Friday, May 31, 2013

TCM TiVo Alert for June 1-7

June 1–June 7 


THE HARDER THEY FALL (June 2, 2:00 pm): Humphrey Bogart's last movie, released a year before his 1957 death, has him playing Eddie Willis, an unemployed newspaper sportswriter who goes to work for a crooked boxing promoter (played by Rod Steiger, who is one of acting's greatest heavies). Willis's job is to be the press agent for Toro Monero (Mike Lane), a big but untalented and slow-witted boxer. Nick Benko (Steiger) is building Toro up, having him win numerous fixed fights so he can get a shot at the title, a big pay-day for the promoter, and lose. Eddie has seen it before, but in desperate need of money, he goes along with it even though he likes Toro, who just wants to return to his home country of Argentina. The film takes a hard look at the rampant corruption in boxing. It was groundbreaking with some critics at the time contending the film wasn't realistic, when it actually was. Bogart, even though he was dying, and Steiger are excellent. The film is based on Primo Carnera, a big Italian boxer with limited skills who was owned by organized crime during the 1930s. Carnera won a version of the heavyweight title in what is believed to be a fixed fight against Jack Sharkey and later got destroyed in a legit fight against Max Baer. Baer has a small role in the film as a boxer. After retiring from boxing, Carnera became a popular wrestler, despite having virtually no wrestling talent. But at least he made a little money and was aware those matches were fixed.

THE GREAT DICTATOR (June 3, 11:15 am): TCM shows this 1940 Charlie Chaplin masterpiece on a regular basis so it often gets overlooked. Incredibly, it's never made mine or Ed's Best Bets before even though we are both huge fans of this film. As he did in so many of his roles, Chaplin brilliantly portrays the film's protagonist, known as "a Jewish barber," with great empathy and humility while still being funny. And when you mention funny, his impersonation of Adolf Hitler - the character in the film is named Adenoid Hynkel - is spot-on and highly entertaining. The film, made before the United States was at war with Nazi Germany, has several iconic scenes, including Hynkel playing with a bouncy globe, and a chase scene between the barber and storm troopers. Chaplin's brilliance lied in his ability to make people think about the world while making them laugh. There is no finer example of that than The Great Dictator. The ending is beautiful. It's too bad life rarely turns out to have a happy Hollywood ending, but that doesn't diminish from the entertainment and importance of this landmark film. 


THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (June 1, 7:30 am): The late Ray Harryhausen’s great f/x epic about a dinosaur thawed out on the Arctic and now on the loose in New York City. It boasts an intelligent script, credible performances, and one helluva great monster. My only complaint is that it’s too short, but it was just what the doctor ordered for the Warner’s box office at the time. I can watch it again and again . . . wait a minute – I have.

THE MALTESE FALCON (June 7, 8:00 pm): As I mentioned before, Warner Brothers was great on remaking a script. The Maltese Falcon was done three times in the space of 10 years. While it’s generally acknowledged – and I will not argue the point – that the 1941 Bogart-Greenstreet-Lorre version is by far the best, the 1931 version is not exactly chopped liver. Made in those risqué Pre-Code days of yore, this version has a lot going for it and viewers will notice the many similarities between it and the ’41 version. While Ricardo Cortez is no Bogart as Sam Spade, he’s not bad, either. And Bebe Daniels is a definite improvement over Mary Astor, both in the look department and the acting department. Una Merkel makes for a good Effie and as Wilmer – Dwight Frye! As this is shown rarely at best, this is a film no serious film buff should miss.

WE DISAGREE ON ... PAT AND MIKE (June 1, 6:00 pm)

ED: B+. Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn made nine films together. Some are classics (Woman of the Year, Adam's Rib), some are overrated (Keeper of the Flame), some are really overrated (State of the Union), some are merely bad (Without Love), some are terrible (Sea of Grass), and some are embarrassing when viewed in the light of today (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?). Pat and Mike, however, is one of their better efforts. Not exactly "A" material, but definitely worthwhile. Hepburn is a lady golfer and Tracy is the shady sports promoter who takes her under his wing. Pat and Mike is written by the team of Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, who gave us Adam's Rib, and while it's not as good as Adam's Rib, there's still plenty of room there for both to maneuver, and there's lots of good give-and-take dialog to sustain the audience. Also surprising for its time is the fact that while most films feature "a woman's place is in the home" mentality, Pat and Mike is downright feminist in tone. It first finds protagonist Hepburn railing at fiancee William Ching's chauvinist views and later chiding Tracy on the same issue, making her point most memorably later in the film when she shoves Tracy aside and beats up the two thugs threatening him. Pat and Mike is a great piece of screen candy, and to put in it terms that Tracy used in the movie, "there's not much meat, but what's there is 'cherce.'"

DAVID: C-. It should come as no surprise that I dislike this film. (Scroll down to We Disagree for our opinions of Woman of the Year.) There is little I like about Katharine Hepburn, the most overrated big-name Hollywood actress in cinematic history. Sadly, she repeatedly dragged down the extremely-talented Spencer Tracy in film after film with her overacting, scenery-chewing style that makes most of her movies awful. She wasn't funny and rarely showed dramatic skills. Her apologists may contend that I haven't seen enough of her movies, but that's incorrect. I've seen about 20 to 30 of her movies and like less than a handful. One amusing note is the only Hepburn-Tracy film I really like is Keeper of the Flame, which Ed wrote is "overrated." As for Pat and Mike, is there an actual plot to this film or just a bunch of scenes that are supposed to be funny and/or entertaining with Hep getting the better of Tracy? This movie seems like an excuse for Hepburn to show that she can play tennis and golf, and for Tracy to come across as gruff but lovable. If this movie added any more fluff, it would be the world's largest marshmallow. It's predictable, boring, slow-moving, not funny, the acting is weak (even the co-stars are subpar), the script is weaker, and there's not a single memorable scene in the entire film. Hepburn made far worse movies and thanks to teaming with her too many times, Tracy starred in some lousy films too. But I can't give film fans a single reason to waste 92 minutes of their time watching this lackluster effort.

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

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Cinéma Inhabituel for June 1-7

A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea

Well, it’s back to normal for the folks at TCM, so there should be some delectable nuggets out there waiting to be exposed for the gems they are. And it’s my job in this column to do so, so here we go again.
June 1

6:15 am Beast From Haunted Cave (Filmgroup, 1959) – Director: Monte Hellman. Cast: Michael Forest, Shelia Carol, Frank Wolff, Wally Campo, Chris Robinson, & Richard Sinatra. B&W, 65 minutes.

This quickie horror film from producer Gene Corman is actually a remake of brother Roger’s 1957 crime drama Naked Paradise with the horror elements thrown in. A gang of thieves, led by Wolff, comes to Deadwood, South Dakota, with the intention of stealing a few gold bars. They enlist the help of local ski instructor Forest, planning to use him as a guide to get out of the territory after the heist. But after the heist, a blizzard forces them to take sanctuary in Forest’s cabin while a big spider-like creature (Robinson, covered in cobwebs) they disturbed earlier wants them as food. As Corman quickies go, this one’s not that bad. Corman later recycled this further for Creature From the Haunted Sea (1961), Up From the Depths (1979), and Demon of Paradise (1987). The score for Beast From the Haunted Cave was also recycled from earlier Corman efforts.

Trivia: Richard Sinatra was the nephew of Frank Sinatra.

7:30 am The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (WB, 1957) – Director: Paul Landres. Cast: Paul Christian, Paula Raymond, Cecil Kellaway, Kenneth Tobey, Donald Woods, & Lee Van Cleef. B&W, 80 minutes.

This film about a dinosaur – called a rhedosaurus – disturbed from his suspended animation slumber in the Arctic and eventually finding his way to New York City – is loosely based of Ray Bradbury’s short story, “The Foghorn.” It also marks the first solo effort of Ray Harryhausen in the special effects department. And what a great job Harryhausen does in animating this stop-motion creature. It makes for a quick and totally enjoyable 80 minutes as the creature makes his way from the North Pole to New York City’s Financial District, coming ashore at what is now the South Street Seaport (back then the Fulton Fish Market). Look for a young Van Cleef at the climax as the sharpshooter who injects the lethal radioactive isotope into the creature.

Trivia: Film buffs may recognize Alvin Greenman, the first soldier to see the creature on radar. Greenman had earlier been seen as Alfred, the Macy’s janitor from Miracle on 34th Street . . . the dinosaur skeleton in the museum is the one that was constructed for RKO’s Bringing Up Baby in 1938.

4:15 am The Vampire (Gramercy/UA, 1957) – Director: Paul Landres. Cast: John Beal, Colleen Gray, Kenneth Tobey, Dabbs Greer, & Herb Vigran. B&W, 75 minutes.

Beal is a small town physician who accidentally ingests experimental pills made from the blood of vampire bats and is transformed into a blood-sucking creature. The usual nonsense made a little more palatable by the presence of seasoned veterans Tobey, Gray, and Greer.

June 3

8:00 pm Busses Roar (WB, 1942) – Director: D. Ross Lederman. Cast: Richard Travis, Julie Bishop, Charles Drake, Eleanor Parker, & Elisabeth Fraser. B&W, 61 minutes.

Parker is TCM’s “Star of the Month,” and it’s rather neat of them to include this, her first film, among the ones being screened. It’s a fast-paced little thriller about two Axis saboteurs and their American accomplice who plant a bomb in a bus scheduled to pass by a huge California oil field. Bishop discovers it hidden in her luggage, and with the help of Marine Sergeant Travis, tries to defuse it. 

11:00 pm Between Two Worlds (WB, 1944) – Director: Edward A. Blatt. Cast: John Garfield, Paul Henried, Sydney Greenstreet, Eleanor Parker, & Edmund Gwenn. B&W, 112 minutes.

Warner Brothers recycled their 1930 drama Outward Bound and gave it a World War II twist in this allegorical drama. Several people killed in an air raid over London awake to find themselves aboard a strange ship bound for the afterlife and traversing the gulf between heaven and hell. Despite giving the surprise away in the first minutes, the film settles down, reminding me of Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, about a ship populated by characters of different social and financial strata and their efforts to come together. Watch it for the excellent performances of the Warner Bros. stock ensemble. It’s Parker’s first starring role.

1:00 am Mission to Moscow (WB, 1943) – Director: Michael Curtiz. Cast: Walter Huston, Ann Harding, Oscar Homolka, George Tobias, Gene Lockhart, & Eleanor Parker. B&W, 123 minutes.

With the Russians as our allies in World War II, FDR lobbied the studios for movies showing our former enemies as a loyal freedom-loving democratic country. And Warner Bros. answered the call big time with this piece of pure bologna, based on the book by former ambassador Joseph E. Davies about his experience in the Soviet Union. Watching it today, the film comes off more like broad comedy than as an insight into our allies. Little did Jack Warner know when making it that it would be one of the centerpieces of the HUAC hearings, where the boobs in Washington thought the thing was on the level. Screenwriter Howard Koch was actually placed on the blacklist over the whole sorry matter. It’s a must for fans of bad movies.

3:15 am Crime By Night (WB, 1944) – Director: William Clemens. Cast: Jane Wyman, Jerome Cowan, Faye Emerson, Charles Lang, & Eleanor Parker. B&W, 72 minutes.

This little gem of a movie is a must for lovers of mystery films, lovers of ‘40’s films, and film lovers in general. Cowan is in great form as private detective Sam Campbell, who takes on an assignment to get the goods on an ex-wife in a child custody case and stumbles into the murder of her father. Wyman adds to the enjoyment as Cowan’s secretary, who manages quite a lot of ditsy humor without coming off as dumb. Parker is on hand as the shady daughter of the victim, and supporting actor Cy Kendall is great as the befuddled sheriff. Given the wonderful chemistry between Cowan and Wyman it’s a shame they didn’t continue this as a series.

Trivia: The movie was released 18 months after it was filmed for reasons unknown.

June 4

2:15 am The Mask of Dimitrios (WB, 1944) – Director: Jean Negulesco. Cast: Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Zachary Scott, Faye Emerson, & Victor Francen. B&W, 95 minutes.

Set in 1938 Istabul, Lorre stars in this adaptation of Eric Ambler’s novel A Coffin for Dimitrios as Dutch mystery writer Cornelius Leyden. Leyden is collecting research on the life of elusive international rat and smuggler Dimitros Markopoulas (Scott), whose body washed up recently on a beach. In his travels he runs across former lovers and colleagues, including one Mr. Peters (Greenstreet), who not only ingratiates himself with the author, but also offers him a nice reward to complete his investigation. As always, however, beware of Greenstreet bearing gifts. It all makes for a most enjoyable mystery with Lorre proving himself worthy of a lead role and further cementing his stature as one of Hollywood’s finest acting talents.

Trivia: Shortly after the film wrapped, Emerson, who played Irana, married Elliot Roosevelt, the son of the President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The union lasted for six years and produced two children. Her next husband was bandleader Skitch Henderson.

June 6

12:30 am It Came From Beneath the Sea (Columbia, 1955) – Director: Robert Gordon. Cast: Kenneth Tobey, Faith Domergue, Donald Curtis, Ian Keith, & Dean Maddox, Jr. B&W, 79 minutes.

This movie is a well-known standard to sci-fi fans and memorable to movie lovers in general for the fascinating bit of trivia that the monster octopus has only six tentacles. There’s a very good reason for that outside of mere costs: The film was made for Clover Productions and distributed by Columbia. The executive producer and owner of Clover was none other than Sam Katzman, a man who could squeeze a nickel so hard that the Indian jumps on the buffalo. In the 30s and 40s, Sam made some of the cheapest and wretched productions on the face of Hollywood. He was responsible for Lugosi’s quickie horror films at Monogram and the plague of East Side Kids movies from the same studio. Legend has it that on those movies, Sam was so cheap that he let the boys simply ad-lib rather than spend the money on an extra screenwriter.

But despite Sam’s frugality, this is a nice watchable sci-fi movie, mainly because animator Ray Harryhausen kept the creature either under water or at the surface’s edge to hide its obvious deficiencies. Director Gordon brought the film in at an astounding $150,000 - $26,000 of which went for the animation. To save money, Gordon shot the submarine scenes on a real submarine using a hand-held camera. When Katzman canceled beach location shooting, Gordon simply had sand brought onto a sound stage and used rear projection to simulate the location. (The sand was so soft that lead Tobey had to dig himself out between scenes, as he was shrinking beneath co-star Domergue.) Two extensive scenes between the lead characters – one an extended love scene – were literally ripped from the script by Katzman to save money.

In a genre where the monster is usually the most interesting character, It Came From Beneath the Sea boasts several excellent performances from its stars. Tobey, a Howard Hawks discovery, and Domergue, a Howard Hughes discovery, do their utmost best to come across as serious in a script that would have doomed lesser acting talents. Curtis gives strong support as Faith’s first love interest and fellow marine biologist, and Keith is noteworthy in a small role as Admiral Burns.

4:00 am The Cyclops (Allied Artists, 1957) – Director: Bert I. Gordon. Cast: James Craig, Gloria Talbott, Lon Chaney, Jr., Tom Drake, & Duncan Parkin. B&W, 66 minutes.

For sheer lunacy and unintended laughs, there’s nothing like a Gordon psychotronic extravaganza. Having struck drive-in gold with The Amazing Colossal Man, Bert tries to make fiscal lightning strike twice with this opus about a young woman (Talbott) searching for her missing fiancé in the jungles of Mexico. When she finally finds him she wishes she hadn’t for he has somehow mutated via that ol’ debbil radiation into a hideous gigantic one-eyed monster. Watch it for the poorly-drawn characters, the inanity of the plot, and the great hilarious dialogue. Bert wrote the screenplay himself and proved to the world he was no Ben Hecht. Michael Weldon summarized it best in his authoritative The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film: The 50-foot monster is Beret Gordon’s dumbest/weirdest special effect . . . A trash classic!”

June 7
11:15 am Stranger on the Third Floor (RKO, 1940) – Director: Boris Ingster. Cast: Peter Lorre, John McGuire, Margaret Tallichet, Charles Waldron, & Elisha Cook, Jr. B&W, 67 minutes.

Question: Is this a film noir, or isn’t it? Critics and historians are divided, so see it yourself and make up your own mind. Reporter McGuire discovers a murder and his subsequent testimony convicts ex-con Cook. Feeling guilty, McGuire then begins to investigate on his own and finds himself the prime suspect when a second murder, that of his nosy neighbor, takes place. Then in one of the most surrealistic and imaginative sequences in a film (especially considering its budget), McGuire dreams that he is convicted of murdering his neighbor. He tells girlfriend Tallichet about the dream and the strange, shadowy man he saw lurking nearby during the time of the murder. She believed in Cook’s innocence and also believes in McGuire’s innocence. It’s up to her to track down the murderer, and she finds him in the person of Lorre, who appears in the film for only a few minutes. Do catch this film: its stylized sets (almost the entire film is shot on one street set. Looking at other scenes, we can see they’re nothing more than the product of clever lighting.), bizarre camera angles and lighting are evocative of the German Expressionist films of the 20s to which this film owes an obvious debt. But more than that – tune in and see how much can be made from so little.

Trivia: Tallichet, who played Jane, has some famous family connections – she is the niece-in-law of Universal founder Carl Laemmle, cousin-in-law of Carl Laemmele, Jr., and quit acting in 1941 to raise a family with husband William Wyler, to whom she was married from October 23, 1938 until his death on July 27, 1981. It’s quite a record by Hollywood standards. 

8:00 pm The Maltese Falcon (WB, 1931) – Director: Roy Del Ruth. Cast: Ricardo Cortez, Bebe Daniels, Dudley Digges, Una Merkel, Thelma Todd, Otto Matieson & Elisha Cook, Jr.  B&W, 80 minutes.

Here it is – the first version of the now famous noir classic. This film totally astounded me the first time I saw it years ago on a triple bill featuring all three versions. Dashiell Hammett wrote the screenplay himself, aided by Maude Fulton and Brown Holmes. The plot of the novel was perfect for a Pre-code film, with its cast of lowlife characters pursuing a jewel-encrusted statue of a falcon. One of those chasing the statue is Joel Cairo, described in the novel as “queer,” and portrayed no differently in the film, though the homosexual angle is downplayed. Another, Kapsar Gutman, refers to his assistant, Wilmer, as a gunsel. “Gunsel” is 30s prison slang for a hired gun and a homosexual. The only character of the novel cut for the screen is that of Gutman’s daughter, who Spade discovers near the end and who suffers hideous scars from a sadomasochistic relationship with Wilmer and, the novel implies, her father.

One difference between the ‘31 and ‘41 versions is the character of Sam Spade. As played by Cortez in this version, he’s an inveterate womanizer. (Bogart shows some of the same instincts in the ‘41 version, but these are downplayed by the censorship of the times.) The babe quotient is also higher in the ‘31 version, with the gorgeous Daniels as Ruth Wonderly and Todd as Iva Archer. Also look for Digges as Gutman (though he was too thin to be called “the fat man.”) and the tragic Dwight Frye makes for a good Wilmer.

9:30 pm City Streets (Paramount, 1931) – Director: Rouben Mamoulian. Cast: Gary Cooper, Sylvia Sidney, Paul Lukas, Wynne Gibson, William Boyd, & Guy Kibbee. B&W, 83 minutes.

Director Mamoulian takes Dashiell Hammett’s only original story for the screen and turns it into an almost lyrical love story about two lovers overwhelmed by fate and circumstance. Cooper makes an excellent impression as a carnival worker – a western marksman known as “the Kid” – who joins the bootlegging racket of his lover Nan’s (Sidney) stepfather, Pop Cooley (Kibbee), who’s in cahoots with big league gangster Maskal (Lukas). Maskal takes an instant shine to Nan and tries to make her his lover. When the Kid steps in and asserts his claim, Maskal later sends his men to kill him. Will Nan and the Kid escape Maskal’s tentacles? I can only advise you to watch – you will not be disappointed.

Trivia: Clara Bow was originally cast in the role of Nan, but suffered a nervous breakdown prior to filming. Mamoulian recommended Sidney for the part in her stead.

4:30 am Satan Met a Lady (WB, 1936) – Director: William Dieterle. Cast: Bette Davis, Warren William, Alison Skipworth, Arthur Treacher, Marie Wilson, & Winifred Shaw.  B&W, 75 minutes.

Warner Bros., for some strange reason unbeknownst to the world, decided not only to recycle The Maltese Falcon, but also to overhaul it into something totally unrecognizable, thus creating one of the greatest curiosities of film history. It was also one of the final straws that broke the back of Davis and caused her to flee to England to escape.

In this version Sam Spade has now become private eye Ted Shane (Williams). The falcon has been changed into the “fabled” Horn of Roland, a trumpet stuffed full of jewels and is being sought by Davis, playing the Bebe Daniels-Mary Astor role. The character of Kasper Gutman has undergone a sex change and is now Madame Barrabas (Skipworth). Joel Cairo has morphed into English jewel thief Anthony Travers (Treacher). Shane accepts money from each of them to find the horn, and when he finally gets his hands on it he discovers that, instead of jewels, it’s filled with sand. The rest we’ll leave up to you to watch. It’s a definite Must See on the curiosity factor alone.

Trivia: Marie Wilson plays Shane’s secretary, Miss Murgatroyd.

For other Cinema Inhabituel films, click here.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013


Dinner and a Movie

At Long Last - Capital Epic

By Steve Herte

Epic (20th Century Fox/Blue Skies Studios, 2013) Director: Chris Wedge. Starring the Voices Of: Colin Farrell, Josh Hutcherson, Beyoncé Knowles, Christoph Waltz, Amanda Seyfried, Aziz Ansari, Chris O’Dowd, Judah Friedlander, & Steven Tyler. Color and 3D, 102 minutes.

If Blue Skies Studios want to receive a better reaction from reviewers, they should do one of two things:

1. Get better writers.

2. Do not allow trailers of superior films to precede the debut of a new movie like this one.

I must admit that when I saw the trailers for Rio 2 and Despicable Me 2, my expectations for Epic were affected. In fact, upon viewing Epic I was surprised to learn that its creators were the same as those for Ice Age and Rio.

This reaction has nothing to do with the situation of my viewing the film. The rainy, dismal day, the missed bus, the location of the multiplex in one of the worst parts of Queens, the inability to order my ticket through Fandango and thus avoid the quadri-folded “snake-dance” line of humanity awaiting purchase of tickets at the inept, two-person staffed box-office which left me with five minutes to find my theater and get a seat - none of this affected my opinion.

It was delightful to leave the mob scene headed for Fast and Furious 6 and Hangover 3 and join a more civilized audience of 15 (mainly children, but behaved) and locate a good, comfortable seat.

The movie starts with a narration about a forest being the scene of a constant war between “Life and Rot” (Whoa! They almost lost my attention right there!), and that it was fought unseen by human eyes. The scene magnifies until we can see little soldiers in bright green armor, the “Leaf Men,” riding hummingbirds at high speed and dodging the arrows of the gray army of Mandrake (Waltz). Everything an arrow hits turns into an oak gall (even if on a maple tree) giving the impression of rot and decay. The leaf men fend off the enemy and return to the secluded glen that is their home. The leader, Ronin (Farrell) enters the dwelling place of Queen Tara (Knowles) and even though the entire audience knows by her innuendoes that these two are an “item” (nudge, nudge, wink, wink), he‘s all business. He’s more concerned about her being the “Life” of the forest and how the battle went, and the fact that his ward, Nod (Hutcherson), under his care since Nod’s father died, doesn’t follow orders, preferring reckless deeds instead. Queen Tara tells Ronin that the time has come for her to choose an “heir,” which means she has to go to the lily pond supervised by Mub – a snail (Ansari), and Grub – a slug (O‘Dowd), and select a “pod” (basically an unopened lily bud) to bloom under the full moon during the summer solstice. Stop me if you’ve heard this plot before.

Cut to the bad guys’ encampment. Mandrake’s son is very proud to have found a rat’s skin to wear so he will look more like Dad, and it has the desired effect. The plot is hatched to snatch the pod, kill Queen Tara and force the pod to bloom in darkness, thereby dooming the entire forest to eternal rot. Happy happy joy joy! They ready for the ambush and battle.

The scene changes to a taxi wherein a redheaded teenage girl named Mary Katherine (Seyfried) – she calls herself MK – is going to see her father and hopefully talk him out of his crazy, antisocial ways. The cab pulls up to a rickety two-story Victorian in the middle of nowhere and the cab driver (Friedlander) has the best line in the movie, “That’s a house? That’s termites holding hands!” He gives her his card suggesting she call him if she needs a quick retreat. MK’s dad is your typical Absent-Minded Professor, totally involved in his research and wearing a ridiculous helmet bearing several magnifying devices (which, by the way make it impossible for him to run in the forest without tripping over something). He whisks past MK blindly three or four times before realizing she’s there, and is followed by Ozzie, an aging but quick, three-legged, one-eyed pug.

Dad thinks she’s come to join him in his work and she’s trying to make him see the error of his ways and become a father to her once more. It doesn’t work either way. She decides to go home but as she leaves, Ozzie scoots out the door and she tries to retrieve him. This leads her right into the thick of the ambush and battle for the pod. The dying queen tosses her the pod and it shrinks her down to leaf-man size and gives her a new destiny (I guess you could say Beyoncé made her Destiny’s Child). She now has to protect the pod and bring it to Nim Galuu (Tyler), a zany caterpillar/seer who acts like the Wizard of Oz (I see the plots of two other movies here) for protection. Nim Galuu is the only member of the cast who gets to sing. By now, you get the idea.

Epic is a pretty, colorful movie with a superb soundtrack by Danny Elfman (which is how I will remember it best), good animation, some really great camera angles during the chase scenes, an interesting (but done-before) concept (hey, it’s a fantasy!) and the occasional funny quip thrown in my Mub or Grub. The rest of the dialogue is tired and hackneyed; the sunlight glare effect is good but used too often, and the whole movie seems to be a Fantasia wannabe without achieving the magic that was Disney at the time. It is based on the book “The Leaf Men and The Brave Good Bugs” by William Joyce. The film is an unbelievably squeaky-clean (no sex, no vulgarity, no blood, and definitely no gratuitous violence) fairy tale for the children (and they will love it) but there’s virtually nothing there for adults. Rating: 2½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

206-12 Hillside Avenue, Queens Village, NY

As Aretha Franklin sang, “Let’s go back, let’s go back, let’s go way on back when…” My first experience of Indian cuisine was in the late 1970s at a charming little restaurant called Kalpana, on Main Street in Flushing, Queens. The exotic décor, the wood carvings of the gods, the wonderful aromas, the pleasant musical voices of the servers and the delicious spicy food prepared lovingly and proudly brought to the table hooked me for life. Over my several visits, I tried every dish on their menu and many became benchmarks for comparison to future restaurants’ food.

I’ve passed Rajdhani (the name means “Capital” in Hindi) many times over the past couple of years on the bus going to and returning from work and I knew it was a catering house, but when I saw the word “restaurant” I started looking for an opportunity to try it out. The next thing I did was find its website. When the dishes listed in the online menu echoed the ones in the now absent Kalpana it was only a matter of timing and placement before I would dine there. Then the United States Congress had the wisdom to furlough everyone in my place of business and the opportunity presented itself.

Surprisingly, Rajdhani is more charming on the outside than inside (they’ve only been a restaurant for five months). You walk through the beautiful wooden doors with etched glass and enter a bright spotless room with large white tiles on the floor, ivory walls accented with maize-yellow, a good-sized maple-wood bar on the right with a matching ornamental room-divider in the back, 10 to 12 tables covered in white cloths with stemmed water glasses, silverware and napkins on top, and comfortable wooden chairs with green seats.

At 7:00 pm on a Friday I was the first customer, so the manager indicated my choice of tables and I chose a table for two on the same wall as the bar and one table removed from the doors (this way I could see who else arrived). Behind me was a wide shelf that stretched from the bar to the front and around the corner past the front window to the doors, apparently for the Indian Buffets. The waiter took my water preference and brought the impressively-large menu and a basket of Papadum (wafer-thin, crisp peppery bread) and a tray of two Chutneys, mint and Tamarind. (Just like Kalpana, except they usually included onion chutney.) 

Then I noticed the cocktail and wine list on a two-sided sandwich card standing on the table. The “Bombay Tiger” leapt out at me from a memory of my favorite Indian restaurant, the Bengal Tiger (now also gone - burned down), and I ordered one to sip while reviewing the menu. Bombay Sapphire gin mixed with both sweet and dry vermouth, tamarind and lemon juice was intriguing, tangy and a beautiful shade of tiger-orange.

Assuring (I thought) my waiter that I am a slow eater and that I had all the time in the world I ordered my dinner. In spite of my assurance the appetizer, Fish Pakoras (fritters) - light flaky fish filets in the reddish-orange crust indicating the spices and the cooking in the tandoor oven - arrived at the same time as the Mulligatawny Soup (an almost exact copy of Kalpana’s - a mildly spiced chicken-based soup with pureed chick peas and lentils) but I didn’t mind. The temperature of both dishes was steamy hot and by the time I had finished the fritters, the soup was almost perfect. The lemon slice included with the fritters squeezed into the soup added just the right touch.

At this time my cocktail was finished and I noticed that all the wines on the list were available by the glass as well as by the bottle. I ordered the Black Swan Merlot and it proved to be the exact fit with the flavors of the appetizer and soup, thus changing my previous opinion about Merlots. The main part of the dinner was being brought to my table and I shifted the water glass and pre-appetizer to accommodate it. The Rogan Josh – a Kashmiri lamb dish in a rich, mildly spiced tomato gravy – and the Pulao Rice – aromatic Basmati rice with the usual hidden cardamom pod – were both served in attractive square bowls. The Onion Kulcha – a flatbread stuffed with onions and parsley baked in the tandoor – was in a basket served in quarters. The Raita – a yoghurt dish made with shredded cucumbers and carrots (the perfect cooler of spices) – was in a round bowl. All brought blissful memories of Kalpana. For this segment of the meal, the Cellar 8 Pinot Noir replaced the Merlot and took authoritative charge while complimenting the flavors.

By now I had finished the lamb but there was still some gravy, rice, bread and raita, and I was approaching fullness. When the Pinot Noir ran out, I switched to the Cabernet. The difference was like a nuclear explosion of gustatory pleasure and it proved a wonderful companion to the sauce-covered rice accented by the yoghurt. I still wanted dessert, so I had my waiter pack up all that remained in a carry-out bag and ordered the Ras Malai – fluffy white homemade cheese balls in a creamy coconut sauce – delicious. The one surprise was that they didn’t have Masala Tea (or as we now call it, Chai). “We have only regular coffee and tea.” “A selection of teas, maybe?” “Lipton.” “Ugh, I’ll have coffee, thank you.” The coffee was actually quite good.

Just before I left is when I learned of their five-month existence and that they still didn’t have a business card. A take-out menu substituted nicely, and … they deliver! “Do you live in the neighborhood?” “Yes, I’m just south of Jamaica Avenue.” “See you again.” Definitely, and I happily walked home with my booty anticipating another great meal and knowing that my 128th Indian restaurant successfully replaced the first.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Monday, May 27, 2013


Animation Nation

After Bugs, Daffy, Sam and Foghorn

By Steve Herte

Animaniacs (WB/Ambllin, 1993-98) Producers: Steven Spielberg, Tom Ruegger. Voices: Tress MacNaille, Rob Paulsen, Jess Harnell, Frank Welker, Maurice LaMarche, Sherri Stoner, John Mariano, Chuck Vennera,  Nathan Ruegger, Laura Mooney, Mary Gross, & Bernadette Peters.

When the heyday of Warner Brothers cartoons ended in the 1960s we were all pretty happy watching the reruns knowing that nothing would compare to the sheer brilliance of comic writing, plots and superb synchronization of sight and sound. And pretty much, nothing did until Stephen Spielberg presented The Animaniacs in 1993. The characters were all new, the situations much shorter and compiled into a variety-style cartoon show knitted together by the two Warner Brothers, Yakko and Wakko and the Warner Sister, Dot. These three madcap monkeys (all evidence points to this as their species) heckle other stodgy characters with Marx Brothers’ style quick humor (Yakko is definitely descended from Groucho) and in many cases, education. Yes, education. There are a few vignettes where Yakko dresses in a cap and gown and performs such amazing feats as singing “All the Countries of the World” to the tune of the Mexican Hat Dance.

All of the characters in the cast are drawn with the same three dimensional, fluid motion techniques of the originals and this adds to their charm. Yakko (Paulsen), as I mentioned is the wisenheimer, always quick with a joke, pun or witty remark. Wakko (Harnell) speaks with a Liverpuddlian accent and eats anything in sight but also comes up with many a clever quip. Dot (MacNeille), though she prefers to appear sweet and cute (she has an alter-ego title of Princess Angelina Contessa Louisa Francesca Banana Fanna Bobesca the Third) keeps up with her hyperactive brothers and never misses a punchline.

When Yakko, Wakko and Dot are not running from Ralph, the guard (Frank Welker) at the Warner Brothers Studio Lot, or locked in the water tower (from which they continually escape) we are treated to various other characters, such as The Goodfeathers, three pigeons – Bobby (Mariano), Pesto (Vennera), and Squit (LaMarche) – who worship Martin Scorsese and are obvious spoofs of Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci of Goodfellas (1990). Their faux-mob antics on a New York background are hilarious and push the envelope of ethnic comedy.

Adding a vaudeville note to the cast are Rita the cat (Peters) and Runt the dog (Welker), who always turn the dangerous situations they confront into a song opportunity.

The only characters to spawn a successful spin-off of the show in 1995 are the team of Pinky (Paulsen) and The Brain (LaMarche), two white lab rats who conspire night after night to “take over the world.” Pinky, per the opening song is “insane” but his goofiness perfectly balances the straight-faced Orson Welles-like Brain. My Mom loved this cartoon the best. Once and only once did I see Pinky succeed in his quest; only to be disappointed in the power he acquired.

Slappy the Squirrel (Stoner) is a post-menopausal misanthropic survivor of the Golden Age of cartoons whose only friend is her nephew Skippy (Ruegger). Whoever else is unfortunate enough to appear in her scenes gets the worst of the episode, no matter how big or bad they are. Slappy always has the upper hand and ends each segment with, “Now that’s comedy!” At first she’s hard to take, but once you get the idea of the cartoon you look forward to the next one.

Whenever Mindy (Nancy Cartwright), a toddler who literally gets into everything finds herself in a bind (and that’s every episode) it’s up to Buttons (Welker), a watchdog to extricate her.

A character we don’t get to see often is Chicken Boo, a giant chicken optimistic enough to believe he can be a part of normal society.

Also occasionally we see the short incidents in the life of Katie Ka-Boom (Mooney) a highly-strung teenager who wants things her way or else – KA-BOOM! It’s amazing her long-suffering Mom (Gross) can survive her tantrums.

Lastly, there is the amorous couple, Flavio and Marita, two very funny hippos. There’s something attractive about them despite their great mass. It could be the sexy accents.

I personally treasure the DVDs of the first four seasons on Animaniacs because I love every cartoon and it deserves to be in my collection. The only question is, where are the rest of them?

Saturday, May 25, 2013

ESPN Loses English Premier League


Fare-Thee-Well, Ian and Macca

By Ed Garea

Usually, ESPN manages to insult my intelligence, but this time it broke my heart, even though it’s not all the sports network’s fault.

Three years ago, on the back of the success they had broadcasting the World Cup, ESPN bought the rights to broadcast selected games of the English Premier League. Having been a fan of the English game since 1964 (Yes, 1964. Being a member of my school’s soccer team, I was also a Beatles fan, so guess what city’s team I rooted for?), I was eager to see what ESPN would do – or do to – the games. Expecting the worst, someone like Alexi Lalas doing the commentary for instance, I was very pleasantly surprised when they chose Ian Darke to do the play-by-play, and totally bowled over when they chose Steve “Macca” McManaman to provide the commentary.

Talk about hitting a grand slam. Darke is the best at play-by-play in the business. Think of a combination Vin Scully-Red Barber-Mel Allen at the microphone and you get an idea of Darke’s style. This concise style, added to an inner sense of when to turn the exuberance on and off and just how high to dial it, makes him a sheer joy to listen as he describes a game.

McManaman was quite possibly my favorite player. I loved watching him at work; his dribbling and running skills were the best in the game at the time. An attacking midfielder with Liverpool, and later Real Madrid, he was exciting to watch on the pitch. (I can still remember his two goals for Liverpool in the 1995 FA Cup final against Bolton, which won the game and later earned the match the title of “the McManaman final.”) Along with teammates Robbie Fowler, Jamie Redknapp, David James, and Jason McAteer, they caused havoc both on the pitch and off the pitch, where they were labeled “The Spice Boys” by the press for their antics. But proving he was more than just a dumb jock, McManaman wrote a football column for The Times of London, and after retirement, enjoyed a television career in England.

What, then, made them so special in my eyes? To start, while most commentators either simply go back and forth during a game, or have a conversation during the game, Ian and Macca had a conversation about the game. They went into the game assuming the viewer was sufficiently educated enough to the point where they needed not be spoon-fed about some of the game’s finer points. If a viewer didn’t know what’s going on, just listening to this duo describe the action was enough to prompt him or her to look up those finer points. But while they didn’t talk down to the viewer, they also do not talk above their viewers’ heads. Rather, they credited their audience with the intelligence to quickly surmise what’s going in. Their job was to enhance the viewing experience.

Ian and Macca simply stayed on point while discussing the action on the pitch. We didn’t hear, for instance, about, say, Ian’s new espresso machine, or the new gift Macca’s missus bought for him, or that his kid recently brought home straight A’s. Neither did we hear fawning remarks about the players, such as what this one wore to the game, or how many houses one other had, or just what a wonderful person he was. No, we heard about the players and their work during the game; where they were rumored to be going the next year – if that entered the conversation. They were so smooth that we knew they weren’t working from a list of talking points, but were rather like two guys talking about the game. Some of their exchanges were downright hilarious, such as the one during a period of rough play when one player stepped (I thought deliberately) on another’s foot:

Macca: Do you think there’s any history between these two?

Ian: There is now.

They also have to be lauded for keeping their objectivity, which I thought was difficult for McManaman as he put in so many years in a Liverpool kit. In fact, they were so good at this that I would read comments on various football blogs as to how awful they were; this always seemed to happen right after they took a team to task for particularly poor play. One Arsenal fan called them “Dumb and Dumber” after their criticism of the way the Gunners played after one disappointing match.

However, from this end they were definitely worth recording (their matches, live from the U.K., were often broadcast at the hours of 6:30 in the morning) and made me a happy viewer. They had a unique chemistry with one another. When Macca disappeared for two weeks during the close of this season, I didn’t know what to think. Craig Burley replaced him during his hiatus, and while a good commentator, Burley didn’t quite have the magic with Darke. When Macca came back to the booth and it was explained that he was in Singapore for a seniors’ football tournament, I was relieved – and I think Ian was as well. I remember McManaman putting his arm around Darke just before they went to commercial and saying with a smile, “Did you miss me?” While Darke replied with a somewhat embarrassed smile, we all knew the truth.

While they won’t disappear altogether, their time together will be drastically reduced. NBC outbid both Fox and ESPN for the new Premier League contract. While we could hope they’re astute enough to install Ian and Steve as their lead announcers, we know this won’t be the case. We do expect to see the duo reunite as ESPN has the rights to the 2014 World Cup, so we can only sit and wait, and hope something changes in the future.

All I know is that, while I love the English game, my enjoyment won’t be as great as when I could hear these two sterling professionals in action.