Friday, October 31, 2014

Cinéma Inhabituel for November 1-15

A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea

STAR OF THE MONTH

TCM’s approach to the Star of the Month takes a distinctly different turn in November, as not one, but many stars are featured. Stars of the Silent Screen is the theme, and a great excuse to expose us to silent cinema and the great faces that drove it

November 3: We begin at 8:00 pm with the Mary Pickford classic, The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917), with the scenario from her best friend, Frances Marion. It’s the first time Pickford plays a young girl, and she pulls it off admirably. I know there are many out there that can’t relate to silent features for some reason or other, but I beseech you to at least give this one a try. You may end up liking it, and perhaps even becoming a Pickford fan.


Following at 10:00 pm is the film that put Clara Bow in the Hollywood firmament: It (1927). This is a rather ordinary film enlivened by the performance of Bow as a spirited, gold-digging shop girl with designs on her handsome boss, played by Antonio Moreno. Look for Gary Cooper in a small role as a reporter.

At 11:00, it’s Gloria Swanson in one of her greatest roles as Sadie Thompson (1928), a solid version of W. Somerset Maugham's Rain. Swanson is a carefree prostitute in the South Seas who runs afoul of fire and brimstone preacher Lionel Barrymore. It was mostly unseen for many years because of the deterioration of the final reel. However, in recent years the film has been restored, with the lost footage recreated using stills and the original title cards.

Two other films merit attention this night. First, at 2:15 am is G.W. Pabst’s morality tale, Pandora’s Box (2:15 pm), the story of the amoral Lulu, who destroys every man that happens to come across her path. It made a megastar of its leading lady, expatriate American Louise Brooks, if only for a brief time. Her European films for Pabst were so explicit for their time that they were heavily censored and led to an informal blacklisting from Hollywood, which offered Brooks few roles, mostly in meaningless films. But William Wellman did offer her a part in his Public Enemy, which Brooks rejected in favor of a trip to New York to be with her then lover. The part went to Jean Harlow and sealed Brooks’s fate in Tinseltown.

Finally, at the wee hour of 4:45 am, it’s D.W. Griffith’s classic melodrama, Way Down East (1920), with Lillian Gish as a country girl who tries to return home after being seduced and abandoned by heel Lowell Sherman, with the white knight in the persona of Richard Barthelmess.

November 10: While the week prior featured female stars of the silents, tonight is dedicated to the male stars. We begin at 8:00 pm with Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik (1921), the film that vaulted him into the upper strata of stars in the ‘20s and changed his female fan base from merely rabid into a cult. Following at 9:30 pm, we get to see the great Douglas Fairbanks cavorting in The Thief of Bagdad (1924). While we can admire Fairbanks’s athleticism, fighting such terrors as a man-hating monkey and a giant underwater spider, what really gets male hearts pounding is the presence of the beautiful Julanne Johnston as the Princess Fairbanks wins, and the drop dead gorgeous Anna May Wong as a Mongol slave.


At 12:15 am comes the film that made a superstar out of John Gilbert: King Vidor’s The Big Parade (1925). Gilbert is a young innocent who enlists for World War I, but soon learns the horrors of battlefield life. The film also made a star of Gilbert’s romantic co-lead, Renee Adoree, whose scenes with Gilbert thrilled audiences. Vidor supplemented this love-and-war story with some of the most realistic battle scenes filmed at the time.

Next, at 3:00 am comes the original silent Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925), with Ramon Novarro as Ben-Hur and Francis X. Bushman as Messala. The movie has gone down in Hollywood legend as the troubled production with runaway costs on location in Italy and Egypt, and unusable footage brought back to the sound stages of MGM by Louis B. Mayer and handed to assistant Irving Thalberg to mold into a watchable film. Thalberg did that by spending an additional 300 grand on a specially built replica of the Circus Maximus, where the climatic chariot race was held. Reportedly, the film cost $3.9 million to make, an astronomical sum in those days, and one that could break a studio. But the movie grossed $9,386,000. Yet, the studio ended up with a net loss of $850,000 owing to royalties and high distribution costs. Despite this, the beauty of the film cemented the status of Thalberg as Hollywood’s new resident genius.

We end with a superb performance by the greatest actor of the silent era: Lon Chaney. The film is He Who Gets Slapped (1924), starring Chaney as a scientist who loses both his invention and wife to an unscrupulous baron. The scientist then decides to lose himself in the laughter of others and becomes France’s most famous circus clown. Norma Shearer co-stars as Consuelo, a bareback rider and the object of Chaney’s unrequited love. Chaney was amazing to watch in action and this was reportedly his favorite role.

FRIDAY NIGHT SPOTLIGHT

This is a really fun Friday Night Spotlight, concentrating on “Road Movies.” Many qualify as Psychotronic, but almost all are enjoyable and well worth the time.

November 7: Every film shown tonight can safely be categorized as Psychotronic. Begin with Edgar G. Ulmer’s noir classic, Detour (1945), at 8:00 pm, move on to Ida Lupino’s tense thriller, The Hitch-Hiker (1953), at 9:15. Continue with Joseph Lewis and the King Brothers classic Gun Crazy (1950), at 10:45 pm. Badlands (1972), the story of Kit (Martin Sheen) and Holly (Sissy Spacek) in a film based on thrill killers Charles Starkweather and Carol Ann Fugate, airs at 12:30 am, followed by Dana Andrews and Jeanne Crain giving miscreants Mimsy Farmer and her pals what for after being terrorized for most of the film in Hot Rods to Hell (1967), produced by the amazing Sam Katzman. And if that’s not enough for one night, ride along with Adam Rourke and Jack Nicholson in the cult classic, Hells Angels on Wheels, from 1967.

November 14: While not nearly a raucous as the week before, the night still delivers some powerful classics. Begin with Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957) at 8:00 pm, one of co-editor Dave Skolnick’s favorite films, and a classic for the ages. At 10:00 pm, it’s the well acted but flawed Five Easy Pieces (1970) with outstanding performances by stars Jack Nicholson and Karen Black. Watch for the great nude scene by Gloria Stivic herself, Sally Struthers. And the other one not to miss this night is William Wellman’s powerful 1933 drama, Wild Boys of the Road. Even after all these years it still retains the power to shock. Forget the sappy ending, though.

OUT OF THE ORDINARY

November 2: Jean-Pierre Melville Double Feature - Not only is this a double dose of Melville, but a double dose of two of his earliest films, when he was just starting out. First up, at 2:00 am, is The Silence of the Sea (check out my Best Bet on the TiVo Alert for more) from 1949, followed by The Strange Ones (aka Les Enfants Terribles, 1952), with a script by Jean Cocteau from his novel, about a brother and sister who close themselves off from the world by playing a series of fantasy-filled games with whoever enters their territory.


November 5: A forgotten film is airing at the forgotten hour of 3:00 am. That film is The Rise of Catherine the Great (1934). Made and released the same year as the von Sternberg version of the Tsarina’s life starring Marlene Dietrich, the film was lost in the shuffle. However, it is an excellent portrait of the Czarina and Elizabeth Bergner gives a wonderful performance in the part. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. acquits himself nicely in the part of Catherine’s husband. Grand Duke Peter, later Czar Peter II. I remember first coming to this film skeptically, being such a fan of the Dietrich version. But the performances of Bergner and Fairbanks astounded me, and I hope they will astound you as well.

November 9: It’s a double feature from the former Yugoslavia director Dusan Makavejev, beginning at 2:15 am with Man is Not a Bird (1966), and followed at 3:45 am by Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (1968). Both deal with relationships. The first is about the romance that develops between a hairdresser and a middle-aged engineer supervising an energy project. The second deals with the relationship between a young switchboard operator and a serious young man. But while he’s away on a lengthy business trip, she gets lonely and succumbs to a colleague’s passes. When he returns he finds things are very different, which leads to tragedy. Both films are transparent satires of life in communist Yugoslavia as seen through the nature of the relationships. As they are quite unlike conventional films on the subject of relationships, a little patience is required.

PSYCHOTRONICA


November 4: At 8:00 pm it’s Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard in Paramount’s 1939 remake of Paul Leni’s classic “old dark house” thriller, The Cat and the Canary. This is the film that cemented Hope as a top-rank film comedian, as he plays a cowardly radio personality who involuntarily becomes the bodyguard to the sole heir (Goddard) of a millionaire’s most creepy estate. If Goddard’s character should die within a month, the estate will go to a person named in a sealed envelope locked in a safe. This is a wonderful film that, for some reason, is aired only rarely. For that reason alone it merits a look, not to mention that Hope and Goddard are terrific together.

November 5: At 4:30 pm, it’s Joel McCrea, Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, and Leslie Banks in the classic The Most Dangerous Game (1932). Banks is Count Zaroff, whose idea of fun is hunting people like big game on his secluded island. This is by far the best version of an O’Henry prize winning story by Richard Connell that’s been done to death ever since, so catch this one

November 8: We go from the ridiculous to the sublime beginning at 2:30 am with the atrocious Bloody Birthday (1980). Three 10-year old children in California use bats, arrows, and guns to dispatch townsfolk and teachers, Seems they were all born simultaneously during a solar eclipse, in idea lifted from Village of the Damned. Susan Strasberg and Jose Ferrer star. Following at 4:00 am is the classic chiller, Poltergeist (1982). For those interested, Poltergeist will be repeated at the more convenient hour of 4:00 pm on November 15.

November 11: Ready for some great unintentional comedy? Then watch RKO’s The Whip Hand (1951), airing at 6:30 pm. A group of former Nazis-turned-Commies intent on wiping out America through germ warfare is using an abandoned lodge in Minnesota as their headquarters. But they didn’t count on Matt Corbin (Elliott Reid), a vacationing magazine writer who stumbles across a lake where all the fish have died. None of the locals are willing to talk about it, which only whets his appetite and causes him to investigate further, eventually learning the truth and flushing the godless atheists right out of their wormhole. Folks, you have to see this one to believe it. It was originally filmed as The Man He Found, a story about Hitler relocating to America and planning germ warfare. But super-patriot Howard Hughes changed the evildoers to Communists, shooting new footage, to the dismay of director William Cameron Menzies, who deserved better. As with all his films, Menzies also served as the art director.

November 15: At 6:00 pm, it’s Charlton Heston in the dystopian Soylent Green from 1973. Heston is a cop in the year 2020 who uncovers the deadly secret behind overpopulated America’s favorite snack food. It’s also the last film of the great Edward G. Robinson, and he is clearly the best thing in it, but to be truthful, at least Heston doesn’t stink up the joint as usual.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

#Lionsgate Horror Movie Giveaway: Win a Digital Download of The Blair Witch Project

The Blair Witch Project follows a trio of filmmakers on what should have been a simple walk in the woods, but quickly becomes an excursion into heart-stopping terror.

Fans of the film wanting a chance to win a free HD UltraViolet download code of it should send an email, with #LionsgateHorror in the subject line, by November 15 to celluloidclub@gmail.com. The giveaway is open to anyone living in the United States or Canada. Share the app with friends.

Each household is only eligible to win one digital download code for The Blair Witch Project via blog reviews and giveaways. Only one entrant per mailing address per giveaway. Winner is subject to eligibility verification.

Don't forget to click on the #Lionsgate Horror Blog App:

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

TCM TiVo Alert for November 1-7

TCM TiVo ALERT
For 
November 1–November 7

DAVID’S BEST BETS:

DODSWORTH (November 6, 2:15 am): This 1936 film is one of the greatest film you haven't seen. Actually, that was the introduction of Dodsworth from Robert Osborne on TCM the first time I saw it a few years ago. He is absolutely correct. This is a wonderful film. Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston) is a rich automobile manufacturer who loves his job, but is convinced to retire early by his wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton), a vain woman who is fearful of growing old. She wants to see the world, particularly Europe, lead an exciting life. Sam is a regular guy who wants to please his wife. Fran quickly grows bored of Sam and spends most of her time with other men. She eventually dumps him for a European noble, leaving Sam to mope around Italy, where he sees a divorcee (Mary Astor), who he first met while traveling on the Queen Mary to Europe. The two fall in love, but Fran wants to reconcile. A very adult film, which is surprising as the Hays Code that restricted such themes went into effect two years before Dodsworth was released. I won't ruin the ending. Everything works exceptionally well in this film. The acting is top-notch (besides the three leads, David Niven is great in a smaller role in one of his earliest films, and Maria Ouspenskaya as a baroness is a scene-stealer), the story is first-rate, and with William Wyler as the director, the movie is paced perfectly.

BLACKBOARD JUNGLE (November 7, 6:00 am): An excellent JD movie with Glenn Ford as the teacher trying to put high school kids on the right track. Sidney Portier and Ford work exceptionally well with Portier as the defiant student and Ford seeing promise in him and trying to bring it out into the open. Vic Morrow plays the worst of the worst kids to near perfection. The scene in which Morrow’s character destroys a teacher's most-beloved items, his record collection, in class as the teacher is trying to reach the kids, is an incredibly haunting piece of cinema. And the soundtrack is great, particularly the opening credits with “Rock Around the Clock.” While most people think of the film as the first with a rock-and-roll song in it, it is so much more than that and a must-see.

ED’S BEST BETS:

TO BE OR NOT TO BE (November 1, 8:00 pm): They didn’t call it “the Lubitsch Touch” for nothing, and it’s in full regalia in this film, an extremely witty send up of Hitler and his Nazi thugs. Black comedy has never been better than here in the hands of a true master like Lubitsch. Jack Benny has a role of a lifetime as the egocentric Polish actor Joseph Tura, who in reality is one of the biggest hams ever to appear on stage. Carole Lombard, tragically in her last film, is Tura’s co-star and suffering wife. When the Germans invade Poland, Tura’s theater is closed and his troupe put out of business – until they become involved in espionage trying to save Polish Underground fighters from being handed over to the Gestapo by a traitor, and they find their acting skills put to a real test. Lubitsch took quite a beating from critics over this film, and it was not a success at the box office. Many felt that treating the Nazis as comical characters was in poor taste, but Lutisch defended his position by saying that "What I have satirized in this picture are the Nazis and their ridiculous ideology. I have also satirized the attitude of actors who always remain actors regardless how dangerous the situation might be, which I believe is a true observation.” Today, the film is viewed as a classic and the 1983 Mel Brooks remake is faithful to the original both in letter and spirit. Brooks himself echoed Lubitsch by saying that if one were to argue with a dictator, he would lose because the dictator has the fanaticism of his ideas, but if one were to take both the dictator and his ideas and make fun of them, it’s far more effective in discrediting both. Look for the great opening gag with Tom Dugan parading around as Der Fuehrer. This is a film not to be missed.

THE SILENCE OF THE SEA (November 2, 2:00 am): Jean-Pierre Melville chose Jean Brullers’ novel of the same name to make his directing debut. It’s an intimate look at France during the Occupation. A patrician German general is billeted with a provincial French family who is unwilling even to speak to him. Nevertheless, each evening he reminisces about life and war in the face of their stubborn silence. He is firm in his belief that the family and France will one day see the true nature of him and Germany. It is only later that the naive general visits Paris and finally sees the brutality of the occupation, as well as learning of the death camp in Treblinka. Melville provides glimpses of what he would later accomplish in such films as Bob le flambeur (1956), and L' Arme des ombres (1969). And it’s always interesting to see a director’s first feature.

WE DISAGREE ON ... WAIT UNTIL DARK (November 1, 4:00 am)

ED: A-. I’m not an Audrey Hepburn fan by any stretch of the imagination, although I am fond of several pictures she stars in, such as The Nun’s StoryTwo for the RoadThe Children’s HourLove in the Afternoon, and Sabrina. If the film is interesting, then I’m in, but not for Hepburn. Wait Until Dark is another on my list. It’s not so much Hepburn, but the story and cast around her that makes this film such a delectable thriller. The film began life as a 1966 Broadway play by Frederick Knott that starred Lee Remick. The basic plot itself was a rehash of a 1958 film titled The Lineup, with psycho gangster Eli Wallach after a heroin-filled doll accidentally brought back from a trip abroad. The key change, a nice little twist, was to make the heroine a recently blinded woman, which added even more thrills to the plot. Hepburn, I must admit, was brilliant in the role. She and director Terrence Young studied for the role at The Lighthouse for the Blind in New York, where Hepburn learned how to use a cane, how to do her hair and make-up with her eyes shut, and even donned special contact lenses to make the transformation complete. Her main competition in the movie is Alan Arkin, who gives one hell of a performance as Roat, who is simply Wallach’s character, Dancer. Some say Arkin steals the movie, but Hepburn gives it everything she can without going overboard and overemoting. The rest of the cast is excellent, Richard Crenna and Jack Weston in particular. The ending, where Hepburn levels the playing field with Roat, is the highlight of the film. Author Stephen King, in his non-fiction work, Danse Macabre, declared Wait Until Dark to be the scariest movie of all time. And he should know. By the way, a little piece of ironic trivia: Hepburn served as a nurse in World War II Holland, and one of the patients she treated was young British paratrooper Terrence Young, the film’s director.

DAVID: C-. In comparison to me, Ed is a huge fan of Audrey Hepburn. Outside of Sabrina and The Children's Hour, I'm at a loss to name another film she's in that I enjoy. What do I think of Love in the Afternoon? Read this We Disagree. How about My Fair Lady? Read this We Disagree. That we've never done a We Disagree on Breakfast at Tiffany's is because neither one of us is a fan. She's not as bad as Katharine Hepburn, but that's primarily because Audrey didn't make as many films. So what is it about Wait Until Dark that I don't like? It's quicker to write what I like or rather who I like. Alan Arkin and Richard Crenna are quite good and save the film from getting a D rating from me even though both over-exaggerate their roles. The movie came out in 1967, considered a landmark year in cinema. This movie wasn't one of the reasons for that year in film to be celebrated. Hepburn is horribly miscast as the film's heroine, a blind woman being pursued by bad guys over heroin sewn into a doll. She's not even slightly convincing as a woman who's recently lost her sight. The plot is completely ridiculous, almost nonexistent at times and seems to be just there to pass the time. It gets out of hand fast with the silliness escalating to the film's supposed tense showdown with the blind Hepburn breaks all the lights in her apartment to even the odds by putting the criminals in the dark with her. Of course, she misses one light. The attempts to build tension come across as contrived and forced. There's no need to give away the ending. Even if you've never seen it, you know how it ends. That predictability is typical of this movie's many flaws. But if you're looking for good news, it also signals the end of the film.

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

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Dinner and a Movie: St. Vincent

Alcoholic Saints and Wine Bars

By Steve Herte

All my work this week was done in anticipation of Thursday and Friday. I moved my dinner and movie night to Thursday because, after about six and a half months apart, my quartet, The Majestics, had scheduled a reunion in White Plains. Once again, it was held in the atrium just outside the Cheesecake Factory. I don't like to limit this talented singing group by calling them a "Barbershop" quartet, although we formed from a barbershop chorus and that was our original style. But we also perform Doo-Wop songs, Jazz, Broadway and Pop songs. It always amazes me how much of our repertoire we all remember (we had over 100 songs on our list at one time). But I kept tabs and we sang 33 of them before, during and after our dinner at The Cheesecake Factory. It's fun to see the reactions of the shoppers as they pass by or stay to listen, or even are moved to tears, as was one woman when we sang "This Is The Moment" from the Broadway show Jekyll and Hyde. We also performed songs made popular by The Mills Brothers and Edith Piaf, among others, as well as a few songs in anticipation of the holidays.

Our current goal is to meet with a coach in December and get his opinion on our chances in the Senior Quartet contest (yes, we're old enough) held by the Barbershop Harmony Society. Who knows what may come of it? I think we're pretty good, awesome in moments. Meanwhile, you get to see the results of this momentous reunion in an early Dinner and a Movie. Enjoy!

St. Vincent (The Weinstein Company, 2014) - Director: Theodore Melfi. Writer: Theodore Melfi (s/p). Cast: Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, Chris O’Dowd, Terrence Howard, Jaeden Lieberher, Kimberly Quinn, Lenny Venito, Nate Corddry, Donna Mitchell, & Dario Barosso. Color, 102 minutes.

Vincent McKenna (Murray) is a hard-drinking, quick-witted, wise-cracking reprobate who is over-drawn on his bank account, in deep with loan sharks, and drives a broken-down 30-year-old woody K-car convertible. His only companion is a white Persian cat named Felix and a pole-dancing Russian “lady of the night” named Daka (Watts), that is, until moving day next door. The previous night he drunkenly backs into his driveway, breaking off his mailbox and destroying his own picket fence. In the morning, the movers back their truck into the tree in front of his property breaking off a large limb, which comes crashing down on his car, partially shattering his windshield and seriously denting the hood.

The shouting of the two movers wakes him from his stupor on the kitchen floor, where he fell that night after slipping on the ice he was breaking apart with a claw hammer (injuring his hand in the process) and slamming his head into a cabinet on the way down. Of course, being broke and clever, he blames the shattered fence on the movers as well and confronts his new neighbor, Maggie (McCarthy). Needless to say their first meeting isn’t pleasant, and he insists she pay for the damages.

Maggie is currently going through a painful divorce and trying to raise her son Oliver (Lieberher) as well as keep a job at the hospital, where she’s continually kept late because of short staffing. Oliver is a puny little guy whose first day at school is traumatic to say the least. His teacher, Father Geraghty (O’Dowd) has him say a morning prayer before the class even after Oliver tells him that he’s Jewish (actually he says, “I think I’m Jewish”). Then, in gym class, the bigger boys swipe his wallet, keys, phone and clothes, and he has to come home in his gym uniform. Now, with no way to contact his mother, he sits on the front stoop until Vincent comes out and he reluctantly asks to use the phone. Unfortunately, Maggie has to work late again and Oliver is treated to the limited hospitality of the curmudgeonly Vincent. Vincent, on the other hand sees it as a moneymaking opportunity as a babysitter.


As the days go by, Oliver and Vincent not only become pals, but also learn from each other. Vincent teaches him a self-defense move that he uses to great effect in the gymnasium, breaking a kid’s nose, and Oliver uses his uncanny logic to win a trifecta at Belmont for Vincent. All this is kept secret from Maggie, along with trips to bars, the strip joint where Daka dances, and the nursing home where Vincent’s Altzheimer’s-stricken wife Sandy (Mitchell) resides, and where he gets his laundry done for free, thanks to the lovely Nurse Ana (Quinn). The secret is kept until Maggie’s husband has a detective follow Vincent and Oliver around taking photos and sues her for custody, winning his son back 50 percent of the time.

The loan sharks visit Vincent intending to get paid or to beat him up, and Vincent has a stroke. Oliver finds him on the floor and calls 911. Everyone helps him through the recovery, re-learning to speak and walk. Daka loses her pole-dancing job due to her pregnancy and cleans up Vincent’s home (for a fee). The only thing Vincent can say is, “Where did you put all my dirt?”

Back in school, Father Geraghty is teaching his class about saints and gives them an assignment to find someone they know who exhibits the qualities of sainthood for a stage presentation before their parents and relatives. Oliver sees through Vincent’s crusty exterior in their escapades and interviews everyone he’s met along the way.

On the day of the school presentation, Daka fakes her labor pains to get Vincent to the school where he hears the wonderful way Oliver has transformed him into a saint. (Bring a handkerchief for this scene.)

St. Vincent is a well-constructed, well-written slice of life. The characters are ordinary people and completely believable. Murray should definitely get a Best Actor nomination out of this. He really worked the part, especially the frightening fall scene and the entire recovery from the stroke scenes. Lieberher has moments when you think he’s way older than his years and then he easily slips back into innocent childhood. Maggie: “Do you know what ‘Lady of the Night’ means?” Oliver: “She works at night?” Young children might get bored with this film because it is geared to adults, but baby-boomers will wax nostalgic with the soundtrack. In a bar scene, Murray dances to Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love.” In another, we hear Brewer and Shipley’s “One Toke Over The Line,” and during the credits he’s watering his dirt patch (you can’t call it a lawn) and dead potted plants while singing along (almost) with Dylan on “Shelter From the Storm.”

Notable Quote: “Me, I’m Catholic, which is the best of all religions because we have the most rules.” (Father Geraghty)

Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 Martini glasses.


NIOS
130 West 46th Street (6th /7th)New York

When I arrived at NIOS I had a terrible feeling of déja vu. It didn’t look as if it were open. Nothing was lit, no doors open, no signs. All was dark, black and glass. Maybe, I thought, the entrance is through the Muse Hotel next door. There was one, and in it was a stand with a sign saying that they were “partially closed for a private party, see the custodian.” The awful feeling came back. It was Aspen Social Club all over again. I strolled over to the front desk of the hotel and mentioned that I had a reservation at NIOS. The young man assured me that NIOS was indeed seating customers in the back. The party was mainly in the bar. He made a phone call and the lovely custodian appeared to lead me to the back dining area.


Inside, it was a cozy, intimate, 12-table room with gray-on-gray patterned wallpaper, comfortable armless chairs, and soft lighting emanating from the black sconces on the walls and occasional spots in the ceiling. The custodian led me to a table and then thought better about a different one in the corner. It had more light, and I agreed. Only two other tables were occupied, which was fine with me.

Shortly thereafter, my waiter, Victor, arrived with a glass of water and the single page Theater Menu. He asked if I would like a cocktail and, once he confirmed that they had Beefeaters gin, I ordered my martini. The prix-fixe dinner menu is three courses, appetizer, entrée and dessert for $48, or one can pick and choose from it in an a la carte fashion. I thought it was apropos that they called the courses Acts One, Two and Three since the restaurant is easy walking distance to several theaters.


The prices were reasonable and I decided that two of the appetizers would make a great start, then a main course and dessert. I chose the corn bisque with lobster and “pee wee” potatoes, and the smoked duck with frisé, wild mushrooms, Manchego cheese, black fig compote, and truffle oil.

Victor apologized for being out of the Rack of Lamb but proposed that the Sirloin Strip was just as good. It was truffled with potato purée, baby spinach, miso, and grilled trumpet mushrooms. I took his advice and added it to my order.

Surprisingly the wine I chose, the Shinn Red Blend from a vineyard on Long Island was (like the lamb) not in stock, but equally surprising was when Victor produced a bottle of 2012 Penfold’s Bin 8 Cabernet/Shiraz blend from Southern Australia for the same price. It was delicious with the meal, not too assertive, a rich red color and a fruity, slightly tannic flavor.

Having told Victor that I had all the time in the world it was a little unnerving to see the soup and the duck arrive together, but Victor’s charming apology and promise not to “rush” my dinner after that was completely acceptable. The duck was indeed smoky in flavor, tender and easy to slice. But when combined with the fig compote, it was heavenly. The little potatoes in the corn bisque were like coals, keeping the soup hot until I was ready for it. It was a tasty combination of textures with the bits of lobster meat, the potatoes, and the creamy corn purée.


The main course was everything Victor said it would be, juicy, tender and perfectly browned, with earthy overtones from truffles. It was the best sirloin strip steak I’ve ever had. The baby spinach was not over-cooked and retained its crispness and the mushrooms and potato purée (and did I detect onions as well?) made the dish sheer delight. Oh, and did I forget the bread basket? How could I? Pretzel bread sticks with a tapenade dip. They didn’t last long.

Cueing in from his knowledge of steak (and his accent) I asked Victor if he was from Argentina. “Close,” he said, “Ecuador.” Of course I had to mention my charming Ecuadorian lady-friend who was not able to dine with me that evening. He noted that Ecuadorian women had high standards and I had to concur.

When I first looked at the menu I considered having dessert first, the choices were so enticing. But on advice from Victor I chose the warm chocolate cake with French vanilla ice cream, candied cherries, fresh strawberries, and blueberries, accented with a rich, dark chocolate sauce. Wonderful! And you might think I had espresso, but this time you would be wrong. Victor turned my head to Earl Grey tea with honey (in its own little pitcher). I loved it. The only after dinner drink that could possibly top this was the glass of Lustau Manzanilla sherry.

On my way out I asked about the name of the restaurant and was told it was a Grecian Island. That makes sense with the adjoining Muse Hotel but none of the restaurant staff is Greek and the food certainly is not. They feature wines “around the world” but not from Greece. I looked up Nios and all indications are that it is a small island in the Cyclades off the coast from Athens (usually not marked on a map). A mystery, but a good restaurant.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Dinner and a Movie: The Book of Life

From Mexico to Montana in One Night

By Steve Herte

This was a week of learning. I'm always learning new things and I'm of the opinion that when you stop learning new things you die, but this week was impressive in the amount of knowledge gained.

· I learned that it's very difficult to please a girl from Ecuador. You have to be satisfied if you make her happy, and I did.
· I've always known that I was a good listener but I surprise myself every Tuesday night with how little I get to talk about myself. I came up with a new dance step Tuesday and Betty keyed into it right away. Likewise, I finally learned the Texas two-step she's been doing every week to "Folsom Prison" and was able to accompany her.
· I learned that either I'm a lucky (or really good) gardener or that irises are easy to grow and transplant.
· And lastly, I learned that my pastor at church can hardly wait for me to retire and take over the music program.

My quartet is reuniting at the Cheesecake Factory in White Plains with the higher purpose of determining if we have a chance at winning the Senior Quartet Contest, perhaps next year. One thing I know I can depend on is that nights where the movie AND the restaurant are both excellent are rare, and so you'll see. Enjoy!

The Book of Life (20th Century Fox, 2014) – Director: Jorge R. Gutierrez. Writers: Jorge R. Gutierrez, Douglas Langdale. Voices: Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum, Ron Perlman, Christina Applegate, Ice Cube, Kate del Castillo, Hector Elizondo, Danny Trejo, Carlos Alazraqui, Ana de la Reguera, Emil-Bastien Bouffard, Elias Garza, Dan Navarro, Genesis Ochoa, & Placido Domingo. Animated, Color, 95 minutes.

All Souls’ Day is celebrated in Mexico as Dia de los Muertes, the Day of the Dead, and it is on this day that this movie takes place, November 2. A bus of bored, spitball-flinging school children pulls up to a museum and nearly terrorizes the aging tour guide. But deftly using her “Follow Me” sign as a shield, a beautiful red-haired tour guide takes over and leads them through an invisible door and into a spacious hall to witness “the glory of Mexico.”

The children are dazzled and follow her to the far end of the hall, where the Book of Life resides. She opens the book and, using wooden toys to help illustrate it, reads a tale. She starts, “As we all know, Mexico is the center of the universe…”

The story begins in the town of San Angel (the ‘g’ is pronounced like an ‘h’) on November 2, where we meet little Maria (Saldana) and her two friends, Manolo (Luna) and Joaquin (Tatum), who are constantly vying for her attention. Maria is General Posada’s (Alazraqui) daughter. Manolo Sanchez, is from a long line of bullfighters and Joaquin is descended from mighty warriors. Joaquin’s father was the last to repel the fearsome bandito, Chakal (Navarro), and his men.


One day, Maria sees pigs in a pen and decides to free them from bondage with help from Manolo and Joaquin. The pigs stampede into town and cause a bit of havoc, but are followed by a large tusked boar. Joaquin fends off the boar with the skills he’s learned and Manolo demonstrates his keen aptitude for bullfighting to send the boar careening into a wall, where it’s knocked out.

Meanwhile, in the ethereal reaches we see La Muerte (del Castillo) and Xibalba (Perlman), the rulers of the Lands of Remembrance and the Forgotten, arguing over why they rule the places they do. Xibalba sees the two boys competing for Maria and makes a wager with La Muerte over which one will win her hand. He chooses Joaquin and she chooses Manolo. If Joaquin marries Maria, they will switch kingdoms. If not, they will remain in their lands forever.

After the dust clears in the town square the general makes a judgment that Maria is to be sent to a convent to learn how to be a lady, hoping this kind of behavior will be stopped. The two boys are heartbroken. Manolo presents her with the little pig she saved from bondage and she names him “Chewy.” She boards the train with the pig and the boys will not see her again until they are all adults.

While Joaquin learns swordsmanship and battle techniques, Manolo reluctantly learns bullfighting. He really wants to be a singer and play guitar, a talent he clearly possesses.

On the day of Maria’s return there is a spectacle planned in the arena, starting with Joaquin demonstrating his prowess in horsemanship and followed by a bullfight featuring Manolo. They are both amazed by how beautiful Maria has become and both show off for her. But though his techniques are flawless in the ring, Manolo’s refusal to kill the bull embarrasses his father Carlos (Elizondo), and he’s left alone in the arena with his guitar. (Even the bull shakes his head at him.) Maria is clearly attracted to Manolo’s singing and playing, but her father insists she be with Joaquin because, “he is the only one who can help us fight Chakal.”

That night, Manolo arranges a tryst with Maria on the bridge to the town, and it looks like he’s going to win her when Xibalba intervenes. He sends his staff, transformed into a poisonous snake, to bite Maria. Manolo is blamed for her death and becomes an outcast. He vows to bring her back from the Land of Remembrance, and Xibalba is only too glad to accommodate him. The snake now has two heads, and bites Manolo twice. When he wakes up, he’s a skeleton version of himself in the Land of Remembrance.

Soon Manolo learns that Xibalba tricked him as well as cheated on the wager with La Muerte. The single bite Maria received was easily cured by a kiss from Joaquin and she accepts his proposal thinking that Manolo is dead forever. Manolo now has a different quest, to find La Muerte and return to the land of the living.

He meets his entire family who died before him including his mother Carmen (de la Reguera), Grandfather Luis (Trejo), and the opera singing Jorge Sanchez (Domingo). In the land of the living, Chakal attacks San Angel, and Carlos is the first to defend the town and the first to pop up in the Land of Remembrance. Manolo, Carmen, Carlos and Luis travel to the Land of The Forgotten to find La Muerte, but it’s not easy. Only with the help of the Candlemaker (Ice Cube) do they achieve their goal.

La Muerte is outraged that Xibalba has cheated her, and Manolo makes him a wager -- any task he chooses -- to return him to the land of the living. Xibalba chooses fighting every bull his ancestors ever fought at the same time. Eventually Manolo is faced with a coalesced giant bull with flaming red eyes and the choice of his sword or his guitar.

The Book of Life is a glorious animated production on a par with Rio for sheer scope of theatricality and with Madagascar in clever scripting and character development. Even though all the characters are obviously wooden toys, their movements convince the audience they are real. The music and soundtrack are wonderfully chosen songs from pop favorites such as “Creep” by Radiohead, and “I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You” by Elvis Presley, to original tunes written for the film. The colors are dazzling and the 3D special effects help pull one into the story. It’s a movie for all generations and all ages. It’s squeaky clean in language and the only violence is more slapstick than serious. Even the credits are fun.

Rating: 5 out of 5 Martini glasses.


Ted’s Montana Grill
110 West 51st Street (just off 6th Avenue toward 7th)New York


Walking east on 51st Street from 7th Avenue I realize an interesting anomaly. I pass Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, then one door down, the Capital Grill (steakhouse), and then Ted’s Montana Grill with its sleek black awning and white lettering. Hence, there are essentially three steakhouses in a row on one street. This shouldn’t surprise me after being on 6th Street in East Greenwich Village where there are at least 30 Indian restaurants in one block, but steakhouses are different. They’re grander, less intimate places. Ruth’s Chris was my benchmark steakhouse until Capital Grill came from Rhode Island, but when I discovered Uncle Jack’s Steakhouse, the new standard for excellence was carved in stone.

Inside, Ted’s is mahogany paneling, wood flooring, milk chocolate colored faux-tin ceiling, and art deco swags for lighting. There is an enormous bison head hanging on the far wall along with a large antique mirror. The bar is off to the right side attended by a lively young crowd. The young (almost incredibly young) man at the Captain’s Station led me to my table (which was set for four – 6:45 is a good time to get a table with Broadway so near), and I sat for only a short while before Lincoln, my server, took my water preference and cocktail order and presented me with the single laminated card menu. The wine list was on the reverse. Lincoln didn’t appear much older than the man who seated me; even his acne gave him away.

At this point I noted that some people indeed had come with the intent on making an eight o’clock curtain at some show, and brevity and prompt service would be a must to get them on their way. I was not in that situation, but I forgave Lincoln for not introducing himself on that count. He returned with my Beefeater martini in an impressively large glass and asked if I had any questions about the menu. I had hardy begun to read it, but I did ask him how many ounces the filet mignon, Delmonico, and T-Bone steaks weighed. 10, 14, and 16, was his answer. Satisfied with that I told him I needed more time and he left. While the martini was not the best I’ve ever had, it was far from being the worst.

Another server brought a small bowl of sliced sweet dill pickles – a nice touch – and I munched on them while deciding. I was tickled that the menu had appetizers abbreviated to simply “Apps.” The Bison nachos were appealing, but Lincoln assured me it was a hefty dish. I told him that I wished it were Wednesday, because then the Soup of the Day would be Chicken Gumbo. He agreed, as it was his favorite. I settled for the New England Clam Chowder, a Caesar “Side” Salad (as opposed to an entrée salad), and the Bison Delmonico steak with a side of Roasted Mushrooms. The wine list was impressively reasonably priced and I ordered a bottle of the 2012 Ravenswood Zinfandel. Lincoln left to put in the order.


The good-sized bowl of chowder arrived along with the salad first. It was comparable to my benchmark chowder at the Chart House in Boston (hot and with more clams than potatoes), but it wasn’t as amazingly creamy. The salad, though beautifully green Romaine lettuce and crunchy croutons, had no visible (it was there, the leaves were glistening) or tasteable dressing. I asked Lincoln for some chopped garlic to liven it up and he brought back a ramekin of exactly that. It helped. (At least they left off those nasty anchovies.) Lincoln asked me if I wanted the wine with my steak and I told him to bring it as soon as the martini was finished.

I had just finished the chowder and was starting the salad when a young lady brought the main course. “Way too early!” I told her and sent it back. Lincoln apologized and I responded that I neglected to tell him beforehand that I was a slow eater and not going to a show (but he could have asked as well). When my martini was finished, right on cue, Lincoln brought a glass of wine. “Bottle?” I reminded him. And he was off again to correct the mistake. At this time I saw something resembling a breadbasket on other tables and not on mine. Hmm.


I’ve had Ravenswood Zinfandel before and knew it to be a consistently reliable wine and this time was no exception. When the salad was finished the main course reappeared. I couldn’t help thinking that it was put under heating lamps because it looked identical to the dish that came out first, right down to the angle at which the tiny American flag toothpick was leaning. I realize that bison meat is leaner than beef, but my 14-ounce filet mignon last Friday had way more meat on it than this “14 ounce” Delmonico. It was tasty and prepared almost medium (not my stated preference), but also not as wonderful as the Delmonico I enjoyed at the restaurant of the same name downtown (where the dish was invented). The nine (yes, I easily counted them) Bolide mushrooms were golden brown and again, tasty, but …. this is a side dish in a steakhouse? Maybe I’m jaded, but side dishes are usually unfinishable.

I was totally ready for dessert after consuming the main course (the pickles too). Here was where Ted’s finally put their best foot forward. The Banana Parfait, though it looked nothing like a true parfait, was so yummy I started eating it before I remembered to take a picture of it. All of the desserts at Ted’s feature Häagen-Dazs ice cream. That, plus the bananas and the fresh whipped cream, set me on a feeding frenzy. The double espresso was standard but the Grand Marnier was the crown on a dinner that cumulatively didn’t deserve to wear one.

It was 11 years ago that Ted Turner and George McKerrow Jr. opened the first steakhouse in Columbus, Ohio, celebrating bison on the menu and encouraging ranchers to keep and breed them. This is their 50th location, and it’s been open at least a year. I know why tourists like it: the prices are great. Maybe I’ll just have to return on a Wednesday.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

TCM TiVo Alert for October 23-31

TCM TiVo ALERT
For 
October 23–October 31

DAVID’S BEST BETS:

ON BORROWED TIME (October 27, 8:00 pm): I'm recommending two films this week starring one of my favorite actors: Lionel Barrymore. On Borrowed Time is one of the most emotional and touching films I've ever seen. It's also one of the most unique films I've ever seen. Like he did in numerous movies, Barrymore plays a grumpy old wheelchair-bound man (Gramps) who is raising his grandson, Pud (played by Bobs Watson; yeah Bobs as in more than one Bob). Pud's mother and father are killed in a car accident before the film starts, and his aunt wants to raise him, primarily to get her hands on the money left to the boy by his parents. But Pud and Gramps can't stand her, see right through her, and share an exceptionally close bond. But unlike most movies in which Barrymore is the grumpy old guy, the plot twist in 1939's On Borrowed Time is one for the ages. Gramps has an apple tree and the fruit is constantly being stolen so he makes a wish that anyone who climbs the tree gets stuck up there until he permits them to come down. Well, Death (masterfully played by Cedric Hardwicke) comes calling for Gramps and is tricked into climbing up the tree. Not only can't he take Gramps, but he can't take anyone else. The aunt thinks Gramps is crazy and sees this as an opportunity to get him committed and have Pud – and his money – for herself. As the movie progresses, Death tricks Pud into climbing the tree with disastrous results. Just thinking about the film's conclusion gives me chills. Not only does the film have a wonderful storyline, with many funny scenes, but a loving and touching message. Also, the acting is outstanding. Barrymore proves yet again that he never gave a bad performance in a film.

THE DEVIL DOLL (October 31, 8:15 am): Because Lionel Barrymore's characters are so likable in nearly every role he played, it's somewhat difficult to imagine him playing a vengeful criminal (wrongfully convicted, of course). His character escapes Devil's Island and plots his revenge against those who framed him in this 1936 film directed by Tod Browning, who co-wrote it. Oh, and he dresses like an old woman at times. But Barrymore was such a pro that he handles himself exceptionally well in this science fiction classic in which he shrinks people to one-sixth their size. Maureen O'Sullivan is good as his daughter and Rafaela Ottiano is amazing as his partner in crime who takes evil to new heights.

ED’S BEST BETS:

ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT (October 23, 9:00 am): Humphrey Bogart had many good qualities as an actor, but the ability to take a bad film and elevate it with his performance was not one of them. However, give him a good film and he often elevated it with the quality of his performance. This is a perfect case in point – a film with a lead that, in the wrong hands, could potentially sink it. Bogart, however, takes to it like a fish to water and comes off totally believable as a gangster who finds himself up against Nazi saboteurs led by Naughty Nazi Conrad Veidt. The performances supplied by such as Judith Anderson as Veidt’s assistant, Peter Lorre (in a wonderful turn as a sadistic henchman), William Demarest as Bogie’s sidekick, Jane Darwell as Bogie’s mom, and Kaaren Verne as a singer in peril give the film a luster that raises it above others released in 1941. The fact that this was made as Bogie began to catch fire with movie-going public as an actor to watch certainly helped, but we must also give kudos to director Vincent Sherman (his first film) and producer Hal Wallis, who kept a close watch on the movie as it was shot. It’s a film that works on every level.

DIABOLIQUE (October 26, 2:15 am): Frankly, I cannot recommend this picture enough. Think of a perfect Hitchcock film without Hitchcock. That’s Diabolique, which is directed by Henri-Georges Cluzot. To no one’s surprise, he’s known as “the French Hitchcock," and Hitchcock himself was influenced by this film. This is a masterful psychological horror film that builds slowly to a final 15 minutes that will keep you on the edge of your seat. Although the twist ending murder plot has been done many times since, it’s never been done better. Diabolique takes place at a school where Simone Signoret helps her friend Vera Clouzot (real life wife of the director) drown her ogre of a husband (Paul Meurisse), who “returns to life” in a really terrifying scene. It’s a taut, beautifully woven thriller with a climax that will truly shock you. Fans of Hitchcock will love this, as will anyone that loves a well-written thriller with the emphasis on character rather than going for the cheap thrill.

WE DISAGREE ON . . . CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (October 27, 6:00 pm)

ED. A-. The censors watered down Tennessee Wiliiams’s classic Pultizer Prize winning play about greed and mendacity in the South, but it still packs one hell of a punch, thanks to a great cast, especially Elizabeth Taylor, who gives one of her best performances and steams up the screen in doing so. Jack Carson scores in one of his last roles as Paul Newman’s brother (and Burl Ives’ son). Newman himself isn’t as dominant in this as he usually is in other films, but still manages to give a powerful performance nevertheless. However, considering the censorship, this is a film that should have been made during the ‘80s, when such topics could be honestly addressed, as Williams did in his play. It’s the excellent cast that puts this film over the hump for the audience, and it’s a wonderful film to see just for the performances.

DAVID: C+. This isn't a bad film, but there are a number of reasons I don't think it's anything special. First the good: Burl Ives is fantastic as Big Daddy, the patriarch of the dysfunctional family featured in the movie. He plays his role to near perfection. To begin the not-so-good list, the screenplay of this Tennessee Williams' play is too melodramatic. As I've mentioned before, I'm not much of a fan of Paul Newman or Elizabeth Taylor. This 1958 film is an example of why. The pair lack chemistry together, and, yes, I know the idea is the two have marital issues. But that doesn't mean Newman and Taylor can't work together to make a good film. Taylor's character goes from understanding to psychotic in the snap of a finger, and she fails to convey any authenticity, which comes as no surprise to me. As for Newman, he overuses "method" acting in this film as he was prone to do when playing angst-ridden characters. His character broods and then lashes out during the entire film for no logical reason. The Hays Code wouldn't permit the heavily suggested homosexual aspects of Newman's character that are in the play to be included in the film so viewers are left to wonder: why is any of this occurring? To make matters worse, the characters and the film are pretentious.

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