Friday, June 29, 2012

TCM TiVo Alert for July 1-7

July 1–July 7


ACE IN THE HOLE (July 5, 8:00 pm): As a journalist for the past 24 years, I usually love how reporters are portrayed in films, particularly those in the 1930s and 40s. Reporters were superheroes. Not only were they able to always be where the story was, but miraculously, they also able to write really long stories so fast that it was in the next edition - even if that next edition was on the street in 20 minutes. Ace in the Hole is unlike those movies, and is my favorite newspaper film. Kirk Douglas plays Chuck Tatum, a cynical reporter (aren't we all?) who once was a big-city journalist, but was fired from several newspapers for a variety of reasons. He's in a small town in New Mexico when he stumbles across a huge story: a guy is trapped inside a cave when it collapses. The poor guy can be saved, but Tatum and a sheriff, also without scruples, decide to delay the rescue and milk the story into a national media event with Tatum as the lead reporter. A great film on what could happen when people get caught up in celebrity.

THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (July 6, 3:45 pm): What a fantastic film! I can't stand Angela Lansbury as an actress, but she is incredible in this 1962 Cold War/Communist conspiracy/spy thriller movie with Laurence Harvey (an under-appreciated actor) as Lansbury's son, who is brainwashed to be an assassin. While Lansbury steals the movie, Frank Sinatra is also excellent. A great plot, outstanding pacing and tense-filled. An absolute must-see.


UMBERTO D (July 1, 2:00 am): Director Vittorio DeSica was known for his realistic portrayals of life in Postwar Italy. Next to The Bicycle Thieves, this is his most important - and best - film from that time. It takes a long, hard look at the problems of the unwanted elderly, the protagonist being a retired professor of linguistics at Bologna who can no longer survive on his meager pension. Thrown out of his apartment for back rent, he wanders the streets with his faithful terrier, Flike. Be warned, this is the saddest owner and pet drama since Old Yeller, and I'm not kidding when I day that this is a five-hankie picture. The film was instrumental in helping to reform the Italian pension system into something more humane. Critically lauded in the '50s, it's almost forgotten today, much like its protagonist.

1776 (July 4, 5:00 pm): A musical about the signing of the Declaration of Independence? You’re kidding, right? No, we’re not kidding, and furthermore, it’s quite good. Based on the play, it retains many of those originally performed it. William Daniels is splendid as John Adams, Ken Howard makes for a most effective Thomas Jefferson, and Howard DaSilva is the spitting image of Ben Franklin. Throw in Virginia Vestoff as Abigail Adams and Blythe Danner as Martha Jefferson, and the film really rocks. Watch out, however, for John Cullum as Edward Rutledge of South Carolina. He brings down the house with “Molasses to Rum to Slaves.” Other numbers to watch for include “But Mr. Adams,” “Cool Cool, Considerate Men” (my favorite), and the heart tugging “Mama Look Sharp.” American history was never this much fun.

WE DISAGREE ON ... 42nd STREET (July 1, 6:00 am)

DAVID: C-. When I saw the play on Broadway in 1982 (two years after it opened), I thought it was fun, primarily because of the great choreography. The plot is simplistic and there's a handful of good songs. When I saw the 1933 movie, of which the play is based, a few years ago, I wondered why anyone would take a mediocre at best film and make it a play. (Of course, the play was an unbelievable success and the film was well-received.) The movie is filled with cliche lines about putting on a Broadway musical including the unknown chorus girl becoming the star. The only missing piece is Mickey Rooney. Like its play adaption, the movie's plot is virtually nonexistent. The movie is a shade under 90 minutes and about 20 minutes of it is three song-and-dance numbers from the fictitious play being put on in the film. The Busby Berkeley dance numbers have entertaining moments and the cinematography of them is good, but not nearly enough to keep my interest. If, like me, you're not a musical fan, there's no reason to watch this movie.

EDA++. This is the mother of all Pre-Code musicals, and the prototype for all future musicals. The story is simple – Sugar Daddy Abner Dillon (Guy Kibbee) is backing a new Broadway show titled “Pretty Lady,” which will star his squeeze Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels). The trouble is that while Brock is Dillon’s Main Squeeze, she doesn’t want to be squoze by him. She’d rather be in the arms of old boyfriend George Brent, with whom she’s still in love. Things come to a boil, with the result that Bebe breaks her ankle and can’t go on. Just as it looks like there’s going to be a dark theater, young Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler) is plucked from the chorus line by director Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) and given the chance to be the star. You know the rest. Once Busby Berkeley takes over staging the dance numbers, it’ll never be quite the same again, both for the musicals and for Berkeley. Not only does the film contain unforgettable numbers such as “Young and Healthy,” Shuffling Off to Buffalo,” and the title song, but listen in and catch some of the most risque lines and scenarios ever to populate a musical. Ginger Rogers, in an early role, plays a character named Anytime Annie. “She only said ‘No’ once, and that was when she didn’t hear the question,” says backstage manager Andy Lee (George E. Stone). Also watch for the homosexual innuendo between Julian Marsh and Andy Lee. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen this film over the years, but each time I sit down to watch, it comes across still as fresh as the first time I saw it.

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

Wednesday, June 27, 2012


By Ed Garea

Playmates (RKO, 1941): John Barrymore, Kay Kyser, Patsy Kelly, Lupe Velez, May Robson, and the Kay Kyser Band (featuring Harry Babbitt, Ish Kibbible, Sully Mason).

The synopsis on my Direct TV guide couldn’t have described it any better – “A has-been actor coaches a corny bandleader for a Shakespeare festival on Long Island.”

How succinct.

Playmates is Barrymore’s final film – and what a way to go out.  We can only be happy for his sake that it was the 1940s and not a decade later, or else there was good chance he might have starred in an Ed Wood atrocity.

Barrymore plays himself in this attempted comedy that also stars the likes of bandleader Kay Kyser and his band, Patsy Kelly, and the incomprehensively cast Lupe Velez. At any rate, here’s the plot: Barrymore is broke and in trouble with the IRS (mirroring real life). Kelly, his publicist, is trying to land him a contract with a sponsor for a radio program starring John. To land the sponsor, she and Kyser’s agent (Peter Lynd Hayes) plant a story that Barrymore has agreed to instruct bandleader Kay Kyser in the art of playing Shakespeare. (This is something that only makes sense in movies.) Barrymore and Kyser know nothing about this until it hits the papers. Barrymore is aghast at teaching Southern Boy Kyser (“It’s like trying to teach a rabbit to be a crooner,” he says.), but Kelly convinces him that his future in radio, and a regular paycheck, depends on it.

Booked in a charity performance for the would-be sponsor, Barrymore tries to sabotage Kyser so he can’t go on, but Kay gets wind of the scheme and turns the tables on Barrymore, causing him to miss the performance. Kyser and the band instead give a performance of “Romeo Smith and Juliet Jones” in swingtime. (Yes, it is every bit as bad as it sounds.) The show is a hit and Kyser gives Barrymore the credit, which gets him the sponsorship and the radio show.

So far, not so good. Kelly gives a good performance and could be said to steal the film. However, were she arrested, the most they could hold her on is petty theft. Velez is Barrymore’s former girlfriend, Spanish Bullfighter Carmen Del Toro (how’s that for subtlety) whom he is trying to avoid like the plague. Why Velez is in this film is in itself a mystery. It’s as if the studio executives decided that if they had her under contract, she might as well be in this film until the next “Mexican Spitfire” script is ready.

Naturally, Lupe gives her typical over-the-top performance, which, hammy as it is, incredibly pales to Barrymore’s own over-the-top-performance. When Barrymore convinces her to turn on the charm and render Kyser incapable of performing, it leads to one of the weakest scenes ever in a comedy. Kyser is nowhere near Velez’s level of comic acting and it obviously shows. It’s so bad that a dream sequence with Kyser fighting a bull that looks just like Barrymore is inserted. And, yes, it is every bit as painful with the only saving grace being that no one is inserting needles in your eyes as you watch it.

As for Barrymore, what can I say? It’s truly pathetic watching him play the buffoon. He makes remarks about his financial straits and his drinking, all the more pathetic because this is his real life he’s talking about in the movie. As for his persistent mugging throughout the movie, let’s just say that Barrymore makes more faces than Cheetah ever did in a Tarzan flick. At least Cheetah never did a spit take, as Barrymore does when sipping his coffee and discovering that his visitor is from the IRS.

Not only is Barrymore's drinking referred to throughout the film, but in several scenes it seems as if he's playing his scenes swacked. Admittedly it’s hard to tell because he’s so bloated, but upon careful viewing it becomes evident. It is also evident that he’s reading his lines from cue cards held offstage. Once this is realized it becomes almost impossible to turn this disaster off.

But when we’re sure that we can sit there smugly and laugh ourselves silly, Barrymore reaches out to us with a bit that brings out the true pathos of his condition. While explaining Shakespeare to Kyser, Barrymore launches into Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, bring to it for those few moments all his passion and offering us a window into what he once was as an actor. It’s touching in the extreme and will not leave the serious film fan with a dry eye.

In the moments when Barrymore is not on screen we have to suffer with the antics of Kyser and his band, in particular, the oddly named Ish Kabbible (Merwyn Bogue). It’s said that his act is corny. That it may be, but most corny has a bit of funny in it. Ish’s proclamations do not. That and his Moe Howard haircut make for a true horror show whenever he appears on screen. He described the origins of his stage name in his autobiography as a play on the Yiddish expression “Ische ga bibble?” This means “I should worry?” or “What, me worry?” It’s the phrase that Mad’s poster boy Alfred E. Newman would later become famous.

Sad to say, our last look at the great Barrymore on screen is the sight of watching him chased by Velez, with the two of them running like something out of a Benny Hill sketch. Poor Barrymore. Out of respect we should turn it off, but we shouldn’t stare at a traffic accident, either.

Memorable Quote

Grandma Kyser to Barrymore after he has hurt his back: Have you tried rubbing alcohol?  

Barrymore: Not since Prohibition.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Paranormal Activity 3

Dinner and a Movie

Paranormal Stones

By Steve Herte

Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)

If somebody knows why this series lasted to two sequels, please let me know. The only reason I gave it any rating at all (one-third of one Martini glass out of five) was because I couldn’t believe anybody had the nerve to create something this bad. Story: Dennis and his wife Julie live in this perfectly gorgeous house that nobody but the upper middle class can afford (Dennis can’t afford it either) with their two adorable daughters Katie and Chrissa. It doesn’t matter who played what part, you really don’t want to know. Dennis is obsessive about video cameras (otherwise, the movie would really never have been made and he might have been able to afford the house) and sets one up in their daughters’ bedroom, the master bedroom and even figures out how to attach one to a multi-directional fan to cover the kitchen and living room downstairs.

What he doesn’t plan on is his youngest daughter’s invisible friend Toby getting bugged at a refusal by the child to do what he requests, so he wreaks havoc on everybody but Mommy (until almost the end). Up to that point she blames Dennis for her hysterical children. And…it doesn’t go away when they move into her mother Lois’ house. Oooh, bad karma as well as bad camera.

If you have the patience to sit through this film, get ready for endless stretches of non-activity interspersed with stupidity and occasional flashes of lame horror. Forgive me for not having seen 1 and 2, but 3 should never have been made and I’m thinking the same should have been for 1 and 2. I was actually happy when pay-per-view froze after one and a half hours and went back to the menu.

A Stone’s Throw
2660 Woodley Road NW, Washington D.C.

Speaking of horror, imagine my surprise when the steakhouse where I thought I was dining was actually in the Marriott! I steeled myself as I trudged uphill to one of the two bastions of higher-priced-than-worth-it rooms and wondered what had I gotten myself into this time.

The Captain’s Station had nobody staffing it (surprise, surprise) and two tables of customers were waiting to be seated before me. There was no computer to verify reservations. They recruited staff from Harry’s Bar to tend to those misfortunate enough to press on.

The sweet but elderly Eleni handed me the menu and took my order for my martini while relating an uninspired cod fish main special and a cream of mushroom soup appetizer. After seeing how uninteresting the other soups were, I chose the mushroom soup. It was definitely creamy, with decent slices of button mushrooms and shredded spinach – not a bad dish.

I decided to make it a three-course meal because I saw something else interesting – the Grilled Meat Balls. These were definitely flavored as if a Greek chef had made them and were served in a covered dish, in tomato sauce with onions. Again, not great, but not bad. 

Not trusting the other main courses and still thinking this to be a steakhouse, I chose the Filet Mignon and specified how I like it cooked. I also specified to leave off the mashed potatoes (hate them) and if possible, to bring French fries instead. My waitress looked like she understood. My poor filet was leaning on a Devil’s Tower of mashed potatoes and sided with huge cold sliced carrots and some other yellow-root vegetable. I piled the offending potatoes onto my bread dish (the bread was only so-so) and notified my waitress, who brought the fries and took the blob away. At this point the manager (if I may call him so) appeared and offered me a glass of wine, which I accepted (Cabernet-Sauvignon) – it was indeed very good. By the way, the filet was also good, not steakhouse quality, but good.

I was terrified of dessert. Of the six listed, I only could chance two and decided on the one with the obvious misspelling on the menu (and explained it to my waitress) – the Chocolate Dolce de Leche Tart (it should be Dulce to be completely Spanish and not half Italian) – served with a strawberry meringue and a mixed berry, chocolate sauce. What came out was a hard, three-inch, tasteless chocolate cup, filled with hard, flavorless beige concrete, and topped with a half-inch round of artificially flavored strawberry fluff topped with one strawberry sliced in half. There were two sad raspberries and two blackberries in the drizzle of (really good) chocolate syrup. I ate the fluff (which reminded me of my penny candy days) and the two half strawberries on top and left the rest, suggesting to the waitress that if anybody else orders it, she should tell them they were out of it.

I got my check as soon as I could and left, hoping the bar in my hotel could clear my palate. No recommendation here.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Reel History

Reel History (Vol. 1, No. 1)

By J Michael Kenyon 

["Where I come from, men don't go around slappin' little boys." -- Hopalong Cassidy]

About the absolute worst thing ever to happen involving one of William Boyd's 66 fabulous Hopalong Cassidy films – and, for that matter, probably the worst thing ever to befall a crowded movie theater -- occurred at 5:17 p.m., Greenwich Mean Time, Friday, July 9, 1943.

Readers, herewith, I am giving you an opening volley from a "series" of trivial vignettes which will comprise "Reel History" in the immediate future. It's hard to say where it all ends, but given my propensity to equate worldly matters with my own life, the events of this first chapter will take place even as my sainted mother was screaming and bellowing during the last eight hours of the torturous labor (her story) which produced me, at 4:37 p.m., Pacific War Time, on the afternoon of Friday, July 9, 1943. 

Before I forget, I was born in a year (1943) when the movies were so generally mediocre they wound up giving the Academy Award to Casablanca, actually released in 1942. Even more odd, that may well have been the most absorbing movie ever made.

[TRIVIAL ASIDE: The 1943 Oscars for the Best Supporting Actor and Actress categories, for the first time, were full-sized statuettes instead of plaques. They went to Charles Coburn (The More the Merrier) and Katina Paxinou (For Whom the Bell Tolls).]

But, now, let us be serious and somber and concentrate on the horror that happened at the Whitehall Cinema in East Grinstead, Sussex, England, fully 4,823 miles removed from where my mother's labors were producing me at Swedish Hospital, Seattle, Wash., US of A.

What happened was this: 10 German aircraft crossed the Sussex coast at Hastings, en route to disgorging their supply of bombs on London. One of the pilots veered in a westerly direction, away from the main formation, and wound up flying over East Grinstead.

The customary air raid sirens already were blaring in the town, but the 184 people watching William Boyd (as Hopalong Cassidy) in Undercover Man, the day's first feature at the Whitehall, didn't pay too much attention, even though a warning flashed onto the screen. Everyone in the audience (comprised mostly of children just let out of school) knew the bombs were London-bound.

But the stray German pilot spotted a train pulling into the East Grinstead station and changed his game plan. He twice circled the town before dropping his bombs on the High Street. The biggest one, a 500-pounder, would make a direct hit on the Whitehall Cinema.

John Parsons, 13, described the scene to the East Grinstead Courier:

"I went to the cinema straight after school with a friend. We saw the news and while a cowboy film was showing the bombs fell. I was sitting in the front row -- in the 'tenpennies'. The first thing I knew was a sort of crackling which ran along the ceiling. The exit lights and the film went out at the same moment and the place was in complete darkness. Bits of debris started flying about. I got on the floor in less than a second. I crawled along in front of the seats, jumped up and ran to the exit. Just as I was going up the steps there was an explosion. Then I felt a pain in my face and found I had been cut. When I came out I heard machine-gun fire and I stepped back inside again. When the firing stopped I left the cinema."

Amid the chaos, 108 were dead or dying – two-thirds of them women and children -- and another 235 were bleeding from non-fatal wounds. In terms of lives lost, it would be the worst bombing in Sussex for the duration of the war.

The Courier's edition of July 17th tried to sort out further what happened:

"Bombs were dropped at different places. Two enemy bombers were brought down -- one near Caterham and one near Sittingbourne -- and both exploded, the crews being killed ...

"Suddenly the roar of a plane approaching (East Grinstead) from the north was heard. It swooped down out of the low-lying clouds and it was then that shoppers and other people realised that the twin-engined bomber was a German. It roared over the town, circled twice and then dropped several bombs. One made a direct hit on a cinema, another on an ironmonger's shop higher up the road, another on a builder's and ladies' outfitters and one fell near a factory.

"In the cinema was an audience of 184 -- the majority being children -- who were trapped when the bomb fell. Following the news(reel) came a cowboy film, during which the usual notice of an air raid being in progress was displayed, so that anybody who wished to leave might do so ...

"Suddenly there was a terrific crash, and to use the words of one survivor, the whole building seemed to collapse like a pack of cards, trapping most of the audience."

Undercover Man replaced the western Silver Queen and was opening that day. (The headline feature, which never made it to projector, was to have been I Married a Witch, starring Fredric March and Veronica Lake.)

[TRIVIAL ASIDE: The Whitehall's previous western co-feature, Silver Queen (1942) top-lined George Brent, Priscilla Lane and Bruce Cabot, with Eugene Pallette and Guinn (Big Boy) Williams in support. Like the Hopalong Cassidy pictures, it was produced by the shrewd Harry Sherman but, dissimilar to the Hoppy flicks, it was nominated for not just one, but two Academy Awards, for its musical score and art direction. It lost out, respectively, to Now, Voyager, and This Above All.]

The 42nd entry in the enduring series of Hopalong Cassidy films released between 1935 and 1948, Undercover Man never lacked for action. A mysterious gang of raiders, with its leader variously masquerading as Hoppy or as Don Tomas Gonzalez (Antonio Moreno), terrorizes both sides of the border. Gold mines are raided, cattle rustled and ranchos burned. But, inside a running time of 68 minutes, the sure-thinking, fast-shooting William Boyd once again restores law and order with his customary alacrity.

The action was filmed on the 500-acre Iverson Ranch in the Simi Hills on Santa Susana Pass above Chatsworth, north of Los Angeles. That producer Sherman splurged some is evidenced by the fact of fully 101 horses being required for the raiding and chase scenes. Those who watch it today and who are familiar with the TV westerns of the 1950s and '60s will recognize scenery made familiar in countless episodes of "The Lone Ranger," "The Roy Rogers Show," "The Gene Autry Show," "The Cisco Kid" and, later, "The Virginian," "Bonanza," and "Gunsmoke."

As many as 2,000 movies – and thousands more television shows – were filmed at the Iverson Ranch between 1912 and 1966. The latter year was when what is now known as the Ronald Reagan Freeway (California Route 118) was laid down, effectively splitting the property in half. 

The grisly events of July 9, 1943, were recaptured and presented in the form of a play, "Matters of Chance," staged at Sackville School, East Grinstead, between Nov. 29 and Dec. 11, 2010. The play, described as "tender, poignant, funny and frightening by turns," was produced by the Claque Theatre.

This column will be about nothing if it isn't concerned with bringing everything full circle. All things tie together so it should come as no surprise to learn that, in attendance one night at Sackville School, that late fall of 2010, was my granddaughter, Ms. Charlotte Quinn.

Alas, the poor girl has yet to witness a Hopalong Cassidy movie ... something I intend to remedy for her.

As it happens, "The Hopalong Cassidy Six Shooter Collection" contains Undercover Man among its selections and is available, for $24, from the nice people at, which is headquartered – remember, all things tie together – in Seattle, Wash., US of A, a mere half-mile from the Swedish Hospital room in which my mother brought me – both of us screaming – into this wild and wacky world on that busy Friday, July 9, 1943. 

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Adventures of Tin Tin

Dinner and a Movie

Arcadian Tin

By Steve Herte

Note: Steve is in Washington, D.C., on vacation. This “adventure" was prompted by my hotel concierge who told me about the back entrance to the National Museum of Natural History from where I could get to the second floor before all the tour groups and see and photograph Titanoboa - the largest snake that ever lived - in relative peace and quiet. Mission accomplished. Also they had on view the gizmo they used to save the Chilean miners, remarkable. The Hall of human origins is (surprisingly) more impressive than ours in New York with interactive displays and bronze statues of our ancestors focally placed.

The Adventures of Tin Tin (2011)

The minute graphic details of this animated film make it shockingly realistic. Except for some exaggerated facial features, one would believe the characters were actual people. Tin Tin (voiced by Jamie Bell) is an intrepid reporter for some unnamed publication who goes to great lengths to get his stories. 

In this film he buys a model of a sailing ship dubbed “The Unicorn” and the trouble starts when an evil-looking character named Sakharine (Daniel Craig) offers to buy it and is turned down by Tin Tin. At home, Tin Tin’s dog, Snowy, chases an intruding cat and manages to break the main mast of the model releasing a steel tube with a scroll of paper within and a cryptic poem written in old English on it.

It turns out this paper is one of three pieces hidden in three models of the Unicorn which, when superimposed upon each other and read through a bright light, give the coordinates of a treasure trove recovered from the actual ship Unicorn before it sank at sea after a spectacular battle between its captain Sir Francis Haddock (Andy Serkis) and the pirate Red Rackham (also Daniel Craig). The descendant of Sir Francis, Captain Haddock (also Andy Serkis) is a drunken captain of a tramp steamer but also the possessor of the second piece of the puzzle.

Tin Tin and his dog get hijacked onto Captain Haddock’s ship and the mystery unfolds. The third and final piece is in Morocco, in a model belonging to Ben Salaad (Gad Elmaleh) the sheik, which he keeps in a bullet-proof glass case. Two bumbling English policemen (Thomson and Thompson – Nick Frost and Simon Pegg) get involved in the story when their search for a pick-pocket leads them to Tin Tin’s wallet and they wind up working for Interpol and remarkably help solve the mystery. Sakharine hires the Bianca Castafiore (Kim Stengel), a famous soprano opera singer to entertain the sultan and at the same time shatter the bullet-proof glass with her high C above C.

The action in this movie is worthy of an Indiana Jones film and Steven Spielberg’s directing never lets the audience down (you really forget it’s an animated flick). There are very tense moments and remarkable cinematography. It’s no wonder actors worry that soon they may not be needed. There will probably be a sequel as further adventures are hinted at in the final frames.

901 New York Avenue NW, Washington, D.C.

This imposing restaurant with its entrance on the point of a triangular block formed by New York Avenue and K Street is by far the largest establishment thus far this vacation. The royal blue awnings over its several windows on one side and the umbrellas of its sidewalk café on the other announce its presence amply. Inside there is a multilevel mélange of banquettes, tables and brocaded couches for the customers’ comforts lit by several styles of crystal chandeliers.

Knowing this to be a New Orleans-style eatery I chose the Category 5 cocktail (their bartender’s version of the traditional Hurricane at Pat O’Brien’s) and was suitably impressed by the mixture of rums and fresh fruit juices as well as the crazy “drunken” glass it was served in. It was easier to choose a wine than my meal, because all of the selections looked and sounded wonderful so Zinfandel it was.

When my waiter informed me they were out of the duck entrée I was a little disappointed because I had almost settled on that one. Instead, I ordered a three-course meal, starting with the Trio of Soups (Commander’s Palace in New Orleans does a similar thing) turtle soup, crab soup, and chicken gumbo. All were delightful. I could taste the sherry in the turtle soup, the cream and corn in the crab soup and the spice in the gumbo.

The second course was one of those dishes whose name screams out, “Choose me!” It was crispy “gas station” Pork Boudin Balls. How could I resist? The three crispy spheres were filled with a mixture of ground pork and chicken liver and served on a plate with creole mustard on one side and pickled peppers (yes, one was jalapeño) on the other. They were excellent.

I went back to gumbo for the main course, only this time it was Louisiana Seafood Gumbo – jumbo lump crab meat, shrimp, crawfish, oysters, mussels, and redfish over mahatma rice. In Cajun talk, it was wundermous! The dark spicy sauce infused the entire dish with eye-tearing New Orleans flavor. Thank goodness they served biscuits to take off some of the spice. 

For dessert there was a slight quandary. The chef had combined two of my favorite New Orleans desserts in his Bananas Foster Bread Pudding. It was a fantastic combination but neither Antoine’s nor Brennan’s has anything to worry about. A double espresso and a Pernod Absinthe later and I was missing New Orleans again. Acadiana definitely gets a thumbs-up from me.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Happy Feet 2

Dinner and a Movie

Happy Feet in Urbana

By Steve Herte

Note: Steve is on vacation in Washington, D.C. That doesn’t mean he’s taking a brief hiatus until he returns to New York City. Quite the contrary. We present Dinner and a Movie in the District.

Happy Feet 2 (2011) 

In this slightly sappy, silly sequel we have essentially three stories. If you remember the first installment, it was Mumble as a penguin chick who could dance and nobody else could? Well, his son Erik (voiced by Ava Acres) is the only one in the Emperor Penguin flock who doesn’t have Happy Feet. Next, Ramon (Robin Williams) is a Rock Hopper Penguin who has to leave the Emperor Penguin flock because none of the females will have anything to do with him. Erik feels disconnected with the flock and so he and two other chicks follow Ramon to Adelie Land. The third story involves Will Krill (Brad Pitt) and his best friend Bill Krill (Matt Damon), who decide to leave the swarm (because that’s all they do is swarm) and move up the food chain to become a predator (ridiculous, but funny).

While Mumble (voiced by Elijah Wood) goes looking for his chick, an enormous iceberg crashes into the part of Antarctica where the Emperor Penguin flock is and strands them (including Mumble’s mate Gloria – voiced by Pink) in an ice valley, unable to get to the open water and food. The Adelie flock meanwhile is worshipping a penguin who can fly (he’s really a Puffin, but he doesn’t reveal this until almost the end of the movie) named Sven (Hank Azaria) who regales them with his Viking-like exploits.

The Adelie flock tries to help the Emperor Flock by bringing them fish until the sea freezes over. Then they try dancing to vibrate enough snow into the valley to create an escape ramp. Even humans get involved in trying to save the flock when a great snow storm blows in and covers all the work they attempted.

It is only through the effort of a pod of Elephant Seals led by Bryan (Richard Carter) as pay-back for Mumble freeing him from a crevasse. Have you ever seen Elephant Seals dance?  It isn’t pretty and I will never hear the song “Under Pressure” the same way again.

Even though the film has a happy ending, Ramon finds love with Carmen (Sophia Vergara), everyone is reconciled, the chicks are adorable with their bright blue eyes, the film left me hoping they do not make another one. 

For one, I don’t believe in an Emperor Penguin reaching adulthood and retaining his gray and white chick plumage. For another, Rap and Hip-Hop sequences ruin the musical score which ranges from Rock to Gospel to Opera. Lastly, the audio of the film is so rangy that I didn’t know where to set the volume. Parts were inaudible and parts were way too loud when you adjusted it. The two krill were great comic relief (and I can’t think of two better actors to provide it). Best line in the movie is when Will and Bill see a whale devouring the swarm and realize how far down the food chain they are, and they go their own way with, “Goodbye, Krill World!”

2121 P Street NW, Washington D.C.

It must be a thing in Washington, D.C., to have understated entrances to restaurants. A blocky green sign with white writing is all you see to indicate Urbana is there. Inside, my chocolate cravings started because everything from floor to ceiling is in shades of dark, medium and light chocolate.

Billed as a Mediterranean style restaurant, the emphasis is on Italian and imaginative versions of familiar recipes. So sipping my “P Street Blue” martini – a vodka martini with bleu cheese -stuffed olives, I notice the menu has “Bites” – tapas sized dishes, sides, as well as appetizers and main courses. Also, from my reservation, I knew that Sundays were half-priced bottles of wine days, so I promptly ordered a $70 bottle of 2005 Zinfandel and got it for $35.

The Foie Gras Corn Dogs were the most unusual of the “Bites” and by George, they looked like corn dogs, but were filled with foie gras sausage and served in a drizzle of yellow cognac mustard. Yummy!

The Cannelloni pasta dish was stuffed with braised short rib meat and truffle pecorino cheese and aligned on the plate with leeks. I refrained from comparing this dish to my benchmark cannelloni dish because it would not be fair. The imagination this dish displayed as well as the excellent flavor put it into a category all its own.

Venison coated with espresso bean, cooked to perfection and sliced neatly was served on Yukon gold potato puree, braised swiss chard and in a green peppercorn reduction. It was a little chewy, but juicy and delicious. Did I mention that Urbana also has a Gluten-free menu?

The desserts didn’t inspire me so I had a selection of three cheeses, a New York Chatham Camembert, a French Mimolette and a Spanish Montenebro. That, with a double espresso and a glass of “Rocky Mountain Peach,” a homemade liqueur made with eau-de-vie and fresh peaches, made the meal unbelievable. My next trip to D.C. will definitely include a return to Urbana.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

TCM TiVo Alert for June 23-30

June 23–June 30

LA STRADA (June 24, 2:15 a.m.): One of legendary director Federico Fellini's finest films, and probably his best known. La Strada is about a strongman (played by Anthony Quinn) who purchases a young woman (the incredibly-talented Giulietta Masina, Fellini's wife) from her mother after the the woman's sister, who was the strongman's assistant, dies. The movie tells of their life together with Quinn's character, Zampano, prone to anger and Masin's character, Gelsomina, naive but plucky and hopeful (similar to the role she played in Nights of Cabiria three years later). During their journey, they meet Il Matto (a wonderful performance by Richard Basehart), a clown. The three join a traveling circus, and things take a turn for the worse. While the story is compelling, it's secondary to the performances and the film's underlying theme of the fragile human psyche and ego of simple people who on the surface seem to live simple lives. As with many Fellini films, much is open to interpretation - we don't even know what year the movie is supposed to take place - as he wants moviegoers to think about what they see and experience, and perhaps help them understand their own lives a bit better.

VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (June 28, 8 a.m.): An excellent sci-fi film in which one day all the people and animals in an English town become unconscious, wake up and two months later, all the female adults - and girls old enough to bare children - are pregnant. They all give birth on the same day to some serious white-looking kids. The children are geniuses, are able to read minds and control others to do whatever they want, including murder and suicide. As time passes, a professor from the village (played by George Sanders, one of my favorite actors) decides he's going to teach the mutant kids, who want to take over the world, to use their powers for good. Of course, that doesn't work out. So the professor plants a bomb to destroy the kids, and thinks of a brick wall in order for the children to not read his mind. Films like this can easily become stupid and cliche, but this one is special. Sanders is fantastic and the kids are great. The special effects aren't that special, but are extremely effective. It's a very entertaining horror film.


FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH (June 28, 4 p.m.): Every once in a while a science fiction film comes along that doesn’t insult your intelligence, but rather gives the audience something to ponder. This is one of those films. Produced by Hammer Studios, it tells the story of a projectile being found at an Underground station in London undergoing renovation. Small ape-like skeletons are found next to the projectile, which brings in scientists, among them Professor Quartermass, who previously starred in two earlier (and excellent) Hammer sci-fi films. As the projectile is discovered to be a spaceship, questions now arise of how it got there and for what purpose. Written by Nigel Kneale, who authored the two previous Quartermass films, it keeps us both entertained and on the edge of our seat, as Neale plumbs the depths of human psychology and our historical unconscious to unravel the mystery. The cast is rather unknown to Americans: Andrew Keir is Professor Quartermass, James Donald (The Great Escape) is Professor Roney, and the lovely Barbara Shelley is Roney’s assistant who plays an important role in the unraveling of the mystery. Add it all together and this is a film that no film buff can afford to miss.

SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS (June 30, 8:00 p.m.): This film is rightly said to be writer/director Preston Sturges’s masterpiece. John L. Sullivan is a noted director of light musical fare such as Ants in Your Plants of 1939 and Hey, Hey in the Hayloft. However, he wants to make an Important Film, and he has one in mind, namely O Brother, Where Art Thou, a leaden novel concerned with the struggle between Capital and Labor. The studio execs pooh-pooh it, noting that he grew up rich and never suffered. So, Sullivan sets out to see how the other half lives, and ends up with far more than he bargained for when everybody assumes he died. It’s both hilarious and touching with many insights from Sturges into the human ego versus the human condition. It’s best to record it to be seen again later – and you will definitely want to see it again.


Look up the word “overwrought” in the dictionary and you will see a still from this picture.  At first sight, one would think that a film starring Bogart, Stanwyck and Alexis Smith would be tremendous. Well, it’s not. Though filmed in 1945, it took Warners two years to release it to an unsuspecting public. Bogart stars as a nutso artist who meets and falls in love with Stanwyck. One problem – he’s married. So he paints his wife as the angel of death (subtle, huh?) and then poisons her. Shortly afterward Babs is the new Mrs. Carroll. Things are fine at first, but then Bogie meets Alexis Smith. He then begins painting Stanwyck. Uh, oh. The laughs really come when Babs realizes what’s going on and confronts Bogie. The result is an all-out mugging-for-the camera fest as she discovers he’s a pistachio and must fight for her life. Ham never came any better. If it seems stagy it’s because it was based on a 1944 play and the director wasn’t clever enough to make it look like more of a movie than play. Nevertheless, it’s always interesting when three screen idols make fools of themselves and it’s a Must See in our book. By the way, look for a director cameo as a racetrack tout and Bogart’s takeoff on his Casablanca line, “I have a feeling this is going to be the beginning of a beautiful hatred.”

Monday, June 18, 2012

Madagascar 3 - Europe's Most Wanted (3D)

Dinner and a Movie

Europe’s Most Wanted Pravda

By Steve Herte

Madagascar  3 – Europe’s Most Wanted (3D) (2012)

The tale of four Central Park Zoo animals, Alex the Lion (voiced by Ben Stiller), Melman the Giraffe (David Schwimmer), Marty the Zebra (Chris Rock) and Gloria the Hippopotamus (Jada Pinkett Smith), who tried to get to Africa in the first movie but wound up in Madagascar, then succeeded in getting to Africa in the second film, are now trying to get home to America. However, the crafty penguins – Rico (John DiMaggio), Skipper (Tom McGrath), Private (Christopher Knights) and Kowalski (Chris Miller) have flown off in their monkey-powered flying machine to Monte Carlo at first promising to fly them all home, but at the last minute vowing never to return. 

So Alex and company swim (hey, it’s an animated movie) all the way to Monte Carlo to get the penguins to make good on their promise. When the four wild animals are discovered in the casino, the Animal Control police are brought in, led by the indomitable and obsessive Captain Chantel DuBois (Frances McDormand) who has all sorts of creatures’ heads on her wall, but not a lion. To escape her, our little company - along with the penguins, monkeys and King Julien XIII (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Maurice (Cedric the Entertainer), the lemurs from Madagascar, convince Vitaly the Tiger (Bryan Cranston), Gia the Cheetah (Jessica Chastain), Stephano the Sea Lion (Martin Short) and their circus troupe that they are “circus” and travel with them to Rome. 

Here they discover to their dismay that the circus animals are just going through the motions and their performances in the Coliseum (yes, that Coliseum) bomb colossally. The penguins buy the circus with their gold and jewels from their winnings and Alex decides to reinvent the circus in a grand speech. “Think of those people from Canada with their budget-priced pharmaceuticals who reinvented the circus by taking out the animals! Well, you can take the animals out of a circus, but you can’t take the animals out of the circus. You know what I mean.” 

They get behind him and create an eye-popping series of feats greatly enhanced by the 3D special effects and perform in London to raves. A wealthy backer from America sees the acts (he’s wearing cowboy clothes and has an eagle on his shoulder – you can’t get more American than that) and brings the circus to New York. Still, Captain DuBois doggedly follows them everywhere to get her prize causing havoc each step of the way.

This movie clearly tops the two previous films in excellent writing (there was no way to remember all the jokes and asides), clean, smooth animation (you forgot they were just characters and could identify with them), and really difficult camera angles (chase scenes done looking up from the road surface) along with the 3D effects. The laughs are abundant, the pathos is enough to bring tears and the music track had the audience dancing. It’s difficult to tell if there will be any more sequels, being that the tale has come full circle, but if there is, this one will be hard to top.

281 Lafayette Street (south of Houston), New York

A single vertical banner and an enclosed stairway are all you see on the street when coming to Pravda. At the foot of the stairs is an ancient unmarked door and you almost expect a trap door to open in it at eye level with a shady character asking you for the password. But you press on, and down a few more steps you arrive at what looks like a Russian underground train station with arched ceilings and alcoves, and sconce lighting providing the track numbers. You hear James Bond movie themes playing and are led to a corner banquette covered in red leather. You sit at a round, aluminum-covered table and order a “Caviar Martini” – chilled vodka with a small spoon of black caviar in it – as you read the menu (you can choose from 70 different vodkas).

You decide to start with the Crispy Oysters on the half shell with a fresh horseradish and dill sauce, topped with salmon roe. With each delightful crunch you savor the slightly briny flavor of the roe mixed with the light texture of the oysters.

Your main course is the Zakouski Platter – a selection of three each of four Russian Hors D’Oeuvres – Crispy Potato Pancakes topped with Scottish Smoked Salmon (such an awesome combination with a light mayonaise), Roasted Eggplant Dip (whipped with ground sesame and garlic and served on a round of toast), Scrambled Eggs with a Caviar Garnish (very light and tasty) in a pastry cup, and Spinach and Cheese Pirozhki (an explosion of goodness in a triangular dumpling). Having brought your appetite, you choose a side of the Home Made Potato Chips, served with a dip made from Crème Fraîche and (you guessed it) caviar.

You notice a red wine on the list from Georgian Russia, but your waitress advises you that it is sweet, so you choose a crisp Macon Pierreclos 2009 Chardonnay which adds just the right sparkle to your meal.

Now, since you’re feeling a little full, you choose the Strawberries with a Dark Chocolate dipping sauce and a cup of Verbena Tea and you are James Bond in a little secret hideaway, far from New York – possibly with a gorgeous dining companion. This is the Pravda (Truth) experience.