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Thursday, July 30, 2009

STRANGE CARGO (1940)

Though in many respects this is a typical Escape From Devil’s Island sort of pic, the cons in the getaway boat are far more motley than usual. There’s a couple of gorgeously deglamorized stars (Clark Gable & Joan Crawford); a Nietzschean superman (Paul Lucas giving the film’s best perf and even getting a final God-defying Don Giovanni moment); a nascent gay couple (Albert Dekker & John Arledge, these two woo & serenade each other!); a couple of easy victims to feed the sharks; and, by-golly, Jesus Christ, hisself! Well, in the form of Ian Hunter who was more effectively incognito as Richard-the-Lionhearted in ROBIN HOOD/’38. Peter Lorre hangs around this odd fraternity (natch), not in the boat, alas, but waiting on shore. Of course, helmer Frank Borzage was a very religious fellow, which may explain this assignment, but a deeper mystery is how quickly his great talent petered out after his next pic, the sublime THE MORTAL STORM/'40.

SCREWY THOUGH OF THE DAY: How’d this ever get by the Production Code? Even the Legion of Decency condemned it. Not because Paul Lucas walks off sans punishment, not because of the gay couple, but probably because Crawford & Gable (in their eighth & final co-starring vehicle) kiss away without any pancake make-up coming between them. And they look like they mean it.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

THE SILVER CHALICE (1954)


Paul Newman apologized in print for his debut in this biblical epic. And he is plenty bad. But the film is more odd than awful. With THE ROBE still coining dough in all its CinemaScopic grandeur, why not make . . . err, THE CUP! Okay, okay, bad title. How ‘bout THE SILVER CHALICE? Newman plays a disinherited adoptee who’s torn between a pagan blond (the slightly worn Virginia Mayo) and a Christian brunette (perky Italian-accented Pier Angeli) and on the run from a magician with a messiah complex (Jack Palance). The plot completely falls apart in the third act (where’s the cup?), but the look of the film is a knock-out. Victor Saville, winding up a long career as producer/director, seems to have left the actors to their own devices, but he & lenser William Skall gave the production an artsy abstract look completely at odds with the then current ultra-realistic Hollywood style. It’s more Robert Edmund Jones or Euro-Fest Opera than Hollywood kitsch. And with Franx Waxman’s palpitating score, it sounds like an opera, too. Waxman’s a naughty boy here, giving the chalice a leitmotif right out of Wagner’s PARSIFAL. Holy Grail, Batman!

Monday, July 27, 2009

UP THE DOWN STAIRCASE (1967)



A funny thing happened to this new-teacher-in-a-tough-school tale, it improved with age. Perhaps it’s the verisimilitude of mid-60s NYC (for ‘67, the jumps in ambient sound are as unusual as the roughness in Joseph Coffey ‘s spirited lensing). Perhaps it’s because Sandy Dennis, as the newbie teacher, had yet to hit the tipping point in tics & mannerisms that would scuttle so much of her work. Perhaps it’s getting to see an entire cast made up from the NYC/B’way acting pool, especially a fascinating perf from Patrick Bedford (straight from Brian Friel’s PHILADELPHIA, HERE I COME) as a cold-blooded intellectual English teacher. Perhaps it’s the sheer modesty of the story’s conclusion, Dennis simply decides to stick out the year. Whatever. Somehow the partnership of helmer-Robert Mulligan & producer Alan Pakula honor a nearly formless quality far removed from the expected naïf teacher/tough kids/life’s lesson tropes of so many similar pics. Check out TO SIR WITH LOVE, a much bigger hit from the same year, to see how differently films can age.

BARNUM (1986)



Very few of these BBC live stage-to-video musical transfers work as well as this. This is basically Joe Layton’s original B’way staging which re-imagines the life of Phineas Barnum as a one-ring perpetual motion circus. The lead role needs an astonishingly gifted performer and Michael Crawford fills the bill down to his toes. While he misses some of the dark corners Jim Dale brought to his B’way assumption, Crawford is a far better vocalist and his sunnier ‘take’ perfectly fits his lanky form & sandy-haired coloring. It’s one of the greatest perfs ever caught on tape and fully worthy of the marvelous Cy Coleman/Michael Stewart score which sounds wonderful in Hershy Kay’s faux circus band colorings. The show is even better than you may recall, with a first act finale (a gasp-inducing live tight-rope walk from Crawford) and an immensely touching farewell from Barnum’s wife that are paradigmatic examples of just what magic B’way musicals are capable of. Terry Hughes ' video direction is barely adequate and the video transfer (from a PAL source?) needs an upgrade, but don’t let that stop you. This one’s a gem. Cameron Macintosh is trying to get a new London staging up. What a role this would be for Hugh Jackman.

NOTE: So, ten days after posting this, Hugh Jackman is announced as signing up to play P.T. Barnum in an original Fox musical. Presumably the Coleman/Stewart score is tied up elsewhere. What a sad waste. By the way, they are also trying for Anne Hathaway to play Jenny Lind when she's perfect for Charity, Barnum's staid wife. Ah, Hollywood. Even when they get it right, they get it wrong.

Friday, July 24, 2009

THE PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND (1936)

The first film John Ford made at 20th/Fox with new studio head Darryl F. Zanuck as his official producer was this solid bio-pic from a tight Nunnally Johnson script about Sam Mudd, the country doctor who set John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg after the Lincoln assassination. Any historical doubts are ignored to focus on the harrowing military trial & incarceration of the good doctor. And accordingly, Ford’s work is less personally distinctive and more ‘well-made’ than usual, which explains why this finely realized work is less celebrated than it deserves. Warren Baxter is unexpectedly effective as the victimized doc, though his on-and-off Southern accent caused an early rift between Ford & Zanuck. The film now has its own historical interest in the racial attitudes on display which run the gamut from enlightened to cringe-inducing.* But this bleak look at the dangers of rushing to justice and the balance of political expediency versus the power of the truth would be treated with more complexity (and finesse) by Ford in his post-WWII films.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Speaking of cringe-inducing, this film gives a good idea of Zanuck’s horrible taste in film scores before he got wise and hired Alfred Newman to run all things musical @ Fox. (The old Hollywood scuttlebutt was that Zanuck got his musical advice from his barber while getting shaved.) Even so, someone could have mentioned that the film’s theme song "Oh, Maryland, My Maryland’ might be mistaken for ‘O, Tannebaum.’

Thursday, July 23, 2009

FANTASTIC VOYAGE (1966)


Baby boomers have an inexplicable soft-spot* for this slow moving adventure yarn about a motley mix of doctors & military types who shrink all the way down to the size of a microbe (along with a submarine) so they can be injected into the blood stream of a comatose VIP. It was dopey but fun back when . . . now, it’s just dopey. They’re remaking it with lots of CGI and (hopefully) 3-D effects and you’d have to be pretty hardcore to mind much. Amuse yourself trying to guess which actor ‘went up’ the most in each scene (I vote for Edmund O’Brien, even when he’s not in the scene you can feel him supressing his giggles) and be appalled at the approving mention of intelligent design creationism. So much for all that scientific mumbo-jumbo. *Okay, okay, I know. Maybe it's young & yummy Raquel Welch.

LEATHERHEADS (2008)

The rise of professional football from its rag-tag beginnings is a natural for the movies. But George Clooney, who megs & mugs this misfire, leaves football behind for yet one more failed attempt at reviving screwball comedy. With its girl-reporter who finds herself squeezed between a tough old pro & a handsome young striver, this is Frank Capra/Howard Hawks territory (think, MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN/’36 and HIS GIRL FRIDAY/’‘40), but Clooney is (ahem) no Hawks or Capra. (People routinely say that comedy is so much harder than drama, but do they really believe it? Just compare Clooney’s decent work on GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK/’05 with this mess to see how true it is.) Renée Zellweger & John Krasinski don’t come off too well, either; and as for football . . . it's an after-thought, brought back for the slapstick climax. Who approved this script? The whole thing feels like a vanity project for Clooney and something of an anti-vanity project for Ms. Zellweger who has become all but impossible to photograph.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

THE MAN FROM THE ALAMO (1953)


This early Budd Boetticher ‘Oater’ may lack the distinctive tone & look he’d develop in the chamber Westerns he'd soon make with Randolph Scott, but it’s very good on its own terms. Glenn Ford is near his best as a taciturn Texan who’s been branded a coward for running away from a martyr’s death at The Alamo. The truth is he left honorably to check on the threatened families of his unit, but he’d just as soon die as explain himself. He purposefully falls in with the gang that killed his family and manages to save a whole town and destroy the gang with the help of his surrogate son, a loyal Mexican boy from his homestead. The action sequences are remarkably clear, the acting restrained but forceful (though all the women are Max Factor’d to death) and Boetticher keeps us off balance by making the good townspeople the scariest gang in the story, a lynch mob eager for victims guilty or no.

Monday, July 20, 2009

THE TEXANS (1938)


This Paramount Western mixes Civil War Reconstruction politics with buffo cattle drive theatrics in a theoretically intriguing manner, but under James Hogan (a ‘B’ list megger working with a big budget), it never reaches its potential to excite or unsettle. All the acting feels slightly off-key, including leads Joan Bennett as a hot-headed Dixiecrat with dreams of rebooting the Civil War & Randolph Scott as a forward-thinking ex-Reb who wants to make up with the new USA. Bonus points to Robert Cummings who's pricelessly awful playing a third-wheel Southern gent who's also a never-say-die Confederate. The excesses of Yankee carpetbaggers gets worked pretty hard to make our sympathies drift to the defeated South. But then, the whole narrative leaves a nasty taste in your mouth . . . which is largely what makes the story line hold our attention. If only the execution of the film were on par with Theodore Sparkuhl whose lensing runs the gamut from Golden-Age Hollywood portraiture through muddy realism decades ahead of its time. There’s definitely something going on in here, but you’ll have to work it out for yourself.

THE SCARLET CLAW (1942)


An unusually compelling opening combines with strong atmospherics for a high-grade Sherlock Holmes outing from the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce outfit. Set in a small Canadian town which helps to hide the modernization Universal insisted upon, the film has an emotional charge not attempted elsewhere in the series though it’s still compromised by a need for tastier players than Universal had at its disposal The tale cleverly reworks some elements from THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES with a phosphorescent monster on the prowl o’er the local marshlands. Naturally, Holmes pooh-poohs any occult explanation to unravel the twisty, tasty theatrical truth. Considering Conan Doyle’s actual descent into spiritualism, the script misses a lot of opportunities, but this handsomely mounted adventure is nothing to sneeze at.

Friday, July 17, 2009

LA CHINOISE (1967)


The fast-changing face of China has only added to the levels of prescient wit & irony in this Jean-Luc Godard masterpiece. The film brings a wicked eye to the youthful enthusiasm of upper middle-class leftist radicals who spend all their time organizing political/cultural symposiums for themselves and then critiquing them.* Godard emphasizes their impotence by setting most of the film inside an apartment borrowed from a wealthy relative which then sets up a key moment when a regular tenant is glimpsed walking by their landing. They've actually opened the door to the world for a moment. This flash of real-life casts a shadow on their sterile construct of pure intellectual existence and mirrors the famous reflection of Sacre Coeur in Jacques Tati‘s PLAY TIME, also 1967. Tati & Godard each keep traditional narrative at bay, but in the place of Tati’s calm craft, Godard takes a Brechtian delight in contrapuntal signage & in exposing the innards of the filmmaking trade. And, unlike PLAY TIME, LA CHINOISE seems all but designed for home viewing . . . and re-viewing.

*Godard gives us a clue to his own politics by having a negative film review of Nick Ray's JOHNNY GUITAR from a communist newpaper read out loud. Some thoughts really are unforgivable.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

BECOMING JOHN FORD (2007)


Nick Redman made this documentary on the iconic American director as an add-on to the magnificent Ford-At-Fox DVD box-set. It’s a painfully arty piece of selective criticism that’s all but a double portrait of Ford & studio head Daryl F. Zanuck. Fair enough for the post 1935 work, but what makes the box-set indispensable comes from the bounty of rediscovered Ford pics made @ Fox before the Zanuck era. With few exceptions, the excerpts & bloviators ignore these little seen beauties to rehash the usual Fordian debates of the late ‘60s auteur wars. (One fresh idea makes a visual comparison of Henry Fonda’s Young Abe Lincoln to Nosferatu! A delicious idea, but to what point?) The rest is boilerplate Film Comment stuff dressed up with fancy monochromatic lighting. A disappointment. But try and check out the Extras which include Ford's WWII documentaries, including a fine restoration of THE BATTLE OF MIDWAY/’42 which has long been circulating in horrendous public domain prints.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

JOHN ADAMS (2008)

David McCullough aims his American histories squarely at the typical smart kid from Junior High; he tames rather than illuminates his subjects. It pegs him below writers like Doris Kearns Goodwin, Joseph Ellis or Jean Edward Smith in this field. But the competitive element is reversed on this 7-part HBO series since films about the American Revolution are so notoriously weak; the bar has been set so low, mere adequacy shines brightly. In the leading roles, Paul Giamatti misses the ebullient energy that must have sustained Adams over the years. His whispered delivery is too Actors Studio and he often looks disconcertingly like James Levine of the Met Opera. Laura Linney goes all Meryl Streep on us here with a self-regarding perf that finds a special smile for every occasion & emotion. At least they make an effect which is more than can be said for Stephen Dillane whose Thomas Jefferson, that towering mass of unknowable brilliance & contradiction, is plain underwhelming. Happily, Danny Huston, Tom Wilkinson & David Morse all get their licks in as Sam Adams, Ben Franklin & George Washington, respectively. Megger Tom Hooper tries a lot of hand-held camera to keep things from turning into waxworks, but it doesn’t exactly help sustain period flavor. Still, how many films on the era get even this much right? And in the sequences in France where Adams, Franklin & Jefferson simply sit and talk; or during the episodes detailing Washington’s unhappy term as President, the material is allowed to engage us on its own merits. And it does, it does.

CONTEST: A well-known piece of classical music is pressed into service (again & again) during the episode that covers Adams' term as President. Name the composer, the piece of music and the famous film (by a most famous director) that prominently featured the same musical movement to win our usual prize, a MAKSQUIBS write-up on the NetFlix DVD of your choice.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: For a unique side-view of much of the action covered here, Jean Edward Smith's magnificent bio JOHN MARSHALL: DEFINER OF A NATION is hard to beat.

Monday, July 13, 2009

SPIRITS OF THE DEAD / HISTOIRES EXTRAORDINAIRE (1968)


Recent portmanteau pics come as cinematic appetizers (or l’amuse bouche, i.e. PARIS, JE T’AIME/’06 with 20+ episodes & 20+ meggers), but the 50s & 60s served up three or four entree-sized stories, big enough to sink your teeth into. This Edgar Allen Poe buffet offers three. First up is that alarming French hack Roger Vadim who channels his inner Hugh Hefner by tossing his then-wife, Jane Fonda, thru a series of medieval leather-orgies until she finds tru-love in the form of neighboring Count, Peter Fonda. Don’t worry, she waits until he’s reincarnated as a horse before ‘mounting.’ OY. Skip this if you haven’t a taste for camp. Things improve dramatically in Louis Malle’s immaculately realized take on a Poe-flavored doppelgänger story. A sadistic school bully grows up to be sadistic hedonist Alain Delon; he studies medicine but lives to sponge & control. His current victims are a cadaver & Brigette Bardot who only looks like a cadaver in her brunette get up. But Delon is exposed as a cheat by his mysterious double and revenge² is all but inevitable. Finally, Federico Fellini puts the narcissistic beauty of Terence Stamp thru the ringer as he takes his sports car for a spin thru a maze of streets Escher might have laid-out. (The spooky laughing girl Stamp is looking for is something of a precursor to a score of Japanese horror pics made decades later.) Fellini got the best reviews, but Malle’s segment now looks like a forgotten classic. And a very creepy one at that.

NOTE: The available DVD from HVE is in French only, with English subtitles, though the film was shot in French, English & Italian It's all dubbed in the 60s Euro-style, but watch Jane Fonda's lips and you'll see she is sometimes speaking French & sometimes speaking English. And that's her own voice in the dubbed French . . . just as flat as her normal English.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

THE WORLD MOVES ON (1934)

You’ll see why helmer John Ford loathed making this historical saga about the ups & downs of two families who intermarry their way thru Europe & America to control a vast cotton & textiles empire. The film is at its extravagant worse in the antebellum New Orleans prologue where a fruity Franchot Tone & a beauteous Madeleine Carroll deny their mutual rapture for the sake of family ties. But four reels in, WWI comes to call and the film blazes to life. (The Fox execs must have been hoping for CAVALCADE/'33 meets FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE/'21.) Not only are the battle scenes remarkably advanced technically (with big lifts from WOODEN CROSSES and A FAREWELL TO ARMS, both ‘32), but the whole story improves, even the acting begins to register. Well, perhaps not Stepin Fetchit though he does speak a bit faster than usual. He remains a baffling & demeaning presence to modern viewers, yet he may be the only black actor from that time period to show up on screen as a combat soldier . . . and within an integrated unit. Hollywood racial history is more complicated than it often appears in selective surveys. Once the war ends, the film still manages to hold interest as the 1929 crash & the rise of fascism make brief appearances. Pro that he was, Ford could work effectively outside of his fach, just check out the delightful THE WHOLE TOWN’S TALKING/’35, and this much maligned film is not as dire as its rep. Just hold your nose for the first half hour.

CONTEST: Near the end of the film, there's a dead giveaway that this was released just before the Production Code clamp-down got under way. Find the tell-tale action to claim the usual MAKSQUIBS prize: a write-up on the NetFlix DVD of your choice.

PATRIOTISM (1966)

Four years before committing seppuku after attempting a pitifully under-organized amateur military coup, Japanese writer/provocateur Yukio Mishima staged a film version of a remarkably similar incident in the stylized tradition of a Noh drama. The film, long suppressed in Japan, has undeniable voyeuristic allure embedded in its 27 minute running time, but it can’t rise above Mishima’s narcissistic, masochistic fetishism that’s all but impenetrable to non-Japanese. And, no doubt, to many Japanese. Mishima hardly helps things by using a scratchy record of orchestral excerpts from Wagner’s TRISTAN UND ISOLDE as the main soundtrack to what is essentially a silent three-reeler. The disparity in culture is but nothing compared to the disparity in artistic achievement. Still, there is a brief cinematic epiphany when the wife joins her husband in death and the b&w film stock reverses image turning the expected blood splatter from black on white into white on black. A simple, but elegantly effective touch and far preferable to the gruesome, not to say, gaudy treatment of the officer’s disembowelment. Apparently, things did not go quite so smoothly on 11/25/70.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

DEADWOOD: Season One (2004)

Much lauded HBO Wild West series from tv vet David Milch begins promisingly with a couple of episodes that play like theme & elaborations on WILD BILL, Walter Hill’s fascinating 1995 flop fantasia on the Life & Times of Wild Bill Hickok. (Hill was personally onboard for the DEADWOOD pilot.) A lawless town, scrubby men & women, quick fortunes in gold, corpse devouring pigs, OTT scatological dialogue: the series is a surreal take on The West, an attempt to locate the truth behind a host of American myths. But Milch, who is famous for spewing out scripts for NYPD BLUE and HILL STREET BLUES in single spasms under the spell of creative fits (there are various fits in every episode), thinks that more plot, more character tics, more violence, more swearing, more . . . everything add up to bigger, better, truer drama. He mistakes baggage for complexity. The series quickly exhausts itself. Better acting might have helped. The nicer characters are blandly cast (at best) and even Ian McShane gets pretty hammy as the town’s leading Machiavelli. But it’s nice to catch up with Brad Dourif who’s splendid as the town doc and fun to see Powers Boothe morphing into Gregory Peck right before our eyes.

Monday, July 6, 2009

LE DERNIER METRO / THE LAST METRO (1980)


This late masterpiece from François Truffaut about a Paris theatre company trying to stay up & running during the Nazi occupation was just too damn enjoyable to get the critical attention it deserved. In some ways, it’s like the so-called ‘tradition-of-quality’ pics Truffaut had lustily attacked as a young film critic. But it also has the personal touches you find under the surface professionalism & genre forms that he championed in his beloved Hollywood auteurs. There are tips of the hat toward Hitchcockian suspense & Lubitschean comic sexual egoism here*, but Truffaut revels in his own touch, shown in the effortless manner he handles his cast of Janus-faced performers. (A matchless group from Deneuve & Depardieu on down.) By now, his technique is so refined you barely register that as his right hand handles a complex tale of spies, collaborators & occupying German forces, his left is juggling the jealousies & plot mechanics of an opening night theatre farce. It’s one of the great entertainments. Don’t hold that against it.

*He does miss a couple of opportunities for a bit of sexual confusion during a surprise Gestapo visit that Ermst would never have let slip by.

Friday, July 3, 2009

POIL DE CAROTTE / CARROT TOP (1925)

Julien Duvivier remade this silent pic of the famous Jules Renard novel as an early sound film in 1932 (not seen here), but this version, in an excellent DVD edition from Lobster, is hard to beat. Carrot Top is the unloved, unwanted runt in a wildly dysfunctional French country family. Mom is a particular horror, but the eldest son, older sister & distant father aren’t far behind. The atmosphere is like something out of Cinderella, but this is no fairy tale as the remarkable location filming emphasizes. Hard work & constant rejection (at home, at school, even by the mom of the sweet little neighbor he dreams of marrying) take a heavy toll on the boy’s spirit. It’s not long before thoughts of ‘a barn, a beam & a rope’ overtake his mind. Grim doings. Yet somehow, Duvivier finds tremendous life & even shards of comedy in the daily grind. He certainly goes all out showing his wonderfully snazzy silent film technique. Lots of ideas from the likes of D W Griffith & Abel Gance are on proud display here, and Duvivier & his cameraman get some nifty split-screen effects simply by rapidly swinging a hinged mirror in front of the camera. The acting is rather broad & crude for 1925, but the archetypes all come roaring to life. Carrot Top is André Heuzé in his one & only credit and you can all but hear Duvivier telling him just what to do. He’s dutiful, and he certainly looks the part! Now, we need the 1932 version on a restored DVD edition. (1/19/16 - And now we've got it in a 4-pac set: JULIEN DUVIVIER IN THE THIRTIES, look for it on Criterion.)

REGARDE LES HOMMES TOMBER / SEE HOW THEY FALL (1994)

Jacques Audiard joined the hyphenates scripting & helming this pic that has two converging stories. One deals with the troubles of two mismatched con-men, Jean-Louis Trintignant plays the crotchety surrogate dad with a gambling addiction and young Matthieu Kassovitz is an emotionally needy simpleton who's loyal to a fault. The second plotline follows the mid-life crisis of a failing salesman (Jean Vanne) who bungles his way thru an inpromtu stakeout, losing his cop pal to a mob shooting. Audiard can’t quite be bothered to sort out the plot lines (character is more his thing), but the up-sweep is that Vanne ends up on the trail of Trintignant & Kassovitz who have become tagteam assassins to pay off the gambling debts to the same mob boss. By film’s end, any original goals have morphed into something new and deadly, but tinged with a bit of mercy and maybe a bit of hope for the future. Got that? Audiard almost pulls this wonderfully original idea off, but he’s awfully cavalier with narrative details so you may have a hard time swallowing the next plot twist. Still, it’s often smartly handled on the technical side and crammed with great perfs, especially from Kassovitz who manages to find lots of fresh nuance to his slow-thinking man-puppy. Too bad the current DVD edition is such a smeary transfer.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

FOUR JILLS AND A JEEP (1944)


Wan WWII number about four Hollywood babes (den mother Kay Francis, glamorous Carole Landis, jiving Mitzi Mayfair & comical Martha Raye) who go on an extended USO tour. These four gals really did go overseas on just such a trip, but you’d never guess from the formulaic script that there was the slightest bit of truth to the story. Too bad no one thought of trying to make a movie out of their real adventures. Jimmy Dorsey & the band are along for some nice back-up; Phil Silvers is always welcome (although his big comedy bit is a stinker); Alice Faye, Carmen Miranda & Betty Grable are wedged into the pic via radio broadcast (honest to Pete, we actually spend a couple of reels sitting around listening to Command Performance); but the only performer who got anything out of the pic was debuting crooner Dick Haymes who is some kind of smoothie. He plays Mayfair’s fella and when you see her eccentric leg kicks, you’ll know what the attraction is. Yikes!