Dead Again, Hysterical Satire

DATELINE: Reincarnation Mystery

kookoo mystery Kookoo Noir Takeoff

There was a time nearly 30 years ago when Kenneth Branagh was considered the reincarnation of Orson Welles, with a dollop of Laurence Olivier thrown into the mix.

So, the time has arrived to re-assess one of his early efforts called Dead Again from 1991.

He was a promising and brilliant director of unusual fare and acted well too. This looney mystery deviated from his usual Shakespearean play adaptations by entering the film noir, detective story, broadly copying Warner and Parmount features of the late 1940s.

What most missed back then was the fact that this overwrought tale of reincarnation and murder was overdone deliberately. We cannot believe Branagh was dumb enough to think this was not a comedy.

The film does double duty: telling a modern case of a detective Mike Church in LA today, and the strange killer, Roman Strauss, a composer and conductor of 1948, who was executed for murdering his wife. The black and white noir flashbacks are spot on for 1940s imitation. Dick Powell and Lizabeth Scott are suitably channeled.

Branagh is a little weird as a detective (his reincarnated self) who is an LA sleuth with a Brooklyn accent. That might be the first mistake, or first clue.

The cast is equally impressive, with Emma Thompson as Strauss’s wife, the concert pianist victim, and the modern woman with amnesia that Church must help.

Call in Derek Jacobi as some kind of psychic hypnotist to regress the woman to 1948, and you have another brilliant performer slightly out of place in an American movie.

Also hanging around in cameos are Robin Williams, Scott Campbell, and Andy Garcia. This film is no slouch when it comes to top-level talent. Yes, Wayne Knight is here too.

We are a sucker when it comes to transgender resurrection and timeless love stories.

Everyone immediately notices that Emma Thompson resembles a woman dead in 1948, but no one seems to notice that Kenneth Branagh resembles her convicted murderer, executed in 1949.

Oh, well, that’s Life Magazine for you. In the meantime, the movie moves more and more toward utter lunacy, skipping over plot holes like hopscotch gone to bad karma.

We like our twist of reincarnation with a bitter of gender bending. Add some lemons and you have Branagh imitating Paramount and Warner Brothers murder mystery thrillers of the 1940s with panache. We are Between Two Worlds and the Two Mrs. Carrolls.

Like a warm British beer, this movie is all frothy, and the suds will make you queasy. It’s eye-rolling fun.

 

 

Portrait of a Fantasy Classic

DATELINE: Robert Nathan’s Portrait of Jennie

Brackman Jennie Brackman Painting Used in Film!

Portrait of Jennie is unusual movie fare by any standard—whether it is today or when it was released in 1949.

Back then, audiences were better educated for sure. The movie starts out with quotes from Euripides and Keats on mortality and the philosophy of death. As if to prove you are not in Kansas, the film uses the stunning music of Debussy’s “Nuages,” with an assist from Dmitri Tiomkin and Bernard Herrmann. Phew!

You don’t have music like this as background audio nowadays!

Unsuccessful painter of landscapes, Eban Adams (Joe Cotten), cannot find a plug nickel for his work in 1934. When he begs art dealers Ethel Barrymore and Cecil Kellaway to buy one of his pictures, they take pity on him. However, the price is to be told there is no love in his work, in critique by a spinster art collector.

When he meets a turn-of-the-century little girl in Central Park, she tells him she will grow up fast to marry him. Lo and behold, when he sees her again, she is older, and then again older. He is enchanted, and forced to do detective work to find her.

The twosome finally conclude that there is some error in the time-space continuum, no mean feat considering when the movie was made. They are not supposed to cross paths, let alone find the love of their lives, of all time.

You know that something is afoot when the screen goes garish green toward the climax.

The actual prop portrait of Jennifer Jones, breathtakingly beautiful, was actually done by Robert Brackman—and kept in the library of producer David O. Selznick, married to Miss Jones at the time.

With another gallery acting job by Joseph Cotten—and an assist from Ethel Barrymore, the old lady with a crush on him, you have an instant classic—and more.

Throw in Lillian Gish and Cecil Kellaway—and the film noir photography of Central Park at night, and we can forgive any logical weirdness in the storyline.

You owe yourself one romantic fantasy in a lifetime. This should be it, and never let drowning in a tsunami stop you from going to Land’s End on Cape Cod.

 

 

Is Anybody Out There?

DATELINE:  Phone Home!

SETI@home No Robots Need Apply!

When we ask if anybody is out there, it sounds as if we are wondering whether anybody actually reads these blogs. Some may say that our outreach indicates there is no intelligent life behind the message.

The question and answer is somewhat bigger. A documentary about intelligent life in the universe raises some traditional questions about whether we humans are alone in the universe, and it runs through the SETI organization for the most part.

In case you have been hiding from ET, SETI is the acronym for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. It sounds like an oxymoron, not an acronym.

We don’t even have intelligent life in college faculties, let alone the entire planet.

The hour-long recap of info deals with the Drake Formula and the Fermi Paradox. One tells us how many intelligent planets there could be in the Milky Way (only a fraction of the universe), and the Fermi pessimism stated that all intelligent life forms have come and gone by now. We are indeed all alone.

If there is one point of interest from the doc, it is that there is something out there called SETI@home, which is a means that all of us, everyday idiots, can scan the skies for a phone call from ALF.

In 2010 Stephen Hawking warned against trying to reach out and touch an alien. SETI dismisses that idea.

We noticed on the application form that robots are not allowed to join SETI@home.

We prefer not to have furry aliens living in our garage, or mind-controlling our children, but it would break up the monotony of daily existence for the vast majority of intelligence-challenged humans.

You should watch this little science kindergarten show-and-tell because education has to start somewhere.

 

 

Vikings Unearthed: Real, not Reel, Story

DATELINE: Takes One to Know One

  snow  Dandy Dan Snow Job!

Though we tried to watch the soap opera series on History about Vikings, we were drawn to something that provided the real story.  If you want the dirt, digging through the literal and figurative dirt, try Vikings Unearthed, a genuine documentary on the Norse.

A two-hour special on use of satellite technology and old-fashioned archaeological digging provides a thorough look at the life of the Norse who ravaged Europe in myth and actually were a culture of savage machismo. They went east to Asia as well as west to North America. You’ll love their silver rings and amulets, as well as forged swords.

Perhaps it helps to have as your on-the-ground researcher and scientist, a handsome Brit Viking named Dan Snow. He is lithe, Thor-like, and taller than anyone else in the show. Indeed, they seem to surround him with other men who look like pygmies or children next to his Conan the Barbarian style.

Yes, those Northumberland monks were treated badly by the Vikes. Our Viking host is a tad more civilized.

Dan Snow, our personal choice for Viking of the Year, is often paired with adoring nerdy men who can only marvel when he takes up an axe to work on a Viking boat replica, or when he listens to the description of a scientist who shows him Viking fecal matter to explain their medical problems.

You have to enjoy scientists who marvel that a satellite 400 miles over Earth can take photos in infrared to find sod brick Viking longhouses that are buried a foot below the ground and invisible to the naked eye.

Without leaving monumental buildings, so they say, the Vikings simply came, saw, and did not conquer the New World.

The upshot is to prove that the Vikings went all over present-day Canada and United States near New England and the Great Lakes.

Why would anyone doubt these prototypical macho men went wherever they damn well chose?

Westworld 2.8 Ghostly Nation

 DATELINE: Thrilling Days of Yesteryear

IMG_3076-1

If you’re not in Oz, and not in Delos’s Westworld 2, you must be in Ford’s Ghost Nation where you live in some kind of digital memory bank.

We’re heading down the homestretch of conundrum, east of chaos and southwest of confusion. Our GPS coordinates on the series are sending us down one-way streets that are closed to thru-traffic.

Those Indians in black and white war-paint may seem like a throwback to old TV westerns. In fact, we are in one old Western in particular. Welcome to the Lone Ranger.

Hiyo, Silver horse, running through the dreams of the Noble Savage, Tonto, or in this case, Ake.

Yes, we re-live Tonto saving the Lone Ranger at least three times in this episode. He saves Ben Barnes, left for dead in the desert last season. He saves Ed Harris, left for dead like the last ranger, this season. And he may even save Thandie Newton.

Two of the scenes are right out of the original production of the Lone Ranger-Tonto playbook. Our last surviving member of his tribe comes across a massacre and makes a ghost who walks for revenge.

It seems the Noble Savage is another bad robot, spreading his discontent, looking for a door to escape being an automaton. A touchstone with one key backstory motivates them to a better world.

And, now it seems that Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) has been all for it. We are moving toward truth, as all the characters seem to be realizing. We stand in awe of Jonathan Nolan pulling this three-ring circus together in the final episodes of the season.

 

 

A Grand Barn Opens Its Doors for a Day!

DATELINE: Mill Circle’s Treat

 Great Barn

For the first time in many years, the Great Barn of Mill Circle was opened to the public.

And, crowds came out for a “barn sale,” of many items collected over the past four decades by the previous two owners.

old homestead  Barn Sale!inside

Of all the curios, we were able to purchase a replica signage of the Old Homestead Tavern that graced Mill Circle from 1820 to 1827 when the stage depot and inn that catered to peddlers went into folklore as a haunted house. The original draw was a mineral spring called immodestly, “The Virtuous Spring.”

The house is long gone, but its companion barn still stands, impressive. Many visitors were extremely curious about its age and history. We were able to tell a few that we had written the barn’s history a few years ago. The book is available to those interested on Amazon under the modest title The Great Barn of Mill Circle.

A new book is forthcoming that details the barn’s role in the infamous murder of a peddler on the Fourth of July in 1826. It is called, not surprisingly, Murder at Mill Circle.

Those who came on this lovely June day were able to buy antiques, bric-a-brac and assorted junk, as suited their tastes, but they were not able to do a full tour of the barn. Its back section was shut. Its tack room closed to viewers who could not see inside. The stairs up to the loft and stable-boy’s apartment was blocked. A view directly up to the cupola was closed to audiences.

And yet, the visitors were awestruck by the architecture and solid construction that has weathered two centuries as the focal point of Mill Circle.

We think a murder victim was hidden in the cellar in 1826—and though his bones have escaped detection, we think the early graveyard of the neighborhood is in the rear. We’d need ground-penetrating radar to be sure if it is a cemetery of a few long-forgotten residents—and one murdered peddler.

And we want to share our extraordinary experience today with you.

Wait for Your Laugh: Irrepressible Rose Marie

 DATELINE: Second Bananas are Tops

 irrepressible

A major star before Shirley Temple was born, Rose Marie’s last act was the receive the lifetime Shirley Temple Award in 2017. Waiting for Your Laugh is her testimonial, made with her cooperation shortly before she died in 2017.

Never a beauty, but always a beaut. As a child, Rose Marie counted among her friends and supporters, gangsters like Al Capone and Bugsy Siegel.  Capone told her to call him “Uncle Al.”

She helped Bugsy build a resort entertainment venue that happened to be Las Vegas. She was the first headline and didn’t think twice to tell Siegel her paycheck was short $11.

He apologized and paid up.

She worked with them all—from Jimmy Durante to Milton Berle. Among her friends were Jerry Lewis and Johnny Carson, whom she called “angels.” They all treated her like a daughter and she liked all of them.

She learned how to do standup comedy to enhance her singing career. And, when TV demanded, she became a character actress on shows like Gunsmoke. Though she performed movies and Broadway, nightclubs were her secret passion. She played everywhere in America.

When TV comedy needed her, she did the Dick Van Dyke Show when no one knew who he was. She did a dozen years on Hollywood Squares, and made dozens of guest shots as cranky old bossy women. Her coworkers like Morey Amsterdam and Peter Marshall adored her.

In a time when old singers were forgotten, she organized Rosemary Clooney, Margaret Whiting, and Helen O’Connell, into a lucrative concert series.

Rose Marie lived 90 years, a staple of entertainment for multiple generations and only passed away last year.

In her love life, there was the greatest tragedy, having found the ideal man, Bobby Guy, a trumpeter from Kay Keyser and Bing Crosby bands, but who died too young—stealing her only personal love besides work.

This compelling documentary cannot be stopped. It unfolds and hypnotizes like Rose Marie herself.

 

Tesla is for the Birds!

DATELINE:  File Under Pigeon

Uncle Trump

Yes, Nikola Tesla loved his pigeons in New York City and Central Park. He observed them, fed them, and even took in ill pigeons to bring them back to health. He had a portrait taken of his favorite dirty bird.

All this sounds like something for the koo-koo birds, but Tesla was nothing of the sort. Apparently, he was studying the ability of homing pigeons to reach far destinations.

Later scientists wanted to build on Tesla’s bird-brain work by using homing pigeon ability to direct guided missles.

Once again, the Tesla Files turns out to be a pleasant and informative surprise package.

In his dotage, Nikola was still able to use the New Yorker Hotel as a communications tower to the universe.  Yes, the show finally goes where all History Channel series end up:  at the foot of the Majestic-12, that shadowy government agency created after Roswell. Tesla was calling home for ET.

The government was roosting in adjacent hotel rooms in the 1940s, waiting for Tesla to die in order to raid his research notes and confiscate plans for a death ray.

For all those years in the New Yorker Hotel, Tesla kept a hidden laboratory near the top of the building, nestled in a corner where he could commune with the birds.

By 1947, Tesla was dead for five years—and nitwits like John G. Trump had fronted the notion that the man was a crackpot.

Trump family insights are genetically dumb.

However, MJ-12 wanted the dead legend’s boxes of research material sent to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where dead alien carcasses from Roswell were allegedly stored.

Whatever was up, it is fascinating to behold. The series continues to defy us with its insights.

 

 

Death at a Funeral: DOA Either Way

DATELINE: British or Black?

Dinklage (with friend in coffin) Dinklage with Friend in Coffin

In case you did not realize, there are two versions of this movie, made within a few years of each other. The first was your classic British dark comedy, and the second is your black-face remake in American ghetto mode.

Both movies are called Death at a Funeral, which certainly makes sense when you see how it all plays out. The Brit version is from 2007, and the American from 2010.

You can flip a coin, or perhaps you prefer Ivory-Merchant to Madea.

We went across the pond for ours. There are familiar faces, but we’d probably know more of the cast in the American version. However, one small face stands out in a big part: Peter Dinklage came up to snuff in both films as the blackmailing small guy.

He is rather good, for sure. The rest of the cast is obtuse, but we must confess that Rupert Graves is always a joy as the successful brother returning from America for his father’s sendoff.

We are not sure how funny the central concept is that some poor benighted fools are given LSD by accident by those who think they offer valium. Is that really funny?

Beyond that, there are some jokes about oldsters, women, and sex-starved creeps among the mourners. It’s all directed by Frank Oz, hardly anyone’s idea of Ivory-Merchant, unless you see in big screen Muppet. Peter Dinklage apparently is playing Kermit in this film—and in the other too. He is marvelous.

We aren’t sure how this comes off with Chris Rock, et al, when the British posh types seem more suited for deadpan comedy.

 

 

 

Re-fighting the Battle of the Sexes

DATELINE: Gay Lib, Not Gay Lob

Bobby & Billie Truly a Doubles Match!

Many viewers may not know the story of Bille Jean King and Bobby Riggs and their ridiculously hyped tennis match of the early 1970s.

The earlier TV movie was called When Billie Beat Bobby. This new version is the Battle of the Sexes, but it’s more of a coming-out story.

Many may not know that an earlier cable movie effectively told the story with all the limitations of small screen propriety. If you wonder about the differences, there was no hint of gayness in Billie or her marriage. She had no bedroom scenes with a female hairdresser.

She did not have a gay best friend (marvelous Alan Cumming as Ted). She did not have a cantankerous relationship with Margaret Court in the first movie who is always holding a baby in the remake.

You did not see Bobby Riggs’ nude layout. You did not see his marital problems, or his hilarious attendance at a Gamblers Anonymous meeting.

You had a greater sense that Bobby and Billie were, above all else, “good sports” and actually remained lifelong friends.

The big screen smash has magnificent performances from Emma Stone and Steve Carell, looking more like their real counterparts. Carell is making an industry out of playing peripheral sports characters (Dupont in Foxcatcher). There are some marvelous effects too, bringing Howard Cosell back to life to play himself.

This is a big budget film with a great music score, pictures of celebs of the times, and the Houston Astrodome itself.

We recall the match was a grand joke, only taken seriously by those who’d be willing to buy the Brooklyn Bridge from Bobby Riggs. How could anyone think that old man could beat a young athletic woman?

Well, as we recall, yes, there were men crushed by the defeat. This movie brings it all back to us.

Coward’s Italian Job, Mad Dogs & Englishmen

 DATELINE:  Sir Noël

Caine & Coward Caine & Coward Comedy!

Noël Coward and Benny Hill? In the same movie?

Our attention has been caught big-time in this 1969 crime caper movie, a genre all the rage in the 1960s, with epitome The Italian Job. Forget the recent remake.

As if pairing those Benny and Noël was enough, you add in Rossano Brazzi and Raf Vallone as the genuine Italians—and Michael Caine as the British mastermind of a robbery in Turin, Italy, of gold bullion being driven through its narrow streets.

The film is lusciously produced with all those magnificent scenes of the historic Italian city and the gorgeous Italian Alps with its twisty roads. You can figure on car chases that will outdo all those hills in San Francisco.

As with classics like this, the actual production is less impressive. The stars seem self-contained in their roles. Indeed, there are no scenes with Brazzi and his fellow stars at all. The closest Benny Hill comes to Noël Coward is standing 50 feet away on a mole hill at a funeral.

The glue is a boyish and charming Michael Caine, so young that when he meets Noël Coward in a lavatory, you almost feel it is salacious.

Waspy Coward is a mob kingpin, believe it or don’t, who has bribed enough people to move in and out of his British prison cell with aplomb you’d expect from a sophisticated star. He runs everything with an iron fist in a dainty velvet glove.

Technology, alas, is ancient here. Good heavens, Benny Hill plays a computer nerd running around with a ten-inch reel of programming. Communication is also primitive with 16mm film as the preferred mode to send text messages. Yet, the charm is delightful and timeless.

Once the cars start piling up, you have a traffic jam for the pre-Euro-dollar ages.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Call It a Name Oscar Wilde Dares Not Speak

DATELINE:  Calling Your Name

Chalamet Timothee Chalamet, aka Lolita!

If you’re wondering about the title of the movie Call Me by Your Name, it is a sign of gay regression.  In an age when women keep their own name upon marriage, gay men are prepared to give up theirs.

 

This is the movie that its young teenage star (Timothee Chalamet) earned an Oscar nomination. It’s not so much for performance, but for the fact that he plays the most intelligent teenager on film in almost a decade or perhaps longer.

 

Like Sue Lyon 50 years ago, Chalamet epitomizes a male Lolita, also earning an Oscar nomination as a supporting actor and symbol of loincake. The only things missing from his acting are heart-shaped sunglasses and a lollipop.

 

Elio is a bilingual, bisexual child prodigy at the piano. His father is an important professor who spends the summer in Italy and needs a long-in-the-tooth graduate student assistant to do nothing in particular. The characters seem to be on an endless vacation. Elio mostly cavorts around in his bathing suit.

 

The story is adapted from a novella by James Ivory which caught our eye. He wrote all those great Ivory-Merchant movie screenplays 30 years ago. As he approaches 90-years of age, he has come up with another one: stunning ennui on display.

 

Armie Hammer played Leonardo’s boyfriend in Hoover, and was Depp’s boyfriend in the Lone Ranger, and now has his sights on a teenager who is more winsome and more often unclothed than Frankie Avalon in his prime Beach Party get-up.

 

Pardon us, but teenagers are lacking experience and maturity—and Humbert Humberts of the world never seem to learn this.

 

Chalamet and Hammer insist they are not gay, but only play gay (for pay) on screen.

How Many Oscars to Put Up a Billboard?

DATELINE:  Ebbing Tide!

McDormand

Two major Oscars went to the star actors of Three Billboards Near Hibbing, Minnesota, or was it Ebbing, Missouri?

We think the ridiculous title seemed laughable at first, but becomes seriously apt by the end.

Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell play borderline sociopathic and violent characters who are held in check by the small-town sheriff played by Woody Harrelson.

Audiences have been deeply bothered by a racist cop (who may be latently gay) and vindictive mother of a murdered girl who become, weirdly, sympathetic, owing to the brilliant performances of Oscar winners Rockwell and McDormand.

The audience faces a story wherein characters repent and try to mend their nasty ways. It’s not looked upon with much favor. It becomes far worse if they turn into outright vigilantes, leaving us with complete moral and ethical ambiguity. We seem to forget Bruce Willis has just released his remake of Death Wish, the ultimate film about taking the law into one’s hands, just to entertain us.

The Oscar winners are surrounded by other tour de force actors, playing small-town Missourians to the hilt. And, there were likely no other stars who could have played the leads: we doubt that Meryl Streep or Tom Cruise could have pulled it off with such aplomb or lack of glamour.

The story has absurdist elements that make for that most deplorable of all genres: dramedy or black comedy, with fewer and fewer laughs along the way.

Perhaps life is not so black and white as good guys and bad after all, but our movies usually refuse to reflect this. This film challenges its audience to live with moral ambiguity in their art, as well as in life.

This is the first movie in quite some time in which characters mention Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde in the same scene, among other quirks, making this the most intriguing film of the year.

 

 

 

Inventor of Xmas? Charles Dickens, Really?

DATELINE:  Ghosts for the Holidays

Dickens with ScroogeDickens with Scrooge!

One presumes Dickens would be appalled that he was given the label as The Man Who Invented Christmas because in 1842 under financial pressure, he wrote a little ghost story in six weeks. We always thought Jesus probably deserved a little credit for inventing Christmas.

Having dozens of movie versions of the famous holiday tale about the reclamation of Ebenezer Scrooge, A Christmas Carol, it seems only fitting that a charming tale, slightly mythological rather than biographical, would be the latest incarnation of the story.

Dan Stevens, hot off Downton Abbey, plays a stylish, boyish Charles Dickens, a man surrounded by his own spendthrift ways and a brood of interruptions in his home, faces a daunting deadline to come up with a novella to make ends meet.

Stories about writers are usually deadly dull and impossible to show creativity, but this film manages to show how the characters, and caricatures, came to life for Dickens.

No small feat is the marvelous performance of the difficult quarry of Scrooge in the person of Christopher Plummer. He argues he wants his point-of-view better expressed, feeling the story is too one-sided!

The cast is up to the weird exaggerations of Dickens, including Jonathan Pryce as the author’s father. Many people in Dickens’ life take a role in his story.

Cute, by some standards, we see snippets of dialogue picked off the streets as Dickens goes on his daily duties. He hears the best lines and incorporates them into his text. But, it is his debates with Scrooge who visits him in his room that is the heart of the film.

Dickens purists might take issue with the pabulum portrait by Stevens, but this is a sentimental story, intelligently told, without profanity, sexual situations, or other unpleasantness, while maintaining dramatic and psychological effectiveness.

This is a film that insists Dickens did more for Christmas than you may want to believe. Yet, this is more than a holiday fest and more than a simple biographical movie. It is charming, an addition to the Christmas canon.