Not the Goods, but Good Woody

For pure silliness, Woody

Allen’s back in the driver’s seat with The

Curse of the Jade Scorpion , an affectionate wink at those noirish 1940’s

comedies in which a doofus like Bob Hope and a good-sport lady sidekick like

Dorothy Lamour are pursued by Nazis, Oriental gumshoes and Peter Lorre. In

period clothes and timeless confusion, Bob (er, Woody) plays a grungy, myopic

little insurance investigator who cracks cases with tips from ex-cons, street

urchins and assorted Damon Runyon rejects, and Dottie (er, Helen Hunt) is the

office efficiency expert who makes his life miserable, wrecking his reputation

and his filing cabinets while having an affair with the bulbous boss (Dan

Aykroyd). Although the office worm and the lady automaton hate each other, they are coerced into being hypnotized by a sleazy nightclub

magician dressed like a swami (the Boris Karloff role). While they’re in a

trance, they are given key words which, whenever spoken, return them to their

somnambulistic state long enough to (1) believe they’re lovers and (2) pull off

a series of daring jewel robberies under hypnosis.

If

you’ve lost the thread of concentration, not to worry. The plot is as valuable to your enjoyment as a

60-year-old ration coupon for Oxydol. The real fun is watching them switch

personalities. Whenever the phone rings and the swami says, “You’re in the

power of the Jade Scorpion,” the mousy schnook and the Our Miss Brooks from

hell become cat burglars whose lives intertwine in ways forced and predictable

enough to make you yell “Ouch!” He finds jewels in her chic bedroom; she finds

gems in his bachelor hovel; they both suspect each other, while withholding

evidence from the cops and propelling the film along with insults (“Germs can’t

live in your bloodstream-it’s too cold”).

This is not Woody’s

sharpest writing, and his direction lulls so often that I found myself nodding

off. But there are enough funny bits to make you want more. Woody wisely spares

us the details of their heists and cuts to aftermath; the period style and

butterscotch color of the great Zhao Fei’s cinematography are not overdone; the

source music is by Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller and Harry James; and there’s

even a sultry, amusing cameo by Charlize Theron as a dame in trouble that

brings back delicious memories of Veronica Lake, Lizabeth Scott and other 40’s femmes fatales . All good reasons to

consider this sweetie-pie nod to the old Hope-Crosby-Lamour Road pictures a nice antidote to the contemporary idiot farces we’ve had

this summer. Everybody involved appears to be high on rye old-fashioneds. Like

Mr. Webster’s dictionary, they’re Morocco-bound.

 

O Captain! Miscast Captain!

Unlike the long,

flatulent and unendurable novel by Louis de Bernières on which it is based, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (now there’s

a title to make them line up at the malls!) does not say “The End” at the end.

It would at least have been something to applaud. John ( Shakespeare in Love ) Madden’s bloodcurdlingly overproduced movie-as

one British critic observed when this epic flop opened in London in May, to

disastrous reviews-could only be improved by scrapping the text altogether and

adding a few tap-dancing penguins. You gotta love the Brits. Sometimes they say

it all.

This bloated mess tells

the complicated-beyond-belief story of one Captain Corelli, a fun-loving,

mandolin-plucking Italian army officer (played by the disastrously miscast

Nicolas Cage) who is sent to the idyllic Greek island of Cephallonia during World War II. There he falls in love with a local girl (Penélope

Cruz) at about the time the Germans attack. There is much sitting around the

dinner table sucking olives at night, much frolicking in the Mediterranean surf

by day, and much serenading by the Italian glee club in the market square

before Ms. Cruz’s father (John Hurt, hidden behind a white hedge of facial hair

as the wise old village doctor) says, “The history of Cephallonia is

earthquakes and slaughter for 2,000 years.” The excitement is a long time

coming, but when it arrives, the debris scatters and so do the extras. As the

languid Italian invasion force (more like a Malibu beach party with land mines instead of croquet

mallets) faces a full-throttle Nazi attack, there’s chaos and confusion.

Warships roar toward the coastline; people are executed; a woman is hanged from

a tree; and the Italian Lotharios who have been romancing the local girls find

themselves face down in the Greek dust, wearing their brains for berets.

In the fracas, Ms. Cruz’s

fisherman boyfriend (Christian Bale) returns from fighting the Germans on the

Albanian border and joins the Communist resistance. Mussolini surrenders. The

Germans conquer. Captain Corelli rushes home to Verdi and lasagna on the Via

Veneto. When he returns to Cephallonia a few years later, like a tourist

revisiting an old postcard, he finds that Ms. Cruz’s character has discovered

women’s lib and become a doctor (we know this because she’s traded her sandals

for a white uniform). A sappy fade suggests that the mandolin player has become

the American-Italian-English Patient. Did I fail to mention that nothing in

this absurd film is remotely convincing?

Despite the lush

cinematography-an intoxicating blur of blue ocean, gold beaches and green

foliage that drips with natural beauty and unnatural production values-the

movie is a dense haze of ouzo, mangled beyond salvation by a ridiculous script

by South African writer Shawn Slovo (“It is a beautiful night. All we should

think of is falling in love”; “When you

fall in love, it is a temporary madness”) and ludicrous miscasting from top to

bottom. Nicolas Cage is a million miles away from the flawed urban action

heroes he plays best; grappling with an accent that comes and goes like a wave,

he seems to lose confidence right before your eyes. There’s no chemistry

between him and Ms. Cruz (whose Spanish accent saddles her with problems of her

own trying to pass for Greek). When Mr. Cage is forced to look desperate, he

merely looks desperate for the nearest cell phone. When he’s singing the

Fascist songbook with his buddies, he seems to have been parachuted in from a brauhaus on Beverly Drive.

He’s not alone in his

discomfort. As father and daughter, Ms. Cruz and John Hurt share a crisis in

suntan continuity. For a feisty piece of work, Ms. Cruz just mopes around,

looking martyred in a peasant head scarf while hanging out the wash. They all

seem to have scarcely been introduced before the cameras started rolling. Then

there’s poor Christian Bale, who has descended from an astonishing hunk (in American Psycho ) to an anguished

afterthought. As Ms. Cruz’s jilted lover, he wears a haystack for a beard and

looks like a brawny Cephallonian Che Guevara with remote-control body odor. The

only authentic Greek face and voice in the whole cast is that of the great

actress Irene Papas, who brings to her scenes as Mr. Bales’ mother the dark

passion that is missing everywhere else.

The parallels between

this oafish opus and Mediterraneo -Gabriele

Salvatores’ 1991 film, based on a true story, of Italians stuck on an Aegean

island during the war-are inevitable. But Mr. Madden’s fiasco is pure Hollywood: The tangential characters are as wooden as palm

trees, the stars are there for the paychecks, and the fudged love story, set

against a backdrop of war, is on the same dismal par as the soap in Pearl

Harbor . At a running

time of more than two hours and a budget that could save the rain forests and

finance the next 20 years of embryonic stem-cell research, can’t they get

anything right?

 

She Sings, She Swings

Musically, Karrin

Allyson-one of the best American jazz stylists-has arrived in New York from her

native Kansas City in time to cool off the summer with a dreamy new CD called Ballads: Remembering John Coltrane

(Concord Jazz) that goes perfectly with that cosmopolitan you’ve got in your

hand. Rediscovering forgotten gems like “Say It (Over and Over Again)” and

refurbishing classics like “What’s New” and “Why Was I Born?”, Ms. Allyson has

a creamy, hypnotic style, smoky as a seasoned veteran from Stan Kenton’s cool

school but wholesome as a bobby-soxer. She appears more relaxed in pink angora

sweaters than strapless sequined dresses, and there’s a beautiful Technicolor

photo inside the CD to prove it. No wonder she sings “Too Young to Go Steady”

with such wistful longing. I always associated this moody song with Nat King

Cole, but it seems to be finding its way into the repertoires of several lady

chirps these days (Jane Monheit also sings it on Terrence Blanchard’s excellent

new collection of Jimmy McHugh songs, Let’s

Get Lost ). Karrin’s unique rendition is more rueful.

She also swings.

Classically trained, she accompanies herself admirably on “I Wish I Knew,” the

old Harry Warren ballad introduced by Betty Grable, but on the other 10 cuts

she is cradled in a hammock of perfection by some of the most talented

musicians on the planet, led by her superb pianist-arranger, James Williams.

Collaboratively, they create a mood of intimacy that honors the heartbreaking

saxophone solos of John Coltrane, yet her interpretations remain imaginative

and very personal. There’s a misty, uncomplicated quality in the way she sings,

talks and looks. As a jazz singer vocally re-creating the smoldering sounds of

Coltrane, she is something of a paradox, for she has a scrubbed, young-girl

look instead of the torchy, been-around appearance of most hard-edged jazz

stylists, and she exudes a carefree ambiance of playfulness onstage. You can

hear it on this remarkably mature CD, and then see it for yourself when she

makes one of her rare personal appearances at Birdland on Aug. 24 and 25.

Experience Karrin Allyson’s vocal magic; she’s a singer for settling back and

sort of melting into. Special stuff, indeed.