Monday, March 31, 2014

Cinéma Inhabituel for April 1-15

A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea

April seems to be a very strange month. John Wayne is TCM's Star of the Month, yet we don’t see his films until the second half of the month. That leaves us short one category, but we’ll try to make up for it.


TCM marks April Fool’s Day with a day and night of comedies. Most of the superstars of comedy are featured, from the Marx Brothers (At the Circus, 7:30 am) to Abbott and Costello (Abbott and Costello in Hollywood, 9:00 am) to Wheeler and Woosley (The Nitwits, 10:30 am). The evening is devoted to slapstick comedy, with that favorite of the French, Jerry Lewis, leading off at 8:00 pm with The Disorderly Orderly, directed by Frank Tashlin, who was much better when he was making cartoons at Warners. At 9:30 is Woody Allen’s exquisite Sleeper. But the night’s best bets are Laurel and Hardy’s Way Out West, at 11:00 pm and the one and only Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill Jr. at 12:30 am.


April 3: TCM celebrates Doris Day’s 90th birthday with an entire day of her movies, so if you love Doris, this is for you. My picks are Love Me or Leave Me (12:15 pm), with Doris as torch singer Ruth Etting, looking to get away from gangster/boyfriend Martin “the Gimp” Snyder, menacingly portrayed by Jimmy Cagney. At the God-awful time of 4:00 am we are treated to one of her very best, Please Don’t Eat the Daises, from 1960, with Doris as drama critic David Niven’s wife as their family tries to adjust to life in the country. The film, based on the best-selling book of the same name by Jean Kerr, wife of New York Herald-Tribune drama critic Walter Kerr, was hugely popular at the box office and later spawned a television series of the same name.


April 4: Tune in at 7:00 am for the 1932 Pre-Code comedy/mystery, Miss Pinkerton, with Joan Blondell as a private duty nurse assigned to care for a murder victim’s elderly aunt (Elizabeth Patterson). As she tends to her duties she notices some strange things happening, and with the prodding of detective George Brent, she manages to get to the bottom of things, almost becoming a victim herself. It’s fun viewing, especially for Blondell, who always manages to parade around in her underwear no matter what the subject matter. Jean Harlow may have been the unattainable Blonde Bombshell, but Blondell was the Bombshell-next-door, complete with down-to-Earth attitude and salty language.

April 6: A most interesting film from Japan, Twenty-Four Eyes (1954), makes is debut at 2:00 am. Written and directed by Keisuke Kinoshita, it’s the story of a young Japanese schoolteacher, Hisako Oishi (Hideko Takamine), who is assigned to a rural school district. The local are at first suspicious because she rides a bike to school rather than walking, and wears a dress rather than a traditional kimono. But the students love her, and when the locals discover that she takes a bike to work because the long distance and wears a dress because of the long ride, they, too, warm to her. The time span of the film is from the late ‘20s to the early ‘50s, and we see the creeping jingoism and totalitarianism that envelops Japan during the ‘30s and its effect in the schoolroom. With the advent of World War II, Hisako retires from teaching rather than see her beloved pupils brought back in body bags, and waits to return to the school after the war, when her services will really be needed. It’s a film that has had an effect on me ever since I saw it right after college at a New York City revival house. Watch it and you’ll remember it always. Also look for popular actor Chishu Ryu as an older teacher.

April 7: In case you’ve been out of the country or in a coma the last seven years or so, this is a chance to see one of the most prescient films ever made: Elia Kazan’s 1957 underrated masterpiece, A Face in the Crowd. I first saw this around the age of 11 or so with my mother on what was known as The Schaefer Gold Circle Theater. This took the place of the Saturday night Late Show on WCBS once a month and was devoted to quality films. I was blown away by it. The idea of Andy Griffith – Sheriff Taylor – as a bad guy had me glued to the tube. Wow. I didn’t see it again until 1980 when I watched it with my wife. I remember talking it up all day at work, and when I saw it again, I was once more entranced by the sheer power of the movie. My wife was also blown away, especially as to how the film related to today’s media-dominated society. Griffith is simply great as Larry “Lonesome “ Rhodes, a hobo discovered by local radio producer Patricia Neal in the Pickett, Arkansas, lockup, where he was jailed for drunk and disorderly. She gives him a chance to do his stuff on her radio show and he’s so good that he quickly builds up a local audience, then conquers television in Memphis, and finally in New York. Once in New York, advertisers and corporate heads build him up into the Next Great Thing, a folklore philosopher. But there’s one big flaw, Rhodes is a nasty piece of work, a megalomaniac obsessed with power – and himself. Of course, he has to get his comeuppance at the end and the way it’s done is one of the great scenes in cinema history. This is one not only worth seeing, but worth purchasing on DVD as well.

April 9: Here’s one definitely worth catching. It’s from England and the odds are you haven’t seen it. Heck, I’ve never seen it, although I looked for it all over. It airs at 12:00 am and is titled Went the Day Well? Directed by Alberto Cavalcanti for Ealing Studios in 1942, it’s the story of a small English village that is taken over by German paratroopers sent ahead of a large-scale invasion force. How the villagers deal with the enemy in their midst is said to be compelling, and note that the film was made before the outcome of the war was still in doubt. As such it served as an effective morale tool. Starring Leslie Banks, Basil Sydney, and Elizabeth Allan, it’s based on a 1940 magazine story by Graham Greene called “The Lieutenant Died Last.” This, to me, is why I love TCM – movies such as this popping up and providing me with hours of viewing pleasure. I’ll be watching.

April 11: It’s Joan Blondell, again. This time she’s the title character in Warner Brothers’ 1933 crime drama, Blondie Johnson, airing at 12:45 pm. Joan is a victim of the Depression who, when the relief agency turns a deaf ear to her pleas for help for her ailing mother, vows to make money anyway she can. And she does, taking on the big boys in the Mob as well as the authorities. Backed by such stalwarts as Chester Morris, Allen Jenkins, and Mae Busch in this lively 68-minute drama, Joan manages to have us root for her, even though at the end we learn that crime does not pay. But it’s a great ride, nevertheless.

And then at 12:00 am, it a repeat showing of Federico Fellini’s wonderful film, Nights of Cabiria, with Giulietta Masina perfect as the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold who has bad taste in men in real life. Masina simply dominates the screen and her character is sure to wring a tear out of even the most hard-hearted viewer. It’s a film I can always make time to see.


There are some choice bits of psychotronica available this period, with an unknown gem from Japan.

April 5: A unique entry in Blaxploitation cinema is being shown at the late hour of 2:00 am. Sweet Jesus, Preacherman (1973) was produced by independent company Entertainment Pyramid and released though MGM. The producers were known for their slate of cheap horror and exploitation films; their most famous release probably being 1972’s Grave of the Vampire, with William Smith and Michael Pataki. Sweet Jesus stars Roger E. Mosely (best known to fans as T.C. on Tom Selleck’s long-running private eye series, Magnum P.I.) In this film he plays a contract killer who assumes the role of a Baptist preacher at the local church, from which he takes over the local crime action in the ‘hood.  Yeah, it doesn’t make sense at times, but it’s still a fun diversion.

April 7: A great psychotronic tripleheader begins with the sci-fi classic Them! airing at 1:30 am (When else?) It’s one of my all-time favorites, a cut above the usual ‘50s science fiction fare: a deft combination of a noir murder mystery and science fiction. The performances are all excellent, with James Whitmore as the state cop who discovers the murder, James Arness as the FBI agent assigned to the case, as the murder victim was an FBI agent and his family, and Edmund Gwenn as the entomologist sent by Washington to investigate. Entomologist? Yes, in case there are those who somehow haven’t seen this classic before, we are now up against gigantic ants. But there’s more: Them! is actually, believe it or not, a Red Scare flick; the ants are the Commies. Watch and you’ll see. Proper support is given to the stars by Onslow Stevens as an Air Force General assigned to mop up the pesky critters, Sean McClory as Stevens’ adjunct, Major Kibbee (with an Irish accent, yet), and Joan Weldon as Gwenn’s scientist daughter, who manages to be effective without being annoying. Also look for such familiar faces as Fess Parker, Olin Howard, Dub Taylor, Dick Wessel, Chris Drake, William Schallert, and Leonard Nimoy (!) in an early role as an Air Force Sergeant.

Following at 3:15 am is The Cosmic Monsters, a British film from 1958, where it was originally released as The Strange World of Planet X. As with other English Bs of the period, an American actor was added to make it somehow attractive to American audiences. And the American in this case is Forrest Tucker. He is Canadian scientist Gil Graham, assistant to the eccentric Dr. Laird (Alec Mango), who is working on experiments to manipulate the magnetic fields. During one such experiment Laird punches a hole in the ionosphere that allows cosmic rays to seep in. They, in turn, drive people mad and enlarge insects. Enter Smith (Martin Benson) a visitor from Planet X who has seen what was going on and comes to help us dig ourselves out of the mess. Gaby Andre is also on hand as the requisite eye candy, a French scientist assigned to assist the mad doc in his experiments. The problem with this film, however, is its low budget, which undermines the interesting premise. Still, for those who haven’t yet seen it, or for those who saw it a long time ago, it is worth catching.

Finally, at 4:45 am is the Roger Corman opus from 1959, The Wasp Woman, starring Susan Cabot as the head of a cosmetics firm that has discovered a serum made from wasp royal jelly that can wipe away aging. Cabot tries some and is hooked, despite warnings. Soon she turns into a wasp-like creature that kills. It’s the usual Corman nonsense with a paltry budget to back it up. Of course, in later interviews, after he was “discovered” and lionized by critics, Corman said the film is a social satire on the search for eternal beauty. Yeah, sure it is; and I’m the Wizard of Oz. All in all, this is just another cheapo Corman film; watch at your own risk.

April 12: It’s back to Blaxploitation with a good double-header. Leading off at 2:00 am is the incredible Rudy Ray Moore vehicle from 1979, Disco Godfather. Any film starring Mr. Moore must be seen to be truly appreciated (and believed). Moore is Tucker Williams, a former LAPD detective who is now running a disco (and doubling as a DJ there). Things are cool until his NBA-bound nephew ends up in the psych ward thanks to smoking angel dust. This makes Mr. Moore very angry, and when he gets very angry he takes it out on everyone responsible. And no one takes it to the streets like Rudy Ray Moore.

Following is the film that started the Blaxploitation genre, Shaft (1971). It made its star, Richard Roundtree, into a major figure on the action circuit and spawned two sequels in the process. Directed by Gordon Parks, it’s actually a very good film about a Black detective recruited by a Harlem mob boss to rescue his kidnapped daughter. Though not too different from other films in the genre, it was the attitude and actors that made this one stand out. First, it was about a Black detective, who not only has to fight the kidnappers but the white NYPD as well. And John Shaft takes no crap from no one. Also check it out for a panorama of New York City in 1971. It was a whole different city back then, and the photography both emphasizes and highlights those points. For those who have seen it, you know what I mean, and for those who haven’t, all I can say is that this is a Must See.

April 13: We begin at 12:00 am with The Mysterious Island, a 1929 film from MGM starring Lionel Barrymore as Count Dakkar, scientist and ruler on a small volcanic island. He is a benevolent ruler, having eliminated class distinctions among the populace. As he’s a scientist, he, his daughter Sonia (Jacqueline Gadsden) and future son-in-law Nikolai Roget (Lloyd Hughes) have built a submarine, which they use to escape the island just as it’s being overrun by the evil despotic Baron Falon of neighboring Hetvia. When the Baron learns that Dakkar and his relatives have escaped he follows them in his own submarine. The two craft, diving to the ocean’s floor, discover a strange land containing dragons, giant squid and an undiscovered humanoid race. The effects are prehistoric and the acting par for the time, but it is in 2-strip Technicolor.

Afterwards, at 2:00 am is a most unusual film from director Kazui Nihonmatsu and Shochiku, Genocide (1968), aka War of the Insects. Think of Hitchcock’s The Birds and you’ll have some idea of the plot. But the second act goes off the rails with a subplot about a missing H-bomb, the callous reaction by the American military, and a gorgeous, but deranged Holocaust survivor working in cahoots with spies from the Eastern Bloc. And we have the insects, who share one single purpose: to destroy mankind before mankind can destroy Earth. All this makes for a much harder-edged, but nonetheless compelling entry in a genre that was of late composed of comical monsters.

And following at 3:30 am is an earlier film from the same director and studio, The X From Outer Space (1967). A spaceship dispatched from Japan to Mars to investigate UFO reports finds itself covered in slimy goo, containing unusual spores. When the ship returns to Earth with one of the specimens, it grows into a ridiculous chicken-lizard monster that, as usual threatens Japan. Lots of unintentional humor and dialogue seemingly aimed at a pre-10-year-old audience. It’s interesting to compare this with the earlier film as they were both from the same director and studio. However, it’s not as bad as the Gammera films and others such as A.P.E. It’s worth a peek if you haven’t seen it before. If you have, then you know whet we’re dealing with in this one. Still, if you have a yen for a Japanese monster movie, there are worse.

April 15: TCM is showing a batch of teen rock ‘n’ roll movies beginning at 8:00 pm. Some are just plain awful, but there some gems. Aside from the Elvis movies (Jailhouse Rock at 10 pm and the 1970 documentary, Elvis: That’s the Way It Is at 5 am), there is a nice little film from 1959 called Go, Johnny, Go! There’s not much of a plot here – Alan Freed searching for a talent contest’s mysterious winner – but there are some great acts on the bill, including Chuck Berry, Jackie Wilson, Richie Valens, Eddie Cochran, The Cadillacs, and The Flamingos. For those who like classic rock ‘n’ roll, this is one to see.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

TCM TiVo Alert for April 1-7

April 1–April 7


SAFETY LAST (April 1, 6:00 am): The funniest and most original silent film comedies not starring Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin. Harold Lloyd is a joy to watch in this 1923 movie that features great sight gags – including the opening scene in which his mother and girlfriend appear to be saying goodbye to him as he heads to the gallows but are actually at a train station. Another great one is Lloyd and his friend hiding from the landlady in their own trenchcoats hanging on wall hooks. It's worth watching the film for the iconic scene in which Lloyd's character climbs the side of a building and hangs from the hands of a clock. Sometimes it's better to show than tell so here's a portion of that scene.

STEAMBOAT BILL JR. (April 1, 12:30 am): Speaking of Buster Keaton, this 1928 film is among his best. He's the son of a guy who owns a dilapidated paddle steamer who hopes his long-lost boy, who's now in college, can help him best his rival, a wealthy businessman. Instead he gets Keaton, who also happens to be in love with the daughter of his father's rival. While Lloyd's climb up the building looks dangerous, it really wasn't. The same cannot be said of Keaton's most incredible cinematic stunt, which is in this film. A cyclone hits, blowing Keaton sideways and destroying an entire town. Keaton is standing when the two-ton facade of a building falls in his direction. As the front of the structure falls, Keaton stands in perfect position for the open attic window space to land leaving him without a mark. If he was standing just a little off, he would have been crushed. Again, I get the benefit of being able to show it here. While Keaton's physical comedy is at its apex in this movie, there are plenty of other funny moments. One scene has Keaton trying on a number of hats, and when he puts on his trademark porkpie hat, he quickly rejects it. Even better is when Keaton puts tools inside a loaf of bread to help his father bust out of jail. The sheriff finds the tools and a dialogue cards reads: "That must have happened when the dough fell in the tool box."


MON ONCLE (April 1, 4:30 am): Star/director Jacques Tati’s follow-up to the wonderful Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, it comes close to capturing the magic of that film. Here we see Mr. Hulot in his natural environment – a Paris that is slowly disappearing; swallowed up by the emerging Modern Paris. Emblematic of the New Modern Paris is Hulot’s sister (Adrienne Servantie) and brother-in-law (Jean-Pierre Zola), the Arpels. Brother-in-law Charles Arpel owns a plastic factory, which is totally fitting considering the context of the movie. Hulot is Arpel’s “problem” in that he not only does nothing for a living, but is also a bad influence on his nephew, Gerard (Alain Becourt), whom Charles wants to take more of a serious view of life. Hulot lives in the older section of Paris, with a vibrant neighborhood, though getting to his apartment is analogous to mountain climbing. The Arpels, by contrast, live in a state-of-the-art modern house in a renovated section of Paris, which seems to be miles away from the old Paris. Their yard has no grass, just concrete walks and gravel. In the middle is a pond with a huge statue of a fish. A running gag in the movie is that the fish spouts water when a switch inside the house is thrown, and Madame Arpel only activates the fish when she wants to impress a visitor. As with Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, the film is shot almost entirely in medium frame and the gags come fast and furious. It’s a worthy sequel, and those who enjoyed the first Hulot film will love this one.

A FACE IN THE CROWD (April 7, 9:45 pm): Budd Schulberg wrote and Elia Kazan directed this prescient look at celebrity and media-made pundits in the story of Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Andy Griffith). He's a drifter discovered in jail by the hostess (Patricia Neal) of a morning radio show in Pickett, Arkansas, and who, through the sheer force of his “down home” personality eventually makes his way to New York, where he becomes not only an entertainment superstar, but a respected wielder of opinion; powerful enough to make a nondescript senator into a formidable presidential candidate. Rhodes, however, is rotten to the core, and as his fame and power increase, the monster within him begins to break out. It’s up to Neal, as a letter-day Frankenstein, to destroy the monster she created before he destroys us, and she does it in a quite unique way. Neal, of course, is her ususal superb, and Griffith gave the best performance of his career, playing against type and should have gotten the Oscar. But he wasn’t even nominated, in due to the less than stellar box office of the movie and the Liberal backlash against director Kazan for supposedly “naming names” before Congress. (In reality he didn’t name anyone that wasn’t already named again and again.) What eventually brought critics around to giving this film another look was Francois Truffaut, who championed the film as a modern-day classic and a warning.

WE DISAGREE ON ... SLEEPER (April 1, 9:45 pm)

ED: B+. Don’t get me wrong; Sleeper is a very funny film, made at a time when Woody Allen was more concerned with making us laugh rather than trying to be a revival of the French New Wave. But the problem with Sleeper is that it relies too heavily on slapstick – Woody walking around in a daze or falling over a la Chaplin – when some good verbal humor would do nicely. When a film is as dependent on visual gags as Sleeper, we reach a situation where, for every joke that is spot on, there are at least three that misfire. And, after awhile, the barrage of visual jokes begins to wear. This problem is somewhat balanced by the wonderful theme and the overall satire on politics. But the spate of visual gags that do not work in the film prevents me from giving it an A.

DAVID: A+. Besides Take the Money and RunSleeper is the best, most clever and entertaining of Woody Allen's "earlier, funnier movies." Allen's character, Miles Monroe (in honor of Earl Monroe, an all-time great player on Woody's beloved New York Knicks), is frozen in 1973 when a routine gall bladder operation goes bad. He's defrosted 200 years later by doctors who are in a resistance group in a police state. The gags are fast and funny. One of my favorites is when the scientists ask Miles about life 200 years earlier, including this gem. Allen's interaction with Diane Keaton (Luna, a self-centered socialite) is pure magic, particularly when she helps Miles relive a scene from his younger days and when the two are disguised as surgeons stealing the government leader's nose, all that's left of him after a rebel bomb blows up the rest of him. While the dialogue is smart and funny, Allen also proves himself to be an incredibly talented physical actor. Allen's slapstick comedic ability – think Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton – shines best in this role.

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

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Billy the Kid vs. Dracula

The Z Files

By Ed Garea

Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (Embassy, 1966) – Director: William Beaudine. Writer: Carl K. Hittleman (story & s/p). Cast: John Carradine, Chuck Courtney, Melinda Plowman, Virginia Christine, Harry Carey Jr., Walter Janovitz, Hannie Landman, Bing Russell, Olive Carey, Roy Barcroft, Marjorie Bennett, William Forrest, George Cisar, & Charlita. Color, 73 minutes.

Wow. A vampire Western! Now there’s a genre. And yet, it’s not the first. Universal’s Curse of the Undead beat it to movie screens by eight years (and it’s a better film to boot). But the producers of this can take some comfort in the fact that this film is worse. Much worse.

In fact, for a film dependent on action, out of its 73-minute running time, only about two, or three at most, of those minutes contain any action. The rest of the time is spent building up to the action with some great establishing scenes that fall flat on their face, really crummy dialogue, a leading man with all the appeal of imitation lime Jello, and a villain who appears clearly swacked in most of his scenes.

The film was reputedly shot in about 5 days and looks like it. It was filmed at Ray “Crash” Corrigan’s spread in Simi Valley, the scene of many a B Western. In fact, look closely and you’ll notice the ranch house was the same house used in the Buster Crabbe/Al “Fuzzy” St. John Westerns for PRC. For those who like their acting bad and their vampire bats fake, this is one to see. Those who like their movies at least making a little sense would be wise to skip this one, if for no other reason than taste.

Our film opens with a really terrible day-for-night shot of a rubber bat, compete with wires, flying around. Cut to an obvious German immigrant family camping out for the night. By the look of their covered wagon we can tell this is the Old West. Mom and Dad Oster (Christine and Janovitz) are sleeping on one side of the camp while daughter Lisa (Landman) is asleep on the other. Suddenly, Lisa is awakened by the chirp of the bat (Chirp??) and proclaims, “It’s here!” Father reassures her that she’s only having a nightmare, but Mother places a cross in her hand for safety and they go back to sleep.

The bat ducks behind the wagon and out comes Drac (Carradine). Although the film never mentions Dracula by name (probably for legal reasons), since it’s used in the title, we’ll refer to him as such. Obviously famished from all that flying about, Drac decides to stop at Lisa’s for a quick meal. He puts the bite on her, but her hand opens, revealing the cross, which scares Drac off. Looking at her neck later we can see that Drac left four bite marks. Must’ve been using his bottom fangs as well.

Cut to a stagecoach, which has stopped to take on Drac as a passenger. He’s traveling light – just himself and no luggage. The other passengers are Mary Ann Bentley (Bennett), her brother James Underhill (Forrest), and an aptly-named liquor salesman Joe Flake (Cisar). Making conversation, Mary explains that her husband has passed and she went to Boston to bring back her brother to help her run the ranch, the Double Bar B. She shows Drac a picture of her daughter, Elizabeth (Plowman). Drac is quite taken with the photo, telling from his hammy expression. (He also seems inebriated as well; perhaps he’s been into Joe’s sample case.) My favorite quote in this scene is when Mary Ann mentions to Drac that she shouldn’t be traveling at night. Night? Hell, it looks like late afternoon out there, that’s just how bad the optical filter is. (Later on Beaudine just decides to dispense with it altogether rather than continue the farce. So we’re treated to the sight of Drac walking around in broad daylight. Oh well, perhaps he’s using industrial strength sunscreen.) The stage stops for a rest at an Indian village where Drac departs and later that night puts the bite on a lovely and stacked Indian maiden (Charlita), who’s fetching water from the village’s well. All through the film when Drac is about to do something really diabolical, his eyes bug out and a red light shines on his face. He also has the power to disappear and reappear at will. Backstage, most of his disappearing came at lunchtime, when he hauled himself down the street each day in full costume to a bar where he would enjoy a hearty liquid lunch. Afterward he would return well-roasted, and it shows in his performance at several points in the picture.

When the group is about to leave the next day, neither hide nor hair of Drac can be found. So they decide to go on without him. Bad move, for the other Indians have found the body of the maiden and conclude it was the passengers in the stage what done it. (Watch closely and you’ll see they get a cue to rise up and ride off after the stage.) They hunt it down and kill everyone abroad. Soon after, Drac appears in his bat disguise (complete with strings), ducks behind the stage and reappears in human form. He searches the deceased, taking James’ identity papers and the photo of Elizabeth. We can easily guess where he's going.

Cut to his next destination, the Double Bar B ranch, where Elizabeth (or “Betty”) is being taught to shoot by a handsome young man, who we shortly learn is Billy the Kid (Courtney). It seems Billy has reformed by turning himself into a Casper Milquetoast type. He wants to marry Betty, but is worried people will find out he’s really Billy the Kid. “But that’s all behind you,” Betty reassures him. Oh sure, everyone will forget all the murders he committed because he’s now a nice guy. But as the scene ends we see that Billy and Betty are being spied upon. The voyeur is Dan Thorpe (Russell), along with a couple of toadies, who fill in the missing plot hole with just one line – very economical: “That guy Bonney sure moved in on you. First your foreman’s job, then your girlfriend.” So we now know two things: Thorpe will be out for revenge, and Billy will eventually kill him. Later we’re treated to a little tension, Beaudine style, when Billy tells Betty he’s found a lamb with its throat neatly sliced open. Billy tells her that Indian Jim said he saw a large bat kill the lamb. Cue the eerie theremin music.

Drac, meanwhile, is now in town posing as Betty’s dead uncle. He’s taken a room at the hotel, begging the question of why he just doesn’t go out to the ranch, since he’s now the dead uncle. Drac informs anyone who’ll listen that he came on ahead of the stage. About a minute after this the townsfolk are informed of the stage’s fate. Cut to the threesome sitting at a table in the hotel. Why, it’s the immigrants! And they quickly point out that Drac is a vampire. Drac feigns ignorance; just because he’s running around in that silly looking costume with a pointed goatee doesn’t mean he’s one of the undead. The townsfolk, having never seen a vampire before, tend to agree.

Drac graciously gives his room at the hotel to the immigrants and goes out to the ranch. Later that night he visits the hotel to finish the job on their daughter, but when he returns to the ranch he finds he has company. Yes, it’s those pesky immigrants, who Billy has hired as household help. Frau Oster is determined to protect Betty from Drac’s evil designs. (Several times throughout the film, Mrs. Oster is referred to as “Mrs. Olson,” as Virginia Christine was famous for playing the character in Folgers ads. I guess Beaudine thought it was a natural mistake by the townsfolk or just didn’t want to do another take to get things right. Would it have mattered, anyway?)

Frau Olsen now decides to decorate Betty’s bedroom in various shades of wolfsbane, the equivalent of a cold shower to an amorous vampire. (If she had all this to start, then why did her daughter get killed? Just asking.) Billy, meanwhile, brings his concerns about Uncle James to the wrong fellow – Uncle James. Carradine tactfully tells to him stop prying and believing those German immigrants, or get the pink slip. Later, Billy is conducting a meeting about good employee relations with Thorpe, the outcome of which sends Billy running to Doc Hull (Carey). While getting patched up, he tells her his suspicions about the newly arrived Uncle, and discovers that the doc just happens to have a couple of books on the subject. I’m sure that part of every good country doctor’s library has a book or two on vampirism. One never knows when it’ll be needed. Billy pours out his suspicions, “You know that lamb I told you about? Its throat was ripped wide open. At least that's what the boys told me." When the doc asks him if he thinks it could be the work of a vampire, Billy turns thoughtful: "I hate to think it could be true but, well, I . . . I don't know about things like that. You know, I . . . I ain't had too much schoolin’."

It’s at this point the doc whips out her book and opens it right in the middle, miraculously landing on the right passage to answer the question. She begins to read: “According to an old European superstition, a vampire is a ghost which leaves its resting place at night to suck the blood of living victims; humans, when possible. Sometimes it kills its victims, other times it keeps them alive. Sometimes a vampire takes one of his victims as a mate and eventually turns her into a vampire . . . Now you know as much about it as I do, Billy.” Billy is dumbfounded. “Gosh . . . Well, how do you know of a person is a vampire? How can you tell?” Yes, how can you tell? Not to worry, for the doc says, “Well, there’s some footnotes here in German. My German's pretty bad. But one thing I can make out: A vampire . . . does not cast . . . a reflection . . . in a mirror." (Vampires fur Dummkopfs)

When Billy tells the sheriff (Barcroft) about his newly obtained knowledge, it sets off a light bulb in the sheriff’s empty head. Earlier he dismissed Frau Oster’s explanation for her daughter’s death. Now he a fount of wisdom: “Ah yeah, vampires. Seems to me I recollect that she said that’s who done the killin’!”

We now cut to Thorpe, who’s trying to score some brownie points with Uncle James. He comes into the office and says he want to see Uncle James. Carradine rises from his chair. Now, this scene must have been shot after lunch, because Carradine weaves his way over to see Thorpe, who proceeds to dime out Billy over his accusations about Unk. That’s it – Billy is out and Thorpe is in. In addition, Drac tells his new foreman that he wants Billy clean out of town. Being a conscientious brown-noser, Thorpe runs into Billy at the hotel bar and informs Billy that he (Thorpe) has come to make sure Billy leaves town. A fight breaks out and Thorpe draws, but Billy is faster and Thorpe has played his last scene.

While this is going on, Betty is sharing doubts about Billy’s recent behavior with Eva: “Oh, it’s Billy. He's been acting so strangely lately. Now he wants me to try some, some experiment on Uncle James.” Eva asks what sort of experiment it is, to which Betty replies that it’s done with a mirror. “Oh God, the vampire test!” Eva exclaims. No, not that! Cue the organ.

As Betty by this time has foolishly removed the wolfsbane from her room (something about it clashing with the wallpaper, I believe), Drac now makes his move. He mesmerizes Betty through a combination of bugging his eyes out and having the red light shining in his face. (Though, honestly, that red light makes it seem as if he’s standing behind a rotisserie chicken cooker.) The next day Billy arrives at the ranch to find Betty zonked on the bed with two large hickeys on her neck. Eva tells him to take Betty to the doctor. Although the doc can’t make heads or tails about what’s wrong, she is sure that it’s the work of vampires. At this point the sheriff waltzes in to tell Billy that he has to drag him off to the hoosegow until the matter of Thorpe’s killing can be put to rest.

Now that Billy’s cooling his heels in the cooler, Drac makes his big move. He comes to the doc’s office to take Betty home. In one of the great nonsensical scenes in film history, the doc decides to put the vampire test to the test. She takes down the wall mirror, places it behind the vampire, and then calmly stares into the thing. Drac’s reaction is to turn around and stare at her until he can remember his next cue. (At this point Drac is clearly feeling no pain.) He then walks out carrying Betty, looks back at the doc and makes a noise not unlike that of a poodle in heat. The great thing is that the entire scene is done in such a relaxed manner that it almost seems like a rehearsal for the real scene yet to be shot.

As if that wasn’t enough, here comes another great scene. (In fact, the entire film now becomes one laughable scene after another, as if all seeming pretense to make a decent picture has been tossed out the window.) As Drac has come for Betty, the doc is in a panic. What to do? I know – I’ll get Billy. He’ll know what to do! She goes to the jail to try and spring Billy, but the sheriff is a party pooper: Billy has to stay put until the trial. At this point, and it’s done so nonchalantly, the doc – a little old aging and overweight lady – completely disarms the sheriff by taking his pistol from its holster with little effort and giving it to Billy, whereupon the sheriff reluctantly releases Billy on his own recognizance.

Before Billy leaves to have it out with Drac we are treated to some of the most inane dialogue in the picture. The doc offers her scapel to Billy to do Drac in: “Billy!” she says. “Take this! That gun will do you no good against him!” Billy, as stone-headed as ever, simply replies that he’s never see a man yet that a bullet won’t stop. “But he’s not a man!” replies the doc. Billy shrugs, fingers his gun and simply says, “This’ll do.”

Now it’s time for the final confrontation. After taking Betty home, Drac has now moved her to the abandoned silver mine. Earlier he had been scoping out the mine, and now we know why: it’s a honeymoon hotel. Drac has a double bed set up and ready to go. In a mine, yet. But here comes Billy, yelling out Betty’s name so Drac can hear him. What does Drac do? He hides. Perhaps he intends to jump out and yell “Surprise!” But a few seconds later he comes out of hiding to do battle. Drac is kicking Billy‘s ass, knocking him down. Billy draws and fires, but as the doc said, bullets have no effect. So what does Billy do now? He throws his gun at Drac, of course (as if he’s been paying attention to television episodes of Superman), and from the sound Drac makes Billy has hit his target. In fact, the gun hits Drac right on the schnozz and I think Drac’s cry wasn’t in the script. Drac falls down and out. The sheriff and the doc have been following closely behind, of course, and the doc now hands Billy her scalpel, which Billy uses to drive into Drac’s heart. We now suddenly cut to a shot of the rubber bat flapping around outside on its string. Suddenly, it falls to the ground – dead. Wait, isn’t Drac the bat? Is Beuadine trying to go metaphysical on us with this bit of symbolism, as if Drac’s soul were trying to escape? Why are we even discussing this, anyway? Right before the movie ends, we cut back to Drac, who is nothing more than a pile of bones. Guess he won’t be troubling us anymore.

This film plays rather fast and loose with the vampire legend. Carradine walks around in the daylight, a no-no for a vampire, but considering the almost nonexistent day-for-night shots, it was just as well, anyway. Carradine also carries no coffin around with him. He also sits down to dinner later in the film: vampires aren’t supposed to eat, other than drinking blood for nourishment. As for some who feel that driving a metal stake into Carradine violates the custom of a wooden stake, I would point out that several films in the past have employed metal stakes.

Billy the Kid vs. Dracula is truly a laugh riot, but if it has one redeeming feature, it’s the plethora of good character actors that work in it. Besides the top-billed Carradine, we have Harry Carey Jr. as the stage driver and his mother, Olive, in her last film role as the doc. Virginia Christine, who gained undying fame as Mrs. Olsen in the Folger coffee commercials, is Eva Oster, and Walter Janovitz, best remembered by television fans for his turn as dog keeper Oscar Schnitzler in Hogan’s Heroes, is her husband Franz. Ex-foreman Thgrpe is played by Bing Russell, father of Kurt, and the sheriff is B-movie stalwart Roy Barcroft, famous for his appearance if the Republic serials of the ‘40s and early ‘50s. And Indian maiden Charlita Roeder (sometimes billed by just her first name) had previously worked for Beaudine in his 1952 classic, Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla.

If anyone could be said to fail in this film, it’s Chuck Courtney, whose Billy the Kid comes off like bland Marshmallow Fluff instead of a tough guy trying to reform. Perhaps he simply lost interest in the film, because Courtney had a quite a career forbore this as a solid actor. He had previously worked for Beaudine, getting critical plaudits for his role in Born to the Saddle (Astor, 1953). He played Dan Reid, nephew to Clayton Moore on the long-running hit The Lone Ranger. He was also a favorite of both John Wayne and Robert Conrad, who employed him in many of their vehicles. In 1994, he received The Golden Boot award for his contribution to Western films. A series of strokes that left him totally debilitated led him to take his own life in 2000 at the age of 69.

Memorable Dialogue: Billy runs into Betty outside the abandoned silver mine and asks what’s going on.

Billy: Where’s your uncle?
Betty: Inside.
Billy: What’s he doing in an abandoned mine?
Betty: That’s his business.
Billy: Maybe it’s my business, too.
Betty: (Breaks down) Oh, Billy, what’s happening to us? We’ve never quarreled like this before, ever!

Miscellany: This was Carradine’s first attempt at a vampire role since playing Dracula in Universal’s House of Dracula in 1945 . . . Billy the Kid vs. Dracula was originally slated to begin production in 1961 with Joe Breen as director . . . The film was shot in anywhere from 5 to 8 days . . . Interiors for the film were shot at The Producer's Studio in Hollywood and exteriors at Corriganville, Hollywood stuntman Ray "Crash" Corrigan's ranch in California's Simi Valley. The ranch was also used for King Vidor's Duel in the Sun (1946), John Ford's Fort Apache (1948), and Sam Fuller's The Baron of Arizona (1950) . . . In Universal’s The Mummy’s Ghost (1944), evil high priest Carradine stalks reincarnated Egyptian princess Ananka, played by none other than Virginia Christine.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Muppets Most Wanted

Dinner and a Movie

Partying with The Muppets at Jack’s

By Steve Herte

This day has been very different; for a Sunday, that is. My sister whisked my father and I to her house in Floral Park for breakfast and to await the arrival of my other sister from her home in Florida on a visit. I didn’t get to start my reviews until after 3:00 pm. I set to work as soon as I got home. But Friday was very interesting and proved a challenge to sum up. The movie came preceded by a short and the restaurant was a Pandora’s box of revelations. But then, life, if it is to be lived, is a journey of discovery. Enjoy!

Party Central (Pixar, 2014) – Director: Kelsey Mann. Writers: Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton. Voices: Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Charlie Day, Dave Foley, Julia Sweeney, Sean Hayes, Joel Murray, & Peter Sohn. Color, animated, 5 minutes.

The Monsters University crowd is back in this animated short where all the fraternities of the school are ready to greet the new freshmen with competing parties. Of course all the major frat houses have the cool decorations, music, lighting effects and food. Not so for our heroes at Oozma Kappa. They have none of that and, consequently no guests. That is until the arrival of Sully (Goodman) and Mike (Crystal), bringing their secret weapon “transport doors.” Using these, they “steal” guests, girls, DJs, food, and decorations from the main frat house while sneaking through an unsuspecting couples’ bedroom.

It all goes smoothly until Mrs. Squiggles (Sweeney) catches them in the act. They think the jig is up; that is, until she introduces “Door Jamming” – something she did in the old days – where the doors are placed side by side on the floor and the jammer makes a flaming dive through one and out the other. Needless to say, the human couple get suspicious with all the unseen, but felt, comings and goings into and out of their closet until Mrs. Squiggles flashes into view and just as rapidly zips out their bedroom entrance. It’s then they see the scary creatures in their closet on a background of flames. The end results? The “trendy” frat house ends up with no party, Oozma Kappa has the best party ever, and the human couple beg their son if they can sleep with him tonight, because “there are monsters in our closet.” “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you!” replies their son.

The constant action of this clever short makes it entertaining to the point of the audience wishing it were longer. The excellent Pixar animation and writing by Docter and Stanton exceeds that of the original movie – written by Dan Scanlon, Daniel Gerson and Robert L. Baird. I think the writing crews should share notes in case another sequel is being planned.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Martini glasses.

The Muppets Most Wanted (Walt Disney, 2014) – Director: James Bobin. Writers: James Bobin & Nicholas Stoller. Based on Jim Henson’s characters. Cast: Ricky Gervais, Ty Burrell, Tina Fey, Steve Whitmire, Eric Jacobson, Matt Vogel, Peter Linz, Dave Goelz, Bill Barretta, & David Rudman. Color, 112 minutes.

Have I ever explained what a Kina Hora is? It’s Yiddish for a kind of “evil eye” curse one can put on oneself by simply voicing a disaster. The opening number to the new Muppet movie, “They’ve Ordered a Sequel/We’re Doing a Sequel,” containing the lyric: “That's what we do in Hollywood, and everybody knows that the sequel's never quite as good.” And this was their kina hora. I sat for the entire hour and 52 minutes wondering why my beloved Muppets (I watched all the TV shows and had seen the previous movies; “this is actually the fifth sequel” per Doctor Bunsen Honeydew) were not taking me on a hilarious journey into madcap fun. Thinking back on the reasons why I can only conclude that the voices were just wrong.

With Jim Henson’s death in 1990 and the retirement a decade later of Frank Oz (Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Animal and Sam the Eagle) the characters are mere shadows of their former selves. Instead of getting lost in the crazy story I was unnerved by what happened to my memories. Steve Whitmire’s Kermit is sedate compared to the original and Eric Jacobsen could not fill Oz’s size-tens.

The story this time is that the Muppets have just finished filming a movie and are wondering what to do next. Of course, a sequel! They meet Dominic Badguy (Gervais) who corrects Fozzie’s pronunciation of his name to “Bahd-jee…it’s French.” Dominic is in league with Constantine (Vogel), the most dangerous frog in the world, and who differs from Kermit only by a black mole on his right cheek. Together, they use the Muppets in a caper to steal the Crown Jewels of England. The Muppets convince Kermit to sign Dominic on as their manager against his better judgment and embark on a “World Tour.” Meanwhile, Constantine, who has broken out of Gulag 28B in Siberia, meets Kermit in a back alley, glues a fake mole to his cheek and has him captured by Nadya (Fey), head of security at the Gulag. He then applies green make-up to hide his own mole and, practicing Kermit’s voice (badly, he never loses the Russian accent), takes his place as leader of the Muppet troop. Kermit, on the other hand is hauled off to Siberia in a straitjacket and Hannibal Lecter mask.

The only Muppet to not accept the new Kermit is Animal, shouting “Bad Frog, Bad Frog!” as he proceeds to bite Constantine’s arm. Walter (Linz), the newest Muppet, is suspicious from the beginning but goes along with the general cluelessness of the rest, accepting this strange-talking Kermit who lets them all do whatever they want. The show’s performance suffers as a result. Gonzo’s (Goelz) “Indoor Running of the Bulls” skit nearly kills Salma Hayek one of many guest cameos in the movie). Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem’s lengthy rock performance, with an even longer drum solo by Animal goes for hours and Miss Piggy’s medley of Celine Dion songs puts the audience to sleep. Waldorf (Goelz) is applauding madly. Statler (Whitmire) asks why. “They’ve accomplished the impossible! The show is even worse!”

It’s not until Fozzie picks up a newspaper whose front page features a photo of Constantine and, accidentally covering the mole, sees Kermit’s image. He shows this to Walter and the lights go on for both of them (literally). Walter and Fozzie take Animal and go to Siberia to break Kermit out.

Meanwhile, Nadya has made Kermit the director of the annual Gulag Follies Show and has also fallen in love with him. When Walter, Fozzie and Animal free him, she follows relentlessly.

The crimes committed by Constantine and Dominic over the course of the Muppets’ tour are also being investigated by the unlikely team of Sam the Eagle and Jean Pierre Napoleon (Burrell) representing respectively the CIA and Interpol.

Constantine (under Dominic’s tutelage) woos Miss Piggy with the high-powered disco song “I’ll Get You What You Want” and convinces her to marry him. What Miss Piggy doesn’t know is that the engagement ring is a bomb.

The musical numbers take center stage in The Muppets Most Wanted, and while they are excellent and well composed, the comedy should have that position. Previous Muppet movies were consistently funnier. The storyline is good and the gags (way too intermittent) clever (in one or two cases abstruse). I laughed when no one else did. But I was not transported as in earlier episodes. For this I blame the distracting voices. Yes, there is a happy ending and the inevitable gimmick-billed “that stunt never works” actually works when needed (the Muppet Ladder – you have to see it to believe it) but the whole could have been much better. Even the list of “guest star cameos” didn’t help because I did not know (or recognize) most of them. I did see Lady Gaga, Tony Bennett, Celine Dion, Zach Galifianakis, Josh Groban, Frank Langella, Ray Liotta, Stanley Tucci and Usher but the 20 others were lost on me. On the positive side, kids not familiar with previous Muppet voices will love it.

Rating 3 out of 5 Martini glasses.

Jack’s Sliders and Sushi
171 Third Avenue (Between 16th and 17th Streets), New York

I know: the name of this restaurant could make you wonder how two such diametrically opposed styles of food preparation could coexist in one place. I did. Then I looked at their menu online and saw that sliders were a small part of the generally Japanese bill of fare. With that I was encouraged.

Hoping that “Jack” was a Japanese chef and that none of the number of seedier-looking eateries on Third Avenue was the one I was heading for, I finally located the pure white exterior and sedate stenciled windows of my destination. The white sign over the door with the restaurant name inscribed over a golden shadow of a bulldog intrigued me. The “A” card rating in the front window emboldened me.

Passing the heavy muslin “wind curtain” at the entrance, I was astounded at the small size of this restaurant. It could easily have fit inside the living room/dining room area of my house. The 12 marble-topped tables leading to the kitchen and single restroom in the back surmounted by the white wood latticed ceiling lit by caged bare bulbs and spots were mostly occupied by young diners. The young woman who would become my waitress asked if I had a reservation and seated me (after moving a table away from two girls seated in the front window) next to the wind curtain.

Daniela brought me a bottle of water and a tumbler along with the menu and wine list (both single cards) and asked if I wanted a drink. Looking up at the blackboard on the left wall and chose the Ommegang Beer from Cooperstown, New York. I was curious about it since seeing it in a previous restaurant. Daniela brought the bottle and an appropriate beer glass. When I poured it I was amazed at the foamy head filling the glass rapidly. I haven’t seen a head like this since I was in St. Joseph, Missouri, at a Barbershop convention. It took a while to dissipate and allow me to drink, but the beer was flavorful and herbal with a refreshing tang.

The menu was divided into Starters, Salads, Soups, Sliders (8 of them), Jack’s Ramen (noodle dishes), Off the Grill, Specialty Rolls, Sushi Entrees, Rolls & Hand Rolls, Drinks and Desserts. I asked Daniela if one starter, a soup and two Specialty Rolls would be too much food. She assured me it was not. 

Determined to go unusual I chose the Old Bay Garlic Fries as my starter. They were served in a cardboard basket and were crisp, lightly salted and garlicky. A ramekin of mustard colored dipping sauce, with a “happy face” drawn on the surface in catsup, accompanied them. It was neither of the above ingredients, but it was amusing and tasty.

Soon after, the soup arrived. I had chosen the Spicy Kimchi Soup (marked “new” on the menu). Yes, I know Kimchi is the spicy cabbage national dish of Korea, but I’ve never seen it in a soup. It was just as fiery but mixed with onions, zucchini, tomatoes and tofu. The large bowl of hearty soup lasted a good while and the fries effectively cut the spice.

Not surprisingly, the Specialty Sushi Rolls arrived well before I finished either the starter or the soup. This didn’t bother me, however, because the soup was hot enough to last, the fries were still great even after they had cooled down, and the sushi was cold to begin. Besides, the main course was beautifully presented on a white square platter (I decided to choose the animal representations of Yin and Yang) the Tiger Roll (Tuna, Kani – snow crab, spicy mayonnaise, and avocado inside with salmon, eel and “crunch” outside) lay diagonally on hoisin sauce flanked by the Dragon Roll (eel and cucumber inside rice with Massago - Smelt Roe on top). It got admiring comments from the girls at the next table and delighted reaction from my taste buds. The tender fish plus the hoisin sauce was sweet and delicious and also helped cut the spice of the remaining soup.

When I finished the sushi and the beer I decided that I wanted to try a glass of the 2008 Terre Del Barolo wine. It was dry and medium bodied, with a nice finish that went well with the remaining soup and fries.

Daniela asked if I had room for dessert and I noted that there were two on the menu that were interesting. On second glance, the Dark Chocolate Bread Pudding won the contest. It arrived in a small ceramic cup topped with a ball of green tea ice cream. It wasn’t as chocolate-y as I expected but it was tasty, soft and with a crunchy crust and the ice cream added a nice touch. What drink to finish with? “What’s Bubble Tea?” “It’s Tapioca with tea.” Another adventure. It came in six flavors and a choice of hot or cold. I chose Passion Fruit and hot. “My favorite!” said Daniela. It was hot, sweet but slightly tart and the tapioca was chewy and had absorbed the flavor of the Passion Fruit.

Before I asked for the check I asked Daniela if the was indeed a “Jack.” She smiled and told me that “Jack” was the owner’s bulldog – a representative of which (stuffed) was sitting on the counter in the rear of the restaurant. I was glad I didn’t ask that at the first. The check was another adventure. My credit card was attached to a small electronic device with a touch screen to choose a tip percentage and one’s signature could be done with a fingernail. It took me a while to figure it out, but I did.

Despite its small size, Jack’s Sliders and Sushi delivered a world of flavor and, judging by the other patrons, a future foray into dining diversity after Lent, when I can try those sliders.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

300: Rise of an Empire

Dinner and a Movie

Persians and Grecians and Thieves, Oh My!

By Steve Herte

With the Ides of March behind us and spring (hopefully) here, I can honestly say that I'm not sad to see this winter go away. I’m starting to think of warmer days when I can be out in my garden. I’ve even planned my vacation time and July 4th week is all set up. Friday was a catch-up day for movies and proved an interesting experience. It even had me looking up my ancient history books. The restaurant on Friday was a landmark for me (you do know I keep a database since the beginning in 1973) and was not only the 2,590th place I’ve dined, but also the 353rd Italian. How the time has flown! Enjoy!
300: Rise of an Empire (WB, 2014) – Director: Noam Murro. Writers: Zack Snyder & Kurt Johnstad (s/p), Frank Miller (graphic novel). Cast: Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Lena Headley, Hans Matheson, Callan Mulvey, David Wenham, Rodrigo Santoro, Jack O’Connell, & Igal Naor. Color and 3D, 102 minutes.

Having seen the first movie 300 and knowing that the Spartan army (300 strong) under King Leonides was defeated and slain to a man in the Battle of Thermopylae (meaning “Hot Gates”) by the Persian army under Xerxes I wondered what the sequel could possibly be about. I mean really, the “300” just weren’t anymore.

This film starts 10 years earlier with the Battle of Marathon when the Persians under “good” King Darius (Naor) first invaded the shores of Greece right into the waiting arms of the Greek forces as they landed. Under the narration of Queen Gorgo (Headey) of Sparta, we witness the brutal bloodshed, culminating in the incredible bowmanship of Themistocles (Stapleton) as he shoots the fatal arrow into Darius, who is still on his ship and a remarkably long distance from shore. Darius dies in the arms of his son Xerxes (Santoro) and his final words are, “Only the gods can defeat the Greeks.” This greatly affects Xerxes until Artemisia (Green) comes along. She’s a Greek defector who witnessed the murder of her entire family and who suffered brutality and abandonment by the people she once loved. Having become proficient in Persia at all martial arts, she now is the commander of the entire Persian fleet. (Hey, why not? Check your Herodotus.) She convinces Xerxes to go to god-making school, a kind of intense combination of religious retreat, self-deprivation therapy and body-building clinic with a touch of WWE theatrics thrown in and he emerges as a hairless, golden, buff hunk draped in gold chains and swaggering better than John Wayne. So the history books depict Xerxes with a full head of black curly hair and an even fuller beard, this is show biz.

Xerxes directs Artemisia to lead the fleet against the much smaller Greek fleet under Themistocles and the Battle of Artemisium (a strangely coincidental location) begins. Themistocles’ strategies take the Persians by surprise at first when he directs the Greek triremes to ram the Persian ships amidships (…”they are weaker in the middle and stronger at the front”) thus saving his ships for the next battle. Then, when the Persians try suicide bombers (yes, this is 480 BC) covered in tar and swimming under a layer of tar (to be lit by flaming arrows) and he directs his archers at the fire-hurlers, who stumble and light their own ship in a huge explosion, Artemisia decides she must have this guy on her side.

Under a flag of truce, Artemisia has her men bring Themistocles onto her barge and, after a ridiculously violent sex scene the two are at a standoff. Themistocles desires a united Greek offensive and goes to Queen Gorgo (now mourning her husband after Thermopylae) to hopefully gain the support of the Spartan fleet, but to no avail. (He thinks.) He has to use his considerable talents as a motivational speaker to rally the “…farmers, sculptors, and poets…” who by now are discouraged by the never-ending resources of the Persians. He succeeds and once more they sally forth to uncertain victory. The battle rages on until Themistocles and Artemisia have each other’s necks at sword point (in one of the thousands of tableaux in the movie) and suddenly, the Spartan navy unfurls their black sails in the distance and swoop in to aid their Athenian countrymen.

Granted, Xerxes’ army has meanwhile swept behind the Athenian forces and now has Athens in a burning, ravaged ruin, but on the waters it’s a Greek victory.

300: The Rise of an Empire, like the first movie, is more of a fanciful painting with motion than a motion picture. The brutality of the battles is made blatantly obvious using copious amounts (sometimes unbelievable) of blood in suspended animation by the ever-present slow-motion photography. The lighting also lends an oil-on-canvas look to the film, and the heroic build of the men and women added a larger-than-life quality to the story. (There are no fat people in the cast – one hunchback, the traitor Ephialtes, played by Andrew Tiernan, but no one is even overweight.) The amount of slicing and dicing that goes on throughout the movie would turn the strongest stomach and possibly traumatize anyone under 15. Even I found myself wondering when the hour and 42 minutes were going to end. Oh no, there’s yet another battle? More slashing, more blood-spatter on the camera? Give me a break. But, what 300: Rise of an Empire did do was give me an insight on the kind of audiences that are now going to movies. They’re accustomed to gobs of gore and even seek it out. Hopefully there will be no more sequels.

On a horticultural note, Artemisia is the genus for the plant Wormwood, from which we extract Absinthe.

Rating: 3½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

Il Brigante
214 Front Street (Beekman St.), South Street Seaport, New York

Blending in with the quaint landmark brick buildings of New York’s South Street Seaport we find Il Brigante (“The Thief” or “The Brigand” in Italian) under a blood red wooden sign with gold lettering. The two front windows have the words “Trattoria” and “Pizzeria” stenciled on them respectively. Inside, once past the heavy draft-curtain is the hustle-bustle of a restaurant staff trying desperately to keep up with this influx of diners. The relatively small room barely contains the 25 bare-topped tables, which are periodically being shifted and re-arranged to accommodate more customers. I was glad I had a reservation. The table in the center of the room was mine and from the beginning I learned to limit my movements when I accidentally elbowed my waitress as she was passing by.

After Tehela and I apologized to each other we were friends. The friendly gentleman who seated me brought my glass of water, the wine and beer (no full bar here, not enough room) list and the menu. I went right to the wine list and ordered the 2009 Montepulciano D’Abruzzo “Colle Salle” from Barone di Valforte, which from its description, was an “intense, full-bodied red,” and it lived up to that appellation. The breadbasket arrived. Sipping my wine and dipping the crusty, fluffy bread into the oil/vinegar dish I listened to the maître d’ cite the specials.

The single room is decorated very simply, like a country eatery in a little village in Italy – a bare brick wall leading to the pizza oven and kitchen in the back and cream colored walls and ceiling elsewhere with simple swags for lighting. Here and there hang small paintings or cooking implements.

I asked Tehela about half-orders of pasta but she assured me they don’t do that (Gee, a first!), but that I could always wrap up dishes to go. There were three dishes I wanted to try and if that meant taking half of one home, no problem. I started with the Parmigiana di Melanzane, listed as “a tower of eggplant, tomato, basil and mozzarella baked in our brick oven.” I was intrigued. What came out was a tomato-ey mound on a white plate with black eggplant skins slipping out the side like forlorn ribbons after a Christmas morning. It was steamy hot, tasty and cheesy but far from a “tower.” Just today I looked at the photo of the dish on their website and it does appear that it should have been hamburger-shaped. But at the time I was just baffled.

I skipped the salad list on the menu and went right to the pastas from which I chose the Trofie al Pesto. Trofie is a thin twisted pasta originating in Genoa in Liguria. The name is oddly from the Greek, meaning “nourishment.” The tender, two-inch homemade pasta were nestled in a white bowl with the rich green pesto sauce peeking out and shaved Romano cheese gracing the top. The dish looked and smelled so good the man at the next table asked what I was having. Indeed it was the star of the meal. I ate it carefully; keeping in mind that half of it would have to go home. It wasn’t easy, but I accomplished it.

This left me hopeful for the main course. Online there were two interesting seafood main dishes, a whole Branzino (which I love, but didn’t think I could finish, and would not last the trip home) and a Sea Breem, another fish I’m familiar with and also like. The Branzino was there but the Sea Breem was not. 

However, there was a swordfish dish, Pescespada alla Griglia – swordfish topped with chopped tomatoes and sided with steamed broccoli and crispy fried potato slices. Once again, the plate was steaming hot, the piece of fish was moist and tender, the broccoli lightly crisp and the potatoes delicious. I was surprised at the small size of the swordfish steak and noted it to Tehela. The chopped tomatoes had a chill to them as if they just came from the refrigerator. I wondered if they could have heated them up a bit before topping the fish. On the whole, the dish was wonderful, but it could have been that much better.

Now, with the paper bag on my table containing the remaining half of my pasta I asked Tehela for the menu, which had the “Dolci” or sweets at the bottom. Tehela touted the Tartuffo and I could not resist. I ordered a double espresso with it. The generous serving of chocolate-covered chocolate and vanilla ice cream bombe (a cherry at the center) was served quartered on a plate with a mound of fresh whipped cream in the center and a sprig of mint. I commented to Tehela that it was the best I’ve ever had. She told me that it’s the only item not homemade, but comes from a bakery in Brooklyn. It was divine, especially the thick, dark coating. The dark coffee paled in comparison.

Il Brigante (from what I can discern from previous reviews) has been in operation since 2007 and whose owner, Venanzio Pasubio is passionate about the quality of the food to the point that there is no microwave in the kitchen. The cuisine and name hearkens back to Sila, the mountainous region of Calabria, Italy where “Robin Hoods” (Brigante) abounded. Also from the reviews I gleaned that the pizzas (several were served while I was there – and my table shifted to accommodate customers) are exceptional. Maybe, at a luncheon hour I will order one to go and enjoy it while watching the river traffic a block away.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.