Altmanesque

DATELINE: Great Director Documentary

A biographical film on the life and work of Robert Altman uses a touchstone word, “Altmanesque,” as the word asked of all his most famous stars. Their inarticulate explanations may reveal more about the paucity of their vocabulary than about the notable filmmaker in the simply titled Altman.

He began TV work on schlock like the Whirlybirds,but learned the craft.

A man who never caved in on his principles, he was fired from movies and TV shows regularly for extending the bounds: he was thrown off Combat and Bus Stop.Those episodes look tame today, but were shockers of moral depravity back in the early 1960s.

When he confounded Jack Warner by having overlapping dialogue during an argument between two actors, he was banned from the studio. He did not play by silly rules, and today those rules look so silly that we laugh about it.

Altman had tremendous loyalty too, and often worked with the same actors. He was an actors’ director more than anything else: putting their ease of delivery at the top of movie success.

His most famous movies were twists on the usual genre, like Western film, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, or fantastic Brewster McCloud. MASH put him on the box-office straight and narrow. He went up and down, always interesting, but not until 1990 and The Player did he wake up the movie world.

His Oscar was honorary for a lifetime of achievements, but his films were variable, so different that each became the favorite of different people.

 

 

 

 

 

Hey, Jude! Sherlock Holmes 1991!

DATELINE: Teenage Jude Law

When picking a random episode to view (and rev-view many years after first seeing it), we settled on Jeremy Brett’s definitive performance in Case Book of Sherlock Holmes. The episode is titled Shoshcombe Old Place.

Back then there was an attempt to film every short story faithfully. It was something they fell short of accomplishing when Brett died with about six stories left to produce.

The 1991 episode is about a stable of racehorses on an estate. Almost immediately in the opening, we were struck by a young actor, likely about 18, very pretty indeed. He wanted to be a jockey and approached the crusty middle-aged bachelor whose sister owned the estate. The horse master was cool to the young man who looked at him with more than yearning for a job.

Later, one of the caretakers went to Holmes and Watson with a distressing story of something not quite right at Shoshcombe. The sister was very ill, and strange events troubled the caretaker. Holmes chose to dig into it.

With a staccato delivery of lines that is nothing short of breathtaking and hambone, Brett manages to steal every scene he is in as he figures out the mystery.

Jude Law sealed his fame 20 years later as Dr. Watson in a series of bad movies, but here he is most amusingly in drag most of the show—and even shows some homoerotic interest in his boss. Interesting to say the least.

Our ends never know our beginnings. How fortuitous to have picked this marvelous episode for a peek.

Apt Pupil Outruns Mentor

DATELINE: Crypto Nazis in Suburbia

Bryan Singer, director of Apt Pupil,first ran into hot water, not because of the subject matter that indicated Nazi youth were living in American suburbs, but because he filmed teenage boys in the high school shower after gym class.

This 1998 film should not be forgotten for more important reasons.

High crimes differ in every culture. Singer’s point made Stephen King’s novella more horrific than the original story where the FBI could identify your garden variety mass killer with a profile. In this film version an All-American boy on a bicycle discovers the old man in his neighborhood is no innocent immigrant, but a fugitive Nazi killer from Auschwitz.

It was an era when immigrants were welcomed into the United States at the border, no matter how dubious their credentials. After all, safe haven is often de rigueur for evil-doers.

Instead of turning the reprobate into authorities, the kid wants to be tutored in the fine art of Nazi supremacy. It was a wild idea twenty years ago, but today with neo and crypto Nazi supporters all over the landscape, we might discover this budding monster wins some sympathy. How many shooters in recent years were teenagers with MAGA caps?

Performances make this essential two-character drama into something special. Ian McKellan plays an older Nazi and Brad Refro is the innocent-looking teen. The sophistication of Refro’s work makes his early death a far greater loss to acting. Each star is brilliant as we watch their subtle sexually charged father-son jamboree.

At one point, Refro as Todd buys a Nazi uniform for his pal to see him march around. McKellan dryly announces, “I see I have been promoted.”

The revelation that Refro’s youth may be worse than the Master comes at different points for some audience members. You could think that the kid is a victim of a powerful influence, but his treatment of his high school teacher Mr. French who discovers the ugly secret is far more stinging than the headlines of today’s child abuse cases.

Who can you trust in this world? Everyone uses a façade to shield their hideous criminal intentsions.

Up to the ending, McKellan’s Nazi thinks he can outsmart the American Nazi, but the freedom of choice in the United States makes for a far more dangerous brand of Fascism, as we now know from Trump’s campaign for a second term.

This is a chilling look at Nazis, homegrown and imported.

Jack Benny & Marilyn

DATELINE:  An Innocent Age

Back in 1953 for the first show of his second season, Jack Benny garnered the biggest name and biggest star of the year:  Marilyn Monroe. It was called the Jack Benny Program.

As all the set-ups in the Benny program were at the expense of Jack’s delicate ego, he took the barrage of raps and insults with his usual aplomb.

You might be ready for some outdated racial profiling when Rochester showed up: Eddie Anderson always played Jack’s valet who goes with him everywhere and calls him “Boss.” Here they go to Hawaii, and we find Jack lugging all the luggage with no Rochester.

Jack sits on the dock, ready to leave, while flower leis are given to all the departing guests for their generosity, kindness, and friendship. Alas, even a dog gets a lei, but not Jack. Finally a delicatessen owner shows up and gives him a lei of chicken livers. He is warned to be careful of the seagulls.

We learn too that Jack is carrying Rochester’s luggage because he was late for the ship.

When Benny falls asleep on deck, he dreams about the star he saw that night in a ship’s nightly movie: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes megastar, Marilyn Monroe.   And, in one of her designer gowns, she drops into the barcalounger recliner next to Jack in his dreams.

She professes her love for him despite their age difference. She points out she is 25 and he is 39, but in 25 years she will be 50, and he will still be 39. She is enchanted by his big blue eyes.

It was Monroe’s first TV appearance as a guest star (we don’t count her TV commercials, satirized in All About Eve).  She is lovely and charming, and so is Jack.

You simply don’t have that kind of weekly series surprise, even with cable nowadays. It was a gentle treat of a bygone era, and a lovely little escape from today.

 

 Fright Night Revisited

DATELINE:  Vampire Classic from ’80s

Sarandon & Jeffreys

Has it really been 35 years since Fright Night rejuvenated modern vampires?

It was Tom Holland who wrote and directed it, looking like a B-movie for TV show of the week, apart from the nudity now and then. By today’s cable movie standards, this is rough, however still holds up as entertainment with a modern twist.

Two points of amusement remain unflappable: Roddy MacDowell and Stephen Jeffreys. They survive in name for sheer wacky performances. MacDowell plays an aging movie star who used to play vampire hunters in his heyday, and Jeffreys plays a teenage Jack Nicholson on uppers. He later reneged Hollywood to do gay adult films for a while, though that is now denied with a half-baked story that it was his evil twin brother.

The vampire is demure and stately Chris Sarandon, looking like he wandered into the wrong California suburb. Yes, the vampire has taken a house in a Leave It to Beaverpart of town where you can peer into the next-door windows. It seems like he’s asking for teenage trouble.

Stephen Jeffreys steals the big scenes: he becomes clearly the gay victim of Sarandon’s vampire. His two delicious scenes are with Roddy as they battle.

For MacDowell with his hair fake-frosted, this was a last grand role, and he makes the most of it. Director Holland was lucky to have the veteran star in his movie.

There is no scrimping on special effects at the finish, and you have a sunny California vampire tale.

The film was originally set to star Vincent Price, not McDowall, and Anthony Michael Hall, not Jeffreys. And, we still haven’t figured out what Sarandon’s boyfriend is supposed to be.

In the whatever happened mode, William Ragsdale is the star juvenile lead. He’s cookie-cutter good enough. Yet, he is thrown up against two scene-stealing actors who rob him of the movie. The film is considered a classic nowadays.

Endeavour’s Seventh: Crime Goes On!

DATELINE: Night at the Opera

 Shaun Evans, not Groucho.

To kick off the seventh season of egghead murder mystery, Endeavour once again turns to star hotshot, Shaun Evans, to direct the first episode of Endeavour.

He is even better the second time around: with aplomb when it comes to set-ups, color, and the new modern police office settings. He seems to have wasted time filming in Venice for a few scenes that could have been faked without much notice in a studio. Producers even created an opera for the clueless.

The series has grown darker, starting with Endeavour’s heavy narrative opening about the comedy and tragedy he is about to face. Even his boss, Thursday, is now fed up with grisly killings and his humor is turning sour while Morse goes on vacation to Venice.

The episode is over-wroughtly titled “Oracle” when “Psychic” would have done well.

It’s 1970 now, and a waitress at the New Year’s bash is killed walking home from work. It is the heavy-handed start of women’s equal rights—and it is played historically nasty. Most men of the era saw it as a fad and did not take it seriously. If you use this show as history, you see something far more sinister.

Crime goes on, even at Oxford’s new fangled psychic research center where remote viewing experiments are in their infancy.

The red herrings, as usual, pile up in this show, which now have caught Roger Allam’s Thursday short-tempered.

Endeavour (Evans) remains the kiss of death, or so we suspect, as he succumbs to an operatic affair in Venice that is over before vacation ends.

There are a few intrigues that may trip you up: an old former classmate, a millionaire bon vivant seems gay and has an interest in Endeavour, and who could blame him? However, it is the petty jealousy of fellow detective Jim Strange (Sean Rigby) that is most amusing.

Psychic research is given a once-over effectively here and respectfully. If you don’t have it, you can’t fake it—and the ending is going to be a surprise for most.

The series is now in serial form, not self-contained mystery. The three-parts will meld into one.

 

 

 

 

 

Maugham: Rain in the Face

DATELINE: Somerset

Willie Maugham was one of the most successful of writers in the 20thcentury. He wrote one short story, “Rain,” that made him over one million dollars in the 1920s. You could say he was the rich man’s Truman Capote.

A short documentary gathers together some rare photos and film clips of his high-living. It’s called Revealing Mr. Maugham. But it is mostly apologetic for his transgressions and motive to write for money.

Maugham suffered from a stammer that made him less media attractive—but like Capote, he wrote about the gossip he heard, transforming the mud in novels. He was no great writer, like many contemporaries (James Joyce, Virginia Woolf or even Noel Coward) but he made big bucks and commanded movie versions (The Razor’s Edge).

Being secretly gay, he never played out or up his personality like Capote. Yet, he was notorious in his world travels to seek gay pleasure spots around the world. His “secretary” was actually his lover and procurer.

Maugham learned about human nature at medical school where he studied with Dr. Bell, the model for Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. And, his understanding of sexuality was scientific and ahead of its time.

He was scarred by his brother Harry’s suicide over a homosexual scandal—and it may have sent Maugham into the closet for the rest of his life.

His companion Gerald Haxton helped him create Cap Ferrat, the idyllic “Fairyland,” that Edna St. Vincent Millay declared one visit. Her insight is not in the film. Nor does the film tell us of the monkey gland injections to maintain his masculine vigor in old age to host boys, boys, boys.

The documentary tries hard to give Maugham literary chops, but he was interested only in fame and money, whether as a playwright or as a story writer. Yes, he wrote spy stories before LeCarre and Greene, and he was an actual spy for the British government.

Yet, he became in senility a rather unpleasant, vindictive and manipulated old fool of his new “secretary,” who managed to steal everything through poisoning Maugham’s old mind.

The documentary shows how one can outlive his own standards.

Farewell, Marie Antoinette

DATELINE: Odd Sex Life of a Queen

Off with her reader’s head.

If you rely on the trailer for Farewell, My Queen,a French historical drama about the week the Bastille was attacked and started the French Revolution, you will think you are looking at some kind of Lesbian revisionist history.

Before rolling your eyes, you should give this film a view.

Of course, some believe the real Marie Antoinette was bisexual, and others think she was accused of this in an effort to try to denigrate her character. It was, after all, considered a moral leprosy to be gay a hundred years ago.

In fact, if you stick around for this film, you will be hooked into an intriguing study of the people who worked at Versailles, the underlings and minor functionaries, who received word their lives and livelihood were now in jeopardy with a list of beheadings of those associated with the monarchs.

By staying outside the riots and beheadings, this drama shows how people in the court were horrified and terrified of their own fates. Those who worked in person with Marie Antoinette are the truly endangered. One such girl is her librarian reader, a plain-looking young girl who finds herself devoted to the Queen to her ever-lasting detriment.

The depiction of a strata not usually seen is fascinating, but shows too how deadly it could be merely to be a servant of the King and Queen. Marie Antoinette’s haughty love interest is a woman of great beauty—and the ultimate order of the Queen to her reader is to be bait to help the royal mistress escape France.

You may find yourself riveted to mad decisions of Louis and Marie Antoinette to endanger themselves by refusing to flee when they had the chance. Others desert Versailles, and some commit suicide rather than be sent to sure death by the mobs. If you are intrigued by side stories of history, this film will be fully satisfying. In subtitles that caused us to miss the Austrian accent on the French-speaking Queen (Diane Kruger).

 Go West, Young Voter!

DATELINE: IQ Not a Barrier!

 

If you did not already believe that any idiot can become president of the United States, Kanye West is the example to prove the point.

His campaign motto shall be, “Go West, or Go to Hell,” and voters of an ilk will likely respond. He doesn’t need the senior vote, and has no intention of putting the Pointer Sisters into his cabinet.

Yes, this musical maven has announced he is fit and ready to be your next president. Despite being a Trump lackey, he has found the limelight too much to his liking.

He first big donor has lined up: another half-wit billionaire by the name of Elon Musk. He’s the guy ready to send you to Mars with no return ticket. And now, Mark Cuban who famously was called out by his player, Kevin Durant, with the words, “Cuban is a idiot.”

Spaceshots are already clamoring to be president of Mars. No mail-in ballots will be allowed on Phobos.

It’s now clear who has been abducted by space aliens and who is the pilot of your local UFO. Kanye will hold his convention and nomination rally at Area 51 where long runways and reverse engineers are preparing his Oval Office décor.

To balance the ticket, Kanye needs to find the right Veep and Justin Bieber may be a tad young, but he won’t be in line to succeed for eight years. Justin Timberlake is too far left. Taylor Swift has turned him down.

Kayne West already will tell you his black life matters more than others: he makes big money and has a famous wife. Kim Kardashian may not be Jackie Kennedy Onassis, but she certainly will give her best imitation. Jay-Z is set to be campaign manager. And Drake has promised to bring in the LGBT vote.

By the way, the Federal Election Commission is investigating Kanye for false filing information. The joke will be over soon enough.

 

 

  Mae West: Dirty Blonde

DATELINE: Way Ahead of the Curve!

 Mae in Lion’s Mouth!

When PBS Masters finally recognizes Mae 100 years after her astounding Broadway run, you know she is still years ahead of the rest of society. How did this woman whose first plays were called “garbage,” or “lewd” or worse, manage to transcend Sexand The Dragto become a sotto vocecomic?

She was hardly a dirty blonde, but she was stunning to behold.

Her first play about a sex worker resulted in a week-long jail sentence that became the best publicity stunt New Yorkers ever saw. Her second play, she scoured the drag queen bars of the 1920s to find 60 gay men and women to do her ground-breaking shocker about homosexuality!

It took her thinking about why few women attended her plays (she wrote, directed, and starred). So, she came up with Diamond Lil, in hour-glass dresses, fancy lingerie, and big hats: add a few off-hand jokes, and she was Mae West forever.

You could say she saved Paramount Studios with her astute performances: she was in charge of everything and made $1 more than the highest paid executive. She insisted on black performers with billing in her movies, and she gave Duke Ellington his first Hollywood exposure!

Mae hated negativity—and she liked to be in control. Slowly she evolved into a real version of her creative version. She was forty and overweight when she made her first movie, and she was run out of Hollywood by censors. By the 1950s, she was considered a man in drag herself–and she was ripe for parody everywhere.

In the 1970s in her 80s, she made a comeback as a sex symbol, a shocking parody that was hilarious inSextette  and Myra Breckinridge. With her half-baked singing, shimmy, and snide overcurrent delivery, she was a striking original.

 

 

 

 Not Birds of a Feather: Birders

 DATELINE: Central Park 

 Cooper, Starr with director Kimball.

 

If you want to escape viruses and racial problems, you may go to Central Park in New York City where over 200 varieties of birds come to spend time each year. The film is from 2012 and is called Birders: the Central Park Effect..

Seasonal birders are bird-watchers who come in spring or fall to see the most friendly and unusual birds ever to congregate in a small urban space.

One of the most charming of people in this documentary is Chris Cooper, a gay African American man who calls the art of birders “a treasure hunt,” and explains he disappears for a month of delightful fun every spring. He compares birding to stamp collecting.

You may recall the incident (not in the movie) about the white woman (clearly a racist who could never apologize with a name, only calling her victim “that man”) who called police on Cooper who complained her dog was not on a leash and was frightening the birds. Her attack on Cooper went viral.

That shows how even birdwatching has become dangerous in our racially charged world lately.

What a shame about the racist attack on Cooper, but it draws attention to how real the problem is—even when we try to escape the horrors of our society lately.

Cooper is articulate, intelligent, and a marvelous birder to introduce the artful hobby that entails The Central Park Effect on birds.

Other birders in the film include an old woman named Starr Saphir who charged a few dollars to lead people on watching tours. She usually finds a dozen birds, identify them, and give their history. She kept records for each year for decades before her passing in 2013.

Another character in the story compares birders to those seeking movie stars. The stars are not pigeons or geese, but rare birds you may know from books and pictures. To see one in person is like meeting a movie star, according to Jonathan Franzen.

The film now resonates in ways never intended, but it remains a delightful study of human nature in natural setting. If there is bad news, the number of birds is declining everywhere.

 

Prince of Cool: Chesney Baker!

DATELINE: 1954 Buddy

 Chet as Challenger.

Was he really the first jazz musician in the early 1950s with a gay following? In a world of macho and homophobic jazz fans, Chet was often was dismissed as “faggy,” and singing like a girl. His style was decidedly feminine, often impossible to tell whether it is a boy or a girl’s voice. Think of Astrud Gilberto or Stan Getz.

He chose to sing a few ditties, that cemented the belief. His “My Buddy,” is shockingly gay for 1954.  And, his other plaintive tunes, like “Just Friends,” seem to sum up a gay world experience in the closet days of yore. He was always with beautiful women and a dog, as if to throw the bloodhounds off scent.

You half expect him to sing out about the love that dare not speak its name. And, then he bookends his melancholy sound with an amazing trumpet rendition that is subtle and delicate.

Gay historians may have missed him simply for not looking in the unexpected world of jazz by the Prince of Cool, as he was known to the aficionados of the day. He speaks convincingly, “How could you know what love is?” It almost seems a finger-poke to the straight eye.

“Miss your voice, the touch of your hand

Just long to know that you understand

My buddy, my buddy, your buddy misses you.”

Bruce Weber did a lionizing documentary on Chesney, Let’s Get Lost, which has been called homoerotic, rather knowingly. If you want a copy on DVD or tape, you will pay through the trumpet, unless you can play a Euro version on your recorder.

He was beautiful in his youth—and the camera loved him. By the end, the drugs and careless living took a hideous toll on his face. His talent remained, like a granite pyramid.

Chet Baker was hardly gay, in any open way, but was a sexually charged creature.

When Chet blew off a movie role as a trumpeter, Robert Wagner replaced him in  All The Fine Young Cannibals.

Weber’s biographical docurama contains the last haunting images of Chet before he either jumped off a hotel roof in Amsterdam, or was thrown off by drug dealers to whom he owed money.

The movie is stunning in its black and white sharpness: Chet Baker was James Dean, Louis Armstrong, and Picasso, all rolled into a trumpet.

Anatomy of a Male Ballet Dancer

DATELINE: Not in the Movie!

  Gomes has an ‘S”for scandal.

Despite the salacious title, you will see the male ballet dancer, but not much of his on-stage anatomy. And, you will not hear about the sex charges made against him.

Marcelo Gomes is one of the foremost contemporary dancers, and he does allow an inside look at his life, but you will not be going into his most private life.

His name is pronounced or mispronounced all too often: he is Marshelo Gomess, not like the Marchello Gomez.

He professes a hope to fall in love one day (on the backside of his career as a dancer in his 30s, we may think time is running out.

By all accounts he is the most proficient, modest, technically correct dancer of the age. Ballerinas love that he only performs to make them look better.

Marcelo has all the problems you might expect: he was an oddity, the only boy in ballet school growing up. He was clearly talented from the get-go. He is a genius in his work, and in his personality. He grew up in Brazil and never spoke English until he was 17. He sounds like he was born in Poughkeepsie.

His father and he are alienated, though they meet pleasantly in the film. However, the elder will not attend any performances, and the reason is not explored.

He studied in Paris and picked up French instantly. His great problem nowadays is injury. When he dances at St. Petersburg, he is overwhelmed to see Nijinsky’s rose petal costume from Spectre de la Rose,but he hears a bone crack when he dances Giselle.

He knows that his career is on its last legs, and he is already preparing to become a choreographer in his post-dance days.

As a personable and most untemperamental man, he came out on magazine covers, still shocking to many even today. He has a pet dachshund, and there is no boyfriend to be seen in this film. If you think you have a chance with him, this is your time for a pas de deux.

Apart from the creepy title, we thoroughly enjoyed this marvel of the modern dance world—and the film too. Alas, shortly after the film’s release, Gomes was accused of sexual harassment and resigned from the ABT. Nothing in the film indicates this issue.

Morgan: Seat Yourself

DATELINE: Paraplegic Love Story

Perhaps the weakest part of this low-budget character study is its bland title that gives no quarter to the subject: a paraplegic young gay man who decides he will race in a wheelchair, damn the consequences. The film is titled Morgan, like a dozen other stories and does not help to distinguish it.

Leo Minaya is effectively cute and a good actor who holds the center stage on the story and its difficulty in playing someone bound to a chair. Second, the story has a gay love story angle, but it is refreshing in not overwhelming us with gay sex, which is always a central part of these kind of stories.

The protagonist’s handicap status would be a game-killer in most tales.

Oh, somewhere in the middle we have the obligatory love scene, but the real conflicts are about a stubborn athletic competitor who is given life’s bum rush. He resents it and begins to ruin the remains of his life through his anger and obsessions.

When he announces he wants what he deserves out of life, his boyfriend tells him, “Maybe you already got it.”

The cast is small and rather humble in their roles (a black woman best friend, a doting and kindly mother, an officious doctor to remind him he can no longer have ejaculations).

The gay component takes a backseat to the sad reality of a small-time life that requires big-time adjustments.

Perhaps unrealistic on some levels, like finding true love that has staying power, the film chooses to be ultimately optimistic and illustrating that one can adjust to adversity.

Director and writer Michael Akers has presented a vision that deserves to be seen. Leo Minaya truly dominates the film and is exactly what you want in his performance.

 

 

 

 

Crossing Rachmaninoff with Villani

DATELINE: Grand Music

Flavio in concert.

Some disparaging commenters have called Flavio Villani a mediocre talent who is the subject of a documentary on his effort to play Rachmaninoff’s Second Concerto with a symphony orchestra.

It takes a snide and cowardly person to label Villani anything but brave and courageous to make such an effort. To tackle that difficult and breathtaking piece of music in a concert is like throwing a touchdown pass at the Super Bowl.

And, the sports metaphor certainly applies to Villani who came late to music—but found himself challenged and gripped by becoming a pianist of classical order. He left his native Italy and went to study in New Zealand at age 26.

His efforts are documented in this little film that shows him walking on the beach, admiring nature, cooking, and living a normal middle-class life while he ruminates on the power of Rachmaninoff’s intimidating piano composition.

We see him practice alone, practice with a second piano, and prepare for this first attempt to play with a symphony. It is daunting, and he is committed. A gay man, alienated by both classical music and his personal life, he is a man in exile in New Zealand. He returns home triumphantly, reconciling with his family before the big concert.

We see and hear snippets of the First Movement and almost the entire Third Movement on the big night. Whether he made a single mistake or several, we might never know, so complex is the concerto. The music is staggering, dramatic, and ultimately a melodious work of genius. He acquits himself admirably.

If you have never heard this concerto, you have missed one of the great experiences of life.

If someone without as much passion and heart want to knock his efforts, they reflect on their own base misunderstanding of the human condition.

This little story of one person’s integrity and decency is a beacon in the dark world of today’s inhumanity.