Thursday, November 29, 2012

TCM TiVo Alert for December 1-7

December 1 – December 7

ANNIE HALL (December 1, 6:15 pm): The movie that changed it all for Woody Allen, its lead actor, director, and co-writer - and his fans. While Allen's previous films weren't conventional comedies, the main focus was on being funny; and so many of them were. There are still great comedic scenes in Annie Hall, but this 1977 film is far more serious than anything Allen ever made to that point. Stardust Memories (1980) brilliantly spoofs this with Allen, playing filmmaker Sandy Bates (a character similar to him), being told by fans that they prefer his "earlier, funnier movies." In Annie Hall, Allen plays Alvy Singer, a comedian who falls in love with the movie's title character (Diane Keaton). Hall is fun-loving, carefree and a bit naive. Singer is a neurotic intellectual (yeah, nearly all of Allen's characters are neurotic intellectuals), and the two fall in love. But Singer wants to change Hall - including buying her books about death - and make her smarter. The love affair falls apart, but the film delivers some great laughs and an insightful analysis of relationships. The characters break the "fourth wall" to deliver some of the movie's best lines, including the opening with Singer saying, “There’s an old joke. Two elderly women are at a Catskill Mountain resort, and one of them says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says, ‘Yeah, I know, and such small portions.’ Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life – full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.”

HANG 'EM HIGH (December 2, 6:00 pm): When it comes to great cutting-edge Westerns, Clint Eastwood has made more than anyone. Many of them have received the praise they deserve including The "Man with No Name" trilogy of A Fistful of DollarsFor a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly as well as High Plains DrifterThe Outlaw Josey Wales, and Unforgiven. To me, 1968's Hang 'Em High belongs in the same class as those. Eastwood is Jed Cooper, who is wrongly accused by a posse (including Bruce Dern, Ed Begley Sr. and Alan Hale Jr., the Skipper on Gilligan's Island) of killing a man and stealing his cattle. The posse hangs Cooper, but that doesn't kill him - even though it leaves him with a nasty scar around his neck. As Eastwood characters are prone to do, Cooper wants revenge. But this one has a twist. Cooper, who was previously a lawman, becomes a federal marshal. He comes across a member of the posse and tries to arrest him, but ends up having to shoot (and of course, kill) him when he reaches for his gun. Slowly, he comes across everyone in the posse. Cooper wants to see all of them brought to justice, but because that would lead to being hanged, none of them are terribly interested in the proposition. There are plenty of shootouts and great action scenes, but the best part of the film is Cooper's struggle to uphold the law while resisting his strong urge to seek revenge. This was Eastwood's first film after the "Man with No Name" trilogy. Yeah, he immediately did another Western, but the character of Cooper is far more complex than his roles in the trilogy.

NIGHT AND THE CITY (December 4, 4:00 am): The ungodly hour makes this one that should be recorded. And it will be worth the effort, for this is a brilliant noir by director Jules Dassin concerning the travails of a low-life hustler (Richard Widmark) who tries breaking in to the pro wrestling business. Brilliant performances abound in this dark look at the underbelly of London life and Widmark is served well be a great supporting cast, including Gene Tierney, Herbert Lom and Mike Mazurki. It was remade as a boxing noir of sorts with Robert DeNiro and Jessica Lange in 1992, but ignore that – this is the one to see.

BABY FACE (December 6, 9:45 am): Here it is, the most notorious Pre-code film of ‘em all. See Barbara Stanwyck! See Barbara get pimped out by her own father! See Barbara get felt up on screen! See Barbara hit the bricks to New York and sleep her way to the top with no bones being made about it! And it was made not in 1993, but 1933!! Not only does that make it all the more amazing, but also a film not to be missed!

WE DISAGREE ON . . . ALL THE MARBLES (December 7, 3:45 am)

ED: B-. Let’s begin the conversation by stating that this is far from the best sports movies ever made. In other words, Hoosiers it’s not. As a comedy, it can’t compare to Major League. But – it does have a certain charm of its own, and for what it is it’s quite watchable, especially if one likes to look at pretty girls, which are in abundance here, and not just the leads Laurene Landon and Vicki Frederick. Peter Falk is the girls’ shady manager and acquits himself well. This is the last film directed by the great Robert Aldrich and he financed it himself as an independent production. Also of note is that the late, great Mildred Burke trained Frederick and Landon for their roles, and that the Geishas, the Japanese team, are not The Jumping Bomb Angels, as has been erroneously reported by the IMDB database. They are Ayumi (Jumbo) Hori and Taemi (Mimi) Hagiwara, both major stars in Japanese women’s wrestling. It's enjoyable, but take it for what it is.

DAVID: D+. A more appropriate letter grade for this film is a combo: T&A. You'll see plenty of both. This 1981 movie treats wrestling as if it's real, and not a "work," a term used in the business to politely say that it's staged. The women's tag-team, known as the California Dolls, wrestle at crappy shows in crappy towns on their way to headlining a televised women's tag-team match in Las Vegas. I guess they're climbing some sort of ladder of contenders. But professional wrestling doesn't work that way. The premise of the movie is flimsy at best, and Peter Falk, the team's manager, as the love interest of one of the Dolls is quite a stretch. Some of the wrestling sequences are decent, but unrealistic. Falk tells the ladies to practice sunset flips, which is how they win the match in Vegas (as if you couldn't see that ending coming 20 minutes into the movie). For those not familiar with wrestling, a sunset flip is when a wrestler jumps over another prone wrestler bent over at the waist, dropping that person flat on the mat with the first wrestler's legs holding down the shoulders for the three count. A disclaimer: I was co-editor and co-publisher of Wrestling Perspective, a wrestling trade publication that existed from 1990 to 2007, and Ed was its senior writer and a brilliant wrestling historian. By 1981, the sunset flip was fading into the sunset as a finisher. It hasn't been used in wrestling that often during the past 30 years. Also, to get the audience to support his team, Falk gets the crowd to sing, "Oh, You Beautiful Doll," a 1911 ragtime song that hardly anyone in 1981 would recognize. And if they did, they wouldn't know more than the first two lines. Yet the entire crowd at the big Vegas match knows and sings all the lyrics. There aren't many quality wrestling films - there's The Wrestler (2008) and some incredible documentaries - so it shouldn't come as a shock that ...All the Marbles is a really bad movie.

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

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Life of Pi - 3D

Dinner and a Movie

Life of a Pi Nawabi

By Steve Herte

Life of Pi - 3D (Fox 2000 Pictures/Haishang Films, 2012) – Director: Ang Lee. Starring Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Tabu, Adil Hussain, and Ayush Tandon.

Director Ang Lee once again proves his powers as a force of nature when it comes to modern film. Life of Pi is an adventure fantasy that takes the audience through the travails of being adrift at sea with a Bengal tiger, a zebra with a broken leg, an orangutan and a hyena – or was it four desperate people trying to survive a shipwreck – and the spiritual moments that can insinuate themselves into the situation so that the line blurs between reality and fantasy.

The story begins when Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) is visited by his good friend (Rafe Spall), who wants to write the book about his survival of the wreck of the Japanese cargo ship in the Pacific Ocean. The tale begins in Pondicherry, India, when a second son is born to Santosh and Gita Patel (Adil Hussain and Tabu). Santosh is a man who loves swimming pools (and is curiously adapted to swimming from birth). He is encouraged to experience the crystal waters of a swimming pool in France and is so impressed that he names his son “Piscine,” the French word for a swimming pool.

Five-year-old Pi (Gautam Belur) goes through multiple embarrassments from his schoolmates and teachers because of the sound of his name (easily pronounced “pissing”). Now 11 and played by Ayush Tandon, he abbreviates his name to Pi (as in the mathematical non-repeating decimal) and goes to great lengths to gain respect. That includes working out the decimal of pi to hundreds of places, thus filling several blackboards to cheers from his schoolmates.

Pi, though born into the Hindu faith, becomes interested in other religions. On a dare from his older brother Ravi (Mohd Abbas Kaleeli), he drinks the holy water from a font in the local Catholic Church and meets the pastor (Andrea DiStefano), who proffers a glass of water and discusses the mysteries of Catholicism with him. Next he visits a mosque and takes up Muslim ways as well as dabbling in the Kabbalah. As he puts it, “There are 3,000 gods in Hinduism. It’s impossible not to meet up with a few of them, and I wanted to meet Jesus and Allah.”

His family owns a zoo in Pondicherry and life seems great until the finances outweigh the income from ticket sales and Pi’s father decides to move the family and the zoo animals to Canada by boat. So like a Noah’s Ark they sail away - just, coincidentally when Pi (now played by Suraj Sharma) has met Anandi (Shravanthi Sainath), the possible love of his life - on the long journey across the ocean.

Inevitably, a devastating storm happens in transit and Pi goes up from the sleeping quarters below decks to the topmost deck to see the lightning, though he can barely stand on the pitching ship decks. Alarms begin to sound and red lights flash and he knows something bad has happened. So he runs down to where his family would be, but it’s already flooded and he’s passed by a zebra swimming for its life. He returns to the deck and the lifeboats are being lowered. A man (maybe his father) tosses him into one to help with the pulleys but the zebra has its own idea. It leaps into the boat causing the pulleys to give way and the boat drops to the ocean below.

Thus starts the great adventure. After witnessing the sinking of the ship, Pi must learn how to survive in a lifeboat with a zebra that broke a leg leaping into the boat, an orangutan named “Orange Juice” who floats over on a raft of bananas, a hyena that emerges from under the tarp on the bow and tries repeatedly to eat the zebra and lastly, “Richard Parker” the Bengal tiger who also emerges from the tarp (one has to wonder what he and the hyena were doing under there). Eventually, the hyena kills both the zebra and the orangutan and the tiger kills the hyena. Pi builds a raft out of oars and flotation devices connected to the boat by a rope and the odd travel companions have to survive together while safely apart.

Pi learns many things from the survival booklet that is stowed on the lifeboat, including strangely enough, how to tame a dangerous wild animal. The computer graphically produced tiger is so well done that the audience believes it is interacting with Pi from its magical appearance until the end of the film and the 3D effects accent this incredible reality. Many strange and surreal scenes occur during the weeks aboard the lifeboat/raft combination. There is a flock of flying fish followed by a leaping tuna (Pi wins the tuna from the tiger), a night scene with a galaxy of glowing organisms lighting up the water followed by the breaching of an enormous humpback whale, a landing on a carnivorous island populated by flocks of thousands of meerkats (more than there is in the whole of Africa) and another huge ocean storm that leaves both Pi and the tiger near death. The boat grounds on the sands of Mexico, the tiger alights on the sand and heads into the jungle without looking back and Pi is rescued while crying hysterically for his lost shipmate.

Later, investigators (James Saito and Jun Naito) from the Japanese company insuring the cargo ship question Pi about his survival, trying to determine how the ship sank. They will not accept his fantastic tale with the tiger, so he makes up a completely different story about four human survivors (including his mother), who eventually kill each other until he is the only one left. The investigators are not satisfied but they leave him alone.

Back in the present, the writer agrees that he prefers the tiger story and meets Pi’s new wife and sons and a happy ending is achieved. Life of Pi is a deeply spiritual movie asking questions about many religions and the nature of God, his relationship with man and the elements. Sharma’s acting is superb and his commitment to the role is commendable, considering he had to learn how to swim to perform it, build his bodily strength up and then lose weight to make his part believable. The photography and special effects are dazzlingly beautiful. The 3D is not intrusive or contrived, with only a hummingbird hovers over the audience in the beginning. It’s one of those movies that beg repeat viewings to comprehend all the life lessons it teaches and will be a major contender in the next Academy Awards ceremony. 

Rating: 5 out of 5 Martini glasses.

Chote Nawab
115 Lexington Avenue (26th/27th), New York City

The glassed-in corner property on 27th Street and Lexington Avenue with its sleek white lettering on charcoal gray banner across the top greets you to an adventure in Indian cuisine. In this section of Manhattan there are several Indian restaurants to choose from, being an enclave, as well as Thai and Afghan. Chote Nawab looks bigger on the outside than it is inside because the tables are larger than one would expect. I learned this when I was led to a table just past the good-sized bar and next to the entrance to the kitchen, which when disengaged from the adjacent table where a couple were seated proved to be an obstacle for the servers as well as patrons trying to get to and from the back six tables. Needless to say I gradually slid it back into position (especially when my waiter bumped it hard enough to nearly topple my cocktail).

Speaking of cocktails, the list at Chote Nawab is intriguing and I chose a drink called Kamasutra – gin, vodka and rum with fresh strawberries and mango – a delicious (and pretty) beginning garnished with a slice of lime. While sipping my drink and viewing the menu I noticed the unusual décor in the rear of the restaurant. The booths appeared to be separated by chains of bluish-gray hoops and circles while garish red, yellow and blue ceramic bowls hung on the wall over them. Literally translated the name means “Little Prince” and Chef Shiva Natarajan is referring to the Nawabs of Lucknow, India, whose kitchens were known for their kebabs.

The menu has Shuruvat (appetizers) both meat and vegetable, kebabs, Chicken, Seafood, Lamb/Goat, Vegetable, and Biryani (rice) main courses as well as Rotiyan (breads), sides, desserts and drinks. Knowing about the special way the kebabs are prepared I ordered the Kebab Peshkash, a smaller selection (it can be a main course) of seven kebabs: Chicken (four ways) Methi Malai (in a fenugreek marinade), Haryali (in a green masala), Malai Tikka (in a creamy marinade and grilled) and Nawabi Chicken Tikka, Kakori Kebab (ground lamb rolls with house blend spices), Jhinga Malai Kebab (Shrimp in creamy marinade and grilled) and lastly Adrak Ke Panje (a lamb chop spiced and grilled). They were accompanied by ramekins of garlic raita and mint chutney. All were tender and very flavorful, not too spicy and not too dry. I was hard pressed to decide which I liked better (I gravitate to the Kakori Kebabs) but I finished them all.

While enjoying the appetizer, my waiter brought the wine, a delightful Argentinean Malbec from Trumpeter vineyards – a full bodied wine able to stand up to the Indian spices. The choice of wines is limited, but sure to please anyone’s tastes and very affordable. The thin flat crisp breads delivered to the table sided with onion chutney, a tomato chutney and a tamarind chutney provided the perfect palate cleanser before the main course.

Chote Nawab offers several unique main courses, but the one that attracted me was the Kori Gassi – a beautiful pumpkin-colored chicken curry from Mangalore with homemade spices. My waiter asked me how I would like it, mild, medium or spicy. I asked him to have it made the way it is supposed to be made, the way a Mangalorean would expect it to be made. It was wonderful and surprisingly not too spicy. With the basmati rice and Peshwari Nan (a Pakistani bread filled with fruits and nuts), it was transporting.

I hope all of my Indian friends will forgive me, but when a dessert selection is small I will always (and did) choose Gulab Jamun (malted milk balls in honey/rose-water sauce), even though I know it to be a common street food in India. Also, after 125 Indian restaurants, nothing finishes a big meal like Masala Chai (spiced tea), which I ordered again. Chote Nawab is one of the most diverse Indian restaurants I have been to because it introduces dishes I have not tried. Therefore, a return trip is definitely in the future.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Billy Jack Goes to Washington

Train Wreck Cinema

By David Skolnick

Billy Jack Goes to Washington (Taylor-Laughlin, 1977) – Director: Tom Laughlin. Starring Tom Laughlin, Delores Taylor, E.G. Marshall, Teresa Laughlin, and Pat O’Brien.

The back of this film’s DVD case, from 2000, calls it: “The Most Dangerous Billy Jack of All!!”

It goes on to contend: “Even though it was made during our nation’s bicentennial, it’s as if the story was ripped from today’s headlines. Corruption, scandal, intrigue, murder…they’re all in this explosive expose Washington found so dangerous it didn’t want the movie released. And it never has been…until now!”

It also states: “Like Billy Jack, this film has survived the powers fighting to destroy it and is finally being released to expose the truth and win America back!”

OK, let’s pause a moment. This film, the fourth and definitely the worst of the Billy Jack movies, finished production in 1976, and played in very few theaters in 1977. But I doubt the limited release had much to do with Washington finding it “so dangerous.” The likely reason is it is unbelievably bad.

The mid-1970s gave us many excellent government corruption/conspiracy films such as The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, The Day of the Jackal and All the President’s MenThe key difference between those films and Billy Jack Goes to Washington is the latter is awful.

As he did with Billy Jack (1971) and The Trial of Billy Jack (1974), Laughlin had to work out distribution deals for this movie with studios and theater owners, and he never endeared himself to the Hollywood establishment.

When he peddled this terrible film, which originally ran for 2 hours and 35 minutes, no one in their right mind wanted to show a dialogue-heavy Billy Jack movie without the franchise’s main redeeming value – the fight scenes. This film has one, and it is ridiculous. (I’ll make fun of it later.)

Laughlin also had to borrow money to finish the film, and when he tried to distribute it, his creditors, business associates and others filed lawsuits, making it a greater challenge to have it shown, according to "The Golden Turkey Awards" book. The book selected this movie as "The Worst Film You Never Saw."

Billy Jack Goes to Washington is largely a remake of the 1939 classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, directed by Frank Capra and starring James Stewart and Jean Arthur. Both are about a little guy somehow getting appointed to a vacant seat in the U.S. Senate for a short period of time, with political bosses not expecting them to make any waves. Of course both end up exposing government corruption.

One difference between the two films is Laughlin and his wife, Taylor, aren’t Stewart and Arthur. Frank Capra Jr., a producer of Billy Jack Goes to Washington, had the film rights to his father’s classic and for some reason thought Laughlin would do it justice. Junior certainly didn’t have the same eye for talent as his dad.

The DVD version eliminates about 40 minutes from the original, cut by Laughlin, who owns the film’s rights. Even he can’t stand the full-length original version.

None of the Billy Jack films – the first was The Born Losers (1967) – will ever be mistaken for cinematic classics. But the first two and The Trial to a much lesser extent (primarily because the latter is 2-hours-and-50-minutes long) are enjoyable to watch for the action and fight scenes.

In the first three Billy Jack films, the “half-breed” Indian/former Green Beret/martial-art master who wears an awesome-looking black hat (he didn't wear "The Hat" in The Born Losers) stands up for the little guy while kicking the butts of motorcycle gang members, bigots, racists and generally bad people by himself. He usually does this after he takes off his cowboy boots so he can beat them up barefoot style. This is all done in the names of peace and justice.

In the fourth Billy Jack movie, we’re told a U.S. senator from an unnamed state with top-secret information and apparently more power than federal agencies in charge of such things has given the “green light” to the increased development and production of nuclear weapons and power. He then drops dead. The junior senator (played by Marshall) from the same unnamed state is just as evil as the dead guy and is finalizing a big deal to build a nuclear power plant in said unnamed state.

The governor of the unnamed state has to quickly replace the dead U.S. senator. He needs to find someone naïve about government and this evil nuclear scheme who can easily be controlled. Sen. John Paine (Marshall) and a nuclear power plant lobbyist recommend a candidate. But the governor decides it should be Billy Jack much to chagrin of the senator and the lobbyist. Yeah, it’s not a logical choice. Jack has spent three movies fighting The Man, including spending time in prison for murder. But the gov gives Jack a pardon and says what harm can he do in the U.S. Senate for a couple of months as a temporary replacement?

After talking it over with his Indian grandfather, Jack accepts the position. He has no idea what to do in the Senate. With the help of girlfriend Jean Roberts (played by Taylor), a D.C. secretary (Lucie Arnaz in her first film) and some hippie/left-wing Freedom School students, they decide to introduce a bill to create a National Children’s Camp on the exact site as the secret nuclear power plant.

(There’s a subplot with a greedy Washington staffer who has information on the top-secret nuclear power plant getting murdered when trying to shakedown various political big-wigs. He is Arnaz’s boyfriend, and after he’s killed, she wants to get out of town - fast. Don’t worry, she returns to help Billy.)

With Billy unwilling to play ball on the nuclear bill, it’s time to take care of him. We get the one fight scene in the movie. Carol, a girl from the Freedom School (played by Teresa Laughlin, the real-life daughter of Laughlin and Taylor), is followed by a black guy with bad intentions. Roberts finds out and so does Jack. Roberts, a pacifist in two other Billy Jack films, suddenly turns ninja and she and Jack beat up a group of black guys carrying switchblades. Even though they’re black, Billy lets us know they must be working for The Man and he’s sorry he has to beat them up. He actually says, “Kunta Kinte would turn over in his grave if he saw you hired out to The Man like this.

After the beat-down, we later get Laughlin doing his Mr. Smith filibuster scene with Pat O’Brien in one of his last film roles as the Senate president. Jack collapses and Paine, who earlier in the film calls for Billy’s expulsion from the Senate, finally confesses to his evil deeds.

Cue the happy ending and Teresa Laughlin does her version of “One Tin Soldier” over the credits.

Laughlin, who also wrote the film, gets to play hero again and show how one man can change the system. Despite the fight scene, Jack is praised by Roberts for beating the corrupt politicians with his words and not his fists and feet. “You did it. No matter what anybody says about you now, you did it. And you didn’t have to even once take off your boots,” she proudly tells Jack.

If you’re a Billy Jack fan and have only heard of this film, you should see it just to say, “Wow, I can’t believe that’s an actual film.” If you’ve never heard of Billy Jack, see the 1971 film and if you're feeling adventurous, watch all of them. You can get the four films on one DVD.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Global Kitchen

Dinner and an Exhibit

Bodrum Kitchen

By Steve Herte

Global Kitchen: A new exhibit at The American Museum of Natural History
79th Street and Central Park West, New York City

One of the privileges of membership in this great museum is being invited to previews of new exhibits before the general public. It is a chance to meet fellow members and participate in a reception featuring wine and light snacks as well as view the exhibit at a more leisurely pace.

Global Kitchen teaches the history of agriculture, food preparation, ethnic cuisine through the ages, and the way people use and abuse food. The problem of obesity is addressed as well as nutritional needs. The problem of how to feed a growing world population is discussed and possible solutions proffered. I had no idea how large a cassava root was. Tied into this part is a dramatic Plexiglas tower filled with food products (only representations, not real) to demonstrate the rate at which food is being wasted. A geodesic dome containing a spiraling garden suggests a solution to urban nourishment.

As you wind your way through the exhibit, you get to smell various cooking scents at the press of a button such as Lemon, Lavender, Garlic, Cinnamon, Fennel, and various herbs. There is a pool-table-sized flat touch screen on which you can prepare a virtual meal by following the prompts in the recipe.

In a glass-enclosed room you may try selected food (we had apple cubes on tooth picks). Taste buds are described and the five tastes – sweet, salty, sour, savory and bitter – are discussed. Also, the experience of flavor is dictated by all five senses per several displays such as what your mind may interpret the flavor of a wine might be just by the color. A plate of food in all wrong colors (the T-bone steak is blue) further demonstrates this. I had no idea that it takes 340 different molecules to create the flavor of “steak.”

You can stroll through an old Middle-Eastern open market (might be Persia) and view the dining styles of Japan, Imperial Rome, and Victorian Europe through the aid of dioramas set into niches. The various tools used throughout the world for food preparation are on display as well as cookbooks in many languages. There are informative videos to watch at both ends of the exhibit with seats shaped like vegetables.

I applaud the museum on this exhibit for two reasons. It is a serious, well-thought-out and planned display meant to educate and inform. Second, it is not for children. The topics are mature and intend to enlighten and increase awareness of the place food has in the life of this planet.

Bodrum Mediterranean Restaurant
584 Amsterdam Avenue (88th/89th), New York City

As you pass through the “New York airlock” (an artificial extension of the front door to keep cold out and air-conditioning in) you find yourself in the middle of the single room facing the fiery semi-circle that is the brick oven. The hostess leads you to a table by a wall and you notice the cherry wood slatted ceiling and matching windows to the street. A tapestry hangs on the far wall above a mirror looking like a negative photo of a forest glade. The sconces providing some of the light are silhouettes of slender women holding large candles over leaping dolphins while spots set into the ceiling slats bath the room in a soft glow.

As soon as I was seated the bread man arrived and placed two slices of fresh Turkish bread on my plate (this man was serious about his job – if he couldn’t find your bread plate, he made sure you had one.) My waiter Jahmeek presented me with the menu (a single laminated card), the wine list and the cocktail and beer menu. Even though they had my favorite German wheat beer (Weihenstefan) I chose the Pomegranate Martini which turned out to be very nice.

The choices on the menu are Mezze (special first courses), Soups and Salads, Appetizers, Main Courses, Kebabs and Sides. There is also a menu for their brick-oven pizzas. I chose the Red Lentil Soup (a turnip-colored almost-purée of lentils and potatoes, steaming hot and delicately spiced with bread croutons) and the Grilled Haloumi (a grilled cheese dish in a vinegary sauce with diced tomatoes and vegetables). Both were excellent. My main course was Turkish Braised Lamb Shank (slow cooked in tomato sauce and served with Israeli cous-cous with pine nuts, raisins and dill). It fell off the bone at the touch of a fork and became rapture in the mouth. Israeli cous-cous has larger grains than other types, almost like a very small pasta and just as fun to eat.

Since they served my favorite Turkish red wine (Kavaklidere 2007) by the glass, there was no decision to make, although there were several other wines. At this point I couldn’t help but notice the dishes the two ladies to my left were having and the enjoyment they both expressed. One had the Stuffed Cabbage (ground lamb, rice and fresh herbs wrapped in steamed cabbage, served with yoghurt and tomato sauce). The other was cooing over her Beyti Kebab (ground lamb with herbs, lightly spiced, - she said it was spicy - wrapped in lavash bread, topped with creamy yoghurt and tomato sauce and served with red onions, sumac and arugula salad). They both sound like a second visit to me.

The ladies were too full for dessert, but not me. There was a Wild Strawberry Cake to enjoy. Imagine a light filo crust topped with dense almond paste, then a layer of vanilla gelato and crowned with glazed wild strawberries. I could have had a second piece and not hated myself. Of course one has to have sweet Turkish coffee with this, and a nice glass of Grand Marnier never hurts. Bodrum may be a small restaurant but they are really big on flavor and selection.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Anna Karenina

Dinner and a Movie

To Karenina and Beyond

By Steve Herte

Anna Karenina (StudioCanal, 2012) - Director: Joe Wright. Starring Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Matthew Macfadyen.

The year is 1874, the setting is St. Petersburg, Russia, a hulking steam engine caked with snow pulls its train of equally snow-covered cars into the station. The beautiful Anna steps down onto the low platform, looking for someone. She confronts a grotesque peasant and is startled before locating her husband, Aleksey Alexandrovich Karenin. The train chugs into motion and we hear women screaming. The scene changes to reveal the same peasant under the wheels of the train, dead. 

Thus begins the version of Leo Tolstoy’s magnum opus directed by Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice – 2005, Atonement – 2007, The Soloist – 2009, Hannah – 2011) and screenplay by Tom Stoppard. The story is set in 19th Century Russian high society. Karenin (Jude Law) is married to Anna (Keira Knightly), sister of Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) who is good friends with Karenin. Oblonsky has another good friend, a righteous farmer named Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) who is in love with high-society debutant, Kitty (Alicia Vikander) and he arranges their meeting. The meeting doesn’t go well and Kitty rejects Levin because she has her heart set on the dashing (and more than a slight bit effeminate) Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Vronsky, on the other hand, has fallen head over heels for Anna Karenina and seduces her into a scandalous affair (not that she protested too much).

Karenin tries to gloss over this impropriety many times but eventually, after Anna gives birth to a daughter by Vronsky (she already has a son by Karenin), he sees that not only she is being rejected by Russian society for her illicit actions, but he as well. He makes a divorce agreement with Anna that she can stay with Vronsky but her children must stay with him if they are to survive the ignominy. Anna becomes more and more unsettled with the arrangement, the accusing looks and gossipy whispers from society members when she’s in the room, and Vronsky’s own response (which she interprets as losing his love) that she throws herself under the same train we saw at the beginning of the film.

A tragedy? Maybe not completely. Subsequent to her rejection of Levin, Kitty is reunited with him through a second arranged meeting by Oblonsky. They play a parlor game consisting of arranging lettered blocks into words and communicate their feelings through it. The game ends when Levin reveals “I L Y” (I love you) and she agrees to be his wife.

Tolstoy wrote: “The French fashion of the parents arranging their children's future – was not accepted; it was condemned. The English fashion of the complete independence of girls was also not accepted, and not possible in Russian society. The Russian fashion of matchmaking by the officer of intermediate persons was for some reason considered disgraceful; it was ridiculed by everyone, and by the princess herself. But how girls were to be married, and how parents were to marry them, no one knew.” This seems to sum up the story beautifully. At two hours and 10 minutes, the movie condenses his tome fairly well.

The 2012 version of Anna Karenina is an extremely arty film featuring intense drama which is watered down in credibility by the sets. All scenes in St. Petersburg are in a theater (literally, there are balconies, a stage and catwalks above it for the “street” scenes). The gala balls and the ice rink are in the seat-less loges, the horse race goes across the stage like a vaudeville act, Karenin and Anna’s home is on-stage in front of the footlights. In contrast to this, all scenes in Levin’s life take place in the real world and the great outdoors – fields being mown by scythe-wielding men, lakes, trees and mountains. Whenever Anna wishes to visit her son Serhoza (who is only seen in bed until the end of the movie) she literally steps into a picture frame and becomes a museum artwork. There are numerous tableaus where all action stops around Anna to further isolate her. Even Oblosky’s office is a choreographed scene of men stamping and re-stamping documents and turning over meaningless pieces of paper.

The 1935 version starring Greta Garbo and Frederic March, and brilliantly directed by Clarence Brown, eclipses this one in talent, continuity and comprehensibility and does so in black and white. As for Academy Awards, the best this film can win would be Costume Design (quite elaborate in many cases), Choreography (the dance scenes are very impressive), Musical Score or Cinematography. The lead actor and actress will probably be nominated. 

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Martini glasses.

Prime & Beyond
90 East 10th Street (3rd/4th Avenues), New York City

Since my movie theater was in the East Village section of Manhattan, it gave me the opportunity to go “native” and make my 2,510th restaurant a Village steakhouse. Prime & Beyond is three steps down from the sidewalk behind an impressively heavy glass and steel door and a black velvet curtain. From there the décor is unremarkable, but definitely steakhouse. The tables are bare dark wood, preset with tall stemmed wine glasses and dark brown napkins wrapping the silverware and sitting in square white ceramic dishes. On the wall facing the bar are chalkboards describing where on a cow a cut of meat would be located, the difference between “wet” and “dry aging” and other steakhouse-related data. I sat at a table facing the door, anticipating the arrival of Mark, a former quartet member and main influence on my joining the Barbershop Society.

My waitress arrived with two glasses and a bottle of water, the wine and beer list (they do not have a full bar yet, having only arrived from Fort Lee, New Jersey, in 2011, where they were established in 2003) and the menus. After ordering and receiving a good-sized glass of Terroir Malbec, I considered the menu, noticing immediately that this restaurant would not only be my 85th steakhouse, but my 8th Korean restaurant – as the entire specialty dishes were Korean influenced. I was immediately intrigued.

After Mark arrived, and after getting caught-up on times and events since we last met, we ordered. Mark started with the Mixed Green Salad which arrived in an attractive bowl and proved to be a hearty portion. He enjoyed it. They were out of the Zesty Duck so my waitress recommended Pork Soo Yook, a new dish on the menu consisting of a tender fillet of pork breaded and stir fried in Korean spices and topped with a half red pepper. It was wonderful.

Then Mark had the Bulgogi Rice dish topped with tender slices of sirloin steak and vegetables and I ordered the Filet Mignon Stir-Fried Chop Steak. Both dishes were decent portions served on black wooden trays and sided by smaller bowls of Kim Chi (Korean national dish – spiced cabbage), Korean pickles, and a Tofu dish in a light sauce. Mark was delighted with his dish but kept wondering if we should have chopsticks. It did indeed look that way, but we never asked.

My dish was exactly how it was titled, the “Chop” steak was in inch-or-two-sized pieces, nicely browned, tender and juicy and served with stir-fried vegetables including grape tomatoes, green beans and onions. It smelled great and tasted even better. I had ordered an extra side dish of Grilled King Oyster Mushroom which arrived late, accompanied by apologies from our waitress, but was excellent. The three-inch length-wise slices of mushroom were perfectly cooked, earthy and buttery, and went well with everything else.

When dessert time came around Mark agreed to taste whatever I chose because he was too full. So, with advice from our waitress I chose the Melted Carmel Cheesecake flavored with Sea Salt. This sounds stranger than it was. The cheesecake was a whipped cheese topped with a thin layer of sweet caramel only accented by the salt enough to keep it from being cloyingly sweet. It was actually very good. Mark eschewed coffee or tea for just a cup of hot water. (Hey, to each his own.) I couldn’t resist the Oolong Tea or singing “Sip a little Oolong Tea!” (from the movie The Road to Hong Kong with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope) to the waitress. She smiled sweetly and brought the tea (but didn’t get the reference), which ended the meal perfectly. I can honestly say that this was my first time in a Korean restaurant where I truly enjoyed everything about the experience.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

TCM TiVo Alert for November 23-30

November 23 – November 30


STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (November 23, 10:00 am): Honestly, you can't go wrong with any of the Alfred Hitchcock-directed films being shown on November 23, but this is among my favorites. The premise is simple, but the plot, acting and directing of the movie makes it a classic. Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) wants his father dead. While on a train, he meets a stranger - tennis player Guy Haines (Farley Granger) with a similar dilemma. Haines wants to get rid of his wife so he can marry another woman. Anthony comes up with the idea that these two "strangers on a train" will do each other's dirty work and no one will suspect them. Haines brushes it aside, but when the psychotic Anthony kills Haines' wife, he expects his "co-conspirator" to respond in (not so) kind. The interaction between Walker and Granger, two highly underrated actors, in this film is outstanding. Hitch did a fantastic job - which he so often did - building tension and drama, and making a hell of a good movie. 

GREAT EXPECTATIONS (November 26, 12:00 am): How do you take a 400-page classic book and turn it into a great film? I don't know, but I imagine those working on the 1946 film adaption of Great Expectations, led by the skilled direction of David Lean, who co-wrote the screenplay, worked very hard to accomplish that goal. And what's more incredible is Lean - known for lengthy but excellent movies like Lawrence of ArabiaDoctor Zhivago and The Bridge on the River Kwai - did it in under two hours. The film is blessed with an outstanding cast, including John Mills, Alec Guinness, Martita Hunt, Jean Simmons and Valerie Hobson, and the screenplay is an excellent adaption of Charles Dickens' wonderful book. It's a delightful, entertaining film about a young orphan, Pip, who is taken to London at the expense of a mysterious benefactor who believes him to be a man with "great expectations." It's one of those movies that you enjoy watching from the beginning and leaves you with a smile of enjoyment and satisfaction when it's over. 


BRIGHTON ROCK (November 27, 6:00 pm): From the Boulting Brothers comes this excellent adaptation (by Terence Rattigan) of Graham Greene’s novel about a gang of lowlife hoods in Brighton, England and their teenaged leader, Pinkie Brown. It’s a sequel of sorts to Greene’s novel, This Gun for Sale (published in the U.S as This Gun for Hire and made into a film in 1941 starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake). It’s also the breakthrough role for young Richard Attenborough as Pinkie. It was the most popular film in England when released in 1947, but didn’t do that much business here under the title Young Scarface. It also scored an incredible 100% on the Rotten Tomatoes website, if you’re looking for any further reason to watch. Oh, by the way, it has one of the best – and most cynical – endings of any film.

TOUCHEZ PAS AU GRISBI (November 30, 11:15 pm): Translated as Do Not Touch the Loot, this is a wonderful film by Jacques Becker starring the great Jean Gabin (Max) and Rene Dary (Riton) as two old gangsters that have squirreled away 50-million francs in gold bars, enough to support them in retirement. Unfortunately, Riton’s girl friend has not only grown tired of him, she now has a new squeeze, the boss of a rival gang, to whom she spills the beans. The gang kidnaps Riton and Max learns that in order to get him back, he’s going to have to part with the gold bars. It’s a film that never lets up once it gets going, and takes the audience along for a wonderful ride through the prism of Max’s point of view, as he is bound by loyalty to save his partner. Worth seeing again and again.

WE DISAGREE ON . . . LORD OF THE FLIES (November 27, 8:00 am):

ED: A+. One of the hardest things for a filmmaker is to translate a classic novel to the screen. There are those who say it can’t be done, and perhaps in a sense they are right, for the imagination of the reader has already run the film, assembled the cast and designed themise en scene. Then there is the problem of the author. With some it’s difficult enough, but others, such as Henry James, concentrate so much on the inner life of their characters that a filmic representation is all but impossible. The only things that can be given are the bare bones of the story with the rest to be hopefully filled in by a screenwriter. Sometimes, as with The Heiress, it gets by. But with The Bostonians, it becomes a borefest. William Golding is also another tough nut to crack because his narrative is too well woven and laid out for a director to attempt an interpretation. But Peter Brooks does a nice job of capturing the essence of Golding’s novel by casting non-professional actors as the children marooned on the island. This, plus the use of grainy, black and white film, gives the film a Godard-like type of feeling, for instead of attempting an interpretation of the material, Brooks let’s the children themselves interpret the material simply by acting out their dilemma on the island. Reading the novel, it’s almost as if Golding had a movie version in mind while writing. Brooks is astute enough to realize that and let the children interpret it themselves, giving it both a sense of reality and surrealism, especially during the scenes where the two factions meet. Could he have done better with a solid script and professional actors? Watch the 1990 color version and you’ll get the answer: He couldn’t.

DAVID: C+. As I mentioned with Great Expectations, adapting a classic book to the silver screen isn’t easy. How many times have you read a book, loved it and then gone to see how it was mangled as a film? This 1963 film of William Golding's book about English school kids on a deserted island and its reflection on the dark side of humanity is fine, but certainly not outstanding. There are many scenes that just end as if someone editing the film decided to take scissors to the film. There's a risk in using amateur actors, particularly children, in movies. The leads are pretty good, but the supporting cast is terrible. They don't seem to know the few lines they have, and their delivery is awful. Also, problems with the sound on the movie locations forced the voices to be dubbed thus making portions of the film's audio out of sync with the video. The film is only 92 minutes long yet there are some scenes that come across as simply wasting time. While it's too late to change it, this is a movie that really should have been in color and not black-and-white. 

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