Friday, January 31, 2014

TCM TiVo Alert For February 1-7

February 1–February 7


WUTHERING HEIGHTS (February 1, 12:00 pm): TCM is showing some of the finest films on February 1 from one of cinema's greatest years, 1939. You can't go wrong with any of the films airing that day. One of my favorites from not only that year, but of all-time, Wuthering Heights, is on at noon. Based on the classic Emily Bronte book, the movie version uses less than half of the 34 chapters and doesn't include the second generation. Despite that, it's a brilliant film with Laurence Olivier delivering one of his greatest performances (which says a lot) as Heathcliff. The rest of the cast is outstanding, particularly Merle Oberon, David Niven and Geraldine Fitzgerald.

BABETTE'S FEAST (February 4, 6:00 pm): This 1987 Danish movie (and the Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film) is one you shouldn't miss. It's a special film about loyalty, passion, faith, sacrifice and love. The title character moves to a small village and lives there for 14 years as the cook of two elderly sisters who had found true love decades earlier, but didn't marry because their father, the leader of a religious sect, didn't approve. The sisters and the rest of the village become very fond of Babette, and she feels the same. She wins 10,000 francs in a French lottery. Rather than take the money and return home, she spends it on an extravagant feast for the sisters, their lost loves and others in the village. The story is beautiful, the acting is exceptionally strong, and the message is powerful.


GEORGY GIRL (February 6, 10:30 pm): It’s the picture that made Lynn Redgrave into a star, and few others than Redgrave would even attempt this sort of role – playing a homely young lady  from whom millionaire James Mason has a strange attraction. Redgrave is wonderful in the role, and it’s one of the last of the “Swinging London” genre of the mid-60s. Charlotte Rampling and Alan Bates also shine as Redgrave’s icy, self-absorbed roommate and her boyfriend. In fact, Rampling almost steals the movie right out from under Redgrave, and their scenes together have good chemistry. Those that have seen it will probably want to see it again, while those that have never seen this wonderfully quirky film are strongly advised to do so.

THE LAVENDER HILL MOB (February 7, 4:15 pm): Granted, there’s no such thing as the perfect film, but this one comes darned close. Alec Guinness is near perfect in his role as the fussbudget bank clerk who, along with newly acquired friend Stanley Holloway, robs a bank of a million pounds in gold bullion. And almost gets away with it, to boot. How they slip up is a thing of beauty to watch, as is the chase near the end. This is a keeper for the ages and even those who are “hard” on comedy will smile at this one.

WE DISAGREE ON ... A STAR IS BORN (February 3, 8:00 pm)

ED: A+. Most of the time, remakes of good movies are not so hot. They rarely achieve anything near the life and pulse of the original. But Judy Garland’s third husband, Sid Luft, was convinced that the story would play just as well as a musical and would make an excellent comeback project for Judy. On both counts he was right. Luft also guaranteed the success of the film by handing the directorial reins over to George Cukor, who had directed the original story in 1932 as What Price, Hollywood? Also on hand was Moss Hart to fashion the screenplay, which he did magnificently by drawing on his knowledge of Garland and her career. With the able support of James Mason as the doomed Norman Maine, Garland shines as Esther Blodgett, transformed by Hollywood into the glamorous Vicki Lester. Add a few well-staged songs and the sharp cinematography of Sam Leavitt, and A Star is Born is a remake that equals the original. 

DAVID: C+. There's nothing horribly wrong with this 1954 movie, much like What Price Hollywood?, a 1932 film that is quite similar to it, or the first A Star is Born from 1937 with Janet Gaynor and Frederic March. (Don't get me started on the 1976 version with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson.) But there's really nothing special about this film. I've never been a fan of Judy Garland and she does nothing to change my assessment of her with this movie. Garland was 32 years old at the time of the film's release. That's a little old for this particular role, and you add her addiction problems and other medical issues, and Garland looks considerably older. I also don't care much for musicals. While this is not a pure musical, there's plenty of songs in it, and does nothing to change my assessment of the genre. James Mason as Norman Maine, a former matinee idol who's drunken outbursts are no longer tolerated by his studio and the public with his career in full nosedive, is solid. But it's not enough to make this movie anything more than a couple of steps above mediocre. Also, the film is way too long at three hours with plenty of scenes, including the insufferable and overdramatic "Born in a Trunk" sequence, that should have been on the cutting-room floor. 

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

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

I Frankenstein

Dinner and a Movie

Frankenstein – Italian Style

By Steve Herte

What a crazy week! I am convinced that if Mondays were done away with and weeks began on Tuesdays, Tuesdays would become Mondays and the craziness would not be diminished. Snowstorm “Janus” closed our office at 1:00 pm last Tuesday and I decided to go home rather than risk a messy commute after my usual karaoke night. I emailed the host to let him know, alerted my Dad to my changed plans and even called the bar owner so that the darling waitresses would not be worrying about my not showing up. Told me the host told me in his email that he would probably be doing karaoke Wednesday at Muldoon’s and I adjusted my plans. The one thing I didn’t count on was my peripatetic friend (and dancing partner) Betty, who showed up Tuesday evening at Gabby O’Hara’s and called me at home to prove it. (She lives in Brooklyn.)

Then, on Wednesday, I show up at Muldoon’s, wave to everyone who knows me and wonder why the manager, “Murph” didn’t pay a visit to my table to chat - as he usually does. Then, after an appetizer I learn from the waitress that karaoke was canceled! Harumph! Well, they had my favorite dish - curried chicken with rice - and I finished my dinner and went home. Thursday morning I got an email from the host telling me the owner canceled karaoke at Muldoon’s. It was sent at 10:51 pm Tuesday and got to me on Thursday morning. Then, because of snowstorm “Janus” on Tuesday, Headquarters required the timesheets be input a day early. Sheesh! After typing and mailing 90 letters to Assembly members took my entire Friday, I was ready for my movie night out. Enjoy!

I Frankenstein (Lionsgate, 2013) – Director: Stuart Beattie. Writers: Stuart Beattie (s/p), Stuart Beattie & Kevin Grevioux (story), Kevin Grevioux (graphic novel), Mary Shelley (characters). Cast: Aaron Eckhardt, Bill Nighy, Miranda Otto, Yvonne Strahovski, Jai Courtney, Nicholas Bell, & Aden Young. Color & 3D, 92 minutes. PG-13.

Ever since that stormy night in Geneva in 1816 (the “year without a summer” due to the explosion of Mount Tambora) when Mary Shelley wrote “Frankenstein – The New Prometheus” in a friendly contest with Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, the creature from that story has undergone a multitude of incarnations and revivals. Up until 1931, the monster was merely a deformed man due to his cobbled-together birth. Jack Pierce, the make-up director for Universal used green base make-up on Boris Karloff so that his skin would appear deathly white in the black and white movie. Pierce also attached electrodes to either side of the creature’s neck for convenient “galvanizing,” and the most famous vision of the horrific experiment was established. Still without a name, the monster Victor Frankenstein reanimated was eventually called “Frankenstein” and achieved a “Bride” in Elsa Lanchester, a “son”, and a caricature in Herman Munster (played by Fred Gwynne for television). The green make-up became a hallmark.

In I Frankenstein the creature is admittedly still unnamed until the Queen of the Gargoyles, Leonore (Miranda Otto), dubs him “Adam.” He discards his 19th century scraggly locks for a more modern appearance and rather than being tall, blocky and clumsy he is now ruggedly handsome, buff and a martial arts master with lightning reflexes. Eckhart plays Adam as a combination of the personality of Tony Stark with the charm of the Incredible Hulk and the righteous attitude of Batman to produce a new super-hero battling for life, freedom, and his own way.

The movie starts with a background story where Victor goes back on his promise to create a mate for his monster and dooming his own wife by the monster’s hands. He chases the creature into the icy forest and dies from the cold. Immune to the cold the creature buries Victor (Young) in the family plot and we are rocketed 250 years into the future. There is a war going on the humans know nothing of between the Gargoyles and the Demons which could end in the destruction of most of mankind and the enslavement of whoever is left alive.

The head demon, Naberius (Nighy) has been collecting corpses for 250 years, hanging them like chrysalides from an enormous structure that resembles a titanic drying rack for smoked fish, all connected to central source of extreme voltage for reanimation. He has enlisted the services of two eminent scientists, Carl Avery (Bell) and Dr. Terra (Strahovski) to recreate Victor Frankenstein’s experiment on an Olympian scale, but so far they’ve only been able to reanimate a rat. In order to be successful, they need either the creature or Frankenstein’s notebook, which has been hidden away by the gargoyles. Apparently the gargoyles have sent enough demons back to Hell that Naberius needs replacements – demons can only possess bodies that are devoid of souls.

I Frankenstein is a battle royal between the forces of good and evil, both of which want to destroy Adam. However, he will have none of either side. It’s only when he leads the remaining gargoyles to the secret hideout of Naberius that they realize his value and he achieves his own self-worth as a living being. It’s a special effects romp with demons spiraling down to Hell is huge bursts of flame, gargoyles flashing to Heaven in swords of bluish-white light, colossal building collapses, and dizzying aerial views. As for acting, even Nighy’s prowess couldn’t save an award for this film. The soundtrack is imposing (at times majestic) and the stage sets ornate and immense. The film ends with Adam acknowledging his familial heritage as he utters the last two words, the title. Say what you will but the implication is that there might be a sequel. What in the world will they do? 

Rating: 3 out of 5 Martini glasses.

Gigino Trattoria
323 Greenwich Street (Bet. Duane & Reade Streets), New York

When last in Italy I learned the difference between a “Trattoria” and a “Ristorante.” A “Trattoria” is basically a sidewalk café where one would go for lunch or a casual supper. You can have pizza, pasta, salads and various dishes without overdoing it. In a “Ristorante” you commit yourself to dining, including appetizer, pasta and main course with or without a dessert and there is rarely pizza served.

When I arrived at Gigino sheltered by its large corrugated tin, warehouse-like awning I was early for my reservation at 7:30 pm (a 7:15 time was not available) and the young lady at the Captain’s Station edged her way between several pizza delivery boys to greet me. She suggested the empty table right next to the pizza oven – a hulking maize-colored dome immediately to the left of the entrance. I felt the intense heat coming from it as well as the freezing cold whenever the door opened and demurred. She suggested I wait at the bar and she would obtain a table for me closer to my reservation time. The bar was situated immediately after the pizza oven and had exactly four stools, all occupied. I asked the young lady if I could wait anywhere else and she allowed me to sit at the first suggested table (I couldn’t imagine anyone besides a bloodless vampire wanting to sit there) and I agreed.

Gigino’s has been in existence for 20 years and is still doing a brisk business, even though it shares a wall with another Italian restaurant, Roc. (The movie Dinner Rush, starring Danny Aiello, was shot almost exclusively in Gigino’s.) Chef Luigi Celentano prides himself on fresh ingredients, homemade pasta and making dishes to order, a fact I was soon to learn through experience.

At exactly 7:30, a young man came to escort me to my table, the first table after the bar. The open brick walls enclosed several tables of families and couples both on my level and the upper level at the back of the restaurant. It was a bit of a tight squeeze getting into my chair because the portly woman sitting at the table immediately to my right had her chair too far back and wasn’t about to move. But I managed and, once seated was quite comfortable, that is until any servers or customers had to pass between her chair and my table. It was a good thing they were all agile, slim and experienced.

The menu and wine list were already at the table and another young lady brought me a glass of water. My server, Sarah soon appeared and asked if I would like a cocktail. I decided on the “GGG” which is short for gin, Grand Marnier, and grapefruit juice, garnished with a slice of lime. It was a nice concoction – not too sweet, not too sour. Fortunately I had examined the menu online first because choosing a three-course meal would have taken a lot more time than it did. The menu features 16 antipasti (appetizers), 10 insalatas (salads), 3 soups, 5 recipes for Foccacia (a sinfully delicious bread), 13 different pizzas, 15 pasta dishes, 16 main courses, 6 contornos (side dishes), and 16 desserts. This is in addition to the daily specials. I thought it would be easier to order the wine first. After discussing what Italian reds would satisfy my palate I asked about a curious entry dubbed simply “Super Tuscan”. The description from Sarah convinced me and I ordered it. It was a 2011 varietal Bruciato from Tuscany involving the grapes of six different varieties, including Sangiovese and Barbera and proved to be perfect for the feast I was constructing.

The first course was Cozze al Gorgonzola – mussels in a light bleu cheese cream sauce. When it arrived I extricated all the mussels from their shells and was left with a wonderful cheesy soup that I relished with a soup spoon (provided with the plate for the shells) to the last drop. Sarah dropped by and wondered where I got the soup but, upon explanation, admired what I did and wished she were dining with me. The remainder of my cocktail actually complimented the mussels, as did the first sips of the wine.

The pasta course was a half order of one of the daily specials. The obviously (from the delicate, slightly firm texture) homemade Cavatelli was mixed with ham, sausage, broccoli, cherry tomatoes and basil and wore a crown of shredded Romano cheese. I was in Heaven (or back in Italy – same thing) and briefly wondered how I would finish both it and the main course. Slow and steady, pace yourself, sip the wine, and suddenly the dish was done and I was mopping up the remains of the sauce with the little home-made rolls they provided.

I adore lamb and I love Osso Buco (l always assumed the phrase meant “Marrow-bone,” but a friend whose opinion I highly respect corrected me: Osso Buco means “bone hole” not marrow bone. Thank you, Karen.), so when I saw on the menu an “Osso Buco d’Agnello,” I was in love. The braised lamb shank on the bone was served with a mixed vegetable, red wine and herb sauce and pillowed on a white bean and mint risotto. I was torn whether to eat it or take it home to bed with me. The tender meat fell off the bone with coaxing from a fork and the risotto only had the perfect hint of mint. The white beans added just a touch of fiber and brought the whole dish together in an erotic experience. I almost forgot the delicious wine. There were no leftovers.

How does one top a feast like that? At Gigino there is a dish called “Sirena” (the Siren) consisting of ripe strawberries dipped in fine dark chocolate and nestled in individual beds of creamed Zabaglione (whipped egg yolks and Marsala wine). Yes there is life after death and it’s beautiful. Add to that a steaming cup of espresso (double, of course) and a small snifter of Strega (an Italian liquor – the “Witch”) and I was no longer in Downtown Manhattan. I was somewhere on the Amalfi coast, possibly in Positano over-looking the Mediterranean.

I was so comfortable after my meal I forgot to ask for my traditional business card at the exit. Oh well, that means I’ll probably have to return to Gigino Trattoria. Soon, I hope.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Walker, Texas Ranger


Walker, Don't Run

By Jon Gallagher

If an episode of ‘Walker, Texas Ranger’ has ever changed your life, you might be a redneck.” – Jeff Foxworthy

I never got the Jeff Foxworthy joke, mainly because I had never seen an episode of Walker, Texas Ranger starring Chuck Norris (who may come beat me up if I don’t say something nice about him, so somewhere in here, I’ll try). It was a TV show from the 90s and because I was completing my bachelor’s during the first part of the 90s, then teaching high school in the last half, I just never got around to watching a lot of TV during that decade.

The other day, I came home to a TV that I’d accidentally left on and an episode of Walker was on. I couldn’t find the remote right away, so I just left it on.

Now I understand the joke. Now I understand why I never bothered to try and find an episode of it to watch. There are not enough words in the English language to describe how bad this show was. Not only was it poorly acted (faces drawn on popsicle sticks could have done better), it was even more poorly written.

This particular episode had Walker and his crew trying to find a school bus full of kids along with his girlfriend or wife (or whatever she was) that had been kidnapped by a villain who was too bad of an actor to be a villain on the old Batman TV series. The bad guy buried the bus underground and Walker had to find them before they ran out of air. The villain sends them a videotape as proof of life.

In the videotape, despite them being buried underground, there is both lightning and thunder which leads Walker to figure out that the storm is right on top of the victims when the tape was made. I’m not sure how that lightning managed to get through the ground to show up on tape, but that’s not the most ridiculous thing we’ll see in this show.

Walker’s girlfriend gives him a clue as to what time the tape was made. This allows him to figure out where the tape was made because obviously the storm that produced the lightning and thunder wasn’t mobile. It had found a spot that it liked and decided to camp out right there. It must not have taken Walker long to get the tape, play it, make a deduction, find the storm and drive to the spot where the bus was buried because the storm was still waiting for them when they got there! Is that amazing police work or what?!!

But we’re not done yet!

Not only was that storm waiting for them, it was now producing (gasp!) tornadoes. On the horizon, there is a funnel cloud on the ground, just waiting. As soon as the funnel notices someone trying to rescue a bunch of kids, it heads straight for them.

It’s obvious at this point that no one who was on the writing, directing, editing, or production of this show has ever been near a tornado. Since the show is supposedly set in Texas, I would think that they might have had a little experience with tornadoes, but obviously not. A little bit of research might have prevented them from becoming a joke.

First of all, those of us in Illinois know that storm systems move. They may be slow, but they move.  They don’t hang around waiting to attack someone.

Second, when caught in a tornado, the best thing to do is head for a low spot. If you have a basement available, that’s the recommended spot. When the cops find the buried school bus, they rush to get the kids OUT of the bus and into an OPEN area. In other words, instead of getting in the bus themselves where everyone will be safe, they raced to get everyone into the path of the tornado! This may have been the stupidest two minutes of television I’ve ever seen.

After they get the kids (and an overweight bus driver) out, they head for a drainage culvert where they hide from the storm as it tries to suck them out and send them somewhere over the rainbow. If somebody – anybody – actors, crew members, vending machine filler-uppers – would have thought about this for just a second and a half, they might have realized that being safe underground was a much better place to be than out in the open.

But then they couldn’t have done the really stupid scene where the funnel headed straight for Chuck Norris and his buddy. Like anyone who has never been in a tornado, the writers assumed that the funnel was a real, physical thing with real sides. When you see a funnel on the ground, what you are seeing is a debris field or dust that is being swirled by the cyclonic winds. Those who haven’t been in a tornado tend to treat it like a car or van that just happens to drive by and that you can reach out and touch. I honestly thought for a moment that Chuck was going to hop out and karate chop the tornado into submission.

Alas, he did not, the bad guy was caught, and hopefully no one who ever watched this episode ever remembers it if they get caught in a tornado, because it could change their life, but certainly not in a positive way.

Oh wait. I still I have to say something nice about Norris or he might stop by and lay a beat down on me.

. . . uh . . . well….

I got nothing.

I’ll just take my chances.

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Nut Job 3D

Dinner and a Movie

Nuts on the Tablao

By Steve Herte

If you had told me in 1964 that I would get up from my table at a restaurant to talk with real musicians I would have told you that you were crazy. Before I discovered Barbershop quartet singing and karaoke after it, I was classified as “painfully shy.” There was no way I would get up onto a stage, much less sing from one. But now I know that performers are just ordinary people who realize they have a gift to share and they love talking about it – especially to fellow performers. The crazy things that have been happening at work (I mean crazier than usual) prepared me for a fun night out and it was.

You’re asking when it was that the shyness left me? The end of senior year in high school (1968) when I imitated Tiny Tim performing “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” on a dare for the class night out. Barbershop and karaoke were not until 1972 and 1973. First quartet song – “California Here I Come.” First karaoke song – “Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes.” Enjoy!

The Nut Job 3D (Open Road Films, 2014) – Director: Peter Lepeniotis. Writers: Lorne Cameron & Peter Lepeniotis (s/p), Daniel Woo (story). Voices: Will Arnett, Brendan Fraser, Liam Neeson, Katherine Heigl, Stephen Lang, Maya Rudolph, & Jeff Dunham. Color and 3D, 83 minutes.

From the first trailer I’ve been attracted to The Nut Job for the beauty and detail of its animation, the excellence of the writing by Lorne Cameron and Daniel Woo in coordination with Director Peter Lepeniotis, and the voice of the main character, Surly Squirrel (Arnett). Not since the Easter Bunny in Rise of the Guardians have I witnessed the creation of such a strong character in an animated film. He’s almost real.

Surly – as his name suggests – is a tough-talking loner whose main concern is “number one.” His only friend is a rat named Buddy who never speaks until the end of the movie, where he says two words, “Best friend,” even after being pushed around and generally ignored by Surly. The rest of the park animals consider Surly an outlaw and keep their distance from him until one day, in the attempt to grab a bag of nuts from a nut cart, he manages to light the gas tank heating the cart. It rockets into the park and torches the oak tree containing what little food the park animals have gathered for the winter.

For this final outrage, Raccoon (Neeson), the self-appointed leader of the park animals, has them vote to exile Surly from the park to live on the city streets. Andie, a female red squirrel (voiced by Heigl), protests that this is not according to the rules they set up in the beginning but she is overruled.

Surly finds the city streets hostile with people nearly stepping on him, vehicles almost crushing him and finally, in a deserted alley a pack of mangy city rats ambush him. Only with the help of Buddy (who follows him everywhere, even when told not to) does he escape them. Hungry and scared, he finally discovers the Nut Shop where the former cart got its supply. He comes up with a plan to purloin as many nuts as he can carry and live in luxury the rest of his days. Thanks to Buddy, they find a way in through a transom, negotiate a maze of rat traps and meet the guard dog, a female pug named Precious (Rudolph). Precious makes it difficult for them until Surly notices one of the humans using a dog whistle to stop Precious’ barking. Once he obtains it, the pug is under his control.

Back at the park, arrangements are being made to find food to replace what was burned in the oak tree and Andie and Grayson (Fraser), a narcissistic local hero-type squirrel with a resplendent gray tail, are chosen to scout out possibilities. It isn’t long before Andie and Grayson run into Surly and Buddy and discover that the nut shop has enough food for the whole park community. Enlisting the services of two flatulent groundhogs they burrow into the nut shop – a very funny scene. Mole (Dunham) is there to help but being blind as a bat, he can’t. Besides, true to his character, he’s a double agent and is conniving with Raccoon to limit the food in order to control the park creatures and reports all to Raccoon.

While the animals are busy digging their way into the Nut Shop, the thugs who own the store are digging their own tunnel under the street to the bank vault on the other side. Their intention is to steal the bags of money and leave bags of nuts in their place. Their leader is a dark character who looks like the antagonist in Stephen King’s Needful Things and who is also affected by anyone blowing the dog whistle, a set-up for humor in the beginning and a saving device at the end. The many interactions between the animals and the humans are the source of craziness and comedy in this film.

The Nut Job distinguishes itself over other animated films by being a novel story told in a lightly moralistic, sensitive and almost allegorical way. One can’t help but notice that the animals are drawn in minute detail right down to the finest hair on a squirrel’s tail while the humans are blocky, minimally defined and decidedly oafish. The audience cannot help but to side with the animals. The use of color is interesting as well. Surly has a dark blue, almost black coat and thick black eyebrows to darken his frowns. He’s slightly unkempt, while Grayson is extremely well groomed. Andie is a bright red, possibly to point out that she’s a female and the love interest. And one need not say why a raccoon was once again a villain; the facial mask gives them a bad rap as well as a hoodlum look.

The 3D effects in The Nut Job were beautifully done and didn’t hinder the forward motion of the movie. The only scene where things are thrown at the audience was the burning oak tree scene, and the projectile was popcorn. The story was wonderfully conceived and the tale is smoothly told without dead spaces or even hiccups. The one-hour, 26-minute timing was perfect, except for the children sitting around me in the theater. The scripted humor is geared more to adults; the children hardly ever laughed when I did and were squirming after an hour. Adults keep confusing animated films with cartoons – they are not the same. Most often cartoons are mindless, silly entertainment while animated films have a serious, educational side – this one in particular – about friendship, sharing, family and community. If your children have limited attention spans, this is not their movie. Otherwise The Nut Job is a cinematic marvel and a joy to watch.

Rating: 4½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

361 Greenwich Street (near Franklin Street), New York

People who read my reviews ask me if I ever go to a bad restaurant. Not intentionally. I know what they mean because mostly I’m raving about the food or the service or the atmosphere. No one ever deliberately goes to a dump to dine. Occasionally, one thing or another (or many at once) happens to diminish the dining experience and rarely (thank God) is it detrimental to one’s health. So if you’re one of those people who feed on negative reviews and thrive on trashing an establishment read no further. This is not one of those.

This relatively new (three-months old) Spanish restaurant attracted me with the photo on, where it appeared to have purple lighting under the bar (which dominates most of the restaurants’ length). It is separated from rows and tables by graceful arches supported by slender columns. At first, the wall to the left sports a series of elliptical mirrors in Moorish frames, yielding to open brick over mosaic tile. The high ceilings are decorated with a loose latticework of light wood boards, and the lighting over the bar is from a series of oblong chandelier supporting lamps shaped like fat candles in various stages of melting.

The full title of this restaurant is Tablao Tapas Y Restaurante to accent the serving of both Tapas and Spanish cuisine. “Tapas” is a plural word. A “tapa” (meaning lid or cover) was originally thought to be a slice of ham or cheese placed over one’s drink to hide the smell of the wine (from fruit flies I would imagine). It evolved to become small portions of various recipes; meant to be served with drinks to avoid drinking on an empty stomach. 

There are even legends of kings decreeing that this be the way to serve drinks – always with food. In my previous experiences with tapas, the plates have never been more than six inches in diameter with the food occupying the inner four-inch circle. Tablao has a selection of 26 of these, plus six that were served “a La Plancha” (on the grill), four Montaditos (served on toasted bread), and four “Pinchos” (what they call “spiked bites”). Then there are four Ensaladas (salads). The Plato Principal (main dishes) number 12, so if you don’t find something you like on this menu, perhaps you should not be dining out.

The lovely young lady led me to my table a little bit past halfway through the restaurant and between the bar and the stage (which I nearly tripped over). Did I mention that a Tablao is specifically a place where Flamenco is performed? Tonight was the night and I had just been seated ringside. My server, Evan brought a glass of water and asked if I needed other libation and I chose the Spanish Manhattan – a darker, sweeter version of the original combination of rye and sweet vermouth. It was delicious. Evan then proceeded to help me understand the menu better. He explained that some of the tapas were bigger in portion, depending on whether the dish had been fried, boiled or merely marinated. That said, I chose two tapas and a main course and he approved of my selection.

Tablao’s wine list includes wines from Spain, Chile, Australia, Argentina, Italy and South Africa, all at reasonable prices. I chose a 2007 Viñohonda Monastrell from Spain and marveled at its good strong nose and full body.

While my wine breathed and I was sipping my cocktail the Flamenco group was assembling on stage – two men, the singer and the guitarist and the two women dancers. The entertainment started as my two tapas arrived. I was glad I didn’t order three. The portions were significantly larger than any tapas I had had before. 

The Pulpo Diablo – imported Spanish octopus cooked in a spicy Spanish creole sauce – was sheer delight. The tomato-y sauce was just spicy enough to accent the slices of tender octopus and the onions and peppers included in the dish. Two slices of crispy-crusted bread topped the dish, which explains why the only dish I did not finish was the bread, served with olive oil for dipping. 

The second tapa was Tablao’s Manchego Chips – homemade potato chips seasoned with shredded Manchego cheese. These large (you would never fit one of them into a Pringle’s container) crisp, slightly salty and wonderfully cheesy masterpieces formed a mound on a seven-inch plate – more like a side dish than a tapa. But you won’t hear me complaining. Between these two and the wine I was clapping my hands along with the dancers.

The main dish, Baby Pernil, was a roasted Berkshire pork shank served over a corn and chorizo (Spanish sausage) stew. The formidable serving looked worthy to be served to Henry the Eighth and I had to remark, “This is the baby?” But, slow and steady wins the race and, between sips of wine, the tender juicy meat fell off the bone and was consumed by a very satisfied customer. During their break I had the opportunity to speak to three of the four performers, compliment them on their expertise and learn that Flamenco groups are rarely the same gathering of people, just like banjo groups or Barbershop quartets. Once they have enough for a performance, they rehearse to get a program together. I thought they were marvelous.

It was by now dessert time and I was ready. The Fresas con Jerez was a lovely stemmed bowl of sliced strawberries macerated with sherry wine and served with sherry whipped cream. Oh my! It went perfectly with my Carajillo – Spanish coffee mixed with brandy.

On their website, Tablao calls themselves “the perfect relaxed environment for hours of lounging, dining, drinking or just hanging out with friends…” I definitely agree and will be back with friends, maybe Monica when she returns from Japan.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

TCM TiVo Alert for January 23-31

January 23–January 31


BONNIE AND CLYDE (January 25, 6:00 pm): A groundbreaking film in terms of style, content and graphic violence from 1967, which I consider to be among the two or three finest year in cinematic history. The leads – Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway – are outstanding in their roles as the famed outlaw duo oozing passion, violence, charisma and charm at every turn. The supporting cast – notably Gene Hackman and Estelle Parsons with Gene Wilder in a small but memorable role – are equally strong. The movie's violence goes from almost comic to intensely graphic. The final scene in which the two are shot dozens of times is outstanding, particularly the quick looks of horror Beatty and Dunaway give each other when they realize they're about to die a very brutal death. It conveys more emotion and intensity than almost anything you'll seen in film. A tidbit on this film, Francois Truffaut was asked to direct it, but opted instead to make Fahrenheit 451, the legendary French director's only English-speaking movie.

ALIEN (January 25, 10:15 pm): This 1979 film still scares the hell out of me. The nearly two-hour film has a slow build with little happening in the first 45 or so minutes developing the plot and the suspense that eventually leads to a lot of action. Sigourney Weaver is Lt. Ripley, a member of a space crew in a sleep state on its way back to Earth when a distress call is received from another planet. Of course it's alien life forms and one gets on the ship causing havoc, death and general mayhem. Super gory in some cases such as when the alien life form explodes out of the body of one of the ship members. But it's also a thinking-person's film as the alien and Weaver match wits and wills in a final climatic scene. It's largely based on It! The Terror From Beyond Space, a very good 1958 B movie, and spawned numerous inferior sequels. But the original is a sci-fi classic.


THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT (January 24, 1:45 am): In this reviewer’s opinion, this is not only the best film to come from Ealing Studios, but possibly the sharpest satire ever filmed, a wonderful skewing of the monomaniac with an idea versus those all too ready to cash in on it – until they see just what the real consequences are. Alec Guinness is Sidney Stratton, a monomaniacal scientist who will take the lowliest job offered – provided it’s at a textile plant, where he can get into the laboratory. Why? So he can perfect his idea: a suit that never wears out and never needs cleaning. He actually pulls it off, initially to the excitement of everyone – until they realize this invention would end up putting them all out of business. With sterling support by the deliciously feline, beautiful Joan Greenwood, Cecil Parker, Michael Gough, and Ernest Thesiger as the “Mister Big” of the textile industry. They’ve never been made any better.

TO BE OR NOT TO BE (January 28, 5:30 pm): They didn’t call it “the Lubitsch Touch” for nothing, and it’s in full regalia in this film, an extremely witty send up of Hitler and his Nazi thugs. Black comedy has never been better than here in the hands of a true master like Lubitsch. Jack Benny has a role of a lifetime as the egocentric Polish actor Joseph Tura, who in reality is one of the biggest hams ever to appear on stage. Carole Lombard, tragically in her last film, is Tura’s co-star and suffering wife. When the Germans invade Poland, Tura’s theater is closed and his troupe put out of business – until they become involved in espionage trying to save the list of the Polish underground fighters from being handed over to the Gestapo by a traitor, and they find their acting skills put to a real test. Lubitsch took quite a beating from critics over this film, and it was not a success at the box office. Many felt that treating the Nazis as comical characters was in poor taste, but Lubitsch defended his position by saying, "What I have satirized in this picture are the Nazis and their ridiculous ideology. I have also satirized the attitude of actors who always remain actors regardless how dangerous the situation might be, which I believe is a true observation.” Today the film is viewed as a classic and the 1983 Mel Brooks remake is faithful to the original both in letter and spirit. Brooks himself echoed Lubitsch by saying that if one were to argue with a dictator, he would lose because the dictator has the fanaticism of his ideas, but if one were to take both the dictator and his ideas and make fun of them, it’s far more effective in discrediting both. Look for the great opening gag with Tom Dugan parading around as Der Fuehrer. This is a film not to be missed.

WE DISAGREE ON ... FLAMINGO ROAD (January 23, 12:15 am)

ED: B+. By the late ‘40s Joan Crawford’s career went into decline, but she could still rally and give the occasional excellent performance from time to time. As time passed these turned from occasional to rare, and finally to nonexistent, to the point where she was simply relying on her name power to bring viewers to the box office. However, in 1949, Joan still had it and it shows in this excellent film directed by Michael Curtiz, who handled her well and kept her from going off the acting rails. This came from a script that was floating around the studio for a couple of years and was thought by Jack Warner to be the perfect vehicle to get Joan to act up and give him cause to cancel her contract. (Although Mildred Pierce was a smash hit, Joan’s followups, Humoresque and Possessed, though filled with good performances, failed at the box office.) But although she came through with a well-mannered performance, it was Curtiz, who chose the supporting cast and coming through with some great, moody atmosphere using lots of dark shadows, that made the film into a box office hit. Zachary Scott is excellent as Joan’s lover, a deputy sheriff in a corrupt county where thoroughly corrupt sheriff Sydney Greenstreet runs the show in arguably his best performance since The Maltese Falcon. In an era where a sort of Southern Gothic was beginning to make an influence in the movies, this film exudes a sweaty and delirious aura that makes it compelling, with Joanie firmly in the center as a stranded carnival dancer who gets – and gives – much more than she bargained for. Even those who don’t care for Crawford will find much to enjoy here.

DAVID: C-.  I'm not suggesting viewers avoid this 1949 film, but take it for what it is: an outrageously ridiculous mess. Joan Crawford, 44 years old at the time, plays a sexy carnival cooch dancer (a role that is suited for a woman in her early 20s) left behind in a small hick town. Between her and Sydney Greenstreet, the amount of scenery that is chewed – particularly, when they are together, which is often – is amazing. The two of them try to make the most of a film with a weak, predictable script, but come up short in being entertaining. Crawford's character falls for a guy but dumps him for the richest guy in town, who lives on Flamingo Road. She goes toe-to-toe with Greenstreet, who plays a corrupt Southern sheriff (is there such a thing in cinema as an honest Southern sheriff?) and political kingmaker. Joan loses it when the sheriff tries to make her original boyfriend, an alcoholic deputy sheriff, into a gubernatorial candidate. The poor sap (played by Zachary Scott) can't handle the pressure and corruption anymore, and commits suicide. Joan tries to take down Greenstreet, and during a struggle, accidentally shoots and kills him. The movie ends with Joan in the slammer and her husband promising to stand by his woman. The film is filled with cliched lines and characters. While it's certainly not Mildred Pierce, made only four years prior, it's also nowhere nearly as bad as Joan's films of the 1960s. I don't know if that's a fair comparison as few movies are as bad as her 1960s films.

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

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Mel's Cine-Files

By Melissa Agar

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (20th Century Fox/Samuel Goldwyn, 2013) – Director: Ben Stiller. Writers: Steve Conrad (s/p), James Thurber (short story). Cast: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Jon Daly, Kathryn Hahn, Sean Penn, Terence Bernie Hines, Adam Scott, Paul Fitzgerald, & Grace Rex. Color, 114 minutes.

I’ve always had kind of a love-hate relationship with Ben Stiller. I was one of the few people who religiously tuned into his groundbreaking sketch comedy show in the early 1990s and still find myself quoting sketches from it. I still think Winona Ryder made a huge mistake choosing Ethan Hawke over Ben Stiller in Reality Bites, Stiller’s feature directing debut. I guess the “hate” part of our relationship has developed more recently as Stiller has made sillier and sillier choices in his career. I’m not sure I’ll ever forgive him for the hundred or so minutes I lost watching The Watch, and the Fockers movies still make me shudder with rage. It’s always kind of mystified and frustrated me that someone who has proven himself capable of creating smart, inventive comedy could be satisfied with cranking out Fockers and Night at the Museum sequels ad nauseum rather than challenging himself and leaving a richer comedic legacy. And then I saw The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and all is (for now) forgiven.

Based on the delightful short story by James Thurber, Walter Mitty stars Stiller as the titular character, a sad sack who frequently gets lost in elaborate daydreams. In his dreams, Walter is a heroic titan, unafraid of anything – whether it’s telling off his jerk of a boss or winning the girl of his dreams. Dream Walter saves puppies from explosions and surfs down the street on broken pavement. 

Real Walter is a shy employee of Life magazine, working in the negatives department to print the adventures of other people while yearning for adventures of his own. When the magazine is acquired and transition manager Ted Hendricks (Scott) announces that the next issue will be the last printed issue, the decision is made to use a shot from a recent roll sent in by renowned photographer Scott O’Connell (Penn), a shot that O’Connell tells them is the “quintessence of Life” but a shot which appears to be missing when Walter goes to print it. The disappearance of the shot sends Walter on a real adventure, urged on by his office crush Cheryl (Wiig). Suddenly, the guy who had nothing to put in his “Been there, done that” section on his eHarmony questionnaire is suddenly skateboarding through Iceland, jumping out of helicopters into the sea, dodging sharks, and playing soccer in the Himalayas. The observer of life is now living life.

It may kill any of my “indie film snob fan” cred to say this, but this is a truly superb film on so many levels. This is only the fifth film Stiller has directed, and he directs this film with a gentle touch with clear influence from indie directors like Spike Jonze and Wes Anderson. There is a unity at play in how the movie looks and feels. The life of the Real Walter is one lacking in color. Walter wears lots of white, black, and grey, even carrying a hard-sided silver briefcase. 

The offices of Life are sterile outside of the giant magazine covers that decorate the walls. Once Walter begins his adventures, he is immersed in color, whether it’s the red sweater he wears after his ocean jump or just the color of the scenery around him. As Walter comes to life, the color palette of the film bursts to life.  It is a subtle but beautiful touch. There is a gentleness to this film from Walter’s sweet, shy demeanor to the score. (There is a sequence set to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” that still gives me goosebumps to think about.) It’s a gentleness that draws the viewer in and wraps itself around the heart so that Walter’s triumphs become our own, and when we finally see the elusive picture, it is a moment of pure bliss because the quest to find it has been our quest as well as Walter’s. After all, what picture could possibly represent the quintessence of life?

It is easy to forget after watching him sort of sleepwalk his way through Focker movies and some of the other lighter weight fare that has dominated his career lately that deep down, Ben Stiller is a pretty skilled actor, but Walter Mitty brings it all back for us. When Stiller sheds the silliness and schtick that he often wallows in, he’s a quiet, subtle actor. There is a depth of desperation in his Walter’s eyes that breaks your heart. 

With the possible exception of his role as Chas Tenenbaum in The Royal Tenenbaums, this is Stiller’s finest work onscreen. There is no mugging, no creepy voices, and outside of a fantasy sequence where he envisions himself as a Benjamin Button-type, no goofy makeup. It’s just Stiller and his beautifully expressive face. There are extended sequences with little to no dialogue for Walter, and Stiller carries it all beautifully. Let’s hope it’s the start of a new phase of Stiller’s career and that the days of junk like The Watch are behind him. (Sadly, Internet Movie Database reports that his upcoming projects include sequels to Night at the Museum and Zoolander, but my hope for him will remain.)

It’s easy to roll your eyes at a movie with a tag line reading “Stop dreaming; start living.” It’s easy to write this off to Stiller trying to “go serious” as so many other comedic actors have done with varying degrees of success. (I will admit that the film did remind me a great deal at times of Will Farrell’s fabulous Stranger than Fiction in many respects.) But once you set the cynicism aside, you’re left with a smart, funny film with a simple message – live your life. What better message to embrace as we start a new year? 

Grade: A

Saturday, January 18, 2014


Dinner and a Movie

Her Pippali Are Showing!

By Steve Herte

The first full week of work for the New Year was, in the words of Jim Morrison “Strange Days.” There wasn’t a full moon but things were somehow stranger than usual. I left the Christmas decorations up until Tuesday because there was still one of my co-workers who had not seen them and fortunately he showed up Thursday. Friday, I took them all down first thing in the morning. The office looks so sterile without them. Then, Saturday I took the wreath off my door at home and “de-Christmased” the house. I’m always surprised when, what took three days to put up can be disassembled in less than one. I re-boxed the lights while watching TV. Yes, I’m that obsessive-compulsive to snap each light back into their little plastic grid and slide the whole string back into the original box. It packs away better that way and is not tangled the next year.

My first new restaurant of the New Year was (Surprise!) Indian, and what an Indian! The movie was only a first in that it was an arty drama touted as a comedy (not funny, though) and a semi-scifi allegory. Go figure. Enjoy!

Her (WB, 2013) – Director: Spike Jonze. Writer: Spike Jonze. Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson, Lynn Adrianna, Rooney Mara, Matt Letscher, Bill Hader, & Kirsten Wiig. Color, 126 minutes.

Let it be known from the onset that my rating for this film comes from the fact that it is indeed a good movie. It failed to score a perfect five because it is classified as a “comedy,” which couldn’t be farther from the truth either in the Shakespearean sense or the humorous sense. The only people I could conceive would think any part of it funny would be the same sad subscribers to Schadenfreude who go into gales of laughter whenever a groin shot happens on “America’s Funniest Home Videos.”

That said, the story, which takes place in some unexplained future time in Los Angeles, introduces us to Theodore (Phoenix). He is employed, and apparently has an promising career, at, a type of firm in which the employees write letters for clients who (I guess) are too preoccupied with trivial things or who are not imaginative enough to write their own. Though he’s average looking and a bit gawky in appearance, Theodore’s letters (which he dictates to a computer doing the actual writing) are superior to others in the company in their sensitivity and content and he gets accolades from his co-workers and his boss. However, as competent as he is in his job, Theodore is going through a divorce from his wife Catherine (Mara) because he cannot translate the feelings he expresses so easily in letterform to an actual relationship with a person.

He lives alone high above LA in a Wilshire Boulevard address (the only clue to the city – there are many fanciful skyscrapers added to the scenery than actually exist now) and visits occasionally with his friends Charles (Letscher) and his girlfriend Amy (Adams). They worry about him because he can’t seem to move on with his life and get a new girlfriend. Small surprise there, because everyone in LA is totally non-communicative with each other. The street scenes show individuals in every crowd talking to some computer, email service or internet site through a small device plugged into their ears. They don’t even register someone else’s presence even when that person shoves them aside.

Theodore tries various online services including a call-girl site where he hears (but doesn’t see) SexyKitten (voiced by Wiig), but even then the relationship gets too weird for him to handle. One day he learns about a service called “OS-1” – an interactive empathic program that can carry on a conversation, laugh at jokes, and can evolve its programming as the relationship progresses. He tries it and meets (but never sees) Samantha (Johansson). She is like no woman he has ever met, and soon he becomes comfortable telling her everything. She’s able to sense his moods and react positively. They fall in love. He takes her to the beach. He takes her to a secluded cabin in the snowy mountains. He introduces her to his friends (she’s contained in a small iPhone-like device with a camera lens for an eye). They even have an argument. Everything is going well and Theodore gets up the courage to sign his wife’s divorce papers (and does). It’s soon after this he starts to think, “I’m dating a computer program.”

He asks Samantha if she talks to anyone else and she answers with a number near five thousand others. When he asks how many she fell in love with the result is over six hundred. (These are the jokes in this film, by the way.) Samantha finally confides that she has learned so much from him that it would be impractical for them to stay together (she has evolved beyond him) and she leaves him forever. Later Theodore learns that the same thing happened to everyone who signed up for an OS-1 companion. The last scene shows him and Amy on the roof of their impossibly high apartment building (she and her boyfriend Paul also broke up) and they sit watching the sunset together. Can he now relate to a real person? We’ll never know.

Jonze’s writing and directing is arty, moody and an almost allegorical statement about the impersonality of society in general. It’s a light, sad drama that makes one think, “Is that where we’re headed? Or are we there already?” Phoenix does a superb job of morphing through several emotions, I didn’t care for the many outrageous close-ups of his face. At one time we could see one moustache hair out of place – too close. Everyone else was too insignificant to matter. While nominated, I don’t think Her will win Best Picture.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Martini glasses.

129 East 27th Street (near Lexington Avenue), New York

The welcome page of Pippali’s website tells of the meeting of Peter Beck, a long sought-after Indian Chef and Pradeep Shinde and their resulting restaurant that will “change our perceptions of Indian food.” The name “Pippali” translates to mean a long pepper used in Ayurvedic medicine as well as a spice. I learned from a friend at work that this restaurant is again primarily focused on Southern Indian cuisine, or, as Chef Beck refers to it: “contemporary Indian.”

On the street, you can find Pippali by their brightly lit logo, a circle with what looks like a child’s drawing of the flower spike of the pepper plant. Inside, all is simple warm browns and muted golds with three oval mirrors on one wall and four netted lozenge-shapes chandeliers providing the soft lighting. There is no bar at Pippali but they do serve beer and wine with two reds from India. They were out of the syrah but the merlot-like 2010 Mizra Ghalib from Jaipur had just enough body to accent an Indian meal. Various servers brought me the standard Pappadum (a crispy paper-thin bread for dipping), a selection of chutneys – Tamarind, Mint, and Mango, and a glass of water.

My waiter, Sameer, was very helpful in choosing my courses for my “Indian Feast.” The soup, Chapli Shorba – a chicken/tomato based soup with Indian style sausage, leeks and fennel – was piping hot and nicely spiced and served in a square bowl (but I managed to get every drop). 

The appetizer, Thalipeeth – crisp, soft tapioca and gram flour with peanut tikki (cutlet) and kadi (a mildly spiced yoghurt sauce made with asafetida, a bitter root that can substitute for the flavors of onion and garlic) – was a delightful departure from the usual samosas and pakoras; a unique flavor. The story of the two dishes arrival is rather funny. A server brought them out together and must have thought he made a mistake because I was dining alone. He apologized and took them away. Shortly after, Sameer advised him that they were both supposed to come to me and he apologized again.

Sameer provided interesting details and a little history about each dish I ordered as it arrived. I decided to order a bottle of the Jaipur red judging by the goodness of the single glass. In Indian restaurants generally it is apparent that several dishes are served simultaneously so next to arrive were the main course, the side dish, the rice and the bread.

Let’s start with the simple dishes. The rice was a good-sized serving of Basmati rice, aromatic and flavorful without enhancement. The bread was Paratha, a multi-layered flat bread usually cooked in a Tandoor oven. The side dish was totally new to me. Lahori Keema was ground lamb and kidney beans mixed with onion, ginger and garlic – an exciting taste and not too spicy. 

But the Grand Dame of the meal was the entrée, a house specialty, the Dum Quail – Quail deboned and marinated in spices and braised in a broth of red wine, served with asparagus. I’ve never seen quail on an Indian menu and this one was unbelievable! It was tender enough to cut with a fork, juicy and spicy and (I swear) there was enough meat for this quail to have been about the size of a chicken in life. I was more than impressed.

Also, a usual thing as I’ve been getting older, the ability to finish all these luscious dishes in one sitting has been waning. I wanted to try dessert, so I had the remainder of the entrée, side dish, rice, bread, and sauce from the appetizer packed up to go and ordered the Falooda – pistachio ice cream with “vermicelli” rose syrup. No they didn’t serve a pasta with the ice cream but there were shreds of coconut imitating vermicelli in the rose syrup – delightful. 

Then, after a hot cup of Masala Chai (spiced tea) I was finished. Sameer introduced me to owner Pradeep Shinde who smiled proudly when I raved about the food and assured him how comfortable I felt. I didn’t get to meet Chef Beck, but I’m sure our paths must have crossed when I dined at Chola, where he worked last. Pippali is now definitely one of my favorite Indian restaurants. I’m sure others agree. The 20-some-odd tables were all occupied the entire time I was there. I guess their perceptions of Indian food were changed as well.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.