Monday, June 27, 2016

French Quarter

1978's FRENCH QUARTER is a somewhat ambitious though mightily confused and disorganized film that is constantly reigned in by the fact that despite its efforts to possess some degree of class is still just a sleazy exploitation pic.  The above poster is typical for movies of this ilk in its era, targeting men who wore overcoats no matter what the weather or at least those whose mindsets ran that way.  The movie played the drive-in theater circuit to little notice.  It is a forgotten, obscure curiosity that only the most esoteric of film buffs have even heard of.

I first learned of it from Leonard Maltin's movie almanac.  His description of parallel stories in both the present day and the turn of the century in The Big Easy's famous locale always piqued my interest, though availability for viewing was almost non-existent.  This of course made it even more intriguing to me.  When I recently discovered that Amazon Instant was streaming it for free I had to jump on it.  Maltin called the movie a "neglected treat".  I some extent.

Our story begins as heroine Christine Delaplane (Alisha Fontaine) boards a bus bound for New Orleans after he father passes away, leaving a sizable debt.  A haggard sounding narrator explains the action, dropping lots of tired forbodances, cuing us that bad things will happen.  Christine will find work as a waitress/stripper, though she quits after being shortchanged on her paycheck.  Not long after, she visits the suspiciously kindly Madame Boudine (Anna Filamento) who offers the befuddled young woman some herbal tea.  Christine awakens surrounded by women in nineteenth century garb, the kind prostitutes wore.  Ladies with names like Ice Box Josie, Big Butt Annie, and Coke-Eyed Laura.  Inexplicably, the house madam is played by classic screen actress Virginia Mayo.

Sure enough, Christine, now called Trudy, has traveled back in time.  A virgin, she's about to be auctioned off to any wealthy lech with a wad of cash.  Is she dreaming?  Is that why director Dennis Kane shoots all of these scenes in soft focus, appearing as if someone got carried away and smeared Vaseline asymmetrically on the lens?  A vast majority of FRENCH QUARTER unfolds in this time gone by, and Christine seems to accept this new version of the big city, with its formal dress and (sometimes) speech, though as before, voodoo culture saturates the scene (and will figure heavily into the plot).

The filmmakers include into this stew the presence of Jelly Roll Morton (Vernel Bagneris) who competes with the new ivory tickler in town, Kid Ross (Bruce Davison).  There are some lovely piano solos and duels, but  there are also stripteases in giant champagne glasses.  A bar fight.  Also, a lesbian encounter that feels tacked on.  In an effort to add some depth to the characters, the screenwriters have Coke-Eyed Laura (played with brio by Ann Michelle) suffer from an opiate addiction, though there's an awkward scene in an apothecary that degenerates into cheap jokes.  There is evil behind that sexy Brit accent of hers, and she may be part of a plot against Trudy that involves a voodoo ceremony, with lots of snakes.   But Trudy and Kid Ross also have a sweet courtship that may save the day, in both time periods.   Their scenes feel like warmed over Harlequin Romance, and Davison looks a little embarrassed much of the time.  Also inexplicably, Dick Hyman scored this movie.

So as you can see, FRENCH QUARTER has elements that elevate it above many other drive-in nudity fests (and this one has plenty).  Dennis Kane is best known for the Dark Shadows soap opera so that may explain his method here, though he always keeps things interesting.  But the screenplay is a potpourri of frustration and half baked ideas, a story that can't decide whether to become something worthy or just another softcore.  Many drive-in viewers only paid partial attention to what was onscreen anyway, though in between heavy petting I'm sure many were scratching their heads.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Cut 432

There are several gems on Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach, FL but Cut 432, which is not in fact a barbershop but rather a glittering eatery, really stands out.  It is primarily a steakhouse, with several choice "cuts" on its menu, but diners may also indulge raw bar and seafood offerings.  There are nice words about chicken, pork, and lamb entrees as well.

But for a first visit, as I had on a recent Saturday eve with my wife and friends, you want to go for the red meat (all corn fed, as far as I could find).  I had a twelve ounce filet that was the best I've had in a few years.  Even better than the piece I had at Morton's last summer.  Yes, it cut like butter and its medium preparation had just enough juice to make it sublime in that unique way that steak manages. My wife had a prime skirt steak with fries.  The menu also features a thirty-five day aged Porterhouse designed to be shared.

Our table also shared a tower of huge onion rings, roasted mushrooms, and truffled mac (shells) and cheese.  All were outstanding.  This would likewise describe the service - exemplary.  Tony was our waiter, and he sported a thick New Yawk brogue despite his Asian appearance.  A real gentleman, old fashioned class and he took care of you like they did in the old days.  The busboys were invisible but were right there every time a plate need retrieval or a glass needed refilling.  Our dessert, a ridiculously large slice of chocolate cake, was good and moist but easily the least of what we ordered.

The restaurant itself is new and trendy looking, with a clientele filled with many who were obviously there to be seen.  Despite that, the vibe was really favorable.  Not obnoxious at all.  It all felt fancy and adult, something really lacking in almost any arena these days.  Everyone was well dressed and the atmosphere was sophisticated.  A welcome reprieve from the juvenile feel of so many spots any more.

Cut 432
432 E. Atlantic Avenue
Delray Beach, FL  33483
(561) 272-9898

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Masked Saint

How difficult it is to display the simplicity and beauty of the Christian faith on film!  That is, without being didactic and heavy handed about it.  Filmmakers try and try and the result is usually well meaning, feel good pap.  Maybe they don't try hard enough.  Maybe they just don't have the skills to create a portrait of sacrifice and forgiveness that doesn't feel insulting and/or like a third grade Sunday school lesson.  For all its beautiful simplicity, faith in God, the Christian "walk" is very complex for many believers, more complex than what many Cristian writers can contrive into their tele- and screenplays.

Movies like this year's THE MASKED SAINT don't seem to get this.  It follows many other similar filmed tracts masquerading (pardon the pun here) as narratives.  I don't dare say "art".  The artistic aspirations of these sorts of movies are low because, frankly, their audiences usually aren't interested in subtlety or an honest glare into what it means to be a Christian, described by a wise person this way: "The Christian life isn't difficult, it's impossible".  They want to watch essentially good characters who spout paraphrased Bible verses or Christian cliches.  The "good" characters may be flawed, but not too much.  The bad ones need to be merely hissable, not displaying any hint of light until one of the good characters invite them to church, or better yet, ask them to accept Jesus into their heart right then and there.  THEN if a sign of redemption is evident of course that is God working.  Etc.

THE MASKED SAINT is based on the life of wrestler/preacher Chris Whaley, who I once met briefly.   He graduated from my alma mater Palm Beach Atlantic College (now University) years ago and has been at a few of their functions.  He is also good friends with another very good friend of mine, who may well be reading this review (Hi, Don!).  Whaley's story is undeniably inspiring.  Also unique as it recounts the life of a pro wrestler who decides to Answer the Call and move his family to a struggling church in a poor neighborhood far from home.  The latter part is old hat, but not many preachers can say they made a living body slamming guys wearing fluorescent tights and silly masks.  Perhaps no one other than Whaley can further say that he continued moonlighting in the ring once he took the pulpit.

Chris, who has the surname of Samuels in this movie, also uses his skills to become a vigilante of sorts, aiding ladies of the evening and robbery hostages alike.  THE MASKED SAINT maintains interest as Chris (Brett Granstaff) attempts to boost church attendance and make time for its much needed repairs (spiritual, too) while maintaining a happy home life with his wife and young daughter, and to don that mask once again.  He does not really want to get back behind the ropes, you see, but is encouraged by a feisty congregant known as Ms. Edna (Diahann Carroll, no less) to use the gifts God gave him, even if that gift is an impressive sleeper hold.  And both Chris and the church need the money.

So the movie is basically by the numbers stuff: an underdog story that follows uncertainty with triumph, then disaster, and redemption.  Other than a few moments of iffy violence, it's perfect for young children.  If you're over ten, however, you may notice how predictable and shallow the whole thing is.  Even though it's a true story, every character is painted one dimensionally, including Chris' sleazy manager, played by none other than former wrestler Roddy Piper, whose last film this was.  The writers try to create character arcs but it never felt like anything beyond, perhaps, a church play.  The production is your standard Hallmark movie, with similar scoring and just plain corny dialogue.  No swearing of course, though the elderly church organist does refer to vandals as "little turds".

I think Mr. Whaley deserved a better, more honest movie.  It didn't have to be existential and all Malick-like, but something more raw and gritty.  A film in which Chris (and his church members, for that matter) "wrestles" a bit more convincingly with his conflicts (trouble with anger, being judgmental, etc.).  Everything is resolved too easily.  Note the subplot involving the young lady of the streets as she joins the church   Even THE CROSS AND THE SWITCHBLADE felt more authentic.  Maybe someone will do justice to the story of Brother Joe Ranieri someday......

Friday, June 17, 2016

The Wiseacre Duos: They Might Be Giants, Part II

After the success of Flood, produced for They Might Be Giants' new label Elektra, old label Bar/None released Miscellaneous T, a collection of very eclectic tunes previously available only as B-sides or on EPs.  Many TMBG tracks are accused of being "novelty songs" due to their deviance from traditional arrangements and unusual lyrics.  Sometimes the accusation is unfounded, but for this collection....Truly oddball things like "I'll Sink Manhattan" and "Mr. Klaw" fit that bill, and showcase the duo's eccentric darkness perfectly.  I also find "For Science" to be one of their funniest songs (the backup singers really cap it off).  Elsewhere, there are remixes of "Don't Let's Start" and "(She Was A) Hotel Detective" and could've been singles like "Hey Mr. DJ, I Thought We Had a Deal".  MT also features the infamous conversation (recorded on the Dial-A-Song answering machine) between two New Yorkers who screw up the band's name and inquire how our boys make money recording these weird songs.  The woman sounds like my aunt who lives in Bensonhurst. 

Apollo 18 came in 1992 and continued the mad duo's gleeful march through all sorts of genres. The production became more elaborate.  The space theme of the album was a natural as '92 was in fact declared International Space Year and NASA gave TMBGs the honor of being musical ambassadors for the event.  There is some seriously good harmonization to be found within, and even the occasional rocker like "Dig My Grave".   A generous redo of The Token's "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" forms "The Guitar (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)", albeit with far more cryptic lyrics.  The two Johns' delirious wordplay is in evdience on "I Palindrome I" and "Dinner Bell", inspired by Pavolian experimentation.  "Spider" sounds like the theme to a (demented) cartoon.  And then there's "Fingertips",  which allow provocateurs Linnell and Flansbergh to toss off snippets, some only a few seconds long, that will intersperse throughout the album via your CD player's shuffle feature.  If you listen to "Fingertips" in order, a narrative suggesting birth to death may emerge, depending on your cranium.

The educational tune "Why Does the Sun Shine?(The Sun is a Mass of Incandescent Gas)" and three other tracks were released on an EP in 1993. The title song was a delightful remake of an old Hy Zaret tune.  It was the first time the Giants would do something resembling a kiddie offering, a genre with which the guys would have great success in the future. Covers of The Allman Brothers'  "Jessica" and The Meat Puppets'  "Whirlpool" were also included.

In 1994, for the album John Henry,  TMBG became a full band, adding members who formed a rhythm section.  Previously, John and John used synthesized tracks and a drum machine.   The guys had actually utilized musicians during their previous tour.  For the new record, the sound was bigger, more guitar driven.  The songs were longer.  For me, it didn't quite work.  It continues to be one of their most frustrating albums in that great ideas - including a ref to Ginsberg's "Howl"- did not translate to musically interesting songs.  The lyrics are always amusing in a Giants tune, but the arrangements this time out were too traditional.  The only ones that work are "Meet James Ensor", a characteristically short and sweet ditty which evokes memories of Belgian's famous painter, and "Extra Savoire Faire" with its nice horn hook and Flansburgh's appropriately haughty vocal work.  The rest is just, well, dull, including the misguided a capella "O Do Not Forsake Me", which should've worked but is oh so heavy handed.   I've tried and tried with John Henry, to no avail.  I do enjoy reading the lyric sheet.

Factory Showroom followed in '96 and it was clear that They Might Be Giants were attempting to recapture the old spirit, even as they added guitarists.  It's a decent if undistinguished album. "S-E-X-X-Y" and "XTC vs. Adam Ant" are too self-conscious. "I Can Hear You" is a gimmick - recorded on a wax cylinder phonograph at the Edison Museum in New Jersey. My favorites are "Exquisite Dead Guy", good old creative weirdness, "James K. Polk", a catchy history lesson about out eleventh U.S. President, and the straight-ahead, somewhat sentimental ode to the Big Apple "New York City", which could easily be included in any travelogue or film documenting the Johns' adopted hometown.

The partially live album Severe Tire Damage was released in 1998.  Some tracks were merely recorded live with different (mostly unfavorable) arrangements, while the "Planet of the Apes" tracks were done in front of an audience.  As with many artists, a live album fails to recreate the excitement of being there.  The studio track "Dr. Worm" is also on the album, and it by contrast is a dandy.

Next time: The Johns exploit the Internet for more and more of their gems and a new studio album (with some older material) revives their mojo, even with a very unfortunate release date.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Le Cercle Rouge

Inspector Mattei seems fairly incompetent.  He loses his prisoner, to whom he was handcuffed, en route by train to prison.   In pursuit through the woods, Mattei seems to deliberate, as if giving his prey a head start to make the chase more interesting.  But maybe that's incorrect.  His superior naturally questions him.  Perhaps baits him during some office interrogation.

The escapee/fugitive is known as Vogel (Gian Maria Volante).  He ends up in the trunk of just released prisoner Corey (Alain Delon) and soon becomes his ally.  Corey is on the run himself from his old crime boss' goons after he steals money from him.  Vogel and Corey set about to steal jewels from a museum, eventually joining forces with alcoholic ex-police detective Jansen (Yves Montand) for the heist.

Mattei (Andre Bourvil) continues his manhunt.   He's methodical, yet maybe a bit clumsy.  Are his eluders smarter than he? What is director Jean-Pierre Melville implying with his 1970 LE CERCLE ROUGE, which follows several of his other stylish, curious studies of criminal code of conduct?  There are many of his films for me to investigate and I do not know if there is a thread of this sort throughout them.  But here, it seems that those who break the law are more honorable.

The criminals do not lie to or double cross each other, for example. They're quite loyal, in fact. A real brotherhood.  Borderline bromance, in the modern vernacular.  Mattei and his colleagues use more nefarious methods in their work.  They do not hesitate to utilize informants, then humiliating and threatening them to achieve a desired end.  They'll arrest them in their own club to make themseves look good. The loathsome Mattei will even create the false impression that an informant's son has committed a drug overdose, only to have the kid actually do it in all the confusion.

Melville fashions an absorbing, often exciting drama highlighted with another well crafted, virtually wordless heist scene.  Masterful, it is.  Sparingly edited.  It follows in the great tradition of previous French crime drama moments ala RIFIFI.  The acting is across the board superb, with Delon as the cool as anything criminal, a walking icon, I think.  Montand once again impresses with his fine work (including a somewhat disturbing scene as he hallucinates the appearance of insects in his drab flat) as a down and outer who perhaps sees nothing left in life but to join the other two in their larceny.  He might even see it as some sort of atonement for his life as a law enforcement official.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Capricorn One


Can there be a story line that is any more 70s than one involving a plot by NASA to fake a landing on Mars?  Folks were into conspiracy theories full barrels by the time 1978's CAPRICORN ONE was released, and unsurprisingly the movie was a hit.  Even before the Internet, folks were spreading their paranoia like a virus among the like minded and perhaps the easily persuaded via literature and phone chains. Ranting in bars and coffee shops.  Now, I'm not completely dismissing the idea that the decision makers in D.C. would engineer such a scam or cover up a disaster.  In fact, the greyer I get the more it makes sense.

CAPRICORN ONE, unlike other conspirist flicks, is fairly lighthearted.  The ominous tone found in films like THE PARALLAX VIEW is almost completely absent in writer/director Peter Hyam's film.  His approach is decidedly popcorn, with events becoming more and more absurd before a finale that leaves us bickering over what would happen next.  The movie does not try to be overly serious, to really ponder the weight of its scenario, even when bad things happen.

Astronauts Charles Brubaker (James Brolin), Peter Willis (Sam Waterston), and John Walker (O.J. Simpson) are on the launchpad about to lift off for their mission.  At the last moment they are sneaked out of the spacecraft and whisked away to a closed Air Force base in the middle of the desert by a NASA employee.  An empty Capricorn One vessel does indeed proceed with the launch, with the American public, including the President and V.P., unaware of what's happened.  NASA rep Dr. James Kelloway (Hal Holbrook) meets with the trio to explain why such an elaborate hoax is being perpetuated.  It's a speech delivered with riveting conviction by a world class actor, and one of the most suspenseful scenes in the movie.  Never mind that Kelloway's explanation is filled with as many holes as Hyams' script.  Don't probe it too hard.

Journalist Robert Caulfield (Elliott Gould) begins to suspect wrongdoing after his NASA friend Eliott (Robert Walden), a technician who questions his superiors as to why mission control receives transmissions from Capricorn One before its telemetry arrives, goes missing.  Eliot's entire apartment suddenly shows no trace that he ever lived there, in fact.  Caulfield becomes a junior Woodward/Bernstein and slowly figures out the scam, weathering assorted crises like being shot at and having the brakes on his car tampered with.

The astronauts play along with the facade (after having their families' lives threatened) for a time.  But then Capricorn One burns up upon reentry into the Earth's atmosphere. Uh oh....

All of the elements are there for a shadowy, downbeat thriller.  But any time CAPRICORN ONE feels as if it will go in that direction, a moment of great silliness will remind us what were watching.  Hyams, always fond of shooting chase scenes,  undercranks the camera to a point that makes Caulfield's runaway sedan look like something in a sped up silent movie.  It becomes comical rather than frightening.  Or when David Doyle, playing Caulfield's skeptical editor,  has a rat-a-tat with his employee that is straight out of 1930s screwball.  Or those two helicopters that scour the desert to locate the runaway would-be spacemen; at one point they face each other like enraptured lovers and fly in perfect parallel formation.  And soon after, a caustic Telly Savalas shows up as a crop duster pilot, entirely cementing the film's fate as something to amuse rather than provoke thought or put our stomachs in knots.

And that's fine.  Hyams' film is great fun.  A fast moving time waster that builds suspense in that old fashioned Republic serial way.  There are just enough sinister elements to satisfy those who enjoy such (far from airtight) plots but this is mainly pop.  The wildly diverse cast is in good form, though the less said about O.J.'s acting, the better.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Greatest

It really doesn't get any more '70s than this pic. 

Miss you, Cassius.  Thank you for bringing some personality to the ring and beyond.


Sunday, June 5, 2016

Odd Man Out

Johnny is near the end of his life, just hours away from his final breath.  After an eventful day as a fugitive,  finds himself in front of a crazed artist attempting to capture him for his canvas.  Johnny has been wounded from a gunshot in his arm earlier that day, after he and some accomplices committed a robbery.  In a moment of hallucination he begins quoting Corinthians 13:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.......


When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.

Why these verses? What relevance do they have to a man who has spent his life serving the Organisation (possibly aka the Irish Republican Army?) in Northern Ireland (Belfast?)? Would anyone at the end of their tether finally recognize that love is what makes life worth living, enduring? That what seemed like noble endeavors in the name of something were just childish pursuits? Or maybe the methodology (violence) to achieve them is being taken to task? Maybe he really was just hallucinating.

James Mason plays Johnny, in a fine performance of very few words, as a weary loyalist whose stretches in prison have softened his mettle, his means of supporting his group.  He holes up with a young woman and her grandmother for six months.  The others in his group don't feel he's ready, physically or otherwise, to knock off the local mill.  The job goes sour.  A cashier pulls a gun.  Johnny falls out of the getaway car.

He spends the rest of the day in hiding, at times discovered by townspeople who know of him and his loyalty.  Maybe they agree with the Cause. Most folks support the Cause but are unwilling to get their hands dirty.  What a bother to get mixed up with a criminal!  People want to go about their lives, children playing ball and young lovers seeking a spot for an assignation.  Johnny limps around town, exploited by some, neglected by others.  At the end, the woman he loves will meet him.  Her loyalty is to him, to love.

Director Carol Reed beautifully and compellingly orchestrates 1947's ODD MAN OUT straight to its final scene, and does a curious thing there - did the woman shoot first? I won't say more. I won't say at whom she shoots.  Or who lives. A deathwish?  It will give you much to think on as you admire Robert Krasker's cinematography, creating the sort of atmosphere probably every director of merit dreams about doing if he hadn't already.

You'll remember a destitute character who has a bird with an injured left wing (aha) and who seeks assistance from a man of the cloth, trying to exchange the wandering sinner (Johnny) for money.  The priest instead offers him the promise of faith.  Could the viewer takes this as works based salvation?  This film will be an excellent starting point for the genuine and would be theologian.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Godfather, Part III


The GODFATHER saga has captivated and intrigued audiences beyond what most fiction can achieve.  Mythological, yes, but also some unexplainable connection and familiarity.  When you've spent the many hours it would require to become acquainted with the Corleone family and their world, you unavoidably feel a part of it. The enterprise seems like more than mere diversion.  The urgency of Mario Puzo's characters is so palpable you're damn near invested.  Even those among us who find it foolish to get so wrapped up in make believe stories will drop the stone visage and excitedly recount lines of dialogue and argue over plot details such as who ordered a barroom garroting.

I'm mainly speaking of THE GODFATHER (1972) and its 1974 sequel, considered by some to be even better than the original.  When director Francis Ford Coppola came back with THE GODFATHER PART III in 1990, many enthusiasts left theaters in disappointment.  I saw the film at its opening on Christmas night.  I had spent the night before alone, re-watching GODFATHER PART II.  A lonely experience, but perhaps appropriate for the timbre of the film, ending with Michael Corleone's (Al Pacino) tortured decision to have his brother Fredo murdered.

Part three picks up many years later in 1979.  Michael has all but retired as the family don, left with a litany of guilt and bad memories.  He mourns the divorce of his wife Kay (Diane Keaton) and the estrangement of his children Mary (Sofia Coppola) and Anthony (Franc D'Ambrosio), who comes to papa seeking his approval of his quitting law school to become an opera singer.  The film opens with a ceremony at St. Patcrick's Cathedral as Michael is honored as a Commander of the Order of the Church.  The reception afterward introduces some and re-introduces others as the main players are established.

Most significant is Vincent Mancini (Andy Garcia, convincing as an Hispanic playing an Italian), a product of an illicit union between Michael's deceased bother Sonny and a bridesmaid (during a wedding in the original film).  Vincent is a quick tempered loose cannon, just like his father.  He seethes toward Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna), a shifty hood who has been in charge of Corleone family business, which has degenerated into slum lording and drug sales. Michael is concerned but recognizes his illegitamite nephew's fierce devotion to the family, possibly seeing him as a successor.

Meanwhile, there are dealings with an Italian real estate company, whose largest shareholder is the Vatican.  Michael offers to buy the shares from the Vatican Bank in order to assist with their considerable debts, a deal that must receive the blessing of the Pope to proceed. This intrigue is based on true events, and gets rather complicated.  Some viewers were confused, and even Coppola states that the murk resulted from hasty rewrites and a rushed schedule. Nonetheless, it is quite fascinating.

When I re-watched GODFATHER III recently, I was still engrossed, even during some of the denser moments.  There are many relationships to sort out, history to consider (don't watch this movie unless you've seen the other two, please).  The business intrigue is sometimes inpenatrable, and there are multiple scenes of deal making, but it all remains so irresistible, so much a part of the GODFATHER universe.  Sustained the many flaws, not the least of which is Sofia's last resort casting.  I won't add to all the negativity about her performance, which is politely termed amatuerish, but what could've been another vital element to this story is tainted by the young lady's deer in the headlights work.  Thank God she found her own penance behind the camera later on.