Sunday, August 21, 2016

Enduring the Rotten Tomato of 1970: 'THE PHYNX'

By Steve Crum

I finally saw the notoriously bad 1970 "comedy," The Phynx (pronounce it like "The Finks") that TCM broadcast at 3 a.m. a few days ago. (I DVR'd it.) Having heard about this seldom shown movie for decades, I was compelled to see for myself how embarrassingly terrible it is. Tis true. It is dreadful, and both good and bad to view all the aged Hollywood stars who appear. I cannot imagine what it was like for them in the audience at the film's premiere.

Directed by a guy who should have known better, Lee H. Katzin (Le Mans, Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice?), the movie looks like a poor clone of TV’s The Monkees, but minus a much needed laugh track. Forced laughs ensue, including slapstick and misfired visual gags. Let’s also blame writers Stan Cornyn, Bob Booker and George Foster. These three had made their fame with comedy albums (Booker & Foster: The First Family, You Don’t Have to Be Jewish) and Frank Sinatra Grammy winning album liner notes (Cornyn).

Oh yes, the plot is all about rescuing elderly movie and TV stars who are held captive in Albania by Communists. The lengthy list of celebrities appearing with sparse dialogue includes: Joan Blondell, Martha Raye, Busby Berkeley, Xavier Cugat, George Jessel, Col. Harlan Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame, Huntz Hall, Leo Gorcey, Johnny Weismuller, Maureen O’Sullivan, Ruby Keeler, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, and Jay Silverheels (as Tonto). Clayton Moore was wise NOT to appear as The Lone Ranger. Instead, John Hart is the masked man, (Hart replaced Moore for one season of the TV series.) 

It's now available on Warner Archives DVD, if you must see the wretchedness for yourself.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Reimagined 'Ben-Hur' leaves one wanting, wanting to see 1959’s ‘Ben-Hur’

By Steve Crum
Let’s get the obvious question out of the way: Is the new Ben-Hur at least as good as the truly classic 1959 Ben-Hur? Answer: Nope. In fact, Ben-Hur 2016 would be a disappointment even if it were the very first version based upon the 1880 General Lew Wallace “Tale of the Christ.” It’s actually movie take five of the familiar story, including two silent Hurs produced in 1907 and 1925, and an animated version in 2003.
The oft told story involves Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish nobleman in Jerusalem, who is falsely accused of trying to kill Roman leader Pontius Pilate. He is then imprisoned as a galley slave for many years, but eventually escapes. He then seeks revenge on his former friend, Messala, who is now a Roman soldier.  
This new and vastly unimproved Ben-Hur is not a total failure, however, since it does include most of the basics of Wallace’s original novel, which is a very compelling tale mixing religion, family values, political principles, love, action, and revenge. A person who has never seen director William Wyler’s ’59 extravaganza might find this Timur Bekmambetov directed picture somewhat interesting. The problem is Bekmambetov, whose main claim to fame is his helming of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012), has infused his version with virtually zero emotional appeal. We should care greatly about the lead character Judah Ben-Hur, his strife ridden family, and—gasp—Jesus Christ. 
As both a critic and Christian, I was curious to see how, in these days of religious anxieties, the Christ character would be depicted—if at all. It turns out He has more screen time than in the 1959 film. The huge difference is Wyler portrayed Christ in a subtle but very effective manner, hardly showing his face, and with little dialogue. Bekmambetov shows Christ’s face several times, making sure each time that Christ emotes a familiar quotation from the Bible, such as “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” After a couple of these moments, which really jerk the pace and storyline of Ben-Hur out of whack, it seems like another episode of Jesus Christ’s greatest hits. His sequences end up diverting from instead of enhancing the plot. 
In the Wyler version, Christ is well characterized. In this new take, Christ is a caricature. Both Christian and non-Christian moviegoers should feel slighted at the latter. 
From all accounts, a lot of money was spent on this Ben-Hur, but it rarely shows. We seldom get to appreciate much of the elaborate, realistic looking sets and costumes since Bekmambetov tends to overuse closeups and hand-held camera shots. Hand-held cameras used in either crowded fight scenes or the touted chariot race sequence are a cheap way to suggest action and movement, avoiding precise stunt work and/or the expense of CGI effects. This is not saying there is not precision camerawork utilized in the finale’s chariot race, so why even have any distracting jiggly camera? It makes the audience aware of the technique, which detracts from the storytelling. Additionally, many scenes are shot at night, making images difficult to see.
As for the acting, Ben-Hur includes some obvious talents—one well known (Morgan Freeman as Sheik Ilderim, the horse trainer) and several lesser known, particularly Jack Huston as Judah Ben-Hur. Huston, who was fantastic on TV’s Boardwalk Empire, is part of Hollywood’s famous Huston family, his aunt being Anjelica. Toby Kebbell is credible as Messala, Ben-Hur’s childhood friend—kind of an adoptive brother—who becomes an officer in the Roman army and mortal enemy to Ben-Hur and his family. 
But alas, writers Keith Clarke and John Ridley (12 Years a Slave) have fashioned a reimagined Ben-Hur that chops the story several ways, and opening with the otherwise finale chariot race! Then we segue into the past. Then the narrative takes sudden turns in location, omitting several subplots previously used—like the rescue of a Roman officer by Ben-Hur after the warship sinks. This kind of omission does not bother me as much as the blurring of time and sequence in the overall telling. 
In short, Ben-Hur looks less like a true movie spectacle, and more like the crop of lackluster “Christian produced” message movies that have been infrequently released over the past decade. Like them, the acting, dialogue, cinematography and score are pedestrian at best. A classier presentation would have conveyed this tale of the Christ-influenced Ben-Hur much more effectively. Ironically, this 2016 Ben-Hur has eliminated the subtitle prominent in the 1959 version, “A Tale of the Christ,” substituting “Brother Against Brother, Slave Against Empire.” Go figure.
Finally, there is a major flaw that really ruins the movie: the cornball, cliched, and unacceptable conclusion. I will not give it away, except to comment that it involves Ben-Hur and Messala…following the chariot race. It appears that when the movie was screened early on, the audience demanded a rewritten conclusion. So he, she or they were compensated with a surprise ending that looks like it was tagged on. It is dreadful. 
GRADE on an A-F Scale: D-

Friday, August 12, 2016

Streep as operatic Florence Foster Jenkins is superb, along with entire movie

By Steve Crum
Now and then over the past 40 years or so I would hear of the legendary Florence Foster Jenkins, the self-proclaimed coloratura soprano who lived from 1868-1944. Each time during the discussion, I always said that Hollywood should make a movie of her eccentric life. Now it has finally happened, and the world is better for it. Florence only made a handful of private recordings, four of which can be accessed on YouTube. But before you go there, realize she was then, in the early part of of the 20th Century, and is now considered the worst singer, opera or otherwise, of all time. And Meryl Streep, who is padded to look frumpy, portrays her—wonderfully—in the succinctly named film, Florence Foster Jenkins
As written by Nicholas Martin and directed by Stephen Frears (Philomena, The Queen), Florence Foster Jenkins is biographical, but not all-encompassing, since it centers only on the last year of her life in 1944. By this stage in Jenkins’ life, the wealthy New York heiress felt empowered to share her life long love of opera with the world. For years she headlined her own per se music club, and dabbled in singing for club members who seemed appreciative of her musical “gift.” The fact that Jenkins was rich and a socialite no doubt influenced their tin-eared adoration. However, Florence herself was truly tone deaf, and never heard herself except as the most skilled singer of opera. 
ABOVE: The real and imagined (Meryl Streep) Florence Foster Jenkins.
As viewers and listeners of this film, we DO hear her voice, which Meryl Streep emulates perfectly….that is, with perfectly awful pitch. Florence had true fingernails-on-chalkboard voice talent. 
Yet, as depicted in this movie, Florence is surrounded by enablers who tell her otherwise. There is her younger husband St. Clair Bayfield, impressively played by Hugh Grant—his best role in years. Add her club members, who seem to thrive on her every musical note. Then there is the legendary conductor, Arturo Toscanini (John Kavanagh), and a suffering vocal instructor, whose loyalty and perseverance is encouraged by the extravagant fees for her lessons. 
Then a young piano accompanist is hired, Cosmé McMoon (The Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg), who at first laughs out loud at Florence’s grating voice. He is set straight, however, by Florence’s husband, St. Clair. So at risk of losing his new job, Cosmé suppresses his giggles. Thus, this sweet, kind, narcissistic lady continues to live her illusion.
Half-way through Florence Foster Jenkins, the laughs end for us as well since her obsession to become a major singing star has downturns. Her vision of grandeur has propelled her into a self-financed booking at no less than Carnegie Hall. The concert, which is recreated, results in a gamut of emotions both in the audience and on stage.
Threading throughout the story is the unique (to say the least) relationship between Florence and St. Clair. While they are happily (common law) married and devoted to each other, he maintains a sexual relationship with his mistress, Kathleen Weatherly (Rebecca Ferguson). He usually kisses his wife good night, and then totters off across town to his apartment to sleep with Kathleen. It is implied that Florence's long time medical condition (syphilis) inhibits a similar relationship with her husband. 
Do you now understand why I always thought Florence’s story could make a great movie? Well, we have it here. Florence Foster Jenkins is undoubtedly the best movie of 2016 so far, and seems out of place in—as usual—a summer of comic book superheroes. Streep, Grant and Helberg are Oscar worthy. So are the direction and writing, as well as Alexandre Desplat's score.
Not to mention the potato salad in the bathtub. Er, you have to see it to believe it.

GRADE on an A-F Scale: A

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Remembering Pete Fountain, nearly 49 years ago

When the great New Orleans clarinetist Pete Fountain headlined my Emporia, Kansas college Homecoming in 1967, I was a sophomore assigned to review the occasion for The Bulletin, student newspaper of Kansas State Teachers College (now Emporia State University).  It is republished here in response to Pete Fountain’s recent death at 86 on Aug. 6, 2016. I have included copies of the original story and photo as published Nov. 15, 1967.
By Steve Crum
This guy, Pete Fountain, he started out with Lawrence Welk? Nothing against Mr. Welk, but really, Fountain really swings. 
Last Saturday night, Nov. 11, Pete Fountain and his band played in Emporia. It was an evening of polished New Orleans Jazz. The entire program was superbly performed. It did swing.
Pete Fountain, the New Orleans clarinetist who keeps making good, was backed by nine musicians, each having an extensive background in Southern jazz. As opposed to the Preservation Hall jazz group which played in Emporia over a month ago, the Fountain group can be best thought of as the current trend setters of Dixieland jazz. The entire presentation is updated: matching blue tuxedos (the first half of the show, and then matching red), polished instruments and arrangements, and a more rehearsed flavor through the entire show.
The songs, however, were very much the same. “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” and “Heartaches” are but two of the seemingly endless stockpile of songs to come out of the Southland. 
The audience turned out in a rather impressive number, especially considering that My Fair Lady (at the college theater) drew a good portion of the Homecoming crowd. Those who attended the Fountain show were no less than super enthusiastic. It was a fitting reaction to the quality of the show.
In addition to music, there was comedy. A trombonist strained a rather good Louis Armstrong impression, and throughout the entire show, the xylophonist, Godfrey Hirsch (who looks remarkably like Allen Funt), offered his frequently hilarious mannerisms which served as silent commentary.
The entire group, which Fountain fondly refers to as “The Lawrence Welk Rejects,” played very well.
The Teachers College Homecoming ’67 ended on a harmonious note, with a memorable combination of Pete Fountain Dixieland and Hornet Football victory. 
And Silent Joe rang out, “A one-uh, a two-uh….”

Note : “Silent Joe” was (and is) the school’s bell tower located at the football stadium. After each football victory, it rings. When Emporia loses, the bell remains silent.