Cassandra Crossing the Rubicon

DATELINE: Old-Fashioned All-Star Thriller

Cassandra

Wow: Ava with Sheen, Loren, and Harris!

You might not believe what you are seeing with this old chestnut of a disaster thriller movie. Back in the day when Towering Infernos were all the rage, some producers came up a loony disaster thriller called The Cassandra Crossing.

A biotech terrorism movie from 1977 features one of those staggering all-star casts and a plot right out of kitsch horror. This time the bad guys are dressed in hazmat suits and are sending a train one-way to oblivion.

It seems terrorists have somehow escaped to one of Europe’s luxury train—and carrying some virus (before computer troubles usurped the idea) that condemns the 1000 passengers to sure death by plague, unless the United States can kill them all by another means to save the world from a pandemic.

The US government will not let anyone off the train. They have decided to send it to a condemned bridge in Poland where it will crash, collapse, and kill everyone.

The killer cast alone is eye-popping:  Sophia Loren is lovingly filmed as only the wife of the movie’s producer could insist (Carlo Ponti joined up with Sir Lew Grade).  Then, you have aging Ava Gardner and her boytoy lover Martin Sheen. Richard Harris is some kind of celebrity doctor, and O.J. Simpson is wearing a priest’s collar and carrying a gun.

To top it off, Burt Lancaster is back at International Health headquarters with John Philip Law and Dr. Ingrid Thulin, to round out the international cast. Oh, don’t forget that Lionel Stander is the train’s conductor.

When the men in hazmat suits take over, they board up the train and send it to Poland, sending shivers down the post-traumatic syndrome of Lee Strasberg as an old Jewish man who starts to relive his trip to a concentration camp.

The film is a bit intriguing as we wait to see Ava and OJ do a scene together or watch Martin Sheen take a knife away from OJ Simpson and let him kill people with automatic weapons.

The real star of the movie seems to be Ava Gardner’s basset hound who is airlifted off the train to be studied for bacterial viral symptoms. This nut-cake movie has to be seen through to its disaster climax at a bridge too far into Poland.

You may hoot too long and too often.

 

 

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What Red Sox Teammate Stalked Moe Berg?

DATELINE: Cold Spy

Real Moe Berg Real Moe!

Being of a certain generation, we have been asked about some of the accuracy of the movie The Catcher was a Spy.

Paul Rudd plays Moe Berg, an enigmatic athlete who finished his career with the Boston Red Sox in 1939.  Pushing 40, he was pushed out of the locker room to make room for more rookies. And, the Sox had a few.

In the film, one rookie looks in the locker room with suspicion at Berg and notes his reservation about sharing a shower stall with a man with unclear sexual tendencies. Another veteran player (Lefty Grove?) tells him to keep it to himself.

Yet, this player seems to stalk Berg and follow him to some clandestine gay bar of 1939 in Boston. When he comes out (and we do not see what happens in this odd locale), he knows he is being followed—and confronts the young rookie.

He slugs him several times. The player is identified as the fictional Bill Dalton. No one by that name was on the Sox roster.

So, who was the offending rookie stalker?

The Red Sox had several notable rookies in that season with Berg:  Ted Williams was the most famous (also known as the Garbo of the Dugout for his reclusiveness) and Bobby Doerr, one of Ted’s close friends, and Johnny Pesky, all future Hall of Famers.

Was it one of them who had a confrontation with Moe Berg?

You will be hard-pressed to find out something that was kept in the shadows by all concerned. Berg would never talk, and neither would Ted Williams. Berg reportedly offered Ted advice and insights on the greats he played with (and he told Ted he was most like Shoeless Joe Jackson of Field of Dreams).

If the incident is true, and we have no doubt about its veracity, you can now play To Tell the Truth.  Alas, the real stalker will not stand up years after all have passed.

We put our money on Teddy Ballgame. The other two were amiable sorts and often thought to be mediators and peace-makers.

Spy, Catcher, Red Sox Journeyman

DATELINE:  Moe Berg

Rudd:Berg at Fenway Rudd/Berg at Fenway!

Move over, Mookie Betts: another Red Sox player is sharing the spotlight this year.

The Catcher was a Spy is the true story of the mysterious Boston Red Sox player who joined the OSS (early CIA) and was given an assignment to assassinate a Nazi scientist when he visited Switzerland.

Once again, Paul Rudd answers the call to the bullpen, and he manages to play Moe Berg, a Jewish American athlete. He is beginning, however, to look a little frayed around the edges.

If you grew up in Boston with baseball fans of your grandfather’s generation, the legend of Moe Berg was well-known. Now, it is available for all to see.

Berg was a secretive man by nature. Indeed, the first 15 minutes of the movie intimates he was gay and a closet figure of the 1930s. The movie must give us an R rating with a sex scene with his girlfriend after all that.

Moe was a .235 career hitter (though he says .245 later in the movie). He goes to Japan before the war with Babe Ruth’s all-stars to play exhibition games—and already is doing spy work on his own.

No one is able to slip under his radar. A stellar cast tries, including Jeff Daniels as his superior at OSS, Guy Pearce as his military associate, and Paul Giamatti as a scientist on the mission.

Berg spoke 12 languages fluently, went to Princeton and studied at the Sorbonne. No one they called him the Professor among his high-school drop-out teammates. Later, Dom DiMaggio played for the Sox and was also called the “Little Professor,” after Berg.

The scenes at Fenway Park in 1940 are quite accurate, and the film gives us a convincing world of 1940s in turmoil. It is not a great film, but certainly a worthy effort of the true story of the heroes of World War II, though Berg refused any commendations after the war.

He stayed reclusive to the end, and in character.

Five, Actually Six, but Who’s Counting?

DATELINE: First Post-Apocalyptic Nuclear Movie

real star of Five Wright’s Eaglefeather

The 1951 unknown classic by Arch Oboler is called Five, about five survivors of a nuclear holocaust. It was way ahead of its time, but lost count somewhere in the post-apocalyptic shuffle. There are actually six survivors, including a black man, a baby, and a crypto-Nazi.

Director Arch Oboler was a radio writer and producer who went into movies. He was thought to be the poor man’s Orson Welles, and his movie productions were sporadic.

He used his Malibu estate to film the 1951 movie about a handful of people who come together to figure out what happened to the world. They actually surmise that it is genetic that they are immune to radiation, like those who were immune to the Black Death.

Director Oboler was a bit of a character, temperamental and an auteur who did what he wanted. His list of films is intriguing, but the real star of this low-budget film is Frank Lloyd Wright.

Yes, you got that Wright. Oboler had FLW build a mountain top aerie called Cliff House on his estate in 1941. Well, actually, they fought about it—and Eaglefeather became a truncated Wright home. Oboler filmed it from the backside to make it look smaller and more rustic.

The characters note that a rich man’s house is further down the Malibu coast: take that, Frank Lloyd Wright.

As you might expect, the film features Oboler’s particular political perspective. The villain of sorts climbed Mount Everest as a point of monumental ego, and the hero is a graduate of Harvard who specialized in literature. William Phipps has a recognizable face.

Susan Douglas is the innocent girl who goes back to the neutron bomb city to find her husband. She too is remarkable. But, the film has the feel of an early Twilight Zone episode. And, not surprisingly, Rod Serling loved Oboler’s films and used them for inspiration.

Called science fiction, the film is a character drama and low key with its racial angle and Transcendental approach. Fascinating movie.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdum-dum

DATELINE: Another Pratt-Fall

New Rock Rock Hudson Redux?

Every generation has its own Ice Station Zebra, and this one belongs to the latest rip-off of Jurassic Park/World. This movie seems to be produced by Carl Denham while looking for Numb-Skull Island and the Eighth Wonder of the World.

That’s not to say it is watchable. It is execrable, but the cast is stellar: Chris Pratt returns as the action hero with the deft sense of comedy timing. He reminds us of Rock Hudson, the last of a classic type, though we doubt that Pratt will appreciate the comparison.

This special-effects bonanza is overwrought with silly dinosaurs—and sillier characters. Nevertheless, we must note that James Cromwell, Toby Jones, BD Wong, Geraldine Chaplin, as well as Jeff Goldblum lend their presence in throwaway roles that must have paid well. An actress named Price Dallas Howard or something like that plays Supergirl in a revisionist twirl.

Sam Neill turned them down, money be damned.

The plot features non-stop coincidence that defies logic but moves so quickly that you are on to the next improbable moment. Pratt is not George Reeves or Christopher Reeve, but he resembles Superman, even outrunning a pyroplastic flow down the mountainside.

Among his talents, Pratt is again the dinosaur whisperer—and the reptilian characters are tied to him like elephants to Tarzan. They bonded way back when.

If we gleaned anything, it is that the genetically recreated monsters are being left to die in a Darwinian economic move that resembles Mathusian Trump commerce. The government won’t spend a cent to save them, and once again we are at the mercy of billionaires who throw money away like an Elon Musk or Tom Steyer.

We don’t buy it. Let the buyer beware.

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.

They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead!

DATELINE: New Orson Welles Documentary

 3 amigos Three Amigos, More or Less!

If Orson Welles spoke this epitaph, then he was prescient. However, when Peter Bogdanovich reports this at the documentary’s start, his long-time girlfriend Oja Kodar refutes it. They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead is so on target. Alan Cumming narrates among the powerful voices.

Who knows? It is a juicy start to the recent Netflix restoration and premiere of Orson’s last film:  The Other Side of the Wind.

Since the final masterpiece of the Master is a mockumentary, years ahead of its time, it seems only fair that this documentary on the making of the film over 15 years is different than most.

You may be surprised at how many illustrious people, now aged, are still with us with fond and not-so-fond memories of Welles, who was bossy and a tyrant as well as an auteur genius.

He shot what he pictured in his mind. His philosophy in the end was one of “divine accidents” during filming as sources of inspiration that makes a monumental motion picture.

Welles suffered for his art. Money was the bugaboo and taking it from the Shah of Iran’s brother-in-law was a desperately bad move. He lost all control of the movie when the country went Islamic extremist. And, the French courts also tried to keep him from the one movie that kept him alive and creative.

Is it autobiographical? Perhaps, but Welles cast his friend director John Huston as Jack Hannaford—who could be John Ford or Ernest Hemingway or even Welles himself. It could be Huston was playing Huston. It is likely another famous director of their era: Nick Ray.

Scenes were filmed in fragments, often years between takes. Yet, it flows like some insane chorus of dissonant singers.

Netflix produced the documentary and has completed the last film of Welles (reviewed separately). If you need your appetite whet, this documentary will prime your pump.

 

 

 

 

 

Valentino’s The Black Eagle

 DATELINE: Surprisingly Fun Silent

 Valentino Yes, Valentino!

You may well think that we’ve lost what’s left of our wits when we chose to watch a silent movie that is not The Artist of a few years back.

No, we picked one of the lesser well-known works of Rudolph Valentino: it’s called The Eagle, based on an old Russian novel by Pushkin. For those unfamiliar with Russian classics, it’s a Robin Hood tale about a wayward young officer who runs afoul of Czarina Catherine when he rebuffs her advances.

Taking to the hills, the young man becomes an outlaw bent on vengeance for loss of his family estate. It all becomes complicated when he falls for the beautiful daughter of his enemy. All this is done with aplomb and humor, sumptuous sets and delightful underplaying.

Valentino does not dance a tango here, but a minuet. And, the director is one of the greats of Hollywood, Clarence Brown who is best known for The Yearling, twenty years later. He was an actors’ director, especially good with child stars.

Brown could always coax great performances, and Valentino is a surprise with a comedic touch. The ridiculous legend does not do him justice. And, Vilma Banky is the swanky belle with the odd name. She too is perfection. Minor roles, like the Czarina and the chaperone of Vilma, are older women with deft touches in their acting.

A silent of this kind of movie might have failed had we heard Valentino’s accent and voice, but what a shame that we never had the chance.

If a silent film comes your way, this may be the one to sample.

 

 

 

 

Dominic Dunne: Party On

DATELINE: Murder Will Out Gossip

 DD Character Assassin’s Best Friend

His friends always called him Nic, not Dom. And, he was the biggest social climber in Hollywood for a time, and then he was the biggest crime writer in America.

Dominic Dunne: After the Party is an Australian documentary from ten years ago that is making its waves now on streaming video.

Dunne fully cooperated, and he shows no mercy to himself and his youthful flaws. His son, actor Griffin Dunne is first to join the chorus of critical bric-a-bracs.

Not truly a journalist, he was not even a writer until age 50 when he started writing novels about social climbing society types, like the Two Mrs. Glenvilles. Only later, after his daughter’s murder in Hollywood, does he change his metier and go after the bad guys: the rich and pampered who think they were above the law.

Among his famous cases: O.J., the Menendez Brothers, and Phil Spector. He is merciless about their guilt and their unpleasantness. He makes big-time enemies, like Robert Kennedy, Jr.

He knew them all in the 1950s, joining in some monumental parties with names that are unforgettable. Then, he produced a bunch of movies, like gay groundbreaker Boys in the Band and plastic surgery breaker Ash Wednesday with Elizabeth Taylor.

He was married to an heiress for a time, but he never admits much beyond this as his sexploits are concerned. Only in later years, he admits he is celibate and carefree.

Like many social butterflies, he seemed to miss the point that these fests with big names were hollow and as much for their name-dropping as anything else. He is still not above or below the idea of dropping names or embellishing his luxuries. His son disdains this quality, but he is right about his father.

A compelling picture of a Hollywood groupie who found a passport to the inner world, this documentary is gossip on a high-level, high-octane whirlwind.

 

 

 

 

 

Geriatric Death Wish

DATELINE: Don’t Call Him Dirty Harry!

what's it all about, Alfie?  Dirty Alfie?

When you take a premise to the British producers, you will have something better than the original American version.

So, when someone floated the idea of a British vigilante going after bad guys that the police cannot catch, you end up with Harry Brown, outdoing Charles Bronson or Bruce Willis in Death Wish.

This thriller is about an octogenarian who takes on teenage hoodlums single-handedly. Now, there are a raft of British movie stars who could come out of retirement to play such a role (Sean Connery, Albert Finney, Tom Courtney, etc.). However, this one is delightful because the man of the gun is a version of Dirty Harry, Michael Caine.

As far as the teenage bad guys, they seem motiveless and simply evil for their own pleasure, which could likely be true enough.

Michael Caine is driven to draw on his heroic soldier roots from Belfast’s conflicts. He notes that the enemy in that British conflict actually stood for something they believed in. These drug-infested youth are just nasty for their own sake.

You throw in some highly inept British police that are typified by Emily Mortimer as an all-business detective, and you have the need for an aging hero to try to chase kids down the mean streets.

Caine’s righteous anger simmers and you believe this retired gentleman can draw upon something from his past when he goes rogue. We need to see a tough guy without mercy who is 80.

Obviously, the world of movies and the old stars still has a draw—and the aging boomer generation still loves its Alfie and 60s spy. We know what it’s all about: showing that age has not slowed down heroic feelings.

The Gardener: Northwest of Eden

DATELINE:  Exquisite Nature Manipulated?

moon bridge Moon Bridge!

Should this exquisite documentary be called The Garden? No, it is named for the man who single-handedly created 20 acres of pure beauty. It’s The Gardener.

Frank Cabot is not your garden variety gardener. His family owned miles of land in Quebec going back to the 1840s. He is a patrician horticulturalist, but he designed his gardens methodically as a labor of love.

He also had the resources and independent wealth to fulfill his creative impulses to build on his mother’s estate. He wanted something with magic, mystery, passion, and surprise.

When you visit his garden, you will be stunned. The private estate is open several weekends each summer for small public tours. No group meets another. Frank Cabot believed the best wanderers in his garden went silently and in a solitary state

His book of the 1990s inspired the film entitled The Gardener.

You will hear his last interview as he explained why he made paths that led to other motifs in his horticultural symphony or sonnet. Having spent time in Japan during World War II, he made several expensive replicas of tea rooms, with staircase waterfalls.

There are bridges of all sorts, like the oriental Moon Bridge that mirrors a circle in the pool it crosses. You will step into intimate little alcoves of flowers and shrubs that open up to vistas that spread for miles.

The film is surely publicity for the actual garden, for who will not want to experience the majesty and philosophical transcending moments in person.

You will whet your appetite for a trip to Eden, called Les Quartes Vents, from a viewing of this magnificent documentary.

 

Long Riders, Brotherly Love

 DATELINE: Brothers Carradine, et al.

Carradines

If you want a seminal rehash of all the big-time bank and train robbers of the West, you could not find a more succinct and intriguing film than The Long Riders.

Written partly by the Keach brothers, Stacey and James, it has as its basic catch-all hook the fact that sets of brothers play sets of brothers:  Jesse and Frank, the Younger Boys, the Millers, and those pesky Fords.

It would seem the director Walter Hill wanted to showcase brotherly relations by finding siblings to play off each other. The family ties also go against each other, as if we are watching some movie history of famous family actors in heat.

The film came out in 1980 and has all the hallmarks of the Peckinpah violence of the era. These outlaws take a dose of slow-motion death throes from The Wild Bunch, etc.

If you want bravura acting, here it is. Without a doubt, the rivalry between brothers is almost as tasty as that between sets of brothers. As you might expect, the gang life of the young criminals and gunslingers is not idyllic, except in dime novels.

The script is episodic: seemingly finding moments, like family gatherings, dances, bordello bonding, and funerals, as the means to lead up to the disaster at Northfield, Minnesota, when they went off reservation and out of their metier.

It’s hard not to cite David Carradine and Keith as scene stealers, though the Keaches write themselves some good lines too. The Quaid boys, Randy and Dennis, seem extremely young, but it was forty years ago.

Macho preening and male bonding have not changed much since 1880 or 1980, and this film is a document to show that fact.

 

 

 

Another Dr. Moreau from H.G. Wells

DATELINE:  Genetic Engineering’s Early Days

 moreau Lancaster Experiments on York!

Of the many Island of Dr. Moreau movies, with its many caricatures of the deranged scientist, we count Charles Laughton and Marlon Brando. Each played a zaftig and outrageous mad scientist to the rafters.

In 1977, the most subdued of the versions came out from American International, of all studios, and starred Burt Lancaster as Dr. Moreau. The titan of movies was then 65, but still virile and active. His performance is pure Burt.

Playing the young shipwrecked officer came another star at the top of his game: Michael York, wafer-thin and at his most attractive in the decade where his name was above the title.

He and Lancaster really have several face-offs of grand debate over science. It falls to Lancaster to give his performance the veneer of respectability. He is not a caricature but comes across as the voice of reason. It makes his mad scientist even more frightful.

In an age before DNA, the H.G. Wells tale deals with genetic mutation at the cellular level by means of serum. Here, Moreau wants to change animals into men.

It becomes horrific when he decides to change a man into an animal in the name of science—and York is the victim.

The cast is small, but effective. Among the standouts are Richard Basehart, unrecognizable in makeup, and Nigel Davenport as the assistant to Moreau. Around for looks is Barbara Carrera, standard exotic beauty of the decade.

As for the manimals, they seem to be wearing the leftover costumes from some Planet of the Apes sequel.

The movie belongs to the master, Lancaster. Savor it.

The Real Tom Thumb: Tiny Superstar

DATELINE: Barnum’s Biggest Star

tom thumb Tom Thumb, 1845

Charles Stratton was 21 inches during his youth, and he grew to 25 inches in middle age. In between, he tied his star to P.T. Barnum and became the biggest celebrity of the 19th century.

The Real Tom Thumb: History’s Smallest Superstar is a British documentary that we learn most of the surprising details about this little person and his burst into worldwide fame, at the cost of truth from his roots in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Michael Grade is the ominipresent researcher and narrator, a showman and producer whose uncle was the late great Lord Lew Grade whose show biz antics left him with the nickname Low Grade.

Nephew Michael reminds us of Anthony Hopkins who made a name for himself playing in the David Lynch film, The Elephant Man, another freak of the 19th century.

From age 5, Stratton was known as General Tom Thumb and pretended to be an adult, to make his smallness more amusing to the throngs who paid to see him. Barnum discovered, however, that his freak actually had talent—singing, dancing, wit, and grew into a true stage presence.

With the advent of photography postcards and railroads, little Tom’s image went viral without an Internet. Thank Barnum for making them rich, at the cost of truth and integrity. There was a staged wedding to another small person—and perhaps a faked child from their union. Who really knows the truth—other than Barnum and his Tom Thumb.

World tours dominated Tom’s life. He managed to enchant Queen Victoria and Abe Lincoln too. Yet, he was troubled, even with success, likely with a drinking problem from his adolescent years. He also smoked cigars as a child to heighten the image of a small adult. All these likely contributed to poor health in later years.

The pathos of the tale is interwoven with Grade’s interviews with present-day midgets and freak performers to try to give us a sense of the theatrics.

Of all the surprising details, we were taken aback to learn Stratton retired to Middleboro, Massachusetts, not far from where we lived for a time. Who knew that he custom-made his house with tiny stairs and stove? Or, who knew he and Barnum were buried only a few feet from each other?

Not your likely choice for entertainment, this film compels in a way that helps us understand the 19th century vaudeville.