Lives up to the name ‘essential’

Saturday night, at 8 p.m. Eastern / 7 p.m. Central, TCM will air “Metropolis” as this week’s episode of “The Essentials,” hosted by Robert Osborne and Drew Barrymore. TCM shows the latest restoration of the movie, released in 2010, and made possible by footage found in 2008 in Argentina. My brother and sister-in-law gave me this as a Christmas gift a few years ago, and it’s one of the best gifts I’ve ever received.

If you have never seen “Metropolis,” or if you’ve only seen the butchered print that existed before 2010, you really need to watch this, or set your VCR.

Even if you don’t like silent movies – and I have to admit, I rarely have the attention span to sit and watch a silent feature film here at home – this is the one to see. It laid the groundwork for so many other things, from “Star Trek” to “Blade Runner.”

The German expressionist classic, released in 1927, just a year or two before talkies became the norm, tells the story of a future civilization deeply divided between the haves and the have-nots. The ruling class lives in a beautiful city of art-deco skyscrapers and flying cars. (Many, many movie and TV art directors, for things like the Tim Burton-era “Batman” movies, have cited “Metropolis” as an influence on their futuristic urban landscapes.) The working class works underground.

Freder Fredersen is the privileged son of Joh Fredersen, the mayor of this futuristic city. Maria is one of the workers, and has become the leader of a non-violent resistance movement, hoping for a “mediator” who can bring together the city’s two classes. When she breaks into the city’s pleasure gardens, Freder sees her and is smitten. He ventures into the city’s subterranean world looking for her and is shocked at what  he finds there.

Joh Fredersen, disturbed by his son’s newfound interest in the workers and worried because some workers have been found in possession of suspicious maps, turns to his old friend and bitter enemy, a mad scientist named Rotwang, who has invented a lifelike android that can be used to disrupt the workers’ resistance movement. But Rotwang has his own priorities ….

Seriously, if you’ve enjoyed any modern science fiction movies or TV shows, you need to see this movie, which laid the groundwork for so many of them. These weren’t cliches in 1927 ….

for those of you with kids

I was neglectful, earlier in the summer, in giving my usual shout-out to “Essentials Jr.,” Turner Classic Movies’ wonderful – but horribly-named – summer showcase of family-friendly films, hosted again this year by Bill Hader, formerly of SNL.

Anyway, tonight, instead of showing one movie, they’re going to show short subjects from the legends of silent comedy – Chaplin, Keaton, Roscoe Arbuckle, and so on. Depending on your kids’ ages and how open they are to new things, this might be a fun evening ….

lisa

I just watched a sensational movie I’d never seen or even heard of before: “Lisa,” with Dolores Hart and Stephen Boyd. Dolores Hart – who is now a Benedictine nun – is co-hosting an evening of movies on Turner Classic Movies, and this apparently seldom-seen gem was one she requested they show.

Dolores Hart, before entering the convent, was best known for appearing in a couple of movies with Elvis (“Loving You” and “King Creole”) as well as “Where The Boys Are.” While they aren’t showing either of the Elvis movies tonight, Robert Osborne had to ask her about Elvis, and she remarked on what a gentleman he was to her, calling her “Miss Dolores” – the same thing she would later be called as a postulant!

Stephen Boyd is best known, to me, anyhow, as the bad guy in “Ben-Hur,” but he’s the good guy in “Lisa.”  He plays a Dutch policeman in 1946, guilt-ridden because he could not save his wife from the Nazis, who encounters an emotionally-scarred survivor of the concentration camps and Nazi expermentation. Lisa (Hart) wants to travel to Palestine (the movie is set two years before the state of Israel was created) and become a nurse. Seeking redemption, Boyd vows that he will help her get there. Her experiences have left her with trust issues, and she’s not sure how to take his offer.

A highlight of the film early on is an appearance by one of my favorites, Leo McKern (of “Rumpole of the Bailey” and “The Prisoner”) as a curmudgeonly barge captain who helps the pair get out of Amsterdam.

A terrific movie, with great performances by both of the stars.

those frenchies seek him everywhere

I came home for lunch just now and noticed that “The Scarlet Pimpernel” (1934), with Leslie Howard, was just about to come on TCM. I can’t sit here and watch it, of course, but I started the DVR right away.

A little history: Baroness Orczy’s novel “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” about a heroic freedom fighter masquerading as an ineffectual fop, was one of the inspirations for Johnston McCulley to create Zorro – and cartoonist Bob Kane had both the Pimpernel and Zorro in mind when he created the mysterious caped crimefighter who hides behind the public face of wealthy playboy Bruce Wayne.

And, of course, you can’t mention the Pimpernel without quoting the poem – the silly, sing-song poem spouted frequently by the Pimpernel’s swishy alter-ego Sir Percy Blakeney:

We seek him here, we seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven? — Is he in hell?
That damned elusive Pimpernel!

If you mainly know Leslie Howard as wishy-washy Ashley Wilkes from “Gone With The Wind,” you need to see him in this, where he’s equally adept as both the hero and the buffoon.

jiro dreams of sushi

I re-activated my Netflix subscription at the first of the year, but in the past few days – after seeing a $15 per month jump in my DirecTV bill – I’ve been thinking of cancelling it again. But this morning I watched something absolutely sensational on Netflix: the documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” Here’s a trailer:

Jiro Ono, who was 85 when the documentary was made in 2011, operates perhaps the world’s finest sushi restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, located in Tokyo. It’s small – only 10 seats – and doesn’t even have its own restrooms. The style of service means a meal only takes about 15 minutes, and it costs 30,000 yen (about $300). Even so, you have to make reservations far in advance. It has three stars from Michelin, meaning it’s so good that Michelin would recommend you travel to that country just to eat at that restaurant.

“Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” beautifully shot, edited and scored, tells the story of Jiro Ono and his two sons. It’s about food, but it’s also about Japanese culture, family dynamics, the pursuit of excellence, and even about the environment and sustainability. Jiro never really knew his own father, who left when he was about 6 or 7. But he has tried to communicate his passion and sense of purpose to both of his sons, who follow in his footsteps – the younger already operates a cheaper branch of the family restaurant, while the older – in his 50s – will eventually take over the original location, knowing he’ll have to work twice as hard if he ever wants to step out of his father’s shadow. (Pay close attention, near the end of the movie, for a fact about the Michelin rating that sheds new light on the elder son’s status.)

There’s no narration, but all of the participants speak Japanese, so  you have to be OK with subtitles.

Dang it, now I’m hungry for sushi.

monuments men

Last summer, my brother and sister-in-law here in Tennessee gave me a Regal Cinemas gift card for my birthday so that I could go see “Star Trek Into Darkness.” May was a crazy month, between symphony stuff and Relay For Life stuff, and I never got around to it. Being unattached, I don’t get out to the movies that often. When I had the time there wasn’t anything in the theater I wanted to see, and when there was something I wanted to see I could never find the time.

This month, however, I’ve been wanting to see “The Monuments Men.” I love the premise, I love the cast, and I’m a big admirer of “Good Night, And Good Luck,” an earlier fact-based movie directed and co-written by George Clooney. So today, I got away from work a little early (I have some stuff to cover this weekend) and drove to Tullahoma for the 3:50 p.m. screening.

I haven’t read any actual reviews of the movie yet, but I saw something last night that indicated some critics don’t like it. If that’s the case, I have to disagree with those critics. I thoroughly enjoyed “The Monuments Men.” I would go see it again if I had the chance.

While it’s based on real situations, and some of its characters are (renamed) versions of real people, I don’t know how accurate it is as blow-by-blow history. But as entertainment, for me anyway, it was a grand slam home run.

I suspect most of you know the basic premise, and the cast in various permutations have been blanketing various talk shows for the past couple of weeks, but in case you don’t know, the movie is set during World War II, primarily after the Normandy invasion, when all sides could see the writing on the wall but there was still a perilous journey to get there. The Nazis had been accumulating billions of dollars worth of priceless artworks from the countries they’d invaded and from the Jews in their own country. This artwork was intended to eventually be displayed in a massive “Fuhrer Museum” in Hitler’s home town.

With the end of the war looming, there are several dangers – that the Nazis might destroy the artifacts out of spite, that the Allies might bomb them accidentally, or that the Soviets might re-steal them and keep them for themselves, with the supposed moral justification of their heavy casualties.

Frank Stokes (Clooney) convinces FDR of the necessity to preserve these priceless cultural artifacts, even if it involves risk. The authorities aren’t convinced enough to commit much in the way of resources, but they allow Clooney to put together a team of experts, played by Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Jean Dujardin (“The Artist,” which I saw for the first time on Netflix just a few weeks ago), Bob Balaban and Hugh Bonneville (“Downton Abbey”). The men are a bit too old to be regular soldiers but gamely go through basic training and are dispatched to Europe. There, with the help of a young German-speaking soldier (played by Dimitri Leonidas, who’s gotten little mention but who’s terrific) and a cynical Frenchwoman (Cate Blanchett), they attempt to track down and preserve as much of the artwork as they can, returning it to its original owners if possible.

Some in the military to whom Clooney and his team turn for help see this as a ridiculous distraction and an insult to the brave young soldiers risking their lives around the world. But Clooney and his team passionately believe that the cultural identity of the conquered nations is one of the very things the Nazis had been trying to destroy – and therefore one of the very things that was most worth fighting for. They see themselves not simply as preserving dusty old works of art but as preserving part of what it means to be a human being.

I knew going in that this was part of the message of the movie and was afraid it would be driven home with a sledgehammer. Remember Clooney’s famously-arrogant Oscar speech, in which he seemed, on behalf of the entertainment industry, to take credit for every social advance of the past century? Even Trey Parker and Matt Stone of “South Park,” who owed Clooney their careers, made fun of that speech as a dangerous “cloud of smug” which figured into the cataclysmic plot of one “South Park” episode.

But, no, while this movie has a message (and a good one), it works first and foremost as entertainment. The bravado of Clooney’s team and the relationships between various team members made me think of classic movie director Howard Hawks, who would probably have enjoyed this movie greatly. I particularly loved the Mutt-and-Jeff relationship between Bill Murray’s and Bob Balaban’s characters. I would watch a movie just about the two of them.

In fact, if the movie has a flaw, it’s that the cast is so big, with so many great actors, that you wish you could get to know some of the characters a little bit better, especially the two who leave the action before we get to the end.

I highly recommend this movie. I had a great time.

the folksmen

The current movie “Inside Llewyn Davis” is set during the folk music boom of the early 1960s; as I understand it, it’s a drama, although no doubt suffused with that special quirkiness that only the Coen brothers can supply.

But the publicity surrounding “Inside Llewyn Davis,” as well as the return of the Jane Lynch-hosted “Hollywood Game Night,” has me thinking about one of my favorite comedies, the great Christopher Guest mockumentary “A Mighty Wind.”

“A Mighty Wind” is set in the modern day but references the folk era. A manager of numerous folk-era acts passes away, and the family decides to stage a tribute concert for public television, bringing together three of the late manager’s most-famous acts. Two of those three groups haven’t performed together in many years.

“The Folksmen” (Guest himself, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean) are in the mold of the Kingston Trio or the Chad Mitchell Trio. You may notice that The Folksmen are played by the same three actors from “This Is Spinal Tap,” which – while directed by Rob Reiner – was the template from which Guest fashioned his own mockumentaries. Guest, Shearer and McKean had created the characters before the movie, and in fact the Folksmen were the opening act for one of those real-life Spinal Tap concert tours. They were sometimes booed by audience members who didn’t realize that they were actually the members of Spinal Tap in different costumes.

“The New Main Street Singers,” a nine-member group including characters played by Lynch, Paul Dooley, John Michael Higgins and Parker Posey, are a parody of the New Christy Minstrels and other aggressively-upbeat ensembles. (One of the Folksmen derisively refers to them as “a toothpaste commercial.”) Unlike the other two acts, the New Main Street Singers have been performing through the decades, albeit with a constantly-changing lineup. (Dooley’s character is the only original member left, and he’s portrayed as being somewhat disengaged.) Lynch and Higgins are hysterical as the husband and wife now leading the group, who have their own somewhat unconventional metaphysical views.

“Mitch and Mickey” – played by SCTV alumni Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy – were a married couple during their folk-era heyday, but had an acrimonious divorce which landed Mitch in a mental hospital, from which he’s emerged as a bit of a burnout. Mickey is now happily married and out of show business. Their signature tune from back in the day included a kiss between the two of them at a critical moment, and no one is sure how they’re going to handle that moment in their reunion performance, or even if they’ll be able to make it that far given the bad blood between them. Levy was Guest’s collaborator in creating characters and situations for all of his mockumentaries, and he is nothing short of brilliant as a performer in this one.

The mockumentary moves back and forth among the three groups as they prepare for the big night, and various other characters. Fred Willard is hysterical as a smarmy TV star-turned-publicist who is trying to promote the concert.

Bob Balaban plays the concert’s producer, the nervous-nelly son of the deceased manager, and he’s very funny as well.

Everything builds to the climactic concert, during which one of the key players suddenly disappears. It’s very funny stuff, and the music (written by the cast!) is great, functioning as both parody of, and tribute to, the folk era. We used to listen to my parents’ Chad Mitchell Trio album every Saturday when I was growing up, and I have my own copy on CD.

A wonderful movie, definitely worth checking out.

A big finish

I doubt many of you watched “Strike Me Pink,” the 1936 Eddie Cantor comedy that just ended on Turner Classic Movies. I didn’t really either – I was busy with other stuff after getting home from Relay meeting. But if you did watch, you saw a character named Parkyakarkus. I’ve blogged about him before, but it seems like a good opportunity to repeat myself, something to which I’m seldom averse.

Parkyakarkus, a sort of malaprop-spouting Greek stereotype, was the creation of a character actor named Harry Einstein. He created the character on Eddie Cantor’s radio show, and it became so popular that Einstein (who sometimes used the stage name Harry Parke) was eventually billed as just Parkyakarkus, the same way that Paul Reubens is sometimes billed as just Pee-Wee Herman, with no mention of his real name anywhere.

Parkyakarkus is not well-remembered today, except for two trivia facts.

Trivia fact #1: Parkyakarkus, in character, was on the dais for a Friar’s Club roast of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in 1958. He had just finished his routine, which was very well-received, prompting emcee Art Linkletter to wonder aloud why Parkyakarkus wasn’t currently employed on a TV or radio program. Parkyakarkus returned to his seat, sat down, and immediately slumped into the lap of Milton Berle, seated next to him. Berle asked if there was a doctor in the house, and the audience – assuming this was just some sort of bit, a crazy capper to Parkyakarkus’ routine – erupted in laughter yet again.

Berle wasn’t kidding. Harry Einstein had just suffered a fatal heart attack. While he was moved backstage, where doctors would work in vain to save his life, Linkletter called on Tony Martin to go ahead and sing a song he’d planned to perform later in the evening.

The song was “There’s No Tomorrow.” There was no tomorrow for Harry Einstein, who was pronounced dead a few hours later.

Trivia fact #2: Harry Einstein had two Two of Harry Einstein’s sons, Albert and Bob, both of whom followed him into show business. Albert Einstein wasn’t about to go into show business with the same name as the famous physicist, so he became actor and filmmaker Albert Brooks. Bob Einstein became a comedy writer, working on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” and appearing on that show as Officer Judy.

It was in the 1970s, however, that Bob Einstein would discover his signature character – and, like his father, he’s usually billed by his character name, not by his professional name. Bob Einstein is familiar to people of my generation as hapless-but-arrogant stuntman “Super Dave” Osborne.

best worst movie

Since re-activating Netflix, I’ve enjoyed several episodes of “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” and as a result of that Netflix recommended the documentary “Best Worst Movie,” which I’d read about before but never seen.

I highly recommend it.

It’s about a movie called “Troll 2,” regarded by some as the worst movie ever, which has – like, say, “Plan 9 From Outer Space” – become a cult hit, with people watching it because of its perfectly funny awfulness. Unlike “Plan 9,” however, “Troll 2” is recent enough that the actors and filmmakers are still around to be delighted and/or horrified by this turn of events.

The documentary tells their stories, particularly George Hardy – a dentist who tried out for the film as a lark while living in Utah and then later settled in Alabama, in a small town where no one had any idea of his cinematic past. The documentary begins by introducing Hardy and having his ex-wife, of all people, pronounce how universally-liked he is (including by her). He does enjoy attention, in a harmless way, and dresses as a roller-blading tooth fairy in each year’s Christmas parade. So he has the time of his life when “Troll 2” becomes a cult hit and he’s suddenly on the road appearing at screenings and signing autographs.

Less than enchanted — but still willing to cash in — is Claudio Fragrasso, director of “Troll 2.” He and his all-Italian crew shot in Utah with a script badly translated into English, and yet refused cast members’ suggestions for changes in the dialogue. Fragrasso continues to insist that this was a serious movie with serious themes and that he has a keen understanding of American culture, and he eventually becomes annoyed at his cast members appearing at screenings and playing along with the “worst movie” hype.

The documentary was directed by Michael Stephenson, now an adult but the child star of “Troll 2.”

While MST3K never got around to “Troll 2,” former MST3K host Mike Nelson has, through his current project “RiffTrax.” Instead of his usual partners Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett, he riffs the movie in the company of Rich Kyanka from somethingawful.com. Here’s the teaser trailer.

Now it looks like I’ll have to see “Troll 2,” with and/or without Mike Nelson’s commentary.