Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Croods 3D

Dinner and a Movie

Of Food and Croods

By Steve Herte 

I would not call myself either impulsive or spontaneous. I like planned events that work out to the second so going to a restaurant without reservations is outside my comfort zone, but that's exactly what I did. The movie had a deeper effect than I thought. The female lead, Eep, looked so much like Helene I couldn't take my eyes off her - right down to the big eyes, reddish hair and voice (maybe a little higher pitched). Well, read on and enjoy!

The Croods 3D (DreamWorks 2013) Director: Kirk De Micco, Chris Sanders. Cast: Voices of Nicholas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Catherine Keener, Cloris Leachman, Clark Duke, Randy Thom, and Chris Sanders. Color, 3-D, 98 minutes.

DreamWorks has truly outdone itself with a movie that lives up to every hyper advertisement! The Croods is as visually beautiful (especially in 3D) as its plot and writing is imaginative and funny. The characters are drawn to be unusual and different but they are so well created and animated that the mind accepts them as real, right down to the last hair blowing in the breeze. There were no empty spaces or dead time in the entire one hour and thirty-eight minutes and there was always something new to see and wonder at.

The Croods are a cave family consisting of Grug (voiced by Cage) the father, Ugga (Keener) the mother, Eep (Stone) the daughter, Thunk (Duke) the half-witted son, Gran (Leachman), Uggas mother, and Sandy (Thom) the baby daughter. They’ve lived in the same cave for as long as Eep remembers and she’s had enough. She wants to explore other lands, see where all the light is coming from, and discover new things. But Grug, being the over-protective father, warns that everything new or exists beyond the cave is dangerous and even the story he tells (he only has one) describes what happens to the disobedient child who strays from the cave and “Dies!” (as he slaps a handful of red clay on the wall).

Eep cannot restrain herself. She sees a strange flickering light one night and leaves the cave to find its source and meets Guy (Reynolds), the only surviving member of his family – who met their untimely demise in a tar pit, we later learn – and she is both fascinated and attracted to him at once. Guy has discovered fire, something the Croods have never seen. When Eep first encounters him the 3D effect sends embers floating around the theater audience. Guy’s wearing a warthog skin complete with head and she thinks he’s a beast and attacks – until he removes the head. Later on she tells Gran that she thought he was a warthog but then he turned into a man and Gran tells her, “Usually it’s the other way around with men.”

Guy has a hard time making friends with the rest of the Croods, especially Grug who views him as a double threat. He’s taking his authority away as well as his teenage daughter. But gradually he wins over the whole family – and by the end of the movie, Grug too – and convinces them to follow him to the sun and the land of “tomorrow.” He tries to explain that the land is changing and they must make it to the twin peaks before all they are familiar with is destroyed (as an intro to the movie, the explanation is given that this is the time of continental drift on Earth and Pangaea is literally breaking up). Still, it’s not until they actually see their home cave destroyed that they agree to follow. This is also where actual science stops and we have to suspend our belief.

They travel through a myriad of topographies from jungles of carnivorous plants, through mazes of arroyos, to dry desert, to bayous, to extinct ocean floors (where Guy makes shoes for all of them because the coral is too sharp for their bare feet). They encounter flocks of carnivorous red birds, herds of tiny elephants, whales that walk on stumpy legs and a giant saber-toothed cat (for want of a better word – the fangs are protruding from the wrong jaw and he’s mostly robin’s egg blue and pink fur). There are bird-like creatures with two sets of wings like a dragonfly and leafy swimming beasts with long necks topped by elephant-like heads. Along the way he tells the Croods stories and teaches them what a joke is. Gradually they become more and more civilized.

The Croods is an extremely fanciful tale with completely believable characters and – dare I say it? – excellent acting jobs by an all-animated cast. I’ve always said that I’ve loved Cage more when I can’t see him and he does a remarkable job as Grug. Stone is the perfect rebellious teenager ready to take on all the adventure life can give. Even Guy’s clinging, long-armed simian sidekick Belt (Sanders) – you know him from the trailers saying “Dun, dun, DUN!” – is a wonderful endearing character. I heard the children in the audience laughing at the funny gags. The adults got the references to other films like Avatar, Journey 2 Mysterious Island, and several Bugs Bunny and Roadrunner parallels. It deserves the highest recommendation and is a must-see for the whole family. 

Rating: 5 out of 5 Martini glasses.

Saravanaa Bhavan
81 Lexington Avenue (corner of 26th Street), New York City

Nothing is more perfect for a Friday night dinner in Lent than an all-vegetarian restaurant, and for me an Indian vegetarian should be absolute heaven. I must admit, I didn’t know what exactly to expect from Saravanaa Bahavan because I’ve only been to one Indian vegetarian place before (Vatan, not too far away from SB) and it was lovely. May I preface this by saying I shy away from restaurants that are too brightly lit, serve “fast” food, and do not display their menu online. Nevertheless I needed to try Saravanaa Bhavan because of its Zagat ranking as the fifth most popular Indian restaurant in New York.

The company owning Saravanaa Bhavan has many worldwide locations including 10 in India proper, six in the U.S. (two in New York), two in Canada, two in England, one in Paris on the Gare du Nord, and more in the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, Singapore, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain (it’s all on their take-out menu, believe me). The décor is minimalist Indian, white walls, banquettes and chairs with pedestal tables and a couple of artfully carved partitions between windows to the street.

The menu is a single-laminated card with Appetizers, Dosas (thin crisp wheat and rice crepe-like creations), Uthappams (fluffier pancake-like dishes), Breads, Thalis (complete dinners), Specialties, Rice, and Sides on one side and the Wines and Drinks, and Desserts on the other. It was difficult to choose my dinner because 90 percent of the menu was completely new to me. I’ve had Dosas before but never seen a selection of 26 of them and there were nine different Uthappams. My waiter, who hails from Africa and only goes by the moniker MB, was very attentive bringing me a steel cup of water and took my drink order (they had an Indian beer I’ve never tried, 1947). The beer was smooth and refreshing as I considered my choices. I had read from a review that it was easy to order too much food here and I know Dosas are usually platter-sized.

I decided to go with an appetizer, a soup and a Dosa. From the wine list (which was much shorter than the Dosa list) I chose a 2010 Zinfandel from Double Decker vineyards, California. It was a screw-top bottle but you really cannot go wrong with a Zinfandel – especially with Indian food. It was great. The appetizer was Plantain Bajji – slices of plantain coated with a chickpea batter and deep fried, served with sambar, (a spicy sauce) and mint and cheese chutneys. It was served on a segmented steel platter that gleamed in the already bright light. When it arrived MB asked me if I wanted a knife to cut it (there was none on the table to begin with) and supplied the needed silverware. The dish was delicious as were the accompaniments. The spice in the mint chutney was a cumulative effect, though.

I had not finished my appetizer when the main course and soup came together. My fault, I didn’t warn MB that I’m a slow eater. Fortunately the table was large enough to accommodate both steel platters. The Dosa was a little over a foot square on the main part of the dish and the two chutneys occupied two of the three other segments. The Rasam (a spicy Indian lentil soup) was between them in the third segment sitting a steel ramekin of its own. The Onion Chillie (that’s how they spelled it) Rava Masala part of the Dosa (its stuffing) was served in a pile on top of the Dosa. 

There was no conceivable way to eat this dish with fork and knife so I tore a piece of the Dosa and used my fork to ladle some of the potato and peas-based stuffing into it and ate with my hands, dipping it into the chutneys. It was wonderful and delicious and again, spicy but not what I’m used to. In my favorite (now, unfortunately burnt to the ground) Indian restaurant the Dosa was served rolled, like a proper crepe with the filling throughout. It was easy to eat with fork and knife.

Saravanaa was doing an extremely lively business that night and I guess I should have been happy I got a table (they don’t take reservations) and I was but, being so close to the front door, the wintry breeze every time it opened chilled my dinner as well, so I ate a little faster than usual. Recapping: bright lights, no online menu, ‘fast’ food, all were covered.

MB was surprised I wanted dessert. I always love Indian desserts and there was one I’ve never tried called Rava Kesari. It was described as roasted sooji (semolina) sweetened with sugar, mixed with raisins and nuts and garnished with ghee (buffalo butter). What arrived were two fluffy carrot-colored, egg-shaped delights that tasted like melt-in-the-mouth Halwah. What a wonderful surprise! The Masala (spiced) tea was also excellent and made the proper way, with evaporated milk.

I found all the food and drink in Saravanaa Bhavan excellent – a little too spicy for people less used to it than myself – but authentic, honest Indian cuisine. I believe I will try their Upper East Side restaurant (which does take reservations) now that I know what I’m doing in the hopes that the lighting is more subdued and the speed of service is more relaxed.

As a final note, the car parked around the corner from the restaurant was more interesting than the ambiance.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

TCM TiVo Alert for April 1-7

April 1–April 7


BORN TO KILL (April 2, 2:30 pm): A gritty, dark, violent film noir that smacks you in the face a few times. Lawrence Tierney, a legit tough guy who excelled in playing those characters, is in top form as Sam Wilde, a psychopath who comes across as charming one minute and an out-of-control killer at even a perceived slight in this 1947 film from RKO. Claire Trevor is great as a heartless, conniving gold-digger, who gives Tierney a run for his money. Veteran character actress Esther Howard is a scene-stealer as the owner of the boarding house in which Trevor's character lives while getting a quickie divorce in Reno. 

MILDRED PIERCE (April 5, 8:00 pm): Joan Crawford is at her finest in this 1945 noir-soaper. She plays the title character whose goal in life is to spoil her oldest daughter (Ann Blyth, who is magnificent in this role) no matter the sacrifice. And what does Mildred get in return? A self-absorbed, selfish snob of a daughter who looks down at her mother and what she had to do in order to give her everything she desires. The film is told in flashbacks and the ending is fantastic.


STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (April 2, 8:00 pm): Alfred Hitchcock’s classic about an unwilling partnership between tennis pro Farley Granger and psychopath Robert Walker who meet accidentally on a train. Granger learns to his dismay that psychopaths do not joke, as his joking remark in not only taken seriously by Walker, but is used to seal a murder pact. If you haven’t seen this before, it’s a great thriller. If you have seen it, you’ll probably want to see it again.

RICHARD III (April 3, 1:15 am): This is probably the best of Olivier’s Shakespeare adaptations, though it’s not shown as often as Henry V and Hamlet. Olivier is in perfect form as the hunchbacked Richard, who murders his way to the throne, only to be defeated by Henry VII at the Battle of Bosworth Field. He receives sterling support from Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, and Claire Bloom, among others. As with all of Olivier’s Shakespeare adaptations, it’s a must see.

It rarely happens, but here's a week in which we are on the same page about nearly every movie. Of the films below, we've disagreed in the past on King Kong and Cool Hand Luke. So rather than a We Disagree, this week we give you...


ED: If Elia Kazan did not make A Face in the Crowd, I would point to this film as his masterpiece. It is certainly his most personal film, aside from America, America, in that he is Terry Malloy and this is a thinly veiled defense of his naming names at the HUAC hearings. It's actually an answer to Kazan's former friend Arthur Miller, who split with Kazan over the testimony and based part of his play about those times, The Crucible, on Kazan. Miller was also supposed to write the screenplay. Everyone in the film is wonderful; even those in small supporting roles give the film a most realistic feel. To me the film has the feeling of a docudrama, it's so realistic. Screenwriter Budd Schulberg based his script on a series of articles written by Malcolm Johnson in 1948 for the New York Sun detailing the crime and corruption on the New York docks. This film is so good I actually liked Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy. (I'm not a Brando fan.) This film is a must for anyone that calls him or herself a film fanatic. In fact one can't use the term if he or she never viewed this film.

DAVID: There is so much to enjoy and admire about this 1954 film. The story is complex yet simple - the struggle facing Terry Malloy as to whether he should do the right thing or the smart thing, and the repercussions that decision has on him, his brother, other longshoremen and those living near the dock. The acting is brilliant with Marlon Brando at his best and incredible performances by the supporting cast, in particular, Lee J. Cobb and Rod Steiger. A Face in the Crowd is a groundbreaking film, but On the Waterfront is my favorite movie directed by Elia Kazan. The movie features two of cinema's greatest scenes; both toward the end. The first has a desperate Charley (Steiger) begging his brother Terry (Brando) to not testify against union boss Johnny Friendly (Cobb). Terry, a promising boxer years ago who threw a fight at the request of Charley because Friendly bet against him, is confused and disillusioned by always listening to his brother. This gives us the iconic quote, "I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody instead of a bum, which is what I am." The other is Terry, beaten and bloodied by Friendly's goons for testifying against the union boss, still standing with the other longshoreman, who finally side with Terry thus breaking the stranglehold Friendly has over them. The film takes you on a roller-coaster of emotions - anger, joy, hostility, frustration, sympathy, sadness and happiness. It's rare for a movie to not only do that, but do it exceptionally well.

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

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Olympus Has Fallen

Olympus Has Fallen: This Generation’s Die Hard

By Jon Gallagher

Olympus Has Fallen (Millennium Films, 2013) Director: Antoine Fuqua. Cast: Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Finley Jacobsen, Dylan McDermott, Rick Yune, Angela Bassett, and Melissa Leo. Color, 120 minutes.

When I decided to go check out this movie, I figured I could write the review before I even got in the car to go. In fact, I had pretty much just decided to use the review for A Good Day to Die Hard and just change the names of the characters. You know, “things blow up, there’s some shooting, and more things blow up.” I’m lazy like that.

Instead, I was shocked to find myself in a theater where I was actually enjoying the movie, waiting for that moment when everything fell apart. It never did.

Having said that, I need to throw in a few disclaimers. First of all, this is pure fantasy. What happens in the movie could not ever happen in real life. If you’re a stickler for things like that, you’ll probably be disappointed. However, if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief for a couple hours like I did, then I think you’ll be as entertained as I was. Also, you need to accept that unless a character has been dismembered, he may not be as injured as he first appears to be.

The movie actually has a plot. It opens with President Benjamin Archer (Eckhart) and family leaving Camp David on a snowy night for a Christmas party at a billionaire’s house. On a bridge, The Beast (the super-armored presidential limousine) slides out of control and perches itself half on, half off a bridge.  Secret Service Agent Mike Banning (Butler) races to the president’s and first lady’s aid, and manages to pull the president to safety before the car topples over the bridge, sending Mrs. Archer to her death.

Six months later, the president is still recovering from the traumatic experience, as is his young son (Jacobsen), who was riding in a separate car and witnessed his mother’s death. Banning has been taken off the presidential detail, not because he did anything wrong, but more because he reminds the president of that horrible night. The White House is set to welcome a contingent from Korea for talks when all hell breaks loose.

With the Korean diplomats in the White House already, a plane takes aim at Washington. Disguised as an Air Force transport, the plane, piloted by Koreans, begins shooting the two real Air Force jets that intercept it, civilians on the street, the roof of the White House, and then crash lands on the South Lawn just after taking off the top part of the Washington Monument. A well-orchestrated siege on the Executive Mansion begins and before long, Korean terrorists have control of the building.

In the meantime, inside the White House, Secret Service agents grab the president and his guests, and shuttle them off to safety in the “Bunker,” an underground safe haven for the president that’s built to be impenetrable, even by nuclear war. Therein lies the problem because most of the Korean diplomats are terrorists themselves, and they now have, not just the president, but two other members of his cabinet who hold launch codes (or as it turns out, anti-launch codes) for America’s nuclear arsenal. All three codes must be entered at once and the terrorists begin to extract the codes from the three who have them. Naturally, the Bunker has all the computers needed for nuclear launches.

Banning is outside the White House when the shooting begins, but he uses his training as an ex-Army Ranger and his intimate knowledge of the White House to get inside and begin disrupting terrorist plans. He has to save the president’s son Connor, and the president himself.

The basic formula is that of the original Die Hard: one guy vs. a bunch of others who capture a stronghold with hostages (who they kill one at a time when they don’t get their way). There are plenty of twists along the way (they’re too good to give up here, even with a spoiler alert) and tension is kept high throughout. Even when there is a resolution of sorts, it’s always a small victory for the good guys before the bad guys come up with something more sinister. There’s a scene that resembles when John McLain meets Hans Gruber without knowing he’s the bad guy.

Also reminiscent of Die Hard is the apparent indestructibility of Banning. He gets the holy snot beat out of him, but somehow manages to keep going, much like McLain in Die Hard. If you can get by that small detail, it’s one heck of a ride. 

There isn’t a bad performance in the movie. Banning is particularly good, especially his American accent (Butler is an Australian). Freeman handles his role as Acting President (since the President and Vice President are both incapacitated and he’s next in line as Speaker of the House) well. My only complaint with him is not with his acting, but with the character itself. I might have made him a little less laid back, but I guess his easy-going nature was needed to balance out an already tension filled film. McDermott as Agent Forbes, and Yune as terrorist Kang, turn in performances worthy of mention too. Yune comes off being very believable as a sinister villain.

There are lots of things that blow up and there’s an excessive amount of blood. The folks in the CGI department worked overtime on this one.

I’m going to give this one an A+ as I was so entertained by the movie. Everyone around me did too as they cheered at the end. On the way out, I heard a lot of positive comments. I’ll definitely rent it when it comes out, and could be persuaded to purchase it as well. If it comes to the theatre across the street from me (yes, I literally live across from a theater), I’ll go again. Unlike the idiots who sat down the row from me, I won’t allow my eight-year-old to see it until she’s at least 16. By then, she won’t want to because of the blood and gore.

Since it’s been 25 years (are you serious?!?!) since Die Hard came out, many younger fans may have found a way not to have seen it. Olympus Has Fallen may well become this generation’s Die Hard.  I would count on Agent Banning making his appearance in another movie, especially if this one does well at the box office.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Animation Orchestration, Part 1

By Steve Herte

Those of us who grew up with Warner Brothers’ cartoons will proudly admit that our store of musical knowledge increased with our enjoyment and we didn’t even know it at the time. This prompted me to do some research and compile a spreadsheet of music used in various cartoons.

It became obvious that certain songs appeared in more than two features and this gave me the basis for a “top ten” of frequently used melodies.

10. At three iterations is “Jeepers Creepers” by Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer (1938). It was the title of a Bob Clampett cartoon in 1939 with the hapless Porky Pig as a cop who has to investigate “strange sounds” coming from a haunted house. The loony ghost inside sings the song with his own appropriate lyrics before driving Porky crazy. Then in 1941, Friz Freleng had an alley cat sing it to Porky as a part of his nightly repertoire in Notes to You. Most famously, though, in 1957 it provides Daffy Duck with a fast-paced tap dance in Show Biz Bugs, also directed by Freleng. Unfortunately poor Daffy only hears crickets from the audience for his efforts.

9. Also at three times is “On Moonlight Bay” by Percy Wenrich and Edward Madden (1912). Freleng’s Porky’s Duck Hunt used it first in 1937 as Porky and his dog unsuccessfully try to capture Daffy. Then in 1942, it arises again in Chuck Jones’ My Favorite Duck again with Porky and Daffy. And in 1948, it is a part of Sylvester the Cat’s repertoire in Back Alley Oproar, the remake of Notes to You, once again directed by Freleng. Porky is now kept awake by a different cat.

8. Again at three appearances is the “Sextet” from the opera Lucia di Lammermoor by Donizetti (1835). Freleng used it first in 1941 as six of the nine lives of the alley cat in Notes to You sing it as a finale. Then it comes up twice in 1948, in Friz’s remake, Back Alley Oproar, and in Jones’ Long Haired Hare. In the latter, Bugs Bunny is a major distraction to a practicing opera singer. It is also one of two cartoons where we hear, “Of course you know, this means war!”

7. “The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down,” by Cliff Friend and Dave Franklin (1937), with two cartoons and a full-length film to its credit. In 1938, we hear it sung by Daffy Duck in Daffy Duck and Egghead. Egghead would later evolve into Elmer Fudd. Then Robert McKimson used it in 1950 for Boobs in the Woods, where Porky and Daffy are once again paired. And in 1988, Rob Hoskins sings it in Who Framed Roger Rabbit to foil the weasels into laughing themselves to death.

6. “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle (1921), which also had three cartoons. Three different directors chose this song. Freleng was first in 1943 with Yankee Doodle Daffy, where Daffy puts on an entire show to promote his nephew Sleepy Lagoon to a more than reluctant Porky Pig. Then in 1948, Daffy Duck comes home drunk to Porky with an invisible kangaroo named Hymie and sings it substituting Hymie’s name in Robert McKimson’s Daffy Duck Slept Here. Most recently, Michigan J. Frog sings it in 1955 in One Froggy Evening, directed by Jones.

5. Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody # 2” (1847) takes the number five slot, having been featured four times. The first is in 1941 in Rhapsody in Rivets, where Freleng has a construction crew playing the piece while building a skyscraper. Then, Friz does it again in 1946 with Rhapsody Rabbit. Bugs Bunny is a concert pianist trying to play it while being interrupted by a mouse in the piano. Friz gives the song to Sylvester in 1948’s Back Alley Oproar and in 2012, we see Daffy Duck sing his own lyrics in 3D while Elmer tries to shoot him in his first one-duck show.

4. Raymond Scott’s “Powerhouse” (1937). The dual jazz melodies of this masterwork have become second nature to anyone familiar with the rat-race/assembly-line experience. It appears twice in 1943. Frank Tashlin uses it in Porky Pig’s Feat while Porky and Daffy desperately try to escape a hotel without paying. Then Clampett featured it in Falling Hare while Bugs Bunny grapples with a Gremlin who is gradually destroying the plane he’s flying. Next, Clampett used it for the assembly line aspect where the babies are physically riding on one in his 1946 Baby Bottleneck. Jones is last to play “Powerhouse” in Duck Dodgers in the 24 ½ Century (1953) as Daffy passes under a huge eye on his way to his director.

3. With four playings, the third spot belongs to “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby” by Warren and Mercer (1938). Jones makes it a backdrop to his 1939 Daffy Duck and the Dinosaur while a Jack Benny-like cave man hunts Daffy with his goofy Brontosaur (Apatosaurus now) “dog.” Then in 1940, Freleng has Elmer Fudd play John Alden delivering a singing telegram to an Edna Mae Oliver as Priscilla in The Hardship of Miles Standish. Then Robert McKimson gets on the bandwagon in 1952’s Muscle Tussle where Daffy Duck must win back his girlfriend from a muscular Southern duck. One Froggy Evening has Michigan J. Frog sing the song in 1955 under the direction of Jones.

2. “Largo al Factorum” by Rossini and Cesare Sterbini (1782), the familiar “Figaro” aria at five iterations. The same alley cat in Notes to You counts it as a part of his performance as does Sylvester in Back Alley Oproar (1948). Then again in 1948, Jones includes it in Long Haired Hare. It also appears in Jones’ 1950 cartoon Rabbit of Seville, with new lyrics supplied by Bugs and Elmer Fudd, and then Michigan J. Frog sings it in One Froggy Evening, also for Jones.

1. The undeniable number one is “Those Endearing Young Charms,” a 19th century Irish folksong with words by Thomas Moore, again with five airings. Every time this piece is played, someone is blown up. In 1944, Clampett blows up Private Snafu in the U.S. Army’s training cartoon, Booby Traps. Then when Yosemite Sam vows if elected to eliminate rabbits, Bugs Bunny runs against him in Ballot Box Bunny (1951), directed by Freleng. Sam gets blown up. Then Friz has Daffy Duck blown up in Show Biz Bugs (1957) at a xylophone he rigged for Bugs. McKimson was not to be outdone when Wile E. Coyote is blown up at a piano rigged for the Roadrunner in Rushing Roulette (1965). And lastly, in 1993 as a part of the Animaniacs TV show, Slappy Squirrel blows up Doug the Dog as she plays the xylophone intended for her in Slappy Goes Walnuts (1993). Jon McClenahan and Chris Brandt were co-directors of this cartoon.

Of course, this is still a work in progress and these 10 pieces of music are only ones I have counted so far. I probably missed some. But there is one song that beats them all because it was sung in every cartoon my favorite Warner Brothers character starred in. That character is none other than Foghorn Leghorn, and the song is Stephen Foster’s “Camptown Races” (1850) – Do Dah, Do Dah.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Upside Down

Dinner and a Movie

An Upside Down Tomato

By Steve Herte

Upside Down (Onyx Films, 2012) Director: Juan Solanas. Cast: Jim Sturgess, Kirsten Dunst, Timothy Spall, and James Kidnie. Color, 100 minutes.

“I love her, she loves me, but I don’t fit her society. Lord, have mercy on the boy from down in the Boondocks!”
-- “In the Boondocks,” Billy Joe Royal

This song lyric quite literally exemplifies the story behind Upside Down. In a dual planet system in a galaxy far away we meet Adam (Sturgess) who lives on the poverty-stricken planet while Dunst as Eden (I guess Eve would have been too obvious) lives on the rich planet right above him – in fact a little closer than the Earth is to the International Space Station. He can see the beautiful cities with their sparkling lights while he lives in a drab, almost lightless gray slum exploited for its oil by those in power above. The reason given for this astronomical anomaly is “double gravity.” Anything belonging to either planet is irresistibly drawn to its home world and anything transported from one world to the other (inverse material) builds up so much stress that it bursts into flame.

Adam and Eden meet as preadolescents when they both climb to the highest peak on their respective planets (which oddly enough, are dangerously close). They speak and fall in love with one upside down and one right side up. Adam tosses a rope up to Eden and, with it tied around her waist, pulls her down to his world. They connect for a few moments until her world sends a search and kill (it’s forbidden to travel between worlds) party. He almost has her lowered to her mountain peak when he’s wounded and the rope slips. Eden comes down hard, hits her head and gets amnesia. Ten years later Adam is still thinking of her and gets a job at Transworld, the only company that has built a skyscraper that joins the two planets. He uses his invention of a cosmetic facelift cream as leverage to become a part of the company. The secret ingredient is one he learned from his aunt, pink pollen from the pink bees. They create it by visiting flowers from both worlds. Anything made from this pink powder defies the gravity of both planets.

On floor zero of the Transworld skyscraper (the mid-point between upper and lower worlds) Adam meets Bob Boruchowitz (Spall) who sits in the cubicle directly above him - two huge entire workspaces exist above and below, each a mirror image of the other. Bob is also an innovator and helps Adam design an outfit that will allow him to visit the upper world, but only temporarily (remember the burst into flames bit?). Adam and Eden eventually reconnect (it’s tough, but she regains her memory) and they go on dates. One lunch is at the Dos Mundos restaurant, also at the Zero level where there are dance floors and tables both on the floor and the ceiling (depending on which world you belong on) with an enormous crystal chandelier in the center. All looks like it will work out until Bob is fired and he gives Adam his credentials and pass card and one day the pass card fails. Then in a flash, the authorities know that someone from “down below” is trespassing and the chase is on.

I’m relieved that Upside Down was not filmed in 3D because it would be dizzying to watch. The concept would be best described as Escher meets Salvador Dali. Mountaintop scenes look very surreal indeed with just a touch of Dr. Seuss. The opposing stage sets are remarkable and so beautifully created one would accept them as real despite the physical impossibility of their existence. The lighting and artwork involved in this film is breathtaking and the sound track majestic and sensitive at the same time. Dunst does a great job and Sturgess plays his part beautifully. The special effects elicited a “Wow” several times during the film. I just would have liked more explanation of the weird science going on.

There is some humor in the movie. The director of Transworld is Mr. Lagavullan (Kidnie), which is (as far as I know) a popular single-malt scotch. Also, not only does Transworld sound like the name of a familiar airline, the logo is an almost exact copy of the old blue globe Pan Am logo. Upside Down is a visually entertaining film at a good length if you can remember not to take it seriously. It’s Romeo and Juliet in space with an intriguing zero gravity love scene and without the messy death scene. 

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Martini glasses.

Rouge Tomate

10 East 60th Street (5th/Madison), New York City

A long tomato red banner marks the entrance to this three-year old French restaurant diagonally across 5th Avenue from the Plaza Hotel and in sight of the twin towers of the Time-Warner Center across Columbus Circle. The wrought iron filigree work over the door looks like a dark coronet until you open it and the breeze blows the heavy red velvet drapes apart and you appear at the captain’s station. Rouge Tomate is French in name and food preparation only. The dress is smart casual. The staff is friendly, polite and eager to serve. The space is bright with blonde wood tables and chairs, white walls and ceiling and splashes of red here and there. It’s modern in a very Zen sense. The stairway to the lower level lounge and the restrooms ends in two square pools of water with red marbles in them. Booths for parties of four are arranged on the far wall like framed artwork in a museum. I was led to a table overlooking the stairway. The décor was fascinating.

The menu features Seasonal Toasts (actually glorified canapés) and Raw Fish and Shellfish on the left page and Appetizers, Entrees and Sides on the right. I was delighted to see that of the seven main courses, five were meatless and the selection in the other categories was equally great for a Lenten Friday. My waiter, Niko answered my every question – and I had a few – and brought me perfect Beefeater martini and a glass of water. Another server brought two tapenades for the bread, one a tomato/red pepper puree and the other ricotta cheese based. The bread arrived soon after, being a choice of multigrain roll or a wonderful crusty sliced sourdough. I chose both. Confident that choosing one item from each menu category would not be too much food I consulted the wine list over my martini.

The Spaghetti Squash Toast intrigued me most because I’ve always wondered how it tasted and considered growing it in my garden. It was the crowning part of a thin toast topped with Maryland crab and Honeycrisp apple and flavored with jalapeno and cilantro - delightful. The flavor is light, like a butternut squash and the condiments did not detract from that. The seafood choice was Nantucket Bay Scallops served with blood orange slices, raspberry slices, Sicilian pistachio nuts, pomegranate seeds and watercress, and lightly sprinkled with Maldon Sea salt. The combination of melt-in-your-mouth shellfish and fruit and nuts was amazing.

I couldn’t believe they had a 2005 Pinot Grigio from Slovenia (No Irene, not Slovakia, Slovenia – one of the countries that used to be Yugoslavia) and the sommelier, an interesting young woman with an eastern European accent explained that the Movia vineyard is right over the border from Friuli, Italy, on the Adriatic. She continued saying that rather than being aged in steel vats, this Pinot Grigio is aged in oak casks and therefore is more golden and the flavor is more like a chardonnay. Needless to say, it was delicious and complimented every dish.

The appetizer, a Ricotta Cheese Gnocchi with cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, (Black Trumpet and Oyster) mushrooms, Parmesan cheese and Black Truffle emulsion was another fantastic dish in a manageable portion (nowhere near the size of one you would get in an Italian restaurant).

The main course I chose after waffling over four others was Atlantic Hake a la Plancha. This is basically a Spanish recipe served with Romanesco broccoli, Brandade (an emulsion of salt cod and olive oil), basil, a citrus Gremolata (chopped condiment) and shellfish Nage (broth with white wine and herbs) – again, perfectly cooked fish and excellent preparation. After four courses, I was finally becoming sated. Although the desserts came in small and regular sizes I was perfectly happy with a double espresso and Marolo’s grappa di chamomile made from Moscato grapes.

The Rouge Tomate made a splendid first impression and I anticipate future visits.

And, check out the sinks in the bathroom.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Cinéma Inhabituel for March 23-31

A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea

It’s yet another good week, with a lot of very interesting films at the least convenient times. Sometimes I wonder of TCM has an interest in DVR machines.

March 23

6:30 am Paid (MGM, 1936) Director: Sam Wood. Cast: Joan Crawford, Robert Armstrong, Marie Prevost, Kent Douglas, and John Miljan. B&W, 86 minutes.

Paid is a great Crawford Pre-Codie. Joan is a young innocent shop girl framed by her boss and sent to the slammer. When she gets out she now has a hard edge and is out for revenge. So she seduces and secretly marries the son of the store’s owner (Kent Douglass, aka Douglass Montgomery), who is a nice guy. You can guess the rest, but it’s a nice ride until then.

9:00 am The Hypnotic Eye (Allied Artists, 1960) Director: George Blair. Cast: Jacques Bergerac, Merry Anders, Allison Hayes, Marcia Henderson, and Joe Patridge. B&W, 83 minutes.

A sleaze classic! I remember the first time I saw this and being genuinely shocked. Beautiful women are suddenly mutilating themselves and the police have no clues as to why. But there is one common thread: all went to see hypnotist The Great Desmond (Bergerac) before doing themselves a nasty. Why is Desmond doing this? Seems it has to do with his girlfriend/assistant Justine (Hayes). Tune in: it’s a “must see.”

12:00 pm Torchy Runs for Mayor (WB, 1939) Director: Ray McCarey. Cast: Glenda Farrell, Barton MacLane, Tom Kennedty, John Miljan, and Joe Cunningham. B&W, 58 minutes.

In this, the last of the series, Torchy is writing a series of articles exposing the dirty doings of the corrupt mayor and his posse. When the reform candidate is murdered, Torchy takes up the cudgels herself. Farrell and MacLane always make these films entertaining. 

1:45 am La Femme Nikita (Gaumont, 1990) Director: Luc Besson. Cast: Anna Parillaud, Jean-Hughes Anglade, Tcheky Karyo, Jeanne Moreau, and Jean Reno. Color, 118 minutes.

Besson is one of the great stylists of cinema. He’s a genius at using lighting to convey a mood and his mise en scene is stunning, to say the least. Ex-wife Parillaud is Bresson’s quirky heroine: a junkie with a killer knowledge of the martial arts. The government gives her the choice in prison of death or life as an underground assassin.

If you think this is the usual action movie, with lots of punches, kicks, guns, hot stylish cars, and people being dispatched in various ways, then you have the wrong movie. There is a fascinating psychological sub-text to this movie that separates it from its later imitators. Nikita is not your usual action-movie heroine. She is coerced and shaped into what society wants, with all traces of her individualism stamped out. She emerges from this training compromised, her natural spirit plowed under. (Her trainers are detached government agent Karyo and fashion consultant Moreau – in a nice turn.) She is now a programmed killer and does what she has been taught to do.

But then comes the spanner in the machine: she falls in love and begins to notice that there is something more important and better than her world of murder and mayhem, killing and being killed. Moreover, she discovers that she prefers this world of love to that of hate, the world of tenderness to that of brutality. For the first time in her life she clearly sees just who she is. Unfortunately, it’s too late; she’s in too deep. Can she escape for a better life?

The film was remade in the US in 1993 as Point of No Return with Bridget Fonda in the title role. Avoid this one. It reduces the story to a simple plot of killings with none of the psychological underpinnings. And by all means avoid the television show that sprang up like weeds.

Also take note of the music by Eric Serra. It matches – and enhances – each scene, becoming almost a musical sub-text itself. Trivia: Originally titled Nikita in France, it was given its current title in America so moviegoers didn’t think it was Russian!

March 24

2:00 am Early Spring (Shochiku, 1956) Director: Yasujiro Osu. Cast: Ryo Ikebe, Keiko Kishi, Chikage Awashima, and Chishu Ryu. B&W, 144 minutes.

Ozu and Akira Kurosawa are rightly hailed as Japan’s greatest directors, but the gulf between is as wide as the Sea of Japan. Kurosawa was the master of the epic, whether in terms of story or simply space, dealing with the larger ethical themes that moved society to where it is today. Ozu, on the other hand, used a smaller scale in designing his films. He focuses on family, work, class, conformity, and in his postwar oeuvre, how each of these themes evolved as Japan became one of the great industrial economies.

Ozu was noted in Japan for his “salaryman films,” referring to stories about white collar employees working in large corporations and helping to oversee the modernization of the economy from primarily agrarian to industrial. With this way of life come restlessness, boredom, alienation, and a yearning for the way things once were.

The hero of Early Spring is a restless World War II veteran bored by both his job and his marriage. Seeking new thrills, he embarks on an affair with a perky typist, seeks diversion by partying with co-workers and spending times going to reunions with his war comrades. All the while he neglects his wife, who has become equally restless herself.

Ozu’s genius lies in his combination of formality with a deceptive simplicity, as can be seen in his use of the camera: low angles, static camera, lingering, carefully composed shots of exteriors as transitional devices instead of dissolves. It serves his theme of urban malaise quite well and gives the viewer the feeling of being in an existential drama instead of a formal dramatic situation. Nora Sayre said it best in the New York Times (September, 1974): “This modest classic also conveys the claustrophobia of office life better than any other film I’ve seen . . . Ozu finds dramatic depths in quiet, ordinary lives.”

March 25

6:00 am Red-Headed Woman (MGM, 1932) Director: Jack Conway. Cast: Jean Harlow, Chester Morris, Lewis Stone, Leila Hyams, and Una Merkel. B&W, 75 minutes.

Anita Loos penned this Pre-code story based on the risqué novel by Katherine Brush about a gold-digging secretary on the prowl to rope in her boss. Loos plays on the popular suspicion at the time that red hair on a woman marked her as a “free spirit” and sexually aggressive.

Harlow as a redhead? Filmed before her “blonde bombshell” days, she has never been sexier than in this film and Morris is good as the unwitting boss who becomes obsessed with her to the point of divorcing his wife and marrying her. In fact, this role was Harlow’s springboard to bigger and better parts.

Oh, you ask, and just how does the marriage work out in the movie? It doesn’t. Harlow’s character is a square peg in a round hole with Morris’s upper-class crowd and she soon compensates by having multiple affairs. Catching her in the act, he leaves “red” and goes back to his wife. But is this the end for Harlow? Not at all, and this is the fun of Pre-code movies. When next Morris meets her, she’s on a cruise where she has several sugar daddies on a string. 

Trivia: Loos wasn’t the first screenwriter to convert the novel to film. In fact, it was novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, but according to Loos’ autobiography, Kiss Hollywood Goodbye,  MGM executive Irving Thalberg called her to his office, handed her the novel and told her: “Scott tried to turn the silly book into a tone poem!”

March 27

9:00 am The Spy in Black (Columbia, 1939) Director: Michael Powell. Cast: Conrad Veidt, Sebastian Shaw, Valerie Hobson, Marius Goring, and June Duprez. B&W, 77 minutes.

This first collaboration of director Powell and screenwriter Emeric Pressburger was an unqualified success, both with the critics and with the public. The setting is World War I Scotland. Veidt is a German naval officer/spy and Hobson is a charming British double agent. There are some nice twists and turns along the way with a bittersweet romance thrown in for good measure. This was the first of many turns for Nazi refugee Veidt (his wife was Jewish) as a scheming German, though in this film he comes off as quite charismatic.

10:30 am A Canterbury Tale (Eagle-Lion, 1944) Director: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger. Cast: Eric Portman, Sheila Sim, Dennis Price, John Sweet, and Esmond Knight. B&W, 95 minutes.

Powell and Pressburger co-wrote and co-directed this wonderful celebration of the power of miracles – reminding us that miracles need not be enormous in order to be miracles. And yet, it’s been largely forgotten over the years precisely because its genre is so hard to pin down. Although it really gets started with a bizarre criminal act, it’s not a standard mystery or thriller. It’s not a war film as such, although it’s set right before D-Day. Although it contains comic bits and moments of whimsy, it’s not a comedy; nor is it as romance, though there are love stories central to its plot. No, we must take it as it is: a captivating tale of faith, hope, the power of miracles and the simple glories of English life and tradition, as seen by the beautiful English countryside.

Three strangers: an English soldier (Price), an English "land girl" (Sim) and an American GI (nonprofessional actor Sergeant Sweet) find themselves temporarily stranded in a small town in Kent waiting for the next train. The girl is attacked by the mysterious "glue man," a nefarious character that pours glue into the hair of women he catches with GIs. As the three begin to investigate the mystery, they explore the countryside, its history and its tales of pilgrims. They also begin to center their suspicions as to the identity of the “glue man” on the local magistrate (Portman), a rather eccentric figure with a strange, mystical vision of England, and Canterbury in particular. As they walk the road to Canterbury Cathedral, each experiences a blessing in the form of their fondest wish. This is a deeply spiritual film and one that will make its viewers rejoice in the outcome. Don’t miss this one.

10:00 pm The Crowd Roars (WB, 1932) Director: Howard Hawks. Cast: James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak, Eric Linden, and Frank McHugh. B&W, 85 minutes.

This could easily have been a routine melodrama about a racecar driver who tries to keep his younger brother from following in his footsteps. But with Hawks in the director’s chair, and Cagney, Blondell, Dvorak, and McHugh in the starring roles, this film comes to life in a most exciting way. The only glitch in the works is Linden as Cagney’s younger brother. Warner Brothers was prepping him for stardom, but he had all the star quality of three-day old mackerel. Hawks is truly in his element here, bringing the racing action directly to us; not letting the silly story get too much in the way of a damn good action flick. But as I stated before, the presence of Cagney, Blondell, Dvorak, and McHugh is more than enough to overcome the limitations of the story. Trivia: Dvorak always told members of the press that her name was pronounced “Vorshak,” and not Deevor-ak.

11:30 pm The Fast and the Furious (American Releasing Corp., 1954) Director: Edwards Sampson. Cast: John Ireland, Dorothy Malone, Bruce Carlisle, Iris Adrian, and Bruno VeSota. B&W, 73 minutes.

This is the second film from Roger Corman’s Palo Alto Productions and the first released by American Releasing, soon to become American International Pictures. Teamster Ireland, blacklisted by the trucking industry after a mysterious fatal accident, is having coffee at a roadside diner when he meets up with Malone. She’s on her way to compete in the annual Pebble Beach road race into Mexico. Ireland gets into a fight with a customer who pulled a gun on him and socks the guy, who in turn hits his head on the way down. Thinking the guy’s dead, Ireland takes Malone’s Jaguar, with her as his hostage, heading for the border with the police in pursuit. When Malone tries to register for the race, an official informs her that it’s too dangerous, so Ireland enters for her under an alias. During the race Ireland knocks another driver off the road and into a gully. He suddenly has a change of heart and goes back to rescue the man, announcing later to Malone that he’s decided to turn himself in.

March 28

8:00 pm Edge of the City (MGM, 1957) Director: Martin Ritt. Cast: John Cassavetes, Sidney Poitier, Jack Warden, Kathleen Maguire, and Ruby Dee. B&W, 85 minutes.

If you loved On the Waterfront, you’ll love this film just as much. It’s a somber and realistic account of life and corruption on the waterfront of New York City (and filmed there as well). Cassavetes is Axel North (Nordmann), an Army deserter who gets a job as a stevedore due to string pulling by a criminal with influence. He befriends Tommy Tyler (Poitier), and their friendship soon crosses paths with the actions of dock boss Charles Malik (Warden), a virulent racist who not only demands a portion of North’s paycheck for giving him the job, but also warns Axel to stay away from Tyler. The film is about the two dockworkers and their struggle with Malik.

While On the Waterfront dealt with the code of silence about union corruption, this film deals with another code of silence – those concerning race relations and workers’ rights. The film delivers a stark and honest view of the racial scene at the time, a view practically unheard of in the Hollywood not only of the time but for years on. Compare this film’s view of race relations with Stanley Kramer’s facile fantasy Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Though Poitier stars in both films, in watching the latter we come to the conclusion that racial progress is going backwards.

Cassavetes may have top billing, but this is clearly Poitier’s film. His electrifying performance drives the film. That plus the intelligent writing save this film from sinking into a morass of cheap sentimentality. Also watch Dee as Poitier’s wife, Lucy. She matches Poitier in every respect, and the introduction of her character into the film reminds us in a way of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice (“Do I not bleed?”). She is simply brilliant. Again this is a must.

March 29

11:15 am The Penthouse (MGM, 1933) Director: W.S. Van Dyke. Cast: Warner Baxter, Myrna Loy, Charles Butterworth, Mae Clarke, Martha Sleeper, and Philips Holmes. B&W, 91 minutes.

This was Loy’s big break, the film that propelled her to the co-starring role in The Thin Man, which firmly established her as the new queen of MGM. And, as critic Leonard Maltin states, this comedy-melodrama is a neglected gem. Baxter is Jackson Durant, a wealthy criminal lawyer. He gets his kicks from defending criminals and other lowlifes in court, and it pays well besides. The only person who isn’t getting any kicks out of Jackson’s enjoyment (besides his law firm – they fired him) is his snooty fiancée, Sue Leonard (Sleeper), who’s so enraged at his antics that she dumps him for the more “refined” Tom Siddal (Holmes). In order to take Sue as his future wife, Tom must end his relationship with current girlfriend Mimi Montagne (Clarke). But when Mimi’s murdered, it’s Siddell who the police are pointing their fingers toward. To clear Siddell, Jackson enlists the help of the late Mimi’s roommate: call girl Gertie Waxted (Loy). Gertie’s a no-nonsense type and does Jackson’s digging for him. Eventually there’s a romance between the two as they close in on the real murderer – Mimi’s ex-boyfriend, crime big Jim Crelliman, who was rejected by Mimi after her breakup with Siddell.

Trivia: Loy didn’t have the easiest road to stardom, having appeared in about 74 films before her break in Penthouse. It was her first meeting with director Van Dyke. He was so taken with her performance and presence in Penthouse that he began championing to get her out of supporting-actor hell, even going so far as to tell Louis Mayer that Loy would become one of the biggest stars in Hollywood if only she were given more “American girl” roles. Van Dyke then cast her in a starring role in The Prizefighter and the Lady (1933) and Manhattan Melodrama (1934), where she proved she could hold her own when up against heavyweight stars as William Powell and Clark Gable. And then the role that cemented her as a bonafide star: Nora Charles in The Thin Man. She never looked back again.

2:30 pm Crime Doctor (Columbia, 1943) Director: Michael Gordon. Cast: Warner Baxter, Margaret Lindsay, John Litel, Ray Collins, and Leon Ames. B&W, 66 minutes.

This series is one of the more enjoyable time wasters among the “B” movie pantheon, thanks in large part to the presence of Baxter. And this is the film that began the series. It’s based on a popular CBS radio show that ran from 1940-47 and would go on to spawn nine sequels.

In the opener we learn how Dr. Robert Ordway became the “crime doctor.” He’s a criminal himself, leader of a gang that double-crossed him and left him for dead by the side of a road. What the gang didn’t know was that he already had double-crossed them out of the stolen money. When Ordway awakes in the hospital, he has no memory whatsoever and begins life anew, eventually becoming a criminal psychologist. What he doesn’t know is that his fame has alerted his old gang to his presence and they want their money. Two other films in the series follow this on TCM, so if you liked it, stick around for the others.

Trivia: The role of Dr. Ordway was a Godsend to actor Baxter. He was in poor health during the ‘40s, having had a nervous breakdown (ironically, when playing director Julian Marsh in 1932’s 42nd Street, the doctors told him in the film that if he didn’t take it easy he would have a breakdown) and suffering from arthritis, among other ailments. As there was little physical exertion required in the role, playing Dr. Ordway suited Baxter just fine. He died from complication from pneumonia in 1951, two years after his last Crime Doctor picture.

8:00 pm Socrates (Orizzonte 2000, 1971) Director: Roberto Rossellini. Cast: Jean Sylvere, Anne Caprile, Giuseppe Mannajuolo, Ricardo Palacois, and Antonio Medina. Color, 120 minutes.

Socrates was the result of an epiphany director Rossellini had in 1958. He came to the conclusion that world cinema was a waste of time; the movies were making people stupid and he wanted to change that. So began an 18-year labor of love for Rossellini, an attempt to re-create human history using film with a special focus on the development of knowledge. Most of these films, including Socrates, were made for television.

Rossellini decided to focus on the last days of the philosopher, using Plato’s Dialogues as the basis of his screenplay. Due to Rossellini’s exacting and painstaking compositions, the ancient city of Athens not only comes to life in this film, but almost becomes a character of its own in the movie. Rossellini felt a special bond with Socrates. He often said that like the philosopher he never made any money, and the persecution he suffered over his marriage to Ingrid Bergman and the increasing difficulties in finding financing in later years made him especially identify with a man persecuted for his beliefs and forced to take his own life.

Trivia: His son Renzo, who made his mark as an international producer with his father’s films, produced this film, like so many of his later films.

10:15 pm Blaise Pascal (Orizzonte 2000, 1972) Director: Roberto Rossellini. Cast: Pierre Arditi, Mario Bardella, Giuseppe Addobbati, and Rita Forzano. Color, 135 minutes.

Having covered Socrates, Rossellini next turns his camera to French philosopher, theologian, inventor and mathematician Blaise Pascal. The result is a pretty straightforward accounting of his short, fruitful, and turbulent life of a man who is thought to have invented the computer. As with Socrates this movie was made for television on a miniscule budget. It’s evident that Rossellini can really stretch a buck, as witness the results.

12:30 am The Carabineers (Cocinor, 1968) Director: Jean-Luc Godard. Cast: Genevieve Galea, Catherine Ribeiro, Marino Mase, and Albert Juross. B&W, 80 minutes.

Let’s be honest, Godard isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. And let’s be more brutally honest, he hasn’t made a good film since this one. The plot is simple: Ulysses and Michel-Angel, two naïve country bumpkins, are recruited into their nation’s army, with the promise of riches. They fight, slaughter, rape, and pillage, eventually returning home to their wives as victors. Unfortunately, the country has suffered through a revolution and they now find themselves declared traitors.

If only it were that simple with Godard. He juxtaposes their adventures with footage of actual war; yet, all throughout we are struck by a detachment on Godard’s part. Subtle camera tricks and an Eisensteinian montage do not suffice to make us realize that Godard seems that he is viewing the film with the audience than as an actual participant making and moving the film. The scene that best exemplifies this point of view is where Michel-Ange sees a movie for the first time. He utterly baffled to the point where tries to enter the movie through the screen.

Francois Truffaut once said that one cannot make an anti-war film because the camera aestheticizes its subject. Godard seems to out to deliberately disprove Truffaut, but in reality what he has made in an anti anti-war film. Anyone who has suffered through Walter Wanger’s tedious Blockade or Lionel Ragosin’s equally tedious documentary Good Times, Wonderful Times, will see what I’m talking about. Godard even copies Ragosin’s method of inserting scenes of real war into the mix.

In the future, film historians will wonder whatever became of Godard. He’s like the wizard who falls victim to his own potions. Godard would soon trade in his chic Marxism for a deconstructional point of view, taking him straight into the Postmodern and trading forever substance for style.

March 30

8:00 pm The Lady Eve (Paramount, 1941) Director: Preston Sturges. Cast: Henry Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck, Charles Coburn, Eugene Pallette, and William Demerest. B & W. 95 minutes.

Next to Sullivan’s Travels, this is probably Sturges’s best film. Stanwyck and Coburn are father and daughter con artists Harry and Jean Harrington, and are looking to hook a big fish while on a cruise. They soon hook the biggest fish on the boat in the form of Charles Pike (Fonda), the son of a millionaire brewer and an extremely naïve herpetologist. “Snakes are my life,” he declares to Stanwyck. Naturally, Stanwyck falls for Fonda, but when he learns her true vocation he dumps her. To gain revenge she reinvents herself as Lady Eve Sidwich and worms her way into Pike’s heart once again, but comes up short before the final coup de grace because of her love for him.

Trivia: Writer Mary Orr was so impressed by this film that she combined both of Stanwyck’s movie names into one for the central character of her short story, “The Wisdom of Eve,” which was later filmed by Joe Mankiewicz as All About Eve. Hence: Eve Harrington.

March 31

11:30 am King of Kings (MGM, 1961) Director: Nicholas Ray. Cast: Jeffrey Hunter, Robert Ryan, Siobhan McKenna, Viveca Lindfors, and Hurd Hatfield. Color, 165 minutes.

Leave it to Ray to inject new life into the retelling of an old story. He looks at the life of Jesus through the political lens, vis-à-vis the relationship of Christ to the revolutionary Zealots, of whom Judas emerges as one of the central figures. It also gives a modicum of sense to Judas’s betrayal of Christ. Hunter also plays a Christ nearer Jesus’ real age, though some critics tended to dismiss the film, calling it “I Was a Teenage Jesus.” The performances, though, are all first-rate, especially Ryan as John the Baptist, Rip Torn as Judas, and Lindfors as Pilate’s wife, Claudia.

Trivia: Ray Bradbury wrote the narration by Orson Welles, although Bradbury received no screen credit.

2:30 pm The Greatest Story Ever Told (UA, 1965) Director: George Stevens. Cast: Max Von Sydow, Dorothy McGuire, Robert Loggia, Charlton Heston, Robert Blake, and Jamie Farr. Color, 221 minutes.

Director Stevens’ version of the life and death of Jesus Christ is one of those monumental failures Hollywood so encountered when trying to make a religious film. Besides the miscasting of Von Sydow as Jesus, and Heston as John the Baptist, it features Telly Savalas as Pontius Pilate.(!) It’s also worth watching for the all-star roster of star cameos. Get this list: Michael Anderson, Jr., Blake, Farr, David McCallum, Roddy McDowall, Ina Balin, Janet Margolin, Sidney Poitier, Carroll Baker, Pat Boone, Van Heflin, Sal Mineo, Shelley Winters, Ed Wynn, John Wayne, Angela Lansbury, Paul Stewart, Harold J. Stone, Martin Landau, Joseph Schildkraut, Victor Buono, Jose Ferrer, Claude Rains, Donald Pleasence, Richard Conte and Cyril Delevanti. And do stick around for the last line, where Centurion John Wayne declares, “Truly this man was the son of God,” as only the Duke was capable. It serves as the perfect capping to the movie.