Wednesday, March 30, 2016

TCM TiVo Alert for April 1-7

April 1–April 7


WINGS OF DESIRE (April 3, 2:30 am): If you love film, you will love Wings of Desire, an ingenious and moving picture from 1987. The visually-stunning film focuses on Damiel (Bruno Ganz), an angel in Berlin around the end of the Cold War. He stands on top of tall buildings, in a crowd or nearly anywhere, watching people and listening to their thoughts, many of them quite depressing. Damiel and Cassiel (Otto Sander), an another angel, can't really do anything to directly comfort people except touch someone's shoulder to give a little hope to those with troubled existences. It's beauty is in its subtlety. The acting is brilliant, particularly Ganz and of all people, Peter Falk, who plays himself. The film provides a simple, but important, lesson: It is the small things in life that make it worth living.

KEEPER OF THE FLAME (April 6, 6:15 pm): Regular readers know how much I dislike Katharine Hepburn's acting, particularly when she drags the great Spencer Tracy down in every film the two made together. That is, except one. Keeper of the Flame has Tracy as a journalist assigned to write a story about Hepburn's husband, a beloved national patriot who just died. It turns out the husband wasn't what he seemed and Hepburn tries to protect his secret. Tracy suspects Hepburn killed her husband, which isn't entirely the case. Besides the interesting plot twists, I also enjoy the interaction between Tracy and Hepburn as it doesn't fall into their familiar trap of a battle between the sexes. There's an attraction between the two, but it's secondary to the storyline.


THE GUNS OF NAVARONE (April 5, 2:00 am): Like action and plenty of it? Then look no further than this movie. It has action coming out of the spool. Here’s the gist: a team of Allied saboteurs is assigned get behind enemy lines and destroy a pair of big Nazi guns playing havoc with British attempts to rescue a small force in the Aegean Sea. A group of six, led by Gregory Peck as Capt. Mallory, takes on the task. There are the inevitable differences between the lot and two women resistance fighters join the group, one of whom is a traitor. So just sit back, turn the brain off for a couple of hours, and enjoy the doings of Peck, David Niven, Anthony Quinn, Anthony Qualye (who actually trained resistance fighters in World War II Albania), and for your eyes only, the beautiful Irene Papas.

A FAREWELL TO ARMS (April 7, 4:30 am): The first, and best, adaptation of Hemingway’s World War I drama about an ill-fated romance between an American soldier (Gary Cooper) and a British nurse (Helen Hayes). Even though it’s a bowdlerized version of the novel (and Hemingway hated it for that), Cooper and Hayes give marvelous performances. Also of note is Adolphe Menjou, whose jealousy keeps the lovers apart, but not for long. Sharp direction by Frank Borage with wonderful cinematography by Charles Lang. (It earned him an Oscar.)

WE AGREE ON ... SHANE (April 2, 8:00 pm)

ED: A+. It’s Jean Arthur’s final film and she goes out with a bang as beleaguered homesteader Marion Starrett, who, along with husband Joe (Van Heflin) and son Joey (Brandon DeWilde), are threatened by cattle baron Ryker (Emile Meyer). To the rescue comes the mysterious stranger, Shane (Alan Ladd), a man with a secret. It’s Ladd’s film, and he dominates it as the reclusive Shane, whose quiet presence speaks volumes, scaring off Meyer’s hired gunsels, forcing the baron to bring in notorious hired gun Jack Wilson (Jack Palance). The scenes with Ladd and Palance are wonderfully terrifying, as we know the two will have a showdown sooner or later. And when it does come, we are not disappointed in the least, but tingling with excitement. Palance is terrific as Wilson, matching Ladd line for line. But director George Stevens, ever the professional, is careful not to let Palance overshadow Ladd. This is also the sort of film we bought a color set to see back when they were still somewhat of a luxury. The locations and cinematography by Loyal Griggs are breathtaking; the very sort of film made for Cinemascope, even though Griggs was more than taken aback when the studio bumped up the negative to Cinemascope proportion. Simply put, this is a masterpiece of filmmaking.

DAVID: A+. Easily one of the greatest Westerns ever made, Shane blends a solid tense-filled storyline of homesteaders threatened by Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer), a ruthless cattle king, with action-packed gunfights. The viewer is immediately drawn to Alan Ladd in the title role, a man with a secret past and a quick draw. He doesn't say a lot, but oozes cool and the viewer can't help but take notice of him. Ladd's portrayal of Shane elevates the film to its deserved status as a classic film. Perhaps my favorite scene is early – one of Ryker's men throws a shot of whiskey on Shane's shirt, taunting him to "smell like a man." Shane doesn't do anything until he sees the guy again at the bar. Shane orders two shots, pouring one on the guy's shirt and tossing the other in his face. That results in a brawl with Shane getting the better end of the fight. Director George Stevens does a brilliant job pacing this film as we eagerly wait for the final showdown between Shane and Ryker's hired gunman, Jack Wilson, played so extraordinarily well by Jack Palance. When it finally happens, it's definitely worth the wait. There's a lesson to be learned from the movie about the changing life in the New West, but we're not hit over the head with it. The 1953 film has a beautiful look making Wyoming seem like paradise – it won the Oscar for Best Cinematography, Color. The ending is iconic with our wounded hero riding off into the sunset with the young boy who idolizes him yelling, "Shane! Come back!"

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

Monday, March 28, 2016

Abar, The First Black Superman

The Psychotronic Zone

The Z-Files

By Ed Garea

Abar, The First Black Superman (Mirror Releasing, 1977) – Director: Frank Packard. Writers: James Smalley (story and s/p), J. Walter Smith (scenario). Stars: J. Walter Smith, Tobar Mayo, Roxie Young, Gladys Lum, Tony Rumford, Rupert Williams, Tina James, Art Jackson, Allen Ogle, Joe Alberti, Dee Turguand, Nelson Meeker, William Carrol, Jr., James Dickson, & Richard Corrigan. Color, PG, 102 minutes.

As the Blaxploitation craze died down and talents were channeled into other genres of film, a few stragglers managed to release their products on an unsuspecting audience. One that truly stands out in all its awfulness is Abar, The First Black Superman, which was released in 1977, a collaboration between black writer-producer James Smalley and white director Frank Packard. The film began in 1973 as SuperBlack, the tale of an African-American superhero who brings peace and justice to the inner city while reconciling opposing forces. In the end it became Abar, after its protagonist, an inner-city activist who becomes a superman with God-like vision and omnipotence after ingesting an experimental drug.

Shot on the fly in Baldwin Hills and Watts, Smalley ran out of money roughly one-third of the way through filming. He was forced to sell the film to Burt Steiger and his Pacific Film Labs in part to settle the unpaid lab bill.

Finished in 1975, American International Pictures expressed interest in distributing it and there was even talk of a sequel. But negotiations fell through and the film sat on the shelf for two years before being acquired by Mirror Releasing, an exploitation film-clearing house. It received a very limited distribution throughout the South, and Mirror took the step of rechristening it In Your Face for release on VHS.

Cast and helmed by amateurs, Abar has the look of a low-budget feature shot on the run. Almost no one can act, the script is ludicrous, and the direction is lacking. The plot as such concerns scientist Dr. Ken Kincade (Smith), who moves his family into an all-white neighborhood in Los Angeles. At first, the neighbors think they are the help, but when they learn the family is to be their neighbors, they go ballistic: picketing in front of the Kincades’ house, throwing garbage on their front lawn, and lynching their cat (although rumor has it that the animal committed suicide after viewing the rushes).

Needing help, Kincade drives to the inner city, where he has his offices and recruits the aid of John Abar (Mayo) and his Black Front of Unity (BFU). Abar, a real badass who has pledged his life to protect black folks in their community, winds up being hired as a live-in full-time bodyguard, all the while complaining to Kincade that the doctor is abandoning his people by moving into a white neighborhood. Unfortunately, he can’t protect Kincade’s young son, Tommie (Rumford) from being run over by one of the local racists.

At his wit’s end, Kincade decides to amp up the work on a serum that will make a man indestructible. He works in his basement laboratory, and until now, has been experimenting on making super rabbits. He asks Abar if he’s like to take a sip or two, even shooting one of his super rabbits with no effect to convince our hero. But Abar turns him down; that is, until some crackers take a few potshots at him. Now he swings the stuff down like a bottle of MD 20/20. Not only does Abar become bulletproof, but he has also acquired psychic powers and abilities that allow him to battle racism and improve his neighborhood at the same time.

After seeing a murderous honky place a bomb in front of the Kincade home and drive off, Abar is able to telepathically move the bomb and place in the honky’s front seat, where it explodes in a frenzy of footage. But it doesn’t stop there. Oh no. After blowing up the honky, Abar turns his powers to helping the black community. He sees a bunch of bums drinking cheap wine and turns their bottles into milk. He sees a pimp beating on his ho and gives the victim the powers of a kung fu master so she can return the favor. When he sees a group of teenagers wasting their time getting high, he turns them into college graduates, complete with outfits. A preacher who is just about to get into his big, shiny new Cadillac finds the car transformed into a horse and buggy, though no one in the congregation even so much as notices. Seeing a purse-snatcher, he makes the thief run and run until, totally exhausted, he returns the purse. When Dr. Kincade’s Uncle Tom friend, Dudley, exclaims, “To hell with the blacks in the ghetto,” Abar transforms his pasta dinner into one of earthworms.

Returning to the doc’s place, Abar proceeds to give one of the best incoherent speeches in bad film history, telling the incredulous doctor that the serum “released from my soul an ancient wisdom.” His powers, you see, “are of a divine origin.” Abar is only a tool, “a mirror reflecting man unto himself. By controlling the mind, I can hasten the retributive forces lodged in his unconscious mind.” Wow. Ed Wood couldn’t have written it any better. After all this speechifying, Abar then goes out and unleashes a series of Biblical plagues on the white suburbs, including lightning and thunder, rats, snakes, and bees, finally sweeping the racist crackers away with huge gusts of wind.

All this has the desired effect on the neighbors, who fall over themselves to apologize to the Kincades for being such racists. One lady even goes so far as to tell them the reason why she was so hostile to their moving in was because she is really black herself; she just passes for white.

The film does attempt to introduce some rumination on social issues, and part of the dialog between Abar and Kincade is profound and rather provocative. But it is completely undermined by the poor script and the atrocious acting, editing, soundtrack, and direction.

First, the acting: To call J. Walter Smith’s acting horrible is generous. He sounds as if he’s absentmindedly reading his lines off cue cards. There is no attempt at dramatic inflection whatsoever. But he’s comes off as Laurence Fishburne when compared to Roxie Young, who plays his wife. Her emoting over the body of her dead son almost made me break out in laughter. The only one in the cast who seems to know his way around a film set is Tobar Mayo. He was in Charles Barnett’s excellent Killer of Sheep, and appeared on television, including The Jeffersons and Mannix. He’s also a co-founder of L.A.’s Open Gate Theatre.

Interestingly both writer-producer Smalley and director Packard also disappeared after this film was made. Abar was their first – and last – credit as writer, producer, and director.

The editing is a series of quick cuts to the next scene, often without warning. And the continuity is lacking. In the scene where young Tommie confronts the bomber, we see the bomber planting his device and setting the timer. Here comes Tommy with his cap pistol and chases the man off. Unfortunately, Tommie attempts to stop the car with his face and fails miserably, as does the cameraman shooting this stunt. Meanwhile, the film ambles on and we see and hear no more of the bomb. It just disappears.

The film’s mix of real issues (such as corrupt government aid programs, crooked cops, urban blight, and lending discrimination) and the atrocious execution of its plot make for one of the campiest films to come down the pike. Abar is for connoisseurs of bad cinema; those hardy souls out there who like their product totally absurd. Compared to Packard and Smalley, Ed Wood comes off like Orson Welles.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Rita Gam, Ken Howard, and Jan Nemec: In Memoriam

Silent but Sexy, a Shadow and a Czech Visionary

By Ed Garea

Although the big news was the untimely death of Garry Shandling, three other notable people in the world of film also passed away.

Rita Gam

Rita Gam, a breakout star of the 1950s who went on to a lengthy career in film and television, died on March 22. Nancy Willen, Gam’s publicist, said the actress passed away in Los Angeles of respiratory failure. She was 88. 

Gam was born Rita Eleanore Mackay in Pittsburgh on April 2, 1927, to Milton A. Mackay, an immigrant from Alsace-Lorraine who died when she was four, and Belle (Fately) Mackay, who was born in Romania.

She took her stage name from her stepfather, Benjamin J. Gam, a dress manufacturer who was born in Russia who her mother married in 1932. She was raised in Manhattan and attended the private Fieldston School in the Bronx. At the age of 17 she “ran away” from home – actually about 25 blocks – to a Midtown hotel, and found work modeling hats and selling stuffed pandas while pursuing an acting career in her spare time.

A founding member of The Actor’s Studio, she made her Broadway debut in Ben Hecht’s 1946 play A Flag Is Born alongside future husband Sidney Lumet. She appeared in three more productions before turning to television, where she guest starred in several series.

In 1952, she was signed by Clarence Greene, a producer for Harry Popkin, for the lead opposite Ray Milland in The Thief. The film was a slow-moving noir about a nuclear physicist in Washington who is also working as a spy for an unnamed foreign country. It was unique in that it was filmed without dialogue.

Gam’s performance caught the eye of Life magazine, which featured her on its September 1952 cover, describing Gam as a “silent and sexy” actress who “can express herself eloquently without words.” In just a few moments on the screen, the magazine noted, Gam “makes a striking movie debut without uttering a word.”

The publicity also caught the eye of MGM, which signed her to a long-term contract in October 1952. After serving a brief suspension in October 1953 for refusing a loan-out to Paramount to star in the Martin-Lewis comedy Living It Up (a remake of Nothing Sacred), she starred with Cornel Wilde in the exotic Saadia

While working for MGM, she shared an apartment with fellow newcomer Grace Kelly. They developed a close friendship that later led to Gam’s serving as a bridesmaid at the wedding of Kelly to Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956.

Other notable movie roles were Night People (1954) with Gregory Peck; Sign of the Pagan (1954) with Jack Palance and Jeff Chandler; Hannibal (1959) with Victor Mature; King of Kings (1961), as Queen Hernias; and Klute (1971) with Jane Fonda. Interestingly, she was offered a leading role in The Ten Commandments (1956), but during her interview with director Cecil B. DeMille, she confided that she was not religious, so he died not hire her.

At the 1962 Berlin Film Festival, she shared a Silver Bear award as Best Actress with Viveca Lindfors for her performance as Estelle in Tad Danielewski’s adaptation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit (aka Sinners Go To Hell ). Lindfors was also in the film as Inez.

Besides her work in film and television, she also played a leading role, along with Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Zoe Caldwell and others, with the Minnesota Theater Company in 1963 during the opening season of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.

She also became a producer (with two documentary series, World of Film and World of Beauty, to her credit) and an author. She write two books: Actress to Actress (1986), and Actors: A Celebration (1988). 

Gam was married and divorced twice, to director Sidney Lumet (1949-1955), and book publisher and co-founder of The Paris Review, Thomas Guinzburg (1956-63). She is survived by daughter, Kate Guinzburg, a film producer, who worked in Michelle Pfeiffer’s Vin Rosa Productions; son, Michael Guinzburg, a novelist; and three granddaughters. 

Ken Howard

Ken Howard, who earned acclaim for his role in the television series The White Shadow, and as Thomas Jefferson in both the Broadway and film versions of 1776, died on March 23 at his home near Los Angeles. No cause of death was given. He was 71. 

Howard was also was the sitting president of SAG-Aftra, Hollywood’s largest union, which he helped form in 2012.

During the course of a 47-year career, Mr. Howard appeared in more than 100 movies and television series, including the previously mentioned The White Shadow, a critically lauded drama that ran on CBS from 1978 to 1981 when it was cut for low ratings. One of its problems with ratings was it aired at least two years opposite Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley, typically the top two rated shows on the air at the time. Howard starred as a retired professional basketball player who becomes a coach at an urban high school. 

A stockbroker’s son, he was born Kenneth Joseph Howard in El Centro, Calif., on March 28, 1944. His family moved to Manhasset, on Long Island, where he starred on the high school basketball team. At Amherst College, he captained the basketball team and was a member of an a cappella group, the Zumbyes. He later studied at the Yale School of Drama, but left before graduation for the lights of Broadway, making his debut in 1968 in the original production of Neil Simon’s Promises, Promises with Jerry Orbach. 

In 1969, he originated the role of Thomas Jefferson in the Tony-winning musical 1776, a role that he repeated in the film version made the same year. In 1970, he won a Tony Award as Best Supporting or Featured Actor (Dramatic) for his role as a young gym coach at a Catholic boys’ school in Child’s Play. His other Broadway appearances include Seesaw (1973), The Norman Conquests (1975), 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (1976), and Rumors (1988). He also starred as Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill in According to Tip (2008).

Howard made his film debut in Otto Preminger’s Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970), co-starring with Liza Minelli. Other noted films were Such Good Friends (1971), The Strange Vengeance of Rosalie (1972), Second Thoughts (1983), Oscar (1991, with Sylvester Stallone), Ulterior Motives (1991), Clear and Present Danger (1994, with Harrison Ford), The Net (1995, with Sandra Bullock), Tactical Assault (2005), In Her Shoes (2005), Michael Clayton (2007), Rambo (also known as Rambo IV) (2008), A Numbers Game (2010), and J. Edgar (2010).

He received an Emmy Award for his performance Phelan Beale in the HBO production of Grey Gardens (2009). His last films were Better Living Through Chemistry (2013), The Judge (2014), The Wedding Ringer (2015), and Joy (2015).

But it was television where he was best known, primarily for his work as coach Ken Reeves on The White Shadow, which took its name from a nickname given to him by the Long Island Press, as he was the only Caucasian starter on the Manhasset High School varsity basketball team.

He co-starred on the series Adam’s Rib (1973), The Manhunter (1974-75), It’s Not Easy (1983), The Colbys (1985) and Dynasty (1981), Melrose Place (1994-98 as George Andrews), Crossing Jordan (2001 where he played Jill Hennessy’s father), Cane (2007), and as Hank Hooper on 30 Rock (2011-13). He also guest starred six times on Murder, She Wrote (1985-94).

Notable miniseries include The Thorn Birds (1983), Rage of Angels (1983), The Country Girl (1982), Murder in New Hampshire: The Pamela Rojas Smart Story (1991), Memories of Midnight (1991), Mastergate (1992), OP Center (1995), and Perfect Murder, Perfect Town: JonBenet and the City of Boulder (2000). He also won a Daytime Emmy Award for the 1980 TV documentary,The Body Human: Facts for Boys.

A working member of SAG for over 40 years, he was first elected National President beginning September 24, 2009. He inherited a union suffering the effects of a strike by the Writers Guild of America and anxiety over shrinking pay as studios and television networks were tightening their belts.

His notable achievement was in negotiating the merger of SAG with the competing American Federation of Radio and Television Artists, significantly bolstering actors’ bargaining power and creating a union 160,000 members strong. He then won re-election campaigns in August 2013 and August 2015.

In addition to his acting and union work, Howard also served as National Spokesperson and Executive Board Member of the Onyx and Breezy Foundation (which grants financial aid to individuals and qualified rescues that benefit the welfare of animals), The National Kidney Foundation (Chancellor), and was a member, along with his wife Linda, on the Board of the Los Angeles Alzheimer's Committee.

He also authored a book, Act Natural: How to Speak to Any Audience (2003), and has lent his voice to more than 30 best-selling books on tape. 

Howard was married three times, to actress Louise Sorel (1973-75), Margo Howard, the daughter of advice columnist Ann Landers (1977-91), and retired stuntwoman Linda Fetters (1992-2016). He is survived by Linda and three stepchildren. 

Jan Nemec

A Czech director whose surreal, parable-like films made him one of the leaders, along with Miloš Forman, Jirí Menzel, and Vera Chytilová, of the Czech New Wave movement in the 1960s, died on March 18 in Prague. His death was announced by wife Iva Ruszelakova in the newspaper Dnes (Today). She did not give the cause of death. He was 79.

He was born in Prague on July 12, 1936. Proficient on the piano and clarinet, he thought about becoming a jazz musician until dissuades by his father, who thought that filmmaking was a more practical profession. He enrolled in 1956 at the Film and Television School of the Academy of Performing Arts (also known as FAMU), where he was mentored by revered filmmaker Vaclav Krska.

For graduation in 1960, Nemec adapted an autobiographical short story by Arnost Lustig into the film A Piece of Bread about three prisoners who plot their escape while being transported by train from one concentration camp to another. While trying to steal a loaf of bread, they find themselves at one another’s throats.

Nemec’s first film was Diamonds of the Night (1964), an adaptation of Lustig’s wartime novel. Using a hand-held camera, Nemec spins a story of two young men who escape from a Nazi prison train and wander across a bleak landscape. Using such devices as flashbacks and simulated hallucinations, their thoughts and fantasies play out on the screen as they encounter strange scenes and even stranger people, resulting in an ending that leaves the viewer in doubt as to their fate.

It was all part of a style he invented and called “dream realism.” He relied on haunting imagery, flashbacks, using hallucinations and other dislocating devices to bend the narratives in directions viewers were not expecting.

His next film Report on the Party and the Guests (1966) is considered by many to be his masterpiece. A Buñuelesque allegory about a party that degenerates into a sinister game, the film drew the ire of the Communist authorities, in part because the sadistic host of the party resembled Lenin. The result was that the film ended up on the censor’s shelf for the next 20 years though it was available to be shown at the 1968 New York Film Festival.

He also contributed a segment to Pearls of the Deep, an anthology showcasing up-and-coming Czech directors, with all stories being based on the writings of author Bohumil Hrabal. Nemec's segment, The Poseurs, concerns two elderly residents at a clinic who spend their days bragging about their glamorous pasts, but later turn out to be nonentities.

He next completed Martyrs of Love (1967), a feature consisting of three love stories, each with a surreal overtone. The resulting furor from the censors forced Nemec to work outside the government-approved system. His next production, the short Mother and Son (Mutter und Sohn) in 1967, was shot while attending a student film festival in Amsterdam. The fact that it was made with financing from West German television and a Dutch film company further strained his relations with the Czech government. 

But it was the documentary, Oratorio for Prague (1968), that ultimately forced him to leave Czechoslovakia. The film, intended as praise for the new artistic freedoms under the reformist government of Alexander Dubcek, ended with scenes of Russian tanks rolling through the streets of Prague.

The film was smuggled out of the country and served as proof that the Soviet invasion was not by invitation of the Czech people, as was claimed. In addition, news programs worldwide broadcast the footage, and in 1988, Philip Kaufman even included it in his adaptation of Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Nemec served as an adviser and appeared in a cameo as a documentarian interrogated for filming the invasion. 

Nemec attempted to leave the country soon after it was completed, but he was held until 1974, when he was able to leave for Germany, where he made several films for television, including an adaptation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis (1975). From 1974 to 1989, he traveled to Germany, Paris, Holland, Sweden and the United States, staying in the latter for 12 years. Unable to work in traditional cinema, he pioneered the use of video cameras to record weddings, including documenting the nuptials of the Swedish royal family.

He returned to the Czech Republic in 1989 after democracy was restored by the “Velvet Revolution.” He accepted a job teaching film at his alma mater. He also made the features In the Light of the King’s Love (1991);  Jmeno kodu: Rubin (Code Name: Ruby, 1997), a combination of documentary, fiction, and the supernatural that creates a collage of his country’s past, present, and future; the documentaries, Late Night Talks With My Mother (2001) and Landscape of My Heart (2004); Toyen (2005), a biopic of the Czech surrealistic painter; and The Ferrari Dino Girl (2010). Right before his death, he completed filming The Wolf of Royal Vineyard Street, a comedy based on his life. It will premiere in the Czech Republic on July 1. 

Nemec married four times: to costume designer and screenwriter Ester Krumbachova (1963-68), singer Marta Kubisova (1970-73), Czech language teacher Veronica Baumann (1984-2003), and film editor Iva Ruszelakova in 2003. In addition to his wife, Nemec is survived by a daughter, Arleta Nemcova.

Nemec was an uncompromising visionary. His vision was not only limited to cinema. In 2014, he protested against the president of the Czech Republic, Milos Zeman, by returning the medals given to him by the first president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel (who happened to be Nemec’s cousin).

Saturday, March 26, 2016


Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

Anyone who knows me can tell you I rarely make forays into the movies about real events. Reality is often painful (as in the case of this film) which is why I turn to fantasy so often. But when a movie wins “Best Picture,” the attraction is stronger. I’m glad I saw it and doubly glad I’m not the ‘shrinking violet’ I once was about people and food. Enjoy!

Spotlight (Open Road Films, 2015) – Director: Tom McCarthy. Writers: Josh Singer & Tom McCarthy. Stars: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian d'Arcy James, Stanley Tucci, Elena Wohl, Gene Amoroso, Doug Murray, Sharon McFarlane, Jamie Sheridan, Neal Huff, Len Cariou, Billy Crudup, Richard Jenkins, & Robert B. Kennedy. Color, Rated R, 128 minutes.

Boston, 1976” reads the caption at the film’s beginning. A priest is visiting a distraught family. A senior cleric arrives and takes him away in a big black Lincoln Continental.

The scene shifts to 2001 at a retirement party for the editor of The Boston Globe. The new editor, Marty Baron (Schreiber) sees that readership is down and wants to build it back up. He proposes cuts in various places and calls in the manager of the “Spotlight” Team, Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson (Keaton). “Spotlight” is a deep-investigative reporting team who sometimes take a year to produce a series of articles on a topic. The elite group consists of Mike Rezendes (Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (McAdams), Ben Bradley Jr. (Slattery), and Matt Carroll (James).

Marty assigns Spotlight to the story behind reports of a Catholic priest, Father John Geoghan, accused of sexually abusing children. But he states that he wants “the system,” not just the individual case. They accept the task knowing that the Boston Archdiocese under Cardinal Bernard Law (Cariou) is a major force in the town.

The investigation leads to Phil Saviano (Huff), who reported the problem nearly 20 years ago. His accusations, however, were dismissed and the number of suspects balloons from one to 13 priests. The reporters question several lawyers, including Mitchell Garabedian (Tucci), who has way too many cases; Jim Sullivan (Jamey Sheridan), an attorney for the church who clams up; and Eric Macleish (Crudup), who has tried many of the cases. But it’s a Baltimore psychotherapist, Richard Sipe (Jenkins), who gives them the estimate of 6 percent of all priests who are guilty of this behavior. This results in a total of 90 priests in Boston alone.

Researching the archives for priests transferred frequently they are shocked to come up with 87 names. Sipes was accurate. With the help of Boston Globe Special Investigator Steve Kurkjian (Amoroso) and a judge’s ruling, the teams manages to secure previously sealed evidence documents that sets them on a course to uncover a horror more frightening than a Stephen King novel.

Spotlight is a deeply disturbing movie, well acted, and equally well directed. Michael Keaton is splendid as the leader of what appears to be an impossible mission at first. Mark Ruffalo is excellent as the fighter for truth and justice. He’s livid when he hears that the article has to be delayed (for good reason, as 9/11 happened and took precedence). Rachel McAdams is just as tough a reporter as Mark, but is able to put a softer touch to her interviews. A truly creepy performance is given by Richard O’Rourke, who is briefly seen as Father Ronald Paquin, one of the accused. We even see Paul Guilfoyle as the principal of a school where several abuses occurred.

Knowing the plot ahead of time did not prepare me for the scope of the problem described in detail before the closing credits. The Best Picture Oscar for 2015 was well deserved, proving what I’ve always known: truth is stranger (and scarier) than fiction.

Rating: 4½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

Bamboo 52
344 W. 52nd St., New York

What do you think of when you hear “Bamboo 52?” I had my trepidations about dining in a restaurant with a rhyming name, especially when it serves a dish that requires expert handling like sushi.

Looking down 52nd Street from 8th Avenue, I could not see any evidence of any restaurants. Halfway down the block, I saw a Kelly green sign winking from under a scaffolding. Closer, the words “Bamboo 52” were visible on the green background. There was also a small green awning over the glass-fronted entrance. Inside was a din of rock music and very lively conversation, with the bar to the left, and the Captain’s Station immediately to the right.

A young lady took my reservation and led me to a high table just beyond the bar. I normally demur at sitting perched on a stool, but this one had a high back, which made it suitable; definitely better than the stools at the sushi bar in back or those at the regular bar, and infinitely better than the backless hassocks upon which some young people were seated. 

Deciding to face the bar, I tried the stool first, but every joint on it was dangerously loose. I turned around and a young lady with a buzz cut who would become my server was there. After she introduced herself as Arnitra, I indicated the peril of my sitting on this about-to-collapse piece of furniture and she switched it for one more solidly built.

Arnitra brought me a glass of water and presented me with the separately bound drinks and food menus. She gave me a little time to consider before asking if I wanted a drink. I chose the wasabi martini, a volcanic concoction of vodka, citrus and powdered wasabi (Japanese green horseradish). I like wasabi and I loved the drink. As I was the only one in the place drinking this potable, I was immediately popular with the bartender. He asked how I liked it and I gave him a “thumbs up.”

Japanese restaurants are ideal for Lenten Fridays because of the enormous selection of vegetable and fish dishes. The food menu listed Starters (including two soups), Salads, Sushi/Sashimi, Classic Hand Rolls, Signature Rolls, Samurai Boat Entrees, Hot Entrees, and Desserts. It was tough to choose. I consulted Arnitra to get an idea of what people usually order and how much. She was very helpful.

The Samurai Boat Entrees looked interesting but the pre-assortment of sushi and sashimi was not enough. I’ve come to love the various sushi rolls and the dragon roll is one of my favorites. Bamboo 52 has one called the dinosaur and one called the American dream. It wasn’t easy.

Finally, I settled on two starters that were new to me and two crazy rolls. The two appetizers arrived simultaneously, but I didn’t mind because both were small and neither would get cold by the time I finished them. The vegetable gyoza was the hot appetizer and was delicate, crescent-shaped rice dumplings filled with shredded carrots, pepper, and cucumbers and served with a light soy dipping sauce. How delicate were they? Well, I’m pretty good with chopsticks and I broke one in half trying to pick it up. I had to lighten my touch. They were wonderful.

The second appetizer was totally new to me. The wasabi seaweed crisp was squares of crispy rice crackers painted with wasabi-flavored black seaweed and sprinkled with mini-cubes of tofu, tomato and pepper. One bite demolished one as I gingerly folded it into my mouth. It was a fun finger food. Once you know how breakable they are you can adjust your handling of them.

The bartender asked me if I wanted the next wasabi martini spicier and I told him to kick it up a notch. I saw Arnitra sniff my drink before serving and she drew back suddenly, as if electrically shocked. I tasted it and it was perfect. I gave the bar tender another “thumbs up.” On the side, I told Arnitra they tasted exactly the same.

The two signature rolls arrived next sharing a large oval platter. The one I noticed on a specials list was too outrageous to ignore. The St. Patrick’s sushi roll wrapped shrimp tempura, avocado, eel, and Cajun tuna in a green soy wrap with jalapeño sauce. Yes, it was quite green, but not as spicy as it sounds. The shrimp tempura was crunchy and flavorful and the other ingredients added extra sweet and tart flavors.

What other roll could share the plate with this one? I selected the rainbow roll, an eclectic mix of kani (snow crab), tuna, salmon, yellowtail, white tuna, avocado and cucumber, arranged in rainbow color order. I figured that since this was the first year that the gay community were invited to march in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York, I would place the symbol (the rainbow) next to the green roll. It was great. So many different fish, different textures and different flavors melting into one delicious experience. Yes, there was the traditional blob of wasabi on the plate as well as the shaved ginger. Both were finished with the main course.

Usually Japanese restaurants have very little in the form of desserts. Maybe unusual flavors of ice cream or something with a banana, but Bamboo 52 had a triple milk cake (tres leches, essentially the same dessert I had last week in a Mexican restaurant, except that this one was made with mascarpone cheese). It was light, creamy, sweet, and would have put out any fire the wasabi had started (if it had). 

I didn’t feel like having tea (which I would have in any traditional Japanese place), and this was a bar/lounge. I ordered a guavatini as an after-dinner drink. I love the flavor of guava and, mixed with vodka and other fruit juices it was the right ending for my dining adventure.

When I did my research, I learned that Bamboo 52 is nearly 10 years old, and except for my original chair, it doesn’t look like it’s aged a day. The crowd is diverse and obviously happy to be there. The staff is caring and the food is spectacular. There are 17 signature rolls on the menu. I need to come back at least seven times to try them all.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Thursday, March 24, 2016


Gallagher’s Forum

By Jon Gallagher

Race (Focus Features, 2016) – Director: Stephen Hopkins. Writers: Joe Shrapnel & Anna Waterhouse. Stars: Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, Jeremy Irons, William Hurt, Eli Goree, Shanice Banton, Carice van Houten, David Kross, Jonathan Higgins, Tony Curran, Amanda Crew, Barnaby Metschurat, Vlasta Vrana, Shamier Anderson, & Jesse Bostick. Color, Rated PG-13, 134 minutes.

It’s hard for me to imagine my dad in any way other than the way I remember him: a short, aging, potbellied man who had a pair of bad hips and spent most of his time huffing and puffing after any kind of strenuous exertion, brought on by years of smoking, emphysema, and COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease). It seemed to me, even in my preteen years, that Dad was overweight even though pictures of him contradict that image.

It was hard for me to picture him as a track star, something he always talked about with pride. In 1938, when he was a senior in high school, he set a school record for the 440-yard dash (a quarter mile) with a time under one minute. This was particularly impressive because when I was in high school, the closest I could come was several seconds over a minute, and I thought I was hauling ass when I did that.

Dad told me that much of his inspiration had come from Jesse Owens, a track and field star who had returned from the 1936 Olympics with four gold medals. Since I wasn’t interested in track (baseball and basketball were my sports), I filed the name away into the recesses of my memories. Other than to know that Owens was a black man who was very fast and had run against and beaten Adolph Hitler’s Nazi athletes, I was clueless about the man.

Race solved that. The film stays true to the actual history that surrounded a very turbulent time in world history. The question is, “Does the title refer to a contest to determine who or what is the fastest, or does it refer to the classification of people, based mainly on the color of their skin?” The answer is “Yes. It refers to both.” The message it delivers in regard to the latter is as powerful as any movie’s message in a very long time.

We’re not hit over the head with the message to begin with. It’s spoon fed to us in little bites, allowing us, the audience, to gradually become incensed with the bigotry and prejudices faced by blacks before the Civil Rights Movement.

The movie begins with Owens (James) getting ready to head off to college. He has a girlfriend and a child out of wedlock, a somewhat scandalous situation in the mid 1930s no matter the race. Owens boards a bus that will take him to Ohio State University where he’s to be part of the track team and that’s where we’re introduced to the prejudices that we’ll see throughout the movie. A small, almost unnoticeable sign advises “Coloreds move to the back.”

Jesse meets his coach, Larry Snyder (Sudeikis) who will be his mentor for the rest of his life. Snyder is a taskmaster, a drill sergeant who demands both hard work and dedication. While in the locker room, Owens is the recipient of some racial taunts and further discrimination.

Meanwhile, the United States and the Olympic Committee is trying to decide whether or not to participate in the 1936 Olympic Games which are being held in Berlin. Although Hitler hasn’t started invading other countries (and thus, the War), he’s been getting more than his share of attention and it’s well known that the German dictator does not want neither Jews nor Negros competing in his games.

The Olympic Committee sends Avery Brundage (Irons) to Germany to investigate the rumors of Nazis rounding up all the “undesirables” from the streets (meaning anyone who was Jewish), and to negotiate the United States’ participation in the games. He sees the Nazis rounding up families and transporting them to concentration camps on the outskirts of Berlin. He sees signs that (in German) tell people not to shop with Jewish businesses. He sees a very ugly position being taken by the German government.

We meet Joseph Goebbels (Metschurat), the Minister of Propaganda, who is the mastermind of the games. Goebbels needs the U.S. to participate and finally agrees to allow the U.S. to bring along Jews and blacks as a condition of U.S. participation.

Brundage returns to the U.S. with the recommendation that the U.S. send an Olympic team. It’s a close vote, and by a margin of just 58-56, they decide to attend the Games.

Meanwhile, Jesse is being pressured by all sides including the NAACP who ask him not to attend and support their boycott because of the treatment of blacks at home.

In the end, Jesse decides to go, Snyder goes too (even though he was not asked to be a coach on the team), and he ends up winning four gold medals while forging a friendship with the German track and field star Carl “Lutz” Long (Kross). Jesse wins his fourth medal when he has to step in and run a leg of the 400-meter relay because the Germans asked that two Jewish athletes not be allowed to take part.

As I mentioned, the movie stayed true to the historic events, varying only once (that was obvious). While Jesse is competing in his events in Germany, his family is gathered around a radio back home in America to listen live. The technology did not exist to broadcast live from Germany (not to mention the time difference). It’s a minor point, and one I’m willing to concede to literary license given the accuracy of the rest of the film. It should be noted, however, that the 1936 Olympics were the first games to be televised, though in a very limited area in Germany, and certainly not live.

Stephan James does an admirable job in his role as Jesse Owens. Because of the backlash in Hollywood over the past two years concerning no actors of color being nominated for major awards, it wouldn’t surprise me if he nabs a nomination in the Best Actor category, even if it’s not deserved. Don’t get me wrong; James does a great job in his role, but he shows very little acting range. Had he reacted more strongly to the incidents of bigotry he suffered, I might have been inclined to agree with a nomination. However, his decision to play the role as a “humble black man” disappointed me just a bit. Owens was known for his humble attitude, at least in public, and he may never have shown any anger behind closed doors, but seeing it on the screen, and using that anger as a motivating factor (more than it was) would have really hammered home the message.

Jason Sudeikis and Jeremy Irons are both tremendous with their roles. Usually Sudakis takes on comedy roles, so it was nice to see him take on a very different role. Stepping out of his comfort zone really added to his performance. Irons, a classically trained actor, takes on such varied roles anyway, and his didn’t even seem to be a challenge to him. It’s always a pleasure to watch an actor take on a role so well, and so effortlessly.

Carice van Houten plays videographer Leni Riefenstahl, the woman who was responsible for filming the 1936 Olympic Games to preserve for posterity the superiority of the German athlete. I have to admire her for taking such a minor role in the movie, and elevating it to such an important one. I’m not sure if the “real” Riefenstahl acted as the portrayed one, but her resolve to do things her own way stood out as one of the more notable performances.

The movie is stolen, however by Barnaby Metschurat, who plays Joseph Goebbels. Although he never utters a single word in English, his portrayal of the German Minister of Propaganda is worth of an award for Best Supporting Actor. He uses his eyes and his expressions to strike fear among not just the other characters, but in the audience as well. I found myself scared to death of him as he just oozed the poisonous philosophy of the Nazi Party. His eyes became the epitome of evil.

The movie is rated PG-13, but be prepared for some rather coarse language. These words were not used in the movie; they came from a 70-year-old lady seated across the aisle from me. She was pissed at the way Jesse was being treated, and she wasn’t afraid to voice her displeasure (much to the chagrin of her husband who seemed to keep sinking in his seat).

This movie will stir your emotions (as it did that lady’s – I’m not kidding about her). As I said earlier, it starts off slowly, giving you baby bites of the bigotry before finally hitting you with it like a Mack truck. The end of the movie shows Jesse and Coach Snyder, along with their wives, approaching a New York City hotel where there is a dinner being given in Jesse’s honor. The doorman refuses the Owens’ entrance through the main door and directs them through the kitchen instead because colored people weren’t allowed to use the main entrance, no matter who they were.

This elicited a comment from the lady across the aisle of “You left-handed dick licker!”  I’ve never heard that phrase before (and doubt that I ever do again), but she seemed to take some pride in being able to utter a string of insults without ever using the same one twice.

If your emotions are not stirred by Race, then there will be a receptacle at the door in which you can drop your membership card of the human race.

The film misses my coveted A+ rating by the slimmest of margins. I give it a hearty A, and only because the first 45 minutes, though interesting, seem to drag. That is the worst thing I can say about this movie as the rest of it is just absolutely excellent.

Go see it? YES! Rent it or stream it? Absolutely. Own it? I’ll think very strongly about it.

It’s just that good.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

TCM TiVo Alert for March 23-31

March 23-March 31


THE GENERAL (March 26, 8:00 pm): There has never been a more physical actor in the history of cinema than Buster Keaton. If you consider his slender build and the dangerous life-threatening stunts he did for the sake of his craft, it's amazing he wasn't killed making a movie. There were some close calls, and he lived with a lot of pain. He was more than a glorified stuntman. Keaton was also incredibly funny with a talent for knowing how to entertain the movie-going public. While The General wasn't a hit when it was released in 1926, it's now considered one of the best silent films ever made. Keaton is a railroad engineer who wants to fight for the Confederacy, but his skills are considered too valuable to the cause for him to be a soldier. The story moves along fast and there are some amazing sight gags such as Keaton doing a perfect imitation of a railroad wheel and a stunt that has him sit on a coupling rod of a moving train. We get a lot of action and a love story wrapped up nicely in about 75 minutes. For those who aren't silent film fans, this is an excellent place to start.

WILD STRAWBERRIES (March 30, 10:30 am): How wonderful of TCM to air a number of Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa films this week. They're two of the finest directors in the history of cinema. Among the selections is Bergman's Wild Strawberries, one of my all-time favorite films. Bergman isn't for the casual watcher. His films demand your undivided attention and it's well worth the effort. Bergman's insights into humanity can be breathtaking. This film is about a 78-year-old professor (Victor Sjostrom) who is traveling across Sweden to receive an honor from the university of which he earned his doctorate. Accompanied by his daughter-in-law (Ingrid Thulin), he picks up young hitchhikers and through nightmares, flashbacks and reflections as well as observing his fellow travelers, he learns about his life. It's so brilliant and moving that the viewer also learns about himself/herself if that person allows it. 


STRAY DOG (March 23, 8:00 am): Excellent early work from Akira Kurosawa about a rookie homicide detective who has his gun lifted by a pickpocket on a bus. He embarks on an quest to retrieve the stolen weapon, especially as evidence is gathered of it being used in other crimes. Although the story is too thin to sustain the film’s running time, it is nonetheless an excellent look at Japanese culture. Whereas the loss of a gun might be regarded as bad luck in the West, in Japan it is a matter of shame and dishonor, compounded by the fact that the detective is a rookie. Kurosawa makes great use of the weather – it is hot throughout the film with occasional tropical downpours, and we see the effect on the characters, who are also racing against the clock before the weapon is used for another crime. Toshiro Mifune as the rookie homicide detective, and Takashi Shimura as the older, experienced detective who takes the rookie under his wing make a wonderful team.

WATERSHIP DOWN (March 25, 6:00 pm): A first rate animated adaptation of Richard Adams’ novel about a colony of rabbits that must find a new home after their existing one is destroyed by human developers and the problems they encounter along the way. This is no mere Disney version with cute, fluffy bunnies, but a thoughtful and spiritual rumination on the meaning of life, and the avoidance and acceptance of death. The way in which the film tackles these issues makes it stand apart as one of the best animated films ever made.

WE AGREE ON ... THE BAD SLEEP WELL (March 23, 2:15 pm)

ED: A+. Director Akira Kurosawa’s take of Shakespeare’s Hamlet set in contemporary corporate Japan. Many fans praise Kurosawa’s epics, but I find his urban dramas even more interesting, especially in this instance as he takes on the problem of deep-rooted corruption in Japanese business culture in which lower level people feel obligated literally to die rather than allow their superiors' activities to be discovered. Toshiro Mifune once again gives us a excellent performance as the Hamlet character, Nishi, who marries into the household of the company’s vice president – who is responsible for the death of Nishi’s father. Watching this film, we can clearly how deep Kurosawa’s appreciation was for Shakespeare, especially his knack of linking the private and the political, relating a story of corruption and revenge through the lens of blood ties. Those expecting a direct remake of Hamlet will be disappointed, as Kurosawa’s genius is to tell the stories through the filter of Japanese culture. But rest assured, this is not only one of Kurosawa’s best films, but one of the best films to come from Japan, period.

DAVID: A+. Besides Ikiru, this is my favorite Akria Kurosawa film  and that's saying a lot because he has at least eight films in my top 100. Well, that is if I created a top 100 list. I'm with Ed on finding his urban dramas – such as IkiruStray DogHigh and LowDrunken Angel and this film  more compelling than his epics. Don't get me wrong. Films like Kagemusha and Ran are brilliant and tells fantastic stories. Overall, I prefer Kurosawa's films on life in the big city. One of the best parts of The Bad Sleep Well is how the pack of reporters act like a Greek chorus filling in the viewers on the players, the backstory, the hierarchy of the corrupt company Toshiro Mifune's character is trying to destroy, and commenting on not only stuff we don't see, but explaining what we see. As Ed mentions, it's Kurosawa's then-modern-day take on Hamlet, but that's really only a small element of this film from 1960. It's an insightful look at the culture of Japanese business with Masayuki Mori absolutely spectacular as the villain. And the name of the company in question – the Unexploited Land Development Corporation – is deliciously evil. I can't stress enough how good this film is. The ending is startling the first time you see it. It loses very little of its punch upon multiple viewings.

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