Monday, February 20, 2017

Top and Bottom 10 Movies of The Past Year

By Steve Herte

Two thousand sixteen was a banner year
For 3-D films and animation’s glory,
For stunning effects and new tunes we could hear,
For Acting, Pathos, Morals, Laughs, and Story.

You may have heard the movies “they” acclaim,
And read my list with doubts about my choices,
These are the ones I’ve seen. It’s not the same.
But in the mix you’ll hear some other voices.

The Runner-Up this year is Dr. Strange,
His levitation cape has chosen well.
The great effects and story did not change
The missed tenth spot from which it fell.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them showed
How great imagination moves the mind,
Computers bring to life what myths bestowed
On us. Tenth place to this film’s more than kind.

In ninth we find girl-power, Hawaiian style!
Moana from the Disney lots breaks out,
With music, moral, lines to make us smile
And animation so superb, to think about.

Accomplished singers find it hard to try
To Murder operatic songs and smile.
But Florence Foster Jenkins showed us why,
Her eighth place finish beats all by a mile.

Will Smith takes seventh place this year with grace,
Collateral Beauty tells us we can reverse
Our situation, no matter how sad our place,
By writing lonely letters to the universe.

Lost children’s plight is sixth upon my list
With Lion, Dev Patel did make us think,
In India, how many lost are missed,
 And how few are returning from the brink.

The Finest Hours made it to number five
A stormy ocean rescue by Coast Guard,
How many men they saved, returned alive,
The bravery when things get really hard.

The movie magic shows in number four,
As Now You See Me 2 explodes onscreen,
And eight magicians wow the crowd and more,
Perform the greatest robberies you’ve seen.

An animated feature’s number three.
Zootopia takes creatures from the wild,
Predator and Prey live civilly,
Not eat or eaten, cowed or riled.

Conundrums caused by terrorism’s two,
Eye in the Sky had true white-knuckle-tense,
High tech surveillance, high tech weapons too,
To keep us in the grip of its suspense.


The space race of the Sixties took the lead
As three black women proved they could compete
With men in mathematics and succeed,
At Number One, Hidden Figures is a treat.

Mind you, my opinion’s just my own;
And you can have the rankings you respect,
So now it’s time for films where fame has flown,
The bottom of the list, the low select.

The highest of the low presents a feud
Two races should cooperate, but no,
The Runner-Up is Warcraft, though it’s food
For thought, it’s not much of a show.

A space adventure just for two is ten,
The Passengers awakened way too soon,
But not too soon for love, and then
They saved the ship, but didn’t shoot the moon.

At ninth, Captain America: Civil War
Pits hero against hero for some weak cause
We wonder what they all were fighting for?
Well maybe it was simply, just because.

A child with glowing eyes is number eight,
And we know ev’ry ET must phone home;
But Midnight Special wasn’t very great,
As were the search lights shooting from his dome.

Tom Hanks takes seventh place this sixteenth year
Preventing potent plague by puzzles solved,
Inferno trotted globally from here,
But went nowhere as far as I’m involved.

The Kindergarten Cop 2, what a bomb!
Made Arnold look like Gable as compared,
While proving “Sequel Theory” with aplomb,
At six, it ended happy, no one cared.

Alien Arrival’s fifth place win
Made “septipus” a household word again,
(A Disney fish was first.) Plot thin,
Banana ships, good aliens, bad men.
  
In fourth place is the “musical” La La Land;
Whose op’ning number is its greatest scene;
Compared to classic song-fests, wasn’t grand,
Bad acting, clumsy dancing, not too keen.

Ratchet and Clank deserves number three
An animated feature that fell flat,
A video game-made-film shouldn’t be,
There must be more ideas out than that.

In second place, The Girl on the Train,
A thriller that really failed to thrill,
Much touted, it failed to contain
The myst’ry, suspense, it should fill.


And now, the big moment, the big number one!
The 5th Wave clinched that spot without a doubt,
Predictable and rarely good, glad when ‘twas done,
The “aliens” are us, you figure it out.

So, if I’ve made you think, I’ve proved my case,
And if I’ve made you laugh, then good for me;
Yes, there are missing movies ev’ry place,
But I cannot rank the ones I didn’t see.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Return of Doctor X

The Psychotronic Zone

By Ed Garea

The Return of Doctor X (WB, 1939) – Director: Vincent Sherman. Writers: Lee Katz (s/p), William J. Makin (story). Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Rosemary Lane, Wayne Morris, Dennis Morgan, John Litel, Lya Lys, Huntz Hall, Charles C. Wilson, Vera Lewis, Howard C. Hickman, Olin Howard, Arthur Aylesworth, Cliff Saum, Charles Wilson, Joseph Crehan, Creighton Hale, & John Ridgely. B&W, 62 minutes.

Before High Sierra began to turn his fortunes around in 1940, Humphrey Bogart played many types of roles for the Warner Bros. factory. But his strangest may have been that of a vampire.


A vampire? Strange as it sounds, it’s true. No, Bogart wasn’t running around in a cape with a cheesy Hungarian accent calling himself Count Bogula. This is Warner Brothers, for whom horror pictures do not carry supernatural plots. Bogie is a deceased deranged scientist brought back to life by a living deranged scientist to help him with his research on blood. We hope that’s clear.

Though not a direct sequel to 1932’s Doctor XThe Return of Doctor X does share one small plot point with its predecessor, which we shall see later.

Bogie was billed third behind Wayne Morris (Kid Galahad), and Rosemary Lane (Four Daughters), both of whom the studio was grooming for stardom. As with Doctor X, the hero is a reporter. Morris is reporter Walter Garrett, known as “Wichita” around the office for his Kansas roots. Looking for an easy story he notices that European stage star Angela Merrova (Lys) is in town. He calls her up to arrange an interview, and by the tone of their conversation it seems as if he’s interviewed her before, for she wastes no time telling him to come over. When she hangs up we see a shadow lurking behind her and a gloved hand comes down over her mouth.

When Walt arrives at her hotel for the interview he finds the door unlocked. He enters and looks around, only to find her lifeless body on the floor with a neat, surgical stab wound right above the heart. Does he call the police? Not our boy. He calls his editor (Crehan) to report the incident and gives his story over the phone to the rewrite man. A real scoop.

When the police arrive later, to Walt’s surprise there is no body and the cops, led by Detective Ray Kincaid (Wilson), accuse him of making the whole thing up. But things are about to get worse, for the next day his boss calls him to the office where sitting across the desk is none other than Angela Merrova herself, who, along with the hotel, is suing the paper over the adverse publicity. The boss tells his reporter that he’s fired.

Walt is not the sort of person to take something like this lightly. Things just don’t add up, so he goes over to the hospital to talk things over with good friend Dr. Mike Rhodes (Morgan). Mike tells Walt that he’s getting ready for surgery, but to stick around, even though he tells him that the situation as Walt describes it is patently impossible. However, to placate his friend, Mike will bring the matter up to his colleague, Dr. Flegg (Litel), with whom he’s performing the operation.


But an odd complication arises: the operation calls for a rare blood type and the professional blood donor, who will give the necessary transfusion, has failed to arrive. Flegg is about to call off the operation when one of the nurses, Joan Vance (Lane), steps forward to inform Dr. Rhodes that she has that rare blood type and would be happy to be a donor. The operation goes off without a hitch. As they scrub up after, Rhodes mentions Garrett’s dilemma to Flegg while Flegg, a noted hematologist, is lecturing Rhodes on the importance of blood. Flegg also poo-poohs the notion.

Mike is called to the phone. It’s the police and they want him to come to the blood donor’s apartment. With Walt in tow, Mike arrives and learns the reason why the donor didn’t show up this morning: he’s dead. And what’s more, there isn’t a drop of blood in his body. Not only that, there’s scarcely a trace of spilled blood in the apartment. But Mike notices a few drops on the floor and takes them back to his lab for examination. The blood is determined to be from blood group IV (type O today). But the dead man’s blood was the rare blood group I (type AB). And further, to his surprise, he finds it isn’t human blood. Nor is it animal blood. He tells Walt that if he didn’t know better he’d swear it’s manufactured.

Mike tells Walt that he’s calling it a night and will pick up tomorrow, but he takes a cab to Dr. Flegg’s home. Walt trails him without his knowledge and spies through a window into Flegg’s office. While waiting for Flegg to return, Mike meets a strangely pale man with a white streak through his hair petting a white rabbit in his arms. He introduces himself as Dr. Flegg’s assistant, Dr. Marshall Quesne (pronounced “Kane”). Thus, after the film is nearly halfway through we finally see Bogart as Quesne. When Flegg returns Mike gives him the slide for examination. Flegg looks at it through his microscope and declares it to be nothing more than ordinary group IV blood. As Mike discusses the blood with Flegg, Quesne becomes noticeably distressed, and when Mike describes the blood as “artificial,” Quesne becomes so worked up that he crushes a beaker in his hand, cutting it and is reprimanded by Flegg.

After Mike leaves, Walt gets ready to depart when he spots none other than Merrova coming into Flegg’s building. He rushes to tell Mike about it and the next day they visit Merrova at her apartment. She confirms Walt's story and promises them that she’ll elaborate more on it the following day, as she’s waiting for Dr. Flegg to minister to her. But after Mike and Walt leave, it’s not Flegg who comes to see her, but Quesne. Uh oh. And the next day she is reported as not merely dead but really most sincerely dead. 

This, and the nagging feeling he has that he’s seen Quesne somewhere before, gets Walt to thinking. Cajoling Pinky (Hall), the keeper of the paper’s morgue, to let him in, Garrett begins going through past clippings before finally coming to a picture and story of Quesne from two years back. He discovers that Quesne’s real name is Dr. Xavier and was put on trial for starving a baby to death in an experiment. Found guilty of first-degree murder he was electrocuted in the chair.

When Walt and Mike visit the cemetery and find Xavier’s grave empty, they pay a visit to Flegg. Confronted with the evidence, Flegg confesses. He had been working on a technique for the reanimation of the dead at the time of Xavier’s execution and realized this was the perfect opportunity to test his theories with Xavier as the ideal guinea pig. If successful, Xavier’s vast knowledge would help him perfect the technique. He stole Xavier’s body, hooked it up to his machines, and was successful in restoring the doctor to life. However, he ran into a hurdle when he discovered that a complete change of blood was necessary for the process to work. Flegg, a noted hematologist, developed a synthetic blood he hoped would do the trick. It brought Xavier back to life but also created a need within him for fresh blood to stay alive. He has become, in a sense, a technical vampire. The only blood that will keep him going is the rare blood type that only one in 10 people has. Angela Merrova had that exact type and Quesne killed her to obtain it. He doesn’t drink it in the sense that a normal vampire would, but rather transfuses it into his body. 


Flegg goes on to tell them that when he discovered what Quesne had done to Merrova he used a new experimental version of his synthetic blood to save her, but ultimately the new version proved no better than the older one. Mike’s “professional blood donor” also had blood compatible with Quesne’s, and he was the next victim.

After Mike and Walt leave, Quesne, who had been spying at the window, appears. Flegg tells him that he confessed all to the duo, but the only thing Quesne is interested in is Flegg’s book of donors. Flegg refuses to surrender the book and Quesne shoots him to get it. The sound of the gunshots brings Mike and Walt back to the office. Flegg is barely alive, but has enough time to tell them what Quesne was after. They realize that Joan’s name is in the book and they rush out to grab her before Quesne gets to her. But it's too late. Quesne has tricked her into a cab and is taking her to his secret laboratory for dinner. They try to figure out where Quesne could have taken her before Walt remembers that in the articles he’s read Quesne had a secret laboratory in the swamps outside Newark. Contacting the police, they race to the scene, where Quesne is just about ready to link Joan up to his equipment. A gunfight breaks out, and as Quesne attempts to escape over the roof, he is shot down and killed.

Afterwords

A film buff who has never seen this before has probably been warned that it’s one of the worst movies ever made. At least, that’s the opinion of many critics and bloggers. Truth be told, it’s not a good movie, but it’s far from the worst. It is what it is: a B-programmer, made in a hurry and on the cheap. It’s Bogart’s only horror/science fiction movie and I think the reason why many people downgrade it so radically is the bizarre makeup Bogie wears. With that pasty face and white streak through his flattop he looks positively ridiculous. One would surmise that considering the movie and his role therein that he would either ham it up or walk through it. He does neither, actually turning in a good performance. 

Over the years it’s been said that The Return of Doctor X was a punishment film for Bogart; that it was Jack Warner’s way of getting back at him for all the complaining Bogart did about the sorts of movies he was in over the years. And there may be some truth to that. Bogart was under contract, and to those under contract it’s either ‘my way or the highway,’ the highway being a suspension without pay and the added suspension time added to the end of the actor’s contract. Bogie may have been assuaged by the fact that good friend Vincent Sherman was making his directorial debut. Later in life, Bogart was quoted saying about the vampire role, “If it had been Jack Warner's blood maybe I wouldn't have minded as much. The trouble was, they were drinking mine and I was making this stinking movie.”

There’s also a rumor that Bela Lugosi was offered the role, and when he turned it down, the studio turned to Bogart. I’m not buying this for two reasons: (1) Lugosi may have been in England at the time, filming Dark Eyes of London; and (2) Lugosi would never turn down a role offered by a major studio. He was not renowned for carefully choosing his projects; he went where the money was, and if it was coming from Warner Bros., with the promise of future roles if the film did well, he certainly would have signed on. 

What makes the film so much fun to watch, besides Bogart, is Vincent Sherman’s direction. Incidentally, he was almost canned after his first day. Even though he was working in the B-movie unit with veterans like producer Bryan Foy and cameraman Sid Hickox, Sherman began by shooting the film as if he was making an A picture. When he took 10 takes for a simple 45-second shot, Jack Warner sent Foy a memo that was a short, but not sweet: "If he does this again he won't be on the picture any longer.” But when the picture made a handsome profit Sherman was forgiven his past sin and added to the roster of Warner directors, going on to make such notable films as All Through the NightOld AcquaintanceMr. Skeffington, and Nora Prentiss.

With The Return of Doctor X, Sherman keeps things moving along at a brisk pace, not giving the audience time to rest, lest they consider the holes in the plot. For instance, consider that Walt (who is a friend of the cemetery’s caretaker) suggests breaking into Dr. Xavier’s grave to Mike, and without taking any time to think it over, readily agrees, as if Walt was inviting him to the local saloon for a drink or two. Then after they exhume the body, they walk away, telling the caretaker to fill it in. I suppose this was supposed to pass as a lighter moment.

But with the help of cinematographer Sid Hickox, Sherman crafts a film with loads of stylish but unreal atmosphere. Hickox and Sherman do an excellent job in using underlighting for almost every medium shot and close-up to project the characters in our minds. Litel, for instance, is shot in such a way that he seems sinister, with his goatee and lectures on the nature and importance of blood, though as soon as we get a load of Bogart we know right away who the bad guy is, but is he working with the mysterious Dr. Flegg? And what about Angela Merrova? Shot in this way, she comes across as an otherworldly vamp. Huge shadows are seen on the walls, especially in violent scenes, such as the murder of Merrova. Though shot on an obvious studio set, Sherman takes pains to give it a sort of surreal quality.


As noted before, Bogart gives a wonderful performance as the bizarre Dr. Xavier. John Litel also shines as Dr. Flegg, keeping us guessing to the last about his true involvement with Xavier. And Dennis Morgan gives a performance that promises better things – and bigger roles – in the future. Wayne Morris, on the other hand, plays his usual “Gee Whiz, Aw, Shucks” type of character, and Rosemary Lane is given little to do other than to be a plot device, despite her second billing.

Although we’re somewhat led to think this is going to be a sequel to 1932’s Doctor X, the fact is the plots have almost nothing in common save for the fact they are murder mysteries cantered around a reporter-hero, and both are somewhat tongue-in-cheek. But there is one small plot point both movies share. As I mentioned earlier: Doctor X was concerned with synthetic flesh while The Return of Doctor X was concerned with synthetic blood. But the real fun of the sequel is to watch Humphrey Bogart, long before he became a mega-star, vamping it up in the role of an undead bloodsucker.

Watch closely for future psychotronic stars Glenn Langan (The Amazing Colossal Man) and William Hopper, here billed as “DeWolf Hopper,” using his middle name (20 Million Miles to Earth).

From the Life Imitating Art Department: Japanese medical researchers are working on perfecting an artificial blood to be used in operations and lessening the need for frequent donors.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Lego Batman Movie

Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

The Lego Batman Movie (WB, 2017) – Director: Chris McKay. Writers: Seth Grahame-Smith s/p, story), Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern, John Whittington (s/p). Bob Kane, Bill Finger (creators of Batman). Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster (creators of Superman). Voices: Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Hector Elizondo, Ralph Fiennes, Zach Galifianakis, & Channing Tatum. Animated, Color, Rated PG, 104 minutes.

The strong points of this silly spoof are the outrageous computer animation, the remarkably complex sets composed of Lego bricks, the funny (though juvenile) comic lines and the cast itself. No wonder they had an $80 million budget.

The story is simple. Batman/Bruce Wayne (Arnett), though he saves Gotham City over and over, is a lone vigilante and he likes it that way. Barbara Gordon/Batgirl (Dawson) takes over as Police Commissioner from her Dad, Jim Gordon (Elizondo). She wants to eliminate crime, not just fight it over and over and have Batman work with the Gotham City police. Alfred Pennyworth (Fiennes), who virtually raised Bruce Wayne, thinks it’s time for him to experience family and raise Robin/Dick Grayson (Cera), an orphan Bruce unwittingly adopted at a Gotham City gala as his own.

Meanwhile, the Joker (Galifianakis) believes there’s a special hate/love/need relationship between himself and Batman, and is willing to surrender his army of villains to get Batman to admit it (which he doesn’t), and all are sent to Arkham Asylum. This makes Batman unnecessary. But he’s sure Joker is plotting something and, after watching a television interview of Superman (Tatum), he decides that the only place that the Joker could be genuinely contained is in the Phantom Zone, where Superman sent General Zod. Realizing that he cannot directly steal the device that can accomplish this feat from Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, he trains Robin and directs him through all the gyrations needed to get it. In the process, however, Batman stumbles into a party where every super hero but himself was invited. Awkward.


With the device, Batman sends Joker to the Phantom Zone. Barbara locks him and Robin up for the deed, noting that he might just have done what the Joker wanted him to do. She’s right. Joker amasses a super army of villains including King Kong (Seth Green), Sauron (Jemaine Clement) from Lord of the Rings, Medusa, the Wicked Witch of the West and her Winged Monkeys, the bad Gremlins, a Velociraptor from Jurassic Park, the Kraken Sea Monster from Clash of the Titans, Lord Voldemort (Eddie Izzard) from Harry Potter, the Daleks from Dr. Who, Swamp Creature, Agent Smith from The Matrix, the Shark from Jaws, and a T-Rex. To battle this juggernaut, Batman is forced to ally with Barbara, Robin and Alfred and recruits all of Joker’s former villain army to help. Did I mention how large the cast was? This included Harley Quinn (Jenny Slate), Scarecrow (Jason Mantzoukas), the Riddler (Conan O’Brien), Bane (Doug Benson), Two-Face (Billy Dee Williams), Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz), Clayface (Kate Micucci), Poison Ivy (Riki Lindhome) in speaking roles and a host of others. My personal favorite was Condiment King, who had ketchup in one hand and mustard in the other.

Joker’s plan is to bomb the Gotham City Power Company and destroy the city. Conveniently, a commentator comes on a television screen before he leaves for the Phantom Zone to tell him exactly how to do it. If you realize that this is basically a Lego Gotham City, then it must have been built by some extremely imaginative child and must sit on a table in someone’s basement. Hence the commentator’s statement that the city is built on a single slab with nothing underneath it and a crack in the center would cause the entirety of Gotham to fall into an abyss. Unlike the first Lego movie, no mention of “the man upstairs” is made. But we can guess from this revelation.

Among the huge cast we also hear Susan Bennett, credited as “Siri,” the Bat Computer, Phyllis the Phantom Zone Gatekeeper (Ellie Kemper), a single Lego block with lights for connecting knobs, Green Lantern (Jonah Hill), the Flash (Adam Devine), and surprisingly, Mariah Carey as Mayor McCaskill.

I mentioned the funny lines. Two quotes stand out for me:

Alfred: “Sir, I have seen you go through similar phases in 2016 and 2012 and 2008 and 2005 and 1997 and 1992 and 1989 and that weird one in 1966. (The many iterations of Batman in the movies and on television. The last one with Adam West playing the part and doing a strange dance.)
Batman: “I have aged phenomenally!”

And:

Dick Grayson: “My name is Richard Grayson. The other kids call me Dick.”
Bruce Wayne: “Well children can be cruel.”

The soundtrack uses older pop songs to accentuate the comedy, such as playing “(I Just) Died in Your Arms” by Cutting Crew when Bruce sees Barbara for the first time, and again when Batman sees her. Other tunes heard including “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley, “Fly Robin Fly” by Silver Convention, “Wake Me Up, Before You Go-Go” by Wham!, “The Batman Theme” by Neal Hefti, and the classical Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by Johan Sebastian Bach.

The kids will love this film. It’s geared mainly to them, naturally. Adults will find some content appealing but the majority is just, as I mentioned, silly. A surprise for me was that it actually did something I abhor and got away with it because it worked. A narration at the outset of the film and at the end. We hear Batman say, “Every great movie begins with a black screen and some scary music and large imposing logos. Hmm, Warner Bras (sic).” And then, “Every good movie ends with a white screen.” I was impressed. But I still don’t think it was as good as the first Lego Movie (2015).

Rating: 3 out of 5 Martini glasses.

Trademark Taste & Grind
38 W. 36th St., New York

Every once in a while the call of “comfort food” must be answered. It’s the food we know how to eat without any special implements, the food that isn’t going to turn our mouths into blast furnaces or screw our faces up in disgust looking at it. It’s the food that says, “I’m home.” Trademark Taste & Grind takes “comfort food” to a new level.

Inside, there is a small, but cozy, tiled boutique coffee bar (the “Grind” part of the name) where artisan coffee from Greenpoint, Brooklyn – among others – is served. Suddenly I’m in the main dining area dominated by a rectangular bar in the center of the room (the “Taste” part). A wall covered with photos leads to the hotel proper, which I later found out is called the Le Soliel, a boutique luxury hotel and another one I’ve never heard of.

My server, Debbie, introduced herself and gave me some time to look over the drinks and food menus. Once my eyes adjusted to the lighting I ordered the Benito Juarez – mescal, calvados, dry vermouth, Benedictine, Peychaud’s bitters, and a lemon zest garnish – a serious cocktail and not for the faint of heart. Deceptively pretty in its rusty orange clarity, it packs a mean punch and sipping is mandatory.


First up was the kabocha squash (a Japanese gourd) soup with sausage, kale, white beans, carrots and potatoes – a nice hearty soup and perfect for a cold winter night. With all the ingredients I was hard pressed to identify the kabocha. I asked if it was the one ingredient the dissolved in my mouth before I could taste it and was told I was correct.

The next dish was the crispy Scotch olives. Stuffed with cheese, wrapped in prosciutto, breaded and deep fried, served over a yoghurt-feta sauce, they were truly addictive. The many ingredients overpowered the flavor of the olives but also combined to create a composite that was chewy in texture, crispy and crunchy on the outside, slightly salty and savory, all at the same time.

Before my main course I ordered the 2013 H3 (Horse Heaven Hills) Les Chevaux, a Bordeaux blend of Merlot, Syrah, Viognier and Cabernet Franc from Columbia Crest, Washington State. Its fruity nose and deep fruit flavor made it a lovely medium-bodied red apropos to my every dish. 

It especially went well with my main course, the 16-ounce pork porterhouse with apple maple mustard glaze. I’d never had a pork porterhouse T and after my first taste I was in love. It tasted like a bacon-steak! I’ll admit it was a little overdone, but the flavor was undeniable. I ordered a side dish with it, a quinoa tabbouleh that took a classic Middle Eastern staple and brought it into the 21st century – warm parsley salad with quinoa and chopped tomatoes. But it was great. It didn’t compete with the pork.


When out came to dessert, I passed up the death by chocolate for the big banana, served in a Mason jar. It’s a rich banana pudding with a toasted marshmallow fluff topping and a brown butter wafer. The menu states that it serves two, but I finished it anyway. And…one last shot at luxury, not just espresso (the grind part), but an espresso martini. It was so good I wondered why I stopped drinking coffee in the morning.

As I was leaving, I saw the third and fourth walls and took a picture of one. Arrayed on it were plates, each with a single letter spelling out the sentence, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” – Henry David Thoreau. I look at Trademark and see many new dining adventures in the future.


For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Cinéma Inhabituel for February 16-28

A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea

At this point, we’re about midway through TCM’s annual salute to the Oscars, to which the month of February is devoted, along with the first three days in March. We received some good feedback to our special format for this festival, so we’ll continue with what obviously works.

This year TCM is doing sort of “A Look at the Oscars From A to Z.” But face it: how many times can one repackage the same old films year after year? Definitely, more foreign films need to be added, and perhaps some animation as well. Something to think about, anyway.

February 16: Our pick today is The Maltese Falcon from 1941, which airs at 6:15. It marks John Huston’s directorial debut, and a director couldn’t ask for a better opening. Humphrey Bogart was at the top of his form as Sam Spade and was given a run for his money by a strong supporting cast, which included Elisha Cook, Jr., Mary Astor, Peter Lorre and the formidable Sydney Greenstreet, also making his film debut after a career on stage, most recently with the company of Lunt and Fontaine. We’ve all seen it multiple times, but so what? We can always watch it again – it’s just that good.


February 17: There’s nothing like a good Pre-Code film to make one’s day, and Min and Bill (1930), at 5:00 pm, starring the combination of Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery, is the ticket. It was the first time these two teamed, and the way they came off it seemed like they had been working together for years. Dressler is a cantankerous old buzzard who runs a waterfront hotel and Beery is an equally cantankerous old sailor who’s her best friend. Together they’re a pair of lovable underdogs. The plot revolves around Min’s efforts to get her adopted daughter Nancy (Dorothy Jordan) out of these crummy environs and out to a better life. In order to accomplish this she resorts to some radical tactics, such as pretending not to care about her charge as she sends her away to a more respectable home. Along the way she faces opposition from Nancy’s real mother, Bella (Marjorie Rambeau), a grasping floozie whose antics towards reclaiming her daughter (Hint: money is involved.) puts Min to the ultimate test of parental love. Adapted by Frances Marion from Lorna Moon’s novel, the parts were perfect for Dressler and Beery. Marion was quite good at this sort of thing, having also written the screenplay for one of the all-time tearjerkers, Stella Dallas, back in 1925. However, it’s the chemistry between Dressler and Beery that makes the film such a joy to watch. They are the ultimate slob actors.

February 18: There is nothing like a good comedy, especially on a winter’s day, to warm the heart. And TCM is dishing up a good one at 4:30 pm with one of Laurel and Hardy’s best shorts, The Music Box, from 1932. The boys play movers whose task is to haul a heavy player piano up a huge flight of stairs from the street to a house sitting high above; a feat that makes it seem more like climbing a mountainside. A bareboned plot such as this would test the mettle of any comedian, but for Laurel and Hardy it’s child’s play. They keep us glued to the screen with a variety of sight gags and a continuing flow of characters in and out of the story. The short, which was the first film to win an Oscar in the Best Comedy Short Subject category, is actually a remake of their classic 1927 silent short Hats Off, which found the boys lugging a washing machine up and down the same flight of stairs. It is thought that The Three Stooges used the same staircase in their 1941 short,An Ache in Every Stake, but that's not so. They used a similar staircase in the same neighborhood of the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles.

February 19: Films about religious life don’t get any better than this one from director Fred Zinnemann and star Audrey Hepburn. The Nun’s Story (11:00 am) is that rare bird in Hollywood: a religious film that eschews the usual Hollywood treatment of the feel-good happy ending in favor of a thoughtful story of a devout young woman, Gabrielle Van Der Mal (Hepburn), whose dream is to serve in the Belgian Congo as a nurse and who later finds fulfillment of sorts as missionary nun. But her inner-life is a struggle, revolving around her growing doubts about having the humility necessary to serve God. Eventually, her doubts make it difficult for her to succeed in her vocation. It’s not a perfect film, being too long in length with its drama mostly unrealized cinematically. However, it presents more of a realistic view of the Church, warts and all, and Hepburn gives perhaps the best performance of her life and was nominated for an Oscar for her trouble. Though the movie marks something of a breakthrough in presenting the religious life, Hollywood was soon back to happy, singing nuns.

February 20: Peter Sellers created a wonderfully hilarious character in Inspector Clousseau and becomes the focus of this otherwise bland comedy of jewel thieves among the beautiful people of Europe at a fashionable resort in the Italian Alps. The Pink Panther (4:00 pm) is a tour de force by Sellers and the picture slows to a crawl whenever he’s not on. David Niven, Robert Wagner, Capucine and Claudia Cardinale proved steady support, but Sellers is the show. His Clousseau character was put to better use in the sequel, A Shot in the Dark, where he was the star instead of being reduced almost to a supporting player. 

February 21: Charles Laughton is always worth catching on the screen, and one of his best roles was as English monarch Henry VIII in Alexander Korda’s superb 1933 drama The Private Life of Henry VIII, which airs at 2:15 pm. Laughton gives an unforgettable performance as the colorful king whose obsession with producing a male heir took him through six wives. It begins just before the execution of second wife Anne Boleyn and Korda provides a sterling supporting cast as the wives: Merle Oberon as Anne Boleyn, Wendy Barrie as Jane Seymour, Elsa Lanchester as Anne of Cleves, Binnie Barnes as Katherine Howard, and Everley Gregg as his final wife, Katherine Paar. Robert Donat, Miles Mander and John Loder are also on hand, but it’s Laughton’s show all the way, and he doesn’t disappoint. The Academy also thought so, for they awarded him the Best Actor Oscar.

February 22: On a day without much to speak of in the way of movies, Peter Medak’s 1972 adaptation of Peter Barnes’ satirical stage play, The Ruling Class (12:15 am), offers a gem of a performance from Peter O’Toole as deranged 14th Earl of Gurney, who believes he’s the second coming of Christ. He suspends himself from a custom-made crucifix that he uses to get his beauty rest. The film itself is wildly uneven, with the Earl’s uncle (William Mervyn) marrying him to the uncle’s own mistress (Carolyn Seymour) with the intention of producing a male heir, after which the Duke can be sent to the funny farm with the family gaining a ruling member who is sane. The plot goes south when the newlyweds actually fall in love. At the same time, the Earl is becoming convinced that he is actually Jack the Ripper. It goes on from there to the accompaniment of songs and dances from the leading characters. Originally released in a shorter version in 1972, the movie gained a cult status that resulted in the cut footage being restored, bringing the film to 154 minutes. The restored footage only succeeds in slowing the movie down, but O’Toole is so mesmerizing we can’t help but stay tuned in.

February 23: At midnight comes one of the great B movies: Shaft. Richard Roundtree plays private eye John Shaft, who is hired by Harlem underworld boss Moses Gunn to retrieve his kidnaped daughter (Sherry Brewer). It’s not much different from a story with a white detective, but the character of John Shaft is so vividly played by Roundtree that he takes the film to another level entirely. Shaft rubs out the baddies and romances the ladies while strutting around in a leather coat to the throbbing rhythm of Isaac Hayes’ dynamic score. Never before had African-American audiences seen a character quite like him and they loved what they saw. The box office success of the 1971 movie helped jump start the genre known as blaxploitation, but films like this and performances like Roundtree’s would become the glaring exception.


February 24: The day features such gems as Singin’ in the Rain (2:00 pm), Some Like It Hot (8:00 pm), and Spartacus (10:15 pm), but our recommendation is one of the worst films ever made, The Silver Chalice (1954), which airs at 11:30 am. Released during a time when Biblical epics were considered money in the bank, it’s based on Thomas B. Costain’s best-seller about a Greek artisan named Basil (Paul Newman) sold into slavery and later commissioned by Christian leaders to make a chalice for the cup from which Jesus drank during the Last Supper. Audiences must have sat wondering if they could believe what they were seeing, as they were looking at obviously cardboard stone walls with wildly over-the-top performances by Jack Palance, a court magician who believes he’s the messiah; his assistant Helena (Virginia Mayo) whose main enjoyment in life is attending pagan orgies while chewing her share of the scenery; Pier Angeli as the unbelievably good Christian granddaughter of Joseph of Arimathea who marries Basil and converts him to Christianity, and Jacques Aubuchon as possibly the worst Nero ever to appear on the screen. Lorne Greene also gives a strange slant to his portrayal of St. Peter, making us  wonder if he had watched James Dean too many times. The film is wretchedly written by the aptly named Lesser Samuels and cluelessly directed by Victor Saville, who acquired the rights to the novel right after it was published. Somehow he talked Warner Bros. into letting him produce this turkey. Newman’s debut was more on the lines of notorious than notable, giving a performance that lacked any sort of panache. Newman later got a little revenge when the move played on L.A.’s version of Million Dollar Movie in the 1960s. He placed ads in the trade papers that read, "Paul Newman apologizes every night this week-Channel 9." The film eventually became a camp classic and is a favorite of bad film fanatics.

February 25: A lot of good movies are being shown today but for our part we’re going with Gregory LaCava’s ensemble comedy-drama, Stage Door, airing at 8:15 am. This adaptation (by Morrie Ryskind and Anthony Veiller) of the hit play by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman about a young girl, Terry Randall (Katharine Hepburn), who aspires to become an actress and lodges in a boarding house filled with other acting hopefuls. Co-starring with Ginger Rogers, who was looking to escape from being typecast as Fred Astaire’s dancing partner, Hepburn and Rogers deftly use their off-screen antagonism to inform their on-screen antagonism, combining sharp comic timing with some serious dramatic acting, especially on the part of Rogers, who wowed the critics with her performance. They’re helped by terrific supporting performances from Lucille Ball, Gail Patrick, Constance Collier and Andrea Leeds, who provide the human background against which Hepburn and Rogers play. Adolphe Menjou, Samuel S. Hinds and Franklin Pangborn also provide solid support. 

February 26: Can there be any other choice this day than The Thin Man (8:00 pm)? William Powell and Myrna Loy were the perfect match as Nick and Nora Charles, so much so that people actually thought they were married in real life. The mystery plays a decided second fiddle to the antics of Nick and Nora, who have a knack for making alcoholism seem most appealing, though the producers try to make up for it by having Nick assemble all the suspects in a room before naming the guilty party, a tactic that proved so popular with audiences it was repeated in every Thin Man sequel from then onward. But this is the first, and by far the best of the series, and it received four Oscar nominations. Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Writing, Adaptation.

February 27:
 At 8:00 pm comes a film that was not that well received at the time, but which has gone on to become one of the classics of the silver screen. We’re talking about Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not To Be (1942). The idea of a comedy set in Nazi-occupied Poland may have rankled some who saw it as blasphemous, but newer generations have embraced the movie for the dark comedy it is. As the hammy Joseph Tura, Jack Benny is pitch perfect, hitting all the right notes. He’s matched line for line by Carole Lombard as his wife Maria in a performance many regard as her best. Lombard was a consummate performer, the best comedic actress of her time. Sadly this was to be her last performance. In a hurry to get home to husband Clark Gable after her War Bond tour wrapped, Lombardi’s plane crashed into a peak of Potosi Mountain near Las Vegas, killing all aboard. The tragic circumstances of her death resulted in a rewriting of her line “What can happen in a plane?” Mel Brooks remade the film in 1983 as a starring vehicle for both him and wife Anne Bancroft. As good as Bancroft was in the movie, though, she still couldn’t approach the dynamic of Lombard’s performance. 

February 28: As the month closes, our pick for the evening is Luis Bunuel’s absorbing 1970 drama of revenge, Tristana (1:00 am), featuring Catherine Deneuve in a delicately nuanced performance as a young girl whose duplicitous guardian, Don Lope (Fernando Rey), seduces her and makes her his mistress. Although he tells Tristana that she is free, she knows the truth and feels increasingly trapped by his possessiveness. When she falls in love with young artist Horatio (Franco Nero), she runs away with him to Madrid to get away from Don Lope. However, a couple of years later she develops a large tumor in her leg and begs Horatio to bring her back to Don Lope, who has inherited a fortune. Her leg ends up being amputated, and with the help of Don Lope she slowly recovers from the surgery. Don Lope, who has aged considerably, has softened over the years and takes over the role of Tristana’s father. He encourages Horatio to court her, but Tristana, who is considered deformed, has let her deformity enter into her inner being. She coldly rejects Horatio's proposal of marriage. Eventually, at the urging of a local priest, Don Lope marries her. Over time their roles have completely reversed and the cold Tristana has become the caregiver for Don Lope, who has become senile and has turned to religion for consolation. One night he suffers a heart attack. He implores Tristana to call a doctor. She pretends to phone from the next room, but in actuality is opening a window to let the winter wind enter the dying man’s room. Her revenge is complete.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

TCM TiVo Alert for February 15-22

TCM TiVo ALERT
For
February 15–February 22

DAVID’S BEST BETS:

MONSIEUR VERDOUX (February 17, 5:00 am): While I'm a huge fan of Charlie Chaplin's silent films, his "talkies" are his best movies – The Great DictatorLimelightA King in New York and Monsieur Verdoux. The latter is the darkest of comedies. Henri Verdoux (Chaplin) marries and then kills rich widows to support his crippled wife and young son. Chaplin is so charming that you find yourself sympathizing with Verdoux even though he's murdering innocent rich old ladies. While Chaplin is excellent, Martha Raye is fantastic as one of Verdoux's intended victims who manages to avoid several attempts on her life. The exceptionally funny scenes with Chaplin and Raye alone are worth watching.

NETWORK (February 18, 10:30 pm): This brilliant film is not only the best satire of television ever made, but it is about two decades ahead of its time showing how reality TV could and did capture the attention of the viewing audience. As the years pass, this 1976 film becomes more relevant as society's interest in the obsession of pseudo celebrities and our insatiable appetite for around-the-clock garbage news increase. At times, you can see yourself in the film watching some of the crap that litters the airwaves today. You know it's awful and/or outrageous, but you can't help but watch. The film shows the mental breakdown of anchorman Howard Beale (Peter Finch) and how it captures the attention of viewers whose voyeur tendencies only grow. Finch, Faye Dunaway (as an overly ambitious and sexy network executive), and Beatrice Straight (in a bit but important role as the wife of a TV executive played by William Holden) won Oscars in three of the four acting categories. Like Finch, Holden was nominated for Best Actor, but obviously didn't win. Finch's "Mad as Hell" speech is one of cinema's finest and one of its top five most iconic moments. It's drop-dead serious while also being outrageously funny.

ED’S BEST BETS:

THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (February 16, 10:15 pm): John Ford’s nostalgic look at the Old West and the encroachments of modern civilization, epitomized in the person of Rance Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart), an idealistic young Eastern lawyer who is robbed on his way West, settles in the town of Shinbone, and while working as a dishwasher/waiter, learns about Western life. The town is terrorized by the villainous Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), and the only man in town to stand up to him is Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) – until Stoddard takes it upon himself to rid the town of the murderous Valance. After killing Valance in a showdown, Stoddard parleys it into a political career that sees him become his state’s first senator, but later learns the truth – that it was Doniphon who actually shot and killed Valance. returning to Shinbone with wife Hallie (Vera Miles) years later for the funeral of the now forgotten Doniphon, Stoddard is interviewed by a young reporter and wants to set the record clear. It’s basically John Ford doing what he does best: making Westerns. The only glitch is that Stewart’s too long in the tooth to play the young idealistic Stoddard, but other than that, this is a film that transcends the genre, a tilm even a non-Western fan will love.

THE PRIZEFIGHTER AND THE LADY (February 21, 6:00 am): This was originally a story in the mold of The Champ written by Frances Marion under orders (she thought it warmed over soup) from L.B. Mayer as a vehicle for Clark Gable. But when she finished writing it, Gable was on another assignment and, instead, Max Baer was signed for the film. The story, about a boxing champion falling for a society girl, was kept, but Marion reworked her script to accommodate Baer. W.S. Van Dyke, known for his speed in getting a film done, replaced the original director, Howard Hawks (who begged off) and Van Dyke brought in Myrna Loy to play Baer’s love interest. Loy, who the studio was brining around slowly, was happy not to have to play an Oriental villain for once and she turned in a stellar performance that boosted her stock in the studio and led to The Thin Man. It’s said that Baer walks away with the film, but watch for Loy’s beautifully timed acting style, for, without it, Baer would have hit the canvas for the 10-count. The film also features Jack Dempsey, Primo Carnera, Jess Willard, and Strangler Lewis. Fans of B-movies of the 40s should recognize Frank Moran, an ex-boxer who plays a boxer in the film, and who became a supporting staple in several Monogram horror features of the ‘40s.

WE AGREE ON … THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (February 16, 10:30 am)

ED: A+. This second feature by Boy Wonder Orson Welles has the dubious distinction of being taken away from him by his studio, RKO, and handed over to film editor Robert Wise and trimmed down from about 130 minutes to 88. In addition the studio destroyed the cut footage so there’s no possibility of a restored version. Wise was also told to reshoot the darker scenes in the movie. Yet, for all the studio’s vandalism, it’s a near masterpiece. In fact, some film historians see it as better than Citizen Kane. I’m not among those who agree, for while it has more depth in plot and characterization than Kane, it lacks the élan that made Kane such compelling viewing. The casting is brilliant. For the character of the mother obsessed George, a role Welles might have well saved for himself he instead cast  the studio’s B-Western stalwart Tim Holt, who turned out to be terrific in the role. As the mother, silent screen actress Dolores Costello was chosen. She brings a wonderful lilting and vulnerable aspect to her performance. And Agnes Moorehead gave the performance of a lifetime as the bitter, neurotic Aunt Fanny. The Magnificent Ambersons fits perfectly the definition of a flawed masterpiece in the best sense of the phrase.


DAVID: A+. This is Orson Welles' follow to Citizen Kane starring Joseph Cotten (one of cinema's most underrated actors in just his second film) as Eugene Morgan, a charming and successful automobile manufacturer around the turn of the 20th century. Twenty years after he returns to town, Eugene falls in love again – though he's been in love with her for most of his life – with Isabel Amberson Minafer (Dolores Costello), a former flame who is later widowed. But Isabel's son, George (Tim Holt), steeped in the Amberson tradition and name, interferes in the love affair between his mother and Eugene, who want to marry. The film is beautifully shot with incredible acting and a compelling storyline about those who go to unbelievable lengths to keep their pride at the expense of their own personal happiness and of their families. Yes, Welles lost control of the final edit of this film, which was cut by more than 40 minutes. But the finished product is, as Ed so accurately describes it, a flawed masterpiece.

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