Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Dinner and a Movie: Into the Storm

Seeking Haven from the Storm

By Steve Herte

What a stay-cation! My hotel, the "Night Hotel," was the weakest link by far. The only thing "sexy" about it was the lobby with its two columnar fish tanks and writhing chandeliers. My room was small – they had to put the mini-bar under the desk – which left me no place for my legs. But the bed was comfy and there was plenty of hot water. After all, it's just a base of operations. Sorry Ed, they didn't even have pay-per-view, and I couldn't catch up on movies. But the week went well. On Saturday, the street fair on 45th Street changed my restaurant plans to Bobby Van's Grill, which was surprisingly good for a steakhouse chain. My visit to the 911 Museum on Sunday was cavernous and vaguely creepy, but fascinating at the same time. But a visit to my all-time favorite restaurant, Henry's End, that evening made all that go away.

Monday, I took a day trip to Yonkers and played at Empire City casino - fun and not too much money lost. Tuesday was perhaps the highlight of the week with the Turner Classic Movies Tour – a three-hour bus ride (A three-hour tour. That sounds familiar.) around Manhattan – stopping at various place where famous movies were shot. I now know the exact subway grating where Marilyn Monroe's skirt went up. My Karaoke choices that night reflected movie themes.

Wednesday, it rained, and after a breakfast at Ellen's Stardust Diner (singing wait staff), I headed to a packed Museum of Natural History. They couldn't let anyone else in through the main entrance, so I entered through the Planetarium doors. There I saw a great 3D documentary on the Great White Shark and the new Planetarium show, “Dark Universe,” an intergalactic voyage.

Thursday and Friday were two of the most beautiful days I can recall: I spent one at the Botanical Gardens and the other at the Bronx Zoo. From there it was my movie night and dinner which, as you now see follow. Enjoy!

Into the Storm (WB, 2014) Director: Steven Quale. Writer: John Swetnam. Cast: Richard Armitage, Sarah Wayne Callies, Matt Walsh, Max Deacon, Nathan Kress, Alycia Debnam Carey, Arlen Escarpeta, Jeremy Sumpter, Lee Whittaker, Kyle Davis, Jon Reep, Scott Lawrence, David Drumm, Brandon Ruiter, & Jimmy Groce. Color, 89 minutes.

If there’s anything this movie states quite graphically, it’s that the weather has gotten more violent and unpredictable. So can acting ability. Into the Storm depends heavily for its credibility on its spectacular special effects and intense musical soundtrack to keep the audience gripping their seats in terror. If there hadn’t been such an abundance of reported tornadoes this year forming in all sorts of strange places (like Boston), the comic relief provided by two “Twista Chasers” would have lightened the mood considerably.

In yet another “hand-held-camera” filming event we meet the Fuller family, Gary (Armitage), Donnie (Deacon) and Trey (Kress), who are going about their usual day preparing for the Silverton High School graduation. The boys are in charge of filming the exercises for a “time capsule” to be opened in 25 years. There is obvious non-communication between the boys and their dad, and Donnie voices his concern several times. But dad is in the world of being the Assistant Principal of Silverton High School and making sure everything goes without a hitch. Little do they know the form and size the “hitch” will take.

The main plot revolves around Pete (Walsh) and his crew of storm chasers, who are depending on a grant to film tornadoes, and who are currently batting zero. Pete blames the newest member of his team, Allison (Callies), a young beautiful woman with a master’s degree in meteorology, for leading them in the wrong directions. The friction between the two is palpable and the rest of the team often tries to intervene. When other storm-chasing group and media representatives are heading to another town in Oklahoma, Allison insists that Silverton is the one that’s going to be hit. At first, it looks like she’s wrong again and Pete is fuming, until golf-ball sized hail starts falling outside their motel and they race to their vehicles.

Pete has designed an armored “tank” he calls “Titan” that can drill into the surrounding pavement and withstand the highest wind speeds of any known tornado. His goal is to position Titan directly into the path of one and discover what the “eye” is like, and record this for posterity (and his individual fame). Be careful what you wish for, Pete!

Donnie talks his brother into an encounter with the girl of his dreams, Kaitlyn (Carey), but doesn’t expect Donnie to volunteer to assist her on re-recording her term assignment, thus leaving him alone to film the graduation. Trey and Kaitlyn go off to an abandoned lumber mill to complete her statement about the environmental hazard of such a building still existing.

Cue the wacky weather. The supercell expands to ridiculous size and starts breeding tornadoes everywhere. Pete is excited and positions his Titan in the path of one that dissipates just before it hits him. Donk and Reevis (Davis and Reep), the redneck “Twista Chasers,, are ecstatic and get drunk to celebrate. A downpour interrupts the high school ceremonies, and everyone heads inside. Whoops! A tornado hits the building and tears off half the roof, raining debris down on the frightened students. The Principal (Lawrence) eventually gets everyone into the storm cellar of the high school. Meanwhile, Trey and Kaitlyn are trapped in the wreckage of the lumber mill.

But that’s not all. Two major tornadoes touch down and merge into a category 5 miles-wide tornado, with wind speeds of up to 300 miles per hour, and heading straight for the school. This breaks a water pipe that starts filling up the well in the lumber mill’s floor where Trey and Kaitlyn thought they would be relatively safe until being rescued. Gary and Allison convince the Principal that they have to get all the students out before this monster hits. A line of school buses filled with terrified kids starts down the road just ahead of the huge tornado as it destroys the school and, in an impressive special effect, the airport.

Gary still wants to find Trey and Allison, and he risks life and limb (quite a few trees are tossed around) to do so. The heroes of our story find themselves in a storm drain as the mega-tornado hits, and Pete blocks the grating with Titan. This works until the eye of the tornado crosses and the back winds (much, much worse) hit. The grappling cable from Titan breaks and Pete is airborne. He travels up and up the funnel until he reaches the top (and this is where fantasy meets fact) and views glorious sunset-hued clouds and bright sunlight (but no land of Oz and no soft wicked witch to land on as he heads back down).

Into the Storm seems to make too light of a serious force of nature. It both scares you and makes you laugh. The storm scenes are very intense and violent, which is something I expected. But when Donk and Reevis are still alive and joking (and hanging from a tree) at the end, I had to say to myself, “Really?” It’s a graphic movie about the havoc tornadoes can cause. Heavy vehicles are dropped randomly and at one point a child’s pink tricycle is shown protruding from the door of a van. Think about how your children will react to this before taking them. I was entertained for the full hour and 29 minutes, but it may not have been what the director intended.

Rating: 3 out of 5 Martini glasses.

Haven on Rooftop
Sanctuary Hotel132 West 47th StreetNew York

Climb the red-carpeted stairway to the entrance of the ornate façade of the Sanctuary Hotel and a doorman will open the heavy wooden door for you. “Dining on Roof-top?” “Yes.” “Follow this gentleman to the end of the corridor.” “Thank you.” 

The elevator takes you to the ninth floor where you exit left and see a blue door and hear laughter and conversation over the contemporary music above. You climb a short staircase and are now in Haven, an airy open space wrapped around the roof of the hotel. There are plexiglass panels to protect the diners from the wind, and colorful triangles of canvas hung overhead interspersed with plastic sheets to protect from rain. Beautiful people are all around dining at shiny polymer-treated wood tables enjoying cocktails and each other. In a corner of the roof is the bar with a flat screen television above it.

The young lady at the Captain’s Station greeted me and led me to a taller table toward the back flanked by three high stools. She asked me if this was OK or if I would prefer to wait for a conventional table. I saw that there was a wall for me to lean on should I need it and accepted the table.

Soon, Tara, my lovely waitress, arrived with a narrow, single-sided menu card and an accompanying two-sided drink menu. I chose the “Safe Haven” – Absolute mango vodka, passion fruit and ginger beer – and took my order to the bartender. The food menu is divided into Appetizers, Salads, Entrees, Pastas, Sides, “To Share” and Pizzas. Judging that the “To Shares” would be large and seeing for myself as some were served at the next table, I ignored that part of the menu. The cocktail was delightful and refreshing, reminding me of a night in Bermuda. I didn’t know Absolute made a mango-flavored vodka. I’ll have to look for it.

Eventually, I decided on a two-course meal as three would be too much food. I chose the Crab and Avocado Palette as my appetizer. The presentation of certain dishes always amazes me. Here, in the center of an immaculate white dish was a cylinder consisting of jumbo lump crabmeat on the bottom and coarsely chopped avocado on top, crowned with a slice of lemon and with a drizzle of avocado puree on either side. Delicately maneuvering my fork I was able to get portions of both avocado and crab and enjoy them together. It was light and rich at the same time.

At this point I asked Tara why there existed a side of “truffled fries” when two of the four main courses already came with fries. “Oh, those are just regular fries. But some people just like fries and they order both.” I did. The Steak au Poivre made to my order with a Mesclun Salad and “regular” fries was nicely spicy and the vinaigrette dressing on the salad was tantalizing. 

The paper cone of truffled fries was suspended in a steel wire-serving device that also had arms to hold catsup and mayonnaise dipping sauces. As I watched the truffle oil drip slowly onto the table from the paper cone I wondered how I could stop such a waste. But, remembering that I’m on vacation I put that thought out of my head. I just enjoyed my steak and fries, fries, fries and another “Safe Haven.” The day had been beautiful and the evening breeze made a rare al fresco dining experience very special for me.

When I finished my main course there was still quite a bit of the truffled fries left. I ordered a glass of chardonnay to accompany them. But then, Tara brought the dessert menu. “Pack up the fries! I’m having dessert.” The Chocolate Mousse sounded so heavenly I had to order it and the Rice Pudding Martini was inevitable. Both arrived in stemmed martini glasses. I remarked to the server, “Is this decadence, or what?” The chocolate mousse was denser than my brother’s recipe but it was still sinfully delicious. The martini’s main flavor was coconut with a dash of clove. I suggested adding cardamom and bits of cooked rice to add to the mystique. “You should work here.” Tara said.

The limited menu of Haven on Rooftop makes me feel that each dish gets the proper care in preparation and from what I had, that must be the case. I’ll have to find a reason to return. This time with friends I can laugh and talk with.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Dinner and a Movie: The Hundred-Foot Journey

Why Did The Gander Cross the Road?

By Steve Herte

My Stay-cation started with a bang for sure: A movie that I had expected to blow me away (and it did) and a restaurant that evoked a previous one (The Guilty Goose). How can it get better than that? Well, I'll tell you. This past week, a representative of OpenTable.com (the ONLY source of my restaurant reservations) acknowledged that she had read my review of Hercules and requested to be a link on our Blog! (It's forthcoming.) How good is that? I thought, after 2,620 restaurants, that is pretty good. I welcome OpenTable to our family and hope they continue to read the best reviews of movies both past and present, and continue to enjoy restaurants as much as I do! Enjoy!

The Hundred-Foot Journey (Amblin/Harpo/Touchstone, 2014)  Director: Lasse Hallstrom. Writers: Steven Knight (s/p), Richard C. Morais (book, The Hundred-Foot Journey). Cast: Helen Mirren, Om Puri, Manish Dayal, Charlotte Le Bon, Amit Shah, Farzana Dua Elahe, Dillon Mitra, Aris Pandya, Michel Blanc, Clement Sibony, Vioncent Elbaz, Juhi Chawla, Alban Aumard, Shuna Lemoine, Antoine Blanquefort, & Rohan Chand). Color, 122 minutes.

It’s a love story, it’s a battle of wits, it’s a comedy, and it’s serious business. It’s the most beautiful movie of the year so far. Every superlative of praise applies to The Hundred-Foot Journey. I laughed, I cried (bring at least three tissues) tears of joy, I salivated, and rejoiced. The solid backing of Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey and the superb direction of Hallström combine with the flawless performances of Mirren, Puri, Dayal and Le Bon to create a breath-taking cinematic experience.

I admit I’m a little biased. I’m a foodie and two of my favorite cuisines are featured, Indian and French, but the storyline is also delicious. Papa (Puri) and his family have a restaurant in Mumbai, India, that is attacked by a faction in a major election war. Not only is the restaurant burnt to the ground, his dear wife also dies in the fire. Before the attack we see her and her son Hassan in the kitchen and she’s saying, “Cooking is about killing. You’re dealing with 'ghosts.' Can you taste the ghosts?” Though he’s a child (Chand), he seems to understand.

Papa decides to take the remainder of his family to Europe (anywhere but India) so that they can cook and live in peace. England is their first stop but the weather puts a very wet damper on their hopes. Once on the mainland, they pile into a rickety rattletrap of a van, and its brakes fail on a mountain road overlooking a picturesque French town. Fortunately, Marguerite (Le Bon) happens by, and can speak English. She helps the family down to the town (they literally have to push the disabled van) and opens her home to them for the night. The fresh vegetables and cheese she serves them lets Papa know that “brakes break for a reason,” and that this is where Mama meant them to be.

He finds a property for sale across the lane (exactly 100 feet away) from Madame Mallory’s (Mirren) single-star Michelin-rated French restaurant. Though she (and his sons and daughter) try to dissuade him, Papa is adamant and the Chateau Mumbai is born (complete with a false front Taj Mahal entrance. Hassan Kadam (Dayal) is the Chef, though he humbly calls himself a “cook.”) He learns through association with her that Marguerite is a Sous-Chef at Madame Mallory’s. She loans him essential books on French cuisine and gives him hints as to how to win over Madame Mallory (“Make her an omelet, if she likes it, you’re in”). A love affair begins to blossom.

Meanwhile, Madame Mallory and Papa are both beleaguering the town mayor (Blanc) with various allegations of infractions of the law and through their battling are becoming more and more attracted to each other. Papa’s daughter Mahira (Elahe) is the first one to notice what is happening. It’s not until Marcel (Aumard), one of Madame Mallory’s line cooks, has his friends toss Molotov Cocktails into the Indian restaurant and spray paint “La France a la Francaise” on the front wall that Madame Mallory realizes how serious the situation is getting. She fires Marcel (“I don’t pay you to BURN things”). Hassan’s hands are burned in the fire, but he invites Madame Mallory over to make an omelet (under his direction) and she is stunned at how good it is.

After haggling with Papa over the salary, Hassan goes to work at Madame Mallory’s restaurant and helps her achieve a second Michelin star. Then, as Madame predicts, the clamor arises from three-star hopefuls in Paris for this new Chef, and Hassan finds himself in an ultra-modern restaurant creating food art using all the latest break-through techniques in preparation. He’s lionized in Paris on magazine covers and news articles – that is, until his brother Mansur (Shah) appears one night with a traditional Indian dish. (Be ready with the tissues here.)

The Hundred-Foot Journey should receive several nominations for Academy Awards, not just for the acting, the story and the direction, but also for screenplay, cinematography, soundtrack and best movie. Mark my words. Up to now (in my humble opinion) it has no competition. Even children will like this film, though I’m not sure babies and toddlers will appreciate it. Maybe the two hour and two minutes will grant them some sleep time.

When Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet I just wonder whether he knew how timeless his story would be. There are elements of it throughout this movie and they’re just as poignant today as they were in Elizabethan times. If you never see another movie this year, see The Hundred-Foot Journey.

Rating: 5 out of 5 Martini glasses.

The Gander
15 West 18th Street (Between 5th and Broadway)New York

The unassuming exterior of The Gander humbly invites you (the name etched onto the front window is in lower-case gray lettering) to the warmly-decorated interior. You pass by the bar with its bright copper swags and are led into the main dining area lit by clusters of large-shaded lights looking like bongo drums. The bare-wood tables and comfy avocado green banquettes state their welcome simply and do not prepare you for the amazing feast to come.

As soon as I was seated and my server, Chad, presented me with the menu and wine list, I knew there was something different and special about this restaurant. The entire staff seemed genuinely friendly and glad to see you there. No pretensions. While Chad was off getting my water, I found a cocktail I just had to try. It was called Paloma de Barrameda (the Dove of the Canary Island People, as far as I could discover) – a bewitching brew of Tequila, lime, grapefruit, Agave, Manzanilla Sherry, Cardamom bitters and Mezcal Mist. (The cardamom ingredient made it a perfect segue from the movie I just saw.)

The dinner menu was broken down into categories of “Snacks,” “Charcuterie,” “Cheese,” “Starters,” “Pastas,” “Mains,” and “Sides.” Everything appeared intriguing and innovative. Chad listed the specials, which were every bit as interesting as the rest of the menu. I thanked him for his advice on various dishes and he left me to decide on a wine. The wine list was as impressive as it was diverse (and comprehensive!) but I finally settled on the 2012 “Le Cote” Pinot Noir from Millton Vineyards in Gisborne, New Zealand. It was a bright flavored red with a spicy after-taste and it proved itself worthy of every dish I chose.

For sheer “outré” shock value I started with one of the “snacks” – the “Buffalo” Sweetbreads with Bleu Cheese dressing and celery. I couldn’t imagine the combination of the delicate taste of sweetbreads with the bold spice of the Buffalo preparation. But it worked! The spice did not destroy the sweetbreads and they in turn did not succumb to it. The resulting dish was simply amazing! I learned later on that Chef Schenker has just published a book this year entitled All or Nothing, and this dish was “all.”

Next on my list was Beet Tortelli, with goat yoghurt, coconut and almonds. The succulent beets (a little smaller than ping-pong balls) were wrapped in tender pasta, sprinkled with coconut and almonds, and resting in the yoghurt. The menu did not mention the braised spinach wrapped around this wonderful delight. It was colorful and well as delicious.

On to the main course, which, if you know me, was duck. But not just duck cooked crispy. This was breast meat over summer cassoulet (lots of beans) and crispy hominy (corn grits). It wasn’t your familiar cassoulet or your familiar duck filet, it was both. With the crunch of corn grits, it became an amalgam of styles and cuisines that tantalized.

Now you may say, “After all this, he couldn’t possibly want dessert!” and you’d be wrong. The brown sugar corn cake with a slice of plum sorbet, lemon verbena, sesame flax pecans and ginger topped the meal exactly. (That and the Brooklyn-produced coffee made the dinner.) Did I mention an after-dinner drink called “Cardamamo?” You’d have to try it to understand. I will be taking another “gander” at the Gander in the future.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Cinéma Inhabituel for August 16-31

A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea


Our featured star this issue is the great Lee Tracy, who makes his debut with “Summer Under the Stars” with a day of his films on August 21.

Tracy is the quintessential Pre-Code star. Renowned for his wiseguy persona, impeccable timing and rapid-fire delivery, Tracy starred in 20 pictures between 1929 and 1933. However, in 1933, an incident in Mexico City during the filming of Viva Villa cost Tracy his job with MGM. He turned to freelancing, but as the years went on, the quality of his films declined. It was the coming of television that revived his career and Tracy made the most of it, starring in two series during the ‘50s. He also returned to the stage and won notice for his role as ex-President Art Hockstader (based on Harry Truman) in Gore Vidal’s The Best Man. He reprised the role in film in 1964, and was nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor.

I’m sorry to say that The Best Man is not among the films bring run this day, but many of his Pre-Code gems are being shown, including The Half Naked Truth, with Lupe Velez (3:45 pm), Love is a Racket (5:15 pm), Turn Back the Clock (6:30 pm), Bombshell, with Jean Harlow (8:00 pm), Blessed Event, my favorite (10:00 pm), Dinner at Eight (11:30 pm), Doctor X (1:30 am), and Clear All Wires (4:30 am).

Tracy is one of the lost treasures of the Pre-Code era, packing the manic energy, novelty, and innuendo of the era into his thin, redheaded frame.


August 16: On the day dedicated to Herbert Marshall, two gems are running back to back. First up at midnight is William Wyler’s remake of Somerset Maugham’s The Letter, starring Bette Davis as Leslie Crosbie. Marshall plays Bette’s husband, Robert Crosbie. Following at 1:45 am is the original 1929 version with Jeanne Eagels as Leslie and Marshall as her lover, Geoffrey Hammond, whom she shoots in a lover’s quarrel. It’s great to watch both back to back and compare the versions, one Pre-Code, and the other shot under the new censorship. The 1929 version is also important for film buffs, as it’s the first - and only - surviving appearance of Jeanne Eagels in a talkie. This version is also a helluva lot more frank. While I love Davis’ portrayal, I have to admit that Eagels has her beat by the proverbial country mile, overcoming the handicaps of the primitive sound system to deliver a performance that justifies her reputation as one of Broadway’s most-accomplished actresses. A long-time abuser of alcohol and drugs, Jeanne passed away on October 3, 1929, from an overdose of heroin.

August 20: It’s Thelma Ritter’s day, and the pick of the litter is her wonderful turn in Sam Fuller’s 1953 noir, Pickup on South Street (10:00 pm), starring Richard Widmark as a pickpocket who steals the wrong purse. This one belongs to a woman (Jean Peters) whose boyfriend (Richard Kiley), a Commie spy, has hidden top-secret microfilm in it. Naturally the Reds are eager to get the contents back and launch a manhunt for it. Ritter is Moe, an alcoholic ex-pickpocket who will sell information to anyone - except Communists. She garnered a well-earned nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her efforts. This is a brutal - and compelling - film where every character is a loser. For his part, J. Edgar Hoover hated it and sought changes in the way his agents were portrayed, but neither Fuller nor Fox Studio head Darryl Zanuck would give in to his demands. This is a noir that’s definitely worth one’s time.

August 26: The pick on a day devoted to the films of Sophia Loren is the venerable Two Women, from 1961. Sophia shines in this story of an Italian mother who, along with her daughter, is raped by Allied Moroccan soldiers during WW2. (Couldn’t make it the same way today. Political Correctness, you know.) How they manage to survive and get to safety is the story, which is wonderfully directed by Vittorio De Sica.

August 29: It’s Joseph Cotten’s day, and I would be remiss if I did not mention The Third Man (1949), with Orson Welles, showing at 12:15 am. Precious few movies are in a league with this masterpiece of intrigue, set in the divided city of Postwar Vienna. With a script by Graham Greene and direction by the great Carol Reed, what seems to us at first as a mere film noir is actually a complex look at morals, and that is why it’s a masterpiece.

August 31: Alan Ladd owns the day, and, at 8:00 pm, one of the greatest Westerns of all time is being shown: Shane. Ladd is the enigmatic former gunslinger who comes to the aid of homesteader Van Heflin, who is being harassed by evil land baron Emile Meyer. When Ladd drives off Meyer’s gunsels, the baron responds by hiring creepy gunslinger Jack Palance (in an unforgettable performance.) The film presents an image of a mythic West that in all likelihood existed only in the imagination, but who cares? This is Hollywood, and Hollywood at it best. Jean Arthur and young Brandon De Wilde are excellent as Van Heflin’s wife and son.


August 21: At 1:30 am, it’s Lee Tracy in Doctor X. He’s a reporter investigating a series of gruesome murders at a medical college headed by the film’s red herring, Lionel Atwill. The two-strip Technicolor process only adds to the film’s eeriness as Tracy pokes around corners and looks into crevices in search of the killer. Though it looks somewhat dated, made in 1932, it’s great fun. Horror fans will love it. Mystery fans will love it. Lee Tracy fans will love it. Fay Wray fans will love it. Get my point?

August 27: It’s Edmond O’Brien in three great psychotronic classics. First up at 8:00 am is The Hitch-Hiker (1953), an excellent noir directed by Ida Lupino. O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy are two businessmen on a hunting trip who make the mistake of their lives when they give a ride to William Talman, who turns out to be a murderous psychopath on the run. Lupino brought the same intensity that had marked her career as an actress to this low-budget film, basing it on the real-life story of serial killer William Cook. It makes for first-class entertainment and a must of lovers of noir.

Next, at 6:00 pm, O’Brien is a federal agent tailing psycho mommy-addled gangster Jimmy Cagney in Raoul Walsh’s White Heat. Cagney is superb as Cody Jarrett and O’Brien’s not too far behind as Treasury Agent Hank Fallon, who has been assigned to infiltrate Jarrett’s gang. It’s a non-stop roller-coaster of one great scene after another with a stellar supporting cast featuring Virginia Mayo as Jarrett’s duplicitous wife and Margaret Wycherly in a performance of a lifetime as Ma Jarrett.

Following at 8:00 pm is the role O’Brien is best known for, that of accountant Frank Bigelow in the noir classic, D.O.A. (1950). Bigelow has only a few hours to track down who gave him a slow-acting poison, and why. We are hooked right from the opening scene where he walks into a police station to report a murder - his own. They do not come any better than this one.

August 28: Looking for some pure escapism? Try Journey to the Center of the Earth, from 1959, screening at 8:00 pm. Based on a Jules Verne story, James Mason stars with Pat Boone and Arlene Dahl as explorers who discover a path to the center of the Earth in an Icelandic volcano. It’s a bit silly at times, but that only adds to the fun. It’s the sort of film they don’t make any longer: a good, old-fashioned adventure.

August 30: Here’s a good one starring Betty Grable, of all people: I Wake Up Screaming. (And wouldn’t you, if you found out you were co-starring with Victor Mature?) This 1941 Whodunit stars Grable and Mature as suspects in the murder of Grable’s sister. They are pursued throughout by dogged detective Laird Cregar, who steals the film. It airs at 11:45 pm.

August 31: A double-dip of psychotronic noir from Alan Ladd. At 12:45 pm, it’s Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key. This remake of the 1935 original has Ladd as the henchman to political boss Brian Donlevy. Donlevy is backing a reform candidate for governor because he’s in love with the candidate’s daughter, played by alluring Veronica Lake. When Donlevy emerges as the leading candidate in the death of the candidate’s son, it’s up to Ladd to clear his boss, all the while falling for Donlevy’s girl.

At 10:15 pm it’s the picture that put Alan Ladd on the star map, This Gun For Hire (1942). Ladd is stone-cold gunman Raven, who seeks revenge when his treacherous employer tries to frame him for the crime. The screenplay by Albert Maltz and W.R. Burnett is from Graham Greene’s novel, A Gun For Sale. Check my Best Bet in next week's TiVo Alert for more on this wonderful noir.

Speaking of Ladd, it would have been nice of TCM to show more of his earlier efforts, especially his 1939 picture, Hitler - Beast of Berlin, which he made for PRC predecessor Producer’s Distributing Corporation and director Sam Newfield. Maybe soon, huh?

RECOMMENDED WEBSITE: Do you like bad movies as much as I do? Well, I have a great site for you. It’s called Bad Movie Night Cinema and can be accessed at badmovienightcinema.com.

You just gotta love any site that posts rules such as these for judging its product:

1. The film must be devoid of coolness and charm, except the coolness and charm due to its being so godawful.
2. It should inspire some sense of anger in normal people, the kind of anger that can only be deadened by alcohol.
3. It should be cast with people who clearly are not professional actors. At least some of the cast must be such bad actors that the question is raised as to whether they have ever seen a film.
4. All special effects should be laughable. It isn’t enough to merely use a string to lift the rocket…you should be able to see that the SFX person was too lazy to cut away the excess.
5. All aspects of the production should appear to be done by amateurs. It should arouse the belief that cameras and lights were handed to chimpanzees hopped up on Mountain Dew.
6. If the producers try to show a moral to the film, it should benefit no one. If anything, you might be a worse person for having watched it.
7. There must be moments in the movie that are so bad that the video must be stopped and rewound to confirm how bad the scene was. In some cases, no amount of review will relieve the disbelief.
8. At the end of the movie, the viewer should feel emotionally damaged. The way to measure that damage is to see how long it takes the viewer to look at a clock or watch to determine how much of their life was just wasted.

As Olson Johnson said in Blazing Saddles, “Now, who can argue with that?” That’s why I urge everyone to pay a visit and enjoy the show.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

In Memoriam: Robin Williams

The Genius of a Star Who Fell to Earth

By Mike Lano

Robin Williams was brilliant both as a comic and an actor and as many have said; there was no one like him and no one who did what he did. Nor ever will. Billy Crystal probably had it best simply tweeting "no words" upon learning his friend had died in contrast to so many other celebs and posers who either had a camera shoved in their faces or “social media'd” out trite stuff. Williams deserved more and thankfully got it from a few.

His daughter quoted a beautiful French poet/author in her tribute to her dad talking about entertaining the stars up there while Los Angeles' Comedy Store marquee said "Robin Williams, Make God Laugh." The Comedy Store was where Robin really broke in nationally after time spent in San Francisco and the East Bay. Paul Rodriguez, who Williams helped to get on the bill at The Comedy Store and L.A.'s Improv, was very moving while genuinely crying when he learned the news. As was Conan O'Brien and even Sly Stallone who talked about their private friendship in the 80's. Meryl Streep shed tears saying he was like a human volcano of thoughts and humor spewing joy all over the world. And one of the morning shows played the original Judy Garland version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz while footage of his many characters and roles were B-rolled. Powerful stuff.

Out here in Williams' Northern California, the television coverage has been nonstop. All our affiliate news are showing people camped out, laying out wreaths not just at his current Tiburon home (just north of Marin County and Sausalito) but people doing the same at his old San Francisco house in the Sea Cliff area near the Pacific Ocean and even at the Frisco mansion where the exteriors for Mrs. Doubtfire were filmed.

Throughout the 80's at Comedy Day In The (Golden Gate) Park, an only-in-SF, near all-day comedy event with hundreds of the top comics performing six-to-seven-minute sets, one after another, Robin usually was the “surprise” act that closed each show. I photographed and covered all of them at the time and posed him with Whoopi Goldberg (that's where he reportedly first met her) plus celebs like then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein (now a U.S. Senator) and later with then-Mayor Willie Brown, and so many others like Bob Sarlatte, who broke in with David Letterman.

At one of the earliest Comedy Days, I have a ton of pictures I took of Robin with his young son Zak with the flaming white Ric Flair hair. It was so white it looked bottle-bleached, yet it wasn't. In later years, the nanny, for whom he left his then-wife, was watching the kids while he'd do his thing with his good pals Rick Overton, Dana Carvey, and many others. Everyone out here has their stories of seeing Robin tooling down Van Ness Boulevard, one of our major arteries, waving to people with the top down in his old convertible (I saw him three times doing that in the 1980's). And a zillion of us were extras in his movie remake of Disney's Flubber when they shot at Treasure Island right off the Bay Bridge, and S.F.'s Embarcadero and Wharf areas - not far from that other island, Alcatraz.

So many of us were also lucky enough to have seen him perform decades ago at S.F.'s Davies Symphony Hall, the long gone and missed Holy City Zoo comedy club, and The Great American Music Hall, which music legend Boz Scaggs (and one of Robin's Marin County neighbors) co-owns along with his other club, Slims.

For all the varied and deep characters he created on TV and on stage (yep, he played Carnegie Hall and everywhere else, and some of us remember him opening for Steve Martin around 1975 at the then-Universal Amphitheatre in L.A.), his film roles were amazing. Right from The World According To Garp to Robert Altman's Popeye at the very start of his movie work. On up to a zillion projects, an Academy Award in 1998 for Good Will Hunting and four upcoming not-yet-released films, including Night at the Museum 3. Local legendary comic Brian Copeland, who hosted a weekday TV show on our ABC affiliate KGO (7 Live), and his own ABC radio show on Sunday, was thankfully quoted all over San Francisco ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox because Brian's own suicide attempts have been the subject of two one-man shows of his including Not A Genuine Black Man, which Williams had attended many times at various East Bay theaters. Few could understand the pain Williams was going through more than Brian, who was on my Legends Radio show just a few weeks ago.

Look up in the sky tonight. That's not the Perseus Meteor Shower putting on a show. It has to be the work of the great one, Robin Williams.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

TCM TiVo Alert for August 15-22

August 15–August 22


THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (August 15, 10:00 pm): One of the better government conspiracy/cover-up films that were extremely popular and usually quite good during the mid-1970s. This 1975 movie is about a CIA researcher (Robert Redford) who reads books, newspapers and magazines looking for anything out of the ordinary that could be a coded plot against the government. He works in what appears to be a small office in New York City, but it is actually a CIA operation. Redford's character, whose code name is Condor, returns from lunch one day to find all of his co-workers assassinated. The suspense picks up quickly as Condor learns to elude those trying to kill him and that he can't trust anyone, including fellow CIA agents. Condor abducts Faye Dunaway (he could have done a hell of lot worse), uses her apartment as a hideout, and of course, she comes around to believing his story. The acting is strong, the storyline is intriguing and the ending is outstanding. These films typically leave viewers skeptical, wondering if something like this could happen. I'm up in the air about it myself, but it doesn't detract from this very interesting and compelling movie.

PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET (August 20, 10:00 pm): An excellent spy film noir, this 1953 movie stars Richard Widmark as Skip McCoy, a New York City pickpocket, who lifts a wallet from Candy (Jean Peters) on the subway. It turns out the wallet, which belongs to her ex-boyfriend - and unbeknownst to McCoy and Candy contains stolen top-secret government information. Candy's ex turns out to be a Communist spy. McCoy is more interested in making a big score than turning the top-secret information over to the government. Widmark is great as a pickpocket who always seems to be at least one step ahead of those who will kill for the information he has hidden. It's a solid Cold War noir with lots of suspense, action and excellent dialogue. 


TROUBLE IN PARADISE (August 16, 11:30 am): Ernst Lubitsch was best known for what was called “the Lubitsch touch,” a style of sophisticated comedy unmatched by anyone else. And this film represents Lubitsch at his best. Jewel thieves Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins fall in love in one of the most riotous scenes of one-upmanship in the movies, but now find their newly minted relationship threatened when Herbert turns on the charm to their newest victim, rich Paris widow Kay Francis. Their mastery of their characters is helped along with a witty script full of sparkling dialogue, clever plotting, great sexual gamesmanship, and brilliant visuals. Critic Dwight MacDonald described the film “as close to perfection as anything I have ever seen in the movies.” All I can say is to watch for yourselves.

DOCTOR X (August 21, 1:30 am): This early exercise in horror from Warner Brothers and director Michael Curtiz is worth watching for more than its curiosity value as a film made in the early two-strip Technicolor process. It’s an interesting exercise in Grand Guginol - and where else would Warner Brothers stage a horror film but right in the city. Lee Tracy is a wise-cracking reporter hot on the trail of the “half-moon murders.” The trail leads him to the mysterious Doctor Xavier (Lionel Atwill), the head of a medical academy located on Manhattan’s lower East Side. When Atwill moves his staff to his Long Island country estate for an elaborate reenactment of the murder, Tracy suddenly shifts from mere observer to actor when the killer threatens Atwill’s lovely daughter, Joanne (Fay Wray), with whom Tracy has fallen in love. I have often thought the comic element was introduced to keep the critics at bay, for this film has something for everyone: cannibalism, rape, dismemberment, and even necrophilia. The two-strip Technicolor process, added to the sets by Anton Groh and the makeup from Max Factor, heightens the eeriness already present, and once we hear the words “synthetic flesh,” they’ll remain with us always.

WE DISAGREE ON ... BONNIE AND CLYDE (August 15, 3:30 pm)

ED: B-..When I first saw this film back when it was released in 1967 (truth be told, we snuck into the theater to see it), I was astounded. But over the years as I became steeped in both film history and theory and also history in general, my esteem for this film has diminished. The only connection this film has to real events was that - yes, there were two people named Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, and they were outlaws. However, they looked nothing like Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. To describe them as homely is generous. The real Bonnie and Clyde were also far more interesting than the duo portraying them on the screen. Let’s fact it, the film was heavily influenced by both the French New Wave and Madison Avenue and remains today as a triumph of style over substance.

DAVID: A+. 1967 was a landmark year in entertainment. Music dramatically changed with the rise of psychedelic rock albums such as The Beatles' landmark record Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band as well as the Jimi Hendrix Experience's Are You Experienced and Axis: Bold as Love; The Doors' self-titled debut album and Strange Days; Jefferson Airplane's Surrealistic Pillow; Love's Forever Changes; Cream's Disraeli Gears, to name a few. The experimentation and groundbreaking work that came out that year was certainly not limited to music. Movie-goers noticed changes in cinema with bolder, more daring films released that year including The GraduateIn the Heat of the NightThe Born LosersIn Cold BloodBelle de JourBlowupClosely Watched Trains (the last two came out in very late 1966), and Bonnie and Clyde. Is Bonnie and Clyde heavily stylized, influenced by the French New Wave and guilty of showing a story that is lacking in facts? Definitely. But that does nothing to diminish its importance in cinema or not make it among the two or three most important films to emerge from that magical year. Warren Beatty (Clyde) and Faye Dunaway (Bonnie) anchor a very strong cast. Along with director Arthur Penn (who finally agreed to do the film after turning it down a number of times), the actors push the envelope when it comes to blending sex and violence into the storyline with incredible cinematography from Burnett Guffey (who won an Oscar for his work on the movie). The ability of all involved to move from comedy to violence with what looks like great ease is something rarely seen in film. The final iconic scene when Bonnie and Clyde know they've been ambushed and are doomed with Beatty and Dunaway staring at each other just before they are shot hundreds of times stays with the viewer long after the movie ends.

For the complete list of films on the TCM TiVo Alert, click here. 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The B-Hive: Scarlet River

By Ed Garea

Scarlet River (RKO, 1933) - Director: Otto Brower. Screenplay: Harold Shumate. Cast: Tom Keene, Dorothy Wilson, Lon Chaney, Jr. (as Creighton Chaney), Betty Furness, Edgar Kennedy, Roscoe Ates, Billy Butts, Hooper Atchley, Jack Raymond, Jim Mason, & Yakima Canutt. B&W, 54 minutes.

Looking at a rough synopsis, one would simply assume this is just another run-of-the-mill B-Western directed by someone no one’s ever heard of and starring the usual bunch of bad actors. The Ranch Foreman is plotting with the Evil Banker, who controls the mortgage on the ranch, to ruin the ranch financially and force ranch owner Judy Blake to sell it to said Evil Banker so he can later make a killing by selling to developers. Meanwhile, Judy meets a handsome stranger who comes to her rescue and defeats the baddies. However, this film sets itself apart with a nice little plot twist, which makes for interesting viewing: The hero and his pals are actors filming a Western using Judy’s ranch as their location.

I have to give this film kudos for having the courage to kid the genre (it was one of the first to do so), and to do it effectively. Credit for this must go to writer Shumate for his witty and perceptive script, and to star Keene for pulling off an excellent performance. Keene, who was RKO’s resident B-Western star at the time, was not known for his acting prowess. But then, in these sorts of films, he didn’t need to be. All he had to do was ride, shoot, punch the bad guy, kiss the leading lady, and look good doing it. As his Westerns rarely went over an hour, the formula was to keep him busy. He could also fare somewhat well as a supporting actor; again, as long as he could be kept busy. When King Vidor cast him as the male lead in his ponderous Our Daily Bread (1934), Keene’s flaws and lack of ability were on full display. But when it came to Westerns, all the producer had to do was place a white 10-gallon hat on Tom’s head, give him a sleek horse to ride, a few good gunfights, a girl to kiss at the end, and let it go from there.

Scarlet River opens with Tom Baxter (Keene) and his crew trying to find a suitable location to film their latest Western, but it seems that whenever they find a good location, events transpire to drive them out. In one scene, cross-country runners interrupt their filming. Returning to the studio to check for a new location, Tom runs into Joel McCrea outside the studio commissary. Tom tells Joel of his troubles only to have Joel make a couple of bad puns by way of advice. Inside the commissary, Tom says hello to Myrna Loy and sits at a table with Bruce Cabot, Rochelle Hudson, and Julie Haydon to order lunch. Once the cameos are finished, Tom sees a photograph of Scarlet River Ranch, which was sent to the studio by ranch hand and would-be screenwriter Ulysses Mope (Ates), the picture’s Comic Relief. The ranch is picturesque, it’s remote, and the owner, Judy Blake (Wilson), is in need of the location fees because the place is in trouble.

We know from experience that when a ranch, especially one owned by a young, beautiful woman, is in financial trouble, it’s because there is a fly in the ointment. The fly in this case is none other than Judy’ s foreman, Jeff Todd (Chaney). It seems that Jeff is a really confused fellow. One moment he’s courting the pretty Judy, whose younger brother idolizes him, and in the next he’s scheming with the crooked “Clink” McPherson (Atchley) to defraud Judy out of her ranch, squaring this in his mind by figuring that, once broke, she’ll marry him. But we know there’s no way she’ll marry a man who, even at this early date, comes off like Lenny in Of Mice and Men. It’s an acting trait he never lost.

But Jeff hasn’t counted on Tom. After all, he’s the hero of the story. After meeting Judy and her brother, Buck, and hearing her tale of woe, Tom comes to realize that the ranch’s problems are due to ranch hands like Ulysses writing film scripts all day when they should be working, and foremen like Jeff whose persona just doesn’t ring true to Tom. Tom is rather put off by Jeff’s boastful and uncooperative demeanor. The boastfulness is easily fixed when the film’s director, Sam Gilroy (Kennedy in a marvelous turn), challenges Jeff to perform the classic taking-control-of-the-runaway-stagecoach-horses stunt. Jeff, already jealous of Judy’s attention to Tom, assumes the task is a piece of cake, but ends up having to do the Yakima Canutt dive between the rows of horses to avoid being trampled. Tom then “reappears” to do his own stunt. (Actually, stuntman Canutt, who also has a bit role as one of the movie crew, performed both stunts and reportedly broke his shoulder in the process.)

What’s interesting about this is that, when Westerns usually send up Hollywood, the hero is an authentic True Westerner who completely shows up the phony actor. In Scarlet River, the joke is that Tom the actor playing a cowboy is actually more of a cowboy than the men who actually do the work, such as Jeff.

Tom decides to follow Jeff on his horse and catches Jeff shooting a steer. Jeff tries to explain the shooting by telling Tom that the steer drank contaminated water. When Jeff calls the bluff by saying that he’s sending for a veterinarian to confirm Jeff’s story, Jeff runs off in a panic to consult with McPherson, who comes up with the answer: they’ll kidnap Judy and force Tom and his crew to leave. Meanwhile, things are not going so swimmingly for Tom and Judy, as Judy, in a puzzling scene, catches Tom in the act of spanking Buck, who Tom caught smoking. But when Tom leaves it to Buck to tell the truth, Buck lies like a rug and denies everything. Later, though, he gets a conscience and apologizes to Tom, promising to make amends. This film was shot in the environment of Pre-Code Hollywood, but Keene is coming off more like the Hopalong Cassidy of the ‘40s and ‘50s. Perhaps it’s that Tom has to drive out the influence of Jeff on young Buck. Who knows?

McPherson kidnaps Judy and sends gang member Dummy (Mason), a mute, to deliver a note to Tom and his crew that Judy will be released unharmed only when Tom and his crew leave Scarlet River. But unbeknownst to McPherson, when Dummy returns, it’s not Dummy, but Tom in disguise. He and Judy almost escape, but are captured. While McPherson plans the “accidental” death of Tom and Judy, Jeff tries to stop him from killing Judy, but is killed himself by McPherson. Tom and Judy attempt another escape, and are saved when Edgar and the film crew ride to the rescue. Using blanks, movie grenades and Tom’s riding and fighting skills (natch) they’re able to capture McPherson and his gang and save Judy’s life - and ranch.

One of the film’s more interesting facets is the look at how moviemaking was done back then. The cameras and the lights were huge, as were the boom mikes that resembled telegraph poles. It’s also great to watch the crew themselves walking around the set in jodhpurs, leather jackets and silk scarves. We also get a glimpse as to how a stunt like a “pickup” was done - where the girl is “injured” and a cowboy gallops up on his horse, grabs her, and swings her into the saddle behind him.

As noted earlier, Keene put in a fine performance, but was also aided by solid performances by his supporting cast. Wilson, who played Judy, began her career as a secretary to director Gregory LaCava. Preparing to cast his upcoming RKO film, The Age of Consent (1932), he took note of Dorothy’s photogenic looks and set her up for a screen test. Amazingly, she won one of the two female leads. Later that year she was named as a “WAMPAS Baby Star of 1932” (WAMPAS stood for “Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers.”), along with Ginger Rogers, Gloria Stuart, Patricia Ellis, and Toshia Mori. In 1936, she married screenwriter Lewis Foster and retired from the screen.

Other notables in the cast include Furness, who played Babe Jewel, the female lead in Tom Baxter’s movie, and the aforementioned Kennedy, who does a good turn as the harried director Sam Gilroy. Creighton Chaney was appearing in only his sixth film at the time (two of his appearances were unbilled), and would continue to work under his real name until 1935, when he adopted the stage name “Lon Chaney Jr.”

Speaking of changing one’s stage name, Keene entered films under his real name of George Duryea before RKO gave him the moniker of “Tom Keene” in 1930. Tiring of working Westerns, he returned to the stage, but when he was short on cash he would work Westerns for Republic and Monogram into the ‘40s. Beginning with the Danny Kaye vehicle, Up In Arms in 1944, Keene took the name “Richard Powers.” However, that didn’t stop him from sliding further down in the credits. Most film fans remember him today from his association with Ed Wood, playing Colonel Edwards in Wood’s 1956 masterpiece, Plan 9 From Outer Space. He had earlier worked for Wood in the 1953 TV pilot Crossroad Avenger.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Dinner and a Movie: Guardians of the Galaxy

Galactic Guardians and Gastronomic Goodness

By Steve Herte

Dad and I are still eating the leftovers from my boss's barbeque last week. What a party. Only a few days of work to go before my New York stay-cation; I can't wait. The new bathroom is nearing completion. George said he could do it in five days (it's already been six), but I guess the plumbing (my house is almost 100 years old) was the biggest problem. The walls are tiled, the tub and shower-head are in, the medicine cabinet is in and the ceiling light/vent is operational. Just the flooring, shower curtain, sink, vanity, trim around the window and door, and toilet are left. Oh, and the radiator. I can't wait to see him try to put that back in place! The two layers of flooring already in place barely allow the door to open fully. When the tile is down something is going to have to be done about the door – it won't have any clearance. The radiator is another thing altogether. The steam pipe downstairs is resting on a box of dominoes on a shelving unit. It will have to be jacked up to meet the opening on the radiator and I know how much strength that takes. Been there, done that. But we'll see. I hope he finishes before I leave. It does look really good so far (well, anything would look good compared to our mismatched, multicolor bathroom of yore – sorry, I forgot to take a "before" photo). Friday, I was tired after a crazy week of performing my "toilette" in our laundry room downstairs and I was ready for entertainment. I got it! Enjoy!

Guardians of the Galaxy (Marvel Studios/Disney, 2014) Director: James Gunn. Writers: James Gunn, Nicole Perlman (s/p). Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning (comic book). Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Laura Haddock, Sean Gunn, Wyatt Oleff, & Peter Serafinowicz. Color and 3D, 121 minutes.

What makes a summer blockbuster movie? Is it an epic storyline, skies filled with exploding spacecraft, unlikely heroes fighting evil villains, or brilliant special effects that make you wonder, “how’d they do that?” Or is it a script that mixes clever humor with seriousness, a cast that works together as if they were related or a soaring musical soundtrack? If you answered “all of the above,” you have the essence of Guardians of the Galaxy, and it qualifies as a blockbuster. Having never read the Marvel comic that gave birth to this movie I was unprepared for the strange reality that unfolded before my eyes.

The opening scene has pathos galore as in 1988, young Peter Quill’s (Oleff) mother is on her death bed, giving him a present (which he doesn’t open) and reaching out her hand to him. She dies before he takes it and in his grief he runs from the house out into a field, where Yondu Udonta (Rooker) abducts him. Udonta is a blue-skinned alien who raises Peter to be an intergalactic mercenary. The scene zaps forward 26 years and we see Peter (Pratt) now calling himself “Star-Lord” (though apparently, no one else does) as he pops in his Awesome Mix #1 tape into his Walkman (which he retained from his childhood), and veritably dances across a barren alien landscape, booting vicious creatures aside and rocketing over deep ravines filled with snapping jaws to eventually steal an ornate silver orb (similar to the first Indiana Jones episode) from its force-field cage using a high-powered magnetic device. Korath (Hounsou) and his “Ravagers” are right on his heels, but he escapes them.

Meanwhile, Ronin (Pace), an all-around bad guy with dreams of ruling the universe, has been ordered to procure the same orb by Thanos (Brolin) and (of course) is threatened with dire consequences for failure. He assigns Gamora (Saldana), a green-skinned lovely with bright red hair, to accomplish what Korath failed to do. Her sister Nebula (Gillan) is upset that she wasn’t chosen for the task.

Peter brings the orb to the planet Nova intending to sell it to Nova Prime (Close), when Rocket, the genetically-altered raccoon (voiced Cooper), and his tree-like alien sidekick, Groot (voiced Diesel), waylay him. (Groot’s entire lexicon consists of three words: “I am Groot.”) They want to capture him to collect the bounty. Gamora arrives just as Peter escapes Rocket and Groot, and the game of “who’s got the orb” continues through the streets of Nova until the Nova police force capture all four. They are all sentenced to incarceration at a high-security prison on an artificial planet called “Knowhere.” There they meet Drax (Bautista), a muscle-bound blue-skinned alien with bright red bas-relief tattoos, and a vendetta against Ronin and Thanos for the deaths of his wife and daughter. Gamora reveals the true value of the orb and piques the interests of Rocket and Groot. Using Rocket’s master plan and their diverse talents, they become a team and break out of Knowhere.

Before going to Nova, in an attempt to sell the orb to the Collector (Del Toro) Peter learned that inside it is the Universe Stone, a glowing purple element that, in the wrong hands, can destroy worlds. But in the course of their escape from Knowhere, Gamora winds up drifting in space and near death. Peter saves her, but Ronin and Nebula capture them. Ronin extracts the Universe Stone and inserts it into his staff with intent to destroy Zandar, Thanos’ planet (as well as other worlds, including Nova).

Guardians of the Galaxy is a wonderfully entertaining movie about five “losers” (Peter’s words, which he quickly amends to “those who have lost something”) who, prior to being forced together as a team thought they needed no one else. It’s a tale on the same scale as Star Wars with similar wry humor throughout and some very funny moments. Rocket has most of the funny lines and the biggest reactions to being called such things as “vermin.” Even the battle scenes have humor. In one, Groot extends a limb to skewer about 15 oppressors and then slam them back and forth into the walls of a corridor. Saldana is at her best, beautiful in green skin and full of snide remarks and comebacks. Pratt is still playing an idiot, but it works in this film, even when he’s singing and dancing to “O-o-h Child” (by the Five Stairsteps) to distract Ronin while Rocket constructs and fires a weapon.

There are no spots in this movie I would call dead space (where nothing is happening). In fact, you would be well advised to watch what’s happening in the background, especially right before they break out of prison, and Rocket is finalizing (he thinks) the order of his plan. It’s a movie for the whole family – no gore, no gratuitous sex (although Peter does develop a crush on Gamora). I enjoyed it thoroughly and . . . it makes no indirect hint about a sequel. Stay through the credits. You’ll see “the Guardians of the Galaxy will return.”

Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 martini glasses.

V Café
345 Greenwich Street (between Harrison and Jay Streets)New York

Can you believe it took 10 years for me to discover this charming haven of traditional Vietnamese cuisine? It wasn’t; it couldn’t have been. I checked my database and less than five years ago this location was Turks and Frogs. Still, when I walked past it twice without seeing it I began to understand. The undistinguished pale gray narrow street front does not make a statement, and the small red sign over it is just about out of vision level (until you look back from a block away).

Inside, the warm glow from the tubular, paper-wrapped swags and the dark wood, bare-topped tables invite you to another world of dining. At first I recoiled at the heavy chairs and bare-wood benches (nothing was cushioned) but, as I got used to it, I concluded that this lack of comfort enhanced my eagerness to enjoy my food (there was no way I was going to fall asleep here). My servers (there were two) presented me with the four-page menu and took my water preference. The last page of the menu was the cocktail and wine list. I had just opened to it and was considering a cocktail when the male server (the one of the 10-year existence theory) reappeared asking if I was ready to order. I guess they must get a high turn-around of diners here. I explained what stage I was at and ordered the Tet Cocktail – Coconut Vodka mixed with exotic fruit juices and ginger – very nice.

The menu was divided into Appetizers, Soups, Salads, Lettuce-Wrapped Rolls, Steamed Rice Crepes, Seafood Entrées, Meat Entrées, Stews, Broth Noodles, Vegetarian Entrées, Noodle Bowls, Fried Rice and Sides. Though Heather was my main server, the young man (whose name I did not get) was most helpful in understanding the portions and putting together a three-course meal. It was he I told about my appetite and slow dining propensity. He recommended several dishes and at last I was ready. One appetizer, a soup and a meat entrée sounded perfect and I ordered the 2012 McWilliams Shiraz from Australia to go with it all. It tasted slightly tannic with fruit overtones and a delightful aftertaste.

My appetizer (to prove that Vietnamese cuisine is more than just transparent Spring Rolls) was Ha Noi “Pillow” Dumplings – delicate steamed rice dumplings stuffed with shrimp, pork, scallions and jicama root and served with a tangy soy sauce. They were so tender and fragile it proved a challenge to handle them with chopsticks without breaking them in half but I mastered the technique. Heather also produced a ramekin of sriracha, a thick, red, fiery Vietnamese hot sauce that, in small doses, gave a spicy kick to the dumplings.

Next was a hearty bowl of Spicy Coconut Soup – made with chunks of white-meat chicken (or shrimp), tamarind, tomato, mushrooms and herbs in a spicy tamarind broth – fantastic! Heather commented that it was her favorite dish on the menu. I told her she was right. The broth itself was dominated by coconut flavor only accented with sweet tamarind and not quite as spicy as I expected. Good thing I still had the sriracha sauce. A couple of spoonfuls mixed in and I was having a culinary delight.

At this point, the Shiraz was doing a great job accompanying each dish and nothing was brought out early. I finished the soup with many compliments to the woman chef, Lan Tran Cao. (I saw her but she never visited my table.) 

My main course arrived, the Roast Lacquered Duck – tender slices of duck meat cooked perfectly in a five-spice “lacquer” with a “Nuoc Mam” (it means fish sauce and is made with vinegar, sugar, garlic, lime and chilies) glaze and in a tamarind-ginger sauce. The ginger was again dominated by the tamarind flavor, but I was in heaven. The garnish of Vietnamese cilantro (not as pungent as the Mexican version) was a special accent to the dish. A bowl of plain white rice made every bite a new adventure.

V Café boasts on their website that “…organic Vietnamese cuisine has been, for thousands of years, oriented (great choice of words) for balance and nutrition. It uses an abundance of fresh herbs and vegetables for texture and color, marinated meats in spices rather than relying on excess oil for cooking or enhancement of flavor.” I was impressed.

It was dessert time and they only had two. I chose the Coconut Crepe Cake and Heather sighed. “That was my birthday cake!” The almost two-inch-high slice of snow-white coconut cream was divided into at least 25 layers by the thinnest of rice pancakes (thinner even than paper – but somehow this cake stayed together). And the taste…celestial! It was so good I forgot about the fact that no one had Angel Food Cake for my birthday. This cake substituted for it perfectly.

I considered tea after dessert but changed my mind when I thought about the long commute home. I thanked both my servers for a wonderful time and was surprised that a restaurant that has existed as long as V Café has had no business cards. I’ll just have to make a return trip.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.