Friday, September 28, 2012

TCM TiVo Alert for October 1-7

October 1 – October 7


20,000 YEARS IN SING-SING (Oct. 1, 2:00 am): This 1932 film is movie history as it's the only time Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis star together in a picture. While it's not a classic, it's a good film - and only 78 minutes long. Tracy plays Tommy Connors, an over-confident criminal sentenced to a stint of five to 30 years in Sing-Sing. Davis is his loyal, but naive girlfriend, Fay Wilson. With Tommy on the inside, his partner-in-crime on the outside, Joe Finn (great acting job by Louis Calhern), promises he's doing all he can with his connections to get his pal out of jail. But he's actually doing nothing to help Tommy and spending his time trying to get with Fay. She ends up seriously injured, and a trusting warden gives Tommy a 24-hour pass to see her. Tommy find out Finn is responsible for Fay's injuries. Nothing good happens to Finn, which means nothing good happens to Tommy. But he does return to Sing-Sing as promised, just in time to be sent to death row. Great interaction between Tracy and Davis, and Calhern is solid in his role as the conniving heel. While Tracy and Davis wanted to do more films with each other, this was it. Of course, it's a Warner Brothers film as no other studio mastered the gritty crime-action genre of the era like that studio. 

THE NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (October 3, 2:45 am): Director George Romero made this cult classic on the cheap, about $114,000, and it looks it. But this 1968 zombie film is excellent. Seven people are trapped inside a western Pennsylvania farmhouse with zombies outside wanting to eat them. Most of the actors weren't professionals, but how professional do you have to be to walk like a zombie and pretend you're eating human body parts? The storyline is surprisingly sophisticated for a cheap zombie film with the main character being a young black man, who obviously is not only the leader of those in the house (an older white guy challenges him resulting in horrible consequences), but he is the most intelligent, level-headed and resourceful. Critics have also contended the film is anti-Vietnam war and takes on Cold-War politics. Whatever. It's a groundbreaking horror film that is gory - though some of it looks so fake that you can't take it seriously, and being filmed in black and white softens the blood and guts - and fascinating to see. Don't expect a happy ending. As an end note, having lived in the Youngstown, Ohio, area since 1995, I get a kick out of seeing the fictitious community centers and hospitals in this area (the film is supposed to take place a short distance away in western Pennsylvania) on the TV screen as safe havens to get away from the zombies. I'm not a big fan of horror movies, but this one is outstanding.


CURSE OF THE DEMON (October 5, 2:45 pm): A wonderful old-fashioned horror thriller concerning anthropologist Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews) who made his reputation debunking the occult. He is about to meet his match in the persona of one Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis), a practitioner of the black arts much in the style of Alistair Crowley. Those who he perceives as a threat are slipped a small parchment and are later visited by one of the scariest and best monsters in the history of film. But this is more than a mere horror film. It’s a wonderful give and take between the skeptical Holden and the sinister Karswell. The audience is sucked right into the film from the beginning when a colleague of Holden’s, Dr. Harrington (Maurice Denham) gets his when the monster drops in on him. And remember, “It’s in the trees! It’s coming!” (Which Kate Bush sampled for her song “The Hounds of Love.” Don’t miss this one – it’s a genuine classic of the genre.

VAMPYR (October 7, 2:30 am): Because of its time slot, you’ll probably have to record this, but it’s definitely worth the effort. This is Carl Dreyer’s classic take on the vampire story, based on the novella, Carmilla, by Sheridan Le Fanu. A traveler, Allan Gray, is drawn into a battle between the village and the aged vampire, Marguerite Chopin, who, aided by a sinister doctor, controls the forces of the night. Dreyer’s highly stylized use of lighting, shadows, and camera angles adds to the eerie atmosphere and the chills. Disparaged by critics upon its release, it’s been embraced by later critics and is now considered one of the most artistically structured horror films ever made.

WE DISAGREE ON ... DOCTOR X (October 3, 9:30 pm)

ED: B+. At a time when the studios were glomming on to the highly profitable concept of the horror film, Warners joined the fray with one of their own. However, instead of being set in some unnamed European country, Warners Americanized the genre and set it in urban surroundings (New York City). Using talent such as Lee Tracy, Fay Wray and Lionel Atwill to star, the studio also assigned director Michael Curtiz to direct. Curtiz, in turn, brought his experience working in German horror films for UFA with him in creating this wonderful example of home-grown horror. Filmed in a two-strip Technicolor format (which emphasizes various tones of green and orange) that heightens the eerie mood, Doctor X never misses a chance to give its audience a chill. And it's precisely because of its horror elements that a need for comic relief was necessary. (To quote Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon II, "There is something for everyone in this picture: cannibalism, dismemberment, rape, and necrophilia - and a piquant kinky bonus when Atwill displays erotic arousal at the sight of Preston Foster unscrewing his artificial arm.") And Tracy provides the comic relief in such a way that we're rooting for him to vanquish the murderer rather than to be annoyed with Tracy himself. It's a great example of the horror genre and Curtiz's borrowings from German Expressionism further heightens our sense of unease with the surroundings. Max Factor did the make-up and anyone that hears the distinctive words, "Synthetic flesh," as spoken by the murderer near the end will be sure to always keep it in the corner of his or her mind, especially in a dark surrounding.

DAVID: C. Visually, the color in this two-strip Technicolor film from 1932 is impressive. I wish I could say the same for the rest of the movie. Lee Tracy plays a newspaper reporter trying to find out who's behind the "Moon Killer Murders." Tracy's comedic attempts come across as forced and out of place in this film. The film tries at times to be funny, but it's a horror movie about a serial cannibalistic killer so the storyline doesn't lend itself to many jokes. There are lulls in the film and it can be challenging to keep the characters straight as well as follow the plot, which includes many holes. It's not an awful movie. Lionel Atwill (Doctor Xavier or Doctor X if we go by the movie title) is good, and while she screams too much, Fay Wray as Doctor X's daughter gives a capable performance. Overall, there are too many silly scenes though the color and make-up by Max Factor are visually appealing.

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

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Trouble With the Curve

By Jon Gallagher 

Trouble With the Curve (WB/Malpaso, 2012) Director: Robert Lorenz.  Starring: Clint Eastwood, Amy Adams, John Goodman, Chelcie Ross, Justin Timberlake.

Clint Eastwood, fresh off a command performance with an empty chair at the Republican National Convention, stars as an aging baseball scout chasing one last recruit before being put out to pasture. Amy Adams and Justin Timberlake co-star.

Gus Lobel (Eastwood) has made a career out of signing some of the hottest baseball talent known to the game. A widower who sent his six-year-old daughter off to live with relatives (almost 30 years ago) and then boarding school after the death of his wife, Gus has to cope with failing eyesight and the onslaught of technology as he tries to hang on for one more amateur draft. His latest signee is struggling in the minors as he chases the newest potential phenom around high school baseball fields in North Carolina.

Gus’ daughter Mickey (Adams) has grown up and become an up-and-coming corporate attorney, trying to become the youngest (and only female) partner in her law firm. She continues to work on a big company deal from afar as she takes off to look after her father on his recruiting trip at the urging of an old family friend. She becomes Gus’ eyes on the trip, using her own knowledge of the game to help her father and his evaluation.

Justin Timberlake, formerly of ‘N Sync, reprises his role of the empty chair at the RNC as a former pitcher turned scout who becomes Mickey’s love interest and Gus’ rival (though friendly) scout. As a matter of fact, Gus had signed Johnny “the Fireball” Flannigan (Timberlake) before he blew out his arm.

Gus can’t see anymore, yet he has to evaluate a young power hitter and make a recommendation to his team (the Braves) whether or not to sign him. Johnny’s team (the Red Sox) has the first pick in the draft which leads to him having to make a decision based on whether to trust Gus’ failing eyesight and their friendship, and Mickey’s knowledge of the game.

A drama, with some cute parts thrown in to keep it on the lighthearted side, the movie is predictable, which is not a bad thing in this case. Writer Randy Brown is a firm believer in foreshadowing and drops enough clues throughout the movie to bring us to a satisfying resolution.  

The film, though about baseball, is not about baseball. It’s about relationships, which makes it a good picture for both guys and gals. It has enough baseball to keep the baseball fan interested and enough of the relationship angle to keep romantics at heart happy.

Eastwood does a great job playing a crotchety old man (maybe he’s not playing a role here) and Adams is excellent in her role as well. Timberlake, though I’ve enjoyed him in other movies, doesn’t offer anything in this project, seemingly, just going along for the ride. There is one scene involving Eastwood that actually brought a tear to my eye. Overall, it’s an excellent performance.

I give the movie an A-. It’s one that I will rent and watch again after it comes out on DVD. It may even make it to my collection.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Robot & Frank

Dinner and a Movie

Robot and Remi (My 2,500th Anniversary)

By Steve Herte

After the workout at the office - directing the repairmen to six ceiling lighting fixtures, guiding a delivery of a skid of 28 printers and a skid of 84 toner cartridges to the fifth floor, re-stacking the printers for processing and storing the toners, and completing input of the 13 time-sheets by noon, I was ready for a great evening and it delivered. A great movie and an even greater restaurant was exactly the gratification I needed. So for your enjoyment, here is my latest Dinner and a Movie.

Robot & Frank (Stage 6 Films, 2012) Director: Jake Scheier. Starring: Frank Langella, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, Susan Sarandon, Jeremy Strong, Jeremy Sisto, Peter Sarsgaard (voice). 

Maybe I haven’t seen all of Frank Langella’s movies but I’ve seen enough to know he’s a reliable talent and excellent actor. If I never saw any of his movies but this one I would know the same. Here we see him as aging senior who lives alone in a rural area “some time in the near future” who has been divorced for 30 years, is developing stage one Alzheimer’s, did time in prison for jewel-thieving activities, has a son, Hunter (James Marsden) who is getting tired of the five-hour drive to visit him, and a daughter, Maddy (Liv Tyler) who video-calls him from Uzbekistan (she’s on a good-will tour).

One day, Hunter visits and brings a five-foot tall white robot with a space-helmet-style head and only a black “visor” where facial features would be. The Robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) is programmed to do all indoor and outdoor chores and tend all of Frank’s needs. The relationship between Frank and the Robot (who never receives a name) progresses from “That thing will kill me in my sleep!” to a realization of the need for companionship, to genuine caring. Soon Frank realizes that the Robot will do anything necessary to please him providing it improves his health mentally and physically.

Frank is infatuated with Jennifer, the local librarian (Susan Sarandon) and learns that the yuppies who control the neighborhood are going to remove all the books and turn the building into a social gathering center. The way Frank looked at Jennifer I began to suspect that she was indeed his long-divorced wife. Then Jennifer shows him where the most precious books are kept and delicately leafs through an ornate antique copy of “Don Quixote” with him. After meeting Jake, the yuppie-in-charge (Jeremy Strong), and instantly disliking his sarcastic, condescending attitude, Frank decides to do something about this change.

He teaches the Robot how to pick a lock and gets blueprints of the library and plans to steal the book. Seeing how this benefits Frank’s memory capacity, the Robot goes along with the plan and they successfully heist the book. Frank’s reading glasses are left at the scene however, and this makes Jake suspicious. He brings Sheriff Rowlings (Jeremy Sisto) to Frank’s house and all looks fine because the sheriff doesn’t believe that this old codger stole the book.

At the opening day party for the new social center, Frank intends to present the book to Jennifer but sees the fantastic jewels worn by Jake’s wife. He makes a new plan with the Robot to steal them and the two are successful, but Jake’s suspicion increases. Circumstantial evidence begins piling up until the ultimate confrontation with the sheriff when Hunter leaves Frank’s house with an old briefcase. The sheriff demands he open it and out pour – not jewels – but designer soaps Frank lifted from the boutique which was once his favorite breakfast spot.

The most touching scene is towards the end when Frank and the Robot are speeding away from capture and the Robot recommends that Frank reformat his memory so that they cannot download incriminating evidence from his chips. Frank, probably realizing what the Alzheimer’s is doing to him rebels vehemently at removing the Robot’s memory, but eventually concedes. After he does and the Robot falls limp into his arms you almost see him cry.

Robot & Frank is a beautiful story of loneliness, friendship, family and nostalgia. The exquisite baroque choral music in the background accentuates the joy and sadness of memories gained and lost and you can almost feel the conflict it has with the spacey futuristic music of Francis and the Lights (including Theremin sounds). The story is told with clever humor and taste. When Frank winds up in a remarkably well-appointed senior assisted-living center at the end, he sees a fellow resident followed by a robot who is identical to his. It turns his way and he gazes at it hopefully. When it follows its owner into a doorway and another resident appears followed by a second identical robot, Frank realizes it was not his. The credits scroll contemporaneously with a slide show of the latest advances in robot technology to improve the movie’s credibility. Though not a movie for the children, at an hour and a half it’s a must-see for anyone who knows of or cares for a senior citizen. 

Rating: 5 out of 5 Martini glasses.

145 West 53rd Street (between 6th and 7th), New York City

On entering Remi, one is immediately struck by the height of its ceiling. The 60 indoor tables and several more in the atrium outside are dwarfed by 18-foot walls and an arched ceiling floating above them. Indoor, all is almond-colored paneling rising to a room length mural of Venice done in bright pastels. The wall facing it is all doors with gauzy café curtains and surmounted by windows and topped with mirrors to reflect the mural to diners below. The outdoor section is spacious and populated by potted palms right to the looming glass-block far wall. All is white tablecloths and crystal with black and white striped banquettes lining the mural wall and black seats.

I received the menu, cocktail list and wine list immediately upon being seated, but after mistaking my waiter for a busboy I had ample time to read all three over a glass of water. When I realized my mistake I ordered their version of a Cosmopolitan which was frothy, pink and sweet. Since this restaurant marks my 2,500th dining experience (and 336th Italian) I immediately chose a 2008 Zeni Amarone which was remarkably affordable for my celebration to accompany my dinner. It was a husky, full-bodied wine, deep red in color and had an excellent after-taste.

When my waiter assured me that the pastas can be made in half-orders I knew what to choose. My appetizer was Carciofi Arrostiti alla Veneziana: roasted baby artichokes (edged in a beautiful shade of deep pink) in a green parsley sauce with roasted garlic, red olives and pecorino cheese – absolutely delightful. The waiter brought the bread basket full of slender breadsticks, which were wonderful when dipped in the dish of ricotta cheese surrounded by tomato sauce and garnished with oregano.

The second course was Cicatelli alla Pugliese con Ragu, Polpettine di Agnello e Parmigiano di Bufala Stagionato: Large Ricotta Cavatelli in a Lamb Ragout with Lamb Meatballs and aged pecorino cheese – a truly marvelous dish (and my favorite pasta). The Cavatelli was perfectly al dente and the sauce and meatballs were of excellent consistency and flavor. I was already forgetting I was in New York City. I was in Milan.

Having finished both dishes I knew ahead of time I would not be able to finish the main course, Ossobuco (another favorite of mine) – Braised Veal Shank with Saffron Risotto – so, even though the aroma was enticing and the flavor made my taste buds dance, I finished half and had the remainder wrapped up for home. I was anticipating a wonderful dessert.

On the Specials Menu, I had noticed my favorite Italian dessert, Zabaglione – a fabulous confection involving egg yolks, Marsala wine and sugar all whipped together into a froth and served with fresh berries. This dish, however, was “iced.” The Zabaglione was transformed into a sexy pudding mound in the center of a lake of strawberry syrup with sliced strawberries, raspberries and blackberries surrounding it. Oh joy!

Then my waiter brought a small stemmed glass of sparkling Moscato wine which was a delightful palate-cleanser for the après-dinner drinks. The double espresso was a nice, hot complement to the snifter of Strega (the only test I put to this restaurant, and they passed with flying colors).

Remi is an example of a restaurant that will last; good service, excellent foods, imaginative bar, and stunning ambiance. I even loved the sconces: a yellow inverted pyramid below a fuchsia red ball wearing a glass triangle like a jaunty beret. They even have a sense of humor.

For the Dinner and a Movie Archive, please click here.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Cinéma Inhabituel for September 23-30

A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea

This is Cinema Inhabituel for the week of September 23-30, the collection of films once forgotten now vindicated and those that still have us scratching our heads. It’s a slow week, so there aren’t many entries.

September 26
10:00 am Crown vs. Stevens (WB, 1936) – Director: Michael Powell. Starring Beatrix Thompson, Patric Knowles, Googie Withers, Mabel Poulton, Morris Harvey, and Glennis Lorimer. 

This is a crime thriller, but it’s directed by Michael Powell and financed through Warner Brothers. If you’re looking for a distinctive mise en scene from Powell, however, forget it. Powell churns this one out as if it were another item on the assembly line. All this aside, it is Powell, and thus for cinephiles, worth a look. The plot concerns Chris Jansen (Knowles), an underpaid clerk who borrowed from a shylock (Harvey) to buy an expensive engagement ring for his girl (Poulton). But she’s run off with someone else, leaving Jansen holding the note. When he goes to the shylock for an extension, he finds the loan shark dead, a bullet in his noggin. He confronts the murderer and to his surprise it’s his wife’s boss (Thompson). She then begins to spin a web to cover her tracks with Jansen as the fall guy. Crown vs. Stevens is a passable thriller, nothing more. But as I mentioned before, Powell was the director and it’s always interesting to see his work from the ‘30s, before he hit his peak.

September 27

8:00 pm – 5:45 am Mack Sennett Festival (Sennett/MGM, 1926-33).

This is the last installment of the Mack Sennett marathons that TCM has been featuring in September. All were, of course, worth your time and trouble, but this night is special because of the mix of stars and films.

While all the films shown this night are wonderful, funny, and engaging, some stand out over others.

The first is Hoboken to Hollywood (1926), with the great Billy Bevan. Bevan and co-star Vernon Dent are in the process of moving their respective families to California and discovering that each is the other’s greatest obstacle. Both Bevan and Dent were stellar comedians who are almost totally forgotten today. In the director’s chair is Del Lord, one of the greats when it came to slapstick comedy. He would later go on to direct many of the Three Stooges shorts (many of which co-starred Dent).

Another worth checking out is Run Girl, Run (1928), starring Daphne Pollard (no relation to Snub) as a woman’s track coach having trouble getting her team ready for the big meet. Of particular note for film buffs is the appearance of Carole Lombard (as Carol Lombard). If you want to catch her in an early appearance, here is your chance.

The viewer will find two W.C. Fields gems in the mix: The Dentist, and The Fatal Glass of Beer (both 1933). They’re early, they both show the development of Fields as a comic actor, and both are hysterically funny, especially The Dentist. Don’t miss them.

Speaking of great comedians, there are also two representative comedies from Laurel and Hardy: the classic Sons of the Desert, and the lesser known, but equally funny, The Music Box (both 1933). Watching them play off one another is a joy in itself, and Sons of the Desert has rightfully been cited as one of the greatest comedies ever made. If you’ve never seen it, by all means, record it. The same goes for the underrated The Music Box. (Even though it won the Oscar for Best Short Subject, it is forgotten today.) In fact, it may well be said to have been their best.

September 28

12:00 am Carry On Cowboy (Anglo-Amalgamated, 1966) Director: Gerald Thomas. Starring Kenneth Williams, Sidney James, Jim Dale, Charles Hawtrey, Angela Douglas, and Jon Pertwee.

Remember all those wonderful “Carry On” films that used to be shown early in the morning on the local channel? They were British, relentlessly stupid, and made on the cheap, but we loved them – because they were oft times hysterically funny. In this installment, the gang pokes fun at the Western genre.

As the films opens we find that the villainous Rumpo Kid (Sidney James) and his gang is terrorizing Stodge City. A new sheriff is a necessity. Enter one Marshal P. Knutt (Dale), a plumber/sanitary engineer sent to fix a mess. The townsfolk mistake his first name, Marshal, for his occupation and he is made the new lawman. To fight The Rumpo Kid he has only a revenge-minded Annie Oakley (Douglas) and his own plumbing expertise to count on against the gang. Look for every convention of the Western to be parodied and laughs are squeezed out of every situation. Overall, 93 minutes well spent.

Also of note is Jon Pertwee as Sheriff Albert Earp. Sci-fi fans know Pertwee well as one of the long list of actors that have portrayed Doctor Who. 

September 30

8:00 pm The Mummy (Universal, 1932) Director: Karl Freund. Starring Boris Karloff, Zita Johann David Manners Edward Van Sloan, and Bramwell Fletcher.

Can it be said that there is such a thing as a lyrical horror film?

In this case, yes. Karl Freund has given us a subtle, yet bizarre on the logic of it, love story for the ages. As Universal was having success with its horror films (enough to rescue it from bankruptcy), the question arose of finding new monsters, new horrors, to satisfy the appetites of the growing audiences.

Studio head Carl Laemmle Jr. noticed that the excitement over the discovery of King Tut’s tomb (and its fabled curse) had not died down, and he reasoned that if a vampire could come back to life, so could a mummy. Screenwriter John Balderston, who scripted both Dracula and Frankenstein, was given the task of bringing the mummy to the screen. (Balderston had an advantage in that, as a foreign correspondent, he had covered the original discovery of King Tut’s tomb.) It was to star Karloff – that was a no-brainer given his box office popularity. The rest of the cast was chosen from the Universal roster except for leading lady Zita Johann, a noted stage actress from Broadway who was married to producer John Houseman at the time. Balderston hit upon the brilliant idea of making the Mummy more in the image of Dracula than the Monster, thus providing Karloff a chance to demonstrate his extraordinary range as an actor.

The Mummy is definitely a must – not only for horror fans – but for any film buff. Look for the scene where the mummy first moves after Fletcher mouths the magic words from the scroll and his reaction. Priceless.

9:30 pm Charlie Chan in Egypt (20th Century Fox, 1935) Director: Louis King.  Starring Warner Oland, Pat Paterson, Thomas Beck, Rita Hayworth, and Stepin Fetchit.

It seems to be “Egypt Night” on TCM and this mystery follows The Mummy. It’s a good programmer with Oland as the fabled detective solving an intricate puzzle of murder during the excavation of an ancient tomb. So why place this on the list of recommended films? Two reasons: Rita Hayworth and Stepin Fetchit.

This is one of Hayworth’s early films, working under her real name of Rita Cansino, and it’s interesting to see her development. Making her fame as a dancer while a young girl, she appeared in seven films under her real name before taking her mother’s maiden name of “Hayworth” and reinventing herself with the help of dieting, electrolysis and auburn hair dye as an emerging star at Columbia.

Stepin Fetchit is an interesting excursion into the racial politics that so dominated the Hollywood of the time. A superbly-talented physical comedian, he was reduced to playing a full-blown stereotype in every Hollywood film that featured him. But appearances are deceiving: Fetchit was no mere “coon.” It can be well argued that his “lazy” persona was actually a way of denying the White man his labor and cooperation that was often exchanged for pitiful wages and contempt – his revenge against a system that constantly demeaned both him and his work. When he did speak, he did so in a lingo that seemed like gibberish, but according to African-Americans who I have seen his films with and who understood what he was saying, his lingo is filled with multiple insults towards his employers/detractors. The Whites in the audience may have thought he was merely mumbling, but the Blacks knew what he was saying. Even his name is a misnomer: some claim the studios gave it to him, but Fetchit said he got it from the name of a racehorse. Of course there is some academic out there who will tell me that Fetchit’s character and treatment were not racist and will high-hat me on a response, but facts are facts and no apologia will change that.

2:15 am Titanic (Deutische Filmvertriebs, 1943) Director: Herbert Selpin and Werner Klingler. Starring Sybille Schmitz, Hans Neilsen, Kirsten Heiberg, and Franz Schafheitlin.

For anyone that has read my “Best Bets” feature in the TiVo Alert, my reason for including this film is clear. To watch an example of the Third Reich’s foray into movies is both fascinating and enlightening, as it gives us a glimpse into the Nazi mindset, such as it was. We are often given the picture of the Third Reich’s film production as exemplified only by The Eternal Jew. But that is an aberration: they could be much, much more subtle than that, as witnessed by their version of Jud Suss, possibly the most anti-Semitic film ever made. While The Eternal Jew is an obvious, in-your-face, and ultimately sickening film, Jud Suss was subtle to the point of almost being civil, showing the Jew as the sneaky aggressor rather than as merely the outsider as in The Eternal Jew. Thus it was more effective in spreading the filth of anti-Semitism than the earlier film, which many audiences walked out on because it was so disgusting.

The Titanic is in the vein of Jud Suss. Instead of going over the top in depicting the British as heartless capitalist pigs, it makes its points quietly and subtly. The only hero is the film is the lone German who tries to save as many passengers as he can, but is ultimately thwarted by the fact that there are not nearly enough lifeboats – part of the British capitalists’ disregard for the people.

The backstory of the film, concerning itself with the politics of filmmaking in the Reich, was recently the subject of a documentary on the History Channel. (What? The History Channel actually devoting a show to history?? Will wonders ever cease? Gee, I hope they don’t cancel any episodes of Pawn Stars, Top Gear, or American Restoration for this.)

Record this film. Watch this film. It’s a window into a time and nation that, thankfully, has passed from the face of the Earth.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

TCM TiVo Alert for September 23-30

September 23 – September 30


LORDS OF FLATBUSH (September 25, 12:15 am): This 1974 film about four members of the Lords street gang in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn growing up in 1958 is certainly no masterpiece. Like many other low-budget movies, it has its faults. But it also has a certain charm that gives me a nostalgic feeling every time I watch it or see a clip from the film. The four guys (two are played by Sylvester Stallone and Henry Winkler just before their iconic Rocky and Fonzie characters) are leaving high school and moving on with their lives. There are some very funny scenes of the group stealing a car and a personal favorite with Stallone, who plays Stanley, the toughest guy in the gang, buying an engagement ring for his girlfriend. After a jeweler shows Stanley and his girlfriend, Frannie, an expensive ring, Stallone's character says, with his girlfriend not in earshot, "If you ever show my girl a ring like that again, you know what's gonna be written on your tombstone? 'I was dumb enough to show Frannie Malincanico a $1,600 ring.' Ya got that?" The acting is solid with Stallone quite good. Winkler's role is small in comparison. You can see it's made on the cheap, but that's part of its appeal. The characters come across as authentic. They love the importance being in the Lords, but understand that it's coming to an end. Stanley gets married, and Chico (Perry King) gets to date the prettiest girl in school only to get dumped for being too possessive and immature. The storyline is secondary to the atmosphere of the picture, which does a wonderful job of capturing a time and place. A little trivia on this film: It was to be Richard Gere's movie debut, but he got into a fist fight with Stallone (the film's star and one of its co-writers) and was fired.

THE WRONG BOX (September 29, 2:00 am): This is an exceptionally funny film with an all-star cast featuring Michael Caine, John Mills, Ralph Richardson, Dudley Moore, Peter Cook, and Peter Sellers (the latter in a small but memorable role as an absent-minded docor). Mills and Richardson play elderly brothers, Masterman and Joseph Finsbury, respectively, who happen to hate each other. They are the remaining two members of a group of 12 with the last survivor receiving a very large sum of money. It's filled with great performances. Cook and Moore (England's top comedy team at the time) are outstanding as Joseph's nephews, particularly Cook. It takes a few minutes to figure out what's going on, but the storyline and dry wit are well worth spending that brief period of time understanding the characters and their motivations.


THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (Sept. 27, 5:45 pm): A color remake of 1938’s 20th Century Fox classic production with Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson. The original novella by Arthur Conan Doyle is rightfully viewed as one the classics of literature as well as an essential of detective fiction. Could Hammer improve on the Rathbone-Bruce original? Well, no – but they do come close – very close. Being as this was 1959, Hammer had the freedom to emphasize the decadence of the Baskerville clan in the beginning, which brings the supposed curse on the family. Peter Cushing makes for an excellent Holmes, second only to Rathbone. But unlike Rathbone, Cushing’s Holmes is much more obsessed and shows the ravages of his drug addiction more clearly. Morrell’s Watson is the usual Morell acting job: excellent, and gives the character more of a role than nearly being the comic sidekick, as Bruce played him. Even Christopher Lee, noted in his early days for his wooden performances, conveys an effective Henry Baskerville: honest, innocent, and despising of his ancestors. By all rights it should have been a hit. It did well in England, but here in the States, it was packaged as a horror film and double billed with other horror fare. But by all means, watch it. If not for the story, then for Cushing’s fine interpretation of Holmes as an individual tortured by not only his personal demons, but by his own logical method.

TITANIC (Sept. 30, 2:15 am): There have been many versions of the Titanic story, a topic that naturally lends itself to a filmic interpretation. But, for cinephiles, this is the best version. Not because of its virtues or flaws, but because this was made in 1941 by the Nazis! Yes, this is an example of the Third Reich, and in particular, Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda. This version tells the basic facts of the story, but interprets them in its own weird fashion. The British are seen as greedy capitalistic pigs (the reason they wanted the boat to sail quickly was to establish a new speed record and drive up the value of their stocks), lacking even the most basic of human kindnesses. And the only hero in the movie is the lone German crewman! Leave it to the Nazis to twist basic facts into new heights of absurdity for the sake of agitprop. The production was a troubled one: the original director, Herbert Selpin, happened to make some critical remarks about the German navy to his crew. Someone on his loyal crew dropped a dime to the Gestapo, and exit Selpin, to be replaced by Werner Klinger. The film was deemed too squeamish to be shown to already German audiences, suffering the effects of continuous air raids, and so the premiere was pushed back to 1943 and only in Occupied Paris. The film really didn’t reach a wide German audience until 1949. An ironic note: British producers incorporated the rescue scenes into their version of the Titanic disaster, A Night to Remember (1958). All in all, this is one not to miss.


ED: A-. This unusual, sensual, offbeat, almost surreal film is light years away from the style and content we came to expect from the later Capra. At its heart, it's a film about a Chinese warlord's infatuation with an American missionary, played so close to the vest by Barbara Stanwyck, in one of her best - and most underrated - performances. Yes, the warlord is actually Swedish-born actor Nils Asther in makeup, but if Capra had insisted on an authentic Asian actor, such as Sessue Hayakawa, do we even think this film would have seen the light of day, given the racial mores of America at the time? Let's be real. As it is, this film is an excellent, piercing look at cross-culture encounters. The scenery and cinematography by Joseph Walker are first rate, as is the script. Except for the usual overt instances of cruelty, so common a misconception about Asian culture at the time, the film contains a marvelous three-dimensional performance by Asther, who plays his character as a man rather than as a mere stereotype. The beautiful Toshira Mori, as Mao Lin, General Yen's concubine, also gives us a moving performance. It's a shame she didn't move on to much better things, but in the '30s and '40s she was an Asian in a Caucasian town. The subtext of passion lurks uneasily beneath the surface of the film, embodied in the person of Stanwyck's missionary, whose yearning for the General is neatly subconsciously repressed in her every movement and action. It's a movie that film buffs will not want to miss, and if you've never seen this, place it on your "Must See" list at once.

DAVID: C. This Pre-Code film is one of the first, perhaps the first, to deal with interracial sexual tension even though General Yen is played by Nils Asther, who is white, and the two leads don't even kiss. The plot is implausible while trying to be realistic. More than once, I said, "C'mon. You're kidding me." Barbara Stanwyck plays Megan Davis, who comes to China during its civil war to marry a missionary and rescue orphans. Talk about bad timing. She gets kidnapped by General Yen, a warlord who doesn't have a heart of gold. Davis is presumed dead allowing Yen to keep the attractive white woman with the sassy mouth in his palace as long as he likes. Despite the horrible circumstances that lead to Davis being help against her will, she becomes attracted to Yen. She is horrified - and strangely, turned on - after a mass execution ordered by Yen. Nothing says love like a bunch of people getting murdered. Even though it's Pre-Code, there apparently were some limits. We don't see the two doing anything sexual except a Davis dream that has Yen start to rape her and then become tender. This 1933 film seems to lose its direction. It ends with Yen, doomed to defeat, drinking poisoned tea with Davis willingly by his side rather than high-tailing it out of there after the general's army abandons him. But I have to give director Frank Capra and Columbia Pictures credit for the film's beautiful cinematography. It's too bad the rest of the movie doesn't equal the cinematography.

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

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Early Ingmar Bergman Films

The Artist and His Canvas: Early Bergman

By David Skolnick

In examining the complexities of people and capturing these on film, Ingmar Bergman has few peers.

His films go beyond merely being compelling and interesting; his goal is to give his audience a glimpse into themselves, and by extension, their humanity. It’s more than an artistic coincidence that Bergman seemed to know a lot about relationships: He was married five times, divorced four times, and had notable love affairs with three of his leading ladies: Harriet Andersson, Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann.

In addition to disintegrating relationships, Bergman’s films focus on subtexts such as death, religion, loneliness, regret and self-examination. They’re also beautifully shot with lengthy close-ups that capture the moods and feelings of his films’ characters, many who are entertainers of some sort ranging from prima ballerinas and concert pianists to small-time traveling actors.

Rarely does a Bergman film have a happy ending and there are times in which there doesn’t seem to be an ending. Those movies are snapshots of life without a conclusion. 

It’s ironic that a comedy – the excellent 1955 film, Smiles of a Summer Night – gave Bergman his first international hit. Two years later, Bergman released The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, two classics that cemented his well-deserved status as one of cinema’s greatest directors. He would go on to make numerous other memorable films.

But we are interested here with Bergman’s earlier movies. Are they as good as his later work? Did they give clues as to what he would create?

I recently saw five of his early films. While Bergman, as with many artists, sticks to a central theme, he diverges and adds to it to give the audience the impression they’re not seeing the same movie at a different date, which can’t be said of many of his fellow directors/producers.

Torment (aka Frenzy) (1944): Bergman wrote the screenplay and directed small parts of this film, including the finale, but did not receive a directing credit. Alf Sjoberg is the film’s credited director, and he appears to have been a major influence on the young Bergman. If you watch Bergman-directed films you can see Sjoberg’s influence: The crisp black-and-white cinematography, effective use of shadows and  the slow mental breakdown of one of the main characters.
Torment is about problems at a Swedish high school, primarily caused by a cruel and sadistic Latin teacher, (Stig Jarrel). We never learn the teacher’s name, but all of the students and some of the other teachers appropriately call him Caligula behind his back. (Yeah, he’s that bad.) The movie focuses on one student, Jan-Erik Widgren (Alf Kjellin), the target for much of Caligula’s torture.
Widgren falls in love with a slightly older woman who works at a store near the school, selling cigarettes. A troubled soul, she tells Widgren of her victimization at the hands of a mysterious older man. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out who is the older man.
Widgren is on the verge of quitting school with only two weeks left before graduation as he is unable to withstand any more cruelty from Caligula, but it gets worse. In a rage, the teacher kills the woman. Trying to cover up his responsibility for the death, the teacher concentrates on getting Widgren expelled. But this has a positive catharsis in the young man, giving him a direction in his life while Caligula, on the other end of Bergman’s spectrum, is condemned to loneliness and misery. He calls for his former student’s forgiveness; something he doesn’t receive.
It’s a good film with a strong performance from Jarrel and a solid script from Bergman. Look for Stig Olin, an early Bergman film regular, as Widgren’s friend, Sandman.

Crisis (1946): Bergman’s directorial debut in feature films. He also wrote the screenplay. While it stands on its own as a personal effort, it but pales in comparison to his later work.
A narrator at the beginning of the film sets the mood. “I wouldn’t call this a great or harrowing tale. It really is just an everyday drama.”
He’s correct. There’s nothing special about this movie, but ironically that is precisely what makes it special: Bergman’s knack of capturing and magnifying the ordinary; taking it from mere role play into an almost exact mirror of the human condition.

There are a handful of early Bergman film acting regulars in this film. Of particular note is Stig Olin, who has the best role as Jack, a lowlife con-man who develops a conscience at the end of the film. The movie’s featured character is Nelly (Inga Landgre), who would later play the wife of Max von Sydow’s knight in The Seventh Seal.

The plot centers around Nelly, who is raised in the country by a loving older woman, who is dying. Nelly’s birth mother comes to the small town when Nelly turns 18 and successfully manipulates her daughter into coming to the big city to help her at her beauty salon.

Bergman’s point is sacrifice versus selfishness; trust versus betrayal, but both the director and his storyline lack the necessary strength at this point and Bergman clutters the canvas with too many useless characters. The film stands more as a testament to the director’s own personal growth than to a cognizant storyline.

Thirst (Three Strange Loves) (1949): I had to stop about 20 minutes into this movie to read about what I was watching. That helped me considerably as I would have never figured it out on my own. The film goes from present time to flashbacks without giving any indication the latter are about the past. Bergman uses the flashback to supersede time itself, adding a fourth dimension to the character and delving even deeper into the interior life.

Thirst is about the unhappy marriage (surprise!) between Rut, a woman who was a ballet dancer (note Bergman’s fascination with entertainers), and Bertil. They’re returning on a train from a vacation in Italy as they recall past love affairs, none of which are happy. Rut’s affair with a married military officer resulted in her having a botched abortion, the consequences of which are that she can no longer bear children, and is the major factor in the couple’s tension.

The recollection of other unpleasant relationships causes great strain on their marriage, a strain that is only relieved when Bertil kills her. But does he? No, it’s only a dream. Bertil wakes up, and out of nowhere, they decide to give their marriage a real chance to succeed. Bertil’s dream symbolizes not only their tension, but that their lives previous were a dream. Now awakened into reality, they can only decide to slog on. (With the baggage the two of them have, I’d give them another few months, but the movie ends.)

In the hands of a lesser talent, it would be annoying but Bergman uses the film to help with our understanding of the characters. Background shots of lakes, clouds and forests and the unusual camera angles are used to define and move the characters along. For every moment in the film there is an equal moment when Bergman wishes to evoke a precise feeling, and we should not overlook this.

A note: Bergman didn’t write the screenplay. Herbert Grevenius, who also wrote Summer Interlude, did the honors here.

Thirst is choppy, sloppy, and confusing. It has a few Bergman elements such as the extreme close-ups and a nostalgic look at past relationships, even though they were bad. But it’s the most unBergman Bergman movie I’ve seen, and, ultimately, I found it less interesting than his other work from this period.

To Joy (1950): An excellent film about two members of a symphony orchestra (the theme of entertainer-as-hero), Stig Eriksson (Stig Olin again) and Marta Olsson (Maj-Britt Nilsson), who fall in love and marry. While I’m not a classical music fan, Bergman does an outstanding job in this film of using it to move the story.

Stig is an ambitious violinist who dreams of being a famous soloist. The problem is he just isn’t that good, which leads him to never be happy and believe the world is out to get him. The movie is told in Bergman’s favorite form, a flashback, and opens with Stig learning about the death of Marta and a child. Even though we know the tragic ending, the final scene is still incredible and moving.

There is little joy in this film, but it’s compelling nonetheless. There’s no doubt this is a Bergman movie, and an excellent Bergman movie at that. Besides the close-ups (no mere sleight of camera for Bergman, but an integral feature of the character), the back and forth of the relationship, and use of music, there are several scenes that allow the passion and love between Stig and Marta to be experienced, even through the tough times.

Summer Interlude (1951): At this point in his directing career, Summer Interlude was Bergman’s greatest film and a strong indicator of what he would do in the future. It’s almost as if Bergman is foreshadowing some of his greatest movies. There is one scene that has a dying woman playing chess with a priest (The Seventh Seal). The leads are seen picking wild strawberries. The summer is seen as the perfect season in this film, as it is in Smiles of a Summer Night. Summer is Bergman’s symbol for happiness: warm but all too short in the Scandinavian climate. We get the Bergman close-ups, the passionate but rocky romance, and questions about religion, all told in flashback. Maj-Britt Nilsson is the female lead (Marie) again. As in To Joy, she’s a ballerina, although this time she’s a successful one.

Marie is detached and off-putting, emotionally empty. It helps her focus on being a prima ballerina, but does nothing to overcome her isolation, and hurts her relationship with her boyfriend, David (played by Alf Kjellin), a newspaper reporter. That the two are together at all is somewhat of a mystery: he comes across as light-hearted while Marie is an ice queen, seemingly incapable of love or even basic, simple kindnesses.

We learn that Marie shut herself off emotionally because of a tragic love affair 13 years earlier with Henrik (Birger Malmsten in his eighth of 11 Bergman films) while on a summer vacation. The two fall madly in love, but Henrik dies when diving into water. (You’re supposed to check the depth of water before diving in head-first: a lesson Henrik learned the hard way.)

After that, “Uncle” Erland, an older family friend, takes advantage of Marie’s grief to engage in a love affair with her, which results in her emotional shutdown. The memories of Henrik return after Erland sends Marie the diary Henrik kept that summer and release the bottled-up emotions return for Marie, who recalls that wonderful time 13 years ago. Happiness for Bergman is always temporal and transitory. She comes to terms with her hatred of Erland, confides in her ballet master (Stig Olin once again!), and is finally able to show love for David.

In a telling moment during one of the film’s final scenes, Marie removes the heavy makeup she wears for the ballet’s last dress rehearsal. As she takes off the makeup, she is also exposing her true self, looking young and happy as she did during that magic and tragic summer with Henrik. While the symbolism is all too obvious, it still cannot distract us from the emotions we feel in this incredibly touching scene.

Bergman has called Summer Interlude “one of my most important films.” It definitely was a sign of things to come for one of cinema’s most talented and iconic directors.