Friday, May 30, 2014

TCM TiVo Alert for June 1-7

TCM TiVo Alert 
For
June 1–June 7

DAVID’S BEST BETS:

A HARD DAY'S NIGHT (June 2, 8:00 pm): If you consider all of the films starring music bands put together quickly to capitalize on their popularity, you'd be hard-pressed to find more than a handful that are even mediocre. This one starring the Beatles is the best of the bunch – by a lot. The premise of the film is basic: it's a look at a couple of days in the incredible lives of the Fab Four at the height of Beatlemania as they run from screaming fans and prepare for a TV show in which they'll perform. While I'm a huge Beatles fan, I much prefer their music from 1965 to 1969. However, the songs in this 1964 film are among the best of the early Beatles' music, including the title track, "Can't Buy Me Love," and "I Should Have Known Better." The biggest surprises are the script is clever and the four come across as charming and witty, at ease with funny one-liners and amusing sight gags. They'd try to repeat the magic a year later with "Help!" The soundtrack is better, but the film is a silly throwaway piece of fluff more in tune with this genre.

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (June 3, 8:00 pm): Besides This Is Spinal Tap, I have seen this film more than any other, and that's well over 50 times. Each time I watch it I am more impressed by how visually beautiful and stunning it is, and how sophisticated the special effects are, particularly when you consider the film was released in 1968. The storyline can be extraordinarily challenging to understand even to those who've seen it more than 50 times. This is not a movie to see once, and it's almost a crime to watch this groundbreaking film on a small screen. It's an important piece of cinema with so many moments of brilliance and amazement. There are few films I enjoy watching more than 2001 as it's the story of mankind, a higher power, artificial intelligence and what happens when they come together through advances in technology. Watching it is an incredible experience no matter how many times you see it.

ED’S BEST BETS:

GO GO MANIA (June 2, 9:45 pm): While this film is no more than a compilation of British rock ‘n’ roll acts, it’s still a wonderful trip down Memory Lane for those of us who came of age in the ‘60s. The Beatles, The Animals, Herman’s Hermits, Peter and Gordon, all the icons of the British Invasion, plus some that never lasted, such as Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, Sounds Incorporated, and the Spencer Davis Group. Also look for Matt Munro singing the theme song for the 1963 bond movie From Russia With Love. Now that’s nostalgia.

NIGHT AND FOG (June 3, 6:45 am): A disturbing and heartbreaking documentary featuring the abandoned grounds of Auschwitz and Majdanek while describing the lives of those imprisoned there. It alternates between the past and present (1955) while using both black and white and color footage. These are disturbing images, as director Alan Resnais makes a powerful and eloquent statement about man’s inhumanity to his fellow man by showing the contrast between the lives of the SS guards and the prisoners, the horrific medical experiments, and cremation of the bodies. This film has been used as a teaching tool in French schools since 1961. It still holds its power today.

WE DISAGREE ON ... MON ONCLE D'AMERIQUE (June 3, 7:15 am)

ED: C. This dissection of middle-class life, told in three stories, has its ups and downs, but not enough ups as far as I‘m concerned. Of the three stories, the one with Gerard Depardieu as a middle manager in a textile firm is by far the most interesting, and the segment about the actress (Nicole Garcia) the least interesting. We’ve seen her story endless times already. Biologist Henri Laborit’s commentaries make for a good counterpoint to the action, but only for so long; after a while they become stale, and I wonder if Alain Resnais could have dispensed with it altogether and come up with a better movie. It’s interesting (anything is more interesting than his Last Year at Marienbad) but not interesting enough. 

DAVID: A-. This 1980 French film takes the theories of Henri Laborit, a scientist, writer and philosopher, who comments throughout, about human behavior and turns them into a satire. It creates a fascinating contrast. Among the best moments is we're shown interactions among people which are cross-cut to Laborit dryly discussing and showing how lab rats react to stressful situations. It's a clever-funny film even though there are many dramatic aspects. Gerard Depardieu is outstanding as a naive farm boy who comes to the big city to be a textile executive only to lose it after 20 years on the job. The other stories revolve around an ambitious and self-absorbed politician and his mistress, an actress who sacrifices her personal happiness while falling for a lie. The showdown between the latter two at the end of the film is quite powerful. As a bonus, we see clips of various French actors, including the legendary Jean Gabin, who represent the film's three main characters.

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

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Legends of Oz – Dorothy's Return

Dinner and a Movie

Oz Down Under

By Steve Herte


Things worked out nicely this week. I had to reschedule my dinner and a movie night to slot in a reunion of my Barbershop quartet, The Majestics. It’s difficult enough to get this group together when one lives in Cos Cob, Connecticut, one in Yonkers, one in Queens, and the fourth in Eastern Long Island. But it’s such a joy singing with them and we don’t limit ourselves to the standard Barbershop style. We sang some Gospel, some Jazz and touch of Rock and Roll and some Doo Wop. It seems we were making really good sounds in the Atrium in White Plains between Whole Foods Market, Morton’s Steakhouse and the Cheesecake Factory. I heard, “You guys are awesome!” at least seven or eight times. We felt it too. Just to give you an idea of what kind of songs we sing, we went from “How Great Thou Art” to “Battle Hymn of the Republic” to “My Juanita” to the Beatles’ “Blackbird,” to “This Joint Is Jumpin’,” to “Old Saint Louie” and “Stardust.”

This is just a sampling of our over 100-song repertoire. Our “Danny Boy” makes Irishmen cry. Our “This Is The Moment” and “Music of The Night” have Broadway fans on their feet applauding. The highlight of the evening was when this charming young lady asked us if we could sing “Happy Birthday” to her Dad as a surprise for his 79th birthday. We agreed and when he came out of Morton’s with the family he had no idea what was waiting for him. They were amazed and asked for another song. We instantly responded with a swinging version of “Slow Boat to China” and he danced to it with his wife. Passers-by stopped to watch and listen. It was great. Then we had dinner at the Cheesecake Factory, and entertained more people there. At the end of the evening we always finish with a Barbershop standard, “That Old Quartet of Mine” because it makes us realize how special our group is to make many people happy. One of the most poignant lines in this song is, “And if someday we ever meet again, I will smile and stand in line, just to sing one song, just one more time, with that old quartet of mine.” Kind of makes you misty, doesn’t it?

This re-scheduling made Thursday my night out and it was a good move. The movie was a big surprise and the restaurant a place that would be packed on a Friday night, but wasn’t when I was there. Enjoy!

Legends of Oz – Dorothy’s Return (Clarius Entertinment, 2014) - Directors: Will Finn, Dan St. Pierre. Writers: Adam Balsam & Randi Barnes (s/p), Roger S. Baum (novel). Voices: Dan Aykroyd, James Belushi, Kelsey Grammer, Lea Michele, Tacey Adams, Michael Krawic, Martin Short, Bernadette Peters, Randi Soyland, Oliver Platt, Patrick Stewart, Hugh Dancy, Brian Blessed, Megan Hilty, Douglas Hodge, Debi Derryberry, & Randy Crenshaw. Animated, Color, 92 minutes.

When the trailers did not give away the whole story and made the film look silly to me, I initially had no intention of seeing this one. But it’s a good thing I did see it, as it was very well done. The tale, from a novel written by Roger S. Baum (great-grandson of L. Frank Baum), picks up where the Wizard of Oz leaves off. Dorothy (voiced by Michele) wakes up in her tornado-wrecked house and sees the damage the funnel cloud inflicted on her neighbors. She, Aunty Em, Uncle Henry and Toto are OK, as are the rest of the people living in her area, but the houses and barns all around are broken in various ways. There is also a sleazy, fast-talking “real estate” appraiser (Short) handing out condemnation notices to everyone and telling them to move out. Of course, Dorothy is outraged.

Meanwhile in Oz, the Jester (also Short), brother of the Wicked Witch of the West, has stolen her broomstick from the Emerald City and topped it with a crystal ball, making it into a magic scepter and giving him power to imprison all major characters in Oz as his marionettes, including Glinda (Peters). The Scarecrow (Aykroyd) fires up a “Rainbow Portal Generator” to call Dorothy back to Oz to help battle the Jester but as it sweeps up Dorothy and Toto a troop of winged monkeys attack. He, the Tin Man (Grammer), and the Lion (Belushi) are captured and flown to the Jester’s castle. The rainbow drops Dorothy and Toto off in the middle of a spiral garden somewhere in Oz she’s never been and she’s lost. The Yellow Brick Road is nowhere in sight.

The only character in view is an enormously fat owl named Wiser (Platt) whose chest feathers look like an argyle vest and who talks incessantly (and admits it). He knows approximately where the Yellow Brick Road is and joins her on her quest. Their journey takes them through Candyland and Wiser warns Dorothy to obey the signs. However, the Jester has already changed them from “Do Not Eat the Candy” to “Please Eat the Candy,” and the two go on a binge (along with Toto). They are arrested by chocolate soldiers under the leadership of Marshall Mallow (Dancy) a man made up completely of (can you guess?). They are led into town and taken to the court to be tried by Judge Jawbreaker (Blessed). Just when it seems they are sentenced to death it is revealed that she is Dorothy Gale, the witch-slayer, and their sentence is commuted.


Marshal Mallow cannot leave their side because he’s under orders from General Candyapple (he doesn’t know the Jester’s already captured the General), and he accompanies them on their journey. This takes them to an extensive wall of delicate teacups and towers of fine dinnerware, which causes Wiser to exclaim, “What a Great Wall of China!” (There are several moments like this.) The gate, however, is locked and the gatekeeper will not allow them to have an audience with the China Princess (Hilty) because she’s interviewing suitors. After Dorothy convinces the guard that Marshall Mallow is a suitor, they gain access. In the throne room the princess is turning down one suitor after another until Mallow steps up. At first he stammers nervously and she mocks him. Then he starts singing his proposal in an incredibly rich-toned voice and she’s stunned into silence and admiration.

The Princess won’t let the travelers go through her kingdom unless she joins them and they are forced to agree. They come to a huge gap in the Yellow Brick Road where a bridge once spanned the river that flows to the Emerald City and decide they must build a boat. But the trees won’t let them have the wood (especially remembering the apples Dorothy stole from their relative the last time she was in Oz). One old, gnarled tree however agrees to supply his wood and, after a marvelous production number becomes the Tugg (Stewart), the boat that takes them to the Emerald City.

From there it’s a battle to get the scepter from the Jester and bring things back to normal and send Dorothy home again. Legends of Oz – Dorothy’s Return is a beautifully animated movie. The characters are three-dimensional (even when not in 3D) and their movements smooth and natural. Particular attention was paid to the China Princess, who in close-ups reflected light off of her china skin, a very nice special effect. The only character to suffer from the designer’s pen was Glinda: Her comical hair-do and ridiculous gown detracted from her believability and actually “flattened” her. In general, the eyes of all the characters were a little too large for my tastes. I would imagine to make them endearing.

Frozen must have set a standard however, because for the third time in a row of three animated films, the music blew me away in its grandeur, back-tempos, harmony and orchestration. The music department includes Bryan Adams as one of the songwriters and it shows. My personal favorite song, “Even Then” written by Tift Merritt is poignant, haunting and lavishly arranged and sung with great feeling by Hugh Dancy, Lea Michele and Megan Hilty.

Bring the kids to this one! The jokes they don’t understand you will, and the visuals are bright enough and comically varied enough to keep their attention.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Martini glasses.


Flinders Lane
162 Avenue A (11th Street)New York


Modern Australian Cuisine” was the hook that drew me to this two-month-old boȋte at the beginning of Alphabet City. This cozy little place is decorated in dark wood, with shades of silver, black and grey. Single bulb swags hang from the ceiling and a well-stocked bar is on one wall; an impressive wine rack on the opposite wall, and tables separated by a brick wall in between. I sat at one of the three circular marble-topped tables in the front windows choosing the bench rather than the chair because it had a cushion. The young man at the tiny Captain’s Station warned me that the seat rocked a bit but I found no problem when I sat down. I discovered later what he meant, for every time the front door opened, the bench leaned back a little bit. Quaint, I thought, but endurable.

Flinders Lane in Melbourne, Australia, is similar to our Greenwich Village; it’s a place where artists and avant-garde types go to dine and meet. Here, graffiti is an art form, with several walls covered in brightly colored scenes. The restaurant has a photomural on one wall to illustrate this.

My waiter, Alan, brought me the menu and wine/drink list (basically a sheaf of papers stapled together) and asked if tap water was my preference. I told him yes. I saw two Australian beers on the drink menu and decided to try the James Boag’s Premium Ale. It had a full flavor, a good head of foam and made for a refreshing start without being too heavy.

Alan listed the specials of the day by simply reading them from the blackboard over the bar, making side comments on each, and leaving me to my thoughts. The menu is a single page entitled “Food” with no subtitles or divisions. The dishes are listed in order of size rather than purpose and Alan helped me discover where the dividing line was between small, medium and large. From the wine list I chose the 2012 Innocent Bystander Pinot Noir from Australia, a semi-dry ruby red table wine whose fruity flavor accented but didn’t interfere with any of my dishes.


As is my wont I chose three dishes and Alan approved with raised eyebrow. First on my list was Oysters Kilpatrick – served on the half-shell with Chinese pork sausage, garlic, chives and Worcestershire dressing. It was a little messy to eat but an explosion of flavor when you were able to get all of the ingredients onto the tiny oyster fork and into your mouth. In fact, the flavor of the oysters themselves was almost masked by the dressing.

My next dish was my way of helping Australia to diminish its “pest” problem (Alan chuckled at this excuse). The Tandoori Rabbit – sliced with pickled green mango, Peshawari Nan (a Pakistani flatbread) and spiced yoghurt – tasted as if it genuinely came out of an Indian Tandoor oven, but Alan assured me it was grilled. The chef has a knack for creating this illusion and it was tender and delicious.


I told Alan that no one is going to believe me when I say I had a soup (essentially) as a main course. The Curry Laksa – a wonderful Southeast Asian fusion of flavors in a Thai curry coconut broth, with grilled shrimp, bean curd, lemon grass, rice noodles and Vietnamese Cilantro – was like having a party in my mouth. The spices tingled while the coconut soothed and the net effect was the flavor of butter. I commented on this in my wonder knowing there was no butter in it at all. The shrimp was a large one and served with head on, so if you order this dish take into consideration a necessary decapitation.

With absolutely nothing left on any of my plates it was dessert time. Alan listed the available selections commenting that the last one was typically “English.” I stated that I did not come to Flinders Lane to be “English” but to be “Australian” and chose the Ice Cream Sampler. 


The four scoops were arranged on a plate and Alan explained which was which and where to start. The first was a light lemon sorbet, refreshing and very cold. The second was a “cookies and cream” ice cream, chocolate based, very good. The third was definitely an Indian Kulfi – an ice cream without ice or cream. It’s made with evaporated and sweetened condensed milk, bread and little cardamom, wonderful. The last was the most intriguing of all – a homemade ice cream with the delicate flavor of Myrtle (Yes the flowering bush! I was astounded). It tasted like eating a forest in springtime - a delicate, green flavor much lighter than green tea ice cream. What an experience!

Then Alan became the tempter. Deducing from what I’ve ordered he suggested an after-dinner drink, Pineau Des Charentes – a French “vin de liqueur” from the Cognac region of western France. It was sweet, strong and a delightful finish to my meal. It was fortunate indeed that I had to change my schedule this week. Alan told me that if I tried coming on a Friday the restaurant would be packed with customers. Keeping that in mind I will time my return visit to Flinders Lane accordingly.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Monday, May 26, 2014

A Family Affair

Films in Focus

By Ed Garea

A Family Affair (MGM, 1937) – Director: George B. Seitz. Writers: Kay Van Riper, Hugo Butler (s/p), Aurania Rouverol (play, “Skidding”). Cast: Lionel Barrymore, Spring Byington, Cecilia Parker, Eric Linden, Mickey Rooney, Charley Grapewin, Julie Haydon, Sara Haden, Allen Vincent, Selmer Jackson, Margaret Marquis, & Robert Emmett Keane. B&W, 69 minutes.

In 1935, MGM had a hit with Ah, Wilderness!, a sentimental look at turn-of-the-century life starring Wallace Beery, Lionel Barrymore, Aline MacMahon, Spring Byington, Cecilia Parker, Eric Linden, and Mickey Rooney. Based on the play of the same name by Eugene O’Neill, it centers on the Miller family and their trials and tribulations, especially those of teenager Richard Miller (Linden). The profit, combined with MGM’s Louis B. Mayer looking for more sentimental family fare, led producers to dig around for suitable material. Sam Marx, a senior story editor at the studio, came across a play from 1928 titled Skidding, written by Aurania Rouverol, that he remembered seeing on Broadway. He took it to producer Lucien Hubbard, but Hubbard wasn’t buying. So Marx went to Mayer, and Mayer ordered Hubbard to buy the rights to the play and put it on screen. Mayer and Hubbard agreed it should be made as a “B,” fit for the bottom of the bill. They already had the sets, and signed on Seitz to direct after Richard Thorpe and Edwin L. Marin turned down the project.

It was also decided to use most of the cast from Ah, Wilderness! Barrymore was between assignments and was under contract, so despite his objections, he was cast in the lead as Judge James K. Hardy. Byington was tapped for the role Mrs. Hardy, Parker would play Marion Hardy, and Sara Haden would play Aunt Milly Forrest. Frankie Thomas was originally cast as the youngest of the Hardy clan, Andy, but by the time filming began he had grown too tall and was replaced by the diminutive Mickey Rooney. Linden was also cast as Marion’s boyfriend.


Judge Hardy is a man beset by two large problems, one personal and the other political. Though he is one of the most respected men in the town of Carvel, he angers townsfolk when he issues a temporary restraining order against the construction of a $30 million aqueduct. The contractor on the project, Hoyt Wells (Jackson), threatens to oust the judge at the next election. There’s even more bad news: Frank Redmond (Grapewin), the editor and publisher of the town’s newspaper, The Star, supports Wells in the matter.

That same evening, Marion Hardy returns home from college, while their oldest daughter, Joan Hardy Martin (Haydon) also returns home after a secret separation from her husband Bill. A telephone inquiry from The Star’s gossip columnist about a party the family is giving for Marion turns nasty after being informed by her editor that only “bad” items about the Hardys are to be printed. She writes hat Joan and her husband Bill are about to put “boxing gloves on.” Also that night, teenaged Andy is reluctantly leaving to take his old childhood sweetheart, Polly Benedict (Marquis), who has recently returned to town, to a party. When she answers the door, Andy sees that the girl who left has now grown into a beautiful woman and is pleasantly surprised.

Marion’s new boyfriend, Wayne Trent (Linden), who she met on the train, is an engineer who has come to town to work on the aqueduct. Her father’s position on the matter worries her. Joan later confides to her father that she and Bill are separated. After telling him that she and Bill are running with a “fast crowd,” she goes on to say that she went to a roadhouse with another man and was spotted by Bill. Even though everything was innocent, Bill will not listen to her side of the story.


The next day, The Star’s headline reads, "Citizens Committee Moves to Impeach Judge Hardy," and the paper is posted on the public bulletin boards. An angry Judge Hardy wants to bring contempt of court proceedings against The Star and Redmond. J. Carroll Nichols, the man who originally asked for the restraining order, wants to drop the suit to protect the judge, but Judge Hardy refuses his request. Soon the entire town is now against the judge, afraid that the extra jobs and money promised by Wells will be lost. Polly refuses to speak to Andy because her father opposes the judge, and even Marion and Wayne argue because they cannot get married if Wayne doesn't get to work on the aqueduct.

It all comes to a head at a political convention, called to determine the judge’s fate. Down, but not out, Judge Hardy calls son-in-law Bill (Vincent) down to set straight the gossip about his impending divorce. Bill tells the crowd that he and Joan are not only happily married, but if The Star proceeds with the divorce story, he will sue for libel. The judge then grabs the podium and begins to read the “fine print” in the aqueduct contract. It seems that under the agreement, Wells can impound the land adjacent to the Carvel River, an act that would ruin many of the townspeople. Realizing that the judge has saved the town, the crowd cheers as he makes the injunction permanent.

Judge and Mrs. Hardy and their daughters Joan and Marion are now happy, and are joined by Andy when Polly apologizes to him and gives him a kiss.


To MGM’s surprise, this small B picture that was shot in only 15 days on a shoestring budget was a smash hit. Critics were near unanimous in their praise, patrons wrote to MGM asking for another Hardy movie, and most importantly for the studio, exhibitors also sent telegrams to the studio asking for another Hardy film. In many locations, the film was held over and made the “A” film while another move was brought in to fill the bill. According to Andrea Passaflume, who wrote an article on the film for TCM, “One exhibitor from Rochester, New York, wired MGM, 'For God's sake let's have more of that Rooney kid. He really wowed them...The kid's a gold mine...Please make another Hardy picture right away.'"

It was considered most unusual for studios to make sequels in 1937 – especially a sequel to a B movie – but MGM head Mayer recognized potential when he saw it and soon ordered a second Hardy film called You're Only Young Once, also released in 1937. This time out, however, only Rooney, Parker (Marion) and Haden (Aunt Milly) reprised their original roles. Barrymore supposedly declined a second feature, telling the studio that he did not want to work in a series. (He would later change his mind when struck down by crippling arthritis and happily accepted the role of Dr. Gillespie in the Dr. Kildare series. Reportedly, he said that playing second banana to Lew Ayres was preferable to playing second banana to Rooney.) I think, though, the real reason MGM was happy to bilge Barrymore was because he was too crusty a character to play the judge. Mayer was reimaging America as a kindly place, and so needed a kindly Judge Hardy. Enter Lewis Stone, who would play the role throughout the rest of the series.

Byington was also dropped, with Fay Holden assuming the role of Mrs. Hardy. Ann Rutherford replaced Margaret Marquis as Polly Benedict, and Joan, the oldest sister, was dropped entirely (shades of Chuck Cunningham in Happy Days). The biggest change came with the character of Andy Hardy. Though his character is secondary in A Family Affair, he soon became the focus of the Hardy series. And as Rooney's stardom skyrocketed, the titles for the Hardy picture, beginning with 1938’s Love Finds Andy Hardy, started featuring Andy Hardy's name. We may laugh at the Hardy features today as antiquated corn-on-the-cob, but the series was the direct ancestor of the family sitcoms that came to dominate television in the ‘50s, such as Father Knows BestThe Donna Reed ShowLeave It to Beaver, and so on into time with Happy Days and The Cosby Show. It was none other than Mayer who saw the future, although not quite in that form.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Dinner and a Show: Cirque du Soleil

From Tre Sorrelle to Amaluna

By Steve Herte

Tre Sorrelle
61 Reade StreetNew York

When you have an eight o’clock curtain in Flushing and you work in downtown Manhattan it’s a good idea to have dinner first. Fortunately for me there is a restaurant a half a block away from my office where I have not previously dined. Right next door to Maxwell’s (which was once Spaghetti Western) is Tre Sorrelle (Three Sisters – correctly spelled with only one “r” - Sorelle).

On the large glass windows the stencils read Wood Fired Pizza, Bar and Restaurant. You can see the simple tables lining the walls on either side of the bar with the imposing brick pizza oven front and center. On entering you notice the four-foot walnut wood paneling next to the tables as the open brick walls rise 20 feet to the tin ceiling.

At 4:45 on a Wednesday I had my choice of tables and I found a cozy one near the pizza oven but not near enough to feel the heat and I sat in the chair facing the windows. A recording of a live Bee Gees concert was playing through the speakers as Miguel brought a glass of water and the menu. I ordered a martini and Miguel set off to make it.

The menu is impressive in its selection of 16 appetizers, 18 pastas, 19 Entrees, 8 salads, 2 soups, 6 sides and 11 pizzas and 4 preparations of Panini. There are also wraps, burgers and sandwiches. When three young women arrived later with around five or six children, I understood why these items were on the menu.

My martini was well chilled and made exactly as I requested. Since it was not my usual dinner hour I was not as hungry and I asked Miguel if they do half orders on the pasta, to which he shrugged and indicated probably not. No matter. I told him I love pasta and he suggested making the side dish with my main course pasta rather than vegetables. Great idea! I ordered a bowl of the Minestrone Soup, the daily special and the Vitello Gorgonzola with pasta. “Same sauce, or tomato?” “Same sauce.”
Miguel was off on his errand.

Another server brought the breadbasket with a tall, slender carafe of olive oil and a small dish of pre-packaged butter. The fresh baguette didn’t need either the oil or the butter and tasted fabulous alone. But I gilded the lily anyway and it was wonderful either way. I had to ask where they got it. Miguel wrote down Parisi Bakery’s address at 198 Mott Street for me.

The Bee Gees music was causing nostalgic thoughts while the bread was bringing back memories of Italy when the soup arrived smelling buttery and filled with potato, string beans, carrots and escarole. It was steaming hot and lovely. I can’t recall Minestrone I’ve enjoyed more. A shaker of grated cheese was already on the table and I used it to good advantage on the soup. The pepper-shaker was filled with large black pepper flakes and a few shakes of that and my soup increased my nostalgic mood.

Miguel waited for me to finish the soup before bring out the main course and it was a real treat for the eyes. The veal filet was pounded flat, breaded and fried and the crumbles of Gorgonzola cheese in its light cream sauce made it look almost like an early snow scene. The penne pasta stacked next it was also coated with the bewitching sauce and the roasted walnuts were sprinkled over all. It was heavenly. Now I really missed Italy and had to wipe my eyes. It’s funny how good food prepared well can make you hungry even when you’re not. I finished it all.

I needed a “thinking” wine to consider dessert and I ordered a glass of cabernet while Miguel presented the dessert list. Two sips later and a look at the sandwich card standing on my table and I knew what I wanted. The special dessert of the day was a chocolate fudge cake with a “molten” chocolate center. I managed to keep from laughing as I ordered it because it was exactly the same dessert that the critic in the movie Chef ordered when he panned the restaurant on Twitter. I had visions of Jon Favreau ranting at him, putting his fingers into the cake to prove the center was “molten.”

The cake arrived in a pool of dark chocolate sauce and sided by a ball of beautiful vanilla gelato. It was delicious. The center was not molten (chocolate did not ooze from it when I opened it) but I didn’t care. Trying hard not to giggle, I finished it as well. Then a double espresso and a snifter of black Sambucca later and my pre-show dinner was completed.

I never had the chance to dine at the Heng Shing Chinese restaurant before it became Tre Sorrelle, but I’m glad it changed. Likewise I’m glad that the restaurant right next door changed from Spaghetti Western to Maxwell’s so that there wouldn’t be two Italians in one location (even though Maxwell’s does serve some Italian specialties). For my needs that evening Tre Sorrelle was perfect and I hope to return and have a proper Italian dinner there.

Amaluna – Cirque du Soleil
Citi Field Parking Lot C

In 2012 there was a movie entitled Worlds Away starring Cirque du Soleil, and even though I’ve managed to see every live performance with maybe the exception of three shows, I avoided the movie. Why? I couldn’t imagine that a movie could hope to compare with the experience under the Grand Chapiteau (the great tent). I am continually drawn to Cirque du Soleil for the “Wow Factor” – that sensation of awe you feel when you see people doing amazing things you could never hope to do, and doing them with ease.

So when the Cirque Club notified me via email that the next extravaganza was happening in my back yard of Flushing, I leapt at the chance to get a ringside seat. Actually, no seat is a bad one, but I like to be as close to the stage as possible.

Founded by Guy Laliberté in 1984, during Quebec’s 450th anniversary celebration of Jacques Cartier’s discovery of Canada the first troupe’s Cirque du Soleil was a huge success and, as it was announced at this performance, this is their 30th anniversary as an entertainment tour de force.

Every Cirque du Soleil show has a story and Amaluna takes the audience to a remote island of Amazons and Sirens, beautiful women, and strange animals. A shipload of sailors is wrecked on the shore of this strange island and the Amazons take the men prisoner. That is, except for the Captain, who is a woman dressed as a man and who falls in love with the German-accented woman clown wearing a bright yellow dirndl. Together they comprise the comic side of the show.


The stage is circular and the audience seating is arranged around it for about 60 degrees of that circle. The imposing prop in the center of the stage is a giant crystal chalice filled with water, a focal point for two acts. A young girl swims in and out of the cup while doing solo acrobatics on pedestals attached to the rim. She enraptures a handsome young sailor, and this generates the subplot of the story.

But halfway through the show the Moon goddess, Amaluna whisks her up to the top of the tent and out of sight of the young man and he performs his own amazing act on a single pole, trying to climb up to where she was taken. As this story is taking shape, the cast is performing various acts to a rock music background (also live).

We see a group twirling what appears to be large bolas while doing acrobatics on and under their fellow performers. Later the lights dim and the bolas light up for a more spectacular effect. There is a group of slim young girls in bright red costumes performing on what could only be called uneven parallel bars. Another group in Avatar blue costumes swing onto the stage on straps looped to their hands and soar over the audience. A young man wearing an alligator-like costume with a long tail snatches a big box of popcorn from an audience member and climbs one of the support structures of the tent raining popcorn on the audience to howls of laughter. Later, he has his own act. Standing on a covering over the chalice he juggles while the balls descend on him from the top of the tent. He surprises everyone by setting one on fire and juggles it with the others. Even the sailors have an act bouncing each other up and down on a seesaw, hurling and catching each other over the stage.

At a moment that could be termed “ceremonial,” a girl in a gold lame skirt picks up “bones” and arranges them balanced on each other until she is the hub of a large mobile swaying and turning and always threatening to fall apart. The audience was breathless during this scene.

Nothing on a movie screen could dare to be as visceral a sensation as the excitement of a live troupe. I love the costumes. Two performers had enormous peacock tails dragging behind them that they could fan open at will. Even the singers were fantastically garbed. (Oh, by the way, I have added something to my “bucket list.” I want to be one of the singers in a Cirque du Soleil show.) I’ve seen shows in Orlando, Las Vegas, Boston, Philadelphia, New Jersey as well as Manhattan and every time I’ve left the tent almost exhausted from applauding. If you’ve never been to a Cirque du Soleil performance you’ve cheated yourself out of a major moment in your life.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

TCM TiVo Alert for May 23-31

TCM TiVo ALERT
For
May 23–May 31

DAVID’S BEST BETS:

THE DIRTY DOZEN (May 24, 8:00 pm): This 1967 war film is maligned by cinematic elitists who criticize it for its premise of a band of misfits put together to kill Nazi military leaders just before D-Day and its cast, lead by Lee Marvin and including Charles Bronson, Jim Brown and Telly Savalas. I'm not going to defend the acting prowess of most of those in The Dirty Dozen, but Marvin is one of film's most underrated actors. And it's not like this is Shakespeare. This is a pure action film and it delivers more than nearly every action film ever made. Lots of stuff gets blown up, including a few of the dozen, and is a lot of fun to watch.

METROPOLIS (May 30, 6:00 am): This 1926 silent film, directed by Fritz Lang, is one of the most important and best ever made. The storyline is as current today as it was 88 years ago, perhaps even more relevant now. This is the restored 2010 version which includes still photos and additional live film that was discovered in a museum in Argentina. Set in a dystopian society in the future, the rich live in high-rises that reach into the heavens and the workers, who supply the power through grueling physical labor, are literally underground. The repressed workers stage an uprising in scenes that feature thousands of extras. That Lang is able to capture it on film is a testament to his brilliance as a director. The film also features special effects that are as good or better than any seen until about the mid-1970s. Others have made remakes or films inspired by Metropolis, but even with the advancements in technology, including something as basic as sound so you can hear actors speak, none can touch the original. If you've never seen it or have viewed earlier versions without the restoration, I urge you to make sure you seen this film. It is a cinematic masterpiece.

ED’S BEST BETS:

DODSWORTH (May 23, 6:00 am): Walter Huston, recreating his Broadway role, shines in this adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s novel about an industrialist who retires, travels to Europe, and discovers that he and his wife are rapidly growing apart in what should be their golden years together. Beautifully adapted by Sidney Howard and wonderfully photographed by Rudolph Mate, it’s unusual for its time in the mature treatment of its subject. William Wyler’s direction moves everything along with no dead spots, and he is backed by strong performances all around. Mary Astor, as the woman Huston discovers in Europe, is enchanting in her role, but unfortunately was sandbagged by her ex-husband during their divorce trial when he unearthed her diary detailing her affair with George S. Kaufman, probably killing her chances for any sort of awards. Unlike many other films with the same subject matter, this one holds up well today.

CARNIVAL IN FLANDERS (May 25, 2:00 am): This is director Jacques Feyder’s wonderfully staged farce about a Spanish invasion of a small Flemish town in the 17th century. While the men all find excuses to leave town, the women remain behind and conquer the invaders with a combination of romance and revelry, so that instead of razing the town, the Spanish invaders leave it standing and give it a year off from paying taxes. It is a razor sharp satire of war and heroism and was quite popular on the “art house” revival circuit. It’s also one not to miss.

WE DISAGREE ON ... A GUY NAMED JOE (May 30, 9:15 am)

ED: B. This is an entertaining romantic fantasy set in World War II with a great performance by Spencer Tracy playing the two types of characters he was known for: the cynical tough guy and, later on, the fatherly figure. Also worth applauding is the chemistry he cooks up with Irene Dunne, who plays his ladylove in the flick. The film begins with Tracy as a hotshot pilot fighting in Europe. His constant risk-taking worries girlfriend Dunne, herself a pilot, and her worst fear is realized when he is killed in action. Spence goes to heaven, but he’s not ready to exchange his worldly body for a harp just yet, so he becomes a guardian angel to a young pilot, played by Van Johnson. It’s when Van meets Irene, still carrying the torch for Spence, and begins to woo her that Tracy’s mettle is tested. And this is where Tracy grows into the fatherly figure he would become in his Postwar films. Though this may seem a rather simplistic film, note that Spielberg remade it in 1989 as Always, which came off as maudlin rather than romantic. I myself am not a big fan of romantic fantasies, but this is the exception to the rule. A well-made and plotted film can play anywhere.

DAVID: D. How do I put this nicely? This is a pretty bad movie. Spencer Tracy was a wonderful actor and made many excellent and important films. This is not one of them. I'm surprised Katharine Hepburn isn't in this movie as nearly all of the lousy ones he made over an incredible career co-starred her. If you're looking for a good Tracy film this week, I strongly recommend Fury at 9:15 am May 30. But A Guy Named Joe is corny sentimental garbage. The love stories are contrived and the acting is strained to put it politely. After crashing his plane, Tracy is a ghost that no one but the audience can see or hear. The concept of this film gets out of hand quickly and the dialogue comes across as fake and insincere. To top it off, it's a film about pilots in World War II and the flying scenes were staged on an MGM lot, something that is almost immediately obvious. If the fake flying scenes were this movie's only problem, I could look passed it. But add on a bad script, some pretty bad acting and a ridiculous plot, and you have a movie that is painful to watch. There's nothing redeeming, interesting or entertaining here. Stay away, Joe – and everyone else.
For the complete list of films on the TCM TiVo Alert, click here.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Godzilla

Dinner and a Movie

Gigantic to Tiny – Let’s Get Small

By Steve Herte

Last weekend I was glad to receive my new rose bushes, dahlias and seeds for this year’s planting because 14 of my dahlias were ready to plant Saturday. I got them in at just the right time. The roses too, because the rains were well timed with the planting this week. On Wednesday I spent a delightful evening under the big blue and yellow tent of Cirque Du Soleil’s Amaluna. What a great show! I was able to get a second row seat so nothing about the performance was lost to me. I even wrote about it for Celluloid Club, so look for it. This coming week I’m eagerly anticipating a reunion of my quartet “The Majestics” on Friday so I’ll have to move my movie night to Thursday. The week after is planting week and I’m off from work, yay! As for this past Friday, well it was as Arte Johnson once said in Laugh-In, “Verrry Interesting.” Enjoy!

Godzilla (WB, 2014) - Director: Gareth Edwards. Writers: Max Borenstein (s/p), Dave Callaham (story). Cast: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elisabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston, Ken Watanabe, Carson Bolde, Sally Hawkins, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, David Straithairn, & CJ Adams. Color and 3D, 123 minutes.

It was 60 years ago when the creature named Gojira (combining the Japanese words for “bull” and “whale”) first stomped and trumpeted his way across the silver screen. Since Americans could not speak Japanese, the name “Godzilla” was adopted and Raymond Burr inserted into the cast so that Americans would watch a Japanese movie about the horrors that nuclear power (particularly the atomic bomb) could unleash on the world. In 1957 or 8 (I forget, I was pretty young then) the movie came to television on Million Dollar Movie (New York’s channel 9) and I was allowed to watch it. I was terrified, trembling from behind a living room chair and ducking back behind it each time the monster’s face came on screen. I even had dreams of Godzilla destroying the Ditmars elevated station from which I knew my Dad needed to come home from work.

That was then, and this is now. After several movies and sequels in which a man in a rubber suit battled various improbable monsters (including a mechanical version of himself) and became a kind of hero along the way, we saw him suddenly become a mother in 1998 and were truly horrified at the lengths to which the film industry would go. This year they took a step backward and examined the original character. They even consulted the Japanese movie industry. To create the creature entirely in computer graphics they built upon the original model, trying not to make him look too round (hinting at the guy inside the rubber suit); giving him longer, muscular arms and a tail that, miraculously, did not drag on the ground and did not bend like cardboard when it hit something. As a bow to the Japanese creation the spinal ridge plates were retained and made fearsome, lighting up when Godzilla uses his radioactive breath.

But we have to wait for over an hour for him to be fully visible while we slog through the lame back-story. Joe and Sandra Brody (Cranston and Binoche) work at a nuclear power facility called Janjira in Japan. The place has been plagued by EMPs (Electro-Magnetic Pulses) that register high on the Richter scale and Joe wants to shut down the plant before a major accident happens. That something does happen and Sandra is killed in the smoke and resulting light show while Joe can only watch helplessly through steel doors. Their son Ford (Adams) watches from his school window as one by one the cooling towers crumble and fall to the ground.

Zap! It’s 15 years later and Ford (Taylor-Johnson) is married to Elle (Olsen) and has his own son, Sam (Bolde), and they’re living in San Francisco. All is well until Ford is forced to fly to Japan to bail his father out of jail (a major embarrassment to him). Joe has been arrested for entering the Contamination Zone in the area surrounding the fated power plant. Joe convinces Ford to accompany him there once more and they learn that not only is the zone not irradiated, the air is fresh enough to breathe. He manages to find his data diskettes at their former home and they see lights on at the power plant site when whoops! They’re both arrested, but instead of going to jail, they’re brought to the site. Here they meet Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Watanabe) and his assistant Vivienne Graham (Hawkins), who need the data on his diskettes to make sense of what is creating the EMPs still emanating from the site.


Now the granddaddy of all sinkholes opens up in the middle of the site and when the scientists investigate, they discover an enormous “pod” next to a similar one that appears broken open and is empty. So what do they do? Destroy it? No, they give it power to see what will happen. Then, when the pulses threaten to destroy the facility they finally shut down the power and surprise! Out comes a gargantuan winged insectoid creature with the facial features of a hood ornament from 1949 Cadillac with jaws. It wreaks havoc and flies off. That’s when Joe should have said, “I told you so.”

Making a long story short, another pod had been taken by the Americans to a location in Nevada where nuclear waste is stored. Great idea! It hatched and is twice the size of the first one, it’s a female, and pregnant and hungry for more nuclear food. Now, where would that be? Why, San Francisco, of course! Both creatures are heading for Hyde Street while, unknown to them the “Alpha Predator,” aka Godzilla, has fully awakened from his vacation in the Philippines and is following them there. That’s where the fight begins.

With the exception of Cranston, the original Japanese cast brightly eclipses the acting in this film. Godzilla himself is fantastically created even though they refused to give him his characteristic “voice-roar.” Whether models were used or the buildings were also CGI, the effects were credible. The soundtrack did not interfere and was generally unnoticeable until the final battle scenes where, in order to avoid the electro-magnetic pulses from the M.U.T.O.s (that’s what they eventually called them, Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) a troop of soldiers, including Ford, skydive into the downtown area of San Francisco to retrieve an armed nuclear warhead before they can eat it. As they plummet from the sky trailing red smoke from the heels of their boots we hear the “Kyrie” from Gyögy Ligeti’s “Requiem.” (Why? I guess for dramatic effect.) We remember it as the choral piece played in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) whenever the monolith appeared. Beautiful as it is, I considered that to be unoriginal. At two hours and three minutes the film is a little too long and before it got moving I had shifted in my chair three times. Parents, if your kids love dinosaurs and laugh at obviously phony monsters (but not Godzilla), bring them to this one. There is minimal bloodshed, no sex and no harsh language. Dr. Serizawa sums the film up perfectly in his line, “The arrogance of man is that he thinks he has nature under control…” Didn’t they say something similar in 1954?

Rating: 2½ out off 5 Martini glasses.


Tiny’s and the Bar Upstairs
135 West Broadway (two doors from Duane Street), New York


Knowing that it would be a rainy night I prepared well. I had my umbrella, a brand new hooded jacket I could use as rain gear and, to avoid a blurry photo, I took the picture of the restaurant exterior before I arrived at my office. This worked well because the bulk of the downpour occurred after I got home.

Tiny’s is located in a tiny (appropriately), 100-year-old-plus (built in 1810), three-story brownstone painted rose pink. It looks even smaller considering the height of the two buildings flanking it. When I first saw its Alice in Wonderland proportions I wondered if I would fit inside. The petite, almost doll-like, young lady at the Captain’s Station greeted me and suggested the corner window seat. Perfect. I wanted to see when the rains would come. The décor is basically antique everything from the original tin ceilings to the hand-made tiles on the floor. The walls are painted antique white when not paneled by some venerable woodwork and are decked with tchotchkes from the past, with the exception of the photo of the rock group Blondie near the Captain’s Station.


My waiter Andy asked if tap water was OK and, upon my approval poured a glass and presented me with the cocktail and wine list and the menu. Shortly after he asked if I wanted a drink and I couldn’t pass up a cocktail with the name “Corpse Reviver” – Gin, Absinthe, Orange Liqueur, Lillet and Lemon – served in an old-fashioned Champagne glass. Very interesting, but one was sufficient. The dinner menu is straightforward and lists Starters, Mains, Sides and Desserts. After conferring with Andy I easily had a three-course dinner chosen and asked for the wine list again (he removed it after the cocktail was ordered). Another server brought the three-slice bread dish and butter. I couldn’t believe it, two good breads in one week (I waxed poetic over the bread in Tre Sorrelle on Wednesday).

I chose the 2010 Chateau La Graula Bordeaux, a varietal combining Cabernet and Merlot grapes for a steady, smooth flavored yet fruity wine. It proved more than a match for my meal. I was little taken aback when my appetizer and salad arrived together but then I realized that neither one was a hot dish and settled in. 


The appetizer was called Duck Pastrami Tartine and the shredded tender duck meat was strewn on thickly sliced grilled Dijon baguette smeared with whole grain mustard and almost buried under fresh frisée (spidery, yellowish-white greens). The duck was sweet and the mustard bitingly tart for a very French, delightful starter. The salad was a Kale Salad featuring incredibly fresh dark-green kale, walnuts, local apples, and carrots in a Maple-Mustard Vinaigrette and topped with shredded Gouda cheese. It was a large bowl but I paced myself and with sips from the wine glass and it and the appetizer soon disappeared.


The most interesting main dish was also one centered on duck. It was called the Duck Duo – a smoked breast and leg of duck confit, with haricots verts (young green beans), toasted almonds, and Hon Shimeji mushrooms in a natural jus. I sided this with Balsamic red cabbage, shredded with dried cherries and pistachios. Slices of tender, juicy duck breast were fanned out from the golden brown, crispy duck leg with the crunchy fresh beans. It was wonderful and I felt like I was in a fine French bistro, at my circular, copper-trimmed zinc-topped table, with potted pink begonias lining the window to the street.

Before I finished the main course Chef Paul Nanez dropped by my table, and I told him how good everything was. He said, “I like the way you order.” I thanked him. When Andy returned I told him I was finished and that the side dish could have used some cinnamon and more cherries and pistachios to make it more interesting. He presented the dessert list and I chose the Tres Leches Cake, a fluffy milk and cheese-based confection topped with Mixed Berry and Passion Fruit compote that was easy to finish. Then after a Truffle-Shuffle after dinner drink – a caramel/cocoa swirled cream cocktail – I was ready to face the elements (it was still not raining too hard, thank goodness).

For those who like to classify restaurants Chef Nanez calls his preparations Modern American cuisine with French and Italian influences. Well, I can certainly vouch for the French part. Andy recommended going upstairs to see the bar but I thought I would do that next time. Tiny’s is charming and cozy and near enough to the office for a lunch visit.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Neighbors

Mel's Cine-Files

By Melissa Agar

Neighbors (Universal, 2014) - Director: Nicholas Stoller. Writers: Andrew J. Cohen, Brendan O’Brien. Cast: Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne, Zac Efron, Dave Franco, Ike Barinholtz, & Carla Gallo. Color, 96 minutes.

Let me tell you, friends, it has been a long and busy winter and spring. As a high school English teacher, the past several months have been consumed with coaching a speech team, directing a spring musical, attending a bevy of workshops and seminars, working on completely revamping and designing curricula in the face of the onset of the Common Core standards, and trying to stay on top of the piles of grading essays and research papers and extended response paragraphs that I keep assigning to kids. Every weekend, I pledge to take some time for myself and go to a movie, and every weekend, I find myself curled up in a pair of sweats and grading or taking off for a workshop to inspire new lesson plans. Finally, last Friday night, I decided professional responsibilities were sated enough that I could grab a pizza with my sister and head over to the multiplex. After long weeks at work, we both decided that we needed something silly and relatively mindless and lo and behold, there was Neighbors. There’s nothing quite like 90 or so minutes of penis jokes to alleviate a stress-filled week.

In a way, Neighbors is a sort of spiritual cousin to Knocked Up, the movie that made Seth Rogen the schlumpy leading man he is today. Here, Rogen plays Mac Radner, a pushing thirty-something new father. Mac and his wife Kelly (Byrne) are struggling to balance their formerly carefree life filled with spontaneous adventures and sex with the demands of a six month old. It doesn’t help that they have friends like divorcees Jimmy (Barinholtz) and Paula (Gallo) who encourage them to sneak off to smoke weed during work or bring the baby to a rumored Prince-headlining late-night rave. Mac and Kelly love their daughter but are also a little reluctant to bid farewell to their youth. Enter their new neighbors: the brothers of the Delta Psi Beta fraternity.


After burning down their own house, the brothers have moved into Mac and Kelly’s quiet neighborhood and immediately begin turning things upside down with their all-hours parties and shenanigans. Led by president Teddy (Efron) and vice president Pete (Franco), the fraternity is determined that this will be the year that earns them a spot on the house’s party Wall of Fame, alongside such luminaries as the guys who invented the toga party and the first brothers to attempt beer pong. Needless to say, this quest doesn’t really mesh well with a six-month-old baby or her parents next door. Mac and Kelly try befriending the brothers, hoping that they will be so impressed with their “cool” neighbors that they’ll “keep it down.” (A scene where Rogen and Byrne rehearse how they’ll deliver that simple three-word request is awkwardly hilarious.) Eventually, the Radners and the Delta Psi’s find themselves at war with tensions and pranks escalating at an alarming rate. 

To be sure, there are a lot of laughs here. Rogen is a natural comedian, and the spins he puts on many line readings alone guarantees plenty of chuckles. Yes, a lot of the humor is crass. A lot of the jokes use the penis as a punchline, but the characters we are given are so engaging and charming that it’s hard not to laugh.

One of the things that worked well here is that the script by Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien manages to elicit sympathy for both sides of the fence. As much as we like Mac and Kelly, we also grow to like Teddy and Dave and understand what’s driving them in their quest for a good time. Just as Mac is struggling with accepting that he is truly an adult with adult responsibilities and the sacrifices that entails, Teddy is struggling with his looming graduation and his realization that he’s maybe not as ready for the real world as he should be. The war, then, becomes a symbol of the struggles both men are facing and how desperately they need a “win” on this one.

While the film is largely driven by the antics of Mac and Teddy, it was also refreshing to see Byrne’s Kelly just as willing to get down and dirty when it comes to sabotaging the Delta Psi’s. So often in movies like this, the woman is either arm candy or the harpy yelling at her husband to grow up. Here, Kelly urges Mac and is a true partner in crime. Kelly is devious and creative and perhaps even a bit of a trendsetter in terms of giving us a strong woman in a fun, loving, healthy relationship. Byrne is a surprisingly gifted comic actor who more than holds her own with Rogen and crew. 

Neighbors is not a movie for everyone. I was a bit shocked at the large number of young children at the 9:15 pm showing I attended particularly considering the incredibly raunchy humor that permeates the film. More than one joke made this fortysomething blush; I can’t imagine sitting next to a 10 year old and hearing the same jokes. For those not averse to raunch, though, Neighbors is not a bad way to spend a couple hours. I definitely felt the stress of the past couple months evaporate after 90 minutes of frat hijinks, and you just might, too. 

Grade: B

Friday, May 16, 2014

Cinéma Inhabituel for May 16-31

A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea 

STAR OF THE MONTH

The Star of the month for May is June Allyson, and TCM continues their tribute. Although the films are of lesser quality as the month winds down, there are still some gems.

May 21: TCM leads off the night at 8:00 pm with the entertaining musical, Two Girls and a Sailor, from MGM in 1944. June and Gloria DeHaven are singing sisters who operate a canteen for GIs. They are both after the same sailor, played by Van Johnson. It’s nice, light entertainment with many fine musical numbers included, from Gracie Allen playing the piano (!) to the impeccable Lena Horne singing “Paper Doll.” Also look for Ava Gardner (who MGM still didn’t have a clue about using) as a dancing showgirl and appearing in the dream sequence.

At 10:15 comes Best Foot Forward (MGM, 1943). Lucille Ball plays a big star who visits a small-town school on a lark, with both Nancy Walker and June making their feature film debuts recreating their Broadway roles. One of the highlights is Harry James and his band performing “Two O’Clock Jump.”


At midnight, it’s one of June’s best-known musicals, 1947’s Good News. Screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green do an excellent job breathing new life into this 1920s Broadway musical. Peter Lawford stars as a collegiate football hero and June is the French tutor who grabs him on the rebound. It includes the vintage songs “The Best Things in Life Are Free,” “Just Imagine,” and “Varsity Drag,” along with new numbers “The French Lesson,” and “Pass That Peace Pipe.”

May 28: Skip the 8:00 pm showing of Universal’s tepid remake of its 1936 classic, My Man Godfrey, and the 10:00 pm showing of The Opposite Sex, MGM’s tepid remake of its 1939 hit The Women. Wait instead, or get out the recorder for 2:00 am and the screening of the above-average Battle Circus (MGM, 1953), with Humphrey Bogart as a MASH surgeon in the Korean War and June as the nurse with whom he becomes romantically involved. Following at 5:30 am is one that definitely requires the recorder. It’s the best Allyson of the night, Executive Suite (MGM, 1956). This is a great tale of corporate intrigue among a board of directors after the head of the firm dies as they jockey to be his replacement. Helping June along in the fun is William Holden, Barbara Stanwyck, Frederic March, Walter Pidgeon, and Louis Calhern.


FRIDAY NIGHT SPOTLIGHT

The Friday Night Spotlight for May, devoted to the best of Australian cinema, continues.

May 16: Two films stand out this night. At 8:00 pm there’s the excellent My Brilliant Career from 1979 with Judy Davis as a spirited young woman who must choose between marriage to Sam Neill and a career. With this film, director Gillian Armstrong did for female Australian cinema what George Miller did for male Australian cinema the same year with Mad Max, which was to put it firmly on the map and announce to the world that it was here to stay.


The other film to watch is Jane Campion’s 1989 drama, Sweetie, about a young woman (Karen Colston) whose emotionally fragile grip on reality is shaken when her seriously off-the-wall sister, Sweetie (Genevieve Lemon) returns to the dysfunctional family fold. I remember seeing this in the movies and coming out feeling like I’d gone through the wringer; it was that intense an experience. I recommend this one highly.

May 23: There are three worth your time tonight. Leading off at 8:00 pm is the Sigorney Weaver-Mel Gibson vehicle, The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), with Mel as an Australian journalist who is brought romantically together with British Embassy attaché Sigourney during the 1965 Indonesian Revolution by street-smart photographer Linda Hunt, who not only steals the picture, but also secured a Academy Award nomination for Supporting Actress. Much of the film is pretty slow going, so one really has to stick with it at times.

At 10:00 pm, it’s Peter Weir’s 1979, psychological thriller/black comedy, The Plumber. Ivar Kants is Max, the plumber-from-Hell, who arrives to fix the bathroom and ends up scaring the living wits out of yuppie academician Judy Morris. It seems yuppies have nothing to fear but the working class.

At the late hour of 3:30 am, it the interesting Muriel’s Wedding. Toni Collette stars as Muriel Heslop, a young woman living in the tediously dull town of Porpoise Point, Australia. She spends a lot of time in her bedroom, where she dreams of getting married and moving away from both the town and her psychologically abusive father, all the while listening to the music of ABBA. Finally, she absconds with the family savings and scrams to an island resort, where she meets Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths), who acts as the catalyst for Muriel to become a new person. Finally Muriel takes her dream of marriage too far and marries for the sake of it, coming around later to find there’s more to marriage than first meets the eye.

May 30: Leading off at 8:00 pm is Newsfront (1978), a pleasant little film that follows the adventures of movie newsreel reporters during the ‘40s. Then, at 11:45, TCM is showing the powerful 1978 drama, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. Based on the 1972 novel of the same name by Thomas Keneally, it’s a story of the exploits and exploitation of Jimmie Governor, an Indigenous Australian man who commits a series of murders around the turn of the century that sprang from a long-simmering rage. It’s an oft-times disturbing film that pulls no punches in depicting the social inequity of turn-of-the-century Australia and the lives of those caught up in the social net. Of all the films offered by TCM in this category during the month, this is the one I recommend above all else.

MEMORIAL DAY MARATHON

For those of us who love war films, TCM is running its annual Memorial Day Marathon from May 24 to May 27. During the holiday weekend, 34 films will be shown, and while nothing new will be screened, there are a few films during the marathon that aren’t screened all that often.


May 24: Tune in at 5:45 pm for The Hill, Sidney Lumet’s study of a World War II British military stockade in North Africa. Starring Sean Connery (who also arranged for the movie’s financing) as an officer court-martialed for refusing to lead his troops in a suicide charge, the movie presents us with a Connery light years removed from his day job at the time as Agent 007. It also garnered Connery the best reviews of his career to that point, though the public was not as enamored of the movie as were the critics and largely stayed away. A great supporting cast that includes Ossie Davis, Ian Bannen, Roy Kinnear, and Ian Hendry surrounds Connery. Other notable performances come from Harry Andrews as the sadistic sergeant, and Michael Redgrave as the weak-willed medical officer.

May 25: The pick of the day airs at 2:00 am. Carnival in Flanders, from director Jacques Feyder, is a thoroughly delightful farce about the Spanish invasion of a small Flemish village in the 17th century. While the men of the village all find excuses to run, the women stay behind, conquering the conquerors with non-stop revelry and romance such that the invaders not only leave the village intact, but also give the townsfolk a year’s amnesty from paying taxes. Just how far the “entertainment” went is left to the imagination, but the women allow the men to believe it was their tactics that saved the village, even though they ran away and the town’s mayor played dead.

May 26: How could I not recommend The Best Years of Our Lives? This drama about the trials and tribulations of three soldiers making the transition back to civilian life was a multiple winner at the 1946 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Frederic March), and Best Director (William Wyler). But the best performance in the film was one that didn’t even garner a nomination. That was Myrna Loy, who gave one of the best performances of her career as the understanding wife of returning vet Frederic March, and the one who keeps the family together and life at a normal pitch. How she could be overlooked remains as one of Oscar’s greatest mysteries.

May 27: Even though the Marathon ends on May 26, there is a bonus pick of sorts for us cinephiles. During a daytime marathon of Merle Oberon movies (no, it’s not her birthday) comes a rarely seen gem from producer Alexander Korda and London Films, The Lion Has Wings (1940). Korda had promised Winston Churchill that if England went to war with Germany, he would produce a morale film for the British public, and in return Churchill would use the British film industry as a propaganda weapon during the war. That was one hell of a bargain, being that Churchill wasn’t even Prime Minister at the time; he was Lord of the Admiralty. Be that as it may, Korda assigned three directors to the film - Michael Powell, Brian Desmond Hurst, and Adrian Brunel. Filming took about 12 days, with the result being a mixture of documentary-style footage, scripted narrative featuring Ralph Richardson and Merle Oberon, and footage taken from two previous films: Fire Over England (1936) and The Gap (1937). It all makes for most curious viewing and it’s one I do not plan to miss.

CAGNEY


On May 16, in the wee hours of the morning (5:45 am), TCM is screening a rarely seen Cagney vehicle. Jimmy the Gent, from 1934, finds Cagney as a shady locator of heirs for fortunes. Cagney pours over the news stories of accidents, deaths, grisly murders and the like, and then sets out to find the heirs to whatever fortune is left behind. And if he can’t find the heir, he’s not above making one up for the right fee. Bette Davis plays his love interest, a former employee who has left him to work for a more respectable “genealogist.” But we know she still carries the torch for Jimmy, even though her new boss wants her to marry him. It’s a movie both stars disparaged at the time, but one that still entertains today rather than just being a curiosity piece. And check out Cagney’s hairstyle. Talk about severe; it was done as a protest to being cast in what he termed as “mug” movies - where he plays just another in a long line of mugs. This was the first time both Cagney and Davis appeared in the same film. They would not do so again until 1941 when they made The Bride Came C.O.D.

OUT OF THE ORDINARY

May 18: The Swedish coming-of-age film, My Life as a Dog (1986) from director Lasse Hallstrom, will be airing at 2:00 am. Though it’s been featured here before, it’s still a delight to watch.

May 19 & 20: How about a nice change of pace from Mel Brooks, of all people? Actually it’s more from his wife Anne Bancroft. First up, on May 19 at 10:00 pm, it's 84 Charing Cross Road, starring Bancroft as a New York scriptwriter who forms a most unusual friendship over the years entirely through correspondence with London bookseller Anthony Hopkins. It’s a delightful, intelligent film about how the love of books can bring two disparate people together, even from across the ocean. Based on the book and play of the same name by Helene Hanff, Bancroft makes for a fine Hanff. Look for Judi Dench as Hopkins’ wife and Mercedes Ruehl in a small part.

Then, on May 20 at 8:00 pm, it’s the classic The Elephant Man, starring John Hurt as John Merrick, the sensitive man whose affliction has caused him to live in a sideshow, and Anthony Hopkins as the compassionate London doctor who rescues Merrick from his plight. Hurt’s performance as the hideously deformed Merrick is one for the ages, injecting just enough humanity (without overdoing it) to make us reach for the Kleenex every time. Hurt’s performance, in fact, reminds me of Boris Karloff’s as the monster in The Bride of Frankenstein, it’s that good.

Then, at midnight, it’s Mel Brooks’ remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s classic, To Be Or Not To Be. Though Mel changed things around a bit for his remake, it’s one of the few remakes that actually come close to the original. Anne Bancroft is superb as Anna Bronski, wife of insufferable ham Frederick Bronski (Brooks). Jose Ferrer is on hand as the treacherous Professor Siletski, and Charles Durning almost steals the film as the dimwitted Gestapo officer Colonel Erhardt (played by Sig Ruman in the original).

May 22: Tune in at 8:00 pm for a night of host Bob Osborne’s picks, leading off with the great 1945 noir, The House on 92nd Street, a documentary-style drama based on actual fact and using some of the same locations used in the real story of how the FBI infiltrated and broke up a Nazi spy ring. The always-dependable Lloyd Nolan stars.

At 11:00 pm it’s David Lean’s wonderful comedy, Hobson’s Choice (1954), starring Charles Laughton as the tyrannical, overbearing owner of a boot shop who is used to having his every whim attended to by his three subservient daughters. Then his oldest (Brenda De Banzie) decides to turn the tables with delightful results.


May 31: As long as we’re discussing seldom seen movies, tune in to TCM on May 31 at 11:00 pm for the 1935 classic starring the great Josephine Baker, Princess Tam Tam. Baker lives up to her legend, and then some, in this take on Pygmalion. She is a poor, beautiful Tunisian shepherdess discovered, then polished and educated by writer Max Demirecourt (Max Prejean) and passed off as an Indian princess, much to the dismay of Max’s two-timing wife, Lucie (Germaine Aussey). It’s a deft combination of charming story and lavish musical numbers. If you’ve never seen Baker before, hold on to your hats, for after watching her in this film, I guarantee you’ll never forget her. The shame of it all was that this beautiful, multi-talented woman had to go to France to realize her talents.

PSYCHOTRONICA AND THE B HIVE

We lead off this installment with a night of haunted house movies.

May 17: We begin the day at 8:00 pm with one of the best movies of the genre, 1963’s The Haunting. I remember seeing this one in the movies and being genuinely scared throughout. I chalked it up to the fact that I was only eight years of age and saw it again a couple of years ago, just to see if it still held its power. It did. Robert Wise did a masterful job of building the tension, and with a cast that included Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, and Richard Johnson keeping that tension going throughout the film. Even those who do not ordinarily care for horror films will find something to like here.

At 10:00 pm, The Legend of Hell House follows. This 1973 production had a good start, being adapted by master of horror Richard Matheson from his novel, Hell House, but the results are rather uneven, perhaps due to the mix of horror and sexuality. During the course of the movie, one of the leads - former child star Pamela Franklin - has sex with an invisible ghost, and this may be the reason why the British censors originally sapped an “X” rating on the movie (although it was released here as “PG”), despite the fact that Matheson toned down the sexual content of his novel. To me it always seemed like a weak take on The Haunting; neither the cast nor the director was up to the standards of the 1963 chiller. Look for an unbilled Michael Gough during the ending.

At 11:45 pm comes another film that disappointed me, Steven Spielberg’s Poltergeist (1982). Originally, Spielberg was just supposed to be the producer, with horror-film veteran, Tobe Hooper, as director. But from what I’ve read about the production itself, it seems that Spielberg and Hooper had a David Selznick/Alfred Hitchcock relationship with Spielberg ultimately making the decisions and even filming portions of the movie. As critic Michael Weldon notes, except for one scene of a face falling apart, the film is more akin to the silly but fun thrills of William Castle’s 13 Ghosts. Perhaps too many cooks do spoil the broth.

Following at 2:00 am is Death By Invitation (1971), a low budget wonder with practically no scares, but lots of bad acting. See my essay on the movie here. “Death By Boredom” is more like it.


Finally, the mini-marathon wraps with a first-rate exercise in supernatural horror, Burn, Witch, Burn. Based on Fritz Leiber’s 1943 novel, Conjure Wife, it’s a suspenseful, well-written tale of Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde), a rising star in the sociology department of Hempnell Medical College whose success may be more to the witchcraft practiced by his wife, Tansy (Janet Blair). This is bad news to Norman, for not only is his male ego wounded, but Norman is also a skeptic. The screenplay, by Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, builds the movie to a fever pitch, never relenting for a moment. By the way, this is the second time Leiber’s novel has been filmed. The first was Weird Woman, from Universal in 1944. If you can catch this one on DVD, you’re in for a treat, even though it suffers from the wooden performance of Lon Chaney, Jr.

May 19: Begin at midnight with 1985’s so-so The Doctor and the Devils from Brooksfilms and director Freddie Francis. Yet another version of the story of grave robbers Burke and Hare, which inspired Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic story, “The Body Snatcher,” it’s been filmed many times over the years, with perhaps the best version being RKO’s The Body Snatcher from 1944, produced by Val Lewton. The most interesting points about this version is that it was based on a screenplay written by none other than Dylan Thomas (written in the 1940s) and Twiggy is one of the leads. Other than that . . .

Following at 1:45 am is Hammer’s 1957 horror classic, The Curse of Frankenstein. A smash hit upon its release, it would spawn countless sequels and forever identify star Peter Cushing with the scientist Victor Frankenstein. Cushing gives a first-rate performance, conveying the decadence beneath the Baron’s upper-class crust. As I mentioned elsewhere, Christopher Lee has a thankless role as the Monster, with no dialogue. It was on the set of this film that Lee and Cushing first met. Reportedly, Lee came into Cushing’s dressing room to complain that he had no lines. Cushing said, “You’re lucky. I read the script.” As their friendship progressed they discovered they were both fans of Warner Brothers Looney Tunes and would often pass the time on the set exchanging phrases from the cartoons.

William Castle’s macabre Mr. Sardonicus follows at 3:15 am, the story of a rich (of course) 19th century man whose face is permanently frozen into a horrific smile. The baron (Guy Rolfe) tricks his wife’s doctor and ex-lover (Ronald Lewis) into operating on his face. The final result is surprising. As was his custom, Castle supplied a gimmick for patrons of the film. They were given a florescent thumb card, to be used near the end of the film in a “Punishment Poll.” Supposedly, two endings were filmed. At the appropriate time, the film was stopped and Castle appeared on screen to ask the audience to hold up their cards with the thumb either pointing up (mercy) or down (no mercy). According to Castle, then ending where Sardonicus is allowed to live was rarely, if ever, used, as most of the audience voted “thumbs down.”

Evening becomes morning and wraps up with Roger Corman’s 1963 opus, The Haunted Castle, starring Vincent Price as the descendent of a warlock burned at the stake by the villagers of Arkham. When Price arrives to reopen his ancestor’s castle he is possessed by the warlock’s spirit, and aided by warlock partners Lon Chaney, Jr. and Milton Parsons, resurrects his former witch partner and sacrifices his wife at an altar in the basement. Although the film was publicized as a Poe adaptation, it was actually based on H.P. Lovecraft’s story, “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.” Charles Beaumont wrote the screenplay.


May 20: Bad Film Lover’s Alert. At 10:30 am, TCM is airing Joseph Von Sternberg’s 1941 cult classic, The Shanghai Gesture. A bowdlerized version of John Colton’s London and Broadway stage play, it starred Ona Munson as “Mother Gin Sling,” the owner of a famous Shanghai casino. In the play she was Mother Godamn and ran a bordello. Oh, the Hays Office. It’s typical Von Sternberg: all style with only a smattering of substance. Among the denizens of Mother’s House of Whoopee is Omar, “a doctor of nothing.” Fittingly, Victor Mature, an actor of nothing, plays Omar. And check out mother while you’re at it. She makes her first appearance in a headdress that would cause Cher spasms of jealousy. Yeah, it’s bad, but it’s not boring, and that’s why those who haven’t yet seen this masterpiece should tune in. Von Sternberg would later give us another classic bad film, Jet Pilot, with John Wayne and Janet Leigh, produced in 1950 but not released until 1957 for reasons that will immediately become clear when you begin to watch.

May 23: One of the great film noirs makes its appearance at 5:15 pm - Anthony Mann’s Raw Deal, a beautifully made story from 1948 of a guy (Dennis O’Keefe) who takes the rap for gangster Raymond Burr, only to have Burr welch on the deal. O’Keefe busts out of prison and begins looking for his ex-boss. Two things make this one to watch: Burr’s great performance as a sadistic thug, and Mann’s fluent direction. I always thought the worst thing to happen to Anthony Mann was success and promotion from the Bs.

May 31: Speaking of low budget movies, tune in at 4:30 pm for Allied Artists’ 1956 opus World Without End. Hugh Marlowe, Rod Taylor, Nelson Leigh, and Christopher Dark are astronauts caught in a time warp while returning from a mission and find themselves on a post-apocalyptic Earth sometime around 2188 AD. For what it is, it’s not bad and plays rather like a Star Trek episode, only no one figures out how to return to 1957.