Sunday, February 28, 2021

Don't Make a Scene: Marty

The Story: "What are you gonna do?" "What do you wanna do tonight?" Most repeated phrases of The 2020 Pandemic beside "when can I get a vaccine appointment?" (Sorry, that's a 2021 line). It's a line that is almost a mantra in Paddy Chayevsky's Marty. I say "Paddy Chayevsky's" (as opposed to "Delbert Mann's" even though he directed this Oscar-winning Best Picture and the original television version on "The Philco Television Playhouse" in 1953) because Chayevsky is so much more an influence over it (in my mind) than Mann.  

That extended to the casting. Rod Steiger played Marty in the TV version, but when Harold Hecht and Burt Lancaster acquired it for the movies, they wanted Steiger to sign a multi-picture deal to do it. Steiger refused. Chayevsky had control over who directed and who was cast and Lancaster's co-star in From Here to Eternity, Ernest Borgnine was hired.

Fortuitous, I think. Borgnine had made an impression as the sadistic sergeant, "Fatso" Judson, and could have gone his whole career type-cast as villains. But, Marty showed another side to the actor. With a bulky frame and a face like granite, Borgnine could not be considered handsome, but he was inventive, moved quickly, and he had a performer's malleability to turn an emotion on a dime. 

When you watch Steiger do this scene, there is that vulnerability that is essential. But, when the character blows up, Steiger takes the frustration to a level of self-pity that borders on the helpless. Borgnine takes that path differently. With him, it's through anger. When he blows up, he blows big, and it's dangerous—he moves fast, and there's a feeling of reckless incapacitation. And his voice cracks. And for a moment, you feel the vulnerability in the rage, the power all busted up. It's impressive.

I always enjoyed watching Borgnine, good or bad; I remember the delight I had when he turned up in a bit-part in 2010's Red. He died in 2012, still working—mostly in voice-over—up to the last.

The Set-Up: Bronx butcher Marty Pilletti (Ernest Borgnine in his Oscar-winning role) is 34 years old and living with his Mother. Sounds pretty compact, but this is New York and everybody in the neighborhood knows everybody. And everybody knows Marty ain't married, so they tell him, as if he didn't know. So, why ain't he? You'd think you could escape from these questions in your own home, from your own mother. 

But, what are you gonna do?


Mrs. Pilletti ladles portions of food from the steaming kettles onto a plate that she brings into... 
...and sets it down before her son. Without a word, he picks up his fork and spoon and plunges into the mountain of spaghetti, adds cheese, eats away. 
Mrs. Pilletti takes her seat, folds her hands on the table, and sits watching Marty eat. 
MRS. PILLETTI So what are you gonna do tonight, Marty? 
MARTY I don't know, Ma. I'm all knocked out. I may just hang arounna house. 
Mrs. Pilletti nods a couple of times. A moment of silence. 
MRS. PILLETTI Why don't you go to the Stardust Ballroom? 
This gives Marty pause. He looks up. 
MARTY What? 
MRS. PILLETTI I say, why don't you go to the Stardust Ballroom? It's loaded with tomatoes. 
Marty regards his mother for a moment. 
MARTY It's loaded with what? 
MRS. PILLETTI Tomatoes. 
MARTY Ha! Who told you about the Stardust Ballroom? 
MRS. PILLETTI Thomas. He told me it was a very nice place. 
MARTY Oh, Thomas. Ma, it's just a big dance hall, and that's all it is. I been there a hundred times. Loaded with tomatoes. Boy, you're funny, Ma.
MRS. PILLETTI Marty...  
MRS. PILLETTI I don't want you hang arounna house tonight. I want you to go take a shave and go out and dance. 
MARTY Ma, when are you gonna give up? You gotta bachelor on your hands. I ain't never gonna get married. 
MRS. PILLETTI You gonna get married. 
MARTY Sooner or later, there comes a point in a man's life when he gotta face some facts, and one fact I gotta face is that whatever it is that women like, I ain't got it. I chased enough girls in my life. I went to enough dances. I got hurt enough. I don't wanna get hurt no more. 
MARTY I just called a girl just now, and I got a real brush-off, boy. I figured I was past the point of being hurt, but that hurt. Some stupid woman who I didn't even wanna call up. She gave me the brush.
MARTY I don't wanna go to the Stardust Ballroom because all that ever happened to me there was girls made me feel like I was a bug. 
MARTY I got feelings, you know. I had enough pain. No, thank you. 
MARTY Ma, I'm gonna stay home and watch Jackie Gleason The Hit Parade. 
MRS. PILLETTI You gonna die without a son. 
MARTY So I'll die without a son. 
MRS. PILLETTI Put on your blue suit... 
MARTY Blue suit, gray suit, I'm still a fat man. A fat ugly man. 
MRS. PILLETTI You not ugly. 
MARTY (his voice rising) I'm ugly... 
MARTY I'm ugly! I'm UGLY! 
MARTY Ma! Leave me alone! 
He stands abruptly, his face pained and drawn. He makes half- formed gestures to his mother, but he can't find words at the moment. He turns and marches a few paces away, turns to his mother again.
MARTY Ma, waddaya want from me?! Waddaya want from me?! I'm miserable enough as it is! Leave me alone! 
MARTY I'll go to the Stardust Ballroom! I'll put onna blue suit and I'll go! 
MARTY And you know what I'm gonna get for my trouble? Heartache! A big night of heartache! 
Sullenly, he marches back to his seat, 
...sits down, picks up his fork, plunges it into the spaghetti, stuffs a mouthful into his mouth, 
...and chews vigorously for a moment. 
It is impossible for him to remain angry long. 
After a while, he is shaking his head. 
MARTY Loaded with tomatoes...boy, that's rich. 
He plunges his fork in again, starts to eat. Mrs. Pilletti watches Marty anxiously as we... 

Marty is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from M-G-M Home Video and Kino-Lorber.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Atlantis, The Lost Continent (1961)

Saturday is traditionally "Take Out the Trash" day.

Atlantis, the Lost Continent (George Pal, 1961) After making one of his best films—1960's The Time Machine—fantasist/director Pal made one of his worst. Pal had been interested in making a fantasy film about Atlantis since he'd read a 1949 stage-play by Sir Gerald Hargreaves. but, timing is everything in the film business; Hargreaves' play may have exceeded its shelf-life and, due to an impending writer's strike, Pal ended up with a script that was half-baked.

It wasn't entirely his fault—he did the best with what was given to him, within the confines of a miniscule budget, forcing him to raid M-G-M's vaults for decor, props and film (a lot of which was culled from Quo Vadis? but also The Prodigal, The Naked Jungle, and...Kismet? Forbidden Planet?) and a mandate from M-G-M to take his long-in-gestation project and making something that would appeal to the same market as the Steve Reeves "Hercules" films and The Last Days of Pompeii. The bar was set so low that only a desperate director (with a large bank account and/or home equity loan) could clear the bar without breaking his back in the cinematic equivalent of a snake-belly limbo contest.
The film begins with the ultimate opening crawl—a narration with graphics of some five minutes in length* (and intoned—one would not use the term "spoken" for this—by Man of a Thousand Voices, Paul Frees, and he gets his own credit as "Narrator") explaining the reason why scholars might think there was a "Missing Link" of a civilization that would explain similarities in culture between the Euro-Afric-Asian expanse and the Americas. The facts are piled on interminably, not allowing time for anyone to say "Holy Pangea! it's due to continental drift caused by shifting plate tectonics!" But, then, if you were saying that (risking an incoming avalanche of popcorn), you probably wouldn't be buying the appearance of giant crystal-ray weapons and a cameo by Poseidon. The anthropological lesson is a show-stopper right from the "Leo" logo. It doesn't get much better.
Demetrios (Sal Ponti, credited as "Anthony Hall") and his father (Wolfe Barzell) are fishing off the Greek coast when they catch something quite unexpected—a beautiful girl, who is soon revealed (mostly by her haughty manner) to be Princess Antillia (Joyce Taylor) of Atlantis. Demetrios is intrigued enough by her loveliness that he resists the urge to throw her back, but does seek to return her to her home—once she bestows permission—whether to meet the parents, or to expand his horizons, or to see if there are any more like her but without being so stuck-up is hard to determine.
Demetrios and Antillia take the fishing ship to the Mediterranean and past the Pillars of Hercules to the open ocean, where, due to the work of Poseidon becomes a difficult slog. They are saved by a reptilian-looking submarine, which provides them passage all the way to Atlantis, where Princess Antillia is welcomed back with much fanfare, and Demetrios (being a foreigner) is rewarded by being arrested and thrown into the slave camps, where he must work in Atlantis' active volcano trying to dig out power crystals that absorb the heat of the sun. Atlantis sounds like a lousy vacation spot, and like any border town I've ever visited.
Demetrios will get no help from Antillia's Dad, Atlantis' King Cronus (Edgar Stehli)—he's being advised by the villainous Zaren (John Dall) who is using the dubious talents of Sonoy the Astrologer (Frank DeKova) to influence the gullible King. Zaren's plot is to use those crystal's, which have provided light and heat to the citizens, and to weaponize it into a ray weapon, with which he intends to (dare I say it?) rule the world. Sure thing, rather than have their power needs provided for, any intelligent citizenry will forego them to satisfy the megalomaniacal desires of their leaders. I'd say that was sarcasm, if I didn't see it happen in front of my own eyes lately! Of COURSE, they're gonna let the bastard Zaren have his death machine. They'll even PAY for it, too. (Oh, they'll pay, alright, but I'm getting ahead of myself)
At some point, Demetrios is taken from the volcano to be turned into a beast-like human-animal hybrid—some kind of splicing is involved here, but whether it's DNA or the plot for "Island of Dr. Moreau" to beef up the movie is up in the air—but is given the chance to escape the fate by a battle with an ogre, which he wins handily, and is thus allowed to become a citizen of Atlantis. Worst Naturalization Policy ever! But, it does allow Demetrios to wander around in places a slave wouldn't be allowed in order to drive the plot forward. That's enough for him to notice that all the wildlife is voting itself off the island, a sign to High Priest Azar (Ed Platt) that Disaster is coming to the island, and explains to him about the Power Crystal Ray that Zaren is constructing. Platt's ability to keep a straight face no matter what silly thing he's asked to do (famously utililised in TV's "Get Smart") does him well in this role, as it convinces Demetrios to cozy up to Zaren in an attempt to sabotage the weapon.
You'd think that Zaren would be paranoid enough to suspect that a former slave who'd been thrown into the mines after rescuing a Princess might not have the villain's best interests in mind...but, ya know, a little flattery has shown to be very effective in impressing the most monomaniacal of leaders. Loyalty is their kryptonite. And, wouldn't you know, when Zaren starts his little Expansion plans by demonstrating the ray-beam, it coincides with the volcano dominating Atlantis erupting, earthquakes rumbling, and models of buildings falling like so many Lego constructions.
Back to the splicing: so many shots of disasters from other movies get threaded together with stock-footage of natural lava flows that, if you're to believe this movie, Atlantis didn't so much sink as get mashed up. One should not be looking at their watch while an entire civilization is decimated, but Atlantis, the Lost Continent made me callous. By the end, I didn't care about the characters, the continent, or what movie they re-used the footage from. That last one just doesn't sound like me.

I did care about George Pal, though. He would rebound from this, making the story sequences of The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm and the quite delightful The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao, as well as producing a few other films before his death in 1980. He was a master at stretching the imagination and—as evidenced here—a budget. And his work has been influential among the current crop of directors of the fantastic. 

But, this one? It should probably stay sunk.

* I decided to "asterisk" the narration so it wouldn't stop the review from proceeding:

"When Columbus discovered America, a series of mysteries arose to confound the scholars of Europe. Here are two continents, completely isolated from each other, yet they simultaneously developed similar cultures. For example, the Mayans measured time on the same principle as the Gregorian calendar of Europe. They used the same signs of the zodiac, the same decimal and mathematical system. They valued silver and gold, using both for jewelry and barter. Another mystery was the banana plant, a native of Asia that cannot be grown from seed, yet Columbus found it thriving in the New World. Elephants at that time did not exist in the Americas, yet their likenesses were cleaved on the walls of prehistoric caves in Peru. The pyramids in Mexico and in Egypt were built on identical architectural principles. Then there was the striking resemblance of a witch of Spain, and the witch depicted in the New World. But the most significant of all, Mayan and Aztec legends shared with Greek and Hebrew and Assyrian literature an account of a terrible deluge, a deluge many believe had destroyed the link, the mother empire, that had spread her civilization to both sides of the Atlantic. The Greek scholar Plato recorded this theory first, over two thousand years ago. There was once another continent: Atlantis: The Lost Continent."
Atlantis is not credited with the phrase "Location. Location. Location."

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Written at the time of the film's release...

"Forewarned is Fore-armed (and Don't Call Me 'Shirley')"

"'Well, well,' said he, at last. 'It seems a pity, but I have done what I could. I know every move of your game. You can do nothing before Monday. It has been a duel between you and me, Mr. Holmes. You hope to place me in the dock. I tell you that I will never stand in the dock. You hope to beat me. I tell you that you will never beat me. If you are clever enough to bring destruction upon me, rest assured that I shall do as much to you.'

"'You have paid me several compliments, Mr. Moriarty,' said I. 'Let me pay you one in return when I say that if I were assured of the former eventuality I would, in the interests of the public, cheerfully accept the latter.'
"The Final Problem" Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is the inevitable (and one should say quick-on-its-heels) follow-up to Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes, and as an adaptation of Conan Doyle's "The Final Problem," It has as much source-relationship as the later Bond films have to Fleming—the bare-bones structure is there, but it's pumped, plumped, and trumped-up to fulfill the needs of action, humor and modern audience identification.
Really, "The Final Problem" is enough, we don't need the world-conquering machinations of Professor Moriarty (The Napoleon of Crime, the Scourge of London, and Holmes' best match) to make him a worthy adversary. He merely needs to be omnipresent by means of his web of chicanery, rather than an omniscient history-maker. In fact, Conan Doyle's Moriarty would rather his bad work went undetected, as opposed to this movie's version producing a shattering World War. Here, in the words of Robert Downey Jr.'s Holmes, the plot is "so overt, it's covert," involving twins who aren't twins, TB, the Romany, anarchists, darts for various purposes, intricate explosive devices and not-so-intricate shell-firing ones, countries that can't be named ("although they speak French and German"), and the prospect of "war on an industrial scale."

20/20 hindsight always looks like genius when set in the past.
Actually, it's pretty clever how the doom-laden inevitability of "The Final Problem" is translated into the fore-shadowing of the war-torn 20th Century (the screen-writers are the wife-husband team Michele Mulroney and Kieran Mulroney*), and its focus on large artillery and semi-automatic "machine-pistols" has a nice hard edge as opposed to the original film's emphasis on the psuedo-occult. 
But, director Ritchie seems to have lost of his edge somewhat, as the fight-sequences (and there are many) are nicely fore-shadowed with flash-cut Holmsian cognitive pre-functioning, but when the fisticuffs and baritsu moves start flying, the action is hard to follow, even when the action is slowed to a crawl—there is far too much ramp-editing and Matrix-y "bullet-time" FX in the film for no good purpose other than to slow down the practical and digital effects and give us the illusion of "wow, that was close." (Thanks, we assume that fire-fights and shellings are dangerous things). However fast the editor can manipulate images, one still gets the impression of the film being a bit too "fussy" for its own good, delaying information or simply obfuscating it for a later time, giving one the impression that one is seeing a lot of the movie twice. Efficient, it ain't, even if the titular character is supposed to be the height of it.
Also, although the first of Downey's adventurings could be seen as being a nicely nuanced (if scruffy) interpretation of The Great Detective, here the character is allowed to go a little more broad, dressing in comedic drag ("I admit, it's not my best disguise") and another, which is actually taken from The Pink Panther series (mind you, Steve Martin's "Pink Panther" series), the comedy is played up and not necessarily in character, and Holmes is seen to be practically infallibleeven his getting seriously hurt is all part of his plan.
Downey, Jr. is great at playing this, even if it's a more absurd version of Holmes, and Jude Law again plays Dr. Watson (now with a severe limp and who is only now about to be married to Mary Morston, again played by Kelly Reilly) and it's one of Law's best performances, quick as Downey and capable of the slowest of "burns." Law's role is expanded somewhat and he makes the most of itThe two are joined (briefly) by Rachel McAdams, reprising her role as "the woman" Irene Adler, but is soon replaced by Noomi Rapace's gypsy princess Simza. Aiding and abetting is Stephen Fry, as Holmes' smarter, drier brother Mycroft (it might actually be considered type-casting), with Jared Harris as the coolest of Moriarty's (Brad Pitt was initially considered for the role), as well as being one of the youngest.
As fun as it is, one can't help but look at it as a step down—the filmmakers are getting further afield of the Holmes characterization, and it's only a matter of time before the Downey, Jr. version is locked into buffoonery and slapstick, and it comes perilously close to teetering off the edge here. As it is, this plot is more reminiscent of the Basil Rathbone films set during WWII—entertaining if anachronistic fluff.
Paget's Strand Magazine illustration of the first of two Holmes-Moriarty encounters.

* Kieran is the brother of Dermot Mulroney, husband of Michele, and you may best remember him from "Seinfeld" as the fellow who gets bent out of shape at a funeral reception when he see George Costanza double-dipping a chip.