Black Camel: Chuck Chan in 1931!

DATELINE: Lost Gem

actor legends

 Lugosi with Oland.

One of the first of the Warner Oland Charlie Chan movies is a beautifully restored print from 1931. It has other surprises too. It was filmed on location in Charlie Chan’s home base of Honolulu and uses the scenery to great effect. It is cryptically called The Black Camel.

Fresh off the horror of the year, Dracula, you have two cast members in fine fettle:  Dwight Frye and Bela Lugosi. They play a respective butler and a questionable psychic, all too willing to help Chan.

Lugosi and Frye were scheduled to make James Whale’s Frankenstein after this picture, but when Whale saw this, he thought Bela Lugosi would be too scary for the monster. The part went to Karloff instead.

The film does not hide some white tourist prejudice, compounded because the detective is both Chinese and a policeman. And, the cast of extras includes many Hawaiians.

The dark metaphor of the Black Camel has something to do with kneeling Death coming a-calling. It is one of many little aphorisms that Charlie Chan spouts dryly.

Instead of an irritating older son, this film features an inept young assistant to Chan. We do see Charlie’s family at a large dinner table in one scene, but the cheap sets and low budget formula would come in the next few films.

Warner Oland is masterful, as always, and it is quite a mangled English that we hear from both Oland and Lugosi in their conversations, that are quite witty and delightful.

There are a half-dozen quite credible suspects, and they are indeed all gathered in the drawing room (and dining room) for the big reveal.

This wonderful early mystery is a surprise and delight on every level.

 

 

 

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Trump’s 2020 Opponent

 DATELINE:  Checkmate, Matey!

Reaper Chess, anyone?

Much speculation now circulates on who will be the best candidate against Trump in 2020. We know the winner, hands down.

Polls seem to indicate the best person to run against Trump will be a woman. Our choice is more gender-neutral. We suggest the Grim Reaper.

You may recall that Ingmar Bergman’s Knight dealt with him in The Seventh Seal, and more recently Bill and Ted went up against him.

Of course, we know that Trump is not smart enough to beat the Grim Reaper at chess. Heavens, he probably doesn’t even know a Fischer from a Spassky. He is the quintessential rook-master, but calls it a castle.

Some suggest Michelle Obama would look good in a cowl and black robe, but we think there is another candidate from Destiny. His name is the Grim Reaper.

He seems inevitable. Considering Trump’s age and weight, the President in his mid-70s with a considerable girth may be just what the Reaper wants in his white male presidential candidates.

Not since William Howard Taft became stuck in his bathtub as the fattest president has there been someone as zaftig as Trump. Taft lost the election, not weight.

There is a fat chance that Trump will continue to eat fast food cheeseburgers for lunch and wash it down with sugary soda. If so, by 2020, our vision tells us he will be the size of overcooked Roman emperors, and just as likely for a palace coup led by the Reaper.

Trump loses to the Grim Reaper and is cut down by the scythe of life.

Windy Conditions for Orson Welles

DATELINE: Citizen Kane’s Bookend

Orson's Last

It’s disorienting to see a new movie that is 35-years old with stars long dead: John Huston, Mercedes McCambridge, Edmond O’Brien, Paul Stewart, and all the usual Orson Welles friends. He also included new discoveries in his films like Bob Random and Rich Little. Orson called it The Other Side of the Wind.

The movie is a mockumentary of a movie made on the last day of the life of a legendary film director named Jack Hannaford.

Huston is Hannaford, playing God again, or the devil to Welles as observed by Susan Strasberg (daughter of James Dean’s acting tutor Lee Strasberg) as she plays a carbon copy of film maven Pauline Kael.

As the insider look at Hollywood develops, those in the know will begin to recognize that Johnny Dale is Jimmy Dean, and that the director appears to be a combo of Nick Ray and George Stevens, the men behind the films Rebel Without a Cause and Giant.

Indeed, two of Dean’s co-stars have roles in the film: Dennis Hopper and Mercedes McCambridge. Our money is on Nick Ray—whose ambiguous sexual relationship with stars seems to be at the heart of the Welles picture. He is giving us the ultimate insider look.

Welles never used nudity in his films until this final movie: he plays to the times, psychedelic sex, which now seems dated. The film made by Johnny Dale is sandwiched within and around the life of Hannaford who dies in Dale’s Porsche Spyder, a copy of Dean’s death car.

All the usual Orson touches and themes are present: betrayal of people, rather than principle. There are no principles in Hollywood. He also has a field day ridiculing all those New Wave European directors.

Movie magic is everywhere because Welles could do so much with so little—and scenes seem seamless, even if shot with body doubles three years later.

Critics claimed he never wanted to finish the picture because it was his raison d’etre. It was also his Swan Song and his testament to Hollywood. It’s brilliant and fascinating with every step of the much-sought divine accident that Welles believed essential to film inspiration. Highly recommended.

Casey & AC at the Bat: Managers in World Series

DATELINE: Field of Dreams at Fenway Again

casey Casey, not AC?

If you were to ask, we doubt we’d have said we would return to watching the Red Sox again. Our last blog on them was several years ago, but it is the World Series in Boston, again.

If you were to ask if writing about the managers might be a possibility,we might shrug. However, we realized that two former Sox players were now in back in Boston as managers:  Yes, there was an aging star Dave Roberts, now with the Dodgers, and his counterpart Alex Cora.

Might we say there is Magic in the Moonlight at Fenway? Well, only because we saw Magic Johnson there in the stands, as an executive braintrust with the Los Angeles baseball team. Wasn’t he part of the Bird-Magic story in Boston?

No, wait, we were thinking of Moonlight Graham playing in Field of Dreams when Kevin Costner was sitting in the stands with James Earl Jones who played Terence Mann, the writer who wanted to play with these same Dodgers.

No, we were shocked to see Alex Cora, or AC as his players call him in the modern familiarity with supervisors and managers. He was running a talent-laden team that had replaced the previous manager for not winning a World Series.

When AC pulled the hot rookie Devers and replaced him with a pitch hitter named Nunez, we were more in marvel at the assortment of beards on the players. Yet, suddenly, AC became a genius before a national audience.

The last time we saw that it was someone in another era by the name of Casey Stengel. He managed the New York Yankees, another talent-laden team that kept winning. Stengel would pick a pinch-hitter out of a hat who would win the game.

Suddenly there was AC channeling Casey. How appropriate, if not poetic. AC picked the man to win the game with a homer to the Monster Seats. It was a ghost movie for baseball once again.

 

 

 

Leonardo: the Mystery of the Lost Portrait

DATELINE: More Da Vinci Uncoded

Leo Mess Portrait

An Italian production, but with American voice-overs to make it more palatable to English-speaking audiences, the latest Leonardo documentary puts a focus on a newly discovered “Lost Portrait.”

Indeed, the quest by the art historian is to put the interesting self-portrait through its paces. It looks, at first, too good to be 500 years old. Only when a restorer took off the varnish and repairs, it began to show its age: cracks and scratches over the face.

We think someone tried to scratch Da Vinci’s eyes out in a cat fight.

Experts are lined up from Salerno to Naples to Madrid, each specialist offering some different angles. Facial recognition experts try to determine if all extant self-portraits (and one portrait by a Da Vinci friend) are the same person.

This latest discovery is the Lucan Leonardo, thought for a long time to be a picture of Galileo.

Still, was the wood-based picture really done by Leonardo?

He looks about 50 and one test proved the feather in his cap was added in the 19th century: wrong kind of paint. However, the rest seemed authentic to 1500 or so.

This film features some unusual and unique techniques never done previously:  police detectives actually find thumb prints on the paint and match them to fingerprints on Leonardo’s manuscript codexes.

Forensic artists use all self-portraits to create 3-D versions of his head, and forensic handwriting experts decipher the backwards words in Latin on the obverse of the painting.

There’s something odd about the eyes, but…this one is worth your time.

Michael Caine: My Generation is Not Yours

DATELINE: Swinging 60s?

Michael Caine Only Blowing Off the Doors?

Michael Caine, one of the great film stars, and under-rated actors since the 1960s, produces and presents a documentary that gives intriguing insight into the London influence of the 1960s.

That was the time of swinging London, Carnaby Street, and the Beatles. It was also when Caine first struck pay-dirt in his movie career.

Caine knows enough to start the documentary with his famous line from the Italian Job about blowing the bloody doors off the car, famously parodied in The Trip and The Trip to Spain by Coogan and Brydon.

You will see a few TV clips of his early performances, and he tells how he chose the name Caine for his career (based on an old Humphrey Bogart movie playing nearby when he was selecting). All this early detail is marvelous.

He even notes that he was a few years older than the group of Cockney stars that rose up in music, film, photography, and fashion. But he was there.

With ingenious clips of young Caine riding up in an elevator, and the old man stepping out, you have his memories coming out: he recalls going to a trendy dance club where every Beatle and every Rolling Stone was dancing; he figured this was the place to be.

Michael Caine converses with Roger Daltrey, Donovan, Joan Collins, Twiggy, Paul McCartney, and Marianne Faithfull, about the days when they were young. He is right there for most of this, but in the final segments, when drugs and LSD take hold, he is not really a participant.

As he points out, he kept his head. It is why he is still making movies fifty years later. He was far beyond London by the late 1960s and the drug scene there. It is alien to him.

The insights are fun and enlightening in his chats with those who transcended their Cockney roots. There is also a soundtrack of great 60s music from Kinks, Beatles, Stones, and Animals.

 

 

Tripping Again with Coogan & Brydon

 DATELINE: Another Sequel, not Deja Vu

 tripping

No, you didn’t read this movie review last week here.

What more can you ask?  Beautiful scenery, lovely music, and witty conversation. Yes, those two British actors (one with 2 Oscar nominations) are back to delight us.

We have skipped the second trip to Italy for now and cut to the chase with Trip to Spain. These two marvelous performers can hit the road and still hit their marks. This is another followup to their British series, The Trip, condensed and made into a feature film. No, it’s not a mid-life crisis movie, despite what the New York Times claims.

They seem to make the films every three or four years, which is just about right. They are reality-based, as the stars play themselves, notable thespians and comedians on a journalistic journey for the New York Times as food critics, or culture commentators.

With each stop at a breathtaking locale, Steve Coogan foams at the mouth with his erudite knowledge. Heaven help you if you know more or have enough. Rob Brydon can match him every mile, and that makes them chemically compatible.

Each morsel is back-lit with some of the funniest conversations this side of reality. Coogan notes how sorry he feels for anyone who thinks this stuff is not scripted and fully ad-libbed. It’s likely a circle within a square is outlined and the two drop in their witticisms.

However, the impressions make all the difference over the meals. When they argue over who does the best Mick Jagger impression as he plays Hamlet, you have moments that will knock fans of Noel Coward into the aisle.

Coogan remains prickly, but Brydon manages to break him up several times this trip, which may not have been planned.

If Coogan reminds us of ourselves, then we have had a bittersweet lesson. Sheer delight awaits the viewer.

 

 

 

The Trip (of Light Fantastic)

DATELINE: Boon Companions

trip 2.jpeg

Gourmet Wit & Impersonations on the menu!

We don’t know how we missed this film or its sequels. We are delighted to say we have found them now: epicurean wit and breathtaking scenery.

Two minor actors for reasons unclear are assigned to sample fancy restaurants in northern England. You may well ask if there any fancy restaurants in far-off south of Scotland. You may well ask yourself why two actors would be hired as journalists, not even TV journalists.

Yet, this light fare is sweet enough and fluffy around the edges. Steve Coogan is often insufferable and hardly worthy of spending five days in a long car ride. Rob Brydon is more pleasant and funnier. We do vote that Steve’s Michael Caine impersonation is better.

They have an edgy friendship, Platonic as Steve claims, but Coogan is known for his gay-themed movies like Philomena and Ideal Home. Here, he plays himself: as a womanizing aging actor.

There are some hilarious moments in a largely improvised script. One wonders why Brydon would be willing to go along after being told that just about everyone else said, no, thanks.

After an hour with Coogan, we understand why everyone from ex-wives to children and girlfriends are loathe to go anywhere with him. Alexander Pope’s wit likely rendered him unpleasant too. Groucho’s did.

They eat delectable meals and seem to have no appreciation for the hard work that goes into their menu trivia.

They sing-along during boring rides in the countryside, and they stop off in famous literary haunts. Their witty impersonations of notable and not-so-notable British stars (Michael Caine, Sean Connery, yes; Michael Sheen, no) are lively and funny.

Ultimately, Brydon admits that Coogan was exactly what he expected during their trip, and Coogan turns down a chance to star in an American TV series about a British pathologist.

How much is reality? How much is fake? Well, they made a few sequels—and we will sign up to go along with them.

Coogan insists it is not reality at all. It is the epitome of entertainment.

 

M/M: Sexual Identity Thief

DATELINE:  Weird Sex Thriller!

m:m M/M

Drew Lint is a director whose name we will watch in the future. His effort called M/M refers to Matthew and Mattias, two trendy young gay men in Berlin. However weird, this is not your usual gay love story. It is more a story of bizarre sexual obsession and identity theft. It’s Strangers on a Train on steroids.

If Jean Cocteau were still making movies, this would be his updated Beauty of a movie. If Rene Clair were making movies, this would be his update of a Highsmith story. Drew Lint writes and directs this film that rises far above the usual fare of gay-themed movies.

Hitchcock dared to make a movie like this, without overt sex in Rope.

Dialogue is sparse throughout the film, but it is definitely international with dollops of French, English,  and German, often in minor conversation or background.

Matthew is an artist, and Mattias is a bademeister (or glorified pool boy). Mattias wants to become his near twin, and there is a Patricia Highsmith Purple Noon quality here.

Stealing your life and sexuality may be more daring than taking your purse.

Whether parts of the tale are a dream (as Mattias notes in the opening, he dreams of statues come to life), you may be left guessing. Since Matthew may be involved in computer sculptures, you have a connection.

The dream twins become more and more alike, which may be why they both are devotees of techno music. How Mattias comes to take over Matthew’s life is intriguing and almost expected from stalking.

If you are not squeamish about sexual peccadilloes, the deeper psychological by-play between the characters sexually will be part of the sophisticated puzzle of the movie.

Prepare for a roller-coaster of creepy psychological games.

 

 

Springtime for Trump

DATELINE:  Trump Sings & Dances!

springtime for trump

In the classic Ponzi comedy The Producers, the big Broadway musical number that did in the crooks was called “Springtime for Hitler”. They oversold the show, hoping it would flop and they’d walk away with tons of money. Manafort and Cohen are the new producers. They oversold Trump to the gullible public.

In Springtime for Trump, his investors (all Russian mobster types) expected him to lose—and make a big profit. Alas, he won—and the undoing of these producers is now unfolding. May they all wind up in federal prison where they can put on a show.

In Mel Brooks’ original version of The Producers, Zero Mostel was the overweight man with the appalling comb-over. In the White House today is an overweight man with an appalling comb-over. He is a bigger crook than Zero’s character.

Mostel’s producer would sleep with dozens of women to procure their investments in his musical. In Trump’s world, he pays off dozens of women with campaign funds and a crooked lawyer to guarantee his tenure in office.

The big musical number was meant to shock people: goose-stepping showgirls in formation, a la Busby Berkley, dancing in a swastika conga lines. Trump’s conga lines include words like “dog”, “lowlife”, and “rat.”

Alas, they all apply to the biggest shyster ever to sully the white White House where Nixon claimed there would never be a white wash.

After Trump is impeached, we may need to fumigate the place.

We laughed uproariously at Zero’s crook, and we fumed at Nixon’s crook. Trump’s crook is still lining up the chorus.

Cue the dancing girls: we are about to sing the refrain from Springtime for Trump.

 

Hitler’s Hollywood by Any Other Name

DATELINE: Singing in the Reich

Hitler on movie set

If  imitation is a sincere form of flattery, Hitler’s attempt to copy Hollywood movies is indeed a nasty compliment. Hitler’s Hollywood is a horrid misnomer.

During the years 1933 to 1945, there was a thriving movie business under the Nazis in Germany, run by Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister of notoriety.

Hitler loved movies—and his studios planned to give him an exact duplicate of the big boffo productions out of Hollywood.

If he couldn’t have Garbo, he had Ingrid Bergman in one movie before she cleared out of the Third Reich for Rick’s Café in Casablanca.

The Germans loved musicals with numbers more extravagant than the Busby Berkley movies. They were overlaid, however, with nasty digs at Jews at every turn in subtle fashion. Then, there were the outright anti-Semitic films.

There were about a 1000 movies made by the German state studio with their own star system: comedy, melodrama, and historic epics, but never science fiction or horror. In fact, the melodrama featured so much fantasy and nightmares to the Aryan heroes that they turned into horror pictures.

The Nazis never knew irony.

If there was a steady theme, it was the glorification of death for the Fatherland. Good Germans dying for their country was a common theme.

As the war proceeded and was undermining morale, the films started to be oriented for female audiences—and in glorious technicolor. But the wild extravagance was panic to keep the home audiences on target.

The version of the Titanic sinking was blamed on the Jewish financiers, and then was banned from showings in Germany itself by Goebbels.

The entire documentary is narrated in creepy fashion by Udo Keir—and is hypnotic, horrifying, and surprising.

Westworld 2.4: Resurrection Postponed

DATELINE:  Lost in Delos-world

Jimmi Jimmay Jimmi as William aka Black Death!

We couldn’t spoil this episode if we gave you a plot synopsis.

With most of the cast absent without leave, we faced the prospect of William’s dubious mission. Yes, Ed Harris and his younger doppleganger, Jimmi Simpson, carry the action in the fourth episode of the second season.

Now if you want to know what it all means, you may find there is no such thing as a spoiler when you are lost in a maze. For the life of us, we realize that there is some issue around immortality being examined.

We learn that the palsy that afflicts Bernard and a bunch of other hosts is some kind of cognitive deterioration because they lack brain stem fluids, or are driven mad by being a human in a robot body.

Yes, the automaton robots have a problem with immortality, or a weak script .

They learn the truth and cannot handle it.

We are more convinced that, in this Delos World, there is no such thing as Death. You can always return in a past incarnation, or in a reboot. Actors love this kind of role.

You can only speculate about what’s really going on because creator Jonathan Nolan, like the Grand Creator of the Universe, is flying by the seat of his pants.

Bernard (as limned by Jeffrey Wright) could be something more like a brain transplant into a robot body. The head man of Delos is apparently a grand experiment. It leaves us wondering why they didn’t bring back Ford (Anthony Hopkins) in the same fashion.

Indeed, we might speculate that his resurrection could be the stuff of the series climax in season two. Don’t hold us to any firm prediction while we wait for the regular cast members to return from their hiatus week.

 

 

Kinky Puss’n Boots

DATELINE:  A Really Big Shoe

 kinky boots Kinky-Dinky!

Kinky Boots may kindly be called an old-fashioned character drama. The difference is that it’s about drama queens in men’s shoes. It was later turned into a smash stage show, but the 2006 version is one of those working class British angry young man movies (except the young man dresses like a woman).

The two characters in juxtaposition are, first, the son of a shoe factory heir facing bankruptcy for making traditional footwear for men when disposable sneakers are the rage.

The second young man likes to wear high-heels and becomes a cabaret star in drag shows.

Under normal circumstance, you almost would expect the two men to slip into each other’s loafers at some point. Thank heavens, Kinky Boots keeps us in our own lanes and avoids any moments with glass slippers.

Joel Edgerton is the scion of shoemakers who learns that market niche for men’s boots with stilettos is high end. He meets Chiwetel Ejiofor in a career-busting role as Lola, the giant man in glitter. They kick up the story. Chiwetel also sings us a torrid version of “Whatever Lola Wants.”

Unfortunately, to walk a mile in one man’s shoes, or high-heels, may be a stretch too far. The movie makes its points early and often but keeps on giving us more. The climax on the runways of Milan for shoe biz is too much glitz for our own good. Hero and audience fall flat.

Lessons in what defines masculinity and manhood are made a few times too many. It’s always hard to figure out British men anyhow since, to American eyes, they all look ready to put on a feathery boa and dancing shoes.

Tom, Giselle, Boris & Natasha!

DATELINE: Met Gala Stun Guns Again

Tom, Giselle, Boris, Natasha

Yes, right after the Kentucky Derby “and they’re off—” comes the notorious Met Gala in New York where the show horses and would-be celebrities fall all over themselves on the red carpet.

Yes, on the heels of the bizarre nature of Westworld’s second season comes Evan Rachel Wood, Kim Karadasian, and Elon Musk, on the red carpet.

Our favorite had to be Tom Brady, erstwhile ageless quarterback and his wife (the billionaire), looking like refugees from 1960s Gilligan’s Island. Indeed, you had to wonder if Jonathan Nolan had produced the glitzy extravaganza as a means to publicize his TV HBO weirdo series.

You can’t tell the androids from the guests.

What Tom Brady has had to do to cause his wife to agree to let him play for two more seasons? You have only to look at his outfit as the twosome cavorted with other Barbie and Ken dolls.

Yes, Tom is wearing nail polish. You can’t see the multi-colored nail polish on his feet. And he looks like he is storing botox in his cheeks. Yet, the rash comments that he and wife look like James Bond villains is a tad off-the-mark.

Tom is not auditioning to play Dr. No, nor Goldfinger. He is acting like a friendly Russian that would charm President Donald Trump, whose hair would have fit right in on the red carpet.

Tom and Giselle came across as Boris and Natasha, those 1960s spies who gave Bullwinkle Gronk and Julian the Flying Squirrel fits.

Halloween comes early. However, we did see Patriots owner Robert Kraft and his young Baby Mama. To our shock, Kraft was NOT wearing his blue collar/white shirt. He did have de rigueur tennis shoes with his tux.

You have to love insanity with money.

 

 

Reel History: When Bette Met Mae

DATELINE:  What Becomes a Legend Most

 Bette & Mae The Reel McCoys!

Yes, a young fan at an intimate dinner party made an audio tape of a conversation with Bette Davis and Mae West when they met in November of 1973. And, now that young man has produced and directed a marvelous documentary that re-enacts that meeting with lip-synch lookalikes.

What a treat for those who love the old Hollywood legends—and it’s the actual voices of the stars, played to the hilt of re-enacting.

Their pre-dinner conversation is dotted and interrupted with annotations about their lives and celebrity that comprise a little gem that lasts over an hour.

You might expect fireworks, but Mae only plays her famous Diamond Lil for money—not for social laughs. And, Bette does her Margo Channing with an endless punch of hard drinks galore.

In some ways Davis dominates—and takes on the other two guests who came with Mae West.  But, the two legends have a love-fest as they run down the old Hollywood studio system, imitators, and worthless men in their lives.

All this is enhanced with two marvelous doppleganger actresses in the roles of Mae and Bette—looking so realistic that you feel like you really are there.

Wes Wheadon was a young friend of Bette and decided to put the chat on an old cassette tape from that long-ago night–and direct it as he recalls. Now he shares that wonderful evening with a new generation. With Victoria Mills as Mae and Karen Teliha as Bette, Sally Kellerman narrates this delicious night of stars.