth flavor of the sake.

My first course was a favorite, Shumai (ground shrimp wrapped in delicate, tender rice flour dumplings steamed to perfection and topped with flying fish roe). They were so fragile it was a challenge to pick them up with chop sticks, but I managed and savored every bite.

The next course was a joint selection. I chose the Uni (sea urchin) sushi because it’s my favorite (and I learned later, it’s also Chef Seki’s favorite) and she chose the King Salmon Sushi topped with a slice of roasted tomato. Both were amazing. The slightly earthy Uni is the only sushi one cannot dip upside-down into the soy sauce. To do so will cause the sea urchin meat to fall out. The salmon sushi mixed with the tomato almost tasted sweet.

My soup arrived with the sushi. Akadashi (Aka=red, Dashi=bean) – red miso soup, with little cubes of tofu, strands of seaweed and Nameko mushrooms (slender-stemmed with heads the size of small peas). It had much more bean flavor than regular miso, made from mung bean curd. And, as with so many Japanese dishes, it was not heavy, almost a broth.

The main course was as stunning to look at as it was to taste. Aji Sugata-Zukuri – horse mackerel sashimi with ginger and wasabi. The sliced, shiny, silver-skinned meat glimmered on the plate next to a row of thinly sliced lemons. The main attraction was the remainder of the mackerel, whose head was positioned looking up, while the rest of its body swept over it like a ballerina’s arm ending in the tail overshadowing the head! And when I tasted the fish I was surprised at the lack of fishy flavor. It was tender enough to melt, almost sweet and very delicate. My sake tasted strong in contrast. 

When I finished the sashimi another server took the dish for its second preparation. The remaining flesh on the bones and head were crisped tempura-style and re-served looking like a star on the plate. It was indeed a stellar dish, the crunchy coating made the flesh taste similar to bacon. And though I had to remove several small bits of bone and scales.

That may sound like a lot of food, but still, I was hungry. Nini brought back the menu and made a few suggestions, but I knew what I wanted. The Spicy Tuna Roll, a California style sushi with the rice on the outside, was the right choice to fill me up. Though each piece had wasabi in the roll, after tasting one, I added more to each, making it really spicy. The red tuna meat inside was excellent, tender, but firm and flavorful.

I always leave room for dessert and Sushi Seki had one unique recipe that Nini pointed out: the White Sesame Panna Cotta, flavored with rhubarb and served with red bean paste and fresh berries (raspberry, blackberry and kiwi, in this case). It was a delicate, mousse-like pudding. The tart flavor of the rhubarb was merely a hint in the sesame goodness. Nini brought me a beautiful ceramic cup of hot green tea and the bar tender brought a bottle of plum sake flavored with apricots. I had come full circle from my rich orange cocktail to my dusty orange after dinner drink.

Sushi Seki has three locations in Manhattan. Where I dined is the flagship and there’s one in Chelsea and one on the Upper East Side. 

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

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.