Friday, November 29, 2013

TCM TiVo Alert for December 1-7

TCM TiVo ALERT
For
December 1–December 7

DAVID’S BEST BETS:

RESERVOIR DOGS (December 2, 4:15 am): The debut of director and writer Quentin Tarantino, this outstanding film from 1992 tells the story of a jewelry heist gone bad without actually showing the crime. Tarantino borrows liberally from The Taking of Pelham of One Two ThreeKansas City ConfidentialRififi and The Killing, among others, yet he makes this film his own with an extraordinary script. The casting is excellent with Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Steve Buscemi and the director himself. The action, the humor, great lines, raw energy, almost unwatchable violence and very colorful language come at the viewer fast and furious. A master at having music enhance his films, Tarantino uses Stealers Wheel's "Stuck in the Middle With You" in Reservoir Dogs' most gruesome and memorable scene. It's horrifying, compelling, shocking and incredibly effective. The film has great style with the substance to back it up.

THE PETRIFIED FOREST (December 3, 4:00 am): I recommended this film in July 2012, and for those who haven't seen it, it's one you don't want to miss. LikeReservoir Dogs, set the TiVo as it's being shown at a ridiculous time. As I wrote the first time I recommended it, this is film noir before the term was coined. In one of his first major roles, Humphrey Bogart gets to play a bad guy – Duke Mantee, a notorious gangster on the run. He was so great in this 1936 film as the heavy – bringing depth, emotion and character to the role – that Warner Brothers spent nearly five years casting Bogart in other movies as the bad guy. But only a few were of this quality. Duke and his gang end up in a diner near the Petrified Forest in Arizona to avoid the police. When that doesn't work, they take everyone inside hostage. Among those inside is Alan Squier (Leslie Howard), a once-great writer who is now an alcoholic. Not fearing death because of what life has become for him, Squier engages Duke in conversation, pushing his buttons. The interaction between the two is outstanding. The film is an adaption of the play that featured Howard and Bogart in the same roles. Also at the dinner is Gabrielle Maple (Bette Davis), who owns it with her father and grandfather. Davis is excellent and even subdued (gasp!) as a secondary character (gasp!).

ED’S BEST BETS:

DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST (December 1, 2:00 am): Robert Bresson’s beautifully directed adaptation of Georges Bernanos’ moving novel about a young cleric assigned to a rural parish whose self-doubts, combined with his physical ailments (stomach cancer), keep him from becoming the spiritual leader he so desires to be among his parishioners. Bresson focuses on the everyday life of the young priest (who is never named) as he visits around his parish on his bicycle. We see his interactions with unfortunate peasants, disrespectful children, a suicidal doctor, a countess constantly mourning her dead son, soliciting money from her husband for a community project, and coping with stomach pains that are growing worse. Though he seeks counsel from an older down-to-earth priest in a neighboring parish, he can’t seem to fend off suspicions that he’s nothing but a meddling outsider who will never understand the parish or its citizens. Though his belief in God is strong, his belief in his own abilities is shaky, and he comers to believe that he will never be a good priest. As his cancer grows, he mortifies his flesh by eating only bread soaked in wine, and though the cancer diagnosis helps explain his decline, his spirituality not only endures, but also grows. At the end we are informed of his death and last words, “All is grace.” Bresson’s adaptation is not only faithful to Bernandos’ novel, but also manages to capture the spirituality that moves throughout the pages of the book, a difficult task for a film. It’s a must see not only for fans of Bresson and Bernandos – it’s a must see for all those who enjoy a faithfully told story.

THE TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE (December 6, 6:00 am): Mention the name “Fritz Lang” to any cinephile and expect to hear “Dr. Mabuse” among the answers. Mabuse is Lang’s master criminal par excellence; his Professor Moriarty. This is Lang’s follow-up to M and his last film made in Germany until his return in the ‘50s. Here we see the further adventures of arch criminal Mabuse. Mabuse has been locked away in an asylum for a decade. Strange things are happening between seemingly disconnected persons and event. Disgraced cop Hofmeister (Karl Meixner) investigates, partially to recover his tarnished reputation. But before he can divulge the facts behind the case he is driven insane. It is now up to Commissioner Lohmann (Otto Wernicke, following up on his role in M) follows the trail to the asylum where Mabuse is kept. What happens from there is compelling viewing, especially as we quickly make the connection between Mabuse and Hitler. Mabuse’s writing – his “testament” – is in reality Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Goebbels banned the film in Germany. Don’t miss it.

WE DISAGREE ON ... A RAISIN IN THE SUN (December 5, 9:45 pm)

ED: A. This is a powerful film from Columbia, based on Lorraine Hansberry’s Broadway play, and the studio was smart enough to let her write the screenplay. It is also a deep film: set in the projects of Chicago it shows the hardship and prejudice African-American families faced. But below that surface it is also a study in character, namely how the women in the movie wait for the man of the family, Walter (Sidney Poitier), to finally find himself. The premise of the film is simple: how best to use a life-insurance bequest of $10,000. Mother Lena (Claudia McNeil) wants to use it to buy a house and as tuition for her daughter’s (Diana Sands) medical school. Son Walter wants to use it to buy a liquor store and escape his job as a chauffeur for a wealthy white man. How the movie eventually plays out will leave no one that watches it unmoved. The cast is strong and their performances pitch perfect. A Raisin in the Sun is one of the best movies to date about the American Dream and how best to achieve it.

DAVID: B. There's no doubt this is a fine film, but it doesn't deserve an "A" grade. Like The Petrified ForestA Raisin in the Sun was originally a play. But the latter feels too much like a play with the small set – which isn't always a bad thing such as 12 Angry Men. But A Raisin in the Sun would have benefited from giving the performers more space and less opportunities to overact. Overacting is far too common on Broadway, and it carries over into this film. As Ed wrote, the premise is simple. The family inherits $10,000 in life insurance after the death of its patriarch and everyone is torn as to how to use the money. The actors work well together with effective performances by most, particularly Sidney Poitier (of course), Claudia McNeil as his mother, and Ruby Dee as his wife. The storyline is touching and tragic though the ending is just not believable. It's a very good film and one worth seeing. But, unlike Ed, I don't consider it one of the best movies to date about the American Dream and how best to achieve it.


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

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Philomena

Dinner and a Movie

Philomena and Rayuela

By Steve Herte

People ask me if I miss Helene. After five years I still think of her daily. There’s always something there to remind me (Hmm ... good song title) and my friends could tell you that her name comes up at least once in every conversation. I miss her most at dinner, when we would discuss each other’s day, laugh at the dumb things we saw other people do or the typos on the menu (this one I just dined at had “Slamon Rellenos” instead of “salmon”), admire the sexy people around us, and explore and enjoy our food. She was my intellectual equal, the other half of my brain. When I couldn’t remember something, she did. Now I have to rack my brain more often or look something up on the computer. She seriously would have loved the movie I saw this week and would have been a puddle of tears at the end. As for the restaurant, I can hear her saying, “Estoy es Vivir!” (This is living.) Enjoy!

Philomena (BBC Films, 2013) – Director: Stephen Frears. Writers: Steve Coogan & Jeff Pope (s/p, Martin Sixsmith (book). Cast: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Mare Winningham, Barbara Jefford, Michelle Fairley, Charles Edwards & Charlie Murphy. Color, 98 minutes.

It is a shame that this film based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith premiered in only two theaters in Manhattan. More people should see it and realize what superb acting really is, and what kind of movies get nominated for and win the most Academy Awards.

Dame Judy Dench plays the title character, an Irish woman who had one brief ecstatic moment with a boy while in her teens at a fair and who paid for it with 50 years of her life. She became pregnant and her parents locked her in a convent where she breech-birthed her son Anthony. Only allowed to see their children one hour each day she and her best friend Kathleen (Murphy) soon notice that Anthony and Kathleen’s daughter Mary are inseparable. Therefore, when the adoptive parents come to the convent for Mary, Anthony goes with her and Philomena is devastated.


Coogan plays Martin Sixsmith, a journalist for the BBC who is fired over an email he didn’t send, is looking for work. He meets Sally Mitchell (Fairley) who gives him a “Human Interest” assignment – a kind of reporting he’s not used to – and it’s Philomena’s story. A trip to the convent reveals a tale of a “great fire” that destroyed all the adoption records and yet they produce the one document proving Philomena’s waiving of all rights to her child. This makes Martin very suspicious. Further digging discloses that the Hess family in America were the adoptive parents, and Martin and Philomena travel to Washington, D.C.

While Philomena frets about whether her son thinks about her or about Ireland or if he’s homeless or perhaps obese (from the large portions that are served in America) Martin learns through his laptop that Anthony succeeded in becoming a lawyer and was a consultant to both Presidents Bush and Reagan before dying of AIDS five years before Martin and Philomena arrived in America. When Martin tells Philomena that her son was gay she simply says, “I know” and explains her suspicions by his actions as a toddler. The only ones left to talk to are Anthony’s adoptive sister Mary (Winningham) – who tells them of the unpleasant childhood they both had – and Anthony’s gay lover David (Edwards).

After a rocky start they learn from David that Anthony returned to Ireland looking for his mother and that the nuns sidetracked him into believing that his mother had given up on him. They also learn that the “great fire” was an intentional bonfire just for the records and not an accident in the convent. Lastly, the major revelation is that David had to fight the adoptive parents to fulfill Anthony’s dying wish – to be buried in Ireland.

Well, we’ve come full circle,” says Philomena to Martin as they drive through the entrance gates of the convent once again; and after a highly emotional scene – Martin is furious – they discover that Anthony is buried on the grounds of the convent.

Dench is a marvel in expressing the hopes, misgivings, heartbreak and happiness of the various stages of this film. Coogan is perfect as the man who is only there for the job but who becomes the friend, confident, and defender of Philomena’s rights. Clark plays young Philomena and gives a heart-wrenching performance as she watches Anthony being taken away. Jefford has a brief but brilliant moment as the arrogantly righteous Sister Hildegarde defending her actions.

In this day of vampires, zombies, werewolves and terrorism movies it’s refreshing to see a beautifully produced, well-acted drama with a timeless story. Philomena is more than cinema. It’s art. Rating: 5 out of 5 Martini glasses.


Rayuela
165 Allen Street (between Stanton and Rivington Streets), New York

Rayuela: f., n.(ra'jwela) 1. the children's game; pitch and toss, hopscotch 2. the title of renowned novel by Argentine writer Julio Cortázar, an introspective novel written in Paris in 1963 where readers can hopscotch into multiple endings 3. the restaurant featuring Estilo Libre Latino Cuisine, a culinary journey where traditional dishes of Latin America, the Caribbean and Spain are redefined and borders crisscrossed and hop-scotched to infuse the ingredients of each country into every plate.

Thus reads the website as well as the reverse side of Rayuela’s business card. According to the press releases, Rayuela has been serving great food since May of 2007. I almost feel remiss in not discovering it until now. 


The first thing you can’t miss when you enter the restaurant is the tree in the center of the floor. There is no evidence that the tree is alive but obviously the two-story space was constructed around it. The stairway to the second floor is just beyond it and seems to be supported by a wrought iron lattice decorated with votive candles, as are the two sidewalls.

The young lady at the Captain’s station led me to my table behind a gauzy curtain just beyond the tree. The chair was low-backed and looked uncomfortable so I chose to sit on the banquette with a pillow. Senior citizens, be warned – this is not more comfortable. The cushion on the seat was wider than my upper legs are long and the pillow provides no support at all. When I leaned back I was almost reclining. Not good for anyone with back problems. The tables are more like large folding snack tables and are difficult for anyone less limber than I to navigate. What I eventually did was push the table far enough away from the seat cushion to allow me to perch on the edge and eat. When I leaned back with my glass of wine I felt more like an ancient Roman aristocrat. However, this is my only negative concerning Rayuela.

When my waiter Angel took my water preference I was in the mood for an original cocktail and there were several interesting choices. But since I was in an “Estilo Libre” (free style) restaurant I ordered the Estilo Libre Rye cocktail – Black pepper infused Sazerac Rye, Domaine de Canton ginger liquor and lemon – spicy with a kick. Establishing that it was my first time at Rayuelas and that I would like to try several things Angel recommended the five-course tasting menu. He assured me that I would remember each dish and promised to explain each. He noticed my interest in red wines and recommended the 2009 Museum Crianza Tempranillo from Spain which was on special that night ($39 a bottle) and I agreed. One taste and I was hooked. The wine (14% alcohol) was a beautiful deep ruby color and had a tart, tannic first taste. But sometime before it hit the throat there was an explosion of rich flavor that elicited a “Whoa!”

A server who obviously has eaten all of his meals at Rayuela several times since its opening served me a single, small cheese-stuffed bun and a triangular dish of chimichurri – a garlic, parsley, olive oil, dipping sauce – delightful (good thing he stopped serving them after two because I could have eaten more, to the detriment of the rest of the meal). 


The next dish to appear was an amuse-bouche, a dainty cake about the diameter of a silver dollar topped with a light crab salad and set in a pale green mayonnaise-like sauce. Two bites and it was gone; I used half a bun to get that wonderful sauce.

Rayuela has five different Ceviches – marinated cold seafood, usually in a vinegary sauce – and the next dish was the Ceviche Mixto. The sliced octopus, bay scallops and shrimp were swimming in an emerald green cilantro and clam juice sauce which burst upon contact with the tongue in a fireworks display of jalapeno. It was excellent, amazing and just spicy enough.

In contrast to the ceviche, the next dish, Bollos con Gambas – a kind of dense Spanish corn brioche flavored with smoky chorizo sausage topped with sautéed Tiger shrimp in a Chipotle and yellow corn cream sauce – was erotically delicious. I seriously cannot look at an ear of corn the same way after this dish. I told Angel that if I met a woman as good as this dish I would do anything she asked. He smiled and said, “I told you. Every dish here is full of flavor.” He didn’t lie.


The main course (or Plato Fuerte if you will) was Solomillo a la Parrila – a grilled, juicy, tender Filet Mignon topped with Chanterelle Puree, Glazed Red Pearl Onions, Tempura-style Fried Green Asparagus and in a Membrillo Sauce (made with quince paste). If I thought the previous dish was erotic, this one almost set off a feeding frenzy. I had to control myself to eat it slowly and savor every bite.

In the style of the famous chefs the next course was a palate cleanser, Passion Fruit Sorbet, the perfect lead-in to the dessert course. Usually, if there is a more interesting dessert on the menu I would not choose flan. Really. Custard is custard, no? No! This flan was the queen of flans, obviously spiked with rum, topped with fresh pineapple, a swirl of whipped cream and garnished with a crisp cookie. I loved it.

Then, a double espresso and a glass of Pedro Ximenez Osborne Sherry and I was completely comfortable despite the seating. Rayuela made up for that in many ways, the excellent food, the eclectic background music, the sexy atmosphere (even the tree) and the wonderful service. 


I was even charmed by the steel sinks filled with decorative river stones downstairs which served both the men’s and the women’s restrooms. Rayuela was quite a find, even if it took me six years to do it. But now I know where it is.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Widow From Chicago

The Early Edward G. Robinson

By Ed Garea

The Widow From Chicago (WB, 1930) – Director: Edward Cline. Writer: Earl Baldwin (story & s/p). Cast: Alice White, Edward G. Robinson, Neil Hamilton, Frank McHugh, Lee Shumway, Brooks Benedict, & E.H. Calvert. B&W, 64 minutes.

One of the really neat things about TCM is getting to see an actor or a director’s first films, for we can see how far they’ve come – or fallen, as the case may be – since their debuts. And when it’s a superstar like Edward G. Robinson, our enjoyment is even more enhanced.


While The Widow From Chicago wasn’t Eddie G.’s first film, it was his first film for Warner Brothers. Robinson was an entrenched Broadway star, having walked the boards there for 15 years. While on Broadway, he took the time to test the waters in the silent films of the day, appearing in Arms and the Woman (1916) and The Bright Shawl (1923). Both his appearances were in small, supporting roles and did nothing to shake his conviction that Broadway was where his fortunes lay. In 1929, he starred in The Kibitzer, a play he wrote with Jo Swerling. It ran for 120 performances, closing in June of 1929. While in The Kibitzer, Robinson took the train to Astoria, Queens, appearing in Paramount’s The Hole in the Wall for director Robert Florey. Playing a gangster simply called “The Fox,” he was second-billed behind the star, Claudette Colbert. The film itself no great shakes, a drama in the Tod Browning-Lon Chaney vein and one of those early Paramount prehistoric talkies.


When the Wall Street Crash made its impact felt on Broadway, Robinson headed out to Hollywood to try his luck there. The collision of the Crash, the resulting drying-up of Broadway productions, and the onrush to sign actors that could speak for the new talking medium gave Robinson hope for work until such time as Broadway recovered.

His first film in Hollywood was for Universal, a quickly made crime drama titled Night Ride (prerelease title Out to Kill). Robinson was given third billing as gangster Tony Garotta. He is eventually outsmarted and brought to justice by reporter Joe Rooker (Joseph Schildkraut). Critics, though, noticed that Schildkraut outshone Robinson in the film, and a script that gave Robinson little to play except a cardboard cutout gangster didn’t help his cause, either.

Eddie G.’s next stop was MGM, where he was second-billed to star Vilma Banky in the romantic drama A Lady to Love (1930). A lousy film, it would be silent star Banky’s last. But she wasn’t really to blame; a bad script did her in. The common wisdom is that Banky was a lousy actress with a thick accent. She did have a thick accent, but she was a decent actor and actually acquitted herself well in this film. So it comes down to the accent. However, Garbo also had a thick accent, so why Garbo and not Banky? It was simply because Garbo had cache and a huge following in Europe while Banky didn’t. The European market accounted for a huge chuck of a studio’s profits, one reason why the moguls suffered Hitler as long as they did despite his anti-Semitism. As for Robinson, he was nothing to write home about, playing an Italian immigrant wine grower, but he did catch the eye of Resident Genius Irving Thalberg, who thought Robinson could really amount to something given the right vehicles.

Thalberg summoned Robinson to his office to negotiate a contract, but the meeting was a disaster for both concerned. Thalberg offered Robinson a long-term contract that would have made him a millionaire by the time it expired. However, there was a catch: Robinson would have to forego the stage for the life of the contract, and, for Robinson, who like many other stage-trained actors, looked down on the movies, that was the deal-breaker. He did two more quickies for Universal in 1930: Outside the Law, a remake by director Tod Browning of his 1920 film of the same title starring Lon Chaney, and East is West. Whereas in the former Eddie G. was again a gangster, in the latter things are a bit different – he plays a Chinese gangster. Both films died quickly at the box office and Robinson slunk back home to New York, hopeful that the slump on Broadway was turning around.

But upon arriving back in New York he found Warner Brothers executive Hal Wallis waiting for him. Wallis had just missed him in Hollywood and wasted no time telling Robinson that he was a big fan, as were the Warners themselves, who loved Robinson in his turn as an Al Capone type in the 1927 play, The Racket. Warner Brothers wanted him and wanted him badly, for despite being the first studio to introduce sound, they were a bit late to the dance in signing up stage stars. Wallis offered a four-picture contract at a flat $35,000 per film. Robinson again asked about Broadway. “No Problem” was the answer. So Robinson, with his wife’s blessing, signed the contract and the couple headed back to California.


The Widow From Chicago is your typical crime film, a bit odd in that it was directed by Eddie Cline, who was much more at home with comedies. (He would later go on to direct two of W.C. Fields’ best: The Bank Dick, and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break.) Eddie G. again finds himself second-billed, this time to Alice White, a cutie Warners was giving the big push to build her up for bigger and better things to come.


Robinson is Dominic, a nightclub owner and bootleg baron. It seems the joint across the way won’t buy Dominic’s swill, so he sends for torpedo “Swifty” Dorgan (Neil Hamilton). Chased by the police, Swifty jumps out a train window into the river and is presumed dead. As word is kept quiet, it’s decided that detective Jimmy Goodwin will go undercover as the departed gangster to nail Dominic, but the gangster catches on to Jimmy’s real identity and has him gunned down right outside his apartment with sister Polly (White) watching from a window.

Polly decides to take matters into her own hands and shows up as Dominic’s nightclub as Swifty’s widow. Dominic gives her a job and she’s doing quite well, getting the goods on the gang, until – guess what? – Swifty suddenly shows up, a bit worse for wear. Now the fun starts. Swifty discovers his “wife” is none other than “Palpitating Polly,” the club’s dance hall hostess. But (of course) Swifty goes along with the gag – Polly is, after all, palpitating, and Swifty is not the only guy taken with her many charms. Dominic also has a thing for her. But Dominic is S-O-L, for Polly has already fallen for the handsome Swifty.

The climax comes when Dominic sends Swifty over to finish the original job of whacking the recalcitrant owners of the club who won’t buy Dominic’s swill. Polly goes along to protect her beau and during a fracas, shoots a detective to save him. Realizing she has to nail Dominic, she contrives with the cops to foil Dominic into believing that he’s ga-ga over him, and while he’s distracted, she props the phone receiver open with a matchstick so the police in an adjoining area can listen in to Dominic confessing to several murders. The cops crash in, Dominic tries to escape using Polly as a shield, and a shootout between Dominic and Swifty ensues, with Swifty coming out on top. (What is he doing there?)

What a plot: While Alice White as Polly may be palpitating, she can’t act to save her life. Hamilton is his usual bland self. Frank McHugh has a brief spot as comic relief, portending things to come. It’s Eddie G. who comes across as the real highlight, underplaying the role of Dominic while most other stage actors would overplay it. This makes Dominic even more menacing, further setting him apart from the silly antics of White.

Eddie Cline does a nice job of directing, helped by the sharp cinematography of Sal Polito. As it’s a Pre-Code, the wise cracks fly fast and furious. “I’d like to give her a piece of my mind!” “Don’t do it, you can’t spare it.” As for the necessary risqué, Alice isn’t even sighted in her undies even once. The only risqué part is what Swifty and Polly are alone and he tries to take advantage of his husbandly status, but to no avail.

The film opened to decent reviews and good business. It all went to Alice’s pretty little head and she became a major pain-in-the-ass for Warner Brothers. When the brass discovered Joan Blondell could do everything Alice did better, was infinitely cuter, and, unlike White, could act, Alice was demoted and eventually shown the door. She toured as a singer-dancer in vaudeville and returned to Hollywood in 1932, but a sex scandal where she left her wedding ceremony with another man derailed her comeback. Thereafter she only worked sporadically in films, her last being 1947’s Flamingo Road, starring Joan Crawford. After that she returned to Warner Brothers as a secretary, ironically, the position from which she began her ascendancy to fame. 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Dinner and a Movie: Free Birds

Turkeys At the Odeon

By Steve Herte

This past week was busy in a different sense than most. I spent Veterans Day weekend caring for my 91-year-old World War II veteran Dad who took a spill that Saturday. Thank goodness, nothing broken, not even bruised (and he bruises quickly); just a stiff neck and shoulder pain. It precipitated a change in routine but it will be manageable. The four-day work week was highlighted by our fourth annual partner/volunteer summit where we invite volunteers to meet the people from the organizations who provide free tax return preparation and filing for low-income taxpayers, the disabled and the elderly. It was a big success, 119 volunteers and about 30 partner representatives. Then Thursday there was a “members preview” of a new exhibit at the Museum of Natural History called “The Power of Poison” – very interesting, and I’ll be writing more about it. Friday, our computer service division made the last repair to my office laptop, linking in my scanner and making me fully functional again. I was definitely ready for my dinner and movie night. This time it was something new and something old. Both were entertaining. Enjoy!

Free Birds (Relatvity Media, 2013) – Director: Jimmy Hayward. Writers: Jimmy Hayward & Scott Mosier (s/p), David I. Stern & John J. Strauss (story). Voices: Owen Wilson, Woody Harrelson, Amy Poehler, George Takei, Colm Meaney, Keith David, Dan Fogler, Jimmy Hayward, Robert Beltran, & Kaitlyn Maher. Animated, Color, 91 minutes.

The first screen before the movie starts is the disclaimer that “Any historical references in this film are purely fictional. The parts about talking turkeys however, is real.” Later we hear the main character Reggie (Wilson): “Let’s face it…Turkeys are dumb . . . Really dumb” as we watch a turkey obviously entertained by the wiggling of the toes on his own foot. Reggie is the voice of reason in his hopelessly ignorant flock. He tries to make them realize that they’re only being fattened up for the dinner table, but no one listens and he is an outcast. When the farmer comes to choose a turkey, they literally cast him out of the coop. Reggie is sure he’s doomed until he is taken to Washington, D.C., and is chosen as the Officially Pardoned Thanksgiving Turkey – an honor he almost loses because of his small stature, but wins with the help (and whining) of the President’s daughter (Maher).

While living in D.C., Reggie discovers television, a soap opera about a character he identifies with who calls himself “El Solo Lobo,” and the wonders of pizza (which he learns to order in large amounts). One day he is kidnapped (or rather turkey-napped) by the burly Jake (Harrelson) and becomes involved in his mission, given to him as a chick by the “Great Turkey:” to go back in time and take turkeys off the Thanksgiving menu. Together they break into a secret underground facility housing an egg-shaped (appropriately) time machine, acronym S.T.E.V.E. (Space Time Exploration Vehicle Envoy, voiced by Takei), which takes them back to Plymouth Colony 1621, just before the first Thanksgiving.


Reggie and Jake join up with a flock of wild (and surprisingly, not dumb) turkeys led by Chief Broadbeak (David) and Ranger (Hayward – who also voices the President, Leatherbeak and several other characters). It is here that Reggie meets his love interest, Jennie (Poehler), sister of Ranger and daughter (of course) of Chief Broadbeak.

The people of Plymouth Colony are starving – with the exception of Governor Bradford (Fogler) who is obviously well-fed – and they pressure Miles Standish (Meaney) to round up turkeys for their dinner with the Indians, whose help they need to survive. It becomes a battle for survival between the humans and the turkeys. In the process of destroying the colonists’ firearms shed, Jake takes a leaky powder horn back to the secret hiding place of the flock and leads Standish there. A large number of turkeys are captured, the hiding place is burned to the ground, Chief Broadbeak meets his demise, and Jennie becomes the new Chief. She rallies the remainder of the flock and they engage the humans with flaming pumpkin loaded catapults. In the words of Chief Massasoit (Beltran), “Those are some really Angry Birds!”

Reggie meanwhile has gone back to S.T.E.V.E. and learns the he is indeed the Great Turkey when he meets three more of himself in what should be the ultimate time paradox. He and S.T.E.V.E. return to 1621 in a spectacular “Deus ex Machina” that ends the battle and replaces turkey dinner with (what else?) pizza! While the colonists and Indians are enjoying their pizza someone spills anchovies on the Chief’s slice. He takes a bite and speaks the best line in the movie, “Tastes like old sock, but still better than anything my wife cooks.”

Free Birds is a crazy story but a fun movie for the children (providing the parents advise them not to take it seriously). If you’re looking for light entertainment without violence or vulgarity (even the kiss scene is off-camera) and a mindless film you don’t have to think about, this is a good choice. It doesn’t even have a moral. But stay through the credits for the last line. Rating: 3 out of 5 Martini glasses.


The Odeon
145 West Broadway (at Thomas Street), New York


The reviews I’ve written up until now have been of first-time visits to restaurants. This one is a return visit after a long absence. A little after 1985, when the “Odeon Cafeteria” opened its doors and Andy Warhol made it his hangout I first dined there around Christmas time (when the downtown crowd is lighter). Being that my memory of the experience is sparse, but not unpleasant, I decided the time had come for a revisit. I do remember that the “cafeteria” part of the name technically did not apply, since I did not have to serve myself or wait on a line. “Diner” would have been more appropriate, what with the Art-Deco décor and blazing neon sign outside. But The Odeon is more than a “diner.”

Billed on Opentable.com as “French” (which I also don’t remember, per se) the restaurant has added a red “air lock” entry to keep the cold air out in winter and the air-conditioning in during summer. At 7:00 pm on Friday night, it is one of the few restaurants in downtown Manhattan that is crowded, with every table (about 30 of them that I could see) occupied by a mixed clientele of old and young, children and adults. A reservation is definitely a must. The only empty seat was mine. The young woman at the Captain’s station sat me on a banquette between a table of two gentlemen and one of two ladies.

Shortly after being seated, a young man offered me the single page menu (cocktails and drinks on the reverse side) and the single page wine list, and took my water preference. Right away I saw a cocktail that attracted me called the “Sazerac” – Old Overholt Rye Whiskey, Peychaud’s Bitters, Absinthe and Lemon Juice. A little while later, my waitress Rachel brought the orangey-red concoction to the table. It was a little spicy and a little sweet – perfect. Then I had a “Eureka” moment: the “French” part of The Odeon was New Orleans, not France. My dinner order was easy from then on.


I started with the Spicy Chicken Dumplings – six little pasta purses stuffed with ground chicken, lightly coated with a Tabasco-y sauce and served with a Bleu Cheese dipping sauce and small frisé salad. Aside from the pasta part it was comparable to eating Buffalo Chicken wings without getting messy. Rachel thought the comparison appropriate. The menu was not large enough to create a three-course meal and the only main course calling out to me was the duck. But I had just enjoyed duck the night before and wanted to diversify. 


The daily special was Rack of Berkshire Pork. I ordered it. The 2010 Malbec by the glass seemed a good match and I ordered that. A little later the two gentlemen to my left were served identical dishes that I hoped I recognized. “Is that the pork?” “Yes.” “Excellent!” Soon I had my own hefty serving of inch-thick pork on the bone nestled in Baby Brussels Sprouts and spaetzle with bacon. My side order of crispy, thin French Fries arrived soon after with a dipping sauce comparable only to Russian dressing (hey, don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it.) The wine was indeed a good match and I was having a delightful meal. Did I mention the breadbasket? Thick, crusty slices of fluffy bread, ideal for sopping up any delicious sauce. I nearly finished it except for a server absconding with the last slice before dessert.

Rachel gave me the dessert menu after I had successfully cleaned two plates to perfect whiteness and emptied the butter dish. The Warm Doughnuts with Raspberry Jam Maple dipping sauce were irresistible. The fluffy, sugarcoated confections were almost sinful and definitely New Orleans. Coffee would have been an anticlimax and a mood changer. Therefore, a glass of Hennessey VSOP cognac later, and I was happy. In two years The Odeon will celebrate 30 years of existence and, considering the short turnover of most restaurants downtown, I will be there celebrating with them.



For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

TCM TiVo Alert for November 23-30

TCM TiVo Alert
For
November 23-November 30

DAVID’S BEST BETS:

THE MUPPETS TAKE MANHATTAN 
(November 28, 6:00 pm): There are few films that can touch the originality and the clever one-liners of 1979's The Muppet Movie. This third Muppet movie from 1984 doesn't, but it has some great moments and is worth seeing. The songs are not as catchy as the original Muppet film, but there are some good ones and the storyline in this 1984 movie is excellent. The gang graduates from college and are eager to take their campus variety show to Broadway. Things don't go well and the Muppets have to go their separate ways when they run out of money while Kermit, who works at a Manhattan dinner, figures out how to sell the show. (That the Muppet gang all graduated college at the same time and none can find white-collar jobs makes me wonder the true value of their education.) Kermit finally succeeds in finding a backer for his play only to miss a "Don't Walk" sign and get hit by a car causing him to lose his memory. I suppose a frog getting hit by a car could have more dire consequences. The best part of the film is Kermit, who can't remember his name after the accident, become Phil and working for a Madison Avenue advertising agency with fellow frogs, Phil, Jill and Gil. In one scene, the frogs are looking for a tagline for a soap product. Bill says, "How about this? Ocean Breeze Soap, it's just like talking an ocean cruise, only there's no boat and you don't actually go anywhere." Kermit says, "Why don't you try something like, Ocean Breeze Soap will get you clean." The others look at him confused. "You mean just say what the product does?" Jill asks. "No one's ever tried that before," says Gil. Kermit gets his memory back in time for opening night of the play, which, of course, is a huge hit. Also, Miss Piggy substitutes Gonzo with a real minister in the marriage scene at the end, tricking Kermit into marrying her. I doubt it's legal. Also, it's the first appearance of the Muppets as babies, which proved to be so popular that it resulted in a cartoon series that aired for eight seasons.

HANG 'EM HIGH 
(November 29, 11:00 am): Fresh off his "Man with No Name" trilogy, Clint Eastwood stars in...a Western. This could easily have been a disaster, but Eastwood is excellent as Jed Cooper, wrongly accused by a posse of killing a man and stealing his cattle. The posse hangs Cooper, who survives it and is left with a scar on his neck. Cooper, a lawman in the past, become a federal marshal and exacts his revenge against the members of the posse, which includes Bruce Dern, Ed Begley Sr., and Alan Hale Jr. When he tries to arrest members of the posse, they realize things won't work out well for them so they try to kill Cooper. Apparently they don't realize this is Eastwood and there's no way that's going to work. An excellent action film.

ED’S BEST BETS:

RIFIFI (November 27, 7:30 am): Leave it to a master craftsman like Jules Dassin to make one of the great Heist-Gone-Wrong films. Four cronies plan the perfect crime and have everything figured out to the letter – except for each other, and this proves to be the fatal mistake. Because it was a low-budget film, Dassin couldn’t afford a star like Jean Gabin, but he does quite fine with the hand he’s dealt. In his review for the French newspaper Arts, Francois Truffaut wrote: “Jules Dassin made the best ‘noir’ film I have ever see from the worst roman noir I have ever read.” The novel’s author, Auguste LeBreton, co-wrote the screenplay and later wrote Bob The Gambler, another top-notch crime thriller, for Jean-Paul Melville. It seems LeBreton translated better into film than he did into print.

GUN CRAZY (November 27, 2:30 pm): Director Joseph H. Lewis’s ahead-of-its-time noir about two lovers (Peggy Cummins, John Dall) that go on a crime spree. Low-budget specialists Frank and Maurice King, whose only caveat to director Lewis was not to go over budget, produced it. Lewis, as I‘ve noted earlier, was a specialist at saving a penny, as his career was spent in Poverty Row. It also takes a load off when one is working from a terrific script from blacklisted Dalton Trumbo (fronted by Millard Kaufman) and MacKinlay Kantor, who wrote the original story. While it was just another low-budget film here in America, over in France it was discovered by the Cahiers crowd and lionized as one of the great films from America. Such was its power that directors Truffaut, Godard, Melville, and Chabrot all stole from it. Its always great viewing and a Must See.

WE DISAGREE ON ... FUNNY GAMES (November 25, 3:15 am)

ED: A. That we should disagree about this film is only natural, given that, ever since its release, critics on both sides of the Atlantic have been arguing vociferously over its merits. I was both repulsed and fascinated by this film when I first saw it over 10 years ago. It’s a clever psychological horror that manages to press all the emotional buttons. The danger with such a film as this is that it can easily turn into either a splatterfest or a laff riot. To its credit, the film does neither, thanks to a screenplay that emphasizes all the right notes of terror while refusing to play the note for too long. One excellent touch was having one of the terrorists, Paul, break the fourth wall to remark on the action and, in essence, join the audience. It’s almost as if director Michael Haneke saw that, unless he lightened the tension a bit, his film would become unwatchable to its audience. I also laud him for his approach by having the overtone of terror build gradually: By acting less like terrorists, pretending to act more like invited dinner guests that are doing nothing wrong (while throwing in a good dose of politeness and cordiality), the perpetrators subtly ratchet up the sense of fear in the family. Adding to our unease is the fact that this film is superbly acted, with a rather unconventional ending. I can see its influence of later films, especially Saw and Hostel. One further note: the director later helmed an English remake, almost shot for shot, in 2007.

DAVID: D-. There is little to like about this film. Actually that too polite. I hate this film. Two regular-looking younger guys impose themselves on a German family on vacation to the point of being annoying. But they're also dangerous. Their true nature emerges as they torture the parents, their young son and the family's dog. They eventually kill all of them for their enjoyment. If the goal is to make the audience uncomfortable and bored then mission accomplished. There's nothing entertaining or interesting here. Worst of all, the movie, like the killers, overstays its welcome. At nearly two hours, the torturing of the family gets dull. I kept thinking, "Kill them already and let's get this done." One gimmick is to have Paul, one of the murderers/torturers, talk to the audience, asking what do they expect to happen. At one point, the wife grabs a gun and kills Paul's partner, Peter. Paul grabs a remote control and rewinds the scene. The film ends with Paul and Peter dumping the tied-up wife into the water to drown after murdering her son and husband. The two then move on to another house to do the same thing to the family there. Like A Clockwork OrangeFunny Games is disturbing with people killing for a laugh. But unlike the former, there's nothing compelling or interesting in Funny Games.


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

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Parkland

By Jon Gallagher

Parkland (Exclusive Releasing, 2013) – Director: Peter Landesman. Writers: Peter Landesman, Vincent Bugliosi (book). Cast: Marcia Gay Harden, Zac Efron, Matt Bahr, Mallory Moye, Paul Giamatti, Billy Bob Thornton, Ron Livingston, & Jacki Weaver. Color, 93 minutes.

Just in time for the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy comes another movie in the seemingly endless parade of movies that recreates that historical event. We’ve seen it from documentaries to fantasies (The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald) to conspiracy theories (JFK). What more could another film do to further our knowledge or appreciation of what transpired half a century ago?

This movie promised to give us a different view. Instead of concentrating on the assassination itself or on who shot Kennedy, this movie was to focus on Parkland Hospital, the unsuspecting emergency room where Kennedy was taken moments after the shooting. It made the movie intriguing enough that the weekend it opened, I went in search of it (it was in limited release).

I found the movie about 45 minutes from home, but when I got there on a Sunday afternoon, I found it had already been pulled from the theater. Three weeks later, it was already available on DVD.

The movie begins with Kennedy’s arrival in Dallas as the opening credits roll with actual footage from the event. By the time they’re over, Abraham Zapruder is already picking his spot to record history with his Bell and Howell camera. Within seven minutes of the movie’s start, Kennedy has been shot.

True to his word, the director focuses on the resulting chaos at Parkland Hospital. Shot in cinema verite (handheld cameras), the movie shows the frantic arrival of the motorcade, the unprepared staff (who could be prepared for something like this?), and the complete pandemonium caused with Secret Service, FBI, hospital staff, and a President who is quickly losing his battle for life.


Effron is Dr. Jim Carrico, the resident in charge of the ER this day and his valiant efforts despite his exhaustion and his self doubts. Harden plays an ER nurse, a take-charge type who keeps a level head throughout. Both are wonderful in their roles.

Meanwhile, the secret service is trying to take possession of the Zapruder film from the man who shot it. Zapruder (Giamatti) is a reluctant recorder of history with his state of the art camera. He only wanted to take a movie of the President, not a murder. Thornton plays Secret Service Agent Forrest Sorrels, who is trying to obtain the footage. Thornton gives the movie’s best performance as an intense agent under pressure to solve the crime.

The first 45 minutes of the film are excellent. They capture the pandemonium perfectly with the handheld camera angles and the flawless acting of the entire ensemble (including extras). Most of the action is at the hospital including a standoff between the locals and the federal agents about who is going to take the president’s body. 

Maintaining the intensity of the first half of the movie, however, is too much of a challenge. The final 45 minutes seems to not only lose direction of where it’s trying to go, but follow several different paths at the same time. They didn’t know if they wanted to stick with the Zapruder storyline, follow along with Lee Oswald’s brother Robert and the rest of his family, follow the slain president’s body back to Air Force One (if he wasn’t dead before he went in the casket, he would have been after they managed to get it on board!), or stay with the hospital and explore the staff’s feelings as they try to save the life of the man, Oswald, who was responsible for the one they lost just a few days earlier.

There are some other remarkable treatments in the movie. In every other Kennedy movie, we see the Zapruder film at least once. In this movie, we see it, but we see it reflected in the eyeglasses of someone watching it or we see it some other way other than directly. We are also not led to believe that there was or was not a second shooter on the infamous grassy knoll. The film concentrates only on what is known for fact, not someone’s speculations.

Oswald’s mother is played as a conniving, controlling, lunatic who sees dollar signs almost the moment her son is arrested. Weaver handles the role beautifully. We’re also shown how much trouble they had finding somewhere that would accept Oswald’s body for burial and how newsmen covering the event had to act as pallbearers since no one else would. All are interesting, but stray from the focus, or at least what we were led to believe the focus would be.


Zapruder’s character waffles back and forth between a sympathetic one who really doesn’t want to be where he is, to a greedy opportunist and back again to sympathetic. It was more than just a little confusing how the director thought we were supposed to view him. Maybe the intent was to let us see all sides of him, but it failed because there wasn’t enough done to develop the final incarnation of his personality.

Watching this movie was like talking to someone who goes off on tangents and never quite gets to the point.

I gave it a C-, and only because of the intensity of the first 45 minutes, which was nothing short of great. Unfortunately, when the wheels fell off, they rolled quite a ways away, and the movie just never could get back on track. It’s lucky that it didn’t pull the first 45 minutes down with it.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Thor: The Dark World

Mel’s Cine-Files

By Melissa Agar

Thor: The Dark World (Marvel/Disney, 2013) – Director: Alan Taylor. Writers: Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely (s/p); Don Payne & Robert Rodat (story); based on the comic book series by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, & Jack Kirby. Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Christopher Eccleston, Kat Dennings, Idris Elba, Rene Russo, Stellan Skarsgard, & Jaimie Alexander. Color and 3-D, 112 minutes.


I have a weakness for superhero movies. Time and finances have never allowed me to appease the comic book geek that dwells within my soul, so superhero movies kind of exist to fill that void. Of all the superhero movies that have flown into theaters in recent years, the ones centering on the Avengers tend to be among my favorite. It was, then, with significant excitement that I headed to the multiplex this weekend to see the latest installment of the Thor saga. While the film is not perfect, it is a great continuation of the story of the Nordic god.

The film picks up after the events of The Avengers. Thor (Hemsworth) has returned home to Asgard, still pining over scientist Jane Foster (Portman). His brother Loki (Hiddleston) has been imprisoned, and Thor stands ready to assume the throne from his father Odin (Hopkins). The universe is on the cusp of the Convergence, the rare moment when all nine realms of the universe are in perfect alignment. The Convergence presents the perfect opportunity for the Dark Elves, led by the evil Malekith (Eccleston), to once again attempt to employ the Aether, a nefarious force that will plunge the universe into darkness and allow the Dark Elves to lead. The Convergence also opens up gravitational anomalies on Earth, one of which is discovered by Jane. One of these anomalies pull Jane into the secret place where the Aether was banished centuries ago, and the Aether “infects” Jane. Thor returns to Earth to rescue Jane and take her to Asgard so he can protect her from the Dark Elves who are now targeting her to harvest the Aether from her. When the Dark Elves invade Asgard to find Jane, tragedy strikes, forcing Thor to enlist the aid of Loki to protect the universe.

Yes, the film is filled with a lot of silly, often nonsensical mythology, namely the whole Aether thing. A lengthy (and clunky) prologue introduces us to the concept as well as the history of the Dark Elves and their quest to plunge the universe into darkness. The need to explain all this weighs down the beginning of the film in terms of story and as far as the tone of the film is concerned. It’s a dark, kind of confusing plot device and makes it difficult for the audience to initially settle into the film. The motivation of Malekith and the Dark Elves remains a bit murky as well. Are they destroying the universe or just making everything dark? It seems a bit uncertain at times.

As we all know, though, these sorts of plot devices are sort of beside the point in these kinds of movies. It’s about the characters and effects. Thor is one of the more challenging superheroes. Because he is a god, he lacks much of the vulnerability and humanity that makes, say, Tony Stark so appealing. Thor is much more serious than Stark and missing the heart of Steve Rogers. Jane Foster becomes the force that gives Thor his heart. Hemsworth and Portman have a nice chemistry when they’re allowed to stop fighting invading marauders and just relate to one another. 


In all honesty, though, the film belongs to Hiddleston. His Loki remains the true breakout character of the Marvel universe, and much of that is due to Hiddleston’s wry, playful take on Thor’s antagonistic brother. When Hiddleston is onscreen, the film lights up and a whole new energy takes over. The brotherly back and forth between Hiddleston and Hemsworth is a highlight of the film, and the energy of the movie often suffers when Hiddleston is absent, particularly those taking place in Asgard, where things seem much more overbearingly self-important. I guess when you’re the guardian of the nine realms, there’s no room for the occasional smile. One of the things that made the first Thor film such a delight was watching Thor adjust to the limitations on Earth. None of that is present here since most of Thor’s scenes take place on Asgard or in battle. Thor only gets his lightness back when he is with Loki. 

Despite these complaints, Thor: The Dark World does succeed in being an entertaining film and not just because of Hiddleston. Once the real conflict heats up, it becomes an engaging film. Yes, you sort of have to shrug away the whole, “What the heck is this Aether thing?” When you do, you find a mighty appealing hero battling to save the universe with the help of his mischevious brother and a strong, smart love interest as well as some wisecracking buddies (Dennings chief among them, back as Jane’s intern Darcy) who provide a little additional comic relief. The film settles into a good groove balancing the intense battles with lighter moments. It also has a killer final moment that is surely setting the blogosphere afire with what it all means as far as future Marvel/Thor films are concerned.

With The Avengers and the Iron Man series being the gold standard of Marvel films, Thor: The Dark World falls a little short, but when you consider it on its own, it’s a pretty great film with engaging characters and dazzling effects. Once you set aside the need to truly understand some elements, you are left with a pretty terrific film.

Grade: B+


Friday, November 15, 2013

Cinéma Inhabituel for November 15-30

A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea

The second half of November picks up right where the first half left off. Here, then, are highlights to look forward to in the second half.

November 15: Friday Night Spotlight continues with this month’s roster of screwball comedies. Slated for tonight: Theodora Goes Wild at 8:00, Twentieth Century at 9:45,Easy Living (11:00), It’s a Wonderful World (1:15 am), Merrily We Live (2:45 am), and If You Could Only Cook (4:30 am). My Best Bets are Twentieth Century and Easy Living.



November 16: The noted Italian horror director, Mario Bava, checks in with his 1970 demented shocker Hatchet For A Honeymoon. Bridal design shop owner Stephen Forsyth pursues his hobby of killing various young brides-to-be. It seems that he suffered a childhood trauma, and only by killing each bride is he able to get a clue as to his past. Because the film was never picked up be a major distributor, it quickly fell into the public domain and became one of Bava’s most watched films. Back in the ‘70s I used to watch it on Channel 9 in New York, which would show it every other month or so on their Fright Night show. I haven’t seen it since then and must admit I’m looking forward to it, if only for the nostalgia.

November 17: TCM is giving cinephiles a real treat. The installment for its Silent Sunday Nights is Part I of Lost and Found: American Treasures from the New Zealand Film Archive. There are some real gems to be viewed, including an old Aesop’s Fables cartoon from Paul Terry, and Upstream, a 1927 hour-long comedy-drama from John Ford, long considered lost. I think that when some of the more famous lost films, such as London After Midnight and the Marx Brothers silent Humor Risk, are found, they’ll be found in some cellar or attic Down Under.


November 20: Star-of-the-Month Burt Lancaster is represented by four films this evening beginning at 8:00. The underrated Mister 880, the ponderous Judgment at NuremburgThe Birdman of Alcatraz, and my favorite, The Train, with Lancaster as a French Resistance fighter locked in a human chess game with German Colonel Paul Schofield. Schofield wants to hijack some of France’s most valuable paintings to Germany and it is up to Lancaster and his crew to stop him. Michel Simon, as crusty engineer Papa Boule, steals the film.

November 21: On the night before the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination, TCM is showing a night of documentaries capped off with the 1963 war drama PT 109, about JFK’s service in the Pacific Theater in World War II. The night begins at 8:00 with the groundbreaking documentary from Albert Maysles, Primary. It is a close-up view of the 1960 Wisconsin Democratic primary pitting young John Kennedy against Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey. Filmed in the days before residential campaigns had become a series of infomercials, the film gives us a unique look at the candidates as they tour the state, press the flesh, and give innumerable speeches. Maysles, as we know, went on to make the acclaimed Gimme Shelter and Grey Gardens.

At 9:15 comes cinema verite pioneer Robert Drew’s Adventures on the New Frontier. This is a fascinating and candid documentary covering newly elected President Kennedy’s daily routine in the Oval Office. It was the first time the American public was permitted such a close look at the day-to-day schedule of the president. Crisis, another documentary by Drew, follows at 10:30. Crisis (1963) tells the story of President Kennedy’s fight to integrate the University of Alabama despite the machinations of Governor George Wallace to keep the university segregated.

Two more documentaries follow: Faces of November (1964), a 30-minute film created for ABC News by Robert Drew covering the funeral of the assassinated leader. Finally, the documentary run ends with the David L. Wolper produced Four Days in November (1964). Directed by Mel Stuart, written by Theodore “Dr. Seuss” Geisel, and narrated by Richard Basehart, it’s a fascinating and poignant look at that tragic day in Dallas and its aftermath. I saw it about 10 years ago and remember being stunned that it still packed such a wallop to my senses. I plan to see it again.


Finally, the movie that put Cliff Robertson on the star map: PT 109. Chronicling an episode from JFK’s Naval days when his PT boat was sunk by a Japanese sub, Robertson gave a bravura performance as the young Kennedy, who rises to the occasion when the boat is hit and swims through open water to attract search and rescue craft. Although there were many biopics of presidents made before PT 109, it was the first biopic made while the president was still in office. Filming began shortly after Kennedy’s inauguration and the film premiered in June 1963.

November 22: Another Friday and more screwball comedies. The best of the bunch leads off the night – My Man Godfrey, a truly wonderful comedy starring Carole Lombard as dizzy heiress Irene Bullock, who runs into William Powell and, believing him to be a tramp, hires him as the new family butler. As Powell tries to teach the family that money isn’t everything, he finds almost everyone in the household is a sandwich short of a picnic. Mischa Auer is wonderful as a talentless and starving artist, sheltered by Irene’s mother Angelica (Alice Brady). Eugene Palette almost walks away with the film as the family patriarch, who is permanently befuddled by all that goes on about him.

Running a close second are two funny films from Howard Hawks: Ball of Fire (1941), with the inimitable Barbara Stanwyck as a stripper on the run from the police who hides out at a house populated by a group of dotty professors led by Gary Cooper. The professors are working on an encyclopedia and Cooper is writing the section on slang, for which Stanwyck proves a gold mine of research. The second, Bringing Up Baby, stars Cary Grant as a paleontologist and Katharine Hepburn as a wacky socialite who makes a mess of Grant’s life. Both are highly recommended and extremely funny, having lost none of their comic punch over the years.

November 24: The highlights are Part 2 of Lost and Found: American Treasures from the New Zealand Film Archive. Among the gems are early newsreels and a film from 1924 titled The White Shadow. Although directorial credit is given to Graham Cutts, a newcomer named Alfred Hitchcock served as screenwriter and assistant director, art director, and editor. Only three reels of the film survive, but they provide us with a rare glimpse into the early Hitchcock.

Following are two early 1959 films from noted New Wave director Claude Chabrol: Les Cousins, a drama about youthful disillusion, with a city boy and his rural cousin competing for the affections of a young beauty; and Le Beau Serge, about an ailing city man who discovers a visit to his hometown in the country has a therapeutic effect on him. I confess that I’ve seen neither, so my recorder will definitely be set that night.

November 26: TCM premieres A Night at the Movies: Cops & Robbers and Crime Writers, a documentary about how crime movies have inspired some of the leading writers of crime fiction. TCM’s documentaries are always enjoyable, and this one promises to be no different. It’s followed by three of my favorite crime movies: Naked City (1948),White Heat (1949), and the original The Taking of Pelham One, Two Three (1974). As they are being shown during the Vampire Shift, it’s best to record them for later viewing. (Unless, of course, you’re a vampire. But make sure you’ve eaten first.)

November 27: The morning and afternoon is devoted to a mini-marathon of great crime movies, highlighted by the wonderful Rififi, the underrated Side Street, and the rarely shown Stakeout on Dope Street. Also on display in Gun Crazy and the film it influenced, Bonnie and Clyde. All in all, it’s a great day to skip work.

TCM’s tribute to Star-of-the-Month Burt Lancaster ends with Field of Dreams (1989), The Leopard (1963), The Professionals (1966), The Crimson Pirate (1952), and Brute Force (1947). While anything with Lancaster is worth the time, The Leopard and Brute Force are my picks, with the underrated The Crimson Pirate closely behind them.

November 29: The last Friday Night Spotlight devoted to screwball comedies, highlighted by three from the gifted Preston Sturges: The Lady Eve (1941), Christmas in July (1940), and The Palm Beach Story (1942).


November 30: The best is saved for last this day as TCM Underground gives us a double feature from demented psychotronic auteur Ted V. Mikels. The Doll Squad (1973), shown at 2:15 am, is about a squad of gorgeous government agents whose role is to catch saboteurs. Among the squad members are Francine York and cult figure Tura Satana. Mikels claimed it was the inspiration for the TV series Charlie’s Angels (Aaron Spelling was invited to the premiere) and Quentin Tarantino credited the film as the inspiration for the deadly Viper Assassination Squad in his 2003 flick, Kill Bill.

At 4:15 am is Mikels’ incredible Ten Violent Women (1982). Mikels took a women-in-prison script and bookended it with a jewelry heist and a prison escape. Mikels made the film for $145,000 and it looks as if he spent every penny on the production. Mikels even stars as Leo the Fence, dispatched by the women with a high heel shoe through his heart. If psychotronic movies are your thing, this is a must see.